Chapter Twelve - Kutnar the Hunter.
DEEP in his heart, Kutnar knew that it was not a sight of the southrons and their flint workmanship that he really craved. A quick turnabout and a trip homeward would have pleased him more than anything on earth. He was terribly homesick. It seemed ages since he had run away from father and friends. The knowledge that he had so recently slain a fellow being added to his depression. He thought of Totan and that reminded him of Pic. Both were big strong men but there the resemblance ended. His father had a heart; the Castilian hetman appeared to possess none. "I have at least one good friend near me," the boy remembered. Gonch was there and that gave him great comfort. "I am no longer a baby," he thought, so he determined to bear up patiently until the time came for the long journey homeward.
Meanwhile the party had reached the end of their descent and were making their way across the lowland to the River Pas. Suddenly one of the men grunted and all stopped short. He who had signaled said to Kutnar in a low voice, "A hare! Quick, boy, now is your chance to show what you can do." The sling was loaded and ready before the man had ceased speaking. Kutnar moved noiselessly ahead of his companions to within throwing range. Whizz, sped the stone and a big snow-white hare leaped from a clump of bushes and bounded away. "A miss," one of the hunters sneered as the boy glided forward like a cat. They saw him reach down among the bushes and then stand erect holding some animal by its long ears - a hare. There had been two. The one first seen had escaped but Kutnar had bagged the second.
The cave men were astonished. This was indeed fine shooting but there was more to follow. The lad flung his quarry to them and then went speeding across the snow plain after hare number one. The cave men followed closely and were treated to a lesson in stalking which opened their eyes. Hare number one had not fled far. His tracks were easily seen in the snow and it was not long before Kutnar saw him lying in a ball trusting in his protective coloring to escape unseen. But this availed him nothing. He waited too long for his next jump, thinking he had but a fling-stick to deal with. He too was bagged and the boy found himself the center of the most thoroughly surprised lot of men that one could hope to see.
"He is not of this world," said one.
"Nor is his fling-string," said another. He has but to wave it and animals drop dead."
These and other remarks Kutnar listened to and they pleased him, for he was but a boy and relished the compliments of men. They made him feel as though he were a man too. Another hare was sighted and bagged and thus the hunt went merrily on. Kutnar even tried his skill on a young boar. He did not kill the animal but he disabled it so that the hunters could easily complete the work he had begun. When the party turned homeward, they took with them four hares, three grouse and the boar; and Kutnar had killed them all. A wonderful bag; all were agreed on that; and they were agreed too that as a hunter and provider, Kutnar was worth his weight in the finest flints ever shaped by mortal man. When they arrived at Castillo and Totan learned of Kutnar's success, he was mightily pleased. "If the boy can thus shame our best hunters, what could not the grown men of his tribe do?" he thought. This reminded him of the Lion Man and he reveled in the thought of what would happen if the latter would only come within his reach.
The Muakman's star was again in the ascendancy. The boy had been tried and found all that any hunter could wish. Were these men jealous of his prowess? Certainly not. No half-starved beast or human being looks askance at the hand that feeds it. One and all praised his skill with the fling-string. Boy or no boy, he was certainly a godsend to these half-famished men and they were not backward in saying so. Some of them went so far as to volunteer their services to keep him supplied with the finest pebbles. They even gave him the hide of the boar he had killed. A chilled body might result in a stiff arm which would prevent accurate shooting and of course that would never do. In fact they were anxious to do anything for the lad that promised to improve their own health and comfort.
There was some satisfaction in finding himself welcome even among these savage men, but in spite of that Kutnar felt homesick and uneasy. "Why do we continue to stay here?" he asked the Muskman. But the latter merely answered: "Be patient. It is for a short time only. When the snow melts, we will be on our way again." Kutnar forced himself to be content with this and did his part, which was no small task, for now that his skill was known, he did more than half the hunting for the whole band. In addition to his skill with the sling, he possessed no mean knowledge of woodcraft, showing his companions many things about tracking and trapping game that they knew nothing of. Kutnar became leader of the hunters; that is, he did most of the work. The pebbles flew straight and far from his sling and there was both speed and force behind them. For their part, the cave men who accompanied him on his hunting trips did little more than watch him open-mouthed and retrieve the game he killed, like a pack of dogs. Kutnar deep down in his heart despised these men as he did their weapons.
Of them he had more to learn and also something that greatly changed his opinion of his good friend Gonch.
