The Magic Wagon (an excerpt)
The preacher got there first, which is often the case, and we told him he could make a little talk when the crowd was big enough, but we'd appreciate it if he didn't try to get folks into a round of gospel singing.
We had everything set up. The mules had been pulled off the wagon, fed and watered, and were tied out next to the woods. We had the clearing fixed up for Billy Bob's shooting show, and we had the ring built for Rot Toe to wrestle in. The ring was six tall poles buried deep in the ground and a wide-hole netting pulled around it and over the top. This way, Rot Toe couldn't get out and scare folks, and the fellas he wrestled with couldn't get away. It kept Rot Toe from doing another thing which wasn't popular with the crowd, and that was throwing his wrestling partners at them. Albert said that back when they first got Rot Toe and come up with the wrestling bit, they used a common roped-in ring, but Rot Toe threw his partners out pretty regular like. This kept Albert busy picking up folks and brushing them off, and when men who had planned to wrestle the ape saw two-hundred-pound men, and sometimes bigger, flying through the air and smashing against the ground right smart, it made them look off in other directions and push their two-bits wrestling fee deeper into their pockets.
We had the side of the wagon facing the woods unhinged at the top and pulled down with supports under it to make a stage. Where the wall had been we pulled a blanket curtain across to keep Billy Bob and the stuff in the wagon hid. That way he could make his entrance out from behind the blanket. He just loved that kind of thing, and I have to admit, when he was duded up and ready to give a show, there was something almost magic about him, and even more so since we'd gotten that body in the box. He'd have probably done good in something like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and I wished from time to time that he'd run off and join it.
Finally enough crowd got there for the preacher to preach to, and by the time he finished others had showed up and it looked as if we were going to have quite a gathering. The thing now was to entertain them good, then come on with the Cure-All and hope to sell a couple cases at the worst.
I looked out at the crowd to see if Texas Jack was out there, but didn't see him, which gave me some relief. I figured if Jack showed and saw Billy Bob's shooting, he'd want to shoot too, and in the end Billy Bob would find out he was the fella out of some of his dime novels, the one who was supposed to have backed down his hero, Wild Bill Hickok, and that could mean a killing. Billy Bob was just looking for an excuse to use those guns of his, and defending the honor of Wild Bill would be just the thing.
When the crowd was good-sized, Albert gave me the high sign and I climbed up on the stage. I had on my city-slicker suit with the derby and I felt about as natural as a pig in boots, but it comforted people to see a boy dressed up.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said, "tonight, we got a special treat for you. We're going to show you some shooting the likes of which you've never seen. We're going to show you some magic. We're going to let any man who thinks he's man enough to wrestle with Rot Toe, the chimpanzee from Africa. And there's even more. But to introduce the events and demonstrate the manly art of six guns and bullets, I give you our star, the one, and the only, Billy Bob Daniels."
Nobody clapped. They were waiting to see if there was anything to clap about.
A moment later Billy Bob stepped out from behind the curtain and the clapping began.
I'll tell you, he did look good. He had something about him, and it was stronger and richer than ever before. He was wearing a wide-brimmed tan hat with a band of rattlesnake hide around it, and his shirt and pants were fringed buckskins the color of butternut, and the buttons on his shirt were ivory-colored bone. Around his waist was a blood-red sash and there was a big Bowie knife stuck in the left side of it, and stuffed more to the front were his revolvers, butts out.
His revolvers were just like the ones Hickok's corpse had. Cartridge-converted Colt .60s. They were sightless, so as not to snag on the draw, and the gunmetal was almost blue. The grips were magnolia white.
On his feet were moccasin-styled boots with heels, which put another two inches on his height. The boots were the same color as his hat and they had fancy bead-and-quill work that started at the top and ran down to the toe point.
Billy Bob held up his hand and the clapping stopped. He walked out to the edge of the stage, took a moment to look over the crowd and smile. It was the smile he used when he was winning over the gals.
"My name is Billy Bob Daniels," he said. "I am the son of Wild Bill Hickok."
He let that soak in before he went on.
"Yes, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm saying that for effect, that it's part of the act. But the truth is I am James Butler Hickok's illegitimate son. My mother was a fallen woman of Deadwood, and that is where I was conceived, shortly before that coward Jack McCall snuck up behind Wild Bill and shot him through the back of the head. Even so, my father's hand, out of pure reflex alone, had half drawn his pistol before he fell forward on his cards. Aces and eights, ladies and gentlemen. The cards that from that day forth have been known as the dead man's hand.
"Well, my mother didn't want me. That's the sad truth. I was given up to a family named Daniels and raised by them and it wasn't until I was a grown man that I knew the truth, knew that I was actually a Hickok."
Billy Bob had a way of getting a little trill in his throat when he talked about Hickok, and I'll tell you, it was darn near enough to make you believe that Hickok was his papa, even if like me, you knew it wasn't so. Or reckoned it wasn't so. Albert told me it wasn't true, and that was enough for me.
