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The sleigh was an old thing. It had belonged to his grosseldre, who’d passed it down to his datt, who’d given it to him when he married nine years ago. Since, it had been used for everything from hauling hay, milk cans, and maple syrup buckets to carrying the sick calf that had been rejected by its mamm two springs ago. Last fall, Adam had replaced the runners, which cost him a pretty penny. Christmas three years ago, one of the shafts had broken, so he’d replaced both. There was still work to be done on the old contraption; the seat needed patching—or replacing—but the old shlay was functional enough that he and the children could get out and have some fun before the weather turned.
As he led Big Jimmy from his stall, Adam Lengacher tried not to think about how much his life had changed in the last two years. Nothing had been the same since his wife, Leah, died. All of their lives had changed—and not for the better. It was as if the heart of the house had been sucked out and they were left grappling, trying to fill some infinite space with something that had never been theirs to begin with.
His Amish brethren had rallied in the days and weeks afterward, as they always did in times of tragedy. Some of the women still brought covered dishes and, in summer, vegetables from their gardens for him and the children. Bishop Troyer always made time to spend a few extra minutes with him after worship. Some of the older women had even begun their matchmaking shenanigans.
The thought made him shake his head—and smile. Life went on, he thought, as it should. The children had adjusted. Adam was comforted by the knowledge that when the time came, he would be with Leah again for all of eternity. Still, he missed her. He spent too much time thinking of her, too much time remembering, and wishing his children still had a mamm. He never talked about it, but he still hurt, too.
In the aisle, he lined up the old draft horse, lifted the shafts, and backed the animal up to the sleigh. He was in the process of buckling the leather straps when his son Samuel ran into the barn.
“Datt! I can help!”
Adam tried not to smile as he rose to his full height, walked around to the horse’s head, and fastened the throat latch. His oldest child was the picture of his mamm, with her exuberant personality and her gift of chatter.
“Did you finish eating your pancakes?” he asked.
“You take all the eggs to the house?”
“The brown ones, too. Annie broke one.”
A whinny from the stall told them their other draft horse, a mare they’d named Jenny, was already missing her partner.
“We won’t keep him too long, Jenny!” Sammy called out to the horse.
“Vo sinn die shveshtahs?” Adam asked. Where are your sisters?
“Putting on their coats. Lizzie says her shoes are too tight.”
Adam nodded. What did he know about girls or their shoes? Nothing, he realized, a list that seemed to grow with every passing day. “Why don’t you lead Big Jimmy out of the barn?”
The boy squealed in delight as he took the leather line in his small hand and addressed the horse. “Kumma autseid, ald boo.” Come outside, old boy.
Adam watched boy and horse for a moment. Sammy was just eight years old and already trying hard to be a man. It was the one thing Adam could do, the one thing he was good at, teaching his son what it meant to be Amish, to live a humble life and submit to God. His two daughters—Lizzie, who was barely seven, and Annie, who was five—were another story altogether; Adam didn’t have a clue how to raise girls.
He had a lot to be thankful for. His children were healthy and happy; they kept his heart filled. The farm kept his hands busy and earned him a decent living. As Bishop Troyer had told him that first terrible week: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Adam had just closed the barn door when his daughters ran down the sidewalk, their dresses swishing about their legs. They were bundled up with scarves and gloves, black winter bonnets covering their heads. This morning, they would surely need the afghan Leah had knitted to cover up with if they got cold.
“Samuel, help your sisters into the shlay,” Adam said.
As the children boarded, Adam looked around, assessing the weather. It had snowed most of the night, and it was still falling at a good clip. The wind had formed an enormous drift on the south side of the barn. Not too bad yet, but he knew there was another round of snow coming. By tonight, the temperature was supposed to drop into the single digits. The wind was going to pick up, too. According to his neighbor, Mr. Yoder, there was a blizzard on the way.
When the children were loaded—the girls in the backseat and Sammy next to him—Adam climbed in and picked up the lines. “Kumma druff!” he said to the horse. Come on there!
Big Jimmy might be a tad overweight and a smidgen past his prime, but he loved the cold and snow and this morning he came to life. Raising his head and tail, the animal pranced through snow that reached nearly to his knees, and within minutes the sled zoomed along the fence line on the north side of the property.
“Look at Jimmy go!” cried Annie, motioning toward the horse.
The sight of the old gelding warmed Adam’s heart. “I think he’s showing off.”
“We’re going to have to give him extra oats when we get home!” declared Lizzie.
“If Jimmy eats any more oats, we’re going to have to pull him in the sleigh,” Adam told her.
