Black sifts its hues into blue, blurring coolly into an injured purple, a swath of coral daylight. Dawn pulls clarity out of the masses, raising the muddied, shadowy figures of mountains in the far foreground into truer, sharper shapes; scorched rock, blossoming agave, lone cacti, squat clusters of modern adobes. I perched my chin on the bend of the Jeep’s passenger-side window, and watched the sparse landscape streak past in rolling lurches.
Brass shell casings clacked together over road bumps, sounding off like clinking glasses for a New Year’s cheer. The guys were going hunting, and I was going with them.
Hunting without a license is illegal. Coyotes, however, are an anomaly; state law approves of coyote hunting. Fetch a head and grab fifty dollars for your kill. Scant cities like Kanab, Utah suffer from coyote infestations. Mark tittered that the task of carving some scalp was up to us.
Mark: Hunter, Security Specialist, Executive Protection Agent, ex-jailer, and my direct work supervisor. Mark tapped my shoulder from the backseat and gazed with a crooked smile, jostling his thick arms between the seats to thrust his iPhone into my face. “Check out my score from Holbrook,” he said. The photo framed grimy, dirt-clad carcasses, carcass atop carcass, bodies and bodies and bodies splayed out in a hemispherical arc, a coat of arms made entirely of bloodied meats. Coyote bodies.
Atop this arch of corpses Mark and my coworkers huddle together, squatting with shotguns holstered over their shoulders. The four are clad in camo. The men share big toothy grins. They are overjoyed to have killed so many coyotes. Mark asked me what I think. I can’t say what I think; though I wonder how he got his big fridge-body to squat so low to the ground without rolling over, but I cut short of the quip. I mirrored his big grin, nodded vigorously. Impressive!
I don’t know what I think. I’ve admitted to Mark that I see the earth as alive. I see Earth as a living organism; a collective of scabs and pockmarks as a result of life, and we, like starving fleas, scrummage all over the belly of this beast. I said this to Mark, but to less melodramatic affect, knowing it wouldn’t go over well with him. Mark in turn sells me a motto and a mission statement, “Utah is a body too, a lot like your earth analogy. If Utah is the body, the coyote are the fleas. When the dog gets scratching you take it in and the vet bombs the fleas out. We are the veterinarians. We, the hunters, are the watchdogs tending the sheep.”
I didn’t point out the mixed metaphors jumbling up his pitch, but the sentiment touched me as rational. Coyotes eat the domestic; they eat cats, devour dogs, hell, they’ve even killed kids. But coyotes aren’t fleas. They’re coyotes.
I’d recently read an opinion article where the author claimed coyote hunting doesn’t thin out the population or protect livestock. Hunting coyotes destabilizes the pack, allowing other predators to hunt in the weakened territory, whilst the coyotes birth more pups in the spring to match the adverse stress of hunting. I also read anonymous criticisms in the comments section that criticized the validity of the article: “the writer is mistaking wolves with coyotes; The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have incentivized coyote killing (paying fifty dollars a scalp) as to best protect mule deer.” The Division of Wildlife Resources are, of course, the authority on the issue.
Mark is perfectly square. If a sculptor was charged with crafting a marble block into a perfect likeness of Mark, he wouldn’t put the chisel to the block, he’d take a marker dead center to the block and scrawl a Frankenstein brow and some downturned ears. Mark has a hunchback, not from weak spinal erectors, but from years of ducking his big head into prison cells. Mark was one of the last men to serve on Utah’s firing squad before it was outlawed (which, f.y.i, was in-lawed again in 2015), and when Mark scowls you can feel this fact shiver into you.
