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Western Short Story
The Medicine Show
Larry Payne

Western Short Story

Marshal Cooper Smith stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of Della's Café. He'd just finished his favorite breakfast of hotcakes, warm syrup and coffee. Only one thing could make it better. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out the fixings and rolled a cigarette, sticking it between his lips. After a short search, he found a match, striking it against the side of the building, lighting the quirley. What could be better, he thought, taking a long drag and stepping off the boardwalk, walking across the street in the direction of his office.

Stepping up on the boardwalk, he noticed a merchant's wagon coming toward him. Driving the wagon was a skinny, middle-aged man wearing a derby hat cocked at an angle. Beside him sat the prettiest young blonde woman Cooper had ever seen. Her golden hair seemed alive as the curls in her hair bounced to the rumblings of the wagon. Cooper stood at the edge of the boardwalk as the driver reined the wagon up in front of him. The colorfully painted wagon proclaimed DOCTOR MCDERMOTT'S MAGIC ELIXIR.

"Good morning, Marshal. Thaddeus McDermott at your service," said the driver, tipping his derby hat, revealing a balding head. He gestured toward the young woman at his side.
"And this is my daughter, Annie."

"Welcome to Sweetwater, Mister McDermott," Cooper looked over at Annie, tipping his hat, " Miss McDermott."

"Please, marshal, don't be so formal, you may call me, Annie," she replied with a big smile.

"Looks like a right nice little town you have here," said McDermott.

"And we aim to keep it that way," interrupted a raspy voice from behind Cooper. His deputy, Otis Fuller, leaned against the doorjamb of the office. "We ain't gonna let some snake oil salesman come in upsettin' things around here either."

"Snake oil salesman, indeed," said McDermott, objecting to Otis's opinion of him.

Looking back at Otis, Cooper jerked his thumb toward the office and the deputy disappeared inside.

"You folks will have to excuse my deputy, his manners ain't the best. He just needs to warm up to you is all."

"Apology accepted, marshal. Now, can you direct us to one of your establishments where we can get a room and clean up a bit?"

"The Sweetwater Hotel is just down the street and the big white house at the end of the street is Sadie's Rooming House. Both will serve your purpose, but Sadie's rooms include home cooked meals, cooked by Sadie herself."

"Sadie's will do just fine, it's been awhile since I've had a home cooked meal. Thank you for your hospitality, marshal, I'm sure we'll be seeing you again." Flicking the reins, McDermott set the wagon into motion.

Cooper touched his fingers to hat, getting a smile from Annie in return as the wagon headed for Sadie's Rooming House.

"What was that all about?" Cooper Smith asked when he walked into the office. Otis Fuller was sitting on a bench at the far side of the office holding a mug of coffee.

"That stuff don't work them snake oil salesmen sell, Coop."
Cooper sat down on the edge of his desk.

"That ain't for us to say, Otis. So, until they break the law, I want you to treat ‘em like anyone else that comes to Sweetwater."

"Okay, Coop, you're the marshal." Otis shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of his coffee.
McDermott stopped the wagon beside Sadie's Rooming House. Climbing down from the wagon seat, McDermott, with Annie beside him, climbed the two steps to the porch and knocked on the door. After a few moments, a heavy set, gray haired woman opened the door. Immediately, McDermott removed his derby.

"Good morning, madam, the marshal told us you have rooms for rent."

"I do." Sadie stood in the doorway looking at McDermott.

"My daughter and I have just arrived in your town from a long trip and would like to rent a couple of your rooms."

Sadie looked from McDermott to Annie and opened the door the rest of the way. "I happen to have two available. It'll be a dollar a day each for the room, which includes breakfast and supper and a bath if you care to take one. Payable in advance."

Reaching into his pants pocket, McDermott produced a well used leather change purse and took two silver dollars from it and handed them to Sadie.

"Breakfast is at 6 am and supper is at 5 pm. If you miss either you have to fend for yourself." Sadie produced two keys from her apron pocket. "The rooms are at the head of the stairs across the hall from each other. If you need anything else, let me know." She handed a key to McDermott and one to Annie. "Enjoy your stay."

"Thank you, Madam," said McDermott, bowing slightly at the waist. Sadie watched the two new arrivals disappear up the stairs, then turned, going back to the kitchen.
Two men wearing dusters stepped onto the boardwalk from the saloon. Their eyes followed the wagon as it left the marshal's office and pulled in beside the rooming house.

"They sure took their sweet time about gettin' here," said Case Harden, as he and Grady Barker stepped off the boardwalk into the street. Spurs jangled as Harden and Barker stepped up on the porch of Sadie's Rooming House and knocked on the door.

