PodCastle 765: The Science and Artistry of Snake Oil Salesmanship – Part 2

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

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

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Visit our previous post to read Part 1.]

The Science and Artistry of Snake Oil Salesmanship

by Timothy Mudie



Portico. Threshold of the frontier. Jewel of the prairie. A town of graded roads and running water. At least, it had been in the nicer parts, where the rich folk lived, devising their schemes to fleece the desperate men and women passing through on their way to make a living on the frontier. A living that would become much harder once they were taken for whatever meager belongings they had. And no one batted an eye at that. But try turning it around and conning the rich for once, and suddenly you’ve gone too far and get declared persona non grata. Fair play, Al has learned, to his unending chagrin, is not a virtue held by the city mothers and fathers of Portico. His own father least of all.

On the way to town, Al tried to disguise himself with what sparse implements he could lay hands on. With the same knife he uses to play-battle Snake, he lopped off hunks of hair and crudely fashioned them into a push-broom mustache that he affixed to his upper lip with pine sap and prayer. He considered trying for a full beard but couldn’t commit to shearing off all the hair on his head. His hairline has been receding for years; no need to encourage it into a full retreat.

He is supposed to wait his customary one and a half days after Snake begins menacing the town — snatching livestock, hissing and snapping threateningly at passing stagecoaches, the old standbys — but Al’s impatience gets the better of him. This isn’t some newly erected settlement; the people of Portico will fight back, and hard. Despite Al’s warnings, Snake doesn’t truly savvy what she’s in for: doesn’t realize that this town may well outmatch them both.

Al rides into town at full speed, wagon clattering along the uneven dirt until he gets close enough that suddenly the road is graded and even and the wheels fairly slide along it. Snake is nowhere to be seen, hopefully hiding somewhere, biding her time between attacks, ensuring she is seen by enough people to cause panic but not so many as to put her in immediate danger. It’s a dangerous balancing act, their game. The trick to getting people to drink the snake oil is convincing them to fear the snake but trust the salesman.

A cadre of grim-faced men and women armed with shotguns and long rifles stand guard at the junction of road and town, sentinels against the encroachment of the untamed frontier. Any who can’t hack it out there wind up back in Portico eventually. Or dead. Al worries that today he’s going to end up both.

He slows the wagon as he approaches the group. Before they can see him clearly, he takes a deep breath, composes his face into his standard disarming grin. The wagon rolls up to Portico as languorously as if it’s carrying two lovers on a holiday ride.

“Heard tell you folks have a snake problem.”

“Bad news travels fast,” says a young woman, twenty years old if she’s a day. Streaks of blue dye color her otherwise stark white hair. Something about her reminds Al of someone he knows, but he can’t place it. A mustache hair has worked its way free and tickles upward at his eye, which waters and obscures his vision. The woman, the group’s apparent leader, steps forward. “Let me make a prediction — you’ve come to help us. You’ll kill the rattler, and all the pay you’ll ask is the chance to harvest its oil, to help heal our town.”

Al smiles coldly. The one time his reputation precedes him, and it’s here. Still, he can hope that the people of Portico only know the broad strokes of his story. Certainly they don’t know who he really is, or else someone would have come after him before now. He opens his mouth to introduce himself with a false name when the woman cuts him off.

“Aloysius P. McNutt,” she says. “We’ve been expecting you.”

So much for his disguise. He studies the woman’s face through teary eyes. Tries to blink away the hair. God, she’s familiar. More than vaguely. Probably someone he wronged. It’s a longish list.

“What an unalloyed pleasure to hear,” he blusters. Nothing for it now but to push ahead full tilt. “Dare I say, there is none on the frontier possessing the expertise that — ”

“Stuff it, thief,” the woman says.

“Insults are hardly — ”

“And take off the damn mustache. You look like a half-wit ignoramus.”

The term jars loose a memory. That particular oxymoronic insult is a favorite of his father’s and one frequently directed at Aloysius P. McNutt during his formative years.

Inwardly, he sighs to recognize what’s become of his sister, but outwardly he smiles. “Hello, Althea,” he says. “You grew up.”

“And you just got old.” She smirks at her own wit. Al can’t help but quirk a corner of his mouth as well. Quick on her feet, his sister. A true McNutt.

