The bears were no longer pursuing. A spear's-throw back they had stopped, growling and whining, and swaying their mountainous forms from side to side in angry irresolution.
"They fear the bright, dancing things," said Grom to himself; and added, with a throb of exultation, "which I do not fear."
Noticing for the first time in his excitement that the ground, here parched and bare, was uncomfortably hot beneath his feet, he carried his burden a few rods further on, to where the green began again, and laid her down on the thick herbage. Then he turned to see what the bears were going to do.
Seeing that their intended prey made no further effort to flee, the two monsters grew still more excited. For a moment Grom thought they would dare the passage of the barrier, but he was reassured to see that the flames filled them with an insuperable fear. They dared not come nearer than the thin edges of the verdure. At last, as if the same notion had struck them both at once, they whirled about simultaneously, made off among the dense thickets to the right, and disappeared.
Grom knew far too well the obstinate vindictiveness of their kind to think that they had given up the chase; but, feeling safe for the present, and seeing that the girl, recovered from her swoon, was sitting up and staring with awed eyes at the line of fire, he turned all his attention to these mysterious, shining, leaping shapes to which they owed their escape.
With an attitude of deference, yet carrying both club and spear in readiness, he slowly approached the barrier, at the point where the flames were lowest and least imposing. Their heat made him very uneasy, but under the eyes of the girl he would show no sign of fear. At a distance of six or eight feet he stopped, studying the thin, upcurling tongues of brightness. Their heat, at this distance, was uncomfortable to his naked flesh, but as he stood there wondering and took no further hurt, his confidence grew. At length he dared to stretch out his spear-tip and touch the flames, very respectfully. The green-hide thongs which bound the flint to the wood smoked, shriveled and hissed. He withdrew the weapon in alarm, and examined the tip. It was blackened, and hot to the touch. But, seeing that the bright dancers had taken no notice, he repeated the experiment. Several times he repeated it, deeply pondering, while the girl, from her place at the edge of the grass, stared with the wide eyes of a child.
At last, though the green thongs still held, the dry wood burst into flame. Startled to find that when he drew the point back he brought a portion of the shining creature with it, Grom dashed the weapon down upon the ground. The flame, insufficiently started, flickered and died. But it left a spark, winking redly on the blackened wood. Audacious in his consuming curiosity, Grom touched it with his finger. It stung smartly, and Grom snatched back his finger with an exclamation of alarm. But by that touch the spark itself was extinguished. That was an amazing thing. Sucking his finger, Grom stood gazing down at the spear-tip, which had but now been so bright, and was now so black. Plainly, it was a victory for him. He did not understand it. But at least the Mysterious Ones were not invincible, however much the bears feared them. Well, he did not fear them, he said proudly in his heart. Aloud he said to A-ya:
"The Shining Dancers are our friends, but they do not like to be touched. If you touch them, they bite."
His heart swelled with a vast, unformulated hope. Ideas, possibilities which he could not yet grasp, seethed in his brain. Dimly, but overpoweringly, he realized that he had passed the threshold of a new world. He picked up the spear and turned to renew his experiments.
This time he let the fire take well hold upon the spear-tip before he withdrew it. Then he held it upright, burning like a torch. As he gazed at it raptly a scream from the girl aroused him. She had sprung to her feet and stood staring behind her, not knowing which way to run because of her fear of the fire. And there, not twenty paces from her, their giant grey bulks half emerging from the thicket, stood the bears, slavering in their fury but afraid to come nearer the flame.
With a shout, Grom darted at them, and the wind of his going fanned his spear-point to a fierce blaze. The girl screamed again at the sight, but bravely stood her ground. The bears shrank, growled, then turned and fled. With a dozen leaps Grom was upon them. The flame was already licking up the spear-shaft almost to his grip. With all his force he threw, and the flint tip buried itself in the nearest monster's haunch. The long fur blazed, and, in a frenzy of terror, the great beasts went crashing off through the coverts. The fire was speedily whipped out by the branches, but their panic was uncontrollable; and long after they had passed out of sight the sounds of their wild flight could be followed. Grom's heart came near bursting with exultation, but he disdained to show it. He turned to the girl, and said quietly: "They will not come back." And the girl threw herself at his feet in adoration.
And now for hours Grom sat motionless, pondering, pondering, and watching the line of flames with deep eyes. The girl did not dare to interrupt his thoughts. With the going of the sun came a chill breeze drawing down from the ridges. Grom rose, led the girl nearer the flames, and reseated himself. As the girl realized the kindly and comforting warmth her fears diminished. She laughed softly, turned her shapely body round and round in the glow, and then curled herself up like a cat at Grom's knees.
At last Grom arose once more. Picking up his remaining spear, he approached the fire with decision, and thrust the butt, instead of the tip, into the flame. When it was well alight, he thrust it down upon a tuft of withered grass. The stuff caught at once, blazed up and died out. Then Grom rolled the burning spear-butt on the earth till it, too, was quite extinguished. The sparks still winking in the grass he struck with his palm. They stung him, but they perished. He drew himself up to his full height, turned to the girl and stretched out his blackened hand. The girl sprang to her feet, thrilled and wondering.
"See," said Grom, "I have made the bright Dancing Ones my servants. The tribe shall come here. And we shall be the masters of all things."
Once more the girl threw herself at his feet. He seemed to her a god. But remembering how she had twice saved his life, she laid her cheek against his knee. He lifted her into the hollow of his great arm, and she leaned against him, gazing up into his face, while he stood staring into the fire, his eyes clouded with visions.
THE CHILDREN OF THE SHINING ONE
From the lip of the narrow volcanic fissure, which ran diagonally two-thirds of the way across the mouth of the valley, the line of fire waved and flickered against the gathering dark. Sometimes only a few inches high, sometimes sinking suddenly out of sight, and then again as suddenly leaping up to a height of five or six feet, the thin, gaseous flames danced elvishly. Now clear yellow, now fiery orange, now of an almost invisible violet, they shifted, and bowed their crests, and thrust out shooting tongues, till Grom, sitting on his haunches and staring with fascinated eyes, had no choice but to believe that they were live things like himself. The girl, curled up at his side like a cat, paid little attention to the marvel of the flames. Her big, dark eyes, wild and furtive under the dark, tangled masses of her hair, kept wandering back and forth between the man's brooding face and the obscure black thickets which filled the valley behind him. The dancing flames she did not understand, but she understood the ponderous crashing, and growls, and savage cries which came from those black thickets and slopes of tumbled rocks. The man being absorbed in watching the wonders of the flames, and apparently all-forgetful of the perils prowling back there in the dark, it was plainly her duty to keep watch.
From time to time Grom would drag his eyes away from their contemplation of the flames to study intently the charred spots on his club and the burned, blackened end of his spear. He looked down at the lithe figure of the watching girl, and laid a great, hairy hand on her shoulder in a musing caress, as if appraising her, and delighting in her, and finding in her a mate altogether to his desire, although but a child to his inmost thoughts. But those sounds of menace from the darkness behind him he affected not to hear at all. He could see from the girl's eyes that the menace was not yet close at hand; and since he had learned the power of the fire, and his own mastery over that power, he felt himself suddenly little less than a god. The fire was surely something of a god; and if he had any measure of control over the fire, so as to make it serve him surely, then still more of the god was there in his own intelligence. His heart swelled with a pride such as he had never before conceived, and his brain seethed with vague but splendid possibilities. Never before had he, though at heart the bravest of his brave clan, been able to listen to the terrible voices of the cave-bear, the cave-hyena, or the saber-tooth without fear, without the knowledge that his own safety lay in flight. Now he feared them not at all.
A louder roaring came out of the shadows, closer than before, and he saw A-ya's eyes dilate as she clutched at his knee. A slow smile spread across his bony face, and he turned about, rising to his feet as he did so, and lifting the girl with him.
With a new, strange warmth at his heart he realized how fully the girl trusted him, how cool and steady was her courage. For there, along the edge of the lighted space, glaring forth from the fringes of the thickets, were the monstrous beasts whom man had most cause to dread. Nearest, his whole tawny length emerging from the brush, crouched a giant saber-tooth with the daggers of his tusks, ten inches long, agleam in the light of the dancing flames. He was not more than thirty or forty paces distant, and his tail twitched heavily from side to side as if he were trying to nerve himself up to a closer approach to the fire. Some twenty paces further along the fringe of mingled light and shadow, their bodies thrust half way forth from the undergrowth, stood a pair of huge, ruddy cave-bears, their monstrous heads held low and swaying surlily from side to side as they eyed the prey which they dared not rush in and seize. The man-animal they had hitherto regarded as easy prey, and they were filled with rage at the temerity of these two humans in remaining so near the dreaded flames. Intent upon them, they paid no heed to their great enemy, the saber-toothed, with whom they were at endless and deadly feud. Away off to the left, quite clear of the woods, but safely remote from the fire, a pack of huge cave-hyenas sat up on their haunches, their long, red tongues hanging out. With jaws powerful enough to crack the thigh-bones of the urus, they nevertheless hesitated to obtrude themselves on the notice either of the crouching saber-tooth or of the two giant bears.
With neither the bears nor the great hyenas did Grom anticipate any trouble. But he felt it barely possible that the saber-tooth might dare a rush in. Snatching up a dry branch, and leading the girl with him by the wrist, he backed slowly nearer the flames. Terrified at their dancing and the scorching of their breath, the girl sank down on her naked knees and covered her face with her hair. Smiling at her terror, Grom thrust the branch into the flames. When it was all ablaze he raised it above his head, and, carrying his spear in his right hand, he rushed at the saber-tooth. For a few seconds the monster faced his approach, but Grom saw the shrinking in his furious eyes, and came on fearlessly. At last the beast whipped about with a screeching snarl, and raced back into the woods. Then Grom turned to the bears, but they had not stayed to receive his attentions. The sight of the flames bursting, as it seemed, from the man's shaggy head as he ran, was too much for them, and they had slunk back discreetly into the shadows.
