The Popular Magazine
Vol. 31, N°6, pp 218-224
Apr. 1, 1914
Babes in the Woods

The Wrath of Lions


By George Sterling

SIX women of the tribe, each bearing on her back a load of dry sticks, crossed the river, then low by reason of the long-continued hot weather, and toiled toward the cave that had been for generations the home of their ancestors.

Northward and southward the narrow arm of a plain reached brown and sun-baked, with here and there a patch of tall grass or groveling shrubs. As the women drew near a thick clump of the latter, they paused to rest, gazing down the plain in the direction whence they expected the hunters of the tribe soon to appear. And as they stared, the setting sun casting their elastic shadows far to the eastward, one of them thought she heard behind her a slight movement. She turned abruptly, her last sight in the flesh the vision of a great body hurtling through the air at her like some immense and mysterious bird.

The living thunderbolt descended, struck, and made an end of her; whereat the other women, knowing the beast to be a saber-tooth tiger, dropped their burdens and scuttled frantically to the refuge of the cavern. There they and their sisters hastily collected the children and fled within, barring the entrance with a large, round bowlder.

The men of the tribe came in, not long afterward, and heard the news with dismay. As a rule, the saber-tooth, what of his fear of the lately utilized element, fire, avoided the cave folk and kept for the most part to the forest. It seemed likely that the brute in question, evidently a lone male, would now regard the tribe as a newfound larder, and haunt the neighborhood so long as any of them remained. The fear, indeed, proved to be the fact, and it was not long before Ark, the chief, was consulting with his companions for some means to slay the creature, or, at the worst, to drive him from that part of the plain. The tribal pitfall was tried, baited with a live fawn, with the result that the saber-tooth fell therein, ate the fawn, and afterward leaped easily to the surface, being himself the height of three men, or more than the depth of the trap.

The chief abandoned that method in disgust, nor was there wit keen enough in the tribe to think of planting a sharpened stake upright in the pitfall, that stratagem being reserved for men of a later epoch and craftier minds. A direct attack on the beast was not to be dreamed of, and be never came near enough to the cave, except in the hours of darkness, to permit of a rock being dropped on him from the cliff above. Ark was in a quandary, as often before.

And, as once in the past, it was to be his son, the boy Uk, who was to prove the savior of the tribe. The unthinkable happened, for in a moment of madness Uk stole the heart of an elk that the chief had hidden in his bed of dried leaves, and went to a farther recess of the cave to devour it. But Ark, warned of misfortune by some sixth sense, began to worry about the edible, and soon went back to rebury it. Missing it at once, he actually traced its whereabouts by sheer keenness of smell, and came suddenly upon it and the thief in the spot where Uk had retreated for his feast. The boy saw Ark just in tune, and, dropping the heart, scurried swiftly back into the deeper gloom of the cave. The chief followed, implacably bent on revenge.

Though the entrance to the home of the cave folk was too small for even two persons to enter at the same time, the cavern was wide and high within, and divided near its mouth into three halls or corridors. Farther on, these broke up into smaller and more numerous chambers and passages, none of which the cave folk had ever found courage to explore. They were, indeed, regarded as the abode of unhappy or malicious spirits, and nothing but Ark's flaming desire for revenge and Uk's dread of a beating that would go near to ending his existence, could have induced either of them to penetrate farther than the last of the twilight of the cavern. And it was Ark who first came to a stop and decided no more rashly to tempt the anger of the unseen dwellers of its midnight.

The boy, however, almost frantic with fear, kept on his way, advancing on all fours along the blackness of the passage down which he had been driven. He imagined, moreover, that the enraged chief was not far behind, and fear itself lent courage. He fled onward into the heart of the hill; following some of the many windings and divisions of the cavern, and when at last he came to a pause and listened breathlessly, it was amid utter silence and blackness. He had scraped the skin from his sides, and bumped it from his head by reason of his blind rush into the dark, and was for the time content to sit, panting and aching, and listen continually, with held breath, for any sound that might warn him that his enemy was still on his trail.

But the darkness and silence lay unbroken, peer and listen as he might, and after a while he began to retrace his way, trusting to win out unnoticed to the open, where he could find the chance to catch such small game as might turn the mind of the chief to forgiveness, and avert the punishment that he so justly deserved and dreaded. It was not long, however, before he discovered that he was lost among the windings of the cave. The scent of another person he might have followed, but his sense was closed to his own; nor did the rocky floor of the cavern hold any trace of hand or foot that he might follow by touch. There remained to him but one recourse: To grope ever and ever onward through the darkness, in the hope of reaching daylight at last.

