Start Reading Now: THE CURSE OF CROW HOLLOW by Billy Coffey
Published with Permission by Thomas Nelson
Scarlett saw Hays’s shadow creep next to her own. He stopped when Alvaretta leveled the pitchfork at him.
“Get on,” she warned. The words came low and smooth, almost like a spell. “Leave us.”
“Us?” Hays asked.
Scarlett’s shoe landed on one of the footprints they’d followed from the mines. She cried out as though she’d stepped barefoot on a thistle. Alvaretta smiled as she turned, looking at Scarlett for the first time.
“I see the face behind your eyes, little one,” she said. “I see your pa grinnin’ out from the sour girl he’s wrought.” And then the witch licked her lips with a tongue that looked gray and dying, like she was savoring the bitterness in her next word. “Bickford.”
Scarlett’s face went slack. “How do you know me?”
That cackle again, low and soft, which only made the blood in Cordelia’s face drain quicker. A brown dog with only one eye moved out of the trees to where Alvaretta stood. It leaned against the witch’s spindly legs and growled.
“Yesss,” she hissed. “Bickford. I see you well.” She turned her head slow, studying Hays. “Foster,” she spoke, and then to where Naomi cowered not a body’s length from the other dog. Alvaretta screamed, “Ramsay,” and spat once more. To Cordelia she said nothing.
Naomi stared at the witch with eyes that looked somehow brightened. “How do you know our names?”
“You ask me that? I know of you, but you don’t know of me?”
“Give us the bracelet,” Cordy said. “Give it to us and we’ll go.”
“’Twas given me.”
Alvaretta stepped from the doorway and aimed the tines at Cordelia’s stomach, as if she knew what grew there. Hays neither said nor did a thing. You put anybody in that situation, friend—you put yourself there—could you have done any different? I’d tell you no. He tried moving but was stuck in place, and then he heard something move inside the shed. One of the gaps in the boards had opened wide enough to let in a thin bar of sun through to the other side. It glowed and then winked out, like something inside had passed by.
“What’s in there?” he asked.
Alvaretta whipped her head his way. Hays couldn’t meet that awful stare and so dropped his eyes to the ground, where the long track of horseshoe marks led past the spot where Alvaretta stood.
“What’s in there?” he asked again. “Let me see.”
What came next happened quicker than you can blink. Mayhap it was a shadow of the rage that had burned in Scarlett Bickford ever since she was old enough to know her own name, a fury that had rumbled and built and finally blew right there in that dead part of Campbell’s Mountain. Or it could have been plain fear. She shot forward in a spot where neither the witch nor her beast could see. Alvaretta saw the look of horror on Cordelia’s face. She spun back, but not in time. Scarlett’s fist slammed into the side of the witch’s mouth with a wet, hollow sound that would haunt those kids forever.
The pitchfork went flying. Alvaretta staggered backward into the dog, which reared up and knocked her forward at Scarlett’s feet. Cordelia screamed as Hays and Naomi called out, and from inside the shed came a shriek that shook the very boards themselves. Dogs barked and howled, a chorus of them, calling out from either side of the cabin and behind. The one that had closed on Naomi and the one that had guarded the witch barreled away for the safety of the forest. Scarlett lifted her foot, Alvaretta took hold of it like a vise. The Thing in the shed yowled in a language none of them had ever heard, guttural and olden. One of the boards broke free, like what was inside had kicked it. Scarlett struggled to free herself, but Alvaretta would not yield. The witch’s hands went from Scarlett’s feet to her legs and then her hips, her thick body like steps to lift Alvaretta off the ground. Hays had gone numb. His shoulders had moved inward, caving his chest, and he began shaking his head as what had lain hidden inside the shed now tried to emerge. Cordy tried moving away and tripped, nearly touching one of the hoofprints burned into the dirt. The knife lay beside her. Friend, I don’t think she even saw it.
Scarlett tried tilting her head away. She felt the witch’s arm squeezing her tighter and saw Alvaretta stand, so close that she could smell the stink on the old woman’s breath. A trail of blood poured from the gash on the side of her lip. Scarlett shook her head No as the demon in the shed spoke again. Alvaretta shook her own head Yes, yes. With one arm she squeezed Scarlett tighter. The other came around front and produced a gnarled and swollen finger that gathered the blood from her own lip like a dark harvest. Alvaretta reached out and touched Scarlett’s forehead, then made a straight line of crimson down the bridge of Scarlett’s nose.
“Yesss,” she whispered. “Curse ye.”
Scarlett cried out. She wrenched herself from the witch’s grasp and took off, they all took off, not minding the crows watching them from their nooses nor the dogs chasing them nor the long hill to the top of the ridge, minding only the raging wail of what the witch had been hiding and the witch herself screaming Curse ye over and over, Curse ye all for ye sins. Oh yes, friend, they scampered. And know you would have scampered as well. You would have hastened to the ends of the world to be away from there, and what you’d find after your hastening was done would be just what those poor kids found: you could run from Alvaretta Graves, but you could not run from her words.