Part 2: Demon of the Deep
“Why, on the contrary, you’re just in time,” said Conrad, tipping his hat. He clearly recognized Spellman’s dominant aura. “I was just informing these fine gents here about the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“No. I’m afraid not,” said Spellman coldly. “ Our government’s not spending valuable tax dollars for these ‘fine gents’ to listen to the ramblings of some two-bit con artist. Now take a hike.”
“My word,” said Conrad, staggering back, a white glove over his breast pocket. “Barely two years into a new century, and this? Such insults. Such daggers.”
All heard the sound of grass rustling. And when we turned, we saw the tattooed giant cross the entire trench in a single, effortless step, and in one more, he was standing two feet away from Jack Spellman, and easily towering two-and-a-half more above him.
“Leave the dagger tossing to those of the trade,” said the giant, merely shooting a glance at his trousers. All of us, Spellman included, glanced down at the six red knife handles that protruded from his waist all around.
If Jack Spellman were indeed intimidated, he certainly didn’t show it when he barked,
“You and your circus monkey have thirty more seconds. After that, I’ll surely fetch the sheriff.”
“Thank you kind sir,” said Conrad, clearing his throat for some sort of finale. “Serpent! Leviathan! Demon of the deep!!!” His fervor was startling. “There’s been a legend, a bit of lore, if you will, that has floated afoot in this town for years. Anyone here have a hunch?”
“We ain’t from here,” said John Gray.
“All the better,” said Conrad, curling his mustache. “According to the talk of these fine local folk, the residents of Irondale to be exact, there’s a slew of old rumblings of a creature that lurks in the dark waters of Lake Van Buren, not half-a-mile from this very spot. A creature so vile, so ghastly, that it’s been said that even ole Satan himself tossed it back when he was fishing in his beloved lake o’ fire.”
“You’ve got about ten seconds,” said Spellman, uncharmed.
“Very well, I’ll make this last part real simple like.”
“Please do,” said Spellman.
“I’m offering three thousand dollars to every man who joins me in my quest.”
“What…quest?” asked Richard Bledsoe.
“Why, to catch the serpent, of course.”
“But, what’ya gonna do with it if you catchit?” asked John Gray.
“Alright! That’s enough. You’ve had your snake oil demonstration,” said Spellman, his temper matching his reddened face. “Now off with you both. NOW!”
“Come, Fritz,” said Conrad, downtrodden. “Let us leave the ants to their hill. Their sad little hill.”
The man with the whip and the tattooed giant both started walking towards a break in the wood. We all resumed our positions, our measly, sweltering positions.
“Back to work,” said Spellman, scribbling on some government document.
We descended back into the earth, exactly where we left off. As shovels stabbed and soil slung, I could not keep my mind off of the folded up bill in my pocket. I clenched my shovel, which sent splinters into my tiny, balloon like blisters. I was growing rather angry. There I was, slaving away at a trade for the same payoff that innocuously grazed my eyebrow in a matter of seconds. It was then that I made up my mind. I knew nothing of this Irondale or the loony legends that permeated through it, but I did not care.
I lifted my shovel inside the trench for the final time. I yelled and drove it deep into the earth. I mounted the base and pulled myself up out of the ravine just in time to see the inked back of the giant entering the woods.
“Wait!” I shouted as I leapt and trotted.
“One more step and don’t you dare even think of coming back,” said Spellman.
I stopped for but a moment, deliberately forfeiting to face my former foreman. I saw the matchbook that I had dropped. I scooped it up and put it in my free pocket. And then I was smitten by the eyes…the weary, baggy, glaring eyes of all of my fellow toilers that were peaking, peering out at me from within the trench. I nodded to them, and them alone, and turned past Spellman.
I dashed towards the break in the woods.
When I finally broke through the weeds and withered trees, I stopped. I needed not run any longer. There, upon the beaten path, and standing in the shattered shade stood the whip man and the giant, both of whose postures screamed silent expectancy.
“Here he is,” said Conrad, grinning, “I knew that the more primal forces would stir you this way.”
I nodded and placed both hands on my hips.
“I’m here, and I’m ready,” I said. “I follow your lead.”
“Prodigious,” said Conrad. “And indeed, lead, I shall…” He raised a white finger. “But first!” He sniffed the air mockingly. “The stragglers, the debaters, those wayward fickle-fiddles who had to play games of weights and measures, rights and wrongs, haves and have nots!”
I stole a peek at the giant. He looked as if Conrad had just spoken into his very soul. In any case, the silence between breaths was strange and I dare not break it.
“A tad longer…a pinch go…a dollop more sand from the hourglass’s flow…” And we stood. “Closer, closer…again, I say closer…the boot stomps beckon…the impartials are impending…the new bloods are near…a tablespoon of courage…a smidgen of fear…AND!!!”
Just as I felt as if the sky might fall, cloud by rabble-roused cloud, the deep, booming sounds of tattered boots indeed beckoned at the tree break behind me. I reared around.
There, panting in the shattered haven of the shade, was a trio of eager men, freshly burst blisters simmering upon their trousers as their hands rested atop tired knees bound to hunched bodies.
