That Billy Bob seemed determined to get himself in trouble, and for some reason, Albert seemed determined to keep him out of it. Me, I was just determined and didn't know what for. From time to time I figured on leaving the Magic Wagon, going my own way. But truth was, I didn't know nothing else. And me and Albert were friends, good friends.

On the other hand, Billy Bob and me never had got along. We wasn't even friendly. All I knew about Billy Bob was that he'd taken me in after my parents were killed, fed me, clothed me, given me a job and some spending money. All this was on account of Albert pushed him to do it, but nonetheless, it was Billy Bob's wagon and I figured I owed him. That's all the feeling I had for Billy Bob, nothing else. Least that's the way it was until we got to Mud Creek and some new light got shed on things. Then I knew damn good and well how I felt about him.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.


So Albert drove the mules through the night, stopping only twice to let them blow, and then just for a few minutes.

Finally, just after sunup, we made Mud Creek. Good thing. The mules were tuckered out, and so were we. All that fast moving had my guts jostled something terrible, and both my legs were near asleep.

We stopped just past the sign that read MUD CREEK, and I climbed down from the wagon to stretch. Just a rawboned kid then. Seventeen, with an old gray cap and a grayer shirt and pants that had such a shine to them that they'd have blinded you had the moon or sunlight hit them just right.

Soon as my feet touched ground, I knew things were going to happen in this town. It was like a ripple had run under my feet, or maybe more like it feels when there's a real bad storm in the air and the lightning is stitching so thick it makes your hair stand up and your skin feel prickly. Mud Creek felt like a town with a soul, and a bad old soul at that.

It wasn't nothing to look at neither, there in that early morning grayness. It looked like someone had taken a handful of old ugly buildings and tossed them like dice onto a dirty hunk of ground and surrounded them with the biggest, darkest East Texas pines you'd ever seen. Most towns you come to the buildings are on either side of the main street, out here the street just sort of wandered down between the buildings as best it could. Like there wasn't no plan or nothing. Just build as you will, do as you will.

Albert climbed down, took care of the mules and came around to stand by me. He put his hands on his hips and stretched his back until it popped. When he was stretched out, he looked at the town and grimaced.

'I tell you, Little Buster, that town's full of all manner of bad spirits. Its done gone and had it a real bad life, and it ain't going to get no better.'

Now I really had the shakes. Albert claimed he could feel and sometimes see spirits. He believed all things had souls, even rocks and trees. Sounded like some of the stuff I'd heard Indians say, only Albert got his beliefs from his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of which had been slaves, and the great-grandfather had been direct from Africa. He'd told Albert all manner of stories about over there. About spirits and goblins, and little short folks that lived in the woods and had poisoned arrows and such. Some of it sounded pretty wild to me, especially that stuff about the short folks, but Albert believed it all. And from the things that had happened to me since I'd teamed up with the Magic Wagon, I was beginning to believe most anything.

And I could feel the bad in Mud Creek too, though it could have been Albert's tall tales rubbing off on me. But there was the stone cold fact that I'd felt that badness before Albert even stepped down off the wagon.

I was considering on all of this, when the back door of the Magic Wagon came open and out stumbled Billy Bob, drunker than a fly in a cider barrel. He'd been right heavy into our Cure-All. He made a few steps, turned, looked down the road at the town, and said, 'Well, I'll be damned.' Then he passed out and hit the dirt, half a bottle of Cure-All spilling out on the ground.

Albert and me pulled him inside the wagon, laid him out on his stoop, and after Albert went out, I listened a bit to see if I could hear the wood talking like it did sometimes, but it was quiet. Which really suited me best. It gave me the rabbit hops when it talked, but I couldn't keep from listening for it just the same. I tried to tell myself wasn't nothing to it, but I knew better. Each day things seemed to get stranger and stranger with Billy Bob and the Magic Wagon, and I didn't see no letup in sight.

