A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jake’s impossible companion gingerly pulled at the edges of the dry, bloodstained wrap that covered the injuries on his back. The man hissed, the tender wounds stinging as she lifted it up, but there seemed to be no new seepage. It had only been two days since the cougar attack, but Jake was getting restless from inactivity and his caretaker knew he needed real medical attention. The wounds on his neck, hands and across his back looked ugly, and although they were no longer bleeding, they would probably get infected if left untreated. The skin around the wounds was already fiery red and she feared he would become feverish soon.
The female Fur set the wrap aside on one of the fire pit rocks to keep it out of the dirt covering the cave floor. After she’d had a chance to clean his wounds a little, she would wash the remnants of the man’s undershirt she’d used as a makeshift bandage. She would have liked to have boiled the shirt in water over the fire, but they’d had nothing large enough for such a luxury.
She had heated up water in the coffee pot from Jake’s pack and then let it cool a little, so she was at least able to have something to clean him with. She poured warm water over another scrap of cloth, wrung it out slightly, and then gently began to daub at the dirt and sweat on his wounds. Jake gritted his teeth and said nothing, knowing from past experience that it needed to be done.
The mismatched companions had talked only a little during their time together, both of them mostly lost in their own thoughts. Although they had tried to further discuss the possibility of her joining his Wild West show, Jake’s injuries had kept him distracted too much to make plans.
“Citra,” he gasped, “we need to leave. Today. I can’t take much more of this.”
“Yes, you need a doctor,” the cheetah agreed. “I can only do so much for you with what we have here. Do you feel strong enough to ride?”
“That doesn’t matter,” he grumbled. “You may have to tie me to my saddle.”
“How far is it to your camp?”
“A day’s ride. Longer if we have to go slow.”
“Once your bandages are cleaned and I have redressed your wounds, we will go.”
He closed his eyes and whispered as she worked on him, “In case I don’t make it, thanks again for your help.”
“I... I hope you make it back to your home,” he husked, “wherever it may be. I’m sure your people are looking for you.”
The Fur frowned and shook her head slightly, even though he could not see the action. She knew her people would look for her, but it was unlikely they would ever find her. She was forever out of their reach; the most she could hope for was to avoid becoming an exotic rug for as long as she could.
The painted horse stood patiently on the canyon floor while Citra assisted Jake up the embankment above her. In danger of ripping his wounds open again, he had been unable to get up into the saddle the traditional way, and although the Fur’s hybrid condition granted her more strength than what she’d possessed as a human, she had not been able to lift him over her shoulders to get him up in the saddle. The footing was not sound on wind-blown grit covering the rocks, but she managed to keep him upright as he reached out for the western saddle horn.
Jake felt undignified having to mount a horse in this manner, but he supposed it was better than being draped across Honey’s saddlebags like a dead man.
As Citra crouched down on the lip of the embankment, she hoped the mare would stay put long enough to get her rider in place. It had not been an easy task to approach the horse in the first place; the animal’s natural fear of a large predator panicked her when Citra had first approached, but the cheetah woman’s gentle manner was aided by the perfume she wore.
The scent was imported and very expensive, and apparently the horse enjoyed it just as much as she did herself as it must have masked her natural ‘big cat’ aroma. Once she’d initially calmed the animal that first day and proven that she presented no threat to the mare, the two of them had gotten along well. Citra had been feeding and watering her, as well as given her a nightly grooming with a brush Jake kept in the saddlebags. Even after only a couple of days, Honey stood calmly as the predator cat crouched over her on the embankment with her rider.
Jake eased a leg out across the narrow distance while Citra supported his weight with hands beneath his arms. It wasn’t the most dignified way of mounting a horse, but with patience, he finally slid into the saddle with only minimal pain. Citra studied the cloth shirt across his back, but to her relief there were no new blood stains.
The man patted Honey affectionately and spoke several soothing words before he sat up straight with his boots firmly in the stirrups. He looked over at the cheetah and gave her a pained smile as he clucked his tongue. The mare moved away from the embankment and then Citra hopped down upon the canyon floor beside them.
Fresh water was in the canteen, a day’s ration of food was in the pack and the fire pit in the cave had been covered over with dirt; they were almost ready to go.
