by Michæl Bergey
©2009 Michæl Bergey
|This story is a prequel to Mr. Bergeys novel New Coyote, which is available from Anthro Press.|
Coyote awoke to the tingle of powerful Medicine coursing through his bones, and opened his eyes to behold the smirking, supercilious visage of Fox.
Ive been dead again, havent I? he sighed.
Fox smirked even more broadly, licked his nose with a languorous, laughter-trembling tongue, and nodded cheerfully. Yep-yep. Big mess this timecouldnt find one tooth next to another!
With some effort Coyote heaved a lean, dun-colored body onto four lanky, sand-colored legs, and surveyed his surroundings blearily: Grass beneath his padsfresh summer prairie grass poking up through scattered glass shards and sun-bleached splinters of old pine. Nearby stood the stark chimney and debris-choked foundation of a burned out cabin. Coyote pawed at a pine fragment, sniffed it over with meticulous care, and sighed again.
Yes, I remember now. I was trying to discover the secret of dynamite. There are these soft, waxy-tasting sticks, seeand little copper peg things called blasting caps, and a thin sort of rope they call fuse. Humans worry about the sticks, but its those copper pegs that keep giving me a hard time! Especially the ones marked Acme Powder Company.
I see, Fox laughed. Youve been playing with dynamite, and so far all you can tell me is what it tastes like. Common sense suggests a little human advice might be in order here.
I dont do common sense. Common sense is for simple mortals; Im above such things.
Yes, Coyote, dear. Of course you are. Youre the god of impracticality. Would you like something to eat?
Yes, thank you very much! And thanks for bringing me back to life. I dont know what Id do without you.
I was bored.
Coyote raised his nose to drink in the rich scents of fox musk and plains dust and grama grass and Pork ribs! Barbecued pork ribs with mashed sweet potatoes and pecan pie! Imagine thatsnow on the ground when I had my little accident, and now its summer already. How late in the season are we?
Today is the Fourth of July, nineteen hundred and three by the White Mans calendar. I could have brought you back when I found you last week, but I waited a bit so Id have something nice to steal for you.
Nineteen hundred and three? Like in the new century, and all that? Ive been dead for five years! What have you done with my Spirit Children?
Spirit Children? Hold onlet me remember Spirit Children Spirit Childrenoh! You mean Cicéqi! And those other shape-shifting troublemakers she hangs around with! Why do you insist on calling them your children, anyway? We both know theyre really
Theyre fine, Coyote. How could they be otherwise? I feed them spirit-energy when they ask for it, and they take care of themselves the rest of the time. No doubt theyll turn up before long. Here, have a pig bone before they come and claim it for themselves!
Coyote ate ravenously, consuming the lions share while Fox stood back at a discreet distance, watching. Er excuse me would you like some too?
Perhaps. If its not too much trouble. Coyote stepped away from the feast while Fox ate until his belly would hold no more, then he drifted back to sniff out any missed scraps. Afterward the two canines settled down to rest companionably in the ashy dirt beneath the shade of the cabins chimney, panting softly from a surfeit of summer heat and food.
So, Sin-ka-lip my friendnow youre alive again, what are you going to do?
No more dynamite! Ive had enough of that shit. If it were springtime I could go courting
If it were springtime! When that spring rut kicks in we can talk about courting. Til then were both wasting our time. Lets go make trouble with the humans.
Works for me!
Ah, Foxjust feel the power of that unbelief around us! Theres enough ixhicoláha here to melt an illusion-shirt right off your back! Good thing we stole real human clothes to wear.
Yes, Coyote. Of course I feel it. What I dont understand is how you can enjoy the sensation. Stinking iron steam monsters! I hate railway stations. Can we leave now?
Leave if you like; Im going to talk to that man by the big stack of packing crates. Half the ixhicoláha in this station is coming from him! He looks so impatient, and so self-important. And take a gander at that hat hes wearing! Its all round on top, like a river boulderand just the color of my ear fur! I wish I had a nice hat like that. Do you think hell give it to me?
I doubt that very much. But pleasedont let me stand in your way! You talk to him, and Ill ditch these clothes and go hunt jackrabbits. Or maybe cats. Did you notice that fat tabby tom lurking behind Jasons Idle Argonaut Tavern?
Yes, I did. You save some for me, you hear?
Bring beer, and Ill consider it. Fox ran one hand through a shock of blatantly red hair and tested the air with a sunburned, liberally-freckled nose. Or cat whiskey. I smell a moonshine still nearby. He pointed toward one of the clapboard warehouses sharing a railway siding across from their platform. Its in that one, he proclaimed confidently.
Coyote sampled the air with his own nose, and carefully scrutinized the structure in question. Yes, thats the one, he agreed, turning back toward Fox.
Fox was no longer in evidence. Fluffy show off, Coyote muttered, and returned his attention to the round-hatted man. Coyote feigned disinterest and wandered away, drifted back, admired his chosen prey from all possible angles before committing himself to the final approach. In addition to his admirable Bowler hat the human sported a magnificent handlebar mustache, a travel-stained but worthy broadcloth coat, and a watch. The mans watch was of gold, like the wire frames of his glasses, and seemed to be a part of him, he consulted it so frequently. This consultation brought him no apparent pleasure, however, no matter how often he repeated it. The watch hands slow movements seemed, on the contrary, to infuriate the man.
Howdy, pardner! New round these parts? Coyote extended a leathery, coffee-colored hand for shaking, and the professor failed to respond. The man didnt meet Coyotes eyes at allmerely cocked his head to one side as if listening to something far away, then consulted his watch again. Smiling sadly, Coyote reached forward to stroke the watch face with gentle fingertips and the man absently pulled it away, consulted it one more time, then shook it doubtfully and held it to his ear.
Somethin the matter with yer watch, mister? The humans pale gray eyes roved vaguely for a moment, stopped, locked with Coyotes golden ones. From whence had this strange Indianer appeared so suddenly? And such eyes! He had never seen golden eyes in a human before. He must photograph this man! The primitive races are often sensitive about cameras, of course, so he would have to be careful how he asked
¿Señor? ¿Habla espaniol?
Oh! Excuse me! Please pardon my rudeness. I speak English quite well. How may I be of service to you?
Oh, Im fine, I reckon. Just bein neighborly. Are you waitin for someone?
I wait to meet my local guide, the round-hatted man replied. He fiddled distractedly with the stem of his watch, held it to his ear again, then reluctantly tucked it into a small, watch-sized pocket in the front his trousers.
Whats his handle?
His handle? I dont believe I understand your question?
His name. Whats the name of the man yer waitin for?
Ah; that would be Zebediah Foster. In our correspondence, he clearly indicated he was to be meeting me here upon my arrival, with a dray wagon.
Zeb Foster? Nahname dont ring a bell, but that dont mean nothin. Ive been out of touch for a spell. Dead to the world, you might say. But if yer lookin for a guide, I can do it. Me and my pardner, Todd Reynard, if he feels so inclined. Were crackerjack guides when the mood strikes us, and we know right well how the land hereabouts is put togetherhad our paws in the project from early on, so to speak.
The man extended his hand. I believe I shall consider your offer, Mister
Coyote reached forth his own hand, and shook vigorously. Latrans. Kay Latrans.
It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Latrans! I am Herr Doktor Professor Wolfgang Eisenhertz-Sklarsen, representing the Universität zu Berlin on photographic expedition to this fascinating land of yours. You may address me simply as Dr. Sklarsen, if you like. If you will do me the honor, we shall discuss your kind offer in more detail over dinner this evening. In the meanwhile, perhaps you could recommend to me a reputable
Professor Sklarsens words were drowned out by a sudden cacophony of shouts and crashes from the direction of the Idle Argonaut. Glass shattered as a heavy whiskey bottle departed the premises through a dusty-curtained side window, and seconds later a magnificent, white-Stetson-hatted red fox flew out through the same opening. The whiskey bottle burst wetly when it hit the street but the fox landed gracefullydespite a neck stretched high and twisted sharply askew to maintain a bite-grip on the elegant but very much not-fox-sized headgear balanced across its back. The fox paused for an instant to readjust its load, then leapt forward and raced down the road directly toward Coyote and Dr. Sklarsen.
Humans swarmed ant-like from the tavern entrance as the fox streaked up the steps to the railway platform, circled Coyote and the professor in one mad, frolicking, heavy-hatted dash, and with a vigorous snap of its spine launched the hat through the air to land neatly on Coyotes head. The fox shook itself briskly, bowed briefly but deeply in Coyotes direction, and lifted its muzzle to favor the neighborhood with an impassioned cascade of ear-piercing yips and howls.
Fox! Kay Latrans whispered urgently. Cut out with the barking, will you? Youll draw their attention here!
The fox smiled, nodded happily, and made itself one with the darkness beneath the foundation beams of the cat-whiskey warehouse.
Hey, you! Injun! Gimme me back my hat!
That hat, you butt-sniffin son of a bitch! The one thats sitting on top your head. The one with my name oner, maybe not. I aint got around to that yet.
Coyote straightened his lanky form to its full, not-inconsiderable height, and regarded the interloper down the length of a disdainful, splendidly well endowed nose. The man smelled of horses, and old sweat, and young whiskey. Much whiskey.
Clearly you are drunk, sir, Coyote informed him coldly. Ive sired a bitch or three in my time, but Im not the son of one. And I never laid a hand on your hat. Please go away.
The man began to roll up his sleeves while simultaneously attempting to maintain balance on a pair of treacherously unsteady legs. The operation was not going well. Liar! You sent your pet fox to steal it from me. That hat was brand new! I just bought it this morning.
Fox? I dont see any fox here. And anyway, if I wanted to steal your hat I wouldnt send some useless animal to do it; Id wait until you passed out drunk, and take it then. Coyote removed the Stetson from his head, inspected it ostentatiously, and brushed an imaginary fleck of dust from the brim. He turned to the professor. It is a nice hat, isnt it? And just my size! Fox is always so good with those little details. In one fluid movement Coyote snatched away the professors fawn Bowler and settled the milk-white Stetson in its place. Well look at thatits your size, too, Dr. Sklarsen! Would you care to trade? You can take this one home with you as a souvenir of your journey to America.
Didjadid you say Sklarsen?
Why, yes, indeed I didand a right friendly chap he is! Hes traveled here all the way from Berlin just to take pictures, and his guide never showed up so hes going to hire me instead! Isnt that right, Dr. Sklarsen?
ButIm his guideIm Zeb Foster! You know me, Perfesseryou wired me the money to get everything ready, and I did. I got the wagon, and the supplies, and I been waiting all day for your train to arrive, and
Did you pack an extra hat?
