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Fluffy Trails

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When the trail drive stopped for the evening, Harley Kelley wasn't sure if she was happy to be getting off the back of the horse the studio had provided for her to ride or not. She ached in places that she usually only felt after trying a new machine at the gym, but the horse had been warm and without it she definitely wasn't. She was sort of envying the trail riders their retro-unchic sheepskin jackets and battered work pants now, even though she was still planning to write some clever copy later about the way fashion had become extinct in this part of the country before the cattle had. And she was borderline frustrated with her photographer, even though he was the award-winning Adam Abel, because he didn't seem to be either cold or sore and he'd teased her about walking funny the first time she'd dismounted.

To be fair, though, he'd also showed her how to sit more comfortably in the saddle afterwards, and all in all they'd had a relatively productive day. The Bar-T was herding a mixed lot of cats this season, mostly American Shorthairs interspersed with some longer-haired cats of indeterminate breed. "Those'll get separated out once we get them to town," Ben, one of the swing riders, had told her. "They need the ones with a heavier coat up north, especially now."

Harley had made a mental note to do a little research later in case there might be a story in that comment, maybe something about a sudden increase in the rodent population causing migration into lesser-affected areas - THE MICE ARE MOVING. ARE YOU AT RISK?  She wasn't really here to look for big, click-worthy scoops, though. The network had sent them out to concoct some socially-responsible, family-friendly fluff they could lead into the feel-good holiday season with, so anything dirtier and grittier they happened to come across was just going to be gravy for later - gravy Harley would get into trouble for going after if it took her away from her current assignment.

Which was fluff. Literally. She brushed cat hair off her coat for the thousandth time, wishing she'd thought to bring a lint roller; one of the riders was right this minute sitting beside the fire using his to remove fur from the sling his arm was in. Not because of a severe herding-related injury - CAT HERDING: A DANGEROUS PROFESSION - but because he'd strained his shoulder while unsaddling his horse a few days before Harley and Adam had gotten there. He was also using the sling to contain two tiny motherless kittens they'd found earlier in the drive. "Bein' cuddled up against me keeps 'em warm, makes them feel safe," he'd said. "We think Mama probably got killed by a coyodog. Usually they'd go in the chuckwagon, but there's already a mama cat in there with her own litter and she didn't want nothin' to do with them so I volunteered to pack 'em along with me."

They'd gotten an entire segment's worth on the plight of orphaned kittens on the trail out of that, and even some footage of Harley helping Dingo - the only name the rider would give her - feed them with a tiny little bottle and then clean them up prior to tucking them into the sling again. Aw, so much fluff. Maybe they could release part of that footage as an extra, or a teaser. It would be sure to go viral.    

Now, though, she was looking for her next segment. They'd already gotten a good interview with the wrangler, mainly because the man had been so happy that Adam knew how to take care of his horse. The wrangler's assistant was a green-as-grass veterinary assistant doing an internship, and although he seemed competent he wasn't either enthusiastic enough or nervous enough to make a good story out of. She'd gotten to talk to Davey Carter, youngest of the three drag riders - the ones who rode at the back of the herd, rounding up stragglers - during one of their rest stops earlier in the day, and he'd had a decent enough if entirely stereotypical family story about being a third generation cat herder. Of course, he'd also 'just happened' to have a family-heirloom picture with him of his great-grandfather out on one of the early cat drives, so he'd pretty obviously expected to be interviewed and planned ahead. Not that Harley minded, it had saved her the trouble of mocking a photograph up for him. And Davey was young and clean-cut and acted kind of naive and earnest, which was what their audience for this type of story wanted to see - IN THEIR BLOOD: THE NEXT GENERATION OF TRAIL RIDERS. She'd also talked to two of the swing riders, Jake and Ben, who were also more than a little stereotypical with their battered hats and long mustaches and colorful way of talking. They were funny, or at least they would be with a little bit of editing, so that had taken care of adding some comic relief to the lightweight documentary-type special she and Adam were out on the trail to build.

Now, though, she needed to find some drama. There didn't seem to be any friction between any of the riders, even the teasing the younger ones were getting was friendly, everyone seemed to love their jobs, and the trail boss was neither a driven despot or a laissez faire loafer - in fact, he was the one riding point, leading the herd, and from time to time he'd switch places with one of the swing riders and pitch in to make sure the herd was staying together. Adam had gotten a lot of footage of him riding, apparently he was really good on his horse - not like Harley could tell, from her perspective they all looked like they were good on a horse.

