The Witch Tax
Ezra T. Gray
Ron knew he had made the witch mad, very mad. He’d made it through the swamp without her catching him, again. He looked back over his right shoulder. She was stomping the ground where he’d just walked minutes before. He knew he was safe, though.
Her magic was useless beyond the boundaries of the swamp.
She spit, then cursed his name, his birth, his birthday, and everything else that was his. He topped the hill and turned to look back over the swamp once more. He could hear her garbled speech echoing up from the dark wetland and he could see her bony hand clenched in a fist. She was looking up toward heaven—for all the good that would do her.
“You know, it would be easier to just pay the old hag.”
The voice came from the bushes next to the path. Ron jumped, then relaxed when he realize the voice belonged to his neighbor Jehu.
“What in the blue blazes are you doing in the bushes, Jehu?”
“I was hoping she would step outside the bounds of the great swamp.” He grunted as he extracted himself from the tangled matt of honeysuckle. “I was going to blast her.”
Ron realized that Jehu had his long rifle clutched tightly in one hand and rolled his eyes. “My heavens, Jehu, you can’t kill that old cuss!”
“Balderdash! She’s as mortal as you and me—that is, once she leaves that damnable swamp. You know, I thought for sure she was going to follow you out.”
“But…what if you didn’t kill her? What if you miss?”
“Oh, ho!” Jehu exclaimed. He hefted the gun and smiled. “I never miss! Besides, Old Betsy is loaded with silver bullets!” He lowered his voice and winked at Ron. “Can’t be too careful.”
Jehu finished freeing himself from the bramble and stood next to Ron looking out over the swamp. “One of these days…” he murmured.
“What was that?” Ron asked.
“One of these days I will catch that old demon witch outside the border and then kaboom!” Jehu slapped Ron on the back. “Kaboom! No more witch.
“So where have you been, lad?”
Ron was never sure if Jehu’s voice was always so boisterous, or if it was just his size. He was huge, with a thick red beard and a shaved head. He was one of those folks who was just bigger than life.
“Jehu,” Ron spoke slowly, “do you think it’s a good idea to try to kill old Hilda? I mean….”
Jehu chuckled. “I think it’s a great idea. It’s about time she was put down. One silver bullet, right through her old stony black heart, and then we throw her rotten corpse down into Old Cecil’s black hole.”
Ron shuddered at the thought. Old Cecil owned a piece of property that bordered the swamp and at the edge of the place was a well. Actually it wasn’t a true well, at least not for water anyway, but it looked like a well, though it was twice as big around as a normal well.
It was also bottomless—at least that was the word.
Every school boy in the Big Valley had snuck out there at least once to throw something down the hole. Ron had been there once, but he sure wasn’t going back. He thought back to the time, not so many years ago, when he and Skeeter Douglas had snuck out of their houses on a full moon night for a nocturnal adventure.
Old Cecil’s place was creepy enough without the fact that it bordered the swamp, but he and Skeeter had made the trip anyway. It was like a rite of passage. All the boys of the Valley had taken something they never wanted to see again and, by the light of the moon, chucked it down the hole. No one had ever heard anything hit the bottom.
Ron was sure that no one ever would.
Skeeter had brought a pair of leg braces he had worn when he was younger. He had been born with weak, twisted ankles but, through prayer and perseverance, he no longer had need of the braces. And silly Ron had brought a dead cat. His Pa had run it over with the farm wagon. Pa told him to bury it, but Ron thought it would be nifty to throw it down the well.
Ron and Skeeter had just reached the edge of the abyss when the full moon emerged from the cloud cover. Skeeter looked down into the hole and then solemnly threw in the braces. They hit the side wall then dropped away into the pitch blackness. The sound they made when they hit the bricks lining the top edge was the only sound that was heard as the bane of Skeeter’s soul disappeared.
“What’s in the bag?” Skeeter had asked.
