PodCastle 764: The Science and Artistry of Snake Oil Salesmanship – Part 1

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

The soundtrack featured in this story was composed by our audio engineer Eric Valdes


The Science and Artistry of Snake Oil Salesmanship

by Timothy Mudie


Aloysius P. McNutt arrives in town one-and-a-half days after the snake, as per usual. Earlier would be too suspicious, and later risks that the settlers will have attacked the snake themselves, which simply won’t do. Aloysius needs to sell the snake oil to them, which he can’t lay claim to unless he slays the snake himself.

He grins lopsidedly as he sidles into the saloon. “Hear you got yourselves a snake problem.” In these settlements out in the territories, the heart of the community tends toward the saloon or the church, and Al has made a quick presumption that these aren’t a particularly churchly folk.

Rough men and a lesser number of equally rough women line the bar and circle the tables. Clusters of prospectors and farmers sip brandy and rye and harsher libations. All lift their heads in Al’s direction when he pushes through the doors and declaims his customary opening. None respond.

Al is wondering if maybe he should have tried the church after all when a man in a beaten hat wearily pushes himself from the bar. Maybe twice Al’s twenty-nine years, with eyes half again as old, this is a man who’s lived more than most. Despite the drink and the day’s problems weighing on him, the man carries himself with the posture of a lawman. This is Al’s mark. He strides across the room, ignoring the following eyes, and extends his hand in the man’s direction.

“I know a sheriff when I see one,” he says. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. Aloysius P. McNutt, at your service. But I recommend you call me Al. All my friends do, and I’ve a premonition that we’re to be fast friends, you and I.”

The sheriff blinks at him slowly. “State your business, buy a drink, or keep moving. We’ve no time for charlatans in this town.”

“Charlatan! Sir, you wound me.” Shaking his head solemnly, Al resumes his spiel. “Rumors travel quick round these parts, and when they’re of a titanic snake harassing industrious settlers, they fly faster still. Lucky they should happen to reach my wandering ears. Sir,” — here he stares hard at the sheriff, setting the hook  — “I am beyond familiar with this class of beast, a remnant from the savage land this was before the civilizing influence upon it of those such as yourself. From far-flung settlements across this frontier, I have pursued and battled these serpents, and I now proffer my services to your charming town.”

Doubt flickers in the sheriff’s eyes. Al’s seen it countless times: knows the thoughts running through his brain. What’s the harm in letting this shabbily dressed dandy hunt the snake that’s taken a dozen sheep and half that many cattle in the last thirty-six hours? If the man fails, the town is in no worse position than it currently occupies.

Al doesn’t need to hear the man’s confirmation; he plows ahead. “I ask but one thing in return,” he says, index finger raised with deep purpose. “Once I have slain the creature, I desire to take possession of the carcass, with intention of marketing the rare and valuable effluent that I shall extract from it.”

The sheriff raises an eyebrow. Something that’s almost a grin curls his lips. “So, you’re a common snake-oil salesman.”

Al grins widely. “Oh — no, sir. I’m the best damn snake-oil salesman in the world.”

Silence follows his pronouncement. No one hurrahs or whistles. A surly crowd with a surly sheriff, not prone to belief in the miraculous, but if everyone was eager to open their wallets, what need would there be for salesmen?

The battle with the snake is half athleticism, half pageantry, replete with dodges and rolls, feints and thrusts and parries. Gunplay and pratfalls. When the dust clears, Al stands victorious — not that his status was actually ever truly in question.

Panting afterward, the sixty-foot-long snake slumped behind him, Al grins at the cautiously approaching townsfolk, the sheriff at their head. Fading sunlight glints off the diamond-patterned scales of the sand-colored serpent. A single drop of venom as big Al’s fist collects on the tip of a sickled fang. The rattle at the end of the tail suddenly shakes, and the townsfolk all jump back. Al glares at the snake. Its job is done. There’s no call for additional theatricality.

