THE BITE OF WAR • by Michael Mallory

The footsteps outside were getting closer.

From within the darkened medicine show wagon, Dr. Totermann listened acutely, his hand creeping toward the handle of the Derringer he kept with him at all times, ever since that mob had caught him unawares in Louisville. The footsteps stopped outside the door to his wagon, which was tucked into the shadows of a dense Ozark forest.

“Anyone in there?” a voice called from out of the chill night.

Stepping to the wagon’s door, he cautiously peered through the glass. There was no mob, merely a solitary young man holding a torch. “State your business, friend,” Totermann called through the door.

“Rabbit’s foot,” the young man called back.

Totermann relaxed upon hearing the password. It was a customer. At last.

Unlatching the door, he swung it open just enough to stick his head out and ensure the man was alone. “Douse your torch, friend, and come in,” he said, then turned back to light the lantern that hung from the ceiling of the wagon.

The man who entered was lean and rawboned, and a little older than Totermann had judged in the darkness. He smelled of the fields and the stable. “A feller at the tavern said you could help me,” the man said.

“My associate, George, no doubt,” Totermann said. “Together we have helped many escape conscription into the military. I trust that is why you are here.”

The man nodded. “I ain’t ashamed to say that I got no truck with Mr. Lincoln and I got no truck with Mr. Davis. I don’t want none of this damned war, from nobody’s side. I just want to stay on my patch and tend my herd and my crops and that’s all.”

“Sit down, friend, let me pour you a drink.”


Pulling a heavy earthen jug from the top of a battered traveling chest, Totermann procured an almost clean glass from a shelf and filled it with a thick, yellowish liquid, and then handed it to the man, who downed it and winced. “Whooo, what was that?”

“Self-made corn squeezings,” Totermann said. “Not the smoothest, perhaps, it will warm you on a cool night. Now then, Mr…”

“Washburn,” the man said, his voice still raspy from the drink.

“Mr. Washburn, you are determined to avoid conscription, is that correct?”

“The only things I want to shoot at is possum or a deer, cause they don’t shoot back.”

“Some might call that cowardice, friend.”

“Those what do might like to mind their own business.”

“Fair enough,” Totermann said. “Up north, you understand, a man can buy his way out of serving for a mere three-hundred dollars.”

“I don’t have nowhere’s near that kind of money,” Washburn said, yawning. “Feller at the tavern said you’d ask for fifty dollars, but I ain’t even got that. I can give you thirty.”

“A rather low price for the guarantee of life without risk of becoming cannon fodder.”

“It’s all I got, mister.”

Totermann considered that for a moment. “Do you have it with you?”

Washburn yawned again, and then pulled thirty dollars in Missouri banknotes out of his dirty trousers and held them out, but did not release them. “You swear to God you can keep me out of uniform?”

“I guarantee it unconditionally.”

Washburn shook his head, as though his thoughts had suddenly become fused and he was trying to shake them apart. “How?” he asked, still holding out his clenched fist stuffed with money.

“I cannot divulge my system,” Totermann said, “but I give you my word, you will never pick up a rifle in the service of any government.”

Washburn’s arm fell. A moment later, his head followed.

Dr. Totermann recorked the jug, the contents of which were laced with chloral hydrate, and put it back in its place. He then stooped to pick up the banknotes that had flittered to the floor and hefted Washburn’s unconscious body out of the chair and over to his cot, stretching him out upon it. “The young ones are always the most difficult,” he sighed, going to the small cabinet in which he kept his tools.

After this one, it was going to be time to move on. He had been stationed here in Carthage for nearly a week, and this was only his second customer. Clearly, passion for the fight was strong in these parts; too strong for him to make a profit. Once he had finished with this jackanapes, he would drag him out of the wagon and lay him comfortably on the ground and place a bottle of laudanum in his hand. He was going to need it. Then he would quietly hitch up his horse, and decamp, stopping just long enough to pick up George from the inn in town before heading for the next county, if not the next state.

Young Washburn was now snoring to awaken the dead. Let him, Totermann thought. Let him enjoy his last good sleep for some time.

Taking out a pair of pliers, he carried them to a large basin and set them inside, then poured some of the drugged corn liquor over them. Shaking off the excess, he stepped to Washburn and mused for the thousandth time how little the common menfolk knew about the great conflict that was about to envelop the nation. In particular, they knew nothing of the munitions used, specifically those little paper sacks of black powder that had to be bitten open on the field in order to reload a rifle. If a man could not perform that simple act, he could not serve in the army.

And of course a man could not bite open that paper sack if he had no teeth.

Michael Mallory has written several books on pop-culture, including Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, and Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters, co-written with the late Iwao Takamoto. He has also written more than 400 newspaper and magazine articles. In the fiction realm, Mike is also the author of the author of three volumes of “Amelia Watson” adventures: the short story collections The Exploits of the Second Mrs. Watson, The Adventures of the Second Mrs. Watson, and the novel Murder in the Bath. He also writes the ongoing “Scotty” mysteries for kids published on the Los Angeles Times Kids Reading Room page. He has published 100 short stories, which have appeared everywhere from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to Fox Kids Magazine, and co-edited the Sisters in Crime/LA anthologies LAndmarked for Murder and Murder on Sunset Boulevard.

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