Catskinner Sweet and the Twirling Teacups of Deadwood City was originally published in 2001 at Nuketown. Nuketown, sadly, doesn’t publish fiction anymore, so we’re proud to have this story here. — ed. N.E. Lilly
Catskinner Sweet and the Twirling Teacups of Deadwood City
by James S. Dorr ©2001
As long as a tale like this needs a hero, William Sweet’s the one most likely. He and Doc Taggerty who helped explain things once they were over. They liked to hang out in Carlstadt’s Saloon—Tom Carlstadt’s that is, since his wife, Melinda, never did hold much with people’s drinking. In fact, for a while she claimed it was drinking that caused the first trouble, people just seeing things out at the old abandoned mine. But that was before the six-legged mice chewed up the trousseau she’d had saved for her daughter.
Well, truth to be told, people had been drinking that night when the first rain we’d had in months blew out of the southwest. It was a wowser, with thunder and lightning. Whirlwinds were roiling the dust on Main Street, spitting it back in a river of mud. Such cattle as there were—a few drovers still brought their herds through Deadwood, mostly to get their own insides washed out with Tom’s good red-eye whiskey before they moved on—were lowing and moaning, the way steers will do when they’re not quite real scared yet, but still plenty nervous. Then Doc Taggerty heard it first. A high-pitched humming, sort of like a windmill’ll sound when it’s turning faster than it’s been built to.
“Hush up!” he shouted, glaring at Amy, the Carlstadts’ daughter, who, paying service to her mother’s wishes that she grow up a proper young lady, was practicing scales on the saloon piano.
William Sweet glared back, ‘cause everyone knew he was fond of Amy—a fact Amy’s mother did not approve of, but then there was not much Melinda Carlstadt was satisfied with those days, not since what happened the previous year with her prized elm trees. Or even before that. But Doc was insistent.
“Just simmer down there, Bill,” he said, “and listen. The rest of you listen too.” And, sure enough, we heard it as well then, between claps of thunder. A sort of a humming—or maybe a whistle. But strange and unnatural.
“Uh, what’ll we do, Doc?” Sweet finally asked, kind of slow and drawn out like. He’d been a mule skinner back during the War, and there wasn’t a person in the whole territory who knew more about handling teams than he did, though other than that he was not long on smarts. Or so some folks said, though others maintained it was only because he’d been kicked in the head once.
But Doc was impatient. “Why, go out and see what it is!” he answered, which most of us thought was a good idea too. So pretty soon those who had slickers had found them and put them on, while others just jammed their hats down on their heads, and we reassembled outside on the street, slipping and sliding, dodging the chunks of mud raining down on us, looking to where a bright green glow shone over to west, up over the hills near what once had been the Prosperity Silver Mine.
Things get complicated—but this much was simple. Ever since the mine petered out, our town had been dying. Melinda Carlstadt had tried to save it. As head of the Prosperity Civic Improvement Alliance, she’d even spent a healthy wad of her husband’s money to have four dozen Dutch elm saplings shipped in from Saint Louis to plant along Main Street. And that’s what brought William, driving his mules with that cargo of young trees, who, catching one glimpse of the also young and supple figure of Amy Carlstadt, decided right then and there to stay.
And that was not what Mrs. Carlstadt had bargained on. Rather, she’d figured that once cultured people found out we had the same kinds of modern amenities civilized Eastern cities had—such as two rows of tall, broad-leafed shade trees lined up on either side of Main Street—why they’d just naturally flock in to join us. And bring business with them. And even some men of wealth, handsome, unmarried, whom she could pick from to hitch up to her Amy. And then we would prosper, both Amy and Prosperity City, as well as the Civic Improvement Alliance, despite the mine’s failure.
Except she had not figured on the rainfall—or rather lack of it. Those trees needed water and, despite their growing a mite that first spring, by the time summer ended they’d withered and died. By the time of mid-winter they stood gnarled and dried out, almost attractive in their own strange, stark way, especially when some of the ladies in town tied red and green ribbons all over their branches to celebrate Christmas. And, by the time spring came, people did find out, except they did not come in flocks to join us.
Rather, the territorial government changed our name from Prosperity City to Deadwood City, which did not amuse Melinda Carlstadt nor anyone else on the Civic Alliance a single bit—except maybe William, who’d joined with the group the previous fall just to be nearer Amy.
