Mattie laid the last rock upon the other stones that she had gathered to cover Frank’s body. It was the best she could do to keep the animals away. Not having any way to dig a proper grave and even if she did, she figured the ground was too frozen for her to try and dig it up. Mattie stood up, brushing away the muddy dirt that covered the worn knees of her overalls. Looking at the horse she wondered why he hadn’t taken off, he wasn’t tied to anything but still he seemed to be patiently waiting for her but she knew she had to go on without him; she couldn’t take the chance of being found with a borrowed horse.
“Can’t take ya with me.” Mattie said as she patted the side of the horse’s large head.
Picking up the reins, she led him back down the way she had come earlier with Frank and let go of the reins, stepping back toward his rear she gave him a hard swat on the rump, which only made him jump slightly, and turn his large head to look around at her, he then shook his large head at her.
“Get on!” She yelled at him.
The horse trotted away from her and then stopped, turned and raised his head to the sky and neighed loudly, and then in a full run he took off into the brush and trees and was soon hidden from her view.
Through out the day while she was searching for large rocks to cover up Franks body she wondered which direction she should go when it was time, but not being familiar with the area she wasn’t sure which way to go. But now that the time had come she turned in the opposite direction of the horse and kept to the dirt path that she and Frank had been on. As she was walking on she hoped that she would come to a town large enough that she would not be easily noticed and hopefully one where she could get lost in.
Even though it was past mid-day, the gray heavy clouds never lifted and Mattie was freezing from the cold. She tried to walk even faster, hoping to and warm herself up if she went at a faster pace, but it didn’t seem to help much. Looking at her fingers she saw that they were no longer pink but had turned a bluish gray and no matter how hard she tried to rub them together, she felt like someone was stabbing at her fingers with needles. Surrounded by the dense woods that seemed to go on forever, Mattie looked up at the gray sky and that was when she noticed the soft wafting of smoke circling up above the tree. Where there was a fire there just might be a house. Mattie continued in the direction she thought the smoke was coming from. She couldn’t help hoping to find shelter and food, maybe the folks who lived there would let her stay on and work for them for her keep. She tried to think of the best way to approach them without giving too much away and convince them that even though she was small she was a hard worker.
Mattie felt it before she heard the pounding of horses’ coming up from behind her stopping in the roadway she waited for briefly and listened, whoever it was, was riding up hard and fast behind her. Mattie decided to try and make a run for the barn up ahead. She ran as fast as her near frozen legs would go, but whoever it was were to close now and would see her before she made it to the barn, so she ran back into the trees and brush that lined the roadway and quickly she threw herself to the ground and waited until the horses rode past her.
The farm house was now in clear sight from where she hid shivering from the cold. Tears of frustration threatened to fill up her eyes but she swallowed hard and refused to let the cold get the best of her. She comforted herself with the thought that as soon as the men on the horses were gone she would go on to the farm house.
Peeking through the top of the brush Mattie saw a tall thin man come out of the barn but before he reached the house the riders rode into the man’s farm and pulled their horses up just short of running the man down. Mattie watched with increased anxiety as the talked and laughed loudly at the man and a couple of the riders circled around him, as if he might make a run for it. Mattie wished they would leave the man alone and go away. But they didn’t, they kept up their game yelling, and laughing, she could see from the way the man reacted that he was not afraid of them. Then one of the men jumped down from his horse, while the other two riders went toward the barn and flung open the doors. They came back out after a few minutes and were shaking their heads no, toward the man still sitting on his horse, Mattie guessed they didn’t find whatever it was they were looking for.
All of a sudden the door to the farm house opened and a woman came out holding her apron up and twisting it in her hands. Mattie was not sure what her exact words were but she guessed she was asking them to leave, because she could see her pointing toward the road. She was standing in front of the man that was still on horseback but when she got too close to him, one of the other men came up and slapped her so hard that she fell to the ground then he grabbed her around the waist and carried her back into the house. Mattie lay back down in the brush unable to look and covered her ears to try and block out the screams that pierced the frozen air.
She wondered if these were the same men that she had heard talking on the side of the road the night before.
When the screaming stopped Mattie raised her head up to look over and watched as the other two men forced a rope around the man’s neck and then they dragged him off the ground until he was dangling from a tree limb. Burying her face in her arms she had to force herself to stay where she was and fought the urge to run and try to help the man, she knew that would be a foolish thing to do, something a scared child would try and she was no longer a child. She also knew that she would just get herself killed along with the other two. Mattie turned away again and lay on her back, she covered her ears and looked up at the sky that no longer was gray with clouds but sparkled with stars.
When she finally felt the ground shudder beneath her from the pounding of horses hooves, Mattie looked over the top of the tall dead brush and saw the man’s bootless feet gently swaying against the rope. She crawled through the growth and mud then waited a little longer to make sure no one was going to return and standing up she hurried to where the man hung and then went on into the house to find the woman lying across a table stabbed to death. Mattie saw the bloody knife on the floor and grabbing it up, she went back out to where the man was hanging from the tree. She stood there and watched as his dead body swayed softly to and fro and realized it was too late to cut him down.
This time Mattie didn’t even realize she was crying until her tears dripped onto her cold hands. Pressing her eyes tight she tried to force their faces out of her head, but she couldn’t all three of them dead, and there was nothing she could do help a one of them. Mattie finally stood up and went back into the farm house and looked around the kitchen. The dinner the woman had fixed for her husband was still sitting on the black stove in the corner. Mattie grabbed the big spoon next to the pot of beans and ate hungrily as filled her pockets with the biscuits. When she ate all she could she grabbed a blanket from their bed and the basket of wool socks the wife had knitted. Looking carefully around before leaving the house to make sure no one was coming in either direction, she then ran for the barn. She didn’t want to take a chance on someone riding up and finding her in the house.
Mattie worked her way up into the barn loft and wrapped the blanket around her, she then put the wool socks on her feet and hands, and snuggled her body down into the hay. She tried to cover herself up until she was no longer visible.
Mattie tried to push the faces of Frank, the farmer and his wife, out of her mind but their faces wouldn’t not leave her alone and then they were replace by the face of her ma.
Mattie tried to figure out how long she had been gone but she had already lost track of the days since she ran away and she was too tired to try and figure it out how. At some point she drifted off to sleep because the next thing she heard was someone yelling.
“Mr. Holtz! Mr. Holtz?”
Mattie pushed back the blanket and hay and got up to go look out the small loft window. The first thing she realized was that it was already early morning and then she saw the man who was doing all the yelling leaning over the farmers’ lifeless body.