WORKING the heavy log upstream was far from an easy task. Og could see that the broken roots and branches that still clung to it impeded its progress through the water, and at midday they drew the log ashore and with their stone hammers worked to break and cut away these gnarled obstructions. While they worked Og's brain was very busy with the problem at hand. He could see that if the log was made smoother it would slip through the water easier. And after they had broken away the branches and roots and shaped both ends of the log after a fashion, he and Ru knocked off as much of the bark as they could until by late afternoon they had the log nearly smooth and converted into a rudely shaped canoe.
But even this proved to be a very heavy craft to pole and paddle against the sluggish current, and by nightfall they were both thoroughly tired out; so thoroughly tired, that they only ate a few bird's eggs that they stole from several handy nests, and instead of making a fire crawled into the branches of a big cypress tree and huddling together with their long arms about each other soon fell sound asleep.
In the morning they resumed their tiresome journey upstream again, but after hours of paddling and pushing Og grunted in disgust and piloted the log toward shore once more.
"It It is too heavy and too slow against the water, Ru. We will not be back to the cliff village for many suns if we go by the river. There is a short way home from here by land. Look, there is the old Mountain-of-Fire. Beyond that lies the caves of our people. Come, we will go on foot."
Og pointed off across country where the cone of an extinct volcano reared its head above the forest and Ru, recognizing the landmark knew that the cliff' village was only a short distance on the other side of the mountain of cold lava.
Following an unerring homing instinct that guided them they struck out across country. At first their progress was slow for the jungle growth along the river was very thick. But gradually as they worked upland the forest gave way to giant sequoia trees that grew tall and thick, and soon they found the ground covered with great smooth round boulders, which Og knew to be chunks of lava that had been thrown off by the volcano long ago. As they went on they saw more and more of the lava until soon the ground was covered with it. Then the forest gave way entirely, and they came out into a broad open space that sloped upward toward the summit of the volcano.
Travel was not difficult here, save that they had to scramble over smooth ledges of the wind and weather-polished lava, and they made swifter progress, cutting diagonally across the open space in the direction they knew the cliff village to lie, and heading toward a queer pocket-like valley they could see just beyond them.
Suddenly Og clutched Ru's arm and with a grunt of warning pulled him down behind a boulder where they both crouched tensed and silent, while they listened to a weird and blood-chilling sound that came down the valley and reechoed against the craggy sides of the extinct volcano. It was the terrible cry of the hyena; shrill, wild and horrible to listen to. Again and again it sounded and the two Hairy Boys hiding there on the stony mountainside realized that it was swiftly drawing nearer to them. They peered down the slope toward the entrance of the valley in fear and trembling for they feared the hyena.
Closer and closer it echoed. Presently they heard the pounding of ponderous feet and the crashing of underbrush, and just below them where the forest left off abruptly at the edge of great folds of cold and hardened lava, appeared a woolly rhinoceros and hard upon its heel followed two huge hyenas, that looked like humpbacked, bristling fiends as they leaped at the rhino's flanks, tearing great bloody wounds into its thick hide with their gnashing fang-like teeth.
From where they crouched Og and Ru could see what vicious creatures they were. Indeed they knew well that they must be formidable beasts when two of them could put a woolly rhinoceros to flight, for the rhinoceros was not a beast to retreat from most dangers. Indeed its temper was such that usually it was the aggressor, charging first and fighting to the death. Og could see that this one had probably fought both of its pursuers until it could stand the pain of the slashing wounds they inflicted no longer, and had bolted panic-stricken, hoping to rid itself of the ferocious tormentors by running away from them. But the hyenas, swifter of foot than the rhinoceros, had clung to its flanks like savage, snarling fiends, punishing the great beast with every leap, sometimes burying their fangs so deep into its shoulders, or rump, that they clung on until the rhinoceros, whirling would throw them off and charge them with a snort and a toss of its ugly horned head. But those long horns never found their mark for the hyenas were too swift and capable at the art of dodging to be caught even by a woolly rhinoceros though it could move like a flash when it had to.
Breaking into the open, the rhinoceros turned and stood its grounds once more, lunging viciously at the nearest hyena with a savage toss of its horned head and Og and Ru realized that if that keenly polished weapon found its mark one of the hyenas would be tossed high in the air, and killed instantly. But the slashing horn did not find its mark for as swiftly as the rhinoceros lunged the huge, ugly, dog-like creature leaped away even swifter and as it dodged its mate charged the other side of the animal and ripped a great gash in the woolly beast's shoulder from which Og and Ru could see the blood gush.
