Bawr, meanwhile, seeing Grom's peril, had dropped from his tree, snatched up his spear and club, and rushed in to the rescue. It was courage, this, of the finest, counting no odds; for down there on the level he would have stood no ghost of a chance had the beast turned back upon him. Grom yelled to him to keep away, and swung up his club for another shattering blow. But in that same moment the great glaring eyes filmed and rolled upwards; blood spouted from between the gaping jaws; and with a spluttering cough the monster lost its hold. It fell, with a soft but jarring thud, upon its back, and slowly rolled over upon its side, pawing the air aimlessly. The arrow in the throat had done its work.
With fine self-restraint Bawr refrained from striking, that he might seem to usurp no share in Grom's amazing achievement. He stood leaning upon his spear, calmly watching the last feeble paroxysm, till Grom came scrambling down from the ledge and stood beside him. He took the bow and arrows, and examined them in silence. Then he turned upon Grom with burning eyes.
"You found the Fire for our people. You saved our people from the hordes of the Bow-legs. You have saved my life now, slaying the monster from very far off with these little sticks which you have made. It is you who should be Chief, not I."
Grom laughed and shook his head. "Bawr is the better man of us two," said he positively, "and he is a better chief. He governs the people, while I go away and think new things. And he is my friend. Look, I will teach him now this new thing. And we will make another just like it, that when we return to the Caves Bawr also shall know how to strike from very far off."
With their rough-edged spear-heads of flint they set themselves to the skinning of the saber-tooth. Then they went back to the high plateau, where Bawr was taught to shoot a straight shaft. And on the following day they returned to the fires of the tribe, carrying between them, shoulder high, slung upon their two spears, this first trophy of the bow, the monstrous head and hide of the saber-tooth.
THE DESTROYING SPLENDOR
To Grom, hunting farther to the south of the Tribal Fires than he had ever ranged before, came suddenly a woman running, mad with fright, a baby clutched to her bosom. She fell at Grom's feet, gibbering breathlessly, and plainly imploring his protection. Both she and the child were streaming with blood, and covered with strange cup-like wounds, as if the flesh had been gouged out of them with some irresistible circular instrument.
Grom swiftly fitted an arrow to his bow, and peered through the trees to see what manner of adversary the fugitive was like to bring upon him. At the same time, he gave a piercing cry, which was answered at once from some distance behind him.
Having satisfied himself (the country being fairly open) that the woman's pursuer, whatever it might be, was not close upon her heels, and that no immediate danger was in view, he turned his attention upon the woman herself. She was not of his race, and he looked down upon her with cold aversion. At first glance he thought she was one of the Bow-legs. But the color of her skin, where it could be seen for the blood, was different, being rather of a copper-red; and she was neither so hairy on the body nor of so ape-like proportions. She was sufficiently hideous, however, and of some race plainly inferior to the People of the Caves. The natural instinct of a Cave Man would have been to knock her and her offspring on the head without ceremony—an effective method of guarding his more highly developed breed from the mixture of an inferior blood. But Grom, the Chief and the wise man, had many vague impulses moving him at times which were novel to the human play-fellows of Earth's childhood. He disliked hurting a woman or a child. He might, quite conceivably, have refused to concern himself with the suppliant before him, and merely left her and her baby to the chances of the jungle. But the peculiar character of her wounds interested him. She aroused his curiosity. Here was a new mystery for him to investigate. The woman was saved.
Knowing a few words of the Bow-legs' tongue, which he had learned from his lame slave Ook-ootsk, he addressed the crouching woman, telling her not to fear. The tongue was unintelligible to her, but the tones of his voice seemed to reassure her. She sat up, revealing again the form of the little one, which she had been shielding with her hair and her bosom as if she feared the tall white hunter might dash its brains out; and Grom noted with keen interest that the child also had one of those terrible, cup-shaped wounds, almost obliterating its fat, copper-colored shoulder. He saw, also, that the woman's face, though uncomely, was more intelligent and human than the bestial faces of the Bow-legs' women. It was a broad face, with very small, deep-set eyes, high cheek bones, a tiny nose, and a very wide mouth, and it looked as if some one had sat on it hard and pushed it in. The idea made him smile, and the smile completed the woman's reassurance. She poured a stream of chatter quite unlike the clicks and barkings of the Bow-legs. Then she crept closer to Grom's feet, and proceeded to give her little one the breast. It was twisting uneasily with the pain of its dreadful wound, but it nursed hungrily, and with the prudent stoicism of a wild creature it made no outcry.
As Grom stood studying the pair, the mother kept throwing glances of horror over her shoulder, as if expecting her assailants to arrive at any moment. Grom followed her eyes, but there was no sign of any pursuit. Then he observed the fugitives' wounds more closely, and noted that the blood upon them was already, in most cases, pretty well coagulated. He noted also certain other wounds, deep, narrow punctures, like stabs. He guessed that they could not be much less than an hour old. The Thing, whatever it was, which had inflicted them—the Thing with so strange a mouth, and so strange a way of using it—had apparently given up the pursuit. Grom's curiosity burned within him, and he was angry at the woman because she could not speak to him in his own language, or at least in that of the Bow-legs. It seemed to him willful obstinacy on her part to refuse to understand the Bow-legs' tongue. He stooped over her, and roughly examined one of the wounds with his huge fingers. She winced, but made no complaint, only covering her baby with her hair and her arms in terror lest it should suffer a like harsh handling.
With a qualm of compunction, which rather puzzled him, Grom gave over his investigating, and turned to a tall, slim youth with a great mop of chestnut hair who at this moment came running up to him. It was A-ya's young brother, Mo, Grom's favorite follower and hunting mate; and he had come at speed, being very swift of foot, in answer to Grom's signal. Breathing quickly, he stood at Grom's side, and looked down with wonder and dislike upon the crouching woman.
Briefly Grom explained, and then pointed to the inexplicable wounds. The youth, unable to believe that any human creature should be unable to comprehend plain human speech, such as that of the Cave People, tried his own hand at questioning the woman. He got a flow of chatter in reply, but, being able to make nothing out of it, he imagined it was not speech at all, and turned away angrily, thinking that she mocked him. Grom, smiling at the mistake, explained that the woman was talking her own language, which he intended presently to learn as he had learned that of the Bow-legs.
"But now," said he, "we will go and see what it is that has bitten the woman. It is surely something with a strange mouth."
Mo, who was not only brave to recklessness, but who would have followed Grom through the mouth of hell, sprang forward eagerly. Grom, who realized that the mystery before him was a perilous one, and who loved to do dangerous things in a prudent manner, looked to his bow-string and saw that his arrows were handy in his girdle, before he started on the venture. Besides his bow he carried the usual two spears and his inseparable stone-headed club. Though danger was his delight, it was not the danger itself but the thrill of overcoming it that he loved.
The moment he stepped forward, however, the woman divined his purpose and leapt wildly to her feet. She sprang straight in front of him, screaming and gesticulating. She was plainly horror-stricken at the thought that the two men should venture into the perils from which she had so hardly escaped. To Grom's keen intelligence her gestures were eloquent. She managed to convey to him the idea of great numbers, and the impossibility of his dealing with them. When he attempted to pass her, she threw herself down and clung to his feet, shaking with her terror. When she saw that Grom was at last impressed, she stretched herself out as if dead, and then, after a few moments of ghastly rigidity, with fixed, staring eyes, she came to and held up one hand with the fingers outspread.
This frantic pantomime Grom could read in no other way than as an attempt to tell him that the unknown Something had killed five of the woman's companions. The information gave him pause. Adventurous as he was, he had small respect for mere pig-headed recklessness. He was resolved to solve the problem—but after all it could abide his more thorough preparation.
"Come back," he ordered, turning to the impetuous Mo. "She says they are too many for us two. They have killed five of her people. We will go back to the Caves, and after three sleeps for good counsel, we will return with fire and find the destroying Thing."
