Day Two : Bamboo Canyon
The morning ‘planning” meeting with Di Vargin, Deering, and the others lasted only a few hours. The meeting went surprisingly well, with few flaring tempers, little shouting, and no one trying to monopolize the meeting with things we really could not do anything about. I was not the only one who seemed a bit surprised to see Deering and Di Vargin had stopped glaring at each other, and actually made reasonable efforts to be civil, although it was painfully obvious it was taking an effort to do so. Although we decided we would have to wait until we learned more about the immediate surrounding territory before making any definite long range plans, we still worked out most of the details of the rough plans we talked about during yesterday's hurried meeting.
I thanked Deering for setting the sentries. I also took the opportunity to ask the others to also take the initiative in getting something done if they saw something which really needed doing, instead of waiting for someone to be told to do it. As I halfway expected someone, one of Di Vargin's cronies needled me about ‘forgetting such an important thing’ as setting guards. I replied, “I never claimed to be perfect. I am not egotistical enough to ever think my ideas will always the best ideas. I'm just human. . .” Pausing as I glanced down at my furry breasts before continuing, “Uhh, well. . . I guess that doesn't quite apply. . . But I still overlook things, I make mistakes just like everyone else. That is the whole point of meetings like this, to at least try to keep from overlooking details or making stupid avoidable mistakes. So, I do not want a bunch of ‘yes-men’ attending these meetings. If anyone has a different view or idea of the subject under discussion, I expect you to speak up.”
I spent a few more hours talking with dozens of others, and repeating what I remembered happening on the plane when we were all kidnapped in an impromptu general meeting after the morning planning meeting. I also talked about what I had learned of Chakats, and why I though we were Chakats, or something close enough to not make any real difference. I was not surprised to spend most of my time answering questions, mostly fairly reasonable questions, but some really stupid ones too. There was not nearly as many questions about what I said I remembered happening on the airplane as I expected. After all, it was pretty damn obvious someone kidnapped us off the airplane, then transformed us, and dumped us in that cavern where we all woke up. I told my story, then made it clear what I thought about the idea God being directly responsible for our transformation. After that there really was not much more for me to say about the subject. The subject of Chakats, and if we were, or were not Chakats now, was a different matter altogether.
Deering, Di Vargin, and about a quarter of the adults thought the idea someone had turned us into some kind of science fiction ‘cartoon’ creatures was insultingly ridiculous About half that number of adults, plus nearly everyone under seventeen or eighteen thought it was a great idea and eagerly accepted it as fact. The rest of the people were mostly undecided. In any case, after four hours, when I started answering the same round of questions for the third time, I had to make it as clear as I possibly could, short of drawing blood, I did not want to hear any more of the same questions.
I was hungry, and I also wanted to get out and take a look around like most people seemed to want to do. After the two meetings, I felt I really needed to get away for a while with one of the hunter-gathering groups. While I sure did not expect to be the only one wanting to get out, look around a little, and find something to eat, I was a bit surprised by how many wanted to get out and look around too. So many wanted to ‘take a look around’, we finally decided to draw lots to see who would stay around the caves to help the parents watch the cubs. Deering and Di Vargin also agreed with me in insisting every hunter-gathering group return with at least two-thirds of whatever they collected. We did not want anyone getting themselves needlessly injured, or killed by going out alone, so there had to be at least four people in each group.
Everyone was impatient to get out and look around, but we decided to wait until all the recon teams sent out yesterday evening returned and reported what they found. While all the recon teams just did a quick reconnaissance of their assigned areas, some had ranged farther then others. The first of the recon teams had returned a little after sunup after making an initial quick sweep of about 50 to 60 square miles to the south of the caves. The last recon team returned a few hours after noon. None of the teams turned up any signs of civilization, and only few signs of large predators or other obvious hazards beyond a rather large number of sink-holes and caves. They also reported a surprising amount of small game given the apparent lack of permanent surface water. With only a few exceptions, they only found temporary rain filled pools and puddles.
Although most of their attention and effort was taken up scouting out the surrounding territory, the recon teams also took the opportunity to do a little hunting and foraging like the ones who stayed closer to the caves. Being Ranger and Special Forces types, most also sampled the local small game, eating it raw of course. Like the people who spent the night out in the immediate area, the recon teams reported the lizards and small rodent-like animals they caught without much trouble, tasted pretty good, as did most of the insects and grubs they also sampled. They found a wider variety of edible plants, sampling dozens of plants, leaves, fruit, and root-tubers, and finding most tasted ‘barely edible' to ‘pretty good'. Only two of the plants caused the samplers to be violently ill. Luckily they all recovered very quickly after vomiting up whatever it was with no apparent lasting ill effects. Samples of these two plants was brought in, and most people took the opportunity to examine them so those plants could be avoided as far as a food source is concerned.
As mid afternoon rolled around, I noticed Melissa and Jay seemed much better behaved, or at least more subdued, than most of the other kids, or cubs, up to twice their age. Something I'm sure Brandy, now sporting a shallow scratch across hir nosepad, had a lot to do with. She had also collected a few other scratches here and there, and a couple new bites. It seemed Brandy still managed to teach Melissa and Jay it was a mistake to scratch and bite without doing them any lasting damage.
Earlier I saw Melissa and Jay fighting, and how they turned on Brandy quite viciously when she tried stopping them. Brandy roughly batted them away when they turned on hir, then knocked them around a little more till they submitted to her. It was hard to not step in as I saw how rough Brandy was with the kids, even though it was pretty clear she really was not hurting them, or at least she was not doing them any real damage. The kids also seem to bounce pretty well, and Brandy's rather rough discipline seemed to work, even if it made me wince watching her disciplining the kids. Shortly after that, I congratulated Brandy on the results, and also privately warned her again about doing any real damage to her sister or Jay. Brandy muttered something about the damage the brats were doing to her as she hurried away to see what ‘the brats’ were up to.
A few hours after noon, after a nap during the hottest part of the day, I rounded up Brandy, Melissa and Jay, as well as Randal, Buffy, and Valerie. I announced, “Okay kids, I'm gonna be taking a look around the neighborhood, and I thought you guys might like to tag along. . .”
Buffy asked, “You gonna take the brats too!?”
