Sotso was a Navajo boy who lived in a hogan (house) with his father, who was the chief, his mother, and his brothers and sisters. His eyes were black and sparkling. Around his forehead, browned by the warm Arizona sun, Sotso wore a beautiful beaded band that told stories of the Navajo rain gods.
Sotso liked to play among the sagebrush and mesquite bushes near his home. He also had work to do. Part of the day he tended the sheep for his father.
Sotso liked his job. He loved the sheep as he loved all animals: the antelope, the white-tailed rabbit, the great golden eagle, the long tawny cougar, and Hatili, the big shepherd dog that helped to look after the sheep. He was their friend. He knew their names and their voices. From their voices he could tell many things—if they were happy or if they were sad.
Sotso loved all of the animals except Mai, the coyote. Mai was a bad one. Sometimes he came near the herd of sheep at night, hoping to find a lamb that had strayed from its mother. On nights when the big Arizona moon was bright, Sotso often heard Mai’s voice. His long howl carried over the empty land. It seemed to say to Sotso, “You cannot catch me. I am Mai, the coyote. I am too smart for a little boy like you.”
Sotso would say, “Mai, you bad one. You stay away from my sheep.”
Then Sotso would run to his father, the chief. He would tell his father that Mai was near.
“I am glad you tell me this, son,” the chief would say. “But do not fear that Mai will catch our lambs. Hatili is a good dog. He will not let the coyote bother them.”
This made Sotso feel better, but he still did not trust the coyote. When he was in his warm blankets at night, he would listen for the voice of Mai.
One bright moonlit night he heard it. But this time it was different. It was a loud, piercing yelp. Mai seemed to be in pain.
Stealing away from the hogan, Sotso hurried through the night. The desert sand sparkled and the giant saguaro cactus stood ghostly in the moonlight.
The sound came nearer. Sotso ran faster and faster until suddenly he saw Mai’s shadowy form. Sotso crept slowly, closer and closer. The coyote was struggling to loosen its foot, which was caught fast in the jaws of a trap.
Sotso stood up straight. “It serves you right, Mai, you bad one.”
But when the coyote whined softly, Sotso began to feel sorry for him. He didn’t like Mai, but he knew Mai loved to be free. Sotso crept closer. Mai tried to pull away, but when he saw the little boy meant no harm, he lay still.
Sotso stood with both feet on the spring of the trap. The jaws gradually loosened. Mai was able to move his foot, then he pulled free. Limping on three legs, he ran off through the moonlight.
It made Sotso feel good to see Mai free, but he was suddenly afraid. My father will be very angry, he thought. But he knew he would have to tell his father.
Back at the hogan his father and other braves were sitting outside in the warm night. Sotso felt all their eyes on him as he crept into the circle. Finally the chief spoke.
“What is it you have to tell me, son?”
“I have done a great wrong, Father,” said Sotso. “I found Mai caught in a trap. I set him free.”
There was silence and Sotso spoke again, “Mai was in great pain. He wanted so much to be free.”
The chief stood and moved to the side of his son. He put his strong arm around the boy’s shoulder.
“Mai is a wild animal,” he said softly. “Nothing can change him. We will always have to watch him with the sheep. But he was made to be free and happy. You were right, my son.”
Suddenly a long, floating howl came across the desert. This time it seemed to say to Sotso:
“Thank you, little Navajo boy …”