The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 2

by Cynthia DeFelice

  He felt that he, too, deserved to die, but, with disgust, he realized that he didn’t have the courage for that. To stay where Asa still lingered between the world and the grave, to be visited by Asa, to suffer the same slow painful death as the others and to suffer it alone—no! Nor could he bear to accept the pity and kindness of the Roods, to be the poor orphan boy living on the charity of others. He had to get away.

  And so, wanting only to leave that place of sickness and sorrow, he struck off into the chill of the wintry night, not knowing where he was going, or caring.


  For two days Lucas wandered about the countryside, creeping into barns to sleep at night, finding heat and comfort from the warm bodies and breath of cows and horses and oxen. At last, dazed and dizzy with hunger, he came to a town. As he walked down the main street, his attention was caught by a sign posted outside a large house. The words wavered before his eyes as he read: HELP WANTED—INQUIRE WITHIN. Tentatively, he reached up to tap on the door.

  A woman as tall and skinny as a sapling answered his knock. She stood before Lucas holding a rolling pin, her hands and the front of her apron dusted with flour. Peering at him with narrowed eyes, she said, “Well?”

  “I—” His voice sounded hoarse and strange to his ears. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I saw your sign,” he said.

  “It’s no sign of mine,” the woman replied brusquely.

  Confused, Lucas looked back at the sign. Maybe he’d imagined it. He turned to go.

  “Wait!” the woman commanded. She stood at the door, looking him over. Finally, with a snort of disdain, she disappeared into the house, saying, “Stay there.”

  Lucas waited, leaning against the wall. His eyes began to close, and he didn’t try to stop them. The icy wind blew down his neck, but he hardly cared. Maybe, he thought, he would fall asleep right there on the doorstep and never wake up…

  He was startled by a gruff but kindly voice. “So you can read. That’s good.”

  “Beg your pardon, sir?”

  Piercing blue eyes gazed at him from the middle of a face and head covered with tangled white hair. “Don’t disappoint me, now,” the man said. “You did read the sign, didn’t you?”

  “Yes,” Lucas replied.

  The man nodded. “Good. Got to be able to read and write,” he said, adding suddenly, “You can write, too, can’t you?”


  “Had some schooling, have you?”

  “Some,” answered Lucas. “When there wasn’t work to be done.”


  “Lucas Whitaker.”


  “Twelve.” The questions were coming so fast Lucas barely had time to think.


  Lucas opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

  “Parents?” the man asked, more gently. “Family?”

  Lucas swallowed. “Gone,” he whispered.

  “Speak up, lad. These old ears aren’t what they used to be.”

  “They’re dead.”

  The man stared at Lucas with a question in his eyes, but Lucas didn’t say any more. His mouth was dry as dust.

  “You look all done in, lad,” the man commented.

  Lucas didn’t answer. What did he care how he looked?

  “Been traveling awhile, I’d guess,” the man observed, watching Lucas and stroking his beard.


  “Where from?”

  Home, Lucas wanted to say. But it wasn’t home any longer. “North of here,” he said instead.

  The man nodded, looking curiously at Lucas from under his bushy eyebrows. “You look strong,” he said. “Do you have experience with hard work?”

  Lucas drew a sharp breath as a picture of the rocky hillside behind the farm filled his mind. He saw himself struggling to dig in the stony earth, blinded by tears of sorrow and anger and fear. He forced the memory away. “I have experience, all right,” he answered bitterly.

  “So, you can read and write and you know what work is. That’s good. Are you a fair hand with horses?”

  Lucas nodded. Since the time he’d turned seven, it had been his job to care for Barnabas, the horse, as well as the pair of oxen, Reuben and Rachel. The cow, Ruth, had been Mama’s responsibility, along with milking, churning, and making cheese. Lizy’d helped with the chickens.

  The man’s question made Lucas’s chest lurch with longing for the familiar velvety feel of Barnabas’s nose, and for Reuben’s and Rachel’s patient, brown-eyed gaze.

  Forget them, he told himself fiercely. They were Enoch Rood’s to care for now. That part of his life was gone.

  “Are you squeamish?”

