Farewell to the Huntsman
William Brian Johnson
The long winter finally succumbed to the first soft breaths of spring, awakening inhabitants that sought shelter from cold and snow in the forest. As always on the first day of spring a gathering took place of all forest elders. The meeting began with its usual fervor and ambiance. Father Bear began shuffling around with his muzzle covered in honey. Still groggy from his long nap, he plopped down next to Skunk, almost crushing him. “Watch it, you oaf!” Skunk cried and everyone echoed in unison.
Owl, seasoned and ancient, noticed the high numbers that had survived winter.
Father Bear said, “I realize who and what I’ve devoured before my big nap, but did you see the size of the Rabbit clans?”
Elder rabbit added, “This year has been kind to us. No thanks to some of you, we’ve survived a hard winter. Oddly enough . . . the Huntsman has taken no pelts this year.”
Chatter broke through the meeting as a lone figure approached. It was Fox. His family had been strong at one time, but due to the Huntsman, all but one had disappeared.
With cheerless eyes he gazed upon all present. “I’ve watched his cold house this winter, no shadows, no smells, no warmth or smoke.”
Owl proclaimed, “After Father Bear killed his mongrel, maybe he left. In all his killing he walked with that monster.”
Bear held up his mangled paw, a relic served by a trap hidden for his kind. Could his old enemy be dead? “I hope his spirit broke with it.” Bear mumbled then sat back and belly laughed, “Mauling was too good for that beast, from the very pits of Hades it came. It bit me through my skin and I still carry the lump of old tooth it left in me.”
Squirrel arrived late as usual, eyeing Owl with a certain fear and respect. “We can all see what he did to the mighty bear, yes we can,” laughed Squirrel. “That dog hated me, yes he did, and from my branch I’d cackle. He’d bay and scream; I’m always out of reach. I tricked him, I did. Try to eat me many a time. Missed me. It seems so lonely here without him. I miss him.” Squirrel sighed, “I used to make him run in circles and bark till he was hoarse—”
“That’s enough, Squirrel.” Owl glared in his direction. “You know good and well the danger we’re in when that monster was about. He was anything but a toy.” Squirrel tried to respond, but Owl paid him no heed. “Tomorrow we will go to his cabin, and Fox will keep an eye on it tonight.” Owl commanded, “Remember the monster is dead, but its Master may still hunt us. Think of the heads of our families he keeps; a mockery of their lives, stuffed and lifeless, for his pleasure.”
“But—” Squirrel said, but Owl cut him off. “Silence, or I will silence you. We all know about the corn he’s laid out for you in winters past.”
Owl’s eyes beamed to the sky. “We meet at dawn, for now I must eat.”
As Owl’s wings beat against the night, Squirrel turned and scrambled away hidden among the thick branches. “Is he gone?” Squirrel asked. The others paid no attention to him, until Bear got up and smacked him out of the tree. When they settled down, the beasts gazed hungrily at each other, but this was not the time. Food would be plentiful this year.
Squirrel gathered himself up from the ground and looked nervously around, if he was going to survive this year he’d need help.
As the night sky gave way to sunrise, a dew-ridden Fox stood ever vigilant across from the Huntsman’s cabin. Owl came to rest on a branch not far above him, “How is it, old friend?”
“The butcher shop’s closed,” sighed Fox. The snap of twigs forced them out of their thoughts as Father Bear arrived.
“Owl, did you know Squirrel made a pact with the Mouse clan against you.” Owl made a strange noise in his throat and spit a large wad of bone and hair.
“What is that?” Bear asked.
“The mouse delegate,” Owl replied. “Did you hear the wolves last night?”
“So something is dead out here,” Fox replied.
“I try to ignore the foul creatures,” Bear declared.
“If they’re in the area, we should get this over with,” said Owl.
They advanced uneasily toward the cabin. Bear glanced up and sighed, “Your friend is on the roof.” Owl took to the air and swooped down upon the hapless Squirrel.
Squirrel stooped as Owl’s talons streaked by, “I just want to see what’s going on. Please let me be a part of this, and stop trying to kill me.”
“You’ve been nothing but a pain to me since you were spawned, you little menace,” Owl screeched.
Squirrel ran to the edge of the roof and dived into the guttering as Owl made another pass. He stopped midway down and climbed through a rusted hole near the window pane. “I see him!” Squirrel screamed. The others hearing this, stopped. “He’s not doing anything.”
Squirrel scratched at the window oblivious to Owl approaching behind him. Owl landed on the pane, knocking Squirrel off. He peered into the dusty cabin. The old man lay crumpled on the floor with his hand clutched at his chest.
Owl relayed this to his friends. Fox ran under the house and found an entrance inside. Bear not being able to fit under the house made a grand entry, splintering the front door.
No movement came from the Huntsman. For so long the animals had feared him. They only knew him as a fearsome sight, dressed head to toe in the pelts of his kills, and the cold stare he gave an animal caught within his trap. His eyes now stared void and dead, frozen in death by the bad winter.
“See, I told you he wasn’t so bad,” whimpered Squirrel.
Fox bared his teeth at the comment. “Look around you Squirrel, how can you defend this monster?”
They beheld their kindred, skinned, stuffed, and altered. Owl sat dumbfounded as he gazed around, Bear rubbed against his mother’s pelt, Fox ripped the stuffing out of his former mates. Other animals shredded their former folk. When they were done, the cabin was left in tatters.
Wolves howled in the distance. The animals gazed at the crumpled, wrinkled flesh of the Huntsman. The pelts he’d worn were strewn about him and framed the weak pink flesh inside.
“The wolves will not take him,” Bear muttered and picked up the Huntsman’s body. He carried it outside as the others followed as he lumbered up the hill. Father Bear stopped short of the peak, in a place overlooking their dens, caves, and nests, and watched the wolf pack approach.
Alpha, their leader came forward. “Let us have him Father Bear, it’s the way things are.”
“Leave us, carrion feeders.” Bear wanted no part of them here. Years ago while his son was trapped, they came. His young cub removed two from their numbers, but in the end, they won.
Alpha approached and Bear reared up “Mine” he roared loud and strong, thunderously enough to be heard throughout the valley.
Alpha knew he was no match for the Elder Bear, but all that gathered would receive his visit one day. The pack turned and fled down the hill.
Fox watched them run away. He turned to Bear and Owl and said, “We place him high above us to never do harm again. Let this point be a place of solitude and thought. While we rest here, not one of us harms another. This is a place of peace.”
Bear grunted in agreement as Owl spoke, “We lay to rest our greatest of enemies; he hunted us for food, and he hunted for greed. He laid upon us a mark that we will all carry to our own resting place.”
The animals clawed into the soft earth and made the Huntsman his own den. When it was finished, the body fell in, and Fox methodically covered it with dirt.
Afterwards, he scowled at the mound and whispered, “We’ve cowered in the shadow of death for too long.” And with that Fox left.
Father Bear circled the site, packing in the earth. He glanced into the Forest and remembered his son.
They stayed on the hill slowly going back into the forests by themselves, when they had enough. The procession of forest inhabitants left, all except one. Squirrel sat upon the ground, and for the first time in his young life, experienced silence. The carefree existence he once lived was gone, and today he would be among the hunted.