Like most newcomers in those old boom-and-bust mining towns, I’d come to Paradiso for the gold mines and stayed on for the debt. A debt in a town where you’re a known quantity is always cheaper than a debt in a town where you’re an unknown quantity. Fresh blood always draws the sharks.
Well, when it became pretty clear after a few months of blasting myself and my capital away in the gold mines that I wouldn’t strike it rich anytime soon, I figured I might as well try my hand at some other kind of unskilled labor: reporting.
The Daily Paradiso was like most other dailies we all know and hate. It was understaffed, underpaid, and remarkable only in its propensity for underachieving. I walked into the editor’s office one day in the midst of a duel. The editor-in-chief had a notorious weakness for women, particularly those married to another man. Just as I crossed the threshold, the bold challenger fell. I stepped over his sorry corpse and gave a summary of my purely imaginary qualifications to the editor, who was still mopping his brow. I was hired on the spot. My first story lay right at my feet, and I wasted no time in sharpening my trade with that hallowed monument of great literature, the obituary.
For a few months I scurried around Paradiso for the Daily, establishing myself under my illustrious new name, Monty Laponty. Though my adopted home was a humble town of just one bank, one saloon, and one general store, it nonetheless played theater to a multitude of dramas. Did I mention that I was the only reporter in its midst? By and by, I was sick to death of the same tired old drivel, day after day. A man can only stomach so many scuffles, standoffs, shootouts, hold-ups, kidnappings, robberies, and ransoms before they all start to feel mighty tiresome. When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, and any further intimacy simply breeds revulsion.
I’d started my illustrious journalism career in April, and by August I was washed-out and drenched in sweat, with a hankering for a fresh story that was as debilitating as my craving for ice cream, that sweet ambrosia of the gods out there in the desert. But a story wouldn’t just drop from the sky into my lap! I decided I would have to get creative. The proof of the porcupine is in its sting, so goes the old adage. I decided to start stinging.
About twenty-five years ago, right about the time I was a promising young journalist with a glimmering future ahead of me, an outlaw named Rattlesnake Jones reigned as the Scourge of the West. (It was a rotating title, biennially selected by an unbiased committee.) Well, one night when he must have been pretty desperate for capital, he rode into Paradiso with his gang of scoundrels to hold up the bank. They trotted in about midnight, but in those days everyone—man, woman, child, cripple—slept with an eye half-open and a hand on the trigger. So naturally Jonesie had a lot to reckon with, though that didn’t deter him in the least. He lost a few men in the shootout but forced his way inside the bank—that is, until the crazy old geezer we called “Smithereen” lit up his dynamite and nearly blew us all to pieces. Well, that seemed to be the end of Jonesie.
The next day, the Daily headline, courtesy of yours truly, read: “SCOURGE OF THE WEST SURVIVES BIG BLAST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! RIDES FROM PARADISO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LEAVES THUMB BEHIND AND SWEARS TO RECLAIM IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” With that story came my opportunity. I didn’t just report the news, I made the news, crafted it, curated it, put my very selfinto it, I did. When Smithereen’s hot flames had cooled, I did some digging in the rubble and found a thumb I thought had to be Jonesie’s. I did the public a great service that day by keeping Jonesie alive. It would be bad news indeed if a hobbling old fart could obliterate such a mastermind as the Scourge, so I extrapolated, just a little. He could have escaped, who knew? No one ever recovered enough appendages to make up a full corpse, and I’d known many a blown-up mine veteran to survive, even thrive, with remainders amounting to a toothpick and a piece of string. Besides, it was better to keep a Scourge alive. It kept the common people on their bunioned toes.
And, I must admit, Jonesie was a real friend to me. That day, with that scintillating headline, my name was made. You see, Jonesie was my ticket to fame—not fortune, which was of course rather to my misfortune—and fame by the bucketloads. My stories were reprinted all over the Mojave Desert, a spit of barren land over half the size of Great Britain. Monty Laponty and his stories were on everyone’s lips and laps.
