All-Story Weekly
Volume CV, Number 3
January 3, 1920
The People of the Glacier
III - Fire

By Clyde B. Hough

Ga sat in a small splash of sunlight and munched nuts, crunching them with her strong, white teeth as she took them, one at a time, from a pile at her side. Gub, standing farther up the slope and spying down a long vista in the Deep Forest, saw the red-headed cave woman, or rather cave girl, for Ga was scarcely seventeen years old, and seeing no one else, took it for granted that she was alone. And, believing she was alone, he decided that it was a favorable opportunity to snatch her up and carry her to his cave.

Gub did not know that Wah had, within the last few minutes, piled the nuts which she was now eating at Ga's feet and that he was even then gathering more nuts at a short distance away. Gub started down the slope toward Ga at a slow, careful pace. Like Wah, he had already been attracted by Ga's red hair, glinting in the sun.

Ga looked up and emitted a frightened squeak. Gub was within a few paces of her. Wah heard Ga and noted the alarm in her voice. A half a dozen great, leaping bounds and he was at her side. Also, at the same moment, Gub arrived at the opposite side of the girl. Ga sprang up in terror and stood between the two men, looking from one to the other – looking at Gub with suspicion and fear, at Wah with trust, tenderness and appeal.

Unquestionably, Ga was the most attractive female among the People, both in point of attributes and by reason of being different. What then, with her wonderful, red hair, the like of which had never before been seen among the People, her rounded body, small mouth and partly bridged nose, it was not to be expected that Wah would be her only suitor. In truth, there were several. But only Wah was inclined to persuasion and affectionate courtship. The others, like their fathers, believed that a strong arm was the only means by which a mate should be won.

The two cave men stood now, one on either side of the girl, glaring at each other, a challenge in the very pose of them. Their eyes held like magnets and though they had no language to express themselves, they each knew that the other was irrevocably resolved to possess Ga or die fighting for that object. With dumb courage and blind tenacity, they accepted the issue as something inevitable.

However, neither one of them attempted to snatch the girl up and run with her to his cave, as was the usual custom on these occasions. As for Wah, he was not minded to win Ga in the usual cave-man fashion and Gub did not consider it wise to attempt to seize Ga at that particular time. Not that he was afraid of Wah, but a fight was sure to ensue and while the two men would be fighting, Ga would be sure to escape, therefore, nothing would be gained by such an encounter. Not that Gub reasoned these things out – he knew them by instinct. Gub turned and walked away. Wah and Ga stood in a deep silence. They seemed, by some subtle intuition, to realize that the seeds of a tragedy had been sown.

Soon the Deep Forest was resounding with the chattering and the squeaky laughing of the People. It was afternoon and many of them had come out to hunt for nuts and the small, burrowing animals in the Deep Forest. The People were of a light-hearted disposition and never dwelt long on morbid thoughts. So Wah and Ga soon threw off their spell of depression, joined with the others and later became separated from one another.

Meantime, Gub kept close enough to watch Ga's movements and not be seen by her. So he saw her about mid afternoon when she left the others in the Deep Forest, some two miles south of the caves, and started back to the basin.

Gub stole stealthily through the forest, dodging from tree to tree and moving with a lightness that was altogether puzzling when one considered the great bulk of him. He was watching Ga and when she was near the edge of the Deep Forest, he abandoned his stealthy tactics and began a bold chase. Ga, always alert, heard the first leaf crumple under his bounding weight and looking over her shoulder, instantly understood the situation. The race began.

Gub was strong and swift but Ga was light and equally as swift so the distance between them remained practically the same. If anything, Ga gained a little on her cumbersome pursuer, because of her litheness and agility in turning aside or dodging trees without lessening her speed. While Gub, with his greater bulk and more awkward movements, was often forced to slow up, lest he dash with disastrous force against the bole of some tree. However, he kept close enough to make Ga's heart beat in wild fear.

If once Gub caught her and took her to his cave, according to all precedent, she would be his mate forever; and Ga did not want to be Gub's mate. She wanted to be the mate of Wah, who had once tenderly and reverently stroked her golden hair, as she sat in the sunshine beside the Big Water.

