A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“I have something for you.”
Jake approached Citra's exhibit cage that was still surrounded by the tall canvas curtain while the sounds of the show grounds being dismantled could be heard all around. The second night had gone as well as the first and now that everyone had had a good night's sleep, things were being packed away for their next ride to Kansas City. As before, Citra had been locked up in her cage for protection and Chetan had been excused from other duties to watch over her. Anyone else who had been assigned to guard duty would have balked and grumbled, but Chetan genuinely enjoyed his time with the Fur.
The Indian was leaning casually upon the baseboard the cage rested upon, quietly talking with the cheetah when the owner of the show passed through the split in the curtain.
Emmett Desmond had not spoken a word to him since their argument the night before, but Jake had said nothing to Citra about the incident that had concerned her future with the show. In hindsight, he wished he'd ordered Emmett to say nothing of the offer to anyone else, but it might be too late now. He had purposely not given much attention to the rest of his employees that morning, personally suspicious of angry stares he might get back for passing up so much money if the word got out.
Citra now had fans among his people, but to some the newness of the curiosity surrounding her would wear off and then she would be just another exhibit in the show, even if she could dress up and talk. When that happened, there would be a lot of what-ifs concerning the money, and people often got disgruntled when the subject of money came up.
“Good morning, Citra,” he said, “and Chetan.” The Indian merely gave him a courteous nod, but the feline crouched near the gate of her cage with a smile.
“Good morning, Jake,” she said. “What is this gift you have for me – the key to my cage?”
Jake chuckled. “No key, but something just as good.” He held up what looked to be an ordinary padlock that looked identical to the one which kept her gate locked.
“I do not understand,” she remarked. “Is this a joke or are you really going to put two locks on my door?”
The man laughed and gave her a big smile. He held up the lock so she and Chetan could see it better. It appeared to be locked together, but when he applied pressure to pull it apart, the tumblers released and it snapped opened.
“It looks like a regular padlock to anyone who might come in by your cage,” he explained, “but I had my smith file down the tumblers so that you could open it yourself if something happened.” He snapped it back together and it looked sufficiently locked.
Citra smiled when he pulled the key to the real padlock from a pocket and switched them out. “Thank you,” she said. “This will come in handy if I need to get out to relieve myself.”
The man turned red and then cleared his throat. “Ah, yes,” he murmured. “You can let yourself out for that, just keep an eye out for strangers. I have reason to believe there may be others who might want you themselves.”
“Uhm, just others who might be envious that we have you to draw in more visitors. You know, you said this would happen, even when you and I were back in the cave.”
“What would happen?”
“When you first asked me to let you join my show,” he said with a smile, “you said that you could help bring in more customers, and in doing so would bring in more money.”
Citra smiled, looking over at Chetan. “See?” she said. “I do have some value here.”
Jake swallowed when she wasn't looking. She had no idea what her value was to him, but Emmett surely did. He remembered something and then fingered the bars of her cage. “I will have something else for you once we reach Kansas City,” he said. “How about a travel wagon of your own like the ones that me and my main performers live in?”
Citra's eyes lit up. “My own place?” she asked with emotion in her voice at first, but then she narrowed her eyes at him. “What is the matter? You do not want me curled up at the end of your bed anymore?”
Chetan blinked. “You sleep in his bed with him?” he asked boldly.
“No, she does not!” Jake said quickly with an exasperated look at the cheetah. After the conversation he'd had with Desmond, he did not want such rumors circulated further, so he turned to the Indian in earnest. “She rides with me on the trail and only sleeps in my wagon while I'm driving! When we stop on the way each night, she's been sleeping here!”
He tapped the side of the exhibit cage and then spit on the ground at his feet.” He looked at the feline, who was quietly laughing at him, and added, “I was trying to be courteous by offering her a comfortable wagon of her own, but if she's going to act like this, maybe she's better off here!”
An impish twinkle appeared in Chetan's eyes. “Cold nights better with warm fur blanket,” he said.
“I have a warm blanket to sleep with,” Jake grumbled, “but it's not made of her fur nor is she in it!”
