Chapter Seventeen - Pic and the Castilian Horde.
THE SKY might have fallen in just then; anything might have happened and Pic would not have noticed it. He had no thought of aught but the one happiness that filled his heart to bursting - Kutnar was found. The pursuit through southwestern France, the long journey across the Pyrenees, the terrible cold; all were set aside and forgotten for this supreme moment - one of the most blissful he had ever known. For a time, nothing was said. Father and son sat in the cave entrance. holding each other tightly as though they would never let go. Kutnar wept silent tears. He had played the part of a man well but once more under the protection of his powerful sire, the reaction was overwhelming and he was but a boy, tired and homesick and so glad to be again with the one he loved best.
When the first joy of meeting was over, Pic drifted back to earth. "What were you doing in that hole?" he asked.
Kutnar told of his escape from Castillo and the various events leading to it. Everything bespoke Gonch's perfidy and cruelty. Pic's face became adamant as the tale of Gonch's duplicity gradually unfolded itself. Driven to desperation, the boy had turned upon the traitor who must have by this time breathed his last.
"I could tell you more," said Pic. "But what you already know, is enough. However it would seem that what my boy has suffered, has made him bear himself as well or better than a man. And this Gonch; are you quite sure he is dead?"
To this Kutnar replied : "No, I do not feel at all sure. When I left him lying in the bushes he still breathed. Something warned me to make an end of the ruffian but I could not summon courage to deal the death blow."
Pic fidgeted uneasily. "It would have been wiser had you shown him no mercy," he said, "but you did well and I am proud of you. Now I am going to treat you to a pleasant surprise. You see, I did not come alone. Hairi and Wulli are near at hand and waiting for us to meet them."
While saying this, he was on his feet striding to the edge of the cave threshold with Kutnar by his side. S uddenly he uttered an imprecation and withdrew hastily into the grotto dragging the boy with him. "Your enemies! I had forgotten them," he said. "Agh! Let us hope that they have not seen us."
Vain hope; he had jumped back quickly but too late. Several groups of men stood apart from each other at the foot of the eastern and southern declivities. They were waving their clubs and pointing upward to the cave. As Pic endeavored to conceal himself, a chorus of howls floated to his ears and he saw human figures scrambling up the steep ascent. For an instant he stood irresolute. If fight he must, he could not choose a better position than the one he now held. He was but one against many ; how many? He gazed down at his enemies, here, there and everywhere. They seemed to be coming in swarms. He was a giant, past master with the flint ax but there were limits to what one man could do. A sudden change came over him. His eyes blazed death. He bared his teeth and his features became as those of a gorilla, tracked to his lair by the hunters and brought to bay. He beat his great chest with one clenched hand, while with the other he shook his ax at the men below him. He howled furiously. Four-score throats gave answer. The several groups of men had by this time spread out and joined each other in a long thin line. Single figures were hastening toward the western slope to extend that line. They moved fast. The path westward was still open; soon it would be closed. There at the far end of it awaited the Mammoth and Rhinoceros. Pic was but one man pitting himself against a host. Even in his fury, he saw the better part of wisdom.
"Quick, run !" he cried, pointing to the west. "Once with our friends, we can laugh at any number of these wretches," so away they scurried along the mountain side, while their pursuers observing them, hastened around in the same direction to cut them off.
Hairi and Wulli were standing motionless on the western side of the mountain and to the north. They heard shouts and cries and saw two men running toward them along the heights. While they were wondering why there should be two instead of one, more men appeared, a crowd of them, also coming head on but from farther down. What did it all mean? It would seem that the two were being set upon by many. If so, one of the fugitives must be Pic. Although uneasy and not knowing just what to expect, they kept close watch.
So engrossed were they in the two men and their pursuers, they had no eyes for something far above their heads. The mountain at whose base they stood, ascended gradually to the scarp - a precipitous rock wall whose craggy pinnacles were lost above the morning brume. Apparently none but birds and the Chamois and Ibex among beasts could have found footing upon its glabrous surface. But there crouched a man. In the grey dawn he had crawled part way down the wall to hide where none dared come; none but one unusually sure-footed and possessed of a clear head. The man was Gonch.
A night's rest and realization that he was still alive, had given him renewed strength and courage to escape from the fate that awaited him at the hands of Totan and his followers after he had let Kutnar out of their clutches. While resting and wondering what the day had in store for him, suddenly he espied two large animals standing motionless far down the mountain slope beneath him. He recognized them as the Mammoth and Woolly Rhinoceros. His face blanched. "How did they come there?" he muttered, gazing far and wide over the country below him. At that moment he heard distant cries and two human figures hove in sight. They were running swiftly toward him from the south and along the mountain side. More figures followed, many of them coming farther down the slopes.
