A Novel by Susan Sidell
The bedclothes were spread around the boy, tangled in his gawky legs, draping onto the floor. Jack placed a hand on his son’s forehead. The skin, which had been dry and burning the night before, was damp and cool. Jack’s brow creased as he debated waking the young boy who was almost a man. A man gets up and does his work, no matter how he feels, but a boy is allowed to sleep in on occasion. Jack saw his son clutching the bed rug for warmth and reached down to spread the many other covers over the boy. After this fever passed, the mattress would need to be taken outside to air, but for now, Jack decided to let Jeb sleep. He could be a boy for a few more hours.
Jack placed the last of the coverlets over the scrawny form, chasing away the early dawn chill of the April morning. The land had finally dried enough to plant. Last night, Jack and Lorn pulled last year’s seeds from the safety box and today was plowing and planting day. Lorn had grown into a fine young man with many of the eligible ladies in town giving him a look that was just a few seconds longer than proper, in Jack’s opinion, but Lorn never mentioned any of them. In the two years since Betsy had passed, Lorn had taken up the role of farmer seriously and gave up his schooling. Jack had always hoped his boys could do more than eke out a living on this old farm in eastern Tennessee but with Betsy gone and Jeb still a boy, Jack needed all the help he could get. Lorn was smart, Jack knew, and Lorn would figure out how to make a good living.
Jack could hear Lorn bumping around in the dark kitchen. Jack had started a fire in the stove but had not set the water on to heat up. Lorn was starting that chore, Jack could tell from the banging of the door as Lorn went outside to get water and then came back in.
“Pa,” Lorn called from the kitchen. The cabin was small enough that a soft-spoken fellow like Lorn could be heard from one room to the next.
“Yes, Lorn. I’m checking on your brother.”
Lorn poked his head out of the kitchen, “How’s he doing?”
“The fever has left him but I think he will stay in this morning. You and I can manage the plow by ourselves.”
“Sure we can, Pa.” Lorn was the most agreeable man of few words Jack had ever known. Well, except for himself. Lorn took after Jack and Jeb had taken after his mama: sensitive, serious, given to flights of fancy that were only good for telling stories when the winter brought the long nights with nothing for a man to do but sit.
“I’ll go out and get the plow set up with the horses, Pa. I’ll holler when I need you.” Lorn knew his father was worried over Jeb’s illness. Ever since Ma had died, Pa hovered around both brothers like fruit flies on strawberries. Pa could have remarried but, for reasons he kept to himself, Pa wouldn’t consider it. He’d made that much clear to the nosy old ladies in town who were always wanting to play match-maker.
Lorn pulled his canvas coat over his wool sweater. The armpit had torn a little but with Ma gone, there was no one to mend it. “Well, it’s not like that’s the part of me that gets cold anyways, Pa,” Lorn had commented when the tear happened.
Lorn stepped out into the frosty air. The mud around the door crunched as he stepped through the frozen crust. Watching the rising sun change the landscape from a uniform gray-brown to golden brown with sparkles from the ice like a thousand tiny stars on the mud sky, Lorn headed to the barn. The horses were already awake and starting to make a ruckus; they must know that today is planting day, Lorn thought. He could hear the goats bleating, too. And the chickens in the roost were joining in.
“Alright, you all get spring fever or something? I’m comin’, breakfast will be ready when it’s ready and hollerin’ won’t make it faster!” How curious that all the animals were up and squawking so early.
As Lorn came alongside the barn, he looked over toward the old wooden plow. He’d probably have to do a bit of digging to get it free from the mud there but that was to be expected right by the barn. The field was dry enough to turn without bogging down.
In the soft dawn light, a flash caught Lorn’s attention. He paused and turned, squinting in the dimness toward the plow but saw nothing. He took another step and the goats pierced the frigid air with their screeching cries. Above the din, he could hear a sound like wood ripping and grunting mixed with guttural growls and goat squeals. Lorn flung open the barn door, ready to whup that billy goat for tearing up the barn when a board from the barn was ripped fully off and the goats and horses began screaming in fright. The oxen, being out on the far side of the field, were the only animals not joining in the fracas.
“What is going on in here?” Lorn yelled to be heard over the din, the rising fear at such unusual behavior made his voice rise, too. He walked the few steps to the goat enclosure, his eyes quickly adjusting to the darkness inside the barn, and peered through the running bodies. His eyes grew wide as he saw a large brown snout poke through the opening in the barn wall, then a flash of foam and teeth as the huge dog ripped off another six inches of wood with one bite. Lorn’s hand flew to his thigh but he had walked out of the cabin with nothing but his coat. His knife and rifle were still inside.
“PA! Get the rifle!” Lorn yelled as he grabbed the scythe. He beat the face that was trying to force its way into the barn with a hard smash of the handle down onto the dog’s nose. The dog pulled his head out and Lorn yelled, “Yeah, you better run!” after it. Lorn had never seen a dog try to chew its way through the barn like that. Lorn looked and saw one of the goat kids laying near the chewed opening, alive but bleeding. That damn dog, Lorn thought as he looked toward the spring kid laying in its own blood, whoever’s dog it is, they’s gonna have some payback comin’.
Lorn grabbed a hay bale and blocked the hole so the other goat kids couldn’t escape and turned toward the gate on the horse stall. He’d let the horses out into the pasture with the oxen and get this wall fixed but first he and Pa were going to track that dog and kill it.
Lorn heard the cabin door slam shut as he wiggled the old wooden lock on the stall door. “Lorn!” Pa’s deep voice carried over the noise of the animals in the barn like thunder. Then the explosion of rifle fire filled his ears just as his body was slammed against the stall door and a searing hot rip sliced down his shoulder. Pa shot me? Was his first thought when another slam smashed him against the stall and another searing pain ripped down his thigh. Lorn swung the scythe around to see the huge brown dog standing only a few feet away from him, its head swinging from side to side.
