Chapter Sixteen - A Mystery Explained.
THE MAMMOTH and Rhinoceros were standing near the foot of the mountain beneath an overhanging cliff. From time to time they glanced eastward as though expecting someone. The storm had moderated considerably.
"It is about time he was returning," Hairi remarked. "I hope when he does come back he will be all rested and warm. What a pity he cannot learn to fancy the cold weather as we do."
"Here he comes now," said the Rhinoceros.
Both animals possessed keen ears and noses but their eyesight was not at all good. They saw a blurred figure coining toward them through the snow but neither of them could have distinguished a man from an elk at that distance. The figure moved in a most peculiar manner. It walked on its hind legs but as it approached them, the two friends saw to their astonishment that it was not a man.
"A bear," muttered Wulli.
"Yes, it looks like a bear," said the Mammoth; "but did you ever see one behave like that ?"
The creature was in truth performing most strangely. It seemed to he having great difficulty managing its legs and feet. These tripped over and interfered with one another in an astonishing way. The big body heaved and tossed about because of its unreliable support. Finally when several rods distant, it stumbled and fell sprawling in the snow. Hairi and Wulli looked in amazement as the creature floundered helplessly upon its back like a turtle. A fter much puffing and grunting it righted itself and again assumed an upright position.
A bear was nothing to be afraid of, so thought the Mammoth and Rhinoceros, but this one's behavior mystified them. Once on its feet again, it lurched and lumbered forward waving both paws as if in greeting. "Hi-ya, Hairi; Hi-ya, Wulli!" it cried.
The two friends jumped. They were trembling now and too scared to move. The words and voice sounded strangely familiar. They were those of a human being, but the creature was a bear. Then more surprising still, its head fell back and a man's face appeared. The mouth was grinning as though it would split.
The Mammoth was on the point of beating a hasty retreat when Wulli suddenly squealed, "Pic! that is his face. What has become of the rest of him?"
Hairi's eyes opened wide. "Pic, sure enough. But his body ; where is that? The bear must have eaten it."
"Perhaps he ate the bear," squealed Wulli clutching at a small ray of hope. "Let's ask him."
"Ho-ho !" laughed the unknown. "Did I frighten you? Now don't run away, Hairi, for there is nothing to worry about. Nobody has eaten anybody."
The voice was reassuring and it belonged to Pic without question. The Mammoth breathed more freely. He advanced a few steps and touched the other with the tip of his trunk. "Fur, long and thick like a bear's." He turned to the Rhinoceros and said, "I said he ought to do it and he has done it. But who would believe that he could grow so much hair and in so short a time?"
Sounds of muffled laughter greeted his last remark. Wulli now came forward to investigate the reason for this unseemly mirth. He sniffed at the bearskin, then suddenly backed away squealing with alarm. "Oo-wee! Blood; I smell it! 0o-wee; somebody has been killed."
The two animals might have bolted then and there, had not Pic put an end to the farce. He threw the skin from his body and it fell in a heap about his legs.
"It is I: all of me," he said. "Somebody has been killed but I was not the one. I slew the hear, otherwise he would have slain me. With my flint-blade I cut his pelt from him and now it is mine."
"And so he did not grow it," said the Mammoth somewhat crestfallen. "At any rate he did his best to do as I said."
Wulli took an entirely different view of the matter. He could appreciate a good fighter. "Only a big man could kill such a big bear," he remarked thoughtfully.
"And a smaller hear would not have been much use to him," Hairi sagely remarked. "He could never have gotten in its skin. I say he did right."
"Right or wrong, only a good fighter could have done it," grumbled the Rhinoceros.
"And now I am clad as warmly as you are," said Pic. "It will be better for all of us for we can travel just as fast as we please. The skin will keep me warm. This makes us three instead of two Tundr-folk."
The new arrangement was a success from the very start. The bearskin had its drawbacks but they detracted only in a small measure from the main point. Pic could not make much headway in it traveling on foot; furthermore the Mammoth was obliged to lift him to his seat when he vainly endeavored to mount. Pic was no more able to help himself than a turkey done up in brown paper. However, when once astride Hairi's neck, he was in the height of his glory. His new garment was impervious to wind and cold and having nothing to do but sit and think, he felt thoroughly comfortable and contented. The two animals shared his good spirits. From then on the party got along finely and proceeded at a great rate.
