The hike down to the falls proved more difficult than either the boy or the warrior imagined. Attempting to stay inside the outside edge of the forest, in order to remain invisible from any observers that might be located up on the canyon rim, was difficult. The closer they moved toward the falls, where the canyon rim descended to near river level, the denser the forest became. From climbing over fallen limbs, avoiding holes and mud hidden rocks covered with slippery lichen to a complete inability to move through the stuff at all also hid places where the hundreds of years old debris was two-man lengths or more high. By the time the sound of the falling water impacting at the bottom of the falls drowned out every other sound Tama and Cetan were creeping along the west bank fully and uncomfortably exposed.
Crossing the fast-moving water wasn’t nearly as physical a problem as it was mental. The big rocks stringing themselves out, in almost equal lengths from one another, could fairly easily be negotiated from one bank to the other. The very self-evident problem was that if one misstep took place, and the water was encountered, then the next experience would be going over the falls, and after that, there would be no other experiences.
The warrior looked at the rocks, where the water was heaping up on one side of each so high that it seemed like at any moment the rock would disappear. The sound of the water going around the rocks was nearly as great as the deep thunder coming up from the unseeable gorge below.
“What do you think?” the boy asked.
“The longer we stay here out in the open the more likely they’ll see us if they’re up there,” Cetan replied, his eyes focused only on the rocks stretched out in front of them.
“Okay,” Tama said, jumping to his feet, holding out his short spear with one hand, and then leaping atop the first rock. In seconds he was across. His jumping was more a run rather than a series of leaps from one rock to another. He stood waiting on the other side of the river, his back pushed into the foliage rising up from the opposite, but much slimmer bank.
“Just like that,” Cetan said to himself, his heart beating madly and his breathing rapid and deep.
Cetan made no attempt to imitate the boy’s adroit athletically impressive run. He leaped to the first rock and worked to balance and get steadied for his next leap. The water seemed to rush and grab at his feet, even though it never came over the top of the rock. Cetan tried not to look directly down. He leaped two hands worth of rocks before landing on the far bank, feeling exhausted although his crossing had taken only marginally longer than the boy’s.
“What does it matter if they see us?” Tama asked. “We’re going up there to talk to them, anyway.”
Cetan recovered himself, his attention still caught by the rocks and the dangerous passage he’d just made. The water going over the edge was hypnotic to watch, and the full thundering sound deeply disturbing and satisfying at the same time.
“Spears,” Cetan replied, getting to his feet and turning to find the best place to begin their climb.
“Oh, they might not want to talk first,” the boy said, a note of disappointment in his tone.
“They wouldn’t have a reason to talk to us, not from up there,” Cetan said, strapping his spear to his back with a leather thong he kept wrapped around his waist.
“We’ve got to get up there and give them a reason.”
Tama climbed right behind the warrior, keeping his spear free, the going not difficult enough to require that he use both hands to grapple with the rough rocky surface of the incline.
Neither noticed the cat.
The cat crept along, behind and below where Tama and Cetan ascended the wall. Juniper growths grew from the many cracks and crevices placed randomly over the surface of the wall. The cat could adroitly keep the growths between himself and the two members of his pride. His senses of sight, smell and hearing were so great that he knew no other humans climbed other nearby parts of the wall and none waited at the top either. Although simply climbing with them the cat felt like he was making some undefinable contribution to their effort.
The reason the boy and the warrior climbed to meet the tribe strewn out along the top of the canyon wall was beyond the cat’s ability to discern, but the necessity of the cat to provide oversight and security to errant members of that pride was beyond his ability to deny.
The ascent of the sloping low portion of the wall was accomplished easily and without incident. The forest just past the edge of the lip was just as thick as the forest in the valley below but without the undergrowth. Tama and Cetan walked silently alone under the canopy of heavy aromatic pines. The slight wind, making the pines sing near their bent tops, provided both men with a feeling of quiet enjoyment. That they weren’t alone at all occurred to neither one of them, as they moved up the slope to toward where they believed Tama’s tribe to be encamped.
The cat crept from tree trunk to tree trunk, staying very low to the dead pine needle beds that overlapped among the trees. He realized that part of his pride was heading back into dangerous territory although he had no idea as to why. The humans encamped had been severely warned and that should have been enough of a warning.
Cetan stopped and held up his arm, slowly working the thong holding the spear to his back loose. The spear fell naturally into his right hand.
“They’re here,” he whispered to the boy. “I can feel them.”
Three men with full warrior spears at the ready, held out for thrusting instead of throwing, came from behind three of the more substantial tree trunks in front of Tama and Cetan. They stood still, upon stepping away from the trees.
The man in the middle spoke. “What is your intention by coming here?” he asked, which surprised Tama.
Tana didn’t recognize the warriors at all, except by their looks, but then his tribe had been large, and his exclusion from warrior training or association had kept him pretty much to himself.
“We are here to greet you,” the boy replied. “We have come up from the valley where we prepare to winter.”
“You’re that turned-out child,” the man said. “And who have you brought with you? His leathers bear the markings of a tribe we don’t have good relations with.”
“Why have you returned to the valley from your travels to the south?” Tama asked, ignoring the fact that they had identified who he was and also not answering the question about who he was with.
“We are pursued,” the man responded, before backing up a few paces, as did the other men. “We are most terribly pursued,” he said again, this time with a wistful tone of voice that almost made Tama shiver slightly.
“You do not come to us alone,” the man said.
