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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 6
Feathered Friend

 

A hard jolt caused Citra’s head to bounce upward and then come down hard on her chin. She almost bit her tongue, but the hurt to her jaw was bad enough. It was near impossible to sleep with the wheels of her cage dropping into small washouts in the prairie or jumping up over stones. From the conversations she’d overheard on the trail ride it would take some time to reach the next town, but as a self-imposed prisoner in an animal cage the cheetah woman knew there was little she could do. She couldn’t even pace back and forth in front of the bars since the movement of the wagon made standing a precarious endeavor.

The entire troupe and entourage of Jake Harrison’s Wild West was on the move, and while Citra had heard of such traveling shows before, she had never been aware of just how many people were involved. Jake had nearly a hundred-and-fifty people in his employ and nearly two-thirds that many wagons to carry everyone and everything from place to place.  Not only were there the few “wild animals” in cages like her own, there were numerous longhorn cattle, sheep and buffalo to be driven along, and whole herds of horses for every use from trick riding to pulling the carts.

The air was dusty with the dirt everyone was kicking up into the air, and even though that many horses, cattle, sheep, buffalo, wagons and people were moving along the trail, the terrain was far from packed down by all those feet and wheels.  Citra’s cage jumped and bounced, proving to the jostled Fur that there were no springs beneath her to absorb the shock of travel.

The cheetah’s cage wagon was hooked in tandem with other exhibit animals and drawn by a team of horses driven by Tony Holland. The black bear in the cage in front of her was clinging to the iron bars on one side in a desperate attempt for stability, while the mountain lion trailing her was crouched in the middle of the floor with his claws embedded through the straw into the wooden planks beneath him. Although the other animals might be used to this kind of traveling, it was clear to Citra that none of them were inclined to enjoy the ride. Somehow she doubted that she would ever get used to it either.

Thinking the bear had the right idea, the cheetah made her way to one side of the cage and clung to the iron bars, hoping desperately that the company might stop to rest soon. The bouncing around was not being kind to her bladder, and although as an animal she was limited to doing her business in a corner of her wagon, doing so in a moving vehicle was nearly impossible.

Grasping the iron bars with her eyes closed, Citra entertained thoughts of escaping sometime under the cover of darkness and leaving Jake to his show. It might be more difficult to survive alone out on the prairie, but at least there she would have freedom and a stable surface beneath her feet.

However, she knew staying with a sympathetic man like Jake could increase her chances of survival in this place, even if she had to endure the indignities of a life of dusty, bumpy travel in a cage. She may never be rescued by her people, but she was determined to live as long as this kind of life would allow.  Alone with no more protection than any other animal, she could not count on ever reaching the normal lifespan of her kind.  Escape to freedom sounded like a godsend, but unlike a wild animal, she could look ahead and see that captivity was her best method of survival.

The wheel of the cage bumped up over another rock and Citra mashed her lips up against the iron bars she clung to. The sudden pain made her blink rapidly and she almost cursed aloud. She was not typically given to profanity, but any person will have a moment in time when something slips out in surprise. Thankfully, she managed to do little more than yip from the hurt, thus preserving her charade.

She heaved a big sigh, spat out trail dust and held onto her cage as well as she could for the continual bumpy ride.  

*** 

Citra woke up muttering beneath her breath, but her situation had not changed. The troupe continued to move across the prairie in single file, up over gentle hills and down through shallow valleys avoiding washout gullies in the terrain. The sun was almost directly overhead, but there seemed to be no sign of stopping for lunch. Surely the horses, cattle and other animals were getting as thirsty as she was by now.

Despite the dusty, bumpy ride, she had managed to nap part of the way, though she couldn’t figure out how she’d accomplished that.  Perhaps it was an attribute of her feline nature, being able to sleep just about anywhere.  She yawned widely, mindful of the iron bars still moving around beneath her clutching hand paws.

Someone cleared his throat and Citra glanced behind her cage.  Riding on a palomino mare parallel to the mountain lion’s wagon behind hers was a man with a lightweight woven blanket with a colorful southwest design draped across his shoulders. His long black hair flowed from beneath a hat with a round top and a wide brim, but she could see a couple of hawk feathers woven into several strands of hair and fluttering in the breeze behind him. Another was attached to a round conch on his hat band.

The Indian’s dark eyes were shadowed beneath the brim of his hat, but she could see them focused upon her.  It was the same man from the previous night who had looked in on her, and although he was in a different set of clothes, she recognized him.