With a squeal of pain the rhinoceros turned to slash at its other tormentor, and missing its mark there too, it whirled on its stubby legs and started again to run madly scrambling over the folds of lava with surprising agility.
It was headed for the pocket-shaped valley at the foot of the mountain and just below Og and Ru. That pocket was a strange freak of nature. The two Hairy Boys had observed it when they had come out of the forest and there was something about it that had held their interest and curiosity. In truth they had been on the point of entering it when their attention had been arrested by the hunting cries of the hyenas. It was a long bowl-shaped valley a half a mile or more across and perhaps a little longer and although it was denuded of vegetation as were all the sloping sides of the volcanic mountain, in the very center of the pocket was a long glistening pool of apparently clear water; a rock rimmed, rock bound pool that looked invitingly cool and tempting. Indeed, Og and Ru, feeling thirsty had decided to go into the pocket and rest beside the pool.
But they were glad now that they had not entered the pocket, for to be caught in there with the rhinoceros and the two hyenas charging down upon them would have been a very disagreeable situation. So they crouched there behind their sheltering boulder and watched the rhinoceros, with the two savage beasts bounding beside it, rush madly past them, within a short spear's throw, and plunge madly into the pocket. The rhinoceros, staggering now, crashed onward, the hyenas snapping and snarling and tearing at its flanks and their ugly cries grew more eager, more triumphant it seemed for they sensed that the rhinoceros was nearly spent. Indeed, Og could see how unsteady it was on its short legs, and how it swayed once or twice as if it were about to fall, and they knew that almost any moment one of the hyenas would sink its fangs deep into the great thick bulging neck and pull it down.
But the Hairy Boys and the hyenas as well reasoned without the great courage and fighting ability of the rhinoceros. Deep into the pocket it staggered, then whirling, and with its rump to a sheer wall of rock that enclosed one side, it stood at bay, and the hyenas, sensing that their quarry was far from ready to give up backed off discreetly, and with hideous snarls, and their ugly lips drawn back bearing their great fangs they stood alert and ready to plunge in and deliver a telling stroke. For the space of several minutes they stood thus, then like a lightning flash one of the hyenas leaped in and struck. But as swiftly as it moved the rhinoceros moved just a little swifter and with a lunge so quick that Og's eyes could scarcely follow it the big beast hooked its huge horn into the flanks of the leaping animal and with a toss of its head whirled it upward and backward until it crashed with a bone-crushing thud against the sheer wall of rocks behind the rhinoceros and fell to the ground in a limp nerve-convulsed heap. And Og and Ru highly excited by the conflict could scarcely repress a cheer for the valiant old woolly creature.
With its tiny piglike little eyes flashing fire the rhino turned its attention to the remaining hyena that crouched snarling a few feet in front of it. It seemed on the point of charging headlong at the repulsive beast. Indeed Og and Ru saw it start, and sway forward. Then a strange thing happened. The rhino tossed up its head exposing its great throat while it seemed to struggle for a breath of air, then it swayed, strove a moment to keep its feet, then collapsed in a heap.
A great sympathy for the old beast swept Og and Ru for they had for some reason wanted it to win out in the unequal battle. They knew now that the hyena would rush in and make certain of the big beast's death and begin its feast. But again they were mistaken. They watched the hyena expectantly, but when the rhinoceros fell, it seemed to pay no attention to it. Indeed it was acting queerly too. It had ceased its snarling now and was holding its head high with mouth open and tongue hanging while it staggered about on legs that threatened to collapse at any moment. And suddenly it did collapse, fell to its side and after a few convulsive kicks lay still.
Og and Ru, looked at each other questioningly. Here was a mystery indeed. What could have happened? That the rhinoceros was sorely wounded they could see. Its wounds and loss of blood could have caused its death, but they doubted that it would have collapsed as instantaneously as it did. As for the hyena as far as they could see it was practically uninjured and yet it too had collapsed as suddenly as if it had been hit in the head with a stone hammer. It was more than Og could understand and because he was always curious to know the cause and effect of things he exclaimed.