“It’s like a saucer. Or, not a saucer, but like one of mother’s good china teacups. ‘Cept for the glow, that is. And for the fact it ain’t got a handle.”
But now he, and Amy, and all the rest of us stood on Main Street gazing to west as the hum got louder. Then up in the sky—Amy saw it first, quick-eyed as she was, her eyes like a gunslinger’s except, of course, her mother did not approve of her shooting—the green glow got brighter, then came together into a shape that dropped down from the clouds, spinning and twirling and bobbing up and down. Fat and round and kind of flat on the top.
Amy said it first. “It’s like a saucer. Or, not a saucer, but like one of mother’s good china teacups. ‘Cept for the glow, that is. And for the fact it ain’t got a handle.”
“Yeah,” someone added. “And that it’s flying.” And someone else said, “It’s a flying teacup! That’s what we’ll call it.”
But then Doc’s voice boomed out. “It’s twirling, too, boys. That’s what makes it hum. So we should call it a twirling teacup. But more to the point, it seems to be landing.”
Well, it seemed natural then, what with the red-eye we’d all been imbibing, that we mosey on to west to find out just where that teacup was landing. We slipped and slood through the mud, out past the old abandoned warehouse still filled with its sacks of dried Navy beans that Melinda Carlstadt had talked her husband into bringing in from San Francisco to sell to the miners. Back when there’d been miners. Except that the miners had preferred Tom’s whiskey, for which Melinda had yet to forgive him.
But what’s past was past, Tom always had said, while he counted his money. You win one, you lose one—that was his motto. So, eye always on the next fortune ahead, he marched out ahead of us, taking a few of the cowpokes with him, until they came up to the hill overlooking the old mine’s entrance.
When we caught up to them, we found them stopped there, held away from the mine works themselves by a green-glowing fence-like thing, sizzling and spitting sparks of fire whenever anyone got too near it. Inside the fence was a cleared out area over which the teacup was just hanging, dropping down something—some more kind of green stuff, throbbing and glowing and squealing and streaming out over the ground to the remnants of rusted narrow-gauge track that led into the mine shaft.
Then just as quick as it had appeared, the green stuff was gone, down into the mine, and the twirling teacup commenced to spin faster, humming more loudly, and shot up into the sky. And as quick as it disappeared into the clouds, the clouds themselves started to drift away. The rain tapered off and the moon came out, and we started to drift ourselves back toward town, except some of the drovers who kept on prodding and fiddling with that fence—cowpokes and fences being sort of like natural enemies—until at last they came back with us too.
And so it was the first time the teacup came. In pairs and threesomes we reassembled ourselves back on Main Street where, except for the mud, it was almost as if no storm had happened. Tom did catch a cold that night, for which his wife gave him no end of misery, and, off to the west in the months that followed, some nights you could see a bit of green glow from where that fence still stood.
But other than that things had gone back to normal. Amy alternated between her practicing scales on the barroom piano and practicing shooting her pistol outside of town, depending on how close her mother watched her. The drovers moved on with their herd into Kansas, and Tom’s cold got better. Doc and William spent nights at the saloon. But unknown to us, one of those drovers who’d been poking at the fence somehow had managed to make a hole in it. Leastways, that’s the way Doc figured afterwards.
After the mice came.
You’ve got to realize a town like Deadwood doesn’t have very much going for it except for vermin, so nobody paid much attention at first, as the summer drew on, except maybe one or two. Tom did mention the mice seemed thicker that summer than most, at least in terms of the stuff they chewed up. The way hungry mice will. But then his wife Melinda would shush him like maybe she knew something we weren’t supposed to. And which, it turned out, she did.
Thing is, she and Dorothy Benton, Bart Benton’s wife who ran the general store, got on as thick as, well, leaves on real shade trees. The kind Melinda had wanted for Deadwood. And Dorothy had been cleaning her husband’s store’s back room and noticed that something was gnawing the crackers and hardtack and such there, not that many people bought the stuff except for some summers when it got so hot the mule trains stopped coming in through the desert.
Those were the times when fresh supplies grew short, and folks would eat anything they could buy up to get through to next season. And vermin would eat too, whatever they foraged that they could get to ahead of the people. Except for one thing.
That’s what Melinda Carlstadt was counting on: Mice won’t eat Navy beans. No way, no how—not even if that’s all between them and starving.
