Stephen James Price
Autumn temperatures in southern Arkansas are unpredictable at best. Last Halloween, it dropped to near freezing levels, but this year, it was almost eighty degrees, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
The two young boys had already stripped down to their undershirts, and the wet stains under their arms were growing as they worked.
Billy Evans slung the noose around the hay bale and pulled it tight. As it lifted off the ground and disappeared into the loft above him, he turned and stared at the mountains.
“Hurry up with the next bale, Billy.” Charlie yelled as he looked down from the open doors. “We ain’t never gonna get done with our chores if you keep day dreaming like that.”
“I’m not dreaming. I was just thinking about tonight. I can’t believe they got the Magician for this year’s Halloween show. Do you think we’ll get close enough to see anything?”
“Ma still hasn’t said you can go,” Charlie reminded him. “You know she thinks you’re still too little.”
“I’m not too little,” Billy whined, kicking his feet in the dirt. “I don’t want to stay at home and carve those durned pumpkins again. I wanna go with you.”
“I know but, I had to wait until I was eight before they let me go to my first one.”
“It’s not fair. I’ll be eight in two months. I’m bigger then Jonas Manchester and he’s almost nine,” Billy said proudly.
“It’s not how big you are, Billy. The Halloween shows can be pretty scary. They give some kids nightmares.”
“Yea, but you said you weren’t even scared.”
“I wasn’t,” Charlie said quickly. He paused for a few seconds and then added, “Not really. They had some gypsies on stage, but they weren’t scary. Not too much, anyway.”
“Well, I know I won’t be scared. I sure hope Ma lets me go this year.”
“Not if you don’t hurry it up she won’t. We still got all these bales to get up here, the chickens gotta be fed, and we promised Pa we’d get them sacks of seeds stacked in the barn. And you know Ma’s gonna make us take a bath before we go into town.”
“A bath?” Billy frowned as he looped the noose around the next bale. He thought about it for a second and said, “Seeing the Magician will be worth it. Worth a whole month of baths, and then some.”
“Who’d ever think he would be coming to our little town?”
“Why not our town? What’s wrong with Trinity?” Billy asked defensively.
“Nothing’s wrong with it. I just mean that the Magician is probably the most famous person I ever heard of. You’d think he would be doing a show in Little Rock or some other big city.” Charlie lost his grip on the last bale, and it swung out ominously over his little brother’s head before he caught the rope again.
“Now who’s day dreaming, Charlie?” Billy asked as he laughed.
It took just over two more hours for the boys to get the loft full of hay. They pulled one bale around back and spread it out for the horses to eat.
“I’ll get the eggs while you feed the chickens,” Charlie said.
“Can’t I get the eggs, Charlie? I always gotta feed the chickens, and they try to peck my legs.”
“You break too many,” Charlie told him. “Last time, there was more on the ground than you had in the basket.”
“I’ll be real careful,” Billy pleaded. “I promise.”
“Okay, but don’t break any this time.”
They finished their chores in record time and went into the house just before three o’clock.
“Wipe your feet and mind the clean floor,” their mother told them as she fed their baby sister, Mary, from one of the store-bought bottles Pa had brought home last month. He got it from Mr. Drummond, the owner of Drummond’s Mercantile & Dry Goods, in trade for three-dozen eggs. “You two are covered in dirt and hay. Get your baths before your pa gets home.”
“Ma, I got the eggs today,” Billy said as he set the basket on the table. “There’s thirty-two of them and I didn’t break any this time.”
“That’s good, Honey.”
Billy kept standing next to the table, looking at her.
“What’s wrong,” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, shuffling his feet. “You look real pretty today, that’s all.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, smiling. “Does this have anything to do with the Halloween show tonight?”
“Can I go, Ma? Please, please, please?”
“Honey, I still think you’re too young for such a scary show, but me and your pa talked about it last night and he thinks it’ll be fine.”
