One night while Robert is out running, he sees a coyote ahead of him. He decides to follow the animal, and it does not seem to sense his presence or react to the gophers it passes. Suddenly, the coyote speeds up and vanishes. Robert runs after it and is led to a valley with a small lake, where the coyote has stopped for a drink of water.
Robert voluntarily enlisted in the army, yet his proclivity for running shows that he already yearns to escape the rigidity of his new life. He follows after the coyote because this wild animal roaming the prairie embodies the freedom that he craves.
Robert thinks to himself that he would like to go for a swim, reflecting that he did not go swimming last summer at his family cottage in Jackson’s Point and momentarily losing himself in a memory of Rowena.
While Robert made the decision to leave his family behind, he still longs for the innocence of his childhood, particularly the moments he shared with Rowena. He experiences an internal conflict because, although he finds comfort in these memories, they also remind him of his grief.
The coyote scales the bank of the valley and looks directly at Robert as it howls and barks. Robert thinks that maybe the animal knew he was there the entire time, and that it was now signaling to him that the valley was vacant and safe. Later that night, Robert is late getting back to the barracks and is confined there for two weeks as punishment. He spends his evenings sitting on the roof and staring out at the prairie, “wishing that someone would howl.”
Robert’s harsh punishment indicates the strict standards that military personnel are expected to uphold. Having run with the coyote and experienced a sense of total freedom, Robert feels even more stifled by his duties as a soldier.