Jones set the bag on the ground between them and shrugged. "Can't be helped. I'm in a tight spot and need to get rid of them as soon as possible. You want to take them off my hands for a few dollars?"
"What condition are they in?"
"Does it matter? I'm practically giving them away!"
Scott studied the enclosed chaos for a few moments, and then stepped back inside to fetch his wallet. Jones accepted the money with an uncharacteristically enthusiastic grin that sent a chill down his spine. He couldn't help but feel a knot of tension leave his stomach when his neighbor stepped off his property. He wondered if he should call Jones' wife and ask her if he was doing all right.
"It was you, I swear!"
Jones crossed his arms and glared at Scott. A few other feed store costumers tilted their heads to gawk at the escalating argument. Jones ignored them. "You must have been drunk. Give them back."
Scott raised his hands with a helpless shrug. "I would, but they're all dead now. Something got into them last night, a coyote or a fox. Yours and mine, all of them."
Jones' voice sank to a growl. "You've been a decent neighbor all these years. I don't know what got it into your head that you need to start taking my things and making up stories now, but-"
"Hey, wait a second!"
Both turned to meet eyes with Larson. He pointed with a thumb over his shoulder to a man at the checkout counter. "Sounds like something Mr. Coleman and I went through a few days ago. He shows up on my doorstep with all his chickens, and next day I have a coop full of dead birds he claims he never sold me."
Scott breathed a sigh of relief. "I knew it. Something mighty strange is going on here." He faced Jones again. "He didn't seem like you. Something off about him, you know? Something in his eyes, his voice. Could someone, I don't know, be making masks and impersonating people?"
Jones huffed. "Stop making excuses. I expect you to pay for them."
Scott caught a sympathetic look from Larson, as if he put his full support behind the eerily realistic mask theory. Nonetheless, he withdrew his wallet to pay twice for the dead chickens.
By this time most of the eavesdroppers lost interest and went back to their shopping. Only Duncan remained rooted to the spot, deep in thought. He didn't think Scott and Larson were the type to make up crazy stories. Something was happening, and there was a pattern to it. Larson's farm was east of Coleman's. Next came Jones', and then Scott's. If there really was a creepy chicken stealing mask maker on the loose, his property would be hit next.
Duncan added an extra box of bullets to his supplies and headed for the checkout counter.
Coyote waved his tail in the face of his canine pursuer and let loose a barking laugh. The dog, a black and brown hound mix, snapped with foam-flecked jaws. In its single-minded state it had run out of earshot of its master.
Coyote knew he should move on to some other farm for his next batch of chickens where he could start over with the element of surprise intact. That is why he planned on circling back and taking this farmer's chickens tonight anyway. All he had to do was take care of the dog, and the old man would be left wandering in search of it while he backtracked.
He leapt onto the low-hanging branch of a tree and climbed until he was just out of reach of the hound. The dog put its paws against the trunk and bayed. His versatile throat formed a language of yips, as clear to it as the words he spoke to humans. Not like that, stupid dog! Put paws on branches! Climb!
The dog's baying broke down into a series of gunshot-rapid barks. Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! It leapt, caught hold of a branch, and pulled itself awkwardly after Coyote.
He encouraged it with further insults. When they reached the top the branches thinned and the tree swayed. The dog slipped, glanced down at the ground beneath its paws, and whimpered. Coyote was done playing fair. He flexed the toes on his front paws and they became human fingers. With these to anchor him, he was free to shake the tree until the scrabbling of claws below gave way to a yelp and a dull thud.
The silence was broken immediately by the sound of boots crunching on leaves. The old man had been better at keeping up than Coyote expected. He leaned forward to see what the man was doing and a branch snapped. The human's head shot up.
The man raised his gun, but hesitated. He came to the base of the tree and stopped beside the body of the dog. Coyote could barely make him out through the jumble of branches obscuring his view. He laughed. "Go on and try it! I dare you! You couldn't hit the side of a barn, you old coot!"
Duncan blocked the impossibility of what he was hearing from his mind, focused on the green pinpoints of light in the darkness over his head, and pulled the trigger.
