It was in the last of January, a new moon had risen and with it the wind. Even though the sea was twenty leagues distant from my farm the smell of salt hung in the air with each new gust as if the fields were sheets of canvas and the earth itself was to be pushed by the gale. For three days, for three days and for three nights too, the wind howled and the trees moaned with the effort it took to withstand it. Snow, ice, limbs, and every jot and tittle of warmth blew sideways and away again. No fire could stand in the pit for the wind came down the chimney with reckless hate and every coal was smothered by it. I allowed the dogs in, placed them in the bed with me, and covered us all with everything made of cloth. On the third day of the storm I bundle myself such as I could and with a rope tied to my porch and my left boot, I walked the twenty-five feet to the well. I could not see the house behind me. I dropped three heavy stones into the well before I heard the sound of water and the bucket nigh froze solid before I could get back to the front door. The cows and horses in the barn would have to do with what they had, if indeed the barn still stood.
I thought the dogs mad, but all four of them stood on the bed and horripilated so, hackles raised, and they growled deeply. None of them had so much as moved for half a day and I did not either. Their warmth and mine mingled and all of us were loath to separate our resources, yet they did not hesitate; there was something out in the blackness other than ice, and wind, and cold.
The hammering on my door sounded very much like the wind had sounded for three endless days. The night looked blacker than noon only because white on white replaced white that laced out of the darkness to extinguish all light and flame. Yet there at my door was the sound of a hand being beaten into meat for everything was frozen. The dogs barked and yowled at the sound. I got up and lit a lantern and I thought I heard the sound of horses outside, but I could not be sure. Suddenly, and without any preamble, the wind stopped dead. All sound ceased. Then the dogs barked again, as I heard my named being called from the door.
“Robert Holley!” and it was a voice I had not heard in many years. “I bid thee haste! Open this door so that I might pass within!”
I unlatched the door and flung it open and Lankford Waterford stumbled in. We managed a fire and I had forgotten how warmth had felt, and Lankford spoke as soon as he could, “I thank thee for my life, Robert, but more I will ask of thee come this night! Evil I have brought to your home, and evil upon evil I have done, but if my soul is to be redeemed, I beg of thee, Robert, help me if you can, and if you dare!”
Before I could ask of him what he might need or, knowing Lankford as I did, what he had done, he began, “You know what a weakness I have for wine, Robert, and I ask your forgiveness in my gluttony. I went to Charles Town, to look for work, I swear it, and found lodging in the home of a seafarer whose wife rented room, please do not look at me so for I did not intend to harm anyone, but on my third night there, nigh on the head of this storm, the woman did seduce me, and whilst she lay with me her husband came to pick my pocket! I grabbed my sword and he his, and he fired at me with a flintlock pistol but missed me and struck his wife. I slew him with my sword as he stood agape at what he had done. Now they are both dead and the bodies I have in my wagon!”
Indeed, now the stillness of the night weighed as heavy upon us as the wind had. Clearly, the voices of the horses could be heard, and even though my mutts knew Lankford, they showed him their teeth and they milled around and barked at times, even though I beseeched them to silence. The horses were restive and I could hear their unease, too. Horse and hounds knew what I did not, ancient enemies they might have been. For Lankford’s tale rested not at all in my mind and I knew what he wanted of me. As if he could hear my thoughts he blurted out, “We must bury these bodies in sacred ground before the sun rises else their spirits will give me no peace!”
No greater horror could Lankford have arrived with in tow, but this, even if the ground was not frozen as solid as the ice in the well. “Fool!” I declared him. “By what device should we break the earth free from the winter’s hand? Yet were we to coax a grave into the ground, what of the warders and guards of the town? What of Pastor Grimsey? Into stocks he had thrown you thrice already! The gibblet awaits you and perhaps me also were we to get caught, and caught we shall be, trying to bury the dead without announcement of how they came to be!”
“Much wisdom you do speak here, sir!” and with this I nearly shrieked. For through the door itself and it not open, a man, his visage whiter than any snow, his eyes blacker than the night, and it seemed his feet moved not at all yet across the room he came, and stood before me.
