The cat returned, not moving back along the trails and paths he used to make his journey to the very edge of his territory. He didn’t think about that part of his decision to return to where the humans were putting together what he knew would be his large single meal for the day, unless he was lucky, or spent time either going into the ever colder waters of the river for raw fish or in chasing down smaller land prey. His hunting and survival skills were automatic. He never followed a predictable path, even it meant that he would have to take more time to travel through the forest.
The cat stopped suddenly and went to the bed of the forest, laying nearly instantly flat on his belly, with his muzzle resting upon the areas of his legs just behind his big paws. He’d seen nothing. He’d heard nothing. But he knew the scent that had wafted across in the light wind from the area where the river ran nearby, just a little beyond the range of his hearing. The scent was extremely faint, so faint that the cat wondered if he might have picked up the tiny, but pungent aroma, from the land above the cliff that lined the canyon on the far side of the river. But he would take no chances.
Almost unbidden, he moved, crawling forward, using the same silent talents he’d applied when following the warriors before he’d let them know he was behind them.
He was torn. He wanted to retreat to a safer place, toward the deeper and thicker interior of the forest, but he could not abandon the small camp that had developed at the small cave-like opening beside the river he’d once considered the sole center of his territory. Encountering the bear again, about which there could be no question the scent was from no matter how faint, was not something he wanted to do.
To fight the bear, if the bear was moving through his territory again, was not in question. He was outweighed in size, weight and by the thick layers of fat the bear would be storing at this time of the season, just before hibernation. The cat intrinsically knew that he could not suffer much in the way of damage without becoming prey himself. His talent was blinding speed, a vicious ability to hit hard and strike a fatal blow before racing off to wait for his prey to die. The cat knew his talent could only be maximized by staying a good distance from the bear. To be trapped by it would be to either be killed outright or be so badly wounded as to die more painfully later, even if he escaped.
The cat stopped and laid flat again. He could not run off into the forest and wait. The humans did not possess his talents in any way he knew. They smelled almost nothing and, without their sharp sticks, were no match for any other larger animal living in the forest. The bear could be a different bear, and possibly a smaller one, but Hasti didn’t think so. All animals, including himself, were creatures of habit. Habit learned harshly over time and taught by the other creatures of the forest who lived by the same survival-at-all-cost rules as he himself lived by. But the humans who had somehow come to replace the most central existence the cat now enjoyed could not be ignored or abandoned. The beaver would swim offshore where the bear, although capable in the water, was no match for that kind of water creature in speed or agility. The young humans would be unknowing and immediate prey for the bear, as would the females. The male humans did not spend a lot of their time at the campsite themselves, the cat had observed. Would they be there when the huge predator arrived if it arrived at the camp? The cat also understood that the bear would not have forgotten his own presence in the forest, but would almost assuredly see the human camp as a much more productive hunting ground.
His decision made, the cat flew to its feet and was off. He struck toward the river, moving over the rough deep brush with speed and abandon that no other animal could match. The path, when he reached it, just inside the mudbank that paralleled the river’s fast-moving water, was the easiest and fastest course for him to negotiate. The cat went down the path at top speed, knowing that if the bear might emerge from the brush or encounter him on the path itself his speed and impact moving directly into the other animal would be devastating, and might allow for his own survival.
The further down the path the cat proceeded the stronger the scent of the bear became and the cat’s fears were confirmed. The bear was among the humans or nearby. If he was nearby, not possessing decent sensory organs, they’d be unaware of his presence until he attacked. The bear would understand by his nature that the prey they represented were ignorant of his presence or intent, and there would only be one intent. Not only were the humans present in an exposed position, but they were also openly cooking fish over a lit fire. Even if the humans were not among the bears favored prey, as so many animals died that attacked humans, the fish cooking, or airing out before eating. would be enough to drive it into a starving attack frenzy.
Approaching the camp at maximum speed, the cat leaped high into the air, sailing right over the fire pit not used for cooking. He was so high it would have made no difference if there was a blazing fire among its inner circles of surrounding rocks. The cat screamed, and then landed on the cleared area right where the two women had instantly fallen flat on their backs. The children cowered in fear, their backs pushed against the opening the cat used to enter his grotto-like sleeping den a few body lengths away.
The cat took in the scene before him. The cooked fish filet in the net of small wooden reeds was down flat on the rocks nearby, with another uncooked filet set up vertically and cooking in the heat of the hot coal’s burning radiation. The beaver was in the river and moving out to deeper water as fast as it could paddle. Hasti turned, feeling something to his rear, and the bear, the same bear that had attempted to attack him before, made his presence known by rushing straight up the lower part of the path and directly at the cat.
