by Saia Keferr
Text ©2005 Saia Keferr; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #4 -=- ANTHRO #4 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   Author’s Note: This story is set around 1100 AGW (After God Wars) in a portion of the Meggin world recovering from years of conflict. Consider the technology level and conditions of the Leosapiens here to be roughly equivalent to that of Eastern Europe at about 1919. Now that you have a feel for what you will see, on with the show!

    “… And that, my good fellow, is how I pounced on that Veltrit contract,” said my table companion with a chuckle at his own cleverness. He’d shared a compartment with me for three days, all the way down from the mountain railhead at Glendose. While he was rather annoying, he’d been polite enough to help a fellow veteran on and off the train. For that I was willing to put up with his overbearing ego—and a tongue that seemed to wag at both ends.
   We’d swapped war stories, bawdy jokes, and I’d learned far more that I cared to about selling industrial mine pumps and the company that made them.
   He paused for a moment to lap at his ale and adjust his eye patch before saying, “So, you never told me why you were on your way to the port. Care to enlighten me?”
   I looked at him as I scratched my muzzle. He looked like a fop from his well-groomed mane and expensive clothing to his well manicured claws, but he was all right when it came down to it. Normally I lived quietly, saying little to anyone, but his outgoing nature had drawn me out more than once on this journey. Maybe it was that, or perhaps it was the ale or the travel, but I was feeling talkative.
   We’d both also left some parts on the battlefield during the war, though he had been an officer. Considering this, I figured he’d understand what life was like for me, even if he could hide behind a glass eye when he was doing business.
   “Come on, friend,” he coaxed. “Don’t I deserve at least that much, after hauling your butt up and down the steps on the train? I didn’t even drop you once!”
   I cocked my head and after a moment I nodded. “Buy us another round and you’ll get your story.”
   He grinned in triumph and stuck his paw into the smoky air to flag down a waiter. I sat back in my chair gathering my thoughts, and after a moment said, “Well, it all started in the dead of night…”

    I woke with a start. I wasn’t sure what’d dragged me from my sleep, so I let my senses roam the little room. The smell of unwashed linen, the chamber pot under the bed, stale beer, and brass polish from the shop up front were the most powerful odors, masking anything more subtle.
   What I could see of the darkened room were shadows and faint residual heat radiating from the worn-out furniture and tired walls.
   Even the oil lamp on the side table was cold. Only the stove glowed with the faint warmth of banked burned-out coals. Nothing out of place there.
   The sounds? Ah, the sounds of my place were something else again. My room, and the shop up front, were filled with the clatter of clocks. Dozens of them, all ticking at different rates as they marked the passage of time. That was all I could hear at the moment. The faintly glowing radium hands of my clock on the side table showed about 25:20.
   I snorted and decided it must have been just another of those Dark-cursed dreams about the war. I eyed the nearly empty whiskey bottle sitting on the side table and considered taking a jolt or two. Enough drink and you can hide from your troubles, even your dreams sometimes, but I decided against it. Sleep was already tugging at me. Besides, I’d likely need it tomorrow.
   Rolling over, I fluffed the flat thing I called a pillow, for all the good it did, pulled the tattered blanket up to my shoulder, closed my eyes and folded my ears back into my mane. Then I heard something that brought my ears back up to attention: A muffled female scream and the sound of struggling. This was closely followed by the meaty thump of a gut punch and rough laughter from several male voices.
   For a moment I thought about just closing my eyes and going back to sleep. My neighborhood was slowly getting rougher and seedier as people left for the new industrial towns springing up closer to the coast. Besides, I figured I’d already given more than my fair share for others in the war.
   What changed my mind was the voice I heard next. There was a yowl of pain and an all-too-familiar male roared: “Da bitch bit me!”
   Someone else laughed harshly—“I guess we can call ya Sec Berdin now!”—followed by several other rough voices laughing. 
   Berdin, I knew. He was a punk that thought he ruled the district with his small huntpride of thugs. Like most everyone on the block I paid him protection money not to trash my place, and hated him with a passion. If someone had emasculated him, I figured she deserved some help. Besides, it sounded like they were just outside in the alley near my coal shoot, and the shop on the other side was empty. The widow-woman across the street above the bakery was deaf as a stump and likely wouldn’t wake if a bomb fell on her so if help was to come, it had to be me.
