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[personal profile] ib_archive
author: hazard_us ([livejournal.com profile] hazard_us)
email: scorpio_kaur [at] yahoo.com

artist: jackie ([livejournal.com profile] vivaldi)
email: macaulay.station [at] gmail.com

P.D. Yadkin was a charlatan, a snake oil salesman, and a dirty deceiver. He was also a magician but Jim Beau had noticed that it wasn't often people saw that, what with him charming them out of what little food and money they had.

He and P.D. were currently taking the long way through the mountains, because as P.D. had said, Fancy Gap had no conception of the appreciation owed a proper gentleman. He had also muttered something about some people not being able to take a joke. Having seen a few of P.D.'s jokes, Jim Beau didn’t wonder that the good folk of Fancy Gap might have taken umbrage over whatever P.D. had done to them the last time he was there.

And it wasn't as if they could have snuck through town quietly. No. The Wagon of Mysterious Wonders looked like the orphaned child of Ringling Bros. circus and that was no mistake. The gold was gilt, the curtains that hid the inside were stolen from a house in Savannah, the wheels were purple, and the red paint put the cabooses on the Union Line to shame.

P.D. himself wasn't too quiet either. His eyes were blue, his hair was red, his vests were gold or purple and, while his suits were worn, his shoes were always shined. P.D. himself shined, just like his shoes and his buttons. He stood out like a parrot in a chickenhouse - and he couldn’t not, no matter what he wore. Dull clothes would have been like putting a shade over the sun, the sun would just come through.

Jim didn't have that problem. P.D. had said he was as interesting as corn and probably less nutritious. Didn’t matter to him. Mules and donkeys and horses didn't care if you could dazzle a room with conversation and Jim preferred them to people anyway.

And that was why he was at the reins while P.D. was in the back. He didn't know what his boss was doing in there right now, though he could hear the tinkle of glass on glass whenever they hit a rut. Maybe he was making up some new tonics to sell. Maybe he was concocting some real tonics that would take the whistle out of a pig. Wasn't Jim's business, so he didn't ask.

They were now in the middle of the truly wild part of Appalachia, taking a dirt track that Jim Beau felt in his water would bring them out into Tennessee given two days. Anne and Bette, the mules, were quite content to walk straight through the night, seeing as they were actually fairy steeds from Ireland that P.D. had liberated from a buggy man in Philadelphia, but neither he nor P.D. were comfortable taking the long, winding, and extremely high road near the New River without some light.

"It's only fair that a man would want to see exactly how far he could plummet to his rocky and wet death below," P.D. had drawled when the sun had begun to sink behind a mountain. "Let's see if we can find a place to stop."

P.D. spoke like a proper Southern gentleman when he was awake, but had the clipped vowels of a man born far north of the Ohio River when he talked in his sleep. Jim Beau had never said anything about it because if it weren't for P.D. he’d still be working the near-fallow fields in Frazier's Bottom, and that was no mistake.

Jim kept an eye out for a roof, any roof, and tried to ignore the yawning blackness on his left. He hunkered down under the wool blanket thrown over his shoulders and watched his breath escape like steam into the air. Fall was coming on hard and it was going to be another -

He squinted carefully and said, "Boss, I see some lights up ahead."

His boss's voice drawled out from behind the curtains. "Well, when we get there, give the farmers some of P.D.'s Fabulous Cure-All Tonic and ask for some feed for the ladies."

They had no ladies in their wagon. P.D. was referring to Anne and Bette.

"Too many lights to be a farmer's place. Wrong color too." And we're in the mountains. With the rocks and all, there ain't a lot of farming, Jim Beau thought. He was a mite hungry and a tick tired, so his thoughts were unfamiliarly rebellious.


"Could be." Probably was. Wasn't much to do in the mountains but mine coal and moonshine and who mined coal at midnight?

From behind him came the comforting click of a hammer being drawn back on a rifle. P.D. used magic, but steel was useful in the same situations. "Only hobos, moonshiners and mountebanks are out this time of night - I'm guessing we'll fit well enough into that last category to earn their brotherly trust."

"Maybe we should just buy some moonshine? Money is almost as good as trust, ain’t it, boss?"

"And countenance a trade so despicable that the good people of this country have determined to never again let it corrupt our native soil? Only if absolutely necessary." P.D. was no teetotaller, but he was stingier than Jim Beau's mam at times - and Jim Beau hadn't had a drink since the last time they rolled through Pennsylvania.

As they got closer to the lights, Anne and Bette slowed down, until they stopped altogether.