"When we were in Deadwood some time ago," Billy Bob said, "I met a kindly old medicine man, and he told me a secret. He told me this because he recognized me as the son of Wild Bill. He said he knew it instantly. He came forward, and you know what he told me? He told me the body of Wild Bill was not in its grave. That's correct, ladies and gentlemen, not in his grave. This old Indian, whose life my father had saved on countless occasions, had stolen it, out of respect, mind you, and with herbs and spices known only to Indians, he had petrified the body and kept it in a cave where he bowed down before it twice a day to give thanks to Wild Bill for having saved his life.
"But you know what he did? He took me to that body, and because I'm Wild Bill's son, he gave it to me. And, ladies and gentlemen, that body is here today for you to see."
Albert had slipped into the back of the wagon, and now he came out from behind the curtain rolling the box on a hand truck, and when he stopped dead center of the stage, Billy Bob stepped over, grabbed the lid, and swung it back.
Hickok's body had been set up so that his arms were lifted and the revolver barrels were resting on what was left of his shoulders, and when the lid came off, the arms fell forward, locked on the hinges Billy Bob had built into the elbows, and two wires attached to the back of the box and the revolver hammers grew taut and the hammers cocked.
That sudden movement of the arms, those hammers cocking loudly, always made the crowd jump back and there was usually at least one woman in the crowd that would squeal. This time darn near everybody jumped and squealed. I just loved that part.
When the crowd settled down, Billy Bob said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Wild Bill Hickok, preserved and holding the very revolvers that sent many a man to hell on his shadow."
Billy Bob used his finger to point out the hole in Hickok's head where McCall's bullet had come out, then backtracked into a story about how Hickok had saved the medicine man's life, and how when the Indian preserved the body he blessed it. Well, it was a good story and all, but it wasn't the truth. I remembered how we came by that box clear as if it were yesterday, and the only thing about Billy Bob's story that was right was that there had been an Indian medicine man, and it happened in Deadwood. Or at least it got started there.
* * *
It was a rainy night in Deadwood and things had not gone well. Earlier that day we had given the show, but it was raining then too, and hardly nobody came, and them that did were soon run off by the rain, except for a couple of drunks, and Billy Bob nearly got in a fight with them. From then on Billy Bob's mood went from sour to mean. I think it had something to do with him expecting more from Deadwood, as it was the death place of his hero. But even the graveyard where Wild Bill was buried seemed to disappoint Billy Bob. I reckon he thought standing near the grave would be a spiritual experience or something, but I think all he got out of it was what me and Albert got out of it, and that was wet and cold.
So it was night and we had pulled out to the edge of Deadwood and were about to throw up a windblind for the mules and get bedded down, when this string-bean fellow in a black-and-orange-check suit wearing a derby hat showed up. He got off his horse and came smiling up to us, the rain running off his derby like a waterfall.
I recognized him on account of that suit. He had been at the show that day, but like the others, the rain had run him off. I remembered that he had bad teeth, except for the front two. They were so big and thick-looking you could have tied either one of them on a stick and used it for a hoe.
"What's it we can do for you?" Billy Bob asked the fellow, and I seen his hand dip into his coat pocket, and for once I was glad Billy Bob had a pistol in there and knew how to use it. Something about the fellow in the checkerboard suit made me nervous.
"Mister," he says to Billy Bob, "I heard what you said about being the son of Wild Bill Hickok today, and I come to talk to you."
"That's about all you heard," Billy Bob said. "You left kind of early."
"Well, sir, I wouldn't have, but the rain put a damper on the festivities."
"You didn't mind coming out here in it."
"No, sir, I didn't. And that's because I got something to tell you, might be of interest."
"Well, tell me, I'm wanting to get out of this rain."
"I know where the body of your father, Wild Bill Hickok, is."
"Well, don't bandy it around you idiot, only everyone in these United States and the territories knows that. He's in Deadwood cemetery, you hollow-headed fool. I was up there today to look at his grave."
"No, sir, he ain't there. But let me explain myself now. I'm Bob Chauncey, but folks call me Checkers on account of my suit." And he smiled real big.
Well now, I'll tell you. A man that wears the same suit enough to be named after it ain't high on my list of would-be partners. I ain't the best for cleanliness myself sometimes, but I don't live in the same suit neither. I have been known to put on a clean shirt once in a while.
And I wasn't one to believe old Checkers washed out his coat and pants nightly and dried it. He wasn't the type. I think the fact that he had what my mama used to call an unsavory habit led me to figure him as something of a messy person. He was a nose picker, and about the best I've ever seen at it. He didn't do it like a lady will do, like she ain't really doing it but just scratching, and her finger will shoot in and scoop out the prize and she'll flick it away before you can say, "Hey, ain't that a booger?"
He didn't even do it like some men do, which is honest, but not impolite. They'll turn sort of to the side and get in there after it in a businesslike manner, but you didn't actually have to witness the work or what come of it.