"Come, we will go and see for ourselves. There is good meat there and the skin of the humpbacked one will be worth carrying to our people to bear witness to our strange tale."
Ru assented and together they came out from their hiding place and started toward the entrance of the pocket. Swinging along, spears in hand and ready (for they did not know for certain that the hyena was dead) they hurried forward eager to get near the woolly rhinoceros; a beast that the Hairy People always feared because of its great courage and its irritable temper.
Og was the first to reach the huge animal, and when he was beside the lifeless carcass he could not help but marvel at the ponderous bulk of the beast, and the massiveness of its great head with its polished horn. But just as he and Ru began to examine it a strange premonition of danger swept over Og. Something was wrong. Something very strange was happening. He was having a hard time getting his breath. He was choking. Frightened he looked at Ru, and he saw that he, too, was clutching at his throat as if trying to rid himself of something that was strangling him. What was this mysterious danger that threatened them?
Og began to get dizzy. His head whirled, and he had to breathe deep and long in an effort to satisfy his craving for air. As he inhaled in great gasps he was conscious of just the suggestion of a strange sweetish flavor to the air. In an instant he knew what the trouble was. The air in that pocket was poison. He remembered back to the days when the Hairy People had been driven out of a valley far to the north by the eruption of a volcano. He had tasted that same sweetish flavor in the air then. He did not know that in this pocket were several gas vents from the volcano and that they kept the pocket filled with a heavy colorless, odorless, and almost tasteless gas that was very insidious and very deadly. But instinct told him that he and Ru must get out of that pocket at the foot of the old volcano immediately or they would perish as the rhinoceros and the hyena had. Even as he seized Ru's arm and started running toward the entrance to the pocket his eyes swept the shores of the glistening pool in the center of the basin and there he made out white sun-bleached bones of animals that had doubtless been lured there by the prospects of drinking at the pool and fallen victims to that mysterious death.
Ru grasping for breath and clutching at his throat could not understand it all. To him the sweetness of the air was so faint as to be imperceptible, and all that he knew was that he was slowly strangling to death. But he followed Og as on unsteady legs he ran toward the entrance of the terrible little valley of death. On they pressed, Ru observing Og's warning to refrain from breathing as much as possible. They held their breath until their lungs ached and their hearts pounded as stabbing pains shot through their chests. Their eyes bulged with their effort and their heads whirled dizzily. On they struggled. Og could feel his strength weakening, his legs sagging under him. With the utmost exertion of his will power he drove himself to keep going to struggle onward. How soon he would reach fresh air he did not know. He wanted so much to rest. It would be easier to crouch there and close his eyes. Then he would drift off into sleep, oblivion death. He struggled against the desire to stop to give up and rest. Forward he pushed. It seemed to him the air was growing purer now. Only a little further and he would be able to fill his lungs with good wholesome life-giving air. Only
A cry of anguish sounded behind him and Og turned to see Ru staggering and groping blindly, madly about. Then uttering another cry he sank to the ground. Og, nearly spent himself, looked at Ru stupidly for a moment and there swept over him a desire to leave him there; to abandon him; to go on and save himself. He did not want to go back even those few steps. The thoughts of having to struggle even that short distance again under the burden of the unconscious Ru awakened all the selfishness in him. It was the survival of the fittest, and Ru had fallen. Let him stay. He must save himself. In effect those were the thoughts that crowded into Og's terrorized brain, and he was on the point of turning as other Hairy Men might have done and bolting to save himself. But the appealing look on Ru's pain-distorted face and Og's realization of how helpless he was, coupled with the consciousness that Ru in his place would be big enough to forget himself and come to his aid, made Og turn back and hurry toward the unconscious Ru. Then gathering the limp form of his companion in his arms he began once more to struggle toward the entrance to the pocket. Grimly, doggedly, he went on with the realization back in his befogged and half-numbed brain that he must make fresh air for now the lives of two instead of one depended upon his efforts. Staggering, stumbling, sometimes half crawling he fought his way forward and only his will power served to keep him going for he had long since passed the state where he was fully conscious of his actions.
Yet he kept on step after dragging step until presently he went down and could not find the strength to rise again. Nor did he want to. He found relief in lying there prone on the ground, He could breathe deeply now and he cared not whether it was poisoned air or pure air he inhaled. All that he knew was that for him the struggle was over. He relaxed and the last suggestion of consciousness passed from him.