Tiny Book

Snake Oil

Maude hated the salesman from the moment his wagon drove into town. Everything about him was too clean, too sharp, too trimmed; everything from the cuffs of his pressed pants to his wiry beard. It made him seem fake, and the way his cloying, smarmy smile didn’t quite reach his eyes didn’t help her opinion of him any.

It seemed the rest of the people in Coyote Bluff didn’t quite share her thoughts on the matter. No one had paid him much mind when he rode in as a stranger, no different than anyone else passing through town, but after he revealed just why he had come, well, Maude began to think that everyone had simply lost their minds. He’d lost no time setting up shop in the center of town, just off the road between the general store and the saloon, guaranteeing that almost everyone with any business in Coyote Bluff had to pass by. He sold tiny glass jars of a watery gel, labelled with far too many adjectives and said to cure even more ailments. All day long he’d be shouting his ludicrous claims: Pour it in a cut, rub it on a rash! Stings, bruises and sprains, gone in hours or days! Drink it for a headache, a hangover, a cold; once you try it, you’ll be sold! Sold they were, for a half-dollar apiece no less: enough that more people should have been stopping to consider the value of their hard-earned money, but each day that passed saw more people standing in line to buy his snake oil. Maude would have much rathered see the back of his wagon as he rode on to prey on some other town.

When it came time to talk about her, nobody speaking honestly would ever accuse Maude of wealth or beauty. Her dark hair was thick and untamable, and her solid jaw looked not unlike her father’s. What she did have though was sense, and lots of it. After a few weeks, she had started to question whether she was the only one left who had any at all. This certainly wasn’t the first salesman to drive in, selling nonsense with a honeyed tongue and stage play, but this one seemed to have wormed his way into people’s minds. Of course there was always somebody ready to buy whatever a fancy man in a suit was selling, but this time it wasn’t just old Mrs. Horner and the other impressionable housewives who fell under his spell. It seemed everyone had started raving about it, saying it cured their sore throats and wheezing chests, erasing wrinkles and growing hair. Farmers and ranchers had even started coming in from the prairie just to buy his ‘miracle cure’, but Maude wasn’t about to be taken in by talk of miracles.

Once, in a fit of disapproval, she had called up to him on his soapbox and asked what was in it, just to see what he’d say to his audience. Concern didn’t even flutter across his face as he made a show of complimenting her question before dismissing it as a ‘trade secret’, gushing meaningless platitudes about the healing arts of the distant east and spurring yet more people to throw their money at him. Of course it was a secret, she’d thought as she walked off. Wasn’t it always? It was probably made from lard and rattlesnake livers or something, and everyone was throwing their hard-earned coin at this charlatan. It annoyed her to watch people fall for his sham. But when she later found out her own mother was one of them, well, that was enough.

In the dark of the night when the streets were clear, Maude snuck up to the salesman’s wagon. He wasn’t there, of course; he went to the saloon after his long days of swindling, pockets heavy with the town’s money. At least Mr. Cooper was getting some of it back from him before he left with it all. It was a solid thing, his wagon. Made of sturdy elm and with an iron chain padlocked around the door handles, it was set to keep all but the most persistent out. Maude cynically supposed it would be an awful shame for business if someone stole his jars and started selling their own lies. She was undeterred by the chain: she had fiddled with a padlock or two before and it only took moments until it fell away. With one last glance around she stole into the dark coach, hoping to find evidence of the man’s scheme that she could use to bring her neighbours to their senses.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she glanced around. The interior was nothing special, perhaps a bit too polished for anyone around here, but nothing she wouldn’t expect from someone of his trade. The narrow bed was neatly made but the rug that covered the floor was filthy and many of the cupboards and drawers were open with their contents spread about: he wasn’t planning on leaving tomorrow, that was certain. The rifle hung up on the wall was of no interest to her, nor was the small collection of knives and blades strapped nearby; reasonable enough for anyone to have those, especially if they did any hunting on the road.

