The Miracle Cure
Cures every ailment under the sun! Get it now!
Issue 25, Sunday 28 May 2023
The Miracle Cure
Getting out of the last town had been a close-run thing, Balthazar thought. Perhaps he should have given up the business after that; but then, it was the only trade he knew. What would he do instead? Work as a farmhand? Try his luck at panning for gold? No. There was really no choice, he just had to keep on moving and hope that he could stay ahead of his pursuers.
Thinking about getting caught made him anxious again, and he shook the reins. The long-suffering old mare whinnied in annoyance, but she sped up her pace a fraction and the brightly-decorated wagon rattled on down the dusty road.
There was another town up ahead. A new town. A new town always refreshed his sense of hope; it was like a beautiful dawn full of rosy color. He forced himself to smile. You had to appear to be cheerful, to be positive, to be beaming with good health, or no-one would believe in you for an instant. And belief was what it was all about.
Entering the town, he turned the wagon into what seemed to be the main street.
The town was called Kirkstone. A saloon, a general trading store, a blacksmith, a stable and saddler, and a small chapel. Not a large town, which was all to the good. News would be slow in reaching such a place, and the townsfolk would be starved for entertainment.
They were already staring at him. Two old men sitting outside the saloon leaned forward, eyes squinting. A scattering of children began to trail him as the wagon creaked along. Several women coming out of a store stopped when they saw him and began to talk among themselves.
He drew to a halt in what passed for a town square – just a slightly wider area of dusty roadway in front of the chapel. The mare began to drink eagerly from a stone water trough.
Balthazar stood up as a crowd began to gather about the wagon. He grinned and waved his hat.
“La-ay-dee-ees and gentlemen!” he bellowed out in his rich baritone. “Thank you for this warm welcome to your lovely town.” No welcome had actually been extended, but that wouldn’t trouble him, no sir!
“I am Doctor Orville Balthazar, known throughout the land for curing the incurable, giving hope to the hopeless and consoling the inconsolable. You have heard of me, no doubt?” I hope not, he thought to himself.
Allowing no time for an answer, he went on quickly. “No? That can only be because the many thousands of my patients want to keep the benefits of my treatments to themselves. Who could blame them? Once my medicine has done its work they beg me never to leave. But do I agree? No! It is my mission – my sacred mission – to spread the benefits of my treatments as far and wide as I am able.”
And so it went on. It was a lot harder, these days, without a shill in the audience. But Jackie Baker, his shill in previous times had… well, Balthazar had lost him four months ago. Jackie hadn’t been able to run fast enough. Perhaps Balthazar should have stopped the wagon instead of urging the mare to a reluctant gallop? Perhaps. But no, that would have been the end of them both. They had stayed too long in that town, that had been the problem. He knew better now.
Even without a shill, his pitch would work. It always did these days. Thanks to the Miracle Cure.
“You sir!” he called out. “Yes, you there with the crutch. Why are you lame, sir?”
A grizzled old man looked up with a skeptical expression. “I was in the war, sonny. Fightin’ the rebs, weren’t I? Took a bullet in my leg, and had to wrestle the doc who wanted to take the whole thing off with his saw. Never liked docs since then. Don’t like you.”
The crowd cheered on the old man, who was clearly a well-known identity around the town, expecting to see Balthazar discomfited. “You tell ’im, Bill!” came a call from the back. But they didn’t know Balthazar.
“I know exactly the type of doctor you mean,” he bellowed back. “Cut off a man’s leg or his arm rather than try to fix it. Well, that’s not my style. Here, sir, let me give you a free draught of the Miracle Cure, normally five dollars a bottle.”
Balthazar pulled out a green bottle with a bold, colorful label. “Come, sir, why not try it out? Free, gratis, no strings attached. Who could ask for a better deal? I guarantee that it will ease your pain and allow you to walk more naturally.”
The war veteran was reluctant at first, but with the crowd urging him, he limped towards the wagon, leaning heavily on his wooden crutch. Balthazar pulled the cork from the bottle and poured a generous quantity into a glass, which he passed down to the man.
