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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 3
The Other Cat

 

The soft light of dawn gave color to the world outside and Jake stared out through crusty eyelids at an orange and black butterfly that flitted among the wildflowers growing between the granite boulders. He lay still for a time, but there was a growing need to empty his bladder despite the possibility of reopening his wounds yet again. Swallowing back a deep sigh, he steeled himself against the pain and gingerly got up onto his hands and knees as quietly as he could.

The skin across his neck, shoulders and back stretched taut and stung a little, but as he pulled one foot up beneath him, he didn’t feel anything rip open.  Good so far, he mused. 

He extended his arms out for balance and slowly pushed up with his legs. Wavering, he almost fell over, but then he managed to keep an uncertain balance long enough to gather up his other leg and then stand up in a crouching position.  He stood thus for a long moment to make sure he wouldn’t fall forward onto his face, but then slowly took a tentative step.

There was a twinge in his ankle when he put his weight on it and he cursed beneath his breath, but he quickly surmised that it was probably just a sprain caused by falling from his horse. Despite this, however, his ability to walk had been relatively undamaged by the cougar’s attack and he could still get around. He rubbed his ankle a moment, straightened up, and then nodded quietly to himself.

Getting to his feet had taken longer than he’d thought, but now that he had gravity working against him, he remembered the reason why he was now on his feet. He looked around the shadows of the cave, but he was alone. The campfire was nothing more than a pile of ash with a single curl of smoke floating up toward an unseen crack between the boulders overhead, but there were two dead rabbits laid out together beside the ring of stones, evident his caretaker was still providing for him.

He limped toward the entrance of the cave and then glanced at the terrain. He did not recognize the small canyon, but there were plenty of places for him to do his business away from the delicate eyes of the woman who had cared for him.  He hobbled along the animal trail for just a couple minutes and then stepped between two large boulders against the mountainside to relieve himself.

Before he was finished, however, he had an uneasy feeling, as if he was being watched.  He buttoned up his trousers and turned around slowly.  He didn’t see anyone at first, but he remembered the cougar attack from higher ground so he glanced up. The small hairs on the back of his neck stiffened and he felt a sudden rush of adrenaline.

His nightmare was there, silently looking down on him from a short distance up the side of the mountain. She sat on her haunches beside a scrub of oak, the limp body of a dead jackrabbit in her jaws and those large golden eyes staring over it at him.

The strange spotted cat was no dream unless he was actually asleep and still hallucinating. Without taking his eyes from the creature, he pinched his arm hard using a thumbnail. His arm twitched and he knew he was indeed awake, but he wasn’t sure that he could accept what he was seeing as real.

He sighed and leaned back against a boulder. Without his Stetson, he shielded his eyes against the morning sun with a hand as he took a good look at her. She had called herself a Fur, but that was an odd thing to call herself. Wasn’t she covered in fur?  She’d also said that she was part cat, a cheetah.

Jake had heard stories and descriptions of an exotic cat from Africa called a cheetah, but he’d never even seen a pictograph of one. Despite this, he doubted that there had ever been any like this one before. He was sure he’d have heard of that.

He studied her for a long moment and she seemed in no hurry to spoil the moment.  Aside of the color and pattern of her fur, in this position she looked very similar to the mountain lions he was accustomed to seeing in these parts. She sat on her haunches with her front legs before her and her tail wrapped lightly around her feet, but the shape of her back legs looked odd.

Without knowing it was the truth, he surmised that the larger hip and leg muscles is what had allowed her to stand up on her back feet, giving her the appearance of having just two legs and two arms, but then he remembered her strange hand-like paws.  Although shorter than a human’s, she had four fingers and a thumb on each hand-paw. He found it highly unlikely that she could have unbuttoned his shirt and pulled off his undershirt to bind the wounds upon his neck and back without fingers.

The cheetah dropped the rabbit at her feet and then stretched out her arms in the air just as a human would, and it was then he could see her chest.  Although not large or well defined, she definitely had a pair of small female breasts beneath her fur, and it surprised him that a cat would have only two. At the realization of what he was seeing, he blinked and averted his eyes, even though he could see nothing protruding through the thick chest fur.

He shifted his eyes to her face and her look of amusement puzzled him until he realized that she had seen his gaze focused upon her chest for a moment.  She didn’t seem offended by his inspection and made no effort to hide herself away from his gaze; she knew she was well covered.  A long lock of the wavy brown scalp hair upon her head fell into her eyes and it was then he made another realization. That was hair on her head, not just the fur that covered the rest of her.  Animals with fur didn’t have hair on their heads!

