fiction, new from the book

new from the book: Chapter 2; October 30, 1857

read Chapter 1: Late October, 1857 here

William thought about turning back the whole ride over to Brockwayville. He thought it, dithered and pondered, but did not once turn the reins. Ambition pushed him forward. Pride, too. Without him, their little endeavor would be as cold in the ground as Black Hen. William puffed out his chest at that.

He deflated quickly, looked around to be sure no one saw. No one thinks highly of a man too proud of himself. Only twenty-one and nothing to be prideful about, anyway. William had enough sense to be able to laugh at his own self. Want to get it outta the way before she does, if I even catch a glimpse, he thought.

Uncle Junior at the livery stables gave him a beauty that morning. The kind of horse a man felt like taking when he went a-courtin’. Guess he was, in a couple of ways. William admired the horse with the sunlight rising through the trees. Some trees, anyway. Fewer than there used to be, said mama. Fewer than there were before he went Cincinnati last winter. Lord, but he saw some women there. His mind drifted pleasurably. William hauled up short, reminding himself of his vow.

No more women. Less liquor. No more trouble. I went to Cincy. I had as fine a time a poor man could have in a city, and kept Mama from hearin’ most of it. There’s something to be proud about. William threw out the kind of fine laugh he’s known for, startling the horse. She settled right back down, though, and only gave him sort of a look.

“I know, girl,” he said, patting the mare’s neck. “Penelope’s the only female fer me. Human, at least, anymore. I promised.” He’d come back from the only debauchery a man who’s been helping support his family could. The boys been determined to be men for their mama since they’s born. Cincinnati sure was fun, though. Playing around, learning, burning with ambition.

He’d come back to Brookville, spotted Penelope Clarke, and promised her he’d not feel another woman’s breasts, nor any of the other fun bits, ‘less they were hers. Well, excluding patients. And, well, he’d not precisely made that promise to Penelope, out loud, in person, or any other way. “Wouldn’t do to discuss delicate things with a delicate lady.” William said that last bit aloud.

The horse snorted. “That’s last of the flies, I suspect,” said William to her. Reassuring the mare.

Yesterday Simmons made it perfectly clear Will could not accept no, nor could Doctor Clarke be left with the idea he could run his mouth. Don’t tell him a word of our plans Simmons said. You’ll be the one payin’ if he talks. Simmons acted menacing, when he wanted to. With some whiskey in ‘im Simmons thought himself a big man.

Big enough he didn’t have to fight, just stand there and be right. Or think himself right. Such an attitude carried over to sober times, too, William knew. William McKnight didn’t stand near as tall, nor as barrel-chested, but he figured Simmons didn’t have much ability to fight in him sober. He let his wife’s family run ‘im over often enough.

Leastaways, William thought, I can out run him. William turned the horse to the left. He knew he’d get there just as Doc C got up from breakfast table. Probably carryin’ that chipped, enameled tin mug to the office with him. Will reminisced. Mrs. Clarke despaired over Doc C’s lack of niceties, but Will saw through to the fondness beneath her naggin’.

Living with folks let you see them the way politeness kept you from knowing if you were just come a-callin’. He’d come out of the apprenticeship with the doc with a better understanding of a kind of marriage than he ever could as a boy, his own daddy dead before he could walk.

“Marriage,” said Will aloud. “The shit I come up with, keepin’ myself company on the road. A man’s got to be something before he can ask a woman to tie herself to him for the rest of his life.” Delilah snorted again, flicking her tail for good measure. Will rode on, silent.

     Asaph Clarke stood up from the breakfast table. He reached over to the stove and filled his enamel mug with some more fortification for the day. Rebecca raised an eyebrow, shaking her head with a smile. Some things about that man never changed. Asaph maintained he’d used that cup back when he drunk milk as a baby in Connecticut. “I brung it with me, over mountains and hills, traveling for a new life,” he said. “I’ll drink out of whatever I please, thankyouverymuch.”

If that man tells me the story of that cup one more time. Or keeps tryin’ to indoctrinate the babies into having their own special drinking vessel. Rebecca shook her head, at herself mostly. Hard enough keeping the place clean with ten children, let alone the demands if each one had to drink out of the same cup every meal. ‘Least Penelope’s a hard worker.

“Give him time to drink that cup and take the pot to him,” Rebecca told her oldest girl. “I’ll manage the mending. You can help your father at his work.” The smile Penny sent her warmed the room.

Soon enough he’ll have another man in to take the place ought to interest her brother. She’ll be back tendin’ to my children and soon enough hers when she marries. No reason a girl child oughtn’t learn what she can of keepin’ bodies together, I say. Near enough the only thing that man needs a fight on, said Rebecca as she moved into the parlor.

