The first in my collection of short stories centered around mythological creatures, The Carnival features a very peculiar sideshow attraction.
There were four dogs chasing a hare over a broad prairie full of yellow grass.
From time to time they would lose sight of their quarry, and would mill about snorting and sneezing in their houndish way, before one would startle the hare from the prickly bush or tall grass clump it’d been hiding in and the chase would start again.
Normally there would be some sort of man or boy associated with these dogs, egging them on, but this group had snuck through a badly-latched fence gate earlier in the day and had been spending their time meandering and peeing on things until they’d run across the hare.
The hare itself was a long-legged thing, moving in a manner more like a gallop than a rabbit’s hop. The ears were really too long to be believed, the eyes wide and brown. It was perhaps less concerned about the dogs than its frenetic running seemed to show, for it stopped on occasion to idly scratch the side of its head with the blunt nails on its back foot.
The lead dog caught up with the hare during one of these times, all floppy ears and slobbery bloodlust, and took a snap at it. The hare dodged left and then did a most unharelike thing: it turned round and reared up to slam the dog forehead to forehead with a solid headbutt.
The dog had not quite been ready for that, and it gave a shrill yelp and pawed at the sore spot.
“Now go on,” said the hare, “get, all of you. I’m done for the day, dammit.”
The dogs did not get, though they did put their tails down and exchanged some doggish looks of concern. The hare reared up menacingly again, and that did it; the dogs were beating it back across the prairie in a cloud of dust.
The hare sat back down and gave itself another scratch. Perhaps what had caused the dog such discomfort were the two very small horns that were protruding just over its eyes, short enough as to nearly be invisible in the hare’s dusty brown fur, but long and sharp enough to cause a nasty poke.
There came a raucous cry, and the hare looked left; nearby, in a large solitary pine tree, there was a jay fluttering in the branches, making a great commotion.
The hare eyed the jay and made as if it was going to move in the opposite direction, but the jay cried, “Miss Jackalope! Miss Jackalope!”
The hare- or rather, the jackalope- slicked her ears back and said something that sounded suspiciously like, “Oh, hell.”
She loped closer to the tree, and the jay hopped down to the lower branches, chirruping prettily now.
“I saw all that,” he said. “Quite a feat, to send those dogs running!”
“If I’d a man’s prongs, I could’ve skewered them,” said the jackalope, in a dissatisfied way. She extended a hind leg and began to lick it.
“Well, you got them away,” said the jay, and fluttered a little lower, seeming anxious to console her. The hare snorted.
“Shouldn’t’ve let them off so easy, if you ask me. Dogs are the worst thing out here. Noisy- ganging up on you-”
“Wouldn’t you think hawks are worse?” interrupted the jay.
“Hawks are stupider than dogs,” the jackalope said. “Like I give a damn about hawks. The last hawk that got his claws in me’s still hopping like a chicken.”
The jay fluffed up a little at this, but seemed to decide to let the matter drop.
“Have you noticed the carnival’s back?” he asked.
“Sure,” said the jackalope, “train came in two days ago, didn’t it? Doesn’t look like it’s got anything worth seeing.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the jay, thrusting his head forward in a conspiratorial manner. “I hear they’ve got something you might be interested in.”
“Doubt it, unless I grow a hankering for slop food and miserable humans.”
“What about miserable jackalopes?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll be if-”
“No, no,” said the jay, “I mean I saw one. A jackalope. They’ve got it in a cage in one of the tents.”
The jackalope twitched her nose twice, then said, “Stuffed, probably.”
“It was alive,” the jay insisted. “I saw it hopping in circles. You wouldn’t find a more downhearted creature.”
“Oh, hell,” grumbled the jackalope, her nose twitching furiously, “even if that is true, what do I care? So some damn fool got himself caged up- well, he’s lucky they didn’t stuff and mount him.”
“But you’re a jackalope,” the jay pointed out.
“That’s right, I am, and it’s a damn sight nicer to be the only one around. No bucks leering, no does scratchin’ dirt at me.”
“It was a buck,” said the jay, “just so you know. It had horns.”
“Course it was a buck- how the hell else would you be able to tell at a distance?” She snorted. “If you’re so torn up over it, why don’t you go do something? ‘Stead of bothering me.”
“It’s not my concern,” said the jay. He cocked his head and fixed her with one bright black eye. “But like I said, the creature looked miserable, so I thought I’d tell the only one around who might care.”
