Pressing my body to the door, I pounded with both fists as the wind
screamed down the hollow and flung itself against my back again. “For the love of God, man, have mercy and open up!”
I yelled. My voice was lost in the howl of the wind as I repeated my assault on the door, pummeling with my fists and kicking
against it with the toe of my boot.
“Who be you?” A voice from within
asked as the door creaked open a crack and a rheumy eye peered out.
“A stranger seeking shelter for the
night,” I answered, shivering and drawing my threadbare coat around me.
The eye looked me up and down and the voice
whined, “Who be you?”
“A poor itinerant man of the cloth.
My name would mean naught to you. Please, sir, let me in.”
“Be you a cursed Papist?”
“Most assuredly not, sir. Lutheran.”
The eye scrutinized me once more as the wind
clutched at my coat tails and threatened to tear my hat from my head. Burn in Hell,
damn you, I thought, gritting my teeth and wincing at the bite of the cold.
“An honest-ter-God man of the cloth?”
“Then come in, but be quick about it.
The wind is fierce tonight.”
I’d have wished for that wind to blow
him all the way to Hell if it wouldn’t have taken me, too. “Bless you, brother,” I said, pushing my way
past as he held the door against the gale.
“Seat yourself, parson,” my host
said, guiding me to a bench at a rough table. “Welcome to the house of Amos Souder, poor though it be.”
I did as he bade, removing my hat and smoothing
my wind-ravaged peruke as I took advantage of the opportunity to observe Souder and his quarters. A tall, stout, stoop-shouldered
man of middle years, he wore a frizzy red beard. His beady, close-set eyes looked out suspiciously over a pug nose from a
face equally freckled and pocked. He wore a purple osnaberg shirt, a tan jacket without sleeves, an old and grimy pair of
leather breeches, worn white cotton stockings and country-made shoes.
Like its owner, the room exhibited little
sign of ostentation. The chamber was small and poorly furnished, lit by only a single guttering candle and reeking of cooking
odors, smoke and perspiration. A haze of white dust from the adjoining mill lay over everything like a second skin.
Still, I had researched my host thoroughly
and knew Amos Souder had a reputation for being both prosperous and miserly. And, though he might deny it, not only was the
master of a mill the principle buyer and seller of goods, it was common knowledge he was often the banker in these small communities
Despite my constant interest in pecuniary
matters, for the moment I was more concerned with physical comfort. My cheeks stung with the bite of the wind and my hands,
feet and limbs were numb from the cold. So, I leaned most gratefully now toward the warmth of the fire blazing on the hearth
of one of those cavernous fireplaces favored by the Pennsylvania Germans. The bench, hard though it be, was also welcome after
a ten-mile trek across a steep, desolate mountain. And, I was famished. Save for a few frost-cracked walnuts stolen from a
greedy tribe of squirrel, I’d had nothing to eat since the night before. Munching those woody nuts, I had fancied a
feast of bushy-tail. Alas, they proved too fleet of foot for the club I brandished and the stones I flung in desperation.
Oh, how I’d longed for a gun as they mocked me from high in the trees!
I’d been wandering the upper counties
for a time, making a precarious but steady living posing as an itinerant man of the cloth. My eloquence in English and fluency
in the German tongue coupled with my experience upon the stage made it most easy to impress these simple folk and convince
them to share their few hard coins with me. Still, my pursuit was not without its risks. A recent run-in with an unreasonable
magistrate had forced my confederates and I to move our operations from Berks to Lancaster County. So it was that I found myself at an inn a few days past where I chanced to hear of the prosperous
Herr Souder. Little did I realize at the time what this encounter now would bode for my future.
“Didn’t catch your name, sir,”
Souder said now, leaning across the table. The gaze from his beady eyes roved over me, suspiciously.
The wind wailed round the house, scraping
branches on its rooftop and flinging leaves and bark against the rattling window pane.
“The Reverend Hiram Wolf, at your service,
“Um, not at mine, parson. We have our
own church, just over the hill. Might I ask why you did not seek shelter there?”
“I was unaware of its existence. I’m
a stranger in these parts.”
“Well, if it’s a congregation
you’re seeking, I fear you’ve journeyed here in vain. You’ll find few unaffiliated Lutherans hereabouts
and even fewer of other persuasions to convert.”
“My intention was not to seek a living
here, but I am pleased to learn the faith is firmly entrenched. I’m only passing through.”
“These are dangerous times for a man—of
the cloth or not—to be traveling.”
“Yes, and especially for a poor shepherd
such as myself. But, the rebellion has made life precarious in Philadelphia whence I came.
Since the war moved out of Pennsylvania, there is nothing but intrigue and turmoil in the city. Privation has
led the soldiers to mutiny and mass desertions. A standing army with nothing to do is as dangerous as a mad dog and many citizens
resent their continued presence and the shortage of goods imposed by the war.”
“Curse the rebellion!”
“Oh—are you a Loyalist, sir?”
“Loyal to an English king? Certainly
not. I came here to get away from governments. It matters not what they call themselves or of what blood they be, their methods
of thievery remain the same.”