They came to the edge of the little basin, both straining every muscle, Ga, in an effort to reach her cave; and Gub, in an effort to catch her before she would get there. Then just as they entered the clearing and Ga seemed sure of escaping her pursuer, she stepped into a puddle of thick, dark liquid and fell. This liquid was in reality oil. An earthquake, several days before, had shifted a portion of the cliff south of the People's caves and thus opened a vein of oil or an oil well which had been flowing and steadily spreading ever since.

The fall had been so sudden that Ga lost all control and rolled completely over in the clinging, dark fluid. In a moment, Gub had reached her side, one great arm swooped down and gathered her up. Ga wiggled and squirmed, kicked and clawed; and strange to relate, she wiggled completely out of the mighty Gub's grasp. It was so unexpected even to Ga, that she fell to the ground on all fours, unprepared and Gub gathered her up again before she could start. But once again, she wiggled out of his embrace.

They were surprised, both of them, astounded. It was something they had never dreamed of. It seemed impossible, incredible that a strong man, like Gub, could not hold so small a female as Ga. Neither of them knew that it was because her body was covered with oil and as slick as a greased pig. But instantly upon her second escape, Ga took advantage of the opportunity and before Gub recovered from his surprise, she was away and once more speeding toward her cave.

The People, some of them loitering about the basin, some of them perched in niches along the cliff wall and others looking out of the caves, all chattered in various degrees of amusement. The incident, to them, was nothing more exciting than a present day boy trying to catch and kiss the girl of his choice, would be to you.

When Gub reached the bottom of the cliff, Ga was more than half-way up. However, he followed persistently up the cliff, his great, hairy arms stretching from crag to crag with all the speed he could force into them. He followed Ga to the very entrance of her cave, but here he stopped. Even among the People, there were certain, crude ethics which were unfailingly observed, just as there are certain ethics among savages to-day, even among the wild beasts that are religiously respected.

As a matter of fact, most savages and all animals live more strictly according to the few laws they do observe than does your civilized human. So it was, that when Gub reached the entrance of Ga's cave and found that she was inside, he went no farther. He turned and went toward the forest muttering angry, guttural sounds. However, he had not given up. He would wait until another opportunity offered itself and then would try again.

In the mean time, the afternoon sun beat against the wall of the cliff where the People had found their new caves and threw back a heat that made the little basin very warm and comfortable. At the base of the cliff wall in a small, natural recess, sat Lab. It was a nest similar to the one he had been wont to sit in at the base of the old home cliff before the People left their ancestral caves and ran from the moving wall of glacial ice. In that other nest, you will remember, Lab sat one afternoon and in a fit of anger, struck two stones together with great force and started a fire. He did not understand how the fire had started, but he did find it a wonderful comfort and now, that the ice had been split by the tall peak, at the north of the little basin and passed harmlessly on, Lab began to think once more about the strange, red flame that threw out such languorous warmth. Lab could think. And for days, he had been wondering how the flame had started. At last, he remembered the stones he had struck together and in some way, connected them with the fire.

Lab's nest, like the other one below the old caves, was filled with dry leaves and many of them had already become ground into fine chaff by the weight of Lab's body. He picked up two stones; turned them in his hands and looked at them. Then, just as on that other day and without knowing exactly why, he struck the two stones together with smart force and, just as on that other day, a spark fell on the ground upon leaves and they began to burn. But this time, Lab saw the spark fall and saw the leaves begin to burn. And then all in an instant, the thing was solved, the mystery became simple. Lab had learned how to make fire. Never again, would he be without fire, even if this one should burn out. He gathered up any pieces of wood that happened to be lying around and hurriedly piled them on the burning leaves. Then he ran, gleefully, to the edge of the Deep Forest and began carrying heavier pieces of wood and putting them on his fire.

