“Hark, for now I will tell a tale of caution and redemption. Let us see the frailties and strengths of the human heart and soul.” -The Angel
The train’s clatter faded away as Michael dusted himself off. He took stock of his assets. One dusty suit, seven dollars in government scrip, empty whiskey flask and his sales case. He checked the legs, still worked. Heck, all the bottles were intact too.
Well, if he was going to have a shot at living, he’d have to move his merchandise, and quick. That bounty hunter would switch trains at Kansas City and be back by here in a day or two. If he had an audience here in this little rail-town, he could finally pay The Major his $700 and get these dogs off his heels…
* * *
It would have worked out. This builder town was still filled with a few rich folks from the finishing of the rails. And it would be the perfect place to fleece for all it’s worth.
But that man had set up shop across the street… The Alchemist
Not much was known about the fellow. He pushed wonder medicines. Apparently he had the cure for any ailment of mind, body or spirit. He was rather tall and always wore a high-necked duster. A black long brimmed hat kept his face in shadow, but all could see he had hair of pure white and had only one eye, a strip of pure white silk covering what might be underneath. But what was most curious was his box. Of course it was kind of odd to be called a box, but it wasn’t quite large enough to be a trunk. The Alchemist carried it over his shoulder with apparently no effort. It was a deep stained mahogany with gold inlay. It was said the gilding was of oriental court scenes, but no one reported the same picture twice.
And there he was, drawing away all the crowds. The miracle worker from the west, the man with 100 cures, the last Hope. What could Michael hope to sell with The Alchemist standing only a street away? Even his sales case was pathetic. It was a cheap Sears giveaway that he affixed legs and painted ‘Honest Mike’s Soothing Laudanum Elixir’ in harsh red paint on the sides. If there was any justice he could wait it out and the Alchemist would run out of wares.
One hour turned to two. Everyone was fixated on the competition. Save the barber and his only customer. The barber had been half listening to the Alchemist’s pitches as he shaved the stranger. An expensive ring was on the stranger’s hand, and his hair was being trimmed in the latest style. A charcoal grey suit and a handlebar mustache adorned his chiseled features. His hat draped across one knee. The man smelled of money, it could be his only chance at ANY money.
Michael stepped up on the floorboards. The barber was finishing brushing off the slicked up man.
“Sir, did it ever occur to you that you might not be having the best of days? Do you wake up feeling tired, lonely, scared? Do you find yourself at a loss of virility and vigor in the bed…”
The man just gave the cold stare of a man hardened by the west. This was no slicked up easterner… This was a man with power, who commanded respect.
“Now look here…” Began the man “I have no ailments at the moment, but your desperation seems to be based off of not my need for medicine… but your need for my money, is that the case?”
The man kept up the hard stare. It made Michael sweat even harder than the sun allowed. The man’s eyes were a hollow sight of grey. They just drew him in, and he was fixed on every word, like this man had been his father, caring for Michael all his life.
“Y-y-yessir.” He stammered, “I’m in a heap of trouble. Ever heard of Major Thomas Collier?”
“Hero of the Illinois 13th? Yes, he was in all the papers. I hear he used his good fortunes to open a pharmaceutical emporium. Also…” the dandy looked up and down the street “other affairs of an illicit nature. But come, I’ll buy you a drink and I’ll listen to your woes… er… ‘Honest Mike’, if your case isn’t lying to me.”
The dandy took up his golden tipped cane and fine coat, and strolled into the nearest saloon, emptied due to the commotion up the street. He flashed a smile at Michael before heading in. It was possibly the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen… and it had a presence that you had to follow it just to see where it would take you.
“Come along Michael, when the pitch winds down our drinks won’t be free…”
* * *
In the coolness of the saloon, the dandy pulled two beers and slid one down. Over the next ten minutes Michael confessed the events of the last month. He had been taken to the Major’s daughter, Elizabeth, but the Major was quite doting. He would not let a simple clerk marry his daughter. He needed someone who would be able to get his hands dirty, make sure that a poisoned case of laudanum was sold. That was the bargain. He’d have two weeks to get it pushed. Then the Major would have no choice but to send out “Two Barrel” Mulligan for his hide. It’s the way he always did business. You cut it, or got cut…
“So, how much have you sold so far?” the dandy asked as he delicately wiped away the froth of beer.
“Not a single bottle.” Michael replied. He drained the last of his beer. “I just can’t do it. There are seventy bottles there, ten dollars apiece is the deal. I’d try to hustle folks, but in the end I’d turn them away at the last minute and sell my bottle of sugar water that I’d drink from so folks would know my product’s clean…” He then sighed, and laid his head on the bar. “I might as well just use my last few nickels to get well drunk so I can’t feel a shotgun blow me clean open…”
The dandy closed his eyes and nodded a bit.
