When a family of coyotes - the species, eliminated from the area by extensive trapping and poisoning - settles on my Grandfather's ranch, the neighbors become alarmed for fear that their poultry and livestock will be killed. After two powerful ranchers (Mr. Henderson and Mr. Diego), demand that he take action to destroy the animals, Grandfather refuses unless necessary, believing that most predators are condemned by the deeds of a few. I and my friend, Amy Lou Henderson, a talented wildlife artist, who was crippled in a car accident, become involved, not only against the neighbors intent on annihilation, but, involved in secretly observing the family's fascinating growth and interplay from an old shed suggested by Grandfather. Ultimately, it is I, supported by Amy Lou (Granddaughter of Mr. Henderson), who must confront the armed intruders on our ranch, who have illegally placed poison and traps on our land, when Grandfather is forced to halt because of a chest pain.
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SEASON OF THE COYOTE SECRET
By KENN SHERWOOD ROE
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Kenn Sherwood Roe
All rights reserved.
"Why, it's a coyote," Grandfather exclaimed, pointing in surprise. Wide-eyed, I looked up from hoeing weeds. A collie-like animal trotted toward us, down the county road, directly in front of our white ranch house. "A heavy one," Grandfather observed. "Carrying young, I think."
There in the April sunshine, with the hills green and the tall gum trees nodding in the sea wind, the impression was indelible: the rough grizzled coat, the long thin face, the bushy tail, the alert ears. "I'll get the gun," I said impulsively, thinking of the twenty-two in a cabinet by the kitchen door.
"Wait," said Grandfather, touching my arm. "Just watch." Seeing us then, the coyote burst away. With ears laid back on its outstretched head, its tail streaming behind, she skimmed over the ground, her loping run carrying her through the chicken yard and up the hill toward the redwoods beyond.
Grandfather stood in silence for a time. "That was a rare sight, boy. A real pleasure. There hasn't been a coyote in this area for fifteen years," he said, smiling, his eyes taking on a faraway look. The rolling coastline of Northern California, fog-cooled and carpeted with thick grass, was a natural for raising sheep, calves, and poultry. Here for decades the ranchers had waged relentless warfare against all predators. As a producer of high-grade wool, milk, and eggs, Grandfather could have feared and hated coyotes, as did his neighbors. But he was a man apart, I was to learn shortly.
Later, while the afternoon sun washed the hills with liquid gold, Grandfather, his dog, and I relaxed in the shade of a chicken house where we had been repairing loose boards. It was nice there, with the big house nestled below and the barn and numerous storage sheds interlaced by whitewashed fences. The huge walnut trees around Grandmother's rose garden and along our creek were tender green with new leaves. Beyond stretched the fertile valley divided by the Estero, a brackish stream that emptied into the ocean a few miles west. Where the shallows narrowed, marking the southern extension of the ranch, Indians and pioneers had established a popular crossing. Through those narrows, my forefathers had first looked upon this welcoming valley, following their failure to make it rich in the Gold Rush.
We could see numerous neighboring ranches, some in the flatland, but most wedged in small side canyons, sheltered there by feathery cypress and stately blue gum. My parents lived over the hills, beyond the valley, in a tidy home on a cramped lot. That's why I spent every available moment at my grandparents' home, where I could roam freely, as I had been doing most of this Easter vacation.
Grandfather breathed deeply and surveyed the gentle land-sweep that he loved. He had never been out of the state, nor more than several hundred miles from home. The fields and the vales and the seascape, populated with his friends and family, seemed quite enough.
He was tall, with thin angular arms and a sharp ruddy face that he claimed was a Scottish trademark. He had pale blue eyes and high cheekbones, with gray hair along the sides, which gave him a dignified look. His long, graceful hands might have been better adapted to the playing of a violin or to the repairing of watches than to the rigors of ranch work.
"Do you think the coyote is still around?" I began hopefully, for I was excited still and struck by a feeling that we had not yet seen the last of the animal.
"Oh, it probably just kept going," he said, staring at clumps of gray fog building over the horizon. "Probably was just passing through. I'm guessing that it got chased out of its territory by hunters or dogs. It probably came from down around Point Reyes. There's coyotes down there still." Point Reyes was a wild peninsula that thrust sharply into the ocean. The thick forests and isolation afforded protection to many animals.
"But if it's going to have puppies, won't it have to hole up somewhere?" I questioned.
There was a sudden twinkle in his eyes. "Well, you never know," he hedged. "A coyote is funny. From my observation, they often do just the opposite of what you expect. I guess that's why they survive." He smiled at me knowingly. "You're probably very right. That coyote did have a den somewhere, all set up for her little ones. And, because she is expecting, she'll have to hole up again someplace soon."
"She could. There's lots of old badger dens around, some squirrel colonies, too; you know that." He considered the facts. "Yes, there's a chance that coyote stayed, at least somewhere in the back hills. But don't put much hope on it. For all concerned, it's best she kept going. Believe me."
