Very different, in a moment, was the condition when the hunters entered the forest and, extended in line, began their advance toward the huge objects of their search. The cave man, almost a wild beast himself in some of his ways, had, on occasion, a footfall as light as that of any animal of the time. The twig scarcely crackled and the leaf scarcely rustled beneath his tread, and when the long line entered the wood the silence of death fell there, for the hunters made no sound, and what slight sound the woodland had before—the clatter of the woodpeckers and jays—was hushed by their advance. So through the forest, which was tolerably close, the dark line swept quietly forward until there came from somewhere a sudden signal, and with a still more cautious advance and contraction of the line as the peninsula narrowed the quarry was brought in sight of all.
Close to the edge of the slope, and separated by a slight open space from the forest proper, was an evergreen grove, in which the herd of monster beasts was feeding. A great bull, with long up-curling tusks, loomed above them all, and was farthest away in the grove. The hunters, hidden in the forest, lay voiceless and motionless until the elders decided upon a plan of attack, and then the word was passed along that each man must fire his torch.
All along the edge of the wood arose the flashing of little flames. These grew in magnitude until a line of fire ran clear across the wood, and the mammoths nearest raised their trunks and showed signs of uneasiness. Then came a signal, a wild shout, and at once, with a yell, the long line burst into the open, each man waving his flaming torch and rushing toward the grove.
There was a chance—a slight one—that the whole herd might be stampeded, but this had rarely happened within the memory of the oldest hunter. The mammoth, though subject to panic, did not lack intelligence and when in a group was conscious of its strength. As that yell ascended, the startled beasts first rushed deeper into the grove and then, as the slope beyond was revealed to them, turned and charged blindly, all save one, the great tusker, who was feeding at the grove's outer verge. They came on, great mountains of flesh, but swerved as they met the advancing line of fire and weaved aimlessly up and down for a moment or two. Then a huge bull, stung by a spear hurled by one of the hunters and frantic with fear, plunged forward across the line and the others followed blindly. Three men were crushed to death in their passage and all the mammoths were gone save the big bull, who had started to rejoin his herd but had not reached it in time. He was now raging up and down in the grove, bewildered and trumpeting angrily. Immediately the hunters gathered closer together and made their line of fire continuous.
The mammoth rushed out clear of the trees and stood looming up, a magnificent creature of unrivaled size and majesty. His huge tusks shone out whitely against the mountain of dark shaggy hair. His small eyes blazed viciously as he raised his trunk and trumpeted out what seemed either a hoarse call to his herd or a roar of agony over his strait. He seemed for a moment as if about to rush upon the dense line of his tormentors, but the flaming faggots dashed almost in his face by the reckless and excited hunters daunted him, and, as a spear lodged in his trunk, he turned with almost a shriek of pain and dashed into the grove again. Close at his heels bounded the hundred men, yelling like demons and forgetting all danger in the madness of the chase. Right through the grove the great beast crashed and then half turned as he came to the open slope beyond. Running beside him was a daring youth trying in vain to pierce him in the belly with his flint-headed spear, and, as the mammoth came for the moment to a half halt, his keen eyes noted the pygmy, his great trunk shot downward and backward, picked up the man and hurled him yards away against the base of a great tree, the body as it struck being crushed out of all semblance to man and dropping to the earth a shapeless lump. But the fire behind and about the desperate mammoth seemed all one flame now, countless spears thrown with all the force of strong arms were piercing his tough hide, and out upon the slope toward the precipice the great beast plunged. Upon his very flanks was the fire and about him all the stinging danger from the half-crazed hunters. He lunged forward, slipped upon the smooth glacial floor beneath him, tried to turn again to meet his thronging foes and face the ring of flame, and then, wavering, floundering, moving wonderfully for a creature of his vast size, but uncertain as to foothold, he was driven to the very crest of the ledge, and, scrambling vainly, carrying away an avalanche of ice, snow and shrubs, went crashing to his death, a hundred feet below!
THE FEAST OF THE MAMMOTH.
To the right and left of the precipice the fall to the plain below was more gradual, and with exultant yells, the cave and Shell men rushed in either direction, those venturing nearest the sheer descent going down like monkeys, clinging as they went to shrubs and vines, while those who ran to where the drop was a degree more passable fairly tumbled downward to the plain. In an incredibly short space of time absolute silence prevailed in and about the grove where the scene had lately been so fiercely stirring. In the valley below there was wildest clamor.
It was a great occasion for the human beings of the region. There was no question as to the value of the prize the hunters had secured. Never before in any joint hunting expedition, within the memory of the oldest present, had followed more satisfactory result. The spoil was well worth the great effort that had been made; in the estimation of the time, perhaps worth the death of the hunters who had been killed. The huge beast lay dead, close to the base of the cliff. One great, yellow-white, curved tusk had been snapped off and showed itself distinct upon the grass some feet away from the mountain of flesh so lately animated. The sight was one worth looking upon in any age, for, in point of grandeur of appearance, the mammoth, while not as huge as some of the monsters of reptilian times, had a looming impressiveness never surpassed by any beast on the earth's surface. Though prone and dead he was impressive.
But the cave and Shell men were not so much impressed as they were delighted. They had come into possession of food in abundance and there would be a feast of all the people of the region, and, after that, abundant meat in many a hut and cave for many a day. The hunters were noisy and excited. A group pounced upon the broken tusk—for a mammoth tusk, or a piece of one, was a prize in a cave dwelling—and there was prospect of a struggle, but grim voices checked the wrangle of those who had seized upon this portion of the spoil and it was laid aside, to be apportioned later. The feast was the thing to be considered now.
Again swift-footed messengers ran along forest paths and swam streams and thridded wood and thicket, this time to assemble, not the hunters alone, but with them all members of households who could conveniently and safely come to the gathering of the morrow, when the feast of the mammoth would be on. The messengers dispatched, the great carcass was assailed, and keen flint knives, wielded by strong and skillful hands, were soon separating from the body the thick skin, which was divided as seemed best to the leaders of the gathering, Hilltop, the old hunter, for his special services, getting the chief award in the division. Then long slices of the meat were cut away, fires were built, the hunters ate to repletion and afterward, with a few remaining awake as guards, slept the sleep of the healthy and fully fed. Not in these modern days would such preliminary consumption of food be counted wisest preparation for a feast on the morrow, but the cave and Shell men were alike independent of affections of the stomach or the liver, and could, for days in sequence, gorge themselves most buoyantly.
The morning came crisp and clear, and, with the morning, came from all directions swiftly moving men and women, elated and hungry and expectant. The first families and all other families of the region were gathering for the greatest social function of the time. The men of various households had already exerted themselves and a score or two of fires were burning, while the odor of broiling meat was fragrant all about. Hunter husbands met their broods, and there was banqueting, which increased as, hour after hour, new groups came in. The families of both Ab and Oak were among those early in the valley, Beechleaf and Bark, wide-eyed and curious, coming upon the scene as a sort of advance guard and proudly greeting Ab. All about was heard clucking talk and laughter, an occasional shout, and ever the cracking of stone upon the more fragile thing, as the monster's roasted bones were broken to secure the marrow in them.
There was hilarity and universal enjoyment, though the assemblage, almost by instinct, divided itself into two groups. The cave men and the Shell men, while at this time friendly, were, as has been indicated, unlike in many tastes and customs and to an extent unlike in appearance. The cave man, accustomed to run like the deer along the forest ways, or to avoid sudden danger by swift upward clambering and swinging along among treetops, was leaner and more muscular than the Shell man, and had in his countenance a more daring and confident expression. The Shell man was shorter and, though brawny of build, less active of movement. He had spent more hours of each day of his life in his rude raft-boat, or in walking slowly with poised spear along creek banks, or, with bent back, digging for the great luscious shell-fish which made a portion of his food, than he had spent afoot and on land, with the smell of growing things in his nostrils. The flavor of the water was his, the flavor of the wood the cave man's. So it was that at the feast of the mammoth the allies naturally and good-naturedly became somewhat grouped, each person according to his kind. When hunger was satisfied and the talking-time came on, those with objects and impulses the same could compare notes most interestedly. Constantly the number of the feasters increased, and by mid-day there was a company of magnitude. Much meat was required to feed such a number, but there were tons of meat in a mammoth, enough to defy the immediate assaults of a much greater assemblage than this of exceedingly healthy people. And the smoke from the fires ascended and these rugged ones ate and were happy.
But there came a time in the afternoon when even such feasters as were assembled on this occasion became, in a measure, content, when this one and that one began to look about, and when what might be called the social amenities of the period began. Veterans flocked together, reminiscent of former days when another mammoth had been driven over this same cliff; the young grouped about different firesides, and there was talk of feats of strength and daring and an occasional friendly grapple. Slender, sinewy girls, who had girls' ways then as now, ate together and looked about coquettishly and safely, for none had come without their natural guardians. Rarely in the history of the cave men had there been a gathering more generally and thoroughly festive, one where good eating had made more good fellowship. Possibly—for all things are relative—there has never occurred an affair of more social importance within the centuries since. Human beings, dangerous ones, were merry and trusting together, and the young looked at each other.
