Author’s Note: I wrote this as a promotional piece for the Area 5 Bloody Pen Day of the Dead contest in October 2015. All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, is the perfect time for stories about things that go bump in the night. This is a traditional campfire tale with a Southern Vampire Mystery twist. Thank you Sephrenia for my wonderful banner!
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
It was not Sookie’s favorite time of year. Spring was her favorite, with its bright promise of young and growing things. Eric teased her and said it was her Fae roots showing, and she supposed he was right. ‘I miss him,’ she thought restlessly. Sookie and Owen had been traveling for almost two weeks, meeting with Pack representatives across Kentucky and Tennessee. They were planning to return to New Orleans after the meeting with the Weres of Chattanooga, but the Packmaster mentioned a Pack of werepanthers that lived up in the hills, and Sookie asked for an introduction.
Calvin Norris told Sookie on more than one occasion his concerns and Jason confirmed it. There was an increasingly erratic quality to the werepanthers of Hotshot, the Pack to which her brother belonged. Long years of in-breeding were taking their toll. Calvin was certain there were other werepanthers somewhere and he asked Sookie to keep her ear to ground. This was the first time the answer to her question had been ‘yes.’,So here they were, half-way to where they needed to be, pulling into a small roadside hotel in a place called Owl Holler.
The woman at the reception desk directed them to a restaurant just ‘a shout down the way.’ Owen navigated the dark roads well and the dinner was surprisingly good. The fresh ham with red gravy was local and the collards and beans reminded Sookie of her Gran’s. The restaurant was clearly a gathering place, and as they finished apple pie, a group of men came in carrying musical instruments in battered cases and bags. They set up in a booth toward the back and a pitcher of beer was placed before them. Before too much longer, one of the men broke into a song and another next to him picked the refrain from his guitar. Heads nodded and hands tapped against the tabletops, the melody low and slow in the way of mountain songs. Owen glanced across the table and Sookie saw he looked interested, and so they sat back.
The next song was livelier, and a mandolin and dulcimer appeared. Feet joined hands, tapping time and Sookie recognized a song she had heard at gospel sing in Bon Temps. There was polite clapping and then a woman stood from the other end of the restaurant and sang out a strong lead. The men in the back shifted and one walked toward her, a fiddle held low. She sang and he played her answer, the music trading back and forth, the questions and answers of the riddle song clearly known by all the people there.
When the waitress came by, Sookie asked her about the music, “I didn’t see anything about a band tonight.”
“Oh this?” the young girl jerked her chin at the fiddler who was returning to the other musicians. “This ain’t nothing special. Happens pretty much every night around here.”
The music went on, sometimes someone sang, sometimes just instruments; the kind of music that set your feet to dancing or pulled at your heartstrings. Sookie glanced at her watch and realized it was getting close to midnight. She was about to tell Owen they needed to get going when the old woman stood. Her face was lined and her hair shone snow white under the soft lights.
The room grew quiet and Sookie saw folks lean forward. “It was near this time of year,” the woman’s voice was clear and strong. “The trees were just starting to show their color and the grasses beside the roads rattled dry as bones in the hot breezes of a day. The air held that faint stink of decay, telling us the time of turning was come. The mine was open then, in the days of my Mother, and things were different than they are today. Folks who lived in the same hollers and hills for generations were drifting here, like moths to flame, called by the pull of easier money.”
Sookie glanced around the room. In the nodding heads and quiet she could see the tale was known to all, but it was welcome in its telling all the same. Owen gave her a quick smile. They decided to listen. If she was too tired tomorrow, Sookie would sleep in the car. Their heads turned back to the words spoken next.
“No one noticed anything odd at first, but that’s the way of it when people come together, strangers at first and shy about sharing secrets. Men gathered together at the crossroads near daybreak, walking slow to the shaft that would take them down and then down some more into the cold, damp earth, their hats on their heads and their lunch buckets in hand. At night they would stop at the store, bone weary, too tired to share their troubles. They would head home to hear what the daylight held for their families. But it wasn’t daylight that brought the trouble.”
