David’s head darted back to the road to see the silhouette of a man waving beside a bridled horse. David took a deep breath (careful to keep a hand on his musket) and waved back.
“What are you doing camping out here, stranger?” David said.
The man took staggered breaths as he walked forward. “Is this your land?”
David looked out the woods. Bugs and birds chattered in the overgrowth. “The Piney Woods are nobody’s land.”
“Then nobody will mind me setting up camp.” The man’s voice was deep and very matter of fact, almost monotone.
“I wouldn’t camp here if I were you,” David said. “There’s a boarding house in town. Up that road.” He pointed back the way he came. David shook his head. “Not sure how far from here, but it’s worth it.”
The man approached and David could make out a dark, lined face beneath an old felt hat. Long, grey hair fell around the man’s leather coat. The horse carried a bundle of wood tied lightly on its back, which the stranger steadied with a hand. “I didn’t know how far outside of Laughlin I was. I’m coming up from Texas.” The man gave a slight chuckle and looked around himself. “I wonder if town is anything like this.”
“Like what?” David said.
The old man locked eyes with him. Those eyes in the dusk held a faint light amid their brown hue. David had a hard time reading them. “I suppose you might not feel it.” The man took off his hat and rubbed his head. “These woods aren’t quite as bad as they used to be, but they have an evil air to them still.”
“Then why do you camp in them?”
“It’s not so bad right here,” the man replied. “There’s a good breeze. A fresh breeze from the east. A breeze to feed my fire for the night, and good ash trees to break the wind. And God is with me. Even among the rocks of hell, he knows and lives.”
“Why did you come here?” David said, feeling sweat break out on the back of his neck.
“To help.” The man looked up to the sky. David followed his gaze and saw a large black bird fly overhead, a flapping shadow in the dusk. The stranger burst out laughing, and smiled widely. His voice, though deep, seemed suddenly care-free. “How long ago did I chastise my father for saying the same thing? What wisdom does life bring with the years.”
“You have good ears,” David said, watching what he could see to be a crow alight in a nearby oak tree.
“You need to listen with more than your ears.” The man shrugged. “Something else my father would say that took me years to understand.”
David frowned as he watched the man carefully lead his horse. “What’s your name, stranger?”
“That depends on who you ask, friend,” the man answered back.
David heard the crow caw and said, “What did your father call you?”
“You’re joking,” David said, half chuckling.
“I don’t joke about that. What’s your name?”
David hesitated a moment, unsure if he should give the stranger is true name.
“Or should I ask what your father calls you?” the stranger said.
“He calls me David.”
“A good name. God was always with David.” The man laughed softly and started walking toward the clearing where the fire already burned.
Hesitantly, David spoke again, “Are you him? Are you the White Owl from the story?”
“I’m the only White Owl I’ve ever known, and every man has a story he inhabits.”
“The Witch of the Woods,” David said. “Is that your story?”
White Owl turned back to him and nodded. “It is a story into which I have come. One I wished to write an ending to. Come.” He motioned David to follow him.
“Why did you come back?” David said, sitting still on his horse.
“I would guess you have at least one answer to that, or you would not have been placed in my path.” White owl casually pushed aside some brush as he entered the circle of trees.
“I’m just here by chance,” David said.
“Nothing is by chance.”
David sighed and dismounted and led his horse behind white owl, holding his musket on his left shoulder. In the clearing, the old Cherokee was already stacking the sticks he had gathered as firewood.
“Tell me about her, David,” White Owl said.
“The witch?” David rubbed his head for a moment.
“You’ve been hurt? I can give you something to ease your pain, if you like.” White Owl left the stacked sticks and walked over to where the saddle lay on a heavy tree limb. He removed a cook pot and a small leather pouch, then returned to the fire. He filled the pot with water from a canteen and placed it on the edge of the fire. “Why don’t you sit down?”
David nodded and sat down on the dirt, laying his musket across his lap. He rubbed his head again. “I thought the Witch was just a story.”
“And stories aren’t true?”
“The really good ones usually aren’t,” David said.
“I disagree. The best are the most true.” White own sat down and opened his pouch, placing a few herbs into the pot. “But that is beside the point. Tell me about the witch.”