The Ebro River soon appeared upon their left. It was fed by many smaller streams flowing into it from the mountains. The latter were frequently cleft by deep passes or defiles running through them from south to north. After crossing the headwaters of the Ebro the trio came in sight of another mountain pass traversed by a modest stream. This latter was partly frozen over but the Mammoth and Rhinoceros were powerful cold-water swimmers and found little trouble in breaking their way through the ice to the opposite side. As they climbed the bank and halted to shake the water out of their shaggy coats, Pic saw before him a lofty peak in whose side, five hundred feet or more above the level on which he stood, loomed a dark spot. His trained eye immediately recognized it as a cave. It must be in or near the zone of human occupancy if what the snow grouse had said, was true. Now was the time to cut through the mountain range to the northern side.
Pic glanced at the sky. The sun was hidden in the west. Before long, all would be dark. The party roust wait until morning before proceeding and so they began to look about for a convenient spot to halt and rest. Pic resolved to spend his night in the cave, assuming it to be vacant. No fire burned upon its threshold. And yet, it might be the home of a man who could be forced to give information that might prove valuable.
The trio advanced to the mountain. It appeared near but appearances were deceiving and it was quite dark when they drew up at the foot of the steep slope. Here Pic and his friends parted; the former to climb upward, the latter to proceed a short distance, browsing as they went.
Pic discovered the cave to be a small one and unoccupied. However it had been a man's home and probably still was, for the human odor still clung to it. This was interesting and important, for it was reasonable to suppose that other human beings lived somewhere near.
Pic glowed all over with the pleasure and excitement this thought aroused in him. The long climb too had warmed him, particularly as he was now attired in his bearskin suit. The latter was cumbersome but it would make a comfortable sleeping bag and for that reason, he had been loath to leave it behind. Before settling down upon the threshold to rest, he examined the cave. There was little to see, for it was nothing but a small hollow in the rock, absolutely hare except for a single flat stone lying upon the floor. Pic lay down in the cave entrance, gathered his robe about him and was not long in drifting to the land of rest and forgetfulness.
Cave men, like animals, slept with one eye and one ear open. Pic so slept, soundly but easily aroused. He was resting comfortably when something aroused him. In an instant he was wide awake, listening and straining his eyes to pierce the darkness.
A low scraping noise sounded from behind himfrom the floor of the cave. I t continued with fits and starts. Still lying motionless, he turned his head around far enough to view the cave interior. He saw nothing therenothing but the stone upon the floor. "Probably some small animal stirring," he thought and then - the stone moved. For a moment, he was startled, to say the least. No stone ever shifted about of itself. Something must be pushing it. He looked on dumbfounded as the stone hitched itself almost imperceptibly along the cave floor. It appeared bewitched; and then as he watched its strange motions while uneasiness and fear of the unknown began to creep over him, a vent appeared beneath the stone and from it issued a human hand.
A man! The mystery was now explained.
The cave owner was concealed in a hole in the floor and was removing the stone which covered the entrance to it. Pic gathered his feet together under him, laughing softly to himself. What was there to fear from one man? He rose to a crouching position, relieving himself of the bearskin as he did so. Leaving this in a heap where he had lain, he crawled to the rear of the grotto and kneeled behind the hole in the floor, his arms outstretched and waiting. The mysterious hands there were now - two of them - sank within the cavity and a head appeared. It rose until its eyes were above the level of the cave floor. The eyes stared at the bearskin robe a few seconds, then the head settled down and again the hands reached upward to grasp the stone.
Quick as lightning, Pic pounced upon the hands, locking both wrists in his iron grip. One heave and the unknown was plucked from his burrow like a rabbit, struggling and yelling like fury at finding himself so suddenly caught. A boy and a stout one too, for he fought like a wildcat: but he was helpless as a kitten in the clutches of the giant Mousterian. Pic held him fast and dragged him to the outside light. "Agh, little rascal !" he said; "and so you were the one who disturbed my night's rest."
At the sound of the voice, the boy gave a loud cry that made his captor's heart leap within his chest.
Pic seized the lad's head between his hands and turned it so that he could peer into the face. His knees trembled, his whole body shook.
"Kutnar ! Boy, is it you?"
For an instant each face stared at the other as in the waking moments of a dream. Then came light and understanding and in a moment father and son were locked tightly in each other's arms.