Pa ran into the barn, his long rifle already aimed. “Son, move!” Lorn held the scythe in front of him and inched along the wall of the stall, trying to get out of the way so his dad could pull the trigger on this beast. As he inched, the dog stalked closer towards him and Lorn was pinned in the corner where the stall met the barn wall. Pa ran up and jammed the rifle against the dog’s back haunches and pulled the trigger. It wouldn’t be a kill shot but it would let Lorn get out of the way.
The dog’s hips swung around from the concussion of the bullet and it dropped into the straw with a bloodcurdling howl. Pa dropped the stock of the rifle and reloaded from the pouch at his hip, never taking his eyes off the dog. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder as the dog gathered his three good legs underneath him and lunged. Its twisted back leg dangling uselessly as the dog launched at Pa’s head and landed on the long stock of the rifle, his teeth ripping into Pa’s hand. Pa swung the rifle in an arc and brought it up against the dog’s throat and fired. The head exploded and bits of bone and blood covered everything inside.
Pa ran over to Lorn and helped him outside into the brightening day. “What happened in there, Son?”
“I don’t know, Pa. I heard the animals making a ruckus and then I saw that dog trying to eat its way into the barn. It chewed a hole in the side and got one of the kids, I think.”
Pa took Lorn to the water pump and helped get his coat off. There was so much gore coating both of them, Jack couldn’t tell at first whether his son had been hurt. As the water sluiced over the boy, Jack gasped. The tear on the boy’s shoulder was probably going to be okay, the heavy coat and wool sweater had protected him, but the bite on the boy’s calf was deep enough to need stitches. Deep enough that Jack knew he’d need to call a doctor. As Jack washed the boy’s wounds, he could see a gash in his own hand welling blood that mixed with his son’s as a crimson puddle formed at their feet.
“Let’s get you inside and bandaged up, Son, then I’ll get Dr. Alfred to come look at you.”
Lorn wobbled slightly beside the water pump and Jack put an arm around him. “C’mon, Lorn, the plowing can wait a few hours.” Jack could feel Lorn leaning into him more and more with each step and the boy’s face became ghostly white as bloody footprints marked their passage the short distance into the cabin.
“Do you have any whiskey, Jack?” Dr. Alfred said to the man standing beside the dining table.
“No, sir. We don’t drink in this house.”
“Sometimes a little whiskey is called for medicinally, Jack,” the doctor said. “Go on out to my cart and check in the bag on the right, I think you’ll find some in there. Lorn is going to need a little before we stitch up this wound.”
Jack returned with the small bottle and Dr. Alfred walked the few steps across the room to retrieve the brown glass from the father’s pinched grip. Dr. Alfred noticed Jack’s hand tremble as it released the bottle. The doctor’s balding head gleamed in the light of the cabin as he turned to Jack and said softly, “Tell me again what happened, Jack.”
Jack recounted what he’d seen, “I heard the animals making a ruckus when Lorn went out to get the horses hitched to the plow, then I heard him yell and I ran out with the rifle. A big dog was in the barn and attacked Lorn, as you see, and then I killed it.”
The doctor handed Lorn a metal cup into which he had poured two fingers of whiskey. “Lorn, you need to drink this. It might burn your stomach since you haven’t eaten yet but it is going to help you with this next part.” Lorn took the cup and sipped, then coughed. “Yes, finish it up. That’s good.” Dr. Alfred took the cup and handed it to Jack.
“And you got attacked, yourself,” the old doctor nodded to the dirty rag wrapped around Jack’s hand.
“Ah, yeah, just a graze, really. Nothing to worry about.”
“Jack. You know as well as I do what there is to be worried about.” Dr. Alfred looked into Jack’s eyes as he pulled out the needle and a wooden dowel.
Jack walked to the mantle and pulled out a small box hidden behind the oil lamp. “I’ve never had to use this; my grandmother’s people brought it over from Scotland.”
The doctor peered into the box as Jack opened it. A smooth stone, pale brown, was nestled inside. Small bits of brown hair were flecked throughout the porous exterior.
“Jack…” the doctor began.
“Doctor, what else can I do?”
“Go ahead. You’re right, there’s nothing to lose at this point.”
Jack poured a small amount of milk into his smallest tin pan on the wood stove, then set the stone inside the pan. He brought the red-hot poker that had been heating in the stove over to the doctor.
Dr. Alfred took the poker and gestured to Jack to hold Lorn’s calf. “Let’s get this boy’s leg cauterized and stitched up. Then we will decide what to do about that hand of yours.” Turning to Lorn, the doctor placed the wooden dowel in his hand, “You’ll want to bite down on this, Lorn. This is going to hurt.”
After Lorn had gotten off the table and gone to sit beside the stove, his leg wrapped in a clean cloth, Jack and Dr. Alfred sat at the table to discuss the next steps, the pan of hot milk with the stone inside was placed on the table between them.
“Do you think,” Jack started, “if I break the madstone into two pieces, that we could each use a piece?”
“Jack, we don’t know yet whether that dog did have hydrophobia. But if it did, your guess is as good as mine about that madstone.”
Jack took the wet madstone from the pan and walked over to his son who was huddled by the stove wrapped in a quilted blanket. He peeled the blanket back to reveal the shoulder wound and placed the stone against the raw tear, then released his grip on the stone. The stone stuck to the coagulating blood for a moment, Jack’s eyes growing wide with fear, then the stone fell and clattered to the floor. Jack’s breath whooshed out of him in relief.
“Jack,” the doctor cautioned, we must be cautious about folklore.”
Jack bent and picked up the stone, reached for the pan of milk and returned the stone to it. “Doc, you said yourself we don’t know if the cur had hydrophobia. The stone didn’t stick to Lorn because there’s no poison for it to stick to. That tells me everything I need to know.”
“Pa?” Both men turned to see Jeb standing in the doorway, the mid-morning sunlight slanting through the window and lighting the boy’s dirty pants. “What’s going on? Why’d you let me sleep so late? Is Lorn sick, too?” Jeb’s eyes drifted to his brother curled in a ball on the chair beside the stove.
“No, Son. Lorn’s going to be fine.” Jack spoke softly but with a hard-edge to his voice. He looked at the doctor sitting at the table, “Everything is going to be just fine.”
