Previous Chapter: 1 Flotsam
THE WILD PEOPLE
The creature was naked except for a bit of hide that hung from a leathern waist thong.
If Waldo viewed the newcomer with wonder, it was no less than the wonder which the sight of him inspired in the breast of the hairy one, for what he saw was as truly remarkable to his eyes as was his appearance to those of the cultured Bostonian. And Waldo did indeed present a most startling exterior. His six-feet-two was accentuated by his extreme skinniness; his gray eyes looked weak and watery within the inflamed circles which rimmed them, and which had been produced by loss of sleep and much weeping.
His yellow hair was tangled and matted, and streaked with dirt and blood. Blood stained his soiled and tattered ducks. His shirt was but a mass of frayed ribbons held to him at all only by the neck-band.
As he stood helplessly staring with bulging eyes at the awful figure glowering at him from the forest his jaw dropped, his knees trembled, and he seemed about to collapse from sheer terror.
Then the hideous man crouched and came creeping warily toward him.
With an agonized scream Waldo turned and fled toward the cliff. A quick glance over his shoulder brought another series of shrieks from the frightened fugitive, for it revealed not alone the fact that the awful man was pursuing him, but that behind him raced at least a dozen more equally frightful.
Waldo ran toward the cliffs only because that direction lay straight away from his pursuers. He had no idea what he should do when he reached the rocky barrier--he was far too frightened to think.
His pursuers were gaining upon him, their savage yells mingling with his piercing cries and spurring him on to undreamed-of pinnacles of speed. As he ran, his knees came nearly to his shoulders at each frantic bound; his left hand was extended far ahead, clutching wildly at the air as though he were endeavoring to pull himself ahead, while his right hand, still grasping the cudgel, described a rapid circle, like the arm of a windmill gone mad. In action Waldo was an inspiring spectacle.
At the foot of the cliff he came to a momentary halt, while he glanced hurriedly about for a means of escape; but now he saw that the enemy had spread out toward the right and left, leaving no means of escape except up the precipitous side of the cliff. Up this narrow trails led steeply from ledge to ledge.
In places crude ladders scaled perpendicular heights from one tier of caves to the next above; but to Waldo the thing which confronted him seemed absolutely unscalable, and then another backward glance showed him the rapidly nearing enemy; and he launched himself at the face of that seemingly impregnable barrier, clutching desperately with fingers and toes.
His progress was impeded by the cudgel to which he still clung, but he did not drop it; though why it would have been difficult to tell, unless it was that his acts were not purely mechanical, there being no room in his mind for aught else than terror.
Close behind him came the foremost cave man; yet, though he had acquired the agility of a monkey through a lifetime of practice, he was amazed at the uncanny speed with which Waldo Emerson clawed his shrieking way aloft.
Half-way up the ascent, however, a great hairy hand came almost to his ankle. It was during the perilous negotiation of one of the loose and wabbly ladders--little more than small trees leaning precariously against the perpendicular rocky surface--that the nearest foe-man came so close to the fugitive; but at the top chance intervened to save Waldo, for a time at least. It was at the moment that he scrambled frantically to a tiny ledge from the frightfully slipping sapling. In his haste he did by accident what a resourceful man would have done by intent--in pushing himself onto the ledge he kicked the ladder outward--for a second it hung toppling in the balance, and then with a lunge crashed down the cliff's face with its human burden, in its fall scraping others of the pursuing horde with it.
A chorus of rage came up from below him, but Waldo had not even turned his head to learn of his temporary good fortune. Up, ever up he sped, until at length he stood upon the topmost ledge, facing an overhanging wall of blank rock that towered another twenty-five feet above him to the summit of the bluff.
Time and again he leaped futilely against the smooth surface, tearing at it with his nails in a mad endeavor to climb still higher. At his right was the low opening to a black cave, but he did not see it--his mind could cope with but the single idea: to clamber from the horrible creatures which pursued him. But finally it was borne in on his half-mad brain that this was the end--he could fly no farther--here, in a moment more, death would overtake him.
He turned to meet it, and below saw a number of the cave men placing another ladder in lieu of that which had fallen. In a moment they were resuming the ascent after him. On the narrow ledge above them the young man stood, chattering and grinning like a madman. His pitiful cries were not punctuated with the hollow coughing which his violent exercise had induced.
Tears rolled down his begrimed face, leaving crooked, muddy streaks in their wake. His knees smote together so violently that he could barely stand, and it was into the face of this apparition of cowardice that the first of the cave men looked as he scrambled above the ledge on which Waldo stood.
And then, of a sudden, there rose within the breast of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones a spark that generations of overrefinement and emasculating culture had all but extinguished--the instinct of self-preservation by force. Heretofore it had been purely by flight. With the frenzy of the fear of death upon him, he raised his cudgel, and, swinging it high above his head, brought it down full upon the unprotected skull of his enemy.
