Excerpt from Coyote Dream
She waited all night.
The full moon arched slowly across a clear sky. Boulders and brush gleamed silver and disappeared in shadow. The warm air carried a thousand scents: of earth and carrion, sage and sumac, but no hint of him. She sat taut, sifting through the desert sounds, listening for his footfall.
Every four hours she rose with a yawn and stretched the stiffness from her back. She pushed aside the brush at the entrance to the den and stepped through the yapping little bodies to the far end where it widened enough for her to lie down. The pups scrambled over each other to get back to her, frantic until each found its own teat. She cleaned them thoroughly, her warm tongue stimulating their bowels so that she could re-consume the digested milk. It was the only nourishment she took for twelve hours. By early morning she was ravenous.
She stood to shake and the pups dropped off. She hid the den with brush, sniffed around the entrance and yapped several times in quick succession, then turned to cross a stream and travel slowly down the hillside.
The moon was gone. In pallid, pre-dawn light she descended the rocky foothills and moved across the desert, halting on a ridge behind the houses of Men bordering her territory. The scent of her mate was strong, mixed with carrion and human, and lingering sulfur.
His severed head sat straight up on a rock, sightless eyes gaping. The rest of him lay nearby reeking of incipient decay. She approached low, hesitating every few feet to sniff the air and listen. Soft whines and the insistent prodding of paws and snout would not rouse him. She nestled down, her chin on his torso.
The horizon brightened. She raised her head slowly, turning to spy a jackrabbit munching a tuber. Hunger rumbled in her belly. She rose silently and crept toward it. The rabbit paused on its haunches, ears twitching. She stopped. It took another bite. She inched forward. It stiffened. She pounced. The rabbit jumped out of reach and her jaw snapped air. It bounded through the desert. She followed as it raced onto a gravel road, its long, flat feet kicking pebbles in her face. She was inches behind when it dashed onto the asphalt - a roar more powerful than a mountain lion, a startled
Ben Lonefeather’s battered blue pickup leisurely wound down Henry’s road on its way to the highway. Henry’s wasn’t the official name of the gravel road – it didn’t have a name – but everybody called it Henry’s because Henry Kanuho, Ben’s grandfather, had built it. That was in 1932. He’d been thirty-four years old, the same age Ben was now and the expense had been sizeable. But he'd done it right and it had remained unchanged since with no maintenance, except a few truckloads of gravel every now and then, snaking through the desert for over eight miles, connecting the house to the highway.
It was around 8:00 am the third Saturday in May and the Arizona high desert was full into spring. Red-brown earth stretched to purple foothills under an azure sky. Fiery blossoms engulfed Ocotillos; the air so pungent with minty sage and poppies it tasted sweet. Seemed to Ben a shame, wasting such a fine day in town.
At the intersection with the highway, poised to make a right turn toward Lowman, he glanced across the expanse of blacktop and noticed three crows feeding on road kill. He hung a left and pulled onto the shoulder to check it out.
For a moment the crows held their ground, claiming right of discovery. But as Ben advanced, the crunch of sand under his boots mingling with the drone of flies in the still air, they fluttered up cawing in protest and landed about ten feet away.
Ben squatted. Judging from the fresh smell, the coyote had been hit within a couple hours. He recognized her from the white markings on her feet and nose and the gold along her shoulders, one of the dozen or so that lived in the canyon behind his house.
He raised her muzzle with his thumb, revealing healthy pink gums and white teeth. Small and muscular with a bit of the pup left about her, little more than a year-old. He brushed the flies away and squeezed one of the enlarged teats. Milk spurted up.
His eyes reflexively scanned the desert across the street toward the foothills. On an early morning hike three months back he’d come upon this female with a young male he’d never seen before. The two had been so wrapped up in each other that he’d been able to watch the courtship from behind a boulder. The eager male - big, mostly gray, black-tipped tail wagging, ears erect - the female, coy and teasing, nipping at his aggression. It was a couple minutes before they got a sense of him and took off.
From interest and observation through the years he’d learned something about most of the animals that shared the land. Coyotes mated for life, kept to a territory, lived in pairs or small families. Pups were born once a year in late April, early May. For the first month after she whelped the female stayed at the den, dependent on the male for food. Once the pups got their milk teeth and started eating regurgitated food she’d leave them for short periods to hunt. The smooth, pink teats of this female, unmarred by punctures from sharp milk teeth, meant the pups still needed milk to survive.
He stood and gripped her rear legs to pull her off the side of the road into the
desert, disturbing the crows again. She belonged to them now and, before the day was over, ants, flies, eagles, hawks, and buzzards would all get their share. Other coyotes might even feed off her. Soon her bones, picked clean and bleached dry, would crumble into desert dust.
He wiped his hands on his jeans as he headed back over the blacktop, bothered by the thought there might be pups hidden in a den.