Of course Ab and Oak had been eating in company. They had risked themselves dangerously in the battle on the cliff, had escaped injury and were here now, young men of importance, each endowed with an appetite corresponding with the physical exertion of which he was capable and which he never hesitated to make. The amount either of those young men had eaten was sufficient to make a gourmand, though of grossest Roman times, fairly sick with envy, and they were still eating, though, it must be confessed, with modified enthusiasm. Each held in his hand a smoking lump of flesh from some favored portion of the mammoth and each rent away an occasional mouthful with much content. Suddenly Ab ceased mastication and stood silent, gazing intently at a not unpleasing object a few yards distant.
Two girls stood together near a fire about which were grouped perhaps a dozen people. The two were eating, not voraciously, but with an apparent degree of interest in what they were doing, for they had not been among the early arrivals. It was upon these two that Ab's wandering glance had fallen and had been held, and it was not surprising that he had become so interested. Either of the couple was fitted to attract attention, though a pair more utterly unlike it would be difficult to imagine. One was slight and the other the very reverse, but each had striking characteristics.
They stood there, the two, just as two girls so often stand to-day, the hand of one laid half-caressingly upon the hip of the other. The beaming, broad one was chattering volubly and the slender one listening carelessly. The talking of the heavier girl was interrupted evenly by her mumbling at a juicy strip of meat. Her hunger, it was clear, had not yet been satisfied, and it was as clear, too, that her companion had yet an appetite. The slender one was, seemingly, not much interested in the conversation, but the other chattered on. It was plain that she was a most contented being. She was symmetrical only from the point of view of admirers of the heavily built. She had very broad hips and muscular arms and was somewhat squat of structure. It is hesitatingly to be admitted of this young lady that, sturdy and prepossessing, from a practical point of view, as she might be to the average food-winning cave man, she lacked a certain something which would, to the observant, place her at once in good society. She was an exceedingly hairy young woman. She wore the usual covering of skins, but she would have been well-draped, in moderately temperate weather, had the covering been absent. Either for fashion's sake or comfort, not much weight of foreign texture in addition to her own hirsute and, to a certain extent, graceful, natural garb, was needed. She was a female Esau of the time, just a great, good-hearted, strong and honest cave girl, of the subordinate and obedient class which began thousands of years before did history, one who recognized in the girl who stood beside her a stronger and dominating spirit, and who had been received as a trusted friend and willing assistant. It is so to-day, even among the creatures which are said to have no souls, the dogs especially. But the girl had strength and a certain quick, animal intelligence. She was the daughter of a cave man living not far from the home of old Hilltop, and her name was Moonface. Her countenance was so broad and beaming that the appellation had suggested itself in her jolly childhood.
Very different from Moonface was the slender being who, having eaten a strip of meat, was now seeking diligently with a splinter for the marrow in the fragment of bone her father had tossed toward her. Her father was Hilltop, the veteran of the immediate region and the hero of the day, and she was called Lightfoot, a name she had gained early, for not in all the country round about was another who could pass over the surface of the earth with greater swiftness than could she. And it was upon Lightfoot that Ab was looking.
The young woman would have been fair to look upon, or at least fascinating, to the most world-wearied and listless man of the present day. She stood there, easily and gracefully, her arms and part of her breast, above, and her legs from about the knees, below, showing clearly from beneath her covering of skins. Her deep brown hair, knotted back with a string of the tough inner bark of some tree, hung upon the middle of her flat, in-setting back. She was not quite like any of the other girls about her. Her eyes were larger and softer and there was more reflection and variety of expression in them. Her limbs were quite as long as those of any of her companions and the fingers and toes, though slenderer, were quite as suggestive of quick and strong grasping capabilities, but there was, with all the proof of springiness and litheness, a certain rounding out. The strip of hair upon her legs below the knees was slight and silken, as was also that upon her arms. Yet, undoubted leader in society as her appearance indicated, quite aside from her father's standing, there was in her face, with all its loftiness of air, a certain blithesomeness which was almost at variance with conditions. She was a most lovable young woman—there could be no question about that—and Ab had, as he looked upon her for the first time, felt the fact from head to heel. He thought of her as like the leopard tree-cat, most graceful creature of the wood, so trim was she and full of elasticity, and thought of her, too, as he looked in her intelligent face, as higher in another way. He was somewhat awed, but he was courageous. He had, so far in life, but sought to get what he wanted whenever it was in sight. Now he was nonplussed.
Presently Lightfoot raised her eyes and they met those of Ab. The young people looked at each other steadily for a moment and then the glance of the girl was turned away. But, meanwhile, the man had recovered himself. He had been eating, absent-mindedly, a well-cooked portion of a great steak of the mammoth's choicest part. He now tore it in twain and watched the girl intently. She raised her eyes again and he tossed her a half of the smoking flesh. She saw the movement, caught the food deftly in one hand as it reached her, and looked at Ab and laughed. There was no mock modesty. She began eating the choice morsel contentedly; the two were, in a manner, now made formally acquainted.
The young man did not, on the instant, pursue his seeming advantage, the result of an impulsive bravery requiring a greater effort on his part than the courage he had shown in conflict with many a beast of the forest. He did not talk to the young woman. But he thought to himself, while his blood bubbled in his veins, that he would find her again; that he would find her in the wood! She did not look at him more, for her people were clustering about her and this was a great occasion.
Ab was recalled to himself by a hoarse exclamation. Oak was looking at him fiercely. There was no other sound, but the young man stood gazing fixedly at the place where the girl had just been lost amid the group about her. And Ab knew instinctively, as men have learned to know so well in all the years, from the feeling which comes to them at such a time, that he had a rival, that Oak also had seen and loved this slender creature of the hillside.
There was a division of the mammoth flesh and hide and tusks. Ab struggled manfully for a portion of one of the tusks, which he wanted for Old Mok's carving, and won it at last, the elders deciding that he and Oak had fought well enough upon the cliff to entitle them to a part of the honor of the spoil, and Oak opposing nothing done by Ab, though his looks were glowering. Then, as the sun passed toward the west, all the people separated to take the dangerous paths toward their homes. Ab and Oak journeyed away together. Ab was jubilant, though doubtful, while the face of Oak was dark. The heart of neither was light within him.
Drifting away in various directions toward their homes the Cave and Shell People still kept in groups, by instinct. Social functions terminated before dark and guests going and coming kept together for mutual protection in those days of the cave bear and other beasts. But on the day of the Feast of the Mammoth there was somewhat less than the usual precaution shown. There were vigorous and well-armed hunters at hand by scores, and under such escort women and children might travel after dusk with a degree of safety, unless, indeed, the great cave tiger, Sabre-Tooth, chanced to be abroad, but he was more rarely to be met than others of the wild beasts of the time. When he came it was as a thunderbolt and there were death and mourning in his trail. The march through the forest as the shadows deepened was most watchful. There was a keen lookout on the part of the men, and the women kept their children well in hand. From time to time, one family after another detached itself from the main body and melted into the forest on the path to its own cave near at hand. Thus Hilltop and his family left the group in which were Ab and Oak, and glances of fire followed them as they went. The two girls, Lightfoot and Moonface, had walked together, chattering like crows. They had strung red berries upon grasses and had hung them in their hair and around their necks, and were fine creatures. Lightfoot, as was her wont, laughed freakishly at whatever pleased her, and in her merry mood had an able second in her sturdy companion. There were moments, though, when even the irrepressible Lightfoot was thoughtful and so quiet that the girl who was with her wondered. The greater girl had been lightly touched with that unnamable force which has changed men and women throughout all the ages. The picture of Ab's earnest face was in her mind and would not depart. She could not, of course, define her own mood, nor did she attempt it. She felt within herself a certain quaking, as of fear, at the thought of him, and yet, so she told herself again and again, she was not afraid. All the time she could see Ab's face, with its look of longing and possession, but with something else in it, when his eyes met hers, which she could not name nor understand. She could not speak of him, but Moonface had upon her no such stilling influence.
"They look alike," she said.
Lightfoot assented, knowing the girl meant Ab and Oak. "But Ab is taller and stronger," Moonface continued, and Lightfoot assented as indifferently, for, somehow, of the two she had remembered definitely one only. She became daring in her reflections: "What if he should want to carry me to his cave?" and then she tried to run away from the thought and from anything and everybody else, leaping forward, outracing and leaving all the company. She reached her father's cave far ahead of the others and stood, laughing, at the entrance, as the family and Moonface, a guest for the night, came trotting up.
And Ab, the buoyant and strong, was not himself as he journeyed with the homeward-pressing company. His mood changed and he dropped away from Oak and lagged in the rear of the little band as it wound its way through the forest. Slight time was needed for others to recognize his mood, and he was strong of arm and quick of temper, as all knew well, and, so, he was soon left to stalk behind in independent sulkiness. He felt a weight in his breast; a fiery spot burned there. He was fierce with Oak because Oak had looked at Lightfoot with a warm light in his eyes. He! when he should have known that Ab was looking at her! This made rage in his heart; and sadness came, too, because he was perplexed over the girl. "How can I get her?" he mumbled to himself, as he stalked along.
