A Little Less

The rain poured down out of the black sky, a veritable waterfall from the heavens. The desert couldn’t soak it up, the dust and rock and sand simply shrugged off the aqueous onslaught. The resultant flash floods roared out of the arroyos and canyons into the lowlands, swallowing everything before them, seeking rest in bottom of the great canyon to the west.

Occasionally a jagged stroke of lightning would cast the surroundings in a garish blue-white light like a photographic flash on a huge scale, illuminating the mesas and buttes nearby and causing the raindrops to look frozen in space like stars in the summer sky. The following roar and rumble of thunder would stir memories in the soul of the figure hunched near the fire in the mouth of the cave.

“This sucks,” the figure’s voice proclaimed.

The big coyote sat with his back against a rock, a tin cup held loosely in his paws. His blue eyes peered out from under an old, leather western-style hat at the rain falling a few inches from his feet. His paws were gloved in old leather, his mouth quietly worked a toothpick. He was dry and reasonably warm, yet unhappy. Wrapped as he was in an old drover, clothed in denim jeans, a heavy flannel shirt, and boots, it was doubtful that he was cold, yet he grumbled and muttered like an old female as he placed the cup in the dirt next to him. Rising, he grabbed a large stick with which to prod the logs of the fire.

The fire was within a ring of small rocks a few feet from his seated position and burned fitfully in spite of the occasional gust of wind that blew raindrops into the mouth of the cave. The coyote grabbed a couple more chunks of dead tree from a nearby pile and tossed them into the fire pit, arranging them with his stick so that they caught quickly and brightened the cave a bit.

Looking the reader carefully in the eye, the coyote proclaimed “This really sucks” once again as he returned to his seated position against the wall of the cave, picking up the tin cup.

The coffee in his cup was still moderately warm. It was his third cup, and he really had no interest in finishing it. At this time of night he would have much preferred to be sleeping, yet he knew that if he did he’d catch Hell from the fur upon whom he waited. His right paw came up to briefly pat the small flask he carried in the inside pocket of his drover. There, he knew, resided a pint of the best nectar of the gods that the furs in Lynchburg, Tennessee could produce. As soon as his friend showed up the contents would make their appearance, he hoped.

Another stroke of lightning arced across the sky, and the coyote’s head jerked up towards the mouth of the cave. Something in that frozen image was different. In the distance somefur was approaching. A paw left the warmth of the coffee cup and moved slowly towards his rib cage beneath his drover, to caress the butt of the semi-automatic pistol that rested in it’s holster there. The coyote carefully stared into the inky blackness beyond the mouth of the cave as his paw rested against the familiar grip of his trusted Beretta 92 SBE.

Across the floor of the cave, against the far wall, lay a heap of steel. A broadsword, several throwing darts, a couple of tantos, and various other cutlery were in a haphazard pile, looking forlorn. The coyote glanced at them as he scanned the view outside and grinned without humor. Silly damn stuff, he thought. His paw fingered the trigger guard of the pistol casually.

The rainfall outside the cave increased, the rushing sound of it’s fall masking any sound that the approaching fur might make. A full minute went by as the coyote carefully sampled the wind for a scent, his eyes sweeping the terrain visible beyond the mouth of the cave carefully, looking for his target. Nothing came to his senses, yet he knew he was being approached.

He jumped at the sound of the voice.

“Lose something?” The chuckle that followed was almost as insulting as the blade point that pressed itself very gently against the base of his neck . He couldn’t see who was behind him, but he knew.

“Very funny, Tiger,” he growled as he pulled his paw out from beneath his drover. “I could just die from laughter.”

The voice behind him chuckled as the blade point was removed, and the sound of quiet humor moved from behind him. The coyote looked up into the green eyes of his would-be assailant. The feline grinned back.

Half Siberian tiger, half snow leopard, the big cat stood next to the fire ring, gazing down upon the coyote with a half grin as the tip of his tail twitched slowly in amusement. He wore the robes and leggings typical of the world he and the coyote had recently left behind. “My my, aren’t we the happy camper this evening?” the tiger teased as he sheathed his knife. Seeing little change in the expression on the coyote’s face, the banter left the tiger’s voice as he continued..

