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

CHAPTER XXV

[printed in error as XXIV in the book]

THE MYSTERY OF THE MARSH

 
WITH the death of the cave tiger, Og and Ru and Dab of the Fish People took possession of the rocky promontory that extended out into the lake, determined to make their home there. Og had suffered a painful mauling under the punishing claws of the great tiger and for several suns and moons he was almost helpless. Indeed he was forced to sit patiently by while Ru and Dab explored the promontory and choose the best and biggest of the many caves and crevices in the rocks for their home. Helplessly he watched them carry the leopard-skin pack sacks, their shields, and all the skins and weapons they had accumulated, from the raft to the cave they had selected. And finally he had to submit to having them carry him up from one rocky shelf to another to the entrance of their new home, for his leg was so stiff and painful that he could not even touch his foot to the ground.

With their coming the herds of goats that nightly swarmed down the ledge toward the shores of the cove took alarm and disappeared, and with the great tiger gone the three boys found that they had the high forest-crowned promontory with its cave-scarred slopes to themselves. That it would make an ideal home for the rest of the colony of Hairy People was quickly apparent to Og and Ru, for there were caves and crevices and ledges enough to provide shelter and protection for the entire tribe. And the fact that the place was almost surrounded by the water made it impossible for enemies of any kind to reach them save through the narrow strip of forest along the ridgelike summit.

Almost immediately they felt at home there. Og found a great sense of contentment possessing him as he sat in the doorway of the cave in the warm sunshine and waited for his wounds to heal. Even the wolf cub seemed lazily satisfied as he sprawled out beside him on the sun-warmed ledge, and strangest of all to Og, the two goats that had taken refuge on their raft to escape the claws of the cave tiger seemed happy to scramble over the ledges within a stone's toss of him, and always come back to the cave at night to huddle beside him and his companions as they gathered around their evening fire.

Ru and Dab had been for killing the goats for food. But Og protested. They were not in need of food then. He suggested that they let them live and hold them captive against the time when they would need them for food. So the goats were at first tethered to a scrubby tree that grew among the ledges and brought into the cave each night so that marauding animals could not kill them. But after a few days Og was surprised to discover that the goats no longer needed to be tethered. They ate the skin thongs by which they were tied and wandered at will about the stony sides of the promontory, but at night they came back to the cave of their own accord. They seemed to have accepted the three boys and the wolf cub as companions and protectors. Og wondered whether the fact that they had saved them from the clutches of the tiger had anything to do with their strange attitude of friendliness. He little realized that these two goats were to be the first of numerous small herds that his people would possess in time, the first domestic animals.

Og spent many days thinking about the strange contentment of the goats and many other thoughts that took shape in his slowly developing mind as he waited for his wounds to heal. Especially did he ponder the mystery of the birds that flocked to the marsh at the end of the lake. Daily he watched them. With the first golden rays of the sun they came sailing across the sky in a steady stream uttering their strident calls. All day long they passed, until the marsh was black with them. Then at twilight they would rise out of the marsh like a great black cloud and wing their way homeward again. There was a mystery about their coming and going that aroused Og's natural curiosity. Nor were the ravens the only birds that flew to the marsh. Hosts of others came. Big birds and little birds, water birds and shore birds. The marsh was always crowded with them. And so curious did Og become over their mission there that he resolved to make a visit to the swamp as soon as his injured leg ceased to give him pain when he walked. Ru and Dab were equally as curious. They wondered what strange fascination called so many of them there. Even at the distance that lay between the promontory and the swamp they could see them swarming through the jungle of grasses like so many large ants. The more they watched them the more curious they became. It was food that brought them there, unquestionably. The boys wondered what manner of food. Was it a place where grew the luscious wild grapes that the birds were so fond of; or berries perhaps; or nuts? If it was the Hairy Boys wanted to know, for they were as fond of fruit as the birds were. Nothing delighted them more than to find a patch of berries or a tangle of grape vines from which big red and purple clusters dangled. Whenever they did they always gorged themselves for it was rare that they got fruit of any kind to eat. And it was generally by watching the birds that they discovered the existence of such delicacies.

