A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
When the first of the wagons arrived just outside of Topeka there was already a large crowd awaiting them. Jake was used to seeing a few curious onlookers anytime they pulled into another town, but never a large gathering such as this; there were almost enough folks there that they could have filled up the bleacher boards had they been set up. He called for a halt in the large procession and pulled his horses to a stop. A small group broke off and approached the nearest wagon, which happened to be his.
“Hello,” Jake said in a friendly tone, keeping his seat with the reins in his hands. “Is there something the matter?”
A well-dressed man in his fifties shielded his eyes beneath the brim of a short top hat and smiled up at him. “By chance, are you with Jake Harrison’s Wilder West?” he asked with the voice of an orator.
“That is correct. I am Jake Harrison.”
The man put his hands together. “I am Ross Cofranco, the mayor of Topeka, and I wish to welcome you to the Kansas state capital!”
Jake tied off his reins and then climbed down off the wagon. He wiped dusty hands off on his trousers, approached the man and held out a hand with a smile. “Thank you, sir. It is my practice to visit the mayor every time we visit a new town, but I did not expect you to take time out of your busy schedule to greet us out here personally.”
Mayor Cofranco nodded and hooked a thumb behind the lapel of his suit coat. “I received a wire from Mayor Caverns of Salina about your recent visit there. It seems there was an interesting event that happened he deemed necessary to inform me about.”
Jake frowned, wondering if they might be refused into Topeka due to the “demon” in their midst. It was fortuitous that he’d had Citra retire to the inside of his wagon home an hour earlier; he wanted people to pay to see her and didn’t want anyone to get a free peek when they pulled into town. If there was going to be a riot due to her presence, it was good she was not currently in sight.
He looked around at the rather large crowd and felt uneasy. “Sir,” he said with as much a smile as he could muster, hoping to diffuse the situation, “I assure you that everything was under control and that we don’t wish to cause any troub—”
The mayor laughed and held up a hand in a disarming manner. “As you can see, word has gotten around and a great number of our fine folk would wish to see this new… attraction to your show. I am eager to see this special cat of yours, myself – if indeed it is real.”
Jake presented the mayor with a genuine smile beneath his mustache. “Sir, I assure you there is nothing fake portrayed in any part my show. If you would like a moment to talk with Citra Kayah in private, I can arrange a meeting just as soon as I can start my folks setting up in your gatherin’ field.”
Cofranco cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind,” he countered, “we would like to see this cat now, before you get set up.” He didn’t say anything more, but Jake got the sudden impression that if he didn’t like what he saw, the mayor might turn them away before they so much as dusted off their boots.
“Yes, sir,” he said, still smiling and with a nod. “If you will follow me, she’s right this way.”
“Is it safe?” the mayor asked warily.
Jake nodded again. “Quite safe, sir. My Citra is far more intelligent and better behaved than many women you might know. You have nothing to fear from her.”
“Thank you,” the politician replied, casting a quick glance back at a well-dressed woman at the front of the crowd. Jake gestured for him to follow, but suddenly realized the entire crowd was surging forward. He stopped and raised both hands toward them. “I’m sorry, folks, but this meeting is just for his Honor, the Mayor. If we are allowed to set up the show here in your good town, you all will have plenty of opportunities to see my special lady-cat then.”
There were groans and grumbles at this, but the mayor faced his people with a wide, campaign-like smile. “Patience, friends. As Mr. Harrison has explained, this first meeting is just so I may satisfy my curiosity as to his claims. I should be back momentarily.” He turned back to Jake. “Shall we continue?”
“Follow me.” The mayor was prepared to walk to the end of the caravan if need be, but Jake stopped just at the other end of the boxed wagon he had just been driving. He reached beneath the bottom edge, untied a rope and then swung down a hinged set of steps beneath the door into his traveling home. He locked them in place with a small wedge of wood and then stepped up to the door.
He knocked on it twice and then opened the door just a crack. “Citra,” he called inside, “the esteemed Mayor of the great town of Topeka, Kansas, would like to meet you. May we come in?”
