Snake Oil

"Amazing sweet the sound...that saved a meeeee..."

Dr. A. Herman Thripshaw's voice cracked on the high note and he stopped singing to chuckle quietly to himself. The words meant very little to him; it was only a song he had heard some people singing a long time ago, when he had been living near a small country church. He just liked hearing a voice. Even if it was only his own voice, and despite the fact that no one would ever accuse him of being a skilled crooner--or any other kind of crooner, for that matter. It was either this, or talk to the mules. They never talked back, but then, he didn't think they liked him much anyway.

The pair of scrawny mules had pulled his small wagon steadily and with only occasional complaint from some indeterminate place back east, winding slowly westward across this narrow, rough dirt track toward the small town of Groverton in the Colorado Territory. He had been traveling for a long time, longer than he cared to remember. His quest for the secret ingredient had taken him all around the world, to places so far removed by distance and culture from this small frontier town that the simple country bumpkins there would be filled with wonder and yes, perhaps even horror at the things he'd seen and learned. And done. He had listened to the ravings of drugged dreamers in the opium dens of China, had been to the peaks of cold mountain wastes in hidden Tibet where he had learned uncouth things from strange creatures who lived in the snow. To a lost city that lay buried beneath the sand somewhere in the deserts of Araby, and into the heart of darkest Africa where he'd feasted on undiscovered animals and conversed in unknown tongues with the small people who haunted the jungles there. But all along, the thing he'd been looking for was in none of those places. All along, it had been right here in North America, in an unnoticed and obscure place in the Indian Territory.

He chuckled again, a little louder this time. One of the mules flicked its ear curiously at the sound. He had been laughing a lot lately, because now he had it, and now he was heading to Groverton to try it out. Groverton would be his test. Why Groverton? No special reason, he reflected. He had been there once before, long ago, before the town had ever existed, and it amused him to go there now. It was the end of his long journey, but if his secret ingredient worked, it would also be only the beginning.

He wasn't really a doctor, of course, and his real name wasn't A. Herman Thripshaw, but people in his business had to make certain elaborations on the truth to get the job done, to make a living. He hadn't used his real name in ages. A. Herman Thripshaw was just something he had made up once, because he thought it sounded grandiose and authoritative. And of course he had to be a doctor. No one would take him seriously if he wasn't a doctor, so...

He flicked the reins restlessly, urging the mules to hurry up a little. Now that his search was complete, he was anxious to get started. He glanced in the general direction of the sun. He should get there sometime after dark, he thought, and start first thing in the morning.


When the people of Groverton were just beginning to stir the next morning, A. Herman Thripshaw had already stabled his mules and set up his small wagon in a prominent place in the center of town. He wiped the trail dust carefully from the wooden walls of the wagon, where a freshly painted sign read, "DR. A. HERMAN THRIPSHAW'S WONDROUS NERVE TONIC," and in smaller letters beneath that, "Cures the Sick and Invigorates the Healthy." The seat of the wagon had been temporarily converted into an elevated podium, from which he would proclaim the incredible restorative powers of his brilliant new concoction. He checked himself in a small looking glass. He had been very careful to cultivate a sophisticated, suave, and healthy appearance--nothing else would do. His suit, pressed and stored in a chest during his trip up the dusty trail, was immaculate and sure to impress. His neat goatee was carefully trimmed and just beginning to show a few flecks of grey. He had contemplated adding spectacles to the costume, but then decided against it. It wouldn't do for the inventor of such a wonderful curative to have bad eyesight. He was just a little portly, not so much as to be unhealthily overweight, but enough to appear hearty and healthy--glowingly healthy, he thought as he looked into his own warm hazel eyes in the mirror--and his skin was tanned to just the right degree.

As the first curious passerby walked by the wagon, he tipped his bowler hat courteously. "A very good morning, fine sir, and may I interest you in a small sample of the Wondrous Nerve Tonic?" The man only shook his head negatively and kept walking without saying a word. A. Herman Thripshaw frowned briefly in disappointment. No matter, he thought, there were at least a couple hundred people here, and he only had to sell a few. After that, it wouldn't be long before everybody would want some.

A few minutes later three more men approached, one wearing a shiny metal star on his leather vest that marked him as the local sheriff. The two others stood silently in the background as the sheriff spoke to him.
"Mr...Thripshaw," began the sheriff, reading his name from the side of the wagon, "we don't appreciate snake-oil peddlers in our town, maybe it would be better if you just moved along."

"Doctor Thripshaw," he corrected, "and surely you wouldn't begrudge an honest man a living? Only small samples for a very small price, and if you don't indeed feel invigorated, I will gladly refund the purchase." He leaned closer toward the sheriff. "And seeing how you are obviously a man of some authority," he added more quietly and with a conspiratorial wink, "I will grant you a sample absolutely free, and allow you to judge for yourself. Free samples for all three of you?" He glanced at the other two men still hovering behind the sheriff.
"Well..." the sheriff looked around indecisively at the other two men. One of them shrugged and nodded. "Okay, but if we decide that you're just trying to take our money for a few drops of watered-down whiskey, you're going to have to leave--if we don't throw you in jail first."