A few days later, Lab conceived the idea of making a fire in the Deep Forest, so that he and the others could run to it occasionally and warm themselves while they were gathering nuts and other edibles. Lab was justly proud of his ability to make fires. It was in the afternoon when the idea of building a fire in the Deep Forest first came to him and he immediately crushed some dry leaves, found two rocks and began striking them together. But, much to his surprise, no spark fell. Again and again, he struck the rocks together without success. Lab did not know that they were soft sand stones and had so long been buried in the earth that they were thoroughly damp. They were stones and, to him, all stones should strike fire. However, he knew another way to get a fire going in the Deep Forest.

He threw the two useless stones aside and hurried away to his cave. At the entrance, where several good sized logs were burning, Lab gathered up a chunk, one end of which was a solid live coal. As he made his way back through the thick undergrowth of the Deep Forest, every now and then a branch would strike against the chunk of fire and knock off a small coal which fell among the dry leaves and began to burn. In several places, this happened and, since the Deep Forest in that section, was considerably saturated with oil from the oil source up in the cliff above, the fire spread rapidly.

Even before Lab got back to where the zest of the People were gathering nuts – it was a mile or more south of the caves – the fire was raging from the edge of the Big Water clear up to the source of oil in the cliff. And it was spreading furiously north and south. Already, there was fierce roaring and crackling as branches and even small saplings were consumed by the leaping flames. Then as the spreading fire gathered heat and force, flames began to climb to the very tops of those prehistoric forest giants. Dense clouds of black smoke rose far above the tree-tops and swayed and bellied like a flag of doom. At first, the People looked on in amusement and surprise at the increasing conflagration. But soon, fear began to creep in, and all of a sudden, they realized that the fire was between them and their caves, that they were cut off. Those who were foraging were on the south side of the fire.

Back at the caves, where were most of the females and the young and some of the males in the caves and in the basin below, the scene was equally as terrifying. The heat beat against the two walls of the basin, flared back and made the place a veritable furnace. Then suddenly, the wind switched around and drove a terrific wave of smoke, like a low hanging blanket, down into the little basin.

Instantly, the place was as dark as night. Men, women, and children coughed and strangled. The wind driven smoke rushed into the caves, making them totally unendurable; and coughing and screeching, the People rushed out, some of them falling from their caves to the base of the cliff. Then, as suddenly as it had come, another swoop of wind swept the smoke away and left the People with fresh air. Their eyes were streaming tears and their lungs were burning and some of them were even bleeding at the nose from congested lungs, but there was really no serious damage done.

But the fire in the Deep Forest was still spreading, still gathering force and those of the People who were south of it were being driven farther and farther south. They could not stand near the fire. The hissing, swaying flames were, by this time, actually devouring the great trees as if they had been so many stalks of wheat. And the monstrous boles, twenty, thirty and forty feet through, split and snapped with the roar of cannon. Flame shot high above the forest and mingled with the heavy, overhanging pall of smoke and sometimes, the smoke, changed and swayed by the wind, totally obscured the sun and the darkness of night momentarily prevailed, lighted, however, by the lurid flames.

Hours passed and the sun went down and the People were frantic with fear. They knew no way to get back to their caves and they expected to be attacked at any moment by the enormous man-eating cats. The cats always attacked whoever was in the Deep Forest after night fall.

The People began to move down to the edge of the Big Water. Then suddenly, as if to drown all the crackle and roar and sound that had gone before, there came a terrific boom, a noise that sounded as if the earth, itself, had split asunder, a noise so heavy that its weight might be felt almost as if it were a tangible thing. Then high into the air, hundreds of feet above the tops of the great forest trees, shot a column of smoke and flame, lurid and black and dense by turns. The great column did not soon die down but was continually supported and climbed higher. The intense heat had reached the main source of oil and what had been a slow, oozing vein, had become an oil gusher, a terrific oil gusher, such as men in this day have not seen. And that gusher was now the heart of an enormous fire.

Portions of flame detached themselves from the main column, like separate star shells, and fell sizzling and spattering to the earth. And some small particles of these fell upon the People, clinging, burning, oily particles. The unfortunates, so bespattered, screeched and hopped around in wild gyrations. Lab, in particular, as if in punishment for starting the fire, received a generous shower of the burning oil and in a panic, he started to run. But the oil stuck and spread even as it burned and his hair was singed and his skin blistered in countless spots. Finding that running made the pain greater, Lab stopped and lay down and rolled over and over, chattering and grimacing; and the burning particles were extinguished or rubbed off as he rolled.

