He took the stairs three at a time, passed through the living room and threw open the front door.
On the other side: snarls, a blur of snapping fangs and bristled fur.
He pointed the .38, fired three blind shots, slammed the door and leaned against the inside. He could feel the wolf’s claws grinding into the wood at his back. To his right he saw the curtains pooled up on the ground against the wall. He felt around in the duffle bag for the tin can of lighter fluid.
Fire is the best weapon against all manner of witchcraft, his father used to say.
Roland squeezed a stream of clear, fragrant liquid at the curtains. He lit a flare and threw it. The fabric caught. Flames climbed the wall paper.
The wolf howled.
Roland made for the sunroom and pressed his shoulder into the back door with the sound of cracking glass. It opened, into the summer air and the smell of dry brush.
A few paces from the door, he turned in all directions, pistol at eye-level. He couldn’t hear the wolf any more. He set out at a full run to the front of the house.
When he came around the corner, he halted with the pistol pointed at the porch. The front door stood open now; black smoke belched from it. He turned in a circle again--nothing--then bolted to the truck.
He spun the vehicle around, spraying dust and pebbles in a wave, set it in gear and looked back at the house one last time.
The fire had taken to the old wood. Smoke streamed from every egress; it formed into shapes, rose and dispersed. One shape appeared almost like that of a person, but instead of trying to escape, it moved deeper into the house and vanished.
Roland looked away, and sped down the driveway to the main road.
The old highway ground under the truck’s tires. Roland realized he was doing eighty, but he couldn’t bring himself to let off. He heard the wail of a siren a second before the lights appeared from behind a rise.
Someone must have seen the smoke.
He skidded to the side of the road and set to idling as the vehicle came on. Red and blue lights.
It’s not a fire truck.
The police cruiser barreled up the road toward him. He wondered if he should get out, flag it down, explain what happened. It was only a hundred yards or so away now; something about the vehicle’s approach wasn’t right. In an absurd moment of paranoia, Roland pulled the seat belt across his lap. A second later the cruiser arched toward him and, without slowing, slammed into the side of Reverend Wallis’ truck.
Roland felt the impact like the whole world shifting around him. Then blackness.
His dreams were angry, confused. Waking minds resisted him and sent him tossing on a dark and violent sea--this was the worst way to dream.
Then he saw Sarah; a wolf's pelt lay across her narrow shoulders like a shawl. She looked right at him--no one ever did that in his dreams--and pointed at the well--the terrible well he feared as a boy and whose darkness swallowed his dreams. That same darkness now boiled out from its mouth, like a slow-motion volcanic eruption. He watched the darkness grow and blot out swaths of blue sky, until his vision blurred and everything blended into glaring light and throbbing pain.
Roland found himself lying flat against linoleum. A man in a uniform leaned over him, his arms crossed and his weathered face scowling.
“He’s awake, Reverend.”
Roland touched a tender spot on his brow, felt a bubble of fluid-filled tissue there.
“Sorry about Oliver here, Roland. I told him to go collect you while in a tizzy over your brother. He responded with undue vehemence. I suspect you have a concussion, but you’ll be alright.
The preacher appeared in Roland’s view. He held out a dixie cup.
Roland sat and took the cup. “Thank you.”
“You did what I asked. Went after the witch. Your brother, on the other hand... One of my people caught him breaking into the church while the two of you were supposed to be investigating the witch. He bolted. What was Ben after, Roland?”
Roland took a sip of water. Reverend Wallis snorted.
“Best talk, boy.”
He wanted to talk, but he couldn’t collect his thoughts. The room kept turning, then jerking back to center. The water slipped from his hand and darkness closed in on him again.
The police officer’s mind felt like grinding gears; it jammed up at Roland’s touch and shot him through with pain--that electrical chewing-on-aluminum-foil sensation.
Then he heard Reverend Wallis’ voice.
“Come on over here, boy. I’ll give you sanctuary.”
The voice took him, as if by the hand. He stood, now steady on his feet, in the police station. And there was the reverend, no longer old, no longer stooped. The officer stood beside him inanimate, like a wax statue.
“Dream walker, huh,” said the old man, now young again. His voice had a queer quality, like the sound of your own voice when you plug your ears.
