Challenges of Life
Chilcoat pulled on his sun cape and found Rancon down by the central hearth trying to mooch an extra bit of bread from the grandmothers. “Have you seen Larkon? He’s supposed to come with us tonight.”
“Nah… I saw him earlier with Bartan down by the lake, but I think they went to the trash dump. They have a batch of wine stashed up there. They’ll be along soon.”
“Those two aren’t good together. I haven’t seen much of Bartan lately. Where’s he been? He used to hang around trying to convince me that he deserved to court Tarra, but lately he seems more interested in chasing that damn cat.”
“Yeah, the whole Larkon bunch is trying to get that cat. They want a trophy to take to the gathering this year. They think they’ll find honor at the men’s ceremony. I think they’re wasting their time. That cat’s smarter than they are.”
“I’m going to press Larkon to have his boys stand watch on the fields tonight. They need to start pulling their weight and stop all this cat nonsense.”
“Yeah, well, good luck with that. They’re pretty headstrong over it.” Rancon leaned thoughtfully on his walking staff. “So Tarra’s become quite a handful, huh? I mean she got rid of Bartan pretty quickly and now he just hangs around with the Larkon boys getting into trouble and drinking too much.”
“She’s full of surprises all right. She has her dad’s medicine sticks, and says she can read them. She wants to hike up one of the valleys looking for some herb and she doesn’t even know what it is.”
“Wow, in this heat that’d be quite a quest.”
“Yeah, but she has this way about her that makes me want to believe her. She’s so—innocent, but I don’t know—older. It disturbs me sometimes how clever she is.”
“Careful there, pal. You’re supposed to be her brother, not her—friend.”
“Life’s full of challenges alright, but right now I’m more concerned with our little hunting party. We need to get going or the game will take to the hills for the night and we’ll miss our chance. Let’s go see if they’re up at the dump.”
They made their way over the ridge that served as the backdrop to the village. It blocked the winds from the canyon beyond and separated the people from their refuse and the varmints that frequent it. They passed the dawn-watch station and went quickly down the other side to a sharp abutment that provided a drop point for trash. Just past the cliff, the rocks trailed up a small hill and formed a, sort of, amphitheater that the youngsters frequented when they wanted to get away from the ‘old folks’.
The rough hollow in the stones provided seating for about twenty, but seldom more than a half-dozen would show up at one time. Their gatherings usually revolved around games, or in this case, because these guys had brewed up a batch of berry-wine and wouldn’t be happy until it was gone. Bartan, Larkon, and his two younger sons were reclining on some of the flat boulders at the bottom of the bowl. They had a large wine bladder and a bit of leftover fish scattered around the large circular stone that frequently served as a gaming pedestal. Bartan sprawled across the platform staring at the sky while the Larkon boys passed a bowl of smoking herb.
Chilcoat stood judgmentally at the edge of the arena with Rancon behind him. “Evening, fellas. I thought we were going hunting.”
Larkon handed off the pipe and turned to face Chilcoat while Bartan sat up on the platform but remained defiantly seated. “We were just talking about that.” Larkon stepped closer to the pair. “We were thinking that maybe it would be better for us to split up into two groups. You go your way and we go our way.”
Chilcoat considered his words carefully. “I think maybe you’re right, we should probably split our efforts. A couple of us can go along the west wall of the canyon and scare the game toward the narrows and the others can cut them off. Bartan, you come with me, and Larkon you go with Ran. It’ll give us all a chance talk out a few things.”
Larkon swayed slightly from the wine as he tossed the bladder back to Bartan. “Well, I had more in mind that we can go any damn place we want, and you two can go any damn place you want.”
Chilcoat stepped closer. “Larkon, you’re a fool if you think you’re going to get by drinking and bashing around looking for that cat. The people are in need of food and you and your clan aren’t helping as much as you could.”
“My clan gets by pretty well. My boys have brought in the last two kills. What more do you want?”
“I’m not saying you and your sons aren’t good providers. I am saying the rest of the village needs their help. The community needs everyone to pull his weight for the betterment of us all. Our system won’t work otherwise. You know that times have been tough, and well, I don’t think it’s going to get better any time soon.”
“What do you mean? It’s summer! As soon as this hot spell’s over, it’ll be fine. Everybody’ll be back to drinking new wine and enjoying the growing season.”
“Those two bucks your boys brought home have been gone for over a week now and no one else has been able to get anything bigger than fish and rabbits in that time.”
“Well, we’ve been busy tracking that cat. As soon as we get her, we’ll bring a feast to celebrate our kill.”