Glaring at Buffy, I replied, “Yes, I am. I'm sure Jay and Melissa will not run wild. . .” Brandy snorted and muttered something unintelligible at this, and suppressing a smile I continued, “. . . like the other cubs their age, for which I have you to thank. In any case, I expect everyone to help keep an eye on them.”
“Do we have to take them?” Valerie asked.
I smiled at Valerie and said, “No, I don't have to take them, not if you want to stay here to keep an eye on them. You want to stay here and keep an eye on them?” With Jay and Melissa staring at hir, Valerie stared back, then shook hir head ‘no’.
I chuckled and said, “Good choice Valerie.”
Turning to a more serious subject, one I had been avoiding, I said, “I know you all miss your parents and the rest of your families. I wish I could do more to help you with your loss, but there is little I can do except be here for you if you need to talk about what has happened. For now and the foreseeable future I will be your foster parent. I know I cannot replace your parents, but I will try to do my best to at least fill in for them. I think this outing will be a good way for me to get to know a bit more about you, and for you to get to know me.”
I paused then said, “Well, I know I'm hungry, and I'm pretty sure you guys are too. So, we are going out to look around a bit, do a little hunting, and get us something to eat.”
I was not too surprised when Valerie objected, “Eeew! You mean we're gonna have to chase down some poor little animal and eat it raw!?” The others did not seem happy about the ‘eat it raw’ part either, but less vocally.
“No Valerie,” I said, “even though we could if we had to, we don't have to eat any animals we manage to kill raw. We are not animals who have no choice. We know how to make fire and we can at least roast our meat. If we really are Chakats as Brandy and some others believe, then as I understand it, we should be able to eat all kinds of vegetables, fruit, nuts, and grains, including things we could not eat before. Oh yes, we will not be hunting just to feed ourselves. I expect we will be bring back most of what we find, or catch to the cave to share with the ones who are not able to go out hunting.”
I had looked around for Katherine and May before leaving the caves to ask them if they wanted to take a look around with me and the kids, but I did not find them. So I was pleased to see them trotting after us a little while after we left the caves and waited for them to catch up. I was relieved to learn they were not chasing after us with bad news when Katherine asked, “We heard you was going hunting, mind if we join you?”
“No. No, not at all.” I happily replied, then said, “You're more then welcome to come along, but you might have to help keep an eye on the kids. I wanted to get out and look around, and from what I heard from the ones who looked around last night, and the recon teams, I thought it would be safe enough to introduce the the kids to their new home. We are all also more than a little hungry, I noticed Melissa and Jay trying to take a taste of Brandy. . .”
Brandy snorted and muttered, “They did more then just try. . .”
“Yes,” I said as I smiled, “and I noticed how you explained they shouldn't do things like that. It seems they understood your explanation.” Then I asked Katherine, “Has there been any serious injuries from the kids' tendency to try out their claws and teeth on each other?”
Katherine shook her head and said, “No, nothing needing more then a couple of stitches, which is giving Doctor Shing a chance to trying out some thin needle like thorns and plant fibers he thinks will make usable sutures. Oh, yes, by tonight I think most all of the parents will be willing to give your ‘child care and discipline’ ideas a try. I've heard more then a few suggestions about putting the ‘little monsters’ in cages 'til they're old enough to act civilized and not like wild animals.”
“They're not that bad...”
Katherine's sharp laugh cut me off and she said, “Actually, they're noticeably worse behaved then any wild feline cubs I know of. The younger children are much more aggressive then feline cubs their size, or human children their age. I think this is not necessarily due to a lack of proper discipline, but is most likely primarily due to their transformation, and resulting enhanced mobility physical strength and speed. For some reason most seem to have forgotten what discipline they might have had before their transformation. This is much more noticeable in the younger children. But I must say, based on what I have seen, Jay and Melissa seem to be exceptions to this.”
Brandy muttered, “You need glasses if you think that.”
Suppressing a chuckle, I reached out to tap Brandy sharply on her head and say, “I think Brandy here had something to do with that, although I have noticed she, I mean shi has a tendency to mutter impolite comments about her, hir elders.”
As we walked along, Melissa and Jay chased after each other, but stayed within sight of the rest of us after Brandy threatened to tie a knot in their tails if they did not. Katherine moved close and quietly commented, “I see what you mean about Brandy. Melissa and Jay seems to mind her pretty well.”
I nodded and said, “Yeah, and she, ah, shi didn't even have to break any bones, a fact I'm sure is true mostly because the kids seem to bounce like they're partially made of rubber.”
May added, “Yes, I saw how rough Brandy is, but then the little ones are just as rough. I thought Brandy was going to attack someone over twice her size who tried to interfere when she was disciplining Jay and Melissa.”
“Oh? I hadn't heard about that. . . not yet anyway.”
May nodded and continued, “Yes. If the child the other one was watching had not distracted her by getting in a fight with another child, I think Brandy would have attacked her. She sure looked like was about to attack. I also noticed Jay and Melissa looked like they were ready to help Brandy if she did attack.”
Watching Brandy and Buffy joining Melissa and Jay in a game of tag, or ‘chase the tail’ or something excessively active, I commented, “Humm, so Jay and Melissa were going to help Brandy if shi got in a fight? Now that is interesting.”
May said, “I'm not sure about that, but they did look like they would.”
Nodding I said, “It seems Brandy's got a bit of a wild streak. I wonder if she, if shi, had it before hir transformation, but at least shi seems to keep it under control, most of the time.”
Katherine smiled and commented, “I see you are going to be using the new ‘shi’ and ‘hir’ pronouns.”
“Yeah,” I said, “when I can remember to. It does make a lot more sense now.”
Katherine asked, “How far out are we going? Do you have some place in particular in mind?”
“Just a couple miles.” I replied, “According to a couple of the Special Forces types who nosed around out here last night, there is a canyon, or valley out this way. They didn't actually go down into the canyon, but from what they could see, hear, and smell, the place was a lot less arid and seemed full of cane or bamboo like plants. I thought it would be a good place to check out.”
Katherine nodded and said, “It does sound like a good hunting area, but you do realize, if there are any large predators in this area, they will be found in such a place.”
