The raft came in toward the river bank hard and fast, faster than the boy, or anyone on the raft, except for the cat, was ready for. Hasti leaped from the bow of the raft just as it struck one of the larger rocks sticking up just above the water, its revealed size belying the larger body of its existence laying covered below. The tattered, barely held-together raft, at the speed it was dragged across the water, held fast against being shot downriver by the entwined rope they’d made, but encountered the main body of the rock and instantly came apart, bundles of cooking implements, animal skins, the women, the children and everything else aboard dumped into the shallows of the fast-moving, but fortunately shallow, water.

The Warrior had no more chance than the rest to do much of anything except stand and fight the current to make his way toward the steep embankment battered and beaten by his encounter with the logs that had burst about the scene as the raft so powerfully came apart.

Tama ran, dropping his spear, first at the collapsing raft and bursting jumble of women, children, and supplies flying from it, but quickly changing direction. He saw Cetan recover and gather the others, so he ran down along the bank, diving into the shallows to retrieve and throw stuff back up atop the steep bank, and then recovering himself to run further and further down toward where the distant falls constantly shuddered and crashed.

By the time the first of the raft remnants, smashing themselves to smaller pieces on the rocks, went over the falls, the boy was totally exhausted. He’d saved the spears, the animal skins and almost everything else that was aboard the raft for the crossing. He sat back against the softer ground of the berm of a hill that the sharp up-angled and rocky bank had turned into. He breathed in and out deeply, wishing he could see far back up the river enough to check on the warrior the women and the children. Sipu, the beaver, he could see floating upriver, once more somehow seeming to steady itself against the current.

Finally, the boy recovered enough to begin working his way upriver along the bank, picking up a few scraps of what he’d been able to save from the raft before it went over the falls. The skins they’d acquired were all there but they were soaked and too heavy for him to haul to the cave entrance, even one at a time unless he carried nothing else. Instead of dropping everything to begin getting the valuable skins the boy stretched them out over the short undergrowth so they could dry until he and the warrior could get back to them.

The cat came from behind him without warning, stopped at his side, and then leaned down and took the full untreated deerskin he was holding with his powerful jaws, flipping the skin around in the air like it was made of nothing at all. The warrior appeared from wherever he’d come to rest upriver when the raft had come apart.

“You saved it all,” Cetan said, staring at the cat with apprehension in his expression. “Let’s get everything back into the cave as quick as we can,” he went on, picking up a smaller skin than the larger one the cat was handling so easily. They walked upriver together, attempting to grab what they could comfortably carry along the way.

“Are Night Moon, Aurora and the children alright?’ the boy asked, loaded down with cooking utensils and two more of the smaller skins.

The cat moved ahead of them, still dragging and toying with the larger pelt.

“We need Tinda,” the boy said to Cetan, between deep breaths, as they walked. “We can’t leave the women to go out and hunt without someone guarding them.

Neither of the women can handle a warrior’s spear, and the children will need a lengthy period of training and more size before they can.”

“He will come this day or never,” Cetan replied, dumping his load between two thickets of heavy brush, as they came upon the part of the low rock wall that disguised the entrance to the cave. The bushes cloaked the entrance but it was the rock formation itself that made the cave behind it almost impossible to find unless the person finding it had crawled forward under the overhanging and downward curving lip of stone.

Night Moon and Mura were crouched into position near the bushes, working on building a small fire. It was obvious, from the chunk of meat they had exposed, sitting on a flat rock nearby, that fire-roasted bear would be served when they were done.

“They haven’t been inside yet,” the boy whispered to Cetan. “I don’t think they know the cave is right here and open to them since we haven’t loaded everything into it yet. They could build the fire inside and be totally safe and a lot warmer.”

“Except for where the smoke might go, you mean?” the warrior replied.

“Oh,” the boy answered, not knowing what else to say.

“That’s if there’s a vent somewhere in the top or back of the cave for the smoke to go, otherwise, no fire at all because the lip of stone over the only opening we know about is too low to allow smoke from a fire to dissipate without everyone inside being choked to death.”

Hasti appeared out of the brush, still dragging the big thick deerskin. He plodded forward as if he was tired of working instead of simply laying around. He plopped the skin right next to where the women worked to build a larger fire from the smaller one they’d started.

Sipu, the beaver, pulled itself from the river and shook it’s body, sending drops of water near and far before it plodded forward and sank to the earth not more than a man’s length from where the cat had dropped the skin.

The cat lay down, very close to where it had dropped the skin, while Sipu, flat on his stomach, crawled close enough to the animal so that the cat looked over and very quietly hissed. Sipu stopped moving, closed his eyes and made believe he was asleep.

“Hasti’s waiting for lunch,” Cetan observed, quietly. “The beaver’s happy with the new place and the women are about to cook some meat, so let’s get the rest of our stuff back, and then over into the cave.”

