Babes in the Wood I. The Saber-Tooth
By George Sterling
What the world was like in the Pleistocene Age. A brilliantly written story of people who lived three hundred thousand years ago. It is a new kind of story for the POPULAR, but there has been a revival of interest in Darwin's theory of evolution, and this series may help us to understand better the "Origin of Species."
In the late afternoon of a summer day in the year three hundred thousand (circa) B.C., a boy and a girl were squatted on the limb of a huge tree overlooking a path of a dense and somber forest. They faced in opposite directions, one up and one down the wood trail below them, and kept each a hand upon a large, smooth rock poised on the wide limb that they shared. This rock was of a size patently beyond their ability to have lifted to its position. Evidently it had been placed there by hands more powerful than their own, though either girl or boy was considerably stronger than the average man of our own times.
Each child was thickly covered with yellowish-brown hair, which became coarser and darker along the ridge of the back and on the outer portion of their limbs. On their heads it was black, and so long as to hang down over their eyes. The boy's name was Uk, and the girl's O-o. They had been stationed there by the father of Uk, who was chief of the tribe of cave folk to which they belonged, and it was their duty to drop the great stone upon the back of any beast, preferably of the deer family, that might traverse the path below.
Great danger, however, would be incurred by any offense given to animals of the cat family, which might be able to follow them anywhere through the treetops.
The forest was very still, the monotonous murmur of uncountable insects; large and small, forming a steady undertone of sound that but emphasized the silence. Neither child spoke or stirred, gazing with the patience of wild things each in his or her own direction along the trail which lay over a score of feet below them.
Once the hot and drowsy stillness was broken by the cry of some great beast or reptile, and a small shudder ran abruptly over the body of each, the ridge of coarse, dark hair along their spines rising in instinctive correlation. Then silence leaped in upon sound like water above a cast pebble, and the forest resumed its dream.
But not with its former sense of peace. There hung in the close, windless air a subtle atmosphere of apprehension, like the foredriven scent of a conflagration miles below the horizon. The pair crouched to their vigil with even greater intentness, the dark eyes under the shaggy eyebrows gazing down and onward with an expression half plaintive, half menacing. A man of to-day, watching them. would say that they had been slain, stuffed, and nailed cunningly to the limb that was their place at once of refuge and offense.
The long afternoon wore on, and, as the rim of that intenser sun touched the shaggy edge of the forest, a faint sound began to make itself audible to them. It grew, came nearer, swelled to an atrocious uproar of ferine voices, crossed the wood path at a point a quarter mile to the northward, and subsided slowly again to nothingness. They knew it for the clamor of a band of great apes in pursuit of one of its number, scratched perhaps by an ocelot, or otherwise come to some slight physical mischance. They knew, also, that death lay at the end of the pursuit.
The sun was now below the forest wall, and the beginnings of twilight were in copse and covert. The hairy ears, first of the girl and immediately afterward of the boy, pricked up. Noiselessly the latter shifted his position on the limb, to face, as she, down the trail. They sniffed gently, the former tremor ran over the tense bodies, and the hair of the spine rose, as before, suddenly and without volition. Even our dulled and disused olfactory nerves would have taken notice of the scent that began to pervade the forest. To the boy and girl it was like an invisible gas, strangling, almost overpowering, and evocative at once of horror and hatred.
There ensued a breathless interval or several seconds, when suddenly a long, striped shape came into view around a corner of the trail, followed closely by another of perhaps half its length: Even we of to-day would have known them as a saber-tooth tigress and her cub.
The brutes, noiseless as shadows, drew rapidly nearer, but the two children on the limb did no more than gaze fixedly down upon them. Then O-o made as though to push the rock from its position, and Uk, with a little gasp of terror, increased the pressure of his hand upon it. O-o grasped his wrist, and endeavored to free the great stone from his control. But it was delicately poised, and, as the noiseless struggle between the two became more violent, the rock suddenly swerved, slipped from the limb, and crashed fairly upon the back of the half-grown tiger.