The cheetah stood up beside the saddlebag and pulled off a coil of rope attached to its strap and buckle. Although her fingers and thumbs were shorter than Jake’s, she manipulated the rope as if she’d handled delicate things all her life and the rider was amazed watching her fashion a slip knot at one end. When she finished, she opened up the loop, slipped it over her head, and then drew it up short of being snug around her neck. She looked up at Jake and handed him the rest of the rope.
“Try to remember that although I look like a wild animal, I am more than one,” she told him, getting down upon all fours, “Please do not try to choke me as we travel.”
Jake gazed down at her and for just a moment, a wild animal was all he saw. He gathered up most of the slack in the rope, leaving her enough to walk beside the horse, and then wrapped a section of it around the horn of his western saddle.
Had this really happened to him? he thought to himself. The two of them had worked up a story about this exotic escaped feline from Africa attacking him, giving him wounds that still needed to be treated, but now that he was atop his horse looking down at the cat at the end of a rope, he momentarily wondered if the story was real and that the rest of what had happened was actually a fever dream.
“Shall we go?” she asked quietly, breaking him from his thoughts. Without a word, he nodded and then lightly tapped Honey’s sides with the stirrups. The mare started off in the direction he indicated with the reins and Citra padded softly beside them.
The pair of them was quiet as they traveled, as had been their plan. Should anyone else out on the prairie see them, Jake didn’t want to have to explain why he was talking to a captive animal, with the animal responding to a conversation.
After a couple of hours, the rider’s mind wandered to the business of his show and he actually forgot about his strange acquaintance for a while. He’d had numerous occasions to talk with her, but aside of that first night, neither had offered up much more information about themselves. They were riding companions for the moment, but still nothing more than strangers.
He glanced down at the cat and saw her sniffing at the air as she walked. She noticed his gaze and then said quietly, “There is water nearby. I am thirsty and I am sure Honey is too.”
Jake leaned forward and rubbed his mare’s neck and replied, making it look as if he might be talking to his horse – something that would be more common than talking to a wild cat.
“Which direction?” he asked without looking at her.
Citra sniffed again. “To the left, not far.”
Jake straightened up in his saddle, the skin of his shoulders stiff beneath his shirt, and guided Honey from her path a little to the left. It was only a few minutes before they stepped down an embankment and came upon a narrow creek flowing in a recessed channel across the prairie. Citra went right to the water and began lapping up the sun-warmed liquid. Jake allowed Honey to approach the water on her own volition and she bent to drink as well.
The rider remained up in the saddle, gazing out across the landscape beneath the shadowed brim of his hat. The granite mountain range was to their south and there seemed to be nothing but gently rolling prairie ahead. The land was somewhat familiar to him and he knew there were a few ranches in the area, but he had not yet seen one on the horizon.
He took a drink from his canteen without taking his eyes off the scenery, but just as he capped the container and was about to say something to the cat, a voice startled him from his reverie.
Jake turned to look behind him, but he immediately grimaced when he pulled his neck muscles taut in the action. “He... hello,” he gasped.
Several yards behind him in front of the embankment on a brown-spotted Appaloosa stallion was a man in dusty garments just as weather worn as his summer-baked skin. He had the look of a rancher and the brim of his hat was pulled down to shade his eyes from the sun, but his friendly expression seemed genuine. He urged his mount closer to the stranger, but then pulled up short when he saw the roped cheetah looking up at him from the edge of the creek.
“What have we here?” he asked in surprise.
Jake turned his horse to present his injured neck and shoulder to the newcomer. “Cat attacked me back in the mountains,” he explained. “Do you know where I can find a nearby doctor?”
The rancher continued to stare at the large spotted cat. “Yeah, there’s a doc not far from here,” he said distractedly. “Is that a mountain lion? What’s wrong with it? Its fur looks diseased!”
“It’s called a cheetah and the spots are natural,” Jake explained. “I’m taking it back to exhibit in my Wild West show.”
“Wild West show? I heard someone talking about a show that was in Ioland,” the man replied, “but I’ve not had time to leave the ranch to have a look-see.”
“That’s the one.” Jake gasped from a sudden surge of pain and the rancher saw fresh blood on the bandage across the side of his neck.
“I’m sorry, you need the doctor,” the other man mused aloud, taking his eyes off the cat. He gestured toward the northwest. “You see that grove of trees out yonder?” Jake nodded. “That’s Doc Padden’s farm. He can fix you up.”
