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THE CALL OF COOKED MEAT
The earth rocked. The sky was of purple blackness. The nauseating stench of burning sulphur filled the air. Thunder rumbled, and growled constantly under the earth crust to be answered by shattering crashes that seemed to come from the heavens, and with each terrific impact a mountain vaguely outlined in the distance trembled and shook and huge fissures opened down its side from which bubbled out great clots of lurid red molten lava, the light of which reflected on the billowing clouds of thick yellow smoke vomiting from the crater. Off through the night like giant reptiles of fire these streams of lava flowed, crawling slowly down the mountain side, sliding around great bowlders, or pausing a moment to fill huge cracks in the earth’s crust before proceeding on their serpentine way into
the valley, where a veritable molten lake of lava was slowly forming. A great volcano after a lifetime of slumber had awakened.
Cowering, wild-eyed with fear, under the sheltering overhang of a rugged cliff on a hillside far beyond the valley that was slowly filling with lava, was a boy,—the sole human witness to this terrible cataclysmic disturbance. Beside him shivering and whimpering were two hairy, dog-like creatures, wolf-dog cubs, who, like the boy, had sought the shelter of this massive rock hoping that here they would in some way find a measure of protection in the face of this horrible disaster. The boy was the only survivor of a colony of cliff dwelling humans who had lived in the caves near by, but who had fled the section in panic when the Fire Demon in the mountain had begun to blast the earth by letting loose his fiery serpents from the mountain. The wolf-dog cubs were all that were left of a pack of gray-black hunters caught in the valley with the first outburst of the eruption, and unable to gain the hillside where the cubs had been left by their wary mother.
For the space of two suns and two starlights they had crouched there. The boy guessed it was that long. They had seen neither sun nor stars.
Night and day had been the same under that curling yellow smoke pall. Perhaps the Fire Demon had put out both the sun and the stars and they would never shine again. The boy did not know. He did know that he was tired and that he had missed many sleeps. Despite his fear, which still gripped him, his eyes would close and his head would fall forward even though he fought to keep awake. If he had to die he wanted to see death come. He did not want it to stalk upon him while he slept. But despite his overwhelming fear, and his will power, which was strong for one of his kind, sleep mastered him and finally in the face of this tornado of smoke and fire that seemed to threaten destruction to the very earth itself, his head dropped forward, his eyes closed and he slept the dull, heavy sleep of utter physical exhaustion.
He slept in a very strange manner. He did not lie down flat as human beings do to-day, nor did he curl up on his side as did the wolf cubs. Instead he slept sitting on his haunches, his body drawn in and his drooping though muscular shoulders hunched over his knees. His head had dropped forward between his knees and his big, long-fingered hands were clasped across the back
of his neck. Why he slept thus he did not know. It seemed to him the most natural and most comfortable position. He could not understand that he was obeying the protective instincts of Nature; that his big hands were clasped about the back of his neck to protect the arteries and nerve centers there, and that the long hair on the back of his hands and forearms and upper arms grew in a manner that made all hairs point downward when his arms were in this position, thus shedding rain or moisture. It would require a long stretch of the imagination to connect this being with the humans of to-day, 500,000 years removed. His legs were short, being but a few inches longer than his very long and very strong arms. His head was set on a pair of sloping shoulders, massive for one of his short stature, and his neck was thick and corded with muscles. His ears were small and he had perfect control over them, for this hairy boy had very acute senses. His nose he controlled the same way, his nostrils dilating or contracting to gather in new odors, or shut out those that were strong and offensive to his delicate sense of smell. His mouth was strong and well armed with short, strong teeth. His jaw was broad and massive; a trifle too large for his
head it seemed. His eyes were brown and set far apart under almost shaggy, bushing brows, and his forehead was broad and high for one of his race.
