Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (10 page)

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“Are you Daniel's friend?”

Lizzie looked toward the bottom of the garden. Daniel had finished digging. He smoothed the soil with a rake, now and then stooping to collect a stone and toss it into a wheelbarrow.

“Paddy doesn't want any friends,” she said. “He's always so cross.”

“But do you like him?”

“What difference would it make?”

Ethan shrugged. “Maybe he'd be less cross if he thought somebody liked him.”

Lizzie laughed. “Maybe he'd be less cross if he wasn't Irish.”

Ethan struggled with a bit of brush snagged on his sleeve. “Do you really think so, or is that just what everybody else says?”

“You ask a lot of questions for such a little boy.”

Ethan tugged impatiently at the branch. “I'm just trying to figure things out.”

Lizzie reached through the brush and freed Ethan's sleeve. “Maybe some things aren't meant to be figured out. Maybe some things just are.”

Chapter Eight

For the first two weeks of April, the season had pivoted between winter and spring. By Ethan's third week at the Lymans', it seemed to have finally decided which it wanted to be. The air turned sweet and moist, and songbirds returned to join the crows and sparrows that had stayed the winter.

The change affected everybody's mood. Mrs. Lyman hummed as she laid breakfast on the table, though she still didn't offer Ethan a chair. Mr. Lyman shared laughing endearments with his wife, gently teased his daughters, and made silly faces and babbled nonsense at Aaron. Even Daniel's perpetual scowl eased a little.

“What's that on your plate, boy?” Mr. Lyman said to Ethan.

“M-me? Uh—sir?” Ethan ducked his head in anticipation of a scolding or worse.

“Hardly enough to feed a sparrow, from the looks of it.” Mr. Lyman pushed a platter of fried salt pork and potatoes down the table. “Silas, put some food on that boy's plate. Paddy's, too.”

Daniel's head bobbed up, and he pressed his lips into a thin line.

“They've worked hard all week. They've earned a hearty meal,” Mr. Lyman said.

“Thank you, sir.” Ethan overcame his surprise enough to remember his manners. All Daniel said was “Sir,” without the

“They'll be working even harder today, sir,” Silas said. “I want to get that new wagon shed finished.”

“Well, eat up, then, boy,” Mr. Lyman said with a smile that seemed as warm and genuine as the spring morning. “We don't want your father hearing that we're starving you, do we?”

“No, sir.” Ethan forced himself to smile back. Perhaps it was only the winter that made Mr. Lyman cross. Maybe his mood would change and his temper grow milder as the days did. Ethan scooped a thick layer of jam onto his fritters. Surely things would get better now that spring had well and truly arrived.

If Mr. Lyman was particularly jovial that morning, Daniel seemed especially moody. Not that Ethan was surprised. Silas needed some boards cut for the shed, which meant a trip to Mr. Ward's sawmill.

Ethan held his breath as the oxcart rumbled to a stop in front of the mill. Joshua and Mr. Ward were helping another man load boards into a wagon. Ethan glanced around cautiously but didn't see the other two Ward boys. He hung back by the oxcart's tailgate, trying to make himself invisible, and noticed Daniel doing the same.

“Good day, Mr. Ward, Mr. Smead,” Silas said, shaking hands with the men all around. To Joshua, however, he only gave a curt nod.

The air felt thick with tension. At first Ethan thought he imagined it because of the story Lizzie had told him about Joshua and Daniel. Then he noticed that Silas and Joshua eyed each other like two mistrustful dogs.

Joshua wiped his forearm across his brow. He'd evidently been doing a hard morning's work; his shirt drooped with sweat. “Will you need someone to help you unload once you
get home, Mr. Smead?” he asked courteously.

Mr. Smead thumbed back his tall straw hat. “I'd appreciate that, Joshua. If your father can spare you, that is.”

Mr. Ward looked hesitant, glancing at the load of logs in Silas's oxcart.

“Don't worry about this job. I've got plenty of help here,” Silas said quickly, gesturing toward Daniel and Ethan.

“All right, then. But come right back. There's plenty needs doing around here, and most of it too hard for Peter and Sol to handle . . . if I could find 'em in the first place. Funny how they seem to disappear when there's work to be done.” Mr. Ward shrugged, seeming more amused than annoyed. He rubbed a handkerchief across the back of his neck and looked around. “Well, if it isn't young Mr. Root!” he said, noticing Ethan. “Why don't you see if you can find Peter and Sol? If they're going to waste their time, they might as well have company, eh?”

