Sunday Fiction: A Traveling Magician

The town of Stalwart, Nebraska stood as a minuscule island of civilization in the vast expanse of the Great Plains. Founded in 1850 by Baptist ministers escaping the evils of living back east, the township grew as best it could while fighting off native inhabitants, water-borne illness, and the occasional Acts of God. The War Between the States interrupted the town’s day-to-day life when they sent most of their able-bodied men to go fight for the Union against Johnny Reb, but blessedly they all came home safe and sound. Some even returned with wives, welcome additions all to a town planted in the middle of nowhere.

Every year the Founding Fathers would hold a festival to celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of autumn when the farmers would go out into their fields and gather up the wheat harvest. The town’s dirt roads would be swept clean of the dirt and litter from everyday use and travelers who didn’t care where their horses defecated. Bright yellow and red signs were painted and hanged over the fronts of Main Street (the only real street). Ribbons and other decorations of varying colors were festooned around lampposts and hitching posts and signposts. Down the street, in the town square, townsfolk erected a stage out of freshly cut lumber and built a table large enough so everyone could sit at it. A band would play folk music on the stage, and everyone else would eat and drink the day away and far into the night.

Everyone brought their best food and drink to share with the rest of the town. Major Whitcombe, veteran of Sherman’s campaign against the rebels in Georgia, brought his best whiskey for the gentlemen to drink. Susan Periwinkle baked cakes, pies, cookies, tarts, and other treats aplenty to satisfy every sweet tooth from Stalwart to Lincoln. Caleb Ford, the mountain of a man who worked as the town butcher, slaughtered no fewer than three cows, eight pigs, and about twenty chickens for the entire town to feast upon. Vegetables were brought in from the fields and gardens, breads were baked, and everyone else pitched in a hand to make the celebration happen. As the farmers started coming in, the spirits flowed, the food was eaten, and friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time caught up on old news and new. This year’s harvest was the most plentiful in recent memory, and soon the entire square was filled with people laughing, eating, and making merry.

Day eventually crept into night, but that didn’t stop the festivities. Everyone lit the lanterns and hung them all around, creating a bright and happy place. Band music still played, and more people were coming in from late work outside town. Wagons lined the entire street leading up to the square, and the massive table erected in the middle was filled with people eating their fill while other revelers kicked up the dusty ground with lively dancing. Very few people were sober (thanks to the good Major), and soon Mayor Talmadge thought it was a great idea to give a commemoration speech – his third of the evening.

It was then that four lean horses drawing a rickety wagon squeaked its way into the sleepy town of Stalwart, drawing more than a curious eye from the residents busy about their festivities. A lone rider in the front seat hunched over the reins, wrapped thoroughly in a heavy coat and stovepipe hat. Dark hair fell from underneath the brim, covering his eyes. Likewise, his face was covered by a beard so bushy some of the children who saw him thought he was made entirely of hair. Unlike other people from around the area, he did not wave in greeting to anyone or even utter a single word in passing. Where he went by, superstitious townsfolk warded themselves against the evil eye, and even the brave began speaking in hushed tones. Some of the other horses, hitched so they had no escape, whickered nervously at his passing.

Behind him in the wagon sat a tall box, perhaps eight feet in height. Made out of wood, the crimson and gold paint had faded from years of sunlight and neglect. Some of the onlookers noticed it wasn’t tied down, but no matter how hard the wagon hit a pothole or other obstruction the thing never jostled in the slightest. There had to be something inside, they reasoned, that kept the whole thing stable. What went unnoticed by the inebriated revelers was that this box was the only thing that he appeared to be traveling with.

Reaching the town square, the traveler reined in his horses. He’d stopped by the central platform and leapt onto it from his seat, a spry move that implied a youthful man hiding beneath his clothing and hair. Mayor Talmadge was in mid-speech, his mouth left open in surprise and anger at this upstart arrival. The band stopped playing, and the entire celebration ground to a halt. Not a single sound was uttered as the visitor stepped along the platform to stand next to the Mayor.

