The winter of 1847 has brought a consumption (tuberculosis) epidemic which is devastating the village of Plumford, Massachusetts. In an atmosphere of increasing hysteria and superstition, country doctor Adam Walker and philosopher Henry David Thoreau seem the only voices of reason. The winter also brings two visitors to Plumford. Solomon Wiley hails from Rhode Island and offers his services as a vampyre hunter, insisting that the scourge is supernatural in origin. At the same time, Adam's cousin Julia has returned home from France, mysteriously without her new husband. When a former student of Thoreau is found mutilated and drained of blood in the woods, Wiley insists that a legendary Indian vampyre has arisen. Dismissing the blustering fearmonger, Thoreau and Adam follow clues to the backstage world of a Boston theater, the smoky decadence of an opium den, and an Indian burial ground. Both men will need to keep their wits about them - or risk ending up in coffins of their own...
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Thoreau on Wolf Hill
By B. B. Oak
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 B. B. Oak
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, December 1, 1847
I had already done a day's doctoring, downed a dram of whiskey, and gotten chilled to the bone before setting down to breakfast this morning. And just when I was about to dig into a stack of flat-jacks fresh off Gran's griddle, there was a knock on the back door.
"Pray you do not have to go out on another patient call!" Harriet said, giving me such a look of concern I thought she might burst into tears. Although Gran's ward is nigh reaching womanhood, she still has the volatile emotions of a child.
"Adam ain't goin' nowhere afore he gits some hot food and coffee down his gullet," Gran said.
She declared this with such conviction you would think she still had a say in my comings and goings. I suppose it is only natural for her to fall into old habits now that I have taken up residence in my boyhood home for a spell.
Of course I would have disregarded her command and left my breakfast uneaten if the need for me were urgent. Such is the life of a country doctor, a life I never intended to have when I left Tuttle Farm for Harvard. Obligations have overruled ambitions, however.
It turned out the caller was Henry Thoreau. "Well, ain't you the early bird" Gran said as she ushered him in.
But it is never too early for Henry. He feels it unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet, as he puts it, and appears to thrive on little sleep and much exercise. He looked full of vigor as usual this morning, the hawky, ever-present look of vigilance upon his clean-shaven visage. His erect carriage and the quick grace of his movements always call to my mind an Indian brave, as does his strong, large nose. At thirty, he is my senior by five years, but he still has the boundless energy of a boy. Or a colt. His ruddy, unruly mane was dank with morning mist, and he was clutching his broad-brimmed felt hat to his chest.
"On sich a cold, damp morn as this, you would have been better off wearin' that hat than carryin' it" Gran told him.
"If I'd kept it on my head" he replied, "in what would I have collected these?" He proffered his hat to her.
Gran's eyes lit up when she looked into the deep crown. "Chestnuts!" she cried.
"I came upon them not too far from here," he said, "and reckoned you might appreciate them, Mrs. Tuttle"
"You reckoned right" she said. "Roasted, stewed, or preserved, there ain't nothin' I like more'n chestnuts" She transferred the glossy nuggets into a basket. "How did you manage to find such a bounteous treasure of 'em so late in the season?"
"I simply looked where I thought a squirrel might," he said with a shrug and went to stand by the fire. He seemed to take for granted his ability to find treasures invisible to others. Often when we hike together, he unearths an ancient arrowhead, yet no matter how hard I look for them, I have never come upon a single one.
"Set yourself down, and I'll hot up the coffee fer ye," Gran told him.
"Thank you kindly but no coffee for me," he said.
"You sure? 'Twon't be no trouble at all."
"Henry does not take coffee, nor tea, nor any other stimulant," I told Gran. "Not even fermented cider."
"Not even cider!" That did amaze her. "Why, most menfolk drink it like water."
"I believe water is the only drink for a wise man," Henry said.
Gran sniffed. "Suit yerself."
Henry gave me an amused look, then a more careful study from head to toe. "Well, my friend, I see you have been up and about very early yourself. And even though you had a bit of trouble with your horse or gig on your way to the Yates farm, you still got there in plenty of time to deliver Mrs. Yates of a fine baby boy."
