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The highway was a miniature Gehenna. The air was as hot and thick as the blood of a man dying of fever. Every breath brought the bittersharp smell of a thousand spiny weeds and the pungent coal furnace odor of tar. The whole road was shiny with black, sticky blisters. In the distance, a vast mirage shimmered as though the ancient Tethys sea was rising from the caliche dust and cracked rock. I realized that I couldn't stay on the pavement for more than an hour or I'd get sunstroke.

I crossed the highway and walked along the barbed-wire fence beside the road until I came to a dirt ranch road. The gate was locked, so I climbed over, scorching my palms and my thighs on the hot steel slats.

I hadn't gone fifty yards down the dirt road before I got a whiff of decay. Something had died in the nearby mesquites, a big thing, by the stink of it. I imagined that a steer or horse had gone down in the brush. Curious, I left the road and pushed through the mesquite and cat-claw briars to find out what had slipped off the end of the food chain.

The smell got stronger, and I came to a clearing. Before me was a critter pit. Somebody, presumably the rancher, had dug a wide, shallow pit in which to dispose of the carcasses of all creatures, great and small and smelly.

And, God, did it stink. It was worse than the tar; my eyes were streaming. Nothing like a mass grave to clear the sinuses. I covered my mouth and nose with my bandanna and stepped up to the edge of the pit to have a look at the carnal compost.

I could see the big, half-rotted carcass of a cow, and smaller skeletons of what looked like calves or maybe sheep. Everything was jumbled together; it was hard to tell what bones belonged to what animal. The newest carcass was Canis latrans: a coyote. It was a female, her teats swollen with milk and death. She'd been shot through the head. Flies crowded in her open jaws, her lips pulled away from the teeth in a rigor mortis snarl.

I noticed two small blackened things lying near her. It took me a moment to realize they were coyote pups. From the look of what was left of their fur, they'd been burned with gasoline or kerosine. And from the way their bodies were twisted, it looked like they'd been burnt alive.

I broke out in a clammy sweat, feeling the bile rise in my throat. I had to turn away, plunge back through the brush to get away from the sight that had already been branded into my memory.

I would sleep under the stars that night, but I wouldn't sleep well.

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