Shivering she backed as far into the palmettos as she could, her heavy coat keeping the sharp branches from gouging her skin. It was luck that she had grabbed her coat on the way out of the house, she didn’t even remember that she was carrying it in her hand until she made it out into the palmettos towards the train tracks.
It wasn’t especially cold, even though it was January. This part of Florida did get cold but it was mostly hit or miss. Sweating, she thought for a moment that she wished it was a little colder, hiding in the bushes with the coat on, after running from her uncle’s house. She soon forgot the temperature as she thought back to what she’d seen.
The flashes of light from all the guns being fired made her think of the 4th of July. It seemed as though the whole night was being lit up. The noise was deafening and the smell of burnt gunpowder stung her nose and throat. Her ears still ringing and her mouth tasting bitter.
Gussie had been asleep on her aunt’s couch, where she had been staying to help with the house and children, while her aunt was sick. Gussie lived in nearby Gainesville with her parents and six brothers and sisters. Her aunt had sent for her when she had gotten down with the chills.
Sound asleep, until the night exploded, she hit the floor running and scrambling, not even knowing where she was running to or from. Then she remembered the children but as she stopped in the hall to run upstairs, she remembered that her uncle and a couple of neighbors had moved her aunt and the children across town to the doctor’s house earlier in the day. Now her cousins were all sick too, so everyone but her uncle and she were quarantined at Dr. Ross’s house.
Gussie wondered about her uncle but was sure he hadn’t been back to the house since earlier. She had been waiting for him so she could cook supper when she fell asleep on the couch. Now she kneeled, huddled up in the palmettos. She didn’t know exactly what was happening but she knew it wasn’t good.
She had no idea how long she’d been in the woods but she knew the sweat was gone and she was shivering. She had cooled down from her run and the night had turned colder or maybe it was fear that made her shake.
Gussie held her breath for a moment, she thought she had heard something. She hated the woods but she knew she needed to stay hidden, at least until daylight when she could sneak back up by the house and try to figure out what exactly was happening.
There it was again, just a slight rustle. She jumped and almost screamed out when Mrs. Woods, her aunt’s neighbor appeared directly in front of her. Even though she now knew what she heard wasn’t going to hurt her, the fear and the unknown finally got to her and she began to silently sob. The woman reached out and pulled the young girl into her and let her cry for a few minutes. Then she took her by the shoulders and held her out away from her.
“Gussie, stop crying now, girl.” Mrs. Woods tried to sooth her. “Hush, baby, listen to me. We have to get over to the train tracks where we can wave the train down. Come on, baby, walk.”
“Mrs. Woods, ma’am, what’s happening?” Gussie could feel her knees try to give out but she took hold of Mrs. Wood’s arm and steadied herself. “Where is everybody? Why was everybody shooting?”
“Girl, keep walking, we have to hurry. Don’t worry about what’s behind us, we have to worry about getting on that train.” She hurried the young girl on towards the tracks.
Then Gussie was too scared to ask any more questions. She was afraid she didn’t want to know the answers. She let herself be pushed and dragged through the dark until they reached the tracks.
She could see the top of the rails shine in the light of the full moon. She wondered why they were getting on the train here in the woods but she was confused and turned all around, left with only the energy to cling to the older woman and stare down the tracks.
Gussie started when she felt the ground vibrate and all at once she was aware of the train approaching slowly like a ghost in the night. There were no lanterns lit on the engine.
She and Mrs. Woods backed away from the tracks as the engine lumbered slowly past. Then there were strong hands clamped onto her arms and a whisper in her ear, telling her to not make a sound. Though the voice was familiar but she couldn’t quite place it. She felt lifted up and passed to another pair of hands up in the train. Then she was pushed back away from the open doors against a wall of people. Nobody moved and nobody spoke.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she started to make out the shapes of the faces that she knew from around town. They all stood silently staring towards the doors as more and more people were helped or hoisted up into the boxcar.
Then there were fewer people getting on and then there were no more. The train began to pick up speed and those around Gussie started to settle themselves down onto the floor. She knew that in a little less than two hours, they would be in Gainesville, if there were no more stops. And that night, there were no more stops.