A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Citra looked across the small circle of wagons that the animal exhibits had been arranged in and felt pity for the thin coyote whining and pacing her new cell. Jake’s men had captured a young female just ahead of the caravan on the trail ride to Alva; having stirred her up from a midday nap, one of the rodeo ropers had captured her while she was still sluggish. There had been no new cages to put her in so they’d had to just keep her on a rope, but Jake had sent an order ahead to Alva with a rider to a wagon-maker so that one might be waiting for them by the time they’d reached town. The one he later found waiting for him had been hastily constructed using a covered wagon base already partially built, but it would serve its purpose for the coyote.
The other exhibit animals were quietly awaiting attention from Tony, long resigned to their fates. The young trick rider had set the brakes on the cage wagons after arranging in them in a large circle, leaving an opening between the coyote and the bobcat for visitors to come in to see the formerly-wild critters. With that accomplished, he had just returned from the nearby Salt Fork Arkansas River with a handcart containing a half-barrel of water. He set it down near the center of his circle and then rubbed his lower back for a moment before he got to work.
The rest of the production was currently being set up in an allocated field just outside of town and the place was a flurry of activity. Tony dipped a large ladle into the water barrel, picked up an empty wooden bowl and then approached the coyote. The frightened female retreated with tail between her legs to the opposite side of the cage from the man, who set her bowl up on the floor between the bars and then proceeded to fill it from the ladle. He would do the same with the bobcat, the bear, the cougar and the cheetah all in his charge. Once they had been watered, he would repeat the process with fresh straw for their beds, followed up with a bit of food for each to tide them over through the day.
Something else waiting for Jake in Alva was a stack of new lithographs and hand bills he’d had made up by the town’s printing office. They were similar to those he’d used previously, but this time the title had been edited to read “Jake Harrison’s Wilder West”. The handbills were similar, but in a lower corner of the sheet an artist had included a hand-drawn picture of a cheetah’s head. Having never actually seen a cheetah before, the artist had merely drawn the head of a mountain lion with dark vertical stripes below its eyes and rough splotches across its face and head. Jake recognized right off that the shape of the head and muzzle were wrong, but since no one else would likely know the difference, he decided to leave it as it was.
Including some of Alva’s townsfolk in his endeavor, he hired a handful of boys loitering near his camp to take the majority of the lithographs and handbills to post them all over town to promote the show, and once they had gone on this mission, he made his way to the mayor’s office to introduce himself, something he did everywhere they went.
After meeting with the mayor, he visited several local markets to arrange the purchase of large quantities of food and supplies to keep his business operational as they traveled from town to town.
An hour into the four-hour performance of life in the Old West, the young town of Alva had already provided good crowds for the first evening of the show’s two-day presentation. People were hungry for something to break up the monotony of their daily lives and were willing to give up a few coins to see memories of the Wild West reenacted right before their eyes. Most had never known the mix of wonders and hardships involved settling the lands of North America as pioneers braved an untamed world.
In addition to the few wild animals that were on display, an outdoor set of grandstand bleacher boards was set up for visitors to sit upon while performances were put on for them out in a wide-open field. The show began with a parade on horseback that put all the performers on open display. Trick riders showed off their skills to the delight of the crowd, a large group of Indians rode by on their ponies in full colorful regalia, and a band of Mexicans filed by and rallied the crowd with enthusiastic shouts and cheers punctuated with guns firing blanks overhead. Covered wagons with homesteading families smiled and waved, followed by riders herding longhorn cattle and bison raising a cloud of dust.
Once the grand parade ended, Emmett Desmond stepped out with a wide brimmed hat and in full leathers meant to promote a western theme, addressing the crowd through a conical bullhorn of thick cardboard. This was normally Jake’s job as the master of his show, but until he was fully healed enough to take the center stage again, Desmond would take his place.
His announcements brought in costumed men and women to perform feats of skill in shooting exhibitions with the use of rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and even the deadly accuracy of the bow and arrow. The visitors responded well to the boisterous displays and applause issued from the grandstands.
Next began the reenactments of life in the west depicting hunts involving buffalo, longhorn steers, wild mustangs and even a black bear. None of the animals were actually killed or duly harmed in the performances, since the same critters would be needed again for other shows, but the reenactments impressed the crowd as Desmond reminded them that life on the frontier was much harsher than modern life in the towns and cities that were now populating the west. Times were tough in years past that helped create the niceties that people now enjoyed.
