Soft light from the morning sun caresses the tree tops, urging their budding leaves to bloom. Below the canopy, the forest remains shrouded in a pre-dawn twilight. Frost sprinkles the loamy, moss-covered ground, and small critters are just beginning to scurry about. A cold breeze blows between the tree trunks, sending loose leaves on slalom courses through wooden gates, and causing the entire forest to shiver in the brisk morning. Birds flutter about, catching the air currents, chirping happily to warm their bodies.
The gentle gust brings life to the morning and rejuvenates the embers of a dying fire, a waning source of heat on the chilly earthen floor. The fire’s maker sleeps beside the charred kindling in a meager tent. The tarp is heavily aged and hastily patched with animal skins and crude stitching. It is barely big enough to lay in, but sufficient shelter nonetheless.
Inside, a man begins to stir. It is still early, but he does not mind being awoken by the birds. It has been months since their calls have filled the woods, and he welcomes their hail of the approaching spring. Stepping outside, he straightens his spine and stands erect. He puffs up his chest and stretches his arms making a “t”, as if crucified in the morning chill. His spindly figure appears as another tree of the forest. There is hardly an ounce of fat on his body; his skin is pulled taught over lean muscle. Taking in a deep breath, the man welcomes the new day.
Looking around, he notices that his companion is no longer at the campsite. The horse, whom he has traveled with for ten years, has a habit of wondering off in the early hours of the morning. The man is unconcerned with this. The animal is free to do as it pleases for it is not his property, but his friend.
The horse, Lady, had been given to him during his time in the service. They had fought together against the savages of the Northern Plains. The mare had been his steed through two years of intense fighting. He had protected Lady in battle just as she had protected him. Unable to bare the thought of her going to another enlisted man, he had purchased Lady from the army after their first campaign. He had intended to let the horse go free to enjoy her later years in peace (much as he had intended to do himself), but when he took off the saddle, the horse simply refused to leave. She continued to stay at the man’s side no matter where he went. He could not separate from her—nor did he truly want to. Theirs was a bond that transcended friendship into wordless, pure love.
The staunch refusal of the horse to leave had awakened something in the man. An animal capable of such deep compassion and connection was inferior to no species, especially not humanity. How many murders, lies, or heinous acts had been committed by horses? How many by humans—how many by him? The man accepted the horse as his equal and friend. And just as one would never tie up a fellow traveller during the night, the man never dared restrain his friend. The mare was free to do as she pleased. She could accompany him as long as she liked, even if she refused to let him ride her (which never happened). He had even learned to ride bare-back to save Lady from the discomfort of a saddle.
And so her absence comes as no surprise this cold morning—besides, he knows exactly where she is. Riding in last night, they had passed a clearing filled with grass in the full swing of early spring. The horse was practically salivating at the sight of the long greening grass upon a knoll on the far side of the opening. The man had trouble arguing with her to continue on before making camp. The soft grass would have provided plenty of food for the animal, a comfortable bed to lie on, and the wonderful aromas of the season. Alas, the clearing was too exposed to the elements and predators. The mare put up a substantial protest, but the man had eventually convinced her to follow him into the woods.
He assumes that she has used the visibility of first light to return to that greening knoll. And he is in no hurry while packing the tent and stamping out the remains of last night’s fire. He moves slowly in the morning air, giving his muscles a chance to warm for fear of injury. He knows all too well that injury can be a death sentence in the wilderness. Although he is not an old man by any standards, the wear of war has taken several years of his youth—and roughing it in the wild for the last several years has not greatly helped.
After putting his tent in his pack, he strings his bow and checks to make sure his hunting knife is secured to his hip. After seeing the devastation of firearms against the savages in war, he had renounced them all together—as well as western society, in general—as an unjust advantage over the Natural Order. He has adopted a lifestyle similar to the Natives: hunting with a bow, living off the land, chasing game year-round. In many ways, the continuation of his life is penance for the atrocities committed by him and his comrades during the frontier campaigns.
With the bow in his left hand, and the pack on his back, he departs the campsite. Backtracking to the hill from the day before is no problem, as the woods are still mostly barren from winter. As he walks, the man watches the birds flutter between branches, gayly singing to each other, looking for a mate. He had never experienced such peace while living in society.
