Coyote Canyon

Marianne Sorensen

The July sun shone hot over the northeastern Nevada desert, making the alkali flats shimmer. Several inches of dust covered the wheel-track road leading out through the sagebrush. There had been no rain to fill the canyon streams, but the boss, Stu Richins, wanted to keep his cows feeding in the higher country, so Ben was filling the water truck to haul water up to the cows.

Actually, Ben was making his mark on the side of the well’s holding tank while a small, portable pump filled the truck’s tanks. Using what was left of a gallon of paint Richins had given him to paint his camp wagon, the Navajo carefully lettered 1982-Still Here ” beneath the other dates, 1972 and 1962. He stood back to admire his handiwork. The calendar was next to his drawing of a cowboy riding a saddle bronco , and over both was written “Benjamin James: Coyote Canyon. ” Just then Ben heard the water splashing on the wooden deck. He jammed his paintbrush in the can, set the can on the ground and ran over to the truck. He climbed awkwardly up onto the deck and clicked off the pump with the toe of his boot. When the water stopped splashing, he pulled the hoses out of the tanks and began tying them up as Richins’ truck pulled to a stop in front of the well. Ben had been so preoccupied he hadn’t even watched for the trail of dust signaling that the boss was coming with the week’s groceries.

“ “Lo, Ben, ” Richins said, walking over to the water truck, raising a puff of dust at each step.

“ “Lo, ” Ben said as he turned from tying the hoses. He saw Mike and Sally walking behind their father. “ ’Lo. How’re you two doin’? ” he asked, smiling at them. He was always happy to see Richins’ kids; they reminded him of his own.

“Fine, ” Mike said. Sally didn’t say anything; she just stood looking at the lone, crooked tooth in Ben’s lower gum. It took all Richins’ kids a while to get used to the sight of Ben, a nearly toothless Navajo with baggy Levis, faded work shirts, and unusual hats, like the white hard hat with “Think Tank” stenciled on it, or the red cap with “Chief Ben” in yellow letters.

“Y—you come to help your dad today, Sally ? ”

She nodded, twisting her finger through Mike’s belt loop.

‘Could sure use some rain, ” Richins observed, looking out over the sagebrush. “The cows keeping up the canyons Okay?”

“Long as I keep plenty water up for them. I—I—I been making five-six trips a day, but seems like the troughs’re always dry.”

“How’s the truck running?”

“Pretty good since it went to the uh, infirmary? B—but it could use another air cleaner; lotsa dust in this’n.”

Richins took a little notebook and a pen from his shirt pocket, flipped to a clean page and wrote “Ben” at the top and “air-cleaner—water truck” underneath. “Anything else?”

“ I—I got a letter in my camp. ”

“Okay. We’ll follow you over there before you go up the canyon.”

“Okay, boss. ” Ben walked over to get the paint can.

“You been here twenty years, huh Ben?” Richins asked, seeing the calendar.

“Yep. Since three years before you got married, and six
years before you were born, Mike. ”

“Wow! That’s a long time!”

Ben drove to the camp, stirring up so much dust Richins had to follow at a distance. He had a sheep camp, one of the old-fashioned, tin-covered wagons set on four wheels. It was in a place with a few trees, about ten minutes from the well. He parked in front of the camp wagon and his dog, Muhammad Ali, came out from under it. Ben scratched Muhammad’s head and then walked over and stepped up into the camp wagon. He punched his cassette player on and finished addressing a letter to his wife, Adela, who lived in New Mexico. Richins pulled up and Sally hopped out to play with Muhammad. Soon Mike appeared in the doorway of the camp, holding a box of groceries.

“Tha’s pow-wow music, ” Ben informed him. “Pretty good, huh?” Mike nodded and stood on the metal Meadow Gold milk box to hand Ben the groceries.

“I get any mail today? ”

“Yep. Just a sec. ” Mike ran to get the worn canvas bag from the truck. Ben took the bag and removed his Sports Illustrated, Newsu›eek, Navajo Times, z letter from his wife, and some junk mail addressed to Mrs. Benjamin James c /o Stuart Richins. While he was busy with the mail, he noticed Mike was looking at the pictures of his kids taped up next to his calendar:   Sam in his army uniform, Mary graduating from high school, Peter riding a bull in the high school rodeo.

“Wish I could ride like that, ” Mike said.

