Catherine spends some quality time with her wild-animal friends

I've already seen the first rattlesnake of the season.

March 24 was that auspicious date. The bad news: This is earlier in the season than I have ever seen a rattlesnake before. You heard it here first: It is going to be a long, hot, nasty-ass summer. Occasionally, baby snakes will get it wrong, come out too early and promptly die. However, the one I saw was no baby. She was about 2 1/2 feet long and stretched out across the trail like Mae West on a divan. She had no intention of moving--for me, a horse or anyone else.

I was in the Agua Caliente Wash over on the eastside and had come out from beneath the Houghton bridge. As I rode up onto a side trail, I spotted her. I entertained the notion for a second or two that she might be a stick, until she lifted her tail just barely off the ground. She didn't hear me; strictly speaking, snakes can't hear, but since I was perched atop the back of a 1,000-pound animal, she knew I was coming. They can feel the vibrations on the ground.

Problem was, she just didn't give a damn. I often get the feeling that besides wishing we'd all go away, wildlife barely give us a second thought. She waited patiently until me and Lola the ranch dog figured out that we had to go around. When I looked back, she was still sunning herself, as peacefully as a guru. We had not disturbed her morning meditations one bit.

Wildlife encounters are common enough in the springtime. Coyotes are particularly visible, more so than at any other time of the year. They have pups and are vigilant about protecting them. There are two bands I encounter regularly. The Limberlost Crew is scattered, young and unruly, but the other is my favorite: Stumpy's Band. I have seen Stumpy and various members of his ever-changing pack regularly for the last seven or eight years.

The first time I met him, he was trying to eat my terrier. It would have been easy if I wasn't there, since she'd dug herself halfway down a varmint hole, and her ass was the only part of her above ground. Stumpy bounded out of the brush snarling and snapping like a werewolf on steroids, and as I leapt off my horse and ran after him hurling sticks, rocks--whatever I could pick up--he retreated, but just barely. Every time I'd stop, he'd run toward my dog again. She, in the meantime, had given up her hunting quest and reluctantly pulled her dust-encrusted head out of the hole. The varmint had retreated to unreachable recesses of his labyrinth.

I came that way several times afterward, sans dog, and almost always saw Stumpy in the same area. But he didn't act the same way, and it slowly dawned on me that he hadn't been worried about me at all, just my dog. As spring waned, and the heat of the summer ramped up, he seemed to disappear altogether.

People are forever incensed about coyotes going after dogs, but I think you've got to look at it from the coyotes' point of view. Like most animals, they're territorial. On those subsequent spring days when I didn't have the dog, and Stumpy had lost the aggression borne of papa-hood, he would escort my mare and me to the boundary of his patch, then vanish. To him, my having brought a dog in was probably the equivalent of a Palestinian wandering into Israeli territory, a Blood wandering into Cripville, or a Young Republican wandering into a Unitarian Church picnic.

Which doesn't alter the fact that this year, Stumpy and I had it out. He's moved--although he failed to notify me by mail--and when Lola the ranch dog and I inadvertently wandered into his area, he came after her like a lunatic. If you've never seen a coyote run flat-out, man, let me tell you, they are fast. I spurred my mare, and Lola was running as fast as she could, but he still managed to nip her in the ass. Not only that, but my $50 Shady Brady hat came off right smack-dab in the middle of his new digs. I was damned if I was going to let him keep it. So I tied Lola to a mesquite safely out of reach, got off my horse and, leading her by the reins, walked back. All the while, Stumpy sat on his haunches, watching us like a bemused spaniel. It took me a couple of minutes to find my Brady, hanging from the branch of a creosote bush. I was hot and sweaty and generally pissed off. "Stumpy, what do you have to be such an asshole for?"

He looked at me for a second, then turned and trotted off, his work finished. All throughout that day, I could never shake the feeling that somewhere, in his little coyote heart, he was laughing.