Tricks of the Light, Part Two
By Michael Bergey
"Excellent preparation!" Cicťqi laughed. †"You're both mindless with lust, and I am too! †The Old Magic will be pleased." †Cicťqi filled her lungs, paused, then breathed out a single sharp note that pierced straight to the marrow of Coyote's bones. †Coyote gasped, transfixed, as the other Spirit Children joined Cicťqi in a Medicine Song that was complex, and playful, and shamelessly erotic. †His senses grew dim and his thoughts began to unravel but he made no effort to fight the process—willfully abandoning himself to the dubious dominion of his five Spirit Children and their fickle ally, the Old Magic.
Whispering willow-leaf-rustle… beguiling lust-musk-scent… tentative, snuffling tail caress… Eyes still closed, Coyote stretched forward and lifted upward at the touch—spine base tingling and ears flushing hot as Fox's velvety jackalope nose seized the opportunity to tickle its way into more sensitive territory. †"Ah, Fox—you're too good to me. †And such a gracious loser you are! †No, don't stop! †In a minute I'll return the favor. †I love that new scent of yours! †It's nice… so nice… never thought a jackalope doe would smell so much like a buck in rut, though. †Old Magic has such a sneaky sense of humor!" †Fox's delightful nuzzling paused for a moment and Coyote heard something rather like a stifled chuckle, then the nuzzle-strokes danced their way swiftly up onto Coyote's back, and a pair of powerful jackalope forelegs clamped themselves firmly around Coyote's flanks. †Thrusting movements, a distinctly intimate touch, and—"Fox! †What are you doing?"
"What does it feel like I'm doing?"
Coyote hopped free from Fox's amorous embrace and snapped open a pair of dark-sensitive jackalope eyes to behold the handsome, antlered visage of—"Fox? †What—no! †How did you do it? †I drank enough love potion to excommunicate a convent!"
Fox raised a fluffy front paw to pat one of the antlers fondly. †"Don't you recognize them? †These are the antlers you bought from Jason an hour ago! †Tell me please—speaking as the beauteous and fertile doe you have become—are they not irresistibly seductive?"
"No! †Those are my antlers! †Give them back!"
"Sorry, too late. †But I have a different sort of horn I can lend you…" †Fox nuzzled the soft fur beneath Coyote's jaw, then began to stroke his way up and behind her long, sensitive jackalope ears. †Coyote nuzzled back, trembling, then jerked herself away. †"Fox—I don't think I'm ready for this! †Did I really lose the bet? †I should be seducing you right now! †I think I need a little more time…" †Coyote twisted around to nose frantically beneath her tail, and Fox joined her in the exploration. †"Time for what? †You're as ready as I am! †Assume the position, please." †Fox stroked delicately with his muzzle and Coyote shuddered at the touch, then scrabbled to her feet and kicked out vigorously with all four of them—launching herself straight up into the air, then off into the willow tangles with great long zigzag leaps. †She stopped, suddenly, for no particular reason, and Fox was right there beside her—pressing his shoulder against hers and forcing his chin firmly down across the top of her back. †Coyote bunched up her haunches to leap again but then she hesitated, savoring the sensation, and yielded to the craving for just one long, sensuous stretch. †When the stretch was over Coyote found herself chest down and tail up, with ears flattened in submission and rump elevated invitingly. †Fox was on her in an instant, grasping her flanks again and probing his way competently toward the proper spot. † †"No—wait! †I didn't mean it that way! †Hold on a bit…"
Fox didn't answer, and Coyote couldn't quite muster the will to wiggle her way free. †Fox's scent was intoxicating, and his missed thrusts maddening, and even as she protested she was adjusting her posture just that little bit to help—
Fox stopped his movements, but made no other response.
"Uncle Fox, I can tell you're busy right now, but—"
"Yes! †I am busy right now! † Please go away. †Coyote and I have a very important matter to attend to."
"Yes, we can see that! †But there's another matter you must attend to first."
The weight on Coyote's back disappeared, and she whipped around to find Fox in astonished confrontation with another jackalope buck.
"Nah—I'm one of the other minions. †Put up yer tines, varmint!" †The new jackalope poked tentatively at Fox's shoulder and Fox snapped his antlers down to parry the attack, then converted his defensive momentum into a powerful offensive lunge. †His opponent was caught off balance but managed a hasty recovery before Fox was able to press his advantage. †The two jackalope bucks strove in ernest then—clashing antlers and tearing great furrows in the damp ground with the strength of their leaps and recoveries. †Feints and strikes became a blur of frenetic motion until the interloper was thrown helplessly through the air, landing in an untidy confusion of unbalanced limbs and upside down antlers. †Fox leapt forward to thrust both antlers into the exposed belly of his opponent, but at the last instant he held back his strength so that the attack caused little harm. †"Yield—or next time I won't be so gentle!" he demanded.
"I yield!" the defeated jackalope confirmed, and Fox stepped back to permit him to hobble away.
