The Witching Hour [MultiFormat]
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eBook by James Gunn
eBook Category: Science Fiction/Horror
eBook Description: James E. Gunn's sci-fi world has veered into the realm of the unholy with the Witching Hour, three novelettes of satanic scenery and devilish deceit. Demons, death and disbelief will haunt you at every corner. Macabre rituals of darkness will creep up your spine until your fragile mind tingles with fear.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, Published: 1970
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2003
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11 Reader Ratings:
The Reluctant Witch
Matt refused to believe it. Incredulity paralyzed him as he stared after the fleeing, bounding tire. Then, with a sudden release, he sprinted after it.
"Stop!" he yelled futilely. "Stop, damn it!"
With what seemed like sadistic glee, the tire bounced high in the air and came down going faster than ever. Matt pounded dustily down the hot road for a hundred yards before he pulled even with it. He knocked it over on its side. The tire lay there, spinning and frustrating, like a turtle on its back. Matt glared at it suspiciously. Sweat trickled down his neck.
A tinkling of little silver bells. Laughter? Matt looked up quickly, angrily. The woods were thin along the top of this Ozark ridge. Descending to the lake, sparkling blue, tantalizingly cool far below, they grew thicker, but here the only person near was the young girl shuffling through the dust several hundred yards beyond the crippled car. And her head was bent down to study her feet.
Matt shrugged and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt sleeve. A late June afternoon in southern Missouri was too hot for this kind of work, for any kind of work. Matt wondered if it had been a mistake.
Heat waves shimmered and a haze of red dust settled slowly as he righted the tire and began to roll it back toward the old green Ford with one bare wheel drum pointing upward at a slight angle. The tire rolled easily, as if it repented its brief dash for freedom, but it was a dirty job and Matt's hands and clothes were soiled red when he reached the car. With one hand clutching the tire, Matt studied the road. Surely he had stopped on one of the few level stretches in these hills, but the tire had straightened up from the side of the car anyway and had started rolling as if the car were parked on a steep incline.
Matt reflected bitterly on the luck that had turned a slow leak into a flat only twenty-five miles from the cabin. It couldn't have happened on the highway, ten miles back, where he could have pulled into a service station. It had to wait until he was committed to this rutted cow track. The tire's escapade had been only the most recent of a series of annoyances and irritations to which bruised shins and scraped knuckles bore mute, painful witness.
He sighed. After all, he had wanted isolation. Guy's offer of a hunting cabin in which to write his book had seemed ideal at the time; now Matt wasn't so certain. If this was a fair sample, Matt was beginning to realize that much of his time might be wasted on the elementary problems of existence.
Cautiously Matt rolled the tire to the rear of the car, laid it carefully on its side, and completed pulling the spare from the trunk. Warily he maneuvered the spare to the left rear wheel, knelt, lifted it, fitted it over the bolts and stepped back. He sighed again, but this time it was with relief.
Kling-ng! Klang! Rattle!
Matt looked down. His foot was at least two inches from the hubcap, but it was rocking now, empty. Matt saw the last nut roll under the car.
Matt's swearing was vigorous, systematic, and exhaustive. It concerned itself chiefly with the latent perversity of inanimate objects.
There was something about machines and the things they made that was basically alien to the human spirit. For a time they might disguise themselves as willing slaves, but eventually, inevitably, they turned against their masters. At the psychological moment, they rebelled.
Or perhaps it was the difference in people. For some people things always went wrong: their cakes fell, their boards split, their golf balls sliced into the woods. Others established a mysterious sympathy with their tools. Luck? Skill? Coordination? Experience? It was, he felt, something more conscious and more malign.
Matt remembered a near-disastrous brush with chemistry; he had barely passed qualitative analysis. For him the tests had been worse than useless. Faithfully he had gone through every step of the endless ritual: precipitate, filter, dissolve, precipitate. And then he had taken his painfully secured, neatly written results to -- what was his name -- Wadsworth, and the little chemistry professor had looked at his analysis and looked up, frowning.
"Didn't you find any whatyoumaycallit oxide?" he had asked.
"Whatyoumaycallit oxide?" Startled. "Oh, there wasn't any whatyoumaycallit oxide."
And Wadsworth had made a simple test, and, sure enough, there was the whatyoumaycallit oxide.
There had been the inexplicably misshapen gear be had made on the milling machine, the drafting pen that would not draw a smooth line no matter how much he sanded the point. It had convinced Matt that his hands were too clumsy to belong to an engineer. He had transferred his ambitions to a field where tools were less tangible. Now he wondered.
Kobolds? Accident prones?
