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Seven Years Bad Luck: A Short Story
Roseburg, Indiana Elevator
Tom Waits: Tom Traubert's Blues (a.k.a. Waltzing Matilda)
Three boys led their ponies out of the red barn, jumped on and rode bareback down the lane toward the central Indiana, county road.
“How much money you guys got?” said twelve year old Tom to the brothers.
“I got a quarter,” said Rodney, who at ten years old, was the youngest of the three.
“I got fifty cents,” said Rick, who was the same age as Tom.
“Now ain’t that just the way it always goes?” said Tom. “It’s gonna cost $1.65 for three bottles of pop and three candy bars. You two chip in seventy-five cents and I gotta come up with the other ninety.”
“How’d you figure all that out so fast?” said Rodney.
“Never mind,” said Tom. “I got enough.” They rode on, sometimes running the ponies in fields beside the road and other times walking, until they covered the two miles to Roseburg.
The town didn’t have many people and houses. Mostly it was the elementary school, the Methodist Church and the elevator where farmers sold their grain at harvest time and bought feed and farm supplies year round.
A rickety wooden fence near the railroad tracks served as a hitching post for the ponies. The three boys walked toward the main office, crossing the giant scales where wagon loads of grain were weighed.
“Hi, boys,” said the blonde woman behind the counter, when they walked through the door. “How was your ride today?”
“The ride was just fine, thanks,” said Tom. Faye Spencer was a friend of Tom’s mother. They talked about how things were going on the farm, while Rick and Rodney waited impatiently for their sodas and candy bars because Tom had most of the money.
Allis Chalmers Tractor
When Mrs. Spencer and Tom were finished talking, each boy chose a candy bar and pulled a bottle from the soft drink machine. They walked back into the long building where bags of feed supplements were stacked. A sliding door for loading the bags onto trucks and wagons was open, so they sat down just inside and had their snacks.
A tractor drove past, the unmistakable orange identified it as an Allis Chalmers, pulling an empty wagon into the granary. The three boys watched as the farmer’s wagon was loaded with freshly ground feed by an old man named Mr. Jones who worked for the elevator.
When the wagon was full, the farmer handed Mr. Jones a bulging, light weight burlap sack and drove away. The old man looked one way, then the other. He didn't see the three boys who were hidden by shadows inside the doorway. He stepped onto the platform of a one-man lift which operated by pulling down on a rope that ran through pulleys at the top and bottom of the granary. Mr. Jones rose to the upper floors and out of sight.
“Did you see that?” said Tom.
“Yeah,” said Rick. “Mr. Jones looked like he was sneekin’ upstairs for some reason.”
“I wonder what was in that sack?” Rodney took the last bite of his Snickers.
“I don’t know, but he sure wants to keep it secret,” said Tom.
Indiana Woods: Location of Corral and Hideout
On the way home, the three boys rode to their hideout in the woods next to Tom’s house. The ponies wound their way through the dense foliage until they came to a corral in a clearing near the creek. The fence was made of two levels of saplings tied to trees with bailing twine. At one end of the corral was a low shack also made of saplings which were stacked so there was a space between each one. The roof was corrugated metal scavenged from a trash pile at the edge of the woods. They released the ponies into the corral and climbed into the shack.
“What do you think Old Mr. Jones was up to?” said Rick.
“I don’t know, but I sure want to find out,” Tom sat with his knees pulled to his chest.
“But they won’t let us go up there,” said Rodney.
“What if we went back after they closed, when it’s dark,” said Tom. “There’s a stairway in the back. We could sneak up and have a look around.”
“The place is all locked up after they close,” said Rick.
“I’ve seen how they lock it,” said Tom. “It’s just a hook on the inside near the end of the door. I bet we could stick somethin’ in there and lift the hook off. We'll tell our parents we’re sleepin’ out in the barn tonight. We can ride the ponies to the elevator and snoop around in the granary until we find out what Mr. Jones is hidin’.”
The upper Floors of the Elevator
Late that night, the three boys tied up their ponies behind the elevator, then slipped into the granary just the way Tom had planned.
“I can’t see a thing,” said Rodney.
“Wait till our eyes get used to the dark,” said Tom.
After a few minutes, Tom led the way into the back of the granary where a stairway rose several flights. At the top, they followed a walkway that looked down onto the lower level to their right. A flimsy, wooden railing was all that separated them from the drop off.
“Walk slow and don’t trip,” said Tom. The three boys made their way along until they came to a closed door on their left. Rick turned the knob and the door opened with a long creak.
“It’s darker than dark in there,” said Rodney. Tom pulled a flashlight from his pocket and shined the beam into the room. They searched, opening cabinet doors above a workbench on the back wall. By the dim light, they could make out dozens of corn husk dolls peering back at them.”
“Voodoo dolls,” said Rodney.
They heard what sounded like a boot scuffing the floor.
“Was that you, Rick?” said Tom.
“No, I was hopin’ it was you." Light flooded the room, and the boys turned to see old Mr. Jones standing in front of the closed door.
“You three boys are in big trouble,” said the tall, slender man. “I know your folks, so I’ll just send the Sheriff over to talk to them tomorrow. What are you doing up here anyway?”
“We found your voodoo dolls,” said Rodney.
“Shut up,” said Rick to his little brother.
The old man crossed the room and took one of the dolls off the shelf. Each was made by folding corn husks over, then tying them with string to create a head and waist. Legs and arms were made by rolling the husks into long tubes. The female dolls wore skirts fashioned from husks and hair made of corn silks. Faces were painted on with water colors.