She began to gingerly pick through the contents of the wagon, looking for anything she might be able to use to prove her case. A fold-out desk had been made into a miniature apothecary, storing rows and rows of tiny powder jars and liquid droppers. She didn’t recognize the words written on them, but she could tell that whatever it was he was selling cases of had to be made of something else if all he had here were small bits of powder. Maude found his clothes, his cooking tools, a crate of empty jars yet to be filled with his ‘miracle’. The only odd thing she found was a trunk filled with strange foreign items: the kinds of things she imagined a shaman might keep. Rifling through colourful, strange dolls, skulls, woodcarvings, and curios in bottles, Maude pursed her lips, unimpressed by the collection: just props for other shows, she guessed.

A sudden noise caught her by surprise; she dropped the idol she had been investigating as she heard a sound like nails drawn across a door. She shut the trunk with a quick slam, eyes whipping about. As much as she was sure that the salesman was up to no good, she still had no intention of getting caught snooping. However, there was no sign of movement, no one standing behind her, the door still closed. The scratching noise caught her attention again, turning her gaze downwards. It was coming from beneath her. There shouldn’t have been anything there but wood planks and the ground below. Yet, there was nothing she’d yet seen to suggest what the snake oil really was, and now that she was thinking about it, the floor did seem a bit higher than the outside of the wagon might suggest. Her hands began to feel out the floor before she pulled the carpet away. Nothing was amiss at first glance but with the sound of scratching spurring her to keep looking, she caught sight of an obscured edge. A removable panel. Unsure of what might be beneath the floor, she held her breath as she pried it back.

A storage space had been built beneath the floor, barely a foot deep, narrow enough to miss. Something moved in the darkness, shuffling back and forth weakly. Maude peered through the gloom that pooled even deeper below the floor and saw that what was down there had the shape of a person. _As she looked closer though, she realized with a chill that it couldn’t possibly be human. Its naked skin was a pale, lightly-speckled green, the colour of a sun-starved plant. Rather than hair, thick, jagged succulent leaves grew in its place, and it seemed a great many of these leaves had been broken off at different lengths, some ‘bleeding’ a clear ooze that Maude recognized as the medicine sold by that slimy snake of a man. It was impossible to tell if the being was a man or woman, as it seemed to lack the defining features of either, but there seemed something youthful about its face. Scars and cuts ran along its arms, legs and body, some looking like gashes while others reminded Maude of the holes left when a leaf is pulled from a branch. It was bound and gagged, and its soft yellow eyes looked at the girl in sorrowful fear, tears running down its face.

Maude looked over her shoulder a few times, shocked and now even more afraid of the salesman returning. She considered running, throwing the floor back into place before disappearing into the night and never thinking about what she saw again, but the creature looked so human despite everything else, and it was so clearly frightened and in pain. Taking a deep breath, Maude tentatively reached into the hidden crawlspace whispering, “Don’t…don’t yell, if you can understand me…”, and managed to tug off the gag.

As soon as it was removed, the plant-like being spoke in a dry, raspy voice, “Please…please, not him…” Maude shook her head, at a loss. “It hurts…it hurts.”

“You talk…” she muttered, needing to hear her stunned thoughts out loud to make them real. “You…you aren’t…what are you…?”

“Trapped,” it said, its voice strained and tone urgent.

A revelation slowly dawned on Maude and her eyes widened as she whispered, “He…he keeps you here…to sell your blood…”

It nodded slightly, “Takes…blood…always, more…” Maude brought her hand to her mouth in horror. The creature said miserably, “Please…help…” as it looked up at her.

Maude looked side-to-side, thinking quickly. She hadn’t any idea what this creature was, but this…this was wrong. It was so much worse than whatever she had been expecting. The creature silently pleaded, staring at her with its soft, intelligent eyes that seemed to look right into her. Maude couldn’t tear herself away from the gaze, couldn’t bring herself to run and leave the being to its miserable fate. She set her jaw and declared, “I’m going to get you out of here.”

Working quickly to pick the lock on the chains holding the creature, she set it free. It tried to stand but immediately collapsed, too weakened from an inestimable time in confinement. With barely a pause, Maude reached out and pulled it up to support it; it stood almost a foot shorter than the woman, and might well have been made of tumbleweed for all it weighed. Something about its skin reminded her of cactus. “I can’t…oof…can’t take you home…The dogs’ll make a fuss and Dad’ll pitch a fit…and he might find us there if he starts asking around…”

The being shook its head weakly, “Water…Need, water. Away.”

