The novel begins with an epigraph quoting Carl von Clausewitz, who warns against the error of performing seemingly benevolent acts of kindness in the midst of war.
By opening with this quote from Clausewitz on War, Findley foreshadows that characters in the novel will try to act as heroes, and that doing so will cause more harm than good.
Robert Ross, a soldier who has been wandering alone for over a week, sits watching a black mare who is standing in the middle of some railroad tracks with a black dog at its feet. Robert’s nose is broken, his face and hands are streaked with mud, and his uniform is torn and burned. In the background, a medical supply warehouse has just caught fire.
Robert’s disheveled appearance and solitude implies that he has suffered a traumatic experience at war. Black animals like the mare are often seen as omens of death—their presence here could foreshadow additional suffering for Robert.
Robert comes across an abandoned train with cattle cars full of horses. In anticipation of the encroaching fire from the warehouse, Robert sets the one hundred and thirty horses free. He rides behind them on the black mare, with the dog following alongside.
By performing this act of kindness, Robert goes against Clausewitz’s warning in the epigraph. It is unclear whether this choice will prove to be an “error,” as Clausewitz suggests.