“Son, I think you may have a chance yet. You see, The Alchemist has always been a steep price. Doesn’t always go so well with the workingman. Now… I’ve been in town a few days. The chainmen working to lay the last of the rails nearby are out for the day, signing on for the next stretch northward. Their wives and children are home alone.” The dandy began stroking his chin in thought, a look of concern crossing his face. “Now, I happen to know where you could find a mess of smaller bottles. You transfer it all over, and sell it to them for about five dollars a bottle.”
Michael brightened for a moment, then it settled back. “I’m not so sure. I mean, what if they’re not sick? And I don’t know a lick of Chinese. How am I supposed to push any of it off?”
The dandy looked him over. “You leave that to me son. You just get to filling those bottles, and you’ll get everything you need.” The warm smile flashed again. “Trust me…”
* * *
The work took three hours. The dandy translated, and the labels seemed to do the trick. At every tent another woman bought a bottle for a suddenly sick child or young relative. At each tent you could hear the wail of a fevered child. And somewhere in the pit of Michael’s heart there was a pang. But he had to live. He just had to keep telling himself that. The seven hundred dollars came, but for some reason, Michael felt no relief. They cooled their heels at the Forgotten Chances saloon.
“We did good Mike.” Said the dandy “Real damn good. Now then, as is proper for businessmen such as we, the profits are always 50/50…”
Michael almost spit out his cool beer.
“You said to trust you! That we’d get the $700 I needed.”
“And we did boy, in a sense. However, you’re going to leave me uncompensated? With your share you can get more bottles, more mercury, and the like. Then scat off to wherever you please, now that you know how to do it. Now…” There was a click right next to Michael’s pants leg. Cold iron pressed against his dusty suit’s fabric. “…I’m going to get my share.”
Shaking as he did so, Michael reached back into his battered case. He counted out $350 and slid it to the dandy’s opened hand. The dandy smiled, and polished off his sherry. He then theatrically peeled off a five-dollar bill and slapped it on the bar, as he slipped his derringer back into his vest.
“Don’t you worry Honest Mike.” The dandy sneered as he stood to leave “I’ve got your drinks covered for the day. Do your best to forget. But do remember that the living is always worth it…”
The dandy put on a fine bowler hat and strolled out the front door, clicking his ivory cane on every nail of the pegboard with a resounding ring.
* * *
Michael drank. He didn’t know what was in this batch of… well whatever it was. But it was liquid, had harshness against the throat, and a kick like banging one’s head against brimstone. But even that couldn’t silence the cries. Those children would be dead by nightfall…
Michael glanced out the picture windows. The faro dealer was simply playing solitaire as a shadow darkened his table. Outside was a brute of a man. Easily six and a half feet tall, with muscles that could be used to wrap horseshoes, and as a finishing touch, an old double barreled shotgun slung over a beefy shoulder.
‘Double Barrel’ Mulligan.
Like a man possessed Michael raised out of his chair, all the time his mind racing. He bolted towards the stairs for the rooms to let, knocking aside a man playing snooker. He could hear the thud of the iron-studded boots Mulligan always wore. Not running, but coming, and you knew he could keep it up all day if he needed. Michael tried every door, finally finding an open room, he slammed the door shut…
To find himself fact to face with the Alchemist’s chest. The ornate scene was of a picture of a teacher at court. In a garden of fancy, he seemed to be giving lessons. It invoked a sense of calm to Michael, for some reason. As if all his answers were very clear. Shortly he found himself grabbed by the collar and thrown up against the wall. A very sharp, warm blade pressed against Michael’s neck. The Alchemist had been interrupted from shaving, and he didn’t look pleased. His cloth a blaze of white, the foam left by his whiskers seemed to radiate the same purity. He gave Michael a hard stare, and then roughly pushed him into the nearby closet.
“For your life here and after, be perfectly quiet.” The Alchemist hissed as he quickly closed the door. Michael could only hear from this point as Mulligan burst in. He heard Mulligan bellow out questions. He heard the Alchemist giving simple answers while continuing his shaving. Throughout the conversation the pair seemed to change in dominance. By the end Mulligan was positively bowing and scraping to be away to continue his hunt.
Several more minutes passed after Mulligan left. Michael heard the final washing of hands, and then the Alchemist opened the closet once more.
“He is gone.”
Michael gasped for breath once again. For once this entire day he actually felt calm, and collected. He looked the Alchemist in the eye. The Alchemist’s eye seemed softer, like benevolence in a gaze. He was out of his duster, and in a crisp white shirt. Every motion of the man seemed precise and full of grace.