“Oh, go bury a nut,” said the jackalope, turning her back to him.
The jay scolded her in his raspy voice, hopping up higher. “He may well die, then, I suppose!”
The jackalope ignored him, mulishly nibbling at the dry grass, and the jay burst into flight.
“And there’ll be a storm tonight!” he cried, swooping low, and then winged in the direction of the distant treeline.
The hare reared up to watch him go, then looked up at the blue sky through the branches of the tree.
“The hell’s he talking about,” she muttered, “there ain’t a cloud in the sky.”
She shook her head, her long ears staying stiffly erect, and rubbed her paws over her nose. Wind ruffled the endless plain of yellow grass in front of her.
The jackalope stayed by the tree for a time, working her way through what edible greenery there was to be had in the dry soil. She cast occasional surreptitious glances towards the sky, but it stayed clear and sunny.
The tree’s shadow pointed a few degrees east of where it had been by the time she sat up again, her nose working violently.
“Son of a bitch.”
She loped through the grass in the direction that the dogs had gone in, down towards a valley that bristled with pointed roofs.
It was dusk by the time the jackalope reached the town, which was fine by her- it meant she could creep along the white fences in the shadows. Human activity was high, particularly that of young children, which were crowding around and shouting in shrill voices. Nearby, at the corner of a dirt road, a man was using a long stick to light a streetlamp.
The jackalope could tell which direction the carnival was in from the noise and drift of the crowds, but there was no sense in trying to sneak in now with such a fracas going on. The bark of a dog made her ears twitch.
Had anybody glanced at the hedges bordering a row of houses, they would have seen her rangy form creeping underneath. Perhaps somebody did, but she merely looked like a hare, and there were better things to look at now that a carnival was in town.
The jackalope had been to many carnivals, elaborate ones and simple ones, just like she had seen many towns- or rather, one town that went through many different characters. She had seen it when it was just an outpost for cattle drivers, and when it had flushed with wealth from a thin strip of iron ore, and when the mines had played out and it’d been abandoned, and when it had been revived again by the iron tracks cutting through the prairie.
Jackalopes were not the sort of creatures that aged very much- if there was any effect of time on them, it was just that they grew leaner and dustier. This jackalope was as lean and dusty as any jackalope could be, in form as well as wit.
She stopped near the edge of the hedge and peered out of the shadows. Nearby, a man was sitting with his legs dangling over the porch of a tired, creaking house, a bottle of amber liquid in his hand.
The jackalope’s nose twitched.
A child shrieked and came sprinting across the lawn, a firework spitting sparks in one hand. The man slapped his hat down and gave chase, hollering. He dropped his bottle onto the lawn.
The jackalope hopped quickly over and lapped the harsh-tasting fluid up as it spilled out, her nose filling with the potent scent of whisky.
After that she was better able to appreciate the bright lights and the excited shouts of humans were carrying as a golden haze colored her vision. She staggered out across the road and tripped over a large oak root. A few children clustered around her, giggling, and she gazed at the bobbing, colorful balloons they held clutched in their sticky fists. Those she’d never seen before.
She was distracted from deciding how to feel about the balloons when one of the children reach out and tugged one of her ears. Her back foot thumped and she backed up into the oak’s trunk. The children got closer, balloons waving, teeth showing.
Lucky for her a tall man playing an accordion caught their attention just then. He squeezed a jumble of chords out of his breathless instrument and cried, “The fair’s that way, that way,” to get them running.
The jackalope peered at the man with the accordion, feeling a sort of warm, whiskey-flavored gratitude. He put down his accordion on the ground and walked slowly towards her, pulling an object out of his pocket.
“What’s that?” she said, or almost said, but she hadn’t entirely lost her wits. She hoped it was more liquor or at least a bit of tobacco.
Sadly as the man got very close the manner of object was made clear: he flicked open a pocketknife.
The jackalope drew herself up in magnified outrage, and as the man reached for her, she turned around and nailed him with a scratching kick that sent him bleeding and hollering backwards.
It was enough to sober her up slightly, as a crowd started to gather around the unfortunate accordion-player. She took off into the darkness, zigzagging until she found another hedge.
She stayed put until it had gotten very dark, and much quieter, with the streetlamps casting the only light. Even the moon was covered up by clouds now. The carnival smells and sounds had died down, even as the wind blew harder, picking up dust from the empty streets.