Grom threw the blazing stick on the ground, laid several more branches upon it, and presently had a fine fire of his own going. He seized a small branch and hurled it at the hyenas, sending them off with their tails between their legs to their hiding-places on the ragged slopes. Then he fed his fire with more dry wood till the fierce heat of it drove him back. Returning to the side of the wondering girl, he sat down, and contemplated his handiwork with swelling pride. When the flames died down he piled on more branches till they blazed again to the height of the nearest tree-tops. This he repeated, thoughtfully, several times, till he had assured himself of his power to make this bright, devouring god great or little at his pleasure.
This stupendous fact established clearly, Grom brought an armful of grass and foliage, and made the girl take her sleep. He himself continued for an hour or two his experiments with the fire, building small ones in a circle about him, discovering that green branches would not burn well, and brooding with knit brows over each new center of light and heat which he created.
Then, seated on his haunches beside the sleeping A-ya, he pondered on the future of his tribe, on the change in its fortunes which this mysterious new creature was bound to bring about. At last, when the night was half worn through, he awakened the girl, bade her keep sharp watch, and threw himself down to sleep, indifferent to the roars, and snarls, and dreadful cries which came from the darkness of the upper valley.
The valley looked straight into the east. When the sun rose, its unclouded, level rays paled the dancing barrier of flames almost to invisibility. Refreshed by their few hours' sleep in the vital warmth, Grom and the girl stood erect in the flooding light and scanned the strange landscape. Grom's sagacious eyes noted the fertility of the level lands at a distance from the fire, and of the clefts, ledges and lower slopes of the tumbled volcanic hills. Here and there he made out the openings of caves, half overgrown with vines and bush. And he was satisfied that this was the land for his tribe to occupy.
That it was infested with all those monstrous beasts which were Man's deadliest foes seemed to him no longer a fact worth considering. The bright god which he had conquered should be made to conquer them. Some inkling of his purposes he confided to the girl, who stood looking up at him with eyes of dog-like devotion from under the matted splendor of her hair. If he was still the man she loved, her mate and lover, yet was he also now a sort of demi-god, since she had seen him play at his ease with the flames, and drive the hyena, the saber-tooth and the terrible red bear before him.
When the two started on their journey back to the Country of the Little Hills, Grom carried with him a bundle of blazing brands. He had conceived the idea of keeping the bright god alive by feeding him continually as they went, and of renewing his might from time to time by stopping to build a big fire.
The undertaking proved a troublesome one from the first. The brand kept the great beasts at a distance, time and again the red coals almost died out, and Grom had anxious and laborious moments nursing them again into activity; and the care of the mysterious things made progress slow. Grom learned much, and rapidly, in these anxious efforts. He discovered once, just at a critical moment, the remarkable efficacy of dry grass. A bear as big as an ox came rushing upon them, just when the flames were flickering out along the bundle of brands. A-ya started to run, but Grom's nerve was of steel.
Ordering her to stop, he flung the brands to the ground, and snatched a double handful of grass to feed the dying flame. Luckily, the grass was dry. It flared up on the sudden. The bear stopped short. Grom piled on more grass, shouted arrogantly, and rushed at the beast with a blazing handful. It was a light and harmless flame, almost instantly extinguished. But it was too mysterious for the monster to face.
Grom was wise enough not to follow up his victory. Returning to the fire he fed it to a safe volume. And the girl, flinging herself down in a passion of relief and adoration, embraced his knees.
After this they journeyed slowly, Grom tending the brands with vigilant care, and striving to break down the girl's terror of them. That night he built three fires about the base of a huge tree, gathered a supply of dry wood, taught the girl to feed the flames—which she did with head bowed in awe—and passed the hours of darkness, once so dreaded, in proud defiance of the great beasts which prowled and roared beyond the circle of light. He made the girl sleep, but he himself was too prudent to sleep, lest these fires of his own creation should prove false when his eye was not upon them.
The following day, about midday, when he slept heavily in the heat, the fire went out. It had got low, and the girl, attempting to revive it, had smothered it with too much fuel. In an agony of fear and remorse, she knelt at Grom's side, awakened him, and showed him what she had done. She expected a merciless beating, according to the rough-and-ready customs of her tribe. But Grom had always been held a little peculiar, especially in his aversion to the beating of women, so that certain females of the tribe had even been known to question his manhood on that account.
Furthermore, he regarded the girl with a tenderness, an admiration, an appreciation, which he could not but wonder at in himself, seeing that he had never heard of it as a customary thing that a man should regard a woman in any such manner. At the same time he was in a state of exaltation over his strange achievements, and hardly open, at the moment, to any common or base brutality of rage.
He gave the girl one terrible look, then went and strove silently with the dead, black embers. The girl crept up to him on her knees, weeping. For a few seconds he paid her no heed. But when he found that the flames had fled beyond recovery, he lifted her up, drew her close to him, and comforted her.
"You have let the Bright One escape," said he. "But do not be afraid. He lives back there in the valley of the bears, and I will capture him again."
And when the girl realized that he had no thought of beating her, but only wished to comfort and shield her, then she felt quite sure he was a god, and her heart nearly burst with the passion of her love.
It galled Grom's proud heart to find himself now compelled, through loss of the fire, to go warily, to scan the thicket, to keep hidden, to hold spear and club always in readiness, and to climb into a tree at night for safety like the apes. But he let no sign of his chagrin, or of his anxiety, appear. Like the crafty hunter and wise leader that he was, he forgot no one of his ancient precautions.
They had by this time passed beyond the special haunts of the red bear and the saber-tooth. Twice they had to run before the charge of the great wooly rhinoceros, against whose massive hide Grom's spear and club would have been about as effective as a feather duster. But they had fled mockingly, for the clumsy monster was no match for them in speed. Once, too, they had been treed by a bull urus, a gigantic white beast with a seven-foot spread of polished horns.
But his implacable and patient rage they had cunningly evaded by making off unseen and unheard, through the upper branches. They came to earth again half a mile away, and ran on gaily, laughing at the picture of the furious and foolish beast waiting there at the foot of the tree for them to come down. Once a prowling leopard confronted them for a moment, only to flee in great leaps before their instant and unhesitating attack. Once a huge bird, nearly nine feet high, and with a beak over a foot in length, struck at them savagely, with a shrill hissing, through a fringe of reeds, because they had incautiously come too near its nest. But they killed it, and feasted on its eggs. And so, without further misadventure, they came at last to the skirts of their own country, and looked once more on the rounded, familiar, wind-swept tops of the Little Hills, sacred to the barrows of their dead.
It was toward sunset, and the long, rosy glow was flooding the little amphitheater wherein the remnants of the tribe were gathered, when Grom crossed the brook, and came striding up the slope, with A-ya close behind him. She had been traveling at his side all through the journey, but here she respected the etiquette of her tribe, and fell behind submissively.
Hardly noticing, or not heeding if he noticed that the tribe offered no vociferous welcome, and seemed sullenly surprised at his appearance, Grom strode straight to the Chief, whom he saw sitting on the judgment stone, and threw down spear and club at his feet in sign of fealty. But A-ya, following, was keen to note the hostile attitude of the tribe. Her defiant eyes darted everywhere, and everywhere noted black looks. She could not understand it, but she divined that there was some plot afoot against Grom. Her heart swelled with rage, and her dark-maned head went up arrogantly, for she felt as if the strongest and wisest of the tribe were now but children in comparison with her lord. But, though children, they were many, and she closed up behind him for a guard, grasping more firmly the shaft of her short, serviceable spear. She saw the broad, black, scowling visage of young Mawg, towering over a little group of his kinsfolk, and eyeing her with mingled greed and rage, and she divined at once that he was at the back of whatever mischief might be brewing. She answered his look with one of mocking scorn, and then turned her attention to the Chief, who was sitting in grim silence, the customary hand of welcome ominously withheld.
A haughty look came over Grom's face, his broad shoulders squared themselves, and he met the Chief's eyes sternly.
"I have done the bidding of Bawr the Chief," he said, in a clear voice, so that all the tribe might hear. "I have found a place where the tribe may hold themselves secure against all enemies. And I have come back, as was agreed, to lead the tribe thither before our enemies destroy us. I have done great deeds. I have not spared myself. I have come quickly. I have deserved well of the people. Why has Bawr the Chief no welcome for me?"
A murmur arose from the corner where Mawg and his friends were grouped, but a glance from the Chief silenced it. With his piercing gaze making relentless inquisition of the eyes that answered his so steadily, he seemed to ponder Grom's words. Slowly the anger faded from his scarred and massy face, for he knew men; and this man, though his most formidable rival in strength and prestige, he instinctively trusted.
"You have been accused," said he at length, slowly, "of deserting the tribe in our weakness—"
A puzzled look had come over Grom's face at the word "accused"; then his deep eyes blazed, and he broke in upon the Chief's speech without ceremony.
"Show me my accusers!" he demanded harshly. The Chief waved his hand for silence.
"In our weakness!" he repeated. "But you have returned to us. So I see that charge was false. Also, you have been accused of stealing the girl A-ya. But you have brought her back. I see not what more your accusers have against you."
Grom turned, and, with a quick, decisive motion, drew A-ya to his side.
"Bawr the Chief knows that I am his servant, and a true man!" said he sternly. "I did not steal the girl. She followed me, and I had no thought of it."
