The return to their encampment took much longer than the trip out. The body of the animal suspended between them was heavy and ungainly. They could not travel too fast across the forest floor because the hanging body would begin to swing to the point where they could not travel in a straight line together. There was a cadence that had to be met, and therefore a forward speed much slower than they might otherwise be able to travel. The cat traversed back and forth across their direction of travel, staying just ahead of them, nearly invisible except when not directly searched for. The boy would catch a tiny glimpse of something moving to the front and he would know. It could only be the cat, as anything else would have made its presence known somewhere much earlier along their course of travel. The warrior walked in back, controlling the swaying of the deer’s body as best he could from behind, allowing the boy to choose their path through the forest. The way was clear down along the inner edge near where the river waters still ran fast, cold and deep, although the bank was too dangerous to move along. There was no point in letting the other nearby tribes know they were bringing in a large chunk of the hunted game. The forest further inland was covered with stacks and broken strands of pine trunks and other nearly impassible debris, able to be moved through quickly but only if using one of the age-old paths that had been cut long before either the warrior or the boy had been born, and those paths usually didn’t go where one intended to travel. The aroma of the river water, blown by a mild wind from that direction, and the loamy forest floor itself brought a smile to the boy’s face. He loved the forest and everything about it, except for the uncommon but always problematic interaction with other humans.
The cat appeared in front of the boy, not ten man-lengths ahead. It was stopped, facing sideways to their direction of travel. Its face was turned toward the boy, its dark eyes piercing into his own. The boy jerked to stop, unbalancing Cetan at the back to the point where the warrior let out a disgusted growl.
“Something’s wrong,” the boy said, lowering his end of the spear litter they’d formed to haul the animal’s body.
By the time he’d twisted back from laying the spear tipped shafts down, the cat was gone. It was like the predator had never been there. The boy stared for several seconds, but there was nothing to see.
“What is it?” Cetan whispered, lowering his own end of the litter to the forest floor.
“I don’t know,” the boy answered. “Hasti stopped in front of us and stared, then was gone. He hasn’t done that ever before.”
“Get down,” Cetan said, still whispering so quietly the boy could barely make out what he said. “Wait, and listen.”
They lay flat on the forest floor and waited, the boy trying to breathe as silently as he could. It took the longest time for the bare whispering sound of someone or something moving came slipping atop the forest floor covering. It was like a light rain but not that. The sound stopped, and all was silent again. The warrior and the boy waited, their patience long tested by such mysterious occurrences in the wild. Their wait was not for long however, before a warrior stepped forth out from under a huge overhanging pine tree in the direct line of their previous travel. In less time than it might take a stick to move a man-length along the river’s racing waters, three more warriors emerged from under the tree. The boy saw immediately that they were members of his former tribe, and a shiver of fear coursed up and down his spine. The warrior’s tribe was made of men and women unknown to the boy but his own tribe he knew only too well, and its tendency for abrupt censure and violent solutions well known to him.
The four warriors were unknown by identity to the boy, as none of them had been with the previous group they’d encountered, and the boy’s passing contact and knowledge of other warriors in his former tribe had been distant and sketchy, at best.
“You will not hunt in this region of the forest, as you have been told,” the lead warrior said, gesturing all about him with his spear extended.
“Nothing was said of that,” the boy replied to him, getting to his feet before Cetan could grab his arm and quiet him.
“Listen,” the warrior whispered directly in the boy’s left ear, gripping his arm hard. “Do not speak.”
“You have been warned, and now you must surrender the game you have taken against tribal rules,” the warrior said, motioning his accompanying warriors forward toward Cetan and the boy stood next to their grounded litter.
“Behind you,” Cetan said, his voice calm and clear. “You need to look behind you.” Cetan pointed downriver the index finger of his right hand.
“What?” the tribal warrior said, slowly turning to face downriver.
The cat sat on the path, not sideways like it had stood before, but facing the warriors in front of him. As the tribal warriors turned the cat seemed to rise a few hand lengths and surge a bit forward. It’s eyes staring darkly and blankly into the those of the tribal leader.
“What is this?” the warrior squeezed out, not moving a bit, his spear held up but not ready to do anything.
The boy watched in amazement. The cat was so close to the warrior that the man would have no time at all to do anything if it chose to strike from such a close distance.
Nobody moved for some time, the cat remaining more still than any of them present, never even blinking its multi-lidded eyes. The boy felt the animal’s need to attack as if it was only holding itself in check for reasons no observer could understand.
“Apparently, your leaders did not discuss this member of our tribe with you?” Cetan asked, his voice soft and agreeable.
The tribal warriors did not look back at him, their total attention held by the cat.
“No, none of your tribal members were discussed or described, or any of that,” the lead warrior said, his voice muffled by the fact that he did not turn his face back from facing the cat directly.
“How do you want to proceed?” Cetan asked.
“Hunting okay,” the warrior said. “Hunting is fine. You may keep the animal you have slain and we wish you good eating. We would like to go back to the river and cross to our land on the other side to consider this.”
“If you would back up and walk by us that might be best,” Cetan suggested. “We would not want the cat to get the idea that you are an enemy, or perhaps some sort of human prey.”
The warriors began backing immediately, taking very small slow steps, their full attention held by the cat in front of them. When they were past they fled at once, toward the river.
When the warriors were gone, and Cetan and the boy turned their attention back to the cat, he was gone.
“That was just strange,” Cetan said, “Like that cat knew just what was happening and intervened.”