“I know what you’ve been doing and I think it’s foolish for you to continue. All this talk about a cat is scaring the children. That cat’s too smart to let a couple of drunks catch it. If you boys are serious about getting that cat, you should stake out the fields where the women work. It’ll come for the children, but it’ll never get caught up here on its own terms.” Chilcoat gestured to the pass above the village.
Lannon came up the trail behind them. “Besides guys, traipsing around in the bushes at night only gets you hurt. And if the women see you standing guard for them maybe they’ll be grateful.” He nudged his younger brother, Lon, meaningfully.
Lon considered the tactic and the possible benefits. He prodded the youngest brother, Laot, into gathering up their party favors.
Chilcoat pointed the way with his walking staff. “Lan, it’s good to see you. You and your brothers get set up at the fields. Bartan, you come with me. Larkon, you and Ran take the west side and Bartan and I’ll go to the narrows to cut them off.”
Bartan was less drunk than Larkon, so the sprint to the narrows was not too difficult, but his condition didn’t make it a very quiet venture. As they settled in their lair, they rested and listened for the telltale rustling of fleeing game. “Have you given up on Tarra?” Chilcoat whispered.
Bartan sat quietly for several moments. “She doesn’t like me. I understand that. She has no reason to, but someday, she’ll realize she needs me.”
“Perhaps... Maybe if you stopped drinking and spent some time tending the lines…”
“If she’ll have me, she’ll need to accept me the way I am.”
“Then I don’t think she’ll ever have you.”
“Maybe—maybe you’re poisoning her mind. Maybe you want to keep her for yourself.”
“That’ll be enough of that! Your position in this tribe doesn’t allow you to question me. You would do well to listen instead.” Chilcoat pulled an arrow from his quiver and readied his bow. Bartan watched closely as Chilcoat positioned himself in ambush above the ravine. “You go over there and wait for my signal then scare the game this way.” Chilcoat coldly ordered with the tip of his arrow.
Bartan pulled his bow to the ready and hesitated a moment considering his next move. Assessing Chilcoat’s cold stare, he decided to take up his hunting duties.
Within a few minutes, they could hear a commotion in the distance as the drivers chanted an old hunting song. Soon the bushes down the gully rustled and a young doe emerged with a fawn in tow. They cautiously picked their way up the ravine toward them. Chilcoat held his hand up to stop Bartan as he began to rise. A second pair, and then a third, soon joined the herd. He again had to halt Bartan with emphatic hand gestures. The animals wound their way up the arroyo past them and quickly disappeared up the canyon. He gave Bartan a gesture to listen quietly.
The bawdy ramblings of the driving crew grew closer and then a strong young buck broke through the bushes at the mouth of the ravine. A second more mature male quickly followed. They seemed to sense the presence of the predators as they balked and drew up short sniffing pointedly into the hot summer night. He gave Bartan the signal, and he rose alarmingly at their flank. They hesitated for a split second and bound up the gully in bursts that carried them alternately from side to side of the narrow rift. Chilcoat waited anxiously until the mature buck was in range then rose and fired a quick bolt. It faltered and fell in two quick bumps.
Bartan fired at the younger male, but missed. As he drew a second arrow from his quiver, Chilcoat called out “Let him go!” Bartan drew a bead on the fleeing buck, but Chilcoat’s arrow zipped past his ear and shattered on the rock behind him, distracting his shot.
He turned his aim toward Chilcoat but met a drawn bow peeking over a distant boulder. Bartan considered his stance and dropped his aim as the young buck bounded over the last barrier and escaped further assault. “Why did you do that? I could have got him.”
“Yeah maybe, and what would you do with him? We’ve enough to carry with this one. ’I thank you for your life and the life you give us’.” Chilcoat quickly moved to sever the scent glands from the fallen beast and held them up in bloody tribute to the stars.
The drivers joined the group and quickly went to work eviscerating the kill. A hasty meal of organs and blood filled their bellies and they quartered and packed the beast for transport as the morning light smeared the horizon. They would have to hurry to get back to camp before it got too hot. They had to leave some of the less desirable bits of flesh and bone, but they were able to cart the prime cuts on their backs in a gruesome division of bounty.
Chilcoat rested deeply as Caran sat up with the children in their normal family scuffles and Charona wrestled playfully with Lannon. It was a night like any other except it was midday and blistering hot.
Tarra went through her, now familiar, ritual of bug abatement and listened to the gentle rhythm of the lovers with more interest than usual. She finished her task and quickly retired to seek her own relief. She lay on her side for a few moments and watched Chilcoat’s nearly naked form sleeping a few feet away. Turning her back to him, she could see the mannequin standing guard by the doorway. She wondered if Tangar was happy with his story stick. Maybe he’ll visit me tonight, she thought. Or, better yet, maybe he’ll visit Chilcoat and tell him what a dolt he is.