Aloysius P. McNutt arrives in town one and a half days after the snake, as per usual. Earlier would be too suspicious, and later risks that the settlers will have attacked the snake themselves, which simply won’t do. Aloysius needs to sell the snake oil to them, which he can’t lay claim to unless he slays the snake himself.
He grins lopsidedly as he sidles into the saloon. “Hear you got yourselves a snake problem.” In these settlements out in the territories, the heart of the community tends toward the saloon or the church, and Al has made a quick presumption that these aren’t a particularly churchly folk.
Rough men and a lesser number of equally rough women line the bar and circle the tables. Clusters of prospectors and farmers sip brandy and rye and harsher libations. All lift their heads in Al’s direction when he pushes through the doors and declaims his customary opening. None respond.
Al is wondering if maybe he should have tried the church after all when a man in a beaten hat wearily pushes himself from the bar. Maybe twice Al’s twenty-nine years, with eyes half again as old, this is a man who’s lived more than most. Despite the drink and the day’s problems weighing on him, the man carries himself with the posture of a lawman. This is Al’s mark. He strides across the room, ignoring the following eyes, and extends his hand in the man’s direction.
“I know a sheriff when I see one,” he says. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. Aloysius P. McNutt, at your service. But I recommend you call me Al. All my friends do, and I’ve a premonition that we’re to be fast friends, you and I.”
The sheriff blinks at him slowly. “State your business, buy a drink, or keep moving. We’ve no time for charlatans in this town.”
“Charlatan! Sir, you wound me.” Shaking his head solemnly, Al resumes his spiel. “Rumors travel quick round these parts, and when they’re of a titanic snake harassing industrious settlers, they fly faster still. Lucky they should happen to reach my wandering ears. Sir—” here he stares hard at the sheriff, setting the hook “—I am beyond familiar with this class of beast, a remnant from the savage land this was before the civilizing influence upon it of those such as yourself. From far-flung settlements across this frontier, I have pursued and battled these serpents, and I now proffer my services to your charming town.”
Doubt flickers in the sheriff’s eyes. Al’s seen it countless times; knows the thoughts running through his brain. What’s the harm in letting this shabbily dressed dandy hunt the snake that’s taken a dozen sheep and half that many cattle in the last thirty-six hours? If the man fails, the town is in no worse position than it currently occupies.
Al doesn’t need to hear the man’s confirmation; he plows ahead. “I ask but one thing in return,” he says, index finger raised with deep purpose. “Once I have slain the creature, I desire to take possession of the carcass, with intention of marketing the rare and valuable effluent that I shall extract from it.”
The sheriff raises an eyebrow. Something that’s almost a grin curls his lips. “So, you’re a common snake oil salesman.”
Al grins widely. “Oh—no sir. I’m the best damn snake oil salesman in the world.”
Silence follows his pronouncement. No one hurrahs or whistles. A surly crowd with a surly sheriff, not prone to belief in the miraculous, but if everyone was eager to open their wallets, what need would there be for salesmen?
The battle with the snake is half athleticism, half pageantry, replete with dodges and rolls, feints and thrusts and parries. Gunplay and pratfalls. When the dust clears, Al stands victorious—not that his status was actually ever truly in question.
Panting afterward, the sixty-foot-long snake slumped behind him, Al grins at the cautiously approaching townsfolk, the sheriff at their head. Fading sunlight glints off the diamond-patterned scales of the sand-colored serpent. A single drop of venom as big Al’s fist collects on the tip of a sickled fang. The rattle at the end of the tail suddenly shakes, and the townsfolk all jump back. Al glares at the snake. Its job is done. There’s no call for additional theatricality.
“Now, now,” Al says, palms out placatingly, “ain’t nothing to fear. The beast lies slain and can terrorize you no more.” He casts a quick sour glance at the prostrate serpent. “Indeed, this awesome and terrible creature shall be converted into a balm guaranteed to cure each and every one of you of your ills and extend your lifespan by years, barring of course trauma or calamity.”
Stepping to the front of the crowd, the sheriff hocks a gob of phlegm in the snake’s direction. It lands short of the animal but close enough that any living creature would react. This one doesn’t. The sheriff walks the snake from snout to rattle, inspecting it. A bit too closely for Al’s liking.
“Looks dead, true enough,” the sheriff says. “Much obliged, Mr. McNutt.” He hooks his thumbs into the belt loops of his dungarees; glances toward the setting sun. “I expect you’ll be on your way right soonish.”
“Why be hasty?” Al says. “Grant me but an hour to extract and prepare a concoction of the snake’s secretions, and I promise health and good cheer to each and every member of this town... save perhaps any doctors I should put out of business.” He chuckles at his own joke and feels gratified when a handful of the townsfolk join in.
The sheriff merely raises an eyebrow. But he nods once and says, “Get on with it, then.”
Silence settles between the snake oil salesman and the people. After a long moment, he clears his throat. “A little privacy?”
Eyeballing him warily—the sheriff casting the hairiest eyeball of all—the townsfolk drift off, leaving Al alone with the snake. But the back of his neck burns, and he knows there are peepers scattered about, ensconced in barns and on balconies, spyglasses to their faces. Quickly and discreetly as he can, Al presses the healing oil from between the wide flat scales of its belly and collects it in a clay jug. Mixed together with a generous dram of plantain whiskey, it’s ready for consumption. For sale.
Which means back into town, back into the saloon, to the settlers, to the incredulous sheriff. It may not be the whole population of the town inside the saloon, but it must be close. More are sure to trickle in when they hear Al is back, and once they hear how effective his elixir is, any stragglers will stampede to get their dose.
Because if there’s one thing that Al has learned over his years selling snake oil, it’s this: the stuff’s a damn sight easier to sell when it actually works.
“Gather round, one and all,” he proclaims, voice at that perfect modulation equidistant between politician and carnival barker. “As promised, Aloysius P. McNutt has harvested the suppurations of the deadly and mysterious serpent, and returned with a potion guaranteed to cure, to heal, to protect. Not more than a few drops, and all your troubles—nay, all the troubles of this town!—will drift away like smoke in the wind. For what is health but freedom? Freedom to live on your own terms, to overcome any obstacle you desire.
“Such a potent medicine could command vast sums in the metropolises of the north, but Al McNutt is not a greedy man. For a pittance, a few coins, I am prepared to dispense this curative to any and all.” He smiles warmly at the crowd. Is it his imagination, or has his audience leaned closer? “Who shall be first? Who is most in need of curing? Step right—”
“A moment,” says a voice.
Al suppresses a sigh as the sheriff elbows through the crowd. “Indeed, sir?” Al says. “You care to volunteer as the first patient?”
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” the sheriff says. “Why don’t you try it first? Prove its safety before you ask us to prove its efficacy.”
