Midnight had passed while William hurried down the street. He had thoroughly searched his own family's fields, just in case, before moving on to the neighbor's. The Coby's farm was larger than theirs, but grew mostly wheat for hay. There was also a sprawling pumpkin patch, and, other than stumbling over some vines, it was easier to cover the distance. Also, the scarecrow would have stood out better. The boy did note that the Coby's farm lacked a scarecrow of its own or even a post for it to live on.
He was on the road now. His own lantern and the lean moon above failed to provide the sharp cone of light that Jack had shown previously. Everything looked completely different. Without his friends around, the night felt claustrophobic. It seemed like he was surrounded on all sides. Instead of a beam of light, his lantern made only a dim halo. Beyond it was a wall of black, and beyond that, he knew not what. He hoped that old Stingy Jack was with the scarecrow.
After following the road for a time, the boy came to the Sparkill river. He couldn't see its calm waters now at night, but he heard them flowing smoothly below the stone bridge above it. He leaned against the stone wall now and stared down at the emptiness below. It was a peaceful place, day or night.
Peaceful but for one sound. . . or maybe two. The water was a sweetness to his ears, gentle and soft. There were crickets, too, chirping late in the year. And yet. . . one more. There was an additional sound here tonight. A scratching below the bridge.
William froze. As still as he had been, leaning against the bridge wall, he became even stiller now. The scratching continued, not unlike pen on paper: the speed, the intent, but harsher. Something on stone. Not quite sharp enough for a chisel, but something was cutting, scraping quickly across the blocks.
The boy tried to stay still, but the sound never stopped, and it was too much for him. He broke and ran at last the only way he knew-- the way back toward home. He was sure the scarecrow was out the other way somewhere, but there were also miles and miles of nothing out there, and then he would be trapped between the nothing and whatever was making that noise under the bridge.
His small lantern didn't illuminate much, and he felt like he was running faster than what it could reveal, but it didn't matter. For the first time, he felt that he didn't want anything revealed to him-- and then he hit it. He slammed face-first into a solid object and went sprawling.
“Whoa!” said the object.
The boy pawed around the pavement but could not find his lantern.
“I was trying to stay out of your way there, buddy, but you're too fast.”
The tiny lantern suddenly materialized in the air, then was handed back down to him.
“Looks like it's not broken,” said the object who, now in the light of the lamp, turned out only to be a man. He had brown hair and a scruffy jaw, but kind eyes.
The boy took it gratefully.
“I'm Henry,” The man said, offering a hand to the boy, who took it. “Henry Talbot.” He helped the boy to his feet.
“I'm. . . not really supposed to talk to strangers,” the boy said, “But I'm William.”
“I bet you're not supposed to be out here walking around at midnight, either. Where do you live?”
The boy backed away. “I'm not supposed to give out my address, either! You're not a policeman, are you?”
“No, just a. . . regular man.”
“What are you doing out late at night?” The boy was feeling braver again, now that the natural boundaries were plainly stated.
“Just walking. I'm a wandering man. Is this the way to town?” He pointed in the direction the boy had been running from.
“Yeah, but. . . you don't want to go that way right now.”
“Why not? I'm trying to get to town.”
“There's something under the bridge It was making noises. I'm afraid it might be. . .” the boy tried to think of something that would show the adult the fear he had been feeling. No grownup he knew would be afraid of a troll or a late night ghost hanging out by a bridge. “There might be a terrorist down there,” he said at last. “Maybe he's going to blow up the bridge.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” said Henry, “I'd better take a look.”
The man headed down the road. The boy kept his halo of light in a single spot for a moment before deciding the man may have use of it. “Mr. Talbot,” he called out, and began to follow.
By the time he caught up, the man was already working his way down the grassy slope around the bridge.
“Be careful!” The boy pushed his lantern toward the man.
“It's okay,” Henry said. “You hold onto it.” He had both hands against the brick wall and was nosing all around the area, his head low to the ground one moment, then high up below the bridge's arch. At last, he stuck his head fully under, into the shadow of the bridge, and the boy was sure he was going to lose his it. The man was really turning out to be quite a snoop.
He drew closer when the man didn't move, and raised the lantern as high as he could.
“Thanks,” Henry said suddenly. “It's darker under here than I thought.”
In the light of the lantern, the boy studies Henry's face, who seemed to be staring fixedly at one spot on the wall. Reluctantly, he moved the light source closer to the wall and tried to make out what it revealed.
In the stone blocks of the bridge, somebody had labored long on a writing project but not achieved much. Over and over again, possibly thousands of times, something had scratched in the same words.
“Scratch is coming. Scratch will come. Soon. Scratch in town. Scratch in town. Scratch. Scratch is coming.”
It filled the full underside of the arch, rising up overhead, continuing on to the other side, but never changing its orientation. As the writing scrawled down the central pillar of the bridge, the words had turned upside-down.
“Lousy place for advertising,” Henry said.
“Mr. Talbot,” the boy said, “I think I need to be going home.”
“Maybe so. Maybe me, too.”