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“Do not forget to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
I had just stepped out the kitchen door into the frozen February night when the stranger startled me half to death. I hadn’t heard any automobiles rattling down the long, deserted lane to my farmhouse, so when a shadow in the darkness suddenly turned into the large form of a man, he scared me so bad I dropped a coal scuttle full of ashes down the porch steps. I had to clutch my heart with both hands to keep it from jumping out of my rib cage.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I never meant to frighten you,” the stranger said. Even in the dark I could tell he was truly sorry. He had his arm stretched out, like he would gladly catch me if I dropped dead of fright.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t hear you drive up, is all.”
“I didn’t drive. I came on foot.” He lowered the burlap sack he carried and bent to scoop the spilled ashes back into the scuttle with his hands.
“Careful, those cinders might still be warm.”
“Yes, ma’am. Feels good, though.” His hands were bare, and he wore no hat—only layers of ragged clothing against the numbing cold. His overgrown hair and bushy beard hid most of his face from view. But it was his odor, the strong smell of unwashed flesh and wood smoke, that told me plain as day that the stranger was a hobo—one of the many thousands that roamed across America looking for work that winter. He must have tramped through the orchard from the railroad tracks, drawn by the light of my farmhouse windows.
“Your house is marked,” old Abe Walker told me the last time I paid a visit to his general store in Deer Springs. “That’s what them tramps do, you know. Once they learn you’re a kindhearted Christian woman, they mark your house for the next fellow. You ought to chase them off, Eliza Rose. ’Tisn’t safe to have them hanging around, you being a widow and all.”
Abe Walker didn’t know that I’d grown up with kinkers and lot-loafers and roustabouts, so I was a pretty good judge of people. I knew who to invite inside and who to send packing.
“May I have a word with your husband, ma’am?” the stranger asked, startling me a second time.
“My ... my husband?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was wondering if he had some odd jobs I could do in exchange for a meal.” The tramp had a gentle voice, soft-spoken, polite. I thought of all the endless chores that needed to be done around here—milk buckets to wash, kindling to split, coal to fetch, animals to feed, fences to mend—and I felt tired clear to my bones.
“Why don’t you come inside and have a bite to eat,” I said. “It’s too cold to stand around out here. Just leave those ashes on the porch.” I turned and opened the kitchen door for him, but he didn’t move.
“I don’t mind eating outside. And I’m willing to do some chores first.”
It was hard to tell how old the stranger was in the darkness. His voice was neither young nor old. I felt sorry for him, though. In spite of his many layers of clothing, he stood hunched against the cold, shivering.
“We just finished our supper,” I said. “The food is still warm. Please come in.”
He slowly followed me inside, then stood close to the kitchen door while I sliced some bread, fetched a clean soup bowl, ladled a helping of leftovers into it, and poured him a cup of coffee. When I turned to ask him to sit, he startled me once more—for a split second he reminded me of my husband. The stranger was nearly as tall and broad-shouldered as Sam had been, and he stood exactly like Sam used to stand with one shoulder hitched a little higher than the other, his head cocked to one side as if listening for a sound in the distance. Then the moment passed, and I saw how very different from Sam he really was—dark-haired while Sam had been fair, brown-eyed while Sam’s eyes had been as blue as a summer sky.
“Won’t you sit down?” I asked. I set the bowl of stewed chicken, carrots, and dumplings on the table and passed him the bread.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
I could have sworn I saw the shine of tears in his eyes as he lowered himself into the chair like a very old man. Then he surprised me by folding his hands and bowing his head to pray, just like Sam and his daddy always used to do before they ate.
Across the table from him, my four-year-old daughter gaped at the stranger through wide gray eyes, her fork hanging in the air as she picked at the remains of her dinner. The bare light bulb above the table lit up her coppery hair like flames.
“Quit staring and finish your dinner, Becky Jean,” I said. I didn’t mean to sound so cross all the time, but lately my words just seemed to jump out of my mouth that way. I turned back to my sink full of dishes, and when I glimpsed my reflection in the kitchen window, I saw a face that was too harsh, too care-worn for a woman just thirty years old. With all those worry lines and my sandy hair drooping in my eyes, I looked nothing at all like the young girl Sam had once called “pretty as a picture.”
“My mama won’t let you leave the table till you eat all your carrots,” Becky told the stranger. “I don’t like carrots, do you?”
“Well, yes, miss. As a matter of fact, I like carrots a lot.”