Around us a flock of white leghorn chickens clucked and pecked; some paced constantly back and forth before a high wire fence, seeking a way out. Grandfather had hundreds of birds scattered in pens across the ranch. Before day's end, we would feed them all and gather their eggs. What havoc could a coyote cause among those birds, I wondered. "Coyotes are pretty mean critters, I guess, huh?" I asked.
"Not at all," he replied. "Most coyotes are timid and retiring. In fact, they do lots of good by eating mice, gophers, and even grasshoppers—those things that chew up gardens and crops. There are bad ones, of course, real bad ones that kill sheep and chickens; and, I must say, they're like mad outlaws that should be destroyed. I think of the whole problem, like I think of Grandma's garden. If you don't remove the real nasty weeds, they'll take over. But Grandma would never think of pulling up all her roses to get at the weeds." He shook his head. "But that's what people want to do with coyotes—get rid of them all. However, that would be mighty unhealthy and, I think, impossible."
I listened to his soft voice and watched him stroke the floppy ears of his dog, Barney, a black and orange retriever. He was a no nonsense animal, not dangerous, but independent and select in whom he befriended. As a constant companion, he had a way of lying at Grandfather's feet, aloof and indifferent to everyone but his master. He would eye people without emotion, or would simply glower ahead at nothing. Stray dogs and drifting hobos usually departed shortly following his guttural snarl and bared fangs.
"That old coyote will probably hide her family in some faraway spot," said Grandfather. His strong, callused fingers probed the sensitive area behind the ears and round the neck that gives dogs such endless pleasure. Barney closed his coal-dark eyes and leaned into the caressing hands. "Anyway," Grandfather concluded, "if there is a coyote still roundabout, Barney will let us know."
That evening, as we devoured Grandmother's golden biscuits and roast beef and I eyed the wild berry cobbler, we heard the first wail. Few sounds, I am certain, are more memorable than the cry of the coyote. Grandfather looked up, his eyes sparkling. Grandmother stopped in the middle of the kitchen floor, straightened, and dug her hands into the gingham apron, crumpling it against her. Thrilled, I sat high on my hand-carved chair, an excitement surging through me. "It's stayed," I whooped. There in the spring twilight, with the electric lights off, the last sun rays laced through the room, dappling the purple shadows. The lone wail came again, drifting over the ranch and the highlands and out into the valley, penetrating every crevice in the room and in my being. There could be no escape. The howl made chills along my spine. And I knew I would never forget the moment or the sound.
In a kitchen warmed cozily by a wood stove, I sat shivering. The sound, long and drawn out and hauntingly sad, seemed to come from nowhere, yet somehow everywhere.
"She's calling a lost mate," said Grandfather at last.
"How do you know?" I asked, amazed.
"Coyotes have their own language, just like most creatures do," he explained, listening. "What she's telling us, I heard once before."
Grandmother and I looked at him. "Where?" she asked.
"Years ago, over on the Palucio Ranch; the men killed a female and dug up the den. Afterward her mate mourned for days."
"Were there pups?" I inquired.
Grandfather hesitated. "Yes."
"The men killed them."
"Just killed them."
Again came that quavering cry, but from farther away it seemed; and I was glad. To the northeast, behind our bare, grassy hills, the woods began, thick with mighty redwoods and Douglas fir. In the canyons and steep ravines, the coyote could hide forever and have her babies undisturbed.
In the yard, Barney then answered with sharp irritated barks. He began prowling nervously, back and forth, his chain rattling on the run-wire. Shortly he erupted again, this time with a high baying that was edged with fear.
"It's got Barney shook up," said Grandfather, chuckling. "Don't think he ever heard his ancestors before."
"That coyote's on our ranch somewhere, isn't it?" Grandmother asked with a frown. She turned on the lights as if the show and the serenade were over.
"I'm afraid so," he replied.
"What difference does that make, Grandpa?" I asked.
"If the howling continues, the men will organize," Grandmother said. She began clearing dishes and carrying food to the pantry. She was a plump woman with a puffy, but pretty face. Her short curly hair had only a trace of gray, despite her sixty-four years. Her words were often blunt and to the heart of any matter. I waited for Grandfather's explanation.
"Obviously others in the valley will hear it, too," he offered.
Once more the coyote sounded, a short yodel that trailed into silence for the remainder of the night.
"And people don't like coyotes," Grandmother added. "They got their chickens and calves to think about. Times are hard enough without a coyote eating one out of house and home."
"You see," said Grandfather to me, his eyes intent, "back before your time, we had some dry years; the grass stayed brown and the ground got like brick and started cracking. It was terrible on livestock. Was terrible on everyone. Wells went dry and the springs in the hills petered out. Suddenly we had a big influx of coyotes looking for water and game to eat. About the only water they could find is what we had for our animals or for irrigation. They banned together at times, just like little wolves. They'd come right down in the yard at night and yap at you. You could see their eyes glowing in the dark."
"Wow," I shuddered.
"Oh, we'd had an occasional coyote around before, but not like that. They scared people a lot, not that they ever did much harm. It was the idea of them being around, I guess. They did get a couple of chickens and ducks here and there, but I don't recall any cows or sheep that got hurt or any so-called slaughter. They apparently fed on the mice and rabbits that got to congregatin' in our pastures and grain fields."
