Day After the Cooters
A note of explanation about the Steampunk Quartet.
(with apologies to Howard Waldrop)
Sheriff Lindley opened his mouth to accept a fig from the beautiful woman in a diaphanous gown who was kneeling on the floor next to his couch. She looked like the woman on those cigarette paper ads, but more alert. She was holding the fruit just out of his reach, and he lifted his head a bit from the pillow. She smiled and pulled it teasingly further away.
Suddenly, there came a heavy pounding—thump, thump, thump—not very far from his head. The lovely courtesan ignored it, and dangled the fig from its stem, smiling flirtatiously. The sheriff leaned his head toward the fruit, but it evaded him.
The pounding grew louder. The woman gave him a provocative look, and said, “Sheriff! Sheriff! Wake up!”
She didn’t sound like a woman at all. He woke up.
“Gol Dang!” said Sheriff Lindley. “Leo, that you?”
“Yessir, Sheriff Lindley.”
“Didn’t I tell you I need my sleep?” Too late for that. The sheriff pulled himself out of bed, dragged on his suit pants and shrugged into his vest. He opened the bedroom door. “This better be good. Sweets and Luke take care of the rest of them cooters, like I told them?”
“I don’t think so, Sheriff.” Leo looked like the dog’s breakfast. He probably had less sleep even than me, thought the sheriff. Excitable fellow. “There’s someone here.”
“Those folks from that observatory out the Arizona Territory? No need to disturb my well-earned repose. Let them crawl around, if they wish.”
“It’s not Professor Lowell. It’s someone else. He told them to stop blowing things up, and they stopped. I thought you ought to know.”
Sheriff Lindley woke up again, for real. “They stopped?” He grabbed his suit coat and badge and strapped on his Colt Navy. “Bring the shotgun,” he said to Leo as he ran out the door.
* * *
Out by the Atkinson place, on a borrowed horse, Sheriff Lindley looked down at a well haberdasheried man carrying a small, square leather case, accompanied by a fluffy white dog with an unusually alert demeanor.
The sheriff flashed his badge. “Sheriff Lindley,” he said. “Mind telling me who you are and what you’re doing here, sir?”
The fellow reached into his vest pocket and took out a pasteboard card. He carefully handed it to the sheriff. “Ellis McKenzie Creel of Hemingway, South Carolina, painter and creator of miniature dioramas, at your service, sir!” he said with a flourish.
“Hemingway must be a very fine town, Mr. Creel,” said the sheriff, “if its painters dress so well.” He was a man who admired a well-cut suit, not that he saw many of them in Pachuco County. “And can you tell me what you’re doing giving orders to my men?”
“I had no idea they were your men, sir,” said Creel. “I took them for vandals or thieves despoiling this historic site, which I am here to preserve for the United States Government.” He pulled out a glove-leather wallet and waved an official-looking piece of paper. The sheriff did not doubt for a moment that it was fake.
“You can go back to your United States Government and tell them that I have everything under control.” He unholstered his Colt, but did not point it directly at the visitor.
Creel smiled slightly. A smile with a bit of steel in it, thought the sheriff.
“I beg your forbearance, sheriff,” he said. “Please allow me to give you a demonstration. This will not take long, and then my dog and I will be on our way.” He put down his leather case, and turned to the dog. “Abbey, show the sheriff what we are about.”
On command, the dog put both paws in front of her and bowed prettily to the sheriff, as in a performance. She then tugged at a string on the leather case, and it fell open. Inside was a strange contrivance, rather like a camera: a leather bellows and straps, brass fittings, glass lenses, and rosewood and bamboo casings. Creel bent down to pick it up.
“Handsome,” said the sheriff. “Step away from the device.”
Creel stepped away. “Please examine it, sheriff. Take your time. It’s harmless, but rather fragile.”
The sheriff re-holstered his gun and swung off the horse. When someone tells you a thing is harmless, he thought, it’s almost certain that the opposite is true.
He was just crouching down to look at the contraption when the dog tugged at another string.
* * *
At the renowned Theater of the Modern World and Martian Invasion Museum in Hemingway, South Carolina, Sheriff Lindley rode his borrowed horse, now on permanent loan, around the perimeter of the Old Atkinson Place diorama. He pulled out his watch and flipped it open. Almost time for them to let out the Martians. He stared forlornly at the painted horizon, shading his eyes theatrically with his hand. Then he twisted around in the saddle, doffed his second-best Stetson, and waved it at the giant faces peering in through the viewing glass. Like living in a fishbowl, he thought—not for the first time—and hot as an upside down washpot on a tin shed roof. But it’s a job.
Author’s note: Ellis McKenzie Creel is a men’s custom-made clothing salesman. He sent me these details about himself: “I grew up in Hemingway, South Carolina, in a tiny town (population 2500, we lived 15 minutes outside of the town). My dog is white and fluffy and her name is Abbey. I paint miniature figurines.”
Copyright © 2010 by Eileen Gunn