Time slipped by, unparceled by sun or moon. Once he slept, but only his growing thirst told him that he had been more than a day in the limestone maze. And before even an ever-brightening twilight told him that the day waited not far ahead, his loyal sense of smell had warned him that the path was beset with peril, for the scent of some great beast lay heavy on the blackness.

He proceeded noiselessly and slowly. The passage broadened and grew brighter, and soon he saw a patch of eye-tormenting sunlight before him. He paused for a while, permitting his sight to grow accustomed to the splendor, and, that accomplished, gazed cautiously about him.

A little ahead, he saw the gleam of bones, and, proceeding, soon after came upon two lion cubs, asleep in a pile of dried grass and leaves some few paces from the mouth of the cave. He gazed at them with mingled fear and interest, but calling to his mind his danger, went by and peered cautiously out into the day. Before him the rocky ground sloped gently to a small and almost circular valley, pent in by high, treeless hills. The spot was unfamiliar to him.

He crept slowly out into the open, and from the position of the sun, halfway down the sky, judged that the valley lay in a direction southeasterly from his home. He must in his wanderings have penetrated entirely through the limestone ridge, and was now in a region that the men of the tribe seldom or never invaded. About him lay no traces of animal life save the clean-picked bones; but a well-defined sense of peril made him take at once to the hillside, along which he progressed in a rough semicircle that would gradually, he knew, bring him to the neighborhood of his home.

He avoided the beaten trail that ran down the valley, and kept at some distance up the slope. He went for the most part on all fours, sniffing the air constantly, and crossing each intervening gulch with caution. The path, which ran at first southerly, turned finally to the west, following the trend of the hillsides. At last, it lay beside a deep, narrow gulch, pursuing his way along which he came before long to the open plain, and recognized the gorge as one that lay between the tribal cavern and the pool of pitch that had proved the ruin of Grush, the cave bear.

He was now on familiar ground, and, quickening his gait, came finally to a large rock at no great distance from the cave mouth. He ran to the top of this, and, lying flat, made a cautious survey of the situation.

The sun had nearly set, and its level rays, clearing the dark forest that lay to the westward, cast a yellow splendor on the low cliff before which the cave folk were squatted. In a little, he knew, the great fire would be lit and the feasting begin, had the hunters been successful. And he seemed fated to remain out there in the darkness, an outlaw for his offense.

The hues of the sunset deepened, glory beyond glory, in loveliness that the men of that day noticed as little as did the brutes. The first faint stars came out, and at their coming the cave folk lit their own beacon and gathered about it. Soon the slow but gradually quickening rhythm of the food chant was on the air of twilight. Uk shuddered a little, and glanced about him. A glance was enough, as at the instant his keen eye detected a long, striped shape that was slinking along the base of the cliff, here but of small height, and slowly stealing toward the singers.

Uk sprang to his feet, and repeatedly screamed "Aba!" — the tribe's name for the saber-tooth — at the top of his lungs. The boyish treble carried high over the hoarse voices of the food chant; and the cave folk, warned by long and bitter experience. ran for the shelter of their cavern. Even then the tiger could have caught some of the hindermost with a swift rush, but, enraged at the interruption and enticed by the prospect of a meal nearer at hand, stood for a moment in hesitation, and then dashed for the rock.

Uk was ready for the move, knowing that on the other side of his station lay a hole once inhabited by two immense badgers, which had long since fallen a prey to the hunger of the tribe. Dropping from the rock, he thrust himself, feet foremost, into the refuge, squeezing into the burrow until he was well beyond the reach of the long foreleg of the beast, which was driven down the hole a few seconds later, preceded by a shower of stinging pebbles. But finding himself unsuccessful, the huge creature soon abandoned his efforts, and turned toward the cave mouth. There, of course, he arrived much too late, nor did he venture to attempt an entrance, knowing from former experience that sharpened stakes would be driven at his face from past the barrier of the bowlder. And after bolting the meat that the tribe had left in their dash for safety, he went silently on into the moonlit night.

At the first gray of morning, Uk was forth from his refuge and perched at a point on the cliff edge, eighty feet above the cave mouth. Soon after the tribe came out, one by one, and shivered mutely in the dawn wind. The chief was one of the last to appear, but Uk then found that his warning of the night before had been enough to make atonement for his theft, so he descended the cliff and ate ravenously of the nuts that his mother brought to him.