“Peter’s a real good cowhand and rodeoer. You gotta be strong to do that stuff. ”

Richins came over to the camp after unloading a barrel of water. “What groceries do you need for next week, Ben? ” Ben turned off the music.

“I—I got plenty beef, eggs and bread. Mebbe a little
cheese, canned fruit, uh . . . mebbe onions.”

Richins nodded, writing in his notebook. “ Motor oil?”

“No, got plenty of that, ” he said, pointing to a box next to the tree.

“Okay,” Richins said, flipping the notebook shut. “Next Thursday we’ll move those cows that are hanging down on the flat up to Lathan Springs. The feed’s still good up Coyote Canyon? ”

“Yep. ”’

“And Parker Canyon?”

Ben nodded. “Well, we’ll head back then. ” Richins looked around for Sally and Mike. They were standing on the deck of the water truck, wiping the dust off the side of the tank to uncover Ben’s latest sign.

“Hey, Dad! Look at this! ” Mike called. Ben watched while Richins read the sign, this one painted with the black cement usually used for patching water troughs:           ‘Caution: stops for all fCQtiles, rodents, mammals, and slow-flying buzzards. ” They had already seen the notices on his camp wagon: “ Spruce Hotel: No Vacancy, ‘ and “There ain’t no fat Indians on reservations.”

‘Pretty good, Ben, ” Mike said. He handed Sally down to his father and jumped off the truck himself. As they walked to the pickup Ben punched the tape player back on. Time for a little lunch before heading back up the canyon. He’d need to make a couple more trips and then he could read his mail.
After a lunch o
f beef stew, Ben stuffed Adela’s letter in his shirt pocket and climbed down. It wasn’t that high, but it seemed to be getting harder to get down from.

“ See ya later, Muhammad, ” he said as the dog came out from under the camp. “Y—you keep a lookout here, okay? No, you gotta stay here; too hot to be riding around.”

This load was going up to Coyote Canyon, a pretty place where the deer came to water at the cattle troughs. Last year a big six-pointer had been a regular guest, but he was so tricky he’d never shown up when hunters came around.

Maybe someone would get him this year. Too bad Ben didn’t have a license: he could get that buck easy, but then he’ d rather just see him come in to water with his does than eat him.

The best thing about the canyon was that it didn’t have the loose dust of the flat. Ben drove up next to the water troughs, climbed out to untie the hoses, then opened the valves to let the water run out into the troughs. He sat down on the running board to read his letter.

Sam was still in Twin Falls working on a dairy farm with one of his army buddies and seemed to be getting pretty interested in that girl of his; Mary had found a job as a secretary in Gallup ; Peter was practicing for rodeo and thought he might go to state that fall with bull riding and calf roping. He had said to tell his father thanks for the new belt.

Ben stood up to move the hoses. Some cows and calves were standing, sniffing at the troughs until one got brave enough to stick her head over and get a drink. Ben smiled. After twenty years of living out on the flat, he felt much more at ease with cattle than with people. But someday he’d be too worn out to be a cowhand. Maybe then he could get Richins to let him stay out on the flat with a few head of cattle, a horse, and a dog. Adela could come live with him.

He put the letter back in his pocket and turned off the water valves. The cows lifted their dripping pink noses from the troughs and stared at him while he re-coiled the hoses; the calves jerked back and ran off to a safe distance.

“ S’long, ladies. Be seeing you tomorrow, ” Ben said as he climbed back in the truck to get the last load of the day.

Ben was up at 3:30 on Thursday morning. He ate a quick breakfast of bread and cheese, put on his straw cowboy hat, chaps, and leather gloves, and climbed down from the camp.

“Looks like you’re ready to go, Muhammad, ” he said as the dog jumped up to greet him. “What do you think, we going to get rain? ” he asked, surveying the gray pre-dawn sky—clear except for a few clouds over on the Rubies. “Mebbe, ” Ben said, without much conviction. Muhammad was dancing around, eager to be off. “Well, y—you ready? Le’s go!”

In just a few minutes he had his horse loaded in the pickup and began driving out to the fence line where Richins’ Bureau of Land Management allotment started. By the time he got to the first springs, the cows had come in for water and were just heading back out to feed. Ben unloaded his horse and, with Muhammad, gathered the cows and began moving them south towards Lathan Springs Canyon. After about an hour, Richins arrived.

“L—looks like you brought some helpers, ” Ben observed, seeing the horse trailer behind the pickup. “Did you bring Sally?”

