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Serenade in a wild key

NIGHTS are cold early in this high northeastern Oregon valley. Even with a jacket and gloves on, it's almost too cold, but I'm walking down the graveled county road at midnight. Coyotes howl across the river and the meadow from me. It's hard to tell exactly where they are, but I think they're up by the aspen spring. Coyotes' paths and mine intersect. Usually, they seem more sure about what I am, a man, than I am about them, and many men shoot coyotes at any opportunity, so they don't wait to cultivate my acquaintance. But not always.

In the spring, I cleared blown-down trees from the fence on the west boundary of the ranch, stretched barbed wire tight, spliced it, and stapled it to posts. Every day, my dog and I hear a coyote yap, short, high-pitched barks, in the timber on the ridge above us. It kept appearing, 100 feet or 200 feet away, in different places, as if seeing us from several different angles would make us more sensible to it.

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The coyote came closer yet, and my dog went to investigate. When he got within 10 feet, the coyote charged him, low and fast. The dog retreated to me in haste, coyote close behind. The coyote stopped about 15 feet from me, turned, and trotted back up the hill into the timber, out of sight.

Several summers ago, I had a dog with me, where I could look up and see Oregon's Strawberry Mountains. We hiked down through timber and brush, and I turned and looked back uphill to see why he was lingering.

He faced something concealed from me by brush. He pranced stiff-legged and bowed as if inviting another dog to play. I circled around behind him. A mature coyote had her left rear foot in a double-spring trap. The trap had 15 feet of chain, attached to a heavy limb. The coyote had dragged the limb until it hung up in the brush, and she couldn't go any farther. She lay on her side, with her head up, her deep yellow eyes alert. She seemed very calm, without fear of me or the dog.

I walked past the dog, studied the coyote, and thought about it. I was also aware of the trapper's perspective, but I could do nothing else. I stepped forward and stepped down on one spring. I wasn't able to open the trap far enough, so I turned and also stepped down on the other spring, crouching over the trap with my head a foot from the coyote's face. I lifted her leg and pulled her foot clear of the trap. It wasn't bleeding. I lay her leg down and pitched the trap into the brush. I stepped away from her. We looked at each other.

After a while, I said, ``You'd better go.'' She leaped up, turned in the air, and sped away up the hill, carrying that foot. I thought a 3-footed coyote might make a living. Some do.

Coyotes get blamed for more crimes than they commit. A professional hunter told me, ``Sheep die different ways. They stampede into a fence and break their necks or fall off a cliff, or eat poison weeds, lots of different ways. Coyotes get wind of dead meat, and they come to help clean things up. Then the boss drives up. Sheep carcasses. Coyote going over the hill. She tells me, `Kill more coyotes.' No matter what I say, she's going to keep thinking coyotes killed the sheep. I'm not saying coyotes won't kill sheep. They got no moral code against it, but it isn't an easy job, and they might get banged around some in the process, so most of them choose an easier living.''

It's an easier living for coyotes to eat voles, mice, ground squirrels, birds, berries. The same ranchers who shoot coyotes on sight bemoan the loss of alfalfa to ground squirrels, voles, and mice.

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COYOTES survive. They don't make a lasting mark on the world, except in men's minds. They are the stuff of legends.

One coyote over there across the meadow has a unique voice among all the coyotes I've ever heard. It sounds as if it practiced Hound of the Baskervilles howls until it achieved permanent hoarseness. That one lets all the other, high-pitched, more silvery-voiced coyotes get it started and build to a good and rising rhythm, and then it joins to pull all of it to a dramatic crescendo.

At the bridge, I stand in the dark part of the canyon and listen to the river. Then I turn around and head toward home. With the breeze at my back, I don't feel as cold.

Once more they work up a good howl over in the timber. I yell, ``Hey, thanks for the serenade, you coyotes. Beautiful singing. Really fine.''

Gravel crunches under my feet. The sky is clear. Half a moon is halfway up the sky. Stars are bright above the mountains. I pull my collar up and round the curve toward home.

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