The horses were all being put up now, and their riders were settling in to camp for the night. Harley spotted an older, dark-skinned man leading a rough-coated Palomino away from the wrangler's station and nudged Adam. "There's one that looks interesting." She made a beeline for her new target, dragging the photographer along in her wake, and pretending not to notice that they were leaving the central camp area where they were supposed to be filming. "Sir! Sir! I'd like to ask you some questions, for the documentary!"

He slowed but didn't stop, and the horse turned its head to look at her before he did. "Plenty of people over to the fire who want to talk to you, ma'am."

Ooh, she'd been right about him being interesting - the reluctant ones always were. "I want to talk to all of you! You're one of the flank riders, right? I noticed you're older than a lot of the other riders..."

"Yep."

"Have you been doing this for a long time? Is cat herding a career, is it a family profession?"

"Nope."

She wasn't deterred. "So why do you do it? Why herd cats?"

The horse tossed its head in annoyance, and he patted its neck. "Needs to be done."

Maybe if she provoked him. She feigned irritation. "Do you even like herding cats?"

He stopped walking, and she thought she had him...but then he turned his head, and his dark eyes met hers and held them with an intensity that made her almost shiver. "I wouldn't do nothin' else," he said, almost aggressively, and then he turned the horse and led it away without another word.

The only reason Harley didn't squeal was because it would have been unprofessional. "Tell me you got that."

She could almost hear Adam rolling his eyes. "Yeah, but it'll be a miracle if the cat company lets you use it. We are way outside the camp area."

"Only because he wouldn't stop walking." She reluctantly turned and went back to the uneven circle of the camp, stopping to film some of the herders as they dealt with cats that had climbed a dead tree. She recognized one of the cats, a fluffy dirty-white Persian, as the herd-cat who'd spent most of the day in the saddle with Jake, her colorfully talkative owner, so once the cat was down Harley approached Jake. "Was she trying to get them down or trying to join them?"

Jake snorted. "Neither, she was just showin' me who's boss." He looked around, then dropped his voice. "Ma'am, I know you're just doin' your thing, tryin' to get stories for the show they're makin'...but you'd be better off stayin' clear of Sam. He ain't gonna talk to you, and if you piss him off the trail boss'll send you packin'." Harley opened her mouth, and he shook his head. "Just because some of us think it's sort of neat you guys are out here filmin' us, wantin' to show people what we do...that don't mean this ain't a job and we ain't workin'. And you don't throw a man off his game when he's workin'."

Oh. "I hadn't thought of it that way," she apologized, and then followed that truth with the usual half-lie. "I just thought maybe he was camera-shy..."

 

She repeated that to the annoyed trail boss later, but unlike Jake he didn't accept it. "No, Ms. Kelley, you thought he didn't want to talk to you and you hoped you could get some drama out of him. Were you going to play the race card too?"

Ooh. THE COOKIE-CUTTER WORLD OF CAT HERDERS: FAMILY BUSINESS OR SOMETHING DARKER?  "He is the only person of color in this group..."

"No, he's actually not. And before you ask, I'm not going to point the others out for you. Next?"

She feigned offense. "Mister Parker..."

"Ms. Kelley, I agreed to let your e-network send someone out here because I think it's important for people know how things work and who does that work," he cut her off, settling back in his canvas-backed chair; the trail drive's 'field office' was the only tent large enough to have such furnishings, the rest of them being low and round-topped, meant only for protecting the riders from the elements as they slept. "And because I knew Mr. Abel here would be a good person to capture footage of the drive in action. But I told your boss just like I'm going to tell you - and just like Jake already told you: This is a job. These men are working. And if they don't want to talk to you, they don't have to. If you push the issue, you'll be riding on the far side of the chuckwagon tomorrow until we get to your pickup point."

Harley swallowed her irritation. "I understand. I won't bother Mr...?"

Parker gave her a knowing look. "It's just Sam."

 

Harley and Adam ate dinner around the camp's central firepit that evening, joined by the riders who were willing to talk to them and occasionally by curious cats. The riders pointed out cats they'd given names to or that were offspring of cats from previous drives, complained about the food - self-heating ration packs in bio-friendly packaging, much to Harley's disappointment - and got into a surprisingly high-level discussion about rabies versus what they called super-rabies. Dingo was apparently co-authoring a paper about the heavily disputed new strain, which was not always stopped by the current vaccine. Which was how Harley found out that 'Dingo' had a degree in immunology. "I came out to the Bar-T to do some field research," he explained. "Never was too happy in academia, but this life suited me right down to the ground so I stuck with it." He laughed. "I'm a field research specialist now, when we're not on a drive I help other researchers who don't know their way around anything wilder than a department Christmas party."