Chest heaving, antlers raised in triumph, Fox stood alone and victorious on the field of battle. †He savored the heady feeling for a time, then turned his attention back to Coyote, his rightful—
"Uncle Fox! †Can I play too?"
"Wait a minute—who are you? †How many of you are there?"
"Five. †We're always five. †Or one. †It depends on your point of view."
"But how many of you are jackalope bucks?"
"Five. †The Old Magic got carried away and transformed us all. †Defend yourself!"
Fox defended himself—testing at first, then tearing into the new intruder with an energy even greater than he had shown before. †Two more jackalope bucks drifted into view but they didn't join the battle. †Not yet. †Coyote watched in apprehensive fascination as the current duel grew more intense. †Many many years had passed since Fox and the Spirit Children had fought together! †This contest was still a game to them, but—
"Do you like it?"
Coyote whipped around to find Cicťqi looming close beside her. †Cicťqi in jackalope buck form.
"Do I like what?"
"Do you like being fought over like this? †We hope so! †It's a lot of work!"
"It is nothing of the kind! †You silly males are fighting because you like it better than sex. †Honestly! †I won't say I volunteered to be the female, but its done now and I'm not quite foolish enough to spurn Old Magic's gift by changing that small fact. †So here I stand—alone, outsmarted, flagrantly in heat and exquisitely available—and all Fox wants to do is play with his silly little horns."
"Antlers. †Goats have horns, deer have antlers."
"And jackalope bucks have hot tempers!"
"Yes, it appears we do—ouch! †That hurt! †Did you see what Fox just did? †Nice move! †If he tries that trick again we'll have to… er… where were we? †Yes—we were talking about sex. †Well, you see… I tend to be female most of the time but right now I'm not and… with Fox and the rest of me so busy, and you just standing here all neglected and unappreciated… it seems… if it's not too much trouble… while we're waiting you could share that lovely warm place between your haunches with me!"
"Cicťqi! †How can you—"
"Of course, I should have known—you didn't really mean all those things you've been promising me since we left Jason's bar. †It was all just more Coyote talk, I guess…"
"Cicťqi! †No! †I did mean them!"
"Very well—if you did mean them—prove it to me now!"
Coyote sighed, not unhappily, and assumed the position.
"Coyote, I still can't believe you just raised your rump and let Cicťqi take advantage of you like that. †Taking advantage of you is my job!"
Coyote rubbed her cheek fondly against the shoulder of her valiant new jackalope mate. †"You did well enough when your own turn came!" she purred.
"Yes, but when we made our bargain I never thought I'd have to share you!"
"That took me by surprise too. †It all did. †But the look on your face when you first realized what Cicťqi was doing to me… it was priceless!"
"I'll bet it was! †I wonder if we'll ever figure out which of us is… how many kits does a jackalope kindle, anyway? †Or is kindle even the right word? †Or kits?"
"You can call them kits. †I'll call them trouble. †If the Old Magic shows its usual sense of humor I'll pop out a dozen of 'em—or one enormous, groin-splitting calf. †I don't know why I persist in dealing with that—"
"—noble and powerful and sadly misunderstood co-creator of our World."
"And personal creator of you… and me."
"Yes, indeed! †Whatever was I thinking? †Let's change the subject." †Coyote nosed wistfully at the ample equipment Fox now carried beneath his own tail. †"How's that extra horn you like so much to share with me? †Is it ready yet for another go?"
"Er… not quite yet. †Soon."
"Oh, never mind, then. †I'll just call over Cicťqi or one of the other—"
"Listen! †Do you hear that voice? †It sounds like Zebediah. †Bars must have closed for the night."
'O bury me not on the lone prairie.'
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of the youth who lay
On his dying bed at the close of day.
'O bury me not on the lone prairie
Where the wild coyote will howl o'er me . . .'
"Hey! †He's singing my song! †Coyote lifted her head to the starlit sky and let forth an eerie, jackalope-flavored parody of a coyote howl. †Fox joined her, and other voices from the nearby darkness. †Zeb's voice grew quiet.
"Zebediah!" †Coyote called out in an unearthly, jackalope-banshee keen. †"Zebediah—foolish mortal—you have awakened the Spirits!"
"Spirits! †I'm sorry—I didn't mean to rile you up! †Please, you just settle down easy-like and I'll git myself away from here right quick. †You won't hear no more singing from me tonight, you can count on that!"
"But we like you singing! †Sing us another song about coyotes! †Or rabbits. †You can sing about romantic rabbits, if you like. †Or anything with antlers and a bad attitude."
"Well, uh… I don't know… can't say as I recall any songs like that…"
"None at all? †That's very disappointing, Zebediah! †Perhaps we're displeased with you after all—"
"No! †Wait! †I can sing Home on the Range!
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play—"
"The words of your song are not quite right. †Try singing 'Where the deer and the jackalope play.'"
"Are you joshing me? †Fellas—I admit you had me suckered for a minute, but I'm on to your game now. †Come out and show yourselves!"
