A long time ago, the animals were people.
Coyote’s brother Wolf told Coyote, “I want you to run a race with the five Mountain Sheep brothers.” The mountain sheep weren’t very fast, Wolf thought.
“Just as soon as you outrun the five brothers,” Wolf said, “I will be there to cut their throats.”
Wolf had picked a certain place for them to start, at the crest of a mountain. Witnesses were stationed at key points along the course. As they milled around the starting place, people got to saying that the mountain sheep were good runners. Then they saw Coyote, looking strong and fresh.
The race started. Coyote had little trouble outrunning the sheep. Before they were halfway, the Mountain Sheep were panting, gasping for air. Coyote got to the end of the course with ease. He went around doubled over, pretending he was out of breath. The people saw him and laughed. He was most pleased with himself.
Wolf was glad. He cut the throats of the mountain sheep and prepared a big feast. The people ate until they were full, and then they ate some more. Coyote was proud. He became very sure of himself.
“There’s one thing more,” Wolf said. “I want you to race the Magpies.”
He gestured to a distant peak. “The race will start way up on that mountaintop over there. Three magpies will race you.”
Coyote didn’t like the sound of this.
“You’re not serious, are you?” he asked. “The Magpies are mighty birds. If I lose, they’ll kill me and eat me.”
“There would be lots of spectators,” Wolf said, shrugging. “All the people would be watching you.”
So the day of the race came. The Magpies arrived before Coyote. Then Coyote came, stepping from rock to rock (as was his superstition). One of the witnesses sounded the start. On both sides of the course, the spectators cheered and shouted.
Wolf had told Coyote, “If we win, we’ll get all the pretty feathers of the Magpies. I want the feathers for my head. The wings I want for my buckskin suit.” Now Wolf took up his station at the end of the course and waited there patiently with a long, sharp knife, its blade glinting in the desert sun.
Coyote started. He tore along on the ground, raising a cloud of dust. But the Magpies folded their wings against their bodies and dove. The course was all downhill, and the Magpies hurtled through the air. When Coyote reached the bottom of the valley, the Magpies were already there, waiting for him.
Coyote didn’t know what to do. He tried to hide.
“All right now,” the Magpies said, “we’re ready to butcher you.”
“Don’t butcher me right away,” Coyote pleaded. “Let me go bathe in the cool creek before I die. That way, I’ll be clean.” They agreed.
Coyote ran to the creek and dove under the water. He tried to hide under some green weeds that were growing in the running water. But the Magpies’ quick eyes found him. They ducked under the water and dragged him out. They killed him.
Wolf did not get his feathers.
(Adapted from Anne M. Smith, Shoshone Tales, 1993 and Julian H. Steward, Some Western Shoshoni Myths, 1943, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/wsm/)
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