The old man sniffed at it suspiciously. “What’s in it?” he asked.
“Natural herbs, spices, and a special ingredient known only to myself. That sir, is my trade secret.” And what a secret it is, Balthazar thought, with a slight inward pang.
The old soldier looked at the greenish liquid as if debating whether it was poison or not. After a long pause (and the jeers of the crowd), he lifted it up and gulped down a generous swig. Nothing happened.
This was the problem with not having a shill, Balthazar knew only too well. A shill would have immediately thrown down the crutch, started dancing about, shouting with joy. This way took patience and a little time. But it would work. Oh yes, it would work.
He distracted the crowd by pitching on about the benefits of the cure for another good five minutes, and then picking on another subject. A middle-aged woman, her face drawn and sunken. “Madam, may I inquire what ails you? I can see that you are suffering.”
With a half-sob, the woman said “Doctor says its a tumor, a tumor here inside.” She placed her hand flat on her abdomen. “It hurts, hurts real bad. Ain’t got more than a few months to live, he says.”
“Madam, my heart is pained for you. Let me offer you a draught of the Cure. It can do you no harm and will, I am sure, offer you comfort.”
Her face lit up with a kind of half-hope that it truly pained Balthazar to see. Still, business was business. She came up to the wagon, took the glass from him and swallowed it down without hesitation.
There might have been enough time by now. Balthazar turned back to the old man. “Sir, how does your leg feel?”
The man tentatively put some weight on it. “Well…” he said. “I guess… Reckon it doesn’t hurt as much as it did. Could be imagining it, but…” He handed the crutch to his neighbor in the crowd and tried a few steps. He still limped badly, but he was managing to stay upright without the crutch. Perfect, thought Balthazar.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “Like all good things, the Miracle Cure takes time. Your leg, sir, will feel better and better as the day goes on. Tomorrow you will be able to walk on it without a limp. The day after, and there will be almost no pain.”
An encouraging buzz of comment arose from the crowd. He looked back to the woman with the tumor. Her face was relaxing, its deeply-etched lines softening. “Yes!” she said, almost with a smile. “Yes. It is working. Doesn’t hurt quite so bad, anyhow.” The crowd began to chatter noisily.
“Now then,” Balthazar said. “You have seen what the Miracle Cure can do. I ask only a mere five dollars a bottle! A bargain at ten times the price! What is five dollars compared to the benefits of the Cure? Do you have pain? The Cure will ease it. Are you crippled or lame? The Cure will let you walk again. Are you blind? In time, the Cure will let you see. Deaf? In a day or so you will hear. Come, who will take the first bottle?”
Arms reached up eagerly, but then came a bellow from the back of the crowd.
“Stop! Stop, I say, in the name of God!”
Standing in front of the little wooden chapel was a man dressed in black with a white clerical collar. His face was red with anger. The padre, thought Balthazar with a pulse of annoyance. He’d had a little of this kind of trouble before.
The minister strode forward, pushing aside people in the crowd. He was a tall man in his fifties, well-built, no milksop priest like the ones with whom Balthazar had tangled in the past.
“Who are you, you charlatan, to promise what only Almighty God can deliver? Are you Christ himself, to whom it was given to raise up the dead and give sight to the blind? No. Begone with you, you and your trumpery medicine!” The townsfolk edged slightly away from the man and the power of his fury.
Balthazar forced himself to grin. “Well, now, padre, I’m sure it’s not a sin to help people to feel better. If it was, wouldn’t every doctor who sets a broken leg be committing a sin? Or every midwife who eases a woman when she’s bearing a child? As for being a charlatan, why don’t you ask old Bill here how his leg is feeling? Or ask this lady…”
“Meg Peterson,” the woman chimed in. “And I really am feeling a little better, Reverend Andrews. The pain is easing, I’m sure of it.”
But the minister wasn’t going to be deflected. “The devil plays us many tricks, Mrs. Peterson. Do not let yourself be taken in.”