Heads nodded, and voices murmured, “Tell it, mother.” The old woman sighed and reached for the glass of whiskey. She sipped and the man across the way took a flask from his back pocket and refilled the tumbler. The woman nodded her thanks, cleared her voice, and started again.
“It was the older children that fell to the trouble first. There was a school of sorts that sprang up for us little ones. Most of the older boys followed their Daddies into the ground, and the girls worked hard with their Mammas in the fields, trying to grow enough to stretch out what they could buy in the company store. But us little ones played in the dirt outside the doors of those company houses, making dolls out of grass and guns from sticks, running underfoot until the school teacher showed up. From out East she was, a crusader I suppose. She walked from house to house, convincing folks to send any old enough to learn. She had a chest of slates and a pail of chalk. Kids shared. Some used wood planks and a piece of charcoal. I was one of those young’uns, sitting snot-nosed under the trees, learning to spell my own name and make my numbers. Her name was Miss Bell, and she was our hero.”
“When we weren’t learning letters or hearing about the world outside Owl Holler, Miss Bell let us play. She had hoops and balls. I learned to skip rope in the dust where the drug store now stands. Like all children, we made up rhymes. Miss Bell taught us the ones she knew, but once we had the idea, we made up our own. We pulled the things we saw at home and the worry on our parents’ faces.” The woman’s voice changed, the words said in the sing song cadence of a child’s game.
Tripping down the road
Hands around you cold.”
“Our daddies and mommas fell to their beds with the sun setting, the work of the day draining the life from them, bit by bit. Hands broken, backs bent, they turned their faces to the wall, finding what joy they could in the comfort of each other. But not our older brothers and sisters. Even with all the work, the draw of moonlit glens and the joys of the body called them. They made sweethearts and secret meetings, sneaking through windows and from behind doors, racing down deer paths under the light of the moon.
“We didn’t think much of it, that first death. Yancy Tucker was tall lad and handsome enough to make the girls follow him like honeybees. He laughed with my brother about how girls would tie lover’s knots in the tree branches, trying to witch him into declaring them his one. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen. He had blond hair and snapping eyes and his laugh! Even us young’uns, we followed him, buzzing around his perfection.
“There were two girls in the Holler that were chasing him hardest, Dorcas Chance and Millie Read. They would flit out in the darkness, each trying to win his fancy or catch him by catching his child. My brother told me that Yancy was too smart for that. He dared them, saying whichever went furthest into the woods would have his favor for the night. He’d set places that were so far, miles from here. There were places made those gals climb hills and ford creeks. I wondered if he ever went out there at all, or if he just holed up with the moonshiner in the hills, laughing at the foolishness of girls. Well, one morning, Dorcas, the prettier of the two, wasn’t in her bed when her momma went to get her. There was a hue and cry, and Dorcas’ younger sisters told their Ma how their sister would run into the woods, chasing after Yancy Tucker.
Dorcas’ Daddy grabbed his gun and raced to the Tucker house. Yancy was dressed and getting ready to take the walk to the mine along with his Daddy and brothers, like every morning. Didn’t take too much persuading for Yancy to confess what foolishness he’d been up to and the words that passed between the families that day has stood as bad blood from then to now.”
People nodded, sighing, “That’s so.”
“Well, Yancy’s Ma and sisters agreed to join the search, while their menfolk headed to the mine. There were others that joined too. Miss Bell closed school and we stayed in the yard of Sadie Bates while our mommas and sisters walked into the hills. Yancy told them the challenge he’d set, so they knew the direction to take. He told them about Millie Read, the other girl too, and you can believe she got her hide tanned for her that day. Course, in the end, it was a beating that saved her life.
