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Written in the Dirt MAG
The light grew brighter, filling my eyes until I could see nothing at all of my surroundings. Giving my horse a gentle tug, I brought her to a halt and reached down for my canteen. I gulped a mouthful and noticed that there was hardly a drop remaining. I had never grown used to the infernal heat that permeated everything. Heat that stung your eyes, pierced your skin, spurred every sweat pore on your body into overdrive. It was enough to damage a man’s wits and destroy his will, which was, of course, exactly the point.
I blinked my eyes hard until the white blur began to dissipate and my vision came back into focus. As I had come to expect, there was not really anything to see; the light-brown dirt stretched on for miles, creating a panoramic spectacle daunting enough to inspire second thoughts about even bothering to survive. Taking a deep sigh, I glanced down at my empty canteen and swore. I had filled it only a few hours after sunrise, yet had only taken four gulps during the day to finish it. There was evidently a leak. Nothing to panic about, I reminded myself, removing the brown broad-rimmed hat from my head and wiping my brow. According to the directions the fellow at that post office gave me, I should reach a settlement by dark and restock my supplies. I could certainly afford some new equipment. Heading out here was the best business decision I’d ever made.
With this thought, I reached into my saddle bag to pull out the earnings from my stay in the last settlement. Not bad for a single day’s work. And one buffoon had even given me what looked like a gold Spanish medallion. I didn’t know much about its worth, but, from what I’d heard, they can fetch a pretty penny at a pawn shop. That old sap hadn’t been able to see much farther than his nose. He must have judged by the size that it was an ordinary quarter. I admiringly tilted the gold coin in my hand and rolled my eyes over the strange engravings.
“Pardon, mister?” My daydreaming was cut short by what I suspected was an apparition. As the figure on horseback drew nearer, it became apparent that he was quite real.
“Why, mister, you’re a doctor, perhaps?”
“Mighty perceptive of you,” I allowed, casually slipping the money back into the saddle bag. “How’d you figure that one?”
“Praise God in Heaven!” the other rider exclaimed, his eyes wide and his demeanor somewhat manic. “Why, I saw that black bag, looked like the one the doctor back home carries with him, and I just knew! It’s nothing short of a miracle, finding you way out here …” the man caught himself from rambling and took a deep swallow. “I’ve got a serious problem, mister. My li’l girl’s so sick I’m afraid she ain’t gonna make it another few days.”
“Fortunate that I came along when I did,” I noted, with a curt nod, allowing my instincts to return. This, after all, was business. “Where-abouts is she right now?”
“We sure weren’t about to push on all the way to the settlement at Oak Creek, so I put up camp just over them hills,” he jerked his head to the south. “It’s been three days now and we’re mighty low on food, but if we push on, she ain’t got a chance. Please, mister?”
I looked him in the eye and nodded grimly. “No guarantees, sir, but I’ll do what I can.” I gave him an encouraging nod, at which point the man spurred his horse, leading me at a speedy gait to the camp.
When we arrived, I noticed that the flaps of the tent were drawn closed. Dismounting with great urgency, the man held his hand out in a halting gesture. “Better let me go first, mister. In this state, she’s liable to scream if she sees a strange face.” He rushed inside and I could hear him murmuring reassurance in the universal tone parents use to comfort sick children.
I slipped off my own horse, lifted my sleek black bag off its back and stole a glance at the tent. I quickly pulled the sack open and scoured through it until the appropriate vial was on top. This sell should be simpler than most, I told myself confidently.
“She’s feeling a littler calmer now, mister,” the man noted, leaning momentarily out of the tent. “You can come in.”
I gripped the bag firmly in my hand and walked in, ducking under the propped-up flap. It was fairly dark inside, the only light a freshly lit candle. The dwelling was plain, with a small blanket doubled over on the ground to serve as a bed. On it rested an angelic little girl, no more than six or seven. Her face looked pale and I could hear rough, guttural wheezing with every breath. The poor thing was lying on her back, staring forlornly at the top of the tent, her eyes open but her expression blank. She grasped a rather large, tattered shirt that was serving as a blanket, and she occasionally shivered. The sight was almost enough to bring a tear to my eye. Almost.
