The Witch at Sparrow Creek: A Jim Falk Novel (10 page)

BOOK: The Witch at Sparrow Creek: A Jim Falk Novel
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He could feel something pushing into his neck and heard
what must be the bones in his back cracking. He knew without a doubt at this
moment that he was being eaten and that he was going to die.

He had a feeling of relief, and an ease settled into
his mind as his vision darkened and all went black.


The doctor and Vernon Mosely took Bill Hill up on the
stretcher and took him into the church. Hattie Jones tried to poke his head in
the door, but the doctor shooed him out and started into dressing Bill Hill’s
wounds. Bill’s back had been torn up pretty bad. It was a strange place for a
wolf to bite at someone.

“That’s a strange place for a wolf to bite at someone,”
Vernon said. He took a seat beside the cot they had him on.

The doctor had redressed all his wounds on his back and
had him lying there on his stomach. He was asleep. Whatever that elixir the doctor
gave him was, it was something that put him to sleep right away, and with a
smile on his face. Medicine is a funny thing, and normally Vernon wouldn’t
allow it so openly. He’d allowed it, though, and when some folk found out
they’d left the church. Just as the Hills did. Someone in his position could
get into a lot of debate and even be put out of the church for allowing a hand
other than God’s to touch the life of a person like this. Vernon let his own
ears fall off to protect such a principle; but now, since he had been in Sparrow,
there had been some changes in his mind about certain things. He knew too that
the doc was a man who didn’t go around telling about things. He’d seen the old
doc pretty close-mouthed about a lot of things.

But this here—this here with Bill Hill, this was something
else. The doctor hadn’t said much yet. He’d cleaned him up good and stopped the
bleeding. They’d lifted him up and set him down on his stomach. Bill was smiling
in his sleep. That was nice.

Water had passed out of a cup and over Bill’s lips many
times. No one had come in or out of the church. There was quiet all over the
town. Bill breathed shallow breaths and his face was white.

No words passed out of the doctor’s mouth and no words
came out of Vernon. In his head he saw, over and over, a shadowy stack of wolves,
their black gums and yellow teeth . . . five, six of them gnawing on Bill’s
back bones.

A crow cawed outside suddenly. It came to roost in the
top of the small church there in the middle of town.

There wasn’t too much to this church. A few wooden chairs
were arranged neatly and looked clean. There was a wooden pulpit with the
messiah’s symbol on the front, the arrow pointing down above the arrow pointing
up. Then there was Bill Hill, lying there with a smile on his face and his eyes
closed.

“Wolves . . .” Doc Pritham started into the cold air.

The crow went on. They both crooked their heads and listened.

“Huh?” the preacher said when the bird quit. Vernon moved
in his chair a little. The chair creaked. His mind had gone far away, turning
over the things in his mind that had gone on. He was staring at the symbol on
the pulpit, heaven touching the earth, wondering when the day would come,
wondering when the promises would be answered, among other things. Where was
the chicken man? Where was the chicken man’s horse? Where was the chicken man’s
chicken? If the powers of darkness were moving again in the world, why did the
writings say that they were all but gone? Were they all but gone? Did the
writings say that? He put his face in his hands.

“The wolves, preacher,” the Doc kept going, “the wolves
are coming down off of the hill and looking for food near this town. Which
shows to me that there is a shortage of prey in the hills. They’re starving and
they are coming down out of the hills to feed. They will return.” Doc Pritham
folded his hands together as if he were praying and brought them up under his
nose as he spoke calmly. “Knowing the cannibal nature of the wolf, they’re now
likely feeding on those of their pack which Mr. Straddler killed with his gun.
Then maybe they may eat the horse and then maybe they eat the chickens, and
then, maybe . . .”—he frowned at the fact—“they will return in time.”

Bill Hill was breathing quietly now. It was getting dark
outside and the church inside started getting dark too. They were both looking
at Bill’s face now and they could see a little color coming back to it.

“The wolves came down from the hills back when the blizzard
hit too. That’s when all those things happened. That’s when Brother Taylor
froze and when all the other things happened too, before you were here,” Vernon
said.