“Now, now,” Al says, palms out placatingly, “ain’t nothing to fear. The beast lies slain and can terrorize you no more.” He casts a quick sour glance at the prostrate serpent. “Indeed, this awesome and terrible creature shall be converted into a balm guaranteed to cure each and every one of you of your ills and extend your lifespan by years, barring, of course, trauma or calamity.”

Stepping to the front of the crowd, the sheriff hocks a gob of phlegm in the snake’s direction. It lands short of the animal but close enough that any living creature would react. This one doesn’t. The sheriff walks the snake from snout to rattle, inspecting it. A bit too closely for Al’s liking.

“Looks dead, true enough,” the sheriff says. “Much obliged, Mr. McNutt.” He hooks his thumbs into the belt loops of his dungarees; glances toward the setting sun. “I expect you’ll be on your way right soonish.”

“Why be hasty?” Al says. “Grant me but an hour to extract and prepare a concoction of the snake’s secretions, and I promise health and good cheer to each and every member of this town . . . save perhaps any doctors I should put out of business.” He chuckles at his own joke and feels gratified when a handful of the townsfolk join in.

The sheriff merely raises an eyebrow. But he nods once and says, “Get on with it, then.”

Silence settles between the snake-oil salesman and the people. After a long moment, he clears his throat. “A little privacy?”

Eyeballing him warily — the sheriff casting the hairiest eyeball of all — the townsfolk drift off, leaving Al alone with the snake. But the back of his neck burns, and he knows there are peepers scattered about, ensconced in barns and on balconies, spyglasses to their faces. Quickly and discreetly as he can, Al presses the healing oil from between the wide flat scales of its belly and collects it in a clay jug. Mixed together with a generous dram of plantain whiskey, it’s ready for consumption. For sale.

Which means back into town, back into the saloon, to the settlers, to the incredulous sheriff. It may not be the whole population of the town inside the saloon, but it must be close. More are sure to trickle in when they hear Al is back, and once they hear how effective his elixir is, any stragglers will stampede to get their dose.

Because if there’s one thing that Al has learned over his years selling snake oil, it’s this: the stuff’s a damn sight easier to sell when it actually works.

“Gather round, one and all,” he proclaims, voice at that perfect modulation equidistant between politician and carnival barker. “As promised, Aloysius P. McNutt has harvested the suppurations of the deadly and mysterious serpent, and returned with a potion guaranteed to cure, to heal, to protect. Not more than a few drops, and all your troubles — nay, all the troubles of this town! — will drift away like smoke in the wind. For what is health but freedom? Freedom to live on your own terms, to overcome any obstacle you desire.

“Such a potent medicine could command vast sums in the metropolises of the north, but Al McNutt is not a greedy man. For a pittance, a few coins, I am prepared to dispense this curative to any and all.” He smiles warmly at the crowd. Is it his imagination, or has his audience leaned closer? “Who shall be first? Who is most in need of curing? Step right — ”

“A moment,” says a voice.

Al suppresses a sigh as the sheriff elbows through the crowd. “Indeed, sir?” Al says. “You care to volunteer as the first patient?”

“Not exactly what I had in mind,” the sheriff says. “Why don’t you try it first? Prove its safety before you ask us to prove its efficacy.”

“Ah, surely I would, but I have imbibed the elixir before, and one dose is all that’s required for a lifetime. Despite the passing of years, I’m fit as a fiddle, as finely tuned as any piano.” Winks at the piano player on his bench. “No offense to your skill at that particular task, my man.”

“Nonetheless,” the sheriff says, tone as warm as a root cellar, “it would soothe my nerves to witness you sip.”

What did Al ever do to this man?

“Much as I hate to drink my profits . . . ” Al swigs. Throws back his shoulders, smacks his lips triumphantly. “And damn me if it don’t taste halfway decent.” He clears his throat. “As I am already the pinnacle of health, I’m afraid I cannot demonstrate the elixir’s healing properties. However, if proof is what you’re after, I humbly request a volunteer. Someone with a minor ailment — as the greater the ailment, the lengthier the time to cure. Any here with clouded vision, perhaps a touch of the arthritis?”

