When two boys in a beat-up, old Subaru station wagon sputtered into town, the people of Hamilcar, Texas squinted at them from sidewalks and storefronts and more than one man spat on the ground. But when the vehicle turned down Armadillo, toward the church and Reverend Wallis’ house, suspicions were abated somewhat. The young men left their car idling in the Reverend’s drive and got out.
The old preacher opened the door and stared over his bifocals at them standing there on his porch. Their clothes were wrinkled and smeared here and there with black grease. One stood almost a head taller than the other, but they were otherwise so similar in aspect there was no mistake that they were brothers.
The old man made no expression and spoke in a low voice.
“You’re daddy send you?”
The taller of the two brother’s shook his head.
The Preacher studied them and gave several pensive nods before opening the screen.
“You boys look like you been through a thing or two.”
He gestured at the idling car.
“Why don’t you turn that beast off and come inside?”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it started again,” said the older boy.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay awhile. Park her over by the garage and we’ll take a look under the hood tonight when it cools off some.”
He offered his hand to the older boy.
“You’re Ben, if memory serves.”
Ben held up his oil stained hands.
“I’m not trying to be rude. I just don’t want to get engine oil on you.”
“Oh,” said Reverend Wallis, “I think you’ll find I ain’t afraid to get my hands dirty.”
Inside, they sipped iced tea at the kitchen table and looked out the sliding glass door across a dry field to the white church building on the other side. The church was a simple structure with a steeple and rows of red stained glass. A cemetery lay behind the church and an adobe brick well beyond that.
Ben remembered the well. He had teased his brother Roland for being too scared to look down into its darkness. They had been children then.
The preacher cleared his throat, paused with the glass at his lips.
“How’s your father been?” he said, and took a sip as though the question didn’t matter at all.
Ben sat circling the rim of his glass with his fingertip.
“He doesn’t know we’re here.”
The younger boy straightened up in his seat.
“We’d like to keep it that way,” he said. “At least for a little while.”
The preacher gave another series of pensive nods. He looked the younger boy over.
"Roland, right? I remember you being a sweet little boy. Not like the Carolingian hero you were named after. Now don't take that the wrong way. Remember, the Lord passed over David to build his temple because he was a man of violence. That was David’s calling--violence. But it's better to be a man of peace. I think you know that. Is that why you’re here? Looking for a little peace?"
Ben reached out and took hold of the old man’s forearm; his grip tighter than what would be polite.
“That’s enough, Reverend. We can’t let you go on like that and I think you know why.”
The preacher’s eyes flamed with the indignation of an old man but the passion of a young one.
Roland looked back and forth between his brother and the preacher.
“We mean you no disrespect,” he said.
The old man’s muscles tightened beneath Ben’s hand.
“Boy--,” he began to say, his voice like rusted iron.
A girl appeared from the den, with damp hair and smelling of lavender.
“You know they’re right, Daddy,” she said.
She was a slight creature, but of an age with the boys. Pretty. The tension in the preacher’s arm gave way at the sight of her.
“You boys remember my daughter, Sarah, don’t you?”
“Of course they do,” Sarah said, her smile radiant and disarming and traced with mischief. “As I recall, Rolly and I used to play together out there in the yard, and you, Benjamen, were a bit of a bully.”
She gave him a good-natured glare.
Ben grinned back at her and took her hand in greeting. “Well, that certainly sounds like me.”
In turn, Roland took her hand. “I remember you.”
“Are y’all staying the night?” Sarah asked.
The preacher stood.
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea anymore.”
“Nonsense, Daddy. You know they meant no harm.”
“She’s right, sir,” said Ben. “Roland and I have a great deal of respect for you. We would not have come here otherwise. We had no intention of imposing on you like this, but you may be the only person who understands the situation we’re in.”
The old man scowled.
“I see,” he said. “Then we’ll talk more on that later. Sarah. Please, help the boys settle in.”
He left the three youths standing in the kitchen. Sarah smiled her mischievous smile.
“Well, guess I’ll show you boys around,” she said. “Come on.”
At dusk, the preacher and the two brothers probed and tinkered with the Subaru's engine, periodically shooing away insects attracted to the fluorescent lamp hung from the inside of the raised hood. An AM radio hummed a Gospel program; they listened to the grainy harmonies while sipping iced-tea and hypothesizing about the nature of the vehicle’s ailment. Reverend Wallis wiped his hands on a rag in resignation.
"There's an honest man in my congregation. He’ll know how to fix her."
He closed the hood and leaned against it.