“Well now, Reverend,” said the old soldier, striding across with barely a limp. “What I says is, what works, works. You been praying over my leg, and over Meg’s belly, for many a long month, and I don’t see as it did either of us any good. But now here we are, pretty near cured. I ain’t been able to walk straight ever since the war, but look at me now. I give thanks to God like any Christian man. But I thanks Him for sending this here fella to give me his medicine.”
The minister’s face turned a deeper red, and his nostrils flared. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Bill’s response had turned the mood of the crowd, and they began to jeer and call out. The minister tried to shout them down in vain. Finally he turned on his heel and stalked back into the chapel, slamming the door behind him.
“Now then, ladies and gentlemen,” called out Balthazar. “You’ve heard the testimony of Mrs. Peterson and old Bill here. Testimony to the effectiveness of the Miracle Cure. Who will be the first to buy a bottle? You, sir? Here you are, a mere five dollars.”
The crowd clustered around the wagon and he began collecting money and passing out the bottles. Within an hour, he was considerably richer, but was out of stock. He had to turn people away. If he’d still had an assistant, this was the point at which he would have had him filling bottles with coloured pump water in the back of the wagon, no need to waste the special ingredient.
To the disappointed customers, he simply said, “Tomorrow, my friends, I will have made up a new batch. Come back here tomorrow at noon.” But Balthazar had no intention of being there to meet them. He planned to be well on the road by then. He’d learned his lesson.
That evening, after feeding and stabling the mare, he spent a little of the money he’d made on a meal at the local saloon. He didn’t need to buy his own liquor, however. Grateful townsmen kept on coming up to him and telling him how the Cure had already done his wife, or his son, or his aged parent the world of good. One man even said that it had induced his cow to start giving milk again. They all wanted to stand him a drink. Normally Balthazar would find a way to politely refuse after the first drink or so, but tonight he was feeling weary and a little depressed. He accepted far too many whiskeys.
By the time he left the saloon to return to his bed in the wagon, the street was weaving and tilting beneath his feet. He fumbled with the keys for an age before he could unlock the door at the back. Finally, he was able to climb in. He closed and locked the door behind him, fell onto his narrow bed and sank into oblivion.
He woke with the light of morning streaming in through the cracks in the wooden paneling of the wagon. His head felt as if it were being crushed under a mill wheel. Someone was thumping on the door and each thump sent a bolt of pain through his head.
Feeling dizzy and nauseous, he went to the door. He had gone to bed fully dressed, he realized. He opened the door to a flood of painful light.
It was one of the townsfolk – the one who had given the Cure to his cow, if Balthazar recalled correctly. Tom something-or-other... Tom Denver, that was it.
“Say, Doc, someone’s being doing you a mighty ill-turn overnight. Figured you ought to know about it as soon as could be. You’d better come see.”
Balthazar climbed down out of the wagon, cursing the light, and cursing himself more. He’d meant to be well on the road before most townsfolk were up and about.
Tom pointed at the wheels of the wagon. Balthazar stared. Each wheel had been damaged: several pieces had been cut out of the wooden rim and pulled away from the steel tire, and some of the spokes removed. Bending down, he could see that the same had been done to the spare wheel slung underneath the wagon. It must have taken someone a good long time, and generated a fair amount of noise. Balthazar had heard nothing in his drunken stupor. He cursed loudly. Tom nodded soberly at his side.
Along with his anger, a tide of panic was rising within Balthazar. He had to get out of this town, and soon!
Tom was rubbing his bristly chin, still examining the damage. “Must have been kids, I guess. Dunno why they’d want to pick on you, though, Doc.”
Baffled and angry, Balthazar was about to comment, but he stopped himself and looked across at the chapel. The minister was standing at the open door, looking out with folded arms, his face expressionless. Balthazar clenched his fists. It was pretty obvious who was responsible, but he could prove nothing. Who would believe that a holy man would do such a thing? Besides, an argument would just use up valuable time. Time he didn’t have.