It was as good as it was going to get, probably, thought the jackalope, and she crawled back out of the hedge and loped straight down the center of the street, her ears high. There beyond the rows of houses was a field, cut through the center by railroad tracks, where the tents had been set up. They looked a bit lonely now, silent monoliths looming and flapping fabric in the darkness.
Some of the men who worked at the carnival were still awake, it seemed, for there was a bit of light spilling out of some of the stopped train cars, and the scent of liquor drifted out with it. The jackalope’s nose twitched again, but then she shook her head.
She knew that there was usually a tent with animals in it in a carnival, easy enough to identify from the barnyard smell. The big ones would be trapped back in their rolling cages, the little ones tied up. She had never paid them much attention; if there was anything she liked to look at when she went to a carnival, it was the human attractions, particularly the acrobats.
When she came across the smelliest of the tents she paused, for there was a dim light- the glowing end of a pipe. There was a man standing in front of the entrance, blowing smoke, with one hand in his pocket. Guarding? Or merely taking a break from his work? It was hard to say.
The jackalope swung wide around to the back of the tent, nose wrinkling, and scuffed at the dirt under the edge of the canvas until there was room enough for her to squeeze inside.
Inside the tent, there was actually a bit of light- it seemed the man had left a lantern inside, which cast flickering shadows. The jackalope trembled a little, not from the eyeshine of the tiger lying in a cage nearby, but from the thought that the man might come back inside to retrieve the lantern after he had finished his smoke.
She loped warily towards the center of the tent and reared, nose twitching. The tiger shifted slightly at the movement, almost as if it was going to get to its feet, and then lay back with a sigh.
The rest of the menagerie was in similar sorry shape. The jackalope was not impressed. Aside from a drowsy ape and two zebras, there were few creatures that looked far removed from a barnyard. She looked across at a sheep with four horns in a disdainful way; the sheep looked equally displeased, though that might have been more related to the presence of the tiger.
It was then that she saw the other jackalope.
The jay had said it’d been in a cage, so that was what she had been looking for- a small cage, probably on the ground. This was neither on a cage nor on the ground. It was sitting upright on a perch, in a most unnatural position for a hare, somehow clutching the wood with its rear claws. Stuffed, she decided at once, for it was very still. The jay had lied to her.
It was a pity. She took a few creeping steps closer, nose twitching. It looked like it would have made a fine buck; though it was a bit on the small side, it had a pair of pale branching antlers. Not a proghorn, then, not a local ‘lope from this part of the country-
The jackalope sat up again, her wide brown eyes gleaming in the flickering light. She had just noticed two things: one, the stuffed buck had a long, most un-lapine-looking tail, and two, the tail was moving.
The strange buck tilted his head down and rotated his ears towards her, all at once animated, as though he were a marionette. His fur was sleek, almost shiny. He had small ears (by her standards); more like a rabbit’s than a hare’s. His head was also darker than the rest of his body, almost black, and he had a white collar of fur round his neck.
She realized that there was a rope attached to his hind foot, tying him to the perch. That made her put her ears up incredulously.
“You damn fool,” she said, softly, “whyever didn’t you just chew through that?”
The buck turned his head slightly. The jackalope gave a snort and loped closer.
“Are you scared or are you-”
The buck leaned back, the perch rocked, and then he jumped. The jackalope flung herself sideways in alarm, but the buck did not land on the ground as she had anticipated. He was a dark flurry against the fabric of the tent above her, whirling around and around at the end of his rope. The jackalope didn’t understand what she was looking at until something soft drifted down and landed on her nose: a little feather.
The buck lit back down onto the perch again, folding his- his wings, grasping with his rear paws, which seemed to have longer and sharper claws than the jackalope was accustomed to. His long, furry tail- like a squirrel’s- curled upwards as he looked at her.
The jackalope wondered at the potency at the whiskey she had gotten ahold of earlier; she was not sure whether she wanted to swear off the stuff for good or steal twenty more flasks.
“Ah, ah,” she said, and rubbed her face vigorously with her forepaws, “what the hell are you?”
The buck tilted his head the other way, his ears sticking out on either side of those impressive horns. In this light she saw the reason he had not chewed through the rope: rather than proper chiseling incisors, this buck had a pair of pointed canines protruding over his bottom lip.
“Yes,” the jackalope said to herself, “I’ve had enough of the carnival,” and she turned straight around and headed for the place where she’d dug under the tent wall. Loud flapping behind her made her stop and flinch; her gut did not like shadows falling over her.