No! I didnt! That hat cost me twenty dollars, and Ill roast in Hell before I give it up.
Coyote looked thoughtful. Never been there, myself.
Zeb opened his mouth to reply, shut it again, scratched his neck in bemused concentration. What are you talking about? he offered at last. What place is it youve never been?
Hell. You was just saying you wanted to go there and I said Id never been, myself. Seems a right popular place, though. A good number of my friends have lit off that way, and folks often suggest I take myself there, too. Perhaps when the cold weather settles in this fall
Excuse me, Mr. Foster. Clearly, this hat is your rightful property. Please take it with my compliments. Dr. Sklarsen retrieved his Bowler from Coyotes head and extended the Stetson courteously in Zebediahs direction.
The man snatched his hat away, slammed it down on his head, glared balefully at Coyote. And you can be moving along now, Injun. Next time I wont let you off so easy.
But no, Mr. Foster! I must insist that Mr. Latrans remain with us! Your tardiness and intoxication have distressed me deeply, and I fear we may need to reconsider some aspects of our relationship. Mr. Latransplease accept my provisional tender of employment, effective immediately. We will begin by instructing your assistant, Mr. Foster, on the proper transport and storage of modern photographic equipment.
Professor Sklarsen extended his willow branch far out across the stream side shallows, just managing to snag and draw in the mold-fuzzed fish carcass drifting there. AhSaprolegnia! How curious to encounter it here, of all places. Mr. Reynard, kindly return that poor Cambarus diogenes to its burrow. Have you even been listening to what Ive been teaching you? Please recite to me the path taken by waters from this creek as they wend their way to the sea.
Fox brandished his writhing crayfish in Coyotes face one more time, tossed it casually into deep water, then raised himself to his entire five foot two inches of height and assumed a solemn, self-important expression suspiciously similar to the professors own. He paused a moment for silence, and began to recite: Currently were admiring and photographically recording the exquisite beauty of Mad Marmot Gorgea strangely unknown (except to more-than-naturally gifted guides such as Mr. Latrans and myself) yet truly excellent geologic feature of the Eastern Ramparts of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. From where we stand, Mad Marmot Creek bursts free from his mountainous beginnings and sidles southward to join inconspicuously with the river you call Arkansas. From there the combined waters flow eastward across the plains, passing through Pueblo, La Junta, Las Animas and Lamar here in Colorado; Dodge City, Great Bend and Wichita in Kansas; Ponca City and Tulsa in Oklahoma; then Fort Smith and Little Rock in Arkansas before giving themselves to Mississippi just upstream from Arkansas City. From that junction, Mississippi snakes his way sinuously southward through Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and New Orleans before discharging his dark, silt-laden waters into the boundless Gulf of Mexico.
Very good, Mr. Reynard! Your powers of memory are astonishing! Do you have, perhaps, a bit of Teutonic blood in you? By your surname and red hair Id consider you to be French, butas we all knowthe races of Europe share a rich and extremely complex history.
Fox raised up a sunburned hand and critically scrutinized the mud and freckle splattered back of it. In sooth I was trying for the Irish, he said. But I suppose I could be French, sil vous préférez. Nowwhat were you attempting to tell us about that rotten fish you find so fascinant?
Professor Sklarsen shook his head in bemusement. Mr. Reynardand you, too, Mr. Latransif the pair of you would deign to turn your mental gifts to productive use, there is no limit to how far you could go in the pursuit of whatever it is you actually want from life. I wish you both the best of luck in those endeavors, whatever they turn out to be. Now, where were we? Yes I was speaking of fungal hyphal necrosis. This fisha previously unreported variant of the western blue sucker, if I am not mistakenbears a luxuriant growth of Saprolegnia, or cotton mold. Saprolegnia is a pathologic fungus which invades and proliferates within the fishs mucoid epitheliumrelentlessly draining critical nutriments and vital energies until the fish perforce succumbs to its pernicious effects. Many times these fungal hyphae continue to grow even after the fishs death, sometimesas in this specimeneventually covering the body in a fur-like blanket over a centimeter thick. This fungal coat is the foundation for amusing reports of furred carp and furred trout which make their way into otherwise well-founded travelers stories from time to time.
Fox and Coyote locked eyes for a moment, then Fox tilted his head to one side and favored the professor with a wide-eyed, ostentatiously innocent gaze. Ill show you one.
I beg your pardon?
Ill show you a furred trout, if you like. You can feel how cold the water is here at the mouth of the gorge. Up above Mad Marmot Falls, the waters are so frigid even the fish in them need fur! Would you like to photograph one?
Of course not! What sort of fool do you take me for? Only mammals can grow fur! Fish most emphatically do not. Professor Sklarsen glanced up at the sky and brought out a brand new but rather ordinary-looking brass pocket watch for consultation. He frowned, raised the watch to his ear, shook it irritably. Verdamtes Steppenschmutz! he muttered, and put the watch away. Im sorry, Mr. Reynard. You and Mr. Latrans have served me extraordinarily well so far, but Ill have to decline this particular suggestion. We need to be in Colorado City by tomorrow evening, and well miss our train if we dont strike camp before the light fails. Mr. Latrans will carry the emulsion plates andMr. Latrans? Where has that man gone off to? Answering a call of nature, I suppose. Mr. Reynard, while were waiting you can assist me withMr. Reynard? Mr. Reynard! Where are you? Dont be long, if you please! We still have a considerable amount of work to do before it grows dark.
Coyotewait up! What are you plotting this time? As if I couldnt guess.
Us unedjicated country fools is gonna show the boss-man an interestin fish.
Are you crazy? You know well never find a furred trout down here below the falls! They like it best in the high country, in the snow-melt rills.
Ill do it.
You? Do you like getting killed? That trout is hardly likely to survive the photographic process. Call your Spirit Children! Theyll get one for us.
No time. And anyway, they may not be ready to grant me any favors just yet. We had a bit of a falling out shortly before that incident with the dynamite. Sometimes I suspectbut never mind about that. Its not so dangerous, really. Ill stay in the water and look handsome, and you keep the professor on dry land where he belongs. Why would he want to leave his camera, anyway? It seems to require a great deal of attention from him.
Coyote removed and carefully set aside shoes, socks, thick khaki trousers and a rather fancy-looking red plaid Pendleton shirt, and began to step gingerly out into the stream shallows. Arrgh! This water is freezing! And the rocks are slippery. Damn worthless human feetwhy do I bother with them?
Because youre jealous of the humans, and like to pretend youre one of them?
Never! I play at being human because they need reminding of how it ought to be done, and because its a way to put uppity foxes in their place. Honestly! White skin and red hairand freckles! Whatever were you thinking?
I was thinking we foxes roam the world now, and you coyotes are still confined to a single continent. I was thinking I have many worshipers with red hair and freckles. Do you? And why is this human getting you so worked up? Just walk away, if you dislike him so much. Or kill him.
Hes got power! We both feel it. He could have been a mighty shaman.
He is a mighty shaman.
Yes, and his magichis Scienceis poison to us. He symbolizes all the others who are destroying our world. So I will change him.
Coyote, dont fret so. Science is but a fad, and it will pass like all the others. Time is long.
Perhaps. Or perhaps our time is running out. I am the Changerand I will change this man, or die trying.
As you wish, comrade. Any last requests?
Coyote pretended to notice his nakedness for the first time, feigned embarrassment, then favored his partner with an obscene parody of a military salute. Yes, sir, Mr. Reynard, sir. If I fail to survive this mission, promise youll keep me out of Zebs frying pan! I know I need to be taken with a grain of salt, but that man would serve me up with ketchup and beans. I know he would. Coyote smiled, closed his eyes, and slowly filled his lungs with sweet mountain air. He held the breath within himself for a time, savoring it, then with a deep sigh he allowed it to slip away. His body sagged, then toppled backward like a felled treesplashing extravagantly and sinking promptly when it struck the calf-deep water. It did not come up again.
Coyote awoke to the tingle of powerful Medicine coursing through his bonesand the chest-thumping greeting-assault of five over-enthusiastic coyote puppies.
Welcome back, Father!
We missed you!
And we forgive you, too.
Fox invited us to a peace-offering-dinner with you!
There was more than he could eat all by himself.
We love furred troutcan we have dinner with you again sometime?
Coyote carefully extricated his pelt from the frantic tangle of puppy paws and tongues and teeth making free with it. Uh, thanks, kidsso glad I could be of service. Its good to see yall. Fox!
You could have at least tried to protect me!
I did try! But you nearly beached yourself showing off your otter-like soggy sleekness for that manand there were stream boulders everywhere. Can you blame him for picking one up and whacking you on the head with it? When I realized what he was up to, I splashed out after and tried to trip him upbut it was too late. Your doctor moves fast, for a human!
So then you all sat down together and ate me for dinner, right?
Of course not! Coyote, if you could have seen Dr. Sklarsens face you would have died laughing! He laid your poor carcass out on the beach and photographed you until he ran out of plates, then kept poking at you and babbling about impossible this and impossible thatsetting you down and picking you up a minute later to peer at some simple little part hed already looked at a dozen times. Finally he threw you over his shoulder and marched off for campcommanding me to fetch my partner and secure the photographic equipment without further delay.
So I did! I foxified myself and followed along behind, and fetched you when a rough spot forced him to set you down. That was a couple of hours ago, and hes been crashing through the brush ever since. I think hes lost nowdo you hear him calling?
Fox, this is embarrassing. I dont think my Spirit Children have ever eaten me for dinner before! It sets a bad example. Cicéqi, promise me you wont do that again?
The smallest coyote pupa femalesidled up to Coyote and licked him obsequiously beneath the chin. But you were delicious, Father! And Uncle Fox only needs a little scrap to work his resurrection magic. A bone or two would have been enough, but to show our respect we saved both your testicles! And an eyeball for luck.
Uh, right. I suppose that makes it all better Was I really delicious?
Oh, yes! And so big! I dont know how Uncle Fox managed to drag you away all by himself!
Hmmpf. Im strong enough when I need to be, Fox reminded her. Come on Coyote, shake a leg! Itll be dark soon and we need to secure ourselves some clothes and equipmentand a professor.
Can we come along too, Uncle Fox? Weve never smelled a real professor before!
Hes nothing special, Cicéqismells like fried onions and moustache wax and photographic chemicals. You havent missed much.
Whats a photographic chemical?
Itsits hard to say. Coyote! You answer! Shes your minion, so
We are not Coyotes minions! snapped the male pup to Foxs left.
Were his partners! growled the female to his right.
Sometimes he forgets, its true, offered a thoughtful voice from behind Coyotes left flank.
But we remind him, purred the toothy muzzle lurking by his right ear.
