The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 6

by Cynthia DeFelice

  “They said to find the heart,” Mr. Stukeley said, in a voice so low he might have been talking to himself. “They said it would be here. Yes, that must be it…” Mr. Stukeley examined Thomas’s heart. “Living blood,” he said softly, “just as we were told.”

  Very carefully, he removed the heart, wrapped it in his handkerchief, and set it carefully on the snow-covered ground. Then he pinned the sheet closed over Thomas’s body. Together, Lucas and Mr. Stukeley put the lid back on the coffin and covered it with dirt once more.

  Mr. Stukeley carried Thomas’s heart back to the house, where Mrs. Stukeley had the fire blazing. Lucas watched, transfixed, as Sarah was brought over to the hearth. Mr. Stukeley placed the heart in the flames. As it burned, Mrs. Stukeley fanned the smoke into the room, toward Sarah, who breathed deeply of it. Then the others, too, moved closer to breathe in the smoke. When the flames died down, Mrs. Stukeley gathered the ashes, mixed them with water, and gave the potion to Sarah to drink.

  Lucas joined the family in a prayer for Sarah’s recovery, then made ready to leave. The family was quiet and subdued, as befitted such a solemn ritual. But, afterward, there was something new in the room and in the faces of the Stukeley family. It was hope. Lucas could feel it filling his own heart as well, as he rode slowly back to Doc’s in the darkness.

  When he had rubbed down Jasper and given him an extra portion of oats, Lucas stopped by the next stall to give Moses’s nose a rub. “Sorry for leaving you behind, Moses,” he said. “But I couldn’t very well ride the both of you, now, could I?”

  Moses rolled his eye, but moved his head so Lucas could rub between his ears.

  “Come on, boy.” Lucas coaxed him with a laugh. He continued to talk soothingly as he scratched the big horse’s head. “Don’t be feeling sorry for yourself. I’ll take you next time, how’s that?” With a final pat to Moses’s smooth back, Lucas went to the house to find Doc Beecher. He couldn’t wait to tell Doc what had happened at the Stukeley farm.

  To his disappointment, he was greeted in the kitchen by Mrs. Bunce, who said, “Dr. Beecher has gone to bed, Lucas, and at this late hour I’ve already had my supper. I’ve kept yours warm. But, first, it’s time for you to bathe.”

  At the mention of supper, Lucas’s stomach growled, and he looked longingly at the pot that sat on the cookstove.

  “There’s hot water and soap and, as you can see, I’ve washed your clothes.”

  Lucas sighed. So it was to be another bath. He thought of Eben Oaks asking, “Is she as persnickety as they say?” and his lips twitched in a smile. Once again he promised himself that he’d ask whether Doc held to all this washing and bath-taking.

  Doc. He’d been feeling “puny” that morning, and had gone to bed early. “How’s Doc?” Lucas asked Mrs. Bunce. As soon as he asked the question, he realized he was afraid to hear the answer.

  “Much better, he says,” she answered briskly. “You be sure and wash up properly, mind you,” she said, turning to leave the room.

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Lucas.

  Shivering as he undressed, Lucas wished again that Doc was awake so that they could talk over Sarah Stukeley’s cure. Washing himself “properly,” as he’d been instructed, he marveled at how much his life had changed in the short time since he had come to be apprenticed to Doc Beecher. Here he was, he thought, grinning sheepishly, taking his second bath in only—what?—five days.

  But it was more than just the bathing. More, too, than the big house with all the fine and fancy things in it, that made his life here so different. Lucas struggled to fix in his mind just exactly what it was that felt so new. It was something about Doc himself. It was the way Doc talked to Lucas.

  At home on the farm, life had been hard. Mama, Pa, Asa, and Lucas himself had all worked from sunup to sundown just to finish the chores. When dark came, they usually fell into exhausted sleep. There was laughter and there was talk, sure, but most often it was about the crops or the weather, or the work that had to be done the next day.

  Pa had been, for the most part, a quiet man. Mama was the one who told Lizy and Lucas stories and read to them from the Bible. But no one had ever before talked to Lucas the way Doc had talked in the wagon the night they’d left the Stukeleys together. Doc asked big questions about things that Lucas had wondered about but had never really thought to put into words. He felt as if Doc’s talking had loosened up all those thoughts inside him, and now they wanted to come pouring out. Doc’s talk put Lucas in mind of a world bigger than the farm, bigger than Southwick, a world that was thrilling and mysterious. It made him want to know more.