But people, she figured, were more adaptable. . . .
And so it was that this summer was hot and the mule trains stopped coming and, sure enough, what with the vermin’s gnawing, pretty soon all there was left to eat was the beans in the warehouse. Beans which, once they were soaked in Tom’s red-eye to get them all swollen up, weren’t really half bad. So Tom and Melinda made even more money—more money she figured they might buy more trees with, maybe some dry-weather kind more suited to the town’s condition.
But then the mice got into chewing up dry goods.
And that was the last straw.
Folks still talk about the night Melinda Carlstadt stormed into Tom’s saloon, squalling like some kind of Irish banshee. Which she was—Irish, that is—on her mother’s side.
“Tom,” she shrieked. “Quick, Tom! You’ve got to do something!”
“Something about what?” Tom answered behind the bar.
“Something about them mice. They’ve gone and got into Amy’s wedding chest. You know, the dress and the veil and things I saved from our marriage so, when the time comes, she can have herself a proper husband. Someone from back East. Not like”—and here she glared at the bar, where William was standing—”well, you know, Tom. . . .” “Well, no I don’t really, honey,” Tom answered back. “But just slow down some now. You know how mice are. They get into everything. And besides we already tried catching them with those traps Benton’s got in his store. Didn’t work none, though.”
That’s when Doc Taggerty interrupted. “Got something here,” he said. “Something I been working on myself these past few weeks.” He held up what looked like a pair of spittoons, wound around with bailing wire, with a sort of a door at one end and a flap at the other and some kind of spring that was stretched out between them. “I call it the Taggerty Better Mousetrap. This here’s a prototype.”
“Thing really work, Doc?” Tom asked from behind the bar.
“Don’t know yet,” Doc said, “seeing how I just this evening got it finished.” He placed the contraption on the bar, then fiddled with something at the door end, then gave the left hand spittoon a half twist while he did something else with the flap at the other. “Any of you got something for bait, though, we could try it.”
After some arguing Tom finally talked his wife into going back to their house and bringing back something from Amy’s trousseau. A ribbon or something—or maybe a garter—she wouldn’t let any of us look too close. She put it into the trap herself, then insisted Doc avert his eyes while he gave the left hand spittoon one more twist.
Then we all waited.
Well, during our wait we all had more red-eye until we finally gave up on it and went to our own homes, but that didn’t have anything to do with what we saw in that trap the next morning. What it was, was a mouse. Sort of like, anyway. But also sort of not like most mice we’d seen in Deadwood before then, seeing as how it had six legs instead of the more usual four.
“Odd for a mouse, that,” William Sweet finally said. “I mean, I know animals. Mules mostly, I grant, but other kinds too. And I swear I ain’t seen no six-legged mice before.”
“Pretty color, though,” Amy said when she came in later. “Sort of a soft green. Apple green, almost, or maybe a grass green. Kind of cute, though, especially the way it glows in the shade. Sort of like, you know, that glow we saw in the storm?”
That’s when we figured it. The flying teacup. It had to have something to do with that twirling teacup that landed out by the mine that night during the storm. With Tom leading the way, we saddled our horses and rode out of town this time, only to still be stopped as before by the green-glowing fence that surrounded the mine works.
Except Doc noticed, when he’d dismounted to inspect the fence closer, that one of the corners had lifted a little at one of the posts. Leaving a small hole.
Doc nodded sagely, and Tom nodded with him. Then we rode back to town and Tom’s saloon. Looking at our trapped mouse once more in the barroom’s dimness, Tom turned to Doc and asked in a low voice:
“Think maybe you could make more of them mousetraps?”
Doc thought a while on that. “Reckon I could,” he said. “Maybe a couple more. Get some spittoons out of Benton’s store. Find some wire maybe. It’d take some time, though, to make very many, seeing as how it took nearly a week for me to make this one.”
“Don’t know as that would be enough to satisfy the Mrs. then,” Tom said. “Last night she showed me that chest she’d been saving—her wedding attire and stuff for Amy—and it looked like hundreds of mice had been through it, gnawing up everything. And Mrs. Benton was telling me too that she thought maybe there were thousands more like them, the way they’d ripped through the stores in her back room. Seems to me if we don’t do something real fast, if they’re going to be eating clothes too now, pretty soon we’ll all end up stark naked—which, knowing Melinda, ain’t the way she’d like to see this town going. . . .” Doc looked at Tom Carlstadt and Tom looked back at Doc, and both of them shuddered—though, truth to tell, William was looking at Amy, kind of sly, and then he broke out into sort of a grin. Amy, meantime, just looked puzzled. Puzzled and serious too, in her way, and kind of fingering at her six-shooter as if she were thinking about the way the discussion was turning.
