No Pulling Back
Ruth Ann Hanley
"He lay silent on the dirt floor…
but he was vigilant as a snake waiting to strike."
He had not eaten in thirty-six hours, through night, day and night. He lay outstretched on the river bank, feeling the strands of grass and tiny stones against his belly. His strong pulling muscles, even when relaxed, betrayed the hard physical life to which he was accustomed. Muscles so hard that even the small stones among the grasses were unable to imbed themselves. He had slept for twelve hours, exhausted. His head ached where the boat's prow had fallen against it. His memory of what and how it had happened was vague, coming back in disjointed pictures, like sand particles, each distinct, but scattered loosely.
His partner was gone. He knew that. At the time of the accident, when the boat had overturned and the prow had hit Daemon in the head above his right eye, he had lost consciousness for a few moments and been separated from Taursus. After struggling to the bank, vomiting water into the sand and falling into his discharge, Daemon looked for him. Where was he? He was not on the bank. Was he in the water? He had played so many tricks on Daemon, called him "dumb" so many times, that Daemon could have believed another trick. Yet, this time he was not to be fooled.
He plunged back into the swollen, raging waters to search. Until nightfall he battled debris crashing down the river and got pounded until his body throbbed. Still he searched . . . until he was engulfed and dragged under water by the dangling branch of a large tree that rolled down the river. Under water his limbs flailed up and down, right and left. They were uncontrollable. Panic took him as he swallowed a huge mouthful of water. Then, just as quickly as it had taken him under, the tree shot him back to the surface. There, with strength born of terror, he struggled free and back to shore.
Safely there, he now knew he would not go in again. Taursus could save himself.
Taursus was strong. He was a soldier. He led the way and for two years Daemon followed him without complaint. Daemon had been trained to follow orders. He had learned to kill on command. He followed one man and one man alone, but he never freely submitted to him. He would rather die than that.
Daemon was strong too. Before he partnered with Taursus he worked the Roman amphitheater. Though he had no given name, he was known by his handlers as "Short Ear," "Auris Brevis," because of a clumsy crop that left one ear slightly shorter than the other. But he had no deficiencies as a fighter. He would go out with three other fighter dogs, following a hunter with his whip and sword as the music began.
Far off in the amphitheater would be a huge brown animal, scared, angry and foaming at the mouth. They called it a bear, "Ursus." At the command of the hunter they would advance on this animal like a swarm of angry hornets. The animal, standing upright, would slash with its paws and often disembowel the first to come in close. But while the slasher was having his way with that one, Daemon would attack from the rear. Standing squarely on his thick strong legs which were slightly bowed, with his large feet, making no noise whatsoever and unlike his companions who were screaming in rage and fear, he would advance swiftly. While his bloodied companion was screaming in a death agony he would slide behind the large animal and deal a slashing attack at its leg tendons. Then just as swiftly he would bow low to the ground and away in order to miss the now cataclysmic anger, rage and savage swings of club-like paws.
Fighters and animal alike would soon be sprinkled with blood, and the ground would be slippery with blood and the entrails of the young fighter who had his first bout in the amphitheater . . . and his last. The bear would continue charging but would be hindered by his weakened legs. Slowly and methodically, one by one, the fighters would tear wounds into him. The dispatch lasted a long time and the people in the stands yelled gleefully when another fighter was wounded. Daemon sensed that they wanted the killing to last. And so, he himself usually stood back allowing the others to continue the slaughter. Always, at the end the hunter would rush in sword first and slide his weapon into the weakened animal, now prostrate on the ground. When the hunter acted, all the fighters were to draw back. This was supposed to be the hunter's triumph. In fact, because they were so wrought up, the fighters often wanted to finish the kill themselves but they would be whipped back by slaves and made to return instead to their cages under the amphitheater. The last time Daemon was in the amphitheater that hunter made a huge mistake. He had stabbed the animal, but missed a vital spot, allowing the animal to fake its death. When the bear fell, the slaves came to whip the fighter dogs back to their cages. But Daemon broke away from the other snarling, yet controlled, fighters. He sensed what was happening. To get by the nearest slave he whirled and ran close to that one's body and under his extended arm. With a futile swipe his whip cracked the empty air. Nonetheless, Daemon was too late. As the hunter turned his back to the animal to bow to the crowd for his crown of glory leaves, the animal grabbed him from behind, hugging him down upon its chest with its bloody paws…