A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
It was a week later in Salina when Citra was given the news. Her first unveiling would be at the end of the night’s performance after everyone else had taken their bows. This was to be more than just standing around in a cage for others to look at – this would be part of the regular performances of Jake Harrison’s Wilder West show. Citra, Sonya and Chetan had been planning and practicing since they had worked up a routine with Jake’s permission in Wichita. They had no idea how well or not the act might be received, so tonight would be the test.
True to her feline nature, Citra paced back and forth in her wagon that had been cleaned out of everything but herself. The large cat would have bothered most horses, but the Appaloosa stallion hooked up to the wagon was calm and impassive, long used to the wild animal exhibits it normally hauled from town to town in a team with others.
Chetan spoke quiet words to the horse, lightly rubbing the animal’s neck. The Indian had just finished the last of his scenes for the evening portraying an attacking warrior, and had changed his outfit to his everyday casual garments. His role in the final act would be little more than a stagehand, but he was the only who could do this due to his friendship with the exotic cat.
Standing beside the cage wagon, Sonya kept herself busy by checking and rechecking her props. She was a stickler for authenticity in their western reenactments, and although showcasing a cheetah in the Wild West was hardly authentic, she wanted to make sure everything would be in place as they had rehearsed.
“You know,” the red-headed woman remarked, “when you pace like that, it’s hard to remember you are more than just an animal.”
“I know,” Citra grumbled quietly, coming to a stop beside her friend, “but I am nervous. What if something goes wrong? I know this was my idea, but now that it is time to do it, I cannot calm my nerves.”
Sonya nodded. “First time stage fright can give anyone the jitters,” she agreed. “Don’t worry whether or not anything goes wrong. Just do everything like we practiced and everything will be fine. You are going to shock some folk, so be prepared for that, but go on with the performance. You know what to do.”
Citra extended a hand-paw out through the bars and Sonya took it in her own, lightly petting the fur on the back of the hand with her other fingers. The action felt calming to the feline and she smiled. “Thank you, Sonya. I am glad you are my friend.”
Chetan approached them and gave the cheetah a reassuring smile. “It is almost time,” he said. “You will do fine.”
Citra retrieved her hand and then used it to caress one of the Indian’s hair feathers before lightly brushing his check with her fingers. “Thank you, Chetan. I appreciate all you have done for me.”
Chetan put a hand up to his chest and returned the smile. “It has been an honor,” he told her.
The sound of gunfire and the cheering of the crowds finally quieted, signaling the end of the act that normally finished the night’s show. Unknown to the audience, however, there was to be a final presentation.
Jake’s voice could be heard after applause died down following the final bow. “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you would keep your seats, I have one further exhibit to bring to your attention. No doubt you have heard about a certain new critter I have in my possession and you might be anxious to see what we’ve caught. For this presentation, I will now hand you over to Sonya Brandy, a talented actress with my company.”
Desmond stepped around the corner of a covered wagon that had hidden them from view and gave the sign they had been waiting for. Chetan moved to the horse’s bridle and clucked his tongue lightly. The stallion moved forward and the wagon wheels began to roll.
“Here we go,” Citra whispered, returning to her pacing in the moving cage. Sonya followed quietly behind, her hand steady upon another small cart pulled along behind the wagon.
There was a hush across the crowd as the horse and wagon moved out into the field before the grandstands. The ground was broken up from the numerous horses, cattle and buffalo that had run across it earlier and the smoking cabin prop farther out was being drawn away out of sight. All eyes, however, were on the new wagon being pulled out to the center.
There was a collective gasp as the great strange cat stopped its pacing and stared out across the audience. Its large golden eyes roved over them all, seeming to stop at each person, or at least that’s the way it felt to those in the crowd.
When the cheetah began pacing its cage again, Sonya stepped out front and center. She was wearing a tan fringed blouse and skirt, boots and a cowgirl’s hat and she carried a bullwhip rolled up in her hands.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she called out in a voice loud enough to carry to everyone. She was long used to facing crowds and reciting the lines of scene reenactments and she was comfortable facing the audience.
