A Walk at Dusk, “Witch of the Woods,” part 4

When they were convinced that the house would burn on its own, they followed the tracks of Black Feather’s son up a hill into the woods. After a little while, they found a clearing where the Cherokees and a few other men were busy wrapping tightly the bodies and digging a hole. Beside the hole, or rather above it, was a monolithic boulder, twice as high as a man.

Black Feather looked up at the westering sun and said. “Good. I will begin preparations for a funeral ceremony. What customs will you observe?”

“I suppose we’ll pray, maybe sing a hymn, say a speech or something. I’m not used to this sort of thing. Clay always did it. His wife will want to be here. I should go get her.”

“Do not dawdle. These bodies need to be in the ground by nightfall.”

Tom rode back to the camp as quick as he could, finding a long dry stretch of land that let his horse gallop. When he got to the camp, he explained what they had done, and what Black Feather proposed. Elsa, Clay’s wife, was still in hysterics. They were an older couple, but childless. One of Clay’s nieces attempted to keep her from thrashing at Tom.

“You’re not burying him with a witch!” Elsa screamed. “You’re not burying her with a witch and with a pagan to pray to his damned gods.”

“Cherokees aren’t Pagans, and we’re going to do our own prayers,” Tom said. “We’re giving him a Christian burial as best we can, but we have to bury both of them.”

Despite the woman’s protests, she was saddled up and a large group of the settlers accompanied her and Tom to the burial site. When they got there, they found the hole already dug and the bodies, bound by cloth, already lying in the hole. Black Feather stood motionless, and regarded the newcomers coldly. Elsa leapt off her horse and began cursing the old Cherokee, but he remained silent and did not react.

“Like hell you’re putting Clay in the ground with a Witch!”

“Does it matter where his body is laid?” Black Feather replied. “The body is not so sacred as the spirit.”

“Don’t give me your pagan nonsense!” Elsa said back.

Bill was there and said to Tom, “We should pull him out and bury him somewhere else. It is Elsa’s wish. She has the right.”

Black Feather said, “If it is your custom, I will not fight you for it, but will only say to heed my advice.”

So Tom, feeling a burden as the other now looked to him as they once did Clay, did the second thing that day he would come to regret. He said. “She’s right; pull him out. Dig him his own grave. Quick. Before the sun sets.”

“Not here. Anywhere but here!” Elsa said.

“It is a pure site. A good place for a man’s body to be put to rest and his spirit freed,” Black Feather said.

“We’ll bury him at the camp. There’s good dry ground there.”

A few of the men hurried to the hole and pulled out a large body wrapped in a sheet. Black Feather sighed and said, “And so it is done.”

The settlers worked quickly to fill in the hole as the sun moved into the tree branches around them. Once the hole was nearly full, they began to pull away the rocky soil under the great boulder. The monolith began to teeter, then with a great shove rolled and landed on the sump made by the fresh grave, pressing the body of the witch down.

Black Feather and his son began a ceremony around the rock, with the elder man singing a song in his native tongue while the younger played a small wooden flute. Soon the other Cherokee joined in, and circled the stone. They shook more smoke at the boulder, and then stood back.

Black Feather said, “We have prayed for the woman, and for her rest. Hopefully, God will grant it and inter the body here forever. Will you now say a prayer in your own custom? The more voices, the more God will harken.”

“I’m not praying for no damn witch,” Bill said. This sentiment was shared by all the others.

Tom opened his mouth to say that he would, but he found his tongue stilled. When blank-faced Black Feather nodded slowly and began packing his things, Tom noticed that his hand lingered on a small book in his pocket. It was a third regret, as deep as the others.

Somewhere, a strange bird crowed. Dusk was settling in, and the waxing moon was going down in the west.

“Let’s get out of here,” Tom said.

“Wait,” Black Feather said. He spoke quickly among his people, and then turned back to Tom. “We will accompany you. This night is not one for riding.” His eyes lingered on the wrapped body of Clay, now bound again to a makeshift sled.

They all rode back as the sun set and the red-grey dusk filled woods. Mist began to gather in the low places about them as the temperature dropped. When they exited the tree line, it was into a sea of fog.

“It isn’t natural,” Bill said, taking a drink from a flask.

“Just stick to the path we cut before and we’ll be fine,” Tom said. The others followed close behind him, and fog closed in. Soon the trees were lost to sight. If there were stars, they could not be seen, nor could the moon.

“Not sure if I like this more than the wind or not,” Tom said. His voice fell flat in the fog, wrapped like cold wet blankets around the party. Nobody responded. Tom stopped and pulled an oil-soaked rag from his saddlebag and wrapped it around a limb from a nearby scrubby oak. He lit it with a match and soon had a blazing torch. He held it aloft, but it did little to light the way, instead making the fog into a brighter waste of grey and white. It did, however, cast enough light to see a short way in front of the horse. He did his best to follow the ruts and tracks of their previous trek.

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