Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Personal History

Boston, Massachusetts, 2012

The videographer, a red fox from M.I.T., had gone on a dozen of these mostly-fruitless artifact hunts, but his tail twitched back and forth, and his ears kept swiveling around as if scanning for threats in the very ordinary middle-class living room. His eyes remained fixed on the staircase, but he was looking beyond it: remembering, not seeing.

Scuffling noises from the staircase distracted him enough that he tilted his muzzle up. His companion, an early-thirties raccoon in a navy blue business blazer and skirt, watched the camera on his shoulder bobble.

“Are you all right?”

“It’s just…” The noises from up the stairs continued. He lowered his voice. “These bleached-tail Jesus-freak types.” He curled his own tail’s naturally immaculate ivory-white tip upward, off the floor.

“He doesn’t seem religious.” She patted him on the shoulder and gestured around at the oak-paneled walls, shopping-mall paintings, furniture caught between ‘recent’ and ‘antique,’ and a distinct lack of holy icons of any persuasion.

The fox snorted. “Then he’s doing it ironically. This guy in my Self Expression class said everyone ought to bleach their tail tips, to mess up the Church or some shit.”

She lowered her voice. “Just go easy on him when I tell him what it’s really worth, and we’ll be back at the museum soon.”

The creak of boards at the top of the stairs quieted them. A coyote not much older than the fox tottered down, his white-tipped tail swaying behind him as he balanced the weight of the broad, shallow wooden box in his paws. “Sorry. Had to dig it out from all my ma’s shit,” the coyote said in a broad New England brogue that pulled his o’s and a’s forward out of the words. He dropped it on the dining room table with a thud that made the raccoon’s ears fold back. he said, and pulled a faded, yellowed note from an envelope atop the box. “Says here, ‘this uniform is our most valuable possession.’”

The raccoon winced at the crackling of the yellowed paper on the brown, moldy envelope. She held out a paw. “May I?”

While she inspected the brittle paper, the coyote said, “That’s 1850 at the top. So it’s probably like a Civil War uniform, right? What’s that worth?”

She didn’t answer immediately, but held up the note to the camera when the fox lifted it to his shoulder. Eyes bright and wide, she tapped a finger next to the faded, ancient handwriting, but kept her voice steady as she said, “The paper looks, feels, and smells as one would expect if the date were authentic.”

When the fox had captured the note, the raccoon set the paper aside. “Let’s have a look, sir.” She waited while the coyote lifted the lid from the box.

At the first sight of it, she held her breath, and then the camera’s light came on and she blinked at the bright crimson fabric. “It looks real,” she whispered, and then, louder, “It smells real.” The fox brought the camera closer as the raccoon leaned in, twitching fingers held behind her back. “It appears to be a uniform from the Revolutionary War era, a British one, hardly faded at all.”

“Probably hasn’t been opened in like a hundred fifty years.” The coyote rested the lower edge of the box lid on his thighs, leaving gritty tracks on his blue jeans and bringing the upper edge, thick with dust, to his nose. He made a face and blew across the lid to clean it off.

“Careful!” The raccoon pulled the box toward her, away from the cloud drifting down from the box lid. As soon as it was clear, she wiped her paws on her jeans and then clasped them behind her back again. Now she spoke to the microphone atop the camera. “The front looks pristine, except for a few stains.”

She didn’t notice the coyote looking down her shirt; the fox did, but kept the camera stable and gritted his teeth. When the coyote didn’t respond right away, the raccoon started to turn toward him, and he flattened his ears back, gesturing at the jacket laid carefully out in the box. “You can get it cleaned, though, right?”

The raccoon didn’t change her posture, absorbed in studying the jacket. “We wouldn’t. The stains on a piece of vintage clothing like this can be very instructive as well. If it’s authentic. Food, tobacco, ale…you can tell a lot about a soldier by his coat.”

“It’s authentic.” The coyote’s ears came back up, the cleavage forgotten. He jabbed a claw at the box. “My great-great-something grandfather wouldn’t lie.”

“Usually they fade. This one looks very new.” The raccoon produced a small metal probe from her pocket and lifted one side of the jacket. “But the stains make me think it is authentic. There’s a lot of blood. No tear in the jacket that I can see, though…he must have been killed at close quarters.”

“One of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War,” the coyote said. “Must’ve killed this guy and took his coat.”