“A cat,” Ron had snapped, feeling a little foolish.
Skeeter gasped. “Is it alive?”
“Blazes, no! You don’t think I’d throw a live animal down there, do you?”
“Uh, well,” Skeeter stammered, “I wouldn’t think….”
“Pa ran over it. I was supposed to bury it, but….”
“Oh, I get it. The cat was a bad one and caused you a lot of trouble, huh?”
“Well, no. It wasn’t even our cat. I don’t know from whence it came.”
Even in the pale moonlight, Ron could see the puzzled look on Skeeter’s face, but before another word could be said, Ron snatched the dead feline from the sack and hurled it down the well.
Both boys stood still for about thirty seconds, and then they heard an eerie screech emanate from the well. It was the sound of a cat screeching loudly.
Needless to say, both young men ran and it was quite evident that Skeeter had no need of his braces because he outdistanced Ron by a goodly stretch. They ran all the way home and never spoke of it again.
The funny part was, a few days later, Ron spotted a cat on the road in front of their farm that looked horrifyingly similar to the one he’d tossed down Old Cecil’s hole. Ron approached the cat but it just hissed at him and disappeared into the corn. He never saw it again. He dismissed the incident from his mind and never gave it another thought.
Ron grew up and never gave much of anything else a thought either, except gold. All he wanted was gold, more and more of it. That was why he braved the swamp as oft as he did, to take wares from the Big Valley and trade them down at the sea port. He liked trading there because it brought him gold, and lots of it. He would sell his wares there, for a profit, and then he would bring back items that were uncommon in the Big Valley and sell them for an even greater profit—profit that he turned into gold.
“Hey! Hey, Ron? You in there boy?” The great voice of Jehu broke through Ron’s reverie, helped by the great shaking Jehu was giving Ron’s shoulder.
“Yeah, uh…yes. I mean, yes sir. Sorry, I was just thinking about something.”
“Boy, oh boy, I thought the old hag had put a whammy on you for sure!”
Ron chuckled. “No, I’m fine. I was just thinking.”
“So,” Jehu queried, “where you been?” He held up his hand. “No, let me guess. You’ve been a’ tradin’ down at the port. You do any good?”
“Sure.” Ron gave the big man a big smile. “I always do. And I’ve got just the thing you need.” Ron was solidly back in the present, wheeling and dealing, which was what he did best.
“Ho, ho, ho,” the big man bellowed. “I bet you do! How many times do I have to tell you? If it ain’t made in the valley, I don’t need it!” Jehu patted Ron’s shoulder. “But I’ve got to give you full marks for trying.”
“Yeah, I always try.”
Jehu stopped laughing. “You didn’t pay the witch tax, right?”
“No,” Ron said solemnly, “I did not. And I never will.”
Both men knew it was not a matter of principle that prevented Ron from paying for passage through the old witch’s kingdom. You see, the swamp was the only path to the great sea port. It was greed that kept Ron from paying the witch. He wasn’t giving anyone his gold, least of all that old hag. They walked to the village together in silence, both thinking of the witch and her tax, and both driven by very different motivations.
Jehu walked into his house. It was fine home. He had built it himself with his own hands. Well, he had some help from his brothers, sons and nephews, but mostly he did it himself. He hewed the logs himself, moved the great stones and dug deep the foundations.
He even dug the big cellar right under the kitchen so that, on cold nights, his missus would not have to go outside to fetch a last minute item as she was cooking. She always was running back and forth from the pantry to the root cellar and back to the big stove. She loved to cook and Jehu loved her cooking. He loved her, too, and she loved him.
Jehu’s life was good. He had a fine home and a passle of children. He made his small fortune early on in his life and was wise enough to invest it. He was also quite ingenious and had invented a number of labor saving devices that his wife used daily. Jehu was very happy—except for one thing.
Whenever Jehu thought of Tommy he would almost break down and cry. Poor Little Tommy. Little Tom was Jehu’s nephew, and the only son of Jehu’s younger brother Big Tom, as he was known.