“As the grand finale for tonight’s show, Jake Harrison would like to present his latest find to you all. What we have here is what is known as a citrakāyah, or a cheetah. This great feline is normally a resident of the African savannah and parts of other eastern countries. She is not native to North America and would otherwise be out of place in a production such as ours showcasing the Wild West days of the past, but Mr. Harrison himself discovered this wonderful creature roaming free upon the plains of the Oklahoma Territories. How she got here and why she was in the granite mountains is anyone’s guess, but now she is with us for a very special entertainment!”
Chetan walked toward the door of the cage and the cheetah reached through the bars to take a few swipes at the Indian. None of them connected, of course, but the crowd reacted as expected with great gasps or shouts of warning directed at the man with feathers in his hair.
Chetan called out something loud in Lakota to the animal and she backed away from the bars with an angry hiss. He inserted a key into a large iron padlock and opened it to more warnings shouted from the crowd.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t let it out!”
The Indian hung the padlock on one of the cage bars, then lifted the latch and pulled it aside. He looked over his shoulder once at the crowd, giving them an embellished look of faked uncertainty, and then pulled the gate open wide. A woman screamed and several people stood up from their bleacher seats, ready to run.
The strange spotted cat bolted for the open door and jumped down upon the ground to the accompaniment of more shouts and screams. Sonya rushed forward and held up both hands to the audience as Chetan disappeared around the back side of the wagon.
“There is no need to be afraid!” she shouted above the din. “Everything is well under control!” Then she unfurled her bullwhip and swung it in a circle several times over her head before she brought it down to a sharp crack!
The cheetah stopped in her tracks, raising one paw to the air, her ears flattened against her head, her fanged jaws wide open. Sonya cracked the whip twice more and the cheetah cowed, yet obviously showed no fear of the woman. The whip cracked again and the animal made a subtle transformation, her demeanor calming as she settled own upon her belly on the ground with her tail stretched out behind her.
“There, that’s better!” Sonya called out with a smile. “Ladies and gentlemen, the citrakāyah is the smallest of the great cats of Africa. Though not as large as a lion, leopard or even a mountain lion, the cheetah is the fastest animal in the world.”
When she said this, the feline sat up on her haunches as if looking proud of this particular accomplishment. There were a few chuckles from the audience at this, and the cat then took on a “smiling kitty” expression to complete the picture.
Using information that Citra had imparted to her earlier, Sonya continued. “The speed of a cheetah is such that given the chance, she could easily outrun anyone here, as well as most of the horses.” She tipped her hat at the feline and added, “I’ve even heard it said that a cheetah might even be able to outrun a locomotive, though I admit that I’ve never seen such a sight!” Murmurs of awe in the audience made others look at the now-docile animal with dubious looks at such a claim.
“However, despite any unsubstantiated rumors that may be associated with this remarkable creature, the one we have right here can even do things that any other cheetah cannot. You see, folks, this one is extra special!”
Chetan walked out from behind the wagon carrying what appeared to be a brown curtain four feet high that was attached to a thin wooden frame six feet across. He set it on wooden feet between Sonya and the cat, and then backed away quickly as if afraid of getting too close to the animal. The cheetah stood up on all fours and stared hard at the Indian, licking her lips and looking as if she might be contemplating the man as her next meal. Chetan looked at the crowd and made an exaggerated show of swallowing hard before he ran high-stepping around behind the wagon again, eliciting a few giggles and chuckles from the crowd.
Although they’d done this in practice, Citra had to steel herself to keep from laughing and stay in character as a wild animal. She’d known from talking with him that Chetan had a sense of humor, but it was really amusing to see him acting comical; to most of his working associates, he always seemed so stoic and emotionless when not acting out a scene required of him during reenactments.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sonya called out, bringing the attention back to her, “I would like to show you why this cheetah is so special, but first I must warn you that what you are about to see may surprise and even shock you, but it is entirely real. You see, this citrakāyah - or Citra, as we call her - is more than an animal. She is like nothing you have ever seen before, so I ask you to remain calm.”
There was a total hush over the crowd, including a great number of Jake’s people who were around to see this unexpected act tacked onto to the end of their usual show. Sonya cracked her whip once more. The cheetah took a few steps toward the framed curtain, but her large golden eyes were upon the red-haired woman.
“I really wish you would not wave that whip around so much,” the cheetah said with a strange accent in a loud, carrying voice. “You could hurt someone with it, and it might be me!”
