OLD LADY AND THE COYOTES
By: Susan Lindsley
She saw the coyotes out the kitchen window while she washed breakfast dishes. Five of them twisted around each other as they scavenged under the persimmon trees 40 yards from her porch. Fool fox hunters, bringing them here. They’ve done in the rabbits and everything else they can catch. Including that fawn last summer. By the time she finished dishes, the coyotes were gone.
An hour later, the wind had gotten up, and she settled in the glider on her front porch where she could see the two persimmon trees. Even in daylight, some critters would come for the fruit the wind was putting down. The sun was too high for the pair of foxes to be out hunting, but with the rut in, who knew what deer might come by.
She didn’t have a long wait. A doe jumped the fence and trotted toward the persimmons, a buck behind her, his nose extended so that his antlers flanked his neck. His grunt of anticipation carried to her and then quieted as he pushed his nose into doe’s rump. She minced forward and then stopped. He reared, mounted her, thrust once, and the mating was over.
He lifted his head and sunlight caught his antlers.
Oh, my gawd! That’s him. The elk.
Ten days ago, the first time she had seen the whitetail buck, he was under the same persimmon tree, his head down as he sniffed out food. But when that head came up, his rack seemed to rise to the sky; the main beams curled outward beyond his ears and then upward. The beams were so thick she couldn’t reach her fingers around at the base.
This buck made the monster in her childhood memories, one of those brought to middle Georgia from Michigan and Wisconsin, seem small. To her five-year-old eyes that northern deer stood larger than any she’d seen in her picture books, bigger even that Bambi’s father.
The doe trotted into the thickets, the “elk” behind her.
I think I’ll have a go at him. Time to get my life back. The leg’s fine.
She rubbed her shin where the bone had protruded last spring when she stepped in a stump hole. The scar was still tender, but she no longer limped.
She made herself wait two hours and then squeezed a drop of Siberian pine oil on each of her hiking boots to cover the human scent and left the house to track the buck. His hoofs splayed from his weight even at a walk, and the trail was easy to follow—through the thickets, across the long meadow, along the pine ridge and though the hardwoods to the swamp.
She reached the path that ran alongside the creek and stopped. Just ahead on her left stood the Osage orange tree. The stand was gone. Richard had removed all evidence of it—the platform that had tilted when the support broke under her as she stepped onto it. Sight of the tree flared pain into the leg, the millisecond of the fall exploded in memory like a year of terror. She shivered.
Gotta get back on the horse or I’ll never hunt again.
She stopped beside the tree and forced herself to look up at the site of the old stand. Richard had indeed removed all sign of it.
She turned back to the trail. Twenty yards farther along she found the elk’s scrape line—a dozen pawed places where he had urinated to let an estrus doe know he was around. He had shredded the limbs hanging over the scrapes, and between scrapes, he had raked his antlers on trees, ripping bark off in long strips. Both the bare trees and the inside of the torn bark were bright yellow, and sap still ran from them.
“Fresh,” she whispered.
Even if his doe of this morning was still in estrus and receptive tomorrow, he’d run this line again within three days. She picked out a pine thirty feet from the path that would give her a view at least fifty yards both ways down the path.
She returned home for her portable deer stand, a crescent wrench and slip-joint pliers, and her pull-up rope.
By noon, she had bolted her two-part climbing stand on the pine. Remembering the hunter whose climbing stand had come apart and dropped him to his death, she snugged the wing nuts to the bolts with pliers and crescent wrench. She placed her haul-up rope on the seat and lifted it above eye level so the buck could not see the white plow line. Unless he comes down the hill right to the stand.
Back home, she called her neighbor two miles away. “Richard, I’m going hunting tomorrow.”
“You are? It’s about time you got back to the woods. The leg doing okay?”
“Yes, finally. I saw the elk again today and tracked him down to the swamp, near where—near that beaver pond. You help me if I get him?”
“You know I will. And I’ll bring Buddy and the four-wheeler. You hear the coyotes lately?”
“Saw five this morning. And last night I heard three packs. One ran through my yard not long after sundown. Kinda scary with those yowls. One group sounded like they were at Turner’s and the others could-a been going up your way.”
“They were. I lost a cow, and they cleaned it to the bone last night.”
“Oh, lawd, that’s a big loss. They pull it down?”
“No. She died birthing a calf. It died too. It’s part of running a dairy, I reckon.”
“They give me the shivers. I haven’t heard of them attacking anyone, have you?”