Big Tom was quite the adventurer. When he was little more than a youth, he went to sea, and he came back with a beautiful wife. Oh, she was a sight! Her eyes were as blue as the sky and her golden hair was as radiant as the sun’s rays. She was an anomaly in the valley. She came from a clan of folks who lived far north of the sea port in a land of ice and snow, a place where the sun never set in the summer and never rose in the winter. No one in the valley had ever seen anything like her. She was a prize. Big Tom loved her, and she loved him.
Then Tommy came. You would have thought Jehu was the father the way he doted on Little Tom, but Big Tom was his favorite brother and Jehu’s love for Little Tom was pure and genuine. Little Tom had the massive build of all of Jehu’s family, but he had traits from his mother’s people as well. He had her golden hair and, most peculiarly, he had one blue eye. His other eye was green, just like Big Tom’s. He was a handsome lad, and smart, as well. He was only four years old when tragedy struck.
Big Tom’s wife received a message that her mother was sick, dying, and had requested her presence. Of course, Big Tom made hasty plans to depart. He was an old sailor and knew he could get her there fast. Jehu could still recall the last conversation they shared.
“Jehu, I want you to keep little Tom here with you.”
“But, Tom, he may not get another chance to see his grandma.”
“Aye,” Tom had said, “but that is harsh country and, well….”
“You did not leave on the best of terms, I take it.” Jehu chuckled. He knew his brother well.
Tom smiled. “Well, I think it’s all right, but…I mean, I didn’t steal from them or anything. You see, my father in law, he doesn’t have quite the same amount of teeth as he had before I told him I was taking his daughter away.”
Jehu roared with laughter. “Ho, ho, ho! So you whipped him, eh lad?”
“Him and her three brothers!” Tom chuckled. “It was the worst fight of my life!”
“Aye, lad, but it’s been five or six years. You know, folks forget, forgive.”
“Mayhap, mayhap. But Jehu, I’d like it if young Tom stayed behind this time.”
Jehu raised his hand in a gesture of surrender. “As you wish. I have always had a special place in my heart for Little Tom.” Jehu sighed. “I guess part of it is that he’s your little boy and looks so much like you did when you were that age—except for that one bright blue eye!”
“Oh, yeah,” Tom chuckled. “But Jehu, if something happens—”
“What could happen to you, Tom? You’re invincible. Everybody knows it. Besides, what will you be gone, a fortnight or two? Nah, Boy, you’ll be fine, just fine. I’ll tell you what, Tom, ol’ boy, I’ll take Little Tom home with me and, bright and early tomorrow morning, we will see you off to the edge of the swamp. By George, I’ll even pay the old hag for you!”
Tom burst out laughing. “Ha! I’d love to see it!”
Jehu turned and started toward Little Tom. His boisterous voice echoed across the yard. “You will see it, Tom. You will.”
Tom watched as his huge brother hoisted Little Tom up on his shoulders. They walked toward the forest and the path that led to Jehu’s farm. Just before they entered the woods Jehu turned with Little Tom on his shoulders and offered up a final wave. A cold chill ran down Tom’s spine and an awful thought raced through his mind.
“What if that’s the last time I see them?” he whispered. He shook his massive frame. “That’s stupid. Plumb foolish.”
But his self-reassurance did little to ease his troubled soul.
The dawn broke to a bleak gray sky. Jehu just laughed. “Come on, lad, we have to meet your folks and see them off.”
“Yes, Sir, uncle Jehu!” Little Tommy’s face broke into a smile over his bowl of oats.
“Finish your breakfast!” Jehu’s wife snapped to the boy.
“Yes, ma’am,” Little Tom said, in a much more subdued voice.
“Aye, woman!” Jehu bellowed. “He’ll be fine. We’ve need to go.”