At the sound of the children’s laughter and the jangle of the harness, the bracing air against his face, Adam felt some of the weight on his shoulders lift. He took the sleigh north through the cornfield, the tops of the cut stalks nearly obscured by a foot or so of snow. The trees and branches sparkled white. As they passed by the woods, he pointed out the ten-point buck standing at the edge of the field. He showed them the flock of geese huddled on the icy pond where the water had long since frozen over. The beauty of the Ohio countryside never ceased to boost his spirits, especially this morning with the falling snow and the sound of his children’s laughter in his ears.
On the north side of the property, he turned right at the fence line and headed east toward Painters Creek. It was too cold for them to stay out long. Everyone had dressed warmly, but the wind cut right through the layers. Already his fingers and face burned with cold. Now that they’d moved past the tree line, he noticed the dark clouds moving in from the northwest. He’d take the sleigh to the county road and then cut south and go back toward the house. Maybe have some hot chocolate before afternoon chores, feeding the cows and hogs.
They’d only traveled another hundred yards when Adam noticed the hump of a vehicle in the ditch. The paint glinting through the layer of snow. It was an unusual sight on this stretch of back road. There weren’t many farms out this way and almost all of his neighbors were Amish. As they neared the vehicle, he slowed the horse to a walk.
“What’s that?” came Annie’s voice from the back of the sleigh.
“Looks like an Englischer car,” said Sammy.
“Maybe they got stuck in the snow,” Lizzie suggested.
“Whoa.” Adam stopped the sleigh and looked around.
For a moment the only sounds came from the puff of Jimmy’s breaths, the caw of a crow in the woods to the east, and the clack of tree branches blowing in the wind.
“You think there’s someone inside, Datt?” asked Sammy.
“Only one way to find out.” Securing the lines, Adam climbed down from the sleigh and started toward the vehicle.
“Ich will’s sana!” Sammy started to climb down. I want to see it.
“Stay with your sisters,” Adam told his son.
From thirty feet away, he discerned that the vehicle was actually a pickup truck, covered with snow, nose-down in the ditch, the bumper against a big hedge-apple tree. The impact had buckled the hood, causing it to become unlatched. Evidently, the driver hadn’t been able to see due to the heavy snow last night and must have run off the road. From his vantage point, Adam couldn’t tell if there was anyone inside. He waded through deep snow in the ditch and made his way around to the driver’s side. Surprise rippled through him when he saw that the door stood open a few inches. Snow had blown onto the seat and floor. Bending, he looked inside.
The airbag had deployed. A crack split the front windshield, but the glass was still intact. His gut tightened at the sight of the blood. There was a lot of it. Too much, a little voice whispered. Adam didn’t know anything about cars or trucks, but he didn’t think the impact would have been violent enough to warrant so much blood. What on earth had happened here?
Adam leaned into the vehicle for a closer look, but there was nothing else of interest. Straightening, he looked around. Any tracks left behind had long since been filled in. Where had the driver gone?
He walked to the rear of the truck. A tinge of apprehension tickled the back of his neck at the sight of the bullet holes in the rear window. Six holes connected by a mapwork of white cracks.
“Datt? Is someone in there?”
He startled at the sound of his son’s voice. Turning, he saw the boy come up behind him, hip-deep in snow, craning his neck to see into the vehicle.
“Go back to the sleigh, Sammy.”
But the boy had already spotted the blood. “Oh.” His thin little brows drew together. “He’s hurt, Datt, and needs help. Maybe we should look for him.”
The boy was right, of course. Helping those in need was the Amish way. Still, the bullet holes gave Adam pause. How had they gotten there and why?
“Let’s go back to the sleigh,” he told his son.
Side by side, they struggled through the ditch. Adam kept his eye out for tracks as they walked, but there were none. Either someone had come by and picked up the injured driver or he’d walked away and found help.
“Who is it, Datt?” asked Annie.
“No one there,” he told her.
“Are we going to look for him?” Lizzie asked.
“We’ll look around a bit,” he said.
Sammy lowered his voice, as if to avoid worrying his sisters. “Do you think he’s hurt, Datt?”
“Fleicht,” he said. Maybe.
Adam set his hand on his son’s head. Such a sweet boy, so helpful and caring. But Adam didn’t like seeing those bullet holes. He sure didn’t like seeing all that blood. Even so, if someone was hurt, finding them and helping them was the right thing to do.
“I’m going to look around,” he told the children. “I want you to stay close to the sleigh. Call out if you see anything. If we don’t find anyone here, we’ll ride down to the freezer shanty over on Ithaca Road and use the phone.”
