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Willie and Company

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The first lessons to learn about being a cook in a saloon: 1) Never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to. 2) Never eat your own food. It may taste just fine, but Lord knows what’s in it. 3) Avoid dish duty at all costs. 4) Keep your friends close and your 12 gauge closer. Follow these simple rules, along with some you’ll learn along the way, and you have half a chance of surviving in this little town of Manley Hot Springs. The place of my employment, Sourdough Saloon, is a rough-and-tumble place, with many goings on that would be mighty interestin’ to those deputies downtown. Me, I just stay in the kitchen and out of the way. Many of our customers would jump at a chance to take advantage of a woman like me. My husband gave me a small knife to keep in my boot, and I admit that I’ve had to pull it a time or two.

My husband, Thomas, was a doctor in good old California. We lived in a small, quiet town where he worked at the local clinic. When we heard about the fortunes of gold being mined in Alaska, however, we packed up our things and headed north to the Last Frontier. It was a long, hard trip, and once we got here, we discovered that there wasn’t any gold left! Well, we didn’t want to trek all the way back to California, and there was really nothing there for us now, so Thomas opened a small clinic, I found myself employed at Sourdough Saloon, and we started a new life here.

After a long day of cooking for drunk and lonely men, I finally slip out the back door of the saloon and head home. I am ready to whip out my knife at any moment, but I reach our tiny cabin without incidence. When I get there, however, I hear raised voices inside. I stand at the door for a moment and listen.

“I can’t work for free, you know, and I’m not sure there’s anything I can do for him,” comes the calm voice of my husband.

An annoyed voice I don’t recognize says, “Yah, yah, we’ll pay ya, we’ll pay ya! Just fix ‘im!”

It was normal for patients to come to our house, looking for a doctor to patch them up after the clinic was closed. But these men were different. As soon as I walk in the door, the most ungodly, unbearable, unimaginable smell assaults my nose and makes me gag. Trying to compose myself and blinking back the tears that had sprung to my eyes, I step through the door and survey my one-room cabin. Thomas is standing facing the door, talking to Annoyed Voice, who has his back to me. Next to them, sitting on the bench at the kitchen table, is a skinny, silent man who looks like he would be tall if he stood up. He sits slouched over, arms dangling awkwardly at his sides, his thin lips slightly ajar, and wide eyes staring off into space. His pupils have a hauntingly empty look in them. Both the newcomers are caked in a fetid, brown-yellow substance that looks like dog vomit.

My husband looks up as I enter. Apology is written all over his face as he says, “Dear, I know you just got home, but would you mind cooking up some dinner for these folks? Er… they might be here for a while.”

Without a word, I move into the kitchen and start scraping a meal together as Thomas begins examining his vacant patient. Pulling out a stethoscope, Thomas checks the man’s vitals, fingering his mouth open, examining his throat, ears, eyes- all the usuals. Once the essentials are done, he does what he can to assess the patient’s mental state. Meanwhile, I cook up some potatoes, bread, and a little meat on the side. I set a steaming plate in front of the patient’s friend, who is watching every movement Thomas makes as he examines his patient. The man doesn’t even look at the food but continues to watch with a worried expression, wringing his hands and biting his lip. I also set a plate on the table behind the patient. He doesn’t stir. Thomas gives me a half-apologetic, half-grateful smile and goes back to his examination. I sit quietly in the corner and pull out some sewing. Normally I would eat as well, but that awful, rancid smell has demolished my appetite.

Done with his initial examination, Thomas turns to the friend who still hasn’t touched his food. “Sir, what exactly happened to Mr. - er…?”

“Willie. His name’s Willie.”

“Yes. What happened to Mr. Willie?”

“Well, ya see, we was minin’ up yonder, and we dug out under this hill, and we was diggin’ right away, and I found me an elephant! Well… what did Willie call it? ‘T was a wooly mammoth, all buried in the dirt above our heads. And then, well, I went to poke it, and all this mush, gawd-awful smellin’ mush, fell right out of it straight on top o’ our heads! And poor Willie here, he just plain lost it. Smell drove his senses right out. ‘E’s been like this ever since.”

“So… he’s… the way he is because a ton of decomposed mammoth fell on you?”

“Yessir, tha’s the reason. Just plain drove ‘im crazy.” The poor man’s voice isn’t annoyed anymore. It’s purely worried. Despite the fact that he yelled at my husband and hasn’t touched the food I made him, I can’t help but feel sorry for him.

“So, doc, can you fix ‘im?”

“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do. I’m a physician, not a psychiatrist. I would suggest taking him down to Anchorage, and possibly to the states to see if there’s someone who can help him down there. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“Is ‘e… is ‘e gonna be like this forevers?”

“I don’t know. There’s a chance being away from the smell for a while will bring him back, so get him and yourself washed up. Beyond that, I have no idea.”

“Okay. Thanks, doc,” the man says in a defeated voice. “How much you chargin’ me?”

I stand up and lay a hand on my husband’s arm. I whisper in his ear, “Don’t charge him, Tom. He’s got enough troubles as it is.”

Thomas nods and turns back to the man. “It’s on us tonight. Why don’t you eat up that supper before it gets cold. You look like you could use some food.”

Obviously grateful, the man plops himself down on the bench and starts shovelin’ it in. I am heartily satisfied by his exclamations of delight as he gobbles up my hasty cooking. Thomas turns back to the patient, Willie.

“How’ve you been feeding him?” he asks Willie’s friend.

“Jus’ like a baby. Spoonin’ it right int’ ‘is mouth.”

Gently, Thomas nudges the man’s mouth open and spoons in some potatoes. The man makes the first movement I have seen him make, chewing once, slowly, and then swallowing the lump of spuds.

After Willie is painstakingly fed, and his friend has second helpings, we send them on their way, pointing Previously-Annoyed-Voice towards the roadhouse where he can rent a room for the night and get a bath for both of them. They trip down the road, Willie leaning heavily on his friend’s shoulder. As we watch them stumble away, Thomas shakes his head and says, “Poor man. Both of ‘em. That Willie’s completely gone, and his friend there is just about around the bend himself.”

We return to the house, and it being not too late in the summer, I leave the door open to try and get some of the residual odor out. Who would’ve thought- mammoth guts. We’re not in California anymore.





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