The cat moved carefully but quickly through the night. Although a path down from the canyon wall would be much easier to negotiate, it required a lengthy easy walk through the trees along the top of the lip of the abyss. He knew right away that it was the night wind close to that lip, and the fact that his own passage made so much covering noise, that had made him unaware of the pursuit until he was very close to where he wanted to lay in wait for dawn, to make his way down to the river below. That the human warriors could be so diligent, conclusive and then fast to react to his attack near their encampment, surprised him.
The forest floor vibrated with the bustling presence of the warriors, as they beat the ground with the bases of their spears. The cat listened to the performing line of warriors approaching. He hazily recalled seeing the same group behavior during daylight hours long ago, when other human warriors hunted some of the forest herbivores. However, it was only now occurring to him, and surprising to him, that he understood that witnessed event’s purpose. That understanding hit him like a small mallet on the top of his head. He was being driven toward waiting warriors silently placed downriver for him to pass by. Their death spears, thrown from the silent waiting brush, would never be seen. The cat breathed in and out, testing the air, taking a few seconds to consider.
There would be no attacking into the pounding spear line. That was too risky, and then he’d have to head back toward the encampment and be caught between two sets of hunting warriors. There was no traveling further down the canyon wall to make the crossing in an easy, more accommodating, spot. The hidden warriors in ambush along the way would not be discernable. The danger was too great. There was only one place to go, and that was right at the lip in front of him. There were no other choices.
With the decision made, the cat did not delay. He came out from under the pine where he’d gone to ground, and ran at top speed across the short distance to the edge of the cliff. It was still full dark with no moon. There was little doubt that some of the warriors probably heard him but that didn’t matter. In spite of their speed in moving ahead of him inland through the night, and their inability to see in the dark, the warriors would figure out his direction and eventual location if he stopped again. There would be no stopping. He was much farther down the incline of the downward descending canyon wall. How far down he’d come was beyond his ability to know. There were two solutions to his evasion plan and hope for survival. The first one was gone as soon as he reached the edge of the cliff. There were no paths down, not even the steepest of scrabbling harsh approaches that might be made in a state of full panic.
Hasti stared down into the night. The gray blur of everything did not extend down into the canyon below. The river’s waters sent their vibrations up through the air and rock. He was directly over the rushing water but how far down was it, how deep, and did it extend all the way into the base of the cliff face?
The cat backed up six or seven of his body-lengths from the lip and then concentrated on listening to the warriors beating their spears on the one side of him and the ominous silence from the warriors hidden in wait down the valley. He looked out toward the nearly invisible lip. There was nothing further to consider. There was only the guessing of how much energy he should put into his leap to assure that he landed in the water and not on some rock projection or one of the mud banks that would be as killing as quickly as striking any projection sticking out from the great height of his jump. Instantly, he accelerated toward the lip, launched himself with every bit of energy he could apply and was plummeting up through the night air.
Hasti pulled his chin down tightly and closed his eyes, tucking his front paws into his sides, and his rear paws up under his belly. He fell like a long invisible rock through the dark. The impact of his strike onto the surface of the river was stunning, and beyond anything, he’d ever experienced before. He knew he had made it out into the main thrust of the river because he could open his eyes and think, although the pain that coursed through him was great. The cat’s thoughts were as jumbled as the paralysis in his limbs. He floated, barely able to tread the water with his front paws, that remained still tucked close to his body. The thundering sound, growing with each instant, brought him around. The water was cold but the growing sound was cold of a different kind. The cat was very close to the edge of the falls, and he knew from seeing that falls once before that going over would not be at all survivable. The cat swam for his life, unlimbering all four paws, opening his three eyelids and surging toward what he hoped to be the far shore.
The boy and the warrior slept soundly inside the lean-to for the first time. The boy had awakened, only to find himself listening to the wind but not inside of it any longer. The fire was burned down to coals, although the wind coming off the river kept the residual warmth reflecting, just as the warrior said it would. He pulled the gathered fern fronds closer over his body and then fell back into deep sleep, not awakening until disturbed by the warrior.
“Dawn is close by,” Cetan said to him, the darkness no longer so dense that Tama couldn’t see him.