This may require a less flamboyant tack than usual. Al fixes his eyes on his sister’s, and sincerity infuses every word. “Regardless of any past quarrels, the fact remains that a snake threatens this town. To right old wrongs, I am prepared to provide my services and the resulting elixir at a more than agreeable rate.” Spite from Althea’s eyes. “By which I of course mean free of charge. Call it restitution.”

“You threw away my inheritance!” Althea yells.

“I was born first,” Al snaps, emotion finally getting the better of him. “And I doubt the people who benefited from its theft considered it thrown away.”

“See for yourself how well it benefited them,” Althea says. “We’ll deposit you into one of the very cells they once occupied.”

Uneasy coughing. “Excuse me?”

“Illegally destroyed contracts remain enforceable in Portico, and any who attempted doctoring without the benefit of Father’s protection were punished accordingly. As for you — you are a charlatan and a thief.”

“Aspersions aside, someone needs to deal with the snake.” He’s trying to hide his rising desperation, but this is Al’s one chance, his sole hope to buy enough time to slip this trap before the jaws fully shut on him.

“I’ll handle that,” a voice says from the back of the band. Perplexed and annoyed as Al is, it takes a moment to place, but sure enough, stepping forward, vexatious as ever, is none other than Sheriff Stenvall, sporting an expression of combined satisfaction, cunning, and smugness. He must have followed Al here, slipped into town while Al waited for Snake to wreak her havoc. Can’t he leave well enough alone?

“Believe you’re out of your jurisdiction, Sheriff,” Al says coolly.

“And I believe such strictures apply only to human quarry,” Stenvall replies. “And I further believe that the two of you are in cahoots.”

“Cahoots!” Al laughs. “With a mindless serpent? If that’s not the most ridiculous . . . ” He trails off as his sister directs three bulky posse members towards him. “I don’t suppose I could appeal to Father for clemency?” he asks Althea.

“Not without a medium,” she replies. “Father died three years ago.”

The men wrestle Al from his seat on the wagon, though he doesn’t struggle. The last thing he does before they bind his wrists with stout scratchy rope is to pluck the mustache from his lip. Their father’s favorite Al is right: it did make him look like a half-wit ignoramus.

Over the course of his life, not solely in the past week, Al has spent his share of nights in jail cells. Such is the life of a snake oil salesman. One thing he’s learned is that people love to gloat at prisoners.

Stenvall and Althea visit in tandem, which Al appreciates. Get everything out of the way at once. Give him some more time to puzzle out an escape from this trap.

They stroll to Al’s cell, the last in a row of them, each occupied by some poor man or woman who couldn’t pay off a debt or got caught trying to better the standing of them and theirs. The ones who didn’t get caught built the jail and hold the keys.

“You’re not half the salesman you think you are,” Stenvall says without preamble.

Hackles raise on the back of Al’s neck, but he’s smart enough not to tussle. Besides, he knows he’s a hell of a salesman. Better to play along.

Mouth crooked in wry acknowledgment, Al half-nods. “Might be you have a point there.”

“I read it in your eyes back home,” Stenvall says. “You weren’t telling me the truth, not all of it anyway. And what do you know, barely outside town limits, I spy an allegedly dead snake slither out of your wagon and go hunting, bringing you a moa like a birddog with a pheasant. That’s when I knew: this was the same snake that killed my family, that destroyed our town. And you sold your soul to it for a little coin.”

“Quite bit of coin, actually,” Al mumbles. Louder, he adds, “Snake never hurt anyone. She tells me she’s innocent, and I trust her more than I trust you. A desire for revenge curdles the heart and addles your mind. You’ve been living with it so many years now, I reckon you’ve mixed up what’s real and what you’ve imagined.”

“The snake’s a killer, and it’ll get what’s coming to it,” Stenvall snaps. Althea lays a hard hand on his shoulder, and he steps back, huffing. Too easy to rile this man.

“And you, Sister?” Al asks. “What do you gain from this?”

She sniffs haughtily. “Must be that I’m curdled and addled, myself. But I do expect that watching you hang will leave me mighty satisfied.”

