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Copyright © 2006
Express Publishing Inc
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All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is strictly prohibited. 

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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free twice yearly to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper will receive the Sun Valley Guide with their subscription.

Photo by Jules Frazier
Photo by Jules Frazier 


Madding Sky
 

Idaho is a land of emerging contrasts. The old clashes with the new. And in between, nature tries to keep its course. In this new short story, novelist and newspaper editor Gregory Foley provides a poetic snapshot of the emotional tug-of-war that embodies the battle over the West's last wild places. Photo by Jules Frazier.


The first time I saw her, she was dancing by the water at Big Bend. She bounced back and forth along the creek’s edge, watching a crooked aspen branch swirl in a slow eddy. When the branch broke through the eddy wall, she turned and followed a stream of sunlight up the slope and into the first row of fir trees.

My father raised his rifle from his hip, tucked it up against his breast and curled his index finger around the trigger. We heard a gust of wind at our backs, and before it reached our clearing something told him to squeeze it tight.

The shot echoed through the canyon, momentarily drowning out the rush of the whitewater. I waited to hear the muted yelp that always came, exhaling all grace, right before the coyote collapsed to the ground.

But this time was different. A raven called and flew from the treetops. A veil of dust crept skyward from the coyote’s feet. The yelp never came. And my heart never stopped.

“Now, get the hell outta here!” my father screamed across the creek.

But she was already gone. I saw the patch of white on her tail, but after that it was just trees and dust, and the little bit of sunlight.

I looked up at my father, a tall, broad-shouldered man whom other men called Liam, by his middle name.

“What happened?”

“What do you mean, ‘What happened?’”

“You missed.”

“Yeah, I missed. I was just trying to spook her. We’ve got plenty of pelts.”

I knew he was lying. He had killed two coyotes the week before, and many more before that. Usually, the shot went straight to the heart.

My father glared at the spot of earth where the coyote once stood. She was bigger than most, perhaps 45 pounds, with thick, gray fur. She should have been an easy target. He raised his rifle a second time.

“Give it a try?” he asked.

“No, sir. Not today.”

“Why not?”

“You said it. We don’t need any more pelts.”

We started walking back toward the ranch, staying high on the rocky slope for just a few minutes, before descending to a game path that followed Samson Creek down the canyon. The ice-white waves reared up over the boulders, pulsing with every breath we took. As we crossed over a small tributary, my father’s boots sank into the mud.

“Why do you hate coyotes so much?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.

---

That night, after my father gave the order to send half the sheep herd up to the mountains, he opened a bottle of cold beer and offered me a drink.

“I’m only 12,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said, so I took drink.

The sheep were in the far pasture, where Samson Creek dropped out of the gulch and into our wide valley. From the front porch, we could see their silhouettes in the orange light, but couldn’t hear their calls. One of the dogs dashed for the fence but the herd didn’t seem alarmed.

“The year you were born, we had a windstorm that only Noah could imagine,” my father said. “About a hundred ewes and lambs were in the old barn, and a few of the rams were in the pen outside. The rest were out to graze.”

There was something special about the way my father spoke. He never looked at me but his words were still so clear and sharp.

He took a long sip off his beer and took off his hat. His eyes never left his dirty boots.

“It started in the evening and just kept building. The clouds drifted over the mountains like an army of angry gods. First, it was the wind, then some rain, and then some of both. I never really knew when night set in. It just got black, black as tar.
“I tried to go out and get the rams into the barn, but they were panicked, goin’ in circles. The weathervane had blown clear into the pasture. Boards started flyin’ off the barn. Wide boards, the way they used to cut ’em 60 years ago. Trees went over, roots and all.

“So I went inside and your mother and I went to bed. At least we tried. But it just kept comin’ and comin’, until finally we heard a crash, a crash that made the howl of the wind seem like a whisper. We looked outside and the barn had collapsed, blown right over on its side.”

I looked at my father and waited for a tear to come but none did. He looked angry, like he did when he missed a clean shot.

“I was asleep when the wind finally stopped. When I woke up and went outside, I could hear some of the sheep crying. Most of the ones in the barn were dead, I figured, but I could see a couple of the rams were pinned outside under planks and posts. I freed one but it had a broken leg and couldn’t walk. The other was dead. Its insides were crushed.