“And you're worried about what the kids might run into.” I said, and smiled, showing my very impressive set of canines, then extended all my claws as I continued, “Katherine, I don't know what used to be the top predators around here, but now we are here, and now WE are the top predators in this area. There may be other, bigger, individually more dangerous predators around here, but I seriously doubt they will be more dangerous then three adult, and two near adult Chakats. I'm pretty sure you've seen the kind of bloody mess a big cat can make of prey or each other with their fangs and claws. Our fangs and claws may not be quite as big some other big cats have, but they are just as sharp as any. And as far as the kids are concerned, well, they're going to have to learn about their world sometime. We'll just have to keep an eye on them the best we can, pray nothing happens to them when they do get out of sight, and teach them as much as we can about survival before they really need it.”
Nodding toward the kids, I added thoughtfully, “They probably won't realize it, but today is the first day of school for them. A school which I fear will have very severe consequences for those who will not, or can not learn their lessons in a timely manner.”
Just then I saw Jay duck into a hole at the base of a large boulder, and yelled in alarm, “JAY!! GET YOUR TAIL OUT OF THAT HOLE!!!” as I sprinted over to the hole he disappeared into. As I feared, the hole was too small for me or anyone but Melissa, or maybe Brandy, to enter. At least it looked like a natural cave entrance and not the dug out den of some animal. I could smell several animal scents, but nothing really strong, so I hoped the hole was not occupied by something that would consider something Jay's size to be a tasty snack as I yelled again, “JAY! I SAID, GET OUT OF THERE!”
I lunged in as soon as Jay came within reach, grabbed hir by the scruff of hir neck, and dragged hir out of the hole. Jay came out spitting, hissing, and trying to claw me like the very pissed-off cat shi was now. I held hir up by the scruff of his neck well away from my body as I would do with any spitting and hissing cat. I had to swat hir a couple times for sinking hir sharp claws in my arm as I held hir. I did not really swat hir hard, at least not near as hard as I have seen Brandy hitting hir and Melissa, but hard enough to get hir attention and make hir take hir claws out of my arm.
After Jay released my arm and we both calmed down, I sat hir down on the ground, and said, “Jay, I'm not going to punish you for using your claws on me this time, because I can see now I accidently used my claws when I pulled you out of that hole. I am sorry, it was an accident, and I should have been more careful. What you did, running headlong into that hole in the ground the way you did really frightened me. I do not want you running into holes in the ground like that again.”
I looked around to Melissa and the others as I continued, “I don't want any of you to go rushing headlong into any unknown cave, or hole in the ground. We don't know what kind of animals might make their dens in such places. This is not a park or a zoo. The wild animals here are running free, and will more than likely have some nasty ways of dealing with intruders who go charging into their homes.”
“But...” Jay started to say.
“No ‘buts’, Jay.” I said and continued, “We don't know what kind of dangerous animals live around here. I know I can't watch you kids all the time, but until we learn more about what we might run into out here, I don't want anyone running off by themselves. It would be best for everyone to stay within shouting distance of each other, or even better, within sight of someone.”
Jay looked upset, and unhappy. Since Jay did not seem to be bothered by the slightly bloody holes I accidently poked in the skin of the scruff of hir neck, I assumed shi was upset because shi thought I was just bawling hir out. I patted Jay's shoulder, licked hir wounds, then ruffled hir hair as I pulled hir close to the hole shi had crawled into and said, “Jay, sniff around here, and tell me what you smell.”
Jay sniffed around a bit then said, “I smell something, kinda a sour-sweet smell. Is not a strong smell. . . What is it?”
“I don't know,” I replied, “and that is the point I'm trying to make. Whatever it is, is probably harmless, might even be good to eat, but it could be something very nasty that would consider you to be a nice snack. Something like a big twenty to thirty foot snake would probably think a hole like that would make a great home.”
I paused to look and sniff around the hole again then said, “But, I'm pretty sure it is not a snake. Can anyone tell me why I think that?”
Jay and Melissa just looked puzzled, so did the others, except for Katherine, which didn't surprise me. Then Brandy, after sniffing around like I had done, suddenly waved hir hand like shi was in school as shi proudly announced, “Oh, I know! I know!”
“Okay Brandy,” I said, “go ahead. Explain why I don't think what Jay smelled is a snake.”
“By the tracks.” shi said, pointing to some faint marks in the sandy soil next to the base of the boulder.
“So?” I said, “Those tracks could have been made by any passing animal, and have nothing to do with what might be living in that hole.”
Brandy smiled and said, “They have the same smell as the hole.”
I ruffled Brandy hair and said, “Yep, that's right.” Then looking around at the others I said, “Remember, we have a sense of smell that can tell us as much about our surroundings as our eyes, and tell us about things invisible to our eyes. All we have to do, is to remember to pay attention to all our senses, not just our eyes.”
Then Buffy announced, “It has fur too, gray and brown fur,” as shi pointed to a very small tuft of a dozen or fewer hairs caught on a bit of rough stone at the cave entrance.
“. . . but, we do have very good eyes, better than we used to, so if you learn to really use your eyes, little details like that tiny tuft of fur will stand out as if it were glowing.”
As we moved away from the little cave entrance, I said, “I know you kids want to play, and you can play, but out here I want you to always be thinking of what is around you. Look, really look at things, at your surroundings. Always pay attention to the scents of your surroundings, and those scents carried on the breeze. And don't forget your ears. Between your eyes, nose, and ears, if you're paying attention to what they're telling you, you'll find there are very few things that can get close enough to surprise you. Try stalking each other, see how close you can get before you're caught. It's fun, and you'll be learning things you'll need to know to be good hunters.”
Jay and Melissa, as well as the older kids, stayed closer, listening to what I had to tell them about hunting and surviving in the wilderness. Katherine added all kinds of useful things about animals in general. Even May knew a few things about wilderness survival, and told them how basket traps could be made to catch fish or birds. I was pleased to discover none of the kids were totally ignorant of hunting, fishing, and camping. This made sense given the fact their parents were instructors at a military survival school. Randal, Buffy, and Brandy actually knew quite a bit of good basic field survival and camping beyond the usual gadget dominated modern camping and field survival. It was a good start, something to build on of how different tasks can be done under primitive conditions.
