Hasti sat next to the boy, his head at almost exactly the same height as the that of the standing human. He sat close, but not too close, knowing each and every nuance of the boy’s movement, breathing, and even facial expression. The cat could not see behind himself but he could see back to a substantially unlikely degree without moving his eyes. He saw the boy reach out behind him, the human’s hand and arm moving slowly and naturally. The cat thought nothing of the gesture until the boy’s hand contacted the top of his head. It took all of the cat’s control not to move, and even more not to whip around and bite the offending appendage. The boy’s hand gently stroked the fur between the cat’s ears, while the cat sat and tried to come to terms with the contact. He flicked his ears, hoping to send a message of personal violation and indignity. Not a violation reaching the level of a violent response, but a violation nevertheless. What was to be done? The cat tried to think of the new experience but had no reference for it. The boy’s hand dropped down and pulled away. The cat felt a strange sense of loss, along with some measure of relief.
The cat and the boy stood nearby the cooking fire, in wait. The fish, filets laid flat on the surface of flat pieces of tree trunk, sizzled and bubbled. The two women handling the fire, and the fish boards, did so with great dexterity and subtle movements. They used strange implements. Sticks tied in a flat array to lift the fish filets, sharpened wood pieces to cut the soft flesh and a long thin spear tip to poke the coals or to snag the meat and move it around atop the flat pieces of wood.
The boy and the cat felt the warrior approach from behind them, but neither turned.
“How can wood be cooked on without it burning up?” the boy asked.
“The wood’s green, and it is burning up, but very slowly,” Night Moon responded, even though the boy had asked the question of Cetan. “The moisture inside the wood boils away and that cooks the fish,” the normally silent woman finished.
The boy was astounded. That the wood acted like that was so reasonable when he was told, but he knew in his heart he’d never have figured it out on his own.
The woman took two stick fronds and maneuvered one of the boards off of the fire and onto the nearby flat river floor stones that surrounded it. The fish filet continued to sizzle atop the board.
“Let the flesh cool, or you’ll burn yourself,” Aurora, the other woman stated, in a flatter voice, as if speaking to an ignorant child.
The boy was impatient, but he waited, dropping to his knees while undoing the thong holding the pockets tied to his waist. He worked his knife free and prepared to divide the fish among the three of them, but then it was gone. With one quick swipe of its upper body and neck, the cat swooped its head down, grabbed the large filet and began eating it while it walked back toward its cleft. The boy looked up, back, and into the warrior’s eyes.
“How did he do that?” he asked, in shock.
“The cat does not listen well,” Aurora answered in her monotonal way.
Cetan began to laugh out loud.
“Now, that’s a basic truth,” he finally said.
The boy went to work on the second fillet, working to make sure the almost bare bones would be preserved. The hard slow-cooking of fish bones was very important. The fish bones, once properly cooked, could be transported long distances, and for even longer periods of time, without suffering from any spoilage. Beaten and salted meat, left out to dry, performed in the same way but was much harder to have available, as game in the forest, although plentiful, was fast and elusive. Even though the cat lay eating its stolen filet inside its cleft, the boy remained aware that the animal’s speed and agility meant that it could grab the second filet with almost no warning.
Catching one large fish a day was a successive feat the boy had pulled off for days in a row, but that would not always be the case as ice began to form over the surface of the rushing waters.
Aurora accepted the second filet, casting one mean-faced glance over at where the cat was finishing off the first filet.
The children played around the fire, fighting with the small wooden spears the boy had made for them. The spears were smaller, even than the boy’s own, and they didn’t have chipped flint heads, but they were still effective at sticking into nearby items of interest, including the children themselves. When things got out of hand Night Moon would hold up one finger, and the children would immediately stop their fighting activity. The boy wondered how the woman had perfected that single small, but powerful communication method, since if the boy held up one finger, not one being in the forest or on the earth around him paid the least bit of attention.
The woman named Aurora pointed at the boy’s bare feet. The boy pulled them in under his thighs, sitting uncomfortably before the fire.
“Skins, we must have animal skins,” she said, “you may not pass the winter without foot coverings, not if we are to have meat.” The woman looked meaningfully over at where the cat was finishing his filet.
“We have the fish skin but we must have the cushioning and protective animal skin,” the older woman went on, unnecessarily, still staring at the cat, as if its skin would do just fine.
The boy felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned to look into Cetan’s smiling face. The warrior was holding his own spear with his right hand, and extending one of the larger war spears they’d taken from Cetan’s tribe, in the other.
“The woman is right,” he said. “The pelts of the larger animals are needed for our clothing and for the shelter. Stuffing pine needles, cones and forest debris into the cracks between wooden poles cannot stand through the coldest days and nights that are coming. We have no ability to cut, store, dry and then use wood. We’ve got to forage for fallen trees that are already broken down enough for us to break and haul back. But first, we must acquire the pelts and meat the old woman is demanding.
I’ll teach you the silent hunter method since we are two. It works even better if there are more hunters, but we are all we have.”
“What about the kids?” the boy asked.
“The little girls?” Cetan asked his voice one of surprise.
The warrior looked over at the cavorting children.
“Maybe you’re right. They sure make plenty of noise and if I can keep them quiet for just a bit in the forest, then we might just be able to use their noisy talents, but not this first time.”
“Can we leave the camp without worry about what the tribes are going to do and when they’re going to do it?” the boy asked, accepting the spear after he leaned his own smaller version carefully against the rapidly expanding mess of branches, logs, and leaves that was becoming their home.
“Come on,” Cetan said, moving past the sleeping beaver and heading up river, “There are all kinds of stuff we can’t do right now.”
