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A WILDER WEST

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 9
Unexpected Freedom

 

The town of Wichita was larger than other places where Jake Harrison’s Wild West had recently performed, and it was expected to draw in superior crowds. It would take longer than usual for the local boys Jake had hired to place lithographs and handbills around town, but he’d had the foresight to wire ahead to the newspaper office to post an advertisement in The Wichita Daily Eagle to promote the show two days in advance.

Fortunately, to run his own typical errands in town, he had been able to make use of the relatively new electric trolleys to get around, something he’d heard about but had never experienced before.  He wasn’t sure it was likely to catch on in many places, but he had to admit it made things easier for his usage.

It had been nearly ten days since the cougar had attacked him, and although he had been healing well enough, it would likely be another week before the stitches could come out.  At least the wretched things didn’t hurt much anymore, but the ones in his neck still annoyed him if he needed to turn his head to the right.

He spied the town hall before the trolley reached the end of the block and he prepared to step off onto the unfamiliar paved roadway to introduce himself to the town mayor. Still unused to riding the electric conveyance, he would have to watch himself when he got out. At the last stop, he’d stumbled and nearly fell onto his mustache in front of everyone, but his outstretched hand had snagged a handle on the side of the trolley just in time to keep him upright.

While Jake Harrison was making his rounds, the rest of his company was busy getting things set up and arranged on the edge of town where they’d been directed to go.  As had been discussed in earlier meetings, Citra’s wagon was set apart a little ways from the other animal exhibits that were still arranged in a circle, albeit a little smaller. Materials had been procured from Alva before they’d left town and now several workmen were erecting an enclosure around her wagon with a ten-foot canvas curtain.

The cheetah watched the workers quietly with interest, but none of them paid much attention to her at all.  She and her wagon were merely obstacles they had to walk around to get their task done, so she was left to her thoughts. Despite that she looked like an animal, this critter had an active mind of her own, and as she studied their handiwork, she was working out how their construction methods could have been improved.

Although she was content with how things had worked out since she’d met Jake, everything around her seemed so primitive, but she’d already known this would be the case when she’d come here. It had been an accident, all of it, and even if she didn’t know the exact cause of the mishap, there were worse places and situations she could have encountered.

When she closed her eyes, she could still see her friends and associates, wishing her well on her journey, none of them knowing that something was about to happen only moments later. It was during such recollections that she tried to remember every little detail, as if she might figure out what went wrong at the moment of her departure, but there was nothing she could recall that would clear up the mystery.

Would they come looking for her?  Would they even be able to?  How could they even know where to look?  Yes, she was sure that some effort would be made to retrieve her, but the biggest question of all would be when?

“Okay, boys, that’s it!” called one of the workers, breaking her from her thoughts.  She looked out through the bars of her cage and saw only a horizon of white in all directions.  A series of large canvas panels set up on wooden frames surrounded her cage wagon, the ends stitched together with a single vertical opening between two of them being the only break she could see. At seven feet high, she guessed that was supposed to serve as the doorway where visitors would pass through to see the exotic spotted cat.  The west may have been wild, but there were other things in the world that could be wilder.

She could hear the voices of the men as they departed the area, one job completed so they could begin another to prepare for the next day’s first performance. The air outside that curtain barrier was filled with the sounds of work and voices of over a hundred people. Most would consider it a cacophony of noise, a barrage against the ears, but Citra could pick out an actual beauty to it all and she smiled.

With the workers gone and the curtain surrounding her cage, it was the first bit of privacy she’d had since bringing Jake to her cave in the granite mountains.  She was sorely tempted to open the latch and let herself out of the cage. Although the circle around her wagon was about fifty feet in diameter to allow a crowd of visitors to surround the cage, she could use that space to get out and stretch her legs, even if running at top cheetah speed in such a tight circle was nearly impossible.

The urge to get out even for a few minutes was so strong that she caught herself reaching for the latch, but then she stopped herself with a smile. If she was to do such a thing, it would be better to wait until the dead of night when there would be less of a chance of someone walking in on her.

She sighed and yawned in the morning sun shining through the bars and decided to let the cat in her take over long enough to nap in a sunbeam. She stretched out with her back near the bars and began to relax, but then her ears perked up on their own and swiveled toward a sound.  She rolled over and looked back toward the slit in the curtain, knowing that if she’d given into her earlier temptation, the person coming through the doorway would have seen her outside of the cage.