Come along, then, sweet Children! Coyote responded hastily. I wouldnt think of leaving you behind! Just dont let yourselves be seenand dont break anything unless I tell you to!
Professor Sklarsen restlessly prowled the flat, boulder-strewn banks of Mad Marmot Creekstraining his eyes to penetrate the morning-sun-dappled waters and perceive, perhaps, the faint fleeting flicker of a furred fin. As he searched he talkedbabbledto the human and not-so-human entourage trailing along behind him.
and so kraftigso powerful! How is it that one small fox could move so swiftly with such a heavy burden? The wretched creature was impossibly light upon its feet, and seemed almost to be taunting me as it ran off with that monstrous fish. I knew that the fox must eventually tire, of course, so I continued my search in the hope I might stumble upon it and thereby recover my specimen. Alas! Success had still eluded me when dusk forced an end to my search. Today we shall try again. Perhaps some fragment of the fish has been left behind, or a new specimen can be captured. Mr. Latrans, did you hear that noise? The professor turned his head away from the stream side and listened intently. There it is again! But no, it is nothingmerely the foolish yapping of a pack of coyotes. Such peculiar fancies we develop when were overwrought! For a moment it sounded to me almost like demented laughter.
Zeb cleared his throat diffidently, and spat on the ground beside him. It sounded kinda like laughin tme, too, he reluctantly affirmed. Dint you say wed be heading out to Colorado City today? If we strike camp now we can still make the night train, I reckon.
I must change my itinerary in light of this new development. Imagine: An entirely new family of fish, completely unknown to science! No, no, noa mere family will not do. We shall have to establish an entirely new order of fishes! Tricho Greek for hair or fur definitely it must have tricho in it somewhere. Trichichthyes elegans or perhapsdare I say it?Trichichthyes sklarsenii! More demented coyote laughter emanated from the nearby juniper scrub and Zeb spat again. He unslung his rifle and checked the action for smoothness. It aint right, he muttered sulkily. I seen spirits now and agin, but never like on this tripand now theyre actin up in broad daylight! Kay! You hear emwhy aint you sayin nothin about it?
No one asked me.
Well, Im askin you now. Ya got any good Injun tricks for drivin the varmints off?
You should make them an offering of your fine cooking; that ought to do it. What do you think, Todd? Do the paysans of Eire have any special tricks for this sort of thing?
Be serious, guys! Them spirits can be dangerous when they get riled! And theres snakes here, too. I seen one yesterday when I was out gettin the firewood.
Theres always snakes, Zeb. You know that.
Yeah, yeah, theres always rattlesnakes and such. They dont bother me none. This was different. This was a hoop snake!
A hoop snake! Well, nowyou dont see them much these days. Theres nothing in this world deadlier than the tail-sting of a gen-u-wine hoop snake! And fastthey say a hoop snake can catch an antelopeeven a jackalope when it has a steep enough hill to start from! Run as fast as you like, but it aint no usethe serpent just rolls on behind until its almost caught up to you, then snaps itself straight and flies tail-first through the air like a living javelin! Your only hope if a hoop snake is after you is to find a big tree to hide behind. The critters cant turn quickly when theyre going along at a good clip, so youre safe that way. Sometimes they get mad and sting the tree, of course, which kills it instantly, like it was struck by lightning. Is that the sort of hoop snake you saw? Why didnt you mention it before?
I did. I told the perfesser right off, but he dint believe me. He says there aint no such animalnor spirits neither, for that matter.
Mr. Foster, the professor replied distractedly, I never denied the existence of hoop snakes! I merely explained to you they do not possess venom, nor do they form themselves into a hoop to roll along on the ground. Hoop snake is a common colloquial term for the mud snake Farancia abacuraa large, handsome, red and gray banded creature which frequents riparian habitats like the one which surrounds us now. Is that, perhaps, what you saw yesterday? Please notify me immediately if you encounter one again, so I may capture and photograph it!
Hey, Spirits! Fox called out. Did you hear what the doctor said? The man wants to photograph himself a hoop snake, he does!
Foxwait! What are you
Shhh! Zeb hissed. Are you crazy? Dont you ever make fun of spirits like that! Theres no telling what they might do! The coyote laughter grew louder and was joined by the rustling of twigs and leaves, as if several small forms were rolling on the ground in helpless hilarity. Gradually the yap-laughter developed a strangely sibilant quality, and then laughter and leaf-rustle faded away altogether.
Spirits, Zeb called out nervously, Please dont pay no mind to what
Mr. Foster, that will be quite enough! interrupted Dr. Sklarsen. You may believe what you like on your own time, but at this moment you are a member of a modern scientific expedition, and your current credulous behavior is unbecoming of such a position. Jackals and coyotes are expected to yap from time to time, even in broad daylight! Come now; just ahead is the location from which yesterdays remarkable fish specimen was collected. I shall need your assistance in setting up my camera for some repeat exposures of the banks and stream channel. Mr. Latrans! Stand by, if you please, and await my further instructions. And Mr. Reynard I shall thank you to stand by, too.
Admit it! Youre jealous you didnt think of the snake idea yourself!
Perhaps. Coyote twisted a branch from a nearby juniper and began to peel the bark from it with his fingernails. Collected, my ass! he muttered darkly. Murdered is a better word for it!
Now, now, Fox soothed, youre not going to hold that small transgression against him, are you?
Coyote snapped his juniper switch to the ground in a vicious arcgouging a groove and throwing out a flat cascade of dirt and twig bits. I am notand will never bea specimen! he huffed.
Fox edged prudently away and eyed the nearby terrain appraisinglypaying particular attention to the bumpy but otherwise unobstructed talus slope linking the upper stream bluffs to the high bank on which they stood. I think were all specimens to the good doctor. And soon hell have a pawful of hoop snakes to add to his collection! It seems likely to me theyll be making their move right away; dont you agree?
Coyote glanced down at his mangled juniper branch, and tossed it away in disgust. A-yup. I reckon were all sittin ducks, here. No hoop snake could ask for a more perfect attack spot! Now Brother FoxI was jest wonderin now, mind youwhat do you make of that old cottonwood, yonder? Aint she a fine lookin tree? Shes thick, and solid, and and supposin we was to sort of mosey a mite closer to her? Like behind her? Just in case?
Really, Coyote! Thats not very sporting, is it? Dont you trust your Spirit Children?
Trust is such a tricky word. You gave them the snake idea, so you can be all sporting out in the open!
What are you afraid of? If you get killed, Ill just bring you back to life again! You wont feel a thing, they say. They say the venoms so deadly youre gone before you even know youre been done in.
Fox, my dear, dear friend have you ever been snuffed by a hoop snake?
No, come to think of it cant recall that I have.
Ah. I see. Maybe youre right. Perhaps we shouldCoyote! Did you hear that noise? Yes, theres one of them now! Is it Cicéqi, do you think?
A ring-shaped object was rolling sort of down the talus slope toward them. Imagine a unicyclist wheeling as slowly as possible along an unstable, hopelessly bumpy and very steep ramptwisting violently to the right, to the left, and then to the right again in a valiant attempt to preserve balance under near-impossible conditions. Now imagine the rider gone, and the seat goneand the pedals and spokes and hub. That is what Coyote and Fox saw. It was a memorable sight, and it brought them joy, of a sort.
Fluffy show-off! muttered Fox, chuckling.
Scaly show-off, corrected Coyote. Youre the fluff-head!
We foxes do have a superior pelt, for all the good it does us, Fox graciously admitted. Do you suppose mine is in danger now?
Not yet. Thats Cicéqi for sure, and it looks to me like shes posing for the camera!
Slowly the hoop snake wobbled toward Coyote and Fox, then passed them with a friendly greeting-hiss and rolled on down toward the doctor, and Zeb, and the diligently rushing waters of Mad Marmot Creek.
Dr. Sklarsen! Coyote bellowed, Can you spare us a minute o yer time? I think we found us one of them thar loop snakes, or poop snakes or whatever you call em! This ones actin mighty peculiar, thoughmust be matin season or some such, I suppose. Anyhow shes big, and shes ugly, and shes headin your way right now!
A hiss of annoyance escaped the hoop snakes mouth and she straightened her course to build up sufficient speed for a graceful double loop around the astonished doctor, followed by a gentle spiraling collapse on the stream bank directly in front of his camera.
Zeb! Quickfetch me another plate! Zeb remained rooted in place, and did not respond. Zeb, its just a snake! Please assist me now! Zeb still did not move. In exasperation the doctor fetched his own plate cassette from the transport pack, thrust it firmly into the loading slot in the back of his camera, extracted the glass emulsion plate and made his exposure. Several times he repeated the process while the hoop snake happily posed before his camerastirring only to present her sinuous jewel-scaled magnificence in new, possibly more flattering angles, or to wave her scorpion-like tail stinger in stern warning when approached too closely. When his last plate had been exposed the doctor slipped it carefully back into its light-tight wooden cassette, returned the cassette to its transport pack, and heaved the pack onto his shoulders. For a short time he permitted himself the luxury of merely looking at the frolicking hoop snakeadmiring her simply for the the beauty and wonder that was herselfthen he sighed regretfully, and called out: Kay! Todd! Whoever of you is the best marksman, kindly borrow Mr. Fosters rifle and dispatch the creature now. Rememberyou must be careful to avoid damage to the head and tail! This specimen is priceless, and must be kept as intact as possible.
The thought of sharing his beloved Winchester 1892 roused Zeb from his paralysis. With a smooth, practiced movement he unslung the rifle and cradled it ready for action. Im sorry, Dr. Sklarsen! The critter gave me a turn, is all. Im ready now.
Then by all means, sir, you shall proceed!
Zeb raised the rifle to his shoulder and the hoop snake promptly launched herself into the rushing creek waters, and was lost to view. Zebs gun muzzle tracked urgently across the water for a time; then it slowed, and rose up into the air.
Mr. Foster! Why did you fail to shoot?
It was movin too fast. You got to aim first, then shoot. Taint right otherwise.
Well, you must get that muzzle back down and keep trying! The creature may yet rise to the surface and provide you another opportunity. Todd, Kayyou patrol the banks downstream and mark where the snake comes back to land. Move!
Coyote and Fox hurried downstream, and met their hoop snake behind the very first bend. She slithered silently from the sun-warmed stream shallows and spiraled up Coyotes leg to contemplate him through a pair of shining, serpentine eyes. Howd I do, Father? she inquired modestly.
Adequately, Coyote admitted.
You were wonderful, Cicéqi! Fox enthused. Ive never seen such a gorgeous and frightening hoop snake!
Thank you! But you ought to have waited. If you think Im frightening, you should see the rest of me of my Brothers and Sisters!
