Dirty Harry PotterbyStultus©
To my relief, Judi followed my instructions to the letter and she stayed close behind me and placed her feet exactly into my boot prints, stepping only where I had already stepped. The ground up here can be deceiving, especially in the autumn when the leaves cover over the ground. On some parts of the steep upward trail the surface can be just loose gravel upon stone, easy for a climber to slip upon and then fall or slide down the hillside. This danger was actually worse in the spring, after the freezing and thawing of the winter ice and snow had broken up the ground, or previously firm rock cliff sides, but without freshly dropped leaf cover, the bad spots were also easier to spot, if you knew exactly what to look for.
During colonial and Civil War era times I think there was a longer, less direct but gentler sloping trail that lead up this way, but it has been long lost to age and the woods. Besides, as Sheriff I really didn't want a safe and easy route up here to Spooky Hollow. Enough people got lost or injured up here as it is.
I kept the pace slow and easy, so that Judi could catch her breath often. She ran three miles or more every day for exercise but hiking and climbing take different sorts of muscles. I was getting a little out of shape myself, enough so that I think we were each sort of amused by both of us pretending that we hadn't needed that short break for a rest. While hiking, I tried to keep a regular patter of conversation going, for safety's sake alone. I didn't mind if we were frightening off all of the deer or other wildlife, since I wanted to make sure that any nearby black bear could clearly hear us so that it could sidle off elsewhere. Normally they're very shy animals and won't bother humans, but it's good if you can give them a bit of a warning that you're around.
Moving with slow deliberate caution it took us over an hour to make it to up to Spooky Hollow and Mikinàk Lake, which was really much too small to be called a lake but the water here was quite deep. The locals call it Turtle Pond, because on a good sunny day like today you can see dozens of basking Painted Turtles sunning on pieces of floating wood or along the rocky shoreline. The area is also a haven for the threatened Wood Turtle, which can also be readily found nearby. If not for the unsavory reputation of Spooky Hollow, the area around the pond would make a fine camping spot for the nature lover.
Judi quite agreed. She offered me a couple of sandwiches from her backpack and bade me to remain quiet for awhile and she took a short slow walk around the pond, finally stopping near the point that a small stream poured over the rocks above the lake in a small trickling waterfall. Once there she smiled and removed her hiking boots and socks and sat upon a rock with her feet dangling into the cold water of the pond. And she stayed that way in deep meditation for several hours, completely and utterly oblivious to me, and my increasingly loud grunts and hints that we should move on.
Did I mention she sat there for hours? Her feet were going to be like blocks of ice from the cold but apparently she didn't much care. I found myself a comfortable log to sit on and I watched the turtles bask in the early afternoon sun and ate a candy bar, and then another two or three more out of boredom than actual hunger. Until finally she deemed that it was alright for us to move on. The witch's old cabin was less than ten minutes from here further inside the Hollow and I really wanted to get there and turn around and get out of the woods before dark. I've travelled these woods in the dark... but it's something that you'd just rather not do, except in an emergency.
Judi apparently had other ideas about this.
"Alright, we can go now, I've learned what I can from the local spirits of the land and the water, and the power of the goddess is very strong here, but there is also great evil nearby. The Memegwesì have given me their blessing to be here and to try to remove the taint that still infects this land. There are Pagwadjinini in this area too, but not close. This used to be their home too, in these woods. They were driven out by the witch and her evil. I can sense them but they will not speak to me, because they are afraid and still in hiding. Let's go see the cabin, but I'd like to stop here again on our way back... preferably around sunset."
I blinked at her a few times but decided to keep my mouth shut. She recognized that deer in the headlights look on my face and took some slight pity on me and clarified her earlier comments as we walked towards the witch's cabin.
Apparently Pagwadjinini's are a mythological little people of the forests according to Algonquin folklore. They're mischievous but generally good-natured beings. I guess every culture has a tradition of elves, gnomes or wee-folk in the woods, and if they want to live and ride their turtles in peace, best of wishes to them.
