I pushed away from my computer and rose from my chair to open the cast iron doors to the wood burning stove. The sun had set an hour prior and outside, the snow continued to fall in small, light flakes that melted upon contact with the ground. It was the first time the temperature would drop below thirty this season, the needles of the pines at higher elevation lightly dusted in white.
The coals glowed, yet hot enough to quickly ignite the next split log I placed on them. The stove, while small and somewhat of a poor design for cleaning, did enable adequate airflow from beneath the fire to burn thoroughly and at a moderate temperature.
I had at sunset closed the wooden door to the front porch, for even with the snow falling, I enjoyed the natural light more than a perfectly warmed room, the radiant heat more than compensating for the draft of the ill sealed screen door.
Then I heard it, the coyotes calling. I had not heard them for three, maybe four nights. They were close, very close, as though they were just outside the door.
I moved quickly to release my camera from the tripod, my fingers automatically switching the camera from still photos to video as I moved to the door.
They were right there! Maybe even inside the fence. I had never heard them so loud, so clearly before. My heart was racing, for at this proximity, they no longer sound like small dogs that banter playfully with the setting of the sun or rise of the moon—these were powerful, healthy canines which were likely fighting for a freshly killed rabbit, mouse, or squirrel.
I pressed on the release to the screen door, my camera on and at my side. I realized I was not wearing shoes, just wool socks. No matter, the porch was not wet, just damp as the intermittent sun had dried some of the moisture between light snows all afternoon.
Slowly, I took three more steps to the edge of the porch and in the darkness found by touch the corner post and railing onto which I placed my camera, already recording. (listen)
The film maker in me wished I had an infrared camera to capture the coyotes visually. The darkness was well formed, my vision limited to just a few feet beyond the cone of light from the window to my back and left.
I could hear yelping, as I had countless nights before. But this time, I also heard snarling, biting, and one of the dogs very clearly dominating the others, but not in play.
Part of me wanted to turn around and quickly return inside, but more of me wished I had shoes, to push out further into the yard with hope of catching a glimpse, no matter how brief, of these animals.
I had seen coyotes this summer and fall. Trevor, the ranch hand, and I had heard them scrapping in the middle of the day, not long after one of the cows had given birth to a calf. We were worried the coyotes had gotten to her, and were feasting on her flesh. But we also knew it was unlikely, for these cattle were very large, and would circle ’round the young until they could fend for themselves.
We hurried to the furthest pasture and found the cattle alert but not on the defense. Up the hill, however, near the fence line of the Buffalo Ranch property, Trevor spotted one, then three coyotes beyond the thick brush and a fallen tree.
Two of them were moving to our right, through a gully and then up the hill. The third held back, seemingly less concerned for our presence, even curious. It was only when we were within a few hundred feet that it too departed, moving to catch the others to the South.
Just last week I was hiking on the North East corner of the property toward dusk. I followed the same fence line, but on the opposite, Western end, back down toward Stony Pass Road. The wind had slowed to where I could hear clearly again, and smell the moisture held in the fallen needles.
I was watching my feet as I walked, careful to not trip and fall over the exposed roots onto a shin dagger, a succulent with sharp needles which if engaged would easily embed themselves in your leg.
A flash of gold caught my eye, not more than fifty feet to my front and just past the fence to my left. A deer? No, it was too small. It was a coyote, alone, just beyond a boulder.
I increase my pace, but then slowed again, knowing it would only spook and run too far. I stopped, held my breath, hoping to see it again. Nothing. Not even a sound. So quickly, so easily they escape.
I pressed the lower of the middle two strands of barbed wire down, nearly to the ground, lowered my torso until it was nearly parallel with the ground and ducked through the fence. I had been doing this since I was a kid on my grandparent’s farm in Iowa. I could not recall the last time I actually snagged my clothing. Or was it just this summer when Trevor and I were building the concrete dam?
Once on the East side of the fence, I walked ’round the boulder where the coyote had been. No scat, no strands of fur, not even a paw print that I could recognize.
There! On the horizon, the coyote was far ahead of me and completely out of reach. I knew I had lost this game of chase. With no hope of catching him I ran up the hill, every footfall breaking sticks and overturning small stones. The sound of my laboring gate was surely audible to the coyotes, elk, and bear for more than a mile around.
The game was fun, just the same. As the old stories do tell, the coyote was laughing back at me.