“Did you hear, Charlie?” Billy shouted. “I’m going to see the Magician!”
“Now go get your baths and we’ll see about getting y’all a little spending money for tonight,” Ma said. “And wash your hair, too.”
The boys rushed into their bedroom and began preparing for their bath.
“You go first, and I’ll get the water,” Charlie said. He went into the kitchen and picked up the old wooden bucket from beside the sink. He went outside to the well and drew the first bucket of water. It took both hands to carry the water back into their room where Billy was already naked and sitting in the large metal basin that they used for a bathtub. Charlie poured the water over him without warning and Billy screamed and jumped up.
“Gosh durn it, Charlie. The water is freezing!”
“Shhhh. Don’t let Ma hear you cussin’ like that,” Charlie said, trying to hide his smile. “She might wash your mouth out with this here bar of soap … or worse, make you stay home whilst we go see the show tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Charlie. It’s just that the water is so cold. Can’t we heat it up some?”
“It’ll take a lot longer if Ma has to heat it up on the stove. Besides, I’m going to be using this same cold water when you’re done with it. Now just start washing so you can get it over with. Unless you want to be late getting into town tonight.”
Fifteen minutes later, both boys were dressed in their Sunday Best and had their hair properly greased down and parted on the right side.
“Well, ain’t you two looking all dapper,” their father said as they entered the front room. He sniffed the air, laughed and said, “And someone’s been using my hair tonic.”
“Hello, Pa,” Billy yelled, as he ran up and hugged him. “We got all our chores done and I even got the eggs. How was your day, today?”
“Me and Moses, we got the back forty acres nearly plowed. That only leaves sixty more before it gets too cold and the ground freezes. You sure y’all two don’t want to help your ole Pa turn the fields before winter sets in?”
“Now, Jed. You know I need them boys to do the chores around here and to help out around the house,” Ma chimed in. “I can’t do it all myself and still tote baby Mary around to boot.”
“I know the deal. I was just asking my little men here if they wanted to help out their Pa.” He lifted Billy into the air. Billy squealed as he put him on top of the table. Pa turned around and said, “Your turn, Charlie.” He grabbed him and hefted him onto the table next to Billy. “Land Sake’s, Charlie. You weigh a ton. How old are you now, boy? Fifteen? Sixteen, maybe?”
“Pa! You know I’m only nine and a half,” Charlie said proudly.
Both boys laughed. Ma gestured for them to get down off from the table so she could place the biscuits and gravy in the center of it.
“Pa, when are we going into town?” Billy asked.
“Town? Tonight? Why would we be going to town?” He kept a straight face as he winked at their mother.
“To see the Magician,” both boys cried at once.
“The Magician? Is that tonight?” Pa asked. “I’m kinda tired today. I was thinking we’d just stay home and carve out a couple of those scary pumpkins.” He tried desperately to look serious but ended up laughing at their shocked expressions.
“We’ll go as soon as we’re done with our supper,” Ma said. “It’s just biscuits and gravy tonight, unless you want me to cook up a chicken or something. I could do that in about an hour or so,” she teased.
“No!” the boys shouted in unison. “Let’s just eat so we can go.”
Everyone sat down around the table as Pa bowed his head to pray. “Dear Heavenly Father. We thank you for the food you have provided for us and thank you for keeping the snow off me and Moses so far. We ask that you keep the weather warm ‘til we’re done plowing. Thank you for keeping this family safe and blessing us daily.” He paused for a second, and then loudly said, “And we thank you for the Magician.”
“Amen!” Billy yelled, and everyone laughed.
The boys ate quickly and put the dirty dishes in the sink basin.
“We can go now, iffin’ you boys promise to help your Ma with the dishes when we get back home tonight,” Pa said.
“I promise,” said Billy.
“Yea, promise,” added Charlie.
“Then hitch the wagon, boys,” Ma told them. “We’ll leave as soon as we’re dressed and the wagon is ready. And be careful of your Sunday clothes.”
