Thirteen-year-old Jack knows what cured his baby'sister when his family thought she might never get well—Dr. Kingsbury’s “Miraculous Tonic.” Guaranteed to relieve maladies known to man or beast, Dr. Kingsbury’s potion can cure everything from pimples to hearing loss to a broken heart, and Jack himself is a witness to the miraculous results and the doctor’s kindness. When he had no money, the doctor didn’t turn him away but gave him the tonic for free along with a job—to travel with him from city to city selling his cure-all elixir.
When Dr. Kingsbury and Jack arrive in Oakdale, the town at first feels like any other they’ve been to. But it’s clear Oakdale is a town with secrets, and its citizens are slow to trust strangers.
Then Jack meets Cora, and a friendship neither expected starts to bloom. Together they uncover something else they didn’t expect—not only secrets about the town but also Dr. Kingsbury. As they race to discover the truth, they’ll have to decide who and what to believe before it’s too late.
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The silent dawn trailed Jack down Main Street, crept with him as he slipped his paste brush across each handbill and smoothed the dampened paper flat. The stillness drew near as he hung signs on walls and hitching posts. It shadowed him from the feedstore’s steps to the dim light of the bakery.
For more than a year he’d been with the doctor. He’d spent his thirteenth birthday far from home. In that time, Jack had visited plenty of places, too many for him to remember. Still he cherished the first morning in a new town, where the quiet was held as close as a secret.
He’d left the wagon in the early gray light not far from the entrance of town. A stack of paper tucked under his arm. The glue bucket bumping against his knee. He was a messenger, Isaac said, whose handbills announced the doctor’s arrival.
Isaac would be in the graveyard now. This was how it always began. Once the two of them finished their work, they’d meet up with the doctor again.
Jack pasted two signs on the general store, one at eye level for the adults, one low enough for the children to see. He’d post them on each storefront and window, enough that news of the show couldn’t be missed. That was something Isaac had taught him. The faster word spread, the bigger the crowd. If sales of the tonic started strong, they would stay in a town a couple of weeks.
Jack hung more signs near the darkened alley. He posted them by the stables, too. Like other places they’d stopped, Oakdale had raised wooden sidewalks and a road that ran through the center of town. But something felt different about this place. Shops huddled together like birds on a fence. The church bell tilted as though it had stopped in midswing. The towering tree in the center of town lifted its limbs in expectation while its red leaves reached for the sky.
A flash of fur caught his eye. An old stray. He’d seen it by the bank, and now the dog was following him. Jack set down his pail and held out his hand. Slowly, the dog crept closer. It brushed its gray muzzle across Jack’s palm and thumped its burr-tangled tail.
He stroked the stray’s back. “You’ve seen a lot of years, haven’t you, boy?”
The dog pricked its ears with listening.
Jack took in the dog, the tilt of its head, the sturdy set of its chin. He tried to see it as Isaac had taught him, to observe everything he could. The dog might have been old, but it was still watchful. Though age had stiffened its joints, its determination stayed strong.
Sun streaked across Main Street’s windows. Jack pressed the last handbill to a pane of glass. Behind him, papers brightened the storefronts like snowflakes heralding a storm. He relished the thought of snow and the cold. The morning was already hot; the day would only grow hotter. Jack couldn’t remember an October like this one, where the summer heat had never ended and it hadn’t rained since spring.
He gazed into the stray’s rheumy eyes. The dog was a good one, the faithful kind—as if a dog could be anything else. What had it seen in its years in town? What would it say if it could speak? Jack scratched the old dog under its chin. “Nothing’s the same once the doctor arrives. Just you wait and see.”
A Sudden Departure
Meet at the grove, the doctor had said. It didn’t take Jack long to find the willows near the riverbank. From the road, he spied the wagon tucked beneath a curtain of branches and the chestnut mare grazing nearby. A clearing opened under the trees, the dry grass dappled in shadow.