“This been going on for long?” I asked the father, with a professional edge to my voice. “Days? Weeks?”
“Well, we been stopped here just a little while … couple a days,” he replied hesitantly. “She hadn’t been doing very well early on either, but it just got worse,” he added.
I nodded confidently and placed my hand on her forehead. Drawing it back quickly, I proceeded to lean over the young girl and peered deeply into her eyes. She appeared to be conscious of her surroundings but seemed confused by her condition. Needless to say, so was I. Not that it really mattered. “Well, sir, these are less than ideal circumstances for a complete diagnosis, but I’d be inclined to call it an advanced case of Dutch Fever.”
“Is it – serious?” he asked, gulping. His eyes were wide and full of hope. Have to love the easy jobs, I told myself with an inward grin. Most of ’em are buying things they won’t ever need: boot clips, glove strings, saddle cream, and so on. But if they need it, well, there isn’t even a challenge. Truthfully, you could fool most of the people I do business with by telling them the word “gullible” was written in the dirt.
“I won’t lie to you, sir,” I said, my mouth locked in a solemn line and my eyebrows narrowing. “It’s a tough illness to fight off, but I’ve got something here that’s had some success over in Cireves County.” I reached into the black bag, careful not to open it all the way, and pulled out the vial of purple liquid. “Now, hers is a pretty tough case, so I’m gonna give you this whole vial. You give her a mouthful every two to three hours and I bet she starts clearin’ up in a few days.”
He clasped his hands around the container of homemade cough syrup and looked up at me with intense gratitude. “Oh, thank you, mister. You truly are a godsend!” He blinked hard and gulped once more. “We ain’t got much money. How much do I owe you for this?”
“It’s a pretty costly bit of medicine,” I remarked with a frown, subtly eyeing the humble surroundings, “but I wouldn’t want to drive you broke now. How much can you afford?” Always let the poor give what they can. If they’ve got it, they’ll hand over more than the rich will ever consider.
“Why, I left my money out in my saddle bag!” he exclaimed. “Was ’fraid the camp would be robbed while I was looking for help. Hang on there.” As he scurried out of the cabin, I looked down one last time at the young girl. Placing my hand on her forehead again, I couldn’t help but hope the darn cough syrup did something to help. Her body seemed to have stabilized a bit since I had first come in; the wheezing had disappeared entirely. Perhaps she had drifted to sleep.
“Here you are, mister,” the man said clasping my hand against his to pass over the coins in his palm. I smiled graciously and slipped them into my pocket. Noble men don’t count their earnings in front of others.
“It’s a pleasure that I was able to help someone way out here,” I said, patting the fellow’s shoulder. “It’s a good thing I came along when I did.” I let out a contented sigh to signify that my work was complete, nodded to the concerned father and strode quickly back to my horse. Taking a glance at the sun, I smiled at the thought that I might yet reach the settlement by nightfall.
* * * *
“Pretty shabby canteen you’re carrying there, fella.” The comment was made by a street merchant as I dismounted in front of the local inn. “I could sell you a nicer one for a quarter,” he added enticingly, handing me his product.
The price was a tad steep, but I needed the canteen. “Sure,” I agreed with a nod. “Just picked myself up some cash.” I reached into my pocket and groped around for a quarter. Finding one, I handed it to the peddler and wrapped the canteen strap around my neck. “Good day, sir.”
“Now, hold on there,” he demanded, pulling my shoulder back with a jerk. “I ain’t never seen any money like this. This ain’t no good.”
Giving him a scowl, I snatched the quarter back and held it up to the light. What the …? In my hand I held a gold Spanish medallion. “Now hold on,” I said aloud, confused. “This was from my saddle bag when …” I stopped in mid-sentence as the realization struck me like a rock between the eyes. I didn’t even need to check my saddle bag to know that it was empty.
Noble men don’t count their earnings in front of other men. But I had been counting my money that afternoon, and there was someone watching. It had all been perfect. Too perfect. The man entered the tent first. He went outside to get his money. A sick little girl that wasn’t too sick after all.
There was no use going back to the camp. Con men move quickly. I should know. One thing’s for sure though: I’m not ever again telling anyone that the word “gullible” is written in the dirt.