Five years later
Red Fox awoke to a cold, empty den. She crawled out and found Gray Fox on a hill overlooking the park, soaking up the first rays of sunrise. It was his favorite spot, a place where he could watch the humans from a distance, but he did not seem to be enjoying it like he usually did this morning. She leaned in to snuggle against his warm coat. "What is troubling you, husband?"
Gray Fox sighed. "I think it is time again. It has been so long since his last visit. I need to go find him."
She groaned. "When are you going to have enough of dealing with this? If he went and got himself killed again, that should be his problem alone to worry about."
"I can't help it. He needs me. It just feels so wrong to leave him like that."
She placed a paw under his jaw and turned his head to make him look at her. "Forget about your brother, at least for a little while longer. Let's go to New Orleans. We can attend Mardi Gras and watch the humans do silly things. Doesn't that sound like more fun than digging up Coyote's bones?"
He gave her a tired smile. "It does. It would not feel right, though. You know that feeling you get when you sense someone has been injured and needs your Power for healing?"
"I think this works the same way. When it is time for him to come back, I feel it."
She let go of him and got up to pace. "If we must have him around, you should at least make more demands of him. Tell him you will not bring him back next time unless he makes himself useful."
He shook his head. "Those tactics do not work with Coyote. His definition of useful is too different. We just have to wait and see where it overlaps with our own. I can only reach out to him with patience, and hope that he learns and makes wiser choices."
Red Fox sat beside him again. She hated arguing about Coyote; seeing the loyalty her husband felt for him after all these years of aggravation was sad and yet strangely sweet. Still, she could not help herself. She turned up the corner of her mouth and rested her head on his shoulder. "You know, if I kept coming back to save the same human from being mortally wounded as a result of his own stupidity I might conclude that Fate was trying to tell me something."
Gray Fox chuckled. "I cannot argue with you there. He is just special, and by that I mean in more ways than his head. There are over six billion humans in the world now, but still only one Coyote."
Gray Fox used his human form to travel in the comfort of public transportation, stopping occasionally to focus on the signal that connected him to his brother and adjust his course accordingly. When the hot and dusty roads grew too remote for the buses he hitchhiked. The signal finally called him off of the main road, across fields and wooded patches, until he found himself scoping out a farmhouse. He could already tell where this was going.
Under the cover of night he took fox form and laid an intricate scent maze for the farmer's dog. The old man, roused from sleep by its barking, came out to follow it. Gray Fox took human form again and snuck into the house.
He paused in the doorway, scented the air, and found no sign of other human occupants. The signal drew him through a hallway, a small kitchen that smelled of old unwashed dishes, and into a room he guessed was the main living space. It was filled with squishy, tattered chairs, and the walls were decorated with skins and decapitated animal heads. There was a fireplace set into the east wall. Coyote's stuffed body was proudly displayed above it, next to a framed photograph showing a gathering of several generations of a human family. Gray Fox winced. Coyote had died with his paws partially shifted to human form. What on earth could the humans have made of that?
He placed the body on the floor and leapt over it. When his feet touched the ground he said, "Get up again!"
He did this four more times. He waited, ears straining for any sound of the human's return. The body shuddered. It toppled over, kicking at the air. Life returned with a coughing fit that brought up chunks of foam.
Coyote shook his head and grinned up at Gray Fox. "I am not going to enjoy finding out how the rest of that works its way out of my system."
Gray Fox sighed and knelt down to help his brother get back on his feet.
Coyote pawed him away and stood on his own. He rose to his hind legs and grew, assuming human form. He folded his arms and took in his surroundings. His eyes lingered on the photograph. "So the old man decided to send me on vacation, hmm? Let's think of something nice to do for him in return."
Gray Fox took hold of his arm and tried, with gentle pressure, to guide him to the front door. "I am sure you deserved everything he did to you. Please, just let it go."
Coyote squirmed, but found his brother's grip too strong to break out of. He relaxed and shrugged. "Of course. What is the point of bad things happening to you if you did not earn them? Life would be unbearably dull otherwise."
The front door slammed open with a bang that reverberated through the house. Heavy footsteps followed excited barking and the click of claws on the wooden floor. Gray Fox froze, calculating the best way to fight back or make a run for it.
