I’ve found it takes longer and longer to reload that buckshot after that first crack echoes through the air. I hear it as a muffled buzz through my hearing aid and see the birds scatter across the barnyard in a whir of feathers, but sometimes the first one only sends the coyotes running to the edge of the field. They’ll be back though, they always come back. I see their yellow eyes peering through that blackness before dawn and I know they’re after the new foals; the new foals that totter around on their legs, just learning how to use them. That’s the thing about winter in New England, it’s cold and dark and anything that isn’t being fed is either hibernating, scavenging or hunting for some easy prey. Them coyotes are no different, they’ve seen I’m the only game in town and know those mother horses are no good at protecting their young and they just hop that fence and tear down one of the foals and spread red carnage across that pure white snow. I hate those things, bony coyotes with their matted fur, they’ve got no place around here.
In past years they wouldn’t have tried it. I woulda been outta bed and running off that porch loading the gun at the same time, but old age has a way of weighing a man down. I try to jump out of bed like that or fly off the porch and I’m going to be hung up for a month and that doesn’t help the animals or anyone else. I hear that snorting, neighing and shaking from my bed and move as quick as I can manage to that gun next to the door, but like I said old age makes getting a clear shot in the dark pretty hard. I fire one off, the coyotes scatter, but they come back and I’ve lost foal after foal to this pattern. I see the hurt in those big eyes, a mother that’s unable to help, a mother that’s unable to save her little one in a time of need. It’s innate with horses, they’re just skittish, that’s what they are. You gotta get a good relationship with them before you can even get close or they’ll be on the other side of the pasture before you know it.
The solution was old Lester. I picked him up from a rescue, called “Save Your Ass” and ironically enough he’d be saving mine from time to time. My grandson helped me pick him up on Saw Mill Road and he seemed to fit right in. He has brown fur that’s a bit matted, but it still looked better than mine when I pulled my wool cap off. The horses seemed to take to him too, a natural ladies man I guess. They’d give him that distant stare for a minute and then trot on over. Some of the older mares, a little past child birthing, would rub their necks against him and it was almost like a cat showing affection or something. I love watching the sun streak across that western sky and play in hues against the browns of that herd, but I know those photo snapping moments won’t last and that pack of wild eyed coyotes would be back for another meal. I enjoyed those moments before and after sunset though, where the light hits just right on the setting and you know this was what you were meant to do. My son was always asking when I was going to put up my mucking boots and go to Florida for the winter and I told him that was for old folks and he’d be there before I would.
I remember that first heehaw cut through the darkness, it must have been a couple nights after we picked Lester up. I slid out of the warmth of bed, across the bedroom and to the front window. My hand on the shotgun and the cool steel sending a shiver up my arm. I squinted against the darkness as I pulled the interior door open and pushed it shut behind me, feeling that cold air hit me in a breath. I let the exterior screen door clack and stood on the porch peering through darkness. Heehaw, Heehaw, Lester’s voice broke the silent winter night again and I saw bodies against that blackness. Several coyotes were closing in on the unmended section of fence. Lester had pushed forward and was the guardian of the fallen fence rung, protecting it against entry. I could hear the snarling through the darkness, but that heehaw, heehaw sent part of the pack skittering off to the edges of the woods. I don’t know if it was his unwillingness to backdown that sent most of those coyotes off or if it was the shaking of that head that said he wasn’t moving and they knew he wasn’t lying. I fired that shot in the air and the last two coyotes took off for the bank of trees. I exhaled and nodded in Lester’s direction, “good boy, Lester.” I saw his silhouette against that darkness in the gap of the fence and thought I saw him nod back, a common understanding between friends.
He hadn’t been there long, but I already considered him one of the family. He’d watch as Lady took the first drink of water or Rosie would stand in the shade of an apple tree that hung close to the fence. In the late summer and early fall, she’d pluck the low lying apples with little regard for the branches. I wondered if she’d toss one Lester’s way for all he did for that barnyard.
After the initial confrontation with Lester and the echoing crack of that gunshot, the coyotes were a little hesitant because I didn’t see them or hear Lester’s distinctive heehaw, heehaw in the middle of the night. The snow was still piled deep from previous storms and I knew the scavenging was scarce this winter and they’d be back. Sure enough, they were and Lester was able to ward them off again and my gunshot kicked the remainder to the tree line for another night.
This was all well and good, but the winter was wearing on me and I hadn’t felt an ache in my bones this bad in two winters. The constant pull from bed in the middle of the night was getting harder and harder. I felt my eyes fighting against the lids when I heard that heehaw, heehaw again. I shook my head and felt the urge to let Lester deal with this one, kinda like hitting the snooze on that alarm. I heard his voice pick up with another bevy of heehaw, heehaw, heehaw. It seemed a bit more frantic this time. I forced my eyes open to that blackness of early morning and moved myself from bed and toward that porch. As I heard that clack and stood firmly on the porch with the gun in hand as I had previous times, I was shocked. Lester was not standing in the gap of the fence this time, he was lying there. A couple coyotes were on him and my mouth hung slack, my heart beat with fear and the hair stood on the back of my neck. I fumbled with the gun, but wasn’t the first to come to his rescue. I saw Rosie, a black flash, dart from her spot in the old barn and race towards the scavenging coyote. After Rosie, I saw Lady and Ella and Star all shoot from that open end of the barn and dart towards where Lester was. I saw those dark shadows against that night sky move majestically in his direction and I saw yellow eyes peer back at me briefly and the coyotes that had Lester took off and their friends followed.
I checked Lester out with a flashlight and minus a couple scuffing bitemarks here and there and a pattering heart he seemed alright. In the next days, I noticed he waded a little closer to the ladies. I think they had a mutual appreciation for each other at this point. I knew Lester did all he could against those scavenging coyotes and my sleepy eyes didn’t help. He would have chased them off with his heehaws if he could have, but with the deep snow and little food they had become more persistent and that night was the culmination of this. I was proud of Rosie and the others for running to his side, being there when he needed them. I think a lot about that night and the rush of mares from my undersized barn in the dead black of night and think that’s what has kept those coyotes away. They expected Lester and that wasn’t his fault, but I think sometimes the timid can be the heroes and the brave are the ones that might need saving.
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles stories nightly. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. Stories published or forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Friday Nights Forever, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Literally Stories, Sledgehammer Lit, Sleet, Versification and others. Follow him on Twitter @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.