A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The ride during the rest of the day was uneventful. They passed a couple of wagons heading along the dusty road in the opposite direction and Jake took a few moments to hawk his show and tout the cheetah with him as the next attraction for his production, inviting them back to see this new wild animal he had caught out on the plains. Most saw her as nothing more than a strange kind of mountain lion with spots, though there seemed to be an extraordinary lack of enthusiasm to those they met along the way. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour and folks were too focused on getting back to their own homes, but the showman was a little disappointed that the handful of people he’d shown her to seemed to have little curiosity about her.
“I don’t know if having you in my show is going to be of much interest,” he muttered when they were alone again on the trail.
“Are you worried I will not earn my keep?” the Fur asked quietly. “You have not shown me to more than a handful of people, which does not represent a percent of everyone who might visit your show.”
Jake looked askance at his companion, still not used to having business conversations regarding earnings and percentages with what should be nothing more than a talking animal, an impossibility in itself.
“Do you charge someone a price to come in and see everything you have to offer,” she asked, “or do you charge for each exhibit, each individual performance your people put on?”
“One price for everything,” he confirmed. “Twenty-five cents per adult, ten cents for children.”
“If that is the case,” Citra continued, “then having me in one cage and some mountain lion in another is not going to bring in more money than having just a mountain lion.”
“That’s true, but I had hoped having the extra draw of an exotic cheetah would entice more people to pay to see the show than usual. That is what would bring in more money.”
Citra stepped around a mesquite bush, dragging the rope across the top of it. “Instead of worrying about what a handful of people we have met today think, just give it a couple of weeks. If I do not draw a crowd for you by then, I have an idea that may help out if you are willing to give it a try. It would be risky for me, but could be good for the show in the long run.” Jake looked simultaneously interested and dubious, which almost made the cheetah laugh aloud at his mixed expression.
“What… did you have in mind?” he asked. Citra wondered how he would take her idea; it was something that would be more likely found in a circus and may not fit in with theme and purpose of a Wild West show, but if he was that concerned with her presence drawing in more coins, he might consider it.
Keeping an eye on their darkening surroundings in case anyone else might overhear their conversation, Citra begin to explain what she had in mind. He seemed surprised at first, but then was nodding his head as he listened.
Jake Harrison’s Wild West was currently set up on the outskirts of Ioland, a young town on the northwest bank of the Canadian River in the Oklahoma Territories. The town itself was unremarkable, but as the territorial county seat of Day County, it was a decent spot for the show to draw in visitors of the region. Typically, they only stayed and performed for two nights at any one place, but just as they had reached Ioland, word had reached Jake about his son’s death in Tin City just a day’s ride to the south. Unfortunately, the cougar attack had delayed his return by three days, so the businessman was not sure his troupe still awaited him.
He had left Emmett Desmond in charge so he could attend the funeral on what should have only been a round trip of two days. Taking a day to set up for the show, two nights of performances and then another day to pack everything up for the next move, they would surely be on their way to the next town by now. He didn’t think they would leave him behind, as he was the sole owner of the venture, but they didn’t normally wait for any other stragglers working for the show.
They could see a great distance across the relatively flat prairie grasslands and as nightfall was darkening the skies, Jake could see a soft glow of light ahead marking the location of Ioland. Before they could get to it, however, they had to cross the river.
Jake pulled Honey to a halt and Citra stopped beside them atop an embankment overlooking the Canadian River, or the Goo-al-pah as the Comanche called it. The water was no more than six or seven feet at its deepest, but even in the darkness, he could pick out sand bars and shallow areas where crossing would be easier.
He glanced over at his exotic companion and asked in a low voice, “Can you swim?”
“Yes, of course I can,” she replied. “I take it we need to cross this.”
“That’s Ioland up ahead on the other side. I only asked because I know cats don’t usually like water.”
Citra smiled up at him. “Thank you for your concern, but I do not mind the water. My fur is all dusty and could use a good cleaning anyway.”
“We probably won’t be able to talk again for some time,” he said, idly scratching at one of his stitches, “So if there’s anything you need to say to me before we go on, you’d better say your piece now.”