   Berdin moaned, “I’m gonna knock all her firkin’ teeth out! Then I’m gonna eat her liver while she watches!”
   With a sigh I tossed the blanket back and felt the chill of the night air against the furless parts of my flesh.
   Levering myself up with my arms, I slid across the bed to my chair, wondering if I'd regret this in the morning. The chair’s two big wheels were locked, so I dragged myself into the seat and slipped my tail-stump through the hole in the back.
   Opening the side table drawer, I pulled the pistol, set the hammer to full cocked, and slipped it into the holster hidden in the chair’s armrest.
   Next I pulled my old service rifle out of the wardrobe, put in a cartridge, slipped a cap over the nipple, and set the hammer to half cocked.
   Satisfied with my preparations, I rolled over to the grimy window, hooked the faded curtain with a claw and pulled it open a crack to peer into the alley.
   The moons were mostly hidden by clouds, but I could see through the wavy glass that there were five heat-outlined people there in the shadows and litter of the alley. Two held down a third that struggled and making gasping choking sounds.
   A fourth was seeing to a fifth that was down, writhing and holding his crotch.
   As I watched, the one on the ground staggered to his feet, tail lashing, and moved to the side of the alley. Ripping free a piece of wood from one of the disintegrating crates that littered the place, he started forward with a feral growl.
   I figured that the shape still on the ground had to be the girl I’d heard scream, and time was running out for her.
   The rusty latch on the casement didn’t want to turn at first, but finally gave with a muffled squeak. When I got it unlocked, I still had to pull the wooden pins that held the iron bandit bars over the outer window in place. All this took time I was sure I didn’t have.
   I’d just pulled the last pin, when I heard a loud crack!, and the sound of struggling that had covered my little noise stopped. I wondered if I wasn’t already too late to help the girl as I pushed the window open with the muzzle of my rifle and brought it to full cocked.
   The window swung open with the protest of rusty hinges, and pushed iron grillwork out and away. The bars fell into the alley with a loud clatter that turned the heads of the gang my way in surprise.
   The shape that I assumed was the girl was down and unmoving. The naked form that had to be Berdin stood over her, frozen in the act of readying his plank for another swing.
   I growled, “I wouldn’t if I were you.” Then I pointed the rifle just over his head and pulled the trigger.
   His three friends took to their heels as the thunderous roar echoed up and down the alley. But Berdin tossed the board at me and snarled, “You shouldn’t’a stuck your muzzle into this, Half Male!” The board sailed harmlessly over my head, more distraction than attack. As I ducked, he pulled a knife and started my way snarling, “Now I’m gonna have ta kill the rest of ya.”
   He put a paw on the windowsill and I let fear color my voice as I begged, “No, please don’t hurt me! I didn’t know it was you, Berdin!”
   I dropped the empty rifle, reached down, and rolled myself back deeper into the room.
   He climbed through the window as I bumped into the far wall. Crouching low, he stalked forward with a menacing growl: “Too bad, Half Male. I don’t give a gangar who ya though it was out there. You spoiled my fun; so I’m gonna cut ya!”
   At his first step, I straightened up, flipped the armrest open, and pulled the pistol out, all in one smooth move. He was still six feet away and the surprise was just beginning to register when, without another word, I fired.
   Berdin clutched his chest, a look of total astonishment on his face. He staggered back several steps, and pulling his paw away, looked down in wonder at the bloody hole, then back up to where I sat with the smoking gun still in my paw.
   I smiled and said softly, “Hey, Sec Berdin? Tell the Dark One ‘hello’ for me when you get there.”
   He dropped the knife, and slowly collapsed to the floor. My former tormentor cried like a cub and writhed for a moment or two, panted three or four times, convulsed, and died.
   “Too bad someone didn’t do you sooner,” I grumbled as I rolled past him to the alley door. It took a moment or two to get the disused lock to turn, and then to knock the heavy brace free.
   While I was working, the sound of a constable’s whistle started somewhere off in the distance. Probably Searfed had finally found his trousers and left whatever young lady he’d charmed into letting him stay the night.
   Rolling out into the cold stinking air of the alley, I came up to the body. I could tell that most of her clothing had been ripped away and she was breathing, by the heat her body was putting off, but not much more.