There it is. The sentence. Al’s burgeoning confidence deflates as he feels the noose scratch his throat, envisions his feet dancing in the breeze.

“There’s no call for that.” But his usual cajoling tone now rings flat. “You got everything back. The money Father wanted you to inherit, the business, they’re yours. My gambit failed. Burning the contracts, freeing Portico’s doctors to help those who really need it, letting people live their lives healthy and out from under Father’s thumb. It’s exceedingly clear that it didn’t stick. So what do you have to seek revenge for?” Al isn’t trying to talk her into anything. He honestly wants to know.

Althea grits her teeth. “Father was never the same after you left. You’d think he actually still wanted you around — maybe he enjoyed the fighting. Maybe your actions made him see the so-called ‘error of his ways.’ I don’t know. But he was never the same, and he never treated me the same after that either, even after I took over the business.”

“Althea — ”

“You tried to ruin us, and he had the gall to miss you.” She swivels, sends one parting shot over her shoulder. “That’s enough evidence for me that you’re nothing but an infection that needs to be scraped out.” And she’s gone, the air in her wake positively crackling with spite.

That’s that, then. Al’s not getting anywhere appealing to their familial bonds.

If there’s any comfort to be had, it’s that Snake won’t meet the same end. She knows to skip town if Al doesn’t show, before someone who actually wants to hurt her can take their shot. He wishes they’d had a proper send off after all these years, but their lives were thrown together randomly enough, so who’s to say a random sundering isn’t the proper ending.

“It’ll be quite the sight,” Stenvall remarks. “You, wriggling on a rope like a worm on a hook.”

Maybe he intended to give away their plan and maybe not. It could have been a slip of the tongue, Stenvall too eager to demonstrate his own cleverness. But with that turn of phrase, Al realizes that Snake might not be so safe after all. The people of Portico aren’t merely hanging Al. They’re using him as bait.

Long before humanity arrived on the continent that would eventually become home to Portico and Stenvall’s Folly and the big cities to the north and the chicken-feed scatter of frontier towns to the south, gargantuan animals roamed the prairie and forests and deserts and steppes. Moa and snub-snouted bear and stilt-legged caribou and carnivorous bats whose wings obscured the moon and armadillo the size of stagecoaches. And so very many snakes. Rattlers and vipers and bloatheads and cottonmouths and pythons and corals and pipes and splitjaws. They hunted in tall grass and twined themselves up massive tree trunks and sunned themselves alongside burbling streams. Some took up residence in caves. Those hidden serpents survived longer than the rest when humanity showed up and began doing what humanity does to nature — namely, taming it violently.

Not all such creatures were hunted to extinction over the centuries of slow human dispersal, but all came near to it, especially the ones that could speak. Begging for survival only made people despise them more for their attempts at being equal to humanity. Eventually, however, equilibrium established itself, and humanity settled into an uneasy peace with the continent’s dumb bestial remnants. By the time the first settlers established a camp and trading post at the spot that would become known as Kiimamaa, and later Stenvall Mine, and eventually Stenvall’s Folly, Snake was the only one of her kind remaining, and she didn’t even know it, having spent so many decades hibernating deep underground.

Woken by the first stirrings of the mining operation, little more at that time than some men and women tentatively probing the cave walls with primitive pickaxes, Snake cautiously introduced herself. After the humans regained their composure, Snake and they struck a bargain. Safety for Snake — health and happiness for the people of Kiimamaa. It was not ideal for Snake, but she was alive, and she worked with the people. She was content enough.

For years, the arrangement held, and the village prospered. The people there took relatively little from the mine, instead living by farming, fishing, trapping. Snake devoured the occasional cow or pig or mouthful of turkeys, but she always asked first, and the farmers were more than happy to grant her permission. Children dared each other to sneak into Snake’s cave, and she would oblige their fear-seeking with a theatrical hiss, sending them scampering home to chuckling parents who had done the same thing when they were that age.

Snake shed her skin every few decades, growing ever larger, her memories carrying over to her fresh body like vivid dreams. For a day or three, she would forget who she was, hide in her cavern deep below the blossoming Kiimamaa, rattling in fright until someone from town journeyed down to reassure her, providing an offering of livestock, returning above with thick grease that would be transmuted into an elixir that healed wounds both physical and spiritual. Buoyed by the snake oil, Kiimamaa could lay claim to the mantle of healthiest and happiest locale on the continent.