There was a brief hesitation and then Cofranco heard a quiet voice answer, “I am decent. You may come in.”
Ten minutes later, Mayor Cofranco stepped down out of the wagon and closed the door behind him. He swallowed hard, pulling a handkerchief from pocket and daubed his forehead with it. He walked around the wagon to the waiting crowd and put a smile on his face for their benefit.
He looked out across the expectant expressions and tucked both hands into his pockets. “My friends,” he said in a carrying voice, “I have seen this Citra Kayah with my own eyes, and I have spoken with her.” There were murmurs throughout, but the dignitary continued. “I admit that it was a little disconcerting to have a large spotted cat something like a cougar sitting up, wearing women’s clothing and talking to me, but she was, indeed, quite able to hold an intelligent conversation with me. I was allowed to touch her and I have determined for myself that she was not someone made up in some sort of costume.”
He reached out to the well-dressed woman who had stood by his side when the caravan arrived and she took his hand. “She — Miss Citra Kayah — expressed a desire to speak to you as well, my dear,” he said to her.
“With me?” she repeated uncertainly, putting her other hand up to her throat. “I’m not sure I am up to this, Ross.”
The mayor nodded. “You have nothing to fear, my dear,” he said. “Come with me.”
After a hesitation, the woman acquiesced and allowed herself to be led to the back of the wagon. Jake was standing beside the steps and lightly tipped his hat in courtesy.
“Ma’am,” he said quietly, holding out a hand to her. “If you will step up into the wagon, my friend Citra would like to meet you.”
She gave him a false smile, but presented her hand to him to help her up the steps. The door was ajar slightly, but she knocked lightly on the frame.
“Hello?” she said tentatively. “I am Carolyn Cofranco. You wished to see me?”
“Please come in,” answered an odd voice.
Carolyn opened the door and stepped up into the dark single room. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom, and by then her husband had joined her, his hat in his hands. Knowing the interior was small, Jake remained outside to give them space, but listened in through the open doorway with his elbows resting on the top step.
Seated on the edge of the small bed mattress was a creature nothing like the mayor’s wife had ever seen before. Citra wore a pale yellow blouse and a tan skirt with her legs hanging to the floor. She was unshod, as there was nothing available that could ever fit such digitigrade feet, and her hands were folded together in her lap. She wore no hat, but there was a Stetson on a folded blanket beside her on the bed. Upon her head was short growth of dark brown scalp hair that had a bit of natural wave to it. Although the cry lines upon her face should have made her look somber, she was smiling pleasantly and her large golden eyes were shining bright.
“Hello,” said the cheetah. “My name is Citra Kayah.”
Carolyn felt herself growing suddenly faint, despite the fact that she’d been told what to expect. The mayor grabbed a small chair from the corner at his side and set it behind his wife.
“Here,” he said, “have a seat.” The woman sat down gratefully and removed the bonnet she wore, not taking her eyes off the feline.
“You… you’re real…” she said, almost trying to convince herself of her own words.
“Yes, ma’am.” The cheetah stood up and took a step toward the woman, holding out a short-fingered hand. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” Carolyn took the proffered hand automatically, but then marveled at the feel of the cat’s padded palms. She examined the hand-paw a moment more before she shook it gently once. Citra returned to the bed and sat down, looking back at her expectantly.
“May… I ask you a question?” queried the woman.
Citra nodded. “What is it you wish to know?” she replied.
“Were you sent here by the devil?”
“Carolyn!” the mayor scolded instantly. His wife flinched, but seemed afraid to look away from the cat.
The cheetah was taken aback by the question, but she cleared her throat, willing herself to stay calm. “No, ma’am,” she answered in an unruffled voice. “I am just another of God’s creations, given a little help from mankind.”
“Does this mean you believe in God?”
Citra smiled warmly. “Yes, ma’am, I do.”
Carolyn felt a little calmer, seeing what she believed to be truth in this creature’s eyes. “You don’t seem evil,” she remarked.
