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Riders of dawn

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I'm usually out the front door by first light, tiptoeing by the dogs so as not to wake them.

On the best mornings, I feel like I've slipped into a Jacob Cooley painting, becoming invisible in the cool, layered and enveloping fog just before dawn. I listen for sounds and the absence of them. I'm so used to the paths and the darkness, I sometimes forget that I'm not alone out here.

The day inevitably shows signs of its start: Crossing a familiar road, I see and hear the same three school buses and two motorcycles heading into town. One recent morning, very early, I came upon three families of deer within a one-mile stretch. Loggers have moved into the neighborhood, cutting 100 acres of timber to pay a farmer's tax bill. As trees come down and habitats become rearranged, wildlife is on the move, as though jumping positions on an unseen chessboard. Everyone knows where the ponds and streams are, not to mention the large rock piles and vantage points—it's not called Hillsborough for nothing.

One recent new moon morning, I was up earlier than usual. It was quieter and darker than usual, too, with the remains of the night creating an unfamiliar, eerie void. Usually, I can see some light on the eastern horizon; this morning, I could have been wading in black water.

As I moved from a clearing to the edge of the road, I heard heavy breathing in the distance. Perhaps our loyal dogs had followed my scent, though I'm mostly able to evade our sleeping sentries during these morning explorations. The rhythmic sounds got louder, and I considered that a horse or a donkey had perhaps slipped a neighbor's loose gate or fallen fence post.

But suddenly, two forms emerged over the rise 50 feet away, and they were closing fast. I tucked myself under the branches of a large pine tree and didn't dare move. There were no other sounds. I was a little worried: "Wait a second, this is real. This is really happening."

With a beautiful gait and impeccable symmetry, the two long-legged silhouettes ran right past me. From a distance of 10 feet, they looked at me together, but they kept up their pace. A dozen steps later, they looked back over their shoulders. I hadn't moved, but I'm sure they could hear my heart beating. I was in their world.

They, however, meant no harm. They were just on a refueling run. I was not a threat, only a witness to their independence.

We hear the coyote family howling every night now. Our dogs go crazy, and howl back. The two coyotes that shared the road with me that morning were probably heading home to their pups after nocturnal hunting. They knew our routines, when we go to bed, when we go to work. They adapt to the loggers, the seasons, the light, our own pre-dawn prowls.

I've never seen them again.

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