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W-File: gh_nightrider.html

Type: Ghost
Location: Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin

Source: The book Wisconsin Lore by Robert E. Gard and L. G. Sorden,
pages 51-55 (published 1962)



Many farm people in Fond du Lac County have heard tales of the "Night Rider," one of the most elusive of the strange ghosts which haunt the Wisconsin land and air. Norma E. Buehner of Fond du Lac relates a version of a Night Rider tale she heard from her uncle, a farmer.

Mrs. Buehner recounts how her car stalled one evening and how she took refuge with her Uncle John and Aunt Em, who lived nearby:

Late in the evening, Aunt Em remarked, "My, it's been a long time since any of us talked about the Night Rider."

Knocking the ashes from his pipe into the coal heater, Uncle John agreed. "Yes, Em, a long time. But none of us ever will forget about it, I guess."

Idly I inquired, "Night Rider? What's that?"

"Come, now," Aunt Em said, "I'll give you the nice feather bed you liked to sleep in when you visited us as a little girl."

I was appalled at the thought of retiring at such an early hour. Besides, I still hadn't received an answer to my inquiry about the Night Rider. Aunt Em's fluttering concern served to heighten my curiousity. Uncle John never had been able to refuse me anything. Again I turned to him. "Please tell me about this Night Rider."

Aunt Em, with a warning eye, turned to him also. "No, John, she hasn't known all these years. Why tell her now?"

Uncle John looked uncertainly from one to the other of us. I had become quite excited. Aunt Em saw the story bursting to be told from my uncle. With a resigned sigh she assented.

"Well, all right. But I don't want any part of it. I'm going to bed. John, give her the big lamp and be sure it's filled. She might want to leave a light burning all night. Be sure to bank the fire before you come to bed." Giving us a disturbed look, she shook her head and retired to her room.

Uncle suggested a hot toddy. Remembering the warming, spicy tang of his winter bedtime drink, I quickly agreed.

We went to the kitchen. The room was warm and I felt a growing sense of well-being as I viewed the filled woodbox, the bread mixture rising for the next day's baking, the covered tub of homemade sausages waiting to be smoked. Uncle John put the teakettle on the kitchen range, placed two heavy cups and a thick bowl from the pantry shelves before us on the table. Then he gathered the rum, sugar, eggs, and spices. He was slow and I was impatient.

"When do we begin the story, Uncle?" I asked.

Painstakingly measuring the sugar, rum, and spiced into the bowl, he answered, "You really want to know, I guess. I'd like to tell you. Then again, I don't. It's hard to believe, for anyone who never had it happen to them. Don't want you to think I'm lying. Never did tell a lie, you know."

"No, Uncle, I won't think you're lying." And I reflected upon his indisputable truth and honesty.

He carefully broke and separated the eggs, then beat the whites into a miniature mountain of frothy whiteness. He added the precious mixture, then gently ladled the foaming goodness into each cup. I went to the cupboard drawer for teaspoons and placed them in the cups. He filled them with water from the steaming teakettle and we sat down to stir our drinks, facing each other across the table. He spoke.

"If I was the only one who had ever heard the Night Rider, I wouldn't expect you to believe me. I would doubt my own senses. But all the old neighbors have heard the same thing for at least seven, eight miles around. I can't tell you exactly what they heard, but I can tell you what I heard. It happened many times, many years ago. I'll tell you about the first time it happened to me. Couldn't help thinking about it tonight. It was on a night just like this, after a storm of snow and ice. The moon was so bright that the night was almost as light as day.

"Aunt Em and I were very young. We hadn't been married a year. As you know, Grandfather lived on the old farm then. It's only a mile from this place if you take the short cut through the woods. Grandpa took our cream to the creamery every morning, so usually every evening Em and I would take our cream to him. We enjoyed those walks." He paused to sip the toddy, then continued.

"Grandpa had told me about the Night Rider. Everyone around here had. I had never heard it myself, so I laughed at the mention of it, laughed at the mystery of it, the terror everyone had for it. I was young and smart. I wasn't afraid of anyone or anything.

"Like I said, it was on a night like this, only there was a little wind. I was taking the cream to Grandpa's. Em didn't go along that night because of the snow and ice. I had a cream can in one hand, a lantern in the other. Didn't need the lantern, but it was one I had borrowed and I was taking it back.

"The trees in the woods were mighty pretty that night. The pine branches hung low with snow and sleet. The oak branches reflected the moon like big crooked icicles sticking out from the trunks. I always liked to hear the wind in the pines and I stopped a few times to listen to it then. It wasn't as cold as it is tonight so I didn't hurry; walked slowly.

"You know where the foot bridge crosses the stream that runs through Grandpa's marsh. I stopped there, too. It was so light out that I could see the tracks in the snow where the muskrats had gone down to the water.

"After having gone through the woods I thought I kept hearing the soughing of the wind in the pines, so I listened again for a while. I heard something, all right, but it wasn't the wind. I was sure of that because it kept getting louder and closer. I looked all around and then up at the sky, because it sounded so much like thunder. I knew it couldn't be thunder that time of year. Besides, the sky was clear. What had been a blowing sound changed to what seemed like many ponderous things rolling over something big and hollow, like gigantic wagon wheels on a big, wooden bridge. Suddenly I remembered all I had heard about the Night Rider. This must be it. I meant not to let it scare me the way it had scared everyone else. Then I heard woeful wailing like unnumbered souls in agonizing torment; faint at first, but rapidly becoming louder and closer along with the other noise, now roaring and crashing. The tumult was above and all around me. My eardrums hurt with the growing intensity of it. I started to run. It was like trying to run against a strong wind, and yet the branches of the river willows were barely swaying. The force pushed against my chest and legs and arms and my arms became very weak. I dropped the cream can and lantern in my eagerness to escape more rapidly from the threatening peril. Whatever the noise was, I had no further desire to see what caused it. It pressed closer and closer and became so heavy against my throat and chest I thought I would surely strangle. I became completely enveloped in a horrible, overwhelming noise. It kept pushing me down until by the time I reached the hill to the house I was crawling on hands and knees. Grandpa had heard the weird commotion in the sky. He had been expecting me, and came to meet me. With an encouraging word and a firm hand he lifted me to my feet and half-dragged me to the house where Grandma helped us in. No one said a word. We all felt thankful to be alive and safe. I stayed the night and slept like a man completely drugged.

"The next day I went home the way I had come the night before. I saw my footprints in the snow, the tracks of the muskrats at the river's edge and I saw where I had dropped the lantern and the can of cream. They were gone, but I could see where I had dropped them. They were gone, and mine were the only tracks to and from the spot where they had fallen. I know that once they had dropped from my hands I had not touched them again."

Uncle John had finished his story. Our hot toddies, barely tasted, had grown cold.

Aunt Em had been right. I burned the lamp the rest of the night.

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