Mark worked the prison and survived two prison stabbings, and once knocked an ex-footballer inmate out cold with a slap. He’s sort of the LEO version of Zsa Zsa Gabor (another reference I wouldn’t dare speak aloud in his presence), famous for being famous, a living character. Mark is popular amongst conservative social circles for being the pendant of all that conservative cops aspire to be. Mark jumped into a riot to defend a prisoner from murderous cellmates in the penitentiary. He collected the cockroaches from the penitentiary basement for Stephen King when King shot The Stand miniseries here in Utah, awarding him the nickname, “The Dirt Warden.” Mark created a gardening program for prisoners; cellmates could plant and collect fruits and vegetables from a garden, rewarding prisoners for good behavior and collecting a fair tithe of tomatoes from his team.
If Mark saw himself as anything, I’m sure he’d see himself as a gardener; gripping plants with his meaty hooks and ripping weedy parasites free of the earth, thusly raising seedlings up in the newly tilled soil to usher in a healthier crop. I idolize Mark’s pure idealism and devoted ethic; he knows and he acts on what he knows. There is no question. I second guess myself; I question if weeds are germinating flowers, I hesitate to uproot a flowering organism from the quirky web of symbiosis. I don’t know if I have the backbone and the jaw set to rip life apart. I don’t know if that makes me a different tier of man.
I love the guys I work with. When I heard the boys had been out galavanting together every two or three weeks at the gun range, I felt a twinge of grade-school jealousy. I’d enjoyed the water-cooler chat and raunchy jokes and took that fellowship for granted. The trip for me started rolling when the newest hire let slip that my coworker Eli had sent a mass text to get a head count for who was going on a hunt Mark had mentioned, and the new hire asked if I texted him back. I responded that I hadn’t checked my messages yet, but I was psyched and planning on going.
Honestly, I never got a text in the first place. I don’t go shooting, I don’t own a gun. What happened to pick-up ball games at the rec, or online gaming? I didn’t have a hard time connecting in high school, didn’t see the vast growing gulf between me and the guys. I noticed it more and more now, and it was more than shooting practice; photos shared of the team on double-dates at sushi bars or on group dates at escape rooms, damning photos of couples with arms over shoulders in front of tents and firepits or at family barbecues. I was out, everybody else was in.
It wasn’t the violence. I’m an avid boxer and have bounced clubs for under-the-table cash since I was fresh out of high school. Did I need to buy a gun? I don’t think I’d go shooting even if I owned one.
Mark pulled off the freeway down a stretch of hilly farmland and roaming livestock; in another thirty minutes we drove past well-furnished farmsteads with ATVs and double-rear wheeled trucks out front, and satellites attached to their roofs. I wasn’t aware farming had become so tech-savvy.
Mark received a call from Jake, Mark’s rancher-friend who had sighted a pack of coyotes. Jake and his family could hunt the coyotes themselves, but Jake thought Mark could bring some of his equipment and people out and make a weekend of it. Mark had apparently scouted out the area earlier in the week with Jake, and from tracks and scat the two believed the coyote pack had made a far rock embankment their home. I had assumed we could drive in and set up camp, but we pulled up to a tall hillside and began preparing for a hike.
“Why don’t we set up and make calls once it gets late?” I asked.
Mark walked me through the process with patience. “We have to respect the coyotes if you want to catch them off guard. We’re going to hike below the embankment ridgeline to keep out of sight. Once we hike in we’ll set up in an escarpment with a long hill just due south in a gulley. That’ll be our pocket we hang in and make calls from. We’ll use the long hill to give us time to fire on the coyotes once they’re drawn out.”
Respect your prey. You respect your opponent in the ring. A man would need to think like a coyote, respect shrewd cleverness. It was an odd choice of words for a creature you were about to murder.
The crew packed water, lightweight tripods, e-callers, ammunition, and guns. The plan was to split up and traverse rugged red rock to get to two separate spots, both on a similar ridgeline that curved around the embankment, but the spots would not be visible to one another. It was a good forty minute hike, and I was ready to chat about the implications of hunting coyotes and its impact on agriculture, but I was quickly pulled aside by Mark. He kept a hand on my shoulder, and spoke quietly.