“Took them hours to find her, face down in the gully and half in the creek. We were little, so folks never seemed to see us. We heard everything. Dorcas looked like animals had found her. She was covered in bite marks, her neck was broken, and her eyes were bugged out. I remember her coffin was closed in the Church. The days were warm so they buried her right away. Ice was too dear from the company store. They laid her to rest in the little burying ground next to the building we used for our church. Folks cried and the Reverend and Miss Bell put molasses cookies and cool tea out for those who came. They waited for night so folks could come. I’ll remember the sight of the torches in the graveyard and the sound of shovels digging that stony ground until my dying day.”
The woman rested for a minute and looked around. She reached for the glass in front of her. As before, the man across the aisle produced a flask, and Sookie could see the color in the glass getting lighter. ‘Corn liquor,’ she thought. She figured most folks these days made extra money growing weed, but it looked like some were still holding with the old ways.
The story-teller rocked back, her eyes closing, her thoughts reaching across the years, “The days that followed were full of grim warnings and lectures from the pulpit. Around our dinner table momma preached to us about the sins of the flesh. Yancy Tucker was shunned by some but it wasn’t any time before he was up to his old tricks. Course he wasn’t the only one. There were over a hundred souls here then, huddled up around our little crossroads. They scratched for pay to keep their souls and the lives of their families together. There were socials at the Church followed by drinking out the back. Hard work made young souls grow up fast and loose. I remember Jed’s death was the day after the Reverend came, asking if we knew anything about folks digging at Dorcas’ grave. Seems the ground wasn’t settling right and the Reverend said someone had been turning it over and over. Momma told him it sounded like Devil’s work. It was the very next day young Jed was found at the bottom of the mine shaft all broken and bloody.
Folks knew there was something strange about Jed’s death. They said that he looked like he’d been scared, so scared he’d gone running in the dark, more afraid of what chased him than the danger of what lay ahead. It was hard, that death. He was all his Mamma had. Her man left her and her daughters had been carried away with fever a few years back. When they found Jed she got real quiet. The next day her house was open and she was gone.”
Sookie felt a shudder run up her spine and she caught Owen’s grin as he watched her. “A real life spook story,” he whispered and Sookie nodded.
“It was harvest here, and the leaves were falling when folks first started seeing Dorcas, walking quiet through the woods. Now, it happened that the church had a revival evening, and the manager of the company store loosened his fist and there was chocolate cake made with white sugar. Music played and we all danced and sang the Lord’s mercy. Of course, the menfolk slipped out the back and sipped what the moonshiner brought. Yancy Tucker was running for him and it wasn’t long before he headed out on the moonshiner’s mule to fetch more of what they were pouring. My Daddy told my Momma later that they all saw him riding off into the woods. He was pretty drunk and he was laughing and singing, the moonlight shining on his head, like a halo already formed. An hour passed, and then another. The liquor was gone and the moonshiner was cursing. Finally he grabbed a torch and headed into the woods himself. Wasn’t more than thirty minutes he returned, leading that mule by its harness. The animal was all wary, scratches running across its flank and covered in blood. Men declared it panther’s work and the revival ended.
There was a meeting the next night and the company offered a bounty to any man who could kill the cat. Panthers weren’t so common as they’d been, but any fool knew that a hunting cat in the area made wandering before dawn or after dark a fool’s errand and that meant miners would be late for shift and early to leave.
“Well, those men hunted and hunted. They found traces of Yancy, bits of blond hair and scraps of bloody cloth, but they never found a body for his Ma to bury. There were plenty of girls who wept bitter tears. There were some who said they’d heard the panther’s cry, but in all the searching, they never found a footprint. They did find animals ripped apart so they figured it was just a matter of time. Days passed, and then a week with no sign nor sound. Most figured the cat had moved on, scared by the men tramping through the hills, torches and guns in hand.
“Millie Read took it hard, losing first her rival and then the object of her desires. Then one night she woke her parents, sobbing that she’d seen Dorcas Chance staring in the window of their front room. Her parents thought it was guilt that was painting her eyes. Millie told her sisters that Dorcas had been unnatural pale and wearing her one good dress, her burying dress. Millie said her eyes were dark like pits in her face and her teeth all terrible and bloody. Millie swore she heard Dorcas calling her to come out under the moon, and Millie was fearing for her life.
