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TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
We are exactly half way through our adventure. Although time does not exist in Pellucidar, ERB has many tricks up his sleeve to keep us oriented to a universal time when dealing with each of the several strands he leaves dangling before us. Note how he brought a standard time to the groups involving Jason and his flight overhead, while the strands of Jana and Tarzan were all brought together with the airplane as the unifying time factor. So let us return to Tarzan and his two companions.
IX: TO THE THIPDAR’S NESTHeavy clouds formed about the lofty peaks of the Mountains of the Thipdars – black, angry clouds that rolled down the northern slopes, spreading far to east and west.All my life I have heard about flash floods and the suddenness of death that they bring, but I’d never experienced one until about a year ago – September 6, 2013 – when I drove to Las Vegas for my grandson’s first birthday. I was having fun on my six hour drive from Fresno, racing the Audis and BMWs through the Mojave Desert in my 2001 Camry six-cylinder sedan – deceptively fast – when I espied a thunder storm gathering over the heights of the Clark Mountains – over 4,000 feet at the summit – the last grade before you hit the valley in which Las Vegas is situated, just before the descent to the border between California and Nevada. Lightning was flashing and thunder crashing everywhere up there, but it was full speed ahead up the mountains as far as we were all concerned.
“The waters have come again,” said Thoar. “They are falling upon Zoram. Soon they will fall here too.”
It looked very dark up there above them and presently the clouds swept out across the sky, blotting out the noonday sun.
It was a new landscape upon which Tarzan looked – a sulllen, bleak and forbidding landscape. It was the first time that he had seen Pellucidar in shadow and he did not like it. The effect of the change was strikingly apparent in Thoar and Tar-gash. They seemed depressed, almost fearful. Nor was it man alone that was so strangely affected by the blotting out of the eternal sunlight, for presently from the upper reaches of the mountains the lower animals came, pursuing the sunlight. That they, too, were strangely affected and filled with terror was evidenced by the fact that the carnivores and their prey trotted side by side and that none of them paid any attention to the three men.
“Why do they not attack us, Thoar?” asked Tarzan.
“They know that the water is about to fall,” he replied, “and they are afraid of the falling water. They forget their hunger and their quarrels as they seek to escape the common terror.”
“Is the danger so great then?” asked the ape-man.
“Not if we remain upon high ground,” replied Thoar. “Sometimes the gulleys and ravines fill with water in an instant, but the only danger upon the high land is from the burning spears that are hurled from the black clouds. But if we stay in the open, even these are not dangerous for, as a rule, they are aimed at trees. Do not go beneath a tree while the clouds are hurling their spears of fire.”
When we got to the top all hell broke loose and we were in the center of a flash flood. I am sure my car was hit by lightning because the sky lit up like the brightest flash I had ever seen and the crash of thunder was instantaneous, there was a cracking sound inside my car and my head almost hit the roof, but I was saved by my seatbelt. Thank God I wasn’t touching any metal. The rain was coming down so hard it was like we were under a waterfall and we all slowed down to 5 miles per hour, my windshield wipers almost blown off from the force of the water. I could barely make out the giant red pickup on my left and the semi truck to my right, and nothing in front, but we all crept, almost floated, down the hill toward the border. I don’t know why God tried to kill me that day, but I don’t ever want to go through one of those again. I can’t believe everyone kept their cool coming down that mountain, but they did and no one got hurt or died.As the clouds shut off the sunlight, the air became suddenly cold. A raw wind swept down from above and the three men shivered in their nakedness.Have you ever waited for the sun? I became intimately acquainted with the whole idea when I went through Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Ord, California, which is just down the bay from Monterey. It was largely built before WWII and radar, in a spot known for its fog and lack of sun, making it a poor target for roving hostile aircraft. I was there from the end of May to the end of August 1969, and all that time you were lucky if the sun ever came out before noon. Many days it did come out at all.
“Gather wood,” said Tarzan. “We shall build a fire for warmth.” And so the three gathered firewood and Tarzan made fire and they sat about it, warming their naked hides; while upon either side of them the brutes passed on their way down toward the sunlight.
The rain came. It did not fall in drops, but in great enveloping blankets that seemed to beat them down and smother them. Inches deep it rolled down the mountainside, filling the depressions and the gulleys, turning the canyons into raging torrents.
