The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker

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The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker Page 8

by Cynthia DeFelice

  Then, to his surprise, Doc said quietly, “All right, lad. Go to the town square tomorrow. Help if you can.”

  “Uriah!” Mrs. Bunce said, frowning at her brother in irritation.

  “Now get along to bed,” Doc went on, looking at Lucas. “It’s been a tiring day.”

  Lucas got up slowly from the table. “Thank you, Doc,” he whispered. As he walked past the parlor to his room, he heard Mrs. Bunce’s indignant voice. “Uriah, what can you be thinking of? The whole business is ridiculous.”

  And Doc’s melancholy reply: “Yes, Cora. But it gives me no pleasure to know that.”


  Lucas lay on the bed, his eyes wide open, his thoughts racing. He tried to be still, but his body felt prickly and jumpy. He was eager for the morning to come, for the ceremony to take place at the town square, for the sick to be cured, and for Doc to see that Lucas had been right.

  When the first frail light began to show in the eastern sky, Lucas could lie in bed no longer. He rose, did every task he could think of to please Mrs. Bunce, and then, quietly, he left by the kitchen door.

  The town was just beginning to come awake as he walked down the still dark main street. Windows brightened as candles and lamps were lit; the smell of wood smoke drifted through the air. Lucas smelled biscuits baking and tried to ignore his hunger.

  When Lucas arrived at the deserted town square, he found a spot out of the wind and waited. The day, which had started out bright and clear, turned dark and dreary by early afternoon, when the first townsfolk appeared at the square. The snow and ice had melted, and the road was muddy and filled with deep ruts. A cold drizzle began to fall, making the footing even more perilous. Lucas stood with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, watching.

  William Sheldon was one of the first to arrive. Behind him in the wagon, bundled against the damp chill under layers of quilts, lay a woman Lucas guessed was his wife, Lavinia. William turned to her and spoke, and Lucas heard her cough weakly in response.

  More people came, struggling through the mud and rain, some on foot, some on horseback, others, as sick as Lavinia Sheldon, lying in the backs of wagons. Most were strangers to Lucas, but he saw a few people he knew. Eben Oaks, James Freeman, and several other men were carrying wood and stacking it in a pyramid-shaped pile in the center of the square. Daniel and Mrs. Oaks stood huddled by the door of the blacksmith shop, trying to keep warm. The Stukeley family pulled up in their wagon and Lucas went to greet them.

  As he made his way through the thickening crowd, he overheard bits of conversation and snatches of hushed voices.

  “—hasn’t been a case of consumption in Vermont since they—”

  “—see Sarah Stukeley?”

  “—the very picture of health.”

  Lucas smiled, looking over toward Sarah. Though still pale and thin, she was smiling brightly and talking to the well-wishers who gathered around the wagon. Continuing to push past groups of townspeople to get to the Stukeleys, Lucas couldn’t help but hear more of the talk. He felt his neck flush when someone whispered, “There’s Doc Beecher’s apprentice. He’s the one who saved the Stukeley girl.”

  “They say he’s cured lots of others…”

  “I heard that when they opened Thomas Stukeley’s coffin, Thomas sat right up and opened his eyes!”

  “Yes, and his heart was filled with fresh blood.”

  “It poured right out of his mouth—”

  “He screamed when they cut into him—”

  “—like to make your hair curl—”

  Lucas listened uneasily, his smile turning to a frown. He wanted to stop and say, “That’s not the way it happened,” but he felt shy about talking to people he didn’t know, who, after all, hadn’t been talking to him. He walked on, shaking his head, wondering where people had heard such things. It reminded him of something Doc had said.

  At that moment, Lydia looked up and saw him, and he forgot everything else. “Lucas!” she called happily. “Look! Here’s Sarah.”

  Lucas said hello to Sarah, Lydia, and Samuel. Then, turning back to Sarah, he added, “You’re looking fit as a fiddle.” It was an expression he’d heard Doc use. Sarah beamed.

  “But you, Lucas,” said Lydia, “look frozen stiff. Get up here in the wagon under the blankets. We’ve brought hot cider and some biscuits, too. Would you like some?”

