What had been good fighting before was better now. Lives were lost, and soon all arrows were spent and all spears thrown, and then came but the dull clashing of stone axes. Ab raged up and down, and, ever in the front, faced the oncoming foe and slew as could slay the strong and utterly desperate. More than once his life was but a toy of chance as men sprang toward him, two or three together, but ever at such moment there sang an arrow by his head and one of his assailants, pierced in throat or body, fell back blindly, hampering his companions, whose heads Ab's great ax was seeking fiercely. And, all the time, nearer the northern end of the barrier, old Hilltop fought serenely and dreadfully. There were many dead men in the pools of the creek between the barrier and the entrance to the valley. And about Ab ever sang the arrows from the rocky shelf.
There was wild clamor, the clash of weapons and the shouting of battle-crazed men but there was not enough to drown the sound of a scream which rose piercingly above the din. Ab recognized the voice of Lightfoot and raised his eyes to see the woman, regardless of her own safety, standing upright and pointing up the valley. He knew that something meaning life and death was happening and that he must go. He leaped backward and a huge Western cave man sprang to his place, to serve as best he could.
Not a moment too soon had that shrill cry reached the ears of the fighting man. He ran backward, shouting to a score of his people to follow him as he ran, and in an instant recognized that he had been outwitted, at least for the moment, by the vengeful Boarface. As he rushed to the east toward the wall of flame he saw a dark form pass through its crest in a flying leap. There were others he knew would follow. His own feat of long ago was being repeated by Boarface and his chosen group of best men!
It was not Boarface who leaped and it was hard for a gallant youth of the Eastern cave men that he had strength and daring and had dashed ahead in the assault, for he had scarcely touched the ground when there sank deeply into his head a stone ax, impelled by the strongest arm of all that region, and he was no more among things alive. Ab had reached the fire wall with the speed of a great runner while, close behind him, came his eager following.
The forces could see each other clearly enough now, and those on the outside outnumbered those on the inside again by two to one. But those leaping the flames could not alight poised ready for a blow, and there were adroit and vengeful axmen awaiting them. There was a momentary pause for planning among the assailants, and then it was that Ab fumed over his own lack of foresight. His chosen band who were with him now were all bowmen, and about the shoulder and chest of each was still slung his weapon, but there were no more arrows. Each quiverful had been shot away early in the fight and then had come the spear and ax play. But what a chance for arrows now, with that threatening band preparing for the rush and leap together, and, while out of reach of spear or ax, within easy reach of the singing little shafts! Oh, for the shafts now, those slender barbed things which were hurled in his new way! And, even as he thus raged, there came a feeble shout from down the valley behind him and he saw something very good!
Limping, with effort, but resolutely forward, was a bent old man, bearing encircled within his long arms a burden which Ab himself could not have carried for any distance without stress and labored breathing. The lean old Mok's arms were locked about a monster sheaf of straight flint-headed arrows, a sheaf greater in size than ever man had looked upon before. The crippled veteran had not been idle in his cave. He had worked upon the store of shafts and flintheads he had accumulated, and here was the result in a great emergency!
The old man cast his sheaf upon the ground and then sank down, somewhat totteringly, beside it. There needed no shout of command from Ab to tell those about him what to do. There was one combined yell of sudden exultation, a rush together for the shafts and a swift filling of empty quivers. It was but the work of a moment or two. Then something promptly happened. The great fellows, though acting without orders, shot almost "all together," as the later English archers did, and so close just across the flame wall was the opposing group that the meanest archer in all the lot could scarcely fail to reach a living target, and stronger arms drew back those arrows than were the arms of those who drew bowstring in the battles of mediaeval history. With the first deadly flight came a scattering outside and men lay tossing upon the ground in their death agony. There was no cessation to the shot, though Boarface sought fiercely to rally his followers, until all had fled beyond the range of the bowmen. Upon the ground were so many dead that the numbers of the two forces were now more nearly equal. But Boarface had brave followers. They ranged themselves together at a safe distance and then started for the flame wall with a rush, to leap it all together.