The raccoon let the jacket fall. A faint rustle, like the crackle of the old envelope, reached her ears, but she ignored it for the moment. “Do you know any more of the story? How the soldier was killed, which battle?”

“I didn’t even know about the jacket until last week. Grandpa just used to say our family fought the British twice, the Rebs, and the Nazis. I thought this might be a Nazi uniform ’til I saw the date on the note.”

“Mmm.” The raccoon brushed a small, pale stain near the lower hem of the left side of the coat. “This stain might have been oatmeal. That would indicate that the soldier rushed into battle in the morning without time to prepare.”

When the coyote didn’t answer, the raccoon flicked her eyes up and this time caught him looking down her dress. “Would any of your relatives know more of the story?”

“No,” he said sharply. “My cousins don’t even know about it. Mom inherited it from Grandpa and left it to me. Anyway, I’m sure it’s just a boring story. Guy was eating breakfast with his regiment, the Americans attacked, he was killed. What else is there?”

 

The hills outside Fort Stanwix, August 6, 1777

Sunlight dappled the red coat of John Martingale, the bright spots dancing like light on a crimson sea as the fox lifted his arms. The russet fur visible on his smiling muzzle, bare thighs, and bushy tail shone palely next to the bright scarlet. The dirty white tip of his long tail caught the sun with a flash of white and then flicked back into shadow.

Atop him, the spots of sunlight fell on browns and greens that might have been no more than the forest floor molded in the shape of a slender coyote. Bright amber eyes gleamed in his muzzle’s dusty tan fur as Nathaniel Braxton relaxed atop John, his nose coming to touch the fox’s.

John pulled Nathaniel down atop him. “Thank Providence for this meeting,” he said. “I have missed you, dear.” Their lips met, and John held the coyote’s head down, making the kiss long and deep.

Hoofbeats echoed in the distance, and both their ears perked. Nathaniel raised his head and chest to peer deep into the shadows and trees. “You should hurry back.”

John smiled lazily up. “I’ve ten minutes at least.”

“And you still must put those breeches back on.”

“I could walk into camp claiming a dashing Colonial rebel stole them from me.”

“To take your dignity from you? I’d take your coat first.”

“What, all stained and dirty?”

“Even so.” The coyote grinned and pulled the fox up to kiss him on the nose. “Especially so.”

“It would set off your eyes nicely.”

Nathaniel reached down to tease the fox’s naked midriff. “Bah! As though I would sully my fur with that fabric.”

“You know you look good.” John reached up to brush his fingers along the tan buckskin vest. “Even dressed so shabbily.”

“My father’s father killed this buck himself.” Nathaniel rested his fingers on John’s, and his tongue lolled. “At least we don’t make targets of ourselves.”

“No, you lose each other in the smoke and shoot your comrades.” John looked along his muzzle at Nathaniel’s black nosepad and gold-amber eyes. His ears flicked back to the approaching hoofbeats, and his smile weakened. His voice lowered, trading jocularity for urgency. “Come with me. We’ve Colonial Loyalists in camp, some coyotes even. You’d be welcomed.”

“Come with me,” Nathaniel riposted, clasping the fox’s paw in his. “We could make our way back to Boston.”

The fox’s fingers tightened, returning the embrace. “And then what? Live in the shed behind your house, with Selah bringing me meals, with whatever time I can steal from you?”

“Selah likes you. She begrudged you not a whit of our time together.” His ears perked. “Your life would be your own. Is that not what you fight for?”

John lowered his muzzle. “I fight for God and King and country. My life is in his service.”

“Hang the King!” Nathaniel said.

In the ensuing silence, the hoofbeats marked time like the ticks of a pendulum clock. Finally, John sighed. “I know that our stationing put an unfair burden on you.”

“On you, rather. Many of your fellow soldiers found wives, while you stood dignified and aloof. On the outside.” The coyote pressed closer and smiled a long grin. “Only to me did you show your soft underbelly.”

John accepted the embrace, pulled his lover closer still. “Only you deserved to see it. Well, why do you think I left England to begin with, in the company of other strapping young men?”

“And yet you sought out the company of one not even your own species.”

“What matters species? We’ll have no cubs, no matter how we try.” The fox buried his fingers in the thick brown fur at the coyote’s side.

“If we could have been married…would you have left the Army to take up a trade in Boston?”

They lay, noses a hair’s breadth apart, breath warm on each other’s whiskers. “What use debating that question?” John said finally.