   The whistle was getting louder, but was still alone as I considered her. I sighed as I realized that Searfed was likely the only constable for several blocks… again.
   I shook my head and started roaring in replies to his whistles, letting him zero in on my location.
   Soon he rounded the corner to the alley, his dim carbide lantern lighting the way. “What’s going on down here? Who’s that?” he asked in a suspicious growl.
   I called back, “It’s just me, Searfed. There’s a wounded girl down here.” 
   He started slowly my way, picking his way past the trash, breath fogging in the cold night air. “What the Dark you doing out here in the alley in the middle of the night, Paidet?" he asked. "Did you hear the shots, and what’s the girl doing here?”
   I shook my head. “I fired the shots. The girl was being attacked, and Berdin’s dead in my room.”
   Searfed chuckled. “Busy night, eh, Paidet? Nobody’s going to mourn Berdin, but you know what I’ll be forced to do.”
   I nodded. “It’s open and shut. He’s lying in the middle of my room with his knife at his side. There’s not one judge in World Gov that wouldn’t exonerate me.”
   Searfed nodded and grunted as he held out his lamp. As the flickering yellow light covered the girl we both sucked in our breath. She was a young lioness, maybe 19 or so, with a lean and well-proportioned body. She’d likely have been a delight for the eye, but for two things.
   First, the damage to her face and arms. She’d been ripped up pretty badly by claws and the board, and her muzzle was twisted to an odd angle. Deep red blood oozed sluggishly from the rips and her nostrils.
   But what really stood out, what totally destroyed any beauty that she might have had, was her fur. It was black as the night around us.
   Searfed took a step back and we both made a sign to ward off evil. After a moment I grumbled, “What a waste. I could have been killed for what? A cursed child of Rondel?”
   Searfed sighed. Tail flicking, he bent to remove a garrote from her neck I hadn’t seen in the dark. “Well, Dark One or not, we can’t just leave her here.”
   I nodded. “I wouldn’t leave even one of her kind out here like this.”
   Looking up, Searfed chuckled. “You beginning to fall into believing the line World Gov’s feeding everyone about Dark Ones, Paidet?”
   I gave a growl. “I still remember what the Alliance said about cripples. If it hadn’t been for Republic troopers taking me prisoner after that bomb blew most of me out of that trench, I’d be dead today. Maybe what they say about Blackfurs is the same thing.”
   Searfed flicked his ears in agreement as he stood and dusted some of the trash from the knee of his blue trousers. “Maybe, but it’s different with Blackfurs. It’s all bound up in religion. Being a cripple isn’t quite the same thing.”
   I sighed and let my ears drop. “Yeah, but even you still call me Half Male or Short Soldier at times, Searfed. And it hurts.”
   He coughed and said sheepishly. “Come on, Paidet. You know I don’t mean anything by it. You’re my friend.”
   I nodded but my ears stayed down as I said, “But you have a reputation to keep up. I understand, but I don’t like it. Next time you get your watch soaked, see if I’ll fix it for free,” I grumbled.
   Searfed sighed. “Look, this is all aside from the point. This girl’s choking on her own blood at our feet, well, my feet. If I take this to the precinct, they’ll likely put her in the lockup overnight as an accessory to the break-in. You’ll likely be in with her for suspicion of murder, and I’ll be filling out paperwork ’til all hours. There’s also the possibility that one of Berdin’s friends in the lockup might take revenge on the both of you.”
   He paused for a moment and continued more softly. “Or, we can take her to the local clinic. You can watch over her while I dump our old buddy Berdin in the river and let the folks downstream worry over him. If he should ever be found, they’ll think his own gang did him in. Nice and tidy that way, with little to no paperwork for me to worry about, and you get to sleep in your own bed tonight.” He shrugged. “Up to you.”
   I almost agreed—and then I realized what he wanted me to do. “You want me to watch over that!” I snarled, shocked. “As if I don’t have enough ill fortune in my life as it is!” I growled as I scratched at the stump of one of my legs where it ended just above where my knees should have been.
   Searfed laughed. “Thought so. You’re only interested in equal treatment for yourself. All those noble words you were spouting about World Gov being right were just a load of crap. Tell you what: You help me, and we’ll just dump the both of them in the river.”