The wind lashed the falling water into a blinding maelstrom that the eye could not pierce a dozen feet. Terrified animals stampeded blindly, constituting themselves the greatest menace of the storm. The lightning flashed and the thunder roared, and the beasts progressed from panic to an insanity of fear.
Above the roar of the thunder and the howling of the wind rose the piercing shrieks and screams of the monsters of another day, and in the air above flapped shrieking reptiles fighting toward the sunlight against the pounding wrath of the elements. Giant pteranodons, beaten to the ground, staggered uncertainly upon legs unaccustomed to the task, and through it all the three beast-men huddled at the spot where their fire had been, though not even an ash remained.
It seemed to Tarzan that the storm lasted a great while, but like the others he was enured to the hardships and discomforts of primitive life. Where a civilized man might have railed against fate and cursed the elements, the three beast-men sat in stoic silence, their backs hunched against the storm, for each knew that it would not last forever and each knew that there was nothing he could say or do to lessen the duration or abate its fury.
Had it not been for the example set by Tarzan and Thoar, Tar-gash would have fled toward the sunlight with the other beasts, not that he was more fearful than they, but that he was influenced more by instinct than by reason. But where they stayed, he was content to stay, and so he squatted there with them, in dumb misery, waiting for the sun to come again.
Hey, I’m from Fresno where the sun shines from May to November with nary a cloudy day. Only Yuma, Arizona, gets more annual sunshine than us in the lower 48. I felt myself every morning sweating through training, shivering in my boots, yearning for the sun to come out. That’s called waiting for the sun.The rain lessened; the howling wind died down; the clouds passed on and the sun burst forth upon a steaming world. The three beast-men arose and shook themselves.I almost interrupted as Tarzan was shooting his arrows into the thipdar because it reminded me of the Elf, Legolas, in the Hobbit movies, one of the greatest killers with a bow I’ve ever seen because of his speed and accuracy. That’s how I imagine Tarzan with a bow.
“I am hungry,” said Tarzan.
Thoar pointed about them to where lay the bodies of lesser beasts that had been crushed in the mad stampede for safety.
Now even Thoar was compelled to eat his meat raw, for there was no dry wood wherewith to start a fire, but to Tarzan and Tar-gash this was no hardship. As Tarzan ate, the suggestion of a smile smoldered in his eyes. He was recalling a fussy old nobleman with whom he had once dined at a London club and who had almost suffered a stroke of apoplexy because his bird had been slightly underdone.
When the three had filled their bellies, they arose to continue their search for Jana and Jason, only to discover that the torrential rain had effectually erased every vestige of the spoor that they had been following.
“We cannot pick up their trail again,” said Thoar, “until we reach the point where they continued on again after the waters ceased to fall. To the left is a deep canyon, whose walls are difficult to scale. In front of us is a fissure, which extends along the base of the mountains for a considerable distance in both directions. But if we go to the right we shall find a place where we can descend into it and cross it. This is the way that they should have gone. Perhaps there we shall pick up their trail again.” But though they continued on and crossed the fissure and clambered upward toward the higher peaks, they found no sign that Jana or Jason had come this way.
“Perhaps they reached your country by another route,” suggested Tarzan.
“Perhaps,” said Thoar. “Let us continue on to Zoram. There is nothing else that we can do. There we can gather the men of my tribe and search the mountains for them.”
In the ascent toward the summit Thoar sometimes followed trails that for countless ages the rough pads of the carnivores had followed, or again he led them over trackless wastes of granite, taking such perilous chances along dizzy heights that Tarzan was astonished that any of them came through alive.
Upon a bleak summit they had robbed a thipdar’s nest of its eggs and the three were eating when Thoar became suddenly alert and listening. To the ears of the ape-man came faintly a sound that resembled the dismal flapping of distant wings.
“A thipdar,” said Thoar, “and there is no shelter for us.”
“There are three of us,” said Tarzan. “What have we to fear?”
“You do not know them,” said Thoar. “They are hard to kill and they are never defeated until they are killed. Their brains are very small. Sometimes when we have cut them open it has been difficult to find the brain at all, and having no brain they have no fear of anything, not even death, for they cannot know what death is; nor do they seem to be affected much by pain, it merely angers them, making them more terrible. Perhaps we can kill it, but I wish there were a tree.”