Citra chuckled. “I have never felt evil in my life,” she said, “except, perhaps when I used to tease my favorite cousin unmercifully for being shy around girls.”
“That appears to be something we shared,” the woman said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was my younger brother’s personal terror growing up for that very reason! I am sure that he thought I was evil back then, but now we’re the best of friends.”
Citra laughed. “Likewise with my cousin. We do not see one another often, but when we do there is great affection between us and we often sit for hours just reminiscing about our days as children. For someone who used to be shy around women, he now has a lovely wife and four daughters.”
Carolyn looked surprised. “Cats have wives and husbands?”
The cheetah laughed again. “Families are important,” she replied without trying to explain genetic engineering. Her vague response didn’t specifically answer the woman’s question, but it seemed to placate her curiosity.
“I don’t know what you are or how you came to be,” said the mayor’s wife, “but you seem genuine. How did you wind up in Mr. Harrison’s company?”
“She saved my life from a momma cougar in the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, down in the Oklahoma Territories,” Jake said from the steps of the doorway.
“In return,” Citra added, “he is saving my life with protection by letting me join his show.”
“Protection?” asked the mayor. “Protection from what? How?”
“Look at me, sir. Before I met Mr. Harrison, I was in constant danger from hunters who might want to make me their prize fur trade. As long as I am with the show, I have relative safety from such people.” Then she smiled again, fingering the hem of her skirt. “Since he feeds me, I do not have hunt down my food every day and I also get to wear such nice clothes.”
“What did you wear before?” Carolyn asked curiously.
Citra held out her arms to show off her fur. “Just my spots, ma’am.” Ross Cofranco coughed into a fist and his wife averted her eyes for a moment. “There is no need to feel embarrassed, please. I am quite concealed beneath my natural fur, but I prefer the covering of nice clothes.”
“I have never seen a cat like you before,” mused the mayor. “What are you?”
“Specifically, the feline part of me is called a cheetah. If you like, the proper name for me is a citrakāyaḥ, which is where I get my stage name from. However, if you are interested in knowing more about who and what I am, you can come watch the show. A good bit of my presentation is imparting information about what I am to the audience.”
Carolyn turned and looked at her husband. “I don’t know about you, Ross, but I am convinced that Mr. Harrison was telling the truth about her.”
The dignitary hooked his thumbs behind the lapels of his coat and nodded. “I am too,” he said. He turned behind him to look down at Jake. “Mr. Harrison, I see no reason why you cannot set up your show in the south field just outside of town. I would like to personally welcome you, your special friend and your people to Topeka; my wife and I would very much like to see your show.”
Jake reached up to shake hands with the man. “I thank you kindly, sir.” The mayor stepped back out of the wagon to iron out a few details with him, but Carolyn turned back to the cheetah as she put her bonnet back in place atop her head.
“May I make one little, personal request, please?” she asked.
“Please do.” Citra already knew what she wanted and smiled encouragingly.
“May I touch your fur?”
The feline chuckled and held out an arm. “I am afraid my fur is a little dusty from our trail ride, ma’am, but yes, you may.”
Carolyn hesitated. “Do you… bath with just your tongue like other cats?”
Citra smiled. “Only if there is no water available.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice so it wouldn’t carry to the men outside. “Between you and me, ma’am, I prefer a luxurious bath with lots of bubbles and I am hoping to clean up in one as soon as I can.”
Moments later, the mayor and his wife stepped outside and approached the expectant crowd. Instead of repeating his earlier announcement, he nudged his wife. She looked out at the townsfolk, many of whom she knew, and gave them a confident smile.
“I am pleased to tell you that Mr. Harrison’s claims concerning the new addition to his show are true.” Murmurs buzzed through the crowd, but she continued undaunted. “My husband and I have met with her and we both believe that she is real and that neither of us believe a word of the rumors from Salina that she is evil and a demon of the devil.”
“Can we see it, this cat?” someone called out.
