Return to the Library

A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 16
Into the Sunset

 

 “I knew it!” Jake complained, holding out one of the white robes at arm’s length. “Is this all you people wear here?”

The tall Amerindian laughed aloud.  “Mr. Harrison, these lab coats are only worn by the technicians who work here at this facility. We handle a lot of people and material supplying the colonies and these coats keep the clothes we wear under them clean.”

“Oh, just an overcoat,” Jake muttered, pursing his lips. “I knew I would need a job here, so are you putting me to work already? I thought Dr. Quarters was going to give me some time to think about it first.”

“Don’t be alarmed, Mr. Harrison. You and Susan will be going across town to a new apartment and we figured you would not attract too much attention if you wore one of these over your western clothing. This is just until we can get you some proper clothing to wear here.”

“I see.”  Jake took the lab coat and put it on begrudgingly.  It fit loosely over his garments, but was not uncomfortable.  He looked at himself in a floor-length mirror mounted to the wall in the men’s restroom and frowned.  “I look like a circus clown,” he muttered.

“Believe me, Mr. Harrison, that’s what people would say if they saw you in your regular clothes,” Samuel remarked. “They won’t even bat an eyelash seeing you in the lab coat.”

The showman turned to his companion.  “Are they going to make you my foreman?” he asked with a tone of resignation.

“I doubt it. Why?”

“In that case, I would prefer if you would not call me Mr. Harrison all the time. I would like it better if you simply called me Jake.”

The Amerindian held out a hand with a smile. “Pleased to meet you, Jake. I’m Sam.”

Jake took his hand and smiled for the first time. “Thank you, Sam.  If I am to be stuck here, I would like to be friends.”  Samuel nodded. “Likewise.  If I may make a suggestion, you might want to start addressing our Citra by her real name, Susan. I know how you’ve been addressing her in your show, and why, but around here I was the only one who called her Citra. I don’t mind you using it, but others around here might not know who you are talking about.”

“Sure, I can do that,” Jake replied. “She told me her real name, but she originally introduced herself to me as Citra Kayah. I’ve been calling her that for the past five months and it may be a habit hard to break by now.”

There was a knock on the door. “Hey, are you guys finished in there yet?” the cheetah’s voice said through the panel. “You take more time dressing than most women I know, and I know that all you are putting on is a lab coat!”

Jake glanced at Samuel with a look of long suffering.  “She talks differently now that she is home,” he remarked.

“How so?”

“She’s gotten more pushy!” he said intentionally loud enough for feline ears to hear him.

Samuel grinned and thumbed the door control, and the panel slid aside.  Citra was standing just on the other side with her hands on her hips.  Like the two males, she still wore her western clothing, but they were covered over by a lab coat.  There was a smirk upon her face and the tip of her tail was swishing back and forth under the hem of the coat.

“Seriously, what took you so long?” she asked, stepping aside to let them out into the corridor.

Jake looked straight into her eyes and said with a straight face, “I’ve enjoyed all the fine coffee I’ve had, but I had to get rid of it sometime.”

“I see,” she said with amusement. Looking up at Samuel, she asked, “What about you, big guy?  Did you have to go too?”

“Hey, all I did was walk in and hand him his lab coat!” he complained innocently.

In sheer spite of the white garment he claimed to detest, Jake put his Stetson on top of his head, then ran a finger across his mustache as if daring one of them to make him take it back off inside the building.

Citra laughed and then tapped his nose lightly with a claw tip. “Come on, hombre, we need to see Ben’s assistant. She is supposed to be setting us up with a place to live.”

Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and she turned to embrace him. “I’m glad you’re back,” he rumbled into one of her ears. Jake felt uncomfortable witnessing their closeness, especially after the confession he’d made earlier in front of everyone concerning his feelings for her.  He walked down the corridor to give the two friends a moment of privacy, and made a show of examining the brightly colored fish in an elaborate aquarium. Citra appreciated Jake’s thoughtfulness and gave her full attention to her tall companion.

“Thank you for coming back for me, Sam. I know you must have gone head to head with Ben just to try.”

“That I did,” Samuel admitted, “but you were worth it.  I reminded him just how much of an investment the AHCP had in you, and all he saw were the Credits.  As for me, I missed my special friend.”

The cheetah pulled back and looked up into his dark eyes. She searched them imploringly and saw something in them she’d never seen before; genuine affection.  Completely ignoring Jake, she got up onto the tips of her toes and gave him a brief, fuzzy kiss on the lips.

“I am sorry we never got together,” she whispered only loud enough for him to hear.

“Me too, but we had our chance and neither of us did anything about it,” Samuel murmured, running his tongue across his lips; kissing bifurcated lips was a new experience. “Maybe that was because you were due to leave for Hisashi and we knew we’d never see one another again.”  He leaned down and kissed her forehead this time before pushing her out to arm’s length. “However, you need to give him a chance now. If he chooses furmankind, he’s going to need you more than ever.”

“What if he chooses not to do it?” she asked, a trace of fear in her voice. “Who will take care of him then?”

Samuel grinned mischievously. “There are western-themed bars all over Las Cruces,” he replied. “I’ll just have to take him to them one at a time until I can hook him up with a two-steppin’ cowgirl and sign him up for the rodeo circuit!”

They both burst out laughing and Jake looked back at them with sudden irritation, somehow knowing he’d just been the butt of a joke. 

*** 

Jake gripped a side bar on the wall of the aerial taxi with a death grip when the unmanned vehicle shot up into the evening sky.  The mustard-yellow egg-shaped pod had two facing bench seats and a large space between them for riders with luggage.  Citra sat opposite the man, unconcerned by the driverless flying vehicle, so he willed himself to calm down.

