This one is rather different, though I have actually written two other parts that were quite a lot like this one. I don’t want to give too much away, but I figured this one might have been the least crazy of the bunch, and it might still be a good story.
I was in the Southwest one year. In the north end of the state, several miles outside of the Navajo Nation, our jeep broke down. This was not the driest part of the state, though I am pretty sure it was close to, and it was far outside the lowlands which at least got minimal rainfall.
My dad called automobile assistance and they would be there in four hours. We had water, of course, my dad had spent too long in the desert than to know to travel with less than a weeks’ worth, and he usually traveled with at least two months’. There were six gallons in the blue cooler, and they were on ice, so we were not in any danger of dehydration. Also in the back was five pounds of buffalo jerky, a grocery bag full of bread, soup and sardine cans, and a small car-powered burner and a pot so we could also use that. And a can opener. There was nothing that could go cartoonishly wrong about this whole ordeal, as my dad always had the foresight to prepare for these sorts of things. That was, up until an arrow sliced into the canvas roof of the jeep.
Now, this arrow was brightly colored and had a wide head made of chipped stone. Though in my right mind I would have thought immediately that something was wrong with this, at the time, I could only think that someone was trying to kill us with an arrow. My dad immediately seized my by the arm and pulled me out of the back seat, and we’d gone nearly half a dozen steps when the coyotes appeared out of the brush that surrounded the road we were on. Three or four of them wielded bows, but all the rest, at least a half dozen, had long-barreled Winchester rifles.
They were all done up in war paint, like one would see in movies where the Indians were always the villains. I always thought it was cheesy, but I don’t think I considered until then that them wearing the paint sent a clear message: they were prepared for this, we were not.
“Get down on the ground,” said the cleanest-looking male, who spoke with a mix of a Navajo and a southwest accent.
My dad and I obeyed, and he put his hands over his head and me over mine. I was crying.
“Stop your sniveling,” the coyote said, “we’re not going to shoot you. It’s bad publicity, you know, kill one human and there’s another coyote hunting frenzy. Hard enough trying to get something to eat.”
I didn’t believe them. You didn’t carry around bows and guns when there was no chance of danger. I thought maybe that’s why they had bows—the moment I considered that maybe all their guns were empty of ammunition, I knew that was not the case with their bows, which were fully nocked and their quivers were loaded with arrows. I knew then what the bows were for—sending a message of intent, and not attracting attention like gunfire would.
“Speaking of,” said another, stepping out from the other side of the jeep, wielding a crowbar, “how much you got in the car?”
“Don’t damage the trunk!” My dad said. The others tightened their bowstrings and raised their guns when my dad reached into his pocket, and he tossed the coyote his keys. The coyote caught it in midair, and went through the keyring, trying all the keys until he found the one that fit the rear lock and pulled it open.
They rarely tell you about this, though it comes up often enough. These bandits were smart enough to not move on cars that had Arizona license plates, and ideally nobody with plates of any southwest state. They wanted to seize the out-of-towners who, terrified of being lost in the desert, overpacked themselves with an abundance of food. They were whooping and hollering as they saw the sheer amount of food we brought, and not only that but a complement of long-lasting food to go with the fresher stuff. It would barely last the coyotes a week, if there were so many of them.
“There, you got what you wanted,” my dad said, “can you let us go now?”
The head coyote snapped his gun upward and paces around us as the other coyotes dragged off the supplies into a small push-cart. Then he reached into my dad’s pocket and pulled out his wallet, searching through and taking the three fifty-dollar bills that were inside. Cash was cash, and it wasn’t like they were barred from using it if someone were willing to sell to them. He dropped the wallet on the ground.
“What’s wrong with the car?” he asked.
My dad almost had to roll his eyes, though from my position on the ground I could tell this was trying for him as well, no matter how level his voice seemed. “Tires went out, both on the right side. Triple A is going to be here in fifteen minutes.” That was a lie of course, we still had about three and a half hours but the coyotes didn’t know that.
The head coyote sneered. I bit my lip when I saw that sneer. They did know that. They probably busted the tires themselves. They were counting on the automobile service to not be prompt.
