Fannie Poteet sat cross-legged on her Uncle John's front porch; her favorite rag doll clutched under one arm. The late afternoon sun shone through the leaves of the giant oak tree, casting its flickering light on the cabin. This golden motion of light entranced the child and she sat with her face turned upward, as if hypnotized. The steady hum of conversation flowed from inside of the cabin.
"Ellen, I'm sure happy that you came to church with us today. Why don't you spend the night? It's getting awfully late and it will be dark before you make it home."
"I'll be fine Sally," replied Fannie's mother. "Anyhow, you know how Lige is about his supper. I left plenty for him and the boys on the back of the stove, but he'll want Fannie and me home. Besides, he'll want to hear if Sam Bosworth's wife managed to drag him into church."
The laughter that followed her mother's statement broke the child's musings and she stood up, pulled her dress over the protruding petticoat, and stepped inside.
"Get your shawl Fannie. When the sun goes down, it'll get chilly."
As the little girl went to the chair by the fireplace to retrieve her wrap, her uncle came in from the back with a lantern.
"You'll need this Ellen. The wick is new and I've filled it up for you."
"I appreciate it Johnny," Ellen said. "I'll have Lige bring it back when he goes to town next week."
Ellen kissed her younger brother good-bye and hugged Sally gently. Patting her sister-in-law on her swollen belly, she said," I'll be back at the end of the month. Don't be lifting anything heavy. If that queasy feeling keeps bothering you, brew some of that mint tea I left in the kitchen. Lord knows I've never seen a baby keep its mammy so sick as much as this one has. It's a boy for sure."
Upon hearing this, Fannie frowned. She was the youngest in her family, and the only girl. After living with four brothers, she had prayed fervently to God every night for Him to let her aunt have a girl. The only other comfort she had was the pretty rag doll that her mother had made for her. Tucking the doll under her left arm and gathering the shawl with the same hand, she stood waiting patiently. Aunt Sally kissed her lightly on the cheek and squeezed Fannie gently. "If I have a girl, I hope that she will be as sweet as you," her aunt whispered. Uncle John patted her on the head and said, "Bye Punkin. When that old momma cat has her kittens, I'll give you the pick of the litter."
This brought a smile to Fannie's face and swept away the darkening thoughts of boys.
Ellen secured her own shawl about her shoulders and tossing one side around and over again, picked up the lantern, which had already been lit. Taking Fannie's right hand, the pair proceeded on the three-mile trek back home. Heavy rains during the last week had left the dirt road virtually impassable for anyone on foot. Ellen and her daughter would return home the way they had come, by following the railroad track. The track was about one half mile above the road. It wound and wound around the mountains and through the valleys carrying the coal and lumber, which had been harvested from the land. Once on the track, they proceeded in the direction of their own home. Ellen began to tell Fannie about the trains and all of the distant places they went to. The little girl loved hearing her mother's stories of all the big cities far away. She had been to town only a few times and had never traveled outside of Wise County. Fannie remembered her papa talking about his brother Jack.
Uncle Jack had left the county, as well as the state of Virginia. He was in a faraway place called Cuba, fighting for a man called Roosevelt. She wondered what kind of place Cuba was, and if it was anything like home.
The sun's last rays were sinking behind the tree-studded mountains. Shadows rose ominously from the dense woods on both sides of the track. Rustling sounds from the brush caused Fannie to jump, but her mother's soothing voice calmed her fears.
"It's all right Child; just foxes and possums."
A hoot owl's mournful cry floated out of the encroaching darkness and Fannie tightened her grip on her mother's hand.
Finally, night enveloped the landscape, and all that could be seen was the warm glow of the lantern and the shadow of the figures behind it. It was a moonless night, and the faint glow of a few stars faded in between the moving clouds. Fannie tripped over the chunks of gravel scattered between the ties and Ellen realized that her daughter was tired.
"We'll rest awhile child. My guess is that we have less than a mile to go."
Ellen set the lantern down and the weary travelers attempted to get comfortable sitting on the rail.
"Mammy, it's so scary in the dark. Will God watch over us and protect us?"
"Yes, Fannie. Remember what that new young preacher said in church today. The Good Lord is always with you, and when you need His strength, call out His name. Better still, do what I do."
"What's that mammy?"
"Well," Ellen said, stroking her daughter's hair," I sing one of my favorite hymns."
While contemplating her mother's advice, Fannie was distracted by a sound. The sound came from the direction they had traveled from, and the girl's eyes peered into the ink like darkness. It was very faint, but unlike the other noises she had grown used to along the way. The slow methodic sound was someone walking, and coming in their direction.
"Mammy, do you hear that?"
"Hear what child?"
Fannie moved closer to her mother and said, "It's somebody else coming!"
Ellen gave her daughter a comforting hug and replied," You're just imagining things Fannie. We've rested enough. Let's get on home. Your papa will be worried."
Ellen picked up the lantern, took Fannie's hand, and the two resumed their journey. After a while, the sound that had unnerved the little girl began again. This time the steps were more distinct, and definitely closer. The distant ringing of heavy boots echoed in the dark.
"Mammy, I hear it again!"
Ellen swung the lantern around.
"See, there's nothing there."
Fannie secured the grip on her mother's hand and clutched her rag doll tightly. The hoot owl continued its call in the distance, and the night breeze rustled the leaves in the trees.
"The air sure smells like rain," said Ellen. "The wind is picking up a mite too. We'll be home soon, little girl. Yonder is the last bend."
Fannie found comfort in her mother's voice, but in the darkness behind them, the steps rang louder. It was the sound of boots, heavy hobnail boots.
"Mammy, it's getting closer!"
Ellen swung the lantern around again and said, "Child, there's nothing out there. Tell you what; let's sing "Precious Lord".
Fannie joined in with her mother, but her voice quivered with fear as the heavy steps came closer and closer. She couldn't understand why her mother seemed oblivious to the sound.
Ellen's singing grew louder, and up ahead the warm glow of light from their own home glimmered down the side and through the trees. A dog barking in the distance brought the singing to an abrupt end.
"See child, we're almost home. Tinker will be running up to meet us. Big old Tinker. He's chased mountain lions before. He'll see us safely home."
"Let's hurry then Mammy. Can't you hear? It's closer and I'm scared. Let's run!"
"All right child, but see, I'm telling you there's nothing there."
Ellen made another sweep around with the lantern and as they proceeded she cried out, "Here Tinker! Come on boy!"
The dog raced up the path leading to the track and the two nearly collided with him as they stepped down on the familiar trail to home.
"Ellen, is that you?"
Fannie's heart filled with joy as her father's voice rang out of the darkness.
"Yes Lige. I'm sorry we're so late. I'm afraid I walked a bit fast for this child. She's worn out."
Elijah picked up his daughter and carried her the rest of the way home. Once inside of the cabin, Ellen helped Fannie undress and gently tucked her in bed.
The comforting sounds of her parents' voices drifted from the kitchen. Even the snores of her brothers in the back made her smile and be thankful that she and her mother were safe and sound. Before closing her eyes, her mother's voice rang in her ears.
"Lige, I heard the steps. I didn't want to frighten the child. I kept singing and swinging the lantern around and telling her there was nothing to be afraid of. But Lige, just before we got off the tracks, I turned the lantern around one last time. That's when I saw what was following us. I saw the figure of a man. A man without a head!"