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

CHAPTER VII

STALKING THE THREE-TOED HORSES

 
THE trail was not hard to follow because the monster serpent's great body crushed down the reeds wherever it traveled. Its sickening odor lingered aver everything it touched too, and Og saw with satisfaction here and there along the trail blood spots and he knew that he had wounded the serpent more than he had thought.

On they pushed through dense cane thickets; through waving reeds and flags that reached far above their heads, through quagmire and slime that sucked at their feet and legs as they waded and splashed their way from one reed-covered hummock to another. Lesser snakes they saw in this muck, and lizards and turtles, and crocodiles and all manner of crawling things that hissed at them as they passed. But neither Og nor Ru feared any of these and they stabbed and struck at the more venturesome of the reptiles spitting some of them on the sharp point of their spears, and gloating as they saw how effective their newfound weapons were.

On they pushed, following the trail of the great snake until soon they reached the far edge of the swamp and came out upon a little knoll covered by a spreading banyan tree that was like a miniature forest itself with all its drooping limbs that reached down and took root again as if they were new trees. On the top of this knoll they paused, for the odor of the great snake was strong and fresh in that vicinity and then too, a number of moving objects out there in the grassy meadow had caught their attention. Og looked down the waving green slope and exclaimed excitedly pointing the while but taking great care to stoop low and hide himself as much as possible. Ru crouched too and looked out into the meadow.

Below, working up the wind that blew softly across the valley toward them, moving the tops of the lush meadow grass in soft undulations, was a band of queer looking animals that bore a strong resemblance in some ways with the horse of to-day and indeed were the ancestors of the present-day horse. They were sturdy and stocky but nowhere near as tall as Og who was a short boy as measured by present-day standards. They were striped white and black and dun and their heads with their big eyes and protruding teeth seemed far too large for their bodies. Og recognized them immediately as a band of three-toed horses for their feet all terminated in a strange arrangement of toes, a large one between two small ones, which gave them a broader foot to tread on boggy ground, and yet did not detract from their speed in running, for they were swift of foot indeed; swifter than any animal Og knew.

The Hairy Boys were strangely interested in the little band of horses. They knew them to be excellent food animals, their flesh being very much sought after by the people of Og's race. But because they were so fleet of foot and so alert at all times it was not often that they were brought down. It required great cunning and patience on the part of a Hairy Man to stalk them and it was usually only luck that let him get within striking distance of one so that he could be killed with a stone hammer.

Og wondered if perhaps his new weapon might not be effectual in killing one of the little band. He would not need to get so close as if he carried only a stone hammer. And maybe if he could get close enough to throw it — the idea smote him with such force that he grunted in surprise. To throw the snake-knife; that was an inspiration. He and his people were experts at throwing stones. Og had killed a wolf with a thrown stone. Now if he could learn to throw the snake-knife with the same swiftness and accuracy he would indeed have a great weapon.

Eagerly he told Ru of his idea, and the other Hairy Boy quickly grew as excited as his companion. They withdrew into the shade of the banyan tree and balanced their spears and threw them, and after a half dozen flings they both quickly got the knack of hurling the shaft through the air so that it would strike sharp end first with terrific force.

So enthusiastic did they become over their new discovery that they forgot completely about the great snake whose trail they had been following, for as a matter of fact, thinkers though these two boys were, their brains had not yet developed enough to take care of more than one idea at a time and follow it through to its conclusion. And the idea that was uppermost in their minds now was to try their new weapons and their new methods in bringing down one of the little band of horses out there in the meadow.

They were both experts at stalking. With the hunting instincts of predatory animals they could move soundlessly through the fields and forests, they could freeze like statues and hold immovable for an unbelievably long period and they could follow a trail with their eyes and with their sensitive noses as well. But they needed all this skill to hunt the three-toed horse and they realized it as, stealthily and shadow-like, they slipped into the lush meadow grass and began stalking the little band that was working slowly away from them across the meadow.

