THE violet half-light of dawn filled the forest and far up toward the azure heavens behind them where the White-Haired Old Men reared their peaks into the clouds the first rays of the rising sun washed their snowcapped crowns in a bath of gold as Og and Ru awoke, stood up and stretched themselves. They did not stop to break their fast of the night for like all primitive men one meal a day one meal of all they could possibly eat at mid-day was sufficient.
A few minutes they spent in practice, with their bows and arrows for the new weapon still fascinated them with its swift, silent power. Then attending well to the tips of their arrows and lashing their heavy shields to their left arm they started out through the forest and they did not take their way toward the rocky summit where they had stalked the goat. Instead they went deeper into the jungle-like forest following a strange hunting instinct they possessed that seemed to tell them the direction in which the cave leopard had its lair.
They moved silently, shadowlike with ears alert, eyes watching and their sensitive nostrils testing every faint odor that the morning breeze brought them. That they were embarked on a dangerous mission they well knew for never before had Hairy Men gone deliberately out to hunt the great leopard. Instead they had avoided the domains of the huge cat for it was too swift to strike and too deadly for them to face with only their stone hammers with which to defend themselves.
An hour or more they traveled through a forest so thickly grown that it was hard for them to make their way. Then their direction dipped down into a long dark and heavily grown ravine that reached back between two foothills, narrowing at its upper end until it became a veritable canyon, the forest growth giving way to rock shelves and steep-sided cliffs.
At the entrance to the ravine the two Hairy Boys crouched in the shelter of a fallen tree and looked cautiously about. They listened, too, and tested the air and borne to them on the draught that swept down the ravine came faintly the musky catlike odor that told of the dwelling place of the leopard. Somewhere up there among the rocks the great cat had its cave. Should they venture in to try and locate it? Og asked himself that question as he surveyed the narrow valley and realized that once they entered it they were likely at any moment to come face to face with the leopard.
Og felt his courage slipping in spite of the confidence that his new weapon gave him, and he could see lines of worry wrinkling the forehead of Ru. But even with the fear that instinctively made him want to turn back and give up the task of chasing the leopard they had set themselves to, came a feeling of superiority, a desire to dominate, to conquer, and he knew that if he should turn back now he would lose some of his self-respect. He would feel that he was a coward. And there was something within him that made him feel that he would prefer being torn to pieces by the leopard rather than carry with him forever the knowledge that he was a coward. And so with a word of encouragement to Ru, Og took the leadership as always and started stealthily up the valley. And Ru still wearing a troubled frown followed close behind him.
But they had scarcely traversed a quarter of the distance up the valley when out of the thick junglelike forest at the entrance slipped a sleek tawny black spotted form. Like a sinister shadow its markings blending with the play of sunlight and shadows in the undergrowth it loped forward. Soundlessly, with the movement of grace and strength that belongs to the cat family alone, it leaped up onto the fallen tree behind which Og and Ru had crouched and ran noiselessly along this until it reached the center. Then suddenly with a soft hiss, it dropped to its belly on the log. Its green eyes grew to slits and glared about and its small ears lay back against its head as it cautiously tested the air and peered suspiciously into every shadow and clumb of undergrowth.
For some time it crouched thus, then slowly, stealthily it got up and dropped from the log to the ground where it nosed about in the spot where Og and Ru had been. Then picking up the trail they had left it loped silently up the valley a score of paces before it stopped and dropped to its belly again and peered toward the far end of the ravine.
It was as if the leopard was debating whether to follow on and discover what these invaders of the valley were up to, or to slink back into the jungle to wait until they had left the vicinity.
But cat curiosity and anger evidently mastered it for presently it began to slink forward again cautiously, craftily, a sinister fire glowing in its wicked eyes as it watched the undergrowth on every side.
More than half way up the narrow valley Og and Ru suddenly found themselves following a narrow trail that would scarcely have been perceptible to any but the woods-trained eyes of the Hairy Boys. It was made by the coming and going of soft padded feet, and was so faint that at times Og could not follow it save by the musky odor that clung to the undergrowth. It was the trail that lead directly to the leopard's den in the rock a hundred paces further up the valley. Og gave a grunt of warning then and despite the fact that they had been moving soundlessly and carefully through the forest their advance became even more cautious. Og in the lead had shifted his shield to his back and had strung his bow with an arrow for some strange sixth sense within him made him realize that danger lurked very near.