She looked back at the buck and saw that he had jerked to the end of his rope, trying to fly towards her; all at once his strength seemed to fail and he swung downwards, hanging by his foot, and smacked against the bottom of the perch.
The jackalope flinched for him; he’d gone completely still and was just dangling there, rotating slowly. With his wingtips dragging against the ground he looked like a trussed up game bird.
The jackalope rubbed at the itchy spot around one of her small horns for a moment, then heaved a long sigh. She loped back over to the dangling buck.
“Easy now, you freak of nature,” she told him, as he flapped weakly, spinning himself faster. “Hold still.”
She did not know whether or not he understood her, but he did stop moving. It might have been from sheer exhaustion. The poor thing was gaunt, light as a feather when she pushed up against him. No wonder he could swing around so easily. She steadied him by putting her forepaws over that peculiar tail so she could get to chewing on that rope. Lucky for him her limbs were so much longer than his- whatever lapine bits he had in him were definitely rabbit and not hare.
The rope was nothing to her. In twenty seconds the last fibers parted and she fell on top of the strange buck as he landed on the ground in a heap.
The jackalope kicked at the air a moment and then rolled off of him, shaking a hind leg which had been jabbed with one of his prongs. He was lying still, blinking slowly- oh, excellent, he had red eyes. She turned around again, her mind made up to leave, but in another second she was back and prodding at him with her forepaws.
“Come on, get up, this is your shot, beaky.” (That was a bad nickname, the one thing he didn’t have was a beak, but she was too frazzled to be more creative.) “Get out of here before that man comes back.”
The buck made a thin sound, a bad sound for a rabbit to make. The sound of shifting hay came from the tiger’s cage, and the jackalope felt the discomfort of its eyes on her back. She caught one of the buck’s golden feathers in her mouth and tugged hard.
This got the buck up onto his feet, though his eyes were dull and he trembled a little. The jackalope went behind him to give him a good poke in the rear. He started hopping slowly forwards. The pliant way he behaved made the jackalope rather uncomfortable, but hell, there was nothing comforting about anything in this situation.
She herded him over her little hole under the side of the tent, where he promptly stopped and wouldn’t move.
“What is it now?” she said aloud, as much good as that would do. Her temper was really starting to go south, and she was ready to start a scuffle. She loped up to the hole and stamped her back foot with a loud curse that made one of the zebras jerk its head up.
She’d forgotten about the buck’s damned horns; there was no way for him to squeeze through with them sticking up like that. She could dig deeper or rip through the canvas, but-
The smell of smoke was fading, and she heard coughing from outside the tent. The man had finished his pipe.
The jackalope let out a few more choice words, but more softly, and used her shoulder to shove the buck forward. He hopped up in a fluttering panic, flying up and beating his wings against the tiger’s cage, and now the tiger did get up and used a heavy paw to slap at the other side of the bars.
“Son of a-!” The jackalope sprang up and caught her teeth into the end of his fluffy tail, sending them both tumbling backwards in the dirt. The tiger gave a little groan.
“I’m coming,” said the voice of the man from outside, perhaps thinking that the tiger was producing the noise for him. The jackalope kicked the dazed buck underneath its wheeled cage and crawled beside him.
“Don’t you make a sound,” she hissed, and he blinked his red eyes.
The tent flap opened, sending the smell of smoke and fresh air wafting in, and the man’s feet walked over towards the tiger’s cage. He set a bucket down that made the jackalope recoil; it smelled like sour meat and blood.
“Hungry, pussycat?” said the man, and the cage creaked slightly as the tiger paced overhead. The jackalope backed up a bit more, keeping her ears flattened, and then her nose twitched. Something smelled mildly of alcohol.
The buck started to turn around, his horns making a scraping noise where they dragged against the bottom of the cage, and she kicked him to make him stop. He looked at her and quivered. The jackalope followed his gaze and realized they were nearly eye-to-eye with the ape that was caged beside the tiger. It was crouching down, peering at them with dark eyes. Drool hung from its protruding lower lip and its breath bore an overpowering reek of whiskey. The jackalope thought she might be getting a second drink just from the fumes.
The ape stuck one of its long hands through the bars, reaching with wrinkled brown fingers for the buck’s tail. The jackalope reacted rather too quickly- she leaned forward and gave his hand a sharp nip with her incisors.
