With the instinct born of generations, each leaped independently toward the nearest tree, and, with the unconscious strength and celerity which comes to even wild animals with the dread of death at hand, each clambered to a treetop before a word was spoken. Scarcely had either left the ground before there was a rush into the open glade of a huge brown hairy form, and this was instantly followed by another. As Ab and Lightfoot climbed far amid the branches and looked down, they saw upreared at the base of each tree the figure of one of the monsters whose hungry exclamations they knew so well. They had been careless, these two lovers, especially the man. He had known well, but for the moment had forgotten how beast-infested was the immediate area about his new home, and now had come the consequence of his thoughtlessness. He and his wife had been driven to the treetops within a few yards of their own hearthstone, leaving their weapons inside their cave!
Alarmed and panting, after settling down to a firm seat far aloft, each looked about to see what had become of the other. Each was at once reassured as to the present, and each became much perplexed as to the future. The cave bear, like his weaker and degenerate descendant, the grizzly of to-day, had the quality of persistence well developed, and both Ab and Lightfoot knew that the siege of their enemies would be something more than for the moment. The trees in which they perched were very close to the wood, but not so close that the forest could be reached by passing from branch to branch. Their two trees were not far from each other, but their branches did not intermingle. There was a distinct opening between them. The tree up which Lightfoot had scrambled was a great fir towering high above the strong beech in which Ab had found his safety. Branches of the fir hung down until between their ends and Ab's less lofty covert there were but a few yards of space. Still, one trying to reach the beech from the lofty fir would find an unpleasantly wide gap.
Each of the creatures in the tree was unarmed. Ab still bore the quiver full of admirable arrows, and across the breast of Lightfoot still hung the strong bow which she had slung about her in such blithesome mood. Soon began an exceedingly earnest conversation. Ab, eager to reach again the fair creature who now belonged to him, was half frantic with rage, and Lightfoot was far from her usual mood of careless gaiety. The two talked and considered, though but to little purpose, and, finally, after weary hours, the night came on. It was a trying situation. Man and woman were in equal danger. The bears were hungry—and the cave bear knew his quarry. The beasts beneath were not disposed to leave the prey they had imprisoned aloft. The night grew, but either Ab or Lightfoot, looking down, could see the glare of small, hungry eyes. There was gentle talk between the two, for this was a great strait and, in straits, souls, be they prehistoric, historic or of to-day, always come closer together. Very much more loving lovers, even, than they were before, became the two perched aloft that night. It was a comfort for the wedded pair to call to each other through the darkness. After a time, however, muscles grew lax with the continued strain. Weariness clouded the spirits of the couple and almost overcame them and only the thing which has always, in great stress, given the greatest strength in this world—the love of male and female—sustained them. They stood the test pretty well. To sleep in a tree top was an easy thing for them, with the precautions, simple and natural, of the time. Each plaited a withe of twigs with which to be tied to the tree or limb, and resting in the hollow nest where some great limb joined the bole, slept as sleep tired children, until the awakening of nature awoke these who were nature's own. When Ab awoke, he had more on his mind than Lightfoot, for he was the one who must care for the two. He blinked and wondered where he was. Then he remembered all, suddenly. He looked across anxiously at a slender brown thing lying asleep, coiled so close to the bole of the tree to which she was bound that she seemed almost a part of it. Then he looked down, and, after what he saw, thought very seriously. The bears were there! He looked up at the bright sky and all about him, and inhaled all the fragrance of the forest, and felt strong, and that he knew what he should do. He called aloud.
The girl awoke, frightened. She would have fallen had she not been bound to the tree. Gradually, the full meaning of the situation dawned upon her and she began to cry. She was hungry, her limbs were stiffened by her bands, and there was death below. But there, close to her, was the Man. His voice gradually reassured her. He was becoming angry now, almost raging. Here he was, the lord of a cave, independent and master as much as any other man whom he knew, perched in one tree while his bride of a day was in the top of another, yet kept apart from her by the brutes below!
He had decided what to do, and now he talked to Lightfoot with all the frankness of the strong male who felt that he had another to care for, and who realized his responsibility and authority together. As the strength and decided personality of the young man came to her through his voice, the young woman drew her scanty fur robe about her and checked her tears. She became comparatively calm and reasonable.
The tree in which Lightfoot had found refuge had many long slender branches lowering toward the giant beech into which the man had made his retreat. Ab argued that it was possible—barely possible—for Lightfoot's compact, agile, slender body to be launched in just the right way from one of the branches of the taller tree, and, swinging in its descent across the space between the two, lodge among the branches of the beech with him. Strong arms ready to clasp her as she came and to withstand the shock and to hold her safely he promised and, to enforce his plea, he pointed out that, unless they thus took their fate in hand, there was starvation awaiting them as they were, while carrying out his plan, if any accident befell, there was only swift though dreadful death to reckon with. There was one chance for their lives and that chance must be taken. Ab called to his young wife:
"Crawl out upon a branch above me, swing down from it, swing hard and throw yourself to me. I will catch you and hold you. I am strong."
The woman, with all faith in the man, still demurred. It was a great test, even for the times and the occasion. But hunger was upon her and she was cold and was, naturally, very brave. She lowered herself and climbed down and reached an out-extending limb, and there, across the gap, she saw Ab with his strong legs twined about the uprearing branch along which he laid, with giant brown arms stretched out confidently and with eyes steadily regarding her, eyes which had love and longing and a lot of fight in them. She walked out along the limb, holding herself safely by a firm hand-hold on the limb above, until the one her bare feet rested upon swayed and tipped uncertainly. Then came her time of trial of nerve and trust. Suddenly she stooped, caught the lower limb with her hands and then swung beneath it, hanging by her hands alone, and, hand over hand, passed herself along until she reached almost its end. Then she began swaying back and forth. She was but a few yards above Ab now, dangling in mid-air, while, below her, the two hungry bears had rushed together and were looking upward with red, anticipating eyes, the ooze coming from their mouths. The moment was awful. Soon she must be a mangled thing devoured by frightful beasts, or else a woman with a life renewed. She looked at Ab, and, with courage regained, prepared for the great effort which must end all or gain a better lease of life.
She swung back and forth, each drawing up and outreach and flexible motion of her arms giving more momentum to the sway and conserving force for the launch of herself she was about to make. The desperation and strength of a wood-wise creature, so bravely combined, alone enabled her to obey Ab's hoarse command.
Ab, with his arms outreaching in their strength, feeling the fierce eyes of the hungry bears below boring into his very heart, leaned forward and upward as the swing of the woman reached its climax. With a cry of warning, the woman launched herself and shot downward and forward, like a bolt to its mark, a very desirable lump of femininity as appearing in mid-air, but one somewhat forcible in its alighting.
Ab was strong, but when that girl landed fairly in his brawny arms, as she did beautifully, it was touch and go, for a fraction of a second, whether both should fall to the ground together or both be saved. He caught her deftly, but there was a great shock and swing and then, with a vast effort, there came recovery and the man drew himself, shaking, back to the support of the branch from which he had been almost wrenched away, at the same time placing beside him the object he had just caught.
There was absolute silence for a moment or two between these unconventional lovers to whom had come escape from a hard situation. They were drawing deep breaths and recovering an equilibrium. There they sat together on the strong branch, each of them as secure and, for the moment, as perfectly at home as if lying on a couch in the cave. Each of them was panting and each of them rejoicing. It was unlikely that upon their trained, robust nerves the life-endangering episode of a moment could have a more than passing effect. They sat so together for some minutes with arms entwined, still drawing deep breaths, and, a little later, began to laugh chucklingly, as breath came to be spared for such exhibition if human feeling. Gradually, the indrawing and expelling of the glorious air shortened. The two had regained their normal condition and Ab's face lengthened and the lines upon it became more distinct. He was all himself again, but in no dallying mood. He gave a triumphant whoop which echoed through the forest, shook his clenched hand savagely at the brutes below and reached toward Lightfoot for the bow which hung about her shoulders.
MORE OF THE HONEYMOON.
The brown, downy woman knew, on the instant, what was her husband's mood and immediate intent when he thus shouted and took into his own keeping again the stiff bow which hung about her shoulders. She knew that her lord was not merely in a glad, but that he was also in a vengeful frame of mind, that he wanted from her what would enable him to kill things, and that, equipped again, he was full of the spirit of fight. She knew that, of the four animals grouped together, two huge creatures of the ground and two slighter ones perched in a tree top, the chances were that the condition of those below had suddenly become the less preferable.