Maude thought quickly, “…There’s a watering hole, ‘bout an hour out of town…” The creature looked up at her with hope and fear, and Maude gave her head a single nod. Tossing a blanket over them, Maude glanced around to make sure their way was clear before taking it by the arm and leading it out onto the empty street.

“We won’t be able to make it easy on foot…” Maude muttered mostly to herself before looking at the creature, a question about its ability to walk on her lips. It caught in her throat as she noticed it was staring with an empty rapture at a mule that someone had left tied outside. Shrugging off Maude, the creature took staggering steps over to it, holding the blanket tightly over its head. Maude hissed at the former captive, expecting the animal to spook at the sight of it, but the mule merely returned the creature’s gaze and allowed it to place its hand gently on its nose. Turning its soulful yellow eyes back to Maude, the plant-like being looked meaningfully at her.

Maude wasted no time, jogging over to the mule and loosening its bridle from the post it was tied to. Swinging her leg up over its back, ignoring a saddle, Maude reached out to pull the creature up as well. It was so weak though, it almost immediately pitched off to one side as Maude began to lead the mule around. Grabbing it by the arm, Maude pulled it back up and leaned it against her chest, supporting its meagre weight. Digging her heels into the mule’s side, she urged it forwards and out of Coyote Bluff. They raced across the prairie at a gallop, following little more than a cow path that would eventually take them to the watering hole Maude knew.

The stars glittered overhead as the moon lit their path, nothing but endless miles of grasses in all directions once Coyote Bluff had disappeared behind them. The sound of the wind rushing by and the repetitive thud of heavy hoof beats filled the otherwise silent, still night.

Eventually they came to a small pond that would have been easy to miss for anyone not familiar with the local wilds. The sun of the early summer season had by now reduced it to little more than a murky pool surrounded by cracked, baked mud. Maude gave a sigh of relief; in years past, the watering hole had already dried out by this time. She pulled the mule up and helped the creature off, shouldering its miniscule weight and taking it towards the water. The plant-like person slunk down, placing its feet into the pond with a look of deep relief. It looked up to Maude gently, its expression speaking volumes. It said nothing, but its eyes glittered with gratitude and made Maude feel content deep in her heart.

“Are you going to be ok?” Maude asked. The creature nodded before gesturing for Maude to sit beside them. She plunked herself down, shaking her head angrily, “I can’t believe…That man should be arrested! And-and hung! I knew he was up to no good!”

“Evil,” the creature said, shaking its head with a hard expression. The cold glare melted away as it sighed contentedly once more; it might have been a trick of the moonlight, but it seemed the colour was coming back to its skin. It turned to look at Maude once more, a disarming smile on its face as it placed its hand over Maude’s, staring meaningfully into her eyes, “Thank you.”

Maude blinked, blushing slightly. “I…just did what any upstanding person would do, in this situation,” she said, a firmness covering her embarrassment. The plant creature leaned in closely, staring with its dewy eyes. Maude looked into them and it seemed that they spoke of gratitude and affection. The moonlight glinted off of their skin, highlighting the soft speckles across their delicate cheeks, their slender arms. Already it was seeming steadier, more healthy, and a quiet glee seemed to be growing and bringing a sparkle of new life to its face. Maude gave a hesitant smile but when the creature drew even closer, she blushed and pulled back with a bit of fluster, “I…should be heading back…before anyone notices I’m missing…”

“No! Please!” it said, grabbing onto her sleeve as she stood up. It looked at her pleadingly, almost desperate, “Need! Need you.” Maude softened slightly, not wanting to abandon the poor, scared thing. It was probably still hurting, and it was alone; she spared a brief thought on how it probably didn’t understand human custom, easing her own reservations. She slowly slunk back down again, lost in the complexity of the creature’s soft, yellow eyes. She didn’t even notice when the when the mule spooked and bolted, seemingly forgetting its exhaustion and leaving them alone under the vast, star-speckled sky.