Meanwhile, at the van of the company there was noise and frolic. Assembled in force, they were for the hour free from dread of the haunting terror of wild beasts, and, satisfied with eating, the Cave and Shell People were in one of the merriest moods of their lives, collectively speaking. The young men were especially jubilant and exuberant of demeanor. Their sport was rough and dangerous. There were scuffling and wrestling and the more reckless threw their stone axes, sometimes at each other, always, it is true, with warning cries, but with such wild, unconscious strength put in the throwing that the finding of a living target might mean death. Ab, engrossed in thoughts of something far apart from the rude sport about him, became nervously impatient. Like the girl, he wanted to escape from his thoughts, and bounding ahead to mingle with the darting and swinging group in front, he was soon the swift and stalwart leader in their foolishly risky sport, the center of the whole commotion. One muscled man would hurl his stone hatchet or strong flint-headed spear at a green tree and another would imitate him until a space in advance was covered and the word given for a rush, when all would race for the target, each striving to reach it first and detach his own weapon before others came. It was a merry but too careless contest, with a chance of some serious happening. There followed a series of these mad games and the oldsters smiled as they heard the sound of vigorous contest and themselves raced as they could, to keep in close company with the stronger force.
Ab had shown his speed in all his playing. Now he ran to the front and plucked out his spear, a winner, then doubled and ran back beside the pathway to mingle with the central body of travelers, having in mind only to keep in the heart and forefront of as many contests as possible. There was more shouting and another rush from the main body and, bounding aside from all, he ran to get the chance of again hurling his spear as well. A great oak stood in the middle of the pathway and toward it already a spear or two had been sent, all aimed, as the first thrower had indicated, at a white fungus growth which protruded from the tree. It was a matter of accuracy this time. Ab leaped ahead some yards in advance of all and hurled his spear. He saw the white chips fly from the side of the fungus target, saw the quivering of the spear shaft with the head deep sunken in the wood, and then felt a sudden shock and pain in one of his legs. He fell sideways off the path and beneath the brushwood, as the wild band, young and old, swept by. He was crippled and could not walk. He called aloud, but none heard him amid the shouting of that careless race. He tried to struggle to his feet, but one leg failed him and he fell back, lying prone, just aside from the forest path, nearly weaponless and the easy prey of the wild beasts. What had hurt him so grievously was a spear thrown wildly from behind him. It had, hurled with great strength, struck a smooth tree trunk and glanced aside, the point of the spear striking the young man fairly in the calf of the leg, entering somewhat the bone itself, and shocking, for the moment, every nerve. The flint sides had cut a vein or two and these were bleeding, but that was nothing. The real danger lay in his helplessness. Ab was alone, and would afford good eating for those of the forest who, before long, would be seeking him. The scent of the wild beast was a wonderful thing. The man tried to rise, then lay back sullenly. Far in the distance, and growing fainter and fainter, he could hear the shouts of the laughing spear-throwers.
The strong young man, thus left alone to death almost inevitable, did not altogether despair. He had still with him his good stone ax and his long and keen stone knife. He would, at least, hurt something sorely before he was eaten, he thought grimly to himself. And then he pressed leaves together on the cut upon his leg, and laid himself back upon the leaves and waited.
He did not have to wait long. He had not thought to do so. How full the woods were of blood-scenting and man-eating things none knew better than he. His ear, keen and trained, caught the patter of a distant approach. "Wolves," he said to himself at first, and then "Hyenas," for the step was puzzling. He was perplexed. The step was regular, and it was not in the forest on either side, but was coming up the path. A terror came upon him and he had crawled deeper into the shades, when he noted that the steps first ceased, and then that they wandered searchingly and uncertainly. Then, loud and strong, rang out a voice, calling his name, and it was the voice of Oak! He could not answer for a moment, and then he cried out gladly.
Oak had, in the forward-rushing group, seen Ab's hurt and fall, but had thought it a trifling matter, since no outcry came from those behind, and so had kept his course away and ahead with the rest. But finally he had noted the absence of Ab and had questioned, and then—first telling some of his immediate companions that they were to lag and wait for him—had started back upon a run to reach the place where he had last seen his friend. It was easy now to arrange wet leaves about Ab's crippling, but little more than temporary, wound. The two, one leaning upon the other and hobbling painfully, and each with weapons in hand, contrived, at last, to reach Oak's lingering and grumbling contingent. Ab was helped along by two instead of one then, and the rest was easy. When the pathway leading to home was reached, Oak accompanied his friend, and the two passed the night together.
Ab, once on his own bed, with Oak couched beside him, was surprised to find, not merely that his physical pain was going, but that the greater one was gone. The weight and burning had left his breast and he was no longer angry at Oak. He thought blindly but directly toward conclusions. He had almost wanted to kill Oak, all because each saw the charm of and wanted the possession of a slender, beautiful creature of their kind. Then something dangerous had happened to him, and this same Oak, his friend, the man he had wished to kill, had come back and saved his life. The sense which we call gratitude, and which is not unmingled with what we call honor, came to this young cave man then. He thought of many things, worried and wakeful as he was, and perhaps made more acute of perception by the slight, exciting fever of his wound.
He thought of how the two, he and Oak, had planned and risked together, of their boyish follies and failures and successes, and of how, in later years, Oak had often helped him, of how he had saved Oak's life once in the river swamp, where quicksands were, of how Oak had now offset even that debt by carrying him away from certain ending amid wild beasts. No one—and of the cave men he knew many—no one in all the careless, merry party had missed him save Oak. He doubtless could not have told himself why it was, but he was glad that he could repay it all and have the balance still upon his side. He was glad that he had the secret of the bow and arrow to reveal. That should be Oak's! So it came that, late that night, when the fire in the cave had burned low and when one could not wisely speak above a whisper, Ab told Oak the story of the new weapon, of how it had been discovered, of how it was to be used and of all it was for hunters and fighters. Furthermore, he brought his best bow and best arrows forth, and told Oak they were his and that they would practice together in the morning. His astonished and delighted companion had little to say over the revelation. He was eager for the morning, but he straightened out his limbs upon the leafy mattress and slept well. So, somewhat later, did the half-feverish Ab.
Morning came and the cave people were astir. There was brief though hearty feeding and then Ab and Oak and Old Mok, to whom Ab had said much aside, went away from the cave and into the forest. There Oak was taught the potency of the new weapon, its deadly quality and the safety of distance it afforded its user. It was a great morning for all three, not excepting the stern and critical old teacher, when they thus met together in the wood and the secret of what two had found was so transmitted to another. As for Oak, he was fairly aflame with excitement. He was far from slow of mind and he recognized in a moment the enormous advantage of the new way of killing either the things they ate, or the things they dreaded most. He could scarcely restrain his eagerness to experiment for himself. Before noon had come he was gone, carrying away the bow and the good arrows. As he disappeared in the wood Ab said nothing, but to himself he thought:
"He may have all the bows and arrows he can make, but I will have Lightfoot myself!"
Ab and Mok started for the cave again, Ab, bow in hand and with ready arrow. There was a patter of feet upon leaves in the wood beside them and then the arrow was fitted to the string, while Old Mok, strong-armed if weak-legged, raised aloft his spear. The two were seeking no conflict with wild beasts today and were but defensive and alert. They were puzzled by the sound their quick ears caught. "Patter, patter," ever beside them, but deep in the forest shade, came the sound of menacing followers of some sort.
There was tension of nerves. Old Mok, sturdy and unconsciously fatalistic, was more self-contained than the youth at his side, bow-armed and with flint ax and knife ready for instant use. At last an open space was reached across which ran the well-worn path. Now the danger must reveal itself. The two men emerged into the glade, and, a moment later, there bounded into it gamboling and full of welcome, the wolf cubs, which had played about the cave so long, who were now detached from their own kind and preferred the companionship of man. There was laughter then, and a more careless demeanor with the weapon borne.
LOVE AND DEATH.
Different from his former self became this young forester, Ab. He was thinking of something other than wild beasts and their pursuit. Instinctively, the course of his hunting expeditions tended toward the northwest and soon the impulse changed to a design. He must look upon Lightfoot again! Henceforth he haunted the hill region, and never keener for quarry or more alert for the approach of some dangerous animal was the eye of this woodsman than it was for the appearance somewhere of a slender figure of a cave girl. Neither game nor things to dread were numerous in the vicinity of the home of Hilltop, for there one of the hardiest and wisest among hunters had occupied his cave for many years, and wild beasts learn things. So it chanced that Lightfoot could wander farther afield than could most girls of the time. Ab knew all this well, for the quality of expert and venturesome old Hilltop was familiar to all the cave men throughout a wide stretch of country. So Ab, somewhat shamefaced to his own consciousness, hunted in a region not the best for spoil, and looked for a girl who might appear on some forest path, moderately safe from the rush of any of the hungry man-eaters of the wood.
But not all the time of this wild lover was wasted in haunting the possible idling-places of the girl he wanted so. With love there had come to him such sense and thoughtfulness as has come with earnest love to millions since. What could he do with Lightfoot should he gain her? He was but a big, young fighting man and hunter, still sleeping, almost nightly, on one of the leaf beds in his father's cave. With a wife of his own he must have a cave of his own. Compared with his first impulses toward the girl, this was a new train of thought, and, as we recognize it to-day, a nobler one. He wanted to care for his own. He wanted a cave fit for the reception of such a woman as this, to him, the sweetest and proudest of all beings, Lightfoot, daughter of old Hilltop, of the wooded highlands.