"Sorry, I don't have any rooms available," said Sadie when she opened the door.

"We're here to see a couple of friends of ours, a fella in a derby hat and a girl," said Case Harden.

"I don't want any trouble here, I run a respectable place."

"Ain't gonna be any trouble as long as you mind your own business," said Harden, pushing past Sadie into the room. "Now where are they?"

"Two rooms at the top of the stairs."

Case Harden and Grady Barker trudged slowly up the staircase.

" I'll call the marshal at the first sign of trouble."

At the top of the stairs, Harden and Barker walked through the door Annie held open for them.

"Welcome, gentlemen, it's good to see you again," said McDermott, sitting on the sofa near the window; the ever present derby hat perched on his head.

"You took your sweet time getting here," said Case Harden.

"We wanted to give you plenty of time to look the place over," replied McDermott.

"What did you find out?" asked Annie.

"Two people work in the Wells Fargo office," said Case Harden, "the depot agent and the freight handler. When the last wagon leaves, the freight handler cleans things up and goes home. The agent usually stays doin' paperwork. When he's done, he always leaves through the back door. We could be in and out before you're done."

"Can you be ready tomorrow?" asked Annie.

"We're ready now," replied Harden.

"Tomorrow will be soon enough," said Annie.
Standing outside the marshal's office, Otis Fuller watched Harden and Barker walk down the street and disappear into Sadie's Rooming House. Leaning against the building smoking a quirley, Otis watched the two dustered cowboys re-emerge from Sadie's ten minutes later and walk down the street to the Four Aces Saloon. Flicking his quirley into the street, Otis Fuller stepped off the boardwalk.

"Sorry, boys, I cain't serve you no liquor before noon," Otis heard Pete Ackley, the bartender, tell Harden and Barker when he walked through the batwings.

"We'll have coffee then," said Harden when he spotted the deputy marshal. The two gunmen took their coffee to an empty table.

"Coffee, Otis?" Ackley asked Fuller when he walked up to the bar.

"Yeah, sure." Ackley set a mug on the bar and filled it with coffee. Otis took a sip of the steaming liquid and set it back on the bar. "What can you tell me about them two, Pete?"

Ackley shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I don't know, Otis. They showed up here ‘bout five, six days ago. Never caused no trouble, but, they always sat at a table near the door or a window, like they was waitin' or lookin' for somebody."

"Maybe they was and maybe whoever they was waitin' for showed up." Otis took a big drink of his coffee and pushed the mug toward Pete Ackley."I think I'll have me a little chat with them two."

Harden and Barker tried to ignore Fuller as he approached their table.

"Howdy, boys," said Otis, pulling out an empty chair. Putting his foot on the seat, leaning forward, he rested his arms on his knee.

"Mornin', depity," said Harden.

"Depity," replied Barker.

"Enjoyin' your stay in Sweetwater, are ya?" asked Otis.

Both men nodded their heads."Yes sir," said Barker.
"Right nice town you have here," added Harden.

"Gonna be stayin' long?"

"Jest driftin' through, depity," said Harden.

Removing his foot from the chair, Otis Fuller sat down. "I hope you boys ain't plannin' nothin unlawful. ‘Cause you see, boys, when we extend our hospitality and someone does somethin' ill-legal, Marshal Smith and I take it sorta personal like. You catch my drift?"

Looking into Grady Barker's eyes, Otis smiled, causing Barker to look down into his mug of coffee. Looking over at Harden, Otis rose from the chair, pushing it back under the table.

"You boys have a nice day now, hear?" said Otis. Touching his fingers to his hat, he winked at the two gunmen. Turning toward the bar, he waved at Pete Ackley and left the saloon.

"He knows, Case," said Barker after Fuller left the saloon.

"How does he know, Grady, huh? You tell me that. You let him spook you. Drink up, let's get outta here."

Pouring coffee into a tin cup, Cooper Smith looked up when Otis Fuller strode through the office door.

"Where you been?"

Removing a tin cup from a peg on a wall rack behind the stove, Otis held the cup up to the spout of the coffee pot.
"Plantin' seeds."

* * * *
Sitting with his chair tilted back, his feet on the railing, Otis Fuller's finger pushed his hat up from eyes to watch Thaddeus McDermott drive his medicine wagon up the street from Sadie's Rooming House. It went past him and stopped in front of the hotel, giving him a ringside seat for the show. After a couple of minutes, the back of the wagon was lowered making a makeshift stage for Thaddeus McDermott to peddle his wares. Annie moved two tables onto the stage when McDermott secured it.

