FOR a long time there was no sign of life in that strange pile of flesh and bone and brawn and glossy black fur and long, yellow hair and blood. But toward dawn it moved a little, down near the bottom of the heap, and a little later there was a groan, and then all was still again for many minutes.
Presently it moved again, this time more energetically, and after several efforts a yellow head streaked and matted with blood emerged from beneath. It required the better part of an hour for the stunned and lacerated Waldo to extricate himself from the entangling embrace of Nagoola.
When, finally, he staggered to his feet he saw that the great cat lay dead before him, the broken shaft of the spear protruding from the sleek, black breast.
It was quite evident that the beast had lived but the barest fraction of an instant after it had launched itself upon the man; but during that brief interval of time it had wrought sore havoc with its mighty talons, though fortunately for Waldo the great jaws had not found him.
From breast to knees ghastly wounds were furrowed in the man’s brown skin where the powerful hind feet of the beast had raked him.
That he owed his life to the chance that had brought about the encounter upon a steep hillside rather than on the level seemed quite apparent, for during their tumble down the declivity Nagoola had been unable to score with any degree of accuracy.
As Waldo looked down upon himself he was at first horrified by the frightful appearance of his wounds; but when a closer examination showed them to be superficial he realized that the only danger lay in infection. Every bone and muscle in his body ached from the man-handling and the fall, and the wounds themselves were painful, almost excruciatingly so when a movement of his body stretched or tore them; but notwithstanding his suffering he found himself smiling as he contemplated the remnants of his long-suffering ducks.
There remained of their once stylish glory not a shred — the panther’s sharp claws had finished what time and brambles had so well commenced. And of their linen partner — the white outing shirt — only the neckband remained, with a single fragment as large as one’s hand depending behind.
“Nature is a wonderful leveler,” thought Waldo. “It is evident that she hates artificiality as she does a vacuum. I shall really need you now,” he concluded, looking at the beautiful, black coat of Nagoola.
Despite his suffering, Waldo crawled to his lair, where he selected a couple of sharp-edged stones from his collection and returned to the side of Nagoola.
Leaving his tools there he went on down to the bottom of the ravine, where in a little crystal stream he bathed his wounds.
Then he returned once more to his kill.
After half a day of the most arduous labor Waldo succeeded in removing the panther’s hide, which he dragged laboriously to his lair, where he fell exhausted, unable even to crawl within.
The next day Waldo worked upon the inner surface of the hide, removing every particle of flesh by scraping it with a sharp stone, so that there might be no danger of decomposition.
He was still very weak and sore, but he could not bear the thought of losing the pelt that had cost him so much to obtain.
When the last vestige of flesh had been scraped away he crawled into his lair, where he remained for a week, only emerging for food and water. At the end of that time his wounds were almost healed, and he had entirely recovered from his lameness and the shock of the adventure, so that it was with real pleasure and exultation that he gloated over his beautiful trophy.
Always as he thought of the time that he should have it made ready for girting about his loins he saw himself, not through his own eyes, but as he imagined that another would see him, and that other was Nadara.
For many days Waldo scraped and pounded the great skin as he had seen the cave men scrape and pound in the brief instant he had watched them with Nadara from the edge of the forest before the village of Flatfoot. At last he was rewarded with a pelt sufficiently pliable for the purpose of the rude apparel he contemplated.
A strip an inch wide he trimmed off to form a supporting belt. With this he tied the black skin about his waist, passed one arm through a hole he had made for that purpose near the upper edge; bringing the fore paws forward about his chest, he crossed and fastened them to secure the garment from falling from the upper part of his body.
It was a very proud Waldo that strutted forth in the finery of his new apparel; but the pride was in the prowess theft had won the thing for him — vulgar, gross, brutal physical prowess — the very attribute upon which he had looked with supercilious contempt six months before.
Next Waldo turned his attention toward the fashioning of a sword, a new spear, and a shield. The first two were comparatively easy of accomplishment — he had them both completed in half a day, and from a two-inch strip of panther hide he made also a sword belt to pass over his right shoulder and support his sword at his left side; but the shield almost defied his small skill and newborn ingenuity.
With small twigs and grasses he succeeded, after nearly a week of painstaking endeavor, in weaving a rude, oval buckler some three feet long by two wide, which he covered with the skins of several small animals that had fallen before his death-dealing stones. A strip of hide fastened upon the back of the shield held it to his left arm.
With it Waldo felt more secure against the swiftly thrown missiles of the savages he knew he should encounter on his forthcoming expedition.
At last came the morning for departure. Rising with the sun, Waldo took his morning “tub” in the cold spring that rose a few yards from his cave, then he got out the razor that the sailor had given him, and after scraping off his scanty, yellow beard, hacked his tawny hair until it no longer fell about his shoulders and in his eyes.