Instantly, as though a propelling spring had been released, the four participants in the scene hurled themselves into violent activity. The cub, its back broken, snarled horribly, and tore with unsheathed claws at the unoffending earth. The children sprang promptly to the limb above their heads, from that to the next, and upward for six successive branches Having come to the sixth, they ran out almost to its extremity and clung there, trembling, the boy glaring in furious accusation and reproach at the girl.
But it was the tigress that was stung to fullest activity. She turned at the sound of the stone's impact, glanced for a moment at her cub, and then, as if in need of no further information, lanced her vast body viciously at the tree. In a few seconds she was three score feet in the air; in three more, halfway out on the thick limb to which the guilty ones clung and shivered. She crept outward a dozen feet farther, and then, too wise to trust the bending branch further with her great weight, struck it a leaden blow with her huge paw.
The impact sent a terrible thrill along the limb. O-o squealed shrilly, and as the tigress raised her paw for another blow, sprang for the branch above her. This she missed by but a fraction of a foot, caught a twig in her convulsive grasp, and fell back upon the limb beneath just as the second blow of the tigress descended. The branch vibrated like the plucked chord of a harp. She struck it, slipped, fell to the next branch, missed her clutch there, and came to a complete standstill only on the next.
The tigress gave her no attention whatever, but, creeping outward another foot, struck the decorticated limb half a dozen blows in rapid succession. Uk still retained his frenzied grip, but the intense vibrations were benumbing his hands, sending nervous pangs along his sinewy arms, and strange qualms to his vitals. Suddenly thrusting his enraged face nearer to the awful visage that glared upon him from a distance of barely a dozen feet, he spat viciously and copiously at the hard, topaz eyes.
The huge brute paused for a second in astonishment, and ere she could recover her presence of mind, Uk had gathered his legs beneath him, set his feet, and sprang outward and downward at the slender branch of a tree that grew on the opposite side of the wood trail. Such a limb was ordinarily incapable of bearing a weight launched upon it from so considerable a height; but it formed one of the supports by which a stout and luxuriant liana ascended, and as the boy crashed suddenly upon it, the elastic vine absorbed as much of the impact as was essential to safety. The whole tree swayed, the branch cracked menacingly, and many of the tendrils of the vine were torn loose; yet the desperate leap was accomplished with success. The leaper, however, was not content, it would seem, with his new quarters; for swiftly descending the liana, he gained the ground, darted to a tree of moderate size, and scampered to a position. halfway to its top.
The enormous cat, in the few seconds in which these events had taken place, had acted with instinctive promptness. Though unable to descend a tree with the rapidity with which an ascent was possible to her, she yet was but a few seconds behind the heels of the boy, and before Uk had reached the position that he craved at its top, her avenging claws were set into the trunk of the fresh tree that he had chosen. It was, however, of another character than that from which he had lately been dislodged. Tail, slender, but of a whiplike elasticity and toughness, it enabled him to climb to a height entirely inaccessible to the great bulk of the tigress. She was able, nevertheless, to reach a point halfway up the bole of the tree, where she resumed her former tactics of assailing it with paralyzing blows.
This time, however, the boy made no effort to retain his position by the mere grip of his hands. Instead, he fitted his body into the crotch of a limb and encircled the trunk of the tree with his hairy arms. As before, he was victim of terrible vibrations. but clung tenaciously to his point of vantage, in his deep-set eyes a far-off and patient expression; and after a little the great beast, her fury somewhat abated and her paws aching with the unwonted use to which they had been put, backed slowly down the tree and went to sniff curiously at the body of her cub, on whose eyes the death glaze was already set.
O-o, in the meanwhile, had shifted her position to one on the opposite side of the tree, and was in the act of concealing herself on a limb where the leaves were thickest, when the slight rustling caused by the act attracted the attention of the tigress, and in a flash the brute was again within a dozen feet of her. She stood not on the order of her going, but promptly sprang at the branch of a nearby tree, grasped its outer twigs, and hung there like a big wasps' nest. Immediately the tigress descended from her position, dashed up the trunk of the new tree, and began. once more to deliver nerve-benumbing blows to the limb from which the girl depended.