Angry jeers came from Mawg's corner, but Grom smiled coldly, and went on:
"Not till near evening of the second day, when she was chased by wolves, did she reveal herself to me. And when I understood why she had come, I looked on her, and I saw that she was very fair and very brave. And I took her. So that now she is my woman, and I hold to her, Chief! But I will pay you for her whatsoever is just, for you are the Chief. And now let Bawr show me my accusers, that I may have done with them quickly. For I have much to tell."
"Not so, Grom," said the Chief, stretching out his hand. "I am satisfied that you are a true man. And for the girl, that will we arrange between us later. But I will not confront you with your accusers, for there shall be no fighting between ourselves when our warriors that are left us are so few. And in this I know that you, being wise, will agree with me. Come, and we two will talk of what is to be done."
He got up from his seat, an immense and masterful figure, to lead the way to his own cave, where they might talk in private. But Grom hesitated, fearing lest annoyance should befall A-ya if he left her alone with his enemies.
"And the girl, Chief?" said he. "I would not have her troubled."
Bawr turned. He swept a comprehensive and significant glance over the gaping crowd.
"The girl A-ya," said he in his great voice which thundered over the amphitheater, "is Grom's woman. I have spoken."
And he strode off toward his cave door. Grom picked up his club and spear. And the girl, with a haughty indifference she was far from feeling, strolled off toward the cave of certain old women, kinsfolk of the Chief.
But as the meaning of the Chief's words penetrated Mawg's dull wits he gave vent to a great bellow of rage, and snatched up a spear to hurl at Grom. Before he could launch it, however, his kinsmen, who had no wish to bring down upon themselves both Grom's wrath and that of the Chief, fell upon him and bore down his arm. Raging blindly, Mawg struggled with them, and, having the strength of a bull, he was near to wrenching himself free. But other men of the tribe, seeing from the Chief's action that their bitterness against Grom had been unjustified, and remembering his past services, ran up and took a hand in reducing Mawg to submission. For a few seconds Grom looked on contemptuously; then he turned on his heel and followed the Chief, as if he did not hold his rival worth a further thought. Mawg struggled to his feet. Grom had disappeared. But his eyes fell on the figure of A-ya, slim and brown and tall, standing in the entrance of the near-by cave. He made as if to rush upon her, but a bunch of men stood in the way, plainly ready to stop him. He looked at his kinsmen, but they hung their heads sullenly. Blind with fury though he was, and slow of wit, he could not but see that the tribe as a whole was now against him. Stuttering with his rage, he shouted to the girl, "You will see me again!" Snatching up his club and spears, he rushed forth from the amphitheater, darted down the slope, and plunged into the thick woods beyond the brook. His kinsmen withdrew sullenly into their cave, followed by two young women. And the rest of the people looked at each other doubtfully, troubled at this sudden schism in the weakened tribe.
"One more good warrior gone!" muttered an old man through his bush of matted white beard.
That night Grom was too wary to sleep, suspecting that his enemy might return and try to snatch the girl from him under the cover of the dark.
He was not attacked or disturbed, however, but just before dawn, against the gray pallor beyond the mouth of the pass, he marked four shapes slinking forth. As they did not return, he did not think it worth while to raise the alarm. When day came, it was found that two kinsmen of Mawg, with the two young women who were attached to them, had fled to join the deserter in the bush. The Chief, indignant at this further weakening of the tribe, declared them outlaws, and ordered that all—except the women, who were needed as mothers—should be killed as tribal traitors, at sight.
As was natural since he was trying to present a totally new conception, with no known analogies save in the lightning and the sun, Grom found it impossible to convey to the Chief's mind any real idea of the nature of his tremendous discovery. He did succeed, however, in making it clear to Bawr that there was a certain mighty Bright One, capable of putting even the saber-tooth and the red bear to instant flight, and that he had somehow managed to subdue this powerful and mysterious being into the service of the tribe. Bawr had examined with deep musing the strange black bite of the Bright One on Grom's club and spear. And he realized readily enough that with such an ally the tribe, even in its present state of weakness, would be able to defy any further invasions of the bow-legged beast-men from the east. There was a rumor, vague enough but disquieting, of another migration of the beast-men under way. So there was no time to lose. Bawr gave orders that the tribe should get together their scanty possessions of food, skins and weapons, and make a start on the morrow for their new home.
The attempts of the girl, meanwhile, to explain about the fire and Grom's miraculous subjugation of it to his will, had only spread terror in the tribe. The dread of this unknown Bright One, which was plainly capable of devouring them all if Grom should lose control of it, was more nerve-shaking than their dread of the beast-men. Moreover, there was the natural reluctance to leave the old, familiar dwellings for an unknown, distrusted land, confessedly the haunt of those monstrous beasts which they had most cause to fear. Then, too, there were not a few in the tribe who professed to think that the hordes of the Bow-legs were never likely to come that way again. No wonder, therefore, that there was grumbling, and protest, and shrill lamentation in the caves; but Bawr being in no mood, since the defection of Mawg and his party, to tolerate any opposition, and Grom being now regarded as a dangerous wizard, the preparation for departure went on as smoothly as if all were of one mind. Packing was no great matter to the People of the Little Hills, the richest of whom could transport all his wealth on the back of the feeblest of his wives. So it came that before the sun marked noon the whole tribe was on the march, trailing forth from the neck of the amphitheater at the heels of Grom and A-ya, and picking their way over the bones of their slain enemies which the vultures and the jackals had already polished white. Bawr, the Chief, came last, seeing to it that there were no laggards; and as the tail of the straggling procession left the pass he climbed swiftly to the nearest pinnacle of rock to take observation. He marked Grom and the girl, the tribe strung out dejectedly behind them, winding off to the left along the foot of the bare hills; and a pang of grief, for an instant, twitched his massive features. Then he turned his eyes to the right. Very far off, in a space of open ground by the brookside, he marked the movement of confused, living masses, of a dull brown on the green. A closer look convinced him that the moving masses were men—new hordes of the beast-men, the gaping-nosed Bow-legs.
"Grom is a true man," he muttered, with satisfaction, and went leaping like a stag down the slope to rejoin the tribe. When news of what he had seen was passed from mouth to mouth through the tribe every murmur was hushed, and the sulkiest laggards pushed on feverishly, as if dreading a rush of the beast-men from every cleft and glade.
The journey proved, for the most part, uneventful. Traveling in a compact mass, only by broad day, their numbers and their air of confidence kept the red bear and the saber-tooth, the black lion and the wolf-pack, from venturing to molest them. By the Chief's orders they maintained a noisy chatter, with laughter and shouting, as soon as they felt themselves safely beyond range of the beast-men's ears. For Bawr had observed that even the saber-tooth had a certain uneasiness at the sound of many human voices together. At night—and it was their rule to make camp while the sun was yet several hours high—with the aid of their flint spear-heads they would laboriously cut down the saplings of the long-thorned acacia, and surround the camp with a barrier which the monsters dared not assail. Even so, however, the nights were trying enough to the stoutest nerves. Half the tribe at a time was obliged to stand on guard, and there was little sleep to refresh the weariest when the shadows beyond the barriers were alive with mutterings and prowlings, and terrible, paling, gleaming eyes.
On the fourth day of the journey, however, the tribe met a foe whose dense brain was quite unimpressed by the menace of the human voice, and whose rage took no account of their numbers or their confidence. An enormous bull urus—perhaps the same beast which some days earlier, had driven Grom and the girl into the tree-tops—burst up, dripping and mud-streaked from his wallow in a reedy pool, and came charging upon the travelers with a roar. No doubt an outcast from the herd, he was mad with the lust of killing. With shouts of warning and shrieks of fear the tribe scattered in every direction. The nearest warriors hurled their spears as they sprang aside, and several of the weapons went deep into the monster's flanks, but without checking him. He had fixed his eyes on one victim, an old man with a conspicuous shock of snow-white hair, and him he followed inexorably. The doomed wretch screamed with despair when he found himself thus hideously selected, and ran, doubling like a rabbit. Just as the monster overtook him he fell, paralyzed with his fright, and one tremendous horn pinned him to the earth. At this instant the Chief arrived, running up from the rear of the line, and Grom, coming from the front. The Chief, closing in fearlessly, swung his club with all his strength across the beast's front, blinding one eye, and confusing him for the fraction of a moment. And in that moment, Grom, calculating his blow with precision, drove his spear clean through the massive throat. As he sprang back, twisting his ragged weapon in the wound and tearing it free, the monster, with a hoarse cough, staggered forward across his victim, fell upon his knees, and slowly sank, while the blood emptied itself in enormous, smoking jets from the wound.
The incident caused a day's delay in the march; for there was the dead elder to be buried, with heavy stones heaped over his body, according to the custom of the tribe, and there was also the meat of the slain bull to be cut up for carrying—a rank food, but sustaining, and not to be despised when one is on a journey with uncertainties ahead. And the delay was more than compensated for by the new spirit which now seized this poor, fugitive remnant of the Tribe of the Little Hills. The speedy and spectacular triumph over a foe so formidable as the giant bull urus was unanimously accepted as an omen of good fortune.
As they approached the valley whose mouth was guarded by the line of volcanic fire, Grom purposely led the tribe by such a path that they should get no glimpse of the dancing flames until close upon them. Down behind a long line of woods he led them, with no warning of what was to come. Then suddenly around into the open; and there, not a hundred paces distant, was the valley-mouth, and the long, thin line of flickering scarlet tongues drawn across it.
As the people came in sight of the incomprehensible phenomenon, they stared for a moment, gasping, or uttering low cries; then they fell upon their faces in awe. Grom remained standing, leaning upon his spear; and A-ya stood with bowed head close behind him. When the Chief, shepherding and guarding the rear flanks, emerged around the elbow of woods and saw his people thus prostrate before the shining wonder, he too was moved to follow their example, for his heart went cold within him. But not without reason was he Chief, for he could control himself as well as others. A pallor spread beneath the smoky tan of his broad features, but without an instant's hesitation he strode to the front, and stood like Grom, with unbowed head, leaning calmly on his great club. His thought was that the Shining One must be indeed a god, and might, indeed, slay him from afar, like the lightning, but it could not make him afraid.