Licking his lips, the strange man looked all about him to make sure he had everyone’s undivided attention. Satisfied, he took off his hat and held it high in the air. “People of Stalwart!” he cried out, his voice cracked and deeper than perhaps it should have been, like it belonged to a man burdened with age. “I am a wanderer, a man without a home. In my travels I have seen many things, some good, and some ill. Today, though, I can tell you with complete honesty that evil comes this way!”

Some of the townsfolk shuddered at the man’s short speech; one woman fainted while her children cowered at her skirts. Others jeered the man, laughing and hurling insults while instinctively searching for treachery with hands on their guns. Mayor Talmadge, bolstered by the whiskey in his belly, grabbed the intruder by the shoulder and muscled him aside. “My good people, who is this charlatan who comes here on weary horses drawing a beat up wagon? You must be insane, sir, to think you can storm in here unannounced and ruin our harvest festival with your tall tales!”

The stranger did not recoil or shy away from the rebuke. Instead, his beard twitched, and a faint sound erupted from underneath his mustache. Sounding like a puttering engine, it could have been either a whimper or a laugh. “I tell no tall tales, sir! I repeat: evil comes for Stalwart whether you make merry or not!”

This time more of the town began to choke down their apprehension and give voice to their fears. Who was he to come here? Why did he insist on upsetting everyone? A few people even began to yell for him to clear the stage. Talmadge, ever the politician, politely pretended to calm them down. Tucking a hand behind a suspender stretched almost to its breaking point by his ample belly, he pushed back his straw hat with the other and said as loud as he could manage, “Sir, I don’t know who you are, but around here we demand proof of wild claims. What is this ‘evil’ as you call it? I bet it’s nothing more than an imagined phantom!”

A hot wind blew into the town from all four corners, kicking up the dust from the roads. Loose shutters slapped window frames, while the wind picked up and started to howl. Strange smells came dancing in on that blustery air, first sweet, then sickening. All the while the stranger stood there like a gargoyle, only the dark glimmer in his eyes hinting to a sign of life. Everyone else in the town braced themselves, terror beginning to seize them.

Eventually, not a soul dared utter another word.

The wind died down, and the stranger spoke again. “People, I tell you that this wind is an omen, a sign of the dangers to come. I tried getting here as fast as I could, but my horses are old. You all are in danger, and only I can spare you from greater evils that lie ahead! Heed my words, and you will flourish. Ignore me, and let it be your doom!”

“How do we know it isn’t you who is causing all of this?” asked Harper, the town barber. “You could be a charlatan with parlor tricks come to-“ In mid-sentence, Harper seized his own throat. Veins popping out the back of his hand, he clutched and scratched as if someone was strangling him. His eyes bulged, and then he fell to the ground, dead.

Although Harper was one of the most beloved men of Stalwart, not a soul dared utter another word.

“How many more must die before you will heed my warning?” the stranger asked. “The evil seized him because he was angry. As we all know, anger is the deadliest of sins. Perhaps you don’t wish to be saved.” As if he had aged a decade since landing on the stage, the man hunched over in weariness. His voice dropped, and everyone craned their necks to listen to what he was saying. “I have failed you all…”

This time, the town realized the danger they were in. How else could anyone explain why Harper died? Who could control the wind, if it wasn’t the Enemy? Resolved to be spared a fate like their barber’s, the town clamored for salvation. “What can we do,” they asked, “to help you save us?”

“Behold!” cried the stranger, though with diminished vigor. He gestured to the middle of the crowd. There stood the box that had been on his wagon. A wooden affair, it had strange paintings which had faded with age. Completely indecipherable, the only sure thing was that the box once had a dark red finish. In the front, a door opened. A tattered black velvet curtain unfurled, masking what lie behind. The town became so quiet that the world itself seemed to have stopped spinning. “There is the engine of your salvation,” spoke the stranger. “Like all things in life, safety requires sacrifice. To fuel this engine, three of your own must enter. Such a sacrifice is not made lightly, and so you must decide among yourselves who must enter.”