“No,” Nathaniel said. “You’d not leave the Empire.”

“How can I throw away the history–?”

“History!” The coyote barked a laugh. He brought the fox’s paw to his tail, where it curled around at his side. “We wear our history on our skins, John. This fur my father had, my cub has, and his cubs will have after him. History is not so easily discarded.”

“And yet…” John’s paw curled around the black tip of the tail, held it, felt its restless twitching. “Your grandfather’s father did not live in a town. Nor was he a Christian.”

“I promise you, whether my grandchildren live in towns or cities or in hide tents under the stars, whether they follow Christ or no, they will still be coyotes, children of First Coyote, ready to take whatever advantage they can from life.” He grinned pointedly at the russet-and-white fur below him. “Just as your cubs will show the fire from which First Fox sprang.”

John shifted, bracing himself on the damp, dirty ground with one elbow. “Christ’s blood, you rascal. And Mary’s touch–”

“Yes, Mary’s cleansing touch. So are the true children of Christ marked for entry to Paradise, while the rest of us cluster at the gates outside.”

John let the old, familiar teasing pass; it was comforting, in a way. “But this uniform is part of my life as well. And so are you.”

Now the hoofbeats drummed as loudly as a summons to war. Nathaniel sighed, released John from his embrace, and stood.

The smell of pork grease filled the air. The coyote lifted his nose and grinned without humor. “At least the boys will think I’ve snuck off to raid the enemy’s stores, not their soldiers.”

“Come with me,” John pleaded again as Nathaniel pulled his pants up. “As a defector you would be welcome. As a prisoner–you could be docked.”

The coyote curled his tail around his leg. “I’ll lose my life before my tail, thank you.”

“Don’t talk like that.” John lowered his ears.

“It’s not me you should be worried about,” Nathaniel said. “I’ll be safe behind our lines in the time it will take you to clean yourself off and find your breeches. Fort Stanwix shan’t fall, whatever your generals may think by besieging it.”

“Go, then,” John said, reaching to one side where his dark blue breeches lay. “Godspeed.”

“Don’t fret,” Nathaniel said. He leaned forward to kiss the fox on the nose. “We’ll meet again in happier times.”

John pulled the coyote’s muzzle to his. Their tails and ears stilled, and the forest stilled around them. Even the urgent hoofbeats died away, leaving only birdsong and the soft whistle of breath through two long muzzles. When at last they broke apart, their eyes met again. “If Providence wills,” the fox said. “Keep yourself safe.”

“I will, whether Providence wills it or not.” The flash of the coyote’s grin sparkled in the sun, and then he was gone in the woods, barely a crackle marking his passing.

Scarcely had John wiped the pork grease from his fur and fastened his breeches when the cry went up from the nearby camp. “Rebel army to the south!” He hurried back through the low brush to the clearing, paw to his breeches as though he’d just been relieving himself, but the rest of the company was busy gathering arms and coming to attention, and nobody took the least notice of him. Fortunate, he thought, for the smell of pork grease still came stronger than the dry summer grass to his nose. He hadn’t time to clean properly, but gunpowder and blood would overwhelm that scent soon enough.

As he slunk behind the tents, the savage bobcats who fought for the King streamed past him and disappeared silently into the forest. John shivered and stopped to watch them, and that was when his commander, facing the line, spotted him.

“Martingale!” he shouted. “Arm yourself! We are to engage with the rebels and hold them from reinforcing the Fort.”

“Just back from relieving myself, sir,” the fox said, hurrying to his tent. He strapped on his sword, picked up his bayonet, and took a moment to brush the dirt from his tail tip before joining the assembly.

Within their regiment, the dozen foxes banded together, and when John took his place between young brown-furred Edward and sunset-red Matthew, the other two foxes twitched their noses. “Relieved yourself indeed,” Matthew said under his breath, but he did not frown or look puzzled, as he might if he caught the scent of a coyote.

“Even we soldiers have needs.” It took most of John’s willpower to keep from smiling at the lingering pleasure in his loins. Their commander, a polecat, spoke to the regiment, but John barely heard a word, barely saw the flourishes of his decorative sabre. Please, Lord, he said, let Nathaniel be spared.

It did not occur to him to pray for victory. He was a soldier of the British Empire. God was on his side.