The bow was about Ab's shoulders instantly, and then this preposterous young gentleman of the period turned to the woman and laughed, and caught her in one of his arms a little closer, and drew her up against him and laid his cheek against her own for a moment and drew it away and laughed again. The kiss, it is believed, had not fully developed itself in the cave man's time, but there were substitutes. Then, releasing her, he said gleefully and chucklingly, "follow me;" and they clambered down the bole of the beech together until they reached the biggest and very lowest limb of all. It was perhaps twenty feet above the ground. A little below their dangling feet the hungry bears, hitherto more patient, now, with their expected prey so close at hand, becoming desperately excited, ran about, frothing and foaming and red-eyed, uprearing themselves in awful nearness, at times, in their eagerness to reach the prey which they had so awaited and which, to their intelligence, seemed about falling into their jaws. They had so driven into trees before, and finally consumed exhausted cave men and women. As bears went, they were doubtless logical animals. They could not know that there had come into possession of this particular pair of creatures of the sort they had occasionally eaten, a trifling thing of wood and sinew string and flint point, which was destined henceforth to make a decided change in the relative condition of the biped and quadruped hunters of the time. How could they know that something small and sharp would fly down and sting them more deeply than they had ever been stung before, that it would sting so deeply that their arteries might be cut, or their hearts pierced and that then they must lie down and die? The well-thrown spear had been, in other ages, a vast surprise to the carnivora of the period, but there was something yet to learn.
When they had reached the huge branch so near the ground both Ab and Lightfoot were for a moment startled and lifted their feet instinctively, but it was only for a moment in the case of the man. He knew that he was perfectly safe and that he had with him an engine of death. He selected his best and strongest arrow, he fitted it carefully to the string and then, as his mother had done years before above the hyena which sought her child, he reached one foot down as far as he could, and swung it back and forth tantalizingly, just above the larger of the hungry beasts below. The monster, fierce with hunger and the desire for prey, roared aloud and upreared himself by the tree trunk and tore the bark with his strong claws, throwing back his great head as he looked upward at the quarry so near him and yet just beyond his reach. This was the man's opportunity. Ab drew back the arrow till the flint head rested close by his out-straining hand and the tough wood of the bow creaked under the thrust of his muscled arm. Then he released the shaft. So close together were man and bear that archer's skill of aim was not required. The brown target could not be missed. The arrow struck with a tear and the flint head drove through skin and tissue till its point protruded at the back of the great brute's neck. The bear fell suddenly backward, then rose again and reached blindly at its neck with its huge fore-paws, while from where the arrow had entered the blood came out in spurts. Suddenly the bear ceased its appalling roars and started for the cave. There had come to it the instinct which makes such great beasts seek to die alone. It rushed at the narrow entrance but its course was scarcely noted by the couple in the tree. The other bear, the female, was seeking to reach them in no less savage mood than had animated her stricken mate.
Not often, when the cave man first learned the use of the bow, came to him such fortune with a first strong shot as that which had so come to Ab. Again he selected a good arrow, again shot his strongest and best, but the shaft only buried itself in the shoulder and served but to drive to absolute madness the raging creature thus sorely hurt. The forest echoed with the roaring of the infuriated animal, and as she reared herself clambering against the tree the tough fiber was rended away in great slivers, and the man and woman were glad that the trunk was thick and that they owned a natural citadel. Again and again did Ab discharge his arrows and still fail to reach a vital part of the terror below. She fairly bristled with the shafts. It was inevitable that she must die, but when the last shot had sped she was still infuriate and, apparently, as strong as ever. The archer looked down upon her with some measure of despondency in his face, but by no means with despair. He and his bride must wait. That was all, and this he told to Lightfoot. That intelligent and reliable young helpmate of a few hours, who had looked upon what had occurred with an awed admiration, did not exhibit any depression. Her husband, fortunate Benedict, had produced a great effect upon her by his feat. She felt herself something like a queen. Had she known enough and had the fancies of the Ruth of some thousands of decades later she would have told him how completely thenceforth his people were her people and his gods her gods.
The she bear became finally somewhat quieted; she tore less angrily at the tree and made less of the terrible clamor which had for the moment driven from the immediate region all the inmates of the wood, for none save the cave tiger cared to be in the immediate neighborhood of the cave bear. Her roars changed into roaring growls, and she wandered staggeringly about. At last she started blindly and weakly toward the forest, and just as she had passed beneath its shadow, paused, weaved back and forth for a moment, and then fell over heavily. She was dead.
Not an action of the beast had escaped the eyes of Ab. Well he knew the ways of wounded things. As the bear toppled over he gave utterance to a whoop and, with a word to the girl beside him, slid lightly to the ground, she following him at once. It was very good to be upon the earth again. Ab stamped with his feet and stretched his arms, and the woman danced upon the grass and laughed gleefully. But this was only for a moment or so. Ab started toward the cave, and as he reached the entrance, gave a great cry of rage and dismay. Lightfoot ran to his side and even her ready laugh failed her when she looked upon his perplexed and stormy countenance and saw what had happened. The rump of the monster he bear was what she looked upon. The beast, in his instinctive effort to crawl into some dark place to die, had fairly driven himself into the cave's entrance, dislodging some of the stones Ab had placed there, had wedged himself in firmly, and had died before he could extricate his great carcass. The two human beings were homeless and, with all the arrows gone, weaponless, in the midst of a region so dangerously infested that any movement afoot was but inviting death. They were hungry, too, for many hours had passed since they had tasted food. It was not matter of surprise that even the stout-hearted cave man stood aghast.
The occasion for Ab's alarm was fully verified. From the spot where the cave bear lay at the forest's edge came a sharp, snapping growl. The lurking hyenas had found the food, and a long, inquiring howl from another direction told that the wolves had scented it and were gathering. For the instant Ab was himself almost helpless with fear. The woman was simply nerveless. Then the man, so accustomed to physical danger, recovered himself. He sprang forward, seized a stout fragment of limb which might serve as a sort of weapon, and, turning to the woman, said only the one word "fire."
Lightfoot understood and life came to her again. None in all the region could make a fire more swiftly than she. Her quick eye detected just the base she wanted in a punkish fragment of wood and the harder and pointed bit of limb to be used in making the friction. In a time scarcely worth the noting the point was whirling about and burning into the wooden base, twirling with a skill and velocity not comprehensible by us to-day, for the cave people had perfected wonderfully this greatest manual art of the time, and Lightfoot, muscular and enduring, was, as already said, in this thing the cleverest among the clever. Ab, with ready club in hand, advanced cautiously toward the point at the wood's edge where lay the body of the bear. He paused as he came near enough to see what was happening. Four great hyenas were tearing eagerly at the flesh of the dead brute, and behind them, deeper in the wood, were shining eyes, and Ab knew that the wolf pack was gathering. The bear consumed, the man and woman, without defense, would surely be devoured. It was a desperate strait, but, though he was weaponless, there was the cave man's great resort, the fire, and there might be a chance for life. To seek the tree tops would be dangerous even now, and once ensconced in such harborage, only starvation was awaiting. He moved back noiselessly, with as little apparent motion as possible, for he did not want to attract the attention of the gleaming eyes in the distance, until he came near Lightfoot again, and then he abandoned caution of movement and began tearing frantically at the limbs and debris of the great dead conifer, and to build a semicircular fence in front of the cave entrance. He did the swift work of half a score of men in his desperation and anxiety, his great strength serving him well in his compelling strait.
Meanwhile the stick twirled and rasped in the hands of the brown woman seated on the ground, and at last a tiny thread of smoke arose. The continued friction had done its work. Deft himself at fire-making, Ab knew just what was wanted at this moment and ran to his wife's side with punk from the dead tree, rubbed to a powder in his hard hands. The powder, poured gently down upon the point where the increasing heat had brought the gleam of fire, burst, almost at once, into a little flame. What followed was simple and easy. Dry twigs made the slight flame a greater one and then, at a dozen different points, the wall which Ab had built was fired. They were safe, for the time at least. Behind them was the uprearing rock in which was the cave and before them, almost encircling them completely, was the ring of fire which no wild beast would cross. At one end, close to the rock, a space had been left by Ab, that he and Lightfoot might, through it, reach the vast store of fuel which lay there ready to the hand and so close that there was no danger in visiting it. Hardly had the flame extended itself along the slight wooden barrier than the whole wood and clearing resounded with terrifying sounds. The wolf pack had increased until strong enough to battle with the hyenas for the remainder of the feast in the wood, and their fight was on.
The feeling of terror had passed away from this young bride and groom, with the assurance of present safety, and Ab felt the need of eating. "There is meat," he said, as he pointed toward the haunches of the bear, half-protruding from the rock, "and there is fire. The fire will cook the meat, and, besides, we are safe. We will eat!"
