Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of short fiction based on Dark Trails RPG classes by Pete Spahn. As part of separate project Pete and his partner Brandon Goeringer stat out the story for gaming.
Mountebank: The typical “snake oil salesman” of the frontier, these amateur alchemists and full-time showmen find that the events of the Seven Days of Night have unlocked a doorway to the mind that reveals recipes that defy all logic and, once brewed, resemble the magic potions of legend.1
Fort Barton, Oklahoma, 1870.
Fort Barton was one of a long chain of stockade forts intended to protect settlers and maintain peace along the Western frontier. The fort was built atop a hill overlooking the Lyman River where it commanded a clear view of the entire valley.
That view had grown bleak in recent times. A three-year drought had settled across the land. The once-green grass was now brown and withered, with only twisted scrub growing amongst the bones of lifeless trees. The river had slowed to a trickle; its bed was more mud than water. Life still thrived in Lyman Valley, but it wasn’t the kind of life folks remembered from the time before—not since that unholy darkness had blotted out the sun and the world turned bad.
Dr. Karl Ebershaum huddled beneath a white linen cloak as he drove his garish medicine wagon towards the fort. The wagon was blue in color with the words Dr. Ebershaum’s Haibachery painted in gold letters on the side. It was loaded down with luggage and personal effects and pulled by a single, bored mule named Nurse Willhomena. Its wheels creaked across the dry ground, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
The U.S. Army sentries atop the wall watched his approach. They were stoic and gaunt, with chapped lips and sunbaked skin. Dark goggles covered their eyes and blue, military-issue turbans had replaced their traditional caps. Rifle barrels wrapped in cloth kept their weapons from overheating in the blazing sun. Dr. Ebershaum raised a hand in greeting, but they did not return the gesture.
He was almost at the gates before they opened and, once inside, the doors slammed shut behind. The wagon was instantly surrounded by soldiers as Ebershaum reined to a halt. They rudely began to open his bins, untie his tarps, and sort through his belongings. One soldier checked the wagon’s rear door and, finding it locked, took out a knife to pry it open. Another climbed on top and fumbled with the straps holding his luggage.
“Here now, stop that,” Ebershaum said. He tried to push the men away, “Stop I say.”
“All right, that’s enough,” said a weary voice. The soldiers stopped what they were doing and grudgingly gave way to their superior officer.
Dr. Ebershaum noted the pair of silver leaves on his shoulders. “I thank you, Colonel. . .?”
“Lieutenant Colonel,” he said. “Cary. Martin Cary. You’ll have to forgive my men. We’re low on food, clean water, and supplies. The last two wagons never made it to the fort so we’ve been on quarter rations for over a month.”
“I do understand,” Ebershaum said. “Such a terrible place to be without necessities. I have some personal stock. Perhaps I may be able to help a bit with the water.”
“Colonel!” one of the soldiers exclaimed. He had uncovered the three red monster hides Ebershaum had salvaged from yesterday’s attack.
Colonel Cary examined them, frowning. “Where did you get these Boarcrawler hides?”
“Is that what you call them?” Ebershaum replied. “Ah yes, their faces were rather pig-like with the tusks, and all. I fought off a pack of them near a dry spring about a day’s ride from here. Terrible beasties. Their squeals are frightful.”
“You fought them off?”
“Of course I did,” Ebershaum said indignantly. “With a little help from one of my own concoctions, that is. I call it Ebersham’s Ointment of Galvanic Agitation.”
Ebershaum gave a wink. “Lightning Cream, if you will.”
“Lightning Cream,” Cary repeated.
“That’s right. Simply rub some on your exposed skin and wait for the fireworks to start. I had thought the light and sounds might scare the monsters off, but it turns out they were quite susceptible to the electricity. Killed those three outright and sent the others running. Dry hide’s not used to lightning I suppose. Probably because thunderstorms are so rare in these parts.”
“How many of them were there?” asked a grizzled soldier with sergeant stripes.
“A dozen, I’d say.”
The sergeant winced. He and Lt. Colonel Cary exchanged worried looks as the gathered soldiers drew a harsh intake of breath.
“Problem?” Ebershaum asked.
“I’d say so,” the sergeant said.
“Sgt. Brinkman is right,” Cary said. “Boarcrawlers usually hunt in pairs. They don’t travel in packs that large unless they’re planning a raid. We’ve been seeing signs the past few weeks, but had hoped we were wrong. This is bad.”