"What’s the matter, girls?" Jim could see from the light of the wagon lamp that their ears were twitching like they had a swarm of horseflies buzzing around their heads. They were too old and gray to be jumpy, but enough to be stubborn as hell. Jim Beau could not get them to move one step further.

"Why'd we stop?" P.D. threw aside the ragged and tasseled curtain and peered into the dark. "Jim Beau, that is no moonshine light. That is will o' wisp, sure enough."

P.D. slipped back into the wagon only to come out again wearing his special suit, which was haint blue and made of raw silk. The buttons were gold, real gold, and carved with symbols that seemed to crawl when Jim looked at them closely. Jim had seen him wear the suit only once before. He only brought it out on very serious occasions, occasions when he wasn’t selling songs in a bottle. P.D. Yadkin was about to do some powerful magic.

"We going to leave the wagon, boss?" Jim asked.

"And why would we do that?"

"Well, Anne and Bette don’t seem to want to go forward."

"Ladies, you knew when you joined this outfit that it was not always going to be smooth roads and warm stalls." His boss took the reins from him and whispered low and carefully. Jim didn't know what P.D. was saying and it caused Anne and Bette’s ears to rotate like airplane propellers, but the wagon creaked forward.

Jim gripped the edge of the wagon seat hard as they approached the lights. He couldn't help but be reminded of Frazier's Bottom and what had caused him to leave that place. The incident had involved a moth and a man and a battle at midnight. He’d seen fire grow on trees without burning them and felt the earth shake under his feet. He still woke up nights yelling, and that was on the nights that he could sleep. Jim wasn't sure if he was ready for this, but he knew if he had to be anywhere, he'd like it if P.D. was holding the reins as he was now.

The lights were closer and they danced blue and red and orange in the dark. "Watch it, Jim. This is going to feel a bit spookish when we cross the--"

There was a flash of light, like ten lightning strikes all at once. The air changed from night-cold to warm and humid. And when Jim Beau could open his eyes to see, he closed them again, because he couldn't believe what he saw.

The air smelled of spring after a long hard winter, like when he was a kid. In front of him was green grass and blue skies like Jim could never remember. He'd never quite understood purple mountain's majesty, living at the foot of Appalachia, but the peaks at the end of the valley soared to the clouds.

And the food... there was food everywhere. Not just fruit on trees, though that was a welcome enough sight after three weeks of tins and hard bread. No, there were donuts and loaves of bread weighing down the branches. Jim reached his hand out to pluck a muffin, when P.D. gripped his arm. His boss's fingers dug through his cotton shirt and into his skin.

"Don’t get out of the wagon. It’s the only thing keeping us safe right now." P.D. was not awed, nor was he Southern anymore. The words sounded awkward in his Northern accent and that was what snapped Jim Beau out of his amazed stupor.

"What do you mean, P.D.? What do we need to be safe from?"

"Don't know yet. That's why I'm worried." And he was. P.D.'s affable face was puckered into a frown, like the apple babies that Jim's mam used to let him make with cloves for eyes.

Anne and Bette, who would normally be pulling half out of their harnesses to get the taste of green things in their mouths, were flicking their tails like they were mad as hornets. "That's right, ladies. I don't like it either. See, Jim? They have the sense men don't. So follow their lead and don't eat or drink anything here."

"How'm I going to do that if I can't get off the wagon anyway?" Jim asked.

P.D. flicked the reins and the mules pulled forward. "I saw you eyeing those muffins.'

"But where are we? What is going on?"

P.D. turned to Jim, looking him over in a way that made Jim feel ten inches tall. "Jim Beau, this is a time where it is best to be neither seen nor heard. But since you can’t turn invisible, I suggest you button it. Understood?"

The tips of Jim's ears burned with heat and burned away the last of stupor as well. He stared straight ahead, ignoring his boss silently, wondering where the man got off talking to him like he was Jim's father, rest his soul.

Jim was soon distracted from his mutinous thoughts by the trees. The trees before had been apple trees, but these had cigarettes hanging down from branches, like white flowers that hadn't unfurled for the sun. He wanted to reach out to examine them more closely, but he was distracted by the smell of - yes, that was definitely stew he was smelling up ahead, and his stomach rumbled traitorously.

The cart inched along a high rock cliff, following the track. Water was trickling out of cracks in the rock, water that smelled dark and sharp like--

"Whiskey?" He shut his mouth when P.D. glared at him.

It was whiskey though. There was no mistaking it. He wanted to run his fingers over the cliff face, but P.D.'s stare was freezing him in place like a blizzard in February.