A shout, a shot, and a strident shriek shattered the sylvan stillness and Zebburdened with nothing more than the clothes on his backburst frantically into view. Seconds later Dr. Sklarsenbowed beneath the weight of his precious camera and cassette packalso made his appearance. The hoop snake flashed Coyote a fang-filled smile and slipped silently into the chaparral.
Men, I have just now decided upon a change in my plans! Please proceed with me posthaste, as you are. We shall discuss the details later.
What about our gear?
Leave it! I have my camera and plates, and everything else is replaceable. Come with me now! Dr. Sklarsen didnt wait to see if his orders had been obeyed but puffed briskly downstream in the wake of his unencumbered assistant. Coyote and Fox remained where they stood.
Well, now, Mr. Latransreckon we should risk a look?
By all means, Mr. Reynard! But perhaps we ought to take our time about it. One cant be too careful, with hoop snakes! Cicéqiare you still here?
Cicéqi did not respond, so Coyote and Fox waited a few minutes, then began to work their way cautiously upstream. No hoop snakes were encountered, but they did discover five coyote pups scavenging beef jerky and salt crackers from the much-abused remnants of Zebs rucksack. The pups were wobbling, and squabbling, and smelling strongly of cat whiskey.
Cicéqi! Why the quick change-back? I thought youd all want to be showing off your sinuous glossy snakiness for me!
Snakes dont like beef jerky and salt crackers. Coyote puppies do.
Seems that coyote pups are also partial to cheap rotgut moonshine. Did you save any for me and Fox?
Uh, sorry there was only one bottle, and it wasnt even full all the way but Zeb has more at camp! We left some of that for you! A little.
Wheres the bottle? Let me see for mywhat happened to this cloth? Its not ripped; looks more like it was burned, or rotted oris that snake venom?
Yes! Dont touch it!
Coyote hastily snatched his hand away from the blackened, disintegrating fabric. Yes, of course. Is there venom anywhere else I should know about?
I hit Zebs rifle stock! one of the male pups volunteered.
I killed the tree they were hiding behind! offered a female.
I struck at Zebs hat
Not the white Stetson! Ive had my eye on that hat for
but then I changed my mind and just knocked it off. Youll find it over that waybeside your pack.
Did you strip that too?
No, were still working on Zebs. But were done now! Whats for lunch?
Beef jerky, salt crackers, and whiskey. Hope you liked it. Coyote turned in a circle to survey Zebs half-disintegrated pack, the blackened and eroded stock of Zebs rifle, and one sadly assassinated cottonwood treethe same tree he had recommended to Fox as a hoop snake shield. Impressive! Do you suppose Dr. Sklarsen will listen more carefully to the next tall tale I tell him?
The day was a Friday, the hour was early, and the patrons of Jasons Idle Argonaut Tavern were in a frolicsome mood. Disparaging laughter and crude jests flew through the main hall as they made rough sport of one of their number.
and you says you seen hoop snakes and furred trout on the same day?
No, the hoop snakes was today. The furred trout was yesterday, and I never actually seen it with my own eyes. The doctor told me about it.
Close enough! And jest where was it you encountered these mar-ve-lous critters? Didja say the place was called Mad Marmot Gorge? A days ride from here and not a one of your buddies has ever even heard of it? Well lor-dy! Aint never been a tracker like you before! Bartender! Bring Zeb here another beer! No, make it whiskey. The good stuff, mind you! We got some celebratin to do
Just outside the crowds circle of attention, Coyote and Fox savored their coworkers discomfiture while sharing bar space with two lagers of more than acceptable quality, a sad looking goldfish in a bowl, and a stuffed prairie dog. From the smoke darkened walls, many more taxidermy specimens stared down at them with dull glass eyes.
Fox lifted his beer, sipped just a little bit of it, set it carefully down again. How much longer do you suppose hell last? he inquired.
Hard to say. Long as they keep buying him free drinks, I suppose.
I forgetwas Zeb supposed to be keeping the gorge a secret?
Dont recall. Doesnt matter. None of them will everFox! Did you see that? Over thereby the empty tableI think its Coyote felt the gentle tickle of whiskers on his ankle, then the scampering prickle of rodent claws as an enormous wharf rat swarmed up his leg and onto his lap. a rat. The rat poked its head and shoulders between the buttons of Coyotes shirt, backed out when the rest of it didnt fit, then stretched its body upward to bring front legs and head to the level of the bar top. Whiskers quivering, it sniffed eagerly toward Coyotes beer and slapped the bar edge emphatically with one small paw.
Coyote reached forward to spill a little beer from his glass onto the counter edge, forming a foamy puddle just within rat-tongue-reach. He leaned forward to protect his new companion from casual view and the rat lapped furiously until the puddle was gone. It sighed, belched, groomed its face clean, then beamed up at Coyote with a bold, beady eye.
Greetings, Cicéqi! Coyote whispered. Why no concealment magic? And why so large? Dont you think a wee little mouse would be easier to hide?
The rat belched again. Too easy! No sport to it. More beer, please.
Coyote let slip another dribble of beer, noticing as he did that Fox had also hunched himself forward, and was unobtrusively creating a beer puddle of his own.
Thats two of you. Where are the others?
Here and there. Youll notice soon enough.
Clinking sounds behind the bar brought Coyotes attention to a large rat dragging off an even larger bottle of something alcoholic, exotic, and expensive, and then a flicker of movement aloft led his eyes to the main taxidermy display where two of Cicéqis pestilential cohorts were making improper overtures to a stuffed jackalope buck.
Hey! Whats goin on here? Rat claws skittered and a dusty jackalope trophy crashed to the floor as the Argonauts bartender stormed wrathfully back to his station.
Lordy! Did you see that?
The ruttin rats, thats what!
The main hall had grown silent, and all eyes were focussed on the bartender. Fox drained his glass, then noisily slammed it down on the bar top. More beer, bartender! An it shall be free ocharge, if you please! Tis a year o me life yeve taken from me! Nought but the merest breath of wind an that moth-eaten monstrosity comes crashing down from on high, near as damn-all takin me eye out with its antler! Ill be expectin a drop o compensation for me sufferin, and thats for certain!
That wasnt no wind! It was a pack o
Hush! Fox whisper-hissed. Have you no sense, man? I didnt see any rats. How about you, Kay? Did you notice a rabble of filthy, disgusting, and no doubt illegal rats dancing about on the table tops here?
Coyote drained his own glass and nudged it discretely forward for a refill. He peered diligently at the floor, under the nearby tables, and behind the bar. Nope. No rats here today! Mustve been a trick of the lightand the noise of that jackalope thing falling down. Looks like it hit pretty hard! One of the antlers has come off.
The bartender refilled the proffered vessels, then picked up his damaged jackalope and brought it into the harsh and unnaturally steady illumination of the electric lamp by his till. Small harm done, he proclaimed after a moments careful inspection. A drop of Elmers gluell put er to rights. Sorry for your inconvenience, sir! he added loudly for the benefit of his more distant and less rat-savvy audience.
Coyote sprawled himself across the counter to get a closer look at the jackalope, but as he did so the electric lamp flared suddenly, and grew dark.
Damn! Why do I even bother with these newfangled things? the bartender muttered irritably. Gas lights are cheaper and a lot less trouble. He brought over a kerosene lamp, and Coyote continued his investigation under illumination of a more practical nature.
Not a bad mount! Is it for sale?
No, all these trophies are just for decoration. Folk expect it Coyote extracted a large gold coin from his pocket and set it beside the jackalope. of us. This one is damaged, though. Might be about time for it to be retired.
Coyote gathered up his new-bought jackalope and its broken antler, and brought them back to his bar station. Lookie what I got, Fox! Aint he cute? He looks good enough to eat! Too bad the critters aint real, like hoop snakes and furry trout and such. Id love to introduce one to our professor friend!
The bartender grunted ruefully. Theyre real enough to put me back a ten-spot for a replacement! Got to do it, though. Folksll be missing that one. But dont worryyouve more than paid your way so far. If you need another drink, or a bite to eat, just let me know. We got steaks, of course, and prairie oysters tonight for them thats fond of em. And if you need a room, or a companion
An annoyed voice intruded from Zebs circle of admirers. Bartender! You forget our drinks? Since when do Injuns and Irishmen get special treatment here?
Since they pay their way with cash money, thats when! The bartender turned back to Coyote and winked conspiratorially. Dont you give him no mind. This is an open bar and he knows it. Even Injuns can drink here, as longs they watch their manners and dont get too drunk. You need anything, just give me a holler. My name is Jason.
The bartender busied himself with bartender things and later, when the mans duties had taken him elsewhere, Coyote felt the prickle of mouse claws scrambling up his shirt and onto his shoulder. Mouse whiskers tickled his ear and the distinctive bitter-floral-anise fragrance of absinthe wafted to his nostrils. We could make them real, you know
You could, now, eh? Real jackalopes? That would be in the usual manner, I presume
Yes, indeed! We already asked, and the Old Magic told us yes!
Already? My, weve been busy! Foxdid you hear that? My Spirit Children have invited me to a creation party! Care to join us?
Hmm he is kind of cute sure, Ill do it if I get to be the male.
You were the male last time.
Male spiders dont count! How did you ever talk me into that, anyway?
Just like we are right now. We argued, and you won.
Fine. Ill be the jackalope buck, and you can give up shape shifting and strong magic for your pregnancy, then devote who knows how long to rearing our adorable little jackalope kits. Or fauns. Or faukits. Why do the humans call them jackalopes, anyway? Those are deer antlers on his head, not antelope horns. They should name them jackadeers, or stagbunnies or some such.
Aw, Foxdont be a grump! Hes an interesting critter no matter what you call him. How about a wager?
What do I have to gain?
Youll be the progenitor of a whole new species! Isnt that good enough for you? Coyote held up the jackalope for closer inspection. Look at him! The humans love these guys! Theyre already telling stories about em, and they dont even exist yet. Think of what will happen when theyre real!
What sort of wager?
Well present ourselves just the way we are now, and the Old Magic will decide! No doubt it will choose the more manly of us to be the buck.
No, your Spirit Children will cheat for you. They always do.
Cicéqi! You wont do that, will you? Let Fox feel the truth!
Fox reached forward to rest his finger tips gently on the Cicéqi-mouse. He tilted his head to one side as if listening carefully, then nodded thoughtfully. Yes. I agree to your wager. We will present ourselves tonightjust the way we arewith no pre-transformations or other magical trickery.
Excellent! May the best man win. Coyote banged his glass noisily on the counter top. BartenderJason! How many of them prairie oysters ya got left? Never mindIll take em all!
