The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 4

by Cynthia DeFelice

  Doc took one hand off the reins, clasped Lydia’s mittened fingers, and murmured some word of reassurance that Lucas couldn’t hear.

  Later, they passed a small, crudely built cabin with a thin trickle of smoke rising from the chimney.

  “I wonder if old Moll Garfield is making it through the winter all right,” Doc said, peering intently at the little house. “I should stop to pay her a call.”

  “I didn’t much like walking past there today,” Lydia said with a shudder. Turning to Lucas, she said, “Moll’s an old granny woman. Some people go to her when they’re sick, for cures and spells and herbs.” In a low voice she added, “But other folks say she’s a witch.”

  Doc was chuckling. “Now, Lydia,” he said, “Moll’s got her own ways some folks find peculiar, but she’s no witch. I come here for ingredients for some of my medicines. She knows more about plants and what to do with them than anyone I know.”

  Lydia looked uncertain. “I heard she’s an Indian…”

  “Halfways,” said Doc. “Her mother was full-blood Pequot, but her father, Orvis Garfield, was a white man. It was Moll’s mother who taught her the old Pequot ways, root healing and so on.”

  Lucas asked, “Who else lives there?”

  “No one,” answered Doc. “Moll’s too ornery to marry, I expect.” He chuckled. “Like me.” Then, turning serious, he added, “That’s one reason folks say the things they do. It unsettles them to see a woman like Moll, keeping to herself and doing as she pleases. But Moll doesn’t belong in town. She never really belonged anywhere, I suppose. A lot of white folks, I’m ashamed to say, hold her Indian ancestry against her, and there’s hardly another descendant of the Pequots left around these parts…or in all of Connecticut, for that matter.”

  Lucas looked back over his shoulder at the little cabin, feeling curious about the woman who lived there. Lydia looked back, too, and whispered, “Perhaps Doc’s right. But with all the sickness, I do fear sometimes that…my family has been witched.”

  Lucas was about to speak of the cure the Roods had performed for their son Enoch, but he stopped himself. Perhaps Doc was waiting to talk it over with Lydia’s parents. Lucas, remembering how peculiar he’d felt when Mr. Rood had told him of the remedy, was interested to see how Doc would go about explaining it to the Stukeleys.

  Doc was saying, “Lucas, lad, as part of your education, I believe I’ll send you over to spend a day or two with Moll, so you can see how things were done before the advent of our so-called modern medicine. How would you like that?”

  With a shrug Lucas answered, “Well, sure, Doc. If you say so.”

  Lydia looked at Lucas with big eyes and, making a face, shook her head. Lucas smiled at her, acting braver than he actually felt about visiting the old witch woman.

  By the time the wagon reached the Stukeley farm, the wintry sky was growing dark and a few snowflakes were beginning to fall. Lucas tied up the horses, then followed Doc Beecher and Lydia inside.

  In the corner, a girl lay on one of the beds, coughing. Lucas looked away. He had been eager to come along on this trip, but hadn’t been prepared for the rush of memories that assailed him when he walked into the Stukeleys’ home.

  It was a scene very familiar to Lucas. Mr. and Mrs. Stukeley and a little boy Lucas guessed to be about three years old were gathered near the hearth. In the winter his family, too, had lived mostly in the central room, even bringing their beds in from the only other room in back. The fire had been their source of light and heat during the long, cold days and evenings.

  A kettle of water sat by the table. Hanging over the side was a ladle, which everyone in the family drank from. Another heavy kettle hung over the blazing fire, and a piece of meat sputtered on a spit.

  The girl was taken with another long coughing spell. The harsh sound of it, the pained way in which she clutched her chest, and the thinness of her wrist when she did so made Lucas wince. He looked at Lydia, and in her eyes he saw a reflection of the anguish he had felt during the long months of his family’s sickness.

  “I’ve tried everything I know, Doctor,” Mrs. Stukeley was saying. “I left the cow to graze in the moonlight, and made butter from the milk. I fed it to Sarah and gave her the cow’s dung to smoke. She’s had willow bark for the fever. But she’s getting worse. It’s just like—the others.” She stopped, her voice breaking.

  From the bed, Sarah looked up at Doc Beecher. She whispered weakly, “Thomas…came again…Doctor…last night…”

  “What’s that?” asked Doc.

