Boys' Life December 1946, p 8-9, 46-49|
The Country of the Hair-Faces
by Manly Wade Wellman
Time turns back a hundred thousand years as these people of the dawn age struggle for the caves to shelter their families
IN THE times we call prehistoric, the Flint Folk thought themselves the tallest, wisest and bravest of all peoples in the world they knew; and the seven who followed their Chief north over the hills into the unknown thought themselves the tallest, wisest and bravest of the Flint Folk. They needed that good opinion of their own worth. The game filled meadows they sought belonged so said stories older than their oldest tale-tellers to the Hair-Faces, who froze your blood with a stare and killed you with a touch.
The Chief wanted proof of those stories. He always wanted proof, which was why he was such a good Chief. He had chosen seven to go with him and find out, and youngest of the seven was Boonji, the Chief's own son. Boonji was just coming to full height and strength. His lean naked legs were the second swiftest pair among those active adventurers. He could throw a javelin as straight as any, and as far as most. A full year before, he had killed the leopard whose spotted hide hung around his hips. His long hair, tied back with a snakeskin, was brown, and his eyes were blue like the Chief's; but where the Chief's eyes were flashing and three-cornered, Boonji's were wide and thoughtful.
"I think someone wanted to keep those good lands for his own easy hunting," the Chief told his men as, pausing on a peak, they looked beyond. "If there truly are Hair-Faces, probably the someone made a worse story than he should have. Anyway, game in our country is scarce and afraid. You have to trail all morning and chase all afternoon to get a deer or a bison. Over yonder I think I see big herds. Let's go down and kill some meat."
Down they went, the tall, brawny, half-naked eight of them, and in the warm afternoon sunshine they examined many hoof-marks at a brookside on the level ground below. Ahead of them stretched green meadows tufted with brush, and in the distance were wooded heights. Rakh, the sharp-sighted, shaded his eyes to peer.
"Fire," he announced, "Look."
He pointed, and they saw a distant thread of smoke, in a notch of the wooded heights. It was from no forest fire, it was narrow and single from fire obviously built by hands for warmth or protection or cooking. The Chief grunted and turned. "Perhaps the man who made the Hair-Face story had a friend or a son who hunts here after him. Well, there's room for many hunters, and no reason to quarrel." He stroked his tawny beard. "We want to see everything. If it's good, we'll make two tall signal smokes to guide the other Flint Folk across the hills to join us."
The others grinned confidently, all but Boonji. He was the youngest by several years, and so he remembered best those childhood tales about Hair-Faces. Hair-Faces, whispered the old grandmothers of the Flint Folk, were strange and shaggy and walked on two crooked legs. They made tools and weapons of wood or stone. They kindled fires, just like that distant fire Rakh had spied. They lived in groups of three or four, helping each other to do the mysterious things Hair-Faces did. They spoke horridly in a horrid language. These were manlike behaviors, but the Hair-Faces were not men. The thoughts made Boonji feel unpleasant inside, but he was too proud to say so.
Rakh clicked his tongue in a hunter's warning. His sharp eye had caught something else. A deer, then another and another and another, came grazing into view from behind a thicket. Breeze blew from the men toward the deer, who scented them and looked up, but did not run.
"Didn't I say easy hunting?" muttered the Chief happily. "They don't know javelins. They stand for us."
From his shoulder-loop be twitched one of his two hickory shafts with stone tips. Flexing his great body in a powerful thrust, he sent the missile singing across the intervening space. Down went the biggest buck, and the other deer scattered like feathers in a storm. After a moment the buck struggled up and ran too, but clumsily and crookedly, hampered by the javelin that transfixed him.
"After him!" cried the Chief, and all eight broke into a loping tireless gait.
SEHKI, the swift-footed, took the lead at once, but sprang aside to tighten a loose sandal string, and Boonji was first on the trail. After him sped Rakh, then the Chief, then the others in order of their natural speed. The wounded buck vanished between two thickets, but spatters of blood guided the hunters so well that they did not need to slacken the swift pace of their pursuit.
