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Heaven stank of tallow and shone a honey glow. Her eyes could not adjust beyond a blur. An unsteady drip plucked against a thick silence, prodding her skin to crawl with gooseflesh. Where was she? No, this could not be —
No lightness, no feathery existence.
She tried to sit up, but her head was as heavy as her father's felling ax. She could hardly drag it through the stale air. Panic swarmed within her. Perhaps death had not just stolen her breath but her salvation?
Josephine Clayton had not been afraid of dying. Mourning had taught her that living proved more difficult. The last moment she remembered was her father's watery eyes while he begged her to live. She was overjoyed he'd been freed from debtors' prison, yet the fever was raging, and she'd felt her breath slipping from her infected lungs. Her wages had set Father free. Now all she could pray was for death to come quickly.
Had her prayer been answered?
The celestial bed where she'd slept clung to her, wrapping her in an unforgiving grip. A smudged-out figure stole away the light and stood above her. Her heart raced with fear. A glint sparked in the shadows, and her eyes focused at last.
Dr. Chadwick stood above her with his knife raised and his usual coat of dried blood and bile brushing against her arm.
"No!" Her body lurched upward, but she was trapped.
The man's eyes widened, and the clatter of his tool against the hard floor pinged about the room. He shuffled out of view and came forward again; a blue bottle in his hand trembled as he pressed it against her lips. Josephine's breaths, no matter how much they hurt against her chest, were a wild stampede. She knew what he was doing. Would he force her to sleep?
"Sir, please! I am alive!" She jerked her head to the side. Her body writhed like a worm hanging from the clutches of a wren. "You cannot —"
"Josephine, you are weak and incurable. Let me help you now." Help? Like he had with the last patient?
Josephine had convinced herself that all hope was lost after Mr. Baldwin's fever never broke. She was sure that Dr. Chadwick used wise judgment in giving him the elixir that would bring on a deep sleep. But she had wondered if he'd mistakenly given too much to Ainsley's oldest man. And she was irritated by the quickness of Dr. Chadwick's transfer from the sickbed to the operating table. Josephine was hardly done with a prayer over the dead body when Dr. Chadwick had prepared his tools.
"Take care, my daughter, that you respect the doctor," her father had advised after she was hired as the doctor's assistant. Even though her mother often despised Dr. Chadwick's visits, in her last days he had seemed a comfort to the family, assuring them that he was giving her the best treatment he knew how.
But now? Josephine's head swam with doubt.
"This shan't hurt. There is nothing else to be done for you." His Adam's apple bobbed above his stiff collar, and his eyes reflected the same uncertainty she felt.
Josephine stared hard at him, lifting her head no matter how much it hurt. "I am alive, sir," she whispered. "I am weak, but I will grow strong again."
The doctor grimaced. His gray eyes were cast upon her, but she'd seen that look — one where she was just a resting place for his gaze, yet his mind was somewhere else. "I did not detect a heartbeat ... these things do happen, though."
"Sir, please unstrap me."
"Nobody can survive what you've been through." He licked his lips, his grimace deepened, and now he avoided her gaze entirely. "Josephine, all have mourned you. You've been dead for twenty-four hours."
"Your father sat beside you at your viewing. His grief is full on. Even if I tried to make you well, your life will never be the same."
"Doctor, release me this moment." She tried to speak with force, but her body was near-lifeless. Her wrists burned against the ropes. "Please —" Tears should have fallen, but she had none. Her mouth was as dry as if it had been coated by the dust of a grave. "I am thirsty."
"Settle back. Let me give you something to calm you." He still did not look at her. His icy fingers encircled her arm.
"Wouldn't you rather my father know it was a mistake than induce my ... my death?"
His eyes flashed, and he groaned. "You've been around here long enough."
She had agreed to assist in remedies and ailments. The messy business of exploring stolen bodies for clues and cures was something she'd not expected. But when her father was taken to debtors' prison, she had no choice but to stay and earn his way out.
The doctor ran his hand through his hair. "Josephine, you were not just set out for all to see. You were buried."
"Buried?" Her chest seemed to collapse, and she could not find enough air to fill it. "How — how did I — survive?"
The door flung open behind the doctor. Alvin appeared with his sinister brow and a muddied shovel slung across his shoulder. "Doctor —" His face paled when he saw Josephine. He rushed to the table, looking into her eyes with horror. "She — she lives?" He covered his mouth and pulled his dirtied knuckles across his chin.
"Not for long." Dr. Chadwick pushed his sleeves up, slid one hand behind her head, and brought the bottle into view again.
Alvin licked his lips, his gaze darting about as fast as Josephine's heartbeat. "Wait!" He clutched at the doctor's wrist. "I came to tell you, people are talking. The empty graves. People have discovered them. I cannot work alone. That fool has crippled us both." Blackness crept from the corner of Josephine's eyes. Alvin was trusted by her father and had helped Josephine secure this position with the doctor. Yet, when she discovered the work Alvin had taken on after leaving her father's farm, her disgust grew for him more and more. Even so, as much as she disliked him, it appeared he was at least trying to prevent her murder.