Yes, Jonesie returned the favor I had paid him by keeping him alive, giving me a ready lead whenever I was in a dire strait. A mysterious murder and no promising suspects? “RETURN OF THE SCOURGE!!!!!!!!!!!!” or “DANGER!!!!!!! JONESIE SWEARS REVENGE ON PARADISO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” would do quite nicely. (I’ll let you in on an old trade secret: the number of exclamation points is in strict proportion to the level of uncertainty—and of course intrigue.) An inexplicable decline in robberies? “THE SCOURGE WILL RETURN SOON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! UNNAMED SOURCE TELLS ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” With the welcome help of that miserable miscreant, Rattlesnake Jones, I’d found my ambrosia in the desert.
But, of course, news being as it was, I had to stay spry and get my scoops as they came, too. It wasn’t all fun and games. In fact, I nearly caught some pretty blistering fire for printing a story about my editor and his latest love interest. You see, I was pretty smitten too, and I didn’t like to see her exploited, so I ran a story: “DAILY EDITOR WOOS MYSTERY GIRL, FEUD IMMINENT!!!!!!!” Of course, I knew exactly who the mystery girl was—the sheriff’s daughter—but it was better press to let things marinate anonymously, then reveal tidbits bit by bit, milking each one, teasing them out real gentle-like.
Well, I knew better than to show my face around town for a while after I sent that beauty to press. What’s more, the editor had just brought on two new reporters (the poor babes). In my paranoia and claustrophobia I had worked up quite the appetite for a change of scenery. I decided I’d make the weeklong trek to Gran Sueño, the biggest city in spitting distance, and fashion myself a new identity there. I saddled my dappled donkey, Little Kicks, who’d seen me faithfully over hundreds of miles and more than a few mountain ranges, and packed some hard tack, canteens of water, my cast-iron skillet, some salt pork, a compass, and a change in britches.
For the piece de resistance, I paid a visit to Madame Zazu, the resident healer of Paradiso. Somewhere back in her lineage was an Indian, but she was so ancient no one dared question her right to live amongst us white folks. She was large and wrinkly and tanned, like an old seal. Her deep-set eyes were onyx-black, yet somehow twinkled at night. Anyone within whiffing range of her was enveloped in a cloud of heady musk, not unlike the sassafras trees in the backwoods of Pennsylvania that I used to clamber up, down, and around. Within the Madame’s beguiling cloud I could almost hear the sparrow twitters and bluejay caws, the rustlings of squirrels and their cousins, the naughty chipmunks–all the camaraderie we young barefoot ruffians had out there in what we claimed as our territory, our wilderness. Like some siren song, someone’s mother somewhere would start hollering, silencing us and our fellow woods-dwellers, and it would be time for supper, and maybe a spanking, if we’d been careless enough to tear our clothes or forget a burdensome chore like butter-churning. I missed the seasons, the healthy deadening and renewing of those forests, from top to bottom, inside to outside. In the desert there was no change, only an indifferent, beating sun and indifferent, beaten people, spread out not over a wilderness, which at least offers some prospect for romance, but over a flat, impervious wasteland, where romance couldn’t be had, for any price, anywhere, except maybe for the Indians, who lived in it, tapped its secrets, knew its garbled language. The desert was an enigma, and none of us wanderers had courage enough to approach the Sphinx.
Well, as I said, I was on my way to the Madame for some essential accoutrements for my journey. Madame Zazu had a helper, a shy little girl she called Mimi, maybe her granddaughter, great-granddaughter, great-great-granddaughter, nobody really knew for sure, or dared ask. Madame Zazu was, like the landscape, a cryptic mystery we feared and respected yet didn’t understand. She spoke perfect English, but always with some unintelligible twists. If you came to her for a cure for a headache, she’d give you some powdered concoction in a dusty bottle and murmur something like “heads and toads, find your abode, turn topsy-turvy, and lick the cold.” Perfectly grammatical, of course, but maddening.
Strange as she was, though, she cared, and whatever her cures were, they worked. A roving doctor had wheeled into town a few years before, complete with his ramshackle wagon, a curmudgeonly old billy goat that bit like a snapping turtle, and myriad promises of “miracle cures.” He called Madame Zazu a fraud (the irony, I tell you, was striking, even to us slow-as-molasses townspeople) and declared that he’d be able to run her out of town right easy. But a sudden outbreak of cholera soon certified the true professional. All of those unfortunates persuaded over to the doctor’s practice died, as did he. Each and every one of Madame Zazu’s faithfuls, however, survived. As one survivor put it, “A healer’s a healer. A doc’s just a goddamn bleeder.”
