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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 14
End of the Trail

 

“Welcome to Texarkana, Mr. Harrison! I am Mayor Lery and these are my councilmen,” said the politician.  The man was all smiles when Jake climbed down from the seat of his wagon.  He returned the smile and took the mayor’s gloved hand.

“Thank you,” Jake replied in a friendly tone. “To what do I owe this honor?”

The mayor was accompanied by a small group of men, all dressed in official clothing and all were smiling.  Jake distrusted smiling politicians, but he’d met many such local dignitaries in his travels and had survived.

“We received news that you might be passing this way and we’d hoped this was the case.”

Emmett Desmond rode up on his horse, but stopped a respectable distance away, though close enough he could hear whatever these men had to say.  The company was on its way south into Texas to a ranch that Jake owned near Tanglewood.  The performing season had come to an end and the Harrison ranch would play host to his employees who didn’t have family or homes to go to during their downtime through the winter months. Their final presentation had been in Springfield, Missouri and they had been on the trail for over two weeks since.

The sun was getting low on the horizon and they had left the Red River behind them hours ago. Jake might have called a halt for the night there, but he’d wanted to press on just a few miles further to Texarkana.

“How can I help you?” he asked of the mayor. “We are getting low on supplies and figured we could help your local economy with a visit to your stores, in addition to a stop for the night for the whole company just outside of town.”

Lery rubbed his hands together with a smile. “Sir,” he said with a hopeful smile, “I know that we were not on your performance route this year, but if we could impose on you, we sure would like to see your show while you are here!”

Jake’s expression drooped.  It had been a long, hard day on the trail and everyone was weary, hungry and ready to settle in for the night. All thoughts of performing reenactments had been laid to rest after Springfield.  He glanced over at Emmett and sighed inwardly.

“Sir,” he said after a long moment of thought, “it pleases me to no end that you would like to see our show, but we are currently on our way to sit out the winter and give my folks a rest. Fully a third of my personnel has already left the company to spend the season with their families and won’t be rejoining us until the spring when we begin traveling again.  If you like, I will make sure that Texarkana is one of the first locations of the new year’s schedule.”

Mayor Lery’s smile wilted, but he merely looked back at his councilmen before turning back to Jake. “Please reconsider,” he implored. “We understand that you may not be fully staffed, but my town could use a cheerful distraction right now.”

“What happened?” Jake found himself asking.

“The Amberson and Edmond families had a longstanding feud and it came out to a showdown out near Sand Flat. One was killed with the other seriously injured and, it’s had a lot of folks down in the mouth over it all.”

Jake shook his head. “I would love to oblige you,” he said, “but we do more than just reenactments, and a large number of those who are away were those who support the foundations of everything we do.”

Lery frowned and held up a finger.  “One moment, please.”  He turned back to his council members and the small group of men huddled together in a tight circle.  They conferred for several moments and Jake was starting to fidget when the mayor finally turned back to face him.  His smile returned and once again he rubbed his hands together.

“Mr. Harrison,” he said, “we would like to suggest a compromise.”

“I’m listening,” Jake mumbled, not really wanting to agree to anything for the truthful reasons he’d already stated.

“If you will give us the best show you can – with what you have – we would like to give you a substantial discount on any and all supplies you had intended to purchase.”

Jake raised his eyebrows. He glanced over at Emmett, who prompted him with a subtle nod. “How substantial?” he queried.

“Half off,” the politician announced with a knowing smile.

“If I can get that in writing,” Jake said with a resigned nod, “I think we can put something together for you.”

“Agreed!” Lery said with enthusiasm.  He turned back to one of his associates, who produced a sheaf of paper from a document pouch he carried. The councilman held the pouch sideways to provide a writing surface as another produced a fountain pen. Mayor Lery scribbled on the page for a moment, signed it and then passed it around to each of his colleagues. Once they’d all affixed their signatures, Lery blew lightly across it to help dry the ink.  When he was sure it wouldn’t run, he turned and handed the paper to Jake.

He read over what was written and then walked over to hand it up to Emmett, who still sat atop his horse. Desmond looked it over and then handed it back to him with a nod.

“It looks satisfactory,” Jake said to the mayor.  “It will take most of tomorrow to set up everything, so we can be open for paying customers the morning after, but Mr. Desmond here and a few others will need to go shopping in your town before we can do so.”

Mayor Lery turned and gestured toward a man behind him in a brown suit and a straw hat. “This is Mr. Perkins. He will meet with your Mr. Desmond tomorrow morning and accompany him so that you may have the agreed upon discount for the things you need.  In the meantime, we will spread the word of your show, Mr. Harrison.”  He took Jake’s hand and pumped it in a firm handshake.  “We really appreciate this.”

Jake nodded wearily.  “Thank you, sir. With your permission, we would like to get settled in to have our supper and rest for the night before we begin tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes, of course! We will leave you for now, Mr. Harrison.  Good night.”  The mayor turned to leave with his councilmen, but then stopped and looked back.

“By the way,” he said hesitantly, “do you still have your cat-lady with you, or is she away with the others?”