“No. But I know what you mean. They’re getting so plentiful they’re wiping out their own food. I worry over my cattle. I’m going to hire a trapper. Get rid of some of them. Anyhow, just give me a call and we’ll be there to help with your deer.”
“Will do. I’ll call from the stand on my cell phone.”
Long before first light, she was up, dressed, fed, and on her way to the stand. Rather than follow yesterday’s trail, she drove her Chevy pickup to the ridge road and left it about a half-mile from the climber. A cow path she had walked for more than fifty years, now kept open by the deer, angled down the hill to the swamp and beyond her stand.
She formed a loop in her haul-up rope, ran the line through the shoulder strap of her Ruger.44 magnum and over the end of the stock, and laid the rifle flat on the ground. She removed her fanny pack, ran the rope through the belt and knotted it. She looped the other end around her wrist and scrambled into the deer stand. With her feet strapped onto the foot rest, she climbed the tree: Stand up, pull up the seat, sit down, and pull up the feet. With care, the only sounds she made sounded like a rutting buck horning a tree.
Twenty feet up, she stopped, buckled her safety belt, pulled up the rifle and fanny pack, hooked the fanny pack on one of the arms of the seat, and laid the rifle across her lap. She curled the rope on the foot rest, checked that the safety was on, loaded the clip into the rifle, and jacked a shell into the chamber.
The sky exploded above her with alarm-clucking and flapping wings. More than twenty wild turkeys flew from their roost in panic and landed uphill in other pines.
Damnation! But at least first light was still a half-hour away. Surely the turkeys would quieten before they flew down at daylight.
The partial moon threw a sheen across the beaver pond to her right. Unless the buck came in grunting, she’d not hear him in the frost-wet leaves. The train blew as it approached the crossing a quarter-mile away, and coyotes sounded off. Then silence fell, so total she could hear her blood pulsing.
The eastern trees darkened against the sunrise. A pair of geese honked their way to the beaver pond and splashed down. A heron squawked.
Up the ridge, the turkeys dropped from their emergency roost with soft clucks and worked their way, scratching, up the ridge, and within a half-hour were out of hearing.
She glanced at her watch—a little after 7:00. Yesterday, the buck and doe had been in her yard about this time. Since wild critters moved a bit later every day, if he was going to show, he’d be here within the next hour.
Movement to her left caught her attention, and she eased her head around to look. Only a squirrel, running silent over the damp leaves.
Moments later, a doe emerged from the thickets by the beaver pond and walked toward the stand. She stopped, lifted her head, cocked her ears forward, looked up the ridge, snorted and bolted back down the path. The buck charged down the ridge, nose extended.
She did not move her rifle. No way I’ll shoot him running. She could smell his musk glands as he went by. She could only watch as both flags waved at her.
She gave the deer another two hours to come back before she unloaded her rifle and lowered it and her fanny pack to the ground. She dropped the rope and climbed down.
I’ll see you tomorrow, big fella.
She was back in her stand the next morning and in four hours of sitting saw only a spike buck. He sniffed along the path and disappeared to her left.
The third day, again in her stand a half-hour before light, he grunted nearby. The dew-wet leaves silenced his footsteps, and even with the moonlight she could see only vague movement under the trees. He pawed one of the scrapes, grunted louder and thrashed the limb overhead. She heard the soft splash as his urine hit the ground. Only a shadow.
Too dark. Too dark.
She smelled his musk.
When her stomach demanded food and her bladder demanded to be emptied, she climbed down and looked over the scrapes before heading home. She stayed several feet away from each to prevent her human smell from contaminating them. Not just the one he’d visited while she listened, but all showed fresh activity. Droppings lay scattered in one, and two others showed fresh urine and pawing. Musk still scented the air.
Musta been here earlier too.
The fourth day, coyotes trotted by, a dozen dark shadows in the predawn. Her skin broke into goose bumps as they yelped and romped below her, their voices calling their hunger.
Back at her house at late morning, she called Richard.
“Any luck?” he asked.
“Just bad luck. The coyote pack came by today. And the buck’s been coming by at night.”
“You thought about hunting in the evening?”
“Yes, but they usually run scrapes in the mornings. I’ll try one more morning before I switch to afternoons.”
“I’ve got a cow in heat. Come on up and let me smudge your boots with ‘cow-in-heat.’ That’ll pull him in. I used it last year and got my biggest buck ever.”
“I never thought of that. I’ll bring my boots up this afternoon.”
