Chapter Eighteen - "The Hyena Man Must Die."
IT HAD BEEN a hard wearisome charge up that steep mountain slope. Hairi and Wulli wondered how they ever summoned courage to do it. They had never done such a thing before. But the present conditions were extraordinary. Pic their dearest friend was being set upon by the man-pack and there was no other way to help him. They had returned after their first fright and hearing the voice of battle about them, had hurried to the rescue. To their horror, they found the ledge a shambles reeking with blood and death. Pic was not there. They feared they had come too late. Then both jumped back in surprise, for Kutnar was looking down upon them. They recognized him at once, and squealed and snorted their greetings.
Kutnar stared at the beasts like one not in his right mind. He pointed to the body over which he kneeled and replied in a hollow voice. "Here he lies and yet it is not he. The best of him is gone. He tried to save me from these savage men. For that he died," and the boy rocked back and forth over his father's body, moaning as though his heart would break.
The Mammoth bowed his head, overwhelmed, crushed as the terrible truth drove itself home.
All three remained with heads bent low, paying their last tribute to the Mousterian chief. The Mammoth was the first to recover himself. He stamped his feet and flapped his ears. His eyes reddened like hot coals as he looked around for the slayer, ready to trample the life out of him.
Kutnar was on his feet in an instant. "The murderer is not here. I do not know who killed him. But there is one who caused all this, my traitor-friend the Hyena Man. I heard his voice above us. He must die." He darted across the ledge and picked up his sling and pebble pouch which had fallen there during the melee, then leaped down the slope and looked above him. A man was ascending the scarp. Kutnar ran to one side of the rock shelter and began climbing up.
High above his head, Gonch was ascending leisurely, feeling comfortable in the thought that Totan and Pic were no more. He had seen Totan's dead body and would have relished a glimpse of Pic's but the Mammoth and Rhinoceros stood on guard and he dared not descend. However, Pic was as dead as Totan, he felt reasonably certain, and now that his enemies were out of the way, he planned to return to Castillo and seize the reins of authority. Some day fate permitting he might even venture into the Mousterian country and take Pic's place. The possibilities of his future were unlimited. He might become the foremost potentate in all the world.
He was looking behind him now and then from force of habit. There were none left to pursue him but he had not seen Pic's body and therefore could not feel absolutely sure. As he snatched one of his hurried glances, to his horror, he saw a figure scaling the cliff below him. For an instant he thought that the Mousterian chief must have risen from the grave to destroy him, then he breathed a sigh of relief. It was not Pic but a much smaller man. One of his own people perhaps. He halted until the other came near enough to be recognized, Gonch stared at him in amazement, then snarled hatefully, "Kutnar! What brings the boy here ?"
As if in reply, Kutnar shook his fist at the Muskman and cried out, "Traitor, you shall not escape me this time," and climbed up as fast as he could.
Gonch laughed. The boy carried no ax and he was at a disadvantage, attacking from below. The Muskman seized a stone from the wall behind him and raised it above his head in both hands. There he stood howling derision at his pursuer.
Kutnar heard but he only climbed the faster. His was a lithe active body. Never had his climbing powers been subject to so severe a test. In places the wall, for rods at a time, appeared so smooth and unbroken that it seemed impossible for a human being to adhere to it; but Kutnar not only did adhere but continued upward at an astonishing rate. His toes and fingers found every minute wrinkle and crevice. His legs were the sustaining members, his shoulders the windlass, his arms the tackle of a self-propelling derrick lifting itself in mid-air. Kutnar was expending his energy at a lavish rate. He might have rested temporarily on the occasional rock-shelves that marked his route. In a saner moment he would have so chosen but now he was insane; a maniac bearing a death message to the man whose perfidy had destroyed the one he loved best. The human derrick was strained almost to the breaking point and still it continued to propel itself skyward. Not until Kutnar reached an unusually deep shelf which gave him more than standing room, did he pause even for a moment; then he halted and looked up. The Musk-man stood waiting above him. Kutnar could see his open red mouth and white teeth. Gonch's face wore an expression of cruel eagerness, such as a panther wears when about to spring from the tree branches upon a fawn passing beneath. His back was set against the wall, both hands raised high above his head. He was preparing to hurl the stone.
Kutnar braced his legs, secured a firm foothold and whirled his sling. Gonch trembled. He could almost feel the pebble striking his skull with deadly precision. He faltered, tossed the stone wildly and fled in a panic up the stone wall behind him. The boy dodged the stone as it fell but now the Muskman was beyond effective throwing range and so Kutnar ceased whirling his sling and followed after. "The traitor must die," repeated itself over and over in his mind and drove out all thought of himself, a stripling pitted against a full-grown man. His breath came in gasps, for what with the struggle below and his exhausting climb, the limit of his endurance was nearly reached. There came over him the fear that Gonch might escape after all and so he strove desperately, forcing his shaking legs to carry him on.