“She is a cheetah and her name is Citra Kayah, your Honor,” Jake answered. “Yes, she is still with us.  We will make sure the people of your town have every opportunity to see her and hear what she has to say.”

“Splendid!  Well, then, good night.”

“Good night, and thank you.”

After the politicians were out of earshot, Desmond dismounted and moved close to Jake, looking over the paper again.  “Well, that certainly was unexpected,” he mumbled.  “What are we going to do?”

“This will put us behind schedule to Tanglewood, but we’ll give them what they want with what we have. We can do no more, but I want everyone rested up tonight so we can get a good start tomorrow morning, and then we’ll perform with the effort and enthusiasm we’re known for.”

“Yes, boss, I’ll spread the word.”

“You still have the shopping list of the supplies we need?”

“It’s in my wagon.”

Jake scratched at his trail-dusty blonde hair beneath his Stetson. “We’ll need to add a few items to cover what the customers will need, plus a few extras simply because of the discount his Honor agreed to give us. Due to the size of this town, we’ll give them the typical two days, so I will send Diego on ahead to Tanglewood to let them know we’ll be four days delayed. I don’t want Mrs. Norris agitated that she had the place ready and then we don’t show up for days.”

“I saw her once when she was agitated, as you say it,” Emmett shuddered. “I don’t ever want to see that again!”

Jake gave him a crooked smile and patted him on the shoulder. “Well, that really wasn’t your fault, but she never saw it that way. She may be a tiny old woman, but she packs a lot of personality! Let’s just stay on her good side and all will be well.” 

*** 

The next evening after a long day of preparations, Sonya stood behind Citra and pulled a brush through the curly brown scalp hair upon the cheetah’s head. The feline had her eyes closed and a quiet purr issued from her throat.  Sonya chuckled and shook her head quietly.

“Even after all this time you’ve been with us,” she said with amusement, “it still amazes me to see a cat with a head of hair.  Yes – I know you said you’re half human, but now that we don’t have to cut it and can let it grow, I think it gives you character.”

Citra opened one eye. “Are you saying that I have character or that I am a character?”

Sonya grinned.  “Yes.”  The cheetah turned and looked up at her friend, sticking out a feline tongue at her.  “Sit still and let me finish or we’ll never have you looking good for him.”

“I still do not think he has that kind of interest in me,” Citra remarked. “To him, I am still an animal, no matter that he pays more attention to me now than he used to and acts like a gentleman.”

“What else can it be? Jake has not invited anyone else to supper in a long time.”

“I am just another bit of property to him, a part of his show business. He has only hinted, but I suspect we will be dining with the town’s mayor, perhaps to show off his mysterious performer.”

Sonya was silent while she brushed the cheetah’s scalp hair into some kind of order.  Then, almost hesitantly, she asked, “Do you have a beau back home where you’re from?”

“A… beau?”

“You know, someone you care for a great deal.”

Citra was quiet for a moment, but then she shook her head beneath the brush. “No, not really,” she answered. “There was a man I worked with that I was fond of, but we never had much of a relationship other than our work. I had hoped that perhaps I would meet up with a handsome Fur when we established our colony, but I will probably never… uhm, never see any of them… ever again.”

She got quiet again and then Sonya could feel her friend shaking. She put down the brush and then knelt beside the cheetah. Citra looked over at her with a deep frown and wet tears that followed the dark lines in the fur beneath her eyes.  “I am never going home…” she whispered.

Sonya put her arms around her friend’s shoulders. She rarely touched the feline more than necessary, but this was the first time she’d ever embraced her. Although covered in fur, her narrow shoulders felt just as if they belonged to just another female friend that she’d consoled over some issue or another.

“There, there,” she cooed quietly as Citra buried her face in the soft folds of her blouse at the shoulder. “Even if you don’t have a home to return to, you will always be welcome here.”

The cheetah sat back and wiped the moisture from her face fur with the backs of her hands. “I know,” she said with a nod. “You, Chetan and even Jake have tried to make me feel at home, and I know that must have been difficult at first, me looking like I do. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, dear.”

“When I was changed, it was never meant for me to spend much time around anyone other than more of my kind,” Citra told her with a sniffle. “Others here have accepted me as just another show animal with more talents than most, but I still see and hear how they react around me. I am no person to them, just a curiosity.”

“Perhaps, but those folk don’t matter. Now, dry your eyes and let’s get you into a clean outfit. You will want to look your best for your dinner date with Mr. Harrison.”

Citra wiped her feline nose on a handkerchief and stood up from the stool she’d been sitting on. “I have told you before, this is not a date. It can never be a date as long as Jake sees me as an animal. I am surprised that he does not keep me on a leash.”

Sonya walked across the small room of the wagon and plucked a fresh skirt and starched blouse from wall pegs.  She turned back to the cheetah who had been lounging around in her natural fur coat.

“Whether or not he has any romantic intentions, it’s still a dinner date, so get dressed and get ready.  If nothing else, perhaps you’ll get to eat better food than what we’ve had on the trail.”