Jack rounded the path to the grove, empty bucket in hand. Closer he came. Something rippled the branches. A shout rang out that sounded like Isaac. He was already back?
Jack made out the form of a tall, gaunt man. “Dr. Kingsbury?” he called. “Are you there?”
A hand brushed the branches aside, revealing the doctor in his long black coat. He wore the dress coat for every occasion, no matter the season or weather. Behind him was Isaac, his head bowed.
“You’re back.” The doctor’s dark eyes met his own. “I take it you’ve finished the notices.”
“Yes,” Jack said.
“Did you hear that, Isaac? He’s already done.”
Deep in his pockets, Isaac’s hands curled to fists. “Don’t do this. Not in front of Jack.”
Dr. Kingsbury tucked his black hair behind one ear. “Why should that make a difference? He did what I told him, while you—”
“He doesn’t need to—”
“Hear what you said? What you accused me of? Believe me, I won’t repeat that.”
Isaac’s cheek burned red. The doctor had hit him.
“Please go.” Isaac stared at Jack, his blue eyes pleading. “Down to the river. I’ll come find you later, all right?”
Jack dropped the bucket, the paste brush clattering inside. He ran down the path to the riverbank.
This wasn’t the first time they’d argued, the doctor and Isaac. It wasn’t the first time the doctor had hit him. Isaac often spoke his mind. In the last weeks, he’d grown even bolder. The doctor blamed Isaac turning sixteen and the two days he’d spent in Greenville visiting his cousin.
Jack pulled himself up on a slab of stone and watched the water flow by. For all the parts where the river raced, there were as many spots where it pooled and slowed. Sometimes Dr. Kingsbury could be harsh, but he’d never tried to hurt Jack. In his year on the road, Jack had learned to be thorough and prompt with his chores. More than once, Isaac had taken the blame when Jack made a mistake.
Jack waited and waited for Isaac to come, was waiting still when the sun reached its peak. It was only then he let himself think it: Isaac wasn’t coming for him. He made his way back to the grove, unsure of what he’d find.
All was silent in the clearing, a world away from the noise of the river. The wagon, like a small house on wheels, was sheltered under the willow trees. The mare grazed near its lacquered door.
Jack climbed to the wagon’s porch, the steps creaking under his feet. He knocked on the door and opened it, though he wasn’t supposed to go in alone.
Surely the doctor would be hard at work, counting the bottles inside. Every stop in a town always started the same. Dr. Kingsbury had checked them once in Greenville, but a single count was never enough. The first, done by the glassmaker, was suspect. Merchants were bent on making a profit and sometimes sold fewer bottles than promised. The second count, taken soon after, uncovered such deceit. But the third count showed his true inventory. That was the number the doctor recorded, after travel or distance or ruts in the road chipped bottles or sent others crashing down, shattering them on the wagon’s floor.
One could never be too careful, the doctor always said.
“Hello? Dr. Kingsbury?” Slowly Jack’s eyes adjusted to the wagon’s dim interior. A spicy tang filled the air, a scent Isaac once said was ginger mixed with snakeroot.
The doctor set down his herb-filled mortar. Candles cast shadows on his angled face. “So you didn’t run off with him.”
“Run off?” Jack wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.
“You didn’t run off with Isaac.”
It made no sense, what the doctor was saying. “What? Isaac? He wouldn’t . . .”
The doctor unlocked a drawer in his desk, a drawer Jack and Isaac were never to touch. Inside was the money pouch, empty. “He’s run off. For good. I gave him a minute to gather himself and what did he do? He left with my money.”
That didn’t sound like Isaac at all. He’d worked for the doctor long before Jack. He hadn’t said much at breakfast, but that was no different from other mornings when they woke well before dawn. Isaac had pulled on his shoes and cinched his bag tight with the string he kept tied to the shoulder strap. “Until after,” he’d said, giving Jack a salute.
“Until after,” Jack had answered.
