This week is another double feature of story samples. If you’re looking for Part One.13. of Soul Cages, scroll down the home page because it was posted first. Next up in this post is The Enchantment of Coyotes. In the chaos of the Civil War, an evil sorcerer and his coyote-men come from another world to prey upon the children of the New Mexico Territory. Juanita of Santa Maria finds herself enmeshed in a struggle to free not only herself from their clutches, but the stolen children as well.
The Enchantment of Coyotes
Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore
Copyright © 2013 by L. M. May
Published by Osuna Publishing
This story is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, dialogue, and locales are either drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, and locales is entirely coincidental.
Thunder rumbled through Juanita’s aged bones; her shoulder and hip ached where they pressed against the shaking wagon bed. She lay on her side in darkness, wedged in like a piece of cordwood, between the warm bodies of two girls. A steady creak of wheels and the soft footfalls of horses surrounded her.
A lightning flash, filtering through the wagon’s canvas cover, lit up the prone bodies of sleeping children. She was near the back of the wagon. The girl lying behind her whimpered in her sleep as a roll of thunder echoed around them. Juanita’s throat burned as if she had drunk smoke, and the enclosed wagon reeked of ashes and sweat.
Her memories of the night attack on Santa Maria were confused—gunshots, shouts, screams, curses. And then a miasma that had enveloped her, making her mind go blank.
Their captors had set fire to the casas of the village before carrying them off.
She recalled the whispered tales about travelers who rode into the Jemez Mountains, never to be seen again; a shimmer at dusk of a ghostly rio that wound its way down dry canyons; and the recent discovery of the charred adobe shells where the Tewa pueblo of Santa Lucia had once stood, the dead scattered amongst the ruins.
Rain pattered against the canvas as the storm overtook them—gusts shook the back flaps, letting in whiffs of wet stone. She crept over the sleeping girl and peered out. Lightning showed unfamiliar mesas looming around them. They were on a dirt road by a rio swollen with summer rains. She could hear a wagon behind them amongst the piñon and juniper shrubs.
Sighing, Juanita peered at the sleeping girl—Solana, the 14-year-old daughter of the Silvas family in Santa Maria. Juanita patted the girl’s face with her hands; Solana responded in mumbled sighs.
Juanita whispered, “Wake,” and shook her.
Solana’s head lolled to the side: the girl lay trapped in sleep.
Their wagon turned away from the rio and bounced around on the rocks and ruts of a trail which followed an arroyo. She crept from child to child to shake each in turn, but she failed to rouse anyone. At the front of the wagon, she found her grandson Miguel slumped over stolen sacks of cornmeal. His head bobbed in response to the rough journey like an aspen leaf in a mountain breeze.
She tugged open the front flaps and peeked out. Her hands shivered from the cold rivulets of rain that slid down her fingers. She could barely make out by the flashes of lightning an adobe presidio hunched under the towering mesas. A gathering of men, some of whom held upraised lanterns, waited before the two massive doors of the presidio’s open gate.
As the wagon drew to a stop, she could see the rain-blurred shapes of barns and casas past the gate’s opening. Several of the silent men carried revolvers, the rest hunting knives. They stood patiently in the rain that dripped down their dark coats.
Not Union or Confederate soldiers, she thought. Los banditos.
After the wagon behind hers was reined to a halt, a howling cheer broke out amongst the gathering.
The driver of her wagon sat motionless, as if he too now slept. He is not of Santa Maria. Where is he from that he could do a thing like this? She leaned out of the wagon flaps, using the body of the sleeping driver to shield her from view, to make a grab for the reins in his hands.
But they were wound tightly around his palms. She dug her nails into his fingers, but could not get the water-swollen reins loose. No amount of pain made him respond.
A crunching racket of boots running on pebbles came to her; a man circled around the front of the wagon to grab her, tossing her onto the wet grass. He dragged her with gloved hands to where the others waited.
She looked up from the ground into the faces lit by the lanterns, and choked back a scream as she realized that the beards and mustaches were actually thick fur that covered their chins and cheeks. Their slitted yellow eyes and lean noses reminded her of the coyotes she would watch running at night in the arroyos.