He turned back to Tom. “Is there someone in town who can fix this up?” he asked, trying to suppress the panicky catch in his voice. “A carriage-maker? A wheel-wright?”
“Sure,” Tom said. “Jim Jonson does most of that kind of work around here. If it was just a spoke or two, most anyone with some tools could fix it up. But a whole new wheel, that takes a bit of knowing how. Jim’s your man. I’ll go and fetch him for you, you don’t need to worry none.”
Jim Jonson was a massive man with muscular, hairy arms and an impressive gut hanging out over his pants. He ambled along the street after Tom. He looked at the stricken wagon and shook his head. He agreed to make up a new set of wheels, and prompted by a handful of the cash Balthazar handed over, agreed to have them ready as quickly as possible. “Day, maybe two. That’s the best I can promise,” he said. “Guess you can leave the wagon right here until the wheels are ready to be fitted.”
A couple of days! It might be all right. Maybe not. If only he hadn’t sold so many bottles of the real stuff yesterday. What had he been thinking? Coloured water would have kept most of the crowd happy once the first few cures had been evident. He should have been – would have been – long gone down the road before they knew any different. Again, Balthazar cursed himself.
Now what was he to do? The townsfolk, the ones he had turned away yesterday, would be back wanting to buy more bottles. On top of that, those who had already bought bottles might be back wanting more. Everyone knew someone who had one affliction or another. That was what made the business so lucrative.
Unfortunately he couldn’t fend them all off today with pump water and colouring. There would be enough time for them to find that out. He would have to make up another batch of the real stuff. If Jim Jonson was true to his word, it would be all right. And he wouldn’t risk getting drunk again. It would be all right. It would.
Inside the body of the wagon, with the roof hatch open to give him more light, Balthazar sat at his work table. The saloon had sold him a couple of crates of empty bottles and he’d already spent an hour cleaning them up and pasting on his labels. Now it was time for the ingredients.
Water. Herbs. A pinch of chili powder. A dash of rubbing alcohol and last but not least… the secret ingredient.
With slightly trembling hands, he picked up a heavy box and unlocked it. He stared at the grey stone within. The stone which had fallen from the sky almost at his very feet. A stone which at first had been so hot that it had burned his hand and he’d been forced to drop it. Then moments later, it had begun to frost over. Though Balthazar was far from being a religious man, he knew that the stone must have been sent to him, that he was meant to have it. It was a sign. A miracle, if you like. So – at first – it had appeared.
He’d heard of Chinese herb doctors grinding up ‘heavenly stones’ to make medicine. If it worked for them, why not for Balthazar? The surface of the loaf-sized stone was surprisingly soft and powdery, like chalk or sandstone. Though he had removed a substantial amount of material from it over the last three years, there was still plenty there. With his pocket knife, he scraped off another teaspoonful of powder and added it to the mix, then locked the box again.
Half-an-hour before noon, he had several dozen bottles ready to go, and he climbed wearily out, carrying them in a crate.
The Reverend Andrews was there in the street, right in front of him, his face working with anger.
“You do the Devil’s work!” The minister grabbed hold of the crate and tried to wrestle it out of Balthazar’s hands. Balthazar pulled it back and turned his body to shoulder the minister hard. The man staggered back.
“Seems to me, Reverend,” said Balthazar, “that some devil’s been at work chopping up the wheels of my wagon. Hadn’t been for that, I’d have been out of town by now.”
“And deceiving the good people of some other town,” Andrews said. “I know your type. You need to be stopped.”
“Well, I’m stopped right enough. Stopped right here. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?”
Furious, the minister turned away and marched towards the chapel once more. Balthazar gave a chuckle and went to the front of his crippled wagon. A small crowd of people was assembling, some with arms already outstretched holding out five-dollar bills. Balthazar climbed up with the crate and started selling.