The track widened for a moment and that was when P.D. had the mules stopped and the rifle at his shoulder, faster than a greased snake. "Come out right now," he ordered, aiming at the bushes on their right.

Two ragged men stepped out of the brush with their hands in the air. The taller one with shabbier shoes took off his hat and said, "Pardon us, road brothers. Didn’t mean to alarm you. You just never know..."

"Indeed you don't." Jim was surprised when P.D. lowered the rifle. His boss smiled, but it was his 'I have an ointment for that' smile. "We were carrying the banner, boys, then all of a sudden, we found ourselves - well, here! What in Hooverville is going on?"

The shorter one with the kerchief grinned, showing his gums. "Going on? Can't you figure it out? The good lord raised us up like Elijah! We're in Paradise!"

The taller one elbowed his companion in the stomach. "Pardon Bart here. The Sallies got ahold of him and wouldn't you know it, but their gobbledygook took. Hasn’t been able to say a sensible word since they converted him."

"You'll be saved yet, brother," the shorter one replied with more hope than certainty.

P.D. sat back in his seat, acting perplexed. It was acting, because Jim had never seen him perplexed. Mysteries only made him angry or gave him a headache. "So, road brothers, if this isn't Paradise, what is it?"

"Don't know myself, but this is better than bread lines and train camps," said the taller tramp.

"Come on, you haven't seen nothing yet!" cried the evangelical one. "Come on and see the lake of stew!"

Jim Beau was almost off his seat, when P.D. said loudly, "We’re tired, brothers, but there's enough room on the wagon for us all. Why don't you come up here and have a rest? The ladies will take us wherever we need to go."

The tramps looked at each other and the taller one twisted his crumpled hat in his hands. He smiled, but it was forced. "It's no hardship to walk, brother. But follow us. There's so much to see."

P.D. flicked the reins and the mules followed the tramps further into the woods.

"You have names?" P.D. asked.

"I'm John. My religious friend is Bart."

"I'm a John too," P.D. lied. "And this would be Beau."

"Nice to meet you, road brothers," Jim Beau said. P.D. was often John and he was often Beau when they were in town to sell and scam.

"Are there others here?" P.D. asked.

John the Tramp smiled. "Thousands have come here before you, but there's room enough for us all. Room and food and whiskey and--"

"Lemonade," Bart cut in, a little piously, Jim thought.

"And lemonade for us all," John finished.

"How wonderful. If it's not Paradise, then someone made a good try," P.D. said with appreciation; the kind of appreciation he faked when presented with homely daughters and colicky babies.

"It's around this corner, road brothers." Bart picked up his pace and dashed through some trees, shouting at them to hurry along.

And sure enough, there was a lake of stew. The surface bubbled slightly as steam escaped and Jim could smell hot meat and vegetables and the delicious brown broth that held it all together.

When he was a child, Jim had often thought that he would never be able to get enough stew after a hard's day work in the fields, but right now he believed that this lake-bowl in front of him might even be able to sate his hunger born of two years of Depression starving...

"Well. So that's a lake of stew." There was real disappointment in P.D.'s voice. "I thought there would be more potatoes."

“Get out of the wagon, road brothers. Get out and eat up!" John smiled and Jim noticed how toothy his grin was.

"We just ate, but thanks all the same."

"Beau, you seem hungry..." Bart said.

And he was. He was the hungriest he'd ever been and seeing and smelling that kind of food right in front of him was driving him wild, like a bull in the cow pasture. He thought if he didn't have a taste, he would go mad. "It's like the best dream I've ever had."

"And a dream is another word for imagination, which is another word for made-up. It is untruth. It is lies. It is fol-de-rol. This place stinks of mendacity, sirs." P.D. picked up the rifle again. "And I hate poorly done lies."

The last words rolled out of P.D.'s mouth like molasses. He aimed the rifle at Bart and pulled the trigger. Bart fell to the ground, clutching his stomach. P.D. had shot true and the man died with blood on his lips and his eyes open.

Jim had seen slaughter before when he'd worked on the farm, but he'd never seen a grown man shot down like it was nothing. "You killed him in cold blood," he said, stunned.

"Murderer!" cried the other John. "Killer!"

P.D. was unconcerned. "Jim, you are going to be a fine muleskinner one day, but you miss out on important details. Look!"

Jim didn't want to look, but he did as he was told. The hobo's body writhed on the ground. "He's alive! He's--"

Bart wasn't alive. Bart wasn't even human. His skin popped and festered into scales and horns grew above his eyes, which were rolling back and yellow. He twisted and changed on the ground, until he was as long as a mule train. Claws sprouted on his fingers and his shoes tore as his feet became hooves. And then he laid still again, dead for good.