Gonch was comparatively fresh and perhaps it was just as well for the boy that he had abandoned all thought of fight. The Muskman had become obsessed with fear of the magic sling whose deadly accuracy he had become familiar with through long experience. He was struggling up the slippery rock when he heard the stone whizz close by his head and click against the wall. The sound spurred him on but in his over-eagerness he slipped and dropped back several feet. This slip terrified him.
Kutnar felt in his pouch and drew forth another pebble - the last. He had but one chance left. He reloaded his weapon but he neither whirled nor threw at his enemy now moving slowly but surely to safety. He was waiting until his heart would ease its pounding and his muscles could be brought under control for the final cast.
Gonch had recovered himself and was making progress. No second missile had followed the first to shake his nerves. Desperation gave him courage for the supreme effort required. His hands were raised to within a few yards of the crowning pinnacles of the scarp. Once ahold of them he could drag himself to the top - and safety.
Kutnar saw. His heart had ceased palpitating. He no longer trembled. His body was as cold as ice. "That man must die," he said for the last time. The thong hissed. Every ounce of strength in the guiding muscles followed the stone in its flight and sent it whizzing to the mark.
The traitor came into his own at last and his body lay amid those of his comrades who now shared their lot with the true author of their destruction.
How Kutnar descended the precipitous wall of the scarp, he never knew nor did he care. A slip of hand or foot would have sent him to his death, a thing he feared not, for it meant only peace and rest to his aching heart. He lowered his body from one rock projection to another in such reckless fashion that the wonder is he did not fall. Some good angel must have been watching over him. His long journey downward was entirely without mishap and he reached the foot of the scarp in safety.
Here a tremendous surprise awaited him. Pic's body had disappeared. In its stead, a man sat upon the rock-platform with feet dangling over the edge. His body was bruised and bleeding. His eyes were closed and his head hung forward upon his chest. Had not the Mammoth's trunk curled around his waist, giving him support, he must have fallen. But he was alive for his muscles twitched feebly and he mumbled strange words that neither Hairi nor Wulli could understand.
For an instant, Kutnar stared openmouthed unable to realize the great mercy that some good spirit had reserved as his portion. "Alive !" he said in a low voice as though fearing to disturb the dead. "I am dreaming. It cannot be."
"Oowee! oowee !" squealed the Rhinoceros, jumping up and down with joy.
Kutnar sprang to his father with a glad cry and threw his arms about him. Pic opened his eyes. "Kutnar," he murmured feebly; then his eyes closed again and he rambled on deliriously about wolves and hyenas and snow and various other things that had not the remotest connection with the present occasion. It was a most unintelligible discourse but his audience listened with rapt attention and beamed happily, for it meant that Pic was alive.
Yes, he still lived, thanks to his great strength and endurance. But for them, he could not have survived the terrible battering he had received. His body was a mass of welts and contusions, the result of merciless pounding. Scarcely a square inch of it had been spared by the Castilian clubs. No man could have lived under a third of those blows, had they been delivered by flint axes which cleaved through the flesh and inflicted ghastly wounds. Pic had demonstrated with his own body that ineffective weapons made not only poor hunters but poor warriors as well.
Hairi found a spring bubbling from the mountain slope and brought a trunkful, doling it out to Kutnar who laved his father's wounds and cooled his fever. The boy then hurried to the grotto of the underground vault and returned with Pic's bearskin robe. The invalid was bundled up in this and tucked away under the rock-shelter to rest. This done, Kutnar went off to refill his pebble pouch and kill food for Pic so that he might eat when he had rested and regained his strength. Meanwhile Hairi and Wulli stood guard. When Kutnar returned, the two beasts descended the mountain slope to graze and the boy went on duty. Such nursing could not help but produce results. Pic recovered rapidly and before many days the quartette was ready to depart. Still bundled up in his bearskin suit, Pic was lifted to the Mammoth's neck and with Kutnar sitting behind to steady him, they marched down the slope and around the mountain to the River Pas. They crossed this and went north along the right bank until they came in sight of Castillo. A faint haze arising in the distance from the cave entrance, showed that it was still the home of men. "What will they do with Totan and Gonch gone?" said Kutnar, and his father answered, "Rather what will they do now that they no longer have a boy to feed them?"
This was the last they saw of the Castilian stronghold, for here they turned in the direction of the rising sun. A long journey lay before them but their hearts were light and full of the joy of companionship. Kutnar was found. Pic was himself again and now they were bound for a goal of rest and contentmenthome.