2:1 Three-Fingered Puppet Show

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

Aaron Urias dismounted his horse in front of the Fiesta Mercantile run by Mortimer Gilliam, one of Reverend Fox’s most loyal devotees. In the thirteen years he had accompanied Fox on his revival circuit through the hardscrabble towns of California’s Central Valley and rugged northern coast, Urias had never met a couple as committed to helping spread the Reverend’s good word as Gilliam and his wife Emilia.

Urias tied his black Arab stallion to a worn hitch and stepped up to the only stretch of wooden sidewalk existing in the dusty town. When their annual itinerary was still being created out of whole cloth, the pair would make the mistake of coming through the area in early spring when Sierra snowmelt inundated the already saturated foothills turning the entire area into one giant mud pit, except for the small dry oasis in front of the mercantile.

The tall former Virginian had the wary bearing of a gunfighter. Underneath his Stetson hat, a distinctive alabaster shock of white split his neck-length hair down the middle, the remainder mirroring the exact color of his horse. If there was a story around what turned the center of his hair white, Urias was intent on taking it to his grave, a place he had been courting for as long as he could remember.

Professionally, Urias was a Pinkerton detective, but he and Fox had met when they both were young men in the service of the Union during the War Between the States. Fox trusted Urias with his life and respected the fact that his friend was not averse to making a few bucks on the side.

Although he was in no particular hurry, Urias walked with purpose. His heavy boots beat an unrelenting rhythm on the wooden floor of the mercantile, each footfall causing a swirling galaxy of dust to dance in the sunbeams streaming through the front windows.

An anxious three-fingered hand appeared from behind the curtain that separated the store’s immaculate public space from the crowded stock room. The disembodied hand waved as if to dismiss its unseen customer.

“We are not open yet,” a hidden ventriloquist spoke for the hand. “Come back in an hour.”

Having accompanied Fox through all manner of bookings Urias was well acquainted with the full breadth of theatrical arts. If there was one type of performance he never could stomach it was any sort of puppetry, especially if the poppet in question had the temerity to speak to him.

“Gilliam!” Urias cleared his throat and declared his presence. “This is not the matinee performance. Save your ridiculous gestures for the children.”

The hand broke character and pulled the gingham to the side. “Well, if it isn’t brother Urias,” The shopkeeper exclaimed. “How fortunate to see you this bright and glowing morning.”

“Brother Gilliam,” Urias tipped his John B. but didn’t uncover his frosted crown. “I should say you would call it fortunate, given what you charge us for being the middleman for our little package.”

Both of Gilliam’s hands now performed a pantomime of supplication using the wool vest stretched tight over the clerk’s ample belly as a backdrop.

“Now, brother,” Gilliam began his annual performance, waving his disfigured hand toward the cheap seats. “You of all people are well aware of the special … considerations that must be taken regarding said package. It wouldn’t do to have the rocket finale touch off on a siding in Utah and end up disconnecting the Transcontinental a scant 20 years since they drove that golden spike.”

Urias laughed in spite of himself and grasped the fuller of Gilliam’s flailing hands in a grip of friendship. “It’s good to see you, brother. How’s the family?”

“Philomena is growing like a weed,” Gilliam sighed. “I need to put up another store of oats just to feed that child. She eats more than my horse.”

“That’s good to hear,” Urias chuckled, a sound he rarely found occasion to make. “And the Missus? I understand she has been to revival this week, but I haven’t had the pleasure of running into her.”

“You know Emilia, she wouldn’t miss a sermon,” Gilliam declared before turning sheepish. “Unfortunately, it’s been hard for me to get away from the store this year.”

“I’m sure the reverend understands,” Urias said. “We all serve Him in our own way.” The two men stood facing each other and let the aide-de-camp’s comment hang in the air, both wondering exactly to which party Urias was referring.

“Yes, well,” Gilliam broke the uncomfortable silence. “The fireworks should be here directly. I’ve telegraphed Rochester and they have guaranteed delivery this morning. I’ll tell you what, when the package arrives I will close the store and personally take it out to the site. It will be good to see the Reverend in any case.”

“Very well,” Urias agreed, “I’ll leave you to it then, brother.” The big man tipped his hat and was gone.

 

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