Cooper Smith stepped from his office onto the boardwalk, eyeing the slow gathering crowd around the medicine wagon. He sat down in a chair next to Otis and put his feet up on the railing.

"You got a ringside seat," said Cooper.

"Yeah, and in just a minute, I'm goin' down to the bank so I can give McDermott my life's savings like everyone else is gonna do." Cooper Smith laughed at his deputy.

Waiting for the crowd to grow, McDermott produced a deck of cards. He shuffled the cards, cut the deck with one hand, fanned them and reshuffled the deck again. He pointed at a young girl standing with her mother near the stage.

"My dear, would you like to assist me?" Smiling, the young girl's mother nodded at her and the she walked up the narrow set of steps onto the stage.

"Have we ever met before?" asked McDermott.

"No sir," she said, shaking her head.

McDermott fanned the cards holding them face down. "Pick a card, my dear, and show it to the people, but don't let me see it." 

After a moment, she slid a card from the pack and held up the two of diamonds to the growing crowd. McDermott picked up the cards.

"Now, my dear, return the card to the pack." The girl slid the two of diamonds back into the pack. McDermott cut the cards and made one shuffle, holding the cards face down in front of the girl.

"I'm going to go through the pack, tell me when to stop." McDermott transferred the cards, one at a time, from his left hand to his right.

"Stop." McDermott turned his right hand over showing the girl the bottom card. The girl's eyes widened.

"Is that your card, my dear?"

"Yes," she said, nodding her head.

"Show everyone." The young girl took the card, holding up the two of diamonds for the crowd to see. The revealed card brought applause and laughter from the crowd.

He gave the pack of cards to the girl and took a shiny dollar from his vest pocket, holding it up in his left hand to the crowd. He placed it in his right hand and closed his fist. He raised his right fist and opened it revealing an empty palm, bringing a buzz from the crowd. With his left hand, he reached behind the girl's right ear, producing the shiny dollar, bringing cheers and applause from the crowd.

"For your able assistance, my dear," said McDermott, handing the dollar to the girl.

"That's why they call them tricks," said Otis, getting a chuckle from Cooper as they watched the smiling girl leave the stage and return to her mother's side.

Otis caught movement from the corner of his eye and looked over to see Case Harden and Grady Barker, without their dusters, blend in at the back of the crowd.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," started McDermott, holding up a brown bottle. "Let me introduce you to Doctor McDermott's Magic Elixir. It will cure arthritis, rheumatism, gout, stomach ache and back ache."

Otis watched the two gunmen weave their way to the front of the crowd.

"For the tidy sum of one dollar, you will have the cure for all your troubles. One brown bottle will take care of all your needs."

Case Harden held a dollar bill over his head. "I'll take a bottle."

"Me too," said Grady Barker, holding a dollar bill up to Annie, who gave them each a brown bottle of the elixir.

Amid a forward surge of the crowd waving money, Harden and Barker sought an avenue of escape. Stepping forward and moving along the side of the wagon, the two gunmen met at the back of the crowd. Handing their brown bottles to two thankful men, they walked toward the saloon and their waiting horses.

Rising from his chair, Otis watched the two gunmen ride around the corner of the Wells Fargo office.

"I'll be right back,' he said to Cooper Smith and stepped off the boardwalk.

Walking across the street, Otis Fuller stepped up on the boardwalk and walked toward the Wells Fargo office. Stepping down between the freight office and the hardware store, he went to the back alley. He eased around the corner of the building and stopped at the back door of the Wells Fargo office. Stepping through the open door, he drew his Colt. Tiptoeing around the crates in the back room, he looked through the partially open office door.

Sitting against the wall, gagged and bound, was Abe Shipley, the freight agent, watching as Case Harden and Grady Barker filled canvas Wells Fargo bags with money from the open safe. His hunch had been right. McDermott, Annie, Harden and Barker were all working together. The medicine show was just a distraction and a cover.

"Okay, let's get out of here," Harden said to Barker, throwing the tied moneybags over his shoulder.

"Sorry, boys, I can't let you do that," said Otis Fuller, sliding through the door, leveling his cocked Colt at the two outlaws.

Firing a quick shot, Case Harden dove for the protection of the nearby desk causing Otis to slide back through the door.

"I told you he knew," said Grady Barker from the protection of the open safe door.

"Give it up, boys, nobody needs to get hurt. Throw down your guns," shouted Otis.

"We ain't givin' nothin' up," yelled Harden, firing another shot at Otis.