“Soon though, Millie’s parents stopped telling her to stop her lies. Every night from then on one young person or another swore they saw Dorcas, pale and ghostly. Sometimes they claimed she appeared at their bedroom window, tap, tapping to come in. Other times they claimed to see her standing just off the path in the woods, blending with the trees, her face a pale, hungry oval and her hair wild all around her. She was said to call to them, telling them to come join her, to come run with her in the woods. People hid behind locked doors and drawn curtains.
“The Reverend and Miss Bell? They were worried. Men trudged to the mines in the early morning gloom, but they refused to stay after dark. Women kept close to their houses and kids weren’t allowed to walk anywhere alone. Sunday services fell off and my Momma wasn’t the only one who declared that we were too precious to be out of her sight. She took us out of school and we weren’t allowed any further than our own front yard. But every night and every night again, Dorcas would come calling, scratching at our doors and windows, singing to us with her hungry mouth.
“The Reverend decided something needed to be done. I remember the day he stopped by my house to talk with my Momma. My Momma was a God-fearing woman, a Baptist through and through. She was known to speak in tongues when the spirit descended on her and her faith was mighty. The Reverend said if he could find a way to set my Momma’s fear to rest, then others would follow.
“They sat, the two of them at our kitchen table. They talked of the curse that stalked us. They talked of the Devil that now lived in Owl Holler, and how Old Nick was wearing the skin of poor Dorcas Chance. Momma knew that the Devil had come to torment us. She said he was punishing us for our sins.
“Now, the Reverend had heard that there was a man a couple states over who was powerful in the Lord. He knew how to cast out demons and he traveled from town to town, laying ghosts to rest and cleansing evil from the dark corners. He was said to be a powerful man, his arms made strong by his faith. He preached hellfire and folks said when he looked in your eyes you could feel the word of God move through you.
“Our Reverend resolved to bring this holy man to Owl Holler. He was sure, good man that he was, if we had a revival and if all the people came and testified for the Lord, we would be able to drive out the demon; drive it out beyond our hills and out of our lives. I will long remember the sight of the our Preacher that day as he headed home, his feet moving so fast that he shuffled clouds of dust up from the road, dust that hovered shimmering in the still air like a prayer.
“Well, he must have written that very day because the next week the Reverend read the answer in church. The great man himself was coming! The Reverend and Miss Bell were making arrangements and we were asked to help. They got his fee paid by the company. Demon hauntings were bad for their business and the mine wanted the devil gone too.
But there was more. A special place had to be prepared for Gabriel March to stay and special foods had to be prepared, foods that would allow him to enter the mind of the demon. The Reverend and my Momma talked about it after services, their faces solemn as they stood among the gravestones.
But in the end, we feared the face in the woods more. A deal was struck and a great tent showed up on the back of a truck. Even though they were tired, the men of our town came and they raised that big tent. The next Sunday the services were held under the canvas, preparing us for the preaching that was to come. The Reverend talked about the troubles and the strange visitations that plagued our nights. He gave us courage to talk of the fears we held quiet amongst us. It was the first time any of us had talked of the curse out loud, and the Reverend? He called it out from his pulpit, used his words in the bright light of day, naming the demon and praying to Almighty God to free us from the demon’s wicked ways.
Calling out our fears gave us new hope and then the Reverend built our hope further. He told us of Gabriel March, the righteous man that would lead us in our crusade. He described his victories in towns like ours, how he fought devils, the strength of God lending speed to his step and power to his sword. He spoke of him like an avenging angel, an angel of death and mercy who fought darkness and kept all good folk safe. Gabriel March would be here soon.