Half-way through his supply of bottles, Balthazar’s attention was distracted by someone running down the center of the dusty street. Balthazar’s heart sank. It was old Bill, the veteran soldier. Running. Bill didn’t even glance at the crowd or the wagon, he just ran right past and out of sight as he turned a corner. Heads in the crowd had followed him and a great deal of excited chattering began. After that, bottles sold even faster and soon Balthazar was out of stock again. He put the remaining people off with a vague promise of more in a day or so.
Later that day, Balthazar went to Jim Johnson’s workshop, after having paid a passing boy a dollar to keep an eye on the wagon. Jim was hard at work shaping pieces for the wheel rims. So far he had assembled two of the new wheels.
The big man just shrugged when Balthazar asked about progress. “Tomorrow,” was all he would say. Balthazar thought about old Bill running down the street and felt sick to his stomach. He had little choice; he would have to stay through another night.
He slept little, trying to keep alert enough to prevent any further sabotage to the wagon. Each time he nodded off, he was woken by terrible nightmares.
At first light, Balthazar began to prepare for a swift departure. After paying his bill for stabling he tied the mare up at the hitching post nearest to his wagon so that no time would be wasted once the wagon had been fixed. After taking the necessary precautions he once again returned to Jonson’s workshop. Unfortunately, the last of the four wheels was still being assembled and Balthazar had to stand there anxiously fidgeting while watching the slow progress. Finally Jonson looked up. “Right, let’s get you on your way,” the big man said.
As Jonson rolled the first wheel outside, however, they were stopped by a red-headed youth, who ran up gasping for breath. “Doc, doc!”
It’s starting, Balthazar thought. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Doc,” the lad repeated. “I’ve come from the saw mill. It’s about Jack Dietrich.” He stopped, gasped in some more air. “There’s been a bad accident. Jack cut almost his whole arm off. There’s blood just everywhere. But, but…”
“What?” Balthazar asked, though he was pretty sure he already knew what had happened.
“He’s still walking about! They can’t get him to lie down, or hold him still to bind him up! He took some of your Cure yesterday, for his bad back. Can you come and see to him?”
“Is he still bleeding?”
“Some, but not what you’d expect. He’s like a crazy man, Doc, tells people it’s just a scratch and he’ll be right soon enough.”
Jim Jonson was standing with his mouth agape. Balthazar knew there wasn’t much time left. He couldn’t be distracted. “Run back and tell them to get hold of Jack and force him to lie down. Tie him up to keep him still, tie him up strong with rope. Losing an arm, that’s a bad shock, enough to send anyone a little crazy for a while. The Miracle Cure will see him through. I’ll come along when my wagon’s fixed.”
The red-haired youth hesitated for a moment, but then turned on his heel and started running back up the track to the mill.
Jonson shook his head in puzzlement. “Powerful stuff, that Cure of yours,” he said.
Balthazar had no time for polite conversation. “Yes. Let’s get the wagon fixed, then I can drive up to the mill.”
Jonson shrugged, and rolled the wheel down the street without further comment. He began to carefully fit the wheel on the propped-up wagon. Balthazar stood by, looking nervously about. After what seemed an age, Jonson finally had the wheel in place, and turned back to his workshop for the next.
In the distance, beyond Jonson’s lumbering figure, Balthazar spotted someone running down the road. The red-haired kid from the saw-mill again? No. No, it was the old veteran Bill.
Balthazar felt a renewed surge of panic. He dodged behind the wagon, but Bill had seen him. He ran up to Balthazar, but couldn’t stand still. Instead, he kept running in small circles, alternating between dashes back and forth. Nevertheless, his attention was fixed on Balthazar.
Short of breath, the old man tried to speak, failed, started again. He seemed to be forcing himself to slow down a little, but could still only manage short bursts of speech. “Have to run,” he gasped. “That Cure… cured my leg… cured it so much… have to move it… all the time… can’t stop running… How you… gonna stop it… Doc?”
Balthazar gulped and shook his head slightly. “I… I… I can’t,” he said.
“It don’t stop… Do it? The Cure?” the old man forced out as he ran in a circle, raising dust.
