©1986 Dr. Christopher Gross

As "Yodelin' 'Bob'" Dobbs mounted his horse, Dobbin, and rode off tunefully into the sunset (which happened to be occurring in the center of Salinas, causing considerable consternation among its townspeople), a tall man dressed in black made his way with difficulty across the warped boards of the porch of the saloon. He stopped before a grinning, grizzled, wheezing geezer who was sitting on a stool and whittling chunks out of his wrist with a machete.

"'Scuse me," said the tall man, "but who was that fella who just rode off into the sunset?" The old man shifted his quid of tobacco and spat into a cuspidor in the hotel across the street.

"Yep," he cackled, "that was 'Yodelin' "Bob"', the King of the West!" "Bob" yodeled in agreement from behind a distant mesa, and all the wild animals not buried in the sand for protection suddenly felt the pangs of Cupid's arrow and scrambled off across the alkali, willing to follow that man "Bob" to the ends of the Earth if need be. The stranger wobbled in confusion.

"Why did you say 'Yep'?" he mused. "It wasn't a yes-or-no question." But the old man made no reply, because he had moved in with his sister's family in Ohio five years earlier. The tall man, who was known as Mr. Zed to those who did not know him, turned on his heel and fell down. But such was the power of Fate that he soon found himself inside at the bar.

"I want service!" bellowed Mr. Zed, pounding all his fists on the bar simultaneously. The bartender obliged and served him faithfully for five years, at the end of which time he backed into a crowbar and decided that he was the Italian population of Boston, Massachusetts. He persisted so strenuously in this delusion that he eventually had to be shot, less for his own good than for the peace of mind of the neighborhood. However, this is neither here nor there, which cuts down the options a little if you want to figure out where "this" really is. Mr. Zed downed mug after mug of Dr. Death's Alcoholic Emphysema (with Chocolate Nuggets for that Added Zip). Finally, he poked his head out of his left boot and said "Quack." The bartender held out a strange bottle in front of the object that was once Mr. Zed and waggled it invitingly.

"I think you're just about ready for a snort of this," he chuckled. If Mr. Zed had been in any condition to focus more than one eye at a time, he would have noticed that the bottle bore a crude label that read "Dr. Dobbs' Liquid 'Frop."

"Gimme," moaned Mr. Zed, and inhaled the contents of the bottle.

The immediate reaction was a slight feeling of discomfort in the eyeballs, as if they had each been injected with a quart of salad oil. Mr. Zed then discovered that he could recite the Gettysburg Address backwards in twenty seconds, but he was too busy juggling tables to pay much attention to what his mouth was doing. Gradually he resolved to track down this man Dobbs and find out what was going on...

Several days later, Mr. Zed showed up in Santa Fe with a life-threateningly beautiful girl of vaguely Mexican origin. He had been through a great deal in the past few days, and many detected the tell-tale signs of trauma or worse in the fact that he now grinned constantly and gripped an empty pipe between his teeth. So did the girl. The couple had, in fact, recently survived the short but obscene and violent rites of initiation into the Mystic Order of Ramon y Consuela Sanchez, one of the lower Paths on the way to "Bob." Having graduated from the Mystic Order (surreptitiously destroying the evidence), they were now prepared for the next step of their unending initiation.

Mr. Zed stood in the middle of the town square and yelled "KILL ME!!" Four nearby ranch hands attempted to oblige, but they had drunk too much of Dr. Tibia's Toothache Polish and found themselves capable merely of falling over.

"Quack," they said as they hit the ground. This was a stranger phenomenon than a mere reading of the word on paper would imply, because the four ranch hands happened to be audio quadruplets: unrelated by birth, they were born with identical sets of vocal cords. The fact that they said "Quack" slightly out of synchronization with each other caused an odd, unrepeatable phase-shift effect which was audible from only two points within the borders of Santa Fe. These two points were currently occupied, purely by chance, by Mr. Zed and the Mexican girl. The weird noise resulting from the interaction of the four "Quacks" caused a noticeable increase in intelligence not unmixed with nausea. The pair were overwhelmed with joy until they realized that their increased intelligence consisted solely of the knowledge that they had become more intelligent. Big deal. They cursed in stereo and left town that evening.