There was another arrow-flight as the onslaught came, and more men went down, but the charge could not be stopped. Over the low flame-crests shot a great mass of bodies, there to meet that which was not good for them. The struggle was swift and deadly, but the forces were almost evenly matched now and the insiders had the advantage. Boarface and Ab met face to face in the melee and each leaped toward the other with a yell. There was to be a fight which must be excellent, for two strong leaders were meeting and there were many lives at stake.
OLD HILLTOP'S LAST STRUGGLE.
Even as he leaped the flames, the desperate Boarface hurled at Ab a fragment of stone, which was a thing to be wisely dodged, and the invader was fairly on his feet and in position to face his adversary as the axes came together. More active, more powerful, it may be, and certainly more intelligent, was Ab than Boarface, but the leader of the assailants had been a raider from early youth and knew how to take advantage. In those fierce days to attain the death of an enemy, in any way, was the practical end sought in a conflict. Close behind Boarface had leaped a youth to whom the leader had given his commands before the onrush and who, as he found his feet upon the valley's sward, sought, not an adversary face to face, but circled about the two champions, seeking only to get behind the leaping Ab while Boarface occupied his sole attention. The young man bore a great stone-headed club, a dreadful weapon in such hands as his. The men struck furiously and flakes spun from the heavy axes, but Boarface was being slowly driven back when there descended upon Ab's shoulder a blow which swerved him and would certainly have felled a man with less heaped brawn to meet the impact. At the same instant Boarface made a fierce downward stroke and Ab leaped aside without parrying or returning it, for his arm was numbed. Another such blow from the new assailant and his life was lost, yet he dare not turn. That would be his death. And now Boarface rushed in again and as the axes came together called to his henchman to strike more surely.
And just then, just as it seemed to Ab the end was near, he heard behind him the sharp twang of the bowstring which had sounded so sweetly at the valley's other end and, with a groan, there pitched down upon the sward beside him a writhing man whose legs drew back and forth in agony and who had been pierced by an arrow shot fiercely and closely from behind and driven in between his shoulder blades. He knew what it must mean. The arm which had drawn that arrow to its head was that of a slight, strong creature who was not a man. Lightfoot, wild with love and anxiety, had shot past Old Mok just as he laid down his bundle of arrows, and, when she saw her husband's peril, had leaped forward with arrow upon string and slain his latest assailant in the nick of time. Now, with arrow notched again and a face ablaze with murderous helpfulness, she hovered near, intent only upon sending a second shaft into the breast of Boarface.
But there was no need. Unhampered now, Ab rushed in upon his enemy and rained such blows as only a giant could have parried. Boarface fought desperately, but it was only man to man, and he was not the equal of the maddened one before him. His ax flew from his hand as his wrist was broken by Ab's descending weapon, and the next moment he fell limply and hardly moved, for a second blow had sunk the stone weapon so deeply in his head that the haft was hidden in his long hair.
It was all over in a moment now. As Ab turned with a shout of triumph there was a swift end to the little battle. There were brief encounters here and there, but the Eastern men were leaderless and less well-equipped than their foes, and though they fought as desperately as cornered wolves, there was no hope for them. Three escaped. They fled wildly toward the flame and leaped over and through its flickering yellow crest and there was no pursuit. It was not a time for besieged men to be seeking useless vengeance. There came wild yells from the lower end of the valley where the greater fight was on. With a cry Ab gathered his men together and the victorious band ran toward the barrier again, there with overwhelming force to end the struggle. Ever, in later years, did Ab regret that his fight with Boarface had not ended sooner. To save an old hero he had come too late.
Boarface, when taking with him a strong band to the upper end of the valley, had still left a supposably overwhelming force to fight its way up and over the barrier. Ab away from the scene of struggle, old Hilltop assumed command. He was a fit man for such death-facing steadfastness as was here required.
Never had Ab been able to persuade Lightfoot's father to use or even try the new weapon, the bow and arrow. He had no tender feeling toward modern innovations. He had a clear eye and strong arm, and the ax and spear were good enough for him! He recognized Ab's great qualities, but there were some things that even a well-regarded son-in-law could not impose upon any elder family male. Among these was this twanging bow with its light shaft, better fitted for a child's plaything than for real work among men. As for him, give him a heavy spear, with the blade well set in thongs, or a heavy ax, with the head well clinched in the sinew-bound wooden haft. There was rarely miss or failure to the spear-thrust or the ax-stroke. And now, in proof of the soundness of his old-fashioned belief, he staked ruggedly his life. There were few spears left. There were only axes on either side. And there stood old Hilltop upon the barrier, while beside him and all across stood men as brave if not quite as sturdy or as famous.