"Do you ever miss it, that other life?"

He shrugged. "Only when it rains."

"We have a couple of big ol' tarps," Ben jumped in to explain. "If it looks like it's gonna rain, we scatter some nip on high ground and stake those out so the cats can get under them. Someone has to keep an eye those tarps, though, so we have to take turns bein' up and half-wet instead of sleepin'." Inexplicably - and excitingly, to Harley - his expression darkened. "Not just to keep 'em from blowin' away if the wind gets bad, we've also gotta watch for coyodogs."

"Yeah, they think those tarps are a mess tent sent from heaven," Jake chimed in. "One time we lost most of a herd to those bastards, nearly two hundred head." He stroked Marshmallow's fur where she was curled up in a fluffy ball of unconcern in his lap. "My girl here, she was one of the survivors. She'd herded her brothers and sisters under the chuckwagon, gave the coyodog that was tryin' to fish 'em out a snoutful of claw for his trouble."

Harley made a mental note to do a bit more on Marshmallow the following day - heroic animal stories were always a good draw. "So what do all of you think about the movement to give the coyote dogs protected status?"

That got a round of snorts and some rolled eyes. "I think if they want 'em so bad, they should come get 'em," Davey volunteered. "Hell, I'll round some up for 'em."

"That'd be a good way to end up dyin' as someone's 'interesting case' at the hospital," Dingo said in a reminding, not quite scolding tone. "Half of the damned things are carriers for Super2, and ninety percent of the docs in the world think Super2 is just a story trail riders tell around the campfire." Harley looked the question at him, and he shook his head. "Nope, sorry Ms. Kelley. I know your audience likes a good scare, but Super2 ain't somethin' you should use for that."

Mindful of Mr. Parker's eyes on her, Harley nodded that one off and changed the subject. She did notice that Adam had a private talk with Dingo and Parker alone later that night, though, and saw business cards being exchanged. She went to sleep in a bit of a huff over that. He was working on his next Pulitzer, she just knew he was.

 

The next day was uneventful, and although they saw one coyodog a warning shot from someone's rifle scared it away. Harley managed to get some good bits about how the coyodogs and other wildlife impacted the cat herds and vice-versa, took statements from several riders about what they thought young people considering cat herding as a profession should know, and picked up more colorful banter from Jake and Ben. And then they reached the spot where their helicopter was waiting and went back to civilization to puzzle-piece the pre-seasonal special out of what they'd been able to collect in two days on the trail with the Bar-T.

As soon as her part of the editing - at least the first part, anyway - was done, Harley went back to her office and started fleshing out details for the documentary and running down all the leads she'd mentally marked for later investigation. The reason behind the need for more cats in the northern states wasn't immediately clear, but she'd keep working on it - that could be a later feature, maybe a follow-up. Super-rabies, or Super2, was much easier to get details on but after a few hours of slogging through scientific jargon and forums full of science cliques fighting with other science cliques, she gave that one up and forwarded it to Stan, the network's science editor, with a note that he could have the story if he'd just explain to her why so many people seemed to be so angry about a possible new strain of rabies virus. She also passed along the information she'd gathered about Dingo, who in his previous life had been Dr. David Ingram and whose work was currently being sneered at by a lot of immunologists who worked for pharmaceutical companies - that was probably a big clue right there, but she'd let Stan chase it down. If anything big came of it, she trusted him to give her credit for the lead.

She gathered up the research she'd already done on the movement to protect the coyote dogs and went back through it, coming to the conclusion that the group who'd started it were either completely naive in thinking the hybrid canines weren't a threat to the cat herds and other livestock or they just didn't care. Probably the latter, since the group had been pretty adamantly anti-cat and anti-dog in the past; they believed the changes in the ecosystem should be allowed to run their course, regardless of the impact that would have on the human population. She dug a little more. They'd also protested the running of the squirrels in Spain, and two of their members had been arrested in Irunea after being caught trying to  introduce some infected animals into a local herd. Which shouldn't have made sense, because nobody was allowed to either participate in or spectate the run unless they'd been vaccinated...but it would make plenty of sense if those squirrels hadn't been carrying regular rabies, wouldn't it? She fired off an update to Stan, somewhat regretfully; she might have just handed him a much bigger scoop than she'd intended to.

