Cornelius Clemens

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Write about a character with questionable morals.... view prompt


Fiction Historical Fiction Western

 Pearce, Arizona, is a small mining town just southeast of Tucson. The year is 1895, and it’s late August. The sun is blazing hot as a small traveling cabana rolls into town. The driver pulls to a stop at the far end of the main street and climbs down to look around. He’s a little disappointed because he had figured a gold mining town would look more prosperous.

His name is Cornelius Clemens, and his trade is to sell snake oil to the unsuspecting. He is a flimflam artist, a con-man, and a swindler. Cornelius’ primary objective is to relieve the good people of Pearce of as much money as possible.

Cornelius removes his stylish high hat and mops his brow. He wears a white shirt with a starched collar and a string bow tie. His waistcoat is tan, but his vest is rather ornate. Cornelius is somewhat handsome with thick wavy brown hair, an inviting smile, a strong jawline, and piercing blue eyes. When he speaks, he speaks with confidence. Cornelius also has an extensive vocabulary. Yes, Cornelius Clemens is everything you’d expect from a snake oil salesman.

Clemens walks down the dusty street, taking in his surroundings until he reaches one of the three saloons in town. It is appropriately called the Gold Dust Saloon. Cornelius approaches the bartender, removes a five-dollar gold piece from his vest pocket, and tosses it on the bar.

“Tell me, my good man, is that enough to procure me some libation and sustenance?” Cornelius inquires casually as he looks around the room.

Smiling at the coin, the bartender remarks, “That’s more than enough and then some.”

“Excellent! Then I shall have a large beer and a thick juicy steak, rare, with potatoes and gravy. Thank you very much. I shall be sitting right over there,” Cornelius points. Upon reaching the table, Cornelius places his hat on it and uses his handkerchief to dust off the chair. He then sits and waits for his meal.   Cornelius closes his eyes and listens to the piano, keeping time by bobbing his head. A heavily bearded cowpoke approaches and asks, “You the fella that rode into town on that fancy wagon?” Cornelius keeps his eyes closed but answers, “Correct.”

Scratching his ponderous beard, he asks with curiosity, “Well, could you perhaps tell me what it is you’re doing here?”

Cornelius’ eyes spring open as he juts his finger toward the stranger. “That, my good man, you shall learn by coming to my presentation this evening. But I tell you this. It shall enlighten you, for I shall unleash upon you all the knowledge I have gathered while living with the Apaches for the last several years. Add to that some ancient secrets from the Orient! The entire experience will benefit your body and soul.”

Eyes wide with wonder, the poor cowpoke is almost hypnotized by Cornelius’ rapid-fire narrative. He softly mumbles, “What sort of secrets?”

That, my dear fellow, you will learn at dusk tonight. But as for now, I see my meal has arrived. So until this evening, I bid you ado.”

After finishing his meal, Cornelius searches out the local mercantile, for he requires a few ingredients for tonight’s show. He picks up camphor, wood alcohol, some cloves, castor oil, and capsaicin of chili peppers. Cornelius then asks the owner if he has any pork fat. He has to have pork fat because Cornelius is deathly afraid of snakes. The original Chinese recipe uses water snake fat because it is high in Omega-3 fat, which acts as an anti-inflammatory. The famous Clark Stanley uses rattlesnake fat but has much less Omega-3. Cornelius’ only other option is pork fat, not having access to Chinese watersnakes and a morbid fear of rattlesnakes.

The tiny wagon has become a unique attraction as evening draws near. It now has a small stage with torches burning on either side.  In addition, a large sign has been added to the top that reads, “Mr. Marvels Magic Elixer.”  Now that the stage has been lowered, the people can see many paintings on the wagon’s side—images of Indians and snakes, pagodas of China, and exotic animals of faraway Africa. In awe, they study and point, muttering among themselves. In addition, several elixir bottles are placed on each end of the stage, shining and gleaming in the torch light. Finally, a large display is standing on the ground, listing the many cures of Mr. Marvel’s medicine. The list reads, “This elixir is suitable for frostbite, chills, bruises, sore throat, the bite of animals, insect and reptiles, and all manner of illnesses. Plus, it can even restore hair. It gives immediate relief!  Larger than life, Mr. Marvel appears on the stage, arms open wide and smiling invitingly.

Cornelius begins his pitch with exuberance and a fast-paced speech. This is because he knows he has about fifteen minutes to hook the crowd, or they will lose interest. And so, with long and elegant words, he explains what it does and why they should have it.

“So, in conclusion, I would like to thank you all and invite you to step right up and buy a bottle of this magical drink. I might add that I have a short supply with me today but am willing to sell it for only fifty cents a bottle. So please, step right up!” Cornelius places his hat upside down on the stage to gather the money. After the crowd disperses with their treasure, Cornelius notices one man standing just outside of the torchlight. He is a farmer and removes his hat. Fingering its rim, he hesitantly addresses Cornelius. 

