I spotted the sleek coyote trotting across a piece of fallow ground on the Gila River Indian Reservation where we ran several bands of sheep. I slowed down and the coyote stopped and sat on its haunches and looked at me.
Besides building fence, moving and watering sheep, my bosses expected me to kill coyotes and dogs, too, if I found them harassing the ewes and lambs. But more than that, I was supposed to kill coyotes anywhere I saw them because…well, because at some place and time they would kill sheep.
I remember when I first got to Nam, on a patrol along a river we spotted some kids on the opposite side of the lazy-moving flow washing water buffalo and our squad leader ordered us to shoot to kill. The kids.
I complained and he explained that those kids would grow up to kill Marines like me, so…I don’t remember if I pulled the trigger or maybe I don’t want to remember.
As the coyote sat there, his tongue out the side of his mouth, I reached down on the floorboard and fingered the stock of my Mauser Karabiner 98k.
The coyote stood and loped off, his bushy tail straight out like a flag caught in a gale. Behind him, San Tan Mountain reared up and he only showed me his ass end. I stepped on the gas and he swerved back toward the road, stopped and sat on his haunches.
I slowed, hit the brakes and he leapt and bolted and I drove and he halted and I stopped and then he left again and it went on and on and I never killed him. I don’t remember how long that coyote and I performed the strange go and stop regimen but I do know the memory is in my head like a badger digging at a gopher hole.
I suspect now that I never intended to kill him.
This was in 1971 and I still had the stink and stain of combat and fear painted on my soul. Not that it’s gone now, but then it was heavy and dominant and as such, maybe I thought myself done with killing.
I didn’t tell anyone I never shot that coyote, or any of the others I encountered while working the sheep, and I feared that if I told my boss and co-workers I didn’t shoot those “varmints” as we called them, they’d have laughed at me or chewed my ass.
I don’t like ass chewings, even when I’ve got them coming and when people laugh at me, my insides fester like bloody puss in a boil.
Some of the people I worked for knew where I’d been in Nam and they had an inkling about what I’d endured, so they had expectations—maybe true, maybe not. That I was bad. If you messed with me too much, I might kill you. I never tried to belay that impression. So I imagine now that they thought I’d have little trouble blowing coyotes away. But that coyote, that day seemed to be minding its own business although I also know its business is to kill.
And yet I wasn’t done with killing. For years after I hunted quail and chukar and pheasant and turkey and larger game.
Once, when hunting a black-tailed buck on a bright November morning when the snow crunched beneath my boots and the wind swooshed the tops of the Doug firs, I spied a critter slinking along a five strand barbwire fence. Tan with a long, thick, bushy tail. A coyote.
I didn’t even lift the 7MM Magnum to my shoulder. I allowed the coyote to escape and I didn’t say a word about that to my hunting mates who would have scolded me about letting the “varmint” go.
And I imagine that would have led to me having to divulge things about what I really thought about killing and death, and I suspect I didn’t want to do that. And I’m not sure I really want to investigate too much how I feel about killing even now.
Standing here typing into the computer, I’m trying to remember what I really thought back then but most of the particulars have escaped, like the varmint. But one thing I know for sure, I’ve never regretted not blowing a hole the size of a silver dollar in its side.
Once I went out south of my old home town in Arizona in search of a pickup load of mesquite wood with a couple of my Valley of the Sun banker buddies who fancied themselves woodsmen. One of them had a line on a bunch of mesquite that would be good for burning.
I tagged along to go along while they cut limbs off the bottoms of trees that carpeted a section of ground next to some fallow cotton fields.
Not far away I heard the calls of a coyote pack and while the bankers worked, I grabbed my Browning 12 gauge and walked into the mesquite forest to kill one or more of the yapping coyotes.
I’d rather not remember too much of my mindset. Back then, my moods simmered like sour mash and I had lots of reasons to feel like that, some of them legitimate, some not. Inside I seethed.
The morning was chill and the sky the color of lead, drab and dank. The coyotes yapped and yipped and occasionally howled and they cavorted just beyond the limbs of the next trees that stood in front of me, yet when I barged through the thorns that tore at my trousers and shirt, they seemed suddenly behind me, and then to my left, to my right, their calls and comments blaring in my ears. I remember that for sure.
The yapping and the yammer and the nips and low growls felt like they were laughing at me.
I cussed out loud and the coyotes yammered in their coyote palaver and the skin on my forearms seeped red from where mesquite thorns had plowed furrows and anger choked my throat and I swore I’d shoot every goddamned one of them when I caught them out in a clearing.
But there was no clearing and as quickly as they had begun their torment the morning grew silent except for the distant whine of my buddies’ chain saw.
I’ve killed mule deer and pronghorn and when in Nam I tried like hell to kill the enemy. So, it’s not like I haven’t been a killer. All my life.
Later in life, Betty and I visited a friend in the vineyards of Western Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. As we readied for bed one evening, right outside the window a pack of coyotes began to palaver just like that morning when in my own personal funk, I had set out to murder some.
They yakked back and forth. Our friend appeared in the door to our room and smiled and we smiled and for just a moment, I imagine now, I thought it was that bunch of coyotes who’d joshed me that morning years before, come a thousand miles to tell me something that I had failed to understand.
What it was they wanted to say was beyond me and the notion of them carrying a message—maybe something about death and life and how fragile our existence can be—probably stuck with me for a moment or two, and then it was just our friend and Betty and me, standing in the light shining from the hall, listening to the music, the talk, the community of coyotes carrying on.