By James Patrick Cobb
If you were going down the road to Booneville from Tupelo you’d see that the sign announcing this converted red barn with peeling paint was the site of P.S.J. Mountain Wagons right before you got to town. The sign always creaked loudly as if it were calling customers from all over the south.
A rider dressed in garments of brown and black spackled with dried mud dismounted. His dark eyes tinged with nostalgia. He stepped inside.
“Strake!” Big John shook the man’s hand and bear-hugged the rider. Strake was a full head shorter than Big John. “I didn’t think you’d ever get back. Where is she?” the large man said, eagerly pushing past him to look.
Strake didn’t reply.
“You bring her?” Big John said outside, looking at his empty wagon. Pausing, he wiped the sweat from his brow with a red checkered handkerchief.
Strake’s weather-beaten face puckered up like he tasted something sour. He shook his head no.
“Got the flu and died.”
“Aw, buddy! I’m sorry to hear that! You rode all the way to St. Louis for nothin’?”
“Well, I’m glad to see you back!” Big John said, clapping his hammy hands together with a smack. “It’s been hard around here. The brakes are more popular than we could've dreamed. Can’t keep up! We’ve been at it twelve hours a day, sometimes sixteen. It’s cut into my time for eatin'! Remember how we figured the best we could do? Things have gone better than that!”
“Fine,” Strake said as if it were what he expected to hear.
“Sure could have used you. You just get back?”
“I’ll be around later.”
“What are you goin’ to do now?”
“Don’t know. See Mrs. Collins. Lay down in a bed. It don’t matter.” Strake shrugged.
“I can’t wait to tell Paul. He’s been cussin’ up a storm since you went on vacation.”
“It weren’t no vacation,” Strake said, getting up in the saddle.
“Whatever you say, Strake. Good to see you back.”
Strake nodded, mounted and spurred his pinto up the street.
“Finally thin’s are going to get better,” Big John said.
Paul Palmer and the two men were owners of the newly established P.S.J. Mountain Wagons of Prentiss County, Mississippi. If they were going to surmount the mountain that starting a new business is, it would take all of them. They were a team. They’d have problems even if their shoe brakes were twice as good as what a handy teamster could put on his wagon or a hundred times better than chaining a heavy log to a the back of a wagon to slow the descent down a steep mountain road. It wasn’t even necessary to pour sand over the shoes to increase resistance. All it took was a teamster pulling up on a lever to slow one of the back wheels. Down the customer would be with his load – safely and easily. Any man who had to cross the Appalachians or any other mountains or hills could use one.
“Strake is back,” Big John said, practically mugging Palmer with the news as soon as he came back from the hardware store.
“Bout damn time! Where is he?”
“He went home to Mrs. Collins’s. He didn’t get good news. His girl died while he was gone.”
“You tell him we got a stack of orders?”
“Yup. He don’t care about that no more.”
“He said that?”
“No. Hah! He acted like it.”
“This partnership isn’t goin’ to work if we all don’t pitch in,” Palmer said, glowering.
“Give him a break. He found out his girl died.”
“He had all the way from Missouri to think about it. He should have gotten over it by now. It’s goin’ to take a lot more than the one idea for the brake for this firm to be a success.”
“With all the orders? If you think so, tell him.”
Palmer sighed. He grabbed his dusty black hat off the hook in the office and headed back out the front door, narrowly missing a customer.
“I’d like to see somebody about fitting my dairy wagon with some of those brakes they were showing off down at McGruder’s,” the tallish man said, buttonholing Palmer.
“So come back tomorrow,” Palmer said tersely. “We don’t have time to talk to you now.”
Palmer’s dark eyes clouded and he placed his pointing finger squarely in the middle of the man’s chest. “Listen, pal: I’ve got a stack of invoices all with people waitin’ for work on their wagons. Unless you came to work here, come back tomorrow,” Palmer said.
Big John sighed. “Here we go again. Sir, please excuse Paul here,” John said, forcing his way between the two men. “I’ll take an order. You want a refittin’ or a new wagon? A new wagon will take a couple months but it’s worth the wait. We put in a fine suspension. Just a minute.”
Then Big John turned to Palmer: “You go talk to him. Try to get him to come back here.”
“Oh, I’ll talk to him,” Palmer said. “If he don’t listen, I’ll whup him upside the head.”
“Don’t you fire him up. We don’t need that. Be diplomatic.”
“Yeah, sure,” Palmer said. “But I’m goin’ to tell him what’s what.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Big John said, looking at the balding customer in front of him.
“How about my dairy wagons?” the man said.
“Just a minute, sir – Paul – that’s what I’m worried about. We’ve got to start turnin’ out some work or people will want their deposits. Don’t get him so he ain’t goin’ to work. We need hands.”