Remembering that brief meeting, she realized that she was gripping the bars of the cage with her hands, her thumbs once again in full view of the man’s gaze.  Feeling self-conscious about them, she retracted her thumbs from sight and put her whole hands outside the bars to hold onto them with her wrists that were more in keeping with the great cat she was supposed to be.

The motion was slight, given that she still bounced around from the trail ride, but it was enough to put the Indian into motion.  He gave his reins a small flick and the palomino kicked up into a quick trot that brought him parallel to the spotted feline.

Looking directly into her large golden eyes, he nodded toward her and said “Hinhanni.”

Citra was surprised and it showed upon her face. She was about to tell him that she did not understand his speech, but caught herself before she could respond out of habit. She was just a dumb animal, she silently reminded herself.

The man stared at her for a long moment, quietly mulling over the reaction she’d just displayed at his spoken word. Most animals would have done nothing more than stare back at him in curiosity, but she had actually seemed surprised.  Was it possible she understood him?

Okahnige hwo?” he asked.

This time, the cheetah looked back at him dully. Citra had no intention of revealing herself to more people than necessary and would have to watch her reactions around those who stared in at her through the bars of her cage.

The Indian tried again, enunciating the syllables of his word more slowly.  “Oh-kah-ghnee-gay hwo?”

Citra remained impassive, this time looking away and across the countryside in what would have been perceived as the animal’s boredom.  She accepted that he was attempting some kind of communication with her, but was it a real conversation he was trying or was he merely speaking aloud for his own benefit, as he might speak to his horse or a pet dog?  Whatever his intention, the Fur would have to guard her reactions and play her part.

Disappointment crossed the man’s features. He seemed genuinely intrigued by this strange spotted cat, but apparently he thought he’d seen more than what he had.  Lightly pressing his lips together, he rode silently for several more moments before he finally clicked his tongue with a flick of the reins.  His palomino trotted further up the line of carts, wagons and riders and was soon lost to Citra’s view.

What was that all about? she wondered. 

*** 

The day seemed to go on and on.  Citra was tired, thirsty and even a little bit grumpy from the incessant bumpy ride.  She needed water, but what had been in her bowl had long since sloshed out onto the wooden deck of her wheeled cage.  Despite the lack of water, her bladder was also reacting to the continual jostling and she groaned aloud at the frustration of it all, though she kept her eyes closed for no other reason than to keep the dust out of them.

Then she had that feeling again, as if she was being watched. When she cracked open an eyelid, she fully expected to see the Indian, but this time there was a different set of eyes peering back at her – two sets, actually.

A short-bearded man in a dusty shirt with suspenders casually rode atop a black and tan horse beside her cage. His rough hands held the reins around the shoulders of a golden-haired girl of five or six years in a pale yellow dress who sat on the saddle in front of him.  Both were looking over at the cheetah in open curiosity. 

Citra still clutched at the bars of her cage, but had somehow managed to roll with the motion of the wagon; she likened it to the rolling seas of a small ship she had once ridden across the ocean, the primary difference being hard jolts as the wheels hit rocks and uneven ground.

She opened her large golden eyes and peered back lazily at the father and daughter. The girl said something quietly to the man while pointing a small finger toward her.  This was something she knew she would have to get used to seeing. By her own choice, she would always be on display for curious onlookers.

The pair watched her for a time, the father pointing out things like her spots and the dark cry-lines beneath her eyes, but when she did nothing more interesting than yawn at them, they eventually moved on and left her to her bouncing travel.

Before Citra could even attempt to fall back into a state of lethargy, another horse rode up on the other side of her cage. Her ears swiveled back and forth at its approach, and then she turned and looked over her shoulder at it.

When she saw that it was the same Indian as before, she hesitated for a moment and then unfurled herself from the bars to make her way on unsteady paws to his side of the cage to get a better look at him.  He seemed intrigued that she approached his side of the wagon to peer out at him, but a wheel beneath her jumped over a hand-sized stone that caused her to lurch forward.  Instinctively and without thinking, she grasped the bars to steady herself, wrapping her thumbs and fingers around them in a hard grip.

The man narrowed his eyes at her, seemingly unblinking, and then he nudged his horse so that it moved over closer to the cage.  The palomino rolled one eye to the side, unsure whether she wanted to be so close to such a large predator, so the mare kept her distance from the wagon even as she drew nearer at her rider’s silent instruction.