Coyote crept forth from the darkness and stationed herself directly behind Zebediah's earnestly intent, if unsteady form. †She snorted loudly and the hapless human whipped around in a panic, almost falling over in the process.
Zebediah noticed the small furry creature crouched on the street before him and sighed in extravagantly intoxicated relief. †"Well, goll-ie! †Just a gosh-derned jackrabbit! †Go on, you—shoo! †Why are you just standing there like that? †You got rabies, or something? †If I had my gun with me I'd—what's that?"
Fox had crept into the circle of lamplight and stood now close beside Coyote—ears flattened and antlers raised threateningly. †Behind Zeb sounded a hiss like a hoop snake and the human twisted back to encounter five more aggressively antlered jackrabbits . . . or spirits.
"Uh-oh." †Zebediah bowed his head and attempted—with limited success—to return his attention to Coyote without quite turning his back on any of the other apparitions. †"Spirits—I'm truly sorry I've offended you. †I swear I never meant to! †Can I make it up to you somehow?"
Coyote rose to her haunches and regarded the human through a lambently lamp-lit eye. †"Perhaps. †That's a mighty fine new hat you're wearing! †Would you care to part with it?"
A tragic, thunderstruck expression replaced the look of terrified awe that had previously marked Zebediah's features. †Wordlessly he lifted his hands to his head, removed the cream colored Stetson, and carefully placed it on the ground. †Coyote hopped forward and sniffed the hat carefully from brim to crown, then nudged beneath it and stood on her haunches with the hat balanced on the top of her head, and the brim dangling ludicrously at the level of her belly. †"Hey guys," she called out in a muffled voice, "look! †I'm a parlor lamp!"
Fox flipped the hat away with his antlers and pressed himself close against Coyote's flank. †"And I am the spark that shall set you aflame!"
Coyote cuddled close for a moment, then curled around and ostentatiously investigated her nether regions. †"Hmmm—seems to be a problem down here. †My wick is missing, and I can't quite recall where I left it."
Fox insinuated a companionable foreleg across Coyote's shoulders and whispered conspiratorially, "You lost it in a bet, remember? †But you can borrow mine!"
"You told me you're not ready yet!"
"Now I am. †We jackalope bucks recuperate quickly."
"Er… yes, Spirit?"
"Keep your hat for now. †This irresistibly antlered jackalope buck will cover me instead. †Carry on with your song, please!"
"Uh… sure… you bet… whatever you say. †Just let me catch my breath a bit and I'll get right to it…
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the jackalope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word—"
"Yes, that will do. †It pleases us. †Sing it louder, though! †Sing it 'til you get back to your room… or any other time you think we may be lurking about, and it will save you a worse fate. †You may leave us now."
"Yes, Spirit—uh, Spirits, I'll do that—And the skies are not cloudy all day…"
"Fox—that was one smooth invisibility spell you used on the night clerk! †I hardly felt it at all."
"Didn't take much. †The man didn't want to see us—just like Dr. Sklarsen doesn't."
"Too true. †Look—there's light coming out from under his door. †I wonder if he's still awake!" †Coyote backed up to the professor's hotel room door and thumped emphatically with a hind foot, filling the hallway with her thrumming cadence. †The door opened immediately and a disheveled, wild-eyed Dr. Sklarsen confronted the interloping jackalope pair.
Fox rose to his full two foot six of height and inclined a majestically antlered head in greeting courtesy. †"Guten Abend, Herr Profesor!"
Coyote sat up on her own haunches and nodded a leanly attractive but otherwise unremarkable jackrabbit head in the professor's direction. †"Howdy, pardner!"
Herr Doctor Profesor Wolfgang Sklarsen did not return the greetings. †He merely stood stood there in his doorway, a dazed expression frozen onto his countenance. †Coyote and Fox waited on the threshold for a few seconds, then invited themselves inside for a look around.
Photographic plate boxes were everywhere, some of them open, and on the bedside table one particular plate was propped intimately close to a brightly-burning kerosine lamp. †A jeweler's loupe, an empty wine bottle, and an empty cup also shared the table's surface.
Coyote hopped onto a chair and peered closely at the photo plate. †"Look, Fox! †It's Cicťqi!"
Fox hopped up and admired the photo plate as well. †In exquisite scientific detail it revealed a close-field negative rendering of sunlit mountain stream boulders, a single flood-battered cottonwood seedling, and Cicťqi's scandalously impossible hoop snake form.
Four ample jackalope ears snapped erect at the sound and oriented instantly on its source. †The source was Dr. Sklarsen, securing the lock on his door.
Coyote and Fox turned to each other and shared a lazy, lagomorph grin.
"Well will you look at that—the doctor wants to capture us!" Coyote remarked conversationally. †"When I'm a scrawny, dirt-colored coyote everyone wants me to go away, but as a scrawny, dirt-colored bunny I'm just too popular for words!"
"Maybe I'm the one he wants. †An antlered jackrabbit would make an excellent scientific specimen, don't you think?"