Grom gave him a quick look of approval. "Tell the people," said he, "to follow us round through the open space yonder, and into the valley, that we may make camp, for there are many great beasts here, and very fierce. And tell them not to approach the Shining One, lest he smite them, but also not to fear, for he will not come at them."
When the people—trembling, staring with fascinated eyes at the dancing array, and shrinking nervously from the strange warmth—had all been gathered into the open space between the fire and the thickets, Grom led the Chief up to the flames and hurriedly explained to him what he had found out as to how they must be managed. Then, leaving him to ponder the miracle, and to experiment, he took A-ya to help him build other fires along the edge of the thickets in order to keep the monsters at bay. And all the while the tribe sat watching, huddled on their haunches, with mouths agape and eyes rolling in amazement.
Bawr the Chief, meanwhile, was revolving many things in his sagacious brain, as he alternately lighted and extinguished the little, eating flames which fixed themselves upon the dry wood when he held it in the blaze. His mind was of a very different order from that of Grom, though, perhaps, not less capacious and capable. Grom was the discoverer, the initiator, while Bawr was essentially the ruler, concerned to apply all he learned to the extension and securing of his power. It was his realization of Grom's transparent honesty and indifference to power which made him so free from jealousy of Grom's prestige. His shrewd perceptions told him that Grom would far rather see him rule the tribe, so long as he ruled it effectually, than be troubled with the task himself. But there were others in the tribe whom he suspected of being less disinterested—who were capable of becoming troublesome if ever he should find his strength failing. One of these, in particular, a gigantic, black-browed fellow by the name of Ne-boo, remotely akin to the deserter Mawg, was now watching him with eyes more keen and considerate than those of his companions. As Bawr became conscious of this inquiring, crafty gaze, he made a slip, and closed his left hand on a portion of his branch which was still glowing red. With superb nerve he gave no sign of the hurt. And he thought quickly: he had taken a liberty with the Bright One, and been bitten by those mysterious, shining teeth which left a scar of black. Well, someone else should be bitten, also. Calmly heating the branch again till it was a live coal for three-quarters of its length, he called the crafty-eyed warrior to him. The man came, uneasy, but full of interest.
"Take this, and hold it for me," said Bawr, and tossed him the red brand. With shrinking hands Ne-boo caught it, to drop it instantly with a yell of pain and terror. It fell, scraping his leg, and his foot, and in his fright he threw himself down beside it, begging it not to smite him again.
"Strange," said Bawr, in a voice for all the tribe to hear, "the Shining One will not suffer Ne-boo to touch him." With the air of a high priest he picked the brand up, and held it again into the flames. And Grom returning at this moment to his side, he commanded in a low voice: "Let none but ourselves attend or touch the Bright One."
Grom, his mind occupied with plans for the settling of the tribe, agreed without asking the reason for this decree. He was thinking about getting the tribe housed in the caves which he had noticed in the steep sides of the valley. He knew well enough that these caves were the houses of the red bear, the saber-tooth and the bone-crushing hyenas, but, as he explained to the Chief with thrilling elation, the Shining One would drive these monsters out, and teach them to keep their distance. To Bawr, who had had some experience in his day with the red bear and the saber-tooth, and who had not yet seen all that these dancing tongues of gold and scarlet could do, the enterprise seemed a formidable one. But he sagaciously reserved his judgment, pondering things that he felt sure Grom would not dream of.
That night, when all was thick darkness beyond the magic circle of the fires, the People of the Little Hills sat or crouched trembling and wondering, while monstrous dim shapes of such bears or tigers as they had never imagined in their worst nightmares prowled roaring all about them, held off by nothing more substantial than just those thin and darting tongues of flame. That the little, bright things could bite terribly they had evidence enough, both in the charred and corroded wood which the flames had licked, and in the angry wounds of Ne-boo. At the same time they saw their Chief and Grom apparently handling the Terror with impunity, and the girl A-ya approaching it and serving it freely, though always with bowed head and every mark of awe.
But what made the deepest, the most ineffaceable impression on the minds of the tribe was to see Grom and the Chief, each waving a pair of dead branches all aflame, charge at a pair of giant saber-tooths who had ventured too near, and drive them scurrying like frightened sheep into the bush. Repeating the tactics which he had previously found so effective, Grom hurled one of his flaming weapons after the fugitives—an example which the Chief, not to be outshone, followed instantly. The result was startling. The brands chanced to fall where there was a great accumulation of dry wood and twigs and leaves. In a moment, as it seemed, the flames had leapt up into full fury, and were chasing the fugitives up the valley with a roar. In the sudden great glare could be seen saber-tooths stretching out in panic-stricken flight, burly red bear fleeing with their awkward but deadly swift gallop, huge hyenas scattering to this side and that, and many furtive unknown creatures driven into a blind and howling rout. Grom himself was as thunderstruck as any one at the amazing result of his action, but his quick wits told him to disguise his astonishment, and bear himself as if it were exactly what he had planned. The Chief copied his attitude with scrupulous precision and unfailing nerve, though quite prepared to see the red whirlwind suddenly turn back and blot himself, the audacious Grom, and the whole shuddering tribe from the face of the outraged earth. But no such thing happened. The torrent of flame raged straight up the valley, cutting a path some fifty odd paces in width, and leaving a track of smoldering, winking, red stems and stumps behind it. And all the beasts hid themselves in their terror so that not one of them was seen again that night. As for the People of the Little Hills, they were now ready to fall down and put dust in their hair in utter abasement, if either Grom or the Chief so much as looked at them.
Soon after sunrise the next day, the Chief and Grom, bearing lighted brands, and followed close by A-ya with a bundle of dry faggots, twigs and grass, took possession of two great caves on the southward-facing slope of the valley. The giant bears which occupied one of them fled ignominiously at the first threat of the flames, having been scorched and thoroughly cowed by the conflagration of the previous night. The other cave had been already vacated by the hyena pack, which had no stomach to face these throwers of flame. Before the mouth of each cave, at a safe distance, a fire was lighted—a notice to all the beasts that their rule was at an end. The whole tribe was set to the gathering of a great store of fuel, which was heaped about the mouths of the caves as a shield against the weather. Then the people began to settle themselves in their new home, secure in the faith that not even the hordes of the Bow-legs, should they chance that way, would have the temerity to face their new and terrible protector.
When all was ordered to his satisfaction, the Chief called Grom to his side. The two stood apart, and watched the tall figure of A-ya moving from the one fire to the other, and tending them reverently, as one performing a rite. Grom's eyes took on a certain illumination at the sight of her, a look which the Chief had never observed in any man's eyes before. But he thought little of it, for his mind was full of other matters.
"It is well," said he presently, in a low voice, "that the service and understanding of the Bright One should not be allowed to the people, but should be kept strictly to ourselves, and to those whom we shall choose to initiate. I shall appoint the two best men of my own kin, and two others whom you shall select, as servants of the Bright One. And I will make a law that the people shall henceforth worship only the Bright One, instead of, as heretofore, the Thunder, and the Wind, and the unknown Spirits, which, after all, as far as I can see, have never been able to do much either for or against us. But this Bright One is a real god, such as we can be sure of. And you and I shall be his priests. And only we shall be allowed to understand him."
"That is good," agreed Grom, whose brain was busy devising other ways of making the wild flames serviceable to man. "But," he went on, "there is A-ya. She knows as much about it as you and I."
The Chief pondered a moment.
"Either the girl must die," said he, eyeing Grom's face, "or she must be a priest along with us."
"I think she will be a very good priest," said Grom drily, his eyes resting upon her.
Then the Chief, ascending a rock between the two fires, spoke to the people, and decreed as he had said. He told a little about the Shining One, just so much as he thought it good for his hearers to know. He declared that the ones he had chosen for the great honor of serving the fires must tend them by turns, night and day, and guard them with their lives; for that, if one or the other should be suffered to die out, some great disaster would assuredly come upon the tribe.
"And henceforth," he concluded, "you shall not be called the People of the Little Hills; for these ridges, indeed, are not such hills as those whose bald and windy tops are keeping the bones of our fathers. But you shall be known and feared greatly by our enemies as 'The Children of the Shining One,' under whose protection I declare you."
THE PULLER-DOWN OF TREES
On the broken hill-slope overlooking the Valley of Fire, in the two great caves known as the Cave of the Bears and the Cave of the Hyenas, the tribe of the Children of the Shining One now dwelt secure and began to recover heart. Before each cave-mouth, tended night and day, burned the sacred flame, its tongues licked upwards in gold and scarlet with a radiance from which all the tribe, with the sole exceptions of Bawr, the Chief, and Grom, his right hand and councilor, were wont to avert their eyes in awe whenever they passed it in their comings and goings. Only from a distance would they presume to look at the flames directly; and ever as they looked their wonder and their reverence grew. Their trust in the protection of the Shining One came to have no bounds, for night after night would the great red bears return, prowling in the mysterious gloom just beyond the ring of light, with their dreadful eyes turned fixedly upon their former habitation, only to be driven off ignominiously when Grom rushed at them with a shout and a flaming torch above his head. And night after night would the troops of the hyenas come back, their monstrous-jowled heads swinging low from their mighty shoulders, to sit and howl their devilish laughter above their ancient lair, only to slink off in cowed silence when the Chief would hurl a blazing brand among them. When the beasts were thus discomfited and abashed, the boldest of the warriors would go leaping after them and bring down the hindermost with spears. So it came about that presently the great animals knew themselves beaten, and sullenly withdrew to the other side of the hills.
