Bewildering Stories

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part 2

by Norman A. Rubin

Table of Contents
Part 1 appeared
in issue 140.

Ebenezer took the dime from her with the lightness of touch, which somehow thrilled her and reddened her cheeks. A slight smile was on his lips when he handed the tract to her. Then with a hint of a bow, he spoke in eloquence, “Madame, I hope and pray you will be enlightened by the good words of this holy book.” He doffed his beaver slightly, and turned his feet. He looked back for a moment at the woman leaving her with the parting words, “Bless you, my sweet soul!”

Ebenezer and Jeb returned quickly to the wagon and made themselves comfortable on the hard board seat. Then with the youth’s shout of “giddyup” and the flick of a long, supple stick, the mule pulled the wagon in a slow easy manner. Another flick of the thin stick on its back reminded the critter to lift its hooves to a trot.

“Jeb, me boy ye can see how easy to do a bit of ‘trading’.”

Ebenezer held up the thin Mex coin to the sight of the young man for a moment before turning around to the interior of the wagon. Jeb watched as his uncle took an iron strong box from a hidden spot and with miserly fingers that opened its lock; with a glee to his lips Ebenezer lifted the box cover and dropped the coin inside.

“Jest you keep a-watching and you will get the hang of the ‘trading’,” instructed Ebenezer, “and this h’yar iron safe will be filled with coin. Now let’s us put it back and carry on trading.”

The ensuing day it was the repeated performance of ‘trading’ by Ebenezer with a dime or two earned at farmhouses or with a bit luck a gift to the Indians was passed for a dollar at another smallholding. But a good deal of the ‘trading’ ended with a slam of a door together with rough and not so polite words.

The following days passed with their ‘trading’ at homesteads. Jeb took in the vista of the flat plain with the sameness of the scene with a sod hut or clapboard dwelling set in the center of thirsty crops. The sound of animals sounded from lean-to barns and pigsties. Here and there he saw a farmer at his labours and at times a wave of a hat was seen.

Breaks for mid-day meal under the shade of a clump of trees or near a trickling brook; a small campfire would be lit, and Ebenezer watched as he rested when Jeb fried up some vittles and boiled a pot of coffee.

The camping out at night would be similar with small talk: mainly instruction in ‘trading’. After a bit of palaver and the nightly prayer both would find the comfort of their sleeping bags; Ebenezer’s gear was spread inside the wagon while Jeb’s kit was set under the stars or beneath the wagon.

During their travels there were rainy nights where a benevolent farmer would allow them to lodge in his barn; and in rare times Ebenezer's biblical knowledge would earn him a comfortable rest in a spare room but Jeb, of course, attended to the mule and wagon in the cold barn.

Jeb Stuart’s uncle was rather glib in his words, and he could charm the coin from gullible farm women despite his miserly appearance. Yet there was one incident that would be etched in the mind of the young Jeb. It was nearing dusk when the wagon was nearing a whitewashed dwelling set in a well-run farm. The setting delighted the sight of Ebenezer and upon braking he jumped from the wagon and rushed to the pine wood door.

Jeb was rather busy as the mule had snagged the harness and it took some time to arrange. All the youth could remember was the orders of his uncle telling him to tend to mule and wagon in the barn; then he watched as Ebenezer was invited inside the home.

Later, in dark hours when Jeb was snuggled in the hay, all hell broke loose in and around the dwelling, which scared the beejeezus out of his soul. At the opening of the barn door he saw his uncle, clad only in his red longjohns and boots with the beaver askew on his head and his clothes bundled in his arms running like hellfire away from the dwelling.

It seemed that the good woman of the house didn’t expect her man to return home from a meeting till the break of dawn when she had succumbed to the charms of the travelling man. But somehow the farmer had returned late at night and found his beloved wife and Ebenezer snuggled under the quilt, billing and cooing. With curses to his lips and a shotgun in his hand the enraged farmer gave chase to the biblical scholar firing off rounds of buckshot of which one true aim found its mark.

Jeb Stuart managed to hitch up the mule to wagon and quietly left the barn in search of his uncle. His kin was easy to find by a trail of scattered clothing, followed by the sound of cries coming from a clump of thistle. The youth spent the remainder of the night and early morning hours prying out buckshot pellets from his screaming uncle’s arse with the sharpness of his knife.

After the painful work was attended together with uncle’s curses of blasphemy, the youth tended to the wounds with the balm of Choctaw Snake Root medicine. Still his uncle’s buttocks were quite painful for a length of time.

* * *

The path towards the settlement was dust choking as at every moment the winds would churn the sandy trail to small cyclones of sand. Both Ebenezer's and Jeb’s skin and clothes were sandy white, giving them the appearance of the ghostly figures. The dust even put out Lady the mule, and every now and then she would shake her head and give off a sneeze accompanied by a loud, smelly fart.