Tama yawned, feeling more refreshed from sleeping inside the lean-to next to the warrior than he ever had before.
“Fish, we have fish to eat into this morning,” Tama said.
He sat up, pushing the fronds aside. When he moved slightly forward out of the lean-to he noticed that the sticks with fish chunks he’d left not far away were gone.
“I pulled them last night,” Cetan said, “and tied them to rest inside the river water. The fish will be good because the water’s cold and the scent rising up from the water probably wasn’t enough to draw any hungry creatures of the night.”
“Won’t the water wash all the flavor away?” Tama asked.
“You’ve got a lot to learn about water, and life,” Cetan answered, getting up out of the lean-to and moving toward the water beyond the two fire pits.
He didn’t get far, because a low silent shape came out of the night right toward him.
“’Your spear,” Cetan hissed to the boy, before grabbing his own.
But the shape had stopped, midway between the first and second fire pit. The boy recognized the cat, although the cat’s behavior wasn’t like anything he’d seen before. Slowly, while Chetan and Tama stood with spears out but not threatening, the cat turned and began, even more slowly, to make its way to the cleft. This time the cat didn’t jump up to access the hollow center, instead easing himself in through the small triangular opening at the bottom. It took some time for him to turn before laying down, his muzzle flat on the stone, just as before.
Tama threw some wood onto the darkened hot coals and a small fire soon brought more light to the small area. The cat’s eyes were closed. The animal was in deep sleep.
“He’s been through something this night,” Cetan observed. leaning his spear against the lean-to.
“That was him, screaming in the dark, up on the canyon wall, wasn’t it?” the boy asked.
I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, but what happened afterward didn’t seem to go so well. I hope your cat isn’t hurt badly.”
“My cat?” Tama asked, shocked by Cetan’s comment.
“He goes to you,” Cetan replied, heading over toward the water to retrieve the fish. “He watches you. He waits for you. Your cat, I mean if anyone has or has ever had a cat.”
“I Suppose you have the beaver?” Tama asked, walking to join Cetan, as the man went down on his knees to retrieve the fish, reeling in a bit of vine tied to a nearby rock.
“No, I think the cat has the beaver,” Cetan laughed, pulling in the fish chunks, their sticks tied into one bundle near the end.
“Then who do you have?” Tama asked, his tone serious, as he considered.
“You, obviously,” Cetan replied, laughing again.
The cat slept right into the full light of morning, the sun rising over the lip of the canyon quite sometime after daylight was already on the scene.
Tama walked close to where the cat slept, but the big animal did not move at his approach or give any sign that he noticed the boy’s intimate proximity. Tama examined the cat and was even more surprised. The cat’s fur was wet and its paws muddy from walking up the bank. Normally, the cat was as clean as could be and its fur, rich thick and luxurious. Tama quietly backed away and hoped that the cat would be okay.
Cetan and Tama working into mid-day on expanding the lean-to on each end, working to begin digging an underground cache nearby, and then beginning to gather in larger chunks of old fallen tree trunks and branches to stack close by for getting through the winter.
“This sure seems like a lot of work,” Tama confided to Cetan during one of their very short breaks.
“Nothing can be done once the first snow comes. The wood has to be covered with pine branches or it will be too wet to burn properly. The underground cache has to be dug and filled with whatever game we can kill butcher and store, but only after it freezes. Then we have to cover it. This is the kind of thing your tribe avoided by heading south for the winter. My tribe worked all the other seasons through, preparing to endure the winter, and everyone in the tribe did it all the time.
“But there’s only two of us,” Tama replied, washing his face in the river water.
The fish had been even more delicious after soaking overnight in the water, and Tama wondered about that. Could that be done all the time? But winter would freeze the river over and there would be no fish.
The cat appeared, its condition much improved since Tama had checked on it earlier. It stood next to the cooking fire pit. Nothing moved until the beaver swam into the shore and deposited itself in its usual position, licking its paws and not paying attention to any of them. The cat sniffed at the small thick creature and then turned to stare at Tama. The cat blinked his eyes once, slowly.