Big John sighed. He could say such things all day to Palmer and it wouldn’t make a difference. The firm would be lucky if there wasn’t a fistfight between the other two partners. He had to trust him. He couldn’t very well let this customer go around complaining about them either. Somebody else would start this business. They’d figure out how to make Strake’s brake design. It wasn’t impossible. All it took was a blacksmith who knew something about fashioning wire and a supply of natural rubber.
Palmer found the room. Mrs. Collins had sent him up the stairs and tried to caution him. “The poor dear!” she said of Strake. “He doesn’t seem himself. Be gentle with him. It’s hard losing someone you love. When I think of my Cal, I …”
“I’ll talk to him all right,” Paul had said, interrupting.
The matron winced as Palmer stomped up the stairs. He couldn’t have heard her when she said, “Some things are more important ...”
Palmer rapped on the door. “Strake! You in there?”
“Come on! It’s Paul. We got a lot of work to do.”
“You better open up this door or I’m kickin’ it.”
“Leave me the hell alone!”
“Come on Strake! Open up! Be reasonable.”
“Be reasonable yourself.”
Palmer lost any patience he had. “You open this damn door or I’m knockin’ it down and haulin’ you there myself. Y’all get some sense!”
There was the sound of Strake getting up and unlocking the door.
“Big John told me everything.”
“Good for you.”
“We need your help.”
“Good for you.”
“What’s the matter?”
“None of it matters.”
“Course it matters. Now come on.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Damn it to hell! Yes it does. We need you. We couldn’t have done it without you. The brakes were your idea. The firm was your idea. Now it’s time to do some work. I’m goin’ to get you out there one way or another.”
“You do and I’ll hurt you. It was a spell.”
“A spell of what?”
“A spell. Polly was a witch.”
Strake looked at Palmer as if he were a dimwitted child. “Hellfire! You know. My girl. The girl I was bringin’ from St. Louis. She was a witch. Warts and all. I never knew.”
“That locket she gave you with the chain made out of her hair; she didn’t have warts. What are you talkin’ about?”
“She changed her picture with a spell too,” Strake said tiredly. “You might as well sit down. The spell came undone when she passed from influenza.”
Palmer did, moving Strake’s hat off the only chair in the tiny room. “We don’t have time. Uh, well,” Palmer appeared confused acting like he didn’t know if it was okay to sit down during daylight. Nevertheless he was intrigued. “She cast a spell on you?”
“Yup - on all of us. ‘Incantation for Prosperity’ they call it. The minister showed me in her spellbook. He could read the Old Tongue.”
Palmer stood. “That’s it? You’re sore about that? I say that was good of her.”
“That’s not all. She watched me all the time through a crystal ball.”
“Huh,” Palmer said, sitting down again. That could have been trouble. “Here?”
Strake nodded. “All the way here. If I looked at another woman she’d have hexed me.”
“Good thing you’re rid of her.”
“It is, I reckon. But I don’t know if I should be glad or sad. There was this feelin’…”
“Now she’s gone.”
“Right. Was all a spell?”
“Come on! That don’t matter none anymore. You need to get yourself a normal girl. One who boils soup instead of potions.”
“I thought Polly was. I thought she was pretty, the whole bit. I was bamboozled. It’s like we don’t have any control about how we feel about anythin’. This business, the way people want our brakes. Was it because of Polly’s spell or my idea?”
“Sheesh! We made one wagon and sold it to Smith and then we sold another one to the freightmen and all of those dudes are real show-offs and braggarts and told people all up and down the mountains and valleys about how great a P.S.J. Mountain Wagon is,” Palmer smiled with pride at the thought. “They’re all comin’ here. All that matters is how you buck up and handle this. You need to get back on that hoss.”
“Why when it can all be taken away? All it takes is one of these witches.”
“That’s why them Puritans burned so many of them a few hundred years ago. Come on, dummy! It’s your job! When we’re done tonight, we’re all going to go out and have a long drink, get steamed, wake up and do it again.”
Strake assented with his eyes. It was the right thing to do. “My daddy always said there wasn’t no problem hard work wouldn’t solve and there wasn’t no better way to forget troubles than a good stiff drink,” he said.
“Your daddy was right. Let’s go,” Palmer said.
Strake got up slowly and closed the door to his room. The men went back to work.
Working was what they always did.
James Patrick Cobb has been involved in a business that wasn’t nearly as successful as P.S.J. Mountain Wagons. He wouldn’t have cared one iota if a witch came and cast “An Incantation for Prosperity” for him. See his blog at http://confrontationjournal.blogspot.com. Read his novel “The Alien Sheriff” for free at www.storiesbyemail.com.
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