Since we'd fixed them busted sideboards up with them sacred trees from the Dakotas and Billy Bob had bought that rock-hard body in the box, things had gotten considerably curious. Strangest thing was this storm that had taken to following us wherever we went, though it hadn't caught up with us yet. Sometimes we got a little wind and rain from it, that sort of thing, but never the full blow. We always managed to stay about three days ahead of it. But it was like a hound dog for us, and I knew if we stayed put anywhere long enough, it would show up. And I knew too, if it wasn't for all them pines, I'd be able to look out the back of the Magic Wagon and see lightning flashing way off in the distance, When we was in Kansas, I remember being able to see it darn near all the time, and it was unsettling to always look behind you, night or day, and see lightning forks cutting across the sky, getting closer and closer, until finally you could feel the first licks of the wind and the rain.

When I first noticed the big blow was following us, I told Albert, and he knew right off what I was talking about. He'd noticed it too, and like me, he figured it was either them sacred trees or that body in the box that was responsible, since both was supposed to have a curse on them.

Course, Billy Bob wouldn't have such talk. He just laughed. 'Ain't nothing following us but your own silly daydreams,' he'd say. But I'd seen him watching the skies from time to time, and he never let us stay in any place more than a night, and we always moved out real early the next morning, and he made us move faster than you'd really have a need to unless something was behind us.

In fact, I sort of think he was glad that wife-beat fella with the stove wood and the pistol came along, as that gave him a good excuse to put a few more hours between him and that storm, and he could tell himself it didn't have nothing to do with fear of curses and such.

But he didn't fool me. He was as worried and scared of that storm as me and Albert, and he'd taken to drinking a whole lot since the Dakotas and sometimes he cried out in his sleep and shook like a wet pup.

'Them ole Injun spirits in the wood, they talking to him,' Albert would tell me. And Albert believed that. He'd quit sleeping inside the wagon since we'd put in those sideboards from the sacred trees, and you couldn't hardly get him inside of it unless it was to do business of some sort, or it was raining real hard.

Me, I'd lay there on my stoop at night-Billy Bob across the way-and listen to that wood moan and groan, and sometimes, when the back door was open-which was most of the time in the summer-and the moonlight was thick, I'd think I could see eyes looking out of that wood at me, or mouths moving. But when I'd light a match for a look- see, it would just be pine knots. One night I even thought something had reached out of the wood to take hold of my hand, but when I jerked awake, I didn't find nothing there.

And there was the body in the box. Thinking on that thing didn't improve my sleep neither. The mere thought of it gave me a cold rigor.

Considering all this as I stood there in the wagon, I turned to look at it and got a start. The box was propped up where it always was, but the lid was open and the body was gone.

My back felt like a batch of big spiders were crawling up it. I turned and looked around the dark wagon, saw the shape at Billy Bob's feet, between the foot of his stoop and the wall by the door. It had been there all along. Albert and I just hadn't noticed it. That crazy drunk had pulled it out of the box and propped it up so it could look over him, like some kind of bodyguard.

My eyes were used to the dark enough now that I could see it, but fortunate for me I couldn't see so good I could make out its features-the ones it had left. Even when Billy Bob showed it to folks and said his talk about it, I never really looked straight at it. I somehow figured if I did it would get the whammy in on me, or something. No matter from where you looked at it, it always seemed to be looking at you with them hollow sockets and that half- open mouth with the little thin teeth gone copper-colored and yellow. And I think the wisps of hair that stuck out in spots on the skull like the last down on a near plucked goose were worse. And I didn't care for them pistols that were clenched in them skeleton fists. They looked too shiny and too well-oiled and ready to go. Course, it was Billy Bob that kept them oiled and put hinges in the corpse's elbows so he could set the guns where he wanted them, but the thought of that thing standing there with them old pistols clutched in its bones made me want to wet myself

I believed that story the Indian had told Billy Bob about whose body that was, and about the curse that was

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