In the rear of the line, noisy, sometimes fierce and sometimes weeping, were the women, whose skill was only a little less than that of the males and who were even more ruthless in all feeling toward the enemy. And still easily chief among these, conspicuous by her noisy and uncaring demeanor of mingled alarm and vengefulness, was the raging Moonface. She rushed up close beside her husband's defending group and still hurled stones and hurled them most effectively. They went as if from a catapult, and more than one bone or head was broken that day by those missiles from the arm of this squat savage wife and mother. But the men below were outnumbering and brave, and now, maddened by different emotions, the lust of conquest, the murderous anger over slain companions and, underlying all, the thought of ownership of this fair and warm and safe place of home, were resolute in their attack. They had faith in their leader, Boarface, and expected confidently every moment an onslaught to aid them from above. And so they came up the watery slope, one pressing blood-thirstily behind the other with an earnestness none but men as strong and well equipped and as brave or braver could hope to withstand. The closing struggle was desperate.
Hilltop stood to the front, between two rocks some few yards apart, over which bubbled the shallow creek, and between which was the main upward entrance to the valley. He stood upon a rock almost as flat as if some expert engineer of ages later had planed its surface and then adjusted it to a level, leaving the shallow waters tumbling all about it. The rock out-jutted somewhat on the slope and there must necessarily be some little climb to face the aged defender. On either side was a stretch of down-running, gradually-sloping waterfall, full of great boulders, embarrassing any straight rush of a group together, but, between and upward, sprang swart men, and facing them on either side of old Hilltop beyond the rocks were the remainder of the mass of cave men upon whom he depended for making good the defense of the whole barrier. Beside him, in the center of the battle, were the two creatures in the world upon whom he could most depend, his stalwart and splendid sons, Strong-Arm and Branch. With them, as gallant if not as strong as his great brother, stood braced the eager Bark. They were ready, these young men, but, as it chanced, there could be, at the beginning of the strong clamber of the foe, only one man to first meet them. All were behind this man at the front, for the flat rock came to something like a point. He stood there, hairy and bare except for the skin about his hips, and with only an ax in his hand, but this did not matter so much as it might have done, for only axes were borne by the up-clambering assailants. The throwing of an ax was a little matter to the sharp-eyed and flexile-muscled cave men. Who could not dodge an ax was better out of the way and out of the world. A meeting such as this impending must be a matter only of close personal encounter and fencing with arm and wooden handle and flint-head of edge and weight.
There was a clash of stone together, and, one after another, strong creatures with cloven skulls toppled backward, to fall into the babbling creek, their blood helping to change its coloring. Leaping from side to side across his rock, along each edge of which the water rushed, old Hilltop met the mass of enemies, while those who passed were brained by his great sons or by those behind. But the forces were unequal and the plane in front was not steep enough nor the water deep enough to prevent something like an organized onslaught. With fearful regularity, uplifted and thrown aside occasionally in defense to avoid a stroke, the ax of Hilltop fell and there was more and more fine fighting and fine dying. On either side were men doing scarcely less stark work. Hilltop's two sons, on either side of him now, as the assailants, crowded by those behind, pressed closer, fully justified their parentage by what they did, and Bark was like a young tiger. But the onslaught was too strong. There were too many against too few. There were loud cries, a sudden impulse and, though axes rose and fell and more men tumbled backward into the water, the rock was swept upon and won and the old man stood alone amid his foes, his sons having been carried backward by the pressure of the mass. There was sullen battling on the upper level, but there was no fray so red as that where Hilltop, old as he was, swung his awful ax among the close crowding throng of enemies about him. Four fell with skulls cleanly split before a giant of the invaders got behind the gray defender of the pass. Then an ax came crashing down and old Hilltop pitched forward, dead before he fell into the cool waters of the pool below.
There was a yell of exultation from the upward-climbing Eastern cave men as they saw the most dangerous of their immediate enemies go down, but, before the echoes had come back, the sound was lost in that which came from the height above them. It was loud and threatening, but not the yell of their own kind.
