John Abbott was the one who found him that hot summer day. He'd ridden out to the Whittleslee farm to enquire about a goat the man was selling; John had no great fondness for Jacob Whittleslee, and would have had no business dealings with the man but John knew for a fact that the family was near to starvation. It was not for Jacob Whittleslee's misguided pride but for the sake of Ann and the three children that John Abbott rode out that day.
He guided his horse into the small clearing where the Whittleslee cabin stood - a shack, more like, and listing badly to one side. It struck him immediately how quiet the scene was: the last time he'd been here, the two younger girls were raising an unholy ruckus in the yard, their mother smiling on indulgently. Today the place was as still as a grave - a grave, John thought. Across the yard there was the sound of rhythmic scraping, soft grunts as the shovel struck the hardened ground. Someone was digging a grave.
It was the boy. John couldn't remember the name for a moment - Joshua? Sam? Seth, that was it. "Seth," he said in a cautious tone. But if the boy heard, he didn't acknowledge.
The boy's back was to him, and with his homespun shirt hanging in tatters from his body, John Abbott could count every rib. There were welts, too, but they weren't fresh - he had been beaten, though not recently. John thought of his own wife and child, well-fed and safe in their comfortable home, and suddenly the condition of this boy's back was intolerable.
"Seth," he said again, louder, and the boy turned dull eyes on him.
"Wish it would rain," the boy said in a voice rusty from disuse. "Ground's so hard."
"I know," John said. As gently as he could, he removed the shovel from the boy's hands, which were blistered and streaked with blood. He apprised the situation: two fresh graves, child sized, patted over with dirt. Seth had been working on a third, sized for a rather small adult; beside it, an outline had been scratched in the dirt for the fourth and largest grave.
John let the shovel drop to the ground and passed his leather canteen to the boy, who drank greedily. "All of them?" he asked.
Seth wiped the back of a filthy hand across his mouth. "All of them," he assented. "Fever took 'em. One after the other, Bitsy, Nell, Ma and Pa." His voice was plaintive. "Why?"
If only there were an answer. "I don't know," John said. "When the sickness comes like that, it can be so sudden, it's -"
"I mean," Seth interrupted, "why ain't I dead too?"
The question hung in the air, but John didn't attempt to answer it. He looked the boy over - half starved and dressed in rags, but tall for his eleven years. "When was the last time you had anything to eat?"
Seth turned away with half a shrug of his shoulder. "I started digging two days ago," he said. "I didn't like to leave them there."
"Wait here." As soon as John entered the cabin, he knew he'd find no nourishment for the boy there - anything edible would have been tainted by the stench of death that hung heavy in the air.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim, he took in the broken-down furniture, the empty cupboard, and the flies. On a stained pallet on the floor lay the earthly remains of Jacob and Ann Whittleslee. The woman looked at peace, perhaps for the first time in her life. But Jacob's eyes and mouth were still open in a frozen gasp of surprise. John hadn't respected the man in life, and he found himself despising him in death. The corpse's hand was still clutched around its bottle of whiskey.
Turning away from the gruesome sight, John nearly knocked over the boy standing in the doorway. "I thought I told you to wait outside."
The half a shrug again, the expression of one who has lived without hope for too long. "It's nothin' I didn't see before."
True enough, John thought. "Have you been staying in there with - since they - ?"
"Nah," Seth replied. "I sleep outside when the weather's fine."
"That may have saved your life," John said, though more to himself. The boy had been spared death, but John could see he was sickly too, and in no condition to be digging graves. "Why didn't you send for help?"
Seth ambled over to his makeshift cemetery and picked up the shovel again. He was so weak now he had to lean on it to stand up. "Pa didn't like to," he replied. "Said the town folk are too high and mighty. Ma wanted to go to the pastor for bread when Bitsy took ill but Pa said we wasn't to go begging."
The fact that Seth Whittleslee was now digging four graves for the victims of his father's pride spoke volumes about both man and boy. "We would have come," John said, more to himself, overcome with shame. "There are sturdy men enough in this town, we would have buried them." He looked around the clearing; his horse would be strong enough to carry the both of them back, since the boy weighed no more than a bundle of sticks. "Is there anything you need to take with you?"
"You can't stay here," John said, striding back towards the cabin. "Gather your things."
Seth stood as if rooted to the ground. "This is my family's land," he said grimly. "We worked this land, and I got a duty to do."
Knowing how badly in debt Jacob Whittleslee had been, John doubted it was the family's land, or whether they had any material assets remaining. He'd seen hide nor hair of the goat. John turned back to the lad before he entered the cabin once more. "I've got a duty to do as well." If Seth protested, John didn't hear it; breathing shallowly through his mouth, he scanned the cabin for anything worth bringing along. No shoes, but he found a mostly clean shirt which he thought he'd seen Seth wearing in church of a Sunday. The kettle and the lamp he could return for, though he doubted Seth had any need for them. But on the mantel was a blue-and-white china cup - John remembered how Ann had proudly served him coffee in that cup the last time he was here. Likely it was the only thing of beauty she had possessed. John rolled the cup inside the shirt and tucked it into his satchel.