That’s when she added her own thought to it. “Too bad nobody’s got a cat.”
William Sweet volunteered to be our hero. He told us afterward all that had happened. He knew that cats could be bought in St. Louis from when he’d worked out of there as a mule skinner, so he took a horse and some of Tom’s cash and some extra red-eye and rode toward the sunrise.
Six days and seven nights he said he rode till he reached the Missouri River, then six days more to the Mississippi. Then finally he rented some mules and a wagon when he reached St. Louis, and had the wagon filled up with cats, and a tank wagon filled with milk behind it.
Then he headed back west.
Six days more to the wide Missouri he trekked toward the setting sun. Then, near that strange collection of seven-story houses folks call Kansas City, he picked up the Overland Trail through the tall grass, and then through the short grass, and then through the sagebrush and sand of the desert. Six days and five nights he worked his way farther west, through sand and sun that got so hot that particular summer that rain dried out on its way to the ground and came down as dust flakes, and blue-beaked buzzards got cooked when they landed, until on that sixth night he made camp and rested.
And meanwhile we waited, back in Deadwood, some of us helping Doc make more mousetraps—a couple a week now. And eating our beans soaked in red-eye whiskey, that were beginning to make a few of us just a mite gassy. And guarding our clothing, some of which was beginning to show tatters around the edges.
And then came disaster.
William knew mules, like I said before—he’d been a mule skinner back during the War of the Southern Unpleasantness—and he was getting to know cats as well, but other than that he was not long on knowledge. One thing he did not know when he made his camp that night was that a lost tribe of Native Americans had, of late, migrated into the very desert that he was crossing. And one more thing too, that few people know even now, I reckon, was that those particular aboriginals had, since the white man had come to their land, somehow developed a taste for milk.
And so it was with their whoops and shrieks that these milk-thirsty aborigines fell upon William Sweet’s milk wagon, draining its contents dry. Then, crazed as they were now with lactose fever—a little-known ailment that seems to affect only that one particular, long lost native tribe—they smashed up both wagons and set them on fire and stole his mules from him.
Meanwhile in town we were getting right burpy, considering all we were eating was beans. And some of our clothing was more than just threadbare. But then Amy came running back into town, from where she’d been practicing with her pistols, to say she’d seen something.
“Not no more twirling teacups, I hope,” Doc groaned. “Not no more glowing green in the night time—not that those green-glowing mice ain’t enough.”
“Well, that too,” Amy said. “But this is daytime. And what I seen was to east, not to west. A big cloud of dust, like someone was driving something to Deadwood. But not tall and plume-like—not like a mule train—but more low-lying and close to the ground. Like puffs made by little padded, running feet. . . .”
Then we all heard a strange sound of meowing, and shouts we all recognized as being William’s voice.
“Git along, Cat!” William was yelling. “Come along, Kittens, there’s mice where we’re going to!”
And then in a flurry of screeching and yowling, eighty or ninety or more toms and tabbys, long and lean from their trek through the desert, came galloping into the main street of Deadwood.
The way William saw it, as he explained later, was that those cats were a lot like mules. Stubborn, for one thing. But if cats were like mules, then he, William Sweet, was still the best mule skinner in the whole territory.
And if a mule skinner, why not a cat skinner too? That’s how he figured it that next morning when he found himself, alone, surrounded by felines.
So, in a day, he had taught them commands. He’d shown them his whip and how he could crack it—over their heads, of course, so’s not to hurt them.
He’d shown them how to run in the daytime, and then at night to sit by the campfire while he serenaded them with his guitar.
But this was daytime, and all of Deadwood’s mice were hiding, as mice will in daytime. So we all found ourselves in Tom’s saloon, the cats along with us, having ourselves a big bean dinner to celebrate William’s arriving safely. And we even fed the cats as well, figuring they’d need all their strength for the evening’s work ahead.
