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It was late afternoon by the time Catherine Wilson turned off the main road leading north out
of Newbury onto the path, usually rutted by the wooden wheels of a cart but now made
smooth by six inches of freshly fallen snow. She pulled her cloak over her nose against the
wind into which she now walked. The sky was dark with gray clouds and the temperature
had been dropping all day. She looked to her left to the little house, not much more than a
crude hut of wattle and daub construction, in which Sara Dunwood and her young husband
lived. Catherine had delivered Sara of a healthy baby boy three weeks before, and now as
she saw the smoke curling out of the wooden chimney, she wondered how they were doing
this brutal winter during which the weather had been unremittingly cold and the hut ill suited to
shut out the wind. However, Catherine's business this day took her past the Dunwood hovel
to Sara's uncle's farm, which was the most distant from the town, occupying the last area cleared
before the New England forest, which surrounded Newbury on three sides with the ocean on the fourth.
Old man Powell was unusual in his willingness to confront the wilderness. The other citizens of Newbury extended themselves beyond the immediate center of the village with great caution, laying out the fields they cultivated as close to their houses as was practicable. When the topography dictated they would plant at a distance from their homesteads, but they did so reluctantly. Isaac Powell, on the other hand, had chosen to live off by himself. He agreed to work this farm for Samuel Worthington, a wealthy Newbury merchant, in exchange for a place to live and a small percentage of the farm's meager profits. The farm was a quarter of mile past Sara, his nearest neighbor, and as though to emphasize his independence from the larger community, he planted his fields on the side of his property away from the village, felling the trees and removing the stumps where the forest met the meadow on which he had built his small house toward which Catherine now made her away in the semi-darkness of a January afternoon beneath a sky heavy with approaching storm clouds. She had been summoned that morning by the young man who had recently come to live with Powell, and who had knocked at her door requesting that she come to do what she could to ease the old man's suffering from a wound on his hand.
She almost tripped over the dog lying motionless in the snow in front of the door. As her foot slid off the animal's back, it rose unsteadily to its feet and attempted a growl that came out more of a whine. It backed away from her and slunk off a few feet into the darkness where it lay down and offered a feeble howl. The door opened and standing there, shielding a candle with his hand, was the young man who had summoned her. The dog rose to its feet and took a tentative step toward the open doorway.
"Are you going to let the poor animal in?" Catherine asked.
The young man shrugged and motioned for her to enter.
"It is not for me to say," he murmured. He stood in the doorway without moving aside to let her enter, and his eyes shifted back and forth from her to the corner of the room inside where a shape sat huddled on a stool in shadow. A stub of a candle flickered on a table near the stool, and in its feeble light, Catherine could just see the head on the shape lift.
"Don't let that beast in, I say. Thomas do you mind what I say?"
"What are you afraid of old man?" asked Thomas.
"Ah, well you know," Isaac muttered.
The head dropped back on Isaac Powell's chest. The fire was low and the air in the room was chilled. Catherine looked toward the fireplace and then at the young man.
"He said I weren't to go out. I told him I need to fetch some firewood, but he would not hear anything about it. He didn't want me to open the door in case that dog was to make its way back in. So here we be, sitting in the cold. Him there afraid of an old dog like he was Jezebel herself."
"That's right," the old man said, rousing himself again. "That dog is why I sent you to seek Mistress Williams, and why she is now here."
"Is it now?" Thomas said.
Powell looked hard at the young man, as Catherine walked over to him, but then old man's eyes shut. When he opened them to look up at her, he seemed unable to focus. He had a coarse blanket wrapped about him. She placed her hand on his forehead. He was warm from fever, and as if in confirmation his shoulders convulsed with a violent shiver.
"You can go out now, and get some wood," she said.
Her voice seemed to rouse the old man.
"No, do not." He grabbed Catherine's arm. "He will run off if I am not watching him," he said.
"Do not worry about that," she said. "You are not planning to go anywhere, now are you?"
His lips raised in a small smile.
"Not likely," he said in a loud, clear voice, "in a storm like this." He lowered his voice to a whisper and said words Catherine could not understand. She took a step toward him, but Powell's hand on her arm stayed her.
"Later, then," Thomas said just loudly enough to be heard.
"What does he say?" the old man asked.
"He says the fire will warm us sooner rather than later," she replied.
The young man walked over to Powell and shook the old man's shoulder until he looked up at him.
"I am not going anywhere, what with Mistress Williams here, and the savages roaming about outside looking for an opportunity to knock me on my head. And that poor old dog is probably dead by now. I don't hear it no more."
"That is a good thing, Thomas," Powell said. "Bring in some firewood." A draft came in through the door, and the candle dimmed. He raised his left hand from beneath the blanket as though to grasp the young man's arm, but Thomas was too quick, and he stepped back with a smile that seemed more forced than genuine.
"Now, none of that," he said.
"I was only going to remind you to be careful," the old man muttered, "and I cannot see you very well. I told you to light another candle."