They were stalking a boar in the snow on the river bank. While they were intent on closing in upon their intended victim, a tawny body shot from the bushes and in a flash one of the cave men lay upon the ground beneath the paw of a huge lion. Kutnar was in the van of those who, by much shouting and waving, so bewildered the big cat that it relinquished its victim and crawled away. The man was still alive although badly mauled. "Friends should ever help each other," ran through Kutnar's brain as he bent over the unfortunate and wiped the blood from his face with a hunch of leaves. Not that the man was his particular friend, but his heart was filled with pity at sight of a fellow being in distress. Suddenly he was dragged to his feet and thrust roughly aside. He turned and faced Gonch.
"Stand back, boy; do not meddle," cried the Muskman and then before Kutnar knew what his friend was about, the latter despatched the wounded man with a blow of his ax. Then as though this were not enough, he was the first of the hunters to spring upon the body with teeth and hands. As the boy looked on in horror at the man pack snarling and devouring their dead comrade, the cobwebs fell from his eyes and he saw Gonch in his true colors, a hyena man, unfit for the friendship of human being or beast. It was a terrible blow. By that one act, Gonch had lost the right to trust and friendship and now in Kutnar's eyes he was a loathsome, detestable thing.
Gonch was quick to see the change in the youth's feelings toward him but he was growing more careless with rising fortune and felt no need of making further effort to mask his true nature.
"Flesh is flesh," he leered in the boy's face when the horrible orgy was over. "You will soon learn that man's flesh is as good or better than any other."
Kutnar spat in disgust. "When am I to leave here?" he cried. "I hate these men and - and now I hate you."
"Leave here?" sneered Gonch. "Impossible. I could not bear such a calamity. My people dote upon you. I am quite sure that they could not live without their youthful hunter."
This last sentence contained much truth. The Muskman felt its humor and he chuckled at his own wit; but the boy only glared.
"Your people? Then this is what you have brought me to. These wretches are the fine people of the southland. Tell me, filthy beast-man, why am I here?"
Kutnar held his sling threateningly. He was furious. The cave men were now gathered around the pair. "Be quiet, boy," the Muskman warned in a low voice. "A word from me and the flesh will be torn from your body. You hate me. Good; but take care."
That was all, but in that short time the boy in some way became a man. He said no more, only hung his head, crushed and humiliated with disappointment and revulsion of feeling. He returned to Castillo with the others and chose a spot by the fire as far removed from Gonch as possible and sat there staring vacantly into the blaze. The shades of night settled over the mountain and still he sat motionless, oblivious to what was going on about him. One by one the cave men retired to Castillo's yawning entrance and curled up in their hide wrappings to secure their night's rest. All were gone but two - the boy and Gonch.
"You who perform one task so well, can bear another," the Muskman sneered. "Watch the fire and watch it well until the light returns. Do not fall asleep or it will be the worse for you."
These were Gonch's parting instructions and then he too lay down in the cave entrance. Kutnar smiled bitterly. Another task was now added to his already overburdened shoulders; one that no man dared neglect. Without fire, life would have been impossible during the cold season. The roaring blaze warmed and cheered many a body which without it would have succumbed sooner or later to rheumatism, influenza or other virulent disease. Fire, a most difficult thing to create, was rarely permitted to die out. The Castilians took turns watching and feeding it day and night. Woe to him who neglected this all-important task, a task that Kutnar was now obliged to assume.
But he neither rebelled nor complained. He was but a boy long accustomed to obey and respect his elders, and ingrained habits are slow to change. And yet as he gazed silently at the lashing flames and curling smoke wreaths, his mind was experiencing one of those tremendous upheavals that, like the volcano or hurricane, preface their fury with outward calm. Kutnar was deadly calm. His thoughts surging one upon another were those of a sane and sober mind. But with his illusions shattered, the child was become a man. He now knew that all of the southland wonders were the Muskman's lies. There were no fine flints, no weapon making; the men might have been wolves except for their human forms which however made their wretchedness and cannibalism even more beast-like in his eyes. So low had they fallen that they must depend upon himself, a mere boy, to feed them; but most dreadful of all was the knowledge that his best friend had sunken lower than any of them and had betrayed him from first to last.
As he watched the dancing firelight, bestirring himself at intervals to pile on fresh wood, the boy-mind was saying, "I must do my best to he useful and earn the right to live. Brighter days are in store for me if only I will be patient and wait for them," and beneath this rumbled the voice of the man-mind, low and distant but ever coming nearer and nearer: "Filthy beast-man whom I once called friend, the time will come when you must pay the penalty. When the sling sends you my message, listen to the stone hiss, "Greetings from my master, son of the Mammoth Man. He bids me fly straight and fast, bearing to you his traitor-friend the reward that you have so nobly earned - death."