We all three stared at him. I had related those very facts to Gran and Harriet when I staggered in not ten minutes before.
"Mr. Thoreau is clairvoyant!" Harriet said.
Henry laughed. "Not clairvoyant. Observant." He pointed to my feet. "There in the cleft of Adam's boot heel is a leaf from the climbing fern."
"So what about it?" Gran said.
"That rare species of fern can be found in Old Sow Swamp, which lies between here and the Yates farm," Henry said. "Hence I surmised that's where Adam picked it up on his boot when he got out of his gig. But what would compel him to alight in a swamp? Obviously something was in need of fixing before he could go on."
"And so it was," I confirmed. "I stopped there to straighten the bit that had gone askew in Napoleon's mouth."
"But how'd you git from knowin' where some fern grows to knowin' why Adam went out afore daybreak?" Gran asked Henry.
"Ratiocination," Henry replied.
Gran and Harriet looked at him blankly. I own that I did too.
"You need to explain your reasoning process to us, Henry," I said. "If you don't mind."
Of course I knew he wouldn't mind a jot. If there's one thing Henry enjoys, it's showing off his powers of observation and deduction. He sat down at the table and elucidated.
"I noted the climbing fern in Old Sow Swamp a few days ago. And then, as I cut through a pasture behind the Yates farmstead, I saw the lady of the house hanging out her wash. She had a hard time of it for she was very far advanced with child. Thus I deduced that Adam went out that way early this morning to assist with the birth."
"But how did you know Mrs. Yates was delivered of a boy?" Harriet said.
"Why, Adam's breath," Henry replied. He folded his arms across his chest and said no more, no doubt waiting to be urged to.
He did not have to wait long. "Out with it, Henry!" Gran said. "You got me hooked now like a catfish danglin' on a chunk of dough. What in tarnation has my grandson's breathing to do with the sex of Mrs. Yates's newborn?"
"I can smell whiskey on Adam's breath," Henry said, his large and bright eyes dancing with quiet merriment. "Mr. Yates is famous for being closefisted and a man who seldom imbibes. So it would be a rare occasion indeed when before dawn he would bring out his best liquor. He already has three daughters, so another would not so inspire him. Only a boy would do the trick. And I wager this was the first time Adam ever quaffed a spirituous libation so early in the day. That would also indicate to me that the birth was a long and perilous one. Still, if I know him he toasted the birth of the boy to please the proud father more than to indulge himself."
I could only nod. He had deduced all from what seemed no evidence at all.
"Well, I'll be jiggered" Gran said. "You are as smart as a steel trap, Henry. And as a reward for yer fancy bit of cogitat'n I am going to serve you up a heapin' pile of flat-jacks"
Henry, not one to turn down an offer of food, pulled his chair closer to the table, but as Gran was mixing fresh batter there came more pounding at the door. Before anyone had time to answer it, Ezekiel Wiley's youngest child, Orin, charged in. He was panting so hard he must have run full speed all three miles from his farm.
"Ma wants you to come right away, Dr. Walker," he gasped out.
"Has Joanna taken a turn for the worse?" I had been expecting this since I'd visited his sister's bedside yesterday.
"No, it's Hetty!"
"Hetty?" I did not understand. His other sister had died in September.
"Ma wants you to stop them from diggin' her up!"
"Good Lord, why dig her up?"
"Uncle Solomon claims she ain't really dead. He says she rises from the grave every night to suck the breath out of Joanna."
"He must be deranged!" I said.
"Else he comes straight from the devil," Gran said.
"No, no, he comes from Rhode Island," Orin said, "where such things are done. Uncle Solomon has dug up many a body there, being a practitioner."
"A practitioner of what?" Henry said. "The Black Arts?"
"He is a slayer of vampyres. And he aims to slay the night-stalking horror that Sister Hetty has become."
Harriet gasped. "Hetty a vampyre? That cannot be! She was my dearest friend, and there was no soul better. She suffered like a saint, never complaining as the Consumption devoured her." Harriet turned to me, tears brimming in her gentle eyes. "Did you not say she was a good, brave patient, Adam?"