On their return to the Caves, Grom gave the strange woman and her baby to his faithful slave Ook-ootsk, who accepted the gift with enthusiasm because, being a Bow-leg, he had not been allowed to take any of the Cave Women to wife. He lavished his attentions upon the unhappy stranger, but he could make no more of her speech than Grom had done. The girl A-ya, however, in a moment of peculiar insight had gathered, or thought she gathered, from the stranger's signs, that the dreadful and destroying Thing was something that flew—therefore, a great flesh-eating bird. But she gathered, also, that it was something which in some way bore a resemblance to fire—for the woman, after getting over her first terror of the dancing flames, kept pointing to them and then to her wounds in a most suggestive way. This, however, as Grom rather scornfully pointed out, was too absurd. There was nothing that could be in the least like fire itself; and the wounds of the fugitives had no likeness whatever to the corrosive bites of the flame. A-ya took the correction submissively, but held her own thought; and when a day or two later, events proved her to have been right, she discreetly refrained from calling her lord's attention to the fact—a point upon which Grom was equally reserved.
With so provocative a mystery waiting to be solved, Grom could not long rest idle. Had she not known well it would be a waste of breath, A-ya would have tried to dissuade him from the perilous, and to her mind profitless, adventure. It was one she shrank from in spite of her tried courage and her unwavering trust in Grom's prowess. The mystery of it daunted her. She feared it in the same way that she feared the dark. But she kept her fears to herself, and claimed her long-established right to go with Grom on the expedition. Grom was willing enough, for there was no one whose readiness and nerve, in a supreme crisis, he could so depend upon, and he wanted her close at hand with her fire-basket. There was nothing to keep her at home, as the children were looked after by Ook-ootsk.
It was a very little party which started southward from the Caves—simply Grom, A-ya, young Mo, and a dwarfish kinsman of Grom's, named Loob, who was the swiftest runner in the tribe and noted for his cunning as a scout. He could go through underbrush like a shadow, and hide where there was apparently no hiding-place, making himself indistinguishable from the surroundings like a squatting partridge. Each one carried a bow, two light spears, and a club—except A-ya, who had no club, and only one spear. The weapon she chiefly relied upon was the bow, which she loved with passion. She considered herself the inventor of it; and in the accuracy of her shooting she outdid even Grom. In addition to these weapons, each member of the party except the leader himself carried a fire-basket, in which a mass of red coals mixed with punk smouldered in a bed of moist clay.
The little expedition traveled Indian file, Grom leading the way, with A-ya at his heels, then Loob the Scout, and young Mo bringing up the rear. They had started about dawn, when the first of the morning rose was just beginning to pale the cave-mouth fires. They traveled swiftly, but every two hours or so they would make a brief halt beside a spring to drink and breathe themselves and to look to the precious fires in the fire-baskets. When it wanted perhaps an hour of noon, they came to a little patch of meadow surrounding a solitary Judas-tree covered with bloom. Here they built a fire, for the replenishing of the coals in the fire-baskets, and as a menace to prowling beasts. Then they dined on their sun-dried meat and on ripe plantains gathered during the journey. Having dined, the three younger members of the party stretched themselves out in the shade for their noon sleep, while Grom, whose restless brain never suffered him to sleep by day, kept watch, and pondered the adventure which lay before them.
As Grom sat there, ten or a dozen paces from the fire, absorbed in thought, his eyes gradually focussed themselves upon a big purple-and-lemon orchid bloom, which glowed forth conspicuously from the rank green jungle-growth fringing the meadow. The gorgeous bloom seemed to rise out of a black, curiously gnarled elbow of branch or trunk which thrust itself out through the leafage. Grom's eyes dwelt for a time, unheeding, upon this piece of misshapen tree trunk. Suddenly he saw the blackness wink. His startled vision cleared itself instantly, and revealed to him the hideous, two-horned mask of a black rhinoceros, peering forth just under the orchid blossom.
Grom's first impulse was to wake the sleepers with a yell and shepherd them to refuge in the tree—for the gigantic woolly rhinoceros, with his armor of impenetrable hide, was a foe whom Man had not yet learned to handle with any certainty. But a deeper instinct held Grom motionless. He knew that the monster, whose eyesight was always dim and feeble, could not see him distinctly, and was in all probability staring in stupid wonder at the dancing flames of the camp-fire. As long as no smell of man should reach the brute's sensitive nostrils to rouse its rage, it was not likely to charge. There was no wind, and the air about him was full of the spicy bitterness of the wood-smoke. Grom decided that the safest thing was to keep perfectly still and wait for the next move in the game to come from the monster. He devoutly trusted that the sleepers behind him were sleeping soundly, and that no one would wake and sit up to attract the monster's attention.
Grom could now see plainly that it was the fire, and not himself, which the rhinoceros was staring at. The shifting flames, and the smell of the smoke, apparently puzzled it. After a moment or two, it took a step forward, so that half of its huge, black, shaggy bulk projected from the banked greenery as from a frame. Then it stood motionless, blinking its little malignant eyes, till the silent suspense grew to be a strain even upon Grom's well-seasoned nerves.
At last a large stick, laid across the fire, burned through and fell apart. The flames leapt upwards with redoubled vigor, preceded by a volley of crackling sparks. Knowing the temper of the rhinoceros, Grom expected it to fly into a fury and charge upon the fire at once. His mouth opened, indeed, for the yell of warning which should wake the sleepers and send them leaping into the tree. But he checked himself in time. The monster, for once in its life, seemed to be abashed. The curling red flames were too elusive a foe for it. With a grunt of uneasiness, it drew back into the leafage; and in a moment or two Grom heard the giant bulk crashing off through the jungle at a gallop. The unwonted sensation of alarm, once yielded to, had swollen to a panic, and the dull-witted brute fled on for a mile or more before it could forget the cause of its terror.
That afternoon toward sundown the expedition reached the point where the fugitive had made her appeal to Grom. For fear of giving information to the unknown enemy, no fires were lighted. The night was passed in a dense and lofty tree-top. For Grom, strung up with excitement, suspense and curiosity, there was little sleep. For the most part he perched on his woven platform with his arms about his knees, listening to the sounds of the night—the occasional sudden rush of a hunting beast, the agonized scream and scuffle, the gurglings and noisy slaverings that told of the unseen tragedies enacted far down in the murderous dark. But there was no sound novel to his own experience. Once there came a scratching of claws and a sniffing at the base of the tree.
But Grom dropped a live coal from his fire-basket, and chanced to make a lucky shot. With a snarl some heavy body bounced away from the tree. The coal then fell into a tuft of dry grass, which flared up suddenly. Grom had a glimpse of huge shapes and startled, savage eyes backing away from the circle of light. The blaze died down as quickly as it had arisen; and thereafter the night prowlers kept at a distance from the tree. But the sleepers had all been thoroughly aroused and till dawn they sat discussing, for the hundredth time, the chances of the morrow's venture.
Before the sun was clear of the horizon, the little party was again upon the march, but now going with the wariness of a sable. They no longer went Indian file, but flitting singly from tree to tree, from covert to covert, Grom picking up the old trail of the fugitive, the rest of the party keeping him in view and peering ahead for some sign of the unknown Terror. The red woman in her flight had left a sharp trail enough; but in the lapse of three days it had been so obliterated that all Grom's wood-craft was needed to decipher it, and his progress was slow. He began to be puzzled at the absence of any other trail, of any footsteps of a mysterious, unknown monster. Such tracks as crossed those of the fugitive, however terrible, were all familiar to his eye.
Suddenly he almost stumbled over a hideous sight. A low whistle brought his followers closing in upon him. The skeleton of a full-grown man lay outstretched in the grass. The bones were fresh—bloodstained and bright—and a swarm of blood-sucking insects arose from them. They were picked minutely clean, except for a portion of the skull, where the long, strong, densely matted hair seemed to have served as an effective armor. The bones were not pulled about, or crushed for their marrow, as they would have been if the victim had been the prey of any of the great carnivorous beasts. And there were no tracks about it save those of a few small rat-like creatures. It was clear that the Mystery, whatever it might be, had wings.
"A bird!" whispered A-ya, with a gleam of triumph in her eyes, at the same time glancing up into the tree-tops apprehensively. But Grom did not think so. There were no marks of mighty claws on the turf around the skeleton.
Grom cast about him an eager but anxious eye. The country was not densely wooded at this point, but studded with low thickets, and set here and there with scattered trees. From a little way ahead came a gleam of calm water through the greenery. It was a scene of peace, and security, and summer loveliness. Its very beauty seemed to Grom an added menace, as if some peculiar treachery must lurk behind it.
In the center of an open glade, not far from the skeleton, Grom set his party to building a circle of fires, as likely to afford the surest kind of a refuge. A supply of fuel having been gathered, he directed A-ya and Mo to remain and tend the fires and not to leave the circle unless he should summon them. Loob, the cunning scout, he sent off to the left through the underbrush. He himself followed the trail of the fugitive—now doubled by that of the other fugitive whose skeleton lay there in the sun—down toward that gleam of water through the trees. A-ya gazed after him anxiously as he vanished, half minded to dare his displeasure and follow him.