“A few more minutes won’t matter,” Jehu’s wife argued. “He’s a growing boy, he needs….”
It was too late and it was useless to argue. Jehu had snatched the lad up and was headed out the door.
“Don’t worry mother, I’ll get him a pastry in town.”
“You’ll ruin his lunch, Jehu!”
“Ah….” Jehu started to say something else, but instead he just waved his huge hand in a dismissive gesture. He flung the boy up on his shoulders and headed toward the village. The swamp lay on the far side, the rendezvous point where he was to meet his brother and his brother’s wife.
Jehu and Little Tom made excellent time. They had passed through the village and were headed towards the swamp when Jehu looked up at Little Tom, who still sat on his shoulders.
“By gosh, Tom, I forgot to get you a sweet roll at the Baker’s shop! Ah, well I’ll get you two on the way back.”
Nephew and uncle broke out laughing. It was then that Jehu noticed something quite peculiar.
“What in the blue blazes of Hades?” Jehu bellowed. “I’ll be a…look…what the…. Tom what is that?”
Jehu was unsure of what he beheld. Was it a man or was it a beast? The road they walked on ran through the Davis farm. Along the side of the road was a corral and in the corral was what appeared to Jehu to be two jackasses. One was an animal, a real jack, and the other was Skeeter Davis, old man Davis’ youngest boy. As he inspected the scene before him Jehu realized what had happened.
Skeeter had tied the Jack to a hitching post, probably in an effort to saddle it. More than likely he was trying to ride the beast for the first time. He’d gotten the saddle on okay, but, either due to excitement or youth — or both — he’d forgotten to slap the ass in its side to get the air out when he tightened the cinch. Well, when Skeeter climbed aboard, and the jack exhaled, the saddle slid off of the jack’s back. Skeeter had gotten tangled up in the stirrups instead of falling off, and he now hung upside down under the big jack’s belly.
“That’s funny!” Little Tom said, and he burst out laughing. “Look at the funny man riding the donkey.”
Jehu roared with laughter as well. “That’s one heck of a way to ride, Skeeter. I guess you can track a lot easier.”
“Very funny,” Skeeter whined. “Look Mister Jehu, I’m stuck.”
“I can see that.” Jehu was still laughing.
“Sir, the blood is rushing to my head.” There was a pleading tone in his voice.
“Aye lad, aye. Hold your horses.” Jehu laughed again. “Or, should I say, hold your ass!”
“You are sooo funny,” Skeeter hissed.
“All right, hold still.” Jehu pulled little Tom off his shoulders and placed him on the split rail fence. “A front row seat, lad.” Then Jehu climbed through the fence. “Now, Skeeter, hold still while I pull off the saddle.”
“Please be careful,” Skeeter begged. “I don’t want this jack splitting my skull.”
“Don’t worry, lad,” Jehu said in a reassuring voice. “I’m sorry I laughed, but you must admit….”
Jehu did feel a little ashamed. He remembered when Skeeter was young and had to wear braces. He was unable to keep up with the other kids. He had come to Jehu’s house and had played with Jehu’s own children. He remembered that once the boy had told him, “you just wait, Sir, someday I will run just as well as the others.” And, by blazes, the boy was right. Not only could he run, but he was probably one of the best horsemen in the Valley — which made his predicament all the more funny.
“Sir,” said Skeeter in a shaky voice, “if you bust that cinch and I hit the ground, this jack is gonna kick my brains out.”
“You got a point boy,” Jehu murmured. “Doggone it, you are in a pickle. All right, let me think.”
Jehu was a very intelligent man. Although the momentary humor of the situation had struck him, he realized all too well the danger the boy was in.
“Okay, boy, this is what we are going to do. On three I will….”
Meanwhile, big Tom was waiting at the entrance of the swamp. He was pacing back and forth. “I wonder where my brother is?” he said, more to himself than anyone else.
“He’ll be here,” Tom’s wife reassured him, in her soothing soft voice.