“I am William George, yes, the same who owns the ship by that name. Pick his pocket? Villain! Scoundrel! Seducer! What has he ever in his purse or his bed that did not rightfully belong to another man? You know him as well as any and would you trust him with twenty pieces of copper or the milk maid?” The apparition pointed his ghostly finger towards Lankford. “You! You! You who turned my own wife against me and fed from my table and who slew me as I walked into my home weary from toil and travel now drag my dead body through storm and through ice and even now the sun races around to deprive my spirit peace! You coaxed my wife into your sway and then the two of you sought to waylay me and live lively on what I have so long sought to build! But now you have ensnared your last friend and it will be he who suffers most for the good of heart bear punishment of the evil heavily, knowing nothing of it.”
I knew the name of William George and I knew others would know him, too. Were we caught with his body then nothing short of the charge of murder would be laid and now, I perhaps thought this was more of the case than any. I thought it best to drive the team of horses pell-mell to Charles Town and declare honestly and truthfully what I had heard and seen, and Lankford would have to suffer for his own mistakes for they not mine. My lands, my home, and my reputation lay in trying to succor from the dead a man who had done little good for the living.
“All of this, Dear Sirs, is well and good, but I am confused as to why you tarry.” This voice belonged to a woman who, like the one before her, drifted through the door and glided across the floor. “I be, Carah, the wife of William George, and the daughter of Huxley Adams, and in any case, I was never anyone else, except the daughter of a man who would give her to another man, and in this, very little of me you might know.”
“Silence woman!” roared George but she ignored him.
“Or what, pray tell?” Carah continued. “I sat in silence whilst my father and you negotiated for my future in the parlor. No one asked me until the deal had been sealed. I was another piece of one man’s empire that would bond to another’s. I was glue, a nail to bind two boards, and a pot to mix to family’s blood.” She lifted a finger at me and said, “And you! That wretch I took in boredom brings me here but your name I know, also. You vowed never to take another wife at the grave of a girl you killed in childbirth! Did you think one so slight of body and so ill of health would make a fine broodmare? Her father’s land you plough now instead, and your child and the mother lay frozen in the earth. All of you with money see women as steps on a ladder. All of you without see another man’s success to be enjoyed at game, or worse, livestock.”
“Be ye silent!” George whispered. “In the name of the Lord, I command thee so!”
“Command me?” Carah continued. “The ship you commanded took the lives of the great fish until it was learned the lives of men could be taken for more. I was told as long as you spoke of your journey when you returned you had not committed evil, but the first commerce you had with the slavers fill you with silence and evil! What foulness did you but commit on that ship with your cargo? Not human you would declare but fully acceptable for your bed on that boat. And to my bed your brought your love for taking with force and binding with rope. You did not learn that teaching Sunday School, but you would have your own wife be your slave and little more, even without your rapine nature. Why would I, a Lady take a man well beneath my station? At least to him there is honesty in the lust, and in this I know that once or twice, and then I can be rid of him.
What do you think happens to a wife when a man of fortune is at sea? His neighbors and his friends count the days for the ship to be late. They nod and tip their hats but they also hope the waters take you and in this the widow might be ripe for the picking. ‘Your husband’s boat is but a little late, Misses, fear not!’ but each man that spoke this in church wondered if my father would pay again a dowry, maybe more, for a woman without her virginity is damaged, even if it is the man who wants her has done the deed. Murder? Robbery? I cannot say whose story is the truth but I can tell you I suffered the last fate a woman must suffer when men have their honor to keep. You have no choice now, for dawn comes running! Burn this house with our bodies within or our spirits will haunt forever this earth! The one who has suffered the most wrong here will never be at peace with mankind! Can you not do this or is too late already?”
But the wind had not spoken in an hour. The dogs and horses went silent. I stopped to listen and the whole of the world had not spoken to me since the knock on the door so clearly.
“I am sorry, Mr. Holley,” Lankford whispered. “I did not realize the hour was so late.”
“Four bodies?” the warden asked.
“Yes, just like last year.” His supervisor replied. “All froze to death.”
“Happens every new moon that falls on the last day of January?” the man shook his head. “Computers scare the hell out of me sometimes. Who first figured it out?”
“Popped up a few years ago. Since then the ghost hunters have come up with all sorts of fantasies. This was the first day four people died while with a group that large. No one knows what made them leave their tents.”
“You believe the stories there’s a witch here at Truitt’s Crossing, Ms.Carah?” the warden asked.
“Children’s tales to frighten college kids,” she replied. “Such as that wouldn’t scare a real man, would it?” She smiled. “Let’s go have a beer.”