*

Nathaniel, meanwhile, crept through the woods. He’d intended to rejoin his company and warn them of the British troops hours ago. When he’d heard that the 8th Regiment of Foot was part of the besieging force, he’d hoped to catch a glimpse of John, but he hadn’t counted on the grip around his heart and loins that kept him crouched by the British encampment for two hours. Finally, John had ventured near the edge, and Nathaniel had placed himself upwind, and John–

The coyote smiled. John’s reaction had been so like his own, the gaping muzzle, the wide eyes, and then, a moment later, the hasty adjustment of his breeches. And no more than fifteen minutes later, it had been like old times. They were practiced at shedding the identities of soldier and wheelwright–now, redcoat and rebel–and just being a fox and coyote who’d found comfort together.

More than comfort, if he was truthful with himself, but he’d had little time for truth the last few years, and his life with Selah was happy. John had no-one back in England, but then, he’d been fighting over here for the better part of a decade. Or, rather, fighting for the last two years, and engaged in more pleasurable combat for the previous six.

Nathaniel adjusted his breeches again and grinned. The meeting had lifted his spirits and almost obscured his military duty from his mind. He had to direct his company around the British troops, if there remained time and a path to do so. If not, he would just have to–

Musket shots rang out. Nathaniel stopped and bit his lip. He looked around the forest, hesitating behind an oak tree. Then he gripped his powder horn and hurried around the tree, toward the shots.

Smoke tickled his nose within a hundred feet, and soon after, the bluish haze became visible curling through the thick maze of trees. Shots rang out in bursts, followed by faint cries in the reprieve, and then another burst of gunfire. The closer he drew, the more his nose burned from the gunpowder, his ears rang from the shots, and the quicker his heart and feet raced.

Acrid haze shrouded the green meadow where only that morning several regiments of the New York militia had made camp. The redcoats had lined up as orderly as you please on the north side, while the Colonials had fled to the trees and bushes of the south side–those, at least, who did not still lie between the tents, crumpled shapes among the yellow dots of dandelion and buttercups. They now had the advantage of terrain, but Nathaniel saw at a glance that the British had the advantage of numbers.

He didn’t have to join this fight, but guilt impelled him onward. If he hadn’t dallied with John, if he hadn’t wasted time as the British messenger drew closer, could he have saved some of his comrades?

A flurry of shots from the British riddled the trees a hundred feet in front of him, quickly followed by the crash of feet in his direction. Nathaniel held his ground, one paw on his knife.

“They got the Captain!”

“Sons of whores!”

He recognized those voices, even though the scents were lost in the haze of battle. “Ho, Samuel Cooper!” he called a moment before the raccoon and weasel burst into view.

The raccoon leveled his musket automatically, then lowered it. “Nathaniel Braxton,” he said. “A shade late with your report of the British.”

“Aye. I was searching for a passage–a path through to the fort.”

“Well?”

The coyote shook his head. “They’ve surrounded her good and tight,” he said. “I tried to push through several times, but always had to withdraw.”

The raccoon eyed the British lines. “They caught us unawares. We won’t make it through here,” he said. “General Herkimer kept us together after the first assault, but the men are unprepared.”

Nathaniel opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, his whiskers tingled. He ducked back just in time to avoid a large object slashing through the air. Beside him, the weasel clutched at his chest, from which a feathered tomahawk appeared to have blossomed. The soldier’s eyes turned to Samuel, then Nathaniel, and then he gave a bloody cough and sank to his knees.

Coyote and raccoon turned in unison as the shadows of the wood came alive with three half-naked bobcats, muzzles painted with red stripes. They moved as savage forest spirits around and between the trees, silent eyes shining with bloodlust, knives and tomahawks raised, fangs bared. Though the sun shone through the trees, nary a spot of light touched their bare fur.

Nathaniel threw himself to the side as another tomahawk sailed just over his head, and Samuel raised his musket and fired. One of the bobcats dropped, but the other two were on them in a moment.

The nearer bobcat sprang, knocking Nathaniel backwards. Pain flared through his shoulder and claws raked his ear; the heathen was biting him. The foul stink of the bobcat’s breath affronted his nose, but Nathaniel fought back panic. He pushed the savage away with one arm while his other paw, fingers slippery with grease, scrabbled to get a purchase on his knife. The bobcat sensed his purpose and gripped his arm, but Nathaniel, stronger, reached the hilt, drew his weapon, and stabbed up.

