The Fourth Scene
In the distance small herds of camels, horses, and antilocaprids grazed
along both sides of the stream. Scattered clusters of trees stood amidst the sea
of undulating green grass. Near the closest group of trees, about 200 yards from
the stream, a bulky, shaggyhaired ground sloth grazed with apparent
concentration. Some 100 yards closer to the stream, in a 10-foot-high bank of
sloping earth, a badger vigorously excavated a tunnel to a new den.
Still closer, among the reeds that lined both sides of the stream and
among half-submerged cobbles deposited by winter rains the round, soft mouths of
countless black toads tadpoles sucked water containing minute
plants and animals. Here the stream was so low that its waters merely
trickled into the big backwash. No breeze ruffled the surface. The deep quiet
was only occasionally broken by the half-heated croaking of a frog. A meadow
mouse, noiselessly scampering through a well-traveled subway of tall grass,
seemed only to deepen the quiet. Suddenly there was a loud whistling sound the
danger signal of the four-pronged antelope standing guard at the crest of a low
Individual animals were too far away to be distinguished, but those
disappearing at greatest speed over the slight rise from which the signal had
come were obviously the antelopes. Whatever the enemy might be, it was not in
that direction. By their whipping tails and their V formations, the three other
groups must have been horses, one band running northeast, one east, and the
other southwest. Two more groups, probably camels, followed the easterly running
horses. A band of nine slender-leggedm thin-necked camels were running, with a
peculiar loose-leeged motion, directly toward the big backwash. Hearing or
feeling vibrations in the earth, the badger disappeared into the partly
When only a few dozen yards away, the slender camels, as if parts of one
mechanism suddenly made a 180 degrees turn and continued to run, but now
upstream to the east of the big backwash. They had detected the enemy which the
keen-eyed antelope had seen from far off. From downstream, running swiftly and
silently along the bank came a pack of dire wolves, beasts almost as large as
the modern giant wolves of Siberia but having even stronger jaws. If the camels
had continued toward the backwash, herbivores and carnivores would have met.
Without breaking stride or slowing down, the wolves veered slightly in
the direction again. Directly ahead of them the ground sloth continued to graze.
Its back was to the approaching pack that now had formed a wide semicircle as it
sped on. The camels were no longer the prey; it was the great and evidently not
too bright ground sloth. Perhaps the sloth had not heard the whistled alarm.
Maybe it couldn’t hear, or perhaps the creature was so dull-witted it would
not have reacted defensively anyway. In any event, the sloth was unaware of its
peril until completely surrounded by the wolves. Then, ponderously, as if in
slow motion, the sloth sat erect. It was too late now for it to get to the trees
a short distance away. There it might have been able to protect itself, for a
time at least.
As if on signal, one wolf made a dash for the sloth’s hindquarters and
drew blood. A second wolf, aiming for the belly, attempted to duck under the
sloth’s long arm, but its timing was wrong. In pain, perhaps in surprise, and
certainly in panic, the sloth’s great right arm swung down across the wolf’s
body. A 5-inch claw penetrated the neck of the wolf; a second later the wolf’s
lifeless body was flung into the air.
Perhaps it was the agonized yelp uttered by the stricken wolf, or it
might have been the smell of blood; in any event, the entire pack seemed to go
berserk, with no particular plan for getting at the sloth. In fact, three of the
wolves began tearing at the carcass of their late companion.