After several moments, however, Jake strained against the safety harness, pressing his nose and hands against the glassteel window to peer at the sprawling City of Crosses below. The sun was getting close to the horizon in the west and lights were already illuminating houses, buildings and lines along the streets. Even something as simple as city lights fascinated him, as it was a sight he’d never witnessed before, especially not from the air. The taxi had taken them high, but had not risen above the mountains to the east.

Jake did not like the sensations he felt in the pit of his stomach as the air pod zoomed along predetermined aerial lanes around the taller structures of the city, most of the buildings in the center part of the metropolis higher than he thought possible.  He peered upward through the curving side windows, but did not see any balloons holding the taxi egg aloft.

He was at a loss how something as heavy as the oval sphere could fly without bird wings or some other means of support. He swallowed hard when their flying carriage careened around the corner of an unusually tall building, then dropped toward the ground at an alarming rate. With his stomach in his throat, Jake was certain his trip to this future year was about to end abruptly, but then the egg slowed when it approached the ground.  There was a series of white circles alongside the street at the front of the building, and other taxi pods occupied several of them. 

Their taxi settled gently to the ground in an empty circle on four thin extended pylons, and then a small, flat panel flipped out from a section of the wall opposite the door. Citra leaned over the panel, tapped in a code and then pressed her thumb against a small glass square.

 “What are you doing?” Jake asked curiously, waiting for his stomach to catch up to him.

“Paying for our ride.”

“Where’s your money?”

Citra smiled. “My money is in a bank, but I can access it through the network and pay for things with just my thumbprint.”

He thought about that for a moment, watching her tap the scanner screen again for a moment. “I didn’t know animals had fingerprints,” he muttered.

“Most do not even have fingers,” she reminded him, “but fingerprints came with the human part of my hybrid physiology – thankfully, otherwise I could not get to my funds very easily!”

“This is a strange world you live in.”

“No, just more convenient,” she countered. “Once mankind got hold of technology, we learned to do all kinds of things with it to make our lives better.”

“Tech… technology is not part of my world,” Jake replied sullenly. “To someone like me, this is a strange world.”

Ride fee paid, the curved side of the pod facing the tall building popped out and slid to the side, allowing them to exit. The only luggage they carried was their western hats and Jake’s pillowcase of meager belongings – minus the pistol that Samuel locked away.  Citra led him across a concrete sidewalk toward the glass front of the building, and just as they did at the Gate facility the front doors slid aside at their approach.  After several hours of going through such doors, Jake was already getting used to them and didn’t even flinch when it slid back into place behind him when they entered the lobby.

There were several people milling around in the foyer and Jake had to fight to keep from staring. They were ordinary folk, but two of the women wore so little that he could feel his neck and face heating up from embarrassment.

The two women saw his wide-eyed gaze and grinned openly, apparently amused by his archaic hat matched with a white coat. They were both wearing fashionable bikinis that barely covered their attributes, having just emerged from the building’s ground floor swimming pool, and were waiting beside another set of glass doors.

Jake swallowed, having never seen so much exposed flesh in public, and he felt it best to avert his eyes. He chanced another look when the door slid aside and they stepped into a transparent tube.  The door closed and then he watched open-mouthed as, standing on a small platform, they began to rise up inside the tube.  They quickly moved out of view and he rubbed his eyes.

Citra was talking quietly with a brown-headed man behind a podium who seemed to be dressed in dark green clothing that covered him from the neck down to his black-shod feet. His clothes seemed to be a solid piece of fabric, and Jake was hard pressed to see even a seam in the material.

Jake moved to stand beside the cheetah and watched her affix her thumbprint to another box that the other man held out to her.  At the insistence of a sharp chirp, she spread out her hand, palm downward, across the box.  A thin red string seemed to come out of nowhere and move over her fingers, then it disappeared just as suddenly and the box began chirping again.

A moment later, the man behind the podium turned to the wall behind him and picked up something that dropped out of a small hole.  When he picked up and handed the object to the Fur, Jake saw that it was a golden ring, simple in design without even a gemstone accent.

Citra turned to Jake and gestured to the box.  “Your turn,” she said cryptically.  When he did nothing but look confused, she gently took his hand and positioned his thumb over the box. He felt nothing from the contact with the glass scanner, but when it chirped, she helped him splay out his hand just as she had done.

“Do not move,” she instructed him.  Before he could wonder if it would hurt, the red string appeared over his fingers, but he couldn’t feel a thing.  The string looked no more substantial than if it had been made of light. A moment later, the man at the podium held out another ring identical to Citra’s, albeit a little larger, and he took it mutely.

“This is the key to our apartment,” she explained, slipping hers onto the ring finger of her left hand.  Jake raised an eyebrow and then removed his old wedding band; he didn’t know why he still wore it, but there was no need for it now.  He pocketed it and then slipped on the larger ring that had been given to him.  To his surprise, it fit him perfectly and was not altogether uncomfortable.

Citra smiled and then turned back to the apartment manager.  “Thank you, Mr. Caxton.  When can we expect to move in?”

“Your place is ready and waiting,” Caxton replied in a smooth voice. “Dr. Quarters’ office was specific in your needs and we had one already furnished. The kitchen has been freshly stocked and several parcels arrived a half hour ago by drone for the other things we were told you required. All have been charged to your account, Ms. Foreman.”

“Very good; we would like to go up right away,” she replied. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Caxton, although I never expected to be back in this neighborhood.”

“We are glad to have you with us again,” the man replied with a genuine-seeming smile, leading her and her companion across the lobby to the same glass doors Jake had seen the swimmers go through earlier.  “I have also been informed you should expect the rest of your belongings that were placed in storage to arrive sometime tomorrow morning.”

Citra smiled and nodded, but didn’t reply.  Jake stood beside her as they were apparently waiting for something by the doors.  After a moment, he heard a light humming and then saw an empty platform descend inside the tube.  The doors slid aside and he followed his companions into the small compartment.