“There is that,” Citra agreed, “but if we dine with the mayor, his wife may not want an animal at the table; I may have to eat from a bowl on the floor…”

Sonya laughed. “That’s going to look mighty silly with you in a skirt!” 

*** 

When Jake knocked upon the door of her wagon home, Citra was ready and alone.  She opened the door and looked down at her friend with a pleasant smile.  Jake peered up at her and his mouth dropped open.  Sonya had done a good job.

Citra wore a long-sleeved beige blouse that complimented the colors of her fur, though the top button was open and showed not a woman’s cleavage, but a puff of white fur that could have been mistaken as a scarf. The thin material of the skirt that hung nearly to the tarsal bone of her digitigrade feet was dark brown, but it was clingy enough to show off a bit of her curves. She didn’t have many of those to show off, but the garment that Sonya had chosen for her looked good on her. They’d only had to make a minor alteration to add an opening for the cheetah’s tail with a strap and a single button above it to keep her modesty in place.  The ends of her curly scalp hair just brushed the top of her shoulders and she had her head tilted just slightly as she gazed down at him.

“Good evening, Mr. Harrison,” she said.

“Good evening, Miss Foreman! You look elegant, my lady,” Jake said in a quiet voice when he found it. 

“Thank you, milord,” she responded in amusement.

He offered her a hand and she took it with a smile to descend the steps to his side.  The man himself was dressed in a dark brown jacket, waistcoat and slacks over a white shirt with a thin black tie.  His Stetson had been dusted off and was tilted up slightly and his mustache and sideburns were neatly trimmed; he even smelled of cologne, something he’d never worn in the months she’d known him.

“I hope you don’t mind walking,” he said, proffering an arm to her. “The place where we’ll dine is right over there.”  He pointed to a two-story building at the edge of town where all the windows were lit up.

“Walking is fine,” she said.

They strolled in companionable silence in the darkness while the rest of their company went about their nightly routines behind them. There was only a sliver of the moon tonight and it was barely above the western horizon, giving out very little illumination.  They got halfway across the field before Citra spoke up.

“I appreciate your invitation to dinner,” she said, “but I do not know the occasion.”

They walked several more steps until Jake stopped and turned to look at her. “I was thinking the other night that I had never properly thanked you for saving my life and saving my show,” he said. “I may not get many opportunities to speak to you alone much these days, but I want you to know that I am forever in your debt and will never forget it.”

Citra gave him a warm smile that spread across her entire furry face. “I have never regretted our meeting,” she replied, “and I am also in your debt for saving me from a potentially-short life of living in fear and hiding.”

“I hope you don’t mind, but we’ll be dining with Mayor Lery and his wife tonight.  I wanted to sit with you alone, but we would be unable to visit any establishment in town where we would not attract a lot of attention.”

Citra nodded. “I understand, and I actually expected that is where we were going. I just hope his Honor’s wife does not make me eat from the floor.”

“If she does, I’ll be down there with you,” he replied with look of amusement.

He looked at her for a quiet moment but then reached out and took both of her hands in his own, an act that surprised her. “This is not easy for me to say, but I have to admit that I’ve grown rather fond of you – not only as a friend, but also as a woman.”

Citra swallowed with difficulty. Had she heard him right?  Before she could respond, he released her hands and then reached into an inner pocket of his suit coat.  He pulled out a small cloth bag and then pulled the draw string apart.  He upended it over a hand and something that glittered fell out.

The cheetah’s eyes were better equipped to see in the dark than a human’s were, so she saw what he held before he could hold it up.  It was a gemstone the size of a penny mounted into a golden frame that was attached to a matching chain.

“You may not be able to see this well in the darkness, but this is an opal,” he explained, holding it up so that the stone hung at the end of the chain. “In some cultures it is believed to bring the bearer good luck, and it is also associated as a birth stone for those who were born in October, which you once told me is when you were born.  It belonged to my wife, who was also born in October, but I would like you to have it.”

She reached out and touched it very gently with a claw tip. “It is pretty,” she whispered, “but I should not take what belonged to your wife. That is a precious memory you should have of the time you had with her.”

Jake smiled. “I loved my wife,” he said, “but she and I will no longer be together.  Please, accept this gift as a token of my appreciation and affection.”

“A…affection?”

Jake moved around behind her so that he could put the chain over her head. “My dear, we both know what you are and there is no reason to discuss that any further, but if you were fully human, I would be restless until I could make you mine.”

She suddenly felt lightheaded at his words, but could do nothing more than put a hand up to the gem that rested upon her blouse. “I don’t really know what kind of relationship we can have,” he added, “but all I know is that I can't stop thinking about you.”

He stepped back around to face her, “Be that as it may, we may be nothing more than close friends, but I enjoy your company and your intelligence continues to amaze me. I hope that we can be friends for as long as life allows.”

Citra smiled at him and the lights from the house ahead reflected from the moisture in her eyes. “Thank you, dear Jake,” she said with emotion. “I accept your gift and I accept your friendship in whatever form we are allowed.” She put a hand out, placed it gently over his heart, and then leaned in to give him a light kiss on the cheek.  Then with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes, she also gave him a brief lick on the end of his nose.