When Jack was just a boy, he had seen a neighbor get treated with this very madstone. The man had been bitten on his forearm by a raccoon and come to Jack’s mother for treatment. Jack had stood in the corner and watched his mother cut away the torn flesh and cauterize it, then place the madstone on the wound, eyes widening when it stuck fast to the seared flesh. “Keep the madstone on the wound at all times,” his mother had said. “Every day you must remove the stone and soak it in fresh milk that has been warmed, then reapply. The stone will draw out the poison. When the stone no longer sticks to the wound, all the poison has been drawn out.”
The neighbor had thanked Jack’s mother and left. Several weeks later, he returned with the stone and showed his mother the arm with a fresh scar. “I am forever in your debt,” the neighbor had said. Every year after that, Jack’s family received half of a butchered hog from the neighbor as a way of saying thanks. Jack’s mother had saved the man from hydrophobia with the use of her family’s madstone.
Not every person who had been treated with the madstone had survived. Jack remembered his mother’s cousin, George, who had come from the next county over to get the madstone after he’d been bitten by a dog. The dog had all the signs of hydrophobia, the foaming mouth and wild eyes, when it wandered onto the cousin’s homestead, heading towards the children playing in the pasture beside the barn. George had run and stood between the rabid dog and his children, his hoe still in his hand. When the dog attacked, the father brought the hoe down over and over on the dog’s head and neck until it was virtually decapitated. It wasn’t until he had disposed of the animal and covered the bloody dirt with rock that he realized he’d been bitten. The next day he’d come to Jack’s mother, requested the stone for his small wound, and gone home.
Five weeks later, the cousin’s wife came to Jack’s house. George, she said, had been having headaches and his usual gentle demeanor had changed to one of general anger at her and at the children. And then, just the day before, the wife whispered with tears in her eyes, his right foot wouldn’t move when he tried to walk. And this morning he refused to bring the water in, she sobbed, a chore he had done every morning since they’d gotten married. He’d stormed around the yard, walking to the water pump, then veering away.
Jack’s mother and father had gone with the crying woman, leaving Jack and his brothers and sisters alone. “We mayn’t be back until tomorrow,” the parents told the kids. “You have gruel on the stove and milk in the cold pantry. Be safe until we return and stay near the house.” Jack noticed his parents packing a bag with food and then Jack’s dad went to the cupboard above the sink and retrieved his flintlock pistol.
“Dad?” Jack’s oldest brother asked as he looked toward the rifle beside the front door. “Why…”
“Never mind why, William,” his dad had said. “You have the rifle. If any dogs come around, shoot them.”
“If animals of any kind come around before we get back,” his mother added, “kill them. Don’t think about it. Just kill them.”
The next morning both parents returned, speaking in whispers to each other. “Florence, I will not allow you and the children to be anywhere near. You don’t know who else might be sick.”
“John, that is my family. My own cousin. How can you say I won’t be in attendance at his funeral?”
“Flo, you tended to him and his family as well as anyone could expect. He is out of his misery now but we can’t be sure that you and the kids would be safe if you go there. That scourge is in their county, we just can’t put the children in harm’s way. I won’t allow it.”
“John, please. My heart is breaking. I know you did the right thing. Ruth knows it. You were merciful and George, well, I’m sure he knew in his heart what had to be done. Please, let us go and pray with Ruth and their family for his soul.”
“Flo, I’ve said all I’m going to say about this. I will attend the funeral for our family. You can pray for George from here. And pray for me.” Jack saw his father, head hung low and crying. “I took a man’s life, Flo. I spilled his blood. I pray God has mercy on both our souls.”
Jeb and Jack did the plowing the next day, leaving Lorn to the easier work of planting the seeds so that his wounds would not re-open. A simple supper of stew that Pa had simmering on the wood stove all day to soften the tough meat filled the hungry bellies of the three dirt-smeared Murtry men. After supper, Pa went to the mantle and pulled out the green velvet box and stood looking at the stone inside. Jeb had seen the stone before, knew it had come all the way from Scotland, but had never seen his dad pay it any attention. Jeb watched his dad turn the stone over in his hand, then walk to Lorn.
“Son, lift up your shirt,” Pa said to Lorn. When the shirt was up, Pa removed the rag that covered Lorn’s torn shoulder and placed the stone against the sticky wound. Like the day before, the stone stayed for a moment and then fell, Pa catching it in his enormous hand before it hit the floor. He snorted with satisfaction and returned the stone to the box.
That night, as Jeb and Lorn huddled under the coverlets and pulled the bed rug over their heads against the chill of the April night, Jeb whispered to his big brother, “What was going on with that stone?”
“I don’t exactly know,” Lorn whispered back. “Pa did the same thing yesterday when Dr. Alfred was here, and said since the stone doesn’t stick, it means there isn’t any poison.”
“What kind of poison would it be, anyway?”
“I think…,” Lorn paused and took a deep breath, “they are worried about that dog. That it could have been sick.”
Jeb was almost thirteen, almost a man. He knew there was only one kind of sick dog that would cause Pa and Dr. Alfred to worry. He felt his breath rush out of him, his gut tangling in knots and his throat closing up in fear. “Lorn…”
“Don’t worry, little brother,” Lorn whispered. “Pa knows what he’s doing. Everything is going to be just fine. I promise.”
Jeb heard Lorn grunt in pain as he turned over on his side, both wounds making it hard to get comfortable. Jeb brought his head out of the covers and breathed the chilly air deep into his lungs, willing away the tightness in his throat that threatened to spill out of his eyes. Everything would be just fine. Lorn had promised.
Several times during that first week after the dog bite, Pa would take the stone out of its box and place it on Lorn’s shoulder, then on his stitched calf. Every time, the stone fell into Pa’s waiting hand. By the second week, Lorn’s shoulder had scabbed completely and was healing well and Pa no longer used the stone. Life on the Murtry farm went back to usual with the goats chewing down sprouting thistle, the chickens hatching their eggs, and the horses and oxen nibbling down the bright green grass that grew in their pasture.
