The boy reached out toward the trunk of the large but slender oak but stopped himself when he looked into the cat’s eyes. The cat had gone to the tree first, upon hearing the approach of something not natural or native to the surrounding area. The boy had been slower to take the warning.
The cat was frozen in mid-stride, wound halfway around the tree’s trunk, one paw up on a higher branch, one against the bark of the trunk and its hind legs balanced on the first outthrust branch getting ready to catapult its body upward. The cat stared into the boy’s eyes and the boy got the message. The tree was the cat’s and boy’s presence in it wasn’t welcome.
He backed away, looked over at the nearby tree, not knowing the cat had used it to avoid the bear earlier and then ran toward it. The tree was easy to climb until reaching high up among the smaller branches. Trees were not normally a good place to escape up into because they had no exit at the top. Once up in a tree, there was little that could be done if a threat decided to simply wait at the bottom until nature and time took their course and the tree had to be abandoned. But the sound of the threatening creatures approach had been different. It was not the snuffling shuffle of a bear, the near silence of a cat, or even the slight ground pounding sounds of wild boar or deer. No, the approaching danger was from the most dangerous predator to roam the forest. A strange human was coming down the river, and it was making no attempt to hide its approach. A tree was safer than the ground because there were no tracks up into a tree except those made running or leaping to the base of the trunk. Once up in the heights of a tall tree visibility from above was excellent while it was almost impossible to see someone hidden high above.
The boy found a position where he could wedge himself in between splined branches and not have to hold on in order to maintain his balance. He looked over at the nearby opposing tree. The cat lay entwined among its own thinning branches, staring back at him.
Wanting to wave or acknowledge the cat in some way but the boy instinctively felt that not only was it not necessary but that the independent predator nature of the cat would find such a gesture either weak or disgusting. The cat blinked its eyes slowly at him. The boy blinked slowly back, having to pay special attention to do so. The tiny gesture would be the only recognition, the boy knew, that each could give the other.
The young human shifted his stance, in order to reach the spear he’d tethered to his back. The spear might be useless at the height he was, but at the very least it made the boy feel like he had some means of defense. He held the peeled shaft against one of the branches, not much thicker in appearance, and then peered down through the leaves to see what was happening below. He noted right away that the fire pit that had burned so comfortably earlier was out. A small tendril of smoke drifted, like a slow dancing snake, right over the center of the fire’s ashes and surrounding residue. He sighed. There could be no better indicator of an immediate human presence than such an easily readable sign. He hadn’t thought to extinguish the coals and scatter the debris. The tree swayed in the wind, and the boy rode with it, trying to feel more secure in having made the irrevocable decision to climb the tree in the first place.
The beaver plowed through the moving waters of the river, not far out from where the fire sat smoking, and then slowly began to angle in toward where the boy and the cat had consumed the fish. The boy looked over at the cat. The cat’s full attention was on the scene below.
A full grown adult male stepped into view from behind the rocks making up one side of the cat’s cleft. One second there’d been no one and the next the man had appeared. He stood, not one full body length from the smoking fire pit. He stared out toward the beaver, as it approached. He made no move to do anything. The boy saw that the man had a spear about three times the size of the boy’s own. The man used it to lean on, as he watched the beaver swimming along.
A strange sick feeling welled up in the boy’s stomach. The beaver was food. Good solid and tasty food. The boy had threatened to kill it but, in reality, never had any intention of actually doing so. The cat treated the beaver the same way when it was patently obvious that the beaver was about the easiest large prey it might ever encounter.
The cat could not move and neither could the boy. Only the beaver moved. It continued its usual advance to the river bank, pawed ashore, shook volumes of water from its thick fur, and then moved to a position near where the fire had been and laid down.