There was a collective gasp of surprise throughout the audience. Something strange had just happened, but some weren’t sure of what it was. Surely there was someone behind that curtain supplying a voice to rattle their nerves, but some of them had actually seen the animal’s lips form the words they heard.
The cheetah bumped into the curtain and knocked it over, allowing the audience to see that there was no one hiding there. Sonya picked it up, set it back into place, and then the cheetah moved behind the curtain. Keeping her head in full view, she then rose up, putting her forepaws up on the top rail of the frame and looked out over it to the audience. She raised one paw up in the air and spread out her hand in greeting. “Good evening,” she said in a clear voice.
Several people fainted; not all were women and not all of them were even a part of the paying audience. There were several shouts and sudden conversations erupted all around.
“Excuse me!” the cheetah called out loudly, but she was practically drowned out by the din. Then, in a bolder voice, she shouted, “Excuse me!”
Chetan raised a pistol loaded with blanks and fired a shot into the air to get everyone’s attention. People looked back and the discussions began to falter as everyone seemed to realize that the spotted animal was still addressing them while waving both front legs at them as if they were arms. How was she doing that? She’d have to be standing up on her rear legs!
When she had their attention again, Citra gave them all a human-like smile, leaning forward with her elbows up on the curtain frame. “Although you have all seen me in my luxurious spotted fur coat, I do not wish to embarrass or upset anyone here, so if you will excuse me for a moment, I will get dressed.” Conversations were still muttered and murmured throughout the crowd, but they were all now predominantly focused upon her.
Sonya walked to the end of the curtain with a box that she set down at her feet. One by one, she took items from the container and held it out behind the curtain where it was taken from her. The only thing anyone could see of the cheetah seemed to be her head and shoulders. After a moment, even her shoulders seemed to be covered over in something dark, but then her head disappeared for a moment as she bent down for something. When she stood up again, she looked out at the audience and smiled.
“Almost done,” she said. People in the crowd were still trying to figure out whose voice it was they were hearing. Was it the Indian, speaking at them from behind the wagon? No, he was standing in plain sight at the cart at the back of the wagon and was pulling out a small table and two straight-backed chairs, but he had not spoken a word.
Sonya took a western hat from the box and handed it to the cheetah. As the crowd watched, she kept the hat in full view as she took it and placed it upon her head. She had to adjust it to fit between her ears, but then she tilted it at a saucy angle with a smile at the crowd.
When she stepped out from behind the curtain, it was to complete silence for a moment before her appearance really registered. Standing upright as a human would, this so-called cheetah walked out wearing a blue fringed blouse with the long sleeves pushed up over her elbows, a black and brown cowhide skirt held up by a black belt with a silver colored buckle depicting the head of a longhorn steer. The top of the blouse was open to reveal a white fluff of fur that took the place of a bandana and the spotted fur of her arms and legs were unhidden. The brown hat was adorned with a simple concho that matched the belt buckle’s longhorn steer. She was barefoot, as there were no boots that would ever fit her digitigrade feet, but despite that she was a four-legged creature standing up on just two of them, she looked almost natural in that upright position. Letting the crowd take a good look at her, she put one hand on a hip and with the other tipped her hat toward her onlookers.
“How about this, folks?” she asked. “Am I more presentable now?”
Quite unexpected, there were a few claps from the crowd, and although it was sporadic at first, others joined in, but not the whole crowd; there were many who were either still stunned at what they were seeing or were simply silent in their disbelief.
Citra smiled and then took a bow just as Chetan walked up beside her. The crowd hushed suddenly when the Indian offered her an elbow, which she took graciously. He led her to the side to the small table and two chairs he had set up. Sonya was already sitting in one and Chetan led her to the other.
She gave him a quick ‘cat lick’ on the cheek, which elicited a few nervous chuckles from the audience, and then she sat down in a prim and proper manner, pausing only a moment to tuck her tail in through the back slats of the chair. She crossed her legs demurely and then looked across the table at the red-haired woman beside her.
“Hello, Miss Brandy,” she said loudly, “what brings you here to these parts?”
Chetan stepped behind them, unfolded a tablecloth of red and white squares and draped it across the table between the two women.