Roland’s head didn’t spin anymore, but the scenery felt all wrong and off kilter anyway.
“You’re not the first hunter with this gift. Had a friend back when. We could do this while we were both awake.”
He gestured at the frozen officer.
“Time’s screwy like this, though. For Oliver here, it’s not passing at all.”
“I’m in your head. Without dreaming,” Roland realized.
“And I’m aware of it--so I can keep my secrets and you can keep yours.”
Roland nodded. “Secrets. Like about what’s in the well?”
The reverend frowned. “I see. You think I take it lightly? I don’t.”
“There has to be another way.”
“Some things are bigger than any of us, boy. You know the world will end one day. When the stars are right. That daemon is one of a legion sleeping in the abyss. I don’t know why, but its sleep is shallower than the others. It stirs in its hunger. Should it awaken, God knows what will happen. Maybe it just devours our little town. Or maybe all of Texas. The stars aren’t right for the end of days just yet, but you can be sure, should that monster awaken, it will bring hell with it.”
Roland shook his head. “The witch. The witch is trying to capture the beast. Imprison it in a vessel.”
“That’s no solution,” said Wallis, flinging his hands out with vehement distain. “It’s a primeval god. A small god, but a god all the same. No vessel could hold it forever.”
“But for a time. Until a solution can be found--” Roland insisted.
“And I would be in league with a witch. A murderer of children. No, I may be an apostate, but I am no heretic.”
“A murderer?” Roland said, the epithet heavy, the question an accusation.
The preacher looked at the boy with his fiery eyes.
“They all go willingly. All the sacrifices do.”
“You manipulate them--with your own gift.”
“I use my gift to give them peace. To give them courage. A coward like you should understand that. You’re an apostate because you ran from your duty. I’m one because I embraced it in a way the church could never condone. You will understand soon enough though.”
It sounded like a threat.
“My brother will stop you,” Roland said, but only because he could think of nothing else.
“Your brother is in league with a witch. He’s going to have much more to worry about once I phone your daddy. For your sake, I hope you can plead ignorance.”
The letters--he must have found them. Roland remembered the other signature.
“Emma Kezia-Goody,” he pronounced the name pensively. “Do you know who that is?”
The preacher gave him a joyless smile.
“She owns the house you burned down. You did good work there, if not a bit sloppy--due to cowardice, I’m sure. I know you had doubts, but you let good doctrine guide you. Now, I fear your doubts are getting the best of you. So I’ve made a decision. You’re going to take the place of one of the sacrifices.”
And now something surfaced in that joyless smile--a moment of dark pleasure. The preacher winked. “Lose your life. Save your soul.”
The townspeople filled the pews, the balcony, stood in the back of the church and in the aisles. They sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and when the hymn concluded Reverend Wallis approached the podium.
Roland watched from where rough-handed men had positioned him at the front of the church, alongside four others who had been chosen as sacrifices. They all wore white baptismal gowns; crimson marked the left shoulder of his, and ran down his chest. His eyelids sagged as the figure of Reverend Wallis, gripping the edges of the lectern and leaning over it to survey the attentive crowd--the stern and grizzled figure of a hellfire preacher of the old school--blurred in and out of focus.
The preacher stretched out a hand as if reaching to touch the congregation.
“Father!” he explained. “We come before you without pride. We are humbled by the sacrifice you have called us to make today. It is not our will that is done tonight, but your will. We are warriors in your cause. Warriors against the forces, the powers, the demonic principalities of this dark age. Today you have called some of our beloved brothers and sisters home. Bless them on their journey, as their path home will lead them through darkness... and hell. Amen.”
He placed his hand heavily upon the surface of the lectern.
“Saints! The Lord has given me a word, not to these martyrs up here beside me, but to you. These martyrs, these saints, are near the end of their race. Their fight is nearly over and tonight they go to be with the Lord in paradise. You, brothers and sisters, must stay behind. God has called you to remain a little longer in this fallen world. To continue to fight the good fight...”