It was just this country at the other side of the hills which most appealed to the restless imagination of Grom. Within the valley—which widened out, as it receded from its fiery gateway, to enclose league upon league of fertile plain—was good hunting, along with an abundance of roots, fruits and edible herbs. But in Grom's heart burned that spirit of unquenchable expectation which has led the race of Man upwards through all obstacles—the urge to find out ever what lies beyond. So the saw-toothed line of these dark, volcanic summits drew him irresistibly, with the promise of unknown wonders hidden behind them.
During these few weeks since coming to the Valley of the Fire, Grom had been tirelessly experimenting with the bright element, trying this kind of fuel and that, one after another, in order to learn what food was most acceptable to it. He learned that certain substances it would devour in raging haste, only to fail and die soon after; or not truly to die, he imagined, but to flee back unseen to its dancing, flickering source at the valley mouth. Other substances he found that it would consume slowly, but pertinaciously. While into yet others, such as dry turf and punk, it would eat its way and hide, maintaining therein for a long time a retired but potent existence, ready to leap into radiant life under certain provocation. His invention stimulated by these experiments, he had made himself several hollow tubes of a thick green bark whipped about with thongs, and had stuffed them with that mixture of turf and punk which he found best calculated to hold the furtive seeds of fire alive.
With one of these slow torches alight, and several spare ones slung over his shoulders, Grom set out to cross the pointed hills and seek new wonders in the lands beyond. The tall girl, A-ya, went with him. This not being customary in the tribe, they gave reasons. Grom said that he needed the girl because she alone knew how rightly to serve and tend the Shining One in combat. It was a good reason, but he was amazed to find in his heart so deep a desire for her that he was ill-content whenever his eyes could not rest upon her. There was no one in the tribe with whom he could discuss this strange emotion, for no one, not even the wise and subtle-minded Chief, would have comprehended it—romantic love not yet having come openly to these men of the Morning of Time. So Grom gave the lesser reason, which all, including himself, could understand. As for the girl, she said that whatever her lord commanded she must needs obey, which she did with a most seemly readiness. But in her heart she knew that if her man had commanded her to stay behind, she would have obeyed only so long as he remained in sight, and would then have followed him.
Like Grom, the girl carried two flint-headed spears. Both wore clumsy but effective slivers of flint, for knives, in their girdles of twisted skin. The girl, besides her weapons, carried a substantial burden of strips of meat dried hard in the sun, in case game should prove scarce or elusive in the land beyond the hills. But when they had got well out of sight of the caves, Grom turned, relieved her of her burdens which, according to tribal conventions, it was her duty to carry for her man, and gave her instead the light but precious tube of fire.
As they ascended the ragged slopes, vegetation grew sparse, and when toward nightfall they gained the pass which Grom was making for—a deep cleft between two steep red and purple peaks—the rock beneath their feet was naked but for a low growth of flowering herbs and thorn. The pass was too high for the aloe and mesembryanthemum to flourish, and the lava-bed which floored it was yet too new to have clothed itself in any of the larger mountain-loving trees. Here they passed the night, in a shallow niche of rock with a fire before it; and the fire being visible from a long way off, no prowlers cared even to approach it.
On the following day they traveled swiftly, but the pass was long. It was near sunset again when at last the rocks fell away to either side, and they saw spread out below their feet the land which they had come to explore.
It was a vast, rolling plain, golden-green with rank, cane-like grasses, dotted with innumerable clumps of trees, and laced with full watercourses which lay in spacious loops of blue and silver. Here and there lay broad, irregular patches where the grass did not flourish, and these were of vivid emerald-green from some unknown growth.
Along the horizon to the north sparkled a great water. And half-way down the steep, toward the right, smoked and smouldered a shallow, saucer-shaped crater from whose broken lower rim a purple-brown serpent of comparatively recent lava descended in sluggish curves across the intense green.
Somewhat to the girl's apprehension, Grom seemed anxious to investigate the smoking crater, but the only practicable path down the mountain led them away from it, so he was content to leave it for another time and another, perhaps less repellent, approach.
Descending presently into a region of ledges and ravines clothed with dense thickets, they found on every hand traces of the giant bears and the saber-tooth tigers whom they had driven from the caves in the Valley of Fire. Grom hurriedly whirled the smoldering torch into a flame, and from it lighted a couple of resinous brands, one for himself, and one for A-ya to carry. Thus armed, they fearlessly followed the broad trail of bears, which led them very conveniently down the steep. And bear and saber-tooth alike, at sight of the flame thus apparently seeking them out, remembered their recent scorching discomfiture, and slunk off like whipped curs.
Grom's immediate object was to make his way straight to the shores of that great water, whose gleaming on the horizon had been like an invitation to his inquiring spirit. But when early in the forenoon of the fourth day they reached the lowlands, he found that his way would be anything but straight. The immense grasses, a species of cane, grew so tall, so dense and so thick in the stem, that it was impossible to force a path through them just where he would.
He saw that he must use the trails of the wild beasts, which intersected it in all directions. There were the tracks of every animal he knew—the hunters and the hunted alike—and of many more which he did not know. But one broad trail in particular arrested his attention. It struck such fear to the heart of the girl, whose eyes were keen and understanding, that her knees trembled beneath her, and had she dared she would have begged Grom to turn back from a land which held such monsters.
Even Grom himself felt a thrill of awe as he stared at the trail which bespoke so mighty a traveler. Wherever it led, the sturdiest growths were crushed flat as if some huge bowlder from the mountains had been rolled over them. And the monster footprints, which here and there stamped themselves clearly in the trail, were thrice the size of those of the hugest mammoth.
Grom stooped and studied these footprints, pondering them with knit brows. What manner of giant it might be which moved on such colossal and misshapen members it was beyond his wits to guess. But of a surety it was a fine roadmaker!
With a confident arrogance born of the knowledge that he was the lord of Fire, he deliberately chose to pursue this dreadful trail. And the girl, hiding her terror lest it should diminish her credit in his sight, followed close at his elbow, her bright eyes tirelessly searching the jungle on either side.
Suddenly behind them came a confused, terrifying noise of panting breaths and trampling feet. It came sweeping down the broad trail. There were grunting cries, also; and Grom understood at once that a herd of pig-tapirs—heavy-footed, timorous beasts, as tall as heifers—were sweeping down upon them in mad flight before some unknown pursuer.
Against that blind panic, that headlong frantic rush, he knew that blazing brands would avail nothing. He clutched the girl by the hand. "Come!" he ordered. And they fled side by side down the trail.
It was in their minds to climb the first suitable tree they should come to, and let the rout go by. In half a minute or so, over the tops of the giant grasses, they sighted such a tree, only a few hundred yards ahead. The trail, swerving opportunely, appeared to lead directly towards its foot, and they raced on, the girl now laughing softly with excitement, and forgetting her fear of the unknown because of the known peril behind her. It pleased her curiously to find that her man had not grown too divine to be ready to run away on fitting occasion; and she kept glancing at him from under her dark tangle of hair with eyes of passionate possession.
The wild uproar behind was drawing nearer swiftly, but the refuge was now not more than fifty paces ahead. All at once the way to it was barred. Out from a little side-track on the right came lumbering a gigantic rhinoceros, his creased and folded hide clothed in matted brown wool and caked with clay. He swung round into the trail, almost blocking it with his bulk, stared for a couple of seconds with evil little eyes at the two slim beings before him, then lowered the huge double horn that armed his snout, and charged at them with a grunt of fury.
Caught thus fairly between the devil before, and the deep sea of trampling hoofs behind, Grom had no choice. A second's waving of the lighted brands convinced him that the rhinoceros was too dense of brain to fear the fire, or even to notice it. Once more clutching the girl's hand, he ran back a little way, seeking to draw the two perils together, and give them an opportunity to distract each other's attention.
He ran back till the flying, plunging herd of the pig-tapirs came into full view around the curve of the trail. Then, with all his strength, he forced his way into the grass, on the left, shouldering aside the upright stems to make room for the girl to enter. She hurled her blazing brand full into the face of the rhinoceros, hoping to confuse or divert him for an instant, then thrust herself lithely in past Grom.
The rhinoceros was diverted for an instant. The smoke and sparks half blinded him, and in a paroxysm of fury he checked himself to trample the strange assailant under foot. Then he thundered forward. But the tough stems of the grass had closed up again. The two fugitives were hidden. He saw the packed herd of the tapirs bearing down upon him; and, forgetting the insignificant creatures who had first roused his anger, he charged forward at full speed to meet this new foe.
Realizing well enough that in three or four seconds more the crash would come, and that the struggle between the rhinoceros and the maddened herd would be little short of a cataclysm, Grom and the girl struggled breathlessly to force themselves to a safe distance lest they should be crushed in the melee.
The sweat ran down into their eyes, and swarms of tiny insects, breeding in the giant stems, choked their throats and nostrils; but they wrestled their way onward blindly, foot by foot. Behind them, out in the trail, came a ponderous crash, and, then an appalling explosion of squeals, screams, grunts and roars. The next instant the rigid stems gave way suddenly before them, and they fell forward, with a startled cry from the girl, into a deep and sunless water.
They came up, spluttering and choking; but as soon as she could catch breath the girl laughed, whereupon the grimness of Grom's face relaxed. The water was a deep creek, perfectly overshadowed and hidden by the rank growth along its banks. But just opposite was the tree whose refuge they had been trying to gain. They swam across in half-a-dozen strokes, and drew themselves ashore, and shook themselves like a pair of retrievers. Through all the flight, the fierce effort among the grass-stems, and the unexpected ducking, they had kept tenacious hold of every one of their treasures. But—their fire was out! The brand was black; the precious tube, with the seeds of fire lurking at its heart, was drenched, saturated and lifeless.