Jake tipped his hat. “Thank you, much obliged,” he said. “My show will be in Ioland for two days. If you and your missus come, tell them a man named Desmond that Jake said you could get in for half price.”
The man nodded. “Thank you, we may try to see what you have to see.” He glanced back at the spotted cat that lay on her belly beside the creek, quietly watching the men. “What’s wrong with its head?” he asked, indicating the brown wavy growth. “Is that normal on a… a cheeter?”
“I will have my veterinarian look her over,” Jake told him. “If it is a disease or deformity, I may have to put her down.”
The rancher pulled a rifle from a saddle holster and pulled it up, putting the bead right between the cat’s eyes. “I can do it now if you’d like and save you the trouble,” he said somberly. “There’s been a rash of killings from my livestock and the tracks I’ve found point to a large cat. If it attacked you¸ this might be the one what done it, especially if it’s sick and diseased.”
Jake shook his head. “I don’t think it was her that got your livestock. I don’t think she’s been eating much, as you can see her ribs.” The rancher lowered his rifle to take a closer look at the cat. “Thanks for the offer, but I want her for my show.”
“Suit yourself,” the man said with a frown, “but don’t let it loose. I’m not the only one who’s lost sheep lately and someone else might not withhold a bullet for that thing.” He looked again at Jake and noticed the grimace upon his face. “I’d better not keep you any longer. You’d best be getting over to Doc Padden’s place to get you fixed up. I’d go with you, but I still have a lost sheep to find.”
“Thank you,” Jake said politely. The rancher took one more look at the spotted cat and then put away his rifle before he rode off.
The cheetah took another drink of water and then stood up after making sure the rider was out of earshot. “You can see my ribs sticking out?” Citra asked, glancing back at her side.
“Not so much,” Jake replied, “but you are skinnier than a cougar and he didn’t know the difference.” He looked at her a moment more and then asked, “Are you the one who got his sheep?”
“No, I have only eaten rabbits, squirrels, quail and a turkey since I got here, all free range. That momma mountain lion is probably the one that has been hunting the area.”
“You get enough to drink? I think I’ve opened up my back again and need to find that doctor.”
“I am ready to go,” Citra replied. “If you need to push Honey up to a run, I can keep up.”
“I don’t think I could handle a run, but I don’t think you could keep up with Honey if we did.”
“A cheetah is the fastest land mammal there is, so I would not worry about that. However, do you need me to look at your bandages first?”
“No, if that rancher comes back, I don’t want him to see you standing up on your hind legs to get at me. I wouldn’t even want him to see you and me talking right now.”
“Good point. We should go find your doctor.”
They continued on, heading for the farm near the grove of trees they’d been directed to, but after looking around to make sure they weren’t followed, Jake spoke in a low voice. “We need to do something about the hair on your head,” he said. “There’s going to be questions about it everywhere we go. You said you had an idea?”
“All I need is a simple haircut, if we can find some shears. You can cut it all off for me, but it will only be a temporary solution since it will just grow back like any other person’s hair.”
“Why do you have hair anyway?”
“That is part of what I cannot explain to you, Jake.”
“I’ve only known you two days and already I’m getting tired of hearing that. Someday you’re going to tell me your story, whether you think I’ll understand or not!”
“Is that the cat that attacked you?”
Jake glanced out the window of the farmer’s simple house. His mare was tethered in the shade at a hitching post, but the spotted feline was tied to a tree near a cattle trough. She was relaxing on her belly beside the tree, calmly cleaning her paws with a large sandpaper tongue, looking all the world like a huge housecat. The farmer’s two dogs were standing out of harm’s way, barking, growling and making an overly loud fuss, but the cheetah ignored them.
“Yeah, but I don’t think she’s all that harmful,” Jake replied as the doctor cleaned his injuries. “I startled her in a narrow canyon and frightened away the meal she was stalking. If you look at her, she doesn’t look as if she’s been eating much and I think she attacked me out of fright. That she didn’t finish me off once I was down says a lot.”
“Well, Mr. Harrison, you’ve been dealing with wild animals more than I have, so I suppose you know what you’re talking about,” the country doctor told him. “I think most everyone else would have shot the thing if it had attacked them.”
“You’ve seen my show?”
“We were in Ioland last night at the feed store and my daughter begged us to go. We had a good time.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to entertain you myself,” Jake mused, “but I was away at Tin City to attend my son’s funeral.”
