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LIKE A BOLT
By HOWARD D'SPAIN SARA D'SPAIN
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Howard & Sara D'spain
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTodd Tellier loved pounding hot metal after removing it from his forge. Ignoring the heavy humidity that accompanied the East Texas spring in 1881, Todd took aim with his ten-pound hammer, his target the glowing axe head lying on his anvil. This is when he anticipated the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, and it was the one place where the young man knew he controlled the outcome.
Just as he raised the hammer above his head, a bolt of raw electricity split the heedless clouds. One moment Todd stood over six feet tall, his arm raised for a mighty blow. The next moment, with a ground-shaking thunderclap, lightning laid him out cold.
Not two minutes earlier an unexpected breeze had coaxed his intent expression into a smile as it lifted the hair brushing his neck. He had hoped the skittering clouds would slow down to build a few thunderheads; rain would be a welcome break from this sweltering heat. The flaming red of the axe head indicated its readiness for his attention. With a pair of wood-handle tongs Todd had carefully placed the hot steel on the anvil. Then, using his hammer, he brushed slag off the end of the fiery steel and adjusted his balance before raising the hammer. His arm went up, a lightning bolt flashed, and his world went black.
Sam Tellier, cutting timber at the edge of the Caddo swamp, heard the sudden thunder and smelled sulfur. He felt, rather than saw, a bolt hit something near his home. Without another thought for his own axe lodged in a cypress tree, Sam headed toward the house five-hundred yards away, as fast as his legs would move.
There, his wife and younger son, Jeb, knelt in the misting rain next to Todd's motionless form. Though she heard her husband's approach, Mary's eyes didn't leave Todd's face. Jeb, too, never moved his gaze from his big brother's closed eyes.
"Todd's unconscious, Sam. He's breathing, but I can't rouse him!"
Sam looked at Todd's right hand, wisps of smoke rising from the blackened thumb. He knew instantly that his older son had taken the impact of that lightning bolt.
Controlling his fear, he quietly issued instructions. "Mary bring cold water from the house. Jeb, go fetch the bucket of pig fat in the lean-to. And grab a batch of the Spanish moss."
Sam swallowed the lump gathering in his throat. He couldn't allow himself to imagine his strong, tall son crippled and unable to work as a blacksmith. He knelt next to Todd as Mary and Jeb returned.
"Mary, dress his hand. Careful there. I'll pour water over him. Jeb, take his boots off so we can see if his feet are burned. Slowly now."
Jeb cautiously pulled off Todd's boots. No burns showed on his feet. Only then did Sam notice that all the copper rivets from Todd's overalls were scattered on the floor around the anvil. The axe head lay where Todd had placed it. Tongs and hammer had fallen on the raised floor.
"If we hadn't built this floor above the damp ground, that lightning would have killed him." Sam didn't realize he spoke aloud until he saw his wife's look of horror.
Calming her with a light touch he instructed, "Mary, try to rouse him again."
Kneeling beside his shoulder, Mary brushed the hair from her son's forehead.
He didn't respond.
Tenderly, yet firmly, Mary tapped his cheeks with her fingers and called a little louder, "Todd!"
"I'll get a plank and we'll carry him inside." Sam moved quickly to the lean-to, returning with a wide board.
"You and Jeb roll him onto his side and I'll slide this plank under him. Then I'll pick up the end with his head and you and Jeb lift the other end. Mary, stick his burned hand inside his overalls." The three moved into position. "Ready? Lift."
Mary and Jeb struggled with the weight of their end as Sam shuffled backwards toward the house. "Am I close to the stairs?" Before Jeb could answer, Sam's heel hit the riser, "There it is, up we go."
As Sam took that first step, his unconscious son began sliding, feet-first, down the plank.
"Whoa there!" Sam stepped down and the trio paused. "We won't get him up the stairs this way. Mary, you and Jeb go up first. When you get to the top set your end down. Then come help me shove this end onto the porch."
Mary and Jeb complied silently. As they climbed backwards, Sam raised his end of the plank to keep it level. "Hurry now, I'm losing my grip!" Sam's tone remained steady.
Placing their end on the porch, the two hurried to help him. Together they grabbed the plank as it continued to slip from Sam's fingers. All three then pushed their burden across the front porch floor.
Pausing on the top step to catch her breath, Mary turned to look at Todd lying next to her. Loudly she called his name. He remained silent and still, his normally wry grin absent.
Sam looked at Todd and swatted at the gathering insects, ever on the lookout for a warm bite. "We can't leave him here for the flies and mosquitoes to mess with. Let's get him into the house."
Inside, they tipped Todd onto the nearest bed. Sam leaned the plank against the bedroom wall. Todd's family stood motionless. For a moment, the silence in Sam and Mary's bedroom was louder than the insects' evening conversation.
Sam looked at Jeb, his ten-year old son. Still interested in catching frogs and whittling wood, this would be a sudden way for him to grow up if Todd didn't make it. Well, to keep that from happening, Jeb would simply have to assume a man's responsibilities now.