I could only nod. That I could do nothing to save the lovely young woman weighs heavily upon my heart, especially since her sister Joanna is now dying from the selfsame disease.
"What exactly does this so-called vampyre slayer intend to do after he exhumes his niece's body?" Henry asked Orin.
"Cut out her heart and burn it whilst Joanna breathes in the smoke." The boy's face twisted in a grimace. "Then poor Joanna must eat the ashes."
"Not if I can help it," I said, grabbing my jacket off the peg. "Subjecting that young girl to such horror might well put an end to her. She is weak enough as it is."
Henry put on his battered hat. "I will go with you, Adam. Irrational heads are always hard of hearing, and two voices might better penetrate their ignorance."
"Orin, you stay here," Gran ordered the boy. "Else you might see things not fit fer young eyes." That seemed to make him all the more eager to go with us, but Gran grabbed his arm and held him back.
Out we went to the barn, and in a trice Napoleon was back between the buggy shafts. Off we raced, and the good horse did not slacken his pace until we reached the Wiley homestead. Mrs. Wiley stood in the door yard, wringing her hands.
"They have just gone up to fetch Joanna," she said with a sob.
Henry and I went inside and up the stairs to Joanna's bedroom. The rusty odor of the girl's retched-up blood filled the room, emanating from a basin on the floor. Her father was lifting her from the bed.
"Pray wait, Mr. Wiley," I said, as calmly as I could muster. We had no legal right to be on his property, much less tell him what to do with his child. Or the bodies in the family graveyard, for that matter.
Cradling his emaciated daughter in his arms, he looked at me, his eyes filled with misery. "Wait for what? For her to die?" His voice was hollow and hoarse. "Despite all your doctoring skills, that is all you could do for her sister, is it not, Dr. Walker? You could only wait by her bedside and hold her hand till she breathed her last ragged breath."
The truth of his words seared me. What good am I as a doctor when I know not how to save my patients? Until a cure for Consumption is discovered, all I can offer them is the consolation of my presence. And as a most virulent form of the disease swoops through the area, claiming victims in a matter of days rather than years, 'tis no wonder remedies, no matter how irrational, are tried.
"I understand your need to do something to save your daughter, Mr. Wiley," I said. "But if you proceed with this madness, you will only hasten Joanna's death."
"If you try to prevent us, you will hasten your own damn death," the man standing beside the distraught father said in a deep menacing voice. He was of imposing height and broad-shouldered, with a full, black beard and pale eyes of penetrating intensity. "So get out of the way. What must be done here will be done."
Henry stepped right up to him and, reaching up, laid a hand upon the man's shoulder. "Hark this, sir. Your threats cannot prevent us from interfering. We will not stand by and let you haul this sick girl out in the cold for no rational purpose."
The man glared down in disbelief that one of Henry's slight stature would dare stand straight as a pine tree against him. "Who the hell are you?"
"The voice of reason," Henry said.
"Is that so? Well, I will silence your voice quick enough if you do not step aside!" the man bellowed.
"Easy there, Solomon. You will affright Joanna," Mr. Wiley cautioned his brother.
Too late. Poor Joanna, feverish, eyes as panicked as a fawn's, clutching a red-stained cloth to her mouth, burst into tears and hid her face against her father's chest.
"You must put her back to bed as any good father would" I told Mr. Wiley.
"Don't listen to him, Ezekiel" his brother said.
But thank God he did. He returned Joanna to her bed, and I stroked her hand to calm her until her sunken eyes closed and her breathing steadied.
"Can it be done without her?" Mr. Wiley asked his brother in a low tone.
"If it has to be. But I cannot promise it will be as effective," he replied.
"Best you forego it then," Henry advised.
"This is not your business," Solomon told him. "So be gone with you, and let us get on with it."
"Are you ashamed to have witnesses?"