  “Thomas…” Sarah closed her eyes and fought for breath.

  Mr. Stukeley spoke, looking uncomfortably at the floor. “She’s been complaining of—visitations, I guess you could say. From Thomas.”

  “Thomas is—was—your eldest son?” Doc inquired uncertainly.

  “That’s right,” said Mr. Stukeley.

  Speaking carefully, Doc asked, “He passed on when?”

  “This November past.”

  “Yet Sarah says that Thomas came to her…” Doc’s voice trailed away.

  “Comes to her, yes,” Mr. Stukeley said awkwardly. “That’s what she says.”

  “The others, Martha and Timothy, who died after Thomas, they said the same thing,” said Mrs. Stukeley in a low voice. “They said Thomas came…in the night…and sat with them…” She paused, then finished quietly, “And caused them pain.” She looked anxiously at Doc Beecher. “What can it mean?”

  Lucas’s heart began to beat fast as he listened to Mrs. Stukeley’s words. He looked at Lydia, whose face wore the same worried, fearful expression as her mother’s. Mr. Stukeley was looking hard at Doc Beecher, waiting for an answer. Lucas held his breath, waiting to see how Doc would respond.

  Doc Beecher closed his eyes and appeared to be in pain himself. Opening his eyes, he said tiredly, “I cannot say what it means, though I’ve heard others speak of such things.”

  “We’ve heard tell of it, too,” said Mrs. Stukeley cautiously.

  “What I’m asking is,” said Mr. Stukeley, “could it be Thomas who’s making the others sick?”

  Lucas leaned forward. Would Doc tell them about the cure?

  “Thomas is dead, Mr. Stukeley,” Doc said. His voice was flat, but not unkind.

  “But they’ve seen him!” said Mrs. Stukeley.

  “And if it isn’t him, what is it that’s taking my children, one after the other?” cried Mr. Stukeley. “Tell us, for mercy’s sake! It’s why you were sent for.”

  Sarah’s coughing was the only sound in the room, except for the echo of Mr. Stukeley’s desperate cry.

  Lucas waited, anxious to hear Doc’s answer. The Stukeleys’ story sounded very much like the one told by Mr. Rood. Thomas Stukeley, like Mercy Rood, still “lived” after death. He was coming to the others from out of the grave and making them sick. Was it possible that Doc Beecher didn’t know how to stop Thomas, the way Mr. Rood had stopped Mercy?

  Maybe it wasn’t too late to save Sarah!

  Doc Beecher sighed and shook his head. “I wish I could give you the answer to your question, Mr. Stukeley. I don’t know what brings on consumption, although I have my theories.”

  “Theories,” repeated Mr. Stukeley bitterly. “Will your theories keep my Sarah from harm?”

  Mrs. Stukeley looked at her husband and pleaded, “Lewis, please…” Her voice trailed off.

  Doc Beecher said simply, “I’ll do what I can, Mr. Stukeley. Lucas, hand me my bag, will you?”

  Lucas jumped and ran to get the bag, which was by the door. Lydia reached for it, too, and for a moment their hands touched. Then Lucas handed the bag to Doc Beecher, who was feeling Sarah’s cheeks and listening to her breathing.

  Mr. Stukeley stood back, watching. Doc Beecher asked for hot water to make a plaster for Sarah’s chest. With the rest of the water, he made what he called a decoction, using one of the cloth bags of herbs Lucas had filled the day before.

  “Have her drink this twice a day,” he tol
d Mrs. Stukeley, “and use this other medicine to make a fresh plaster every morning.” He handed her the materials from his bag. “I’ll leave enough for two days. I’ll be back after that to see how she fares.”

  “Are you not going to bleed her, nor purge her?” asked Mrs. Stukeley.

  “I don’t believe it’s efficacious with consumption, Mrs. Stukeley. There’s little to be done, I’m afraid, other than to ease her suffering with the teas and plasters.” Doc Beecher looked around the room and, with forced cheerfulness, added, “I’ve seen many worse cases. She may recover, Lord willing. Some patients do.” Then, almost to himself, he muttered, “There’s folks who’ll tell you they know the reason why. But I’m not one of them. I’m sorry.”

