The heat was almost unbearable as the sun crept across the mid-August sky, baking Garrett and Jake as they trudged across the open meadow. Waist-high thistles and sunflowers scraped against his clothes while Jake was nearly invisible up ahead. There was no movement of air which made the temperature seem even hotter. The two had been taking advantage of the dry season to scout new locations for setting traps for the coming winter. Garrett tried not to over-trap an area; even the animals needed time to replenish their numbers both for his benefit and for their survival. While he didn’t like traveling too far from his cabin, he knew that it had to be done. Jake didn’t mind though; he loved to explore new territory.
As daylight began to give way to darkness, Garrett decided to make camp in a small clearing at the top of a ridge. Jake approved after he scouted the area while his master gathered firewood and started a fire. Even though it was hot during the day, the nights got quite chilly in the hills. The slight breeze came from the north as the two friends settled in next to the smoky campfire over which hung a small pot, half-filled with water, a few wild onions that Garrett had found when filling a canteen near a stream that flowed near their camp, and chunks of rabbit that had made the mistake of running across their path earlier in the day.
” Smells pretty good, huh Jake?” Garrett asked, looking into the sad eyes of his friend who alternated gazing at the food and Garrett. “It won’t be long now. Have a piece of salt meat while you wait,” he added as he threw the dog a chewy chunk of jerky. Jake held the jerky down with one foot while he pulled it into pieces which he mostly swallowed.
As they sat enjoying each other’s company, a flickering light off in the distance slowly gained Garrett’s attention. As it grew brighter, the sound of voices became apparent, though muffled at first. When he finally took real notice, Garrett stood up, picked up his rifle, and walked in the direction of the sound. The closer he got to the top of the ridge, the louder the sounds became. He checked his rifle, making sure that it was ready in case of trouble. The voices weren’t clear yet, but it was obvious that something serious was happening; and it was getting closer to him.
Garrett kneeled close to the ground as he scurried to the ridge crest, popping his head up just high enough to observe a group of people with lanterns forcefully ushering, what appeared to be, an old, gray-haired woman toward a cliff. They were moving quite slowly, probably because the old woman was limping and having to use two sticks or canes to prevent her losing her balance as she was pushed and prodded by her tormentors. “Well, this just don’t seem right,” Garrett whispered to himself as he intently watched the group pass not too far from his position which was above and south of them. “What could an old woman done to deserve this kind of treatment?”
The group halted near the edge of the cliff and formed a semi-circle with the woman between them and the cliff. “Witch,” one of the men said aloud as he took one step toward her and stopped to continue. “You are accused of consorting with the devil and being a practicing witch. Since you claim to be innocent, we have no choice but to subject you to a trial by ordeal. You must step off the edge of this cliff. If you are truly guilty, then you will save yourself by your witchcraft,” he told her.
” And if I’m innocent, I die, isn’t that right?” the old woman replied in a gravely voice, her head held high in defiance of the group of men.
” Yes, it’s unfortunate that you will die, but it will clear your name. We will then perform an act of penance and pray for your lost soul,” the leader replied somberly.
” Do you hear what you’re saying, you idiots?” the woman shouted at them. “Well, one of you will have to push me because I’m not committing suicide and damning my soul for it.”
” If that’s what you wish,” he said and stepped toward her, his arms outstretched to push her over the edge.
” Hold it right there!” yelled Garrett, who had vacated the security of the rocks and moved in behind the group. With his rifle trained on the leader of the group, he continued, “Ma’am, come here.” As she silently did so, he explained, “There ain’t gonna be no killing here tonight unless I does it. I don’t know what this woman might have done, but she ain’t gonna be pushed off no cliff, not while I’m here to prevent it.” The old woman made her way over to Garrett, and the two of them backed away into the darkness.
” Mister, this ain’t none of your business,” someone said as they disappeared.
” I guess I just made it my business. She’s ain’t your problem anymore, so go back where you come from. If you follow us, I guess I’ll have to shoot you,” Garrett replied as they reached the top of the ridge.