While other reenactments were getting ready to perform for the audience, Desmond brought in rough riders to showcase the skills of horse racing, cattle roping, bronco busting, and the Indians also got to show off their prowess by fierce wrestling, racing one another on foot, and even racing on foot against an Indian pony. Ritualistic dances were a favorite and many of the visitors caught themselves tapping their feet in time with native drums.
All through the ceremony, Desmond reminded them all that although the Red Man was considered primitive by society, not to look down upon them too badly. The Indians were a noble race with strong family and social ties, were highly skilled and had great respect for one another – some attributes that society in itself was sometimes lacking. The conflicts and wars between civilized white men and the native red men were simply clashes between cultures so different that neither was able to comprehend the other upon first meeting. The frontiersmen who moved across the land had dreams of owning their own land and homesteads, while the Indians lived with the land without thought of ownership until the intrusion of the east came upon them.
The next great presentation was a bison hunt, first shown from the point of view of the Indians, who used all parts of the animals throughout their societies, and then by the great white buffalo hunters who treasured the thick hides and traded them for supplies needed to support their homesteads. The thundering hooves of stampeding bison that were driven across the field enthralled the visitors. Most people living in the real west had never seen bison before and felt the grand, rumbling rush of feeling in their bones as if they were in the middle of a great hunt. It was an experience few would soon forget.
As the evening progressed, a “war” was staged between the US Calvary and the Indians that showed just how savage and brutal such an event could be, with villains and heroes on both sides of the conflict in the aftermath. The “wounded and dying” were tended by both races and even the “savage” Indians were shown to have genuine emotions toward their fallen friends and loved ones.
The grand finale of the performance showcased a cabin rolled out on hidden wheels representing a homestead family under attack by Indian forces that were repelled by a mix of cowboys and Mexicans. At the end of the show, all of the performers lined up in front of the crowd, many of them hand in hand, to take a bow to raucous applause.
After the entertainers filed away and the crowd began to disperse, everyone was invited to wander through the camp to witness skills performed firsthand, glass-blowing over hot fires, blacksmiths tamping out iron into horseshoes, plows and hand tools, women quilting and others showcasing life on a farm that most town-dwelling visitors had never had to experience before.
The tourists could see a longhorn steer or a buffalo up close, pet wooly sheep and feed chickens to get a few minutes of on-hand familiarity. The “wild animals” were on display so they could all see critters that some had never seen with their own eyes before, but had always heard about. Tent stands were set up for the men to drink, for families to eat jerky and pemmican and there were numerous hand-made trinkets for sale by cowboys, Mexicans and Indians alike.
All in all, the traveling Wild West show was a great success everywhere it went, letting people briefly escape from their daily routines to experience life as it used to be.
At first, Citra watched the faces outside her cage with interest. Farmers, ranchers, store owners and the like came in pairs, groups and family gatherings, and there were folks of all kinds who came to stare back at the “wild” animals that had been caught and put on display. Some were unwashed, still dusty from working in the fields or tending their livestock, while others had come to the show dressed up in their Sunday meeting clothes.
Most were astonished and amazed at the strange spotted cat, and with Citra arranged in a cage next to an actual mountain lion they could all see that she was not just a cougar that had been made up to look like something else.
Unfortunately, not all the visitors were kind to the animals. There were those who did nothing more than make fun of the critters, the funny-looking cat especially, sometimes accompanied by spitting tobacco or tossing rocks, sticks and drink bottles into the cages at them.
One man got too close to the black bear thinking it looked harmless behind a curtain of iron bars and almost lost several fingers in the process. His friends had to rush him off to a nearby doctor, but instead of respecting the potential danger of these animals, it only seemed to fuel the distain some had for them.
One brave soul even had the audacity to bring a pistol with him and was aiming it through the bars at the cheetah when Tony stepped into the area to check in on his animals. It was unknown if the man would have actually fired a shot, but after he had been escorted off the premises without a refund of his two bits, a shaken Citra sat in the back corner of her cage and refused to face any other visitors the rest of that evening.
Jake soaked in a claw-foot tub of cooling water in a room down the hall from the hotel suite where he was staying while his show was parked outside of Alva. His injuries were healing well enough, but it was at times like these that he would spend a little of his own money to sleep in a bed more comfortable than the one in his show wagon.