The bridegroom of but a day or two said this somewhat grandiloquently, but he was not disposed to be vain or grandiloquent a little later. He put his hand to the belt of his furry garb and found no sharp flint knife there! It had been lost in his late tree clambering. He put his hand into the pouch of his cloak and found only the flint skin scraper, the scraper with which he had improved the arrow's notch, though it was not originally intended for such use. It was all that remained to him of weapon or utensil. But it would cut or tear, though with infinite effort, and the man, to reassure the woman, laughed, and assailed the brown haunch before him. Even with his strength, it was difficult for Ab to penetrate the tough skin of the bear with an implement intended for scraping, not for cutting, and it was only after he had finally cut, or rather dug, away enough to enable him to get his fingers under the skin and tear away an area of it by sheer main strength that the flesh was made available. That end once attained, there followed a hard transverse digging with the scraper, a grasp about tissue of strong, impressed fingers, and a shred of flesh came away. It was tossed at once to a young person who, long twig in hand, stood eagerly waiting. She caught the shred as she had caught the fine bit of mammoth when first she and Ab had met, and it was at once impaled and thrust into the flames. It was withdrawn, it is to be feared, a trifle underdone, and then it disappeared, as did other shreds of excellent bear's meat which came following. It was a sight for a dyspeptic to note the eating of this belle-matron of the region on this somewhat exceptional occasion.
Strip after strip did Ab tear away and toss to his wife until the expression on her face became a shade more peaceful and then it dawned upon him that she was eating and that he was not. There was clamor in his stomach. He sprang away from the bear, gave Lightfoot the scraper and commanded her to get food for him as he had done for her. The girl complied and did as well as had done the man in digging away the meat. He ate as she had done, and, at last, partly gorged and content, allowed her to take her place at the fire and again eat to his serving. He had shown what, from the standard of the time, must be counted as most gallant and generous and courteous demeanor. He had thought a little of the woman.
A tiny rill of cold water trickled down on one side of the outer door of their cave. With this their thirst was slaked, and they ate and ate. The shadows lengthened and Ab replenished again and again the fire. From the semicircle of forest all about came the sound of footsteps rustling in the leaves. But the two people inside the fire fence, hungry no longer, were content. Ab talked to his wife:
"The fire will keep the man-eating things away," he said. "I ran not long ago with things behind me, and I would have been eaten had I not come upon a ring of fire like the one we have made. I leaped it and the eaters could not reach me. But, for the fire I leaped there was no wood. It came out of a crack in the ground. Some day we will go there and I will show you that thing which is so strange."
The woman listened, delighted, but, at last, there was a nodding of the head. She lay back upon the grass a sleepy being. Ab looked at her and thought deeply. Where was safety? As they were, one of them must be awake all the time to keep the fire replenished. Until he could enter the cave again he must be weaponless. Only the fire could protect the two. They had heat and food and nothing to fear for the moment, but they must fairly eat their way into a safety which would be permanent!
He kept the fire alight far into the darkness, and then, piling the fuel high all along the line of defense, he aroused the sleeping woman and told her she must keep the flames bright while he slept in his turn. She was just the wife for such an emergency as this, and rose uncomplainingly to do her part of the guarding work. From the forest all about came snarling sounds or threatening growls, and eyes blazed in the somber depths beneath the trees. There were hungry things out there and they wanted to eat a man and woman, but fire they feared. The woman was not afraid.
After hours had passed the man awoke and took the woman's place and she slept in his stead. Morning came and the sounds from the forest died away partly, but the man and woman knew of the fierce creatures still lurking there. They knew what was before them. They must delve and eat their way into the cave as soon as possible.
Ab scraped at the bear's huge body with his inefficient bit of flint and dug away food in abundance, which he heaped up in a little red mound inside the fire, but the bear was a monstrous beast and it was a long way from tail to head. The days of the honeymoon passed with a degree of travail, for there was no moment when one of the two must not be awake feeding the guarding fire or digging at the bear. They ate still heartily on the second day but it is simple, truthful history to admit that on the sixth day bear's meat palled somewhat on the happy couple. To have eaten thirty quails in thirty days or, at a pinch, thirty quails in two days would have been nothing to either of them, but bear's meat eaten as part of what might be called a tunneling exploit ceased, finally, to possess an attractive flavor. There was a degree of shade cast by all these obtrusive circumstances across this honeymoon, but there came a day and hour when the bear was largely eaten, and fairly dug away as to much of the rest of him, and then, quite suddenly, his head and fore-quarters toppled forward into the cave, leaving the passage free, and when Ab and Lightfoot followed, one shouting and the other laughing, one coming again to his fortress and his weapons and his power, and the other to her hearth and duties.
THE FIRE COUNTRY AGAIN.
The sun rose brightly the next morning and when Ab, armed and watchful, rolled the big stone away and passed the smoldering fire and issued from the cave into the open, the scene he looked upon was fair in every way. Of what had been left of the great bear not a trace remained. Even the bones had been dragged into the forest by the ravening creatures who had fed there during the night. There were birds singing and there were no enemies in sight. Ab called to Lightfoot and the two went forth together, loving and brave, but no longer careless in that too interesting region.
And so began the home life of these two people. It was, in its way and relatively, as sweet and delicious as the first home life of any loving and appreciating man and woman of to-day. The two were very close, as the conditions under which they lived demanded. They were the only human beings within a radius of miles. The family of the cave man of the time was serenely independent, each having its own territory, and depending upon itself for its existence. And the two troubled themselves about nothing. Who better than they could daily win the means of animal subsistence?
Ab taught Lightfoot the art of cracking away the flakes of the flint nodules and of the finer chipping and rasping which made perfect the spear and arrowheads, and never was pupil swifter in the learning. He taught her, too, the use of his new weapon, and in all his life he did no wiser thing! It was not long before she became easily his superior with the bow, so far as her strength would allow, and her strength was far from insignificant. Her arrows flew with greater accuracy than his, though the buzzing shaft had not as yet, and did not have for many centuries later, the "gray goose" feather which made the doing of its mission far more certain. Lightfoot brought to the cave the capercailzie and willow grouse and other birds which were good things for the larder, and Ab looked on admiringly. Even in their joint hunting, when there was a half rivalry, he was happy in her. Somehow, the arrow sang more merrily when it flew from Lightfoot's bow.
Better than Ab, too, could the young wife do rare climbing when in a nest far out upon some branch were eggs good for roasting and which could be reached only by a light-weight. And she learned the woods about them well, and, though ever dreading when alone, found where were the trees from which fell the greatest store of nuts and where, in the mud along the river's side, her long and highly educated toes could reach the clams which were excellent to feed upon.
But never did the hunter leave the cave without a fear. Ever, even in the daytime, was there too much rustling among the leaves of the near forest. Ever when day had gone was there the sound of padded feet on the sward about the cave's blocked entrance. Ever, at night, looking out through the narrow space between the heaped rocks, could the two inside the cave see fierce and blazing eyes and there would come to them the sound of snarls and growls as the beasts of different quality met one another. Yet the two cared little for these fearful surroundings of the darkness. They were safe enough. In the morning there were no signs of the lurking beasts of prey. They were somewhere near, though, and waiting, and so Ab and Lightfoot had the strain of constant watchfulness upon them.
It may be that because of this ever present peril the two grew closer together. It could not well be otherwise with human beings thus bound and isolated and facing and living upon the rest of nature, part of it seeking always their own lives. They became a wonderfully loving couple, as love went in that rude time. Despite the too wearing outlook imposed upon them, because they were in so dangerous a locality, they were very happy. Yet, one day, came a difference and a hurt.
Oak, apparently forgotten by others, was remembered by Ab, though never spoken of. Sometimes the man had tossed upon his bed of leaves and had muttered in his sleep, and the one word he had most often spoken in this troubled dreaming was the name of Oak. Early in their married life Lightfoot, to whom the memory of the dead man, so little had she known him, was a far less haunting thing than to her husband, had suddenly broken a silence, saying "Where is Oak?" There was no answer, but the look of the man of whom she had asked the question was such that she was glad to creep from his sight unharmed. Yet once again, months later, she forgot herself and mocked Ab when he had been boastful over some exploit of strength and courage and when he had seemed to say that he knew no fear. She, but to tease him, sprang up with a face convulsed and agonized, and with staring eyes and hands opening and shutting, had cried out "Oak! Oak!" as she had seen Ab do at night. Her mimic terror was changed on the moment into reality. With a shudder and then with a glare in his eyes the man leaped toward her, snatching his great ax from his belt and swinging it above her head. The woman shrieked and shrank to the ground. The man whirled the weapon aloft and then, his face twitching convulsively, checked its descent. He may, in that moment, have thought of what followed the slaying of the other who had been close to him. There was no death done, but, thenceforth, Lightfoot never uttered aloud the name of Oak. She became more sedate and grave of bearing.