Tom looked at her. She was so beautiful, with her golden hair and her unnaturally blue eyes. Tom had loved her from the moment he laid eyes on her. And it wasn’t just her physical beauty, although she was a pleasure to look upon, it was her soothing spirit. She was very bright as well, with a mind like Jehu’s. Tom was a lucky man, and he knew it.
“You’re right,” Tom smiled at his bride, “you’re right. He will be here.”
“We could leave a note and go on. We’ll be back soon enough. Jehu is most likely at the village, stuffing little Tommy full of those cream filled sweet rolls.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Tom laughed. “You are right, as always.”
Tom scribbled down a quick note on a piece of paper he’d taken from his leather traveling bag. He tacked it to a tree and the couple stepped into the swamp. They had taken about thirty steps when the witch appeared.
“I want my tax,” she wailed. “A tax for a trip.”
Big Tom reached for his satchel and removed the usual gold coin. He hated paying, but he was in a hurry.
“Not what I want,” the old hag whined.
Tom looked puzzled and offered the coin to the haggard old wretch a second time. She slapped it away with a craggy hand. She had incredible power for an ancient wretch. The coin flew into the black water, and, with a bubble, disappeared forever.
“You don’t want gold? What do you want?”
“Her!” The witch wailed.
“My wife? You want my wife?”
“Not wife,” the evil apparition moaned. “Her eye. Me want one blue eye.”
Tom looked on in horror as the words issued from the black orifice he could only assume had once been a human mouth. Then the words came again.
“Me want eye!”
Tom had been in tight spots before, but usually he’d been alone. He was known up and down the coast for his bravery and speed. Now he drew the short sword that he always wore under his leather jerkin. Jehu had made it for him. The blade was made of a special steel, the result of a rare combination of elements. That is why Jehu had made it short. He had not found enough material to make it full length. The blade gleamed even in the dim light of the swamp.
Jehu spoke clearly and calmly. “Did you hear me, Skeeter? Boy, on three I am going to twist this big jack’s head. It will bring him down and he will roll over on his back. When he does that will give you three or four seconds to pull your leg out and jump clear. Simple, right?” Jehu had already untied the ass. “On three. One, two, three!”
Jehu easily twisted the great animal’s neck. Skeeter knew that Jehu was probably the only man in the Valley that possessed the strength to pull off such a feat, and by gosh, he did it. The jack lay down on its side and placed all four legs into the air. Skeeter pulled his foot free and leaped wildly into the air. A huge shod hoof flashed through the air where his head had been a fast heart beat prior. He hit the ground and rolled free of the beast.
Now that Skeeter was safe, Jehu released his grip on the poor animal’s head, though he held onto the rope. The jack righted itself and climbed to its feet with a look of indignation, the saddle still hanging from its belly. Jehu handed the rope to Skeeter.
“You okay, lad?”
“Ah, yeah… I mean, yes, Sir.”
Jehu was already on the march, scooping young Tom off the fence with one great hand.
“Thank you, thank you,” Skeeter said.
“You can thank me later,” Jehu shouted over his shoulder. “I’m late!”
Skeeter watched as the huge figure of Jehu topped the hill and started down the side toward the swamp. “That’s as fine a man as ever there was in this valley or elsewhere,” he said as he tied the jack to the pole. He undid the cinch strap and pulled the saddle out from under the beast’s belly. He hoisted it up and started to throw it on the beast. “Now, old friend, let’s try this again.” He paused and looked at the beast’s face. “You know, on second thought, we could do this tomorrow.” The big jack snorted. “You know, the next day is good too, or the day after that. You know, I’m thinking you might do better pulling a wagon, or going to the glue fac —”
Skeeter was just joking about the glue factory, but he never got the words from his mouth, for there, just a few feet away, Jehu’s watch lay gleaming in the dust. He knew it was Jehu’s watch because he’d sat next to him at Sunday meetings before, and he’d seen him take it out. Skeeter threw the saddle up on the fence and untied the jack. He quickly put the beast out into the pasture, then let out a whistle. From around the barn came a big Bay stud, beautiful and well-muscled.
“Come on, big boy, we got to go.” Skeeter scooped up the watch and stuck it into his breast pocket. He then grabbed a handful of mane and swung onto the back of the big Bay. He sat just for a second, bareback on the horse, before reaching down and grabbing the halter. He dug his heels into the Bay’s flanks and the horse bolted forward, clearing the four-rail fence with ease.
Skeeter was still on board as they galloped toward the swamp. He wanted to catch up to Jehu before he got there. He felt that was the least he could do since Jehu had just saved his life. He figured there would never be a time when he could repay the favor.
Little did he know, little did he know….
He could see the old witch moving. He could see the horror in his wife’s eyes. He twisted slightly and could also see Jehu coming over the hill.
Everything seemed to take on a surreal quality for Big Tom.
Jehu stopped for just a second and terror gripped his heart as he took in the scene below him. He watched as Big Tom’s short sword flashed in the light. As good a fighter as Tom was, Jehu knew there was no chance he could best the old hag. No matter how well made the sword and how good the fighter, one could not stand up to the witch’s magic—not in the swamp.
Jehu quickly set Little Tom down. “Don’t move, lad!” he shouted. “Don’t move!” Then he took off toward the swamp at full speed.
Down in the swamp, Big Tom prepared for the worst. He quickly closed the distance between himself and the old hag. ‘Run towards the threat,’ that was what he had been taught. And run he did. He brought the sword down hard as he reached the witch, but to no avail. The sword stopped inches from her head, as though she was surrounded by some sort of invisible protective shell, a field of evil. Big Tom cursed and thrust forward once again, only to be thwarted by the unholy force that protected the old witch.
Then the witch thrust her hand forward and even though her hand never touched him, Tom felt the weight of a herd of horses hit his chest. Her magic was strong. Tom flew several feet backward, striking hard against a tree. The sword flew from his hand and soared in a high arc, landing out of the dark border of the swamp and behind the approaching Jehu. Tom tried to rise, but orange blood, lung blood, came frothing from his mouth. The world became misty and everything seemed to fade into blackness.
Jehu cried out. He could see the hag reaching for his sister-in-law, her twisted scaly hand stretching, grasping. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, Tom threw himself on the witch. Apparently her shield was not always up. Tom raised his hand high and drove a dagger, the one he always kept hidden in his boot, deep into the witch’s neck.
Jehu had just stepped over the entrance to the swamp when it happened. A wail issued forth from the old hag’s mouth, a sound that was the stuff of legends—and the centerpiece of Jehu’s nightmares for many days after. As the cry erupted from the witch’s throat, a strange blue shock wave exploded from her body. The wave drove forward, slamming hard into Jehu. It felt like he’d been hit by fifty horses. He was knocked off his feet and thrown several yards backwards, clean out of the swamp and into the grassy field where he’d left Little Tom.
He was stunned and hurt. Lying face down in the grass, he wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive, however, the pain he felt led him to believe he was still alive. Surely death could not be that painful. He rolled to his side and looked toward the swamp. They were gone. His brother, his sister-in-law, and the old hag—all gone in a blue flash.
But something was pounding in Jehu’s ears. It sounded like the hoof-beats of a horse. Jehu rose on one arm, trying to sit up, but he was too addled. He could see Little Tom still sitting where he had left him, looking blankly toward the swamp. That blank look would come to haunt Jehu for many days to come. Jehu shook his head hard, trying to clear the cobwebs and relieve himself of the infernal pounding. Little Tom was no more than twenty feet away from Jehu, so he pulled himself to his knees and crawled toward the little boy.