And I’ll have yucky stuff on the stand, but who cares.
Promised rain and a cold front came soon after noon and as it pushed through, it brought the wind. Dawn would be freezing.
Morning found her tired and the wind still up. When she turned off the alarm, she considered staying in, but with her boots doctored with cow estrus she dragged herself up, ate quickly, and dressed for the cold.
She was almost asleep, elbows on her knees and head leaned forward onto her palms, when she heard him grunt. Don’t move don’t move don’t move.
He sounded to her right, toward the Osage orange tree and the beaver pond; she eased her head around to look that direction.
The buck stood some thirty yards away, almost broadside, with his head turned to the pond, ears forward. Under the limbs of the Osage orange. The wind moved the limbs enough to dance their shadows across his back. His attention was locked on the swimming beaver.
Okay, Mrs. Beaver, keep him looking at you.
She took off the safety by pressing one side while supporting the other to prevent the metallic click that spooked a deer more than a gunshot. Safety off, she brought the rifle to her shoulder, as comfortable shooting from her left shoulder as from her right.
Her heart thumped; sweat flooded every pore and a chill ran through her body. Her hands trembled. The fever took her.
Not now. Gawd, not now. She clamped her teeth, pulled the rifle tight to her shoulder and leaned forward so that her right elbow pushed into her thigh.
She pulled her finger away from the trigger. No, shooting won’t jar the stand aloose. It can’t. I got it on tight.
The rifle steady, she looked into the scope, adjusted the rifle to see the entire vision circle, put the crosshairs on the buck’s neck, sucked in a deep breath, held it, slid her finger onto the trigger, and squeezed.
The buck dropped. She exhaled. A squirrel barked; a gobbler sounded off. Up the ridge behind her, a coyote yelped and another answered.
She kept the rifle pointed toward the buck, but he did not move. Neck shot’s always best. Dead before they hit the ground.
Her body was not ready to climb down. Buck fever raged. I hadn’t had it like this since my first two year’s hunting. Must be cause of where he stood. I gotta sit a minute.
When her hands finally quite trembling, she unloaded her rifle, re-tied it and her fanny pack to the pull-up rope, lowered them to the ground, and dropped the rope, which splashed white on the rifle, fanny pack and leaves.
She began to climb down—lift her heels to free the foot rest, move it down a couple of feet, then stand up and lower the seat. She had made three “steps” down when coyotes yelped only a few feet behind her.
Six coyotes loped toward her, noses to the ground, tracking the cow estrus trail she had laid down on her boots. When they spotted the deer, they ran to the fresh meat. One lifted his head and yowled his pleasure, and in the distance several answered.
Looking down at her rifle and fanny pack, she yelled her frustration. No gun, no cell phone, no nothing. The coyotes ignored her. She broke off a half-rotten limb and threw it in their direction, but its thunk onto the ground did not disturb them. They tore at the belly to get to the warm entrails; gaunt bodies showed their hunger.
I gotta get that fanny pack and call Richard. Maybe they’ll run as soon as I get down. If they’re afraid of people.
She was only five feet from the ground when seven more coyotes galloped down the ridge on her trail and stopped above her. At her eye level. She half-turned to look at them.
Oh my God! It’s him.
The large male looked at her, his yellow eyes gleaming. One ear stood erect. His right one flopped. She had shot off half of it when he and his alpha female had come loping toward her as she lay on the ground with her broken leg.
He licked his lips and started toward her. He stared into her eyes.
Her body shook. She could not meet his stare.
She jerked the seat up as she stood and had barely secured it when she pulled up her foot board. Each jerky step took her two feet up the tree. Don’t be scared. He’ll smell you.
Gawd, but I am scared. At least I’m up the tree. The ranger over in Jones County was on a four-wheeler when he got attacked by just one. I ain’t about to get down till long after they’ve gone.
The wind swirled her fear scent. The coyote trotted to her pine.
Fifteen feet up, she settled herself and looked down to see him ignoring her, but with his nose sniffing her gear. He hiked his leg and urinated on fanny pack, rifle and rope.
Excited yelping uphill. Seven more coyotes dashed into view and headed for the carcass.
The feasting male turned toward the new arrivals and growled, but rolled onto his back in submission to the approaching alpha male. The others yielded to hunger and ignored them. All pushed and shoved to get a place at the table.
She leaned her head onto her hands and against the pine. Her mind saw the destruction that she could not bear to watch. The sounds were bad enough.
She only killed a deer. The coyotes desecrated majesty.