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worse than smallpox and took to preaching.

Right after he turned twenty, he tried to rape a little high yeller gal he was teaching some Bible verses to, and that's when the Onins throwed him in that attic room, locked and barred the windows. If he'd been out of that room since that time, I'd never heard of it, other than what Papa had said about the leash and wetting himself and all.

I'm ashamed of it now, but when I was twelve or thirteen, me and some other boys used to have to walk by there on our way to and from school, and the madman would holler out from his barred windows at us, 'Repent, cause you all gonna have a bad fall,' then he'd go to singing some old gospel songs and it gave me the jitters cause there was an echo up there in that attic, and it made it seem that there was someone else singing along with him. Someone with a voice as deep and trembly as Old Man Death might have.

Freddy Clarence used to pull down his pants, bend over, and show his naked butt to the madman's window, and we'd follow his lead his lead on account of not wanting to be called a chicken. Then we'd all take off out of there running, hooping and hollering, pulling our pants and suspenders up as we ran.

But we'd quit going by there a long time back, as had almost everyone else in town. They moved Main Street when the railroad came through on the other side, and from then on the town built up over there. They even tore down and rebuilt the schoolhouse on that side, and there wasn't no need for us to come that way no more. We could cut shorter by going another way. And after that, I mostly forgot about the madman prophet.

'It's such a shame,' Mama said. ''Poor boy.'

'It's a blessing, is what it is,' Papa said. 'He don't look like he's been eating so good to me, and I bet that's because the Onins ain't feeding him like they ought to. They figure him a shame and a curse from God, and they've treated him like it was his fault his head ain't no good ever since he was born.'

'He was dangerous, Harold,' Mama said. 'Remember that little high yeller girl?'

'Ain't saying he ought to have been invited to no church social. But they didn't have to treat him like an animal.'

'Guess it's not ours to judge,' Mama said,

'Damn sure don't matter now,' Papa said.

'What do you think he meant about that thing he said, Papa?' I asked. 'About the wind and all?'

'Didn't mean a thing, son. Boy didn't have a nut in his shell is all. Crazy talk. Go on out and hitch up the wagon and I'll get him wound up in a sheet. We'll take him back to the Onins. Maybe they'll want to stuff him and put him in the attic window so folks can see him as they walk or ride by. Maybe they could charge two bits to come inside and gawk at him. Pull his arm with a string so it looks like he's waving at them.'

'That's quite enough, Harold,' Mama said. 'Don't talk like that in front of the boy.'

Papa grumbled something, went out of the room for a sheet, and I went out to the barn and hitched the mules up. I drove the wagon up to the front door, went in to help Papa carry the body out. Not that it really took both of us. He was as light as a big, empty corn husk. But somehow, the two of us carrying him seemed a lot more respectable than just tossing him over a shoulder and slamming him down in the wagon bed.

We took the body over to the Onins, and if they were broke up about it, I missed the signs. They looked like they'd just finally gotten some stomach tonic to work, and had made that long put off and much desired trip to the outhouse.

Papa didn't say nothing stern to them, though I expected him to, since he wasn't short on honest words. But I figure he didn't see any need in it at that point. The fella was dead.

Mrs. Onin stood in the doorway all this time, didn't come out to the wagon bed while the body was there. After Mr. Onin unwound the sheet and took a look at the madman's face, said what a sad day it was and all, he asked us if we'd mind putting the body in the toolshed.

We did, and when we got back to the wagon, Mrs. Onin was waiting by it. Mr. Onin offered us a dollar for bringing the body home, but of course, Papa didn't take it.

Before we climbed up on the wagon, Mrs. Onin said, 'He’d been yelling from upstairs all morning, saying how an angel from God wearing a suit coat and a top hat had brought him a message he was supposed to pass on. Kept saying the angel was giving him a test to see if he deserved heaven after what he'd done to that little girl.'

Papa climbed on the wagon, took hold of the lines. With his head, he motioned me up.