The crowd nudges a woman forward. Probably not much older than Al, though the wind and sun out here on the southern prairie weathers folks faster than their city-dwelling counterparts. Al himself certainly carries more of the years than he would had he remained back home.

“My hands can barely grip a shovel handle these days,” she says, “forget something delicate like a needle. If this snake oil works a fraction of what you claim, I reckon it’s worth a few coppers.”

“My dear lady, this is worth its weight in gold.” Al measures a dose of the elixir into a tin mug and passes it to her. Watches the crowd watch her as she drinks.

The woman raises an eyebrow as she licks her lips — the elixir really does taste good; Al adds sugar and a dash of cherry syrup. She holds her hands in front of her face, flexes the fingers. “It’s working already,” she says, wonder in her voice. “The pain lessens by the moment.”

A measure of her relief comes from the power of suggestion, Al knows, but most of it is real. And the elixir will continue its work, alleviating the pain, calming the fire in the woman’s joints. No more selling is needed with this crowd. The snake oil sells itself now, and a line wends out the door. The sheriff, Al notes, does not join it.

For as long as the people come, Al doles out the snake oil in tiny rubber-stoppered bottles. Only one dose is necessary, but Al’s learned over the years that folks believe medicine more effective when they have to take multiple doses, and who is he to refuse a profit? Once each morning for a week, he tells them sternly. Finally, the line peters out. Al, coin purse bulging, packs up the remaining snake oil. When he finishes and turns from the crate, he finds the sheriff waiting, hands on his hips, flanked by two deputies that Al hasn’t seen before.

“Come for your dose, Sheriff?” Al says. “Gratis for a man of the law.”

“Appreciated, but I’ll pass.” The sheriff nods backward at the night outside the saloon. “Dark one out there. I suppose you’ll need somewhere to spend it. Person to take care of your mule.”

“No worries, friend,” Al replies. “I’ve got my wagon, and that’s home enough for me.”

“I couldn’t possibly let you do that,” the sheriff says. “It gets so cold, and we’ve a warm cell back at the office.”

“Might be I can handle the cold.”

“Certainly you couldn’t leave before morning. You’ll want to ensure there are no ill effects. That any positive ones aren’t mere passing.”

No way out of this without drawing iron. Al has experience with a revolver, as anyone traveling the frontier must. He’s not the slowest draw, but he’s not a particularly quick one either. Never had to shoot a man yet, and doesn’t relish starting tonight.

He smiles as genuinely as he can and cuts a sweeping, wide-armed bow. “Show me to my chambers.”

The jail cell’s not the least comfortable place Al’s slept. There’s a cot and a blanket and a chamber pot. Could be worse. The sheriff must be a decent enough sort, if a tad suspicious for a snake oil salesman’s liking. Al’s not concerned, though. The sheriff may not have sampled the elixir, but near enough everyone else in town did. Come morning, the townsfolk will all be better than ever. If the sheriff refuses to let Al go, they’ll push him to do the right thing.

Al is lying on the cot, waiting for sleep to take him, when he hears footsteps. Measured, heavy steps. Leather boot soles. He grunts and sits up.

“Evening again, sheriff. Come to inspect my accommodations?”

“I trust they meet your exacting standards.” How about that. The man has a sense of humor after all.

“You know,” Al says, dropping pretense, “I truly am the genuine article. Frankly, I’m disappointed my reputation hasn’t preceded me. I’ve been at this some ten years now. There’s hardly a camp or settlement ‘cross this frontier I haven’t visited. To their not inconsiderable benefit, I might be so bold to add.”

“Oh, your reputation precedes you, no doubt.” The sheriff sucks his teeth and nods as if a thought suddenly occurs to him, but he’s underestimating Al’s ability to detect bull. “Tell me, Mr. McNutt, in these far-flung travels, have you encountered many of these unnaturally grown serpents?”

“This wasn’t my first tussle, no.”