She smiled when a curvy woman with shoulder-length red hair emerged, one arm threaded through the handle of a woven basket. The cheetah rolled over, got to her feet and watched the woman doing something with the doorway before turning to approach the cage.

“Hello, Sonya,” the feline said in her strangely accented voice.

“Good morning, Citra,” the red-haired woman said courteously. She swept an arm around at the surrounding canvas and said, “What do you think of your new curtains?” she said with a thin, arched eyebrow.

“You can tell that men put it up,” Citra replied with a chuckle. “It is plain and straightforward, no style at all.”

“A nice floral print would have been better,” Sonya agreed with a critical eye. “The visitors would never notice, but it’s what you will have to look at from day to day in whatever town we go to.”  She set her basket on the ground and then reached up to unlatch the cage door. “If things go well with our plans, though, you won’t have to worry about the white curtains for long anyway.”

Citra looked alarmed when the red-haired woman opened the door. “What if someone sees?” she whispered.

“I put up a hand-written sign outside telling everyone to Keep Out and then used clothes pins to clip it shut for now.  We should be safe enough for a little while.”

“You are the clever one,” the cheetah quipped with a smile, jumping down to the ground. She stood up on two feet and then arched her back to a satisfying crackle.  Sonya picked up the basket, set it up on the edge of the cage and rummaged around inside while Citra looked over her shoulder.

“What do you have in there?” she asked.

“I have the supplies you requested for your cycle, a pair of shears and a few things to eat that you may not be getting from Tony.  We’ll have to hide your supplies somewhere you can get to them when no one is around. Tony would toss them out as trash if he found them.”

“Thank you.”  Citra took the womanly supplies that were wrapped up in a floral towel and studied them. They were not as sophisticated as what she was used to using, but considering her circumstances, they would do.  She ducked beneath the wagon and found a box mounted to the underside of the floor boards that could typically be used for tools, but was empty save for dust, grass and a couple of long-dried leaves.  She picked out the debris and carefully placed her bundle in it. She figured that Tony was unlikely to use the tool box if he hadn’t been already.

When she moved back out into the sunlight, Sonya was facing her with the shears.  “What are those for?” Citra asked.

“Your hair needs to be clipped again.  Honestly, I don’t know why you even have human hair on your head, but I wish I could see what it looks like when you let it grow out.”

“Maybe you will see it soon enough,” the feline said, sitting down on her haunches with her back to the woman. “I do miss my hair, but something else I miss is wearing clothing.”

“Clothing?  You wear clothes where you come from?” Sonya asked in amazement. She couldn’t picture an animal wearing garments, especially one with such a wonderful permanent fur coat.

“They are made of lighter material than yours,” Citra explained, “and we do not wear them in layers, but I do have a wardrobe full of them back home. There are some rather nice outfits, too.”

Sonya shook her head in wonder as she clipped the short brown hair down to the tawny fur on top of the cheetah’s head. “You have a wardrobe full of clothing,” she muttered. “You must be rich.”

Citra heard the tone her voice. “The economy is different, but yes, I am well-paid for my work.”

Sonya continued clipping in relative silence. When she put away the shears, she moved around so that she could face her furry friend.  “I hope you don’t think ill of me,” she said quietly, brushing a finger through her hair to push it out of her face, “but even though we’ve been friends for several days, I still have a hard time thinking of you having clothes, money and a job.  What do you do anyway?”

Citra stood up on two legs again so the other woman wouldn’t have to keep looking down at her. She studied her new friend for a moment with a slow blink to her eyes as she considered what to tell her.  After a moment, she could feel the tip of her tail flipping side to side, directed by her emotions. “The best I can tell you,” she said, “is that I am an engineer with plans to become a settler.”

Sonya looked at her. “You… drive a train?” she said incredulously.

The cheetah stared back at her in surprise, but then she chuckled, shaking her head in a very humanlike movement.  “Sorry, no. I used the wrong word. Do you know what a scientist is?”

“That’s someone who plays with science stuff, like electricity and chem… chemicals.”

Citra put a casual hand on the woman’s arm. “That is close enough,” she answered. “My real job will be to settle new lands and make a way for others to follow – at least that is what it was before I came here by accident.”

“Much of this country is already settled now,” Sonya muttered after a moment. “Where would you go, especially someone like yourself – meaning no offense.”