This was no mere animal. In spite of everything he knew from his life’s experiences, there was something about her that was also human.  Had one of her parents been a cat and the other been a human?  He started at the thought, averting his mind from the logistics of such a union. It wasn’t possible in nature, but how else could it be?

Almost as if drawn to them against his will, Jake looked back into her eyes, those large golden orbs that had depth and personality.  She looked back at him steadily, and although she did blink, it was not as often as a human might, and it was then he remembered something. She had been watching him when he’d turned around, and that meant she had seen him relieving himself on the rocks.  He felt his face heat up and he cleared his throat, once again turning his gaze away from her.

“You’re real,” he muttered at last. “I’m awake and you’re really real.”

“Yes, Mr. Harrison, I am,” she replied in that strangely accented voice.

“I don’t understand,” he said after a hard swallow. “How can you be real?”

The feline creature looked down at him with something of a sad air, the dark cry lines beneath her eyes aiding in the expression.  “I do not know how to explain what I am in a way you could understand,” she said to him, “but I need your help just as much as you have needed mine.”

“Why would you need my help?” he asked, feeling the renewed sting of taut, injured flesh across his neck from looking up the mountain at her. “You can defend yourself against other mad cats and can apparently hunt well without so much as a gun or knife. You’ve taken better care of me that I could myself yet you could still kill me in an instant.”

His hand strayed to spot where his holster normally resided upon his hip, all too aware of its absence.  She had wisely removed it from him, for he would probably have shot her in an instant upon first seeing what she was, without ever knowing she could talk.

“I am far from my home,” she replied, “and I am in constant danger from others like you who would not hesitate to kill me for my pelt. Until I can find a way to return to where I belong, I will need your protection.”

“How can I protect you?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Take me in as a curiosity for your show. It would allow me to hide in plain sight.”

Jacob Harrison stared up at her and let his jaw drop slightly. “How… how did you know about my show?”

The cheetah woman’s eyes narrowed in amusement. “I found a rolled up copy of your poster with the pack on your horse. I did not know what to make of it at first, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized how you could help me.”

“Poster?” he asked.

“The one promoting your show.”

Harrison thought about it for a moment and then his eyes lit up in realization. “The lithograph!” he exclaimed.  “I always carry at least one or two with me everywhere I go in the event I see a good place to hang one.”  He frowned and hooked the thumb of his injured hand upon the belt of his trousers. “I don’t know why I had one with me this time, however,” he said in a quiet voice.  “It wouldn’t have been appropriate to post a bill at the funeral.”

Citra tilted her head to the side. “Funeral?”

He nodded without looking up. “My son, Douglas,” was all he said, looking morose. He fell silent for a long moment lost in thought, but then he looked back up at his companion under the shade of his hand. “Can we go back into the cave where it’s cooler?” he asked. “I think I need to sit down.”

Nodding, the cheetah woman picked up the dead jackrabbit and then stood up on her hind legs.  Taking her steps carefully, she walked down the side of the mountain and Jake thought she looked as natural walking on two legs as she had on four. He stared at her mutely until she reached his side and then held out an elbow to him.

“Take my arm,” she said. “I will help you back to the cave.”

He looked at her elbow for a moment, but couldn’t bring himself to touch it.  “I can walk okay,” he said. “I just might be slow sitting back down.”

“As you wish, Mr. Harrison.”

She allowed him to walk in front of her, to make sure he didn’t really need her assistance, but when they got back to the cave entrance, they both stopped and stared.  A thin coyote was sniffing at the dead rabbits by the fire stones, but when it saw them approach, it grabbed one and then bolted out into the canyon.

“Hey!” Citra exclaimed indignantly, shaking a fist at the departing critter.  “Go get your own bunny!”

Something about her reaction broke the ice and Jake found himself chuckling. The cheetah turned and looked at him, and upon seeing his amusement broke into a grin of her own.

“Well, at least I still have this one,” she said, holding up the rabbit she’d just caught up on the side of the mountain.

Still smiling, Jake limped back to his pallet and eased himself down into a sitting position. The action stretched the skin across his back but he managed to hold in a gasp of pain. He made himself as comfortable as he could while his companion set the jackrabbit beside the smaller cottontail rabbit the coyote had left behind.  She sat down beside the fire pit and crossed her legs demurely to the side, looking over him.

“How are you feeling?” she asked in a quieter voice in genuine compassion.  There was a little blood on the strips of cloth she’d bound him in, but fortunately it wasn’t much. She’d not had anything to stitch up the furrows in his skin, hoping the bandages would help until she could get him to a real doctor.

