The cat had not disappeared. He’d withdrawn back into the clustered thickness of low scrub that dominated the bottom of the forest, like a wavy and near limitless thick rug. The writhing and waving plant growth of small size, where rivulets of wind were able to creep down through and among the great pines, blended the lines and coloration of the cat’s protective fur into a kind of obscurity, penetrable by the eyes of almost no other predators or prey. The cat did what it did best. He waited to see what was going to come down the valley and what kind of threat would have to be responded to. Acting or moving too soon could prove just as deadly as acting or moving in the wrong direction when the direct threat finally revealed itself.
It took only moments for the boy and the warrior to extinguish and then disassemble and disguise the fire pit as much as was possible. The lean-to came down in seconds, although both the boy and the warrior knew that even the most cursory of inspection would reveal the fact that humans had encamped at the spot, and very recently.
The cat watched the hurried cover operation with passive interest. Fight, flight, or simply remain motionless were the three choices that automatically played through the cat’s mind for its own response to the approaching threat. The lightning strike hadn’t changed the automatic survival mechanisms genetically sealed into the cat’s very being, but the cat’s awareness that such actions were his choices was new, and discomforting because of other things that also crept into his mind. What of the boy and the warrior, the beaver, and even the territory he’d staked out as his own? Was he to abandon those creatures and things, or face the looming threat without respect to what might be the best automatic response for immediate survival?
The boy stood facing the northern extent of the forested canyon before him.
The river water rushed by on his right, the tall pines blew whispering breaths of moaning winds through their tops and to his left and front. The entirety of the forest itself seemed to remain especially still, although with almost everything moving and making all manner of sounds from within and without. The forest stood solidly in front of him. He looked over at the warrior and the boy standing beside him. The taller broader male, with leather thongs moving gently in the wind, stood like the forest. He was breathing, attentive but unmoving.
“What do we do?” the boy asked, wanting to inquire about what might be coming, but afraid of the answer he might receive.
“The warriors approaching are not from the season’s advance party,” the warrior said, his voice low and flat. “They come because of the nature of my departure from the tribe. They will not pursue you if you choose to depart. Your banishment status will be unknown to them, other than by assumption should they bother to track you from this spot.”
The boy thought for a moment before answering. He didn’t want to die. He had no idea what the warrior had done or the ‘nature of his departure’ from his own tribe. That departure didn’t sound like it had been made on a friendly basis. But the boy had nowhere to go. Winter was coming and he had no way to deal with it that might allow for any kind of survival. He looked over his shoulder down-valley, toward the dwindling forest that strung itself out along the swollen banks of the river. That direction, the only other direction, didn’t look appealing at all. The canyon walls could be scaled with some luck and great effort, but they seemed coldly distant and unappealing, as well.
He shook himself gently and then turned to face the forest in front of him, taking in the residual smoke from the fire they’d built. His eyes caught a very brief glint of movement among the bracken surrounding the greatest of the nearby pines.
Two unblinking eyes stared into his own. The boy wanted to smile but did not. The cat hadn’t left. It was very close by, probably waiting to see what might happen with the approach of other humans. That was unexpected but not nearly as unexpected as what happened next. The cat arose slowly, without moving to disengage its stare from his own, and then padded very deliberately toward where the boy stood.
The cat sinuously moved toward the two humans, his decision to make his presence known having been made almost without his own permission. He felt driven by what he could not understand, and maddeningly, he knew he was being driven by what he could not understand. He walked to where the boy stood, his bare feet spread apart. The warrior stood to the boy’s right, covered almost completely in his obnoxious skin clothing. The warrior’s feet were covered by a harder version of the same material. The cat knew the leather to be from the skins of the many deer that inhabited the interior of the forest, although tainted with the smell of his own kind as well as many other animals.
The cat didn’t look at the warrior directly, certainly not into his eyes. The warrior was there, the boy was there, and now he himself was with them. He turned to stare at the forest, facing in the same direction as the boy and the warrior. Whatever was coming he would greet with them, understanding only that he had made the decision to do so for almost totally unknown reasons. The cat let his hindquarters sink to the soft sandy loam of the earth near the outer edge of the river’s bank.
The boy looked over to where the warrior stood, his eyes round and large.
The warrior stared back and forth between the cat and the boy for a few brief seconds, before gently shaking his head. The boy knew, should they survive what was coming, that he would get no explanation for the cat’s strange conduct from the warrior.
The three faced the forest, their attention sweeping from one canyon wall to the other, waiting for whatever or whoever was coming. The noises of the wind, the river water, and the forest itself making it almost impossible to determine what the threat might be or where it would appear from. The boy inventoried their combined weaponry. The warrior possessed one large war spear and one large carving knife. The boy himself had a small spear and his own smaller knife. That was it. The cat was there but could not be counted on for anything. It was a cat, and cats were notoriously self-determined. That it sat where it did, not three feet from the boy’s left leg, was something not explainable in life up to the point the boy had lived. Against an armed element of warriors from any tribe at all, the boy and the warrior next to him were virtually unarmed and defenseless.
A warrior, almost identical in appearance to the one standing next to the boy, appeared. He walked slowly toward them along the river bank, his feet moving in and out to avoid actually stepping into the eddying puddles formed by small fingers of water leaking over toward the edge of the forest. The new warrior stopped and then held up his spear arm with the point of the weapon pointing downriver. Very quickly, other warriors stepped out of the forest to stand with him.
Finally, an unarmed warrior joined them, carrying no spear, his forehead invisible behind a wide thick wrap of leather.
“Sub-chief,” whispered the man next to the boy, more to himself than to communicate with the boy.
The group moved toward them slowly, speaking among themselves as they approached. They reached a distance of about six body-lengths away before coming to a stop. Fully half the members of the party carried two spears instead of just one.
