Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (2 page)

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“Silas!” The call came from a one-story ell at the back of the house. A girl stood on the step, tossing scraps to the poultry. Her brown dress and baggy green apron made her look as plump as one of the hens. But her round face and smiling eyes seemed friendly. “Are Mr. Pease and Mr. Wheeler staying to tea?” she asked.

“We will if there's any of your currant cake left, Lizzie,” Mr. Pease shouted back.

“I take it that means yes,” Lizzie said with a laugh.

When the girl had disappeared into the house, Mr. Pease winked at Mr. Wheeler. “If only that Lizzie Stearns looked as fine as she cooks, I'd marry her tomorrow.” He bowed toward Silas. “Unless, that is, you want her for yourself.”

Silas's mouth twisted in exasperation. “Lizzie's our dairymaid,” he told Ethan. “You'll be helping her and Paddy with the milking. You can milk a cow, can't you?”

“Of course I can.” Ethan thrust out his chest and put his shoulders back, trying to look even bigger and stronger than before.

Silas turned to Daniel. “Show him where to put his things, then bring him down. We'll see how he does.”

“Look, Mrs. Lyman, the new boy is here,” Lizzie said, smiling at Daniel and Ethan as they entered the kitchen.

Ethan tried hard not to gape. The huge whitewashed room dwarfed the dark little kitchen at home. Pewter and
tinware gleamed from shelves and mantel. Barely a spattering of flyspecks marred the white ceiling. At home, whole constellations of them covered the plaster, along with patches of gray and tan where the roof had leaked or where a pumpkin in the attic had rotted and oozed pulpy orange slime onto the ceiling below.

The bustle and noise, at least, were familiar. Just like at home, the Lyman kitchen seemed full of women and girls hard at work baby-tending, tea-making, and preparing for milking. And just like at home, the kitchen was rich with smells. Ethan picked out woodsmoke, vinegar and horseradish, nutmeg and cinnamon, sour milk and soiled nappies, and the smoky-salty-sugary-greasy aroma of ham.

A tall, broad-shouldered woman, Mrs. Lyman worked at a big table in front of the fireplace. Two girls who shared Mrs. Lyman's dark hair and eyes and long nose worked alongside her, slicing meat and bread and cakes and rinsing pickles for the evening's tea. One of the girls looked about Ethan's age; the other looked a few years older and a decade more serious. At a side table, a third, smaller girl changed a nappy for a toddler who squealed enough for three babies.

Ethan gave Mrs. Lyman an awkward bow and tried to say “Good day.” The words caught in the back of his throat and came out as “Guh-uh-uh.”

The younger of the girls at the big work table snickered.

“Zeloda!” the older girl said. “Mind your manners.”

“Don't be silly, Florella. It's not like he was company.” Zeloda wrinkled her nose at Ethan.

“It's not charitable to laugh at the afflicted.” Florella lifted her chin high as she spoke. “Is it, Mama?”

Mrs. Lyman raised an eyebrow. “The boy's only bound out. That doesn't make him afflicted.”

“Isn't he dumb?” Florella sounded disappointed that Ethan wouldn't give her any scope for charity. “Why can't he talk, then?”

“I'm not dumb!” Ethan's words had no trouble bursting out this time.

“He's not dumb, only stupid.” Zeloda stretched out the last word so that it dug under Ethan's skin like a splinter.

Mrs. Lyman clapped her hands. “Girls, that's enough! We'll find out soon enough whether the boy is quick or not. Get to your chores and let him get to his.”

“Don't mind Zeloda,” Lizzie whispered. “It's only words.” She wiped her hands on her apron and introduced herself. Her sparkling cinnamon-brown eyes made Ethan want to smile in spite of the sting of Zeloda's teasing. Lizzie nodded toward the children at the side table. “That's Ruth and Aaron, Mrs. Lyman's youngest.” Ruth couldn't have been much more than five years old. She was dark-haired like her sisters, but with blue-gray eyes and a babyish round face. Aaron let out a shriek that set Ethan's ears ringing.

“I hope you like it here,” Lizzie added, as if she were telling Ethan a secret.

Ethan followed Daniel up a steep, narrow staircase to a stout door with a heavy bolt set above the latch. A second flight of stairs led to an attic full of squash and pumpkins, drying herbs and seedpods, discarded furniture and broken tools. Great fan-shaped windows arched like a tom turkey's tail across each end wall. On one side, a string of small rectangular windows along the eaves overlooked the barnyard and the road heading south; on the other side of the house, another row of little windows yielded a view of the road leading north, back toward the common, back toward home.

He peered out the big fan window at the back of the house,
which overlooked Mr. Lyman's fields and orchards. The land swept down toward the glistening ribbon of the Farmington River, then back up again to the blue-green Berkshire foothills in the distance. It wasn't the view, however, that enchanted him, but a tiny figure perched on the windowsill.

