By late afternoon, the camp was beginning to stir and the bugs had grown bold enough to make rest out of the question. Lannon and Charona made their way to the lake for a few moments alone and Chilcoat played warmly with his children. The frailty of life weighed heavily on him, and protecting them from the loss of a tribesman seemed somehow more important to him as he helped Chilton win another round of cards over Chara’s domineering ways.
Tarra couldn’t endure watching the family scene to which she didn’t belong, so she left with her washing tucked under her arm. At the shoreline, she joined the others talking mostly in mourning for Larkon and concern for his family. Someone suggested that perhaps Lan could now return with Charona as his wife to head up the family. Someone else said, “Since Bartan has taken up residence with them, he should head the household.”
Neither option sounded very good to Tarra, but she joined in the speculative banter to try to fit in. “Charona would make a good addition to the family but, I doubt Bartan would fit in very well. He’d have to take Katlan as his mate and she’s not likely to go for it. She’s a few years older and has little use for a lazy drunkard.”
The conversation quickly shifted to concerns of the cat when Charona and Lan approached. Tarra finished her laundry and joined the pair as they wandered toward their hut. They jostled and bumped along in a warm bonding of laughs and giggles approaching their hut. “They have your mom moving on to Bartan now that your dad is out of the way.”
“What’s so funny?” Caran asked as they came bounding into the smoke-filled room.
Lannon scoffed as he shed his wet clothes. “Oh, nothing, the town has us moving in with my mother and Bartan now that my father’s dead.”
Caran looked solemnly at Chilcoat. They had also been discussing the situation, but not in such crass terms. “Maybe you should consider moving back with your family for a while… Until your dad comes back, I mean.” Caran tried to sound optimistic. “Maybe they could use your help, just until things get settled.”
He stood in naked silence considering her words. He didn’t want to allow himself to think so absolutely about his father. Moving on so quickly didn’t seem right. If I don’t admit that he’s gone, then everything is normal. I can go on in the warmth of Chilcoat’s family just as before, and everything will be OK. His hands trembled as he dressed for the night’s guard duty. He looked to Charona for comfort as he gathered his weapons and stood in the doorway. “If I go back, you’ll have to come with me.”
She cast her eyes down knowing that she was not welcome by his mother. “I’ll come, but it won’t be easy. If you’re to be head of the house, then the council is likely to make me the matron, and your mother probably won’t go along with that easily.”
“Let me worry about the council.” Chilcoat spoke with confidence. “Lan, you should probably help your mother and brothers out until we get this matter settled. I don’t think it’ll be good to have Bartan’s influence over those boys go unchecked right now. I think you need to be there to temper his control. You two knew you were taking a difficult path, but I think you can do it... You’ve proven yourself a good husband and now you have to prove yourself a good man. Besides, maybe your dad will turn up. Maybe he just twisted his ankle or something and needs a couple of days to get back.”
Lannon looked again at Charona then pulled his cloak into place and stepped out into the evening glare.
Three days passed with extra caution at night and small search parties in the early evenings. Finally, one of the hunting parties found Larkon’s bow. It had scars likely caused by the cat that settled any doubts about his demise.
As the eldest son, Lannon claimed the bow and a small ceremony was held at the central hearth where it was burned, despite Laot’s objections. As the third born, Laot had no claim on the weapons, but he was perhaps the most effected by the loss of their father. He hadn’t yet recognized weakness in him, and burning his weapons in disgrace seemed too harsh, too final.
Laot fought back his tears as he confronted Chilcoat. “He was a master hunter and doesn’t deserve the shame of a failed huntsman. I shouldn’t have listened to you! I should’ve been there—we all should’ve been there. If I’d been there, we would’ve killed that cat. We’d be heroes not—cowards.”
Chilcoat tried to put a good light on Larkon’s bravery, but he hadn’t condoned the hunt, and his words were somber. “He’ll be missed by his family, and he was an able provider that will be missed by us all.”
As the ceremony broke up, Lannon and Charona accompanied his mother and brothers back to their hut. Bartan had attended, but he had stayed in the background and now tagged along behind the family like a concerned uncle.
They had found the bow in a place Bartan claimed to have already searched. “I’ll have to talk with him about it.” Chilcoat grumbled as he watched the grieving family retreat. Bartan’s position would need to be clear if he is to continue as a part of Larkon’s family. As matriarch, Katlan would have the last word, but his presence in the community was questionable. His goal of wooing Tarra came to nothing because of her absolute rejection of his advances and his predilection to drink. Now with the loss of his drinking buddy, his position in the tribe was tenuous.
Bartan pulled Lannon aside as he got ready for duty. “Lan, I’ve been thinking, since my weapon skills are a little rusty, it might be better if I stand guard with the boys. It’ll free you up for more hunting, and give me a chance to do a little practicing.”
Lannon had to admit that it made sense, but he hated to let him think he had put anything over on him. He figured Bartan had lost his nerve and didn’t want to go on any more hunts while the cat was still around. “Perhaps you’re right. That cat smells your fear. And don’t ever call me ‘Lan’ again... That’s the name my friends call me and you’re not my friend.” Lannon stood defiantly in the door of his mother’s tent for a moment then pulled his hood into place and left.
It soon became clear that the cat had cubs and was desperate to keep them fed. The trio frequently checked on the gardens in the early morning hours. It seemed to be on their patrol list when they returned from the lake. A few shouts and well-thrown stones were usually enough to keep them away, but at times the mother was willing to confront the challenger until the cubs were safely out of the way.
Chilcoat returned from a long night hunting and fell quickly into his normal bedtime routine with a short sexual excursion with Caran. As they lay quietly amongst the sleeping clutter, he thought again of Tangar. The old man had frequently quipped after some wine that, “sex was always better after a good hunt.” Chilcoat couldn’t argue the point, but it bothered him that that was the only thing the old man had to say to him. If you’re going to visit my thoughts, why don’t you bring some words of wisdom, not just some prurient interest in my sex life?
He turned on his side in an effort to rid himself of such diversions. Tarra lay a few feet away in the bedchamber vacated by Corona and Lannon. He couldn’t help but notice that she too struggled restlessly to reach a sexually charged release into slumber.
He rolled over to face away from her and once again thought of the old man and how he had always doted over the child. Now she was a woman and Chilcoat didn’t know what to do about her. She’s great to have around the house when it comes to medicine and babysitting, but she isn’t happy. He closed his eyes and tried to think of other things but, as his hand reached under his pillows, he thought of the stick that she had put there before. He wondered vaguely where it was as he finally drifted off to sleep.