The travelling pair looked about the so-called town filled with a few clapboard buildings of single stories; only the so-called saloon and hotel had a second floor. Scruffy characters and dumpy women searched the wagon as it made its way down the dusty and only street. Ebenezer tipped his beaver ever so slightly to the passing folk as they trotted along. When they sighted the building with a crudely painted sign that indicated a church, they braked their wagon.

Uncle Ebenezer jumped from seat to the dust ground with Jeb following a couple of steps behind. Then they both dusted the white of the trail from their clothes; and with drops of water from their canteens on their kerchiefs that managed to shine their faces.

The tailgate to the wagon was turned into a chained platform. At the urging of Ebenezer, the youth boosted himself inside, reappearing as a painted warrior complete with all regalia, including two feathers tied to his head with a beaded band. Following his uncle’s instruction he moved on the tailgate towards a large sign which indicated the immediate sale of “Choctaw Snake Root Healing Medicine.”

His uncle gave a whistling signal and Jeb shuffled like an Indian. He added a bit of flavor with so-called war whoops and threatening shakings of a tomahawk. His performance perked up the curiosity of the townsfolk, mostly slatternly women and a few curious snot-nosed kiddies. A few paunchy elders stood in the back of the small crowd and simply looked on at the scene.

Dr Ebenezer Stuart, the eminent healer went into his spiel after he had toned down the caterwauling Indian. The small crowd was silent as held up bottle of his concoction; they heard of the miracle curing of this elixir.

“Yes siree mah friends, this h’yar brew had been bought by the high and mighty, kings and queens to do their healing power when all other medicants failed.” Upon that note, Ebenezer took a healthy nip of the bottle, which happened to be filled with whiskey. He coughed once or twice. “Thet’s much better. I’m as fit as a fiddle as you kin see. Now, my dear folks, fer only a dollar a bottle I am offering you this h’yar remedial drink.” His words continued by telling of its miraculous cures for everything that ails man or woman, known and unknown.

Well, three of four of the women had the spells and a touch of rheumy and they forked over their dollar and cradled the bottle. “You gentlemen in the back, I’m sure this h’yar medicine can give you the needed benefits from yer aches and pains,” Ebenezer called out. But an old duffer who imagined it to be liquor bought only one and that to him was cheap at a dollar a bottle.

* * *

“Let’s skeedaddle,” Ebenezer called out to Jeb. Then as quick as possible the tailgate was secured. Then the Indian and the good doctor took their seats on board. A hefty snap on the rump of Lady reminded the creature of her duty and she lazily trotted along.

“There be a creek nearby where we can rest and you can take off yer war paint, Ye can be a paleface once agin’,” chortled Ebenezer.

The so-called creek under a clump of stunted trees was nothing but a stream of puddling water. But it served their needs in the quenching of thirst and the cleansing of their faces and hands.

As the uncle rested under the shade of the branches his nephew changed into his regular clothes, setting the newly bought Stetson squarely on his sandy hair. Then Jeb, after a brush or two to his clothes, joined his uncle. Without a word he lit a small campfire, cooked up some vittles and boiled the coffee.

“Six dollars, ain’t so bad for pickings in such a miz’reble place,” Ebenezer gleefully announced as he and Jeb packed away their food. “Not bad indeed!” he spoke as he fingered the silver cartwheels and the crumbled bills in the deep pocket of his travelling coat.

* * *

Another settlement was reached after a long trip of an hour or more. A good spot was found on the main and only street and they braked the wagon. Then Ebenezer and Jeb prepared themselves and set the stage on the chained tailgate. The young man then shuffled like a painted warrior followed by the shtick and spiel of his uncle.

Their first customer — or, rather, sucker — was a miserable-looking feller who turned over a bit of worn script for a bottle. Without a word he uncorked the bottle and took a healthy swig. “Yahoo! Thet be the finest stuff I ever tasted. Mighty fine! Durn cheap if I do reckon. Ye say only a dollar a bottle?” Then without another word he searched into a deep pocket of his dirty and worn clothing and found two more dollar scripts. The scruffy character handed the bills to the astonished Ebenezer and took two more bottle of Choctaw Snake Root mixture, which he cradled in his arms. Then with a skit and skedaddle he scurried away to the shaded comfort of a nearby building to enjoy a couple of nips from the flasks.

Other worthies of the town and observed the scene and before long Ebenezer exchanged his bottles of medicinal elixir for silver cartwheels and paper bills as quickly as he could move. And the Indian whooped into the interior of the wagon and passed the goods.

Suddenly there was a hoot and holler echoed in the air. “Git away from here you dirty snakes, git! Ye be takin’ me trade from me!” The angry proprietor of the roughhewn saloon of the town called out the ruckus mixed with curse words as he neared. Ebenezer eyes were terrified as he looked at the pointed barrel of a Winchester sharpshooter held by a short tubby feller with his face and balding scalp red with anger. The uncle just stared, gulped and stuttered.

“Ye be takin stuff fum my still up in the hills.”