Several days later they were halfway across the Mojave Desert. They had originally planned to return to the town in which Mr. Zed could have met Dobbs had he been a little faster, but it had been stolen the night before by Carribean buccaneers. They had set out toward the mesa behind which "Bob" had ridden, but there was a sudden shift in the wind and they soon found themselves at their present location. The Mexican girl (who was named Lotte) suggested that they camp there for the night and get some rest. Mr. Zed agreed, but they got very little rest because of a slight party that broke out when they found a case of Dr. Excema's Gripemonger-in-a-Bottle half-buried under Snake Mountain. Four months later, they woke up and threw themselves upon the mercy of their Creator. After two more months of recuperation and physical therapy, they began to sift through the wreckage for any of their possessions that might have remained intact. Mr. Zed found a pair of BVD cotton briefs.

"They're not mine," he said. "I wear Fruit-of-the-Loom. Where are mine, anyway?"

"Let me see them," said Lotte.

"Why -- are they yours?"

"No," she said. "Maybe there's a name tag inside."

"There aren't any summer camps around here," said Mr. Zed dubiously. But Lotte had found the tag. Her face went pale, and she handed the briefs to him. The tag read: J.R. DOBBS.

Three days later they decided that they had been riding in circles; they kept passing the same cactus every ninety seconds. Mr. Zed pointed this out to Lotte.

"It's not the same cactus," she replied. "See that little number there?" She pointed to a spot near the center of the main trunk of the cactus. Mr. Zed looked, and there saw the number 140306 printed out on a digital display.

"You know," said Lotte, "I think that may be the same cactus after all. The last one we passed said 140305, so I thought this was the next one in the series... but now I think it's just one with a lap counter on it!"

"But why? Who ever heard of a digital cactus in the first place?"

"You've got me there..." But Mr. Zed's point was well taken, and the digital cactus, being silly, faded out of existence.

"Oh," said Lotte.

They rode until they reached the edge of the desert and went straight into a rain forest. But it turned out to be another mirage, which caused the couple to invoke the Savior.

"Hey," said Lotte, "maybe this desert is a mirage!" And so it was. But the case of Dr. Excema's Gripemonger-in-a-Bottle had been real, and they had wasted six months wandering around Snake Mountain. Dobbs' trail had grown cold, as had his briefs (finally), and maybe "Bob" himself had grown cold if he hadn't found another pair. But such speculations were fruitless in the absence of any clues as to his location and activities. Mr. Zed and Lotte pitched camp outside Brewer's Gulch and discussed their plight over a bottle of Dr. Umlaut's Übermeistergenossenschaftsbrau in the big red bottle! (Adv.)

"I don't know," muttered Mr. Zed. "I'm starting to think we're wasting our time."

"And our money," added Lotte. "We paid a lot for that initiation."

"Please don't mention that initiation for another couple hundred years, okay?"

"I thought it was going to be fun."

"So did I. Well, it was... sort of."

"At first."

"Let's go back there and kill them."

And they went on like that for several hours, at the end of which time the people of Brewer's Gulch must have thought that Tarzan and Jane were running around in the sagebrush from all that hootin' and hollerin'...

But it wasn't anyone involved in this story (except for this one mention); just some spillover from last month's Book of the Month Club selection. Mr. Zed and Lotte had conked out on a comfortable rock, which rocked back and forth in the light breeze. As day broke, the rock stopped rocking and began bed-of-nailing, and its occupants woke up. Mr. Zed looked around and yelled "Our horses are gone!"

Lotte turned over drowsily. "We don't have any horses..."

"We don't? Then what have we been riding on?" Lotte's eyes widened. Suddenly she noticed a small object lying a short distance away.

"What's that?" she asked. She got up and walked over to the object.

"What is it?" asked Mr. Zed.

Lotte held it up. It was a pipe cleaner.

The discovery of what was apparently one of "Bob's" pipe cleaners had deep ramifications. The fact that for the past six months they had been riding piggyback on the very man they had been looking for brought up an important philosophical point. Being out in the West, they had naturally assumed they had been riding on a pair of horses. And yet it was only "Bob"... But why didn't he say anything? Maybe "Bob," not being used to having people climb onto his back, had simply not noticed them. Maybe he liked it...