With only a few people living in Kiimamaa, this beatific existence could have stretched on indefinitely, but where happy people gather, others seeking happiness are bound to arrive. Some of these people wondered at the lack of mineral exploitation, caring less for the compact with Snake than the promise of material riches. After all, they had tamed this land, and Snake was merely an animal. What right did an animal have to deny them the benefit of her oil when it cost her so little to provide? Why should they stoop to negotiation with a beast? Wasn’t it their place to take whatever they needed, whatever they could? The first time a group of men ventured into her cave and demanded her oil, Snake assumed it was a joke. When they strapped her down and pricked under her scales, collecting drops of the viscous orange fluid, she was so confused and shaken she didn’t even fight back. The second time they came for her, she did, and after that, humans stayed away for a while. They focused instead on their mining, on boring deeper into the stone, stripping it of everything it held inside. By the time that first year of intensive mining was out, the miners had been spending so much time underground that Snake’s tunnels reeked of people.

That spring, Snake shed her skin, but when she woke and flicked out her tongue, the air tasted of smoke and saltpeter and uric acid. This was not her cavern, not the home she knew. Something terrible must have happened. Memories, vague violent flashes, sparked in her brain. Humans attacking her, cutting her. She burst from underground like a geyser, white hot and roiling. Avenging every one of her murdered brethren. The people of Stenvall’s Folly never stood a chance.

After the settlement was decimated, after Snake’s belly was full and bodies lay scattered about, and the bloodlust faded, she remembered where she was, who she was. Though some of the townspeople deserved their fate, many others did not. Shame and anger and despair and righteousness warred within her, and she slithered back to her cavern to meditate and sleep. For all intents and purposes, Snake considered herself dead.

Decades passed, and one day a noble salesman rode into a ghost town.

Al never expected that he’d die in bed, surrounded by loved ones — he isn’t delusional. But he didn’t expect to die hanged for a thief on the dusty outskirts of Portico either. Because, although he may have grifted and conned and bent the truth, he’s never stolen anything, not in any way that an honest person could accuse him of. His sister and Sheriff Stenvall don’t care, of course. If anyone lives in Portico who does care whether Aloysius P. McNutt survives the day, Al would appreciate their reveal.

Hot sun beats down on hard dirt and Al’s head. He sits on a bench in the back of a wagon, hands tied behind his back, ankles tied to the bench. He takes stock of the scene, calculating his odds. Sweat dampens the shirtfronts of the men and women building the scaffolding from which he will swing. Every so often, one of them pauses, wipes a brow, consults parchment that Al presumes are assembly instructions. Maybe they’ll construct something wrong and the platform will snap before his neck does.

No sign of Sheriff Stenvall. Al scans the fields. Tall maize stalks, sunflowers overtopping the wagon, brine-apple trees sprouting where some careless traveler spat seeds years earlier. Plenty of places for a lawman and his cohort to hide, waiting to see if a snake will try to save a condemned man. Of course, those same places could camouflage a snake. Foolish as it would be, if Snake does try to save him, the attempt might not be completely hopeless.

Other than the workers, not many have come to witness Al’s shuffling off this mortal coil. Six guards loiter about the scaffolding, sure to be joined by the two accompanying Al in the wagon. Maybe thirty spectators, all poor folk by the look of them — clothes washed more times than the cheap fabric can handle, sunken cheeks belying equally sunken ribs beneath those clothes. These are the people his father bled, the people Al tried to free by giving them back their health. And if he hadn’t been caught out entering town, he could have finally finished what he started. Yes, he failed then and he’s failed now, but he tried. Not that he did what he did for acclaim, but still, he expected a less enthusiastic reception at his execution. Maybe they work for his sister. Maybe she’s paying them to jeer.

Because Althea is present too. Not back home avoiding the dirty work, not concealed in the fields preparing to battle a monstrous serpent. She wouldn’t miss Al’s comeuppance for the world.

Smirking, she strides to the wagon, motions with the tilt of her head for the guards to untie Al from the bench. They leave his wrists bound, of course.