“About as well as a man can after having his neck and back torn open by a wild mountain cat,” he replied with a grimace.  “In case I didn’t say so properly, I would like to thank you now for giving me help and your fur-staid. I still don’t understand how you can be what you are, but I’m grateful that you stepped in to save me from certain death.  A momma cougar would not have been content to just let me lie there after she’d injured me.  To keep her kittens safe, she would have killed me for sure.”

“You are welcome, Mr. Harrison. I was nearby when I heard her scream, and although I had no plans to reveal myself to anyone, I could not just stand aside and let her have you. I am sorry I did not get there quick enough to keep you from injury. If I could have gotten there sooner, I could have spooked your horse so that she would have carried you away from harm without ever having seen me.”

“Thank you just the same. I appreciate what all you’ve done for me.”

“Are you now convinced that I will not harm you?”

Jake nodded and looked around the cave, anywhere but at her. Having such a discussion still had him thinking in the back of his mind that he must be hallucinating, but at least he no longer felt any danger from this creature.

The feline woman spied something and a smile crossed her face.  She moved to a small pile of his belongings further back in the cave and then picked up a roll of thick parchment.  She brought it back out to him and then knelt in the dirt so that she could spread it out between them.  The man held down two of the corners while she held the others.

Unrolled between them was a poster declaring “Jake Harrison’s Wild West” with “Fun for the Whole Family” in large, elaborate type inside of a twisted rope border around the edges. Citra smiled at him and Jake let a crooked grin cross his lips.

“My name is Jacob,” he told her, feeling just a little more comfortable around her at the moment. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the lithograph, but he felt more talkative.  “Although everyone but my Ma an’ Pa have always called me Jake.  As you can see, I own a Wild West show that we take from town to town across the west.  A lot has changed over the years and most folk have forgotten what it was like to explore and settle the western lands where they now live.  They’ve forgotten the hardships, the battles with the Indians and times of starvation from drought or the cold of winter.  My show is helping to keep the spirit of the west alive so that these things are never forgotten.  I have talented horse riders, ropers, crack shots and even several real Indians to give authenticity to reenactments of those days behind us all. I even have buffalo, long horn cattle, a bobcat, a coyote and a black bear all in cages for display.”

Citra nodded with excitement.  “I remember reading about shows like this,” she said. “People like Buffalo Bill Cody who wanted to keep the west alive.”

Jake’s expression darkened.  “William Frederick Cody writes a lot of books about himself that people read and they think his is the only show out there,” he said with a snort. “He might have once been a Pony Express rider and a buffalo hunter, making himself out to be the real frontier hero, but he’s just a showman – an entertainer who thinks he’s better’n me!”

Citra stared at him for a moment, instantly regretting that she’d mentioned a specific name of the time. He was probably the most well-known, but as Jake pointed out, he wasn’t the only one who’d had a western show that traveled the land enticing customers to release a few of their hard-earned coins.  She hadn’t considered his competitors and mentally kicked herself for bringing it up.

Jake leaned over forward and pointed a finger at the poster, releasing one corner. “He might have been the first to do one of these shows, but mine is just as good as his and has real heart as well as entertainment.  It’s a good thing he’s out of the country right now to leave the Wild West to those of us who remember what this was all about!”

Citra nodded and began rolling up the poster again. “If you would be willing,” she said quietly, “you could help me out by letting me join your show.”

Jake sat back and it was a businessman who now looked at her. “The purpose of my show is to keep the old Wild West alive,” he reminded her. “As much as I’m beholden to you for helping me, there aren’t any big cats like you anywhere in America. None look like you, and certainly none of them can walk and talk like you do either. How do you suppose I can pass you off as one of the natural wonders of the west?”

The spotted cat shook her head and set the poster aside. “Horses were not native to this country,” she reminded him. “They were brought to North America by the Spanish Conquistadors and propagated over the years so much that they are now a part of this land.  You can pass me off as an exotic cat brought in on a ship from Africa that was likely bound for that Philadelphia zoological exhibit that opened a few years ago. You can say that I probably got loose upon arrival and was roaming the land when you caught me somewhere out in the west.”

Jake pursed his lips and considered her story. He was unconvinced, but then a new thought occurred to him.  “Is that what really happened?” he asked. “Did you get loose from that exhibit? I’ve heard stories of all the critters they have on display in Philadelphia in something they’re calling a zoo, with animals from around the world.”

Citra chuckled. “No, that is not where I came from. It is just a story I made up on the spot for our scenario here.”