“Is this another tack-see?” he asked when the doors closed. He expected to go flying up through the air again, but he was only partially correct.

“No, Jake, this is an elevator. It will take us up to the floor where our new apartment is located.”

“It’s upstairs?  Why don’t we just go up the stairs?”  The platform began to rise straight up inside the transparent tube and it was only then that Jake realized the tube was mounted to the outside of the building.

The manager smiled in amusement. “We have emergency stairs, Mr. Harrison,” he said, addressing Jake for the first time since the documents had been signed and the keys issued, “but I do not think you would want to walk up twenty-one flights to get to your new home.”

“Twenty-one!” Jake gasped, looking out through the glassteel wall of the elevator at the shrinking ground below; there were tall buildings in his time, but the tallest he had ever been in had only had four floors. There was a ring of indirect lights inside the ceiling of the lift, though the sun outside had already begun to disappear below the horizon, casting the city in darkness that tried in vain to overtake its myriad of lights.  It moved slower than the air taxi, but he wasn’t sure he liked the feeling in his stomach any better now than he had then.

“I understand you may be with us another two years,” Caxton remarked in courteous conversation, his hands together before him. “Did something happen to your assignment?”

Citra nodded. “Yes, I had to return ahead of schedule, but I am not at liberty to discuss details. I may need to undergo further training before I can go out again and Mr. Harrison here may accompany me next time.”

“Indeed!” Caxton replied.  He looked again at Jake and seemed to study him for a moment. The elevator car slowed to a stop and the door behind the manager opened to let them exit.  “In that case, I wish the two of you the best of luck!”

“Thank you.”

Jake nodded and cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir,” he said politely.

Caxton led them along a long carpeted hallway adorned with fake-looking plants and oil paintings in expensive frames set in intervals between doors that Jake assumed were to other apartments.  They walked about halfway down the corridor and the manager stopped in front of a wooden door that was simply marked 2199 in metallic numerals, then clasped his hands together behind his back.

Citra looked at Jake to get his attention and then held up her left hand paw with the new ring on her stubby finger.  She put the ring near the door number and there was a faint click right before the panel slid aside to let them in.

“Huh,” Jake murmured when Citra walked inside.  Caxton indicated that he should follow her and then the manager came in last.

The room immediately inside was not large, but ample to contain the furnishings within. The walls were light tan and the carpet was in earth tones to match the furniture.  Most everything looked recognizable to the former showman, although in styles he would have never been able to come up with in his imagination.

The manager simply stood in the entranceway quietly while Citra walked from room to room. There was a modest kitchen with a stocked pantry and lots of cabinets, a dining area and a laundry room. A full sized bathroom contained twin sinks, a glassed-in shower, a huge deep tub and a full-body dryer in the corner in addition to a pedestal toilet. Jake looked at this last item curiously and wondered about its design until he realized that someone like Susan with a tail would be more comfortable perched upon a pedestal than a chair-like toilet; at least it wasn’t a cat’s large scratch box.

The single bedroom was also modest, but contained a large walk-in closet with built-in dresser drawers, and the queen-sized bed faced a large wall-mounted vidscreen.  The bedroom had a window to the outside, but the drapes were closed, and the front room also had a wall of drapes.  Citra pulled these to the side and opened a manual sliding glass door. She stepped out onto a small covered balcony and inhaled the rain-soaked air with a smile.  Knowing how high up they were, Jake chose not to join her on the balcony, despite all the city lights beckoning to him.

“This apartment is better than the one I had before,” Citra said approvingly when she came back inside.

“There are no complaints?” asked the manager.

“None.”

“Good night, then.”  He gave them both a brief smile and then departed quickly.

As soon as he was gone, Jake removed the lab coat and tossed it over the back of a dining chair with a curious horizontal slot down low in the back. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the door and asked, “Are Furs so commonplace that normal folk don’t even bat an eye seeing one of you?”

The cheetah shrugged. “We still get some stares,” she explained, “but this complex is the one used to house all the Furs who come to Las Cruces for the colonization program or other associated personnel. I used to live here, but on a different floor.”

Jake walked to the balcony door and reopened it to let in some fresh outside air.  “Is there a reason why you have to live so far up off the ground?  Is it so you can catch the flying eggs from up here?”

Citra laughed.  “No, we are up high because all the apartments lower down are probably already occupied. This building can house a lot of people.”

It was getting darker outside, but rain was falling again and the winds at this elevation were starting to blow some of it inside, so Jake shut the door and then turned to face her.  Although evening here, it had only been a few hours since the two of them had woken up. He wasn’t sleepy, though he did feel tired from the recent stresses of the new time and place, not to mention the loss of their friends.

“I have not had a proper cleaning since I first went through the Gate,” Citra said. “I could use a nice hot shower or a soaking bath.”

Jake looked interested, suddenly aware of his own personal aroma.  There weren’t many baths to be had while on the trail between towns, and although he usually bathed when he stayed in a hotel in whatever town the show stopped in, his last had been two weeks prior in Springfield.  He had done nothing more than sponge bathe prior to the dinner he and Citra had taken with the Texarkana mayor and his wife. A little bit of cologne had helped mask the odor, but now that he was standing in a clean room, he had no trouble smelling his fragrance.

“I saw your bathtub,” he remarked, “but I did not see a bucket or a stove to heat the water.”

The cheetah’s eyes glimmered with her smile. “Come, let me introduce you to indoor plumbing, Jake. I will let you bathe first.”

He followed her through the bedroom into the bathroom and she gave him quick instructions on how everything worked.  She started it for him and showed him how to adjust the temperature of the water to satisfaction and then told him what to do to turn it off when the tub was filled to the desired height. He asked about soap and she showed him a plastic bottle containing a pale blue liquid, explaining how to dispense it.

