The grey light of early morning barely illuminated the features of our yard: the sitting rock masquerading as a snowy mound, the standing juniper branches drooping like so many petals from their snowy burden, the gentle slope of lawn stretching into prairie grass obliterated by a snowy blanket. All this I took in as my husband stepped out the door to take our dog Wiley for a walk.
As I returned to my office, I heard a shout. I hurried to the back door to see what it was. My dog, in all his tawny cream glory, was shooting across the snow and down toward the creek, taking acres in seconds. Out in front of him, I glimpsed what I already knew was there: a coyote. Wiley was closing the gap between them fast, and all I could think was why the damned coyote wasn’t running faster. He seemed to want Wiley to catch him.
Just then, I caught sight of a second coyote running up the creek bed behind Wiley. Its dark grey against the snow was easy to spot, so this one tucked in close to the dried cattails and cottonwoods that share its color. I watched it moving in, as if the two wild dogs had set a trap for my domesticated one.
The three of them met down by the creek on the low part of the old ditch road that we walk each day. Wiley marks repeatedly all along our way, and I hadn’t thought much of it till that very moment. In those seconds, my mind flashed to the leopards I’d followed on game drives just days before in South Africa. They slink about sniffing and marking, reclaiming their territory from intruders and upstarts. All the while, they drool. The Ranger said they drool in anger; it’s their righteousness at being infiltrated, at being challenged.
I started praying aloud for Wiley. Two against one wasn’t good – especially when Wiley isn’t accustomed to hunting or defense. I tried not to imagine the worst as the dogs closed in, but then I heard a yelp. With the carnage I’d seen on safari still fresh, visions of my boy being slashed to ribbons and gnawed on by the wild pair invaded my mind.
We couldn’t see the thing taking place, so obscured by trees and terrain. Seconds dragged on, and we heard nothing more. But the next sight we had was Wiley trotting gingerly up the hill. He looked uninjured, only a bit cowed. I called to him to bring him home quicker.
As my husband met Wiley mid-yard and then started back to the porch, I spotted the two coyotes. One was just moving out of sight over the rise of the ditch; the other was sauntering after it in a lackadaisical sort of way. I still couldn’t figure why they moved so slowly, as though they had not a care. Wild animals are supposed to fear humans and the unexpected, aren’t they?
But then I realized that there’d been a conversation going on between these three dogs for quite some time. Through scent and markings, and even piles of scat left boldly in the middle of the path, much information is exchanged. Our Ranger on game drive had explained about middens, piles of dung used by animal groups to tell each other who’s been there, which females are in heat, and who’s in charge. Their communication is thorough and precise. It occurred to me then that Wiley knew these two dogs and they knew him. And perhaps, I thought, the coyotes had been waiting for just the occasion that presented itself today.
When Wiley reached the porch, I greeted him, running my hands over his cold fur, checking for injury. As it turned out, he got a gash in his right haunch, about an inch long and not too deep. It was the best possible place for him to get it. In his solid muscle build, this is the spot with the most flesh and little that’s vulnerable. I mused about that as well – certainly the coyotes knew which part of an animal to wound to debilitate and which to kill. Had they given Wiley this minor wound as a message – a warning to stay out of their way?
Later that morning, alone with Wiley, I noticed that he wasn’t lying in his usual spot behind me in my office. I got up to look for him and found him, sitting by the back door, gazing intently toward the creek…drool glistening from his chin.
Photos, except for the coyote, by Rebecca Reynolds.