What was thatprairie oysters? All of them? Got plans for the night, eh?
Could be Coyote leered surreptitiously at Fox and softly mimicked the grunting call of a whitetail buck in rut.
Coyote! We agreed thered be no cheating!
You said no magical cheating. Nothing magical about prairie oysters!
Right. Say, Jason my friendwhat sort of tonics ya got here?
Tonics? You mean patent medicines? Well theres Coca Cola, of courseits sweet and easy to down, and the cocaine infusion gives it a nice kick. And we have a couple bottles of Dr. Smiths Sure-Fire Hangover Preventative and Breath Freshener. That has cocaine too, but with a slug of opium to mellow it out. Its kind of bitter, but it does the job. And then theres
No, I mean tonic like inyou knowlike the prairie oysters, but stronger
Oh! That kind of tonic! We keep Madame Bovarys Confidential Cordial for that problem, but were fresh out right now. The only thing I got on the premises is never mind.
Never mind what?
Its good stuff, but you cant afford it.
How do you know I cant afford it?
I can tell from the way youre dressed. Kenneth Los Lascivious Love Elixir is only for the
Im sorry sir, but thats not enough
Yes, sir, that will do.
Why, Coyote! That was very gentlemanly of you!
Im not a gentleman. I bought it for myself. What good is gold if you cant use it to get what you want?
I have gold too! Here and there. Ill pay you back
Do you have any with you?
I do. Bartender, Ill have my tonic, if you please!
With reverent hands Jason brought forth a small porcelain bottle sealed in gold foil and crimson wax. The label was written entirely in Chinese and featured a frolicking gold-leaf dragon of a blatantly male persuasion. Carefully he cut away the seals, extracted the cork, and poured out a tiny measure of dark brown, syrupy liquid. That should be about right for a man your size. A little bit goes a long way!
Coyote raised the glass to his nose. Musky, aromatic, plenty of alcoholsmells like a pretty standard formula, but well brewed. What do you think, Todd?
Fox took the glass, sniffed carefully, then tossed the contents down his throat. I think its pretty tasty for a love tonic. Thanks, Kay!
Coyote glared balefully at Fox and snatched up the bottle of Kenneth Los Lascivious Love Elixir. He raised it to his lips and drained the contents without pausing for breath.
Jason was shaking his head slowly and regarding Coyote with a pitying expression. He retrieved the empty bottle and glass, examined them ruefully, and set them in the empty wash basin behind the bar. You shouldnt have done that, he said.
Coyote laughed. Dont worry about meI have an exceedingly tough constitution!
Youd better! Ill have to ask you to leave nowits bad for business to have patrons die on the premises. The hospital is four blocks south of here, on the tracks just like we are. Dr. Los elixir kicks in pretty quickI recommend you take yourself there while you still can. Tell em you think youve been poisoned and require an emetic right away. Up with you, now! Can you make it out on your own feet, or would you like a little assistance? Behind Jasons back, and out of Foxs angle of view, a small grey mouse licked the last dregs of Lascivious Love Elixir from Foxs glass, shuddered, and scampered unsteadily out of Coyotes sight.
Coyote rose to his feet and favored the bartender with a gracious bow. Thank you for your hospitality, Jason! You have been a thoughtful and honest host. Perhaps we shall meet again some day. He turned to Fox and shrugged his shoulder for him to come along. Ready to face your fate, mate? he whispered softly.
Fox shared a brief, commiserating glance with the bartender, gathered up the stuffed jackalope and its broken antler, and followed behind Coyote without a word.
The street outside Jasons bar was lit by a single gas lightand deserted except for a rambunctious pack of five mismatched street mongrels. The cool evening breeze carried the scents of sage, and absintheand estrus bitch strong enough even for human nostrils! Coyote sniffed the air suspiciously, snorted, then knelt down to hug a large, lanky hound dog with white fur and red ears. You little tease! he laugh-hissed. I should mount you right here and see what comes of it! Cicéqi flipped her tail aside and pushed her flank hard up against Coyotes chest. I dare ya! she taunted. Coyote began to unbuckle his belt but the other dogs pushed between them singing: Jackalopes! Jackalopes! Dont forget the Jackalopes! Follow us, follow usseize your fate now, while you can! Come this way, to the riverside! Its dark among the willows of Arkansas bank, and hes prone to flash floods this time of year. The humans wont bother us there.
Coyote rose to his feet and looked from Cicéqi to Fox, and back again. He was breathing heavily, and shifting his waistband to settle over-tight trousers a bit more comfortably. All right, all righthave it your way, but lets get on with it! Someone is gonna get humped real soon!
Coyote marched off in the wake of his spirit-dog pack while Fox Fox nodded to Coyotes retreating back, smiled sneakily, and broke the second antler from the stuffed jackalope he was holding. He thrust both antlers into his pockets, tossed aside the de-antlered taxidermy mount, and circumspectly trailed the pranksters parade and Cicéqis entrancing scent.
Coyote! Cant you see anything at all? Hererest your hand on my back and Ill lead you along. Fox! Stay where you are and youll have some help in a minute. Cicéqi led Coyote to a flat, dampish area abuzz with mosquitos and lit by starlight alone. She sang softly, a single long note, and the mosquito-buzz grew silent. Ah, Fox! There you are. Are you ready?
Fox removed his clothes and placed the deer antlers on his head, holding them firmly in position with both hands. He knelt down in the darkness and nodded toward the sound of Cicéqis voice. Ready!
Yes, I see you are! Cicéqi laughed. Ready, Coyote?
Coyote felt dizzy, and his skin had grown exquisitely sensitive. His hand was still resting on Cicéqis shoulders and he gave them one long caress, then stepped reluctantly away. He pulled off his clothing, lowered himself gingerly onto hands and knees, and closed his eyes in anticipation. Im ready, he whispered.
Excellent preparation! Cicéqi laughed. Youre both mindless with lust, and I am too! The Old Magic will be pleased. Cicéqi filled her lungs, paused, then breathed out a single sharp note that pierced straight to the marrow of Coyotes bones. Coyote gasped, transfixed, as the other Spirit Children joined Cicéqi in a Medicine Song that was complex, and playful, and shamelessly erotic. His senses grew dim and his thoughts began to unravel but he made no effort to fight the processwillfully abandoning himself to the dubious dominion of his five Spirit Children and their fickle ally, the Old Magic.
Whispering willow-leaf-rustle beguiling lust-musk-scent tentative, snuffling tail caress Eyes still closed, Coyote stretched forward and lifted upward at the touchspine base tingling and ears flushing hot as Foxs velvety jackalope nose seized the opportunity to tickle its way into more sensitive territory. Ah, Foxyoure too good to me. And such a gracious loser you are! No, dont stop! In a minute Ill return the favor. I love that new scent of yours! Its nice so nice never thought a jackalope doe would smell so much like a buck in rut, though. Old Magic has such a sneaky sense of humor! Foxs delightful nuzzling paused for a moment and Coyote heard something rather like a stifled chuckle, then the nuzzle-strokes danced their way swiftly up onto Coyotes back, and a pair of powerful jackalope forelegs clamped themselves firmly around Coyotes flanks. Thrusting movements, a distinctly intimate touch, andFox! What are you doing?
What does it feel like Im doing?
Coyote hopped free from Foxs amorous embrace and snapped open a pair of dark-sensitive jackalope eyes to behold the handsome, antlered visage ofFox? Whatno! How did you do it? I drank enough love potion to excommunicate a convent!
Fox raised a fluffy front paw to pat one of the antlers fondly. Dont you recognize them? These are the antlers you bought from Jason an hour ago! Tell me pleasespeaking as the beauteous and fertile doe you have becomeare they not irresistibly seductive?
No! Those are my antlers! Give them back!
Sorry, too late. But I have a different sort of horn I can give you Fox nuzzled the soft fur beneath Coyotes jaw, then began to stroke his way up and behind her long, sensitive jackalope ears.
Coyote nuzzled back, trembling, then jerked herself away. FoxI dont think Im ready for this! Did I really lose the bet? I should be seducing you right now! I think I need a little more time Coyote twisted around to nose frantically under her tail, and Fox joined her in the exploration.
Time for what? Youre as ready as I am! Assume the position, please. Fox stroked delicately with his muzzle and Coyote shuddered at the touch, then scrabbled to her feet and kicked out vigorously with all four of themlaunching herself straight up into the air, then off into the willow tangles with great long zigzag leaps. She stopped, suddenly, for no particular reason, and Fox was right there beside herpressing his shoulder against hers and forcing his chin firmly down across the top of her back. Coyote bunched up her haunches to leap again but then she hesitated, savoring the sensation, and yielded to the craving for just one long, sensuous stretch. When the stretch was over Coyote found herself chest down and tail up, with ears flattened in submission and rump elevated invitingly. Fox was on her in an instant, grasping her flanks again and probing his way competently toward the proper spot. Nowait! I didnt mean it that way! Hold on a bit
Fox didnt answer, and Coyote couldnt quite muster the will to wiggle her way free. Foxs scent was intoxicating, and his missed thrusts maddening, and even as she protested she was adjusting her posture just that little bit to help
Fox stopped his movements, but made no other response.
Uncle Fox, I can tell youre busy right now, but
Yes! I am busy right now! Please go away. Coyote and I have a very important matter to attend to.
Yes, we can see that! But theres another matter you must attend to first.
The weight on Coyotes back disappeared, and she whipped around to find Fox in astonished confrontation with another jackalope buck.
NahIm one of the other minions. Put up yer tines, varmint! The new jackalope poked tentatively at Foxs shoulder and Fox snapped his antlers down to parry the attack, then converted his defensive momentum into a powerful offensive lunge. His opponent was caught off balance, but managed a hasty recovery before Fox was able to press his advantage. The two jackalope bucks strove in ernest thenclashing antlers and tearing great furrows in the damp ground with the strength of their leaps and recoveries. Feints and strikes became a blur of frenetic motion until the interloper was thrown helplessly through the air, landing in an untidy confusion of unbalanced limbs and upside down antlers. Fox leapt forward to thrust both antlers into the exposed belly of his opponent, but at the last instant he held back his strength so that the attack caused little harm. Yieldor next time I wont be so gentle! he demanded.
I yield! the defeated jackalope confirmed, and Fox stepped back to permit him to hobble away.
Chest heaving, antlers raised in triumph, Fox stood alone and victorious on the field of battle. He savored the heady feeling for a time, then turned his attention back to Coyote, his rightful
Uncle Fox! Can I play, too?
Wait a minutewho are you? How many of you are there?
Five. Were always five. Or one. It depends on your point of view.
But how many of you are jackalope bucks?