The episode was but a passing, though not a forgotten one in the lives of the two. The months went by and there were tranquil hours in the cave as, at night, the weapons were shaped, and Lightfoot boasted of the arrowheads she had learned to make so well. Sometimes Old Mok would be rowed up the river to them by the sturdy and venturesome Bark, who had grown into a particularly fine youth and who now cared for nothing more than his big brother's admiration. Between Old Mok and Lightfoot, to Ab's great delight, grew up the warmest friendship. The old man taught the woman more of the details of good arrow-making and all he knew of woodcraft in all ways, and the lord of the place soon found his wife giving opinions with an air of the utmost knowledge and authority. Whatever came to him from her and Old Mok pleased him, and when she told him of some of the finer points of arrow-making he stretched out his brawny arms and laughed.
But there came, in time, a shade upon the face of the man. The incident of the talk of Oak may have brought to his mind again more freshly and keenly the memory of the Fire Country. There he had found safety and great comfort. Why should not he and Lightfoot seize upon this home and live there? It was a wonderful place and warm, and there were forests at hand. He became so absorbed in his own thoughts on this great theme that the woman who was his could not understand his mood, but, one day, he told her of what he had been thinking and of what he had resolved upon. "I am going to the Fire Country," he said.
Armed, this time with spear and ax and bow and arrow, and with food abundant in the pouch of his skin garb, Ab left the cave in which Lightfoot was now to stay most of the time, well barricaded, for that she was to hunt afar alone in such a region was not even to be thought of. What thoughts came to the man as he traversed again the forest paths where he had so pondered as he once ran before can be but guessed at. Certainly he had learned no more of Oak.
Lightfoot, left alone in the cave, became at once a most discreet and careful personage, for one of her buoyant and daring temperament. She had often taken risks since her marriage, but there was always the chance of finding within the sound of her voice her big mate, Ab, should danger overtake her. She remained close to the cave, and when early dusk came she lugged the stone barriers into place and built a night-fire within the entrance. The fierce and hungry beasts of the wood came, as usual, lurking and sniffing harshly about the entrance, and when she ventured there and peered outside she saw the wicked and leering eyes. Alone and a little alarmed, she became more vengeful than she would have been with the big, careless Ab beside her. She would have sport with her bow. The advantage of the bow is that it requires no swing of space for its work as is demanded of the flung spear. An arrow may be sent through a mere loophole with no probable demerit as to what it will accomplish. So the woman brought her strongest bow—and far beyond the rough bow of Ab's first make was the bow they now possessed—and gathered together many of the arrows she could make so well and use so well, and, thus equipped, went again to the cave's entrance, and through the space between the heaped rocks of the doorway sent toward the eyes of wolf, or cave hyena, shafts to which they were unaccustomed, but which, somehow, pierced and could find mid-body quite as well as the cave man's spear. There was a certain comfort in the work, though it could not affect her condition in one way or another. It was only something of a gain to drive the eyes away.
And Ab reached the Fire Valley again. He found it as comfortable and untenanted as when the leap through the ring of flame had saved his life. He clambered up the creek and wandered along its banks, where the grass was green because of the warmth about, and studied all the qualities of the naturally defended valley. "I will make my home here," he said. "Lightfoot shall come with me."
The man returned to his cave and his lonely mate again and told her of the Fire Country. He said that in the Fire Valley they would be safer and happier, and told her how he had found an opening underneath the cliff which they could soon enlarge into a cave to meet all wants. Not that a cave was really needed in a fire valley, but they might have one if they cared. And Lightfoot was glad of the departure.
The pair gathered their belongings together and there was the long journey over again which Ab had just accomplished. But it was far different from either journey that he had made. There with him was his wife, and he was all equipped and was to begin a new sort of life which would, he felt, be good. Lightfoot, bearing her load gallantly, was not less jubilant. As a matter of plain fact, though Lightfoot had been happy in the cave in the forest, she had always recognized certain of its disadvantages, as had, in the end, her fearless husband. It is, in a general way, vexatious to live in a locality where, as soon as you leave your hearthstone, you incur, at least, a chance of an exciting and uncomfortable episode and then lodgment in the maw of some imposing creature of the carnivora. Lightfoot was quite ready to seek with Ab the Fire Valley of which he had so often told her. She was a plucky young matron, but there were extremes.
There were no adventures on the journey worth relating. The Fire Valley was reached at nightfall and the two struggled weariedly up the rugged path beside the creek which issued from the valley's western end. As they reached the level Ab threw down his burden, as did Lightfoot, and as the woman's eyes roved over the bright scene, she gave a great gasp of delight. "It is our home!" she cried.
They ate and slept in the light and warmth of surrounding flames, and when the day came they began the work of enlarging what was to be their cave. But, though they worked earnestly, they did not care so much for the prospective shelter as they might have done. What a cave had given was warmth and safety. Here they had both, out of doors and under the clear sky. It was a new and glorious life. Sometimes, though happy, the woman worked a little wearily, and, not long after the settlement of the two in their new home, a child was born to them, a son, robust and sturdy, who came afterward to be known as Little Mok.
A GREAT STEP FORWARD.
There came to Ab and Lightfoot that comfort which comes with laboring for something desired. In all that the two did amid their pleasant surroundings life became a greater thing because its dangers were so lessened and its burdens lightened. But they were not long the sole human beings in the Fire Valley. There was room for many and soon Old Mok took up his permanent abode with them, for he was most contented when with Ab, who seemed so like a son to him. A cave of his own was dug for Mok, where, with his carving and his making of arrows and spearheads, he was happy in his old age. Soon followed a hegira which made, for the first time, a community. The whole family of Ab, One-Ear, Red-Spot and Bark and Beech-leaf and the later ones, all came, and another cave was made, and then old Hilltop was persuaded to follow the example and come with Moonface and Branch and Stone Arm, his big sons, and the group, thus established and naturally protected, feared nothing which might happen. The effect of daily counsel together soon made itself distinctly felt, and, under circumstances so different, many of the old ways were departed from. Half a mile to the south the creek, which made a bend adown its course, tumbled into the river and upon the river were wild fowl in abundance and in its depths were fish. The forest abounded in game and there were great nut-bearing trees and the wild fruits in their season. Wild bees hovered over the flowers in the open places and there were hoards of wild honey to be found in the hollows of deadened trunks or in the high rock crevices. A great honey-gatherer, by the way, was Lightfoot, who could climb so well, and who, furthermore, had her own fancy for sweet things. It was either Bark or Moonface who usually accompanied her on her expeditions, and they brought back great store of this attractive spoil. The years passed and the community grew, not merely in numbers, but intelligence. Though always an adviser with Old Mok, Ab's chief male companion in adventure was the stanch Hilltop, who was a man worth hunting with. Having two such men to lead and with a force so strong behind them the valley people were able to cope with the more dangerous animals venturesomely, and soon the number of these was so decreased that even the children might venture a little way beyond the steep barriers which had been raised where the flame circle had its gaps. The opening to the north was closed by a high stone wall and that along the creek defended as effectively, in a different way. They were having good times in the valley.
At first, the home of all was in the caves dug in the soft rock of the ledge, for of those who came to the novel refuge there was, for a season, none who could sleep in the bright light from the never-waning flames. There came a time, though, when, in midsummer, Ab grumbled at the heat within his cave and he and Lightfoot built for themselves an outside refuge, made of a bark-covered "lean-to" of long branches propped against the rock. Thus was the first house made. The habitation proved so comfortable that others in the valley imitated it and soon there was a hive of similar huts along the foot of the overhanging precipice. When the short, sharp winter came, all did not seek their caves again, but the huts were made warmer by the addition to their walls of bark and skins, and cave dwelling in the valley was finally abandoned. There was one exception. Old Mok would not leave his warm retreat, and, as long as he lived, his rock burrow was his home.
There came also, as recruits, young men, friends of the young men of the valley, and the band waxed and waned, for nothing could at once change the roving and independent habits of the cave men. But there came children to the mothers, the broad Moonface being especially to the fore in this regard, and a fine group of youngsters played and straggled up and down the creek and fought valiantly together, as cave children should. The heads of families were friendly, though independent. Usually they lived each without any reference to anyone else, but when a great hunt was on, or any emergency called, the band came together and fought, for the time, under Ab's tacitly admitted leadership. And the young men brought wives from the country round.
The area of improvement widened. Around the Fire Village the zone of safety spread. The roar of the great cave tiger was less often heard within miles of the flaming torches of the valley so inhabited. There grew into existence something almost like a system of traffic, for, from distant parts, hitherto unknown, came other cave men, bringing skins, or flints, or tusks for carving, which they were eager to exchange for the new weapon and for instruction in its uses. Ab was the first chieftain, the first to draw about him a clan of followers. The cave men were taking their first lesson in a slight, half unconfessed obedience, that first essential of community life where there is yet no law, not even the unwritten law of custom.