But, as it was Arizona, even though there were often no cars for hours in any direction, the coyotes didn’t want to chance it. But as bandits often are, they were paranoid. They took dad’s cell phone as well, the head coyote pocketing it with the rest of the cash, obviously hoping to clear it out and take it to a no-questions pawnbroker, the sort of kind that services the desperate outside of the casinos. They must have known it was stolen, coyotes coming in every other month with brand new cell phones that worked properly, and yet, they still managed to get away with it.
And then the coyotes did something I did not expect. One of them seized me by the collar and dragged me over away from my dad. My dad start to get up, protesting loudly, but one of the coyotes struck him across the face with the butt of his rifle.
The other coyote forced off my collar and he checked the inside of it too. Apparently they learned a while ago that us pets were often pampered as well, probably because one or the other missed checking the animals like me, who have pockets on the insides of their collars which carry our own wallets and IDs, and for some of the luckier ones, cell phones of our own.
“There’s another,” he said, tossing the somewhat cheap clamshell over to the chief. He was keeping me down with his knee on my chest, and I struggled because I could barely breathe. He pulled out my wallet, checking the inside pocket, but there was nothing in there but my ID and license. He growled, tossing it to the side as well.
Then he checked my tag. It was an ankh, and my dad picked it up at a novelty shop when we were in Egypt. I am pretty sure he overpaid for it—this sort of thing they loved to gouge Americans for. But when he saw me eying it, how much I liked the contours and the symbol itself, he paid what the man said after a half-hearted attempt to haggle. It was not made of gold, and it did not particularly look like it was anything but painted a glossy yellow. The coyote took it in his hand and snapped the thin chain that connected it to the collar.
“Don’t touch that!” I shouted. At that point, I twisted myself out from under him and bit him deep in the leg.
“Ouch!” The coyote shouted. I will not repeat what he said after that, because it was quite naughty and I’m fairly sure that you already know the gist of it when I started giving this warning. He grabbed my by the scruff and tossed me to one side, wincing as he grabbed onto his leg.
I tumbled back over the dirt and struggled to pull myself back up. My dad started shouting something again, but the butt of the rifle met him in his face, and I was suddenly very dizzy from where I hit my head. I remember there was the shuffling of paws, and somewhere in the darkness, the flash of red and blue in the sky.
I woke up several hours later. It was dark, though nearby there was a fire going, and the coyotes were all there. The one I had bitten was most prominent, as he was next to the fire looking exhausted, and the wound on his leg was poorly bandaged. I didn’t move, and I tried not to open my eyes too far lest they catch a glimpse of my eyeshine and start making demands of me.
I quickly learned that I was tied up; this I figured out by attempting to move my hands and finding they were tied together behind my back, and that was tied to my waist. My legs were also tied together, and I had a thick white cloth, probably the same material they used for the coyote’s bandage, stuffed into my mouth.
“Why’d you have to go and drag the cat along with us!”
I craned my neck slightly, not enough for them to see in the corners of their eyes, and found my collar was still missing. A small glint of yellow told me that the one with the wounded leg tied the chain of my collar around his wrist. The ankh was dangling from it.
“We’re not going to have any end of trouble if they don’t find her alive!”
“That’s why I needed to take her! They’re going to be chasing after us anyway . . . we just let her go halfway through like we were giving up, toss back most of the electronics—”
“And what would that accomplish!”
“It’s how we’d get them off our tails! They think it’s bad now, and they’re so relieved that they’ve won, they’re not going to try anything foolish for the pittance we took from that guy.”
He took a drink from a glass bottle, and I was pretty sure the clear liquid inside was not water.
“We’ll have to work our wav back north,” said another, “they’re going to be on the lookout for at least a few months longer than we planned.”
“I’m not going back to Vegas,” the one with the ankh turned and spit on the ground, “They have a million dumpsters in that city and each one seems to be accompanied by armed guards. Lights are on all the time, can’t move a whisker without someone crying rabies. Humans. Rolling around in food . . . and they don’t even let us steal the garbage. Steal garbage! That’s got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” He snatched the bottle from the other, larger coyote and took a long swig.