“Ah, surely I would, but I have imbibed the elixir before, and one dose is all that’s required for a lifetime. Despite the passing of years, I’m fit as a fiddle, more finely tuned as any piano.” Winks at the piano player on his bench. “No offense to your skill at that particular task, my man.”
“Nonetheless,” the sheriff says, tone as warm as root cellar, “it would soothe my nerves to witness you sip.”
What did Al ever do to this man?
“Much as I hate to drink my profits...” Al swigs. Throws back his shoulders, smacks his lips triumphantly. “And damn me if it don’t taste halfway decent.” He clears his throat. “As I am already the pinnacle of health, I’m afraid I cannot demonstrate the elixir’s healing properties. However, if proof is what you’re after, I humbly request a volunteer. Someone with a minor ailment—as the greater the ailment, the lengthier the time to cure. Any here with clouded vision, perhaps a touch of the arthritis?”
The crowd nudges a woman forward. Probably not much older than Al, though the wind and sun out here on the southern prairie weathers folks faster than their city-dwelling counterparts. Al himself certainly carries more of the years than he would had he remained back home.
“My hands can barely grip a shovel handle these days,” she says, “forget something delicate like a needle. If this snake oil works a fraction of what you claim, I reckon it’s worth a few coppers.”
“My dear lady, this is worth its weight in gold.” Al measures a dose of the elixir into a tin mug and passes it to her. Watches the crowd watch her as she drinks.
The woman raises an eyebrow as she licks her lips—the elixir really does taste good; Al adds sugar and a dash of cherry syrup. She holds her hands in front of her face, flexes the fingers. “It’s working already,” she says, wonder in her voice. “The pain lessens by the moment.”
A measure of her relief comes from the power of suggestion, Al knows, but most of it is real. And the elixir will continue its work, alleviating the pain, calming the fire in the woman’s joints. No more selling is needed with this crowd. The snake oil sells itself now, and a line wends out the door. The sheriff, Al notes, does not join it.
For as long as the people come, Al doles out the snake oil in tiny rubber-stoppered bottles. Only one dose is necessary, but Al’s learned over the years that folks believe medicine more effective when they have to take multiple doses, and who is he to refuse a profit? Once each morning for a week, he tells them sternly. Finally, the line peters out. Al, coin purse bulging, packs up the remaining snake oil. When he finishes and turns from the crate, he finds the sheriff waiting, hands on his hips, flanked by two deputies that Al hasn’t seen before.
“Come for your dose, sheriff?” Al says. “Gratis for a man of the law.”
“Appreciated, but I’ll pass.” The sheriff nods backward at the night outside the saloon. “Dark one out there. I suppose you’ll need somewhere to spend it. Person to take care of your mule.”
“No worries, friend,” Al replies. “I’ve got my wagon, and that’s home enough for me.”
“I couldn’t possibly let you do that,” the sheriff says. “It gets so cold, and we’ve a warm cell back at the office.”
“Might be I can handle the cold.”
“Certainly, you couldn’t leave before morning. You’ll want to ensure there are no ill effects. That any positive ones aren’t mere passing.”
No way out of this without drawing iron. Al has experience with a revolver, as anyone traveling the frontier must. He’s not the slowest draw, but he’s not a particularly quick one either. Never had to shoot a man yet, and doesn’t relish starting tonight.
He smiles as genuinely as he can and cuts a sweeping, wide-armed bow. “Show me to my chambers.”
The jail cell’s not the least comfortable place Al’s slept. There’s a cot and a blanket and a chamber pot. Could be worse. The sheriff must be a decent enough sort, if a tad suspicious for a snake oil salesman’s liking. Al’s not concerned, though. The sheriff may not have sampled the elixir, but near enough everyone else in town did. Come morning, the townsfolk will all be better than ever. If the sheriff refuses to let Al go, they’ll push him to do the right thing.
Al is lying on the cot, waiting for sleep to take him, when he hears footsteps. Measured, heavy steps. Leather boot soles. He grunts and sits up.
“Evening again, sheriff. Come to inspect my accommodations?”
“I trust they meet your exacting standards.” How about that. The man has a sense of humor after all.
“You know,” Al says, dropping pretense, “I truly am the genuine article. Frankly, I’m disappointed my reputation hasn’t preceded me. I’ve been at this some ten years now. There’s hardly a camp or settlement cross this frontier I haven’t visited. To their not inconsiderable benefit, I might be so bold to add.”
“Oh, your reputation precedes you, no doubt.” The sheriff sucks his teeth and nods as if a thought suddenly occurs to him, but he’s underestimating Al’s ability to detect bull. “Tell me, Mr. McNutt, in these far-flung travels, have you encountered many of these unnaturally grown serpents?”
“This wasn’t my first tussle, no.”
“And in your pursuits, did you ever come across a place called Stenvall Mine, maybe better known these days as Stenvall’s Folly. Possibly by its oldest name, Kiimamaa. It would be naught but empty cabins and ruined storefronts now.”
Al nods slowly. “Mr.— I’m sorry, it occurs to me I never caught your name.”
A wry smile. “Stenvall,” the sheriff says. “Sheriff John Stenvall. Son of Hugo Stenvall, of the folly’s fame.”
“Sheriff Stenvall. I’m sorry to say I’ve discovered no such place on my travels. It pains me to tell you this, as I imagine it was your boyhood home until some surely tragic circumstance drove you from it. Drove the entirety of the population from it, it sounds.”
Salesmen, at heart, are actors, and Al counts himself among the elite of both tribes. To anyone else but this sheriff, he’d sell his commiseration without question. Unfortunately, Sheriff Stenvall isn’t the type to buy such trinkets.
“Not driven from it so much as devoured by it. By a snake that rose from the mine. A demon that—though my memory is hazy with youth—bore passing resemblance to the one you dispatched this afternoon.”
“I imagine all snakes look more or less alike.”
Stenvall purses his lips. “I suppose you’re right.”
Maybe a minute passes while neither man speaks. Finally, Al breaks the silence. “Anything I can do for you, sheriff? Still would be pleased to provide you a sample of elixir.”
“Strange, don’t you think,” Stenvall muses, “the way there weren’t reports of any giant snakes save the one, until recent years? And now it seems there’s hardly a town on the prairie ain’t been beset by one. Until you show up.”
“You weren’t lying about my reputation preceding me,” Al says.
“There’s been snake oil salesmen forever, I suspect,” Stenvall says. “One who publicly battles the snake for its oil? That’s new enough to garner mention.”
“Then you’ve heard that I’m an honest man,” Al says. “That my wares perform exactly as advertised.”
