John P. McKnight 

   A sharp sound crackled in the quiet of the morning, and the hairy man-
creature drowsing before his cave came abruptly awake. 
   In one swift movement, he was on his feet. He swung to the young one, 
where it lay on the deerskin at the cave mouth. But the child slept 
peacefully, no danger near it. 
   Ungainly, the man shambled then to the lip of the narrow stone ledge and, 
blinking against the spring sunlight, peered out across the tall trees to 
the river below. There at dawn and at dusk the animals came to drink. But 
now, its bank was deserted. In the glade . . . 
   In the glade a sapling bent. A moment after, the crack of its breaking 
reached the man. A great, dark shape bulked momentarily in the dappled 
shade. The biggest beast was feeding. 
   Instinctively, the man reached for the sharp stone he had found at the 
river bank two winters ago. He cuddled it in his hand; his palm fitted 
snugly against it; his fingers found good purchase. It was a good thing, 
this stone. With it, he had flayed the deer the evening before, and killed 
the creeping thing coiled before the cave this morning. In some ways, it was 
a better thing than a club. If he had a club, with a stone like this at its 
end ... 
   The man looked about him once more, and went back to his place near the 
child. He squatted there; and almost at once his eyes closed again. 
   The man idled in the sun because he had fed to his full the night before, 
and there was yet meat in the cave. Coming back empty handed from the hunt, 
he had chanced upon a saber-toothed tiger's leavings a moment after the 
gorged killer lazed off to a canebrake to sleep. He had packed the torn 
carcass of the deer up to the cave, and the woman had charred gobbets of the 
sweet tender flesh over the fire they kept always burning, and they had 
eaten until their swollen stomachs would hold no more. 
   Awaking in the bright dawn, the man was still surfeited. A cold marrow 
bone and some grubs he found under stones at the brookside had sufficed to 
break the fast of the night. So he sat somnolent in the sunshine, motionless 
but for his fingers that ceaselessly explored the mat of hair covering his 
chest and belly. Now and then the searching fingers routed out lice; and 
these the man, grunting in sleepy triumph, cracked between powerful jaws and 
ate: despite his satiety, the morsel was tasty; and satisfaction at 
disposing of an old enemy sauced the titbit. 
   Beside him, now, the young one woke. It moved on the deerskin, waving its 
hands and kicking its feet. It made little gurgling sounds. Across the man's 
mind as he listened sleepily to the liquid syllables, there flitted pictures 
of the brook that bubbled from the hillside high above the cave to go 
chuckling down to the river. "Wa wa, wa," the child babbled: the man thought 
of the clear cool water plashing over the big rock where he sometimes sat to 
watch the slender fish skittering about the green depths of the pool below. 
"Coo, coo," the child piped; the man thought of the birds in the tall trees 
calling to each other at nightfall. 
   But then, the child's noises changed. They grew fretful. Its lips, moving 
loosely against toothless gums, made the sound, "Ma, ma." Over and over, it 
whimpered, "Ma, ma; ma, ma." 
   Disturbed, the man made to rise. But the woman was there before him, 
swift and silent on bare feet, taking the child up from the skin, holding it 
to her breast. At once, the child's wails stopped: there was the soft slup-
slup of its lips as it suckled. 
   In the man's brain, memory stirred. Dimly, he recalled another child--the 
child that the great soft-padding saber-tooth had carried off before their 
eyes. That child, too, had fretted and whimpered, and made the sound "ma, 
ma" when it hungered. And at the sound, he remembered, the woman, leaving 
her tasks in the cave, had gone to it and given it suck. 
   The man took up the sharp stone again and began scratching aimlessly at 
the rock of the ledge. Something about the pictures his brain made excited 
and disturbed him. They roused in him the same vague uneasiness he had known 
the day he climbed all alone to the top of the highest hill and gazed out 
across the unimagined vastness of the plains beyond the river. In his 
perturbation, he got to his feet, tossing lank black hair back from his 
sloping forehead, and went to the rim of the ledge to stare down toward the 
river. But its bank was deserted; the glade too was empty, the saplings 
still in the tranquil morning; in the canebrake, nothing moved. 
   Behind him, the woman put the child down and, noiselessly, went back into 
the cave. The child cooed, and burbled, and was at last silent. The man 
turned to look at it. It was sleeping again. 
   In the growing warmth the man mused. On a time many winters past, memory 
told him, he himself had been a child; and so he must once have been a tiny 
helpless creature like this one, that wailed when it was hungry and fed at a 
woman's breast. He wondered idly if he had made the same noises that this 
baby, and the other made when they hungered. Tentatively, silently, he 
shaped his thick lips to form the sounds. . . . 
   A leaf rustled behind him. He wheeled, in sudden prescience of danger. 
   In a low thicket beside the cave mouth, a great wild dog crouched. It was 
mangy, gaunt from hunger. Its red-rimmed eyes were fixed on the sleeping 
   Stealthily, belly to ground, the dog inched upon its tiny prey. In the 
instant after the man turned to see, it was near enough. It gathered for the 
   The man's eyes measured quickly. He was too far away. 
   He could not reach the child in time. 
   Before he could traverse half the distance, the dog would pounce, clamp 
slavering jaws on the infant, and be off into the underbrush. 
   A moment the man stood frozen, in the paralysis of helplessness. 
   Then his lips shaped to remembered sounds. To his surprise the great roar 
of his voice shattered the stillness. 
   "Ma, ma!" he bellowed. "Ma, ma!" 
   The dog started. It jerked bared fangs at the man. Then its eyes went 
back to the child; it tensed again. 
   But as it did, the woman appeared in the cave mouth. Old practice of 
peril schooled her. In an instant, she scooped up the child and stepped back 
to safety. 
   The dog's spring fell on the empty deerskin, and at the man's rush it 
skulked off into the thicket. 
   Carrying the child, the woman came back. 
   The man's brain at last reached the end of the thing that had disturbed 
   He put out one hand and pointed it at the woman. 
   "Mama," he said. "Mama." 

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