Coyote awoke to the tingle of powerful Medicine coursing through his bones, and opened his eyes to behold the smirking, supercilious visage of Fox.
"I've been dead again, haven't 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 time—couldn't 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 pads—fresh 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, see—and little copper peg things called blasting caps, and a thin sort of rope they call fuse. Humans worry about the sticks, but it's those copper pegs that keep giving me a hard time! Especially the ones marked 'Acme Powder Company'."
"I see," Fox laughed. "You've 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 don't do common sense. Common sense is for simple mortals; I'm above such things."
"Yes, Coyote, dear. Of course you are. You're the god of impracticality. Would you like something to eat?"
"Yes, thank you very much! And thanks for bringing me back to life. I don't know what I'd 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 that—snow on the ground when I had my little accident, and now it's summer already. How late in the season are we?"
"Today is the Fourth of July, nineteen hundred and three by the White Man's calendar. I could have brought you back when I found you last week, but I waited a bit so I'd have something nice to steal for you."
"Nineteen hundred and three? Like in… the new century, and all that? I've been dead for five years! What have you done with my Spirit Children?"
"Spirit Children? Hold on—let me remember… Spirit Children… Spirit Children—oh! 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 they're really—"
"They're 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 they'll turn up before long. Here, have a pig bone before they come and claim it for themselves!"
Coyote ate ravenously, consuming the lion's share while Fox stood back at a discreet distance, watching. "Er… excuse me… would you like some too?"
"Perhaps. If it's 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 cabin's chimney, panting softly from a surfeit of summer heat and food.
"So, Sin-ka-lip my friend—now you're alive again, what are you going to do?"
"No more dynamite! I've 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 we're both wasting our time. Let's go make trouble with the humans."
"Works for me!"
"Ah, Fox—just feel the power of that unbelief around us! There's 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 don't understand is how you can enjoy the sensation. Stinking iron steam monsters! I hate railway stations. Can we leave now?"
"Leave if you like; I'm 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 he's wearing! It's all round on top, like a river boulder—and just the color of my ear fur! I wish I had a nice hat like that. Do you think he'll give it to me?"
"I doubt that very much. But please—don't let me stand in your way! You talk to him, and I'll ditch these clothes and go hunt jackrabbits. Or maybe cats. Did you notice that fat tabby tom lurking behind Jason's Idle Argonaut Tavern?"
"Yes, I did. You save some for me, you hear?"
"Bring beer, and I'll 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. "It's in that one," he proclaimed confidently.
Coyote sampled the air with his own nose, and carefully scrutinized the structure in question. "Yes, that's 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 man's 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 didn't meet Coyote's eyes at all—merely 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 human's pale gray eyes roved vaguely for a moment, stopped, locked with Coyote's 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, I'm 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.
"What's his handle?"
"His handle? I don't believe I understand your question?"
"His name. What's 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? Nah—name don't ring a bell, but that don't mean nothin'. I've 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. We're crackerjack guides when the mood strikes us, and we know right well how the land hereabouts is put together—had 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 Sklarsen's 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 gracefully—despite 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 Coyote's head. The fox shook itself briskly, bowed briefly but deeply in Coyote's 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? You'll 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 that's sitting on top your head. The one with my name on—er, maybe not. I ain't 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. "I've sired a bitch or three in my time, but I'm 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 don't see any fox here. And anyway, if I wanted to steal your hat I wouldn't send some useless animal to do it; I'd 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, isn't it? And just my size! Fox is always so good with those little details." In one fluid movement Coyote snatched away the professor's fawn Bowler and settled the milk-white Stetson in its place. "Well look at that—it's 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."
"Didja—did you say… Sklarsen?"
"Why, yes, indeed I did—and a right friendly chap he is! He's traveled here all the way from Berlin just to take pictures, and his guide never showed up so he's going to hire me instead! Isn't that right, Dr. Sklarsen?"
"But—I'm his guide—I'm Zeb Foster! You know me, Perfesser—you 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 didn't! That hat cost me twenty dollars, and I'll 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 you've never been?"
