Chapter Fourteen - Under the Cave.
AFTER disposing of Gonch, Kutnar fled as fast as he could along the Pas. Near the west shore of the river, the ice would bear his weight and so he kept to that in preference to the high bank where his footprints in the snow might be plainly seen. The ice left little or no trail.
He had beaten the Muskman in a fair hand-to-hand combat. The whole pack would soon be after him and yet he felt not at all afraid. Rather his sensations were those of buoyant self-reliance. He had vanquished a full-grown and seasoned warrior; something of an accomplishment for a sixteen-year-old lad. Such a feat gave him confidence in himself. Kutnar was not yet fully trained to the flint ax; the sling was his weapon. A stern chase would afford him plenty of chance to use it. He had slain the young Castilian throwing champion with it and might repeat the performance if pressed too closely.
He was free. "Why did I not think to run away before?" he wondered, not realizing that a marked change had come over him and made him in many respects a man.
All this time lie was hurrying southward along the Pas. The mountain of Castillo still hovered upon his right flank. He was abreast of its southern exposure and had turned his head as though to look upon it for the last time before he sped onward, when he caught sight of a dark spot high upon its side. The spot was a cave.
Kutnar stopped and gazed thoughtfully at this cave. It was but a short distance from Castillo and on the same mountain. Who would think of looking for him there? Surely not Totan and his band. They would expect the runaway to flee from them much farther than that. What a lark! His enemies would search far and wide while he whom they sought lay hidden almost within sight of their own haunt. Then, too, he was jaded and needed rest. His previous night had been spent fire-tending and he had passed a strenuous day. All of these considerations tempted him. He left the river and turned to the distant slope, treading on bare ground and stones wherever possible, to leave no snow marks.
After a long hard climb, he reached his goal and found only a hitter disappointment awaiting him. It was not a real cave but a grotto or shallow nook scooped from the rock. He could see every inch of the interior as he stood at the entrance but no living thing was there. As a hiding place, it had no possibilities. Kutnar now observed a hole in its floor. "A fox's den," he thought. "I am glad that the place is of use to someone." He kneeled over the hole and peered in. A draught of air blew in his face. He coughed and the sound was repeated in a distant echo. This was both surprising and interesting. The hole was barely large enough to admit his body but there might be a larger cavity beneath. Not a fox's den nor the home of any animal; he learned this by sniffing carefully about the cavity. Where did it lead? He put his feet in the hole and slid halfway in. It was a tube of solid rock. He could feel its sides with his toes but no bottom. He lowered himself further until his head and all were in and still he found no place to set his feet. He let himself down another yard and it was just the same. "There must be an end sometime," he thought as he continued to work his way downward. The descent was a simple matter, for the tube now jogged slightly this way and that, making it easy for him to cling to its sides with his hands and feet. The air was warmer than that outside; although humid and musty, it could be breathed.
The tube began to widen. The slight noise made by his feet sliding over the rock, sounded loud and distinct. The passage gradually angled more to the horizontal. It widened still more and the boy was able to turn and glance behind him. All was dark but in some places the shadows were darker than others. Kutnar heard squeaks and the flapping of bat wings. Evidently the passage opened into a large room.
By this time, Kutnar felt keenly elated over his discovery. As a hiding place, the grotto offered great possibilities after all; not the grotto itself but the subterranean vault whose only means of access was the stone tube. The casual observer who could see every corner of the shallow cave, would not think of looking for a cavity beneath. Kutnar decided to stay in the vault for a time to hide and rest. There was the hole in the floor of the grotto, however, and it would he well to conceal that or someone might learn of the underground room as he had done. He crawled back through the tube the way he had come and stood once more in the open air.
He found a stone that fitted nicely over the opening in the floor, effectively concealing it. Anyone standing at the threshold would now gaze upon a bare interior; bare of aught but a single stone.
"Ha-a-a, yum !" Kutnar yawned loudly and stretched his limbs. Now that the day's excitement was over and he had time for relaxation, a wave of drowsiness swept over him. He would sleep in the grotto, trusting to his sixth or slumber guarding sense to warn him of imminent danger. As a last resort, he could lower his body into the tube, set the stone above his head and hide as long as he pleased in the vault beneath.
He was preparing to lie down upon the floor of the grotto when he heard something that brought him to his feet in quick time. He tiptoed to the threshold and saw a dark figure ascending the slope. The figure was coming toward him. It moved in an erect position but it seemed too large and clumsy to be a man. It came nearer and although but an ebony patch on a sable background, Kutnar recognized it as a bear and a large one. What brought the creature there? Either the grotto was its permanent home or it was seeking a night's lodging. Kutnar could not now safely vacate the premises, even had he chosen to do so. He tiptoed back to the grotto and moved the stone aside from the cavity, then lowered his body down, holding the stone in both hands high above his head as he descended. Arms and hands sank from sight and the stone settled over the hole.
Kutnar continued his downward journey until he reached the large room. Here he sat listening but could hear no sounds to indicate what might be transpiring above. Had the bear come and gone or was he now lying upon the floor of the grotto making ready to sleep? Kutnar thought it unnecessary for him to go up and find out. There was his own night's rest to consider, so he lay down and pillowed his head upon his arm.
He fell asleep without knowing when but awoke sooner than he would have wished because of the damp mustiness which oppressed his lungs. Fresh air, that was what he wanted, so he sought the passageway and wriggled through it as noiselessly as a snake. On arriving at the top, he sought and found the stone and thrust it aside, inch by inch. After staying there for some time with his face as close to the opening as he dared, refreshing himself with deep breaths of outside air, he reset the stone and returned to finish his nap. He repeated this performance several times, not without considerable risk, for the bear was asleep in the cave entrance as he knew from the sound of its breathing.
"Even a cave beast and a man can get along together sleeping in the same den," he chuckled as he made his fourth upward trip. As he neared the outlet of the tube, he saw faint rays of light and knew that morning was near at hand. When he had moved the stone partly aside, he set his ear at the opening but heard no sounds. It would seem that his visitor had awakened and taken his leave. However, there was only one way to be sure of this and that was to see it with his own eyes.
Slowly, noiselessly, he shifted the stone farther and farther away until the opening was entirely clear, then his head arose almost imperceptibly through the tube and above the level of the cave floor, giving him a view of the entrance and the grey world beyond.