“Big brother, I never thought I’d see the day,” she says.

Al sighs heavily. “Likewise.”

“Some say that achieving vengeance leaves one feeling hollow afterward . . . ”

“Wise counsel,” Al says. “I’d hate to think my death might sap you of your ambition.”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

Best as he can with his wrists lashed together behind him, Al shrugs. “I won’t argue with you. You were a kid — you didn’t see what Father did to people. How he built his fortune on this town’s suffering, how he gained his power just because he was willing to be crueler than most. All I tried to do was right the balance a little.”

“Daddy helped people,” Althea snaps, though for a moment Al thinks her voice falters. “He paid doctors to take care of people. Without him, how would they know who to care for or what to charge for it? Starving doctors can’t help anyone.”

“And what about the people who couldn’t pay what Father charged?” Al says, raising his voice so everyone can hear him. “The folks who can’t pay what you charge them now? You think every doctor in town does it for the money? That not a one actually wants to heal people? Go ahead and release them from their contracts, divest yourself from the school. See what happens.” He chuckles ruefully. “I think you’d find that the people of this town are better than you give them credit for. Or at least they’d want to be. All I ever did was honor what Father pretended to promise.”

Althea reddens, and it’s not due to the summer heat. Everyone’s watching them. The spectators, the guards, the workers on the scaffold. Hidden in the foliage, Stenvall and his posse observe as well, Al wagers.

“Daddy trusted you. You! And you betrayed him. Like a worm. Like a weasel. Like a . . . a . . . ”

“Like a snake?” a raspy voice asks as Snake bursts from the fields on the side of the road opposite the scaffold. Despite the dire straits, Al can’t suppress a grin at Snake’s theatrical flair.

Panicked screams rise from the assembled spectators as they stumble over each other in their flight.

“Wait! Wait!” Al yells. “This serpent isn’t here to harm you. If anyone here remembers me, trusts me, believe me now!”

Althea cuffs Al on the back of the head, and he falls to his knees, pain jolting up his legs and spine. His jaw snaps shut on his tongue, and he tastes copper. Any words he attempts now will come out garbled and dull. The one surefire way to hobble a salesman.

He spits blood and prepares to speak anyway. Snake does so instead.

“Friends,” she rumbles, the final letter of the word a sibilant hiss. “You needn’t fear. For years I have listened to my dear compatriot Aloysius describe the wondrous town of Portico and the gentle people here. For years, traveling the plains and forests of the frontier, how many times have I beseeched him to journey home, to share my gifts with those most deserving? It is my utmost pleasure and privilege to stand before you today.” Snake twists her head around, flicks her tail, displaying the lack of legs. “So to speak.”

Hesitant chuckles from the crowd. What do you know? Snake’s picked up some patter. Al watches, rapt. Forgetting about his furious sister standing next to him. Forgetting about the armed men in the fields.

“I have no doubt you’ve been offered snake oil before,” Snake continues, “but has it ever been sold by the snake direct? Who better to vouch for its efficacy? My associate and I, at no financial risk to you — ”

A gunshot cracks from the tall grass, and a bullet ricochets off Snake’s scales with a sound like a pickax gouging rock. She flinches, her rippling body slapping the ground. Spectators duck, hands flying to their heads. Al shouts angrily, warning Snake away. Althea triumphantly yawps and draws her own revolver. Little good it will do against Snake’s natural armor. Al hopes.

Snake rears back, bares her fangs. Looses a hiss as loud as a tornado. From the fields, men and women rush her, brandishing guns, machetes, thick ropes, and nets.

Stenvall steps from the field, double-barreled shotgun held to his shoulder, muzzle aimed square at Snake’s open mouth. “You think you can destroy my home? My family? And get away with it? Try to portray yourself as some savior?”

“Your people attempted to steal something freely given. You didn’t deserve it. I wanted them to pay for attacking me, and I lashed out. I was angry. I’m . . . I’m sorry.” Snake slumps as she speaks, the weight of years heavier than any net. Everyone stares. No one watches Al. He could slip into the fields, fade into the countryside, make for the sea and a boat far away.

This must be Snake’s plan. Distract everyone and sacrifice herself so Al can escape. And here he thought she knew him better than that. Fire rises in Al’s gullet. His hands clench into fists. “Damn it all!” he bellows. “Ain’t none of this fair, and every soul here knows it!”