Another took the fallen man's place--he, too, went down with a broken head. Waldo was fighting now like a cornered rat, and through it all he chattered and gibbered; but he no longer wept.
At first he was horrified at the bloody havoc he wrought with his crude weapon. His nature revolted at the sight of blood, and when he saw it mixed with matted hair along the side of his cudgel, and realized that it was human hair and human blood, and that he, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, had struck the blows that had plastered it there so thickly in all its hideousness, a wave of nausea swept over him, so that he almost toppled from his dizzy perch.
For a few minutes there was a lull in hostilities while the cave men congregated below, shaking their fists at Waldo and crying out threats and challenges. The young man stood looking down upon them, scarcely able to realize that alone he had met savage men in physical encounter and defeated them. He was shocked and horrified; not, odd to say, because of the thing he had done, but rather because of a strange and unaccountable glow of pride in his brutal supremacy over brutes. What would his mother have thought could she have seen her precious boy now?
Suddenly Waldo became conscious from the corner of his eye that something was creeping upon him from behind out of the dark cave before which he had fought. Simultaneously with the realization of it he swung his cudgel in a wicked blow at this new enemy as he turned to meet it.
The creature dodged back, and the blow that would have crushed its skull grazed a hairbreadth from its face. Waldo struck no second blow, and the cold sweat sprang to his forehead when he realized how nearly he had come to murdering a young girl. She crouched now in the mouth of the cave, eying him fearfully. Waldo removed his tattered cap, bowing low.
"I crave your pardon," he said. "I had no idea that there was a lady here. I am very glad that I did not injure you."
There must have been something either in his tone or manner that reassured her, for she smiled and came out upon the ledge beside him.
As she did so a scarlet flush mantled Waldo's face and neck and ears--he could feel them burning. With a nervous cough he turned and became intently occupied with the distant scenery. Presently he cast a surreptitious glance behind him.
Shocking! She was still there. Again he coughed nervously.
"Excuse me," he said. "But--er--ah--you--I am a total stranger, you know; hadn't you better go back in, and--er--get your clothes?"
She made no reply, and so he forced himself to turn toward her once more. She was smiling at him.
Waldo had never been so horribly embarrassed in all his life before--it was a distinct shock to him to realize that the girl was not embarrassed at all.
He spoke to her a second time, and at last she answered; but in a tongue which he did not understand. It bore not the slightest resemblance to any language, modern or dead, with which he was familiar, and Waldo was more or less master of them all--especially the dead ones.
He tried not to look at her after that, for he realized that he must appear very ridiculous.
But now his attention was required by more pressing affairs--the cave men were returning to the attack. They carried stones this time, and, while some of them threw the missiles at Waldo, the others attempted to rush his position. It was then that the girl hurried back into the cave, only to reappear a moment later carrying some stone utensils in her arms.
There was a huge mortar in which she had collected a pestle and several smaller pieces of stone. She pushed them along the ledge to Waldo. At first he did not grasp the meaning of her act; but presently she pretended to pick up an imaginary missile and hurl it down upon the creatures below--then she pointed to the things she had brought and to Waldo.
He understood. So she was upon his side. He did not understand why, but he was glad.
Following her suggestion, he gathered up a couple of the smaller objects and hurled them down upon the men beneath.
But on and on they came--Waldo was not a very good shot. The girl was busy now gathering such of the cave men's missiles as fell upon the ledge. These she placed in a pile beside Waldo.
Occasionally the young man would strike an enemy by accident, and then she would give a little scream of pleasure--clapping her hands and jumping up and down.
It was not long before Waldo was surprised to find that this applause fell sweetly upon his ears. It was then that he began to take better aim.
In the midst of it there flashed suddenly upon him a picture of his devoted mother and the select coterie of intellectual young people with which she had always surrounded him.
Waldo felt a new pang of horror as he tried to realize with what emotions they would look upon him now as he stood upon the face of a towering cliff beside an almost naked girl hurling rocks down upon the heads of hairy men who hopped about, screaming with rage, below him.
It was awful! A great billow of mortification rolled over him. He turned to cast a look of disapprobation at the shameless young woman behind him--she should not think that he countenanced such coarse and vulgar proceedings. Their eyes met--in hers he saw the sparkle of excitement and the joy of life and such a look of comradeship as he never before had seen in the eyes of another mortal.
Then she pointed excitedly over the edge of the ledge.
Waldo looked. A great brute of a cave man had crawled, unseen, almost to their refuge. He was but five feet below them, and at the moment that he looked up Waldo dropped a fifty-pound stone mortar full upon his upturned face.
The young woman emitted a little shriek of joy, and Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, his face bisected by a broad grin, turned toward her.
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