Both Citra and Chetan laughed openly at his discomfiture and finally Jake heaved a heavy sigh. “Listen,” he said after a moment. “Do you want the wagon or not?”
The cheetah wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. “Yes, Jake. That would be nice, but you will have to teach me to drive the horses, or will it be hooked up to the back of your wagon?”
“Chetan can drive it for you, if he's willing.”
The Indian tilted his head. He didn't have a wagon of his own to call home, typically sleeping out under the stars on a bedroll or beneath a small tent when the weather was inclement. Fortunately, the show didn't travel during the colder months and for those who didn't have family or homes to go to, Jake owned a ranch in Texas where any of them could stay through the winter as needed. Although Chetan's life wasn't as prosperous as some were in the company, it wasn't in his nature to begrudge Citra her good fortune.
“I would be honored,” he told the feline. Citra reached out through the bars of her cage and lightly caressed his face.
“Thank you,” she said. “You are a good friend.”
There were sudden shouts from the other side of the cheetah's curtain and Jake listened for a moment as his workers argued about how something dismantled for the move. He frowned at his companions and then scratched at his sideburns.
“I sent ahead a wire to Kansas City for your wagon,” he said to the feline. “With luck, it should be ready by the time we arrive.”
“Thank you, Jake. It is appreciated.”
“You're welcome, my lady-cat. Well, I best be getting back to business.” He tipped his hat to Citra and then nodded to Chetan before he left the circle. The canvas curtain would be coming down soon, but for now the two friends still had a few moments of privacy.
The Indian looked up at the cheetah. “Are you sleeping in the bed with him?” he asked in a quiet, covert tone now that they were no longer needling Jake.
Citra smiled at his bold question, but shook her head. “No, I just like to tease him when I can,” she answered truthfully. “Jake is too proper to sleep with a lady.”
Chetan frowned. “He is no stranger to a woman in his bed,” he informed her.
“What do you mean?”
“After wife died, Mr. Harrison very grieved. Looked for comfort in others, usually every town we visit.”
“I see. Does he sleep with anyone in the company? Sonya, perhaps?”
“No, only those he does not know. I think he is afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Forming attachments to anyone.”
The female cat fell silent for a moment, lost in thought. Then she looked at her friend. “Has he done this since he brought me here?”
Chetan shrugged. “Maybe, but I do not think so. He always stays in hotel in towns we visit. Sometimes I take message from Mr. Desmond to his hotel and always there is smell of perfume in his room; I have noticed none lately.”
One of the large panel curtains was suddenly pulled down off of its frame and a man on a ladder on the other side dropped it to the ground. Two others began gathering it up to spread out and fold for storage. Chetan excused himself and went to see if they needed help.
Citra settled onto the straw and put her head down on her hand-paws. There were more than a few interesting thoughts floating about inside her head and she let a small smile cross her face.
On the second day on the trail toward Kansas City, the company halted for the night just a few miles outside the small town of De Soto, where they settled down beside the Kansas River that paralleled their route. They were more than halfway to their destination and they were fortunate in that the weather had been mild along their journey, but there was a small line of thunderheads looming up far to the southwest that occasionally lit up with internal lightning which could be seen even against the evening sun. The low pressure system pulled the air in a steady breeze and at times it got downright windy across the plains.
It was anyone’s guess if they would have rain during the night as the storm system was small and could bypass them altogether, but it was a possibility it could move in right over the top of them. One of the canvas curtain panels normally used around the cheetah’s exhibit area was draped completely over the cage wagon for protection against the wind and any rain that fell.
The cheetah was not especially frightened of thunderstorms, but they were out in the open and she felt practically exposed to the elements without the solid walls of a building around her. Citra was huddled on her straw bed in the middle of her cage in an attempt to relax a little, but the wind made the edges of the draped canvas flutter and flap in the wind. She understood that similar coverings had been erected over the other caged animals, but the horses, cattle and bison would have to weather the conditions on their own; there were few trees in the place where they’d stopped for the night for any of them to stand under.
