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Og — Boy of Battle
Irving Crump
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1925

CHAPTER III

EYES IN THE NIGHT

 
OG WAS the first to summon back his courage. He knew it was not wisdom to sit exposed to the full view of every prowling wanderer in the swamp, and presently he got up and began to make his way along the exposed roots to the nearest tree. From one gnarled root to another he leaped, until he came to the giant trunk of a spreading banyan. At the foot of this he paused until Ru joined him, then together they surveyed the mass of interlacing and liana-tied branches overhead. Og began to talk and gesticulate and point, until Ru by nods of his head and grunted replies agreed with him. Then with Og in the lead they started to climb the bulging bole of the huge tree.

The Hairy Boys had not progressed so far up the scale of physical development that they had lost the fingerlike use of their toes. Indeed they both had long, strong toes with which they could grip almost as readily as they could with their thick, powerful hands. And these combined with their long arms and short sturdy legs made them expert climbers. Indeed they went up the tree trunk with almost as much agility as the Tree People themselves, and presently they were crouched among the branches.

From this eminence they surveyed the vastness and shadowy blackness of the big swamp which, although it yet lacked several hours of sunset, was clothed in the gloom of night because of the thickly massed trees and other vegetation. The darkness seemed to impress Og with the fact that ere long night would be upon them; night, the terrible blackness which the Hairy Men still feared with all the superstition and dread of their kind. And although Og had conquered it to a certain extent with his knowledge of fire yet he, too, dreaded the cold enfolding blackness of the long hours after the sun had disappeared. Especially did he dread it here in the heart of the big swamp. And realizing the terrors that it would hold for them he knew that their first efforts must be devoted to finding a comfortable place to spend those fearsome hours. He wanted find some stretch of solid earth somewhere in this vastness of mud and water where they could build a fire and huddle together in its protective light and its comforting heat.

And so he led the way in the direction instinct and his native intelligence told him he would be most likely to find a stretch of firm earth high enough above the bog level to keep it drained of water. Their progress across the swamp was much swifter and easier now than it had been when they traveled the river bank and the outer fringe of the quagmire, for they moved as the Tree People did, swinging from one sturdy branch of the big trees to another. And although they did not travel with the swiftness and sureness of the apes they were not slow in their progress, either, for the limbs of the trees were big and strong and far-reaching and it was not difficult to leap or swing from one to another.

On and on they swung their way deeper and deeper into the swamp until soon, through the gloom they discovered a veritable tree-covered island rising above the surface of the swamp. Og gave a grunt of satisfaction when he saw where their journey carried them, and calling to Ru to follow him he swung downward until he dropped to the ground at the foot of a great, round swamp oak.

Og had long ago learned that it was best to have a big rock at his back and his fire in front of him when he spent the night in the forest. But there were no signs of rocks on the swamp island and so he decided that the big fat trunk of the swamp oak would have to serve the same purpose. While he began to gather great armfuls of dead sticks and broken branches with which to make his fire, Ru built a bed of dried leaves in the angle formed by the gnarled roots of the big tree, and by the time Og began his ceremony with his fire stones Ru had built a comfortable nest-like structure that was a far better night camp than the average Hairy Man had ingenuity enough to build for himself.

It always took Og some time to get a spark into his rude tinder of dried bark and leaves from the cumbersome pieces of flint and night had settled down on the outer world and dense and almost impenetrable blackness had enveloped the swamp before the first flickering flames made valiant efforts to dispel the smother of darkness.

The great and mysterious expanse began to be alive then. The prowlers of the swamp began to stir themselves and go abroad to make the night hideous with their noises. In a slough, hidden from Og and Ru by a dense curtain of undergrowth came a terrific splash and the rattle of scales as a crawling body hauled itself out of the mud and slime onto the land. Then a terrible bellowing roar, that made them huddle closer to each other, burst upon the night to be answered and reechoed by other roars in more distant sloughs. The big bull alligators were sliding their scaly lengths out of the mud seeking something to devour. Across the night came a high-pitched wailing call of the cave leopards, and from closer at hand came the deep-chested roar of a hunting sabre-tooth tiger, followed by the shriek of some smaller animal that had become its victim. Startled whistles, soft-footed, furtive noises, blood-chilling shrieks that sounded like the laughter of evil demons cahoots and snorts of anger sounded on every hand in the darkness round about and Og and Ru, stout hearted and courageous though they were, trembled and shivered like two frightened puppies, and they heaped wood on their fire and huddled close together in the angle formed by the bulging roots of the big swamp oak.

