Matthew McGuirk ~ Old Lester

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.