“Hello, Miss Citra,” Sonya returned. “I heard you were in town and wanted to know if you would join me in a cup of tea!”
Chetan set a tray on the table between them that contained a small tea kettle with two sets of cup and saucer.
“Why, yes, I would like that,” said the feline all dressed in her western wear.
Chetan quietly poured tea from the kettle into both cups, and then handed one first to the cheetah, and then one to the other woman. Citra held up her cup and saucer with one hand, and then sticking out her pinky with the other, picked up the cup and put it to her lips. Due to her bifurcated upper lip, she was unable to drink from a cup like a normal human, but the audience didn’t know this and she pretended to drink her tea, not showing that she really would need to lap it up.
For several moments, the audience was stunned into silence that this animal was acting so… human, but then a little more sporadic applause issued through the grandstands. Acting as if she finished off her cup, she set it on the saucer and then put them back on the tray. She stood up from her chair, retrieved her tail, and then took a bow.
Although there was a lot of noise at the moment, Citra’s hearing was sensitive enough that she’d heard a few comments from others who worked for the show, remarking that Jake must have hired someone to dress up like an animal in a skirt.
Once the applause died down, Sonya got up from her seat, taking a bow of her own, and then Chetan took the props away while Citra stepped back to the center place in front of the wagon.
She held up her arms, but turned them so the crowd could see the patterns. “As you can see, I have spots in my fur much like those of a leopard. The tan and white of my fur helps cats like myself blend into a field of tall grasses and the spots resemble the shadows within the grasses. Having the spots and coloration to hide in the grassy savannahs of Africa would help me sneak up on my prey. Like the mountain lions you are familiar with here, cheetahs are carnivores, which means we are meat eaters, chasing down things like antelope and gazelles, which are similar to deer.”
She took off her hat and handed it to Sonya, briefly rubbing her ears it had been up against, and she then reached up and trailed her fingers over her ears. “On the back of my ears, there are black and white areas that to another animal sneaking up on me might mistake for eyes looking back at them. Just thinking that I’m watching them might make them go away instead of trying to creep up on me. Although you will probably never see another like me that can do the things I can do,” she said, wrapping up her short performance, “you may be able to glimpse another of my animal cousins in a zoo exhibit like the one in Philadelphia. I hope you enjoyed my little presentation and have learned a few facts about cheetahs in general. Good evening, folks.”
The crowd had been riveted to her words while she was speaking, but almost as soon as she stopped, a man from the audience stood up from the grandstands and pointed at the cage. “She’s a fake!” he shouted. “It’s a vaudeville deception! A cheap magician’s trick meant to deceive us!” Citra looked up at the man, instantly recognizing the pheasant feather in his hat band, sticking up high above his bowler hat. Others in the crowd were beginning to side with him, shouting in anger at what had to be nothing more than a trick meant to get their coins!
Citra and Sonya both waved their hands in the air to get everyone’s attention back upon them, and although complete silence didn’t return to the arena, they were able to get most of them to listen again.
“I am not a fake!” Citra called out across the crowd, her agitated tail swishing side to side. “I am no magician and there has been no trickery! I can prove that what I am is real!”
“How?” someone shouted back.
Citra pointed a stubby finger at the pheasant-feather man. “You, sir. Come down here, please.” She looked out at others in the crowd and called out, “Three more men, please – preferably unmarried.”
The last statement caused more than one head to turn. “What? Why?” called out a plump woman near the front row.
Citra stepped back behind the curtain, but remained up on two legs. “You saw me as a four-legged cheetah before I put on these clothes. Behind this curtain, I will remove them so these four men can see that I am not an actress switching places with a different animal.”
The man in the bowler hat was hesitant, but when three other men came down from the grandstands toward her, he moved forward as well.
“Do any of you know these men?” Citra called out as they gathered up in front of the curtain.
“That’s my brother!” called a young woman, pointing to the youngest of the four.
“That one owns the general store,” called out an older man. “I’ve done business with him for over a year!”
“That gentleman runs a trolley!” said someone else. No one else identified the pheasant-feather man, but no one seemed to care. Visitors to Salina were common.
“Very good,” Citra called back. “I wanted you to see that these men were not planted in the audience for this, and that you will take their word as to what they see!” There were murmurs of ascent in the crowd, but before anyone could change their minds and start up another ruckus, she turned toward the four men looking over the curtain at her.
