Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

The two girls climb down from the wagon and land with gentle thumps on a mat of damp leaves. They move quietly against the dark expanse of forest behind them. Overhead are a hazy half-moon, a few scattered stars. Ada waits as the other girl nudges the mule forward and loops his leather lead around a branch. With a glance back at the wagon, which the girls have steered off a weedy dirt road and close in to the trees, Ada follows her companion, dependent upon the sounds of twigs and old acorns crunching under boots until her eyes adjust to the deeper darkness of the woods. Even then Matilda's face, her arms, her bare legs beneath the hem of her drab dress blend with the night, while Ada considers herself as pale as the moon, conspicuous to anyone passing by. She worries a finger-sized hole in the pocket of her skirt. Surely anyone spotting them would wonder what two girls of their ages—Ada sixteen, Matilda probably some older—and of their sorts were up to out here on this remote stretch of the Natchez Trace near on to midnight. Ada says as much, her voice a hoarse whisper.

"Ain't nobody passing by in the thick of these woods this far off the Trace, day or night." Matilda's voice rings through the dark night unhushed, and Ada feels a thrill run up the back of her neck. She is nearly overcome by the newness of the feeling. Anything, it seems to her, might come of this night. And almost anything would be better than what has come before.

Deeper in the woods, a canopy of old-growth trees blots out even the faint moonlight. Matilda lights a small lantern, and an army of moths rises to claim the flame. Ada follows the swinging light, and the girls walk on in silence. After a time Matilda says, "There they are," and stops.

Ada steps up to two lichen-encrusted tombs—brick and limestone—rising just over knee-high from the forest floor. She kneels beside one of them, slides her hand over the cold stone top, and is almost convinced she is not dreaming.

"They're Confederates," Matilda says, and though the girl's voice is still unfamiliar to Ada's ears, there is no mistaking her lack of sympathy. "Somebody laid them out in style, sixty-some years ago. Had the slabs carved up and hauled out here where almost nobody'd ever see them. There's the crack, on that one there." Matilda sets the lantern on the other tomb, and in the small splash of light, Ada can read bits of a worn inscription: Died October 18, 1862; Colonel; steadfast; and 'Asleep in Jesus.

Roots of the old trees have worked themselves under the tomb, buckling the brick frame and loosening the stone slab on top, cracking it in two across the sagging middle. Ada runs her hand along the dogleg crevice. She can just shove her little finger through it, which she does, raising the hairs on her neck again.

Matilda tries to lift a corner of the slab. "Give me a hand here," she grunts. Ada fits her fingers under the stone, and the girls pull in tandem. They manage to slide it several inches.

"All right, then," Matilda says. "We found them. Let's go back for the tools."

"And for...for him?"

"Unless you're planning on leaving him buried in hay in the back of the wagon."

The two girls trudge back the way they came. Ada follows Matilda, wordlessly working on the hole in her pocket until she can slide her whole hand through it.
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