“My condolences on your loss.”
Doctor Padden finished cleaning the wounds and then stepped back to look at his patient. He was a middle-aged man with brown hair that was just starting to frost with grey, but the farm work had kept him in good shape and his hands were steady.
“I’m ready to stitch you up,” he said in a calm voice. “I would ask how you wanted to do this, but you’re in so much pain now from only just a cleaning that you’d probably pass out from the stitching.”
Jake looked at him over his shoulder and spotted the man’s younger wife standing in the doorway. “Better knock me out, Doc. I don’t want to scare your family with my screaming.” He’d said it with a smile, but the look in his eyes showed that he was already tired of hurting. He’d been stitched up before and knew it would still hurt afterward, but then it would be given a chance to heal properly. He knew he was man enough to handle the pain, but after days of handling it, he only wanted relief.
“Okay, you’d better lie face down on the bed, Mr. Harrison.”
The doctor turned to a cabinet, pulled out a bottle of amber liquid and picked up a large wad of gauze from the shelf beside it. His wife disappeared from the doorway as he approached the showman. He poured a little of the liquid onto the gauze and then held it out to Jake’s prone face.
“Breathe this. It will put you under for a little over an hour. By the time you awaken, you’ll be all patched up.”
“Thanks, Doc. I appreciate it.”
Citra knew it would take some time for Jake to receive proper care, so she was prepared to wait. One of the benefits she had come to enjoy being part cat was the patience she had gained in the process. When she’d not done anything in response to the ruckus the dogs had made, they’d eventually stopped barking, but both of the mutts remained close to keep an eye on the large spotted animal.
The afternoon was hot, but the cool shade and the water trough had made the time bearable. Even despite the rope, there was nothing else she needed to do and nowhere she needed to go, so she was content to enjoy the outdoors. With the deal she’d made with the show owner, she would be doing a lot of lying around in a cage, so her future seemed devoid of further duties for some time, if not for the rest of her life.
The cheetah woman looked up when she heard a door close at the nearby house. A young girl of five or six had come outside, brown curls loose around her shoulders as she swished her tan dress walking across the yard toward her. Both dogs looked back at her with wagging tails, but her attention was not upon them. The strange, spotted kitty held her mesmerized, especially those large golden eyes.
Citra watched her curiously, but made no move to approach her. Jake had already been telling the few people they’d met that she had been the one to attack him, so she didn’t want to provoke anyone that had access to a gun, which seemed to be a great many people in this place.
The little girl moved closer and suddenly the feline Fur felt uncomfortable. If Citra been a real wild cat like the mountain lioness, the girl would have already been within reach of deadly teeth and claws.
The girl stopped and looked back toward the house at her mother’s shriek. There was genuine fear on the woman’s face as she raced toward her daughter. She’d seen Jake’s injuries and heard how the spotted cat had attacked him. Both dogs, anxious by the mother’s panic, renewed their growling and incessant barking.
Citra admired the bravery of the mother rushing in to protect her child with nothing but a straw broom. The woman put herself between the girl and the large cat, but Citra remained where she was on the ground, fearful that if she got to her feet even to put distance between them, the broom would come at her. The broomstick wouldn’t have done much to harm her, but Citra would prefer not to have a lump on her noggin from the encounter.
The mother grabbed her daughter’s hand and slowly backed away from the cat with her, holding the broom in front of them. The dogs grew bolder from the woman’s anxiety and got closer to the cheetah. Citra remained in her spot, but could feel her ears flattening against her head and her semi-retractable claws fully extending in the event the canines got too close.
Thankfully, the woman called the dogs back, and although reluctantly, they obeyed and retreated to a safer distance, though they did not stop their barking. Citra stayed on her guard as the mother pulled her daughter back inside the house. As long as the dogs continued to harass her, she would not be able to relax. In time, however, there would be quiet again across the farm.
Some hours later, Citra opened an eyelid to see two men exiting the house, one handing the other a few coins from a leather pocket purse. Jake was again in his shirt, but it had been washed by the doctor’s wife and she could see fresh bandages on his hand and neck. He looked drowsy, as if he’d just woken from a long nap, but despite the doctor’s insistence that he rest up before leaving, Jake was determined to make his way back to Ioland to rejoin his company before nightfall.