Running in and out among the children, sometimes pummeled by them, were a score or two of gray, four-footed, bone-awaiting creatures, who, though as yet uncounted in such relation, were destined to furnish a factor in man's advancement. They were wolves and yet no longer wolves. They had learned to cling to man, but were not yet intelligent enough or taught enough to aid him in his hunting. They were the dogs of the future, the four-footed things destined to become the closest friends of men of future ages, the descendants of the four cubs Ab and Oak had taken from the dens so many years before.
It was humanizing for the children, this association of such a number together, though they ran only a little less wildly than those who had heretofore been born in the isolated caves. There came more of an average of intelligence among them, thus associated, though but little more attention was paid them than the cave men had afforded offspring in the past. There had come to Ab after Little Mok two strong sons, Reindeer and Sure-Aim, very much like him in his youth, but of them, until they reached the age of help and hunting, he saw little. Lightfoot regarded them far more closely, for, despite the many duties which had come upon her, there never disappeared the mother's tenderness and watchfulness. And so it was with Moonface, whose brood was so great, and who was like a noisy hen with chickens. So existed the hovering mother instinct with all the women of the valley, though then the mothers fished and hunted and had stirring events to distract them from domesticity and close affection almost as much as had the men.
From this oddly formed community came a difference in certain ways of doing certain things, which changed man's status, which made a revolution second only to that made by the bow and for which even men of thought have not accounted as they should have done, with the illustration before them in our own times of what has followed so swiftly the use of steam and, later, of electricity. Men write of and wonder at the strange gap between what are called the Paleolithic and the Neolithic ages, that is, between the ages when the spearheads and ax and arrowheads were of stone chipped roughly into shape, and the age of stone even-edged and smoothly polished. There was really no gap worth speaking of. The Paleolithic age changed as suddenly into the Neolithic as the age of horse power changed into that of steam and electricity, allowance being always made for the slower transmission of a new intelligence in the days when men lived alone and when a hundred years in the diffusion of knowledge was as a year to-day.
One day Ab went into Old Mok's cave grumbling. "I shot an arrow into a great deer," he said, "and I was close and shot it with all my force, but the beast ran before it fell and we had far to carry the meat. I tore the arrow from him and the blood upon the shaft showed that it had not gone half way in. I looked at the arrow and there was a jagged point uprising from its side. How can a man drive deeply an arrow which is so rough? Are you getting too old to make good spears and arrows, Mok?" And the man fumed a little. Old Mok made no reply, but he thought long and deeply after Ab had left the cave. Certainly Ab must have good arrows! Was there any way of bettering them? And, the next day, the crippled old man might have been seen looking for something beside the creek where it found its exit from the valley. There were stones ground into smoothness tossed up along the shore and the old man studied them most carefully. Many times he had bent over a stream, watching, thinking, but this time he acted. He noted a small sandstone block against which were rasping stones of harder texture, and he picked this from the tumbling current and carried it to his cave. Then, pouring a little water upon a depression in the stone's face, he selected his best big arrowhead and began rubbing it upon the wet sandstone. It was a weary work, for flint and sandstone are different things and flint is much the harder, but there came a slow result. Smoother and smoother became the chipped arrowhead, and two days later—for all the waking hours of two days were required in the weary grinding—Old Mok gave to Ab an arrow as smooth of surface and keen of edge as ever flew from bow while stone was used. And not many years passed—as years are counted in old history—before the smoothed stone weaponhead became the common property of cave men. The time of chipped stone had ended and that of smoothed stone had begun. There was no space between them to be counted now. One swiftly became the other. It was a matter of necessity, this exhibition of enterprise and sense by the early man in the prompt general utilization of a new discovery. And not alone in the improvements in means which came when men of the hunting type were so gathered in a community were the bow and the smoothed implements, though these were the greatest of the discoveries of the epoch. The fishermen who went to the river were not content with the raft-like devices of the aquatic Shell People and learned, in time, that hollowed logs would float and that, with the aid of fire and flint axes, a great log could be hollowed. And never a Phoenician ship-builder, never a Fulton of the steamer, never a modern designer of great yachts, stood higher in the estimation of his fellows than stood the expert in the making of the rude boats, as uncouth in appearance as the river-horse which sometimes upset them, but from which men could, at least, let down their lines or dart their spears to secure the fish in the teeming waters. And the fishermen had better spears and hooks now, for comparison was necessarily always made among devices, and bone barbs and hooks were whittled out from which the fish no longer often floundered. There came, in time, the making of rude nets, plaited simply from the tough marsh grasses, but they served the purpose and lessened somewhat the gravity of the great food question.
FACING THE RAIDER.
One day, at noon, a man burst, panting, through the wide open entrance to the Fire Valley. His coat of skin was rent and hung awry and, as all could see when he staggered down the pathway, the flesh was torn from one cheek and arm, and down his leg on one side was the stain of dried blood. He was exhausted from his hurt and his run and his talk was, at first, almost unmeaning. He was met by some of the older and wiser among those who saw him coming and to their questions answered only by demanding Ab, who came at once. The hard-breathing and wounded man could only utter the words "Big tiger," when he pitched forward and became unconscious. But his words had been enough. Well understood was it by all who listened what a raid of the cave tiger meant, and there was a running to the gateway and soon was raised the wall of ready stone, upbuilt so high that even the leaping monster could not hope to reach its summit. Later the story of the wounded, but now conscious and refreshed runner, was told with more of detail and coherence.
The messenger brought out what he had to tell gaspingly. He had lost much blood and was faint, but he told how there had taken place something awful in the village of the Shell Men. It was but little after dusk the night before when the Shell Men were gathered together in merrymaking after good fishing and lucky gathering of what there was to eat along the shores of the shell fish and the egg-laying turtles and the capture of a huge river-horse. It had been, up to midnight, one of the greatest and most joyous meetings the Shell People had joined in for many years. They were close-gathered and prosperous and content, and though there was daily turmoil and risk of death upon the water and sometimes as great risk upon the land, yet the village fringing the waters had grown, and the midden—the "kitchen-midden" of future ages—had raised itself steadily and now stretched far up and down the creek which was a river branch and far backward from the creek toward the forest which ended with the uplands. They had learned to dread the forest little, the water people, but from the forest now came what made for each in all the village a dread and horror. The cave tiger had been among them!
The Shell People had gathered together upon the sward fronting their line of shallow caves and one of them, the story-teller and singer, was chanting aloud of the river-horse and the great spoil which was theirs, when there was a hungry roar and the yell or shriek of all, men or women not too stricken by fear to be unable to utter sound, and then the leap into their midst of the cave tiger! Perhaps the story-teller's chant had called the monster's attention to him, perhaps his attitude attracted it; whatever may have been the influence, the tiger seized the singer and leaped lightly into the open beyond the caves and, as lightly, with long bounds, into the blackness of the forest beyond.
There was a moment of awe and horror and then the spirit of the brave Shell Men asserted itself. There was grasping of weapons and an outpouring in pursuit of the devourer. Easy to follow was the trail, for a monster beast carrying a man cannot drop lightly in his leaps. There was a brief mile or two traversed, though hours were consumed in the search, and then, as morn was breaking, the seekers came upon what was left of the singer. It was not much and it lay across the forest pathway, for the cave tiger did not deign to hide his prey. There came a half moaning growl from the forest. That growl meant lurking death. Then the seekers fled. There was consultation and a resolve to ask for help. So the runner, the man stricken down by a casual stroke in the tiger's rush, but bravest among his tribe, had come to the Fire Valley.
To the panting stranger Ab had not much to say. He saw to it that the man was refreshed and cared for and that the deep scars along his side were dressed after the cave man's fashion. But through the night which followed the great cave leader pondered deeply. Why should men thus live and dread the cave tiger? Surely men were wiser than any beast! This one monster must, anyhow, be slain!
But little it mattered to all surrounding nature that the strong man in the Fire Valley had resolved upon the death of the cave tiger. The tiger was yet alive! There was a difference in the pulse of all the woodland. There was a hush throughout the forest. The word, somehow, went to every nerve of all the world of beasts, "Sabre-Tooth is here!" Even the huge cave bear shuffled aside as there came to him the scent of the invader. The aurochs and the urus, the towering elk, the reindeer and the lesser horned and antlered things fled wildly as the tainted air brought to them the tale of impending murder. Only the huge rhinoceros and mammoth stood their ground, and even these were terror-stricken with regard for their guarded young whenever the tiger neared them. The rhinoceros stood then, fierce-fronted and dangerous, its offspring hovering by its flanks, and the mammoths gathered in a ring encircling their calves and presenting an outward range of tusks to meet the hovering devourer. The dread was all about. The forest became seemingly nearly lifeless. There was less barking and yelping, less reckless playfulness of wild creatures, less rustling of the leaves and pattering along the forest paths. There was fear and quiet, for Sabre-Tooth had come!