“The Freezer” was a metal building containing a dozen or so freezers the Amish rented to store vegetables and meat. It had a community toilet, a hitching post, and a phone.
Adam lifted his youngest daughter from the sleigh and looked around. The fence that ran alongside the road was a jumble of bent posts and sagging barbed wire. On the other side of the road, the woods grew thick all the way to Painters Creek.
“Be careful, children,” he said as he started along the fence line. “Stay together and watch out for deep drifts or else I’ll have to dig you out, too.”
His words were met with a spate of giggles as they started toward the road.
Adam traversed the ditch and followed the fence. Fifty feet ahead, there was a knoll with a smattering of saplings and a place where blackberries flourished in late summer. He’d only gone twenty feet when he saw the scrap of fabric hanging from the barbed wire. Farther, a disturbance in the snow. At first, he thought maybe a deer had been hit and run into the ditch to die. But as he drew closer, he spotted the black leather of a boot. Blue denim.
He broke into a lurching run. “Hello? Is someone there? Are you hurt?”
From ten feet away he recognized the silhouette of a woman. Dark hair. A black leather coat and boots. Blue jeans.
Adam reached her and knelt. She was lying on her side, her head and shoulder against a fence post. Her legs were pulled up nearly to her chest, as if she’d been trying to stay warm. Brownish-black hair stuck out from beneath a purple knit hat, covering much of her face. Her clothes were caked with snow. Adam brushed the hair away and was shocked when he found it frozen stiff. He saw blue-tinged lips set into a face that was deathly pale. She wore a scarf at the collar of her coat. A single leather glove on her right hand. The other was bare and covered with blood. Her skin was cold to the touch and for a terrible moment he thought she was dead. Frozen to death.
Shaken by the thought, he worked off one of his gloves, set his fingers against the back of her neck, beneath her hat and hair. Warm, he realized. Still alive.
Relieved, he looked around. The closest house was his own. The Yoder farm was another mile down the road. The snow was coming down so hard he couldn’t even see the roof of their barn. They were Amish and didn’t have a phone, anyway. The closest Amish pay phone was at the freezer shanty, which was in the opposite direction.
He craned his neck right, spotted Lizzie and Annie using sticks to play tic-tac-toe in the snow. Sammy had made his way twenty yards ahead, checking the area along the fence.
The woman moaned. Adam turned back to her to see her twist. She raised her head and squinted at him. She was staring at his hat, her eyes wide. Her face was a mask of confusion and pain. “Get the fuck away from me,” she slurred.
He didn’t know what to say to that. He was trying to help her. Was she confused? He’d seen it happen, like the time he’d been hunting and his cousin fell through the ice. By the time they arrived home, his cousin hadn’t even been able to speak.
“Don’t be afraid.” Raising his hands, he sat back on his haunches. “I’m going to help you.”
“Back off.” She raised her left hand as if to fend him off. “I mean it.”
“You were in an accident,” he told her. “You’re bleeding. You need a doctor.”
“No doctor.” She tried to scoot backward, as if to put some distance between them, but ended up flopping sideways. Her face hit the snow. There were ice crystals on her skin. A smear of blood on her cheek. Propping herself up on one elbow, she reached beneath her coat with her right hand and pulled out a pistol.
“Keep your fucking distance,” she hissed. “Stay back.”
Adam lurched away, raised his hands. “I have children.”
She raised her other hand, fingers blue with cold and covered with blood. She looked at it as if she wasn’t sure it was hers, wiped her face. “Who are you?”
“Adam … Lengacher.”
She blinked at him. “Where am I?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he ascertained the location of his children. They were ten yards away, near the fence. Too close. If this woman was narrisch—crazy—and fired that gun, there would be no protecting them.
Adam scooched back another foot, kept his hands raised. “I’m leaving. Just stay calm and we’ll go. Okay?”
“It’s a lady.”
His heart gave a single hard thud at the sound of his son’s voice. He hadn’t heard him approach. He twisted around fast and made eye contact with him. “Gay zu da shlay, Samuel. Nau.” Go to the sleigh. Now.
The boy’s eyes widened at his datt’s tone. He took a step back. “What’s wrong?”
“Gay,” he said. “Nau.” Go. Now.
The boy walked backward, frightened. Adam turned back to the woman. She was looking at Sammy. Gripping the pistol as if it were her lifeline. Dear God, what had he stumbled upon?
Before he could ponder the question, the hand holding the pistol collapsed as if she no longer had the strength to keep her arm outstretched. The gun slid from her palm. Her body went slack and she settled more deeply into the snow. She stared at him for a moment and then closed her eyes.
