The inn door crashed open and the storm rushed in with the stranger.
Candles flickered, a log shifted on the fire and the men at the bar turned on their stools to stare at the cloaked figure shivering before them.
“Whiskey!” he whispered and when he’d downed two glasses, he spoke again, his voice a bit stronger. “I’ve been chased by the devil!” he said and told how he had run along the path high above the valley with the devil breathing fire behind him. When pressed for a description of the fiend the stranger said he had not tarried long enough to make its acquaintance.
“T’will have been Hanratty’s bull loose again,” O’Hare said, “we’ll go after him in the morning.”
Safe by the fire, the stranger grew mellow. He’d come to buy cattle, he said, and O’Hare promised to help him drive a good bargain at the fair the day after tomorrow.
They drank all night and at the peal of the Angelus bell next day the innkeeper sent them on their way with bellies full of rashers and tea. The storm had scattered thatch and an ancient oak in the churchyard lay across three tombs but no lives had been lost.
O’Hare was as good as his word with the cattle bargaining and the stranger was well pleased. He stayed at the inn for a week waiting for his drover to take the cattle home.
The day before the drover came, Hanratty was killed by his own bull. The stranger shivered when he heard of it and asked for a whiskey. The innkeeper shook his head. “I’ve sold all my whiskey to Hanratty’s widow for the wake,” he said.
Not wishing to intrude on the mourners, the stranger went for a walk and so he was alone when storm clouds gathered and rain came slicing down like daggers. He had cleared the woods when he heard the galloping hooves behind him again. Not Hanratty’s bull this time, he knew, for the widow had ordered it shot.
Once more, he ran along the high path towards the inn but there was no distant light to guide him this time for all were in Hanratty’s farmhouse.
The galloping drew near and a fiery breath whispered to him. He turned fearfully and saw it was not a horse at all but a dark, menacing shadow of a man who reached out a gloved hand and beckoned.
In the widow’s smoky parlour a fiddler played a lament while in the kitchen, as a neighbour led the Rosary, the blessed beads fell from her hands, broken shards scattering about the floor.
It was not until the next morning that they found the stranger. He had tumbled from the high path and lay on the valley floor amongst dead tree roots.
They gathered around him, hats in hand, and offered up a prayer.
“He looks like he’s seen Old Nick himself,” the innkeeper said.
In the churchyard the stricken oak groaned.