Tracks of the coyote in the new-fallen snow traced a path that skirted the farmstead and angled across the old gravel pit now overgrown with winter-bare cottonwoods.
Following the river from where it snaked below my little house, which squatted in the snow behind the shelterbelt that lines the overlooking bluff, I had cut the tracks of the coyote where it had come from the pasture hills beyond the cornfield south of the river.
The coyote had walked along the meandering river course pursuing an early-morning meal; I was pursuing the coyote.
The morning had broken bright; the sun painfully brilliant on the fresh-blown snow that had fallen throughout the night, now a blanket six or so inches deep over the rolling hills and harvested fields. A light breeze flicked stray snowflakes against my face and the sunglasses shielding my eyes.
Shouldering the rifle by its sling, I knelt beside the tracks where the coyote had crossed the river on the road that ran north and south by the gravel pit and over the culvert. Winter had reduced the river flow to a narrow stream which now bubbled and tinkled as it fell from the corrugated tube into the pond lined with cattails topped with light caps of snow.
Kernels of snow brushed easily from the edge of the tracks, not yet frozen to the light surface crust. The tracks were fresh; the coyote not far ahead.
Pushing down the top strand, I stepped over the barbed-wire fence and started westward toward the smooth pasture hills. Shadows filled the tracks like dark ink making it a simple task to sight ahead and move along quickly.
The tracks led directly up the first hill and across a sandy blow-out, skirting several more hills before angling south down to a windmill, the tank empty of water and half-filled with snow.
I sat on the tank's rusted, cold edge and pulled back the rifle bolt to reassure myself there was a bullet in the chamber. I unbuttoned my old hunting coat to vent off heat. Snowflakes landed and disappeared into my gray wool shirt.
Starting again I followed the tracks deeper into the pasture that would run undisturbed for about three-quarters of a mile more before being cut by a fence, a trail road and another fence. Then the pasture stretched seemingly forever to the west.
After leaving the windmill, the coyote had made a circuitous search over the sagebrush- and yucca-dotted hills, pausing here and veering off there to investigate a clump of sagebrush or something else it must have smelled. Following, I entered into the hills. I had left my watch at home so time meant nothing. The only measurement that mattered was distance, particularly the distance between me and the coyote.
Stopping to sit in a leeward blow-out, I leaned my back against the embankment on the edge of the sandy bowl. Despite the crisp, frigid breeze, I felt warm and sleepy. My collar turned up, hat pulled down against the wind, I closed my eyes. I awoke with a start and lurched to my feet. A nap was tempting but I knew I would wake up cold and I didn't want to miss any of this bracing morning.
The trail continued and I with it northward before turning east over the hills into the sun until it swung south along the front of the hills that the coyote and I had first approached. Down the hill, in the distance, I could make the line of our tracks, the only break in an otherwise perfect blanket of snow.
What will the coyote think when if it crosses my track? I thought.
I rounded a small hill and lifted my eyes from the tracks to trace the line of travel. There, about 30 yards ahead, was the coyote looking back over its bushy white shoulder with a look of surprise that must have mirrored my own.
The coyote moved first.
It sprang down the slope and crossed below me racing toward the river.
I caught up with the coyote in my riflescope but held for an instant as I squeezed the trigger instead of following through as I should have and the bullet exploded the snow behind the streaking animal.
I jacked another cartridge into the chamber, aimed, held my breath and squeezed. The bullet hit high, kicking snow just beyond the coyote.
The third shot was rushed and I didn't hold out much hope for it. Dirt flew marking where the coyote had made a jackrabbit turn to the east as it disappeared below the riverbank, headed east where we both had started hours earlier.
I stood there, heart pounding, for a couple moments. I looked up into the hills, then back where, in the distance, I could see the farmstead, gravel pit and, a bit farther, my house perched on the bluff.
I slipped my arm through the rifle sling, snugging it over my shoulder and started down the hill toward home.