I left the camera on the railing, recording what it could capture in audio. I slowly walked backward, my memory of one too many horror films telling me that from the darkness one would emerge with eyes glowing, teeth bared. But no, I reminded myself, coyotes do not attack humans as I knew from several nights in the desert north of Phoenix where I slept a top a rock pillar, watching a pack eat its prey by moon light. If they caught my scent, they always turned and ran.
Once inside the cabin again, I ran on the balls of my feet yet trying to be quiet to grab my headlamp from the kitchen counter. Returned to the screen door, I pressed slowly on the lever, opened the door to the cool night air again, and found my camera yet running. The coyotes had ceased their banter. I turned on the light and shown it into the night, hoping to see the reflection of the broad beam in their eyes.
Nothing. Not a one.
Then I heard the scattering of paws and legs and breath beyond the fence line. I reached for my camera. My fingers and thumb found the familiar grip, I automatically turned it off without looking, as I had countless thousands of times before.
My socks stuck to the freezing, moist wood. I pulled them loose and walked back inside. Turning, I reached for the door handle, the flicker of orange and yellow fire light reflecting on the glass to my front. And a pair of eyes.
I spun so fast the camera nearly flew from my hand. Instantly, I was crouched in a fighting position, ready to do battle with whatever it was that was behind me. I could already smell the sweat under my arms and felt a light trickle of moisture run down the outside of my right thigh.
It’s funny what we think of at times like this, with that potentially thin line between life and death wavering, when I caught myself wondering why I did not feel sweat run down both legs—why only one?
I looked at the steps to the porch. Nothing there. Then a little further out, left and right and center. Nothing. And again, a little further, maybe thirty feet now beyond the cone of light. Nothi—for an instant, yes, two eyes opened to the light, and then shut again.
Frozen, I waited, not daring to breath. I kept telling myself, it’s just a coyote. They are small, frightened dogs that always run. Unless this was not a coyote. Maybe they had run away not from me, but from … this.
Three, five, ten heart beats. I let my breath out slowly and then in again. My breathing was intermixed with a sudden gust of wind that reminded me winter had come.
The eyes returned, the same distance, the very same spot as before. It had not moved. Then I remembered I had my head lamp in my left hand, but hanging from the strap. I could not bring it up to my finger tips to turn it on without setting down the camera. Damn it.
Slowly, without looking away, I placed the camera on the deck of the porch, then transfered the headlamp from left to right hand and turned it on.
The beam caught fresh snow falling nearly vertical, and the same distance as is the wood pile but directly in front of the cabin, a coyote. Golden, even in the dim light of these four LEDs.
It blinked, the reflection of its eyes disappearing and then reappearing again. It was lying on its side, head raised only for a few moments before lowing again to the ground.
Was it injured? Or rabid? Surely, it did not intend to just sleep there, in the middle of the yard while its pack had abandoned it so completely. Or did it?
I was reminded of a story told to me by a friend long ago. In the desert north of McDowell Mountain, then the boundary of the North Eastern edge of the sprawl of Phoenix, he had been hiking when he came across a coyote. maimed in its right front leg. It hobbled just a few yards to his front, following the same trail. He had never been this close to a coyote and followed carefully.
Coyote stopped every now and again to look over its shoulder. Bob stopped too, careful to keep his distance. The coyote moved off the trail and up a small box canyon, just under six feet below grade at its termination.
Bob, so enthralled with this casual intermingling of the species did not realize what he had walked into until at the end of the box canyon the coyote suddenly walked quite normally, its apparent injury completely healed.
Once it regained the company of its companions, now six or seven in the pack, it turned to face Bob and he realized it was a trap. He backed a few paces, turned, and then moved back along the shallower portion of the creek bed until he returned to the trail, and only then did he look over his shoulder. No sign of the coyote nor his companions, but surely, Bob knew, they were laughing at him.
If I stepped off the porch to inspect this canine, would it be a trap? Were the others waiting, just out of reach of my vision, or perhaps on either side of the porch in shadow?
I stepped to the side to grab my camera, keeping the light on the dog which remained lying on his side. When my back pressed again the door, the knob catching my spine, I don’t know why I said it but it just came out, “I’ll— I’ll be right back.”