“Want mine?” she asked.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “You finish your dinner, Becky Jean, and let the man finish his.” I planted my hands on my hips, watching Becky like a hawk until she finally bit off a tiny piece of carrot. I could tell by the way the man was shoveling food into his mouth that he hadn’t eaten for quite some time. I dished him a second helping.
“Don’t you want to take your coat off, mister?” Becky asked him a few minutes later.
“No, thank you. It’s hardly worth the bother. I’ll be going back outside in just a bit.” He spoke softly, as if there were a baby sleeping nearby and he didn’t want to wake it. But the mood was broken a moment later by the sound of footsteps thundering down the stairs, jumping from the landing to the hallway floor, then racing into the kitchen. I didn’t need to turn around to know that it was my son Jimmy. He was nine years old, and he galloped like a spring colt wherever he went.
“Mama, can you help me with my—” He froze in the doorway when he saw the stranger. Jimmy’s light brown hair was too long again, hanging in his eyes like a patch of overgrown weeds. I would have to cut it if I could get him to sit still that long.
“It’s not polite to stare, Jimmy,” I said. “Can’t you say ‘good evening’ to our guest?”
“Good evening,” he said. The stranger was caught with a mouthful of dumplings and could only nod in reply. A moment later, a redheaded shadow appeared in the doorway behind Jimmy—seven-year-old Luke. But I knew it would be useless to ask him to greet the man. Luke was as shy and as easily spooked as a stray cat.
“What did you need help with, Jimmy?” I asked, drying my hands on my apron.
“Spelling words.” He skirted the table in a wide arc, as far away from the stranger as he could get, and handed me his notebook. Luke hovered close to his shirttail. The boys’ eyes—as blue as their father’s had been—never left the stranger. I was trying to decipher Jimmy’s smudged writing when the man suddenly let out a yelp. I looked up to see him rubbing the back of his hand.
“Mama!” Jimmy said in amazement, “Becky just hauled off and poked that man with her fork!”
“Yeah, for no reason at all!”
“But I did have a reason!” Becky said. “I wanted to see if he was an angel!”
The hobo’s dark brows lifted. “A what?”
“An angel,” she repeated. She was on the verge of tears. “Mama’s always feeding strangers ’cause she says they might be angels. But you wouldn’t take your coat off, so I couldn’t see if you had wings under there.”
I gripped Becky’s shoulder, shaking her slightly. “Becky Jean! You say you’re sorry right now!” Instead, she covered her face and cried.
“No, no, there’s no harm done,” the man said. He had a nice smile, his teeth even and white. “I think I know which verse your mother means. It’s from the book of Hebrews, isn’t it, ma’am? ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ ”
“Yes, that’s right.” I was so dumbfounded to hear a scruffy old hobo spouting off Scripture like a Sunday preacher that I didn’t know what else to say.
Becky wiped her eyes with her fists, then looked up at the man again. “I’m sorry I poked you ... but are you an angel?”
“I’m afraid not. Just an ordinary traveling man.” He pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “I’m very grateful for the meal, ma’am,” he said, bowing slightly. “It was delicious. Now, if there’s something I can do for you in return, I’ll be glad to do it.”
“There’s nothing that can’t wait till morning. You’re welcome to sleep in my husband’s workshop out in the barn. There’s a cot and a potbelly stove you can light if you’re willing to haul your own firewood. You’ll find a lantern and some matches on the shelf inside the doorway.”
“Thanks again, ma’am.” He lifted his hand as if to tip his hat but his head was already bare. He smiled sheepishly. “Good evening to you, then.”
All that evening as I sat at the kitchen table helping Jimmy with his spelling words and arithmetic problems, I heard the hollow crack of an ax splitting firewood. Again and again the sound of splintering wood broke the silence, followed by the dull thunk of wood dropping to the porch floor as the man stacked it against the house.
“I won’t have to chop any wood tomorrow,” Jimmy said with a wide grin.
“Sounds like you won’t have to chop any wood for a week,” I said. “I wonder how he can see what he’s doing in the dark.”
The stranger didn’t stop chopping until after the children were in bed. When I went into the kitchen to adjust the stove damper for the night, I saw his dark outline bending and moving against the white drifts, lifting and flinging the snow high into the air as he shoveled a path to the barn and the chicken coop.
Upstairs in my bedroom, I shivered in the cold as I undressed. I hadn’t had much of an appetite since Sam died, and I couldn’t seem to keep warm at night unless I wore two pairs of his woolen socks and a sweater over my nightgown. “You’re scrawny as a plucked chicken,” Sam would probably say if he could see how skinny I’d become.