"Jeb, you hightail it into Jefferson. Find Doc Erwin, tell him what happened and bring him back here."
Mary's eyes widened but she didn't speak. She headed toward the kitchen.
"Okay, Pa." Jeb ran to the corral to bridle one of the mules.
Sam understood his wife was not only concerned about Jeb riding alone into town, but also about paying the doctor. He knew he could get a good price for the logs drying in the field. That would cover the cost of the doctor. About the other, well she would just have to trust him.
As Jeb started across the front yard for the five-mile ride to Jefferson, Mary stepped out, motioning him to stop. Handing up a sandwich and a tied bundle she reminded, "If you drink from Herman's Creek, watch out for water moccasins. Take this poncho in case it rains, and here's some money just in case." She folded his small fingers around a few coins.
"I'll be careful," he promised as he pocketed the cash. Jeb loved his family; especially his big brother who always took time to answer his questions and show him how to do things. Todd still and quiet frightened Jeb more than he cared to think about. Still, he refused to release the unshed tears that had been building behind his eyes.
He took a deep breath, kicked the mule in the ribs, and headed out at a steady trot. Mary watched him until he was lost in the dusty haze of the afternoon heat.
Sam came out of the house. "Nothing more I can do for the boy, Mary. I need to get back to that cypress. You ring the dinner bell if Todd wakes up or you need me for anything else." His hand lightly grazed her shoulders as he stepped off the porch.
Mary nodded, more to herself than anything, and watched Sam walk back to the swamp. She picked up a bucket and made herself move. She had always considered their cold-water spring a blessing - and never more so than this day.
Hoping the cool water would awaken her son, Mary removed Todd's charred clothes to bathe him. When she rolled him on his side, he moaned, but still did not awaken. She placed Todd's right hand in the cold water to reduce the swelling. Turning her attention to the rest of his body, it took her a moment to realize the small burned spots on his torso were from the rivets of his overalls.
Mary took her time rinsing and drying him. He had grown dark hair on places that used to be bare. Even his cheeks had sprouted a few coarse whiskers. She recalled the baby boy she had first washed almost eighteen years ago. Todd had been so solemn during his first bath, his big ocean-blue eyes watching her the entire time. Mary had continued apprehensive in her new motherhood-until she lifted Baby Todd from his bath. Toothless, the joy on his little face when he gifted her with his unique smile had thrilled her heart. In that instant she knew this special child had been entrusted to her care because she would be a good mother.
For the past several years Todd had demanded privacy while bathing. Looking at him, now naked, she understood why. Her boy had become a man. The marks on the wall next to the scales in the lean-to showed him to be six feet, two inches tall. Todd towered over his father and stood taller even than Mary's father, who had been called a giant by the sailors under his command.
Sun-bleached golden strands gleamed in Todd's shaggy brown hair. She would have to bring up the matter of a haircut.
If he wakes up I'll ... Her breath caught in her chest. I'll mention it just as soon as he wakes up.
Mary spread grease on all the burned spots. Lifting his hand from the bucket, she oiled and gently wrapped it. The black thumb worried her. She couldn't tell if it was cooked or just discolored. Feeling the outside of it, the firmness of the flesh reassured her somewhat. While it didn't seem to be loosened from the bone, she knew it would be tender for a very long time.
Covering Todd with a sheet, Mary hesitantly left the room. In the kitchen she lit an oil lamp. A gentle rain had begun and twilight crept in without her notice. Sam's footsteps scraped at the kitchen door.
"Any change?" he asked.
Mary shook her head as he entered the bedroom to check for himself. Returning, he opened his arms and Mary walked into her husband's solid embrace.
"I surely feel helpless," he whispered.
"I know, Sam. I do too."
He poured a cup of coffee and watched absently while Mary prepared dinner. Pulling two pottery plates from the shelves, she filled them with ham and beans over cornbread. When Mary cleared away the dishes, most of dinner remained on them.
Darkness replaced the lingering twilight as the Caddo Lake and Cypress River mosquitoes thickened the air. Cicadas filled the night with their clicking. Sam and Mary lit their pipes; a habit developed to keep away unwanted insects. Periodically, one of the two checked on Todd. They listened to the night sounds of fish jumping, owls hooting, and mosquitoes whirring around the screen. Though Sam urged Mary to rest for a while, she quietly refused to move.
Shortly after midnight, when even the frog rumblings had quieted, a head popped up outside the kitchen window, then disappeared. A light step on the porch alerted Sam and Mary to someone's presence. Barely disturbing the air as he moved, Todd's best friend, Gator, entered. Striding toward them, he directed his question to Mary.
Her throat too full of tears to speak, she shook her head and looked toward her husband.
Sam stood. "Lightning struck him and we can't wake him up. He's in our bed."
Courteously, Gator asked, "May I go in?"
"Of course. Maybe you can rouse him."