Balthazar could only shake his head. At that, old Bill gave an inarticulate cry and ran off, fast, down the street, dodging horses and carts, then out of sight down a lane.
A group of women outside the chapel had overheard the incident with Bill, and now Balthazar could see them whispering, their heads together. Word would get out quickly. He had to get out of the town before it got any worse.
Jim Jonson had returned with another wheel. His expression was grim and suspicious. “Heard just now about little Emily Ransom,” he said. His voice was loud, a bellow, Balthazar thought in dismay.
“Little kid, been deaf and blind since she had a brain fever two years ago,” Jonson said. “Her mamma bought some of your Cure and gave it to her. Now the kid’s screaming, they can’t stop her.”
“Screaming? Why is that?” Balthazar asked, trying to keep his face from showing what he really felt. If only Jonson would get on with fixing the wagon!
“Screaming that everything’s so loud, so bright. Keeps holding her hands over her ears and keeps her eyes screwed tight.”
More people had gathered near the wagon as Jonson talked. His voice had been so loud everyone in the street must have heard it. A crowd was forming.
“Just a temporary side effect of the Cure!” Balthazar announced with as much confidence as he could muster. “It will soon settle down again.”
Angry mutters from the crowd. Balthazar desperately tried to regain the initiative. He jumped up to the step at the back of his wagon.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he yelled out. “Do not be disturbed! These are merely proofs of how well the Miracle Cure works! As you see, there is no doubt of the efficacy of the Cure!”
“Yes, it works,” came a stern voice from the back of the crowd. It parted a little to reveal the Reverend Andrews, striding forward. “It works because it is the tool of the Devil, as I warned you. Tear this man down and we’ll make an end of him!”
Hands began to reach up towards Balthazar, who shrank back.
He was saved by an awful distraction. Down the street from the east came the mail coach, driving at speed. And right in front of it, dashing out from a laneway, ran old Bill. In a moment, he was under the wheels of the coach. One, twice, the coach lurched as it ran over him before the driver managed to pull it to a halt.
For a moment the old soldier lay still on the road amidst a cloud of dust. Then he stirred, and in a horrible, lurching motion, swung back onto his feet. One arm was twisted at a funny angle, and the other swung loose like a sack of stones. Blood poured from his nostrils. But nevertheless, he stood. A woman on the boardwalk began to scream as Bill staggered forward several paces, then steadied. And then he began to run again, in a half-toppling, sickening motion.
More screams, and the crowd around the wagon scattered in horror as he approached.
Seizing his moment, Balthazar threw open the door of the wagon, ducked in and grabbed up his cash tin and the box containing the ‘heavenly stone’. Then out again.
All eyes were still on the shattered shell of the old veteran. In a high-pitched voice that sounded nothing like his own, the old man gasped out “It don’t stop. It don’t stop!”
It was true, Balthazar knew. That had always been the problem. The Miracle Cure worked. Worked too well. And it didn’t stop.
Even while he was thinking this, though, he was down and running away from his wagon. Running towards the mail coach before anyone could gather their senses and stop him.
The coach driver was still in his seat, looking out in astonishment at the crowd now closing around old Bill.
“Here!” Balthazar said as he climbed up, shoving a handful of bills at the man. “Quick! You can have all of this. Throw out the mail, now! Then, for the love of God, drive on, as fast as you can!”
“Hey, mister, I can’t do…”
“Damn you!” Balthazar picked up the man bodily and threw him off the coach. Still standing, he lifted the reins, shook them, and urged on the horses. He grabbed the whip and cracked it, and flicked it at the horses’ backs. “Get going, dammit!”
Balthazar would never have succeeded in his escape had it not been for Tom Denver’s cow. Up ahead, it was dashing from side to side in the street, trying to gore people. Its udder, Balthazar saw, was huge and swollen, and squirting jets of white milk. It plunged towards the crowd near old Bill, and they scattered again.