  He’d felt helpless and ignorant, watching his family die. If only he’d known then what he knew now! Sometimes doctoring meant doing unpleasant things, such as pulling Daniel’s tooth or taking off Clem Buell’s leg. But now that those things had been done, Daniel was feeling better and Clem would live. Working with Doc had shown Lucas how good it felt to be able to help people who were sick or troubled.

  And tonight, on the ride home from the Stukeley farmstead, he had felt exhilarated. Now that Thomas Stukeley had been unearthed, his heart burned, and the cure completed, Sarah Stukeley would live, too. Lucas was sure of it.


  Lucas was relieved to find that Doc Beecher was up and about the next day.

  “Merely the aches and pains of old age, lad,” he assured Lucas with a wink. “I dosed myself and ordered myself to bed for the day and now I feel quite well again, despite the old saying about doctoring oneself.”

  “What old saying is that?” asked Lucas.

  “Why, lad, have you never heard it said that he who doctors himself has a fool for a physician?”

  Lucas smiled and shook his head.

  “Well, now you know me for what I am,” Doc said, laughing. “But, be that as it may, this old fool feels full of spit and vinegar today. And how about yourself, lad? Tell me about your visit with the Stukeleys.”

  Lucas and Doc Beecher were sitting in Doc’s office. Eagerly, Lucas pulled his chair closer to Doc’s and began to talk. “When I got there, Doc, I saw Lydia and Samuel and Mr. and Mrs. Stukeley all standing together on the hillside. They were praying, and looking real sorrowful.”

  Doc winced. Lucas, seeing the look on Doc’s face, hurried on. “I thought at first they were burying Sarah, but they weren’t. Remember, Doc, how they said that Thomas was visiting Sarah, and that he’d visited the others, too?”

  Doc, a wary look on his usually jovial face, nodded.

  “Well, it’s just as Mr. Rood said to me the day—”

  “Mr. Rood?” asked Doc.

  “Oliver Rood. His farm neighbored ours. He came to me when—well, when he thought there was still time to save my mama. And he told me that he knew a cure for her. He’d used it, you see, to save his own son Enoch. And it worked, Doc!”

  Doc Beecher lifted his eyebrows but said nothing, waiting for Lucas to continue.

  “And now word of the cure is spreading, must be. The Stukeleys heard of it from some kinfolk. And so when I got to the farm and saw Mr. Stukeley with a shovel in his hand and no burying to do, I figured I knew what they were about. I wanted to help, and Mr. Stukeley said I could.”

  Lucas stopped to look at Doc. He realized he’d been expecting—hoping—that Doc would be pleased at this news. Mr. Stukeley had dismissed Doc, but he’d allowed Lucas, Doc’s apprentice, to be involved in performing Sarah’s cure. Lucas had felt proud of that, and had thought Doc would be, too.

  But Doc only asked quietly, “Help?”

  “Yes. With the digging. See, Thomas was the first to die.”

  “And Thomas was coming round to make Sarah sick,” Doc said.

  “That’s right,” said Lucas. “So we dug up his grave and, Doc, when we opened up the coffin, Mr. Stukeley saw the signs that Thomas still lived.”

  “What signs were those, lad?” asked Doc.

  “He looked—well, like himself, I guess. And there was living blood, Mr. Stukeley
said, in his heart. His eyes were open and his fingernails, Doc! They had grown.”

  “And then?”

  “Then Mr. Stukeley took Thomas’s heart. And they burned it so Sarah and everyone could breathe the smoke, and then Mrs. Stukeley made a medicine from the ashes, and Sarah drank it, and it will make her well!” Lucas finished triumphantly.

  “You say this Mr. Rood told you of the cure after your mother had passed away, Lucas?” Doc asked gently.

  Lucas looked away. “He came to tell me before, but—”

  “But what, lad?”

  Lucas swallowed back the lump that had risen in his throat at the thought of how close he had come to being able to save his mother. “But I didn’t go to the door…not until two days later, when Mama was gone.”

