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The Winter Sisters: A Novel

The Winter Sisters: A Novel

by Tim Westover
The Winter Sisters: A Novel

The Winter Sisters: A Novel

by Tim Westover


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Dr. Waycross knows bleeding and blistering, the best scientific medicine of 1822. He arrives in the Georgia mountains to bring his modern methods to the superstitious masses. But the local healers, the Winter sisters, claim to treat yellow fever, consumption, and the hell-roarin' trots just as well as he can. Some folks call the sisters herb women; some call them witches. Waycross calls them quacks. But when the threat of rabies—incurable and fatal—comes to town, Dr. Waycross and the Winter sisters must combine their science and superstition in a desperate search for a remedy. Can they find a miracle cure, or has the age of miracles passed?

Praise for "Auraria" by Tim Westover:

"Weaves tall tales and legends, Carrollian surrealism, and a fascinating cast of characters into a genuinely inventive novel that reads like steampunk via Mark Twain. Fact and fancy are intertwined cleverly and seamlessly in a top-notch, thoroughly American fantasy." Publishers Weekly, starred review

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780984974894
Publisher: Qw Publishers
Publication date: 08/07/2019
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt



The coachman hadn't wanted to make the journey to Lawrenceville in the first place. It had taken all my money to persuade him. Perhaps from nervousness, he hadn't hushed his mouth for the entire journey through the forest, babbling about all the dangers.

Bandits, of course, although not many because there were not many travelers foolish enough to come all this way. Animals: skunk bears, mountain lions, polecats, and a plat-eye, whatever that was. Hunters with guns and hair triggers. Slippery creeks to ford, where a hapless traveler was likely to fall and break his leg. Weird groves with oranges and lemons in the middle of winter. How these latter were really dangerous escaped me, but I found that asking any questions only provoked another garrulous rant.

The people of Lawrenceville were no better, said the coachman. They've got witches — used to have them living right on the town square in a little house. Ghosts too, a few of them, and now this panther terrorizing the forest might be a ghost, too. It certainly seemed to be everywhere at once. Every townsperson had seen it or heard it or smelled it.

He wouldn't tell me anything about Mayor Richardson or the pastor, and most infuriatingly, he knew nothing about the mad dogs.

"Maybe it's got to do with that panther," he said.

"The hydrophobia?"

"I don't even know what that is, Doctor."

"It means rabies. Fear of water is a symptom, so we sometimes call the disease hydrophobia."

"A city-folk word. Is that why you got your doctor's diploma, so you could say 'hydrophobia' instead of 'mad dog?'"

We crossed a little rise, and suddenly I could see the town of Lawrenceville emerge from the wild forest pressing on it from all sides. In two minutes, we were in the town square.

"Well, here we are, Doctor. Safe and sound."

I climbed down from the coach, every joint protesting the vigor of the rough travel. I would have to bleed myself later to restore my shaken humors to their right places. The coachman unloaded my boxes and crates, which immediately began sinking into the mud. I thanked him for the safe passage, in which we'd encountered not a single one of the dangers he'd predicted, and told him I had no more money to give. He touched his hat crisply and mounted up his coach again.

"You just be careful, Doctor," he said. The clattering wagon disappeared in a splatter of grime.

Lawrenceville was empty. I was alone in the town square, save for the hogs. A great herd of them rooted around the muddy field, pushing their snouts against the walls of a clapboard courthouse. Having lived all my life in Savannah, I had hoped for a life in a place more civilized than this. If I traveled any farther north, I'd enter the wild mountains of Cherokee territory. That, perhaps, would have been a forest worth fearing, filled with savages and wild animals rather than rumors and bad dreams.

My journey had been long and harrowing. Passenger coaches carried me over worn routes from Savannah to Louisville, the old state capital. Pine trees separated fields of rice and corn and cotton. Slaves and freemen, all under the same overseers, worked the land. I rode another scheduled service to Milledgeville, the lately appointed capital, where well-dressed people hurried from restaurants to factories and supervised the sales of corn and cotton. The voyage onward was more difficult. No regular coach service proceeded farther north. I persuaded the mail carrier, on the strength of my charitable profession, to take me as far as Eatonton.

