The High Desert Mystery Series #1
The Strength of the Pack
Tuesday, October 23
Three days is a long time to be dead, especially under the intense New Mexico sun. The coyotes are stacked like firewood. If they were wood, I’d wager there’s a good half cord there. New Englanders know these things.
The pile shimmers with writhing maggots and the chorus of a million flies fills my ears. Bile threatens, but I force myself to look, to see their empty yellow eyes.
There are at least twenty-five, maybe thirty of them. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—have been placed in the animals’ mouths. Temporary markers for temporary remains? Somehow, I don’t think those small sections of two-by-four were placed there with any measure of respect.
The coyotes’ coats are matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert. Their bodies have already begun to flatten, sinking into the valley that was their home, where they hunted and ate berries, birthed their young and filled the nights with song. No one will dispose of the bodies. The land will simply reclaim them.
“Fucking hell,” I whisper. I don’t know why but, all day, I couldn’t get them out of my head. I had to see for myself.
I wish I had a cigarette, but they’re a half mile away, at the Border Patrol station where I parked my unit—dubbed ‘the Eunuch’ by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”
Ben has a bit of a crush on me.
“They call it a sport,” he sputtered last night, youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, prominent nose red from the beers. Ben is tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”
“The state’s tried a few times to make coyote hunts illegal, but it never passes. Too many rich ranchers control the legislature. Say they have to be able to protect their cattle and sheep. So these asshats, who sell all the guns and gear? They set up these sick killing contests.”
We were having beers at El Patio, our everyday watering hole on the Plaza in Old Mesilla.
“They actually sell these calls the hunters use? They mimic an injured mouse or rabbit. That’s what coyotes typically hunt.”
I could just about see the steam coming out of Ben’s ears.
“It’s fucking barbaric, is what it is.”
Ben is a reporter with the Las Cruces Sentinel, a still-young reporter with liberal East Coast sensibilities and endless ambition. Ben is determined to write a Pulitzer winning story, a story to save him from the tedium of our small-town paper and launch him into the white-hot spotlight of the fourth estate—in New York or DC preferably. Too often though, he searches for that winning story in the Old West ways that, to this day, endure in Southern New Mexico.
But here’s the thing. What I know, after five years as a resident of the Land of Enchantment, is born and bred New Mexicans are proud of their traditions, their history. They’ve been scratching a life out of this mean desert for hundreds of years and it hasn’t ever been easy.
Las Cruces was originally part of Mexico and those who’ve been here the longest, with mixed Spanish and Native bloodlines, have their ways of doing things that uptight Easterners don’t always appreciate. And the white ranchers who came later, who claimed so much of the land for their cattle and crops, are by definition a stubborn, determined lot. They’re not about to change just because some wet-behind-the-ears reporter insults their habits.
Undaunted, Ben editorializes on dogs left to run loose and their irresponsible owners, on the folks who burn their garbage in barrels. His outrage over the pigeon hunters who, every September, ignore the vagaries of the city limit, is epic.
So, while Ben is a smart, talented young reporter, this unfettered myopia has made Ben Short something of a pariah with my Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office colleagues, most of whom, both white and Hispanic, are born and bred New Mexicans. DASO’S head honcho himself—Sheriff Bill King who, after 16 years in office, certainly believes himself a monarch—nurtures a particularly deep disdain for Ben Short.
Ben latched on to me, a fellow Yankee, a few years back when none of my colleagues would give him the time of day. He was in his mid-twenties then, green, hopeful, sure he would change the world. It was charming, I thought, if naïve. I took pity, offered Ben the occasional tip or quote for his reporting. Before long he developed the Crush, which I immediately discouraged. I still fend off the occasional, beer-fueled pass—Ben’s hope still springs eternal; at 38, mine doesn’t—but, given my relative unpopularity in the department these days, I’ve come to count on Ben’s friendship.
I walk away from the pile, lean on my knees and exhale, purge my lungs of the rotted air, take a deep breath. In the space between my feet, grains of sand sharpen, come into focus. Up close, the flat taupe land is orange and grey, flecked with blue and green, brown and white. A resolute battalion of fire ants scuttles through and I wonder: How many deaths have taken place on this stretch of sand throughout the millennia? Animals, plants and birds, insects and fish—they’ve all returned to this soil at one time or another.
What’s thirty coyotes, when you consider that?
It makes me feel insignificant.
I shake my head. Ever since the Incident, I feel like I’m drowning, swept up in a flood of existential excrement. I’m emotional, scattered. It’s a sorry-ass way for a cop to be, not that it has mattered. Until this week, I was riding pine.
“Jesus God, Em. Enough.” I clear my throat and hock a loogie onto the sand. It shimmers there, like a glob of glitter glue. Now I’ve left my mark on this spot too.
I straighten and look around again. About thirty feet away, a coyote stands in the brush. Her ears are alert, tufted triangles of white and grey; her forehead and snout are flecked rust, black, white. She watches me, motionless.
I have to admit, I’m a little afraid. I rest my hand on my M&P 9, but there is only cool understanding in those clear yellow eyes. It’s as if she sees deep into my soul and I’m overcome with shame for my species. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. Ours eyes remain locked for a few more seconds, then she turns and bounds away.
I spin around and regard the pile: her pack. Is she the only one left? Are her sisters or brothers or sons in that monstrous pile? Her mate? Thirty suddenly seems a massacre. Ben told me coyotes mate for life, said the Alpha is an attentive father to his cubs. I’m sure these heart-warming tidbits will find their way into Ben’s next article—his way of painting the hunters in the worst possible light.
I wander back around the pile. Already, their edges are blurring, the carcasses melding back into the land. I brush the wetness from my eyes as I round the last corner, ready to get back to the Eunuch and get the hell out of Dodge, but something…I turn back.
I fold my arm up over my nose and mouth, move in closer. Just visible under the far end of the pile, a shoe is sticking out. A human shoe, and it’s attached to a human foot.