” Fine, she’s your problem now. But if she comes back, we’ll put her to death. You hear that old witch?” one of them shouted at the darkness.
Garrett and the old woman only heard noises though, now that they were moving out of earshot of the group that was now leaving. Jake had been standing guard at the camp, so when his master returned with someone, he was quite curious. After a few moments of dog-detective work, sniffing, his assessment of the old woman was that she was okay. Now done, Jake returned to his spot near the fire and curled up for the night.
Garrett helped the woman over to the fire and poured a cup of coffee for her. While she sipped, he stirred the pot and found that it contained enough food for him to offer her. “Here’s some rabbit stew that I made a few hours ago. It ain’t much, but it’ll help stop the gnawing in your belly.”
Without speaking, the old woman put down the coffee and eagerly accepted the stew from her rescuer. As she ate, Garrett watched the distance for any signs that her tormentors had followed them. The glow that had raised his curiosity originally had now faded, and the only sounds were the locusts and the awful noise that Jake made as he slept. By the time she had finished her meal, the fire was burning rather low, so Garrett piled on a few more dead branches to keep it going longer. When he was done, he turned back to their guest and studied her face.
The old woman had the look of a woman who had struggled many years to scratch a living out of the earth. Her back and legs were weak, the canes surely being the only reason that she was able to walk at all. She was hunched over badly, and her hands showed the wear and tear of a hard farm life. While her face wasn’t hideous, the one large wart on her cheek and the leathery skin made her unattractive. Her one feature that belied her years was her eyes. They sparkled with the fire of life which didn’t match the rest of her body. Garrett wasn’t sure how old this woman was, but he was certain that even if her body was tired enough to lie down and die, her heart and soul were not ready to make that last trip, at least not yet.
” Feel better?” he asked, smiling at her as he retrieved the plate and held out the coffee pot to refill her cup.
” Yes, much better. You’ve been very kind to me,” she softly replied, her soft voice catching him off guard. It wasn’t the voice that he had heard back at the edge of the cliff.
” Ain’t my place to pry into your business, but what was that about?”
” Just a bunch of ignorant fools seeing evil in anything that they don’t understand. I tried to help a woman birth her baby, but it was born dead and deformed. They blamed me,” she explained, her eyes moistening as she spoke.
” Well, you can come on back with me and Jake. That’d be Jake over there asleep. He thinks you’re good people, which is good enough for me.”
Before he finished speaking, the woman reached over and touched his arm. “What’s your name, stranger?”
” Sorry, ma’am. Garrett’s the name, Garrett Johnson.”
” Well, Garrett Johnson, I am indebted to you for your bravery and courage tonight. I owe you a debt, and I pay my debts. If you could have one wish, what would you wish for?” the old woman said, smiling into his eyes.
” Oh, you don’t owe me nothing,” he answered. “They ain’t nothing I need.”
” Now this is something that I must do for you, so think about it. What would you like to have?” she repeated, this time with a serious look on her face that told Garrett that he’d have to give her some kind of answer just to make her happy.
After a few minutes of thought, he replied. “I’d like to have a son someday, someone that I can bring up to love the woods and things as much as I do. I know that sounds silly coming from an old hermit like me, but a son would be a fine thing.”
” Good,” the old woman said as she placed her head on her hands and then began mumbling beneath her breath. After a few minutes, she stopped, stood up, and turned to leave.
” Wait!” Garrett said loudly, taken aback by her actions. “Where’ya goin? It’s dangerous out there, you know the people who tried to kill you a while ago, not to mention the animals roaming around at night in these hills.
” I’ll be fine. Thank you for your kindness. Goodbye Garrett. Goodbye Jake,” she said with a smile.
Before he could argue, she faded into the night. Garrett started to follow her to bring her back, but something told him that it was a waste of his time. She was out of his life even faster than she had entered it. Instead, he sat back down at the fire, patted Jake, who had never moved from his spot, and stared at the night sky.