  Lucas wanted to shout out the story of Enoch Rood’s miraculous recovery, but Doc was in charge, and his quiet seriousness made Lucas reluctant to interfere. In an agony of indecision he wondered: Should he tell the Stukeleys about the cure he’d heard of from Mr. Rood, while there was still a chance to save Sarah? Doc had said he’d seen worse cases than hers, he told himself. Maybe that meant there was time. He’d have to ask Doc when they were alone.

  Mr. Stukeley spoke then. “Thank you for coming, Beecher,” he said stiffly. “I believe we’ll doctor Sarah ourselves from here on.”

  All eyes turned to Mr. Stukeley, including Doc Beecher’s. The two men looked at each other for a long moment. Then Doc bent over and closed up his bag. “As you wish,” he said with a sigh.

  At the door, Doc turned to say, “I shall pray for her speedy recovery. Good night.”

  As Lucas followed the doctor into the frozen night, he heard Lydia’s voice questioning, “Papa?”

  And Mr. Stukeley’s grim reply: “I heard about a cure. And, by God, I aim to try it.”


  The sky had cleared and a delicate white saucer of moon was rising. Jasper and Moses, eager now for a bucket of oats and the warmth of the barn, pulled the wagon swiftly through the night.

  Lucas sat on the seat next to Doc, who was strangely quiet, showing none of what Lucas had already come to think of as his customary ebullience. There were many questions Lucas wanted to ask Doc about what had happened at the Stukeleys’, but Doc’s silence and the pensive expression on his face made Lucas hold his tongue.

  “That cursed disease!” Doc’s sudden, vehement cry rang out over the snow-crusted fields. Holding the reins with one hand, he shook a fist in the air. “Good Lord, when will we be led out of the darkness of our ignorance and enlightened?”

  For a while, neither Lucas nor Doc spoke a word, and the steady clop-clopping of the horses’ hooves was the only sound. Then Doc turned to Lucas and asked quietly, “Did you come to me because you aim to become a doctor yourself someday?”

  “No,” Lucas answered truthfully. “I—I had nowhere else to go.”

  “Fair enough,” said Doc. “If I recall correctly, you said you came from north of here. Had a farm there, did you say?”

  Lucas nodded. Then, realizing Doc couldn’t see him in the darkness, he replied, “Yes.”

  “But you couldn’t stay there…” Doc said.

  “I couldn’t—I didn’t—” He struggled with the words in his head, trying to figure out how to explain to Doc how the house had felt. Not empty, exactly, but full…full of the absence of everything and everyone he loved.

  “Couldn’t stay on alone, manage a farm all by yourself, is that it?” Doc asked.

  “Yes,” Lucas said. “After—after Mama died, I—couldn’t see my way to stay.”

  “What did she die from, lad?” Doc asked gently.

  “Consumption,” Lucas said. “Same as what Sarah Stukeley has got. Same as what took my pa, and Lizy, and Uncle Asa, and maybe the babies, too, I don’t know for sure.”

  He was about to bring up the cure when Doc began to talk. “Lucas, lad, I went to medical college, did you know that?”

  “No,” said Lucas.

  “Oh, yes. I went to what many would call one of the finest institutions. We performed surgery. We did dissections. We learned to practice ‘heroic’ medicine. We were taught that the body’s fluids must be kept in balance. Sickness results from an imbalance of those fluids, we were told. Bad blood makes people sick, so we learned to bleed ’em, to get out the bad blood. We learned to bleed and blister and purge and puke our patients.”

  Doc snorted derisively. “And when that didn’t work, we were told to bleed, blister, purge, and puke ’em some more.

  “And you want to know something, lad? Any one of us who’s got an honest bone in his body will admit that, half the time, we haven’t the foggiest notion what we’re doing. We don’t know why our patients get sick, and we don’t know why they get well, if they do. And when they do, I’ll swear it’s often in spite of us. There are days—and today happens to be one of them—when I think that if all our so-called medical knowledge were to be thrown in the ocean, it would be better for mankind.” He added darkly, “And worse for the fishes.”

  Lucas didn’t know what to say, but his silence didn’t seem to matter to Doc. It was as if the day’s events and the dark night had opened up Doc’s heart and he seemed to want—to need—to talk.

  “Many of my fellow physicians look down their noses at the ‘quacks’ who come around selling miracle cures and tonics from their wagons. They scorn the root doctors and granny women, like old Moll Garfield. Call them witches and worse.”

