By Jeff Burt
We decided to have a coyote roundup, a polite phrase we could use with the neighborhood kids to describe a coyote kill. We had lost three Chihuahuas in a week, and fear had exploded in the minds of mothers like landmines in a war zone, disabling every mother that lived on the edge of the canyon near San Diego.
Cougars had killed two goats a few miles away, and people had started reporting bobcat sightings it seemed near every schoolyard in the county. An old man had reported seeing six orange jump-suited young men running along the county road with stolen motorcycles, which turned out to be three men in purple bike gear walking their bikes. Any day now, I expected the Huns coming from the North.
I had joined the roundup, reluctantly I might add. I disliked Chihuahuas. I disliked their constant yapping, which if I had been a coyote, with my beautiful soaring call, I would have snatched the little dogs to allow my music to go undisturbed. I disliked their constant shaking, whether from a bad case of the heebie-jeebies or from weather they were not made to withstand.
I was also reluctant because I had pointed out that two of the dogs had been snatched behind a six-foot chain link fence and the sole access to the backyards had been via the houses— the kind of realistic point that infuriates conspiracy theorists and backyard crime solvers. But my wife was stone-cold serious about the roundup, and for my marriage to thrive, I needed to be stone-cold serious as well.
I didn’t own a gun, but lacking a gun was not a problem, as guns came out of garages, vans, Volvo wagons, kitchens, back doors, front doors, jacket pockets, and a padded bra. Liberal neighbors, hippie neighbors, Libertarians, a librarian, a CPA, an EMT, a seller, a suspected stalker, a short order cook, a retired longshoreman, a teacher, a councilwoman, and an Anglican priest brought out weapons—shotguns, handguns, and one semi-automatic rifle. Many had extras, usually a hand-me-down .22 or a six-shooter, old style, cock and squeeze. The smell of ammunition, brass and powder, and oiled metal saturated the air.
Almost all of the men and the two women were giddy though they had no assurance of actually killing a coyote even if they were lucky enough to see one. Just as roses perfume the air and bring out fantasies of expending sexual organs, so the aroma of bullets brought out dreams of a satisfying violence.
Mark Gallagher, a thin CPA, gave out an occasional whoop. Dusty Kaye, a vegetarian and proud owner of two Subaru, wore a bandoleer full of long-tipped bullets that he ran his hand up and down like piano keys, and a rifle that looked straight out of a weapons catalog offered to overseas death merchants.
I looked at my wife and shrugged. She smiled. She wanted our babies safe.
I had gone hunting with my father, which was more an act of worship than a rite of passage. Walking in the woods, the marshes, the fields of wild grain, and never speaking, letting our spaniel do its figure eights to flush birds, or sitting in a natural blind waiting for deer to walk by again in total silence—that was hunting. I think at times he fired his shotgun to please the spaniel.
But this coyote hunting, this hunting without absorbing what the natural world offered, while not bloodlust, was certainly characterized by lust. Many men talked of the shot, how they would take it, when, what position they wanted the coyote in, what they would do if they found more than one coyote. It was not sexual, but strung on the ladder of sexual conquest. Not one story had a mention of another hunter. The bravery was solitary, fantastical. I thought perhaps something was wrong with me, that I would be detrimental to the group if I didn’t prognosticate my kill.
We fanned out at the top of the canyon, a line fifteen men and two women wide, about forty feet apart. We paired up in twos, except my group had three, with Gallagher on my left at one end of the line, and on my right Samantha Kozak, who was “fighting for her sister Anne and her two infant children.” I must have rolled my eyes when she said it because she called me an asshole. That she called me an asshole in the second sentence she uttered since meeting me told me that she could not only kill a coyote, but a person, too. I was glad she was on my team.
We stepped down the hill, slid a few feet, and in five minutes we came to the bottom—a gulch or an arroyo depending on who determines it. The gulch was narrow, about fifty feet, then the other hillside rose and flattened out into a long flat plain of scrub and wild grasses that went for a couple of hundred yards.
We could see the full length of the seventeen hunters, and it seemed eerily mechanized as we walked forward. We flushed nothing but a few rabbits and feral cats.