“I gather you’re in a bit of trouble.” Said the Alchemist, finally looking away and opening his box, rummaging amidst the bottles.
“Y-Yes, yes I was.” Michael stammered “Here, let me thank you for all this. How much is your room?” Michael began fishing out his billfold and began peeling out a bill, just as the Alchemist pulled the entire wad away. The Alchemist peeled off a ten-dollar note and a double headed eagle gold coin, then he turned over the billfold with those two items back to Michael. He then continued rummaging through his case. Michael got irate.
“Now see here! I may be new to out here but…”
The Alchemist, who had a vial of clear liquid hovering inches from Michael’s face, cut him short.
“Do you know what this is?” The Alchemist asked. Michael could only shake his head, as if dumbstruck. “This is your salvation. You have just bought it from me. I can see in your eyes what you’ve done, just as much as you feel it in your heart. You’ve just bought this from me. It will cure any ailment with a drop. You could take it, and sell your drops and become a very rich doctor for a time. Or… There are only enough drops in this bottle for the children you helped poison…”
The Alchemist took Michael’s hand and placed the vial in the palm.
“Make your decision Michael. But for both of our sakes, make the right one.”
Michael stood there for a moment, looking at the vial for a long time. He then nodded dourly to the Alchemist and slowly exited the room.
* * *
It took the rest of the evening. Twilight shone over the Chinese encampment. The tents Michael had already visited were awash in laughter and good tidings. The disease in the camp seemed to be gone this very evening. Strange music and bangs of small firecrackers punctuated what looked to be a touch of prosperity for these hard working people.
Michael stepped out into the coolness of dusk and walked towards the rails once more. Perhaps he could walk back and get a train to Chicago. Quit, and give the Major back his kit, at least. He deserved whatever he had coming to him, and he accepted it. While passing where he had jumped off the train just this morning, he felt the icy twin barrels of a shotgun pressed at the back of his neck.
“Found you Mikey.” Mulligan said in his low, deep voice. “Now the Major said to come back with the money, or your hide. Which is it gonna be?”
Michael closed his eyes and knelt. He could still feel the gun, just inches from his neck. He patted and threw out his billfold. He heard Mulligan scoop it from the gravel, and flip through it with a free hand.
“Now, you see Mikey, this just isn’t enough… So I’m afraid I’ll just have to take my second option…”
Michael prayed softly. He hadn’t the words. He hadn’t the chance. If there were a heaven, he’d probably not go there. But still, one had to try. Hell may be the fate of a wretch, and Michael knew that he was amongst the damned. He simply prayed about how sorry he was about being one. If someone could save him after this last moment.
The shotgun blast rang out as the next freight train blew past. Michael opened his eyes and thudded into the dust, much like this morning. And yet, there was no pain, no blood sliding down his back. No anything. Just a moment of peace. He lay there, and heard a pair of boots scuffing the gravel. The train finally passed as the boots came into view. Fine boots. Both gently cradled by the bottom of a duster. Michael looked up.
“Get up Michael,” said the Alchemist “It’s over.”
Michael stood. He looked to find the Alchemist, holding a smoking LeMat combination pistol. The shotgun barrel of it was smoking. He saw Mulligan on the ground, his blood slowly washing into the gravel. He saw his battered case, and picked it up.
“What should I do now?” Michael asked. The alchemist just flashed a grin for a moment.
“Whatever your heart tells you to.”
Michael looked at his battered case. He then opened it and tossed out each leg for the table stand, each bottle of contaminated medicine, each measuring spoon, filter, and other miscellaneous tools of the trade. He then took a large chunk of the gravel, and scratched out the ‘honest’ on his case. He then took the last of his red paint and changed the name on the case. ‘Michael, the one and only.’
Michael then began walking back to the town. He’d have a hard journey to get back to Chicago. He’d have an even harder time Elizabeth away from the Major. But now he had the time, and he wouldn’t compromise himself to do it either.
The Alchemist watched Michael walk off. Shortly, the dandy walked up behind, hands clasped behind his back.
“Why save him?” the dandy asked “Surely he wasn’t deserving of your protection. All of mankind has their one choice. And he had made it.”
The Alchemist’s hard stare made the dandy shrink back. The LeMat was inches from the dandy’s face as the Alchemist spoke.
“He made his choice, yes. But you too soon forget… It is a choice that can be remade as long as you draw breath.”
A bead of sweat dripped past the barrel of the gun. After another tense moment, the Alchemist swirled and scooped up his box, then began walking the rail towards Kansas City. The dandy was gone.
“Any voice can regain grace. A song, a shout… or even a whisper. It is up to you to raise that voice. Amen.” –The Angel.