Warm blood made his paw slicker still as he twisted the blade, tearing through flesh and fur. It hit bone; he withdrew it, and thrust up again, under the ribcage. This time the blade drove deeply into the warm body and found purchase in something soft and firm.

The bobcat atop him let out a keening sound and clawed at the knife, but Nathaniel held fast. He rolled to pin the smaller person below him, using his weight to drive the knife in to its hilt. The yellow eyes burned hatred at him, then dimmed, and the bobcat’s body stiffened.

It took the coyote a moment to pry the teeth from his shoulder and throw the corpse aside. When he struggled to his feet, he saw the third bobcat standing over a motionless Samuel, holding the raccoon’s ringed tail with one paw while the other sawed at its base.

“Whoreson!” Nathaniel shouted, and leapt, but the tail separated at that moment, and the bobcat fled.

A glance showed him there was no help for Samuel. The raccoon lay as still as the weasel. Nathaniel sprang after the bobcat, muttering a prayer for his companions’ souls as he did. “I’ll be damned before I let you take his tail,” he growled, plunging through the trees.

He was no expert woodsdog, but had the advantage, slight though it was, that he had only to follow, not to track. The ringed tail was his beacon and guide, Samuel Cooper helping his vengeance along, and when the bobcat had to slow in the midst of a tangled mess of raspberry bushes, Nathaniel leapt on him.

The bobcat half-turned, but Nathaniel’s weight drove the bloody blade between the brown-spotted shoulders. As the bobcat fell, he twisted, but Nathaniel kept the knife in place, working it in farther and downward until the savage shuddered and lay still, thorny vines already embracing his fur.

The smell of blood mingled with crushed berries rose around the coyote as he stood. He wrested the ringed tail free of the dead paws, then stood, panting, and turned back the way he’d come. He picked his way carefully, three silent steps, four, and then a roar of musket fire froze him, flattening his ears. He was very close to the British line, and retreat was the wisest course. But through the trees and the blue haze of gunpowder smoke, the sun picked out the bright red of several motionless soldiers, and despite himself, he turned and squinted. Gunpowder stung his nose, blurred his eyes; he thought he glimpsed red fur between the trees. His heart turned to ice; despite the bright sunlight, he felt wrapped in the darkest clouds. None of those could be John, not his John, not his fox.

He dropped the tail he held and hurried forward. The need for stealth fought the urgency in his heart, the terror in his stomach. The red uniforms grew more distinct as the trees thinned. One of the red coats lay still above a bushy russet tail, whose white tip lay brown and stained with mud.

The word “No” died in his throat as it closed up tight. He ran to the edge of the woods and crouched there, heart pounding. There were a hundred foxes on the British side, after all. But the shade of the fur was close, through the smoke. If only he could see the fallen fox’s face.

*

They had taken the Colonials by surprise, but even though John was sure Nathaniel could not yet be back at the camp, he’d fired above the heads of the scrambling militia as they ducked into the trees. Nathaniel might well be wounded, if Providence were not merciful, but it would not be from his gun.

The sooner this war ended, the sooner he could establish himself as an honest tradesperson of the Empire in Boston. And if Providence did not intend for him to finish his days in Boston, then why bring Nathaniel to his camp, why this chance meeting after so many years?

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Matthew and Edward until the Colonials had fled their camp, and then they held the middle while the Mohawks guarded the woods and made sure they could not be flanked. The Colonials, after the first panicked scramble into the woods, had dug in their claws and were attempting to make a stand from the trees.

Without these reinforcements, the rebels’ Fort Stanwix might not last more than a week, and when it fell, a vital supply route to New York City would go with it. If the Empire could recapture New York, the war might end before the close of the year. John kept that in his mind as he aimed and fired, taking care to choose his targets. Raccoons, weasels, yes; regrettable casualties of war. Whenever his eye landed on a coyote, even though he were sure it was not Nathaniel, he held his fire.

He and the other foxes of the 8th advanced around a small rise, behind another detachment of soldiers, a bright phalanx of red over the blood-stained grass. They had only a split-second warning as the trees sprouted blossoms of blue smoke, immediately followed by the explosive chatter of muskets and the chaos as shot tore the air past their whiskers. In front of them, around them, soldiers broke rank, some running, some falling. John, unhurt in the first salvo, looked for any wounded soldier still on his feet who might need help, but the Colonials shot well at that range; the soldiers on the ground lay silent and motionless, dead or soon to be so. Another explosion of smoke, an assault on his ears and whiskers as thunder and motion surrounded him, and he ran back to the rise with the other survivors.