“No, I am with the senior warrior from my new tribe,” Tama replied, wondering what the man was talking about since Cetan had been visible all along.
“Your kind has attacked my kind in the night,” the man said. “What is it you demand from us now?”
The cat stood out in the open. He’d eased from behind one of the larger thick pine trunks to stand behind the two members of his pride but angled back a bit. He knew his two pride members were unaware of his presence, and that fact made him feel more powerful and stronger in support of them.
Tama looked over at Cetan, surprise in his expression. It was like he was threatening his old tribal members, and whatever threat he was making was being taken seriously. But there was no threat he was aware of.
“We want to live in peace,” Tama said. “We occupy the very southern tip of the valley down below, not far from the falls. We hold a small territory. We wish to hunt and fish that small territory and maybe a bit more. Another tribe winters in the valley and they are coming down from the north. You must accommodate them in your own fashion. We will not help or hurt you in that effort.”
“You are but a mere child,” the man said, his voice low, the other two warriors with him appearing apprehensive, but steady in their warrior and spear-prepared stances.
“How is it that you have assumed powers over the forest creatures at such a young age?”
Tama looked over at Cetan again, in question. “What powers do I have?” he whispered, hoping the men in front of them could not hear.
“I have no idea,” the warrior replied, also whispering. “Maybe you can tell them that you moved alone into the forest and the forest decided to join with you, or something like that.”
Tama repeated those exact forest words to the warrior from his old tribe.
“We must think on this and take your reply to the council,” the man replied, after quietly consulting with the two other warriors. “Will you promise that there will be no more attacks upon us until we speak again? It would have been better if you had not sent your forces against us before we spoke here, but such is the way things are.”
Tama almost asked the man what attack his people had suffered, but instead, he remained silent.
“Just tell them yes,” Cetan said, not making any effort to quiet his words.
Tama turned to the warrior from his old tribe and nodded. The men slowly backed into the pines, never turning before disappearing from view.
“Now that was not the encounter I’d expected,” Cetan said, relaxing by leaning on his planted spear.
Tama looked over at the warrior and saw the cat for the first time. The animal stood tall, his head up, eyes alert, watching from where he was, angled slightly off to their rear.
“Look behind you, slowly,” Tama said to Cetan, maintaining eye contact with Hasti.
Cetan turned his head slightly.
“I get it,” he said, smiling at the boy with a small crooked smile. “It’s like my tribe. They think the cat is one of us. They think the cat’s attack in the night, which is what it must have been up here, was our doing.”
“Is it true?” the boy asked, more to himself than the Cetan. “Is he one of us?”
“I don’t think it has to do with that, not from the cats I’ve known and hunted,” Cetan went on. “I don’t think he’s one of us at all. I think we are one of his, unless we’re just some sort of curiosity. Maybe it is that he has nothing else better to do and you catch and cook fish he obviously likes a lot.”
The cat walked toward the boy and the warrior. He moved like a liquid being on paws, sinuously easing over the pine bough ground. He came to rest between the two men, setting his rump down and staring into the forest where the three tribal warriors had disappeared.
“He makes me nervous, being this close,” Cetan said while making no move to turn his spear or appear threatening to the cat in any way.
“I know how you feel, but I don’t pick up any attack stuff from him at all,” Tama said, smiling at the side of the cat’s head, only a few hands distance from his own. “If he wanted us dead then we’d be dead before we knew it, I think.”
“Let’s get back down to our site,” Cetan said, pulling his spear up and hunting around for the leather thong he’d dropped earlier when getting ready to face Tama’s tribe’s warriors.
“Don’t we have to wait to see what their council says?” Tama asked, surprised.
“Doesn’t matter,” Cetan replied, tying his spear to his back.
The cat watched attentively and seemed to listen to their dialogue, Tama noted. His nearness was unnerving, however. Tama inhaled lightly and smelled the cat’s faint aroma, which was a lot like the ground and pine needles all around them. It was a refreshing smell, and that almost made him smile.
“They have little choice, and I’ll bet they see that,” Cetan went on, turning to head back down the plateau they stood on. “We’re no threat unless they want to make us a threat, and I think that whatever is in pursuit of them has given them the idea that they don’t need to add any more. You warned them about my old tribe but I’m willing to bet that they already know and are prepared for that. If they can think of us as a small force protecting their rear area while they fight for territory with my tribe then we win. Otherwise, it won’t matter. Even with the cat, if we really have the cat, we can’t fight them for long and stay alive.”
“So, they’ll come to us?” Tama replied, still somewhat mystified about tribal politics and actions.
“Probably not,” Cetan said. “They’ll simply do whatever it is they are going to do. We’re a nuisance to them, not a real threat. Losing a warrior or two, even when they’re as important as your own father was, is common to the whole tribe. They don’t want to lose any warriors in fighting us and the cat, however, and then there’s the mystery of the cat itself. Why is it here? Why did it appear to support us when we needed it most without even knowing it?”
“For some reason,” Tama replied, looking at the cat looking directly back at him, “I don’t think he wants to be alone.”
“Alone,” Cetan laughed, beginning his walk back toward the river. “Alone! That cat has more company now than he ever bargained for. The women, the kids, the beaver and us, not to mention two full tribes moving into his territory without his approval or permission. The cat’s not about to be alone anymore. He’ll be a bit more alone if I can’t make it across those rocks again, however. That’s the last time I’m going to do that, by the way.”