They reeked of wet fur.
The coyote-man who had caught her said to her in Spanish, “Come, old woman. You have nothing to fear. We have use for you.”
“No!” She looked around to escape, but they surrounded her. She cried out in Spanish, “Where are we? Who are you? What do you want with us?”
Her captor pulled off his gloves and yanked her to her feet with leathery paws. “We owe you no answers. Obey, or I will kill you.”
Only dead bodies were found at Santa Lucia. Did they murder those left behind in Santa Maria?
The rain weakened, but she could see cloud-to-cloud lightning in the direction the wagons had come from. One by one the sleeping bodies of the children were hauled out and laid down on bison skins; no attempt was made to cover Miguel or the others from the misting rain. The oldest child was fourteen, the youngest three. The two drivers were left to sleep upright on their wagons.
She shivered as the rainwater evaporated from her nightgown and skin into the thin mountain air.
The coyote-men gazed expectantly at a third covered wagon approaching the presidio. This one was driven by a coyote-man, and once it came to a halt a party of three coyote-men with rifles jumped out. Last to emerge was an old man held upright between two other coyote-men. The slumped figure of the old man wore clothes like those of the wealthy merchants she’d seen on journeys with her son Pedro to Santa Fe.
The old man came into the lantern-light to be revealed as a coyote-man with white fur. He gripped in his claws a silver cane embedded with turquoise stones that writhed across its entire surface in spiral patterns. The crowd parted as he took tottering steps to the row of twenty-three sleeping captives on the ground.
Sorcerer, she thought as he nodded to a coyote-man in a frayed hat that carried a revolver.
The coyote-man in the hat walked up to the human driver of the first wagon. He climbed onto it as several others grabbed hold of the horses to keep them from bolting; a shot rang out.
The driver’s body tipped over the side to fall head first onto the mud. Dead.
While the echoes came back from the canyons, the coyote-man descended from the first wagon, and with the help of his companions to hold steady the horses, shot dead the second driver.
Leaning on his cane, the sorcerer said in halting English, “Move them to the holding pens. Make sure to check them for knives. As for the old woman,” here he glanced at Juanita and smiled with the teeth of a dog, “take her to Cook.” He swayed, and as he fell his assistants wrapped their paws around him to carry him through the gate.
I must pretend I only understand Spanish.
Her captor in the frayed hat pulled her away by her elbow from the children. She tried to wriggle from his grasp, as she said in Spanish, “Please, in the name of Cristo, let us go.”
He slapped her. “You are not to speak unless spoken to. Do so again, and I’ll cut out your tongue.”
Coyote-men grabbed the bison skins and dragged the sleeping children along the pounded dirt that led through the gate and into the presidio. Juanita’s right arm was twisted behind her and she was forced to go through the gate, then turn right towards a long adobe hall wafting out the scents of chile, roasted mutton, and boiled cornmeal.
He marched her into a dining hall of crudely-hewn pine tables and benches. Wagon wheels covered with unlit candles hung by ropes from the ceiling. Two large fireplaces, each with dim red coals, faced each other down the length of the hall. The warmth did not lessen her shivering; she had to get her wet nightgown off and dry herself as quickly as possible.
Along the windowless wall opposite their entrance was a lone closed door.
Calling out in English, “Cook,” he pushed Juanita towards the door, opened it, and shoved her into a long hallway—at the end of it she could see a huge kitchen lit by flickering fires.
A door in the hallway opened. “Eh, what’s it now?” a voice said. A coyote-woman of gray fur, wearing a calico dress and stained apron, came out into view.
“I brought you a new servant.” He turned to leave, switching back to Spanish. “As for you—remember that there’s no point in running away. We can hunt you down.” He left without a backward glance.
Cook scrutinized her, muttering to herself in English about the hall’s wooden floors needing to be cleaned due to the mud tracks that the new servant and the coyote-man had made, then ordered in Spanish, “Follow me.”
The coyote-woman opened a different door in the long hallway, and led Juanita down a narrow hallway lit by a hanging lantern. At the end was a barred door. Cook unbolted it to reveal a bare room with three huge piles of rags—one pile against each wall.