For a moment or two Grom looked into the girl's eyes steadily, conveying to her without a word the whole tremendous significance of their loss. The girl responded, after a second's dismay, with a look of trust and adoration which brought a rush of warmth to Grom's heart. He smiled proudly, and shook his club as if to reassure himself. Then, climbing hurriedly into the tree, they stared back over the plumed tops of the grasses.
The sight that met their eyes was not one for weak nerves. The spot in the grass which they had just escaped from was a shambles. The foremost of the panic-stricken pig-tapirs, met by the charge of the rhinoceros, had been ripped and split by the rooting of his double horn, and hurled to either side as if by some titanic plough. A couple more had been trampled down and crushed before his charge was stayed by the irresistible pressure of the surging, squealing mass.
There he had stood fast, like a jagged promontory in the surges, tossing his mighty head and thrusting hideously, while the rest of the herd passed on, either scrambling clean over him or breaking down the canes and pouring around on either side. Of those that passed over him about one in every three or four got ripped by the tossing horn, and went staggering forward a few paces, only to fall and be trodden out by their fellows. Close behind the last of the squealing fugitives came the cause of their panic—two immense black lions, who had apparently been playing with their prey like cats.
When they came face to face with the rhinoceros where he stood among his victims, shaking the blood from horn and head and shoulder, they stopped abruptly. Together, perhaps, they would have been a match for him. But theirs was a far higher intelligence than his. They knew the almost impenetrable toughness of his hide, his Berserk rage, his imperviousness to reasonable fear; and they had no care to engage themselves without cause in so uncertain and unprofitable a combat.
With a roar that rolled in thunder over the plain and seemed to set the very tree-tops quivering, they leaped lazily aside and went off in enormous bounds through the grass, circling about as if to intercept, in sheer wantonness of slaughter, the remnants of the fleeing herd. At the sight Grom frowned anxiously, thinking how helpless he and the girl would be against such foes, now that they no longer had the Shining One to protect them.
Squealing to split the ears, the pig-tapirs came galloping past the tree, making for a piece of water some furlongs further on, where doubtless they hoped to evade both the lion and the rhinoceros. But they had yet another adversary to reckon with.
Just past the tree, at a thicket of immense scarlet poinsettias, the trail curved sharply. From behind the poinsettias arose a gigantic shape unlike anything that Grom had ever dreamed of. And he knew that the maker of the mysterious trail and those tremendous footprints was before him.
With a trumpeting bray of indignation the monster sat upright on hind-quarters far more ponderous than those of a mammoth. Its tail, as thick at the base as the body of a bear, helped to support it, while its clumsy frame towered to a height of eighteen or twenty feet. Its hind legs were very short, thick like tree-trunks, grotesquely bowed; and its thighs like buttresses. Its fore legs were more arms than legs, of startling length and massive strength, draped in long, stiff hair, and terminated by colossal hands with immense hooked claws for fingers. The whole body was clothed with rusty hair of an amazing coarseness, like matting fiber. The vast head, flat on top and prolonged to a snout that was almost a proboscis, had the look of being deformed by reason of its fantastically exaggerated jowl, or lower jaw. This terrifying monster thrust out a narrow pink tongue, some three or four feet in length, stooped and turned, and gave a hurried look at something crouching behind its mighty thighs.
"Its baby!" muttered the girl, with a little indrawn breath of sympathy.
Then the strange being sat up again to meet and ward off the rush of the maddened pig-tapirs.
For a moment it beat off the assault, seizing the frantic beasts and hurling them this way and that as if they had been so many rabbits. Then it was completely surrounded by the reeking squealing bleeding horde, which paid no more personal attention to it than if it had been a mass of rock. They rolled over the little one, unheeding, and trod it flat. Its death cry split the air; and at that sound the mother seemed to sink down into her haunches. In her agony of rage and grief she literally tore some of her assailants in halves, throwing the awful fragments impatiently from her in order to lose no time in seizing a new victim. A few seconds more and the rush was past; and presently the mad rout was hurling itself with a tremendous splashing into the water. The monster looked around for more victims—and was just in time to see the hideous vision of the rhinoceros charging down upon her. Triumphant from the encounter with the lions, he rushed back to slake his still unsatisfied fury on the pig-tapirs. At any other time he would have given such an antagonist as the colossal megatherium a wide berth; but just now he was in one of his madnesses. His furious little swinish eyes blinking through the blood which dripped over them, he hurled himself straight onward. His horn was plunged into the monster's paunch; but at the same time one of those gigantic armed hands fell irresistibly on his neck, shattering the vertebrae through all their deep protection of hide and muscle. He collapsed with an explosive grunt; and the giant hands tossed him aside.
It was a frightful wound which the monster had received, but for a few moments she paid no attention to it, being occupied in licking the trampled body of her young one with that amazing tongue of hers. At length, apparently convinced that the little one was quite dead, she brayed again piteously, dropping forward upon all fours, and made off slowly down the trail, walking with grotesque awkwardness on the sides of her feet. For two or three hundred yards she kept on, drawing a wake of crimson behind her; and then, apparently exhausted by her wound, she turned off among the canes, and lay down, close beside the trail, but effectively screened from it.
From their place in the tree Grom and the girl had followed breathlessly these astounding encounters. At last Grom spoke:
"This is a country of very great beasts," he remarked, with the air of one announcing a discovery. As A-ya showed no inclination whatever to dissent from this statement, he presently went on to his conclusion, leaving her to infer his minor premise.
"We must go back and recover the Shining One. It is not well for us to go on without him."
"Yes," agreed the girl eagerly. For all her courage and passionate trust in her man, the sight of those black lions bounding over the tops of the towering grasses had somewhat shaken her nerve. She feared no beasts but the swiftest, and those which might leap into the lower branches of the trees. "Yes!" she repeated. "Let us go back for the Shining One, lest he be angry at us for having put him in the water."
"But for yet a day more we will stay here in this tree, and rest and sleep in safety," continued Grom, "that we may travel the more swiftly, till we get beyond the grasses."
Then, climbing higher into the tree, he proceeded to build a platform and roof of interlaced branches for their temporary home. In this task the girl did not help him, because of the great muscular strength which it required. She lay in a crotch, her hairy but long and shapely legs coiled under her like a leopard's, now gazing at her man with ardent eyes, now staring out apprehensively across the sun-drenched, perilous landscape.
Suddenly she gave a cry of amazement, and pointed excitedly down the trail. Beyond the water wherein the pig-tapirs had found refuge, beyond the lurking-place of the wounded megatherium, came three men, running desperately. Shading his eyes, Grom made out that they were nearly exhausted. They were clearly men of the type of his own tribe, light-skinned and well shaped; and the leader, who carried a long club, was a man of stature equal to his own. Grom's sympathies went out to them, and his impulse was to hasten to their assistance. Glancing further along the trail to learn the cause of their headlong flight, he saw two black lions in pursuit, probably the same two which had been driving the pig-tapirs a couple of hours earlier. They were coming on at such a pace that Grom feared the weary fugitives would be overtaken before they could reach the tree of refuge. Instinctively he started to climb down. But, his eyes falling upon the girl, he remembered that he had no right to enter upon a venture so utterly hopeless while he had her to take care of. His eager clutch upon his spear relaxed.
"They are spent. They'll never get here!" he muttered anxiously.
"No!" said A-ya, with blank unconcern. "The lions will get them. It's Mawg, and his two cousins."
Grom growled an exclamation of astonishment. The girl's eyes—or her intuitions—were keener than his. But he saw at a second glance that she was right.
At this moment Mawg, running a few paces in advance by reason of his superior speed and stamina, passed the spot where the wounded megatherium lay hidden. The monster lifted her dreadful head. The next second the other two arrived, running elbow to elbow, with drooped shoulders of exhaustion. Through the screen of canes a gigantic hand shot out above their heads and came down upon them, crushing the two together. They had not time for outcry; but it was clear that some sound caught the leader's ears, for he glanced back over his shoulder. He was near enough now for the keen-eyed watchers in the tree to see his face change with horror. He ran on without a pause, but now with fresh speed, as if the sight had shocked him into new vigor. Seeing that there was, after all, a good prospect of his reaching the tree in time, Grom swung down to be ready to help him up. As he did so he saw the two lions approach the hiding-place of the monster.
The vast, clawed hand still lay there on the two crushed bodies in the middle of the trail. The lions saw it, and they checked themselves at a safe distance. They knew that just behind the grass-screen lurked another such shaggy and monstrous member, waiting to rend them as they would rend an antelope. They shrank, and drew back, snarling angrily. It is possible they feared lest the screen on either side of the trail might conceal more than one of the monsters; for they sprang far aside as if to make a wide circuit of the perilous spot.
"There's plenty of time!" muttered Grom, and dropped upon his feet in the middle of the trail. The girl came in mad haste after him, but at his sharp command "Stay there!" she contented herself with slipping out upon the lowest branch, just over his head, and holding her spear ready.
"Kill him!" she cried. But Grom seemed not to hear.
Staggering, and half blind with exhaustion Mawg was within twenty paces before he noticed who was confronting him. Then his dull eyes blazed. With a snarl of fury he hurled his club straight at Grom's face, missing him only by a hand's-breadth. But the effort, and the disappointment at finding himself thus balked, as he imagined, on the very threshold of escape, seemed to finish him. He stumbled on with groping hands outstretched, and fell just at Grom's feet.
Grom hesitated, wondering how he could get this inert weight up into the tree. The girl did not understand his hesitation.
"Kill him!" she hissed, leaning down eagerly from her branch overhead.
