Friday, January 14, 2011


Sheriff Daniel Praeger summoned the enemy-tracking skills he'd learned in the War to approach the isolated mountain cabin. Its tobacco-brown planks and tin roof weeping with rust looked harmless enough--not that he believed in that witch talk down in Sneedville. He knocked on the door and waited.

The small porch was littered with flower pots of woven river cane and red clay, and bunches of dried herbs hung from open rafters over his head. Curiosity getting the better of him, he stooped over one pot covered in purple horn-shaped blossoms.

“That's comfrey,” a voice called out over his shoulder.

He whipped around to face a slender woman in her 20s, irritated at how she'd managed to sneak up on him without making a sound. A glimpse of her light olive skin, straight black hair and periwinkle-blue eyes were enough to mark her as one of them, the Melungeons. He'd lost count of the rumors about who the mysterious people were--descendants of natives, settlers, slaves.

“It was that Melungeon girl, that witch Cephea Collins, who's responsible for this foul business,” the townspeople had shouted at him, trying to convince the Sheriff she was his main suspect. He didn't cotton to such prejudices. Maybe it was a reaction to his Daddy's drunken rants against “the darkies” or maybe it was all the senseless death he'd seen on the Western Front in the Argonne, but he was just plain tired of people not getting along.

Cephea pointed to the plant he'd been studying. “That there's a magic plant. The leaves make a poultice for sprains and bruises. And the root's good for quinsy and whooping-cough.”

“It's also kinda pretty,” he said, then flushed red with embarrassment as her lovely eyes danced with laughter at his un-soldierly reply.

'Deed it is. But don't go boiling it for tea if you're aiming to impress a gal. Smells like a rotting corpse.”

Her corpse comment snapped his attention back to his mission. “I'm afraid I'm here on business, Miss Collins,” and he nodded his head toward her open door.

She led him to a small, bright room, the windows angled toward the southwest. On a corner table lay rows of glass jars filled with liquids and creams in a rainbow of colors, while the contents of a three-legged iron pot bubbled in the fireplace.

“I've come about a death, Miss Collins. Eighteen-year-old Becka Eagen. Found yesterday at the base of some rocks in the Clinch River, drowned, though she was a good swimmer. An eyewitness saw you talking to Becka not long before she was killed. That you even gave her something.”

Cephea frowned. “I was in town yesterday dropping off herbs at Byner's store. I do recollect talking to a girl. She needed a tincture of bluegrass. Normally, I'd charge five cents, but I allowed she looked desperate, so I just handed it to her.”

“Bluegrass? What would she want with that?”

Cephea hesitated. “I use it for a purgative, most times.”

Sheriff Praeger considered her answer. After watching his share of helmeted faces hunched over Ma Deuce fifty-cal machine guns, wondering if they'd be able to use the bolt release in time or freeze up, he'd gotten good at reading body language. Cephea wasn't lying, but she was hiding something.

Then she surprised him. “Can I see her, Sheriff? Not to touch the body, just see her.”

He blinked a few times. “I don't know. I reckon her family might be unhappy with that. It's not standard procedure--”

“For a killer?” She was smiling again, gentle, not accusing.

He nodded, knowing just how much trouble a furious Becka Eagan's banker-father could be if the Sheriff allowed Cephea's request. But if Cephea was guilty, Praeger was sure he'd be able to tell by how she reacted when she saw the body. Making up his mind, he helped her into his Model T and navigated down the winding mountain road. They parked in front of the funeral home, and he led her into the back room where Becka's remains lay in a shallow ice box.

Cephea didn't shrink away from the rigid corpse like most women would. Becka's head was turned to one side and they could see part of the brain peeking through the bashed-in skull, with dried clotted blood around it. True to her word, Cephea didn't touch Becka, but bent close over the young girl's face, sniffing.

“Was they someone she had a quarrel with, Sheriff? Boy trouble?”

“Why do you say that?”

“This child wasn't drowned. She went into the water dead.”

Praeger knew Doc Quinton was getting up in years, but hadn't known him to miss an important detail before. “And how would you know that?”

Her direct gaze was more unsettling than a German Hun with a fully-loaded Luger pointed at him. “I hear tell what townsfolk say, Sheriff, but I'm a healer, not a killer. I seen drowning before, but she don't have signs. Look here, no foam, vomit or blood around her mouth or face. And her eyes are open, see? They's a line across her eyeballs. They don't get that when they drown. Her head's over to one side--I never seen a drowner with that, only the dry-land dead.”