The other snapped at him and shoved him over, but another interceded in the fight before it could go anywhere.
“Hold it, hold it!” the mediator said, “Firebrand’s wounded, alright? Don’t make it worse. We’re almost out of medicine, and I don’t think what we had is working too well as it is.”
Firebrand did look bad. Besides his delirious ranting, he almost collapsed like a bag of fur when the leader shoved him over, giving way like none of his bones were connected. The mediator lifted Firebrand up again and checked his pupils in the firelight.
“No, it’s not good,” said the mediator, “get the cat. See if she had anything.”
The leader swept his muzzle toward me, directing his gesture to two others sitting behind him. They got to their feet and walked over to me. I quickly made like I was being stirred awake and had not been paying attention until I felt their calloused hands on me.
I quickly found myself on the stone that the leader was sitting on, unbound and the gag removed from my mouth. I think it was overkill, anyway, as I would not be able to survive in the desert or even find my way anywhere without these coyotes. The leader was probably the least pleased to think I was still here, even if it was his idea to drag me along. Firebrand was looking pale. The mediator, who seemed to know a little bit about medicine, shoved the top of the bottle in Firebrand’s muzzle and had him drink at least half a cup more. Firebrand coughed and sputtered, and the other coyote turned to me.
“Have you had all your shots?” he said, not looking pleased.
I looked confused, but I thought maybe I didn’t need to act quite so much when the leader shoved me after a half second delay.
“Answer Doc or else you’re our next meal!”
“No!” I said, “I mean . . . yes! Yes I’ve had all my shots, rabies, feline leukemia, everything.”
Doc took me by the jaw and glanced inside my mouth. “No abrasions. Seems like it was bad luck. You got Firebrand really deep, you know.”
I winced. “How deep?”
“We’ll need to get him to the vet.”
The leader groaned and cursed. “We just got the hundred fifty from that target, now we’re gonna have to waste it all on stitches again . . . its like we can’t even catch a break.”
“I say we eat her anyway!” said some smart mouthed coyote behind him. The leader turned and clocked him in the face.
“Anyone else have bright ideas?” The leader said. Nobody said anything, except Firebrand, who groaned.
Doc checked on his wound, and winced. He then sniffed the wound, and winced even harder. “So much for living in a desert,” he said, “As much microbes here as anywhere it seems.”
Firebrand reached up and tugged Doc down by his scruff. “Give it to me straight!” he said, “what are my chances?”
“If our glorious leader will agree to get you to the vet—”
The leader harrumphed.
“—then it will probably be pretty good. But it’s about forty miles from here.”
“So I’m a goner . . .” Firebrand’s head hit the dust.
“Don’t say that! Don’t even think that!”
Eventually the sun was too far down to risk having an open flame. They buried the fire, and the others took turns scattering it.
“We need to start walking,” the leader said, “it’ll be worse in the day.”
He was right, but it was freezing at night. Between them they had five blankets. The leader got one, and Firebrand got one, though Doc had to help him walk. He then conscripted me to do the carrying with him. I was far shorter than any of them, but I soon realized that Firebrand needed something warm on as many sides of him as possible, because he was shaking terribly. He’d already drank at least half a gallon of water as Doc said it would help him, but it seemed to only make him need to stop and mark the cactuses we passed more often than necessary.
We walked until we were exhausted, and Firebrand doubly so. He suddenly vaulted forward and would have probably broken his nose had Doc not caught him at the last second. The leader had everyone take a break for a half hour until Firebrand recuperated. They were already talking about making a stretcher from the blankets if he couldn’t pick himself back up.
Firebrand was curled up in his blanket, and I think they forgot I was even there, because I was still sitting next to Firebrand, huddled under the same blanket.
“I don’t want to die,” he said, whimpering. His bones were knocking together so hard they sounded like dishes rattling in the back of a car.
Nobody else was nearby, so I was pretty sure he was talking to me. It might have been the fever, because I don’t know many other reasons a wild dog would talk to a domesticated cat, especially one that attacked him.