Penelope dried her hands from washing dishes and took the hot pad to carry the pot of coffee to her father. “Will McKnight,” said Asaph before she even got out of the kitchen, flinging a door open to the traveler. Penny set the pot back down with a petulant clunk. She made a sour face just in time for Mama to catch her at it.

“Better take a second cup with you,” said Rebecca before she left again. That woman’s footsteps are quieter than the deer eating away at our garden, Penny swore. They’d grown past the annoyances that quickened tempers between a mother and daughter, causing little battles of wills each day, but people livin’ together could tweak a person’s last nerve.

My whole life, always, Mama’s been teaching me to be a good woman. She likes to pretend I haven’t been raised to be a doctor’s wife, but I have. ‘cept, it’d be better to be a doctor. Not the first time she’d had this argument. Sometimes even out loud. Sometimes even with another person.

Penelope deftly slid the door open with the hand holding the empty cup and saucer. She caught the tail of an abruptly ended sentence, “our ambition to learn burns, Doc, and we must have a safe place to begin.” McKnight gave her a look as she stepped in, announcing the “hot coffee, and fresh, Papa. William McKnight.” She’d not call him Doctor, not until someone told her it’d be rude not to.

Can’t abide interruptions. She’s not so pretty when she nearly hears of nothing that concerns her, with that frown like I’m the one interrupting her day. Givin’ me a hard look like I’m the one ruining her secret. Will had no idea of the disgruntled face he bore, too. Made him look less like a dolt, at least, Penny thought.

Penelope gave her father a smile, set down the coffee, and flounced back through the door. She rarely bothered with the feminine wiles the other girls told her about, but felt the situation called for something. The men paid attention.

Asaph wondered what got into his daughter. William got distracted by the bum hidden by skirts, motivating the flounce. William recovered first, mostly ‘cause he thought he’d better stand on ceremony. He’s on a mission.

“Thank you for pouring, sir,” said Will. Doctor Clarke nodded, encouraging the boy to get on with the favor he’d begun requesting. He took a gulp of his own cup, masking a wince at the scald. Will began again. “Ambition is something like love. It laughs at the law and takes fearful risks.”

Clarke kept on nodding. What does that boy think he knows of love? Or ambition. Wouldn’t’ve taken him on this past spring, knowing he’s such a poet. William cursed himself, reading the Doc’s face. He prefers plain speaking. You know that. Get to the point, man, and ask him outright. No dilly-dallying.

“I, and some others, need your assistance,” said William. “We need a place to perform a dissection in Brookville.”
“My empty place on Main Street, you’re angling at to use.”
“Yessir.”

“How did you get roped into askin’ for this favor? Surely, you’re not thinking of tackling this alone,” said Clarke. “It’d take two or three weeks of nights for five or six men to do the job properly.

Will sat silent. Simmons insisted Clarke be kept quiet. The doc couldn’t say what he did not know. He’d not stand to be kept fully in ignorance, William knew. In his mind, William held a half-formed image of torture. He kept seeing screws and the rack, old New England stocks and the pillory, lying in wait to snap and catch the moment they were caught.

Not for myself, mind you, Will thought each time his mind drifted towards ‘em. No, those devices are for everybody close to me. Make them talk so’s we can be prosecuted. Too much power in this plan for anybody to get away without working the mystery out, if somebody’s of a mind to rile up the populace. I’d hate to add Doc Clarke to that list of people gettin’ hurt.

Clarke looked at the boy, saw him turning over options in the way his eyes flicked to the right. Clarke sat forward, laid a companionable hand on Will’s knee, and started getting his answers.

“Son,” he said. “You remember, I’s coroner until just last year.” Clarke refilled Will’s cup, talking all the while, knowing you have to give a little to get a little more back. It’s not legal to cut a person up, even dead, even if you’re a coroner. But sometimes, said Clarke inviting Will into some secrets, when I’d go ‘round to look at some body I could tell the family’d not much care if I took a little look inside ‘fore he’s buried. Other times, no family to speak of. “You understand me?” Clarke continued, not even waiting for Will’s nod, just tellin’ a little story.

“Gravediggers are a gossipy bunch, and they’re superstitious. None of ‘em dares look inside a box they diggin’ the hole for, only noticin’ if the weight is off.” Clarke laughed, thinking on the ways to weigh down a box with no organs inside. He said, “but you gotta know the other men taking on a task with you, who they are. What kind of men.”

He concluded the lesson, figuring Will would spill, the better to think on his confederates. They’d had plenty of talks of secrets and silence when Will worked and boarded with him over the summer. Clarke felt confident he knew the way, getting the boy to talk.

Will nodded, feeling by this time like a pendulum sat on his neck ‘stead of his head. All the nodding and bowing and listening to some man pretend to give out fatherly advice. He’d come this far without one, he’d be alright moving on, too. Made his face hard, voice stern. “I’d appreciate if you’d level with me. Can that house be used?”

