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 & 2004

To Love and To Cherish

The local rock station was deep into a flashback, playing some cuts from Audioslave and Linken Park. The fingers of her left paw drummed lightly on the windowsill in rhythm with the music coming from the stereo speakers.

The slipstream whistled through the cabin of the older Chevy Tahoe as it cruised east into the foothills of Orange County. It was a warm and breezy early evening, and the occupants were enjoying the reasonably fresh air circulating through the open windows into the cabin with them. While there was a thin veil of smoke in the air, it was just enough to prick their sense of smell without making their eyes or noses uncomfortable. All terrain tires whined on the asphalt roadway, the sound mixing soothingly with the rumble of the large block gasoline engine under the hood. The passenger needed the sound, he was slowly winding himself up in anticipation of what he knew was coming.

Debbie's blonde hair fluttered slightly in the slipstream. Her left arm rested on the windowsill, her right paw gently gripped the wheel as she guided them towards her home. A grin creased her muzzle as her face turned towards her passenger. He knew that her eyes were laughing at him behind those Lolita sunglasses she wore. The humor of the situation was not lost on him, he smiled back at her in spite of himself.

She traded paws, her left taking the wheel as her right found his thigh, patting him there reassuringly. Turning back to the highway she giggled slightly at the expense of her boyfriend. They had been together since mid morning at Bolsa Chica, swimming, catching some sun, and being the young lovers they were. The beach had been crowded, the unseasonably warm and windy weather had brought out the surfers and beach bums in great numbers, and they had been eager to be counted among them. Her right paw sought and took his left in a gentle grip.

The husky looked at the fox silently. They had only known each other for a few months, but what a few months! She had turned his world upside down, an upset he was only too happy to subject himself to. She was by far the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. Sure, he'd had girlfriends before, but not like this one. This fox was caged dynamite, a force unequaled in his experience, and she moved him and spoke to him in ways he'd never known possible.

Russell Cantrell's brown eyes blinked behind his sunglasses. Sometimes she did stuff, like that casual grin with just a bit of fang showing just now, that really lit him up. He admired her profile, the way her hair fluttered in the wind, the way her charcoal ears stood up straight in joy, the way she seemed to radiate... something. He couldn't name it, wouldn't have known how to describe the love he felt for her, but knew it was there. Solid, strong, something that had been totally lacking in his life up until now.

Russ lived with his mother in Anaheim Hills. His parents were divorced. He had met Debbie one February evening at a party after a volleyball game between Los Pinos and Canyon High. He had been taken with her as soon as he had laid eyes on her. He had barely had the opportunity to introduce himself to her and get a telephone number before her ride home had arrived. He had called the next day, and they had chatted for a bit before he worked up the courage to ask her out. She had readily accepted an invitation to dinner and a movie.

Something had sparked between them. Within weeks they were going steady. She was the most beautiful yet stable, level-headed young lady he had ever met. By summer he was enchanted with her, preferring to spend all his days with her instead of with his motor-head buddies. During the break from school they started taking drives together in his truck, first to the local beaches, then to the mountains, then beyond to the deserts. As their trips increased in distance, so their love increased in strength and depth. By the time Russ' senior year had begun that fall they were lovers in every sense of the word.

It hadn't been his idea. They had been in the mountains that day, having spent a considerable portion of the morning four-wheeling into a remote communications site in the eastern San Bernardino Mountains. They had arrived during the noon hour and taken a picnic on the nine thousand foot peak. It had been a calm, sunny day, they had become relaxed to the point of feeling lazy by the sunshine bearing down upon them from the crystal clear blue skies. As they reclined amidst the leftovers of the picnic, watching a lone red-tail hawk soar in the updrafts overhead, his lady love had grown amorous.

At first he had been reluctant without really knowing why. Not afraid, really, but perhaps concerned that they might somehow spoil the precious, innocent love they had shared to this point. Debbie had, in fairly short order, proven to him just how much of a wildcat could hide beneath the pretty fox exterior she wore. Within a very short period of time his concerns had been allayed, and they spent a most enjoyable afternoon there on the peak, the sun warming their bodies as they discovered everything there was to know about each other.