Coyote tapped him on the shoulder to regain his attention, grinned, and pointed to the floor. "Play dead, boy."
Gray Fox glared at him. "I do not think this is a good-"
Coyote shoved him off balance and he fell backward, landing on his backside. "Play dead!"
He groaned but cooperated, melting down to his smaller form and lying still as his brother's stuffed body had been. Coyote changed too, but remained roughly the same size. His copper skin bleached to a translucent pinkish tone, his black hair passed through silver before becoming white, and his features loosened from those of a young man to the sags and wrinkles of an older woman. No matter how many times he saw it, Gray Fox never failed to be impressed by his brother's skill in shapeshifting. If only he could learn to put it to better use.
Coyote picked up the limp fox and draped him around his shoulders just in time to pose, hands on his hips, for the man and dog when they entered the room. The dog leaned forward, sniffed, and whined. He wagged a finger at the farmer. "Don't you point that thing at me. Where have you been?"
The man's jaw drooped and he slouched, gun nearly slipping from his limp hands. He recovered some semblance of his senses and averted his eyes. "Na Nana?"
Coyote strode forward, arms crossed over his naked breasts. "You aren't even happy to see me. I get permission from down below to come up for a visit and you aren't even going to make me feel welcome? Fine, be that way. I have other grandkids!"
Coyote brushed past the man, nose turned up, stroking the tail of his "fur coat."
The man remained rooted to the spot by the doorway, glazed eyes dropped unfocused to his feet. A faint tremor built up in his body, working its way through his limbs until the gun slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. The dog licked his arm and whined.
As soon as they were outside Gray Fox leapt down and bolted for the trees. Coyote melted back to four legs and followed. They ran themselves to exhaustion, Gray Fox retracing the steps that had taken him here and Coyote merely tagging along.
Gray Fox stopped by a stream well off of the farmer's property to rest. He leaned against a tree and covered his face with his paws. "Why?"
Coyote rolled in the cool grass, working residual stiffness out of his back. "Because. Why do you care? I didn't hurt him."
"The look on that poor human's face I think you broke his mind."
Coyote paused for a few moments, staring up at the stars. "You really think so? Wow! I should go back and see how this all works out. They'll be telling each other such interesting stories!"
"You are free to do so. Now, I must return to my wife. Try not to go and get yourself killed again too soon, please."
Gray Fox rose and continued on at a more leisurely pace. Coyote fell into step beside him. "No, that wouldn't be right at all, would it? That would be selfish, when I haven't visited in such a long time. I'm sure Red Fox will be thrilled to see me!"
An image of the expression Red Fox would greet them with flashed into Gray Fox's mind and he grimaced. "I would be glad to have you visit soon, brother, but now is not a good time. I have found so many things to keep me busy; I have not been giving my wife the attention she deserves. I have promised to take her someplace nice and remind her how special she is."
Coyote winked and elbowed him. "Ohhhhh, I get it!"
Gray Fox ignored his brother's attempt to steer the conversation to one of his favorite topics. "Have you ever been to New Orleans to see the humans celebrate Mardi Gras?"
The response came slow and subdued compared to Coyote's previous chatter. Gray Fox could sense the weight of thought behind the word. There were few things Coyote liked more than exploring something new. He relaxed and smiled. "How about this? I have some money saved up from doing odd jobs for humans. I will buy you some nice clothes and pay your travel expenses."
Coyote pounced on him and lifted him off the ground with a hug. "A real, honest, non death related vacation! You are the best brother a guy could ask for. Sure you don't want to come along?"
Gray Fox shook his head. "Not this time. Maybe sometime later. You just have fun and, uh, try not to torment the humans too much. Or at least do not tell me about it afterward."
Coyote set him down and slapped him on the shoulder. "I make no promises. What is a journey if it doesn't give you a few good stories to tell?"
Gray Fox decided not to push the issue further. He groaned inwardly at the thought of sending Coyote to visit any particular population of humans with his mischief, as if it made him guilty by association for whatever happened to them. He reminded himself that it was better than the alternative. There were over six billion humans spread across the world for Coyote to annoy, but there was only one Red Fox.