DESPITE the relief the coolness and clear air in the cave afforded, it was evident that the tree people were badly frightened at being inside the great cave that had been the home of the formidable sabre-toothed tiger. They cringed and whimpered and huddled in little frightened groups as Og led them forward through narrow passages, and they peered into the gloom ahead with frightened eyes. Og felt the same terror clutching at his stout heart. But the wolf cubs went bravely on ahead, and this, added to the fact that he had assumed the leadership and the responsibility of taking the tree people to safety, keyed up his courage to a certain extent and made him at least appear bolder than he really was.
Deeper and deeper he led them into the hollow in the mountain. It was a long, narrow cave in the beginning, hardly more than a passageway at some points, and long pendant stalactites hung from the roof while needle-like stalagmites protruded from the floor and in some places almost barred passage, or narrowed the cave so that Og and his horde of followers had sometimes to crawl under them or work their way around them. But they kept on because slowly smoke from the great forest fire was being drawn into the passage by draughts, and Og and the tree people wanted to get beyond the point where there was any smoke at all. Another reason why the hairy boy led on was because the wolf cubs continued to trot ahead of him and he felt that so long as they went on and exhibited no signs of fear whatever, it was safe for him to proceed with his followers.
It was a strange and weird procession they made as they traveled through the cave, with the hairy boy ahead carrying his torch with its feeble rays only partly dispelling the gloom and throwing a weird light on the tribe of tree people strung out behind him, chattering to each other and looking about in the darkness with fear in their eyes. In that procession were old ape men and young ape men and mothers with their babies clinging to their breasts, and all of them were trusting to the hairy boy to take them to safety.
And Og felt that trust, and somehow, in a way that he could not understand, it gave him faith and confidence in himself, and strength to go on, even though it was all as much of an ordeal to him as it was to the tree people.
They moved forward for some little time, when suddenly the passageway ended in a huge-vaulted cavern; a tremendous room large enough to accommodate them all with plenty of space to spare.
Coming out into this suddenly, Og stopped and so did the tree people. It was so large, and so filled with the gloom of night that it frightened all of them and they cowered and huddled together in a panicky mass and chattered softly to themselves as their eyes roved about trying to pierce the heavy enveloping blackness. But gradually, with the help of Og's torch, their eyes became accustomed to the darkness and they could see from one end of the cavern to the other, and to its great dome-like roof from which hung stalactites of tremendous length. It was a weird cave, indeed, and the presence of great bats, almost as big as Og himself, that swept and soared in and out among the pillar-like pendants that reached downward from the ceiling, only added to its dreadfulness.
The bats were like great black-robed spirits that flitted softly about, or hung from convenient crevices and glared at them with eyes that showed green fire in the darkness. Some of the largest of them, as if resentful of this invasion, even swooped toward them and clicked long and ugly teeth, and uttered shrill squeaks. Mostly they made for Og, singling him out no doubt because of the flickering torch he held. They did not know what this sparkling thing was and they dived at it repeatedly until Og, with a yell of triumph that echoed and reechoed from wall to wall of the cavern, brought one of them down with a lightning-like swing of his stone hammer and crushed out its life before it could struggle up from the stone floor. After that the great black bats soared and swooped at a safer distance.
Og threw off the fear of the great cavern first and while the tree folk huddled in a mass in the center of the cave and clung to each other for protection, staring about them fearfully, the hairy boy with his torch and the wolf cubs at his heels, began to explore the great room.
It was soon apparent to him that the cave was the center of a number of small caves that seemed to reach out in all directions, like legs from the body of a giant spider. Og wondered where these other caves led to, and as he came to the entrance of each of them he stopped and peered into them, but even he was not bold enough to attempt to explore them.
Presently he came to one about the entrance of which there lingered a dreadful, sickening odor that suddenly filled Og's soul with terror, and made the wolf cubs growl, while the hair on their shoulders bristled and their tails, instead of stiffening with the desire to fight, dropped between their legs. Og was on the point of running away, but, with an effort, he mastered himself and, hiding behind a cone-shaped stalagmite, he peered into the black entrance, holding his torch so that it would send its light rays as far as possible down the passage.