The ape tore away from her and screeched, clutching its hand and banging its feet against the bars, the tiger gave a thunderous growl, and the zebras jerked their heads back and made yowk-yowk noises.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Bonzo?!” demanded the man, and then gave a wordless yell, because the buck had burst from underneath the tiger’s cage and was flying all around the top of the tent.
The man swore and grabbed for his tail, and the jackalope zigzagged out from underneath the tiger’s cage and around his feet, making him stumble. She bounded over to where the lantern was sitting on the ground and blew out the light.
They were all plunged into very loud darkness, as all of the animals proceeded to get more upset, and the man stumbled around and yelled and banged into things. The jackalope held stock-still for a moment, her ears raised, until she heard the beating of wings close to her head.
“Follow me,” she hissed, and then made a beeline for the smell of fresh air. The wings went on flapping and there was no way to confirm if he had any idea what she wanted him to do, but there was also no way she was staying in that tent a moment longer.
She sprang out of the tent flap and rolled onto sweet-smelling grass, wet with moisture from the damp night air. The ruckus continued, more muffled, in the tent behind her.
The jackalope sat up and shook the wetness from her ears. Moonlight was filtering in beams through the ragged cloud cover, and the sky gave an ominous rumble. It felt as if it were about to rain; that stupid jay had been right, drat him.
She risked a glance back towards the tent and then got smacked in the head as the buck came flying out, every feather ruffled.
“What the- get off!” She shoved him off and came out paws up, ready to scuffle. The buck merely lay on his side, panting, his eyes huge. This made her back off in alarm.
“Calm down. You wanna bust your heart, coney?” She hopped over him and cocked an ear towards the tent. It seemed to still be satisfyingly filled with ape-hoots and tiger-growls and man-shouts.
“Look, you’re out,” she said, looking down at the buck again. His red eye stared back up at her. “So now you can go where you want. Me, I’m done; that’s enough man-baiting for a night. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to come after me and thank me.”
That line delivered, she turned around and started hopping though the grass. A thin rabbit sound made her pause.
“I don’t want to be caught in this storm, and I bet you don’t either,” she said, without looking back. “So I suggest you find somewhere to-”
His nose touched her haunch, and she jumped straight up into the air and came down hissing.
“I said don’t come after me, you-”
He cringed, and she checked herself, forepaw raised for a scratch. It really would be a hell of a mean thing to do to tussle with him; he was littler than her and worn out. She relaxed herself with some effort.
“What do you want? Fly off!”
The buck blinked at her, his nose twitching and his ears flattened. His wings, rumpled as they were, gave off a golden sheen in the moonlight, a glow that reminded the jackalope of heady liquor before she caught herself.
“I don’t intend to sit here all-”
The tent flap burst open, and they both flattened into the grass. The man stumbled out, a bruise on one cheek and expression like murder on his face. He saw them immediately.
He lunged and the jackalope shot off, tearing through the grass back towards the town. The buck followed her, bounding at a slower speed until he caught up with her under a rosebush.
“Hop off,” said the jackalope, as she caught her breath- the man, relit lantern in his hand, was stumbling after them.
The buck looked at her, then sprang out of the bush, back towards the man and then through his legs. The man twisted around and half-fell in pursuit.
“Wrong way,” gasped out the jackalope, and then she dashed after him, lapping around the man again so he tripped for real. She caught up easily with the buck, who had slowed to a creep beside a particular boxcar.
“What the hell are you trying to do?” whispered the jackalope, crawling next to him, and he gave her a look she thought was sharp. The door to the boxcar was cracked open and light and soft human conversation was spilling out.
The jackalope felt she’d been told to shut up, which annoyed her, but also intrigued her, what with the intensity in the way the buck had his ears focused on the boxcar. He was up to something, for sure, and a bit of the dusty sense of ‘lope-mischief was stirring in her for the first time in a long while.
The sky rumbled again, more forebodingly, but the storm had not yet broken. A flash of lightning illuminated the distant mountains and the man gasping and stumbling towards them in the dark.
The jackalope froze in fear, but it seemed the man hadn’t seen them. He got his muddy, battered self up to the boxcar and shoved the door open.
“The damn wolp- wolper- the damn rabbit thing got out!”
There was a clatter, as if a chair had been overturned.
“You say the wolpertinger’s got out? How?” cried someone.
“You said it couldn’t get through the rope!” yelled a third voice.
“It didn’t!” snapped the bruised man. “I swear to God, a hare got in there and chewed through it.”
