Slowly, ever so slowly, the cat withdrew back into the underbrush, using the super sensitive fur on his backside to assure that he guided himself silently, and without touching anything substantial. Flicking the tip of his tail, he brushed the rocks behind his alternately extending back paws to assure that he stepped on nothing threatening. When he was completely clear and unable to be seen by any of the creatures near the river, he twisted around adroitly and began making his way ever deeper into the thickness of the forest that ran parallel to the moving waters. Coming to a stand of ancient fallen pines he winnowed his way in and among the old crumbling wood, the pile so high that no other creature of real substance might be able to follow him or occupy itself inside, and therefore be awaiting his arrival. Certainly, none of the bipedal walking humans would be able to find him, much less gain access or even be able to move across the top of the huge strewn rubble pile.
The cat inched along until he found what he was looking for, a small space that was grounded on the bottom, but large enough and vented sufficiently to allow for a bit of air movement from the outside to work its way in.
The cat put his paws out flat in front of him, and then very carefully laid his muzzle down upon them. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his fevered brain. Nothing had been the same since the lightening had burned its way down and through him. He was only vaguely aware that it had been lightening, and also vaguely aware that he should not know that. Before the lightening there had only been flight, fight or hide in place, as his open response to threats, and his reaction to the topography and weather. Now, hidden inside the burrow, all he wanted to do was rest, but the kind of rest that used to be so common to him wasn’t there anymore. When he closed his eyes he didn’t often sleep with any depth. Instead, his mind ran on and on about fleeting, and not so fleeting, glimpses of recent memory that wanted to be strung together in some way he could not figure out no matter how long they rolled back and forth, endlessly, across his mind.
The human in leather skins, appearing near the beaver and encountering the boy had been with felines. His leathers bore the scent and sent markings of such encounters, as well as the scent and markings of other animals. The cat’s vision reached into the ultra-violet. Substances like blood, urine and sweat came alive, like bright vibrant colors in sunlight might to a lesser animal.
He slowly made his way out of the deep burrow, paying very close attention to what might lie ahead. The greatest danger in seeking such densely protected and buried security was in exiting. Anything could be waiting, ready to attack from any angle.
There was nothing there, however, except a mildly blowing wind singing the sounds of cooling fall winds, with leaves and needles coating everything on the surface of the forest, like a big spotted blanket. The cat moved very gingerly through the thin bracken, gently pushing his paws along, rather than stepping down and apply pressure. The ability to move extremely rapidly in an instant was the cat’s main talent, but his secondary ability to move silently and nearly invisibly often kept him from having to use that main talent.
The cat moved toward the outer edge of the river bank, staying just inside the protective brush. He crept under the low-hung pine branches, where the light was filtered down in patches of alternated color and hue. The cat’s coat of thick fur wasn’t the exact color of any of the material he moved through and around, but the fur was congruent with every color there. The most visibly part of him was that part that had caused the human being below him earlier, when he’d been well-hidden up high in the tree, to spot him in mere seconds. His eyes.
The cat’s far-seeing night eyes glimmered slightly in any light. The inner surfaces of his eyes were layered with reflectors that caused inward penetrating rays of light to reflect and multiply back and forth, until penetrating the small entry point at the very center of his retinas. That night vision sensitivity came at a price, as did every other talent of survival brought to the forefront in dealing with life in the forest.
There wasn’t going to be any opportunity to avoid the collection of creatures he’d been among down river. The human hunter was the potential predator to be most feared, but that obviously experienced hunter hadn’t attacked when the opportunity presented itself. Was the hunter’s failure to strike because of fear or because the cat was something he didn’t consider to be prey? There was no explanation for any of it, and the thoughts that bounced back and forth through the cat’s mind made him stop and rest every few minutes. Life had been so much simpler back when he’d hunted, eaten, slept and then repeated those actions again and again without end.
