The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 3

by Cynthia DeFelice

  The morning passed quietly. Mrs. Bunce brought the midday meal: thick slices of warm bread, cheese, and wedges of pie. Lucas figured out quickly enough that Mrs. Bunce would feed him better when Doc was around to keep an eye on what she was serving, and he vowed to try to eat as many meals as he could in Doc’s company.

  After they ate, Doc Beecher gave Lucas some instruments and told him to put an edge on them. Lucas was just beginning to get a feel for honing the blades with the sharpening stone when there was a rapping at the door.

  Doc stood and admitted a grinning young man who announced jubilantly, “I’ve come for barbering, Doc, the most important shave and haircut of my life. My whole future, you might say, rests in your skill at razoring.”

  “My, my,” said Doc. “This sounds serious. Let me guess…Is someone going courting, perchance?”

  A flush of pleasure colored the man’s face. “Right you are, Doc.”

  “And, I wonder, would the lady in question be none other than Martha Pitcher?”

  “Right again,” said the beaming young man. “I’ve been calling on her all this winter long. Tonight, we’re taking a sleigh ride and—”

  “And you’ll be asking her to marry you, out under the stars and the big white moon, is that it?” said Doc with a smile. “I hadn’t marked you for quite such a romantic, lad. Well, well. That’s fine.”

  Then, shaking his head, Doc pretended to be very serious. “I’ve got a formidable job ahead of me, though, if I’m to make the likes of you presentable. Moonlight or no moonlight, it’s a good bit of help you’re needing.”

  “Just get on with it, Doc,” said the young man, laughing. “But I warn you, don’t get carried away with the scissors.” He wiggled his eyebrows up and down and whispered, “Martha has expressed a certain fondness for the way the hair curls round my ears.”

  Lucas continued working throughout this exchange, but he could feel his lips twitching into a smile. The young man’s high spirits were hard to resist.

  “May I present Lucas Whitaker, my new apprentice,” said Doc. “Lucas, this young firebrand is James Freeman. Not much longer to be a free man. Or so he hopes,” he added, then roared with laughter, greatly pleased with his joke.

  James Freeman settled himself in the large chair with the leather straps, which, Lucas noticed, hung unused. Doc explained to Lucas how to place a steaming-hot cloth on the face to soften the whiskers, and how to mix up a lather for shaving. Then, while James sat with the hot cloth covering the lower half of his face, Doc began the haircut, still teaching his technique to Lucas as he worked.

  “The most important thing is to cover up the victim’s mouth as soon as possible,” he said with a wink at Lucas. “That way, he can’t talk back, you see.”

  Muffled protests came from under the cloth, and again Doc laughed heartily.

  Lucas felt shy about joining in the good-natured banter, but it was fun to listen and to laugh. He hadn’t heard much talk about happy things such as courting and marrying for a long time.

  Even Mrs. Bunce’s scowling face, appearing at the door to “find out what all the ruckus was about,” did nothing to dampen the lighthearted mood in the room.

  James told them his plans. He hoped to be married in April, so he and Martha could set up housekeeping and be ready for the spring planting season.

  When James Freeman left, his pink cheeks smooth and his hair glistening, Doc turned to Lucas and said approvingly, “That was a fine, sharp edge you had on the razor, lad.”

  Lucas, who was wiping the razor clean, ducked his head, pleased by Doc Beecher’s praise.

  Mrs. Bunce returned at that moment to ask, “Did you charge Mr. Freeman a fair wage for that shave and haircut, Uriah?”

  Doc Beecher looked uncomfortable. “The man’s mind was on wooing, not wages,” he said.

  “That’s no excuse,” Mrs. Bunce replied. “Do you want everyone in town marching in here for their shaves and haircuts, free of charge?”

  “That’s hardly likely,” Doc Beecher murmured.

  “Uriah,” she said, a warning tone in her voice, “we can’t expect to keep this household going on the earnings from my spinning. My fingers are nearly worn out. I’ve told you—”

  “You have indeed, Cora,” Doc said with a sigh. “I’ll take care of it.” To Lucas he said, “Lad, come here and I’ll show you a little about the business end of our work.”

  Mrs. Bunce retreated as Doc Beecher took a large ledger book from the shelf and opened it.

  “Have you a head for figures, Lucas?” he asked.