Grom was presently able to make out that the water was a wide, reedy lake or the arm of a shallow river. There was no wind, and the surface shone like clear glass. But once and again his eyes were dazzled by a dart of intense radiance, a great flash of rose or violet or blue-green flame, shooting over the surface of the water. A memory of what A-ya had professed to gather from the stranger woman rushed into his mind. Perhaps the Destroying Thing was like a bird, and nevertheless, at the same time, something like fire. He felt himself confronted by a mystery which made even his tried nerves creep; and he hid himself in the densest undergrowth as he stole forward toward the water. He had forgotten, and forsaken, the trail he was following, in his haste to solve the problem of those darting splendors.
A few moments more and he gained the edge of an open glade which led straight to the water. He paused behind the screening leaves. Out over the water a bar of ruby light, surrounded by a globe of rose-pink mist, shot by and vanished from his narrow field of vision. He was just about to thrust out his head and crane his neck to follow the gorgeous apparition, when a peculiar dry rustling in the air above checked him. He glanced up cautiously, and saw hovering, not more than twenty or thirty yards away, a beautiful and dreadful being.
In shape it was exactly like a dragon-fly; but the length of its flaming violet body was greater than that of Grom's longest arrow. The spread of its two pairs of transparent, crystal-shining, colorless wings was even greater than the length of its body. Its enormous eyes, wells of purple fire which took up the whole of the top and sides of its monstrous head, seemed to see everywhere at once; and Grom shivered with the feeling that they had spied him out and were peering into his very soul.
The awful eyes may have seen him, indeed; but at that moment they spied out something else which apparently concerned them more. With a pounce like a flash of violet lightning—and, indeed, almost as swift—the bright shape swooped to the grass. The four shining wings waved there for a moment, and there seemed to be a mild struggle. Then the giant fly rose again, lightly, into the air, holding in the clutch of its six slender, jointed legs the body of one of those black, rat-like animals which Grom knew so well as infesting the grass of all meadows near the water. The captor flew to a naked branch near the waterside, alighted upon it, and proceeded to make its meal, holding up the body between the end joints of its front pair of legs and turning it over and over deftly while its appalling jaws both crushed and mangled it. The process was amazingly swift. In the space of a couple of minutes all the blood, flesh, and soft material of the rat were squeezed out and sucked down. The remnants were rolled into a hard little ball, perfectly spherical, and scornfully tossed aside. And the monster, leaping into the air with a rustle of its glittering wings, flashed off over the water.
Almost in the same moment an amazingly loud rustle, like the sweep of a fierce gust of rain upon a rank of palmetto leaves, filled the air above the glade, and Grom, looking up with a start, saw a great shoal of the radiant shapes storm by, as if with the rainbow entangled in their wings. He wondered upon what foray they were bent; and now for the first time he realized, with a creeping of the flesh, what it was that had overtaken the man whose skeleton he had found in the grass. The shoal swept out over the lake a little way, and then down the shore toward the left; and Grom drew a long breath as he assured himself that their course was taking them far from the fires of A-ya and Mo.
When Grom lowered his eyes to earth again he started. On the side of the stump of a fallen tree, out in the glade not more than eight or ten yards distant, clung one of the monsters, scintillating blue-green and amethyst in the full blaze of the sun. Its wings, exquisitely netted and of crystal transparency, were tinged with an ineffable purple iridescence. Its jointed body, slightly longer than Grom's arm, was nearly as thick as his wrist, and ended at the tail with a formidable double claw. Its six legs, arranged in three pairs under the thorax, were armed on the inner sides with powerful spines, needle-pointed and steel hard, with which to grip and hold its victims. The thorax, from the back of which sprouted the four great wings, was of the thickness of Grom's forearm, while its head was as big as Grom's two great fists put together. It was this head which held Grom's fascinated gaze, giving him more of the sensation of cold fear than he had ever known before. More than two-thirds of the head consisted of a pair of huge, globose eyes, without pupil, ethereally transparent, yet unfathomable. From the depths of them flamed a ceaselessly changing radiance of blue-green, purple and violet. Grom found the stare of those blank, pupilless eyes almost intolerable.
It was plainly straight at him, through the ineffectual screen of the leafage, that the dreadful insect was staring. At first it stared with the back of its head. Then, very deliberately, it turned its head completely around, without moving its body a hair-breadth, till its mouth was in the same plane with its back. This gave Grom a sense of disgust, and his shrinking dread began to give way to a sort of rage.
Then he took note of the monster's mouth—and understood those great cup-shaped wounds on the woman and the child. The mouth took up the remaining third of the head, and seemed to consist of globular discs working one over the other, so as either to cut cleanly or to grind. They were working, slowly, now—and Grom felt suddenly that he must put a stop to it, that he must put out the awful light in those monstrous devil eyes. Stealthily, almost imperceptibly, he fitted an arrow to his bow, raised it, drew it, and took a long, steady aim. He must not miss. The shaft flew—and the great fly was pinned, through the thorax, to the soft, rotten wood of its perch.
To Grom's horror that stroke, which to any beast he knew would have at once been fatal, did not kill the monstrous fly. Its struggles, and the beating of its four great wings were so violent that the arrow-head was presently wrenched loose from its hold in the wood, and the raging splendor, with the shaft half-way through its thorax, bounded into the air. It darted straight at Grom, who had prudently edged in among a tangle of stems. Its fury carried it through the screen of leafage—but then, its wings impeded by the branches, and the arrow hampering it, it dashed itself to the earth. Instantly Grom was upon it, stamping its slim body, as it lay there blazing and quivering, into the soil. The violet light in the huge, pupilless eyes still stared up at him implacable, from a head turned squarely over the back. But in a cold fury Grom shattered the gleaming head with his club. Then he trod the silver wings to dust.
Having slaked his wrath effectually, Grom turned to stare forth again at those destroying splendors darting and glittering above the surface of the lake. To his surprise there were no more of them to be seen. Then far off down the shore he heard the voice of Loob, shouting for help. The shouting changed at once to a scream of terror, and Grom started to the rescue on the full run—taking care, however, to keep within cover of the thickets. But before he had gone a quarter of a mile he heard A-ya's voice calling him, wildly, insistently, mingled with excited yells from Mo. He shouted in reply and dashed madly for the fires. The peril of A-ya put all other considerations out of his mind.
As he burst forth into the glade of refuge, he saw A-ya and young Mo leaping about frantically among their fires, now trying to stir the fires to a fiercer blaze, now beating upwards with their spears, while above them darted and gleamed and swooped and scintillated, with a horrid dry rustling of their silver wings, shoal upon shoal of the devouring monsters. As he burst into the open, with a great shout of encouragement, something dropped upon him. He felt his head instantly caged by six steel-like legs which gripped like jaws, their spines sinking deep into the flesh of neck and cheek. He reached up his left hand, caught his dreadful assailant just where the head and thorax join, and strove to throttle it. This was impossible, by reason of the insect's armor, but he succeeded in holding off those horrid jaws from his face as he dashed for the circle. Another monster swooped and struck its spines into his back, and bit a great mouthful out of his shoulder. But he gained the fires, and, holding his breath, sprang right through the fiercest flame. The wings of his assailants shrivelled instantly, and the flame, drawn into the mouth of their breathing tubes, sealed them up. Grom tore them off, and slammed the writhing, wingless bodies into the fire.
Inside the circle, now that the fires were burning high, it was possible to defend oneself effectually, as the bulk of the assailants seemed to realize that the flames were fatal to their frail wings. But there were enough so headlong in their ferocity that both Grom and Mo were kept busy beating them off with spears, while A-ya fed the fires; and the ground inside the circle was littered with the radiant bodies of the dying insects, which, even in dying, bit like bull-dogs if foot or leg came within reach. Grom noticed that their supply of fuel was all but gone, and his heart sank. He measured with his eyes the distance to the nearest thickets that looked dense enough for a shelter.
"We'll have to run for those bushes," he said presently. "They can't fly in where the branches are thick. It breaks their wings."
"Good," said young Mo. But A-ya, whose shapely shoulders and thighs were already covered with hideous wounds, trembled at the prospect.
