THE CAT

Chapter XX

The boy lay awake in the night, listening to the slight changes of small jungle sounds, as they worked their way through the heavy material to arrive at the side of the river where they were encamped. The warrior was asleep. The boy knew that because his snores were part of the mass of sounds constantly forming the rhythm of jungle nightlife that he’d come to know. The river’s rushing water, gentle but as constant and hard as a rock, was the main feature of life near the river. The gurgling flow covered other incoming sounds at the same time it served as a mask for potential outgoing sounds that creatures, such as the boy himself, might not want other predators to hear.

He rolled out of the lean-to, knowing that his passage out of the shelter would be heard by the two women, if not anyone else in the vicinity. Using leaves and dried vines for coverings had its disadvantages, not the least of which was that the coverings were not a whole lot of protection against the cold. And the much greater cold was coming with the approach of winter. They needed to trade for quality animals pelts and they needed to do it quickly if they were going to be able to allow the women sufficient time to work the leather and bend the skins to their needs. The boy picked up his short spear and headed for the river’s edge just down from the camp. The raft was tied just off a great clump of the stuff, where’d they’d left it and Hasti. It took only seconds to reach the spot. The raft was pushed into the bank by one of the many eddies that worked around and around in small naturally formed coves up and down the river.

The moon was up and half full, providing enough light to see by. The boy looked around for the cat, which both the warrior and the boy thought might possibly remain asleep atop their load and provide some sort of guard, but was no longer there. The boy went to work unloading the stones. Each one weighed almost a quarter of the boy’s own body weight, so each stone had to be unloaded and then carried the full distance back to the camp, and then quietly set down behind the lean-to where the women and children were sleeping. The hiding place was not as good as a burial pit would be, but it would have to do for the night, and it was certainly better than the full exposure the stones had when piled to some height aboard a raft that was totally visible to anyone within a good walking distance from the still flatness of the inshore water.

When the last piece of the flint substance was hauled to the back of the lean-to they’d constructed for sleeping and protection from the elements, the boy returned to the raft. The first rays of sunlight would be just over the horizon, he knew. It was light enough to make out vague shapes in the night. It was light enough to see the cat. The animal had never, apparently, returned to its place atop the stones. Instead, the forest aware and long-experienced predator had assumed a place undercover and concealment from where it could observe the raft and also the activities of what it must consider to be the human members of his pride. Its body was slung across and entwined with a large branch sticking straight out of a huge riverbank tree. The branch was high enough where the cat would be safe from lower predators but low enough to allow for one great leap downward to be made if attack became necessary. The raft had gone undisturbed through the night, the boy understood, and whether the cat’s presence had anything to do with that was anybody’s guess.

The boy untied the raft, removing the vines they’d used the day before to secure the load, and then shoved the heavy ponderous thing slowly out into the current. In order to get the current to take hold of the huge wooden thing, he had to fully immerse himself in the water, pushing hard but constantly. Finally, the raft was grabbed by the current and pulled downriver. The boy rushed from the water, not stopping to dry himself at all, and ran down to the stones he’d used to cross the cataract several times before. The raft came directly at him, forcing the boy to pull slightly back from the rocks, before the raft encountered first one great stone and then another. In seconds the current ripped the big conveyance into many pieces, the twine both the warrior and the boy had used to put it together snapping and bouncing away as if made from plant material much less strong than what they had used. The pieces went over the falls. The boy tried to lean and peer down to see the big timbers hit the bottom but with no luck. The mist was simply too thick. What went over the falls was never to be seen again. Some day the boy wanted to take the time to climb down the falls and explore what might be below, but the work to survive never seemed to allow for any spare time at all.

The cat slithered down from the tree. It was easier, as such close range, for the boy to realize just how big the animal really was. Its paws were nearly the size of the children’s heads and it had to weigh at least as much as two to three grown adults, even though it moved as if it was as light as a feather.

The cat approached the boy, who stood waiting, but unsure of how to react. He knew that he was totally under the control of the cat and whatever the animal decided to do he could not stop. Possibly, his spear, or even one of the bigger warrior spears, might have been thrown and then penetrated and killed the cat, but more than likely only if the cat was sitting still and unaware that a spear had been thrown at all.