The sun had not yet set, but due to the activity readying everything for a potentially bumpy night, she had been left alone to herself. She hoped that Tony Holland would come soon with her supper. Although she was a performer in the show and was now known to all that she could walk upright, dress herself and talk, she was still Tony’s charge when it came to mealtimes.
She had tried talking to him on occasion, but it unnerved him that the spotted cat he fed and watered might actually be as intelligent as he was. He didn’t see it like that, but while he did answer questions put to him, he’d never felt comfortable having an actual discussion with the feline.
Citra wasn’t sleepy, but as boredom crept in while she waited, her large golden eyes closed while her ears twitched listening to the sounds around her. She was grateful for the canvas covering her cage, but since it had not yet started raining, she’d wished at least one side of it had been left open so she could see out. Although the evening winds were cool, there was no airflow beneath the curtain and it had become stuffy, so she’d stripped off her western garments and left them in a pile beside her; reclining in her natural fur was cooler by degrees.
While she waited, the cheetah felt a growing need to relieve herself. She had no plans to soil her cage now that she had a way out, so she quietly reached through the bars of the cage and unsnapped the trick padlock on the gate. She eased it open and then slipped out onto the ground. The only place beneath the curtain she could go was underneath the wagon itself. There was not much room down there, but it would suffice for what she needed.
The storm clouds began to obscure the evening sun as they drew nearer to the region and the winds picked up. There was still enough light to cast faint shadows, however, and as Citra scratched at the earth to bury her business beneath the wagon, she saw a dim silhouette appear on the canvas. She recognized only that it was a man’s figure wearing a typical western hat that he had to hold onto in the wind with one hand, but before she could say anything in greeting, she saw the other hand pull free of his coat tails and lift in front of him.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Four pistol shots fired out in rapid succession into the center of the cage above her and Citra instantly knew they had been meant for her. Instead of sitting there in stupefaction, she reacted immediately with anger and burst out from beneath the canvas, her jaws apart baring her fangs.
The would-be assassin had already turned to run from the area, knowing the gunfire would draw others from their evening meals, but he wasn’t expecting the spotted cat’s sudden appearance. Cheetahs do not possess the ability to scream or roar when angered, but the human parts of Citra’s hybrid vocal cords did a fair approximation in a shriek of rage.
Propelled forward in a sudden burst of speed, the cheetah was upon the man before he was able to run more than a few steps. She struck out with a lightning-fast claw intending to hamstring him, but the leather boots he wore took the brunt of the damage. She did succeed in tripping him up and he fell flat on his face into the dirt of the prairie broken up by the earlier hooves. He lost his revolver, but he had too much earth and grass in his mouth and eyes to look for it.
The large cat landed hard in the middle of his back, forcing the air from his lungs, and she raked her claws across his shoulders. The man screamed and she clawed him again across his neck and one ear, rending it in bloody tatters.
Reacting in sheer terror at the mad animal he was supposed to have killed, the man rolled over hard, upsetting her balance, and she tumbled into a heap to the ground beside him. There were shouts of others nearby, but before she could pin him down again, the assailant scrambled to his feet and ran for his life, one hand pressed hard over his bloody ear.
Citra jumped up again and bolted after him. She caught him just as he reached the nearby river and the both of them rolled down an embankment. They fell into the water at a shallow spot and the maddened cat pounced upon him. He raised an arm instinctively and the jaws that had been intended for his throat clamped down upon his forearm. The large golden eyes that peered over the arm at him as he screamed were wide and blazing in fury.
Several men scrambled down the embankment and surrounded them, shouting words that Citra wasn’t focused upon. Hands grabbed at her to pull her off her assailant. Lost within the instincts of her feline half, she screamed incoherently at them and tried to bite one or two, but then suddenly there was a rope around her that was drawn up tight, pinning her arms against her sides.
She was pulled from the man beneath her and unceremoniously hog-tied up on the bank. She squalled and screamed, but then Jake’s face appeared above her.
“Citra!” he exclaimed at her. “Calm down!” She continued to struggle, but then Jake tried again. “Susan!” he shouted, using her real name. Only then did some clarity come to her eyes. She recognized him and then her struggling ceased; she panted heavily, looking up at the faces of those who were holding her down; many were puzzled, some looked angry and others seemed afraid of her.
