The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 7

by Cynthia DeFelice

  It was the first time since Lucas’s arrival that Doc had been called upon in his capacity as village undertaker. Most farm families, Doc explained, had their own small graveyards and handled their own affairs when it came to death. It was becoming more common for folks who lived in town to turn to an undertaker, such as Doc.

  Algander, it turned out, was brought to Doc because he had no family, and no one knew what to do with him. Doc said he’d take care of Algander himself, and he paid for the plain pine coffin Algander was buried in, despite Mrs. Bunce’s disapproval.

  “He was a disgrace,” she said.

  “I knew Algander before he ruined himself with drink,” Doc said quietly. “The man I used to know would have been shamed to think he’d come to such an undignified end. I’m glad that at least I can give him a decent burial.”

  Lucas listened, moved by Doc’s kindness. Later, he noticed the gentleness and respect with which Doc prepared Algander’s body for burial.

  Algander Lee’s funeral offered Parson Reynolds an ideal opportunity to warn against “the pernicious effects of demon alcohol.” Mrs. Bunce, along with Parson Reynolds and several of the other ladies in town, was a member of the American Temperance Society and was pleased to report to Doc and Lucas at supper that evening that several more of the townsfolk had joined the society as a result of Algander’s hapless end.

  The next morning Doc announced, “Lucas, Clem Buell’s wound has had two weeks to heal.” He grimaced. “And Clem’s had two weeks to cool down about losing the leg. Much as I hate to go all the way out there in this cold, I need to pay him a call and see how he’s getting on. Can you get the wagon ready?”

  “Sure, Doc,” said Lucas.

  When they entered Clem Buell’s cabin, they found him sitting alone in the dark, dirty room. Nat was nowhere in sight.

  “How’s the leg, Clem?” asked Doc.

  Clem’s eyes glared from his sunken face. “Gone,” he said. “Thanks to you.”

  Doc sighed. “Clem, I was sorry to have to take the leg. Surely you know I wouldn’t have done it unless I had to. If you’d called for me sooner—”

  “I never did call for you,” Clem growled. “It was that witless nephew of mine did it.”

  “That witless nephew of yours saved your life,” said Doc sternly, “and I hope you haven’t been abusing him for his effort. Now, are you going to let me look at the leg?”

  Buell didn’t answer. Doc appeared to take that as permission. He untied the bottom of Clem’s pants leg and rolled it up to expose the stump. Lucas was relieved to see that the man’s upper leg had shrunk back to a normal size. He watched as Doc prodded the flesh above where the tar sealed off the wound.

  “You’re lucky, Clem,” Doc said.

  Buell snorted.

  “It looks as if the rot has stopped spreading. It’ll be a while yet before I can fit you with a wooden leg, but I can get one prepared ahead. If you’ll let Lucas here help you stand, I’ll be able to take a measurement.”

  Clem Buell sat unmoving while Lucas struggled to get him up and balanced on his one foot.

  “Help the lad out, can’t you, Clem?” said Doc.

  But Clem remained uncooperative as Doc made measurements around the thigh and from the stump to the dirt floor, saying only, “Don’t want no peg leg.”

  “You’ll change your mind about that. How have you been making out with the crutch?” Doc asked.

  “That confounded thing?” said Buell with disgust.

  “It takes some getting used to,” Doc said. “I’ll be back in another couple weeks, Clem, and we’ll see about fitting you with a new leg, how’s that?”

  Buell didn’t answer. Seated again, he stared straight ahead without expression.

  “We’ll be going, I guess.” Doc picked up his black bag and nodded to Lucas. “It’s going to be all right, Clem,” he added gently. “Give it some time.”

  As they drove away in the wagon Lucas asked, “Is he always so ornery?”

  “Put yourself in his shoes, Lucas,” answered Doc. “Right now Clem’s not thinking about the fact that he’s alive; he’s mourning the loss of that leg. To him, the remedy seems more painful than what ailed him, and he holds me to blame.” He took a weary breath. “We do our best, lad, but our patients don’t have to like it, and they don’t have to thank us for it, either.”