When they regrouped, they counted five lost. Only then did a voice from beyond the rise groan in pain. Matthew’s? He was not with the panting survivors. They held their breaths, listening and then the Colonial guns spoke their response. The voice was silenced.

“I’ll kill them,” young brown Edward snarled at John’s side.

“Wait here,” John said. “No sense in adding your body to the pile.” Matthew had served as Edward’s mentor. Unlike John and Matthew, the younger fox had not yet seen enough of his comrades die to be used to it.

“Fight on the field with honour!” Edward shouted to the trees.

John reflected that it was not quite sporting to be furious at the Colonials when their Mohawks were doing much the same thing; still, shooting muskets from cover was not the same as hunting with tomahawks through the woods. He allowed Edward to vent his rage, while he kept his eye on the trees to see whether the Colonials would show themselves.

They did, after a short time, but it was to join the orderly retreat their commander had ordered. Edward fired at the retreating shadows, and John let him; better to let the fury burn itself out than to worry about wasting a tuppence worth of gunpowder and shot. He did hold the younger fox back, when Edward would go to the bodies.

“They sometimes leave one behind, especially when they know their retreat has been seen. Wait one half-hour and then we may proceed.”

“If the Mohawks came back, we would soon clear the wood on that side,” Edward said with a scowl, but he waited, tail tip twitching.

John happened to be watching the opposite side of the rise when he heard Edward hiss to one of the other foxes. He turned in time to see a coyote sprint from the underbrush to Matthew’s body and kneel there, over him.

A coyote. There were a hundred of them on the Colonial side. Of course it was just a soldier. But this coyote, this coyote was reaching out to touch the red shoulder of a fallen fox, to move him and look at his face, to lean close and catch his scent.

Ten feet in front of John, Edward raised his musket. John opened his mouth, but his dry tongue could not form the words he needed. Edward’s musket settled on his shoulder.

The coyote hunched over the dead fox and then lifted his head. The smile on his muzzle shone bright as the sun. He began to get to his feet.

Stand down! Stand down! John lurched forward, arm outstretched. Edward’s shoulder was close. “Stand–” he croaked.

The musket’s report shattered John’s ears.

Nathaniel was still smiling as his body jerked backwards and fell. For a moment, John told himself the coyote was only play-acting, that he had heard the shot and would fall down to avoid being shot again. But then spots of red, glistening in the sun, blossomed on his jerkin. And he kept falling, falling, backwards and down.

He’s not dead. He’s not… John forced his body forward, in jerky steps and then fluid strides, and then an all-out run. He sped past the surprised Edward, past the other foxes and redcoats calling, shouting angrily. He leapt over the bodies of his comrades and fell to his knees at the coyote’s side.

Blood, sharp and coppery, filled his nose as he cradled the coyote to him. One of the brown-furred shoulders was torn and bleeding, his chest was soaked with his blood, but John held him close regardless. It was Nathaniel’s scent, Nathaniel’s blood, and then the light aroma of pork grease came to him through the horrible smell of death, and that made it all too real. John held the coyote’s weight against him, trying to trap the warmth in him. “Don’t die,” he whispered. “You stubborn fool of a rebel, don’t you dare die.”

“John,” Nathaniel whispered. “I’m so glad it wasn’t you.”

“I’ll bring you back to our lines. We’ll bandage…” His throat closed off the rest of the words. He struggled out of his coat, the only thing he could think to press to the terrible wound. Distantly, he heard voices that had once been familiar, calling out to him.

“Naught left to bandage. Look at me.” The coyote’s head was turned up, and John touched his nose to Nathaniel’s. The large black nosepad was cool and damp still, but the smell of blood infused even his harsh breaths now. The amber-gold eyes still shone, but their light was fading. “I’ll be waiting for you outside the gates. Don’t you hurry to join me, but…can’t get into Paradise without you.”

The warmth, too, was fading. “You’re not going,” John said. He pulled Nathaniel closer and wrapped his coat around the coyote, pressing it to the ruined chest in an attempt to staunch the flow of blood.

Red shapes moved around the rise toward him, but John’s ears stayed cupped forward, and he heard only the coyote’s soft voice. “Don’t put…this thing on me,” Nathaniel murmured, but he did not fight.

John half-laughed, half-cried. “Colonial, Empire, what matters now?”