The runner, refreshed and strengthened by food and sleep, appeared before Ab in the morning and told his story more in detail and got in return the short answer: "We will go with you and help you and your people. Tigers must be killed!"
Rarely before had man gone out voluntarily to hunt the great cave tiger. He had, sometimes in awful strait, defended himself against the monster as best he could, but to seek the encounter where the odds were so great against him was an ugly task. Now the man-slayer was to be the pursued instead of the pursuer. It required courage. The vengeful wounded man looked upon Ab with a grim, admiring regard. "You fear not?" he said.
There was bustling in the valley and soon a stalwart dozen men were armed with bow and spear and the journey was taken up toward the Shell Men's home. The village was reached at mid-day and as the little troop emerged from the forest the death wail fell upon their ears. "The tiger has come again!" exclaimed the runner.
It was true. The tiger had come again! Once more with his stunning roar he had swept through the village and had taken another victim, a woman, the wife of one of the head men. Too benumbed by fear, this time, to act at once, the Shell Men had not pursued the great brute into the darkness. They had but ventured out in the morning and followed the trail and found that the tiger had carried the woman in very nearly the same direction as he had borne the man and that what remained from his gorging of the night lay where his earlier feast had been. It was the first tragedy almost repeated.
The little group of Fire Valley folk entered the village and were received with shouts from the men, while from the throats of the women still rose the death wail. There were more people about the huts than Ab had ever seen there and he recognized at once among the group many of the cave men from the East, strong people of his own kind. As the wounded runner had gone to the Fire Valley, so another had been sent to the East, to call upon another group for aid, and the Eastern cave people, under the leadership of a huge, swarthy man called Boarface, had come to learn what the strait was and to decide upon what degree of help they could afford to give. Between these Eastern and the Western cave men there was a certain coldness. There was no open enmity, though at some time in the past there had been family battles and memories of feuds were still existent. But Ab and Boarface met genially and there was not a trace of difference now. Boarface joined readily in the council which was held and decided that he would aid in the desperate hunt, and certainly his aid was not to be despised when his followers were looked upon. They were a stalwart lot.
The way was taken by the gathered fighting men toward where, across the forest path, lay part of a woman. As the place was neared the band gathered close together and there were outpointing spears, just as the mammoths' tusks outpointed when the beasts guarded their young from the thing now hunted. But there came no attack and no sound from the forest. The tiger must be sleeping. Beneath a huge tree bordering the pathway lay what remained of the woman's body. Fifty feet above, and almost directly over this dreadful remnant of humanity, shot out a branch as thick as a man's body. There was consultation among the hunters and in this Ab took the lead, while Boarface and the Shell Men who had come to help assented readily. No need existed for the risk of an open fight with this great beast. Craft must be used and Ab gave forth his swift commands.
The Fire Valley leader had seen to it that his company had brought what he needed in his effort to kill the tiger. There were two great tanned, tough urus hides. There were lengths of rhinoceros hide, cut thickly, which would endure a strain of more than the weight of ten brawny men. There was one spear, with a shaft of ash wood at least fifteen feet in length and as thick as a man's wrist. Its head was a blade of hardest flint, but the spear was too heavy for a man's hurling. It had been made for another use.
There was little hesitation in what was done, for Ab knew well the quality of the work he had in hand. He unfolded his plan briefly and then he himself climbed to the treetop and out upon the limb, carrying with him the knotted strip of rhinoceros hide. In the pouch of his skin garment were pebbles. He reached a place on the big limb overhanging the path and dropped a pebble. It struck the earth a yard or two away from what remained of the woman's body and he shouted to those below to drag the mangled body to the spot where the pebble had hit the earth. They were about to do so when from the forest on one side of the path came a roar, so appalling in every way that there was no thought of anything among most of the workers save of sudden flight. The tiger was in the wood and very near and a scent had reached him. There was a flight which left upon the ground beneath the tree branches only old Hilltop and the rough Boarface and some dozen sturdy followers, these about equally divided between the East and the West men of the hills. There was swift and sharp work then.
The tiger might come at any moment, and that meant death to one at least. But those who remained were brave men and they had come far to encompass this tiger's ending. They dragged what remained of the tiger's prey to where the pebble had hit the earth. Ab, clinging and raging aloft, afar out upon the limb, shouted to Hilltop to bring him the spear and the urus skins, and soon the sturdy old man was beside him. Then, about two deep notches in the huge shaft, thongs were soon tied strongly, and just below its middle were attached the bag-shaped urus skins. Near its end the rhinoceros thong was knotted and then it was left hanging from the limb supported by this strong rope, while, three-fourths of the way down its length, dangled on each side the two empty bags of hide. Short orders were given, and, directed by Boarface, one man after another climbed the tree, each with a weight of stones carried in his pouch, and each delivering his load to old Hilltop, who, lying well out upon the limb, passed the stones to Ab, who placed them in the skin pouches on either side the suspended and threatening spear. The big skin pouches on either side were filling rapidly, when there came from the forest another roar, nearer and more appalling than before, and some of the workers below fled panic-stricken. Ab shouted and frothed and foamed as the men ran. Old Hilltop slid down the tree, ax in hand, followed by the dark Boarface, and one or two of the men below were captured and made to work again. Soon all the work which Ab had in mind was done. Above the path, just over what remained of the woman, hung the great spear, weighted with half a thousand pounds of stone and sure to reach its mark should the tiger seek its prey again. The branch was broad and the line of rhinoceros skin taut, and Ab's flint knife was keen of edge. Only courage and calmness were needed in the dread presence of the monster of the time. Neither the swarthy Boarface nor the gaunt Hilltop wanted to leave him, but Ab forced them away.
Not long to wait had the cave man, but the men who had been with him were already distant. The shadows were growing long now, but the light was still from the sunshine of the early afternoon. The man lying along the limb, knife in hand, could hear no sound save the soft swish of leaves against each other as the breeze of later day pushed its way through the forest, or the alarmed cries of knowing birds who saw on the ground beneath them a huge thing slip along with scarce a sound from the impact of his fearfully clawed but padded feet as he sought the meal he had prepared for himself. The great beast was approaching. The great man aloft was waiting.
Into the open along the path came the tiger, and Ab, gripping the limb more firmly, looked down upon the thing so closely and in daylight for the first time in his life. Ab was certainly brave, and he was calm and wise and thinking beyond his time, but when he saw plainly this beast which had slipped so easily and silently from the forest, safe though he was upon his perch, he was more than startled. The thing was so huge and with an aspect so terrible to look upon!
The great cat's head moved slowly from side to side; the baleful eyes blazed up and down the pathway and the tawny muzzle was lifted to catch what burden there might be on the air. The beast seemed satisfied, emerging fairly into the sunlight. Immense of size but with the graceful lankness of the tigers of to-day, Sabre-Tooth somewhat resembled them, though, beside him, the largest inmate of the Indian jungle would appear but puny. The creature Ab looked upon that day so long ago was beautiful, in his way. He was beautiful as is the peacock or the banded rattlesnake. There were color contrasts and fine blendings. The stripes upon him were wonderfully rich, and as he came creeping toward the body, he was as splendid as he was dreadful.
With every nerve strained, but with his first impulse of something like terror gone, Ab watched the devourer beneath him while his sharp flint knife, hard gripped, bore lightly against the taut rhinoceros-hide rope. The tiger began his ghastly meal but was not quite beneath the suspended spear. Then came some distant sound in the forest and he raised his head and shifted his position.
He was fairly under the spear now. The knife pressed firmly against the rawhide was drawn back and forth noiselessly but with effectiveness. Suddenly the last tissue parted and the enormously weighted spear fell like a lightning-stroke. The broad flint head struck the tiger fairly between the shoulders, and, impelled by such a weight, passed through his huge body as if it had met no obstacle. Upon the strong shaft of ash the monster was impaled. There echoed and reechoed through the forest a roar so fearful that even the hunters whom Ab had sent far away from the scene of the tragedy clambered to the trees for refuge. The struggles of the pierced brute were tremendous beyond description, but no strength could avail it now; it had received its death wound and soon the great tiger lay still, as harmless as the squirrel, frightened and hidden in his nest. In wild triumph Ab slid to the ground and then the long cry to summon his party went echoing through the wood. When the others found him he had withdrawn the spear and was already engaged, flint knife in hand, in stripping from the huge body the glorious robe it wore.
There was excitement and rejoicing. The terror had been slain! The Shell People were frantic in their exultation. Meanwhile Ab had called upon his own people to assist him and the wonderful skin of the tiger was soon stretched out upon the ground, a glorious possession for a cave man.
"I will have half of it," declared Boarface, and he and Ab faced each other menacingly. "It shall not be cut," was the fierce retort. "It is mine. I killed the tiger!"