While these events had been taking place, a band of mammoths, collectively kings of the Pleistocene age by virtue of their vast bulk and their community of action, had been steadily and swiftly passing through the forest, with the intention of reaching the slow river that formed its southern boundary. Irresistible and imperturbable, they took little heed of such small trees and thickets as lay in their path, and the crashing of underbrush announced their advent long before they came into view. Finally the procession, headed by a great bull mammoth, was upon the scene, and as the leader swung swiftly along beneath the limb from which O-o hung pendulous, she released her grip and dropped lightly upon the huge back, fell sidewise, roiled over once, and regained a position on hands and knees a few feet, from the creature's tail. There she adhered, clinging to the thick, brown wool with which the beast's body was covered.
The vast creature gave a snort of indignation and reached backward with its trunk in an endeavor to pluck her from her perch. Finding he could not reach so far, he then tore up by its roots a young tree and proceeded to belabor himself with it, till O-o, stung by the whistling twigs, lowered herself to a point halfway down the great flanks, dropped lightly to the ground, and sped frantically away through the denser part of the undergrowth.
At that moment the approaching cows of the herd caught the scent of the tigress, and, with lowered heads, rushed in an avalanche of blind menace and destruction in the direction from which the odor drifted. One of them struck the tree in which the tigress was harbored so terrific a blow that the huge cat was hurled from her perch like a leaf in a whirlwind. She fell on all fours, however, after the manner of her kind, and on one side of the hurled phalanx of monsters. Several calves lay open to her fury; but she had had enough, and vanished with scarcely a rustle through the thick screen of lesser trees. The cow-mammoths checked their rush, wheeled, and returned, trumpeting, to the calves. These scrupulously inspected, the whole herd grouped about them and resumed, though at a slower pace, its ponderous march to the nearby river.
The sound of their crashing had not yet died away on the air of sunset before Uk had descended from his perch in the treetop. Between him and the caves of his tribe he feared that somewhere the tigress lurked, plotting revenge on all humans. And to reach the plain where those limestone cliffs rose, a long detour would therefore be necessary to safety — a matter that the lateness of the hour rendered no less dangerous than the direct journey to his home. He stood for a moment in indecision., then started cautiously in a northeasterly direction, somewhat to the right of the spot where the saber-tooth had disappeared.
For a while he proceeded warily, with roving glance and nostrils that sampled instinctively each breath that he inhaled. But the twilight was gathering, and before long he took up a more rapid gait, though he never allowed himself to be more than a few leaps from a good-sized tree. And where the growth of trees permitted, he sometimes left the ground, scampered up some rugged trunk, and swung from limb to limb at a rate of speed much higher than he was capable of on terra firma. The size of the trees, however, finally decreased, beginning to give way to a region of dense shrubbery, among which twisted lagoons, as it were, of ground covered by a tall, sharp-bladed grass.
He was proceeding, with what speed he could summon, down one of these open channels, when the breeze that was now coming warmly up from the southwest bore to his nostrils the foreflung and unmistakable scent of the saber-tooth. With a gasp of terror, he plunged suddenly into the black-green thicket at his side, wormed his way speedily through it, and, crossing another grassy interglade, slipped as noisily as he might into a second copse. This action he repeated several times, until finally he emerged upon the border of a wide plain that stretched to the eastward as far as the eye could see. At its edge grew a small, flowering shrub; he stooped, and tore a half dozen of these from the soil. With them clutched tightly in one hand, he scampered out across the grassy level, and as he ran he smeared every portion of his head and body with the light-blue, gummy substance that the shrub exuded in abundance.
Before him as he reeled gaspingly onward there rose against the horizon what would have seemed to us of to-day the domes of a distant city, and a city it was, though of insects and not of men — a city, withal, of more inhabitants than were ever to be gathered together in dwellings reared by the hand of man. Its remoteness would have been to us but apparent — an illusion given by the relative smallness of its chambered cumuli when compared to the domes of a metropolis. In five minutes Uk had reached it — an ant colony that covered several acres with its gray, rounded homes.