“I am not just an animal and I am not an actress made up to look like one,” she told them. “Although I am part animal, I am also a woman, so I apologize to you gentlemen in advance if what I am about to do embarrasses you.”
Before she began, however, she looked around until she saw Chetan. She motioned him to her and then whispered something in his ear. He nodded and then departed.
Although hidden behind the curtain from the crowd, there was nothing Citra could do to hide from the eyes of these four men. The people here were far more sensitive than where she was from when it came to nudity, and even though she was completely covered in fur, she knew that just the act of undressing would offend the sensibilities of the majority of the audience. It was for this reason she had asked for unmarried men.
Without taking her eyes off her watchers, she began unbuttoning her blouse and watched their eyebrows go up when they realized she wore neither brassiere nor corset beneath. Facing them, she pulled open the blouse and then slipped it off her shoulders. Now uncovered before the men, her breasts were not large and her chest fur completely covered them over so nothing showed through; despite this, however, the male minds had enough imagination to fill in the details on their own. The store owner swallowed hard, looked back over at his shoulder toward the audience, and then returned his gaze to the strip show he had been invited to witness.
Citra handed the blouse to Sonya, who put it back in the box in full view of the crowd. There were murmurs and whispered discussions, mostly from oh-so-prim and ‘proper’ women fidgeting in their seats.
Still keeping her eyes upon the four men, she unfastened her belt, handed it to Sonya, and then fingered a few side buttons open so that she could push the cowhide skirt down over her slightly curvaceous hips. As with the blouse, she wore no undergarments beneath the skirt and the man with the bowler hat licked his lips nervously when it dropped to her feet.
Up close as they were, they could all see that she had the unmistakable curves of a woman, and although the white and cream colored fur was thick over her crotch, all four of them felt their faces heating up at what they perceived. She knelt down to pick up the skirt and then handed it to Sonya.
Standing up again, Citra held out her arms. “Touch my fur,” she told them. “Assure yourselves that I am not wearing fur-covered sleeves and I am wearing no other garments.”
There was some hesitation at first, but all four of her witnesses reached out to brush her arms, her shoulders, and even the young man who was the one woman’s brother boldly ventured to run his hand over the swells of her chest. She looked at him pointedly, but otherwise said nothing, allowing him and the others to pet and tug carefully at her fur. After a few moments of this, the four of them looked back and forth between themselves and it was easy to see in their eyes that they were at least convinced she was not someone in a costume.
“Keep your eyes on me, boys,” she said. As they watched, she put her hands up over her head and then she turned around slowly so they could all see her from behind. The bold young man reached down and took hold of her tail. “Gently,” she told him over her bare, fur-covered shoulder, making the end of that extremity wiggle in his hand. He dropped it as if it was a separate live thing and cleared his throat, causing the other three men to chuckle.
“Okay, we are near the end of our show,” she told them, “but I do not want you to take your eyes off me just yet. I am going to walk out from behind this curtain down on all fours and then you can testify to everyone else that the animal that emerges is the same one you just saw disrobe before your eyes.”
As they watched, she leaned forward and then got down on all four feet. They could see that the slightly larger hips and shoulders were configured in such a way that she could function just as well down on all fours as she could up on two feet. Now more than ever, she looked like a regular cat as she looked over her shoulder at them. She swished her tail, gave them a wink and then said, “As you can see, it is still me down here. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.”
With them still watching, she stepped out from behind the curtain as the cheetah and faced the audience. Chetan reappeared nearby and handed something to Sonya. The red-haired woman took it with a nod, and although this was not part of the planned act, she instantly knew what it was for.
She approached the four men and in a theatrical voice said, “Raise your right hands, gentlemen.” The four looked at one another for a moment and then did as they were told. Sonya held out a large book with a tooled leather cover. “Place your left hands on this Bible, please.” They all gathered together and each of them put their palms down beside one another.
“Gentlemen, answer truthfully in front of God and these fine people,” she said loudly, indicating the crowd, “Did you witness anyone switching places, a woman for an animal behind that curtain?”
Two of them said “No” in unison, but the other two looked back out at the audience before adding their own negative responses.