Strong hands gripped stone axes and there was chance of deadly fray then and there, but the Shell People interfered and the Shell People excelled in number, and were a potent influence for peace. Ab carried away the splendid trophy, but as Boarface and his men departed, there were black faces and threatening words.
Among all the children of Ab—and remarkable it was for the age—the best loved was Little Mok, the eldest son. When the child, strong and joyous, was scarcely two years old, he fell from a ledge off the cliff where he had climbed to play, and both his legs were broken. Strange to say he survived the accident in that time when the law of the survival of the fittest was almost invariable in its sternest and most purely physical demonstration. The mother love of Lightfoot warded off the last pitiless blow of nature, although the child, a hopeless cripple, never after walked. The name Little Mok was naturally given him, and before long the child had won the heart, as well as the name, of the limping old maker of axes, spearheads and arrows.
The closer ties of family life, as we know them now, existed but in their outlines to the cave man. The man and woman were faithful to each other with the fidelity of the higher animals and their children were cared for with rough tenderness in their infancy. The time of absolute dependence was made very short, though, and children very early were required to find some of their own food, and taught by necessity to protect themselves. But Little Mok, unable to take up for himself the burden of an independent existence, was not slain nor left to die of neglect as might have been another child thus crippled in the time in which he lived. He, once spared, grew into the wild hearts of those closest to him and became the guarded and cherished one of the rude home of Ab and Lightfoot, and to him was thus given the continuous love and care which the strong-limbed boys and girls of the family lost and never missed.
It was a strange thing for the time. The child had qualities other than the negative ones of helplessness and weakness with which to bind to him the hearts of those around him, but the primary fact of his entire dependence upon them was what made him the center of the little circle of untaught, untamed cave people who lived in the Fire Valley. He may have been the first child ever so cherished from such impulse.
From his mother the child inherited a joyous disposition which nothing could subdue. Often on the return home from some little expedition on which it had been practicable to take him, sitting on Lightfoot's shoulder, or on the still stronger arm of old One-Ear, his silent, somewhat brooding grandfather, the little brown boy made the woods ring with shrill bird calls, or the mimicry of animals, and ever his laughter filled the spaces in between these sounds. Other children flocked around the merry youngster, seeking to emulate his play of voice and the oldsters smiled as they saw and heard the joyous confusion about the tiny reveler. The excursions to the river were Little Mok's chief delight from his early childhood. He entered into the preparations for them with a zest and keen enjoyment born of the presence of an adventurous spirit in a maimed body, and when the fishing party left the Fire Camp it was incomplete if Little Mok was not carried lightly at the van, the life and joy of the occasion.
No one ever forgot the day when Little Mok, then about six years old, caught his first fish. His joy and pride infected all as he exhibited his prize and boasted of what he would catch in the river next, and when, on the return, Old Mok saluted him as the "Great Fisherman," the elf's elation became too great for any expression. His little chest heaved, his eyes flashed, and then he wriggled from Lightfoot's arms into the lap of Old Mok, snuggled down into the old man's furs and hid his face there; and the two understood each other.
It was soon after this great event of the first fish-catching that Red-Spot, Ab's mother, died. She had never quite adapted herself to the new life in the Fire Valley, and after a time she began to grow old very fast. At last a fever attacked her and the end of her patient, busy life came. After her death One-Ear was much in Old Mok's cave, the two had so long been friends. There with them the crippled boy was often to be found. He was not always gay and joyous. Sometimes he lay for days on his bed of leaves at home, in weakness and pain, silent and unlike himself. Then when Lightfoot's care had given him back a little strength, he would beg to be taken to Old Mok's cave. There he could sleep, he said, away from the noise and the lights of the outside world, and finally he claimed and was allowed a nest of his own in the warmest and darkest nook of Old Mok's den, where he slept every night, and sometimes a good part of the day, when one of his times of pain and weakness was upon him. Here during many a long hour of work, experiment and argument, the wide eyes and quick ears of Little Mok saw and heard, while Ab, Mok and One-Ear bent over their work at arrowhead or spear point, and talked of what might be done to improve the weapons upon which so much depended. Here, when no one else remained in the weary darkness of night and the half light of stormy days Old Mok beguiled the time with stories, and sometimes in a hoarse voice even attempted to chant to his little hearer snatches of the wild singing tales of the Shell People, for the Shell People had a sort of story song.
Once, when Lightfoot sat by Old Mok's fire, she told them of the time when she and Ab found themselves outside their cave, unarmed, with a bear to be eaten through before they could get into their door, and Little Mok surprised his mother and Old Mok by an outburst of laughter at the tale. He had a glimmering of humor, and saw the droll side of the adventure, a view which had not occurred to Lightfoot, nor to Ab. The little lad, of the world, yet not in it, saw vaguely the surprises, lights and shades and contrasts of existence, and sometimes they made him laugh. The laugh of the cave man was not a common event, and when it came was likely to be sober and sardonic, at least it was so when not simply an evidence of rude health and high animal spirits. Humor is one of the latest, as it is one of the most precious, grains shaken out of Time's hour-glass, but Little Mok somehow caught a tiny bit of the rainbow gift, long before its time in the world, and soon, with him, it was to disappear for centuries to come.
One day when Little Mok was brought back from an expedition to the river, he told Old Mok how he had sat long on the bank, too tired to fish, and had just rested and feasted his eyes on the wood, the stream, the small darting creatures in it, the birds, and the animals which came to drink. Describing a herd of reindeer which had passed near him, Little Mok took up a piece of Old Mok's red chalkstone and on the wall of the cave drew a picture of the animal. The veteran stared in surprise. The picture was wonderfully life-like in grasp and detail. The child owned that great gift, the memory of sight, and his hand was cunning. Encouraged by his success, the boy drew on, delighting Old Mok with his singular fidelity and skill. Then came hours and days of sketching and etching in the old man's cave. The master was delighted. He brought out from their hiding places his choicest pieces of mammoth tusk or teeth of the river-horse for Little Mok's etchings and carvings. And, as time passed, the young artist excelled the old one, and became the pride and boast of his friend and teacher. Sometimes the little lad would work far into the night, for he could not pause when he had begun a thing until it was complete—but then he would sleep in his warm nest until noon the next day, crawling out to cook a bit of meat for himself at the nearest fire, or sharing Old Mok's meal, as was more convenient.
While everything else in the Fire Valley was growing, developing and flourishing, Little Mok's frail body had ever grown but slowly, and about the beginning of his twelfth year there appeared a change in him. He became permanently weak and grew more and more helpless day by day. His cherished excursions to the river, even his little journeys on old One-Ear's strong arm to the cliff top, from whence he could see the whole world at once, had all to be abandoned.
When the winter snows began to whirl in the air Little Mok was lying quietly on his bed, his great eyes looking wistfully up at Lightfoot, who in vain taxed her limited skill and resources to tempt him to eat and become more sturdy. She hovered over him like a distressed mother bird over its youngling fallen from the nest, but, with all her efforts, she could not bring back even his usual slight measure of health and strength to the poor Little Mok. Ab came sometimes and looked sadly at the two and then walked moodily away, a great weight on his breast. Old Mok was always at work, and yet always ready to give Little Mok water or turn his weary little frame on its rude bed, or spread the furs over the wasted body, and always Lightfoot waited and hoped and feared.
And at last Little Mok died, and was buried under the stones, and the snow fell over the lonely cairn under the fir trees outside the Fire Valley where his grave was made.
Lightfoot was silent and sad, and could not smile nor laugh any more. She longed for Little Mok, and did not eat or sleep. One night Ab, trying to comfort her, said, "You will see him again."
"What do you mean?" cried Lightfoot. And Ab only answered, "You will see him; he will come at night. Go to sleep, and you will see him."
But Lightfoot could not sleep yet and for many a night her eyes closed only when extreme fatigue compelled sleep toward the morning.
And at last, after many days and nights, Lightfoot, when asleep, saw Little Mok. Just as in life, she saw him, with all his familiar looks and motions. But he did not stay long. And again and again she saw him, and it comforted her somewhat because he smiled. There had come to her such a heartache about him, lying out there under the snow and stones, with no one to care for him, that the smile warmed her heavy heart and she told Ab that she had seen Little Mok, only whispering it to him—for it was not well, she knew, to talk about such things—and she whispered to Ab, too, her anguish that Little Mok only came at night, and never when it was day, but she did not complain. She only said: "I want to see him in the daytime."
And Ab could think of nothing to say. But that made him think more and more. He felt drawn closer to Lightfoot, his wife, no longer a young girl, but the mother of Little Mok, who was dead, and of all his children.