  “I don’t guess so,” Lucas answered. “We mostly bartered with folks.”

  “That’s generally the way it works here, too,” said Doc. “Here are my accounts, such as they are. Now, take our young visitor, James, for example. Let me see…”

  Doc ran his finger down several pages until he came to the entry for the Freeman family. “Here it is.”

  Lucas looked where Doc was pointing. From the series of notations, he was able to see that over the past few years, in return for such services as setting a broken finger, sewing up a leg wound, providing tonics for relief of ague and catarrh and plasters for bee stings, measles, and snake bite, Doc had received a variety of products from the Freeman farm, including eggs, milk, pork, and potatoes.

  “After her husband died, Mrs. Bunce came here to Southwick from the city of Philadelphia. She’s always urging me to be more businesslike, to set fees to be paid in cash and so on, the way they did in the city. But you know, lad, there’s scarce little money to be found in a farming community such as this.”

  In Lucas’s mind arose a memory of the small cloth bag his mother had kept under the straw mattress of her bed. Inside were four gold coins that Lucas had understood were to be spent only in the direst need. He’d left them behind, too, in his hurry to escape.

  “You mark my words,” Doc continued. “As soon as he can, young James will be back with fair payment for our work today. Along with some tidings of a wedding, I’ll wager.”

  “Yes, Doc,” Lucas agreed.

  “All in all, I find this system quite satisfactory. Now, you see here—”

  Doc was about to point out a further aspect of his bookkeeping system when they were interrupted by another knock.

  This time it was a woman, holding the hand of a boy several years younger than Lucas. The boy had a cloth wrapped round his chin and tied at the top of his head. Tears slid down his cheeks.

  Lucas’s Uncle Asa had had constant toothaches, and Lucas was pretty sure he recognized the look of misery on the young boy’s face.

  “Greetings, Dr. Beecher,” said the woman. “Daniel here’s got a tooth needs pullin’, if you got the time.”

  “Good day to you, Mrs. Oaks,” answered Doc. To Daniel he said, “Young man, what seems to be the trouble?”

  The boy looked silently up at Doc, his eyes large and frightened-looking.

  “I guess I can see for myself, can’t I?” said Doc. “That face of yours looks swollen. Hurts bad, does it, lad?”

  Daniel nodded and a little sob escaped his throat.

  “All right, now. Daniel, this is my apprentice, Lucas. He’ll help you into that chair.”

  Lucas took the boy’s hand and led him over to the big chair where James had had his haircut.

  “Can you climb up there yourself?” Lucas asked.

  Daniel hoisted himself onto the high seat and looked fearfully at Lucas. Lucas looked to Doc, waiting to find out what he was to do next.

  “Now, Daniel,” Doc was saying as he assembled the instruments he would need, “Lucas is going to take those straps there and harness you up. It won’t be for long. But I’m not going to lie to you, lad. This isn’t going to be pleasant. I need you to be brave, and to stay as still as you can.”

  Daniel was looking at Lucas, terrified, while Lucas fastened the leather straps over his chest. Lucas tried to think of something, anything, to make the boy less afraid.

  “You know
why Doc Beecher uses these straps, Daniel?”

  Daniel shook his head, his eyes growing even wider.

  Lucas leaned down and began to whisper in the boy’s ear. “Well, one day there was a man sitting there in that very chair. He had a bad tooth, see, same as you, and Doc was pulling it out. It hurt some, and the man got real mad at Doc and punched him right in the nose!

  “I reckon Doc’s afraid you’ll do the same thing, so he’s got to strap you down for his own protection, you being such a big, strong boy and him being so old and all.”

  Lucas stopped whispering when he saw that Doc stood ready to begin. Daniel glanced sideways at Doc Beecher, a flicker of a grin crossing his face.

  “All set now, are we?” asked Doc.

  Lucas looked into Daniel’s eyes and lifted his eyebrows in a question. The boy nodded.

  Doc untied the cloth from around the boy’s head and said in a soothing voice, “Open wide. That’s good. Now even wider. That’s it, lad.” With a small knife, he began to cut the pink skin around the inflamed tooth. Lucas felt Daniel’s hand fumbling for his. Daniel’s small fingers gripped Lucas’s fiercely, and tears streamed down his pale freckled cheeks. Lucas’s heart wrenched with pity.