Brandy began happily pointing out, once again, how ‘superior’ Chakats were when it came to survival, “With our fur we don't need clothes, shoes, blankets or tents. . . if it's not raining anyway. We don't need lights to see at night. We don't need to carry nearly as much water. . .”
Randal interrupted with, “But we need more food...”
“We can eat almost anything...”
“We don't know that for sure, Brandy.” I pointed out, “If we are really like the Chakats described in those stories and roleplaying games you and the others have told us of, then we should be able to eat things that would poison us if we were still human. But, just because we can eat something without harm, does not mean anyone would want to eat it unless they're starving.”
Valerie chimed in with, “Yea can say that again. I know I'll have to be starving before I eat a rabbit or squirrel raw.”
We took our time hiking along for a couple hours without finding much except lizards, and a little hopping animal that looked a lot like a kangaroo rat. Jay and Melissa had a lot of fun chasing the little hoppers, without any success. I wondered what they would do if they actually caught one.
About twelve to fifteen miles from the caves we reached the top a low-lying ridge and found ourselves looking down into a broad shallow canyon. I saw why the ones who found this canyon didn't try climbing down into the canyon last night for a closer look. While the canyon walls were not all that high, actually less then 50 feet in most places, they were very steep. At least where we stood, the canyon walls were way too steep to easily, or safely climb down. As we made our way along the canyon rim, looking for a less steep part of the canyon wall, I could see this was only one finger of what could be a fairly extensive branching canyon that could cover thousands of acres. We could see the tall thin cane and bamboo like plants that covered most of the canyon's flat bottom. We could smell water, as well as the rich scents of other living things carried on the air currents from the canyon below.
Still thinking like a human, I ignored several possibilities as I looked for an easy way down into the canyon, a way suitable for human children. At least I was until I heard the kids, the cubs, yelling and looked around to see Jay and Melissa three-quarters of the way down the canyon wall. They were scampering down a steeply sloping ledge that could not have been more then six inches wide at its widest points with Brandy and Buffy chasing along close behind yelling at them. They finished by leaping at least five meters from the barely paw wide ledge to a huge semi-trailer sized boulder top. Then without pause leaped another four or five meters to the top of another lower big blocky boulder, then to a third boulder, where they finally ran down the face of a tilted slab shaped boulder leaning against that boulder to the canyon floor. All four made it to the canyon without mishap, though the way they ran headlong down that narrow ledge, then jumped from boulder to boulder sure looked like attempted suicide.
Katherine, May and I hurried back to the beginning of the narrow ledge, where the 'cubs' started their descent, and where Randal and Valerie was still yelling at them. I started down the narrow ledge without stopping to give it much thought, on the assumption I would most likely end up falling on my head again if I thought about what I was trying to do and tried to be too careful again. After I started down the ledge, I quickly found I had little choice about continuing running on down the steep narrow path. It was just too steep to not run down it without risk of slipping and falling. Concentrating on moving one foot in front of the other as fast as I could on the steep narrow ledge without tripping over my own feet I ran past the point where the kids had jumped from the ever steepening, ever narrowing ledge, to the first boulder. I suddenly found I had no choice but to leap from the now near vertical ledge to the closest boulder face. The stunning impact left me clinging to the rough side of the boulder twenty-five to thirty feet above a tumbled jagged mass of smaller jagged boulders jammed in between the bases of larger boulders like the one I found myself clinging to. After I finally got to the boulder top, I realized I had gotten in trouble again this time by not fully trusting the strength and reflexes of my new feline body when I hesitated in making the leap to the boulder top just a moment too long. Something the young ones did not seem to have any trouble doing. After inching my way to the top of the boulder I paused a few moments to catch my breath, and thanked God this body had six sets of good strong claws, before I continued on. It was relatively easy to jump from boulder to boulder until I got down to the canyon floor.
The others, seeing my near disaster, avoided the same mistake and made the jump to the first boulder top without any problem. At first, while I was clinging to side of the boulder, I was really pissed off at the kids for pulling off such a seemingly dangerous stunt. But, by the time I made my way to the canyon floor, I let it pass with only a mild admonishment to be more careful, especially after both Katherine and May commented on how much easier running and leaping down the side of the cliff actually was than it had seemed from the cliff top.
Within a few minutes the kids jumped a rabbit-like animal a little bigger then a Cottontail, and set off in hot pursuit. They quickly lost it when it ducked through a stand of bamboo-like plants growing too close together for them to follow. They jumped another one almost immediately, to just as quickly lose it the same way as the first one. It was clear simply charging after these short-eared ‘rabbits’, trying to run them down, was not going to work to well in this ‘bamboo’ forest.
While the kids ‘hunted’ the apparently very abundant short-eared rabbits, Katherine, May and I checked out the usability of the local plants. We could tell the bamboo-like plants really were not bamboo, although very similar and had the same characteristics that made bamboo so useful. Several varieties of these bamboo or cane plants had tough, inch wide, three to four foot long leaves which May thought would be perfect for basket weaving, and set about gathering enough leaves to make us all a pair of basket saddle bags. May proved to be quite a skillful basket weaver, and admitted basket weaving had been a hobby since she was a child. She learned basket weaving and other ‘traditional’ crafts from her grandmother. Using the long narrow leaves, May quickly made all of us a pair of baskets we could carry like saddlebags. Even Jay and Melissa got a smaller pair of basket weave saddlebags so they could ‘help’ collect things to take back to the camp.
As shi finished the first pair of basket-weave saddlebags, May explained, “These are just make-do baskets, easy to make, but not very durable. They should last for a few days, maybe a few weeks, of daily use. After I have opportunity to experiment with different materials, I will be able to make baskets much better suited to their intended use.”
We gathered bundles of the tough leaves, but at my insistence we were careful to take no more then half the leaves off any one plant. Although the plants seemed pretty common, I didn't want to ‘strip-mine' the only source we knew of, of such an obviously useful raw material. May pointed out that if these plants were like bamboo, then as long as we did not damage the root stock, any plants we harvested would quickly re-grow. This might be so, but until we could determine how fast the plants actually re-grew I did not want to risk destroying such an obviously useful resource. Since the dry leaves seemed almost as tough as the fresh ones, and were lighter, we also gathered up all of them we could find.