“I will leave you to bathe,” she told him. “Take your time and soak as long as you want. Clean clothes for both of us have been provided, so I will lay out something for you on the bed. Leave your dirty clothes on the floor and I will gather them up to have them cleaned and packed away tomorrow.”

“What are you going to do while I am in here?” he asked, waiting for her to leave before he so much as took off his boots. He sat down on the edge of the tub, idly keeping an eye on the quickly rising level of the water.

“I am going to send a few messages and reestablish a few contacts.”

Jake didn’t know by what method she would send out messages, but he assumed it was some otherworldly version of a wire telegraph. He decided not to ask and merely grunted.  She shut the door behind her and he shut off the water, surprised at how quickly it had filled up. He disrobed quickly and then sank deep into the hot water. Tired muscles began to ease within moments and he closed his eyes while his body soaked. 

*** 

Jake peered out of the bathroom wearing nothing more than a thick green towel wrapped around his waist and noted with relief that the cheetah was not in the bedroom.  The door to the hallway was standing open and he could hear several low voices. He frowned and tiptoed to the door to close it. If Citra had invited over a few guests, he didn’t want any of them peeking in at him before he was decent.

Now secluded in privacy, he walked to the bed and looked down at the garments she had laid out for him.  It appeared to be a pair of dark grey trousers, a white long-sleeved shirt, undershirt, socks and an odd-looking pair of underpants. There was also the strangest pair of shoes that looked like nothing else he’d ever seen before. He looked them over for a moment with a frown, but decided to try out the clothes before he gave himself a headache trying to figure out the footwear.

He slid on the underwear first and gulped at how formfitting they were. They were not necessarily uncomfortable, but they fit more snugly than anything he was used to. He didn’t want to think about the fact that a woman – even one in cheetah form – had handled such things prior to him wearing them, so quickly put it out of his mind.

The trousers fit well, and although they were of a style and material different than those he’d worn here, they were not bad. He was surprised to find that there were no familiar buttons to close up the fly. There were some kind of fasteners imbedded within the material, and when he put them close to one another, they seemed to adhere to one another and practically disappear from sight once they closed together. 

The undershirt felt similar to the underpants in that they were so formfitting as to feel like a second skin. He put it on backwards the first time, but then realized just by looking at it that the neck opening was deeper on one side than the other, indicating a front to the garment. The outer shirt closed together in the manner as the trousers, so he tucked the tail of the shirt into his pants and found a simple belt on the bed.

He picked up this last item with a smile. It might be three hundred years removed from where he’d been that morning, but belts hadn’t changed much in all that time – or so he thought.  He threaded it through belt loops in the trousers just as he’d done for years, but when he looped it through the buckle, it seemed to latch together on its own without a tongue through a hole in the material. It was all strange, but he had managed to figure it out on his own.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and was surprised at the feel of the mattress. It was softer than anything he’d ever sat on before, including chairs and cushions at some of the fancier hotels he had been in.

He looked around and remembered with a frown that he had seen only the one bed inside the apartment.  This was obviously Citra’s bed – Susan’s bed, he reminded himself of what Sam had recommended – but where was he to sleep?  On the couch, or would they have him in a different apartment that they’d forgotten to show him?

He didn’t want to impose, but he wanted a better feel of the bed first.  He climbed up into the middle of the mattress and then stretched out on top of the smooth comforter on his back. He laid his damp hair upon one of the two pillows and he sank into it far enough that he thought he might disappear altogether.  He grinned foolishly and then closed his eyes, enjoying the luxurious comfort.

He opened his eyes again at a gentle shaking.  He blinked several times, and had a brief spike of terror when he looked up into the amused expression on the cheetah’s face.

“Welcome back,” she said with a cheerful smirk.  Jake surmised he must have drifted off to sleep and gave her a relaxed smile.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “I wanted to try out your comfy bed and must have dozed off.”

“That is okay,” she replied. “We are both tired from the events of the day and I do not blame you for taking a quick nap.”

“Uhm, how long was I asleep?”

“I left you to take a bath an hour ago,” she said. “I was concerned when you did not come out, so I came in to check on you.”

Jake sat up and scooted to the edge of the mattress. “I’m glad I dressed first,” he mused, feeling his cheeks warm up.  Susan smiled and used her claw tips to smooth down his hair. He had lain down with it still damp and now his hair wanted to stand up.  It was little different that some hairstyles, but she knew it wouldn’t suit him.

“I heard voices earlier. Who was here?”

She tilted her head for a moment and then her eyes lit up. “No one was here,” she answered. “I was watching the news on the vidscreen. I have some catching up to do.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That is okay. I can show you later. You do not have to get up now if you would prefer to sleep longer,” she told him.

“Where would I sleep?” he asked quietly.

“Here, of course.”

“Of course? I thought this was your bed.”

“Jake, this is our bed, just as this is our apartment.”

“Now wait a minute,” he said, standing up quickly. “That’s not proper!”

Susan smiled, remembering the time period where he was from. The sensibilities of folk in the late 1800s were not the same as they were now, as they had been for centuries, and personal beliefs were much more structured.

“I am sorry, Jake,” she told him. “Dr. Quarters did tell you that we would be staying together until we figured out what to do with you, so he had his assistant set up this apartment for both of us. It could be up to two years before I might be reassigned to another world.”

“I can understand that,” he replied, “but I did not presume that he would expect us to sleep together in the same bed!”

Susan looked up at him, the expression on her face appeared solemn due to the dark cry lines in the fur beneath her eyes. “Jake,” she said calmly, “is sleeping beside me such a bad thing? I thought you liked me.”

“Ma’am,” he said frostily, “no man likes to admit this to a woman he likes, but I am no stranger to a brothel. Despite this unsavory fact, I have never lived in one!”