The man still didn’t move. It was impossible, the boy realized, from being so high in the air, to be able to see the smallest of movements the man might be making. Had the man turned his eyes to follow the beaver’s approach? Was he very slowly preparing to take up his spear and kill the animal? The boy tried not to breathe in and out too deeply. For some reason, the beaver’s fate was affecting him powerfully, and he didn’t understand that. The animal was just a beaver, and, in fact, the boy had only heard of that kind of animal, and never encountered one before. But there was nothing to be done. Any action the boy might take would make no difference if the man moved quickly and struck. The beaver was lying near the man’s feet as if the man wasn’t standing where he was at all.
But the man still didn’t make any visible move. The boy examined him as closely as he could from his position. The man was wearing full leathers, the kind only a war and hunting rich tribe could get the materials and spend the time to make. He carried a substantial hunting spear, the kind allowed only to senior hunters, no matter what the tribe. The boy noted that the man also wore a full lower back to neck pack, which he had not taken off once he’d come to the fire area. The boy reflected on a small fact he’d learned from his father before his disappearance. Hunters and warriors both took their packs off, and hid them away, before engaging an enemy or close to hunting large prey.
The man suddenly moved. Not much. He stepped only a hand’s breadth closer to where the beaver lay, unmoving and boy could do nothing, although he felt as if he should do something to try to save the beaver.
Suddenly, the cat let out a low rolling scream, that was more of a high-pitched growl than a true scream, and it penetrated the entire forest around.
The boy stared across the space between the trees, his eyes enlarged with surprise and shock. He shook free from looking over at the cat and stared down at the tableau below. The man’s head was canted upward. The boy pulled back, but he knew it was too late. He’d been seen. The boy felt a shiver run up and down his spine. The only defense the tree position had offered was one based on hidden surprise. Once discovered, he knew he was trapped. His eyes met those of the cat, in silent accusation. The feline stared back for several seconds, before deciding to lick one of its paws and ignore him.
“Just great,” the boy breathed silently to himself. The cat was safe as could be but not him. He looked down once more.
“You might as well come down here,” the man’s gruff domineering voice said, although the man himself was no longer looking up. He’d dropped his pack and moved to the side of the river’s flowing water to dip one hand into the liquid and drink in small swigs.
The boy strapped his spear to his back and began climbing down. He really had no choice, and he knew it. The man spoke the native dialect common to both the Domingo and the Anita, which meant he had to be one of the first of the wintering tribe to enter the area. It wasn’t cold enough for even a scout to be where he was, but there he was.
The boy jumped down from the lowest branch of the huge oak and slowly made his way to where the man still knelt, drinking water from the river’s edge. The beaver lay as before, unmoving, except to raise its head and stare at the boy when he got close.
The boy approached the man, who refused to turn around, even though a non-member of his indigenous tribe stood to his rear, armed with a spear. The boy stopped to think. What was the man’s game? The beaver ruminated on something but the boy gave it no attention.
“What happened?” the man said, still not turning around.
“What do you mean?” the boy responded, shaking his head at the idiocy of the question.
What had happened? He’d been caught trapped up in a tree, and then his position revealed by the selfish stupidity of a cat obviously more concerned with the safety of a beaver than himself, or him. Now, he was summoned down and given so little respect that a grown warrior from an enemy tribe refused to notice that he was a young armed warrior himself.
“Why are you here?” the man asked, the tone of his voice low and quiet as if he was exercising great patience in asking the question.
“Oh,” the boy replied, caught off guard.
To tell the man the truth could be dangerous, if not downright fatal. To be an outcast, no matter how the result of being tossed out might be explained, wasn’t something anyone outcast from one tribe could expect anyone of another tribe to understand.
A gentle wind blew across the river, loosening large oak leaves to allow them to sail down like small wafting birds all around. The boy thought about how to answer the questions, but couldn’t come to any conclusion about what to say.
The man turned from the river and stood up to his full height. He was at least a head taller than the boy and twice as substantial. Spear or no spear the boy would have no chance against the man in open combat and he knew it. The only thing the boy thought he had going for him was that the warrior, like the predator cat, hadn’t killed the beaver or even made an attempt.