“You’re not going to die,” I said, “how old are you, anyway?”
“Six,” he said.
“That’s not terribly old,” I said, “you’ll be fine.”
I may have neglected to mention beforehand: most animals in our world have significantly longer lifespans and smaller litter numbers than in your own. It’s still not the length of a human lifespan for most—elephants still only live about eighty years, and most ungulates still hover around forty and approach fifty, but dogs and cats also live up to forty years, though in the wild that number is often closer to fifteen. On average, anyway.
Because there’s inadequate medicine or medical skill outside of human cities, many packs, like this one, have at least one who’s been educated with practical first aid to keep bone fractures or fevers from becoming crippling or fatal.
“Look, I’m . . . I’m sorry,” I said.
Firebrand suddenly became agitated, and he tore the ankh off his wrist and shoved it back into my hands. “Just keep it! Keep it, alright? I didn’t even want it that badly!”
I was now shaking almost as much, and I curled up, gripping the ankh in my hands. I didn’t have anyone to lean against but him. I supposed they called it the Stockholm syndrome, where the captive starts empathizing with the captors, but they spread it around like it’s a bad thing. I injured him, badly, and he was still someone who was trying to survive, only unlike me, he probably never had an easy day in his life.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, choking up a little, “It’s just . . . my dad gave it to me. I mean, my owner.” Wild animals are often uncomfortable when domestics refer to their owners as their parents, which I think is a colloquial thing. It’s linguistically correct in some languages, though in English it sounds babyish. If it bothered or confused Firebrand, he didn’t show it.
“He seemed like an awfully decent human,” Firebrand said, “Haven’t seen so many try to stand up for their pets twice.” He shook his head. “I bet you love him a lot, don’t you?”
“Sure do,” I said.
“I didn’t want to take you along,” Firebrand said, “thought it was stupid. I thought they’d give up before they started if we left you where you were.”
I didn’t realize it until it was happening, but I was learning into his side and he was stroking my fur in soft circles. I was about to pull away, but I realized I didn’t want to leave just then. I didn’t want to make him angrier, for one, but also I was pretty sure he needed someone next to him.
“You know, it’s almost always been like this,” he said. “For a hundred years now. My dad told me about it, like we’d been trying to keep the stories alive, as though if they died out there wouldn’t be anything left of our old pride.”
“Lions have prides,” I said.
“You know what I mean!” he snapped. “It wasn’t so long ago we were still hunting by the old traditions. Even after the humans wiped out the nomads on this continent, sent them to live in the barren deserts, we were still able to live like we had for a thousand years. With the big fire pits and dancing. My grandfather was a shaman of his pack. He used to tell me the story of how the settlers came through . . . it doesn’t . . . it doesn’t really make sense in English, unless you tell it just right. It sort of requires context that’s provided by a well-placed bit of pyrotechnics in the fire.”
“Well tell it to me anyway,” I said, “I like listening to stories.”
“Well, the sky came down to earth. That’s sort of what they called the uniforms of the two sides, was the sky. Dark blue for the starless night, dark grey for the cloudy day. Never did much out here besides the night sky’s horses going between there and the sea. Going to California. We’d heard so much about California, we started making up stories about it. Even now when someone talks about California I think of someplace unreachable, like what heaven is to a filthy bandit like I am.”
“Why don’t you go there?” I asked.
“Because I know,” he winced, shifting off his swollen leg, “I know that it’s just the same as anywhere else. Maybe less desert, but wherever there’d plenty of food there’s just more to compete for it. It’s always like that.”
“Go on with your story,” I said, trying to make my words as pleasant as possible.
“When the bullets were flying, it was like rain,” he said, “they needed to feed themselves, and we needed to feed ourselves. After the night banished the day, they killed cattle left and right, building the straight lines to the sea and the metal horses that continued to run faster and faster. Always going toward the sea. And they killed off so much of the buffalo doing it, we had to eat something. So we ate their cattle, but when we did so, we were branded as bandits and thieves and cowards. Forcing us into the deserts and the mountains. The pack was never the same after that, and my grandfather called it . . .”
