The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 5

by Cynthia DeFelice

  “That’s me,” said the man. “I already know who you are. Heard all about you from Daniel and the missus. Just a minute, and I’ll have a look at that wheel of yours.”

  Eben Oaks removed the red-hot piece of iron from the fire and, still holding it with his tongs, began to pound it on the anvil. Talking was impossible over the clanging of metal on metal, and Lucas was content to watch.

  When Eben was satisfied with the shape, he dropped the horseshoe into a large tub of water to cool. There was a loud hiss when it hit the water.

  Eben and Lucas walked out to the wagon. As Eben bent to examine the wheel, he said, “So, you’re apprenticed to Doc Beecher.”

  “Right,” said Lucas.

  “You’re lucky in that,” said Oaks, running his hand around the wheel’s rim. He flashed Lucas a knowing look. “Even if it puts you at the mercy of Cora Bunce.”

  Lucas shrugged. “She’s not so bad, I guess.”

  Oaks was removing the wheel. “It’s not a new wheel you’re needing,” he said. “I believe I can straighten this one up good as new.”

  He placed the metal wheel rim on the anvil and began turning it, tapping it lightly as he went along. Curiously, he asked, “Is she as persnickety as folks say? Mrs. Bunce, I mean. Mrs. Oaks heard Cora holds the notion that folks ought to wash themselves—all over, mind you—every so many days!”

  “She’s persnickety about that, all right,” agreed Lucas.

  “I say it’s not natural,” said Eben with a shake of his head. “I said to Mrs. Oaks, I said, it’s like rubbing a fish in dirt to set a person in water like that. And this time of year!”

  Lucas smiled. Pa would have said “Amen” to that. He decided to ask Doc’s opinion about bathing the next time he had the chance. He was very anxious to talk to Doc about the cure for consumption, also, and vowed to himself to do that soon.

  With a final stroke of his hammer, Eben removed the wheel from the anvil, held it out at arm’s length, and with one eye closed examined his work. Evidently satisfied, he started for the door.

  As he attached the wheel to the axle, Eben said, “I had a hard time of it when I was your age. Apprenticed to the devil himself, I was. Old Milton Yale. He’s dead and gone, with no one to miss him, I can assure you of that. When he wasn’t pounding on the anvil, he was pounding on me.”

  Lucas grimaced. He’d heard stories of masters who used their apprentices cruelly. He guessed Eben was right: it was luck that had brought him to Doc instead of to someone like Milton Yale.

  “Now, you tell Doc that wheel ought to be good for a long while yet,” Eben said. “And thank you for your kindness to Daniel. Mrs. Oaks said you had a right healing way about you.”

  As Lucas drove the wagon back to Doc’s house, he repeated Eben Oaks’s words to himself: “A right healing way about you.” He liked the way they sounded.


  Lucas pulled the wagon up to the barn and was about to unhitch Jasper and Moses when Mrs. Bunce called from the doorway. “Leave the horses be, Lucas. Dr. Beecher’s needed at Clem Buell’s place. He’s been waiting for you.”

  She disappeared into the house, and Lucas guessed she was going to tell Doc Beecher he’d returned. He was curious, and eager to see what he and Doc would be doing next.

  Doc came out then, his black bag in one hand, a wooden crutch in the other, and sat beside Lucas in the wagon. “You drive,” he said, and pointed the way.

  “I’m afraid of what condition we’ll find Buell in, Lucas,” he said. His face looked worried as he settled himself beneath the blanket. “He hurt the leg over two weeks ago and didn’t send for me until now. His nephew Nat tells me it looks bad.”

  Lucas urged the horses forward. “The wheel’s fixed, Doc,” he said. “Mr. Oaks said you didn’t need a new one. Said to tell you this one should last a while yet.”

  “Eben’s a good man,” Doc answered distractedly. “Honest as the day is long.”

  “Yes, Doc,” said Lucas. He could see that Doc’s thoughts were on Clem Buell, rather than on the wagon wheel. This was clearly not the time to discuss bathing or the cure or anything else with Doc. Keeping the horses at a lively trot, he waited until Doc pointed to a run-down shack on the edge of a large stretch of woods.

  “That’s Clem’s place,” Doc said.

