Monday, February 01, 2010

Snake Oil Bites, FFF #19

As far as Jack was concerned, even a field of four-leaf clovers couldn’t turn things around. He was convinced that because he was born in a leap year, that he was under a secret thirteenth Zodiac sign and its symbol was a giant screw. If he had done as the old Indian had asked, perhaps the Cutler Comedy Company would have survived.

Jack had assembled the very best talent he could find for his traveling troupe and for this reason alone his "Kickipoo Elixir" outsold every other huckster. There was Myra, the four-hundred pound bearded lady who could sing with the voice of angels on high, Big Jacob, the midget who plucked the banjo, the Professor, who would recite long passages of Shakespeare and flowery poetry that the ladies seemed to like so well, and Joe Keaton, the knock-about comedian with his signature "hitch kick". With these four, there wasn't a crossroads town that couldn't be fleeced in three shows, or four if they arrived on a Sunday.

Jack prided himself on his ability to spot a mark and knew how to gear the show to his audience. A religious community got the regular show with lots of psalm singing and Bible passages about loving thy neighbor and the evils of greed. The elixir was to ease the pains of their frail, earthly bodies so that they could better concentrate on the scriptures and therefore become closer to God. Farm towns got the "pride of the working man" routine with little tins of salve handed out with every bottle. Now a mining camp or the Saturday night saloon crowd was a completely different show. Jack had a bevy of dirty jokes that he told in between acts as well as a selection of smutty postcards that he sold five for a nickel. With these rough and ready crowds, he promised that his "Kickipoo Elixir" would relieve hangovers, remove warts, and "put the lead back in yer pencil" Jack would say with a wink. This always got a big laugh.

Yeah, Jack had it made and the money was rolling in. That is until he met that old Indian at the side of the road.

They were traveling west to Piqua Junction on a lonely stretch of road when they came upon this old Indian who had been hurt when his weathered nag overturned his wagon on him and pinned him beneath it. Jack heard his mournful cries on the wind long before they found him in the ditch. He didn't really want to stop as they were running behind after the encore performance they had given at the Perkinsville mine the day before, but the miner's were free with their money and what snake oil salesman could pass that up, but Myra with her soft heart insisted that they lend a hand.

It took the combined power of the five of them to lift the wagon off the old man. He laid in agony and muttered his Indian gibberish while the Professor examined him. "He's got a crushed pelvis," the Professor explained, "They ain't nothin' we can do fer him. Even if we had a doctor here now, I'm certain he has got internal bleeding and wouldn't last out the hour. If we try and move him, it will only kill him faster." The Professor took off his stovepipe hat and dabbed the sweat from his brow. "Sweet Jesus," Myra gasped and held her hand to her ample bosom.

"Damn it," Jack muttered, "we have got to get going if we are going to make it to Pigua Junction in time for the show. I already wired ahead and had the handbills printed up saying the show was tonight. If we don't make it there in time, we are going to look like a bunch of damned hayseed fools and the locals will be throwin' their money in the collection plate on Sunday. Damn it!" Jack swore again as he paced back and forth, trying to decided what to do. Big Jacob looked up at him with his eyes rimmed with tears and he clasped Myra's hand. Joe Keaton rummaged around in his gear and pulled out a whiskey bottle that he handed to the Professor who moistened the lips of the dying man.

"Alright," Jack sighed, "Professor, you see if you can make him comfortable and get him to tell you if he has any kin we need to write to. Joe, you and Jacob see to the horses. I'll look through his kit and see if I can find a letter or something that will tell us where he's from." Jack headed for the pile of belongings that had spilled from the wagon. "What about me Jack? What should I do?" Myra asked in a half choked sob.

"Well, from the looks of him Myra, I suggest you start prayin', cause he ain't got that long." Myra struggled to lower her huge frame to her knees and folded her hands in quiet supplication.

Jack found a worn out carpetbag in among the blankets and rooted through it. He found five Double Eagle $20 coins, some turquoise gems, and an Indian totem with a grotesque face trimmed with beads and feathers. The coins and gems made a comfortable lump in his vest and he tucked the totem in his coat pocket with the intent of selling it to some rube for a few bucks.