Thomas shrugged and took a full candle from a hook on the mantle. He lit it from the stub, and stood still for a moment, making sure that the flame caught. Catherine now got her first good look at him. She had heard of his presence, of course, newly arrived from Barbados, and his face was still tanned from the sun of that island. His features were attractive, almost delicate with bright blue eyes and thin lips that seemed as ready to sneer as smile, but there seemed also to be a latent sensuality in his expression, perhaps in the way his nostrils flared as he breathed or his mouth never quite closed completely. Catherine noted that his face showed no signs of stubble, and she wondered about his age, as he had been rumored to be the companion, and contemporary, of Master Worthington's son Nathaniel, who was in his early twenties. Further, he was of a slight build, round shouldered, and not much taller than Catherine, who was herself only a little over five feet. Wisps of straggly blond hair protruded from beneath the cloak he wore over his head against the chill in the room.
"Go on about your work, then," Catherine said. "Now that you have provided us with some light, see what you can do for heat. I cannot attend to your master properly while we are both in danger of freezing."
Thomas shrugged in a gesture that seemed to make his narrow shoulders almost reach up and touch his ears, and then he turned to the door. When he opened it, he stepped back as a strong gust rushed into the house. He lowered his head and walked out into the night.
Isaac watched the door shut behind Thomas. His face wore an expression that Catherine found difficult to decipher, something between fondness and fear.
"That boy won't never make much of a farmer," he said. "You can look at his hands and see how little work he does here. Master Worthington sent him to me to teach him to farm, but he don't want to learn nothing about it." He shook his head and then nodded. "Which is not to say that he is not handy other ways to have here." He snorted as though starting to laugh, and then clutched his arms about him and shivered.
"Let me see what is troubling you," Catherine said, "and do not waste any more of your breath on that one."
Catherine held out her hands, but Isaac cowered in his chair.
"Let me see it, then," she insisted.
He lifted his right hand, which had remained beneath the blanket. It was wrapped in a dirty cloth. Catherine took it in her own hands, as gently as she could, and yet he winced. She brought it toward the candle and removed the cloth. She saw the festering wound, swollen red with a center of pus oozing out against the ingrained dirt on the back of the farmer's hand. She started to turn the hand over, but Powell winced and tucked it away beneath the blanket.
"It pains you does it?" she asked in her gentlest voice.
"Ever since that hell hound bit me. Can you help me?" he asked.
"Yes, but I'd like to see it again."
He shook his head, and she saw in his eyes the stubbornness of an old man who had lived long alone and was not used to accommodating himself to the requests of others. In any case, she concluded, she had seen enough. His hand was dripping poison that might also be in his blood and that is why he shook so as though from a violent ague. She reached into her midwife's bag and pulled out a coarse, burlap bag. She loosed the thread that pulled its top closed, and shook out a couple of roots. She put these on the table next to the candle, and then drew the thread tight and knotted it.
"Do you have a knife?" she asked.
He reached his good hand beneath his blanket, and when it emerged it was holding a knife with a six inch blade.
"There's talk of them savages," he said.
"Yes," Catherine replied, "I have heard so."
"You live with one, I hear," he replied and opened his mouth in a crooked grin that revealed yellowed teeth on top, and a black stump on the bottom.
"He lives on my property," she replied.
"That's not what folks say," he insisted.
"Folk say many things. When your young man comes back in, have him chop up these roots and boil them into a tea."
"What is it?" he asked.
"Ground root of the coneflower."
"A flower root." he said shaking his head. "Maybe I be better calling in one of those the savages called powwows and he could chant some nonsense over me."
"You need not bother," Catherine said, "for it is from one of them that I learned of this remedy."
"The one what..." he began.
"No," she replied.
Powell shook his head and stared toward the door.
"It is cold," he said.
"I will see what is keeping him," she said.
"You need not."
"But I will."
Thomas was standing next to a pile of split firewood, a few steps from the door. The dog was at his feet. Snow was now falling and it clung to the boy's hair. His body convulsed with violent shivers. He began to open his mouth to talk, but he could not stop his teeth from chattering. Catherine took hold of his arm and tried to pull him toward the door, but he shook his head and leaned his weight back against her motion. She dropped her hand from him.
"Do you want to see how long it will be before you are ice?" she asked.
"I was waiting to speak with you."
He knelt down and stroked the dog.
"He's going to freeze out here, and the old man don't want him back in the house. He keeps talking about how Jezebel was eaten up by dogs."
"He bit him, did he not?"
Thomas shook his head.
"I would not know nothing about that. I did not see it."
She pointed to the wood.
"You would do better bring that in. Your master is half froze inside and you are mostly froze out here. Maybe we can convince him to let the animal inside again."
"There are worse things than ice," he said, and his thin lips twitched into a sneer. He brought his foot back and brought it forward in a sharp kick to the animal's rib. It howled, got up, and ran off. "I don't have no use for him neither," he said.
"Thomas, the wood!"
Old man Powell's voice, surprisingly strong, fought through the wind that blew in the open door.
"The fire is just about out," he called out.
Thomas looked at Catherine and shrugged.
"And there is fires that burn in people as well as fireplaces," he said.
"I am too cold to deal with riddles," she said.
"Then I will be plain," Thomas replied, but before he could continue, his master was standing in the doorway. "Another time, then," he said.
"I will be back in a day or two to see if he is mending."
"Thomas," cried the old man.
"Then, we will speak," Thomas said, and Catherine turned her steps into the snow and the path that led to the road to Newbury. As she made her way, she saw the dog's tracks heading in the same direction. They continued until the path joined the road, and then they veered off as though the animal had been frightened by something. Catherine clucked her tongue, but the dog did not reappear. She shrugged, pulled her cloak about her, and made her way onto the road home.
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