Old Three Foot


“Look at that boy,” Ike sneered from across the campfire. “See how scared he looks when we talk about killing old Three Foot. You’d think we were up here hunting cougars instead of a mangy, thieving coyote. Mr. Penry should have kept that Indian back at the ranch to wash dishes or something!”

“I wish he had,” Gray Hawk murmured. He flushed at the men’s laughter and ridicule and slipped away to his bedroll. Can’t they tell the difference between fear and distaste? he thought resentfully. I don’t want to kill anything except for food.

Gray Hawk believed that the land belonged to the coyote, too, and that its existence is important in the overall plan of life. It has sensitive ears, sharp eyesight, a keen nose, and is extremely intelligent—except when it came to a rancher’s property rights. If it is hungry and could not find a young rabbit for its young, it will steal a chicken—a small price to pay for the rodent control provided by coyotes, the boy felt. But old Three Foot had raided the Penry ranch chicken yard and so he was to be hunted down and killed.

Gray Hawk had worked at the Penry ranch since March. He was an expert rider and liked the job until the balding, red-bearded Ike had been hired. The big man disliked Indians. He said so loudly and often. The youth had accepted good-natured gibes from the other men, but Ike was cruel. His remarks were stinging insults, meant to nibble away chunks of Gray Hawk’s pride. The youth’s small salary helped his family and he knew they needed it. Gray Hawk sighed and snuggled deeper into his blankets.

Early the next morning a rider came out to take the cowhands back to work in the north pasture. To Gray Hawk’s dismay, only he and Ike were left to continue the hunt for the wily Three Foot!

Ike was furious. “Not much chance of catching him unless I do it by myself,” he grumbled to the men as they left. “That Indian wouldn’t see Three Foot if he were running alongside his horse! Look how he’s hung back and let us do all the tracking.”

Late that afternoon Ike spotted the distinctive trail by a waterhole where tracks led off toward some high bluffs to the east. The big man loosed a yell of triumph and streaked off. Gray Hawk followed more cautiously. Loose rocks provided dangerous footing for a fast-moving horse.

Gray Hawk shouted a warning when he saw a large prairie dog village ahead. He knew the area would be riddled with holes and burrows. But Ike didn’t seem to hear his cry. He raced straight ahead, his eyes on the bluffs, searching for the elusive gray coyote the Indian youth had already spotted twice. Then Ike saw the loping figure, pulled out his rifle, and fired without really taking aim. There was a shrill yap of pain, and the coyote dropped out of sight behind a rock. Gray Hawk felt sick.

“I got him! Got him with one lucky shot!” Ike yelled triumphantly, just before his horse stumbled and went down. The big man somersaulted through the air and hit the ground with a bone-jarring crash. Gray Hawk leaped from his saddle and raced to his fallen companion who was lying motionless. Ike’s horse struggled to its feet and shied away as the youth approached.

Ike’s usually ruddy face was as white as the underside of a toad. His right leg was twisted and bent at an awkward angle. Gray Hawk was glad that Ike was unconscious as he worked to straighten the man’s broken leg.

The Indian boy’s search for sticks for a splint led him to where he had seen the coyote go down. He noticed a few splotches of blood, but the animal was gone. A glance at the tracks showed that the coyote Ike had wounded was not Three Foot. The youth was glad it had escaped.

Darkness had come by the time Ike regained consciousness. Gray Hawk was preparing supper, his face impassive in the red glow of the fire. He glanced up as Ike groaned and struggled to sit up. His fingers touched the thick bandage covering his throbbing head. Bewildered, he saw that the youth had splinted his leg and bound it with strips of blanket. It wasn’t easy for Ike to express his gratitude, nevertheless he mumbled his thanks. Gray Hawk understood and returned a pleasant nod.

A full moon rose and it seemed ironic that three coyotes would position themselves on high points around the camp for a “sing.” It was not the yapping of dogs. First one and then another would break out into a series of barked phrases. Gray Hawk wondered if Ike noticed the constantly changing intonations and inflections. Each animal took a turn, as though they were discussing the intruders, asking for and advancing opinions.

