A mammoth tale for National Storytellers’ Week!
A Mammoth Conflict is an incident from the draft of my forthcoming novel, The Stone Age Detective. mentioned in previous blogs. I will be posting a few short stories this week. Some have been posted before, some are excerpts from my novels, but I hope you will enjoy them anyway. Any feedback is always welcome.
A MAMMOTH CONFLICT
After the big hunting party split into small groups, I set out at dawn with Bough and his wife, Otter. Bough was the son of Tree and was as solidly built as all that family. Otter was so named because she was lively and athletic, in water as well as on land.
We saw hardly any sign of game. We were just discussing heading back, as it was almost noon, when we became aware of being watched. We crossed a low ridge and turned around, peering over the top. For a while, it looked as if we were mistaken, but finally people came into sight.
I whispered, “Surely, none of Mammoth’s people would come into our territory so soon after the last time?”
Bough replied, “I hope it’s not raiders from across the river.”
Otter said, “I can see only three or perhaps four people. It’s too small for a raiding party.”
Bough replied, “Unless there are more that we haven’t seen.” I glanced around and shivered. Perhaps it was due to the cold wind on the ridge. I wished they would hurry, so we could resolve things one way or another. I was getting uncomfortable, as well as cold, lying on the hard, windswept ground.
After a long wait, Bough said, “I don’t believe it. There are three of them. A big man, a small man and a big woman with a limp. Who do you think they could be?”
Otter and I laughed with relief, but buried our faces in the grass, so as to muffle the sound, in case he was wrong and they were raiders. Soon I could see clearly that it was the rest of Bough’s family: Tree, his wife, Star, and Twig, their youngest son. We went down the ridge to greet them. Bough frowned at his father as he asked, “Why are you following us? We thought you were raiders. You’re lucky we didn’t attack you.”
Tree laughed. “You wouldn’t succeed. We’ve come to ask you to come with us and go further north. I don’t see the point in wasting time where we know there’s no game.”
“Why didn’t you say so before we separated? And anyway, why are we all going together now? It still makes sense to go in smaller groups to find the game.”
“We found mammoth dung, a few days old. They seem to be heading north. We’ll want to be together when we find them. We’ve sent someone to fetch the others.”
Bough kept murmuring about his father’s interfering with our hunt. I found it strange that this father and son got on so well with almost everyone except each other.
We walked northwards for most of the afternoon, until were nearly deafened by a series of bellows. We made towards the sound. Beyond a line of trees, two bull mammoths were challenging each other. We made sure we were downwind of them and peeped over a big fallen tree, hoping not to be seen. Twig stared wide-eyed and trembled.
I whispered, “We might as well go. We can’t hope to kill anything as big as these by ourselves.” They were both huge: twice the height of a man, and with tusks as long as a man is tall.
Tree replied, “Hmm. I hope one will kill the other and leave us the carcass.” They certainly looked to be preparing for a fight, and death was often the outcome of such contests.
They kept bellowing, kicking up earth, shaking their heads and circling each other.
I said, “I though mammoths always went in herds. Why can’t we see any others?”
Tree said, “Bulls and cows live in separate herds, except when they get together to mate, which is usually before the first equinox, which was not long ago. Then bulls fight. I expect the older one was leader of a herd and has been defeated by a younger one. The younger one probably tried to beat the head of his herd – and failed.”
I realised that if both had been driven out of their herds, they wouldn’t be friendly towards other mammoths – or anything else. Therefore, I felt fear whenever either of them came near our hiding place.
The slightly smaller one had much bigger tusks. I supposed he was the older. He also moved with a stiffness in his hind legs. The other animal moved faster and surprisingly nimbly for his size. They came together and pushed against each other with their heads. The older one’s tusks dug into his opponent’s chest, but obviously not far enough to do much damage. They separated, made a lot of noise, moved around each other again and had another pushing contest.
The younger one gradually began to push the older one back a couple of paces, then a few more. They were coming our way. When they were close, Otter whispered, “I think we’d better move.” I wholeheartedly agreed. She turned and ran to clump of trees. We all followed.
