The animals in this story are closely related to the characters, especially the character of Robert. Rodwell acknowledges Robert's close union with animals when he draws Robert in his sketchbook as "the only human form" among sketches of animals (155). When Robert sees the drawing, he notices that "the shading [is] not quite human"; it is a combination of animal and human qualities, like Robert's own personality (155). "Modified and mutated, he [is] one with the others" (155). Rodwell's sketchbook reveals the melding of Robert with the animal world.
Robert's encounter with the coyote is a significant step in his understanding of animals and, in turn, this leads to a greater understanding of himself. For Robert to be a soldier, it is important for him to see the point of view of a hunter. He learns from the coyote that a hunter must be generous and kill only in order to survive ("Animals and Their Significance" 1). Robert follows the coyote and watches as it passes two gophers and does not even "pause to scuffle the burrows or even sniff at them. It just [goes] right on trotting--forward towards its goal" (26). The coyote seems to sense Robert's connection with animals and realizes that he is not a threat. This is why the coyote continues to let Robert follow behind when it knows he is there. They drink together at the river, enjoying a "special communion" (Pirie 73). Then the animal tries to communicate with Robert by barking at him, "telling Robert the valley [is] vacant: safe" and then barks another three times to announce its departure (28). When Robert returns to the base, he pays the price for his time with the coyote and is confined to the barracks, but the experience has a profound impact on him. In his confinement, he feels as if the coyote has become a part of him, and he wishes "that someone would howl" (28).
Robert also has a special relationship with horses. When he is on the ship, it is the horses that are "his true companions" (Pirie 73). "He [becomes] intrigued with this world of horses, rats and bilge that [are] consigned to his care" and he spends time with them even when he is off duty. One of the horses breaks its leg and Robert is ordered to kill it. He shoots it once, but the horse is still alive and its mane is described as "a tangle of rattlesnakes" (68). The snakes symbolize the feelings of immorality that are welling up inside of Robert. He knows that killing an animal is against his moral values, but his role in the army is more important to him. He feels that he has "to show his nerve and ability as an officer" (66). Robert finally shoots the horse behind its ear and kills it. This is the first time he intentionally kills a living creature in the story.
Robert's ethics return to him and take priority over military obedience when he tries to rescue horses from the cruelties of war. Robert disobeys Captain Leather's orders and tries to free the horses from the barn that is threatened by falling shells. Unfortunately, the horses die before he can save them all and Robert is filled with anger, shooting Captain Leather between the eyes for causing their death. From this moment on, he rebels against anyone who does not respect his love for animals. This rebellion continues when he barricades himself in a barn with the horses and shouts, "[w]e shall not be taken" (212). It is Robert's strong connection with the horses that leads to his downfall, because the "we" implies to Major Mickle that Robert has an accomplice, and for that reason an attack is ordered. Robert burns in the barn with the horses, feeling the same fear and anguish as...