“How do you know it will attack us?” asked Tarzan.
“It is coming in this direction. It cannot help but see us, and whatever living thing they see they attack.”
“Have you ever been attacked by one?” asked Tarzan.
“Yes,” replied Thoar; “but only when there was no tree or cave. The men of Zoram are not ashamed to admit that they fear the mighty thipdars.”
“But if you have killed them in the past, why may we not kill this one?” demanded the ape-man.
“We may,” replied Thoar, “but I have never chanced to have an encounter with one, except when there were a number of my tribesmen with me. The lone hunter who goes forth and never returns is our reason for fearing the thipdar. Even when there are many of us to fight them, always there are some killed and many injured.”
“It comes,” said Tar-gash, pointing.
“It comes,” said Thoar, grasping his spear more firmly.
Down to their ears came a sound resembling the escaping of steam through a petcock.
“It has seen us,” said Thoar.
Tarzan laid his spear upon the ground at his feet, plucked a handful of arrows from his quiver and fitted one to his bow. Tar-gash swung his club slowly to and fro and growled.
On came the giant reptile, the dismal flapping of its wings punctuated occasionally by a loud and angry hiss. The three men waited, poised, ready, expectant.
There were no preliminaries. The mighty pteranodon drove straight toward them. Tarzan loosed a bolt which drove true to its mark, burying its broad head in the breast of the pterodactyl. The hiss became a scream of anger and then in rapid succession three more arrows buried themselves in the creature’s flesh.
That was a warmer reception than it had expected was evidenced by the fact that it rose suddenly upward, skimmed above their heads as though to abandon the attack, and then, quite suddenly, and with a speed incomprehensible in a creature of its tremendous size, wheeled like a sparrow hawk and dove straight at Tarzan’s back.
So quickly did the creature strike that there could be no defense. The ape-man felt sharp talons half buried in his naked flesh and simultaneously he was lifted from the ground.
Thoar raised his spear and Tar-gash swung his cudgel, but neither dared strike for fear of wounding their comrade. And so they were forced to stand there futilely inactive and watch the monster bear Tarzan of the Apes away across the tops of the Mountains of the Thipdars.In silence they stood watching until the creature passed out of sight beyond the summit of a distant peak, the body of the ape-man still dangling in its talons. Then Tar-gash turned and looked at Thoar.I can imagine them both looking into each other’s faces thinking after Tar-gash said that Tarzan was dead: “I not kill,” before Tar-gash went his way. On marches civilization. Sadly, we will never see Tar-gash again.
“Tarzan is dead,” said the Sagoth. Thoar of Zoram nodded sadly. Without another word Tar-gash turned and started down toward the valley from which they had ascended. The only bond that had united these two hereditary enemies had parted, and Tar-gash was going his way back to the stamping grounds of his tribe.
For a moment Thoar watched him, and then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he turned his face toward Zoram.As the pteranodon bore him off across the granite peaks, Tarzan hung limply in its clutches, realizing that if Fate held in store for him any hope of escape it could not come in mid-air and if he were to struggle against his adversary, or seek to battle with it, death upon the jagged rocks below would be the barren reward of success. His one hope lay in retaining consciousness and the power to fight when the creature came to the ground with him. He knew that there were birds of prey that kill their victims by dropping them from great heights, but he hoped that the pteranodon of Pellucidar had never acquired this disconcerting habit.One of the things I like most about Tarzan is his faith in his creator – who, of course, we know is ERB. And we know that ERB is a good god who will never allow fatal harm to come his beloved creature. Here, we see ERB masquerading as Fate.As he watched the panorama of mountain peaks passing below him, he realized that he was being carried a considerable distance from the spot at which he had been seized, perhaps twenty miles.Yes, this is the scene depicted on the cover of my Ballantine copy of the novel, the one drawn by Neal Adams. Look carefullly at a full size image of it. (Google: “neal adams tarzan at the earth’s core.”) If you look closely you can see Tarzan’s large steel hunting knife striking upwards in his right hand. I love this painting.
The flight at last carried them across a frightful gorge and a short distance beyond the pteranodon circled a lofty granite peak, toward the summit of which it slowly dropped, and there, below him, Tarzan of the Apes saw a nest of small thipdars, eagerly awaiting with white distended jaws the flesh that their savage parent was bringing to them.