The next morning, my luck held out. An attachment of Georgia's militia was heading to the new state of Alabama, which the Federals had recently created. Their clean uniforms and stiff boots told me it was their first campaign. The captain permitted me to join them as far as Jug Tavern, a town just a day away from Lawrenceville. I balanced my baggage on top of the ammunition wagon and trudged along with the infantry for three days, sharing their goober peas. When I reached Jug Tavern, I'd been two weeks on the road and was anxious to complete my travels, but there my good fortune finally expired. I'd missed the mail wagon, and no traders were heading through anytime soon. My sole option was to engage a private coach from the only fellow brave enough to make the trip, which depleted the bulk of my funds. I could not have walked the last twenty-five miles, given all the equipment I was bringing, and I had no need for money upon arrival, embraced by a grateful town.

I wondered why the coachman was so fearful. The town was an unremarkable frontier outpost. Now that I was in Lawrenceville, all I could see — besides the swine — were shoddy rows of stores forming the west and south sides of the square. To the north were a few houses that looked more respectable. A church slumped in the northeast corner. All stood empty of human life. I was befuddled. Perhaps the farmers in Lawrenceville stayed home and sent their hogs to town for shopping and gossip.

Then I heard a shout accompanied by strained chords of music and applause. "Glory, hallelujah!" Ah, the welcoming committee. But when the noise persisted with no sign of greeters, I took the risk of leaving my baggage and followed the sound to its source.

I found myself in a narrow space enclosed on one side by muck- filled stalls and on the other by the back walls of Lawrenceville's shops. A riotous crowd encircled a stage made of a few boards thrown on top of a mule-drawn wagon. A canvas backdrop was meant to evoke a doctor's study. The painting showed shelves of leather-bound books, anatomical samples floating in jars, a leering skull, and a bust of Hippocrates. The canvas was wrinkled and spotted with rot.

I turned to the fellow nearest me. "What is this place called?"

"Honest Alley," he replied.

I could not hear anything else he said because the denizens of Lawrenceville were applauding a wiry huckster on the stage.

"Glory, hallelujah! Hot damn and pass the pepper sauce!"

Boys climbed atop each other for the best view. Daughters begged for seats on their fathers' shoulders. Sun-crisped farmers clambered up the clapboard stores to get above their neighbors, and a pair of Negroes, along with a Cherokee trader dressed in a white man's clothes, struggled for a place from which they could see. I noticed a woman with a kerchief drawn across most of her face. What physical ailment was she hiding beneath that red cloth? Consumption? Warts? An infected sore? She saw me looking at her and moved her kerchief, which concealed nothing unusual, so that she could stick out her tongue at me. Affronted and disconcerted, I turned my face back to the presentation.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" The entertainer crashed his right hand down on the strings so hard that his banjo contorted into the loudest chord I'd ever heard. "You don't want a remedy that only promises a single cure, not when there are so many troubles in the world. Well, for all that's got you hot and bothered, there's Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!"

I snorted, but no one marked me.

"Take a spoonful, morning, noon, and night, to ward off dyspepsia, lumbago, scrofula, catarrh, flatulence, worms, and brain congestion. For starters!" At the mention of each disease, he jabbed his finger toward a different member of the crowd, diagnosing us all in one swoop.

I should have expected no better from rustics on the frontier. Such quacks knew nothing of suffering, only of entertainment and easy cures. For the best years of my life, all through my official training as a doctor, I'd suffered for knowledge and for science. I paid my tuition by working as an apothecary's apprentice, learning the mixtures that purged, blistered, and flushed away our infirmities. After I bought the volumes of Hippocrates and Galen and acquired the necessary chemical apparatus and assorted lancets, I rarely had much money left for food. I did not mind the deprivations, for they left me lean and hungry for my true purpose. I disassembled hogs to study their viscera. I apprenticed with the bone saw and the cauterizing iron, practicing on spoiled poultry. I memorized the contents of the doctor's pharmacy — mercury, calomel, sugar of lead, blistering oils — and distilled my own supply according to the proven recipes.

This medicine showman, though, with no such experience to his name, sang out to his credulous crowd:

"Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic will add years to your life, and Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic will make those years worth living."