Far up the river, far beyond the home of Oak's father and beyond the shining marshlands and the purple heather reaches which made the foothills pleasant, extended to the river's bank a promontory, bold and picturesque and clad heavily with the best of trees. It was a great stretch of land, where, in some of nature's grim work, the earth had been up-heaved and there had been raised good soil for giant forests, and at the same time been made broad caverns to become future habitations of the creature known as man. But the trees bore nuts and fruits, and such creatures as found food in nuts and fruits, and, later, such as loved rich herbage, came to the forest in great numbers, and then followed such as fed upon these again, all the flesh eaters, to whom man was, as any other living thing, to be seized upon and devoured. The promontory, so rich in game and nuts and fruits, was, at the same time, the most dangerous in all the region for human habitation. There were deep, dry caves within its limits, but in none of them had a cave man yet ventured to make his home. It was toward this promontory that the young man in love turned his eyes. Because others had feared to make a home in this lone, high region should he also fear? There was food there in plenty and if there were chance of fighting in plenty, so much the better! Was he not strong and fleet; had he not the best of spears and axes? Above all, had he not the new weapon which made man far above the beasts? Here was the place for a home which should be the best in all this region of the cave men. Here game and food of all kinds would be most abundant. The situation would demand a brave man and a woman scarcely less courageous, but would not he and the girl he was determined to bring there meet all occasion? His mind was fixed.
Ab found a cave, one clean and dry and opening out upon a slight treeless area, and this he, lover-like, improved for the woman he had resolved to bring there, arranging carefully the interior of which must be a home. He had fancies such as lovers have exhibited from since the time when the plesiosaurus swashed away in the strand of a warm sea a hollow nursery for the birth and first tending of the young of his odd kind, up to the later time when men have squandered fortunes on the sleeping rooms of women they have loved. He toiled for many days. With his ax he chipped away the cavern's sharp protuberances at each side, and with the stone chips from the walls and with what he brought from outside, he made the floor white and clean and nearly level. He built a fireplace and chipped into a huge stone, which, fortunately, lay inside the cave, a hollow for holding drinking water, or for the boiling of meat. He built up a passage-way at the entrance, allowing something but not too much more than his own width, as the gauge for measurement of its breadth. He brought into the cave a deep carpet of leaves and made a wide bed in one corner and this he covered with furred skins, for many skins Ab owned in his own right. Then, with a thick fragment of tough branch as a lever, he rolled a big stone near the cave's entrance and left it ready to be occupied as a home. The woman was still lacking.
There came a day when Ab, impatient after his searching and waiting, but yet resolute, had killed a capercailzie—the great grouse-like bird of the time, the descendants of which live to-day in northern forests—and had built a fire and feasted, and then, instinctively careful, had climbed to the first broad, low branch of an enormous tree and there adjusted himself to sleep the sleep of one who has eaten heartily. He lay with the big branch for a bed, supported on either side by green, upspringing twigs, and slept well for an hour or two and then awoke, lazy and listless, but with much good to him from the repast and rest. It was not yet very late in the afternoon and the sun still shone kindly upon him, as upon a whole world of rejoicing things. Something like a reflection of the life of the morning was beginning to manifest itself, as is ever the way where forests and wild things are. The wonderful noise of wood life was renewed. As the young man awakened, he felt in every pulse the thrilling powers of existence. Everything was fair to look upon. His ears took in the sound of the voices of birds, already beginning vesper songs, though the afternoon was yet so early as scarcely to hint of evening, and the scent from a thousand plants and flowers, permeating and intoxicating, reached his senses as he lounged sprawlingly upon his safe bed aloft.
It was attractive, the scene which Ab looked upon. The forest was in all the glory of summer and nesting and breeding things were happy. There was the fullness of the being of trees and plants and of all birds and beasts. There was a soft commingling of sounds which told of the life about, the effect of which was, somehow, almost drowsy in the blending of all together. The great ferns waved gently along the hollows as the slight breeze touched them. They were queer, those ferns. They were not quite so slender and tapering and gothic as the ferns we see to-day. They were a trifle more lush and ragged, and their tips were sometimes almost rounded. But Ab noted little of fern or bird. It was only the general sensuousness that was upon him. The smell of the pines was a partial tonic to the healthy, half-awakened man, and, though he lay back upon the rugged wooden bed and half dozed again, nature had aroused him a trifle beyond the point of relapse into absolute, unknowing slumber. There was coming to him a sharpness of perception which affected the quiescence of his enjoyment. He rose to a sitting posture and looked about him. At once his eyes flashed, every nerve and muscle became tense and the blood leaped turbulently in his veins. He had seen that for which he had come into this region, the girl who had so reached his rude, careless heart. Lightfoot was very near him!
The girl, all unconscious, was sitting upon the trunk of a fallen tree which lay close beside a creek. There was an abundance of small pebbles upon the little strand and the young lady was absent-mindedly engaged in an occupation in which, to the observer, she took some interest, while she, no doubt, was really thinking of something else. She sat there, slender, beautiful and excelling, in her way, the belle of the period, merely amusing herself. Her toes were charming toes. There could be no debate on that point, for, while long and strong and flexible, they had a certain evenness and symmetry. They were being idly employed just now. At the creek's edge, half imbedded in the ground, uprose the crest of a granite stone. Picking up pebble after pebble in her admirable toes, Lightfoot was engaged in throwing them, one after another, at the outstanding point of granite, utilizing in the performance only those toes and the brown leg below the knee. She did exceedingly well and hit the red-brown target often. Ab, hot-headed and fierce lover in the tree top, looked on admiringly. How perfect of form was she; how bright the face! and then, forgetting himself, he cried aloud and slid from the branch as easily and swiftly as any serpent and started running toward the girl. He must have her!
With his cry, the girl leaped to her feet, and as he reached the ground, recognized him on the instant. She knew in the same instant that they had felt together and that it was not by accident that he was near her. She had felt as he; so far as a woman may feel with a man; but maidens are maidens, and sweet lightness dreads force, and a modified terror came upon her. She paused for a moment, then turned and ran toward the upland forest.
Not a moment hesitating or faltering as affected by the girl's action was the young man who had tumbled from the tree bed. The blood dancing within him and the great natural impulse of gaining what was greatest to him in life controlled him now. He was hot with fierce lovingness. He ran well, but he did not run better than the graceful thing before him.
Even for the critical being of the great cities of to-day, the one who "manages" races of all sorts, it would have been worth while to see this race in the forest. As the doe leaps, scarcely touching the ground, ran Lightfoot. As the wolf or hound runs, less swift for the moment, but tireless, ran the man behind her. Yet of all the men in the cave region, this flying girl wanted most this man to take her! It was the maidenly force-dreading instinct alone which made her run.
Ab, dogged and enduring, lost no space as the race led away toward the hill and home of the fleet thing ahead of him. There were miles to be covered, and therein he had hope. They were on the straight path to Hilltop's cave, though there were divergent, curving side paths almost as available; but to avoid her pursuer, the fugitive could take none of these. There were cross-cuts everywhere. In leaving the direct path she would but lose ground. To reach soon enough by straight, clean running the towering wooded hill in which was her father's cave seemed the only hope of the half-unwilling fugitive.
There were descents and ascents in the long chase and plateaus where the running was on level ground. Straining forward, gaining little, but confident of overtaking the girl, Ab, deep-chested and physically untroubled, pressed onward, when he noted that the girl made a sudden spurt and bounded forward with a speed not shown before, while, at the same time, she swerved from the right of the path.
It was not Ab who had made her swerve. Some new alarm had come to her. She was about to reach and, as Ab supposed, pass one of the inletting paths entering almost at right angles from the left. She did not pass it. She leaped into it in evident terror and then, breaking out from the wood on the right, came another form and one surely in swift following. Ab knew the figure well. Oak was the new pursuer!
The awful rage which rose in the heart of Ab as he saw what was happening is what can no more be described than one can tell what a tiger in the jungle thinks. He saw another—the other his friend—pursuing and intending to take what he wanted to be his and what had become to him more than all else in the world; more than much eating and the skins of things to keep him warm, more than a mammoth's tooth to carve, more than the glorious skin of the great cave tiger, the possession of which made a rude nobility, more than anything and all else! He leaped aside from the path. He knew well the other path upon which were running Oak and Lightfoot. He knew that he could intercept them, because, though the running was not so good, the distance to be covered was much less, for to him path running was a light matter. In the wood he ran as easily and leaped as well and attained a point almost as quickly as the beasts. There was a stress of effort and, as the shadows deepened, he burst in upon the cross path where he knew were the fleeing Lightfoot and following Oak. He had thought to head them off, but Ab was not the only man who was swift of foot in the cave country. They passed, almost as he bounded from the forest. He saw them close together not many yards ahead of him and, with a shout of rage, bent himself in swift and terrible pursuit again.