Ben grimaced and scratched his head.
"We don't have a lot of money, Reverend."
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” the preacher gestured at the two boys with his glass. “I have a little problem of my own. Tell me, which one of you was expected to inherit the family business--so to speak.”
Roland looked at Ben; Ben stared hard at the preacher.
“We’re on our own now,” Ben said. “Doesn’t matter who.”
The preacher eyed him back.
“If one of you two has a gift, it surely does matter.”
“Neither of us have a gift, Reverend. But we’re still about God’s work.”
“And that’s why you’re here?”
“It’s dangerous work. Even for the elect, it’s dangerous. But I respect that you still want to do it. These are dark times and whether you’re one of the chosen or not, we all got to fight the good fight. Satan rules the power of the air--”
Ben cut him off.
That fierce look passed over the preacher’s face. He took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry. Old habits. I use this gift of mine every Sunday. Only to keep my flock on the straight and narrow, mind you, never to control them. If I could turn it off, I would, but I can’t. So, I have to be careful. It’s good you boys are here, as a reminder of that fact.”
“And we’re glad to be here, Reverend. You’re still well respected in the Church, even though you left. Now that we’ve left too, we thought you might be able to help us.”
“Well respected, huh?” the old man said with a sardonic smile. “Those bastards are scared. They think I got me a cult following of zombies who’ll do my every bidding. Afraid I got an army. You two know that ain’t true, right?”
“We just got here. And so what, if you do?”
The preacher laughed.
“Spend some time here and I think you’ll find there ain’t much fight in this here town. These people are simple. Good, but simple.”
“Which is why you want our help, I suppose,” said Roland.
“You must be the smart one. My guess is you’re pretty well studied--you know, on certain matters.”
“We both are.”
“Well then I’ll tell you about our problem here in Hamilcar, and you can tell me what you think about it.”
It started about a year ago, Reverend Wallis told them. An infant went missing, stolen under cover of darkness from his cradle. The police had no leads; no one in the town would do such a thing.
A week later, a man took a moonlight horseback ride in the countryside. He came across a large, flat stone; an eviscerated carcass lay upon it. At first, he thought it was the remains of a rabbit made prey by some creature scared off by the sound of hoof beats.
It was not a rabbit.
The man went straight to Oliver Rogers’ house--a police officer--and he did so with haste, as he imagined he saw some shadowy beast standing on a rise, watching him in silence.
When Officer Rogers arrived on the scene, the body of the infant was gone. Beneath the blood and viscera that remained upon the surface of the stone, he found, painted in black ink, strange geometric shapes layered atop each other along with, what appeared to be, some form of arcane writing.
Since that night, townspeople have reported wolf sightings in that region of the countryside--always after dark.
“There hasn’t been a wolf in these parts in nearly seventy years,” said the preacher, “and it’s almost as though the beast is standing sentry out there.”
Ben had been listening, stroking the stubble on his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
“Hm. This does sound like something we can help you with.”
The preacher gave him a joyless smile.
“Convinced already, huh? Well, the story goes on.”
As it happens--the preacher went on to tell them--one structure stands in the otherwise barren countryside where the beast roams. A house. An oil man built it for his young bride around about the turn of the last century. Shortly after moving in, he died. Some controversy had surrounded the man’s death, but whatever it was is now lost to the fog of time past.
The widow never remarried. She adopted a daughter some years later. Upon the widow’s death, her husband’s entire fortune--including the land the house stands upon--went to her adopted daughter. That was more than fifty years ago. The heiress set foot in the house but once, some twenty years ago, while touring her holdings throughout the country. In the intervening years, the house has remained vacant.
“Stop,” Roland cut in. “Are you implying what I think you’re implying?”
“I’m just relaying the facts, as I understand them. Draw your own conclusions.”
“What?” said Ben. “What are you talking about?”
The preacher held up a hand to silence Roland before he could explain.
“It’s not a name that should be spoken aloud.”
Ben looked at the preacher, comprehending now.
“You mean to tell me that you suspect a connection with the most enigmatic witch in history? A woman who has lived for hundreds of years passing from one body to the next? There’s not even any real proof that she exists.”
“Your father never believed the stories.”
“It’s far-fetched, even by our standards.”
The preacher chewed the inside of his mouth.
“Is it?” he said. “You’ve been around so long?”
“It’s possible,” said Roland. “I’ve read some and under certain circumstance it is possible. Is there more to the story, Reverend?”
The preacher nodded.
“The house. Someone’s been living there--or visiting it at night. A light has been seen in the window.”
