Jennifer Jackson threw her left foot into the stirrup and hoisted herself easily into the saddle. A gentle flick of the reins urged Diamond, the tall sorrel mare Jennifer had owned since her 15th birthday, to step forward into an easy walk.
Jennifer let the mare choose her own pace as they set out but when they got to the driveway she urged the horse into a gentle canter. Settling into an easy rhythm they quickly reached the road and without slowing they made the turn and headed west. Jennifer rode a quarter-mile in that direction, enjoying the familiar beat of the horse’s hooves on the road, and the creaking of the saddle beneath her. The pleasant, quiet ride around the pasture was something she had come to look forward to every day. Andrew kept asking about lost lambs, but so far she had seen no sign.
When they reached the woods where the fence veered away from the road Jennifer steered the horse down through the ditch and into the trees reaching back to pull the rifle from the scabbard attached to the saddle behind her.
Checking to make sure the rifle’s safety was on she turned her attention to scanning the woods around her. Through openings in the trees she could see the fence, and beyond that perhaps half a mile in the distance, the flock of sheep she was trying to protect. The dark shapes of the guard donkeys stood out among the flock and Jennifer found herself wondering wryly whether the donkeys were earning their keep.
Looking ahead Jennifer saw the break in the trees that opened into the clearing where she sometimes stopped to dismount for a while and sit in the shade of the big oak tree that grew there, a little apart from the other trees.
Her attention wandered momentarily but her peaceful reverie was broken as her horse stopped suddenly, and stood motionless, ears cocked toward the clearing up ahead. Jennifer sat stock still for a second. “What do you hear up there?” she wondered, her eyes searching for some clue as to what might have caught the horse’s attention. She eased the safety of her rifle off and a slight breeze blew the hair back from her face as she did so. That breeze would work in her favour.
Jennifer gave a soft command and her horse moved forward. Peering through the trees she saw movement on the far side of the clearing, and again the horse stopped in its tracks. Jennifer slowly raised the rifle and aimed the scope at the spot where she had seen the movement. The underbrush prevented her from getting a clear look but she could see a blur of greyish-brown-fur through the rustling leaves.
Lowering the rifle Jennifer urged Diamond forward, and suddenly she had a clear view of what was there in the clearing. A canine form crouched over something she couldn’t see, but when the animal lifted its head Jennifer recognized the unmistakable profile of a coyote. The animal seemed unaware of them, its attention fully engaged with whatever it was that lay hidden in the deep grass.
Jennifer raised the rifle to her shoulder once more and centred the cross-hairs of the telescope on the shoulders of the coyote. The animal raised its head for a moment and Jennifer caught her breath. She had expected a fiercer-looking creature.
For a moment the coyote looked not like a predator at all, but rather like a large and not particularly threatening dog. Jennifer hesitated and again the coyote raised its head but this time there was something white dangling from its jaws. Wool. Jennifer was sure that’s what it was. Taking a deep breath she took aim once more and gently squeezed the trigger.
The loud crack of the rifle echoed through the woods. The horse shuddered but stood in place, and through the telescope Jennifer saw the coyote lurch upright momentarily and then collapse in a heap.
Jennifer lowered her rifle slowly, suddenly aware of her heart pounding in her chest. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself and then gave Diamond the signal to move ahead.
She rode slowly into the clearing and reined the mare to a stop beside the limp body of the coyote which lay motionless amid the remains of what had clearly been one of the Jacksons’ missing lambs. Jennifer sat for a long time, staring.
At length she stirred in the saddle, turned the mare around and headed her briskly back the way they had come. Dinner would be ready and for once, she would have a story to tell.