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The Leader

by Rick Combs

The Leader glanced around the camp of his clan. Everything was just the way it was supposed to be. He’d trained the members of his clan well; everyone knew their job. The youngest member of his hunting group had selected a high vantage point and was taking his turn as lookout. His favorite mate had the youngest ones under her watchful eye. All was good, and he had a rare chance to stretch out.

The clan had been traveling for a long time searching for better grounds to claim. It was hard on the younger members but was a necessary evil they had to deal with. Traveling fast meant less time for hunting, and several of the clan members were reaching the early stages of starvation. The Leader looked around the area he had chosen for the day’s camp. Water was close. The area was easily defended. It was a good spot; perhaps they should rest for a few days and hunt.

He caught the eye of his second-in-command and nodded his head. They would stay and hunt. The youngest ones needed the rest and food. His lieutenant rose from where his was resting and walked to each member of the hunting group letting them know the decision.

The Leader was pleased to see the casual acceptance of his decision; not that he expected any disagreement. He’d trained his team well; there would never be a disagreement about his leadership. Any of the clan could challenge him for the leadership, but they wouldn’t while he was in his prime. Of course, the time would come when he would be challenged. He glanced around and mused which would be the first to try. He knew his lieutenant wouldn’t; they were close to the same age. Perhaps the youngest team member; he was still learning and sometimes had to be reprimanded for his impatience.

His mates’ newest baby came to him and lay down next him. He was tired from all of the playing and curled up to sleep. The Leader absent mindedly caressed the baby gently to sleep. Yes, tonight would be a good time to hunt. Perhaps this might even be the new ground they were looking for.

The clan’s last home had been good. The leader before him had chosen it for the abundance of food. But over time, the food they hunted began to drift further and further away. The hunters had to roam longer and further to find enough for the clan to eat. Finally, the Leader had decided that they needed a new home.

He thought about the first few weeks of the trip. In the beginning, the excitement of traveling through new country helped to sustain everyone. There were several places they had camped that had looked promising but none that met all of the requirements for the safety and comfort of the clan.

As the weeks had turned into months, the excitement wore off. Now, it was just another day in another camp that looked just like the previous one. Although there was no growling or complaining, the Leader knew that he’d have to find a new home soon. Another way to challenge the leader was also the most dangerous for him; they could just choose to ignore him and leave. That’s how he had taken over the leadership of the clan himself by creating dissension quietly among his peers. The old leader began to lose control over the clan; his commands were ignored more and more until no one paid any attention to him. One night, the old leader went out by himself to hunt. No one else joined and he never returned. The Leader had assumed full control the following day and had begun the exodus to a new and better home.

As a leader of the clan, he was still relatively new to the job. He never really understood just how difficult the job was. Watching the old leader, it had seemed so easy. Sit around and watch the clan. Order a female to his side whenever he wanted. Getting the choicest pieces of meat from the hunt. Leadership seemed to be an easy job. Over the past few months of traveling, he’d learned a lot about how hard the task of effectively leading actually was.

Sure, he’d made some mistakes. While he was a good hunter, the coordinating of a group of hunters was something he’d had to learn along the way. Several hunts were ruined because of this. But since he was the Leader, none of his group complained. They knew he was learning the finer aspects of leadership. His lieutenant was the one that explained and supported him to the others. So far, they’d found enough to eat, so the possible rumblings of discontent were nearly nonexistent.

As the sun began to set behind the far hills, the Leader got to his feet and stretched out his long body. The others of the hunting group got to their feet as well, stretching and scratching themselves. As few of the younger ones came to him, afraid to ask to join the hunt, but hoping he’d allow them. The Leader glanced at the younger one’s and turned away. Not tonight, they needed the food. This hunt couldn’t be used for training.

Setting a quick pace, the Leader led the group out onto the savannah, sniffing at the early night air. The slight breeze was cooling from the afternoon’s heat and carried the sweet smell of the grass and flowers that populated the area. Soon, the hunt group had left the general area of the camp. His lieutenant stopped to mark the area so they’d know exactly where it was located for the trip back. The Leader smiled to himself. Yes, after a few months of hunting, his group was really becoming an integrated whole, each knowing his exact place and duties. He felt good about this hunt, now it was just a matter of finding the game.

As they trotted across through the tall, golden grass of the savannah, the Leader sent out his scouts; one to each side and one in front. As the moon began to show, providing a ghostly pale light around them, the Leader picked up his pace. As a whole, each of the group quickened their pace to match his. They understood the need for this hunt and the need for a little more speed. The sooner they found the game, the sooner they could return to their mates and young ones with the food. Everyone was as anxious as the Leader for this hunt to be profitable. They had sensed that he was thinking about claiming this area as their home; a quick, successful hunt would be a good sign.