The cat slowly approached, looking out over the moving water of the passing river, rather than directly at the boy, who stood as still as possible, trying not to shake or feel any trepidation the great predator might detect and react to.

Hasti stopped in front of him, his muzzle was at shoulder level to the boy’s torso. The cat’s head turned and without warning or preamble of any sort, licked the boy on one cheek briefly, before turning slightly to again take in the sights the river offered.

The boy was taken aback slightly by the physical contact. The lick surprised him, but also the dryness of the cat's tongue. Before the incident, the boy would have presumed that the cat’s mouth was moist, like his own. But that hadn’t proven to be true. It was impossible to miss the intent of the lick, however. The cat approved of the boy and there was now no doubt about that. It didn’t appear to need the humans that had become its adopted pride. Its ability to hunt, kill the prey it caught, in whatever amount it wanted. The creature's warm fur made weathering the coming winter as little more than a minor annoyance. The humans, however, were not well equipped in any of those areas.

The human pride would need the cat to help where it could, the boy knew. He took a chance.

He reached out and stroked the cat once between its large pointed ears taking care not to disturb the split running up and down its left ear.  Tama could only try to imagine what kind of combat the cat must have been involved with to suffer such an injury. Hasti didn’t move or seem to take note that it had been touched. The boy waited. It seemed that the cat was doing the same thing. Finally, the boy sat down by slowly crossing his legs and lowering himself carefully to the ground. The cat followed suit, laying down in front of him with its face and muzzle only inches from his own. It seemed totally natural for the boy to continue stroking the cat between his eyes and then up over the top of his head and down the upper part of his neck.

At Hasti's neck, the boy found some burrs that it would be impossible for the cat to get out no matter how he might squirm around to place his paws. The boy pulled each one out, very slowly, waiting to make sure there would be no violent response.  He took the time to be as gentle as he could. The cat craned his eyes back and twisted his head but did nothing to stop the boy’s pursuit of the obviously painful penetrations of the cat’s thick fur.

The boy heard a sound behind him. And uncommon, almost scratching sound. He turned briefly but saw nothing, even though the light was improving dramatically from when he’d begun unloading and then destroying the raft. He pulled back to face the cat once more. But the cat was gone. Somehow, in total silence, yet only inches from him, it had disappeared without making a sound or even disturbing the air between them.

Tama slowly stood up to take in the scene of the river before him, the path he’d been resting briefly along and then upriver toward the thickness of the forest, where any danger might likely come at the camp from. He was shocked to see the cat again. The cat sat on the path, erect and unmoving, with its back to the boy. Without seeing its eyes the boy knew that the cat had to be staring directly at the forest near the river which the path closely followed.

Only then did he see the hunting party beyond. A hand’s number of warriors stood near a bit of the cleared edge of the forest, just off the path on a patch of ground between the rivers bank and the path itself. They stood, the leader without a weapon of any kind while the four warriors behind him each had long warrior spears. Their spears were not, however, in a threatening position. Their spear butts were pushed into the earth and the warriors leaned slightly on them.

The cat did not move and neither did the hunting party of warriors.

Suddenly, the boy felt a presence next to him but he didn’t turn, guessing at who it had to be.

“Cetan,” he whispered, his eyes never leaving the band of men or the unmoving back of the cat.

“Tama,” Cetan whispered back, almost directly into his left ear. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t see the raft filled with the stones.”

Only then did the boy realize that Cetan must have just awakened, and then crept to the scene before them. The raft had been a bit further down the bank and behind a huge overhanging thicket of reeds.

“No raft,” the boy said. “Broke up and went over the falls. I moved all the stones to the back of the lean-to. What do we do now?”

” We wait,” Cetan replied. “They are here to talk or to trade, or maybe both. They know we have some of the red stone, so I would presume they are here to trade, but they carry nothing in their hands or on their backs.”

“They aren’t going to do anything as long as Hasti sits there like a stone figure of himself,” the boy said.

“The cat is not under our control, as you know,” Cetan said.

“He’s not under their control, either,” the boy replied.

“That’s another reason to wait,” Cetan went on, “and the cat will eventually decide that the warriors are not a threat and move away.”

“Why don’t they come forward?” the boy asked. “Four full-grown warriors with warrior spears could handle just about any animal.”