After switching off the light, I peered outside once more from my bedroom window. A wisp of smoke curled from the stovepipe in the workshop, lantern light glowed from inside the barn. But it was only after I lay curled in the cold, empty bed that I realized that I hadn’t even asked the stranger his name.
I had grown so used to being alone on the farm that I forgot all about the hobo until I opened the kitchen door the next morning to fetch some firewood and saw the huge stack of it piled on the porch. I nearly tripped over the scuttle, which he had refilled from the coal bin in the barn and set outside the door. Jimmy and I could walk side-by-side on the path the stranger had shoveled to the barn, and he had even sprinkled it with ashes so we wouldn’t slip and fall with the milk buckets. But there was no smoke rising from the chimney in the workshop.
“Looks like our angel flew away again,” I said.
“Already?” Jimmy sounded disappointed. “I think he must’ve been my guardian angel, chopping all that wood like he done.” I followed my son into the dim, frosty barn, our breath hanging in the air in front of us. When Jimmy stopped suddenly, I nearly ran into him.
“Wow!” he said. “One man did all this? He must’ve worked all night!”
The stranger had shoveled all the manure from the stalls—a task I had been dreading—and he’d pitched a fresh supply of hay down from the loft and piled it within easy reach. There was a tidiness and an order to the barn that sent a small shiver down my spine. This was the work of a man who took pride in what he did—the way Sam used to keep things—not the make-do job of a weary mother and her young sons.
“Looks like he knew what to do and just did it,” I mumbled. My eyes burned suddenly, as if smoke had gotten into them. I gave Jimmy a nudge to get him moving. “Come on, now. Quit your gawking and get to work or you’ll be late for school.”
When we finished milking the cows and feeding the horses, I sent Jimmy into the workshop to make sure the hobo had put the fire out. “And don’t forget to close the flue,” I warned him.
I’d no sooner unlatched the door to the chicken coop when I heard Jimmy shouting at me from across the barnyard. “Mama! Mama, come here! Quick!”
“What’s wrong?” I hurried to where he stood by the open barn door. His freckles looked gray against his pale face.
“That man is just laying there by the stove,” he said breathlessly, “and I can’t wake him up!”
A cold chill shuddered through me. Not again.
Young Jimmy had been the one who’d found his grandfather lying dead on the barn floor three months ago. I could see the memory of that terrible afternoon in his frightened eyes.
“Oh, that old hobo is probably drunk, that’s all,” I said with a wave of my hand. “As poor as most tramps are, it seems like they can always get their hands on some liquor if they want to. I’ll see to him. You hurry and get ready for school—and make sure Luke doesn’t dawdle, either.”
I found the stranger huddled on the cot in the workshop, wrapped in a filthy blanket. The slow rise and fall of his chest assured me that he wasn’t dead. The room felt cold, the fire long gone out. I glanced around but didn’t see any empty liquor bottles. He was probably exhausted from all the work he’d done—work that would have taken the boys and me an entire day to do. I felt a wave of pity for the man and carefully stepped around him to rebuild the fire before returning to my chores. His muscles would ache a lot less if he kept warm.
“Did the angel wake up, Mama?” Becky asked when I returned to the house. She still sat at the kitchen table, poking at her oatmeal in her slow, vexing way. I set the basket of eggs in the sink, then held my hands over the stove for a moment to warm them.
“He’s just an ordinary hobo, Becky, not an angel.”
“Is he ... d-dead?” Luke asked.
“Of course not. You saw all the wood he chopped. The man is exhausted, that’s all.”
“He can have my oatmeal if he’s hungry.” Becky slid off her chair and picked up the bowl with both hands. “Can I take it out to him?”
“No you may not. He’ll want bacon and eggs when he wakes up, and your oatmeal had better be in your tummy by then. I’m getting awfully tired of arguing with you over every meal, Becky Jean, especially when there are plenty of children going hungry in this country.”
I sent the boys off to school beneath a dismal gray sky that threatened snow. By the time Becky and I finished washing the breakfast dishes and the milk pails, flurries had begun. I mixed a double batch of bread, thinking the stranger might like a fresh loaf to take with him, but when I had it all kneaded and rising in the warming oven, I still saw no sign of him. Leaving Becky with her paper dolls, I pulled on my boots and coat and hiked through the swirling snowflakes to check on him.
“Mister... ?” I said, shaking his shoulder. “Hey, mister ... you all right?” When he didn’t respond, I shook him harder and harder, a sense of panic rising inside me like a flock of frightened birds. “Hey, there! Hey, wake up!” He finally stirred, moaning slightly, and I saw by his glazed eyes and flushed cheeks that it wasn’t strong drink or exhaustion that had felled him. It was a fever.
