We scrabble over river rocks and gray pocked stones in the dry creek bed. I pick up a pine branch and throw it. Jessie races off, scoops it up and prances back. She pauses a yard from me, just out of reach.
“Good girl. Bring it here,” I say.
Instead, she turns and runs. My favorite game may be fetch. Hers is chase.
We’re hiking the creek bed in Sycamore Canyon. Most of the creek is dry this time of year, except when a monsoon turns it into short-lived rapids. On the canyon walls, a scrub pine grows out of sheer rock. But along the creek bank thickets of deciduous brush and trees offer a lush green contrast to the austere high desert patchwork of prickly pear cactus, agave and manzanita. This canyon is our favorite retreat from the desert heat.
I pull my dented water bottle from the side straps of my backpack and take a long drink. Jessie sits in front of me, head tilted, staring at the blue bottle, letting me know she is thirsty, too. I pour water into my boonie hat for her. My hat is her water dish on these hikes. She drinks then licks my beard as a thank you.
Jessie loves our canyon hikes. She’s a long-haired shepherd-coyote mix with the look of a black and tan German Shepherd and the moves of a coyote. I brought her home from the shelter with me when she was an eight-week-old puppy three months after I retired. We’ve been best friends ever since.
We walk to a bend in the creek where the canyon veers west. Water sits in pools here and we can no longer hike the creek bed. Jessie sees me stop and returns to my side. I stroke her ear and scan the scene. Coyote and javelina tracks speckle the silty mud at the water’s edge. I hear the buzz of mosquitoes. I see a trail on the north bank that will let us navigate the canyon’s curve. The scree-covered trail hugs the creek and pushes its way through a copse of scrub oak and bear grass.
Around the bend, the canyon straightens — a walled channel with cumulus stacked at the far end, mottled gray and black. They are monsoon clouds, headed our way. A warm breeze stirs, quiet and fragrant. Jessie stops, nose pointed high sniffing into the breeze, reading its text. Watching her, I feel like a blind man. Her tail twitches, then twitches again. I hear the song of goldfinch, the squawk of raven and scrub jay.
Then a howling erupts from the east — shrieks like the cries of children. I recognize it as the cry of a coyote pack. One coyote appears, twenty yards away, watching us through the trees. It approaches us then yelps and runs back, its head dipping, its paw clawing the ground. I pick up a stone, ready to throw. It runs toward us again, then back.
I realize I am looking at a bait coyote attempting to lure Jessie into a chase, trying to lead her into a trap. I reach into my backpack for the leash. “Jessie, come here, girl,” I call.
But Jessie doesn’t come.
She takes the bait and sprints after the coyote.
I drop my pack and run after them, but can’t match their speed through the underbrush.
“Jessie,” I shout, “come back,” hoping my voice will either bring her back or frighten the pack.
But they run on, out of my sight, up the slope of a canyon ridge. I hear the taunting yip of the coyote and Jessie crashing through the brush in pursuit. I hear a burst of sound as she reaches the trap, a chorus of snarls and growls as the pack attacks her. I hear Jessie’s bark, her cry, the whine in her voice and the bloodlust of the pack.
Tears blur my vision as I run. My breath grows ragged. I push through a thicket of thorny cat’s claw that scratches my arms and face. I hear the crazed fury of the struggle. The sounds grow louder as I approach. I unsheathe my hunting knife. I still carry the stone.
Finally, I burst into a small clearing and see Jessie on her side, five coyotes over her. A large alpha has his jaw clamped on her throat. I see the whites of Jessie’s frightened, rolled-back eyes as she flails against the pack. I hurl the stone at them and shout. I run toward them, knife in hand, arms waving.
The coyotes pause and go eerily quiet. They stare at me with lowered heads. I stop running. The largest one takes a step in my direction and the others turn toward me. I fear they are going to attack me.
But Jessie struggles to her feet — I’ll always believe she rose to protect me — and lunges at the Alpha. I pick up another stone and pitch it at them, screaming again.
Startled from two sides, the pack turns and leaps off into the woods.
And as quick as that, they are gone.
Jessie falls back to the ground, panting, a froth of blood at her mouth, her throat a gash. I take off my shirt and try to staunch her bleeding. She whimpers but lets me tend her. My shirt turns crimson. She looks at me, her flank heaving. Her eyes fade to a glazed stare. I sit with her as her breathing slows. I weep and hold her head in my lap as the monsoon clouds overtake the sky.
William F Ward’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Mindful Word, Breath and Shadow, Shamrock Haiku Journal, Page & Spine, and other publications. He lives and writes in Sedona, Arizona.