Sometime he would have to write it up. It would make a good paper for the Journal of ...
Laughter! This time there was no possible doubt. It came from right behind him.
Matt whirled. The girl stood there, hugging her ribs to keep the laughter in. She was a little thing, not much over five feet tall, in a shapeless, faded blue dress. Her feet were small and bare and dirty. Her hair, in long braids, was mouse-colored. Her pale face was saved from plainness only by her large blue eyes. She was about thirteen, Matt estimated.
Matt flushed. "What the devil are you laughing at?"
"You!" she gasped. "Why'n't you get a horse?"
"Did that remark just reach these parts?"
He swallowed his irritation, turned and got down on his hands and knees to peer under the car. One by one he gathered up the nuts, but the last one, inevitably, was out of reach. Sweating, he crawled into the dust under the car.
When he came out, the girl was still there. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he asked bitingly.
"Nothin'." But she stood with her feet planted firmly in the red dust.
Kibitzers annoyed Matt, but he couldn't think of anything to do about it. He twirled the nuts onto the bolts and tightened them, his neck itching. It might have been the effect of sweat and dust, but he was not going to give the girl the satisfaction of seeing him rub it. That annoyed him even more. He tapped the hubcap into place and stood up.
"Why don't you go home?" he asked sourly.
"Cain't," she said.
He went to the rear of the car and released the jack. "Why not?"
"I run away." Her voice was quietly tragic. Matt turned to look at her. Her blue eyes were large and moist. As he watched, a single tear gathered and traced a muddy path down her cheek.
Matt hardened his heart. He picked up the flat and stuffed it into the trunk and slammed the lid. The sun was getting lower, and on this forgotten lane to nowhere it might take him the better part of an hour to drive the twenty-five miles.
He slid into the driver's seat and punched the starter button. After one last look at the forlorn little figure in the middle of the road, he shook his head savagely and let in the clutch.
"Mister! Hey, mister!"
He slammed on the brakes and stuck his head out the window. "Now what do you want?"
"Nothin'," she said mournfully. "Only you forgot your jack."
Matt jammed the gear shift into reverse and backed up rapidly. Silently he got out, picked up the jack, opened the trunk, tossed in the jack, slammed the lid. But as he brushed past her again, he hesitated. "Where are you going?"
"No place," she said.
"What do you mean 'no place'? Don't you have any relatives?" She shook her head sadly. "Friends?" he asked hopefully. She shook her head again. "All right, then, go home where you belong!"
He slid into the car and slammed the door. She was not his concern. The car jerked into motion. No doubt she would go home when she got hungry enough. He shifted into second, grinding the gears. Even if she didn't, someone would take her in. After all, he was no welfare agency.
He slammed on the brakes. He backed up and skidded to a stop beside the girl.
"Get in," he said.
Trying to keep the car out of the ruts was trouble enough, but the girl jumped up and down on the seat beside him, squealing happily. • • • "Careful of those notes," he said, indicating the bulging manila folders on the seat between them. "There's over a year's work in those."
Her eyes were wide as she watched him place the folders in the back seat on top of the portable typewriter that rested between the twenty-pound sack of flour and the case of eggs.
"A year's work?" she echoed.
"Notes. For a book I'm going to write."
"You write stories?"
"A book. About an aspect of psychology. About poltergeist phenomena, to be precise."
"An old German word. 'Polter' means 'uproar' and 'geist' means 'spirit.' Uproarious spirits."
"Oh," she said wisely. "Spirits." As if she knew all about spirits.
"It's just a superstition," Matt said impatiently. "Before people could find natural explanations for unusual events, they blamed these things on spirits. There aren't any ghosts or spirits who knock on tables or throw things or make noises. When these things happen, someone or something is responsible. That's what my book is going to prove. But you probably aren't interested in books."
"I like books."
"I mean books like this -- scholarly books."
She nodded. "Even books about pol-ter-geists. Specially books like that."
Matt felt unreasonably irritated. "All right, where do you live?"
She stopped bouncing and got very quiet. "I cain't go home."
"Why not?" he demanded. "And don't tell me 'I run away,' " he imitated nasally.
"Paw'd beat me again. He'd purty nigh skin me alive, I guess."
"You mean he hits you?"
"He don't use his fists -- not often. He uses his belt mostly. Look!" She pulled up the hem of her dress and the leg of a pair of baggy drawers that appeared to be made from some kind of sacking.
Matt looked quickly and glanced away. Across the back of one thigh was an ugly, dark bruise. But the leg seemed unusually well rounded for a girl of thirteen. Matt frowned. Had he read somewhere that girls in the hills mature early?