Praeger took a closer look at the wound on Becka's skull, something he hadn't bothered to before, assuming she'd hit her head on the rocks in the river. But inspecting the wound up close, he knew he'd seen that type of gash before, whenever a heavy object crashed down on a victim's head from above. Damned if Cephea wasn't right.

After driving Cephea back to her cabin, the Sheriff took the next several days asking questions of everyone Becka knew, a goodly percentage of the population in a small town of only a thousand. He had to endure the wrath of Becka's father, as he'd expected, and the suspicion of others that Cephea had placed a spell on him, but it was all part of the job. Unfortunately, his job got interrupted by an outbreak which threw everyone in a panic, scared it was the 1918 Spanish flu all over again.

Doc Quinton was in way over his head, especially after he came down with the flu himself. Funny how the very same people who'd been ready to throw a Melungeon “witch” in jail without evidence were just as ready to take her help when there was no one else, even willingly allowing her into their homes to apply her poultices and drinking her potions.

When the Sheriff's three-year-old son fell to the virus, Cephea didn't waste any time coming. He found himself marveling at her methods as she tended to the boy as tenderly as a mother, laying a mustard poultice on his chest, and giving him some drops of liquid from a small glass bottle. At his questioning look, she smiled. “It's the comfrey. It'll loosen his cough and he'll breathe better.”

She joined the Sheriff in the kitchen when he got up for a glass of water. “You feeling all right, Sheriff?”

He nodded, wondering what it would sound like to hear her say “Daniel” instead of “Sheriff” in those musical tones of hers. Maybe the townspeople were right. Whenever he was around Cephea, he was starting to feel bewitched.

He said, “I'm fine. I never get sick.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Never?”

“Not that I recall. Listen, Miss Collins, I want to thank you for coming here tonight to help with Michael. He's all I've got now, save my one sister.”

“And the boy's mother?”

"She died giving birth to Michael. Doc Quinton said it was a blood clot in her lungs.”

Cephea touched his arm softly, and he was grateful she didn't say anything. All those well-meaning words just made him angry. He straightened up, and guided her into the living room to fill her in on his progress in Becka's case.

“You have good instincts, Miss Collins. Becka had a suitor, fellow named Farrell Haber. Hand-picked by her daddy, but she'd have none of it. After digging a little further, I found out Becka wasn't his first love. There was another girl he pursued a couple years ago. She didn't return his favors, either.”

“What'd this other girl tell you?”

“Nothing, I'm afraid. She disappeared.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, although the Sheriff kept listening for any sounds of distress coming from Matthew's room. Cephea picked up a necklace lying on a table, and fingered it raptly.

Praeger pointed to it. “That was my grandmother's. I have no idea why I got it out right before you came. It lay in the back of a drawer for years, but when I went looking for something else, there it was.”

“I never seen a blue crystal shaped liked a teardrop. It's beautiful. How'd your gramma come by it?'

Praeger cleared his throat, finding he really didn't want to talk about it. “You know I was skeptical of that whole witch thing the moment folks started saying it was you who'd done Becka in with some kind of magical power.”

She nodded, and then placed the necklace over her head, running her fingers across the crystal as it lay on her neck. He liked the way the crystal seemed to reflect her blue eyes, eyes he soon realized were studying him instead.

“You be a man of law, not superstition.” He'd never had a woman look at him that way before, not even Matthew's mother. They'd gotten married too young, he knew that, and though they'd been fond of each other, theirs was a union more like the muted warmth of embers than a full-blown raging fire.

He tried to ignore the warmth creeping up his body right now at her continued gaze, and cleared his throat. “They used to say the same thing about my grandmother--that she was a witch, that is. Kids would walk on the other side of the street when they saw her coming. I hated it. I begged her to tell everyone it wasn't true, put an end to the rumors. She'd just laugh and say 'there are more things between heaven and earth than you can dream of, Danny, and that's the Shakespeare's truth'.”

“I seen a few things,” Cephea broke her gaze, and looked down at her hands. “Not haints, mind you, just little things. People knowing what another was thinking. Others with dreams of things afore they happen for real. Maybe you should listen to that gramma of yours.”

He got up to take her empty glass. “More water?”

“No, I should see to Matthew then get a-goin' to the cabin for more herbs. I'll check on him tamar.”

“I wish I could drive you, but--“

“You shan't leave him. I'll be all right. I been hiking up that road in the dark all my life. I know every little curve, rock and sassafras tree.”

