Precious Cargo



All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

Precious Cargo is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003 and 2004



Trial By Fire

Annie guided her Cadillac STS smoothly down the canyon road they used to get to their home in eastern Orange County. She and her daughter had traveled the last few miles in relative silence, each lost in her respective thoughts about the evening. The stereo system was tuned to a local rock station, playing at a background level. Neither of the foxes had seemed to be paying any attention to the music.

Debbie's head was full of opportunity and promise. The modeling project introduced by Gina Vison over dinner earlier that evening was like a shining star on Debbie's horizon, there for the taking. All that was required of her was the investment of her hard work, the effort of reaching for that star. In her own mind Debbie wasn't terribly interested in the potential for glamour and fame that this line of work could possibly offer. She saw this as a fast track to the kind of financial security that would allow her to pursue her dreams in an expeditious manner.

Debbie really had no idea what career path she wanted to explore yet. She was not particularly inclined technically like her father was, nor was she a "gear head" like her brother Chris. While strong in her faith, she had not felt the call like her brother Mike had, and had no desire to build a career within the church.

In terms of her expectations of a career she aligned herself mostly with her mother, she had fuzzy visions of working as a business professional at some time in the future. Her plans for college included a degree in business management / administration, and that coupled with her computer literacy was sort of nudging her towards the business world. Her ultimate goal was to have the type of job that afforded her ample time to spend with her family and friends and indulge herself in one of her real passions - travel.

Gina's vision therefor meshed with her own expectations, possibly accelerating Debbie through the college process while providing her access to a business she could grow and prosper in, even outside of being a model herself. In fact, deep down she was a bit afraid of the whole modeling scene, she hoped she'd be more adept at managing others than she would be at walking a runway.

In the leather seat to Debbie's left, Annie was deep in her own thoughts, at this moment centered mostly on her husband. After the frank discussions they had shared about his job on the way home from Utah, she was quite concerned by the knowledge that Joe was somewhere in the mountains on behalf of the Interstate Police Force and not SCWD, doing the Lord only knew what. She was not overly concerned about his ability to take care of himself in the backcountry, she knew that his skill level at back country travel was exceptional. But now that she was more aware of the type of "work" he was required to do for the IPF, and the volatility of the furs he might be coming in contact with; she feared for his safety.

Annie sighed as she turned the wheel of her STS, clearing her head as their home appeared in the glare of her car's headlights. They rolled to a stop near the front porch. She glanced at her daughter briefly as she set the park brake and shut off the engine. The stereo continued to play, somewhere in the back of her mind Annie was aware of Everclear performing "I Will Buy You A New Life". She smiled guardedly at Debbie. Annie did not want to diminish Debbie's evening with her own thoughts.

"I enjoyed meeting Gina tonight," Annie said quietly. "We should have her over sometime soon to meet daddy and get to know her better."

Debbie nodded, still lost in thought as she opened her door in preparation of exiting the car. She gazed back at her mother for a moment before replying. "I'd like that, mom. I'm excited about what we're going to do." She paused, her blue eyes holding her mom's. "I hope you think we're doing the right thing, mom."

Annie smiled briefly. The significance of Debbie's words were clear, they both viewed Debbie's future as a team effort, something to be shared as it was developed. "I'm looking forward to this, honey. It's all quite exciting, isn't it?"

Debbie nodded tiredly in reply, a small yawn escaping her as she relaxed in the leather seat. "That was a wonderful dinner, wasn't it?"

Annie opened her door, and as a warm breeze gusted through the vehicle the volume of the stereo system began to fade automatically as it started it's shutdown sequence. "Fabulous," she replied. She smiled again as she turned to exit the car. "Especially that New York Cheesecake we all shared." Annie stood next to her car and turned to face her daughter as she exited and stood opposite her. "That was worth the exercise I'll have to do all weekend to get it off my hips."

Debbie laughed briefly. "Mom, you've got nothing to worry about."