He was able to explain to Ark the matter of his escape from the cavern, and told also of the newborn cubs that lay at the eastern outlet, at the far side of the hills. But Ark stood in deadly fear of a lioness with young, and the news awakened no enthusiasm in his breast. They would be lucky, he averred, could they escape the claws of the saber-tooth; while, to draw in addition a lioness to the neighborhood would be sheer madness. His objections. however, set the shrewd boy to thinking, and a few days afterward he took O-o, his girl companion, and retraced his path to the valley of the lions.

He had so timed his movements as to come to the spot in mid-afternoon. They kept well up the hillside, and on drawing close to their goal were rewarded by a sight of the male brute lying in the sunlight before the mouth of the cave. He was a splendid creature of almost the weight of the saber-tooth, though less formidable in combat than a tiger. The female was not in sight, and the children waited patiently for her to appear. A tree lacking, they had hidden themselves behind a tuft of tall, dry grass. The wind was fortunately from the northwest, or they might have been betrayed by their scent. But the afternoon sun crept slowly down the sky, and the lion slept peaceably in the warm light.

At last the crest of the highest hill threw its shadow on the flank of the drowsy beast, and, arising, he shook the dust in a cloud from his tawny sides. A moment later, the lioness came slowly forth from the cavern, and, stretching herself, stalked a little in advance of him. The great brutes then yawned, and, after stretching themselves in unison, trotted leisurely down the trail that led from the amphitheater of the valley.

Uk waited until they had been gone for several minutes, and then, O-o at his side, descended the slope to the cave mouth. Within, they found the cubs slumbering quietly, the creatures having but lately been fed. Uk having already told his plan to the girl, they acted promptly, each grasping a cub and holding a hand over its mouth to prevent any loud outcry. The little creatures whimpered throatily at first, but soon resigning themselves to the situation, lay silently in the arms of their captors. They in the meanwhile were scudding eagerly for home, casting anxious glances about them, and ready at the first sign of danger to drop their burdens and take to one of the trees that they now began occasionally to pass. The path taken by the lions lay, however, far below them and to the southeast, and they were in much less peril than they imagined. The last of sunset saw them within a stone's throw of the tribal home.

The cave folk had not ventured, aware of the change in the habits of the saber-tooth, to eat their evening meal about a fire, but had entered their abode and closed its entrance at the first approach of twilight. Uk and O-o had been missed, and shouted for; but the discipline of the cave was not to be set aside by the absence of other than several of its adult inhabitants, and they were. left to fend for themselves as best they might. Moreover, it was not the first time that the boy and girl had elected, or been forced, to pass the night in some distant cave or treetop.

Noting at a glance the situation, the children went at once to the rock whence Uk had previously given warning of the tiger's approach, and deposited their burdens. The cubs lay silent, too tired by the long and steady jostling to do more than move their blind heads restlessly at intervals. The children placed about the little creatures a circle of large stones, lest they should roll or crawl from the top of the rock before morning, and then betook themselves to a perch halfway up the cliff above the cave mouth, where a deep cranny gave protection from the attack of any large beast. Here they waited with their instinctive patience and quiet, their presence unguessed by the cave folk.

The moon rose, great and shining, an hour after sunset, and as her first rays lit up the level plain and cast a wide shadow before the cliff, the children made out the form of the saber-tooth approaching by his usual path. He stole at once to the badger's burrow, inspected it, and then, sensing anew odor on the night air, sprang to the top of the rock. Here he discovered the lion cubs, at whom he sniffed repeatedly, but whom he avoided molesting, warned by some ancient instinct. Instead, he crept noiselessly to the eating place, where he prowled about in search of food. The cave folk had been careful, however, to leave none without the cavern, and he was about to proceed into the night when several pieces of limestone fell about him, one striking him sharply on the head.

The huge brute snarled in resentment, and glared angrily about him. Immediately another and larger piece of rock struck him on the left paw, really paining him. He looked up, and saw two shaggy heads peering at him from a ledge but forty feet above. In a flash, he had run up the rough face of the cliff and had thrust his head over the shelf of limestone. As he did so, the sharp and fire-hardened end of a stout stake caught him fairly in the open mouth. He gave a terrible cry of pain and rage, and Uk, who had delivered the savage thrust, backed abruptly to the farthest extreme of the recess, frightened for the moment at the wrath that he had aroused. And though perfectly safe so long as they should retain their position, the two youngsters shivered, longing for the more familiar shelter of the cavern, while the saber-tooth, his great jaws champing and clashing with intensest fury, reached at them vainly with his terrible foreleg, his claws, each as long as Uk's hand, grating viciously on the scored limestone. The head of the brute was barely ten feet from them, and his fetid breath was almost unendurable to their keen senses.

