Chapter Fifteen - The Valley of the Ebro.
THE VALLEY of the Ebro may have been perfectly satisfactory to the Mammoth and Rhinoceros, but as regards climate, it did not suit Pic, for he possessed no hide garment to cover his nakedness. Winter was in full swing and the cold wind so chilled his body that he was driven to descend from the Mammoth's neck and walk to keep warm. Pic was not a fast walker and the snowdrifts made it worse. It was an unfortunate situation for it reduced very considerably the distance which the trio might have traveled in a day. Then more snow fell and the drifts became so deep that Pic could hardly make any progress at all. It was not surprising that he tired rapidly and was soon compelled to remount the Mammoth's neck. This rested him and enabled the party to proceed at a fast gait but it was not long before the cold wind whistling about his ears drove him to the ground again. There as before, he floundered through the drifts and soon exhausted himself. All the time, he scolded and fretted because he and his associates were not making more progress. Hairi and Wulli considered his irritation uncalled for. It was his fault not theirs that they failed to do better. "He ought to grow more hair," grumbled the Mammoth to the Rhinoceros.
Then came a gale sweeping down upon them from the west to make matters worse. The wind blew clouds of fine snow-dust into their faces, lodging and accumulating there until the Mammoth and Rhinoceros were disguised in great white masks. This did not bother them in the least. Having no vanity as to their personal appearance and being warmly clad, they felt quite cozy and comfortable.
Pic's case was different. The storm multiplied his worry and discomfort. The wind numbed his body. He was almost smothered and blinded by the fine sleet which drove into his mouth and eyes. Once more he slid down from the Mammoth's neck and labored forward on foot. Finally he stopped. "I can go no further," he said. "Without warmth and rest, I will die. I fear that you must leave me."
But both animals halted and refused to go on without him.
Pic made a wry face. "Oh, for a shelter to get a little warmth and rest! Even a hare would find no shelter here."
Lucky for Pic, his good fortune had not entirely deserted him, for as he looked toward the mountain through the blinding snow-dust, he saw a dark spot high upon its side. One glimpse was enough; the dark spot was a cave and he joyfully made known his news to his companions.
All smiled once more. It was agreed that their onward march would be halted temporarily, giving Pic a chance to take refuge in the cave and rest until the storm was over. Meanwhile the two animals would wait in the lee of a rock-shelter which could be seen a half mile or so beyond the cave. When the weather cleared, Pic would rejoin his friends and they would continue as before. With this understanding, they separated. Pic made for the mountain side while Hairi and Wulli moved off toward the rock-shelter.
Pic climbed up to the cave but before intruding he made a careful preliminary inspection. Possession was nine points of the law in such cases; the tenth point was getting possession. "Cave-jumping" was an offense meriting capital punishment. There could be no mercy shown one who attempted to deprive another of his home. This applied to men's dealings with beasts as well as with each other. Men and beasts both fancied the same sort of dwelling and in the winter time particularly, there was constant rivalry between them for the possession of the desirable caves. Some were more desirable than others, being furnished with more than one entrance or having advantages of plumbing and ventilation; such as cool drinking water trickling through the ceiling or openings in the roof to permit the escape of smoke and foul air. Most of them had thresholds or sun-rooms where the tenant might loll outside and enjoy natural light and warmth. Neither man nor flesh-eating beasts knew how to build houses and so they made use of the best that Nature gave them.
Pic found that, although vacant, the place did not lack an owner. It bore a pungent animal odor and that odor was fairly fresh. The occupant had been there recently and gone away. "Probably I will have gone away too by the time he returns," thought Pic. The storm was already abating and it would not be long before he could resume his journey. Before selecting a comfortable spot to lie down and rest, he set about to learn what variety of animal he might have to deal with, should it return. His nose informed him that the odor was not that of a lion or any other cat-like animal. That was good, for they were his most formidable enemies. Wolf or hyena? No; then it must be a bear. Yes, it was a bear. Now his anxiety was relieved. Such animals varied greatly in size and fierceness but most of them were comparatively harmless if let alone.
