STARTLED, Og hissed a warning and all three boys stopped picking and looked up. For a moment they stood petrified, rigid with fear. Above the tops of the tangle of vines and the waving reeds of the marsh towered the biggest head they had ever seen, from which stared small pink-rimmed, sinister eyes. Raised aloft and waving snakily in the air was a short thick trunk while beneath it curving outward and downward were two long yellow polished tusks that ended in keen, villainous points. The ears seemed ridiculously small for such a massive head, and the skin of the great beast instead of being covered with coarse shaggy hair like the mammoth was bare and rough and wrinkled like the bark of a tree. Instantly the three Hairy Boys realized that the huge beast that watched them was a mastodon, the biggest, strongest and most ill-tempered of all the beasts that roamed the forest, far bigger and stronger than the hairy mammoth.
Og was the first to break and run. With a cry he swept up the goatskin full of pods which lay at his feet and slinging it across his shoulder started wading across the stream back in the direction they had come. Dab and Ru with cries of fear plunged into the water beside him and waded across while the wolf cub, swimming with all its strength forged ahead of them all and scrambled up the marshy bank first. Then it turned and snarled angrily at the mastodon.
For the space of several seconds the huge animal stood regarding the three retreating boys silently, but when the wolf cub snarled the great beast seemed suddenly to break into a towering rage. With a bellowing trumpet that made the hair on the back of each boy's neck bristle, it came plunging through the swamp toward them, tearing through the tangled vines, tramping them down, uprooting them and scattering them in all directions as it cleared a path for itself with its tusks and trunk.
One glance over his shoulder was sufficient for Og to realize that the terrible beast was after them and determined upon capturing them and perhaps trampling them to death under its ponderous feet. With a cry to his companions to make all haste possible Og plunged ahead as fast as he could go.
Over the boggy ground they raced at full speed, thrashing their way through the thick reeds and leaping from one hammock to another. They were breast to breast and exerting every ounce of strength they had to gain a lead on the tremendous beast behind them.
They could hear the mastodon making hard work of it. His great weight and tremendous bulk was not meant for fast travel in boggy places, and they could hear him snorting and floundering and splashing about in the boggy spots. And with his floundering he seemed to grow more angry and more determined to overtake them. His trumpeting grew fiercer and when he was not roaring an ugly blast he grunted and squealed piggishly as he struggled from one muddy spot to another.
The wolf cub was the first to gain the solid ground of the grassy plain but instead of streaking across the open space he turned and snarled and barked at the mastodon until Og reached him and with a cuff hushed his noise. Og realized that it was the wolf cub and his angry yelping that annoyed the mastodon more than anything else.
Ru and Dab came out of the marsh close behind. Og. For a moment they stopped and turning watched the struggles of the oncoming beast. But when they saw the anger that glared in his tiny eyes and when they realized how far they were from safety they turned and fled again, running faster now because the solid earth gave them better footing. They needed every bit of speed they could command their flying feet to give them, for when the mastodon finally struggled onto solid ground once more it made up for all the time and effort it had lost in the marsh. With another angry trumpet it burst into a long ungainly swinging stride and its ponderous thundering footsteps seemed to shake the very earth. The Hairy Boys heard it coming on with a fear that gripped their hearts for they were far out in the open and the nearest trees were a long distance ahead of them on the shore of the lake.
They headed for these their legs flying, their hearts pounding with exertion and fear and their breath coming in great sobbing gasps. On they pressed. But as fast as they traveled the mastodon came on faster. His footsteps sounded perilously close behind them. They could hear each sucking gasp as he breathed. His ponderous shambling strides were eating up the distance between them. His short stubby trunk was outstretched to seize them once they came within his reach.
With swiftness borne of utter panic the boys raced toward the nearest tree, the fear of death on their faces; for they knew that their chances of gaining the safety of the branches before the mastodon overtook them were hardly as good as ever.
The big beast gained at every stride. To Dab, the youngest and the slowest of the trio, he seemed almost at his back. The grim horror that was written on the face of this boy from the colony of the Fish People was pathetic. He thought he felt the hot breath from the animal's outstretched trunk on his neck. He threw away his stone hammer and even the precious bow and arrows Og had made for him, and with a heart-breaking effort struggled to reach Ru and Og running almost abreast just ahead of him.
The group of trees seemed very near now. If they could only keep ahead of the huge beast a few strides more. Ru threw away hammer and bow too and Og dropped his weapons, and a moment later almost at the lake shore and within a half dozen strides of the nearest and smallest of the trees he dropped the bag of beans he had been carrying. Then next instant he bounded into the air, long arms outstretched and fingers clutching for the lowermost branch of the tree under which he flashed. Ru and Dab leaped almost at the same moment and like three apes they swung themselves upward and scrambled through the network of branches to a place of safety.
