I loaded my backpack with a block of cheese, the remaining third of the loaf of bread I baked two days prior, three apples, and several liters of water. The sun dominated the clear blue sky leaving no trace of the snowfall the night before. I packed a pair of gloves, warm hat, jacket and shell, as I did not know how long we would be gone.
Coyote said, “You humans are fragile, no?”
“How do you mean?”
“You need so many things to survive, just to go from here to there, de aquí para allá.”
“Compared to you, yes.”
I zipped my backpack shut.
“We were not always so dependent, I suppose. Our ancestors were more hardy, even a few generations ago. We’ve become soft.”
“Es gracioso, no? A species becomes soft but dominates the land.”
His words made me stop. I saw the irony in what he said, “You are right coyote, we as individuals are less able to survive, yet we proliferate.”
“It is like that for us too,” he paused, his voice carried a bitterness in its tone, “because of you.”
I turned to look at him, my hands still busy with the packing of my bag.
“Because of us?”
“Sí. More of our kind now live among your people. We eat your trash. We carry away your cats, your dogs, sometimes your small children.” I shuddered at the thought, but knew it was true. He continued, “For some, it is a natural adjustment. For others, it is something else.”
“You are scavengers. You have always eaten what others leave behind. You fill a niche, between the larger wolf and the smaller fox. How is this any different?”
For the first time, I believe my words caught him off guard, his response not prepared. It was then I realized he was almost always one step ahead of me, cunning even in conversation. “Yes, we are scavengers, but we are hunters too. The fox,” he sneered, “el zorro chases los ratones. The fox could never bring down anything larger than the rabbit,” he replaced disdain with respect and continued, “but the fox, he can catch small things we cannot.”
I wondered how he felt in comparison to the wolf, but thought better of asking.
“You are ready to travel, mi amigo?”
“Bueno,” he replied, “¡Vamos!”
I locked the cabin behind me, slipped the keys into my pocket, and followed the coyote. The white bandages were bright against his golden coat. I felt a sense of pride, to follow a creature which was wild and not under my control. No whistle, no command, nothing I could say or do would make him sit, stay, or fetch. There was a certain pleasure and a level of fear in knowing this about my guide.
“Where are we going?”
“Follow me. You will see.”
I tried again, “For how long will we walk?”
“Until we arrive,” he responded, slightly annoyed.
We rose up and out of the basin in which the Buffalo Peak Ranch was nestled, along the path I walked two or three times every week at sunset. The coyote followed the path created by the UTV used by the ranch hand to bring tools, chainsaws, and shovels to the farther corners of the ranch.
When we reached the barbed wire fence, the coyote slipped between the bottom two strands without hesitation. I realized his injuries were not slowing him in any noticeable way. Ron was correct, a missing leg and the coyote could still out pace me, in the short run.
“You ate the rabbit, didn’t you.”
“I was not given any. Our pack leader fed the others, but not me.” He paused, and then without looking back asked, “It bothers you, no?”
I hesitated, “Not really,” I lied, “You have to eat.”
“But you’d prefer we graze like the cows or sheep which we eat.”
“No, that’s not true.”
“Have you ever killed an animal?”
“I used to fish. I shot prairie dogs when I was a kid, at the request of a rancher in South Dakota.”
“Mmmm … prairie dogs are delicious! But that rabbit, it would come when you sat on the porch.”
He had been watching me, for days, I realized. This was the same coyote who had hung back when Trevor and I chased them from the cattle. Again, on the ridge, the one who was just ahead of me. I realized I was following my stalker and felt myself slow a bit.
“Yes, I find the rabbit to be … cute?”
“Lindo. That is something we coyotes feel for our newborn young, playing with the adults. But it doesn’t last long. We do not feel cute for another species. The rabbit is our survival.”
We reached the highest part of the open land, where the Hayman fire had cleared the trees a decade ago. We started down into the deep ravine at the base of Buffalo Peak. I had explored this area two years prior, seeking boulders for climbing.
“You humans see the animal world in a strange way.” The coyote was able to keep a full, steady pace and talk at the same time. I found it difficult to keep up. If he noticed, he did not say anything. “You draw lines between you and them. You believe intelligence separates you, that your soul makes you unique. You believe you are given dominion over us, over everything.”
“This is part of our heritage. It goes back a long, long time in our mythologies, our fairy tales, and our religion.”
He snarled, stopped, turned to look directly into my eyes, “Do you believe you are superior to me?” There was an subtle charge of anger in his voice, “That you have a right to this place in spite of me and my kind?”
It was a bold, direct question. I needed to respond carefully, for the answer was complex. “No,” I hesitated, knowing I had lied again, “That’s not true … yes, I did feel superior, until—if everyone knew you could talk, that you could communicate like this, it would change our minds.”
“Change your minds? Do you believe that is what we want? For you to treat us,” and he emphasized the word as though it were poison on his tongue, “humanely? No! We don’t want to be your pets. We don’t want to be put on a leash or forced to live within a fence. We want our freedom to hunt, to roam, to live and die as we have for millennia.”
