Hunger Strikes

A short story that serves as a warning — to both human and beast — to not mess with one’s beloved horse…

by: Marc Audet

Jimmy walked out from the woods dragging a logging chain that one of the crews had left behind the day before. He stopped for a moment and saw his breath turn to fog in the crisp morning air. He gazed down the slope towards the sawmill, and just beyond that, White Iron Lake, and the town of Ely on the distant shore. The lake was whisper quiet, no wind stirring. Then the silence broke. He heard the neighing of his horse followed by the yelping and barking of wolves. The neighing turned to shrieking, reminding him of a pig about to be slaughtered. He dropped the chain and started to run towards the fray, picking up a shovel leaning on the shed. 

Early that morning, Jimmy had come out to survey the next batch of trees ready to be cut, leaving his mare to graze on the small grassy island sitting offshore, separated by a moat of ice-cold water shallow enough for a man to wade through but deep enough to force a wolf to swim. His horse should have been safe there. In the previous autumn, he had used up most of his savings to buy her, a majestic beast, eighteen hands tall, able bodied with legs of iron, a draught horse any man would be proud to own.

The previous summer, Gideon, who owned the sawmill, had a barn built on the island to house a few spare horses during the busy season. From the shore, Jimmy had a full view of the barn, but though her could hear the skirmish, he saw nothing. Despite the fact the fighting was going on out back, the sounds of battle were loud and clear, his horse stamping the ground, the wolves growling and snarling. Jimmy waded into the water, chilling his legs to the bone. He crept forward, gripping the shovel with both hands, his arms tense and trembling, not quite sure what to expect.

His mare had retreated to the corner where the fence met the barn. There were three wolves facing her, two adults and an offspring, a young male nearly full grown. After cautiously circling behind his parents, the young one barked and rushed forward, trying to grab a foreleg. The horse reared, legs kicking, catching the young wolf in the chest. Something cracked, like the sound of a twig snapping. The animal yelped in pain, retreated across the yard, falling, writhing, struggling to stay on his feet before dropping to the ground by the trough.

The two adults continued the charge. The larger of the two, the male, leaped at the horse and opened a gash over her left shoulder, drawing blood. The animal screeched and reared, kicking her legs and the wolves backed off, smart enough to stay out of reach of the hooves. Jimmy saw the coat darkening near the wound and at the sight of blood flowing, his mind raged with anger, tossing aside any sense of caution.

The smaller of the two, the female, maneuvered around the yard to attack the flanks, passing by the edge of the barn where Jimmy crouched, ready to enter the fight and determined to exact vengeance. The wolf was keeping her eye on the mare and did not see the shovel coming. The weight of hard steel pounded the back of the animal with a ferocity that made Jimmy’s arms burn as they absorbed the shock of the recoil coming back through the oak shaft. The she-wolf reared but Jimmy was ready for the reprisal, bracing himself as she lunged at him. The shovel made an arc and the beast ducked out of the way, the tip of the blade just nipping the snout. The animal dug into the ground ready to leap again but miscalculated the shovel reversing its course. Ribs cracked as the second blow knocked the wind out the beast, and she scampered away, head low and tail down.

The remaining alpha male shifted his gaze from the prey to Jimmy and back again. The mare had turned slightly to protect its wounded shoulder, her left leg shaking. The wolf saw an opportunity, took a running start and bounded, sinking its teeth into the back of the neck, tearing the flesh and opening a vein. The wolf hung on, his hind legs hardly touching the ground, determined to take down two tons of bone and muscle hell bent on survival. Jimmy’s shovel cracked the animal on the head, causing it to let go and drop to the ground, stunned. The horse reared up and stamped her right hoof, nearly severing a paw. The wolf, now maimed and disoriented, could not avoid the killing blow as the hoof descended for the second time, crushing the soft underbelly. 

The fight was over. A silence fell over the island, akin to the quiet that follows the thunderclap that marks the end of a violent storm. The mare stood by bleeding from her neck and shoulder. Jimmy stared down at the dead wolf, a trickle of blood oozing from its mouth. He spun to look behind him expecting to see the she-wolf, but there was nothing. Across the yard by the trough, the injured wolf twitched. 

His mare snorted and stamped her right foreleg. Jimmy stared at his hands that kept hold on the shovel. He could feel his heart pounding, his legs and arms tense and ready to fight. Those wolves must have been starving to attack something that large. He had fought off coyotes one summer, but wolves were a different breed altogether, bigger, stronger, and smarter, even a small pack could be deadly. 

“Jimmy!” Gideon was yelling as he rushed into the yard followed by his two sons, Charlie, and Robbie. The three had been working in the mill when they heard the commotion. “You okay?” asked Gideon, now standing by Jimmy.

“Hell, ya, there were three of them, one got away.” 

“Pa, this one’s still alive,” said Robbie, the younger of the two boys. Gideon crossed the yard and saw the young wolf struggling to breathe. He opened his coat, revealing the holster that held his revolver. He handed the gun to his son and said, “You do it.” Robbie knew all about guns. He had hunted before, but this was different. This was mercy killing. Robbie cocked the hammer, took aim at the back of the skull, and pulled the trigger, the sound flying out over the stillness of the lake and fading away far into the distant hills.

Gideon and Robbie wandered back to Jimmy and the horse. “She’s bleeding bad,” said Gideon, then turning to Charlie, “run into town and get Doc Johnson.”

The barnyard was quiet, the only sound coming from the mare, her labored breathing marking the passage of time until Charlie returned with the vet.

Doc Johnson approached the wounded animal slowly, whispering to her. He looked at the open gash and saw the tear splitting the muscle. “The shoulder is really bad, she won’t be able to pull again,” he said. The mare had been standing all this time and Jimmy saw that she was tiring and straining to keep upright. Up to now, he had been making good money hiring her out, nearly paying off the loan he had taken out to buy her. Doc came around to the other side of the horse. “Her neck is bleeding; a vein’s been cut. Even with surgery, she probably won’t make it, and if she makes it, she won’t be able to work.” The vet paused for a moment and looked Jimmy in the eye. “You’ll need to put her down, she won’t make it through the night.” 

Jimmy took a deep breath and gazed at his mare. The judgment felt harsh. First, he felt anger at the wolves. Then, shame and guilt flooded in. He had failed to protect his mare. All winter long, his hard work had been paying off, but now, it meant starting over again. Doc, Gideon, and the boys stood back, not knowing what to say or what to do. It wasn’t fair, but they could only watch Jimmy and wait.

Gideon stepped forward and said, “Do you want me to do it?”

“No, she’s still mine, even now,” Jimmy said, taking the revolver from Gideon. 

The mare could barely raise her head as Jimmy drew near her. He was gentle now, rubbing her nose the way she liked it, reassuring her that he would look after her.

In loving memoriam to Marc Audet’s great-grand uncles, Gedeon Fortier (1852-1938) and his younger brother Cyrille Fortier (1861-1947), and to their descendants in Ely, Minnesota.


Marc Audet lives near New Haven, Connecticut, where he is self-employed as a web application developer. He enjoys reading contemporary fiction and literature both in English and French. He has traveled and lived in Canada, England, and Ireland. In addition to writing computer code in various languages, he also writes short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in Potato Soup Journal, Books Ireland Magazine, and Ariel Chart.
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