  There was a silence. Then Doc asked, “Who was the first to die, lad?”

  “Uncle Asa,” said Lucas. “Mr. Rood figured it was Asa who was—the mischievous one.”

  Doc cleared his throat, looking disturbed.

  “I didn’t really understand the cure, how it worked. But now I do, thanks to you.”

  Doc appeared startled. “How’s that, Lucas?”

  Lucas was surprised by Doc’s question. “Well, you said—you said—lots of things. You said doctors don’t always know what to do.”

  Doc smiled bleakly. “True enough.”

  “And you said that old witch woman—”

  “Moll Garfield?”

  “Yes. You said she knows a lot even though people call her a witch, and if she used hair from a dog that bit you it might cure the bite. And you told me how you can protect yourself from getting smallpox real bad by making sure you get just a little bit of it. So, when I thought about the cure, the one Mr. Stukeley did…”


  “Well, it seemed the same.” Lucas stopped. All the things he was trying to explain to Doc had fit together perfectly when he’d thought about them. But somehow saying them aloud made his thoughts sound foolish. He tried again.

  “So it seemed to be the same kind of cure…to take some smoke from the fire and to make medicine from the ashes, ashes that came from the thing that was making Sarah sick…Like a—what did you call it? A noc—?”

  “Inoculation,” Doc said softly.

  “It seemed like that. And, at first, when Mr. Stukeley began to cut into Thomas, I got a shivery feeling and I thought maybe we were doing wrong. But then I remembered you said that in medical college you did dissections, and isn’t that—well, doesn’t that mean cutting into bodies that are dead?”

  “It does, indeed,” answered Doc.

  “So I figured it was all right. And you said you learned about bleeding people to get the bad blood out. And you had to cut off Clem’s leg, because it was the bad part that was making the rest of him sick. So I thought taking the heart out—”

  “I can see how you were thinking, lad,” said Doc.

  But that wasn’t all. There was something else Lucas wanted to explain. “Remember you said that sometimes you think the good of what you do isn’t in what you do so much as in the—the kindness you show in doing it?”

  “You don’t miss much, do you, lad?” asked Doc with a tired smile.

  Lucas sat quietly for a moment, trying to find the right words for the certainty that had been growing within him ever since his visit to the Stukeley farm. Finally, taking a deep breath, he began, “I know Sarah will get well. I can’t say how I know. I—Mama’s gone, but I could help the Stukeleys. It felt right, what we did.”

  It was coming out all mixed up. But it was all jumbled up together. That was what made it so hard to explain. He wished he could find the words for what he knew inside: that his mama’s unnecessary death was the very thing that made him so sure that Sarah would live, that his grief and regret over his mama’s dying meant he was the right person to bring about Sarah Stukeley’s cure. Because he had not used it to save Mama, the cure had power. It was only right that he should be able to use it to help Sarah Stukeley. He felt this in his heart, but he didn’t know how to make Doc feel it, too.

  “Lad,” said Doc, “it’s true I said all those things. It’s true that doctors, including myself, are far from knowing all the answers. But there are some things we do know, Lucas, and one is that when people are dead and buried, as Thomas was and as your Uncle Asa was, they cannot come back to do us harm.

  “This belief your neighbor and Lewis Stukeley hold is based, not on scientific reasoning, lad, but on superstition, and fear, and ignorance. And while it is easy to understand why they would want to believe in it, for the sake of holding out hope that their loved ones will get well, it—”

  “I was ignorant before,” said Lucas, his voice rising. “Now I know! Sarah Stukeley will live.”

  “I hope you’re right about that,” Doc said with a sigh.

  “But you don’t believe it.”

  “She may live, but it won’t be because of what was done to Thomas Stukeley’s remains.” Doc looked almost pleadingly at Lucas’s face. “I believe this, Lucas: people who are desperate do desperate things. And I understand that. But—”

  Lucas interrupted with another thought. “Doc, what about the signs that Thomas Stukeley still lived? I saw them with my own eyes!”

  Doc Beecher looked thoughtful. Then he asked, “What did you expect to see, Lucas?”

  “I—Well…” Lucas hadn’t thought about that. “Bones, I guess. Dried up, dead old bones! Like that,” he added, pointing to the skull sitting on the shelf.

