Coyote Blessing

by Owen Kerr



The young man ran up the moonlit canyon, braided black hair pounding his back like a ha'tali'i drum. Reggie was sure the things following him could hear it. He counted side passages - left, left, right, left - and ducked into the fifth opening, his black Converse All-Stars whispering against sandstone now, not sand. He jumped over the patches of snow.

He followed this passage for fifty yards, careful not to leave any marks on the canyon walls. They narrowed suddenly, just wide enough for him to pass through sideways.

When Reggie reached the entryway, he stopped running and started climbing. This side passage looked about seven feet deep. There was nowhere to hide. His pursuers wouldn't see the hand- and foot-holds unless they were standing in front of them.

He rolled onto a shallow ledge and waited. His heartbeat slowed and steadied as he panted quietly. "Geronimo hid in Canyon de Chelly for over a year and he had five thousand white men looking for him," Grandfather had said. "If all those bi'li'gana couldn't find Goya'ale in here, we can stay out of trouble, too."

Grandfather had been right so far.

Reggie listened. Nothing. He waited. When his watch said it had been fifteen minutes, he ghosted farther up the canyon rim and made his careful way toward the cave. Far off, he heard the scream of a na'as'tso'si, dying in an owl's talons. Sorry, little brother. Everybody's got to eat. There were always more mice.

Grandfather was waiting, stewing the last of the meat over a well-hidden fire. He didn't look up when Reggie sat down.

"How many?"

"Fifteen, maybe eighteen, Grandfather."

The old man scooped out a serving of stew, handed it and a spoon to Reggie. They dug in. Since the Year with Two Winters, meat was scarce. Grandfather ate slowly, with small grunts of pleasure. Reggie finished, licked the shallow bowl clean and scoured out the pot with sand.

"You were followed."

Reggie glanced at the old man. Grandfather's eyes flashed gold in the firelight.

"One came into the Canyon. She lost your trail, but she is clever. She follows one of the walls." Which would lead her out of the maze. Eventually.

"I have shame, Grandfather."

"You do."

"I will correct my error."

"Take my knife."

Reggie retrieved the Bowie and sheath from where it hung near the entrance.

"Remember what you have been taught. There are odd smells and old sounds on the wind." Reggie stared at his feet. He only lectures when he's worried.

"I will, Grandfather."

Grandfather began to clean his bowl. Reggie slipped out of the cave and started the hunt.

#

She could not live to return to her pack. She would know enough to make trouble. The pack might even come to live in the canyons.

Reggie skulked along his back trail until he heard her, then moved to block the only exit. She would have to come this way to leave.

He found a shadowed perch, low enough to jump down to the canyon floor and found a rock the size of his fist. Reggie was not strong or fast; he would tip the odds in his favor.

The knife he placed to his right, on top of its sheath. Moonlight reflected only from the edge; the rest was masked with grease and ash. Reggie had used the knife. He knew its ways and it knew him. It would help him keep the family safe.

Reggie and the old man were the last of their clan. It had never been a large one. His people had been few, even in the Sixth World: the world of the white man and the Long Walk, the code-talkers and basketball. The Year with Two Winters had been their passage into the Seventh World, or so Grandfather thought.

The journey had not been easy on anyone, especially the bi'li'gana. They didn't know how to hunt, or fish, or clothe themselves. On their way to the canyon, Reggie had counted four hundred abandoned trucks and SUVs before Grandfather made him stop.

It might not be the Seventh World, he thought. An asteroid impact in the Pacific, like the radio said, could have caused the changes. Grandfather had laughed.

"I'm sure the People in the First World had good reasons for why things changed, too. They didn't learn about the Second World until they were already in it."

His prey was coming closer. She moved quietly, but these were his canyons. Reggie drank in her odor. An old one. Old meant tough, smart and vicious. He was glad he had found a rock.

Reggie slowly lifted it, then froze as she came down the canyon. She sniffed the air, listened. Reggie smelled of nothing, of sandstone, old water, creosote. She flowed down the narrow passage, her focus on the next turn. When his prey flattened against the far wall, Reggie flung the rock at her head and jumped.

The rock connected solidly with her collarbone, shattering it, and caromed into her jaw. Her right arm flopped down and her head met the canyon wall. The crude spear clattered to the ground. Reggie tried to land on her, to crush her ribs or spine, but she wasn't there.

Fast - so fast! He landed on both feet, turned and she was on him. She had a knife and slashed left-handed at him. He dodged, circling.

Blood on her chin and temple. She danced backward, tucked her useless arm into the front of her ragged pants and attacked again. Reggie dodged to the right, punched her in the head as she passed. Her necklace almost caught his hand when she went down. She was not a fighter. Group tactics. They don't work without a pack. He herded her around and back up the canyon. Eleven feet and it would be finished.

She made it easy. "I'm gonna eat you," she growled. Reggie snorted.

She hissed, "I'm gonna cut –" and stepped onto the patch of snow. Reggie charged. Startled, she swung into a defensive crouch.

And fell right on her ass. Watch for black ice on bridges and in shadows. A kick sent the knife to meet the spear.

#

Reggie stopped kicking her when she stopped moving. He rested a moment, then darted in to kick her in the head. Nothing. He kept an eye on her, retrieved the knife and spear. Using the haft, he levered her onto her back.

She was still breathing. Under the blood, the caked filth and the dreadlocks, she could have been pretty, once. Two years and a million miles ago. Not now.

He bound and gagged her with what was left of her clothes. He wouldn't risk himself in moving her. The necklace was fingerbones.