The oil continued to spout high into the air and flame continued to consume the oil as fast as it rose. The darkness was completely routed. For miles around, the landscape was lit up in a brilliant glare that penetrated the densest bower hung lair of the most timid animals; and every detail was brought out as if with the aid of a powerful search-light.

The People, looking far to the south, could see, in sparely forested spots, numerous wild animals crouching and skulking from one patch of undergrowth to another. There were the great man-eating cats, their colors brought out vividly in the brilliant light, some yellow and black striped, others grizzled and bristly, with enormous manes, and still others sallow, tan colored, with long, lithe bodies. And always, they were crouching low, their tails curved between their legs, their lips drawn back in fearful snarls and white teeth gleaming in the light, every ferocious detail thrown out in exact relief, even clearer than daylight could make. But strange to the People, the animals did not come near. They showed no inclination to attack. In fact, each time they were seen, they were going from the fire. The People did not know that the animals were in far greater fear than they, themselves.

By this time, the People were huddled on the narrow strip of sand, at the very edge of the Big Water. But here, too, the heat was so great that it well nigh blistered them. They were both frightened and enraged to the point of frenzy. They would cower away from the fire, then turn and gesture at it with threatening sweeps of their powerful arms, and yet again, shriek out what must have been wrathful curses. But theirs was impotent fury, for they did not know where to go. To turn south, away from the fire, was to move toward the animals and also away from their caves.

They jumped and danced around in panic and, in their excitement, got into the water and splashed it on themselves, cooling their scorching bodies. The People greatly feared to venture, even into shallow portions of the Big Water. They knew from experience that it was inhabited by ferocious monsters with terrific jaws and innumerable teeth. However, the temptation of relief that the water now offered was too great for them. And since no monsters of the deep came to molest them while they splashed in the shallow waves, they ventured a little farther out and lay down in water deep enough to cover them.

Wah and Ga were with the others and it was this night that Wah showed evidence of a brain which was later to make him leader of his people. He took Ga by the hand and led her out until they both stood about knee deep in the water, then faced north and started toward the caves. The others followed. Still, even at that distance, the heat was terrific and often the People would duck and souse themselves in the cooling water; but always they rose quickly and trudged on again.

Once Wah looked back over his shoulder and saw his fellows toiling along in his wake. He could see them clearly in the red glare that flooded the water. Their great, sloping shoulders covered with thick, brown hair and their small heads shaggy and unkempt were bent forward as they forced their feet and legs through the water. Their mouths were open and they panted from effort. But ever their large, mild, brown eyes were intent upon the water, watching for the approach of some sea monster. And among all the faces that Wah saw behind him, the face of Gub stood out clearest and most vividly. Even in that hour of distress, Wah remembered the deadly feud between Gub and himself, a feud that only the passing of one of them could wipe out. Wah drew Ga closer to him as if asserting his right to protect her, as if pledging himself to that duty.

Then Wah turned and looked out to seaward. For miles around, the water lay smooth and red tinged by the light of the fire and, the same as on land, all objects and movements could be plainly seen; even the slightest ripple or disturbance on the smooth surface. And while Wah was scanning this pink surface, something moved beneath the water and started a succession of waves, spreading in circles. Then all instant later, a large, dark shape raised itself at the center of the commotion shedding water as it came up. This shape was about the size of a full grown horse it was the head of a sea serpent. The serpent raised its head ten, twenty, thirty feet above the water and blinked its beady, little eyes in the light. The monster was four or five hundred yards away and equally as far behind the People. Nevertheless, Wah was thrown into instant panic. He chattered tearfully and began dragging Ga to the shore.

The People looked behind them and saw the serpent with its great head and neck reared above the water and like Wah, they rushed on to the beach, holding their hands in front of them to ward off the heat. But the sea serpent made no attempt to come nearer the shore. In fact, after a very hurried look around, it quickly withdrew into the depths of the ocean. No doubt, it had received the surprise of its life. For a few minutes, the People ran on the beach, keeping out of the water even after the serpent had disappeared. But the heat was too great for them and little by little, they were driven back into the water.