“Reckon that’s so.” Still, he doesn’t request any. He inspects Al up and down for a long moment before turning to the door. He doesn’t look back as he says, “Sleep well, Mr. McNutt. I’ll see you off at first light. I don’t predict I’ll see you back here again.”
Al rolls his eyes at Stenvall’s departing back. No need for him to return to this podunk town anyhow. His work here is done.
Ghost towns held no particular attraction for Al back when he had to flee his home a decade ago—if they were nice places to visit, they wouldn’t be ghost towns. But today, that deterrent was precisely what he was hoping for. If he didn’t want to spend any longer than absolutely necessary in the town that a rotting and scrawled-over sign designated alternately as Stenvall’s Mine and Folly, then odds were fairly strong his current pursuers wouldn’t either. His father may have vowed that he’d hound Al for as long as it took to gain his satisfaction, but the men chasing him were hired guns—Al was betting they’d have more realistic limits.
For one thing, his father no longer had access to the vast sums he would have promised the men, and, once they realized that, their enthusiasm for pursuit would hopefully wane. Sure, they could follow him across the prairie, track him through scrub forest. All in a day’s work for their like. But an honest-to-goodness ghost town? They had to draw the line somewhere.
Thus: Stenvall’s Folly. A town less reminiscent of a ghost than a skeletal corpse. Ghosts, at least, stirred the air, rattled chairs, displayed some sign of vestigial life. Not so here. Even the tumbleweeds in this town languished in the dirt.
Inside the local saloon, evidence of the abruptness which with the town had been abandoned lined the walls: bottles. Dozens of them; pristine, filled with expensive liquor. Whatever happened to this town didn’t leave enough survivors to pilfer the bar. Before Al arrived in Stenvall’s Folly, he had presumed that the old tales of a monstrous evil swallowing up the townspeople was a metaphor for the mine running dry. Now he wasn’t so sure.
He liberated two bottles of plantain whiskey and exited the saloon. Too obvious a hiding spot. Anyone who tracked him to this town, anyone who knew him well enough to bother following him this far from Portico, would know to search for him there right off. Whiskey bottle in each hand, he made for the church.
For the better part of twenty-four hours he drank and slept and waited and stewed on the indignity of being driven from his hometown simply for trying to do a good thing. He’d expected the townsfolk to support him. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have been surprised when they didn’t. After all, they hadn’t batted an eye back when his father hired all the town’s doctors to practice under his own shingle—first with monetary enticement, then growing more forceful as he consolidated power.
A town’s strength is in its health, he’d explained to Al. If you control a people’s health, you control their money. You control the people. And boy, had Al witnessed the accuracy of that aphorism. Balancing the books, collecting fees, rooting out any nurses or doctors trying to practice illegally. Selling folks on the necessity of visiting their doctor regularly. If they wanted to remain healthy, that is. Like his father, Al never personally resorted to violence, but that didn’t make his hands any less bloody. Yet, for all that his father had mentored him, Al had somehow developed a conscience. More fool him.
No one shadowed the church’s doorway while Al drank and waited and drank some more. Maybe the posse had given up hunting him, scared off by the stories of Stenvall’s Folly or else their anger slaked by the knowledge that Al was gone from Portico for good. Oh, his father had made himself perfectly clear regarding the severity of the consequences should Al return home, but as far as Al was aware, if he survived this chase, that threat ended at Portico’s borders.
Not that he planned to go back. He’d like to see the fruits of his work but could content himself knowing he’d done good. The town’s health and prosperity were its own again, though if he knew his father, there would be enough side business remaining that he and his daughter, Al’s sister, wouldn’t starve. Al hoped there was enough for the two of them to live healthy and happy, same as anyone else in Portico. Better than Al himself was likely to end up, anyway.
Between the inebriation and his own dark mutterings, Al didn’t hear dry scales slithering through the church’s back door. Didn’t notice the staccato click of a tongue darting between fangs to taste the air. Remained unaware that he wasn’t alone until he heard a sound behind him like bone dice clacking in a wooden cup, and he spun around to find himself face to face with a sixty-foot-long rattlesnake.
The thunk of a heavy key in a heavy lock wakes Al. It’s still mostly dark out, the sort of gray that heralds dawn. Apparently, Sheriff Stenvall meant out of town at first light literally.
Stenvall stands impatiently while Al stretches, rubs his eyes. “You mind?” he asks, tipping his head toward the chamber pot. Stenvall purses his lips but averts his eyes while Al completes his morning ritual. Neither speaks into the dark morning as Sheriff Stenvall escorts Al by foot through the waking settlement. Not until they are outside the town limits, standing beside Al’s mule-drawn wagon, the back of which is stuffed with the coiled body of the serpent. Amazing how tightly one can wind a very long snake.
“Well, sheriff, I guess that’s that,” Al says, climbing up to the driver’s seat and taking the reins. Whichever townsperson Sheriff Stenvall pressed into caring for the mule overnight did a fine job. Al’s grateful for that at least.
Stenvall lifts his hand to swat the mule on the rump and send Al away. “Take care now.” He opens his mouth, presumably to issue another of his not-so-veiled threats, but Al cuts him off.
“Don’t bother yourself, Sheriff. My charge in this camp is complete. Never again will I darken your streets or saloon.”
Stenvall pauses, his palm hovering over the mule’s flank. He wants to say something else—the man is not difficult to read—but wrinkles his brow, nods more decisively, and turns away. Al watches until he disappears amidst the clapboard and canvas buildings on the town’s outskirts, then he snaps the reins, and the wagon rolls off down the prairie road. Heading in no particular direction at the moment. Simply away.
“Did you have a pleasant night?” a raspy alto asks from behind him. Al glances over his shoulder and there’s Snake, her nose not two feet from Al’s own. Her tongue flicks out, and she dips her head to peer down her snout as sardonically as any snake ever could. “Because my evening was cold and cramped and more than a bit boring.”
“Don’t blame me,” Al grumbles. “That sheriff fancies himself an amateur interrogationist.”
Snake yawns, her jaws gaping open until they’re nearly perpendicular, and Al stares down her gullet as her two fangs stretch from their sheathes. If he didn’t know she’s simply scenting the air, he’d be terrified.
“Interrogator,” Snake says, “And being as he’s the sheriff, isn’t he a professional one?”
“He’s a dilettante’s skill at it then.”
“Having not properly met the man, I can neither agree nor disagree.” Pops and crackles as she writhes around the back of the wagon, working out the kinks formed during a long night of playing dead.
“See, that’s the thing.” Al watches Snake out of the corner of his eye to catch her reaction. “Seems the two of you are previously acquainted.”
Her tongue freezes mid-flick. If Snake had eyelids to blink in astonishment, she surely would. “I find that exceedingly unlikely.”
