Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tracks in the Snow

The winter so far had been cold. Much colder then usual. Snow almost eight inches deep covered the ground, making it hard to find any of the small rodents he usually fed on. It had actually been over a week since he had last eaten anything and the hunger and lack of food was wrecking havoc on his body. He needed something decent to eat soon, or he wouldn't make it through the winter. The coyote trudged through the snow and found a small clear patch underneath a nearby tree. He curled up to himself as tightly as he could to rest and try to get a little warm. It was a good spot as well since he was slightly hidden from the field  he had been searching all morning. His stomach ached with hunger and his legs felt weak.

At that moment, a small movement on the field caught his eye. He slowly lifted his head to get a better view. A small rabbit hopped through the snow, fighting against the white powder that was almost as deep as he was tall. The coyote pulled himself to his feet, that effort alone taking more effort than it should have. He didn't know that he had the strength and energy to chase after a fleet-footed small rabbit like that, but he had to try. It was either that or he would probably be dead in another day or two. It hadn't seen him yet and he crept to the edge of the small clearing under the pine tree's branches, staring down the small brown ball of fur that hopped across the field.

Then the chase began. The coyote powered out into the snow as fast as his legs could carry him, sending up clouds of white behind as he gave chase. The rabbit looked up, saw him coming and took off in the other direction, having very little luck in the deep snow. It struggled to get a start, but managed to pick up enough speed to start bounding away. The coyote ran after, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth as he came closer, then lost ground, then gained it again. Across the field the pair ran, each one racing for it's life. The coyote was faster and it's size helped it through the drifts of white. He came up on the rabbit, reaching out with it's jaws. The rabbit turned and darted in another direction. He tried to follow, but couldn't make the turn, his front leg hitting a rock hidden under the snow and sending him sprawling into the white.

It was cold. He lay there in the snow, panting from the effort. He had no chance now. He knew that. Even if he had caught the rabbit in that last lunge, his leg was broken and there would have been no other meals after that. Spring was still months away. He lay there, whimpering in pain, not bothering to get up. Crying as he knew his life was over.

The rabbit stood there in the snow, panting, glad to have escaped with his life. His decision to go wandering that day had almost been a very bad one. He had found a nice, warm spot to stay over the winter and there was a stock of food for him back there. He didn't know why he had left it. The coyote lay where it had fallen in the snow, no longer giving chase. Not even getting up. That was curious. He must have hurt himself when he fell. He couldn't be dead, the snow cushioned everything, badly hurt maybe, but not dead. He stood up and tried to look over the bank, into the hole that his adversary had made when it fell. Still laying there. Curiousity got the better of him and he hopped back toward it, until he could see. It lay there, taking deep breaths, tired from the chase. It's front leg was bent at an odd angle, probably broken, the fur was mangy, like the effort to keep it clean and tidy was a waste of precious energy. More then that though, it was skinny. Winter was a harsh master and it had obviously taken it's toll on the predator. If food was hard to find for him, it was unthinkable when this coyote had last eaten. It showed too, ribs pressing against the skin and a belly that had no trace of fat so provide heat for the winter. Yes, life was harsh, and winter was harsher still. But he still couldn't help feeling sorry for his would-be devourer, even though there was nothing he could do about it. So he turned, and headed back towards the trees.

He made it about halfway to the barn, hopping through the snowdrifts when he saw the human trudging back from the wooded area as well. The gun was slung over it's shoulder and it scanned from left to right, eyes open for prey or predator he didn't know. He wondered if it recognized him as the rabbit that had taken up residence between some of the hay bales in the barn, munching away on the piles of dry grass usually kept for the horses. He stood up and looked up at the human and it paused and looked back at him. It waved lightly and started to continue on it's way. It had to have recognized him, he jumped out in front of the human and darted back and forth, making circles. It stopped and watched him curiously, surely this wasn't normal for a rabbit. Then he darted back toward the field, stopping maybe a dozen feet from the human and standing up, looking at it. He hopped away a few more feet and stood up again. The human just watched. He ran to the first spot he stopped, then back to the second and looked again. The human was very curious and after a few moments, started walking toward him. He darted further out into the field, then stopped and turned to look, sure enough, the human was following. He led the human into the field, doubling back every once in a while when it looked like the human might turn back. It took a few minutes, but eventually, the human noticed the hole in the snow, and continued on to it without his leadership. It made some exasperated sound and unslung the rifle it carried. Looking down into the hole and picking up the gun. He ran around to the other side of where his adversary still lay and stood up, looking at the human. It looked back at him, then back to the coyote. It lifted the gun and pointed it into the hole, where he hopped up to the edge of the snow and looked up again, standing up on his back legs as tall as he could reach, ears up in the air to make himself look bigger. The human looked confused and slowly lowered the rifle. Then it kneeled down in the snow and looked at the coyote, as he had earlier, saw the broken leg, how thin the belly and the skin stretched across the ribs. It looked up at him and made several strange noises, setting the gun to one side. It reached down into the hole and lightly touched the cold fur. The coyote cried at the touch, laying there, shivering in the cold snow. The human's shoulders slumped and it looked up at him again. It made the noises again and re-slung it's rifle. Then it reached into the hole and slowly picked the coyote up and started to carry it back toward the barn. He followed, just keeping pace with the human's strides as his adversary lay limp in it's arms.