Gonch grasped the whole situation - at least he thought he did. Kutnar had been overtaken and was now being hotly pursued by the Castilian horde. The larger of the two men he could now see more clearly - presumably Totan - was on the verge of capturing the youth.
Gonch looked on, growing more and more impatient as the latter drew nearer to his animal friends. What ailed the hetman ? Why did he not seize or strike down his quarry? "Agh, clumsy dunce," he muttered: "Soon you will be too late. Strike, strike while you have the chance." But the supposed Totan kept on as before, following Kutnar closely but making no effort to kill or capture him.
"Pig, lubber," thought the Muskman. "Your folly will spoil everything. It is time for me to take a hand and make an end of it."
He looked about him.
There were several partly detached stone blocks within his reach. He chose the largest and pulled it loose. The rock went bounding down the face of the scarp. He found another and another and tore them from the wall. They in their descent dislodged other blocks and the stream of them crashed and hounded down upon the Mammoth and Rhinoceros. The latter heard and saw the coming avalanche and immediately flew into a panic. Squealing and bellowing with fear, they turned tail and dashed away with the storm of rocks sweeping close behind them.
Gonch laughed wolfishly as he saw them go. He had meant to destroy them and although this plan had failed, there was some satisfaction in knowing that the next best thing was accomplished. Kutnar now need expect no assistance from his friends. The man and boy slowed up as the storm of rocks swept down the mountain side. They saw the two beasts gallop madly away. On the heights lay Pic's only chance for fighting off the man-pack. It was then that he caught sight of the ledge and its protecting canopy at the base of the scarp.
"To the rock," he panted and Kutnar turned to the right with Pic after him. Gonch could now see the boy's features; mouth open and nostrils dilated with exitement and fatigue. It was then that he also got a clear view of the man; the supposed Totan. It was but a fleeting glimpse, for man and boy had already passed from his sight beneath the shelter, but in those few moments, he learned his first mistake. It was not Totan but the giant Mousterian weapon maker, the man whom Gonch feared more than anything on earth. The Muskman's knees shook and he clutched the rocks to save himself from falling. Then came the reaction as he saw the Castilian horde coming rapidly toward him. Gonch wiped the cold dew from his brow and laughed hideously. He was safe from Pic's wrath and soon he would be forever rid of his most dreaded enemy. He descended the rock wall until he stood over the ledge where he could hear although not see all of the tragedy about to be enacted beneath. From this elevated position he watched the men of Castillo complete their enveloping movement. All chance of the fugitives' escape was now gone. The cave men came swarming up the slope in a wide semicircle, baying like hounds. Gradually the wings of the line converged as those on the two extreme ends rushed toward each other. Those in the center drew closer together and moved forward to meet the wings.
In the brief interval allotted him, Pic rested and prepared himself for the impending struggle. He had one thing to encourage him; his position was admirably chosen. His assailants must meet him face to face and climb up to him. He took his place at the edge of the rock-platform and hurled defiance at those who were advancing to destroy him. To the men of Castillo, the powerful figure and distorted features appeared as those of some unearthly being. The thought that his new-found cup of happiness might soon be snatched from his lips, had nigh driven Pic to frenzy. He was in truth a lion-man at bay defending his cub.
Hiss! something whistled past. One of the onrushing horde doubled up and fell. Pic turned and saw the boy standing toe to the ledge coping beside him. Already the sling was reloaded and whirling for a second cast. Hiss, again! Another man dropped back, holding his arm and screaming like a hurt beast. The stones flew fast with few misses, for there was little need of accurate shooting at such a mass of men. Almost every shot left an enemy accounted for. The cave men wavered as they witnessed the havoc wrought among them by the deadly sling. They might have fled but Totan was there to drive on the laggards and strike down any man who attempted to run away. Kutnar strove to single him out, but one man was hard to distinguish in the ruck and the hetman escaped unscratched.
To Pic, his son's prowess was a revelation. Never was known such stone throwing. "It is one thing to hit a rabbit and another to hit a man coming at you with a club," he thought. "The boy is a prodigy; may he live through this day." The men of Castillo were now closing in. Pic's powerful arm reached out and swept the lad behind him. for the time was near at hand for closer work with 'the flint ax. "Well done," he muttered. "My turn now. Stand well back and give me plenty of arm room to fight these wolves. Be ready with your ax, for if I break or lose mine, I will need another."
Kutnar fell back obediently. His jaws were clenched tightly together and the grip on his ax handle was even tighter as he awaited his chance to help when most needed.