“Gentlemen,” said Conrad, tipping his hat, “We’ve been expecting you.” He shot a quick wink to me. “Sometimes a fellow just knows.”
I quickly shied away and looked at Richard Bledsoe, John Gray, and the youngest buck by the name of Bill Prescott. They were all waiting like downtrodden dreamers.
“Well…” said Conrad. “Here we are.” He surveyed a low-hanging branch and broke off a limb that was roughly the same length and thickness of a cane. “I called, and you, the common men, the rank and file, yes, you answered. But before we delve into details of legendary demons of the deep…a quick introduction, perhaps?”
None of us wanted to heckle the performance. The giant folded his vivid arms.
“My name is Conrad Conundrum, and, for those of you who do not keep on the up and up of the circus circuit, I am the Conrad Conundrum of Conrad Conundrum’s Traveling Sideshow Spectacular.”
Richard and John sighed in awe, though I knew for a fact that they’d never heard of him before. No, not him, not Barnum, not Baily or Coup. They were simply not those sorts of men with those sorts of fascinations. With the faintest sounds of clanking shovels in the seemingly eternal distance, the man with both the whip and branch continued.
“And, please, allow me the great honor to also introduce my esteemed colleague.” He motioned towards the giant. “Meet my fair Fritz, or as he is known upon the posterbill, Fritz the Flame-Breather.” The tattooed behemoth nodded with a stone cold humility and without a peep. Conrad strode over to us, waving his branch like a cane. “You see, my friends, Fritz and I have been on a survey…a hunt, if you will. A hunt for the next great attraction that will surely light up the eyes of our loyal attendees.” He walked behind us and placed his hands on our shoulders, one by one, much like a fine father would do with all his sons at the Grand Canyon. “And when we stumbled up old Irondale,” he inhaled and pointed at what he, alone saw past the trees. “This town of toilers, this back-breaker’s burg, and when I heard the legends, I looked out at that lake with the stars in my eyes and the fear o’ somethin’ in my belly. But it’s that same fear that’ll galvanize the capture of that sly serpent, should it very well exist. And my show will be all the more spectacular. Just think…Irondale, New York, the World’s Fair, who knows?” He breathed out and made his way back in front of us. “Now, with the formalities out of the bag, have you all any queries for me before we depart?”
“The money,” said Bill Prescott coldly.
“Ah, yes. Curt and to the point, I see. Yes, yes, the money, as you said, is ripe and plump for the plucking upon the completed task.”
“And just when’s this taking place?” said Bill.
Conrad looked to the sky that was welcoming clusters of new clouds with eerie friendliness.
“Come again?” said Conrad distantly.
“When…is…this…taking…place?” said Bill again.
“Why, tonight of course,” said Conrad calmly. “One doesn’t drag his feet when dealing with a hundred-year-old legend that should be the attraction of tomorrow. And as for your first query, the one about the money, well, I could sense your apprehension.” Bill nodded surely and devoid of any cordiality. “So, in order to appease all of your trepidations, I made a deposit in the banks of your uneasy vaults of old cloth. Call it a token of good faith, if you will. Go on, look! Gander!”
Conrad signaled towards our pockets. And one by one, each man pulled out two crisp dollar bills in astonishment. He winked at me and said, “You too, Sonny-oh-boy.”
I reached in my pocket. And I swear to you on the unmarked grave of my long gone father, I pulled out, not one, not two, but three dollar bills from the pocket that previously held but one.
“Now that I have gained your full attentions, let us be off. My fair Fritz, lead us onward!”
The giant led the enchanted cavalcade down the beaten path. We followed cautiously, not daring to pass his slow, deliberate steps. Conrad was at the rear. He spoke about ten minutes into the trek.
“Any of you fellows from this Irondale, per chance?”
“No,” said we.
“Interesting,” he said.
“We was just here digging’ ditches for Uncle Sam,” said John Gray as if we’d all been retired for centuries.
“Yep, I saw an ad in a pub back in Wexler City,” said Richard. “Had Teddy Roosevelt’s face on it. Said something about steady, traveling work for a guaranteed three months, so I came running.”
“Ah, yes,” said Conrad. “Good to be with fellow company who know the ups, the downs, the storms of life on the road.”
I may have imagined it, but I do believe that a distant thunder thudded the moment that he spoke the word “storms.”
The forest was finally broken through when we emerged out onto a gentle sloping plain of wheat on the outskirts of town. We connected onto a gravel road that doubled as the fabric-like silhouette of the outskirt, curved and wave-like, no doubt, from a bird’s eye view. Upon this new, sloping path of sharp rocks were a few horse-drawn carriages that were rolling away in front of dust trails, and a lone policeman upon horseback that was approaching us.
He neared and stopped his dark brown stallion and the light-tan giant stopped our procession. The officer scanned us all. He did not hide his disgust, which was most visible in his look towards Fritz. Upon his horse, he was nearly eye level with him.
“Just what in the blue blazes are you boys up to?”
***To be continued…***