When it looked like she’d finally come to her senses, Jake glanced back to the crowd of men who were hoisting the man she’d chased down up out of the dirty river. He was hanging limp and there was blood mixed with mud on him in multiple places.
The showman turned his attention back to her. “What in blazes happened?” he demanded.
“He…” she replied with a gulp of air, “He sh-shot at me in my cage!” she managed to get out.
“What did you do to him?”
“I fought back!”
Jake shook his head. “No, I mean what did you do to make him try to kill you?”
“I do not know!” she cried in frustration. “He was shooting into my cage without provocation.”
Emmett stood up from where the others were gathered around the unknown man. Jake looked up. “Is he dead?” he asked.
Desmond shook his head. “No, but he’s fainted, probably from shock. She cut him up pretty bad.”
“Do you know him?”
Again, Emmett shook his head. “I don’t recognize him. He’s not part of the company.”
“Get him to Lane. See if he can patch him up enough so we can talk to him, find out why he tried to kill her.”
Jake waved his hands in the air around him. “Okay, guys, give her some air.” Seeing that the mad cat was no longer trying to get at anyone, the small crowd backed away. He saw Tony nearby and waved him over while he started to untie the ropes around the feline’s hands, feet and middle.
“Yes, sir?” Tony asked, his eyes still a little wide from the incident.
“Go back to her cage and take a look. She said this guy shot at her.”
“You did not hear the shots? You do not believe me?” Citra asked in disbelief.
“Just getting the facts straight,” he answered grimly. “You just attacked a man and the only thing the local authorities might see is that a wild cat became violent and tried to kill someone. We’ll be lucky if they won’t want to have you put down!”
“I was defending myself!” Citra exclaimed. She took several minutes to press the dirty water from her fur, her back turned to him in miffed silence.
Tony came running back and made his way down the embankment. “Mr. Harrison,” he said, out of breath, “the canvas panel I draped across her cage for the night has eight bullet holes in it!”
“Yeah, four on one side and four on the other, probably where the bullets passed through. They were down low, about right where she would have been sitting on the straw. Two of the bullets went through the clothes she’d pulled off and there are gouges in the wood flooring where they must have ricocheted off through the back of the canvas. It’s a wonder they didn’t hit anyone else on the other side!” He held up Citra’s favorite blue blouse and there were fresh holes in the fabric. Had she been in them, she would have surely died.
“I also found this.” Tony handed a revolver to his boss. Jake pulled out the cylinder and peered inside; four shots had been fired from its chambers. He looked at the cheetah with a deep frown.
“How did you escape getting shot?” he asked.
Citra dipped her head. “I was under the wagon, relieving myself,” she answered quietly.
“Lucky for you,” Tony muttered. “How’d you get out, anyway?”
She exchanged glances with Jake, unsure she should reveal the tricked padlock in case she needed to use it again. She didn’t think Tony would have had an issue knowing she could get out anytime she wanted to, but the others around them might be afraid of the knowledge, considering she’d nearly killed a man.
She looked at Tony and lied through her carnivorous teeth. “Jake left it unlocked for me,” she said. “I had planned to take a bath in the river after it got dark so no one could watch me.”
Tony gave her a crooked smile, a little color on his cheeks, and several of the men around them chuckled at his embarrassment.
In spite of the levity of the moment, Jake helped her up to her feet and then waved an arm through the air. “Okay, folks,” he grumbled as a few flashes of light from the approaching storm got his attention. “The show’s over for now. Go on back to what you were doing and get ready for the rain. It looks like it’s going to roll right over us.”
The men departed back up the embankment, leaving the showman and his lady-cat standing in the growing darkness beside the river. Wind tousled the bangs across Jake’s forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice. Citra saw his expression getting darker even as the evening light faded.
“May I stay in your wagon tonight?” she asked demurely. “I can sleep on the floor rug, but I do not want to be alone in my cage right now.”
Jake seemed not to notice her words as the two of them made their own way back up to the camp. She walked upright beside him, clinging to his arm, but he seemed lost in thought.