"And talking jackrabbits are not worth his trouble?"
"We're talking with the help of our magic. †The professor probably can't even understand us."
"Zeb understands us."
"Zeb's an ignorant yokel. †Our professor is of much finer clay. †Hey! †Professor Sklarsen! †Can you understand what I'm saying?" †Professor Sklarsen was staring raptly at his two jackalope captives, but he made no direct response to Fox's words.
Coyote laid her ears back in annoyance. †"This human is dense," she growled. †"I gift him with furred trout, hoop snakes—even create a new species just for his amusement—and he's still stuck in his old ways! †Let's sing for him—maybe that will break through the walls. †A human song. †One he already knows. †What's a good song for a slow-witted ivory tower escapee?"
"Once upon a midnight dreary—"
"I said a song!" †Coyote hopped down from her chair seat perch and stood up on her haunches, neck extended and ears trailing gracefully down the length of her back. †"Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do…" she began. †Fox oozed up beside and pressed a testosterone-fevered cheek close against hers.
"…I'm half crazy all for the love of you…" he crooned in honeyed harmony.
It won't be a stylish marriage
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!
Dr. Sklarsen hefted his wine bottle, eyed its implacable emptiness sadly, and set it down again. †"What are you creatures?" he inquired plaintively.
"We're jackalopes!" Coyote and Fox replied in unison.
"Jackalopes. †I don't think I'm familiar with the term."
Coyote licked a forepaw clean, then ran it carefully down the length of one elegant ear. †"That's 'cause you're from Germany. †They know all about us out here in the sticks."
"I'm not from Germany!" Professor Sklarsen admonished sternly. †"I just work there. †My homeland is Prussia."
Coyote eyed Fox mischievously. †"Do you suppose he'd enjoy a visit to our homeland?" she whispered.
"Don't tempt me," Fox muttered in reply.
"I'm so sorry, but I didn't quite catch that. †You were saying you're jackalopes weren't you? †I assume that's in reference to the North American steppe hare referred to locally as jackrabbit? †I must acknowledge there's a certain resemblance."
Coyote hopped forward to sniff the human's shoe and rub her chin fondly against his ankle. "Dr. Sklarsen, I'm so proud of you!" she gushed. †"I never thought you'd learn to accept magical talking animals so easily!"
"I'm a scientist. †I've been trained to have an open mind. †Please don't insult it by speaking to me of magic and such rot. †You're a clever puppet, perhaps—or a drunken hallucination of some sort. †The truth will come to light eventually."
"If we're hallucinations, why did you lock your door?"
"It seemed a sensible thing to do at the time."
Coyote hopped back up to her chair perch and braced both forelegs against the delicate milk-glass base of the professor's table lamp. †"Since you're such a sensible fellow, perhaps you'll sensibly open that door again before I cover your floor with broken lamp bits and burning kerosine."
Dr. Sklarsen opened the door, and the two jackalopes utilized it immediately. †When she was safely in the hallway Coyote turned back to the professor and waved a flippant forepaw in his direction, then nudged Fox with her shoulder and turned to go.
"Wait!" Dr. Sklarsen cried. †"It was a mistake to try to hold you. †I admit that. †But I've released you now. †Will I see you again?"
"Perhaps you'll hallucinate us again if you drink enough wine. †I recommend Jason's tavern, just a couple of blocks south, on Main street. †Nice atmosphere there, much better than drinking alone in your room. †Tell the bartender Kay is doing just fine, and took no harm from his elixir overdose."
"Kay? †As in Kay Latrans, my guide? †Do you know him?"
"Intimately. †I am Kay."
"And I'm Todd!" Fox added brightly. †"Kay may be—occupied—for a while, but I'll be in human form and back to work in a few days, just as soon as we've concluded some important business together. †See you then!" †Fox bumped Coyote sharply with his shoulder, knocking her over, then sank claws in carpet and hurled himself down the hallway and around a corner in three tremendous bounds. †Coyote recovered her balance and scrabbled after him an instant later—shouting something about burying her hat on the lone prairie when she caught up with it. †Dr. Sklarsen stood staring after the apparitions for a long, long time, then bemusedly shook his head and returned to his room—where he went to bed, but most definitely not to sleep.
"Greetings, Dr. Sklarsen! †How you keeping, my man? †Did you miss us? †Do we still have a job?"
Wolfgang Sklarsen lifted his gaze from the beer glass before him and beheld Todd Reynard in human form, fully if dustily clothed, and unremarkable except for the lanky, insolent-looking jackrabbit—or jackalope—perched on his left shoulder.
"You certainly took your time!" he replied in a tight, strained voice. †"This is the last night I was going to wait for you. †My photographs are on their way to Germany even as we speak—along with that curiously corroded stock from Mr. Foster's rifle—and I'll be taking the first morning train north. †Mr. Foster is gone already. †He has left in my care a gun, a hat, and a story no man but myself could possibly believe."