He smiled in recollection as the sun even now shone through his window, warming the side of his face and upper torso. Once attaining the freeway that evening they had driven at blistering speeds to have her home by a reasonable hour. Their goodnight kiss on her porch that evening had been quick but passionate, full of promise.

He had become well known around the Latrans home. He felt he enjoyed a good relationship with Debbie's parents and older brother. They often included him in their family activities, inviting him to go places with them or share a meal. His life before Debbie had been fairly limited to school, taking care of his mom and their small condo, and repairing his truck every time he broke it in some local canyon.

His smile slowly faded. In fact, they were going to share a meal with Debbie's parents now. He shuddered ever so slightly, turning his head to face her as he released her paw.

"Tell me again," he asked almost casually, "why on earth you had to tell them about us."


Joe and his eldest son sat across from each other at a table on the patio, he sipping from his glass of Chardonnay as Mike worked slowly on an orange soda. A bowl of tortilla chips and another of salsa sat on the table between them. The grill to Joe's right sizzled slightly as the steaks slowly cooked on a very low fire. A plate of fresh hamburger patties sat on the grill's sideboard, ready for Joe's ministrations.

For a while they sat there together, not saying much of anything to each other. Joe could tell that Mike was preoccupied with Jaclyn and simply waited him out. As he sat and watched his son he could see the emotions playing across Mike's face. Judging from what Joe saw there was a lot going on in his son's head.

After several minutes Mike sighed and sipped at his soda. Smiling slightly as he leaned forward, he placed the can on the patio table in front of him and leaned back in his chair, wiggling slightly for good tail position in the metal mesh of the backrest. His gaze met and held his father's.

"So the long and short of it is this," he started. "Jazz comes over to my place. We make small talk." Actually that wasn't quite true, they had been discussing Mike's song tentatively titled "Soldier For God", but Mike wasn't ready to spring that on his father yet, and it wasn't really important just now anyway.

"After a bit she decides to tell me that I've been hired on as a full time employee at AFCC." At this Mike paused briefly, his smile growing a bit, but then it faded as he continued. "I was excited, to say the least. I played and sang a couple of tunes for us, that kind of stuff. Then..." his voice trailed off. He wasn't sure how to explain the progression of events from his song to the discussion about Natalie.

"Well, you know the rest," he said with a glance at the floor. "We got into a conversation about Natalie and what happened to me in Utah. I explained that part of it to you on the phone."

Joe nodded, remembering. Jaclyn had become quite upset upon learning that Mike had apparently been sharing his trip across the southwest with a pretty young lady fur. He spoke as he leaned forward to grab a chip with his right paw. "Yes, I remember. You said she got angry at you and left. What happened after our conversation?" Joe dipped up a bit of salsa on his chip and sat back, placing it in his mouth.

Mike relived the memory of Jaclyn's departure in his mind. A sour look crossed his face briefly.

"Well, I went looking for her. You said..." Mike paused again. "I love her dad. I had to go find her and set things right, and tell her."

Joe nodded, chewing his chip, looking thoughtful. After swallowing he said "You found her."

Mike nodded slowly. "I sure did." Mike leaned back in his chair, lifting it's front legs an inch or two up off the concrete patio . He stared up into the sky at the last of the twilight as he spoke. "Actually, she found me. I had gone to AFCC to look for her. I didn't find her." He leaned forward just enough to return his chair legs to the floor as his gaze returned to meet that of his father.

"I was walking across the road to the parking lot when she was suddenly there, next to my Jeep. We had a conversation across the hood." Mike glanced at the floor again briefly before looking up. "I told her, dad. I made myself very clear, there was no opportunity for misunderstanding."

Joe picked up his wine glass with his left paw and took a small sip, thinking about what he'd just heard. As he sipped he heard the patio door open behind him.

"Hi mom," Mike greeted Annie cheerfully.

Annie was surprised. "Hi sweetie. How long have you been here?"

Mike looked at Joe. "A while. I came in through the garage, I saw dad out here and just pulled up a chair." He smiled innocently. "Sorry I didn't come in to say hello."