No, Checkers Chauncey, who I think of as Nose Picker Chauncey, must have once been a miner or a mule whacker, as they're the nastiest and the most manner-less creatures on earth. There ain't a thing they won't do in front of man, child, or lady. They just don't give a damn. Chauncey went about his digging front-on and open, using his finger so hard it rose a mound on his nostril, like a busy groundhog throwing up dirt. And when he got what he was looking for, he always held it in front of him just to see, I guess, if he'd accidentally found something other than what he expected, and when he thumped it away you had to be kind of fast on your feet, because he didn't care who or what it stuck to.
"Well, Checkers, if you think you can tell me where he is," Billy Bob said, "I'm all ears, and watch where you're thumping them things, will you?"
"Well, he ain't in no cemetery. That sign on his grave is just to fool folks. He used to be up there, but he ain't now. Few years ago they moved the cemetery and he got dug up. They were expanding the town, you see, needed the room. Didn't want a bunch of rots and bloaters in the middle of the main street. So when they dug old Bill up, they opened his box and found he was in pretty good shape for a dead man. Had petrified like an old tree. If you could have tore his arm off, it would have been hard enough I reckon to beat a good-sized pig to death."
"How come you know all this, Checkers?" Billy Bob asked.
"I was there when they dug him up. Was just a kid here in Deadwood when he got his brains blowed out. Missed that, which grieves me, since it was history in the making. Had a job emptying out the spittoons, and Mann's number ten was next on my route, but I didn't get there soon enough."
"So you're saying you saw him dug up and the body was taken then?"
"Nope, ain't saying that. Not right then. They reburied Bill, but that night a couple of fellas I knowed came and dug him back up, and they sold him to an old Sioux medicine man for the whereabouts of a mine up in the hills, as there was considerable gold digging going on then."
"Sold Wild Bill Hickok to an Indian?" Billy Bob said.
"Yep. And he wasn't just any old Indian. Hickok had killed his oldest son in some shindig once, and he had vowed to get Hickok's body someday. Those two miners remembered that, and they knew he knew these hills like a chicken knows an egg, so they made a swap with him."
"My God," Billy Bob said, "that ain't white."
"This old Indian made him a box out of some sacred trees, and he put that body in it. He figured the spirits in the trees would keep Hickok's dead spirit from getting out and doing something to him. Hickok was so good with them pistols of his, lot of folks, especially Indians, thought he had some magic in him, or in those guns. That box was the Indian's way of holding that magic back, get me?"
"I get you, but you still ain't told me where the body is."
"This old Indian liked to open the box up a couple times a day, lift up his breechcloth and expose himself to old Bill's corpse."
"That's disgusting," Billy Bob said.
"Showing your privates like that is a kind of Indian joke. An insult."
"All right, enough about the damned savages and their jokes, where is this old Indian that has the body?"
"The old Indian don't have it no more."
Billy Bob was starting to fidget, and I thought any minute he was going to jerk out that pistol and start beating Nose Picker about the head and ears with it, which would have been all right with me. I could see this was leading to no good, and I was cold and wet and getting wetter. Albert was leaning against the wagon, watching and listening. He didn't look any happier than I felt.
"I swear you are the windiest gas bag I ever did see. If he ain't with the old Indian, then where is he?"
"With the old Indian's son. He's a medicine man, too. You see, the old man died and the young fella sort of inherited Wild Bill. He's been living back east getting him a white education, but he had to come back on account of he got caught cheating somebody in Yankee land. He has the body now and wants to sell it, get him some seed money. Get out of the cave he's living in. Maybe go back east when things cool down on what he done."
"And what's your cut in all this, Checkers?" Billy Bob said.
Checkers smiled. I wished he hadn't. I didn't like them teeth. "Finders fee. Indian said he'd give me a cut of the money, and then there's just the plain, simple fact that I'd like to see a family brought back together again, even if one of them is dead."
"That's right touching of you," Billy Bob said.
"Always did have me a sentimental streak. It's a kind of sweetness that runs through me. You interested or not?"
"I'm interested. And Checkers?"
"You wouldn't lie to an ole Southern boy, would you?"
"No. I wouldn't. I'm partial to Southern boys, actually."
"I hope you are. How much this Indian wanting for the body, provided I see it and want it?"
"That's right. And twenty for me taking you to it."
"Hell, man, ain't nobody got no forty dollars to be giving away."
"Well, now, I figure since he's your pa, you'll want the body. And another thing, maybe an even more important thing, is you have that body and you're going to make a ton of money. I mean, you can't kid Checkers. You carry that old boy around with you and it's going to sell more of that watered-down liquor you call Cure-All. And that's going to make you lots of money, I know."
"When do I see the body?" Billy Bob asked.
"Has to be tonight."
"That's a mite hasty, ain't it, considering the weather?"
"I'm leaving the Hills tomorrow. Don't know if I'm coming back. Hell, for all I know, that Indian might have already cut loose of it. He was big to sell."