Reggie kicked dirt over the little splashes of blood on the rock, then picked up the girl. There wasn't much to her. He took the long way back to the cave.

#

"Put her over there."

Reggie set the girl down on the flat stone of the alcove. He rolled her on her side, facing the fire. Grandfather knelt at her head, listened. He peeled back an eyelid.

"She'll wake soon."

"Yes, Grandfather. About the others; what -–"

Gunshots. Two. Five. Many. Silence.

Grandfather stood slowly. "I'll need you for this."

"What about her?"

"Her fight is gone, her spirit lost and alone. She won't make trouble."

#

Reggie saw movement in the camp. He did not look directly at the fire. Night-vision was slow to come back.

Three figures. Man, woman and boy. They each held guns and expertly scanned the rocks around them. Reggie glanced down when they looked in his direction, watching only when they did not.

Two of the feral pack lay broken in the killing zone. The male wore only a devil-lock and a black Misfits t-shirt. The female – eight, maybe nine - had a sundress and a Kali belt of dolls' heads. Her hair was gone, along with most of her head.

Reggie studied the trio and the camp. Camouflage clothing. Good boots. A shotgun, an M-16 and what Grandfather said was an AK-47. An armored Hummer. Canned food. They had made good plans and had good luck in getting this far.

"It is finished." Grandfather was next to him, watching. "I will speak with them."

#

The conversation carried well.

"Hello? Mister?" An old man's voice, quavery, with the staccato accent of the reservation.

The man spun to face where he thought the voice was coming from. "Who's there?"

"My name is Jarvis John, mister."

"What do you want?"

"Those kids you were shooting at? They ran away."

"You with them?"

An old man's donkey-laugh. "No, mister. They eat folks like me. Folks like you, too."

The man gestured for the boy and woman to take firing positions. "How do I know you're not with them?"

"If you and the lady and the young man don't shoot me, I can show you."

Conference in the camp. The boy was all for shooting the old guy. The woman was undecided. The man listened, then, "Okay. Come ahead, real slow. Stop when I tell you."

"Okay, mister." The old man stepped into the light of the fire, dragging two limp forms.

"That's far enough."

"Okay." He dropped his burden, stepped a pace back, hands away from his body.

"Cover me." The man jogged out to the old man, then swore.

"Mark?" The woman. Should I shoot this guy?

"It's okay, honey." The man looked down at two of the pack. One had a broken neck, the other had been strangled. He looked up at the old man.

"I was in Afghanistan. They used to call me Gunnery Sergeant Jarvis John."

"Ooh-rah," said the man.

The old man beamed. "Semper Fi! What's General Order Number Twelve?"

"To walk my post from flank to flank..."

They finished together. "...and take no shit from any rank!"

The man lowered his weapon, gestured to the dead children. "How'd you catch these two?"

The old man shrugged. "They were looking the wrong way. They were arrogant. They were stupid. The rest were smart and ran away from the shooting." Or died quietly in the rocks.

"Well, hell. I don't want to attract more scavengers..."

"My grandson and I will bury the bodies."

"Your grand— where is he?" The man stepped back and the AK-47 swung up again.

"Ease up, Marine." The old man raised his voice. "Reggie?! Come in slow and easy."

Reggie climbed down the rocks, careful to make some noise doing it.

#

The man with the gun, Mark, invited them to have a cup of coffee.

"We should take care of the bodies first. And you might want to move camp." The old man looked out into the night.

"You live around here, Gunnery Sergeant?"

"Yes, we live in the canyon. There's a way in for the Humvee, if you want to come with us. Then I would be glad of the coffee."

"Let me think about it." Let me talk it over with the wife, you mean.

The old man shrugged. "Take your time. We'll be back soon." He bent down, came up with the bodies by their collars. "Reggie, go get the other two. And don't get any blood on your clothes."

"Okay, Grandfather."

They weren't gone long.

#

"In these canyons, there are many places someone could put a body." The old man stirred his coffee, sugar and canned milk, sipped. "Ah, that's good."

"Hide one?" Mark drank his coffee black. Laura watched from the front of the cave. The boy, Ryan, kept watch by the Hummer.

"No." The old man sipped again. "I mean, like with those children. My grandson and I don't want them around. We don't want other packs to know we're here. So we put the bodies where the coyotes and hawks and crows can find them and the packs can't. Then we are safe."

"Makes sense."

They finished the coffee in silence, then, "Have you eaten? It's just stew, but there's enough for three, if you have something to eat with it."

Mark grinned. "I've got a tube of biscuits not doing anything."

The old man smiled again. "They will be good. I will bake them."

#

Reggie carried a bowl of stew and a few biscuits out to the boy. He accepted them and ate quickly.

"This stuff is pretty good. Kinda stringy, though."

Reggie nodded. "She was old. Old and tough."

"I've never had spices like that, either."

"Grandfather's special mix."

"Want a biscuit? I don't want to waste it."

"Sure."

The boy talked of old things: television and ice cream, new cars and Coca Cola. Reggie munched and nodded.

The boy dropped the shotgun. Reggie caught it before it hit the ground.

"I don't... I feel funny."

Reggie put a hand on the boy's shoulder, gently pushed him back on the seat of the Hummer. "Rest for a while. I'll keep watch."

"Oh." Sleepy. "Okay. Don't tell Dad, okay?"

"Okay." The boy relaxed, his breathing regular.

Sorry, little brother. You were one of the Good Guys.

But everybody's got to eat.

# # #