“You sayin’ the wolpertinger called a friend?” said the third voice, sounding amused. The other one was less so.
“I’m gonna stripe you raw for this, boy. You know how much that thing cost?”
“You got more!” said the bruised man, sounding sulky.
The other two started shouting at once. The jackalope shook her head.
“What morons,” she muttered. The buck looked at her and tilted his head.
“You too,” she added “You done here? Can we go?”
The buck blinked, then lowered his head and rammed her with his horns.
The jackalope squealed with surprise and tumbled backwards, right into the line of light emanating from the boxcar door. The bruised man turned and started hollering.
“There it is! I told you there was a hare!”
He gave chase, and two other men jumped out of the boxcar, whooping, and the jackalope dashed through the grass with black murder in her heart. The buck was rearing up, watching her go; none of the men had noticed him in their excitement.
She was going to have to fix him for that; and with that thought in mind she slowed down, letting the men get a bit closer, and then hung a hard left and dashed straight into the animal tent. Her old friend the tiger jumped to its feet at the sight of her- it looked like the poor thing had never gotten fed after all.
She had no time to play with the cat, though. The men seemed to be organizing themselves outside- “You stay here, and grab it if it runs out the entrance,” one was saying. “We’ll go in and chase it out.”
The jackalope left them to it and squeezed out through the little hole she’d dug earlier.
She returned to the boxcar and found that the buck had disappeared, though not far, as the scuffling noises coming from within the boxcar told her. She drew her ears back and leapt inside.
The interior of the boxcar was hazy with smoke coming from a lit pipe somebody had left unattended. There were two chairs positioned around a large crate, though one chair had fallen on its side. The pipe and two hands of playing cards were scattered on the crate.
A scratching noise made her focus her ears. The buck was on the other side of the crate, pulling something out with his teeth. It looked like a burlap sack.
Her anger was dwindling away now, as she’d come to no harm from the buck’s assault and it had helped her to pull off a fine prank on the men to boot. Clearly he hadn’t done it out of spite, but rather because he wanted something out of that sack. The jackalope decided to pay him no mind and hopped onto the chair and from there onto the crate. She splayed herself out over the playing cards and took a long drag from the pipe.
The buck paused and looked up at her. He seemed rather tense. The jackalope pressed her lips together and then blew a thin stream of smoke at him between her front teeth. He sneezed and rubbed his face with his forepaws.
The jackalope stretched out on her side and took another pull on the pipe, feeling the pleasurable suffusion of tobacco. The buck thumped on the side of the crate and she put her chin over the edge, her ears tilting down.
“What is it?”
The buck touched his nose to the sack and looked up at her.
“Why don’t you just say something?” she drawled, flicking a card at him. He dodged out of the way as it fell to the floor. Again he nosed the sack, and then opened his mouth, showing his pointed canines to her.
She went stiff a moment, but it didn’t seem to be a threat, but an explanation. He would have difficulty tearing open the sack and he wanted her to do it with her superior teeth. The jackalope rolled to her stomach and let her long forepaws dangle over the edge of the crate.
“What’s in there, coney?”
The buck took a bit of the fabric in his mouth and tugged it upwards in her direction, his red eyes beseeching. She noticed that there was a faint, peculiar smell coming from the sack; a mix of something unknown and- something vaguely bad. Perhaps something that was starting to decay. She twitched her nose a few times.
The buck made a soft sound, an almost birdlike twitter, and then jumped sideways when the jackalope thumped to the floor beside him.
“Give me room,” she said, edging him out of the way, and tore through the coarse material with her incisors.
At once the buck was shoving her, most ungratefully, and thrusting his nose into the hole she’d made. When he drew away he had something in his mouth. A very little something.
“Son of a bitch,” said the jackalope, as it was all she could think of at the moment. “Kittens?”
The buck carefully set down the little creature, which resembled nothing more than a trembling baby rabbit- aside from the underdeveloped looking wing stubs it kept spread out for balance.
“They aren’t yours,” said the jackalope, disbelieving, as the buck pulled one, two, three more kittens out of the sack. They were all blinking and shivering, and huddled together where he set them down, putting their short wings over one another.
She was less surprised about there being kittens than the fact that the buck was concerned for them, honestly; most of the bucks she’d ever known couldn’t give a damn about kittens. Rutting fools. Still, this buck was no jackalope, and hell, even she’d want to rescue the critters, poor things…
The buck pulled a fifth kitten out of the bag and laid it down; it was dead.