Weary of the hard-knock life?
All the sickness, storm, and strife?
Well, bang the drums and toot the fife!
And best of all, you'll please the wife!
Get some Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic.

He lifted his fingers from the banjo strings and gestured to the crowd. "Good sirs, are you worn and wearied and plain tuckered out?"

"Yes!" the men replied.

"Can't shovel it, chop it, or reap it like you used to?"


"Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!"

The quack played a series of major chords. I couldn't stand it any longer. I threaded my way through the rapturous crowd, aiming for the stage. The woman with the red kerchief stepped into my path, and I had to move her aside with my hand so that I could continue forward.

"Good ladies, are your fingers worked down to raw bone?"

"Yes!" the ladies shouted, right on cue.

"Soap burned your skin, ironing singed your eyebrows, broom straw caught 'tween your toes? Are you beat like your laundry, whipped like your eggs, flat like your bread?"


"Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!" The entertainer tossed a bottle up, giving it a twirl so that it flew end over end, higher than the rooftops. He spun around and caught it behind his back, and in the same motion, he turned back to the crowd and beamed. He'd meant for the trick to seem effortless, but I was nearly to the stage by then and noticed that his pinky finger was rigid, arthritic.

"Good husbands, can't do your manly duty? Zip gone out of the tip? Zing gone from the thing? Power faded from your tower? Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!"

Some people blushed, but others roared with laughter, emboldened by the scandalous turn.

"What's the cure? Say it with me!"

"GROVE'S TASTELESS CHILL TONIC!" roared the crowd in harmony.

I hauled myself onstage. "Now, see here! I mean —"

The crowd murmured at the intrusion, and my righteous indignation sputtered. I am no orator. I can bleed people, rinse their bowels, and restore their health and life and joy — but I cannot win their affections. I stammered, and I stumbled. Words would not come to me. The longer I wavered, the quieter the crowd became, and the entertainer seemed content to let me fail in front of the hundreds of eyes of my new charges.

"Just say it!" said the woman with the red kerchief. "Say whatever it is you want to say, and then get the hell off the stage!"

Her curse was enough to shake me from my stupor. I puffed myself up as best I could. "What's your name, sir?" I asked, jamming my hands into my waistcoat pockets as I'd seen important men do. "Not Grove, is it?"

"No, sir, not Grove," said the entertainer. "If only I were! Grove is seven feet tall, with shoulders as broad as a steamer chest."

The crowd oohed.

"He's eighty-four years old and doesn't look a day over thirty."

The crowd cheered.

"No, sir, I'm not Grove. What's my name? You don't know it, but they surely do."

"Salmon Thumb!" roared the crowd.

"Why, that's right, it's Salmon Thumb! How can you forget a name like that? But that's the one I got in my cradle, and that's the one I'll take to the grave." Then he lit into a little melody, and the crowded applauded.

I raised my voice above the song and noise. "Well, Mr. Thumb —"

"Dr. Salmon Thumb, if you please, sir."

"Clobber that blowhard, Dr. Thumb!" chimed a voice from the alley.

"Mister Thumb. I am no blowhard. I am a real doctor, Dr. Aubrey Waycross, and I blow with the wind of truth." This raised a chuckle from the audience. "I accuse you, sir, of falsehood. Of hollow promises and easy cures. I accuse you of misleading the good folk of Lawrenceville and distracting them from healers who can benefit them."

"Hear, hear!" said a man from the crowd. "Go up to Hope Hollow if you've got the rheumatism! The Winter sisters set me right!"

"Witches! Haints and devilry!" someone countered with derision.

Then another farmer in the crowd held up a small, sweat-stained bag. "Naw, good medicine! I've carried this bag of fennel, what the Winter sisters gave me, for three days, and I haven't sneezed since."

"Wait," I said, turning to the crowd and holding up my hands. "That's not what I meant. I meant a real doctor, a physician —"

"Right, the Winter sisters! Preacher ran 'em out of town a while back, but they're the best doctors the world's ever seen." The fennel- carrying farmer turned from the stage and addressed what was now his audience. "Are you gonna forget about them because of a medicine show?"

"What are they gonna do about the panther, hmm? What are they gonna do about the rabies?"

