A Walk at Dusk, “Witch of the Woods,” part 5

Soon, Tom pulled his horse up short as they reached a deeply flooded basin.

“What’s wrong?” Elsa asked from back in the line.

“I must have lost the track,” Tom said. “Either that or the water moved.”

“We’re lost?” Elsa said.

Tom stayed silent and held aloft his torch, lighting up a calm pond that extended beyond view.

“What about the Indian?” Bill said.

Tom looked to the back of the party. Almost obscured by the fog were Black Feather and his group. Without bidding, the Cherokee met Tom’s eyes and worked his horse forward, followed closely by his son.

“I see,” Black Feather said, seeing the body of water.

“You know where are?” Tom said.

“No. I am not from here,” Black Feather said.

“Don’t you have some kind of Earth sense?” Elsa said. “Can you get us back to the camp?”

Black Feather withdrew a leather bag from one of his pockets. He began opening it and fishing inside of it.

“What is that? Some sort of talisman?” Bill said.

“It’s a compass,” Black Feather said. He tapped the brass-cased item a few times. “And it’s not working.”

“It’s the witch!” Elsa said. She shook upon her horse and gripped the reigns iron-hard.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Black Feather said. “I said these woods are tainted, and there may be more to that than a lone white witch. But in any case, she is bound now.”

“Perhaps she is restless,” said White Owl. “The body is bound, but the spirit may still have some power.”

“Some, yes, but clearly not all,” Black Feather said. “Do any of you hear the whispers from last night?” He looked to the others in the party. Nobody would say that he had heard the eerie voice from the night prior.

“We still need to get back to camp,” Tom said. “And out of this fog.”

Just then, ripples appeared in the still water, and soft splashes sounded at the horse’s feet.

“What is that?” Elsa said.

“Alligators,” Black Feather replied.

“This far north?” Tom said.

“Tom! Get us out of this devilry!” Elsa cried.

“Relax,” White Owl said, watching the ripples. “It’s moving away from us.”

“A bad sign,” Black Feather said. He looked to Elsa. “Are you a believer in water burial, as they do on the sea?”

“What?” Elsa said, taken aback.

“This water is permanent, not a remnant of the floods, or it would not have life in it. We should bury your husband immediately. Immediately!” Black Feather’s voice rose in the still air, with an urgency and a fear that he had never expressed before. Bill signed the cross on his chest.

“No!” Elsa said. “I’m not leaving him to be food for gators and fish!”

“Damn it, woman, listen to the medicine man!” White Owl said. “We never should have permitted this, we never should-”

“Calm yourself,” Black Feather said, laying a gentle hand on his son’s arm. “What is done is done.” He looked at Tom. “To our right should be South, if we have kept in the general direction you came in. Let us go that way. And keep your torch lit, if you can.”

“Will you guide us?” Tom said.

“God will guide us, or nobody,” Black Feather said.

“I will stay in the front with you,” White owl said. “And help you, if you wish. I am a decent enough tracker.”

The party went on along the edge of the water, the fog still wrapped tightly around them. Tom’s torch began to flicker as the oil rag began to run out of fuel. The water seemed to drag on in a straight line blocking them.

“I don’t recall any lake near your camp,” White Owl said after a time.

“It does just seem to go on and on,” Tom said. White Owl called for his father, who moved up the line to join them.

“We’ve been on this line for hours, it seems,” Tom said.

White Owl said, “I’ll admit, father, this baffles my senses. Do we head back?”

Black Feather pulled a necklace from inside his shirt and fingered it. “It no longer matters what direction we go, I think. We are going to the conclusion of matters.”

“So do we stay close to the water, or break? Maybe backtrack a bit and see if we can find our old trail?”

“Stay with the water,” Black Feather said. “Water purifies. And it calms me.”

The Party went on, but soon the water began to curve away to their left. Tom followed this shortly and then departed, keeping as near as he could remember to where east should have been. After a time they encountered trees in thick bunches once again, and a feeling of deeper dread settled on the party. The only thing audible was the soft sound of the horse’s hooves in the mud.

“You’ve led us back into the forest!” Elsa said.

“Quiet woman!” Tom said sharply, feeling nearly sick with fear.

“Stop,” White Owl said. “Give me the torch.” Tom handed it over, and White Owl held it out in front of his horse. “These are our sled tracks from this afternoon.” He dismounted from his horse and looked more closely. “We are back at the house. Look around and we should find it.”

“There,” Bill said. He pointed away in fog, and in the flickering torchlight a dim shadow, tall and narrow, could be seen. White Owl mounted and approached, and saw the remnants of a mud-brick hearth, then returned to the shapes of the party.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.