He cleared his throat. "Why does he do that?"
"He's just mean."
"He must have some reason."
"Well," she said thoughtfully, "he beats me when he's drunk 'cause he's drunk, and he beats me when he's sober 'cause he ain't drunk. That covers it mostly."
"But what does he say?" Matt asked desperately.
She glanced at him shyly. "Oh, I cain't repeat it."
"I mean what does he want you to do?"
"Oh, that!" She brooded over it. "He thinks I ought to get married. He wants me to catch some strong young feller who'll do the work when he moves in with us. A gal don't bring in no money, he says, leastwise not a good one. That kind only eats and wants things."
"But you're too young to get married."
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "I'm sixteen," she said. "Most girls my age got a couple of young 'uns. One, anyways."
Matt looked at her sharply. Sixteen! It seemed impossible. The dress was shapeless enough to hide almost anything -- but sixteen! Then he remembered the thigh.
She frowned. "Get married, get married! You'd think I didn't want to get married. 'Tain't my fault no feller wants me."
"I can't understand that," Matt said sarcastically.
She smiled at him. "You're nice."
She looked almost pretty when she smiled. For a hill girl.
"What seems to be the trouble?" Matt asked hurriedly.
"Partly Paw," she said. "No one'd want to have him around. But mostly I guess I'm just unlucky." She sighed. "One feller I went with purty near a year. He busted his leg. Another nigh drownded when he fell in the lake. Don't seem right they should blame me, even if we did have words."
She nodded vigorously. "Them as don't hate me say it's courtin' disaster 'stead of a gal. The others ain't so nice. Fellers stopped comin'. One of 'em said he'd rather marry up with a catamount. You married, Mister -- Mister--?" • • • "Wright," Matt said. "Matthew Wright. No, I'm not married."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Wright," she said slowly. "Abigail Wright. That's purty."
She looked innocent. "Did I say that? Now, ain't that funny? My name's Jenkins."
Matt gulped. "You're going home," he said with unshakable conviction. "You can tell me how to get there or you can climb out of the car right now."
"But, Paw--" she began.
"Where the devil did you think I was taking you?"
"Wherever you're going."
"For God's sake, you can't go with me. It wouldn't be decent."
"Why not?" she asked innocently.
Grimly Matt began to apply the brakes.
"All right," she sighed. She wore an expression the early Christians must have worn before they were marched into the arena. "Turn right at the next crossroad."
Chickens scattered in front of the wheels, fluttering and squawking; pigs squealed in a pen beside the house. Matt stopped in front of the shanty, appalled. If the two rooms and sagging porch had ever known paint, they had enjoyed only a nodding acquaintance and that a generation before.
A large figure brooded on the porch, rocking slowly in a rickety chair. He was dark, with a full black beard and a tall head of hair.
"That's Paw," Abigail whispered.
Matt waited uneasily, but the broad figure of her father kept on rocking as if strangers brought back his daughter every day. Maybe they do, Matt thought.
"Well," he said nervously, "here you are."
"I cain't get out," Abigail said. "Not till I find out if Paw's goin' to whale me. Go talk to him. See if he's mad at me."
"Not me," Matt said with certainty, glancing again at the big, black figure rocking slowly, ominously silent. "I've done my duty in bringing you home. Good-by. I won't say it's been a pleasure knowing you."
"You're nice and mighty handsome. I'd hate to tell Paw you'd taken advantage of me. He's a terror when he's riled."
For a horrified moment Matt stared at Abigail. Then, as she opened her mouth, he opened the door and stepped out. Slowly he walked to the porch and put one foot on its uneven edge.
"Uh," he said. "I met your daughter on the road."
Jenkins kept on rocking.
"She'd run away," Matt went on.
Jenkins was silent. Matt studied the portion of Jenkins's face that wasn't covered with hair. There wasn't much of it, but what there was Matt didn't like.
"I brought her back," Matt said desperately.
Jenkins rocked and said nothing. Matt spun around and walked quickly back to the car. He went around to the window where Abigail sat. He reached through the window, opened the glove compartment and drew out a pint bottle. "Remind me," he said, "never to see you again."
He marched back to the porch. "How about a drink?"
One large hand reached out, smothered the pint and brought it close to faded blue overalls. The cap was twisted off by the other hand. The bottle was tilted toward the unpainted porch ceiling as soon as the neck disappeared into the matted whiskers. The bottle gurgled. When it was lowered, it was only half-full.
"Weak," the beard said. But the hand that held the bottle held it tight.
"I brought your daughter back," Matt said, starting again.
Copyright © 1970 by James Gunn