It was all plain to Ab now as he flew along, unnoted by the two ahead of him. He knew that Oak had, like him, determined to own Lightfoot, and had like him, been seeking her. Only chance had made the chase thus cross Oak's path; but that made no difference. There must be a grim meeting soon. Ab could see that the endurance of the wonderfully fleet-footed woman was not equal to that of the man so near her. She would soon be overtaken. Before her rose the hill, not a mile in its slope, where were her father's cave, and safety. He knew that she had not the strength to breast it fleetly enough for covert. And, as he looked, he saw the girl turn a frightened face toward her close pursuer and knew that she saw him as well. Her pace slackened for a moment as this revelation came to her, and he felt, somehow, that in him she recognized comparative protection. Then she recovered herself and bent all the power she had toward the ascent. But Oak had been gaining steadily, and now, with a sudden rush, he reached her and grasped her, the woman shrieking wildly. A moment later Ab rushed in upon them with a shout. Instinctively Oak released the girl, for in the cry he heard that which meant menace and immediate danger. As Lightfoot felt herself free she stood for a moment or two without a movement, with wide-open eyes, looking upon what was happening before her. Then she bounded away, not looking backward as she ran.
The two men stood there glaring at each other, Oak perched, and yet not perched, so broad and perfect was his foothold, on the crest of a slight shelf of the downward slope. There stood the two men, poised, the one above, the other below, two who had been as close together from childhood as all the attributes of mind and body might allow, and yet now as far apart as human beings may be. They were beautiful in a way, each in his murderous, unconscious posing for the leap. The sun hit the blue ax of Oak and made it look a gray. The raised ax of Ab, which was of a lighter colored stone, was in the shade and its yellowness was darkened into brown. The spectacle lasted for but a second. As Oak leaped Ab bounded aside and they stood upon a level, a tiny plateau, and there was fierce, strong fencing. One could not note its methods; even the keen-eyed wolverine, crouching low upon an adjacent monster limb, could never have followed the swift movements of these stone axes. The dreadful play was brief. The clash of stone together ceased as there came a duller sound, which told that stone had bitten bone. Oak, slightly the higher of the two, as they stood thus in the fray, leaned forward suddenly, his arms aloft, while from his hand dropped the blue ax. He floundered down uncouthly and grasped the beech leaves with his hands, and then lay still. Ab stood there weaponless, a creature wandering of mind. His yellow ax had parted from his hand, sunk deeply into the skull of Oak, and he looked upon it curiously and vacantly. He was not sane. He stepped forward and pulled the ax away and lifted it to a level with his eyes and went to where the sunlight shone. The ax was not yellow any more. Meanwhile a girl was flitting toward her home and the shadows of the waning day were deepening.
A RACE WITH DREAD.
Ab looked toward the forest wherein Lightfoot had fled and then looked upon that which lay at his feet. It was Oak—there were the form and features of his friend—but, somehow, it was not Oak. There was too much silence and the blood upon the leaves seemed far too bright. His rage departed, and he wanted Oak to answer and called to him, but Oak did not answer. Then came slowly to him the idea that Oak was dead and that the wild beasts would that night devour the dead man where he lay. The thought nerved him to desperate, sudden action. He leaped forward, he put his arms about the body and carried it away to a hollow in the wooded slope. He worked madly, doing some things as he had seen the cave people do at other buryings. He placed the weapons of Oak beside him. He took from his belt his own knife, because it was better than that of Oak, and laid it close to the dead man's hand, and then, first covering the body with beech leaves, he worked frantically upon the overhanging soil, prying it down with a sharp-pointed fragment of limb, and tossing in upon all as heavy stones as he could lift, until a great cairn rose above the hunter who would hunt no more.
Panting with his efforts, Ab sat himself down upon a rock and looked upon the monument he had raised. Again he called to Oak, but there was still no answer. The sun had set, evening shadows thickened around him. Then there came upon the live man a feeling as dreadful as it was new, and, with a yell, which was almost a shriek, he leaped to his feet and bounded away in fearful flight.
He only knew this, that there was something hurt his inside of body and soul, but not the inside of him as it had been when once he had eaten poisonous berries or when he had eaten too much of the little deer. It was something different. It was an awful oppression, which seemed to leave his body, in a manner, unfeeling but which had a great dread about it and which made him think and think of the dead man, and made him want to run away and keep running. He had always run far that day, but he was not tired now. His legs seemed to have the hard sinews of the stag in them but up toward the top of him was something for them to carry away as fast and far as possible from somewhere. He raced from the dense woodland down into the broad morass to the west—beyond which was the rock country—and into which he had rarely ventured, so treacherous its ways. What cared he now! He made great leaps and his muscles and sinews responded to the thought of him. To cross that morass safely required a touch on tussocks and an upbounding aside, a zig-zag exhibition of great strength and knowingness and recklessness. But it was unreasoning; it was the instinct begotten of long training and, now, of the absence of all nervousness. Each taut toe touched each point of bearing just as was required above the quagmire, and, all unperceiving and uncaring, he fled over dirty death as easily as he might have run upon some hardened woodland pathway. He did not think nor know nor care about what he was doing. He was only running away from the something he had never known before! Why should he be running now? He had killed things before and not cared and had forgotten. Why should he care now? But there was the something which made him run. And where was Oak? Would Oak meet him again and would they hunt together? No, Oak would not come, and he, this Ab, had made it so! He must run. No one was following him—he knew that—but he must run!
The marsh was passed, night had fallen, but he ran on, pressing into the bear and tiger haunted forest beyond. Anything, anything, to make him forget the strange feeling and the thing which made him run! He plunged into a forest path, utterly reckless, wanting relief, a seeker for whatever might come.
In that age and under such conditions as to locality it was inevitable that the creature, man, running through such a forest path at night, must face some fierce creature of the carnivora seeking his body for food. Ab, blinded of mood, cared not for and avoided not a fight, though it might be with the monster bear or even the great tiger. There was no reason in his madness. He was, though he knew it not, a practical suicide, yet one who would die fighting. What to him were weight and strength to-night? What to him were such encounters as might come with hungry four-footed things? It would but relieve him were some of the beasts to try to gain his life and eat his body. His being seemed valueless, and as for the wild beasts—and here came out the splendid death-facing quality of the cave man—well, it would be odd if there were not more deaths than one! But all this was vague and only a minor part of thought.
Sometimes, as if to invite death, he yelled as he ran. He yelled whenever in his fleeting visions he saw Oak lying dead again. So ran the man who had killed another.
There was a growl ahead of him, a sudden breaking away of the bushes, and then he was thrown back, stunned and bleeding, because a great paw had smitten him. Whatever the beast might be, it was hungry and had found what seemed easy prey. There was a difference, though, which the animal,—it was doubtless a bear—unfortunately for him, did not comprehend, between the quality of the being he proposed to eat just now and of other animals included in his ordinary menu. But the bear did not reason; he but plunged forward to crush out the remaining life of the runner his great paw had driven back and down and then to enjoy his meal.
The man was little hurt. His skin coat had somewhat protected him and his sinewy body had such toughness that the hurling of it backward for a few feet was not anything involving a fatality. Very surely and suddenly had been thrust upon him now the practical lesson of being or dying, and it was good for the half-crazed runner, for it cleared his mind. But it made him no less desperate or careless. With strength almost maniacal he leaped at what he would have fled from at any other time, and, swinging his ax with the quickness of light, struck tremendously at the great lowering head. He yelled again as he felt stone cut and crash into bone, though himself swept aside once more as a great paw, sidestruck, hurled him into the bushes. He bounded to his feet and saw something huge and dark and gasping floundering in the pathway. He thought not but ran on panting. By some strange freak of forest fortune abetting might the man wandering of mind had driven his ax nearly to the haft into the skull of his huge assailant. It may be that never before had a cave man, thus armed, done so well. The slayer ran on wildly, and now weaponless.
Soon to the runner the scene changed. The trees crowded each other less closely and there was less of denned pathway. There came something of an ascent and he breasted it, though less swiftly, for, despite the impelling force, nature had claims, and muscles were wearying of their work. Fewer and fewer grew the trees. He knew that he was where there was now a sweep of rocky highlands and that he was not far from the Fire Country, of which Old Mok had so often told him. He burst into the open, and as he came out under the stars, which he could see again, he heard an ominous whine, too near, and a distant howl behind him. A wolf pack wanted him.
He shuddered as he ran. The life instinct was fully awakened in him now, as the dread from which he had run became more distant. Had he heard that close whine and distant howl before he fairly reached the open he would have sought a treetop for refuge. Now it was too late. He must run ahead blindly across the treeless space for such harborage as might come. Far ahead of him he could see light, the light of fire, reaching out toward him through the darkness. He was panting and wearied, but the sounds behind him were spur enough to bring the nearly dead to life. He bowed his head and ran with such effort as he had never made before in all his wild and daring existence.
The wolves of the time, greater, swifter and fiercer than the gaunt gray wolves of northern latitudes and historic times, ran well, but so did contemporaneous man run well, and the chase was hard. With his life to save, Ab swept panting over the rocky ground with a swiftness begotten of the grand last effort of remaining strength, running straight toward the light, while the wolf pack, now gathered, hurled itself from the wood behind and followed swiftly and relentlessly. Ever before the man shone the light more brightly; ever behind him became more distinct the sound made by the following pack. It was a dire strait for the running man. He was no longer thinking of what he had lately done. He ran.
