CMarie Fuhrman encounters a coyote whose leg is caught in a trap in the southern Montana prairie. As she decides what to do, she navigates the two legacies of her identity—Native and white. In doing so, she considers what it means to be trapped and what it means to be free.
Autumn, Beartooth Front Country. The sky and landscape are buckskin and blue. I am driving my Ford pickup down the roads that encircle the ranch I am living on, caretaking, though little work other than keeping a fire going and feeding the owner’s horses is required of me. I am an hour from the nearest town of mention. From almost anywhere on the ranch, I see no neighbors. I am out driving just to be out, to be looking across the vast distances that have always filled me. This is a land devoid of structures. Of obvious human intervention. Here, I can imagine. I can dream without intrusion of even a fence line. And those dreams are never lonesome things. They are filled with stories. Memory. The call of meadowlark. The huff of a doe muley. The song of coyotes. All my insides find home here and resonate back to me in the enormity of a southern Montana prairie.
I come up over a small rise, and, in the distance, I see something jump. Once, then again. An awkward jump. Almost sideways. Almost a pounce. At first, I think I am seeing a rabbit. Perhaps a fox. But the color is wrong. The size. I press down the brake and reach for my binoculars, bring them to my eyes. As I turn the thumbwheel, a brown coyote comes into focus. It throws its head back as if tugging. Pulling against some force that holds it in place, yet I cannot see what. I lift my foot from the brake and roll forward.
I don’t know when I realize the coyote’s left ankle is caught between two horseshoe-shaped jaws of a dull silver trap. I walk from the truck to the coyote. Each step in the reddish-brown soil raises puffs of dirt around my feet. As I grow near, I see how fragile the coyote is, thin; how like my dog Katie’s are its amber eyes. Then I see the blood in the soil. The swelling and rawness of an ankle chewed. The coyote had dug at the trap with its free paw. Its mouth a mud of blood and froth. As I draw closer, the coyote begins to growl, to bear its front teeth.
I walk a circle around the animal. I look for ways to spring the trap, but traps such as these are not something with which I am familiar. My breath and words stick when I talk to the coyote. Only platitudes escape. I look toward the passenger window of my blue truck. From inside, my dog Katie is looking out at me, her eyes begging the question: What are you going to do? One dog in my truck who needs my protection and one at my feet who inherently knows I am not to be trusted.
THE SKY ON that day was the color of the paper on which I write this story. Not white, not gray. Caught in the middle somewhere. The color of possibility here, but not when enshrouding the gruesome scene unfolding on the prairie. The sky that day held certainties. The story for the coyote could have only one ending. Winter was coming; there was no doubt about that. The clouds spit and its drops were cold and sharp against my face.
I keep recalling that day. I keep coming back to the coyote story not because I think I could have done anything different; the fate of the coyote was set in motion when the first white people came west, and it was handed down through the men and myths that made the man from the town of Bridger who set the trap on that barren hillside, placed a bit of ground beef around it, and yawned open that metal mouth. I would never meet that man, but he would find my reply to the question of his bait. He would—in the prints I left in the dirt, in the metal I destroyed with a maul—know my anger. Yet I was the one guilty of trespass. The law protected his right to trap. To mangle the leg of the coyote, to let it suffer, bleed, and starve for hours, days. My only witness was the prairie. I keep coming back to the coyote story because I forget how it ends for me. There are so many possibilities, but writing it here will set us both straight.