THE great snake dwelt in the dismal, murky, stinking, mud and slime of the great swamp into which the river, that coursed by the cliff abode of the Hairy People disappeared. The swamp itself was a place of horror. Great trees that reached over acres of land and sent down snakelike shoots to find new roots in the slime and blossomed forth again made it a place of perpetual gloom. Long serpent-like lianas reached out and twined and intertwined among the branches of the trees and made the place still darker. Treacherous islands of giant reeds and canes that rattled together like the bones of skeletons in the wind seemed to float about on the slime and ooze, and long-legged gangling birds, with great silent flapping wings and sepulchral voices flew about among the trees or strode across the muddy surface with strides so awkward and grotesque as to make them appear like gnomes who might dwell in that dank and dark land of mystery. Snakes and turtles and vari-colored lizards slept on the roots that pushed above the mud like the knees of a sinister being slumbering underneath, and scaly crocodiles and alligators crept about in the mud and bellowed at night.
Strange and startling sounds came from out the mud, too; gargling, choking sounds as if someone below that slime were struggling and gasping for breath, as great bubbles of swamp gas came up through the ooze and floated about on the reeking water. And at night these bubbles would become alight with ghostly flames and go floating off through the gloom to disappear into the heart of the great swamp while the Hairy People watched them from the doorway of their caves in the cliff side and trembled with fear. The swamp was indeed a place of terror.
And in it dwelt, and all too often out of it came the great snake that huge and monstrously horrible, slinking, crawling, ugly serpent that could crush and devour a fully grown Hairy Man with surprising ease. Og had seen the great snake.
Long ago when he, with the Tree People, fleeing from the forest fire that Scar Face had started with his stolen fire brand, took refuge in the great cave, the serpent had come among them suddenly. It had hurled itself among them with ugly hisses exuding a stench that made them all sick. It had thrown its deadly coils about some of the Tree People and crushed them, bones and all, into bloody, pulpy masses. That dreadful scene would live in Og's memory forever, and that terrible stench; the stink that always lingered about the great swamp made him so sick and weak that all his strength seemed to ooze from his body and leave him helpless. The great snake that dwelt in the dismal swamp was indeed a monster of horror to the Hairy People.
The stench of the serpent hung heavily about the foot of the cliff, in the crevices and caves of whose surface the Hairy People dwelt. The damp misty morning air was pungent with it and the rocks and earth across which his long, slithering, scaly body had dragged reeked with it and the Hairy People, whose sense of smell was nearly as keen as that of any animal, shuddered and stayed in the security of their caves as they waited for the sun to come up, and the wind to stir itself and cleanse the air.
By the odor alone the Hairy People would have known that the great snake had visited their village the night before, had they not been fully aware of it already. The night had been made horrible by the awful hisses and thrashing about of the great serpent, and the piercing shrieks of its victim and the whole village had been roused and called to the doorways of their caves by the commotion. Those shrieks in the night were stamped deep upon the otherwise none too certain memory of the Hairy People for from the safety of their doorways they had seen the great serpent glide slowly fold upon fold out of one of the lower caves, with head held high and dangling, half swallowed, from its great jaws was the crushed and lifeless form of Kug; Kug, one of their number, and a great hunter. Kug, because he was strong and fearless had one of the lower caves in the cliff and the great snake had poked its head and ugly length into the cave and dragged him from the bed on which he was sleeping, and crushed him in its terrible folds of death. Nor did it give much heed to the ugly calls and shouts of the Hairy People and the stones and stone hammers they threw at its long, slowly moving body as, with hunger satisfied it made off toward the swamp again.
The night had been horrible for Og, for Kug's cave was not far from his own and the Hairy Boy had been awakened, like the others by the commotion and the stench of the great snake, and had witnessed all of the dreadful happening with his own eyes. He had run from his cave with stone hammer and a flaming firebrand, but even he was not brave enough to get within reach of those great scaly folds that moved wavelike over rocks and around trees and bushes; and so his attempts to injure the great snake were as ineffectual as the efforts of the others.
There was little sleep in the cliff village the rest of that night and Og was as glad as any of the rest of the Hairy People when mist-shrouded dawn broke and daylight drove the heavy darkness beyond the mountains. He watched the vasty blackness of the swamp down the Valley of Fear and instinctively shuddered as his sensitive nostrils sniffed the revolting air.