As he painfully tried to move towards Little Tom, Jehu noticed his brother’s blade stuck in the ground several feet behind the boy. He hadn’t realized the short sword had flown so far. A wave of nausea overwhelmed him as he tried to rise and he sank back to his hands and knees. He looked down at the grass. The pounding in his head was louder. As the pounding reached a crescendo there was a scream of terror. The voice was familiar, but Jehu could not place it.
“JEEEEHUUUU!” the voice wailed.
Jehu forced himself to look up. It was Skeeter, Skeeter Davis. Ah, Jehu thought, that is a nice boy, a very nice boy—further evidence the shock wave had rattled Jehu’s brain-pan.
“What’s ‘a matter, lad? ” Jehu muttered. “Lad?”
Skeeter was closing fast. He was shouting and pointing towards something behind Jehu. Jehu cocked his head slightly. It was the witch! She was out of the swamp! The shock of seeing her brought a sudden clarity to Jehu. Again, he fought to rise, but she was walking fast toward little Tom.
“I’ll have my eye, yet,” the old hag snapped.
The next seconds would live forever in Jehu’s mind, as would all the events of the day, but what Skeeter did would be talked about in the valley for years to come.
Skeeter rode hard toward the old witch, who had just scooped up Little Tom with her scraggly hand. In the same instant that the witch picked up Little Tom, Skeeter swung down on one side of the horse, bent low to the ground and, when he righted himself, Big Tom’s short sword was in his right hand. The big Bay closed the gap between the sword and Little Tom in less than a heartbeat. Skeeter swung the sword in a wide arc. Once again, the old hag screamed.
Skeeter had severed her arm at the elbow, the same arm she was using to hold Little Tom. Skeeter let the sword fly as it made its way through flesh and bone, emptying his hand, and he caught Little Tom by the collar before he could hit the ground. Skeeter threw Little Tom across the neck of the big beast and ran a wide circle around the scene of the carnage.
The old hag was hurt, and Jehu knew it. She reached out for her severed arm, but by then Jehu was up. He had never hit a woman before, but he smashed his giant fist into her face. He could feel the gristle and bone pop. She flew back several feet, unfortunately, it was toward the swamp.
Jehu stooped to retrieve the sword, ready to put an end to the witch once and for all. She crawled toward the edge of the swamp. She was almost there as Jehu lifted the sword high. She stretched out her only remaining hand, reaching for some imaginary line, and she made it, for just as the sword came down, she was gone—gone in a flash of light, gone without a trace.
But her severed forearm and hand now lay withering away in the grass. The dark brown flesh dissolved, followed by the muscle, until all that was left was bone. Jehu took several steps away from the bones and fell to his knees. Skeeter sat on the Bay, still holding Tom, who was still staring blankly into the swamp.
The witch was gone, but Jehu screamed into the swamp, “I will kill you, I will!”
And then the great man collapsed in a heap, and blessed darkness overtook him, a darkness that held no witches and no severed arm, no dead brother, only peace and serenity. He welcomed the darkness, and embraced it until it covered him and overtook all that he was.
When Jehu awoke, he was in his own bed. The alarm clock was giving it’s familiar buzz-buzz-buzz. He could hear the shower running. His wife was up before him, as usual. He often thought that was more so she could have the bathroom to herself than anything else.
Jehu was glad the electricity was back on, though he had done quite well compared to many other Americans. A good many had died.
Jehu thought about his dream. He had been having the reoccurring dream ever since his brother and sister-in-law died. He rose from the bed and moved down the hall. Through the open door he could see Little Tom lying in his bed. His brother’s only son was now Jehu’s son, legally. They, like many others, had died because a pitiful, racist and inept president would not do his job.
The President had refused to close the border, even after the most deadly virus mankind had ever seen had entered the country. By the time the virus was contained, five million people had died. Missoula, Montana, was hit hard. The hospital there had been designated as one of four in the country where people with the virus would be treated. Of course, as viruses do, it got out, though the CDC never really explained how.