The action surprised him and he blinked rapidly.  “What… what was that for?” he asked with a hard swallow.  He’d somehow anticipated the kiss when she’d leaned forward, but the lick?

Citra giggled and then took his arm again. “That… was just me!” she replied playfully. “It is who I am, so you should be prepared to accept me for who – and what – I am.”

The man raised an eyebrow at her and wiped off his nose. “Well, what I am is hungry.  Shall we go meet with the mayor and his wife?”

At the mention of food, Citra’s stomach growled – loudly.  She looked embarrassed, but then both of them burst out laughing. The tension was broken and she tugged on his arm toward the house with a grin. 

*** 

The performance of Jake Harrison’s Wilder West the next day went off without a hitch, despite that they were short-handed by a third of their company.  Although it had been over a fortnight since they’d last performed, everyone fell back into the swing of things with little effort.

Jake put his usual enthusiasm into his narrations on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of settling the west and the townsfolk seemed to be having a good time with all that they experienced.  The day was a little cool under overcast skies and there was moisture in the air with the promise of rain for the dry, crunchy grass of the prairie. Fortunately for everyone, however, the late afternoon passed with plenty of sights, scents, food, crafts and entertainment for all.

One man slipped in without paying the two bit entrance feet, however, having snuck in while the show hands were distracted corralling the longhorn cattle. He was a large man, tall with broad shoulders, black hair, brown eyes and a dark complexion hinting that he might have Indian blood in his ancestry, but he wore nothing that would bring any special notice to him. He was dressed in common jeans, boots, a simple tan shirt and a straw cowboy hat, and he seemed interested in everything as he milled through the crowds of people.

When he discovered a barrier of tall canvas curtains arranged in a wide circle, he moved around its perimeter until he located the opening that was framed by two lithographs portraying what looked to be a cougar’s head with cheetah cry lines and spots.  He raised an eyebrow at the depiction and then eased the split in the curtain aside to peer inside. 

There was nothing more than an animal cage inside with a bit of straw in the middle and a water bowl to one side, but it was empty of the citrakāyah the sign had proclaimed.  He walked to the cage and absently rubbed a hand across one of the iron bars as he considered what he saw.  There was no one else about, so he left the vicinity and browsed through the festive visitors again, his eyes never still, though he looked up at the overhead clouds periodically as if keeping an eye on the weather.

He could hear the sounds of a gathered throng somewhere out on the grounds, but then it got quiet for a brief moment. During that pause in the overall sounds around him, the man heard a strangely accented singing voice.  He blinked as he realized what he must be hearing and he started weaving his way through the crowd toward it.

After moments, he reached a set of raised wooden bleacher boards and the stands seemed to be packed with even more people.  The melody of the song was one that was currently popular among some of the larger cities and the crowd seemed to be mesmerized by the singer.

Unable to get a seat in the bleachers, he walked around to the front near some of the show hands where he could see.  When he did, he stopped and stared at the form standing atop a small raised platform.

Despite the fact that Citra presented the display of an animal standing upright in western clothing on its hind legs, she had a surprisingly good singing voice. She enunciated her words without contraction in an odd accent, but the crowd could hear every syllable clearly.

The man scratched the hair beneath his hat and then crossed his arms, leaning up against one of two wooden posts holding up a banner over the crowd with the name of the company across it in bold red letters.  He watched the rest of her presentation with interest and was greatly amused when she had several unmarried men from the audience come forward to watch her disrobe behind a low curtain.

When it came to the final act and the cheetah woman took a bow with her two associates, he clapped along with the rest of the crowd and even gave out a sharp whistle.

With the four-hour set of presentations over for the night, the throng began to disperse, but the man hung back and kept an eye on the strange woman.  She stayed mostly out of sight with her friends behind one of the wagons, but he watched her for several moments before he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

He stopped a few of the show hands here and there, making queries that resulted in them giving him directions across the field, and he eventually stopped before one of the enclosed wagons that some of the performers used as homes along the trail.

He stood before the door quietly for a moment, composing himself, and then he knocked on the door.  There was only a brief pause before the latch opened and the door panel swung outward.

“Yes, what can I do for you?” said a voice from inside.

“I am looking for Jacob Harrison,” the man asked.

“I’m Harrison,” Jake said, putting on his hat before stepping down to greet him. “Is there a problem?”

The man shook his head. “No problem, sir. I enjoyed your company’s show tonight, but there is a matter I must discuss with you.”

“Are you one of Mayor Lery’s councilmen?”

“No, Mr. Harrison. I am Citra Kayah’s owner.”

Jake blinked and then narrowed his eyes. “Her owner?” he repeated warily.  “I have known her for months and she’s never spoken of ever having an owner.”

“I am not surprised. If you will take me to her where the three of us can have a private conversation away from other ears, I assure you we can straighten this out right away.”

“You think she’s going to corroborate your story?”

“Without question.”

“Nothing doing. If you think you’re going to take her from me at gunpoint, you can un-think that thought, mister. She has a lot of friends amongst my company and no one’s going to let you get away with her.”