On the other side of the valley, the hills rose up, reaching higher into the sky than the hill where their camp was located. These hills maintained a good covering of trees. The trees, the Leader knew, would help in the hunt by providing cover and a soft flooring to lessen the sound of their passage. The smell of pines drifted down the hills towards them. They were downwind; their prey, if any, wouldn’t even know they were there until it was too late.

His forward scout suddenly appeared coming down the slope. He’d been to first to discover game! The Leader softly growled when he knew that game was here so close to the camp. He’d known it would be a good home for them. The side scouts came through the grass to join the group so plans could be made.

The forward scout informed the Leader the game was like the ones they’d hunted before; slow, soft and very tasty. But the scout was also concerned. These game animals were acting different. It almost seemed as though they had posted guards around the grounds.

The Leader gave a grunt. Of course, they’d been hunted before and must have quite a few younger ones with them. The guards would alert the main group so the younger ones would have a chance to escape. Every leader would know that; didn’t the clan do the same? The clan, though, were smart and had learned the lessons of life. They also passed the things they had learned down to the younger ones so they would always be safe in the wild world that surrounded them.

The Leader quickly assigned tasks to his group. They’d use the three pronged attack. He’d taken on the most dangerous assignment himself; he was the Leader after all. The rest split into two groups and began to drift in opposite directions to come up behind the game. He’d have the task of scaring the game towards his hunters who’d bring the game down as they ran in terror from him. It was a good plan, one that had worked well numerous times for them.

The Leader began to climb the hill slowly. The game was just over the crest with the guards posted away from the main group. The Leader took his time, knowing that he had to give his group enough time to get into position. As he neared the crest, the Leader couched down and began to slowly approach the crest of the hill. The sharp scent of moldy needles from the pine trees surrounded him. The night sounds of birds and the creaking of the branches moving in the breeze helped to muffle his steps.

Cresting the hill, he heard movement slightly to his side. That must be one of the guard animals. Thankfully, the breeze hadn’t shifted to give away his presence. The Leader heard something from in front of him. The animals were making soft noises that he imagined was their way of communicating, nothing he would consider intelligible since they were just animals, but he supposed every creature had some form of crude communications. Nothing like the highly developed language his clan used.

Slowly, softly, he crept forward to get a better look. He figured his hunt group was close to their designated areas, just a few more minutes. He still wasn’t able to see the scout animal to his side, but wasn’t worried. Most scouts posted at night were the older ones, the ones that could really help in a hunt any more. The sounds from his side told him there were at least two scouts there.

Now, that was different. Why place two scouts when one should be more than enough? His clan wasn’t large enough to waste two for scouting. This must be a large group with lots of tasty young ones.

As he slowly crept through the light brush that had been able to find enough sunlight through the tree to grow, he kept one small portion of his mind on the scouts to his side. The majority of his thought was on the main camp, where the primary hunting would shortly occur. He didn’t hear until it was too late to react.

The scouts had sensed his presence. What caught him by surprise is that they had crept up on him rather than calling out an alarm! As he turned and growled at the scouts, he felt a sharp pain in his side. The animals were swinging some kind of large stick and had hit him with a severe blow across his legs. The thought that the animals would fight back had never crossed his mind; no animal fights back! They run whenever he got near them! What was going on?

He quickly spun around and snarled a command at his group warning them. Just as quickly, he sprinted away from the stick and the two scouts that began to chase him. He used every method of disguising his trail that he could remember. He could still hear them following him. The Leader knew he couldn’t head back towards his camp with these animals and their sticks following him, so he headed high up the hill. Hopefully, he’d find a way to shake them off of his trail.

Far below from the main animal camp, the Leader heard the unmistakable sound of his lieutenant. The scream coming from him told the Leader that something bad had happened to him. It was a scream of extreme pain and surprise. His lieutenant’s cries were soon drowned out by the rising crescendo of the animal grunts and screams. But he couldn’t turn to help his friend; the scout animals with their sticks were noisily coming after him.

Near the top of the hill, the Leader found a copse of undergrowth. He quickly covered his tracks the best that he could and crawled into the bushes and brambles. As he lay there, he examined the wound he had received from the animals. Whatever they had used had opened his skin along his back. The blood was flowing freely and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to stay hidden long if he had any plans of making the journey back to the clan. He tried to staunch the bleeding and succeed to some extent. That’s when the pain really hit him. In the initial panic of flight, his mind had overridden the pain to enable him to escape. Now that he was resting, the pain flooded over his body, forcing a soft groan to escape from his lips.

