The cat lay flat inside the cleft, sleepily glancing out toward the scene before him, from time to time. He could not remember ever feeling so relaxed, the great ball of fish flesh resting inside his stomach, while his tribe worked at doing interesting stuff outside. The river gurgled, its usual overwhelming background sound muffled by the great rocks over and around the cat. A breeze blowing past only reached Hasti in tendrils of wafting air, occasionally visible when bits and pieces of falling leaves were part of its ever-changing mix.
The image of the humans atop the canyon wall drifted across the very top of the cat’s consciousness, and would not go away. The humans would be coming to his territory, just as the others had. It was what humans did. They violated territorial imperatives with impunity as if they were totally unaware of obvious and fresh scent-markings, and unaware that a very effective, large and hunting predator already occupied the area.
Hasti slept deeply again, eyes fully closed. When he awoke it was nearly dark. The fire emitted a red glow, barely visible between the small cleft opening and the river. The cat did not sigh, although he felt the need to do so. Instead, he slowly inched forward until he was out of the cleft, fully exposed to the elements and view of anything or anyone nearby. But he experienced no fear. The pride was out and around him. He felt their presence and that feeling was one of unaccountable warmth. He vaguely, but pleasingly, remembered his mother’s physical warmth, although the feeling of having a pride was distinctly different. He shook his head to clear it of such thoughts.
The night was coming and the night was his favored time. Most other animals rested through the darkness, not gifted with his night vision, or an extraordinary sense of hearing. He looked up at the darkening top of the canyon wall where the humans had appeared. The tree leaves from the forest ached with the wind passing through them. The leaves sounded in slithering scrabbling detail, as they scooted along the floor of the forest, occasionally taking to the air, like small out-of-control birds lost in flights of temporary freedom. There were still a few chunks of cooked fish, on sticks moved some distance from the still hot coals of the fire. The cat looked at them longingly but discounted eating any more. He had plenty of forest ground to cover, and then the climb up into and through the rocky crags and clefts that would allow him to reach the top of the cliff. The issue of the human’s presence on the eastern edge of his territory had to be explored to determine the extent of a possible threat it might become. He knew he had to travel light, laden down with only the food he’d eaten earlier. In spite of the extra weight of the food he carried in his belly, he also knew he would not have to hunt to support the expenditure of energy that would be required.
The beaver was asleep, half buried in the pile of twigs, branches and leaves the warrior had tossed to him. That the animal could eat such ridiculous things was beyond the cat’s comprehension, and the passing thought about it surprised him, once again.
He made his way upriver where he could cross the fast-moving deep waters by pouncing from rock to rock until he was on the other side. Sometime earlier he’d made the slow and difficult journey up the face of the same cliff, exploring to see if there was a more bountiful area to establish as his territory. The place at the top proved to have been as filled with forest growth as the valley below, however, the number and size of the prey had been considerably less. Departing the area, he didn’t look back, knowing the pride was functioning just as it was supposed to. He was also vaguely aware that he didn’t really know how a pride was supposed to function at all.
“Hasti is off, moving upriver from our position,” Tama reported to Cetan, as both worked to make the lean-to more comfortable and protected.
The boy noted that the air was becoming colder and colder every night, although the digging, hauling ground cover and branches for the warrior to place and secure, warmed him to the point where he might have shed his tattered tunic if it had not provided so much protection from the material he was handling.
“He ate, rested, and now goes hunting,” Cetan replied, working on his hands and knees to dig out an area the size of the lean-to in order to form a bottom laid thick with a bed of dead pine needles covered by dense fern leaves and strands to guard against the needle-sharp points.
“Why would he hunt?” the boy asked, lugging more branches and fern fronds to the lean-to opening. “He ate more than half the fish. How does he hold it all?”
“True predators like him don’t eat that often, at least not meals like the one we served,” Cetan replied. “He probably won’t get hungry again for two or three days. No, he went to hunt territorially.”
“Territorially?” Tama asked. “What does that mean?”
“He’s got to defend his territory against all other predators and threats. He pointed out the warriors from my pride before I saw or heard them. He also indicated the warriors from your own tribe up on the cliff, before either of us saw them. He can’t ignore those threats until he classifies them to be harmless or kills them if they are a threat.”
“There’s no way he can kill the warriors of either tribe,” Tama said, a note of worry entering the tone of his voice.
“He seems to know that, somehow,” Cetan said, rising to step out of the lean-to. “He didn’t attack the sub-chief or Athesis’ men, and he’s not likely to attack your tribal members either if they actually are from your tribe. He’s too clever for that. But he can’t stop himself from finding out about them either.
“How do you know so much about cats?” the boy asked.