It took Juanita a moment to realize that the oily pile of rags on the right rose and fell from the breathing of the prisoner burrowed within it. A covered bucket in a corner stank like a neglected chamber pot.
Cook pushed her into the windowless room and said, “Be ready at dawn—there’s much work to do.”
“Wait, what is going to happen to the children?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” The door slammed, and a scraping of metal told of the bolt being shot home.
The room was stale and dark. She felt along the rough wooden walls on the left and slid down near the rags. Stripping off her nightgown, she used it to wipe the caked mud off her bare feet, then wrung it out as best she could and spread it out on the floorboards to dry. There was no telling what might be crawling in the rags, so she made sure not to touch them. Had they belonged to someone who was now dead?
They strike against the weak; too many men are dead, absent, or fighting in the war. Oh, Pedro, I wish you had not died at Valverde.
Miguel is all I have left of you and Damita.
She wondered if the coyote-men had succeeded in killing everyone left at Santa Maria. If so, it would be days before the alarm was raised and a search conducted for survivors. Trackers had not found this presidio after the burning of Santa Lucia. She shuddered, thinking of the magic of the sorcerer. He must have put a sleeping spell on all of the villagers so that the hunters could steal and kill with impunity. They’d had no priest or curandera in the village to resist the sorcerer’s incantations.
Mutters and snorts came from the sleeper, but nothing she could understand. Leaning back against the wall, she prayed and then dozed.
Juanita dreamed she wandered between pine and spruce trees in a narrow canyon that sloped upwards under the silver light of a nearly full moon. Sharp stones jabbed into the soles of her calloused feet as she climbed towards the Jemez Mountains. A breath of chilled wind flowing down the canyon smelled of burning piñon logs.
A yipping echoed faintly behind her.
Coyotes. She ran, her feet a rhythmic pounding on the dusty rocks. Past a large outcropping, she saw the footpath rise between caves carved into the soft volcanic rock of the canyon walls. A bonfire’s orange glow outlined the mouth of a cave to the right.
She fled towards it, panting in the thin air. Growls and excited yips called out as she clambered up the debris of the canyon wall and entered the cave. Piñon smoke enveloped her, making her nose and eyes water. When her sight cleared, she found a huddled shape sitting before the fire.
A coyote-man, cloaked in white deerskin, sat warming his hands in the flames. Around his neck hung obsidian and turquoise stones on a leather string. Thinning gray fur covered his paws and face, and his ears twitched towards Juanita.
He nodded at her, and said in accented Spanish, “You can hear me … and I can hear you. We must watch for a chance to bring you to me before the full moon.”
Juanita awoke to the door of her prison being unbarred. Light poured into the dark room and a dirty black dress was thrown at her.
Cook held a lantern in one paw; grumbling to herself, she came into the room and bellowed at the pile of rags, “Up, you lazy bones!”
The rags parted and out came a coyote-crone, thin and trembling.
Cook herded the two of them before her to the kitchen.
A massive fireplace crammed with iron pots covered an entire kitchen wall. Beyond the open back door of the kitchen, Juanita could see four hornos for baking.
Cook said to Juanita, “Get the hornos and the fireplace hot—we’ve got a large crew to feed.”
Juanita staggered to the barns under a yoke of buckets overflowing with posole and frijoles. Cook and the other servant, both yoked, followed. Small sacks of tortillas hung from thin ropes around their necks.
Juanita did not yet know the coyote-crone’s name—Cook would simply yell, “You!” or “Lazy bones!” at her.
Behind them trailed the coyote-man in the frayed hat. He’d made a careful show of checking his revolver and carrying it at his side, ready to fire.
He would shoot her if she ran away. Juanita was certain of that.
She walked through the stony dirt without pain; she’d spent a lifetime of summers barefoot. The ground felt warm and parched, for the night rains had already dried or drained away.
The presidio was a mixture of adobe halls, adobe casas, and wooden barns—some of which faced a central plaza. A few coyote-men with rifles patrolled the presidio walls. Many of the casas looked empty and faded under the New Mexico sun.