  Doc nodded his approval as Lucas, without being told, held the cloth where it would catch the flow of blood. With fascination, Lucas realized that the tooth was longer than it looked. Part of it was buried in the flesh, the way the roots of a plant were buried in the ground.

  Once the length of tooth was exposed, Doc handed Lucas the knife and reached for a pair of pliers. The pliers looked fearsome. Daniel’s eyes were squeezed tight.

  Good, thought Lucas. It was better if he didn’t see what was coming.

  Doc grasped Daniel’s tooth with the pliers and wiggled it back and forth with a steady pull. Daniel’s body grew rigid and his fingers squeezed Lucas’s so tight that Lucas was afraid they might break. Slowly, the tooth emerged. Doc pressed a small piece of cloth into the hole in Daniel’s gum, and held the tooth up for Daniel to see.

  “There’s the culprit,” he said triumphantly.

  At the sight of the tooth, Daniel let out a wail and began to cry in earnest.

  “It’s all right, Daniel,” Lucas said, removing the straps. “It’s over now. Soon you’ll feel lots better, won’t he, Doc?”

  “It’ll ache a bit tonight, lad,” Doc said. “But nothing like before. In a day or two, you’ll be right as rain.”

  Taking Daniel by the hand, Mrs. Oaks said, “What can we do by way of paying you, Doc?”

  “I’ll send Lucas over one of these days with the wagon. It could use a new wheel, if Eben has the time.”

  “We’ll be expecting you, then, Lucas,” said Mrs. Oaks.

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Lucas.

  Doc wrapped Daniel’s tooth in a bit of paper and asked the boy, “You want this, lad? Some folks like to keep their parts, others don’t.”

  Daniel, still snuffling, pointed to Lucas.

  “Ah, you want Lucas to have it.” With a flourish, Doc handed the tooth to Lucas. “Here you are, Lucas. A memento of your first tooth-pulling.” He smiled.

  Not knowing what else to say, Lucas murmured, “Thanks, Daniel.”

  Mrs. Oaks said, “Lucas, when you bring the wagon, why don’t you stop by the house for a visit with Daniel? He seems to have taken a liking to you.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Lucas. “I will.” He felt oddly pleased.

  When he and Doc were alone once again, and Lucas was wiping the blood from the knife and pliers, he could feel Doc looking at him.

  “That was a nice touch you showed with the Oaks boy,” Doc said. “I’ve often felt that it’s not so much what we do when it comes to doctoring, as the kindness we show in doing it. I dread the times when I have to cause pain to a youngster such as Daniel. But you made it go easier for him.”

  Lucas kept busy straightening up the instrument tray, but Doc’s words had stirred a warm glow in that deep, cold place inside him. Feeling Doc’s eyes still on him, he looked up. Curiously, Doc asked, “What magical words did you whisper to that boy?”

  “Nothing much,” Lucas mumbled.

  “Come on now, lad,” wheedled Doc. “I let you in on all the secrets of my trade and you won’t tell me what you said to bring a smile to that boy’s face? I ask you, is that fair?”

  “I thought he might be afraid of being strapped down,” Lucas answered quietly. “So I told him a story. It—it’s what my mama always did when I was scared.”

  “Ah, good thinking,” said Doc. “And the tale?”

  “It was only something I made up,” Lucas said quickly.

  “I’d like to hear it,” said Doc.

  Reluctantly, Lucas repeated his story. His voice trailed off at the end as he looked sideways at Doc to see how he’d react.

  To Lucas’s relief, Doc Beecher let out a great bellow of laughter. “Oh, that’s a good one, lad. And where, may I ask, did you come up with a yarn like that?”

  Encouraged by Doc’s laughter, Lucas explained. “Back home, my Uncle Asa used to go to Emery Smith—he was the blacksmith—to have his teeth out. One time Asa had a toothache read bad, and he was drinking whiskey. To kill the pain, you know.”

  Doc nodded.

  “Well, I guess he’d drunk a whole lot,” Lucas went on. “By the time he got to Emery’s place, he hardly knew where he was. Asa didn’t remember it so good afterward, but I guess when he saw Emery coming at him with those pliers, he began to thrash about and he knocked Emery darn near senseless.