“Nope. Everyone but her. Lathan’s a little too far for Sal. Hey, c’mon sleepy heads! Cows won’t wait all day.’ ‘ Carla, Tim, and Mike slowly climbed out of the cab, jamming on their hats. They walked around to get their horses from the trailer and finally all got mounted.

“Ready, boss?”

“Yeah, Ben. I’ll go on ahead and take your supplies to the camp and fix that pump motor at the well. I’ll meet you where you cut off the road up the canyon.”

“Le’s go, men—and ladies, ” Ben said. Carla smiled. “Y—you sure you can handle that bronco, Tim?” Ben teased,
enjoying the sight of Tim ‘s legs pounding his horse’s sides.

“I need some spurs, Ben. Patches doesn’t go!”

“Just tell Muhammad to bark at him every now and then and you’ll do okay. ” Ben nudged his horse to a trot, as did the others. Mike rode with his reins in his left hand, the way Ben did, and tried to ride just as gracefully.

“Yippee! Get ’em up cows! Le’s go!” they yelled as they came up on the herd. They spread out, Mike and Ben riding up and down the sides to keep the cows moving along the road and Carla and Tim pushing up the rear.   Muhammad ran alongside Ben’s horse. The sun had been up for a while now and the day promised to be another hot one. The cows stirred up the dust in the wheel tracks; occasionally a couple of the dark-red bulls would have a half-hearted go at each other, pawing up even more dust. Dust got in the eyes and nose; it stuck to skin that was wet with sweat, both on the horses and the riders.

It was past noon by the time they met Richins at the mouth of the canyon. He passed around the water jug and handed out sandwiches, apples, and brownies. Ben took a couple of sandwiches and brownies, walked around to the side of the truck to eat, and not wanting the others to watch him, he broke off each piece and moistened it in his mouth before swallowing it. He could hear Tim griping to his dad.

“1s this the end, Dad? Patches is ’bout wore out.”

“Patches or you?” Mike gibed.

“We’ve got to take ’em up to the spring, Tim, or they’ll be right back on the flat again looking for water.”

“How much farther? ”

“Oh, not too far.”

Carla came around to where Ben was eating. “Here, Ben. You didn’t get an apple.”

“Uh, no. I—I don’t like apples, ” he said, turning away from her. She shrugged and walked away. After a few minutes, Ben went back to join the others.

“L—look, boss. Mebbe we’ll get some storm from those clouds. ” Richins looked to where Ben pointed, west to the Ruby Mountains. Sure enough, there were clouds—dark ones.

“Haven’t sen any of those for a couple of months.”

“Nope. Mebbe they’ll move on over this way.”

Ben took a couple of long swallows from the water jug. “Good stuff. Cold well water. Makes sandwiches taste about as good as chicken and ice cream, huh Tim?” Ben got back on his horse, called Muhammad, and went to head the cows up the canyon. Mike downed the last of a brownie, mounted his horse, and loped after Ben.

Juniper and spruce trees made rougher going, and the calves, having already walked about ten miles, wanted to drink. Unless constantly pushed, the cows would stop and let them suck. It took them four or five hours to work the herd up through the trees—Richins’ “not too far” proved a lot farther than anybody would have liked. The clouds had moved in fast, making the whole sky unnaturally gray.

“Nice of you to bring the sun-shade, ” Ben called to Mike. “We’ll finish pretty quick, then go home and watch the rain shower.”

But the shower came sooner than expected. The air cooled quickly, the wind started to blow and suddenly the downpour hit. It seemed as if the water had been back-logged for so long that the reservoir gates had burst. Rain soaked everything—riders, horses, cattle, dog. If they had been hard to move before, the cattle were impossible now; they bunched together under the trees, heedless of the riders’ yells.

“ Let’s go, guys,” Richins finally shouted.

“They’ll stay up okay now, boss. They’re pretty close to the spring. ”
‘Yeah, they’re okay.”

‘Mike, y—you brought your sun-shade but forgot the umbrella!”

Slowly they made their way down the canyon, the horses walking with their heads down, trying to keep their footing on the slippery sidehills while the rain continued. But as they emerged from the canyon, the rain let up and then stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

“Now isn’t that just like the desert—fickle as a woman. It gets you when you least expect it.” Ben was tired but didn’t want to admit it.

“Ben, why don’t you tie your horse to a tree and we’ll take you to get your truck, ‘ Richins said. They loaded the other horses in the trailer and everybody piled in the cab, Tim and Carla sitting on Ben and Mike.

