Etta fanned her face with an old church bulletin that she folded accordion-style to give it more strength. She leaned over the sink to look out the window at her little girl Bootsy who was playing in the dusty dirt yard. Bootsy was two, almost three, and Etta watched her chasing the chickens, her tiny bare feet puffing up small clouds as she ran. The child was safe outside because the yard was fenced, and she was too short to reach the latch on the gate.
It was early morning, but it was still hot. Guy, her husband, took the ancient Model T pickup truck before dawn and drove the four miles to the barn of the farm where he was working. She knew he had already milked the cows and was probably riding on a tractor thatching through a field of hay. He didn’t wake her up before he left, and only took a slab of fried fatback and a thick slice of bread with him for breakfast. The man he worked for would give him lunch later, perhaps salt crackers with a tin of sardines, and maybe an orange from the grove he owned.
Her two other children sat at the kitchen table eating loose scrambled eggs and dry toast for breakfast. Cookie and Tommy were a few years older than Bootsy, and attended school in nearby Donna, Texas. A bus came by every weekday morning at 7:15 to take them away, and returned every afternoon at 4:05. The children finished their eggs and ran out to the road to wait. They ignored their little sister as they rushed past her and out of the gate, slamming it shut behind them.
Etta wiped the dishes then pumped water on them in the sink, and used an old paring knife to grate a few flakes of lye soap from the gray bar she kept nearby on a chipped saucer. The water foamed and bubbled. She was glad to have running water in the house. In their last place, the was only an outdoor pump, and she had to bring in several buckets a day. But here she had one right in the kitchen, plus a propane stove and an ice box. The heavy lid on the box once fell on Tommy’s left hand, ruining his index fingertip. She wrapped it up tightly with a cloth bandage every day. Because the bandage was tied at the top, the two ends stuck out. Etta called it his “bunny” finger, and kissed it to make the boy forget the wound. After it healed, she continued to call it that, and Tommy teased his older sister by chasing her and declaring that he was going to touch her with his “bunny” finger.
She looked out of the window again. The chickens were scratching around in the yard, and Bootsy was quietly playing with a battered doll, sitting on an old bucket that was once used for the well. The well was in the corner of the yard, and sat useless since the indoor pump made it obsolete. The well was covered with a piece of old wooden latticework and held in place by three broken bricks left over from the well wall.
Etta wiped her hands on her stained apron, and headed out of the back door. She needed to gather some eggs from the henhouse next to the fence. The large brown hen had a brood swirling at her legs, and Etta smiled. The chicks all hatched the day before, twelve altogether, and she decided that she could afford to have fried chicken on Sunday. The old white chicken stopped laying a couple of weeks ago, and now her fate was sealed. She picked up the chicks one by one and put them in the half bushel basket that she used to gather eggs.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” She counted in her head. Ten. There were twelve yesterday. She looked around the yard. Bootsy was still sitting on the old bucket, still scrubbing the doll’s head in the sandy ground. There were no other chicks running around, just the hens. The mean old rooster was sitting on top of the gate, his head jerking from left to right surveying his harem below. Beyond the fence in the dirt driveway to the road was only tire tracks and small footprints, no sign of tiny chicken feet. Around the side of the house, Etta saw paw prints. “Coyotes. Coyotes got those chicks.”
She dumped the birds back onto the the ground. They peeped and ran for their brown mother, gathering together under her wings. Bootsy squealed and ran after them. The mother hen clucked and skittered with her chicks back into the coop.
That evening Guy came home around six. Etta had the children fed and sitting out on the porch waiting for him. Cookie looked at him. “Mama says that we got a coyote eating up our baby chickens. She says to come on inside as quick as you can.”
Tommy poked a stick at this sister who slapped it away. “Yeah. Mama says you gotta put out a trap.”
Guy rolled his eyes and walked inside the house. Etta was sitting at the kitchen table. She made boiled corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, and some fried mullet from the irrigation ditch for his supper, and the room was still a little steamy. He pulled off his shirt and washed his face and hands at the pump. He sat at the table wearing only his undershirt. “The kids say we got a coyote.”
“Yes. You gotta get it. Why don’t you put out that trap after supper?”
“You got something we can use for bait?”
“I fried an extra mullet for it. They’re plenty of fish in the ditch still.”
“Etta, them fish were delivered in the water truck. Ain’t no more coming in from the Rio Grande. Those irrigation canals get filled from tanks, you know that. Once them fish is gone, they gone.”
“Well, better one tiny fish than all my chickens. I was going to fry up that old white hen for Sunday dinner. Now I’m thinking she might start laying again. It’s just been so hot I think she stopped because of the heat. We ain’t got but ten chicks left. What if the coyotes get a few more? Can’t afford to lose no more chickens.”
Guy chewed the mealy fish. “I’ll fix up that trap. Get the kids inside after I eat. I don’t want them playing around that thing. It’ll cut their fingers clean off.”
It was eight o’clock at night. Tommy couldn’t stop looking out of the window to see if the coyote was already in the iron trap. He kept telling his mother that he wanted the tail, but she refused to promise it to him. He stared out of the window anyway. Bootsy slept on the couch between her mother and father, breathing the dusty evening air in loudly. Cookie sat in the corner cutting pictures out of an old magazine she found on the side of the railroad tracks. She and Tommy missed the bus from school that day and took the tracks as the fastest way home. She swore Tommy to secrecy because they were not supposed to play or walk near the trains. But no locomotive came along, and she found a magazine full of pictures of movie stars, so she told him she felt lucky. She looked up occasionally at her parents who sat in silence, her mother thumbing through an old catalog while her father studied the back of his hands, a three day old newspaper in his lap.
Off in the distant came a lone howl, long and drawn, dwindling to nothing.
“Hear that? There’s that coyote. I’ll bet he’s waiting for his chicken dinner.” Tommy said.
“I’ll go out and make sure those chickens are inside the coop.” Etta got up and went outside. She saw Tommy watching her as she shut the door to the coop and latched it again. She picked up a stick and tapped the window when she passed by. “You all go to bed now. There ain’t gonna be no coyote if you keep watching for him. These chickens are safe. I’m going to the outhouse. Now scoot and be in bed before I get back inside.”
Guy got up before the sun rose the next morning. Etta got up too made him coffee and grits. She fried up an egg and onions, spooning the mixture between two pieces of bread and wrapping it in cheesecloth for his lunch. She told him he must be tired of crackers and sardines. He went out of the door and she heard the old truck fire up and roll away down the driveway. She thought how much she enjoyed this time of day more than any other. There was no husband to serve, and the children wouldn’t be up for another half hour. It was just time for her. She stared out of the kitchen window, then went outside to check the trap.
“Guy forgot about that damn thing.” She said aloud. The trap was clean. There was no coyote in it, and the fish was gone. “And now there’s no mullet either. What a waste.”
Later, the hot Texas sun beat down on her head. Bootsy was in the yard, chasing the chicks. The children were at school, Guy still at the farm. Etta watched her youngest daughter running and laughing, barefoot and occasionally tripping.
The other chickens scratched around in the dust, pecking at some of the ground feed that was thrown to them. Etta counted the chicks before, and all ten were there after breakfast. She went in the coop and gathered up some eggs. When she went out again, she scanned the side of the fence for dog tracks. There were none, not even near where the trap had been set. She looked and counted the chicks again. This time she could only see eight.
Bootsy was near the well. Etta saw her holding two chicks in her chubby little hands. She watched as Bootsy took each chick and pushed them through the holes in the latticework top. There wasn’t a coyote.
“Duck duck duck!” Bootsy giggled..