A Walk at Dusk, “Witch of the Woods,” part 7

They stared at it for a time. White Owl broke the silence. “As my father says, ‘If all else fails, use fire.’”

“And water purifies,” Tom said.

Black Feather laughed. It was wild and free-hearted in the dark. “So I have said.”

The men still standing in the accursed scene consisted of Black Feather, White Owl, Tom, Bill (in much worse shape having discovered that his horse, along with his whiskey, had disappeared), Fox, and one settler named Jim. Missing were seven additional white men, two women, and two Cherokees. The horses of Cherokees had not fled, but all the others save Tom’s had. The fog remained, dense as ever. The remaining men set about building a fire, cracking apart the makeshift sled and using what kindling they could to get the thing going. It smoked horribly but provided some welcome warmth.

After a time one of Black Feather’s men returned, saying that he heard voices in the dark calling to him, but his horse had lead him away from it. He had dismounted to run to it when the horse bit him on the arm and broke the trance, and then lead him to the fire. When he arrived, he helped bury the dead settler. None of the other men were found that night.

The fog lifted in the hazy morning, and White Owl went on a quick scouting trip. He found three stray, riderless horses and managed to bring them back. One of them was Bill’s, but it had thrown its saddle somehow and now had no whiskey for its owner. He also found that the Lake was smaller than any of them had thought, and that they had hall traveled far further south than they had thought. The settlers’ camp was now very much north-by-north-east of the lake. On their way back they came across a thicket with a dirty white cloth hanging in the branches. A quick inspection found the two women, who had been lost and sheltered there. Their horses had stayed nearby, and soon they were accounted for as well.

When they got back to the camp, the settlers that remained were eager to hear the tale and swift to believe it, because they had experienced the same fog that night, and many men had been awakened in the night by strangely pleasant dreams that seemed nightmares once awake. A few men hastily began to assemble a search party, but Tom and Black Feather begged them not to. The men who had disappeared they judged to be surely dead, or possibly worse.

“It is better to grieve less with uncertainty than more having judged things for yourself,” Black Feather said. “I myself have lost a kinsman, and though it is a grievous loss, I will not risk the rest.”

With heavy hearts, the remainder of the settlers agreed. They broke camp and moved further north, away from the Piney Woods and the flood plain, hoping to leave the horror of those nights behind them. Tom went on living with his memories, but ever the black book, that which he could not speak of, troubled him, but what he did with it, and whether his soul and conscience survived, none can say for sure. The memory of him, of Black Feather and White Owl, of Clay and the Witch of the Woods, eventually faded into rumor, and then passed to lore and legend.

It is said, however, that the Piney Woods are still perilous to walk through at dusk, and that the Witch of the Woods, entombed in body forever beneath unmovable stone, calls out on spring nights, wailing for her forgotten love to come back to her, and drawing to her any man unwitting enough to listen to her soft song. Those men whose ears hear that melody or whose eyes chance to see the grave, it is said, go down, down into the earth with her, to sleep forever in her tomb of unwilling lovers.

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