The Reverend told us that when Gabriel came, there would be three nights of praying. There would a night for us to hear God’s word and to accept that word into our souls. There would be a night for testimony where we would confess our sins and look within ourselves to find the grace and strength of the Lord. And then, on the third night, we would pray for the presence of the Lord to come among us and take shape to drive the demon from our town. We needed to be prepared. We needed to bring all of us, all our town to the great tent every night and we needed to stay awake, singing with strong voices, drawing the demon forth and allowing Gabriel to vanquish it with our faith.
“There were ‘Amens’ and ‘Lord Have Mercy from many a soul that night. We headed home, our heads high and our courage before us. A way had been found to lift the curse and to drive that foul demon that had taken Dorcas Chance’s face away no longer to haunt our houses and our dreams.
“But the faith we found and the fight that was needed didn’t come soon enough. In the dark before dawn two little boys disappeared. They weren’t but eight or nine. They walked with their daddies down to the mine. Their Mommas thought that if they were together, best friends and hope so near, no harm would come to them. The sun came up and those boys were missed. When their Mommas went looked all they found was a single shoe and the wailing and crying was terrible.
Word was sent and their Daddies came home from the mine. As word spread, the rest of the men came home too. Work was over. The company men growled, but they were scared too.
“The whole town searched and searched, but those boys were not found. People lay awake at night, too scared to close their eyes and when daylight came, we stayed inside, no longer trusting the light of the sun to keep the demon at bay.
It was on the third night that Gabriel March, the strong arm of God, arrived in Owl Holler. Most everyone turned out to see him come. We lined the sides of the dirt road that crept over the mountain and then down and down into our little town. I’ll never forget my first look at him as he stepped from his car. He was a tall man, taller than any I’d ever seen. My Daddy said to my Momma, “Good thing he’s a preacher. He’d never fit down a mine shaft!” But it was more than his height. He was broad in shoulder and his eye was clear. He was dressed all in black and at his neck, the white collar of his calling stood out. He stood there beside his black sedan and he looked over us, our fear wearing us down and he smiled in a way that gave hope to our hearts.
“The Reverend and Miss Bell stepped forward to greet him, shaking him by the hand. The Reverend had moved out of his house and was staying with us. Gabriel March was given the keys to the Reverend’s house and the Reverend promised him that all had been prepared as he requested. The windows were blocked so the demons couldn’t see him. Special food would be prepared and brought to him at sundown so the demon wouldn’t see what he ate. The town would guard his house during the day so he could sleep and be ready to get up and fight the demon when evil was walking among us at night.
“Gabriel smiled down at us, his white teeth gleaming almost unnatural in the light of the torches. He spoke to us, telling us that night was the Devil’s time. It was only at night that a true avenger for God could defeat the devil. He warned us to stay away from our windows and lock our doors. He told us not to listen to the demon or look in its eyes. He told us to walk into our houses and say in loud voices, “In the name of Our Lord God, I banish you from my home, Dorcas Chance, and all who would bring evil under this roof!” He had us all say it out loud, standing there in the road, so he could hear us. He called the company man forward and shook his hand, thanking him for saving us. He had the company man say the words too, telling him it was only right that all those who were willing to help the good fight should be protected by God’s mercy.
“Then Gabriel March looked around slowly. He held us all in the palm of his hand. The girls behind me, the same ones who chased Yancy Tucker once upon a time, sighed. He told us that he would walk in the Devil’s shadow. For us, and for our families he would track down the demon in the night, and when he caught him he would deliver him to God’s justice. When he smiled my Momma whispered to Daddy, ‘Good thing he’s God’s servant. A face that pretty calls to sin.’ She was right. Yancy Tucker had been handsome. Gabriel March was a feast.
“The whole next day we talked of nothing else. I was one of the children that sat outside the hourse, watching and wondering when that tall, mysterious man would emerge. When nightfall came near we headed home. After supper, Momma packed us some crumble cake and a jar of cool water flavored with sassafras. We took chairs and blankets and we walked together, holding hands, to the great tent that stood in the center of our town.