For hours this primitive boy slept, and although his quick ears and sensitive nose gathered in every new sound and odor, they failed to register on the dulled brain, so great was his exhaustion. Likewise the two wolf-dog cubs, snuggled close to his hairy hips for warmth, slept, for they, too, were worn out beyond the point where they could control their physical selves. And as they slept the clash of the elements grew less violent. The thunder claps and rumblings beneath the earth’s surface became less frequent and gradually ceased entirely, the sulphuric yellow smoke pall thinned out enough to let the sun, a huge round ball of fire it seemed through the thick yellow mist, shine dimly. The volcano now threw out great plumes of white steam. The lava ceased to bubble over the sides of the crater, and the lurid red streams that coursed down its sides began to lose their color and likewise their motion. They were cooling into solid masses.
It was hunger that finally awoke the hairy boy. For many days and nights he had been without
food. The first day of his refuge under the overhanging cliff he was secretly glad to find the wolf cubs there. They insured him against starvation. But during the wild hours that followed he thought very little of his stomach. Only once did he realize that he was hungry, but when he faced the situation of killing one of the cubs he hesitated. Not through any sense of honor, or because of any sentiment, for as yet he possessed very little of either. He hesitated at killing either of them for the simple reason that alive they afforded companionship. Dead and eaten he would be alone and he feared to be alone in the face of this overpowering disaster that seemed to threaten him.
Awakening, however, and noting with a sense of relief that the disturbance was over and that the volcano was slowly settling back to normal, his fear began to leave him and he began to pay more attention to the hunger pangs that assailed his gaunt stomach. He looked down at the wolf cubs, still sleeping, huddled close to his side; then lest they awaken, because his eyes were on them, as he knew they would, he reached out swiftly with two hairy hands and grabbed the cubs by the nape
of the neck. They awoke with frightened yelps and forthwith began kicking and snapping.
The hairy boy lifted them into the air and watched them struggle while just the ghost of a grim smile puckered the corners of his mouth and eyes. He needed but to close the grip of his strong fingers on their throats and in a few minutes they would be choked to death. Then he would tear the hide from their bodies with the aid of his teeth and a sharp stone or two, and his meal would be ready. Many times before had he gnawed the flesh of wolf cubs from the bone, and while he did not like it as well as he did the flesh of the wild horse, or the great moose, or bison, that had been the meat of his people, he knew that it would taste wonderful under the circumstances.
But while he sat there holding the squalling, kicking cubs at arm’s length his attention was suddenly arrested by an odor that was almost overpowering in its appeal. Instead of the acrid stinging smell of the sulphur smoke there came to him an odor that was laden with the meat scent, yet it was so subtly different, so irresistible, that his mouth began to drool water from the corners, while his eyes grew big and round. Transfixed he slowly dropped the wolf cubs to the stone
ledge, although he kept restraining fingers wound in the hair of their necks. He did not mean to lose a possible meal by letting them get away but he did not want to eat them if he could possibly find the origin of this delightful hunger smell. For a long time he sat there under the cliff, his nostrils working furiously to catch every subtler scent of this enticing odor. His ears were cocked forward as if he hoped that they too might help him locate the source of this wonderful food smell.
As for the wolf-dog cubs, they were famished too, and the odor was just as overpowering to them. Their feet once more on the ground, they paid small heed to the restraining fingers about their necks. Their black noses were pointed up the wind and they were sniffing eagerly and whining too and saliva was dripping from their mouths.
Although none of the three knew it, they were for the first time smelling roasted meat. Somewhere down there in the valley animals had been trapped in the lava, killed and cooked, but since no one of the hairy boy’s tribe had ever mastered fire he did not know what cooked meat really was. He did know, however, as he sat there on the ledge, that never in his life had he smelled anything
that made him so hungry as this odor did; indeed it was so overpowering that it presently made him forget the wolf cubs, the danger of the Fire Demon in the volcano, the fear that was always constant in his people of going very far from the cave or sheltering rock save in packs or droves, and everything else, and almost before he knew what he was about he began to climb from the shelf or rock under the cliff and make his way down the hillside into the steam filled valley of the hot lava, a place where he never in the world would have had the courage or temerity to venture were it not for that intoxicating odor that grew stronger and stronger into his nostrils as he descended the hillside.