Pic lay down in the cave entrance where the wind and sleet could not reach him and laughed at the storm outside. He could see the broad snow-covered expanse of country below him. The Mammoth and Rhinoceros had disappeared. A large bowlder hung at the verge of the cave threshold and obstructed his view in that direction. It also prevented his seeing what might be coming toward him up the mountain side. Not until he heard the crunch, crunch of something breaking through the snow crust did he realize that he was about to have a visitor. He sprang to his feet, glided to the bowlder and peered over, then dropped behind it again.
A burly animal was ascending to the cave. It was heavily furred and round like a big ball. A bear; Pic had interpreted the odor rightly but he had not bargained for one as large as this. It was neither the black nor the brown species but a huge brute that no man, however strong and brave, would care to meddle with: the giant Cave Bear.
The beast came lumbering up the steep mountain side, occasionally stopping to gaze westward. At such times it growled. Probably it had seen the Mammoth and Rhinoceros pass by and decided that its den needed watching.
Pic gripped his ax tightly for he knew this was an occasion to try any bear's temper. The one coming toward him appeared big enough to do anything. He would put up a good fight without question, in the defense of his home. The man looked at his ax blade and shook his head. Even its keen edge would find difficulty in reaching a vital spot through that heavy fur. Once those mighty paws were around his body it would go hard with him.
The Cave Bear continued his ascent, puffing and blowing like a steam engine from his exertions. He paused a moment to rest and recover his breath and in that short interval, Pic conceived a brilliant plan.
The beast had halted directly beneath the bowlder behind which the man lay hidden. Pic braced his feet against the projections of the ledge surface behind him and set his shoulders against the stone. 0ne mighty heave loosened it from its setting. The Cave Bear looked up and growled. The motion of the stone and the slight noise above, aroused his suspicions. Pic put forth every ounce of his great strength in a second effort. The bowlder swayed, then toppled over. The beast saw it coming and made a frantic attempt to save himself. Too late! The huge stone descended upon him with a crash and the two went rolling and tumbling together down the mountain side, with Pic bounding after them, ax in hand to deal the finishing blow.
But there was no need to complete the damage that the stone had begun. When Pic arrived at the foot of the declivity he found a perfectly dead bear. The crushing weight of the bowlder and the long battering journey down the steep incline had made an end of the beast for all time.
It was a magnificent animal, bulging with winter fat and the finest of heavy fur. Pic looked down upon it and sighed. Bears in general interested him and appealed to his gentler nature; bluff and ungainly and so different from skulking flesh-eaters. The beast had died without a chance to defend itself. Pic's triumph was tinged with profound regret; but one or the other of them had to die, he consoled himself, and he preferred the hear to be that one. He marvelled at the beast's vast proportions, its thick hams, and mighty paws, then his attention was drawn to the fur. "A wonderful coat." he said, as he kneeled and ran his fingers through it. "Would that I had one like it to keep out the cold."
"It is yours; take it," something within him answered and the idea once born, soon became a reality. In a trice, his ax blade was unbound from its wooden handle and became a knife. With this, Pic began to skin the beast, a tremendous task for a lone man with nothing but a flint tool to aid him. But the flint was sharp and the man's strength and determination carried him through. He slit the neck, chest and belly downward, then the forepaws and after much cutting and tugging, pulled the complete hide from the carcass. The hind legs were uncovered without slitting, leaving those parts of the skin solid like a pair of boots. When the hide was completely detached inside out, Pic turned it back the right way again and the job was done.
He remounted his ax head, rested and refreshed himself with some flesh-strips from the carcass, then proceeded to have a try-on of his new one-piece suit. The hind legs made comfortable trousers and the rest of it, although somewhat loose and badly hung, might have been much worse. No better garment could have been devised to keep out the cold and that was the main idea. It had but one drawback. Pic found it a most unwieldy thing to navigate in. When he tried to walk, he did nothing hut trip and stumble over his own feet. This was no more than amusing for he was feeling warm and comfortable and ready to smile at anything. "Hairi and Wulli will be surprised when they see me in this," he laughed. "Agh ! What a relief ! My coat is every bit as warm as theirs. Snow, ice, cold wind; what of them? Now our way may lead to the country of the Mammoth and Rhinoceros, for all I care."