At this time, the People were just about half-way back to their caves and they were exceedingly tired. Ga, in particular, was so exhausted that she clung to Wah's arm, sometimes stumbling and bearing her entire weight on him. Then at last, she sat down in the water resigned, exhausted and Wah picked her up and carried her in his arms.

Then at last, they came to where the fire had consumed all the undergrowth and smaller trees of the Deep Forest. Nothing was left to burn except the larger trees and here, the heat was not so great. This made it possible for the People to leave the water and walk again on land. It was not long then until Wah, who was still in the lead and still carrying Ga in his arms, saw the little basin, and the cliff with the caves in it, outlined in the light of the vast fire.

Next morning, the People looked out from their caves onto a world that was dreer and damp and sodden. Low, black clouds hung across the sky and the air was humid and heavy. Perhaps the clouds were partly caused by the heat, smoke and steamy vapor which had risen from the great fire.

At any rate, along toward the middle of the forenoon, rain began to fall. It could hardly be called a rain. It was rather a downpour, a deluge unsurpassed even in those days when the earth was young, hot, steamy, and threw off vapors which congealed and came back in copious rains. The water fell, this day, not in pelting drops, one at a time with space between but in a steady, uninterrupted flow.

At first, smoke rose from the burning logs and trees in the Deep Forest and mingled with the rain. But soon the burning timber was quenched and the smoke ceased to rise. However, the oil gusher still continued to spout and the fire still burned in the perpetually rising column of oil. No amount of water nor force could crush down the spouting oil, or quench the perpetual fire. It rose, a pillar, a solid column of fire amid the steady downpour of water. All day and the most of that night, the rain fell, leisurely, heavily, without ceasing and the. People, perforce, kept to their caves.

But the next morning when they awoke from their, slumber, and looked out from the entrance of their caves, they saw a changed world, a world that was bathed in sunshine, a world that sent up the pungent smell of rain and sodden earth; and the wind blew to their nostrils, the sharp odor of burnt wood.

Naturally, the People were wolfishly hungry; it was one day and two nights since they had eaten and upon seeing that the weather had cleared, they scurried down from their caves to look for food. Wah was among the first to start. As a matter of course, he started out across the now devastated region where the Deep Forest had been. It was a devastated region, indeed. The ground was covered six, eight and ten inches deep with gray, sodden ashes. The very roots of the smaller trees had burned into the ground and left charred holes. Only a few of the larger trees were standing and these were devoid of limbs, dead and stark like tomb stones raised in mourning above the destroyed glory of the Deep Forest.

Wah knelt and scratched in the ashes with his hands in the hope of finding nuts. And though, he covered an area of many yards in this way, he found not a single nut. Every particle had been burned completely and the soil, itself, was charred black. At last, he stood up and looked around. He had passed south of the oil gusher, which was still sending up its column of burning oil. He was standing on the very top of the cliff-like ridge with an unobstructed view of his surroundings. For miles and miles, the Deep Forest had been destroyed. But, in the far distance, he could see a standing woods. This started where the rain had quenched the fire. It was a long ways from the caves and Wah was dubious about going so far. However, he walked on and as he walked, one foot suddenly sank into the earth. Wah had stepped on a mound above the home of one of the small, burrowing animals and now Re felt the owner of this little cave under his foot. He pulled his foot out, reached in with his hands and drew the little fellow out. It was dead, but Wah did not stop to consider that. He was elated at finding something which he could eat. He bit into the meat and was greatly surprised. It was exceedingly tender, more so than usual. Moreover, there was no blood, the meat was sweetish but not juicy. Decidedly, it was different from any meat that Wah had ever tasted. No wonder. It was cooked meat, probably the first meat that had ever been cooked on earth. The little rodent had been roasted in its burrow.