“Lands far away where there are no people, countries or borders, just trees, grass, mountains, seas, animals, birds and open air.” She’d said the last with a wistful expression and Sonya could tell she longed for that personal dream.

“That must be a great distance away. How did you come to be here?” Sonya asked, something she’d been curious about since she’d met the Fur.

Citra shook her head. “I am sorry, my new friend, but that is something I cannot explain where you would understand it.  Please be content to know that I am here by accident and I will be in danger without your help and friendship.”

Sonya nodded her acceptance and then smiled. She clasped hands with this strange being and shook them gently. “I do not always understand you, but I am glad to know you, Miss Citrakāyah. Thank you for letting me know you.”  Citra’s eyes narrowed with her smile.  “Now, you’ve had a haircut and got out of your cage for a little bit. Is there anything else you’d like to do before we put you back inside?  I’ll need to tend my other responsibilities soon.”

The cheetah gave her a silly grin and got down on all fours.  “Just one thing,” she said. “I need to let the animal in me stretch her legs for a moment.” 

Without waiting for a response, she trotted out to the perimeter of the enclosure and then picked up speed as she circled the inside wall of the curtain, moving faster and faster with every circuit. Although a cheetah was the fastest land mammal on the earth, such speeds could only be maintained in short bursts, but it was still a sight that clearly impressed the human woman who witnessed it. 

*** 

The next night was a success.  The mystery surrounding the curtained exotic cat drew in large crowds of visitors. Because everyone else was busy taking part in the rest of the shows being performed in front of the grand stands, Jake himself stood at the entrance of the canvas enclosure, hawking the wonders of a wilder animal that had been captured on the plains that was not a native to these lands. 

Before the show had begun taking the coins of its visitors for the evening, Citra had schooled her benefactor with general facts about cheetahs so he could impart them to the crowds, and although she would not be able to show them her great speed, she paced her cage gracefully so that those seeing her for the first time could look at her from all sides.

There were no repeats of the earlier incident with the man and his gun, as Jake had stationed a few stage hands inside to make sure the crowds that came in to see her behaved. The visitors were suitably impressed and it was with great pleasure that Jake could overhear their comments and conversations about his prize find, with some remarks of going to tell others who might not have otherwise visited the Wild West show. 

*** 

It was during the second night’s performance that she noticed him. While Citra was leisurely pacing her cage to the delight of the crowd surrounding her, she recognized a distinctive hat. It was an old, round topped hat that she remembered was called a bowler, but what drew her eye to it was the pheasant feather sticking out of the hat band. The single feather stuck up and out too far, as if its wearer had no concept of decorum, but standing on the raised platform of the wagon, it drew her eye directly to it.

She had seen the same hat and feather on the previous night, but this time she looked at the individual beneath them.  The man was average in height, as he seemed no taller or shorter than others in the crowd around him, but the brown suit he wore with a bright red bow tie and polished, round-rimmed spectacles gave him the look of someone just out of Sunday worship service, even though it was only a Thursday. His chocolate-brown sideburns merged with the mustache over his upper lip, but his chin was clean-shaven, much as Emmett Desmond kept his facial hair tended. She felt no danger, but he seemed to take an extraordinary interest in peering into the cage at her.

He walked around inside the curtained arena to look at her from all sides and his gaze never left her. At one point, they even locked eyes and he seemed almost startled that she was looking back at him just as intently, as if she’d noticed his scrutiny. There were times when he used a stubby pencil to scrawl notes onto a small pad he kept in a pocket, so she began to wonder if he might be from the local newspaper office writing up an article about the strange spotted cat.

After a while, the crowds began to disperse as the evening wore on, but the “pheasant man” – as Citra thought of him – was one of the last to stay around.  Her chaperones finally made him leave, and then they blew out the lanterns lighting the area to leave her alone in growing darkness.

She sighed and dropped down upon her bed of straw, glad that she was no longer on display and had to be up on her feet.   She was bored and longed to be out in an open field running off excess energy, but she had to keep reminding herself that this was for the best for now and it had been her idea. Show business might be better if she’d actually had something to do other than walk around a small wagon cage.

She could still hear the diminishing sounds of people on the other side of the curtain, but eventually she managed to relax enough to drift off into slumber. 

*** 

Citra awoke to the sound of footsteps, her sensitive hearing alerting her to someone’s presence.  She opened one sleepy eye, expecting to see one of the four people who knew what she really was, but the silhouette in the dim moonlight of a waxing crescent moon made the ridge of fur along her spine to rise unbidden. It was the pheasant man and she could see that feather towering above the bowler hat it adorned as he moved across the darkened enclosure toward her cage.