The water had been provided by an employee of the hotel, heated up and brought in by buckets to fill the tub, but he had been in it long enough that it had grown tepid. Resting his elbows up on the high sides of the tub, the businessman was going over the reports that Emmett Desmond had brought him after the close of the first night’s performance. Numbers were up from previous stops, and although Alva was no larger than some of the other towns they’d seen, the monetary take was a good indication of more visitors.
Was the increased income due to the new exotic cat he had on display, or was it merely due to greater numbers of people who were interested in the reenacted scenes from the Wild West his productions portrayed?
He mused on that for several moments with a frown. There had been no time to see Citra since they’d arrived, especially as there were no opportunities to talk where no one else would overhear. He was healing and getting around better now, but he’d left the bulk of his usual duties as center showman to Desmond for the time being.
An hour later, he sought out Emmett and found him rubbing down one of the trick ponies with a wide brush. The bald man nodded toward him when the show owner arrived.
“You look like you’re getting around a little better,” he said in greeting. “You don’t seem to be having any trouble walking now.”
Jake peered darkly at him from the shadow of his hat brim. “There’s nothing wrong with my legs,” he reminded the man, “but everything still feels tight across my neck and shoulders. The stitches sting and itch, but it’s tolerable.”
“Glad to hear it, since you’ve been slacking in your responsibilities.”
Jake grinned and rubbed the pony’s nose affectionately. “This isn’t the first time a critter’s had a hold on me,” he retorted good-naturedly, “so you know I’ll be back in the center of things soon enough.”
“So, what’s on your mind?” Desmond said with a sideways glance. “Pulling your stitches out getting around won’t help anyone and you could always send a boy out me to with your message.”
Jake shook his head. “I’ve been going over the numbers from last night’s show and I think our little lady-cat is bringing in more folks to see us.” Desmond frowned, but kept his attention on the pony as his boss continued. “I want to increase the mystery surrounding our exotic cat, so I’ve been thinking that we should separate her from the other critters, set up her cage wagon by itself and then surround it with the large curtain panels – maybe put up a couple of the new handbills at the entrance so people would know what’s inside.”
“How is that going to increase the mystery?”
“Folks might wonder why she’s been separated from the rest - may make them think she’s more dangerous and make them curious to see her.”
Desmond cleared his throat and turned to face his boss. “Jake, I’m glad that we have a few extra coins this time around,” he said, “but that thing doesn’t belong with us and you should get rid of it.”
“You should contact the Philadelphia Zoo and sell it to them. That’s where it belongs.”
“Sell my cheetah?” Jake asked incredulously.
“You keep telling everyone that’s where it’s probably from, escaped a train somewhere and made its way out here to the Territories. Maybe if you just offered it to Philadelphia, they’ll give you a good reward for returning it to them.”
“Now why would I want to do that?” Harrison rebuffed with a dark look in his eyes.
“Jake, that spotted cat is not native to these parts – not even to this country at all! We have a Wild West show to remind people of the things that happened so none of them forget, and a cheetah is not part of that history! It doesn’t fit our show, no matter how much extra she brings into the coffer.”
Jake narrowed his eyes at the other man, his jaw set in irritation. He had to remind himself that no one else knew his secret of the cheetah, and that Desmond was reacting solely on the knowledge of a wild animal that had been caught out on the plains and shoved into a display cage. Remembering something Citra had told him on the night they made their plans to include her in his show, he made a quick decision and nodded toward the man.
“Come with me,” he said. “I have something to show you about that cat that will change your mind.”
Desmond pulled a fob watch from the pocket of his pants and popped open the cover. “Listen, I have a lot to do before I turn in tonight. I don’t really need to see the cat again.”
Jake put a hand on his arm. “Come with me,” he said. “I insist.”
The man snorted his displeasure, but followed his boss anyway. The pony’s reins were tied to an old metal milk jug filled with dirt, so he didn’t have to worry about her wandering away until he got back. He left the brush on the jug and followed as instructed.
Tony was refilling the exhibit animals’ water bowls when they arrived in the circle of wagons and he looked up in surprise to see the show’s two top men. Jake gave him a nod and said, “Go take a break. Give yourself about twenty minutes.”
Tony’s eyebrows raised. “Uh sure, thanks,” he replied. He set his water ladle on the edge of the bobcat’s cage and then wandered away wondering what secrets the bosses needed to discuss. After he’d gone, Jake led Desmond straight to the spotted cat’s wagon. The exotic feline was reclining lazily, but lifted her head up with the men approached the cage.
