A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Emmett Desmond thought the notion of a talking cat was insane and likely the result of a fever brought on by Jake’s injuries. There was no other reason why someone as level-headed as his boss would entertain such loco ideas, unless he was merely trying to play some elaborate joke. Harrison knew as well as anyone else just how much work was involved after the end of a night’s performances before they could all relax, so Desmond returned to the trick pony to resume brushing her dusty coat, pushing the cheetah to the back of his mind.
He worked quietly and his equine companion endured the routine with complete calm; she knew that a feed sack would be awaiting her and the other ponies he had to do after the balding man finished. The silence did not last however, when Desmond looked up at the sound of approaching feet. Chetan Hawk, as the Lakota Sioux Indian was known to all associated with the show, was dressed in fresh leathers and a clean tan shirt. He wore no hat in the evening air, letting his long black hair flow around his shoulders and kept out of his face by a simple cloth headband.
“Mr. Hawk?” Desmond asked, dropping the brush to his side. The Indian rarely interacted with him, which was not uncommon given the amount of people employed by Jake for the show, but it seemed this time he needed to speak to him directly.
“Mr. Desmond,” the Lakota performer said with a nod of his head, “Mr. Harrison would like to see you in his wagon now.”
“He’s probably sore about what I said about his cursed cat,” Desmond muttered. Chetan said nothing, merely staring back at him, but the balding man shrugged. “Okay, I’ll go see what’s on his mind. Would you finish brushing the pony and see to her feed sack for me?”
“No, sorry,” Chetan replied. “Mr. Harrison asks me to find Miss Brandy also.”
“Sonya? What does he want her for?” Desmond asked puzzled. “I thought her performance tonight was just as good as it always is.”
“I go to find Miss Brandy,” the Indian announced without explanation. He had delivered his message and now had to go seek out the other person he had been sent to find. He walked away without another word and Desmond let out a sigh. He patted the pony’s mane and put down his brush.
“Too many interruptions, ol’ girl. I’ll be back to get your feed for you as soon as I can.”
He decided to make a detour to his own wagon first. It was not far, so he went inside and stepped across a shabby woven floor rug to a box nailed to the wall near his bed without lighting a lamp in the dark room. Inside was a bottle of amber liquid with only a little bit in the bottom and he pulled a cork from the top before downing the remaining mouthful. Finally ready to face Jake when the man was in a foul mood, he put the empty bottle back in its place and then departed the wagon.
By the time he reached Harrison’s wheeled home, Chetan stood beside the wooden steps by the door with a woman wearing a casual beige dress. She was running an old brush through her shoulder-length red hair in an effort to make it more presentable. She looked first at Desmond and then at Chetan, clearly wondering if she was about to get a reprimand for something and her mind was racing to remember anything it might have been.
“Good evening, Sonya,” Emmett said with a gesture of his chin.
“Good evening, Mr. Desmond,” she replied.
Now that both were present, Chetan mounted the steps to the wagon’s door and tapped on it lightly. “They are here,” he called quietly.
“Please come in,” said Jake’s voice. “All of you together.”
Chetan opened the door and went up into the wagon without waiting for the woman to enter first. Thinking himself more of a gentleman than he really was, Desmond gestured for Sonya to go next and she nodded to him thankfully.
The interior of the wagon was close quarters with all of them inside, but once Desmond passed through the entrance, Jake said, “Please close the door, Emmett.”
Inside the room were a number of lithographs tacked to the walls showcasing past performances. There were a couple of large wooden trunks protruding from beneath the bed that took up most of the room and the master of ceremonies himself was seated in the only chair.
However, Jake wasn’t the one who held the attention of his visitors. Sitting up in the middle of his bed was the cheetah. There was no rope or leash upon her with no bars of a cage between them either.
“Jake! What have you done?” Desmond gasped, backing up to the door. Sonya had not seen the new exotic cat, her responsibilities having kept her from the animal exhibits, but her eyes were wide as silver dollars and she was backing up against Emmett while making the sign of the cross over her chest.
“Calm down, you’re safe,” Jake assured them. He turned toward the feline and then gestured toward the other three. “Citra, I know you’ve met Chetan, but our other two visitors here are Sonya Brandy and Emmett Desmond.”
“I am pleased to meet you,” the cheetah said in a strangely accented voice. There was a collective gasp from both humans.