The light he had seen extended as he neared it into what looked like a great fence of flame lying across his way. There were gaps in the fence where the flame, still continuous, was not so high as elsewhere. He did not hesitate. He ran straight ahead. Closer and closer behind him crowded the pursuing wolves, and straight at the flame he ran. There was one chance in many, he thought, and he took it without hesitation. Close before him now loomed the wall of flame. Close behind him slavering jaws were working in anticipation, and there was a strain for the last rush. There was no alternative. Straight at the fire wall where it was lowest rushed Ab, and with a great leap he went at and through the curling crest of the yellow flame!
The man had found safety! There was a moment of heat and then he knew himself to be sprawling upon green turf. A little of the strength of desperation was still with him and he bounded to his feet and looked about. There were no wolves. Beside him was a great flat rock, and he clambered upon this, and then, over the crest of the flames could see easily enough the glaring eyes of his late pursuers. They were running up and down, raging for their prey, but kept from him beyond all peradventure by the fire they could not face. Ab started upright on the rock panting and defiant, a splendid creature erect there in the firelight.
Soon there came to the man a more perfect sense of his safety. He shouted aloud to the flitting, snarling creatures, which could not harm him now; he stooped and found jagged stones, which he sent whirling among them. There was a savage satisfaction in it.
Suddenly the man fell to the ground, fairly groaning with exhaustion. Nature had become indignant and the time for recuperation had been reached. The wearied runner lay breathing heavily and was soon asleep. The flames which had afforded safety gave also a grateful warmth in the chill night, and so it was that scarcely had his body touched the ground when he became oblivious to all about him, only the heaving of the broad chest showing that the man lying fairly exposed in the light was a living thing. The varying wind sometimes carried the sheet of flame to its utmost extent toward him, so that the heat must have been intense, and again would carry it in an opposite direction while the cold air swept down upon the sleeping man. Nothing disturbed him. Inured alike to heat and cold, Ab slept on, slept for hours the sleep which follows vast strain and endurance in a healthy human being. Then the form lying on the ground moved restlessly and muttered exclamations came from the lips. The man was dreaming.
For as the sleeper lay there—he remembered it when he awoke and wondered over it many times in after years—Oak sprang through the flames, as he himself had done, and soon lay panting by his side. The lapping of the fire, the snapping and snarling of the wolves beyond and the familiar sound of Oak's voice all mingled confusedly in his ears, and then he and Oak raced together over the rough ground, and wrestled and fought and played as they had wrestled and fought and played together for years. And the hours passed and the wind changed and the flames almost scorched him and Ab started up, looking about him into the wild aspect of the Fire Country; for the night had passed and the sun had risen and set again since the exhausted man had fallen upon the ground and become unconscious.
Ab rolled instinctively a little away from the smoky sheets of flame and, sitting up, looked for Oak. He could not see him. He ran wildly around among the rocks looking for him and despairingly called aloud his name. The moment his voice had been hoarsely lifted, "Oak!" the memory of all that had happened rushed upon him. He stood there in the red firelight a statue of despair. Oak was dead; he had killed Oak, and buried him with his own hands, and yet he had seen Oak but a minute ago! He had bounded through the flames and had wrestled and run races with Ab, and they had talked together, and yet Oak must be lying in the ground back there in the forest by the little hill. Oak was dead. How could he get out of the ground? Fear clutched at Ab's heart, his limbs trembled under him. He whimpered like a lost and friendless hound and crouched close to the hospitable fire. His brain wavered under the stress of strange new impressions. He recalled some mutterings of Old Mok about the dead, that they had been seen after it was known that they were deep in the ground, but he knew it was not good to speak or think of such things. Again Ab sprang to his feet. It would not do to shut his eyes, for then he saw plainly Oak in his shallow hole in the dark earth and the face Ab had hurried to cover first when he was burying his friend, there under the trees. And so the night wore away, sleep coming fitfully from time to time. Ab could not explore his retreat in the strange firelight nor run the risks of another night journey across the wild beasts' chosen country. He began to be hungry, with the fierce hunger of brute strength, sharpened by terrific labors, but he must wait for the morning. The night seemed endless. There was no relief from the thoughts which tortured him, but, at last, morning broke, and in action Ab found the escape he had longed for.
THE FIRE COUNTRY.
It was light now and the sun shone fairly on Ab's place of refuge. As his senses brought to him full appreciation he wondered at the scene about him. He was in a glade so depressed as to be a valley. About it, to the east and north and west, in a wavering, tossing wall, rose the uplifting line of fire through which he had leaped, though there were spaces where the height was insignificant. On the south, and extending till it circled a trifle to east, rose a wall of rock, evidently the end of a forest-covered promontory, for trees grew thickly to its very edge and their green branches overhung its sheer descent. Coming from some crevice of the rocks on the east, and tumbling downward through the valley, was a riotous brook, which disappeared through some opening at the west. Within this area, thus hemmed in by fire and rock, appeared no living thing save the birds which sang upon the bushes beside the small stream's banks and the butterflies which hung above the flowers and all the insect world which joined in the soft, humming chorus of the morning. It was something that Ab looked upon with delighted wonder, but without understanding. What he saw was not a marvel. It was but the result of one of many upheavals at a time when the earth's cooled shell was somewhat thinner than now and when earthquakes, though there were no cities to overthrow, at least made havoc sometimes by changing the face of nature. There had come a great semi-circular crack in the earth, near and extending to the line of the sheer rock range. The natural gas, the product of the vegetation of thousands of centuries before, had found a chance to escape and had poured forth into the outer world. Something, perhaps a lightning stroke and a flaming tree, perhaps some cave man making fire and consumed on the instant when he succeeded, had ignited the sheet of rising gas, and the result was the wall of flame. It was all natural and commonplace, for the time. There were other upleaping flame sheets in the surrounding region forever burning—as there are in northern Asia to-day—but Ab knew of these fires only from Old Mok's tales. He stood wonderstruck at what he saw about him.
But this man in the valley was young and very strong, with tissues to be renewed, and the physical man within him clamored and demanded. He must eat. He ran forward and around, anxiously observant, and soon learned that at the western end of the valley, where the little creek tumbled through a rocky cut into a lower level, there was easy exit from the fire-encompassed and protected area. He clambered along the creek's rough, descending side. He emerged upon an easier slope and then found it possible to climb the hillside to the plane of the great wood. There must, he thought, be food of some sort, even for a man with only Oak's knife in his possession! There was the forest and there were nuts. He was in the forest soon, among the gray-trunked, black-mottled beeches and the rough brown oaks. He found something of what he sought, the nuts lying under shed leaves, though the supply was scant. But nuts, to the cave man, made moderately good food, supplying a part of the sustenance he required, and Ab ate of what he could find and arose from the devouring search and looked about him.
He was weaponless, save for the knife, and a flint knife was but a thing for closest struggle. He longed now for his ax and spear and the strong bow which could hurt so at a distance. But there was one sort of weapon to be had. There was the club. He wandered about among the tops of fallen trees and wrenched at their dried limbs, and finally tore one away and broke off, later, with a prying leverage, what made a rough but available club for a cave man's purposes. It was much better than nothing. Then began a steady trot toward what should be fair life again. There were vague paths through the forest made by wild beasts. As he moved the man thought deeply.
He thought of the fire-wall, and could not with all his reasoning determine upon the cause of its existence, and so abandoned the subject as a thing, the nub of which was unreachable. That was the freshest object in his mind and the first to be mentally disposed of. But there were other subjects which came in swift succession. As he went along with a dog's gait he was not in much terror, practically weaponless as he was. His eye was good and he was going through the forest in the daylight. He was strong enough, club in hand, to meet the minor beasts. As for the others, if any of them appeared, there were the trees, and he could climb. So, as he trotted he could afford to think.
And he thought much that day, this perplexed man, our grandfather with so many "greats" before the word. He had nothing to divert him even in the selection of the course toward his cave. He noted not where the sun stood, nor in what direction the tiny head-waters of the rivulets took their course, nor how the moss grew on the trees. He traveled in the wood by instinct, by some almost unexplainable gift which comes to the thing of the woods. The wolf has it; the Indian has it; sometimes the white man of to-day has it.
As he went Ab engaged in deeper and more sustained thought than ever before in all his life. He was alone; new and strange scenes had enlarged his knowledge and swift happenings had made keener his perceptions. For days his entire being had been powerfully affected by his meeting with Lightfoot at the Feast of the Mammoth and the events which had followed that meeting in such swift succession. The tragedy of Oak's death had quickened his sensibilities. Besides, what had ensued latest had been what was required to make him in a condition for the divination of things. The wise agree that much stimulant or much deprivation enables the brain convolutions to do their work well, though deprivation gets the cleaner end. The asceticism of Marcus Aurelius was productive of greater results than the deep drinking of any gallant young Roman man of letters of whom he was a patron. The literature of fasting thinkers is something fine. Ab, after exerting his strength to the utmost for days, had not eaten of flesh, and the strong influences to which he was subjected were exerted upon a man still, practically, fasting. For a time, the rude and earth-born child of the cave was lifted into a region of comparative sentiment and imagination. It was an experience which affected materially all his later life.