  Lucas stared. The house that he had shared with his family was small, dark, and rustic compared to Doc Beecher’s house in town, but Clem Buell’s place was far cruder. Made from ill-fitting boards with no chinking between them, the walls leaned haphazardly under a wearily sagging roof. The door hung open, and the single small window held neither glass nor oiled paper, but was stuffed with what looked like an old hat. The filthy snow was littered with broken dishes and tools, bones, food scraps, and the emptied contents of the household’s chamber pots.

  Doc Beecher appeared not to notice. He eased out of the wagon seat, showed Lucas where to tie up the horses, and hurried into the shack. Lucas followed.

  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. A large man lay on the floor on dirty blankets. Even in the dim light, Lucas could tell from the hollow planes of his face that all or most of his teeth were missing. His face showed several days’ growth of whiskers. As Lucas looked closer, he could see the red flush of fever on the man’s cheeks and the glazed look of his eyes.

  Doc Beecher was kneeling at the man’s side. “Clem?” he said loudly. “It’s me, Doc Beecher. Can you hear me, Clem?”

  Clem looked wildly about. “Lizbeth!” he cried. “Lizbeth! Lizbeth?” His voice faded and his eyes closed.

  Doc leaned over to pull back the blanket. Lucas gasped when he saw the man’s leg. It was swollen to at least twice its size, straining Clem’s pants to near bursting.

  A thin, nervous-looking man appeared in the doorway. Lucas guessed it was Clem’s nephew when he said, “He didn’t want no doctor is why I didn’t come sooner. It was a tree fell on it. He was working alone, Doc. I didn’t find him till the next day.”

  “I understand, Nat,” said Doc. “You did right to come for me today. I’m going to have to take that leg off.”

  Nat looked sick. “He’ll be awful riled about that, Doc. He’ll—there’s no telling what he’ll do.”

  “He won’t be saying or doing anything if I don’t remove that leg,” said Doc firmly. “You can see how rotten it is. A few more days and it’ll kill him.”

  Nat turned away and slipped out the door.

  “Leave that door open,” Doc called after him. He muttered something about the air being thick enough to cut with a knife. To Lucas he said, “Looks like we’re on our own. Get a good hot fire going, and look around and see if there’s any whiskey.”

  As he built the fire, Lucas watched Doc remove from his bag a knife, a saw, a pair of tongs, a flat, metal plate with a handle on it, and a tin container. He handed the container to Lucas.

  “Hang this tar near the fire to soften.” He clamped the tongs onto the metal plate and directed Lucas to place it so that the plate was directly in the hottest part of the flames. “You find any whiskey?”

  Lucas handed Doc the jug.

  “Get as much of that down his throat as you can,” Doc said. He began to cut away the leg of Clem’s trousers.

  It was difficult to get the delirious man to swallow the whiskey, but Lucas did his best. Doc reached over, took the jug, and gulped down a big swig for himself. Then he said, “Hold him, Lucas. Hold him hard. He’s going to fight you, and I need you to keep him still. Keep giving him whiskey if he’ll take it.”

  Doc worked quickly and skillfully and soon the amputation was over. Lucas knew he’d not soon forget the sound of Clem’s strangled cries, or of the saw working through bone, or the strength of the man’s struggle. Doc went to the fire, grasped the tongs, and touched the red-hot metal plate to the place where Clem’s leg now ended above the knee. Clem, mercifully, fainted.

  Lucas felt himself grow dizzy, and everything in the room began to look f
ar away and fuzzy. Doc caught him as he fell and held him up, handing him the whiskey jug. Lucas took a deep swallow, and the terrible burning of the liquid brought him, choking and spitting, to his senses.

  “There’s no shame in feeling lightheaded the first time, Lucas,” Doc said. “You’re human, lad, not a chunk of stone.” He continued to talk, quietly and matter-of-factly, instructing Lucas about the procedure he had performed.

  “I had to cauterize the wound, you see, to stop the bleeding. Now I’ll seal off the leg with this tar, see?—like that—and, Lord willing, the putrefaction will stop and Clem will get well.”

  Doc went to the door and called, “Nat? It’s over. You can come in now.”

  Lucas listened while Doc explained to Nat how to care for Clem. “Keep giving him whiskey for the pain. And boil this in water and make him drink the water. It should help with the delirium. Those blankets he’s lying on are filthy. If you haven’t any clean ones, stop by and I’ll have Mrs. Bunce give you some. I’ve left the crutch for when he’s up to walking, but I’ll be back to see how he’s doing before that time comes, I should imagine. You tell him I’ll fix him up with a wooden leg as soon as he’s ready.”