As Wah stood up on the ridge, eating his cooked meat and looking down across the ash strewn land between him and the Big Water, where numbers of the People were vainly searching for food, he saw Ga, her long, red hair flowing behind her, running at full speed from Gub. Wah was hungry and the meat was unusually tasty, but he dropped it instantly and started down the slope at his best gait. Ga was running toward the caves, but, the race was in the open and this time, there were no trees to obstruct Gub's speed; so he was rapidly gaining on Ga. Wah ran quarteringly down the slope and intercepted the other cave man just as his great hand was reaching out to grab the girl. Wah made one tremendous spring and flung his whole weight against the body of his rival. Gub was off balance and unprepared to stand such a shock and they both went down.

Gub was two or three years older than Wah and, therefore, his muscles and sinews tougher, more seasoned.. But Wah, unlike Lab, his father, was excessively large even for a cave man. He was larger than Gub. So what he lacked in matured strength, he made up in weight. The two males rolled in the ashes with first one and then the other on top. Sometimes, Gub would sink his powerful teeth in Wah's neck only to find himself compelled to release his hold in order to prevent Wah from gouging out his eyes. And while they struggled, Ga, instead of running to safety, and contrary to all expectations, drew near and watched the struggle with bulging eyes and open mouth. Perhaps, this was because she feared for Wah. However, she made no effort to interfere in the fight.

Meantime, the combatants rolled and struggled, grunted and snarled, till finally, as they floundered about, Wah's hand came in contact with a stone. He grasped it avidly. It was a large stone and he could not handle it with one hand. So he let go of Gub altogether and grasped the stone with both hands. Then, quick as a flash, he raised it and brought it down on Gub's head. The skull crushed like the shell of an egg. A quiver ran through Gub's body, he released his holds and straightened out on the ground, silent forever.

Wah rose and wiped the blood from the wound which Gub's teeth had made in his neck. The lust of the kill was on him. A wave of savagery surged over him. The fight, the blood and the killing had turned him to a temporary atavism. The beast in him was rampant. He turned and saw Ga and forgot sentiment, tenderness and love. He no longer wanted to wait until Ga was willing to mate with him. He leaped to her side, gathered her in his arms, and bounded away toward his cave.

Ga scratched, chattered and screeched, kicked and clawed with her finger nails and toe nails, but Wah ran steadily on. At the base of the cliff, he threw her across one shoulder and, holding her with one hand, scurried up the face of the cliff and shoved her, still kicking and screeching into the cave where he lived. Inside the cave were two of the young males who were cooccupants with Wah. He was in no mood for company. Besides, this was to be his cave, and his alone, now that he had taken Ga for his mate. He gave Ga a savage shove that sent her, reeling back against the farther wall of the cave. Then with a furious screech of warning, he sprang at the two, undesired young males. There was a commotion, a chattering, a snarling and the sound of blows. Then one after the other, in rapid succession, the two youngsters were heaved out of the cave, head first, and landed in the sand at the base of the cliff.

Ga was still at the back of the cave and Wah leaned against one wall near the entrance, panting more from rage than from exhaustion. And as he stood thus, Ga darted swiftly toward the cave entrance. But Wah was too quick for her. He grasped her roughly, dragged her back and stood holding her in the center of the cave. Then, suddenly, it occurred to him that he did not want Ga if he must take her by force. He was beginning to calm down and in his crude way, Wah realized that either one of the two males he had just thrown out, or any male with a good, strong arm could take Ga by force. He did not want her that way. He wanted her to come to him of her own accord because she preferred him above all others. Of course, Wah did not understand his own action in the matter. He simply got the idea in one piece, and acted on impulse.

Wah dropped his hands from Ga and stood aside, leaving the way to the cave entrance unblocked.

Ga must have thought it was unintentional. She ran through the open entrance, expecting to be followed and dragged back instantly. But when she reached the lip of the cave mouth outside and looked back and saw that Wah was not following her, she stopped and hesitated for an appreciable space, but Wah did not come for her. She could not understand it. She threw up her head, piqued, her vanity outraged, and made her way, in angry haste, to the cave where she lived with her father.


Thanks to Richard Hall of Hamden, CT, for supplying this!

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