As soon as I was among the trees, I looked at the mammoths, just in time to see the nearer one back into the log and send it rolling away. Bough whispered, “It would’ve taken a dozen men to move that.”
The older mammoth made a lunge, regaining ground. The younger one backed up a long way and came forwards at a run, pushing the older animal backwards so fast he nearly fell. However, the older one broke away and swerved around, lunging at his opponent’s side. He moved so quickly, he must have overcome the stiffness in his hind legs. He stabbed his tusks into the younger bull’s side and pulled back. The younger animal bellowed again and tried to turn to face his opponent, but he wasn’t quick enough. The old bull moved sideways and lunged again, this time thrusting his tusks in deep. The other mammoth, fell sideways, kicking his legs and trying, unsuccessfully, to reach his enemy with his tusks. The old bull ran in circles around the stricken animal, then stamped on a bush and tore up a young tree, before lying down, apparently exhausted.
Bough whispered, “We could finish off the wounded one and have all that meat, if only the other one would go away.”
Tree replied, “I agree, but for now all we can do is stay here and wait.”
I asked, “Shouldn’t one of us go and fetch the others?”
Tree replied, “I’d like to, but if that creature sees us moving, I expect he’ll attack us.”
Otter said, “He looks too tired. I think I could outrun him.”
Star said, “How far away are they? It’ll be dark soon.” For once, Tree and Bough agreed.
We watched for a long time. Finally, the old bull got up and walked slowly away. The other one was dead by then. We cut out his entrails and began to take some cuts of meat, until it was nearly dusk. We cooked some of the meat. As we waited for it to cook, Bough said, “My brother, Branch says he’s stronger than you, but you often beat him when you wrestle.” Twig said that was true.
I replied, “That’s because he relies on his strength. I’ve learnt that’s not the way to win fights.”
Star said, “Show us. See if your skill beats Bough’s strength.” We wrestled. He beat me easily. He was much stronger than his brother and also more skilful.
As we ate the meat, Tree said, “We can’t send for the others until morning. We’ll have to sleep here. I think those two hollow trees are big enough for us all.”
The two fallen trees were not very close to each other and one was much bigger than the other. Bough chose the smaller one. The others all squeezed into the bigger, leaving me no choice but to join Bough.
I was awakened in the night by a roar. It sounded close. I peered through a hole in the tree trunk. The moon gave plenty of light. A big cat was on the mammoth’s carcass. I couldn’t see what it was roaring at. Bough asked, “What can you see?” I told him. We wriggled to the big hole where we had got into the tree. We saw a couple of wolves watching the cat. When roaring had no effect, it rushed at them. It was no bigger than a wolf, but its teeth and claws made it more dangerous. The wolves separated. The one the cat didn’t follow turned back and snatched a few mouthfuls of meat before running off, just in time to avoid the cat’s fangs.
The next morning, we all made a lot of noise and chased the cat away before continuing to cut up the carcass, except for Otter who went off to fetch the others. We kept glancing around in case the cat, or any other scavengers, tried to attack us. By noon, when Otter and the others arrived, we had almost finished skinning the mammoth. We let them take over that task, while Bough and Tree cut the tusks off.
Although most people were glad of so much meat and hide, my brother, Dark, said, “Couldn’t you have killed the surviving mammoth?”
Bough said, “He went off too suddenly. We’ve no idea where he went.” Tree agreed with his son for the second time. I was amazed.
Dark snorted. “And why let the scavengers get half the meat?”
Tree said, “I don’t know. These two were in that nearer log. We couldn’t see or hear anything from back there.” He waved at the bigger log.
Bough said, “How could none of you have heard anything? Perhaps if you’d joined us, we could’ve chased them off, but the place was swarming with wolves. We two couldn’t do anything until they went away. And then there was the cat. It was huge.”
Tree was upset that we had let the old mammoth escape and that we had let the scavengers take so much of the meat. I was just relieved that we had all survived. I had never been so close to a mammoth before.