Hasti had no choice. He could not fight the bear from a stopped position, not with the bear’s full mass coming right at him, huge teeth fully bared and its long-clawed paws coming up. The bear suddenly stopped and reared up before the cat, but in an instant, Hasti wasn’t there anymore. Instead of racing back up the path he’d come down, the cat ran straight at, and then into the water at the river’s edge. It was a shocking surprise move for any cat to make, and Hasti knew he risked that his own ability to run in the shallow moving water would be sufficient to overcome the bear’s greater mass in moving through the liquid. Everything depended on the bear’s reaction.
Hasti stopped and turned, rearing up as if to fight the bear on even terms. The bear moved slowly toward the water, his tall thick body vertically rising up to its enormous greatest height. With paws hanging, the big creature stared out across the ten bear body lengths of water that separated them. Hasti realized his mistake. The bear didn’t run at him, instead moved slowly forward on his great rear legs, leaning first a little to one side and then the other. There was not enough space between the two animals for the cat to use his high speed to attack and then depart, and he could go neither to one side or the other or the bear would easily cut him off. The cat quickly glanced behind him, and although he could swim the river again, he could probably not do so without the current taking him the too short distance downriver to likely go over the falls. However, the bear had been distracted from the food, the women and the children. None of the four humans moved at all on the shore, which Hasti both understood and knew would not help him. The humans were staying in place, automatically responding to their own survival needs. The bear was after the cat and they, without understanding or truly knowing, would and could do nothing to prevent that.
Just as the cat made the decision to swim into the current and brave the approach to the falls, hoping to catch hold of one of the rocks the boy so adroitly used to cross the same water without ever falling or even getting wet, things changed again.
There was movement behind the bear and it was the kind of movement that was unlikely to be made by one of the women or either of the kids. The larger male human appeared behind the bear running fast and silently toward it’s back, his spear held above his head, using both hands and arms to put all the power he had into driving the pointed stick before him.
The cat feigned forward at the bear, instead of diving back into the water. The bear responded, leaning slightly forward to absorb the cat’s expected attack. The warrior ran into the water to close the distance to the bear’s back, but the bear was suddenly not only aware but extremely fast in responding.
The big furry beast’s body rotated, not in time to avoid the attack but to receive the big war spear directly into its stomach, the warrior driving it deep before pulling himself back, leaving the spear shaft sticking out. The bear roared and fought the spear with its big paws instead of attacking. The boy was right behind the warrior, driving his own small spear into the bear’s exposed throat when the cat struck from behind.
The cat’s teeth sank into the bear’s neck, pressing hard and deep before disengaging. He released his vice-like grip, and then quickly pulled back. The bear staggered, one paw brushing its badly penetrated and doubly damaged neck while the other still fought the spear it could not disengage from its stomach.
The cat returned to the fire, giving the damaged beast, now crouched down low in the water, a wide berth. He approached the cooking fire where the two women, who’d gone flat when he’d made his warning scream, had recovered, their only attention on the bear’s death throws, as it staggered about, trying to get back to the shoreline but slowing and inevitably sinking into the shallow but drowning water.
“Get the other war spears, and some of those braided branches we used for the raft,” Cetan, the Warrior, yelled at the immobile boy. “We need to kill it quickly, and then make certain we don’t lose its body. Two bear furs, think of it? So much meat we will have to trade some or let it go bad unless the coming nights are cold enough to freeze the butchered chunks.”
The boy mobilized at the warrior’s rapidly delivered instructions, returning in short order, carrying all three of the large spears, before dumping them at the warrior’s feet.
“I’ll have to run down to where the raft was to get some of the other stuff,” he said, looking at the still struggling bear as he departed.
He also noted the cat laying by the fire, watching the bear’s death throes while munching on the fish filet the women had freed up from its cooking net of thin branches.
The cat finished in a series of large gulps and tears. It licked its lips and then laid its large head down to snooze by the fire’s heat radiating coals. He would one eye to watch the warrior and the boy work and stagger to get the bear’s body back onto dry land. Finally, they achieved the feat by tying the raft’s leftover lines to the bear’s rear paws and pulling backwards on one leg, and then the other. The bear’s carcass was fully out of the water when they were done. The warrior prepared his knife, after using the other spears to make certain the bear was truly dead but had no chance to use it.