It was at the end of the third week when Jeb noticed Pa squinting his eyes and rubbing his forehead. Then Pa was scratching at the fresh scar on his hand where the dog had bitten him. At supper, Jeb asked, “Pa, is your hand hurting?”
Pa looked at Jeb with his eyes still squinting, as if in pain, “No.” Pa looked down into his bowl of stewed chicken. “You should take care of chopping the firewood tonight, seeing as you’ve got nothing better to do than bother me.” Jeb blinked and looked to his older brother. Pa had never snapped at them before.
“Yes, sir.” Jeb got up from the table.
“And bring me that box on the mantle, while you’re up,” Pa grumbled.
Jeb brought the box to his father and watched as Pa opened the box and placed the stone on top of the scar on his hand, then lifted his hand and saw the stone clatter to the table.
Pa stayed grumpy, rubbing his forehead often during the day. Lorn and Jeb did their work, frequently choosing to work together so neither was left to work with Pa. There was enough work to do in Spring that the boys stayed out in the field until nightfall, giving Pa a wide berth to avoid setting off his temper.
Four weeks after the dog bite, on a warm afternoon, Dr. Alfred arrived at the Murtry farm. Jeb and Lorn were in the barn rafters, searching for eggs that some of the chickens had hidden up there when they heard him call out.
“Ho, Jack Murtry! Lorn, Jeb! Hello!” The boys clambered down and walked out into the bright sunlight toward the old man’s cart.
“Hope you don’t mind me stopping by. Nellie made too much of her best-ever chicken pie and I told her I knew exactly who might want it.” Dr. Alfred smiled at the skinny youngsters.
“We don’t take no charity, here.” Pa came around from the back of the cabin, his hat low over his eyes.
“Jack, hold on there! This isn’t charity. It’s just me not wanting this food to go to waste. I don’t know what Nellie was thinking, making so much in the first place. Say, would you men have time to eat a bit of dinner with me now and we can dispatch this chicken pie right away?”
Jeb and Lorn looked at the pie, the golden gravy peeking out from the buttery crust. Jeb could see a few green beans tucked under that crust, too. No matter, he could pick them out. Green beans were so yucky, Jeb couldn’t imagine why anyone would put them in a chicken pie.
“Naw, we got work to do, don’t we boys. We don’t have time for dinner today. We’s just gonna work through ‘til supper.” Pa kept his hat low and his shoulders rigid. Now Pa was being rude to Dr. Alfred; this was not right, Jeb thought, Pa had always said manners were what make a man.
Dr. Alfred looked at Pa. “Jack. Just let me sit down with you and the boys. That’s all I’m askin’. And I’m askin’ as your friend to indulge me in this minor inconvenience.”
Pa huffed and turned around; his tired feet clumped into the cabin. He left the door open for Dr. Alfred and the boys to follow. Jeb and Lorn stood aside to let Dr. Alfred go first, and then all four circled the small table. The doctor placed the pie on the table and sat down while Lorn left to get the carved wooden bowls from the shelf above the sink and spoons for everyone. Dr. Alfred waited for Jack to serve the chicken pie and, when Jack stayed slumped in his chair, took the chore upon himself. Smiling at each of the boys as he handed them a bowl filled to the rim with chicken, carrots, and green beans floating in a golden gravy and a huge piece of pastry overhanging it all.
Dr. Alfred said, “Eat up! Don’t make me sit here eating alone! Ha!”
Pa grabbed his spoon in his hand and set to eating the bowl placed in front of him, never looking up at his boys and not acknowledging Dr. Alfred. Jeb tried to eat around the green beans but, with Dr. Alfred’s bright eyes on him, Jeb forced himself to swallow a few. They weren’t so bad covered in the gravy, Jeb realized. Maybe gravy was the answer for the question of how to eat vegetables.
Lorn did not show as much gusto as Jeb in eating and he was still sweating, even though they’d gotten out of the hot barn rafters and were inside out of the sun.
“Lorn,” Dr. Alfred started, “don’t you like it?”
“Yes, sir,” Lorn replied quietly. “My appreciation to you and your wife for making this. I’m just tired, is all.” Lorn picked around the pie crust, taking a tiny portion onto his spoon. Jeb eyed Lorn’s bowl. If he wasn’t going to eat that buttery crust, Jeb certainly would. Jeb saw the gravy trickle off Lorn’s spoon. He wrinkled his brows, was Lorn’s hand trembling?
Dr. Alfred’s brow wrinkled in concern and then he stood up and walked over to Lorn, placing his hand on Lorn’s forehead. “Son, you have a fever.”
Jack’s head shot up and his eyes narrowed. “What’re you sayin’? I can’t take care of my boys?”
“Jack, what’s got into you?” Dr. Alfred set his wizened eyes on Jack and walked around to stand next to the man.
“Don’t do it, Wilfred,” Jack cautioned.
Jeb looked at his father and the doctor. A red and black butterfly fluttered in between the men but neither noticed it.
“I don’t have to, Jack. I can see with my own eyes that you’re feverish as well.”
“There’s a bug going around, Wilfred. It’s a ‘minor inconvenience’, that’s all.”
“If you say so, Jack.” Dr. Alfred walked the few steps to stand next to Jeb. Jeb kept his eyes on his bowl. He could feel the tension rising between his father and the doctor but he didn’t know why.
“Jeb, look at me,” Dr. Alfred spoke softly but there was no doubt this was an order. Jeb slowly turned his head up to the doctor who peered into his eyes and then touched Jeb’s forehead and the back of his neck.
“The boy’s fine, Wilfred. Look at him. He’s already eaten the entire bowl. Nothin’ wrong with him at all.”
“I agree with you on that, Jack. Jeb is perfectly fine. He doesn’t seem to have caught the bug that you and Lorn are struggling with.”
“No one said anything about struggling, Wilfred.”