While the sun dropped in the sky by the seeming breadth of a hand, the chase went on. Boonji, still leading, trailed the blood-splashes among rocks on the slope to higher, timbered ground, saw where the weakening buck stumbled and fell, and was many man-lengths in advance when he came at last to where it had sunk down dying, near the woods.
Even as he yelled the exultant news, he saw that something dark and shaggy crouched by the prey. A bear, perhaps. But then the creature heard his yell and stood up to face him, and it was no bear after all.
THE top of its lumpy skull would be no more than chin-high to Boonji, but its body looked twice as thick as his. It wore no garments on its monkey-like hairiness, no sandals on its great flat feet. One giant hand clutched a heavy stone thing, like an axe with no handle. Its face, masked with coarse beard, was broad and squat like the face of a monstrous shaggy frog. Its nostrils flared and twitched, its ears pricked like a wolf's, its underlip sagged to show coarse strong teeth. Its eyes, pale and bright as ice, glared at Boonji. Whoever had seen Hair-Faces knew what he was talking about, after all.
Rakh had come up. He exclaimed, stood still and gazed like. Boonji. Then Sehki was there, and the Chief. The Hair-Face spat like an angry leopard, then whirled and fled uncouthly. Its back bent, its knees crooked, its head thrust forward turtlewise. It was like an animal trying to run upright like a man. The bunters gaped after it, forgetting their javelins until the Hair-Face plunged into a little ravine full of brush and disappeared.
The Chief spoke bravely, as a Chief must. "Didn't I say that the Hair-Face story was worse than the truth?" he demanded. "It looked at us with hate, and then it ran. Its look froze nobody's blood."
Boonji, at least, thought that his blood was almost freezing cold, but he tried to be calm as he gestured at the dead deer.
"The Hair-Face was going to steal our meat."
Only clumsy hunters need steal meat," snorted the Chief. He and Sehki drew flint knives. Quickly they skinned the carcass and cut away the four quarters, the loin and tenderloin, the heart, liver and kidneys.
"Roll those in the hide," the Chief directed. "We'll camp where we don't smell that Hair-Face."
They moved into an open stretch of meadow, and gathered wood into a pile beside a willow-fringed creek. The Chief produced from his belt-pouch a long, charred fire-spindle. Twirling it between his palms, he brought a coal of fire into being upon a piece of soft wood. Splinters, then twigs, finally big billets of wood made the cooking blaze. By sunset the eight were toasting the choicest bits of venison on the coals.
THE meat was savory, the creek-water sweet, but the men did not joke or sing, as hunters usually do in camp. They squatted close together, speaking in hushed, sober voices. Once the Chief sprang up from among them, javelin lifted. Something dark and burly and crooked rose from where it had stolen close. They saw it retreating with a strange lumbering gait into the night.
"Hair-Face spy," the Chief said. "We'll keep watch tonight."
He packed the remaining venison into the hide and swung it to a willow branch. "My son watches first," he said. "Then Sehki. Then you, Rakh, then you, you, you." His pointing finger indicated each man in turn. "I, the Chief, will watch last, for just before dawn a thief is likeliest to come."
They built the fire high, and each hunter scooped away turf with his hands to make a body-sized hollow to sleep in. They relaxed quickly despite their nervousness, for they had marched far and supped heartily. Only Boonji's eyes did not grow heavy.
He felt solitary and shaky, even among his sleeping friends, and he kept the fire brighter and hotter, perhaps, than it should be. Several times he walked to the edge of its circle of light, peering into the gloom after sounds be heard or imagined. Up came the moon, yellow-pale as a primrose, and never had Boonji welcomed its rising more gladly. By its climb among the stars he measured his eighth part of the night, and finally he nudged Rakh awake, slipping into the vacated earth-bed. Even then, it was long before sleep pushed his eyelids down.
