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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 2
The Kindness of a Stranger

 

The pain across his back, shoulders, head, hand and neck brought the man back to consciousness, even without him opening his eyes.  He was on his stomach in the sand, but the light on his eyelids was dim, so he surmised that he’d been out for some time if the sun was going down. He immediately remembered the cougar attack and again wondered why he was still alive.

He recalled seeing kittens at the cougar’s feet, so once she’d eliminated him as a threat, the mountain lion must have abandoned him to die so she could move them to some other den location. He knew his horse had run off and was surprised even more that the buzzards or coyotes hadn’t found him.

Providence must have been smiling down on him, he absently mused, although there was nothing in his life he could think of that would have redeemed him so. He believed himself not to be a bad person, but he knew he’d not exactly been a saint either.

Tired and hurting, he briefly considered resting a little more, but he had no guarantee that the scavengers would continue to leave him alone.  He cracked open one eye and prepared to force himself up onto his hands and knees, but what he saw made him pause.  Instead of lying in the narrow canyon where he’d been attacked, he was on the soft sandy floor of a simple cave made of the spaces between huge granite boulders stacked upon one another against the side of a mountain.

The sun was still shining bright outside, but here in the cool shade of the boulders it would have seemed almost comfortable if he hadn’t been injured.

Where am I? he wondered, feeling disoriented. He had no memory of crawling into the shade, and the more he looked at his surroundings, he was sure this wasn’t even in the vicinity of where the cat had jumped him.

The cat.

He remembered another large cat. It had driven off the mountain lion, he recalled vaguely, and then it had come back for him. But… what happened after that?  He couldn’t remember. He had heard of some folk forgetting things after a traumatic event and he wondered if that’s what had happened to him, but it still did not give him an answer. Had something driven the second cat away?  Perhaps some cowpoke in the vicinity had saved him from certain death after he’d passed out. That had to be it.

He heard movement behind him and he closed his eyes momentarily. It had to be his savior.  He was so very tired and his injuries were talking to him, but he felt the necessity to thank the man who had rescued him. He gathered up what strength he had in him and tried to push himself up onto his hands and knees, but the damage to his shoulder made him too weak. All he managed to do was raise his head up a little and then drop it back down hard in the dirt.  He sputtered and coughed, and suddenly there was someone at his side.

“Careful, friend,” a strange voice whispered into his ear. “You have been injured and may need to rest some more before you try to get up.”

“Thank you,” the man replied through a raspy throat, closing his eyes again. “M’thirsty.”

“I have your canteen. I will help you drink.” The words were enunciated without contraction in an odd accent he didn’t recognize, but he could understand every syllable clearly.

He felt a strong, strangely-scented arm slide beneath him and then lift him off the ground a few inches. The metal lip of the canteen touched his mouth and then there was cool water on his tongue.  He managed to slurp down enough to satisfy his immediate need and he partially raised a hand to show he’d had enough. There were droplets in his mustache and he licked them dry before he let his head drop back down.

The stranger set him gently onto the ground and capped the canteen. “You rest for now,” the odd-sounding voice whispered. “I have managed to stop the bleeding from your wounds, but you may open them up again if you move around too much.”

“Thank you, sir, I’m much obliged.”  The injured man relaxed as much as the pain would allow and kept his eyes closed. “My name is Jake, Jacob Harrison – who am I beholden to?”

His benefactor hesitated before answering. “You may call me Citra.”

“Sitra – is that an Indian name? Sioux, perhaps?”

“No, I am not Indian,” replied his companion. “Neither am I a sir.

Jake opened his eyes, but Citra was not in his field of view. She had an accent and a timbre in her voice he didn’t recognize, but he would not have guessed she was a woman.

“If you are Indian,” he said, “you have no cause to fear me. I have several in my employ and they are all treated well.”

“That is good to know,” Citra replied, “but I am not Indian. I am… not from around here.”

“I’m okay with foreigners, too,” Jake told her, closing his eyes again. He had become so curious about his savior over the past few minutes that he wanted to see what she looked like, but the pain across the back of his neck was renewed just by simply talking.

“You are bleeding again,” Citra told him, pressing something against the back of his head. “Please, rest. You are probably hungry, but you should remain still for a while longer.  I will prepare something to eat later.”

Jake hissed at torn flesh that ached, but knew she was right.  He sighed and tried to relax, keeping the rest of his questions for later.  After resting for several moments he felt himself begin to drift and he didn’t fight it.  

*** 

When next he awoke, Jake could smell the smoke of a small campfire accented with the aroma of roasting meat. His stomach growled in response and he swallowed in anticipation. He was still on his stomach facing the same way as before, and when he opened his eyes and looked out from the cave, the sky was dark.

He started to get up, but his companion was instantly at his side with a firm but gentle hand upon the small of his back to keep him down.

“You have slept a good while,” Citra’s voice told him, “but your wounds will be too tender to sit up just yet.”

“Lying on my face with my mustache in the dirt’s none too comfortable,” Jake grumbled. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had claws across my back. I think I should be able to sit up a little for now.”

“Suit yourself. I saw the scars on your back and they looked old. How did you get them?”

