From my hiding place beside the highway, I heard someone approaching along the road.
The footsteps were slow and even, coming from way off in the distance. I sat up and stretched my back, making sure to keep low enough so that I would still be concealed behind the gully's rocks and brush.
It was dawn.
I was still cold, but not as miserably cold as I'd been all night. The sun was about to rise over the plains. I could see now that the leaves of the cottonwoods I'd been sleeping under were beginning to turn from green to yellow. But as I peered through the branches and searched the highway, I still couldn't see who was coming. The person was still on the far side of the bend in the road and concealed by the hillside.
But they were definitely getting closer. Now I could hear what sounded like something being dragged. With every other footstep came the sound of a chain clinking across the road's dry asphalt.
Finally a tiny figure emerged from around the bend. I looked around at my hiding spot in the gully, making sure that I was still concealed from the highway now that it was daylight. I was sitting within steps of the road, but I was pretty sure whoever was coming wouldn't be able to see me behind the cover of sage and low cottonwood branches.
It was a girl.
This came as a surprise, because the dragging chain sounded heavy. But the girl was walking with a slow, even pace. She didn't appear to be struggling at all. She just took one step accompanied by the dragging sound, then another quiet step, followed again by another step with the dragging sound.
As she drew closer, I could tell that she was only about eleven or twelve years old.
I didn't recognize her. She must have been someone from out of town. She had long brown hair, pulled back behind her ears, and she was wearing a dress. The dress looked like something she could have worn to a wedding, or maybe to church, except that it was filthy. What had once been white fabric had now soiled to a dull gray, closely matching the color of her equally filthy skin.
This uniform filth was probably why I didn't notice immediately that her dress was torn. The entire front section had been ripped away, revealing everything bellow her belly button. And she wasn't wearing any underwear.
My heart started to race.
As the girl came closer, I could see that her eyes were a beautiful green, but they were deeply sunken. And she was incredibly thin. Her hip bones jutted sharply from her waist. And yet her expression was perfectly calm. She was just staring straight ahead, keeping an even pace as she made her way down the empty road. She behaved as if she was perfectly clean and healthy, as if her dress was perfectly in tact, and as if her bare genitalia wasn't exposed for all the world to see.
And also as if nothing was attached to her foot.
I could see now that a steel animal trap was clamped around her ankle. Her foot was badly broken and twisted unnaturally. The trap's serrated jaws had dug through her skin, revealing her bone. Her toes were blackened and heavily swollen. Six feet of chain trailed behind her heel, and yet she was barely limping at all.
"Hey!" I shouted. I stepped out from the behind the brush. "Are you okay? You need help!"
The girl didn't respond. I clambered down the gully and onto the road.
"Stop!" I was close enough to her now to hear her steady breathing. "You need help. Sweetie, where are you parents? Stop!"
She didn't slow her pace. I actually had to step out of the way so she wouldn't bump into me. She just kept her gaze pointed at the far end of the road where it turned around the next bend.
I could smell her. Her foot was gangrenous. She smelled rotten.
She kept walking, and I didn't follow after her. She just kept marching casually onward, mostly naked, dragging the trap with her broken foot. The sound of the chain's jangling grew fainter as she moved on.
What else could I do?