As Annie opened her mouth to thank her daughter for the compliment Debbie suddenly interrupted, her eyes abruptly alert as her nose twitched. "Hey mom, do you smell smoke?"

###

Up on the Santa Anas the hot east wind howled over the summit of Mount Stockton, fanning the flames that burned in the canyons to the west and southwest of the wreckage of the aircraft whose crash had started the fire. To the northwest a new fire was rapidly gaining ground on the west slopes of Icehouse Canyon, fanning out from the final resting place of the Orange County Fire Authority's UH-1 helicopter and it's crew.

The big coyote paused just inside the edge of the brush he was crouching in. Directly in front of him was an ugly scar of torn up earth, the topsoil freshly turned and tossed up by the disintegrating aircraft in the final throes of it's crash onto the summit. He had circled around from the north to the northwest, and was now only feet from what was left of the flight deck of the aircraft. Looking a bit to the south he could see that the fires had started from the ruptured fuel tanks in the aircraft's port wing, which had been partially torn away from the fuselage during the crash sequence.

From this point on he would be in the clear, there was no vegetation with which he could conceal himself during the last few feet of his approach to the main wreckage. Joe sighed quietly and looked to the northeast, to his left. He could just see the tips of Mojave's ears in the brush about twenty yards away, the kali was quietly staying exactly where he had told her to stay. From the set of her ears Joe could tell that Mojave was staring directly at him, although he couldn't even see the top of her head, let alone her eyes.

The initial blind rage that had flooded Joe's mind and soul immediately following the gunshots and the crash of the Huey had subsided. In it's place now was something far more dangerous: a clear-headed, calculating, focused, highly trained coyote with the single-minded intention of avenging the death of the helicopter crew, no matter the cost. Training he'd never wanted, provided at a time in his youth he'd spent the rest of his life trying to forget, kicked in automatically, unbidden, almost unnoticed.

Turning his attention once again to the wreckage, Joe concentrated on the information his eyes and nose provided him. The noise of the wind moving across the summit and through the mangled aluminum effectively masked anything his ears might have heard that would inform him of and guide him to his objective. He crouched motionless, waiting.

The stench of burned vegetation was almost overpowering, mixing with the smells of fresh oil and high octane aviation fuel, yet on the wind he also smelled the faint trace of fresh blood. He spent long minutes slowly scanning the wreckage with his gray eyes, waiting for any sign of movement. He saw none.

With the Beretta in his right paw to the fore, the coyote moved silently out of the brush into what had been the flight deck.

###

Mike hung up his telephone. Either Jaclyn wasn't home, or she wasn't answering her telephone. He wondered if she was sitting next to her phone, looking at the caller ID display, screening her calls to avoid talking to him.

Since the conversation with his dad some things had become very clear in the fox's head. When Jaclyn had left, Mike had contented himself with the expectation that he would see the lynx Sunday morning, and his reasoning was that she would have calmed down by then and be willing to explain to him why she had left the way she did.

Now he thought he understood what had really been at paw in his front room earlier this evening. He knew that the longer he waited to explain himself to her, the more likely it was that what could have been would be irretrievable. To his surprise this knowledge generated a feeling of near panic in his heart.

She must be at church, he thought. I'll go and find her, and we'll talk this out.

With that he went quickly to his room to grab his car keys. Within thirty seconds the red Jeep Cherokee was accelerating away from the curb, seeking the shortest route to All Furs Christian Church in Sunny Hills.

###

Annie was upstairs, changing into one of Joe's old work shirts and a pair of Lee Riders. As she was rolling the sleeves of his shirt up her arms, Debbie's voice called from the family room downstairs.

"Mom?" And then, more urgently, "Mom! Turn on channel seven!"

The tone of voice prompted Annie to immediate action. Temporarily abandoning the buttoning of the shirt, she quickly crossed the room to turn on the TV in the entertainment center with the remote control. She finished the task at paw with her clothes as the TV picture came on. She used the remote to tune channel seven, and immediately caught her breath.

