May Lee got into trouble because she misbehaved, there's the beginning and the end of it. It wasn't bad misbehavior, and might even seem praiseworthy by some lights, but it got her into trouble all the same. You see, when you've misbehaved, you've got to cover it up, and that's where the trouble starts.
May Lee snitched a copy of Black Beauty off the sixth-grade reading shelf, and then she hid in the hollow barberry bush away over in the back corner of the schoolyard out of sight so nobody would tell her that she'd strain her little first-grade brain by attempting sixth-grade reading, and strain her eyes besides, if she didn't give them a rest when she got a chance to run around and play.
When the bell rang and May Lee popped out of the bush, a man picked her up so suddenly that she dropped Black Beauty, and oh, my, what would she say to Mrs. Fletcher, the sixth-grade teacher, if it had gotten rumpled or dirty? When she tried to squirm away to pick it up, he hit her with his fist on the side of the head and snarled, "Be quiet!" Then she knew that she had done something very wrong, and was as quiet as she knew how to be. A grownup wouldn't hit a child unless it was serious, like running out in front of a car or eating rat poison, and nobody had ever hit her with a closed fist.
He put her in a car and they rode for miles and miles. Now May Lee understood that this was a bad man, and she should have screamed as loud as she could when he grabbed her, but it was too late. She just scrunched down in the seat and tried not to whimper so he wouldn't hit her any more.
They got out in the yard of an old house with the paint peeling off. He dragged her around back to a garden where Old Lady Selkirk was pulling weeds. She was wearing a dingy tennis hat and a faded blue shirt instead of the babushka and grease-stained orange jacket she always wore when she rode past the school on her bike. She was wearing the same grungy jeans and still had her witchy black hair skinned back in a knot. May Lee wondered how Mrs. Selkirk had gotten way out here.
Mrs. Selkirk straightened up, put her hands in her jeans pockets, and frowned at them. "What do you want?" she said.
The man said, real mean, "I think you know what I want. If I don't get it from you, I'll get it from her."
"Oh, Lord." Mrs. Selkirk closed her eyes. May Lee wondered whether she was sick. The man jerked a long black stocking off the line and tied May Lee's hands together with her arms around the clothes pole. He kept telling Mrs. Selkirk how easy it would be to kill May Lee. May Lee called for her Daddy, but not loud enough for the man to hear. The stocking hurt her hands and her face ached where he had hit her.
"Now, Miss High and Mighty," the man said, "Let's see you take it off." Mrs. Selkirk turned her back on him and started to unbutton her shirt. "I said I wanted to see you!"
Mrs. Selkirk turned around and walked towards him. Her shirt was half unbuttoned and her hands were pressed over her brassiere and her eyes were very wide.
Then Mrs. Selkirk hit him in the chest and he yelled and grabbed her hands. She hit him with her knee and he yelled again and let go of her hands and she jumped back, hitting him on the back of the head, and he fell down. Before he could get up she kicked the side of his head. It made an awful sound. Not loud, just awful. He fell all the way down. There was blood coming out of his nose. There had been blood on his shirt ever since Mrs. Selkirk hit him the first time, but he was lying on that now.
"You've got a punctured lung, and if you move, you'll spill your guts." Mrs. Selkirk sounded real mean. She came at May Lee with a bloody knife in her hand and blood on her clothes. "Don't move," she said. May Lee couldn't move. She grabbed May Lee's hands and pushed the knife under the stocking and cut it off. She folded up the knife and put it in her pocket blood and all. "Let's go inside. We have a couple of phone calls to make."
Mrs. Selkirk had a tiny, dingy kitchen. The linoleum was worn through in spots and looked dirty. There were numbers painted on the wall beside the telephone. Mrs. Selkirk dialed and said, "We need an ambulance and a deputy, stat. The Selkirk place. Grant Hill road, six miles out from the village, a green house on your left. 865-3467. No, I'll call back."
Then she said to May Lee, "Do you know your phone number? Is there anyone home to answer it? Good, call up and tell your mommy to come get you, then go down to the road to wait. I've got to do something about our friend before he finds out how short my pruning knife is." Mrs. Selkirk pulled a drawer out of a cabinet and took a big black roll of tape with her. She left the drawer open.
When Mommy finally answered the phone, May Lee couldn't remember where Mrs. Selkirk had said they were. Mama had her read the number off the phone and was about to hang up when Mrs. Selkirk came back and took the phone. She said "Six miles out from the village on Grant hill; go through the village and keep straight as though you were going to Markland; that's Grant hill — a green house on the left. Your daughter is fine; there may be an ambulance here but that's for somebody else — and I've got to go now and take care of him."
Mrs. Selkirk hung up without letting May Lee talk to Mommy again. She still looked sick. She opened another drawer and handed May Lee a towel. She said, "Go out the front and down to the road and wave this at anybody who comes along. We need more help."
Mrs. Selkirk started to wash the bloody knife at the sink. May Lee was very glad to get out of there. She ran down to the road as fast as she could. After an eternity or two a car came along. May Lee waved her towel at it. It slowed down. The driver grinned and waved, and went on.
Mrs. Selkirk ran down to the road, barefoot and wearing a shabby red duster. She picked up May Lee and said, "Did it seem like forever, darlin'? I had to plug that hole in him even if I would rather he didn't make it, and then I just couldn't stand those clothes." She stood in the middle of the road holding May Lee much too tight until the sheriff came. May Lee didn't cry until after her mommy got there, and neither did Mrs. Selkirk.