Then he gathered up his weapons, rolled the boulders before the entrance to his cave, and turning his back upon his rough home set off down the little stream toward the distant valley where it wound through the forest along the face of the cliffs to Flatfoot and Korth.
As he stepped lightly along the hazardous trail, leaping from ledge to ledge in the descent of the many sheer drops over which the stream fell, he might have been a reincarnation of some primeval hunter from whose savage loins had sprung the warriors and the strong men of a world.
The tall, well-muscled, brown body; the clear, bright eyes; the high-held head; the sword, the spear, the shield were all a far cry from the weak and futile thing that had lain groveling in the sand upon the beach, sweating and shrieking in terror six short months before. And yet it was the same.
What one good but mistaken woman had smothered another had brought out, and the result of the influence of both was a much finer specimen of manhood than either might have evolved alone.
In the afternoon of the third day Waldo came to the forest opposite the cliffs where lay the home of Nadara. Cautiously he stole from tree to tree until he could look out unseen upon the honeycombed face of the lofty escarpment.
All was lifeless and deserted. The cave mouths looked out upon the valley, sad and lonely. There was no sign of life in any direction as far as Waldo could see.
Coming from the forest he crossed the clearing and approached the cliffs. His eye, now become alert in woodcraft, detected the young grass growing in what had once been well-beaten trails. He needed no further evidence to assure him that the caves were deserted, and had been for some time.
One by one he entered and explored several of the cliff dwellings. All gave the same mute corroboration of what was everywhere apparent — the village had been evacuated without haste in an orderly manner. Everything of value had been re-moved — only a few broken utensils remaining as indication that it had ever constituted human habitation.
Waldo was utterly confounded. He had not the remotest idea in which direction to search. During the balance of the afternoon he wandered along the various ledges, entering first one cave and then another.
He wondered which had been Nadara’s. He tried to imagine her life among these crude, primitive surroundings; among the beastlike men and women who were her people. She did not seem to harmonize with either. He was convinced that she was more out of place here than Flatfoot would have been in a Back Bay drawing-room.
The more his mind dwelt upon her the sadder he became.
He tried to convince himself that it was purely disappointment in being thwarted in his desire to thank her for her kindness to him, and demonstrate that her confidence in his prowess had not been misplaced; but always he discovered that his thoughts returned to Nadara rather than to the ostensible object of his adventure.
In short he began to realize, rather vaguely it is true, that he had come because he wanted to see the girl again; but why he wanted to see her he did not know.
That night he slept in one of the deserted caves, and the next morning set forth upon his quest for Nadara. For three days he searched the little valley, but without results. There was no sign of any other village within it.
Then he passed over into another valley to the north. For weeks he wandered hither and thither without being rewarded by even a sight of a human being.
Early one afternoon as he was topping a barrier in search of other valleys he came suddenly face to face with a great, hairy man.
Both stopped — the hairy one glaring with his nasty little eyes.
“I can kill you,” growled the savage.
Waldo had no desire to fight — it was information he was searching. But he almost smiled at the ready greeting of the man.
It was the same that Sag the Killer had accorded him that day he had gone down to the sea for the last time.
It came as readily and as glibly from these primitive men as “good morning” falls from the lips of the civilized races, yet among the latter he realized that it had its counterpart in the stony stares which Anglo Saxon strangers vouchsafe one another.
“I have no quarrel with you,” replied Waldo. “Let us be friends.” “You are afraid,” taunted the hairy one.
Waldo pointed to his sable garment.
“Ask Nagoola,” he said.
The man looked at the trophy. There could be no mightier argument for a man’s valor than that. He came a step closer that he might scrutinize it more carefully.
“Full-grown and in perfect health,” he grunted to himself.
“This is no worn and mangy hide peeled from the rotting carcass of one dead of sickness.
“How did you slay Nagoola?” he asked suddenly.
Waldo indicated his spear, then he drew his garment aside and pointed to the vivid, new-healed scars that striped his body.
“We met at dusk at a cliff-top. He was above, I below.
When we reached the bottom of the ravine Nagoola was dead. But it was nothing for Thandar. I am Thandar.” Waldo rightly suspected that a little bravado would make a good impression on the intellect primeval, nor was he mistaken.
“What do you here in my country?” asked the man, but his tone was less truculent than before.
“I am searching for Flatfoot and Korth — and Nadara,” said Waldo.
The other’s eyes narrowed.
“What would you of them?” he asked.
“Nadara was good to me — I would repay her.” “But Flatfoot and Korth — what of them?” insisted the man.
“My business is with them. When I see them I shall transact it,” Waldo parried, for he had seen the cunning look in the man’s eyes and he did not like it. “Can you lead me to them?” “I can tell you where they are, but I am not bound thither,” replied the man. “Three days toward the setting sun will bring you to the village of Flatfoot. There you will find Korth also — and Nadara,” and without further parley the savage turned and trotted toward the east.