"He's gone," the Professor said in a firm voice. The horses neighed and pawed at the earth. Myra sobbed while Jacob bowed his head and muttered a quiet,"Amen". Joe Keaton shook his head and rolled a cigarette. "He didn't mention any family," the Professor continued as he slid the old man's leathery eyelids down, "He said he wanted to be buried here, facing east, and there was some beaded stick he wanted buried with him. Did you find some kind of beaded stick Jack?"

"No," he lied, "Alright everybody back in the wagon. We're burnin' daylight."

"Ain't we going to bury him?" Myra asked.

"This ground is harder than granite and you couldn't cut it with an axe. It would take three days of hard labor to make a hole and we ain't got that kinda time. There ain't enough rocks for five miles to cover him with and that would take longer than diggin' the grave. Naw, we cover him with a blanket and let Nature take it's course."

They grudgingly climbed back into the wagon with the exception of Joe Keaton. "C'mon Joe," Jack called. "I'm stayin'," he said. "But Joe, you can't do anything fer-" Jack started.

"Jack Cutler, you are one flinty-hearted son of a bitch. Leave me some water, food, and a spade. I'll bury him and catch up to you in Piqua Junction in a day or two," Joe said.

"Well if you feel that strongly about it," Jack handed down a canteen, a shovel and Joe Keaton's bag.

"And Jack," his voice took on a knife edged tone, "I'll take my pay. I might be needing some money for expenses along the way." Jack gave him four dollars and whipped the horses into a trot. From the back of the wagon, Myra waved.

They had gone about ten miles when one of the horses threw a shoe. Myra had complained the whole way that they should have stayed. Big Jacob just nodded while the Professor brooded in silence. Jack pulled the wagon up to an abandoned mud hut and examined the horse's hoof with dismay. It was getting dark and Jack knew as well as the rest of them that they weren't going to make it to Piqua Junction tonight. He had them unload the wagon and start making camp. Myra just stood and stared down the road with her hands on her wide hips with her lips pressed together in a frown.

"I'ma goin' back," she announced to whomever was listening, "I'm goin' back to help Joe and then I'm going on to Perkinsville. One of them miners asked me to marry him and I think I'm going to take him up on it. Don't say one word to me Jackie boy. Muh mind's made up." With that, she grabbed her bag and parasol and waddled off into the fading light. "Best of luck," Big Jacob called out to her with a note of sadness.

"Never mind her," Jack said, "That fat ol' sow is just going to go have a few sweaty nights in the arms of some fool miner. He'll get tired of her in a few days and break her heart. We'll just pick her up on our way back through." Big Jacob nodded and the Professor grunted. "Jake, there is a well out back. Draw up some water, build a fire and put the coffee on. The Professor and I are going to see if the hut is worth stayin' in." Big Jacob took down the bucket and rope and headed off.

The lantern sputtered and was slow to come to life. It's feeble glow wasn't much more than a firefly and did little to reveal much of the darkened interior of the hut. "I'm glad we have this moment alone Jack, as I need a private word with you," said the Professor. "Shoot," Jack said as he held the lantern up.

"First, I'd hope that if I was to meet my end along the trail, you would show me a bit more consideration than you did for our red skinned friend." Jack started to explain but the Professor silenced him. "Secondly, you and I both know that there is $100 in gold coins in your vest pocket that belong to the troupe. I alone saw you. After all, we played to an audience of one this afternoon but there is no reason that I shouldn't have a share of the box office." The Professor extended his bony hand palm up, and smiled.

Jack smiled back as shelled out two gold coins, "We will be keeping this to ourselves, right Professor?" The Professor touched the brim of his hat and turned to go. In the dim light, he didn't see the log on the floor and the tall, gangly man flailed as he fell forward. His neck made a sickening crunch as his head struck the wall at an odd angle. He landed miraculously on his back, with his arms across his chest and his hat covering his eyes as if he had stretched out to sleep on the dirt floor. One last breath gurgled in his throat and then he laid still.