   Anger flooded me, not least of all because he was right. I growled, “No, we take the girl to the clinic, and you do what you want with Berdin. I’ll keep an eye on her ’til she’s well.”
   Searfed chuckled again. “Got you where you live, didn’t I?”
   I sighed and snarled, “Get your truck and let’s get started, bastard.”
   Searfed laughed, “This should be good,” as he headed down the alley.
   As I went back in to dress, all I could do was wish I had a foot so I could kick his cocky ass.

    Searfed’s old truck was an alcohol burner, and likely one of the last of her kind. The new hydrogen-burning vehicles World Gov mandated were becoming more and more common, even here in one of the former Alliance backwater towns.
   We pulled up outside the clinic with a squeal of worn-out brakes, and the motor died with a wheeze that made all the loose sheet metal rattle. World Gov had set up these clinics to take care of people all over the world. They hailed them as one of the first benefits of the reduction of worldwide military force, and I could find no fault with that. Or the lower taxes that World Gov gathered for that matter.
   I knew this particular clinic all too well. It was the one I’d been forced to use when I got released from the prison camp eight years ago. It was also one of the only places in town besides the government buildings with the new electric lights that were coming into use. World Gov promised us that one day we’d all have electric lights in our homes. I figured I’d believe it when I shocked myself for the first time.
   Searfed jumped out of the open cab and blocked a wheel with the rock he kept under the seat. The parking brake, along with most of the upholstery, had long ago gone to its final rest. Coming around the front, he blew out the single headlamp while I unfolded my chair and struggled into it.
   The girl was in the back with Berdin. She was still out cold; and Berdin, wrapped in my old rug and just waiting for his final swim, was, I was happy to see, growing colder and stiffer by the minute.
   Searfed pulled her out and, hefting her over his shoulder, walked up to the door. After adjusting his cap, he scratched on the plate.
   It was several minutes and several scratches later that the door finally opened a crack. A sleepy female with a short dark mane and a wide muzzle I didn’t recognize looked out at us. “Yes?”
   Searfed said, “We need help for this girl.”
   She seemed to see the dark legs and tail dangling over his shoulder for the first time.
   Rubbing her eyes with the back of her paw, she opened the door.
   “Bring her on in, Constable. What’s happened to her?” she asked as she cleared a blanket from a gurney that looked like she’d been sleeping on it, and motioned for Searfed to put the girl down.
   “An accident,” he said curtly as he carefully put her down. I found a place to park my chair near the warmth of the stove, figuring he could handle this.
   The doctor looked at him for a moment, shrugged as if to say ‘Sure it was,’ and went to work.
   Searfed then turned to me. “I’m going to go drop off our friend. I’ll be back in an hour or so to take you home.”
   I nodded, and he left to visit a convenient bridge.
   The doctor examined the girl, making those tsking noises I knew all too well. Glancing back my way, she said, “The muzzle and concussion seem to be the worst of the damage. Aside from that and the claw marks, there are also some bruises and a touch of malnutrition.” She gave the girl an injection, grabbed her muzzle and twisted. With a sickening, grinding, pop that made me cringe, it moved back into place. She then opened the girl’s mouth and twisted at several of her teeth with a set of pliers, removing two that she dropped into a porcelain tray.
   She looked at the swollen muzzle with a critical eye. “Not too bad. The fracture was pretty clean. I really should wire it into place, put the teeth back in when it’s done, and keep her here for a few days, but it’ll cost you around 1100. You want to pay for it?”
   I choked. “Me? I don’t have that kind of money!”
   The doctor shrugged. “I thought I’d give you the option. I’ll just splint it after I stitch up the skin. It should come out fairly straight. When the fur comes back in it’ll hide most of the damage, and she can get along without the teeth.”
   Taking out a set of clippers, she snipped away the fur and sewed up the gouges.
   When she was done, she bandaged the wounds and slipped a wooden splint around the girl’s head, securing it into place with more bandages.
   “No solid food for three weeks, and plenty of bed rest. Change the bandages and put this salve on the wound every three to four hours for the first two days, and then twice a day for the rest of the three weeks. Bring her back for a checkup at the end of that time. Keep the tooth sockets packed for a day or two, until they stop bleeding. If she shows any signs of infection, fever, or convulsions, bring her back early. She’ll likely sleep for a day with what I’ve given her.”