“Gosh, I’m cold, ” Tim said, “and tired.”

‘‘Y—you mean you got saddle sore ? ‘Ben asked in mock surprise.

“You bet,” he said, more proud than ashamed. “I was so sore I had to hop off and walk lots, huh Carla.”

“ You did. only got off once or twice.”

“Well, you did good, both of you. You too, Mike.
Peter’d be real, uh, impressed—is that the right word ? I can’ t tell some of the time with knowing English, Navajo and Spanish. I—I get confused and stutter a bit. ” He didn’t like to think that maybe his stutter came more from lack of teeth than anything else. “Well, looks like we’re here.”

“I left the air-cleaner and groceries at the camp, Ben. Need anything else ?”
“Nope. I’m fixed up good for now. You get my letters ?’

Richins nodded.

Okay. We’ll see you later. C’mon Muhammad. ”

Ben drove slowly back to get his horse and on to the camp.
The sky was black with clouds blocking out the stars. He hoped the storm wouldn’t move on to Utah ; they could use what rain they could get. Besides, he liked the rain because it brought out the smell of the sage and settled the dust—even though it did give you the chills.

After he had rubbed his horse down and fed him and Muhammad, Ben climbed into the camp wagon. He lit the kerosene lamp, changed his wet clothes, and got into bed.

He was surprised when he woke up the next morning to find the sun had been up for an hour or more. He stirred stiffly, then got up to put away the groceries and fix breakfast. Richins had left two letters, one from Sam, one from Adela. Sam wrote that he really liked his girlfriend.
She was from a reservation, too, and had graduated from high school. She worked as a clerk in the Sears store. Would Ben approve of her as a daughter-in-law? Adela’s letter confirmed Sam’s decision to get married and suggested they could plan the wedding at the same time as Ben’s vacation at the end of August

“Well, tha’s something. Sammy going to get married.
She must be a nice girl. ” Ben began planning for the wedding. What could he give them? He didn’t have to worry what to wear—his white pants and boots, the new hat and . . . oh, he’d have to call his wife and Sam. Tomorrow night he’d go to Clover Valley to call from the boss’s place.

“ Sure, you can use the phone, Ben, ” Mrs. Richins said.

He dialed Sam’s place in Twin Falls, talked to Sam a little in Navajo, then switched to English, finding out about the girl and giving his enthusiastic approval.

“ S—so you’ll be getting married in New Mexico, huh?
Huh? In Twin Falls ? The Baptist church? Oh, her friends’re Baptists, huh? Th—that’ll be real fancy, lotsa fancy people. . . . Oh, your mother says you want it next month. Sure. I’11 get there. Mebbe go up to it before going to New Mexico. Okay. Yeah, ‘bye, Sam.”

He hung up and dialed his wife’s number. He talked to her in Navajo, then hung up and thanked Mrs. Richins.

“ So your boy’s getting married, Ben?”

“Yep. Adela and me are going to it before I go to New Mexico for my two weeks.”

“Well, that’s great, Ben. Now, can I help you get something?”

“No, I—I got plenty stuff at the camp. You’ll tell the boss about my calls, huh?”

“A fancy wedding in Twin Falls, not the reservation, ” Ben thought as he drove along the old Tobar road south of Wells. Her friends’re Baptists and she wants the wedding in their church. But in the city?   All those fancy people’ d laugh at an old cowhand. Be better on the reservation with people he knew.

The storm did move on to Utah without dropping any more rain, so it took only a couple of hot days for the flat to dry out again. Ben spent long days hauling water up the several canyons and moving the cows so they could feed the higher country. What feed was on the flat would be needed in the winter, when snow would force the cows out of the canyons.
Though he would come back tired each night, Ben worked on his wedding present for Sam, a large tooled-leather picture of an Indian riding a stallion. By light of the kerosene lamp, he first gently worked his own design into a piece of leather he’d gotten in New Mexico, then used his tools to make the thing seem real, bringing out the muscles and the flowing mane.

The night before he was to go to Sam’s wedding, Ben got out his white pants, shirt, boots and hat, his belt that said “Ben James: Coyote Canyon, ” and his spurs. He had gone over to Clover Valley the week before to call Adela and Sam about the wedding details. Adela was going by bus to Twin Falls and Richins was going to take Ben there—he had to get some feed and equipment parts anyway.

Ben looked at the leather picture he’d finished the night before. It had turned out good—nice strong horse, good rider. He’d be proud to give it to Sam.