At that moment, however an amazing change came over the scene. A black thunder-cloud passed across the face of the sun. The moment the sunshine vanished the destroyers seemed to forget their fury. All the life and energy went out of them. They simply flocked to the nearest trees and hung themselves up, gigantic, jewelled blooms, upon the branches. In less than a minute every dreadful wing was stilled.
"Now is our time. Come!" commanded Grom, leading the way out of the circle.
"Let's stop and kill them all!" pleaded young Mo, his eyes red with rage.
But Grom pointed to the cloud. "It will pass quickly," said he. "We must be far from here before the sun shows his face again."
He paused, however, to transfix upon his spear-head one of their wounded but still fluttering foes, that he might be able to show the tribe what manner of monsters they had had to deal with. Both A-ya and Mo followed his example; and they all ran off down the glade searching for Loob, whom they soon found and bearing their strange trophies on their spear-heads they went on. The monsters, clinging sullenly to their perches, rolled baleful eyes of emerald and rose and amethyst upon them as they went, but lifted never a wing to follow them. Ten minutes later the sun came out again. Then the monsters all sprang hurtling into the air, and darted hither and thither above the glade in shoals of iridescent radiance, seeking their prey. But Grom and A-ya, Mo and Loob triumphant in spite of their wounds, were by this time far away among the inland thickets, where those intolerable eyes could not search them out, nor the clashing wings pursue.
THE TERRORS OF THE DARK
From the topmost summit of that range of pointed hills which held the caves and the cave-mouth fires of his people, Grom stared northward with keen curiosity. To east and south and west he had explored, ever seeking to enlarge the knowledge and strengthen the security of his tribe. But to northward of the pointed hills lay league on league of profound jungle—grotesque and enormous growths knitted together impenetrably by a tangle of gigantic, flame-flowered lianas. And in those rank, green glooms, as Grom had reason to believe, there lurked such monsters as even he, with all his resources of fire and novel weapons, had so far shrunk from challenging.
But beyond the expanse of jungle stretched another line of hills, their summits not saw-toothed like his own, but low and gently rounded, and of a smoky purple against the pure turquoise sky. These hills Grom was thirsting to explore. They might contain caves more roomy than those of his own hills—spacious and suitable to give shelter to his tribe, which was now finding itself somewhat cramped. Moreover, it had always seemed to Grom that there might be a mystery behind those hills, and to his restless imagination a mystery was always like a stinging goad.
In all this neighborhood the crust of earth was thin as plainly appeared from the fringe of wavering volcanic flames which, during all the five years since the coming of the tribe, had been dancing from the lip of the narrow fissure across the mouth of their valley. Night and day, now high and vehement, now low and faint, they had danced there, guarding the valley entrance—until just one moon ago. Then had come an earthquake, shaking the hearts of all the tribe to water. The dancing flames had died. The fissure had closed up, and its place had been taken by a pool of boiling pitch. And one of the caves had fallen in, burying several members of the tribe, who had been too stupefied with panic to flee into the open at the first alarm. For some days after this catastrophe the tribe had camped in the open, huddled about their great fires. Then, but with deep misgivings, they had all crowded back into the remaining caves.
But now there was not room enough, and Bawr, the wise Chief, had taken frequent counsel upon the matter with Grom, whom, loving him greatly he called sometimes his Right Hand and sometimes the Eye of the People. At last, it had been settled that Grom should lead a party through the jungle land to those other hills, to spy out the prospect. And Grom, like the foresighted leader that he was, had spent many hours on the mountain-top, planning his route and studying the luxuriant surface of the jungle outstretched below him, before plunging into its mysterious depths.
As was his custom when on a perilous venture, Grom would have few followers to share the peril with him. He took A-ya, not only because of her oft-proved courage and resourcefulness, not only because he wanted her always at his side, but, above all, because he knew he could not leave her behind. Had he tried to leave her, she would have disobeyed and followed him by stealth—and perhaps fallen a prey to prowling beasts. He took also A-ya's young brother, the hot-head Mo; and Loob, the shaggy, little sharp-faced scout, who could run like a hare, hide like a fox, and fight like a cornered weasel. This he would have accounted, ordinarily, a sufficient party. But the present enterprise being one of peculiar difficulty, he decided at the last moment to strengthen his following by the addition of a dark-faced, perpetually-grinning giant named Hobbo, who was slow of wit, but thewed like a bull, and a mighty fighter with the stone-headed club.
This little but greatly daring band, which Grom, one flaming sunrise, led down into the unknown jungle, was well armed. Besides the spear and the club, each member of the party but Hobbo (who had displayed no aptitude for its use) carried Grom's wonderful invention—the bow. Hobbo, however, because of his immense strength, bore the heavy fire-basket, wherein the smoldering coals were cherished in a bed of clay. As a food reserve, everyone carried a few strips of half-dried meat; but their main dependence, of course, was to be upon the spoils of their hunting and the fruits that they might gather on their march.
The forest into whose depths Grom now led the way was in reality a survival from a previous age, into which the forms, both vegetable and animal, of contemporary life had been gradually infiltrating. The soil, of incredible fertility, still poured forth those gigantic tree grasses, and colossal, sappy ferns and psuedo-palms, which had flourished chiefly in the carboniferous period. But here they were mingled with the more enduring hard-wood growths of the later tropical forests; and only these were strong enough to support the massive, strangling coils of the cable-like lianas, which wound their way up the huge trunks and reached out in aerial, swaying bridges from tree-top to tree-top. On every side, high or low, the deep-green gloom was splashed with color from the gorgeous orchids and other epiphytes, which flowered out into grotesque or monstrous wing-petaled shapes of vermilion and purple and orange and rose and white, eyed with velvet black or streaked with iridescent bronze.
To men of to-day this jungle would have been impenetrable, except by the incessant use of axe or machete. But Grom and his party were Cave-Men, and had not yet forgotten all the instincts and capacities of their tree-dwelling ancestors. Sometimes, where it seemed easiest, they forced their way along the ground, or followed the trodden trail of some great jungle beast, so long as it led in the right direction. But here they had to be ceaselessly on the watch against surprise by creatures whose monstrous tracks were unlike any that they had ever seen before. Whenever possible, therefore, they preferred to journey, after the fashion of their apish ancestors, by way of the high branches and the liana bridges. Hampered as they were by their weapons, their progress by this aerial way was slow. But it was comparatively secure. And it was also comparatively cool; while down at the ground-level the steaming heat and the stinging insects were almost beyond endurance.
Yet before the end of that first day's journey they learned that even in tree-tops it was necessary to be always on the watch. Once the little hairy scout, Loob, who traveled always on the outskirts of the party, was struck at suddenly by a huge black leopard, which lay ambushed in the crotch of a tree. Loob, however, who was so quick-sighted that he seemed to see things before they actually happened, leapt to a higher branch in time to escape the deadly paw. In the next instant he struck down furiously with his spear, catching his assailant between the shoulder-blades and driving the stroke home with all his strength. With a screech, the beast stiffened out, and then, somewhat slowly, collapsed. As Loob wrenched his weapon free, the great animal slumped limply from its branch. For a moment or two it hung by the fore-paws, coughing and frothing at the mouth. Then this last hold relaxed and it fell, bumping with a curious deliberation from branch to branch. It vanished through a floor of thick leafage, and struck the ground with a dull crash. It must have fallen under the very jaws of an unseen waiting monster; for there arose at once a strange, hooting roar, followed by the sound of rending flesh and cracking bone. Loob grinned over his feat, and Grom, glancing at A-ya, muttered quietly: "It is better to be up here than down there." As he spoke, and they all peered downwards, a dreadful head, with the limp body of the leopard gripped like a rat between its long jaws and dripping yellow fang, thrust itself up through the floor of leafage and stared at them with round eyes as cold and black as ice.
Grom itched to shoot an arrow into one of those unwinking, devilish eyes. But arrows were too precious to be wasted.
That night they slept profoundly on a platform which they wove of branches in one of the tallest and most unscalable trees. They kept watch, of course, turn and turn about; but nothing attempted to approach them, and they cared little for the sounds of strife, the crashings of pursuit and desperate flight, which came up to them at intervals from the blackness far below.
On the morrow, however, as they were pursuing their aerial path along the borders of a narrow, sluggish bayou, they were suddenly made to realize that the tree-tops held perils more deadly than that of the lurking leopards. They were all staring down into the water, which swarmed with gigantic crocodiles and boiled immediately beneath them with the turmoil of a life-and-death struggle between two of the brutes, when harsh jabbering in the branches just across the water made them look up.