The more they thought of the attraction that existed in the marsh for the birds the more eager they became to go down there and find out what it was that drew them there. Indeed after a time they watched the birds longingly with lips almost drooling and Og became irritable because he could only limp about the ledges or climb painfully down to the beach in the cove below. But as much as they wanted to know what attracted the birds to the marsh, Og was unwilling to venture that far until his leg was well and as strong as it ever was, for he and his companions realized that unexpected dangers attended every journey they made and unless they were ready to meet them it would be unwise to wander very far from their cave.

But gradually the stiffness left and his limp disappeared and in a few days Og felt confident that he was able to face any situation that might arise. Then it was that they made ready to explore the marsh. Because they expected to return by nightfall they did not take their leopard skin knapsacks, or their heavy shields but they made certain of their bows and their stone hammers before they started down the lake shore with the wolf cub trotting on ahead.

For a time their journey was over great boulders that lined the water edge, but gradually as the trees that fringed the shore became less and less the rocky shore line disappeared too, and soon they scrambled up a high earthy bank and came out onto the broad flat plain that reached away toward the marsh.

Through the tall waving grass they scuttled like so many rabbits for they dreaded open spaces where there were no trees to crouch behind or scramble into in case of danger. Soon the long grass of the plain gave way to the tall reeds of the bog and the ground became soft and wet under their feet. Then presently they found themselves well into the marsh, and on the banks of a little stream that twisted and turned through the bog.

As soon as they parted the grass on the banks of this channel like a big black cloud thousands of birds took to the air. The whirring of their wings sounded like distant thunder, and their shrill strident calls was all but deafening to the Hairy Boys and made the wolf cub bark furiously.

For some time they stood there and looked across the little stream toward a grassy island on the other side, where the birds had been congregated. And as they looked expressions of disappointment came over their faces. They expected to see a mass of briars with luscious red or purple berries hanging from them, or at least a tangle oŁ grape vines with bunches of the ripened fruit ready to be plucked and eaten.

There were tangled vines aplenty. Indeed the little island was covered with a strange creeping growth that twisted and twined and intertwined in a strange mass but there was no brightly colored fruit hanging from them. Instead all they saw were masses of tiny pods, green and uninviting. Og grunted in disgust as they stood there on the muddy banks of the channel. Ru and Dab were for turning back satisfied that the mass of vines held nothing interesting for them. But while the birds circled noisily overhead Og's eyes were searching the tangle and his brain was busy speculating on what manner of food the birds had lead them to. Certainly if these pods held something that drew such great flocks daily there might be some slight profit in investigating further.

So instead of heeding the suggestion to turn back, he waded hip deep into the little stream and crossed over to the island, and although they felt it was useless effort Ru and Dab followed and the wolf cub swam across after them.

Once among the tremendous mass of creeping vines, Og picked one of the dry pods and looked at it closely. Then he shook it, and hearing something within rattle against the dry shells broke it open. A half dozen brown almost round objects fell out into the palm of his hand. These he inspected too and finally out of sheer curiosity put several in his mouth and crunched his strong teeth down upon them.

A look of pleasure crossed his face then, and he quickly crunched the rest of the beans smacking his lips the while. And Ru and Dab, watching with interest eagerly broke open several pods and sampled the bean-like pellets too. They found to their surprise that the hard round objects were very palatable indeed, and that they had a flavor that was at once attractive and appetizing. They were salty and just a little sweet, and it was rare indeed that the Hairy Boys found any food that contained any great quantity of either salt or sugar.

Unmindful of the continued squawking of the angry birds that circled overhead the three boys began to strip the vines of their dried pods and gorge themselves on the little brown pellets. They ate and ate until they could not possibly eat any more, and then Og loath to see so many pods still unopened stripped off his goatskin jacket and making a sack of it by gathering the corners together began to pluck pods, and put them in this improvised pack sack. Ru and Dab had long since learned from Og the advisability of storing food for another time and they too began to pick pods and help to fill Og's sack.

And so eager were they to gather a great quantity that they did not notice that the birds had ceased their squawking and had risen higher in the air there to circle round and round in a frightened manner. Indeed their usually alert instincts did not give them any warning of danger until the wolf cub came slinking toward Og whining with his tail tucked between his legs and the hair on his back bristling in fear and anger.


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