The doctor carried a medical bag as he walked with him toward the cheetah. “Listen, if you want to leave your cat here,” Padden was telling him, “I can have someone dispose of it for you and deliver its pelt to you later. There’s no reason to put yourself at further risk by doing this. I don’t think you would survive another attack.”
Jake shook his head. “Thanks, but I want her for my show,” he insisted. “She’s worth more to me alive than dead. I just have to take care of that growth on her head and she’ll be fine.”
“Very well, Mr. Harrison, here you go.”
The farmer doctor handed him a pair of shears and then stepped back to a safer distance, his rifle ready for trouble. Jake gave him a confident smile and then turned to face the spotted cat. In a pre-arranged show, he held out both hands with the shears in one and crouched down in a display meant to convey to the cat that he meant her no real harm.
The cheetah got up on her haunches, laid her ears back and hissed at him in warning, but he continued closer talking in a soothing voice.
“I’m not going to hurt you, little Citrakāyah. I only want to help you,” he intoned serenely. “You are in no danger from me, so please let me near.”
Whether or not the animal could understand his words, the doctor marveled at the calming effect it seemed to have on her. Within a moment, Jake stretched out a hand to the cat’s head and gently put his fingers into her wavy brown hair. The cheetah’s ears came forward and she panted lightly at his touch, visibly relaxing.
Moving slowly so that he might not do anything to alarm the cat, Jake brought the shears closer to her head. Her large eyes followed the movement, but displayed nothing more than simple curiosity. He opened the blades and then quietly cut off a long lock of hair.
Purely for the doctor’s benefit, Citra reacted to the haircut with wide eyes, appearing as if for a moment she might panic, but Jake spoke in the soothing voice again to calm her. The feline seemed transfixed upon his eyes as he cut more from her head, and soon there lay a pile of wavy brown hair at the cat’s feet. The haircut was not perfect, but he had trimmed it down to her scalp, where there seemed to be a fine fuzz of fur underneath. Despite that he’d never seen a spotted cheetah before her, Jake thought she now looked more like a mountain lion than she had since he’d met her.
He stepped back slowly, pulling the shears down to his side, and then he retreated calmly back to the doctor. He handed the shears to him with a smile as the cat bent down to sniff idly at the cut hair at her feet.
“See, nothing to it,” he boasted.
“Well, I’ll be,” the doctor responded. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone calm a wild cat like that before. You’re talented, Mr. Harrison. You may want to put something like that in your show if she survives.”
“If she survives?”
The farmer indicated the brown hair. “I’d almost say that looks like regular hair, but it has to be a growth of some kind. Be careful, please. That may be a disease that infects your wounds, or even your other animals.”
“My veterinarian will examine her when I get back,” Jake told him. He suddenly looked weary and the doctor put a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you sure you won’t stay overnight to rest before you leave?” he asked in concern. “My wife will be frying up a plump chicken tonight with corn, potatoes, okra and gravy with her special cat-head biscuits and fresh butter.”
“Cat… cat-head biscuits?” Jake repeated hesitantly.
The doctor laughed, his grin spreading across his whole face and up into his eyes. “That’s what I call them,” he said, pantomiming holding one with both hands, “since she makes them about the size of a housecat’s head – not like your cat’s head, though!”
Jake chuckled and shook his head. “The offer’s tempting, Doctor Padden, but I really don’t want to wait any longer. I can be in Ioland in a couple hours and then I can rest for real.”
“If that’s what you want, I can’t keep a stubborn man back,” said the farmer with a smile. “Please promise me you’ll have a doctor in Ioland take a look at you tomorrow, to make sure your stitches are holding tight.”
Jake smiled and held out a hand to the man who had helped him. “I promise that’s just what I will do,” he said over a firm handshake. “Thanks for your help, Doc.”
He turned back toward the cheetah and boldly walked to the tree. He untied the rope and then led the cheetah past the doctor to Honey, who had been watered, fed and was waiting with her rider’s saddle and pack.
The farmer tried to keep his distance from the great cat, but gave Jake a hand up onto his mare. Once the rope was tied off onto the saddle horn, the showman tipped his hat to the wife and child standing just inside the door of the house and then pulled on the reins to lead Honey away for the final leg of their journey.
As they rode away, Citra looked back over her shoulder and watched the farmer gather together with his family as they all retreated back into the house. These were good people, she thought to herself.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.