But he could not find real rest or peace without trying to understand what was happening in his territory. He’d thought to leave it, but really had nowhere to go. Entering another cat’s territory could only lead to the most ferocious of combat, and the likelihood of serious injury. The cat knew that it was not an overly large member of his own species. Initial victory, in predatory combat over territory, might go to the quickest animal, but in all likelihood, the eventual winner would be the larger of the two. The cat had never fought over territory. No cat had ever made any attempt to penetrate his small corner of the forest, backed up to the river and consisting of on huge and overly dense stand of oaks and pines, and the cat had never made any attempt to cross into nearby territory, although he knew the predators surrounded his area because of their frequent and significant scent markings.
Coming up upon the scene from a distance the cat noted that the two humans had moved upriver from the cleft, which caused the him a bit of relief. The beaver had departed the scene. The cat snuggled down to watch the humans do whatever it was that they were doing.
The warrior human was cutting downed branches off the smaller branches sticking out them, each main branch about as tall as he was. When he had an armload of the bare wooden main rods he dragged them back to where the younger human sat forming a circle of stones before digging down into the dirt at the very center of the rock formation. The larger leather-covered human made several trips back and forth, while the cat slid into its form of half sleep. Watching but not watching. Whatever the humans were doing wasn’t threatening, and they were making so much noise that no other animals were likely to approach. The humans were interesting to watch because they seemed to have a way of acting together that was apparent but almost impossible for anything else in the forest to copy or really understand.
The warrior finally stopped stripping fallen tree limbs, hauled over his last load, and then went to work angling the sticks up against the trunk of a tall pine tree near where the boy sat. He then repetitively began cutting the lowest branches from the tree before moving to the nearby one, where he did the same thing. The warrior had one long thicker pole he’d hauled over with the smaller thinner ones. He stripped the leather thong from his spear, used his knife to cut it in half, and then tied one end of the pole shoulder high up one tree trunk before moving to the other tree and repeating the process.
The cat opened both of its eyes. What was the larger human doing right behind the boy’s back? Tree trunks ran up and down not side to side. The older human paused for the briefest moment to indicate what he was doing to the boy. The boy glanced back, as if reviewing the work, and then again worked to dig a deeper hole in the center of where the rocks were placed.
The warrior began to lean the thinner bare branches against the horizontal pole. One after another, he worked to place the sticks as close as possible to one another. When he’d laid the poles all the way across, he went back and started over. The cat tried to snooze but could not fail to watch the humans at their mesmerizing work. But it wasn’t just the work they were doing. The cat had not missed the fact that a bunch of leaves had been wound together to make a ball, and that ball was not far from the boy’s reach. Any animal with far less ability to smell would have placed the aroma of raw fish right at the center of that ball. The cat ached for more of the cooked fish he’d tasted before. He listened to the meaningless sounds exchanged between the humans, trying to make the slightest sense out of it.
“Is this hole deep enough?” the boy asked.
The warrior walked over to the stone ring and squatted down. He leaned forward and pushed one hand down into the hole, before withdrawing it, and then standing up again.
“When it’s elbow deep,” the man said, pointing at his own right elbow, “we’ll half-fill with river rocks. The coals from the fire will fall down among the hot rocks. Even on the coldest days and nights of winter, the coals will remain hot and ready to be reignited. Starting a fire is a whole lot easier in the summer than the winter, so we want to avoid that as much as possible.”
The boy went back to work, digging into the hard surface, pulling out stones and buried branches before tossing them into the passing river. The warrior returned to the ‘row upon row’ of thin sticks he’d laid across the surface of the pole. Taking small sapling branches he’d broken from the now bare poles, he began to braid the supple branches through the ends of the sticks and around the larger surface of the pole. Both humans worked without interruption through the mid-day light. The cat never moved while they worked, and couldn’t fully sleep either.
