1909 | Texas

Spy vs. Spy

The coyote and the skunk.

Coyote met Skunk. “Halloo, brother! I am very hungry. Let’s work some scheme to get something to eat. I will lead the way; do you follow?”—“Well, I will do whatever you propose.”—“Over there is a prairie dogs’ village. We will stay here until daylight. In the morning you will go to the prairie dog village and play dead. I will come later and say to the prairie dogs, ‘Come let us have a dance over the body of our dead enemy!’ Well, go there, puff yourself up and play dead.”

Skunk followed the directions. Coyote got to the prairie dogs. “Come, we will have a dance. Stop up your holes tight, let everyone come here. Our enemy lies dead before us. Do you all stand in a big circle and dance with closed eyes? If anyone looks, he will turn into something bad.” As they were dancing, Coyote killed one of them. “Well, now all open your eyes! Look at this one. He opened his eyes and died. Now, all of you close your eyes and dance again. Don’t look, or you will die.” They began to dance once more, and Coyote began killing them. At last one of them looked. “Oh, he is killing us!” Then all the survivors ran for their holes. Coyote and Skunk gathered all the corpses and piled them up by a creek. They built a fire and cooked them.

The life of spies is to know, not be known.

—George Herbert, 1621

“Well,” said Coyote, “let’s run a race for them! The one that wins shall have all the good fat ones.”—“Oh,” replied Skunk, “you are too swift. I am a slow runner and can never beat you.”—“Well, I will tie a rock to my foot.”— “If you tie a big one, I will race with you.” They were to run around a hill. Coyote said, “Well, go on ahead; I will catch up to you.” Skunk began to run. Coyote tied a rock to his foot and followed. Coyote said, “The one that is behind shall make a big fire, so there will be lots of smoke and we will be able to see where he is.” Skunk got far ahead and turned aside to hide. When Coyote had run past him, Skunk turned back to the meat pile. Looking back, he saw a big column of smoke rising on the other side of the hill. He took all the meat and carried it home. He cut off all the tails and left them sticking out, with two poor little prairie dogs for Coyote. Coyote thought Skunk was ahead of him. As he ran along, he said to himself,  “I wonder where that fool is? I did not know that he could outrun me.” He got back to the pile and saw the tails sticking out. He seized one, and it slipped out. He tried another one. “Oh, they are well cooked!” He tried another one. Then he got suspicious. He took a stick and raked up the fireplace, but could only find two lean prairie dogs. He thought someone must have stolen the meat. He ate the two lean prairie dogs. Skunk, lying in his den, was watching him. As Coyote was standing to look around, Skunk threw one of the prairie dog bones at him. Coyote then spied him lying in his camp. He saw all the meat around him. “Give me some of them!”—“No, we have run a race for them. I beat you. I am going to eat them all.” Coyote begged him in vain for some food. Skunk ate it all. He was a better trickster than Coyote. 

A Comanche folk tale. Originally part of the Eastern Shoshone, the Comanche lived along the Platte River in Wyoming. With the arrival of Europeans the tribe obtained horses and broke away; the name Comanche comes from the Shoshone word for “enemy” or “foreigner.” This tale of Skunk outwitting Coyote was told to ethnographer Harry H. St. Clair II and edited by anthropologist Robert Lowie, a staff member at the American Museum of Natural History, for The Journal of American Folklore