So there we were, it pitch black and raining bad enough to strangle a duck, and Billy Bob wanted to go into the Black Hills with a total stranger who couldn't stop picking his nose, and look at a rotting body in a box. A body that might, or might not, be Wild Bill Hickok. Then he'd probably buy that rascal with the wages he owed me and Albert.
Billy Bob put the wagon in storage, put our old mules in the livery, and rented us some horses, including one for Chauncey, and one mule for carrying the box out should he buy it, which seemed like a foregone conclusion to me. Provided there was a body in a box.
We put Rot Toe over to one of the whorehouses, and I told one of the fat ladies to take good care of him, and if anything happened to us, which was damn likely, he was partial to fruit and would touch a bite of meat now and then if that's all there was.
By the time we were all squared away it was pretty late and raining worse than ever. I just couldn't see any sense in this thing we were doing, but I reckon I can't complain too loudly, because there wasn't much sense in me either. I went along and I could have deserted right then and there, lit out and never had to look at Billy Bob again. But I didn't, and I like to think it wasn't so much a dose of the stupids as it was the fact that I didn't want to leave Albert. You see, I knew, for whatever reason, he was going to stick with Billy Bob. And Billy Bob was one of them kind that once he got his mind set on a thing, he was going to do it, and there wasn't no swaying him. Way he was acting, you'd think Wild Bill really was his pap.
Nose Picker worried me too. He was too eager, to my way of thinking.
Even twenty dollars and the cut of another twenty didn't seem worth what he was doing. I figured soon as we were up in the Hills, bunch of his cutthroat partners would come out of the rocks, kill us, steal the rented horses, and take everything we had on us, right down to our underwear, and them too if they were in the right sizes.
In spite of all this, Billy Bob wasn't a total fool. He had put pistols in both his buffalo-coat pockets and he had another little one in his belt. He fixed me up with a .38 Smith-and-Wesson and gave Albert a big .45. Chauncey didn't see any of this, as he waited outside the wagon while we got a few things, and him not knowing about the guns was at least some sort of comfort.
As we rode I could see from the way Albert was looking all around, one of his hands inside his coat near the .45, that he felt like I did. He was worried.
I kept my hand away from the Smith-and-Wesson because I was afraid of guns, and figured if it came down to me using it, I'd most likely try to pull it and end up shooting off my kneecap, or some other part of my body I was even more proud of.
Billy Bob, on the other hand, looked like he was on a picnic, or like he had just ridden out of one of them dime novels he liked to read. The rain didn't even bother him. He sat straight in the saddle, face forward.
He was wearing a big, wide-brimmed black hat, that buffalo coat, dark blue pants with a yellow military stripe, and black, fur-lined boots.
Chauncey slouched in the saddle, smiling to himself, singing some ditty or another, picking his nose all the while. I couldn't tell if he was naturally happy, stupid, or thinking on what he was going to do with his share of the clothes and such he was going to help steal from us later.
Whatever, there we were, right smack dab out in the middle of what used to be called Red Cloud's Big Open, and any minute I expected to get my brains blowed out by robbers in cahoots with Nose Picker Chauncey, or maybe by some Indians that didn't know, or didn't care, that we had won the Indian wars.
But none of that happened.
After we'd ridden for quite a few hours and I'd begun to feel like my butt had growed to the saddle, we came on a bad section of rocks and the trail narrowed. Lightning flashed, and when it did I seen at the top of the trail that there were a series of small caves, and those caves looked like open mouths begging us to step inside and get chewed.
When the lightning flashed again, Chauncey pointed at one of the caves, and we got the general idea which one it was, and that that was where the Indian lived.
We started along the narrow trail that led up there, and I could hear pebbles tumbling off the edge and down to the depths below. When the lightning flashed again, I looked down and wished I hadn't. If me and my horse went over, there wouldn't never be no way to sort out which of us was which.
Finally we come to a spot about halfway to the caves and stopped. Chauncey got down and had us do the same.
"We got to walk the rest of the way," Chauncey said, and he had to yell for us to understand him because the wind was whipping away his words. "We can leave our mounts here. Get the nigger to hold them."
Though it would have been smarter for Billy Bob to have left me holding the mules, since I didn't know slick mud from fresh honey, he went along with Chauncey, seeing how Albert was colored. He damn sure didn't want no white man to know he'd feel safer with a colored by his side instead of one of his own kind.
"Let's go then," Billy Bob said.
I handed Albert the rein to my horse.
"You watch yourself, hear?" Albert said.
So the three of us, Chauncey, Billy Bob, and me, went up. It was a rough walk and the higher it got the less there was to walk on. Rocks slid out from under our feet and cut at our legs and the gorge loomed just to our left, and when the lightning flashed it looked deep enough for you to fall all the way down to the pits of hell.
After the jumble of rocks we came to a clear spot and the cave. There was a torch just inside against the wall, lodged in some rocks, and Chauncey lit it, which was quite a chore as he had to take a finger out of his nose to hold the torch in one hand and the match in the other.
