a special look at THE MAGIC WAGON

This is an excerpt from THE MAGIC WAGON by Joe R. Lansdale, originally published in 1986, coming soon from BookVoice in a new hardcover edition, limited to 500 copies.
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INTRODUCTION by Joe (excerpt)
I was also informed by the storytelling voice of my father and other relatives. When I was growing up, when the family was visiting my grandmother, I would often sit outside with them under a tree in the yard, and listen to them as they talked about the old days and told stories. I would stop now and again to chase fireflies with my relatives. But soon, I would drift back to the circle beneath the tree where they all sat in chairs and talked and recalled adventures from their lives, or told stories told to them by their ancestors, elaborated on old folk tales, or just straight-out told what I think were entertaining lies.

I wanted to be one of them. A storyteller. I already wanted to write, and I was thinking about it all the time, and trying it at home, and so far, had managed to do it without putting my eye out, but had arrived at nothing special. Of course not. I was a kid. I knew nothing special.

But when it came time to write THE MAGIC WAGON some years later, I tapped back into those voices out in the yard beneath the tree and the shining stars and the silver moon, and tried to capture those special feelings I had experienced back then when for me the world was fresh and new and full of promise.

I never lost that feeling. I think it’s the writing that’s retained it. I tried to put that into THE MAGIC WAGON, though at the time I was uncertain. It felt different from my other books. I found I was writing very slow, cutting as I went. I was not only writing different, I was gradually developing a method of writing that worked for me. Fewer hours at the typewriter, and revisions as I wrote, and a light pass when it was all done.

Most importantly, I felt I had tapped into my inner storyteller.

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.

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 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.

CHAPTER 2 (excerpt)
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.

THE MAGIC WAGON by Joe R. Lansdale, originally published in 1986, is coming soon from BookVoice in a new hardcover edition, limited to 500 copies. Visit https://www.bvpstore.com/product-page/the-magic-wagon-limited-signed-hardcover to learn more.

East Texas native Joe R. Lansdale is the author of fifty novels and more than 300 short stories. He has received an Edgar Award, ten Bram Stoker Awards and a Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award, a Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, an American Mystery Award, a British Fantasy Award, an International Horror Guild Award, a Spur Award, a Grinzani Cavour Prize for Literature, a Herodotus Historical Fiction Award, a Burroughs Bibliophiles Golden Lion Award, the Inkpot Award for Contributions to Science Fiction and Fantasy, and many others. Visit www.joerlansdale.com for more information about the author.