The Fur sighed aloud. “I understand your upbringing and our cultural differences, but if all we do is sleep, what harm can it be?”

“No, apparently you do not understand my upbringing!” he snarled.  Jake crossed his arms and began pacing the floor. “As I told your Dr. Quarters, I am not about to cross that line!”

Susan got up off the bed, all her earlier amusement evaporated. “Jake,” she said haughtily, “this is not a cat house and I am not offering my body to you. If you cannot simply sleep beside me – as we did last night – I will ask Mr. Caxton tomorrow if he will put us into a two-bedroom apartment instead – unless even that is too taboo for your delicate sensibilities and you need a place of your own altogether!”

She stormed across the room toward the bathroom and stopped at the doorway. “You can have the bed tonight – by yourself – and I will sleep on the couch, but right now I need a hot shower. I am dusty and dirty, and by your notions not all of that is from sleeping in an animal cage!”

She punched the door panel button and disappeared into the bathroom. Jake stared at the closing panel, for once glad the sliding doors could not be slammed in anger.  He sighed in frustration and picked up the shoes that had been left for him.  Without another look at the comfortable bed, he left the room and closed the door softly behind him.

He approached the couch and sat down on it. The cushions were almost as comfortable as the bed had been, which was good for him. He’d already determined that despite how rough he might be around the edges, he was still too much of a gentleman to take the bed and make a woman sleep on the couch.

He was far too keyed up to sleep, and the nap had given him some rest anyway, but he didn’t really want to face her wrath again when she came out of the shower.  Perhaps it was time to take a walk and cool his heels.

He looked at the odd shoes for a moment and thought he knew how to put them on.  He slid a foot into one, finding it not uncomfortable, and the opening adhered itself together just as the shirt and trousers had done. His foot was snug inside the sneaker and he put on the other one.  He stood up and then walked around the room in them, feeling almost bouncy on the cushioned soles.

“I don’t like these, not one bit,” he muttered to himself. The soft sides gave in too much and he didn’t feel confident walking in them, so he sat down and pulled at one; the opening parted and his foot slipped out. He looked around and spied a plastic tub near the laundry room containing their old garments, and a moment later, he had the legs of his new trousers tucked into the top of his old boots, feeling much more at home in them.

He picked up his pillow case from the dining table and peered down inside of it. His meager belongings were mixed all about, but he spied what he wanted. He fished out an Indian-made hair comb made of fish bone and ran it over his hair using his reflection in the glass of the patio door to give it some semblance of order.  He walked toward the front door and automatically reached for his Stetson, but stopped himself.

These folk don’t wear hats anymore, he mused to himself.  He’d not seen many people after leaving the facility warehouse, but hadn’t seen hats on any of them.  He heaved a sigh and left it where it sat upside down on a small decorator table. That was one of the things he would miss wearing in this new time and place.

Remembering the ring key on his hand, he waved it in front of the door and heard it click.  The panel slid aside and he walked out, letting it close on its own behind him. 

*** 

When Susan emerged from the bathroom, having been through the shower and full-body fur dryer, she was groomed and ready to apologize to Jake. She wore a simple pair of furman shorts and a Japanese yukata that had been modified with an opening for her tail. The cotton outer garment was decorated with a pattern of cherry blossoms on a pale pink background. She stepped out into the front room, but saw no one.

“Jake?” she queried tentatively.  She received no response as she looked from room to room. The apartment was not large enough for many places to hide and she began to feel uneasy with his absence.  She went to the patio door and slid it aside, but there was nothing out there except a small table with two chairs, all of which were damp from the day’s rain.

She closed the door quietly and gazed around the room. Where could he have gone?  She glanced toward the front door, but his Stetson was still on the decorative table. His pillowcase of belongings rested upon the dining table, too.  Her eyes fell upon the blue and white sneakers she’d put out for him to wear, but they sat beside the couch. It was then she noticed his boots were missing from their old clothes she’d dropped into a hamper with the intention of having them cleaned.

She frowned with a new sudden thought and rushed back to the patio. It was no longer raining, but the damp surface of the balcony did not show his boot prints leading to the wrought iron rail; for a moment, she had been afraid he had thrown himself off in anguish.

Even if he hadn’t done so, where was he?

Susan sighed and figured he must have gone out. There was no telling where he might have gone, and that alone could be potentially dangerous with his unfamiliarity of the place.  She swallowed and quickly left the apartment.

Padding cat-silent down the hallway, she approached the elevator doors. The platform was rising within the transparent tube and there were several figures inside.  It stopped at her level, and when the door opened Jake looked out at her with a wide-eyed expression. He was accompanied by two other Furs, both female and both looking extremely amused. The females were vixens, one red with black accents and the other pure arctic white, and they were wearing only their natural fur coats with minimalist shorts.

“Hej, är du Citra?” asked the white fox with a tilt of her vulpine head, one hand hanging possessively off Jake’s shoulder.

Relieved to find Jake safe, Susan gave the vixen a smile and nodded. “Yes, I am Citra. Where you did you pick up my wayward friend?”

“He was wandering around down on Twelve looking like a little lost child,” answered the red vixen. Jake’s face and neck were flushed deep red. “Try as we might, we could not get much out of him other than your name, floor and a few mumbled sentences.”

Susan stepped forward and took his hand. “Thank you for returning my pet human,” she said with an easy laugh. “I may have to put him on a leash to keep him from running away!”

Jag kan hålla honom om vi hittar honom springa lös igen,” said the arctic fox with a yip and a feral grin.

Jake blinked. “What did she say?” he asked ruefully.

“My Swedish is rusty,” Susan said with a smirk, “but I believe she said she may keep you if she finds you running loose again.”