While gathering a bunch of dry leaves, Buffy found a local hazard the hard way when shi disturbed a nest of flying stinging insects. Luckily our thick fur saved hir, Valerie, and May from all but a few painful stings. We noticed a distinctive scent in the general area around the nest. The nesting insects also made an equally distinctive sound which seemed to grow louder the more annoyed they were, so it should be easy to avoid accidentally disturbing other nests. I made sure Melissa and Jay could recognize the distinctive scent and sound of the nest so they might avoid the nests and getting stung. It would be nice if we could discover all hazards like the ‘wasp’ nest with as little damage, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't.
The young shoots of all the bamboo-like plants, those less then a foot high, proved edible and were rather tasty, a bit like sweet celery. These shoots, and the softer smaller leaves, were apparently the primary diet of the rabbits. There were many other types of plants growing in the bamboo forest, including several types of fruiting vine plants. One of these was heavy with a bright blue-green fruit, with a sweet blood red flesh shot through with hard little black seeds, which was easiest to eat whole, seeds, skin and all. Another vine had grape-like clusters of a dark green fruit with a cherry-like pit and very sour light green flesh, which we assumed was not yet ripe. There were two vines with bean-like seed pod fruit, which neither seemed quite ripe, but were still quite tasty.
The burrowing short-eared tail-less rabbit apparently had plenty to eat, and we spotted a pair of cat-like predators, each a little bigger than Jay and Melissa, which were obviously one of the short-ear’s primary predators. We also found tracks of other larger animals we did not see, including at least one much larger cat-like predator, one bigger then an adult Chakat if the tracks were an indication of size. We did not see it, and I really did not want to be the one who suddenly found hirself face to face with what could be a lion or tiger size cat.
It took us only about an hour to fill our basket-saddlebags with a variety of edible plants, and gather several large bundles of leaves, then we went hunting. Jay, Melissa, Buffy, and Brandy had already discovered the tailless short-eared ‘rabbits’ were not so easy to chase down, but Buffy discovered they were suckers for thrown rocks. Valerie, Randal and Brandy proved able to throw palm sized rocks with deadly accuracy, and they accounted for most of the two dozen tail-less ‘rabbits’ we managed to bag. With the rest of us acting as beaters to drive the small game toward our three ‘marksmen’ it did not take long to collect as many of the tail-less rabbits as we desired.
The short eared ‘rabbits’ were very wary of us and would freeze motionless if they thought they saw us first, or take off in a wild bounding sprint if it was obvious we saw them. Regardless of their wariness, they were so abundant and so ignorant of the dangers of thrown rocks, we could have taken many more then we did. The behavior of the short eared rabbits caused Katherine to comment, “I bet we could get a lot closer if we were still human.”
May asked, “Why do you say that? It seems to me it's easier to spot them now, and we are at least as quiet now as we would have been as humans.”
Katherine replied, “We resemble one of the Short Ears's normal predators enough that they react the same way to us as they would to those feline-like animals we saw. I'm sure two legged upright-walking humans would look so different from anything they usually encounter, they simply wouldn't see humans as a danger. Like animals in isolated areas like the Galapagos Islands will let people almost walk up close enough to touch them.”
Valerie said, “They seem pretty easy to catch to me.”
“Well, I don't think they'd seem so easy to catch if you had to run them down like their normal predators do.” I said with a smile, “I don't think thrown rocks are something they know how to dodge.”
Of course, shi and Brandy had to test what I said and tried chasing down the next few short eared rabbits. They had a lot of fun and totally wore themselves out, but working together as a team, they did manage to catch five of the very elusive creatures. As they lay panting and gasping after catching the last one while the rest of us rested and watched Jay and Melissa playing, I asked, “Well, did you two have fun?”
Valerie finally caught her breath enough to say, “Yeah, we did, but you, you're right, it's a lot easier to throw rocks at them.”
Brandy, licking at a scrape shi got chasing a rabbit through a stand of bamboo, paused to add, “But we don't have to throw rocks if we don't want to.”
I just chuckled when Katherine checked the several small injuries Brandy and Valerie acquired while chasing the rabbits and commented, “Oh no, you don't have to throw rocks, but you'll keep a lot more of your fur attached if you do. Valerie, I will be very surprised if that leg is not going to be hurting tomorrow. What did you run into?”
Brandy snorted and said, “My head, is what shi ran into. I zigged when the rabbit and Val zagged, and wham.”
Katherine checked Brandy's head and commented, “Hummm. . . I didn't see any bumps, so I guess your head's as hard as White Tip's. Oh, by the way White Tip, how is your back feeling?”
I grimaced as shi probed my upper back and replied, “It's a little stiff and sore, but not as much as I would have expected after falling on those rocks yesterday.”
“Well,” shi said, “I'm sure we are more then a little tougher than normal humans, but it would've been a lot more serious if you had landed on a rock with your skull. I'm pretty sure it's not that thick.”
When Randal found some very nice double-fist sized nodules of gray flint, I decided to see how much I could remember of flint chipping I learned in an archeology Primitive Crafts Class I took years ago. After a couple of false starts, and three flint nodules, I finally managed to shape a usable ‘core’, from which I managed to split off a couple dozen usable razor sharp flake blades. I showed the others the basic (very basic) techniques of flint chipping and we eventually had a half dozen razor edged simple flake blades. These were about as basic a flint blade as you could make, but they had at least one cutting edge as sharp as the finest steel razors.
I had intended to simply skin and clean a few of the short eared pseudo-rabbits to roast later on, but Katherine soon picked through the flake blades and, after finding a couple to hir liking, began ‘dissecting’ the rabbits while the rest of us looked on. I found the things shi pointed out as being unusual to be rather obscure for the most part, but as interesting as the others did. While I've never had a problem with the sight of blood and gore, or the feel of it when cleaning game before, I always found the smell to be mildly, and sometimes not so mildly nauseating. Now, the smell of the blood and gore was not at all nauseating. In fact it smelled surprisingly appitizing. After Katherine finished dissecting a half dozen of the pseudo-rabbits, shi and I showed the others how to skin and clean the rest of our kills.