“We’ll be speaking in whispers now. You need to know we’ll be moving a lot. We’re in a good position as far as the cross-wind goes, but if the coyotes see us, hear us, or catch our scent, it’s all over. If you shoot a coyote, don’t move a muscle. We might be able to draw more out by settling in a new position and varying the call.”
This lengthy strategy didn’t correlate with Mark’s trophy photo. The body count made me believe we would be head hunting in forest foliage, picking off cutesy creatures as they poked their curious heads out of woodland homes. Instead I was here, walking with tense and focused measure in single file line, with practiced hunters who hoped to coax out an animal well-suited for tracking creatures across long expanses of wilderness.
Mark said during the drive that coyotes grew so rampant in the West because the European immigrants who settled here picked off the coyote’s natural predators on sight. Because of our ancestor’s negligence, agriculture and our domestic world were endangered in new ways. “All things in balance,” he mused, nodding to himself. I wish I could have met Jake, I needed some assurance outside of these circular discussions with my coworkers. Mark’s theories always felt like fact; sometimes the craft of construction, the craft of community, required a killing. Destruction as creation.
We stopped in the gulley pocket. There was a clear sight of the rock embankment from this spot. The crosswind was good. Mark said the weather is ideal. Me and Eli stayed in position as Mark and the others pressed on. After landing a shot we were to collect our equipment and move downwind to reposition and we’d make another call.
The sun was high. I was grateful we were perched in the gulley’s shade. It was May, but we were baking in the southern Utah heat. There was a throbbing numbness fluttering down my taut limbs. Sweat dampened my shirt collar. I stifled a yawn and ached to piss. The four hour drive in had left me ornery. I glimpsed over my scope at Eli. His solemn face didn’t betray a hint of boredom. Eli varied the calls, moving the volume from lower to higher, as if to fool the keen auditory sense of a coyote. It had been going on and off for more than half an hour.
I was getting ready to stand up and walk myself back to the Jeep right before Eli whispered, “Two o’clock. Thousand yards.”
I checked my scope. I saw orange. Just sand gusts. I looked up and saw Eli slowly gesturing with two fingers to look closer.
It was a dog; slender as a knife, scampering adeptly across craggy floor and scruffy underbrush. The coyote paused-- I thought it heard me stretching moments ago, but instead the coyote sung a long call, a howl. I doubt I will ever hear anything like the howl again: not a bark, but a cry - a cry with a strange honing resonance, traveling farther distances than a dog’s howl. The coyote howled while prowling in its’ bouncing trot, pausing for another beat. Three more appeared, all tapering directions and trailing with speed in a calculated formation. A team.
Eli shot it.
He fired at the coyote farthest from us. The coyote dropped like it had suddenly turned to stone. The other three darted back, whining shocked cries. Eli fired again, a second coyote, kicking reflexively as if it had been bitten by a mite, continued to run a distance until it slowed and fell face first into red sand. He fired on the third, knocking it sideways and it spun out, flung like a wet rag. One left.
I had it in my scopes. My finger pulsed on the trigger. I felt my heart thud-thud-thudding in quick succession with the stamping feet of the coyote. My finger kept pulsing in the trigger’s nest, pulsing again and again and again. A short scene played itself out in my mind: I shoot. I cleave the scalp, I make fifty bucks. I high five my team. I watched the scene play out. Drop the moral superiority dumb-dumb, coyotes are bad, they kill.
I watched it slink farther and farther away.
I cannot shoot.
I do not shoot.
I followed the coyote until it is out of sight. I put my gun aside, roll back from my position, clicking the safety on.
All of the tautness in my form fell slack. I sighed. I heard Eli fire one final, fading shot, despite it being out of reach. Just as instructed we don’t make a noise, sitting quietly as it trails back past the embankment. The stillness lasted, stretched long as the desert shadows. Was the pervading quiet procedural, or was it shaded with disappointment? Would Eli click his tongue when we got back to the Jeep, make an anecdote out of me to the group? “Big Spencer, all of his size and strength didn’t help him when he got the sweats and froze at the sight of a little coyote.” I was frustrated, I was relieved. I had made a boundary, a definitive line in the sand.
