David and Ezra had to duck down as the horse hit the path below low-hanging branches of pine. Limbs scratched and scraped over their coats. Ezra cried out quietly as a piece of ribbon was torn from her hair. The horse’s hooves began to beat loudly as the earth became grassless and more compact. Ezra breathed out in release when she looked back to see the grove long gone. She saw a break in the trees and pulled at David’s jacket.
“Up there, I think that path breaks west to the main road,” she said, pointing.
“Have you taken it before?” David pulled the horse up short and looked down a long, dark path that branched away from the clear, straight road on which they currently tread. Thick bushes crowded it, but it was still larger than a game path.
Ezra leaned around David’s shoulder to look. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I won’t chance it. Getting lost in these woods is dangerous.”
“Like the time you got lost and found me?”
“I was lost one other time. With my brother and Tiny. I never told you about it, I suppose.”
“Well obviously you weren’t lost forever,” Ezra said.
“Nearly so. The witch…” David shook his head.
“That’s just an old tale.”
“You’d have to be there to believe, I guess. Maybe that’s why none of us talked about it. But trust me when I say that there are times and places when your rationality fails, and these woods like to bring those out.” David nudged the horse away from the other path, and continued south. When the road opened up a bit he pushed the horse into a swift stride, short enough of a gallop that he felt he could hold the speed for a long while.
The both felt grateful when the road turned east and met the larger north-south highway. He kicked the horse into a full gallop for as long as felt he could push it, then eased back. After another half hour of riding Ezra directed him westward, down an abandoned farm path and toward a grove of old oaks on a wide hill. A young man sad beneath the branches with a lit oil lamp. He stood up as they approached. He knocked over the lamp as he stumbled away, as if trying to run.
“Johnny! It’s me!” Ezra called.
The young man stopped and went back to his lamp. He held it up, revealing a young face with a light beard.
“So it is you,” the young man said. “I was just considering coming to get you, busy or no. Your parents will be upset at the time, no doubt. But I wasn’t expecting you to come from the Road.”
Ezra slid off the horse and ran up to Johnny, pulling him into a hug. “Thank God you’re all right.”
Johnny looked at her, puzzled. “What’s the matter?”
“There were a few strange men that showed up at the willow grove,” Ezra said. “We slipped away, but we feared you would run into them coming for me.”
Johnny nodded. “I suppose I almost did. I did go looking for you, but I saw the lantern moving in the trees, and decided not to interrupt you.”
“That would have been them,” David said. “A nasty looking pair for sure.”
Johnny forced a smile. “A good thing I have a fear of awkward situations, then.”
Ezra turned back to David and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Write if you can’t get away. And know how I feel about the coffin water.”
“I will,” David replied. They locked in a gaze for a protracted moment, then Ezra went with Johnny to his horse. They all saddled up and bade a last farewell to each other. Johnny and Ezra went due east, toward the small cluster of lights that was the town. David watched them ride away, Ezra’s skirt flowing in the wind. When the sight dwindled, he turned north, toward where he knew the small house of Tabitha sat amid tall rushes.