  “Asa felt real bad about it when he sobered up. And, of course, he still had the toothache, too. But Emery wouldn’t have anything to do with Asa after that. Told him he’d have to find somebody else to see to his tooth-pulling.”

  Doc laughed some more and shook his head wonderingly at Lucas. “You don’t say much, Lucas my boy, but when you do talk, you’re worth listening to.” He added, smiling, “I’m quite pleased with our day’s work and with your part in it, lad. Now, shall we go see what Mrs. Bunce has fixed for supper?”

  Lucas nodded. During the excitement of the afternoon, he had forgotten his sadness and shame about Mama’s death, and his confusion about Uncle Asa. He’d felt, for the first time since all the sickness began in his family, something close to happiness.


  Lucas spent the following morning doing chores for Mrs. Bunce, and it wasn’t until the afternoon that he was able to join Doc Beecher in his office.

  “Lucas, pull that chair over here and have a look at this,” Doc said. He was seated at his desk, examining a chart. “I’ve been keeping this record for the past—what?—sixteen years,” he explained. “It’s a record of illnesses I’ve been called to treat. Now, see here, the way I’ve arranged it according to date of occurrence. The interesting thing to me, lad, is right here. There seems to be a pattern to the—”

  At the sound of a timid tapping at the door, Doc stood and admitted a girl about Lucas’s age. She pushed back the hood of her heavy cloak, releasing black curls that sprang up all around her face. Her cheeks were red from the wind and cold, and her blue eyes were large and solemn.

  “You’re one of Lewis Stukeley’s daughters, if I’m not mistaken,” said Doc Beecher. “Sarah, is it?”

  “No,” said the girl breathlessly. “I’m Lydia, sir. It’s Sarah I’ve come about. She’s doing poorly, Doctor. Mama’s been dosing her, but to no good effect, and we’re afraid it’ll be like it was with—the others.” Her voice dropped and tears filled her eyes. Quickly, she wiped them away and reached under her cloak, drawing out a cloth-wrapped bundle. “I came to see if you could help. Mama sent this. It’s butter and some cheese, made up fresh this morning.”

  “That was very kind of her,” said Doc Beecher, taking the package. “It was consumption, wasn’t it, lass, that took the others?”

  Lydia nodded.

  “I thought so,” said Doc with a frown. “Now then, Lydia, you came on foot, did you?”r />
  Lydia nodded. “Yes, sir.”

  “Why don’t you sit by the fire and warm yourself. I’ll get my things together and Lucas here can hitch up the wagon. We’ll go out to your place, and I’ll have a look at Sarah.”

  “Thank you, Doctor,” said Lydia gratefully.

  “Lucas, I know you’ve not done it before, but see what you can do about preparing the wagon. I imagine Jasper and Moses are so eager to get out of the barn that they’ll just about harness themselves. I’ll be there shortly, if you run into difficulty.”

  As Doc had predicted, the horses were anxious to go. They stamped their feet, tossed their heads, and whinnied impatiently when Lucas entered the barn.

  “Easy, there, Moses,” Lucas said quietly, slipping the bit into the big horse’s mouth. “Yes, Jasper, you’re going, too,” he assured the other prancing animal, fitting the harness over its soft brown ears.

  By the time Doc Beecher appeared with his doctoring bag in his hand and Lydia by his side, Lucas had the wagon ready.

  “Good, good,” said Doc approvingly as he checked the reins. He helped Lydia up onto the seat and settled in beside her to drive. Lucas stood by, hoping that Doc wanted him to go along, too.

  “Climb up here next to Lydia, Lucas,” said Doc Beecher, “and the two of you see if you can arrange that blanket to keep out some of this confounded wind.”

  The horses set off at a rapid clip, their hooves crunching through the snow in a noisy rhythm. Soon they left the town of Southwick behind and were riding through the countryside. From time to time the wagon passed near a house or a farm, and Doc and Lydia talked about the people they knew who lived there.

  “Everett Peck’s cleared some more land,” Doc observed. “Looks to be building on another room.”

  “Mrs. Peck’s sister and family have come to stay,” Lydia informed him. “Mrs. Peck will be having the baby soon,” she added shyly.

  “That makes, what, five little ones?” asked Doc.

  “No, six, sir,” answered Lydia. “Same as in our family.” She stopped, and Lucas saw that her lower lip trembled. “Well, before this winter, and all the sickness…”


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