Clarke didn’t show his admiration, but felt it all the same. Not playing, then. Maybe Will’d grown into a man since he left this house. Didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun seeing how far the boy’d go. How far had he been pushed to call in this favor?

“I need some guarantees,” said Clarke. “Since you left here this spring, I don’t know what you might’ve fallen into. People talk, but you’ve not been forthcoming. Trust you, alight, but who else’ll be in my house?”

Will did his level best to stay calm and act angry. Offended. That’s what he should be. Not pleased at the man’s faith. Felt more guilty than anything. He’d stayed under the man’s roof, learned more of doctoring local people than he did in Cincinnati. How’d he go about repaying ‘im? Lusting after the man’s daughter. “I’ll not dignify your insinuations. I, and others, wish to learn. There’s no better way available.”

“No malignin’ you, boy. I ask for a bit more information regarding these others, is all.” He pushed the boy a little, Clarke knew, but there’s a fine line between pushing and shoving. He waited.

William considered. He held onto the anger he felt on lying to Clarke about why he’d left when the harvest started. Need it to get through this begging. Simmons oughtn’t have sent me, didn’t have no one else with the connection. “I allow my reticence to name the involved parties might make it more difficult for you to acquiesce,” said William.

“Your allowance is noted.” Clarke kept it brief. Let the other man talk himself into admitting somethin’ he don’t want to admit. Already had him using more words than he needed. Give the boy a refill.

McKnight blew air out of his mouth gustily. It rustled the floppy edges of his fine mustache. Wonder if I should compliment him on his growing technique? Clarke decided against it. No hard feelin’s yet, and I’d rather there not be when he leaves. He hid his smile behind the mug and stayed silent.

William followed suit, without the smile to hide. Buying time. He doubted Simmons’ ability to manage a completely secretive dissection. These people here talk, William knew. He trusted Clarke, just not to try to talk him out of it.

Will held firm in the belief that the other men would be protected. It’d better be a big ol’ protective umbrella hovering over all of us, Will thought grimly. Sittin’ here, sipping coffee with Doc Clarke, I’d do better gaining a bit of my own protection. He felt like pawn enough already. Guilt and lust and thoughts of Penelope slipped away as he focused on the immediate future.

“You’re right, Doc. Here’s what’s happenin’.” Will spilled the whole plan, not that there was much of one yet. It all hinged on Doc Clarke giving up his empty house on Main Street as schoolhouse.

He’ll not be comin’ back to live, you know,” said Rebecca. “If that’s what’s distracting ya.” Penny started. Mama’d gotten the drop on her again. Will McKnight might’ve been on her mind, but not for the reasons her mother supposed. When’d he become handsome, she wondered. Not that darned fur on his lip, though.

“I had been wonderin’ what caused that boy to consider growing a mustache when everything came in so baby fine.” Rebecca smiled. Mustache sat rather floppy on Will’s lip. Truth or not, her Penny deflected with the best of them. Even if she was angry her father wouldn’t let her inherit the practice. Maybe as a doctor’s wife she could satiate that curiosity. Rebecca left the subject and the room.

Penelope turned her hands back to the drudgery of wash day. Lucky to have warm sun so late in October to bleach the sheets white she tried to hammer home in her mind. Her thoughts strayed from hanging the sheets and scattering handkerchiefs across the rhododendron.

When William McKnight left her father’s house in the spring, didn’t take long for her to stop caring much about his supplanting her place with her father and his work. Time and distance lent mystery to the man she’d avoided so through the winter save for the occasional jibe and mockery. Penny spent enough time angry and avoiding, she’d not noticed when Will’s reticence turned to embarrassment.

Turns out, I don’t know all that much about him. Not how he takes his coffee or if he’s got any intelligence. Papa liked him well enough, but he’s not exactly always the best judge of character. Got ta laugh at that time the peddler sold him a load of bunk, claimin’ they were born in neighboring towns in Connecticut.

What I oughta done, Penelope scolded herself, was keep a better eye on McKnight while he was here. Instead of fussing and scolding and complainin’. Stayin’ away to prove I’m angry at Pa. Hindsight works a sure bit easier than foresight, I know. I’ll work different if there’s a next time. Better not be one.

Not just the sight of a handsome face in her father’s office, she’d found she missed the man’s presence when he left. Even when she stayed mad, mad that he got the work she’d been brought up doing, somebody who wasn’t family was pleasant to have around. Kept everybody on better behavior, especially her little brothers, somebody who’s not family in the house.

If’n he don’t bring back a bright, shiny key, I’ll just break down that damn door. Everybody’s got a hatchet and lots of houses been broken into lately.”