“Fella goes by the name of Stenvall. Sounds familiar to me.”
“It’s possible,” Snake says. Haltingly, softly. “A... predecessor. A prior incarnation. This sheriff, he may have met that Snake. Years ago.”
Snake’s never much liked to talk of her past, a similarity the two share. Centuries she spent alive before meeting Al, and he knows only the faintest outlines of stories from those years. But Snake doesn’t know much about Al before they met either, simply that he was driven out of his home, never to return. It’s an unspoken pact that they don’t press each other; living in the moment, focusing on the mission of spreading Snake’s life-improving oils across the frontier. Spreading the oil and its attendant health and happiness. Snake’s oil doesn’t precisely make the folks who imbibe it better people. But it does make them want to be.
Someday, Al will need to pry the full story of what happened to Stenvall’s Folly from Snake’s jaws, but not today. Today, they ride in silence down the road, passing gold and green fields of wheat and maize and sorghum that turn to expanses of wild grasses and purple-headed thistle. Trees sprout in clumps across the range, like some massive hand scattered their seeds as an afterthought thousands of years ago.
“He didn’t seem pleased to see you again.”
“No, I don’t suppose he would.”
Silence again. Al has the feeling that he won’t get any more from Snake, not now at least. Not without offering up a bit of his own history, spilling some of his own curdled blood.
“Would it be too much to hope that you brought a snack?” Snake asks eventually.
Al snorts. “Keep your eyes on the prairie. There’s sure to be some moa out there. You snatch yourself one of those big old birds, you’ll be set for days.”
Snake hisses agreement, the rattle at the end of her tail shivering in anticipation.
“So, then, which direction shall I point us?” Al asks. “Which far-flung frontier outpost is next to receive our beneficent visitation?”
Snake doesn’t answer until Al twists around in his seat to look at his reptilian friend. “What?” Al asks. “Where’s next on your agenda? All we’ve seen these years, ain’t nothing you can say is going to quail me.”
“We’ve been as deep into the frontier as we can go,” Snake says. “As deep as it’s worth going anyhow. The goodwill, the elixir, it’ll spread. Peace will travel with it.”
“Lovely,” Al says, “but I’d bet your next words aren’t going to be that our work is done and we can rest.”
“The only place left... is the last place to bring the elixir to. From there, you see... it can disseminate across the land in all directions, back into the cities, all over the continent, the wider world. It’s a risk, but it’s our one remaining move. It’s our last stop, the culmination of all our work.”
“Spit it out, Snake.”
“We’ve got to go to Portico, Al. You have to go home.”
“Might be you’ve got a point.” Al wasn’t lying about his lack of fear. They truly have journeyed places dangerous and deadly. Hearing that they need to go to Portico, the place that Al least wants to see again, and that wants to see him even less—even that doesn’t frighten him.
But his stomach does begin to churn cold.
When Al’s heart resumed beating and he caught his breath, he responded to the rattlesnake’s hesitant, though friendly, greeting.
“I know,” the snake said. “A talking snake. Not something you see every day. As far as I’m aware, I’m the last one left. If we’d met, say, two hundred years ago, you’d hardly blink.”
“Sure,” Al replied, his tongue as tied as the snake’s was long. And boy was it. Every time the snake tasted the air, Al shied back, unable to convince himself that she wasn’t about to strike and devour him whole. “Um, well. Pleased to meet you?”
“Charmed, I’m sure.” The snake hissed out something resembling laughter.
Fear still coiled around Al’s throat and innards, but he tried to shake it off. Why be scared now? Best he could tell, this beast had no cause to harm him, which was more than could be said of his pursuers. Which reminded Al why he chose Stenvall’s Folly to hide out in in the first place. What he wanted to ask now wasn’t the politest question Al could pose at such a moment, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Are you the reason for this? The destruction of the town? Everyone dying?”
The snake didn’t answer for long enough that Al began to doubt she would, and when she finally spoke, she didn’t look him in the eye. “That... wasn’t me. Wander around town, you’ll see old skins lying about. The snake that shed those, that’s where to cast the blame.”
“No blame for me to cast,” Al said, hands up, placating. “Merely making conversation, though I’ve been informed my curiosity does tend to rub the wrong way.”
“Don’t think twice,” the snake said. They lapsed into awkward silence. Al had to chuckle. Worried about sociality when speaking to an enormous rattlesnake like the ones out of myth. Truly, this was an unanticipated turn of fortune.
The snake chuckled too. “It’s been years since I’ve seen a human being. Spoken aloud even. I can’t say with certainty how long it’s been since I was last aboveground. So, thank you for pulling me from my wallow. Too long I’ve made loneliness my friend.”
Al nodded. Despite all the people he surrounded himself with, despite the rarely ceasing stream of words that spilled from his lips, he too was acquainted with loneliness’s dull bite.
“Please to meet you,” he said again, certain this time that he meant it. He didn’t extend his hand for a shake though. Not near those jaws. No use tempting fate. Besides, what would the snake shake with? “Aloysius P. McNutt. Everyone calls me Al.”
“Goodness,” the snake said. “I guess you can call me Snake.”
“Oh, come on,” Al scoffed. “A creature of your stature and history? That’s no name for you.”
The rattle twirled on the dusty ground, as if the snake was embarrassed. “Well, the people who lived here long ago, before this town, they called me the Glorious Serpent, Bearer of Health and Beneficence and Power.”
“Snake it is. But that other’s a name with a story behind it, if I’ve ever heard one.”
And so Snake explained to Al all about her oil and its capabilities. With each word, new schemes sparked in Al’s brain. Yesterday had been the worst, lowest day of Al’s life. Now this fell into his lap. The greatest salesmanship opportunity he could ever find. All he had to do was convince Snake.
“See here, I think we could help a lot of people, with those effusions of yours. Why, with a little elbow grease, we could very well spread health and good cheer across this whole damn frontier, from mountain to sea. Course, we’ll need fair compensation. Now just hear me out—”
“Deal,” Snake said, though Al knew to be wary of anyone who buys into a pitch too readily, he didn’t argue.
“If we’re to be partners, I should warn you,” Al said, “I’ve made some enemies.”
Snake nodded her massive, wedge-shaped head. “As have I.”
That didn’t surprise Al one bit.
Portico. Threshold of the frontier. Jewel of the prairie. A town of graded roads and running water. At least, it had been in the nicer parts, where the rich folk lived, devising their schemes to fleece the desperate men and women passing through on their way to make a living on the frontier. A living that would become much harder once they were taken for whatever meager belongings they had. And no one batted at eye at that. But try turning it around and conning the rich for once, and suddenly you’ve gone too far and get declared persona non grata. Fair play, Al had learned, to his unending chagrin, was not a virtue held by the city mothers and fathers of Portico. His own father least of all.