“And in your pursuits, did you ever come across a place called Stenvall Mine, maybe better known these days as Stenvall’s Folly. Possibly by its oldest name, Kiimamaa. It would be naught but empty cabins and ruined storefronts now.”

Al nods slowly. “Mr. — I’m sorry, it occurs to me I never caught your name.”

A wry smile. “Stenvall,” the sheriff says. “Sheriff John Stenvall. Son of Hugo Stenvall, of the folly’s fame.”

“Mr. Stenvall — ”


Sheriff Stenvall. I’m sorry to say I’ve discovered no such place on my travels. It pains me to tell you this, as I imagine it was your boyhood home until some surely tragic circumstance drove you from it. Drove the entirety of the population from it, it sounds.”

Salesmen, at heart, are actors, and Al counts himself among the elite of both tribes. To anyone else but this sheriff, he’d sell his commiseration without question. Unfortunately, Sheriff Stenvall isn’t the type to buy such trinkets.

“Not driven from it so much as devoured by it. By a snake that rose from the mine. A demon that — though my memory is hazy with youth — bore passing resemblance to the one you dispatched this afternoon.”

“I imagine all snakes look more or less alike.”

Stenvall purses his lips. “I suppose you’re right.”

Maybe a minute passes while neither man speaks. Finally, Al breaks the silence. “Anything I can do for you, Sheriff? Still would be pleased to provide you a sample of elixir.”

“Strange, don’t you think,” Stenvall muses, “the way there weren’t reports of any giant snakes save the one, until recent years? And now it seems there’s hardly a town on the prairie ain’t been beset by one. Until you show up.”

“You weren’t lying about my reputation preceding me,” Al says.

“There’s been snake-oil salesmen forever, I suspect,” Stenvall says. “One who publicly battles the snake for its oil? That’s new enough to garner mention.”

“Then you’ve heard that I’m an honest man,” Al says. “That my wares perform exactly as advertised.”

“Reckon that’s so.” Still, he doesn’t request any. He inspects Al up and down for a long moment before turning to the door. He doesn’t look back as he says, “Sleep well, Mr. McNutt. I’ll see you off at first light. I don’t predict I’ll see you back here again.”

Al rolls his eyes at Stenvall’s departing back. No need for him to return to this podunk town anyhow. His work here is done.

Ghost towns held no particular attraction for Al back when he’d had to flee his home a decade ago — if they were nice places to visit, they wouldn’t be ghost towns. But the day he left, such a deterrent was precisely what he was hoping for. If he didn’t want to spend any longer than absolutely necessary in the town that a rotting and scrawled-over sign designated alternately as Stenvall’s Mine and Folly, then odds were fairly strong his current pursuers wouldn’t either. His father may have vowed that he’d hound Al for as long as it took to gain his satisfaction, but the men chasing him were hired guns — Al was betting they’d have more realistic limits.

For one thing, his father no longer had access to the vast sums he would have promised the men, and once they realized that, their enthusiasm for pursuit would hopefully wane. Sure, they could follow him across the prairie, track him through scrub forest. All in a day’s work for their like. But an honest-to-goodness ghost town? They had to draw the line somewhere.

Thus: Stenvall’s Folly. A town less reminiscent of a ghost than a skeletal corpse. Ghosts, at least, stirred the air, rattled chairs, displayed some sign of vestigial life. Not so here. Even the tumbleweeds in this town languished in the dirt.

Inside the local saloon, evidence of the abruptness with which the town had been abandoned lined the walls: bottles. Dozens of them, pristine, filled with expensive liquor. Whatever happened to this town didn’t leave enough survivors to pilfer the bar. Before Al arrived in Stenvall’s Folly, he had presumed that the old tales of a monstrous evil swallowing up the townspeople was a metaphor for the mine running dry. Now he wasn’t so sure.

He liberated two bottles of plantain whiskey and exited the saloon. Too obvious a hiding spot. Anyone who tracked him to this town, anyone who knew him well enough to bother following him this far from Portico, would know to search for him there right off. Whiskey bottle in each hand, he made for the church.