“I know you are a busy man with many people who look to you for guidance,” the feline said, “but you are also injured and will need to rest up a while before you can return to the center of things. All I ask is that you have someone set me up with a place to stay and food to eat. I can play the part of a dumb cat until such time as we may be able to talk again, or if we need to put my idea into play.”
“I will make sure my lady-cat is taken care of properly,” Jake said with a small tip of his hat. “For now, we’ll need to hush up so no one discovers that you’re more than you seem.”
“Thank you, Jacob,” she said, using his given name with a private smile.
“You’re welcome, Susan,” he returned in kind. Without another word, he prompted his mare down the embankment toward the water. He untied the rope from his saddle horn and played out more slack to give the spotted cat room to maneuver across the river.
He kept an eye on Citra while they crossed, letting Honey pick her own route through the water, but the feline managed to make it on her own without incident. Jake was high enough on the horse’s back that he barely got his boots wet, but the cheetah stopped when they reached the bank and shook loose as much of the water as she could.
She gave him a triumphant smile and he nodded back to her, but now that they were getting near, they would have to stop with the expressions of familiarity.
They reached the edge of town presently, but would not have to go through it. They had arrived on the same side where his show had been camped, but he could now see that the entire caravan had been packed up and ready to go. Travel wagons, tents and sleeping pallets had been set up with campfires and Jake was pleased they hadn’t left without him.
He rode toward the silhouette of a familiar wagon, but before he reached it, the broad figure of a man stood up from his seat before a small fire where he had been tending a pot of coffee.
“Jake!” the man said with enthusiasm. “We’d just about given up on you! Where’ve you—?” He stopped short when he saw the damp spotted cat on the end of a rope walking quietly beside the rider and his horse. “What the thunder is that?” he croaked with wide eyes.
“Emmett,” Jake said quietly. “I need this critter put in an exhibit cage, if we have any extras. It’s a citrakāyah from Africa, but it’s more commonly called a cheetah.”
Honey approached the man’s silhouette with familiarity, but in the glow of firelight, Jake had recognized him as the associate he’d left in charge of his business during his absence. Emmett Desmond was a short, broad-shouldered man with a thick mustache, equally thick sideburns and only a ring of hair around the perimeter of his round head. He had small eyes, but they were sharp and light glinted from them in the dim light.
“Is it safe?” he asked warily, examining the exotic cat from a distance. He looked up at his boss and only then noticed the bandages and the pained expression on his face. “What happened?”
“I made a greenhorn mistake and got between this girl and her dinner,” Jake explained, using the made-up story. “She roughed me up, but once she calmed down and finished her supper, it was easy enough to rope her. I thought we could use her as an extra attraction.”
Emmett chuckled and shook his head. “You’re the only man I know who always seems to bring back anything that attacks you, Jake. What did you call her, a cheater? Did she hurt you bad?”
“Chee-tah,” Jake corrected. “She tore me open, but I made it to a local doctor who stitched me up. I’m going to be stiff and sore while I’m healin’, so I’m going to be leaning on you to help keep the show going.”
“You got it, boss. Everything’s packed up and ready to ride. If I hadn’t heard anything from you by morning, I was going to get everyone moving toward our next stop in Alva. You knew our schedule so I figured you would either catch up to us there or in Wichita.”
“We can leave for Alva at first light,” Jake instructed as he slowly dismounted his mare. “I need to see Lane about my injuries, and then I’m going to find my bunk and collapse for the night. Would you see to Honey for me and find a place to put the cat too? I think our cages are all full up, but maybe you can put her in with the mountain lion if you put the two of them on short ropes – just so they don’t tear one another to pieces before we can get another cage to separate them.”
Emmett nodded, taking the mare’s reins in one hand and the rope to the strange cat in the other. “I’ll see that Honey is fed and watered before she’s put away for the night,” he said, “but we won’t have to double up the cats in one cage, boss.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you, but the coyote died two nights ago. We had to bury him out by the river.”