That seemed to surprise the man. He spread his arms wide and then made a slow turn.  “I am unarmed,” he said.

“Let me see under your hat.”  The man lifted his hat and Jake saw there was nothing but a head of thick, black hair beneath.  “Okay, you’re unarmed,” Jake conceded, “but I’ve already told Mr. Johnson on two occasions that she is not for sale!”

“Mr. Johnson did not send me and I’m not here to buy her from you, Mr. Harrison.  Please, just take me to her,” the stranger said. “I assure you that all I want to do is talk to her.”

“Talk.”

“That’s right. I just want to talk to her.”

Jake studied the man for a long moment. He seemed honest enough, but where it came to Citra, he was doubly cautious.

“All right,” he said at last. “I will take you to her, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on you.”

“Fair enough, Mr. Harrison.”

“This way.”

Jake led the man on a maze route through the tents, carts and wagons until he came to one in particular. It was nondescript and didn’t stand out from any of the others, but Jake stopped before the door and knocked three times.

“Citra, it’s Jake!” he called. “I have someone here who claims to be your owner.”

“My owner?” said a voice from behind them.  Both men turned around quickly and saw the feline staring at them with a frown.  “I do not have an owner,” she said.

“That’s what I thought!” Jake growled angrily.  Before he could do or say anything more, the man tipped his hat up high on his head with a wide grin across his face.

“Hello, Susan,” he said, holding his hands out to his sides, palms outward.

The cheetah’s large golden eyes widened and she dropped the hat she held.  “Sam!” she exclaimed.  She rushed forward and jumped into his waiting arms.  The man held her tight and it was then Jake realized that Citra was crying against the taller man’s chest.

Jake watched with an open mouth for several moments until Samuel noticed him.  He stroked the hair on her head for a moment and spoke quietly into her ear until she calmed down.  She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief she pulled from within her blouse and then turned to look at her benefactor.

“Jake…” she said hesitantly after a moment. “This is Samuel Hawke. He is not really my owner, but he comes from the same place that I do. He is my friend.”

“The same place…” Jake repeated carefully.  “You mean that faraway place from another year?”

“Yes, that is right.”  She looked up at Samuel. “He has come to take me home – you have, right?”

Samuel nodded. “That’s correct.”  Then he raised an eyebrow.  “You told him where you were from?”

“It was necessary,” Citra assured him. “I saved his life once, and in turn he has given me safety traveling with his company. I have trusted him with my life.”  She looked at Jake again. “He did not believe me in the beginning, and I am not sure he has ever completely accepted my story, but I only told him the truth.”

“That story is too fanciful to have been true,” Jake admitted, “but I stopped arguing with her about it.”

“I had no hope anyone would come for me, so I have had to make the best life I could. It was only right I told him.”

Samuel looked at Jake. “What did she tell you?”

“That she was half-human, half-cheetah by choice, that she was an engineer but didn’t   drive a train, that she was supposed to be a homesteader on some other world, and that she won’t actually be born for some three hundred years from now. How true can that be, I ask you?”

Samuel nodded with a thin smile.  “It’s true, every word of it.”

“I tried to explain everything in terms he could understand, but I guess I was never really successful,” Citra said sadly.  She stepped away from Samuel’s side and then put an arm around Jake. “It did not matter,” she added. “He cared for me and kept me safe.”

Jake felt his head swimming, but didn’t move away from her.  The opal on her bosom glittered in the evening light and he remembered his words to her the previous night.  He swallowed with difficulty and then rested his forehead against hers, pushing his hat up out of the way.

“I guess this means it was all true. Does this mean you are going to leave me?” he asked in a quiet voice.

The look on Citra’s face wilted and the cry-lines beneath her eyes enhanced the expression. “You know I must,” she whispered. “I do not belong here. Where I came from, I have a purpose. Here, I am nothing more than a freak of nature.”

He reached up and fingered the opal necklace. “I don’t care. I don’t want you to go.”

“I am sorry, Jake.”

Samuel watched them touch and nuzzle one another and he began to fidget.  He cleared his throat after a bit and Citra looked back at him.

“How did you find me – here?” she asked, amazement creeping back across her face. She had never expected to see this man again.

Samuel looked around at the activity that still went on across the field.  “Is there somewhere we can discuss this in private?” he asked.

The cheetah indicated the wagon they stood beside. “In here,” she said, turning to the door.  Ever the gentleman where Citra was concerned, Jake opened the door for her and then offered her a hand when she moved up to the steps.  He followed her in, leaving Samuel to come in behind them.

Jake took the small room’s only wooden chair beside a small open window letting in fresh air as Citra climbed up onto a hand-quilted blanket covering the thin mattress of her bed.  Samuel leaned against the wall after closing the door and then slipped his hands into the pockets of his trousers.

“It took a lot of investigation, but we knew you’d gone back, although we didn’t know how far or where,” he started to explain, “so we did a worldwide search of historical newspaper archives looking for someone matching your description. We found something of that nature in an old article about Longhorn Tom's Wild West Extravaganza where Thomas K. Johnson mentioned a former competitor named Harrison who had a real-looking cat woman in his show that he’d tried to buy for his own. We knew it was you when it said the cat's stage name was Citra Kayah.”