I quickly backed away from him. What if he had something contagious, like polio? My children had been exposed to him last night, Jimmy had been in here this morning, touching him. I quickly tossed a few more logs on the fire, then closed the door of the workshop to let him sleep.
By afternoon the snow was falling thick and heavy. The boys arrived home from school early, stamping the fresh snow from their feet, their cheeks and ears raw from the cold. “The teacher sent us home before the storm gets too bad,” Jimmy said.
“And there m-might not be s-school tomorrow,” Luke added. The idea must have excited him; it was the longest sentence he’d uttered in a month.
I ruffled his sweaty red hair before hanging his hat and mittens on the drying bar beside the stove. The smell of wet wool began to float through the kitchen, replacing the aroma of fresh bread.
“Good thing that angel chopped all that wood for me,” Jimmy said. He wiped steam from the kitchen window with his fist as he peered out at the barn. “Did he leave before the storm started?”
“No, he was still in the workshop last time I looked,” I said. “He’s sick with a fever, so I don’t want you boys going anywhere near him, you hear me? In fact, I’d better go check on him myself. I expect he’s hungry by now.” I spooned some of the broth from last night’s stew into a small milk pail and wrapped a slice of buttered bread in a clean dish towel before bundling up for the trek outside.
The wind had piled the fresh snow into deep mounds, erasing the path to the barn. My feet felt heavy as I plodded through the drifts, and the blowing snow stung as the wind whipped it against my face. The familiar outlines of the farmyard looked like a smudged drawing, while beyond the barn the orchard had vanished in a swirl of gray.
The workshop felt cold again. I knelt beside the stranger’s cot and shook him until he finally awoke. His eyes were glazed, feverish, and I could tell by the panicked look in them that he had no idea where he was.
“It’s okay ... you’re in my barn. You came to my farmhouse last night, remember?” He moved his lips, as if trying to speak, but all that came out was a moan. I lifted his head and helped him take a few sips of the broth. “Listen, I need to know what’s wrong with you, mister. I have three children to think about, and I hear there’s all kinds of sickness down in those hobo camps.”
“My leg,” he whispered.
“Your leg? May I see?” He nodded, closing his eyes again. I laid his head down and set aside the broth.
As soon as I lifted the covers off his feet, I saw where the right leg of his trousers had been torn. The fabric was dark and stiff with dried blood. Underneath, he had tied a rag around his leg. I gently unwound the bloodied cloth and saw a jagged cut that ran down his shin from his knee to his ankle. It was swollen and inflamed, festering. He would have blood poisoning at the very least, and I couldn’t bear to imagine the very worst. Once in a lifetime was enough to have witnessed the horror of lockjaw. Angry tears filled my eyes.
“How dare you!” I cried, flinging the blanket over his leg again. “How dare you come crawling to my house to die, like some mangy old dog! Haven’t we been through enough? Why couldn’t you have gone on down the road to the next farm or the next town? Someplace that hasn’t had the angel of death camped on their doorstep for as long as I care to recall! How dare you pick my house!”
He opened his eyes and looked at me. I couldn’t tell if the tears I saw were his or my own. I covered my face in shame, weeping silently.
I whirled and saw Jimmy in the doorway behind me. Luke stood beside him, looking frightened.
“I thought I told both of you to stay away from here!”
“Is he going to die, too, Mama?” Jimmy asked.
I stood, wiping my tears on the sleeve of my coat. The old barn creaked as a gust of wind rocked into the side of it; pellets of snow hissed against the windowpane. “We can’t leave him out here,” I said. “We can’t be running in and out all night to tend to him. Go get your sled and help me bring him inside.”
I gripped the man beneath his arms and the boys each took one of his feet as we dragged him through the barn none too gently, then hoisted him onto Luke’s sled. The stranger surely weighed more than the three of us put together. It took a great deal of pushing and shoving to pull him through the deep drifts to the house. He gritted his teeth through most of the jostling but finally cried out as we hauled him up the porch steps. The jolt of pain seemed to rouse him momentarily, and he was able to bear some of his own weight on his good leg as we helped him into Grandpa Wyatt’s old bed in the spare room off the kitchen. Becky watched, wide-eyed, from the foot of the bed as we settled him into it.
“Is he going to die?” she asked.
