The cat moved through the forest underbrush, slipping from side to side, making sure his front paws gentled down instead of solidly confronted the padded forest mat of long-accumulated and partially rotted vegetation. The beaten course of travel the intruding group of foreign warriors followed, making no attempts to remain silent, was to his left. Hasti didn’t need to see the warriors and made no attempt to close the distance between them and himself. Two of the warriors worked to haul the load they’d positioned upon the skin stretched between two long poles, while the other warriors carried their great heavy spears. The cat felt all this information transmit itself across the short distance just by listening closely to what sounds bled out from the warrior’s careless journey, without any regard of what other life might be around them.
Suddenly, the trading party stopped, and the cat stopped with them. There was no noise, other than some murmuring, coming from the great ape group. The cat crouched further down, invisible through the thickness of forest flooring that extended across the distance between where he was and where they were. The cat had no intention of hunting the humans, however, as he was only intent that they leave his territory, which they almost had accomplished before stopping. The cat began to move slowly backward, before barely rising on all four legs to turn and move to his left, toward the course the departing warriors had taken. Once a good distance away, Hasti moved toward the beaten path the men had been traveling on. He made no attempt to hide. He advanced to the center of the path and then sat down to stare straight ahead. All the warriors who’d been before him when he’d done the same thing near the camp, were gathered before him again at about the same distance.
They stopped whatever they were doing, which appeared to be retrieving something from a small bag one of them carried on his belt.
The warriors all turned to face the cat, very slowly. The warriors did not raise their spears in a threatening manner or make any other moves.
Hasti waited, his eyes unblinking.
The two warriors picked up the load they’d been carrying and, with the remaining warriors walking backward, slowly continued the way they’d been going before the encounter. The cat wanted to make certain that the foreign interlopers in his area were gone, but also to communicate a message of menace, and let them know they were not welcome to return. Once they were out of sight, and then upon waiting a bit longer for them to be out of hearing, Hasti relaxed all of his muscles and settled down to wait. The only certainty that might be found in the stranger’s departure, and their unexpected and unwelcome intrusion, would be found in waiting a long period of time to assure that the appearances of their departure was a confirmed certainty, and waiting through, with near unending patience, was much safer than potentially moving into a trap.
Cetan the warrior, moved through the camp to round the back of the lean-to the women and children had vacated with the dawn. The activity at the cooking area had already begun to provide plenty of noise and attractive aromas, as the first meal of the day was being fried, roasted and boiled over the rebuilt fire recovered from the buried coals of the night before.
“We’ve got stones that are too large,” the warrior informed the boy.
“But they traded without question, and we have almost half the skins and furs we might need for the winter,” Tama replied.
“They traded too quickly,” Cetan replied, pulling forth two of the largest stones they had left and laid them on the rough leaves and debris of the forest behind the lean-to.
“The value of these stones is much greater than we might have guessed. We must break then down to smaller sizes and then trade with both your and my own tribes. The contest between tribes for the stones, if we can build it, would mean that we might have everything we need to survive the winter before the river freezes over.”
“We need a place farther from the camp to bury these and then a small cleared area we can work to break them down,” the warrior went on, picking up a great chunk of the stone, throwing it over his shoulder and starting into the nearby brush.
“We can’t have either the chiefs or any of the more warlike warriors thinking they can attack us and get the stones without trading anything.”
The boy followed the older man, forgetting to pick up a stone piece himself in his enthusiasm to see where the warrior was going to establish a hiding place, and also trying to quell the spike of fear that had gone through him when he started thinking about the fact that they might be attacked. He hadn’t thought that far ahead when he’d dumped the stone right behind the area they slept in. They were not protected at all, and he knew that twenty or thirty warriors could kill them all and take whatever they wanted in very short order if they thought it might be in their best interest.
The warrior quickly cleared an area that was about five man-lengths across and wide before he went down on his hands and knees and slowly began to clear great masses of the soft loamy sand and soil, the kind of dirt that ran back quite a distance from the edge of the riverbank mud bank.
The boy went to work to help the older man.
“We’ve camped here, but there is no way to keep anyone from attacking on any side except from the river,” the boy observed, his voice mild and low, not being certain that the warrior would accept any discussion about the tribe’s security at all.
“That is true,” Cetan replied. “We had little choice in picking where to be at the time, and that was before the women and the children were part of our tribe…and there’s the cat and the beaver to consider. If we were to move to a more defensible area along the river, would they follow us? Our safety isn’t based upon putting up a violent defense. We’re still here, being allowed to stay here, and not being attacked at all, because of our relationship with the animals, or at least that’s how both tribes have come to see things. Now we have the stones, which will also raise our standing with both tribes, even if it means they will begin thinking of some way to get the stones without giving anything away in trade.”
In only minutes, the warrior and the boy had dug a hole down into the earth that was a man long, half a body-wide and waist-deep.