The tree-tops opposite were full of great apes, mowing and gibbering at them with every sign of hate. The beasts were as big and massive as Hobbo himself, and covered thickly with long, blackish fur. Their faces, half human, half dog-like, were hairless and of a bright but bilious blue, with great livid red circles about the small, furious eyes. With derisive gestures they swung themselves out upon the overhanging branches, till it almost seemed as if they would hurl themselves into the water in their rage against the little knot of human beings.
The girl A-ya, overcome with loathing horror because the beasts were so hideous a caricature of man, covered her eyes with one hand. Young Mo, his fiery temper stung by their challenge, clapped an arrow to his string and raised his bow to shoot. But Grom checked him sternly, dreading to fix any thirst of vengeance in the minds of the terrible troop.
"They can't come at us here. Let them forget about us," said he. "Don't take any more notice of them at all."
As he led the way once more through the branches along the edge of the bayou, the apes kept pace with them on the other side. But presently the bayou widened, and then swept sharply off to the west. Grom kept on straight to the north, by the route which he had planned. And the mad gibbering died away into the hot, green silence of the tree-tops.
The adventurers now pushed on with redoubled speed, unwilling to pass another night in the tree-tops when such dangerous antagonists were in the neighborhood. The hills, however, were still far off when evening came again. Not knowing that the great apes always slept at night, Grom decided to continue the journey in order to lessen the risk of a surprise. When the moon rose, round and huge and honey-colored, over the sea of foliage, traveling through the tree-tops was almost as easy as by day, while the earth below them, with its prowling and battling monsters, was buried in inky gloom. When day broke, there were the rounded hills startlingly close ahead, as if they had crept forward to meet them in the night.
And now the hills looked different. Between the nearest—a long, rolling, treeless ridge of downland—and the edge of the jungle lay an expanse of open, grassy savannah, dotted with ponds, and here and there a curious, solitary, naked tree-trunk, with what looked like a bunch of grass on its top. They were like gigantic green paint-brushes, with yellow-gray handles, stuck up at random. Far off they saw a herd of curious beasts at pasture, and away to the left a giant bird, as tall as the tree by which it stood, seemed to keep watch. A little to the right, where the treeless ridge came abruptly to an end, gleamed a considerable stretch of water. It was toward this point, where the water washed the steep-shouldered promontory, that Grom decided to shape his course across the plain.
By the time the sun was some three hours high they had arrived within a couple of hundred yards of the open. Sick of the oppressive jungle, and eager for the change to a type of country with which they were more familiar, they were swinging on through the tree-tops at a great pace, when that savage, snarling jabber which they so dreaded was heard in the branches behind them. Grom instantly put A-ya in the lead, while he himself dropped to the rear to meet this deadliest of perils. There was no need to urge his party to haste; but it seemed to them all as if they were standing still, so swiftly did the clamor of the apes come upon them.
"Down to earth," ordered Grom sharply, seeing that they must be overtaken before they could reach the open, and realizing that in the tree-tops they could not hope to match these four-handed dwellers of the trees.
As they dropped nimbly from branch to branch, the foremost of the apes arrived in sight, set up a screech of triumph, and came swooping down after them in vast, swinging leaps. In the hurry Hobbo dropped his fire-basket, which broke as it fell and scattered the precious coals. Grom, guarding the rear of the flight, made the mistake of keeping his eye too much on the enemy, too little on where he was going. In a moment or two, he found himself cut off, upon a branch from which there was no escape without a drop of twenty feet to a most uncertain foothold. Rather than risk it, he ran in upon his nearest assailant at the base of the branch, thrusting at the blue-faced beast with his spear. But his position being so insecure, his thrust lacked force and precision. The great ape caught it deftly; and Grom, to preserve his balance, had to let the spear be wrenched from his hand. At the same moment another ape dropped on the branch behind him.
For just one second Grom thought his hour had come. He crouched to steady himself, then darted forward and hurled his club straight at his foe's protruding and shaggy paunch. Again the beast caught the missile in its lightning clutch; but in the next instant it threw up its long arms, without a sound, and fell backwards out of the tree. A-ya, who had been the first to reach the ground, had drawn her bow and shot upwards with sure aim. The shaft had caught the great ape under the center of the jaw, far back at the throat, and pierced straight up to the brain.
Surprised at seeing their leader fall with so little apparent reason, the other apes halted for a moment in their onset, chattering noisily. In that moment Grom swung himself to the ground. As he reached it both Mo and Loob discharged their arrows. Another ape fell from his perch, but caught himself on a lower branch and hung there writhing; while a third, with a shaft half buried in his paunch, fled back yelling into the tree-top. Then the adventurers snatched up their fallen weapons from the ground and made for the open as fast as they could run. And the apes, with a hellish uproar of barks and screams, came swarming after them through the lower branches.
At this point, fortunately for the travelers, the jungle was already thinning, and they had a chance to show their speed. The raging blue-faces were speedily distanced, and the fugitives ran out breathless upon the sunny savannah. Here, feeling themselves safe, they halted to look back. The lower branches all along the edge of the grass were thronged with leaping brown forms, and gnashing blue masks, and red-rimmed, devilish eyes. But not one of the great beasts, for all their rage, seemed willing to venture forth into the open.
"There must be something out here that they fear greatly," commented Grom, peering warily about him. But there was nothing in sight to suggest any danger, and he led the way onward through the rank grass at a long, leisurely trot.
For the most part the grass grew hardly waist high; but here and there were patches, perhaps an acre or so in extent, where it was more cane than grass and rose to a height of twelve or fifteen feet. To such patches, which might serve as lurking-places to unknown monsters, Grom gave a wide berth. He had a vivid remembrance of that colossal head, with the awful dead eyes, which had reared itself through the leafage to stare up at him.
In spite of the strange and enormous trails which crossed their path at times; in spite of occasional massive swayings and crashings in the deep beds of cane, the adventurous party accomplished the journey across the savannah without encountering a single foe. The mid-noon blaze of the sun upon the windless grass, which was almost more than they could endure, was probably keeping the monsters to their lairs; and the only living things to be seen, besides the insects and a high-wheeling vulture or two, were a few shy troops of a kind of small antelope, incredibly swift of foot.
Grom drew a breath of relief as they reached the foot of the hills. But just here it was impossible to climb them. A range of high limestone downs, they were fringed at this point by an unbroken line of cliff, perpendicular and at times overhanging, from forty or fifty to perhaps a couple of hundred feet in height, and so smooth that even these goat-footed cave-folk could not scale them. The rich plain-land at their feet had once been a shallow, inland sea, and now its grasses washed along their base in a gold-green, scented foam.
Turning to the right, Grom led the way close along the cliff-foot toward the water, which glowed like brass about a mile ahead. Along the right of their path the ground sloped off gently to a belt of that high cane-like growth which Grom regarded with such suspicion. Before they had gone many hundred yards his suspicion was more than justified.
From a little way behind them there arose all at once a chorus of explosive gruntings, mixed with a huge crashing of the canes. Glancing over their shoulders, they saw a great rust-red animal, about the size of a rhinoceros, which burst forth from the canes and stood staring after them. Its hideous head was larger than that of any rhinoceros they had ever seen, and armed with a pair of enormous conical horns, each more than a foot in diameter at the base and tapering to a keen point. Set side by side, at a moderate angle, upon the bridge of the snout, they were far more terrible than the horns of any rhinoceros. Their bearer lowered them menacingly, and charged down upon Grom's party with a sound that was something between the grunting of a hog and the braying of an ass. Immediately upon his massive heels a whole herd of the red monsters surged forth from the canes, and came charging after their leader at a ponderous gallop which seemed literally to shake the earth.
For a moment or two Grom's party had paused, confident in their own fleetness of foot, and wondering at that pair of amazing horns on the monster's snout. But when the rest of the terrific herd came thundering down upon them, they fled in all haste. To their amazement, they found that their speed was none too great for their need. The red monsters, in spite of their bulk, were disconcertingly swift.