The creature moved to bring its face up once more to Maude’s, speaking softly, “Stay. Rest.” Maude’s eyelids were heavy as she looked into the creature’s gaze. The ground here felt so warm, still giving off an inviting heat from the day’s sun, and it was late. “Rest,” it repeated gently. Maude’s vision swam but she was too tired to truly notice. She didn’t even see the creature’s face twist into a wolfish grin as she fell asleep.

It was late and the moon was high when the salesman strode out from the saloon, whistling a ditty to himself. It wasn’t too late though, and though he was a bit tipsy with drink it was nothing he wouldn’t sleep off in a few hours: it would do his business no good to stand on stage bedraggled and hungover. As he retreated from the light and din of the saloon he was engulfed by the silence of a town asleep, little but the stars overhead to light his path back to his wagon. As he made to climb the steps to his door, he stopped short as his foot stepped awkwardly on something his eyes had missed. The chain. His face blanched in panic and fury as he pulled the door wide, revealing the disturbed carpet, the open trapdoor. “…No…no, not again…” he hissed, his expression dark and harried. Cursing bitterly he leapt into action, dashing about to grab things from drawers as he loaded his gun with curious, engraved bullets.

Maude couldn’t quite recall what happened after she fell asleep. She had hazy dreams of the hot sun blazing overhead, blinding her and stinging her skin. Dreams of bitterly cold nights, chilling her through her clothes and reducing her to shivers. She could vaguely feel ropes tight around her, holding her in place, but they weren’t the rough feel of hemp, rather something smooth and pliable. Alive. She remembered pain: a throbbing headache, a desperate dryness of throat, an uncomfortable pinching in her arms, thighs and neck. She remembered piercing yellow eyes. Mostly though, she just remembered being tired. Too tired to move or struggle. Too tired to wake up.

She had no idea how long she was unconscious, but when she finally blinked the thick sleep out of her eyelids, she slowly realised she wasn’t outside. She could smell acrid chemicals in the air, and though the mattress she laid on was anything but soft, it was a sight better than the sun-baked dirt she vaguely recalled. Her limbs felt heavy and she struggled to push herself up, her head spinning and body sore. How long had she been asleep? How much of what happened had been only a dream?

Carefully she tried to swing her legs over the side of the bed; she didn’t recognise the room. The sound of her rustling served to alert someone else though. A man leaned over from his chair in from the next room to peer through the doorway; she recognised him as the local doctor. “Oh! Miss Delgado, you’re awake!” He stood up from his desk and moved into the room to speak to her, “How are you feeling?”

“…Tired, sore…” she admitted. “Like, I got kicked by a horse…”

“I’m not surprised; you took an awful clock to the head on top of everything else. Do you remember any of what happened?” Confused and groggy, Maude was unsure of herself. The doctor sensed her hesitation and pressed, “You were in town, three nights ago. Wednesday evening?”

“Three…?” she repeated, unsure.

The doctor didn’t give her much time to concentrate before he nodded, explaining emphatically, “There was a horse thief, stole Mr. Owen’s mule, and Sheriff thinks you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reckons he grabbed you as collateral, cut you up and left you in the fields for the coyotes. Do you remember anything?”

Maude looked down and saw that her arms were plastered with bandages, feeling them on her legs and neck as well. “I…remember the mule…but, I don’t think…”

The doctor shook his head, “No mind, no mind, don’t strain yourself. I’m just glad you woke up. No one else was hurt, thank the Lord. You’re just awful lucky that Mr. Webber fellow found you when he did.”

She frowned, wracking her still-cloudy mind, “Mr…”

“Mr. Percival Webber. He’s been in town for the last few weeks, selling his foreign medicine. He was the one that found you out in the fields, nearly bled out. You’re lucky to have pulled through; maybe there is something to his tonic after all.” Maude blinked in shock. Between her confusion, her headache and the sluggishness in her body, she looked altogether unwell. The doctor guided her back into bed, “Plenty of rest now. There’ll be time to talk when you’re on the mend.” The last thing Maude wanted to do was sleep, but it was about the only thing she could manage; her eyes were already closing as her head touched the pillow.