“Make sure you hitch up the fast horses, boys. We don’t wanna be late for the Magician,” Pa teased them.
“Pa, we only got two horses,” Billy said as he laughed.
“And Moses the mule,” Charlie said.
“Better let Moses be,” Pa told them. “He’s pretty tuckered out from plowing all day in this heat.”
The boys got the wagon ready while their parents finished getting dressed. Billy didn’t stop chattering about the Magician and the show the whole time they worked. The boys had just finished hitching the horses when everyone came outside. Ma wore her best bonnet, and Pa had actually tucked his shirt into his trousers and greased down his hair. Ma had baby Mary in her blue dress and tied matching ribbons in her hair. Everybody seemed to be excited about seeing the Magician.
As the boys climbed into the back of the wagon, Pa turned to them and said, “Now, I’ll do my magic act for you.” He clenched both hands tightly into fists and held them out in front of him. “Lookey here. Nothin’ up my sleeves. Pick a hand, boys.”
Both boys chose one of his hands.
“Abracadabra!” he yelled as he turned his hands over and opened them, displaying a shiny new dime in each one.
“A dime? A real dime? For each of us?” Charlie asked, as Billy just stared at the treasures Pa was holding.
“You both deserve it,” he said.
“Jed, you’re spoiling them,” Ma said. “I told them we might be able to spare two or three cents each if they did the extra chores.”
“My little men worked very hard this week,” Pa told her. “And besides, the looks on their faces would be worth a whole dollar each to me. Iffin I had it.”
Ma just smiled as the boys talked about how they would spend their riches at the Halloween show.
They were still a half-mile from town when they encountered the other wagons. They lined the dusty road and were moving very slowly. Kids were running alongside several of them. They were chanting “The Magician, the Magician,” as they ran and played.
“This is going to be one hell of a show,” Pa said to no one in particular. “I’ll bet it’ll be better than the show four summers back, when they had those three fellows from New York City up on stage. Most of these people, I never seen before. I just heard one fellow say St. Louis. Must have took them two days to get here. Some prob’ly come from even further.”
They saw the tarps as the got closer to town. There were enough of the tents and make-shift lean-to’s to practically start a new town.
“What’s with all of the tents?” Ma asked aloud.
“Folks from other towns been camping out here,” a teenage boy, who was walking with a group of other young people, volunteered. “My Pa said some been here nearly a week. They want to make sure they get to see the show.”
“This is going to be one hell of a show,” Pa said again.
Several men with lanterns directed the wagons into a field at the edge of town. As Pa settled their wagon into place and put on the hand brake, the boys jumped down from the back and began talking with several other boys.
“Has anyone seen the Magician, yet?” Charlie asked the small crowd.
“Not yet. They’re saying he won’t come out until they are ready to start,” one of them answered.
“Charlie, keep an eye on Billy, and meet us back here after the show,” Ma called out. Charlie agreed as the boys ran off into the crowd. The chants “The Magician, The Magician,” were getting louder.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Billy said as he looked around.
There were lanterns everywhere. The whole town looked like it was the middle of the day. Several men were walking on stilts and women were fanning themselves with giant silk covered fans. Someone must have been selling balloons — the kind that floated in the air and were tied with a string — because the boys noticed several of the younger children carrying them. The roofs and second floor balconies were filled with chattering people. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best clothes. The boys saw Reverend Morgan talking to the bearded man who ran the saloon. The Reverend’s wife, Mary, was talking to a group of cowboys. They were all laughing about something. She was even wearing make-up. Charlie was sure of it.
Mr. Johnson, the banker, who was rumored to be the richest man in four counties, was talking to the heavily muscled Mr. Jorgensen who owned the Livery and Blacksmith shop. Two women Charlie thought must be dancers, because their dresses were short enough to show their bloomers, were laughing and talking with Mrs. Delonic, their Sunday School teacher, in front of the barbershop.