“We didn’t hunt them, if that’s what you want to know,” Cetan replied after a minute or so. “They contested for animals killed by the hunters and sometimes they contested too hard and lost.”
The boy thought about the answer, knowing that there was a lot Cetan wasn’t telling him.
“Now we have to build a second fire pit, like the first one but right in front of the lean-to,” Cetan said, pointing at a spot about one leg’s distance from the middle of the open side. “The fire pit for cooking has to be further away from where we sleep or hold up. Predators will come for the smell of food. Our lean-to fire will be for warmth. The fire will reflect off the inside back of the lean-to and it won’t have the aroma of prey or food.”
Tama squatted down and went to work loosening the earth with downward plunges of his knife. He thought about the cat and what it might be up to.
The cat moved up the face of the glacis, maneuvering from one natural stone pile to another before running out of such easy points of grip. He took to crossing back and forth across the stone studded hardness of its nearly vertical surface. He’d chosen the place and direction of his climb to follow almost exactly the path he’d climbed once before His big padded paws gripped with great adhesion and tenacity, the killing claws totally retracted unless he lost his grip. His claws were so hard and sharp that they alone could be used in some parts of the climb where the cracks in the rocks allowed them to find the most minor of purchase.
The cat was relentless, never looking down, left or right unless it was for a new place to plant a paw. It was nearing dark when he was finally able to gain the top of the cliff. He scrambled forward and under the lowest fanning branches of a huge pine, located not far from the edge of the abyss. He lay down to breath and to rest. There would be no traveling down the face of the wall in the dark.
Slowly, when there was no sound except the wind passing through the swaying branches of the pine, did he venture out, creeping forward and back to the very edge of the cliff. He peered over. The red glow of the pride’s fire was tiny, but clearly there. Even with the cat’s vision, it was almost impossible to make out any detail of the campsite, however, except for the small boxy shape of the lean-to and the slight moving figures of the boy and the warrior. The pride remained at work on into the night, as would the cat. He withdrew, staying very low, and returned to his spot under the pine. The aroma of the trees was his most favorite, other than that of cooked fish. The pine emitted not only a great aroma but also a thick bed of cushioning needles and a nearly impenetrable spreading overhead of thick needle-sharp branches. The cat’s fur was so thick there was no penetration by the ends of the needles at all.
Full darkness came as the cat snoozed, not sleeping with the depth he’d experienced among the pride back at the cleft, but sufficient to allow him to begin processing the huge portions of fish he’d consumed.
Eventually, he crept out from under the pine branch, fully aware that nothing awaited him nearby. There was no moon to consider, but his eyes compensated. The grayness of the night was punctuated with dark appearances of vertical rising surfaces everywhere. The trees did not stand out in the low light, but they gave their presence away, like shapes in a heavy fog. The sound of the wind through the pines and the slight differential of air passing down over the edge of the valley wall might have shielded the human warriors from his detection skills if they had remained silent. But they were anything but silent.
The pungent aroma of burning rodent reached the cat’s nose and he involuntarily sniffed at the smell. The smell of the fire’s smoke came right after. The warriors had encamped overnight not far from where they’d been seen earlier. The cat moved slowly and deliberately around the entirety of the area, never letting any direct view of himself be exposed, even though the humans obviously lacked his night vision.
There was no need to see the warriors. The cat lay down under a smaller pine and began to lick his front paws. Not to clean them, although that was a secondary benefit, but to taste the material they’d absorbed from padding around the tribal encampment. There was a human smell, that of deer leather, human urine and much more. Coupled with what the cat could hear and smell, it was enough. The humans were unwelcome predators. No sooner had that conclusion come over him a warrior walked out from the encampment and stood near the very tree Hasti was hiding under. The cat waited. The human was urinating.
Without warning, and at top speed, the cat jumped up through the low branches to strike the warrior with both paws on his chest. The man went over backward without a sound. Hasti didn’t move on, instead lowing his head to bite deeply into the human’s shoulder. The man screamed.
The cat was gone before the echo of the warrior’s scream of terror and pain reached the other side of the canyon. Hasti stopped only once, to stand, muzzle outward across the valley, and scream a scream of pure animal triumph.
There would be no night descent back down into the valley. The cat began a long journey to the only other place along the canyon wall where he could scale back down the face and return to his pride. That place was near where the great falls fell down further into the narrowest and deepest end of the valley.
Back at the lean-to, still working in the dark on digging the new fire pit, the boy looked up into the night.
“Was that what I think it was?” he asked, knowing Cetan was nearby, preparing the lean-to for their first night of occupation.
“No doubt,” Cetan replied. “It would appear that first blood has been drawn over who’s going to occupy this part of the valley.”