"Ready to go?" John asked, escaping the stifling air of the cabin.
The boy watched him keenly. "You got my ma's cup?"
John patted his satchel. "Just for safekeeping," he said. "I'll return it to you. But you can't stay here any longer."
Seth's body sagged, and John wasn't sure it was from exhaustion or relief. "Let's go." As they mounted the horse and galloped away from that place, John noticed that Seth didn't look back, not once.
"Papa!" Seven-year-old Caroline's golden hair flew behind her as she dashed out into the yard. Seeing her beloved Papa in the middle of the day was an unexpected treat, and he might have brought her something.
As Papa rode up Caroline saw he had something propped up in the saddle in front of him. It didn't even look human for a moment, but she recognized an older boy she'd seen around town a few times. "Stay back!" Papa warned. Caroline couldn't have imagined what she had done to make her father sound that way. "Fetch your mama. Quick!"
Judith Abbott wiped floury hands on her apron as she stepped into the yard. "What is it, John?" Her eyes grew wide as she saw the burden her husband carried on his horse - he'd gone out for a goat, and come home with a boy. A dirty, ragged, barely conscious boy. "Isn't that the Whittleslee boy? What on earth happened?"
"Help me bring him in the house." John handed his burden down from the horse. "Run along, Caroline," he warned. In the hall, Caroline pressed her face against the window glass, straining to catch her father's words. "The whole family is dead of the fever," John was saying. "Father, mother, two little girls. I found him digging the graves."
"Oh!" Judith pressed her free hand to her mouth. "The poor child. Poor Ann, she was a good-hearted woman, though that husband of hers..."
John shook his head in commiseration. "There wasn't a scrap of food in the house. I don't know how long they were living like that."
They made their way into the kitchen, steadying the weary boy between them. "I thought I told you to run along," John said, spying his daughter peeping around the door. He sighed. "Very well. Will you fetch a saucer of milk, please?"
The promise of food put some life back into Seth, and Caroline tried not to stare as he gobbled everything that was placed in front of him. The young girl, sheltered and a little spoiled, had never seen humanity exist in such a condition. The tattered clothing and the bruises which had spoken volumes to her father meant nothing to her, but she couldn't stop staring at the soles of his feet, which were black with dirt. Caroline had never been permitted to set foot outside unshod - she couldn't imagine her own dainty feet in such a condition.
As Seth's frantic eating slowed, Judith took the seat next to him. With her pale gold hair and her calm, he thought she might have been an angel. "Can you tell me what happened?" she began gently.
"Fever," he said around a mouthful of bread. "I tried to help 'em, the girls anyway, but I didn't have nothing to give 'em. Just Pa's whiskey and he wouldn't part with that."
"I might have known," Judith murmured.
"After Bitsy and Nell passed, my ma wouldn't even get up. She told my pa she was goin' to lay there until she died, and that's what she did."
"And your father?"
"He was -" Seth paused, his eyes wide. He leaned over the chair and then he heaved it all up, the stew, the bread and the milk so hastily consumed. "I'm sorry," he finally said to Mrs. Abbott in a very small voice. "I'll clean it up."
Caroline thought for sure Mama would be furious, knowing how clean she kept her kitchen, but instead of angry, Mama looked sad. "It's my fault. I gave you too much." She put out a hand and squeezed his bony shoulder. "Would you like to come upstairs and lay down? You look like you could use a little rest."
"Yes, ma'am." Now he knew for sure he had died. And in his fevered state, Seth didn't necessarily mind.
Caroline pouted upon realizing that the stranger was to occupy her bed. The thought of those dirty feet on her nice clean bedding! Papa had no patience for her sulking. "You can sleep with your grandmother for a little while," he told her.
"Grandmama snores," Caroline protested with petulant lower lip.
Papa's gentle eyes flashed with anger. "I won't raise a spoiled child," he told her. "You may sleep with your grandmother, or you may sleep outside." Thereafter Caroline held her tongue.
Caroline's mother and grandmother dosed their patient with feverfew and willow bark tea. They sent Caroline to gather witch hazel leaves to bathe his torn hands and the welts on his back. Sometimes, in his delirium, Seth would call out to his mother or his sisters; when his fever finally broke he slept for days and awoke ravenous.
John Abbott took a party of men out to the Whittleslee farm to complete the grisly task of burying the family. Seth had been lacking in either the strength or the knowledge to dig the graves deep enough, so the poor sisters had to be re-interred. The men worked in near total silence, kerchiefs tied over their faces to mask the smell. The cabin couldn't be salvaged and so it was torn down, the foundation plowed under. Jacob Whittleslee's meager, unprofitable farm would be reclaimed by his creditors; all that would remain were four wooden crosses fashioned of scraps from Abbott's shipyard.
Mama, Grandmother, and Aunt Martha gathered in the Abbotts' parlor and talked over the tragedy as they sewed. Caroline was put to work basting while they cut down Papa's old shirts and a coat of Cousin Oliver's. They had all liked Ann Whittleslee; if only they had known. And what was to be done with her boy? At the end of two weeks they were no nearer to answering the question than they had been at the start.
