OG off with the wolf cubs, had a premonition that all was not well. A strange feeling of impending catastrophe haunted him. He watched the wolf cubs to see whether they sensed anything wrong, but they gave no sign. Og's instincts were keener even than theirs in this emergency, for he knew that something was amiss. He tried to shake off the feeling and go on with his hunting, but, try as he would, a strange something seemed urging him to return to the canyon that had been his home now for weeks past and, almost despite his own will power, he obeyed.
Back across the pleasant valley he hurried, his fire brand and stone hammer held in readiness, and his sharp eyes and keen ears alert to catch the first sign of trouble. On he pushed as swiftly as his short legs would carry him, and that was with incredible swiftness, all things considered. On his way he passed several groups of tree people in the tops of palm trees, and they, too, seemed to be strangely agitated, seeming to become more disturbed than ever as he passed with his fire brand.
Og tested the air with his nose. Something made him pause and sniff again and again, while his restless eyes roved the woods and the meadow, and even the skyline beyond. There was a strange tenseness about everything, and he saw a low-hung cloud beyond the tops of the palm trees that seemed all too near and very menacing. Yet even then he could not understand what was happening.
On he hurried, and presently he was picking his way among the boulders in the canyon toward the sheltering rocks that he called home. Everything appeared as he had left it. His precious tiger skin, and other trophies were still rolled in the corner among the rocks, his pile of sticks was there, too, and so were his extra stone hammers and his flint knives. What, then, could be wrong?
He looked about him. Then he gave a grunt of surprise and crossed over to his stone fireplace. Scar Face had been there. Scar Face had been there and stolen some fire from the embers in his fireplace. Og stooped and picked up a stone hammer that lay close to the fire and by this token he knew all that had transpired in his absence. It was the hammer that he had given the leader of the tree people. Scar Face, as his kind were wont to do, had dropped it and left it there, forgetting it in his excitement at having a fire brand of his own.
Og picked up the hammer and scrutinized it carefully, then with it still in his hand, he turned and looked out across the valley, across the tops of the trees, to where the low-hung cloud appeared. It was much larger now and much nearer and Og could see that it was not as other clouds in the sky, for it ballooned upward and outward in great black billows and here and there it was shot with tongues of flame. Og was chilled with fear, for he knew that Scar Face had stolen the fire and carried it off to the bush, and not knowing its potentialities, had attempted to build himself a camp fire in the woods. And, in doing it, he had set the world on fire loosed the wrathful Fire Demon. Og could see it all, and he trembled as he thought of the result, for his mind leapt back to the volcano and the earthquake when the wrathful Fire Demon had set the world aflame once before.
The hairy boy was thoroughly frightened. So, too, were the wolf cubs now, for they raised their sharp muzzles to the wind and sniffed apprehensively, and whimpering drew closer to their master.
It was a terrible forest fire that Scar Face had started. A mass of dirty yellow smoke was rolling skyward and drifting across the heavens. Soon it began to obscure the sun. Og could see the great orb through the smoke and it looked sinister and menacing; like a great ball of fire itself. The air became heavy and pungent with the odor of burning vegetation. A great silence seemed to fall over everything, even the birds were still. Yet a part of this silence it seemed was an undertone that struck dread even to the stout heart of the hairy boy. It was the sinister moan of the fire, far off it seemed and dreadful, but as it drew nearer this moan would become a roar as the flames leapt from tree to tree and tore through the underbrush devouring everything in their path.
Og began to wonder about his own safety and the safety of the wolf cubs. He realized that the lack of vegetation there in the canyon would prevent the flames from reaching him. But he realized, too, that there was sufficient fuel on the mountainsides above him, and in the pleasant valley, to bring the flames uncomfortably close, and blow billowing smoke clouds into the canyon, that would choke them to death. What was he to do?
Presently he realized that he was not the only one who was worried. A group of tree people appeared at the mouth of the canyon, all of them whimpering in terror. They paused there at the entrance and looked in at Og as if beseeching him to help them to safety. Others appeared. They came at first in family groups of threes and fours, and they gathered among the bowlders at the entrance of the canyon, where they crouched shivering with fear, and alternately watched the ever-increasing smoke cloud and the actions of the hairy boy. Still they came. In larger groups now; sometimes a dozen or a score at a time. Soon the entire entrance of the canyon was blocked with the mass of them, but still they came. Hundreds of them there were. Og marveled at their great number.