“But, the rebels speak of liberty for
“Never mind what they say now. Wait
until they’re enthroned. You’ll see; they’ll be no different. If a man wants liberty, then let him separate
himself from all governments, I say.”
Like Souder, I stood separate from the rebellion.
Once in its heady early days I’d been swept up in the fervor of tavern talk, but my enthusiasm was short-lived. I soon
came to my senses, realizing no government had ever worked up a sweat over my welfare. Nor did I have any taste for the military
life. I’d tried it twice, both instances to my regret.
My stomach growled audibly.
“Are you hungry, parson?”
“Aye, that I am.”
“Well, it’s long past my suppertime,”
he said as though that settled the matter.
“I am poor, sir, but I am not totally
without means to pay for a bit of food.”
Souder gave me an angry glance. “I
wouldn’t take money for feeding a clergyman. You’ll find some sauerkraut in the kettle behind you and I can provide
some excellent bread.”
“I would be most grateful, sir, if
it’s not too much trouble.”
Rising with a grunt and a sigh, Souder ladled
out a portion of sauerkraut into a bowl and cut a slice from a loaf of bread. He placed them before me and I dug in.
The kraut was thin and short on meat. He
offered no butter, but the bread was indeed excellent and I told him so. “Your wife is to be complimented, sir.”
“I have no wife,” he said, sullenly.
“I baked it myself.”
“Well, then it is you who must be praised.
It’s the best I’ve tasted in these parts.”
“You really like it?” he asked,
“Most assuredly,” I replied,
stuffing the last morsel into my mouth.
“Then you must have more,” Souder
said, beaming. He brought me a larger slice and I seized it greedily. “I make it from flour I mill myself. The secret
of bread-making is in the grain used and the amount of gluten it contains. Do you understand about gluten?”
I made no attempt to stifle a healthy yawn,
having no desire for a lecture on a subject of interest to me only in its final result.
“Ah, but you’re tired,”
Souder said, a note of disappointment in his voice.
“I fear that I am. It’s been
a long day.”
With that he picked up the candle and disappeared
through a door at the end of the room, leaving me with only the fluttering light of the fireplace.
I heard the scrape of a chair being moved,
the bang of a trunk lid against a wall, some mutterings and rummaging about. Then he returned, carrying a bearskin, which
he tossed on the floor before the fireplace. “My bed is too small to share, but I expect you’ll be comfortable
enough here for the night,” he said, apologetically.
“Thank you, sir. Your kindness is without
Another grunt and he left me once more in
I spread out the bearskin and rolled myself
in it, seeking a comfortable position for my bones on the puncheon floor. The hide was rancid and my flesh crawled as I imagined
the vermin it must contain. Still, it was warm and, combined with the heat of the fire, contributed to a lethargy difficult
to resist despite the hardness of the floor. But…
I sat up, rubbing at my eyes with both fists.
There was work yet to be done before I allowed my weary body to succumb to the slumber it so desired.
The fire cast ominous shadows along the walls
of the room as I sat with my arms wrapped round my knees, waiting. The wind continued its restless assault outside. The house
shook, its timbers groaning, and the glass of the window rattled more. Despite the racket and desire to institute my plan,
I had to fight to keep from nodding off. Thankfully, I hadn’t long to wait. Soon, audible above the other racket, my
ears were rewarded with the awaited rasp and whistle of Souder’s snoring.
Cautiously, I crept from my bed and made
my way to his chamber door. With my ear against it, a vibrating rumble from within gave assurance he was asleep.
Nearby, in the flickering light of the fireplace,
I spied a cupboard against one wall. Making my way quietly to it, I picked up a bowl and hurled it against the far wall.
In response to the crash of the crockery
there came a snort from Souder. With a grin, I imagined him bolting upright in his bed, his beady eyes blinking open and peering
round him in the dark.
I smashed a bowl to the floor at my feet
and tossed another across the room.
There was another grunt and an exclamation
from Souder, then I heard his big feet smack against the floor of the other room.
I raced back to my bed, drew the hide around
me and sat up with what I hoped was a frightened expression just as he flung open the door. His head popped out. “What
was that noise?” he asked, his voice quivering.
“I don’t know,” I answered,
innocently. “It woke me, too.”
Seeing nothing amiss, he started back. “Humph,
must have been the wind.”
Just then I shrieked like a catamount.
“Parson! What is it?”
As he approached, I squeezed shut my eyes,
flung up my legs and threw out my arms, moaning and shaking my body as though seized by a fit.
Souder fell to his knees and took me by the
shoulders. “What is it? What’s wrong?” The wind shook the house as he did the same with me. I felt his big
body tremble as he held me.
I grabbed his wrists and looked up at him
wide-eyed, licking my lips and shivering. “Water,” I gasped.
“Water. Bring me some water.”
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
Scuttling off, he was soon back with a brimming
An arm around my shoulders, he held the ladle
to my lips and I took a sip. I sputtered and coughed, then took another drink.
“Are you all right?”
I gazed at him, seeing the mix of concern
and fear on his ugly face, and it was hard to keep from smiling. I laid a hand on his arm. “Master Souder,” I
said in as serious a tone as I could muster, “I fear we have been visited by a spirit.”
Souder dropped the ladle and his face went