It occurs to me, I should maybe plug my anthology, Oddities. More than a collection of #FridayFlash, it includes short stories that have never seen the light of blog. “One entertaining story after another,” according to book blogger Eric Townsend.
|Photo credit: Keith Survell, Flickr (Creative Commons)|
“You are not dressed like a proper woman,” the preacher growled. She had changed her dress for loose-fitting pants and a man’s shirt, and her bonnet for a straw hat. Her pants were tucked into a pair of scuffed leather boots. She carried a bundle in a sling, tucked under one arm.
“It’s proper clothes for this work, preacher-man,” she said saucily. “You think me to hike the swamp in my Sunday best?”
Dower gave her a sour look. “You have all you require for our mission?”
“I do. You ready?”
“I am always ready in the service of the Lord.”
“Then let’s go.” Harper set out on the northbound road, not looking back to see if Dower followed. Her stride betrayed a purpose, but Dower’s long legs let him easily match her pace.
“This is the easiest way into the swamp,” she told him as he hauled up alongside. “It comes closest to town on the east, but there ain’t no road goin’ east. Couple miles up, this road comes alongside. I know a good place to cut in from there.”
“Very well,” said Dower. He swept his gaze around the houses and businesses lining the road on either side. “This place has been bereft of Christian comfort for five years, yet it seems to prosper well enough. What do your people for industry?”
“They cut cedar for shakes,” Harper replied. “A-course, they won’t go in the swamp until well after sunup, and not far. And they come home well before sundown. They spend a couple days cuttin’ cedar, then bring cut pieces into town and split the shakes, and that takes ‘em a couple more days. Today’s a splittin’ day, not a cuttin’ day. So we got the whole swamp to ourselves.”
“Perhaps that is for the best.”
They said little else until Sally led them off the road and down an embankment. “Watch your step,” she said. “It’s easy to fall through.”
“What manner of earth is this?” Dower looked incredulous.
Sally laughed and hopped in place twice, making the ground under Dower’s feet lurch. “It ain’t earth, preacher. It’s the cedar roots.” She glanced around, then knelt and punched an arm through. “Come look.” Dower raised one eyebrow at the black water, standing about a foot beneath them. “The leaves rot, and make dirt,” she explained. “That fills in the gaps between the roots. The water’s about three feet deep down there, in this spot. It gets deeper in some places, less so in others.”
Dower nodded. “A deceptive place makes a fine home for a deceptive spirit.”
Stopping and turning, Sally pulled off her hat and swung it at her side. “Preacher-man,” she said, “I get the feeling you know more about what you’re huntin’ than we do, and we’ve lived with it—or not—for goin’ on six years.” She stood and stared, crossing her arms. Her thin lips asked the unspoken question.
“I will tell you,” he said at last, “but to tell you true, I must speak of my wanderings. As a young man, the Lord called me to preach His word. Of course, I obey His commandments, and He led me to a flock. But when the true Word offended the ears of certain propertied men, they conspired against me and drove me out. In my despair, the Lord reminded me that great is the reward in Heaven for those who suffer for His Name’s sake. Thus, He sent me to correct the heresies of the Papist and the Unitarian. I suffered greatly for His glory, and some sought my life, so He led me unto the heathen savages that dwell in the hinterlands. As with Peter among the Gentiles, I found a warmer welcome among them than I did among my own kind.
“It was when I cast out a demon from an Indian boy, that the Lord told me my true calling. There are evil spirits and other foul creatures that plague this land, parts of which have not heard the Holy Word to this day. Some other heathens, so easily led astray, had fallen to worship of a demonic spirit. By the power of Almighty God, I drove it away, but it set itself up in the high places to the west. Again, I confronted and defeated it, although the outcome was in doubt for a time. It seems that it has now retreated unto this swamp. If by Providence I may defeat it a third time, it shall be banished to the depths of Hell, forever.”
To his surprise, his guide nodded. “I think I know where it’s gonna be, then.”
Dower looked skeptical. “How?”
“My parents and grandparents before me always made a living, huntin’ and trappin’ in this swamp,” she said. “Back before your demon came here, they took me with ‘em. A-course, they don’t come here no more, they’re old and happy on their little patch of farm, and they leave swampin’ to me. But there’s hills, over in that direction.” She pointed northeast. “One of ‘em has an altar on it, somethin’ the Indians set up forever-long ago. We never went up on that hill, though. Some places are best left be, eh?”
“Truly did the Lord lead me to you, Sally Harper. Can we reach this altar by dusk?”
“Sure. You gonna tear it down before it has a chance to wake up?”
The preacher shook his head. “Nay. Such would allow it to slip away. But after I defeat the unclean spirit for the final time, we shall pull down the Asherah. Then no foul thing may find a comfortable home in this place hereafter. Lead on, Miss Harper. Our Lord calleth.”