“A ventriloquist’s trick!” Desmond croaked. “Are we adding vaudeville acts to our show now?”
“I am no ventriloquist’s dummy,” said the spotted cat. “I can speak for myself.” She moved to the edge of the bed and then swept her hind legs around so that she could sit on the edge of the thin mattress and her feet hanging toward the floor. She sat up straight, put her hands into her lap and then demurely crossed her legs. Throwing voices or not, none of them had ever seen an animal do that before!
She held up a hand and splayed out her fingers and thumb. Chetan stepped forward and matched her gesture with his own hand up against hers, but she kept her large golden eyes upon the two newcomers.
Sonya looked at Jake in a mixture of interest and fear. “Did… did that cat just talk?” she whispered.
Jake nodded. “Yes, and she appears to have better manners than either you or Emmett. Please say ‘hello’ to Miss Citra.”
Sonya swallowed and looked back at the strange feline. “H-hello,” she said in a shaky voice.
“Hello, Miss Brandy,” said the cat. “Please do not be afraid of me. I am in need of friends and would like to be yours.”
“How?” Desmond gasped, staring at the feline lips that had just pronounced words of English. “How is this possible?”
“I am a lost traveler from a faraway land,” the animal explained. “My name is Citrakāyah, but for ease you may call me Citra. As you may guess, I am half animal and half human, something my people call a Fur for obvious reasons. Specifically, I am part cheetah.”
Desmond’s throat felt tight, and although this thing had told them they were safe, he kept his hand on the door latch behind him in case they all needed a quick escape. Sonya, on the other hand, took a tentative step forward.
“How can you be both human and animal?” she asked after a brief hesitation. She felt mesmerized by those large golden eyes, and although they were like nothing she had ever seen before, she could see the intelligence behind them.
“As I have told Jake and my friend Chetan,” the cat replied, “I am unable to explain to you in ways you would be able to understand, but I was once as human as you are before I was changed into what I am now.”
“It’s magic!” Emmett exclaimed. “I never believed in it before, but I think I do now!”
“Not magic, Mr. Desmond, it is science; beyond that, I do not have a way to explain it to you.”
“Are… are you a demon?” Sonya whispered. “Were you cursed?”
Citra smiled sadly, but shook her head. “I am neither magical nor spiritual and this is not a curse. I am just as much a part of this world as you are, only I am a blend of two beings instead of one. However, because of what I am, what I look like and how people like you react to me, I am vulnerable and my life is in danger every day.”
Sonya swallowed her fear, seeing how unruffled both Jake and Chetan seemed to be around this creature, and tried to calm her own rapidly beating heart. She took another half-step forward in the tiny room and was standing directly in front of her. Citra held out a hand to her, palm upward in a non-threatening manner.
Sonya looked at the strange hand, then at those golden eyes, and then back down at the hand again. She was familiar with mountain lions and other common cats, but had never seen one with a thumb before. Citra did nothing more than hold out her hand and Sonya suddenly felt compelled to act.
Slowly at first, she reached up and covered the feline hand with her own, turning it to the side and then giving it a gentle handshake. The feline smiled at her and nodded.
“I am… pleased to meet you, Miss Citra.” She released the soft, padded hand and then looked at Jake. “If I may ask,” she said, “why me? Surely her nature must be kept secret to keep her safe, but why show her to me?”
Jake gestured toward the cheetah with his chin, an action that brought out a grimace from the stitches in his neck. “Citra requested a woman who might help her with certain… monthly requirements. You were the first one I thought of.”
Sonya looked back at the strange spotted cat. “Certain monthly requirements?” she repeated. Before anyone could answer, however, she arched an eyebrow and nodded. “I think I know what you mean,” she said in a quieter voice.
“I think you do,” Citra responded with a smile.
“I don’t think I do,” Desmond grumbled. “I’m the one around here that Jake goes to when there are requirements to be met!”
Sonya turned and looked at him with a wry smile. Absently wrapping a couple of fingers in her long red hair, she stepped over to him and then whispered into his ear. The man cleared his throat and licked his lips as his neck suddenly turned red.
“Oh, uh, I see,” he muttered. “Forgive me, ladies.” Sonya and Citra both giggled in unison, which caused them both to look back at one another as if they’d always been friends.