“Excuse me, Mr. Marvel, but I sure could use a bottle of your medicine.” His shoulder droop as he hangs his head. “But ya see, I ain’t got but a quarter.” Cornelius studies the man’s face and notices the dark circles under his eyes and his sunken cheeks. It seems to Cornelius that this man has been under some sort of stress for a while.

Cornelius responds in a bright and uplifted voice, “Fear not, my good fellow. I have one bottle left, and you shall have it for the reduced rate of twenty-five cents.” The farmer’s head snaps up, and he sees Cornelius holding out the bottle, the torchlight shining through the amber glass looking like a gift from Heaven. Hope and tears fill his eyes as he thanks Cornelius, “Thank you, Mr.Marvel. You’ll never know how much this means to me!”

After the man leaves, Cornelius leans against his mule and recalls the look on the farmer’s face when he obtained the elixir bottle. Cornelius fears that there is a genuinely sick person at home, and this man has just bet his last quarter on what he believes to be the cure. 

Cornelius addresses his mule, “Lillian, I think we shall be leaving sooner than I planned.”

The sun has been up about an hour as the little cabana bumps down the dusty road headed for Douglas, Arizona. Douglas is a slightly larger town than Pierce, and Cornelius hopes for better sales. Up ahead, backed by the sun, Cornelius can just make out a figure in the middle of the road. It’s a man sitting on a horse. Fearing a robber, Cornelius removes a derringer he has hidden inside his hat. As they draw closer, he can see that it’s the farmer from the night before. He sits bareback on his workhorse with a double-barrel shotgun across his lap. Cornelius is well aware that he hasn’t a chance against the shotgun and slips his pistol back inside his hat and comes to a stop.

Pretending not to recognize the farmer, Cornelius greets him with a hardy, “Good morning, my dear fellow! Is there perhaps something I can do for you?”

Looking grim, the farmer asks, “Do you remember me? You sold me a bottle of your elixir last night. I took it home and gave it to my little girl, she’s awful sick, and the doctor doesn’t know what it is. He says she may die.”

Cornelius’ mind is scrambling to think of a way to escape and responds with a simple, “I see.”

NO, YOU DON’T SEE!” shouts the farmer. I gave her the recommended two teaspoons of your medicine, and not only did it not make her better, I think it made her worse. Her fever is still very high. She has sweats and chills and hasn’t eaten in three days.” He points his gun at Cornelius. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. I figure with all that knowledge you gathered over there in the Orient and all, and maybe you forgot an ingredient or two. So I’m giving you another chance. But if my daughter’s no better after that, I’ll figure you to be a swindler and make sure you don’t swindle anyone else, if you know what I mean.”

Cirbekus stammers, “Please, Mr…., wh-what did you s-say your name is?” 

“Talyor, John Talyor,” replies the farmer keeping the shotgun leveled at Cornelius.

Cornelius pleads, “Please, Mr. Talyor, you have to understand that my medicine might not cure everything.”

“What do ya mean? The billboard by your wagon said, “All manner of illnesses. It repeats it right on the label.” Talyor glares menacingly while adjusting his grip on the shotgun.

“Perhaps you’re correct, Mr. Talyor. I may have forgotten an ingredient, and if that’s the case, I humbly beg your forgiveness. But if that is so, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it now?” Cornelius is doing his best to worm his way out of this mess.

Talyor growls, “I expect you to go back and look at your ancient secrets and find out how to fix them!”  

Hoping to buy some time, Cornelius implores, “Have you had a doctor look at your child by any chance?”

“Well, of course,” says Talyor. “The problem there is that he’s just graduated from doctor school. He’s real good at fixin’ broken bones, but he don’t know shit about medicine. At least not like you.”

“Could you by chance describe your daughter’s symptoms for me, Mr. Talyor?” Cornelius removes his handkerchief and mops his brow while swallowing hard. 

“Well,” Taylor begins, “As I said, she’s got a high fever, and because she sleeps a lot, she don’t eat much. Louann, that’s her name, well, she’s havin a hard time breathin’. There’s a terrible rattlin’ sound when she coughs, and when she ain’t coughin’, she’s wheezin’ real loud.”

“I see,” says Cornelius. “I’ll look at my manuals, and if I find that I’ve indeed made a mistake, I’ll travel into town to buy what I need and make a new batch.  Then, I’ll quickly bring it to your farm when I’ve finished.”

 Talyor looks at Cornelius, “Like Hell! I’ll be goin’ with ya.”

Talyor looks on in amazement while Cornelius consults an old journal on herbs and plants used for medicinal purposes. He then lists the ones he feels will work the best. Some are for pain, others for fever and cough. Together the two men ride into town and enter the mercantile once more. Cornelius buys three ingredients- motherwort, milkweed, and quinine water. Motherwort for discomfort. milkweed for cough and quinine water for cramps.