“What did he call it?” I asked, leaning forward.
“. . . the end of the world,” he said. “And you know, sometimes I think that’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard. Because it wasn’t long after the world ended we lost every scrap of pride we had left and we’re left wandering through this barren wasteland until we die. Like I watched by grandfather die of illness that the vet would not fix because we had no money, and my father get shot for poaching, and my mother shot simply because she dared get within thirty yards of a chicken cage.”
At this point, he broke down sobbing. I got to my knees and embraced him tight around the neck. My eyes were closed quite tight, and his embrace was so firm that I did not notice anything else, until I was suddenly thinking about alternating red and blue lights.
And I opened my eyes, and there they were, on top of the black and white sedan with the reinforced bumper. There were two of them, in fact, and behind them several yards, a vet ambulance clearly intended for me.
The other coyotes were frozen where they were, their hands up, as the sheriff climbed out of his car, two deputies from another accompanying car holding up shotguns trained on the pack. None of the coyotes dared reach for a gun or bow.
My dad climbed out of the second car, and I think I nearly shrank back into the blanket. But then he said my name, “Sabrina?”
And I jumped to my feet anyway. “Dad!”
We met each other in front of the sheriff’s headlights and embraced each other tight. The medics tried to pull us apart but my dad waved them off for the moment. “Dad, how on earth did you find us?”
Dad pulled away for a moment and took my left hand and tapped on my wrist. “Locator chip. It was a new thing so . . . I had them put one in you on the last vet trip.”
“I knew that shot hurt too much!” I pretended to be grumpy, though dad saw through it immediately.
“Looks like we found our banditos,” said the sheriff, as though saying it in Spanish somehow made it charming. A third car pulled up, and the other officers started going through the pack with their flashlights, with SWAT-like plastic handcuffs. I glanced back, almost confused even though I had a clear idea of what would happen should they ever have caught up.
“What are you doing!” I demanded.
“Taking them in,” the sheriff said.
“They’re not dogs! You can’t just drop them off in the pound!”
All the coyotes looked up with genuine shock and I stood up for them in front of the leader, spreading my arms wide. “Are you going to shoot them? Are you going to put them down for being bad dogs?”
The sheriff wiped his brow, uncomfortable. “Well . . . no, we’re not going to do that.”
“Then what? What about him?” I pointed to Firebrand, who was the only one who didn’t raise his hands up. “He needs medical attention, now!”
The sheriff sighed. “We can’t pay for wild animals.”
“Then I’ll pay for it,” my dad said, “drop him off at a wildlife rescue if you must but let me know where he is.”
“Where all of them are,” I said firmly.
That seemed to be that. The medics, obviously trained wildlife experts, sealed a muzzle around Firebrand’s mouth, but he did not struggle as they move him into the stretcher intended for me. He said nothing as they passed me by, but he was looking straight at me, and I was sure that I did something right in standing up for them.
When we got back into the police car, another large an pulled up called wildlife control, and the others were all ushered into that one. I didn’t like most of them, of course, I hadn’t even heard most of them talk. But I don’t think I needed to. Sure they were filthy, prone to violence and somewhat stupid, but when I saw Doc look out at me with genuine thanks, I lost it.
We didn’t abandon them. Firebrand recovered, though his leg ended up weak, but my dad eventually arranged for them to join a wildlife refuge. I gave Firebrand a long hug before I left them, telling them to call me. The refuge animals don’t often get as many niceties as the zoo animals, but phone access is at least one privilege, and it’s far better than being locked away in a pound or released split from the pack.
I got a few calls from Firebrand for a while, though now it’s only been once every few months. Nothing much changes, he said, but he added that it was fine, because at least things were better than they were before.
“That’s not the attitude of a bandit if I ever heard one,” I said, “aren’t you supposed to crave adventure and break out of confinement to go find it?”
“What I always craved was food and a way for my feet to stop hurting,” Firebrand said, “I don’t know how you city folk keep romanticizing us. Besides, there’s a real cute female on the other side of the fence and the pack politics in this place are a lot looser when there’s more of us. I think I have a shot.”