Without waiting for an invitation Todd entered Dr. Sklarsen's bar booth and seated himself across from the professor. †"You're ready to travel? †Excellent! †Kay and I have something really special to show you this time!"
"Did you say Kay? †Kindly tell me where Kay Latrans is at this moment."
The jackalope creature leaned forward on her shoulder perch and glared across at the doctor. †"I'm right here, you idiot!" she hissed.
Dr. Sklarsen inhaled deeply, then emptied his lungs in a long, heartfelt sigh. †Looking straight at Kay he remarked softly, "I was afraid you were going to say that. †Why aren't the people around us paying attention to you? †Are you a hallucination after all? †Am I going mad, perhaps? †That would be a convenient way for me to deal with this situation."
Kay looked sidelong at the doctor and twisted her features into a truly disturbing parody of the Cheshire Cat's grin. "But we're all mad here!" she purred. †She held the pose for a moment but, sadly, chose not to fade conveniently away. †Instead she drop-hopped smoothly to the table surface and glide-hopped forward to nuzzle Dr. Sklarsen's hand. †The hand jerked at her touch, but did not pull away.
"Nah nah nah, Professor," the jackalope soothed, "don't you fret none. †The other humans aren't noticing us because we're just not very… interesting… to them right now. †It's a little trick we spirits use when we don't wish to be bothered. †When you want that glass refilled you should let us know, 'cause I don't think Jason is going take care of it anytime soon!
"Now—we were going to tell you about the next great thing for you to photograph. †You'll never guess what we have in mind for you you this time!"
Wordlessly Dr. Sklarsen removed his glasses, polished them with a spotlessly clean handkerchief, carefully settled them back in place. †Sadly he shook his head and returned his gaze to the small furred entity before him. †"I agree," he sighed. †"I'll never guess. †Please tell me."
Kay rose to her haunches and gazed earnestly into the professor's pale gray human eyes. †"Sasquatch!" she whispered breathlessly. †"We're going to guide you to Sasquatch! †This time of year he's usually way out of reach in the high country, but he has this irresistible craving for—"
"No," Dr. Sklarsen interrupted. †"Thank you all the same, but I think I have all the mystery I can possibly handle standing right here before my eyes. †Sasquatch will have to reveal his secrets to some other, more intrepid explorer."
Kay's ears drooped for a moment, then stood up jauntily again. †"So I'm all the mystery you can handle? †That's nice, I suppose. †What dark secrets would you like me to reveal? †Do you yearn to blast your enemies with unspeakable curses? †Travel to the other Worlds? †Shape-shift? †I can't shift myself right now, but I'm not entirely without resources. †Mr. Reynard, for example, is quite gifted in that field, and this tavern would provide a most convenient locus for the magic. †Our surrounding here have a delightfully credulous ambiance to them—not at all like that… difficult… train platform where we first met. †If your soul is driven to truly understand this World, you really ought to try scenting it through a different nose."
"Perhaps we should begin with something a bit more prosaic. †I'll need to photograph you, of course, and perform a proper physical exam, and then—"
Kay flopped backwards onto the table top, splayed wide her haunches, and slipped both front paws coyly behind her neck. †"Oh, Wolfgang!" she crooned in a sultry voice, "I thought you'd never ask! †Go ahead—examine me—I don't mind."
"Stop that!" Dr. Sklarsen snapped. †"It's obscene! †I would need more privacy and much better light to examine you properly. †And even that won't do me any good. †I'd have to bring you back alive—or ship home your dissected and preserved corpse—before my colleagues would accept my report."
Kay shifted back into the traditional hunchbacked lagomorph sitting posture, and rocked her ears demurely to Todd. †"Did you hear that? †The doctor wants to be alone with me—and he's going to carry me off to his lair in Berlin!"
Todd laughed, "I think your virtue, such as it is, is safe enough with him! †And anyway you're out of heat now, and will be until your kits are born." †Why don't you go with him? †Berlin is a wicked, wicked city, almost as bad as Paris. †You'll fit right in there."
"Fox… er… Todd, you know I don't like to be away from my people for long. †I get homesick."
"That's not homesickness, it's hunger. †If you like I can tag along and feed you the life energy you need."
"Hmm—that is a thought. †Is Berlin really that wicked?"
"Well, you know the human cities are all about the same when it comes to that—but the European ones have had more time to practice. †And they have some really excellent restaurants!"
"Wolfgang—promise you'll take me to Berlin!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Silly human—you know you want to! †Promise me."
"I really don't think I can—"
"Very well, I promise you shall visit Berlin if it is within my power to make that come to pass."
"Excellent! †Now Todd, you must promise to come along!"
"Of course, my love! †You do plan to wait until after our children are born, I hope."
"Yes, of course. †We jackalopes should overrun Colorado first and save der Rheinland for later. †But look! †The doctor's glass has gone dry! †Surely he'll be wanting another without delay."
Dr. Sklarsen's gaze shifted to his empty vessel and he sighed, resignedly. †"Perhaps another beer would not be out of place," he admitted.