The coyote turned and moved at his quick pace again. We were now moving South and East, following the base of the mountain. We remained in the ravine but were climbing higher. I estimated that if we continued in this direction, we would arrive to the edge of the Lost Creek Wilderness in twenty minutes.
“Now. Now we cannot even move for but an hour without crossing a road, walking beneath a power line, or coming across a human home. Your airplanes!” at that he looked up to the passenger jet bound for Denver, its engines changing pitch in their final descent, “How they make my head hurt! ¡El dolor—is enough to make me loco.”
The coyote stopped, looked to his left and right, raised his nose high in the air, but did not answer. He smelled something that I could not. He continued. The bandage on his foot was falling off, but he didn’t seem to notice. I wondered, again, where we were going.
“What is it that we will do, together, today?”
He did not answer.
“You said something about the bear, the one I met two years ago. Will he meet us somewhere?”
“You will see,” he replied.
I was feeling uncomfortable with the lack of information. I stopped to look over my shoulder. I knew my location, and could return to the ranch within an hour, but that did not make me feel any better.
The coyote sat down. He reached back and tore at the bandage with his teeth.
I offered, “I can remove that for you.”
He snarled and continued to tear at the tape until it came free. Beneath, the wound was closed, no longer moist. He spat the tape onto the ground and relied, “No.” And then following a pause, “Gracias.”
Something had changed. He was deep in thought, but about what I did not know.
We reached the highest point of the ravine, where the drainage began. On this saddle, we could turn left and South West toward the Lost Creek trailhead, or right, over the saddle and down the other side. Without hesitation, the coyote turned to the right and lead us into the wilderness.
I removed my pack as we walked, reaching inside to find an apple. I had to stop for I was tripping over roots and stones. The apple in my hand, I looked up again and he was gone. I wanted to call out, but felt it would be a sign of weakness, further evidence my species had gone soft.
I walked for ten minutes without seeing him, but continued on a game trail which I assumed he had followed. I knew I could turn back at any time, if he did not appear again, and return to the cabin. But I wanted to continue. I wanted to know where he was taking me.
On the surface of the moist soil I could see his prints. I knelt down, and noted the claw marks. Further up the trail there was a spot where he had stopped and turned in a circle. I found his scat, very much warm and fresh. It did not smell of anything in particular, and I was reminded how our own smells much stronger.
Then I noticed something in his scat—the wind shifted and I could smell, just for an instance, the sweetness of breath. I looked up to see the coyote staring at me, just a few yards away, his eyes most certainly not those of a domestic dog. He had been watching me.
I rose and said, “You lied to me.”
He did not respond, nor did he waver in his stare.
“There is rabbit fur in your scat.”
If he could smile, he did. “So human, you are an animal after all. You followed my prints. You noted where I stopped. You learned what I ate. Just now, you smelled my breath.”
“Yes. All of those.”
“Then finally we arrive to the beginning of my story, in my domain. This is where you will follow me, without your pack, without those things which give you comfort.”
I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified, for I knew what he was asking me to do. I had wanted this since I was a child, since I dreamed of being the animal man. Without another word from the coyote, I dropped my pack to the ground. I placed my sunglasses on top of the pack, and removed my clothes: jacket, shirt, pants, underwear, shoes and socks.
I stood there, no longer separated from the coyote. I noticed the bandage around his ribs was removed. His ear had heeled quickly, no sign of infection. At that rate, it would be only a matter of days before the fur was growing over the tear in his side, and he would again be hunting without limitation of injury.
“You call us the coyote, the trickster. Do you know what we call you?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“‘The ones who run blind’ for you are always moving quickly, but never do you know where you are going.” He paused. Took a deep breath, and then commanded, “Follow me, if you can.” This time, I was certain he was smiling.
He leaped into the air and landed facing one hundred and eighty degrees from his prior position. No sooner did he land than was he already twenty, thirty feet down the game trail. I hesitated, realizing I was leaving all that I had packed behind. But this opportunity, this chance to run with the descendant of the wolf, was not one to pass me by.
I launched after him, instantly aware of the texture of the pine needles and soil beneath my bare feet. I ran not as I would on concrete, but with short, rapid strides, pressing toes against roots, fallen branches, and large stones. Each footfall was a conscious act, each the precise placement of my body’s weight and momentum. There was no room for wondering thought, no concern for anything more than the run.
I was lighter without the pack, without my clothes. I could move completely free. My arms and hands became instruments as important as my feet, countering my balance as I twisted and turned. I was able to change direction in mid-air. Once I bounded over a large, fallen log only to realize the trail took a sharp, hard turn. I reached out to grab at a branch of the nearest pine and corrected my course, landing at the edge of a small cliff, crouched, shaking.