From his rock roost, Gonch was an awed witness of the boy's deadly marksmanship. The sling suddenly ceased its work for now the cave men were coming to grips with those hidden from his sight. He saw Totan detach himself from the man-pack and fall back, permitting the yelling horde to sweep past him. To the hetman's credit be it said that he who feared no man, now disdained casting the balance of his great strength into such a one-sided contest. He stood with arms folded, watching and shouting command but offering to take no more active part when he considered himself so little needed. Gonch observed Totan's inaction. The time had come when he might rid himself of his two worst enemies at one fell stroke. He leaned far out from the rock-wall and howled furiously: "He has come as I promised. Up and strike before another wins the glory. It is Pic the Lion-Man himself."
The giant hetman bristled as he heard. The blood of the pit-fighter surged through his veins like molten steel. In an instant his calm was transformed into a tempest.
"The Lion-Man?" he roared, tearing through the crowd to the foot of the ledge. "And so he has come to me at last. He is mine I say and my hand alone shall do the butchering. Stand back, every one of you. The man who raises a club to strike him, dies."
The cave men stopped short, falling over one another in their anxiety to keep out of the hetman's way. Totan turned from them to him who stood upon the ledge. Pic had seen and heard all. He shook his ax blade defiantly in the other's face.
"Butcher me?" he screamed. "You ugly beast ! Come and try, here where there is room for both of us."
Totan answered with a thunderous roar. He clambered up the ledge. Pic fell back several paces, permitting his rival a foothold upon the rock platform. This gave the hetman a moment to prepare himself - a bit of chivalry he failed to appreciate. Men who gave ground or hesitated, were afraid of him - that was all. "Ar-r-r death," he snarled like a man tiger and flung himself upon the Mousterian champion.
"Death, so be it," and Pic sprang forward to meet him. So fierce was the onslaught that the two giants came breast to breast before either had a chance to strike. Quick as a cat, Pic dropped his ax and grappled with his burly opponent, throwing both arms about him, bear-fashion. Finding himself at a disadvantage, Totan too let fall his weapon, roaring with rage and pain and fighting like a demon to break the other's crushing grip.
But Pic had the under hold. With arms clamped around his rival's midriff, and face beneath the hetman's chin beyond reach of the tearing fingers and snapping bull-teeth, he held him as in an iron vise, from which there was no escape. The Mousterian made not a sound. He did not seem to even move, but slowly the Castilian giant's head with nose and mouth gushing blood, fell back. A dull crunch and before the cave men realized what had happened, their chieftain was born to the edge of the rock platform and cast down among them, a bloody lifeless thing. In a flash, Pic recovered his ax and was again upon the defensive. The rabble recoiled in terror from the fierce Lion-Man. Gonch gazed down into the face of the dead Totan. "Good," he croaked. "Now for the other," and from his safe perch he gave frantic commands for his minions to renew the attack. "Kill the man !" he screeched. "Capture the boy alive. He is our last chance for flints and food. At them, wolves. A whole tribe will come down upon you if they escape."
Thus urged, the cave men rallied and rushed again to the assault. The giant Mousterian's ax cut them down like straw, but the living climbed over the dead and carried the ledge by sheer weight of numbers. Pic was forced back against the wall, still fighting furiously although bleeding from a dozen wounds. His ax was shattered but the boy was ready with another. Pic seized and wielded it with deadly effect until it too was gone. Then grappling with the man nearest to him, he fastened his teeth in his throat. The mob surged over him. Kutnar struggled desperately but was soon overpowered.
At that moment, a loud snorting and thumping of heavy feet sounded from below, followed by squeals of rage, and two monstrous beasts came charging up the slope. "The Mammoth! The Woolly Rhinoceros !" yelled the cave men nearest them and away they scampered, howling with fear. The alarm spread like wildfire to their companions upon the ledge and they too scattered in all directions, the rearmost barely escaping with their lives. Even Gonch shared their panic, for he made all haste to climb higher, forgetting that he was quite safe and that no beast could reach him.
Hairi and Wulli halted at the foot of the ledge and looked about them. The Castilians had fled and in all of that gore and slaughter, only one semblance of life remained. Kutnar the boy was kneeling over a prostrate form and wiping blood from its face. The form was that of the Mousterian weapon maker lying where it had fallen. The Castilian jackals had borne down Pic the Lion by their overwhelming numbers but were now in their turn fleeing in disorder along the mountain side. It had devolved upon the Mammoth and Rhinoceros to rush to their friends' assistance and strike the decisive blow, thereby terminating this most desperate of unequal conflictsthe bloody battle of the scarp.