“Oh, damn,” said the jackalope, backing up a step. “Damn… those bastards! I oughta let that tiger out and-”
She stopped herself. The live kittens were staring at her with wide eyes; they’d all gone frozen. It’d be no good to scare them any more; like as not that was the reason their sibling had died.
“Better get them moving,” she told the buck, keeping her voice soft. “Sorry about the kid, but those men are coming back sooner or later.”
As usual she had no real inkling of whether or not he understood her or he had come to the idea on his own, but soon enough he turned away from the dead kitten and gently started herding the others forward towards the open door. The jackalope hopped past them and down onto the wet grass.
She could hear the men moving about in the darkness, but they still seemed to be off near the tents, hunting for a hare that had vanished. If it’d been just her and the buck she’d have no worries- the men would still be bumbling about by the time they made their escape- but those kittens weren’t moving anywhere fast. She turned back around to face the buck, who’d herded his small flock right to the edge of the boxcar.
“Listen,” she said, rearing to put one paw on the edge. “You get them down and hide them in the grass. I’ll start running ’em one by one to an old bolt-hole I know. You get what I’m saying?”
The buck tilted his head. She reached out and took one of the kittens, hoping he’d get the idea, and turned and dashed off through the grass.
The little kitten was light as anything- light as a feather, even, to use a tired expression. She could feel how rapidly its heart was beating. No use trying to console it when it was so petrified, and anyway, her mouth was full, so she just ran as fast as she could, zigzagging through the field, around the train and over the railroad tracks, under a fence, past piles and piles of slippery cowpats, until finally she reached her destination: a lone pine tree, just like the one the jay had landed in.
There was an old hole under one of its roots- might have been a burrowing owl or a ground squirrel, but it had been deserted since the cows came. Still, she stuck her head in and gave it a good sniff before depositing the kitten inside.
“Don’t you dare move,” she said. “A cow’ll squish you, and if he doesn’t I will.”
Then she tore off back towards the railroad tracks and the dark field.
She found the buck and his gaggle of chicks creeping along under the train, moving slowly. The buck greeted her with a twittering noise she suspected was angry, but she had no time for him. She took a second kitten and dashed off.
This went in the hole beside the first once she got there, and she loped some distance away from the tree before she stopped to catch her breath. No good to have her scent lingering on the soil outside of it for some mutt or coon or weasel to sniff out.
Speaking of mutts, her left ear turned back towards the field- she could hear a dog barking there.
The jackalope shook off her exhaustion in a split second and dashed back to the train, dewdrops flying off of blades of grass as she streaked through them.
On the other side of the train she could see a dog’s paws pacing and hear his eager, hungry snuffling. The men were egging him on, slapping their knees. She could not see the buck or his kittens- they must have been squatting together somewhere out of sight. But that dog looked determined; somebody was going to have to draw him off.
She allowed herself a moment to feel a little exhausted, and more than a little irritated at how the night was going.
The dog bayed as she flew out from under the train, knocking right up against his chin. The men hollered and clapped as she zigzagged, the dog in hot pursuit. But no dog was fast enough to catch her, that was for damn sure. She’d lead him on a good romp before-
There was a tremendous BANG! and the jackalope went flying nose over tail, a cleaving pain in her haunch, the smell of blood filling her nostrils.
Ah, thought the jackalope. She’d forgotten to consider whether or not the men would have guns. Foolish of her.
Then the dog was on her.
He had his teeth in her back and he shook her from side to side. Her head spun and her neck ached; her spine seemed to grind from the force of the dog’s jaws. Her back leg hurt like hell. And she could distantly hear the men shouting and congratulating one another. That pissed her off.
She turned round and gave the dog a ripping blow with a forepaw. The dog yelped and dropped her, muzzle bleeding in a streak of red, bright from the gleam of the faint moonlight. The sky rumbled again. The jackalope leapt up and attacked the dog, biting kicking scratching snarling…
The dog’s mouth closed around her, once, twice, thrice, but hell if she’d lose this fight- she’d have his damn eyes first-
A black shadow blotted out the sky a moment and she did what hares did: she froze.Then the dog yelped- the buck had dropped from the sky onto his back, and he now dug his long canines into the dog’s neck.
The dog screamed. A gun banged again, and the buck jumped down, his rear claws raking as he did. The dog, bleeding and severely thrashed, went running for it, back into the disapproving shouts of his masters.