   She then handed me a glass bottle full of pills, along with rolls of gauze and the jar of salve. “One of these pills as needed for pain, but not more than 10 a day. And she will need them. But I guess I don’t need to tell you that..?”
   I nodded. “I’ve been there.”
   “You know,” the doctor said as she flipped a blanket over the girl and tucked it in around her shoulders, “she has bruises in some really odd places for this to have been an accident. That and with the ripped up clothing and clawing… Well, were it up to me to file the Constable’s report, I’d say that she was the victim of an assault.”
   I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. But I don’t think it likely to happen again. At least not an accident from the same source.”
   She grinned and relaxed, reading between the lines as we all did in this defeated and occupied land. “Good. My report will call it an accident as well.”
   She picked up a clipboard and said, “Look, I need to make my rounds of the ward. Want an ale or something while you’re waiting for the Constable to come back?”
   I grinned and nodded. “Sure.”
   As she went her way she left me lapping ale. It was one of those blends the Southerners serve chilled. I’ve never really liked them much, but this one hit the spot and the coolness made a wonderful counterpoint to the heat radiating from the cast iron stove.
   As I sat letting the alcohol work, I really looked at the girl for the first time. She lay there with her mouth lolled open, snoring softly. You almost couldn’t see her face for the bandages, and the blanket covered most of the other black fur. As I watched the blanket rise and fall with her breathing, for the first time I started thinking of her as a person. I wondered what her name was, and how she had come to be in my alley in the middle of the night… Only time would tell.

    The girl was in fact out longer than the doctor had thought she would be, but I wasn’t all that troubled. I’d seen this all too often during my stay in the hospital. As long as she continued to breathe normally I knew she would be all right.
   During that time I’d cleaned her and dressed her wounds and shared my bed with her at night. I’d almost forgotten how good it felt to have someone to sleep with and was actually enjoying the warmth of her body against my back during the growing chill of the night air, till I woke up near dawn that first morning feeling a spreading warmth coming from her side of the bed.
   She woke up about mid-afternoon the second day.
   I was cleaning the soot from an old mantel clock when I heard a crash of breaking glass and a moan from my room.
   Setting my eyepiece and brushes aside, I rolled into the bedroom to find her sitting on the side of the bed, and my oil lamp (unlit, fortunately) in pieces on the floor.
   “You want some water or food?” I asked as I glided to a stop.
   She looked up and I could just see a set of golden eyes, startlingly bright against the black fur, through the puffy lids. She staggered to her feet, and fell right back on her butt as her legs gave out on her.
   Her paws came up to touch the splint and she moaned, “Gwagg?”
   I sighed. “Stay put. Let me get you some water, then maybe you can talk.”
   Wheeling over to the sink, I pumped a wooden bowl full and returned to where she sat clinging to the side table like it was a rock in a raging river.
   She cringed back as I held out the bowl. “Look, I won’t hurt you, and you won’t catch anything from me. Take it.”
   Hesitantly, she took the bowl and lapped at it with a swollen pink tongue. I could tell the cool water hurt because she flinched at each lap.
   I pulled the bottle of pills out of the drawer and held it out to her. “For the pain. Only one for now.” She eyed the bottle and after looking at the label for a moment or two, she took one of the big white pills.
   Finished, she looked at me for a long moment, then asked in a slow, slurred and muffled voice, “Where am I?”
   “This is my room, behind my shop. I found you in the alley beside my place. You’ve been here two days.”
   She looked down at her self, and pulled the blanket up to cover her nakedness. Looking back up, she asked, “Why?”
   I shrugged and went over to the stove. Tossing in a few scoops of coal, some paper, and a match, I followed up with bellows and answered what I thought she was asking: “Darkness if I know. Maybe ’cause a few years ago, I’d have been treated the way everyone says I should be treating you. I’ve also always had a soft spot for the runt in a fight.”
   The coal had finally caught, so I put the bellows on the hook, closed the door and set a pot of water on the top to heat.
   Turning back to her I asked, “So what’s your story? How’d you come to be in my alley so late with all your unwanted friends?”