"Have they discovered hers?" Chadwick whipped his white mane in Josephine's direction. Alvin gave a quick shake of his head, casting his eyes down with a perplexed grimace. Dr. Chadwick breathed in deeply and cleared his throat. "Well then. We continue."
The blackness grew wide and long and wrapped itself around Josephine's vision.
"Wait!" A gargling yelp from Alvin delayed the fainting spell that threatened. The determination in his whitened knuckles around the doctor's wrist was the last thing she saw before her eyes closed. "I have a plan," he said, then the spell grew in full force. All was dark.
Would she awake from this nightmare, or had it just begun?
* * *
Dust hung in the sunbeam above the bed where Josephine lay. She'd begged Alvin to take her home to her own bed, but the doctor refused to let her go. He demanded she recover here, in his cellar among hanging garlic and onions and sacks of earth-scented potatoes. 'Twas better than being on his table among dirty tools. Yet straw poked through her thin nightdress, and the blanket was as coarse as the potato sacks. The stones in the copper bed warmer beneath the linen hardly held their heat through the night. She shifted away from the cooling metal.
Josephine pulled the blanket up to her chin as best as she could. Her elbows ached with weakness, and her fingers were numb with cold. She eyed the narrow staircase across the square room where a ribbon of golden light shone beneath the door at the top.
"Do not make a sound," the doctor had seethed as he situated her on the pallet that first night. "The kitchen servant does not know you are here, and nobody else for that matter." He filled the bed warmer with hot stones in the morning and in the evening. He would leave her a meal three times each day on the stand beside her small box of remedies. Otherwise, Josephine's care for her healing was her own. The day dragged on, and she fell in and out of sleep. How many days had it been?
She'd not grown as strong as she'd hoped. Upon this last waking, her body refused to return to sleep and at least forget awhile. As the daylight hours waned, giving way to a grim dusk, her tears fell to her pillow. The dark corners of the cellar played tricks on her with ever-brimming shadows and echoes of mice scurrying along the stone floor. She had begged God to prove that this was not some sort of hell — to assure her that she was indeed alive.
The lock on the door rattled with a key. Josephine clutched at her covers, her knuckles aching with the cold.
Boots appeared and descended the stairs with an uneven gait.
"Father?" Her voice was hoarse. She glanced at her empty mug and dry pitcher.
"Josephine, it is I." The familiar tone of her father blanketed her in a warmth she had yet to feel in this strange fate.
"Oh Father, I am so ... so scared." Her lip trembled. His crooked shoulders and rounded face blurred as her eyes filled with tears.
"My sweet Josephine." He limped toward her then fell to his knees and gathered her hands. "You are alive, dear one. You are here with me." His cheeks and nose were pink, and his bright blue eyes glistened with the love she'd always known. "Your hands are ice, child." He squeezed her fingers in his warm palms and kissed her knuckles.
"Father, must I recover here?" Josephine sniffled. "Please, take me home."
Her father fell back and sat on his heels, slowly slipping his hands from hers. "Oh, my sweet one, how I wish I could do that." Folds of worry stacked upon his brow. Her eyes filled even more. "You are better off here."
"How?" Her voice cracked. The soreness from coughing had lessened, but the exertion of using her voice irritated her throat. She swallowed past the pain. "How, Father? How am I better off with that doctor so close? I fear every morsel he gives me. What stops him from killing me?"
"Dear one, do not fear. We have an agreement with Dr. Chadwick." Her father flicked a nervous glance up toward the closed cellar door.
"We?" Josephine's memory was clouded, but upon waking that first time, she remembered a man who was nearly as unwelcome as the doctor. "Alvin?"
"Aye. Alvin has saved you from death."
"Alvin steals the dead. Why would he care for my own life?" Her father slouched and hung his head. "He is a friend to me, Josephine."
"Father, he left your farm and employ for illegal deeds."
"Josephine." He licked his lips. His nostrils flared. He snatched his hat from his balding head and wrung it ferociously. "You must not think ill of Alvin." He squeezed his eyes tight. A tear slipped down his cheek. "When you are well, you must listen to Alvin. His plan will get us out of this mess. Will get me out of this mess." He lowered his gaze to the dry mug beside her bed.
She'd worked hard to free him from his debt. But she'd been ill, without pay for some time. What trouble had found him now? "Father, if I can get well, I will work and keep you away from prison. Do not depend on Alvin." Josephine carefully propped herself on her elbows. "Please, let me get you out of debt."