Be a challenge to find them, he thought. Better than spending the morning watching his clothes spin around in a washing machine. Laundromat was open 24 hours anyway. The market was open until six p.m. Only problem was the post office closed at noon and if anything happened to his supplies he’d be in deep shit. Thirty pounds of uncut precious and semi-precious stones: red and pink coral, lapis, jade, opal, amethyst, garnet, dozens of seed pearls, a few small diamonds, and a pound of pure gold ingots. All the money he’d scrimped and saved for a year invested in one order. He’d gotten a notice in yesterday’s mail it had arrived. Insurance required him to pick up the package himself and sign for it.
It was a risky move, putting everything he had into jewelry without a dealer in place. But, if the Indian Market would let bygones be, by August next year he’d line one up and finally stop living hand to mouth..
He got back in his truck and made a U-turn.
He wasn’t ready to begin work on the jewelry yet. The stones he had to cut on commission would keep him busy for another two, maybe three, weeks. The package was as safe at the post office as anywhere. He could pick it up on Monday.
Grinning like a kid playing hooky, he headed back up the gravel road.
Within ten minutes, he’d passed the houses of his neighbors. Small wood-fame and cinderblock structures scattered along the three miles of road near the highway. A quarter mile beyond the last house he stopped and turned off the engine. He reached under the seat for his daypack: bottle of water, two empty Mountain Dew cans, a snakebite kit, and a box of Hot Tamales candy. He left the cans on the floor, zipped the pack and slung it over a shoulder. Like a seal slipping off a buoy into the sea with barely a ripple of the surface, he passed between two boulders and slipped into the desert. Crossing the flatland swiftly, he picked up a deer trail into the hills, drawn by the secret depth of the desert’s heart.
People commonly considered this part of the Navajo reservation a wasteland and spent a lot of time trying to find a way to tame it to a useful purpose. Divert enough water to make it suitable for grazing cattle. Fertilize the hell out of it for farming. Turn it green. In the end there was never enough water. Which was fine by him. He liked the desert the way it was, every hue and shade of brown from bone to lavender to red. Cutthroat, competitive, deadly for the weak or unprepared, it had its own way of keeping the riffraff out. Henry used to say the desert built character and as a child Ben had learned to appreciate the lessons it taught about discipline and thrift and cutting down to the essential. He’d forgotten for a time, on the stormy road from adolescence to manhood, but he remembered now.
Henry had liked and admired the coyote - an unusual penchant in a sheep rancher, but Henry believed in balance and never took a narrow view.
“Truth is,” he’d told Ben, “ ranchers that watch their sheep don’t lose many to coyotes. Lazy ranchers'll always complain but coyotes kill vermin an eat garbage. Stop sickness from spreadin. World without coyotes be a pretty dirty place.”
Most of the Southwest Indian tribes had stories about Coyote, the cunning trickster who always managed to get himself into trouble. Henry told them all.
“If a story’s good, don’t matter if it’s Hopi or Navajo or Cheyenne. The Navajo’s strength is in knowin a good thing no matter where it comes from.”
Listening to him was like listening to music and the tales told most often were the ones most loved. Ben’s favorite was Hopi, the one about Coyote and the stars.
“At the very beginnin, when the world was just made and lookin like a new ball, Mother Earth give Coyote a
jar to hold,” Henry would begin and Ben would settle in.
“That jar had all the stars, shiny and clean from a scrubbin. Mother Earth tol Coyote ‘I got things to do in town but I’ll be back soon as it’s night. Hold the lid on tight. Don’t open it for
“Mother Earth had a plan for them stars. They was goin up in the sky to form pictures. Every star in its rightful place, neat an orderly. Coyote wanted to do what Mother Earth said so he held on tight to the jar. Skunk asked to see what he was holdin, but Coyote wouldn’t show him. Crow offered to trade him a ear a corn for jus a peek inside, but Coyote wouldn’t do it.”
“He held that jar all day long until late in the afternoon jus before the sun was about to set an he could see Mother Earth comin down the road from town. He knew once she come back he’d never get the chance to see all them stars bunched up together. Must be a sight to see, he thought. An before he knew it, he loosened the lid and lifted it up for a peek. Whoosh! All the stars come rushin out so fast they burned his nose. He put the lid back quick as he could, but he only saved a few a the pictures at the bottom.”
“And that’s the reason most of the stars are spread out all in a mess over the sky. And that’s why, to this day, Coyote has a black nose.”
It was hot by noon. Ben had about half his water left and was tracking among the rocks that bordered a small stream when a faint whine caught his attention. He stepped across the water, scaled a boulder and locked eyes with a red fox that looked up from the ground a few feet away. He jumped down; the fox vanished. At the base of the boulder, hidden by brush, he found the mouth of the den. He pushed the brush aside, determining the nature of luck to be more about timing than anything else.
Three sturdy gray bodies with slanted yellow eyes and pointed ears backed up as he reached in the dank, feral den. Before placing the pups in the backpack, he noted two females and a male. The male growled and bit his finger with its gums.
"Save your fire little man." he whispered, smiling.