  The question interrupted Lucas’s thoughts. Again he said, “Beg your pardon, sir?”

  “Are you the type that’s likely to go all swimmy-headed and jelly-kneed at the sight of a bit of blood?”

  Lucas had helped with the butchering plenty of times. It wasn’t his favorite chore, but he’d taught himself to get used to it. He thought of his mother’s coughing, and of the bright red blood on her pillow that she had tried to hide from him. “I don’t guess I am,” he said.

  “All right, then, here’s my last question. Are you fearful of the dead, lad?”

  Lucas looked up quickly, surprised. He wondered why the man was asking.

  Was Lucas fearful of the dead? Afraid of his own dear mama, his strong, quiet pa, his sweet sister Lizy, the babies? He shook his head. Afraid of Uncle Asa, coming up from his grave to find Lucas and drain away his life, too?

  “No!” he said, too loud.

  With a lift of his eyebrows the man said, “Then I expect you’ll do.”

  “Do for what, sir?” Lucas asked.

  “Why, to work,” the man answered, with a trace of impatience. “Isn’t that why you stopped?”

  “Yes, but—well, the sign didn’t say what kind of help it is you’re looking for.”

  “I am Uriah M. Beecher: doctor, dentist, apothecary, barber, and, when all else fails, undertaker. Call me Doc. Everyone else does. And you, lad, are my new apprentice.”


  Uriah Beecher led Lucas into the house, talking as he walked. “The boy before you didn’t last long. Hadn’t the stomach for surgery. Wasn’t much good around sick folks, said dead ones gave him the creeping willies. Which is why I asked your feelings about the subject.”

  Lucas didn’t say anything more.

  They entered the kitchen, where the tall, thin woman who had first answered the door was bending over to remove a pie from a large, iron cookstove. “The last boy worked too little and ate too much, in my view,” she said tartly, straightening up and eyeing Lucas disapprovingly.

  “I believe you have already made the acquaintance of my sister, Mrs. Bunce,” Doc Beecher went on, ignoring her comment. “Cora, this is—pardon me, but what did you say your name is, lad?”

  “Lucas Whitaker.”

  “Lucas Whitaker, who, by the looks of him, could use some good hot food and a sound night’s sleep. Young man,” he said, turning to Lucas, “I have some affairs to attend to, so I shall leave you in Mrs. Bunce’s capable hands. I’d like for you to begin your apprenticeship tomorrow morning, if you’re up to it.”

  After a sharp glance from his sister, he added quickly, “As soon as you’ve finished chores for Mrs. Bunce, that is. For your wages, you’ll get Mrs. Bunce’s fine cooking, a roof over your head, and a bed to sleep in.”

  Cora Bunce sniffed. “Not to mention learning the practice of a useful trade,” she added.

  “Ah, yes,” said Doc Beecher with a laugh. “Of course. You shall benefit from the vast store of my knowledge, as well.”

  “If your work is satisfactory,” Mrs. Bunce interjected.

  “Yes, of course, Cora,” Doc Beecher said soothingly. Lucas thought he saw the doctor look over at him with a sly wink, but it happened so fast he wasn’t sure.

  Doc Beecher put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “You g
et some sleep now, lad,” he said gently as he turned to leave.

  At Doc Beecher’s simple kindness, Lucas felt his throat close up, and he blinked back the tears that had suddenly sprung to his eyes.

  Mrs. Bunce was eyeing him appraisingly. “You’re filthy,” she announced. “There’s a washtub out the back door. Get yourself cleaned up.”

  Lucas went outside. He pumped some water into the washbasin, splashed his face, rinsed his hands, and, not seeing a cloth, wiped the dirt from his hands onto the leg of his trousers. When he turned to go back inside, Mrs. Bunce was standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips. “What do you think you’re doing, young man?”

  “I—I was just washing up, ma’am,” said Lucas. “You said—”

  She sighed and shook her head. “Bring that basin inside,” she said impatiently.

