"Y'all come to see the bayou witch?"
Despite the sticky, brick-oven heat, William's blood ran cold. Spotted already? He whirled in place just in time to see a portly, sunburnt man in a cutoff shirt hacking his way through the dense swamp flora.
William relaxed. This man was no threat. "Bayou witch?"
"Yessir, she's the only singular reason anyone comes through this neck of Luzienne. I figured y'all to be tourists, with those getups."
William glanced at his men. The swamp dweller had a point. The team looked especially ragged in sweat-stained silver-and-black uniforms, stuck through with twigs and coated in a film of dirt.
"We are from out of town, yes," William admitted, "But we know nothing of this--uh--bayou witch, you said?"
The man offered a broad, rotten grin. "You boys are lucky I found you. Come with me. It ain't safe here." He set off in the direction he'd come from.
Exchanging an uneasy glance with Timothy, William waved his men onward. Before following them into the brush, he slashed a "9" in a nearby cypress so they would be able to find the path again.
The swamp man's home was nearby, with walls of rotten logs and a thatched roof made from palm fronds. It offered a damp, shady spot to recline and was surprisingly capable of hosting the entire expedition party.
"So, where you boys from?" the swamp man inquired.
"We're traveling east from San Antonio because our home has been overrun with--"
"You know, never mind," the swamp man said. "Everyone's from somewhere. Only important thing is you're here, now, and you don't know about the witch, and that's gonna cause you some problems unless you listen real close."
William kept silent. He could hear the men shuffling behind him in discomfort.
"This ain't no rumor. I know it sounds crazy, but it ain't a rumor. I mean it like I said it: there's a real witch in this swamp, a mighty old hag with dark magic spells and a bad temper. She's been creeping through the brush for the last few years or so, trailing her prey for days on end, and striking in the night. Seven feet tall with a long, thin brow. She hunts from the sky, swooping down to claw at the eyes of her victims. She's hideous but exotic. And she can smell an outsider's blood from miles away." The man held William's gaze intently as he delivered this last bit.
William suddenly felt nauseous. "We're...grateful for your hospitality, and for bringing us this warning, but I think we need to move on. As you can see"--he gestured to Emanuel, Leonard, and Daniel, huddled feebly near the doorway--"some of our men are ailing, and we need to reach our destination by nightfall. I think we'll head back to the trail now."
The man gave a grin as wide and rotten as the one he'd given earlier. "I spooked you."
William chuckled, "I suppose so, yes, a little bit."
The swamp citizen stood and extended his hand, which William accepted. "Well, I'll let you go then. But think on what I told you. Keep an eye out. Don't get careless." Suddenly, he drew William in close. "She's closer than you think."
With that, the man released William's hand, and the team shuffled out of the makeshift hut. As they made their way first back to the trail and then onward into the muggy afternoon, the tension generated by the strange encounter began to ease, and their progress was unimpeded for the remainder of the day. By nightfall, they had made their camp without issue and had even begun joking about the crazed swamp man who found them earlier.
William felt at ease with the situation. Of course there was no bayou witch.
Still, in a fit of superstition, he commanded the men to set up a lookout overnight.
As he lay on his sleeping mat, his conscious thoughts trailing off to the gurgling of frogs and the buzz of mosquitoes, he thought he felt something pass just overhead.
His dreams that night were dark and terrible.