I caught my breath, realizing how close I had come to falling. I looked ahead and the coyote was there, looking over his shoulder back at me; just as he had when I had spotted him on the far side of the boulder many days before. I looked down, caught my breath. My feet were bleeding. I looked up again, oblivious to the tears in my skin, then bounded ahead with intent to catch my challenger.
We ran for what felt like hours, the coyote always just slightly ahead. It may be have been my imagination, but it seemed I was gaining on him. I knew humans were the longest distance running animals on the planet; that we could, over time, outrun the antelope, the gazelle, even the cheetah. But I had not considered that my coyote companion too may tire, after some time. Which one of us would stop first?
I realized I no longer knew where I was. We were in a deep ravine in which the sun did not reach. I had been sweating intensely. I stopped to catch my breath and was quickly chilled in the breeze. My bag was far, far behind me. Where exactly, I had no idea. I was alone, truly alone here, but for the coyote who enticed me into this chase.
I stood tall, recognizing the true pain in my feet for they were not accustomed to this kind of running. The adrenaline of the chase was leaving my blood. I was not certain I could continue. I started to panic, knowing I could not go back, not without the coyote’s assistance.
“You look frightened mi amigo.”
“I- I’m cold. My feet hurt.”
“Estás vivo!” He walked down the path toward me, continuing, “In fear, in the face of death even, is when we are most aware of who we really are.” His tone had changed, more serious, more sincere. The game was over.
“You ran well. Another twenty minutes and you would have overtaken me. Perhaps another time, when your feet are stronger, you will show me how the humans can run—before machines ran for you.” His words carried a sense of respect, but the bitterness returned.
I was shivering now, and feeling quite vulnerable. Naked, I sat down on a log. The coyote standing before me.
He seemed unconcerned for my comfort, “Because you make things with your hands you have control over,” he looked around, “over all of this. But if you had paws instead of fingers, no amount of intelligence would give you the power to control.” The resentment in his voice was clear now.
He was pacing, like a caged dog in a shelter or a zoo. I grew concerned.
“You use numbers to calculate our behavior. You predict our populations’ rise and fall. You catch us to study our blood, to learn if we are coyote, or coywolf or coydog.” He stopped, and looked directly at me, “Have you applied numbers to your own kind? Have you placed yourself on a graph to see what you have done and where you are going?”
I realized he was in fact seeking an answer, “Yes. We have. We see the issues of population growth as very, very real.”
“And what will you do about it?”
“We, we,” I already knew my answer would only support his claim, “We improve our techniques for farming and for harvesting animals. We incre–”
He cut me off, “But you do not curb your populations. You only work to make them grow.”
I shook my head, “It’s not so simple. It is against our cultural and social norms to tell each other how many children we should have. In fact, some believe god tells them to have more.”
The coyote laughed, the first full laugh I had heard from him. It was like the barking I heard outside the cabin. He continued, “A god who tells you to overpopulate is a god who desires more to follow—at the cost of her own creation.”
He turned away from me and took a deep breath. When he spoke again, his voice had returned to that when he first spoke the night before, “You helped me heal. I will do the same for you.”
I didn’t know what he meant, but when he walked forward and nudged my feet with his nose I understood. I leaned back and he licked the bottom of my feet clean, the wounds stinging at first, but not for long. The left, then the right. I lowered myself from the log and sat cross legged on the ground, leaning back for support. I had stopped sweating, my skin dry. No longer did I shiver.
“Gracias,” I offered, but he did not respond.
I wanted to continue the conversation, I realized, because I felt ashamed for the actions of my species. The coyote sat next to me now, the warmth of his body helping me to find comfort. I spoke in a quiet voice, the kind used across a campfire at night. I reached down and picked up a small stick, drawing in the dirt between us as I spoke.
“Yes, we see our patterns. Our population growth, the plagues and famines. Even our warfare is something we show in mathematical form. We, like you, like all the animals, behave according to resource allocation, confines of geographic space and time. We are coming to this conclusion, and yet …”
“You change nothing.”
I raised my voice and countered, “If you had unlimited rabbits at your disposal, enough for everyone such that you did not have to hunt—What if each of you could have your own rabbit every night, would not your population also grow?”
He saw the logic in my words, “Sí, es verdad. We have seen this, from time to time, our populations growing then dropping again. But it is never sustained. Not for long.”
“Neither will ours. At some point, we will be confronted with very real limits of this planet.”
“At that point, I hope I am dead. My children too. The coyote will survive, maybe even prosper, but it will not be a world for me,” he said.
Then we both heard a branch snap, followed by another. The relative silence of the forest was broken by a grunt and heavy breathing. The one ear of the coyote stood up before he rose to his feet. Startled, my heart raced, I also stood, again becoming aware that I was fully naked.
I looked to my front and both sides, then down to the coyote to looked straight ahead. A large, black shape emerged from the trees and came toward us on the trail. It was a bear.
This story continues with Part IV
Copyright © Kai Staats 2013