So for the space of several minutes, reaching inward, he clawed and snarled at them, till, seeing how useless were his efforts, he gave up the attack and descended But hardly had he vanished from view when the children were again at the verge of the ledge, pelting him once more with the rock fragments that they had gathered. As swiftly he was back at them, and again received a thrust in the mouth from the stake that Uk wielded. This time, however, his huge jaws snapped shut on the weapon, jerking it from the grasp of Uk, and almost breaking the left forearm of the boy with the force exerted.

Again the saber-tooth clawed at them, raging, and again they trembled instinctively and would gladly have been done with the quarrel. But no sooner had the tiger once more abandoned the attack than they were again at the verge of the ledge, light-hearted, and hurling missiles at the furious and helpless beast.

They now added verbal abuse to their other methods of offense, till the cave folk, aroused and curious in their shelter, understood all that was going on but, powerless against the brute in the open, were forced to stick to the refuge of their cavern. There was much speculation, however, as to the reason and outcome of the battle, and some of the tribe were indignant at the fact that Uk was arousing the saber-tooth to deeper resentment against the tribe. The chief was not a little proud, however, of the tumult his son was arousing. Uk's mother, on the other hand, grieved audibly, while none was moved over the possible doom of O-o, who had lately been made an orphan. Meanwhile, the affray without raged noisily; the tiger repeatedly giving up the attack and as often being baited to its renewal.

But while the above events had been taking place, the lion and lioness, having between them pulled down and feasted on a buffalo, had returned to their home to find it robbed of their offspring. Their noses told them unerringly what had occurred; nor was it long before they were hot on the trail of the thieves. They ran rapidly and noiselessly, their shadows bounding with them along the moonlit hillsides as they followed the easy slot. In less than an hour they had reached the rock where their cubs lay asleep, and these the lioness proceeded eagerly to lick and nuzzle. The male brute; however, attracted by the tumult about the cavern, kept on his way, slowly creeping nearer and nearer to the scene, his belly flattened to the ground, and his long tail aswitch with suppressed eagerness and rage.

The saber-tooth chanced at the time to be renewing his attack on the children, and the lion reached a point almost below him before he had exhausted his fury sufficiently to give up the vain assault. And when he had done so, and had backed slowly down the rugged cliffside to the rocky ground below, the lion was upon him before the former brute was even aware of his existence, leaping squarely upon him and tearing at his long back with claws and teeth. The lion was unable, however, to keep this position for long against the superior strength and quickness of the tiger, which soon broke his hold, and sent him floundering with one lightning-like smash. The brute would then have followed up his advantage, but at this instant the lioness, which had left her cubs and dashed to the scene at the first sound of the new conflict, leaped in and took him by the shoulder, while as she did so her mate returned also to the attack, securing a hold on the loins of the saber-tooth.

If the scene had before been a noisy one, it now became a real hell of sound, motion, and rage, and from the stony soil, littered though it was with bowlders and fragments of limestone, a cloud of dust immediately rose in the shadow of the cliffs, in the midst of which the delighted children saw dimly the three huge cats, tangled together as in a net and striking and ripping with such swiftness that their movements were to be surmised rather than seen. The conflict was a less unequal one than might be thought by one unacquainted with the strength and agility of a saber-tooth. He could readily have defeated each of his adversaries in turn, and even their combined attack might have failed had they been driven to fury by a matter less grave than the robbery of their young — a deed with which, from his mere presence, they had promptly but wrongly associated the tiger.

The lioness was especially furious, a thing not entirely in her favor, since it caused her to miss her first rush at the saber-tooth's throat and grasp his shoulder, near the neck, instead. This grip the tiger broke without delay, sinking his own long teeth into the back of the lioness between her own shoulders. But the attack at his rear was not to be ignored, and suddenly releasing his hold, he bent his long, lithe shape suddenly on itself and smote his assailant so terrible a blow upon the head that the lion's grasp was broken, and he was once more rolled over and over on the rough ground.