Annie placed a small plate of sliced cheddar on the table between them. "This is not for either of you to snack on," she giggled. "It's for the burgers." She took a couple of steps towards Mike's chair and leaned over to kiss him on the top of his head between his ears. As she straightened she looked down at her eldest son. "I'm glad you’re here."

"Thanks, mom." Mike smiled up to her. It was the first time since his arrival that Joe had seen him smile with conviction, truly happy.

There was a slight bump and whimper behind Joe, which coincided almost exactly with Mike's gaze drifting towards the patio door. Mike's eyes enlarged considerably in surprise.

"Mojave!" He was up out of his chair, moving around his mother to kneel in front of the kali that had somehow managed, cast and all, to walk out onto the patio from her spot in the family room. Her tail wagged slowly as Mike petted her head and face affectionately.

Joe shot an oh brother! look towards Annie and took a breath.

After a few seconds Mike stood slowly. Turning to his mother he stared at her momentarily, and then said in a low, hollow sounding voice "Mojave ought to be inside laying down." It was not a question, more of an order.

Annie eyebrows arched slightly as she looked at the expression on her son's face, then looked to a similar expression on her husband's. Alarms went off in her head, those kind that say males bonding, get out!

"C'mon, Mojave," she said sweetly to their injured kali. "You need to be inside where it's soft and safe." She moved towards the patio door, drifting her fingertips across Joe's right shoulder as she passed him, but the kali made no move to go with her. Instead Mojave edged a bit closer to Joe.

Mike looked down at the kali, noting her indifference to Annie's request. He was formulating a comment when his father reached out to the kali.

Joe patted Mojave briefly, looking into her dark eyes. After a few seconds of physical contact he sat back and said in a low voice "Go with Annie."

The kali turned with difficulty and walked stiffly through the patio door, crossing the family room to a large kali bed near the hearth. Circling it once, she slowly collapsed heavily on it.

Annie looked at Joe with a small smile of thanks. Their eyes locked momentarily, and several messages passed quickly between them. After a few moments Annie turned and followed Mojave into the house, shutting the patio door behind her.

Mike returned to his chair, Joe's head turning as his gaze followed Mike's movement across the patio. After seating himself and arranging his tail for a comfortable fit in the chair Mike looked cautiously at his father.

"That was you."

"What was me?" Joe asked innocently.

Mike suddenly became irritated. "Don't play dumb with me, dad. I've seen the video from Channel Seven. I wasn't sure until just now when I saw Mojave. That was her in the helicopter, wasn't it? And that was you on the mountain." Mike stopped talking as his eyes widened even more. "You killed those prisoners!"

It was Joe's turn to look at the floor for a few moments. As much as he was trying to put that memory out of his mind, it kept getting dredged up again. Damn the IPF! he thought. Now his son was pissed off at him.

"Does mom know?"

Joe looked up. Mike was in a defensive posture in his chair, arms folded across his chest, back straight, eyes boring into him. But what really tore at Joe's heart was the look of anger in Mike's eyes. He hadn't seen Mike look like this, ever.

Joe could only nod, looking at his son.

As suddenly as the anger had come to Mike, it was gone. He had been upset that nobody had called him for support or assistance. Mike looked at his father, noting the remorseful look that had crossed his face when he had looked up, and guessing it's cause. "Dad, why didn't you call me? I might have been able to help or comfort you or mom when you got home."

Joe said nothing, staring at his son.

"What happened?"

Joe drew a breath and slowly let it out. At the conclusion of that he said in a flat, emotionless voice barely above a whisper "We killed two furs." To Mike's interrogative expression he added "It was them or me. One of them got the drop on me. I'd be dead now if it wasn't for Mojave."

"What?" Mike asked incredulously.

Joe nodded. "The one who had a pistol in my left ear met the wrong end of our pooch. She took him down, I killed the other one, but not before he got Mojave and me both."

"You?" Mike couldn't believe that he was hearing that both his father and their kali had been shot. It would explain Mojave's cast and the airlift, but his dad looked fine...

Joe nodded again. "A flesh wound..." he winced slightly as he rotated his left arm out away from his torso, perpendicular to his rib cage, "" He pointed to his left shoulder with his right paw.

Mike stared at him, at a loss for words. He sat back in his chair, arms and paws on the arm rests while he digested what he'd just heard. After a moment his father continued in a stronger voice.