The sub-chief pointed at the warrior next to the boy.
“Cetan, you have violated our ways and your presence cannot be tolerated while you still live,” the sub-chief intoned as if he was making an official pronouncement.
Nobody moved on either side. The sub-chief’s finger slowly began to drop, the man’s arm still out and stiff, however. The finger began to rise again, but didn’t rise as high as before, and was not able to maintain quite the stiffness it had had when the sub-chief had first pointed it. The finger pointed to the boy’s left.
“How is that here?” the sub-chief asked, his voice going from stiffly demanding to low and questioning.
“Your name is Cetan?” the boy whispered the question over to the warrior. “That means hawk. It’s a name of great honor.”
“The cat is part of the Di’ne people,” Cetan replied to the sub-chief, ignoring the boy.
“Where are the rest of these people?” the sub-chief demanded, his eyes never leaving those of the cats. “The word di ne’ means ‘the people,’ so no tribe might be called that.”
“You see us before you,” Cetan replied.
A splattering sound came from behind the cat, and his momentary attention was drawn to the rear, and down to the river bank where it met the edge of the rushing water.
The beaver swam ashore, trundled up to a position some few feet behind the boy and then thumped its tail once before lying flat, and settling in to rest in his usual position.
“And what is this?” the sub-chief asked, while, as if commanded as one, he and the other warriors of his tribe began slowly backing a few man-lengths upriver.
Nobody said anything. The boy looked from the beaver, over to where the cat sat unmovingly and then at Cetan next to him but could think of no answer to give the sub-chief.
“We must pow-wow,” the sub-chief said, after a few moments of silence. “There is no precedent for this. No joining of man and animals has ever been considered or been known to have occurred. This situation must be discussed. Understanding must be acquired. Some sort of order must be worked out.”
“We cannot pow-wow if weapons are present,” Cetan replied.
“That’s is a true statement,” the sub-chief concluded. “We will take our spears up river and store them. Our knives are not truly weapons, but implements to be used for other things.”
“That is agreeable,” Cetan said. “However, this is our home site and therefore our weapons will be stacked but not removed from the area.”
“Agreed,” the sub-chief replied.
“The coals of the fire will still be hot under the sand,” Cetan said.
Without warning, the cat leaped away, hit the earth several times in great bounds, struck the very top of the cleft, and then disappeared between the rocks. A few seconds later, as all the humans watched, frozen in place, the cat’s muzzle appeared through the triangular hole located at the bottom where the two giant slabs, angled against one another to form the cleft, spread gently apart. The beaver didn’t move, its eyes closed, giving every appearance it was asleep, although the boy had his doubts.
The warriors who’d arrived with the sub-chief made short work of hauling some dry wood and dumping it on top of the bared hot coals. The lean-to was re-erected without comment in the same space of time.
The boy and Cetan took a place around the fire that had obviously been left open for them. The cat watched through slitted eyes while the beaver lay where it had come out of the water, not more than three body lengths from where the pow-wow began.
“This land is the land of the tribe during winter days and nights,” the sub-chief said. “This land, under the tribe’s ownership, will not be violated or infringed upon by others. You have no rights here and your presence cannot be excused by anything short of death or banishment. That choice is generally made by the council, but can be implemented in the field by an authority such as myself.”
The boy felt greater fear. He’d been afraid even before the advance party had shown up. The talk of banishment, death and unspoken thoughts of even worse, scared him to the core. He waited. Cetan did not respond to the sub-chief, waiting, as well. Time dragged on. The sub-chief brought forth a pouch and a short pipe. He tamped some tobacco into the shallow bowl, lit the mixture with the end of a branch sticking out of the fire, and then puffed gently for a few seconds. Amazingly, he extended the bowl out to Cetan, although, instead of standing to pass it over the flames, he handed it to the warrior next to him. The pipe made its way to Cetan.
“These animals,” the sub-chief said, pointing over his shoulder to where the cat lay inside the cleft, and then over toward the seemingly asleep beaver. “These animals are not acting normally. Their actions are an omen. There is no other explanation. What is the omen significant of?” he asked, staring straight into Cetan’s eyes.
Cetan pulled some smoke through the pipe, and then exhaled deeply, before passing the pipe back around.
“Thank you for the courtesy,” Cetan began, “and the omen is of the Di ne, consisting of the people here and the animals. The omen is of allowing the centering and growth of the Di ne’ unopposed and unmolested down in this small corner of the tribe’s winter home.”
“I do not believe that,” the sub-chief hissed back, pushing the returning pipe aside.
“Why are we having this pow-wow?” Cetan asked.
“You have somehow come here to bond unnaturally with this child, with this cat, and with this beaver,” the sub-chief stated, raising his arms and spreading his hands to take in the whole area around the fire. “I cannot go against this. I do not believe your interpretation of the omen, but I accept that there is one at work.”
“You are, indeed, in a difficult situation, sub-chief,” Cetan said, a faint smile appearing to slowly spread across his face.
The sub-chief’s face, in turn, became red with suppressed fury.
“I must take this situation back to the council immediately,” he said, his voice low and grating. “I will recommend that we are allowed to return and slay you, as you so deserve for the violations you have committed in the tribe.”
Cetan rose to his feet, causing all the warriors to stand along with him. Cetan walked to where he’d left his spear on the ground and picked it up. He hefted the weapon above his shoulder until the tip pointed down at the sub-chief.
“You best be on your way then, since you can’t harm or kill us,” Cetan said, his voice deep and menacing. “We are under no such restriction when it comes to you or your warriors.”
The cat waited until the advance party was gone before opening its eyes fully, and then yawning. The fire burned. The beaver lay comfortably not far from it.
The cat wondered and waited for the two humans to spear more fish, clean it and then cook it for his benefit.