by Phillip Challis
Published with permission May 18th, 2009
Morgan Booth looked up at a stretch of wide blue sky and waited for the miracle to happen. With the winds kicking up, little dust devils tumbled across the plains and scoured the land. Standing on the edge of town, Booth found himself surrounded by a sizable crowd of townsfolk. Their mood struck him as electric, like the static carried on dry winds that sometimes threw blue sparks off wire fences at night. That’s how it was with the people. They had an excited air about them. He could see a few had even gone so far as to throw coarse blankets down on the bare ground. Families tucked into their picnic dinners and children played in what used to be fertile soil now gone to lifeless powder.
This town was just the latest in a string of used up little communities he’d wandered into and out of again over the past few months. The past few summers had seen withered crops and wasted stock across much of the rolling countryside out west of the Big Muddy. In his gut Booth knew a lot of places wouldn’t make it past another winter. Even at the tender age of nineteen those towns tended to rattle him. They were too full of empty houses and empty fields that had dried up. Wheat, corn, cattle, and sometimes even the people went to dust and blew away. The town, he decided, felt like death and he avoided them whenever he could.
Today though, Booth saw the crowd of townsfolk out milling around and it raised his curiosity. Arriving on the coach an hour earlier, he’d made a point of finding what few stores lined the main street. There wasn’t much to see, and his hopes of finding work weren’t great. He walked from one end of the street to the other in the space of five minutes and that’s when he saw all the people. Ambling over, he quickly learned the reason for all the fuss. It was a man standing atop a wagon the likes of which Booth had never quite seen before.
The handbill pasted across the wagon’s side proclaimed the man to be a rain-maker. The crazy looking collection of kettles, copper drums, and India-rubber tubes in his wagon was apparently a ‘patented gas generator’. Dressed as he was in dusty spats, a powder white frock coat, and matching white top hat of the old John Bull variety, he looked to be an eastern dandy, a snake oil man, or both. (more…)