Jeb looked at his brother across the table. Lorn’s eyes were red and he seemed to be slumping down into his chair, as if he was on the verge of sleep. Jeb could see a sheen of sweat on Lorn’s neck as his head hung down to his chest. Jeb’s eyes furtively flicked up as his Pa sat up straight and for the first time, Jeb could see the redness in his father’s eyes and the fine layer of dirt sticking to the sweat on Pa’s neck. Maybe they had caught whatever Jeb had been sick with the month before, Jeb thought. Maybe it was his turn to take care of Pa and Lorn like Pa had taken care of him. Jeb remembered, then, how he had gotten out of bed and seen Dr. Alfred at this same table and the dog bite. Jeb’s mouth flew open as he looked from his father to his brother.
“Stop that, Jebidiah. Close your mouth,” Pa snapped.
“No ‘buts’ Jebidiah. Everything will be fine. Lorn and I just have a fever. It’s nothing.” Jack stood up, pushing his chair back so hard it tipped back on two legs. “Wilfred, you’re worrying the boy over nothing. And dinner is over, I need to get back to work. Boys, please see Dr. Alfred to his cart. Thank you for your concern, and give our thanks to Nellie for the chicken pie.” Jack strode out of the cabin.
Dr. Alfred turned to Lorn. “Son, call me if you need me.”
Lorn lifted his rheumy eyes and whispered, “Sir, tell me the truth, is there anything you could do?”
“Son, I just don’t know. It’s in God’s hands, I’m afraid.”
Lorn nodded his head, his mouth tight. “Please, don’t tell anyone. Pa and I will handle things as they come up.”
Jeb saw Dr. Alfred’s eyes fill with tears. “Okay, Lorn. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on you. I pray you and your father are better then.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Lorn’s voice had a broken sound in it that Jeb had never heard before.
Jeb picked up the unfinished chicken pie to carry out for the doctor.
“No, Jeb. You keep that. I’ll pick up the dish when I come back. You may need to be eating on it over the next day rather than cooking, anyway.”
Jeb nodded; his voice caught in his throat. No one had said it out loud but Jeb knew. He knew why his Pa had become so angry, he knew why Lorn was sitting feverish and half asleep in his chair in the middle of the day.
“Will you see me out, Jeb?” Dr. Alfred looked at the boy, tears still in his eyes. Jeb followed the doctor outside, seeing for the first time how the doctor’s crisp white shirt had become damp under his arms, even though it had been cool inside the cabin. The doctor turned to Jeb as they came alongside the cart. Jeb could see the circle of chewed down grass the horses had eaten, but they hadn’t moved the cart one inch. Jeb knew his horses couldn’t be left alone like that, they’d have taken off with the cart and be halfway up the lane before you could turn around.
“Jebidiah. I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on your Pa and Lorn. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
Jeb watched as a tear spilled from the doctor’s eyes.
Jeb rose the next morning before the sun had thought about waking the day. Lorn had tossed in the bed they shared all through the night, his body as hot as a coal from the stove. Jeb quietly climbed out of bed and slid his feet into his boots, then trudged outside to the water pump with the old tin pitcher in hand. He came inside, shutting the door tight against the wind that was swirling the new leaves on the old oak in front. Jeb set the pitcher on the counter, then poured some of the cold water into a cup and took it to Lorn.
“Lorn, hey, wake up,” Jeb whispered
“ughhhh,” came the reply from under the covers.
“Lorn, hey, wake up. I got you something.” Jeb knew after a night of fever, Lorn would be terribly thirsty. He’d heard Lorn swallow and grunt in pain during his restless sleep; probably Lorn had a sore throat and some cold water would make it feel better.
“C’mon, Lorn. Sit up.” Jeb raised his voice to a louder whisper now. A twinge of fear left over from yesterday’s visit with Dr. Alfred had wrapped his heart in tight bands and Jeb’s own breath was shallow and quick. He pulled the covers from Lorn’s head, “here, Lorn.”
“Knock it off!” Lorn growled at him “Leave me alone.”
“Here,” Jeb offered the cup, his voice plaintive.
Lorn opened his eyes, the formerly bright whites were as red as the scar on his shoulder and a yellow crust filled his blonde lashes. “What?”
The single word was flung at the brother who was going to be thirteen in three days, who would be not a boy but a man then, yet as Jeb stood at the bedside of his brother and watched the irritation turn to anger on Lorn’s face, Jeb felt helpless as a child. He held the cup toward his older brother, “I brought you some water, Lorn. C’mon, sit up and have a drink. Then I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” Jeb’s voice squeaked on the last two words as the bands of fear around his heart squeezed tighter.
Lorn reached his hand toward the cup and Jeb leaned in to help his brother sit up and drink. Lorn slapped at the cup and at the irritating boy holding it, knocking the cup to the floor and splashing water across Jeb’s face, Jeb’s mouth
hanging open in shock.
“Git” and Lorn pulled the coverlet back over his head.
Jeb bent to pick up the cup and plodded to the kitchen. His mind was swirling and panic was rising from his gut. First Pa was angry at him and now Lorn, what was happening? Jeb placed the cup on the shelf above the sink and stood looking at the tin pitcher, the small dent in the side where it had been dropped on the hearth. As the sun lit the morning, the colors of the pitcher were revealed; not solely gray but silver to thundercloud to spots of white where the light was touching it directly. Jeb stared at the pitcher, really seeing the colors of it for the first time, and thinking of nothing else.
Jeb didn’t know how long he’d stood beside the pitcher. The sun was fully above the far hills when Jeb heard a sound and turned to see his Pa sitting at the table.
“Son, come sit down.”
Jeb pulled out his stool and sat at the table with his father. Pa’s hands were on the table and Pa was studying them. Jeb also looked, seeing the torn nails, the row of shallow cuts from the saw that slipped while Pa was cutting new fence rails. Jeb saw the lines etched deep into Pa’s hands and the nub of the pinky finger that had been cut off back when Pa was about as old as Jeb is now. And Jeb saw the fresh scar from the dog bite, pink and soft-looking in the field of brown. The green velvet box was held in Pa’s hands.
“Your brother’s not doing too good.”