“If the wolf is hungry, it will come back. As I said,
the dead wolves and maybe the chickens will feed them for a time, yes. But they
will be back. Other animals will come too. Bears. Others . . .”

“Others?”

The doc stood up and stretched his legs out. He was
bothered. He patted his pants and straightened his jacket. He thought of the
wounds on Bill’s back. He picked his hat up off the floor and beat it on his
leg. The wolves hadn’t gone for Bill’s neck. It’s not like a wolf. His face was
wide and healthy and his eyes were light blue, almost bright-looking as he
said, “I’m having a pipe. I will be just outside the door. If he wakes, call
me.” He put on his hat, “I will be just a short time.”

Doc Pritham got outside and closed the door to the church
behind him. He looked out through the little town. Nobody was out. All the
doors were closed up and smoke was coming out of the chimneys. The tracks were
around still in the mud. The dusk was coming in gray and windy. He packed his
pipe. Then he lit it up with a match and a few puffs. His serious face lit up
in the darkening evening. Red and yellow flickered in his eyes as the smoke floated
away into the air.

He said, “Others,” and looked around, squinting. He thought
of the church and man lying there in a coma. He thought of the long, puncturing
wounds on Bill’s back—wounds that were not made by any wolf. He looked at the
coals in his pipe and watched as the wind passed over the bowl and made them
glow all the brighter.


Down by the creek, Hattie Jones and little Samuel were
standing beside each other.

Hattie Jones didn’t like taking his son around to look
for dead people, but he did it anyway. He knew that he was a good man for taking
care of this little one whose parents died in the big freeze, he knew he was a
good man for playing the fiddle over at Huck’s and letting the men of Sparrow
smile and clunk around dancing just for a little while, he knew he was a good
man for never taking a wife and never cheating at cards, he knew he was a good
man. He wondered why such evil things could befall a town where such a good man
was. It wasn’t just him, though, there were other good men and women in
Sparrow. Brother Taylor was a preacher and he froze to death. Only God and the
angels know what happened to that little baby, Starkey. He looked down at this
little boy, whose eyes were wide and darting, whose smile went on and on. It
made Hattie smile too, but only a quick, grubby smile that he wiped from his mouth,
and then he took off his hat and scratched his head and then put his hat back
on.

Hattie and Samuel kept on staring. The creek was getting
rough as the wind was coming down through the little hollow. The trees were all
dead and winding around everything.

“That’s blood there,” Hattie said. “And there’s blood
there and some there. Them cowards up in the town are going to run hither and
thither and have all kinds of conversations and philosophies. In the meantime,
an old man with a fiddle and a boy with his drawings can clear out the Evil
One!”

He barked a laugh and clapped Samuel on the back.

They were staring at a pile of white on the ground in
front of them.

“Sticks?” Samuel said.

“They’re not sticks, Sam.” Hattie said. “Them’s bones.”

Hattie got hunkered down close and looked good at the
bones. “They’re white,” he said finally. “These are the horse’s white bones.”
Hattie got back up and reached in his sack and grabbed his whisky and took a
long, meaningful drink from the brown bottle and looked around and snorted and
spit, adjusting his pants. It was getting dark.

He looked back up at the town and looked at Samuel who
was just standing there staring at the pile of white bones in the muddy bank.

“Lord,” he said and hunkered back down, “there’s no head
around here. These are just the bones and there’s no head.”

Then a feeling came over Hattie. It was deep and it was
no good. It shivered him all over and came crawling up his neck. It was like
something was looking at him. He got out his fiddle from out of his bag. He
hadn’t tried this in a long time and was scared of the results, but he was more
scared of not knowing than he was afraid. He put the bow to his fiddle and whined
out a long low peal into the woods.

Nothing happened at first, but then the birds, which
he hadn’t noticed chirping before, immediately stopped.

He looked at Samuel and then walked in a slow circle
around Samuel and around the horse’s bones looking into the dense woods.

He put his bow to the strings again and pulled another
note that started low and rose and rose and, this time, at the highest pitch,
he scraped his bow across loud three times.