“The tent was lit by candles and torches. There were torches set in the ground all around and the folks that were our church choir was singing. Miss Bell lead them, her hands fluttering up and down. The piano from the church was set on the grass and Sadie Bates was playing her heart out. Our Reverend was standing near the end of the tent near the singers and he was singing along, clapping his hands! I thought the excitement couldn’t grow any more, but then Gabriel March walked into the light.
“Well! There wasn’t one person who was unaffected by that man! Last night he had looked handsome, but tonight? Men’s mouths fell open. Boys looked at him with admiration. And girls? Even my own Momma looked at that man with hungry eyes. He was handsome in a way that was unnatural. He wore the black and his preacher’s collar in a way that was more invitation than calling. His blond hair was brushed back from his wide forehead and his eyes pierced us, sharp and blue, like ice. He seemed to glow, calling us to him in ways we didn’t understand.
“He took a seat next to the Reverend, his long legs crossing one over the other. He watched the choir singing and he smiled slow at Miss Bell. Her hands dropped and she blushed bright red so all of us could see. When the singing was over, he stood up. He thanked Miss Bell and he thanked our Reverend for bringing him to us. He told us his name was Gabriel March, and he told us his name meant ‘warrior of God.’ He told us to prepare ourselves for a great fight and that he had come to help us in our hour of need.
“Gabriel had a mighty voice. As he walked among us, his strong legs moving him through the tent, he told us of God’s love for us. He preached of the great sacrifice of our Lord and our eyes wept at his words. Then he told us of the strength of God’s arm, a sword and a buckler around us, protecting those who were good, those who were strong in faith. He led us in a song, standing behind Miss Bell. I remember how his hand rested on her shoulder and one long finger seemed to stroke her neck.” The old woman’s eyes seemed to wander for a minute, but then her attention returned to the present. “ He sent us home that night filled with hope, our voices raised in song, praising the glory of our Savior.
“There was no work the next day. The company had declared a three day holiday. Everyone, even the company men, could attend the services. Now, the mine still needed its time, and it was agreed that our men would work two Sundays instead. It was the first time I could remember waking up and spending a day, not a Sunday, with my Daddy. He joked and played with us in a way I had never seen and believe I ever saw again. It was as if all of us had been freed from a great weight, our faith in Gabriel March was so strong. We knew in our hearts that he would chase away the demon who haunted us. He would set things right.
“All day we hummed and played with childlike hearts. We knew salvation had come and we waited for darkness with joy instead of despair.
“The next night the revival started the same as before. Miss Bell looked lovely, her hair down around her face instead of all pulled around behind her. She smiled as she led the choir that night. The Reverend came walking from his own house, his arm around Gabriel as he led him to the tent. Our neighbor whispered to my Daddy he’d seen Gabriel last night when he’d gone to visit his outhouse. The holy man had been walking through his woods, and Daddy said he wasn’t surprised and praised him for ‘Getting right to work, hunting that demon down!’
“When the music ended, Gabriel stood and raised his arms. This night he wasn’t wearing his jacket. Instead he was in shirtsleeves. He told us he had rolled up his sleeves for the work that lay ahead. He talked not of God’s Love this night, but of God’s retribution for those who sinned with intent. He preached the stories of the Old Testament, stories of God’s army. He talked of the strength of God’s arm. He told us stories of David and Saul, of Moses and Abraham. Strong men who led their people in hard times, never turning away from danger and sacrifice. We shivered and felt uplifted in the strength of our God.
“My Momma stood up, declaring she wanted to join the army of God and to do that she needed to cast off her sins. Gabriel called to our Reverend to stand up and hear our testimonies. Our Reverend was touched by the gesture. You could see it in his eyes. I think that’s the night he got the nerve to ask Miss Bell to step out with him, though that didn’t happen until later. Miss Bell only had eyes for Gabriel March then, and she trailed after him, almost like she didn’t know she was doing it. Course Gabriel didn’t notice her any more than he noticed the way every female eye followed him. But that was as it should be.”