Mesas with layered colors of rose, peach, and cream stood to the north, south, and west of the presidio. The pine-covered curves of the Jemez Mountains loomed in the west.
She glanced towards the east, and blinked at the rippling view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is like staring through a stream.
They came to a large barn, and Juanita’s shoulders trembled—this must be the holding area the sorcerer spoke of.
Cook moved in front of them, looking straight at Juanita as she said in Spanish to her, “No talking, no trying to open the pens, no handing things to them.” She tapped Juanita on the chest. “If you try to speak to one of the children, I will have your throat slit. Nod if you understand.”
Cook led them into a large shed that leaned against the barn. Inside they found three coyote guards squatting in a circle to play cards. All wore revolvers on their belts.
A coyote-man with a chewed off ear stood up and unlocked a thick door that led into the barn. The women stepped into a dim corridor filled with numerous barred pens. Juanita could not see into the narrow pens—clumsily hammered-in wood paneling sealed off each pen from the corridor.
Muffled sobs and whispers leaked through the wooden walls.
A guard walked up and down the length of the barn, checking the doors as he went.
Cook motioned for the coyote-crone to begin on the right side of the corridor, then grabbed hold of Juanita and indicated that she was to watch before starting on the left. The coyote-crone opened the larger of two slots within the first door; she tossed down two tortillas, then ladled out posole, then frijoles.
Cook led Juanita to the first door on the left, and watched as Juanita opened the slot to shove in two tortillas and then ladle out a scoop from each bucket to pour down the shaft. The slot must lead to a small feeding trench. The other slot is probably for water. An odor of stagnant water and hay came from the open slot. With a firm push Cook closed the slot and gestured for Juanita to get to work on the next pen.
Cook then lugged her own burden of provisions to the far end of the barn in order to start doling out food into the pens there.
The cries from each pen got louder after the food appeared. Juanita’s ears soon rang with the garbled shouts of children in English, Spanish, and Tewa, and the pounding of fists on the wooden boards.
Juanita could not make out Miguel’s voice through the din. Likely he was here. She counted that they ladled out food to thirty-one of the forty pens. The rest seemed empty.
The next few days were a blur of washing and scrubbing; hauling yoked buckets of food to the imprisoned children; hoeing maize and frijoles near the arroyo; cooking and serving stew, tortillas, posole, roast beef, mutton, and pies in the dining hall; more cleaning; cuffings from Cook and the guards; frantic gulping down of scraps; and restless nightmares in the locked room.
The old coyote-crone refused to acknowledge Juanita’s existence.
And always, everywhere, a guard watched her—sometimes near, sometimes far, but always with a gun at the ready to shoot her dead if she tried to escape.
Each night, the moon thickened.
She was unable to discover what they planned to do with the children. Adequate herds of sheep and cattle roamed about; the coyotes didn’t need the children for meat.
Escaping with the children would be difficult. Even if she could flee from a guard or break out of her nightly prison to dig through the adobe wall of the presidio to escape, the flooring and walls of the barn that imprisoned the children were made of thick planks of wood, instead of packed dirt.
An adobe hacienda with azure trim dominated the plaza; she was sure the sorcerer dwelled within. Coyote-men, their hats in their paws, constantly went in and out of it. So far she had seen no sign of the sorcerer. She’d overheard murmurs that he lay weak in his bed, exhausted by the magic that was needed to overcome Santa Lucia and Santa Maria.
The coyotes spoke to her in Spanish, and switched to English when they thought she could overhear talk amongst themselves. Heated arguments raged at meals in the dining hall on whether to make the last raids without Sorcerer Polvo’s magic.
When she looked east, she could see that a piece of the eastern sky rippled and shimmered as if the sky itself had an invisible tear, and she carefully noted that the tear grew bigger and crept closer to the presidio with each passing day. A day soon came when faint ripples could be seen not only in the eastern sky, but in the northern and southern skies beyond the mesas as well. Cook gazed at the spread of the sky-shimmers with shaking paws. Juanita wondered if the shimmering barrier magically protected the presidio from detection by men. Perhaps if the barrier passed across the presidio and onward into the west, it would leave the presidio exposed to her world.