  Bewildered, Lucas did as he was told. Mrs. Bunce pointed to the stove, where a kettle of hot water steamed. “Use that,” she said. “And this,” she added, handing Lucas a cake of soap. “Leave your clothes outside. When you’ve finished, put those on.” She nodded in the direction of a pile of clothes sitting on the table. “The last boy left them. I expect they’ll fit suitably. Rub this through your hair,” she continued, handing him a bottle and muttering under her breath. Lucas caught the words, “Probably crawling with vermin.”

  “Wash thoroughly now.” She turned to leave, then stopped and added meaningfully, “Everywhere.”

  Lucas felt himself flush with a mixture of embarrassment and astonishment. The woman wanted him to take off all his clothes, wash his entire body with soap and warm water, and dress back up in someone else’s—the last boy’s—clothes!

  But it was only the beginning of March, he wanted to protest, and as cold and raw an evening as was possible to imagine. At home, they’d never have bathed on such a night. Mama always said it was best to wait until the wintry weather was over. The body built up its own protection from sickness and the like, she said, and no good came of washing it off. She used to sew Lucas’s father into his long johns in the fall, and cut him out of them in the spring, to keep him safe from the cold.

  A small voice inside reminded Lucas: But it hadn’t kept Pa safe, not from consumption.

  Feeling angry and uneasy, Lucas took off his clothes and set them outside the door. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Cora Bunce wasn’t coming back into the room, then mixed the hot water from the kettle with the cold water in the washtub and, using the soap and cloth he’d been given, began to wash himself.

  The soap was soft and slippery, not coarse like the soap his mama had made at home from lye and lard. It smelled sweet, like flowers, Lucas noticed, grimacing with distaste.

  Blushing although no one was there to see, he washed everywhere and poured some of the strong-smelling liquid from the bottle onto his head, as the woman had instructed, rubbing it into his dark brown hair. He dried with a soft cloth and pulled on the last boy’s shirt and trousers. Lucas was tall for his age, and thin. The pants were short and too big around the middle, but they were warm and, after he adjusted the suspenders, wearable.

  He was dumping the wash water out the kitchen door when Mrs. Bunce came back into the room. Pursing her lips in disapproval, she said, “We don’t dump waste all about the house. There’s a place out behind the barn for pouring dirty water. And other filth.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Lucas. Everything here was strange and different, and he felt too tired to take it in.

  He closed his eyes. The aroma of the freshly baked pie sitting on the tabletop made him imagine for a moment that he was back home, with his mama humming cheerfully as she did her cooking over the big open hearth. But when he opened his eyes, instead of his mother’s round, red cheeks and merry eyes, it was Mrs. Bunce’s pinched nose and tight lips that greeted him over a bowl of porridge.

  “Here,” she said. “Eat that, then go to your room. It’s the one off the parlor there. Chores begin at sunup.”

  Lucas tore his gaze from the pie and began eating the porridge. It was hot, at least, and filling, and he was glad to get it. He was hungry enough to eat twice as much, but remembering Mrs. Bunce’s remark about the last boy and his unfortunate appetite, Lucas got up when he finished.

  Without a word, the woman took the bowl away, and Lucas went down the hall in the direction in which she had pointed. He felt confused by all the rooms in this house. Was he to have one all to himself, he wondered. He and Lizy used to sleep together, within sight and hearing of Uncle Asa, Mama, and Pa. He didn’t like the idea of sleeping alone.

  The small room was sparsely furnished and spotlessly clean. There was a nightstand with a candlestick on top and a bed. The mattress was made of feathers, he noticed, instead of straw, and was covered with a quilt.

  The pattern of the quilt reminded Lucas again of his mama, and for a moment he imagined her sitting by the hearth on a winter’s evening, her eyes squinting against the darkness, her hands flying up and down and back and forth as she took pieces from her scrap bag and joined them into squares.

  With a pang, he thought of the bed that he and Lizy had shared, and of the warm patchwork coverlet Mama had made. He wished that he’d brought it with him, but he’d left quickly, taking nothing.

  Tired as he was, he lay on the bed in the darkness for a long time, his eyes open, thinking and remembering. Each night since he had buried his mother and left home, the same puzzling thoughts kept tumbling through his mind, keeping him from sleep.