Without preamble, Jake looked in at her, tipped his hat courteously and said, “Citra, this is Emmett Desmond, the one always in charge for me when I’m away. I need you to tell him what you are and what we discussed about your stay with us.”
The expression on Desmond’s face clearly showed that he thought his employer had either gotten into the whisky or he was suffering a fever from his injuries. The expression on the cheetah’s face was impassive and bored. She blinked once slowly and then lay her head back down in the straw.
Jake put his hands up and gripped the bars, ignoring the strain on his stitches and stared in at her. “Citra, I really need you to talk to Emmett.”
The tip of the cheetah’s tail thumped the straw a couple of times, but otherwise she didn’t give any indication that she understood a word he’d said. Jake glanced over at Desmond and saw the look of pity on the other man’s face.
“Jake… you need to rest,” the balding man said quietly. “Your hurts are making you do things Diego would say is loco, and you know he never uses that word lightly.”
Through tight lips, the businessman said, “I am not loco.” He turned back toward the spotted cat and stared in at her. “C’mon, Citra. I need you to talk to Desmond.”
“I don’t think that cat’s going to meow at me, Jake. It’s just a dumb animal.” He pulled out a handkerchief from a pocket and swabbed the top of his head in the warm night air. “Listen, I need to get back to the ponies. There’s been a lot of dust in the wind today and we need them looking good for the show tomorrow.”
Without a word, Jake nodded and let Desmond depart. He stared in through the bars at the cheetah and sighed loudly. “If you’re mad at me for not coming by to see you, I already said that I would be busy when we got back,” he said hotly. “Besides me, that man was your best chance of survival and you just turned him against me. I told you before, you don’t fit in with the theme of my show, and that’s all he can see!”
Citra raised her head and narrowed her large golden eyes at him. “I had a man point a cocked revolver in my face today, Jake. That is not something I will soon forget. I am strange enough for most folks, but you and I had already agreed not to expose what I am to many other people yet,” she said calmly. “Two are enough for now.”
Jake glared at her. “Two? Who else knows?”
“Chetan and I have had private conversations when no one else has been around.”
The man sputtered indignantly. “Why didn’t you tell me that you and that Indian had been talking?” he spat out in anger.
“Why should it matter to you?” Citra asked, again in a calm voice. “How could I tell you, anyway? You never come by to talk to me and I needed a friend. I am not a dumb animal and I need companionship just as much as anyone. Chetan respects my nature, even if he understands my existence no more than you do.”
“I’ll tell you why it matters!” He pointed in the direction the other man had gone out through the opening in the wagon circle. “Emmett wants me to sell you to the Philadelphia Zoo for a reward! You’re not a native and you don’t fit in with our show, but I needed to convince him that we should keep you. That’s why I need you to talk for him. If he understands, he won’t press me to get rid of you. It’s well and fine you talk to Chetan, but he’s just a performer in my show. Emmett is used to me listening to his suggestions and more times than not, he’s had good ideas. Do you think you’d be better off in Philadelphia than with me?”
Citra got up and sat on her haunches, looking out at the man. She was silent for a moment and then nodded. “Okay, Jake,” she said quietly, “I will do as you ask, but I need to ask something of you too.”
“What is it?”
“I would also like you to choose a woman I can talk to.”
She stepped closer to the bars and lowered her strangely accented voice to a whisper. “I have mentioned that I am half-human. Unfortunately, this also means that I have a monthly dilemma that requires some personal needs.”
“I don’t understand. What dilemma? What needs?”
Citra gave him a little smile. “A lady does not usually discuss such things with a gentleman,” she whispered, “but I am referring to a woman’s natural time of the month.”
Jake swallowed and averted his eyes away from her. The skin of his neck began to redden and he coughed briefly into a fist. “I-ah… s-see…” he stammered. “I did not realize an, uh, an animal…”
“Half-human,” she reminded him again. “It has not started yet, but I am getting close.”
Jake took off his hat, fanned himself with it for a moment, and then put it back in place.
“Yes… yes, of course. I will get Sonya Brandy. She’s a performer who plays the parts for schoolmarm, showgirl, homesteader wife or whatever else is needed.” He looked back up at the feline and licked his lips. “I don’t know how well she might take to your… nature, but I think she would be the best to help you with your… womanly issues.”
Citra sighed and relaxed, thankful that she was about to expand her little growing circle of friends. “Thank you, Jake. Now, if you will drag Desmond back here again, I will talk to him for you.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.