For the better part of twenty-four hours he drank and slept and waited and stewed on the indignity of being driven from his hometown simply for trying to do a good thing. He’d expected the townsfolk to support him. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have been surprised when they didn’t. After all, they hadn’t batted an eye back when his father hired all the town’s doctors to practice under his own shingle — first with monetary enticement, then growing more forceful as he consolidated power.

A town’s strength is in its health, he’d explained to Al. If you control a people’s health, you control their money. You control the people. And boy, had Al witnessed the accuracy of that aphorism. Balancing the books, collecting fees, rooting out any nurses or doctors trying to practice illegally. Selling folks on the necessity of visiting their doctor regularly. If they wanted to remain healthy, that is. Like his father, Al never personally resorted to violence, but that didn’t make his hands any less bloody. Yet, for all that his father had mentored him, Al had somehow developed a conscience. More fool him.

No one shadowed the church’s doorway while Al drank and waited and drank some more. Maybe the posse had given up hunting him, scared off by the stories of Stenvall’s Folly or else their anger slaked by the knowledge that Al was gone from Portico for good. Oh, his father had made himself perfectly clear regarding the severity of the consequences should Al return home, but as far as Al was aware, if he survived this chase, that threat ended at Portico’s borders.

Not that he planned to go back. He’d like to see the fruits of his work but could content himself knowing he’d done good. The town’s health and prosperity were its own again, though if he knew his father, there would be enough side business remaining that he and his daughter, Al’s sister, wouldn’t starve. Al hoped there was enough for the two of them to live healthy and happy, same as anyone else in Portico. Better than Al himself was likely to end up, anyway.

Between the inebriation and his own dark mutterings, Al didn’t hear dry scales slithering through the church’s back door. Didn’t notice the staccato click of a tongue darting between fangs to taste the air. Remained unaware that he wasn’t alone until he heard a sound behind him like bone dice clacking in a wooden cup, and he spun around to find himself face to face with a sixty-foot-long rattlesnake.

The thunk of a heavy key in a heavy lock wakes Al. It’s still mostly dark out, the sort of gray that heralds dawn. Apparently, Sheriff Stenvall meant out of town at first light literally.

Stenvall stands impatiently while Al stretches, rubs his eyes. “You mind?” he asks, tipping his head toward the chamber pot. Stenvall purses his lips but averts his eyes while Al completes his morning ritual. Neither speaks into the dark morning as Sheriff Stenvall escorts Al by foot through the waking settlement. Not until they are outside the town limits, standing beside Al’s mule-drawn wagon, the back of which is stuffed with the coiled body of the serpent. Amazing how tightly one can wind a very long snake.

“Well, sheriff, I guess that’s that,” Al says, climbing up to the driver’s seat and taking the reins. Whichever townsperson Sheriff Stenvall pressed into caring for the mule overnight did a fine job. Al’s grateful for that, at least.

Stenvall lifts his hand to swat the mule on the rump and send Al away. “Take care, now.” He opens his mouth, presumably to issue another of his not-so-veiled threats, but Al cuts him off.

“Don’t bother yourself, Sheriff. My charge in this camp is complete. Never again will I darken your streets or saloon.”

Stenvall pauses, his palm hovering over the mule’s flank. He wants to say something else — the man is not difficult to read — but wrinkles his brow, nods more decisively, and turns away. Al watches until he disappears amidst the clapboard and canvas buildings on the town’s outskirts, then he snaps the reins, and the wagon rolls off down the prairie road. Heading in no particular direction at the moment. Simply away.

“Did you have a pleasant night?” a raspy alto asks from behind him. Al glances over his shoulder and there’s Snake, her nose not two feet from Al’s own. Her tongue flicks out, and she dips her head to peer down her snout as sardonically as any snake ever could. “Because my evening was cold and cramped and more than a bit boring.”