  Gratefully, Lucas sipped the cider and munched on a biscuit, snuggling under the warm wool coverlet with Lydia, Sarah, and young Samuel Stukeley. The sky grew darker, and a chilly wind blew from the northwest. Parson Reynolds arrived and stood by while the final sticks of wood were placed on the pile.

  Lucas, his hunger satisfied for the moment, looked about him. Usually when so many people gathered together there was a mood of merriment. But the atmosphere on the square was not like that at a husking bee, or a wedding, or a dance. People’s faces were grave, their voices hushed. Occasionally, the sound of agonized coughing carried on the wind. It was like being in church, Lucas thought.

  And, indeed, at that moment, Parson Reynolds began to speak. “We are gathered here, my friends, in the eyes of Almighty God, to bring about the healing of our brothers and sisters stricken with the scourge of consumption. We have witnessed the miraculous recovery of one of our flock, Miss Sarah Stukeley, and recognize that God the Father works in mysterious ways which are not always given us to understand.

  “We come in faith and hope. We come in the knowledge that God helps those who help themselves. We thank those who have led us to this cure, that we may use it to help our loved ones. May God bless us and our endeavor. Let us pray.”

  All bowed their heads in prayer, their voices murmuring along with that of Parson Reynolds. Then Lewis Stukeley rose to speak.

  In a voice so low the crowd had to strain to hear it above the wind, Mr. Stukeley said, “I am a simple, God-fearing man. I watched three of my children die. I tried to tell myself it was God’s will. But why, I asked myself, would God want my babies to die. I could find no answer.

  “Anna and I, we tried everything we knew and everything Doc Beecher knew to do, but nothing helped. And so when I heard tell of this cure we’re about to perform, I knew I had to try and save our Sarah. And, by God, she was saved!”

  Heads turned toward them, and people nodded and smiled at Sarah. Lucas heard murmurs: “Praise God” and “Amen.” Then, to Lucas’s surprise, Lewis Stukeley pointed to him.

  “Young Lucas Whitaker there, the one in the wagon with my family, he helped. He’d heard of the cure, too, where he came from. Folks in Vermont and Rhode Island, some say even as far away as Maine, have put an end to this sickness. And that’s why we’re here, to do the same.

  “Those of you who have sick ones in the family were told what you needed to do before you came here today. We’re going to light this fire now, and those of you with—with something to place upon it, come on up here. When it’s burning good, we’ll let the sickest folks be brought up first, to breathe in the smoke, before we take our turns. Afterward, those who want some of the ashes are welcome to ’em.”

  Lewis nodded to Eben Oaks, who set the pile of logs alight. There was a long moment when no one moved. Everyone stared, transfixed, as the fire crackled to life. Then, slowly, one by one, people began to come forward.

  It gave Lucas a peculiar feeling to see the offerings they held carefully in their hands. The bundles were covered in cloth, or placed in boxes of wood or containers of tin, or, in one case, wrapped in dried husks of corn. The packages contained the hearts of family members who had been buried.

  As the bundles were fed to the flames, Lucas touched his own heart and thought that if he were the one returning to make folks sick, he’d want someone to stop him. Likely these souls, too, wished to be put to rest.

  Lucas had never before been part of something so big and important, and his throat felt thick, as if he were about to cry. He watched as William Sheldon carried his wife, Lavinia, in his arms, carried her
close to the smoke from the blazing fire. A look of rapture passed over her face as she took the cure, breathing deeply once, twice, three times, of the life-saving smoke.

  Lucas looked at William’s face. It, too, shone radiantly in the light from the fire. He looked around at all the people gathered in the square and saw the same glowing look of hope and expectation, and felt his own face transformed by it, too. He felt dazed and overwhelmed, as if his body couldn’t contain the powerful, mysterious feelings he had inside.

  By the time Lucas and the Stukeleys went forward to pass slowly by the fire, an early darkness had begun to creep across the village square. People stood in the gathering dusk, watching the last embers of the fire flicker and fade. Then quietly, solemnly, they collected ashes to take with them.

  The wind had died down, and a few stars peeked down from the blue-black sky. Lucas walked back to the wagon with the Stukeleys, and helped Lydia up onto the seat. “I’m glad you came today, Lucas,” she said.