“They can get over the walls?”
“If they’re determined enough. Our cannon is broken and the dust rats have been at our stores again. We don’t have enough ammo to withstand one of their wave attacks.”
Ebershaum snapped his fingers. “My Lightning Cream!”
“What about it?” Cary said.
“Allow me to demonstrate.” Ebershaum rummaged through a chest and took out the last jar of the pale blue cream.
“Stand back now, please,” he said.
He dipped a finger into the cream and then rubbed it against his thumb. Raw sparks crackled from his fingertip, arced out and struck a wooden hitching post, causing it to smolder. The men cursed and drew back. “Now, that’s just a little taste of what it can do,” Ebershaum said. “Colonel, if you can supply me with some room to work, I’m sure I can craft enough Lightning Cream to give you and your men a fighting chance. Of course there is the matter of compensation for my time and the ingredients, some of which are extremely rare and exotic. Payment in advance, of course.”
Sergeant Brinkman scoffed. “You’re in this mess just as deep as we are, huckster. The crawlers’ll have this valley surrounded by now. Your only hope is to help us drive them off. Ain’t no getting’ outta here ‘til it’s done.”
“I beg to differ,” Ebershaum said. “I got in, didn’t I. I have a few tricks up my sleeve yet. I’m sure I can get out.”
Lt. Colonel Cary intervened. “Easy, Sergeant. We have money aplenty, Doctor. Out here, there’s nothing to spend it on. If your cream can really help us, we’ve got to take the chance. Let’s get you settled so you can start right away. Tell me what you need.”
Ebershaum scouted the small, wooden fort for the next hour. The few dry wooden buildings were either too large or too small for his use. He finally commandeered the cramped hospital as his workspace. He parked the wagon just outside the back door to unload supplies while two men suffering from heat exhaustion were relocated to the mess hall.
Sergeant Brinkman delivered his payment in full, ten wads of dusty bills bound tightly together with twine. “Here,” he said, scowling as he stuffed the bills in Ebershaum’s hand. “This’d better work. Else’n you won’t live to spend none of that.”
“Oh, I assure you, I plan to live,” Ebershaum said, hefting the bills.
It was a sizable fortune to be sure. Ebershaum stuffed the money into a valise and hid it inside his wagon, in case the sergeant or any of the soldiers had second thoughts. He then wet a cloth from a canteen and rubbed the dust from Willhomena’s nose and mouth. The old mule had fallen asleep and paid no notice.
At Ebershaum’s request, the soldiers delivered a large kettle to the hospital and dug out a firepit in the center of the room. He arranged his bottles, pans, jars, and candles, creating a makeshift laboratory. Ebershaum then rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
His book of recipes was his most prized possession. It stayed in an oilskin pouch belted inside his shirt until it was needed. He thumbed through it now to make sure he had the ingredients right.
Lack of fresh water was his main concern. The small cask he kept was good enough for personal use, but if he was going to supply enough cream for all the soldiers he would have to improvise. He went through his stores and cracked open some of his older stock of love potions, snake oils, and muscle extracts. These he filtered into a pan through several layers of cloth until he had separated the water from the other ingredients. Mostly, anyway.
The water, both fresh and recycled, went straight into the kettle. Coal and dung were lit for heat, and the room soon became stifling. As he waited for the water to come to a boil, he heated a block of hardened crow grease in a cooking pot until it softened. Iron dust, sulfur, firefly wings, and a few other choice ingredients were added to the thick, soupy mix.
As he worked, an unnatural sense of power suffused his spirit. The Craft! This was what he lived for. Alchemy was one part science, one part something . . . else, with a product that was much larger than the sum of its parts. Not just anyone could mix the list of ingredients together and make them work. It required a master who had been kissed by the Other.
Even so, mistakes could happen, and yes, there were sometimes unintended side effects. That was the nature of the beast. But he never let those thoughts slow him down. This was his calling and he was one of the best.
When the water began to boil, he picked up the cooking pot with a pair of iron tongs and upended the crow grease mixture into the kettle. The bubbling water immediately thickened, turning an incandescent blue. Success!
It took very little time to package the cream into small jars and issue them to the Fort Barton soldiers. The men dubiously looked them over. One of them sniffed at it, as if pondering whether or not it could be eaten.