The anchor's voice was reporting on the brush fire she was viewing on screen. Before she could pick up on the anchor's train of dialog she knew exactly what she was looking at.

"... initially reported about an hour and a half ago. Fire crews are enroute, but due to the remote location none are on scene yet. This fire is burning on Greenlee Ridge and in upper Icehouse Canyon, on the western slope of Mount Stockton. National Weather Service reports indicate sustained wind speeds in the area of fifty miles per hour, which will make this an exceptionally difficult and fast-moving fire to fight. Orange County Fire Authority crews are enroute from the west, and Riverside County Fire and CDF crews are approaching from the east. Due to the high winds it is doubtful that air units will be able to provide any support or fire fighting effort before dawn."

The anchor, a handsome black tiger, paused briefly as a piece of paper was passed to him from off-camera. Scanning it briefly, he looked up with the barest look of sorrow.

"We've just been informed that the Orange County Fire Authority has lost a fire fighting helicopter in Icehouse Canyon. There is no information about possible survivors. Last contact with the crew was about twenty minutes ago as they made their initial approach to the fire area."

The tiger paused again, drawing a breath. He willed a neutral look to his face and continued in a stronger voice.

"Air Seven will continue to bring live video of this fire to you throughout the evening. We'll be back with more updates before the end of the newscast. Turning now to other local news, another high speed chase today on the 105 freeway ended tragically..."

Annie thumbed the remote once again, turning the television off. Turning away from the television she was surprised to find her daughter standing in the doorway to her bedroom. The question was plainly visible on Debbie's face.

Annie moved across the room to hug her daughter. They stood together for a long moment, and then Debbie spoke softly into her mother's ear. "I know that's where daddy is, mom."

They parted to look into each other's eyes. Annie's were a bit glassy, but Debbie's were clear, a look of resolve on her face. Her voice grew strong and confident. "He's fine mom, I know he is. He'll come home."

Annie said nothing and moved to hug her daughter again. As the foxes parted they headed for the stairway and the family room below.

###

The coyote stood motionless in the dirt just outside the south-facing remains of the nose of the aircraft. Through large holes where the plexiglas windshield had been he could see what was left of the crew. Under normal conditions the sight would have caused him to shiver in revulsion, but most of the emotions necessary to produce these feelings had died in the coyote's head when the Huey had gone down. He simply gazed upon the bodies, absorbing information.

There wasn't enough of the copilot left to even identify the species. The entire right side of the flight deck had caved in upon the copilot during the crash, about the only thing discernable in the dark was the fact that it had been light furred and large, with a relatively short tail.

The pilot had survived the crash, or so the single bullet hole in the back of his head would indicate. The largish raccoon's fur was full of shattered plexiglas, and a jagged piece of aluminum was stuck in his left arm. The left side of the flight deck was largely intact, but the pilot's legs had been pinned between the instrument panel and his own seat as the panel had moved to the rear during impact. From the looks of things the pilot had struggled to extricate himself before he had been shot.

Joe peered behind the pilot through a gaping hole in the aluminum skin into what had been the main cabin of the large twin-engined aircraft. There he spied a third body, a civet dressed in ... What the Hell?

The civet wore a captain's uniform of the Interstate Police Force. There was a large bump on his head, and he too had been shot in the head. Twice. Blood and gore drenched his uniform, making his name tag almost unreadable. Williams, M. Don't know him.

Joe crouched down suddenly as he heard a faint metallic click from further aft in the cabin. The Beretta positioned itself between the source of the sound and himself. Hugging the side of what was left of the cabin, he slowly, silently made his way aft.