Jack decided to tell Big Jacob that the old man was going to sleep in here tonight while they slept outside. They could conveniently find him dead in the morning. Things will just be simpler that way he reasoned as he headed back out into the dark, but not before he pried the two Double Eagles from the dead man's sweaty hand.

"Coffee's ready," Big Jacob said as Jack settled down by the fire. He poured a cup for the both of them and set the pot at the edge of the fire. Jack told him the Professor had had a big day and had already gone to bed. Jacob nodded and sipped his coffee. "I miss Myra," the little man said as he gazed into the flames.

"I miss her too Jake. I don't miss her whining, but I do miss her coffee. Damn Jacob, this is terrible."

"The water was a little murky. Sorry." he mumbled. A coyote howled in the distance. Jack looked out into the dark and asked Jacob to put some more wood on the fire. Jacob picked up a few boards that were laying next to him on the ground and piled them on.

"What have you got there Jacob? It looks like there is some writin' on those boards."

"It was a sign next to the well. I couldn't find any other wood handy so I busted it up."

"What did it say?"

"That's kinda queer now that you mention it," Jacob said as he gulped his coffee, "The sign said posin'. Now who would pose by a well?"


"Yeah," Jacob poured himself another cup and took a swig, "You know, P-O-I-S-I-N. Like posin' fer a picture."

Jack dropped his hot coffee as if he were holding a serpent. "You ignorant jackass! That's-" he didn't get any further as Big Jacob's body began to thrash and claw at the ground and his eye's bulged like a fish in the bottom of the boat. He contorted into a ball and his tongue lulled to one side of his mouth. He was very still as his sightless gaze fell on Jack.

Jack's stomach clenched and he began to sweat in the cool night air. "I'm alright," he reassured himself, "I only had a sip. Jacob was small and drank two full cups. I'm healthy and strong. Probably just get a bad belly ache." Jack took off his coat and tucked it behind his head for a pillow. His fingers seemed to be losing their feeling as he pulled the lump from his pocket. His vision seemed to blur a little at the edges as he looked on the old Indian's totem.

"Must be a trick of the light," he said, "This afternoon, I could have sworn that this had an angry face. Now it looks like it's smiling."



  1. Top notch again, Doc. Great imagery and some solid characters.

    Regards mate, David.

  2. Karma, it always catches up with us in the end! Very well done!

  3. Flan- Thank you dear.

    David Barber- Thanks. I am particularly proud of Big Jacob's death scene.

    Cormac- Thanks old friend. I value your opinion as I am just an amatuer while you crank out fine fiction all the time. I've often wondered how long you have been writing? Did you start early on or was it something that you came to later in life?

    CJT- Rarely do the villians get what's coming to them in real life, so it's always nice when the rat bastards of our imagination get their's. Thanks for dropping by.

    I started out with a completely different story. I had this luckless guy who won the lottery and through a long series of misadventures, he loses it all. At the end, he takes a job as a grave digger and lives in a tool shed but he is much happier that way, because he at least has it better than his clients. It had a nice "money doesn't make you happy" moral at the end.

    I labored on this story for days before I realized that I just couldn't make it work. It wasn't funny or entertaining. It was riddled with bad dialog, and was as clumsy as a hog on a pogo stick. I scrapped it and started over.

    The traveling medicine show idea just seemed to flow from the start. I got the idea from reading a biography of Buster Keaton. His father, Joseph Keaton, did work for the Cutler Comedy Company where he met the woman who was later to become Buster's mother, Myra Edith Cutler. Myra was not a four hundred pound woman but she just seemed to fit better in my story that way. I don't write romance worth a damn so I left that bit out.

    Thank you all for your kind attention, and I look forward to reading yours over my morning coffee.


  4. Well done! This is beautifully unsettling, and revenge is always highly satisfying.

    I am always amazed at the wealth of stories that must reside in your head, not to mention more than a wee bit jealous. I seem to write the same stories over and over again, but yours are always fresh.

  5. Barbara- Really? I keep getting the nagging feeling that I'm trotting out the same old tale with just a change of scenery.

    And thank you dear, that means so very much to me.


  6. Like CJT said, karma is a persistent and funloving enemy.


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