Today's Reading

Hattie closed her eyes. The dogs were coming closer. Dogs and men who were shouting, crashing through the woods. It had always been funny to Hattie how men who'd spent their whole lives moving through these woods, hunting in them, could move so clumsily, without grace, without any trace of respect for the living things they trod upon.

"What will we do?" Jane looked pale and young, much younger than her twelve years. Fear does that to a person: shrinks them down, makes them small and weak. Hattie had learned, over the years, to put her own fears in a box at the back of her mind, to stand tall and brave, to be resilient to whatever enemy presented itself.

"You? You'll go hide in the root cellar back where the old house used to be."

"But there are spiders down there, Mama! Rats, too!"

"Spiders and rats are the least of our concerns. They'll bring you no harm."

Unlike the men who are coming now, Hattie thought. The men who are close. Getting closer still. If she listened, she could hear their voices, their shouts.

"Cut through the woods to the old place. Climb down into the cellar and bar the door. Open it for no one."

"But, Mama—"

"Go now. Run! I'll come for you. I'll lead them away, then I'll come back. I'll be back for you, Jane Breckenridge, I swear. Don't you open that cellar door for anyone but me. And, Jane?"

"Yes, Mama?"

"Don't you be afraid."

As if it could be that easy. As if you could banish fear just like that.

As if words could have such power.

By the time Jane ran down the path, the dogs were coming from the east, from the road that led into the center of town. Old hound dogs, trained to tree bears and coons, but now it was her scent they were after.

Don't be afraid, Hattie told herself now. She concentrated on pushing the fear to the back of her mind. She picked up her ax and stood tall.

"Witch!" the men who ran after the dogs cried. "Get the witch!"

"Murderer!" some cried.

"The devil's bride," others said.

Ax clenched in her hands, Hattie started off across the bog, knowing the safest path. There were parts that dropped down, went deep; places where springs bubbled up, bringing icy-cold water from deep underground. Healing water. Water that knew things; water that could change you if you'd let it.

The peat was spongy beneath her feet, but she moved quickly, surely, leaping like a yearling deer.

"There she is!" a man shouted from up ahead of her. And this was not good. She hadn't expected them to come from that direction. In fact, they were coming from all directions. And there were so many more of them than she'd expected. She froze, panicked, as she looked at the circle forming around her, searching for an opening, a way out.

She was surrounded by men from the sawmill, men who stood around the potbelly stove at the general store, men who worked for the railroad, men who farmed. And there were women, too. This she should have expected, should have seen coming, but somehow hadn't.

When a child's life is lost, it's the mother who bears the most grief, the most fury. The women, Hattie knew, might be more dangerous than the men.

These were people she'd known all her life. Many of them had come to her in times of need, had asked for guidance, had asked her to look into the future; paid her to give a reading or to deliver a message from a loved one who had passed. She knew things about the people of this town; she knew their deepest secrets and fears; she knew the questions they were afraid to ask anyone else.

Her eye caught on Candace Bishkoff, who was walking into the bog with her husband's rifle trained on Hattie.

"Stay right there, Hattie!" Candace ordered. "Drop the ax!" Canace's wild eyes bulged, the cords of her neck stood out.

Hattie dropped the ax, felt it slip out of her fingers and land softly on the peat below.

Candace and Hattie had played together as children. They were neighbors and friends. They'd made dolls from twigs, bark, and wild-flowers: stick-figure bodies and bright daisies for heads. They'd played in this very bog, climbed the trees at the edge of it, had parties with bullfrogs and salamanders, sung songs about their own bright futures.

And Jane had played with Candace's daughter, Lucy, for a time. Then that had ended, as well it should have. Some things are for the best.

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