“You said your home was a long way from here.  Africa’s a long way away.”

“My home is even farther,” the cheetah told him with a straight face, “but I do not want to talk about that now. I want to talk about how you can help me with your show.”

“I don’t know,” Jake muttered. “Sounds kinda fetched to me.”

Citra leaned closer to him and caught his eye with her own. “Just think, Mr. Harrison – you will have something in your show that Cody does not have. Think of the crowds you will draw, telling everyone you have a Wilder West Show!”

A glint suddenly appeared in Jake’s expression and he smiled widely. “You would do that?” he asked in a quieter tone, as if afraid a competitor might overhear the conversation, “You would allow yourself to be put up on display like another animal?”

“Yes and no,” she replied. “We can work out the details of a performance later, but for now that could be the foundation of a partnership.”

Jake sat back and thought it over for a few minutes, but then he looked back over at her. “Why all this?” he asked. “You’re free to live how you want now. Why would you want to start living in a cage?”

Citra got up to her feet and stood up – all the way up. She spread out her arms wide, putting herself on full display for him. “Look at me, Mr. Harrison,” she said.  He did as directed and had to force himself not to stare. She was covered in natural fur, but this female wore not a stitch of clothing; although her chest and crotch fur was thick enough to hide everything beneath, he considered her enough of a woman to feel embarrassed.  He swallowed and forced his eyes up to her face.

“You have never seen anyone like me before, and never will again.  If I had not helped you, but you saw me out hunting rabbits around the mountains, you would have been tempted to shoot me for my strange pelt, yes? Do you think that I would look good spread out on the floor of your home?  You might never have known that I am more than just an exotic cat, and by shooting me, no one else would ever know either.”

“Yes,” he replied slowly, “I suppose that could have been the case.”

“That is my point. I can still end up as a spotted rug on the floor of some cabin, and I would really prefer that not be my fate. Even if I have to live in a cage and let others stare at me through the bars, I will be safe and alive!  If I had not been nearby when that mother cat attacked you, you would probably be dead right now. Are you not glad to be safe and alive, Mr. Harrison?  You may be injured, but you are alive.”

Jacob Harrison stared at her for a good long while, barely even blinking himself.  When she settled back down on the dirt floor of the cave, he shook himself as if he’d been in a trance and gave her a nod. 

“I can see your point,” he said at last, “and even though I think you’re the strangest lady-cat I’ve ever seen, I am indebted to you for saving my life.”  He flexed the fingers of his injured hand and grimaced. It had only been a day since the attack, so he knew it would still take a while before his injuries healed.

“The first thing we’ll need to figure out is how to get you back to my camp outside of the town of Ioland.  You can’t ride on my horse with me – too many folks would see you – and I don’t have a caged wagon with me to pull you there as I would any other wild critter I’d caught for my show.”

“You could put a rope around my neck and I could walk alongside your mare as if you had simply caught me and were taking me back that way,” Citra suggested. “You could claim that I gave you those injuries, but that you had beaten me into submission and I am now docile.”

“Hmm, perhaps.”  Jake sat back and studied her for a moment.  “Would you mind, uh, getting down on all fours for a minute?  I want to look at you.”

The cheetah did as requested and presented her side profile to him, lightly swishing the black tip of her spotted tail.

“If I didn’t know better, I would think you were a strange, wild animal,” Jake told her, “but I’m not sure how I’m going to explain what’s on top of your head. Saying I put a hair piece on you might be amusing, but wouldn’t make sense.”

Citra smiled. “We can talk about that on our way back to your show,” she replied. “There is no need to work out all the details at this moment. It may be a day or two more before you are well enough to ride anyway.” She looked over at the rabbits and licked her lips. “I do not know about you, but I am hungry for breakfast.”

Jake nodded. “Yep, me too.  Is that going to be enough for both of us?” he asked.

“That is my breakfast,” the cheetah informed him. “There is more roasted turkey for you if you want it, but I was in the mood for rabbit this morning. I can go hunt down more if you want some.”

He shook his head. “No, turkey sounds fine. I just wish I had some bread to go with it.” 

*** 

An hour later, they were both satisfied with the bounty in their bellies, although Jake had been a little unnerved watching her eat the rabbits raw using only her teeth and claws.  He was no stranger to seeing bloody meals in the cages of his wild animals, but this strange cat woman was calmly cleaning her hands and muzzle with a wet strip of cloth aided by a sandpaper tongue.

With a full stomach and having found a comfortable position that was the least painful for his injuries, Jake was feeling relaxed and was musing over their earlier discussion.