“OK Joe, why the callout? Why did we have to leave the girls and their world to come here?”

The coyote looked at the tiger, a mix of emotions flashing through his eyes. For long moments he said nothing as the toothpick flicked from one side of his mouth to the other, the canine's teeth working it in frustration. As the tiger began to want to fidget a bit, the canid finally said one word in response, so softly that the tiger didn’t catch it.

“Say again?”

The coyote snarled just a bit. “I said ‘Annie’!”

The tiger slowly sat down indian-style next to his friend, grunting a bit as he did so. “Ah yes, that,” he sighed wistfully once he was settled. He looked at the coffee pot sitting on the edge of the fire, and then up to the coyote. “Got another cup?” he asked, pointing at Joe’s coffee cup.

The coyote glared at him for a moment before turning and picking up another tin cup from the sand behind him. Passing it to the tiger, he said “Help yourself.”

Which the tiger proceeded to do by rolling forward onto his knees and lifting a battered, sooty coffee pot from the edge of the fire. Pouring himself a cup of the liquid, which made a distinctive plop sound as it hit the inside of his tin cup, the tiger grinned and asked “Fresh?”

“Yesterday,” the coyote responded in an offhand manner.

The snarl was absent from his friend's voice this time, the tiger noticed. He nodded.

“Sweet. Gracias por eso, mi amigo!”

“De nada.”

The tiger sat back and sipped the hot liquid, and then spent several moments shuddering and spasming. When he was finally able to draw a breath, the tiger said “Lord, that’s good stuff!”

The coyote removed the flask from his inside pocket and proffered it. “How about something to kill the bugs in that brew?”

The tiger shook his head. “No thanks, Joe. This is fine.” The tiger took another sip and repeated the spasming performance as Joe returned the flask to his pocket. A sour look appeared on his muzzle. “This is good stuff!” he commented.

“Whatever you say, Tigermark.”

The tiger spent a minute staring at the flames of the fire, imagining the outline of a certain lynx dancing there. After a while he sighed and turned to his friend.

“Look Joe, I don’t know why these things happen. God works in mysterious ways, and sometimes these things just… happen.”

The coyote’s visage did not brighten. “Easy for you to say, my friend. At least TL made the jump with you. I got a completely different family!”

The tiger nodded. “I know, Joe, I know. But isn’t Vicky at least a little bit like Annie?”

“That’s the problem,” Joe growled. “She’s almost an exact copy. There’s just enough difference to make me realize that she isn’t Annie. My Annie is home in Colorado, and I'm stuck here. ” The coyote looked at the sandy floor of the cave. “I feel like I’m cheating on Annie, Tiger.”

The tiger looked at his friend carefully. “Joe, these worlds don’t overlap, you know that. This is like Las Vegas. What happens here stays here.”

“No it doesn’t!” the coyote snapped, the snarl reappearing in his voice and on his muzzle. “It’s here as well,” he declared, tapping the side of his head below his right ear. “Guilt makes the jump, Tiger, it makes the jump!

The tiger shivered imperceptibly. This was not part of the deal. When the three amigos had signed on for this inter-dimensional law enforcement gig they had been promised that they would be allowed to take family with them if they so desired. It had not quite worked out that way. Apparently there were parallels in other worlds, parallels that could not meet. Once when he had made the jump his darling wife TL had not, he had been alone for seventeen weeks on a forlorn world, chasing some errant ne’er-do-well or other. Now Joe was in a similar situation, but not really. His wife had apparently either made the jump as a different fur, or had a parallel vixen in this world.

The tiger rolled his shoulders. “What can I say, José? Play the cards you’re dealt.”

“Play the…” the coyote began. He ground his teeth, crushing the toothpick. “Look at it this way, my friend,” he hissed. “If that is my wife, why is she different here? And if it isn’t, why is she here at all? I’m screwed either way. I will not chance an intimate relationship with her. If she’s not Annie then I can’t, and if she is, what’s with this ‘Vicki’ stuff?”