“We want to see her too!” said someone else. There were other similar remarks, so Jake stepped up beside the mayor and waved his hat in the air to get everyone’s attention. When there was relative quiet again, he placed the hat back on his head and flashed everyone a wide showman’s grin.
“I am pleased to hear that you fine folk are so eager to see my Citra Kayah,” he said in a carrying voice, “but you will need to attend Jake Harrison’s Wilder West tomorrow to meet her.”
There were several cries of outrage and demands to see her now, but the mayor held up a hand for quiet.
“My friends,” he said in a necessarily loud voice, “the one you wish to see is a part of Mr. Harrison’s show, and as such, you will all have to pay to see her as is proper for any other part of the production!” There were more grumbles, but he added, “Although Carolyn and I have already met with her, we both plan to attend the show and we’ll be paying our due as well. For now, these folk have been on the trail for days and I’m sure they would like to rest up before they set up their show.”
There were a few more muttered remarks of disappointment, but at the mayor’s behest, the crowd began to disperse. Cofranco turned to Jake and gave him a few words of thanks, and then he and his wife left with the others.
At the end of the next night, Citra, Sonya and Chetan repeated their rehearsed performance. However, before the Fur revealed herself with spoken lines, they’d added a race between Chetan on his palomino mare and the cheetah to show off her great speed, a feat that impressed a great number of folks in the audience as well as many of the show hands when she outran the horse across the field. The palomino could have outdistanced her in a longer run since the cheetah could only maintain top speed in short bursts, but they had no time or desire to stage such a race.
Although undressing in front of others to prove her validity had not originally been part of the planned routine, there was no denying the impact it had given during the performance in Salina. They now made it a part of the sequence for greater believability and again took locally-known members from the audience. The participants could later be interrogated by their own friends and family to attest to what they’d experienced, further spreading the word.
Citra, Sonya and Chetan took a bow to thunderous applause at the end of the show, and this time there had been no heckling, threats of riot or the need of a local minister to talk them down. Apparently word of the mayor’s endorsement had spread throughout the capital city and the people of Topeka were a little more accepting of what they’d seen; either that or the disbelievers simply kept quiet during the performance.
Afterward, Citra retired to her exhibit cage so that others could stare and gawk at her, but this time there were many who asked questions of her, some merely to hear her strange accented voice. Jake had posted several trusted men within the curtained enclosure to assure her safety, and all had been given a detailed description of the man with the bowler hat and the pheasant feather to make sure he hadn’t followed them again. There was no sign of him this time.
At last, the evening wore down and the crowds dispersed. The night had gone well and attendance had brought in a larger-than-usual amount to the coffers. Part of it was likely due to the state capital having a larger population than the towns they had visited in recent weeks, but Jake was of the mind that his special lady-cat was another part of the reason. They would be there for two evenings of shows, so if the second night here brought in as much as it had this time, they would do well.
“I was against it at first,” Emmett Desmond murmured as he kicked back in the solitary wooden chair in Jake’s wagon, “but I have to admit your little cat-girl has been a good draw.” He looked over at his boss, who was relaxing against a headboard sitting cross-legged with the day’s take counted out before him on the mattress.
“I still don’t think a cheetah belongs in a show trying to remind folks what the old west was like when the old west didn’t have cheetahs,” Emmett added, wiping a handkerchief across the balding crown of his head beneath his hat, “but the visitors don’t seem to mind.”
Jake scribbled a figure inside a ledger and then gathered up the money, placing it all inside a wooden cigar box. He set the box on top of the book and then stretched out his legs. “I appreciate your understanding, Emmett,” he said. “She might not be something naturally found during the expansion across the west, but it wasn’t uncommon for explorers to see things they’d never seen before.”
Remembering something Citra had mentioned, he added, “Just look at the horses we use. They weren’t originally native to these lands, but look at us now. Horses are now just as much a part of these United States as anything else. Heck, even most of the people here didn’t start out here, but were immigrants from Europe! Who’s to say that Citra’s people won’t be part of us later, like the Indians or the Mexicans? Maybe she’s just the first.”