The longer the old man spoke, Roland almost stopped hearing his words. He looked out at the crowd; hard, noble faces gazed up at the preacher. He felt so grateful to them, grateful that, though he would soon be released from his labors, they would remain and hold fast to their calling to protect all that is good and holy still remaining in the world. It was a relief; he found himself weeping. The tears rolled down and cut a pink ribbon through the blood on his baptismal gown.
It seemed like the Reverend spoke for a long time--although Roland couldn’t tell if it was several minutes or hours. But, before the sermon had wrapped up, something sharp and loud sounded from the back of the church.
The preacher stopped preaching. The crowd clenched to one side or another until a narrow avenue formed down the middle of the church sanctuary. Ben stood in the gap of bodies, his duffel bag strap across his chest; he rested the barrel of his shotgun against his shoulder and held a pistol out at arms length, pressing it against the chests of anyone who dared step too close to him.
“That’s enough out of you, Reverend!”
Wallis pounded his palms on the lectern.
Ben held up the pistol that had lately been Officer Rogers’ sidearm.
“He’s taking a nap. Now. Let’s be done with the preaching for the night, or--” He leveled the gun at the preacher-- “I drill you. There’s not going to be a sacrifice tonight. Understand? We’re all just going to take it easy here in the church for a little while. Why don’t we get the hymnals out again. Pick a number at random. We’ll sing that.”
The preacher vice-gripped his temples, shook his head.
“Douglas Donaldson, Will Boothe and David Goss. Disarm him.”
The congregation closed in around Ben. The preacher lunged sidewise as the lectern splintered with that loud sharp sound.
No more shots were fired.
Wallis stood again and raised his arms. The crowd stopped its potherating. Roland saw Ben’s bloodied face, hunched shoulders, his body propped up by the men around him.
The preacher gestured at a girl of twelve or so standing in a white gown with the rest of the sacrifices.
“Beatty. You can go on back to your momma and daddy. Go on.”
They circled up around the well. The moon shone bright silver on the field, illuminating the figure of a girl standing in front of a wood cask.
Someone dropped Ben down on his knees; blood dribbled from his chin. He smiled.
“Mission accomplished. Delayed them for, like, five seconds.”
Sarah knelt in front of him, her brow creased. She looked up at the faces in the crowd.
The preacher stepped forward.
“What are you doing, girl?” he said.
“Daddy, please. I just need a little more time. I can fix this. Please, just let me finish.”
Wallis looked at his daughter for a long moment, as if he were looking at her for the first or the last time. He snapped his fingers.
“Bobby Ray. Go on and take that robe off. Give it to Sarah here.”
A young man standing with Roland pulled his gown over his head. He stepped out from the crowd, nodded to the preacher and dropped the white garment at Sarah’s feet. She didn’t look at it.
“Your whole life I tried to teach you about sacrifice,” said Wallis. “Thank God I didn’t pass my gift on to you. You never did learn what it would take to serve. Now you’ll learn the hard way.”
Her back stiffened. She clenched her fists.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. I can save us. No one else has to die.”
“You think salvation doesn’t come at a price? You foolish, stupid girl.”
He reached into his pocket and came out with a pile of crinkled papers. Roland recognized them as the letters he had taken from the witch house. The preacher threw the papers at his daughter.
“You commune with a witch! You think you can harness the power of darkness and still act self-righteous? The witch’s dark arts will come with a terrible price.”
Sarah lowered her head. “I will pay it.”
“You’re damned right you will.”
He took hold of her hair at the scalp and drug her to the edge of the well. Without another word, he thrust her into the blackness.
Ben leaped to his feet. He pulled the duffle bag from his shoulder; something heavy still weighed in it. He looped the bag’s strap around his wrist to wield it like a mace. The preacher saw him coming, he juked left and Ben swung and missed. Four men rushed forth. A second later Ben, too, disappeared into the well.
Wallis pointed at Roland.
Roland searched his heart for that peace he had felt in the church during the sermon--it had vanished. He looked at the preacher. The preacher nodded.
“If you want, I can make it easier on you.”
Roland stepped to the edge of the darkness.
“I don’t want anything from you, you bastard.”
He pulled off the baptismal gown.
Then he leaped in.
Next: The Witch of Hamilcar, TX, Part Four 07.10.15