Then, from the woods he heard a noise that raised his
hairs. It sounded a bit like a man, but it wasn’t a man, and it sounded a bit
like a wolf, but it wasn’t a wolf, it sounded like something that wasn’t a person
that was in pain and was asking why.

“Samuel, stay close and don’t look back! There’s a devil
down here! We gotta get!”

Hattie grabbed Sam’s arm and whipped the both of them
up the bank and up they went, both thumping their feet against the ground at
the same time, up the path back to town.

Chapter 10

Simon Starkey could never sleep very well. His nights, even
the nights after he’d had too much whisky over at Huck’s, were long, fitful,
and full of nightmares. Nightmares of his little sister, nightmares about his
real parents, nightmare about the killers.

He moved in and out of his mother’s room, always scared
that he would find
them
in there. Sometimes he could see on her the
blotches where they had been feeding. Other times he told himself that they were
caused by his mother’s illness. He had often wanted to call on that doctor, Doc
Pritham, to come and tend to her, but he feared that almost as much as he
feared seeing them in her little room.

Too, he could tell that, at least as of late, ever since
that outlander showed up in town, someone had been watching him. He didn’t know
who, but sometimes in the night he would see a shadow moving this way and that
among the trees outside his little house. He would poke at the fire and drink
and doze and stare. He thought he would have the strength to fight them off
when they came for her. He thumbed through the grimy pages of the black book,
hoping he could read the words, hoping he would find something inside those
pages that would open up the power to him, hoping that somehow this dark
practice would give him the power or the right spells he needed to overcome
them. But he would fall into a deep sleep and awake to find that they had been
there without his knowledge. Sometimes he would wake up and find himself seated
by the fire, when he’d last remembered that he had leaned up against her door.
Or he would wake up to find that much of his furniture had been knocked around
or someone had put the fire out with dirt in the middle of the night. He’d
found one morning that someone had come in the night and wrapped black hairs
around all his fingers.

He knew they would come for her one day.

This night, Simon stood on his porch and stared into
the patch of woods that was just across the muddy road that leads up from Sparrow
to his home. He was sure that he’d seen someone move back and forth between
those two big trees that were just across the way. With the moonlight coming
through the clouds and the woods, it was hard to tell what was a branch and
what was an arm, what was a clump of leaves and what was a hunched figure. He
squinted and bobbed his head up and down and looked into the dark. Much time passed
and the moon traveled across the night, but he didn’t see any more motion that
he could discern apart from the wind blowing the trees in the dark.

He sat on the rocking chair and thought of smoking and
was turning to head in to get his paper and tobacco when he saw it again, as if
all this time it had been waiting for him to turn away.

“Who’s there?” he called into the night. Nothing happened.

He stepped down from his porch and looked and looked.
Just there, he thought he saw a figure, a hooded figure standing beside a tree.

“I see you,” he said. “Who are you? What do you want?”

A whisper came to him. It wasn’t a whisper that he heard,
though. It was a whisper in his head. The voice was not unpleasant. In fact, it
was almost soothing. The voice of a kind old woman.

“The preacher will come,” the voice said, “and you must
give him the token.”

“Who are you?” he called again. He was frightened even
though he felt no threat from whoever was there.

“You must give him the witch’s thumb,” the voice said.

An image appeared in Simon’s mind. He saw Ruth Mosely
passing something between her hands. The witch? A thumb? The preacher?

He knew of the witch. He’d heard of the witch. Never
seen her, but knew that she lurked in the dark woods. He knew that there was something
in her that was against even the killers, but that she was not to be trifled
with and that she was indeed very, very old.

“Who are you? Are you the witch?” he asked and looked
through the darkness to the edge of the woods. Whoever was standing there had
noticed that he’d noticed and now the figure stood next to a large tree, almost
to the edge of the muddy road. It was tall and shrouded in a hood, but nothing
about it felt menacing.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. It occurred to him
that whoever was standing there wanted to help him somehow, that he was being
pointed to something. This was not one of the killers; this was not one of Old
Bendy’s Men. But who?

“You must give the preacher the witch’s thumb,” it said
again.