"Your mom knows about everything except how my shoulder was injured. She knows it's been hurt, but not how."

Mike blinked. "Why are you keeping that from her?"

"I'm not. I just haven't had the chance to tell her about it yet. I slept most of the day. Your mother took care of Mojave while your sister and Russ went to the beach. I was worse than useless most of the day."

Mike sighed, his facial expression relaxing slightly. He was about to ask his father if he would pray with him about this disturbing sequence of events, but as he was drawing breath to do this he noticed his father's ears twitch and rotate towards the driveway. Pausing, he became aware of a familiar rumble.

"Sounds like your sister and Russ are home. That's Russ' truck..."

Joe rose from his chair and moved towards the grill. He adjusted the burner up a little bit before opening the cover. He placed half a dozen hamburger patties on the cooking surface and began turning the steaks, potatoes, and corn already there.

Mike rose and moved to stand next to his father at the grill. Putting an arm about his father's shoulders, he waited for Joe to look at him before speaking. When he did, Mike's words were simple and direct.

"I love you, dad."


Russ held the front door of the Latrans home open for his girlfriend, who breezed past him with a smile and quick pat on his behind. Shaking his head slowly and grinning as he followed her into the house, Russ almost collided with Annie, who was approaching the entryway from the kitchen as Debbie angled off towards the living room and family room.

"Oh..." Annie said in mild surprise, recognizing the husky immediately. "Hi Russ." Barely breaking her stride, Annie stepped forward to hug him lightly.

Russ was barely able to get out "Hello, Annie..." before his nose and muzzle was engulfed briefly by her blond hair. As she backed up a step from him he asked politely "How was your vacation?"

Annie smiled, tail wagging slowly, holding his gaze. "Well," she said and paused briefly, "it was very educational."

The skin beneath Russ' facial fur began to turn red, brightly enough that Annie could see it happening. She giggled briefly at his expense while taking him by the paw and turning to stroll slowly in the direction Debbie had taken towards the family room. She spoke as they walked.

"We had a wonderful time, Russell. We saw some old friends in New Mexico and Colorado, visited with Chris in Durango for a few days, and spent an unscheduled night in Utah with Mike."

Thankful for the change of subject, Russ said "I heard about that. Debbie told me about what happened to Mike, and how you all went up there to rescue him."

Annie glanced at Russ out of the corner of her eye. "The education was mostly between Joe and I, Russell. I was just teasing you." She saw him relax slightly. "We had a lot of time to talk about some things that had been on his mind, work related things, and we were able to strengthen our relationship as a result of those long conversations."

Annie stopped in the living room, momentarily alone with the husky. Turning to him, her expression grew serious. She took his other paw in hers, facing him. Unsure how to start, she glanced at the floor for a moment as she marshaled her thoughts.

In his turn Russ felt uncomfortable, he thought he knew what was coming. He stared at the blond hair on the top of Annie's head, at charcoal color edging her silvery auburn ears. In his heart he was convinced that he and Debbie were about to become a non-item, he just knew that her parents were about to lower the boom on him.

"Joe's been through a lot recently," Annie started, talking to the floor at her feet. She paused long enough to look up at him, blue eyes locking on his brown. "He was hurt last night. I don't know exactly what happened, but it had to do with the fires in the mountains. He may seem to be on edge tonight, may be a little more quiet than usual." Annie took a breath and swallowed. "Russ, Debbie told me about the two of you, about your love, your plans for the future, and what happened at Onyx Peak."

Russ squared his shoulders in preparation for the worst, holding her gaze.

"It's not the path we'd have chosen for her as parents. But..." she smiled for him, "Joe and I are OK with it. He knows all about it, and while he may want to talk to you about a couple of things, I think you'll find we're supportive of the two of you." Annie saw him visibly relax and take a deep breath. "Be patient with Joe, all right? He's had a lot to deal with lately. Understand that we love our daughter, and want the best that's possible for her. As long as you share that vision there won't be a problem."