   She looked down for a moment before saying, “I was looking for work. Been out of money for a while so I was sleeping in crates where I could.” She shrugged. “I guess they must have found me while I was sleeping. Next thing I know they were all over me…” She shuddered and her ears folded back. “Touching me. I bit one and, he hit me. Then… then I was here.”
   I nodded as I tossed some bones and dried meat in the pot. “You’re safe now… um…” I flicked an ear in question.
   “Sec Blackfeather,” she offered.
   I stuck a spoon in the broth and gave it a few turns, while I dropped salt and a bit of pepper into it. As the smell filled the room, I heard a stomach growling from the bed and grinned.
   “Interesting name,” I said as I took down a set of wooden bowls. “From the lack of a family name, I take it you don’t have a family or pride for support. Any belongings?”
   “No,” she said softly. “No one I can call on, and those thugs got what little I had when they pulled me out of the crate.”
   I sighed. “Well, Sec Blackfeather, I’m Paidet. You’ll be here for at least another three weeks ’til your broken muzzle heals, according to the doctor.”
   The pill must have started to kick in because she seemed a bit less distracted by the pain as she asked, “You’ll let me stay here?”
   I nodded. “Yes, but you’ll get no free rides. You’ll work for your keep, when you can.”
   Shiny black claws slid from her fingertips and she growled as her folded back in anger, “If you think I’m going to lift my tail for you, think again. I’m not your sex toy, creep!”
   I snorted. “Relax. If that's what I wanted, I’d have taken it while you were out cold last night.”
   Her swollen eyes got bigger and she clutched the blanket tighter.
   I laughed. “Save it. If I get the urge, I can always go to the brothel for that. The girls down there are a damn sight better looking than you are right now, and a lot more interesting too.”
   Her ears colored and she looked away. “Then… what do you want..?”
   I shrugged “Cooking and cleaning for now. When you’re better, odd jobs that are hard for me—like shopping and making deliveries. That’s all.”
   She looked back, disbelieving. “That’s all?”
   I nodded as I ladled out the steaming broth, and ripped her a chunk of bread off the loaf. I handed her the food and went back for mine, saying, “I don’t really care that much about other people because of the way they treat me, so I can guess what life must be like for you. Truce?”
   She stopped lapping long enough to nod her head.
   She went back to bed after eating.
   After cleaning up the broken lamp and replacing it with one from the shop that I put well away from her on the dresser, I went back to work.
   At nightfall I cooked for us again, and she seemed stronger.
   After we’d eaten I removed the bandages to dress her wounds. When I’d slipped off the splint, she looked at me, saying in a voice touched with desperation, “I’ve got to see! I need to know… what they did my face!”
   “Look,” I said, “you really don’t want to see this yet.”
   Ignoring me, she got up and staggered to the dusty mirror over the dresser. She stood for some time, leaning on the dresser, just staring at her face. All I could think of was “Here it comes…”
   When she turned around she had the waterworks going like she was trying out to be included as a statue in the fountain on the square. “I’m hideous!” she wailed.
   I shrugged. “You’re messed up now, but you’ll get better; I, on the other paw, never will. So don’t go expecting any sympathy from me. Now get your butt back over here so I can treat you and get some sleep!”
   Numbly, she sat back on the edge of the bed. I dressed her wounds and put the splint back into place.
   I sighed as the tears kept coming and finally I said, “Look, I’m sorry, but your problem really is just temporary. You’ll be beautiful again in a few weeks.”
   She looked at me, blinked her puffy eyes several times, and in a small voice asked, “Do you think I could be… beautiful?”
   Caught off guard, I paused in my wrapping and finally nodded. “Yeah. If you were golden rather than black, you’d be beautiful.”
   She didn’t move for some time after I’d finished with the splint and washed up.
   After taking several strong slugs from the bottle, I came back to the bed and slipped into it, my back to her. Then I pulled up the blanket, and said, “Blow out the light when you’re ready.”
   After several minutes the room darkened. I felt her settle into the bed on the far side. She might not have slept, but I was out in minutes.

    Blackfeather got stronger as the days passed, and on the fourth day I put her to work doing light jobs around the shop.
   Searfed dropped in several times that week, just to see how things were going. On the night of the year’s first snowfall, he stayed to play cards. That’s when we discovered the girl was smart and played a wicked game.
   Likely she’d have cleaned us out if she’d started with more cash.