"Hell. You was just saying you wanted to go there and I said I'd 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 Coyote's head and extended the Stetson courteously in Zebediah's 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 won't 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. Latrans—please 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. "Ah—Saprolegnia! 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 I've 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 Coyote's 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 professor's own. He paused a moment for silence, and began to recite: "Currently we're admiring and photographically recording the exquisite beauty of Mad Marmot Gorge—a 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 I'd consider you to be French, but—as we all know—the 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, s'il vous préférez. Now—what were you attempting to tell us about that rotten fish you find so fascinant?"
Professor Sklarsen shook his head in bemusement. "Mr. Reynard—and you, too, Mr. Latrans—if 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 fish—a previously unreported variant of the western blue sucker, if I am not mistaken—bears a luxuriant growth of Saprolegnia, or 'cotton mold'. Saprolegnia is a pathologic fungus which invades and proliferates within the fish's mucoid epithelium—relentlessly 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 fish's death, sometimes—as in this specimen—eventually 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 traveler's 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. "I'll show you one."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'll 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. "I'm sorry, Mr. Reynard. You and Mr. Latrans have served me extraordinarily well so far, but I'll have to decline this particular suggestion. We need to be in Colorado City by tomorrow evening, and we'll miss our train if we don't strike camp before the light fails. Mr. Latrans will carry the emulsion plates and—Mr. Latrans? Where has that man gone off to? Answering a call of nature, I suppose. Mr. Reynard, while we're waiting you can assist me with—Mr. Reynard? Mr. Reynard! Where are you? Don't be long, if you please! We still have a considerable amount of work to do before it grows dark."
"Coyote—wait up! What are you plotting this time? As if I couldn't guess."
"Us unedjicated country fools is gonna show the boss-man an interestin' fish."
"Are you crazy? You know we'll never find a furred trout down here below the falls! They like it best in the high country, in the snow-melt rills."
"I'll do it."
"You? Do you like getting killed? That trout is hardly likely to survive the photographic process. Call your Spirit Children! They'll 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 suspect—but never mind about that. It's not so dangerous, really. I'll 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 feet—why do I bother with them?"
"Because you're jealous of the humans, and like to pretend you're one of them?"
"Never! I play at being human because they need reminding of how it ought to be done, and because it's a way to put uppity foxes in their place. Honestly! White skin and red hair—and 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."
"He's got power! We both feel it. He could have been a mighty shaman."
"He is a mighty shaman."
"Yes, and his magic—his Science—is poison to us. He symbolizes all the others who are destroying our world. So… I will change him."
"Coyote, don't 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 Changer—and 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 you'll keep me out of Zeb's 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 tree—splashing 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 bones—and 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 trout—can 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, kids—so glad I could be of service. It's good to see y'all. 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 man—and 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 up—but 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. Sklarsen's 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 that—setting you down and picking you up a minute later to peer at some simple little part he'd already looked at a dozen times. Finally he threw you over his shoulder and marched off for camp—commanding 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 he's been crashing through the brush ever since. I think he's lost now—do you hear him calling?"
"Fox, this is embarrassing. I don't think my Spirit Children have ever eaten me for dinner before! It sets a bad example. Cicéqi, promise me you won't do that again?"
The smallest coyote pup—a female—sidled 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 don't know how Uncle Fox managed to drag you away all by himself!"
"Hmmpf. I'm strong enough when I need to be," Fox reminded her. "Come on Coyote, shake a leg! It'll be dark soon and we need to secure ourselves some clothes and equipment—and a professor."
"Can we come along too, Uncle Fox? We've never smelled a real professor before!"
"He's nothing special, Cicéqi—smells like fried onions and moustache wax and photographic chemicals. You haven't missed much."
"What's a photographic chemical?"
"It's—it's hard to say. Coyote! You answer! She's your minion, so—"
"We are not Coyote's minions!" snapped the male pup to Fox's left.
"We're his partners!" growled the female to his right.