He could see nothing, but on the cool draught that came down the passage way he got a stronger scent of the dreadful odor. It was familiar. He had smelled it before and it had terrorized him then, yet for the moment he could not identify it. What could it be? He asked the question over and over again. Then he stopped to listen. Down the passageway came a peculiar scraping sound, as if some long slender body were dragging its full length along the rock floor. Suddenly Og knew what the hideous thing was, and he went cold as he realized the menace that was approaching. It was a python; a giant snake, ancestor of the present day constrictor of the southern jungles. It had been driven by the forest fire to take refuge in a cavern in the mountains, and as Og and the tree people had wandered down one of the passages to the great central cavern, it was doing likewise.
Og could hardly repress a cry of fear as he realized that all too soon the great reptile would slide its terrible length into the central cavern. Then woe to him and the tree people. These ape men were the natural prey of the python, who would lie in wait among the matted branches of the forest and throw coils about the unfortunate tree man who ventured near his lair. When the python found this huddled mass of ape folk in the central cavern, Og knew that the result would be terrible to witness. He turned away from his hiding place to hurry back to spread a warning. But even as he left the shelter of the cone-like stalagmite a great, ugly, flat head, with cold green eyes, terrifically powerful jaws and a darting tongue, appeared in the entrance of the cavern, and a moment later the giant python began to slide its great shining body into the central cave, working its serpentine way among the stalagmites swiftly and softly, save for the peculiar scraping sound that its heavy body made as it slid its length across the limestone floor.
The hairy boy had hardly time to dodge behind another sheltering pinnacle when the huge serpent raised its head and shining neck aloft and glared about the cavern. Og knew instantly that the snake had discovered the tree folk, for like a flash its head came down, then with surprising speed it began to slip across the cavern, sliding so close to the hiding Og that he could have touched the shining coils as they glided by.
Og, valiant despite his own fears, wanted to rush forward and warn the tree folk, scatter them, and tell them to take refuge wherever they could, but the great snake had glided between and cut him off from them.
On moved the big snake, and Og, cold with fear himself, hardly knew what to do. For a moment he was afraid to cry out for fear the serpent would turn on him. But only for a moment did the cowardice overcome him. Disregarding danger to himself he voiced a ringing shout of warning and with stone hammer in one hand and torch in the other, he dashed headlong across the cave, trying his best to turn the huge snake's attention from the tree folk long enough for them to get away.
They heard his shout of warning and it spread consternation among them. They saw the peril that was traveling swiftly toward them, but so frightened were they and so slow to act, that the python was full upon them before the great mass scattered and started for one of the many hall-like caves that opened into the cavern. Like a cyclone then the snake descended upon them, literally hurling his long shining body among them. Og saw it all with a shudder.
The shrieks that followed were deafening as they echoed and reechoed against the walls of the cavern, and the writhing of the big snake tossed tree folk right and left as they strove to get out of his way. Coil after coil the snake threw among them and Og knew that the fate of some of his recent companions was sealed.
But when the ape men moved they moved fast. With terrific speed the mass dispersed, and in a twinkling they were all gone, the last of them disappearing through the dark mouth of one of the smaller caves; the last but two, and Og.
These two Og saw struggling in the folds of the great snake. They were big, strong, powerful ape men; some of the warriors that Scar Face had led, yet their struggles were puny indeed against the folds of the big python's body. They screamed, and thrashed with their arms and bit with vicious teeth, but to no avail. Suddenly the great snake contracted the coils it had looped about them, and Og with a sickening sensation saw the two big ape men go limp. He could hear the dull sound of breaking bones, and when the snake slowly uncoiled they dropped to the floor lifeless and almost without form, so terribly crushed were they.
It was a hideous, terrifying sight, but for some strange reason that Og could not understand it did not frighten him as much as it angered him. A sense of pity for those two poor mutilated forms that a moment before had been alive welled up in him, and he was consumed with hate for the horrible reptile. Indeed, he was moved to attack it and with a war cry ringing on his lips he started to advance upon it. Like a flash the snake turned and faced him, and in the cold, merciless green eyes that Og looked into, the hairy boy saw no hopes for victory. He knew that he was doing a foolish, though valiant thing, and discretion made him stop in his tracks.
The next instant, the snake, with a hiss that was blood chilling, drew back its terrible head and struck at him with lightning swiftness. But as quick as the snake was, Og was quicker. Like a flash he leapt aside, and with a cry of terror he fled across the cavern, not stropping even to look behind him until he had gained the entrance to one of the passage ways out of the cave, into which he plunged, the wolf cubs following him closely.
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