The red vixen laughed aloud. “Yes, that is what she said.”  Both foxes snuggled up on each of Jake’s sides, making a furry vulpine sandwich out of them all, and then each gave him a brief lick on the cheek.  His eyes went open really wide and all three women giggled at his traumatized expression.

He looked at Susan with eyes that begged and he rasped, “Take me home, please!”

“Thank you for bringing him back,” the cheetah said to the vixens, still smirking.

“You are welcome!” said the red one. “Feel free to visit again, handsome. You too, Citra. We are in 1261.”

“Han är kul att retas!” said the other with a snicker.

Jake’s rescuers stepped back into the still-open elevator and both gave him a wave of waggling fingers, punctuated by provocative hip-wiggles and bushy tail-wags.  The platform dropped out of sight and Jake looked back at Susan, a thoroughly mortified look on his weathered face.

“W-wha... what did the... the white one say before she left?”

Susan grinned, showing a full set of teeth. “She said you were fun to tease.”

“Nice…” he muttered in defeat. They turned and walked back up the corridor to the apartment. Susan opened the door and Jake meekly followed her inside.

When the door closed, Jake went right to the couch and sat down as if he was completely deflated and his bones had turned to jelly.

“What happened?” Susan asked, sitting beside him, though not touching.

“After our... argument I needed a few minutes to cool my head, so I decided to go walking. The hallway outside isn’t very long, so I tried the el-vater hoping I could go back downstairs, but it only took me down a few floors before I could try any of the circles on the wall. I ran into a crowd of werewolf Furs and got turned around when they were grouped by the door to get in the el-vater. The hall on that floor went ‘round in circles and I lost track of where I was.”

He shrugged his shoulders and dropped his gaze. “I felt lost and then I only wanted to get back in here, so I knocked on a door at random and those two came to the door.  Neither was wearing anything at all!”

“Looked like they had on their shorts to me,” Susan countered.

“They... uh... they put them on only because... I, uh, I asked them to,” he stammered.

The cheetah gave him a little smile, even though he wasn’t looking up at her.  “Jake, you have seen me without clothes many times. It was not until I started performing my act at the end of your show that you started seeing me in clothes.”

“That – was different,” he muttered.

“How is that different?”

“I only saw you as an intelligent talking cat at first,” he confessed, pain in his voice. “It was only later I started seeing you as... as a woman. You’ve told me there were other types of Furs, but this was the first time I’ve seen the wolves and foxes. Seeing these two as fox women made the difference. I… I got embarrassed.”

“Jake – you are a man of the world and I have seen you afraid of very little, but sometimes you seem as innocent as a teenager with your old-world upbringing. I really am sorry, and I apologize for my outburst earlier. I should not have tried to push my ideals – my modern morals – upon you. You cannot help how you think any more than I can.”

He looked up and gave her a little smile. “Thank you,” he said. “As I told you months ago, I am not used to feeling stupid, and I seem to feel that way a lot when I’m around you.”

She leaned forward and rested her chin upon his shoulder, looking down at her hands. “Jake, you are not stupid. You are just not used to the same things I am – and that is a big difference; bigger, at times, than either of us realize. Please forgive me for forgetting that.”

“I forgive you, Susan. I also keep forgetting that you don’t have the same raising that I’ve had.  Here, you have different notions of what is or is not proper.  An unmarried man and a woman sleeping in the same bed together may not be a bad thing to you, but in my time it was a sin.  I… I have sinned in that manner, but never with anyone that I had feelings for.  There’s a difference, but I don’t know how to say how.”

Susan leaned back and looked at him. She put a hesitant hand upon his arm and was encouraged when he didn’t flinch or pull away.  “Jake…” she started, choosing her words carefully, “I do not care what you may have done before we met, and you cannot help anything I did with my life.  None of that matters.  But – if we are to stay together until I get a new assignment, we will need to keep one another’s feelings in mind.”

“That sounds sensible.”

“While we Furs are first and foremost people, we’re also social animals of a type, and sleeping beside someone else is most comforting to us. I will not say that... adult activities do not happen, but sleeping together does not automatically mean we will do anything more than just sleep.”  Jake opened his mouth to remark, but she put a silencing finger up to his lips.  “This is not a belief you share with me, but I will respect that.  Simply because you live with me and we share feelings for one another does not mean we are required to sleep together.  We will sleep apart tonight, and then tomorrow I will see Mr. Caxton about moving us a place where we each have our own bedroom.”

“That will probably be best. Thank you.”

She patted his hand and then stood up.  “Now that we have reached an understanding, come with me to the dining table. There is something I think we need to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Come – to the table.”

He stood up and followed her as directed. She sat down in one the chairs with the odd slot in the back and he saw her slide her tail into it. His eyebrows went up in understanding. It made sense to him now to have tail-friendly chairs in a place where Furs lived.  She indicated that he should sit in another chair beside her and then then she reached for something on the table he hadn’t noticed before.

It looked like a large book and then she opened it up like one.  She tapped its edge and the book’s shiny surface lit up with pictures and text.  She tapped in a few words using her claw tips on part of the surface and the pictures changed. Jake leaned in closely and suddenly recognized a face.

“It’s Sonya Brandy!” he exclaimed. “Only… she looks old.”

Moisture welled up in Susan’s eyes. “Yes, she was one of the survivors of the fire and lived to be eighty-three.  She married a man named Michaleen Flynn in Illinois and had four sons.”

Jake’s throat tightened. “Sounds like she found a good Irishman to suit her. We already know that Chetan Hawk lived on. Any others?”

“Let me check.”

Another photo came up on the screen a moment later and Jake’s heart skipped a beat.  It wasn’t another person, but it was a sepia tone photograph showing the charred remains of a field where blackened husks of wagons, carts and numerous bodies littered the ground.  Several people stood around in the background, smudged with soot and all looking glum at the catastrophe around them.  Jake closed his eyes.