The coyote paused at the point where the fuselage had ripped open. Ever so slowly he peered around the edge of the torn aluminum skin. Sitting not five feet away from him, looking out the opposite side of the cabin, was an odd looking, bald headed fur. At first it seemed that his body fur was quite thick, but as the fur drew a breath and his "fur" moved Joe suddenly realized that the fur's body was covered with quills, like a porcupine. But this porcupine was like none he had ever seen, with a bald head and odd coloring. He had no way of knowing, but he was looking at a Hemiechinus aethiopicus, a desert hedgehog.

Joe quickly scanned the rest of the cabin for others, and saw none. Apparently the hedgehog was alone. He was already bringing the Beretta to bear upon the head of the fur looking away from him when he felt cold steel against his left ear and heard a menacingly loud click. He froze.

"Don't move," a raspy voice said from Joe's left.

The hedgehog spun around as quickly as he could, in the process revealing to Joe the fact that he had a broken leg. In the hedgehog's left hand was a large caliber blue steel revolver, possibly a Ruger of some sort by it's appearance. The hedgehog's muzzle widened in a grin.

"Well done, Kalid," the hedgehog said in heavily accented english. As he was raising his own sidearm up to aim it at Joe's head his eyes suddenly widened in fear, and the muzzle of the pistol jerked towards Joe as the hedgehog's finger squeezed the trigger.

In the fraction of a second that followed the coyote instinctively dove forward and to the right, towards the hedgehog and away from the unseen fur behind him, trying to get below the hedgehog's aim while forcing the unseen adversary behind him to have to search for a target. As he did so a ferocious growl came from behind him, followed immediately by a piercing scream that was cut off in the middle, which in turn was accompanied by the roar of the hedgehog's pistol. There followed a yelp of pain, some scuffling footfalls, and a gurgling sound as Joe rolled further to his right and came up into a crouch, firing two rounds at the hedgehog.

As the hedgehog returned fire blindly towards the Beretta's muzzle flashes Joe ducked left and fired a third time towards the hedgehog while desperately looking for the other fur that had been behind him. Seeing nothing in his way he dove left into the dirt and rolled behind the skin of the cabin towards the flight deck, rising to a crouch with the Beretta up, muzzle towards the cabin. His breath came fast and short, every nerve of his being attuned to his self preservation and the extermination of his enemy.

He heard a cough, and a noise that sounded like a ping pong ball rattling in a can. Creeping silently, he backed up until he could look through the hole in the fuselage behind the pilot's body. Stretching himself out along the cabin's interior wall, he peered around an edge to see the hedgehog slumped against the far cabin wall, his pistol laying on the deck in front of him. Even in the dark the coyote could see the blood issuing from the gaping hole his hollow-point round had left in hedgehog's throat. The fur was dying as the coyote watched.

Joe backed out of the cabin and crouched again in the dust, looking for the other fur. There was a heap in the dirt where he had been crouching when he felt the muzzle of the pistol in his ear. His trusty Beretta again at the fore, Joe advanced cautiously towards the prone figure.

Another hedgehog of similar appearance, but smaller, was laying face down in the dirt. Even in the dark from a few feet away Joe could see that most of the back of the fur's neck and bald head were missing. What was left was ringed by a jagged tear in the flesh and bone.

Joe heard a twig snap. Jerking his attention away from the obviously dead hedgehog in the dust he scanned the brush perimeter as the Beretta once again rose to eye level. There, about twenty feet away over his iron sights, two dark but familiar eyes looked back at him.

Mojave!

He ran to her as she whined in recognition at him, unmoving.

###

The first strike team to reach the summit of Mount Stockton belonged to the Orange County Fire Authority. As their seven ton six by six back country fire suppression truck approached from the upper end of the east gate entrance road, the crew prepared to make an initial assessment of the fire area. The six fur crew was comprised of four Dalmatians, a bobcat, and an otter. The senior Dalmatian was the truck commander, and by virtue of being first on scene was also now Incident Commander until someone of higher rank showed up. As the truck attained the summit and the view of the situation opened before them the driver, another of the Dalmatians, braked suddenly to a stop and pointed towards the wreckage.