They moved swiftly forward at first for the horses were at some distance. But soon they became more cautious moving more slowly and pausing each time one of the band tossed up its head and sniffed the wind suspiciously or looked about. The grass was deep enough to afford them good cover when they kept to a crouching position, and when all of the members of the band were feeding with heads down they could slip along quite swiftly. But Og could see that the horses were nervous and restless. Did their instinct tell them that they were being hunted? Og felt that they were unusually alert for while they were yet some distance from the nearest of the band, several of the animals tossed up their long heads and shook their manes restlessly and looked about them, and now and then one of them would stamp impatiently and nicker loud and shrill as if he could not understand the reason for his own nervousness.

The leader of the band, a stallion rather larger than the rest with a great, thick, powerful neck and a heavy, shaggy mane, was working well up the wind and to one side of the band, but to his left and straggling from the rest of the herd was a young horse that seemed to be less cautious than the rest and more careless of the direction it was wandering. It was this animal that Og and Ru had marked down, for they saw that if they could get between it and the band they might be able to come up very close and if it did become alarmed and tried to join the others again it would have to run past them and thus give them an opportunity to hurl their spears.

Closer and closer Og and Ru drew to their quarry. They were moving with the utmost caution now. Sometimes they froze and held their pose for minutes at a time before they started to move forward again. They were crawling along only a few inches at a time prone on the ground but always alert and ready to spring to their feet and cast their spears the instant the horse should bolt.

The young horse was becoming restless now too. It would crop the grass for a few minutes then toss up its head and snort and look all about before it resumed feeding. Og knew that it felt a menacing presence and though it did not know exactly what the danger was that threatened, still it was worried. Og had often felt that way, too, for his instincts were almost as keen as those of any animal. In truth, he felt that way at almost the same moment the horse showed its greatest signs of annoyance. He realized suddenly that somewhere, close at hand a danger still greater than his sharp pointed shafts menaced the herd of horses and perhaps threatened him and Ru too. He wondered what it could be, was there some powerful animal stalking the herd at the same time they were? A sabre-tooth tiger perhaps, or the cave leopard? Og reached cautiously behind him and touched Ru as a warning and they lay motionless in the grass.

Then suddenly the horse they were stalking gave a shrill whinny of fear that was prolonged into a terrible ear-piercing scream; the death scream of a horse; a sound dreadful to hear. Og and Ru saw it start in terror and leap into the air. But before its four feet reached the ground again a hideous, ugly, flat head with evil green eyes, darting tongue and tremendous teeth-armored jaws on a long scaly neck shot swiftly out of the grass then struck with a blood-chilling hiss the great cavernous mouth closing completely over the nose and long face of the horse. Then Og knew why the little band had been so nervous and why he, too, had had presentiments of danger — the great snake had been hunting the horses too.

With lightning-like swiftness coil after coil of the great constrictor were thrown about the body of the kicking and frantically struggling animal and it was instantly and completely enveloped in the deadly folds. A moment longer it continued its futile struggles against the fate that was imminent, then, making Og and Ru turn sick with the horror of it all the coils were suddenly tightened and contracted. The two Hairy Boys heard the muffled crunch and thump of breaking bones, they saw the struggles of the horse suddenly cease save for the nervous twitching of its muscles and they knew that the little animal had met an instant and very horrible death. They could see its blood trickling out from between the folds of the snake's body where broken bones had pierced its own flesh, they could see little streams of it flow from the animal's ears and they shivered as they realized the terrific strength the serpent had brought into use to kill the horse.

Accustomed to strange and terrible tragedies as these Hairy Boys were the things that they had just witnessed made them so unhappy and withal so terribly fearful for their own safety that their desire now was to get away from there as soon as possible; to bolt, to get up and run as swiftly as they could for shelter. But despite the horror of it all they were both possessed with a morbid curiosity, too. They wondered, and wanted to see what the great reptile would do next, and so instead of bolting immediately they lingered there in the long grass and watched the huge constrictor.


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