“Gentlemen, answer truthfully,” Sonya said again, “Did you witness the cat-woman disrobe completely, proving that she was not wearing a costume?”
All of them hesitated, feeling their faces growing red. “Yes,” they all finally replied. There were unhappy murmurs from several women in the audience and more than a few chuckles from other men.
“Gentlemen, answer truthfully. Is this cheetah standing beside us on four feet the same one that was but a moment ago, talking to us and standing up on two legs in front of you?”
“Yes,” they answered.
“Gentlemen, one final question. Answer truthfully. Are you convinced that Citra is what she says she is, without trickery or deceit?”
Each man took longer, but all of them replied with a nod and a “Yes”.
Sonya smiled, pulled the Bible away from them and held it up to her chest. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she said. “You may return to your seats.”
“Yes, thank you,” Citra added, sitting down upon her haunches. The witnesses looked at her just a moment more and then retreated. The man with the pheasant feather in his hat stared at her the longest before he also walked away. Although he couldn’t be sure that she’d gotten a good look at him that night in Wichita, he got the impression that she’d recognized him and he suddenly wanted to be far away from her.
Sonya turned toward the audience and stood beside the cheetah. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “We were not lying and this was not just an act. Citra is —”
“A demon!” shouted out the plump, frumpy woman from near the front. “That thing is no woman! It’s a demon from Hades in the shape of an animal woman!”
Enticed by her enraged words, several others who had not been enamored by the Fur took up her accusations. Men and women alike got up to their feet and began to shout out their indignations.
“That thing is of the devil!”
“We don’t want that demon in our midst!”
“Send that blasphemer back to Hades!”
A cold chill ran up Citra’s spine and a ridge of fur along it stood up of its own accord. At least they were now convinced she was real, but was she about to be burned at the stake? She and Sonya exchanged quick looks of panic, neither of them knowing how to diffuse this unexpected turn of events. However, before things escalated beyond control, a middle-aged man in a brown suit stood up from the audience; he waved his hands in the air to get the attention of those who were grumbling, shouting and joining the woman’s righteous cause.
“Quiet!” he shouted. “Calm down and listen to me!”
People began to notice him and some became quiet right away when they recognized the man, though it took others a little longer to see him. After a moment, it seemed all eyes were upon him and he put his hands upon his hips as he addressed the crowd.
“Many of you know me,” he said in a loud tone of authority, “but for those who don’t, I’m Preacher Will Montag.” He looked pointedly at several who had raised their voices in anger toward the cheetah, but his gaze settled upon the plump woman who’d started the ruckus.
“Matilda Brown,” he said when he had her attention, “you should hush up this nonsense! You heard those men swear on the Good Book that everything they saw and experienced was true! There’s no stink of brimstone or the Devil’s sin in the air here, and Mr. Harrison is an honorable man who has brought us a fine evening’s wholesome entertainment. Miss Citra may not be a… a woman like what we’re used to seeing, but God works in mysterious ways and I believe she has a purpose in Creation just as you or I do. There’s lots of unexplored places upon our Earth, so who’s to say there’s not more of her kind out there that haven’t been discovered yet.
“Now, if our fine, responsible men claim she’s no fake, all with their hands upon the Holy Bible, then who are we to question God’s intention on placing her here?” He looked around the crowd, his hands still upon his hips. When he looked again at Matilda, the woman was turning all kinds of purple, but she refused to meet anyone’s eyes. “Now, let’s not hear any further talk of demons and blasphemy!” the preacher said. “Miss Citra is real and the only sin committed here is a prejudice against her for being different than the rest of us!”
“Amen, preacher!” someone called out.
“Hear-hear!” said another.
“Now,” Montag concluded, “unless ya’ll want me to give more of a sermon than that right now – and some of you know how long-winded I can be – I suggest you give this special lady the applause she deserves for entertaining us as an end to tonight’s show!”
Someone whistled, others laughed at the preacher’s candor, but applause erupted from the crowd with a few cheers directed toward the lovely cheetah.
There was moisture in Citra’s eyes and she nodded gratefully to the man who had single-handedly talked sense into a crowd that could have become a vicious mob; she would have to meet with him after the show and thank him personally. She stepped forward with a smile, motioning Sonya and Chetan to her sides, and all three bowed in unison toward their audience.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.