“Listen to those varmints,” Ike said suddenly, laying his empty plate aside. “It sounds like they’re carrying on a conversation.”

“Maybe they are,” Gray Hawk said, grinning, “and it’s not likely that what they’re saying is very complimentary to us.”

“Do you reckon they’re mourning the death of the one I killed today?” Ike whispered thoughtfully.

“No. You only winged it, and not very seriously from the little blood I saw,” Gray Hawk replied. “It wasn’t Three Foot. This one was smaller and left a set of four good tracks.”

“Then I busted my leg and went through all this for nothing!” Ike growled. But he didn’t seem as angry as Gray Hawk had expected.

At dawn Gray Hawk made Ike as comfortable as possible and placed food and water within reach before leaving for the ranch. A wagon would have to be driven out to take the injured man back to the bunkhouse. It would be the next morning, at the earliest, before help arrived. Ike looked apprehensive as the Indian youth prepared to leave.

“Be careful,” Ike said gruffly. “If anything happens to you, it might take a spell before Mr. Penry gets worried and sends someone out to find us.” Gray Hawk nodded and mounted his horse.

As the sun rose, Ike grew bored and restless. He thought about cougars and rattlesnakes and stiffened with fear when some loose stones rattled down the slope. Then he burst out laughing as two surprised coyote pups tumbled down in a tangled wad. The man remained quiet and watched the plump pups struggle to their feet and make several unsuccessful attempts to climb back up the bluff. He caught a glimpse of their worried mother on a high ledge, and noticed a wound on her right shoulder.

Finally, one of the pups seemed to realize that continued assaults on the bluff were useless. While his sister whined shrill cries of distress and clawed at the rocks, he sat down and stared at Ike. His instinct told him the crippled man was an enemy, but a harmless one.

Time passed slowly. Ike leaned against a boulder, grateful for the shade as the temperature rose. He laughed at the way the pups romped and wrestled with each other like regular dogs, growling with mock ferociousness. The fluffy balls of fur didn’t look like coyotes. Ike favored the young male. He had even whistled and tried to lure it closer, but it was too wary. Gray Hawk would not have believed how much pleasure the company of the small frolicking coyotes gave Ike.

The big man sighed and reached for one of the water canteens. He drank deeply and wiped trickles of water off his beard. One pup watched with bright eyes, then whined enviously. The romping and playing had left him very thirsty.

Ike looked at the canteen, then at the coyote. He had another full one, but help could be several days away if Gray Hawk found the ranch deserted and had to ride to the north pasture. Besides, it was ridiculous to even think of sharing precious water with coyotes!

“You’re not getting any!” Ike growled, trying to stare the pup down. Nevertheless the young coyote detected a friendly note in his voice. He stiffened his front legs and dashed closer in a mock attack, then back, and sat down panting. How long can they live in this heat without water? Ike wondered. He had sighted the worried, pacing mother several times, but, so far, she had never left the ledge. His gun was beside him, but Ike no longer felt like killing coyotes—not even old Three Foot, who had probably sired the pups.

The pups grew listless in the heat. They curled together at the base of the bluff where a small outcropping cast a shadow. Ike became more and more worried as they slept. Suppose they were dying! He poured water onto his plate and pushed it toward them as far as he could reach, then he whistled shrilly, waking the coyotes. The female arose first and stretched her quivering muzzle toward the water. She took a few cautious steps before a warning growl from her brother stopped her.

“Stop being so all-fired suspicious!” Ike scolded. He took a stick and pushed the water closer to them. His rugged face split into a wide grin when the female crept to the plate and began to lap the water. The male abandoned his caution and joined her when he saw that Ike was still leaning against the boulder.

Ike awoke during the night and remained motionless as he watched a gray shadow slip in close to the pups. The mother sniffed her young then stared toward the man. The happy pups licked her face and pawed at the probing muzzle, but she was in no mood to play. The reunited family soon faded into the darkness.

Moments later, another coyote “sing” began. Ike wondered if he only imagined a more joyful note in the yapping cries. He snorted. Then he remembered the enjoyment he’d had watching the pups during the day. “Still … those pups were cute. I don’t intend to track down another coyote as long as I live, not after getting acquainted with those little rascals.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney