A Walk at Dusk, “Heartsick,” Part 9

After a time, Ely slowed his horse, and David pulled up beside him. The path they followed wound its way along the side of the river, which had a dense fog lying on the slow-moving water. After the brief respite of the run from the plantation, David’s sense of dread and anxiety had settled back on him. He slouched in the saddle. A silence settled among them, and even the horse’s hooves seemed to dull in their flurry of clops.

As they entered the edge of the wood, David spoke up. “Can you clearly see the road?”

Ely turned to him with a frown. “As clear as you. Why?”

“I’ve gotten lost here before,” David said.

“I know,” Ely said with a smile. “I remember.”

“No, another time,” David said. “On this road, on our way back from your office with the slave.”

“I hope your moral senses are better than your sense of direction,” Ely said. “Perhaps I’d better have my daughter off of that horse of yours.”

He made no action to the threat, and instead urged his horse to pick up the pace a bit.

“He only jokes like that with people he likes, you know,” Ezra said quietly as her father outpaced them for a few yards.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“You should always take my word, David Smith.”

Another long stretch of silent minutes fell after David once again pulled up beside Ely. Fog was starting roll in, but it remained thin and translucent, blurring the moon rather than obscuring it. At some point, however, the road wound through a dense grove of trees that looked coppiced with their tightly packed trunks and leaves, and the mood disappeared, leaving only a lightly glowing grey roof high above them.

“Hold up!” David shouted, and slowed his horse. Ely matched him, until they both stopped.

“What is it, son?” Ely said.

“This spot. I feel…” David trailed off. He handed his musket to Ezra and quickly dismounted. The unease he had felt growing sense passing town was now a tense violin string in his throat and chest, playing a harsh diad with an uneven tremolo. He unhooked his lamp from his saddle, checked it for oil, then lit it with a match.

“Is it really so dark?” Ezra said.

“This light plays tricks, I think,” David said, not really meaning the light at all. He walked to the side of the road and pulled from a gnarled oak a long dead shoot, about an inch thick, that pulled away from the old trunk with a great many splinters. In the splintered edge he buried the handle for the lamp, then lifted it up to Ezra, who held it aloft. The lamplight was actually a bit brighter than the eerie fog above them, and cast the trees with a sickly orange glow.

He mounted again and took the lantern on a pole from Ezra, then rode forward. “I think there’s a fork ahead,” he said. The lamp cast a wide circle on the ground, illuminating the tall grass that leaned over into the beaten path. Ely didn’t press the issue at all, but stayed close to David.

The light bobbed and swayed. Shadows shifted. The fog darkened, but didn’t thicken on the road. The minutes slipped past with a great friction, but with each furlong, David felt the string in his throat loosen. Finally, David paused and watched the shadows on the ground shift slightly.

“I’ll be damned,” Ely said. “I’ve ridden this stretch of road a hundred times, but I’ve never seen that path.” Off to the right, a set of wheel ruts cut through low grass and wound out of sight through a low canopy.

David nodded and said. “Let’s get on with it.” He kicked his horse forward, and Ezra clutched at him, surprised with the burst of speed. The lantern shook and shot shadows in every direction. Ely followed close behind.

Eventually the trees closed in closer, but the woods somehow felt less threatening as the fog dissipated. The road took its long curve to the right, and David led them off and down a wagon track. The passed the slave quarters where, even now, slaves were gathered around a low fire. A few stood up as they passed, but David payed them no mind. The big house of the plantation was in sight, with a single lantern giving off a yellow light for guidance.

David’s father still stood outside on the porch. He now smoked from a wooden pipe, and he regarded Ely carefully as they all dismounted in front of the door.

“I came as quick as I could,” David said, meeting his father’s hard eyes.

“Michael’s not rousing,” was his father’s slow reply. He shook out a few bits of ash. “But I’m glad to see you all the same. Doctor Corning, thank you for coming.”

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