But the night wore on, and although time and again cold green glistening eyes looked at them from the darkness beyond the circle of the firelight, and although the fearsome voices sometimes sounded all too near for comfort, the two Hairy Boys slowly mastered their fears and with its mastery prepared to sleep. They snuggled close together for bodily warmth but they did not lie down. Instead they crouched in a most peculiar way after the fashion of the Hairy People, sitting on their haunches with their bodies drawn in and their drooping though muscular shoulders hunched over their knees. Their heads dropped forward between their knees and their strong-fingered hands were clasped across the back of their necks. This seemed to the Hairy Men to be the most natural and most comfortable way to sleep. Of course they could not know that by crouching that way they were obeying one of the protective instincts of Nature. Their hands folded across their necks protected all the big arteries and nerve centers there against the chill of night and hunched in that position the long coarse hair on the backs of their hands, shoulders, fore arms and upper arms and indeed on their backs, chests and thighs all pointed downward thus shedding all rain and moisture and keeping their skin dry and warm.

Like animals they possessed that peculiar ability to simply close their eyes and go to sleep immediately; and like animals, too, they could be fully awake at a moment's notice, alert and keen and ready for action.

How long they slept with the hideous night chorus of the great swamp going on about them Og did not know, but quite suddenly he opened his eyes with a soft grunt of suspicion. And Ru awoke almost at the same instant and lifted his head to listen. And over them crept a feeling of fear that made the hair between their shoulders and on their heads bristle. For a moment they could not understand what impending danger had awakened them. All that they knew was that some dreadful peril overshadowed them and both gripped their stone hammers and stood erect, alert and waiting. The night was utterly silent — oppressively, menacingly silent. Gone were all the terrible night noises. Silent was the shriek of the leopard, the bellow of the bull alligators and the terrible deep-chested roar of the sabre-tooth tiger. Some hideous peril must be abroad to silence all these fearless night prowlers and drive them to cover.

Suddenly Og clutched Ru's arm in a grip of fear and with his stone hammer pointed. Off in the darkness beyond the circle of wan yellow light from the camp fire glowed two eyes; two tiny eyes set far apart, but flashing a baleful light as they watched the Hairy Boys. At the same moment Og's sensitive nostrils caught a strange and startling odor and on the instant he knew what dreadful creature was watching them across the firelight. It was a hairy mammoth, save the mastodon, the biggest, strongest, most fearless and most fearsome creature that roamed the forest.

With a shriek of terror and a call to Ru to follow Og whirled and bolted for the trunk of the swamp oak behind him. With a leap and a scramble he started up the big tree while Ru climbed directly behind him. At the same instant the mammoth sundered the silence of the night with a terrible trumpeting blast, and with a crash of foliage and the thunder of heavy feet charged toward them, heedless of the fire that burned beneath the tree which would have held at bay almost any other creature. As swiftly as Og and Ru moved, the great and seemingly cumbersome mammoth moved faster. Og had only time to clutch at the lowermost branches and swing himself aloft before the snorting angry beast was under him. Poor Ru was not so fortunate. His one hand closed over a lower branch but while he was in the very act of swinging his body aloft and out of danger the great mammoth crashed against the trunk of the big oak, shaking it from roots to top, while his snake-like trunk lashed outward and upward and coiled with terrible, crushing strength about Ru's ankle.

With a shriek of pain and fear Ru kicked and thrashed and lashed out with his stone hammer which he still gripped in his left hand, as he struggled to free himself from the deadly grip of the great shaggy animal below him. And Og crouched on the branch just above him called out words of encouragement.

For a surprisingly long time Ru with a grip of frenzy clung onto the branch with one hand while the mammoth pulled at his ankle and looked up at him with his wicked pig-like eyes. But Ru and Og, too, knew that there could be only one end to the situation. The huge beast needed only to pull a little harder and Ru's grip would be broken. Then the great shaggy creature would swing him about and smash him to a limp and lifeless mass against the tree trunk, or dash him to the ground and trample him under his terrible, massive feet. Ru shrieked and fought and struggled with all the strength that desperation lent him but he knew that the end was very near.


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