  Nat had been staring fearfully at Clem the whole time Doc was talking. The man’s agitation was so great that Lucas doubted he had heard a word Doc said. When Doc was finished, Nat kept repeating, “He’s gon’ be riled. He’s gon’ be awful riled, Doc.”

  “I’ll be back, Nat, to talk to him,” Doc assured the little man. “He’ll be angry, no doubt about that. But it’s his own confounded fault he let it go so long. The truth is, he’s lucky to be alive, the stubborn old coot, and you can tell him I said so.”


  When Lucas reported for chores the following morning, Mrs. Bunce was not waiting impatiently in the kitchen to outline the duties she expected him to perform, as she usually was. He went to the barn to feed and water the horses and chickens. When he returned, she was standing at the cookstove.

  “I’ve been with Uriah,” she reported. “He’s feeling a bit puny today.”

  She caught Lucas’s worried look. “He says it’s nothing to be concerned about. He’s just worn out, I do believe. I’ve told him time and again, he’s too old to be gallivanting around the countryside the way he does. You have an office, I tell him. Have your patients come to you, I say, the way they do in the city. But it’s like talking to the fence post,” she finished querulously.

  “I don’t guess Clem Buell could have made it here, Mrs. Bunce,” Lucas murmured. “His leg was awful bad.”

  Mrs. Bunce looked at Lucas. “You may be right about that, young man. But I can’t help worrying about Uriah. He lets people take advantage. If something were to happen to him, well, I—” Her face crumpled for a moment. She quickly adjusted her features to their customary stern appearance, but not before Lucas had glimpsed the fear in her eyes.

  Why, Lucas realized with surprise, beneath her peevishness, she was really very fond of her brother. Somehow that made him feel more kindly toward her.

  “He’d like you to pay a visit to the Stukeley family today,” Mrs. Bunce went on. “After you’ve finished up your chores,” she added.

  “Are you sure?” asked Lucas uncertainly. “Mr. Stukeley said he wouldn’t be needing Doc anymore.”

  “Yes, Uriah said that Mr. Stukeley had made that clear. However, he said he can’t help wondering how the girl—what’s her name?”

  “Sarah,” Lucas answered.

  “How Sarah is faring. You know how he is. I tell him he’s more concerned for his patients than they are for themselves.” Shaking her head, Mrs. Bunce sighed. “In any event, he seems to think you could pay a visit without appearing to intrude. There’s a girl about your age you could call on?”

  “Lydia,” Lucas supplied eagerly, feeling his neck flush. He found that he did want to see Lydia Stukeley again, and he very much liked the idea of another trip through the countryside. The fact that Doc trusted him to make such a trip alone pleased him greatly. And while the sorrow that hung over the Stukeley household was a painful reminder of his own losses he, too, wanted to know if Sarah was any better.

  “All right,” said Lucas.

  “You’re to take Jasper,” said Mrs. Bunce.

  Lucas nodded happily. Jasper would be good company.

  It seemed to Lucas that Mrs. Bunce was determined to get as much work out of him as she could, with Doc out of the way. By the time he finished up his chores, it was the middle of the afternoon.

  The sky was flat and gray, threatening more snow, when Lucas finally headed out of town. Sitting astride Jasper, breathing deeply of the sharp winter air as it mingled with the steamy warmth rising from the horse’s broad back, he wished more than ever that he had asked Doc about the cure and why he hadn’t used it for Sarah.

  He recalled overhearing Mr. Stukeley’s grim voice saying, “I heard about a cure. And, by God, I aim to try it.” If Sarah was no better, he decided he’d tell the Stukeleys what Oliver Rood had told him. He had a feeling it would be no surprise to Lewis Stukeley.

  Following roughly the same route he’d ridden over with Doc two days before, he arrived within sight of the Stukeley farm just before dusk. He tied Jasper and was about to knock on the door when he saw dark figures silhouetted on the hillside.

  Squinting his eyes, he made out Mr. and Mrs. Stukeley, and the smaller figures of Lydia and her little brother, Samuel. Mr. Stukeley held a shovel in his hand. Lucas almost hollered a greeting, but something about the stillness of the huddled group stopped him. As he drew nearer, he saw that their heads were bowed in prayer. His heart gave a sickening lurch. Sarah! They were burying Sarah. Filled with dread, Lucas waited a distance apart.