It only took a few trips back and forth to the river for the boy to find and carry back the rocks selected by the warrior. Each rock was about the size of one of the man’s clenched fists. The boy went to work gathering some dead needle debris, failing dry moss from the exposed trunks of the nearby trees and small twigs from all over. The secret of the boy’s fire-starting was something he didn’t want to share with the warrior, or anyone else. It was the second gift his father had given him, after the spear. The secret was composed of two substances. A special small carpet of dry tree moss, and two stones he pulled slowly out from one of his belt pouches. The stones were almost exactly the size of the smooth river rocks, but entirely different. The stones reflected light at all angles back from glints of tiny shiny pieces embedded deep throughout their substance. The boy smoothed out his small knitted brown carpet, burned black and through in several places. Just above the surface of the moss, he brought the stones together, again and again. There was no telling how long the process might take, the boy knew, until one of the many sparks generated would strike a place on the surface of the moss. The boy counted to thirty-two in his head, each strike of the stones coming one to two seconds after the other, before a small red patch began smoking slightly on the carpet. The boy dropped the stones and pushed a large pinch of the looser dry tinder over the slightly glowing small patch. He bent down and breathed more than blew into the mass, cradling his cupped right hand behind it to keep the light dry stuff from blowing away. A flame appeared. The boy slowly half-folded the moss carpet and worked the burning tinder down to the larger pile he’d made of the dead needles and mangled stringy moss and twigs.
The warrior observed and inhaled the wonderful aroma of the newly built fire in the forest. He moved to the boy’s side, slowly pulling out a large flat-bladed knife. He worked the blade under the small burning pile.
“Get some more stuff and toss it into the hole,” he whispered to the boy.
The boy ran the few steps to a small area near where the lean-to was constructed, and quickly returned with a great armful of larger dried twigs and wood. He dumped his load into the hole, filling it almost entirely.
The warrior lifted the little pile of burning tended, moved carefully across the open ground, and then gently placed it down atop the collected mass of wood, needles and twigs. In almost no time, the fire built into a burning mass that was knee high.
“My people don’t make fires like that,” the warrior said, staring into the fire. “It takes a lot longer, and it’s tiring process of rubbing wood against wood. You started a fire in such a short time, using those rocks. What are they?”
“My tribe,” the boy started out saying, before stopping.
“Yeah,” the warrior said into the silence. “You don’t have a tribe, sort of like me.”
The cat suddenly moved toward the fire. It was so quick and silent that the two humans weren’t aware of its presence until the cat was near the fire. It wasn’t looking into the flames, however. It was staring upriver, body stretched out and stiff, with its long tail straight out, as well.
“It’s pointing,” the warrior whispered, reach for his spear, transferring the big knife to his left hand.
The boy looked at the cat in wonder. The animal had no fear of him or the warrior, and the cat was too close to evade being struck with the warrior’s spear if the man attacked. The boy turned his head to look upriver but could see nothing coming. The faint pattering of wind shaking the pine branches, the running water of the river and the sound of the fire burning strongly made hearing anything coming almost impossible. But the cat remained frozen in place, only a few feet away, pointing its muzzle, and concentrating its full attention upriver.
“Something’s coming and it’s not good,” the warrior said. “We’re dug in here and evident as we could be. Whatever’s coming can’t miss us, so let’s make sure it doesn’t. The cleft. We’ll defend from the cleft. It things go badly then run and dive into the river. If the forest will have it, we’ll meet again down the waters…or on the other side.”
The boy didn’t miss the deeper meaning the warrior’s words had transmitted. The ‘other side’ he had spoken of wasn’t the other side of the river.
The boy almost asked the warrior what they might do about the cat but the cat wasn’t there anymore. He’d disappeared with the same speed that he’d come.
“Let whatever’s coming enjoy the fire and our lean-to while we remain hidden and come up with a plan,” the warrior said, rising to his full height and moving toward the nearby cleft.
Without thinking about it the boy realized he’d somehow thrown in with the big man, the cat and the beaver, and he’d unknowingly picked his place to stand and defend.
“We do have a tribe,” he murmured, as he climbed over the slanted flat rocks and turned to face whatever it was that had to be faced.