on it. There was some that would argue Wild Bill Hickok was in the cemetery at Deadwood, but I wouldn't be one of them. They ever dig his grave up they're going to find there ain't nothing in there but worms and dirt. Wild Bill rides with us.

I went out of there, staying as far to the other side of the door as I could, and stepped out into the morning light. When I was breathing better, I went around to the side of the wagon and peeled up the tarp and looked in on Rot Toe.

The old ape looked at me and let out a hoot, but didn't move. Big as he was, he looked tired and miserable. He'd been that way a lot lately. Albert says it's because he's getting old and Billy Bob don't treat him right, poking him with sticks and such like he does. He thinks Billy Bob ought to let Rot Toe cut the wrestling act, just start being there for folks to look at for a nickle a peek. Albert would like to keep him on a long chain when we were in a town, and rest of the time let him run loose on the wagon, ride up front with us. Billy Bob don't see it that way, though. He's scared of Rot Toe. And good reason. He's picked at that ape enough, that he can't be alone with him. Rot Toe, given half the chance, would tear Billy Bob apart.

Well, Albert's ideas seemed good to me, Rot Toe being old and all, though when he got that muzzle and them gloves put on him, and got out there to wrestle two-hundred-and-forty-pound men, he didn't look old then, gray hairs or not. He just looked big and strong and scary, and the way he slung them fellas around, it was hard to believe he didn't weigh but a little over a hundred pounds.

'You okay, old man?' I said.

Rot Toe let out that little hoot again, brought his hand up and touched his face. If he'd been willing to move and come across the cage, he'd probably have reached out and touched me. Touching himself or someone else, unless it was Billy Bob, always seemed to make him feel better. And reckon if he could touch Billy Bob in the way he wanted, he'd have felt mighty good then too.

'Take it easy, old fella,' I said, and I lowered the tarp.

I looked off to the east, and now that I was out of the wagon, I could see the sky above the pines. I looked for lightning to be sewing through the sky like some kind of crazy seamstress, but there wasn't nothing there. Didn't hear no thunder neither, but I knew that storm hadn't given up on us yet. We'd see sign of it soon.

I went around to the front of the wagon, up to the head mule, Ishamel. Albert was there, rubbing the old critter on the forehead and looking out at the silly-laid-out town.

'Well, Little Buster,' he said, 'what'cha think?'

'I don't like it none.'

'Me neither, but Mister Billy Bob is set.'

'To hell with Billy Bob,' I said braver than I felt. 'I got a feeling that whatever bad that's been waiting to happen in this town has been waiting on us.'

'That may be,' Albert said with that accepting way of his, 'but Mister Billy Bob's the one buys the bacon.'

I didn't say anything back. Albert went around and climbed on the wagon and picked up the lines. I got up on my side and Albert softly called to the mules and we started rolling into Mud Creek proper, and the closer we got the lighter it got, and the more it looked like any other little town, except for the way it was laid out, and I could see people moving around now, starting their day, and it looked just as normal as could be.

But that didn't make me feel no better.


It was a hot day already and I thought about that and wished I'd left Rot Toe's tarp up. Sweat was coming from beneath the brim of my cap and streaming down my face, running into the edge of my mouth. It tasted like salt, dirt, and sadness, mostly sadness, because sweat always reminds me of tears.

There was the smell of animal lots on the warm wind, and it wasn't too bad. Not bad like some of the cow towns we'd been in. So bad in some that the stink made you have to lean over and throw up what you'd eaten. This was small town animal stink, not the months old, ankle-deep mess of a Kansas cow lot. In fact, it was almost pleasant. Reminded me that I was once again in my old stomping grounds, East Texas, and that the place where I'd grown up wasn't all that far away.

And though I didn't want to think on it, that barnyard smell took me back a few years, back to the baddest old winter we'd ever seen, the winter I came to believe in signs and omens. The winter I turned fifteen.


It had come a rare snow that year, and even rarer for East Texas it had actually stuck to the ground and got thick. Along came the wind, colder than ever, and it turned the snow to ice. It was beautiful, like sugar-and-egg- white icing on a cake, but it wasn't nothing to enjoy after the excitement of first seeing it come down. I had to get out in it and do chores, and that made me wish for a lot of sunshine and a time to go fishing.

Third day after it snowed and things had gotten real icy, I was out cutting firewood from the woodlot and I found a madman in a ditch.

I'd already chopped down a tree and was trimming the limbs off of it, waiting for Papa, who was coming across the way with a crosscut so we could saw it up into firewood sizes. While I was trimming, I heard a voice.

'Got a message. Get out of this ditch, I got a message.'

Clutching the axe tight, I went over and looked in the ditch, and there was a man lying there. His face was as blue as Mama's eyes, and Papa says they're so blue the sky looks white beside them, even on its best day. His long, oily hair had stuck to the ground and frozen there so that the clumped strands looked like snakes or fat worms trying to find holes to crawl into. There were icicles hanging off his eyelids and he was barefoot.

I screamed for Papa. He tossed down the saw and came running fast as he could on that ice. We got down in the ditch, hauled the fella up, pulling out some of his frozen hair in the doing. He was wearing a baggy old pair of faded black suit pants with the rear busted out, and his butt was hanging free and drawerless. It was darker than his face, looked a bit like a split, overripe watermelon gone dark in the sun. His feet and hands were somewhere between the blue of his face and the blue-black of his butt. The shirt he had on was three sizes too big, and when Papa and I had him standing, the wind came a-whistling along and flapped the fella s shirt around him till he looked like a scarecrow we were trying to poke in the ground.

We got him up to the house, and stretched him out on the kitchen table. He looked like he'd had it. He didn't move an inch. Just laid there, eyes closed, breathing slow.

Then, all of a sudden, his eyes snapped open and he shot out a bony hand and grabbed Papa by the coat collar. He pulled himself to a sitting position until his face was even with Papa's and said, 'I got a message from the Lord. You are doomed, brother, doomed to the wind, cause it's gonna blow you away.' Then he closed his eyes, laid back down and let go of Papa's shirt.

'Easy,' Papa said. But about that time the fella gave a shake, like he was having a rigor, then he went still as a turnip. Papa felt for a pulse and put his ear to the scarecrows chest, looking for a heartbeat. From the expression on Papa's face, I could tell he hadn't found any.

'He's dead, Papa?'

'Couldn't get no deader, son,' Papa said, lifting his head from the man's chest.

Mama, who'd been standing off to the side watching, came over. 'You know him, Harold?' she asked.

'Think this is Hazel Onin's son,' Papa said.

'The crazy boy?' she said.

'I just seen him once, but I think it's him. They had him on a leash out in the yard one summer, had this colored fella leading him around, and the boy was running on all fours, howling and trying to lift his leg to pee on things. His pants was all wet.'

'How pitiful,' Mama said.

I knew of Hazel Onin's boy, but if he had a name I'd never heard it. He'd always been crazy, but not so crazy at first they couldn't let him run free. He was just considered mighty peculiar. When he was eighteen he got religion

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