“Don’t blame me,” Al grumbles. “That sheriff fancies himself an amateur interrogationist.”

Snake yawns, her jaws gaping open until they’re nearly perpendicular, and Al stares down her gullet as her two fangs stretch from their sheaths. If he didn’t know she was simply scenting the air, he’d be terrified.

“Interrogator,” Snake says, “And being as he’s the sheriff, isn’t he a professional one?”

“He’s a dilettante’s skill at it, then.”

“Having not properly met the man, I can neither agree nor disagree.” Pops and crackles as she writhes around the back of the wagon, working out the kinks formed during a long night of playing dead.

“See, that’s the thing.” Al watches Snake out of the corner of his eye to catch her reaction. “Seems the two of you are previously acquainted.”

Her tongue freezes mid-flick. If Snake had eyelids to blink in astonishment, she surely would. “I find that exceedingly unlikely.”

“Fella goes by the name of Stenvall. Sounds familiar to me.”

“It’s possible,” Snake says. Haltingly, softly. “A . . . predecessor. A prior incarnation. This sheriff, he may have met that Snake. Years ago.”

Snake’s never much liked to talk of her past, a similarity the two share. Centuries she spent alive before meeting Al, and he knows only the faintest outlines of stories from those years. But Snake doesn’t know much about Al before they met either, simply that he was driven out of his home, never to return. It’s an unspoken pact that they don’t press each other, living in the moment, focusing on the mission of spreading Snake’s life-improving oils across the frontier. Spreading the oil and its attendant health and happiness. Snake’s oil doesn’t precisely make the folks who imbibe it better people. But it does make them want to be.

Someday, Al will need to pry the full story of what happened to Stenvall’s Folly from Snake’s jaws, but not today. Today, they ride in silence down the road, passing gold and green fields of wheat and maize and sorghum that turn to expanses of wild grasses and purple-headed thistle. Trees sprout in clumps across the range, like some massive hand scattered their seeds as an afterthought thousands of years ago.

“He didn’t seem pleased to see you again.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would.”

Silence again. Al has the feeling that he won’t get any more from Snake, not now at least. Not without offering up a bit of his own history, spilling some of his own curdled blood.

“Would it be too much to hope that you brought a snack?” Snake asks eventually.

Al snorts. “Keep your eyes on the prairie. There’s sure to be some moa out there. You snatch yourself one of those big old birds, you’ll be set for days.”

Snake hisses agreement, the rattle at the end of her tail shivering in anticipation.

“So, then, which direction shall I point us?” Al asks. “Which far-flung frontier outpost is next to receive our beneficent visitation?”

Snake doesn’t answer until Al twists around in his seat to look at his reptilian friend. “What?” Al asks. “Where’s next on your agenda? All we’ve seen these years, ain’t nothing you can say is going to quail me.”

“We’ve been as deep into the frontier as we can go,” Snake says. “As deep as it’s worth going, anyhow. The goodwill, the elixir, it’ll spread. Peace will travel with it.”

“Lovely,” Al says, “but I’d bet your next words aren’t going to be that our work is done and we can rest.”

“The only place left . . . is the last place to bring the elixir to. From there, you see . . . it can disseminate across the land in all directions, back into the cities, all over the continent, the wider world. It’s a risk, but it’s our one remaining move. It’s our last stop, the culmination of all our work.”

“Spit it out, Snake.”

“We’ve got to go to Portico, Al. You have to go home.”

“Might be you’ve got a point.” Al wasn’t lying about his lack of fear. They truly have journeyed places dangerous and deadly. Hearing that they need to go to Portico, the place that Al least wants to see again, and that wants to see him even less — even that doesn’t frighten him.

But his stomach does begin to churn cold.

When Al’s heart resumed beating and he caught his breath, he responded to the rattlesnake’s hesitant, though friendly, greeting.

“Er . . . hello.”

“I know,” the snake said. “A talking snake. Not something you see every day. As far as I’m aware, I’m the last one left. If we’d met, say, two hundred years ago, you’d hardly blink.”