There had come sweeping down the valley the victors in the fight at the Eastern end. Ab, with the lust of battle fully upon him as he heard the wild shriek of Moonface, who had seen her husband fall, was a creature as hungry for blood as any beast of all the forest, and his followers were scarce less terrible. Swift and dreadful was the encounter which followed, but the issue was not doubtful for a moment. The barrier's living defenders became as wild themselves as were these conquering allies. The fight became a massacre. Flying hopelessly up the valley, the remnant, only some twenty, of the Eastern cave men ran into the vacant big cave for refuge and there, barricaded, could keep their pursuers at bay for the time at least.
There was no immediate attack made upon the remnant of the assailants who had thus sought refuge. They were safely imprisoned, and about the cave's entrance there lay down to eat and rest a body of vengeful men of twice their number. The struggle was over, and won, but there was little happiness in the Fire Valley which had been so well defended.
Moonface, wildly fighting, had seen her husband's death. With the rush of Ab's returning force which changed the tide of battle she had been swept away, shrieking and seeking to force herself toward the rock whereon old Hilltop had so well demeaned himself. Now there emerged from one side a woman who spoke to none but who clambered down the rough waterway and waded into the little pool below the rock and stooped and lifted something from the water. It was the body of the brave old hunter of the hills. With her arms clutched about it the woman began the clamber upward again, shaking her head dumbly, when rude warriors, touched somehow, despite the coarse texture of their being, came wading in to assist her with the ghastly burden. She emerged with it upon the level and laid it gently down upon the grass, but still uttered no word until her children gathered and the weeping Lightfoot came to her and put her arms about her, and then from the uncouth creature's eyes came a flood of tears and a gasp which broke the tension, and the death wail sounded through the valley. The poor, affectionate animal was a little nearer herself again.
There were dead men lying beside the flames at the Eastern end of the valley, and these were brought by the men and tossed carelessly into the pools below where lay so many others of the slain. There were storm clouds gathering and all the valley people knew what must happen soon. The storm clouds burst; the little creek, transformed suddenly into a torrent by the fall of water from the heights above, swept the dead men away together to the river and so toward the sea. Of all the invading force there remained alive only the three who had re-leaped the flames and those imprisoned in the cave.
There was council that night between Ab and his friends and, as the easiest way of disposing of the prisoners in the cave, it was proposed to block the entrance and allow the miserable losers in battle to there starve at their leisure. But the thoughtful Old Mok took Ab aside and said:
"Why not let them live and work for us? They will do as you say. This was the place they wanted. They can stay and make us stronger."
And Ab saw the reason of all this and the hungry, imprisoned men were given the alternative of death or obedient companionship. They did not hesitate long. The warmth of the valley and its other advantages were what they had come for and they had no narrow views outside the food and fuel question. The valley was good. They accepted Ab's authority and came out and fed and, with their wives and children, who were sent for, became of the valley people.
This place of refuge and home and fortress was acquiring an importance.
OUR VERY GREAT GRANDFATHER.
And the years passed. One still afternoon in autumn a gray, hairy man, a man approaching old age, but without weakness of arm or stiffness of joint, as yet, sat on the height overlooking the village. He looked in tranquil comfort, now down into the little valley, and now across it into the wood beyond, where the sun was approaching the treetops. He had come to the hill with the mere instinct of the old hunter seeking to be completely out of doors, but he had brought work with him and was engaged, when not looking thoughtfully far away, in finishing a huge bow, the spring of which he occasionally tested. Every motion showed the retained possession of tremendous strength as well as the knowledge of its use to most advantage. A very hale old man was Ab, the great hunter and head of the people of the Fire Valley.
A few yards away from Ab, leaning against the trunk of a beech, stood Lightfoot, her quick glance roving from place to place and as keen, seemingly, as ever. These two were still most content when together, and it was well for each that they had in the same degree withstood what the years bring. The woman had, perhaps, changed less than the man. Her hair was still dark and her step had not grown heavy. She had changed in face and expression rather than in form. There had grown in her eyes and about her mouth the indefinable lines and tokens, pathetic and sweet, of care, of sorrow, of suffering and of quiet gladness, in short, of motherhood.