The Memegwesì on the other hand, were small water spirits, usually said to inhabit waterfalls or riverbanks, much like this remote lake. They are also generally benign creatures, but Judi remarked that they can be a bit 'touchy' and cause trouble when they are not shown proper respect. We had been granted passage, she declared, so I assume that she had spoken nicely to them and perhaps stroked their egos a bit. I certainly didn't want to talk to them... I have enough trouble dealing with our township Aldermen.
Already this was more information than I wanted or needed to know. This area is wild and dangerous enough without adding the idea of small supernatural critters lurking about... especially after dark.
As for old Hausisse's cabin, all there was to see was a large pile of collapsed stones, some obviously showing signs of fire long in the past. Just a heap of stones in a small clearing near the end of the Hollow, where it ended with near sheer cliff sides of the mountain. Not much grew here, there was no grass or weeds covering the stones, or even really anywhere within ten yards of the fallen stones.
"As you can see... there really isn't very much to see. The old cabin is just rubble, and even if the old crazy bat had a fortune in gold and silver inside I wouldn't move a single stone from her burial cairn. No one knows for sure, but in my opinion the townsfolk trapped her inside and surrounded her house with wood and burned her inside alive. A little further onwards by the Cliffside, there is a small cave with nothing in it. Well relatively nothing. Some old Algonquin or even older Indian runes and petroglyphs caved into the rock walls and an old firepit, but not much else. Back before my father's time here, some of the locals used to come up here and treasure hunt, digging for old Hausisse's riches... or better yet, some of Thomas Gladdener's fortune, assuming that the old witch killed him and his press-gang, like some believe. Conventional wisdom is that no one ever found even so much as a penny here, but others recall that anyone who did find a few coins were immediately stricken with bad luck. As far as I know, the current generation stays away from here so if you see any newly dug holes, let me know."
Judi wasn't very impressed with the rubble pile of the old house either, but she did run her hands over several of the rocks and concentrated slightly before turning her attention to the cave. On the way to the cave I noticed that she stopped a few yards outside of the cave mouth and walked slowly in a circle around it. Obviously she saw something that I didn't, or her spirit friends were warning her about something, because when I just attempted to walk straight through she grabbed me and held me back, then guided me around to the side of the cave where it was apparently safe (or safer) to enter.
"There is an old protection circle here, in front of the cave, with stones and colored sands carefully placed. Let us not disturb it for any reason unless we need to." Way out of my element, I just shrugged and nodded. By this point I didn't have a clue about what was going on, so I decided that it was safer to just keep my mouth shut.
She did find the cave scratchings and drawn symbols of considerably more interest. In fact with late afternoon setting in to the west, we soon lost most of our light inside the cave and grudgingly I pulled out my flashlight so that she could continue her exhaustive examination. By exhaustive, I mean that she had pulled out a notebook and painstakingly drew each and every drawing and symbol into her book, even taking rubbings of several more interesting or important ones. Now I got to find out what she had toted here halfway up the mountainside, as she lit a small fire of her own in the firepit and constantly added various herbs and powders. She was constantly now either chanting or mumbling to herself, but I couldn't understand a single word she was saying and she didn't stop to elaborate. From what I could guess, she knew enough Algonquin or Mahican to understand at least some of what she was looking at.
Done at last with her record taking and rituals, she spared a moment for the old protection circle. Watching the sky getting darker by the moment didn't really improve my mood much, even two candy bars later. When I sighed a bit too obviously loudly, she glared at me and tossed me another sandwich from her pack. I'd had no idea that she wanted to make an entire anthropological field trip out of this visit! Sunset came and went and Spooky Hollow was very dark and spooky indeed before Judi decided that she was ready to leave.
Fortunately, her return visit to the pond was of much shorter duration. This time she kept her boots and socks on and conducted a considerably briefer meditation with the spirits. It was already pitch black tonight and coming down the mountainside was going to be dangerous and we'd have to move even slower and more carefully. With luck, we'd get back to my Jeep at about nine o'clock... too late for dinner at Karin's. Damn, I hate my own cooking!
