The Next Town
by Derek D. Bass
The wagon that accompanied the setting sun into the small Arizona town looked as if it had strayed from some passing circus. The brightly painted red and yellow coach, with its shiny brass rails and knobs, prevented any who saw it from dismissing it without a second or even a third look. Large signboards hanging from either side of the wagon proudly proclaimed, “Professor Harvey Wangenstein’s World Famous Rainmaking, Health Tonics and Other Scientific Marvels.” The man holding the reins, although weary, didn't look at all as if he had just spent several days on the trails leading to the town. From his black top hat down to his expensive leather boots, he looked as dapper as if he had just walked out of a Boston social club: purple tuxedo coat, pants and an ascot topper, ruffled white shirt peeking from behind wool vest and pocket watch. The knob topping the cane at his side, a miniature phrenologist’s chart, was hand carved of the finest ivory and as clean as the day it was made. It was as if the trail dust had simply refused to settle upon him. The road into town was well-rutted from the wagons, stagecoaches and carriages that had come before him, but the coach rolled over it without jarring either passenger or cargo. Strange metal springs on the wheels, connected by rubber hoses to a large tank slung underneath the wagon, belched small gouts of steam with every bounce. The driver drew the horses to a stop just outside the main street. Twisting one end of his waxed handlebar mustache, Harvey Wangenstein surveyed his prospects. The town seemed perfect: small, dry-as-a-bone, newly rich from nearby silver strikes and just waiting to take advantage of the greatest Scientific innovations that 1881 had to offer. Harvey selected the ideal place for his sales pitch, placed wooden blocks in front of each wagon wheel to hold it in place and walked around to the back of the coach. Drawing aside the curtains covering the coach's back entrance, he began preparing the small cannon bolted to the floor of the wagon. With practiced hands he aimed the cannon, loaded a large fireworks shell into it and cut the length of fuse he wanted. He stopped for a moment to think about the wondrous changes he was going to bring in these unsuspecting people's lives. He lit the fuse.
The shell screamed into the Arizona night, exploding high above the small town in a shower of white sparks. The sound of the blast rolled through the town and echoed out into the surrounding valley. Within seconds, townspeople in various states of dress and undress poured from every building and leaned out from every window, struggling to see the drifting remnants of the fireworks display and the cause of the sudden commotion. By the time people appeared in the streets, Harvey had climbed to the top of his coach, and was now bathed in the sharp, eerie glow of the bright flares and oil lamps placed around the wagon. Everyone within earshot of the explosion, from the brothel's “soiled doves”; the miners, busy gambling and drinking the wages they had earned that day; cowboys and ranch hands, doing their best to gamble, drink, and pick fights with the miners; the local barber, who doubled as the local doctor when needed; to the sheriff, angered at being so rudely interrupted in his inspection of the brothel's compliance with the town's newly enacted “petticoat law”, now gathered around Harvey Wangenstein and his wagon, eager to hear his explanation for this uproar.
Atop the coach, Harvey waited just a few seconds, ensuring that he had their undivided attention. Then he began, with a voice barely more than a whisper, the people around him having to strain to hear the words, “Ladies and gentlemen... friends... I have come tonight to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime!” With that, his voice began to rise, with an infectious energy that instantly gripped those assembled before him. “I have brought to you, some of the most amazing inventions ever conceived of by Science and Man; inventions that will revolutionize the way you live life here in your town! Who am I, you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Professor Harvey Wangenstein, and nothing pleases me more than to be able to come here tonight and show you the greatest mechanical and Scientific marvels that the Nineteenth Century has ever seen!” The sheriff wanted to arrest the annoying son-of-a-bitch and let him sleep it off in jail, but there was something about this man that intrigued him. Another two minutes, and then he’d put a stop to this. Thirty seconds later, the sheriff was as engrossed in the speech as everyone else. “Right here,” Harvey shouted, pulling a small bottle from his coat, “I have here a tonic that will remove any and all ailments from man, woman and child! Wangenstein’s Patented Miracle Health Tonic will cure baldness, headache, toothache, all manner of aches and everyday discomfort, gangrene, snakebite, rheumatism, warts, frail constitution, colic, tuberculosis, gout, scurvy, plague, constipation and more! What’s in this little bottle will stave off a fever while it keeps off mosquitoes!” Reaching into another pocket, Harvey retrieved a second bottle, containing a mottled-brown liquid. “Here we have Wangenstein’s Patented Hair and Tooth Tonic, as used by the crowned heads of Europe, guaranteed to clean the ones ya got, and grow the ones ya don’t! Before you doubt me, can I have a volunteer from the audience, please? You, sir,” he said, pointing at the sheriff, whom Harvey could see was bald as an egg, “C’mon up and try some, on the house! It can do wonders, if you’re willing to try!”