  “It was November when Thomas died, as I recall,” said Doc. “It is now, let me see, why, it’s the seventh of March. Thomas’s body has been in the ground just a little over three months now, Lucas. Three months, I might add, when the weather was quite cold. What does that suggest to you, lad?”

  Lucas shrugged.

  “I did not see Thomas, of course,” said Doc, “but what you have described is not surprising. It sounds to me like the normal condition of a body after an interment of that length of time, at this time of the year.”

  “Mr. Stukeley said there was ‘living blood’ in the heart,” said Lucas.

  “By which he means blood that is red and flowing, I take it,” said Doc. “I don’t know how to explain that, Lucas, other than to say that it does not mean Thomas was drawing blood from Sarah or any other living soul.

  “In medical school we dissected many corpses, lad, and I saw many strange things that I cannot explain.”

  “Well, how do you explain Enoch Rood?” Lucas asked eagerly. “He’s cured! What about the stories Mrs. Rood heard? People in other places have been cured, too. Lots of people.”

  “Lucas, in my experience, accounts like that have a way of growing bigger as they get passed along. They take on a life of their own. And, I’m afraid, the truth often suffers in the process.” Doc sighed. “People like a good story, lad. Each teller of the tale adds a touch here, a detail there, all to make the tale more intriguing and pleasing to his listeners. And if the one telling the story and the folks listening all want very much for the tale to end a certain way, well, you see what can happen.”

  Lucas frowned. “Do you mean Mrs. Rood was lying? And Mr. Rood, when he told me of Enoch’s cure?”

  “No, I don’t mean that at all,” answered Doc Beecher. “I’ve no doubt Mrs. Rood believed what she’d heard. She wanted to believe it, lad, do you see?”

  “Well, sure,” said Lucas. “Because it meant maybe Enoch would live, too. And he did!”

  “Yes, perhaps he did,” agreed Doc. “Or, God forbid that this be so, perhaps he was merely experiencing a brief respite. I’ve seen consumption patients who burn with a bright light, seeming to have recovered, just before their flame flickers and dies. But by the time that occurred, you see, word of his ‘cure’ would already have traveled far and wide.”

  Silently, Lucas puzzled over Doc’s words. Could Enoch be dead now, after all? Lucas didn’t believe it. “What of the successes Mrs. Rood heard of in Rhode Islan
d?” he asked. “Seems like somebody must have been cured, to get the ‘story’ started in the first place.”

  “Perhaps such a coincidence did occur,” said Doc. “But the significance of it was exaggerated, lad, because it’s our nature to make connections, to try to understand what happens to us, and to think we can do something about it.”

  Lucas agreed with part of what Doc had said. Lucas had seen the helplessness of the Stukeleys, and their desperate need to do something to ward off death, and he’d felt that same strong desire himself.

  But how could Doc be so sure about everything else? He didn’t know the Roods or the other families from Rhode Island. He hadn’t been with the Stukeleys when they had performed the cure, hadn’t felt the hope and the powerful exhilaration, as Lucas had.

  “I still believe Sarah Stukeley will live,” said Lucas quietly.

  Doc removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. “Oh, lad,” he said, “I hope you’re right.”


  Doc and Lucas did not speak about Sarah Stukeley again as the short, dark days of March passed. Lucas kept his thoughts to himself, certain that time would prove to Doc that what he and the Stukeleys had done was right.

  Southwick suffered a spell of weather so numbingly cold that Doc and Lucas treated three cases of severely frostbitten fingers, toes, cheeks, and ears in just one week.

  “Half the people in the village are coughing, sneezing, and suffering from chills, and they’re the ones who are well enough to get up from their beds,” Doc proclaimed one frigid afternoon.

  Several days later, two men arrived at the door carrying the body of Algander Lee, who had been discovered, frozen solid, in the street outside the Boar’s Head Tavern. Algander had left the tavern the evening before, having had, in the words of the innkeeper, Horace Clark, more rum than was wise for a man half his age and twice his size. The unfortunate Algander had fallen over in the snowy street and, too drunk to rise, had simply fallen asleep, his stiffened fingers still grasping the handle of the jug, never again to awaken in this world.


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