"No, he's a great warrior, and the tribe needs him," answered Grom, stooping to shake the prostrate form.
Mawg stirred, beginning to recover. Grom shook him again.
"Up into the tree, quick!" he ordered in a loud, sharp voice. "The lions are coming."
Mawg roused himself, sat up, and stared with a look of bewilderment changing swiftly into hate.
"Up!" shouted Grom again. "The tree. They're coming!"
At this the fellow growled, but sprang up as if he had been jabbed with a spear, and clambered into the tree as nimbly as a monkey. Grom followed, quickly but coolly. A-ya, who had waited with her eyes watchfully on Mawg, stepped close to Grom's side; and all three swung upwards into the higher branches as the two lions arrived beneath.
Glaring up into the tree with shrewd, malevolent eyes, the great beasts realized that, for the present at least, the tree man-creatures were quite out of reach. Lashing their tufted tails in disappointment, they turned aside to sniff, in surly scorn, at the dead, mountainous hulk of the rhinoceros, which lay with one ponderous foot stuck up in the air as if in clumsy protest at Fate. Comprehending readily the manner of its death, they came back and lay down under the tree, and fell to gnawing lazily at the body of one of the pig-tapirs which the megatherium had torn in two. They had the air of intending to stay some time, so Grom presently turned his attention to his rescued rival.
Mawg was sitting on the next branch, a good spear's length distant, and glowering at A-ya's lithe shapeliness with eyes of savage greed. Grom knit his brows, and significantly passed an arm about the girl's shoulders. Mawg shifted his attention to him.
"What do you want of me?" he demanded, in a thick, guttural voice.
"I thought you ran as if you did not want the lions to eat you," answered Grom.
Mawg stared with a stupid brutality and incomprehension; and the eyes of the two men, meeting fairly, seemed to lock in a duel of personalities.
They presented a significant contrast. Both, physically, superb specimens of their race—the highest then evolved upon the youthful earth—the elder man, in his ample forehead and calm, reasoning eyes, displayed all the promise of the future; while the youth, low skulled and with his dull but pugnacious eyes set under enormous bony brows, suggested the mere brute from which the race had mounted. His hair was shorter and coarser than Grom's, and foully matted; and his neck was set very far forward between his powerful but lumpy shoulders. The color of his coarse and furrowed skin was so dark as to make the weathered tan of Grom and A-ya look white by contrast.
In no way lacking courage, but failing in will and steadiness, in a dozen seconds Mawg involuntarily shifted his gaze, and looked down at the lions.
"What do you want of me?" he demanded again, as if he had had no answer before.
"The tribe has too few warriors left. I will take you back to the tribe!" replied Grom with authority.
Mawg curled back his thick lips from his great yellow dog-teeth in a snarling laugh of incredulity.
"You want to kill me!" said he, nodding his head.
Grom stared at him for a moment or two with a look of fatigued contempt, then tore off a substantial strip of dried flesh from the bundle hanging on the branch, and tossed it to him. The fellow snatched it, and hid it behind him, being too hungry to refuse it, but too savage to eat it under his captor's eye. Grom smiled slowly, and fell to playing with a heavy strand of A-ya's hair which had fallen over his arm. But to this caress the girl paid no attention. She was puzzled and outraged at Grom's action in protecting his rival. Her nostrils dilated, and a red spot glowed angrily under each cheek-bone.
Suddenly from down the trail came a noise of cracking grass-stems. The two lions got up from their meal, and turned their heads inquiringly toward the sound. The next moment they went stalking off the opposite way with an air of haughty indignation, ignoring all the bodies of the slain pig-tapirs. When they had rounded the first turn in the trail they leaped into the grass, and went bounding off in a straight line toward a large patch of wood some miles distant. The wounded megatherium was returning.
Perhaps stung into restlessness by the anguish of that rending thrust, the monster came dragging herself back toward the tree, crawling on the sides of her feet. Arriving at the scene of battle, she sniffed once more at her mangled young one, and brayed piteously over it. Then turning in an explosive fury upon the body of the rhinoceros, began to tear it limb from limb as one might pull apart a roast pigeon. While thus occupied, she chanced to turn her eyes upon the tree, and caught sight of the three figures looking down upon her.
On the instant her rage was diverted to them. Braying like a steam siren, she came under the tree, reared herself against it, flung her giant arms about it, and strove to pull it down. The tree rocked as if struck by a tornado; and Mawg, who had been too slow to notice what was about to happen, gave a yell of horror as he barely saved himself from falling. The girl laughed, whereupon he shot her a menacing look which so enraged her that she raised her spear as if to transfix him.
But there was too much happening below for her attention to remain on Mawg. Finding the tree quite too sturdy to be pulled down off-hand, the monster gripped the lowest main branch, a limb eight or ten inches through, and with one wrench peeled it down like a stalk of celery. Her first effort, upon the main trunk, had set the blood once more pumping from her wound, but she paid no attention to it. Reaching to the next great branch, she ripped that one down also, taking another great strip from the main trunk. Grom saw that her purpose obviously was to pull the tree to pieces bit by bit, in order to get at her intended victims. Mawg apparently saw this also, and it was too much for him. Gripping his strip of dried meat between his teeth, he slipped around the trunk till he was sheltered from the monster's sight, dropped to a branch which stretched far over the water, ran out along it nimbly as an ape, and dived. The monster, her eyes fixed upon the two remaining in the tree, never noticed his escape. Mawg swam the creek, thrust his way through the grass-stems, darted back to snatch up his club, shook it at Grom, and, yelling an obscene taunt, raced off to seek himself another retreat before nightfall.
Neither Grom nor A-ya had any heed to spare him at that moment. The monster had just torn down a limb so huge that the main trunk was almost split in half by its loss. Grom saw that unless he could stop this process of destruction, in a few moments more the tree would be overthrown. The monster was just rearing herself to clutch the next great bough. Spear in hand, Grom slipped down to meet her, and halted on a branch just out of reach. The monster brayed vindictively, stretched to her full height, and then shot forth her tremendous muscular red coil of tongue, thinking evidently to lick down her insignificant adversary from his perch. She was within an inch of succeeding. Grom just eluded the strange attack by stepping aside nimbly; and quick as thought A-ya's spear slashed the dreadful red tongue as it reached flickering after her lord's ankles. The next moment, seeing the monster's throat upstretched and unguarded, Grom drove his spear full force, straight into the soft hollow of it. The weapon sank into a depth of perhaps three feet, till the ragged flint lodged in the vertebrae of the monster's neck. Then the shaft was wrenched violently from his hand; and the monster, blowing blood and foam from mouth and nostrils, fell with a crash among the litter of great branches which she had pulled down.
Grom drew a deep breath of relief, and commended the girl for her timely and effective stroke at that terrible tongue. Then he set himself coolly to the task of completing their shelter for the night. As he wove leafy branches into the floor of the platform to make it soft, she contemplated his work with satisfaction. Presently he remarked:
"I'm glad we are rid of that Mawg."
"You should have killed him!" said the girl curtly.
"But why?" demanded Grom, in some surprise. In his eyes the fellow was a valuable piece of property belonging to the tribe, a fighting asset.
"He wants me!" answered the girl, meeting his eyes resentfully.
Grom let his eyes roam all over her—face, hair and form—and such a look of passionate admiration glowed in their steady depths that her anger faded, her own eyes dropped, and her breast gave a happy, incomprehensible flutter. She had never seen such a look in any man's face before, or even dreamed of such a look as possible.
"Of course, he wants you," said Grom, wondering, as he spoke, at the ring of his own voice. "You are the fairest thing, and the most desirable, on earth. All men whose eyes come to rest on you must want you. But none shall have you, ever, for you are mine, and none shall tear you from me."
And at that the girl forgot her anger, and forgave him for having neglected to kill Mawg.
That night sleep was impossible for them, though their lofty shelter was comfortable and secure. A vast orange moon, near the full, illuminated the spacious landscape; and beneath the tree came all the giant night-prowlers, gathering to the unparallelled banquet which the day had spread for them. Only the two black lions, perhaps already glutted, did not come. Wolves, a small pack of self-disciplined wild dogs, a troop of hyenas, and several enormous leopards, howled, snarled and wrangled in knots over the widely scattered carcases, each group watching its neighbors with suspicion and deadly animosity.
A gigantic red bear came lumbering up, and all the lesser prowlers scattered discreetly but resentfully before him. He strode straight to the chief place, under the rent, dishevelled tree, and fell to tearing at the mountainous corpse of the megatherium. He was undisturbed till two saber-tooths arrived, their tawny coats spectral in the moonlight, their foot-long tusks giving their broad masks a dreadful grin.
Before one saber-tooth the bear would have stood his ground scornfully; but before the two he thought it best to defer. Slowly, and with a thunderous grumbling, he moved over to the body of the rhinoceros, pretending that he preferred it. The air was split and battered with the clamor of raving voices. Other saber-tooths came, and then another bear.
There were swift, sudden battles, as swiftly dropped because neither combatant wished to fight to a finish when there was feasting so abundant for all. And once a leopard, dodging the paw of a saber-tooth, sprang into the tree, only to fall back howling from the spears thrust at him through the floor of Grom's platform.
Just before dawn the girl slept, while Grom kept watch beside her lest another leopard should fancy to explore their refuge. An hour later, when the first pallor was spreading, she awoke with a cry of fear, and clung to Grom's arm, shuddering strongly.
"But—what is it?" he asked, in a tender voice, stroking her heavy mane.
"I was afraid!" she answered, like a child.
"What were you afraid of?" asked Grom.
"I was afraid of Mawg. I am afraid of him!" she answered, sitting up and shaking the hair from her eyes, and staring out fearfully over the gray transparent plains.