The coyote lifted its head and then set it down again, its tongue moving across its mouth and teeth before retracting again. It’s breathing was labored, I could tell even from this distance. If it was acting, it should win an award, I thought.
In the kitchen I put on my shoes then walked back through the living room and my office and to the front door. I was less concerned about noise this time, in fact, hoping a little noise my scare aware my potential predator.
Indeed, when I stood again on the porch and flashed my light to the spot, he was gone. I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed, for part of me wanted to continue this encounter. The coyote. Always the prankster, always laughing.
I took a deep breath of the cold night air, surely below thirty now, and dropping. I turned to my left to return to the cabin and there, just a few feet to the side of the door was the coyote, lying again on its side.
I nearly jumped over the railing for it was, it was much larger than I expected, and clearly not acting at all for it was covered in blood. I turned on my head lamp again to gain a better view. It closed its eyes and I realized I had blinded it. Again, without thinking, I said, “Oh. Sorry!”
It lowered its head, panting despite the sub freezing temperature.
I lowered myself and saw that it was truly hurt, one ear almost entirely gone, torn from its base with only a tattered fragment of the tissue remaining. A deep would exposed a rib, and its rear left paw was badly cut.
This was no actor. This was no joke. This was an animal needing help.
I quickly ran back inside to grab a bath towel, the largest I could find.
As I ran back to the porch door I flipped on the light. It flickered at first, as all compact florescent bulbs do, but warmed quickly to show me that no other coyotes remained in the yard. But there, in the distance, beyond the wood fence were a five pairs of eyes, blinking, waiting.
I rolled one half of the towel as I had learned in my Wilderness First Responder training, placing the roll against the coyotes body in order that when I lifted him, I could unroll the remaining half and immediately, without excess movement, he would be in the middle.
His body was warm to the touch, the fur software than anticipated. I wanted to stroke his legs and head, but knew that would not help the situation. He was tense, and when I reached beneath his rear legs to lift them over the bulge of the rolled towel, his head snapped back at me quickly, teeth exposed and snarling, I fell off my feet and landed on my side at the edge of the porch.
If it were not for the railing, I would have tumbled into the wet, cold grass at the base of the small aspen tree.
As though he realized his mistake, he quickly returned his head to the wooden deck and waited, not moving. I carefully returned to my feet and started talking to him, “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to help. That’s why you’re here, right? You got injured. You need help.”
He licked his lips again, and then returned to what I recognized as the breathing of pain not over heating.
I lifted his front mid-section, reaching beneath his exposed rib. His weight was quite a bit more than expected, perhaps as much as fifty or sixty pounds, my best guess.
Then his head and front shoulders. This brought me very close to his face.
I reached down, hesitated, and withdrew, recalling how quickly he had snapped and come close to my fingers just moments before.
He closed his eyes, as though in response to my fear. I waited. They remained closed. His breathing lessened. I moved in, talking again, “I just need to get you on this towel so I can bring you inside where I can better tend to your wounds.”
I lifted his head, shoulders, and reached beneath to unroll the last of the towel. Centered in the fold of cloth, I gathered the four corners and lifted him from the porch deck.
I was instantly reminded of the effort required to lift my family’s Great Dane just last month, just before she died. Four adults to move a one hundred and forty pound animal, truly no smaller than many humans.
At the door I realized I could not possibly open it and keep the coyote off the ground with one hand. I set him down again, opened the door, and reached to the top to slide the stopper to the open position.
Outside, the coyote had opened his eyes but quickly shut them when he saw me look down at him. Curious, I thought, as though he knew I remained frightened.
I knew I had brought him inside for me, not for him. His fur, his metabolism, everything about him was designed for comfort in the winter, outdoors. But if I was to help him heal, I had to be comfortable for me, risking his overheating or worse, his deciding to turn on me despite my assistance.
I set him down, gently, in front of the wood burning stove, on top of the cow hide which served as a rug. For a moment, again, a funny thought came to my mind—does a coyote feel discomfort lying on the hide of another mammal? I have heard they will roll in the flesh of a kill, to cover their own scent for a while.
As though on cue, he stopped panting for a few moments and sniffed the cow hide beneath and just beyond the edge of the towel. He looked up at me, worried it seemed, but then set his head back down again.
I was anthropomorphizing again, I knew it, but we humans see ourselves in the action of animals, especially mammals and canines even more.