Suddenly Simon was waking up on the rocking chair and
the moon was coming up and out from behind the clouds, casting long shadows of
trees over the muddy road. There, where he was sure the hooded figure had been,
was a bent, young tree whose leaves had turned brown but not fallen, so that a
clump of them appeared to be something like a figure in a hood, leaning against
that other tree.

He would not fall asleep again that night, but instead
he went back inside and stoked up the hot fire and stared into the bright
flames. A witch’s thumb?


The preacher was in the dark. The moon was moving in
and out of the clouds, but the preacher was still in the dark.

What did that doctor really mean? Mixing elixirs and
talking about weird wounds.

Though there was something to what that doctor said.
There was a weighty kind of light in the doctor’s eyes when he said, “There are
certain mysterious diseases too that can be caused by the bite of a wolf. And some
of us are more susceptible than others.” Then, “I’ll watch him. Huck Marbo and
his daughter are watching the other.”

The other
. That outlander who came in, Falk. The
one with the supposed “powers” that his brother had come to him about. There
was another here in Sparrow with supposed powers. So the preacher left the
doctor at the church to watch over the sickened and broken body of Bill Hill,
while the preacher went into the dark.

The preacher rolled it all around in his head; he remained
in the dark. Maybe the outlander had brought these things with him. Sparrow
didn’t make much time for outlanders, but in recent years they had let Doc
Pritham come along and make his stay. It was a slow realization and a sad one
to reconcile when simples and elixirs looked to do more work than prayer. Some
had lost faith altogether, others went to live up in the Ridges with those who’d
left Sparrow since before him. Importantly, they’d accepted the whole lot of
the Moselys when he’d come with his wife and daughter and brother and sister-in-law
down from Miriam.

In the end, maybe Pater Mingus and Gunny Foder had been
right to get their folk on out of Sparrow and move half the town up to the Ridges.
Maybe. He’d heard through the wind and rumors that many had died in the Ridges
soon after the move on account of a skin blight.

Throughout all this, the preacher wondered about his
fireplace, about the brick that moved and the metal box that contained the parchment
upon which the secret writings were written.

Soon, though, he was close enough to the house he was
headed toward. He could see something of it through the trees—the roof and a
long curl of white smoke reaching into the purple night.

The evening had finally rolled itself down into a wary
kind of stillness. Sparrow was closed up, but not sleeping. He pushed his scriptures
to his chest. The trees were thick on the side of the path. As he was rounding
a corner, the wind blew and the timbers creaked.

He stopped and turned.

“Who is it?” he whispered into the trees.

No answer, but the preacher was suddenly inspired to
speed it up. He sped it up, ambling along the path now with his shoulders bent forward,
pressing toward the dull orange light at the path’s end ahead.

This light was coming through the latches in the windows
there at the Starkeys’. It flickered bright for a minute, and the sputtering
curl of white smoke coming from the chimney went dark and gray.

Someone was poking up the fire.

It was late and the clouds were still trailing
across the purple sky and the moon was still pretty full. He looked back down
the path toward Sparrow; maybe he should head back. Patches of green light grew
here and there in the town, opened up in broken patches. The wind whirled. He
turned back toward the house.

Maybe Elsie Starkey was up to stoke the fire and keep
the little house warm on this night, if she was even well enough to do things
like that. He hadn’t seen her since the blizzard.

He would stop by and assure her that all was well. Tell
her he wished he’d come to visit sooner, laugh with her over how long it had
been. He would tell her that good men were watching over the town tonight. He
would tell her all those things if she were the one poking the fire, but Vernon
couldn’t shake the feeling that things weren’t all that well, especially with
Elsie. There was something sickly and strange about the fire in the house; there
was something hunched and crooked about the house. The shadows and lights that
came from the windows and cracks in the home looked too long and too alive.

The other one who was rumored to be with powers—that
magician, Simon Starkey—was in there, waiting for him. How could he know? How can
men know the hearts of other men?

This was not the way.

He stopped in his tracks and dropped his hands to his
side. The scriptures in his right hand dropped to the mud, and he bent immediately
and snatched them up.

