Clem Turner is pretty sure nothing else can go wrong. Assigned by the head of his museum to check out a possible acquisition, his train ride from Chicago to Duluth has been full of problems -- lost luggage, food poisoning, and now an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. Hoping for a bit of distraction, he decides to check out the local fair, only to run right into a different sort of predicament.
The 1890s aren’t a great time to fall for another man, but with Anton Hess it’s hard to resist. An adventurer and businessman, Anton has captured the legendary ishcrin, a beast with wings, spines, and a nasty disposition, and he’s charging people to see it. For the nickel admission, though, Clem gets much more than he bargained for, and faces the prospect of the greatest disaster of his journey yet -- a broken heart.
I was about to leave when a man exited the tent and caught my eye.
He was cocksure of himself; that I noticed straight off. The way his eyes flickered, the tilt of his head. His face was stubbly, like he’d been planning to shave again before propping up his tent, but the time had gotten away from him. He wasn’t so large as many of the northwoodsmen around here, but he was certainly used to a hard day’s work if the size of his arms and shoulders were anything to go by.
He was, in a word, moving. I stood staring at him, waiting for his spiel, craving to hear his voice. He removed his hat in a spectacular sweep and spoke to the small crowd.
“Step on up, all who are brave enough to enter here. Do you dare to witness the live legend of the ishcrin? Formidable hunter, fierce fighter, quick-moving carnivore. It can bolt, it can fly -- it can even stick you with its tail spines!”
As though just noticing me lingering near the back of the crowd, a good several paces away from anyone else, the man looked up at me and winked while saying the words, “stick you.”
I swallowed. I am not inclined to nervousness, not more so than any other man, except in situations such as these. I could feel myself heating with more than the mere sun of the day.
“That’s right, I -- the bold, the brave, the at times foolish, according to my mother, rest her soul -- Anton Hess have tracked down and managed to capture such a beast of whisper and myth completely alive, as no one else has yet been able to manage!”
Spotty clapping from the crowd, a few muffled exclamations.
“Fear not, for it is crated firmly away in its cage, and its wits dulled with a special tranquilizing blend rendering its normal ferocious nature much tamer. And for five cents only, you can have a glimpse at this unique and marvelous beast!”
“Five cents!” I confess I muttered under my breath. The man may be roguishly charming, but charging more than a penny to view an animal was practically robbery.
Still, his price only turned away a handful of spectators. I myself lingered as, one by one, he took others’ money and disappeared with them into his tent. All appeared to leave satisfied; some shrieked in shock, others chatted with friends in excited tones as they left for other entertainment. A brief lull in the crowd had me standing there, ten feet back, with not a soul between myself and Anton.
“And what of you, sir?” he asked, catching my eye and doffing his hat once more.
“I am ... dubious,” I said, mouth stumbling over the words. I felt that heat under my skin again as he looked at me. I very much wanted to be alone in the tent with such a man, but the impulse seemed crude.
“I can see you’re not from around here,” he said. He beckoned to me to move closer and I suppose I did without much noticing until we were standing before one another. “Which city, then ...?”
“Clem. Clement. Clem,” I fear I blurted out before clearing my throat. “Clement Turner, from Chicago.”
“Bit far from home, aren’t you ...” Anton paused conspiratorially, then whispered, “Clem?”
I swallowed. I am unused to such direct familiarity, and I found myself with two options only: hastily make my way back through the fairgrounds, far away from this man, or pay up. My fingers fumbled to pull out a nickel coin.
“I will hold it against you personally if this ishcrin disappoints,” I said, passing the coin over. It was the only way I could think to save any dignity in the situation.