The air was filled with the smell of moss and sprouting greens as the melting snow allowed the earth to bring forth life again. Gone were the hard days of bitter cold and long nights of darkness. I was eager to walk along the perimeter of my territory to see what was there, to see what had changed. I had not eaten but expected to find something along the way. We had come through the lean times very well, the family sensed that we were entering a time of plenty and went on a hunt where game would be abundant; I came the other way alone.
There was a section of woods that I wanted to investigate because of a brief indication, no more than a moment, that a stranger had once trespassed there. As I came down from the higher hills where there was excellent shelter, the land became totally wooded; clearly the best place to mark the extent of the land I claimed for myself and the family. And yet, to this stranger it meant nothing.
As I approached the woods my suspicions were confirmed. He was back again! I turned my face to the wind and breathed in deeply letting the scent fill my nostrils slowly. It was stronger this time, not as it was a season ago. Then, it took me by surprise; I had expected that after defeating the largest and strongest adversary that I would ever meet that I did not have to contend with another rival . . . another challenger.
That first time I caught his scent I was unsure if it was really what I suspected. When I walked back and forth through the snow at the edge of the woods I could not catch another trace of him. Perhaps he had come and gone a day earlier or he backed away having seen me. In any case he was no longer in my territory and I went on patrolling the valley.
Now, however, I knew that he was in the woods, watching, scouting perhaps, or less likely, he might be totally unaware that he was encroaching where he should not be. I reversed my direction and walked a short distance, putting a low hill between myself and the woods, being careful to glance over my shoulder every few steps to insure that he was not tracking me! Once out of sight of the woods I trotted to one side to find a stronger scent, the wrong side. I quickly abandoned this course and went beyond where I had started, picking up his scent. Many steps later it was fading and I reversed myself again, stopping where it was strongest. I faced directly into the wind and approached the crest of the hill.
Warmer weather had come some days ago and the snow on the sunny sides of the hills was nearly all melted. With the sun behind me I made my way to the top slowly, going on my belly as I neared the crest. Finding a tall tuft of grass to hide me I lay there waiting. The scent was very strong; he had to be directly in front of me taking advantage of the cover that the woods afforded. The unexpected smell of blood reminded me that I came this way expecting to find food. This intruder was eating my meal! Even if that was all he was doing here I will teach him a lesson; family and food will be protected at all costs.
The sun was high, casting very little shadow, making movement harder to detect. I waited. Patience was rewarded when light and dark changed and my eye was attracted to it. There he was! Very near the edge of the woods, he was cautious about coming out in the open. I watched as he made his way through the woods. When he had gone some distance I backed up slowly and came down the hill, running parallel to him but past where I expected him to be and once again came to the crest. As my head came over the top, he turned to me. He had seen me! I lay close to the ground, motionless. He had seen me but he does not yet know what he has seen; with the wind to his back he could not know. Having just eaten he may not come out to investigate but if he has greater intentions . . .
Carefully he turned and moved to the last cover of trees. He knows! He wants me to show myself, he must have known that this valley would not be uninhabited. He has no idea what he may be up against and wants me to show myself before he commits to a confrontation. I will wait to see him, to learn if he is courageous or desperate . . . or foolish. We stare at each other for a time until he moves a bit closer sniffing the air vainly. He comes past the tree but the dark background prevents me from assessing his potential. He waits for me to advance likewise but I delay. We are in my territory and I have the advantage; I will wait for him to make another move. My inaction has made him doubt his first instincts and he suddenly rushes forward a few bounding leaps, to flush game if that is what he mistakenly takes me for. He stands there in plain sight waiting for a reaction.
He is big! This is no adolescent acting like an adult. He has been out here a season or two . . . has learned a thing or two. He is close to being in his prime as I was not long ago. I am not intimidated, what I have lost in speed I have gained in size . . . and cunning. I backtrack off the crest, showing him nothing. I know that this will confuse him further; he will come to investigate. I move off to the side and stand ready just below the crest. I am on dry grass; he will be climbing in snow that will crunch with every footstep. Soon enough I hear him nearing the place where I had waited. The sound of his footsteps stop and I rush to the crest, standing perpendicular to him, looking at him.
He is startled and looses his footing for a moment and then makes an awkward attempt to regain his dignity. He pulls back his lips, showing his teeth, letting a low growl escape through them. He finds it necessary to arch his back to increase his apparent size. I am not impressed; I do not move; he holds his ground. My mere presence is not enough to deter him as I had hoped. I must raise the stakes by displaying some aggression and see if he is serious or not. I move a few steps along the crest until I am directly uphill from him. He has two disadvantages now: bad footing on the snow and a lower elevation. He dares not charge me.
I turn to face him, lowering my head, leaning forward with one foot planted down slope. I match his growl and grimace but nothing more. He holds his position. So, he is serious! A sudden rush might make him bolt but then again that may be his way to lure me to the level ground where he decides to fight and I would loose both advantages. He is too big and too sure of himself for me to merely run him off; he would come back a little stronger and wiser. I need to teach him a severe lesson the first time, but then this is not the first time. I did not pursue him the last time; I should have! I give him one last opportunity; I arch my back and take one step forward, growling more intensely. He crouches, ready to spring at me.
Showing his intention was a mistake, one that he will pay for. I lunge at him immediately; he begins to rise to meet me. My weight slams into him knocking him on his back, our teeth meet, our forelegs attempting to hold one another. We slide through the snow having no footing and no stance from which to mount a proper attack. He rolls out of my grip hoping to regain a standing position. His back is toward me but he turns his head to keep his eyes on me. I see the fear in them. In a flash I am on him, my jaws locking on his back between neck and shoulder. There is a sharp pain as his teeth tear my ear; I jerk my head violently from side to side as I bite down with all my might. I feel bone and hear a piercing howl of pain. He has all four feet on the ground and rises; I release him.
He retreats at a run for a short distance then stumbles. I stand and watch knowing that he will not come here again. He has difficulty standing up, whimpering as he moves away respectfully, using his injured leg sparingly, disappearing into the woods, leaving a trail of blood as he goes. My ear hurts and as I climb the hill I see a dark object in the snow. A sniff tells me that it is a part of me. That son of a bitch bit off a piece of my ear. I do not like giving up a part of myself to defend what is mine but at that moment there was no other way. I begin toward the den at an easy gait to receive some attention. I hope their hunt was successful; I am hungrier than ever. They will all know what happened when they smell his scent on me. I lick the blood from my lips; it has an odd taste that I do not like at all. It is as if it were my own. This stranger is still my brother but . . .
This would have been very different if the family had come with me instead of seeking to fill their bellies. I am content; it is over. They will tend to my wound and to my needs, and will show respect.
It is not easy being a leader.
An allegory on the war in Iraq by Phillip R. Varady Sr.