“What about Emmett?” he asked quietly, “or Doc Lane?”

Susan continued tapping instructions and the page filled up with text.  Susan’s eyes roved over the material for a moment before she sat back in her chair.  “Both perished in the fire,” she said, her voice husky with emotion. “Emmett Desmond got out in time, but he was seen going back in to help someone else. He and the other person did not make it back out. The fire caught Randall Lane in his sleep, as it did many others.”

She read off more names of those who died and Jake seemed to wilt with each one he heard. He was thankful for the names she didn’t read, but there were so many who didn’t make it. Too many… After a little more research, they discovered that Mrs. Norris, hardy and stubborn old woman that she was, collapsed at the Tanglewood Ranch when she heard the news and never recovered. Harrison’s estate was in probate for months before lawyers found a distant young niece related to him in New Jersey and everything went to her. Unfortunately, she was inexperienced with money or property and made several bad decisions based upon the relationships she had at the time, winding up losing everything.

Jake put his arms on the table and his head upon them.  “The same thing would have happened if I had stayed there and died,” he murmured.  “Everything I built is gone, leaving no legacy.”

Susan slid an arm across his shoulders and gave him a gentle hug. “The difference is that you are still alive. The company and everyone you knew may be gone, but you still have a chance to make something of your life, Jake.”

He looked up and a firm resolve came across his face.  “You’re right,” he said, sitting up again. “People of this time probably don’t remember that much about how the west was settled. Maybe I can start up a new traveling Wild West reenactment company to teach your folk what happened back then!”

Susan frowned and returned to her computer tablet.  She tapped on the screen for a moment and then shook her head.  “From what I can find, such shows disappeared about two hundred years ago,” she told him. “People lost interest and there was no money in them anymore.”

Jake seemed to wilt and rubbed his eyes. He reached across the table to his pillowcase and started pulling out items and spreading them out. Susan closed up the tablet and set it aside, watching him work in mute silence. Most of what he’d brought with him was personal curios that meant something to the man; sadly, the company money he’d brought was long out of date and unredeemable. He also had a couple of books, two photographs and a few things for personal hygiene like his shaving kit, comb and scissors for his mustache.

Susan picked up one of the sepia tone photographs in a hand-carved wooden frame.  “Who was she?” the Fur asked curiously.

“Mabel Harrison, my late wife,” he muttered without looking at it. “The other is of my son, Douglas.”

“Did Douglas ever marry?”

“No, there wasn’t anyone who could tie him down long enough. There was a gal in Tin City who was sweet on him, but he never seemed interested in her affections.”

He looked at his meager possessions on the table for a moment and then shoved everything but the cigar box back into the pillowcase. He slid the box of company funds in front of Susan.

“This is all the money I have,” he said solemnly. “Would you put this into your bank for me? It may be all I have to live on after you go away.”

She nodded, unwilling to tell him that the amount she had seen him count out would not have lasted but a few days with the current economy even if the currency was valid. They might be able to sell his bills and coins to a collector and get more for them, but it would still be paltry.

Jake rubbed his eyes again and then pulled his watch from the pocket of his trousers. He popped the cover open and then stared at it for a long moment. “It’s not that time anymore,” he muttered. “I need to reset it to your clock.”  He didn’t bother changing it, however, and put it back in his pocket. 

  “It’s a little cool in here tonight,” he remarked with a tired yawn. “I think I will need a blanket and a pillow for the couch.”

“I will get them for you,” Susan replied, getting to her feet.  “If you would prefer to take the bed, I can sleep out here tonight.”

Jake shook his head and gave her a pleasant smile. “Now what kind of gentleman would I be if I made a beautiful woman sleep on the couch?” he asked, standing up beside her.  She sighed with a smile and brushed a finger through the bangs across his forehead.

“Thank you, kind sir.”

Once he had a pallet made for his bed, Susan bid him good-night and then retreated to the bedroom to let him undress. She was unbelievably tired, and looking back at him before shutting off the lights and closing her door, it looked like he was dragging as well. It had only been six hours since they’d gotten up that morning in 1892 and it should feel like it was only early afternoon to both of them, but neither of them had had anything but restless sleep the previous night.

She stripped off her shorts and yukata and laid them across a corner chair before she stretched out on the bed.  She’d had a mattress in the wagon cart she’d been given, but it had been thin and provided little actual comfort.  This was a real bed! 

*** 

When Susan emerged from the bedroom the next morning she found Jake standing out on the patio balcony.  His hands were resting on the rail and he was gazing out across the top of a layer of thin fog at the mountains that stuck up through it like a chain of islands in a sea.

She put her hands on the rail beside his and he looked over at her.  He noticed right off that she wore nothing but her fur and he started to say something, but then realized that anything he said would spark another argument. Despite the lack of clothing, she was sufficiently covered up and he knew he was going to have to get used to such things. He didn’t like it, but he held his tongue.

“Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “How did you sleep?”

“As the saying goes, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.  I was tired, worn out and I don’t think I even dreamed, but I was up before the sun rose over the mountains.”

“How is your head?”

It took a moment before he realized what she meant, but he gave her a crooked smile and tapped his forehead with a finger. “It’s still jumbled and confused, but it will settle down soon enough. Once my noggin realizes that it cannot change what’s happened and just accept every new thing that comes along, I’ll be okay.”

“I am glad to hear it.”

He turned around and put his back to the rail. “I could not find a coffee pot or grounds, though,” he said, directing a mock glare toward the kitchen. “How do you start a day without coffee?”

Susan laughed. “I am in complete agreement with that. We should have coffee and a coffee maker in there. Let me see if I can find it.”

She dropped to all fours, the first time since they’d arrived, and padded toward the kitchen. Jake admired her sleek figure and mentally scolded himself for thinking that way only a moment later.