The children, Churt and Mura, ran out from the bushes located behind the women. Hasti looked up, turned his attention to the chunk of meat waiting to be thrown on the fire, and then laid his head down and closed his eyes again.

“Get the children, and let’s get to work,” Cetan said, before moving back down the river bank to recover more of what had been strewn there during the boy’s wild run to save it all.

The children proved to be a great asset. They ran everywhere and could haul something back to the cave and then return in one third the time of either the warrior or the boy.

They all worked hard and as fast as they could to find everything, and then get it moved, but only the children laughed while they worked. Neither Cetan nor Tama had been able to bring warrior spears with them for the effort. There would have been no possibility of recovering it all if both of them were burdened down with the long heavy spears. Without saying anything, both men also knew just how exposed they were without weapons, as well as the women back at the fire.

“The cat,” the boy said, when they were halfway back to the cave, mid-way through their last run.

“What about him?” Cetain asked, his mouth half-blocked by all the vine he had rolled up and then hefted out to carry in front of his chest.

“He’s waiting for the meat to be cooked,” the boy said, half laughing for the first time. “He’ll not have his mid-day meal interrupted. I think the women are safe, and maybe us too when we get back. Nobody seems to want to encounter or take on that cat.”

“How are we going to figure out if there’s some sort of vent in the cave?” the boy asked. “Winter’s coming and it’s going to be hard to be inside the cave without any way to get heat, except by going outside and being just like it was on the other side of the river.”

“There’s really only one way, although we haven’t really explored the whole cave to find out what else is there,” Cetan said. “We’ve been interested in the flint for trading, and that’s been about it. In order to find out about the smoke, we have to start a fire inside the cave itself.”

The boy smiled to himself. It had been impossible to get the warrior to cross the river so there was no way he could have explored the cave at all, much less been too busy with the flint to do so. The boy understood that the warrior had an intense fear of the water, but remained puzzled over his inability to admit it openly.

The Cat ate his mid-day meal with speed and abandon from his seated position just adjacent to where Aurora and Night Moon attended the fire, preparing food for the rest of them. Churt and Mura sat very close to the cat, watching his every move from only a few hand-spans away, that the boy worried about their safety. Although the great predatory creature had shown no interest or tendency to attack any members of their growing tribe, Hasti’s killing ability and potential could not be overlooked.

Suddenly, the cat stopped, dropping the remnants of a great chunk of uneaten bear meat to the ground between his paws. Only his head moved, to slightly turning toward the cliff area well above the lip of the overhang handing out over the concealed cave opening.

The boy followed the cat’s gaze. Tinda appeared on the shelf of rock, staring down and leaning a bit over the edge, his warrior’s spear used as a balance pole, clutched inside the crook of his right arm. A smaller female stood beside him, only her head and the top part of her torso visible.

The cat moved so quickly that it was gone by the time the boy swung his attention back to the place it had been sitting. The children had shrunk back at its sudden departure but quickly recovered to run around the fire and tuck themselves in between Aurora and Night Moon.

“What’s going to happen?” the boy asked, staring upward, although both Tinda and the girl were gone.

“Nothing we can do anything about,” the warrior replied. “Hasti knows Tinda but has never encountered the girl. What he will do now is up to him, and them.”

The warrior approached the fire where he crouched down to receive a large chunk of cooked meat skewered with a stick that was still covered with bark and rough-carved to a point with one of the flint knives carefully hoarded and protected by the women.

“We must set a fire inside the cave before we haul all this stuff in,” the warrior said, biting off chunks of the meat between words.

The boy knew he could not eat until whatever happened with Tinda, the girl and the cat had happened. He had been waiting to hear anything he could, but the forest and the cliff area, except for the sounds of the passing river water, had remained completely silent since the cat’s departure. He knew there was nothing to be done. He would never reach wherever Tinda and the girl had gotten off to in time to make any difference. If the cat wanted them dead then they would die. He liked the cat and knew that the creature had accepted all of them into its pride, but he was still terribly unpredictable. To cover his nervousness and worry the boy gathered plenty of tinder and then smaller dead branches, fallen from the nearby trees, and hauled it into the cave. He moved as far to the rear of the greater open area, twice as high as his own height and wider and deeper than twenty men if they were laid from end to end. He dropped the load and then squatted down to wait for Cetan. Looking outward, with the slit of the cave’s opening letting in the sunlight, but only in limited portions, there was nothing to see. The dense bushes just out from it minimized any outward observations just as it guarded against anyone trying to look within.

“Where are you?” Cetan asked, having bent over deeply to get under the lip of the opening, holding what looked like a great packed bundle of old pine needles.

The boy could see Cetan clearly but understood that the blackness behind him also cloaked him from the warrior’s view.