The nest rested upon the summit of a lofty granite spire, the entire area of the summit encompassing but a few square yards, the walls dropping perpendicularly hundreds of feet to the rough granite of the lofty peak the spire surmounted. It was, indeed, a precarious place at which to stage a battle for life.
Cautiously, Tarzan of the Apes drew his keen hunting knife from its sheath. Slowly his left hand crept upward against his body and passed over his left shoulder until his fingers touched the thipdar’s leg. Cautiously, his fingers encircled the scaly, birdlike ankle just above the claws.
The reptile was descending slowly toward its nest. The hideous demons below were screeching and hissing in anticipation. Tarzan’s feet were almost in their jaws when he struck suddenly upward with his blade at the breast of the thipdar.It was no random thrust. What slender chance for the ape-man had depended upon the accuracy and the strength of that single blow. The giant pteranodon emitted a shrill scream, stiffened convulsively in mid-air and, as it collapsed, relaxed its hold upon it prey, dropping the ape-man into the nest among the gaping jaws of its frightful brood.I am sorry but we must leave the ape-man in this literal cliff-hanging predicament while we return to the Stone Age soap opera of Jana and Jason in the next chapter. At least we got to spend some quality time with Tarzan, always my favorite.
Fortunately for Tarzan there were but three of them and they were still very young, though their teeth were sharp and their jaws strong.
Striking quickly to right and left with his blade he scrambled from the nest with only a few minor cuts and scratches upon his legs.
Lying partially over the edge of the spire was the body of the dead thipdar. Tarzan gave it a final shove and watched it as it fell three hundred feet to the rocks below. Then he turned his attention to a survey of his surroundings, but almost hopelessly since the view that he had obtained of the spire while the thipdar was circling it assured him that there was little or no likelihood that he could find any means of descent.
The young thipdars were screaming and hissing, but they had made no move to leave their nest as Tarzan started a close investigation of the granite spire upon the lofty summit of which it seemed likely that he would terminate his adventurous career.
Lying flat upon his belly he looked over the edge, and thus moving slowly around the periphery of the lofty aerie he examined the walls of the spire with minute attention to every detail.
Again and again he crept around the edge until he had catalogued within his memory every projection and crevice and possible handhold that he could see from above.
Several times he returned to one point and then he removed the coils of his grass rope from about his shoulders and holding the two ends in one hand, lowered the loop over the edge of the spire. Carefully he noted the distance that it descended from the summit and what a pitiful span it seemed – that paltry twenty-five feet against the three hundred that marked the distance from base to apex.
Releasing one end of the rope, he let that fall to its full length, and when he saw where the lower end had touched the granite wall he was satisfied that he could descend at least that far, and below that another twenty-five feet. But it was difficult to measure distances below that point and from there on he must leave everything to chance.
Drawing the rope up again he looped the center of it about a projecting bit of granite, permitting the ends to fall over the edge of the cliff. Then he seized both strands of the rope tightly in one hand and lowered himself over the edge. Twenty feet below was a projection that gave him precarious foothold and a little crevice into which he could insert the fingers of his left hand. Almost directly before his face was the top of a buttress-like projection and below him he knew that there were many more similar to it. It was upon these that he had based his slender hope of success.
Gingerly he pulled upon one strand of the rope with his right hand. So slender was his footing upon the rocky escarpment that he did not dare draw the rope more than a few inches at a time lest the motion throw him off balance. Little by little he drew it in until the upper end passed around the projection over which the rope had been looped at the summit and fell upon him. And as it descended he held his breath for fear that even this slight weight might topple him to the jagged rocks below.
And now came the slow process of drawing the rope unaided through one hand, fingering it slowly an inch at a time until the center was in his grasp. This he looped over the top of the projection in front of him, seating it as securely as he could, and then he grasped both strands once more in his right hand and was ready to descend another twenty-five feett.
This stage of the descent was the most appalling of all, since the rope was barely seated upon a shelving protruberance from which he was aware it might slip at any instant. And so it was with a sense of unspeakable relief that he again found foothold near the end of the frail strands that were supporting him.