“Here it is,” she announced, back up on two feet and holding a black carafe. It looked nothing like a coffee pot and didn’t look as if it would hold up well over a flame, but she didn’t even have a fire going from the odd-looking stove.  She filled up the container with water from the sink, but then poured it all back into something on the counter that defied Jake’s comprehension.  She put the empty carafe down into the bottom of the device and then opened a cabinet door. She pulled out a round white ball the size of an egg and studied a label affixed to its side.  The cheetah nodded to herself and then put the ball into the top of the device.

It only took a moment before the room was filled with the rich aroma of coffee. It had a scent that enticed Jake’s nose and he found himself in full anticipation of trying it.  Seconds later he heard an energetic gurgle from the coffee maker and then Susan snared a couple of coffee cups from wall pegs over counter.  She filled one with steaming black coffee from the carafe and then handed it to him.

Jake held it up to his nose and gave it a long, shallow sniff to take in the aroma.  He lifted the cup to his lips, took a tentative sip, and then smiled with half-lidded eyes.

“Mmm, this is good,” he mused contentedly, “but I don’t recognize the little extra flavor that’s in it.”

“That is hazelnut,” Susan informed him.  “You like it?”

“Very much. I could get used to this.”  He enjoyed the drink for several moments before he bent over and examined the coffee maker. “This is amazing. It’s probably the best thing I’ve seen here so far.”

Susan took her cup to the dining table and sat down with it. “I will make breakfast shortly,” she said when he joined her. “With luck, they stocked the refrigerator with good food.”

They sat in companionable silence enjoying their coffee for a little while, but after a bit Jake seemed to fidget.  Susan frowned and set her cup down.

“I am sorry if I have upset you again,” she apologized in a quiet voice. “I will put on some clothes.”

He looked over at her and shook his head.  “No, it’s not that,” he assured her. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this morning and I think I have made a decision.”

“What have you decided?” she asked cautiously.  With the way their discussions and emotions had roller-coasted the past day, she didn’t know what to expect from his thinking processes. She picked up her cup again and held it up to her lips without drinking.

“Right now, right here,” he began, “you are the only stable thing in my life.  If you are planning to leave me in a couple years to homestead one of those new worlds you told me about, I... I think I want to go with you.”

“You know what that means, right?”

He nodded, staring morosely down into his cup. He took a deep breath and stated, “It means that by accepting Dr. Quarters’ recommendation, I will be turned into a… a man-cat... a cheetah creature like you.  But – I will do it only upon one strict condition.”

“And what is your condition?”

“That you never leave me.”  He looked up into her large golden eyes and she peered back into his brown ones.

Susan could only guess what a shock to his upbringing and cost to his pride that making such a life-altering decision must be, yet she also couldn’t help teasing him – but just a little.

“Why, Mr. Harrison,” she purred primly, “is that a proposal I hear?”

He was suddenly taken aback by the question, but then he saw the twinkle in her eye.  “Well, ma’am – if that’s what it takes to keep you by my side for the rest of my life – yes, it is.”  He got down on one knee beside his chair, and when he looked back up at her, he saw a smile spread across her whole countenance; this simple, initial reaction sent a warm feeling of encouragement through him.  “We can be married as soon as I am a cat like you are, but not before.”

Still in a teasing mood, Susan set her cup onto the table and then leaned toward him. “I am sure you know there is no such thing as marriage among mere animals. They simply take a mate whenever nature says it is time.”

Jake cleared his throat.  “Be that as it may, lady-cat, I’m not an animal yet... but, well, I thought you Furs were half-human. Wouldn’t your kind still marry because of that?”

She giggled.  “Yes, some do, but out in the colonies some do not bother with anything as useless as a marriage certificate or even a ceremony. The rules do not necessarily apply out there.”

“Does...” and his face fell as he struggled to say it, “...does this mean you are refusing your hand to me?”

Susan shook her head and then her face lit up with a smile.  “I am not,” she said with sudden emotion in her voice, extending her right hand to him. “I accept your proposal, my dear Jacob.” 

*** 

One month later, Susan and Jacob stepped out of an airbus that had landed in the parking lot of a facility located deep in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. With the exception of Susan and the bus driver, the rest of the passengers were there for the same reason as Jake Harrison. They were volunteers for the Anthro Human Colonization Program, there to undergo the nine-month process that would combine their DNA with that of the animal of their choice from a list, making them one of furmankind.  They would be contracted to the AHCP for the rest of their lives, their sole purpose to establish starter colonies on new worlds deemed habitable for the sons and daughters of Earth.

Susan Foreman had already endured the painful transformation, but the AHCP had made special arrangements to allow her to return with Jake and serve as his personal counselor and teacher. The former showman’s real background – and his protection of Susan during her time-displacement crisis – was known only to a select few, and it was due to this that a great many rules and regulations had been bent, with more than a few simply tossed out the window.

Susan’s presence on the airbus trip from New York City had been of great interest to the other passengers, and she had spent the entire journey fielding questions on what to expect through the process and of life beyond. Jake had heard much of this from her already, but had also learned a few more things listening to the conversation.  He felt confident that as long as she was there to help him through the transformation, he could make it.

Possibly the greatest inspiration for doing all this was the guaranteed chance to take part in homesteading new lands. Instead of reenacting the hazards and discoveries for audiences, this time he would be doing such things for real – and it would all be done to benefit both mankind and furmankind alike.

Standing outside the airbus with the others, Jake took Susan’s hand and faced a pair of tall iron gates. The horizon was obscured by the deciduous and evergreen trees of the surrounding forest, but the evening sun peeked through the branches as the gates swung open to receive them. Passing over the threshold and heading into the warm sunset, Jake felt a sudden thrill as his new life began.

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