The cat found a place near the bottom of the mildly inclined slope face. He settled in under the outward thrusting branches of a huge pine. The aroma, the deep bed of needles no insects could inhabit, and the gentle wind that wafted its way among the easy waving branches gave the cat a sort of comfort that was similar to, but more distant, than what he felt when he was among the members of his new pride. His position under the pine was taken with studied purpose. He stretched his aching battered body out fully, extending it until his head barely protruded from under the lowest of the wide flat branches. He looked out over the river and could see, from his vantage point, the great white cloud of spray thrown up by the water plummeting over the distant falls, to impact on the canyon bottom below. The cat knew he was close to where he’d leaped into the river the night before, and his whole body shivered. That he’d survived the fall, and then been so very close to going over the falls, had not impacted upon him until that moment. He knew he should not have survived but somehow had not only done so but was once again up on the opposing slope viewing his human pride members working their way toward the stones they’d use to cross to the other side. He’d use the same stones, but his paws and his low balanced body made the crossing a simple routine, but that was not so for the humans.
Hasti could not understand the meaning of the word ‘worry,’ even if it could somehow have been communicated to him. But his breathing increased in its rate as the first human ran across the top of the rocks. The younger human moved quickly and adroitly without fear, the cat understood, but not the older of the two. That one moved from rock to rock, trepidation, and fear evident in his every leap, followed by his awkward balancing series of small steps atop each rock. It would have been amusing to the cat to watch him if it had not involved the potential loss of one of his pride and a key pride member at that.
There were now females. The cat looked over and down toward where the lean-to and encampment had to be, invisible in the distance, buried behind the normal floral growth and forest bracken that rose up before the clearing of the mud bank leading into the passing water. The cat felt satisfied that there were females. They were not cat females but they were females all the same, and many services he’d lived without since birth might be provided. He shook his heavy muzzle and twitched his great sensitive ears at the thoughts rolling through his brain. He knew nothing of females, other than the difficult competition to suckle his mother over the attempts of his competing birthright companions. He had no life experience with females, but he had a sense that they were very important for his survival and providing any measure of comfort during that survival.
The cat moved, just as the two humans stood side by side on the far side of the rushing river water. He ran down the remainder of the slope, made very short work of the running across the rocks, and then came to a stop to arrive standing beside the boy and the warrior.
“Real difficult for him, huh?” the warrior asked, not saying the words as if they formed a question.
“Not much trouble at all,” the boy agreed. “He seems well adapted to this place.”
“My entire old tribe is going to come down this slope and have to make the crossing,” the boy said, pointing back up the slope with his small spear.
“And that means what?” the warrior asked, mystified.
“We need to lay out a line of braided liana vines from one side of the rapids to the other so they don’t go over the falls,” the boy said, lowering his spear. “The Warriors aren’t going to make any kind of attempt to make it easier on the women and children. That’s not what they do.”
“Yes, but why is that what we’re supposed to do?” Cetan asked. “They’re not your tribe anymore. They threw you out to die, like me. We don’t owe them anything.”
“The women and children didn’t throw either of us out,” the boy replied, bending down to begin cutting the tough liana vines from the bottom of tree trunks down near the running water.
“Suppose not,” the warrior said, more to himself than the boy. He went to work, joining the boy in cutting the vines from the tree trunks in earnest.
The cat sat and then lay down, to watch. The humans of his pride worked away at labor the cat couldn’t understand. The cutting of the vines made no sense, and neither did the braiding together of the many strands to form a continuous rope. When the rope was long enough, for whatever purpose the humans had, they stopped working. The boy, without preamble or complaint, jumped from rock to rock, just like the cat himself had earlier, except dragging one end of the heavy rope along. He pulled the end with one coil wrapped around his body, the vine flowing along through the water behind him as he went. Once upon the other side, he turned with a laugh, tied off the liana to a nearby tree trunk of some substance, and then ran back toward the rocks.
Cetan had not lied when he’d taken his oath about the rocks. He wouldn’t risk them again, but he could appreciate the boy’s ability to not only run among and atop them but also somehow discern the nature of every rock he was feeling with his feet. It took many minutes, but before long, the many stringed lines rested in a downward curve over the rocks. The boy went to work to secure his end firmly to the tree trunk with smaller vines, and the warrior tied off the other. Tama ran across the rocks one last time, rejoining Cetan, and was done.