At this point the surface of the spire became much rougher. It was broken by fissures and horizontal cracks that had not been visible from above, with the result that compared with the first fifty feet the descent from here to the base was a miracle of ease, and it was not long before Tarzan stood again squarely upon his two feet and level ground. And now for the first time he had an opportunity to take stock of his injuries.
His legs were scratched and cut by the teeth and talons of the young thipdars, but those wounds were as nothing to those left by the talons of the adult reptile upon his back and shoulders. He could feel the deep wounds, but he could not see them; nor the clotted blood that had dried upon his brown skin.
The wounds pained and his muscles were stiff and sore, but his only fear lay in the possibility of blood poisoning and that did not greatly worry the ape-man, who had been repeatedly torn and mauled by carnivores since childhood.
A brief survey of his position showed him that it would be practically impossible for him to recross the stupendous gorge that yawned between him and the point at which he had been so ruthlessly torn from his companions. And with that discovery came the realization that there was little or no likelihood that the people toward which Tar-gash had been attempting to guide him could be the members of the 0-220 expedition. Therefore it seemed useless to attempt the seemingly impossible feat of finding Thoar and Tar-gash again among this maze of stupendous peaks, gorges and ravines. And so he determined merely to seek a way out of the mountains and back to the forests and plains that held a greater allure for him than did the rough and craggy contours of inhospitable hills. And to the accomplishment of this end he decided to follow the line of least resistance, seeking always the easiest avenues of descent.
Below him, in various directions, he could see the timber line and toward this he hastened to make his way.
As he descended the way became easier, though on several occasions he was again compelled to resort to his rope to lower himself from one level to another. Then the steep crags gave place to leveler land upon the shoulders of the mighty range and here, where earth could find lodgment, vegetation commenced. Grasses and shrubs, at first, then stunted trees and finally what was almost a forest, and here he came upon a trail.
It was a trail that offered infinite variety. For a while it wound through a forest and then climbed to a ledge of rock that projected from the face of a cliff and overhung a stupendous canyon.
He could not see the trail far ahead for it was continually rounding the shoulders of jutting crags.
As he moved along it, sure-footed, silent, alert, Tarzan of the Apes became aware that somewhere ahead of him other feet were treading probably the same trail.
What wind there was was eddying up from the canyon below and carrying the scent spoor of the creature ahead of him as well as his own up toward the mountain top, so that it was unlikely that either might apprehend the presence of the other by scent; but there was something in the sound of the footsteps that even at a distance assured Tarzan that they were not made by man, and it was evident too that they were going in the same direction as he for they were not growing rapidly more distinct, but very gradually as though he was slowly overhauling the the author of them.
The trail was narrow and only occasionally, where it crossed some ravine or shallow gulley, was there a place where one might either descend or ascend from it.
To meet a savage beast upon it, therefore, might prove, to say the least, embarrassing but Tarzan had elected to go this way and he was not in the habit of turning back whatever obstacles in the form of man or beast might bar his way. And, too, he had the advantage over the creature ahead of him whatever it might be, since he was coming upon it from behind and was quite sure that it had no knowledge of his presence, for Tarzan well knew that no creature could move with greater silence than he, when he elected to do so, and now he passed along that trail as noiselessly as the shadow of a shadow.
Curiosity caused him to increase his speed that he might learn the nature of the thing ahead, and as he did so and the sound of its footsteps increased in volume, he knew that he was stalking some heavy, four-footed beast with padded feet – that much he could tell, but beyond that he had no idea of the identity of the creature; nor did the winding trail at any time reveal it to his view. Thus the silent stalker pursued his way until he knew that he was but a short distance behind his quarry when there suddenly broke upon his ears the horrid snarling and growling of an enraged beast just ahead of him.
There was something in the tone of that awful voice that increased the ape-man’s curiosity. He guessed from the volume of the sound that it must come from the throat of a tremendous beast, for the very hills seemed to shake to the thunder of its roars.
Guessing that it was attacking or was about to attack some other creature, and spurred, perhaps, entirely by curiosity, Tarzan hastened forward at a brisk trot, and as he rounded the shoulder of a buttressed crag his eyes took in a scene that galvanized him into instant action.
A hundred feet ahead the trail ended at the mouth of a great cave, and in the entrance to the cave stood a boy – a lithe, handsome youth of ten or twelve – while between the boy and Tarzan a huge cave bear was advancing angrily upon the former.