"Why should you fear Mawg?" demanded Grom proudly. "Am not I your man? And am not I always with you? Many such mad brutes as Mawg could not take you from me."
"I know," answered the girl, "that he and such as he would be as straws in my lord's hands. But—even Grom must sometimes sleep!"
Grom laughed gently at her forebodings.
"He must sleep now, indeed, for we have a long and perilous journey before us," said he. Laying his great shaggy head in her lap, and stretching his limbs as far as the tiny platform would allow he was asleep in two seconds. The girl, stooping forward till her rich hair shadowed the rugged, sleeping face, with its calm brows, pondered deeply over his inexplicable forbearance toward his rival. Her instincts all assured her that it was dangerous; but something else within her, something which she strove in vain to grasp, suggested to her that in some way it was noble, and made her glad of it. Then, all at once, the first of the sunrise, flooding into the tree-top, bathed her face with a rosy glow, and wonderfully transfigured it.
THE BATTLE OF THE BRANDS
Now for two years had the remnants of the tribe been settled in the Valley of Fire. They had prospered exceedingly. The caves were swarming with strong children; for at the Chief's orders every warrior had taken to himself either two or three wives, so that none of the widows had been left unmated. Grom alone remained with but one wife, although his position in the tribe, second only to that of Bawr himself, would have entitled him to as many as he might choose.
Singularly happy with the girl A-ya, Grom had been unwilling to receive other women into their little grotto, which branched off from the high arched entrance of the main cave. He might, however, have yielded, from policy and for the sake of the tribe, to pressure from the Chief, but for a look of startled anguish which he had seen leap into A-ya's eyes when he mentioned the matter to her. This had surprised him at the moment, but it had also thrilled him curiously. And as the girl made no objection to a step so absolutely in accordance with the tribal customs, Grom thought about it a good deal. A few days later he excused himself to the Chief, saying that other women in his cave would be a nuisance, and would interfere with those studies of the Shining One which had proved so beneficial to the tribe. Bawr had accepted the excuse, though somewhat perplexed by it, and had accommodatingly taken the extra wives himself—a solution which had seemed to meet with the unqualified approval of A-ya.
The first winter in the Valley of Fire had been a wonderful one to the tribe, thanks to the fierce but beneficent element ever shining, dancing and whispering in its mysterious tongue before the cave doors. Bleak winds and driving, icy rains out of the north had no longer any power to distress them.
But when the storm was violent, with drenching and persistent rain, then it was found necessary to feed the fires before the cave-mouths lavishly with dry fuel from the stores which Grom's forethought had caused to be accumulated under shelter. These contests between fire and rain were sagaciously represented by Bawr (who had by now to his authority as Chief added the subtle sanctions of High Priest) as the fight of the Shining One in protection of the tribe, his children.
On more than one occasion of torrential downpour the struggle had almost seemed to hang for a while in doubt. But the Shining One lost no prestige, thereby, for always, down there across the valley-mouth, kept leaping and dancing those unquenchable flames of scarlet, amber and violet, fed by the volcanic gases from within the crevice, and utterly regardless of whatever floods the sky might loose upon them. This was evidence conclusive that the Shining One was master of the storm, no less than of the monsters which fled so terror-stricken before him.
In the early spring, the girl A-ya bore a child to Grom; a big-limbed, vigorous boy, with shapely head and spacious brow. In this event, and in the mother's happiness about it (a happiness that seemed to the rest of the women to savor of foolish extravagance), Grom felt a gladness which dignity forbade him to betray.
But pondering over the little one with bent brows, and with deep eyes full of visions, he conceived such an ambition as had perhaps never before entered into the heart of man. It was that this child might grow up to achieve some wonderful thing, as he himself had done, for the advancement of his people. Of this baby, child of the woman toward whom he felt emotions so new and so profound, he had a premonition that new and incalculable things would come.
One day Grom was following the trail of a deer some distance up the valley. Skilled hunter that he was, he could read in the trail that his quarry was not far ahead, and also that it had not yet taken alarm. He followed cautiously, up the wind, noiseless as a leopard, his sagacious eyes taking note of every detail about him.
Presently he came to a spot where the trail was broken. There was a twenty-foot gap to the next hoofprints, and these went off at right angles to the direction which the quarry had hitherto been pursuing. Grom halted abruptly, slipped behind a tree, crouched, and peered about him with the tense vigilance of a startled fox. He knew that something had frightened the deer, and frightened it badly. It behooved him to find out what that something was.
For some minutes he stood motionless as the trunk against which he leant, searching every bush and thicket with his keen gaze, and sniffing the air with expert nostrils. There was nothing perceptible to explain that sudden fright of the deer. He was on the point of slipping around the trunk to investigate from another angle. But stop! There on a patch of soil where some bear had been grubbing for tubers he detected a strange footprint. Instantly, he sank to the ground, and wormed his way over, silently as a snake, to examine it.
It was a human footprint, but much larger than his own, or those of his tribe; and Grom's beard, and the stiff hairs on the nape of his corded neck, bristled with hostility at the sight of it.
The toes of this portentous print were immensely long and muscular, the heel protruded grotesquely far behind the arch of the foot, which was low and flat. The pressure was very marked along all the outer edge, as if the author of the print had walked on the outer sides of his feet. To Grom, who was an adept in the signs of the trail, it needed no second look to be informed that one of the Bow-legs had been here. And the trail was not five minutes old.
Grom slipped under the nearest bushes, and writhed forward with amazing speed in the direction indicated by the strange footprint, pausing every other second to look, sniff the air, and listen. The trail was as clear as daylight to him. Suddenly he heard voices, several of them, guttural and squealing, and stopped again as if turned to stone. Then another voice, at which he started in amazement. It was Mawg's, speaking quietly and confidentially. Mawg, then, had gone over to the Bow-legs! Grom's forehead wrinkled. A-ya had been right. He ought to have killed the traitor. He writhed himself into a dense covert, and presently, over the broken brink of a vine-draped ledge, was able to command a view of the speakers.
They were five in number, and grouped almost immediately below him. Four were of the Bow-legs, squat, huge in the shoulder, long-armed, flat-skulled, of a yellowish clay color, with protruding jaws, and gaping, pit-like, upturned nostrils to their wide, bridgeless noses. Grom's own nose wrinkled in disgust as the sour taint of them breathed up to him.
They were all armed with spears and stone-headed clubs, such as their people had been unacquainted with up to the time of their attack upon the Tribe of the Little Hills. It was apparent to Grom that the renegade Mawg, who towered among them arrogantly, had been teaching them what he knew of effective weapons.
Having no remotest comprehension of the language of the Bow-legs—which Mawg was speaking with them—Grom could get little clue to the drift of their talk. They gesticulated frequently toward the east, and then again toward the caves at the valley-mouth, so Grom guessed readily enough that they were planning something against his people.
It was clear, also, that this was but a little scouting party which the renegade had led in to spy upon the weakness of the tribe. This was as far as he could premise with any certainty. The obvious conclusion was that these spies would return to their own country, to lead back such an invasion as should blot the Children of the Shining One out of existence.
Grom was quick to realize that to listen any longer was to waste invaluable time. All that it was possible for him to learn, he had learned. Writhing softly back till he had gained what he considered a safe distance from the spies, he rose to his feet and ran, at first noiselessly, and crouching as he went, then at the top of that speed for which he was famous in the tribe. Reaching the Caves, he laid the matter hurriedly before the Chief, and within five minutes they were leading a dozen warriors up the trail.
Besides their customary weapons, both Grom and the Chief carried fire-sticks, tubes of thick, green bark, tied round with a raw hide, filled with smouldering punk, and perforated with a number of holes toward the upper end. This was one of Grom's inventions, of proved efficacy against saber-tooth and bear. By cramming a handful of dry fiber and twigs into the mouth of the tube, and then whirling it around his head, he was able to obtain a sudden and most unexpected burst of flame which no beast ever dared to face, and which never failed to compel the awe and wonder of his followers.
Like shadows the little band went gliding in single file through the thickets and under the drooping branches, their passage marked only by the occasional upspringing of a startled bird or the frightened crashing flight of some timorous beast surprised by their swift and noiseless approach. Arriving near the hollow under the ledge, they sank flat and wormed their way forward like weasels till they had gained the post of observation behind the vine-clad rock.
But the strangers had vanished. An examination of their footprints showed that they had fled in haste; and to Grom's chagrin it looked as if he had himself given them the alarm. The problem was solved in a few minutes by the discovery that Mawg—easily detected by his finer footprints—had scaled the ledge and come upon the place where Grom had lain hidden to watch them. Seeing that they were discovered, and that their discoverer had evidently gone to arouse the tribe, they had realized that, the Bow-legs being slow runners, their only hope lay in instant flight. From the direction which they had taken it was evident that they were fleeing back to their own country.
The Chief ordered instant pursuit. To this Grom demurred, not only because the fugitives had obtained such a start—as was shown by the state of the trail—but because he dreaded to leave the Caves so long unguarded. He foresaw the possibility of another band of invaders surprising the Caves during the absence of this most efficient fighting force. But the Chief overruled him.
For several hours was the pursuit kept up; and from the trail it appeared, not only that Mawg was leading his followers cleverly, but also that the Bow-legs were making no mean speed. The pursuers were come by now to near the head of the valley, a region with which they were little familiar. It was a broken country and well fitted for ambuscade, where a lesser force, well posted and driven to bay, might well secure a deadly advantage. The tribe was too weak to risk its few fighting men in any uncertain contest; and the Chief, yielding slowly to Grom's arguments, was on the point of giving the order to turn back, when a harsh scream of terror from just ahead, beyond a shoulder of rock, brought the line to a halt.
Waving their followers into concealment on either side of the trail, the Chief and Grom stole forward and peered cautiously around the turn.