Kay sniffed the glass rim and nodded appreciatively. †"Yes… nice brew! †I think I'll have one for myself. †Todd, love—perhaps you can find it in your heart to spare a coin for a thirsty doe who's just a mite short of change. †I've misplaced my clothes, it appears, and all my money—"
"—is right here!" Todd laughed, patting a trouser pocket. †"You don't think I'd just walk by and leave all your lovely gold lying out there in the coyote willows, do you?"
"No, I don't think that. †I saw you take it."
Todd laughed again, reached out to pat his jackalope bride fondly on the rump, then firmly nudged her forward until she fell-jumped off the table edge and scuttled into the darkness beneath it. †"Jason!" he called out sharply, "Can't you spare a little attention for your old buddy Todd?"
Jason rushed into view immediately. †"Excuse me, sir—I'm so sorry!—how did you get in here without—"
"Never mind about that. †I'm here now, sharing a round with my good colleague Dr. Sklarsen. †And dinner too, if he's amenable. †We'll have three more of what the doctor is drinking, and a couple of steaks, and some vegetables or salad, if you have any."
"We have corn and potatoes—"
"Yes, that will do nicely. †Please keep the butter separate, in a side dish."
"Yes, sir. †We'll have that for you right away…" †The bartender hesitated, opened his mouth as if to say something more, then thought better of the idea and bustled off to secure the requested items.
Dinner arrived promptly, and Kay hopped lightly from floor to bench to table top as soon as privacy had been restored. †She was not alone. †As she rushed to make acquaintance with her beer glass five enormous cockroaches scuttled down from her back and infested the mound of mashed potatoes on Todd's plate. †Kay ignored her chitinous consorts and buried her muzzle in beer foam. †Todd leaned back with a wry smile and permitted his new guests to feed unmolested. †Dr. Sklarsen sat rigidly immobile, regarding the tableau before him with an expression of horrified nausea.
Kay lifted her head for air, belched happily, then carefully groomed foam remnants from face and whiskers. †She caught Dr. Sklarsen's expression and clucked sadly. †"Now, now, Dr. Sklarsen, weren't you telling me last week that all of Mother Nature's creations are worthy of our reverence and respect? †I seem to recall you were saying something of that sort, but perhaps my memory is playing tricks again. †Memories are such fragile things."
Dr. Sklarsen nodded stiffly at the jackalope's words, but he did not offer any of his own, and the expression of nausea did not leave his face.
Todd waved the cockroaches away from his plate. †"Go on, you!" he laughed. †"You've had your little joke. †If you want to share dinner with the doctor you'll have to dress for the occasion. †Something cute and furry would be nice. †And small. †I'll not be buying any extra food for you!"
The cockroaches scuttled along Todd's left arm and out of view beneath the table, and moments later five small brown weasels returned by the same path—immediately sinking five sets of needle sharp canines into the edge of Todd's steak. †"Excuse me," he interrupted, and sliced away a modest chunk of meat for himself—abandoning the rest to a squabbling and extravagantly toothy fate.
"Please, Doctor—eat! †None of us will molest the food on your plate. †It wouldn't be polite."
Dr. Sklarsen poked at his steak for a moment, then abandoned the pretense. †"I suppose you're going to tell me the cockroaches and weasels talk too," he sighed.
The five weasels lifted their heads and fixed the doctor with a single, multi-orbed stare. †"We do!" they squeaked as one, and resumed feeding.
The jackalope had been observing Dr. Sklarsen's distress with an expression curiously akin to sympathetic fondness. †Now she glide-hopped carefully forward—sedulously avoiding the tangle of carnivorous and potentially deadly weasels—and politely nuzzled the doctor's hand. †"We've been very hard on you," she admitted sadly. †"It's all my fault, you know. †I was annoyed, and determined to make you see a wider world. †I've done that, I believe. †If you wish we will leave you now, never to disturb you again."
Dr. Sklarsen's hand lifted, hesitated, then began to scratch tentatively behind the jackalope's jaw. †She pushed her neck firmly into the movement and folded her ears down in pleasure at the touch. †"I'll take this as a request not to leave quite yet," she murmured.
"No, please don't leave!" he begged. †"If I've gone mad it's not your fault. †Teach me more!"
Kay shook herself and stood up on her haunches, facing the human eye to eye. †"As you wish! †But first you must tell me—what is your favorite animal?"
"Favorite animal?" †Dr. Sklarsen looked thoughtfully to one side for a moment, but not quite far enough to lose track of the table full of strange creatures before him. †"I do not believe it is proper for a scientist to have a favorite animal. †All living things are equally fascinating to me."
Kay nodded politely, but looked more than a little skeptical of the professor's statement. †"Very well then, what was your favorite animal when you were a foolish child—before you became wise and important like you are now?"
"Mock me if you like—I'm merely telling you the truth as I perceive it. †I had several favorite animals while I was growing up, but the wolf was my most consistent favorite."