“I’m here,” the boy replied.

“Start the fire,” Cetan ordered, moving toward the boy and then dropping his load of needles nearby. “feed it well, cover it with the pine needles, and then come outside to join me. We’ve got to climb the cliff in order to see if the smoke comes out anywhere.”

The boy did as he was instructed. He made sure that the fire was burning and great clouds of smoke were filling the chamber before he went out to join Cetan on the hunt for any vent that might make the cave more inhabitable.

The boy moved to the temporary fire pit the women had constructed, intending to join the warrior in the climb up the side of the cliff. The upriver side of the rock was a mass of jumbled tree growth, rocks and different pockets of old needles and mud. Cetan was already scaling the wall so the boy increased his pace.
The climb up to where Tinda and the girl had been seen took almost no time at all. The hand and footholds available on the side of the wall made climbing easy. The scene at the top was anything but what the boy might have expected, however. Far from attacking the two, as the boy had feared, the cat sat next to the girl, allowing her to pet his head. A tinge of jealousy ran through the very center of the boy, as the cat had only allowed that treatment from the boy himself, but his jealousy was quickly overcome by relief.

The boy moved to squat down next to where Tinda and Cetan were, not far from the girl and the cat, both of whom seemed oblivious to the presence of any other humans nearby.

“You have found a cave,” Tinda began. “You have found a cave and built a fire inside it,” the man went on.

“Yes, Cetan replied, “but what happened back with the tribe?”

“How do you know about the cave and the fire inside it?” the boy blurted out, unable to stop himself. “You just got down here.”

“The smoke is coming outback from the edge of the cliff,” Tinda replied, “one place high and one further down the back where the rock curves down into a canyon.”

“That’s good to know,” Cetan replied, “but we must know about the trade and your presence here, and the girl’s too.”

“Should I go and put out the fire?” the boy asked, getting to his feet.

“Yes, that would be good.” The warrior replied, trying to keep his impatience with the boy’s natural enthusiasm from showing. “Take the girl with you and then start getting the stuff we brought across the river inside. What’s her name?’

“Kaya,” Tinda replied. “It means little wise one. I believe she is close to the same age as your own young one here.”

“Take Kaya and return to the camp,” Cetan ordered. “Once there put out the fire inside the cave and then begin getting our stuff inside.”

Kaya and the boy headed immediately for the wall he’d climbed up. The cat went with them, only stopping briefly to look at the warrior, as if in question about whether he was coming or not.

Cetan nodded at the cat, knowing the animal could not possibly understand, but wanting to acknowledge the compliment he felt as its delay and questioning. look.

“The back low vent for the smoke will probably have to be sealed up somehow,” Tinda said, his tone very matter-of-fact. “Likely there’s an entrance somewhere in the back of the cave. We don’t want to be surprised in some way by that, or at some difficult time.”

“Thanks,” was all Cetan could manage. He had not even given thought to exploring the cave, nor been concerned about security. There’d been no time but if Tinda was what he said he was then all that could change.

“What happened at the tribal meeting you had?” Cetan asked again.

“They accepted the trade, and then added Kaya,” Timba replied. “I’m her uncle and when her father died her mother’s new husband wouldn’t accept her. It was either take her or she would have had to be shunned from the tribe.”

Both men got to their feet, each picking up his war spear, but holding the weapons low and parallel to the ground in a non-threatening manner. The walked to the edge of the cliff to stare down at the outside cooking fire Aurora and Night Moon both attended below. The cat appeared, walked to where the children played and then laid down. His face pointed up toward Cetan and Tinda’s position, high above.

“Look across the water,” Tinda said, quietly.

Cetan directed his gaze up and across the fast-moving water.

“Athesis,” he murmured, observing a band of warriors standing on the far side of the river, not far from where the old camp was located.

“Members of my tribe are following me here, probably to find out what they can, or maybe to make sure I came at all,” Tinda said, the words coming out slowly but with a finality. “We have them behind us and your old tribal warriors across the water in front of us.”

The warrior looked down upon their camp once more, taking in the whole scene. The boy and Kaya were being greeted by Aurora, Night Moon and the children, while the cat lay comfortably only a short distance away, not more than a man’s body length from where Sipu, the beaver, slept on the mud bank near the side of the river.

“We are now two hands of us, and the tribe is growing,” Cetan observed, listing each member of their new tribe finger by finger, including the cat and the beaver in the count. “We have the cave, the flint and a very special relationship with the forest animals. We have our tribe. It will be enough.”

The warrior noted that the cat looked up as he spoke the last four words as if somehow he knew what was being said.

“We have the cat,” Tinda echoed. “He’ll be enough.”

<<<<<< The Beginning

End of Volume One

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The Mastodons by James Strauss