His shoulders slumped, and he wagged his head. "Oh, my dear daughter," he moaned. "If only debt was my sole concern." He shuffled closer on his knees. His lips quivered as he spoke. "You must listen to Alvin. There are more than creditors after your father, dear one." He narrowed his eyes and slid a glance at the window near the ceiling then turned to glance up the staircase. He slowly faced her again. His hot breath heated her cheek as he whispered, "Murderers, Josephine. I am being chased by murderers — or I will be if you do not do as Alvin says. I've done terrible wrong. Only you can save me, Daughter." He blanched, as if he sat with her ghost and not her flesh.
A chill crawled along Josephine's neck and across her shoulders. Her throat squeezed tight with the same fear that encased her father's face.
"What trouble are you —" The door above creaked open, and light flooded the stairway. Dr. Chadwick's heavy plod started down the stairs. Josephine lunged forward, trying to grasp her father's hands, but she only sank to the mattress. Her body was too weak.
Her father scrambled to his feet. He leaned over and kissed her forehead. A sob caught in his throat, and she looked up at him. "Daughter, do as the doctor says."
"Please, return to me, Father!" she cried with shaking shoulders.
"I do not know that I can —" He hung his head. "The shame — it's — it's too much." He turned and heaved his lame foot across the floor, pushing past the doctor and up the stairs without another look at his daughter.
"Your supper is ready, Josephine." The doctor placed a tray on her table. He narrowed his eyes upon her. "I am anxious for you to get well. There is much to do."
"What is there to do, Dr. Chadwick?"
"Wait for Alvin. He will tell you." The doctor spoke as he climbed up the stairs. "No need to worry now. Your only concern is to heal." The door slammed shut, and once again, Josephine was left alone.
What trouble had found her father while she'd suffered on her deathbed? And why must she answer to Alvin, a robber of the dead?
* * *
The wind whipped against the window, howling through the seams. Braham stepped back from the dark glass and turned to the bed.
"Remember their songs?" The thin old man reached out his hand. "I can almost hear them still."
Braham took his hand in a firm grasp, trying to appear unmoved. Yet, he did remember. Old spirituals moaned like phantoms in Braham Taylor's soul — the low notes in strange harmony with the wind. He dismissed the temptation to recall their meaning, their reasons for being sung, and instead swiped the old man's forehead with a damp cloth. Braham's knuckle brushed along his uncle's leathery skin. Its golden brown was evidence of summers spent in Georgia heat while keeping a keen eye on cotton tufts of fortune. Yet, here in Gloughton, Massachusetts, while the sun might not offer the same intensity as down south, life had shone just as bright.
Perhaps too much.
Was heaven's envy stirred up on this late spring evening? Reaching claws out like a thief?
"There, dear boy. No more tending to me." Uncle Bates let out a long, rattled cough.
"Sir, I will until —" Braham clenched his teeth, trying to calm himself amid the emotion that twined around his throat.
"Just sit by me until then." His uncle shuttered his eyes. "Do you remember the first time we met?"
"I do." Braham flipped his coattails up and sat back on the stool. "Father had negotiated his contract with you. I did not understand fully, but you had given me the best bread and butter I'd ever tasted." He allowed himself to smile at the memory. However, he did not admit the fear encased in that memory to his uncle. Not now, not after all that happened. Besides, he was a small child then. And he had endured a journey by sea that would haunt him for all his growing-up days. The stench lingered in his mind, and some nights he woke up still, sweat drenching the pillow he mistook for the stilled chest of his mother.
"Your father was a good man. A hard worker. The best. I would have offered him a permanent position once he'd finished his indenture."
Braham just held his tongue, knowing that his uncle's words might be his last. What right did Braham have to redirect this final conversation?
He winced at the man's coughing fit and looked away, spying the painting of Terryhold Plantation. Uncle Bates's niece by marriage had sat on the edge of the garden every day, perched behind an easel, while Braham and his father walked from the servants' quarters to the fields. The woman would paint, a slave girl would fan her, and the condensation on the glass jug of lemonade would tempt Braham to quench his thirst without permission.
The bedroom door swung open. Gerald Bates stepped inside as if bursting through some unseen shield. Perhaps a shield of peace? The air thickened with animosity at Braham's first glance of the master's son.
"I will take it from here," Gerald grumbled to Braham as he flung his hat atop the bureau.
Braham rose. While Mr. Bates Sr. was consistent in reminding Braham of his own hardworking father, his son was persistent in setting straight Braham's place — not as an embraced cousin, but an orphaned nuisance.
"Wait." His uncle's shaky hand hovered in the air between the men. A beacon of reconciliation? Hardly. Braham scoffed at the thought. More like an obstacle to battle that would soon fall away and leave Braham at the mercy of the new factory owner. "I would like to discuss my will with both of you present —"
"Father —" Gerald stepped forward enough that his father's hand pressed against his chest.
"Gerald, my time is near."
"You've worked hard, Father." Gerald spoke through tightly knit lips, as if he tried to withhold his words from Braham. Of course he tried. "And, I will be sure your affairs are taken care of by the finest of men."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Yellow Lantern"
Copyright © 2019 Angie Dicken.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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