The human carried the coyote up to the barn, carefully laying him on a pile of hay before disappearing into the small feed room. He looked at the coyote then followed through the wall, through a hole in the wood that had formed over the years through rot and the work of rats. It saw him there, and continued making noises at him, though they didn't sound threatening. He looked out into the barn, seeing the coyote where he had laid it, then looked around the room. He took an extra horse blanket and packed it in under a shelf in a corner, taking his heater off the counter and setting it on the floor pointed at the blanket, then went out, picked up the coyote and carried him in, gently laying him on the blanket. He hopped up to the predator, looking into it's eyes, seeing the fear of the human, and the sadness which accompanied the acceptance of the end. He lay there where the human had laid him, still shivering from the cold, his broken leg pulled up close to his body. The human stepped back out of the room and he moved closer, sniffing at the coyote, the heater filled the small space with it's odorous scent of electricity, but it was warm. Warmer even then his spot between the bales of hay. He sat there with the coyote, smiling a little to himself as he slowly stopped shivering. The human returned, holding a pair of bowls and setting them down in the room next to the coyote's head. Then it paused for a moment, reached down and ran his hand over his fur.

He shivered at the touch, closing his eyes, expecting pain as always seemed to accompany the presence of men. But none came. Slowly he opened his eyes again and watched the man walk out of the doorway. The small box in front of him gave off heat and took the cold from his bones. Of the two bowls in front of him, one smelled of fresh, clean water, the other, of the food he often saw given to the human's dogs. He lifted his head and smelled again, inching closer to it. It rolled toward him, spilling it's contents on the floor. He opened his mouth and managed to pull a few morsels into his mouth, chewed and swallowed them down. It wasn't much, but it was food. After the empty cold of the past two weeks, he had food inside him again. He pulled his hurt leg up to his body and pushed himself around the floor, cleaning up the rest of what had spilled. It wasn't warm meat, to be sure, but it tasted good and his stomach was somewhat full. He managed to sit up and lap up some of the water from the other bowl, washing the crumbs out from between his teeth. It was cold, but the box was keeping him warm now. He still knew the safest thing to do with the human around would be to run, rest as long as he dared and then try to make it back to the woods. There was so much promise in this little room though. He lay back down, his body curled up on the blanket, so much softer and warmer than the cold dirt he usually slept on. Then he saw the rabbit, sitting there watching him. It looked back into his eyes, then slowly walked out of the room. It was gone for a few minutes, then returned, it's mouth full of dry, yellow grass. It looked him in the eye again as it chewed up the snack and swallowed it down. Then he hopped over to him on the blanket and curled up with him, resting against his belly. Curious. This was the rabbit he had just tried to chase down not even an hour ago. Still, despite his fear of the human, it had provided him with warmth, some clean water and some food. He didn't know it if would last, but he knew that for the moment, he could rest without worry. He leaned his head over and licked the rabbit's head, then curled up, being careful of his leg, on the blanket in the corner under the shelf with the rabbit, and closed his eyes. The needs of tomorrow would be dealt with when tomorrow came. He wasn't going to die alone and hungry in the cold. Even as fresh snow had started falling outside the barn.

Daniel shook the snow off his boots and coat as he walked into the house. That had been the most bizarre thing he had ever seen. Rabbits wintering in his barn wasn't uncommon, but they had never led him into the field to find a hurt coyote, then stopped him from shooting it and somehow convince him to help it. Most coyotes he shot on sight, wounded or not. It was just something that told him not to. He supposed having a coyote in the barn might keep some of the rats away. He crossed the entrance to the living room and looked at the tree in the corner, decorated with lights, garland, bulbs and tinsel. Then he couldn't help but smile a little bit. Maybe it wasn't so strange. After all, it was Christmas eve.

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