The boy looked over at where the cat lay, only to see that it was gone. The children were both back with Aurora and Night Moon near the lean-to, but they were not looking toward where the warrior and the boy were about to go to work on the dead carcass. The warrior’s spear still stuck up in the air, as the bear’s body was laying on its back, its huge mouth gaping open, with a tongue the size of a fully grown human head wagging to one side out of it. The boy retrieved his small spear from the bear’s neck before turning to take in what the women and children were staring at and the cat had no doubt reacted to.
There were two groups of warriors that had appeared near the exposed top of the path, out of spear throwing range, as had been proven earlier, but still, the number and grouping of them portended danger. Each group had more than one hand’s worth of warriors.
“Get the women and children, slow and easy into the cleft,” the warrior instructed the boy, “not that that will be much protection if we’re attacked and the cat doesn’t return. Then rejoin me here. We only have a few spears and there are more warriors in those parties than we have spears to throw or fight with.”
Two warriors walked down the path toward where they stood, both the warrior and the boy standing next to the bear carcass and holding large warrior spears at the ready. The boy realized that the one warrior from Cetan’s tribe was the one that had threatened them days before and then thrown spears to frighten them, as well.
“Athesis is back,” Cetan whispered. “Do not talk at all. Let them first assume what they will. The two leaders will not attack on their own, but don’t let their lack of arms or the others up behind them fool you. Watch closely.”
“We have come from both tribes,” Athesis stated, putting his hands out, with palms facing the warrior and the boy, “but we do not come in agreement.”
“Welcome to the territory of the Di’ne,” Cetan replied.
“How did this come to be?” Athesis said, waving one arm down at the huge carcass of the bear. “This cannot be. You have yourself, one boy, two women, and two useless children. How could this bear have been killed, and then its carcass transported to this place? Who did this? Who would do this for you?”
“The spear inside the bear is my spear,” the warrior answered, avoiding the main point of the warring chief’s question.
“We come to trade, but not if you trade with them,” Athesis pointed to the warrior from Tama’s tribe next to him, who had said nothing while the warring chief and Cetan were talking.
“This is Di’ne land,” Cetna replied. “We trade with whom we want to trade. What is it you come to trade this time since your sub-chief departed earlier with a generous supply of the special stones.”
“They want the stones,” Athesis stated flatly. “Do not trade with them. We now want the bear. It will feed the whole tribe for some time.”
“You came to trade for the meat of the bear, and Tama’s tribe came to trade for the stones,” Cetan concluded, not posing the comment as a question.
There were several guttural yells from the two parties of warriors the tribes have brought, from further up the path.
The boy and the warrior stared upriver, as Athesis and the other tribal leader who had not spoken, turned to see what the yells were about.
The cat sat in the path facing the river, not ten man-lengths up toward the warriors. It slowly turned its head to look up the path toward the many warriors waiting there, and then slowly rotating its head to look down to where the boy and the warrior were standing with the two leaders.
“What is the meaning of this?” the leader from Tama’s tribe asked, a tone of worry causing his voice to waver slightly.
“We will share the bear,” Cetan replied, ignoring the presence of the cat or answering the question.
“You, Asthesis, will take three quarters and the fur, but you will return the fur tanned by your women as the sun passes four hands in the sky. You may go to get your warriors and tools to work over and transport your share of the animal. The cat will not trouble you unless you trouble the cat or one of the other members of the Di’ne tribe. We will now trade stones with the other tribe and you will all then go your way until we meet again.
“Who are these Di’ni?” the tribal leader said, facing Athesis, his fearful tone turning to one of exasperation, as Sipu, the beaver came swimming toward the shore to take up a position, and lay not far from where the bear’s hulk disturbed the shoreline.
“They are of the forest and not of the tribes,” Athesis replied, his voice low and no longer demanding and threatening. “They have somehow been taken by the forest as its own.”
Cetan turned and walked back toward the fire with the boy at his side, making sure to keep the warriors and leaders in full view.
The leader of Tama’s former tribe walked toward them. The cat had not moved.
“Will Hasti attack them or let them through?” whispered the boy, too low for the approaching leader to hear.
“I have no idea,” Cetan replied, “but our problem is how to get some of the stones without any of them seeing where we hid them.”
Since Anthropology has fascinated since youth, I really enjoy telling stories from the far past.
I have another series set 25,000 years ago about a Boy coming of age and observing Social Evolution
You will enjoy the First Two in a Series of Five