|Photo credit: Keith Survell, Flickr (Creative Commons)|
As the man of God drew closer, the folk murmured amongst themselves. Those of the Papist persuasion crossed themselves. Dower wore a wide-brimmed hat and a traveling cloak, both of them as black as the heart of Satan. He was a tall man, standing a full four cubits and more, a head taller than any man of Bethany, and thin as a fencepost. His scowl could curdle fresh milk.
“Direct me to the church,” Dower told the first man he saw. “There I will take lodging with your pastor.”
“Beg pardon, sir,” the man stammered, wringing his hat, “but our pastor died four, five years ago. They never sent us another.”
None would have credited the possibility, had they not seen it themselves, but Dower’s scowl deepened even further. “Well. I suppose there is a rectory attached to the church proper?”
“Y—yes, sir, there is. Shut up it’s been, since Pastor Martin departed. But you’re welcome to use it.”
“Then I will. And I will hold a service at sunrise, on the morrow. Do spread the word. After you lead me to the rectory, of course.”
“We do beg your pardon for the condition of the place,” said the guide, standing in the rectory with Dower. “None have been in it since Pastor Martin went to Glory, sir.”
Dower raised his hat and knocked down the thick cobwebs over the dusty bed. “It will do, Mister Hat-wringer. If Providence has left behind a broom, I will make it suitable for the short time I intend to stay.”
The guide, perhaps not finding Dower’s appellation to his liking, set his crumpled hat upon his head and departed. Finding a candle in the deepening gloom, Dower produced a tinder-box and lit it, then made a circuit of the rectory. But for the years of neglect, all was as it should be. The place smelt of dust; that was an honest odor, not one foul but only what it was. The rectory and church were yet hallowed ground, and there was a broom lying on the kitchen floor.
After knocking down cobwebs and sweeping most of the dust into one corner, Dower knelt next to the lumpy bed. “Lord God,” he prayed, “Thou hast led Thy servant to this place, for Your divine purpose. Let me serve You to the best of my ability, then may I soon depart. Amen.” He rose, lay his bedroll across the mattress, and lay upon it. Many a night had Joab G. Dower spent on the cold ground, so any bed was welcome. He blew out the candle and slept.
Dower rose before dawn, broke his fast with bread, water, and prayer, and entered the church through a hallway connecting it to the rectory. He felt a twinge of surprise to find the church, nearly as dusty as the rectory, close to full at this early hour. Folk yawned or slouched in the pews, but for a handful standing in the narthex. One of those was a young woman, standing apart from the others, arms folded. Unlike the others, she met his gaze with a boldness not even the men here seemed to feel.
Laying his well-worn Bible on the pulpit, Dower opened to the passage he’d marked and began his sermon. “Lo, saith the Lord, I am with thee, even unto the end of the age.” He paused to look at the flock. “The Lord could well have written that, with this place in mind. For verily, the Lord hast not forsaken you, though you languish in this place, sheep without a shepherd. The same Lord sends me not to speak to you words of comfort, but to do battle with the demons that plague you.” A murmur went up at that, but Dower preached on.
After the sermon, he offered the traditional benediction, then strode down the aisle and out the doors into the grey morning light.
“It’s true, then?” one of the older men asked him. “God has sent you to us?”
“He has,” said Dower. “But He has left it unto you to tell me the nature of the Evil that I am to confront.”
“None has seen it,” said another. “Or if they have, they ain’t lived to tell of it. But it dwells in the Great Cedar Swamp, and roams the land on the new moon, devouring those it can find.”
“And the new moon is tonight.” The servant of the Lord scowled. “And I must find a guide afore time.”
“I’ll go with ya,” a woman’s voice broke the silence. It was the young woman who had watched him from the narthex. “None other have the nerve.”
Dower’s disapproving gaze raked the woman from bonnet to boots. Up close, a spray of freckles across her cheeks reflected the red hair that strayed from her bonnet. A girl’s face on a woman’s body, but he tamed that sinful thought. “And you do?” he asked at last.
“The swamp ain’t a dangerous place, if ya know what yer doin’,” she said, meeting his gaze with that same boldness. “I go in there for fish and mushrooms, all the time. This time of the month, I usually stay home. But if you mean to strike down whatever it is in there, I’m the one who can get you to it.”
Looking at the others, Dower saw she spoke true. “Are ye pure then, woman?”
She laughed. “None of these sheep so much as dare try me!”
“Very well. Who are you?”
“Sally Harper.” She stuck out a grimy hand, which Dower ignored.
“Very well, Miss Harper. Provision yourself, and we shall begin at once.”