The tiger’s heart softened. Joe was obviously in a bad spot. “It can’t be that bad, amigo…”

“Can’t be that bad!?” the coyote yelled as he stood up. He looked down at the tiger briefly, and then began to pace back and forth before the fire ring. “Can’t be that bad!” he repeated.

Joe whirled on the tiger, holding out his right paw, gloved fingers curled slightly.

“Do you see this?” he demanded.

The tiger nodded, looking apprehensive.

“Do you know what this is?”

Again the tiger nodded as he held out his own left paw in a similar manner. “I’ve got one too, Joe.”

“How do you do it, Tiger?” the coyote yelled. “How can you come to these God-forsaken, medieval worlds and play with that… “ here he motioned to the sword and knives in the pile across the cave, “..,. that crap? Where’s the technology? Where’s the professionalism? Where’s the POWER?”

The coyote huffed, out of words, as a tear rolled down his cheek.

“God damn it, Tiger,” he growled softly. “I miss flying!”

Tigermark opened his mouth to reply, but Joe cut him off.

“Don’t talk to me about that beast, that recalcitrant, drooling piece of shit! I don’t want to herd some half animal – half machine around a few feet off the dirt. I want to fly! I want to dance in the sky! I want the power at my fingertips, the absolute control under my paws.”

The tiger sighed. “I know, Joe. I miss Stripes, too.”

The coyote sat down suddenly, and picked up his coffee. With the back of his free paw he wiped his eyes. Then he sighed.

“In all those years, in all those hours in the log book, I never though I’d hear myself say this, buddy. But I miss The Bitch. I miss my regular job.” Joe looked at his friend. “And I really miss Annie.”

Tigermark was nonplussed. “What are you going to do, Joe? We can’t go home until the job is done, you know that.”

The coyote sneered at his friend. “As soon as that young feline shows his face I’m gonna…”

“Hold on, Joe, hold on,” Tigermark interrupted. “It’s not his fault.”

“He started this!”

“Yes,” the tiger nodded in agreement, “but he was just acting on orders from Him. Don’t fault him for what the Big Guy did this time. You want a fight, take it to Him. Leave Aramis alone.”

“So where is he?” the coyote demanded. “If he’s as much in this as we are, why haven’t we seen him for so long? Hell, I haven’t even heard about him in several days now! If it weren’t for Aslaug the medium, I wouldn’t know anything!”

The tiger started at his friend for a few moments as he controlled his breathing. Joe was obviously on the edge. Looking at it from his perspective, Tigermark could see why. The poor fur had lost his wife, lost his job, and now seemed to have lost his purpose, his sense of direction.

“I don’t know…” the tiger said softly.

Each of the furs stared into the fire as they sipped from their respective cups. After his second sip Joe removed the flask from his inner pocket again, unscrewed the cap, and poured a healthy shot of the contents into his cup. Passing the flask wordlessly to the tiger, the coyote watched as the tiger poured a small amount of the whiskey into his coffee, as well. The tiger screwed the cap back on the flask and handed it back to the coyote.

Joe carefully returned the flask to his pocket. Each fur then stared at the fire for about a minute in prayer. Then the tiger held his cup out to the coyote.

“To the Wrights,” he said solemnly.

“And the Pratts, too,” Joe replied, holding his cup up as well. They both drank.

Joe held his cup out once again. “To Aramis,” he said. “Wherever he may be.”

“To Aramis,” Tigermark agreed, and they drank.

Again Tigermark held his cup forth. “To Aslaug,” he said.

Joe grinned. “She’s quite the gal, eh? He smiled, for the first time in many days, as he drank.

They sat in silence for a time, staring at the dancing flames. Joe initially imagined the face of a certain red fox there, watched as she beckoned to him, felt his heartstrings grow taught as he watched her dance in the firelight. And then, as he stared at her, wings sprouted from her head, her tail grew angular, and huge, roaring turbines appeared. Joe smiled. She took the form of a huge, metallic beast of a bird. As he stared, the Hercules appeared to launch out of the fire at him, and he closed his eyes as he calmly waited to be chewed to bits by her flashing, whirling propellers. Yet he wasn’t. And as he opened his eyes he heard a voice, her voice. “Joe, I love you. Come home to me.”

“Annie,” he breathed quietly.