“Jake?” she asked.
He looked over at her. “Hmm?” he responded. She repeated her question and then he nodded. “Sure, go ahead,” he said. “I’m going to find out what happened.”
“I suspect I know why he tried to kill you, and someone’s going to pay if I’m right!”
“Why do you think he wanted to kill me?” she asked.
Instead of answering her question, he shook his head. “You get yourself cleaned up and then go on to my wagon and try to relax,” he told her. “I’m going to talk to that guy, and if he doesn’t give me satisfactory answers, I may turn him over to you again.”
When Jake approached the wagon of his company doctor, there was a small crowd milling around outside. Emmett saw him and turned his way.
“Has he said anything?” Jake asked.
“Just his name, Wyatt. The guy was squalling in so much pain that Lane gave him ether. He’s in there now, stitching him up.”
Jake swore beneath his breath. “How long will he be out?”
“Oh, he’s still awake,” Emmett said with a smirk, “but he’s incoherent and apparently doesn’t know what’s happening with him. You know how that stuff is – he won’t be able to give you a straight answer for hours.”
“You said his name was Wyatt – first or surname?”
“Dunno which.” Emmett leaned in closer. “You should have sold her to Johnson, then you wouldn’t have someone trying to kill her.”
“Johnson!” Jake exclaimed. “I’d wager he had a hand it this!” He thought a moment and then looked up at Desmond. “That guy Thornton said they were in Baldwin City. That’s not too far from here. I’m going to ride out there and have a chat with Tom Johnson,” he growled, gritting his teeth.
“Tonight? That’s twenty miles if it was one!”
“I’m leaving right now!” He turned, stopped, and then looked back at Emmett. “Get everyone up and on the trail in the morning. Get Chetan to drive my wagon. You will probably get to Kansas City before I get back, so have a meet with the mayor and get things set up. I will catch up with you there.”
“If you say so, boss.”
He turned to go again, but stopped long enough to look back at his second-in-command. “Don’t try to sell off my cheetah while I’m gone!” he snarled. Before Emmett could respond, he ran off to get his horse.
It had been a long time since Jake had last run his horse so hard. He hated to do it to Honey, but he had no time to spare. If he waited any length of time, Longhorn Tom might move his show on to another town just as he’d done himself. Typically, Jake’s company performed only two nights in a row in any specific place, three if the town was large enough, so there was no guarantee Johnson would still be in Baldwin City by the time he arrived.
As luck would have it, though, the storm he had expected to ride through moved off to the northeast, so he and Honey only had to endure a windy night as they rushed across the countryside. Jake used the stars that peeked out through the overcast sky to guide him and he silently prayed they didn’t run across any deep gullies or prairie dog holes in the darkness. He urged his painted mare as fast as prudence allowed.
Stopping only for water and to give his mount a few moments to rest now and then, Jake rode all night, and the sun was just beginning to color the morning clouds when he saw Baldwin City on the horizon.
When Jake rode into town, one of the first things he saw was a lithograph for Longhorn Tom’s Wild West Extravaganza posted in the window of a general store. It was still early enough that there were few people out on the streets, but the store was already open for customers.
He tied off Honey’s reins at a water trough in front of the establishment, dusted himself off and then stepped up onto the boardwalk. A rotund, middle-aged man with hair slicked back with oil was just putting on a work apron behind the counter when Jake walked in.
“Good mornin’,” said the man pleasantly. “What kin I hep you find?”
Jake indicated the colorful post in the window. “Is that Wild West show still in town?” he asked.
The man looked to see where he was pointing, adjusting the thick round lenses of his spectacles over his nose. “I’m ‘fraid I should take dat down. The missus an’ I saw the final show last night,” he said. “They’s prolly packin’ up rat now.”
Jake nodded in relief. They were still here, which meant that Johnson would be there too. He dug into a pocket and pulled out a coin. He set this on the counter and then tipped his hat.
“Thank you, sir,” he said in a raspy voice.
“You soun’ like you could use a drank of lemonade,” the store owner said. Without waiting for a reply, he moved to a cabinet at the end of the counter.