  Why, he wondered, did good people like Mama and Pa and Lizy and the babies—and, yes, Asa, too—have to die? For what reason, when everyone else in his family was gone, had his miserable life been spared?

  Perhaps worst of all was the knowledge that he could have stopped the deaths, as the Roods had done. There was a cure for the ravages of consumption. Why, he asked himself, pounding his fist on the feather mattress, had he not learned of it before it was too late?


  Lucas moved through the early-morning hours of his new life as if in a dream. Without thought or question, he obeyed Mrs. Bunce’s orders to fetch water, chop and carry firewood, empty the chamber pots, and feed the chickens and horses.

  A distant part of his mind noticed things about Doc Beecher’s house that once would have interested him: thick carpets that covered the floors, stuffed furniture that was soft to sit on, mirrors and paintings on the walls, glass windows in a few of the many rooms, and a tall, wooden clock that startled him from time to time with its chiming. But he paid scant attention to any of it.

  Once, he stopped short on catching sight of himself in the parlor mirror. They hadn’t had a looking glass at home, and it was a moment before he recognized that the grim face looking back at him, with its dark brooding eyes, narrow mouth, and skin stretched tight over sharp, high cheekbones, was his own.

  After a meager meal of bread and jam, he was sent to the front room, where Uriah Beecher sat reading by the window.

  “’Morning, lad,” said the doctor, looking up from his book. “Have a good feed, did you?”

  Lucas shrugged.

  “Mrs. Bunce has a peculiar tendency to hoard the household supplies,” Doc Beecher said with a little smile. “I expect she got that way from living with Horace Bunce, her late departed husband. He was the most miserly skinflint I’ve ever—But never mind that. However, I do have to watch that sister of mine, or she’d have me on bread and water. Which from the looks of her is all she ever eats.”

  When Lucas didn’t respond, Doc Beecher looked at him over the tops of his thin gold-rimmed glasses. “Hmmm,” said Doc. “Not much of a one for conversation, are you? Well, I suppose it’s no wonder, all things considered. People talk when they’re ready, I’ve found. All right, then. Let me put you to work.”

  Doc Beecher stood up. “You’ll find out soon enough what it’s like around here. One day nothing much happens, and the next all tarnation breaks loose.

  “So I’ve learned to take advantage of the quie
t times. That’s when I write in my journals, and work on my experiments and hypotheses. It’s when you can make yourself useful sharpening my instruments, making up medicines, and generally helping me to be prepared for the next bout of human misfortune we’ll need to deal with.”

  Lucas looked around the room. There was a long table covered with a sheet. Next to it were trays full of the doctor’s medical instruments. Some Lucas recognized, such as a saw and several sizes and styles of knives, pliers, drills, and shears. Others were peculiar-looking, their uses unknown to him.

  A pitcher and washbasin sat on a table near a large chair with leather straps attached to it. He’d never seen a chair like it and wondered what the straps were for.

  All along the walls were shelves lined with a remarkable assortment of books, pamphlets, bottles with powders and liquids of different colors, and jars full of squirming leeches. There was a large drawing of a person without any skin on, so Lucas could see the bones and other inside parts, and on one of the shelves there was what appeared to be a human skull, with the teeth sticking right out of the jawbones.

  Doc Beecher’s desk held stacks of papers, a pen and inkstand, and what Lucas knew was an oil lamp, although at home they’d had only candles to light the darkness. There were two regular chairs, a fireplace, and the wood box Lucas had filled earlier that morning. Next to the door were saddlebags and a large black traveling bag.

  “Today I’d like you to mix together equal parts of each of these ingredients,” Doc Beecher said as he took several jars from the shelf, “and put the mixture in these little cloth pouches. Clear enough?”

  “How much from each jar, sir?” Lucas asked.

  “Call me Doc. As I said, everyone else does.”

  “How much of each…Doc?”

  Doc Beecher handed Lucas a spoon. “Two spoonsful.”

  Lucas began measuring and mixing. Doc Beecher went back to his papers. They were silent, which was fine with Lucas. He found the repetitious work oddly soothing. It demanded just enough of his attention that he didn’t have to think about anything else, and the dried plants, whatever they were, smelled pleasant.


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