Everyone stood, dumbfounded by the stranger’s words. Was he asking them to sacrifice their own? How could they choose? Furtive eyes glanced every which way, not knowing how to resolve their turmoil. Mayor Talmadge, by now completely sober, took the opportunity to steer his township. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Here is this stranger, whom we do not even know! He comes here and makes vague claims, using our fear against us! Resist the temptation to give in, and bid him leave here lest we tar and feather him!”

Usually after such a rousing speech, the Mayor would receive a unanimous chorus and respond to the call to action. This time, all the eyes upon him were hungry and malevolent. In a hive-like unity of action, the town of Stalwart mobbed him. Dragging him kicking and screaming, they threw his ample frame into the box. He fell behind the curtain, and his plaintive exclamations dwindled as if he was falling into a well. Darkness oozed from the box, and then a curious thing happened.

The paint on the box was less cracked than before.

Leering at the crowd, the stranger raised an arm in triumph. “He spoke against you, but you overcame his pessimistic demeanor! Huzzah for you! But one person is not enough! I can feel the evil approaching! Look!” With a bony finger, the stranger pointed behind the crowd. As they turned to regard the object of his gesture, they all grew terrified as the street itself appeared to darken. Lanterns which had shone brighter than any star in the sky could not even be perceived through the approaching inky blackness.

A tumult rose up, and the town of Stalwart grew apprehensive at finding another to aid in their cause. Frenzied, husbands turned on their wives, children turned on their parents. Such an affair quickly turned into a chaotic melee, and the darkness approached. One hundred yards away, everyone began to bicker and whine about who should be next. No one would step forward to echo the Mayor’s sacrifice.

Fifty yards away, and people could not contain themselves. A riot had broken out, with a cacophony of noises echoing through the square. Even the band had gotten into the fray, swinging instruments like they were clubs. Not even the children were safe, and some of the weakest were forced nearest to the ghastly box.

Ten yards away, the darkness had almost consumed everyone. No one from the town had noticed. All were so intent on their violence that they only knew panic and fright. When the inky blackness overtook them, people gladly kept whatever hold they had.

One by one, the voices gradually declined in volume. Unable to see anything, no one had an idea of what was happening. Eventually the cloud dissipated, and there was the vile box, standing as if it had been freshly made. The finish had a shine to it that glistened in the lantern light. Paintings on the side had been mended to perfection. On the right, there was a painting of a man with a ram’s head leading a group of women along a river. On the left, there was a man with a jackal’s head weighing hearts on a scale. On the back, a bare-chested man stood in the clouds holding a lightning bolt. And on the front, where the closed door was, stood a bearded man whose eyes glimmered mercilessly.

The stranger straightened himself, appearing to stand a foot taller than before. He scratched a short and well-trimmed beard, tucking an errant tuft of hair underneath his stovepipe hat. Snapping his fingers, the wagon smoothly glided forward as four healthy, black steeds pulled it. Hopping into the front, he checked back to find the box securely strapped in place. This town was a fairly large one, so he reckoned he wouldn’t need to stop by another soon.

Then, to his surprise, he beheld a small child standing in the dust of the town. “Amazing,” he said. “Who are you, who can resist my call to ruin?”

The child shrugged, looking up at the stranger with a mixture of hatred and pity. “I am nobody in particular,” he replied. “While you got the town worked up, I sat down and thought about what you said. When you got the Mayor, I knew you were up to no good. And when the town went in on itself, I decided I wanted no part of it.”

And then, the first cold wind of autumn blew through the town. It wailed through the empty streets, right through the stranger’s wagon. The stranger shuddered, but not from the wind. Flicking the reins, he urged the horses to go to a full gallop, fleeing the lone survivor of Stalwart with all possible haste.

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