“Did you keep any of the fish?” Cetan asked. “I think he’s trying to send you a message.”
Tama backed all the way over to the lean-to, still intimidated by the size and the raw predatory look of the cat’s expression. He’d kept back two larger chunks of the fish. He brought them forth and walked back to stand near the fire pit. He held the two pieces out, one in each hand, each the size of large man’s fist.
The cat sat and stared at him, obviously waiting for something.
“He’s not going to take that from your hand,” Cetan whispered. “He survives on being dominant. Don’t push our luck. His diet consists of more than cooked fish.”
Tama tossed the two pieces down in front of the cat. Hasti lay down immediately to examine them.
Tama noticed that the cat had licked his paws clean and his fur was ruffled but in much better shape. Whatever the cat had been through had been harrowing, at least by his appearance and actions since he’d returned. The cat wolfed the two chunks down in no time, not seeming to even chew them at all. Then he jumped to his feet, twisted around and faced the upriver portion of the river bank.
“We’ve got visitors,” Cetan said, running for the spare spears.
He grabbed them from the lean-to and the brought them to where the cat and Tama stood, not one human body-length apart. He laid two spears next to Tama.
“Use them only if things go bad and get close,” Cetan needlessly said, preparing his own supply a few foot paces away.
A warrior from the tribe appeared in the same place as the day before. He’d come out of the forest trees and ground growth so fast it was like he appeared out of nowhere. Tama immediately recognized him as Athesis but noted that this time the man carried no spear as the sub-chief had remained unarmed earlier.
Athesis held up both hands over his head.
“I am here at the council’s order,” he said. “This is not of my doing. No spears or knives of any of that. I came with these,” he finished, turning to wave at the forest nearby.
Four humans walked out to join Athesis. The warrior pushed them out in front of him.
“Here,” he said, lowering his arms, but making no move to get closer,” the council has decided that you may stay the winter, but you must take these into your care and keep them as your own. If something happens to them then the council will turn this matter over to myself and my fellow warriors and we will apply a better solution to your miserable intrusion upon our lands.”
Tama hesitated, wanting to run forward and throw his spear at the warrior, but made no move.
“No,” Cetan hissed over to him. “He’s wearing hunting leather on his feet. He’s ready to run, to lead anyone trying to catch him into an ambush. That would be fair, and that warrior never travels alone. Cowards never do.”
Tama looked at the four humans proceeding toward their small rough encampment, amazed that neither the cat nor the beaver made any move to leave.
The tribe humans consisted of two older women and two young girls. Although they were badly attired in leathers, almost as tattered as Tama’s own, they each carried thatched blankets folded into smaller squares.
“What are we supposed to do with four females?” Tama said to Cetan, his eyes not leaving the approaching females. “What can we do with them? Winter’s coming. How do we feed them? The river will freeze and there will be no fish.”
“Stop talking, Tama,” Cetan said, flatly. They’re obviously rejects from the tribe. Normally they’d be sent out into the forest to die, but here we are. The good part is that we are allowed to stay. Those warriors can’t attack or hurt us unless we attack them, and that we’re not going to do. The other tribe up on the wall, that’s different, but they aren’t down here yet.
“What about the two young girls” Tama said, as the four got closer and closer. “What can they do?”
“We’ll make them into warriors,” Cetan said, quietly. “Those male warriors won’t know what hit them when we’ve got these females trained.”
“Female warriors?” Tama asked, shocked. “Females can become warriors? And I’m not a warrior. How can I train anyone?”
“You better believe we’ll train them, but nobody down this far in the valley ever talks about female warriors. Further up to the north there’s a tribe where some of the females are warriors and hunt, as well. Nobody will go near them, for a very good reason.”
The two older women walked by Tama and the cat, passing less than one body length from both. The two little girls clutched themselves together but then did the same thing. The cat and Tama could only stare at them until they entered the new lean-to and sat down, before beginning to spread their makeshift tightly knit blankets down.
“They’ve been told about us and the special nature of the animals,” Cetan said.
“What about the lean-to? Tell me that they’re not going to sleep inside the lean-to,” Tama complained. “I’ve only gotten to sleep in it once?”