We only discarded the stomach and intestines, and a couple of small glands Katherine said would most likely taste bad, which they did, as Brandy found out when shi licked hir fingers after handling the glands. I showed the others how to make simple drying frames for the skins, and we soon had several dozen skins hanging high off the ground drying in the low sun and breeze. To help preserve the meat, we made a fire to cook the rabbits. After filling the body cavity with a mix of the vegetables and fruits we collected, and wrapping the stuffed carcass in bamboo leaves, clay was packed over the leaves, then the whole thing was laid in the fire to bake a few hours. Since we made the fire well away from anything flammable, we did not have to keep a close watch on the fire, just a casual watch to add fuel every so often to build up a good bed of coals over the clay-wrapped rabbits.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the canyon bamboo forest, exploring the canyon forest, casually hunting, collecting samples of anything we thought might be useful, even taking naps. I also took the time to refine my flint chipping techniques, as well as make simple bamboo spears for myself, Katherine, and May. I did not try making any flint spear points since I was not that good at flint-chipping. Besides, flint spear points really were not needed since grinding a long beveled point on the bamboo spear shaft produced a very sharp sturdy point.
About an hour before sunset, while Katherine and I were checking out one of the many small one to three acre ponds we found scattered across the floor of the canyon, we heard the kids yelling, or squalling, excitedly. Hurrying to where the yells were coming from, we found the kids had ran into something a lot bigger, and a whole lot meaner than the rabbits they had been hunting. There were five 60 to 80 pound animals which looked kind of like armored pigs with thick strong spiked tails about the same length as their squat muscular bodies. The spiked tail at one end, plus the three inch tusks and heavy claws at the other end, combined with good speed and a mean fearless disposition made the spike-tail pigs more then a little dangerous. Luckily, they were not nearly as fast as the kids dancing around the five clearly enraged animals, managing to keep just out of reach of their tusks, claws, and tail spikes.
I got to use my crude spear almost immediately as I charged into the small clearing where the kids and the spike-tail pigs were chasing each other. Less then two seconds after I arrived, Jay tripped over something and fell on hir face right in front of the two largest spike-tails. My spear may have been crude, but it was strong enough, and the sharp beveled hypodermic needle like point was sturdy enough to pierce the largest animal's heavy looking shoulder armor to completely penetrate its body.
At the same time, Valerie and Randal let out an ear splitting puma like screams, as Valerie reared up on hir rear legs to fling a fist sized rock down at the other charging spike-tail. The rock hit the animal's armored skull right between its eyes, bounced with a sharp crack, and drove the animal to the ground stunned, but still very much alive. Randal leaped over Jay onto the spike-tail I just speared about the same time I jumped it after throwing my spear. Before the spike-tail Valerie stunned could recover, shi was on top of it, hir teeth buried in its thick neck, only a half second before both Buffy and Brandy jumped it too. Not to be left out, Katherine jumped a third spike-tail that made the mistake of not taking the opportunity to flee as its two companions did.
Although their tusks, claws and spikes might have caused serious injuries, the three spike-tails really didn't have a chance when Jay fell and was seriously threatened by them. By the time the spike-tails stopped struggling, and we carefully untangled ourselves from the bloody bodies, the other two spike-tails were long gone. I've been in combat, had people seriously trying their best to kill me, and survived while most of my attackers did not, so I'm very familiar with the rush of emotions that comes as you realize the danger is past and you have survived. What I felt as I got to my feet and looked down on my kill, a kill I had used my own fangs and claws on, was a lot like that post-combat rush of emotions combined with the hunter's pride of making a kill. Looking around, I could see, feel, smell how the others felt the same hunter's rush of emotions.
Katherine was the last to release hir kill, and unlike the rest of us shi was not all bloody, shi had not raked her kill with hir claws or ripped its throat with her fangs. Shi had knocked hir spike-tail over on its back, clamped hir jaws over its throat and windpipe while holding its heavy clawed feet away with her hands and forepaws. Katherine then held on, clamping its windpipe shut, and holding the spike-tail's claws away from hir body till it stopped struggling and shi felt its heart stop beating. Katherine got to hir feet, licking hir lips clean of what little blood that oozed from the two neat nearly bloodless punctures on either side of hir kill's throat. The rest of us were covered with blood, and Valerie's white snow leopard marked fur looked especially bloody. Luckily, all the blood proved to belong to the dead spike-tails
The squalling hiss of enraged cubs tore our attention from ourselves and our kills. Looking around, we found May holding both Melissa and a hissing Jay up by the scruff of their necks, giving them a good shaking. As I licked some of the blood off my lips and fur, blood which tasted rather good, I asked, “Those two giving you trouble, May?”
“Yessss!” Shi said, “These two. . . children tried to go chasing off alone after the two creatures that got away.”
Then I noticed blood on May's fur and asked, “May, who's blood is that? Are the cubs hurt?”
“No, they are unhurt.” May said as shi put the cubs down, “The blood is mine. I had a little accident.”
I could not help but notice how the cubs crouched belly to the ground when May sat them down, with their tails wrapped tightly around their feet, trembling, and staring wide eyed at me. It was pretty damn clear they thought they were in trouble, and it was not hard to guess why. Staring at the cubs with a frown I asked, “May, which one did that, which one drew blood, or did they both claw or bite you?”
Licking hir wounds and the blood off her fur, May moved closer to Jay and Melissa, but not quite getting between me and the trembling cubs, as shi said, “It is nothing, really. I did not realize I was bleeding until you said something.”
I sighed and decided to explain, “May, both of them were warned about biting or using their claws on people. They are old enough to understand no biting or clawing means no biting or clawing! Look at them, they know they did wrong!”
I stepped over to a clump of finger-thick cane, snapped one off, and began stripping off the leaves and stems of the top three feet, as Jay and Melissa continued staring. Looking at the cubs, then at the thin whiplike switch, I belatedly realized the switch would sting like hell and raise painful welts, if Jay and Melissa had still been human, but with their fur and thicker skin they would barely feel it. To test it, I hit myself a lot harder then I intended to hit the cubs, I felt it, but not nearly as much I would have if I were human. I hit myself again, as hard as I could this time, breaking the switch, and this time it hurt, a little.