“Lemonade?” Jake repeated when a small mason jar with pale yellow liquid was set in front of him. A few seeds swirled around in the drink, but it looked awfully delicious. He was mighty thirsty.
“Yep, freshly squeezed by the missus just a bit o’go.”
Jake drank up the tart juice in several hefty swallows before he set the empty glass on the counter. He smacked his lips a few times and then gave the man a smile of gratitude. “That sure hit the spot!” he said in appreciation. “How much do I owe you?”
The man held up the coin Jake had put on the counter and then turned to an old cash register. “Paid in full, m’frien’,” he said with a smile. The register made a ding and he dropped the coin into the drawer that opened.
“Much obliged,” Jake told him with a nod. “Can you tell me where the Wild West show was set up? I need to see the owner before they leave town.”
The man gave him directions that led to a field on the other end of town. Jake thanked him and then walked out to Honey. The poor mare looked as tired as he felt and her large brown eyes gazed at him imploringly.
“Sorry, ol’ girl,” he said, rubbing her neck with affection. “Just one more ride to the other side of town and then you can rest.” She snorted softly and then he got back up into the saddle.
When they reached the field, Jake was glad to see that only a small portion of the show’s booths, bleacher boards and tents had been dismantled.
He approached a young woman in a fringed outfit with a cowgirl’s hat that covered over a mass of auburn hair. She was brushing down a roan colt and her curves from the backside presented a nice sight to the weary traveler.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said politely, climbing out of the saddle.
The woman turned. “Yes?” she responded with a smile. “Are you here to sign up for the show?”
Jake shook his head. “No, ma’am. I was hoping you could direct me to Thomas Johnson. I need to speak with him about a private matter, please.”
“Sure, you can find Longhorn Tom over there under the grub tent,” she said, pointing across the way.
“Thank you,” he said, tipping his hat courteously. He walked Honey across the field to the tent he’d been directed to and then tethered her at a portable trough where another horse stood by quietly. The tent was open on the sides and a few tables and chairs were set up beneath the shadows. There was only one person inside and he sat at one of the tables quietly eating his breakfast.
“Mr. Johnson?” Jake asked quietly.
The man looked up. He was a handsome man in his early thirties with light brown hair, a thin mustache and well-tended sideburns. He wore casual clothes but they were well-pressed. He wiped his lips with a cloth handkerchief and nodded.
“Yes?” he replied. “I am Thomas Johnson. Who might you be?”
“Jake Harrison.” The man’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly, but Jake caught the motion. “I see you’ve heard of me.”
Johnson gestured toward a chair opposite him. “It is always good to know of your competitors. Please have a seat, Mr. Harrison.” Jake sat down quietly and then put his elbows upon the table. “Have you had second thoughts on my offer?” Johnson asked.
“No, I am quite firm on that account. Citra is not for sale.”
“Pity,” said the man. “You see, I have a successful Wild West show, but lately I have been making additions that could draw in more visitors. Exhibits like your spotted cat – a cheetah, I believe it’s called – would fit well with my plans.” He took a sip of coffee from a tin cup. “I have already acquired a lion and a rhinoceros from Africa from the Philadelphia Zoo. I would like to add a cheetah to my show, but one that can walk upright and talk… well, that would be sure to draw in a crowd!”
Johnson paused to let his guest make a comment, but Jake said nothing, staring hard into the gray eyes of the other man. “Will Thornton gave me a favorable review of your special animal,” Johnson continued, “but I don’t know why you’re so determined to keep her.”
“You don’t?” Jake muttered with a tilt of his chin. “I believe I explained it well enough to your man. She saved my life and I am returning the favor by keeping her safe. She has expressed the desire to remain with my company and I am bound to honor that.”
Johnson nodded. “I have heard that you take great pride in the accuracy of your show,” he said.
“There were no cheetahs in the wild lands of the west, and although she can perform for you, she does not fit your claims of accuracy. My show, however, is changing. We still do reenactments of the western settlements, but I am giving my visitors more to see. I have exhibits from around the world, not just from the western United States.”
“That sounds like a circus!”