“Sit down,” said Mr. Jones as he reached into the burlap bag he was carrying and pulled out a handful of corn husks. Within a few minutes he had made three new dolls. “This is you,” he said to Rodney, holding up the smallest doll. Then he turned to Tom and to Rick. “And these are the two of you.” He placed the dolls on the workbench and picked up a hammer. The boys winced in anticipation.
He set the hammer back down. “The four of us are going to make a pact.”
“A pact,” said Tom. “What’s a pact?”
“A pact is a kind of deal. You help me make the rest of the dolls I need, and I won’t report this break-in to the Sheriff. Then you can help me deliver the dolls to the person I’m making them for.”
“Aren’t voodoo dolls used by witch doctors?” said Rick.
“Heh, heh,” Mr. Jones laughed. “Something like that. You’ll find out soon enough. Now, do we have an agreement? If so, we have to shake on it, and a handshake is as good as a blood oath.”
One by one, the boys shook the big, rugged hand of old Mr. Jones, binding themselves to him and whoever the dolls were for.
"I've been making these dolls after working in the granary all day. With your help, we should be able to finish them all tonight.” Mr. Jones showed Tom, Rick and Rodney how to gather the husks together and bind them with string to create the image of a person. He set containers of water colors on the floor and handed each boy a small paint brush. They worked until there were no more husks.
Mr. Jones inspected each doll, making adjustments where needed. Then he had the boys pack them into two wood crates. Counting the ones the old man had already made, there were over one hundred dolls to be delivered.
“Be here at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow when I finish work. Now get out of here before I change my mind and call the Sheriff right now,” said the old man with a glint in his eye.
“Man, am I glad to be out of there,” said Rick. The trio rode slowly in the darkness. “All those dolls starin’ at me was givin’ me the creeps.”
“We ain’t really gonna help that old man deliver the dolls are we?” said Rodney. “Cause I don’t want nothin’ to do with no witch doctor.”
“Sure we’re gonna help him. We made a pact with Mr. Jones that’s as good as a blood oath. I heard someplace that if you break an oath, you’ll have bad luck for seven years,” said Tom.
“Where’d you hear that?” said Rick. “It sounds to me like somethin’ you just made up.”
“We made a deal an’ we’re stickin’ to it an’ that’s that,” said Tom. Rick and Rodney let silence be their consent and they rode on.
“I really am scared of meetin’ that witch doctor,” said Rodney on the following afternoon as the boys rode the ponies back to Roseberg. “Who do you think it is? Maybe it’s somebody we know but don’t know they’re a witch doctor?”
“Yeah, an’ what do you think they’re gonna do with the dolls?” said Rick.
“I dunno, maybe torture somebody that done somethin’ bad to them,” said Tom.
“Torture?” said Rodney. “Like pullin’ off their arms an’ legs or holdin’ a match under their feet?”
“Somethin’ like that I guess,” said Tom.
Mr. Jones was closing the big, sliding door to the granary when the boys rode up on their ponies. He glanced their way, but said nothing. He walked around the corner of the building, signaling for them to follow.
“Tie your ponies up here, he said, pointing to an old hitching post left over from years gone by. The old man opened a small door in the back of the granary and led the boys inside. Upstairs they loaded the boxes onto the lift, and Mr. Jones got on and pulled upward on the rope, causing the lift to drop toward the ground floor.
Mr. Jones brought his old Ford pickup to the door and they loaded the crates into the back. The three boys climbed into the truck bed, and the old man drove toward the street.
“ I wonder how far we have to go,” said Rodney. “All the way to Marion, you think?”
But suddenly they turned and came to a stop. The boys stood, looking over the roof of the truck’s cab. An old woman, back bent with arthritis and holding a crooked cane, waited in the doorway of the Methodist Church.
"Hello, Mr. Jones," said the old woman.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Veach," said the old man as he exited the truck.
"Do you have the dolls with you?" said Mrs. Veach.
"I certainly do. You know, I had to sneak around and make the dolls at the granary after hours so my wife wouldn't know what I was up to. I'm using the money you're paying me to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary."
"That is sweet of you, Mr. Jones," said the woman.
“Pastor Phillips ain’t gonna be happy when he finds out old Mrs. Veach is a witch doctor,” said Rodney, still staring from the back of the truck.
“Yeah, an’ that she’s keepin’ voodoo dolls in the church building,” said Tom.
“You three boys grab the crates and let’s get them into the building,” said Mr. Jones.
Inside, he opened the crates and handed Mrs. Veach one of the dolls.
“These will be perfect,” said the old woman. “Just what we need for all those children.”
Tom, Rick and Rodney stood, mouths wide open, staring at Mr. Jones and Mrs. Veach like they were evil creatures straight out of a horror movie.
“Children?” said Rodney. “What’re you gonna do to them?”
“Not to them, silly boy, for them,” said Mrs. Veach. “The Methodist Ladies’ Guild is delivering these dolls to all the children of the men in the Indiana State Prison. And it’s so wonderful that you nice boys are helping. Tell me your names so I can include them in next Sunday’s church bulletin.”
The three boys looked at each other for an instant, then made a mad dash for the exit. The laughter of an old man and an old woman chased them out the door.
They sat in their shack in the woods in silence. Tom finally spoke up.
“Nobody, but nobody is ever gonna find out that we was makin’ dolls for the Methodist Ladies’ Guild. Now shake on it,” he said, holding out his hand to the two brothers.
“A pact,” said Rick, grasping Tom’s hand.
“And seven years bad luck to the one who breaks it,” said Rodney.