The return trip back down wasn't too bad. We both lost our footing a couple of times in the dark and I banged my ankle hard enough against a rock about halfway down that I was limping pretty badly by the time we reached my Jeep. Nothing broke, just a nice bone bruise that took over a week to heal up. To her credit, Judi offered me dinner at her place but with the pain my mood was a little sour and I didn't want to inflict it upon her. I was exhausted from too little sleep the night before, a long hike, my foot hurt and I was starving. Not to mention that the woman I'd guided up and down the side of mountain wasn't telling me jack shit about anything she had found or surmised at the witch's cabin. I'd asked her twice during the trip down but she kept her thoughts to herself. I usually prefer a bit more open and honest communication with women that I'm attracted to, and this evasion was starting to annoy me more than just a little bit.
Driving up at last in front of her house to drop her off, I made one last stab at interrogating her.
"Look, it's been a long day for us both, but what I really need to know is, is there something... anything up there that I as Township Sheriff need to be aware of, or be concerned about."
"Not tonight." She glumly replied and gave me a peck on the cheek to bid me goodnight. I hadn't expected that, and really it wasn't a terribly amorous sort of peck... but it did sort of convey "thank you" and perhaps even a bit of "sorry for missing dinner". Meah... it would do. Minor complaints aside, I had spent a very pleasant day in her company.
For the next five months, I barely spoke ten sentences to Judi. If she had been busy during the winter months, the late spring, summer and then early fall seasons were even more industrious for her. We held a big Midsummer's Night Fair for the solstice that wasn't nearly as exotic as the phallic heavy Beltane party had been. The vendors sold warm pies and cold drinks and the midway stayed crowded until after midnight. With all of the extra revenue, a few of us mundane civil servants were muttering (politely) that some bonuses or pay raises ought to now be in order. I wanted to hire at least two more part-time deputies to help deal with weekend security and traffic management and they approved my request with absolutely frightening speed. The township budget was seriously in the black already, even before the start of our traditional Halloween tourist season. Hell, they even set a budget for upgrading our old country road into a modern paved four-lane highway to connect us to the main state thoroughfare. Things were definitely looking up!
Still, I had the definite feeling that Judi was up to something and now definitely and deliberately avoiding me. Oh, it wasn't obvious, like her turning abruptly in the opposite direction if she saw me, but she seemed to have a second-sight about where I was and our paths just suddenly stopped crossing each other's while in town. Interrogating her apprentice witches, who were now frantically getting themselves ready for the Halloween season, didn't accomplish much. They didn't seem too terribly afraid of me... or they were considerably more afraid of their mistress, and what she'd do to them if their tongues wagged out of turn. Still, by the looks of fear on their faces when I mentioned Spooky Hollow, I knew something was still up. Under duress, they admitted that she was apparently still studying her notebook of copied runes and etchings, and apparently had a plan of sorts... but it was still apparently none of my concern.
"She does have a plan? Doesn't she? Please also tell me that she has not been going back up there to Spooky Hollow alone by herself?" I asked, but I think it came out sounding like more like begging. I hadn't worried a bit about the old witch and weirdness up Ghost Creek and inside Spooky Hollow until I'd taken Judi up there. Now I was dead certain that she knew something that I didn't know. People, mostly tourists, had been disappearing in those hills for generations, and now I was starting to worry about 'why'. The only question was would this secret knowledge end up getting someone from my town hurt, or worse. Having this nagging worry at the back of my mind right before prime tourist season was not at all a good thing.
The gals looked at each other in very nervous concern but kept their petite pretty teenaged mouths firmly shut. That in itself was a miracle that scared me just from the novelty of it alone. I left a polite verbal message and phoned into the station that I was going to enjoy an hour or two of bakery therapy at Karin's, probably involving at least three slices of pie. Lately, I'd been working harder at getting back into shape and I was winning my battle against the bulge, but I couldn't resist over-eating when stressed out. I was going to have to take a longer run this evening and tomorrow morning too, but right now my nerves needed some pie!