Would they find the leopard in its cave, or was it crouching among the trees above them watching the trail to its home; watching and awaiting their coming, ready to drop down upon them and pin one of them to the ground with its great paws while its ugly yellow fangs bit deep and crunched through muscle and bone? Og was conscious of the tightening of the skin across the back of his head and neck. He knew his hair was bristling. As they came under the shadow of a rock around the base of which the leopard's trail ran Og paused a moment and looked upward. But as he did so Ru gave a startled cry and clutched his arm. Turning, Og saw crouched in the trail behind them, ears back, tail lashing, green eyes glowing fiercely and great jaws open exposing its murderous fangs, the leopard they were hunting. Instead of being the hunters Og realized that they were the hunted. The leopard had been trailing them, and now it crouched not ten paces away gathering itself to spring upon them. Even as they looked they saw its muscles tighten and the next instant like a tawny thunderbolt it leaped and came hurtling through the air.
With a cry of horror Ru who was nearest to the beast because he had been following behind Og, staggered backward and threw up his turtle shell shield for protection. The next instant his heel caught in a root and he crashed to the ground. And as Ru fell Og leaped sideways up the slope and loosed the arrow that he held strung in his bow. But to his horror he saw the crude missive go hissing past the tawny form as the leopard seemed to hang in mid air for the hundredth part of a second before it dropped clawing and snarling full on the prostrated form of Ru.
In utter panic for a moment Og scrambled still further up the sloping side of the valley and climbed out upon the rock that overhung the leopard's trail. There he paused and turning swiftly fitted another arrow to his bow fully confident that by this time the leopard had torn Ru to shreds and broken his neck with a crunch of its terrible jaws, and would any moment charge at him.
But when Og turned he beheld with joy a strange sight. In the trail below crouched the leopard furious in its rage as it clawed and bit with futile anger at a big turtle shell that it held to the ground with one of its paws, for Ru, when he fell had held his shield close to him and like the turtle the shell had once adorned he had drawn head and legs and arms under it. Thus he lay there hugging the ground while the leopard tried its best to rip the stony surface of the shell open with claws and teeth that rasped along its rough surface but did little damage.
Og took careful aim and sent his second arrow hissing downward. With an ugly thump it buried itself into the leopard's flanks. The scream of rage the great cat gave vent to as it rolled over and clawed at the protruding shaft awoke the echoes of the valley and made Og's blood chill. Another arrow he fitted to his bow and sent it hissing at the tawny cat, and it too found its mark burying itself in the soft flesh of the animal's exposed belly.
The wounded leopard twisted to its feet then and for the fraction of a second stood and glared upward at Og. Then with a scream that was the scream of a fiend it bolted forward charging full at Og unmindful of the fact that it would have to claw its way up the sides of the overhanging rock before it could reach him. Og saw it come and he knew by the wicked fire in its green eyes that he was doomed unless he could stop it in its charge; unless he could send a shaft into its vitals before it reached the top of the rock.
Drawing another arrow to its head he leaned over the edge of the rock and took deliberate aim at the leopard's chest not six feet below him. But in the excitement of the moment the crude arrow did not fly straight and instead of striking the animal's chest it buried itself in the shoulder and the shaft snapped off.
The pain of the wound made the leopard still more furious if such a thing were possible as it clawed its way up the rock and Og saw with consternation that in an instant it would gain the top gain the top and tear him to pieces.
With a cry Og cast aside his bow then and drawing another arrow from his belt made a short spear of it. And even as the leopard's head with its blazing eyes, and its slavering jaws came up over the edge of the rock he lunged lunged and drove the short spear full into the open mouth of the animal and with all his strength forced its keen flint tip down the animal's throat until the shaft with all the strength he put behind it snapped in his hand.
The force of his attack threw the animal backward and coughing and spitting blood it went hurtling through the air to fall with a thud not ten feet from where Ru lay in the trail looking cautiously out from under his turtle shell shield. When Ru saw the tawny creature half stunned and twisting convulsively at the foot of the rock, he leaped to his feet and fitting an arrow to his bow sent it deep into the animal's body. Then another and another he shot at short range until the tawny creature bristled with shafts as it lay there struggling in the throes of death.
Og climbed down from the top of the boulder then and cautiously advanced toward the great cat. And when he saw that the creature was helpless and all but dead he gave a mad yell of triumph as he drove his shell knife deep between the leopard's ribs into its heart.
Then because both Hairy Boys wanted the brilliantly spotted leopard skin as a trophy they set to work taking the hide from the animal while the body was still warm, and when they had finished they divided it in half. Og took the head, and with the bloody skin thrown across their shoulders the Hairy Boys went happily back toward their camp.