Rabies! My ears perked at the very word that had brought me from Savannah to Lawrenceville, from the bright center of Georgia life to its darkest corner. Before I could interject, though, the shouts of the crowd took over.

"What's a medicine show gonna do about the rabies?"

"Medicine show ain't no harm," said someone else in the crowd.

"I need that tonic to sleep!"

"I need it to wake up again in the morning!"

"Ain't nothing for the rabies except praying!"

"Ain't nothing 'cept for a bullet!"

"Come on, Dr. Thumb, give us some more banjo!"

Thumb started another tune:

"You ain't even got to listen To what this guy's been pissin'.
He says he's a physician,
But I'll bet he is wishin'
He had Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!
I'll give you all an honest tip:
If it's a bleedin' you're to skip,
To soothe that aching hip,
Just take a little sip Of old Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic!"

A cheer of jubilation erupted, and buyers surged forward. Coins flew. Bottles of the tonic sailed back. The rabies and the Winter sisters were forgotten in the exploding of popping corks. Old and young believed they were drinking to their health, but I knew they were ruining it.

"Want some, Doctor?" Thumb beamed at me, showing perfect white teeth — a radiant smile for a haggard backwoods huckster, which made me wonder how he kept them so pearly. "For you, it's free."

"Not a sip," I said. "Not even if you paid me a thousand dollars."

"It's good for what ails you." Thumb pulled the cork from a bottle of Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic and took a short pull. "It's no hard feelings, Dr. Waycross." Thumb held out his hand as though he meant for me to shake it. "Really, Doc, it's no hard feelings."

"Still, Mr. Thumb, I won't shake your hand."

Sweat had collected on his hatband. His skin looked oily. I turned my back on him and walked toward the rear of the stage.

"I'm not a bad fellow, Doc," he called after me.

"I think, sir, that you are."

The crowd paid no attention as I slunk to the edges of Honest Alley. I walked past the muzzles of horses, who let their nature fall onto the muddy streets. Mules and donkeys brayed at me. Dirty urchins and rheumy-eyed matrons jostled me. The malodorous breathing of man and beast made me sneeze. I hastened to vacate the noxious street, but a hand landed on my shoulder.

"A moment, Doctor!"

The man was both too young and too fat to be respectable. Given his wide straw hat and tattered trousers, I took him for a farmer.

"Can I help you, sir?" I said, exhaustion filling my voice.

"No, I'm quite healthy. A little whiskey fixes most troubles, and a great deal of whiskey fixes the rest." He patted his rotund belly.

"Then, if you've no urgent business, I will ask your leave." I was weary from the road and weary from the foolish display in which I'd become embroiled. "Unless you can take me to the mayor. You wouldn't happen to know the man, would you?"

"That's me," said the fat youngster, doffing his hat, and he was barefoot.

Imagine, no shoes in a place with drifts of manure three inches deep!

"I mean, the mayor himself. Mayor Richardson."

"Yep, that's me. Elected executive officer of the incorporated town of Lawrenceville, Georgia." Mayor Richardson stuck out his hand.

"I beg your pardon," I said, astounded. I shook his hand although goodness knows what pestilence clung to it. "You're not what I expected."

Mayor Richardson laughed. "Well, Doctor, one's got to be a real fool to get elected mayor. Doesn't pay anything. You don't even get a pair of shoes! But a town's got to have one, like a town's got to have a doctor and a body's got to have an asshole."

I hid my chagrin at my mistake by straightening my collar. "Again, I beg your pardon, sir. I'm sure you have the health of your constituents in mind. You called for a trained physician to look after them, and here I am. You said it was hydrophobia. Rabies."

The place, a town at the edge of civilization, was not tempting. But any hesitation had vanished with one word: hydrophobia. I'd seen one life claimed by it, a life very dear to me, and if I could spare another mother, another little brother from seeing the horrors of that disease, if I could cast out the false hopes peddled by hucksters and replace them with the honesty of real medicine, then I would count my life useful.


Excerpted from "The Winter Sisters"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Tim Westover.
Excerpted by permission of QW Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The | Winter | Sisters | A Novel,
Tim Westover | QW Publishers,

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