THE WINTER THAT KILLED HORSES

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 06, 2010
THE WINTER THAT KILLED HORSES
The winter had been long, harsh and cold beyond memory. Snow was deep; the wind did not blow to clear the ridges so horses could get at the grass. Instead there were occasional hard bright days that made an ice crust on top so the horses’ fetlocks left red on the snow. The man pulled off the thick cottonwood bark higher than his horse could reach, throwing it down for fodder. There was no meat in the lodge. The cached dry meat was exhausted early — a rawhide bundle of it had accidentally fallen off the horse when crossing water so that it was spoiled, turned moldy instead of drying again.

He had to go hunting, knowing he might not come back, might not even find prey. Now, having gone as far as he dared — maybe too far — he was hoping to return to camp empty-handed. Not hoping. Everything in him pointed, yearned, strove towards the lodge where his family was rolled up in buffalo robes, trying to sleep the winter away. Heavy overcast had prevented him from seeing the sun and now it was darkening, but he knew the way. A new skiff of snow powdered the top of the most recent crust and, looking back, he saw he was traveling straight.

Following the ridges as was the usual winter strategy didn’t help much this time. The wind hadn’t blown snow off the grass before the sun hardened a shell on top, so that the horse had to stab every step down into the snow. The rider had walked some, light enough to stay on top, but even then the horse had to work hard and he knew he only had a limited amount of strength himself. He had barely the strength to beat the horse sharply so it wouldn’t just stop when it floundered in a drift.

He had felt the horse stagger and sway for a while. He was riding when it fell — not tipping over so much as sinking straight down because the deep layers of snow propped it. For a while he didn’t realize the horse was dead and kept flailing at it. Then it filtered through his gelid consciousness that there was neither breath nor heartbeat. He lay on top of it for a while, trying to soak up its last warmth. He’d known how exhausted it was but it had been the only way to get far enough from the camp to find prey.

His whole life from his vision ordeal on had been training for survival in edge-of-life situations. At the feet of the oldsters, at the shoulders of grown men, he had listened carefully to their advice, their strategies. One was to always keep one’s steel knife secured and he knew now that if he hadn’t had a knife, he would not be able to skin this horse and cut it up. He would not have killed it — a horse was an important survival force, as important as the knife — but now it was only meat.

He would have to hurry or the cold would make the horse impossible to skin or cut up. As though he were skinning a buffalo, he made a cut down the spine and began to peel the hide off on one side, digging snow out of the way. When he got down far enough to access the steaming viscera, he reached in for the soft purple liver and tore off mouthfuls to restore his strength a bit. It worked. It was a temptation to just crawl inside the horse, to soak up its heat, but it would soon become a prison, freezing to iron with ribs for bars.

His plan was to make a sled or skid from the hide, cut up as much meat as he thought he could tow, and try to pull it on to the camp. The distance was not impossible — just at the outer limits of what a human could do. But he’d had a little hot bloody meat now. Anyway there was no other option.

The movement had attracted attention and the smells of hot horsemeat had gripped the minds of three wolves who were light enough to run on the snow, regardless of the weight they had gained from eating bogged-down elk and moose along the riverbeds. For them it was a good winter, even though digging out a place in the snow for them to sleep in a pile with their tails over their noses could cut their paws. They sat down to wait and watch.

At first the man’s efforts went well and he traveled forward in an encouraging way. The sun had gone down; northern lights sheeted and billowed across the sky. When he was far enough away that the wolves felt safe, not far at all, they came to the remains of the horse and choked down as much as their stomachs could stretch to hold. But it was quickly freezing and even the crushing jaws of a wolf has its limits.

They thought of the man, still warm meat and leaving a clear trail in the skiff of snow. They thought they could always come back to the rest of the horse. They didn’t know they were thinking. To them it was a feeling, an inner compass they had learned to use by watching older wolves on previous kills. Without discussion, they set off, saving their energy, knowing they didn’t have to hurry.

When they tore the man apart, he still had enough focus and energy to sing his death song and lash out with his knife. He couldn’t kill any of the wolves, but managed to wound one badly enough that it died later. The other two slept a little colder after that.

In a few days a chinook wind came and took the temperature high enough that small creatures could easily strip the horse down to a skeleton, especially since the side had been skinned. A moose went through the ice in swift water not far from the man’s lodge and drowned. His family found it and ate it, enough meat that they all survived. Years later the man’s oldest son trapped two wolves who traveled together and traded their hides for new steel knife to replace the one that had disappeared with his father.

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