They stared at each other for a moment before Russ spoke in a low, quiet voice. "Thank you, Annie. I love your daughter more than I've ever loved anything or anyone in my life." He paused, momentarily at a loss for words. Taking a breath he continued. "As long as she'll have me in her life, I will do everything in my power to protect her, encourage her, and support her." Another pause as his eyes continued to hold hers. "I will not disappoint you or Joe. You can bank on that."

Suddenly they smiled together. Letting go of one paw, Annie led him the rest of the way into the family room. As they entered they could both see and hear Debbie making a fuss over Mojave, the kali was still laying on her bed near the hearth. Debbie was on all fours, nose to nose with the kali, speaking softly to her as she pet Mojave's head and neck. Tails were wagging slowly, and occasionally the kali would growl affectionately at the fox speaking to her. Russ noticed the cast on Mojave's leg and, releasing Annie's paw, turned to look at Annie with a question in his brown eyes.

"She was hurt last night in the mountains with Joe," Annie answered his unasked question. "Her leg was broken. She'll be fine, she just needs to stay quiet and mend for a few weeks."

Debbie rose from her position on the floor next to her pooch and moved to stand beside Russ. "What can we do to help, mom?"

Annie leaned forward to kiss her daughter on the cheek. "You can start by saying hello to your father and brother." She motioned with a paw towards the patio door. "They're out there with the grill."

"Mike's here?" Debbie asked excitedly. Her tail wagged with pleasure, her eyes alight.

Annie nodded, sharing Debbie's happiness. Her children were very close to each other, and that gave her much to enjoy and be thankful for.

Paw in paw Debbie and Russ turned, but not before Annie caught the wink from her daughter. Smiling, she headed back to her kitchen to finish her work there.

As the husky and the fox approached the patio door they could see father and son on the patio, arms about each other's shoulders, each having a paw on the other's far shoulder. Joe's right paw held a pair of grill tongs, Mike's left paw held a can of soda. Their backs were to the door, their heads bowed. A fine smoke rose from the grill. They could hear Mike speaking quietly, but couldn't make out what he was saying.

Debbie stopped, tugging lightly at Russ' paw.

"Sshhh..." she whispered in his ear. "Wait a minute. They're praying."

They stood there together, paw in paw, for almost three minutes. The whole time they watched, Mike's voice continued it's low, muffled cadence, Joe occasionally nodding his head. Debbie had seen this type of activity in her house often, it was not an unusual occurrence. Russ, however, had never seen anyone praying so openly before, and was quite taken by the scene of father and son sharing an intimate moment like that. His paw involuntarily tightened around Debbie's, and she looked up to his face. She smiled, enjoying what she saw there.


They had gathered at the dining room table to seat themselves. Joe's contributions to the meal sat on a platter in the center of the table, sizzling quietly as the furs gathered. Debbie and Russ took one side of the table while Annie and Joe took the other, leaving Mike at the head of the table. Far from being uncomfortable with this, the twenty four year old gray fox smiled casually and happily as he gestured to the others to seat themselves.

Russ and Debbie had made their presence known as Mike and Joe had separated on the patio. Mike had noticed them approaching the patio door from within as he seated himself at the patio table again, and had announced their presence to Joe. Turning from his work at the grill, Joe had shared a warm shake of paws with Russ while Debbie and Mike hugged, and then swapped with his son to hug his daughter while Mike and Russ shook paws. Casual conversation ensued as Joe finished his work at the grill, mostly centering on the day Russ and Debbie had shared, and touching also on Mike's promotion at All Furs Christian Church to a member of the permanent full time staff.

"Mike!" Debbie had exclaimed in joy. "Congratulations, brother!" She had jumped up from her chair at the patio table to hug him yet again.

"Thanks," Mike said as they had separated. His joy was evident, yet muted. Debbie noticed it, as did Joe. Debbie wondered why that might be, Joe knew why. He figured his daughter would find out from Mike himself, sooner or later, and had said nothing.