“I can't pay you now. But I can in a few days.”

She shook her head. “I won't take it. Not today or then.”

Praeger had an idea, noticing she hadn't taken the necklace off yet. “You keep that necklace. My sister refuses to wear any jewelry and Matthew and I don't need it.”

She thought for a moment, then agreed. Before she left, he had to ask one question that had been burning in his mind for days. “Miss Collins, when I asked what Becka would need bluegrass tincture for, you said it was a purgative, but I sensed there was something else you weren't saying.”

She nodded. “Didn't seem important. Some of my people say bluegrass'll ward off the evil eye.”

Satisfied with her answer, he watched her go reluctantly, knowing she was right, that she made trips alone up that road often enough. But as he looked in on the sleeping Matthew, he couldn't shake a bad feeling. He'd had hunches before, some even saying he had a sixth sense.

With a glass of a liquid much stronger than water in hand, he tried to relax for a little while. The murder case, the epidemic, Matthew. It was taking a toll, and he was tired, that's all it was. Cephea was right--he was a man of law, not superstitious mumbo-jumbo. He settled back, listening to the sounds of distant thunder that were lulling him to sleep like a lullaby.

With his eyes half-focused, a vision came unbidden to his mind--so sudden, clear and detailed, it made him sit up gasping for air as if he'd been submerged in water. Grateful he'd hooked up his sister to the new phone lines in town, he got her to sit with Matthew, and then raced to the Model T.

The wind had picked up, gusting to at least thirty miles an hour, and he knew the storm was getting closer. Unlike Cephea, he wasn't used to navigating the country road up the mountain in the dark, and although he wanted to race up that road, it wouldn't do anyone good if he drove right off a cliff.

About half-way up, the beams from his headlights fell on two silhouetted figures in the road, one on the ground, the other standing over. As he braked hard to keep from hitting them, he could see Cephea was the one lying down and standing over her was Becka's spurned suitor, Farrell Haber, holding a large rock in his hand, ready to bring it crashing down on Cephea's head.

Praeger laid his hand on the car's horn, and the shocked Haber hesitated before dropping the rock and running off. Unlike Haber, Praeger didn't hesitate and was out of the car in a flash and soon had the boy pinned beneath him, then whipped out the handcuffs and rope he'd brought along.

With Haber lying on the grass like a strung-up calf, the Sheriff hurried to Cephea, who tried to sit up, looking dazed. “He said he weren't going to no jail over some bitch. Not sure if he meant Becka or me.”

Immensely relieved she wasn't hurt, Praeger held her against his chest, as she sagged into his embrace. “How'd you know to come, Daniel?”

How, indeed? Even to think it seemed insane to him. “I had a vision--like one of those moving picture shows--in my mind. I could see you on the road with someone trying to kill you. It felt as real as if I was watching it happen in person.”

Cephea reached up to touch the crystal. “My people ain't all modern like me. They cotton to the old ways. Some believe in witches and powers. My uncle Milton once said witchcraft runs in families but skips over a generation.”

Praeger turned her face so he could look at her squarely in the eye. “What are you saying, Cephea?”

She moved the hand that had been touching the crystal up to his face, tracing a line down his cheek, then across his lips. “Maybe those townsfolk needta stop looking to Melungeons for their witches, Daniel. You pull out your gramma's necklace, one you haint thought of in a-month-of-Sundays, give it to me to wear and all of a sudden you come a vision? They's such a thing as warlocks, too.”

He was still too much on an adrenaline high from tackling Haber and from hearing those ruby lips of Cephea's say his name, to consider her words seriously. No, he wouldn't think about never getting sick, about the sixth sense. And he certainly wouldn't dwell on all those times in the Argonne Forest when soldiers around him were falling like flies and he was never hit, not once. For now, he'd savor the feeling of Cephea's body against his, as he held her even more tightly, to ward off the spirits of darkness and keep her safe.



BV Lawson's story honors include a Center Press Masters Literary Award, 1st place in an Armchair Interviews contest, and contest finalist with Deadly Ink 2007, Mysterical-E, Crime and Suspense, Press 53 Open Awards, 2008 and 2009 Derringers, and the 2010 American Independent Writers competition. Other short-story credits include Great Mystery and Suspense, Cantaraville, ESC! Magazine, Mouth Full of Bullets, Northern Haunts, Static Movement, Powder Burn Flash, Plots With Guns, Cynic Online, PMS: Poison, Murder, Satisfaction, and Chesapeake Crimes IV: They Had It Comin'.

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