Chapter Nine - Terrors of the Mountains.
THE LEFT BANK of the Midouze River was for Pic the parting of the ways between himself and his son. All trace of the latter had vanished absolutely and completely. He tried every known art of woodcraft but without success. Scour the river bank as he would, he could find no sign of the missing boy. "The traitor has made use of the water to play me a trick," he thought, but just what the trick was, he could not determine. "He has fled to his country in the south-land," he told the Mammoth. "If we continue in the same direction as we have been going, we will again find this Gonch following the straight path."
There was nothing left to do but pursue this plan. Thus far, the Muskman's flight had been on a straight line to the southwest. It was reasonable to presume that in time he would so continue. He had doubled or side-stepped to avoid his pursuers but he must get back to the line in the end.
Heretofore the Mammoth's nose or trunk-tip had guided the way but now that the trail was lost. The responsibility for taking the right course devolved on Pic. It was a case of direction and so he made use of his knowledge of the sun's position at rising and setting, also other signs that good woodsmen know for determining where they wish to go.
"I will find this man, even if I have to go to the earth's end to do it," he vowed, and the way he scowled boded ill for the Muskman.
He guided the Mammoth through the Midouze region and across another river, the Adour, to a low wet region where traveling was most difficult. It was a network of brooks and rivulets with ponds, sloughs and soft spots scattered promiscuously between. The two travelers were now ascending the slopes, leading to a mountain range which barred their way, extending in a long line from east to west.
When Pic drew nearer to the mountains, he was much taken aback. The vastness of what he saw was appalling. The steep slopes rose to tremendous heights; so high that many of the peaks were lost to sight far above the clouds. The spaces or valleys between them were filled with masses of snow and ice, from which torrents of water gushed forth and down the mountain sides bringing immense quantities of sand and clay with them. At times, great chunks of rock or ice detached themselves from high places and came crashing down. The ground trembled beneath their impact as though shaken by an earthquake.
To Pic, the sight and sound of all this was beyond his power of understanding. He had lived his life in the lowlands and knew little of mountains and of the wide range of temperature between base and crest of lofty peaks. Winter might be near at hand but the sun shone brightly and he could feel its warm rays. And yet there was ice high above his head, and ice meant cold, a discomfort he was unprepared for. In his hurried departure from the Vezere valley, he had not thought to bring a hide with him as protection from the cold. There appeared to be need of such protection if he scaled those mountains. The southland must lie beyond and to reach it he must cross the mountain barrier.
A stupendous undertaking; Pic could appreciate the difficulty of such a task or rather he could appreciate only a fraction of the difficulty. "Do men climb over such things or do they go around them?" he asked himself. "Go around them," something within him answered. He gazed to the east; mountains in a never-ending chain as far as the eye could reach. Westward it was the same, except that they seemed to taper off like the tail of a gigantic beast. There was no guiding angel to watch over him and say, "Turn west and skirt the mountain barrier; then all will be well." The Mammoth could not help him and Pic saw no way but to choose the straightest although most difficult course. He gave a command and Hairi marched straight ahead - to the mountains towering above him.
Up, up, and never down. At times the Mammoth assumed an almost erect position, so steep was the climb. Pic had to hold tightly to avoid sliding backward and off the beast's tail. When night came, he was only too glad to stop and rest, snuggled up close to his big friend to keep himself warm. No use of wishing that he had a bison robe to wrap around and protect his body. When day came and the journey was resumed, he dismounted and proceeded on foot, hoping that the exercise would drive off the chill which made him shiver from head to foot. Both he and the Mammoth made frequent stops, for the higher they climbed, the more quickly they tired. The long and arduous ascent had by this time brought them into a rarified atmosphere - thin air - which imposed a severe test upon their hearts and lungs.
Trees, bushes and other vegetation gave way to evergreens as they mounted to the region of perpetual snow and finally these were left behind them. Snow, ice and low rugged crests, alone remained.
One line of these crests, projecting from the hard-packed snow, extended for a great distance across our travelers' line of march. A second similar rock backbone lay in the dim distance, running parallel with the first. Man and elephant were crossing the intervening space when suddenly the Mammoth uttered a loud bellow and stopped short, his feet bunched beneath him like four wooden posts. "The ground ! It shakes," he squealed, much alarmed.
Pic halted, bent low and held his ear to the ground. The latter did tremble; he felt it. He also heard a muffled rumbling roar that seemed to originate in the bowels of the earth. He shivered, but this may have been due as much to the cold he felt as to fear of the unknown. He could offer no explanation of the mystery. The Mammoth was far more frightened than he was, so he coaxed and teased the great beast, telling him there was nothing to fear and that he must move on.
Hairi yielded after much persuasion although he now proceeded half-heartedly and timidly, for the trembling ground inspired him with great dread. He was soon treated to another unpleasant surprise. The space between the two lines of crests was a waste of hard-packed snow which became broken up into hummocks and ice blocks as the two advanced. Again Hairi stopped and stood shaking like a leaf as he caught sight of a long deep rent in the snow plain. It emitted a deep booming roar - a thousand Cave Lion voices rolled into one.
This was too much for the Mammoth's overbalanced nerves. He stopped and refused to budge. He would stand there until he starved and the hyenas could come and polish his bones but he would never go near that hole which growled so strangely. Pic advanced to the rent in the snow plain. It widened and deepened as he approached. He saw the gleam of ice beneath the snow - no rock, nothing but ice. The roaring grew louder. Pic kept on although almost overwhelmed by the timidity that even brave men feel when confronted by dangers they do not understand. A few more steps and he stood on the brink of the rent. He sank to his knees, dizzy and scared almost out of his wits. Down, down, down descended the cold ice walls to some unknown depth beyond the range of human vision, where the roar of rushing water echoed and reechoed until it boomed like thunder.
Pic began to comprehend. The snow plain was an ice field of tremendous depth; the rent was a crack in the ice; and the booming noise came from the water which flowed through the bottom of the crack.
The ice rent or crevasse was thousands of feet deep, an indication of the ice field's depth. The two lines of crests were in reality the tops of lofty mountain chains, their intervening space filled almost to the top with slowly moving ice; a glacier with a torrent of water flowing through its base.
Pic returned to the Mammoth and explained as best he could. There was a deep crack in the ice and the water running through it made much disturbance and noise.
The Mammoth appeared much relieved and consented to move on. Pic led him on a line parallel to the crevasse until the latter ended in a pile of shattered ice blocks. Here the glacier's surface was much broken and the two friends were obliged to watch their steps carefully on the slippery ice or narrow slide and Hairi in particular had a slow, hard time of it reaching the bottom. He and Pic were so busy finding their way around the end of the crevasse that they had neither eyes nor ears for that which followed in their wake. It was a shaggy-haired animal with nose held closely to the ground and following the same route over which Pic and the Mammoth had just traveled. Where the path turned at right angles, the newcomer looked up and saw the crevasse yawning in front of him. The sight threw him into a panic. Away he tore like mad along the ice cliff, squealing "Oowee, oowee !" at the top of his lungs. Once he slipped and fell terribly near the dreadful gulf. He rose trembling with fear. His vocal chords became paralyzed and he could not utter a sound. He staggered toward the ice hummocks near the end of the crevasse, foam-flecked and steaming with the dew of death. The ground suddenly fell away in front of him and he began to slide. Too late: he uttered a last despairing squeak, then resigned himself to the inevitable and with eyes tightly shut, went skidding rapidly on his downward flight to the unknown horrors awaiting him.