THE hairy boy followed the wolf cubs. These half famished animals, once released, were even quicker than he was in scrambling off of the ledge and down the hillside. The boy watched them go and followed after them at a remarkably swift pace considering his short legs.
He walked stooped over as if his massive shoulders and head were too heavy for his stocky legs to carry, and when he scrambled over rocks he occasionally stooped very low and used his long arms as forelegs, resting the weight of his body on clenched hands, the knuckles of which were used as the soles of his forefeet. But this was only occasionally. He preferred to walk on two feet, although it did seem to be an effort. He did not know, of course, that he was only a few thousand years removed from ancestors who walked on four feet and lived in trees and that his group of hairy men were only just learning, comparatively speaking, to stand erect.
As he shambled down the hill other sensations besides that of hunger began to manifest themselves. He realized that he was approaching the domains of the Fire Demon. The atmosphere grew warmer, which troubled him a little. Then as he got further down the hillside he found clouds of white steam swirling about on the wind. These struck fear to his heart. Smoke or steam were agents of the Fire Demon and to be avoided. He paused in his hurry and wondered whether it was safe to go further. But still the intoxicating odor assailed him and urged him on. He crouched beside a big rock and watched with eager eyes the progress of the wolf cubs who were making their way through the steamy mist with caution. Yet they kept on, and the hairy boy seeing that nothing had yet happened to them screwed up his courage and followed after them, always watchful and alert.
The fog grew thicker. Ahead he seemed to hear a soft hissing sound. There was an occasional subterranean rumble too. This made cold chills race up and down his spine and the hair between his shoulders began to bristle, a sign that fear was making him ready for fight. He stopped now and crouched irresolutely beside a stone for a long time, so long that the wolf cubs became lost to him in the mist. He debated in his slow brain whether he should go on or turn back. Thinking was a hard process for him. It took him a long time to come to a decision. Presently, however, he found himself reasoning thus: he was hungry, near to starving; he was foodless now because the wolf cubs were gone, but they had gone on into the mist and until he had lost sight of them nothing had happened to them. If nothing had happened to them perhaps it was safe for him to go on, then too that enchanting odor was strong, very strong. That in the end mastered his fears and he pushed on.
Deeper and deeper into that mysterious and awesome steam blanket he penetrated, his courage screwed up to its highest notch. He felt he was very brave; indeed he knew be was most brave for he knew that none of the other hairy people would dare venture so far into the domains of the terrible Fire Demon. But then he had the example of the wolf-dog cubs, his terrific hunger and that overpowering odor to carry him on. Presently he discovered that the ground was quite warm even to his feet that had protective pads of callous skin nearly an inch thick.
Some of the rocks were hot. He stepped on one, and with a grunt of surprise jumped aside. Had one of the Fire Demon's evil spirits bitten him! That burn took a great deal of courage out of him and it was some time before he could force himself to go on. When he did start forward he avoided every stone and trod the ground with care.
Suddenly through the mist he heard a sharp yelp. It was one of the wolf-dog cubs. The hairy boy knew their language. This was the yelp of one cub driving the other away from something to eat. The boy rushed forward determined that if there was food to be had he wanted it before the cubs devoured it. A moment later he saw a body prone on the ground. One of the wolf cubs was standing on it and tearing great strips of flesh from it which it devoured with great gusto. But there were other forms on the ground. The hairy boy saw them everywhere. A band of horses had been caught in the valley by the eruption of the volcano and killed by the terrific heat. They were little horses with thin legs that ended in three toed feet.
With a cry of joy the all but famished boy hurried forward for he recognized in the dead horses a treat that rarely fell to the hairy people. It was only by means of the greatest skill in hunting and the concerted effort of the whole colony that one of these horses, veritable antelopes, was ever killed or captured, and when this happened the whole colony had a feast for the flesh was the most desirable meat attainable then.
But when the boy reached the nearest of the band of dead horses he stopped and fear showed in his eyes. The horse was dead; smitten by the hand of the Fire Demon. Its flesh and hide looked far different from that of any horse he had ever seen. Something had happened. But whatever that something was the hairy boy knew it was also responsible for that delectable odor that he had trailed down the hillside. He could not understand that the horse, in fact all of the horses of the band, for there were several hundred scattered about, had been killed by the intense heat of the lava and roasted to a turn.
He circled the first horse suspiciously and looked it over thoroughly. It was the one on the top of which the wolf-dog cub was standing and tearing away luscious morsels. The boy watched the cub. It ate and ate like a veritable glutton, yet nothing strange or out of the ordinary seemed to happen to it. The feast of the cub and the odor of roasted horse were too much for him. He approached the carcass and reached over to where the cub was feasting. The cub growled and snarled at him. This made the hairy boy angry and he cuffed it so hard that he knocked it to the ground. Then he tore off a strip of flesh that the cub had been chewing at and tasted it.
Never in all his life had anything passed his lips that gave him greater pleasure. Horse meat had always seemed wonderful but this horse meat upon which the hand of the Fire Demon had been laid was beyond anything he had ever tasted. Fear, superstition and all else were dominated by his overpowering hunger and he crouched beside the cooked horse and glutted himself; indeed even when his paunch was distended so that his hairy skin was tight, he still pulled off shreds of meat and chewed on them. And as he sat there he felt very comfortable and very happy despite the fact that steam clouds swirled about him. At this he wondered and as he wondered his primitive brain began to reason.
It was a long slow process then and very hard. Sometimes when his reasoning got too deep or too complex he found his thoughts wandering and it was always with an effort that he brought his mind back to the problem of why he was so comfortable. In doing this the hairy boy was perhaps the first of us humans to mentally discipline himself and solve a problem. There were only a few thinkers among the hairy people and their thoughts did not go beyond the making of a stone hammer. They could not even think to the point of providing clothing to help keep themselves warm.
But gradually the hairy boy worked it out. Heat was the reason for his comfortable feeling. The atmosphere was delightfully warm, the ground was warm; so wonderfully warm that he stretched himself at full length upon it. The food he had eaten was warm. Assuredly heat was the reason. The only warmth he had ever known was the warmth of the sun, but never had he been able to get as close to real warmth as here. And only occasionally of late years was the sun so warm as the old men of the colony said it used to be, while the cold had gone on year after year being more bitter until the hair of the hairy folk grew thicker and thicker. The boy did not know that a great change was in process; that the earth's axis had swung slowly out of position and that year after year the great ice caps about the poles were edging their way toward the equator and that centuries later great glaciers would cover the land miles deep with ice. Neither did he know that the volcanic eruption he had witnessed was a forerunner of this great change.
He did know though that the nights were very cold and that the days were not the tropical days the old and weazened hairy men told about and as he lay there prone on the warm earth struggling with this new found power of reason, he wondered after all whether the Fire Demon was the fearsome thing the hairy people believed it to be. Here was good that it gave him: the good of warm food, warm air, warm ground to put his back against yet, and he realized it with a shudder, here were these hundreds of dead horses on which he and the wolf-dog cubs had feasted, mute testimony of the wrath of the Fire Demon. Why was it that one who possessed so much good could be so fearful? Why was it but here the problem became too perplexing for even the hairy boy and, being full of stomach and warm of body, he fell asleep, probably the first human being to sleep prone and lying on his back.
And as he slept the wolf cubs, seeing strange shapes in the swirling steam clouds, and hearing strange guttural sounds as of huge animals eating, searched him out and crept closer to him. They were frightened at these menacing apparitions, and being motherless they looked to the hairy boy for protection, for somehow they felt that it was his presence that had kept them safe from harm up there on the hillside under the cliff.
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