Ezra spoke again in David’s ear, “I haven’t seen you in town.”
David turned his back as he rode, trying to keep the dim figure of Ely always in front of himself. “We stay on the plantation, mostly. Maybe you’ve seen my brother, Charles. He’s in quite a bit for this and that. He’s a man now, tall.”
“Maybe I’ve seen him. Why don’t you ever go?” Ezra asked.
“I’m too young, maybe. I don’t have my own horse. Yet.”
“Do you know how to read?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” David said and shrugged.
“You don’t go to school.”
“My mother teaches us. And we have a teacher come twice a month to give us math lessons. You go to school?”
“Of course,” Ezra said. “My mother is the teacher. Everyone should go to school.”
“So we both are taught by our mothers. What does it matter?”
Ezra was quiet for a few minutes, then said. “Do you ever play with other children?”
“My brothers. My sister, too, but she doesn’t like the outdoors much.”
“You really should come to the school house, then.”
“Father says children are the devil’s hands.”
Ezra laughed. “I’m sure they are, to him. He’s the father, after all. It’s his job to keep things in line. Do you like books?”
“Of course I like books.”
“What is your favorite?” Exra asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Have you read James Fennimore Cooper?”
David grunted. “I don’t know who that is.”
“He’s the best! We have all his books. You really should be sent to school.”
“Well I don’t go, and that’s that.”
With that, silence settled between them. Ely turned them south, and within half an hour, as dusk became final night, they approached the flickering lights of the Smith plantation’s slave houses, clustered and leaning. Doors were closed, as the night was chill, but one slave stood nearby a lighted window and waved. It was a short man named Tiny.
“Watch out, Davy,” he said as David slowed. “The boss is in a mood tonight.”
“It’s my fault, I’m sure,” David said. “Have you seen Michael?”
Tiny nodded with a grave face. “Best get on. Nothing for it.”
“Thanks, I guess,” David said.
They rode on to the big house of the plantation. A few of the windows were lighted. As they approached, the front door opened and David’s father stepped out, holding a lantern.
“Ho! Edward,” Ely said, stopping his horse and dismounting. “I believe I have something of yours that needs to be returned.”
“Aye,” David’s father said, eyeing David. “And what were you doing with him, Doc?”
Ely smiled and removed his hat as he stepped onto the wide porch. “My daughter and I were gathering mushrooms when we came across your boy. We invited him to join us, but time slips away when you are in the woods, so I thought I would do the courtesy of returning him to you straight away. Sorry to have kept him out, and sorry for the soil. It ought to wash out, but if it doesn’t-”
“Don’t worry about it.” Edward said. David’s father cast an uneasy look at the doctor, then at David. “So long as he’s back, that’s what matters. Still, next time send him on his way immediately.”
“I will, sir,” Ely said. “Do you care for mushrooms? We have quite a haul thanks to your boy.”
David’s father shrugged. “I suppose.”
Ely walked back to the horse and removed several specimens and handed them to David. “Remember to cook the morels, or you’ll have a rather unpleasant evening.” He waved to David’s father. “Farewell, Mister Smith! Don’t hesitate to call at need.”
Edward Smith nodded in reply, then stood beside David and watched the Ely and his daughter ride off under the cover of night.
Before they were lost to vision, Ezra turned back and waived, saying, “Maybe I’ll see you at school someday.”
After they left, David turned to his father and opened his mouth to say something, but was stopped his father’s grave stare.
“Back in the house and up to your room, boy,” he said. “Don’t let me catch out like this again, and especially not in the company of the doctor or his family.”
“Why not-” David started to say, but was cut off as his father wound up a backhanded slap.
“Back in the house!”
Without another word, David rushed through the door, past his mother and one of the house slaves, and up the long staircase toward the row of children’s rooms.
He passed by Michael’s room. The door was ajar, and he could see his brother laying on the bed belly down and without his britches.
“Michael?” David said.
Michael turned his head. “Go to your own room, rat face.”
David saw the welts along Michael’s legs and complied, rushing to his own small bedroom. He put the mushrooms down on his dresser. He then pulled off his dirty clothes, stuffed them into a basket, and went to bed, knowing and fearing that Father would come to do the same him.
But he didn’t.
Whether it was because of the doctor’s stretching of the truth, placing blame squarely on the older son, or some other merciful condition, Father never came up the stairs.