“Then I walked around the barn to see if I could save any of the other animals, and there he was, a big male dragging a dead lamb toward the fence. I didn’t have my gun, so I called the dogs, but they were gone—the fence was gone, in ruins. That bastard looked me straight in the eye and kept tugging that lamb toward the hills.”

“So you killed him?”

“Eventually. He and another one got away with the lamb. But then I started setting out bait—some of the carcasses from the barn. It didn’t take long after that.” He paused and looked at the sky. “Then we knew we were on to something.”

“Sounds like a bad storm,” I said.

“Yeah, the game changed after that.”

---

The next day, I helped the shepherds corral half the herd onto a grassy plateau below the high peaks at the end of the valley. The men pitched camp lower down, beside a grove of old aspens. We ate stew heated over the campfire.

As I headed home that evening, I took a detour up Samson Creek. I found her about a half-mile downstream from where my father had pulled the trigger. She was alone again, guarding a small meadow on the west bank.

I dropped to the ground and let my chin rest on the thin cover of grass and lupine. When I looked up again, she was no longer alone. A male—so stout that anyone but my father might have mistaken him for a wolf—sniffed her tail and made a wide circle to the edge of the meadow. He never took his eyes off her.

The pups couldn’t be far away, I thought.
I stayed until darkness started to set in. I never saw the pups. By the time I made it down to the road through the big valley, the last hint of light had given way to a faint howl.

---

It was three days before I returned. This time, I cut a path along the west bank. When I reached the meadow, I slowed, but the coyotes weren’t there. I looked at the scores of paw prints, large and small, scattered on the land.

A raindrop fell, then more and then thousands. I turned to find my path, and she was there, holding an ever-so-slight crouch, all of six feet away. Her eyes were the color of polished copper. The patch of white didn’t twitch once.

I backed up a step. She didn’t move. I wiped the water from my lips. She drew back her ears, jumped forward, and barked.

“Take it easy,” I said.

I lowered onto one knee and placed my right hand on the dirt, palm side down. She lowered her head and bent forward. Then I saw the male watching from behind. He cautiously approached.

When he came into full view, I could see a wound on his left flank. The matted fur was neither gray nor true red. The rain had washed away most of the blood.

She finally sensed his presence and together they turned and loped into the woods.

The creek grew louder.

---

At home, I was ordered not to go beyond the pasture. It would be my job to mend the fence, to secure my own boundaries.

I started the next morning at dawn, stringing wire in the mountain shadows. It was cold but there was no frost on the ground.

I had strung only one line when the cold air cracked with the sound of a shot. The bullet went over my head and lodged in a high bank of decomposed granite on the opposite side of the road. I dropped the roll of wire and turned. She was standing on top, beside a mangled and charred juniper tree. The sun was rising over her shoulder.

“Pick up your gun!” my father yelled.

I looked down and saw it there, glistening with dew. The command prompted me to lean down and grab its cold body. Not five seconds went by before my father’s rusty hand seized the rifle and hoisted it skyward, bringing me with it.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”

He was looking straight into my eyes. I looked back but couldn’t answer. Then came a whisper.

“She’s still there. Now get her in sight.”

The gun nearly slipped from my hands as I raised it up and gave it a line toward the sickly tree and the coyote. She raised her head and for an instant exposed her neck. Then she circled the tree, sat, and came back to standing on all fours.

“Now shoot,” my father ordered, but I didn’t.

“Shoot, damn it! Shoot!”

I lowered my gun and dropped it to the ground. As my father raised his, he mumbled something about Jesus Christ. He paused for a moment to steady his hands. I watched the trigger finger, twitching, poised to pull, and as it did, I stretched out my arm and slapped the gun sideways on the butt.

The shot rang out, but there was no echo, no reminder it was real. There was no muted yelp. No veil of dust. Just a sickening silence as she scurried out of view, toward the forest. I lost sight of her after 10 beats of my heart.

Liam Taylor looked at me, and I at him. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, and what looked like a tear from his eye.

“I wasn’t going to shoot her,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really,” he said.

I knew he was lying. But I forgave him anyway. He had come from a different place than I. A place where the clouds are the color of night, and the storms never let up.