“John? One favor?” Nathaniel’s voice had grown softer, hoarser.

“Anything.”

“Tell Selah…yourself. Please.”

“You’ll tell her.” John buried his muzzle between the coyote’s ears and held him. “You’ll tell her, Nathaniel, only stay, stay.”

“Can’t take orders.” The coyote’s voice dropped to a whisper now, but John’s ears caught every word. “From a redcoat.”

“I won’t be a redcoat, then,” John whispered to him. “I’ll be John Martingale, and you’ll be Nathaniel Braxton, and that is all we are.”

Nathaniel smiled, and rested his head against John Martingale’s breast. He made a sound that might have been “yes,” or might have been “nice,” with the last breath left to him.

 

Boston, Massachusetts, September 1777

Selah Braxton thought at first that her husband had returned. He stood in the doorway wearing a dirty white cotton shirt stained with a dark red smear, plain beige breeches, and what looked like permanent tear tracks creased into the fur below his eyes. His fur was brown and nondescript save for the black at the tips of his ears, but the tail dragging behind him next to his traveling bag was too long, and his muzzle was too thin, and then the scent hit her and it was wrong, all wrong. Then he said, “Selah,” and she put a paw to her muzzle.

“John…” He nodded. “You ought not be here.” She looked around the street, but none of the other Bostonians took any notice of the disheveled fox. “Come in, quickly.”

He stepped inside, sloughing dust from his fur, and it struck her how he still walked with dignity, even as tired as he looked. When the door was closed, the coyote braced herself against the wall. “It’s Nathaniel, isn’t it?”

She knew before he nodded, from the way he stared at the floor and would not meet her eyes. A cry escaped her, and the fox turned his muzzle to the wood of the wall. “It was not my bullet, I swear it.”

Nose buried in her paws, she shook her head. “I would never believe that of you.”

“He asked…that I come here.”

Now she lifted her eyes to his, and he could not look away. “You saw him die?”

Unwilling, he nodded once. “We met before the battle.”

Claws clicked on the stairs at the back of the hall. A five-year-old coyote cub peered down at the two of them. “Mama?”

“Go upstairs, Jacob,” she said, putting all the strength into her voice that she could manage. “Mama’ll be up in a moment.”

John stood awkwardly in front of her, his paws clasped together. He met the cub’s eyes, and then the cub walked slowly back upstairs. When he’d gone, Selah asked, “Are you wounded?” When the fox shook his head, she inclined her head. “Did you desert?”

John glanced down to the bag at his side, and stretched out his dust-covered bare forearm. “I am no longer a soldier. I do not know quite what I am.”

She looked at his shoulders hunched inward, the flat ears, the tight curl of his tail, and she reached her arms out and gathered him in.

He stiffened, and then spread his arms to hold her. He smelled a little like Nathaniel, and Selah wondered if John was thinking the same about her.

“Well,” he said, and he was wiping as many tears from his eyes as she was from hers when they parted, “I have delivered my news. I promised I would see to his burial.”

She stared. “You carried his body…”

“I couldn’t allow him a soldier’s death, an unmarked grave, unconsecrated ground. How would he get into…” He coughed and lowered his head. “He is with the horse. I am staying at the inn.”

“You can stay here.” She did not know why she said it, only that after two years alone, the prospect of loneliness stretching through the rest of her life filled her with terror and dread.

“I would not–” John began, and she interrupted.

“We have room. And I would like to hear about him. Or about the war, what his life must have been like. I–I can tell you about how we spent the years after you left.” When he still hesitated, she turned her nose toward the stairs. “Jacob will want to hear, someday…”

“That isn’t my–my story to tell.”

“He has no father, now.” Her voice sharpened. “You owe me at least that much, John Martingale. God brought you back here.”

He raised his head, and the pain in his eyes frightened her. “I made my own way here. I rode at night, along back roads. I stole food…” His paw tightened around the bag he held at his side.

Selah touched his arm. “I am offering you a place to rest. Please, stay a while longer.”

He closed his eyes and lifted his nose. She saw his nostrils flare, and inhaled herself, catching again the small traces of Nathaniel’s scent that would never truly leave this house. Dust drifted from John’s muzzle and ears to the floor. His eyes opened to hers again. “If you are sure…I would like that very much.”

 

Boston, 2012

“So what are we talking here?” The coyote picked up the box lid, tail twitching.

