When Althesis and his men were gone, Tinda departed. The cat came to its feet as he left. Both Cetan and the boy nervously watched, as the cat followed the departing sub-chief for a few man lengths before turning to look back at them. Hasti’s head swung slowly back and forth, between Tinda and Cetan and the boy, as if he was making up his mind. Without making any more seemingly aggressive moves, the cat returned to lay down next to the women and children where it appeared to fall back into a deep sleep.
“What do you make of that?” the boy asked the older warrior. “And you are now chief of this tribe. That’s got a great sound to it Chief.”
“Call me Cetan,” the warrior said, bruskly. “I don’t like the word chief, or what it means. Chiefs don’t seem to do too well over time. I’d rather just be the warrior I am.
“Will he come back?” the boy went on.
“If they don’t kill him,” Cetan replied. “And don’t forget at all that if he returns then he would be a great source of information about us to the tribe. If the tribe figures out that we don’t have some sort of mysterious power over these animals then we will be dead in a very short time.”
“But you took the deal,” the boy said, in surprise.
“There was no ‘deal’ that I took,” Cetan replied. “If he returns then we might consider what the ‘deal’ will be. More likely we simply gave away some of our better stones for nothing.”
“He’ll be back,” the boy whispered, looking across the river, although Tinda was no longer visible anywhere. “It was in his eyes and in his voice. He has nowhere else to go and he doesn’t want to be where he is anymore.”
“You have little experience at such things,” Cetan stated.
“You have traded valuable goods to acquire a slave before, and then under these kinds of conditions?” the boy asked, his voice once more transmitting great surprise.
“Well, not exactly, no,” Cetan sheepishly replied, and then quickly changed the subject. “We need to get across the river, the sooner the better. It’s not getting any warmer and we’re going to need that cave for warmth and protection. These leaves of the forest, the wood and even skins we’ve traded for will not save us when it truly becomes cold. The tribes have decided to stay the winter, as well, so once it gets really cold there won’t be any more trading for animal skins, plus eventually, they’ll have all the stones they need.”
“What do you want to do?” the boy asked, knowing everything the warrior said was true but not having any idea of how to accomplish what they wanted to do.
“We need a bigger raft, to carry all of our stuff and the women and the children,” Cetan answered. “We build the raft, tie our weaved lines to it and then do what we did with the stone raft in reverse. You go across the rocks and upriver on the other side. Then we tie that end off and take out the slack from the line. We let the raft go a bit further upriver and it swings across, using the power of the moving water to make it all work.”
“What if the line breaks or something goes wrong,” the boy asked, lowering his voice. “The women and kids will go over the falls and die.”
“We’ll all die if the winter is as bad as I think it will be when it really sets in,” Cetan said, his voice hushed, as well. “We’ll have to do a really good job at making the lines and then the raft itself, so we better get started.”
“What will happen when the tribe over there, your old tribe, figures out we’ve taken over that cave on their side?” the boy asked.
“There are no sides that belong to anyone although some people want to say there are,” Cetan replied. Let’s get to work now. I want a raft by tomorrow and then lines ready by one more day. On the third day, we will cross. If Tinda comes back in that time we’ll use him to help do the work. The risk we have with him is not in taking him in, it’s about what he comes to know that we don’t want him to know.”
“What could he find out?” the boy asked, innocence in his tone.
“The cave, its location and what’s inside it,” Cetan replied. “He could figure out that the animals don’t really do what we want them to do. None of that is really any good, but at some point, our secrets will be known anyway and we have to grow large enough by that time to be able to defend ourselves. When it really gets cold, and we are able to heat the cave with the coals of our fires, then the cave itself may become a problem, for those who might know that it is heated. They don’t have experience in weathering in for the winter and a warm cave will be a real incentive for them to come and take it.”
“Oh,” the boy replied, wondering why he hadn’t thought of any of that.
“Can we start work right now?” he asked, being afraid to ask any more questions that would reveal that he knew almost nothing about anything.
As if on command, or he’d been listening, the cat rose up, stretched its full length, and then walked over to where the boy stood, next to Cetan who was seated. The cat walked up next to the boy and pushed the side of its head into the boy’s ribs.
The boy scratched the cat’s head and ears. The cat seemed to endure the attention and then shook its head sharply with power. The boy held his ground, although he wanted to back away.
“And then there’s him,” Cetan said, letting his words trail away, his eyes never leaving the cat at such close quarters.
The project to build the new raft began late in the afternoon. Cetan made the decision to build a smaller raft than the first one since, with the women, the children and himself, plus their skins and cooking utensils, the weight would be less than it had been for carrying the load of stones. The old encampment would remain, with the rocks buried there to trade, and the rest of the camp would be left intact.
The raft was completed well upriver in only hours. It was the finding, working and then weaving of the lines that took time. Both men and the women and children spent the entirety of the following day making enough lines, not only to whip the raft around to the other side using the river’s current for power but also to run a single line across the river from one rock to another near the falls. If the raft were to run free and toward the falls then the single line would become a lifeline for everyone aboard.