"I'm mighty grateful for your kindness," Seth told the Abbotts in their candlelit parlor, when he had finally been allowed downstairs, "but ain't it time for me to be getting home?"
Judith cast a meaningful glance towards her husband. John cleared his throat. They had put off telling him this, not sure how he would take it. "Your home isn't there anymore," he said. "We had to tear the cabin down. The smell was - Well, it was unsound."
Seth's face sagged. "What about our land?"
"Your father was deeply in debt. I'm sorry."
"I understand," Seth replied. Caroline watched their guest when she was supposed to be embroidering. His lips quivered for a moment, then he composed himself. "Where do I go?"
John exchanged another look with his wife. They'd gone around and around on this. Both had wanted to take him in permanently, but without any sons - only Caroline - it seemed improper. "The Coles will be happy to take you in," John offered. "They have five boys already, so you'd have plenty of company."
"I ain't aiming," Seth said slowly, "to be a burden on nobody."
"You wouldn't be a burden," Judith said. "They are a fine Christian family and happy to have you."
"I can look after myself," the boy protested, though he was all of eleven years old. "I'm strong and I don't eat much. And I can read a little - my ma taught me."
The Abbotts had suspected that he would respond thus. It was one thing to offer charity, quite another to have it accepted. "If you must work," John continued, "Hiram Sloane is in need of a post walker. He'll give you room and board and a good pair of sturdy boots in exchange for your labor."
"Boots?" A thin smile crossed Seth's face. "They'd be my first."
"I don't like it," John said. "Hiram Sloane won't beat you, but he'll work you hard. It's a tough job for any man, let alone a half-grown boy."
"I can handle it."
John recalled Seth digging those graves in the sweltering heat. "I suppose you've earned the right to decide your own fate. I'll let Hiram Sloane know you'll take his offer."
Judith smiled beatifically. "Won't you stay with us a little while longer, first?" It hadn't escaped her notice how unsteady the boy was on his feet, or how the new clothes hung off his body like a sack.
Seth looked around the cozy, well-finished room. Part of him didn't want to leave, but part of him spurred him on with grim determination. "Yes, ma'am."
Judith held off Hiram Sloane for another week. Determined to put a little more flesh on the boy's bones, she fed Seth on gingerbread and fish stew and apple cake, which he put away in astonishing quantities. Perhaps because he missed his younger sisters so terribly, Seth took to Caroline right away. He played ninepins with Caroline, and went fishing on the lake, and taught her to whistle with a blade of grass between her thumbs. By the end of the week, the two of them were inseparable.
Put it off though they might, the evil day arrived eventually, and Hiram Sloane, the grim-faced postmaster, arrived in person to pick up his charge. Seth stood in the Abbotts' front hall, all of his worldly goods at his feet - his new clothes rolled into a bundle and tucked into the kettle salvaged from the Whittleslee cabin.
John Abbott placed his hands on Seth's shoulders, looking him in the eye, man to man. "Take care of yourself."
"Our home is always open to you." Judith's angelic smile betrayed a humorous quirk. "And our pantry."
"I can't begin to thank you." Seth dipped into the bundle at his feet and came up with his mother's china cup, which he extended to Mrs. Abbott almost shamefully. "Here. This is for you."
Judith pressed a hand over her mouth, and Caroline could swear she saw tears in her mother's eyes. "Seth, I can't - that was your mother's, it -"
"You've done me a kindness," he said simply. "I've got to repay you someways."
He had his father's pride, Judith Abbott thought; but unlike his father, he had the spine to back it up. "I'll tell you what we'll do," she said. "We'll keep it here, and whenever you come by, we'll set it at your place. Would you like that?"
The postmaster shifted from one foot to the other, impatient. "I'd like that," Seth replied. He turned to his new friend. "Goodbye, Miss Caroline."
Caroline practically flung herself onto the skinny boy, hugging him as tight as her little arms would permit. "Bye, Seth."
"Let's go," Hiram Sloane enunciated, and the two children quickly disentangled themselves. In the next moment they were out the door and hurrying away down the path. "Don't shilly-shally, boy. I've got no need for idlers."
Seth quickened his step. "Yes sir." But as he struggled to match the man's longer steps, this time he looked back. He raised a hand in farewell to the girl whose face was pressed against the window.
That night, Caroline lay in her own bedroom again - no dirty stranger, no snoring grandmother - and for a moment, though she couldn't explain it, she felt horribly lonely.
Seth Whittleslee had a lot of time to think.
He thought often of his mother and his sisters; that first year, the weight of his grief was so great he thought it would crush him. But over time it lessened. He thought of his father, too, not with regret but resolution. I will be a better man than he was. I must. He didn't know it, but simply by accepting the help and the love offered by the Abbotts, he already was.
Until the day he walked away to join the Navy, Seth walked that route for four years, every day save for Sundays and Christmas. Some days he walked from sunup to sundown, with time only to gnaw on the hard biscuits Mrs. Sloane tucked in his satchel. But when he could, he timed his deliveries to the Abbotts to coincide with meals. And when they knew to expect him, Judith or Caroline would set a place for their friend with a blue-and-white china cup.