“My coyote died?” Jake repeated. He looked stricken. He’d trapped the mangy little thing out on the prairie the previous season without knowing if the undernourished animal would survive, but he’d treated it back to health and exhibited it as a natural native to the land. He hated to lose the timid canine, and although he’d never admit it to anyone, he’d grown fond of the coyote. He’d have to trap another for the show, and for a brief moment he wished he’d known about this earlier. Perhaps he could have trapped and brought in the coyote that had stolen Citra’s rabbit the other day.
“Sorry, boss. I know the customers liked seeing it caged.” This was true; the local farmers and ranchers who’d come to his show got to see the animal up close and alive, a change from seeing one that wasn’t dead from buckshot or running away with one of their chickens.
“Okay, put this girl in his place. Have Tony make sure she has clean straw, food and water. She’s not eaten much today, so she’s probably hungry.”
“Will she attack me?”
Jake shook his head. “No, she’s been calm enough. Maybe it’s the breed, but I’ve not had as much trouble with her as we usually do with Old Max. So long as she has enough to eat, she shouldn’t give us much grief.”
Emmett nodded. “You can find Lane over near Chetan’s tent. That Indian got his moccasins tangled in a sage bush during our last performance and twisted an ankle. The last I saw, Lane was wrapping it up for him. What name do you want on the cat’s cage?”
“Cheetah, with citrakāyah in quotes,” Jake replied. “No, I don’t know how to spell it, but you can get with Lane tomorrow. If anyone knows, it will be him. We won’t need it until we set up in Alva anyway.”
“Okay, I’ll ask him on the ride tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Emmett. Good night.”
“See you in the morning, boss.”
Jake moved off into the darkness without a look back, leaving his friend with the tasks he’d given him. Emmett rubbed Honey’s neck affectionately for a moment, but then he turned his attention to the spotted cat. He’d never heard of a cheetah before and wondered how something like this one had gotten a hold on his boss.
Despite Jake’s assurances that he was probably safe with the cat, he remembered that the feline had attacked while hungry. If she was hungry now, he was concerned she might come after him as well.
To put distance between him and the cat, the man got up into Honey’s saddle to ride her to the temporary corral where they stabled the horses for the night. He tied the cat’s rope to the horn and then looked down at her. She peered back up at him passively, her large golden eyes shining from nearby fire light. An involuntary shudder passed through him and then he directed Honey toward her place for the night.
Surprisingly, Emmett had no trouble coaxing the strange cat into the coyote’s empty cage. It was large enough that she would have room to pace around, having been built upon the frame of an old prairie schooner. A grown man could have stood up inside the cage, though the iron bars were close enough together that even a skinny coyote couldn’t have squeezed through them.
The cage had already been cleaned out after the death of its previous occupant, so he would have to get Tony to provide fresh straw, water and food for the cat. The latch on the cage was nothing more than a sliding bolt, so once the feline was inside and away from the gate, Emmett locked her inside and sauntered off to find the animal keeper.
Tony Holland was the caretaker of the animals on exhibit, a young man who had recently begged Jake to let him join the troupe when they’d stopped in Brownsville. His job was far from glamorous, but the man hoped he would one day be allowed to perform in the show itself as a trick rider. As with any mundane chore, Tony took care of the animals, but spent as little time with them as possible so he could focus on his real talents. As long as he did what he was paid to do, his foreman didn’t seem to mind him practicing out away from camp to stay out of the way of others.
Once the sandy-haired man had gawked at the spotted cat for a while, he wrestled an armload of straw in through the door, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the creature while he had his arms inside. Curiously, the exotic feline stayed in a corner on the opposite end of the cage from him, simply sitting up on her haunches and watching him quietly while she groomed her damp fur.
He managed to get the water and a slab of beef inside without being molested, but she was definitely watching him with intensity when he’d brought the food. It was not until he had backed away and closed the cage door that she finally approached the fare and ate with relish.
Tony watched her for a moment and then glanced over at movement from next cage nearby. A large male cougar was stretching his paw out toward him as if to beg food for himself. The animal had been caged with the show for so long that he was long accustomed to the routine, and although he’d already been fed for the night, the smell of fresh meat was enticing.