They started mornings in a new town this way—a send-off that meant they’d meet up again soon. There’d been nothing unusual about last night, either, when they’d worked on their carvings on the wagon’s porch. Isaac’s wooden rabbit was so full of life, it looked ready to leap from his hand.
Stars had pierced the heavens. The lanterns had swung on the eaves above, keeping time with the horse as they’d traveled. The world had been as small as the wagon, as grand as the sparkling sky. They’d talked of what might happen in town. Would people be wary when they first glimpsed the doctor with his wild hair and long, dark coat? Or would they take to him right from the start? Some were cautious when the doctor arrived, but Jack had never seen Dr. Kingsbury fail to win a town over.
Nothing about last night seemed out of place. Maybe Isaac needed some time alone. Or maybe he’d had enough. Had he really left? Was he finished?
The doctor shook his head as though trying to clear it. “What’s done is done. What have you found?”
It was one of Jack’s responsibilities, learning about the new place they’d stopped. He cast his thoughts back to what he’d seen. “Oakdale’s getting on better than Ashland, but it’s not as well-off as Greenville.” Ashland, a town where they’d stopped in July, was six weathered storefronts on a long dusty road. But Greenville, the last town where they’d stayed, was the county seat. It had a train station, the sheriff’s office, a three-story courthouse, and a fancy hotel with brass knockers on the doors.
“Oakdale’s right in the middle, then, a place where meals aren’t hard to come by. Remember this, Jack. A man whose focus is getting his supper pays no mind to much else. Well-fed towns take the most interest in tonic.”
Jack was no longer surprised by the doctor’s observations. Once, when they’d passed an abandoned barn, the doctor had later asked him about it. Jack had only remembered its sagging roof, but the doctor had talked of its promise. The barn could serve as a shelter from rain or a haven on a winter night. Its planks could be fashioned into a bench or laid over puddles on a mud-bogged road. Opportunity was everywhere, Dr. Kingsbury said. It could be found in the simplest things.
The doctor shook herbs into the mortar and crushed them under the pestle’s blunt end. “I want you near the square an hour before the show begins.”
Jack’s stomach lurched. “That’s Isaac’s job.”
“And now it’s yours.” The doctor added a sprinkle of powder and stirred the mixture again.
Jack’s job was to hang signs and paste labels. Rinse bottles and fill them with tonic. He’d never talked to the crowds before.
“Make sure the people on Main Street see you. Tell the children leaving school to come to the square. And with every person you meet, be certain to speak of the tonic.”
“Dr. Kingsbury’s Miraculous Tonic,” Jack recited automatically. “Relieves every malady known to man or beast.”
The doctor studied him carefully. “You’ve been listening, then.”
Jack wasn’t sure how the medicine worked, but he knew it remedied all kinds of ailments. It had cured Lucy’s fever when she lay abed, when the family had worried she might never get well.
Sweet Lucy, his baby'sister. He missed her, being so far away. But Jack owed so much to Dr. Kingsbury, who’d given him tonic when he’d had no money. Then the doctor had offered him a job. Every month, Jack sent his pay home to his family. A year and a half, the doctor had said, maybe a little more. By then they’d circle back to Covington, and Jack would be home, free to leave his job or stay on if he wanted.
Dr. Kingsbury pushed aside the tails of his coat and settled on a stool. “You must raise your voice to draw a crowd. Once you’re sure you’ve been heard, shout even louder. When you spy a youth with blemishes or a man who bears an unsightly scar, tell them the tonic not only aids pain but soothes conditions of the flesh.” The doctor stared at him, unblinking. “Remember, Jack, the crowd rests on your shoulders now.”
The ill, the needy, the weary of heart. Isaac had found the afflicted and gathered them in. Was he really gone? Had he taken the money? Why wasn’t the doctor looking for him?
It wasn’t like Isaac to leave Jack with his work, to run off without saying goodbye.