"Sometimes he forgets, it's true," offered a thoughtful voice from behind Coyote's left flank.
"But we remind him," purred the toothy muzzle lurking by his right ear.
"Come along, then, sweet Children!" Coyote responded hastily. "I wouldn't think of leaving you behind! Just don't let yourselves be seen—and don't break anything unless I tell you to!"
Professor Sklarsen restlessly prowled the flat, boulder-strewn banks of Mad Marmot Creek—straining his eyes to penetrate the morning-sun-dappled waters and perceive, perhaps, the faint fleeting flicker of a furred fin. As he searched he talked—babbled—to the human and not-so-human entourage trailing along behind him.
"… and so kraftig—so 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 nothing—merely the foolish yapping of a pack of coyotes. Such peculiar fancies we develop when we're 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' t'me, too," he reluctantly affirmed. "Di'n't you say we'd 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, no—a 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 perhaps—dare 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 ain't right," he muttered sulkily. "I seen spirits now and ag'in, but never like on this trip—and now they're actin' up in broad daylight! Kay! You hear 'em—why ain't you sayin' nothin' about it?"
"No one asked me."
"Well, I'm 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 there's snakes here, too. I seen one yesterday when I was out gettin' the firewood."
"There's always snakes, Zeb. You know that."
"Yeah, yeah, there's always rattlesnakes and such. They don't bother me none. This was different. This was a hoop snake!"
"A hoop snake! Well, now—you don't see them much these days. There's nothing in this world deadlier than the tail-sting of a gen-u-wine hoop snake! And fast—they say a hoop snake can catch an antelope—even a jackalope when it has a steep enough hill to start from! Run as fast as you like, but it ain't no use—the serpent just rolls on behind until it's 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 can't turn quickly when they're going along at a good clip, so you're 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 didn't you mention it before?"
"I did. I told the perfesser right off, but he di'n't believe me. He says there ain't no such animal—nor 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 abacura—a 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!"
"Fox—wait! What are you—"
"Shhh!" Zeb hissed. "Are you crazy? Don't you ever make fun of spirits like that! There's 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 don't 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 yesterday's 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! You're jealous you didn't 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, "you're not going to hold that small transgression against him, are you?"
Coyote snapped his juniper switch to the ground in a vicious arc—gouging a groove and throwing out a flat cascade of dirt and twig bits. "I am not—and will never be—a specimen!" he huffed.
Fox edged prudently away and eyed the nearby terrain appraisingly—paying 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 we're all specimens to the good doctor. And soon he'll have a pawful of hoop snakes to add to his collection! It seems likely to me they'll be making their move right away; don't you agree?"
Coyote glanced down at his mangled juniper branch, and tossed it away in disgust. "A-yup. I reckon we're all sittin' ducks, here. No hoop snake could ask for a more perfect attack spot! Now Brother Fox—I was jest wonderin' now, mind you—what do you make of that old cottonwood, yonder? Ain't she a fine lookin' tree? She's 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! That's not very sporting, is it? Don't 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, I'll just bring you back to life again! You won't feel a thing, they say. They say the venom's so deadly you're gone before you even know you're been done in."
"Fox, my dear, dear friend… have you ever been snuffed by a hoop snake?"
"No, come to think of it… can't recall that I have."
"Ah. I see. Maybe you're right. Perhaps we should—Coyote! Did you hear that noise? Yes, there's 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 ramp—twisting 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 gone—and 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. "You're 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. That's Cicéqi for sure, and it looks to me like she's 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 one's actin' mighty peculiar, though—must be matin' season or some such, I suppose. Anyhow she's big, and she's ugly, and she's headin' your way right now!"
A hiss of annoyance escaped the hoop snake's 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! Quick—fetch me another plate!" Zeb remained rooted in place, and did not respond. "Zeb, it's 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 camera—stirring 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 snake—admiring her simply for the the beauty and wonder that was herself—then he sighed regretfully, and called out: "Kay! Todd! Whoever of you is the best marksman, kindly borrow Mr. Foster's rifle and dispatch the creature now. Remember—you 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. "I'm sorry, Dr. Sklarsen! The critter gave me a turn, is all. I'm 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. Zeb's 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. 'Tain't 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, Kay—you 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 Coyote's leg to contemplate him through a pair of shining, serpentine eyes. "How'd I do, Father?" she inquired modestly.