Citra frowned. “That was a stroke of luck, Sam, but I could have easily been killed by a cattle rancher mistaking me for a strange looking mountain lion.”

“Well, we were also on the lookout for any articles about an odd, skinned pelt reported by cattlemen.”

The feline woman smirked.  “Oh… thanks.  I think.”

“We also had to include strange creature sightings like the New Jersey Devil, the chupacabra, Bigfoot and the like in our search… you wouldn’t believe just how many sightings of that last one we had to filter through!”

“That had to have been amusing.  I am glad you found me, but… what happened to me? How did I get here, and how did you get back here too?”

“Do you remember the fluctuations in the connection we had in the system just before you left?”

“That was months ago, but I seem to recall you mentioning it that morning.”

“There was another right when you stepped through the Gate to Hisashi. We lost the connection at the instant you went in, but we assumed it closed behind you so we reset the system and reestablished the wormhole.  You weren't at the receiving end, so we thought you had gone on to do your reconnaissance, but when you didn't report in after several hours, Robin went through to make sure some indigenous life form there hadn't injured you.  She couldn’t find you and saw no signs that you’d even left the area, so we had to assume something big had carried you off as soon as you stepped through and were beyond help.  We had no choice but to proceed with Robin assuming your duties – armed, of course.”

“I do not understand. If you had marked me as a casualty, why are you here now?”

Samuel smiled.  “After the larger Gate was constructed and the colony fully moved over to Hisashi, I started going back over the system event logs to see if I could explain the fluctuations in case they happened again; we never experienced any others, so it wasn't a concern through the rest of the colony operation.”

“I assume you discovered something if you are here now. What did you find?”

“The geosynchronous satellite over Hisashi recorded massive local solar flares from its parent star that washed over the planet at the time we established the bridged connection. The wave front coalesced with the planet’s magnetosphere and we’re assuming it disrupted the wormhole signal. The duration was short, but the disturbance was just long enough that the corridor phased backward across itself due to the sheer amount of power it takes to generate and push it toward the receiver. I feared that you might have been disintegrated immediately, but the signal from the tracker chip embedded beneath your skin was traceable all the way back to a different spatial area in Earth's orbit. 

“It took me a lot of research and a few arguments with Ben to stay on your trail. He was under pressure to begin operations to resupply another colony, but I didn't want to abandon you to your fate until I knew for sure what it was.  It came down to the middle of one night that I had run into a brick wall and was stumped with some odd readings buried in the signal. I was sure it had something to do with your emergence point, but was at a loss how to proceed.”

Jake listened quietly to the discussion, but the confusing plethora of unintelligible babble was making him impatient and he began to fidget, much as he had the first time Citra had spoken of such things.

“I'd had my head down on my desk and needed rest,” Samuel continued, “but instead of going to sleep, my mind began to wander. After spying a data wafer on the desk, I started thinking about my family history, something I'd been researching right before you left, and a random old memory resurfaced that gave me a clue about what might have happened to you.

“Really? How did you get a clue about me from your family genealogy?” she asked, intrigued.

Jake looked interested, but interrupted. “That’s fine and you found her, but if you’re going to take her away, what can you tell me about my life?” he asked. “What did your history books say about me? Do I become a rich and famous showman?”

Samuel hedged for a moment, looking uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I should say anything,” he murmured. “No one should know too much about his own future.”

“I disagree,” Jake countered. “I’ll take my chances -- tell me!” Sam and Citra exchanged looks, and the cheetah silently nodded.

“So be it. Our history records say you died in a large fire that destroyed most of your company.” Jake looked stricken by this, but Sam continued. “Lightning from a late-season thunderstorm sparked a prairie fire that overtook your company during the night that was too fast for many to escape. I’m sorry, but a number of your people died in the fire and some of the bodies were burned too badly for real identification. It was reported that you were one of those. The show never recovered afterward, with the last performance just outside of Texarkana, Texas.”

 “Which is where we are now,” Citra observed in quiet horror.  She recalled the ground outside beneath her bare feet and noted just how dry the prairie grasses had been beneath them.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Harrison.”

“Died?”  Jake repeated with a disgusted look. “Burned to a crisp? How horrible!  When does it happen – tonight or tomorrow?”

“Tonight,” Samuel confessed, looking out at the cloudy sky through the window. “This is why I am here right now. I need to take Citra out of here before it happens.”

“I’ve got to move the company!” Jake exclaimed. “We can cancel tomorrow’s show and move somewhere else before it happens!”

“Yes, but in doing that, you might move to the very place where it happens, Mr. Harrison. We don’t know the exact location of the fire, but it seems there may be no way for you and your people to escape what’s coming. In the time where Citra and I are from, the event has already happened. It’s a part of history.”

Citra put a desperate hand on her old friend’s arm. “Sam! We can take Jake back with us!” she exclaimed hopefully.  “I saved his life, he saved my life – and now I can save his… again!”

“I don't know… That might be changing history.”

“My coming back here might have already done that!”