I sidled into Madame Zazu’s cramped shop, a little shack propped up at the edge of town next to the general store.
“Monty, my dear,” she said as she shimmered at me from her velvety chair, which was carved with lizards that looked more like dragons.
“Afternoon, Madame,” I replied, bending and kissing her hand as if I was meeting a queen—and I was, in a way.
“You look unsettled. You come for a wayfarer’s kit?” As always, she was more than warm, she was downright fiery in her accuracy.
“Mimi!” the girl appeared, peering at me with the lazy curiosity native to a cat. “Prepare a wayfarer’s kit, my child.” While I heard rustlings and clankings in the pantry, which lay behind another velvet curtain, Madame Zazu began humming—deep and throaty with the sultriness of a bullfrog at midnight. Then the murmuring began, just as rhythmic and melodic: “Turpentine, serpentine, ladle and cradle, let the rain fall, onto the table.” Then, more fervently, with closed eyes and pursed mouth: “Gold in the mind, digging to find, keep yourself under, rumble and thunder.” Mimi was back, my parcel in hand. She gave it to Madame Zazu, who, after inspecting it, handed it to me, squeezing my hands gently with her own, just for a moment.
I knew already what was inside the parcel. A few tablets that would clarify any water, still or running, cloudy or clear. Some soft chews for diarrhea or cramps. A few sour red berries for energy. And finally, a frosty turquoise bottle with a skull and crossbones etched into it. Instant poison capsules—the final remedy of the desert that beat the alternative uncertainty and horror of a pistol on the temple.
Thus victualled, I thanked Madame Zazu and Mimi, stumbled into the late afternoon haze, mounted Little Kicks, and set off for the further West, into the haze of the setting sun.
Little Kicks was tired but stodgy, weaving her way carefully over the sand, trying her best to give me as few saddle sores as possible. We traveled mostly by night, when it was cooler, because I had my compass.
A day in the desert is the same as an eternity in the desert. On the night of the third eternity we heard less rustlings in the sand of unknown rodents and reptiles, and the forlorn howl of the coyote, which seemed regular as a grandfather clock’s loud chime on the hour, was suddenly nonexistent. There was a heaviness that night, a humidity thick enough to saw into, and the pressure in my head was almost unbearable, a sure sign of rain, that deliciously rare dessert of the desert.
But when it rained in the desert, it was no light and dainty profiterole. No, it was a deluge, a big dripping fudge sundae, as if Mother Nature had been saving up her weekly allowance for years to drown us all at once. We were drenched in a twitch of the finger, and Little Kicks slipped into a trot of her own accord—she hated to be wet more than anything. I knew she’d be better equipped to find shelter than I would, with my dull human senses, so I sat back and relaxed, as much as one can in a flash flood.
Pretty soon Little Kicks had found what looked to be a boulder but was actually a secret cave, a refuge in the rough. She stopped to let me dismount and led me into the cave, surprisingly dry and hospitable. I lit my small lantern and we proceeded. The entrance dropped down from ground level invitingly, and seeing as the water was coming in fast, we continued to descend.
I had found a one-way passageway from California straight to Arabia, from manhood to childhood, right into the dwelling place of Ali Baba and that legendary subterranean realm of treasures, genii, and adventuresome perils. I had a dim awareness that something dangerous might lurk there, some poisonous reptile or insect, some infinitely more dangerous evil spirit, but we continued, alternately contorting in sharp turns and narrow passageways, then suddenly being dwarfed by cathedralesque spaces, deeper, deeper, down into the seemingly bottomless lair.
And then someone coughed, not so much farther from where we were, in a cramped alley. Both Kicks and I froze and looked at each other. There were two options: we could proceed and risk confronting the cougher, who must be human, or we could turn tail and find ourselves in another cavern, far from the unknown, who could be dangerous. Well, common sense ruled Kicks, who had already started turning back, but I was ruled by a different idol: curiosity. So I pressed on, and the donkey fell into line.