Jay and Melissa stared even wider eyed while I tested the switch, Buffy and Brandy crouched low like the younger cubs, and the others just watched in silence. No one said anything as I prepared a thicker heavier switch. Jay's and Melissa's trembling increased as I tested the heavier switch, and winced when it definitely hurt this time. Although I was not going to use it nearly as hard on them, they did not know that. I really did not want to whip Jay and Melissa, but I also felt I had no choice about punishing them if I wanted them to really believe I would not tolerate them biting and clawing people.
Crouching down in front of Jay and Melissa and tapping the heavy switch in my hand, I just stared at them awhile before speaking, “Since I adopted you and your brothers and sisters, I am responsible for you. I know I can never replace your parents, but I intend to raise you, to love you, as if you were my own.”
I stood, still tapping the cane in my hand, and paused a moment before continuing, “I do not want to punish you, and I will never want to hurt you, but when you misbehave I want you to know you will be punished. You bit and clawed May. You know that is wrong, and just as important is that I told you both I did not want you using your teeth and claws on people.”
I paused again then said, “Stand up.” After they stood, still trembling, I continued, “This time, I'm going to give both of you one stroke. The next time you will get two strokes. Every time you force me to punish you for biting or clawing you will get an additional stroke. Do you understand?”
After both cubs nodded ‘yes’, I warned, “This is going to hurt.” then gave each a sharp whack across their flank causing them to yelp.
I threw the cane away and announced, “Okay, punishment is over. I hope you two won't be forcing me to punish you like this again. You can go back to playing, but leave any animals you find alone until I say you can go hunting again.”
Brushing my hands through their hair I said, “You two may grow up to be great hunters, but you have a few years left to grow. So for now, I want you to stick with small prey like the short-eared-rabbits, and leave the bigger dangerous prey, like these spike-tails to the adults. I'm not going to punish you this time for trying to go off after the spike-tails that ran away. I understand why you did it. We are basically felines now, and cats, and I assume Chakats too, have an instinct to chase anything running away. But, we are NOT animals who have no choice about living by our instincts. We have the intelligence to think, to plan, to resist the urges of our instincts, so from now on when I see you acting like an unthinking animal, I will punish you.”
Looking into the kids, the cubs(?), wide staring eyes, I got the feeling neither of them really understood what I meant, so I asked, “Do you two understand what I am talking about?” Jay and Melissa both nodded their heads ‘yes’, but now I was sure they really did not understand what I was talking about. I finally sighed and said, “Okay, just try to think about what you're doing. Ask yourself, ‘Will White Tip beat my ass if shi catches me doing this?’, and if you think I would, then don't it. Do you understand me now?” This time, I felt they really did understand when they nodded ‘yes’.
As they took off to play, Jay and Melissa seemed to get over their punishment and return to normal a lot faster than the adults, a lot faster than I did. Katherine offered her sympathy and commented, “I bet your parents made you go out and pick the switch they punished you with.”
I chuckled, feeling a little better, as I replied, “Yeah, they sure did, and gawd help me if I took off, or brought back a switch they didn't think was big enough. Then I really got my ass, back and legs striped. Of course, I usually deserved every welt I got, and that was only for what I got caught doing. I assume you got your share of welts growing up too?”
“Oh yes, but father used a narrow leather belt on me and my sisters. My brothers had their own whipping belt, a nice heavy thick one.”
“Could you take a look at them, to see if I hit them too hard?” I asked, “I wanted it to hurt, to raise a welt, but that's all. With their fur and thicker skin, as well as my increased strength, it's hard to judge how hard I was really hitting them, and I do not want to really hurt them. . . you know what I mean?”
“I'll take a look, but I really don't think you hit them as hard as you think, or as hard as they acted like you hit them. All in all, I think you made your point.”
“I hope so.” I said with a sigh, before joining May, Randal and Valerie to help clean the three spike-tails.
It did not take long for Katherine to check out Jay and Melissa. Smiling shi reported, “As I thought, you barely raised a welt, so they did feel it, but I really doubt you hurt them much at all physically. I'm sure you hurt their pride and feelings a lot more then you did their furry hides. They seemed very sorry for what they did, and asked if I thought you was still mad at them.”
As I carefully slit the belly of one of the spike-tails open, I asked, “What did you tell them?”
Shi replied as shi began ‘dissecting’ hir kill, “I said I thought you were sorry you had to punish them, and that you were not still mad at them. I also warned them that they better behave, and they said they would.”
“I hope I don't have to do this too often. I really hate hitting them like that, but I'm also sure this won't be the last time. At least it's good to know their hides are as tough as I thought. I would've felt horrible if I had really hurt them.”
After we finished gutting the spike-tails and washing up, I asked, “Is everyone as hungry as I am? Ya know, the fruit and other veggies made good snacks, but I want to sample some of the meat, and those baked rabbits should be done by now.”
It did not take long to round up the kids, the cubs, and meet over at the fire pit. As we dug the clay wrapped stuffed rabbits out of the coals, we found the clay had baked rock hard, as it was supposed to. Jay and Melissa each got one baked rabbit, Buffy and Brandy got two, the rest of us got three, and the remaining three dozen were laid aside to cool. After cracking off the baked clay and unwrapping the steaming baked rabbits, May, Katherine, and I showed the others how to make and use chopsticks. We enjoyed our first real meal since our transformation. Although the baked stuffed rabbits was delicious, they would have been even better with a little salt and pepper. The seed heads, bamboo shoots, and the tangy-sweet plum-sized fruit we stuffed the rabbits with were also very tasty.
After an after dinner nap, it was quite late, well after sundown, and time to head back to the cavern camp with our remaining catch. As we were cleaning up our camp and making double sure the fire was out, another group of five hunter-gatherers found us, attracted by the smell of our fire and cooking.
The newcomers did not have basket saddlebags like ours, so they had not collected nearly as many small items like the shoots, seed-heads, and fruits as we had. They also ran into the same stinging insects we did, with a bit more serious results since all five had been stung several times. Although they had not collected many vegetables or fruits, they had managed to take four 40 to 50 pound animals unlike anything we'd seen so far. Two of the newcomers had also suffered injuries from the vaguely piglike animal's claws and tusks. The animals had about the same flat snout, short neck and rounded body of a wild pig, but no swine ever had such powerful scaled legs terminating in heavy clawed feet and a thick furless ratlike tail as long as its body. At least they did not have spines on their tails like the spike-tails.
