A Short Story
The big stallion put a hoof down through a rotting log that made up part of the old Parson’s bridge. Horse and rider went sideways, crashing through the side rail and splashing into the surging river below.
Mac felt the thump as the stallion hit a boulder just below the surface. The jolt knocked him one way, and his horse the opposite. Duster kicked his big legs one last time, and floated downstream, and out of sight. Mac swam as best he could for the shore, hit another submerged rock, and finally bounced against the left bank where he caught the limb of an old oak.
He dragged himself from the water, and looked to see if Duster had made it to the opposite bank. His horse had not been so lucky. He stood and stared at the raging river, hoping that somehow his horse had survived. The shock of the disaster had yet to release all the pain, but he knew full-well he was in dire trouble. Blood seeped from his right leg, above the knee—a serious wound; below the knee was scraped and torn, but minor in comparison. He did his best to shake off the dizziness that came to take him into unconsciousness.
Horse, supplies, everything drifted far down the river; the white water ripping at the rocks and banks told him everything about how fast the water was moving. There would be no getting back what he had lost—most dear his stately Morgan.
He was alone, far from home, in
the cold of winter, with a wound that was rushing to drain him of every last
drop of blood he possessed. He undid his belt and wrapped it just above the
gash and pulled tight. His eyes blurred with the pain.
The options were few. He would encounter no one on this road. It was rarely used, especially this time of year. Three choices: stay on the road and struggle along; cut through the woods and save half the distance; lie down and mark the place where Mac Hayden had drawn his last breath. That last choice pulled at him with the force of someone who had not slept in days.
In fact, he had slept well this last night. A week of work over, he had gone to sleep with the expectation of an early start, and a joyous return to home and his family, a journey that would get him home well before dark. That had all changed.
The second option gave him the best chance. He stepped from the road, and many hours later he struggled along, in the middle of the woods, moving at a pace that was just short of stopping.
The bleeding had slowed to a slight ooze, but the wound lay gaping wide and begging to drain the very essence of his life away. The leg was useless for walking unless he loosened the tourniquet—not an option.
His clothes had still not fully
dried. He had struggled for hours, body heat disappearing into the wet cloths
and the silent world around him. He was now out of heat, and the energy to
produce it. He was moving forward on will alone. That too was a finite amount, soon to be expended.
There, just ahead, was a protective stand of trees, and a stone circle with a fire pit at its center. No cabin, only the fire pit. A small pile of wood sat stacked near by, sitting beneath a covering of snow, but dry and ready for fire. He noted, perhaps it was more decomposed than dry, but it would serve his purpose just the same. He could tell the fire pit had not been used for some time, but the last fire had left behind charred pieces of wood that could still be useful, once he finished brushing the snow away.
Mac had thus far preventing his
bleeding to death, but his slow pace and distance to go offered up his
new killer, exhaustion and freezing to death. He needed desperately to bring
the odds back in his favor, or at least to where he had a fighting chance. He
was comfortable in the forest. The trees, plants, and animals were no strangers. He could find food if he needed, make
a camp, and set a fire. But such knowledge was useless
without the energy to perform the tasks, and his energy was at an ebb.
He had his flint and steel in his pocket; but his tinder of charred linen was still wet and he was certain it would not catch. The fire glass he carried was useless without the sun. He took a piece of old burnt wood, turned it over to its dryer side and using his knife he made a pile of small shavings.
Darkness had moved in hours ago, but he had kept going under the light of a half moon. He was hoping to make it back to his farm before the cold and exhaustion took over. That was no longer a viable plan. His hands shook with the small effort of even making the shavings. He needed a fire and a place to rest. Foolish of him to have persisted so long. It shivered though his being that he might already have crossed the point of being able to save himself. But Mac was not a man to give up on anything; he would make this work.
His ears strained to focus. Somewhere far off. The silence that had followed him thus far deserted him. He heard the howls of wolves. He looked about and hoped they had not picked up his scent yet. He knew they would. It was but a matter of time. They were night hunters and they were giving signals to any other wolves that they were in their territory and on the hunt.
The grunts and groans from his
struggle to walk, his falling down and getting up, the trail of blood droplets,
the labored breathing in his effort to move onward, all made in obvious that a
wounded man was moving through the forest. He was making
more noise than a newborn child.
He needed kindling. The charred wood would catch the sparks but he needed something to start the fire. Birch! Small shavings of birch bark. He stumbled around, searching for a birch tree, moving as far as he dared from the fire pit, wondering if could muster enough energy to make it back. The howls of the wolves grew louder.
Finally a small birch. He pealed what he could of the small white exterior of the bark and put it in his pocket. He took bigger rind from the base but was careful not to destroy the tree that he was using to save himself. He left alone the inner bark and only took what was loose to his touch.