It was nearly a week later when Maude, still worse for wear, approached the salesman’s wagon. He was strapping some crates to the top of it; it seemed he finally was leaving. The sight would have made Maude happy if she weren’t so busy reviling him. As he lowered himself gingerly down from the side of the cart, he spied her. “Well,” he smiled broadly, “if it isn’t the unfortunate young miss! I am glad to see you up and about! Come to say your thanks for saving your life before I leave town?” Maude glared venomously at him but he was unfazed, his pretentious grin still spread across his face. His eyes flicked back and forth, “Care to step inside so as not to cause a scene?” Glowering, she followed him inside his wagon; she couldn’t help but notice he had a bit of a limp. Once inside, he sat down, gesturing for her to do the same; she wordlessly declined. “Well,” he started, drumming his fingers together, “I can guess from your sunny disposition you aren’t here to apologize, so why don’t you start with your aggrandizing and I’ll tell you why you’re wrong.”

Maude’s resolve strengthened as he spoke: she hadn’t been dreaming, not if he was acting this way. “What was that thing?”

“A beast,” he said simply. “Just one of the many things that lurk in the wilds where man has yet to tread. Secrets kept between the land and those of us who look a bit farther than their farms.”

“You…caged them!” she said, forsaking manners. “You kept a thinking, living being locked in a box so you could bleed them.”

“That thing was a bloodthirsty killer, no less than a tiger or crocodile. They act human to lure people close enough to eat them. It would have gone on to kill the whole town if I hadn’t stopped it.” He tacked on with a smug grin, gesturing lightly to his lame leg, “At great personal risk, I might add.”

“It would have been your fault for bringing it here!”

“Oh? I wasn’t the one who broke into someone’s property, rifled through their belongings and unleashed a vicious creature without any idea of what I was doing. What possessed you to do that, hmm? Trying to stage a little robbery and got side-tracked?”

“I was not. You…you were selling this…snake oil, and I needed proof to show people that…”

I,” he said primly, “am selling a legitimate miracle cure. Or was, rather, until you ruined my supply, not to mention put everyone’s lives at risk. It heals wounds, broken bones, most diseases. Blood loss,” he said with emphasis. “Do you know how many lives I’ve saved with it? Not least of all your own, of course.”

She shuddered at the thought. “…If you were doing this to save people, you wouldn’t be charging.”

“What, I’m not to make a living?” he said smoothly. “How else could I travel around and distribute it to people?” He stood up, “The world isn’t black and white. But I don’t expect those less travelled to understand. Now,” he smiled with a patronizing edge, “go home and sleep off the bad dream you just had, and be glad you’re still alive.”

“You…you…” she glared as she was shooed outside.

“I have to be on my way!” he said brightly, “Sad to leave so soon, but unfortunately, my product has nearly run out, much earlier than I’d reckoned, and I’m afraid I’ll have to be heading back home.”

As she stood outside the wagon, she gave him one last look, “…You’re as much of a monster as it was.”

“Well, Miss Delgado!” he declared brightly and with no lack of flourish, “Given the choice, I’d much rather be the monster that saves lives than takes them, wouldn’t you agree? No, no, you don’t need to say anything, I know you agree! Else you wouldn’t have landed yourself in such a mess setting a monster free, now would you have? Admirable trait, to be so trusting of something you just met, but hopefully the brush with death knocked some sense into you as well.” He returned to his business of packing, adding over his shoulder, “Keep well, Miss Delgado, and take more care not to be brought down by another charming pair of eyes.” Maude glared at him angrily for another moment, tears in her eyes, before turning away, clutching her arms tightly about herself as she stormed off.

The salesman left town as easily as he came, whistling to himself as he drove his wagon. A small trail of dust was kicked up by his passing, the grooves in the hard dirt left by his wheels hardly more of a lasting impression than he himself had made. His crates of jars had been exchanged for coin and enough supplies to last him months, the contents of which would spoil if not used quick, and soon he’d be forgotten as just another man who passed through town. The sun beat down as summer began in earnest, and in the hidden space beneath his floorboards, a single, succulent seedling with spotted leaves sprouted in a pot. Coyote Bluff had been good business, and he hoped the next town would prove the same.

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