Kay's tail snapped up in alarm at the professor's words, and she backed away, nervously. †Todd and the spirit-weasels appeared unconcerned. †Amused, perhaps, but not actually concerned. †Todd extended his hand across the table, and Dr. Sklarsen shook it in automatic response. †"Wolf, you say?" Todd inquired brightly, maintaining his grip on the doctor's hand, "Really, now—I never would have thought it! †You strike me as more the raven type—but very well—wolf it shall be!" †Todd's expression grew distant and strange… and rather frightening.
"No, Fox! †Wait!" Kay called out. †Todd relaxed his grip, and Dr. Sklarsen snatched his hand back hastily.
"Really, Kay—what's got into you? †Weren't you asking me to initiate our doctor into the mysteries of shape shifting?"
"Yes… but let's not use the wolf form. †The magic might draw his attention here. †How about something simple and safe, like a fox?"
"Foxes are safe, says the delicious-looking jackalope!"
"That's not what I meant! †It's just that right now Wolf and I are not… getting along."
"You've been gone for five years! †Whatever it is you did to Wolf—don't you think he'll have calmed down by now?"
"Let's not put him to the test, if it's alright with you. †And besides—the doctor will be a tough patient. †Why not work with your natural strengths?
"Kay! †Are you questioning my power?"
"Of course not! †I was merely—"
"Good. †Doctor, may I have your hand, please? †Kay has just helped me to determine the most fitting choice for your initiation."
Dr. Sklarsen kept his hands firmly on the table top before him. †"First tell me what you're trying to do!"
"Isn't it clear yet? †At your request, Kay is attempting to teach you some of our strange ways. †She feels the experience of a different point of view would be a good way to start. †Don't you?"
"Dr. Sklarsen, if any of us intended you harm, you would be harmed! †We do not require your permission for that. †Now—kindly give to me your hand, or bid us depart your presence."
The spirit weasels had ceased their squabbling and were peering at the doctor with an eerily intent gaze. †Dr. Sklarsen turned to the jackalope creature and met the same reception. †He averted his eyes and lifted one hand from the table surface, clenched it into a fist, released. †It was a good hand—strong, and generous, and full of skill. †It had served him well for many years, and with luck and proper care it would serve him for many more. †Wolfi, you fool—you don't have to do this! †Dr. Sklarsen clenched his fist again and whispered to himself "No, I don't." †Then slowly he opened the hand, examined it carefully front to back, and offered it humbly to the strange being who called himself Todd Reynard.
Conversation ceased in Jason's Idle Argonaut Tavern as every man in the building felt… something. †A tingling change or wavering it was—or perhaps a simple earth tremor. †Earth movement was the consensus, in any case, when conversation resumed a moment later. †Proponents of the earth tremor theory were supported by the sudden appearance of a confused, no doubt quake-dazed jackrabbit which skittered frantically from table to table until it discovered the saloon doors and darted out of sight beneath them.
Massive late-season thunderheads mounded high, to the southeast. †They were larger and darker than the others had been. †And closer. †These ones might even deliver the moisture they promised. †A rain-scented wind gust worked loose a lock of Dr. Sklarsen's hair—his perfectly normal human hair—and Dr. Sklarsen tucked it back with a perfectly normal human hand. †Rain would be welcome, of course. †Rain was always welcome in these lands except when it came on too strongly, and burst out through the arroyos in savage flash floods. †Dr. Sklarsen scanned the sagebrush flats before him with a keen, gray, glasses-free gaze—pulling down the wide brim of Mr. Foster's white Stetson to better shade his eyes from the oppressive late morning sunlight that still bathed his part of the landscape. †It was a practical hat—well adapted to this harsh climate—and he was growing rather fond of it. †Dr. Sklarsen decided he would purchase another for himself if Mr. Foster—or Kay Latrans—ever returned to claim this one.
No movement. †The search was pointless, really. †No desert animal stirred voluntarily in such heat, and in any case he had failed to make a sure identification of Kay's kit… or his… in days. †Jackrabbits aplenty populated the flats before him but they all sort of looked alike to his human eyes—even his new, perfect ones—and as for his nose . . . †Dr. Sklarsen sighed, and turned away. †Best to resume his vigil in the cool of evening, and utilize this time to struggle once again with his expedition report. †He settled himself comfortably in the shade of the supply wagon, opened his photographic diary to the most recent entry, slammed the wretched thing closed again. †Perhaps he should simply strike camp and be on his way. †The kits were weaned, and fat, and already lightning-swift—and how could he pretend to guard them when he couldn't even recognize them anymore?
Only one kit each! †And both of them males. †Much heated discussion had followed the event, and the resolution had been most unexpected, involving six new jackalope females—none of which had been Kay—and Dr. Sklarsen to guard the kits once they were weaned. †Dr. Sklarsen in human form, with all his possessions retrieved from storage intact—and guilt-gifted with a fine new wagon and mule team to boot! †So strange… to be looking down at the strange hare-creatures again, rather than sniffing them nose to… nose.