The boy said nothing about the seemingly obvious fact that there was no reason at all for the warrior to use the word ‘like.’ The cat had known and acted, and there could be no other explanation. That it had not struck the tribal warriors was even more definitive, along with the fact that it had stood to block the path, communicating all of its deadly menace. Attacking the assembled group of warriors would have caused chaos and tremendous fear and damage. Hasti had taken a more intelligent course, and the boy was not about to write off the experience as some sort of wild animal decision of unknown good fortune.
The cat was once more mysteriously missing, although the boy was now certain that it was never far away. Whatever had happened between the cat and the humans it was protecting wasn’t something that was understandable but it was certainly welcome.
With the tribal warriors gone and with their admitted approval about hunting, the boy and the warrior hauled the spear-shaft supported burden of the deer’s body toward the river. The bank of the river was smooth and easier to navigate down, and more open to observing anything else they might face on their way back to the encampment. Although Cetan’s tribe had used the same bed to move downriver, it had done so in the same direction. No tracks marked the hard mud surface of the bank, however, so it was unlikely that there were warriors from that band about. When they reached the area nearby to where the encampment was being established a bit further from the water, the set down the deer to first rinse the carcass out before proceeding to the lean-to and fire pits. The cat remained invisible and unheard and had not shown itself since thwarting the intent of the tribal warriors.
“What is that across the river?” Cetan asked, standing with one hand shading the afternoon sun from his eyes, having set down the load to drink some of the pure rushing river water passing near his feet.
The boy looked across the river.
“It’s a line of red down near the bank on the far side, under those overgrown pines,” the boy replied.
“It’s unnatural,” Cetan said. “We need to look into that.”
“As soon as we get this back and before it gets dark,” the boy responded, reaching to pick up the load once more.
The encampment was only moments away. The youngsters, Churt and Mura, came running out to meet the successful hunters, with Aurora and Night Moon not far behind. The deer was quickly stripped from the spears and hauled over to the small areas between the two fire pits. The women went to work on it without comment, while the children moved to the water’s edge where the beaver was making its way back across the water to join them.
“I’ll go with you to the river’s edge,” Cetan said.
Tama understood. Cetan was afraid to make the crossing just up above the deadly falls again. He would have to cross alone, work his way back along the far bank and inspect whatever was to be found there. Cetan could stand guard, able to see the cliff face and far bank clearly, and also warn of anything odd or of any human or animal nearby.
The boy crossed the river as he had before. Light leaping jumps took him from exposed rock to exposed rock, just like before. His feet never slipped once or missed where he intended to place them. The rocks were cold to the touch but, without vegetative growth present, they allowed for a solid grip for the rough bottoms of his heavily calloused feet. Working back to where the hidden red section of the river bank was located was more difficult. It took some time for Cetan to guide him in. The thin red line, visible from the other bank, proved to be a very narrow cave, stretching about four man-lengths long. The vertical opening was thin but big enough to allow the boy to slip inside. Once past the lip of the opening, the boy crouched, amazed. The red material reflecting out and across the river was obsidian. The boy recognized the special stone immediately. He’d never seen the stone in the color of red, but one up-thrust bit of it told him all he needed to know. Obsidian was a rock that had the sharpest edge of any rocks found anywhere. It was not as hard as flint but it was much sharper. The separation of skins from fat and meat were immeasurably easier using those flint-knapped tools formed from obsidian. Obsidian was also much rarer than flint, so was not generally available in the area where the boy had been born and raised. Flint worked fine for spear tips but obsidian was by far the best rock to sharpen for use in making knives and scrapers. The boy crawled out of the opening and scoured the river bank for a large rock formed by ordinary volcanic lava hardening. Cetan yelled across to him but Tama ignored him, re-entering the opening, proceeding to the chunk of obsidian sticking up, and then using the big rock to break it off at its base.
“What is it?” Cetan asked before the boy was even fully across the rushing river water.
Tama plopped the forearm long chunk of obsidian into the mud at the larger warrior’s feet.
“What is it?” Cetan said again, taking the long narrow piece of red obsidian into his hands.
“It’s obsidian,” the boy said, squatting down. “It’s very rare, at least around here. I saw it a couple of times in my tribe but not very often, and not the red kind. I only heard about that.”
“What does it do, or make?” Cetan asked.
The boy explained the features of the rock that made it special. Cetan didn’t comment. He continued to run his hands gently up and down the shaft of the piece.
“It’s our trade,” the boy said, his voice low and quiet.
“It’s got to be knapped, though,” Cetan replied. “We don’t know how to do that and we can’t have it done without giving away the secret.”
“So, we learn,” Tama replied. “There’s a whole cave loaded with it over there.”
“What if the tribal warriors find it?” Cetan asked, his voice rising, as he stared across the water.
“I filled the opening with pine boughs and branches, and then erased my tracks from the river bank,” the boy responded, smiling at his own cleverness.
Cetan handed the chunk of obsidian back to the boy.
“You need to go to work on this and see what you can do,” he said. “If this works then we’ll have the ability to make it through the winter without becoming slaves to one or other of our tribes.”
They walked toward the encampment to see the beaver once more laying flat near the opening to the cat’s cleft. The cat flicked an ear at their approach but did not open his eyes.
The boy looked at the encampment itself and was surprised to discover that it was actually beginning to look like a very small village. The children played, the beaver lay nearby, the cat was in its cleft and the women labored to free the deerskin from the meat of the animal they’d hunted together.
“Go to work,” Cetan said, his voice quiet, his own gaze taking in the campsite and all that was going on. “None of this can continue without trade. What you found means everything…if it works.”