A Somber Guest

   by Feind Gottes

He had been living on his own in the wilderness for over thirty years enduring all manner of hardship. He had faced down starvation on more occasions than he wished to remember, survived three standoffs with a grizzly bear, rebuilt his cabin twice but never had he had a worse day. First, he had fallen off his horse after missing a shot at a large elk to make matters worse his foot caught in the stirrup when he fell, which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but today his horse had gotten spooked sending it into a sprint dragging him more than a quarter mile before he was able to free himself. It took nearly an hour for his horse to calm and for him to catch up to it. Unfortunately, in its panic the horse had failed jumping over a large outcrop of rock. One of the beast’s forelegs was broken, possibly both. He had no choice, he cursed the gods then ended his horse’s suffering.

He was a solid fifteen miles from the safety of his cabin with the sun already hanging low in the sky. He had a horribly twisted ankle along with numerous bumps and bruises from being dragged. He hadn’t expected to be gone all day nor horseless so he had little with him except his rifle, a Bowie knife and a flint in his pocket. He set his saddle on the rocks to retrieve later knowing he wasn’t capable of carrying it back to his cabin in his present state. Night was coming and he needed to make the tree line to build a fire or he may not survive. His bad day had only begun though, as he walked off a pack of wolves began to howl. It was likely their scent that had spooked his horse to begin with. He checked his ammo finding three in the rifle’s small clip with five more in his pocket. His Bowie knife would be of little help since he didn’t wish to get that close to a hungry wolf. He limped away as fast as he could.

His ankle was screaming at him a little more with every step. The wolves stalked him like any other prey. He had to back them off or he’d never make it to the relative safety of the trees and a fire yet to be built. He stopped, cursed the gods once more then fired into the air. The shot sent the pack scattering for the moment but he knew they’d be back in no time. He heard the alpha leader howl followed by his pack as he limped his way toward the tree line with the sun nearly sunken below the horizon. The coming dark would only embolden his pursuers until he got a fire going. Finally as darkness descended a tree branch brushed against his arm bringing a rush of relief.

Recent rains worsened his day making dry kindling hard to find. He easily snapped some small branches off low limbs but he needed dry kindling to get his fire started. He moved deeper into the trees in search of some dry leaves or bark, anything, knowing that the trees combined with the dark made his sharp toothed pursuers practically invisible. His search ended at a dying birch tree. Its bark peeled off easily and was dry enough to get his fire started. He moved back near the edge of the tree line to start his fire where he could put his back to a tree and see any predators coming toward him. His flint sparked the bark to flame with little effort. He smiled at this small but necessary accomplishment then stood with a grunt to collect enough wood to get him through the night. He walked off cursing his bad luck with every limped step. Firewood collected, he started to drift off though he dared not sleep long. The fire would keep the wolves at bay unless it waned then they would grow bold once again.

He wasn’t sure if he had slept minutes or hours when he suddenly woke confused as his fire was burning larger than before. His finger instinctively found his rifle’s trigger laying across his lap.

“I mean you no harm. Jerky?" The stranger held out a piece of dried beef.

He was cautious but hungry, “Thank-ee. Forgive my itchy trigger finger, it’s been one hell of a day."

“You are forgiven. I only stopped to warm my bones a moment if you can bear me. I’ll be on my way shortly." The stranger’s face was hidden by the hood of his parka but he seemed to be no danger.

“Stay as long as you please. Pardon my manners, my horse dragged me by the ankle then these damned wolves drove him to break a leg about two miles off thata way." He pointed back the way he had come.

“Here." The stranger handed him another piece of jerky, “I suppose those of us out here have had our trials and tribulations when it feels the gods themselves, if they exist, have turned their backs on us.”

“Truth." He shook his head in agreement.

“Well how about I thank you with an old tale before I leave you to your current trial? And a few pieces of jerky, of course."  

“I’d be much obliged." He said looking into the fire.

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