The mail coach was slowly, oh so slowly, gathering speed and rumbling forward. Reverend Andrews was yelling at the people in the street, trying to pull them together to block Balthazar’s passage, but he was too late. The mail coach shot past them, going faster and faster. In a few moments, Balthazar was out of the town.
Another close escape, worse than the last town. Too damn close! And he’d lost his wagon, and the mare. What’s more, he had just stolen a mail coach. That had to be a jailing offense, if not a hanging one. He would have to give it up. Change his name back to plain old Oscar Brown. Maybe try his luck on the goldfields after all, or find a job as a farm hand. Anything but this.
They would be following him. As soon as they regained their senses, there would be men on horseback setting out after him. The coach wasn’t fast enough to keep ahead of them, and was too easy to spot from a distance. He would have to unhitch one of the horses and ride it bareback into the hills, hide out somewhere for a while.
He reached a four-way junction in the road. Here. He pulled the coach to a halt and jumped down, pulling out his knife to cut a horse free from its tackle. The one on the right looked the healthier and fitter of the two beasts. He began to cut through the straps.
He had only cut through one of the traces when a hand gripped his shoulder from behind, gripping hard, painfully hard. Balthazar shrieked with fright and dropped the knife.
“Doctor Balthazar?” said a soft, strangely unearthly voice. He turned. It was the woman to whom he’d given the free dose on the first day. She must have been inside the coach when he’d driven it off. What was her name? Mrs. Peterson. Meg Peterson.
Her hand squeezed tighter and Balthazar yelped.
“It’s growing,” she repeated. Her eyes stared at him without blinking. “It don’t hurt any more. Don’t hurt at all. But it’s growing, see.”
To his horror, as Balthazar glanced down, he saw her belly hugely swollen as though she was pregnant with some monstrous child. Beneath the woman’s drab dress, now stretched taut almost to tearing point, he saw something squirm and pulse.
He stared at her, appalled and dismayed. Of all the awful things that the Miracle Cure had done, this was the most awful by far.
“It needs more,” she said. “Give me more. More of the Cure.”
“Madam, I… there is no more!”
“More!” she said, her eyes fierce and fixed. “You cured it, you see. Cured it. Cured it of me! Now it must have more. You must give me more!”
“I…” Her hand was like a steel vice, squeezing ever harder. Balthazar thought he could feel the bones in his shoulder begin to crack.
“A moment, madam, a moment. Just let me get…”
She released him, but her hand fell immediately on the collar of the nearest horse and gripped it tight. Her strength was immense.
Frantic, terrified, he scrambled up to the driver’s seat and retrieved the box containing the ‘heavenly stone’.
“Here!” he said, as he jumped down. “Here! Take it, take it! The stone…”
But she had already torn the box open and pulled out the stone. Like some starving dog thrown a bone, she began to gnaw on it, heedless of her teeth breaking as she bit down. With a rip, her dress tore open, and inside her gravid body, something alive moved and stirred and grew.
Balthazar didn’t stay to watch what would happen next. He was running, running for the hills.
As he ran, his thoughts ran wild with him. Had this, he wondered, been the reason the stone had fallen from the sky? Had he been meant to dose one person after another just until the stone found someone with a condition it could really exploit? Had it been sent by the Devil, as Reverend Andrews would surely have said? In which case, what was it that was growing in Meg Peterson’s womb? Growing, and about to be born?
Behind him, the woman gave a final, terrible shriek, and there was a loud, wet, ugly sound. Balthazar heard the horses squealing in terror and the clatter of the coach as they tried to flee. He glanced back and saw something red and angular struggling up from Meg Peterson’s torn and fallen body. Were those leathery wings?
Balthazar shuddered and ran faster. Not, as it turned out, fast enough.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
I’m not sure about how I got the idea for this story. It may have been prompted by my reading No Name by Wilkie Collins, which features a con-man called Captain Wragge who ends up selling patent medicines. Anyway, I was musing on the idea of a snake-oil salesman whose product actually worked.
It was published in Novopulp Magazine, Issue 2 in 2015.
And that’s it for this issue. See you next time.