As he was exclaiming "Look at that!" the bobcat, another Dalmatian, and the otter dropped from their truck and immediately began unloading first aid triage equipment. Approaching their truck, silhouetted against the background of flames and smoke, they had all seen a large fur, carrying a much smaller one in a fireman's carry. The commander reached for a radio microphone.

"Dispatch, Batallion Thirty Six, we are on scene at the summit and have survivors. We need air support, and we need it now. "

The response was immediate. "Battalion Thirty Six, say again. You have survivors?"

"Affirmative dispatch. At least two, at least one of which has sustained injuries."

The otter reached the furs first. He stared momentarily into the gray eyes of a big, dark muzzled coyote that had a large kali over his shoulders.

"What happened?" The otter took the coyote by the upper arm and directed him towards an area next to the strike team's truck where the bobcat was laying out a clean canvas cover and placing first aid supplies in readiness.

The coyote mumbled a response that the otter almost missed above the howling wind. "The bastards were going to kill me. My kali saved my life, and they shot her."

The otter looked carefully at the lifeless kali on the coyote's shoulders. Dried blood covered her head and throat, and her right rear leg was also covered in caked blood and matted fur. As they moved towards the canvas triage area the otter looked the coyote over for injuries, ending with his face. The look of cold detachment in the coyote's eyes flew in the face of the single tear that had rolled down the fur of his cheek.

The coyote dropped to a knee and carefully, gingerly placed his kali on the canvas. The bobcat wordlessly searched for vitals. "She's alive," he said, smiling slightly. He began to care for her, wiping her muzzle and face with a cloth soaked in water from his own canteen. The Dalmatian, likewise using some of his own water, began cleaning the kali's hindquarters.

"She's lost a lot of blood," the Dalmatian commented as he worked.

After a couple of minutes the otter had become puzzled. He had cleaned copious amounts of dried blood from the kali's face and head, but found no injuries. "There's nothing wrong with her at this end," he commented. "I can't find any injuries."

"She's been shot through her right rear leg," the Dalmatian replied. "Maybe through the bone, it's hard to tell in the dark. There's a lot of tissue damage and blood loss." He sighed. "She may not make it..."

The cold muzzle of a Beretta 92SBE forced it's way into the Dalmatian's left ear. A deep voice growled quietly to he and the otter both. "You will keep this Yukon alive. Get me some air evac, and do it now before I lose my temper." The Dalmatian froze, as did the otter.

From behind a large paw landed ever so gently on the coyote's shoulder opposite the arm holding the pistol. A deep, soft voice calmly said "At ease, son. We'll do all that we can. Put that cannon away before someone gets hurt. We're all on the same team here."

The coyote slowly turned his face to look into the eyes of the truck commander while the Beretta maintained it's station. For an instant the commander thought he saw his own death reflected in those gray eyes. Then the coyote slowly lowered the pistol, turning to offer a one-word apology to the Dalmatian on his knees, still ministering to the kali.

"Sorry."

The commander applied a slight amount of pressure to the coyote's shoulder, telling him silently to turn and face him. The coyote wordlessly complied.

"Son, you need to be de-briefed." Motioning to the cab of the truck, the Dalmatian commander said "Step into my office."

###

In the family room of their home in the foothills Annie and Debbie sat together silently on their leather sofa, watching the TV coverage of the rapidly growing fire in the mountains above their home. Even indoors the smell of smoke was noticeable, outside light ash was falling, and the smoke was thick enough that it was beginning to affect visibility.

The same black tiger anchor was still on the job at Channel Seven.

"It's been a little over two and a half hours since this fire was originally reported, and it's already consumed several hundred acres. It's moved off the summit of Mount Stockton and split into two separate fires, the Greenlee Fire and the Icehouse Fire. The Greenlee Fire was started by the crash of an airplane at the summit, and is burning southwest towards Fremont Canyon and gaining ground and strength. Units of the Orange County Fire Authority and the California Department of Forestry are on scene, and hand crews are battling this fire on a mile long front in very rough terrain. This fire is out of control, CDF will not hazard a guess as to containment at this time." The video showed flames dancing into the night sky high above the ridgelines, every now and then the Air Seven helicopter camera would zoom in on a fire crew on the ground.