As he neared the swift promontory which terminated with the range of downs, Grom began to fear that he and his followers would have to take refuge in the water. This water, as it chanced, was the brackish estuary of a river which, sweeping down from the east, here made its way to the sea through a long, slanting break in the limestone hills. It was now near low tide, and there opened before the hard-pressed fugitives, as they approached the shore, a strip of damp beach running around the base of the bluff. As they left the grass and ran out upon the beach they were astonished to find that the thundering pursuit had stopped short. Just at the turn of the cliff they halted and stared back wonderingly. Their pursuers, though swinging their great horns and braying with rage, were evidently unwilling to venture so near the waterside. They drew back, indeed, as if they feared it, and at last went crashing away into the canes. The fugitives, glad of an opportunity to rest their laboring lungs, squatted down with their backs against the cliff and congratulated themselves on having got rid of such perilous attentions. But Grom's sagacious eyes searched the cliff face anxiously, without neglecting to watch the unruffled water. If that water was so dreaded that even the mighty herd of their pursuers durst not approach it, surely its smiling surface must hide some peril of surpassing horror.
For the next few hundred yards, till it vanished around the curve, the strip of naked beach was not more than twenty or thirty feet in width. Not without some apprehensions, Grom decided to push forward. There seemed nothing else to do, indeed, seeing that the cane-beds behind them were occupied by that irresistible red herd. Somewhere ahead, he argued, there must be a break in the cliff which would give access to the rolling downs above, where they might travel in safety.
Disguising his growing uneasiness that he might not discourage his followers—who were now full of elation at having reached the foot of the hills—he led on again in haste, though there seemed to be no need of haste. Both Hobbo and young Mo, indeed, were for staying a while and sleeping in the shade of an overhanging rock. But A-ya, who sensed through sympathy her lord's disquietude, and the little scout Loob, who was always, on principle, ill at ease in any spot where there was no tree to climb, were as eager as their chief to push ahead; and the others would never have dared, in any case, to question Grom's decision.
As they rounded the next bend of the cliff, however, a clamor of excited satisfaction arose from all the party. Straight ahead, and not fifty paces distant, there opened before them a spacious cave-mouth, with a somewhat wider strip of beach before it. Immediately beyond the cave the strip of beach came sharply to an end, and the tide lapped softly against the foot of the cliff.
But just then, in the moment of their elation, a terrifying thing happened. As if aroused by their voices, the still surface a few yards from shore boiled up, and was lashed to foam by the strokes of a gigantic tail.
"Run!" yelled Grom; and they all dashed forward, there being no chance to go back. In the same instant, an appalling head—like that of a thrice magnified and distorted crocodile, with vast, round, painted eyes—was upthrust from the water and came rushing after them at a pace which sent up a curving wave before it.
Quick as thought, Grom drew his bow and shot at the appalling head. The arrow drove straight into the gaping throat, eliciting a thunderous bellow of rage, but producing no other effect. Then Grom sprang after his fleeing companions, and raced for his life toward the cave mouth. The cave might be nothing more than a death-trap for them all; but it seemed to offer the one possibility of escape.
As they dashed into the cave the awful, gaping head was close behind them. They had a flashing glimpse, through the gloom, of high-arched distance melting into blackness, of a strip of black water along the right, and to the left a gentle ascent of smooth white sand, whose end was out of sight.
Up this slope they raced, with the clashing of monstrous fangs close behind them. But they had not gone a dozen strides when the slope quivered, and heaved upwards shudderingly beneath them; and they all fell forward flat upon their faces. From all but Grom there went up a shriek so piercing that in their own ears it disguised the stupendous rending roar which at that moment seemed to stun the air. The mighty arch of the cave mouth had slipped and crashed down, completely jamming the entrance, and opening up a gash of blue heaven above their heads.
To Grom's unshaken wits, it was clear on the instant what had happened. He staggered to his feet and looked back through a rain of falling rock-splinters. He had a vision of their colossal pursuer, its jaws stretched to their utmost width, the vast globes of its eyes protruding from their armored sockets, its ponderous, bowed fore-legs pawing the air aimlessly in the final convulsion. The falling rock-mass had caught it on the middle of the back, crushing its mighty frame like an eggshell.
For a second or two, Grom stood there rigid, staring, his gnarled fingers clenched upon his weapons. Then a second earthquake tremor beneath his feet warned him. With an unerring instinct, he sprang on up the slope after his companions, who had fled as soon as they could pick themselves up. And in the next moment the rock above his head, fissured deep by the rains, slipped again. With a growling screech, as if torn from the bowels of the mountain, it settled slowly down, and sealed the mouth of the cave to utter blackness.
Grom stopped short, having no mind to dash out his brains against the rock. There was stillness at last, and silence save for the faint, humming moan of the earthquake which seemed to come from vast depths beneath his feet. Profoundly awed, but master of his spirit, he stood leaning upon his spear in the thick dark till the last of that strange humming note had died away. Then, through a silence so thick it seemed to choke him, he called aloud:
"A-ya! where are you?"
"Grom!" came the girl's answer, a sobbing cry of relief and joy, from almost, as it seemed, beneath his outstretched hand.
"We are all here," came the voices of the three men.
They had fallen headlong at the second shock, as at the first; and in the darkness they had not dared to rise again, but lay waiting for their leader to tell them what to do. In half a dozen cautious, groping steps he was among them, and sank down by A-ya's side, clutching her to him to stop her trembling.
"What are we to do now?" asked the girl, after a long silence. Without Grom, they would probably have died where they were, not daring to stir in the darkness. But their faith in their chief kept them cheerful even in this desperate plight.
"We must find a way out," answered Grom, with resolute confidence.
"If Hobbo had not dropped the fire!" said young Mo bitterly.
The giant groaned in self-abasement, and beat his chest with his great fists. But Grom, who would allow no dissensions in his following, answered sternly:
"Be silent. You might have done no better yourself."
Then for a time there was no more said, while Grom, sitting there in the dark with the girl's face buried in his great shaggy chest, thought out his plans. It was plain to him, from what he had seen in that last instant of daylight, that the entrance was blocked impregnably. Moreover, he judged that any attempt to work an opening in that direction would be likely, for the present, to bring more rocks down upon them. It would be better, first, to feel their way on into the cave in the hope of finding another exit. He was not afraid of getting lost, no matter how absolute the dark, because he possessed that sixth sense, so long ago vanished from modern man's equipment—the sense of direction. He knew that, as a matter of course, he could find his way back to this starting-point whenever he would.
"Come on!" he ordered at last, lifting A-ya and holding her hand in his grasp. Reaching out with his spear, he kept tapping the ground before him as he went, and occasionally the wall upon his left. Sometimes, too, he would reach upwards to assure himself that there was no lowering of the rocky ceiling. A spear's length to the right, more or less, he got always a splash of water.
With their fine senses intensely alert, they were able to make fair progress, even though unaided by their eyes. But Grom checked his advance abruptly. He had a perception of some obstacle before him. He reached out his spear as far as he could. It touched a soft object. The object, whatever it was, surged violently beneath the touch. His flesh crept, and the shaggy hair uplifted on his neck. "Back!" he hissed, thrusting A-ya off to arm's length and bracing his spear point before him to receive the expected attack. A pair of faintly phosphorescent eyes, small, but so wide apart as to show that their owner's head must have been enormous, flashed round upon them. There was a hoarse squeal of alarm, and a heavy body went floundering off into the water. They could hear it swimming away in hot haste.
Every one drew a long breath. Then, after a few moments, A-ya laughed softly:
"It's good to find something at last that runs away from us instead of after us!" said she.
A little further on the cave wall turned to the left. A few steps, and their path came to an end. There was water ahead of them, and on both sides. Grom's exploring spear assured them that it was deep water.
"We must swim," said he. "Leave your clubs behind." And leading the way down into the unknown tide, he struck out straight ahead.
It was nerve-testing work swimming thus through that unseen water to an unguessed goal; but Grom was unhesitating, and his companions rested upon his steady will. The water was of a summer warmth, and slightly salt, which convinced him that it had free communication with the sunlit tides outside. Several times he came within touch of the rocky walls of the cavern, and found that they went straight down to a depth he could not guess. But he kept on with hope and confidence at a leisurely pace, which, in that bland and windless flood, he knew that every member of his party could have maintained for half a day.
Suddenly there appeared ahead of them a faint, bluish gleam upon the water's surface. It was something elusive and unreal, and vaguely menacing.
"Daylight!" exclaimed young Mo eagerly. But Grom said nothing. He did not think it was daylight, and he was apprehensive of some new peril.
