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- Across the River
While the more courageous of the youngsters played in and out of the
large-mouthed caves, I early learned that such caves were unoccupied. No
one slept in them at night. Only the crevice-mouthed caves were used, the
narrower the mouth the better. This was from fear of the preying animals
that made life a burden to us in those days and nights.
The first morning, after my night's sleep with Lop-Ear, I learned the
advantage of the narrow-mouthed caves. It was just daylight when old
Saber-Tooth, the tiger, walked into the open space. Two of the Folk were
already up. They made a rush for it. Whether they were panic-stricken, or
whether he was too close on their heels for them to attempt to scramble up
the bluff to the crevices, I do not know; but at any rate they dashed into
the wide-mouthed cave wherein Lop-Ear and I had played the afternoon
What happened inside there was no way of telling, but it is fair to
conclude that the two Folk slipped through the connecting crevice into the
other cave. This crevice was too small to allow for the passage of
Saber-Tooth, and he came out the way he had gone in, unsatisfied and
angry. It was evident that his night's hunting had been unsuccessful and
that he had expected to make a meal off of us. He caught sight of the two
Folk at the other cave-mouth and sprang for them. Of course, they darted
through the passageway into the first cave. He emerged angrier than ever
Pandemonium broke loose amongst the rest of us. All up and down the great
bluff, we crowded the crevices and outside ledges, and we were all
chattering and shrieking in a thousand keys. And we were all making faces—snarling
faces; this was an instinct with us. We were as angry as Saber-Tooth,
though our anger was allied with fear. I remember that I shrieked and made
faces with the best of them. Not only did they set the example, but I felt
the urge from within me to do the same things they were doing. My hair was
bristling, and I was convulsed with a fierce, unreasoning rage.
For some time old Saber-Tooth continued dashing in and out of first the
one cave and then the other. But the two Folk merely slipped back and
forth through the connecting crevice and eluded him. In the meantime the
rest of us up the bluff had proceeded to action. Every time he appeared
outside we pelted him with rocks. At first we merely dropped them on him,
but we soon began to whiz them down with the added force of our muscles.
This bombardment drew Saber-Tooth's attention to us and made him angrier
than ever. He abandoned his pursuit of the two Folk and sprang up the
bluff toward the rest of us, clawing at the crumbling rock and snarling as
he clawed his upward way. At this awful sight, the last one of us sought
refuge inside our caves. I know this, because I peeped out and saw the
whole bluff-side deserted, save for Saber-Tooth, who had lost his footing
and was sliding and falling down.
I called out the cry of encouragement, and again the bluff was covered by
the screaming horde and the stones were falling faster than ever.
Saber-Tooth was frantic with rage. Time and again he assaulted the bluff.
Once he even gained the first crevice-entrances before he fell back, but
was unable to force his way inside. With each upward rush he made, waves
of fear surged over us. At first, at such times, most of us dashed inside;
but some remained outside to hammer him with stones, and soon all of us
remained outside and kept up the fusillade.
Never was so masterly a creature so completely baffled. It hurt his pride
terribly, thus to be outwitted by the small and tender Folk. He stood on
the ground and looked up at us, snarling, lashing his tail, snapping at
the stones that fell near to him. Once I whizzed down a stone, and just at
the right moment he looked up. It caught him full on the end of his nose,
and he went straight up in the air, all four feet of him, roaring and
caterwauling, what of the hurt and surprise.
He was beaten and he knew it. Recovering his dignity, he stalked out
solemnly from under the rain of stones. He stopped in the middle of the
open space and looked wistfully and hungrily back at us. He hated to
forego the meal, and we were just so much meat, cornered but inaccessible.
This sight of him started us to laughing. We laughed derisively and
uproariously, all of us. Now animals do not like mockery. To be laughed at
makes them angry. And in such fashion our laughter affected Saber-Tooth.
He turned with a roar and charged the bluff again. This was what we
wanted. The fight had become a game, and we took huge delight in pelting
But this attack did not last long. He quickly recovered his common sense,
and besides, our missiles were shrewd to hurt. Vividly do I recollect the
vision of one bulging eye of his, swollen almost shut by one of the stones
we had thrown. And vividly do I retain the picture of him as he stood on
the edge of the forest whither he had finally retreated. He was looking
back at us, his writhing lips lifted clear of the very roots of his huge
fangs, his hair bristling and his tail lashing. He gave one last snarl and
slid from view among the trees.