Tama hiked upstream past the encampment once more, going back to his same favorite fishing spot among the back-eddy currents of the boulders too large for the deep fast-moving current to go over. The amount of fish he was having to catch on a regular basis was increasing, and the two women and the children had arrived only recently.
Upon his return, successful once more in spearing a huge specimen and having taken the time to clean the fish, even though he knew the women might be expected to do such work, he noted that the cat was back in the cleft, muzzle resting on his large heavily padded paws. He noted, in some surprise, that the creature had adjusted to camp life, and being served cooked meals awfully rapidly. The beaver was in its usual place, except both Churt and Mura would alternately stop beside it, occasionally poking it in the hind haunches with long thin sticks, as they made their way back and forth, to and from the river bed, carrying larger flat stones, some so big that each child had to carry one end of the stone to move it and place it next to Cetan. The beaver would mildly react to each of their intrusions, flicking the offended part of its body slightly at their poking, and then returning to snoozing by the cooking fire. The fire burned low, its deep-set coals radiating more heat than the flames would seem to justify. The two women had stopped working and were waiting by the cooking fireside, as well, as if they knew that the main course of some large meal would be arriving at any time.
Tama sat down near the kids, watching the women out the side of his eyes. He’d delivered another big, gutted and cleaned fish, and was proud of himself, not that he expected any thanks or admiration, or received any. Cetan was working on doing something to the fire pit they used to front the lean-to during the increasingly colder nights. Tama noted that he smiled as he worked, having removed his leather foot jerkins to pad around on the flat river stone bed the children had fashioned. Soon, Tama knew, his own bare feet would not be able to handle the cold of the ground, much less the ice that would form on the river, and the snow that would fall from the sky.
The two women carefully skinned the entire carcass of the fish before going to work to cut the meat from the bones and into hand-sized pieces. They’d done the same to the fish he’d brought in earlier. The boy was mystified. Where had the women gotten their extremely sharp knives? Where did they keep them? What were the fish skins for, or were they to be discarded?
Tama turned his attention to the cat. Although the cat slept, it did so with one of his single eyes slit slightly open. The boy concluded that the animal rested because he was recovering from whatever had happened up on the canyon wall the night before. That the cat had been able to follow he and Cetan back up the canyon wall had also probably been very demanding, as well. Tama presumed the cat to be watching the women, although with its primary attention, through the seemingly asleep-slit eye, was on the fish. The cat ate fish like the river consumed water.
The larger of the women, named Night Moon, according to Cetan, spoke for the first time.
“The monster cat has no place here and should be fed nothing,” the woman said, but not speaking in the direction of where the cat lay sleeping nearby, nor in Tama’s direction.
The woman stared down, bent forward, working to rend the fish flesh into sizes that could be placed atop wet flat pieces of wood the children had also provided in their trips up from the river. Tama like his fish cooked on sticks stuck into the earth around the fire, but he sighed to himself with the knowledge that how the fish was cooked wasn’t to be a choice he was likely to have any longer. Women were powerless in his own former tribe but somehow managed to control so many things in that tribe that the males could never have gotten along without them. Tama reflected on how it was to be powerless yet powerful, like the cat in some ways. The cat was the single most powerful animal among all of them, even among both of the tribes, but it was powerless to cook. It loved cooked fish. Hasti was forced to wait patiently and accept the food from much weaker humans.
“Did you hear my words?” the older heavier woman asked, her voice much louder.
“Cetan?” Tama said, looking over toward where the warrior worked nearby, doing whatever it was he was doing.
Cetan stopped for a few seconds, looked into the boy’s eyes, and then shrugged, before bending back down to his work.
Tama looked all around the area, hoping the woman wasn’t talking to him, but deep down he knew better. There was some kind of strange attachment that held the cat and the boy together in a distant but tight bond, and that fact wasn’t missed by any of them.
The boy decided not to answer.
The cat lay, less asleep than it gave the appearance of being. The exchange between members of the tribe before him was of the kind that drew his interest. There was no comprehension in his analysis of the sounds coming across the short distance from the fire pit to the opening of his cleft. But there was feeling and even understanding. The cat breathed easily in and out, but deeper than before. If there as to be a struggle for alpha male supremacy in the pride, then he must prepare himself for it while giving no outward evidence that he was preparing for it. He studied the boy and wondered about the attachment between them that he knew was there but he didn’t want to be there. For most of his life, the cat had dealt with things that simply were. He’d been reacting to what was required all the time, with all his energy. At least that had been the way of his life before he suffered the wound that had blasted down from the sky.