  Several days later, as Lucas swept the office and Doc sat working at his desk, James Freeman stopped by with a loaf of headcheese, which he handed to Doc. “That’s by way of payment for that lucky shave and haircut you gave me,” he said, smiling hugely.

  Doc allowed as how he’d heard through the grapevine that Martha Pitcher and James were betrothed, but that he was happy to hear it was true. “And to think I’d always thought Martha had sound judgment and good taste. It must have been a powerful moon out that night to addle her wits,” he teased.

  “It was no moon, I’m telling you. It was my own smooth cheeks and curly locks that won her,” said James.

  “Don’t you be telling Martha that I barbered you, then,” answered Doc. “When she figures out she got a pig in a poke, I don’t want her blaming me!”

  James left, promising to bring Martha by for a visit sometime soon, and Doc turned to Lucas. Blowing on his fingers to warm them, he said, “I see you’re keeping the fire going, lad, but it seems to make no difference with these temperatures. It’s the coldest month of March we’ve had since I started keeping these records some sixteen years ago.”

  Lucas smiled. The previous evening, even Mrs. Bunce had agreed that the kitchen was too cold for bathing.

  “Pull that chair over here and have a look,” Doc continued. “You might find this interesting.”

  Lucas joined Doc at the desk, where the book Doc had been studying lay open. “In these columns I’ve recorded the date, the patient’s name and age, the nature of the disease or ailment I was called to treat, particulars of weather, such as the temperature, and whether or not there was snow or rainfall, and other miscellaneous details such as the phase of the moon and what-have-you.”

  Lucas remembered that Doc had been about to show him the record books the day Lydia Stukeley arrived at the door. He looked, seeing such entries as:

  Ida Hemstreet (26)—March 3, 1835—Set bone in foot (cow stepped on)—33 degrees F—old snow, 2–3 inches—quarter moon

  Lucius Cadwell (57)—January 25, 1836—Bled, gave tonic and plaster for fever, chills, aches, catarrh—28 degrees F—blizzard, strong wind and snow—half-moon

  Abigail Jones (baby)—September 7, 1838—Stillborn—76 degrees F—sunny—three-quarter moon

  “Now, some ailments, such as broken bones or accidents like Clem’s, seem to occur with the same frequency at all times of the year, in all sorts of weather, in every phase of the moon, you see,” Doc explained.

  “Bee sting, naturally, will occur in the planting and harvest season, when bees and people are out and about. Other kinds of sickness, consumption being an obvious example, appear to occur much more often during the winter months. See this…and this…and here…”

  Doc was running his finger down the columns, pointing out the dates when “consumption” was listed as the patient’s complaint. Lucas nodded. He could see that the first symptoms usually came, as Doc had said, during the months of December, January, and February, although treatment of the illness might continue for longer than a year. The person could die from consumption, it appeared, at any time. But, yes, it looked as if most people came down with it during the winter.

  “What of it, Doc?” he asked. “What does it mean?”

  Doc laughed. “You do get right to the point, don’t you, lad? As to what it all means, the answer is I don’t know. But it seems likely to me, and there are other doctors who share my opinion, that just as there is a relationship between summer and bee stings, there is a relationship between winter and certain disease processes, whether it be from the presence of snow or cold, or the short days and long nights, or some
thing else that occurs during these dark, dreary months.”

  Lucas thought for a moment. “Since those who are undead make their visits during the night,” he said, “then longer nights would give them more time to make others sick. Yes!” He continued excitedly. “So in the winter—” He stopped when he saw the look on Doc’s face.

  “Lucas,” said Doc, “I was hoping you’d forgotten about that—that business, but it’s plain that you have not. What I’m asking you, lad, is to set aside your thinking about Thomas Stukeley or anyone else coming back from the grave to cause ill to others. Just put it aside for now, and see if what I’m telling you makes better sense.”

  Lucas answered stiffly, “I’ll try, sir.”

  “I’m thinking, Lucas, that you’ve shown a lot of promise in your time here as my apprentice,” Doc said. “I’ve found myself hoping you’ll continue in the study of medicine.”

  Lucas shifted in his chair. He was pleased by the praise, but still angry at Doc’s refusal to believe that Lucas understood what had made Sarah Stukeley ill, and what had cured her.

