They got back to the makeshift camp to find the wagons already circled on the hill, and a high fire burning in the dusk damp. The fire flickered heavily; a strong wind had come with the riders all the way to the camp. The two men dismounted their sweaty horses and told their story to everyone in earshot, which was soon many people as bits of their story passed among the settlers.
“You two been drinking?” Clay said to them.
“Swear to God, no,” Bill said. “I haven’t touched a bottle since Tuesday, but I can tell you if I have my way I’ll never be without a nip again!”
“Pah!” Clay said. “You got scared off by a little woman in hut!”
“She was dead,” Bill said. “And she moved. Swear to Christ and all the saints and the Devil hisself that she moved. She looked at me.”
“Either she was dead, and you imagined it, or she was quite alive, and you ran off without so much as a polite word or an offer of help. I’m going to put this nonsense to rest.” With that, Clay saddled up his horse.
“It’s witchcraft, Clay, don’t go back,” Bill said.
“No such thing. Now saddle up and show me where.”
“I won’t and you can’t make me,” Bill said. “Especially not in the dark.” Indeed, the sun was setting, and shadows were deepening on the swampy ground at the edge of the woods.
Clay spat on the ground and cursed Bill for a coward, then set off in the direction from which the two riders had come. Bill drank a whole pint of whiskey before saying another word, then sat himself beside the fire and shivered, saying he could finally no longer hear the whispers. His wife, a Godly woman with a soft heart, believed every word, and never left him alone again without a sip of whiskey.
Night fell, and the barely waxing crescent moon set. Darkness that should have been total was not as a fog rolled in above the flooded waters, strangely luminescent in the mere stars, and blew swiftly over the ground. It surrounded the hill like an island in a raging river, with only the tops of trees to say they were not perched up in some strange sky kingdom of darkness. The wind howled above the fog and threatened to kill the fires. Through every gust soft, strange words came passing.
Around midnight the wind finally died down, though the fog lingered and ceased to rush by in torrents. New fires were lit and the settlers huddled together. Even the children went without sleep.
And Clay never returned.
Morning came and the settlers discussed among themselves what to do about Clay. Tom, having considered Clay a good friend, organized a search party to find him despite the terror of the previous evening. He set a few pairs of men (for his first directive was to never go alone) to try a few different areas of the wood, but he held in his heart the belief that Clay had found the little abandoned house. With a heavy heart, he returned.
The house was standing peacefully. The water in the fallow fields stood still and glass-like. The curtains hung in the still air and the door was shut.
“The wind must have blown it closed,” he said, but he did not believe his own words.
With great trepidation, Tom approached the house, his pistol primed and cocked in one hand, with two additional musketed men beside him. He turned the handle on the door and pushed. It creaked on its rusty hinges and swung inward, revealing an empty rocking chair.
“Jesus Christ,” he said to himself, half-prayer and half-curse. He swallowed hard and entered. In the far corner, the neatly made bed held two people, pale skinned and blue lipped. Each had closed eyes. One was the woman, looking content as if sleeping. The other was Clay, equally peaceful.
“Clay!” Tom shouted in the dead air. No reply came. He fired his pistol into the wall above his friend. The shot rang loudly in the small room full of still air. The smoke slowly cleared, and through it Tom could see that Clay had not moved an inch.
“Devilry!” One of the men said.
“We’re getting the hell out of here,” Tom said, and backed away from the scene. The trio of men saddled up and rode back to camp. When they returned, they found Black Feather waiting for them outside the ring of wagons, his eyes hard. Other settlers stood around him, along with the Cherokee traders.
“I can see in your eyes what I have felt up on the hill,” Black Feather said.
Tom, almost out of breath said, “It’s devilry. Witchcraft.” He looked at the other settlers and pointed back toward where the little house stood. “Clay’s dead! The witch took him!” Clay’s wife, Elsa, cried out from the crowd and was quickly drawn away by a few of the women.
Hard and silent, Black Feather kept his gaze on Tom while the sound of the crowd rose and then slowly fell back to near silence. At length, the old Indian spoke, “There is here a spirit of suffering and withering. Whether your woman brought it with her, or it has always been here and has merely found a vessel, I cannot say, but for now it is sated.”
“Why did you come back, to gloat?” Tom said.
Black Feather remained motionless. “No. I came back to help. My sons have always said that I have been too generous for my own good, but hearing what we heard on the wind last night, and feeling what we have felt through the earth, I felt I could not leave you to this darkness and call my own spirit at peace.”