“Hello? Who goes there?” I yelled, friendly as I could, given the volume and the echo, which perverted my kindly tone.
“HELLO?! IS ANYONE THERE?” I abandoned kindliness in favor of audibility, because the silence crept all sinisterly on me.
Footsteps on the rock floor.
I walked to meet them, slowly but steadily. As we emerged from the alley we were in an almost cottage-like cavern, cozy and rounded. I was greeted by a shadowy form—big, bulky, breathing heavily.
“What’n’ the devil’s name you want?” he threatened with a deep, robust voice–one that could beat you up and give you a black eye, if you let it.
“We’re sorry to intrude, but the flood brought us in, and I heard your cough and thought someone might need some help.” I thought I’d try kindliness again. I lifted my lantern, to illuminate us both. Little Kicks had retreated to a corner, a little on edge.
The speaker was an oily-looking, barrel-chested, burly man. His brown hair was long and hung all around his face, like a caveman. His skin had the swarthy tan of a pirate, and his teeth were surprisingly white, though a little too pointy. And in his hand was a knife, delicately poised.
“Well, now, this cave’s pretty big, why not? Ain’t been out much, might do me some good to talk to a fellow man’n’donkey. I gotta warn you, though, I ain’t one to abide much yammerin’, I gotta reputation to uphold.” I wasn’t sure what this reputation was, but I thought I’d take up the offer. If someone was dangerous, better to keep them close so as to keep a closer eye on them.
I unloaded Little Kicks and offered the stranger some of my hardtack. I didn’t let on that I had salt-pork—overzealous generosity could easily turn into a recipe for starvation. We fell to talking, intermittently. He mentioned he was on the run from some real persistent bitches of the law, but failed to specify any wrongdoings on his part. He asked me what line of business I was in, and I said I was just a good-for-nothing rover, another pipe-dreaming millionaire, and he took that as sufficient.
I’d put out my lantern while we talked, ate, and silenced, but to put things away and get my blankets arranged I re-lit it. In the renewed glow, I noticed a dirty bandage covering the outlaw’s right hand, which he had been using in the darkness to prop up a pipe, or maybe a voodoo doll, he was carving with his left. All of a sudden my neck started tingling fiercely, though I wasn’t sure why.
“What happened there?” I asked, pointing at the mummified thing. I could just make out a glint in his eye as he smiled, almost coyly, dropped his knife and carving, and began unwrapping.
“Here’ll be a curiosity you’ll never forget,” he said. And lo and behold, as he disinterred it, there was a white limp hand, all stark and grisly from its confinement. There was no thumb, only a gnarled old stub in its place. I gasped suddenly and felt my heart racing. Little Kicks, not wasting any more time, ran from where she’d come, and left me all alone with the Scourge of the West.
“Why so ‘fraid?” the derelict chuckled, almost merry. But then he read a terror in my eyes, and he turned slightly vicious, sensing prey in the trap.
“What’d you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say.”
“You just a drifter, you said? A miner, a hither-thither kinda fella?”
“Yep, that’s me,” I gulped.
“Why so scared?”
“I’m not scared at all, not frightened a bit, just totally unruffled, that’s me.”
“You sure talk a lot for a miner, and I been noticin’—you use some godawful long and ramblin’ kinda words.”
Now I was prey, pure and simple, a quivering rodent out of the trap and into his nine-fingered hands. He had paused, for effect, still eyeing me, considering me, in that ever so gently flickering lamplight.
“You wouldn’t be no writer, would’ya? ‘Cuz I don’t like writers. Few years back a fella named Monty Laponty started throwin’ my name all over his local-yokel paper, sayin’ I was returnin’, ‘razin’ all law-abidin’ towns in the West,’ if I ‘member right. His papers been circulatin’ from that teensy town all over the West, and ‘cuz he said I had no thumb, I was recognized wherever I went. And that’s what kept me, for close on two years now, livin’ like a prisoner, no place to go.” He kept a measured eye on me. I twitched a little.