On the way to town, Al had tried to disguise himself with what sparse implements he could lay hands on. With the same knife he uses to play-battle Snake, he’d lopped off hunks of hair and crudely fashioned them into a push-broom mustache that he affixed to his upper lip with pine sap and prayer. He’d considered trying for a full beard but couldn’t commit to shearing off all the hair on his head. His hairline has been receding for years; no need to encourage it into a full retreat.
He is supposed to wait his customary one and a half days after Snake begins menacing the town—snatching livestock, hissing and snapping threateningly at passing stagecoaches, the old standbys—but Al’s impatience gets the better of him. This isn’t some newly erected settlement; the people of Portico will fight back, and hard. Despite Al’s warnings, Snake doesn’t truly savvy what she’s in for; doesn’t realize that this town may well outmatch them both.
Al rides into town at full speed, wagon clattering along the uneven dirt until he gets close enough that suddenly the road is graded and even and the wheels fairly slide along it. Snake is nowhere to be seen, hopefully hiding somewhere, biding her time between attacks, ensuring she is seen by enough people to cause panic but not so many as to put her in immediate danger. It’s a dangerous balancing act, their game. The trick to getting people to drink the snake oil is convincing them to fear the snake but trust the salesman.
A cadre of grim-faced men and women armed with shotguns and long rifles stand guard at the junction of road and town, sentinels against the encroachment of the untamed frontier. Any who can’t hack it out there wind up back in Portico eventually. Or dead. Al worries that today he’s going to end up both.
He slows the wagon as he approaches the group. Before they can see him clearly, he takes a deep breath, composes his face into his standard disarming grin. The wagon rolls up to Portico as languorously as if it’s carrying two lovers on a holiday ride.
“Heard tell you folks have a snake problem.”
“Bad news travels fast,” says a young woman, twenty years old if she’s a day. Streaks of blue dye color her otherwise stark white hair. Something about her reminds Al of someone he knows, but he can’t place it. A mustache hair has worked its way free and tickles upward at his eye, which waters and obscures his vision. The woman, the group’s apparent leader, steps forward. “Let me make a prediction—you’ve come to help us. You’ll kill the rattler, and all the pay you’ll ask is the chance to harvest its oil, to help heal our town.”
Al smiles coldly. The one time his reputation precedes him, and it’s here. Still, he can hope that the people of Portico only know the broad strokes of his story. Certainly they don’t know who he really is, or else someone would have come after him before now. He opens his mouth to introduce himself with a false name when the woman cuts him off.
“Aloysius P. McNutt,” she says. “We’ve been expecting you.”
So much for his disguise. He studies the woman’s face through teary eyes. Tries to blink away the hair. God, she’s familiar. More than vaguely. Probably someone he wronged. It’s a longish list.
“What an unalloyed pleasure to hear,” he blusters. Nothing for it now but to push ahead full tilt. “Dare I say, there is none on the frontier possessing the expertise that—”
“Stuff it, thief,” the woman says.
“Insults are hardly—”
“And take off the damn mustache. You look like a half-wit ignoramus.”
The term jars loose a memory. That particular oxymoronic insult is a favorite of his father’s and one frequently directed at Aloysius P. McNutt during his formative years.
Inwardly, he sighs to recognize what’s become of his sister, but outwardly he smiles. “Hello, Althea,” he says. “You grew up.”
“And you just got old.” She smirks at her own wit. Al can’t help but quirk a corner of his mouth as well. Quick on her feet, his sister. A true McNutt.
This may require a less flamboyant tack than usual. Al fixes his eyes on his sister’s, and sincerity infuses every word. “Regardless of any past quarrels, the fact remains that a snake threatens this town. To right old wrongs, I am prepared to provide my services and the resulting elixir at a more than agreeable rate.” Spite from Althea’s eyes. “By which I of course mean free of charge. Call it restitution.”
“You threw away my inheritance!” Althea yells.
“I was born first,” Al snaps, emotion finally getting the better of him. “And I doubt the people who benefited from its theft considered it thrown away.”
“See for yourself how well it benefited them,” Althea says. “We’ll deposit you into one of the very cells they once occupied.”
Uneasy coughing. “Excuse me?”
“Illegally destroyed contracts remain enforceable in Portico, and any who attempted doctoring without the benefit of Father’s protection were punished accordingly. As for you—you are a charlatan and a thief.”
“Aspersions aside, someone needs to deal with the snake.” He’s trying to hide his rising desperation, but this is Al’s one chance, his sole hope to buy enough time to slip this trap before the jaws fully shut on him.
“I’ll handle that,” a voice says from the back of the band. Perplexed and annoyed as Al is, it takes a moment to place, but sure enough, stepping forward, vexatious as ever, is none other than Sheriff Stenvall, sporting an expression of combined satisfaction, cunning, and smugness. He must have followed Al here; slipped into town while Al waited for Snake to wreak her havoc. Can’t he leave well enough alone?
“Believe you’re out of your jurisdiction, Sheriff,” Al says coolly.
“And I believe such strictures apply only to human quarry,” Stenvall replies. “And I further believe that the two of you are in cahoots.”
“Cahoots!” Al laughs. “With a mindless serpent? If that’s not the most ridiculous...” He trails off as his sister directs three bulky posse members towards him. “I don’t suppose I could appeal to Father for clemency?” he asks Althea.
“Not without a medium,” she replies. “Father died three years ago.”
The men wrestle Al from his seat on the wagon, though he doesn’t struggle. The last thing he does before they bind his wrists with stout scratchy rope is to pluck the mustache from his lip. Their father’s favorite Al is right: it did make him look like a half-wit ignoramus.
Over the course of his life, not solely in the past week, Al has spent his share of nights in jail cells. Such is the life of a snake oil salesman. One thing he’s learned is that people love to gloat at prisoners.
Stenvall and Althea visit in tandem, which Al appreciates. Get everything out of the way at once. Give him some more time to puzzle out an escape from this trap.
They stroll to Al’s cell, the last in a row of them, each occupied by some poor man or woman who couldn’t pay off a debt or got caught trying to better the standing of them and theirs. The ones who didn’t get caught built the jail and hold the keys.
“You’re not half the salesman you think you are,” Stenvall says without preamble.
Hackles raise on the back of Al’s neck, but he’s smart enough not to tussle. Besides, he knows he’s a hell of a salesman. Better to play along.
Mouth crooked in wry acknowledgment, Al half-nods. “Might be you have a point there.”
“I read it in your eyes back home,” Stenvall says. “You weren’t telling me the truth, not all of it anyway. And what do you know, barely outside town limits, I spy an allegedly dead snake slither out of your wagon and go hunting, bringing you a moa like a birddog with a pheasant. That’s when I knew: this was the same snake that killed my family, that destroyed our town. And you sold your soul to it for a little coin.”