Ever to the trotting man came the feelings which must follow fierce love and deadly action and vague remorse and fear of something indefinable. He saw the face and form of Lightfoot; he saw again the struggle, death-ending, with the friend of youth and of mutual growing into manhood. He remembered dimly the half insane flight, the leaps across the dreaded morass and, more distinctly, the chase by the wolves. The aspect of the Fire Country and of all that followed his awakening was, of course, yet fresh in his mind. He was burdened.
Ever uprising and oppressing above all else was the memory of the man he had killed and buried, covering the face first, so that it might not look at him. Was Oak really dead? he asked himself again! Had not he, Ab, as soon as he slept again, seen, alive and well, the close friend of his? He clung to the vision. He reasoned as deeply as it was in him to reason.
As he struggled in his mind to obtain light there came to him the fancy of other things dimly related to the death mystery which had perplexed him and all his kind. There must be some one who made the river rise and fall or the nut-bearing forest be either fruitful or the hard reverse. Who and what could it be? What should he do, what should all his friends do in the matter of relation to this unknown thing?
With this day and hour did not come really the beginning of Ab's thought upon the subject of what was, to him and those he knew, the supernatural. He had thought in the past—he could not help it—of the shadow and the echo. He remembered how he and Oak had talked about the echo, and how they had tried to get rid of the thing which had more than once called back to them insolently across the valley. Every word they shouted this hidden creature would mockingly repeat and there was no recourse for them. They had once fully armed themselves and, in a burst of desperate bravery, had resolved to find who and what the owner of this voice was and have, at least, a fight. They had crossed the valley and ranged about the woodland whence the voice seemed to have come, but they never found what they sought!
The shadow which pursued them on sunny afternoons had puzzled them in another way. Very persistent had been the flat, black, earth-clinging and distorted thing which followed them so everywhere. What was this black, following thing, anyhow, this thing which swung its unsubstantial body around as one moved but which ever kept its own feet at the feet of the pursued, wherever there was no shade, and which lay there beside one so persistently?
But the echoes and the shadows were nothing as compared with the things which came to one at night. What were those creatures which came when a man was sleeping? Why did they escape with the dawn and appear again only when he was asleep and helpless, at least until he awoke fairly and seized his ax?
The sun rose high and dropped slowly down toward the west, where the far ocean was, and the shadows somewhat lengthened, but it was still light along the forest pathways and the untiring man still hurried on. He was now close to his country and becoming careless and at ease. But his imagination was still busy; he could not free himself of memory. There came to him still the vision of the friend he had buried, hiding his face first of all. The frenzy of his wish for knowing rushed again upon him. Where was Oak now? he demanded of himself and of all nature. "Where is Oak?" he yelled to the familiar trees beside his path. But the trees, even to the cave man, so close to them in the economy of wild life, so like them in his naturalness, could give no answer.
So the cave man struggled in his dim, uncertain way with the eternal question: "If a man die shall he live again?" So the human mind still struggles, after thousands of centuries have contributed to its development. A wall more impassable than the wall of flame Ab had so lately looked upon still rises between us and those who no longer live. We reach out for some knowledge of those who have died, and go almost into madness because we can grasp nothing. Silence unbroken, darkness impenetrable ever guard the mystery of death. In the long ages since the cave man ran that day, love and hope have in faith erected, beyond the grim barriers of blackness and despair, fair pavilions of promise and consolation, but to the stern examiners of physical fact and reality there has come no news from beyond the walls of silence since. We clamor tearfully for some word from those who are dead, but no answer comes. So Ab groped and strove alone in the forest, in his youth and ignorance, and in the youth and ignorance of our race.
Upon the pathway along the river's bank Ab emerged at last. All was familiar to him now. There, by the clump of trees in the flat below, was the place where he and Oak had dug the pit when they were but mere boys and had learned their first important lessons in sterner woodcraft. Soon came in sight, as he ran, the entrance to the cave of his own family. He was home again. But he was not the one who had left that rude habitation three days before. He had gone away a youth. He had come back one who had suffered and thought. He came back a man.
THE WOOING OF LIGHTFOOT.
Lightfoot, when Ab seized Oak, had fled away from the two infuriated men, as the hare runs, and had sped into the forest. She had the impetus of new fear now and ran swiftly as became her name, never looking behind her, nor did she slacken her pace, though panting and exhausted, until she found herself approaching the cave where lived her playmate, Moonface, not more than an hour's run from her own home.
The fleeing girl was fortunate in stumbling upon her friend as soon as she came into the open space about the cave. Moonface was enjoying herself lazily that afternoon. She was leaning back idly in a swing of vines to which she had braided a flexible back, and was blinking somnolently in the sunshine as the visitor leaped from the wood. Moonface recognized her friend, gave a quavering cry of delight and came slipping and rolling recklessly to the ground to meet her. Lightfoot uttered no word. She stood breathless, and was rather carried than led by Moonface to an easy seat, moss-padded, upon twisted tree roots, which was that young lady's ordinary resting-place. Upon this seat the two sank, one overcome with past fear and present fatigue, and the other with an all-absorbing and demanding curiosity. It was beyond the ordinary scope of the self-restraining forces in Moonface to await with calm the recovery of Lightfoot's breath and powers of conversation. She pinched and shook her friend and demanded, half-crying but impatiently, some explanation. It was a great hour for Moonface, the greatest in her life. Here was her friend and dictator panting and terrified like some weak, hunted-down thing of the wood. It was a marvel. At last Lightfoot spoke:
"They are fighting at the foot of the hill!" she said, and Moonface at once guessed the whole story, for she was not blind, this wide-mouthed creature.
"Why did you run away?" she asked.
"I ran because I was scared. One of them must be dead before this time. I am glad I am alive myself," Lightfoot gasped. Then the girl covered her face with her hands as she recalled Ab's face, distorted by passion and murderous hate, and Oak's equally maddened look as, before the onrush, he had grasped her so firmly that the marks of his fingers remained blue upon her arms and slender waist and neck.
Then Lightfoot, slow to regain her composure, told tremblingly the story of all that had occurred, finding comfort in the unaffrighted look upon the face, as well as in the reassuring talk, of her easy-going, unimaginative and cheerful and faithful companion. She remained as a guest at the cave overnight and the next forenoon, when she took her way for home, she was accompanied by Moonface. Gradually, as the hours passed, Lightfoot regained something of her usual frame of mind and a little of her ordinary manner of careless light-heartedness, but when home had been reached and the girls had rested and eaten and she heard Moonface telling anew for her the story of the flight in the wood, while her father, Hilltop, and her two strapping brothers listened with interest, but with no degree of excitement, she felt again the wild alarm and horror and uncertainty which had affected her when first she fled from what was to her so dreadful. She crept away from the cave door near which the others sat enjoying the balmy midsummer afternoon, beckoning to one of her brothers to follow her, as the big fellow did unquestioningly, for Lightfoot had been, almost from young girlhood, the dominant force in the family, even the strong father, though it was contrary to the spirit of the time, admiring and yielding to his one daughter without much comment. The great, hulking youth, well armed and ready for any adventure, joined her, nothing both, and the two disappeared, like shadows, in the depths of the forest.
Lightfoot had been the housekeeper in the cave of Hilltop, the cave of the greatest hunter of the region, young despite the years which had encompassed him, and father of two boys who were fine specimens of the better men of the time. They were splendid whelps, and this slim thing, whom they had cared for as she grew, dominated them easily, though the age was not one of vast family affection, while chivalry, of course, did not exist. Hilltop's wife had died two years before, and Lightfoot, with unconscious force, had taken her mother's place. There was none other with woman's ways to help the men in the rock-guarded home on the windy hill. Hilltop had not been altogether unthinking all this time. He had often looked upon his daughter's friend, the jolly, swart and well-fed Moonface, and had much approved of her, but, today, as he listened to her story, he did not pay such attention as was demanded by the interest of the theme. An occasional death, though it were the killing of one cave man by another, was not a matter of huge importance. He was not inflamed in any way by what he heard, but as he looked and listened to the comfortable young person who was speaking, the idea, hastened it may be by some loving and domestic instinct, grew slowly in his brain that she might make for him as excellent a mate as any other of the "good matches" to be found in the immediately surrounding country. He was a most directly reasoning person, this Hilltop, best of hunters and generally respected on the forest ridges. After the thought once dawned upon him, it grew and grew, and an idea fairly developed in Hilltop's mind meant action. His fifty-five years of age had hardly cooled and had certainly not nearly approached to freezing the blood in his outstanding veins. He had a suit to make, and make at once. That he might have no interruption he bade Stone-Arm, his remaining son, who sat on a rock near by, and who had listened, open-mouthed, to the recital of Moonface, to seek his brother and Lightfoot in the forest path. There might be beasts abroad and two men were better than one, said this crafty father-hunter-lover.
The boy, clever tracker as a red Indian or Australian trailer, soon found the path his brother and Lightfoot had taken and joined them. As he listened to what they were saying he was glad he had been sent to follow them. They were hastening toward the valley. The trees were beginning to cast long shadows when the three came to where the more abrupt hillside reached the slope and where the torn ground, broken limbs and twigs and deep-indented footprints in the soil gave glaring evidence to the eye of yesterday's struggle. But, aside from all this, there was something else. There was a carpet of yellowish-brown leaves, at the edge of the circle of fray, where a man had fallen. On the clean stretch of evenly rain-packed leaves there were spots from which the scarlet had but lately faded into crimson. There was a place where the surface was disturbed and sunken a little. All three knew that a man had died there.