The Indian studied the spotted cat again, his gaze seemingly glued to her eyes and the dark cry-lines beneath them. Although the body and head shape was similar to what he knew of big cats, primarily like the cougar in the next wagon back, there were differences too. He had never seen such an animal before the previous night, so she must be a new exhibit.

He wiped dust from his mouth and then licked his lips momentarily, all the while leaning just a little closer toward the jostling cage.  The feline returned his gaze, but made no threatening move toward him or his mount.  It was all she could do to hang onto the bars.

The Indian swallowed and then spoke again, this time in accented English.  “Beautiful spotted cat who cries, can you understand me?”

In spite of her resolve to remain impassive, her eyes widened in astonishment and she blinked rapidly several times with a lump in her throat.  She knew he’d noticed her thumbs, something a cat should not have, but why would he even expect her to understand by asking such a question?  She had once known a few people of Native American descent, one of them a close friend, but none who had an almost spiritual connection with nature as she suspected this man to have.

The two of them locked eyes and she felt drawn into the depths of his gaze, almost as if he was a snake hypnotizing a potential rodent meal. He knows, she thought, or he suspects I am not what I appear to be.  She resisted giving him any other response, but then it came – unbidden – almost against her will. 

She nodded. 

Despite there was no mistaking her action, the man did not seem to be surprised, and that in itself surprised her.

“I am pleased,” he said almost casually. “Does anyone else know you can understand this tongue?”

Again, she felt compelled to nod.

“Harrison?”

She nodded.

“Desmond?”

She shook her head in the negative.

“Your keeper, Mr. Holland?”

No.

“Anyone else?”

She shook her head twice.

He fell silent and looked around, gently bobbing with the motion of the horse’s movements. His eyes dropped to the reins in his hands and he stared at them for several long moments.  She could understand him.  Had it been a single nod, he could have attributed that to the bounce of the wagon, but she had responded in both the affirmative and the negative to his questions.  She could understand him, but only in English.

However, she had not spoken, so even if she understood his words, there would be no actual conversation between them. He was curious about this strange spotted creature that could not even be described in any legend he had ever heard, but yet it understood him in at least one language.  He did not want to be too hasty in his musing, since even his horse seemed to understand spoken commands, but the palomino had never responded back to him in very human-seeming nods and head shakes in direct response to questions.

He looked over at her and put a hand up to his chest. “I wish I knew the name of the spirit that dwells within you,” he said quietly. “I am Chetan,” he said, enunciating his name as Chay-tahn.  “Harrison holds your secret. I will hold it too.”

Citra’s expression softened, and despite the jostling wagon beneath her, she gave him a gentle smile and a nod.  Chetan swallowed and nodded in return.  “You hear, but I would wish that you could also talk,” he said wistfully. He spoke a few more words in his native language, but they were meaningless to her.

“I can always use a friend,” Citra replied in a quiet voice.

This time, the Indian was surprised and he nearly fell off his horse in astonishment.  When he finally righted himself in his saddle, he stared back at her with wide eyes.  Before he could say anything, however, a voice called out from behind.

“Hey, are you okay up there, Hawk-hawk?”

The Indian turned and raised a hand toward the man driving the team of horses several wagons back who had evidently saw him almost topple from his saddle. “I am okay,” he called. “Horse stumble.”

The Indian’s mount glanced back at him, almost as if she could understand her rider’s words as well and resented the lie.  The black-haired man smiled and patted the animal’s neck affectionately, muttering a few low words into her ear.  When Chetan sat upright in his saddle again, he purposely did not look over at the spotted cat.

Citra chuckled and felt sorry for the Indian. Surely he must think himself crazy, but the fact remained that she did need a friend especially now the cat was out of the bag, as the saying goes.  Jake knew what she was, but he would be out of action for a little while longer due to his injuries, and then he would likely get distracted by all the duties and responsibilities he had toward his show.  With everyone coming to him for one reason or another, she couldn’t count on him having the opportunity to visit her very often, if at all.  In time, he might even come to forget what she was and begin to think of her as just another exhibit animal.

“I am Citrakāyah,” she told him.  With all the sounds and noises from the moving caravan of wheels, feet and hooves, she didn’t expect anyone would be able to overhear their conversation unless they were riding beside them; no one else was near.