   A Dark One living with a gimp: When the local gossips finally noticed, they had a field day with us. They heaped abuse, and the occasional rotten fruit, at both of us in equal measure that first week when we were outside.
   But that kind of treatment wasn't new for either of us; we ignored it all. The ‘Dark One’ crap lasted longer, but even that tapered off when no one got struck by lighting and the ground didn’t open and devour the block. Eventually a sort of armistice took hold; nobody bothered us, we didn't bother them. Not that we had done anything to them in the first place but live on the same block.
   Blackfeather did any job I gave her without complaint, and when I came in late one night, after getting drunk at the corner bar, not only did she put me to bed, she put up with my next-day bitching about my hangover without a complaint. This left me wondering what her home life had been like because I know I’ve got all the charm of a cast-iron skillet when I’m hungover.
   As time passed, I was surprised to find she was a lot like me under that black fur. She was willing to bend when needed, and she kept her dignity hidden where it couldn’t be touched, but she could be as strong as steel when needed. She proved that one day when I almost had to stop a fight between her and the coal woman when she blew dust into the shop while making a delivery.
   By late in the third week, Blackfeather had improved to the point where she’d have looked normal without the splint, except for the missing fur. She didn’t need the pain medication now, and things had settled into a comfortable routine between us.
   And me? Much to my shock, I found I liked having her around. And, wonder of wonders, I’d been sober for over a week. I also hadn’t even needed a drink to keep away memories of the damn war at night!
   My nighttimes still weren’t untroubled, however. I now found I’d lie there, listening to her soft breathing and feel the warmth of her against my back, and I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about things that whole males take for granted.

    It didn’t last, of course. Nothing good ever does. It all blew up just one day short of three weeks after I’d taken her in. She was cleaning up in our room, and I was working out front behind the counter when the bell on the door striker rang. I looked up to find Berdin’s three thugs had come into my shop.
   Keeping my actions hidden, I slipped the pistol from the arm of my chair, and put it under my lap blanket saying, “What do you fellows want?”
   One of them growled, “They found Berdin way down in Glendose, ya old freak. Ya killed him and tossed him in the river, didn’t ya?”
   “Maybe.” I shrugged. “What if I did?”
   He snarled back, “He was my brother, ya asshole! I had to take Mom down there to see to the funeral. She was heartbroken. Now I’m gonna cut yer arms off and toss ya into the river and see how well you can swim, ya stinking gimp!”
   Where he was standing he was slightly out of my field of fire, but just as I started moving the gun into line and cocked the hammer, he pointed a gun of his own at me and his friends produced some nasty looking knives.
   “What you got under the blanket, Half Male? Wouldn’t by chance be the gun ya killed my brother with, would it? Why don’t ya bring it out, slowly like, where I can see it.”
   I was becoming very afraid now. I looked down at my lap, and was just trying to decide if it was worth it to try to shoot him before he could shoot me, when there was the roar of a gunshot.
   I clutched at my chest, thinking I’d been shot—but there was no pain.
   Looking up, I saw blood everywhere; and the thug with the gun had crumpled back against the door. His gun had skittered off when he dropped it and was lost under a display cabinet.
   Glancing back to the door to our room, I could just see the muzzle of my old rifle poking into the shop, smoke still rolling from the barrel.
   The two remaining thugs started scrambling like roaches when you light a lamp in the middle of the night. One of them was repeating “Oh shit!” over and over as he tried to get out past his friend’s body to the street.
   Sec Blackfeather dropped the empty rifle and dove behind the display cabinet near me as I lifted the pistol and fired at the would-be runner. My shot ripped the top of his head off, and he dropped like a rock.
   The last thug got calm fast, thinking he now had the upper paw. He came forward flicking the knife side to side, growling, “No more guns, eh, Half Male? First I get you, then I finish what Berdin started with that black bitch!”
   He rounded the cabinet where the girl was cowering. Glancing down, he grinned at her as I worked furiously to reload my pistol. Dismissing her presence, he snarled, “Now now, we can’t have you reloading that gun, can we?”
   He stepped forward, all his attention focused on me. He never saw it coming when Sec Blackfeather pulled the butcher knife from under her vest and jammed it into his stomach all the way up to the handle. She then pushed up with all her strength. The knife moved with a ripping sound like the tearing of an old rag and finally stopped when it jammed up against his ribcage.