  “But, Lucas, if you’re to pursue this course of study it is my responsibility to instill in you a scientific way of thinking. The study of medicine is progressing quickly, lad. I believe that someday, not in my lifetime, but perhaps in yours, we will understand the mysteries of consumption and many other diseases. But we cannot let ourselves be distracted by false ways of thinking.

  “Now, you are looking for cause and effect in the case of Sarah Stukeley’s disease, and you’re right to do that, lad, with any illness.

  “Example: A bee stings you. It causes you to have pain, swelling, itching, trouble breathing in some cases. The bee sting is the cause and the pain is the effect. But suppose that at the same moment the bee stung you a rooster crowed. Would you be correct in saying that the rooster’s crow caused your pain and discomfort? The next time a rooster crowed, would you have the same symptoms?”

  Lucas couldn’t help grinning at Doc’s suggestion. “’Course not,” he said.

  Doc smiled, too. He continued enthusiastically. “Now, suppose you never saw the bee but you did hear the rooster. Do you see how you just might be fooled into thinking it was the rooster that caused your symptoms?”

  Lucas laughed. “What if the sun came out at the same time? You might say the sun was the culprit, but you’d be wrong!”

  “Exactly, lad!” Doc exclaimed, pounding his fist on the desk. “So, you see, a true scientist will put his theories to the test time and time again to see if they hold up. In that way, he would prove that each time a bee stings, it causes certain effects to follow, but those same effects do not follow the crowing of the rooster. He can, therefore, eliminate the rooster as the cause of his discomfort.”

  “But everybody knows roosters don’t sting, Doc,” said Lucas.

  “Aaah, then, let me choose a less obvious example,” said Doc, rubbing his chin with relish. “Let us consider a case in which—”

  Doc looked up as the door opened slightly and Lydia Stukeley’s face appeared. Her cheeks were red from the cold, and her dark eyes shone brightly with some strong emotion. “Good day, Dr. Beecher. Good day to you, too, Lucas,” she said.

  “Come in, come in, Lydia,” said Doc. “What brings you out on a cold day like this?”

  “It’s Sarah,” cried Lydia excitedly.

  There was a moment of silence while Lucas’s heart thumped with anticipation. He was almost afraid to ask. “Sarah,” he repeated cautiously.

  “Oh, lass,” said Doc, “is she—”

  “She is well! She has recovered.” Lydia’s voice rose, trembling with joy. “Lucas! Sarah is cured!”


  That evening, Lucas, Doc Beecher, and Mrs. Bunce were in the kitchen sharing their evening meal when they heard a loud banging at the door to Doc’s office. Lucas went to see who it was, and found a man who introduced himself as William Sheldon.

  “I came to see Doc Beecher,” he said. Looking at the man’s face, Lucas was reminded of Lydia Stukeley’s expression that afternoon. This man, too, appeared to be filled with some strong feeling.

  “Come with me,” said Lucas. “Doc’s back here, in the kitchen.”

  “Good evening, William,” said Mrs. Bunce when she saw their visitor.

  “Sit, William, sit,” said Doc, pulling out a chair. “How is Lavinia? I’ve been meaning to get out to see how she’s coming along, but this blasted cold weather has made a coward of me, I’m afraid.”

  William Sheldon remained standing. He had removed his hat, and Lucas noticed that he was twisting it nervously in his hands.

  “Will you join us in some supper?” asked Doc.

  “No, thank you, Doc,” he said. “I can’t stay. I only came to ask—” He stopped, took a deep breath, and began again. “I know you heard about how the Stukeley girl was cured. The whole town’s heard about it by now, I reckon. There’s a good number of folks who’ve got family sick and dying of consumption—” Here his voice came near to breaking, and he stopped to swallow before continuing. “Like Lavinia, Doc. She’s worse than ever.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that, William,” said Doc.

  “Lewis Stukeley’s been telling all around town the way he dug up his son Thomas and took his heart, and how Sarah breathed the smoke from burning it, and how it cured her. And some of us got to talking at Talbot’s store and we thought—”

  Mrs. Bunce’s hands had risen slowly from her lap to her own heart. “What are you saying? What?” She stopped. Her face looked deathly pale in the lamplight.