The buck came over to her, where she lay in the bloodied grass, and sniffed her.
“I thought you were a damn owl,” she managed to say. “Don’t ever do that again.”
The buck nosed her cheek lightly, then bit her on the neck. Well, that was rude, but she had no strength to fight him off, and anyway he was biting pretty gently, and seemed to be dragging her backwards over the grass. She could hear the sound of the men yelling and carrying on dimly in the background; it sounded like two of them had gotten into a fistfight. Maybe they’d noticed the empty sack.
That was the last thing she thought for a whole piece of time, because unconsciousness hit her hard and fast. That was all right. Her leg hurt less.
She was not pleased at all, in fact, when she felt bright sunlight lancing against her eyelids, tugging her painfully out of her deep sleep. There also seemed to be a lot of tweeting and peeping going on, all right in her ears.
“Damn birds,” she muttered, rolling over, or trying to- and then she groaned when it made every part of her body ache. Something soft touched her on the nose. She blearily forced her eyes open.
A little kitten had been sniffing her, and jumped back when she looked at him. He peeped like a little chick, flaring his wings.
“Pathetic,” muttered the jackalope, as that was how the action looked. Another kitten hopped around and nestled next to her sibling, and they both tilted their heads at her.
“I think they like you,” said someone, and for a split second she got all tensed up because she thought the buck was talking.
But no- when she managed to raise her head she saw that damn jay perching low in the branches of the pine tree. And if she was not mistaken, that large burry object moving to her left was a cow. They were camped out right in the middle of the cow field.
“This was a good hiding place,” said the jay. “Even with the blood you left behind, they’ll never let dogs in here. Not around the cows. And the rain helped, too.”
The jackalope retained enough presence of mind to give a little snort. He said it like she’d been bleeding on purpose.
“Where’s that good-for-nothing buck?”
“He’s here,” said the jay, sounding surprised. The jackalope raised her head and looked every which way on the ground before turning her eyes back upwards. There he was- the buck was perching on one of the lower branches, his wings slightly flared, golden feathers catching the sunlight. In the daylight she could see that his head was not actually black, like she’d thought, but dark blue. The realization made her snort again, because who ever heard of a blue-headed rabbit?
He saw her looking and stretched them, turning his head to preen himself a little; she was compelled to give her third snort in a row.
“Do you think your leg will recover?” asked the jay, cocking his head. “It looks as though you were shot.”
“Thank you, didn’t notice that.” The jackalope shook her ears, then tried to flex her stiff leg. It flared up in pain and she gave a stuttering whine.
Now all the kittens were staring at her, and their father too.
“You sound as though you’re in pain,” the jay observed.
“Let me tell you something,” said the jackalope. “If I end up with a limp because of this, it’ll be your fault, and I’m gonna find you and kick your tiny bird brains out.”
The jay fluttered up a few branches higher in alarm. “Why is it my fault?”
“Because you were the one who sent me to find this messed-up coney, dammit. He’s not even a jackalope!”
“Yes,” admitted the jay, “on closer inspection, there are some differences.”
“I changed my mind,” said the jackalope. “I ain’t even gonna wait to see if I have a limp. Soon as I get the chance, you’re an ex-bird.”
“That is really uncalled for,” said the jay, puffing up, and lit from the branch and flew away, low over the backs of the grazing cows.
“Serve you right,” said the jackalope, and laid her head back down again. She felt a thousand years old; every part of her ached. But it was the thing about jackalopes that they tended to live if they didn’t die right off, as annoying and arduous as recovery would be.
A dark shadow passed over her and the buck landed on the ground next to her back. His kittens clustered around him at once, peeping; one ran over the jackalope’s side and made her twitch. The little claws prickled in her fur.
The buck gave their heads a few licks, then gave the jackalope a few licks too, ignoring her growling and flinching. Then he flopped against her back with a sigh, his kittens nestling under his wing.
The jackalope felt her back heating up like sun-warmed metal at his presence, and tried to squirm away, but squirming hurt all her sore parts too much. This was a problem. A real problem, she realized. She wasn’t going to be able to move much over the next few weeks while her wounds healed, and in that time she could bet that the buck and his gaggle of chicks were going to be hovering around like fluffy vultures on a corpse. There would be no getting away from them.
A cow mooed, the jay called, and somewhere in the distance, a lone dog howled. The jackalope sighed and went back to sleep.
Hell, there were worse things than being stuck with a whole damn carnival.