The older woman nodded and her face turned serious. “You need to rest?” the waitress asked her, but the woman shook her head.
“I’m fine child. It’s just that the best and worst is yet to come.” Heads nodded. Sookie could see that the people around them knew what was coming.
“The third night of the Revival, runners came to the house. There would be no preaching. We were told to say inside and lock their doors. We were told to pull closed our windows and draw the curtains. We were told that the demon that was hunting us had been called forth and she was walking under the moon.
“Gabriel March intended to fight with him, bare knuckle, and beat him from our town. We townsfolk needed to stay safe and out of the way. No one else would be claimed the way poor Dorcas Chance had been claimed, wandering as she was, the devil looking out from behind her sad eyes, moaning and crying under the trees by moonlight.
“We all hunkered down, staying away from our doors and staring at the fire we kept burning. Then, right around midnight, a knock came to the door. It was the Reverend and he asked my Daddy to come with him. My Momma wrapped my Daddy with a cross and she prayed over him for strength and my Daddy left with the Reverend and those who stood with him.
“Daddy was gone a long time, and when he returned he smelled something foul. Momma washed those clothes twice but she swore she could get the stench of the Devil from them. Even though we didn’t have the money to replace them, she burned those clothes and my Daddy wore rags. But I tell you now, I don’t think it was the smell that made her burn those pants. It was the secret my Daddy whispered to her of the things that were done that night.
“I was small for my age, and I learned how to move quiet, hunting rabbits and squirrels in our woods. I use all my skills that night to creep down the stairs from our attic so I could hear my Daddy talking. I loved my Daddy, as I expect all young girls do. I had laid awake in the dark, shivering and fearing that he wouldn’t come home. I thought about him, hollow eyed and bloody mouthed, walking under the branches with Dorcas Chance. But I wished after I heard him talk that I’d never crept down those stairs.
“There were five men from our town plus the Reverend and Gabriel who battled the demon that night. Gabriel didn’t take them into the woods like Daddy had thought. He took them to our own church burying ground and pointed at Dorcas’s grave. He told them the Devil had taken her body and her soul and she was there now, defiling the rest of those around her.
“Gabriel told them to build a big fire in the middle of the cemetery near her grave and he told my Daddy and the others that only fire could truly cleanse. Then he told my Daddy and the others that they needed to dig her coffin from the ground and pull her out like the evil root she was. He told my Daddy that possessed, Dorcas would be strong, stronger than most men, and she would fight with teeth and talons, as dangerous as any wildcat. He handed them sharpened knives and sticks. Daddy said the knives were odd, old and fancy. Gabriel told them the knives were ancient and came from the time of the Crusades, blessed by the first Christians. Our men needed to be careful and not scratch themselves. He told them the prayers that had been woven into those weapons would render the demon weak.
“The Reverend held the torch and the men fell to work, lifting load after load of loose earth from the grave. When they were close, Gabriel stopped them. He jumped into the hole himself and turned to the men, holding up his arms. Daddy said there was a sound from the ground like nothing he had ever heard. He said it sounded like the cry of a panther and the weeping of a child all rolled together. Gabriel seemed to lift up for a moment and then, out of the hole, her face twisted and pale, came Dorcas Chance! Her eyes glowed red and her teeth shone. Her uncle was with us and it was as if she recognized him. She moaned and pointed at him, but in the next minute, Gabriel March was out of the hole too. He struck at her and she exploded into a million bits, transformed back into the festering rot that is the stuff of evil deeds.
“Gabriel turned to the Reverend, his hand outstretched, but then he hesitated. He seemed to hear something and he looked back down into that terrible grave. Without a word he jumped into the hole, and he stuck his hand down, down into the earth. When he pulled his arm up, his hand was wrapped around the arm of a child. From the dirt of that grave, Gabriel March drew up first one of those missing boys, and then the other.
