A Walk at Dusk, “Heartsick,” part 1

III. Heartsick

The days quickened in the spring.

Charles never talked about the night spent in the woods, lashing out harshly if anyone mentioned it, and he stopped telling his ghost stories after diner. More often than not he was found lounging outside, or leaning up against a tree, staring into nothing, and was always in a sour mood. He was quick to order punishments and stayed always on the plantation, never going afield to hunt or fish like the other men his age. As the days  brightened, he became more sullen.

David found himself staring out the window more and more during his allotted learning time, losing his former focus that so pleased his parents. His mother said it came with being his age, but never went deeper, merely prodding him to continue his studies. Shakespeare was hard in the learning, but funny, he thought, once his mother explained the jokes to him. When he had free time he spent it on the book he had borrowed from the town, and when he was busy his thoughts strayed to imaginations of his own adventures (never with ghosts) and they often strayed beyond that, settling on the girl that had lent it to him.

Michael found himself in worse spirits, forced to continue his school work past the age when Charles had been allowed to begin the adult work of assisting his father with the management of the plantation. He knew this was his own fault for slacking and failing to learn what was necessary of his letters, but it embittered him, rather than motivating him. He became a constant nuisance to David, not because he held a grudge, but because David was the physically closest person he could torment. Their sisters, Laura and Ophelia, were seldom about to stop him or divert his attention. Laura had gown old enough to court, and this took a great deal of Mother’s attention and time, allowing Michael to play any number of pranks on his brother he wished.

David took in stride, and even got a few over on his brother. One time, after Michael had positioned a bucket on the top of an open door in the mudroom, David was able to slip between the gap and cry out. The bucket, filled with soapy water, crashed down on Michael, soaking and blinding him so he couldn’t even give his brother chase.

David also took some time to find Tiny, laying up in the hovels of the slave quarters, and check on him. Tiny always had a smile and hard look in his eyes. A young woman attended to his needs, who David found through Charles was the slave’s wife. Charles was reluctant to speak of her (perhaps the union was not a willing one, David thought), and she remained quiet when David was around. She treated Tiny well enough as David could witness, fetching him food and water when he could not walk to get it.

About the time David was finishing the final chapter of The Deerslayer, his father asked him to ride to town and deliver a stack of parcels to the post office. This gesture had great meaning to David, because it meant that not only was his father willing to trust him afield after the mushroom incident (as Charles would call it), but he was also willing to let David take a hand in the affairs of the plantation. Michael, who though older than David was never trusted with a horse by himself, made show of the resentment. David ignored his acid words as he saddled the horse in the stable and pushed off at a trot, his book tucked securely into a saddlebag with the mail.

It was bright spring day, the dew burning off early and the wind blowing at David’s back as he rode. As he rode along the road, he noticed a turn off, and slowed his horse to look. He thought it might have been the greenway that had led his brother astray, but the level path was already choked with spring weeds. He dismounted and rolled a boulder in the middle of the fork, as a reminder to himself or any other unlucky traveler. He continued on to Laughlin, a merriment in his heart.

At the post office (a small brown building in the center of town), while he was buying stamps and paying for the parcels, he was approached by the Doctor.

“Mister Smith,” he said, extending his hand. David shook it with a smile. He had never been called mister before.

“How do you do, Doctor Corning?”

“Well enough. How is my patient?”

“Tiny? He’s doing well enough for a lamed man. I talk to him from time to time. My father gave him a pair of crutches to get around on.”

Ely nodded. “Pain?”

“Yeah, some, I think,” David said. “He wouldn’t let me give him your medicine, though. Kept calling it something of the devil.”

Ely forced a smile. “So it can be. People get addicted to it. You held onto it, then?”

“Yes sir,” David said. “Father – My father – said that it is best not to trust a slave with inebriating substances.”

“It’s not wise to trust lots of men. Slaves have no special weakness we do not,” Ely said. His smile held firm, but his eyes had a hard squint to them.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but that’s my father’s authority on such things. Oh, another thing,” David pointed to his horse, waiting outside. “I have a book to return to Ezra. Is she about?”

“A book? Of my daughter’s?”

“Yes, a novel she lent me. Actually,” David said, “it was from the school. I finished it and so it ought to be returned. Is she about.”

“Give it to me, and I’ll see that it’s safely returned,” Ely said. “And thank you for your honor on it.”

“Only being honest, sir,” David said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to return it to her, as I promised. And I’d love to have a chat with her. I’m not in town very often.”

“She’s indisposed, but I will ensure the return of the book,” Ely said with a little more force in his voice. “Besides, I’m sure you have many things to do.”

Hearing the change in the Doctor’s voice, David relented and fetched the book from his saddlebag.

“Please tell Ezra I said hello,” David said, feeling a bit abashed as he handed the book over. Ely gave the boy a slight nod and set off himself.

“Please send for me if my patient worsens,” He said as he walked off down the lane.

“I get the feeling he doesn’t like me,” David said aloud.

The postmaster, a middle-aged man with a robust mustache said, “He’s an abolitionist. Makes sense he wouldn’t care for the wealthiest plantation owner in the county.”

For the first time in his life, David thought about his family in the context of wealth, and in what that wealth was tied up.

“Thank you for the tip, sir,” David said to the postmaster. “I hope you do not judge me the same.”

“All men are judged, my friend,” the postmaster said. “Best get used to it if you plan to live a long life here.”

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