Jeb couldn’t tell if this was a question or not. Pa still looked at his hands holding the box.
“Jeb, do you know what this box holds?”
“A stone, Pa, I saw the stone inside it.”
“No, Jeb. It’s not a stone. It’s a madstone. It’s been in our family since, well, I don’t know exactly how far back but since before Grandma Adie came over from Scotland. Her people had it and this stone has saved a lot of lives.”
Jeb looked at his father. “Yes, Pa.”
“See, Son,” Jack opened the box and withdrew the stone and placed it on the table. “See those hairs. Way back, one of Grandma Adie’s people found this stone in the stomach of a deer. It has special properties, Jeb. If a man is bit by a snake or, say, a sick dog, the stone sticks to the wound because it is absorbing the poison. After the poison is all sucked out, the stone falls off. I’ve seen this save a man’s life for myself, after he was bit by raccoon.”
“Yeah, Pa?” Jeb had not heard these stories before. Pa had never talked much about anything.
“Yes, Son. So, if you get bit and the stone does not stick, it means there isn’t any poison in the wound.” Pa exhaled a long slow breath and his chin sunk to his chest. “There shouldn’t be any poison if the stone doesn’t stick.”
“Sure, Pa,” Jeb agreed, “and since the stone didn’t stick to Lorn, there wasn’t any poison in that bite.”
Pa stayed slumped into his chest for a few minutes, then looked up at Jeb. “That’s how it’s s’posed to work. That’s how it should be.” For the first time in over a week, Jack looked at his son. Jeb saw the same burning red and crusty lashes on his father’s eyes as on Lorn’s but the gaze between father and son was not angry. Jeb saw his father’s eyes filled with tears.
“Jebidiah, I don’t think your brother is doing too good. And to be honest, I don’t think I’m doing too good, neither.” Jack pulled a rag from under the table and wiped at his mouth. Jeb could see the rag wiping away the foamy spittle at the corners of Pa’s lips.
“I have a job I want you to help me with, Jebidiah. In a few days you’ll be thirteen, you’ll be a man. But today I need you to do a man’s work with me.”
Jeb blinked at his father and a crease seared itself into his smooth brow.
Jeb felt the breeze dry the sweat from his neck as he hoisted his body out of the hole. “I can finish this, Pa,” he said to the man digging next to him.
Pa had hardly spoken a word since they’d come up to this hill that looked out over the valley. Even when the soft wind would carry the cries and shouts of Lorn to them, Pa stayed focused on his shovel. Jeb heard Pa grunt and watched him climb out. Watched the large boot with holes near the toe as it stepped onto the large rock Jeb had dropped into the bottom of the deepening hole, just in case he needed a boost to climb out. Jeb heard Pa pacing around the oak tree that shaded the top of this hill. He could hear Pa circle the tree, then come back and sit next to the mound of stones near where Jeb was digging now, a mound that had been piled three years ago when Mama had died. Jeb pried another large stone loose from the earth and remembered that day. He was a boy then and had been ordered to stay in the cabin with the ladies who wrapped Mama in a blanket and cleaned the bedclothes. Mama had been in that bed for weeks, unable to get up, even to go to the outhouse. Jeb had stayed with her, cleaning her and even diapering her emaciated body. He’d watched Mama go into a deep sleep for days, not waking to eat or drink. And then one day, early, so very early in the morning that the sun hadn’t even wakened and the moon was just finishing its turn in the sky, Mama woke and fluttered her hands to Jeb. Pa had taken to sleeping by the woodstove and so it was just Mama and Jeb in the big straw bed. The moon was so bright that Mama was lit like an angel from the white silk case of the feather pillow that Dr. Alfred had given to Mama when she took ill.
“Jeb…” the voice that had soothed him so many nights when he’d had nightmares, hardly a movement in the parched and cracked lips that had kissed away his scratches and smiled at his stories but to Jeb the trumpets were sounding. Mama was awake! She was coming back! It was going to be fine, after all!
Jeb wiped the memory from his eyes and jammed the shovel against the packed earth. He heard the howl of his brother carried up the hill on the breeze and lifted the loosened rock from the hole, throwing it above his head out of the hole with all the rage of a man who has had his boyhood stolen from him. It hadn’t gotten better then and it wasn’t going to get better now.
“That’s enough, Son.” Pa called from the mound of rock that marked Mama’s grave. “Let’s go check on your brother.”
Lorn had gotten agitated early in the morning. The more agitated Lorn got, the more settled Pa became. Lorn stormed around the small cabin while Pa was in the barn, then weaved out the door. Jeb stayed a safe distance away, the distance determined by whatever it was Lorn was swinging in his hands at the time. In the cabin, Lorn had grabbed the skillet from the stove and swung it at Jeb, his eyes almost crusted closed and spit flying from his mouth as he yelled nonsense. Lorn swerved his way out the door, the skillet having fallen to the wayside, then picked up the pail from beside the water pump and pummeled the pump with it until the pail’s handle broke. Pa came out of the barn then and told Jeb, “Keep clear of him, Jeb.” Then Pa went back into the barn.,
Jeb stayed back, easily able to dodge the angry charges Lorn made at him. Jeb got behind Lorn and kept out of his field of view and watched his big brother weave around the pen in front of the barn, Lorn’s feet in disagreement with which direction to go.
Pa came out of the barn as Lorn was pummeling the goat pen gate with a broken fence rail, his fingers no longer able to operate the simple wooden latch. Pa had the lasso from the saddle wrapped in his hands. “Lorn!” Pa called his oldest son as he swung the hand-braided rope above his head.
Lorn turned to his father, eyes red and slobber spilling from his cracked lips. He lowered his head like an angry bull and veered toward Pa. Lorn stumbled and Jeb could hear the snap of bone, as Lorn howled in pain and rage, then continued his furious lurch, screaming with each step and swinging the fence rail at his father.