The raccoon bit her lip. She wanted the uniform, badly, wanted to say, Name your price, but she wasn’t authorized. “There are so few examples…the museum definitely has interest, but I will have to consult with the board to get a proper valuation.”

“Oh.” The box lid sagged in the coyote’s arms. “Maybe I can just take it to auction, then. I saw this guy got half a million at an auction for an authentic something or other.”

She smoothed out the uniform with her metal probe. The crackling of paper came to her again, and this time she traced it to one of the pockets. “Most private collectors don’t have the means to properly care for a valuable artifact like this. And they don’t make it available for researchers.”

“Yeah, but they have more money, right?”

“Your ancestor kept this jacket and said it was valuable. Wouldn’t you like to know why?” She exchanged glances with the fox, who rolled his eyes. “The museum could analyze some of these traces, the blood, maybe match it to other local families, trace the ancestor and the soldier it belonged to…”

The coyote just shrugged. “Grandpa’s dead, and I barely know the story. It happened like three hundred years ago, right? I could use the money. My car’s going to shit.”

She hesitated, and then slid her probe into the pocket. “I think there’s something in here. Do you mind if I take it out? I’d at least like to get a picture for the museum.”

He frowned, ears going flat for a moment. “That won’t make it less valuable at auction, will it?”

“I can’t see that it would.” She motioned the fox to move in closer with the camera as she slid the paper free of the pocket.

Bits of the edge crumbled away despite the raccoon’s caution. The paper had been folded into fourths, but across the brown, aged surface, flowery script in faded ink formed the barely legible words “Discharge from,” and “Royal 8th Regiment,” and below that: “Martingale, red fox.”

Silence, while they all three read the words. The camera hummed. Then the coyote made a choked noise and reached out, and the raccoon intercepted his paw with her probe. “Please. You could damage the paper.”

He stared belligerently. “It’s mine.”

“Hey.” The fox spoke, catching both of their attention. “She’s an expert. If she says you could damage it, keep your paws off.”

The coyote glared. “You got a problem with me?”

“No,” the raccoon said quickly. “Please forgive him. He’s just passionate about preserving history. If you want to risk damaging the paper, of course that’s your right.”

She and the fox watched him struggle. Finally, he turned his eyes up to her. “You say the museum could find out about the uniform? Like, whose…whose blood it is?”

Slowly, the raccoon nodded. The coyote gestured to the paper. “And you can read that whole thing?”

“Yes, sir.”

He looked down at the uniform, at the paper, at the brown, cracked letters, and then his gaze dropped to where his bleached-white tail tip curled around his leg. “Let me think about it a minute.”

They packed up while the coyote set the lid back on the box. When the video equipment was secured, the fox turned and stuck out a paw. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “I was out of line.”

“No sweat.” The coyote shook. “Used to it from foxes–they see the tail tip and think I’m an asshole. I’m not makin’ fun of your faith, I promise. It’s just a family thing.”

“It’s okay. I’m not really religious.” The fox tilted his head. “Family thing?”

“My mom, my aunts and uncles…my cousins and me figured great-something-grandpa was big into the Church. You know, one of those ‘white your tail and get into Paradise’ crowd. But that’s dumb. Sorry!” He held out his paws to the fox.

“It’s okay. I know what you mean. The white tip is a reminder that at one time someone made a sacrifice for us and so we’re worthy of Paradise. It’s not a free ticket in.”

“Thought you weren’t religious.” The raccoon nudged him.

“Grandma is. When I stopped going to church she told me I should paint my tail tip black.” The fox scowled. “Like it would make a difference.”

“Yeah, so.” The coyote reached down and ran his tail through his paws. “I was thinking I might let the color grow out now Mom’s gone. Or maybe a nice purple or something, ya think?”

The raccoon favored him with a bright smile. “I think it looks good. You should keep it.”

He smiled back, meeting her eyes, and his expression softened. “Ah, hell,” he said. “I’ll sell it to the museum. I guess Mom would’ve wanted to know. And I can squeeze another year out of my piece-of-shit Chevy.”

“The museum can pay you something.” The raccoon took out her business card and wrote the name and number of the senior acquisitions manager on the back. “Miss Everston will contact you to work out details within the week.”

He held the card. “Thanks,” he said. “For talking me into it.”

The raccoon smiled. “You talked yourself into it. If you want to learn more about history, please come on down to the museum.” She raised a paw. “Take care, and thanks so much for your time, Mister Martingale.”

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