“You have added nothing more than a footnote, my citrakāyah. Any descendants Mr. Harrison might have would never be born if we took him.”

Jake took off his hat and held it in his lap.  “I can go with you? That would be better than dying in a fire!”

“If he dies tonight, he will not have any descendants, Sam! Nothing would change if he came with us, other than he would go on living!”

“If it's all the same to you,” Jake said soberly, “I don't want a death that kind of horrible!”

“You already said his body was not identified, that it was only thought his was one of those burned too badly to recognize! Maybe that is because he came back with us!”

Samuel turned his eyes upon the other man and studied him for a long moment, thinking things over. “Maybe,” he mused quietly.  “However, there is something else to consider.”

“What’s that?” Jake asked, rubbing his temples. This strange talk was giving him a headache.

“You may not like living in our year, Mr. Harrison. It's like nothing you could possibly even dream of, and will likely even be a nightmare for you.”

Jake snorted. “I've seen some wild things in my day, son. I’ve never been to a foreign country, but I’ve heard tell that some have customs considered really strange. I have seen how different things were between our homesteaders and the Indian nations right here and I’ve been able to live with them even if I think some of those are really odd.”

He looked over at the cheetah. “If Citra's there with me, I’d like to take that chance in your world. Nightmare or not, it has to be better than dying.”

“Taking you with us would be a one-way journey, Mr. Harrison.”

“So's dying!”

“You cannot come back if you don't like what you see. I cannot stress this enough. You might go on living, but you will leave this kind of life behind forever, so before you make your decision, keep that in mind.”

“If she came here and you came here, why do you say that I can’t come back?” Jake asked. “It sounds like that gate of yours can go anywhere in any year.”

The Amerindian looked frustrated. “The Gate wasn’t designed for this, and although I pushed hard for the attempt to come back to get her, my director was adamant that this would be the last time. There are too many variables and potential dangers, so the technology to do it again will be dismantled and the data erased as soon as we get back.”

“That sounds like Ben,” Citra muttered unhappily from her spot on the bed. She was an engineer and a scientist and didn’t like the notion of ignoring such a discovery, but from the months of her stay here, she also realized that it was probably the right thing to do. Fictional time travel stories were abundant in her era and all were wrought with the kind of dangers that could result.

Samuel looked over at her. “I was given three days to find you before the recall Gate appears for us, and it took me nearly all of that time to find you. You wouldn't believe the sheer amount of power we've had to employ to recreate the conditions that brought you – and me – to this place and time without a receiver. If my information is correct, everyone in Mr. Harrison's production will be bedded down for the night when it happens.”

“Every man has to die sometime,” Jake muttered. “For some of my folks, I guess it’s tonight, but for me I would choose not to meet the Death Angel just yet. I’ve already avoided him once, thanks to this lady-cat here.”  He glanced out the window at the people moving about and then looked back at Citra.  “What about her? People around here will notice her absence too. There’s too many folks who know about her now.”

The cheetah shook her head. “Very few of them really know how I got here, and with so many perished in the fire, those who are left may not even care if one of the animals got away in the confusion.”

“I suppose that’s so.”

Samuel looked at Jake for a long, quiet moment. “If you’ve made your final decision, we'll all need to leave this evening just after dark so no one sees us depart. This will keep with the history records of your disappearance, but our recall won’t be until tomorrow morning.  The coordinates for the place we'll need to be is approximately five miles due south of here, so we can plan to spend the night there.  Citra can accompany you back to your wagon, Mr. Harrison, so you can take a few personal items if you wish.”

“She doesn’t have to come with me,” Jake said stiffly. “It won’t take long to grab a few things from my wagon.”

Samuel shook his head. “You’ve expressed the notion of warning your people, having them move out of the danger. We can’t allow you to do that, Mr. Harrison; history must run its course.”  He turned to the cheetah.  “If you run into anyone, make sure he tells no one that you're both leaving or about what’s to come. I’ll wait for you in here.”

Jake snorted at the other man’s distrust, but he raised a hand as if giving an oath. “I promise not to spill the beans,” he said. 

Citra looked over at him with smirk, but Samuel pulled on the sleeve of his shirt. Glowing faintly upon his wrist in the dim light of the room was an electronic timepiece of a type Jake had never seen before. Samuel tapped its illuminated face several times and then studied something there.

“The Gate will appear at seven thirty-eight tomorrow morning, so we'll need to be in the right place by then.”

“Is there any danger of the fire spreading in that direction?” Citra asked.

“No, and that is why we chose those coordinates for the recall Gate. I have a tent and a couple of bedrolls stashed in that area, so we won’t have to camp out in the rain.”

Jake narrowed his eyes.  “If you know where the fire is not going to be for that, I could warn Desmond to move the company there.  That would save a lot of people from dying!”

Samuel Hawke was a larger man than Jake Harrison by inches. He stood up and towered over Jake, looking down at him with a dangerous expression. “That would be spilling the beans,” he said with a rumble in his voice, “something you just promised not to do.  I was under the impression that a man’s word meant something here.  Was I mistaken?”