  When the family raised their heads, Lydia caught sight of him. “Here’s Lucas,” she said. A smile crossed her face. Then she quickly grew somber again.

  Mr. Stukeley nodded. Mrs. Stukeley looked at her husband uneasily before she said quietly, “Good day, Lucas.”

  The family stood frozen, staring at him. There was no hole in the ground, no wooden box. Lucas had the strong sense that he had interrupted them, but not, thank goodness, in burying Sarah.

  Under a small stand of hickory trees, Lucas could see flat fieldstones set upright in the ground. Without asking, he knew that they marked the graves of Lydia’s brothers and sisters, along with others of the Stukeleys’ relatives and ancestors.

  “I—Doc wanted me—I mean, I wanted to know how Sarah—if the plasters helped her any,” he stammered.

  “She’s dying,” Lewis Stukeley said. His voice was soft, but in it Lucas could hear anger and something else. Determination. “And we aim to do what we can for her.”

  “Yes, sir,” said Lucas. Looking again at the shovel in Mr. Stukeley’s hand, he was certain that he knew what they planned to do. “Would you like a hand, then, with the digging?” he said. The words were out of his mouth before he knew he meant to speak them.

  Mrs. Stukeley drew in a sharp breath.

  “It’s no business of yours—” Mr. Stukeley began.

  But Lucas interrupted him. “Where I came from, north of here, there’s a man named Oliver Rood. His son Enoch was dying of consumption. Mr. Rood figured Enoch’s sister Mercy was the one making Enoch sick. Mercy died first, you see, same as your Thomas. Mr. Rood said Mercy came back to—to ‘make mischief,’ he called it.”

  The Stukeleys were watching him closely, their faces guarded. He remembered how Mr. Rood had come to him in friendship, offering to help cure his mother. He was too late to save Mama, he thought fiercely, but at least he could be of use to the Stukeleys. It seemed, suddenly, terribly important that they allow him to help.

  He plunged on. “Mr. Rood told me he unearthed Mercy’s grave and put her to rest.”

  Lucas looked into Mr. Stukeley’s eyes. “I don’t know how he did it, exactly. But, after that, Enoch got well.”

  Mrs. Stukeley spoke carefully. “We heard something about that.�

  “Do you know what to do—afterward?” asked Lucas.

  “Aye,” said Mr. Stukeley. He seemed to make up his mind about something. “Lydia, run and get the other shovel for Lucas.”

  Lydia, Samuel, and Mrs. Stukeley stood by silently as Lucas and Mr. Stukeley together dug slowly into the earth. There was a thin layer of snow, and the ground was frozen down several inches, but the digging became much easier after that. At last, Lucas’s shovel hit the wood of the coffin lid. Gently, they scooped the remaining dirt away.

  Mr. Stukeley took a deep breath and lifted the lid. Inside lay the body, wrapped in a sheet of plain muslin fastened down the front with pins. Tenderly, Mr. Stukeley unpinned the cloth and opened it.

  “Thomas!” cried Lydia. Her hand flew to her mouth. Her eyes looked enormous.

  Mrs. Stukeley’s head was bowed again in prayer, her lips moving silently. Little Samuel clutched her hand and buried his face in her skirt.

  “He could almost be sleeping,” Mr. Stukeley said wonderingly. “But see how his fingernails have grown…He does live!”

  Lucas, too, stared at the body, transfixed. The boy looked to be the same age as Lucas. The flesh of his face was full, though bluish in color, and his eyes were fixed and open. Lucas had never seen Thomas Stukeley in life, but the young man in the coffin did look oddly vital. Lucas’s mouth felt dry, and he could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

  “He does live,” murmured Mr. Stukeley. “He does live.” He looked up at his wife and, for a long moment, their eyes remained locked. Mr. Stukeley looked away. “You know what I have to do, Anna,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Take Samuel and Lydia—”

  “Yes,” said Mrs. Stukeley. She leaned down, picked up Samuel, and held him in one arm. With the other hand, she grasped Lydia by the wrist and began to walk down the hillside to the house.

  Mr. Stukeley murmured another prayer, his voice so low that Lucas heard only the words, “God help me.” Then he took a small knife from his pocket and, ever so gently, cut into Thomas’s chest. Lucas’s hand flew to his own breast as he watched.


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