The roar of the crowd dims for the briefest of moments, but their surprise won’t last. Surely, Al’s not the first condemned man to protest the noose’s legitimacy.

“It doesn’t have to be this way.” Still on his knees, looking at his sister, at Sheriff Stenvall, at the gathered spectators. “Living on the outskirts of civilization doesn’t mean we need to exist on the knife-edge of barbarism. We can work together, all of us, and make something better than what’s here. Maybe I didn’t go about it the most honest way before, but when you’re fighting against a dishonest . . . We can do better. We can be better. Trust Snake. Trust me, and I promise you, each and every one of us shall improve in health and moreover in happiness.”

Althea grasps Al by the collar of his shirt and yanks him with a strength Al hadn’t guessed at. He falls back, feels more hands grabbing his arms, pulling him toward the gallows. “Get out of here, Snake!” he yells. “Run!” The absurdity of telling a serpent to run is not lost on him, even at this harrowing moment.

Stenvall confronts Snake, shotgun raised to his shoulder. Narrows his eye as he takes aim.

Al jerks and twists and wrenches himself free from the guards’ grip, landing hard on his backside. Althea stands above him, revolver targeting his head. She draws back the hammer.

A rock the size of Al’s fist thuds off Althea’s shoulder, knocking the revolver’s muzzle askew. Even though he’s on the ground, Al ducks, covers his head, presuming the stone was meant for him.

“When my wife got the bitterblood fever, Albertus McNutt refused to sell her medicine!” one of the spectators, a man about Al’s age, shouts. “Claimed she’d waited too long to call for a doctor, that giving her any help would be ‘wasteful to those more deserving’.”

A woman steps up next to him. “Albertus McNutt fined me more’n a year’s wages because I had an abscess drained without getting his permission first. I could barely walk with it! Without the no-good son’s help burning up the credit records, I’d’a been ruined.”

Al furrows his brow at the “no-good” descriptor but likes the tack the mood is taking. Snake and Stenvall watch the scene unfold, neither moving, both tensed to strike.

Althea glares at the folks who’ve dared interrupt her moment of victory. “You all want to mourn this scofflaw, feel free. You can bring flowers to his grave.” To the guards, she snaps, “String him up.”

The guards who’ve been standing behind Al move between him and Althea. “You think anyone’d take this job who weren’t desperate for money?” one asks. “I’m still paying back Albertus McNutt long after he’s dead, and my family’ll be paying him after I’m dead too. No man who poked a stick in his eye can be all bad.”

Stenvall snorts a mix of disdain and bemusement. “I don’t need assistance to kill this snake.” He levels the shotgun.

“And I don’t need any to kill this one,” Althea says, her finger tightening around the trigger.

That’s the moment Snake chooses to make her move, darting away from Stenvall, her rattle clacking wildly, leaping in front of Althea as she pulls the trigger.

Al jumps too, away from his sister, toward Stenvall and his shotgun. Adrenaline spikes and slows everything down. He barely hears the simultaneous gunshots.

Buckshot rakes his right side from flank to ankle, stabs of sharp pain exploding down his leg. Dull pain joins it when he lands on his stomach, skidding along dirt and gravel. Al’s drunk his share of snake-oil elixir, but good as it is for what ails you, it has its limits. Blinking away tears, gritting his teeth, choking for breath against his lost wind, Al checks for Snake, praying the bullet ricocheted off her, that it didn’t hit a soft spot or angle in under a scale. She’s tough, but she’s not invincible.

Chaos rages around them. Guards and spectators have allied, and they grapple with Althea and Stenvall and his select few loyal men. Guns fire into the ground and sky, but quickly their bullets are all spent and no one has the opportunity to reload. The rebelling townsfolk wrestle Althea and Stenvall to the ground.

“Get out of here!” the formerly abscessed woman yells in Al’s general direction.

He scuttles through the fray, dragging his ruined right leg, making his way to Snake’s head, praying to every god he’s ever heard of and a few he’s made up. Blood leaks from a hole the size of a walnut. Blood, and something deep amber. Snake’s oil, blessing the ground where she lies dying.