Naturally, out of three hundred and sixty-five possible days for Judi to once again decide that she needed my help, she of course picked the worst possible night -- Halloween, or as she called it Samhain. We were bracing for record crowds and already traffic coming into town was backed up all the way to the state highway, despite the recent repaving and lane expansion of our county road. Already we were muttering about adding another lane next spring, and turning another field into a parking lot.
It was a perfect storm, so to speak for tourist conditions. Positively drunk with excitement and more than a little greed, the township council had increased our advertising budget significantly, and we'd even printed a nice little glossy supplement for inclusion into a couple of the New York and Boston Sunday papers. The weather was also perfect for out-of-town drivers, and there was a huge full moon... a big reddish 'Hunter's Moon' that made the neon lights of our carnie midway just glow, and made our giant four acre haunted house appear even more perfectly eerie inside and out. We were going to set a new record for attendance and every single constable and my new staff of part-timers would be needed to guide traffic and keep the peace. There was no way that I could just duck off for half or most of the evening for another sightseeing trip!
Besides, this was primetime for our A-Number #1 tourist attraction, our resident Spooky Hollow Witch! If the Aldermen found out that she'd skipped out from her duties they'd have a cow, and record profits or not they'd be serious pissed! She could get fired. Hell, I could get fired!
"No and hell no!" I yelled at her, agog in disbelief. "You can have every single other night of the year, but tonight is absolutely out! Do you realize already how many times I've been called by my constables? It's not even dark yet and the main parking lot is already full. There is going to be open warfare over parking places even if we can get the overflow placed onto Graham's hayfield next door, and thank god or the goddess it hasn't rained in two weeks or they'd likely get stuck getting in or out!"
"You don't understand. We have to go back up there tonight... otherwise there will be another disappearance, like last year... or even several victims this time. This is the only night that we can go for some time, when the moon and stars are right, like they are tonight, during Samhain. The walls between worlds are thinnest on this night, and the barriers to evil at Spooky Hollow are always thin there, and sometimes a great evil... a Mishibijiw, a demonic cat that was once the old witch's familiar is again free to hunt. But there is a worse and more dangerous evil that may be free tonight as well."
"Worse? How can it get worse? We're both going to get fired from our jobs... from not being here to do them, and you're talking about phantom evil cats? And something worse?"
"The Mishibijiw has a body and can be slain, or at least its mortal part, thus sending its spirit back across the border from this living world forever. The other danger, a Wìdjigò, is purely an extremely evil spirit of a wicked person, cursed in life and death. It can feed upon your soul as the Mishibijiw would feast upon your flesh. Together they would hunt and kill many people if left unchecked this night."
"Windigos? There is no such thing!"
"There are, and they were called Wìdjigò by the Algonquin tribes, pronounced wee-jih-goh. We must go together, for your gun can stop the Mishibijiw, at least with silver bullets, of which I've procured you a few, but not even lead or silver will stop the Wìdjigò, and I must banish it while within the old witch's protection circle while you protect me."
She was dead serious. She was going to risk our lives, and worse our jobs, to dispatch... albeit permanently, a pair of monsters that had allegedly plagued our valley for about a hundred and fifty years.
"Please tell me that this is 100% necessary and that if we don't go very, very bad things will happen? One hundred percent, cross your heart guaranteed."
"I'm afraid so. Two hundred percent, or more. I waited several other nights for them alone, other nights when the barriers were weak, but they sensed me and did not come. Tonight, during Samhain, they will come. The barrier will be virtually non-existent and our world will beckon to their urges with a need that they will be unable to resist. They will come... and we must be ready!"
Her face was one of dead certainty and direct earnestness. I didn't know what else she had been keeping from me but one thing was certain, she believed that we both needed to be there tonight, before moon-rise over Spooky Hollow, for there would be hell to pay... figuratively and literally.
"Ok, if you think this is worth both of our jobs, to protect our township in a somewhat different way, then that's what we need to do. I defer to the paranormal expert in these things."