“I’m spent,” she rasped.
Adam wasn’t sure how to respond. The one thing he did know was that he didn’t want her reaching for that gun again. Moving closer, he picked it up. The steel was cold in his palm, wet from the snow, bits of ice on the muzzle. Not a revolver. He was no stranger to rifles; he’d been a hunter since he was thirteen years old. He had a .22 and an old muzzle-loader at home. This was … something else. What was she doing with a gun? Was it for protection? Was she a trustworthy individual? A criminal? If he helped her would he bring danger into his home?
Keeping the weapon out of sight from the children, Adam turned it over in his hand. It took him a moment, but he figured out how to release the magazine that held the ammunition. He dropped the clip into his coat pocket. He pulled back the slide, checked the chamber, dumped the single bullet into the snow. He put the weapon in another coat pocket.
“I guess I’m at your mercy now, huh?” the woman whispered.
Adam got to his feet. A glance over his shoulder told him all three children were sitting in the sleigh, their faces turned his way, expressions curious and worried. Around him the day no longer seemed magical. The snow no longer a gentle thing, but a threat. The wind had picked up, driving the falling snow sideways. Even the horse was hunched against the cold and wind.
He looked down at the woman. She lay still, unmoving, her eyes closed, as if she’d given up. Already a thin veil of snow clung to the newly exposed area of her clothes, her hair. If he left her here, she would freeze to death—or become buried if the sheriff’s deputies couldn’t get to her quickly.
She shifted as if in pain, made a sound that might have been a word. Keeping his distance, Adam knelt. “Do you want me to help you?” he asked.
She didn’t open her eyes. Her lips barely moved when she spoke. “Get Kate Burkholder,” she ground out. “I’m a cop. Get her.”
Adam knew the name. He’d known Katie Burkholder most of his life. How did this stranger know her? This was not the time to question her. She was injured and weak. He looked at his children. “Make a place for her on the backseat!” he called out. “We’re taking her home.”
“Ja!” Sammy said.
Adam looked at the woman. “Can you walk?”
She shifted, winced, her left leg flailing and then going still. “I don’t know. Give me a minute.”
He didn’t think a minute would help. In fact, if she didn’t get out of the cold soon, she’d likely fall to unconsciousness and die.
“I’ll help you.” Not giving himself time to debate further, he bent to her, plunged his hands into the snow beneath her, and scooped her into his arms. She was small, smelled of cold air and some sweet English-woman scent.
“Sammy!” he said. “Take the lines. We’re going home.”
The woman’s head lolled; she was dead weight in his arms. Concern for her niggled at the back of his mind when he saw blood on her coat. He felt the warmth of it run across his wrist as he trudged through deep snow.
“An Englischer,” Sammy said as Adam approached the sleigh.
“Ja,” he replied.
“Is she frozen?” the boy asked.
“Hurt. And weak from the cold.”
“Who is it, Datt?” came Lizzie’s voice.
“I don’t know,” he told her. “Must have gotten lost in the storm. Someone’s probably worried about her, though, don’t you think?”
“Her mamm probably,” Lizzie said. “They always worry.”
“Annie, get the afghan so we can cover her up. Quickly now.”
“Datt, she’s bleeding!” Sammy pointed, alarm ringing in his voice, his little hands gripping the leather lines.
“She must have hurt herself in the wreck is all,” Adam told him. “Come on now. Girls, move to the front seat. Give her some room.”
Lizzie and Annie scrambled into the front. Adam stepped into the sleigh and set the woman on the rear bench seat, trying to ignore the smear of blood on the leather. The seat wasn’t long enough for her to stretch out, so he bent her legs at the knee.
“Hand me that afghan,” he said.
Annie thrust the throw at him. “She looks cold.”
“I think she’s been out here awhile,” he said. “Too long.”
“Is she going to die?” Lizzie asked.
Since losing their mother, the children had become aware of death and all its shadowy facets. Adam did his best to answer their questions. They knew death was part of the life cycle. They knew that when people died, they went to heaven to spend all of eternity with God. But they also knew that death had taken their mamm from them and she wouldn’t be coming back.
“That’s up to God now, isn’t it?” Adam draped the afghan over the woman, tucking it beneath her. “We will help her as best we can. The rest is up to Him.”
He worked off his coat and draped it over the woman. Under different circumstances, he would have taken the lines and asked one of the children to stay with her. In light of the gun and her rough language, he didn’t want them getting too close to her.
Kneeling on the floor between the front seatback and the rear seat, he set his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Copyright © 2020 by Linda Castillo