Nina gave the horse another kick and trained the pistol on the tail of the nearest coyote. She took the shot and muttered a curse under her breath when all that resulted was a puff of disturbed sand a full yard behind the canine. Why hadn’t she brought the shotgun?
Still, she was lucky there were only three of the damn devil-dogs. They were big for coyotes, probably interbred with wolves like the ones she had seen up north. If there had been a pack of decent number, and if they’d been hungry, they might have been desperate enough to rush the horse. And shotgun or no, she could only shoot them one at a time. Nina let go of the reins and reached for the next pistol cartridge, whispering a silent prayer that there weren’t more of these godforsaken beasts nearby.
She drew the cartridge from her belt and slapped it into place in less than a second, not taking her eyes off the trio of hell-hounds. In the distance, the western sun flirted with the tops of the buttes, half-obscured by haze and dust. How long had it been since she’d left, she wondered, and how far away were Jakob and Stina? Would the gunfire have alerted them, or were they too far off now?
Up ahead two of the dogs had diverged, their apple-sized brains evidently having deduced that she couldn’t follow more than one of them. She raised the pistol again, fired again, missed again, and cursed again.
Before she could replace the cartridge, she caught sight of something between her and the horizon, a smudge of grey against the brown of the darkening desert. It was Stina, mounted atop Chess, her black-and-white gelding nearly twice the young girl’s age. She was approaching, though at what rate Nina couldn’t be sure. She returned her attention to the dog, still fleeing her as fast as its legs could carry it. If this were a wild dog of normal size she would have run it down long ago, but these were coywolves for sure. They should have expected that; they had carried off three of the Mykals’ goats, after all.
Ten yards away the tide turned in Nina’s favor. The earth became looser, coarser sand interspersed with pebbles. The dog slowed as it began to kick up small rocks, and the ten-yard distance began quickly to close. She could now see the distinctive shape of the coywolf’s ears. More wolf than coyote, she figured, probably close to seventy pounds. He—it was a male—looked back at her over his shoulder. The look of hopeless terror is the same in the eyes of every species. Without pity, she replaced the cartridge, lifted the gun, and fired in one smooth movement. This time she didn’t miss.
She yanked the horse to a stop, but not before the mare had trampled the dog’s body. It was finished, no doubt. She dismounted. To the west she saw Stina, still a few hundred yards away but now nearing at a full gallop. Nina raised her arms above her head and signed, in the rudimentary language of the Sierra territories, “I found them.” She added quickly: “Got one of them.”
She turned in the direction of the dog’s body. On second thought, she slipped her fingers through the harness. If the other two dogs came back, she wasn’t sure the horse wouldn’t bolt. Together with the mare she walked towards it, but something was wrong.
Where she should have seen a pulp of bone and blood there was something else. Not blood, or at least not any kind of blood Nina had ever seen. In its place there was a green fluid so saturated in color she wondered if it would glow in the dark. She released the harness and knelt down. Her hands went to the wound at the dog’s neck. Her fingers probed at its edges, and before long she had dug into the flesh—or, rather, what should have been flesh. Beneath the skin there was only more green, more or less the same density as muscle where the bullet had not penetrated, but there were no striations, no bone, no tendon. Only green. The same homogeneous green all the way through.
She didn’t know how long she had knelt there like an idiot, her mouth gaping, before Stina gave a “Whoop” to signal she was within earshot. Nina stood up finally, and absentmindedly grabbed the harness again. Stina slowed her horse as she approached.
“How many were there?” she asked.
Nina didn’t process the question. She looked down again. “I don’t know what this is,” she signed. Then, realizing her mistake, she spoke the words.
Stina dismounted too. “How many were there?” she asked again. Always so practical.
Stina approached the dog herself. “They said they saw at least half a dozen out at the Mykals ranch.”
Nina only nodded in reply.
“Coywolf,” said Stina. “It must have been sick. You didn’t touch it, did—“ She looked up and saw the green on Nina’s hands. She sighed and shook her head. Fifteen years old, Nina thought, and she still just about had more common sense than every adult in town put together.
“If it were anything else, I’d bury it,” Stina said. “But it’s a coywolf, and they’re the only scavengers we have to worry about. They won’t cannibalize unle—“
Nina’s horse let out a frightened whinny and reared as the two women turned. Stina grabbed her six-shooter from her holster, blacksmith-made, old-style, a beautiful machine. She let off two shots in quick succession before Nina had even seen it: another of the coywolves, buried fang-deep in the mare’s thigh. It went limp and fell.
“Damn it,” Stina said, running up to the horse. Nina was barely a step behind her. Blood streamed from the mare’s leg on both sides. “She’s hurt, but not too bad. We should rest, let it scab over.” She grabbed a pair of handgun rounds from the pouch at her side as she spoke. “But Nina, if these things are sick—“ A pair of gunshots sounded from the east and Nina’s heart kicked into overdrive again. Stina slammed the now-full drum of her revolver closed and cocked the hammer.
It was Jakob, about twenty yards away, a third dog dead at his horse’s feet.
“It was coming for us,” Nina stammered. “It was actually charging us.”
Jakob shouted, “What did y’all do to piss these guys off?” He dismounted, left his horse behind, and approached the two women at a slight jog. “And what the hell’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know,” Nina said. She signed it too, for emphasis.
“Well, whatever it was, we should probably hightail it out of here before we’re looking at a stampede of the little mongrel bastards.” He saw Stina’s hand clutched tight to the mare’s thigh, holding the now blood-soaked rag she had made from her leggings.
“We’re going to let it rest,” she said. “An hour. No more.” Her tone told him there was no room for argument. “Get your horse and get your ammo. We’ll build a fire. And we’ll be ready if more come.”
As Jakob grabbed his pack from his horse’s side and the two ambled over slowly, Nina pulled a bundle of kindling from her own saddlebag. The sun was going down quickly. In the distance she could hear a coyote howl, and she wondered if it was sick too.