The coyote ambled along behind the bunkhouse, his shoulders curved around his gaunt frame, his nose twitching, dividing known from unknown, categorizing, guiding his trotting paws. The wind was cold and the smell of hare and field mouse faint. The smell of man was strangely absent from the cluster of buildings, and the fact both calmed the coyote and made him suspicious. There was a crash as another rotted timber fell in the barn, and the coyote jumped. He paused and then leapt onto the porch, sniffing between the floorboards. He pushed the door with his nose and it gave.
The coyote slunk in, looked around. The breeze from the door made paper rustle above him and he peered up at the yellowing picture tacked against the wall. Six faces peered back down at him, two split where the paper had torn, leaving jagged disparities in their youthful aspect. Even inside, the smell of man was faint and overpowered by dust and mice and moths. He sniffed around, inspected the table, decreed the beyond dried crumbs beneath the table to be unpalatable. He jumped onto the nearest bunk; the mattress exhaled dust and a mousy odor that had him licking his lips. He circled to the left, to the right, to the left again and again and curled up, nose to tail on the souring blankets.
The coyote dreamed of spring, sweet-smelling grasses and small savory rabbits. These were the only dreams left at the end of winter, when hunger was a permanent state of being and the prairie was frozen underfoot. Lost in his dreams, the coyote kicked out his legs and awoke with a start when they hit something. Investigation was required, and the curious nose that dug its way through the bedding unearthed a wooden picture frame. The coyote cocked his head at the lady who stared out at him. The picture was still infused with some of the scent of the dutiful son who'd owned it. The coyote licked absently at the last traces of fingerprints around the frame.
He was no longer able to settle on the bunk and he jumped down, jostling the bed and the one next to it. Something fell from its neighbor, a little soft black something and hit the floor with a soft thunk. The coyote shied away from it and then moved closer, the little leather pouch smelled strongly of sage, and the sharp smell made him shake his head in annoyance. He looked at the other bunks, but was afraid of what he might find in their sheets and blankets. He bit the waving blue sleeve of a dress from where it dangled off a top bunk and tugged. The soft, faded cotton fell down in a heap and he scrambled it around until it was a sloppy nest in the corner, and then he circled again to the left, to the right, to the left and curled up, nose to tail.
This time as he slept, he did not dream. His ears did not hear the approaching footsteps, nor his nose catch scent of the man who stumbled onto the porch. It was the creak of the door, and the rustle of the paper with the torn faces that made his ears perk up and his eyes spring open.
The man shut the door behind him, and smiled into the dark and empty bunkhouse. The coyote cowered in the corner, seeing no good sense in revealing his presence. The man struck a match, lit a lantern, inspected the picture on the wall, smoothed it out so that the faces met up again, whole and then left it alone to droop and divide. "I'm back" the man said, and seemed to wait for a response. None was coming.
The coyote watched and listened. "Teaspoon? Rachel?" The man set his lantern on the table and noticed the black pouch on the floor. He stooped to pick it up, "I thought I lost this…" his voice trailed off and he looked around the empty room, "Cody?" The man sighed and his breath rattled in his lungs, and the coyote knew he must be old. His long hair was black and not gray, but there was no misunderstanding the unsteady feet in his dirty moccasins or the wheeze in his breath. "Everybody must have a run," the man muttered. He looked around as if lost, and then sat himself on the bunk next to the one the coyote had abandoned. "This one was mine…" he said softly and folded himself into the blankets, a flood of milk white moths fluttering out of them.
The coyote started to slink towards the door. His haven could no longer be considered safe. He paused. Death perched on a bedpost over the man, cocking its head like a hawk. The coyote thought of the harsh cold outside, and the relative comfort of his current lodgings. The man would feed him through the rest of the winter if he could remain unseen until the dark hawk flew off with the man's soul. It was tempting, and as the coyote stood in the middle of the floor pondering, the door swung wide, letting in a wind of fresh air, and the coyote dashed for safety beneath a bunk.
Buck dreamt of spring. It was the only dream left for him. As with any worthwhile sleep, Buck was hardly conscious of falling asleep before he was waking up. The sun broke through the window and across his eyes, the smell of coffee tickled at his nose. He heard Rachel on the porch.
"Cody's still out there, Teaspoon. I'm worried about him."
Teaspoon's voice was comforting as he answered, "Don't worry about Cody, Rachel. He'll be here when he finishes his run."
Buck opened his eyes and turned towards the room. Jimmy and Noah were sitting at the table drinking coffee. Across from him, Kid and Lou stood by their bunk, quiet and close to each other. Buck stretched and smiled, the door opened and Ike came bounding in. He looked back at Buck and grinning said, "Welcome home." His voice was clear and sweet.