In his mind arose, vaguely obscure, yet persistent, the idea that brute strength and vigor, keen senses and reckless bravery were not, after all, the sole qualities that make and influence men. Old Mok, crippled and disabled for the hunt and defense, was nevertheless a power not to be despised, and Little Mok, the helpless child, had been still strong enough to win and keep the love of all the stalwart and rough cave people. Ab was sorry for Lightfoot. When in the spring the forlorn mother held in her arms a baby girl a little brightness came into her eyes again, and Ab, seeing this, was glad, but neither Ab nor Lightfoot ever forgot their eldest and dearest, Little Mok.
THE BATTLE OF THE BARRIERS.
While Ab had been occupied by home affairs trouble for him and his people had been brewing. By no means unknown to each other before the tiger hunt were Ab and Boarface. They had hunted together and once Boarface, with half a dozen companions, had visited the Fire Valley and had noted its many attractions and advantages. Now Boarface had gone away angry and muttering, and he was not a man to be thought of lightly. His rage over the memory of Ab's trophy did not decrease with the return to his own region. Why should this cave man of the West have sole possession of that valley, which was warm and green throughout the winter and where the wild beasts could not enter? Why had he, this Ab, been allowed to go away with all the tiger's skin? Brooding enlarged into resolve and Boarface gathered together his relations and adherents. "Let us go and take the Fire Valley of Ab," he said to them, and, gradually, though objections were made to the undertaking of an enterprise so fraught with danger, the listeners were persuaded.
"There are other fires far down the river," said one old man. "Let us go there, if it is fire we most need, and so we will not disturb nor anger Ab, who has lived in his valley for many years. Why battle with Ab and all his people?"
But Boarface laughed aloud: "There are many other earth fires," he said. "I know them well, but there is no other fire which chances to make a flaming fence about a valley close to the great rocks, and which has water within the space it surrounds and which makes a wall against all the wild beasts. We will fight and win the valley of Ab."
And so they were led into the venture. They sought, too, the aid of the Shell People in this raid, but were not successful. The Shell People were not unfriendly to those of the Fire Valley, and had not Ab been really the one to kill the tiger? Besides, it was not wise for the waterside dwellers to engage in any controversy between the forest factions, for the hill people had memories and heavy axes. A few of the younger and more adventurous joined the force of Boarface, but the alliance had no tribal sanction. Still, the force of the swarthy leader of the Eastern cave men was by no means insignificant. It contained good fighting men, and, when runners had gone far and wide in the Eastern country, there were gathered nearly ten score of hunters who could throw the spear or wield the ax and who were not fearful of their lives. The band led by Boarface started for the Fire Country, intending to surprise the people in the valley. They moved swiftly, but not so swiftly as a fleet young man from the Shell People who preceded them. He was sent by the elders a day before the time fixed for the assault, and so Ab learned all about the intended raid. Then went forth runners from the valley; then the matron Lightfoot's eyes became fiery, since Ab was threatened; then old Hilltop looked carefully over his spears, and poised thoughtfully his great stone ax; then Moonface smote her children and gathered together certain weapons, and then Old Mok went into his cave and stayed there, working at none knew what.
They came from all about, the Western cave men, for never in the valley had food or shelter been refused to any and the Eastern cave men were not loved. Many a quarrel over game had taken place between the raging hunters of the different tribes, and many a bloody single-handed encounter had come in the depths of the forest. The band was not a large one, the Eastern men being far more numerous, but the outlook was not as fine as it might be for the advancing Boarface. The force assembled inside the valley was, in point of numbers, but little more than half his own, but it was entrenched and well-armed, and there were those among the defenders whom it was not well to meet in fight. But Boarface was confident and was not dismayed when his force crept into the open only to find the ordinary valley entrance barred and all preparations made for giving him a welcome of the warmer sort. There was what could not be thoroughly barricaded in so brief a time, the entrance where the brook issued at the west. This pass must be forced, for the straight, uprising wall between the flames and across the opening to the north was something relatively unassailable. It was too narrow and too high and sheer and there were too many holes in the wall through which could be sent those piercing arrows which the Western cave men knew how to use so well. The battle must be up along the bed of the little creek. The water was low at this season, so low that a man might wade easily anywhere, and there had been erected only a slight barrier, enough to keep wild beasts away, for Ab had never thought of invasion by human beings. The creek tumbled downward, through passages, between straight-sided, ruggedly built stone heaps, with spaces between wide enough to admit a man, but not any great beast of prey. There was no place where, by a man, the wall could not easily be mounted and, above, there was no really good place of vantage for the defenders.
So the invading force, concealment of action being no longer necessary, ranged themselves along the banks of the creek to the west of the valley and prepared for a rush. They had certain chances in their favor. They were strong men, who knew how to use their weapons well, and they were in numbers almost as two to one. Meanwhile, inside the valley, where the approach and plans of the enemy had been seen and understood, there had gone on swiftly, under Ab's stern direction, such preparation for the fray as seemed most adequate with the means at hand.
The great advantage possessed was that the defenders, on firm footing themselves, could meet men climbing, and so, a little further up the creek than the beast-opposing wall, had been thrown up what was little more than a rude platform of rock, wide and with a broad expanse of top, on which all the valley's force might cluster in an emergency. Upon this the people were to gather, defending the first pass, if they could, by flights of spears and arrows and here, at the end, to win or lose. This was the general preparation for the onslaught, but there had been precautions taken more personal and more involving the course of the most important of the people of the valley.
At the left of the gorge, where must come the invaders, the rock rose sheerly and at one place extended outward a shelf, high up, but reached easily from the Fire Valley side. There were consultations between Ab and the angry and anxious and almost tearful Lightfoot. That charming lady, now easily the best archer of the tribe, had developed at once into a fighting creature and now demanded that her place be assigned to her. With her own bow, and with arrows in quantity, it was decided that she should occupy the ledge and do all she could. Upon the ledge was comparative safety in the fray, and Ab directed that she should go there. Old Hilltop said but little. It was understood, almost as a matter of course, that he would be upon the barrier and there face, with Ab, the greatest issue. The old man was by no means unsatisfactory to look upon as he moved silently about and got ready the weapons he might have to use. Gaunt, strong-muscled and resolute, he was worthy of admiration. Ever following him with her eyes, when not engaged in the chastisement of one of her swart brood, was Moonface, for Moonface had long since learned to regard her grizzled lord with love as well as much respect.
There were other good fighting men and other women beside these mentioned who would do their best, but these few were the dominant figures. Meanwhile, Boarface and his strong band had decided upon their plan of attack and would soon rush up the bed of the shallow stream with all the bravery and ferocity of those who were accustomed to face death lightly and to seize that which they wanted.
The invaders came clambering up the creek's course, openly and with menacing and defiant shouts, for any concealment was now out of the question. They had but few bows and could, under the conditions, send no arrow flight which would be of avail, but they had thews and sinews and spears and axes. As they came with such rush as men might make up a tumbling waterway with slipping pebbles beneath the feet and forced themselves one by one between the heaped stone piles and fairly in front of the barrier there was a discharge of arrows and more than one man, impaled by a stone-headed shaft, fell, to dabble feebly in the water, and did not rise again. But there came a time in the fight when the bow must be abandoned.
The assault was good and the demeanor of the men behind the barrier was good as well. Not more gallant was one group than the other for there were splendid fighters in both ranks. The boasted short sword of the Romans, in times effeminate, as compared with these, afforded not in its wielding a greater test of personal courage than the handling of the flint-headed spear or the stone knife or chipped ax. There, all along the barrier, was the real grappling of man and man, with further existence as the issue.
The invaders, losing many of their number, for arrows flew steadily and a mass so large could not easily be missed even by the most bungling of those strong archers, swept upward to the barrier and then was a muscular, deadly tumult worth the seeing. To the south and nearest the side where Lightfoot was perched with her bow and great bunch of arrows Ab stood in front, while to his right and near the other end of the rude stone rampart was stationed old Hilltop, and he hurled his spears and slew men as they came. The fight became simply a death struggle, with the advantage of position upon one side and of numbers on the other. And Ab and Boarface were each seeking the other.
So the struggle lasted for a long half hour, and when it ended there were dead and dying men upon the barrier, while the waters of the creek were reddened by the blood of the slain assailants. The assault now ebbed a little. Neither Ab nor Hilltop had been injured in the struggle. As the invaders pressed close Ab had noted the whish of an arrow now and then and the hurt to one pressing him closely, and old Hilltop had heard the wild cries of a woman who hovered in his rear and hurled stones in the faces of those who strove to reach him. And now there came a lull.
Boarface had recognized the futility of scaling, under such conditions, a steep so well defended and had thought of a better way to gain his end and crush Ab and his people. He had heard the story of Ab's first advent into the valley when, chased by the wolves, he leaped through the flame, and there came an inspiration to him! What one man had done others could do, and, with picked warriors of his band, he made a swift detour, while, at the same time, the main body rushed desperately upon the barrier again.