Several people had sacks of homemade candies and they gave fistfuls of it to any child willing to say “Trick or Treat.”
“There’s nothing like a show to bring everyone together,” Charlie told Billy. Billy just nodded. He was too much in awe to speak.
Vendors walked through the crowd hawking their wares.
“Sarsaparilla! Get your Sarsaparilla, here.”
“Pretzels. We got your pretzels, here. We got your Candied Apples.”
“We got cider. Get your apple cider. Cider.”
The boys had enough money for two sarsaparilla drinks, two pretzels and a candied apple each, but they chose to share one drink and get a pretzel of their own for now. They didn’t know how long the show would last and didn’t want to spend all of their money too early.
“The Magician! The Magician!” The chanting continued through the crowd. The enthusiasm was electric.
“There he is!” someone shouted. Everyone began to crowd around the stage to try to catch a glimpse of the most famous man they had ever heard of.
“Charlie, I don’t see him,” Billy cried out in a panic. Charlie grabbed Billy’s hand and pulled him closer to the stage. They had the advantage of being small. They could slip though the cracks left in the crowd that adults would find too difficult, if not impossible, to maneuver.
The shouts and noises from the crowd were deafening. Judge Reynolds was standing in the center of the stage reading something that was written on the back of one of the posters that were hanging everywhere. It was impossible to hear what he was saying.
Charlie pulled Billy right up to the front of the stage just as the roar of the crowd suddenly stopped. They stared at the Magician in total silence. He was wearing all black, just like in the posters. He smiled as he surveyed the crowd. He caught the eye of an elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair on one of the balconies closest to the stage. He nodded his head and said, “Evening ma’am. Glad you could make it.”
She was so excited that she passed out. No one came to her aide as she slumped over in the chair. Everyone was too busy watching the Magician.
He turned back and smiled as he surveyed the crowd. He looked down and saw Charlie and Billy, peeking over the edge of the stage.
“I hope you enjoy the show, boys,” he said and then winked at them.
Both boys jumped at the thunderous sound of the trapdoor dropping open and the Magician’s neck snapping at the end of the noose.
“My God!” shouted Billy. He pissed his pants at the same time the Magician did.
“Yea, that was awesome!” answered Charlie. “Even better than when they hung those gypsies last year.”
The crowd began to cheer as the Magician twitched a few times before slumping forward. Most of the crowd went back to the festivities before the Magician’s body stopped swinging, but Charlie and Billy just stood at the edge of the stage, staring up at the man in black.
Charlie bent down and picked up one of the “WANTED” posters lying on the ground. “I’m gonna hang this on the wall of our room,” he said.
Billy did not answer.
As Charlie started to roll the poster up, he noticed the writing on the back of it.
“This was what the judge was reading,” he said excitedly as he unrolled it. Turning toward Billy, he began to read aloud.
“Johnny Williams, also known as ‘The Magician’ is wanted for more than a dozen murders throughout Arkansas. He was caught just outside of Trinity after he murdered Sheriff Jergens and two of his deputies. The horse he stole threw a shoe and came up lame less than two miles outside of town. Thanks to all of the brave men of Trinity who rode with the posse, we had him in our town jail before the sun went down. There were more than a dozen witnesses to his dastardly crimes and his trial lasted less than fifteen minutes. He was found guilty of three murders and horse thievery, and sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Justice has been served. God have mercy on his soul.”
“That was better than any show I’ve ever heard of,” Billy finally said, still unable to take his eyes off from the swinging body. “I’m gonna be that famous myself someday. I swear it.”
“The Magician” appears in the short story collection Pages of Promises.
STEPHEN JAMES PRICE was born and raised in New York, but has lived in the deep south (or within a two hour drive of it) for more than half of his life. Although he claims to be northern by birth and southern by choice, he has never said “ya’ll” and even finds it difficult to write. His published works include a short story collection Pages of Promises and his debut novel 2:27 A.M.