Ebershaum quickly addressed Lt. Colonel Cary. “Tell your men not to apply the cream until the monsters attack. Contact with the skin—or mouth—starts the chemical reaction. I’d suggest letting the creatures get close to the walls to maximize the number of kills before they retreat, but I’m no military man.”
“If this works,” Lt. Colonel Cary said, holding up his jar, “The U.S. Army will be placing a large order for more. I guarantee it.”
Dr. Ebershaum liked the thought of that. It was the kind of recognition that was hard to come by. In fact, the fame was more important to him than the money. To have his name spoken in every military camp in the West—that was something most alchemists could only hope to achieve!
“What if it doesn’t work?” Sergeant Brinkman asked.
Dr. Ebershaum frowned. There always was a naysayer in the group. Before anyone could answer, a bugler on the wall belted out a few ragged notes, sounding the alarm.
“They’re coming!” Lt. Colonel Cary said. “Man your posts!”
The soldiers scrambled to the walls.
Cary turned to him. “Find someplace to sit this one out, Doc.”
“Oh, have no fear, Colonel. I have just the place.”
Dr. Ebershaum retreated to the safety of his wagon where Willhomena had fallen asleep in the act of feeding. Ebershaum adjusted the mule’s feedbag and then climbed on top of the wagon to watch the battle unfold.
The soldiers lined the catwalk atop the walls. Lt. Colonel Cary and Sergeant Brinkman directed men into position on opposite sides of the fort, meaning the attack was coming from all directions. From his vantage point, Ebershaum could hear the oncoming squeals of the attacking Boarcrawlers, but could not see them on the other side of the walls.
The command to aim were given. Then fire. A volley of shots rang out. The soldiers dropped their rifles and opened the jars of Lightning Cream. Sparks began to fly as they applied the cream and furiously rubbed their hands together.
The first of the Boarcrawlers reached the top of the wall. Their appearance was unsettling. The monsters loped on all fours, with clawed forelegs that were longer than their hindlegs, much like that of a hyena, except they had hands and could climb and grab like a man. Thick red hides bristled with short hairs and a pair of long tusks jutted from their porcine mouths.
The one atop the wall squealed and charged the nearest soldier who reflexively threw up his hands to ward it off. A crackling bolt of lightning flew from the soldier’s palm. It struck the Boarcrawler in the face, and the hellish creature instantly caught fire. Pig-squealing in agony, it tumbled off the catwalk and thrashed about inside the stockade until the soldiers on the ground bayoneted it to death.
Other Boarcrawlers were scrambling over the walls, and now the air became thick with crackling electricity as tiny bolts of blue lightning arced from the soldiers’ hands. When struck, the monsters caught fire and screamed in their death throes. The soldiers gave a ragged cheer, hopeful for victory.
But then something went wrong. Dr. Ebershaum saw a soldier suddenly levitate up inside the stockade, wreathed in sparks. Bolts of lightning crackled from his empty eye sockets and blackened fingertips as he screamed.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Ebershaum looked for Lt. Colonel Cary and spied him atop the walls. His skin had begun to glow with a blinding blue light. As Ebershaum watched, a torrent of blood and crackling energy erupted from his mouth, striking a group of soldiers who were in the act of heaving a charred Boarcrawler carcass off the wall. The monster and the soldiers exploded, spraying bits of flesh and bone across the walkway.
Hmmn. That wasn’t supposed to happen either.
Dr. Ebershaum flinched in surprise as one, two, three, separate lightning strikes hammered the earth with the sound of a thunderclap, leaving only charred remains on the ground—remains that looked suspiciously like bundles of bones wrapped in burnt soldiers’ uniforms.
Here and there along the walls, fires had erupted. The lightning had ignited the dry timbers and the flames quickly began to spread. In no time at all, the fort was ablaze. The panicked Boarcrawlers inside the wall lashed out at anything that moved. Sergeant Brinkman waved his sword around, trying to rally the surviving men through the fire and smoke, but only chaos reigned.
Ebershaum had seen enough. He climbed inside the wagon and, with an apology to poor Nurse Willhomena who had woken up and was quietly munching her feed, closed and locked the door. The Bedlamite who had designed the wagon had assured him it was both waterproof and fireproof. He hoped the inventor knew his craft.
In the meantime, Dr. Ebershaum tried to figure out what ingredient might have caused the unintended side effects. If he was going to market the cream to the U.S. Army, he had to get it right.
Included for those not familiar with the Class ↩