"The Icehouse Fire is stalled in the upper reaches of Icehouse Canyon, CDF crews are on scene, they feel this fire will be fully contained before dawn as there is minimal fuel in the area in which it is burning. This fire started when a Fire Authority helicopter crashed at the upper end of the canyon earlier this evening. There is still no word on survivors." The anchor stopped speaking as the video feed from the news helicopter shifted to a scene of another Orange County Fire Authority helicopter on the summit.

In the momentary silence Debbie suddenly grabbed her mother by the arm as she drew her breath sharply.

"Mom! There's daddy!"

Sure enough, they could clearly see Joe moving with a group of fire fighters, carrying a stretcher towards the open door of the waiting Huey. The shoulders of his leather jacket were covered in blood. He was the last to let go of the stretcher, and appeared to shrug off the paws of a couple of the furs around him as the door of the Huey slid shut.

"We're not sure what we're seeing in this live video from the summit of Mount Stockton at this moment," the anchor resumed with a note of wonder in his voice. "We have no detail or confirmation, but it appears that survivors are being airlifted from the scene of two crashes, one the as yet unidentified aircraft, the other an Orange County Fire Authority helicopter. We will bring you any detail as soon as we get it..."

The anchor's voice trailed off. Along with approximately three million other furs in the southern California area that night, the anchor, Annie, and Debbie watched as the large coyote with the dark muzzle dropped to his knees. There, amid the swirling dust and debris caused by the liftoff of the Fire Authority's helicopter, the coyote prayed on the summit of Mount Stockton. The camera stayed on him until his bowed head raised itself to the sky.

Annie shivered. From a thousand yards away, through the zoom lens of the Air Seven camera as it peered through the dust and ash, she could clearly see the snarl on his lips and the fire of hate burning in those gray eyes.

Debbie's arm encircled her mother's shoulders in a hug.

"He's safe mom. He'll come home to us."

But who will he be? Annie wondered apprehensively.

###

AFCC was dark. Mike had strolled completely around the campus. It was dark except for the normal exterior lights that were always on during the nighttime. The warm eastern breeze ruffled his hair and fur as he completed his last circuit of the sanctuary and walked towards the parking lot.

Mike sighed as he walked across the street towards his Jeep. As he approached the driver's door a figure emerged from the darkness beyond his vehicle.

"Jazz..." he breathed quietly.

She stepped forward to the right front fender of his Jeep, crossing her arms as she bent at the waist and leaned on the hood, the Jeep between them. She stared at him silently as he stood there, perplexed, staring back at her.

Mike's thought processes stumbled. The fur below her eyes was matted, she had obviously been crying. Yet she appeared outwardly calm. Resigned.

"Why are you here?" she asked finally, quietly.

"I've been looking for you," he said, forcing a smile, praying for guidance and wisdom as he spoke.

"Why?"

Mike paused. He crossed his own arms and leaned against the driver's side of the hood of his Jeep, facing her across the hood.

"Jazz, I'm sorry. I've been tightly focused on our church issues, and on the kid's ministry. I haven't been paying the proper attention to other things going on around me. Important things."

She gazed steadily at him, unblinking.

"Jazz, I gave my life to Christ when I was a kid. I've spent all my energies since then growing in Him, and ministering to others, and developing my talents to His glory. It's all I've known, and all I wanted. Until now."

She continued to stare at him, the tip of her tail twitching ever so slightly.

"When you left tonight I figured we'd meet Sunday morning, and that you'd explain to me why you were angry with me tonight."

Her gaze softened a trifle, but still she said nothing.

