The home sat in that place where the rolling plains meet the hill country. Wide fields of grass meet small copses of stunted trees. The home was a double wide, plain and simple, with a pickup out front next to a sedan. Barb-wire made a fence, to keep things in as much as to keep things out. A little way south and west sat a small knoll. It had a twisted old tree, gnarled from its life of Texas summers and years of drought. Its place was called one tree hill or lonely tree hill, or whatever plaintive cowboy name the inhabitants of the home cared to call it.
The family now had some chickens, a mother, a father, two sons and a young daughter. She liked to feed the chickens, and weed the garden and chase butterflies around the yard. The poor, hard scrabble life of her parents where not apparent in her world of princesses, and adventures in the yard. She was too young to leave the yard on her own. Sometimes one of her brothers would walk her to the hill, or take her down by the creek to fish, or shoot soda cans in the woods.
It was on the hill when she first noticed him. He was thin and brown, with a sharp muzzle and two fuzzy tufts under his jaw. She named him Mr. Whiskers because he looked like he had a beard and her grandpa always called his beard whiskers. She like the sound of the word, as it rolled around her mouth and the puff of air when you said it. She like other words too, like apricot and ocelot and horchata and anything that had a firm pronunciation. He sat on the hill, intently watching the people. She waved to him, and he seemed completely disinterested in what she was doing. He laid his head on his paws and let the hot shade of the tree block the fire from the sky.
The father saw the coyote after a few days. He came out one evening with the .223. An old bolt action he picked up in a pawn shop. He started to sight it in when the girl said matter-of-factly," That's Mr. Whiskers. You can't shoot him daddy. He isn't doing no bad." Her father gave her a sidelong glance and slung the rifle over his shoulder. The coyote just stared at the two people as he sat regally beneath the leaves of the old tree. A king in his castle, the coyote let out a short yip, then laid down, his head on his paws, watching the family.
At night, the girl would hug her bear, and talk to him about Mr. Whiskers. They would discuss where Mr. Whiskers might go during the day. Did he have a coyote job? Does his coyote family miss him like she missed her dad when he was working? Then she would say his name over and over, like a mantra. "Mr. Whiskers, Mr. Whiskers...." Saying it until she fell asleep. In her sleep, she could hear his howls, but all she heard was Mr. Whiskers saying, "Sleep tight, sleep safe."
The girl was not allowed past the fence, and the coyote was not allowed in the fence, but not everyone respected that rule. One lazy, warm evening, with brisket cooking on the grill and beads of sweat on beer cans and tea glasses, the girl was chasing fireflies. Their fat behinds would glow and she would laugh and chase them and catch and let them free. Fireflies, like coyotes, weren't pets and would die if they weren't free. The family had heard the coyotes all evening, howling and yipping. Mother said they must be lonely, but the girl thought it was because they didn't have email or phones.
The girl was close to the fence when they heard the loud growl and yip come from the across the barbed wire. There stood Mr. Whiskers, his teeth exposed, danger in his eyes and snarling with anger. Father grabbed the shotgun, but the girl was in the way. The girl stood frozen, scared, upset that her friend could act this way. Father got closer, moving in to get a better shot when he heard the soft rattle come from the grass. Not four feet in front of the girl a snake was curled up. Its field mouse dinner laying still, its tail warning the others to leave it alone.
"Back up slowly." The Father said. As the girl moved slowly, her mouth became dry with the coppery taste of fear. The snake lethargicly began to move, tongue flicking in and out. When the angle was right her father fired the shotgun. The snake jumped from the impact, and when she looked up, ears ringing, Mr. Whiskers was gone.
Later she left a plate with some bones and gristle meat to thank him for the help. When she saw him on the hill, she would wave. She would talk to him like she talked to her bear, or her brother, or mother. She knew he understood her, even if her brothers said she was crazy. And when she heard his howls and yaps, she knew he was talking to her.
One night, when Venus was just above the horizon and Scorpio hung bright above the tree on the hill, she decided to visit him. Normally the doors were locked at night, and the locks were squeaky and the doors slammed hard enough to wake the house. Tonight, all was hushed, the door was unlocked and the girl slipped out, a wispy wraith with flopping white laces in the moonless night. She giggled as she ran up the hill to see her friend, singing his name on the warm zephyrs.
In the morning, the search started like all searches do. Panic and emotion and acrimony and recriminations. The police were called, and the radio announced a missing girl, and people began their earnest and disjointed search for a missing child. The driver of the pickup noticed something odd and pulled over. He had never seen a coyote out during the day, just pensively waiting on the side of the road.
He jumped out of the truck and made his way towards the coyote. It looked sadly at the man, its eyes soft and brown, then turned and loped into the high grass. The man approached the spot, horrified, then confused, then horrified. The girl lay there. She was crumpled, like a broken doll. He could see one shoe, it white laces motionless in the dirt. Her eyes stared into forever, and he could tell she was had been dead a while. Her other shoe lay in the middle of the road. He could see the marks where someone or something had dragged her from the road. Her face was bloody, but the man could see lick marks, white clean lines amongst the red stains on her face. He called the police.
The house is empty now. It is no longer a home. It is just place of sad memories. The family has moved. The hill still sits, eternal and silent, its tree still gnarled and tortured by the Texas summers. When Venus is just above the horizon, and Scorpio hangs above the tree, a lone howl, plaintive, echoes over the arroyos. Then a somber quiet engulfs the sad Texas night.