“Are you alright?”
David said a silent prayer.
“Hello? Boy in the mud? Can you hear me?”
David let his breath out and rolled enough to see behind himself. A girl stood there, raising an eyebrow to him. An unlit lamp hanging from a belt that bound the waist of a pale grey dress. Mud caked the folds of the hem and the black boots beneath it. She carried a large basket in the crook of her elbow.
“I…” David began, but stammered into silence.
“You found a chicken mushroom!” The girl said. “Lucky that.”
David looked at his hands and was surprised to find that the root he had grasped for purchase was in fact a long mass of fungi, bearing a multitude of capped mushroom layers in a cool orange.
“Did you trip trying to get it?” the girl said. She bent down and tugged at his feet, pulling away a few clinging dead tendrils of a vine. “I’ve tripped on the creeper a few times here myself.”
“You’re not a witch?” David said.
“Well you wouldn’t know that, would you?” the girl said. David sat up and she chuckled. “You look like a minstrel.”
“Oh,” David said, setting down the mushrooms and wiping the mud off of his face.
“Why would you think I’m a witch?”
“This is the witch’s tomb.” Seeing her puzzlement, he added. “The Witch of the Woods?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry,” the girl said.
“Well that’s her grave,” David said. He pushed himself up and did his best to clean the mud off the front of his clothes. “She calls down men to lie with her in the ground at night. She whispers in their minds.”
“I’ve been here dozens of times. I’ve never heard a whisper from that rock.”
“You’re not a man.”
“Neither are you,” she said.
“What’s your name?” David asked.
“David. What are you doing out here?”
Ezra smiled and held up her basket. “Collecting mushrooms, of course. That’s not what you’re doing?”
“No,” David said. “I… came here on a dare, but I didn’t remember how to get back. My brother…” He trailed off and shook his head.
“Then you won’t be wanting that chicken mushroom?” she pointed to the large mass on the ground.
David picked it up and handed it to her. “Take it. I’ll be needed to get going. Father’s like as not to lash my hide, if he hasn’t already skinned and tanned my brother.”
“My father and I came on horseback. I could give you a ride back to Laughlin, if you like.”
“That’s nice to offer, but that would still leave me a long walk home,” David said.
“Hey, who’s this?” A big voice said. A man stepped into the clearing bearing an oil lamp and a basket. He had a musket slung over his back.
“His name is David,” The girl said. “I think he’s lost.”
“Ah, you’re one of the Smith boys, right?” the man said.
“Yes sir,” David said with a quick bow of his head.
“I’d best get you back home. Your father is a strict man.”
“You know him?”
“I know just about everybody in the three corners. I’m fairly certain I’m the only doctor left in the county. You don’t remember me? I’m Ely Corning. I treated your brother for a broken arm some time back.” He stuck his hand out. David quickly wiped his hand on the back of his shirt and shook it.
“Nice to meet you… again, sir,” David said.
Ely smiled and looked at Ezra. “How is our haul?” She held up the chicken mushroom and put in her basket. “Good,” he said. “That’s plenty. This rain will sprout up a few more next week.”
“You come here… for mushrooms?” David said.
“It’s the best spot in the woods,” Ely said.
“But the witch-”
“Don’t go believing ghost stories, son,” Ely said. “Now let’s get you home.”
David agreed and followed Ely and Ezra past the boulder and back through the woods. David was surprised to find that after only about half a mile or so of walking, the trees began to thin considerably. They came upon two horses, and Ely invited David to ride one of them. Ezra he perched behind David. Mushrooms were stored in saddlebags and baskets were hung from the saddles, and they set off down a long and narrow trail beneath tall, spread-out pines.
The trees began to break and they found the running of a creek. Ely turned them to the side and set out east as the dusk deepened and the land fell to a grey lightened as much by the waxing moon as by the failing sun. The wind picked up and fluttered through their clothes.
“Take off that silly hat,” Ezra said after some time. “It’s hitting me in the face.”
David complied, stuffing the felt hat into the space between himself and the saddle horn.