  “I’m glad, too,” Lucas answered truthfully, adding, “I hope to see you soon.”

  “Yes,” said Lydia, smiling. “I hope so. Good night, Lucas.”

  Lucas said goodbye to the Stukeleys and stood waving until their wagon was out of sight. He looked around and saw that he was the only person left at the square. The fire had burned down to a faint reddish glow.

  Still full of the power and mystery of the ceremony, Lucas began to walk slowly back to Doc’s house. He wanted to hold on to the feeling of awe and certainty as long as he could, and he didn’t know which was going to be harder to face, Doc’s kindly skepticism or the scorn and disapproval of Mrs. Bunce.


  When Lucas stepped into the kitchen, Doc was sitting at the table sipping tea. He offered Lucas some soup, and Lucas sat down to join him.

  “Where’s Mrs. Bunce?” asked Lucas, thinking that if she was going to question him about the curing, he’d just as soon get it over with.

  But Doc answered, “Her rheumatism was acting up. She took to her bed early.”

  Relieved, Lucas sipped his soup, grateful for its warmth. He waited for Doc to ask about the ceremony, but Doc said nothing about it. Instead, he asked, “Do you remember when we spoke about Moll Garfield, lad?”

  Lucas was surprised. “The witch?” he asked. “I mean, the granny woman?”

  “Yes,” said Doc.

  “Sure,” said Lucas.

  “Well, there’s something I’d like you to do for me,” Doc went on. “You know I send to Philadelphia for most of my medicines, but a good many of them I make up from herbs and plants I get from Moll. I’d like you to go there to replenish my supplies of certain items. That will be one reason for your visit.”

  “What’s the other reason?” Lucas asked.

  “Well, you see, I’ve intended to pay her a call to see how she’s fared over this long, blasted cold spell, but, what with one thing and another, I haven’t gotten to it. So I want you to go and make sure she’s all right. And that’s the tricky part, lad. She can’t know that’s what you’re doing.”

  Lucas raised his eyebrows questioningly.

  “Moll’s a proud old girl,” explained Doc. “Keeps herself to herself and has never needed or asked for help from anyone. She still chops and hauls all her own firewood, hunts or grows all her food, not to mention gathering and digging her plants and roots. I’m sure she’s made it through the winter better than most. But I’ll feel more peaceful in my mind knowing for sure.”

  “What will I say to her?” asked Lucas cautiously.

  “I’ll give you a list of supplies that I need. Tell her you’re my apprentice. Tell her I want you to learn some of the old Pequot healing secrets,” he added with a twinkle in his eye. “And, meanwhile, keep a sharp eye out.”

  “For what?”

  “Anything that needs doing. If the roof was leaking—”

  “I could fix it, I guess,” said Lucas.

  “That’s the idea. If she’ll let you.” Doc laughed. “And if she hasn’t already done it herself.”

  Lucas frowned. “But how long do you want me to stay?”

  “That depends,” Doc said cheerfully. “As long as you need to.”

  “What about my chores?” Lucas asked. “What about helping you and Mrs. Bunce?”

  “We’ll just have to manage without you for a time, lad,” said Doc. “Don’t you worry about us.”

  Lucas sat quietly for a moment. All the exhilaration he’d felt earlier was gone. “Is it because I went to the curing today?” he asked. “Is that why you’re sending me away?”

  “What?” exclaimed Doc. “I gave you permission to go to the town square, lad. No one is punishing you for it.”

  Lucas remained still, staring down at his empty cup.

  “Lucas, look at me,” said Doc. “I’m not sending you away. Not the way you’re meaning it. I’m asking a favor. A favor to me and a stubborn old woman.”

  Lucas didn’t answer, and Doc gazed searchingly at him. Then he smiled, as if he’d thought of something. “There’s no harm in Moll, Lucas, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

  Lucas looked up into Doc’s clear blue eyes.

  “All right,” Doc said ruefully. “I can see there’s no hiding the truth from you. There’s more to it than I’ve been telling you. You see, lad, the fact is, I’m thinking you need a little time away from here, away from all your chores and responsibilities.