   He let out a squeal like a hopper in a snare and staggered back, trying to hold his guts in. He backed into the wall, mouth working silently, and slowly slid down into the growing pool of blood.
   Sec Blackfeather got to her feet and walked over to him with a snarl of pure rage on her face. He looked back up at her, with eyes turning glassy as death closed its paw on him. She roared wordlessly and started kicking his body with her claws out until I stopped her.

    We got out of jail around three in the morning. The night judge had wanted to bind us over for a full trial, but he turned us loose after a few words from Searfed, ruling the whole thing as attempted robbery and justifiable homicide.
   Searfed dropped us off at my place and, wonder of wonders, the constables hadn’t taken everything; they’d even cleaned it up a bit! Perhaps times really were changing.
   Sliding into the bed after a good meal, I leaned up on an elbow and said softly, “Thanks for saving my life. I know you could’ve slipped out the back while they were playing with me. Why didn’t you?”
   She looked over at me as she climbed into bed. She sat quietly for a moment. Then she touched her muzzle and asked in return, “Why didn’t you tell me you’d killed the shit-eater that did this to me?”
   I lay back and put my paws under my head. Looking at the sooty gray ceiling I said, “What good would it have done? At first I just didn’t care. When I did, I wanted you to accept me for who I was, not what I’d done.”
   The golden eyes pondered me for a time before growling, “It would have done plenty for my piece of mind. Still, I think I understand.
   “As for saving you… I owed you a life.”
   She leaned over and blew out the lamp, plunging the room into darkness save for the moonlight streaming in through the curtains neither of us had thought to shut.
   I was settling in to sleep when I felt a paw slowly sliding over my stomach, and then lower.
   “What?” I managed before my mouth was smothered with small licks and gentle nips. She said, “Hush, I want to,” as she found my maleness, and after a moment, threw a leg over my hip.
   As I lay there enthralled, I thought her silhouette against the moonlight above me the loveliest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
   I don’t know how many times we came together that night, but I was more content than I’d been in all my twenty-four years when I finally fell into a deep, peaceful, dreamless sleep.
   The next morning I woke, still feeling warm and content, ’til I discovered I was alone. I got up and found a note in the front room and as I read it I felt like I had swallowed lightening and it was bouncing around in my guts: All it said was ‘Thank you’.
   I dropped the note and with a sinking feeling checked the place over.
   Most of my cash was gone. So was my pistol, a carpetbag, and all the clothing I’d given Sec Blackfeather.

    I sighed. “That was a little over six months ago. I tried to be angry that she’d robbed me, but I couldn’t. And Great Mother help me, I missed her terribly,” I said as I drained my bowl of ale and, after checking my pocket watch again, started to leave.
   The traveling salesman cried, “For the Mother’s sake, what happened? All the way down on the train I’ve been sharing stories with you and I haven’t left you hanging. Don’t do this to me!”
   I chuckled and rolled to a stop. “Well, last month I got a letter. It was from her as you’ve probably guessed. I struggled with it for the better part of a day. Part of the time I wanted to toss it into the stove unread, and the other part I wanted to open it and hear her voice in my head one last time. Finally I opened it.”
   I looked into his eager eye and thought of telling him what had been in the letter, but I didn’t. I don’t know if it was just out of meanness, or my pure pleasure at having something that this male with all his success couldn’t match.
   I’d read the letter so many times now that I had committed it to memory:

    My Dearest Friend,

   I miss you and hope you have been missing me. I have settled in here in the port city of Amber Reef, near the heart of the Old Republic. This is where World Gov started and where the color of my fur doesn’t bother anyone. Here, people like you and I are accepted for who we are and what we can do, not condemned by society to live in the roles they choose for us.
   I have a good job in a printing shop and have worked very hard to pay you back for your kindness. In a day or two you will receive a box with all the money I took from you, and a ticket for a packet steamer that will bring you to me.
   I will be there to meet the ship and look for you. If you’re not on it, I will understand.

   Please come to me,
   Sec Blackfeather

    As I turned to go, the salesman called in a commanding tone: “Well?”
   I looked back and smiled. “Sorry, but if I sit here talking to you any longer, I’ll miss my steamer.”

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