He is five steps away from the cabin's front steps, and four steps too far to turn back. There is no way to return to the hearth now, where she waits with the baby that cries without ceasing. He knows he is a coward and a bad man, but if he goes back to them he will still be a coward and a bad man, but a liar as well. He doesn't look back to see if she is watching from the window, just moves from its warm light towards the barn with the stride of a man who is not guilty, and once the darkness has taken him in he gives in to the spring of his knees and walks faster. The snow will come soon and cover his tracks.
He slips crossing the frozen lake, falls backward and cracks his head, sliding for a small distance along the grimy surface of the ice. He lays still. The world is very cold and white and quiet around him, all the normal night noises muted as it waits for the storm to begin again. The prairie is as eerie as a foreign sea, its horizon blurred where the whites and greys of sky and snow kiss. He looks up at the small patch of sky not covered in clouds, a deep well of stars that he wants to climb into.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he says in a whisper, then rolls onto his knees and stands to walk. The great pressure at his back, the thing that was pushing him onward, has ceased, and now his steps are slower, more deliberate. He has nothing in the pockets of his thick coat but his hands – no bread, no money, no gun. He deserves none of it. Something silver hovers at the edge of the lake. The snow is just beginning to fall around him. A frozen bush, he thinks, but as he draws closer it's form does not become more distinct. It pulls at him, the silver form, even as the wind begins to grow fiercer, and bring tears to his eyes so he can see no more clearly. His boots touch the earth on the opposite side of the lake. He reaches out to touch the silver mystery, and that is when it grabs him by the wrist and pulls him forward.
For some time he can keep up with its furious pace, he walks briskly and then he runs. His boots fill with snow. But the creature increases its speed relentlessly, and now he is leaping to keep up, the balls of his feet barely touching the ground. The snow, driving into him, obscures everything. He can see its bony fingers on his wrist and no more. And then he falls to his stomach and it is dragging him. He tries to get up, stumbles falls again. His mouth fills with snow and dirt. A tooth breaks, and then another. His body goes numb beneath him, but he feels a fresh pain when the ground erodes the cloth that covers his most sensitive parts. The dragging goes on for a time and distance and speed he cannot measure. Then his head and shoulders go through a bank of snow, then collide with a rock, and the darkness takes him once again.
When he wakes it is to an animal smell, then the throbbing of his wrist. The hand the creature had seized is before his body, its fingers bent in an unnatural way. His clothes are torn away, and to breathe through his broken nose and bloody mouth requires patience. But trickling next to his frozen body is something warm and sweet-smelling, and he moves his head to see a cow shake her pert horns as it urinates on the snowbank. Her udder is swollen with milk, and she lets out a small, impatient sound. It is his cow, the one that had nosed the gatelatch open and left their farm not five days before.
He moves again, into the warmth of her urine, and then he sees all that he has lost. The bloody stumps of his feet, the soft skin of his belly and manhood. What has not been taken by the earth's persistent touch is raw or frozen.
Oh Lord, let me die, he says then.
The cow lows again, and twitches her tail.
Hold out your hand, she says, Your God is not done with you yet.