And now here they were, the five of them, seated at the dinner table, each with a head full of their own concerns. Conversation ground to a halt as each turned their thoughts inward momentarily. Mike, of course, was troubled about his possibly destroyed relationship with Jaclyn. Joe was continuing to fight his own internal battles vis a vi the Interstate Police Force and his own morals. Annie fretted over Joe, knowing all too well now what was going on in his own head, and also worrying just a bit about her children, especially Debbie. Russ, of course, was sweating out the visit, knowing all too well that Debbie's folks were up to speed on all the facets of his relationship with their daughter. He was still waiting for the axe to fall. The only one at the table who seemed to be inwardly calm and collected was Debbie, yet she fretted about Gina Vison and her potential new career. She sat there, between Mike and Russ, smiling as she scanned back and forth between the faces of the collected furs.

Mike looked meaningfully at his mother, who nodded slightly. Placing his paws face up on the table, he said "Let us pray." Debbie and Joe, sitting to his left and right, reached forward and took his paws, their other paws seeking those of Russ and Annie, respectively. Within a moment all furs, including Russ, had joined paws and bowed their heads.

Mike took a deep breath and remained silent for a few moments, ruminating on life. Squeezing his father's paw gently, he began to pray.

"Father God, we thank you for this day and the opportunity to gather as a family and share in Your bounty. Each of us is blessed in Your sight, for this we thank and glorify You." Mike paused, taking another deep breath.

"Lord, we who are gathered here tonight each bring our own struggles to You. Search our hearts, Lord, and see what we have brought to the table. We seek Your help, Your guidance, Your wisdom, and Your patience with the troubled souls who have gathered here." Another pause. "Lord, bad things happen in life. Mistakes are made, decisions are forced upon us which we feel unequipped to make. The heat of the moment sometimes robs us of clear vision. These are the times, Father God, when we need You most. The times when there is no time, no room, no second chance. Souls ache for affirmation in Your sight while others try to destroy them. Love dances on the edge of our existence, to be snatched away in confusion and pain."

Mike drew a ragged breath. "Lord, touch the hearts here at this table tonight. Where there is injury I pray for Your healing. Where there is uncertainty give us Your direction. Where there is fear, show us Your strength. Banish the anger, the hate, and the lust for vengeance that motivate our actions, Lord, that drive us from Your sight. Do not let the Evil One exert his influence over these members of Your flock. Comfort us in our times of uncertainty and instability. We are Your children, Father, children of the Light, and we beseech You to teach us and love us and comfort us as You see fit."

Another breath, more steady this time. "Father God, we accept the tasks You place before us. We know You will never task us with anything for which You have not prepared us. We know that You will never forsake us. We know that You are always amongst us, we feel Your presence and are warmed by Your love for us. Thank You for all You have done for us, thank You for Your Son and His death for us. In His name, Christ Jesus, we pray. Amen."

A soft chorus of "Amen" greeted this as Mike looked up slowly from the tabletop. His eyes went first to his mother, who smiled warmly for him and mouthed a silent "thank you". Looking to her left Mike's eyes locked on those of his father for a moment.

Joe stared back at his son. Things were happening in his head, a whirlwind of thoughts roared between his ears. He nodded slowly, a smile on his face, saying nothing.

What's wrong with his eyes? Mike wondered briefly as his gaze momentarily met that of his father . Joe's eyes had lost most of their color.

Mike glanced next at the confident, happy expression on his sister's face, then his glance moved past her to her boyfriend.

Russ' eyes were a touch glassy, and he appeared to have stopped breathing. Mike looked more carefully at the husky. Russ' tail was still, his ears up as though straining to hear something distant. His eyes had focused on something far beyond the walls of the Latrans home. The only movement of his entire body was his nose, which twitched occasionally as if sampling the air for scent. Mike stared at him, wondering if he should call his name.

Suddenly Russ blinked, and then shook himself slightly. Glancing around the table he became aware that his girlfriend's family was silently watching him. Blushing slightly, he struggled momentarily, his mind full of questions while his mouth felt dry. Picking up a glass of water in front of him, he tried to sip as casually as possible. Returning the glass to the table he said "This food smells delicious."

Annie smiled. She knew that look, she'd seen both Joe and Mike look that way at various times. She reached forward to pat Russ' paw on the table. "Dig in," she said brightly.

Suddenly serving plates were in motion, the noise of a meal underway vied with a burst of light table conversation for everyone's attention. Smiles were everywhere, and the troubles of the world fled the Latrans home, at least for the time being.

To Chapter Thirty Six: Winds Of Change.

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