“Listen, mister, I don’t know who that Monty character is, but he sure isn’t me. I don’t want to impose on you, so if you let me go peacefully, I’ll go find myself another cave. Just for your trouble, I’ll give you something I know you need.” Now here was a novelty. He knew I was lying, but I might have something valuable.
“And what’s that?”
“Well, sir, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You’ve got yourself a bad case of cramps, I can tell.” Here he grunted in assent. “And that isn’t any way to live your life. Now from where I come from we got ourselves a healer with the best remedies, and she’s got these capsules that’ll cure you right up. You might look so good you’ll be a new man—and you can go right on back into the world, marauding and crusading like you used to!”
“What in the hell is maraudin’ n’ crusadin’? You the queerest talker I ever heard. You just keep your words short’n’simple, or I’ll cut you down to size! But fetch you them capsules, I wanna see ‘em.” He grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me down as I began to get up. “If’n this is some kind of trick,” he whispered to me as I smelled with intimacy his rank onion breath, “I’ll skin you’n’ your donkey limb by limb, so’s you can enjoy it, properly.”
I hustled over to the saddlebag across the cavern and rustled in it until I felt the turquoise bottle and shook out all three capsules—it only took one to do the job—into my palm. Then I sauntered back to Jonesie and bestowed the capsules upon him with all the ceremony of a sacrament, as much as I could muster without shaking in my boots. He sniffed them, turned them over, looked at me, sniffed me, turned me over, then, just as I thought he’d force-feed one to me, popped the lot in his mouth, showing his shining white fangs. I figured he had five minutes, tops, and tried not to sweat too obviously. We waited.
After sixty seconds, exactly (I was counting), he said he was feeling a little woozy. I said that was all part of the cure. At eighty seconds, the faint tremors started. All part of the cure, I said. And, then just over two-hundred-and-forty seconds, the death throes, the unmistakable rumblings, the earthquake within, made it unmistakable.
With exactly sixty seconds to go, violently shaking from head to toe, he rose and pulled his dagger from his belt. He staggered toward me, blood in his eyes. He tackled me to the ground with the sheer force of his weight, and we were wrestling. Even almost dead, he was strong and overpowering, and he almost stabbed me in the eye, missing me by an ant’s length as I rolled out from under him. Then he almost got my ear, but I turned my head and bit him on his ear. At last he pushed me up against a wall, and of the strangest things to happen, my right thumb got caught in a little crack, wedged in there like a fat caterpillar in its cocoon. Just as he was about to raise the knife for the death blow, he collapsed on top of me, knocking my wind out. In a one-armed struggle I pushed off the warm corpse.
Trying not to vomit, I wriggled around and tried to dislodge the thumb, but it was stuck in there real good. I must have struggled for an hour, two, three, who knows? It’s all the same underground in the dark. My head was aching, I was thirsty, my arm felt like concrete, and my thumb had gone all numb. I couldn’t believe my sudden downturn in luck. Was I to kill an outlaw only to die here myself? Maybe I could pull so hard I could rip my thumb off.
Then the knife, right by my feet, next to the now-lukewarm corpse, gave me the revelation. I’d saw it off and get out of this hellhole.
Well, sawing through sinews is no easy business. I think I’d saw through a diamond easier than all those tissues and muscles and bone. And it hurt like the devil. I nearly made a deal with the devil, just to make the pain go away. But at last I had done it: the appendage was in the crack, and I was a bloody mess. You have no idea how much blood there is in a thumb.
I was free, free to re-enter the world of the living, free to forget the nightmare. After staunching my blood with a piece of cloth torn from my spare pair of britches, I ventured back from where I had come, the magic completely evaporated from those caves as I wound my way back to the surface. I recovered Little Kicks at the entrance and found that the deluge had stopped, long ago, leaving damp sand and scuttling creatures in its wake. I mounted Kicks and we set off due Southwest, back on track to Gran Sueño.
If only I knew then what I knew now.
All it takes is a missing thumb to identify, and therefore condemn, a man. I had killed Jonesie, only to become him. The Scourge of the West had returned.
I study children’s literature at the University of Cambridge. In the course of my literary studies, I came across some of Mark Twain’s early writings as a Wild West journalist, and was inspired to write this mischievous, magical version of the Wild West myth.