Ethan shook his head. “No, thank you, sir. I need to help Silas. Besides, I want to see how the saw works.”

Mr. Ward laughed. “Always working, huh? Just like your father. I never saw such a fellow for hard work as him. Keep on that way and you'll do him proud, boy.”

Joshua grinned behind his father's back. Ethan's face grew hot as the older boy tapped his forehead and mouthed the word
. He seethed quietly while Mr. Ward and Mr. Smead settled their accounts. When Silas acted as if Joshua weren't there, he couldn't help feeling pleased.

“All right, then, I'll be off,” Mr. Smead said. “Silas, don't you forget, now, about Saturday. Mrs. Smead won't be the only one disappointed if you don't come to tea.” He winked and clapped Silas on the back.

Ethan was surprised to see both Silas and Joshua turn slightly pink. Silas glanced over at Joshua, pressing his mouth
into something Ethan could only describe as a smirk. “Oh, I'll be there, sir,” Silas said. “You can be sure of that.”

After unloading the logs, Silas helped Mr. Ward secure one onto the log carriage, ready to be sawn into boards. Meanwhile, Ethan and Daniel brought the oxcart around to the lumberyard below the mill, where they would pick up the boards after the cutting was done. It was a good spot to watch all the workings of the mill, from the flume that rushed the water down to the turbines, to the network of shafts and gears and belts that moved the giant blade up and down. It was also far enough away from the pounding and clatter that he could talk to Daniel without Silas and Mr. Ward hearing. He nudged Daniel. “Silas and Joshua don't like each other very much, do they?” he said.

“Not when they're both always making calf eyes at Clarissa Smead,” Daniel said. He watched the first boards come skidding down the long poles that acted as a slide, sending the lumber from the mill to the yard below.

“She likes Silas better, though, doesn't she?” Ethan asked.

“Oh, she does, does she?” While Silas and Mr. Ward readied the next log up above, Daniel grabbed the first board and dragged it toward the cart. “And why is that?”

Ethan fumbled with his answer. He liked Silas better. Why shouldn't everybody else? “He's older and bigger. And he's not mean. And anyway, Mr. Smead asked Silas to tea, not Joshua.”

Daniel coughed. “It ain't Mr. Smead that Silas is mad for, is it, now? As for Clarissa, she'll be liking whoever suits her mood today. And next week she'll be liking the other one, or someone else entirely. Silas'd be smart to look closer to home and leave Clarissa Smead to Joshua Ward. If ever anybody was deserving each other, it's them two.”

“Oh,” Ethan said, although he didn't understand what
Daniel meant. He never understood anything to do with girls, or why the young men went all foolish over them. He was a little disappointed that Silas's hostility toward Joshua was over something so trivial. “I thought maybe Silas didn't like Joshua because he's your friend.” He helped Daniel stack the boards together.

Daniel laughed harshly. “Why ever would you be thinking Joshua was me friend?”

“No, no,” Ethan said hastily. “I meant Silas. I mean . . . I mean I thought maybe Silas doesn't like Joshua because Silas is your friend. He is, isn't he?” Ethan had noticed that Silas never laughed at Mr. Pease's Irish jokes. Daniel never drooped his head and hid his eyes in front of Silas, the way he did around Mr. and Mrs. Lyman. There was something about the way Daniel and Silas spoke—not exactly easy, but like they were equals, and that they knew things about each other that nobody else did.

Daniel spat out another laugh. “Silas is Mr. Lyman's son.”

“But Silas likes you, doesn't he?”

“He's a fair man. Can't say he favors his da much. 'Cept for his face. Maybe it's his ma he takes after.”

Ethan laughed at the thought of blond, blue-eyed Silas taking after Mrs. Lyman with her dark hair, black eyes, and sharp, narrow face. “Even I can tell he doesn't look anything like his mother.”

Daniel thumbed his cap back and tilted his head. “And how would you know that? His ma died before you was ever born.”

Ethan wondered how many more surprises Daniel and the Lymans had in store for him. “She died before—? But—Florella and Zeloda and Ruth and Aaron—” He felt as though he were babbling while he tried to figure out which child belonged to which Mrs. Lyman.