The fire was increasing to terrific proportions and drawing steadily nearer. The undertone that had at first sounded like a far-off moaning became a steady roar, punctuated now and then by a great snapping and cracking, or a crash as some mighty tree, its trunk burned through, crashed to the ground. The tongues of flame that shot upward and split the rolling smoke bank like flashes of lightning were fiercer now, and the air was hot and heavy and pungent with the smoke. There was a constant rain of fine cinders and charred bits of sticks, some of them still hot and carrying live sparks of fire. When these fell among the mass of tree people squalls of terror arose and there was a wild scrambling and milling about in their mad effort to get out of the way of the dropping ashes.
Soon they began to crowd in through the mouth of the canyon, packing themselves into the declivity like a huge flock of sheep. Og watched them and wondered what would happen to them when the leaping fire roared across the pleasant valley and up the mountain's sides overhead. Indeed, he wondered with great fear what was going to happen to him, too, when that situation developed.
The smoke was growing dreadfully thick even down there close to the ground. It was a black pall across the heavens by this time shutting out the sun completely and a draught was drawing thick billows of it into the canyon. The tree people began coughing and spitting and rubbing their eyes. Some of them were quick to discover that the air was clearer and fresher close to the ground and many of them threw themselves prone among the stones and lay that way breathing in the meager quantity of smoke-free air that lingered in crevices between the rocks.
A terrific wind was roaring through the canyon. It was a torrid wind, hot and scorching, for it was created by the fire itself, a terrific draught that whirled aloft great chunks of charred and still smoking wood and dropped them among the terror-stricken tree dwellers. Screams of pain and anguish were added to the noise of the fire and Og shuddered as he saw some among them clutch at back or side and shriek with pain.
But the hairy boy was just as uncomfortable as the tree people and in almost as much of a panic. It was all too evident to him now that he could not live long in the canyon. The thick acrid smoke was in his lungs and he was coughing and spitting with the rest of them. His eyes burned like balls of fire themselves, for the smoke had scorched them until they were raw and painful. He was busy, too, dodging the rain of charred wood and hot cinders and more than one singed his hair and bit deep into his flesh. It was a terrible situation, and the hairy boy was put to it to find a way out of the difficulty.
He had clung to his refuge under the shelter of the bowlders where he had made his home for days past, but he was fast realizing now that this was a far from satisfactory place to hide in the face of this terrible threatening peril. But where was he to go? In desperation he peered through the smoke for some better rocky refuge; some more protected corner of the canyon. And suddenly he found it. Through a rift in the swirling smoke bank he beheld the black opening of the sabre-toothed tiger's cave. It was an awesome place to think of venturing into, but better by far than any refuge the canyon afforded.
Eagerly Og gathered up his tiger skin, his best knife and hammer, and his still burning fire brand. Then, calling to the cowering wolf cubs, he started to bolt through the smoke. But suddenly he paused. He thought of the tree people. He knew they would never think of the cave as a refuge nor have the courage to venture into it if they did think of it, and they would all perish there in the canyon. He would show them. He would lead the way.
He raised his voice in a great glad shout which some of the ape men heard even above the roar of the fire. They looked at him in astonishment, and when they saw him beckoning and calling them to follow, one by one they broke away from the huddling, cringing mass and trailed him through the swirling smoke cloud. And presently Og was leading the whole tribe in the direction that safety lay.
It was a bold and daring thing that he was doing, and when Og reached the yawning entrance of the great cave he stood before it irresolutely, with the ape men cowering behind him and peering into the sinister blackness of the interior. Not so the wolf cubs, however. Once they saw the cave they dashed inside. Og noticed that they never hesitated, nor did they utter a single growl of warning. Indeed, it was with a relieved whimper that they sought this refuge and Og took heart and stepped inside, but he slung his tiger skin back over his shoulders and clutched his hammer and fire brand ready for action as he went deeper into the great cave.
Only a few moments longer did the tree people hesitate, then with much squealing and pushing and shoving the whole tribe crowded inside and began to follow the hairy boy whose fire brand torch dispelled some of the blackness and showed them the way through narrow passages that led deeper into the bowels of the mountain where the air was free from smoke and cool and damp and delightful to their singed and badly burned bodies.
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