Citra put one of those strangely-scented, strong arms beneath his chest and eased him up from the ground. Jake used his arms to support his weight somewhat, but one hand was wrapped up in strips of cloth that he recognized as formerly being part of the undershirt he’d worn.

“Black bear,” he answered without further explanation.

As she helped get him up into somewhat of a sitting position, he could feel the injuries in sharp pangs. He clenched his eyes closed and hissed through gritted teeth, but he was determined to sit upright.

The arm across his chest felt odd, but when he opened his eyes to look down at it, she pulled it back out of sight and then retreated several feet away. He started to turn toward the campfire behind him, but her voice stopped him.

“Please, do not turn around,” she said. Then after a brief hesitation, she added, “I am not decent.”

Jake swallowed with difficulty. It was dark in a late summer evening and he was with a woman in a cave who was not decent. He briefly wondered if she had been bathing with a pail of water heated over the fire when he’d awakened.

“Pardon, ma’am,” he said, feeling awkward.  He could hear her shuffling around behind him, so he took stock of himself while he waited. His undershirt had apparently been cut into strips and used to bind his wounds, but the remains of his outer shirt had been put back on over him. 

He marveled at the woman who had come to his rescue against a large cat, having been able to get both his shirts off of him and one back on after tending to him. An Indian woman would have been capable enough, but she denied that heritage, so he was more than a little curious about the foreigner who had helped him.

“What’s cooking?” he asked, licking his lips. “It smells delicious.”

“Wild turkey hen with a side of cattails.”

“Really?  Wow. Where’d you get the turkey, a local farm?”

Citra chuckled. “No, I caught her myself.”

“Hmm, you must be good with a rifle,” he mused. “If you’re in need of a job, I could probably use someone of your skill.”

“Please do not turn around,” Citra said from a spot much closer behind him. “I will set your food and canteen down next to you.”

Jake blinked as a new thought occurred to him. “Pardon me, ma’am, but did you…. Uh, were your clothes also damaged by the mountain lion when you fought her off?”

He heard her set something onto the ground just behind him. “No, I did not bring any clothing with me,” she whispered into his ear, “and I am not wearing anything.”

Jake cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Now listen,” he started, “I’m thankful and all for your help, but I’m a decent man. I got nothing against you, madam, but I don’t think this is the time or place for a lady of the evening to be practicing her skills!”

Citra gasped in surprise, but then she began laughing aloud in genuine amusement. There was something strange with her voice, but the laughter sounded pleasant coming from her.

“You can relax, Mr. Harrison. I am not a prostitute and I am not trying to lure you with my womanly wiles.  There is a reason why I am not wearing any clothing, but I do not think you are strong enough to handle the truth at the moment.  Please, eat, but do not turn in this direction. I will explain later, if I decide you can understand.”

Jake frowned, clearly puzzled, but he finally nodded quietly.

“Thank you,” she said.

Without turning his head, the injured man reached out with his good hand and felt the edge of a plate. He pulled it to his lap and recognized the eating tin and utensils he carried with him in his pack. This puzzled him further, as he’d thought the items were in the saddlebags strapped to his painted mare.  Beside the plate was his canteen, and it seemed to be full.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but where did you get my things?”

“I found your horse when I was out hunting. I had a difficult time getting her to trust me enough to get near her, but she is tethered outside; I took the liberty of giving her water and the feed sack from your saddlebag.  She is fine.”

“Much obliged,” Jake mumbled, looking down at the bit of roasted turkey meat and the ripe head of a cattail plant on his plate. The aroma was almost making him drool, so he picked up his fork with his uninjured hand and skewed the meat.  It was still hot, but he managed to pull enough off without burning his mouth. The turkey was well cooked, but still moist, and the flavor of the juices nearly made him sigh aloud. Once he’d swallowed several bites, he picked up the cattail and bit into it. The flavor of the plant was sweet and it had been a while since he’d last eaten one. There must be water nearby if she had found the cattails, probably when she had refilled his canteen.

Later, after he’d had enough food to fill his belly, Jake felt drowsy again. His injuries did not hurt as much as he thought they should, but Citra was still adamant about him keeping still as much as he could so he wouldn’t reopen his wounds. He was thankful that nothing major had been ripped by the cougar’s teeth and claws. Primary blood vessels and tendons had escaped injury by sheer luck, and she had gotten to him quickly soon after the attack that he hadn’t bled out in the dirt. He was weakened by the incident, but with Citra’s care Jake felt he would survive.

He ran the fingers of his good hand through his sandy blond hair and knew he must look a sight. The hair was sticking up in the back and matted on one side where he’d been laying on it. There were a few superficial scratches on his scalp and a bit of dried blood, but thankfully this wound was minor.  He smoothed down the hair and then scratched an itch beneath his sideburns. He had trimmed them earlier for the funeral, but he had been out of shaving tonic. He should have picked up a bottle while he was in Tin City, but he hadn’t been thinking clearly at the time.

Despite his predicament, Jake’s thoughts returned to his son. The guilt of two years of estrangement weighed heavily upon him and he eventually stretched out and drifted off to sleep thinking of his boy. 