I saw the fear on my children’s faces and my anger for the intruder returned. “I don’t know. He’s in the Lord’s hands now. We’ll do the best we can for him, but whatever happens is up to God.”
I hated my helplessness. I didn’t have a telephone and I couldn’t drive into town to fetch the doctor because of the storm. It doesn’t matter, I told myself in an attempt to push away my own fear. I didn’t even know this man. Besides, it was likely his own foolishness that had gotten him into this mess.
“He stinks,” Becky said, pinching her nose shut.
“He does indeed. Fill up the kettle, Becky Jean, and put it on to boil. You boys help me get him out of these ... these rags he’s wearing.” We stripped him to his tattered long johns and set his clothes outside on the porch. Then I cleaned the wound on his leg as gently as I could and applied a hot poultice, prepared the way the doctor had shown me when he’d treated Sam’s injury. The stranger, only half conscious, seemed barely aware of what we were doing.
“We’ll leave him be for now,” I said after I’d finished. “There’s no time to fuss over him with chores to do.” I made up my mind to tend to him on my own. The less my children were involved with the stranger, the easier it would be for them if he died. Even so, his welfare seemed to fill their thoughts that evening—more than the snowstorm, which still raged outside.
“Please don’t let the angel man die,” Becky prayed when she said grace at suppertime. Luke surprised me when he whispered, “Amen.” As for myself, I had no faith in the power of prayer to heal him. God would do whatever He wanted to do, regardless of our feeble pleading.
By the time we finished the evening chores, I felt more exhausted than usual from the added effort of struggling through snow and wind to do them. I waited until after the children were in bed before going back into the stranger’s room with a fresh poultice, dreading what I would find. His eyes were open and I could read the pain in them, even though the only light in the room came from the open door to the kitchen. He shivered in spite of all the quilts we’d heaped on top of him. When I laid the hot cloths on his leg he stiffened, sucking in air through his teeth.
“Sorry. I’m trying to help you, not hurt you.”
“I know,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
“You feeling hungry? I can fetch you something.”
He shook his head. “Just water ... please ...”
I turned away, suddenly unable to face him. “Listen, I’m sorry for yelling at you like I did out in the barn earlier. It’s just that ...” I squeezed my eyes shut, remembering. “It’s just that my husband died from a cut on his foot not even half as bad as yours. The doctor said it was lockjaw. There was nothing I could do but watch him suffer. And ... and it wasn’t an easy death.”
“It’s not your fault if I die,” he said softly.
“I know.” I fought back my tears and returned to his bedside, steadying his head while he sipped some water. “What’s your name?” I asked. His answer was a weak whisper I couldn’t understand.
I soaked a washcloth in the basin of soapy water I’d prepared and washed the grime off his face—something I’d been itching to do since we’d brought him inside. It was hard to tell his age because his shaggy, dark brown hair and beard looked as though they hadn’t been cut in a long time. His face was deeply tanned under the layer of dirt, and his eyes, under thick brows, were the color of coffee beans. His calloused hands were large and strong, though warmer to the touch than the bath water. I unfastened the top button of his long johns to sponge his neck and chest and saw a terrible, jagged scar just above his heart. It had long-since healed, but I could tell that he must have dodged the angel of death at least once before.
By the time I finished, the water in the basin had turned black. “I’ll let you sleep now,” I said before leaving the room.
I carried the basin to the back porch to dump outside and noticed the stranger’s burlap sack beside the door. Jimmy had brought it up from the barn and left it there. I lifted it and felt the weight of something heavy on the bottom, then heard the clank of metal as I set it on the kitchen table.
I felt like a Peeping Tom as I untied the knot around the mouth of the sack and began digging through his things. But how else was I ever going to find out the stranger’s name and where he came from? A pair of mud-caked overalls and a flannel shirt lay on top. I set them aside to wash with his other clothes. Beneath them were a U.S. Army canteen and a well-worn Bible with its front cover torn. Inside a waterproof storm slicker I found a stack of notebooks—the kind Jimmy and Luke carried to school. Penciled writing filled all but one of the notebooks from one marbleized cover to the other. Stuffed inside the last one were three letters from the Chicago Tribune, addressed to Mr. Gabriel Harper at a post office box in Chicago. I said the name out loud—Gabriel Harper.
I didn’t need to dig any further, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to find out what the bulky thing on the very bottom of the sack was, wrapped inside an old blanket. I parted the folds of cloth and stared in surprise.
What an odd thing for a hobo to carry—a typewriter!
Hidden Places by Lynn Austin
Copyright © 2001, Lynn Austin
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.