“Son,” Pa whispered, this time and Jeb could hear the heartache in that one word. Pa released the swinging rope and the lasso came down around his son’s shoulders and tightened, stopping Lorn’s destruction in mid-swing and bringing Lorn to the ground, howling still. Pa tied Lorn’s limbs firmly together, then called out, “Jebidiah, come help me carry your brother back to bed!” Pa had Jeb grab Lorn’s feet while he hoisted the tie-rope over his shoulder and lifted Lorn like a sack of grain. The two wobbled with their unwilling cargo until Lorn’s body suddenly went slack and his head lolled, spit dribbling from his mouth. They hastened the still figure back into the cabin and Pa tied him to the bed.
“Come, Jeb. Don’t look. It doesn’t make it any easier. That isn’t your brother any more. Come with me, we have a man’s work to do now.” And Pa had led Jeb out to the barn and then up to the hill where Mama was laid.
Jeb and Pa left the shovels next to the mound of rocks and walked down the hill. Just as they were about to reach the cabin, Pa swung around and called, “Jeb, follow me into the barn. There’s some things I need to show you.” Jeb followed his father, watching as Pa’s knee would wobble as if giving out on him, but even through the stumbles, Pa kept walking toward the barn. It was as if pure willpower could move his legs.
“Pa. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want you to say it. I can’t…”
“Jeb. You can and you will because there isn’t any other choice. A man faces the hand he’s dealt.”
“My people are gone, Jeb. I have a cousin up in New York but I don’t even know where anymore. Your mama’s people, now some of them are down in Virginia and you could go find them. You look just like your mama, you know, and they’d surely take you in. You could ask Dr. Alfred to help you sell this place and go on to live your life with family. There’s no one here, Jeb. And a boy can’t run a farm by himself.”
“Pa, I’ll be a man in two days. I don’t want to go to Virginia, I want to stay here, with you.”
“Son, I ‘spect you are a man now. And even so, running a farm all alone is a hard task…”
“But I won’t be alone, you’ll be here. You’ve been getting better all day, Pa…”
“Son. You’re a good man. You know how to hook up the plow and how to sharpen the scythe. And there’s the threshing flail that will need new leather on it before the end of summer…” Pa’s voice trailed off and he fell onto the hay bale behind him. For the first time in Jeb’s almost thirteen years, his Pa began to cry. Jeb stood frozen, unable to move his feet. He stared at his father, and felt a presence envelope him as he watched the broken man in front of him. He walked over to his father and placed his hand on the wretched shoulders.
“Pa. It’s going to be fine. I promise.” Jeb picked up the shovel and the rock bar and stood at the barn door. Jeb knew Lorn would not get better. Everyone knew that once the rage started, it was just a matter of time until… Jeb couldn’t think about that but he knew what had to be done. Pa had beat it, his bite from that dog had not been as bad as Lorn’s. It wasn’t fair to lose Ma and now Lorn but he and Pa would figure it out. They had to. It’s what a man does.
“Son, help me up.” Pa called to Jeb with a voice weak and shaking. Jeb put the tools against the barn wall and placed his hands under Pa’s arm and hoisted the man up. Pa was thin, the fever had taken much out of him and Jeb knew he would need sturdy food to bring Pa back to health. Pa stumbled slightly, then pulled his arms in tight and shook his head. “You’re a good son, Jeb. A good man.” Pa wobbled slightly as he walked out of the barn and gazed up the hill toward the big oak where Ma lay.
It was late afternoon when Pa and Jeb got back to the cabin. Lorn’s cries had stopped. Jeb could see the blood and torn skin on Lorn’s wrists from his struggles against the ropes holding him to their bed. Lorn’s eyes were closed and Jeb could see his gaunt chest rise and fall with shallow, quick breaths.
Pa stood beside Jeb in the doorway. “Jeb, I need you to fetch Dr. Alfred now.”
“Pa, Dr. Alfred said he’ll come by tomorrow. Let me fix you some supper. We haven’t eaten all day and you need to get your strength back.” Jeb took two cups from the shelf above the sink and filled them with water from the bucket. He placed one on the table in front of Pa. “Here,” Jeb said.
Pa’s jaw tightened and Jeb saw him make a fist but then Pa slumped in his chair, his voice scratchy and hoarse, “Jeb, I need you to get Dr. Alfred here before Lorn wakes up. Go. Now”
Jeb looked at his father. What could Dr. Alfred do for Lorn before he awoke? Jeb started to question but Pa’s hand on the table squeezed into a fist again.
“Okay, Pa. I’ll take the gray mare and go fetch the doctor. Just try to rest until I get back.” Jeb looked at his father. “Please, Pa.”
Pa looked up at Jeb and nodded his head. “You’re a good son, Jeb.” And Pa rested his head in his hands.
Jeb didn’t bother to put the saddle on the gray mare. He’d ridden bareback enough and she had a gallop that was smooth as cream, Pa always said. Dr. Alfred could hear the hooves pounding on the dirt road and grabbed his hat and coat, then ran outside just as Jeb came flying around the corner of the house.
“Pa said he needs you to come quick! Lorn’s not well and Pa wants you to come before he wakes again. We have him tied to his bed right now but…” Jeb trailed off.
“Jeb, your mare is all a-lathered. Here, leave her in the pen and ride with me.” The doctor had his horses in the pen and ready to hook up to the cart. Jeb could see the cart was loaded with different boxes strapped just behind the cart’s bench. “We will ride back to your place together, Jeb.”
“But, I need to get back to them fast!” Jeb’s breathless voice rising with urgency.
“You and I will take care of your Pa and brother. Climb up into the cart, now, Jeb. I promise you, this is not a job for a boy alone.”
“Pa’s better, he’s been better all day! I’m not alone, Doc, I’m not alone!”
“You’re right, Jeb, you are not alone. But you have to trust me and climb into the cart. Leave that mare and I’ll bring her back to you as soon as we tend to your brother.”
Jeb could hardly see the step into the cart for the tears blurring his eyes. Dr. Alfred’s words had stabbed a hole clean through his gut and Jeb remembered this searing ache from when his Ma had died. But Pa wouldn’t leave him, Jeb knew. Pa was strong and would take care of everything.