Little more than fifty coyotes lived here, of which few were coyote-women and none coyote-children. The race of coyote-men was dying out. Once known of, armed men from her world would come to avenge the dead, and the presidio would fall.
A party of fifteen coyote-men rode out of the presidio one afternoon. Juanita paused in her hoeing; the riders turned east at the rio and took the trail that passed through the wall of rippling air, and into the world of men.
The next day, there were five more children to feed. Thirty-six in all.
Meals also had to be hauled by her and the coyote-crone to an adobe casa—five coyote-men lay on cots within, injured from gunshot wounds. Thick swarms of flies buzzed in and out of the windows to settle on the wounds—despite the desperate swipes of the coyote-men to keep them off—and the stink of pus-swollen flesh made her dizzy.
Later she overheard the coyote-man with the frayed hat complaining to Cook. Four coyote-men had died in the attacks on the ranches. The fights to escape with the stolen children had been long and bloody due to the lack of Sorcerer Polvo’s magic.
Juanita dreamed of the cave.
The coyote-man in the white deerskin smiled at her, then pulled himself up using his carved staff. He twirled around the roaring fire, his leather trousers rattling with obsidian and turquoise beads. He lifted his staff and hit its gnarled head to the ground—a puff of smoke rose from where it struck, turning into a tiny whirlwind of brown dust.
He spun onwards and struck again—another small whirlwind, this one of black soil. Again—this one of red clay. And once more—this one of yellow sand. All four whirlwinds spun with him around the fire, then followed the sorcerer to the mouth of the cave. The winds merged and flew out into the night.
Juanita peered out of the cave’s mouth and coughed from the dust of the giant whirling storm outside. A loud whistling grew in pitch and her mouth tasted like clay.
The sorcerer touched Juanita’s shoulder with a soft paw. “They are all afraid of the altar and will use you and any other prisoners to clean the cursed pits they dug. The storm will come. It’s all I can do. Be ready.”
While Juanita scrubbed the breakfast tin plates and cups, a guard came and said in English to Cook, “We need your servants to come with us.”
Cook swallowed, looking nervous, and said, “Yes. Certainly. I’ll get some of the men to help today.”
Juanita and the coyote-crone were escorted by the guard to a stable of burros, where two guards with rifles joined them. The coyote-crone whimpered when she saw the five saddled burros waiting with gear and packs.
The leader said to Juanita, “The coyote-crone has done this work before; she will show you. We’ve got the cleaning of a cave to do.” He jerked his muzzle towards a canyon to the west. “There’s going to be a fiesta.”
The wide canyon they rode into headed straight towards the Jemez, making Juanita’s heart beat in excitement, for this had been the landscape of her dreams.
As the burros clambered upwards, the guards gripped their rifles tighter and frequently turned their heads from side to side to sniff the pine-scented air. One guard pulled off his hat to twitch his ears about in all directions.
All Juanita could hear was the croaking of ravens, chittering of squirrels, and the soughing of the wind amongst the thickening groves of evergreens. She spent the ride remembering prayers and hymns, and smiled at the wisps of cloud forming above the Jemez in a sky as blue as the Madonna’s cloak.
Around the time that the sun reached its highest point, they halted before a gaping cave at the base of the left canyon wall. The leader slid off his burro and brought his rifle up to aim at the women. “Get down and wait outside the cave. Tando, light the lanterns.”
As Tando lit the lanterns by striking flint and knife, the third guard tied the burros to stakes under a nearby pine tree while the leader kept the women under watch. Cool air seeped across Juanita’s back and bare heels from the cave’s mouth. The clouds above the Jemez Mountains were beginning to swell and merge, darkening to gray.
“Here.” Tando shoved a lantern into her hands. He put another in the coyote-crone’s trembling paw, and carried the last. He strode past them into the cave, motioning for the women to follow. The leader, rifle at the ready, trailed behind with the other guard.
She passed through the entrance cave and entered a dark upwards path scraped through the weak stone. The narrow passageway had to be navigated single file. They climbed steadily until in the distance she could see light from an overcast sky pouring down into a cavern.
