A Walk at Dusk, “Witch of the Woods,” part 6

“What do we do?” Tom said.

“We follow our tracks back to the burial site,” Black Feather said. “And give him back to the witch. That is the price we shall pay for escape.”

“Like Hell we are,” Bill said.

“Indeed like Hell,” Black Feather replied.

“I won’t!” Elsa said. She turned her horse, which pulled the body of clay on a sled, and turned to ride away.

“No!” Black Feather cried, but it was already too late. He kicked his horse into a gallop after the woman, who quickly became a black shape in the night fog. The others, slower to react, followed. After a few terse minutes of galloping, each man doing his best to guide his horse by sound when sight failed, the men, with Black feather in the lead, came suddenly upon a horse lying on its side, crying out and thrashing its legs in terror at the shore of the strange lake. Black Feather dismounted quickly and ran to the beast, whose lungs rattled with death.

Near at hand, Elsa was wailing hysterically, cutting at the cords that bound the body of clay to the makeshift sled.

“What’s got into you woman!” Tom said, dropping his torch and attempting to get his arms around the woman.

“He’s not dead! He’s not dead!” she cried.

“Get a hold of yourself!” Tom said, trying to grip the hand that held the knife. He quickly let go when caught the flash of movement in front of him. Elsa took the opportunity to continue hacking away the rest of the chords.

In terror, Tom pushed himself back as the folds of the bedsheets moved of their own accord.

“Everyone back away,” Black Feather said. “Away I said!”

Even Elsa complied with this request, so grim was Black Feather’s voice.

The folded mass of sheets convulsed. Strange groans emanated forth from it, and it began to rise. The sheet fell away, revealing a pale face, with hazy eyes that had a dim orange light of their own. The mouth was agape, and in it, sharp teeth shot from withered gums. The being turned from them and let out a beastly howl.

“Clay!” Elsa said, and rushed forward.

“No!” was all Tom could get out before she reached what was once Clay and wrapped her arms around him. It was her husband’s name that was last spoken upon her lips as the corpse turned and plunged its hands and teeth into the woman’s neck, rending her arteries and tearing flesh from bone.

“Dear God!” Bill said. He hand shouldered his musket and fired without hesitation, hitting Clay above the right breast. It had no effect except to make the demon charge. Bill’s horse bucked in fright and threw him to the mud, then bolted as Clay ran toward Bill. Bill, still drunk, got to sitting up before the corpse hit him. Bill still held his rifle and was able to push the creature off him, though it continued to scratch at his chest, drawing beads of blood. Another one of the settlers, having drawn a sabre, set to hacking at Clay, slicing through cloth but drawing no blood.

The creature abandoned Bill and lunged at his new opponent, teeth sinking into skull as the sword fell to the earth. One of the Cherokee, a tall man named Fox, initiated his own attack with a steel hand axe, trying to sever the neck. It failed, and the creature reared up at him. The Cherokee was spared by Black Feather, who slashed with his knife at the creature’s hamstrings, causing it to fall to the earth and thrash wildly.

Tom ran over and shot it square in the head, but like the first shot, that did nothing to slow it and draw its attention. Tom turned to flee, but tripped, landing face first in the water. He felt dead nails clawing at his legs above his boots, and he dug his hands into the wet earth, finding no purchase. He turned and looked into the maw of terror. The creature gripped his belt, and then with a sudden expression of wonder released him and turned its attention to the Cherokee that remained, crawling first toward Black Feather, who stood resolved, singing and trying to light once again his smoky incense. It seemed then that the creature laughed darkly, or else it was a trick of the terror of that moment. Black Feather, dropping his composure, leapt forward and struck the corpse on the forehead with his incense bowl, swinging it like a sling.

Before the horror could react, White Owl flung onto it a bottle of oil, retrieved from Tom’s horse, which had miraculously not bolted. Seeing this, Tom retrieved the torch, just beginning to sputter out, and threw it on the corpse. With a tortured, spine-freezing cry, the monster began to burn. Not content to be destroyed in a flash, Clay-that-was thrashed on the ground, with echoing screams, as flesh peeled and cloth burned. The men backed away, weapons still at the ready. Tom got another bottle of oil and threw it on the blaze. After an agonizing few minutes, the thing began to move only slowly. White Owl strode forward and kicked the body. It rolled into the water of the lake and continued burning and moving as it slid into the depths.

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