“Maybe,” Emmett mused, scratching at his thick mustache.
Jake looked around the small room. “I need to send a wire ahead to Kansas City to get a travel wagon built for her so she’ll have a place to stay instead of her exhibit cage during her off-hours.”
Emmett looked up. “I thought she was staying here with you.”
Jake’s expression darkened. “Why would you think that?” he growled.
“You’ve been spending a lot more time with her than you used to,” the balding man answered, his small eyes reflecting the light of the lantern hanging from a hooked nail overhead. “She sleeps in here when we’re on the trail and also when you’re staying at a hotel in town, so we just assumed she slept in here the rest of the time too.”
“There’s been talk,” the man boldly admitted. “What you and your cat do in here together is your business, but it hasn’t escaped notice that you’ve become awfully fond of her.”
Jake’s neck turned red as his blood pressure went up at this revelation. “You… you think that I’ve been sleeping with an animal!” He sputtered for a moment and bolted off the bed to stand in front of his associate, both hands balled into fists. “That’s preposterous!”
Emmett raised one hand in surrender, but didn’t retract his words. “So, you admit she’s an animal,” he retorted. “You’ve been talking up a lot of folk about her human qualities, everyone’s figured you don’t see her as a talking cat anymore!”
Jake snorted, deflated, and then thumped the brim of Desmond’s hat lightly. He leaned back against his bed, crossing his arms. “Listening to her talk, I think I sometimes do lose sight of that,” he admitted. “She’s definitely intelligent and interesting to talk to, but I’ll tell you straight that I have not slept with her!”
Emmett crossed his own arms. “Well, that relieves me to hear you say so. I think she should just sleep in the exhibit cage, but if you want her to have her own wagon, I’m sure that would stop a few of the wagging tongues. She’ll need a team of horses and someone to drive it for her when we’re on the trail.”
“Chetan can drive it for her,” Jake muttered, picking up a pillow that had fallen to floor when he’d gotten to his feet. “She gets along with him as well as anyone else, and we have plenty of horses.”
Several light knocks on the door interrupted their conversation. Emmett reached out from his seat and tripped the latch, pushing the panel open with a finger.
“Yes?” he asked the silhouette standing just outside on the ground. Darkness had already fallen outside, but light from Jake’s lantern illuminated the man’s face. He was large man with a head full of dark brown hair that spilled out from beneath a hat nearly the same color and his clothing was nothing special, but he carried himself well. He looked up into the wagon with large hazel eyes.
“I was told I could find Jake Harrison here,” he replied.
“You’ve found him,” Jake answered, surreptitiously laying the pillow he’d picked up across the ledger and money box on the bed. “What can I do for you?” He went to the door and then stepped down to the ground. Emmett got to his feet but remained inside, keeping an upper vigil over the stranger who stuck out a hand toward Jake.
“My name is Will Thornton,” he said with a pleasant expression when Jake took his hand warmly. “I represent Longhorn Tom’s Wild West Extravaganza and I come on behalf of Thomas K. Johnson. We are currently in Baldwin City and Mr. Johnson sent me to meet you.”
Jake nodded. “I have heard of Johnson’s show,” he remarked in a neutral tone. “Have you come to compare ours to his?”
Thornton shook his head. “No, but I do admit that I’ve looked over everything you’ve had to offer tonight and agree that you have done well reminding your visitors how things used to be taming the Wild Western lands.”
“Thank you. If not to compare our shows, what is your business?”
Thornton removed his hat and held it in his hands. “Mr. Johnson has heard about the newest… addition to your show and has seen the potential draw of such a creature; after seeing your show and exhibits tonight, I have to agree. He has authorized me to extend a generous offer to purchase the animal from you, the funds drawn locally from a bank here in Topeka.” He named a figure and Emmett whistled in surprise.
Jake pursed his lips, but shook his head. “I appreciate such a gracious offer,” he said after a moment, “but my cheetah is not for sale.”