Again and again he was roused by dreams, and whoever was on watch saw and smiled, so that Boonji relaxed apologetically to sleep and dream again. Toward dawn came the worst dream of all a growling Hair-Face running at him, and his father meeting the thing half way.
He woke, and the dream was truth. The Hair-Face growled, the Chief shouted. Drowsily Boonji got to his feet.
"Came for the meat, did you?" The Chief charged something bear-broad and bear-shaggy in the firelight, with hands tugging the hidewrapped venison from its willow branch. The Chief lifted his big stone-headed club, but not quickly enough. Out licked a great open palm, like the palm of a monstrous deformed child playing tag. The Chief tried to break the force of the blow with his left arm but went down with a groan. The Hair-Face scampered away with the bundle of meat.
"What happened?" gurgled Sehki, scrambling up. Boonji had run to kneel by his father.
"Is he dead?" demanded Sehki. "He lies still only breathing "
"He bleeds," said Boonji. "That thing's nails tore him like lion's claws." The Chief's arm was broken above the elbow, and the flesh of his biceps and shoulder were torn almost to the bone. Red blood fountained out. The Chief lay panting, his eyes closed. Rakh, too, was up and at hand, snatching handfuls of broad leaves from a bush for a dressing. He tried to stanch the blood. Boonji gazed after the vanishing Hair-Face, and would have run weaponless in pursuit, but Sehki caught his belt-thong.
"It would smash you like a fly," warned Sehki.
THE wakened hunters gathered around their fallen Chief. Though there was not a Medicine Man among them. Rakh and two others were experienced in treating. The Chief, pale but conscious, complained of a bruised and wrenched knee. He spoke weakly: "I cannot travel."
"We'll carry you," Rakh assured him, and Sehki began cutting willows to weave for a litter. "Who'll be Chief until you are well?"
The others whispered together. "You be Chief, Rakh," said one of them. Rakh did not look pleased. "Others are stronger and braver "
"Your eyes are sharpest," reminded Sehki. "You can watch best for danger as we go back."
"Go back?" challenged Boonji. He walked in among them, his blue eyes at their widest. "My father wants us to live and hunt here."
"He was our strongest," said Rakh, amazed that Boonji needed persuasion. "And he fell like a child when the Hair-Face touched him."
"At least the touch of a Hair-Face does not kill," argued Boonji.
"Cease talking and start," urged someone. "We can reach the hills by noon and be at the edge of our country by dark. Your father will ride in the litter."
"To carry him over those hills might start his wound bleeding again," said Boonji. "And he says that this is our country this!" his sandal stamped on the creekbank as though to take possession. "The Hair-Faces started the trouble. Let us finish it."
"Hair-Faces are stronger than our strongest," insisted Rakh, too amazed and frightened by the suggestion to remind Boonji that young hunters should keep quiet.
"Remember the deer yesterday," went on Boonji. "It thought we must come close to be dangerous. That means that Hair-Faces do not throw things a long way. They come close to hunt. Javelins make things even."
Rakh shook his head. He was still daunted at being chosen the temporary Chief amid so much danger. "Help us put your father in the litter."
"Give him time to rest a little time," Boonji pleaded. "Wait here until noon. He will be stronger then, better able to be carried so far."
"That's the latest we dare wait," nodded Sehki. "Meanwhile, what will you do?"
BOONJI pointed in the direction the Hair-Face had taken. "I'll follow that thing. It hurt my father, I'm going to hurt it." He drew a long breath. "If I win, I'll make two smokes. Watch for them until noon. If no smokes there will be no need to wait for me."
He slung one of his javelins in the loop behind his shoulder and took the other in his hand. Kneeling at the creekside, he lifted and drank a palmful of water. A moment later he went striding away in the bright morning.
Not until he was gone did the others exchange glances, and even then nobody seemed to find words to say.