"I'll be back soon," Kay had promised, gleefully flourishing his brand new jackalope antlers—just the way Todd had flourished his—and lasciviously eyeing his harem of newly crafted jackalope does—just the way Todd eyed me! †"—and I'll have another surprise for you then!"
Wunderbar. †He was not sure he could handle another one of Kay Latrans' surprises. †Perhaps he should make his exit now, while the roads were still passable. †The wagon was packed, the mules well fed and rested, and he could have the whole thing in motion with very little effort. †A good photographer could earn his way anywhere, and doubly so out here in this strange, empty land where the people were so refreshingly free with their money. †Dr. Sklarsen surveyed the wagon's contents again, and frowned. †Emulsion plates, chemicals, flash powder, developing tent, food, water, formaldehyde— †The formaldehyde would have to go. †It was valuable, in its way—a special formula of the highest purity, and with the latest buffering chemicals, shipped to him at great expense by his colleagues in Berlin—but it was too heavy for the long journey he had in mind, and he would never use it in any case. †The Universitšt zu Berlin would not be receiving any shipments of preserved hoop snakes or furred trout from him, even if he again chanced to encountered such creatures. †They might be somebody he knew! †And as for pickled jackalopes… he shuddered at the thought.
Dr. Sklarsen sighed again, and began to slide the formaldehyde drum toward the open end of his wagon. †It was a large drum, too heavy for him to lift with just the strength of his own arms. †Once he pushed the thing off he would never be able to put it back without help. †Very well, so be it. †He dragged, balanced, raised his eyes to the horizon one more time, and detected movement.
It was a coyote—a big, handsome one, most likely male—trotting toward him in full view, with tongue lolling extravagantly from the heat.
Dr. Sklarsen's eyes narrowed, but the only movement he made was to shift the formaldehyde drum a centimeter back from the wagon's edge. †A week ago that coyote could have slain him with a single bite, and even now it posed a deadly danger to his… son. †Still he bore the creature no animosity, and would do nothing to harm it if it continued on its current path. †The coyote had a right to walk this land—far more right than he did! †That opinion had been formed long before his… peculiar… recent experiences.
The coyote halted and crouched, ears fixed on some small noise in the brush.
No—not here! †Hunt anywhere else… but not here!
As Dr. Sklarsen's gaze locked on the coyote his hand reached back and closed upon Mr. Foster's newly restocked and repaired Winchester 1892. †The cartridge was levered in, gun raised to shoulder, safety released. †The coyote pounced forward, tail waving happily, and a small gray form could be seen wiggling between its front paws. †Dr. Sklarsen fired.
Herr Doctor Profesor Wolfgang Eisenhertz-Sklarsen signed the final transport papers, entrusting his valuable and extremely heavy specimen drum to the uncertain mercies of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway shipping clerk. †"Cover letter?" inquired the man in a bored but kindly enough voice.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your paperwork's fine, far as I can tell, but folk usually like to send a letter with their packages. †You can tuck the envelope in this pocket right here, if you've a mind." †The clerk eyed the acrid-smelling formaldehyde drum dubiously. †"Unless you already got one tucked in there."
"No, nothing in there but my… specimen. †I thank you for your offer, sir, and if you'd be so kind as to provide me with some paper and an envelope, I'll implement your suggestion right away."
Never did finish the report—have to tell them something. †Kay! †If only you had come to me first… †Dr. Sklarsen accepted the proffered writing materials and turned quickly away. †The tears were coming again, and he could not let them show. †Kay, Kay—whatever, wherever you are—do my human promises mean anything to you? †Are you even truly dead? †I wish you well, in any case. †Enjoy your journey to Berlin.
Dr. Sklarsen dabbed furtively with his handkerchief and in a firm, precise hand with only the tiniest amount of trembling he wrote: †
It is with the most overwhelming sadness and chagrin that I must report to you my failure to secure the fish and reptile specimens requested, and in addition my inability to provide you with a coherent account of my activities and expenditures as your field representative on the North American Plains Photographic Expedition. †I am deeply humiliated by this lapse on my part, and shall take this opportunity to tender, in response, my immediate resignation from the Academy. †This is a personal decision on my part, and in no way intended to reflect unfavorably upon you, or my many other treasured associates. †Please do not attempt to respond to this letter. †You shall not be hearing from me again.
The canine specimen enclosed herein is offered as partial—and, of course, ridiculously inadequate—compensation for my numerous failings in my primary endeavor. †The specimen appears to be a previously unrecorded subspecies of Canis latrans, as you will no doubt confirm upon close examination of dental and cranial morphology. †If subspecies status is confirmed, please consider my suggestion of maii as the subspecies modifier. †And also—as a personal favor to me, the last one I shall ever ask of you—please do what you can to keep the enclosed Stetson hat permanently together with the type specimen. †It is a bizarre request, I realize, but I bid you respect it in any case, if you can find it in your heart to do so.
With fondest regards, Wolfgang.
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