"Ashamed?" Solomon lifted his massive head most proudly. "I am not ashamed of my calling, nor have I anything to hide," he declared. "If you and the doctor want to bear witness to the death of a vampyre, come with us."
And so, leaving the child to sleep in peace, we four trudged out of the house. "Don't do it! Don't do it!" Mrs. Wiley wailed as she chased after us.
Solomon stopped and faced her down. "Go see to your living daughter, woman. The other is lost to you." She looked to her husband, but he only shook his head. With a shudder, she turned back to the house.
Onward we walked up the grassy knoll to the family burial plot. Solomon pulled a half-dozen cheroots tied with string from his dirty jacket pocket. He offered them to us, and after we refused he lit one and puffed at it hard. "It helps spare the nose from what's coming," he said.
I tried my best to reason with Ezekiel Wiley. "Let Hetty rest in peace. Do not listen to your brother's false notions and violate her corpse."
"If all that remains of my dear daughter now is a dried husk, we will return her to rest untouched," he replied in a shaky voice.
"But if there are signs of life upon her body, it will be proof she is a revenant and must be destroyed," Solomon said.
"Three months is not sufficient time for her body to have completely decomposed," I said. "During my years of medical training I have seen many stages of decaying flesh and know of what I speak."
"As I do!" Solomon firmly declared. "This is not the first nor the last time I will unearth a vampyre. And you shall soon see that Hetty has become one, doctor. Poor Joanna is being sucked dry of her life blood by her elder sister, who comes to her like the savage wolf to the helpless lamb."
"Superstitious balderdash!" I shouted back at him.
Henry remained more calm. "How came you to believe your younger daughter was being preyed upon by her dead sister, Mr. Wiley?" he asked most courteously.
"When I awoke her in the night because she was moaning most piteously, she said there was such a weight upon her chest she could not catch a breath."
"Hetty sitting upon her torso feeding!" Solomon interjected.
"The weight poor Joanna felt was the fluid trapped in her lungs, blocking her breathing," I told Mr. Wiley. "Pay no heed to your brother's reckless conjecture."
"But 'twas Joanna herself who said to me that she saw Hetty looming over her in the night, eyes black as a demon's and mouth dripping blood."
"When did she tell you this, Mr. Wiley?" Henry inquired. "When first you awoke her?"
"No, not then, but the next morning."
"After her Uncle Solomon had talked to her?"
"I don't recall." Mr. Wiley looked to his brother.
"What I recall," Solomon told him, "is poor little Joanna pleading with me to save her from Hetty. And that is what I intend to do."
Mr. Wiley shook his head and commenced to weep. "How can we desecrate Hetty's body? She was such a good daughter."
"That is why we must save her too!" his brother said. "If we kill this vile thing Hetty has become, her soul shall be set free to go to heaven."
Mr. Wiley regained his resolve. "Then we must do it for her sake as well as Joanna's."
We had reached the burying ground at the top of the knoll, and on the grass lay a wooden casket they had already hauled out of the grave. I heard a piercing cry and looked up to see a hawk gliding in a wide, sweeping circle overhead. I had to wonder at what the hawk saw. Four grim men and an unearthed casket were but a part of a wider view from such a height. Spread out below the bird lay the rolling hills of the township, and atop one of them stood the Green, where the steeple of the Meetinghouse pierced the sky and the white clapboard houses clustered peacefully about the rectangle of grass and trees. Beyond the Green the ribbon of the Assabet River curved away south, with mills and water meadows along its banks. Carriages and pedestrians moved along the roads stretching through the landscape, chimneys puffed out smoke, and perhaps the sharp-eyed hawk could make out a train sliding along the gleaming rails of the new Fitchburg line. From such a height our individual, impassioned efforts below must seem as significant to a bird as the scurrying of ants does to us. I could not help but muse that as this hawk must circle and scream, we each have our destinies to act out, no matter how meaningless to other eyes. Yet as Henry oft reminds me, it is what man thinks of himself that really determines his fate. So our destinies are of our own making.
Excerpted from Thoreau on Wolf Hill by B. B. Oak. Copyright © 2014 B. B. Oak. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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