"Adequately," Coyote admitted.
"You were wonderful, Cicéqi!" Fox enthused. "I've never seen such a gorgeous and frightening hoop snake!"
"Thank you! But you ought to have waited. If you think I'm 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 Zeb—burdened with nothing more than the clothes on his back—burst frantically into view. Seconds later Dr. Sklarsen—bowed beneath the weight of his precious camera and cassette pack—also 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 didn't 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. Latrans—reckon we should risk a look?"
"By all means, Mr. Reynard! But… perhaps we ought to take our time about it. One can't be too careful, with hoop snakes! Cicéqi—are 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 Zeb's rucksack. The pups were wobbling, and squabbling, and smelling strongly of cat whiskey.
"Cicéqi! Why the quick change-back? I thought you'd all want to be showing off your sinuous glossy snakiness for me!"
"Snakes don't 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 wasn't even full all the way… but Zeb has more at camp! We left some of that for you! A little."
"Where's the bottle? Let me see for my—what happened to this cloth? It's not ripped; looks more like it was burned, or rotted or—is that snake venom?"
"Yes! Don't 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 Zeb's rifle stock!" one of the male pups volunteered.
"I killed the tree they were hiding behind!" offered a female.
"I struck at Zeb's hat—"
"Not the white Stetson! I've had my eye on that hat for—"
"—but then I changed my mind and just knocked it off. You'll find it over that way—beside your pack."
"Did you strip that too?"
"No, we're still working on Zeb's. But we're done now! What's for lunch?"
"Beef jerky, salt crackers, and whiskey. Hope you liked it." Coyote turned in a circle to survey Zeb's half-disintegrated pack, the blackened and eroded stock of Zeb's rifle, and one sadly assassinated cottonwood tree—the 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 Jason's 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? Did'ja say the place was called Mad Marmot Gorge? A day's ride from here and not a one of your buddies has ever even heard of it? Well lor-dy! Ain't 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 crowd's circle of attention, Coyote and Fox savored their coworker's 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 he'll last?" he inquired.
"Hard to say. Long as they keep buying him free drinks, I suppose."
"I forget—was Zeb supposed to be keeping the gorge a secret?"
"Don't recall. Doesn't matter. None of them will ever—Fox! Did you see that? Over there—by the empty table—I think it's—" 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 Coyote's shirt, backed out when the rest of it didn't 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 Coyote's 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? Don't 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.
"That's two of you. Where are the others?"
"Here and there. You'll notice soon enough."
Clinking sounds behind the bar brought Coyote's 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 Cicéqi's pestilential cohorts were making improper overtures to a stuffed jackalope buck.
"'Hey! What's goin' on here?" Rat claws skittered and a dusty jackalope trophy crashed to the floor as the Argonaut's 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 o'charge, if you please! 'Tis a year o' me life ye've 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! I'll be expectin' a drop o' compensation for me sufferin', and that's for certain!"
"That wasn't no wind! It was a pack o'—"
"Hush!" Fox whisper-hissed. "Have you no sense, man? I didn't 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! Must've been a trick of the light—and 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 moment's careful inspection. "A drop of Elmer's glue'll 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! Ain't he cute? He looks good enough to eat! Too bad the critters ain't real, like hoop snakes and furry trout and such. I'd love to introduce one to our professor friend!"
The bartender grunted ruefully. "They're real enough to put me back a ten-spot for a replacement! Got to do it, though. Folks'll be missing that one. But don't worry—you've 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 that's fond of 'em. And if you need a room, or a companion…"
An annoyed voice intruded from Zeb's 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, that's when!" The bartender turned back to Coyote and winked conspiratorially. "Don't you give him no mind. This is an open bar and he knows it. Even Injuns can drink here, as long's they watch their manners and don't 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 man's 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, we've been busy! Fox—did you hear that? My Spirit Children have invited me to a creation party! Care to join us?"