The next day began before dawn, with the women working to weave more lines from the dried plant matter that the boy and the warrior worked to gather in. The job took most of the day, while Hasti the Cat and Sipu the Beaver came and went, each moving closer up the bank, in turn, to gather in what was going on. Sipu was simply a passive observer, placing himself close to the working men and women but not so close as to be encountered or touched. Hasti was a different case entirely. It was like he wanted to help do the work in some way. But there was no work for a large predator with paws the size of the bears head to do. Finally, when the cat realized there was nothing to be done by him, he took to laying nearby, as if pouting about not being included.
“Will the raft hold the Hasti also?” the boy asked, working the line that passed through is fast-moving fingers.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Cetan replied. “We’ll leave the stones collected here on this side, and do our best to make sure neither tribe figures out where the origin of the stones is located. What makes you think the cat will get aboard?
“The cat rode over with the rocks before. And Tinda, if he returns will very quickly know about the rocks,” the boy threw in.
“Yes, there’s that, but if he doesn’t show up soon then there’s no point in worrying about him as the tribe will have taken care of that problem for us.”
“But if he shows up then he’ll know where the treasure of the stones is located,” the boy followed.
“Life is filled with risk,” Cetan replied, coiling long lengths of the braided line. “We risk it because there is no risk at all staying here if the winter is going to be as bad as I think it is. We cannot survive out in this unprotected area. We cannot bring our fires inside to heat the air around us, as we can inside the cave. Tinda claims to be a great tracker and hunter, and if those things are at all true, and he wants to survive the winter too, then he must throw in with us or die.”
“What about the rest of everything here, that we’ve built up,” the boy replied sweeping his arm around the area, encompassing the fire pits, the lean-to and cleared areas around them.
“This becomes our trading place.,” Cetan replied. “I don’t think the tribes will mess with it because of the special nature they think we have but I don’t know for sure. They probably won’t find the buried stones, even if they search around a bit, but I don’t think they’ll even do that. Both tribes run on beliefs that it’s hard to understand. Both suspect that our living here and our survival is some kind of omen to them and therefore they don’t want to break the chain of that omen behavior and possibly have terrible things befall them. Superstition is a powerful force among both tribes or we wouldn’t even be here, much less be allowed to move across the river to wherever we might want to go.”
On the third day, the raft was ready and all the lines were laid, including the safety line running along the rocks near the edge of the waterfalls. Tama was exhausted from carrying the line, load after load while having to balance his feet and his load from rock to rock as he crossed back and forth across the river.
Cetan had loaded the raft in his absence. The boy moved toward the raft to make sure everything was ready. There was nothing else for him to do in the operation. The line on the far side was tied off to a great huge tree trunk much further upriver that where the raft currently laid on the far shore from it. The boy knew it would be best if he was at the place where that line was tied off so he could pull as much slack out of it when the raft let go and before it was grabbed by the river. Any bit of line he could pull in would keep the raft that much further upriver from the falls.
Sipu, the beaver moved quietly to the edge of the lapping water and then slid into it. He paddled out for a bit and then turned to float on his back, his body pointed upriver so he could stay in one place by paddling his big flat feet.
“He’s waiting,” the boy said, pointing at the beaver.
“’Where’s the Cat?” Cetan asked, but there was no point in answering his request because the big animal was nowhere to be seen.
“I don’t know,” the boy replied without looking around. The cat had proven himself loyal but very independent. He would show up when he felt like showing up and it was impossible to spot him in the forest unless he intended to be spotted.
“I’m going back across,” the boy said, and then waited.
“Pull out the slack as we come loose,” Cetan said. “I’ll wait until I see you over there before I launch.”
Tama backed up, grabbed his short spear and then took off for the rocks. Even in his fatigued condition, the crossing went without incident. He loped the distance to the cave and then moved all the way upriver to where the line extending all the way across the river to where the raft was tied off. He waved, unnecessarily he knew.
Cetan’s vision was keen and penetrating. He watched the raft shake loose from the shore but could not make out the individuals aboard, although he presumed that Cetan had loaded exactly whom and what he had indicated he would load. Tama pulled hard on the line and began drawing it in. Armful after armful he pulled into himself before finally running up to the tree trunk and tying it off. The line had become stiffer and stiffer as the raft had fallen into the clutches of the river’s fast-moving current. There would be no more pulling of slack. All he could do was watch to see if the river-crossing trick would work.
As the raft was pulled to the very center of the river the boy ran down toward where the cave was located. The raft slowly but surely was pulled to the shore. Tama stared at the raft and couldn’t believe his eyes. The cat sat right at the front of the raft like the thing had been built for him.
The boy smiled at the image, wondering just how uncomfortable Cetan had to be with the cat in such close vicinity and trapped on the raft with him.