“Right you are, Mr. Harrison. I do not yet have the necessary exhibits and performers to claim to be a travelling circus, but that is my eventual goal. Your cheetah would have a good home here and I would go to great lengths in order to have her here as a one of a kind.”
“Yeah, I know to what lengths you would go to,” Jake growled. Johnson’s eyebrows rose on his brow.
“I don’t claim to understand what you’re referring to.”
Jake snorted. “I wouldn’t claim your actions either, but I know it was you.”
Thomas Johnson pushed his finished breakfast tin aside and then sat back in his chair, eyeing Jake with narrowed eyes.
“What are you accusing me of?” he demanded in an even voice.
“Your man Thornton gave me three rather high offers for Citra, but since I refused your generosity, I’m supposing you decided that if you couldn’t have her, no one would!”
“You are not making sense,” Johnson remarked. “What’s happened, did someone shoot her?”
Jake’s eyes became fierce. “How did you know that?” he growled.
“Just a guess from your attitude. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I didn’t say she was killed,” Jake said, watching his opponent closely, “but the guy who tried it is currently in critical condition.” There was a twitch in Johnson’s left eyelid, but it was so imperceptible that it could have been easily missed.
“What happened?” Johnson asked quietly.
“He blindly shot up her cage, but didn’t hit her,” Jake said, leaving out the fact that she hadn’t been in the cage at the time. “She took offense, however, and mauled him for his efforts. He’ll be lucky if he gets to keep that ear – he looks quite a fright.”
“Has… he said anything?”
Jake raised his chin. “Only his name. If he’s still breathing by the time I get back to my company, I can be sure that my friends will have already gotten more out of him.”
Johnson was silent for a moment, but then he stood up from his chair slowly. “Mr. Harrison,” he said quietly. “I am glad your cheetah escaped harm, but I can assure you that I had no part in this affair. I can see how you might think I would do this, but if I was willing to pay such a sizable amount, it’s unlikely I would want harm to come to this creature.”
“Are you saying that Wyatt is not your man?”
“I know of no such person, and neither would anyone else in my employment do such a thing.”
Jake got to his feet, feeling weary from the long night’s ride. He didn’t believe one word of Johnson’s denial, but for the moment he had nothing else to confront him with. Wyatt was his only proof and he would now be on his way to Kansas City with his company, injured as he was. He didn’t know what he was going to do with him, but what he told Johnson was true. He knew Emmett Desmond’s history and was confident that if anyone could make Wyatt talk, it would be him.
Jake had nothing more to say to Johnson, so he merely locked eyes with him for a moment and then turned to walk away without another word.
“I wish you luck with your endeavors, Mr. Harrison,” Longhorn Tom said to his back. “Keep that magnificent creature safe, and when you eventually tire of her, remember my offer!”
Jake swore softly beneath his breath and climbed up into Honey’s saddle. They both needed food and rest before making the journey to Kansas City to rejoin the company, but once they’d recuperated a little, he had a small detour to make.
Before he’d passed beyond the boundaries of Johnson’s show camp, Jake saw a man watching him from the darkness of the evening shadows beside a tent. He might not have noticed him except his round-rimmed spectacles reflected light from a lantern that hung from a pole between exhibits and caught his eye.
Jake tipped his hat courteously at him and it was then he noticed the bowler hat with a pheasant feather sticking out of its band. He looked closer and saw the brown mustache that merged with sideburns over a clean-shaven chin that Citra had described to him. The bright red bow tie and the Sunday meeting suit he wore completed the picture and Jake turned his horse toward him.
There was a sudden look of panic in the fellow’s eyes at having been recognized, so he turned and darted away between two of the craft tents. He was gone before Harrison could get to him, but now Jake was sure it was the same man who had tried to sabotage Citra’s success with his show, and it appeared he worked for Johnson.
Jake led Honey down a wooden ramp from a boxcar and tipped his hat at the others who had accompanied him from Wellsville, a railroad town to the east of where he’d confronted Johnson. Instead of riding the trail across the countryside to meet up with his company, he and his mare had caught a train on the Santa Fe line from Wellsville to Kansas City, which had saved on travel time. Now that he had arrived in the Wyandotte County seat, he would need to find out where the company was setting up.