Five. The Old Magic got carried away and transformed us all. Defend yourself!
Fox defended himselftesting at first, then tearing into the new intruder with an energy even greater than he had shown before. Two more jackalope bucks drifted into view but they didnt join the battle. Not yet. Coyote watched in apprehensive fascination as the current duel grew more intense. Many many years had passed since Fox and the Spirit Children had fought together! This contest was still a game to them, but
Do you like it?
Coyote whipped around to find Cicéqi looming close beside her. Cicéqi in jackalope buck form.
Do I like what?
Do you like being fought over like this? We hope so! Its a lot of work!
It is nothing of the kind! You silly males are fighting because you like it better than sex. Honestly! I wont say I volunteered to be the female, but its done now and Im not quite foolish enough to spurn Old Magics gift by changing that small fact. So here I standalone, outsmarted, flagrantly in heat and exquisitely availableand all Fox wants to do is play with his silly little horns.
Antlers. Goats have horns, deer have antlers.
And jackalope bucks have hot tempers!
Yes, it appears we doouch! That hurt! Did you see what Fox just did? Nice move! If he tries that trick again well have to er where were we? Yeswe were talking about sex. Well, you see I tend to be female most of the time, but right now Im not and with Fox and the rest of me so busy, and you just standing here all neglected and unappreciated it seems if its not too much trouble while were waiting, could you share that lovely warm place between your haunches with me?
Cicéqi! How can you
Of course. I should have known; you didnt really mean all those things youve been promising me since we left Jasons bar. It was all just more Coyote talk, I guess
Cicéqi! No! I did mean them!
Very wellif you did mean themprove it to me now!
Coyote sighed, not unhappily, and assumed the position.
Coyote, I still cant believe you just raised your rump and let Cicéqi take advantage of you like that. Taking advantage of you is my job!
Coyote rubbed her cheek fondly against the shoulder of her valiant new jackalope mate. You did well enough when your own turn came! she purred.
Yes, but when we made our bargain I never thought Id have to share you!
That took me by surprise, too. It all did. But the look on your face when you first realized what Cicéqi was doing to me it was priceless!
Ill bet it was! I wonder if well ever figure out which of us is how many kits does a jackalope kindle, anyway? Or is kindle even the right word? Or kits?
You can call them kits. Ill call them trouble. If the Old Magic shows its usual sense of humor Ill pop out a dozen of emor one enormous, groin-splitting calf. I dont know why I persist in dealing with that
noble and powerful and sadly misunderstood co-creator of our World.
And personal creator of you and me.
Yes, indeed! Whatever was I thinking? Lets change the subject. Coyote nosed wistfully at the ample equipment Fox now carried beneath his own tail. Hows that extra horn you like so much to share with me? Is it ready yet for another go?
Er not quite yet. Soon.
Oh, never mind, then. Ill just call over Cicéqi or one of the other
Listen! Do you hear that voice? It sounds like Zebediah. Bars must have closed for the night.
O bury me not on the lone prairie.
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of the youth who lay
On his dying bed at the close of day.
O bury me not on the lone prairie
Where the wild coyote will howl oer me
Hey! Hes singing my song! Coyote lifted her head to the starlit sky and let forth an eerie, jackalope-flavored parody of a coyote howl. Fox joined her, and other voices from the nearby darkness. Zebs voice grew quiet.
Zebediah! Coyote called out in an unearthly, jackalope-banshee keen. Zebediahfoolish mortalyou have awakened the Spirits!
Spirits! Im sorryI didnt mean to rile you up! Please, you just settle down easy-like and Ill git myself away from here right quick. You wont hear no more singing from me tonight, you can count on that!
But we like you singing! Sing us another song about coyotes! Or rabbits. You can sing about romantic rabbits, if you like. Or anything with antlers and a bad attitude.
Well, uh I dont know cant say as I recall any songs like that
None at all? Thats very disappointing, Zebediah! Perhaps were displeased with you after all
No! Wait! I can sing Home on the Range!
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play
The words of your song are not quite right. Try singing Where the deer and the jackalope play.
Are you joshing me? FellasI admit you had me suckered for a minute, but Im on to your game now. Come out and show yourselves!
Coyote crept forth from the darkness and stationed herself directly behind Zebediahs earnestly intent, if unsteady form. She snorted loudly and the hapless human whipped around in a panic, almost falling over in the process.
Zebediah noticed the small furry creature crouched on the street before him and sighed in extravagantly intoxicated relief. Well, gol-lee! Just a gosh-derned jackrabbit! Go on, youshoo! Why are you just standing there like that? You got rabies, or something? If I had my gun with me Idwhats that?
Fox had crept into the circle of lamplight and stood now close beside Coyoteears flattened and antlers raised threateningly. Behind Zeb sounded a hiss like a hoop snake and the human twisted back to encounter five more aggressively antlered jackrabbits or spirits.
Uh-oh. Zebediah bowed his head and attemptedwith limited successto return his attention to Coyote without quite turning his back on any of the other apparitions. SpiritsIm truly sorry Ive offended you. I swear I never meant to! Can I make it up to you somehow?
Coyote rose to her haunches and regarded the human through a lambently lamp-lit eye. Perhaps. Thats a mighty fine new hat youre wearing! Would you care to part with it?
A tragic, thunderstruck expression replaced the look of terrified awe that had previously marked Zebediahs features. Wordlessly he lifted his hands to his head, removed the cream-colored Stetson, and carefully placed it on the ground. Coyote hopped forward and sniffed the hat carefully from brim to crown, then nudged beneath it and stood on her haunches with the hat balanced on the top of her head, and the brim dangling ludicrously at the level of her belly. Hey guys, she called out in a muffled voice, look! Im a parlor lamp!
Fox flipped the hat away with his antlers and pressed himself close against Coyotes flank. And I am the spark that shall set you aflame!
Coyote cuddled close for a moment, then curled around and ostentatiously investigated her nether regions. Hmmmseems to be a problem down here. My wick is missing, and I cant quite recall where I left it.
Fox insinuated a companionable foreleg across Coyotes shoulders and whispered conspiratorially, You lost it in a bet, remember? But you can borrow mine!
You told me youre not ready yet!
Now I am. We jackalope bucks recuperate quickly.
Er yes, Spirit?
Keep your hat for now. This irresistibly antlered jackalope buck will cover me instead. Carry on with your song, please!
Uh sure you bet whatever you say. Just let me catch my breath a bit and Ill get right to it
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the jackalope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
Yes, that will do. It pleases us. Sing it louder, though! Sing it til you get back to your room
or any other time you think we may be lurking about, and it will save you a worse fate. You may leave us now.
Yes, Spirituh, Spirits, Ill do thatAnd the skies are not cloudy all day
Foxthat was one smooth invisibility spell you used on the night clerk! I hardly felt it at all.
Didnt take much. The man didnt want to see usjust like Dr. Sklarsen doesnt.
Too true. Looktheres light coming out from under his door. I wonder if hes still awake! Coyote backed up to the professors hotel room door and thumped emphatically with a hind foot, filling the hallway with her thrumming cadence. The door opened immediately and a disheveled, wild-eyed Dr. Sklarsen confronted the interloping jackalope pair.
Fox rose to his full two foot six of height and inclined a majestically antlered head in greeting courtesy. Guten Abend, Herr Professor!
Coyote sat up on her own haunches and nodded a leanly attractive but otherwise unremarkable jackrabbit head in the professors direction. Howdy, pardner!
Herr Doktor Professor Wolfgang Sklarsen did not return the greetings. He merely stood stood there in his doorway, a dazed expression frozen onto his countenance. Coyote and Fox waited on the threshold for a few seconds, then invited themselves inside for a look around.
Photographic plate boxes were everywhere, some of them open, and on the bedside table one particular plate was propped intimately close to a brightly-burning kerosene lamp. A jewelers loupe, an empty wine bottle, and an empty cup also shared the tables surface.
Coyote hopped onto a chair and peered closely at the photo plate. Look, Fox! Its Cicéqi!
Fox hopped up and admired the photo plate as well. In exquisite scientific detail it revealed a close-field negative rendering of sunlit mountain stream boulders, a single flood-battered cottonwood seedling, and Cicéqis scandalously impossible hoop snake form
Four ample jackalope ears snapped erect at the sound and oriented instantly on its source. That source was Dr. Sklarsen, securing the lock on his door.
Coyote and Fox turned to each other and shared a lazy, lagomorph grin.
Well will you look at thatthe doctor wants to capture us! Coyote remarked conversationally. When Im a scrawny, dirt-colored coyote everyone wants me to go away. But as a scrawny, dirt-colored bunny, why, Im just too popular for words!
Maybe Im the one he wants. An antlered jackrabbit would make an excellent scientific specimen, dont you think?
And talking jackrabbits are not worth his trouble?
Were talking with the help of our magic. The professor probably cant even understand us.
Zeb understands us.
Zebs an ignorant yokel. Our professor is of much finer clay. Hey! Professor Sklarsen! Can you understand what Im saying? Professor Sklarsen was staring raptly at his two jackalope captives, but he made no direct response to Foxs words.
Coyote laid her ears back in annoyance. This human is dense, she growled. I gift him with furred trout, hoop snakeseven create a new species just for his amusementand hes still stuck in his old ways! Lets sing for himmaybe that will break through the walls. A human song. One he already knows. Whats a good song for a slow-witted ivory tower escapee?
Once upon a midnight dreary
I said a song! Coyote hopped down from her chair seat perch and stood up on her haunches, neck extended and ears trailing gracefully down the length of her back. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do
she began. Fox oozed up beside and pressed a testosterone-fevered cheek close against hers.
Im half crazy, all for the love of you he crooned in honeyed harmony.
It wont be a stylish marriage
I cant afford a carriage
But youll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!
Dr. Sklarsen hefted his wine bottle, eyed its implacable emptiness sadly, and set it down again. What are you creatures? he inquired plaintively.
Were jackalopes! Coyote and Fox replied in unison.
Jackalopes. I dont think Im familiar with the term.
Coyote licked a forepaw clean, then ran it carefully down the length of one elegant ear. Thats cause youre from Germany. They know all about us out here in the sticks.
I am not from Germany! Professor Sklarsen admonished sternly. I just work there. My homeland is Prussia.
Coyote eyed Fox mischievously. Do you suppose hed enjoy a visit to our homeland? she whispered.
Dont tempt me, Fox muttered in reply.
Im so sorry, but I didnt quite catch that. You were saying youre jackalopes, were you not? I assume thats in reference to the North American steppe hare referred to locally as jackrabbit? I must acknowledge theres a certain resemblance.