The Hair-Face had left flat tracks, shaped like axe-heads, with fringes of toes at the broad edges. Boonji had never seen such tracks. The Hair-Face, he pondered, was neither man nor animal. It had something of both natures, and something that came from neither. His mouth went dry again, but he would not let himself tremble. Good sons, he said grimly in his heart, finished what their fathers could not. The tracks led toward the wooded uplands. Once they rounded a big boulder, an ideal ambush if the Hair-Face chose to crouch and wait. Boonji walked wide, scouted the place, then continued on the trail. He could tell where the creature had jogged along as if nothing in life worried it. Once the tracks showed where it had paused and turned heavily to gaze back. Then it had gone confidently ahead, because it had seen no pursuer.
Boonji moved more cautiously even than when a year ago he had stalked the leopard whose skin he now wore. He crossed the meadows, threaded the thickets, mounted the slope. Gaining the shadowy woods, he travelled more carefully still, shaking not a leaf and rattling not a twig. Sometimes he stooped low to listen, sometimes he stretched high to peer. At a little distance within the woods, another set of axe-shaped tracks joined those he followed, the tracks of a smaller Hair-Face. Two of them but Boonji carried a second javelin behind his shoulder. He followed on, while the sun showered light through the foliage overhead. Wind stirred on his brow. The Hair-Faces, up ahead, would not smell him out with their gaping nostrils. At last, and it was nearly noon, he himself smelled smoke. It was a cooking fire, for with its odor came that of roast meat, the stolen venison. Boonji found a path between thick bushes. Crouching double, he crept along it until he could see what he had come after.
In a steep rocky bluff among the trees opened a cave, with a clearing before it. Somewhere a spring trickled musically. A small, hot fire burned at the cave's threshhold, and around it squatted the Hair-Faces, three of them. They had opened the meat-parcel, had coarsely cooked several big gobbets, and were gnawing greedily.
Boonji knew the biggest of the three. He had seen that Hair-Face twice once beside the fallen buck, and again as it had swerved and struck down his father with a flip of its open hand. He would have known it among a hundred of its kind, for between the Hair-Faces were differences of appearance, all ugly differences. This one sat on the far side of the fire, and closer to Boonji stood a slightly smaller and younger Hair-Face, gnawing a legbone. Boonji heard the scrape of its teeth. The third Hair-Face was old, for the matted locks on its low-curving skull were grizzled, and gray sprinkled the hair on its arms, its beard, its whole body. But it was strong, for its big clumsy hands tore a joint of meat like a leaf.
THREE of them, and only two javelins. But Boonji gave himself no chance to hesitate. He sprang upright in the middle of the path, with a loud rustling of leafage all around him. "Hai!" he shouted. "You Hair-Faces! Stop eating meat and eat javelin!" The three were up on their crooked legs in the time a man takes to draw the quickest of breaths. All three heads thrust toward him on their thick necks. all three frog-mouths opened and roared, all three lumpy bodies moved in his direction. The first to reach the head of the path was the smallest Hair-Face, waving the legbone like a club. Just as it sprang past a tree trunk, Boonji threw his first javelin.
It was a hurried throw, but Boonji knew his weapon. The air rang with a loud chock as the flint pierced the flesh and bone of the Hair-Face's shoulder, cleave through and into the tree trunk just behind. Caught like a bug on a thorn, the creature yelled and struggled. Boonji jumped forward, snatching his remaining javelin from its carrying loop.
The grizzled old one had started toward him, coughing and roaring. Quickly he set himself, and quickly he cast. Smitten in its broad grizzled chest, the oldster whirled around, stumbled and fell, then scrambled painfully to its feet and staggered away among brushwood clumps. And now Boonji had no javelin. Upon him rushed the last and largest of the Hair-Faces, the one who had struck down his father. It had paused to snatch up its stone weapon, the thing like an axe without a handle. Cradling the crude, chipped blade in its mighty fist, it struck at Boonji, who danced out of range through the bushes. The bigger Hair-Face floundered after him, but the bushes hampered it and Boonji gained the clearing first. He snatched a blazing stick from the fire.