“Quite bit of coin, actually,” Al mumbles. Louder, he adds, “Snake never hurt anyone. She tells me she’s innocent, and I trust her more than I trust you. A desire for revenge curdles the heart and addles your mind. You’ve been living with it so many years now, I reckon you’ve mixed up what’s real and what you’ve imagined.”
“The snake’s a killer, and it’ll get what’s coming to it,” Stenvall snaps. Althea lays a hard hand on his shoulder, and he steps back, huffing. Too easy to rile this man.
“And you, sister?” Al asks. “What do you gain from this?”
She sniffs haughtily. “Must be that I’m curdled and addled, myself. But I do expect that watching you hang will leave me mighty satisfied.”
There it is. The sentence. Al’s burgeoning confidence deflates as he feels the noose scratch his throat, envisions his feet dancing in the breeze.
“There’s no call for that.” But his usual cajoling tone now rings flat. “You got everything back. The money Father wanted you to inherit, the business, they’re yours. My gambit failed. Burning the contracts, freeing Portico’s doctors to help those who really need it, letting people live their lives healthy and out from under Father’s thumb. It’s exceedingly clear that it didn’t stick. So, what do you have to seek revenge for?” Al isn’t trying to talk her into anything. He honestly wants to know.
Althea grits her teeth. “Father was never the same after you left. You’d think he actually still wanted you around—maybe he enjoyed the fighting. Maybe your actions made him see the so-called ‘error of his ways.’ I don’t know. But he was never the same, and he never treated me the same after that either, even after I took over the business.”
“You tried to ruin us, and he had the gall to miss you.” She swivels, sends one parting shot over her shoulder. “That’s enough evidence for me that you’re nothing but an infection that needs to be scraped out.” And she’s gone, the air in her wake positively crackling with spite.
That’s that then. Al’s not getting anywhere appealing to their familial bonds.
If there’s any comfort to be had, it’s that Snake won’t meet the same end. She knows to skip town if Al doesn’t show, before someone who actually wants to hurt her can take their shot. He wishes they’d had a proper send off after all these years, but their lives were thrown together randomly enough, so who’s to say a random sundering isn’t the proper ending.
“It’ll be quite the sight,” Stenvall remarks. “You, wriggling on a rope like a worm on a hook.”
Maybe he intended to give away their plan and maybe not. It could have been a slip of the tongue, Stenvall too eager to demonstrate his own cleverness. But with that turn of phrase, Al realizes that Snake might not be so safe after all. The people of Portico aren’t merely hanging Al. They’re using him as bait.
Long before humanity arrived on the continent that would eventually become home to Portico and Stenvall’s Folly and the big cities to the north and the chicken-feed scatter of frontier towns to the south, gargantuan animals roamed the prairie and forests and deserts and steppes. Moa and snub-snouted bear and stilt-legged caribou and carnivorous bats whose wings obscured the moon and armadillo the size of stage-coaches. And so very many snakes. Rattlers and vipers and bloatheads and cottonmouths and pythons and corals and pipes and splitjaws. They hunted in tall grass and twined themselves up massive tree trunks and sunned themselves alongside burbling streams. Some took up residence in caves. Those hidden serpents survived longer than the rest when humanity showed up and began doing what humanity does to nature—namely, taming it violently.
Not all such creatures were hunted to extinction over the centuries of slow human dispersal, but all came near to it, especially the ones that could speak. Begging for survival only made people despise them more for their attempts at being equal to humanity. Eventually, however, equilibrium established itself, and humanity settled into an uneasy peace with the continent’s dumb bestial remnants. By the time the first settlers established a camp and trading post at the spot that would become known as Kiimamaa, and later Stenvall Mine, and eventually Stenvall’s Folly, Snake was the only one of her kind remaining, and she didn’t even know it, having spent so many decades hibernating deep underground.
Woken by the first stirrings of the mining operation, little more at that time than some men and women tentatively probing the cave walls with primitive pickaxes, Snake cautiously introduced herself. After the humans regained their composure, Snake and they struck a bargain. Safety for Snake; health and happiness for the people of Kiimamaa. It was not ideal for Snake, but she was alive, and she worked with the people. She was content enough.
For years, the arrangement held, and the village prospered. The people there took relatively little from the mine, instead living by farming, fishing, trapping. Snake devoured the occasional cow or pig or mouthful of turkeys, but she always asked first, and the farmers were more than happy to grant her permission. Children dared each other to sneak into Snake’s cave, and she would oblige their fear-seeking with a theatrical hiss, sending them scampering home to chuckling parents who had done the same thing when they were that age.
Snake shed her skin every few decades, growing ever larger, her memories carrying over to her fresh body like vivid dreams. For a day or three, she would forget who she was, hide in her cavern deep below the blossoming Kiimamaa, rattling in fright until someone from town journeyed down to reassure her, providing an offering of livestock, returning above with thick grease that would be transmuted into an elixir that healed wounds both physical and spiritual. Buoyed by the snake oil, Kiimamaa could lay claim to the mantle of healthiest and happiest locale on the continent.
With only a few people living in Kiimamaa, this beatific existence could have stretched on indefinitely, but where happy people gather, others seeking happiness are bound to arrive. Some of these people wondered at the lack of mineral exploitation, caring less for the compact with Snake than the promise of material riches. After all, they had tamed this land, and Snake was merely an animal. What right did an animal have to deny them the benefit of her oil when it cost her so little to provide? Why should they stoop to negotiation with a beast? Wasn’t it their place to take whatever they needed, whatever they could? The first time a group of men ventured into her cave and demanded her oil, Snake assumed it was a joke. When they strapped her down and pricked under her scales, collecting drops of the viscous orange fluid, she was so confused and shaken she didn’t even fight back. The second time they came for her, she did, and after that, humans stayed away for a while. Focused instead on their mining, on boring deeper into the stone, stripping it of everything it held inside. By the time that first year of intensive mining was out, the miners had been spending so much time underground that Snake’s tunnels reeked of people.
That spring, Snake shed her skin, but when she woke and flicked out her tongue, the air tasted of smoke and saltpeter and uric acid. This was not her cavern, not the home she knew. Something terrible must have happened. Memories, vague violent flashes, sparked in her brain. Humans attacking her, cutting her. She burst from underground like a geyser, white hot and roiling. Avenging every one of her murdered brethren. The people of Stenvall’s Folly never stood a chance.
After the settlement was decimated, after Snake’s belly was full and bodies lay scattered about, and the bloodlust faded, she remembered where she was, who she was. Though some of the townspeople deserved their fate, many others did not. Shame and anger and despair and righteousness warred within her, and she slithered back to her cavern to meditate and sleep. For all intents and purposes, Snake considered herself dead.