“Si-tra-ka-yah?” the man tried to repeat slowly, moving only his eyes to look back to her. As she spoke, he seemed especially focused on her lips as they formed the words she said.

“That is close,” she replied, “but you only need call me Citra.”

“Citra,” he repeated. “What are you?”  His words were direct, but the Fur suspected he was this way with everyone.

“I am called a cheetah,” she began, having flashbacks to her initial discussion with Jake. “I am part cat and part human, a mix of both, and I come from far, far away.”

“Chee-tah.  Why are you here?”

“I am lost, separated from my people.”

“Who are your people?”

“We are called Furs.”

“Because you all have fur?”

“That is right,” she answered with a smile. “Not all of us are cats like myself. Some are foxes, some are wolves and some are even bears.”

“Spiritwalkers…”  Chetan breathed in a hushed voice.

Citra shook her head. “No, sorry. We are just people and we have no special abilities. We are not spirits.”  The Indian mulled on that for a moment, but before he could say anything more, she sighed and looked around.  “Will we be stopping soon?”

Chetan looked ahead and nodded. “We will cross river ahead. Stop there to let horses and other animals drink.”

“That is good. I need to drink too, and I also need to pee.”

The man looked at her. “Pee?”

“Relieve myself,” she explained, putting one hand down to her crotch.

The Indian nodded.  “Me too.”

“So, why are you with Mr. Harrison’s show?” Citra asked to keep the conversation going. Playing the part of a quiet, dumb animal made for long, lonely hours and she was suddenly glad for his company.  She had to watch herself, though; she was gripping the iron bars and showing off her thumbs again without thinking about it.

“I am showman in part of the show that remembers the conflicts between the coming of the white man and of The People. I ride in to show what it was like when The People tried to drive away settlers who wanted to take land and kill all the buffalo.”

“That is showing you off to be bad people!”

“Yes, but is truth. Did happen.”  He shrugged. “Now white men are everywhere, but Harrison gives job to me, food and clothes with pay.  Life is not bad.”  He turned, smiled at her and rubbed his belly. He was in good shape, but there was a little roundness to his tummy. “It is good to eat.”

She laughed aloud at this and there was almost the thrum of a purr beneath the sound of it. Chetan decided instantly that he liked the sound of her laughter.

“Why did that man call you hawk-hawk? Do you train hunting hawks?”

He brushed at the feathers attached to his dark hair with the backs of his fingers. “My name, Chetan, is hawk to the Lakota. Some call me Chetan Hawk, but that is same as calling me hawk twice; Hawk-hawk.”

“Ah, I see.”  She gave him a pleasant smile as her eyes roved over his feathers.

“Will you be in the show,” he asked, “or does Harrison plan to sell you?”

Citra’s eyebrows went up. Selling her to someone else was something she had not considered. If Jake could not bring in extra coins with her as an exhibit, he might be willing to sell her to someone else for the money. He was a businessman, after all.

“He will display me as another animal exhibit,” she admitted, “but we have also talked of including me in his show. There has been no talk of selling me.”

Chetan nodded. “This is good,” he said. “I would wish to talk with you again.”

“I would like this also,” the feline replied, “but there should only be a few people who know I can understand and speak English. Please do not tell anyone for now.”

“I will hold your secret,” he said, echoing what he had said earlier. “Can all your people hear and speak this tongue?”

“Yes, among others, but I only understand this one.”

They fell silent for several long moments when the wagons began to slow.  They were nearing a river and the caravan line was spreading out across its banks to allow all the animals to have access to the water.

Before their section split up, however, Chetan leaned in closer to the cat’s wagon. “I have dreamed of you,” he said quietly.

“Of me?” Citra responded with a tilt of her head.

“I dreamed of igmutaka with painted spots that had been crying so hard that its tears had turned black,” the man explained, drawing an imaginary line with his finger from the corner of his eye down to the corner of his mouth to mimic the ones in the cheetah’s face fur. 

“Ee-gmue-tahn-kah?” Citra repeated, trying to pronounce it correctly.

Chetan smiled and gestured toward the lethargic cougar in the wagon cage behind them.  “Mountain cat,” he explained.

“That description fits me well enough,” said the cheetah.  “What did this spotted igmutaka do in your dream?”

“Igmutaka stood up on hind feet and sang to me.”

Citra gave him a human-style grin and nodded. “That must have been me,” she told him. “If we ever get the opportunity, I can do both for you.”

NEXT CHAPTER

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