Chapter Eight - Wulli Hard at Work.
The WOOLY RHINOCEROS was left standing on the right bank of the Dordogne River watching Pic and the Mammoth disappear. He had been ordered to remain behind, simply because, through no fault of his own, he lacked one cardinal virtue - speed.
But Wulli was not bewailing his speed - or rather his lack of it. The subject never entered his head. He was trying to grasp the idea that for the first time in his long and adventurous career, the Mammoth had gone away and left him alone. As friends, they had always been inseparable. It seemed incredible that anything could cleave their bond asunder. What was one without the other? Wulli had never imagined the possibility of separation. It had always been "We;" now it was "I". He bowed his head, stunned, crushed as the terrible reality dawned upon him - he had been left alone.
This was thought Number One. His brain, being an unpretentious affair, gave room for only a single idea at one time. No one can blame him for that. Some space had to be sacrificed for nose-horn, bumps and everything. U nquestionably he could have thought as hard and fast as anybody, had he the grey matter to do it with. However, things had to be taken as they were and this Thought Number One consumed much time. The sun had set and darkness came on before he finished with it. Then occurred Thought Number Two.
This concerned Kutnar and although Wulli would have blushed to admit it, he loved the boy with all the unselfish devotion of a faithful dog. He had known Kutnar ever since the boy was a baby. He had known the father even longer. Pic was the Mammoth's particular man-friend; Wulli preferred the boy. He feared, he admired and respected Pic but he adored Kutnar. The Rhinoceros grit his teeth angrily as he thought of the lad now being spirited away by a stranger - one Hyena Man whom no self-respecting animal would look upon as a friend.
Stay behind? Well, he guessed not and the mere fact that Pic had so ordered, made no difference. He would follow where the Mammoth's trail led him.
It was now dark. So profound had been his reflections that he failed to observe an animal crouching in the grass. Something shot through the air brushing the hilt of his tail as it sped behind him. Then followed a thump and a muffled screech as the unknown struck the ground.
Wulli turned quickly and lowered his nose-horn, whereat the beast uttered a frightened caterwaul and bounded away. It was the Cave Lion's half-grown son. Wulli gave a snort of contempt, then turned away to the river and plunged in. He did not expect to overtake the Mammoth that night nor even the next day. It might take weeks, months, even a year but he was bound to find him in the end.
All that night he kept on and the following day too; trotting or walking but always moving and taking almost no time to graze. He was not disposed to waste precious moments and so he fasted, drawing heavily upon his reserve fat to nourish him as he hurried along. The trail was an easy one to follow and he kept his nose to it with a persistence that never faltered. That of the Mammoth was fresh and unmistakable. There was the scent of another grown cold and stale but the carrion odor yet clung to it and Wulli judged him who had made it, to be the Hyena Man. H e got occasional whiffs of a third and familiar element and finally recognized it as belonging to Kutnar. The three were traveling the same path in a southwesterly direction.
Wulli had not gone far when he heard faint sounds behind him and detected odors in the air, both of which convinced him that he was being followed. Being a keen tracker himself, he could understand the possibility of others tracking him. The sensation of being hunted by unknown enemies made him nervous. Hyenas were annoying but nothing worse. Wolves - real hungry ones scared him as they scared everybody. A pack of half-starved wolves was a serious matter, even for a full-grown rhinoceros. It was hard to tell where they would stop! Wolves or hyenas; which? The uncertainty was most distracting. Wulli made tip his mind to choose some advantageous position and wait until he found out.
It was sundown when he swam across a river and I stood in the shallows near its western shore. Those who followed were now close behind him, so he waded into the deeper water until all but the top of his head and shoulder-hump were submerged. There he stood motionless. Any casual observer would have thought him a water-logged tree-stump with a root - his horn - projecting from one end of it.
Wulli waited patiently, patience being one of his greatest gifts. At last he was rewarded by the sounds of animals descending the opposite bank. They were now entering the stream. It was too dark to see them but he could hear from the noise they made that they were coming toward him. His sharp ears caught faint murmurs of water rippling and babbling against strong swimmers. There were several of the latter, judging by the sounds made. Wulli's suspicions became reality, for soon he dimly distinguished three heads keeping close together and coming toward him. Even in the dim light, he recognized them in that short distance. Grun Waugh the Cave Lion was in the lead, followed closely by another smaller animal like him. The third beast trailing behind was a Cave Hyena.
"Now why did that stupid Rhinoceros come here?" growled a voice. The voice was Scrag's.
"Yes, Crocut, you neglected to tell us about him," grumbled the larger lion. "Now we have the Rhinoceros to account for; that makes it different!"
"But he is alone," the Hyena snivelled. "You are two. It might have been worse."
"We are three," Grun Waugh sternly corrected. "If you value the meat on your bones, you will be wise and do your part."
Crocut sighed deeply. He, the conscientious objector, was plunging into the thick of battle against his own free will. He shivered at the thought.
Wulli waited to hear no more. He swam shoreward. The land looked good to him and he wanted to be there first.