He got up at 5:00 the next morning, dressed, ate breakfast, then got his suitcase and leather jacket and climbed down from the camp. Muhammad crawled out to greet him.

‘What you looking at? Pretty fancy duds, huh? They’re for Sammy’s wedding today. Well, c’mon. You get to go see Sally for two weeks.”

Ben drove to Clover Valley. Sally came running out in her nightgown when he drove up, and he left Muhammad with her. Then he started for Twin Falls with Richins.

“Do you have the address of the church? ” Richins asked as they passed the ranch houses surrounded by trees and the meadows of green hay stubble. Ben pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.

“Right here.”

‘Well, I’ll take you there fust, then go get the supplies I need. Let’s see, we better stop at the 4—Way in Wells to cash a check for you to go home on. That’ll be the only place open this early.”

After the brief stop in Wells, Ben sat quietly, holding his folded leather jacket. He rested his arm on the suitcase beside him for most of the two-hour ride. Finally he said, “Should be real fancy. Lotsa fancy people.”

“Real nice, Ben,” Richins agreed.

“Yeah, too nice for me. I—I don’t have real fancy clothes; I’m just an old cowhand.”

“You look fine, Ben. It’s okay.”
“ I—I don’t know, boss. Mebbe I’ll just help you and go see Sam after the wedding.”

“Sam’s counting on you being there. You’ll be fine.”

Richins drove to the church. They were about forty-five minutes early. “Just bring your suitcase and jacket in and we’ll ask whether Sam’s here yet.” Ben didn’t move.

“Well, you came all this way; you might as well go in.”

“ I—I can’t. All those fancy people . . . l—let me go help you and see Sam later.”

Just then Sam drove up with his mother. He looked tall and strong sitting there next to Adela. Ben watched while he helped Adela from the car, then got out of the pickup.

Richins got out too.

“ ’Lo, Adela. Y—you’re looking real pretty,” he said, admiring her brightly colored dress.

“Thanks, Ben. You look pretty good yourself,” she said, straightening his collar.

“How’re you, Sam?” he asked, shaking his hand.

“ Great, Dad. Thanks for bringing him up, Mr. Richins.”

“Glad to do it, Sam. Congratulations. ”

“Thank you.”

“Let’s see. You’ll have things to take care of inside, but maybe you could put Ben’s suitcase in your car for now. ” Sam nodded and took care of that while Richins talked to Ben and Adela, who said they were taking the bus that afternoon.

“Well, it’ll be a real nice wedding. Now call me if you need something—I’ll plan on seeing you in a couple of weeks.”

“Y—you’re going to be real busy, boss, hauling water for me. Mebbe I better . . . ”

“Goodbye, Ben. We’ll see you later, Adela, Sam.” Richins drove off. By then the guests were starting to arrive.

“You better go on in, Sam. We’ll come in a few minutes, ” Ben said. When he had gone, Ben opened the car door and took the leather picture out of his suitcase. “This’s for Sam.”

“Oh, Ben. It’s beautiful! So strong, ” she said, running her fingers over the beveled leather.

“Yeah. Like Sam. Young, strong, tall—not stooped over like me. Mebbe I better just wait here while you go in to the wedding.”

Adela stood tracing the flowing mane and tail. ‘ ‘You’re strong too, Ben. Who else you know can live out like you twenty years, get his kids started good. C’mon. Let’s go see Sam get married and we’ll get you fixed up later.”

“I bet you took real good care of Muhammad, huh Sally?”

“Yep, ” she said, petting the dog and staring up at Ben.

Finally she asked, “Hey, where did you get your teeth?’ “Oh, I went down to the store there in New Mexico and they gave me some no one else was using.”

“Sally, run and ask your mother for Ben’s mail,” Richins said. He was helping Ben get a few groceries from the cellar . When Sally had gone, he said, “Hey, how about a few apples, Ben? Maybe some corn from the garden?”

“Sure, boss. These new chompers ought to be able to handle that.”

“So the wedding was okay after all, huh?”

“Yeah. It was real good to see Sam and meet his new wife. I always wanted to go, but, you know my teeth.”

“Well, those new ones should work fine, Ben.”

Sally came running back with the mail.

“Le’s go, Muhammad,” Ben said, “we gotta get to work.

“Don’t overdo it, Ben. New cowboys are harder to come by than new teeth.”

Marianne Sorensen