Ezra met his eyes and nodded, then moved through the open door. Eli watched her go a minute, then fixed eyes of blue stone on David.
“I expect you to keep your distance from now on,” he said, drying his hands without taking his eyes off of David.
“I know you fancy my Daughter. You had best be fancying somebody else.”
“What?” David said, then stammered, “Why?”
“Your moral character fails to meet my standards, of course.”
David swallowed hard and felt a stiff pain in his head. “Sir, I’ve never acted toward your daughter with anything but good manners and respect for her.”
“There’s more to the making of a good man than his manners, Mister Smith.”
“Doctor, sir, please, you can be assured that I would never offend her or her chastity. I would only act with-”
Eli silenced David with an audible sigh. He looked down at the planks of the porch and then up again, exasperated. “The fact that you think this about manners and chastity speaks volumes of your ignorance. You are not my enemy, David. I expect we shall have fine business relations for years to come. Every boy has to deal with the limitations of youthful romanticism, and this will be your limit. Is that clear?”
David didn’t answer. Eli broke his stare as Ezra returned with a tea kettle and some cups.
“Good,” the doctor said cheerfully. “Nothing like a bit of tea to keep you in your saddle.”
They drank the tea silently for a long series of moments. Ezra kept glancing at her father as if she expected him to step away at any moment, but he remained leaning against the narrow table with the water basin on it, sipping his tea with a smile on his face.
“So, I hear your brother is getting married?” Eli said.
“Yes sir,” David said. “To Marjorie Weatherby.”
“That’ll happen soon will it not?”
“Not sure if it will, or will wait till after the war with Mexico. My brother is convinced it will be short.”
“Good. Either way, I’m sure.” The doctor gave his tea an audible slurp and chuckled. “The Weatherbys. They have three daughters, do they not?”
“They’re all hags,” Ezra said, then blushed and hid her face in her tea.”
“That’s not a nice thing at all, Ezra,” Eli said. “You barely know them. I know mister Weatherby quite well. I could put in a word for you regarding-” He paused and looked at Ezra, who was trying not to frown. “What was the middle daughter?”
“Helen,” David said. “But that won’t be necessary, sir.”
“Are you sure about that?”
David looked away. “I think I’m done with my tea now, sir. I should get going.” He stood up and handed his half-full cup to Ezra, meeting her trembling blue eyes for just a moment before turning away.
“Remember what we talked about,” Eli said after David had stepped down from the porch.
“I will, sir,” David said. With a grumble he went back around toward his horse. The sun was blazing just above the trees in the west when he rode away, letting the horse take an easy pace. David’s head ached, and he found himself feeling sleepy as the fear and tension of the day withdrew from his body.
A breeze began to blow along the road as the sun dipped below the treeline. David pulled his dirty coat around himself tightly in anticipation of a chill and against the fine dust that was blowing into his face. David squinted his eyes and let his horse carry him. His mind wandered back to Ezra, and though respect for his elders was something well-beaten into him and his character, he found himself chuckling as he thought about the words of Ely Corning. Those harsh words, he realized with an odd sense of self-inspection, meant nothing to him, for he had never considered obeying them.
A leathery dusk settled on the woods, and absent-mindedly David wondered to himself how long he had been on the road, day dreaming about Ezra. He startled and reigned in the horse as he suddenly caught sight of a fire amid the trees. He drew his musket and waited for a long moment. Nothing stirred but the slowly flickering flame of a campfire.
David dismounted and pulled his horse to a nearby thicket. He gave it a pat on the neck, then slid over a flat rock, well buried beneath moss and creepers, down to be level with the fire. Slowly, he stalked forward, his thumb on the hammer of his musket. As he drew closer to the flames he saw that it was indeed a raging campfire, lighting up the dull grey ash trunks that surrounded a large patch of empty ground. David hunched down and cradled the musket.
It was an campground, and the fire was fresh. A stack of firewood sat just off from the hearth, made from a random assortment of local stones. Gear was stacked under the leaves of a bush, and a saddle hung from a tree-limb, though no horse could be seen. David inched forward and looked all the way around the clearing, but it appeared empty. Not knowing what else to do, he cupped his hand and faced away, then did his best imitation of the cadence-like hoot of a horned owl.
Nothing reacted, which David thought was a good thing as his hoot had sounded as much like an owl as like a cow. Feeling a sudden itch of worry and no longer caring to know who was camping midway to the plantations, David backed away and returned to his horse. He mounted up as quietly as he could (stifling a groan in the process), and let his horse back to the road. The report of the beast’s hooves was suddenly ever present as he clicked his tongue and squeezed with his heels, urging the horse to a cantor it did not want to take. Even as it obeyed David had to grip the saddle horn to steady himself and the musket that bounced on his lap.
With a careful eye he watched the light of the fire dance off to his right.