“If we’re going to be partners,” he said in a quiet voice, “perhaps you should tell me a little about yourself.”  She looked over at him for a moment, the tip of her pink tongue still protruding from her lips, and he chuckled at the sight. Despite her human-like qualities, she could still be so cat-like at times.

“I do not really know how much I can tell you where you would understand,” she reminded him again.

Jake waved his good hand in the air. “If you can’t tell me how you came to be what you are, how about you just tell me a little about yourself.  You’re obviously intelligent – you can think, speak, and even read the letters on my lithograph, you know about my competitor, Cody and places like the Philadelphia Zoo. Even my horse has a personality, but she can’t tell me about herself the way you can.”

“I do not know what to tell you…”

Jake smiled. “Let’s start with your name,” he said. “Tell me what it means.  You said you weren’t Indian, and now that’s obvious to me, but that sounds like an Indian name.”

The feline woman tilted her head and thought about it before she nodded.  “Okay,” she said. “Let me get more comfortable.”  She stretched out in front of him, settling in comfortably with all four feet beneath her and her head down upon her hand-paws.

“I told you my name was Citra Kayah.  That is really just a nickname, given to me by a friend.  Citrakāyah is not Indian, but it is a word in Sanskrit that simply means the same as ‘cheetah’. Seeing what I am, it seemed fitting.”

Jake raised an eyebrow at her.  “I don’t know what ‘sand script’ is,” he said, “but that sounds silly.”

Sanskrit is a language spoken in parts of India,” Citra explained patiently. “What is so silly about that?”

“Calling you ‘cheetah’ in another language is the same thing as calling you ‘cheetah’ in English.  That’s not a name, it’s just a description, no matter what language it’s in.”

Citra frowned. “Well, when you put it like that way, I suppose you are right.”

A smirk suddenly crossed Jake’s face. “If this Sanskrit is a language from India,” he said, “wouldn’t that still make your name an Indian name?”

The feline woman stopped and stared at him a moment, and then chuckled.  “Touché,” she said with a shake of her head.

“Huh? What’s that mean?”

Touché is a French word used in the art of fencing, a type of sword fighting,” she replied. “Basically, it means you struck the heart of the matter - or in this case that I see your point.”

The man frowned. “For a cat, you sure know a lot of fancy foreigner words,” he muttered.

“I like to think that I am well-educated,” she replied with a proud expression.

Jake looked at her for a long moment and then returned to the original topic of their conversation.  “You said that Citra is your nick-name.  Is that something like a stage name?”

The cheetah looked amused at the showman. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“What’s your real name? Can I pronounce it, or is it something only known in a cat language?”

Citra laughed aloud. “My real name is Susan Foreman,” she confessed, “but that is not very exotic sounding, is it?”

Jake blinked. “Susan Foreman?” he repeated. “That’s a… a human name.”

“I did tell you that I was half human.”

“Yes, I suppose you did,” he admitted slowly. “I still don’t understand how you can be half human and half cat.”

“Well,” she said quietly, “I was not always this way, half and half as I am now. I was born a normal little brown-haired girl my parents named Susan Carole Ann Foreman, but it was not until later as an adult that I went through a procedure that made me into what I am now.”

“Pro… procedure?” Jake asked with wide eyes.  “Does that mean that something turned you into a lady-cat?”

“Yes, that is exactly what that means.”

“That’s impossible!” he exclaimed.

Citra got up and moved closer to him, much closer. She settled down right in front of him and reached out for his good hand. Before he could pull it out of her reach, she gently took his wrist and then guided it up to the top of her head, setting his fingers across one of her soft, furry ears.

“It is not impossible, Mr. Harrison. I am real.”

He stroked the ear for a moment and then ran his fingers across her brown scalp hair in soft strokes. “It… it feels real, but I don’t understand how it’s possible…”

She looked up at him, moving only her eyes. “I told you that you would be unable to understand. I may never be able to explain it in a way that you could comprehend, just as you would not believe how I came to be here either.  Are you a believer in faith, Mr. Harrison?”

Jake blinked at the non-sequitur. “Uh, yes, of course, I am a God-fearin’ man.”

“As with God, Mr. Harrison, some things you have to accept on faith alone.  You may not understand how I got here or how I am what I am, but you will have to accept it on faith that I am here and that I am real.  If you cannot do that, you may never believe that the person who saved you from being killed by a mountain lion is another cat that can talk and is just as intelligent as you are.”

“I’m still not sure I believe it even now,” he muttered, surprised to find that he was still petting her as he would a common housecat.

NEXT CHAPTER

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