And then such a chattering as went up. We swarmed out of our holes,
examining the marks his claws had made on the crumbling rock of the bluff,
all of us talking at once. One of the two Folk who had been caught in the
double cave was part-grown, half child and half youth. They had come out
proudly from their refuge, and we surrounded them in an admiring crowd.
Then the young fellow's mother broke through and fell upon him in a
tremendous rage, boxing his ears, pulling his hair, and shrieking like a
demon. She was a strapping big woman, very hairy, and the thrashing she
gave him was a delight to the horde. We roared with laughter, holding on
to one another or rolling on the ground in our glee.
In spite of the reign of fear under which we lived, the Folk were always
great laughers. We had the sense of humor. Our merriment was Gargantuan.
It was never restrained. There was nothing half way about it. When a thing
was funny we were convulsed with appreciation of it, and the simplest,
crudest things were funny to us. Oh, we were great laughers, I can tell
The way we had treated Saber-Tooth was the way we treated all animals that
invaded the village. We kept our run-ways and drinking-places to ourselves
by making life miserable for the animals that trespassed or strayed upon
our immediate territory. Even the fiercest hunting animals we so
bedevilled that they learned to leave our places alone. We were not
fighters like them; we were cunning and cowardly, and it was because of
our cunning and cowardice, and our inordinate capacity for fear, that we
survived in that frightfully hostile environment of the Younger World.
Lop-Ear, I figure, was a year older than I. What his past history was he
had no way of telling me, but as I never saw anything of his mother I
believed him to be an orphan. After all, fathers did not count in our
horde. Marriage was as yet in a rude state, and couples had a way of
quarrelling and separating. Modern man, what of his divorce institution,
does the same thing legally. But we had no laws. Custom was all we went
by, and our custom in this particular matter was rather promiscuous.
Nevertheless, as this narrative will show later on, we betrayed glimmering
adumbrations of the monogamy that was later to give power to, and make
mighty, such tribes as embraced it. Furthermore, even at the time I was
born, there were several faithful couples that lived in the trees in the
neighborhood of my mother. Living in the thick of the horde did not
conduce to monogamy. It was for this reason, undoubtedly, that the
faithful couples went away and lived by themselves. Through many years
these couples stayed together, though when the man or woman died or was
eaten the survivor invariably found a new mate.
There was one thing that greatly puzzled me during the first days of my
residence in the horde. There was a nameless and incommunicable fear that
rested upon all. At first it appeared to be connected wholly with
direction. The horde feared the northeast. It lived in perpetual
apprehension of that quarter of the compass. And every individual gazed
more frequently and with greater alarm in that direction than in any
When Lop-Ear and I went toward the north-east to eat the stringy-rooted
carrots that at that season were at their best, he became unusually timid.
He was content to eat the leavings, the big tough carrots and the little
ropy ones, rather than to venture a short distance farther on to where the
carrots were as yet untouched. When I so ventured, he scolded me and
quarrelled with me. He gave me to understand that in that direction was
some horrible danger, but just what the horrible danger was his paucity of
language would not permit him to say.
Many a good meal I got in this fashion, while he scolded and chattered
vainly at me. I could not understand. I kept very alert, but I could see
no danger. I calculated always the distance between myself and the nearest
tree, and knew that to that haven of refuge I could out-foot the Tawny
One, or old Saber-Tooth, did one or the other suddenly appear.
One late afternoon, in the village, a great uproar arose. The horde was
animated with a single emotion, that of fear. The bluff-side swarmed with
the Folk, all gazing and pointing into the northeast. I did not know what
it was, but I scrambled all the way up to the safety of my own high little
cave before ever I turned around to see.
And then, across the river, away into the northeast, I saw for the first
time the mystery of smoke. It was the biggest animal I had ever seen. I
thought it was a monster snake, up-ended, rearing its head high above the
trees and swaying back and forth. And yet, somehow, I seemed to gather
from the conduct of the Folk that the smoke itself was not the danger.
They appeared to fear it as the token of something else. What this
something else was I was unable to guess. Nor could they tell me. Yet I
was soon to know, and I was to know it as a thing more terrible than the
Tawny One, than old Saber-Tooth, than the snakes themselves, than which it
seemed there could be no things more terrible.
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