“That’s enough,” the warrior said. “We’ve got to break these up, and then cover them, and spend most of our time making sure the brush covering them looks undisturbed.”
“We’ don’t have anything to break them with,” the boy replied, as the warrior loped off to haul back more of their stone supplies.
The boy followed him, wondering what was on the older more experienced man’s mind.
Their haul of stones reached a hand and a half in number, just a few fingers shy of two hands worth.
“We won’t have to go back to the cave until the winter is over if we are very careful here,” the warrior said when the stones were lined up around the hole.
The boy knew the warrior was very happy, as the man’s voice could not contain his excitement.
“If we do this right and trade wisely, we’ll have more than just a chance of making it through this coming winter, no matter how cold it might get.”
“What will we use to break the stones?” the boy asked.
“The stones,” Cetan replied, picking up the largest one, and then, without delay or ceremony, bringing it crashing down with all his might against the smaller stone laying on the earth nearby.
Both stones shattered, much beyond any degree that the boy would have thought they would.
“The stones are very brittle,” the warrior said. “Very hard, but very brittle. “They’ll be okay to shape them the way we want them when we prepare for the next trading party, as long as we work at it and keep the work our secret.”
The breaking of the stones into smaller pieces took more time than the boy thought it would, after watching the first encounter the warrior had performed. Cetan wanted the resulting stones to be about the size of his balled fist and it took great effort to attempt to do that. Finally, they were finished. The big stones formed a single pile of fist-sized stones that rose halfway up to the top of the hole. They both went to work to bury, and then cover the storage place, taking the time and trouble not to simply pull the bushes over the softer broken ground but to rebury their roots so, when they were done, it looked exactly the same as when they had started the clearing process.
The warrior stood with folded arms, bending this way and that to see if the hiding spot was as perfect as it could be. Finally, he stepped back, and then slowly began to wipe his hands on his legs.
“What do we do now?” Tama asked.
“We get in the river and get this dirt off of us so nobody will guess what we’ve been doing if they come back today, and then we eat and quietly celebrate before rebuilding the whole camp, using the skins to replace all the leaves and little branches that have protected us but plagued us, as well.”
The warrior took off running back toward the camp and then veering off to head out over the river bank. He plunged directly into the fast-moving and icy cold water at that point. The boy followed him, but not moving as quickly. He noted that the women worked at the fire, while the kids were toying with the beaver, poking it with little twigs. The cat had returned and lay stretched out between the lowly, but roaring, cooking fire, and the other fire pit that was cold and unlit.
He hit the water, as the warrior had, without removing anything he had on, only then remembering they’d both left their spears back at the camp. He had come to feel naked without his short spear, although he still had trouble trying to carry or throw the kind of great large war spear Cetan possessed. The two floated a ways down the river before paddling back to the bank.
“We are both soon to have full warrior leathers,” Cetan said, jumping up and down and stroking himself all over to get rid of as much of the cold water as he could from his dripping body.
When they were as dry as they were able to get, they headed toward the camp, with the boy feeling better and better the closer they got, although not forgetting that the cat was there, in the middle of the camp. He was comforted by the fact that it remained unlikely anyone would attack as long as Hasti’s presence was so easily visible from almost any distance.
The warrior and the boy retrieved their spears and then squatted by the fire, giving the cat plenty of space. Hasti ignored them, its body flat on its left side, paws pushed toward the warmth radiating out from the fire, its head half up but its eyes fixed only on the large flat filet of fish one of the women held clipped between intertwined branches and moving back and forth suspended at an angle over the side of the fire.
The boy poked the back of one of the children to get both of their attention, but also to stop them from teasing the beaver. The animal lay flat, as usual, but when the children stopped their play he rolled one big eye to look at the boy as if to say that he was thanking him.
The boy didn’t know what to make of the animal’s fixed stare so he nodded as if to acknowledge it in whatever way he could. The beaver went back to grooming itself with its front paws, occasionally exposing teeth that looked like they were big and strong enough to tear either of the children apart in seconds. He shivered briefly at that thought.
“The cave,” the boy said softly to warrior squatting next to him. “The cave one day must be where we have our camp.”
“The cave of the stones?” Cetan asked, his tone one of surprise.
“Yes, the cave of stones,” the boy replied. “I have been thinking that our camp would be in front of, around the sides of, and then atop the area above the cave. We would have the inside to defend if attacked, the top above it to see anyone coming, and then the area between the river and the cave opening to have our fires and disguise the opening.”
“That is something,” the warrior said after some time had passed.
The boy remained silent.
“That’s something, and we must think, but what of Hasti and our other friend,” Cetan asked. “Our defense and survival depend upon them.”
“They didn’t come here because this part of the riverbank is here,” the boy replied. “There’s nothing here but what we make of it. The cat and beaver are here because we’re here. They’ll come anywhere we go, I think.”
“You think?” Cetan answered his tone one of doubt.