Then a moment of clarity entered the foggy brain of Ebenezer and he remembered filling empty bottles with water from a trickling stream coursing down a hillock. His mind then closed in prayer.

But the Indian brave was somewhat coolheaded. He picked up a bottle filled with that Choctaw miracle liquid, took aim and let the missile fly. The aim was true, which crashed on the bald patch; the potent spirits baptized the angry saloon proprietor and he fell in a drunken stupor.

The injured chap fell backwards and his finger pressed on the trigger of the rifle, which was pointed to the blue of the heavens. The shot frightened Lady and forced the mule to change her attitude and gallop like the devil.

Uncle Ebenezer and Jeb fell back to the floor of the wagon with the jolt of movement. The good uncle was paralyzed in action but Jeb took the situation in hand. He lifted himself from the jumbled debris and made his way to the front of the wagon, and untied the harness straps. With a few hard jerks to the leather and a good bit of shouting of holy swear words he managed to remind the cantankerous mule to return to his usual stubbornness.

Jeb then set the brakes hard before he returned to help his uncle. With a gentle touch he put his arms under the biblical scholar’s shoulders and lifted him carefully. Before the good uncle was able to dust his clothing the wagon was surrounded by the good citizens of the settlement, from the gambler in black duds to the roustabouts in rough garb. Each had coin and paper in hand and business was brisk

* * *

“Will be doing a bit of celebration to yer eighteenth year,” chimed the words of Ebenezer Stuart to his nephew. “The town of Dawson be near here. Around the next bend in this h’yar trail. Big place I hear with lots to be seen and do. Mighty fine saloons with goodly spirits to warm one’s soul.”

True to the words of Ebenezer, the town of Dawson was spotted as they plodded along the track during the late afternoon hours. And true to his complimentary phrases the town was rather large with many fine buildings sighted; some were two stories tall.

Lady clumped lazily through the main street of the town, a dusty wide avenue sided with building on either side, some with fine shops and two inscribed with notice of a bank and the other of the sheriff’s office and jail. Jeb notice noticed a steepled church and he exclaimed on the righteousness of the citizens. But his uncle’s stare was at a two-storied wooden building with a sign board in fine script denoting a saloon combined with a hotel.

“Look about for a blacksmith. Lady’s shoes need changing,” the uncle instructed his charge.

With time, the fires and spark of iron were spotted, and the mule was directed to the smithy. Hard momentary bargaining followed between Ebenezer and the giant of a blacksmith. But the sight of thick muscled arms holding a very heavy hammer won out and the good scholar had to shell out some bills before the mule was unharnessed.

“That’s taken care off. Now let’s go the watering place and lift a glass to yer eighteenth year.”

Jeb followed his uncle’s quick steps to that two storied building with its inviting aroma of cordiality. The young man didn’t take notice of the watering of the mouth of Ebenezer as they mounted the two stairs of the porch leading to the entrance. They had to avoid a drunken soul being chucked out of the premises before they made their way through the swinging doors.

Jeb gawked as they entered as he gazed at the luxuriousness of the interior with a long polished bar and with an ample supply of beverages on the back shelves. His mouth was opened to wonderment as he admired the large polished mirror. The youth’s cheeks we reddened at the sight of the delightful posters of charming damsels in all delightful poses hanging on the wall behind the bar with an ‘oh-me-gosh’ to his lips.

It seemed to Jeb that the town’s main occupation was sitting around tables or along the rails, slurping the liquor and gabbling in harsh tones to no end. He took notice that one large table in the rear was attended by the gentlemen of the town with cards in their hands and their coinage on the table.

The stools along the bar were occupied with patrons in their usual occupation. But the good man that tended to the serving of the liquid spirits spotted new custom and with a shove and a threat in his words cleared two stools from chaps who were just lazing about.

“What it be gentlemen?”

Ebenezer replied courteously, “This be the boy’s eighteenth birthday, so we be doin’ a bit of celebration. A glass of your best whiskey for me... and a glass of sarsparilla fer the boy.”

Glasses were filled and lifted. Then Ebenezer turned his attention to the barkeep and with his usual oily words, “My dear sir, I would like to interest you in some very enlightening reading booklets. Guaranteed to give you much pleasure in a moment of leisure.” Without waiting for a reply the travelling man pulled out a bunch of booklets from the depth of one of his coat pockets.

Jeb’s presence was forgotten as his uncle went into his spiel as a small crowd gathered around. The youth heard words and phrases from those who could read, ‘gosh darn’, ‘real hot stuff’, with the reply of ‘only two bits a copy’. Slowly the celebrant left the sales pitch at the bar and moseyed about the nooks and crannies of the large premises and gawking at everything that caught his attention.

When Jeb neared the staircase leading to the upper storey he felt a slim hand on his shoulder and he smelled the inviting scent of cheap perfume. Before the youth was able to turn around a voice beckoned him, “Would you like to see what’s upstairs?”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2005 by Norman A. Rubin

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