“Hey Spence, your safety isn’t on, is it?”
I nodded. “Eli, I don’t think I’m interested in this sorta stuff.”
He gave me a half smile, similarly slackened in form, stretching out. “I thought not. I’m gonna keep hunting, you goin’ back to the Jeep?” He didn’t quite meet my eyes, looked back toward the embankment. I sighed.
"Yeah, I’ve got to pee, I know the way back.”
He fidgeted with his steel water bottle. “Spence, does it bother you? What we’re doin’ here? Did you wanna come?”
I fidgeted with my water too. “I did! I hate to say it, but I wanted to see if I could shoot an animal, and I now I know I can, but I don’t think I should kill, or want to kill. Does that make any sense?”
Eli nodded, thumbing the cap of his bottle.“Sorta. Look. If you’d like, you can tell everybody you’ve shot one of these coyotes I got. Whatcha think?”
He looked directly at me. I understood. This coyote, for my gun-toting circle, meant kinship. He was handing me a pelt, an invocation, allowing me to join the team. There was a momentary headrush, a feeling exclusive to those brink-of-talent ball players who make the cut using performance enhancers-- the satisfactory, sneaking glee of making off with a new life, finally being good enough under the right parameters. Could I do it? I looked out into the field at the coyotes; immobile and dumb. Unmade.
“Thanks, but I’m okay. They know I’m a lousy shot, I won’t mention that I didn’t shoot. Damn, Eli, I’m grateful.”
He shrugged, smirking. “I wasn’t offering you the bounty, just a way to save face.”
“Regardless, Eli, thanks for letting me tag along.”
“Of course! Although, I’m shocked you wanted to come. I honestly thought you’d opt out. I know you, I know your type. I feel nobody hunts anymore. At least nobody at work outside of the department.”
I thought about it for a while. “I think it depends on where you’re at, who you’re around. This is Utah, we live on the frontier. You guys got pilgrim’s blood. You’ve got Mark.”
He gave me a half-chuckle, “Maybe. There will probably always be a Mark around.”
I went to answer, but was suddenly aware we were talking at normal speaking volume, and Eli noticed too. He whispered that he should move position. I agreed, saying goodbye and packing up, turning down the trail towards the Jeep.
They round back up at the Jeep around noon when the sun was high and the winds lashed downwards. With no coverage and their scent in the air there was nothing left to be done. Eight coyotes counted, all in all. They gathered around for a picture, and I offered to take the photo while they all posed, guns held high.
Mark took us out to lunch, the meal on his dime. We ate at a classically themed diner, a little kitschy but well furnished and lived in. Everybody sat around the table, chomping on corn-fed beef and slurping up beef tallow french fries. A couple of jokes were made at my expense, but it was only light ribbing. The conversation was pleasant enough. I sighed again, accepting that all conversations were probably fated to run this course, and I took another sip of my berry shake. A little tart, it made my nose scrunch and eyes water, but was sweet enough.
We left late, driving home just before sundown.
I leaned into the moment, into the feeling of being one of five guys with guns and ammo riding in a Jeep zipping through the desert, recognizing this was the last time I would join them for a hunting excursion.
The drive home is a long one. I noticed the uniform adobe homes huddled into one another, I saw the solitary cacti that will weather many more red blizzards. I watched the clarity of these objects fade, clean and colorful hues sunk into the bruised blue dark, only alight in silhouette. The world strung together by the glowing backdrop of the dipping sun, and I soaked up the permeating bloodiness of a smoggy haze. The guys blared a country song about cowboys and ranchers and good ol’ boys into the vastly still night, yelling lyrics I didn’t know into an immeasurable and silent desert for no one but themselves.
Despite my better judgment I wished I could howl along too.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)