What were Indians doing here? How many were there? Could he find them and return their fallen man? Would there be problems because he had taken him?
But was he an Indian at all? And if not, what was he?
Such questions would have to wait. He jogged along as fast as he dare, eyes on the trail. He hadn’t used this shortcut since early winter. Things change in the woods, so he had to watch every step for something that might trip him up. Hurrying too fast bring delays.
Meanwhile he pondered the problem of the haul to the barn. The wounded man would fit comfortably into the large wagon, but before the return journey Hans would have to turn it around by driving over the soft, wet ground of the field. He didn’t want to risk the delay of getting stuck.
The small cart would be easier to manage. He could unhitch it and turn it around by himself, keeping to the hard ground of the back path. But would the man be too big? He would have to lay him on his side and curl up his arms and legs. And even that may not be enough. He would bring the small ladder just in case. He could lash it to the top and use it like a stretcher if he had to.
From the millpond to the mill, the base of the mountain curved away from the road in a wide arc. All along the first rising of the mountain ran the millrace—a narrow, manmade watercourse that carried a quick stream of water to the mill. Between the millrace and the road lay a field, now filled with winter wheat, row after row of short, grassy bundles.
The trail brought Hans to the wheat field, about halfway along the arc between pond and mill, and onto a broad, low hillock jutting out from the base of the mountain. The millrace cut through its top, making for an easy crossing. He thought it would not be so easy after carrying a man all the way down here.
Now for a flat run along the back edge to the lot by the mill where the farmers parked their wagons, then over the bridge, and up to the barn with the house behind. About halfway there, he called out to Ava. If she were still up in the meadow, she would hear him and begin down.
He kept up a brisk pace, listening for some response, but heard nothing.
Just before the mill bridge, he knew he would normally be able to see the house beyond the barn. He shouted her name again. This time he heard her call back from somewhere in the direction of the house. “Here.”
He stopped for just a moment, so the barn did not block their exchange. “Meet me, barn,” he bellowed slowly.
“Yes,” came her answer, so he hurried on.
They met on the side of the barn away from the house, where the doors opened towards the mill and the deep channel of the millstream. Hans explained in short bursts, while he caught his breath. “Man down.” He pointed back to the site of the accident. “Fell.” Hans bent over and rested his hands on his knees. “Alive. Hurt. Out cold.”
He got in a few deep breaths, while his wife waited. “Taking Friede…cart…to haul him…here.” After that, he gestured for her to follow. He saw she understood: He could talk better in a few moments, and those were best spent doing something.
While he prepared the horse and cart, he told her what little he knew, and they hastily made arrangements. Hans would get the man back here as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Ava would gather whatever she thought they needed and wait for them in the barn.
Hans dropped a horse blanket into the cart and also a coil of rope, one end of which he used to quickly secure the ladder, so it wouldn’t fall off. He left his rifle in the barn and brought the hatchet just in case, then drove back the way he had come.
He thought perhaps the man might be gone—recovered or rescued, but he lay as he left him. Now it was time to do what had to be done.
The table of rock made it easier. Hans rolled the body to the edge, unto its side, facing the forest, and carefully positioned the limbs. He thought the legs seemed unusually long. He hopped off, squatted down, and placed his back against the stone. Then he maneuvered the body across his shoulders—like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb.
He grabbed the rough, irregular rock as best he could, took a few deep breaths, then stood up, pushing with both hands and feet. Anything to make this easier. He had a long way to go.
Hans shuffled toward the left and stepped forward. Swaying with his burden, his body soon settled into a slow rhythm—breathing, plodding—as he labored down, bearing the warm weight.
Unneeded here, his mind wandered elsewhere.
He was thirteen. It was late afternoon, the Saturday before Advent began. His family was at Aunt Gerta’s in town, so they could all visit the Christmas Market. They had walked a few blocks through a little fresh snow. His sister had left her mittens in the wagon. His father asked him to run back and fetch them. He took the short cut—a hidden, narrow street, more like an alley.
He slowed to a walk. Something lay in the street ahead. It looked like a man—the fresh snow all around him trodden in a wide circle. Now he could see red in the snow here and there.
“Mister?” he called out. “You OK, Mister?” No response. He stepped closer.
He didn’t recognize him at first, his face bloody and swollen. Of course, he didn’t know his face very well anyway. Hans always avoided him. He didn’t approve of their friendship. That’s why they met in secret.
It was Christoff’s father.
The next day, Hans waited in their secret place in the woods, hoping Christoff would come at the usual time. He was late. “I can’t stay long,” he said curtly.
After all these years, snatches of what was said remained vivid:
Dad was doing so much better, too, trying to change.
He told me he didn’t do anything this time. They just jumped him.
And now they’ve arrested HIM instead!
Maybe it’s like Dad used to always say—you’re not like us.
They were taking him today to stay with a cousin. He didn’t know when he’d be back.
A month later, Hans’ father broke the news that Mr. Schneider had been sentenced to jail time. Hans didn’t know details, but his father believed it was a great injustice.
Hans was troubled. They talked.
“They’re not like us. No,” his father said. “They’re not—in some ways. But in other ways they are. What you will have to determine is which are more important.”
And, “Yes, sometimes it’s worth fighting. But have a clear purpose, so you know when to stop. No matter who wields it, brute force usually does more harm than good—just like what we see here.”
They never saw Christoff again.
Weary now, Hans saw his resting place. Just a few more, he told his shoulders, back, legs. Just a few more. Then you can stop, but not yet. Then you can stop.
Now the final effort. He stood beside the cart and began to bend down. First the legs. Get the feet in. Now bend the knees. Don’t drop him. There.
The weight gone, Hans stopped to rest. He now had the body sitting in the back of the cart, the head and arm still draped over his left shoulder as be bent over, supporting the torso.
Then he felt it—a slight turning of the head, and he heard a soft moan, a few mumbled words. The voice in his ear was higher than he had expected—not strangely so, but clearly not the voice of man or even of a young man.
It was a boy then.
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Next: Chapter 4, “What He is”
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