Dr. Alfred drove his two bays hard along the road rutted with rivulets from the melting of the late spring snow, the cart bouncing hard and jarring Jeb’s teeth. Jeb held on to the wooden bench, willing the horses to go faster, the cart to fly back to his home and back to Pa. He lifted his hand to wipe fresh tears from his cheek and noticed the dirt still caked under his chewed nails. The dirt from digging his brother’s grave. Jeb didn’t know how the next step would happen, couldn’t think of it. Maybe Dr. Alfred had some medicine that would put Lorn to sleep forever. Maybe that’s why Pa had sent Jeb to fetch the doctor.
The two bay horses were lathered at their neck, their fur wavy from the sweat and glinting red in the sunshine as the doctor turned them onto the lane that led to the Murtry home.
“PA!” Jeb hollered as soon as the cabin came into view. “PA! PA!”
Dr. Alfred pulled the horses to a stop between the cabin and the barn and leapt to the ground, Jeb already running to the cabin. Jeb disappeared inside the cabin, yelling for his father, then came running out just as fast. “They aren’t in here!” Jeb’s eyes were wide, tears flowing down his cheeks and his breath coming in fast heaves.
Dr. Alfred pulled his bag from one of the boxes on his cart. “Jeb, it’s going to be okay. Your pa knows what to do.”
A horse’s whinny came from behind the cabin and both Jeb and Dr. Alfred ran around the corner of the small building. High up on the hill, Pa’s horse was standing tied to the oak, the small cart for wheeling hay from the field was angled near her. They could see Pa leaning his head against the deep brown neck of his favorite mare.
“PA!!!!” Jeb screamed his father’s name. “We’re here! I got the doctor!”
Pa turned toward the two men and lifted his hand at them but didn’t answer. Jeb and Dr. Alfred started up the hill and saw Pa kneel down near the cart, as if in prayer. Pa lifted his hand toward them again and Jeb could see he held the old flintlock pistol in his hand.
“PA! What’re you…” Jeb was cut off by Dr. Alfred grabbing him, turning him away from Pa and holding him in a bear hug. Jeb couldn’t breathe, Dr. Alfred held him so tight, and he began to struggle against the embrace. “Doc, stop! I…”
Jeb heard the pistol fire.
“Son, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Dr. Alfred began. I wouldn’t never have let you see this. I’m so sorry, I believed your Pa was getting better, I did.”
Jeb broke loose from Dr. Alfred and sprinted up the hill.
“Jeb, wait! Stop!” Dr. Alfred called after him. “Stop! You don’t…” but it was too late. Jeb had reached the hilltop and skidded to a stop. Dr. Alfred saw the boy drop to his knees at the crumpled body beside the cart. He heard the boy wail; the sound of the entire world being wrenched into pieces and Dr. Alfred knew what the poor orphan boy was seeing. The body of his brother lay in the grave, a hole in his forehead where his father had shown mercy on the suffering young man and, Dr. Alfred knew, Jeb also saw the body of his father crumpled beside the grave, a hole in his temple. The scourge of the land had taken everything from Jeb and the boy cried in his pain, a cry so sorrowful the birds stopped singing and the horses stood still. The world had ended.
Dr. Alfred took heavy steps up the hill toward the orphaned boy, arriving at his side just as the cries tapered off. Dr. Alfred stood beside the boy, his body slumped over his father, his hands gripping the dead man’s coat. After an eternity, the doctor reached his hand down to the boy’ shoulder and the dirty blonde head turned slowly toward him. The doctor’s heart broke when he saw the blue eyes stare unblinking at him, eyes that could not comprehend the unfairness of the world that would take his family from him.
Dr. Alfred reached his hand down to Jeb and pulled him to standing. “Son…”
“My name is Jeb. I am nobody’s son,” Jeb interrupted the doctor, his voice flat and far away.
“Jeb. Please, go to the cabin. Let me take care of this.” The doctor reached for the shovel that was placed on the cart.
“No, Doc. I’ll do that. Hand me that cloth.”
Dr. Alfred looked to where Jeb pointed and, underneath some ropes on the cart was a bedsheet. Jack had thought of everything, Dr. Alfred thought as he handed the sheet to Jeb. He watched as Jeb stretched his father out and wrapped him in the sheet. Only then did Dr. Alfred look into the grave and see the wrapped body of Lorn, his white-blonde curls spilling out from the sheet.
Jeb refused any help from the doctor as he wrapped his father, carefully covering him and securing the sheet around the body. Jeb took extra care wrapping his father’s head, wiping away the black powder smear and carefully cradling the part that was misshapen from the bullet. The gore did not seem to faze the boy, the doctor noted with shock.
When the wrapping was done, the doctor again picked up the shovel but Jeb just shook his head no without saying a word. The doctor stood mutely as the boy clambered into the grave and arranged his brother’s body, tucking the curls into the sheet. The doctor saw the boy’s face turn red as he struggled to pull his father’s body into the grave and, even though his father outweighed him by at least eighty pounds, the boy maneuvered Pa into the grave with a gentleness and reverence that awed the doctor.
He offered his hand to the boy as Jeb began to climb out of the narrow grave, the two bodies laid gently and respectfully in it. Jeb accepted the offer of help and clasped the doctor’s hand tightly, with a grip firm like a man’s, not grasping like a child. The doctor waited while Jeb covered the bodies with dirt, each spade-full placed with care and deep consideration. After the bodies were completely covered, the doctor took hold of another shovel and both the doctor and the orphan worked to fill the grave.
As they placed the last of the large rocks over the mound, in macabre pairing with the mound that had been built three years earlier, the doctor wiped the sweat and dirt from his forehead. “Jeb, why don’t you come home with me for tonight? You don’t need to be alone now and Nancy would love to have someone in the house to take care of. Tomorrow we can figure out what you should do.”
“Thank you, Doc,” came the soft reply, “but I’m staying here.”
“Jeb, this is a tough time for anyone, don’t think you have to handle it alone.”
“Dr. Alfred,” Jeb looked into the old man’s eyes, “I am alone. A man faces the hand he’s dealt.”