Tom was a deputy for Missoula County and he contracted it, then unknowingly brought it home to his wife. They were both dead within three weeks.
It was a sad story that was played out all over the country. The President had plenty of warning. He had even come out on national television and said, “it is very unlikely that we will see a case of this deadly virus.” But it was just like all his other promises—lies, lies and more lies. After the ‘West African Plague,’ as the virus came to be called, ravaged America, the president was impeached and, eventually, jailed.
The Vice President was even more inept than the President had been, and he was easily defeated by a bright and fresh young man—a man who was a Christian, unlike his predecessor. From his jail cell, the former president finally confessed to having been a muslim all along. He also laughingly said, “the joke is on you, America, I wasn’t even born in the United States.” The new President quickly did away with the oppressive taxes that had brought tough times to the economy. The former President had pushed them through to help fight the disease he had allowed to come here.
And now it was a bright new dawn.
However, Jehu was haunted by the dream. It was so real, almost like another world. Tom was there, and his wife. The crazy kid down the road, Skeeter, was there. There was even a great dark Satan, just like the ex-President. And just like him, the witch had imposed a terrible curse on the people of the land.
Jehu walked into the kitchen and sat down. His wife emerged from the bathroom wearing a white terry cloth robe.
“You want some coffee?” she asked.
He smiled. “Sure.”
She gave him a knowing look. “The dream again?”
“Yes. You know, it’s so real. It’s like another place, another time, but it’s like now, too. There is a wicked tyrant who forces unjust taxes on a free people, and wickedness in the form of progress!” Jehu paused for a moment and smiled. “I’m sorry. I’m ranting again.”
“No, no,” his wife smiled, “I love to hear the stories. Am I as sexy in that world as I am in this one?” She giggled.
“Oh, yes, baby. Oh, yes.” Jehu grabbed at her, but missed.
“Seriously, honey, you should write about it.”
“Oh, no,” Jehu said quickly. “No, no.”
“Why not? That is what you do for a living. You write.”
“I teach.” He smiled.
“You teach at a police academy,” she protested, “ and you have written three text books and an untold number of policies for the state!”
“Well, yes, but this is different.”
“How? You said it seems so real. Everything you’ve told me sounds like now. The witch is the old President. The tax is all that he has done. He killed five million people with his prejudice and ineptitude! Write it, Jehu,” she begged, “write it.” A tear formed at the corner of her eye. “Write it for Tom and Little Tom. Write it, Jehu, so people will remember what that no-good snake in the grass imposter did!”
“I will, honey,” he smiled, “I will.”
Just then Little Tom ran into the kitchen. He jumped at Jehu from a good three feet away and Jehu caught him in the air.
“Daddy, Daddy! You are here!”
Little Tom had forgotten most of what had happened—it had been a long time. He had taken to calling Jehu Dad. At first Jehu tried to correct him, but of course all of his other children called him Dad, and eventually he stopped trying. It mattered little anyway. Tom was dead and Jehu was the only father Little Tom would ever remember.
“Of course I’m here, squirt. I will always be here.”
Jehu laughed. “I promise. Pinky shake.”
The little boy and the big cop swapped pinky shakes, a morning ritual. Then Tommy slipped from his perch in Jehu’s lap and ran to awaken the rest of the house, another morning ritual.
“What should I call it?” Jehu asked his wife, as he rose to pour another cup of coffee. He looked across the room at his service weapon, a Glock model 17. His brother Tom had bought it for him. There was so much of Tom everywhere he looked. “Tom’s Tale?” he mused out loud.
“Hey, I’ve got it! There is a witch, right, and she taxed everyone unjustly. How about ‘The Unjust Witch’?”
“How about the Witch Tax?”
They smiled at each other. “I like it,” she said, “I like it. Who knows, it might be a best seller!”
Jehu chuckled. “I doubt it. But if it will open folks’ eyes, it is worth it!”