When the torch was lit, we went deeper inside the cave. Bats flapped above us, and their leavings were all over the floor and smelt right smart. I didn't like bats, no kind of way. They always looked to me like rats with wings, and I don't like rats either. Especially ones that can fly.
Finally it got lighter ahead of us, and we crunched through some old bones lying about, and Chauncey showed us that a lot of them were human. He said this cave had once belonged to a grizzly and that now and then some folks had come in and met him, and he hadn't been such a good host. I know I was glad when he lifted that torch and I didn't have to stare at those bones, particularly one skull with its entire right side crushed in, like a big paw had swatted it.
The light around the bend was from a campfire, and it was right cozy in there. There were a few handmade chairs, a bed, and a table, and over on the right-hand side of the wall, leaning up against it, was a rough-cut box with a lid on it.
But the thing that really got my attention was the young Indian. He wasn't all that young, I reckon. Maybe thirty-five. It's hard to tell with Indians. They seem to me to either age real fast or not at all.
He had on a dusty black suit with a yellowish shirt that was once white and he was wearing an Abraham Lincoln hat. He was a friendly looking fellow and he was smiling at us while he held one hand in his coat pocket.
I figured he had his hand on a pistol and was just smiling either out of habit, or to get us off guard. When he seen that Checkers was with us, he relaxed a mite and spoke.
"Checkers, my good comrade. I thought that I might not see you again. It was my suspicion that you had been caught for some nefarious deed, like horse thievery, but I see that this was not the case. And better yet, you have brought friends to cheer my fire."
"Why's he talk like that?" Billy Bob half whispered to Checkers.
"That damned education stuff," Checkers said. "But he's all right."
"Come," said the Indian, "please come and warm yourself by my meager fire. Take a load off your feet and your mind, and I will see to some liquid refreshment."
What he did for liquid refreshment was reach into his other pocket and take out a pint flask, which he sat on a rock by the fire.
We got over near the fire and warmed our hands, but nobody sat yet.
The Indian found four cups and brought them over, then he poured us all a little splash from the bottle and we drank it.
"Please, please," he said, pouring us some more. "Sit, please do sit. There is no need to stand on parade here. My home is your home. Or to take two lines from the opera Clari, the Maid of Milan: 'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there's no place like home; a charm from the skies seems to hallow us there, which sought through the world is ne'er met with elsewhere.'"
Billy Bob wasn't so quiet this time. "What in hell is he talking about?"
"Just more of that education stuff," Chauncey said. "An opry is where folks yell at each other to music."
"Ah, Checkers," said the Indian, "you have no heart. An opera is the heart, the soul, the very wingtips of a bird. It soars through the breast and mind and fills the soul."
"How about we do less soaring," Billy Bob said, "and talk about this body I come to look at."
"Yes," the Indian said, "the body of the Great White Warrior, the Pistoleer Prince of the Plains, the one and only, the indescribable Wild Bill Hickok."
"That's him," Billy Bob said.
"Now you remember that deal you made me about bringing a buyer here?" Checkers said to the Indian.
"It has been a month, my good friend. But I remember." The Indian smiled. "What if you had brought them here and I had sold the body?"
"Chance I took," Checkers said. "Besides, I didn't figure you'd sold it. You don't like going down into town so much."
The Indian opened his arms wide. "Isn't that polite? That is Mr. Checkers's way of saying that I am a wanted man in Deadwood."
"What for?" Billy Bob said. "I thought it was back east where you was wanted."
The Indian sighed. "There too. But I can hide better here. As for Deadwood, well, I'm wanted for a slight altercation with a young gentleman who had some rather foul comments about my ancestry. I was forced in a moment of passion, perhaps a moment fired by devil rum, to place the full length of a Bowie knife between his top two ribs, and therefore, let the soul fly out of him."
"What?" Billy Bob said, glancing at Checkers.
"He stabbed the sonofabitch to death," Checkers said.
"And I hope, dear friend," said the Indian, "that you have been better able to quiet your tongue on that matter below than you have here this night."
"You told them, you silly bastard," Checkers said. "I was just explaining."
"So you were, so you were," the Indian said.
The Indian and Checkers grinned at each other. The way they were doing it, I figured it was hurting their lips.
"Can we just get on with what I come here for?" Billy Bob said.
"Of course," said the Indian, "but first let me introduce myself. I'm Elijah Bigshield, Oglala medicine man, retired." He held out his hand.
Billy Bob's face worked to the left, then to the right. "I don't shake hands with niggers or Indians," he said.
"You don't say?" the Indian said.
"I do say. Now let's get on with it."
Checkers cleared his throat. "This here boy has got a special interest in the body. Hickok was his daddy. Some whore in Deadwood was his mother."
"You don't say?" Elijah Bigshield said, but the honey in his voice had gone considerably sour. "Isn't that nice. Why you even look like him, now that it is mentioned. 'As a little childe riding behind his father, said simply unto him, Father, when you are dead, I shall ride in the Saddle.' Stefan Guazzo, Civile Conversation. And now that saddle has been passed to you, and you may ride in the tracks of Hickok the killer."