After the long plain came a series of gulches again, and this time we separated into small groups. We could not see the group to our right, separated by an eroding wall of an old creek.
We had hacked our way through some brush when Gallagher stilled us with his right hand. Two coyotes stood about twenty yards from us, panting, gaunt, parts of hide missing on their haunches. Samantha shook her head, and I could tell she saw two sick creatures that deserved our sympathy rather than our rifle shots. Here we were with a shot at two thieving creatures, and she suddenly had no desire to shoot. She didn’t raise her rifle.
Gallagher raised his rifle but looked back, hoping to see two other eyes set on the braces of their scopes ready to pull a trigger. He put down his rifle and wiped his face, then squatted, looking every bit like a CPA trying to figure things out.
So it was up to me, the reluctant hunter, and in the back of my head I had two conversations going on, one with my father about the beauty of the arroyos and how the coyotes always danced sideways on the trail as if caught half-looking back and half-looking forward. The other conversation was with my wife, explaining how none of us had the heart to shoot them, and she holding a life-size poster of all of the suffering neighborhood children. Maybe if I shot one, it could half-satisfy my father and half-satisfy my wife, and I could splice the two half-satisfactions into a single one.
I raised my rifle. I steadied to take a shot.
Then a bang went off near my right hip and echoed for seconds in my ear.
The coyotes took off, and Kozak started screaming. She’d been shot.
I looked at my rifle. I had not pulled the trigger.
I looked back at Gallagher, and he had an unusual look on his face, more peaceful than I had seen, almost a bliss that was oblivious, lips open, eyes wide, forehead unfurrowed.
It was me, he said. The gun just went off. He appeared satisfied.
I looked back at Kozak, who was hard to look at, not for the minor graze that appeared on her right forearm, but that she gritted her teeth so hard it looked like her entire face vibrated with a tension that was about to break it, like a window that begins with a tremor and then shatters. She covered the wound, dropped her rifle, and then did a three-quarter turn, swooned, and passed out.
Gallagher, as if on cue, fell against my back, fainted, and slid to the sand and pebbles as if in slow motion.
Kaye and his partner scrambled over the lip to the arroyo, wanting to know if we’d bagged a coyote, then spied the two fainted hunters. Kaye swore and wondered if they were both dead. He kicked at their legs.
I told him they had passed out, and then almost out of disgust, he kicked them again.
Gallagher’s gun misfired, I said. Caught Samantha on the forearm. An accident. We’re all rookies out here, not a professional hunter among us.
Shit. Passed out? You mean like fainted? Weak ass, you tell me, he said. Too many weak ones out here.
He nudged them again, and then walked up to the top of the arroyo to tell the rest of the incoming disciples of twelve the sad story of complete wuss and misfire.
When Samantha revived, she needed transport. She kept passing out every twenty seconds.
Four of us took a limb and carried her. Gallagher’s gun was confiscated, just in case it might go off on the return trip and nick another. Another shot went off when a man threw his rifle up onto a rock and almost took out his partner. By the time we returned to our expectant party of mothers, most of us were laughing, or trying to stop laughing.
You had to be there, I told my wife. She was not amused.
I checked my kids into bed that night, and took a quick turn out by the fence line with a large flashlight shining for coyotes. No filmy pair of dots reflected from the brush.
But as I swung around the light, it caught a beast up in the tree, a beast that could get over six-foot fences, could carry away a small dog without notice. An owl. A large owl the drought had driven to our neighborhood. For several nights it had come to the same branch staring at me. No matter in which direction I walked the owl’s eyes were on me, the head rotating in that frictionless manner an owl’s head pivots.
As I closed the patio door, I thought I’d show my wife the predator then thought better of it. I had a vision of a hunting party, this time hunting at night, and the desecration and death that might ensue, the degradation of any respect we still might have.
Yes, I thought I should show her the owl, but I heard the last Chihuahua yapping and I was wondering what night might be like without the sound.
Jeff Burt lives in the Monterey Bay Area. His writing draws from passing, passages, getting past, losing, loss, and getting lost. His work has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Atticus Review, Clare Literary, and Per Contra, and he won the 2016 Consequence Fiction Prize.