The target of Harley's next hunt was Sam, the flank rider who hadn't wanted to talk to her - and who the trail boss and Jake had both warned her off of. Something had to be there...but she hadn't really started closing in on what that something might be before her editor, Gwen, interrupted her. "Harley, did you just drop a bomb in Science?"

"Not intentionally?"

"Well regardless of your intent, whatever it was still exploded and Stan is screaming his head off about Big Pharma and conspiracies and wheels within wheels. So unless you're working on a story that involves the president and a troupe of midgets sharing a hot tub - with pictures - get down there and help Stan with whatever that was you just dropped on him. The two of you are now working exclusively on that story unless I personally tell you to stop."

Harley immediately abandoned the idea of tracking down Sam the Mystery Rider. It was probably just a bad divorce or something, maybe a criminal incident or a past he'd left behind the way Dingo had. She grabbed her notes and stood up. "Stan thinks it's something big?"

"Stan thinks it could be the biggest criminal collusion scandal this decade," Gwen told her. "You didn't think it had something to do with Manhattan, did you?"

The seemingly unrelated question took Harley by surprise. "No, why?"

"Because you were looking up ratcatchers." Gwen waved a manicured hand at the monitor, where a picture of Sam was still visible. "I remember that guy, he was one of the ones they had to rescue from the Rat Swarm of '24 - his dogs died protecting him. So if he wasn't connected, why were you looking him up?"

Harley sat back down, enlarged the window so the whole picture was visible. "He's a rider for the Bar-T. He wouldn't talk to me, when we were out with the cat drive. I was trying to find out why."

Her editor leaned forward to look, pushing a silver-white tendril of hair back behind her ear. "That would be why, he probably doesn't want to talk about it - like I said, all of his dogs died, he just barely made it out. Interesting that he switched from using dogs to hunt rats to herding cats that hunt mice, though, since so far as I knew most of the Manhattan ratcatchers retired from hunting permanently. Maybe somewhere down the road we could do a where-are-they-now on the Swarm survivors, that would make a good human interest piece."

"And maybe serve as a refresher intro back into the story Stan and I are working on when we get an update," Harley agreed, getting up again. "The activist group I found is pro-rodent as well as pro-coyote dog."

Gwen made a face. "Because the coyote dogs eat the cats, of course - that explains the uptick in protests, I suppose. Is it too much to hope that they've made statements that could piss off the American Dairy Remembrance Society? That fight would be social media gold."

"They blame domestication for the mass extinction of the cattle," Harley confirmed. Reluctantly, again, because that fun would go to the Meme Creation and Acquisition department. Regular reporters weren't allowed to deliberately try to create that kind of viral content on their own, it was too easy to make a mistake that could become memorable in a bad way. "Which reminds me, we've got kitten footage they're going to want to see: A cowboy carrying two orphaned kittens in the sling he had on his arm. Adam filmed me helping him feed them."

"Ooh, good thinking - they'll want to have a clean clip ready to release as soon as the special airs," the editor agreed. "I'll tell them to go talk to Adam about that, he's probably already got the footage separated out for them. Any other finds?"

Harley shrugged. "Not really. I didn't come across any scandals, no drama between the riders either. A few of them are second- and third-generation cat herders. Two of the older ones provided some comic relief, they were funny together." Gwen raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "No, not that I could tell. They don't sleep in the same tent."

"Too bad. Or maybe not, we'll get more views if the content monitors don't have 'controversial' subject matter to flag." She sighed. "Get going, before Stan spontaneously combusts."

Harley darted out the door, and the older woman made to return to her own office...but in the doorway she paused and turned back to look at the stern-faced rider in the photo. She remembered him from a different, younger picture, smiling broadly, surrounded by his pack of rat-hunting dogs. It really didn't surprise her that he'd switched species, not after the shit-show that had been Manhattan in the aftermath of the Rat Swarm of '24. Gwen shook her head. Whoever would have thought the demise of the ruminants would have been a precursor to a veritable explosion in the rodent population? All it had taken was one mutated variant of the FMD virus to change the world as they knew it...

Her eyebrows went up. One. Mutated. Virus. And they'd just stumbled across a possible second one. Coincidence?

She smiled. Not in this business, whether it was actually one or not - and she didn't think this one was. "Harley!" she yelled, striding out of the office and toward the elevator. "Wait for me, I'm coming with you! I think I know why Stan was screaming..."