The sheriff, prodded by the curious townspeople, reluctantly climbed to the top of the coach, and stood next to Harvey. “If I may be so bold, sir,” Harvey offered as he began rubbing the viscous fluid onto the sheriff’s head, “It’ll just take a moment to start working, you should feel some tingling...” The next sound out of the sheriff’s mouth was a cry of alarm as his scalp began to feel as if it had been set on fire. His face was a mixture of pain and surprise as he looked for a close source of water in which to extinguish his head. “Not to worry, sir, that’s life you’re feeling there, look for yourself,” Harvey quickly explained and offered a small mirror to the distressed lawman. Using the mirror, the sheriff could see that, instead of flames, tiny, bristly hairs were growing all over his scalp. “It’s a miracle!” the sheriff cried, incredulous at his new hair. “It’s not a miracle, sir, but just one of the wonders of Science that I have to offer!” By then, the crowd surrounding the coach had swollen to three times its original numbers, with more arriving every minute. The sheriff climbed down from the coach, rubbing more tonic onto his scalp and staring intently into the mirror. Harvey picked up a burlap bag of grain and hefted it over his shoulder, “Wangenstein’s Bovine Ovine And Equine Feed Supplement can help any domesticated farm or ranch animal. Sheep give fifty percent more wool, cows give three times the milk, and horses run as fast as the wind, and don’t need water but once every four days! Perfect for those on the long, dry trails east. My own team makes one hundred miles a day on it!” Harvey dropped the feed bag, and again hushed his voice. “I haven’t even told you of my greatest achievement, the thing I’m most proud of, the one thing that every town I’ve visited can’t get enough of,” he trailed off, holding his breath for a moment, and then pouncing, “Rain! Without it, plants wither, man and animals die of thirst as watering holes dry up, and life here becomes impossible! But now, for the first time here, you can have rain whenever you want! My special formula, launched into the sky in a cannon shell, will attract moisture particles to them, bringing rain within hours! See, friends, see the proof before you,” he insisted as he pointed his ivory-knobbed cane toward the signboards on either side of the coach. The awed crowd pressed in to see that elaborate painted representations of photographs of rainy Western towns decorated both signboards. “Every time I bring rain to a town, I add a picture to the coach. Maybe I’ll be adding your town next,” he said, making a square with both thumbs and forefingers and looking around the town through it, as if sizing it up. “All these modern marvels are available for a negligible fee, to cover the costs of some of the more exotic ingredients used. Do I have any takers?” The crowd’s instantaneous roar of approval, along with the wads of money held up in insistent fists, told Harvey Wangenstein that he had piqued their interest. He smiled as he began taking money and dropping bottles of tonic and feed to the anxious townspeople. Behind the throng, Harvey could see a small group of men conferring, which he guessed was the town council waiting to speak to him about bringing rain to the parched community. After the crowds had died down, happy with their recent medicinal purchases, Harvey agreed to influence the sky on their behalf. An hour later, another shell rocketed into the sky, bursting in a cloud of gray particles. Within twenty minutes the humidity in the town rose sharply, and the townspeople eagerly anticipated the coming rain. Once it was apparent that rain was imminent, the town council paid Harvey the agreed-upon fee. Harvey shook all of their hands and returned to his coach. He packed up, having sold over $10,000 worth of tonics, feed and rain, and drove his wagon out of town. Satisfied in having brought a little more Science to the Consensus, Harvey Wangenstein smiled, and rode on toward the next town.
*** Few slept that night, for while it never did rain, the humidity in the town remained at 100% for the next 52 hours, making the nights bad and the summer days worse. The sheriff awoke to find all of his new-found hairs lying beside him on his pillow, having fallen out during the night. The tonics, which hours before were curing everything this side of death, had become simple bottles of brown, greasy water, incapable of curing anything but appetite. The feed, now as edible as the tonics, made the animals violently ill, and eight men were injured while trying to restrain a stampede of enraged sheep. The sheriff put out a warrant for Harvey’s arrest, intending to personally string him up as soon as he was returned, but no one he talked to had any knowledge of a man fitting his description, which was itself fuzzy at best. Harvey Wangenstein rode west, innocently believing that he had helped, as he believed he had helped every town he had similarly visited. He never realized that, since none of the townspeople were as Educated as him, none of his wonders would work for them without him present, and that the people of two dozen towns were waiting to tar-and-feather him should he ever show his face again. ***
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