She got up to her feet, wondering if she was going to be facing down another gun barrel, and she silently resolved to let herself out of the cage to get at him first if it came down to it. Doing so would blow her cover, but she valued her living hide more than the secrecy. Playing the part of the dumb animal, she watched him intently, her nocturnal sight gathering more light and giving her greater details that he could have seen himself.

The man drew no gun, however, but he stepped right up to the door to her cage.  He watched her for only a moment, but then he looked behind him as if making sure they were still alone together.  Satisfied that they were, he turned back to the cage and reached for the latch.

Citra watched him slide the bolt up and then to the side slowly to keep it from making a sound, and then he quietly pulled the door open, keeping himself as far from the opening as he could.  Once the way out of the cage was clear, he quickly walked around to the back side of the wagon.

The cheetah turned and kept her eyes on him, but made no move to exit her cage. It was clear the man had intended for her to escape, especially at the look of consternation upon his face when she didn’t.

“Shoo!” he whispered at her, waving his arms as if to frighten her.  This was clearly a case of sabotage, the Fur thought to herself. Either the man was hoping she would escape so he or other associates might shoot her as a wild animal out on the plains beyond Wichita, or he was some kind of early animal rights activist wanting to grant her freedom.  Whatever the intent behind his actions, it ran contrary to Citra’s personal plans and she decided to act. 

She sat down.

Pheasant man tried several more times to shoo her out of the cage, so she got down on her belly and simply relaxed in the straw, staring out at him. Giving insult to injury, she yawned as if bored with him. 

The man swore beneath his breath, but it seemed that nothing he did would prompt this dumb animal to leave her cage.  She was free and too ignorant to know it!

Frustrated, he threw up his hands, grumbling to himself and headed back toward the doorway through the curtain. Perhaps she would just leave through the opening on her own.  She allowed him to get halfway across the distance and then she jumped out of the cage onto the ground.

Turning to look at an unexpected sound behind him, the pheasant man saw the lean cheetah slowly stalking him.  His eyes bugged out of their sockets, he let out a yelp and nearly stumbled over his feet trying to get to the curtain before she got to him, clearly forgetting that she was touted as the fastest animal on dry land. There was no guarantee that she would stop at the curtain either, but now he was scared and ran for his life.

Citra surged forward quickly and took a playful swat at his boots, knocking one out from beneath him just as he reached the door slit.  He tumbled to the ground and rolled out through the opening, but the cheetah had had her fun and didn’t bother to follow him outside.

She could hear him running for his life and it was all she could do to keep from laughing aloud as she made her way back to her bed. 

*** 

Tony Holland twisted his neck from side to side, trying to get the kinks out of it from a restless night of sleep on a pillow that was too old and too thin. The sun was barely up over the eastern horizon, but there was already activity all around the camp.

Simply because the cheetah had been separated from the other exhibit animals, he walked past her enclosure to attend the others first. Although still wild animals, they had each come to recognize that Tony was the one who provided food, water and fresh bedding. He occasionally slipped them extra morsels, though he was fully aware that any of them could turn on him at a second’s notice and that none would ever be pets.

Once they had been fed, watered and cleaned up after, he turned his attention to the cheetah. It didn’t matter to him one way or another if the show owner thought she was something special. Granted, she was different than anything else he’d ever seen, but since Tony had aspirations of being a trick rider, the responsibilities with the animals was only a short-term step toward that greater goal.

However, when he slipped through the slit in the curtain, his jaw dropped and a sudden fear shot up his spine.  The door to the wagon was wide open and the cheetah was gone!

He turned and ran as fast as he could toward his boss’ wagon. He hated to disturb Mr. Harrison this early, but he could think of nothing else to do.  He rapped his knuckles on the wooden door in a set of three knocks at a time.

Knock knock knock

“Mr. Harrison!”

Knock knock knock

“Mr. Harrison!”

Before he could repeat a third set, the latch rattled, the door opened and Jake peered out at him with an arched eyebrow. He was bare-chested with a towel draped around his neck and shaving soap spread across the bottom half of his face. In his hand was a shaving razor.

“What is it, Mr. Holland?”

“The cheetah!  She… she’s…”

“Spit it out, man. What’s happened to my cheetah?”