  Doc Beecher reached across the table and took one of her hands and held it. “I’ll explain in a moment, Cora,” he said. “Let’s hear William out.”

  “I guess Mrs. Stukeley found out about the cure from kinfolk someplace. When Lewis Stukeley spoke of it at the store, Isaac Talbot said he’d heard of something like that from a traveler who passed through here a while back. This fellow told of a village in Vermont where folks gathered on the green for a curing ceremony. They burned the hearts of the undead ones right there on the blacksmith’s anvil. The man told Isaac it was the end of consumption in the village.”

  “Undead ones?” Mrs. Bunce repeated in a quavering voice. “Uriah, what do you know about this?”

  “I’ve heard some talk of it,” answered Doc Beecher. Turning once again to William Sheldon, he asked, “Why have you come to see me, William?”

  Sheldon shifted uncomfortably and twisted his hands tighter around his hat. “We’re spreading the word to all whose families are afflicted with the consumption, Doc. And those that wish to benefit from the remedy will meet tomorrow in the town square. In that town in Vermont I guess there was some doctors from the local medical college who helped out, and we were hoping—Well, folks asked would I see if you’d attend and do whatever you can. We’d like your boy here, who’s had some experience from the sounds of it, to come as well.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that Lavinia is doing poorly,” said Doc. “If I thought that what you’re suggesting would help her, or any of the others who are ill, I’d be the first to join you. But I don’t hold with the practice you’re speaking of. It’s superstition, pure and simple, William.”

  Lucas had been listening with growing dismay. He could contain himself no longer. “But, Doc, Sarah Stukeley! She was cured!” he cried.

  “Remember our talk this afternoon?” Doc asked quietly. “What you’re hearing is the rooster crowing, lad.”

  Mrs. Bunce stared from one to the other as if they all had taken leave of their senses.

  William Sheldon was looking down at his hat, trying to poke it back into shape for wearing. “Doc, those medicines you gave me for Lavinia aren’t helping. She’s…dying.”

  Doc’s face was in shadow, but Lucas thought he’d never heard such pain and sorrow as was in Doc’s voice when he answered. “I’m truly sorry, William. But there’s nothing else I can do.”

  “I got to try this, Doc,” said W
illiam Sheldon. His eyes, suddenly filled with tears, looked pleadingly at Doc.

  “I know,” said Doc softly. “I know.”

  There was an awkward silence. “I’ll be going, then,” said Sheldon.

  “I shall pray for Lavinia, William,” said Doc. “But I won’t be at the square tomorrow.” As Sheldon turned to leave, Doc added, “And neither will the lad.”

  No one at the table said a word as the sound of William Sheldon’s footsteps faded down the hallway. When the door closed behind him, Mrs. Bunce spoke. “Well. What on earth was that about, Uriah? It sounds as if the entire town has gone mad!”

  “No, Cora, not mad. But they’re caught up in a powerful spell,” said Doc. “And I’m afraid they’re in for a bitter disappointment.”

  Lucas sat fidgeting anxiously while Doc explained to Mrs. Bunce about the cure. When Doc paused for a moment, Lucas couldn’t help himself. “Sarah Stukeley was cured, Mrs. Bunce. I was there.”

  Cora Bunce drew in her breath sharply.

  “And I want to be at the town square tomorrow, too,” Lucas said.

  “You’ll do no such thing,” Mrs. Bunce declared firmly. “The idea of an apprentice to Dr. Beecher taking part in such nonsense! Why, people would think Uriah approved.”

  Lucas appealed to Doc. “Mr. Sheldon thinks I can help!”

  “Just what is it you can do to assist, lad?” asked Doc.

  “I—I don’t know exactly,” Lucas admitted. “But, well, it seems like neighbors should help each other out when there’s trouble. Or at least try,” he added.

  Doc Beecher sighed. “Even when no good will come of it?” he asked.

  “I don’t know that!” cried Lucas. “And I don’t see how you can be so sure you’re right!” He stared down at the table, trying to control the rapid beating of his heart. He hadn’t meant to talk rudely to Doc, who had shown him nothing but kindness. Still…


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