The strange light grew and spread. It was evident now that it rose from the water, and also that it was advancing rapidly to meet the astonished swimmers. After a few moments it was bright enough in its blue pallor to show the swimmers that they were traversing a vast hall of waters, whose roof was lost in darkness. Some fifty yards ahead of them, and a little to the right, a low spit of rock, half awash for the greater part of its length, ran out slantingly from the wall of the stupendous chamber.
Toward this ledge Grom now led the way, hurling himself through the water on his side at top speed. He could not fathom this mysterious phosphorescence, and he wished to get his people out upon dry land before it reached them. But fast as the adventurers swam, the ghostly radiance spread faster. Before they got to the ledge, the light was all about them; but it seemed to be coming from a great depth.
Nervously they all glanced down, and a low cry of horror broke from their lips. The depths were swarming with monstrous, luminous forms, a moon-bright, crawling, sliding field of claws and feelers, and broad, flat backs, and dreadful, protruding eyes.
The eyes all stared straight up at them with a fixed malignancy that froze even Grom's blood. They seemed innumerable, and all together they came suddenly floating upwards.
Already the fugitives were dragging themselves out upon the ledge, in frantic haste, when the diabolical swarm reached the surface. But Hobbo, who was the slowest swimmer, was merely clutching at the rock when the water boiled all about him in a froth of light. A pair of huge, pincer-like claws seized him by the neck, and another pair by one arm, plucking him back. His convulsed face stared upward for an instant, and then, with a choked scream, he was dragged under. He disappeared in a swirl of pale blue, frantically waving claws, and eyes, and feelers, and black-fringed, chopping mouths.
Beside himself with rage and horror, Grom stabbed down wildly into the whirling struggle, and his example was followed at once by Loob and young Mo. Some of their random blows went home, and as one or another of the gigantic crabs turned over in its death-throes, its nearest fellows seized it, tore it to pieces, and devoured it.
But A-ya, who had taken no part in this vengeance, now snatched Grom by the arm, shrieking wildly:
"Look! They are coming out!"
Recovering their senses, the three half-maddened men stared about them. On every side the gigantic crabs—some with claws eight or ten feet long, and eyes upon the ends of long waving stalks—were crawling up upon the ledge.
The ledge, fortunately, was of some width. At its landward end it rose into a mass of tumbled rocks perhaps twenty or thirty feet above the water. Toward this post of vantage the adventurers fought their way, striking and thrusting desperately with their spears as the monsters, crowding up from the water on either side, snatched at them with their terrible mailed claws. Over and over again one or another of the party was seized by the foot or the leg; but his companions would beat the long, jointed limb to fragments, or drive their spear-points deep into the awful, drooling mouth, and set him free.
At last, bleeding from many wounds, they reached the end of the ledge and clambered to the top. Here but three or four of the giant crustaceans tried to follow them. These were easily speared from above, and hurled back disabled among their ravening kin. And the whole swarm, apparently forgetting their intended victims as soon as they were out of reach, fell to fighting hideously among themselves over the convulsed bodies of these wounded. The lower portion of the ledge, and the water all about it, was a crawling mass of horror that seemed to froth with blue light. And a confused noise of crackling, snapping and hissing arose from it.
Every eye but Grom's was glued in fascination to the baleful scene. But Grom now thought only of using that pervasive light to best advantage while it should last. The wall of the cavern at this point was so broken and fissured that it was not unscalable; and a little way off to the right he marked, at some height above the water, what looked like the entrance to a lateral gallery.
"Come! While the light lasts," he ordered, setting off over the rocks. The others followed close. Now sidling along knife-like ledges, now clinging by fingers and toes to almost imperceptible projections, they made their way across the face of the steep, and gained the mouth of the gallery. It was spacious, and easy to traverse, its floor sloping upwards somewhat steeply. They plunged into it with confidence. And the blue light of the Hall of Terrors faded out behind them.
Not many minutes later, another light, as it were a white star, gleamed ahead of them. It grew as they went, and turned to gold. Then a patch of turquoise sky, flecked sweetly with small fleeces of cloud, opened before them, and in a moment more they came out upon a high, blossoming down, blown over by a breeze that smelt of honey and salt. Below them was a lovely, land-locked bay, with a herd of deer pasturing among scattered trees by the shore. Away behind them undulated the gracious line of the downs, inviting their feet.
"It is a pleasant land," said Grom, "and we will surely come back to it. But I think we must find another way than that by which we came."
THE FEASTING OF THE CAVE FOLK
At last, and reluctantly, the Folk of the Caves had withdrawn from their earthquake-harassed valley and betaken themselves to the new dwelling-place which Grom had found for them, on the green hill-slope beside the Bitter Waters. They had lost no time, however, in accepting the new conditions; for these caves in the limestone were ample and secure—it was hard for any invader to come at them save by way of the long, bare ridge of the downs running westward behind the caves; a sweet-water brook ran almost past their threshold to fall with a pleasant clamor into the bay,—and the surrounding country was rich in game. The vast basin of marshy plain and colossal jungle, to be sure, which stretched and steamed below the downs to southward, was the habitation of strange monsters; but these, apparently, had no taste for exploring the high, clean, windy downs.
On a certain golden morning it chanced that the caves were well-nigh deserted. The men of the tribe, including the chiefs themselves, Bawr and Grom, together with most of the women and the half-grown children, had gone off down the shore to a shallow inlet five or six miles distant to gather shell-fish—great luscious mussels and peculiarly plump and savory whelks. The girl A-ya, absorbed in her special occupation of fashioning bows and arrows for the tribe, had remained, with a half-score of old men and women and Grom's giant slave, the lame Bow-leg, Ook-ootsk, to guard the little children and the tribal fires. As Grom's mate, and his confidential associate in all his greatest ventures, A-ya's prestige in the tribe had come to be only less than that of Bawr and Grom themselves.
On the open, grassy level before the cave mouth, the two great fires burned steadily in the sun. The giant Ook-ootsk, hideous with his ape-like forehead, his upturned, flaring nostrils, his protruding jaw, his shaggy, clay-colored torso, and his short, massive, grotesquely bowed legs—of which one was twisted so that the toes pointed almost backwards—lay sprawling and chuckling benevolently near the entrance, while a swarm of little ones, A-ya's two among them, clambered over him. The old men and the old women most of them dozed in the shade, save two or three of the most diligent, who occupied their gnarled fingers in twisting thin strips of hide into bow-strings, or lashing slivers of stone into the heads of spears. A-ya sat cross-legged a little apart, beside a tiny fire, laboriously fashioning her bows and arrows by charring the wood in the embers and then rubbing it between two rough stones. With her head bent low over her work, the heavy, tangled masses of her hair fell upon it and got in her way, and from time to time she shook them aside impatiently. It was a picture of primeval peace.
But peace, in the days when earth was young, was something more precarious than a bubble.
From around the green shoulder of the hill came a sound of trampling hooves and labored breathing. A-ya sprang to her feet, snatching up her own well-tried bow and fitting an arrow to the string. At the same time she gave a sharp alarm-cry, at which the lame slave, Ook-ootsk, arose, shaking off the swarm of children, and came hobbling towards her with his weapons in both hands. An old woman pounced upon the startled, wide-eyed children, and in a twinkling had them shepherded into the cave-mouth, out of sight. The old men, springing from their sleep, and blinking, hurried forth into the sunlight, with such spears or clubs as they could lay instant hand upon.
A breathless moment, while all stood waiting for they knew not what. Then around the corner appeared a tall, wide-antlered elk, its eyes showing the whites with terror, its dilated nostrils spattering bloody froth. A long, raking wound ran scarlet down one flank. Staggering from weariness or loss of blood, it came on straight toward the cave-mouth, so blinded by its terror that it seemed not to see the human creatures awaiting it, or even the fires before them.
A-ya fetched a deep breath of relief when she saw that this was no ravening monster. Her immediate thought was the hunter's thought. She drew her bow to the full length of her shaft, and as the panting beast went by she let drive. The arrow pierced to half its span, just behind the straining fore-shoulder. Blood burst from the animal's nostrils. It fell on its knees, struggled up again, blundered on for half a dozen strides, and dropped half-way across the second fire.
There was a chorus of triumphant shouts from the old men and women; and A-ya started forward with the intention of dragging her prize from the fire. But a look of apprehension and warning in the keen little eyes of Ook-ootsk, who had by this time hobbled to her side, checked her. In a flash the meaning of it came to her.
