Facebook Page
The continuing saga of The Toenail Ridge Shortline.

Chapter 5

...The Devil must have his Day

Written April 16,1998
Updated June 4,1998

Any resemblance to any person living or dead is probably intentional, but probably not malicious.

It has to be a small man morally who would seek to harm a child. But Michael Cotton was visibly the most moral man in Selbyville after the preacher. He never missed a sermon or a prayer meeting, he was the secretary of the church committee, he held high office in the men's association and his reedy voice soared over all others in singing of hymns. He prided himself on never short-changing anyone in his General Store, except for the miners who came through occasionally for supplies, but they were no-accounts anyway and that didn't matter. Or of course every now and again some foreigner from foreign parts would move through the valley looking for his personal piece of security and it really didn't count if the change wasn't right then, or if the goods he departed with were from the oldest or stalest part of the stock. They hardly even spoke American so they were hardly people, were they?

People who live public lives different from their private ones have a problem in that they have to always be on guard in case the real person slips through for a moment. The old saying that a good liar has to have a good memory is never more true than when you are lying to yourself too. So it was that when Cotton began to formulate his ideas of revenge he had at all times to maintain the outward appearance of a pillar of the little community.

Once a month or so he would ride the morning varnish from the station at Selbyville to Rowel and then interchange to Portland where he would place his orders with his wholesaler. On his latest trip he made a short detour to the docks and made a surreptitious purchase from the manager of a shipping line that traded from China.

When he alighted from the Toenail Ridge Shortline combine at Selbyville station in the afternoon he oversaw the unloading of his usual supplies from the baggage section of the car into the wagon from the store that his brother-in-law had brought and then he took personal possession of a small brown-paper and string-wrapped package that he placed under his arm. Cotton's brother-in-law was an unwilling employee but nevertheless did as he was told and acted as janitor and servant around the store. He would have departed for more pleasant climes but was held in the area not by family ties but by the threat of exposure by his employer, who years before had caught his wife's brother in a compromising position with a sheep in the barn back in Nebraska. The pillar of the community had no compunction about using whatever he had to serve his own ends and this treatment of his kin-by-marraige was no exception.The brother-in-law had been baptized John, but he suffered from a condition that in a later age would be called Thyroid insufficiency, with the result that regardless of how hot a day it might be, John was always cold, and therefore few people called him by his given name, he was rather know in the area as Chilly, or CJ for short.

CJ drove the wagon of supplies from the station back to the General Store, his brother-in-law sitting at his side, in silence and apparent deep thought. On arrival Michael alighted and climbed the outside stairs to his apartment over the store. He dutifully placed a kiss on the cheek of his wife and rested a hand in blessing on the heads of his assembled children, then repaired to his private office where he locked the door behind him and then sat to address the opening of the package.

During the boom years of railroad construction, thousands of Chinese immigrants, both legal and illegal, had entered the Far West to lend their efforts at laying the steel ribbons across the continent. They worked for peanuts and were treated like slaves and sub-humans. But one thing they brought with them was the juice of a flower that could take all of a man's pain away and make him fly like an eagle.
The Chinese smoked their drug but the white man prefered to dissolve it in alcohol and take it as a medicine. They called it Laudanum and they consumed it in quantities that often left otherwise respectible citizens with no memories for days at a time.

The main supplier of this drug in the valley was the Selbyville General Store. It was to this era what aspirin became later in the century, the universal panacea. What most folks in Selbyville didn't know, though, was that what they bought from Michael Cotton was only a third of the strength of that supplied to him in Portland. This little-minded man had carefully devised a way to mix the narcotic with rubbing alcohol to increase his profit 300%. Never mind the fact that rubbing alcohol was poisonous. It acted so slowly that no-one would ever find out anyway. And in the meantime he commiserated with people in pain, and promised to pray for them, and emptied their pockets at the expense of their discomfort.

Bart used to make a little pocket money every now and again by stacking empty beer bottles out the back of Chuck Parker's saloon, in preparation for their return to the brewery in Rowel to be refilled. Chuck Parker was a dour Yorkshireman by birth, and had drifted into the Pacific Northwest after having been fired from the New York Police Department for public drunkeness. He had started his bar after failing as a gold-prospector, like so many others, but had finally found gold in the brown contents of a whisky bottle. A miner could work for a month to get a coffee-spoon of gold dust in his poke, and Parker could have that same spoonful in his hands by the time the bar closed at midnight, with the miner having only a headache and a raging thirst to mark its passing. He paid Bart a few cents to arrange the empties when they had become so disorderly that his customers couldn't make it to the outhouse. And Bart, ever mindful of keeping the economy of the valley rolling, would immediately take his earnings around to Cotton's General Store to convert them into candy and cola.