Coyote hopped forward to sniff the humans shoe and rub her chin fondly against his ankle. Dr. Sklarsen, Im so proud of you! she gushed. I never thought youd learn to accept magical talking animals so easily!
Im a scientist. Ive been trained to have an open mind. Please dont insult it by speaking to me of magic and such rot. Youre a clever puppet, perhapsor a drunken hallucination of some sort. The truth will come to light eventually.
If were hallucinations, why did you lock your door?
It seemed a sensible thing to do at the time.
Coyote hopped back up to her chair perch and braced both forelegs against the delicate milk-glass base of the professors table lamp. Since youre such a sensible fellow, perhaps youll sensibly open that door again before I cover your floor with broken lamp bits and burning kerosene.
Dr. Sklarsen opened the door, and the two jackalopes utilized it immediately. When she was safely in the hallway Coyote turned back to the professor and waved a flippant forepaw in his direction, then nudged Fox with her shoulder and turned to go.
Wait! Dr. Sklarsen cried. It was an error on my part to try to hold you, I admit that. But Ive released you now. Will I see you again?
Perhaps youll hallucinate us again if you drink enough wine. I recommend Jasons tavern, just a couple of blocks south, on Main Street. Nice atmosphere theremuch better than drinking alone in your room. Tell the bartender Kay is doing just fine, and took no harm from his elixir overdose.
Kay? As in Kay Latrans, my guide? Do you know him?
Intimately. I am Kay.
And Im Todd! Fox added brightly. Kay may beoccupiedfor a while, but Ill be in human form and back to work in a few days, just as soon as weve concluded some important business together. See you then! Fox bumped Coyote sharply with his shoulder, knocking her over, then sank claws in carpet and hurled himself down the hallway and around a corner in three tremendous bounds. Coyote recovered her balance and scrabbled away after him an instant latershouting something about burying her hat on the lone prairie when she caught up with it. Dr. Sklarsen stood staring after the apparitions for a long, long time, then bemusedly shook his head and returned to his roomwhere he went to bed, but most definitely not to sleep.
Greetings, Dr. Sklarsen! How you keeping, my man? Did you miss us? Do we still have a job?
Wolfgang Sklarsen lifted his gaze from the beer glass before him and beheld Todd Reynard in human form, fully if dustily clothed, and unremarkable except for the lanky, insolent-looking jackrabbitor jackalopeperched on his left shoulder.
You certainly took your time! he replied in a tight, strained voice. This is the last night I was going to wait for you. My photographs are on their way to Germany even as we speakalong with that curiously corroded stock from Mr. Fosters rifleand Ill be taking the first morning train north. Mr. Foster is gone already. He has left in my care a gun, a hat, and a story no man but myself could possibly believe.
Without waiting for an invitation Todd entered Dr. Sklarsens bar booth and seated himself across from the professor. Youre ready to travel? Excellent! Kay and I have something really special to show you this time!
Did you say Kay? Kindly tell me where Kay Latrans is at this moment.
The jackalope creature leaned forward on her shoulder perch and glared across at the doctor. Im right here, you idiot! she hissed.
Dr. Sklarsen inhaled deeply, then emptied his lungs in a long, heartfelt sigh. Looking straight at Kay he remarked softly, I was afraid you were going to say that. Why is it that the people around us pay no attention to you? Are you truly a hallucination, after all? Am I going mad, perhaps? That would be a convenient way for me to deal with this situation
Kay looked sidelong at the doctor and twisted her features into a truly disturbing parody of the Cheshire Cats grin. But were all mad here! she purred. She held the pose for a moment but, sadly, chose not to fade conveniently away. Instead she drop-hopped smoothly to the table surface and glide-hopped forward to nuzzle Dr. Sklarsens hand. The hand jerked at her touch, but did not pull away.
Nah nah nah, Professor, the jackalope soothed, dont you fret none. The other humans arent noticing us because were just not very interesting to them just now. Its a little trick we spirits use when we dont wish to be bothered. When you want that glass refilled you should let us know, cause I dont think Jason is going take care of it anytime soon!
Now, we were going to tell you about the next great thing for you to photograph. Youll never guess what we have in mind for you this time!
Wordlessly Dr. Sklarsen removed his glasses, polished them with a spotlessly clean handkerchief, carefully settled them back in place. Sadly he shook his head and returned his gaze to the small furred entity before him. I must agree, he sighed. Never shall I guess. Please tell me.
Kay rose to her haunches and gazed earnestly into the professors pale gray human eyes. Sasquatch! she whispered breathlessly. Were going to guide you to Sasquatch! This time of year hes usually way out of reach in the high country, but he has this irresistible craving for
No, Dr. Sklarsen interrupted. Thank you all the same, but I think I have all the mystery I can possibly handle standing right here before my eyes. Sasquatch will have to reveal his secrets to some other, more intrepid explorer.
Kays ears drooped for a moment, then stood up jauntily again. So Im all the mystery you can handle? Thats nice, I suppose. What dark secrets would you like me to reveal? Do you yearn to blast your enemies with unspeakable curses? Travel to the other Worlds? Shape-shift? I cant shift myself right now, but Im not entirely without resources. Mr. Reynard, for example, is quite gifted in that field, and this tavern would provide a most convenient locus for the magic. Our surroundings here have a delightfully credulous ambiance to themnot at all like that difficult train platform where we first met. If your soul is driven to truly understand this World, you really ought to try scenting it through a different nose.
Perhaps we should begin with something a bit more prosaic. Ill need to photograph you, of course, and perform a proper physical examination, and then
Kay flopped backwards onto the table top, splayed wide her haunches, and slipped both front paws coyly behind her neck. Oh, Wolfgang! she crooned in a sultry voice, I thought youd never ask! Go aheadexamine meI dont mind.
Stop that! Dr. Sklarsen snapped. It isits obscene! And even were it not, I would need more privacy and much better light to conduct a proper examination. And even the written word would not do me any good; Id have to bring you back aliveor ship home your dissected and preserved corpsebefore my colleagues would accept my report.
Kay shifted back into the traditional hunchbacked lagomorph sitting posture, and rocked her ears demurely to Todd. Did you hear that? The doctor wants to be alone with meand hes going to carry me off to his lair in Berlin!
Todd laughed, I think your virtue, such as it is, is safe enough with him! And anyway youre out of heat now, and will be until your kits are born. Why dont you go with him? Berlin is a wicked, wicked city, almost as bad as Paris. Youll fit right in there.
Fox er Todd, you know I dont like to be away from my people for long. I get homesick.
Thats not homesickness, its hunger. If you like, I can tag along and feed you the life energy you need.
Hmmthat is a thought. Is Berlin really that wicked?
Well, you know that human cities are all about the same when it comes to thatbut the European ones have had more time to practice. And they have some really excellent restaurants!
Wolfgangpromise youll take me to Berlin!
I beg your pardon?
Silly humanyou know you want to! Promise me.
I really dont think I can
Very well, I promise you shall visit Berlin if it is within my power to make that come to pass.
Excellent! Now Todd, you must promise to come along!
Of course, my love! You do plan to wait until after our children are born, I hope.
Yes, of course. We jackalopes should overrun Colorado first, and save der Rheinland for later. But look! The doctors glass has gone dry! Surely hell be wanting another without delay.
Dr. Sklarsens gaze shifted to his empty vessel and he sighed, resignedly. Perhaps another beer would not be out of place, he admitted.
Kay sniffed the glass rim and nodded appreciatively. Yes nice brew! I think Ill have one for myself. Todd, loveperhaps you can find it in your heart to spare a coin for a thirsty doe whos just a mite short of change. Ive misplaced my clothes, it appears, and all my money
is right here! Todd laughed, patting a trouser pocket. You dont think Id just walk by and leave all your lovely gold lying out there in the coyote willows, do you?
No, I dont think that. I saw you take it.
Todd laughed again, reached out to pat his jackalope bride fondly on the rump, then firmly nudged her forward until she fell-jumped off the table edge and scuttled into the darkness beneath it. Jason! he called out sharply, Cant you spare a little attention for your old buddy Todd?
Jason rushed into view immediately. Excuse me, sirIm so sorryhow did you get in here without
Never mind about that. Im here now, sharing a round with my good colleague Dr. Sklarsen. And dinner too, if hes amenable. Well have three more of what the doctor is drinking, and a couple of steaks, and some vegetables or salad, if you have any.
We have corn and potatoes
Yes, that will do nicely. Please keep the butter separate, in a side dish.
Yes, sir. Well have that for you right away The bartender hesitated, opened his mouth as if to say something more, then thought better of the idea and bustled off to secure the requested items.
Dinner arrived promptly, and Kay hopped lightly from floor to bench to table top as soon as privacy had been restored. She was not alone. As she rushed to make acquaintance with her beer glass, five enormous cockroaches scuttled down from her back and infested the mound of mashed potatoes on Todds plate. Kay ignored her chitinous consorts and buried her muzzle in beer foam. Todd leaned back with a wry smile and permitted his new guests to feed unmolested. Dr. Sklarsen sat rigidly immobile, regarding the tableau before him with an expression of horrified nausea.
Kay lifted her head for air, belched happily, then carefully groomed foam remnants from face and whiskers. She caught Dr. Sklarsens expression and clucked sadly. Now, now, Dr. Sklarsen, werent you telling me last week that all of Mother Natures creations are worthy of our reverence and respect? I seem to recall you were saying something of that sort, but perhaps my memory is playing tricks again. Memories are such fragile things.
Dr. Sklarsen nodded stiffly at the jackalopes words, but he did not offer any of his own, and the expression of nausea did not leave his face.
Todd waved the cockroaches away from his plate. Go on, you! he laughed. Youve had your little joke. If you want to share dinner with the doctor, youll have to dress for the occasion. Something cute and furry would be nice. And small; Ill not be buying any extra food for you!
The cockroaches scuttled along Todds left arm and out of view beneath the table, and moments later five small brown weasels returned by the same pathimmediately sinking five sets of needle sharp canines into the edge of Todds steak. Excuse me, he interrupted, and sliced away a modest chunk of meat for himselfabandoning the rest to a squabbling and extravagantly toothy fate.
Please, Doctoreat! None of us will molest the food on your plate. It wouldnt be polite.
Dr. Sklarsen poked at his steak for a moment, then abandoned the pretense. I suppose you shall inform me that the cockroaches and weasels speak, also, he sighed.
The five weasels lifted their heads and fixed the doctor with a single, multi-orbed stare. We do! they squeaked as one, and resumed feeding.