“Sorry, Old Max,” Tony said with a smile toward the cougar. “This is for your new neighbor.” Then his voice dropped conspiratorially, “I did save an extra piece for you, though.” From a pocket he pulled out something wrapped in paper and then he pulled apart the edges. Inside was a thick morsel of dried jerky that he could have eaten himself on the trail ride, but the young man tossed it through the bars of the lion’s cage. The tawny cat snared it with a paw and it was gone within three bites.
The mountain lion looked back at him with what could have been an expression of gratitude, but Tony was already walking away, quietly folding the paper before shoving it back into a pocket. His chore with the new animal finished for the night, he wanted nothing more than a cup of hot coffee and a chance to relax before the long ride tomorrow.
With all the hustle and bustle of the camp making last minute preparations before bedding down for the night, Citra had curled up on her straw and had soundlessly drifted off to sleep with the end of her tail draped across her nose. Before long, however, a slight sound picked up by her sensitive hearing penetrated her sleep and she cracked open one eye.
Looking through the hairs of her tail fur, she saw a silhouette standing a short distance from her cage. Although most of the campfires had been allowed to die down to coals for the night, she could focus on the individual in the starlight.
It was a young man with prominent cheekbones and broad shoulders, with a head of black hair that was adorned with what she recognized as several feathers of a hawk. He wore a simple long-sleeved shirt of dark cloth, buckskin breeches, moccasins and there was a white cloth wrapped around one ankle. There were also two beaded strands hanging loosely around his neck. Citra recognized him as a Native American, or what she knew used to be called an Indian. Jake had said that he had employed several for reenactments of the wild, untamed west, so this must be one in his charge.
Although the thin sliver of the moon had already set, the cheetah could see the man’s dark eyes shining from some other reflected light, staring at her, studying her. Although she figured that he might not be as educated as a white man, Citra got the impression just from his eyes that this was no ignorant fellow. There was intelligence in him.
She raised her head to look at him fully, the tip of her tail lightly tapping the straw. The man continued to study her, for that was exactly what she felt he was doing, his eyes transfixed upon her own.
When she did nothing more than flick an ear, he showed remarkable courage and approached her cage. He put his fingertips upon the platform beside the iron bars, well within reach of the strange spotted feline, but he showed no fear, only curiosity.
The Indian picked up a length of straw and then held it out toward her nearest paw. Inwardly amused at his gesture, Citra extended her paw and lightly tapped the end of the straw a couple of times before pulling it from his fingers with her semi-retractable claws. She pulled it up to her face and rubbed the stalk across the glands of one cheek after sniffing it with care.
The man seemed relaxed but still cautious, but then his eyes widened as he stared at her paw for a long moment. Citra wondered what could have piqued his attention and then remembered something she possessed that no natural cheetah or other cat had. Thumbs. Although they were short and stubby in order to allow her to run on all fours, she could use them just as dexterously as any human and one was currently wrapped around the piece of straw.
Slowly as so not to startle the young man, she let the straw drop beside her and she curled the paw beneath the fur at her chest, laying her head down again. Her eyes were still open and fixed upon his, but she took on the attitude of a drowsy animal ready for sleep.
Her watcher continued to study her, but then he said something in a quiet but deep voice. “Wohsheesheekeeyea…”
She did not recognize the word, assuming it was something from his own language; she could not begin to guess what it might mean, but sincerely hoped he wasn’t marking her for a spotted rug. A man of any nationality might still hope to do that with her, but unless he spoke English, she could only guess at the intention.
Playing the part of a dumb animal, she relaxed and closed her eyes. It was several moments before she heard him walk away and it was only then that she peered back after him through slotted eyelids. He did not look back as he headed toward the cluster of tents and show wagons, and soon was lost in the darkness.
Citra raised her head again and looked around. No one else was in sight, and even the other nearby animal pens were quiet. Her eyes fell upon the rusted bars of the cage and wondered if she had done the right thing. Jake knew what she was and had agreed to take her in for her own safety, but if she had misjudged him and he was a dishonest man, she might never get out of a cage for the rest of her life — however long or short that might be.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.