"Burn you!" he yelled, and threw the torch. The Hair-Face stopped in mid-pursuit and lifted crossed forearms to parry the missile. It screamed in fury and pain as the fire singed a hairy shoulder. Again Boonji had gained time and a chance to rearm himself. The smallest Hair-Face, struck by his first cast, had managed to pull away from the tree trunk and falling to hands and knees was crawling away toward a thicket. The javelin still spitted its shoulder, the shaft slanting upward. Boonji hurried after it, snatched his ankle out of reaching of a groping paw, and caught the shaft just below the lashings of sinew that gripped the stone point in place. With a strong jerk he dragged it free, clear through the wound. He hastened the crippled monster's retreat by a rap on the head with the hickory butt, and turned to meet the charge of his remaining enemy.
IT DID not charge. Its pale eyes glared in horror at the bloody javelin Boonji lifted. The Hair-Face was dimly understanding what javelins meant. It feared them. Boonji was able to laugh, and he did, ringingly and mockingly. The Hair-Face retreated toward cover, and Boonji followed. "Let me have a fair cast!" he called, whipping his arm backward for a cast, but the Hair-Face scuttled in among trees. He chased it between the trunks, through bushes. It gained a little, vanished momentarily in the undergrowth, and he heard it shriek, as a rabbit shrieks in a snare. Quickening his pursuit, he was in time to see the Hair-Face totter, slip and fall. A moment later Boonji had gained the brink of a ravine. The rocky face of the bank fell many times his height into swift water below. Flailing arms and legs churned the current, and one strangled howl rose as the Hair-Face was swept around a bend and out of his sight.
Boonji, with time at last to gaze upward, saw that the sun was at the top of the sky. His friends would wait only until noon. Hastily he dragged fuel together at the far side of the clear-ing: kindled it with a brand from the Hair-Faces' fire, and heaped both piles with rotten wood. Up rose two black sooty columns of vapor.
It was late afternoon as the others came into the clearing. Sehki led, then came Rakh, then four of them carrying the litter of woven willow twigs in which lay the Chief. He was still pale and weak, but he raised his head and grinned through his beard at Boonji. Boonji sat by the fire nearest the cave and lifted a hand in calm greeting. "I'm burning spruce branches in the cave to drive out the Hair-Face smell." he announced. "It will be good shelter for many when cold weather comes." "Hair-Faces?" ventured Rakh diffidently.
"There are none here," said Boonji. "There were three. I drove them out. I dare any to come within smelling distance of this place." He got up. "We stay in this good country," he said decisively. "My father should have rest for days. Then he will be Chief again and "
All were looking at him in almost frightened respect. Rakh touched Boonji's shoulder, timidly. "While we wait for him get well," he said, "you are the Chief."
"Chief?" echoed Boonji, his young jaw dropping. "I, the youngest?" "The bravest," said Rakh.
"The wisest," added Sehki.
"And my son," spoke the Chief from where he lay in the litter. "You will he a real Chief some day, Boonji, when I am gone. Now you will get good training ahead of that time."
The others nodded approval. Boonji frowned a moment, and thought two moments more. Finally:
"Carry my father to that smoothest place, where he will rest easiest. The stolen meat there some was not touched." He pointed to where it lay. "And past the bushes yonder is a spring of good water. Cook supper." The hungry men began to divide the meat. Not much was left.
"Give a double share to my father, to help him back to strength," directed Boonji. "I will eat none tonight. When food is scarce, a Chief goes hungry. Tomorrow we will hunt for more." The scanty supper was cooked and eaten. Darkness closed in.
"Now sleep," Boonji bade them. "Tomorrow, if more Hair-Faces dare come, we will javelin them as I did today. When no more Hair-Faces stay in this country, we'll build the big signal smokes to guide the rest of our people to us."
Thanks to William Seabrook of Tyne-and-Wear, England, for this story.