The boy saw Tarzan and at the first glance his eyes lighted with hope, but an instant later, recognizing that the newcomer was not of his own tribe, the expression of hopelessness that had been there before returned to his face, but he stood his ground bravely, his spear and his crude stone knife ready.
The scene before the ape-man told its own story. The bear, returning to its cave, had unexpectedly discovered the youth emerging from it, while the latter, doubtless equally surprised, found himself cornered with no avenue of escape open to him.
By the primitive jungle laws that had guided his youth, Tarzan of the Apes was under no responsibility to assume the dangerous role of savior, but there had always burned within his breast the flame of chivalry, bequeathed him by his English parents, that more often than not found him jeopardizing his own life in the interests of others. This child of a nameless tribe in an unknown world might hold no claim upon the sympathy of a savage beast, or even of savage men who were not of his tribe. And perhaps Tarzan of the Apes would not have admitted that the youth had any claim upon him, yet in reality he exercised a vast power over the ape-man – a power that lay solely in the fact that he was a child and that he was helpless.
One may analyze the deeds of a man of action and speculate upon them, whereas the man himself does not appear to do so at all – he merely acts; and thus it was with Tarzan of the Apes. He saw an emergency confronting him and he was ready to meet it, for since the moment that he had known that there was a beast upon the trail ahead of him he had had his weapons in readiness, years of experience with primitive men and savage beasts having taught him the value of preparedness.
His grass rope was looped in the hollow of his left arm and in the fingers of his left hand were grasped his spear, his bow and three extra arrows, while a fourth arrow was ready in his right hand.
One glance at the beast ahead of him had convinced him that only by a combination of skill and rare luck could he hope to destroy this titanic monster with the relatively puny weapons with which he was armed, but he might at least divert its attention from the lad and by harassing it draw it away until the boy could find some means of escape. And so it was that within the very instant that his eyes took in the picture his bow twanged and a heavy arrow sank deeply into the back of the bear close to its spine, and at the same time Tarzan voiced a savage cry intended to apprise the beast of an enemy in its rear.
Maddened by the pain and surprised by the voice behind it, the creature evidently associated the two, instantly whirling about on the narrow ledge.
Tarzan’s first impression was that in all his life he had never gazed upon such a picture of savage bestial rage as was depicted upon the snarling countenance of the mighty cave bear as its fiery eyes fell upon the author of its hurt.
In quick succession three arrows sank into its chest as it charged, howling, down upon the ape-man.
For an instant longer Tarzan held his ground. Poising his heavy spear he carried his spear hand far back behind his right shoulder, and then with all the force of those giant muscles, backed by the weight of his great body, he launched the weapon.
At the instant that it left his hand the bear was almost upon him and he did not wait to note the effect of his throw, but turned and leaped swiftly down the trail; while close behind him the savage growling and the ponderous footfalls of the carnivore proved the wisdom of his strategy.
He was sure that upon this narrow, rocky ledge, if no obstacle interposed itself, he could outdistance the bear, for only Ara, the lightning, is swifter than Tarzan of the Apes.
There was the possibility that he might meet the bear’s mate coming up to their den, and in that event his position would be highly critical, but that, of course, was only a remote possibility and in the meantime he was sure that he had inflicted sufficiently severe wounds upon the great beast to sap its strength and eventually to prove its total undoing. That it possessed an immense reserve of vitality was evidenced by the strength and savagery of its pursuit. The creature seemed tireless and although Tarzan was equally so he found fleeing from an antagonist peculiarly irksome and to a considerable degree obnoxious to his self esteem. And so he cast about him for some means of terminating the flight and to that end he watched particularly the cliff walls, rising above the trail down which he sped, and at last he saw that for which he had hoped – a jutting granite projection protruding from the cliff about twenty-five feet above the trail.
His coiled rope was ready in his left hand, the noose in his right, and as he came within throwing distance of the projection, he unerringly tossed the latter about it. The bear tore down the trail behind him. The ape-man pulled heavily once upon the end of the rope to assure himself that it was safely caught above, and then with the agility of Manu, the monkey, he clambered upward.
INTRODUCTORY AND CONTENTS PAGE FOR
THE EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS SERIES OF ARTICLES
BY WOODROW EDGAR NICHOLS, JR.
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