I was beginning to feel a mite uncomfortable, but Billy Bob didn't show a sign of it. "I don't want to hear no more of your education," he said. "An Indian or a nigger with an education ain't nothing more than a bird that can talk. It sounds like it knows something, but any fool knows it don't. It just mocks."
"I find you most unpleasant, sir," Elijah said.
"You're going to find me leaning over your ugly face, beating you upside the head with my fist, if you don't show me this body Checkers has been carping about. And there better be a body in that damn box, that's what I'm trying to tell you."
"Anything to please the young gentleman," Elijah said snidely.
He walked over to the box and rubbed a hand against it. "I'm asking twenty dollars for it, sir."
We followed him over, with Checkers standing back a bit, and Elijah opened the lid. That was the first time I seen the body, and I knew in my heart that it was none other than who they said it was, Wild Bill Hickok.
"The body possesses magical properties, sir," Elijah said, stepping to the side to let Billy Bob see. "Hickok's ability with his guns was most phenomenal. And he himself said on more than one occasion that his hands were guided by spirits."
"How come you know so much about it, you being an Indian?" Billy Bob asked.
"Even the mouse must learn the ways of the hawk if he wishes to survive. That body, sir, is so full of magic, that it is said that if you put it at the foot of your bed at night, Hickok's skill with the pistols will enter into you and allow you to shoot as fast and straight and true as this man-killer ever did."
"Is that a fact?" Billy Bob said. "Who's done it to know?"
"No one. My father told me this, and he was one to know. He tried to steal the magic from the corpse and put it in a pot, but the magic was too strong to be stolen. When he died, my father's soul joined those in the wood that surround the white man-killer."
"The spirits in the wood, huh?"
Elijah nodded. The firelight flickered across his copper face, and even in that silly suit and hat, he looked very, very Indian. The smile lines around his eyes and mouth had fallen off like dead leaves.
"That is correct. The spirits in the wood are old as the world, and they collect to them new spirits when they die, providing those spirits are worthy to become the protectors of the Oglala."
"You don't say?" Billy Bob sneered.
"Oh, I do say. It is the spirits in the wood that keep the black magic of Hickok inside him, lest it be passed on to the whites. The whites have enough magic, without the gun magic of Hickok."
"And why don't you, or why didn't your father, let Wild Bill's magic pass on to you Indians?"
"White man's magic. It cannot be used by Indians, and Indians don't want it. We have our own magic."
"Lot of good it's done you," Billy Bob said.
"That is quite correct, sir," Elijah said, "quite correct." But his voice had an edge to it, and I was beginning to get spooked. I looked at the body in the box and it seemed strangely alive. It wasn't that I expected it to get out of that box and walk or nothing. It was more like what that medicine man was saying about spirits and all, and there was something about that body, maybe the way the firelight glinted off the bone in those empty eye sockets, that made you think there was a powerful and ugly thing inside it. I somehow felt whatever spirits might have been in Hickok were bad. Maybe Hickok wasn't all bad his ownself, but those spirits were, and now they were all that was left of him. I felt better knowing he was between them boards full of Indian magic.
"You tell a good story, Indian," Billy Bob said, smiling one of his nasty smiles, "but it ain't nothing to me but spook talk."
Elijah smiled slowly, so slowly you could almost count his teeth one at a time as his lips folded back. "Yes, you white men certainly have it over us ignorant savages."
Billy Bob nodded to that. "How do I know this here is Wild Bill Hickok, and not just some drunk you've pickled?"
Elijah stepped forward, put a finger on the body's head. "Bend close and look at that hole. Is that not an exit wound from a bullet? Was not Wild Bill shot from behind and the bullet came out the front of his head?"
"That's so," Billy Bob said, leaning forward for a look. In spite of myself, I leaned too, but I couldn't look into those empty sockets. Billy Bob was what I was looking at, and his eyes seemed to have fallen out of his head and down those sockets like two marbles tumbling down mine shafts. His face tightened for a moment, and then suddenly he turned.
Elijah, after pointing out that bullet hole, had stepped back and pulled what was in his coat pocket out. A Bowie knife. And even as Billy Bob turned, and I turned with him, that knife came flying through the air. To this day I don't know how it missed Billy Bob. I couldn't believe he could move that fast. His left hand came out of his coat pocket, and it was full of Colt .60. The Colt jumped and roared and Elijah's lips were parted by the bullet. The gun roared again, and this time the slug hit Elijah square between the eyes. The shots were so close together, they almost sounded like one.
Before Elijah hit the ground, Billy Bob flicked his wrist to the left and had Checkers covered. Checkers had one hand to his nose and the other inside his coat.
"Don't shoot me, fella," Checkers said. "I was trying to go for the Indian. I seen what he was about to do and I tried to go for him. I swear, it was the Indian I was after. It's just you're so blooming fast. . . . Grief, but you just might be the son of old Wild Bill. That was the fastest damned draw I ever did see."