The cat’s own awareness of his preparations, in case his alpha status was to be challenged, more than surprised him. It stirred him, as if he’d been asleep in all of life, but was now awake. He opened his other closed eye, not because he was bothered about the unsettling potential for change to everything he had in life, but because of his awareness to a potential threat. That threat wasn’t to his leadership of the pride.
A sound behind the boy instantly froze him in place. Tama could see everything in front of him, from Cetan at the one fire pit, and the two women at the other beyond. The children were halfway in between, while the was beaver still to his right, although almost out of view in his peripheral vision. The boy’s eye’s focused and stared into the fully open eyes of the cat, but only for an instant.
The cat moved so fast it was all but invisible. Tama caught only a passing sight of the cat’s great charging leap just in time to go down to his right, toward where the beaver lay. As he sent down he grasped his spear with his right hand. And then, everything was moving. Cetan was scrambling for his spear leaning against the lean-to behind him. The women grabbed the children and went down to the soft ground by the fire. The alert noise from behind, that Tama had heard resolved into the beat of running feet, and the distinctive sound of human bodies moving through flora at high speed.
Tama turned as he came to his feet, preparing himself for battle by grasping the shaft of his spear, and pointing its tip outward toward where the river ran.
The cat struck the first charging warrior directly on the chest, the screaming bellow from the cat’s throat almost deafening in volume. The man went down instantly, but the cat wasn’t even slowed in moving to strike the second warrior’s chest with the side of his left shoulder. The second warrior went down. The third braked, turned, and ran for the river, dropping his spear along the way. When Tama got himself together enough to run and arrive at the river bank, joined quickly by Cetan, there were three warriors in the water, moving downriver at high speed. The current increased relentlessly in velocity, as the water was squeezed and then released to fall the many man-lengths down into the churning cauldron at the bottom of the canyon.
The cat was gone. The beaver was gone. Cetan and Tama moved fast down the bank toward the falls, making no effort to make themselves invisible to any warriors who might be stationed on the other side of the river. It took some time to eventually reach the line of rocks across the river that preceded the water’s precipitous drop. The three warriors were plainly visible, however. All three had been saved by the braided vine rope he and the warrior had strung across the current earlier, intended to help the women and children of the tribe when they eventually crossed.
“What was that?” Tama asked as he and the warrior stood together, watching the disappearing backs of the warriors.
“That was three more spears for us, when we get back to the encampment,” Cetan replied.
“No, I mean…” the boy began, but Cetan cut him off.
“I know what you mean,” he replied. “That was a raiding party to gauge our strength and our readiness to engage in conflict. Your old tribe was testing us.”
“How’d we do?” Tama asked.
“Three spears and they won’t be trying anything like that again,” Cetan replied, “but I wish I’d been smart enough to guess that they’d pull something like that.”
Both the boy and the warrior turned to walk slowly back along the river, but this time expending the effort to work through the heavy undergrowth nearby. Cetan wanted no more surprises from the tribe across the river.
When they got back, the women and children greeted them with welcome looks, but nothing was said. Tama gathered up the abandoned spears, evaluating the points mounted on each.
“You’re right,” he said to Cetan, “not as good as your people’s but still not bad.
The cat padded up from behind them. Tama heard the nearly silent animal’s approach but had become so used to the cat that he didn’t react, other than to wait until it made its appearance in their midst. Seconds later, it walked to his side, lowered its rear haunches to the ground, and stared across the short intervening distance at the women and children, still clutching themselves together by the fire pit. The scene seemed to freeze in place for an uncomfortable period of time, finally broken when the woman named Night Moon spoke.
“The cat can stay,” she whispered, staring first into the boy’s eyes and then those of the cat itself. She turned her head away, and then looked down at the ground in front of her.
The cat breathed in and out deeply, checked to see that the fish was being handled, and readied for the fire. Hasti then walked slowly through the small area to climb into his cleft and lay back down. Once again, he rested inside the cleft, his muzzle on top of both crossed paws in front of him, his eyes, this time, fully closed.