"What're we gonna do, Case?" asked Grady.

"We're getting' out of this. When I say, throw some lead in that door." Reloading his gun, Case looked over at Grady.

"Now." A hailstorm of gunfire splintered the door hiding Otis.

Case Harden bolted from the desk followed by Grady from behind the safe door. As Grady ran by him, Abe Shipley stuck out his bound legs sending Grady Barker sprawling across the floor, losing the grip on his gun. Looking up, Grady saw Case dive through the window of the Wells Fargo office. As he reached for his gun, a booted foot pinned it to the floor. Grady looked up into the barrel of Otis Fuller's cocked Colt and dropped his head to the floor.

"You alright, Abe?" Otis shouted at the Wells Fargo agent. Receiving a muffled answer from Abe, Otis looked down at his prisoner.

"You're under arrest, mister."

The second gunshot caught Cooper Smith's attention. Listening intently, he heard the barrage of gunfire.

"That came from the Wells Fargo office," said the man standing next to Cooper.

As he ran down the street, Marshal Smith saw Case Harden crash through the window of the Wells Fargo office. Seeing Cooper Smith bearing down on him, Harden fired a wild shot, turning to run for the horses. Cooper's return shot on the run hit Harden in the leg, knocking him down. From one knee, Harden fired at the marshal again. Stopping, Cooper Smith fired twice, the second shot hitting Harden in the chest. The outlaw fell, unmoving, into the street.

"Otis," shouted Smith, walking toward the downed outlaw.

"Everyone's okay, stop McDermott and the girl," shouted Otis through the shattered window.

At the sound of the gunshots, McDermott lost his captive audience when they followed Cooper Smith down the street.

"My dear, I think we've worn out our welcome," said McDermott when Harden came crashing through the window. With Annie scrambling to the front seat, he jumped down from the wagon and raised the tailgate.

"Leavin' us so soon?" asked Ira Harkin, as McDermott climbed into the wagon seat. The big blacksmith stood in front of the wagon.

"Yes, I just remembered someplace we were supposed to be. So if you'll step aside, we'll be on our way."

"I think the Marshal might want to talk to you two," said Ira, seeing Cooper Smith come back down the street.

"Get out of the way, mister," said Annie, pulling a gun from under the seat.

"Heeyah!" yelled McDermott as he slapped the reins when Ira stepped aside. Before the horses could bolt forward, Harkin grabbed the harness of the nearest horse. Ducking down in front of the horse, he barely eluded Annie's shot.

"Drop the gun, Miss McDermott," said Cooper, coming up on the opposite side of the wagon. Annie dropped the gun into the street.

"You alright, Ira?" The blacksmith came up from the cover of the horse.

"I'm okay, Coop."

Cooper Smith waggled his Colt at the wagon seat. "Both of you climb down."

Cooper stopped them at the back of the wagon. "Open it up," he said to McDermott.

"Watch ‘em, Ira," said Cooper, handing his Colt to the big blacksmith. Cooper climbed up into the back of the wagon. He opened boxes and crates and looked in drawers.

"Looking for anything special, Marshal?" asked McDermott.

Cooper lifted the lid of a large trunk and smiled. He pulled out four empty moneybags. "I found it, you two are under arrest."
"But, Marshal, I don't know where those came from," said McDermott.

"We'll let the judge decide that. Ira, take'em away."

The blacksmith waggled the Colt at the two prisoners. "Move it."

They met Otis at the door to the marshal's office. "Got two more for ya, Otis," said Ira.

Cooper Smith walked into the office as Otis hung the cell keys on a peg next to the door. Throwing the moneybags on the desk, Cooper sat down and starting writing a letter he would telegraph to Wells Fargo. Otis sat in the chair opposite Cooper. After a couple of minutes, Cooper looked up at Otis.

"Ain'tcha got somethin' to say?" asked Otis.

"About what?"

"About them." Otis jerked his thumb toward the jail cell.

" Yeah, the judge won't be here ‘til next week. Bein' you're the deputy, you gotta watch ‘em. So get comfortable," said Cooper. Rising from his chair, he walked toward the door.

"But, Coop, you know my lumbago always kicks up when I have to sit too long," pleaded Otis.

Cooper Smith walked out the door, returning a couple of minutes later carrying a crate. Setting it on the desk, he lifted the lid. Removing a brown bottle of McDermott's elixir, he set it in front of Otis.

"Guaranteed to kill or cure," said Cooper.

"SNAKE OIL." Otis Fuller was still yelling when Cooper Smith stepped off the boardwalk.