Slowly Checkers went ahead and brought his gun hand out. There was a little pistol in it. He lowered his arm down by his side and let it dangle.
"I swear," Checkers said, "I wouldn't throw in with no Indian against a white man."
"Put the gun up," Billy Bob said, "and see if he's dead."
Checkers did as he was told. While he did I smelt something burning, and glancing at the fire, I seen it was Elijah's stovepipe hat. The first shot had knocked it off his head and it had rolled into the fire. It was just a black wisp now.
Checkers bent over the body, then stood. "He's dead. Course he's dead. He's got two holes in his head. I could have told you that from over there."
Billy Bob turned to look at where the Bowie had gone. It was stuck just to the right of Hickok's head. Billy Bob reached and pulled it out of the wood, and the knife squeaked free of it like a mouse that had had its back stepped on. Billy Bob stuck it in the belt around his coat.
"Too bad he wasn't white," Billy Bob said. "Would have been my first kill. Hickok didn't count no Indians or niggers, and I don't aim to neither."
"Didn't count spicks neither," Checkers said.
"That's right," Billy Bob said, "no spicks neither."
Billy Bob reloaded his pistol and dipped it back into his left coat pocket.
"Checkers," he said, "you look that body over for money. He got anything, you give it to me. I ain't so sure you didn't lead us up here to cheat and kill us, so you don't get nothing out of the deal, not even the twenty for the trip."
Checkers's face went red and he forgot to put his finger in his nose. "That ain't fair."
"Didn't say it was," Billy Bob said. "Don't feel like being fair right now."
"I brought you up here in the rain, it storming—"
"Shut up and do as I say," Billy Bob said. He opened and closed his hands above his coat pockets where the butts of his pistols showed.
Checkers moved his jaw back and forth a few times, then he bent to searching Elijah.
"Don't palm nothing," Billy Bob said. "I would find that disagreeable."
Checkers brought over a pocket watch, a derringer, and a little bag full of bones, dirt, and beads.
Billy Bob put the watch in his inside shirt pocket. "Indians are hell for trinkets," he said, "but what they need to know time for?" He poured what was in the bag into his hand and then back into the bag. "What's this?"
"His medicine bag," Checkers said. "Has his powers in it."
"Did him a lot of good, didn't it?" Billy Bob said, and tossed it into the fire. He flung the derringer as far as he could to the back of the cave. "Whore's gun," he said. "That and tin horns."
Billy Bob put the lid on the box, and we went out of there, back down to where Albert waited, me and Checkers carrying the box with Wild Bill in it. It was pretty heavy.
I didn't tell Albert right then all that happened. I figured he knew a lot of the story from the way I looked at him, and I thought maybe he'd heard the shots, though later he said he hadn't. With the storm like it was, and us being deep inside the cave, he hadn't heard a thing.
We strapped the box on the side of the mule, and Billy Bob took to leading it behind his mount. Me and Checkers rode behind him, almost side by side, and behind us was Albert.
We'd gone a mile or so when the storm got so bad every little bit of the sky lit up with forks of blue-white lightning and the thunder roared like there was a cannon war going on.
About the time all this storm business got built up, Checkers made his play. Maybe he and the Indian had planned such a thing all along and it hadn't gone good. I don't know. Maybe Checkers planned to rob us after we had the body and the Indian's money, that way he could make double. And maybe he hadn't planned nothing at all and was just mad because he hadn't made his share like he thought he should.
Doesn't matter now. With Billy Bob in front of him, he had the perfect chance to do to him what Jack McCall had done to Hickok.
I seen him go for his gun, and I tried to yell, but with the thunder and lightning like it was, I didn't know if Billy Bob could hear me. But he did, or maybe he'd just been waiting for Checkers to make his play all along. Billy Bob swiveled, on his critter, and as he did, I seen there was a smile on his face, like he was about to get a present he'd been waiting a long time for.
The way Billy Bob's hand moved was too fast to be real. I figured it was a trick of the lightning or something. One second his hand was on his knee and the next it was full of pistol and the pistol was cocked.
Only he didn't get to kill Checkers. The lightning did it. It was faster even than Billy Bob, and it reached down out of the sky and hit Checkers's little pistol and there was the sound like a giant whip cracking, then Checkers and his horse exploded and I was wearing some of him and some of his suit and some of his horse.
Billy Bob, with a wail, threw himself off his horse onto the ground and started pounding his hand against the ground, screaming, "I had him beat. My first white man. I had him beat," then he began to cry.
I just sort of sat there, dumbfounded, wearing Checkers, his suit, and his horse. Finally I got down off my horse, led him over a piece, got down on my knees, and threw up.
When I was able to get up, I looked over and seen Albert was helping Billy Bob to his feet. Billy Bob was saying over and over, "I had him beat. My first white man."