Mike drew a breath. "I spoke to my dad tonight after you left. He's in the mountains right now on company business, but before he went up there we had a short talk about some things, and he shed some light on my situation here right now." Mike smiled. "Sometimes he shares some pretty valuable stuff with me."

Jazz afforded him a small smile. "What did you two discuss?"

Mike thought briefly, and as he had done before opted for the simple, unvarnished truth. "You."

At her raised eyebrow he quickly added "And me."

Mike suddenly realized that he was quite nervous. His heart rate was elevated, his breathing shallow. His body felt like it was full of adrenaline. And he couldn't take his eyes off of hers.

Jaclyn Manx placed her right elbow on the hood, resting her chin in her right paw. Her ears were up, she listened carefully to Mike's breathing as her eyes bored into him. The tip of her tail continued to twitch occasionally. The light of the moon, hanging in the windswept sky overhead, brought out the highlights in her fur until she seemed to almost glow faintly.

She afforded Mike another small smile and sighed quietly.

"And what was it that you concluded, based on this discussion with your father?"

Tell her!

The words came to Mike from nowhere within his own mind, as though they had been spoken to him, and he was simply repeating them in agreement.

"I love you."

Jaclyn didn't move, but blinked once, slowly.

Mike was taught as a guitar string, holding his breath, dreading what he thought he might hear while at the same time hoping beyond hope that he'd hear something similar from her.

They stood like that, unmoving, staring across the hood of Mike's Jeep for almost a full minute.

Suddenly Jaclyn stood up straight and said casually "You want a cup of coffee?"

###

A bright red Chevrolet Suburban with flashing red lights and white and red strobes bumped down the final few yards of trail to the gate at the bottom of upper Icehouse Canyon. As Joe opened the passenger side door to exit the vehicle the radio under it's dash crackled to life.

"Truck Fourteen, West Dispatch."

The driver, an older ferret who was a captain in the Riverside County Fire Department, glanced at Joe as he reached for the microphone.

"Truck Fourteen, go ahead."

"Tell your passenger that his partner is at the Orange County kali training facility, and is waiting to be picked up."

The ferret smiled at the coyote as he replied "Truck Fourteen copies." Looking up to the blue eyes of his coyote passenger as he returned the microphone to it's hanger, the ferret asked "You know where that's at?"

Joe smiled as he nodded. "Yeah, I do." He held out a paw to the ferret, it was taken in a firm shake. "Thanks, Jack." Joe said simply.

"Be careful, Joe. Keep the faith."

Joe gently shut the door to the Suburban, which backed up and turned aside, and then pulled around and headed back up the trail towards the summit.

He watched the truck depart, and then spent a few moments looking around as he gathered his thoughts. Off to the south and southwest the horizon above glowed a dull red, occasionally enhanced by a flicker of orange here or there. The air here in Icehouse Canyon, north of the summit, was clean and warm, the breeze gusting over the ridge to the east ruffled his hair and fur occasionally. Joe turned north and walked towards the gate. His truck was just below it.

The simple message referring to Mojave had been heartwarming to Joe. She had been airlifted to the kali training academy near the Orange County Emergency Operations Center, which also happened to have one of the best veterinarian hospitals in the county on site. The fact that she was ready to be "picked up" meant that she had been doctored up and was ready to go home and convalesce.

Joe stared briefly at his own left shoulder as he walked down the trail. Beneath his jacket and shirt a large bandage covered most of the shoulder. Apparently one of the hedgehog's bullets had found it's mark, gouging a path through the very top of his shoulder, a flesh wound. The OCFA crew had taken care of him after Mojave had been airlifted.

Then had come the debriefing by the Riverside County captain who had just left him, who had confidentially identified himself to Joe as an IPF agent. That debrief had lasted about an hour.

Joe reached his truck, which was just as he'd left it. It seemed that a lifetime had passed by him, although he'd only been in the mountains about five hours. The eastern horizon would be getting light by the time he arrived home.