“That’s not just any animal if you’ve noticed. The cat is as heavy as that raft of stones was and faster than anything else living that moves in our world. The warriors, in a frontal attack, would be no match for the cat.”

The obvious leader of the hunting party spoke, cupping his lips with both hands to cover the distance and overcome the sound of the river’s water rushing by.

“Stone,” he yelled once, and then put his hands down.

“What do you come to trade?” Cetan yelled back, causing the cat to move for the first time.

Very slowly, the cat turned it’s perfectly carved and massive head to glance at both Cetan and the boy, before jerking back to once more gaze on the hunting, now apparently a trading party.

“Have your animal step aside,” the leader yelled.

The boy wanted to yell back that the cat was not theirs to tell what to do. The cat did what it wanted when it wanted and traveled freely wherever it wanted to go, but he said nothing. He knew that Cetan was the warrior and Cetan had to speak for them all.

“We wait,” Cetan whispered, again, from just behind.

A brief period of uncomfortable time passed, and then the cat moved. Hasti turned and walked back down the path, taking insolent care to rub against the boy’s right thigh as it passed. And then it was gone, disappearing into the brush the extended down the river toward the falls just south of the camp.

“Perfect,” Cetan breathed.

“Perfect what?” the boy asked.

“Perfect that they now will think that we somehow commanded the cat to move as they wanted,” Cetan replied.

The boy looked around to see Cetan’s face and noted the small smile that crept across his lips.

“Now, we need no weapons, and we need not fear they’ll try to steal or cheat us in any way,” Cetan said, waving one hand up and out to welcome the hunting party to the camp.

“They are that afraid of Hasti?” the boy asked. His voice one of complete surprise.

“No, they fear our control of the cat and the beasts of the forest,” Cetan replied, while the trading party began to slowly approach.

The leader of the party stopped just short of the boy. Cetan stepped to the front, elbowing the boy back a bit.

“You bring nothing to trade?” he asked, but not in a questioning manner.

“We must first see the stone, and then we will bring forth what we have if the quality and quantity are enough,” the warrior said.

“Wait,” Cetan said, holding his right hand out with palm upraised.

Cetan leaned back and then spoke very low into the boy’s left ear.

“Bring out one stone, the smallest we brought back,” Cetan said.

The boy took off, turning on the path and running downriver until he’d disappeared from the group. Only then did he turn inward and force his way through the brush to make his way unseen to the back of the lean-to. He grabbed the first stone he saw that seemed small enough not to have to be dragged. He repeated his trip, reversing his course so the warriors would believe that the stones were stored somewhere downriver. The stone he delivered to Cetan was about the size of the older warriors large thigh but much much heavier.

Cetan grabbed the stone and then held it out but only a single hands distance from his chest.

The leader moved forward until he was very close to Cetan. None of the other warriors moved at all, their eyes on the stone.

“Yes,” the leader said, after moving his head forward and down, to examine the stone in as much detail as he could from the arm’s length of distance from where he stood.

The leader waved behind him once, and then stood straight once more. The four warriors that had accompanied him ran back to the forest they’d come out of.
In only a moment they reappeared, two of the big men carrying a stack of pelts between two wooden poles. They ran all the way back, placing the pelts down next to their leader’s right foot. The pile of pelts was knee-high and the boy noted that a full-grown bearskin was tied up atop the pile.

The leader said “yes,” again, this time holding out both of his hands.

“Yes,” Cetan repeated, placing the stone gently in the man’s hands.

At that, the leader turned and walked back toward the forest but stopped after only moving a few feet. He turned.

“We are protected as agreed in trade,” he said, and then waited. Nobody moved.

“You are protected to your own camp,” Cetan replied.

The leader nodded his head slowly and then walked with his men back to the forest. Once they disappeared, the boy could not contain himself.

“This, all of this for one stone,” he gushed out jumping down and going to his knees to untie the bearskin. The fur broke out once the bundle was untied and sprang forth to turn into a huge thick furry coat. The boy clutched it around his whole body and began spinning in circles.

“Get this stuff back to the camp,” Cetan ordered, grabbing the big fur and unwinding it from the boy.

“I have no idea what the cat will do or any of the other animals of the forest,” Cetan said, “and if they get attacked then we’ll get attacked. We’ve got to get ready to defend the camp. Where did you hide the stones, and what made you get up in the middle of the dark to unload them?”

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