by Lena Austin
cover art by Bryan Keller
Series: Coyotes of Yellowstone
Blurb:When Dr. Lee Porter returns to his old family homestead for some much-needed R&R from the fugue states that have plagued him and ruined his career as a professor of geology, he finds a sick feral man in the barn one cold night, and nurses him back to health. The attraction once Will recovers is mutual, but Will is more feral than Lee thinks.
Will loves his new packmate, even if the poor human can't grasp what being a pack member means. Then, when Will witnesses what really happens during one of Lee's fugues, he knows it's much worse than Lee thinks. He's shifter sick, and must embrace his heritage as a shifter of an unknown type, and learn to live as a Wild Thing. Or he will die... possibly in the jaws of his lover.
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The coyote thrashed in the dirt, the infection raging through his body. He no longer knew or cared about anything but the heat of the fever alternately boiling him alive or freezing the marrow of his bones. His vision narrowed to a single focus -- crawl away to die, somewhere far from his beloved pack. It was the last bit of love he could give his pack-mates while they were out hunting, following the new Pack Leader who'd already given them so much.
Will. His name was Will. It meant resolve and determination. Yes, that was what he had. Throughout the nightmares cause by his fever, Will crawled away, one paw in front of the other. He was surprised when the sun rose, and for a time he slept in the shade, wishing he remembered why he needed to leave. All he knew was the burning in his body, and the pain of the wound that had swollen on his thigh.
Somewhere in the middle of his dreams, the sun set again, and the cool night brought him no relief. Left with no choice but to keep breathing, he only remembered the imperative to go as far from the pack as he could crawl before he died. Since he hadn't died yet, he kept putting one paw in front of the other before dragging his body or actually managing a few minutes of a staggering run. Time had no meaning, only the bright light of the sun followed by the blind darkness of night.
Finally, his nose hit something that smelled both different and familiar. It was a pillar of wood that was not a tree, but something called "fence." Vaguely, he remembered fences. His fevered brain recalled the taste of flesh from animals that had never run free, but the thought of meat only brought him to the awareness of thirst and a wish to find some of the special grass that made a coyote throw up in hopes of feeling better. He could smell water, and it wasn't far.
By the time he shivered in the darkness of night once more, he'd found another wooden thing that held water, dripping from an odd protrusion rising from the ground. "Monkey things," someone he'd known had once said with a growl of contempt. He couldn't recall anything more. No matter. He fought to lift the front part of his body over the edge of the thing that held the water, and found it sweet to drink. Replete, Will lay for a moment beside the monkey thing that held water.
He could have sworn he felt every drop of the water spreading out, replenishing some deep need in the meat of his body. More would be needed, but not now. In fact, he was sure he would live, despite a sincere wish not to do so anymore. The darkness of death was more welcoming than the gloom of loneliness. Will was tired of loneliness.
"Hide in the shadows of the monkey place!" That insistent voice ordered him from the past he couldn't see clearly, and he followed the order blindly. He saw a hole, leading into darkness, that smelled like the delicious meat animals he'd eaten once. He didn't want any right now, and the smell was old. No matter. It was a dark place to hide. He took the offer of shelter.
A loud bang of wood on wood awakened Will from his half-nightmare sleep. Bright light flooded the man-place, but the little stall with straw where Will hid remained dark. He was surprised to find himself in human form. After all, he vaguely remembered crawling in the man-place as a coyote. Finding the straw and dark corner at all had been more luck than skill.
Will wished he had the energy and concentration to change back to coyote. Something -- probably a human -- moved around the structure. The steps were slow and cautious, with frequent pauses. However, the human's breathing was casual and calm. He was not hunting with bang sticks that made noise and caused death.
Will fought the urge to sleep and the deep lethargy that made thinking so difficult. He was no young pup. He remembered walking among humans. He'd even helped men for coins and papers to use to buy food. Some humans had been kindly when he had been in need. Perhaps...
The footsteps drew gradually closer until a handsome human male with night-dark curls and pale, sand-colored skin approached. His gaze swung around to follow a bright light on the end of a thick, shiny stick. The human's teeth were bared.
Will shivered before he remembered humans bared teeth instead of making happy tails, since they didn't have tails to express their feelings. The light found him and Will winced against the bright glare. He made no attempt to move, since he doubted he could manage more than a feeble thrash from where he lay on his side. He would live, but he was still too weak to move.
The human's eyes widened, but with the light blinding him, Will couldn't discern what color they were. Human eyes had many colors, like the plants in the Meadows, the sky, and the many colors of earth and rocks. Sometimes, they were even earth-colored, like coyotes and other proper animals, proving the existence of a connection to all creatures. Will had always liked to think it was true.
They stared at one another, each thinking their own thoughts. Finally, Will put his head back in the straw, too sick to care. Maybe a bang stick would be better than the pain of his wound and the sickness. He just hoped it was as quick as they said.
"Holy shit!" The human's gaze fell on Will's swollen thigh. "That's a bad infection! Hang on!" He turned and ran out.
Hang on? What was he to hang on to? Or with? Will shut his eyes. Vaguely, he heard more sounds. One he identified easily -- a car door. He liked cars. Riding in cars, faster than he could run, with his head out the window, made him have happy tails.
Running feet thumped on the floor of the man place. The human came back. Maybe with the stick.
Will opened one eye in time to see the human drop a red and white box beside the straw where Will lay. No bang stick? Perversely, Will was disappointed.
The man touched a shiny thing, and the box opened into two parts. A pungent smell emanated from the box. The human rummaged in the box and found a round thing that rattled like a snake.
Will recoiled, in case the snake came out of the tiny round thing. He did not want to die like that, with a bite that made one sicker. That was a bad death. He had had enough of being sick.
"Easy there, pal. Geez, your skin is burning up!" The human put a hand on Will's arm, but he took the hand away and shook it, as if he were in pain. He opened the round container and took out two tiny white things, like little stars or perhaps candy. He presented them to Will in his palm.
Will had liked candy, so he eagerly accepted the gift. Bitterness exploded on Will's tongue. He swallowed crumbs and shut his eyes tightly. His jaw dropped, and his face screwed up.
The human chuckled and patted Will's arm. "Sorry, pal. I don't have any water except in the trough outside the barn. The antibiotics you took will help, I promise. This field kit contains just about anything I need out there when working."
Pal. Twice the human had called him this. Pal was another word for friend. The human was willing to sniff noses with Will? How wonderful! Will returned the kindness with his best attempt at a human smile.
"My name is Lee." The human stuck out his hand. "What's yours?"
Will frowned and tried to remember what the gesture meant. He lifted his hand in front of his own body. "Will. Name is Will."
The human grabbed his hand and moved it up and down before releasing it. "Nice to meet you, Will. Can you tell me how you've gotten in my barn naked and sick?"
How to answer? Will didn't have words for all of the question. He could say some, but he was out of practice. He'd forgotten so many words. "No clothes. Burned. Sick. Wanted to die alone."
Again, Lee patted Will's arm. "You're not going to die. I'm sorry you're homeless because your place burned. They say a lot of folks choose to live as a wild thing after that."
All Will could manage was a nod. He couldn't fight the tired feeling much longer. For the first time in many years, he had a friend to sniff noses -- or the human equivalent -- with him. Maybe living wouldn't be so bad, after all.
Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass...
it's about learning to dance in the rain. Lena Austin
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