Gator nodded and turned. In the Tellier's bedroom he knelt on the floor. Leaning his forehead against Todd's, he closed his eyes. The fingers of his consciousness stretched out in search of his friend. With his mind's voice, he called Todd's name. The expected answer did not come. Again he reached out. Still no answer, no awareness of another presence. Friends since their childhood meeting, when Gator was nine and Todd seven, the Caddo Indian boy and the white boy from Boston discovered an uncanny ability to speak to each other through their thoughts. Over the years they had fine-tuned this amazing talent.
A short-lived surge of panic gripped Gator's chest. They had never been unable to reach one another. Then he took a deep breath. He did not sense the presence of Death, so Todd must still be alive and somehow just out of his reach. Calling silently to the heavens for help, Gator sensed a benign presence holding the solution to Todd's dilemma. Perhaps, he guessed, they must wait for events to unfold.
Rising, Gator returned to the kitchen. Sam raised his eyebrows and Gator shook his head to the negative. Sam's shoulders slumped and reached for Mary's hand. As silently as he had entered, Gator departed.
Throughout the night Todd's parents sat at their kitchen table, occasionally holding hands during a prayer. The rain had stopped and first light hovered on the eastern horizon when they heard the sound of a horse and buggy.
Pushing themselves away from the table, they moved to the front door. Sam massaged the stiff muscles of his neck while Mary rubbed at her face and blinked to moisten her dry eyes. Together they watched Doc Erwin's buggy stop at the hitching post; Jeb's mule tied to the rear. Sam descended the steps and held the horse's bridle while Doc shook the poncho-covered lump huddled on the seat next to him.
Jeb jerked awake. "Pop, I brought him!"
"You did a good job, son. Now straight to bed with you."
Jeb stumbled up the stairs to the porch where Mary ruffled his hair and steered him to his room.
Doc stepped off the buggy slowly, but once on the ground he turned briskly to pick up his black bag.
"Let's go see Todd."
As they approached the porch steps, Doc paused. "I'm about done in, Sam. Haven't been to sleep in thirty-six hours."
"Let me give you a hand, then I'll tend to the animals."
Taking a strong grip on Doc's elbow, Sam steered him past Mary, who held the screen door, and then into the bedroom. Silently he left the room.
Doc paused only a moment to admire the bed where his too-quiet patient lay. The wide frame of peeled cypress logs had been waxed to a shine. The corner posts were sawed flat so a cup of coffee could sit on top without tipping.
Doc smiled his thanks for the cup Mary brought him and took a deep swallow before setting it on a post. Sitting on the edge of the bed he commented, "Jeb tells me Todd took a hit from lightning."
Nodding, Mary replied, "We're pretty sure. When you check him, you'll see burn marks. I think that's where the rivets in his overalls burned his skin."
Doc raised the sheet, saw the greased burns on Todd's chest and belly, and nodded. He opened his black bag, removed his stethoscope and checked Todd's heart. Moving all of Todd's joints, he carefully checked his head for cuts then thoroughly examined the unmoving young man, checking the pulse at different places on arms and legs. Finally he lifted an eyelid and blew on Todd's eye. There was no blink response.
Sam, who had entered quietly and watched most of the examination, could no longer contain himself, "What do you think?"
"I think I'd like a bite to eat. Let's talk at the table."
Picking up Doc's coffee cup, Mary followed the men to the kitchen. Pouring coffee for Sam and herself, she refilled Doc's cup as he sat down. Sam and Mary sat across the clean wooden table from him. Doc stirred sugar in his coffee for a full minute before he spoke.
"Todd is seventeen years old, is that right?"
"Eighteen in a couple of months," said Sam. "He was in excellent health until this happened."
Doc considered his words carefully before he spoke. "His heart is sound and his reflexes are good, but it looks like his brain has turned off. I'll leave you a bottle of laudanum. Give him one teaspoon each morning about breakfast time and another just before you go to bed. If he'll swallow, give him broth. I'm hoping this will relax his brain muscles so he'll wake up."
Mary could no longer stay silent. "When will that happen?"
"I don't know. I've read some about this type of problem and I believe this treatment will bring him around. It's okay to move him into his own bed."
Doc looked at each one in turn then spoke somberly. "But I want you to be prepared. He may never wake up."
Mary choked back her gasp and rose to prepare food for the doctor. Tears welled in her eyes as she cooked. She placed a platter of eggs, ham, beans, and Texas toast in front of the doctor, filled his coffee cup, and walked out on the porch. Memories of her past flooded her mind.
In Boston, she was only four years old when her mother died from pneumonia, Mary had been reared to be a lady. Her father, a sea captain and owner of half a dozen merchant ships, often sailed cargo between established northern ports and emerging ports in the Gulf of Mexico. At the age of eighteen Mary Harwell had begged Captain Joseph to take her with him on a trip to the port of New Orleans. She imagined it would be exotic and exciting. Her indulgent father had finally relented and allowed her to accompany him. It would be her father's last trip.
Excerpted from LIKE A BOLT by HOWARD D'SPAIN SARA D'SPAIN Copyright © 2012 by Howard & Sara D'spain. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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