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The Magic Wagon

Joe R. Lansdale

CHAPTER 1

Wild Bill Hickok, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.

I was there. Let me tell you about it.

***

About an hour before sunrise, mid-July, 1909, we came rolling into Mud Creek in the Magic Wagon-Billy Bob Daniels, Old Albert, Rot Toe the Wrestling Chimpanzee, the body in the box, and me.

Night before we'd sort of snuck out of Louisiana and made the Texas border on account of some medicine Billy Bob sold this fella, telling him it would cure the piles. Which it hadn't. Not that any of us thought it would. It was just some water, coloring, and a little whisky. Well, mostly whisky.

But the fella who bought the stuff was a teetotaller and it made him drunk enough to hit his wife some and have a bellyache. And later when he passed out on the bed drunk, she sewed him up in the bedsheets, got herself a broom, and whaled the tar out of him till he was bruised enough to pass for a speckled pup.

When his wife finally did let him out from beneath the sheets he had sobered considerable, and he got to figuring on what he'd done and the fact that he had the piles bad as ever, and he came looking for Billy Bob.

Normally we'd have been long gone, as that was the smart thing in our business. Talk the crowd up good, sell them some watered whisky, smile big, wave a lot, and soon as we had their money and they were walking away, we'd pack up and hightail it out of town like a jackass with his tail on fire. Avoided a lot of unhappy customers that way.

But now and then we didn't get on our way soon enough, like this evening I'm telling you about, and usually that was because Billy Bob had spotted some gal in the crowd he'd taken a hankering to, and with the way he looked, they often took a hankering hack. He was tall and lean with gray eyes and he wore his blond hair long like them old gun-fighters you read about in the dime novels. Lot of times he wore guns and did trick shooting, which was something he was darned good at. But this time he didn't have no guns, and that was for the best.

He was spruced up and leaning against the wagon, ready to go gal'n, when this fella with the piles and the broom bruises shows up with a piece of cordwood in his hand and a converted. 36 Navy revolver stuck in his belt. Since Billy Bob was the one who had given the talk on the medicine, told him how it could shrink them piles, it was him he wanted. He tells Billy Bob the whole sad story about how he took the medicine and it made him drunk, how he hit his wife, got sewed up in the sheets and beat, and how his piles weren't any better. In fact, he thought they might be considerable worse. Just told Billy Bob the whole shooting match. If he'd had any sense he'd have just walked up and conked Billy Bob on the head with that stove wood, but I figure he was aiming to talk him into giving him his money back before he took to raising knots.

Well, all the time this fella is telling Billy Bob his story, Billy Bob is leaning up against the Magic Wagon with a hand-rolled hanging out of his mouth unlit. When the fella finished, Billy Bob brought a match out from somewhere, lit the hand-rolled and puffed up a little cloud, squinted his eyes and said, 'Ain't nothing to me.'

That Billy Bob always was a considerate sort.

'It's either my money back,' says the speckled pup, 'or I'm going to take this here stove wood and work you up a new hat size.'

'I reckon not,' Billy Bob said.

That fella moved pretty quick then, swung that wood at Billy Bob's head, and Billy Bob caught his wrist with one hand and hit him in the stomach with the other, just above where that old Navy stuck out of his belt. When Billy Bob pulled his hand back, the Navy was in it and the fella was on the ground making noises like a loose treadle on a sewing machine.

Billy Bob pointed the gun and cocked back the hammer. That old cap and ball had been converted over to a cartridge loader, but it looked worn and dangerous, like it was just as likely to blow up in Billy Bob's hand as shoot that fella on the ground.

'Figure I ought to put a hole in your head,' Billy Bob said.

I tensed when I heard that. Billy Bob of late had lost his sense of humor, which before had been about like a kicked badger's anyway.

But right when I thought things were going to get their ugliest, Albert said, 'Mr. Billy Bob, don't reckon you ought to do that.'

Albert was colored. About fifty, with snow in his short kinky hair and shoulders so wide he had to turn sideways to get inside the wagon. He looked a little bit like a bear that had been trained to wear clothes.

All the while things had been going on between Billy Bob and the fella, Albert had been standing quietly by with his arms crossed, showing about as much interest as a cow watching a couple of stumps.

'You talking to me?' Billy Bob said, glancing at Albert. Billy Bob reckoned the war wasn't over yet, and he'd never cottoned to a colored fella telling him anything. Hated it worse than anyone I'd ever seen. Once, in Kansas, I saw him beat a little colored man to his knees just because the fella brushed up against him and didn't say pardon me with enough feeling. But when he talked to Albert like that, the talk seemed mostly just talk. Somehow, Albert had the Indian sign on him, and Billy Bob, who didn't seem afraid of nothing as far as I could tell, didn't give Albert a whole lot of trouble, in spite of Albert being hired help. I sort of got the feeling there was something between them I didn't understand. Something going on I didn't have no sense about.

Even if Billy Bob wasn't scared of Albert, he wasn't shy of brains at that moment. A man Albert's size and strength- I'd once seen him set the Magic Wagon upright after it had been turned over in a storm-could take a. 36 Navy slug pretty good and still get his hands on you and rip you apart like so much pine bark.

Albert's voice, which had been sharp as a knife edge, now went firm and flat. 'Ain't got no right shooting this here, fella on account of some stuff we sold him didn't work. It don't never work on nothing besides sober. Kill this fella and you won't have a minute's peace from the law.

'And if I decide to go ahead and do what I want?' Billy Bob asked.

'Then I'm going to have to take that pistol away from you and tie it around your neck and you'll just have to tell folks it's a bow tie.'

Billy Bob looked at Albert and smiled.

Albert smiled back. They were just a couple of friendly grinners now.

I could never tell about those two. Didn't know if they were really smiling or possum smiling. But Billy Bob said, 'Ah hell, I wasn't going to shoot nobody.'

'No sir,' Albert said, 'didn't reckon you was.'

Billy Bob unloaded the gun, tossed it in the street. He looked down at the fella in the dirt who was looking up. 'Good drunk didn't hurt you none,' Billy Bob said. 'Any old battle-axe who'd put up with you deserves a hitting, and a broom whipping didn't do you no harm neither.'

Billy Bob turned around and climbed in the back of the wagon, yelling, 'Albert, get us out of here.'

'Yes sir, Mister Billy Bob,' Albert said. Billy Bob was in control again, and Albert was like a plantation slave, I couldn't figure it. I didn't say nothing. Just climbed up on the wagon beside Albert and watched him take the lines. He looked over at me and winked. 'Guess Mister Billy Bob going to be leaving him another little gal hanging.'

'Reckon so,' I said.

'Git up there, Ishamel,' Albert called to the head mule, and off we went.

I leaned over the side and looked back at the fella in the street. He was standing now, holding his stomach. He stooped to pick up his hat and gun. I turned back to watch the road.

Albert had the mules talked up pretty good now, and they were stepping on out. Which was a good thing. I figured we'd darn near seen a shooting, one way or another. And after that fella spread word around about what we'd done, it would be right wise of us to be a fair piece on down the road.

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