"What do you suppose was chasing it, Ook-ootsk?" she queried; and whipped about, without waiting for his answer, to stare anxiously at the green shoulder of the hillside.
"Black lion, maybe," said Ook-ootsk, in his harsh, clucking voice, dropping his spear and club beside him and setting a long arrow to the string of his massive bow.
But the words were hardly out of his throat, when his guess was proved wrong. Around the turn came lumbering, with huge heads hung low and slavering, half-open jaws a pair of those colossal red bears of the caves which had always been A-ya's peculiar terror.
"Hide the children!" she yelled, and then let fly an arrow, almost without aim, at the foremost of the monsters. She was the best shot in the tribe, and the shaft sped even too true. It struck the bear full in the snout, and pierced through the palate and into the throat—a wound which, though likely to prove mortal after a time, only made the beast more dangerous for the moment. It paused, coughing, and tried to paw the torment from its jaws, and then rushed forward, screaming hideously.
In that pause, however, though it was but for a second or two, the second bear had forged ahead of its companion. It was greeted instantly by an arrow from the massive bow of Ook-ootsk, aimed with cool deliberation. The long shaft of hickory, delivered thus at close range, caught the enemy in the front of the right shoulder and drove clean in to the joint, so that the leg gave way and the gigantic brute almost fell upon its side. With a roar, it bit off the protruding half of the tough hickory, and then came on again, on three legs. From A-ya's nimble bow it got another arrow, which went half-way through its neck; but to this deadly wound, which sent the blood gushing from its mouth, it seemed to pay no heed whatever. A-ya's next shot missed; and then, screaming for the old men to come into the fray, she snatched up her stone-headed spear and ran around behind the nearest fire, expecting the bears to follow her and be led away from the hiding-place of the children.
But she had forgotten that the slave, Ook-ootsk, with his twisted and shrunken leg, could not run. That valiant savage, blinking his little eyes rapidly and blowing defiantly through his upturned nostrils as he saw his doom rushing upon him, let drive one more of his long shafts into the red, towering bulk, then dropped his bow, sank upon one knee, and held up his spear slantingly before him, with its butt firmly braced upon the ground. As the monster reared itself and fell upon him, the jagged point of the spear was forced deep into its belly, straight up till it reached the backbone. Then the shaft snapped, Ook-ootsk sprawled forward upon his face, and the monster, in the paroxysm of its amazement and agony, leapt onward and plunged right over him, involuntarily hurling him aside and clawing most of the flesh off his back with a kick of one gigantic hind paw.
He clenched his teeth stoically, shut his eyes, folded his long, hairy arms about his head, and rolled himself into a ball, confidently expecting in the next moment to feel the life crunched out of him.
But just as the monster, recovering itself, was turning madly to finish off its insignificant but torturing opponent, A-ya came leaping back to the rescue, with a blazing and sparkling faggot in each hand, and the old men, some with fire-brands, some with spears, clamoring resolutely behind her. With fearless dexterity, she thrust the fire straight into the monster's eyeballs, totally blinding him. As he wheeled to strike her down, she slipped aside with a mocking laugh, and threw one of the brands between his jaws, where he crunched upon it savagely before he felt the torment of it and spat it out.
Depending now upon his ears, the monster blundered straight forward in the direction of the shouting voices. He had quite forgotten Ook-ootsk. He raged to come at this last intolerable foe, who had scorched the light from his eyes. He made for her voice straight enough; but it chanced that exactly in his path lay the second fire—that into which the body of the elk had fallen. Already too maddened with the anguish of his wounds to notice the fire at once, he stumbled upon the body. Here, surely, was one of his foes. He fell to rending the carcase with his claws, and biting it, crawling forward upon it to reach its throat with the fire licking up derisively about his head; till at length the flames were drawn deep into his laboring lungs, searing them and sealing them so that they could no more perform their office. With a shallow, screeching gasp he threw himself backwards out of the fire, rolled upon the turf, and lay there fighting the air with his paws as he strangled swiftly and convulsively.
The second bear, meanwhile, wallowing with astonishing nimbleness on three legs, had charged roaring into the group of old men. In a twinkling he had three or four spears sticking into him; but the arms that hurled the spears were weak, and the monster ramped on unheeding. Several fire-brands fell upon him, scorching his long, red fur, but he shook them off, too maddened to remember his natural dread of the flames.
The group scattered in all directions. But one brave old gray-beard, who had marked A-ya's success, lingered in the path, and tried to thrust his blazing faggot into the monster's eyes, as she had done. He was not quick enough. The monster threw up its muzzle, dodging the stroke, and the next moment it had struck down its feeble adversary and crushed his head between its tremendous jaws.
In its folly, it now forgot its other enemies, and fell to wreaking its madness on the lifeless victim. But in another second or two it was fairly overwhelmed with the red brands descending upon its head. A-ya, with all the force of her strong young arms, drove her short spear half-way through its loins. Then, with one eye blinded and its long fur smouldering, its rage gave way suddenly into panic. Lifting its giant head high into the air, as if thus to escape its fiery assailants, it turned and scuttled back the way it had come, while the old men swarmed after it, belaboring and jabbing its elephantine rump with their live brands.
A-ya, racing like a deer and screaming with exultation, ran round the pack of old men and stabbed the frantic brute in the neck, with her spear held short in both hands. Shrinking abjectly from this attack, he swerved off toward the left. It was his left eye that was blinded, and the other was full of smoke and ashes. He missed the path, therefore, and plunged squalling over the edge of the bluff, which at this point dropped about a hundred feet, almost perpendicularly, to the beach. Rolling over and over, and bouncing out into space every time he struck the cliff face he fell to the bottom amid a shower of stones and dust, and lay there as shapeless as a fur rug dropped from an upper window.
The old men, jabbering in triumph, craned their shaggy gray heads out over the brink to grin down upon him, while A-ya, with a wild light in her eyes and her strong white teeth gleaming savagely, turned back to tend the wounds of her slave, Ook-ootsk.
Having assured herself that the hurts of Ook-ootsk, dreadful though they were, were yet not mortal (our sires of Cave and Tree took a lot of killing!), A-ya stepped over to the further fire to see about rescuing the carcase of the slain elk before it should be quite burned up. As a matter of fact, there was little of it actually consumed by the fire, but it was amazingly shredded by the clawing of the blinded bear; and an odor of roasted venison steamed up from it, which seemed rather pleasant to A-ya's nostrils. Under her direction, the old men hauled the body from the fire by the hind-legs, and dragged it over to the edge of the bluff before cutting it up, for convenience in getting rid of the offal. Every one followed, to secure their due share of the tit-bits, except Ook-ootsk and one old woman. This old woman sat rocking and keening beside the body of her mate whom the bear had slain; while Ook-ootsk crawled off into a neighboring hollow to look for certain healing herbs which should cleanse and astringe his wounds.
The hide of the elk was too much burnt, too ripped and torn by the claws of the bear, to be of any use except for thongs; but the old men skinned it off expertly before dividing the flesh. Though their gnarled fingers were feeble, they were amazingly clever in the use of the sharp-edged flakes of stone which served them as knives. A-ya stood by them, watching closely, to see that none of the specially dainty cuts were appropriated. These delicacies were reserved for herself and her two children, and for Grom when he should return. She had the right to them, not only because she was the mate of Grom, but because the kill was hers.
As she stood over the carcase—the fore-part of which had been superficially barbecued in the fire—the smell of the roasted flesh began to appeal to her even more strongly than at first. As she sniffed it, curiously, it began to entice her appetite as nothing had ever tempted it before. She touched a well-browned, fatty morsel, and then put her fingers into her mouth. The flavor seemed to her as delightful as the smell. She cast about for a suitable morsel on which to experiment.
Now it chanced that the elk's tongue, having lain in the heart of the fire, but enclosed within the half-open jaws, had been cooked to a turn. A-ya possessed herself of this ever-coveted delicacy. It looked so queer, in its cooked state, charred black along the lower edge, that she hesitated to taste it. At last, persuaded by its fragrance, she brought herself to nibble at it.
A moment more and she was devouring it with a gusto which, had manners been greatly considered in the days when the earth was young, might have seemed unbecoming in the wife of a great chief. Never before had she eaten anything that seemed to her half so delicious. It was the food she had all her life been craving. Her two little boys, pulling at her, aroused her from her ecstasy. She gave them each a fragment, which they swallowed greedily, demanding more; and between the three of them the great lump of roast tongue quickly vanished.