And we were right too. As soon as dusk came, the first of the mice peeped their glowing heads out of the holes they were hidden in. Soon the whole street was filled with mice, squeaking and carrying on like they owned the town, just like they’d been doing every night lately. William was cool, though. He waited and waited, letting them have their way. Till every one of those six-legged, green mice was out in the open.
Then he just whispered. “Go get ‘em, Kittycats!”
Then, in a puff of fur, four or five score of cats raced from the barroom into the town’s streets. Into the houses and all the buildings. Into the Bentons’ store.
Into, even, the shreds that were left of Amy’s hope chest.
And squeaking and screaming, out popped the mice, but now there were fewer of them than before. And cats caught and ate them, driving the rest west, back to the abandoned mine with its green-glowing barrier.
But then all heck broke loose. Up in the sky—Amy saw it first, with her shooter’s eyes—just as we’d all gathered round that green fence. Just as the cats had figured out some way that they could get through it—’cause everyone knows cats can get into everything. Just as the last mice were squealing their death squeals, out of the sky came not one, but dozens of humming, green-glowing, twirling teacups.
But Amy was mad now. Her mother had told her the clothes in the chest that the mice had eaten had been for her. And even though by now she’d gotten as soft on William as he’d always been on her own self, and anyway she’d never wanted a fancy Eastern-style wedding whoever she ended up marrying, nevertheless she figured there was some kind of principle that was at stake here. And it had to do with those gol-darn teacups.
Or anyhow that’s how she explained it afterward.
She drew her six-shooter as slick as the lightning that was beginning to flash from the sky now, and popped at the first one just as it landed. It bounced right back, straight up, reaching for sky as she popped it a second time, chipping its rim like it was a real teacup.
And by about that time, the rest of us had out our shooting irons as well—even the ones who’d been in the saloon, which was most of us actually—and we were popping away at the teacups too, sometimes hitting them, more often not, while those glowing, green things spun and buzzed like hornets, fighting for altitude. Fighting to get away. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the fight was over. The teacups were all gone. The sky was clearing.
The moon was shining.
And Amy and William were in each other’s arms, sighing and kissing.
It was pretty disgusting, I’ll tell you, the way those two young folks were carrying on, even after we’d gotten them back to town. Finally we figured the only thing we could do was get them married, whether Amy’s mother was for it or not. But, in the meantime, some other things happened.
The first was that Doc figured out that whoever was in those teacups were sort of like cowboys, but with six-legged mice for their herds instead of cattle. They’d let their mice out on what they thought was free range, just to graze them a little like cowpokes do, but now we’d showed them that it was closed, so they wouldn’t be coming back. At least not likely—and, even if they did, we had our cats now. Meanwhile the cats had eaten the mice, of course, but when they’d finished they were back eating beans, just like the rest of us, and, like the rest of us, they’d got the burps too. Except, in the dark, they were burping green-glowing gas, which Doc reckoned they’d got when they ate the mice.
But which began to give William an idea.
You see, when William had gotten the cats, he’d noticed St. Louis had things they called gas lights—big glowing lanterns they had up on poles on both sides of their main street—and folks there had said it was the latest fashion. So he trained those cats to climb up on the trees on Deadwood’s own Main Street as soon as it got dark, and burp their own green glows, and soon enough the word got out on that, and people came flocking to our city to see it for themselves.
And word spread farther, and more people moved in. Civilized people. And pretty soon we were getting hard pressed to find something useful for them all to do.
Except that William had one more idea then, after Doc had shown him one of the latest models of his new-fangled mousetraps, and that was that maybe Doc should get a patent.
And so Doc did, in San Francisco, and pretty soon people were buying Taggerty’s Better Mousetraps all over the country, and Doc cut William in on the profits seeing how getting the patent on them had been his notion. And Tom got a share too when he converted his old bean warehouse into a factory, where all the town’s newcomers could help to build them.
And pretty soon everyone in Deadwood prospered, even the Civic Improvement Alliance whose members were often called on to give lectures in neighboring cities on the advantages of having streetlights. And on modern pest control methods as well. And, as I said, in time William Sweet and Amy got married, even if Amy was without her trousseau. But William was rich now.
And that even satisfied Melinda Carlstadt.
James S. Dorr James Dorr’s new book, Daker Lover: Tales of Mystery and Regret, is forthcoming from Dark Regions Press as a companion to his current collection, Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance. His cat, Wednesday, is a gray and black tabby whose favorite toy is a plastic fake spider.