The lioness; however, on being released, had instantly turned, and in a flash was upon him again, this time fairly riding his shoulders, her teeth sunk in the back of his neck, and her long claws ripping and rending. The saber-tooth rolled over and over on the soil, but the grip was one not readily broken, and it was not until, rearing his great length from the ground, he stood upright and shook himself with all his power, that the lioness was dislodged, falling on all fours a score of feet distant. But the disadvantage of having two foes still held, for the lion leaped once more to the fray as the saber-tooth stood yet upreared, and secured a grip on the vulnerable belly of the beast. The shock also threw the tiger violently on his side, and as he bent suddenly again and bit deeply into the lion's neck, his mate sprang forward and obtained a fresh hold on the shoulder of her enemy.

So, biting and clawing, the combat went on in the dust cloud that it raised, the three brutes presenting almost the appearance of an enormous cocoon that had somehow the power to bound, roll, and writhe. This semblance was soon lost, however, by the lion suddenly releasing his grip, the teeth of the tiger having done terrible execution. He sprang for a moment to one side, and the saber-tooth was then able to give his attention: entirely to the lioness, whose hold he broke, and whom he knocked sprawling with one blow of his powerful foreleg. The lioness regained her feet promptly, and, seeing her mate crouched for a fresh spring, sank back for her own leap.

The tiger had had enough, however, the teeth of the lion having inflicted severe wounds on his belly, and, before either of his foes were ready to spring, he had leaped for the face of the cliff, which he ascended swiftly, giving the children barely time to clash back into their retreat.

On attempting, however, to scale the cliff to its top, the saber-tooth met with an unexpected obstacle, for the wall above the ledge was at once smooth and a trifle overhanging. Rearing to his full height against it, he reached up his long forelegs, dripping with his own blood and that of his enemies, and found no foothold. And as he stood there for a moment, clawing at the hard limestone and fearful of making an upward leap lest it fail and he fall back to the renewed attack of his foes, Uk took up the stake, and, creeping forward from the recess, struck upward with all his force at the straining monster.

To his surprise, the weapon ran deeply into the body of the tiger. He made no effort to withdraw the point, but scuttled back instantly to his refuge. The saber-tooth screamed shrilly, and fell backward from the cliffside. He whirled instinctively in the air, and as he lit on all fours on the ground below, the stake, which had already penetrated one of the wounds inflicted by the lion, was driven almost half its length through his body, protruding from a. point on his side.

At the same instant, the lion and lioness sprang again, and this time the latter obtained a grip at the throat of her foe. She bit with all the power of her massive jaws, and the sharp teeth, severing veins and arteries, made an end of the fight. As if aware of what she had accomplished, she sprang back from the tiger, her mate repeating her action a moment later, and both the huge cats stood side by side, calmly watching their enemy.

The saber-tooth drew himself erect for a moment, then fell suddenly forward, where he lay without further movement till a few spasmodic kicks told of his death.

The children had watched with supreme interest each move of the battle, and at its end were the only ones to behold the victors abruptly cease from licking their wounds, throw up their heads, and bound swiftly to the rock where their cubs were hidden. The little creatures had been awakened by the chill of the night, and their first whimper had brought their parents to their side. Each beast took up a cub in its mouth, and, trotting off into the moonlight, disappeared from view. As they did so, Uk and 0-o descended from the ledge; and ran to the barred entrance of the cave.

The cavern had for some time been illuminated, as torches had been lit, and the cave folk had eagerly listened to the sound of the mysterious conflict without, discussing it noisily and trying to see something of it through a cranny at the side of a blocking bowlder. They were unsuccessful, however, in this, and were forced to learn all they were ever to know of the occurrence from the mouths of the children. At frequent intervals for several days, Uk and O-o gave, mostly in pantomime, detailed accounts of the combat. But they said nothing at all of the cubs and the stratagem, Uk knowing that they would be disbelieved, or, if believed, perhaps beaten.

"The Involuntary Exile" is the title of the next story in this series. It will be published in the April Month-end POPULAR, on sale March 23rd.

The first story of this series, The Saber-Tooth, was reprinted from The Popular Magazine in the March 2000 issue (No. 21) of Camille E. Cazedessus' Pulpdom magazine, with this footnote in the article on The Popular:
"George Sterling (1869-1926) Noted California poet. Associate of Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Jack London & Robinson Jeffers. This six part "Babes in the Woods" series continued in the next five issues: The Pool of Pitch, Naa-Shus the Man Ape, The Trapping of Rhoom, The Wrath of Lions, and The Involuntary Exile. Wm. H. Evans says the J. C. Beecham "Out of the Miocene" story which I like, "does not compare with" Geo. Sterling's six shorts. I have reprinted Sterling's first story, but have only read it & the 3rd.