Marked Territory – Snippet 13

“It’s been a dog’s age,” Taggart said, panting a wheezing laugh at his own joke. “Place has been closed up for years. I remember when I was still a pup I’d come sniffing around on Thursdays when the padre would leave the scraps from the soup kitchen out for whatever critters came by. One day when I showed up, the place was all closed and shuttered. I came back the next week, and that was when I found that someone had jimmied the side door. Took me a while to get up the courage, but when I nosed my way in I found a little jamboree of the local down and outs. They didn’t have much, but I was cute back then, and they shared what they had long as I sat up to shake, or begged a little bit.”

Taggart trailed off, his one good eye staring into the middle distance. After a moment, he shook his head and scratched behind an ear with one of his front paws. It was a delicate operation, and he winced more than once as he found new bruises that had been quiet up until that point.

“It was a regular hot spot for a while. But when the city shut the water off, and the black and whites started prowling, people started staying away from it.” Taggart shook his head gently, some of the humor coming back into his face. “Which is when the new crop of regulars started coming around, of course.”

I nodded. That was the way things worked on the streets. The two-legged strays came around first when a spot was fresh, and if they moved on it was time for the four-legged variety to take up residence in what was left.

“How long’s Frisco been coming around?” I asked.

“Frisco?” Taggart seemed puzzled by the direction my question went, tilting his head slightly. “He’s been around a while for a rat, I suppose. Couple of months, here and there… since this past summer, I think.”

“You trust him?” I asked.

Taggart tilted his head the other way. “He ain’t never done nothing to me, and he usually brings something to contribute. Why you asking?”

“Something happened last night,” I said, shifting a little to glance around the corner. We were still alone. “We were halfway to the train station, and Frisco had to relieve himself. So he ducked down an alley. Pair of mutts cornered him, and started asking him some hard questions about St. Bart’s. They really wanted to know who was in here last night.”

“What did they look like?” Taggart asked. I described Frank and his yappy little friend, and Taggart nodded. “That was two of ’em came around here the other day, all right. What happened?”

“Frisco tried to talk his way past, but they didn’t want to give him an out,” I said. “The dachshund got his teeth on Frisco, so I decided to do something about it. I gave the Chihuahua a face full of pavement and cut the other one across the muzzle before he could snap Frisco’s neck. Frisco bolted, and I ran the other way so they could only go after one of us. I didn’t see either him or the dogs after that.”

The line came out smooth as cream. There were still some gaps in what I knew about why Frisco ran off to meet with Frank and his little friend, and one of those gaps was whether he did it because he wanted to or because he was afraid not to. I didn’t want to sling mud onto Frisco until I was sure he’d done his part to earn it.

“Guess they didn’t want any surprises,” Taggart said, frowning as he scratched himself under the chin. “Still, if the Chihuahua is hurt, maybe only two of ’em will show up today instead of three. He might not have looked like much, but I swear that little mongrel nearly bit my tail off before I could curl it up under me.”

I nodded, shifting a little bit. I flexed my back paws to stop from them from falling asleep on me. Taggart glanced around, as if he wanted to be sure no one was watching us. I hissed to get his attention.

“One other thing that’s been bothering me,” I said. “Anything like this ever happen before?”

“Not since I’ve been here,” Taggart said. “Far as I know, that means it’s never happened.”

“No one’s ever tried to take this block?” I asked. “Even when it was fresh pickings?”

“Oh, there have been a couple of tussles, here and there,” Taggart said. “Every now and again we get a fight. But they’ve almost always been personal.”

“No point getting riled up over a place like this, huh?”

Taggart’s tongue lolled out in the universal doggy grin. “Exactly.”

Taggart looked like he was about to say something else when his nostrils flared, and he looked toward the front of the church. His tail stopped wagging, and everything in him went tense. I lifted my head and scented too. I couldn’t quite figure out what the terrier was sniffing at, but when I heard the chain link at the front of the properly bending and clinking I had a pretty good idea of what was going down.

“That them?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” Taggart said through clenched jaws. “The dachshund is in the lead, and I can see the Yorkie, too. No Chihuahua, but it looks like they brought someone else in his place. Got some big damn ears on him and a curled tail, but I can’t tell much more.”

“Keep your eyes straight ahead, Taggart,” I said, standing up and getting my legs under me. I glanced over my shoulder and made sure there wasn’t anyone coming around the back corner or trying to sneak in under the back fence. “Can you run?”

“Not that good at it on my best days,” Taggart said, his eyes rolling slightly. “But I will, if I gotta. But where am I gonna go?”

“Just play it cool,” I said, keeping my voice a low whisper. “If they come at you, duck around the corner. You let me do the rest.”

“Right, right,” Taggart said. A shudder went through the terrier, and he shook his head slightly. Then he stepped away from the wall and stood out in the open. The fence snapped back against the support poles, and several sets of feet started walked our way.

“What’s this?” Frank said, a growl in his voice. “Taggart, ain’t it? You waiting around to make sure we get settled in nice and cozy?”

“Y’all ain’t welcome here,” Taggart said. He kept his voice steady, though it didn’t hide the scent of fear that was starting to shiver off of him. “That door’s shut up tight, so you may as well walk yourself back the way you came.”

“Is that so?” Frank asked. “And if we don’t just turn around and leave, who’s gonna make us? You? That big gray mouser who’s been hanging around?”

“Probably not,” a smaller, higher voice barked. Probably the Yorkie, if I had to hazard a guess. “Saw him head out this morning. Guess he decided to leave you all high and dry, ‘eh?”

“That’ll learn you to trust a cat,” Frank said, laughing.

One of the dogs grunted as he put a shoulder against the door. The old wood slammed into the pin, but it held. Whoever it was gave the door the heavy shoulder a second time, then a third, but it didn’t budge. The Yorkie barked, a high-pitched noise that still managed to hold a note of threat.

“They ain’t gonna open,” Taggart said. “Not for nothing.”

“You sure about that?” Frank said, that growl deepening. “What if we held you down and pulled off that other leg? You think your friends might open that door then?”

What little bravado Taggart had managed to summon melted away. The terrier took a halting step back, his eyes rolling. Nails clicked on concrete just around the corner, and I crouched, gathering myself. Taggart broke eye contact, looking my way. Of course, to Frank and his boys it probably just looked like Taggart was trying to find a way out.

“Get him,” Frank snarled.

Taggart broke, lumbering past me in a lurching, shambling run. The Yorkie was fastest off the mark, digging up turf as he tried to take the corner at a full sprint. He was in mid-bark when I tackled him, sinking my claws in. We went down, the dirty white dog on the bottom. He tried to angle his muzzle back to bite me, and his legs were still kicking like they hadn’t realized he wasn’t running anymore. His nails caught my flank, but they couldn’t dig past my outer coat. His fur wasn’t as thick as mine was, and blood spurted when I yanked my claws out. The Yorkie howled in pain. The little dog bucked, and I rolled with it, coming back to my feet and taking some more of his skin with me when I went.