“Sure,” Al replied, his tongue as tied as the snake’s was long. And boy was it. Every time the snake tasted the air, Al shied back, unable to convince himself that she wasn’t about to strike and devour him whole. “Um, well. Pleased to meet you?”

“Charmed, I’m sure.” The snake hissed out something resembling laughter.

Fear still coiled around Al’s throat and innards, but he tried to shake it off. Why be scared now? Best he could tell, this beast had no cause to harm him, which was more than could be said of his pursuers. Which reminded Al why he’d chosen Stenvall’s Folly to hide out in in the first place. What he wanted to ask now wasn’t the politest question Al could pose at such a moment, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Are you the reason for this? The destruction of the town? Everyone dying?”

The snake didn’t answer for long enough that Al began to doubt she would, and when she finally spoke, she didn’t look him in the eye. “That . . . wasn’t me. Wander around town, you’ll see old skins lying about. The snake that shed those, that’s where to cast the blame.”

“No blame for me to cast,” Al said, hands up, placating. “Merely making conversation, though I’ve been informed my curiosity does tend to rub the wrong way.”

“Don’t think twice,” the snake said. They lapsed into awkward silence. Al had to chuckle. Worried about sociality when speaking to an enormous rattlesnake like the ones out of myth. Truly, this was an unanticipated turn of fortune.

The snake chuckled too. “It’s been years since I’ve seen a human being. Spoken aloud even. I can’t say with certainty how long it’s been since I was last aboveground. So, thank you for pulling me from my wallow. Too long I’ve made loneliness my friend.”

Al nodded. Despite all the people he surrounded himself with, despite the rarely ceasing stream of words that spilled from his lips, he too was acquainted with loneliness’s dull bite.

“Please to meet you,” he said again, certain this time that he meant it. He didn’t extend his hand for a shake, though. Not near those jaws. No use tempting fate. Besides, what would the snake shake with? “Aloysius P. McNutt. Everyone calls me Al.”

“Goodness,” the snake said. “I guess you can call me Snake.”

“Oh, come on,” Al scoffed. “A creature of your stature and history? That’s no name for you.”

The rattle twirled on the dusty ground, as if the snake was embarrassed. “Well, the people who lived here long ago, before this town, they called me the Glorious Serpent, Bearer of Health and Beneficence and Power.”

Snake it is. But that other’s a name with a story behind it, if I’ve ever heard one.”

And so Snake explained to Al all about her oil and its capabilities. With each word, new schemes sparked in Al’s brain. Yesterday had been the worst, lowest day of Al’s life. Now this fell into his lap. The greatest salesmanship opportunity he could ever find. All he had to do was convince Snake.

“See here, I think we could help a lot of people, with those effusions of yours. Why, with a little elbow grease, we could very well spread health and good cheer across this whole damn frontier, from mountain to sea. Course, we’ll need fair compensation. Now, just hear me out — ”

“Deal,” Snake said, and though Al knew to be wary of anyone who buys into a pitch too readily, he didn’t argue.

“If we’re to be partners, I should warn you,” Al said, “I’ve made some enemies.”

Snake nodded her massive, wedge-shaped head. “As have I.”

That didn’t surprise Al one bit.

To Be Continued…

Host Commentary

That was part one of THE SCIENCE AND ARTISTRY OF SNAKE OIL SALESMANSHIP by TIMOTHY MUDIE, and if you enjoyed that, well, you’ll enjoy the conclusion next week then, won’t you?

I’ll save any thoughts on the story until we’re at its final destination, so until then: so long, partner.

About the Author

Timothy Mudie

Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and LeVar Burton Reads. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at timothymudie.com or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.

Find more by Timothy Mudie


About the Narrator

Jairus Durnett

Jairus Durnett is a narrator and skeptic from the Chicagoland area. But really, he’s an everyman, just a regular guy trying to muddle through life, one day at a time. So, in a sense, aren’t we all Jairus?

Find more by Jairus Durnett