The man had raised his spear to rest butt down on the mud of the riverbed edge when he’d stood. Somehow sensing the fear that boy thought he was hiding well, the warrior slowly lowered the weapon, and then laid it next to his left foot, extending out toward the remains of the fire.
“You and your cat have come to be here together at this time, somehow,” the warrior said, extending both hands outward, palms exposed. “I don’t need to know why you are here alone. But I do want to know what your intentions are. The winter is coming and your tribe has departed the area. I don’t see any equipment or preparations for what is coming to this area.”
The boy stared across the space between them, dumbfounded. The enemy warrior had accurately described everything about the boy’s situation, and probably even made the correct assumption that he’d been outcast. But his observation about the boy and the cat being together could not have been further from the truth.
“The cat…” he began but stopped when the warrior pointed past the boy toward the cleft behind him.
The boy turned his head and was again shocked. The cat wasn’t inside the cleft. He was sitting not half a human body length behind the boy, off at a slight angle, so he could see everything that was going on. The beaver gnawed away at something, ignoring the three other creatures around him.
The boy tried to look into the cat’s eyes to see what he might perceive of the cat’s motivation for being where he was, but the cat would not meet his gaze, staring intently at the warrior, instead.
The younger human turned back to face the man. There was no point in denying the cat’s existence, and no way to explain what the cat might be thinking about, much less trying to explain its tenuous and seemingly untethered relationship with the boy.
The boy slowly worked his spear from behind his shoulder, untying the leather thong that held it there, as he worked. The warrior watched but made no move for his own weapon. Once the boy’s spear was clear, he gripped it firmed across his chest, before speaking.
“I’ve apparently been outcast from my tribe,” the boy said, trying to explain his weak position as best he could and getting ready to fight if he had to. “Nobody in the tribe said that before they left though. I wasn’t required to leave. They left me. The tribe made itself outcast.”
The warrior laughed, his eyes showing true merriment. “I like that. The tribe has made itself outcast.”
“I’ve come down here a bit early in the season myself,” the man reflected, the smile leaving his face. “Well, I can understand your plight. But you’re going to need shelter, proper attire and some kind of storehouse for wood and food. Without those things, you don’t have to worry about me or much else, you won’t live out the month, much less the entire winter here.”
The boy stood silent, his relief at not being killed on the spot so great he didn’t know what to say.
The warrior pointed at the dead fire. “We better get that going. I see you certainly know how to fish. There’s three day’s worth of food left on those bones.
We better throw in together for a while, at least until we can figure out what to do when the rest of the advance party from the tribe arrives later in the month.”
The man squatted down and removed a flint knife from his belt. He began poking the remains of the fire. “And you know how to make a fire. That’s a neat skill not many warriors ever figure out or want to bother with.”
The beaver backed, plopped itself into the water, and then began paddling downstream as if to indicate that the interesting part of the meeting was over.
The boy looked for the cat, but it was gone.
“Over there,” the warrior pointed with his shiny scalloped blade toward a spot downriver.
The cat’s head stuck out of the brush, checking them out, but making no move to come any closer again. The cat’s eyes blinked slowly. The boy blinked back, again wondering what the blinks signified.
The warrior threw some bits and pieces of twigs and brown leaves into the coals and got a small flame to waver up over the flattened pile of ash. “Next time you leave a fire spread the remains. Toss the fish back into the water. Make sure that, although any warrior will know someone was here, he won’t know how many or how long ago a fire burned or was populated. You’re taught that as a warrior in my tribe, but you probably never had any warrior training.”
The boy felt a heated stab of pain from the criticism.
The man reached for his spear and then began to swear. Finally, after almost a full minute, the warrior stopped talking and held his spear in front of him.
The beaver had eaten all the bark off. The spear looked like the boy’s own, its shaft naked and exposed.
The boy suddenly felt relief and a bit of warmth coursed through his center again.