Katherine really wanted to disect at least one of the ‘rat-pigs’ on the spot, but shi agreed to wait until we got back to the cavern, and turned hir attention to the injuries the hunters had gotten in taking the ‘rat-pigs’. Luckily the claw and tusk wounds proved to be relatively superficial, and Katherine said that as long as the wounds did not get seriously infected, they should heal with no problem, leaving no or only minor scars. After first treating the other hunters’ stings and wounds as well as shi could, Katherine returned hir attention to the four new animals.
Shaking hir head after examining the animals, Katherine said, “I've worked at dozens of zoos and animal parks for over fifty years, and I've never seen anything like these. . . ‘rat-pigs’. I'm pretty sure they are mammals, technically anyway, since I'm sure they have breast glands. They also appear to be hermaphrodites, something I've never heard of in mammals this size. And although the tail-less short-eared ‘rabbits’ we have resemble several small fur bearing animals that I am familiar with, I'm pretty sure it's just a superficial resemblance. They are not rodents, lupine, or any other species or genus of small fur-bearing mammal I know of, and I'm sure all the ones we took are females.”
While Katherine was treating the others and examining the animals, May, with a little help from the rest of us, wove the newcomers saddlebag baskets like the ones we had. Then we helped them collect more shoots and seed-heads as well as several more bundles of basket-making leaves, before we all headed back to the caves. It was well past midnight as we headed back, and the clouds had become notably darker and lower in just the last half hour.
Studying the darkening moisture-heavy clouds, I commented to Katherine and May, “I had hoped to have a clear night so we could get a look at the stars. I thought that would be the best way to determine if we're still on earth or not. Although, the animals and plants we've seen so far pretty well answers that question. I'd still like to see if any of the constellations are recognizable.”
One of the other group, a young looking puma-marked individual with a dark reddish-brown and light tan coat and coppery-auburn mane who called hirself Copperhead said, “Oh, this definitely isn't Earth. It's impossible to be sure without any instruments, but I'd estimate the gravity is about ten percent higher, and the atmosphere is at least fifteen percent denser. I'll have to set up a few simple experiments to confirm it, but I think the atmospheric composition is a bit different with a smaller percentage of oxygen.”
Shi suddenly smiled shyly and added, “In addition to my major in ecology, I also had minors in ‘planetology’, ‘planetary cosmetology' and ‘alternative ecologies’. Most of my professors thought I was wasting my time and talents on such ‘useless esoteric studies’, but I've always been a ‘Trekkie’ and the possibility of life developing on other worlds fascinated me.”
Katherine laughed and said, “It looks like they won't be quite as useless as your professors thought they were.”
I asked, “You were with the people who boarded the plane with Di Vargin, weren't you?”
Shi gave me a puzzled look as shi replied, “Yes, I was.” Then shi added with more then a little anger in hir voice, “I was just about the most junior student assistant working for them. We, the student assistants, were supposed to receive ‘valuable’ field experience. But most of us quickly discovered we were actually little more then personal servants for the so-called scientists and their chosen pet ‘assistants’. It was almost a total waste of time as far as picking up any practical experience was concerned. About the only thing most of us would have gotten out of the deal would have been the credits we were supposed to get after the ‘project’ was completed.”
Katherine asked, “Are you saying Colonel Deering's claim about doctor Di Vargin falsifying his data was accurate?”
Copperhead hesitated before reluctantly replying, “No, not exactly. As far as I know no data was actually falsified, but in my opinion the way the data was collected, weighted and analyzed differed significantly from any accepted standard scientific methods I am familiar with.”
Curious about how strong Di Vargin's support was, I asked, “How many of Di Vargin's associates and your fellow student assistants would support Di Vargin if shi made a serious effort to assume leadership?”
Copperhead gave me a speculative look, before saying, “I don't know. If you and the Colonel weren't around, I guess most of us would settle for Di Vargin by default. If it was a choice between the Colonel and Di Vargin then most would still reluctantly support Di Vargin because everyone believes the Colonel would probably try running things like we were his own private army.”
When Copperhead paused, I asked, “Why would you think Deering would do something like that? Shi might do things in a bit more military fashion then I would, but shi seems to be a pretty reasonable person, and shi is, or was a good officer who cares for the welfare of those under hir charge.”
Copperhead shrugged and said, “Personally, I'd go with Colonel Deering over Di Vargin if I had to choose between them, but I'm still glad Deering isn't running things. As far as Di Vargin is concerned, as long as you seem to know what you're doing, only a few of his closest buddies would support him if he tried to take over. He knows this, and he hates it. He's working to build up support and I seriously doubt he'll try anything until he has a lot more support, or feels you've fucked up bad enough to give him at least a chance to successfully take over. But, if I were you, I'd be more worried about Colonel Deering trying to take over then Di Vargin. The Colonel's a lot more likely to try it since he can count on at least a hundred soldiers for support.”
I shook my head and replied, “No, I don't think he would have as much support as you think. Most of his most experienced people are highly trained special operations personnel who are selected for their ability to think for themselves as well as for their military skills. Such people are very patriotic and place loyalty to the nation and their oath above blind loyalty to their commanding officer. These people are not at all adverse to thinking for themselves, so most would not follow Colonel Deering just because shi was their commanding officer unless they really believed shi was right. These individuals are looked up to by the other solders, and if they didn't support Colonel Deering, shi wouldn't have many more supporters than Di Vargin. Besides, as long as things go smoothly, I'm pretty sure Deering will be quite happy to let me be ‘Dur Fuhrer’ for now.”
Looking up to the rapidly gathering clouds, I changed the subject saying, “Well, it sure looks like I'm not going to do any stargazing tonight, and it looks like we're probably going to get wet before we get back to the caves.”
Since Jay and Melissa insisted on ‘helping’ by carrying a load of shoots and seed-heads and smaller bundles of leaves like everyone else, we didn't quite make it to the caves before it started raining. We were only a hundred or so yards from the closest entrances when it started raining, but by the time we got under cover we were thoroughly soaked by the sudden downpour.
Day Three and Beyond
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