Decades passed, and one day a noble salesman rode into a ghost town.
Al never expected that he’d die in bed, surrounded by loved ones—he isn’t delusional. But he didn’t expect to die hanged for a thief on the dusty outskirts of Portico either. Because, although he may have grifted and conned and bent the truth, he’s never stolen anything, not in any way that an honest person could accuse him of. His sister and Sheriff Stenvall don’t care of course. If anyone lives in Portico who does care whether Aloysius P. McNutt survives the day, Al would appreciate their reveal.
Hot sun beats down on hard dirt and Al’s head. He sits on a bench in the back of a wagon, hands tied behind his back, ankles tied to the bench. He takes stock of the scene, calculating his odds. Sweat dampens the shirtfronts of the men and women building the scaffolding from which he will swing. Every so often, one of them pauses, wipes a brow, consults parchment that Al presumes are assembly instructions. Maybe they’ll construct something wrong and the platform will snap before his neck does.
No sign of Sheriff Stenvall. Al scans the fields. Tall maize stalks, sunflowers overtopping the wagon, brine-apple trees sprouting where some careless traveler spit seeds years earlier. Plenty of places for a lawman and his cohort to hide, waiting to see if a snake will try to save a condemned man. Of course, those same places could camouflage a snake. Foolish as it would be, if Snake does try to save him, the attempt might not be completely hopeless.
Other than the workers, not many have come to witness Al’s shuffling off this mortal coil. Six guards loiter about the scaffolding, sure to be joined by the two accompanying Al in the wagon. Maybe thirty spectators, all poor folk by the look of them—clothes washed more times than the cheap fabric can handle; sunken cheeks belying equally sunken ribs beneath those clothes. These are the people his father bled, the people Al had tried to free by giving them back their health. And if he hadn’t been caught out entering town, he could have finally finished what he started. Yes, he failed then and he’s failed now, but he tried. Not that he did what he did for acclaim, but still, he expected a less enthusiastic reception at his execution. Maybe they work for his sister. Maybe she’s paying them to jeer.
Because Althea is present too. Not back home avoiding the dirty work, not concealed in the fields preparing to battle a monstrous serpent. She wouldn’t miss Al’s comeuppance for the world.
Smirking, she strides to the wagon, motions with the tilt of her head for the guards to untie Al from the bench. They leave his wrists bound, of course.
“Big brother, I never thought I’d see the day,” she says.
Al sighs heavily. “Likewise.”
“Some say that achieving vengeance leaves one feeling hollow afterward—”
“Wise counsel,” Al says. “I’d hate to think my death might sap you of your ambition.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Best as he can with his wrists lashed together behind him, Al shrugs. “I won’t argue with you. You were a kid—you didn’t see what Father did to people. How he built his fortune on this town’s suffering, how he gained his power just because he was willing to be crueler than most. All I tried to do was right the balance a little.”
“Daddy helped people,” Althea snaps, though for a moment Al thinks her voice falters. “He paid doctors to take care of people. Without him, how would they know who to care for or what to charge for it? Starving doctors can’t help anyone.”
“And what about the people who couldn’t pay what Father charged?” Al says, raising his voice so everyone can hear him. “The folks who can’t pay what you charge them now? You think every doctor in town does it for the money? That not a one actually wants to heal people? Go ahead and release them from their contracts, divest yourself from the school. See what happens.” He chuckles ruefully. “I think you’d find that the people of this town are better than you give them credit for. Or at least they’d want to be. All I ever did was honor what Father pretended to promise.”
Althea reddens, and it’s not due to the summer heat. Everyone’s watching them. The spectators, the guards, the workers on the scaffold. Hidden in the foliage, Stenvall and his posse observe as well, Al wagers.
“Daddy trusted you. You! And you betrayed him. Like a worm. Like a weasel. Like a... a...”
“Like a snake?” a raspy voice asks as Snake bursts from the fields on the side of the road opposite the scaffold. Despite the dire straits, Al can’t suppress a grin at Snake’s theatrical flair.
Panicked screams rise from the assembled spectators as they stumble over each other in their flight.
“Wait! Wait!” Al yells. “This serpent isn’t here to harm you. If anyone here remembers me, trusts me, believe me now!”
Althea cuffs Al on the back of the head, and he falls to his knees, pain jolting up his legs and spine. His jaw snaps shut on his tongue, and he tastes copper. Any words he attempts now will come out garbled and dull. The one surefire way to hobble a salesman.
He spits blood and prepares to speak anyway. Snake does so instead.
“Friends,” she rumbles, the final letter of the word a sibilant hiss. “You needn’t fear. For years I have listened my dear compatriot Aloysius describe the wondrous town of Portico and the gentle people here. For years, traveling the plains and forests of the frontier, how many times have I beseeched him to journey home, to share my gifts with those most deserving? It is my utmost pleasure and privilege to stand before you today.” Snake twists her head around, flicks her tail, displaying the lack of legs. “So to speak.”
Hesitant chuckles from the crowd. What do you know? Snake’s picked up some patter. Al watches, rapt. Forgetting about his furious sister standing next to him. Forgetting about the armed men in the fields.
“I have no doubt you’ve been offered snake oil before,” Snake continues, “but has it ever been sold by the snake direct? Who better to vouch for its efficacy? My associate and I, at no financial risk to you—”
A gunshot cracks from the tall grass, and a bullet ricochets off Snake’s scales with a sound like a pickaxe gouging rock. She flinches, her rippling body slapping the ground. Spectators duck, hands flying to their heads. Al shouts angrily, warning Snake away. Althea triumphantly yawps and draws her own revolver. Little good it will do again Snake’s natural armor. Al hopes.
Snake rears back, bares her fangs. Looses a hiss as loud as a tornado. From the fields, men and women rush her, brandishing guns, machetes, thick ropes, and nets.
Stenvall steps from the field, double-barreled shotgun held to his shoulder, muzzle aimed square at Snake’s open mouth. “You think you can destroy my home? My family? And get away with it? Try to portray yourself as some savior?”
“Your people attempted to steal something freely given. You didn’t deserve it. I wanted them to pay for attacking me, and I lashed out. I was angry. I’m... I’m sorry.” Snake slumps as she speaks, the weight of years heavier than any net. Everyone stares. No one watches Al. He could slip into the fields, fade into the countryside, make for the sea and a boat far away.
This must be Snake’s plan. Distract everyone and sacrifice herself so Al can escape. And here he thought she knew him better than that. Fire rises in Al’s gullet. His hands clench into fists. “Damn it all!” he bellows. “Ain’t none of this fair, and every soul here knows it!”