It has been nearly five years since the war (and his last night in a proper inn). The first couple years had been the harshest—not least due his status as a “wanted man” for desertion. After leaving the barracks with Lady, the pair had been in a sort of limbo; they could not return to any town within the Union, nor could they freely roam the frontier for fear of attack by Natives. And so it is, that he and Lady have been forced to kill former compatriots and combatants several times over in the years since leaving. Often, he has narrowly escaped with his head on his shoulders, receiving several wounds he had thought would be his last. But he is a fighter. A protector. A survivor. If this winter has failed to kill him, he doubts that anything or anyone will succeed.
Approaching the clearing, he can see Lady shyly creeping out from the trees. Ever the cautious one, ol’ girl, he thinks. Little does the horse know that he is there to protect her.
Instead of going out to greet his friend, the man decides to let her eat in peace. He takes out an old churchwarden pipe he had bought on leave in Virginia. It is one of the few artifacts in his possession from before absconding to the wilderness. He takes out some tobacco. It had cost him several rabbit skins to some friendly Natives last autumn. He has used it sparingly throughout the winter, knowing it would be many months before being able to obtain more. But with the arrival of spring coming any day now, he decides to enjoy the morning.
As he stokes and tokes the tobacco, Lady bows her head and meekly nibbles at the ground before quickly raising up in alert. The man chuckles at her giddiness. She had never failed to charge head first at the enemy, hurling her body (and his) with reckless abandon; yet now she is as cautious as a cat. He takes another pull of the sweet tobacco and exhales a large puff of smoke as she lowers her head and begins to eat in earnest. The smell of the smoke reminds him of his father.
The sun is making its way over the trees and shining directly into the clearing. The man welcomes its warmth for it means he and his friend have made it through another brutal winter. With a smile, he turns his face to the bright fiery orb and closes his eyes and feels a change in the wind. Instead of the cool morning air coming down from the north, the sun has brought a warm draft up from the south.
The man opens his eyes to watch the waving grass in the clearing. It looks like a gently turning ocean of pale brown and green. But with the shift of the grass, the man notices a silvery shine atop the hill. He squints as it begins moving with incredible momentum down the hillside.
In a panic, the man drops his pipe and wields the bow. He bursts out of the trees screaming, but the wolf takes no note of him. The beast is focused on nothing but Lady. Hitting the wolf at such a pace, will be nearly impossible. But Lady is not quick enough to notice the approaching predator and run. Having no choice, the man notches an arrow, pulls back, aims, and fires as the wolf leaps at his friend.
The next moments are chaos. The two animals collide with incredible force. Lady is pushed back—but not down. She rears high on her hind legs, and whinnies fiercely as the wolf tumbles to the ground. Her side is covered in blood, and the man fears he has missed his target and hit his companion. But as the wolf tries to rise, the man sees it stumble. He has hit it just behind the shoulder, possibly puncturing a lung.
He notches another arrow, and resumes running to the aid of Lady. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he succeeds in scaring the beast. It turns and runs on three legs into the forest. The man reaches Lady and tries to calm her. The horse is frantic, but years of battle have given her fortitude. He shushes her and strokes her neck, ending each pass with a firm pat on the shoulder. She is not unharmed; their is a gash on her side—whether from a claw or tooth, he knows not. But she is alright. With his bow at the ready, he sets off to track the wolf. It would be wrong to leave his kill.
Following the wolf’s trail of blood is an easy task. The man knows the beast has died without having to see it; nothing could survive that amount of lost blood. He finds the wolf partially hidden under a low lying branch. It is covered in blood, and no longer breathing. Yet the man approaches cautiously. He is taken aback by the majesty of the animal. The man has a vision of a great king being slain on the field of battle. There seems an aurora about the wolf as if he is a kindred spirit.
The man kneels down and gently strokes the wolf in a way similar to how he had calmed Lady. He can feel great muscles and the raised skin of deep scars beneath the wet fur. Like the man, this animal has seen many harsh years of battle. To have felled such a magnificent beast causes of sting of regret in the man’s heart. He has no need for the meat or pelt of the animal, yet he had had no choice.
With resolve, the man removes the arrow from the wolf’s side, and carries the animal back to the clearing. Atop the hill, he digs a hole and lays the beast-king into it. Covering the wolf with a thick layer of soil, he sticks the arrow into the ground as a tombstone. He gives thanks to the wolf and asks forgiveness, for he knows he has ended a worthy life. He wonders why it had to be this way. But he knows it couldn’t have been any other way. He is a fighter.