He scrambled up the bank and faced about as the flotilla of heads bore down upon him.
When no more than a stone's throw separated the opposing f orces, Grun Waugh suddenly uttered a surprised, roar and backed water. The Rhinoceros blocked his way. He had taken for granted that Wulli was in full flight, but now he realized his mistake and at a most embarassing moment. He dared not venture farther, for there was something suspicious in Wulli's calm and receptive attitude. Grun Waugh knew him of old and therefore considered prudence the better part of valor. He deflected his course slightly downstream. By this act of courtesy he would avoid a collision with the Rhinoceros. Not to be outdone, the latter shifted his position to correspond. The Cave Lion found his enemy waiting to meet him head on as before. He growled with vexation then turned and swam upstream. This was hard work, battling against the swift current. Wulli kept pace with him. It required little exertion on his part, walking as he did on the river bottom. Grun Waugh snarled with rage. The Rhinoceros was determined to give him a warm welcome.
While their lord was vainly maneuvering for a landing, Scrag and Crocut conducted themselves in a most unbusinesslike manner. According to recognized naval rules, one or both of them should have outflanked the Rhinoceros while the latter faced Grun Waugh. In that case, Wulli would have found himself in a most embarrassing position attacked on several sides at once. However Scrag and Crocut simplified matters by trailing after their leader. It being Grun Waugh's fight and his part to do the dangerous work, the other two let it go at that. It did not occur to any of the three that this, their habitual practice, might be departed from in the present instance. The two lesser animals followed their leader and whenever the latter tried to land, he found the Rhinoceros ready and waiting for him.
Grun Waugh felt terribly incensed. With all his courage, he dared not advance and impale himself upon that terrible nose horn. He reviled Wulli under his breath for his obstinacy but that did him no good. Then he tried threats, roaring loudly and showing his cruel teeth. He was fearful to look upon but the Rhinoceros failed to appreciate this. Having determined that he was pursuing the best possible course, he refused to budge from it. Not for an instant would he permit the Cave Lion to enter shallow water and rest himself.
"Go away," roared Grun Waugh! "We will not hurt you this time, provided you stand aside and let us pass."
"Pass where?" asked in his blandest manner. "Your home is behind you. You are going the wrong way."
"And you will not stand aside?"
"Not if I can help it," replied the Rhinoceros. "You do not belong here. Go home and take your hyenas with you."
Scrag nearly had a fit as he heard himself thus insulted. To be classed as a hyena was more than he could bear.
"Pig!" he wailed, forgetting his paddling. His head sank; the waters closed over it. When it reappeared, Scrag was blinded and half choked, also the starch was taken out of him entirely. He was cold and tired and made up his mind then and there that he could be of more service to the world as a live lion than mere fish-food. He faced about wheezing and panting and sailed away on his return trip.
Crocut saw the young lion scudding past him. He was suddenly reminded that his wind and strength were ebbing fast. Just about enough fuel left in his bunkers to carry him back where he came from, so he too swung around and steered a straight course homeward.
Thus was the Cave Beast squadron shorn of much of its seeming strength. The battle was not yet over however, for Grun Waugh still persisted in his efforts to effect a landing. But the Cave Lion, try as he would, could accomplish nothing. Finally, he too gave up, tired and discouraged, and steamed away, leaving the Rhinoceros in full possession of the field.
Wulli remained at his post for some time to make sure. When convinced that there was nothing more to be feared from the Cave Beasts, he again went about his business. Finally he came to another river and was about to plunge in when he smelled something that made him shiver. It was the odor of blood. A careful search led him to a clump of brush several rods from the bank. This place bore the scent of two men - Gonch and Kutnar. The blood was that of the boy. An ax lay near-by. It was a mere stone tied to a stick but the handle had a familiar smell.
Wulli groaned and almost collapsed. The boy had been hurt, perhaps killed. It was too dreadful to think of. His heart pounded like a hammer within his chest as he nosed about, following the Muskman's tracks. They led to the river. All trace of Kutnar had disappeared. Wulli bit his lips and looked about him despairingly. What did it all mean?
For some time he trudged back and forth in an agony of indecision but there seemed only one way to go - after the Mammoth whose comfort he yearned and sorely needed. So he made that his choice, following untiringly over hill and valley, through glades and across swiftly flowing streams.
His woolly coat was torn and shabby and nearly every ounce of his superfluous flesh had been consumed when at last he came to great mountains so lofty their peaks seemed to touch the sky. He groaned dismally. Cliffs and high places were the last things on earth any rhinoceros would care to meet. Wulli would have given half of his life just then if the Mammoth and Pic had suddenly appeared before him, homeward bound. He hated mountains. They made him dizzy and weak at his knees and elbows. He gazed despairingly at the towering crests. The trail of his crony, the Mammoth, led to them, clear and unmistakable. There was no help for it. Wulli set his jaws together and with many misgivings for his future, plunged blindly and boldly upward to the peaks and crags.