The boy followed in the warrior’s trace, loping along beside the running water, both men adroitly stepping on certain rocks and not others as they made their way up the valley.
They ran easily for what seemed a long time to the boy before Cetan stopped and turned.
“You proceed upriver, but don’t go too far,” the warrior instructed, “and then run inland for a good bit, it doesn’t matter how much, but don’t go too far from this river. I’m going directly inland. I’ll wait a bit and then start heading north toward you. The game will hear me and ease on up the valley ahead of me. Any animals will be paying more attention to my advance than to you. Wait behind a tree or large rock. The game will tend to head up the valley and then pinch in toward the water. Be ready.”
“That’s it?” the boy asked, in surprise. “The silent hunter thing?”
“Hunting’s easy if there is game, if the weather is right, if the terrain permits it, if the animals do what you think they might do and if you have a good weapon that doesn’t break when you use it, and that’s saying you are good enough to use it.”
“Oh, not so easy,” the boy replied, a frown forming on his forehead.
Cetan took off, leaving the boy standing by the side of the river, leaning against the shaft of his spear and wondering what he was really supposed to do. He’d never speared anything larger than a raccoon, and now he carried a spear that was almost twice as long as he was tall. He wondered why Cetan had not made him try to drive the game toward Cetan himself, but there wasn’t going to be an answer to that question until he saw him again.
The boy moved upriver and then inland, as he’d been instructed. He found a large boulder that would give him cover from being seen but also allow him to see over it in case something ran close by. He squatted down to wait, knowing in his heart that he wasn’t going to spear anything. Cetan would be disappointed and they’d return without the game they’d gone out for.
Nothing happened for a long time. The only sounds the boy could pick up on were from the distant movement of the water over larger rocks. Every once and awhile the boy thought he heard something behind him but nothing to his front. He waited.
The boy heard Cetan moving toward him in the forest. He knew it had to be him because no self-respecting warrior of any kind would move through the forest beating his spear against anything that would make a noise. The crack of Cetan’s spear shaft hitting rocks, tree trunks and whatever else was around became readily apparent from a good distance away.
The boy crouched, getting ready, just in case, even though he knew it was hopeless. And then he heard it. The light fluttering thudding of hoofs moving fast across the forest floor. The sound was growing in volume and headed straight for the boy’s position. The boy didn’t know whether to pop up to take a look or stay down and jump up at the last second. When would it be the last second? He waited. When the hooves seemed like they would run right over the boulder the boy positioned the spear over and above his right shoulder, balancing it parallel to the ground. He reared his arm as far back as he could pull it and then jumped up.
It was a deer. A large buck with a massive set of antlers. The deer saw him at the same instant the boy saw the deer. The great animal was no more than five man-lengths away. The boy threw the spear as hard as he could, knowing before it left its position over his shoulder that he’d missed. The boy’s eyes widened as the spear passed right by the buck but the buck didn’t stop. It leaped through the air as if to jump right over the boulder and strike the boy himself. The boy crouched back down, before flipping around and pressing his back into the curved stone of the massive boulders and shutting his eyes.
No deer or any other animal landed nearby, however. There was only silence in the forest. The boy opened his eyes, before slowly turning to hug the stone with his chest, and then rise to the point where he could see over the rock surface.
The deer lay there on its side, blood leaking from its neck. The boy knew it was dead. He couldn’t believe it. The spear that had been thrown not a man-length away from the creature.
Cetan crept toward the deer, spear at the ready, in case the buck was not dead. He moved slowly, staying low to the forest floor. The boy stood, frozen in place behind the boulder, only his head sticking up.
“You got it,” Cetan whispered, over to the boy, upon reaching the dead deer’s side. He poked it with the haft of his spear but the animal did not move.
“It’s a wonderful kill and you should be proud,” Cetan said, still not looking over toward where the boy stood, unmoving.
“Strange wounds on the neck though,” Cetan said, bending over for a closer look. Then he stood up suddenly and turned to face the boy.
“Oh, I understand,” the warrior stated, a smile growing on his face. “Turn around.”
The boy slowly turned. The cat sat not two man-lengths from where he stood behind the boulder. The cat, sitting, was fully as tall as the boy. He licked one paw and stared into the boy’s eyes. And then the boy got it. The cat had been there all along. He’d trailed both of them and then, when the boy’s spear missed, the cat had taken the buck down so silently and quickly the boy hadn’t realized what had happened.
Cetan joined the boy behind the boulder, both men staring at the cat.
“Why didn’t he take it?” the boy asked. “Why isn’t he eating it?’ he continued.
“Service,” Cetan laughed out. “He’s getting used to cooked food being handed to him instead of having to do all the work himself. Come on, we’ve got to strap the body between our spears after we clean it out with our knives. It’s a big deer so it’ll be a tough trip back, but the women will be very happy.
They worked together. Although the boy wasn’t used to gutting big game, it actually turned out to be easier than working with the smaller animal bodies.
It took almost no time to get the big animal bound between the spears, and the trip back to the camp begun. The cat had disappeared while the cleaning had been going on.
“He’s here, and close by,” Cetan said, balancing the spear shafts, one on each shoulder.
The boy followed suit, taking the back of the spears and lifting them to rest on his own shoulders.
“Will we be able to hunt down enough of these to cover the lean-to and then make clothing too?” the boy wondered aloud, as they moved slowly but easily toward the river.
“Not a prayer,” Cetan replied.
“Then what are we supposed to do to get through the winter?” the boy asked, in surprise.
“Trade,” Cetan said. “We’ve got to find a way to trade with the tribes or we can’t make it.”
“What have we got to trade?” the boy asked.
“That’s our main problem,” the warrior replied.