Only just in time did they gain the branches for scarcely had they drawn their bodies over the lowermost limbs when the mastodon came thundering under the tree to an abrupt stop. And even as they climbed out of reach his stubby snakelike trunk darted upward among the branches reaching, groping, trying to seize them. The end of the trunk brushed Dab's ankle causing him to scream in terror as he drew himself still higher among the branches.
It had been a narrow escape, but Og and Ra could see that they were far from safe yet. The tree into which they had leaped was not large and it stood almost alone. The nearest tree was just a little too far away for them to leap the intervening space and they were cut off from the refuge of the tree highway through the forest that Og and Ru had used so often to take them out of danger. And worst of all, though it was as thick around as Og's waist, the tree they were in was small enough for the mastodon to uproot and beat down if he chose to, and Og was very much afraid that that was what the animal might do.
For a few moments it stood there glaring up at them with its tiny pink-rimmed eyes while it trumpeted until the leaves of the tree shook. That it was in a towering rage was very evident to Og and his two companions. Around and around the tree it tramped roaring its mighty blasts while it rutted the ground with its long tusks, and threw great clods over its head. Again and again it reached up and shook the tree until it swayed as if in a gale. It tore branches down as high as it could reach and flung them down the bank into the lake. Then suddenly it spied the goatskin bag of beans that Og had dropped just before he leaped for the tree. Rushing over to this it prodded it and gored it with its tusks flinging the beans rattling in their dried pods, in all directions and tearing the goatskin jacket to shreds as its tusks furrowed the ground. It gored and trampled the shreds of goatskin until there was not a vestige of it left. Then still angry it lumbered back toward the tree again.
For a short space it stood silently looking up at the three Hairy Boys, and in its intelligent little eyes the blaze of anger gave way to a crafty look, and Og realized with a sinking heart that the animal was determined to get them even though it had to uproot the tree in its efforts. Once more it reached upward and wrapping its trunk about the tree shook it furiously until the three boys had to cling fast with all their strength to keep from being thrown out. After a moment it stopped this, and backing away charged at the tree crashing into it with its broad flat head causing it to sway as if in the grip of a cyclone. Again and again it charged at the tree, until Og realized that already it was leaning far over and that the earth all about its roots was cracking and opening. The mastodon would uproot the tree. It was inevitable. And when it came crashing down it would tear them out from among the branches and impale them on its tusks or trample them underfoot as it had done the goatskin jacket.
Once more the great beast flung its full weight at the tree. Og could hear the roots breaking underground with dull thumping sounds. He could see gnarled tentacles protruding above the surface. The tree was leaning far over now. The mastodon stood astride it then and leaned its full weight against the trunk and pushing, with all the massive weight and terrible strength of its giant body. Slowly with earth-smothered snapping of breaking roots it yielded. In terror Ru and Dab looked at Og as if seeking from him a suggestion as to how they were to save themselves. Og appeared as helpless as they. Yet his brow was wrinkled as if he were thinking. He was studying the angle at which the tree was leaning. Suddenly he gave an exclamation of encouragement and began to scramble higher among the branches. They followed him.
High up in the top most branches he crouched and pointed to a nearby tree.
"Look. When the tree falls it will sweep past that tree over there. When it passes we must leap and hope to gain that other tree. If we do not we are lost."
Grim, determined, frightened they crouched there and waited. High up in the top under the terrible pushing power of the mastodon the swaying of the tree was terrific. It was as if gale after gale of wind smote it, shook it, bent it over. Slowly but surely it was yielding, leaning, falling. They could hear the popping reports of the roots giving way in quick succession. They felt the sickening sensation of the thing collapsing. Down it swept in a great are. Crouched and ready they waited. Its branches brushed against the branches of the nearest tree, then crashed through them. Og cried a signal and hurled himself through the air. Ru and Dab from the branches on which they crouched, did likewise. For a moment all three seemed to hang suspended in mid air. Then they fell amid the foliage of the standing tree, and reaching with long arms and strong groping fingers they caught hold of firm branches and held fast.
For a moment each paused to look for the other. Then finding that they were all safe they scrambled to the opposite side of the tree, ran out upon the longest branches and in swinging leaps hurled themselves into the next tree. Then with the angry trumpet of the mastodon sounding behind them, like real Tree People they plunged madly along the tree highway into the safety of the thickest of the forest.
It was nightfall when they finally reached the cave in the face of the promontory and started to build their night fire in the entrance. But scarcely had the first flickering flames appeared in the darkness when from out of the shadow crept the wolf cub who trusting to his legs alone had escaped the mastodon, and found shelter in the forest. The three boys were glad to see him for they had wondered what had become of him.