The two young men and their sister stood together uttering no word. The men were amazed. The woman half comprehended all. She did not hesitate a moment. Guided by a sure instinct, Lightfoot reached, without thought or conscious search, the spot of unnatural earth which reared itself so near to them, the spot where was fresh stone-covered soil and where a man was buried. The pile of stones, newly heaped upon the moist earth, told their story.
Someone was buried there, but whom? Was it Oak or Ab?
"Shall I dig?" said Stone-Arm, making ready for the task, while Branch, his elder brother, prepared for work as well.
"No! No!" cried Lightfoot. "He is buried deep and the stones are over him. It will be night soon and the wolves and hyenas would be here before we could get away. Let it be. Someone is there, but the one who killed him has buried him. He will come back!" The two boys were silent, and Lightfoot led the way toward home. When the three reached the cave of Hilltop the sun was setting. Something had happened at the cave, but there arises at this point no stern demand for going into details. Hilltop, brave man, was no laggard in wooing, and Moonface was not a nervous young person. When the other members of the household reached the cave Moonface was already installed as mistress. There would be no reprisals from an injured family. The girl had lived with her ancient father, whom she had half-supported and who would, possibly, be transplanted to Hilltop's cave for such pottering life as he was still capable of during the rest of his existence. The new regime was fairly established.
The arrangement suited Lightfoot well enough. This astounding stepmother had been her humble but faithful friend. Lightfoot was a ruling woman spirit wherever she was, and she knew it, though she bowed at all times to the rule of strength as the only law. Nevertheless she knew how to get her own way. With Moonface, everything was easy for her and she found it rather pleasant than otherwise to find the other young woman made suddenly a permanent resident of the cave in which she had been born and had lived all her life. As the two girls met, and the situation was curtly announced by Hilltop, their faces were worth the seeing. There was alarm and hopefulness upon the countenance of Moonface, sudden astonishment and indignation, and then reflection, upon the face of Lightfoot. After a few moments of thought both girls laughed cheerfully.
The story of the newly found grave made but little impression upon the group and Lightfoot, the only one of the household who thought much about it, thought silently. To her the single question was: "Who lay there?" There was nothing strange to the others of the family in the thought that one man should have killed another, and no one attached blame to or proposed punishment of the slayer. Sometimes after such a happening, the cave man who had slain another might have a rock rolled suddenly upon him from a height, or in passing a thicket have the flint head of a spear driven through him, but this was only the deed, perhaps, of an enraged father or brother, not in any sense a matter of course in the way of justice, and even such attempt at reprisal was not the rule.
But in the bosom of Lightfoot was a weight like a stone. It was as heavy, she thought, as one of the stones on the bare ground over the body of the man who lay there in the dark earth, because he had run after her. Who was it? It might be Ab! And all through the night the girl tossed uneasily on her bed of leaves, as she did for nights to come.
As for Moonface, who shall say what that rotund and hairy young person thought when the family had settled down to the changed order of things and she had adjusted herself to the duties of a matron in her new home? She was not less broadly buoyant and beaming, but who can tell that, when she noted Lightfoot's burning look and thoughtful mien, Moonface did not sometimes think of the two young men who, but yesterday, had rejoiced in such strength and vigor and charm of power and who were so good to look upon? She was a wife now, but to another sort of man. Even the feminine among writers of erotic novels have not yet revealed what the young moon thinks when she "holds the old moon in her arms." Anyhow, Hilltop was a defense and a great provider of food. He was a fine figure of a man, too.
Lightfoot was not much in the cave now. She lingered about the open space or wandered in the near wood. A woman's instinct told her to be out-doors all the time she could. A man would seek her, but with the thought came an awful dread. Which man? One afternoon she saw something.
Two gray forms flitted across an open space in the forest near the cave, and in a moment the girl was in a treetop. What followed was the unexpected. Close behind the gray things came a man, fully armed, straight, eager and alert and silent in his wood surroundings, with eyes roving over and searching all the open space about the cave of Hilltop. The man was Ab.
The girl gave a shriek of delight, then, alarmed at the sound she had made, cowered behind a refuge of leaves and branches. She was happy beyond all her experience before. The question which had been in all her thoughts was answered! It was Oak, not Ab, who lay in the ground on the hillside. And, even as she realized this fully, there was a swift upward scramble and the young cave man was beside her on the limb. There was no running away this time. The girl's face told its story well enough, so well that Ab, still lately doubting, though resolved, knew that his fitting mate belonged to him. There came to them the happiness which ever comes to lovers, be they man or bird or beast, and then came swift conclusion. He told her she must go with him at once, told her of the new cave and of all he had done, but the girl, well aware of the dangers of the beast-haunted region where the new home had been selected, was thoroughly alarmed. Then Ab told her of the little flying spears which Old Mok had made for him, and about the wonderful bow which sent them to their mark, and the girl was reassured and soon began to feel exceedingly brave and proud of her lover and his prowess.
No need of carrying off a girl by force or craft on this occasion, for Hilltop had fully recognized Ab's strength and quality. The two went to the cave together and there was eating and then, later, two skin-clad human beings, a man and a woman, went away together through the forest. Their journey was a long one and a careful lookout was necessary as they hurried along a pathway of the strange country. But the cave was reached at last, just as the sun burned red and gave a rosy glow to everything.
Silently the two came into the open space in front of what was to be their fortress and abode. Solid was the rock about the entrance and narrow the blocked opening. Smoke curled in a pretty spiral upward from where smoldered the fire Ab had made the day before. Lightfoot looked upon it all and laughed joyously, though tremblingly, for she had now given herself to a man and he had brought her to his place of living.
As for the man, he looked down upon the girl delightedly. His pulse beat fast. He put his arm about her and together they entered the cave. There was a marriage but no ceremony. Just as robins mate when they have met or as the buck and doe, so faithful man and wife became these two.
Darkness fell, the fire at the cave entrance flashed up fiercely and Ab and Lightfoot were "at home."
The sun shone brilliantly, birds were singing and the balsam firs gave forth their morning incense as Ab and Lightfoot issued from their cave. They had eaten heartily, and came out buoyant and delighted with the world which was theirs. The chattering of the waterfowl along the river reached their ears faintly, the leaves were moved by a gentle breeze, there was a hum of insects in the air and the very pulse of living could be felt. Ab carried his new weapon proudly, hungering for the love and admiration of this girl of his, and eager to show her its powers and to exhibit his own skill. At his back hung his quiver of mammoth bone. His bow, unstrung, was in his hand. In front of the cave was a bare area of many yards in extent, then came a few scattering trees and, at a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, the forest began. Across the open space of ground, with its great mass of branches crushed together not far from the cave's mouth, had fallen one of the gigantic conifers' of the time, and was there gradually decaying, its huge limbs and bole, disintegrating, and dry as punk, affording, close at hand, a vast fuel supply, the exceptional value of which Ab had recognized when making his selection of a home. Near the edge of the little clearing made by nature, Ab seated himself upon a log, and drawing Lightfoot down to a seat beside him, began enthusiastically to make clear the marvels of the weapon he had devised and which he and Old Mok had developed into something startling in its possibilities.
All details of the explanation made by the earnest young hunter, it is probable, Lightfoot did not comprehend. She looked proudly at him, fingering the flint pointed arrows curiously, yet seemed rather intent upon the man than the wood and stone. But when he pointed at a great knot in a tree near them and bent his bow and sent an arrow fairly into the target, and when, even with her strength, Lightfoot could not pull the arrow out, she was wild with admiration and excitement. She begged to be taught how to use, herself, this wonderful new weapon, for she recognized as readily as could anyone its adaptation to the use of one of inferior strength. The delighted lover was certainly as desirous as she that she should some day become an expert. He handed her the bow, retaining, slung over his shoulder, fortunately, as it developed, the bone quiver full of Old Mok's best arrows. He taught her, first, how to bend and string the bow. There were failures and successes, and there was much laughter from the merry-hearted Lightfoot. Finally, it happened that Ab was not just content with the quality of the particular arrow which he had selected for Lightfoot's use. He had taken a slender one with a clean flint head, but something about the notch had not quite suited him. With a thin, hard stone scraper, carried in a pouch of his furry garb, he began rasping and filing at this notch to make it better fit the string of tendons, while Lightfoot, with the bow still strung, stood beside him. At last, tired of holding the thing in her hands, she passed it over her head and one shoulder and stood there jauntily, with both hands free, while the man scraped away with the one little flake of flint in his possession, and, as he worked, paused from time to time note how well he was rounding the notch in the end of the slight hardwood shaft. It was just as he was holding up to her eyes the arrow, now made almost an ideal one, according to his fancy, when there came to the ears of the two a sound, distinct, ominous and implying to them deadly peril, a sound such that, though nerves spoke and muscles acted, they were very near the momentary paralysis which sometimes come from sudden fearful shock. From close beside them came the half grunt and half growl of the great cave bear!