The latched window ahead seemed to open a little wider.

Vernon Mosely stayed on his knee and started to pray.
He said a quick prayer and stood back up, turning to leave.

He took three steps.

“Preacher?”

Vernon turned and saw that Simon had the shutters open
and was looking out at him. The fireplace behind him was going and his head and
shoulders showed black and orange.

“Preach! I heard they couldn’t find the chicken man,
Preach.”

Vernon’s mouth turned down tight on both sides, and his
eyes squeezed shut.

His heart throbbed in his chest. “That’s right,” he said.

“What are you doing out there, Preach?” Simon called.
“It’s not safe being out there.”

Vernon said nothing back and didn’t move at all; he wondered
what he was doing out there himself. Somewhere, between Simon and the wind,
Vernon thought he could hear something else. Someone else was close by. Someone
was whispering in the dark.

Vernon opened his eyes and rolled them slow left and
then back to the right.

“It’s cold and dark, Preach,” Simon said again. “You
should come inside.”

Vernon heard for sure now. His gone ears could still
hear, and this time he heard for sure. Somewhere over on his left, just beyond the
edge of his vision, right there, right there in the shadow.

His feet came suddenly alive and moved him straight to
the Starkeys’ door and right up inside. The door snapped and clicked shut behind
him.

It was warm in here.

Simon was behind him at the door, fooling with the lock.
Vernon actually felt a bit relieved and somehow welcome.

The Starkey place was simple. He remembered a bit of
Dan. Dan had been a very good man to come with Elsie to church, though they couldn’t
seem to get their “son” to come along. Dan didn’t really talk much. He was
simple and he worked hard. Sometimes he worked with Bill Hill, but he mostly
kept to himself and would clear out trees and keep up the roofs in town and
some other things. Vernon looked about this simple man’s home and saw where Dan’s
winter coat still hung by the fire. He squinted a bit.

“Shhhh!” a voice came from the bedroom.

Simon appeared wearing a robe, whispering, “Mama’s sleeping.
You don’t need to wake her.”

It was more than warm in there suddenly. It was hot.

Simon’s face had a sheen on it.

“Staying warm tonight?” Vernon asked pleasantly.

“I never much liked the cold, Preach. Try to keep your
voice down. We don’t need to wake Mama.”

“Yes. Right. Sorry,” Vernon said low.

There was a wood table here and three chairs. The fire
kept a steady heat and flickering light in the room.

“Sit down. Can I offer you some coffee, Preach, or a
bit of whisky to take the chill off?” Simon said and poured some from a bottle on
the table.

Vernon shook his head no and waved his hand. He set his
parcel down on the table.

“How is your mama, Simon?” the preacher asked the man
in the robe. “How is Elsie?”

Simon looked back at the door and then at the floor.
“It’s a terrible thing, Pastor, it’s a terrible thing.”

A wind blew around the house clattering the shutters
and then dying as quick as it started. The fire snapped and Vernon took a seat at
the table across from Simon.

The two stared at each other. Simon was smiling in a
friendly way.

The preacher adjusted himself in his chair.

Simon drank whisky from a little black cup.

The fire blazed, lighting Simon’s face. Vernon had never
really got the chance to look at Simon or talk to him much.

Now, here Vernon was, to ask this thing.

And there Simon was across the table, sipping whisky.
Vernon figured, as everyone else did, that Simon was born in the East and that
Elsie and Dan had found him somewhere and had raised him up. But no one knew,
and no one was impolite or brave enough to ask for the truth. But there was
something not exactly right in the story. Simon was much older-seeming, but he
was younger-looking. He looked not unlike a boy of the River People or the
first people with high cheekbones and a smooth face. His eyes were big and dark
and there was even a certain kindness about them. Too, there was a deepness in
them. Those eyes were sparkling and black and there was a sense in them of
other lands, places that were very, very far away.

“Someone’s out there,” Simon whispered and looked toward
the shuttered window, gesturing with his eyebrow.

BOOK: The Witch at Sparrow Creek: A Jim Falk Novel
4.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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