“The demon slayer handed them up to the men above, and then he scrambled up himself. Daddy said that those boys looked like they were sleeping, but touching them was like touching a corpse. As they lay on the ground they seemed to shiver and Daddy said the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
“Gabriel took a knife from hands of one of our men. He lifted the blade and told them they had to harden their hearts. He pointed at those children and he told Daddy and the others that the demon that had taken Dorcas as growing in those little boys too. Then he told our men that there was only one cure, one way to give those boys the peace of death. The hearts would need to be cut from those children, and their bodies would need to be burned.
“As luck would have it, one of those lost boy’s own father was standing with them, and our Reverend had to lead him away, all weeping with sorrow to see his boy looking so near to life, but knowing that his son would be lost to him a second time. It was just as well. The Reverend said later that if he had had to stay, he was sure he never would have been the same.
“Daddy told Momma that he wished he had been able to step away, for what he saw that night would haunt him for the rest of his days. The boys didn’t move when the knife opened them, but their blood ran red from their chests. It was Gabriel March who leaned over and pulled each heart from them once their bodies were opened. Daddy said that from nowhere he seemed to pull a sword like an angel from a Bible story and he struck the heads from each child.
“Our men were hard men, used to hunting and the back breaking work that comes from shoving coal form a hole, but this night they wept like babes, so heartsore they were at the task they were set. Gabriel took pity and he sent them for wood to build the fire hotter. When Daddy came back, his arms stacked with deadfall, the boys were wrapped in blankets, their sad, sorry faces hidden. One by one, Gabriel March lifted them and threw them on the fire, then he stacked the extra wood on top of them to burn them faster.
“The smell that rose from that fire was fell and foul. It coated their nostrils and clung to their hair. Gabriel stood back then and he said a few words, asking God’s forgiveness, while those bodies burned. They gathered more wood and when it was roaring, Gabriel gave them all sticks and they pushed that fire with its grisly burden into the grave that had held Dorcas Chance. The fire seemed to explode and then die back. Gabriel handed shovels around and then took one himself, and together they filled hole near level.
“My Daddy was crying as he told his tale and I heard him whisper to my Momma that he wasn’t sure, because the fire was so hot, but he thought he saw the hands twitch on those lost boys just before the fire took them.
“When we woke up the next day, Gabriel March had disappeared, his job done. A truck came the next day with two men and they took down the tent and packed it away, over the hills.
“True to his word, the face in the woods was never seen here again, but the marker that bears the name of Dorcas Chance now bears two more names as a reminder of the day the Devil chose to walk through this town.”
The woman reached for the glass and drained what was left. There was some general applause and a slow unwinding as each person sat back. Owen looked across the table and Sookie said, “Yes, time to go.”
That night before she got ready for bed, Sookie called Eric. She told him about the werepanthers and the country she saw on her way and then she asked, “Have you ever been to Owl Holler?”
Eric chuckled, “I haven’t heard that name since my days as a cleaner. I called myself Gabriel then.”
“How come I knew?” Sookie shook her head.
Later, Sookie lay in bed listening to the wind and the owls that called outside her window. She thought about the story the old woman told and the reverence of those who listened to it. In some ways, it was like the ghost stories she grew up with: Bloody Mary and the hooked hand man; the banshee in the woods and the lady in white, but the difference between now and then was that she knew what she did about vampires.
Sookie thought of the nights in Bon Temps her Gran had come into her bedroom in the night, holding her when she woke up from another nightmare. Her Gran would rub her back and tell her not to worry, that Jason was just teasing her, or the sound outside was just a raccoon. Sookie wondered if those stories that haunted her, bogey men and monsters in the closet might, in fact, be real.
Suddenly something slapped against her window pane Sookie jumped in bed, a deep shiver running up her back. The sound came again and Sookie saw it was just a tree branch caught in the wind. She saw her frightened face looking back at her in the window’s reflection and she couldn’t help grinning. “Happy Hallowe’en, Sookie Northman!” she said out loud, and giving herself a mental shake, she turned off the light and went to sleep.