  They were at that moment passing by Moll Garfield’s small cabin. Doc lifted his hat in a salute as they rode by. “But in truth, Lucas, their treatments are often as helpful as any doctor could give. You’ve heard of smallpox, of course,” he said.

  “Yes,” answered Lucas. “Mama and Pa both lost family to it.”

  “A common experience,” said Doc. “And now smallpox is hardly ever heard of, thanks to the discovery of inoculation. But when Dr. Edward Jenner first tried the vaccine back in 1796, he was laughed at by his fellow physicians. Think of it, Lucas! Who could credit the idea that giving someone a very mild dose of a disease would protect him from becoming deathly ill with it!

  “Yet it’s no different, on the face of it, from Moll Garfield’s remedy for dog bite. She’ll tell you to take a few hairs from the dog that bit you and apply them to the wound in a plaster. And I’ll not tell you she’s wrong. There’s wisdom in some of the old ways. True, some are plain silly, and others are downright harmful. The trouble is, we don’t always know the difference.”

  There was silence for several moments. Then Doc said in a low voice, “I was in Philadelphia in 1793 during the yellow-fever epidemic. Did you ever hear tell of it, lad?”

  Lucas shook his head. “No.”

  “Oh, Lucas, the city was a ghastly place to be in that summer. Ghastly. People were nearly paralyzed with fear of the ‘black vomit,’ as they called it, myself included.

  “I’ll never forget the constant cry of the gravediggers ringing through the streets: ‘Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.’”

  In the pale moonlight, Lucas could see Doc brush his hand across his forehead, as if to sweep away the memory.

  “I was your age, lad, and thinking about studying medicine, when that fever swept through the city. Killed one out of every ten people, it did. Then it disappeared just as mysteriously as it had come.

  “There wasn’t a doctor in the city who could do more than hide behind closed doors, praying that he and his loved ones would be spared.

  “That experience was a valuable lesson to me, Lucas. It has prevented me, I hope, from becoming arrogant. But it left me with the desire to know more. To be able to do more.”

  Doc Beecher turned to look at Lucas. Even in the dimness of moonlight reflected off snow, his eyes appeared to glow with the fervor of his words.

  “I am humble before life’s mysteries, Lucas. But I believe that we must try to learn and understand as much as we can, lad, if our being on this earth is to mean anything at all.”

  The town of Sout
hwick lay ahead, quiet and still in the late-winter evening. Candle-or lamplight gleamed from a few windows; most were dark. As Doc steered the wagon down the empty main street, he turned to Lucas with a wry smile. “I’m sorry, lad, for bending your ear, and you a captive here in the wagon with no hope of escape. But visits such as ours to the Stukeleys today make me feel useless. Helpless. And that makes me melancholy.

  “I expect you know something about that.”

  Tears sprang suddenly to Lucas’s eyes. Useless. Helpless. Yes, he knew something about that. He was grateful for the darkness that hid his face.


  The following morning Doc told Lucas to take the wagon over to Eben Oaks, the blacksmith, to have him look at the wheel.

  “Tell him it was giving a bit of a wobble yesterday on the way out to the Stukeley place,” Doc advised.

  When Lucas stepped into the shop, young Daniel Oaks was counting out nails for his father, and placing them in bags to be sold. At the sight of Lucas, his face broke into a smile. “’Lo, Lucas,” he said shyly.

  “Hello yourself, Daniel,” answered Lucas. “How’s the toothache?”

  “Gone,” said Daniel, jumping up to give Lucas a look inside his mouth. The empty space looked much less red and swollen to Lucas. “Where’s my tooth?”

  “I gave it to an old man who didn’t have any,” said Lucas.

  “Did not!” Daniel laughed.

  “I did. Mighty grateful he was, too. He said to give you this.” Lucas handed Daniel a twig several inches long. The end was splintered into bristles.

  “What is it?” asked Daniel, wrinkling his nose in a frown.

  “A tooth cleaner,” said Lucas. “I made it for you. Doc says if you use it, it’ll keep your teeth from going bad.”

  “Mama!” Daniel hollered excitedly, running out of the forge and into the house. “See what Lucas gave me!”

  Lucas looked toward the man who had been busy heating a piece of metal in the forge. “Mr. Oaks?” he inquired.


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