"Hmm… he is kind of cute… sure, I'll do it if I get to be the male."
"You were the male last time."
"Male spiders don't count! How did you ever talk me into that, anyway?"
"Just like we are right now. We argued, and you won."
"Fine. I'll 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, Fox—don't be a grump! He's an interesting critter no matter what you call him. How about a wager?"
"What do I have to gain?"
"You'll be the progenitor of a whole new species! Isn't that good enough for you?" Coyote held up the jackalope for closer inspection. "Look at him! The humans love these guys! They're already telling stories about 'em, and they don't even exist yet. Think of what will happen when they're real!"
"What sort of wager?"
"We'll 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 won't 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 tonight—just the way we are—with no pre-transformations or other magical trickery."
"Excellent! May the best man win." Coyote banged his glass noisily on the counter top. "Bartender—Jason! How many of them prairie oysters ya got left? Never mind—I'll take 'em all!"
"What was that—prairie 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 there'd be no cheating!"
"You said no magical cheating. Nothing magical about prairie oysters!"
"Right. Say, Jason my friend—what sort of tonics ya got here?"
"Tonics? You mean patent medicines? Well there's Coca Cola, of course—it's sweet and easy to down, and the cocaine infusion gives it a nice kick. And we have a couple bottles of Dr. Smith's Sure-Fire Hangover Preventative and Breath Freshener. That has cocaine too, but with a slug of opium to mellow it out. It's kind of bitter, but it does the job. And then there's—"
"No, I mean tonic like in—you know—like the prairie oysters, but stronger…"
"Oh! That kind of tonic! We keep Madame Bovary's Confidential Cordial for that problem, but we're fresh out right now. The only thing I got on the premises is… never mind."
"Never mind what?"
"It's good stuff, but you can't afford it."
"How do you know I can't afford it?"
"I can tell from the way you're dressed. Kenneth Lo's Lascivious Love Elixir is only for the—"
"I'm sorry sir, but that's not enough—"
"Yes, sir, that will do."
"Why, Coyote! That was very gentlemanly of you!"
"I'm not a gentleman. I bought it for myself. What good is gold if you can't use it to get what you want?"
"I have gold too! Here and there. I'll pay you back—"
"Do you have any with you?"
"I do. Bartender, I'll 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 alcohol—smells 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 it's pretty tasty for a love tonic. Thanks, Kay!"
Coyote glared balefully at Fox and snatched up the bottle of Kenneth Lo's 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 shouldn't have done that," he said.
Coyote laughed. "Don't worry about me—I have an exceedingly tough constitution!"
"You'd better! I'll have to ask you to leave now—it's 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. Lo's elixir kicks in pretty quick—I recommend you take yourself there while you still can. Tell 'em you think you've 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 Jason's back, and out of Fox's angle of view, a small grey mouse licked the last dregs of Lascivious Love Elixir from Fox's glass, shuddered, and scampered unsteadily out of Coyote's 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 Jason's bar was lit by a single gas light—and deserted except for a rambunctious pack of five mismatched street mongrels. The cool evening breeze carried the scents of sage, and absinthe—and 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 Coyote's chest. "I dare ya!" she taunted. Coyote began to unbuckle his belt but the other dogs pushed between them singing: "Jackalopes! Jackalopes! Don't forget the Jackalopes! Follow us, follow us—seize your fate now, while you can! Come this way, to the riverside! It's dark among the willows of Arkansas' bank, and he's prone to flash floods this time of year. The humans won't 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 right—have it your way, but let's 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 Coyote's 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 prankster's parade and Cicéqi's entrancing scent.
"Coyote! Can't you see anything at all? Here—rest your hand on my back and I'll lead you along. Fox! Stay where you are and you'll 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 Cicéqi's 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 Cicéqi's 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. "I'm ready," he whispered.