John the Tramp was also changing. He was changing and screaming and using words that burned Jim's ears, but not in the way that Jim's ears burned after hearing swearing in rough bars. No, these words had the power to burn down forests...

P.D. grabbed Jim's shirt at the shoulder seam and pushed him back. "Above my cot, middle shelf, third jar on the right, has 'pig' on it. I'll stall. Go!"

"Clever, clever mortal!" boomed the thing that had been John the Tramp. It loomed over the wagon. "Never has one fathomed our true nature until it was too late."

Jim fell back into the wagon to get away from the monster. He scrambled to his feet and searched through the stacks of jars and bottles, looking for a pig.

"Oh really? You're saying I'm the only one who noticed your kind doesn't blink in human form?" Jim heard P.D. retort.

"No matter! Soon you'll become--"

Jim tried to push bottles out of the way without cracking or spilling any of them. P.D. kept talking. "Become? I didn't come here to be eaten or used as some kind of ingredient or what. All I want is to go on my way and be left alone."

"You entered here, mortal. You will never leave this world again." Jim almost gagged when the monster's breath came into the wagon. He put his hand over his mouth and reached and saw--

"Found it!" Jim threw aside the curtains and passed the jar to his boss.

P.D. stood up on the wagon bench, holding the jar high, right under the jaw of the monster. "Then I guess it's just a matter of not having this world anymore."

And he opened the jar.

Jim expected light or an explosion or at least the smell of sulfur and the scream of demons. There were certainly no flaming trees or earthquakes. All he felt was the breath of a sigh stir the hair above his ear tips and that was it.

But it was enough. The monster moved its mouth like it was screaming and arched its back so hard that Jim was sure it had to have broken. It tore at the sky with its claws and rent the grass with its hooves. With each movement, the scenery tore away, like someone was tearing away a vaudeville background on a stage.

Jim ducked as the claws swept above his head. Now all around him, instead of purple mountains and lakes of stew, was red dust, red dirt and red sky.

"Pretty lies," P.D. muttered, as he loaded the rifle again. "Ugly truth. Always the same."

And with each silent scream from the monster, the red world tore itself away, revealing a dark night and cold air, until all that was left were a snakeoil cart and a wounded monster on the edge of a track in the Appalachia.

P.D. aimed the rifle at the monster's chest. His aim was true and, as it screamed, it stumbled back, off the track and into the cold, rushing whitewater of the New River far below.

Then all that was left was two men, sitting in a snakeoil cart on a track in the Appalachia.

P.D. put the rifle down, took out a handkerchief and daubed at the sweat on his forehead. He offered it to Jim, who shook his head. Jim picked up the reins instead and flicked them gently. Anne and Bette started moving again, along the dark track.

They rode in silence until dawn streaked the sky between the peaks in front of them. P.D. spoke first.

"Did you know, Jim, that pigs are the kindest animals in the world? If they all decided to whistle at the same time, our world would be destroyed."

P.D. was drawling again and that bit of normalcy eased up the tightness in Jim’s mind. "That jar had a pig whistle in it?"

"Took me two years sweet-talking a swamp crone to learn how to get one," P.D. added proudly. "Involves truffles and lots of persuasion, but that's all I'm saying."

Jim flicked the reins again, reminding Anne and Bette that he was still awake and they should be too. "I don't know nothing about the destroying the world part, P.D., but I've seen a sow roll onto her newborn piglets and crush them out of carelessness. I don’t see much kindness in that, no matter what you might say."

P.D. stared at Jim, eyebrow raised. Then he laughed and it turned into a cloud in the dawn air. Then P.D. sneezed.

"One thing I liked about the lie," Jim added, "was that the lie's weather was better."

"It usually is. That's lies for you."

P.D. stood up, threw the curtain aside, and disappeared into the back. And the Wagon of Mysterious Wonders rolled on.

the end

Date: 2008-02-03 12:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
Oh, excellent story. I really like these characters, and I'd love to read more about them. Great idea for the plot; I love the setting for this kind of story. Excellent.

The art is really great, too. I like how the colors stand out against the grey background.

Date: 2008-02-06 03:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hazard-us.livejournal.com
Thanks! I'm glad you liked the setting; the whole story was born from of a very long car ride through the Southwest over break. Fancy Gap and Frazier's Bottom are real (albeit small) places.

Date: 2010-05-19 01:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bratfarrar.livejournal.com
Very cool take on the song--the whole things feels like the kind of tale that might have been told on dark nights in lonely places.

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