But while he sat there huddled in the doorway of his little cave before the fire that he always kept burning in the entrance, he was conscious of something back in his mind that seemed struggling against this fear that gripped him; something that he could only understand as anger. He could not know it was the tiny spark within him that marked the difference between human kind and animal kind; the slowly awakening intelligence that gave him the ability to think, and to resent the dominance of something bigger and stronger. All that he did know was that with his anger and resentment there developed a desire to rid the world of this terrible menacing thing; to make life safe and pleasant and happy for himself and his kind. So Og began slowly and laboriously to plan, and by the time the great round red sun looked above the mountains across the river a definite desire to go down the Valley of Fear and into the great swamp and put an end to the reptile that so terrified them had taken shape in his mind. Indeed the desire completely dominated the instinctive fear of the mysteries of the vast swamp.
And so it was that he was the first to climb down the face of the cliff. With his tiger skin across his shoulders and a firebrand and stone hammer in his hands he approached the council rock, calling loud voiced and courageously as he went. His bravery gave others courage and one by one the men of the colony, all long-armed, big-chested and short-legged as was Og came slowly from out their caves, bearing firebrands, too, and stone hammers, and a few of them-the biggest and bravest-wearing skins of animals they had slain about their shoulders. They grunted and chattered as they came and all of them watched furtively from under low, shaggy brows and their eyes kept ever roving toward the timber that fringed the edge of the gloomy swamp.
Og watched furtively too, but he was cunning enough to hide as much of his instinctive fear as he could from the other Hairy Men. Instead of crouching as they did when they gathered before the council rock Og stood up as straight as he could, which was not very erect, for he and his people still crouched forward until their long arms almost touched the ground, for they were not so very far removed from their ancestors who had used both hands and feet to walk with.
The Hairy Boy did not make much of a speech when the council was assembled. He could not; because the language of the Hairy People which consisted chiefly of grunts and strange clacking noises with tongue and lips, had not been developed to the point where anything but the most, elemental thoughts or desires could be expressed. But what Og lacked in the power of words he had made up for by acting. With glowering brows and gnashing teeth and hoarse roars and a few guttural sentences interjected, he simulated anger and resentment against the great snake that had invaded their village so well that he instilled courage in his hearers. He inspired himself, too, and added to his own courage and it was not long before his simulated anger became real and very intent. And it was infectious.
One by one the Hairy Men became furiously angry, so angry indeed that many of them began to beat their chests with clenched fists, roaring with each beat until their chorus began to pulsate and carry a strange, weird resonance that echoed down the valley and through the dim and gloomy isles of the swamp. Louder and longer grew the roaring until soon the Hairy Men were so excited that they began jumping up and down and swinging their stone hammers, working themselves into a terrible frenzy of resentment against the great reptile that had carried off one of their brave hunters. And the anger spread to the women and children who looked down at them from the doorways of their caves in the cliffs; and by and by they began to shout and throw stones in the air and gnash their teeth and shake their clenched fists toward the gloomy swamp, too.
Og watched these demonstrations with eyes that gleamed with little more intelligence than the rest and when he realized that the Hairy Men had worked themselves up to the highest pitch that their anger could reach (which was very terrible indeed) he suddenly left the council rock and choosing the biggest and strongest of the men he stepped up to them one by one and touching each on the breast pointed toward the gloomy swamp and conveyed to them by word or motions that he wanted them to go with him down the Valley of Fear and into the land of terrible mystery.
If Og expected an immediate response he was disappointed. His suggestion produced the same reaction in all but one of the men he approached. When they understood his meaning their anger gave way immediately to fear, cringing fear that was evident and that they did not try to hide or disguise. To them the horrors of this great swamp were very real and very dreadful. They' knew the great snake lived in it, they knew that the huge, spotted cave leopards hunted there and nightly they heard the roar of sabre-tooth tigers echoing across the gloomy expanse. These beasts roamed the cane-covered hummocks with other animals equally as big and equally as fierce that also haunted the gloom of the place and made the swamp nights hideous with their noises, and none of the Hairy Men had the courage to face these perils; none save one.
He was Ru the brother of Kug, the strong hunter who had been carried off by the great snake the night before. Ru was just as much afraid as the rest of the Hairy Men, but like Og, back of his flat forehead a better brain was at work and he, too, was moved with resentment and revenge, and a desire to rid the colony of the tyranny and menace of the great snake. And although he ceased his angry gesticulations, and looked quite terrified at Og's suggestion he did not cringe and draw away and go slinking off to his cave in the cliff as others did. Instead he crouched by the council rock and made a great effort at thinking the situation over, and when Og came back to the rock again Ru stood up beside him, and told him with grunts and gutturals that he would go with him into the great swamp and hunt down the snake.