Jake snorted in amusement, thankful the ice had been broken. “Due to my injuries and responsibilities to the show,” he said in the sudden quiet, “I’ve not been able to check on and visit with Citra since rejoining the troupe. She and Chetan became friends on their own and I would like the two of you to do the same.” He looked at Desmond. “I had a hard time believing what she is as well, my friend, but the more time you spend with her, you’ll realize she’s intelligent and can hold her own in a conversation. She’s not a dumb animal.”
“What… do you need me to do?” Emmett asked, almost afraid to look at the feline everyone seemed to be claiming was half-woman. He still wasn’t sure that this wasn’t some demented trick that Jake was playing on him, but for now he would play along.
“I know she is not part of the Wild West and doesn’t really fit the theme of the show, but we have to keep her safe until her people come for her.”
“You mean there will be more things like her coming?” Emmett asked hoarsely. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped down his baldness.
Everyone looked to Citra, where she’d been sitting quietly. “If they come for me, I do not think it will be another Fur like myself,” she said quietly. “Most of those I worked with are fully human like yourselves and it is likely they would send one of them to look for me.” She looked sad for a moment and looked down at her hands in her lap. “I do not know if I can expect them, however. I may be too lost for them to find, and if that is the case, I will be here for the rest of my life.”
Jake put out a hand and took one of hers in his own. “You saved my life, Citra. For as long as you are here, I promise to do my best to keep you safe.”
“Thank you, Jake,” she replied with emotion in her voice.
“She saved your life?” Desmond repeated. “I thought she was the one that attacked you!”
Jake grinned. “That’s just what I’ve been telling people. I got too close to a momma cougar and her kittens in a canyon and that’s the cat that ripped me up. Citra jumped in and chased her off before she could finish me. I am alive because of her.”
Sonya looked at Citra with growing respect in her eyes and Chetan smiled, nodding in understanding. Desmond heaved a loud sigh and looked at the cheetah in a new light.
“Well then, cat-lady,” he said, nodding his head, “If Jake’s beholden to you for saving his life, you can count on me to help keep you safe.”
“Thank you, Mr. Desmond. I appreciate that.”
Chetan looked at Jake and then gestured toward his feline friend. “She stay in cage? It’s dirty, dusty.”
“For now, Chetan. Until others know that she can talk and get up on her hind legs, it’s better for her to play the part of a wild animal.”
“Until others know?” Sonya asked. “Should we really want more than us to know about Citra? The more who know, the harder it will be to keep her safe.”
The cheetah smiled. “Jake and I have discussed a way that I can be worked into the show where it is not necessary to keep me hidden. Until we do this, however, I will continue to play the part of an exotic cat that attacked Jake out on the prairie. Perhaps you can help us refine our intentions, so here is what we want to do...”
A little while later, Chetan and Sonya took Citra back to her cage. She walked with them under the guise of a rope looped around her neck and both had promised to visit with her when they could at times when no one else might be around. Sonya even offered to have her wagon parked near the animal exhibit cages the next time they moved so that she could slip the cheetah out of her cage so they could talk in the privacy of the woman’s home on wheels.
After they’d gone and the two remaining men were left alone together, Desmond took a seat on the edge of the bed and put his elbows down on his knees to look at his boss. He didn’t know who might be listening from the outside, especially if the cheetah had greater hearing, so he kept his voice low, just barely above a whisper.
“Jake, I know I wanted to get rid of her before,” he said, “but now I realize we’ve got to keep that animal!” He punctuated the statement with a fist closing upon an imaginary object.
“That’s the plan, Emmett. I want to keep her safe, that’s why I brought her with me.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Even if that thing can talk and sit upright, just think of what people would pay to see a rare human-cheetah woman! That plan of yours you just told us about is nice, but that gives her too much freedom – we’ve got to keep her locked up and never let her out!”
Jake looked at him. “I’m not convinced we need to be that drastic, Emmett. As you’ve reminded me before, she doesn’t fit in the theme of a Wild West show. Our little plan is a borderline away from a sideshow circus, but what you want to do is elevate it to a freak-show.”
He could almost see the dollar signs in Desmond’s eyes when the other man replied, “Maybe it’s time we expanded. This is the chance of a lifetime!”
Jake sat back and rubbed his eyes. Emmett’s newfound enthusiasm concerned him.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.