Thornton nodded, but without hesitation said, “I’m sure we can reach an agreement, Mr. Harrison,” and then he named another price, substantially higher than the first offer. Emmett was making choking noises in the background, but Jake ignored him. The amount he’d been offered made him swallow with difficulty, but he stood his ground.
“Thank you,” he said hoarsely, “but my cheetah is not for sale at any price. There is more value in her than money.”
Thornton’s smile faded just a little, but he maintained his composure. He named one more price, noted as his final offer, this time making Jake’s eyes nearly bug out in surprise. The offer had gone up to a quarter of the value of his entire operation, and he silently wondered how Johnson had accumulated so much money that he could use it for a single purchase.
Emmett was suddenly at his side, so excited that if the man had possessed a tail of his own, it would have been wagging so hard as to alter the local weather patterns. He looked at Thornton and then to Jake. “A moment alone, please,” he said. Thornton nodded with a shrewd smile, instantly recognizing the effects such numbers had over men.
Desmond led Jake around the corner of the wagon and then pressed in close to his boss’ ear. “Take it!” he whispered excitedly. “I know you like her and all, but you said it yourself that she’s an animal. It’s not like you’d be selling your sister or someone into slavery.”
“Emmett…” Jake whispered back darkly, “you don’t know what you’re saying!”
“I know exactly what I’m saying! You’ve bought and sold horses, longhorn cattle and buffalo without as much as a second thought. You’re a business man, Jake. Think of what that kind of money could do for the show! We have wagons, animals and even people who need replacing just from all the travelin’ we do, and you could make a better life for those who work for you! She can talk and she’s a curiosity, but she’s – just – an – animal. Sell her to him! She all but fell freely into your lap and you won’t lose a penny of investment by selling her! That amount of money would more than make up for the extra we made tonight with her performance!”
Jake listened to Emmett’s arguments with a deep frown. He had come to value and rely upon this man’s judgment over the years they’d worked together, and he actually agreed with a lot of what he was saying, but he felt an inner turmoil that was foreign to him.
At last, he gave Emmett a nod and then both of them walked back to the visitor. Thornton recognized the looks on their faces and smiled smugly, hooking his thumbs behind both lapels of his traveling coat.
Jake cleared his throat, putting both hands into the pockets of his trousers, and then looked at him. “I am honestly surprised that Mr. Johnson would be so liberal with such an offer for something he’s never seen with his own eyes and have only heard from hearsay. Be that as it may, I cannot fault a man who has the means to get what he desires where all parties would benefit. However, I’m afraid I must decline your offer, Mr. Thornton.”
It was hard to tell who was the more surprised, Desmond or Thornton, but Jake’s right-hand man was making noises that could be compared to a faulty steam engine as he coughed and sputtered. The other man’s jaw had dropped and it took a moment before he snapped it shut with an audible clack of teeth. Emmett clamped a hand on his associate’s arm, but Jake ignored him.
“Please tell Longhorn Tom that I genuinely appreciate his fine offer,” he said, “but the little lady-cat once saved my very life and I am beholden to keep her safe with me. The money would have helped us greatly, but by keeping her, I am no worse off than I was before your arrival; I am happy with the way things are going with my show.”
Thornton’s lips pressed together tightly, but only for a moment. He tipped his hat to Jake and took a step backward. “I will convey your message to Mr. Johnson,” he said calmly, “but if you reconsider and decide you would prefer the money, I assure you that the amount of this offer will not be so generous next time.”
“I will remember that,” Jake said in a neutral tone. Thornton turned without another word and strode off into the darkness.
“I thought you’d decided to sell!” Emmett hissed. “That was a lot of money!”
Jake looked at him calmly. “I never said I would,” he reminded him. “I appreciate your recommendations, but as I told this yahoo, Citra is not for sale.”
Emmett Desmond growled deep in his throat and then spat on the ground between them. “You used to listen to me, but I can see how much you value my recommendations now!” he responded angrily. He didn’t wait for Jake to reply, so he stormed off into the darkness, leaving the owner of the show standing alone in his decision.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.