“She’s gone, sir!”

“Gone?” Jake exclaimed. “What do you mean, gone?”

Tony swallowed hard at the other man’s glare. “I was making my rounds with the animals and just went to her enclosure.  The gate to her cage is standing wide open and I didn’t see her anywhere!”

Jake swore beneath his breath, but not for the reason that Tony thought.  Jake was sure that Citra has snuck out of her cage for an early morning run or a visit with her other friends and had not yet returned in time. It was going to be difficult explaining that to Tony, and he hadn’t wanted to reveal her to him just yet.

He wiped the shaving soap from his face with the towel and grabbed last night’s shirt from the chair.  He slipped it on while following the other man back to the cheetah exhibit, all the while thinking dark thoughts toward the feline.

When they got to the enclosure, Jake went in first. Sure as he’d been told, the cage door was standing open and he couldn’t see the exotic spotted cat. Tony came through the curtain after him and gestured toward the empty cage.

“That’s how I found it, Mr. Harrison.  It was closed and latched after everyone left last night.  I swear I didn’t leave it open!”

Jake turned to look at the other man and put a hand upon his shoulder. “Let’s take a closer look,” he said calmly.  He didn’t feel calm inside, afraid that Citra would return anytime, standing up on two legs while her caretaker was there to catch her in the act of being something more than an animal.

However, when they approached the cage, they both saw her at the same time.  The large cat was still there, mostly covered over with the straw she normally lay upon. Her tawny fur blended in well with the straw and her spots looked like nothing more than bits of shadow beneath the cover of the wagon.

Citra’s ears twitched and she lifted her head up to look at the men, bits of straw still clinging to her ears and in her whiskers.  She looked sleepy and didn’t bother to get up from her bed.

“There, Mr. Holland,” Jake said, quietly closing the cage door. “You see, she’s still here.”

“But… the door was open!  Why didn’t she escape?”

Jake shrugged his shoulders, the skin still tight from the stitches. “Maybe she was asleep all night and just didn’t notice,” he conjectured, “or it hasn’t been open very long.  Whatever happened, I won’t hold you responsible, Mr. Holland, since we still have her.”

Tony deflated, hardly believing his luck. “Thank you, Mr. Harrison.  I’ll make sure it never happens again!”

“I’m sure you will.  Listen, go get yourself a cup of coffee from the grub tent and settle your nerves. I’ll look over the latch to make sure it just doesn’t need to be replaced and then go back to my shaving. You can tend to her after you’re calmer.”

Tony swallowed with difficulty and nodded. “Thank you, sir. I could use a fresh cup.”

Jake watched the other man leave and didn’t turn back to the cage until after he’d disappeared through the curtain.  When he did, Citra had gotten up to sit back on her haunches, her tail wrapped around her feet in the straw.

“Good morning, Jake,” she said quietly.

He looked up at her and narrowed his eyes. “Where did you go early this morning?” he asked. “You almost gave Tony the fits when he came in to check on you and didn’t find you in your cage.  Leaving the door open was careless.”

Citra flattened her ears against her head and snorted at his rebuke.  “I have been here all night,” she told him. “The door was not opened by me, but I never left my enclosure.”

“Who opened it then?”

Quietly and patiently, she told him about the pheasant man who had stolen in through the canvas during the night. “He has been here to see me both nights we have been here, and wrote down some notes on pad he kept in a pocket. I assumed he was here to write an article about your great find, but now I think he might have come to sabotage the success of your show.”

“Why would he do that?” Jake asked in a huff.

“Perhaps he was jealous that you had something he did not, or was upset that more people were coming to see me than he felt was right. I do not know, Jake. He never told me his reasons. I left the gate open so that someone would bring you here so I could tell you.”

She went on to give him a good physical account of the man. He’d been there long enough that she had gotten a good look at him, but Jake admitted that he did not recognize the description.

“I never thought I would have to do this,” he told the Fur, “but I may have to put a padlock on your cage door to prevent this from happening again.”

“Do not lock me up,” Citra said in a quiet voice. It was almost a plea.

“There’s never been need for it until now,” he told her, “but I think it’s necessary after this.  You have proven to be a popular draw for the show and with this coming to light, I will need to safeguard you more than ever.”

What he didn’t tell her is that this is exactly what Emmett had wanted to do in the first place, and because of that, Jake was concerned that Desmond might have arranged last night’s incident to that end.

NEXT CHAPTER

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