At its very verge he stopped and glanced backward; the saber-tooth had already reached the open country, and with lowered head was bounding forward on his trail, trusting to her nose rather than to her eyes. He stopped, rubbed his legs well with the. turquoise resin, and sprang in among the ant domes. Instantly the ground behind him was alive with thousands of the enraged insects. They were a dark red in color, and somewhat over an inch in length. The substance with which he was smeared was obviously most repugnant to them, since he remained quite unmolested. And ever, as he won farther and farther into the heart of that stronghold, the swarming millions in his trail added to their millions and their rage.
Reaching the center of his city of refuge, he ran to the top of its tallest mound, a pile twenty feet in height, gazed backward once more on the path that he had taken, and, gazing, saw the tigress trotting steadily toward him, her nose to the ground. In a few moments more she was at the edge of the ant city, where he expected to see her pause, realize its menace, and return sooner or later to the forest.
But the saber-tooth was, to his surprise, unaware of the peril that she incurred. She followed on his scent without pause, tracking him among structures so closely crowded that they were brushed and broken by her vast shoulders, bringing down the frail edifices in ruin about her, and adding to the myriad of enemies that were already penetrating her thick fur to points where their strong jaws could prove formidable. She drew swiftly nearer and nearer to him, until he was on the point of forsaking his insecure eminence and dodging here and there amid the maze of crumbling citadels.
Then the tigress suddenly paused, squatted, and flicked at her bristling jowls with an inquisitive hind paw. She shook her head, sneezing, and began to shake herself violently, like a dog that had just emerged from water, till the air about her was darkened by the innumerable insects shaken loose by her shudderings.
But there were now innumerable others upon her body that could not be dislodged, and these began to bite first by scores, then by hundreds, and then by thousands. A myriad tiny sparks of pain met in one great flame of agony, as the formic acid in each minute wound penetrated to nerve and vein and was caught up by the hurrying blood currents. The insects penetrated her ears, her nostrils, and her mouth; they swarmed into her eyes, each with but one impulse — to bite, cling, and bite once more. They hurried toward her by a thousand channels and paths, upgorged from the million sunken arteries of their homes. The whole city grew dark with their multitudes as they converged on their common enemy, until that enemy actually lost her original hue, and stood red and vermiculate. paw-deep in the increasing pool of her attackers.
Suddenly the saber-tooth screamed, a shriek as though of sudden realization and dismay, and reared her mighty body against the last red of the sunset. There she stood in brief and amazing silhouette, with huge, outflung arms and open jaws. So she hung for an instant, black and terrible, the height of three men, against the scarlet wall of the west, then flung herself upon the nearest of the domes. It collapsed with her immense weight, and the pungent dust of the structure penetrated to her lungs, making her cough and choke — blinded her, till in volcanic wrath she floundered and wallowed insanely among the falling edifices and sent up a dense cloud as of smoke to the darkling skies.
But defeat or escape the army that had gone forth against her she could not, though she killed them by the tens of thousands in her wallowings, and at: the last turned her strength upon herself, like a tormented serpent, and ripped at her flanks and loins with her deadly claws. Her enemies were to be numbered at last by the tens of millions, and even had she found wisdom finally and won her way to the open plain, a sufficient number of foes remained to insure her death by the mere amount of poison ejectable into her body.
So she flung herself hither and thither, a slowly dying engine of destruction, leaping sometimes a distance of two-score yards, only to fall among fresh armies of offense. Half of the ant city lay in ruins before her great heart succumbed to the impact of formic venom, and, with a last snarl of pain and rage, she stiffened out her terrible limbs and lay quiet, given over for a feast in the ruined halls of her slavers.
But Uk, long before her defeat was accomplished, had realized what was to take place, and had slipped from his perch and taken once more to his heels. It was well for him that he did so, since the dome that he occupied was one of the first to be destroyed by the tigress in her blind flounderings.
He hurried northward under the first stars, at a dogtrot, ever and anon stooping to clutch a handful of soil, with which he rubbed his head and body to remove the greater part of the gum that coated him. His way led along the edge of the great forest, which in places thrust out long wedges of greenery into the plain. The narrowest of these he crossed, and made detours around those that. were denser and wider.