The noise of the pursuing scout animals had stopped. Did he remember exactly how long ago it had stopped? Were they still searching for him? Or had they abandoned the hunt. That’s when the irony of it hit him; he, the Leader, the hunter, was now the hunted. Never in all of his experience, had he been the hunted!

Was that a natural sound or was it the scouts still looking for him? He quieted his breathing to hear better. He strained his ears to pick up the slightest unnatural sound. He sniffed the air for any stray whiff of danger. Nothing. The Leader began to relax and to take stock of his situation. His hunters, he knew, would regroup and return to the clan. What he didn’t know was how long they’d wait for him before moving on. He’d only waited a day for the old leader to return before convincing everyone to leave the old home grounds; why would he expect them to wait longer for him?

He had to get on the move if he wanted to retain his place as the Leader. Sitting there, he realized just how much he enjoyed being the Leader. Even with all of the added responsibilities and concerns, being the Leader was the only thing he had ever wanted to be or do. He wasn’t going to let a few animals stop him now!

Slowly, the Leader crept out of his hiding spot, carefully examining the area the best he could. Now that there wasn’t an immediate need for flight, the pain along his legs was constantly with him, distracting him and confusing him. How could an animal do this to him?

Slowly and carefully, he began to walk down the hill. Wait! That noise in front of him, it must be the scouts! He turned to his right and caught a scent. The animals were there too. Turning to the left, he could hear or see anything, so the Leader began to slowly move although he knew it was towards the animals’ main camp. Perhaps he could circle around them and make his way back.

The noises behind and to the sides of him became louder and more insistent. He picked up his pace, trying to maintain a constant distance between himself and his pursuers. As he moved further down the hill towards the main animal camp, the more concerned he became. He racked his memories for anything about animals that had ever pursued a hunter before. Nothing came to mind.

With the pain in his legs becoming almost unbearable, he realized that the animals were actually herding him. Why? What changed to cause this? Too many unanswerable questions came to his mind, coupled with the pain and added to his confusion. He needed to get to some place safe soon, some place to rest and recuperate. He could always catch up with the clan later. He knew well just how fast the clan could move and knew he could catch up later

He never saw or realized that the bushes along his sides were getting higher and closer together, until it was too late. He stopped and looked at the surrounding brambles and sticks, not understanding what caused them to become so menacing. The sound of the animals’ scouts behind him had increased while to the sides the sounds had dropped off almost completely. But examining the brambles and sticks, he knew that he couldn’t crawl through. That must be why the sounds had stopped to the sides; they couldn’t go through the brambles either. Further ahead, he might be able to setup his own ambush for those still following him. “That would teach them,” he thought to himself.

He began trotting forward. The sides quickly drew in till it seems like the Leader was traveling down a tunnel.

“Good,” he thought, “that means the animals can only follow me one at a time too. One-on-one, they can never be a match for me! Just a little further.”

Suddenly, the brambles no longer surrounded the Leader. He had entered a wider area and stopped dead in his tracks. He looked around and all he saw were animals, each with their own sticks. He knew he was trapped, trapped by a bunch of animals! Crouching down, a low, throaty growl came from deep in his chest as the animals slowly advanced on him from all sides. His teeth were bared and he unsheathed his claws in preparation of battle. He tried to move as he caught a glimpse of something coming from the side and was hit by a flung stick.

One of the animals was close to his range. The Leader lunged and struck the animal on the leg with a gratifying scream of pain from the animal. But as he started to turn back towards his other attackers, he was struck a mighty blow that knocked him off his feet. Suddenly, he was being hit from all sides. The Leader was to dazed to strikeout in any semblance of a coordinated counterattack. As he was pounded into the ground, he last thought was how this could have happened to him, a member of the Hunters, a Leader of Hunters?

* * *

The Leader ordered his hunters off of the now dead animal. It was a large one; the hide would make a good covering.

His plan had worked perfectly; they had a fine pelt and a new way of hunting. The use of the trap had taken him a long time to fully conceive, but everything had worked just the way he knew it would.

“Jondar, since you had first hit on the animal, the hide is yours,” the Leader said, “ the rest of you take care of Gratas’ wounds. Tomorrow we’ll start on a trap that will hold a mammoth. Then we’ll really be well fed!”

Copyright © 2005 by Charles “Rick” Combs

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