Jake swallowed, but then shook his head. “No,” he said after a moment. “I have always prided myself at keeping my word.”

“That is a good attribute,” Samuel told him.  He held out his hand and Jake stood up to take it.  They shook hands and the expression on Jake’s face showed that he had accepted what he must – and must not – do over the course of the next few hours.

The showman looked over at the cheetah and let out a small sigh.  “I will miss these people and this kind of life,” he told her, “but if that’s what it takes to go on living, I’m glad you’ll be with me at least.”

Citra and Samuel exchanged a quick glance, but then she climbed off the bed to embrace him.  “Yes, I will be with you… as long as I can, Jake,” she promised. 

“Okay, now that this is all settled,” Jake said, “let me get a few things from my wagon and then I can saddle up my horse.”

“You will need to leave your horse here, Mr. Harrison,” Samuel said.

“What?  She might die in the fire!” Jake retorted incredulously. “She’s been a good mare.”

“If your horse is discovered missing, someone might think you escaped death instead of dying with the others. It’s possible she might get away on her own, but we can’t take her with us. It’s best we go on foot.”

Jake frowned deeply, but nodded. “It appears you know best in all things,” he grumbled, “but we don’t have to walk five miles to this gate of yours. We can take three of the show ponies from the corral and then let them go when we get to where we’re going to camp.” He swallowed hard and then added, “If the company is going to be broken after the fire, I doubt anyone will miss them.”

Samuel nodded. “That’s a good plan. You will need to leave your pistol behind, too.”

“What?  Why?”

Citra held up a pair of fingers.  “Two reasons,” she explained. “The first is that you will not need it where we are going. People do not need to carry guns for protection anymore.”

“The second reason,” Samuel added, “is that if it’s found and recognized among the burned ruins, it will complete the picture that you perished.”

Jake glanced at Citra with a look of annoyed acceptance. “Let’s go get my things before I change my mind.”

“It’s too late to change your mind anyway,” Samuel said.

“What do you mean?” Citra asked.

“Now that we’ve told him about what’s to come, if we leave him behind, you know he will warn his people and save himself.  To preserve history, we have to take him with us now.”

Sam and Citra looked back at Jake together. The showman looked indignant for a moment that they still felt he couldn’t be trusted, but then he realized that Samuel was right. Knowing of his own impending death, he would not have thought twice about warning the others in spite of giving his word if he was left to face the fire as he was supposed to.

“No turning back,” Jake said to his companions. “We have to go through with this.”  Citra put a reassuring hand on his arm and Samuel nodded. “Let’s get this over with,” Jake said firmly. 

In unison, all three turned to the door, but Samuel suddenly stopped and held up a hand. “One more thing, please.”

“What is it, Sam?” Citra asked, peering out the window. “You said we had to leave after sundown and it is getting close to that now.”

“This won’t take long.”

Jake and Citra sat down on the mattress side by side and both looked up at the Amerindian.  The large man smiled sheepishly and leaned back against the wall, sliding his hands into the pockets of his trousers.

“In the months you’ve been here, have you met an Indian by the name of Chetan?”

“Yes, he is a good friend of mine,” Citra answered.

Jake nodded and said, “He is one of my performers in reenactments of the times when the white man encountered the red man.”

“How do you know of Chetan?”

Samuel grinned.  “Chetan Hawk was my ancestor. I would very much like to meet him just for a few minutes before we go. He is the reason why I am in the Program.”

“He is? How?”

“He knew how to read and write in English and kept a diary that has been in the family for generations. In it, he spoke of his time with a Wild West show and his fondness for a special cat-like woman he knew only for a short time, though he never named her.  He never wrote much about her and didn't explain, but we've always wondered what he was talking about; some thought he’d just smoked too much peyote, but I never forgot it; that's the extra clue I said I had.”

Citra grinned, now fonder of her Indian friend. “He was also a bit of a visionary in the family,” Samuel continued. “Although uneducated for the most part, he seemed to have some foreknowledge of future events, from the settling of other worlds to the furmankind program itself!”

“He must have heard us talking,” Jake surmised aloud, looking at the cheetah. “That day on the trail to Topeka, when you gave me your fanciful story, remember?”

She nodded. “That must have been it,” she agreed. Looking at Samuel, she asked, “Since he obviously escapes the fire, do you think he might have changed history, knowing what he did?”

Samuel shook his head. “He never made any significant contributions to the world,” he said. “He never talked about it to anyone else as far as my knowledge extends, just kept it in his diary.”

“Perhaps that is for the best.”  She looked at him with a gentle smile.  “He is a good man, Sam. You should be proud to be part of his family.”

Her associate drew himself up with pride. “I am,” he said, “and thank you for telling me that.  I won’t tell him who I am, but I would like to meet him.”

“Well, we do not have much time, so we can go see him after Jake gets his things.”

“Are you going to warn him of the fire?” Jake asked suspiciously.

“Not at all,” Samuel assured him. “I already know that he survives the fire, so I am not tempted to give him any information about his fate. I give you my word that I only want to meet the man.”

Jake nodded. “That’s good enough for me.  Let’s go.”

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.