"Did they bite anybody?"
"Only coyote that would attack anybody would be a rabid one. Oh, some tangled with a dog or two, but mostly they were just a big nuisance. A lot of women panicked and kept their kids indoors as much as they could, but that was silly. The bad thing was all the scare talk that got going. What I remember most is what it brought out in people here. And I don't want to see folks stirred up like that again."
"What do you mean?" I asked quickly.
"Just things. It isn't important." He was avoiding me. But I knew that he would tell me. "Anyway, people got together in big public meetings," he continued. "Got a big campaign going to wipe out every coyote in the area. They put up bounties and sent for a trapper. It was all anybody seemed to talk about or have on his mind. The killing went on for a year or so. A lot of animals died, and they weren't all predators. Since then, coyotes have pretty much avoided this area."
"But that was a long time ago, Gramps."
He smiled. "People haven't forgotten. To them a coyote is a bad bandit, no exceptions. I know a few ranchers hereabout who would put out traps and poison, if they just suspected a prowler around."
"If that howling continues on our place, you can be certain we'll have visitors," said Grandmother.
A wry little smile traveled across Grandfather's lips. "We'll hear about it."
"Will there be trouble?" I asked, not knowing exactly what I meant.
"Not if the animal moves on, which I suspect it will."
"If it doesn't?" Grandmother said.
"Then there will be some anxious people around."
"What would you do this time?" she asked. I sensed they were communicating on a level far removed from me.
"I don't know yet," he replied, "except it would be different this time. It would have to be."
That night, while Grandfather read a newspaper in the big Morris chair and Grandmother completed a jig-saw puzzle, I wandered upstairs to my bedroom with its double gables. I opened a window with a view toward the hillsweep behind. A pale crescent moon silvered the grassy slopes and shimmered over the long-leaf gum trees that bowed in the cold air. Leaning out, I breathed deeply, trembling as the chill knifed through me. I floated with excitement. Something in me knew that the mysterious voice across the dark would sound again, that its world and my world would soon be inseparable.CHAPTER 2
The next day proved uneventful. I did my chores, ate a little hurriedly, and wondered much about the coyote. I found myself growing nervous as darkness approached. Despite my hopeful anticipation, we were again startled by a staccato of sharp barks and a plaintive howl. Once more we found ourselves in silence, waiting; the sound, I knew, would live within my soul, live, I suppose, because it reaches back to that which is primitive. It expresses the loneliness and the fearfulness that resides in all men. The sound touches, somehow, upon the unknown, upon that which is mysterious and timeless.
"Come on," said Grandfather, taking a big flashlight from the kitchen closet. Excited, I followed him out into the upper yard, where the moon made lacy shadows through the trees. We walked part way up the hill just below the first chicken house. We could hear the faint murmurings of hens and roosters huddled snugly on their roosts. The damp night air was bracing as we followed the splashing beam of Grandfather's light. I could see across the valley to where the distant ranches lay, the flickering of their windows like strung diamonds. The rounded hills were black and etched clearly against a pale sky. Then, again, came the coyote's cry, clear and close. I shivered. Grandfather looked toward the big hill directly behind our place, the one I often loved to hike, for it commanded a magnificent view. "She's up the canyon there," said Grandfather, pointing, his arm paralleling the shaft of light. "She's past the old storage shed, I think." We listened again. "No doubt about it. The coyote's parking on our property. And we'll be hearing about it."
The next morning, before church, two neighbors arrived in a truck, their faces gloomy. "Anybody want to bet?" said Grandmother.
Grandfather shrugged and walked out with a "Mornin' to you." I followed, uncomfortable in a suit and tie. Timidly I stood back by the screen porch, but not so far as to miss anything.
They all exchanged pleasantries. I had often seen the two in the general store and around the cattle pens. Mr. Silvo Diego was squat and wide, with a ruddy, perplexed face. He had large holdings across the river in the valley flats. I went to school with his two sons; both were outstanding athletes and, doubtless, the toughest kids around. Everybody was threatened by them.
Mr. Karl Henderson was a thin man with cold gray eyes and a beak-shaped nose. His severe face might have been chiseled from granite. He was very wealthy; besides his big dairy ranch, he owned and leased both the general store and some shops in town.
I knew them to be influential men in the valley. I went to school with the latter's granddaughter—Amy Lou Henderson. She had been badly crippled in a car accident that killed her father, Karl Henderson's son, some years back. I never knew the details exactly, except that some drunk driver had failed to heed a stop sign on a country crossroad. Her right hip had been crushed and, apparently, the joints had never grown properly because the one leg was shorter and at an angle. She walked with a decided limp so that she nearly always used a crutch. Consequently, she could never join in any games or sports at school. But that didn't detract from her niceness. People wondered how she could be related to an aloof, harsh, man like her grandfather.
Excerpted from SEASON OF THE COYOTE SECRET by KENN SHERWOOD ROE. Copyright © 2014 Kenn Sherwood Roe. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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