*** 

He seemed to be sleeping a lot, but considering the injuries he’d sustained Jake knew he shouldn’t be concerned. He lay with one arm cradled beneath his head as a makeshift pillow, the other with the injured hand stretched out away from him. Although now awake, his eyes remained closed for a long while as he simply lay there unmoving.  When he did open his eyes, it was at a sound just outside the cave entrance.

It was still night time and the campfire behind him had practically burned itself out, giving off only a shallow flickering glow, but there was enough moonlight outside that he could just see the silhouette of someone tending his horse. There was something odd about the shape; if Citra was indeed unclothed, her profile should have been more defined, more feminine.  He was no stranger to a woman’s body, but he was a gentleman at heart and felt briefly ashamed for looking. He closed his eyes quickly when she patted the mare gently on the nose and then turned back toward the cave.

Curiosity coaxed him, however, and he opened his eyes to slits, mentally telling himself it was just so he could see her face.  His heart rate quickened when she appeared to get down on her hands and knees and began crawling toward the cave — only it didn’t even look right as a crawl; it almost appeared as she were on four feet!

He swallowed involuntarily. As she got closer to his position, he could feel her eyes upon him, and as he looked back through slotted eyelids, it almost appeared as if her eyes were shining in the dark. He’d seen green eyes in the darkness like that before – on a cat.

Citra drew nearer and then the soft glow of the waning crescent moon behind her made his heart skip a beat. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought the mountain lion had come back for him. The silhouette certainly seemed to convey this image, though the head seemed oddly misshapen. She stopped a few paces away and simply stared back at him.

“Curiosity got the better of you, did it?” Citra’s voice came from the feline-shaped shadow.  She stepped closer and it was then that the meager flicker of the campfire gave some illumination to her face.

Jake’s mouth opened and suddenly went dry. Staring back at him impassively was a cat the size of a mountain lion, but with strange cream colored fur adorned with a multitude of black spots and with dark tear streaks beneath her eyes.  It was the creature that had driven away the mountain lion after it had attacked him!

She moved closer on all fours, but he knew he had seen her up on two legs near his horse. He was at a complete loss, as his mind was unable to connect what he saw with what he knew. His jaw worked of its own accord, giving him the appearance a fish gasping out of water.

The cat stopped just a few inches from him and then settled down on all four feet with her belly upon the ground, her tail swishing quietly behind her.  He could see her face clearly and it further unnerved him. He had never been this close to a cat larger than a barn mouser that wasn’t trying to kill him.

She looked at him in what appeared to be a compassionate expression. Although definitely feline, there was also something vaguely human about her appearance too – almost as if she were a blend of the two, and accenting the illusion was brown, human-like wavy scalp hair on top of her head that hung to her shoulders.

“You have nothing to fear from me,” she said quietly. It was odd hearing words spoken in English coming from a feline throat that should not have been able to form such vocabulary. Jake swallowed again, but despite her words, he was afraid of her. He tried to get up onto his hands and feet to get away from her, but the pain across his back suddenly lashed back at him.  He dropped back into the dirt, but tried to scoot away from her without getting up.

“Jake,” she said in a more commanding tone, but keeping her place in front of him. “Please settle down. I have been taking care of you – I am not going to hurt you.”

He stopped and stared back at her with wide eyes and then she held up a paw in a very human-like gesture. Her limb was unlike any he was familiar with; the palm was padded, but she possessed a thumb and even short fingers!

“I promise you,” she said in a quiet voice, “that I am here to help you, if you will let me.  It is me, Citra. I was not quick enough to save you from the mountain lion mother’s attack, but I chased her off and then brought you here to my cave to tend to your wounds.”

Jake swallowed with difficulty. His mouth was so very dry.  “What… what are you?” he croaked.

“I am called a Fur,” his companion replied. “I am part human and part cat – a cheetah, specifically.  As you can guess, I am not from around here, but if you will allow me to help you get better, perhaps you can help me too.”

“Are… you going to eat me?”

Citra’s eyes narrowed in amusement and she chuckled. “Heavens, no, Jake – I am not a cannibal.”  She sat upright and demurely crossed her legs to one side like a human female. “My primary concern is to give you First Aid.”

Jake blinked. “What’s a fur-staid?” he asked.

First Aid is giving you temporary medical treatment until you can get to a doctor. I have been trying to treat your wounds, but you keep opening them back up. If you do not lie still, it will take more time before I can get you to a proper physician.”

The man nodded, closed his eyes and put his forehead down on the ground. His head, back and neck were all stinging, but he tried to calm himself.  He must be delirious, he surmised. A fever probably had him and was making him see things that could not be. It was the only explanation he could accept.

He had been attacked by a cougar protecting her kittens, and someone must have saved him and treated his wounds. That much was true. Everything else was a fever dream.  If he kept his eyes closed, he wouldn’t see the nightmare.

Relax, he told himself.  Behave as his savior had instructed and perhaps he would get better in time.  Time, that was what he needed. Once the fever passed, he would see a very different caretaker than the one his sickened mind had conjured up for him.  Whoever she really was, Jake hoped she was pretty.

NEXT CHAPTER

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