He rode through town looking to see if any of his lithographs had been posted yet and they’d had to dodge several street cars that were becoming common; they connected the regions that until only recently had been several smaller towns that had combined into one large city which was spread out across the state line in both directions.
On the back end of one of the street cars was one of his lithographs and he recognized it with a smile. Hand-written at the bottom was the location where the public could find the show. Having been in Kansas City before, he had a fairly good idea how to get there, so he climbed up in his saddle and steered his mare toward another part of town.
When he spied the familiar wagons, carts and livestock of his company, he knew that Emmett would be hip-deep in getting things set up for the next day’s performances. The routine was so unchanging from town to town that everyone knew what to do and when to do it, but Desmond was meticulous in making sure that visitors would have a good time and that meant keeping an eye on the setup before the paying customers got there.
He found the short balding man with the big fuzzy mustache trying to settle an argument between two of the women in the company and Jake suddenly changed his route and went looking for his wagon instead. He had no intention of getting dragging into whatever situation the women had with Emmett; he could handle it on his own.
He nearly walked right into Randall Lane rounding the corner of a supply wagon. The company’s doctor sidestepped him with an armload of lidded glass jars, each containing a portion of amber liquid.
“Hi, Doc,” Jake said after making sure the other man wasn’t going to spill anything. “What do you have there?”
“Diethyl ether,” the dark-headed man replied. He was a middle-aged man in good health and dressed in simple clothing. He was a compassionate man, but also no-nonsense when it came to the affairs of others. “After the incident outside De Soto, I used up the last I had on that Wyatt fellow. I just got more from a local apothecary.”
Jake scowled at the name and saw Desmond walking in their direction. “Emmett,” he said with a nod, “I confronted Thomas Johnson about Mr. Wyatt in Baldwin City, but he denies any knowledge of the affair.”
Emmett spat on the ground. “He’s lying through his teeth!” he retorted with a growl, glancing over at the doctor. “Wyatt spilled his guts after Lane patched him up.”
“Yeah, I got the impression I was talking to a snake,” Jake muttered with a nod. “His words weren't matching up with the look in his eyes.”
“Wyatt works for Johnson, all right, and was acting under orders to kill your cheetah if you wouldn’t sell her to Thornton’s offers.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Mr. Desmond had me administer sodium thiopental,” Lane informed him.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Jake asked, thinking it was a pain killer of some form for the guy’s wounds.”
“It dulls the mind so that he can’t think up lies to questions put to him,” Emmett explained. “His name was Nate Wyatt and he’s worked for Thomas Johnson off and on for three years, usually doing dirty work such as this one. Wyatt wasn’t in the know about what the cheetah was beyond she was just an animal to be put down, but yes – he was on Johnson’s payroll.”
“Was?” Jake looked shocked. He knew that Desmond had some rough history in his past, but he never thought the man was a killer.
“Don’t worry about Wyatt,” Emmett said in a low voice. “We’ve already taken care of the matter. It’s unlikely that anyone from Johnson’s show will ever bother us again.”
“What did you do, bury him in an unmarked grave?”
Emmett simply raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “Nah, he’s still breathing back in De Soto, but don’t you worry about it, boss.”
“Should I expect the law to look us up to put down my cheetah?”
Emmett shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about that. She’s safe.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m going to go put these away,” Lane said. “They’re heavy.”
“Yeah, go ahead,” Jake said absently. “I’ll get the bill of sale from you later.”
“I didn’t expect you back until later this evening,” Emmett said after the doctor departed. “You look like you’ve ridden to Texas and back in one night. Your cat-girl’s worried about you, so go see her and then get some rest. I’ll keep things going to set up for tomorrow and check on the wagon you ordered for her in a little while.”
“Right, then,” Jake muttered. Anytime Desmond blatantly sidestepped a question, Jake knew he was better off without the knowledge of anything he’d done. Taking the man at his word that they wouldn’t have to fret over anything Johnson had tried to engineer, he finally nodded wearily.
“Thanks, Emmett. I’ll check in with you later.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.