In the center of the cavern, underneath the dim shaft of light, was an altar table carved out of obsidian.
As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the altar was encircled with pits dug into the floor of the cavern. There were three circular rows of pits, and each row had twelve pits. Thirty-six pits in all.
The outside light came from a rectangular shaft hewn through the cavern’s ceiling. Tando took Juanita’s lantern from her, and ordered her to stand next to the row of pits closest to the altar.
The shaft went up and up and up through the thick layers of the mesa until it reached the surface. It was as if she stood at the bottom of a very deep well.
When they were all assembled, the leader looked at Juanita and said, “You old biddies each have eighteen pits to clean. I want all the bones removed and tossed into the hole for burial. Be quick—we want to be out of here before the storm comes.”
The coyote-crone howled, but the leader shoved her towards a pit.
Tando circled the cavern by following the wall and disappeared down a side path; he came back a few moments later with only one lantern.
Juanita kneeled to look into the pit closest to her: the mummified remains of a bound and gagged coyote-child lay at the bottom.
“Get going, you old biddy!” A clatter arose next to her from a rock thrown by a guard.
She slipped down into the pit; it was as deep as her shoulder blades. Poor child, what did they do to you? She put her arms beneath the dead body, using its buckskin trousers and shirt to keep from touching its matted fur, and lifted the coyote-child over the rim of the pit.
It took several tries to pull herself out. Her fellow slave still struggled feebly to escape her own pit, so Juanita went over and helped her.
With the coyote-crone in the lead, they carried the bodies of the coyote-children down the side path. Faint light came from around a sharp corner, and they followed it to enter a small cave with a deep hole. The lantern left by Tando sat on the ground nearby. The air was musty and smelled of decayed hides.
Juanita followed the coyote-crone’s example and gently dropped the dead body she carried into the hole. By the scattered light she could see at the bottom the tied-up remains of dozens of coyote-children and coyote-women—all wearing garments made out of tanned skins.
They were sacrificed. No wonder I saw no little ones running around … Miguel and the others, that sorcerer is going to kill them.
A few tears trickled down her cheeks as she trailed behind the coyote-crone back to the pits.
She spent what felt like an eternal span crawling into open graves, lifting out the bodies of mummified coyote-women and coyote-children, praying for the dead under her breath.
The coyote-crone broke into anguished howls in one of the last pits; Juanita ran over to find her cradling the body of what looked to be a coyote-baby. The guards began to curse and throw stones at the pit, yelling for the women to get back to work, but did not come near.
Juanita slipped down into the pit, and coaxed the coyote-crone to let go of the baby and climb out. She left the crone rocking back and forth on the cavern floor with empty arms, and carried the baby to the hole.
Finally, they were done and were herded, coated with dust and sweat, out into the canyon. Indigo thunderclouds roiled the winds into visible gusts of dirt. Lightning flashed in the Jemez and the deep rumble of thunder echoed off the canyon walls.
Before the guards could respond, a dust storm spilled into their part of the canyon, blowing dirt that turned the air brown. Their yells were muffled by the screaming winds. She saw through the thickening storm that they were backing up towards the cave.
She ran up the canyon into the brown gloom; she trusted the dust to make it difficult for them to shoot her down. Once hidden in its depths she touched a canyon wall to guide her way upwards.
She stumbled out into silence. Behind her the dust storm grew, creating a wall of dirt and wind that no guard could pass through.
I must make good usage of the time given to me. She fled upwards, threading her way through evergreens and scrub brush.
At sunset, the dust storm swirling in the lower part of the canyon began to dissipate, and a golden-shaded moon hovered over the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From up here, as she glanced down the canyon path she had climbed into the Jemez Mountains, Juanita could see the wriggling rifts in the air that encircled the presidio on three sides, though she could not see the presidio itself.
They would soon be on the hunt for her.
Her feet had long ago gone numb from sharp stones and pine needles. From far away came the faint echo of gunshot signals—two of the guards would likely come after her, while one took the coyote-crone back and raised the alarm.
She fled further up the narrowing canyon. …
********** End of The Enchantment of Coyotes – Story Sample **********
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See you in October! Cheers, L.M.