The jackalope had been observing Dr. Sklarsens distress with an expression curiously akin to sympathetic fondness. Now she glide-hopped carefully forwardsedulously avoiding the tangle of carnivorous and potentially deadly weaselsand politely nuzzled the doctors hand. Weve been very hard on you, she admitted sadly. Its all my fault, you know. I was annoyed, and determined to make you see a wider world. Ive done that, I believe. If you wish we will leave you now, never to disturb you again.
Dr. Sklarsens hand lifted, hesitated, then began to scratch tentatively behind the jackalopes jaw. She pushed her neck firmly into the movement and folded her ears down in pleasure at the touch. Ill take this as a request not to leave quite yet, she murmured.
No, please dont leave! he begged. If I am indeed mad, it is surely not your fault. Teach me more!
Kay shook herself and stood up on her haunches, facing the human eye to eye. As you wish! But first you must tell mewhat is your favorite animal?
Favorite animal? Dr. Sklarsen looked thoughtfully to one side for a moment, but not quite far enough to lose track of the table full of strange creatures before him. I do not believe it is proper for a scientist to have a favorite animal. All living things are equally fascinating to me.
Kay nodded politely, but looked more than a little skeptical of the professors statement. Very well, then: What was your favorite animal when you were a foolish childbefore you became wise and important like you are now?
Mock me if you like; I merely tell you the truth as I perceive it. In the days of my youth I had several favorite animals, but the wolf was my most consistent favorite.
Kays tail snapped up in alarm at the professors words, and she backed away, nervously. Todd and the spirit-weasels appeared unconcerned. Amused, perhaps, but not actually concerned. Todd extended his hand across the table, and Dr. Sklarsen shook it in automatic response. Wolf, you say? Todd inquired brightly, maintaining his grip on the doctors hand, Really, nowI never would have thought it! You strike me as more the raven typebut very wellwolf it shall be! Todds expression grew distant and strange and rather frightening.
No, Fox! Wait! Kay called out. Todd relaxed his grip, and Dr. Sklarsen snatched his hand back hastily.
Really, Kaywhats got into you? Werent you asking me to initiate our doctor into the mysteries of shape shifting?
Yes but lets not use the wolf form. The magic might draw you know whos attention here. How about something simple and safe, like a fox?
Foxes are safe, says the delicious-looking jackalope?
Thats not what I meant! Its just that right now, Wolf and I um we dont get along too well.
Youve been gone for five years! Whatever it is you did to Wolf, dont you think hell have calmed down by now?
Lets not put him to the test, if its alright with you. And besidesthe doctor will be a tough patient. Why not work with your natural strengths?
Kay! Are you questioning my power?
Of course not! I was merely
Good. Doctor, may I have your hand, please? Kay has just helped me to determine the most fitting choice for your initiation.
Dr. Sklarsen kept his hands firmly on the table top before him. First tell me what youre trying to do!
Isnt it clear yet? At your request, Kay is attempting to teach you some of our strange ways. She feels the experience of a different point of view would be a good way to start. Dont you?
Dr. Sklarsen, if any of us intended you harm, you would be harmed! We do not require your permission for that. Nowkindly give to me your hand, or bid us depart your presence.
The spirit weasels had ceased their squabbling and were peering at the doctor with an eerily intent gaze. Dr. Sklarsen turned to the jackalope creature, and met the same reception. He averted his eyes and lifted one hand from the table surface, clenched it into a fist, released. It was a good handstrong, and generous, and full of skill. It had served him well for many years, and with luck and proper care it would serve him for many more. Wolfi, you foolyou dont have to do this! Dr. Sklarsen clenched his fist again and whispered to himself, No, I dont. Then slowly he opened the hand, examined it carefully front to back, and offered it humbly to the strange being who called himself Todd Reynard.
Conversation ceased in Jasons Idle Argonaut Tavern as every man in the building felt something. A tingling change or wavering it wasor perhaps a simple earth tremor. Earth movement was the consensus, in any case, when conversation resumed a moment later. Proponents of the earth tremor theory were supported by the sudden appearance of a confused, no doubt quake-dazed jackrabbit which skittered frantically from table to table until it discovered the saloon doors and darted out of sight beneath them.
Massive late-season thunderheads mounded high, to the southeast. They were larger and darker than the others had been. And closer. These ones might even deliver the moisture they promised. A rain-scented wind gust worked loose a lock of Dr. Sklarsens hairhis perfectly normal human hairand Dr. Sklarsen tucked it back with a perfectly normal human hand. Rain would be welcome, of course. Rain was always welcome in these lands except when it came on too strongly, and burst out through the arroyos in savage flash floods. Dr. Sklarsen scanned the sagebrush flats before him with a keen, gray, glasses-free gazepulling down the wide brim of Mr. Fosters white Stetson to better shade his eyes from the oppressive late morning sunlight that still bathed his part of the landscape. It was a practical hatwell adapted to this harsh climateand he was growing rather fond of it. Dr. Sklarsen decided he would purchase another for himself if Mr. Fosteror Kay Latransever returned to claim this one
No movement. The search was pointless, really. No desert animal stirred voluntarily in such heat, and in any case he had failed to make a sure identification of Kays kit or his in days. Jackrabbits aplenty populated the flats before him, but they all sort of looked alike to his human eyeseven his new, perfect ones. And as for his nose Dr. Sklarsen sighed, and turned away. Best to resume his vigil in the cool of evening, and utilize this time to struggle once again with his expedition report. He settled himself comfortably in the shade of the supply wagon, opened his photographic diary to the most recent entry, slammed the wretched thing closed again. Perhaps he should simply strike camp and be on his way. The kits were weaned, and fat, and already lightning-swiftand how could he pretend to guard them when he couldnt even recognize them anymore?
Only one kit each! And both of them males. Much heated discussion had followed the event, and the resolution had been most unexpected, involving six new jackalope femalesnone of which had been Kayand Dr. Sklarsen to guard the kits once they were weaned. Dr. Sklarsen in human form, with all his possessions retrieved from storage intactand guilt-gifted with a fine new wagon and mule team to boot! So strange to be looking down at the peculiar hare-creatures again, rather than sniffing them nose to nose.
Ill be back soon, Kay had promised, gleefully flourishing his brand new jackalope antlersjust the way Todd had flourished hisand lasciviously eyeing his harem of newly crafted jackalope doesjust the way Todd eyed me! and Ill have another surprise for you then!
Wunderbar. He was not sure he could handle another one of Kay Latrans surprises. Perhaps he should make his exit now, while the roads were still passable. The wagon was packed, the mules well fed and rested, and he could have the whole thing in motion with very little effort. A good photographer could earn his way anywhere, and doubly so out here in this strange, empty land where the people were so refreshingly free with their money. Dr. Sklarsen surveyed the wagons contents again, and frowned. Emulsion plates, chemicals, flash powder, developing tent, food, water, formaldehyde The formaldehyde would have to go. It was valuable, in its waya special formula of the highest purity, and with the latest buffering chemicals, shipped to him at great expense by his colleagues in Berlinbut it was too heavy for the long journey he had in mind, and he would never use it in any case. The Universität zu Berlin would not be receiving any shipments of preserved hoop snakes or furred trout from him, even if he again chanced to encountered such creatures. They might be somebody he knew! And as for pickled jackalopes he shuddered at the thought.
Dr. Sklarsen sighed again, and began to slide the formaldehyde drum toward the open end of his wagon. It was a large drum, too heavy for him to lift with just the strength of his own arms. Once he pushed the thing off he would never be able to put it back without help. Very well, so be it. He dragged, balanced, raised his eyes to the horizon one more time, and detected movement.
It was a coyotea big, handsome one, most likely maletrotting toward him in full view, with tongue lolling extravagantly from the heat.
Dr. Sklarsens eyes narrowed, but the only movement he made was to shift the formaldehyde drum a centimeter back from the wagons edge. A week ago that coyote could have slain him with a single bite, and it still posed a deadly danger to his son. Still, he bore the creature no animosity, and would do nothing to harm it if it continued on its current path. The coyote had a right to walk this landfar more right than he did! That opinion had been formed long before his peculiar recent experiences.
The coyote halted and crouched, ears fixed on some small noise in the brush.
Nonot here! Hunt anywhere else but not here!
As Dr. Sklarsens gaze locked on the coyote his hand reached back and closed upon Mr. Fosters newly restocked and repaired Winchester 1892. He levered in the cartridges, raised the gun to one shoulder, released the safety. The coyote pounced forward, tail waving happily, and a small gray form could be seen wiggling between its front paws
Dr. Sklarsen fired.
Herr Doktor Professor Wolfgang Eisenhertz-Sklarsen signed the final transport papers, entrusting his valuable and extremely heavy specimen drum to the uncertain mercies of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway shipping clerk. Cover letter? inquired the man in a bored but kindly enough voice.
I beg your pardon?
Your paperworks fine, far as I can tell, but folk usually like to send a letter with their packages. You can tuck the envelope in this pocket right here, if youve a mind. The clerk eyed the acrid-smelling formaldehyde drum dubiously. Unless you already got one tucked in there.
No, nothing in there but my specimen. I thank you for your offer, sir, and if youd be so kind as to provide me with some paper and an envelope, Ill implement your suggestion right away.
Never did finish the reporthave to tell them something. Kay! If only you had come to me first Dr. Sklarsen accepted the proffered writing materials and turned quickly away. The tears were coming again, and he could not let them show. Kay, Kaywhatever, wherever you aredo my human promises mean anything to you? Are you even truly dead? I wish you well, in any case. Enjoy your journey to Berlin.
Dr. Sklarsen dabbed furtively with his handkerchief and in a firm, precise hand with only the tiniest amount of trembling he wrote:
It is with the most overwhelming sadness and chagrin that I must report to you my failure to secure the fish and reptile specimens requested, and in addition my inability to provide you with a coherent account of my activities and expenditures as your field representative on the North American Plains Photographic Expedition. I am deeply humiliated by this lapse on my part, and shall take this opportunity to tender, in response, my immediate resignation from the Academy. This is a personal decision on my part, and in no way intended to reflect unfavorably upon you, or my many other treasured associates. Please do not attempt to respond to this letter. You shall not be hearing from me again.
The canine specimen enclosed herein is offered as partialand, of course, ridiculously inadequatecompensation for my numerous failings in my primary endeavor. The specimen appears to be a previously unrecorded subspecies of Canis latrans, as you will no doubt confirm upon close examination of dental and cranial morphology. If subspecies status is confirmed, please consider my suggestion of maii as the subspecies modifier. And alsoas a personal favor to me, the last one I shall ever ask of youplease do what you can to keep the enclosed Stetson hat permanently together with the type specimen. It is a bizarre request, I realize, but I bid you respect it in any case, if you can find it in your heart to do so.
With fondest regards, Wolfgang.