Albert helped Billy Bob over to his horse and put him in the saddle. He patted him on the knee. "There's just a whole bunch of white men, Mister Billy Bob. Don't you fret. There'll be others."
"I had him, Albert. I had him whipped fair and square, didn't I?"
"Couldn't have been no fairer or squarer," Albert said, like he was talking to a little kid.
"It ain't right. I had him beat."
"Plumb beat," Albert said.
"By the time Wild Bill was my age he'd done a lot of his killing already," Billy Bob said.
"Things were different then," Albert said. "Folks was more for killing in them times. Got up with it on their minds. They had more niggers to do their work, and there was lots of free time for shooting folks."
"I had him," Billy Bob said, shaking his head. "I had him."
Actually, I had a lot of him. I got a handkerchief and cleaned off what I could and got sick some more.
When I was feeling some better, I went over and stood with Albert and he put his arm around my shoulder. We looked at what was left of Nose Picker Chauncey and his horse. It wasn't much. Just a heap of bones, smoking meat, some saddle leather, and a hunk of checkered suit.
Maybe I should have felt some worse about old Checkers, but to tell it true, I couldn't work up a lot of enthusiasm for feeling bad. I figured after he killed Billy Bob he planned to finish off me and Albert, not knowing we had guns on us and seeing us as easy pickings, which I reckon I would have been. And besides, I just couldn't warm myself to a man that spent the largest part of his life with a finger up his nose, even if he did end up sad like, being cooked with a horse and a checkered suit.
It seemed like it took forever to get out of the hills, what with the storm being like it was and Billy Bob sort of pouting along, stopping now and then to shake his fists at the heavens and to cuss God and the lightning, calling them some of the meanest, foulest names I've ever heard a mouth utter. The way that thunder rumbled and that lightning sizzled blue-white around Billy Bob, framing him now and then like a bright-colored picture, I half felt it was cussing and threatening him back.
By the middle of the next morning we got down out of the hills and back to Deadwood. The sun hadn't come out.
We collected the wagon, the mules, and Rot Toe, who smelled mighty sweet from all them women petting him, and we got out of town lickety-split, started heading southwest, which was a direction that suited me fine.
We hadn't gone a day out of that storm when Billy Bob decided to fix up some cracked sideboards in the wagon.
He'd been putting it off for a month and there didn't seem any sense in it right then, but I think he did it to make light of what that medicine man had told him about them boards in Wild Bill's box being made out of sacred trees. He knew I'd told Albert the story, and he knew that Albert believed it, and I about half believed it, so he wanted to show us what fools we were.
Like I said, we'd gotten ahead of the rain for a while, and had all been sitting on top of the wagon, trying to get us some sun, and suddenly Billy Bob had us pull over.
Usually, any work to be done, me and Albert did it, but this time Billy Bob took it on himself. He dragged the box with Wild Bill outside the wagon, propped the body against it, knocked out those old sideboards he wanted to replace, and put in some boards from Wild Bill's box.
It took about half a day for him to get that done, as Billy Bob wasn't no joiner to speak of, and by the time he was finished and we were on our way, thunder was right behind us, rumbling loud, and when I turned to look back I got the willies, cause them dark storm clouds that were following us looked to have come together in the shape of Elijah's stovepipe hat.
That was the day that storm started pushing for us, and it stayed after us from then on.
A week or so later, we stopped in a little town to do our act, and Billy Bob had a joiner make a new box for Wild Bill. When that was done, he took the guns that were in Wild Bill's rotting sash out, cleaned them up, and put them in the corpse's bony hands, rigged up those hinges in the elbows and those wires that cocked the guns.
And that's the true story of how we came by that body in the box, not the one Billy Bob was telling the crowd about a noble red man giving it to him because he was Hickok's son. I mean, his tale was a good story, all right, but it was nothing more than a damned lie.
* * *
To get back to this time in Mud Creek, Billy Bob told his story, then he went out to the clearing with everyone tagging along behind, and he did some shooting.
And I mean shooting. I want to witness that I hadn't never seen him as good as he was that day. He split playing cards edgewise, like always, but now he was doing it from farther away. The same for when he held the mirror with one hand and shot over his shoulder with the other.
And he hit nickels tossed in the air with either hand. Before he'd only done that kind of shooting with his right hand. To put it simply, the man could not miss. He even went as far as to strike a match with a shot, and I'd heard that was just an old wives' tale and couldn't be done. But he done it, and neatly.
When next I looked out at the crowd, I seen Skinny had joined us. He still had on his apron. He was eating from a bag of peppermints, drooling it down his chin. His eyes looked like a couple of dark holes. It was kind of good to see the old boy.
Then I seen something that made me considerably less happy.
Blue Hat and Texas Jack.
The Magic Wagon, from which this was excerpted, was originally published in 1986. It's been republished in numerous formats since, including limited-edition hardcover and ebook. The Magic Wagon © 1986 Joe R. Lansdale.
Saddle up and head back here next Thursday, April 26, for another Mojo tale from Champion Joe!