The roar of the crowd dims for the briefest of moments, but their surprise won’t last. Surely, Al’s not the first condemned man to protest the noose’s legitimacy.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.” Still on his knees, looking at his sister, at Sheriff Stenvall, at the gathered spectators. “Living on the outskirts of civilization doesn’t mean we need to exist on the knife-edge of barbarism. We can work together, all of us, and make something better than what’s here. Maybe I didn’t go about it the most honest way before, but when you’re fighting against a dishonest... We can do better. We can be better. Trust Snake. Trust me, and I promise you, each and every one of us shall improve in health and moreover in happiness.”
Althea grasps Al by the collar of his shirt and yanks him with a strength Al hadn’t guessed at. He falls back; feels more hands grabbing his arms, pulling him toward the gallows. “Get out of here, Snake!” he yells. “Run!” The absurdity of telling a serpent to run is not lost of him, even at this harrowing moment.
Stenvall confronts Snake, shotgun raised to his shoulder. Narrows his eye as he takes aim.
Al jerks and twists and wrenches himself free from the guards’ grip, landing hard on his backside. Althea stands above him, revolver targeting his head. She draws back the hammer.
A rock the size of Al’s fist thuds off Althea’s shoulder, knocking the revolver’s muzzle askew. Even though he’s on the ground, Al ducks, covers his head, presuming the stone was meant for him.
“When my wife got the bitterblood fever, Albertus McNutt refused to sell her medicine!” one of the spectators, a man about Al’s age, shouts. “Claimed she’d waited too long to call for a doctor, that giving her any help would be ‘wasteful to those more deserving.’”
A woman steps up next to him. “Albertus McNutt fined me more’n a year’s wages because I had an abscess drained without getting his permission first. I could barely walk with it! Without the no-good son’s help burning up the credit records, I’d’a been ruined.”
Al furrows his brow at the “no-good” descriptor but likes the tack the mood is taking. Snake and Stenvall watch the scene unfold, neither moving, both tensed to strike.
Althea glares at the folks who’ve dared interrupt her moment of victory. “You all want to mourn this scofflaw, feel free. You can bring flowers to his grave.” To the guards, she snaps, “String him up.”
The guards who’ve been standing behind Al move between him and Althea. “You think anyone’d take this job who weren’t desperate for money?” one asks. “I’m still paying back Albertus McNutt long after he’s dead, and my family’ll be paying him after I’m dead too. No man who poked a stick in his eye can be all bad.”
Stenvall snorts a mix of disdain and bemusement. “I don’t need assistance to kill this snake.” He levels the shotgun.
“And I don’t need any to kill this one,” Althea says, her finger tightening around the trigger.
That’s the moment Snake chooses to make her move, darting away from Stenvall, her rattle clacking wildly, leaping in front of Althea as she pulls the trigger.
Al jumps too, away from his sister, toward Stenvall and his shotgun. Adrenaline spikes and slows everything down. He barely hears the simultaneous gunshots.
Buckshot rakes his right side from flank to ankle, stabs of sharp pain exploding down his leg. Dull pain joins it when he lands on his stomach, skidding along dirt and gravel. Al’s drank his share of snake oil elixir, but good as it is for what ails you, it has its limits. Blinking away tears, gritting his teeth, choking for breath against his lost wind, Al checks for Snake, praying the bullet ricocheted off her, that it didn’t hit a soft spot or angle in under a scale. She’s tough, but she’s not invincible.
Chaos rages around them. Guards and spectators have allied, and they grapple with Althea and Stenvall and his select few loyal men. Guns fire into the ground and sky, but quickly their bullets are all spent and no one has the opportunity to reload. The rebelling townsfolk wrestle Althea and Stenvall to the ground.
“Get out of here!” the formerly abscessed woman yells in Al’s general direction.
He scuttles through the fray, dragging his ruined right leg, making his way to Snake’s head, praying to every god he’s ever heard of and a few he’s made up. Blood leaks from a hole the size of a walnut. Blood, and something deep amber. Snake’s oil, blessing the ground where she lies dying.
Al’s good leg gives out, and he collapses into a puddle of blood and oil. His fingers curled into claws, he scoops up what he can, a mixture of vitality and dirt, and presses it against Snake’s wound. He doesn’t know why; simply wants to do something, anything, to staunch the flow, to keep Snake from succumbing to the wound she took for him. It doesn’t occur to him to do anything for his own wounds, but his moments scrabbling in the bloody, oily mud does something for him. He may be feeling an iota of strength return.
From behind, Al hears it. Rattling. Clacking loud like bone dice in a wooden cup, a sound to that should spark fear in the deep instinctual recesses of Al’s brain. He sobs a laugh.
Althea and Stenvall struggle against the rebelling townsfolk, and Al understands that eventually they will rise back up, both to their feet and to their social stature. The rich businessperson, the law-enforcer—they are the ones who wield power, and they will not relinquish it lightly, no matter how much snake oil they might take. It may provide health, it may inspire those who consume it to be better people, but there are limits. Always, there are limits.
Snake could end Stenvall and Althea right now. She could flick her rattle and snap their spines, spread wide her jaws and swallow each of them whole. Al wouldn’t blame her.
Instead, she makes a noise like a tin coffeepot boiling on a campfire and ripples the length of her body. Oil flecks off, droplets landing on Al, the guards, the spectators, Althea, Stenvall, all of them. Little of it, and Al doubts any gets into their mouths, but it’s something. Even now, Snake can’t help but share her gift.
She twists back, looks Al in the eye. “Things took a bit of a turn.”
Al snorts. “I’m inclined to agree. What say we skedaddle?”
Snake hisses and rattles in consternation. “Al? We can’t do that,” she says. “They need us here.”
“And we need our lives.”
“Do you remember what you told me when we first met? We were going to help folks. We were going to spread health and good cheer.”
“Can’t force happiness.”
“No, but we can create the circumstances for it to flourish.”
Al observes the dwindling chaos. Stenvall and Althea are subdued and bound. Al knows they aren’t the only powerful people in town. But these folks who stood up for him, who saved him and Snake, they aren’t the only oppressed people in town. Maybe they also aren’t the only ones willing to fight back, to grasp what is theirs and hold on tightly. He tried to help once and failed. Twice, technically. But maybe he can help now. It’s frightening, though. Who’s to say he won’t fail again?
He spits a gob of bloody saliva into the mud. Looks around for a canteen. He’s going to need a fresh mouth for all the salesmanning ahead. He’s got to sway a lot of people, got to convert a whole town from backstabbing and grift to community and magnanimity. It’s a tall order, but Snake will help, and so will the elixir. To an extent. What Al sells hasn’t transformed him into a better person.
It just makes him want to try.