“Has anyone searched the house during the light of day?” asked Roland.
“Well, it’s private property, you know, and the police department, such as it is in a small town like this, is reticent.”
“Reticent or scared?” said Ben.
The old man sighed. “Oh, maybe a little of both.”
Ben scratched his head. “And this has been going on for a year?”
“No disrespect, Reverend, but you’ve done nothing?”
“Not nothing. I wrote to your father about it. Fact, I thought that was why you boys showed up all on a sudden--till you told me you chose the path of the apostate. I’m an old man, I can’t do this sort of work by myself anymore. Besides I have no intention of stepping on the Church’s toes, so to speak.”
Ben frowned. “Where is this house?”
The preacher set his glass of ice tea down. “I’ll get a map.”
Ben sat in an easy chair staring vaguely at the darkness outside the window. Roland opened the foldout bed and lay down on it looking up at the ceiling fan.
“Why did you lie to him?” Roland asked.
“Why did you lie to him?” Roland repeated. “About me.”
“He’s an apostate,” Ben said. “You think we can trust him?”
“If we can’t, what are we even doing here?”
Ben took a long suffering breath. “Reverend Wallis is on Dad’s short list of loose ends. I thought we should suss him out.”
Roland sat up in the bed. “What?”
“You know this,” Ben said.
“We left the church.” Said Roland. “What do we care about Dad’s loose ends?”
Ben did not reply. He looked down at the rug.
“What? You think if you prove yourself to Dad, the elders will change their minds?”
Again, Ben said nothing.
“I have the gift, Ben. I didn’t want it and I would give it to you if I could, but I can’t. I have it. And as long as I have it they’re going to pick me to be Dad’s apprentice.”
“What gift?” Ben hissed. “Your stupid dreams? What good are they when you’re so goddamn scared of them you can’t even go to sleep without taking that goddamn elixir?”
“You don’t know what it’s like, Ben. I never get any rest--”
Ben bent his head and rubbed his temples. “Fine. I don’t get it. But you have been given a gift whether you like it or not and you have a responsibility to use it. Now, I know you don’t trust the Church. That’s fine. But that means we’re on our own--”
“Don’t put this on me,” Roland said. “All you’ve ever wanted was to be a hunter--”
Ben interrupted him: “And you’re too chickenshit to be one without me, so this is what we have to do.”
“What do we have to do?” Roland persisted. “The Church’s dirty work?”
“We’re witch hunters, you idiot,” Ben shot back. “We hunt witches. It’s in our blood. We have been told secrets that only a very few have ever heard. We have a responsibility to fight the evil in this world.”
Roland took a breath. “I know. You’re right.”
Ben continued: “And we do it on our terms now. No council of elders. No silly rules. We know how to identify a witch and we know what to do with it.”
“So what do you think about Reverend Wallis’ story?” Roland asked.
Ben placed his hands on the armrests of the chair and pushed himself up. “I don’t know. We’re going to check it out though.”
He walked to the door and gave his brother a crooked smile. “Get some sleep.”
“Where are you going?”
“Sarah and I are going out.”
“Out? Out where?” Roland asked.
“I don’t know. Out.”
“You’re just going to leave me here?”
“Look. There’s just one of her and two of us and I made the first move so I think you should just bow out gracefully.”
“Don’t you think we have more pressing concerns right now?” Roland said.
“No. Tomorrow we have pressing concerns. Tonight, I have a date.”
“Are you serious?”
Ben grinned and shrugged. “Get some sleep,” he said, then left; there was a laugh in his voice.
Roland threw himself back on the mattress. He felt the bed frame’s bar against his spine. He sighed and sat up again. His duffel bag lay open on the floor; he squinted at it for a second then reached inside and rummaged around.
“Where is it?”
His fingertips probed for the familiar feel of glass--a brown medicine flask with the word “oblivion” scrawled in grease pencil on the side. Gone.
“Damn it, Ben,” he said aloud. “‘Get some sleep.’ You can be a real bastard sometimes.”
He closed his eyes. What’s the worst that can happen? he thought. He didn’t see his brother again that night; eventually, he fell asleep.
Roland dreamed of darkness. A thick, inky, pregnant black. It filled his throat and ears with silence and it ached with hunger.
The well, he thought. I'm in the well.
He jolted awake and found himself lying fetal style--muscles tight, spine tingling. He tried to relax.
Just a dream, he told himself, but he knew it wasn’t--he never merely dreamed anymore.
Next: The Witch Of Hamilcar, TX, Part Two 06.26.15