A sad passing of the 20th. Century has been the small town General Store. General was its name and General was its contents. Stock comprised victuals for man and beast, clothing to cover the frame from birth to the grave, kitchen staples stored in barrels and boxes, tobacco furniture and household implements, farming tools, linens, haberdashery, notions, cordials, fruit in season, even toys.

The store was the meeting place for chat, gossip, impromptu gatherings, and general thawing-out around the huge pot-belly stove in winter. Cotton was not a gregarious man but had learned early on that the use of his premises for social purposes usually also led to money passing over his counter for one purchase or another.

The biggest attraction in the store for the local kids was the glass-topped cabinet that contained candy. Here they would dally for half an hour while they decided how many of each 4 for a penny candy they would buy. And it was to this cabinet that Bart took himself with Chuck Parker's nickel. And it was this exact opportunity for which Michael Cotton had been preparing. The mark of a good shop-keeper is a good recollection for individual customers preferences, and whatever else he might be, Cotton was a good shop-keeper. He knew that young Bart Clay had a deep attraction for coconut kisses, so he had previously prepared a special batch, in anticipation of the next time Bart entered the store. Coconut kisses are balls of toffee rolled in white, flaky coconut.

Bart's special batch were also rolled in opium.

Like many men of small mind,Michael Cotton ruled his family with a rod of iron. His wife called him Mr. Cotton and his children went quiet when he entered the room. The three daughters and son never displayed youthful exuberance when he was in the upstairs apartment or in the store below, risking stern lecturing from their father if their youth intruded onto his life. Of course he was the loving and doting husband and father in public, but like all things in his life, this was also a lie.

The Cotton children attended Miss Daykey's school-house but rarely participated in the extra-curricular activities of their peers. Not for the son the swimming in the lake or the fishing and hunting expeditions. Not for the daughters the dressing up and pretend games with rag dolls in the company of their school companions. They were required to report home immediately after school let out and help in the store and around the apartment. The boy would chop wood and stock shelves while the girls would do house-hold chores or serve customers while their father held court around the stove or on the front walk. Occasionally, however, the youngest girl would be permitted by her mother to escape to play with other children. Her name was Minnie and she was a sweet little ring-curled blonde. She was also the object of the first deep infatuation that young Bart had ever experienced. Cotton had no sooner seen Bart leave the store than Minnie fled down the side stairs and met by chance the young Shay opening his bag of coconut kisses.

Now Bart was at heart a thoughtful young chap and so, with hardly a thought about how he was depriving himself of even one of his lusted-for coconut kisses, he proffered the small white bag to Minnie. You would probably think that the daughter of the shop-keeper would get her fill of the little luxuries, but not so with a child of Michael Cotton's, and so Minnie wasted no time in diving into the bag for a candy.

Well, just about then, Cotton stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of his store to continue gossiping with a customer and he saw the two children standing in front of the bank next door, and he saw the white bag between them. With a frantic yell he pushed his companion out of his way and leapt towards the kids, grasping desperately for the bag. By pure co-incidence, Clay Shay was passing on his way home from early shift down at the Toenail Ridge engine-shed and saw the little weasel make a dart for his boy. In three strides he had crossed the gap and grabbed Cotton by the back of his collar just as Cotton had grabbed the bag in his outstretched hand. Minnie took off shrieking and Bart went to ground behind a tree while Clay hefted the protesting shopkeeper two feet off the boardwalk, shook him like a craps player trying to buy baby new shoes and then hefted him far into the middle of Main Street. Cotton landed in a heap of apron and spats and coconut kisses and settled gently into the ever-present mud that constituted a carraigeway in Selbyville. Just in time for Rod from up the cross-road to drive past in his pickup and deposit more mud on him.

Enlightenment comes to different men in different ways. Lying in the mud, hearing the hoots and guffaws of his neighbours, staring at the sky through mud-spattered and cracked glasses and breathing sibbilantly through uneven teeth, Michael Cotton came to the conclusion that perhaps there was a better way. Of course, it's only in stories that people can be changed for life by one incident, so that didn't happen, but at least a step was made in the right direction and even the smallest step is better than none.

The Chinese say that the longest journey begins with but a single step, and from flat on his back in the mud and the horse souvenirs, Cotton embarked on his reformation.

Clay assured himself that Bart was OK, Minnie flew up the outside stairs to hide in her mother's skirts, the onlookers laughingly helped the shopkeeper to his feet and the coconut kisses slowly disappeared into the upper layers of the street, where they eventually took part in a shortlived awakening of higher thoughts in a nest of ants who thought with their collective mind that there really was a God and He had smiled on them.

Return to Main Page

The Next Exciting Chapter in the story of the Toenail Ridge Shortline!