"Of course, of course," he agreed obsequiously. "I have complete confidence that the Wondrous Nerve Tonic will more than exceed your expectations." He handed a half-pint bottle to each of the three men and they walked away, discussing the matter and throwing back an occasional curious glance. Dr. A. Herman Thripshaw smiled and gave them a friendly wave. Now it had started. They would be back. He laughed again, quietly to himself.


By noon a small crowd had gathered, and though his first few spiels hadn't gone over very well, he had eventually captured their attention and now some of them were actually listening to him. Yes, he thought, they were almost hypnotized. He marveled at how much easier it was to sell to a crowd than to separate individuals. Once one or two people decided to buy it, everyone wanted a bottle to try for himself. Some of them had come back for more, but that was fine, he had plenty. There was only a small drop of the secret ingredient in each half-pint bottle. Other than that, it was only a mixture of water, grain alcohol, and a little something special he had picked up in the Amazon to ensure that they indeed felt invigorated and would indeed come back for more. A sprig of dill floating in it for appearances and a handful of other herbs to give it a more medicinal flavor, all for only a few cents a bottle. It seemed that everyone in town wanted some. Husbands had taken it home for their wives, parents had shared it with their children. Everything was going wonderfully.

A few hours later the crowd had begun to taper off, so he collected his mules and moved down the road to make camp a hundred yards or so from the edge of town. He spent the rest of the day puttering around inside his tiny wagon, mixing up more of the Wondrous Nerve Tonic, chuckling to himself and humming broken snatches of tuneless songs. As darkness came he unrolled his blankets beneath the wagon and fell happily asleep.


He awoke early the next morning, just a little tense and anxious to see what the new day would bring, but still quite confident that all would turn out as planned. Dr. A. Herman Thripshaw hitched the mules to his wagon and tied their reins to a convenient tree to prevent them from wandering, then walked back toward town. He was standing in the middle of the street and the first bright rays of sunlight were just slipping over the distant mountains when the screams began.

Oh yes, he thought, it had worked. It had worked wonderfully. Shouts of alarm and shrieks of terror arose around him in a hellish clamor as he stood smiling and humming to himself in the center of the doomed village. A woman staggered into the street, still wearing the tattered remains of her bedclothes. He could see that her skin had begun sloughing away in dry, flaky sheets to reveal the squamous new layer beneath. She fell helplessly to the ground to squirm insanely as all her extremities were gradually absorbed into a single slender torso. Her screams degenerated into nothing but a violent hissing and he knew eventually even that would go silent. A small boy ran past him, so consumed by horror that the boy didn't even notice him standing there, his arms held wide, at least a dozen snakes hanging like obscene living fringes from the sleeves of his shirt. He too, fell, and was silent as his body vanished beneath a writhing swarm of angry snakes. There were snakes coming out of every door and window; many of the townsfolk had undoubtedly already been transformed while they slept, awakening to a new mindlessness of which their tiny reptilian brains would now be wholly unaware. The very few who had not swallowed any of the Wondrous Nerve Tonic would try to fight--yes, there were a few gunshots even as he thought this, and he watched the hapless sheriff reel backward into the street, a revolver in each hand, firing back through the door of the office he had just exited. His struggle was hopeless. Up his legs came a teeming mass of hissing serpents until his entire body was a single squirming pullulation of reptilian death. He took two lurching steps and collapsed. No one could withstand the venom of the serpents of Yig.

Dr. A. Herman Thripshaw listened for a few minutes after the last scream, but nothing more disturbed the silence. The snakes were slowly vanishing from the street to seek shelter in hidden places beneath the buildings and the boardwalks. One last snake--a large timber rattler by the look of it--emerged from the clothes that had recently been worn by the luckless sheriff, and coiled for a moment around the shiny metal star still pinned to the leather vest. He watched it hiss at him, the crescent-shaped mark on its head gleaming whitely in the morning sunlight. He knew it wouldn't attack him, however. Snakes never bothered him at all. It slithered away through the open door of the sheriff's office.

A few minutes later Dr. A. Herman Thripshaw had returned to his wagon. He clucked at the mules and flicked the reins to start them off. He had many places to go, and a lot of the Wondrous Nerve Tonic to sell. He started to sing.

"Bringing in the sheaves...bringing in the sheaves..." He broke off abruptly as he erupted into a fit of laughter; a loud, sibilant, coughing hiss that made the mules shy violently. He pulled the reins to stop them and give them a few minutes to calm back down.

Oh, yes, he thought, it had worked wonderfully. For just a moment he relaxed, but only for a moment--it wouldn't do to spook the mules again. For just an instant the pupils of his beady yellow eyes narrowed into thin vertical slits and a slender forked tongue flicked out to test the air.

Father Yig will be very pleased, he thought. Very pleased, indeed.

© 1997 Alan Peschke

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