The Quail, .410 and Coyote Ben
© Copyright 2018 by Don Shook
The jolt to my shoulder was unexpected, the recoil painful. My Dad laughed, then scowled as if to say, “Go ahead, try it again.” Reluctantly, I pulled the trigger and fired his ancient .410 shotgun, this time hitting one of the tin-cans lined-up on the rock ledge some thirty feet away. How could I have missed the others? It was a shotgun. A week later the weapon became my sixteenth birthday present. I loved my new old .410.
For the better part of that winter of ‘55 most spare time found me trampling through the nearby woods either shooting at cans or some hapless creature. Wildlife was plentiful those days and much of it became a target. Even with my trusty, pellet-scattering .410, I was seldom successful. A few lizards, a sparrow or two bit the dust. Otherwise the cupboard was bare...until I flushed the quail.
Moving through some heavy brush into an adjacent field of withered maze, I was startled when the bird broke and took wing. Almost on top of it, I instinctively raised the .410 and fired. As though in slow motion, its flight ended and it dropped rock-like to the ground. Proudly excited, I ran over and lifted it, surprised by its richly colored coat of soft feathers. I could feel warmth, the tiny heart still beating. The quail opened its eyes and seemed to stare helplessly at me. Instead of hurrying home and displaying my trophy, I dropped the quail and brushed the tears from my cheeks. For the rest of that winter the .410 remained in my closet. I think it might have stayed there forever except for the arrival of Coyote Ben.
In our small town big city suburb, garbage and trash pickup took place on Saturday mornings before 8 AM. One of my family chores was to make sure all the week’s garbage was stuffed into a huge metal container and placed out front for pickup. I did this on Friday nights. Except for the imposition the task placed, I seldom gave it a spare thought. Then, on a late spring Saturday morning things changed.
As I rounded the corner of the house I was greeted by the empty container laying on its side, lid several feet away and garbage scattered over the front yard. My first thought was, “Those danged garbage men!” Then I cleared the mess, shrugged it off and continued my teenage activities. The next week the scenario was repeated. When my parents complained to the city they were told that similar scatterings had been reported and suspicion was the culprit was a coyote that had been spotted roaming the local streets.
During the winter I had heard coyote yapping in the nearby woods. One cold, sleepless, December night I had wandered outside where, under a full moon my 3 AM trek was interrupted by their sharp, incessant barks in the distant darkness. A chill ran up my spine, I shivered and went back inside.
Winter passed, spring arrived and I hadn’t heard the sound again. However, despite city claims of trying to capture the scavenger coyote, the pillage continued. My parents shrugged, my Dad laughed, proclaiming the garbage my domain. That did it. No more Saturday morning madness. I retrieved my .410 friend. The rapscallion coyote problem was coming to an end.
Although the animal was feeding on table scraps, I’d envisioned a big, fierce maverick I named Coyote Ben. Crafty and dangerous; around town his garbage raids had become legend. With all the squirrel, rabbits, and rodents in the woods I wondered why Ben preferred eating human leftovers. My Dad informed me that stealing from stationary cans was easier than chasing down game. Ben had little concern over human inconvenience and he’d probably continue. It appeared that since humans had driven coyotes out of their habitat with concrete, steel, and asphalt that they’d simply enjoy man’s refuse. In fact, the wily coyotes were quite adaptable and had learned to mainly avoid human contact. True or not, .410 and I aimed to change that.
When I told my Dad my plan he laughed again. One of his favorite pastimes seemed to be laughing at my schemes. He also advised me it wouldn’t be easy, that Ben was probably smarter than me and success would come only by outfoxing him; which sounded like a contradiction in species. In any event, I remained undeterred. I was through cleaning up front yard litter after a stupid smart coyote.
The following Friday night I forsook a tentative meet at the Dairy Queen with the lovely Linda Lumpkin, took the garbage out and set up a blind on the front porch. After cleaning and loading the .410, I placed several blankets on the porch swing my Dad had built, found a comfortable position and prepared for a night watch for Coyote Ben.
Around midnight my Dad stuck his head out the door, “You okay, Boy?” he asked brusquely.
Though feeling quite the opposite, I replied, “Oh, yeah...I’m great.” and settled back down into my blanket camouflage, resigned to a long wait. I was resolved that on this fateful night Ben was to get his comeuppance. From my vantage point in the swing I had a good sightline to the garbage can on the edge of the side street about thirty yards away. If he appeared I’d been able to see Ben through the two large cedars beside the road on our property line. I’d leveled .410 at the can several times imagining what might happen, realizing that if he appeared I’d have to get closer. And so the watch continued...
Two hours after midnight and no Ben. I was beginning to nod off. Another hour. Where was that scamp? Probably making the rounds of other cans up the street. I’d been told that coyotes were sneaky and moved quickly. So I forced myself to remain alert no matter how sleepy I was. But this was getting ridiculous. My eyes became lead weights. Just as I was considering calling it a night and going inside, I saw a shadowy figure move silently toward the garbage can. It seemed to glide ghostlike, not like the scraggly animal I’d envisioned. I shook my head to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The rattle of the garbage can lid startled me into action. Hoisting .410, I jerked up, stepped down from the porch and started toward the street. In the meantime the initial rattle became a clatter as the lid fell to the ground. As quietly as possible I moved toward the largest cedar. I’d shoot from behind it. At the same time I heard the can overturn and the sounds of tearing and ripping. No doubt, Ben was sifting through the leavings, scattering paper, plastic, and scraps about. That was it...I had him where I wanted. I reached the cedar, quietly pulled some branches apart, and was totally shocked by what I saw.
Though dark, through the ambient distant street light, I saw not one, but two Bens sifting through trash scattered around the overturned can. Not only that, they were neither big nor fierce looking...instead they looked miniature, like small dogs. I caught my breath, gulped, and blinked. The two young creatures continued their pillage, unaware of my presence.
Simultaneously recovering, I slowly raised .410, released the safety, and aimed toward the nearest coyote pup. I knew I’d have to fire quickly to hit them both. As my finger tightened on the trigger, I was shocked once more. Just beyond the two, on haunches, yellow eyes aglow and watching intently was what had to be Coyote Ben. My jaw dropped. I released my trigger finger. Both youngsters then ferociously tore into a paper sack wrapped around chicken scraps. Stirred back into action, I knew it was now or never. Pups or no pups, there would be no more Saturday morning cleanups. Once again I took aim on the nearest creature and started to pull the trigger. Once again I stopped.
Through my sights, at the end of the barrel, I saw not the young coyotes, but the helpless quail exhaling its last breath. In the dimness of the night, its soft feathers streaked with blood, the dying quail sighed and blinded my aim. The blackness darkened, I groaned loudly and the coyote pups streaked away with their mother. In a flickering they were gone...along with the quail and Coyote Ben.
I never told my Dad the details of that night, only that the big male coyote had not shown. He viewed me suspiciously, laughed again and left for some wood shop task. A few days later, my good friend Pete Robbins told me he’d met Linda Lumpkin that night and they’d made out in the front seat of his family’s Ford convertible. Within two months the coyote stories abated. Everyone assumed Ben had been shot or grown tired of eating leftovers. Of course...