“Herself's ma to the girls and the baby, all right. But not
to Silas.”

The stack of boards had grown to half a dozen now. Daniel nodded for Ethan to grab one end and help him carry them to the oxcart.

“I wonder what she was like. Silas's mother, I mean.”

“Don't know. I never asked. I fancy she had yellow hair. Where else would Silas'a got it?”

“D'you s'pose he ever misses her?”

“Who?” Daniel asked, shoving the boards into place. “Silas or himself?”

Ethan couldn't imagine Mr. Lyman missing anybody. That would have been a weakness, a lack of discipline. But Silas . . . Ethan was about to say how sad it must have been for Silas to lose his mother, but he bit his tongue. Silas, at least, still had his pa and his home, his stepmother, a baby brother, and three little sisters. What did Daniel have?

“There. That's the last of it,” Silas said as Daniel shoved the final board into the oxcart. “Why don't you boys head back while I settle up with Mr. Ward? I want to stop by Mr. Harris's on the way home and see when he wants to hire the team for his plowing. The two of you can make a start unloading the wagon and getting to work. Paddy, you can show Ethan what to do.”

. Silas always called Daniel
. Ethan hadn't thought about that when he'd wondered if the two might be friends.

They'd barely gotten out of sight of the mill when the sound of laughter made Ethan's shoulders stiffen.

Peter and Solomon Ward played in the orchard next to the road, wrestling and tumbling among the apple trees. Peter glanced up and shouted, “Look, Sol, Mr. Lyman's let his idiots loose!”

Ethan's fists tightened until his nails dug into his palms. Daniel nudged Ethan's elbow. “You don't hear nothing. You don't see nothing.”

Peter and Sol scrambled to the tree nearest the road and swung from its lower branches. “Sim-ple! Sim-ple!” the boys sang in chorus. “Ethan's pa is sim-ple!”

Ethan gathered himself to lunge after them.

Daniel gripped Ethan's elbow harder. “Mr. Ward oughtn't to'a let his pigs to run loose,” he said without missing a step. “He oughtn't to fatten 'em on cabbages, neither. Shameful, the way they're squalling and breaking wind over there loud enough to scare away the customers, ain't it?”

the pig, Paddy Linnehan!” Peter shouted. “Wait 'til I get Joshua. He'll thrash you for a coward and a liar and a thief and a—”

“Aye,” Daniel called back. “He might, if he wasn't too busy swooning over Clarissa Smead.”

Ethan struggled to follow Daniel's example and not turn his head to see whether the Ward boys followed. But the jeers faded until Ethan could hear nothing but the squeak of the cart's wheels and the oxen's plodding steps.

Daniel cleared his throat and spat into the dirt. “Them two. If I had a tongue as sharp as theirs, I could mow an acre an hour, just by standing there talking at it.”

Ethan grinned at the idea of acres of hay collapsing to the ground as the Ward boys shouted and teased and talked. “Why doesn't Joshua like you?” he asked.

Daniel lifted one shoulder. “It couldn't be because the first time I met him, I punched him in the stomach, could it, now?” His mouth twisted.

“You did?” Ethan grinned in surprise and admiration. “Why?”

“He said if I was Irish, then me da must be a thief and
me ma must be a—” Daniel shook his head, as if suddenly remembering Ethan's age. “Anyways, I hit him where he was softest. And didn't his face turn a lovely shade of green, too!” The twist in Daniel's mouth curved upward.

“What did he do then?”

“He couldn't do naught, when all the carrying on brung out the schoolmaster.” The twist reversed itself. “The master must'a switched me half the afternoon, trying to make me apologize.”

“Did you?”

Daniel shook his head. “No one made Joshua apologize to me, now, did they? Me da nearly strapped me, too, when I come home, 'til I told him why I done it. Then he said 'twas a sorry thing I didn't hit the bas—” Daniel caught the word halfway out—“— the devil twice whilst I had the chance.”

Ethan nearly stumbled. It was the first time he'd heard Daniel mention that he'd ever had a home other than the Lymans', that he ever had a father. “What's he like? Your pa, I mean?”

Daniel's eyes started to fade into that blank look. “He was me da,” he said.

, Daniel had said. Not
. Ethan's curiosity about the fate of Daniel's parents was so strong he could taste it. But Daniel's face closed up like a shuttered window, and Ethan knew that the time for questions was over.

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