  “You buried your mother and came here…And I can tell you truly that I’m glad for the day when you appeared at my door.” He smiled. “But it strikes me you haven’t had much time to catch your breath.

  “So go to Moll, lad. I believe you’ll find her to be easy company. I need the supplies, and I’m also thinking you two can do each other some good. Whenever you’re ready, come on back. Mrs. Bunce and I aren’t going anywhere.”

  Later, in bed, Lucas thought about visiting Moll Garfield. If Doc wanted him to go, of course he’d go. Doc said there was no harm in the woman, and Lucas supposed he believed it. He even smiled a bit in the darkness, thinking about what Lydia Stukeley would say if she knew he was going to stay in the little cabin with the “witch woman.”


  After working all morning under the scowling supervision of Mrs. Bunce, Lucas felt almost relieved to be walking out of town on his own. Near dusk, he found himself in the clearing outside Moll Garfield’s house. The yellow glow of candlelight shone from the window of her cabin, and Lucas could smell the smoke from the fire. He was lingering at the edge of the woods, unsure of what to do next, when the cabin door slowly opened.

  Moll Garfield stood in the doorway, staring in Lucas’s direction. His approach had been silent and he had not yet left the cover of the trees, but the woman seemed to know he was there. Although her figure was lit from behind, leaving her face in shadow, Lucas felt her eyes holding his in a steady gaze.

  He jumped, startled, as the sudden tremulous hooting of an owl broke the silence: Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo. Its large, dark shape floated across the clearing.

  “Come in, child,” said Moll. Her voice sounded hoarse and rusty, like the creaking of an old gate in the wind.

  Slowly, Lucas walked forward. As he followed Moll into the little house, he sniffed deeply of the pleasant, powerful smell that greeted his nostrils. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the roof beams and on the walls, along with bundles of the roots and stalks and bulbs of many different plants. Their exotic odors mingled with the familiar aromas of food cooking, wood burning, and beeswax dripping from the single candle that lit the room.

  The candle flame flickered and a log sputtered in the fire, drawing Lucas’s attention back to the woman, who was now sitting before the hearth. Her straight black hair was streaked with gray and hung down her back in a long braid.

  “Sit,” she said simply.

  When Lucas hesitated, she motioned for him to take a place by the fire. He sat on the rough plank floor, his back to the hearth, and looked up into the
face of Moll Garfield.

  Deep wrinkles lined her dark brown skin. Her nose jutted forward, strong and distinct, between high sharp cheekbones. Holding a clay pipe clamped between her teeth, she squinted at him through the smoke that rose lazily from the bowl. She didn’t say anything. It seemed to him that she was learning things about him by looking, instead of by asking questions, the way most people did.

  The long silence made Lucas uneasy. He thought he should say something. “I’m Lucas Whitaker,” he offered. “Doc Beecher sent me. I’m his apprentice, you see, and he needs—” Lucas fumbled in the pocket of his coat for the list of supplies Doc wanted.

  Moll shook her head. “There’s time for that later,” she said. Gently, she reached out and laid both hands on Lucas’s cheeks. Her fingers were dry and cool. She moved them slowly over his face, feeling his forehead, eyebrows, lips, ears, chin, and finally, very slowly, her palms traced the shape of his head. At last, she appeared satisfied.

  She took the pipe from her mouth and spoke in her rusty voice. “You are young, but you have seen much trouble.”

  Lucas felt a lump rise in his throat. Moll rose from her chair and took the kettle of hot water from the fire. Lucas watched as she measured out portions of several different herbs and made tea. She returned to her chair with a steaming cup, which she handed to Lucas. “Here,” she said. “Drink this.”

  Lucas sniffed the heady, pungent smell of the tea, then tried a cautious sip. It was rich and sweet and soothing. He drank again. Moll sat quietly in her chair, watching the fire. She seemed to accept Lucas’s presence without question, and he felt himself begin to relax. The combined warmth from the tea and the fire crept through his body and into his bones, and his eyes began to close.

  Dimly, he became aware of Moll moving quietly about the room. The cup was taken from his hand, blankets were placed gently over him, and the candle was extinguished. Darkness came, and sleep.


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