“Now, Mr. Talyor, I believe I saw a Chinese laundry at the end of the street as I rode into town. Let us go there nixt.”

 Cornelius sees the proprietor and politely addresses Mr.Zhu in a friendly manner, “Ah, Mr.Zhu! My name is Mr. Marvel, and I’m the maker of ointments, potions, and elixirs.”

Zhu interrupts, “You charlatan.”

Cornelius is taken back by the accusation, “No! No, I’m not. I am genuinely trying to help Mr. Talyor here, who has a very sick little girl at home. I’m here to ask you if you might have some watersnake fat, a little opium, and perhaps some ginseng so that I might save her life!”

Zhu retorts, “These things very hard to get. Cost lot of money.”

“How much money?” Cornelius inquires.

Without batting an eye, Zhu answers, “One hundred dollar.” 

Cornelius hasn’t any time to barter and sighs, “That will be fine. Just wait a moment while I retrieve the money from my wagon.”  When he returns, Cornelius places a bag of coins gathered the night before and all his folding money on the counter. “I believe there to be about seventy-five dollars, give or take a quarter.”

“OK, you wait here.” Zhu leaves and returns with two small packets of powders and a sack containing the snake. Zhu explains, “Here is opium and ginseng. You have to gut and clean snake and then boil to get fat. OK?”

Cornelius places the two packets in his vest pocket and asks Talyor to please handle the snake.

Returning to the farm, Cornelius hastily goes about preparing the mixture. When Talyor enters the wagon with the freshly cleaned snake, Cornelius asks him if that’s a willow tree in the backyard. When Talyor says there is, Cornelius asks him to cut a small strip from the tree to boil with the rest of the ingredients. “It will help reduce pain,” he explains.

In an hour or so, the concoction is ready. Cornelius strains it into one of his bottles and lets it cool. Then, taking a deep breath, Cornelius says to Talyor, “Shall we?”

Entering the young girl’s room, he finds her lying in bed, her hair matted with sweat and her face in a tight knot of pain. Cornelius asks her father if she has done anything unusual lately.

“The only thing that comes to mind,” replies her father, happened about a week ago. She was caught in a dust storm. It was right after that she fell ill.”

“I see. Perhaps her lungs became infected by something in the dust. Let’s start by giving her one teaspoon every four hours.” Cornelius does not know what to expect. He administers a second dose at eight, though little change has occurred. By midnight, Cornelius notices that Louann’s face looks much more relaxed. Taking a towel, he wipes her face and then presses his lips to her forehead. Cornelius smiles a little, turning to her anxious parents, “Her fever has broken. Also, I’ve noticed that she is not coughing as much, although she still has a wheeze.”

Talyor whispers, “That’s a good thing, ain’t it?” Then, feeling doubt, Cornelius replies, “I hope so, but let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The night drags on as the old Seth Thomas chimes out the hours. Louann’s parents are not so much asleep as passed out from stress and exhaustion.  Louann herself seems to be sleeping, probably from the opium, but she’s not wheezing anymore. Cornelius remembers his mother saying that four o’clock in the morning was usually the time when sickness would break. He closes his eyes and prays.

“Lord, it’s me, Cornelius Clemens, and if you don’t want to listen to me, well, I don’t blame you.  But it’s not me I’m praying about. It’s the Talyor’s little girl, Louann. She’s awful sick, and these poor folks have put their faith in me to make her better. I’m just a two-bit flimflam man, I don’t know anything about making real medicine, so I guess I’m asking you to make her better. She’s just a little girl, and life’s been hard enough already. Please God, make it so.” Cornelius puts his head back and closes his eyes.

Talyor’s rooster Ol’ Stonewall Jackson is crowing in the morning sun, stirring Cornelius awake. Cornelius looks at Louann and rubs his eyes, for he thinks he sees Louann’s eyes fluttering. He reaches over and shakes her father’s arm, and when Talyor is awake, Cornelius nods for him to look at his daughter. Louann slowly opens her blue eyes and parts her cracked, dry lips to whisper, “Daddy?”

In the town of Vale, Arizona, a white cabana arrives, pulled by a mule. It stops in the center of town as a man dressed in all black steps down from the buckboard. He sets up a sign that reads, “Doctor Cornelius Clemens Miracle Elixer.” It’s good for all coughs, fever, aches, and pains. It may even restore hair.

August 12, 2022 14:37

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Ron Smith
02:18 Aug 24, 2022

Truly enjoyed this. A very easy read with a memorable lead character.


Show 0 replies
H.R. Glick
18:53 Aug 17, 2022

This was great!! I really enjoyed this step back in time, western feeling. It isn't something I would normally consider reading, but the alliteration name for the title was intriguing, and I'm so glad I read it! Put a smile on my face. Great work!


Show 0 replies