The short trip back to the fire pit felt more like a climb up the face of a steep mountain; he placed the charred shavings in the middle, the tinder of birch bark around the side, and took out his flint and steel. He hit it once, twice, and a spark hit the charred shavings. Closing his eyes from the smoke that would come, he bent down and blew lightly, blinking his eyes quickly to see if there was fire. The smoke began to form and rise. He blew again with more consistency, blinked again, and moved the birch bark closer. The fire ignited; he added small sticks; the fire expanded and took hold. He sat without moving for a short few minutes. His body began to shake as he gave in to the cold and the deep draining exhaustion of his desperate journey. He wanted to lie down and sleep, if only for a short time. He shook his head with the full realization that a sleep now would quickly end in his death. The fire was still small and incapable of lasting but for a short time. Once that fire went out, the cold would take him, if the wolves did not find him first.
He needed bigger wood.
He pushed himself back up on his one good leg and stared at the pile of wood at the edge of the pit, only a few steps away, but for him an agony of effort to cross. He took what was there and tossed it near to where he would sit, and with the same effort made his way back to his small fire. He carefully added a few chunks of wood to the fire, stretched out his hands to the heat—his savior.
Then the bay of the wolves came loud and willful. A new reason to be afraid. He could not yet tell their exact distance from him. One thing was certain; they were moving closer. There was enough wood to keep the fire going for hours, hopefully until dawn. He had solved one problem, only to find a more serious one. The wolves would smell the blood soon, if they had not already. They were approaching him downwind, more bad luck that was not of his making. They would know that he was wounded.
Mac had no fear of wolves in the daytime. He was a capable hunter and he knew that during the day they were less likely to confront a hunter. They had learned over time to be cautious of men. But this was night time and he had no fight left in him. It was not enough that he could bleed to death or die from hypothermia; but the damn wolves were moving in to claim him as their evening meal—or maybe breakfast for them, he smiled to himself.
He saw a pair of eyes first, one lone wolf, the leader. It edged its way towards Mac, not at all afraid of the fire. They were normally weary of fire, but the smell of blood was too enticing. It triggered their instinct of an easy kill. The wounded was by far their choice to kill. It was not just their way, but also nature’s way.
Then he saw four other wolves moving in behind the leader, tails low, their bodies creeping slowly but inexorably behind their leader and towards Mac. He pulled a junk of wood from the fire, holding tight the end that had yet to catch fire. He moved it in front of him, the only sword he had at his disposal, save for the small knife, which would have limited use against five wolves, if any use at all.
He would take down at least one of them. They could have him for supper but there would be one less doing the eating.
The leader wolf gave a growl and started forward. The other four leaped into the air and moved in for the kill.
From behind him, Mac heard the low guttural growl of another wolf. They had completely encircled him. He had not even noticed the ones at his back. They were indeed going to eat well tonight.
The leader from the pack in front of him took its killing leap, its jaws open. Mac raised his only weapon to serve up what he could.
As it did, a flurry of feet and fur flew over his head from behind. Four wolves hit the leader almost at one. The leader stopped dead in the air and went down. Growls and tearing sundered in the night.
It was over before it started.
The other four wolves who had followed the leader turned and ran.
The four wolves that had flown over Mac’s back stood with their backs to him and the fire. Their heads were low in preparation for any further attack from the other pack.
Blood stained their maws.
The Big Grey began a howl, and then the pack of four howled into the night. They gave their message that they had claimed the territory.
The Big Grey who had first hit the leader of the other pack stopped howling, turned and looked at Mac. Mac could only stare. He placed the junk of wood back on the fire.
Then the memory returned. He had been hunting some time ago when he came across a wolf den. Wolves stayed hidden in the day and move mostly at night. But there, outside the den, were four cubs, frolicking in the sun. Their mother should have at least come and given a warning to his approach. He looked about cautiously and saw beside a rock almost hidden, the mother wolf; the mother had a long open wound along her side as if gored by some horned animal, perhaps in her last attempt to get food.
The pups would die here. Mac took all four in his backpack and carried them back to his farm where he fed them until a few months later he again set them free back at the place he had found them. At first, they had tried to follow him back, but he finally left them with enough meat to chew on, that they ignored his escape. He never saw them again and could only hope they had survived.
And here they were. The Big Grey moved forward slowly and put his muzzle against Mac’s chest. The Big Grey rubbed his head and so placed his scent upon the man that was his—the man who had cared for him just two summers ago.
All four sat on guard until the dawn as Mac slept deeply beside the fire.
He awoke and with the pack flanking his every move he struggled to his farm, where they howled a final farewell and disappeared into the forest.
Mac never saw his pack of wolves again, but every time he heard the distant howling in the night, he gave up a smile and a thank you, and allowed himself to witness one more time the kinship.