Just then, he lifted his head and his one remaining ear stood straight up. I grew frightened for a moment, thinking his friends had returned to enter the cabin of their own accord. But then I heard what he had heard before me, the elk bugling on the ridge. High, piercing calls, a long shrill followed by several chirps that never quite seem appropriate for an animal so large, like a mountain lion with the voice of a household cat.
We looked at each other for a few moments, both, it seemed, enjoying that sound. I smiled and just for a moment, I believed he raised the edges of his jowls.
“Did you just smile?” I asked while running my hands along his front legs, torso, and high legs too.
No response to my question, but I could tell the pain was yet intense for him.
Nowhere that I pressed caused him to flinch, outside of those obvious places, the torn ear, exposed rib, and injured foot. No broken bones, I had to assume, applying what I knew of wilderness medicine to this non-human animal.
“I am going to get some things, to clean the wounds,” his eyes watched me as I walked away, “I’ll be right back.”
I found the hydrogen peroxide but wanted alcohol, knowing it was a far better cleaning agent and antiseptic. I made a note to review the First Aid kit at the Ranch, for it was in dismal shape.
I poured the peroxide onto the center of the clean rag, allowing it to soak a bit before attempting to clean what remained of his ear.
Speaking to calm myself, “This is going to hurt a bit, ok?”
“Ok,” the coyote responded.
I fell backward and landed against the hot metal side of the wood burning stove. I could instantly smell my synthetic sweater melting. I pulled myself away and leaned against the wall instead. I didn’t feel any pain and assumed I did not touch skin to the metal, but was too frightened to make the time to check.
“Di- did you just say ‘ok’?”
He paused, licked his lips, and then responded, “Yes. I did. But I am sorry to frighten you.”
“I- I don’t understand. Coyotes don’t talk. I mean they, you do but not in our language, in huma- I mean, English.”
“Hablo español también!” he said with an amazing Mexican accent.
“You have got to be kidding!” I shrieked, “You speak Spanish too?”
“Es mi primera lengua,” he responded, again smiling to the best of his ability despite the pain. Even in this position, unable to stand, he was finding reason to laugh.
Then I remembered. This was not the first time I had enjoyed an unexpected conversation. Two years ago, here, on the Ranch, I had experienced a brief, but powerful friendship with a bear.
Completely forgetting about the wounds, the bleeding, his labored breathing I exclaimed, “Wait! Wait! Do you, do you by chance know a, um,” I suddenly felt really stupid for asking, “a talking–”
He cut me off, a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “A talking bear?”
“Sí, I know more than one.”
“You do? More than one?”
“Of course!,” he responded, the hint of his Mexican accent present now even as he spoke English with me.
“There is one, this one I met–”
He did not interrupt me this time, but his deep sigh cut me off, “What? What is it?”
“That is why I am here. The bear, he sent me to you.”
“Oh! It’s been two years. I had begun to believe it was just a dream. He’s real? He, he’s ok?”
“No my friend, he is not a dream. And no, lo siento, he is not ok.”
At this he shut his eyes again and for a few moments did not breathe at all.
With his eyes remaining shut, he said, “He may be dying. We have very little time.”
I reached out to touch his head, and he opened his eyes to meet mine.
“Look amigo, I am a bit of a mess. Do you think you could help me with some of this?” looking to his paws and the blood soaked into the towel, “Then, then I will tell you the story amigo. And tomorrow, we go to find him.”
“Of course. I am so sorry. I, I was just caught off guard. I mean, I–”
“Entiendo. Está bien.”
I wanted to know what had happened to him, why he was injured this way. But he had shut his eyes again and they remained shut as I cleaned his wounds, applied a dressing to the exposed rib, and bandaged his paw, wrapping it with athletic tape in order that he could again stand, perhaps, in the morning.
By the time I had finished it was well after midnight. He was sleeping, apparently quite comfortable in my presence and safe from whatever inflicted these injuries.
I could not help but reach out and stroke his body, soft, warm, and golden down to his skin. He did not stir, breathing more subtle and relaxed now. I stoked the stove for the night, aware again it was for me, not him.
In the morning, if this was not a dream, he would tell me the story of my friend the bear and what had happened since I first met him two years ago. I want to understand how my new friend had come to me with these wounds. I want to know who had done this to him, and why.
This story continues with “Part II“
Copyright © Kai Staats 2013