Heichhold and Blood traded looks, arguin’ silently over whose turn it was to cut Simmons off at, oh, look, one o’clock in the afternoon. It’s not his drinking so much as his inability to keep his damn mouth shut when he’s doing it, fumed Blood. At least we’re in the back of the store and not at the Hotel. None but us to hear, which is a benefit, but he’s lowering the level in my bottle.

Shit. That means it’s me who’s got to tell him to stop. He saw the moment Heichhold realized, nearly as quick as Blood. The bells rang on the front door handle, giving Blood the excuse to swan away with a smug look at his sober friend. AP got down to it, gently prying Simmons out the back and away from Blood’s desk bottle. Gentle didn’t last for long.

“To the Hotel,” said Simmons, frog marching Heichhold down the alley. They got by Blood’s ice house and the backside of the livery before Heichhold regained control. “Better sober up before you return to Father Dowling’s, eh, friend?” he said.

Mention of his father-in-law pulled Simmons up short. He left go of Heichhold. Heichhold took advantage. He turned the twosome toward his own meager office, hoping he had coffee enough. And that he’d hidden his own jar. Probably had, temperance folk bein’ touchy about buying from an apothecary who drank, hypocrisy be damned.

“You’re a good friend, and a good man, Heichhold,” said Simmons, trying not to slur too much. The key to not seeming drunk was to act very carefully as though one were sober, he knew. Or was it t’other way around? I’s a bit mixed up.

“What’d Blood put in that whiskey? He trying a new potion on me? Whiskey that weak don’t effect me.” The confusion lasted long enough Heichhold had Simmons in a chair and hot coffee poured ‘fore Simmons stopped mumbling to himself.

He looked at the coffee Heichhold set before him with a sort of hangdog expression. Lining it up, cocking his head side to side like a copperhead pondering whether to strike. He turned one eye towards it, then t’other, checkin’ the distance like he’s not sure his hands’d reach right.

“I have refrained from employing any additives to your beverage,” said Heichhold. He grimaced, reached forward for a sip, and returned the cup to Simmons. “Blood left his own liquor alone, you just ain’t been eating right. Workin’ yourself up over learning and achieving.”

“That’s right,” said Simmons around his coffee. He nodded a wobbly affirmation to get his point across. “I’d steady hands for surgery, if’n I knew the layers of inside a man. That boy just in the ground’s the ticket.”

“I do wonder how McKnight fares in beggin’ our purpose with Doctor Clarke,” said Heichhold.

“He’ll hold his tongue if he plans to keep it. The old boy needn’t know more’n what we offer to tell ‘im.” Seeing Simmons about ready to work back up to frothing, Heichhold poured a bit more and changed the subject. Simmons could always be counted on to complain about his wife’s family. Vociferously. One topic’s liable to get him out the door shouting our plans to all and sundry, the latter keep him here and moaning privately.

It took him a while, but Heichhold got Simmons sober enough to go back without spillin’ his grand plans to his father-in-law. Customers came and interrupted when you were in the midst of somethin’ else, every time, Heichhold knew.

They came ‘round less often when you wanted ‘em to keep you from going crazy with boredom, and they always arrived with that damn tinkling doorbell givin’ him a two second warning when he’d just been chocked up reading Hal’s speech at Agincourt. Never enough time to dry a man’s eyes. Playing on people’s expectations sure gave a man purpose and got him every time.

I thank you, sir,” said McKnight, pumping Clarke’s hand. “I cannot rightly tell you how much your assistance means to me.” In his exuberance, he neglected even a glance ‘round for Penelope. McKnight mounted, setting the old girl off at a trot.

How he’d be welcomed. The conquering hero, bringer of excellent news. Heichhold’d be bound to be effusive, as he tended to be. McKnight forgot to think of the scenery or the trees or his mother or the girl, spending his time planning a triumphant return to his fellow conspirators.

McKnight gave Uncle Junior a twinkling smile as he handed the horse back to the new boy at the livery, going straight to Heichhold’s. The man could be a bore, he thought, but plenty of people came and went. People’d notice but not talk about a couple extra doctors visitin’. Kennedy had been right to suggest it.

Squashing all impulses to look around for someone watching, Will pushed the door open. He fished in his pocket for the key, prepared to brandish it to cheers and applause. Blinds being down, nobody but those involved’d see. Silence. He checked for life within, bells on the door still jangling, but no one greeted him. They’d all been supposed to meet there at twilight. Will stuck his head back outside. Clear soft light, twilight it was.

He left, noticing the paper on the floor as he reached for the door. “McKnight,” he saw on the front. Must’ve dislodged when I came in, McKnight figured. Still don’t explain why AP left his door open when nobody’s here to welcome me. Inside the fold read only “Blood’s. Ten o’clock tomorrow night, success or not. Bring your own liquor.”

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