Before long the moon arose, slightly on the wane, and poured a silver flood upon his homeward way. After an hour's more travel by her light, he rounded the corner of a promontory of tall trees, and saw, a mile to the northward, the wide waves of limestone hills that marked the dwelling place of his people. The light of a great fire was visible at the base of the nearest hill, while the night wind bore to him the pulse of a savage chant.
But before him there opened suddenly the bed of an inconsiderable river. The cave man, like his cousin, the ape, hated deep water, though eager enough to chase fish in the shallows or reach for them under overhanging banks. At this portion of the stream there was, Uk knew, a ford, but he had always crossed it, as on that very day, perched upon his father's sinewy shoulders. Now it lay opaque and menacing before him, the dark abode, he knew, of strange and voracious reptiles. He knew, also, that any cry for help would be drowned by the great sound of the chant that went continuously on at the fire. And even were he heard, and assistance attempted, would the men of his tribe venture the ford in the night-time? Such a thing had never before been essayed, and from what he knew of his people, he would cheerfully be allowed to perish before any of them, except his mother, would undergo such a hazard in his behalf.
He kept on his way along the bank of the river, until suddenly he heard in the obscurity before him the long howl of a wolf. He retraced his steps promptly, and, once more at the ford, gazed again at the mysterious waters. From them carne abruptly a loud splash, a streak of ghostly foam gleamed momentarily in the moonlight, a proof of the activities of some large fish or reptile. He turned, and took the trail that led toward the dark forest. There he intended to take refuge for the night in the top of some friendly tree. But he had gone barely. a quarter of a mile when from the depths of gloom before him there broke forth so appalling an outcry of animal voices that once more he fled, and ceased not from running until again at the ford of the waters.
He was now almost panic-stricken, but, knowing that anything was safer than inaction, ran southward in the general direction from which he had journeyed. He had gone but a few hundred yards when he came to a clump of tall, slender palms that grew close to the bank of the river. The stream at this point was narrow and deep, deepest at the very spot overshadowed by the trees. He climbed the tallest of them without delay, and, as he ascended, the slim trunk bent farther and farther out over the surface of the river. Still he kept on, until, as he reached the very top of the tree, he found himself head downward over the waters.
He hung barely a dozen feet above the stream, whose depth at that spot he could merely guess at. He lowered himself a little farther on the strong, slender fronds, and gazed downward for several minutes at the dark surface. It gave no evidence of occupancy. At last he released his hold and dropped, alighting, to his joy. in less than two feet of water. He dashed hastily to the white sands, ascended the river bank, and hurried once more in the direction of his home.
The fire was now larger and brighter than ever, and before long he was sufficiently near to make out the forms of two score or more persons squatted around it. He crept forward with great deliberation, on his hands and knees, keeping a large bowlder between himself and the glare. Soon he reached the rock, and, peering cautiously around its edge, beheld what matter had been provocative of the food song, for by the side of the fire lay the partially dismembered body of the tiger cub.
He hesitated no longer, but stood up and walked boldly forward to the circle which he half skirted and entered finally to stand before a man of heavy build and forbidding visage. This individual thrust out a huge hand, grasped Uk's leg, and drew him forward; then, with the other hand, delivered upon his head and body a series of blows that would have been the death of a child of to-day. The boy received them passively; as a sign of his forgiveness, and on his release went with placid countenance to another part of the circle, where he squatted down at the side of his late companion. She accepted his presence with a low grunt of satisfaction. He oblivious already to the terrific events. of the day, began slyly to tickle her with a dry grass stem.
But southward on the plain the toil of many years had been undone, and a city, the work of intelligent creatures, lay half in ruin. Yet the work of repair went on without cessation, and there, too, was feasting as the sharp-jawed millions swarmed to their task; and, hour succeeding hour, the ribs of the slain saber-tooth began to gleam wanly in the light of the setting moon.
The second story in this series is called "The Pool of Pitch" and will appear in the February month-end POPULAR, on sale January 23rd.
Part I of VI