As twilight came on the woods rang with the shouts and laughter of a party of young men who were coming home from some forest trip. Ab, looking down the valley, over the flashing flame, into the forest hills, in whose deep shade lay Little Mok, old Hilltop and Ab's mother, could see the lusty youths in the village, running, leaping, wrestling and throwing spears, axes and stones in competition. A strange oppression came upon him and he thought of Oak lying in the ground alone on the hillside, miles away. Ab felt, even now, the strong, helpful arm of his friend around him, just as it was in the evening journey from the Feast of the Mammoth homeward, when he had been rescued from almost certain death by Oak. A lump rose in the throat of the man of many battles and many trials. He shook himself, as if to shake off the memory that plagued him. Oak came not often to trouble Ab's peace now, and when he came it was always at night. Morning never found him near the Fire Village.
The young hunters, rioting like the young men in the valley, were passing now. Ab looked upon them thoughtfully. He felt dimly a desire to speak to them, to tell them something about the hurts they might avoid, and how hard it was to have a great, heavy load on one's chest at times—all one's life—but the cave man was, as to the emotions, inarticulate. Ab could no more have spoken his half defined feelings than the tree could cry out at the blow of the ax.
The woman left the beech tree and approached the man and touched his arm. His eyes turned upon her kindly and after she had seated herself beside him, there was laughing talk, for Lightfoot was declaring her desperate condition of hunger and demanding that he return to the valley with her. She examined his bow critically and had an opinion to express, for so fine a shot as she might surely talk a little about so manful a thing as the making of the weapon. And as the sun sank lower and the valley fell into shadow, the two descended together, a pair who, after all, had reason to be glad that they had lived.
And the children these two left were bold and strong and dominant by nature, and maintained the family leadership as the village grew. With later generations came trouble vast and dire to the people of the land, but it was not the part of this proud and seasoned and well-weaponed group to flee like wild beasts when came drifting to the Westward the first feeble vanguard of the Aryan overflow. The vanguard was overthrown; its men made serfs and its women mothers. Other cave men in other regions might escape to the Northward as the wave increased, there to become frost-bitten Lapps or the "Skrallings" of the Norsemen, the Eskimo of to-day, but not so the people of the great Fire Valley or their stern and sturdy vassals for half a hundred miles about. No child's play was it for those of another and still rude civilization to meet them in their fastnesses, and the end of the struggle—for this region at least—was, not a conquest, but a blending, a blending good for each of the two forces.
And as the face of Nature changed with the ages, as the later glacial cold wavered and fluctuated and forced back and forth migrations of man and beast, still the first-formed group retained coherence, retained it beyond great natural cataclysms, retained it to historic ages, to wield long the smoothed stone weapons, and, afterward, the bronze axes, and to diverge in many branches of contentious defenders and invaders, to become Iberian and Gaul and Celt and Saxon, to fight family against family, and to commingle again in these later times.
Upon the beach the other day, watching the waves lap toward her, sat a woman, cultured, very beautiful and wise in woman's way and among the fairest and the best of all earth can produce. There are many such as she. Barely longer ago than the other day, as time is counted, a rugged man, gentle as resolute and noble, became the enshrined hero of a vast republic, when he struck from slave limbs the shackles of four million people. In an insular home across the sea, interested still in the world's affairs, is an old man vigorous in his octogenarianism, a power, though out of power, a figure to be a monument in personal history, a great man. But a few years ago the whole world stood with bowed head while into the soil he loved was lowered the coffin of one who has bound the nations together in sympathy for Les Miserables of the earth. In a home on the continent broods watchfully a bald-headed giant in cavalry boots, one who has dictated arbitrarily, as premier, the policy of the empire he has largely made. The woman upon the sands, the great liberator, the man wonderful even in old age, the heart-stirring writer, the man of giant personality physical and mental, have had reason to boast alike a strain of the blood of Ab and Lightfoot. In the veins of each has danced the transmitted product of the identical corpuscles which coursed in the veins of those two who first found a home in the Fire Valley. Strong was primitive man; adroit, patient and faithful was primitive woman; he, the strongest, she, the fairest and cleverest of the time, could protect their offspring, breed and care for great children of similar powers and so insure a lasting race. Thus has the good blue blood come down. This is not romance, this is not fancy; this is but faithful history.