Al’s good leg gives out, and he collapses into a puddle of blood and oil. His fingers curled into claws, he scoops up what he can, a mixture of vitality and dirt, and presses it against Snake’s wound. He doesn’t know why; he simply wants to do something, anything, to staunch the flow, to keep Snake from succumbing to the wound she took for him. It doesn’t occur to him to do anything for his own wounds, but his moments scrabbling in the bloody, oily mud does something for him. He may be feeling an iota of strength return.

From behind, Al hears it. Rattling. Clacking loud like bone dice in a wooden cup, a sound that should spark fear in the deep instinctual recesses of Al’s brain. He sobs a laugh.

Althea and Stenvall struggle against the rebelling townsfolk, and Al understands that eventually they will rise back up, both to their feet and to their social stature. The rich businessperson, the law enforcer — they are the ones who wield power, and they will not relinquish it lightly, no matter how much snake oil they might take. It may provide health, it may inspire those who consume it to be better people, but there are limits. Always, there are limits.

Snake could end Stenvall and Althea right now. She could flick her rattle and snap their spines, spread wide her jaws and swallow each of them whole. Al wouldn’t blame her.

Instead, she makes a noise like a tin coffeepot boiling on a campfire and ripples the length of her body. Oil flecks off, droplets landing on Al, the guards, the spectators, Althea, Stenvall, all of them. Little of it, and Al doubts any gets into their mouths, but it’s something. Even now, Snake can’t help but share her gift.

She twists back, looks Al in the eye. “Things took a bit of a turn.”

Al snorts. “I’m inclined to agree. What say we skedaddle?”

Snake hisses and rattles in consternation. “Al? We can’t do that,” she says. “They need us here.”

“And we need our lives.”

“Do you remember what you told me when we first met? We were going to help folks. We were going to spread health and good cheer.”

“Can’t force happiness.”

“No, but we can create the circumstances for it to flourish.”

Al observes the dwindling chaos. Stenvall and Althea are subdued and bound. Al knows they aren’t the only powerful people in town. But these folks who stood up for him, who saved him and Snake, they aren’t the only oppressed people in town. Maybe they also aren’t the only ones willing to fight back, to grasp what is theirs and hold on tightly. He tried to help once and failed. Twice, technically. But maybe he can help now. It’s frightening, though. Who’s to say he won’t fail again?

He spits a gob of bloody saliva into the mud. Looks around for a canteen. He’s going to need a fresh mouth for all the salesmanning ahead. He’s got to sway a lot of people, got to convert a whole town from backstabbing and grift to community and magnanimity. It’s a tall order, but Snake will help, and so will the elixir. To an extent. What Al sells hasn’t transformed him into a better person.

It just makes him want to try.

Host Commentary

That was THE SCIENCE AND ARTISTRY OF SNAKE OIL SALESMANSHIP by TIMOTHY MUDIE, and if you enjoyed that, Timothy was here not so long ago in episode 744 with The Ocean Eyed Boy; if you want more, go back to Escape Pod 679 from May 2019 for AN EVER-EXPANDING FLASH OF LIGHT, or find his story DIFFERENT PEOPLE on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast from December 2021. Timothy’s website at timothymudie.com has dozens of other stories available, so go fill your boots.

Timothy sent us these notes on the story: Unusually for me, I came up with the title for this story first, and the story grew from there. I thought it would be fun to not only write about a snake oil salesman but one whose elixir was the real deal. It was hard to keep it from veering into a common anti-corporate theme that runs through a lot of my work, so I figured I’d lean into it. Health care is a human right.

Thank you, Timothy, for the notes and the story. That was just a delight, wasn’t it? Sometimes you get a story where the very best word for it is satisfying. It scratches every itch you got: gives you engaging characters and a rollicking plot and food for thought, too. The best compliment I can give it is it never felt like an 11,000 word story, because it pulled me through like a freight train across the West. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and I hope the world gives us more people like Al, who really have got something to give back; who can see that trying to climb the ladder by kicking your fellow people off the rungs below just leaves you sitting atop a pile of bodies and flies. Feels like there’s more than a few people out there in the world today, always trying to sell us something, who could stand to learn that lesson.

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