He sat on the step below the driver's door of his truck and exhaled slowly, staring at his boots. A kaleidoscope of thoughts ricocheted through his mind. He wondered how Mike was doing, and Chris. He wondered how the dinner went for Debbie and Annie.

Still staring at the ground, Joe closed his eyes, willing his mind to clear of the noise that howled like the wind between his ears. After a few minutes his mind became quiet.

Lord, thank you for sparing my life tonight, and for providing me Mojave's protection. Thank you also for sparing her life. Joe sighed heavily. Lord, I need your help. The action tonight was unavoidable, yet I fear the fur I become in these situations, the killing machine I don't want to be. I've had enough of this, Lord, and I want out. He raised his head to the sky, staring at the glittering stars overhead. I killed a fur today, and I did not want to do that, Lord. I will continue to do your bidding, but I humbly beseech you to end my tour of duty in this Hell they call the IPF. Joe paused, staring at the sky while he tried to maintain dry eyes. He couldn't keep this up for much longer, the emotional strain of working for the Interstate Police Force was beginning to tear him apart. Since the conversation with Annie on the way home from Utah Joe had become convinced that he needed to get out. At the thought of Annie Joe drew a breath and spoke aloud, addressing the stars.

"Lord, you have blessed me in the best ways possible with the most wonderful wife a fur could have, and the best pups any parent deserves. Your steadfast love, guidance, and teaching have kept me alive and happy this long, I will trust in you and your plans for me. I will obey you without question."

Joe lowered his gaze to stare at the smoke on the horizon to the south, at the flickering red glow above the ridgeline. "All I ask, God, is that you give me a little courage, patience, and wisdom, that I may survive these tests you set before me. In Jesus' name, Amen."

He rose and unlocked the door of his truck. Moments later the diesel engine in the AC300AT rumbled to life. Joe was heading home.

###

Saturday

The sun was already climbing into the morning sky. The eastern end of Orange County was bathed in an eerie brownish-orange light thanks to the thick smoke layer billowing off the northwestern Santa Ana mountains.

The morning anchor at Channel Seven was bringing Los Angeles up to date on the fires in Orange County. A gorgeous Lhasa Apso, she had helped put Channel Seven on the top of the morning ratings pile with her voice and demeanor.

"A bizarre story coming out of the Santa Ana Mountains this morning. The Greenlee Fire, which has now consumed almost two thousand acres, was started last night by the crash of an airplane on the summit of Mount Stockton, as we have known most of the night. We're learning now, however, a little more about the aircraft and crew."

She gazed steadily into the camera. "The twin-engined aircraft, a Piper Cheyenne, was chartered in Phoenix yesterday afternoon by the Interstate Police Force. The IPF was flying two prisoners from Phoenix to Los Angeles. The Piper carried a crew of two, two IPF officers, and the two prisoners, a total of six furs on board. We're unsure at this time whether the crew was overpowered before or after the crash, but the prisoners are known to have killed at least three of the four other occupants aboard the Piper. The prisoners armed themselves with weapons taken from the slain officers and shot down the first Orange County Fire Authority helicopter on scene last night, killing the two- fur crew aboard. The crash of that helicopter started the fire in Icehouse Canyon, which has already been contained."

"First responders at the scene engaged the prisoners in a gunfight. Both prisoners were killed, both of the responders were injured. At this time not much else is known about the Piper's crew, the officers, or the prisoners. We also do not know anything about the responders or which law enforcement agency they work for. The cause of the crash of the Piper is still under investigation."

"The Greenlee Fire is less than five percent contained. By some miracle the wind has changed direction, blowing out of the northeast instead of the east. Greenlee is still a dangerous wildfire, but at this moment threatens no homes or populated areas."

The Lhasa paused, still staring into the camera. "We are well blessed," she said evenly. A smile came to her face. "In other news this morning, the President of the United States ..."






To Chapter Thirty Four: Shadow And Light.

Back to Stories Page

Back to Main Page