And soon after he arrived the two goats strayed into the firelight and lay down in the entrance of the cave beside the three boys as they cooked and ate their evening meal. And so comfortable were they and so happy that Og began to think of the rest of the Hairy People waiting back there in the cave near the old extinct volcano and he began to talk of making plans to return and bring them into this new land where they could live happily.
Og thought of how he would teach them the use of the bow and arrow. How he would teach them to overcome their fears of water, and build rafts and harness the wind to pull them through the water. Dab would teach them how to catch fish with the fish-stick of the Fish People. They would learn how to capture goats and tame them and they would have wolf cubs for their companions. He would show them how to make clothing to protect themselves against the cold and rain and he would teach them how to protect their feet with shoes of goatskin. Life would not be so hard for them then. They would be able to live in comfort and contentment.
And as Og spoke of these things to Ru and Dab, over Ru came a feeling of homesickness. He wanted to see him companions of the Hairy People again and he eagerly agreed when Og suggested that they gather provisions and make plans for their return across the mountains to find the tribe and bring them back.
For days thereafter they worked and hunted to get together provisions and equipment for their journey. There were new bows to be made and many arrows. New stone hammers were required and a new jacket of goatskin for Og to take the place of the one the mastodon had destroyed.
But as they worked they could not help but watch the birds that still flocked toward the marsh at the end of the lake each day to eat the salty beans. And as they watched a desire came over Og and Ru to have some of those beans again; to take some with them on their journey back.
Daily the desire grew stronger within them but they were afraid to venture back to the marsh after their narrow escape from the mastodon. Sometimes they wandered far down the lake shore in that direction and once they even traveled as far as the uprooted tree where the mastodon had tried in vain to kill them. Og thought of his riddled goatskin jacket then and curious went over to the place where he had dropped it. He found the tattered remains of it ground into the earth; but he found besides, something that suddenly made him all excited.
There were scores of the little brown beans scattered all about the ground but over some of them had come a curious transformation. Those that had fallen on the sand and pebbles near the lake shore were much the same as they had been, but here and there one had fallen on wet soil, the beans had split apart, sending tiny rootlets into the ground. And in the rich loam not far from the uprooted tree, where the mastodon had furrowed the earth with its great tusks Og was surprised to behold a mass of young creeping vines growing out of the ground; vines exactly the same as those from which they had plucked the bean pods so many suns ago.
Og had often pondered the mystery of growing things. He had seen nuts and acorns in the forest splitting open and sending roots into the ground and somehow he vaguely knew that eventually they would be trees. But never before had he realized that he could have any part in this mysterious process of Nature. But as he crouched there examining the beans and the growing vines he realized that he had brought the beans from the marsh to this point, and that the mastodon in its frenzy had trampled them into the ground. And there in the rich warm soil a mysterious force had changed them into plants that would eventually grow big and strong and bear bean pods just as those in the swamp did. And if all this could be done by accident, certainly it could also be done by design.
For a long time he pondered the mystery of the growing vines, and while Dab and Ru, grown tired of his inaction strayed down to the shores of the lake, Og walked slowly about examining the beans that were scattered in all directions. As he looked at each one he began to realize that those that had been buried in the soft warm loam that had been furrowed by the mastodon's tusks had grown the best while those that lay in the sand and among the pebbles had not prospered at all. Evidently rich warm earth alone possessed the mysterious power that made things grow. Handfuls of the scattered beans he gathered up and carried back up the bank to the place where the others were growing and scooping holes in the soft earth where the tree had been uprooted he buried them there.
And as he performed this simple operation a strange sense of possession came over him. These were his beans and the vines that would grow from them would be his too. The very earth into which he had planted them was his. He would guard it and care for it. He would keep the birds from stealing his beans. And when the Hairy People came to this new land he would give them some of this delicious new-found food and teach them how to plant the seeds in the earth so that more would grow.
All this he told to Dab and Ru when they came impatiently back to where he crouched over the growing vines. It was hard for him to make them understand at first but when they did comprehend they were as eager to plant some of the beans as he was and they scoured about among the rocks until they too had found several handfuls and planted them after the way Og showed them. And when they had done this they too felt the same sense of possession that had grown within Og, and they were loth to leave their little gardens unwatched.
Finally Og spoke to Ru.
"Ru, I will stay and watch the growing things and the goats and the wolf cub too. I will care for the fire at the cave door and keep the cave from being entered. I will stay while you and Dab go back and bring the Hairy People here. And when they come we shall all have ground to plant things in and goats and wolf cubs to live with us in our caves and lie by our firesides. Go, Ru, and bring the Hairy People. I will stay behind and guard our property."
And because Ru and Dab thought well of Og's advice and looked to him as their leader, they set off next morning back toward the snow-capped mountains beyond which waited the tribe of the Hairy People.