'Then we didn't hear nothing no more,' Mr. Onin said. 'I went up there to check on him and he'd pulled the bars out of one of the windows and got out. I don't reckon how he did that, as he'd never been able to do it before, and them bars was as sturdy as the day I put them in, no rotten wood around the sills or nothing.'

Papa had taken out his pocket knife and tobacco bar, and he was cutting a chaw off of it. 'Reckon you went right then to the sheriff to tell him your boy run off,' Papa said, and there was an edge to his voice, like when he finds me peeing out back too close to the house.

'Naw,' Mr. Onin said, looking at the ground, 'I didn't. Figured cold as it was, he'd come back.'

'Don't matter none now, does it?' Papa said.

'No,' Mr. Onin said. 'He's out of his misery now.'

'Them's as true words as you've spoke,' Papa said.

'I'll be getting that sheet back to you,' Mr. Onin said.

'Don't want it,' Papa said. He clucked up the mules and we started off.

When we were out of earshot of the house, I said, 'Papa, you reckon they thought that crazy fella would go back cause he was cold?'

'Why in hell would he want to go back to that attic? Even if it might have been warm.'

We didn't say anything else until we got home, then wasn't none of the talking about the madman or the Onins. Mama didn't even mention it after she saw Papa's face.

Just before supper, Papa went out on the porch to smoke his pipe, and I went out to the barn to toss some hay to the mules and the milk cow. I was tossing it, smelling that animal smell, thinking about how it reminded me of my whole life, that smell. Reminded me of Mama and Papa, warm nights with very little breeze, cold nights with the fire stoked up big and warm, late suppers, tall tales in front of the fireplace, standing on the porch or looking out of the windows at the morning, noon or night, spring, summer, fall, or winter. And that smell, always there, like a friend who had some peculiar, if not bad-smelling, toilet water. It was in the floorboards of the house, on the yard, thick in the barn. A smell that even now moves me backwards and forwards in time, confuses me on which are the truths and which are the lies of my memory.

So there I was, throwing hay, thinking this fine life would go on forever, and all of a sudden, I felt it before it happened.

I quit tossing hay, turned to look out the barn door. It was like I was looking at a painting, things had gone so still. The sky had turned yellow. The late birds quit singing and the mules and the milk cow turned their heads to look outdoors too.

Way off I heard it, a sound like a locomotive making the grade, burning that timber. Only there wasn't a track within ten miles of us. Outside the sky went from yellow to black, from still to windy. Pine straw, dust and all manner of things began whipping by. I knew exactly what was happening.

Twister.

I dropped the pitchfork, dove for the inside of an old shovel-scoop mule sled, and no sooner had I hit face- down and put my hands over my head, then it slammed into the barn.

I caught a glimpse of a cow flying by, legs splayed like she thought she could stop the tug of the wind easy as she could stop the tug of a rope. Then the cow was gone and the sled started to move.

After that, everything happened so quickly I'm not certain what I saw. Lots of things flying by, for sure, and I could hardly breathe. The sled might have gone as high as thirty feet, cause when I came down it was hard. Hadn't been for the ice, I'd probably have been driven into the ground like a cork in a bottle. But the sled hit the ice at an angle and started sliding, throwing up dirty, hard snow on either side of me. Pieces of ice hit me in the face and the sled fetched up against something solid, a stump probably, and I went flying out of it, hit the ice, whirled around like a fly in a greasy skillet, came to rest in the ditch where I'd found the madman.

I passed out for a while, and I dreamed. Dreamed I was in the sled again, flying through the air, and there was our house, lifting up from the ground, floor and all. It flew right past me, rising fast. When it moved in front of me, I glimpsed Mama. She was standing at the window. All the glass was blown out, and she was clinging to the sill with both hands. Her eyes were as big and blue as her china saucers, and her red hair had come undone and was blowing and whipping around her head like a brush fire.

Вы читаете The Magic Wagon
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