A little wooden horse stood guard over the attic, rearing back on its haunches, mane and tail flying. The wood glowed softly in the mellowing afternoon sun. If he touched it, he was sure the bunched-up muscles would feel warm and ready to spring into life. “He's beautiful,” he murmured, reaching out a finger to caress the figure.

A hand snatched the horse away. Daniel stood over him, his eyes dark and narrowed, his mouth twisted. The horse disappeared into his pocket. “Don't be touching what ain't yours.” He tossed Ethan's basket onto the floor, grabbed the bundle from his hand, and sent it tumbling. “Time for chores,” he said, and headed downstairs.

The cow next to Ethan cocked her tail. He sidestepped to dodge the hot yellow stream that splattered the floor. He followed Daniel to a big brindle cow who munched her supper uneasily, pawing the floor and tossing her head between bites.

“This is Nell,” Daniel said, dropping a well-worn stool near the cow's back feet.

Ethan looked at the cow, then at the stool, then at the bucket, then back at the cow. He didn't look at Daniel.

“Well?” Daniel folded his arms across his chest. “You do know how to milk, don't you?”

Nell's hind feet stepped about as if she were trying to dance a reel.

“Of course. I do it all the time at home.” But Tess never danced around the way Nell did.

Daniel tapped his foot and rolled his eyes. “You can't. Oh, this is grand. They send us a lad who can't even milk.”

“I can too!”

“Show me.” Daniel hooked a foot around one leg of the stool and shoved it next to the cow. He dropped the bucket under her belly. Nell rattled her horns against the stanchion boards.

“I—I'm just waiting for her to stand still.”

“She'll stand still when you pail her out. Or would you be wanting her to burst, now?”

Gritting his teeth, Ethan sat at arm's length from Nell's haunches and reached out a hand. It couldn't be that hard. He'd managed all right with Tess, and one cow was just like another.

Only they weren't. Tess's udder had hung down loose and low, the teats as big as Pa's thumb, wrinkly and rubbery and a perfect handful for Ethan to pinch off at the top and squeeze the thick stream of milk down. Nell's bag was high and tight, with teats barely as big as the tip of Ethan's pinkie. He could fit only his thumb and forefinger around one. When he squeezed, a thin warm trickle ran down his hand, along his arm, and up his sleeve. He bit his lip and tried again, his fingers now wet and slippery with milk. The teat slid between them and popped out of his grasp.

In the next instant, Ethan was on the floor. One moment he'd seen a hoof flashing in front of his face. The next, the stool was gone and he was sitting in a pile of fresh manure.

Chapter Two

Ethan took a shuddering breath, half expecting to find his chest crushed or his head broken, but the only thing that hurt was his rear end. When he tried to get up, he found that Daniel's hand gripped his braces. He realized that the other boy had pulled him away from Nell's sharp hoof.

Daniel yanked Ethan to his feet. “You want to be getting your bloody head bashed in? Who the devil ever taught you to milk like that?” His voice dripped with contempt.

“Our cow doesn't kick.” Ethan plucked at the seat of his trousers. A glob of manure splatted to the floor. He backed up and tried to rub the rest off against the wall.

“She wouldn't kick if you'd milk her proper.” Daniel righted the stool and set the bucket back under the cow. “Like this.” He sat close up against Nell's flank. Bracing the bucket between his knees, he turned his face toward Ethan and laid his cheek against Nell's side. “If you're afraid, she'll be afraid, too. You get right in here and she sees there's nothing to be scared of.” He put his hands out, tucking his left arm into the crook of Nell's hock.

Fear, Ethan thought, was probably the last thing on Nell's mind. Murder was more likely.

“Then you get yourself a good handful of her. She's not got much of a teat to grab onto, so you got to be taking a bit of the bag, too.” Daniel's long fingers grasped an inch of Nell's bright pink udder along with the tiny button of her teat.

Ethan noticed strange ragged patches of white flesh on the older boy's hands and forearms, unfreckled and paler than the rest of his skin. The discolored spots distracted him until a steady stream of milk spurted from between Daniel's fingers and hissed into the bucket below, drawing Ethan's attention back to the lesson.

Nell's hind leg cocked back. Ethan opened his mouth to shout a warning. Daniel jabbed his left elbow sideways into the cow's hock, stopping the kick before it had time to start. Nell tried again. Daniel jabbed again. The kick turned into a harmless pawing in the hay, as though all Nell had meant to do was readjust her footing. After Nell settled, Daniel's left hand moved back to the cow's udder and joined his right in a steady one-two rhythm. “See? You get right in there and she hasn't space to swing. And if she tries, you can stop her.”

“But how did you know?”

“Felt it here.” Daniel pressed his face tighter against the cow's flank. A corner of his mouth curled. “And saw it in your face.”

Ethan's cheeks warmed.

“S'pose this one's too much for you. Go do Patience.” Daniel jerked his right elbow toward a placid brown cow who stood with her joints so slack she seemed to be eating in her sleep.

Ethan moved toward Patience, then stopped. “No.”

Daniel's hands missed a beat, but he didn't look up. “No?”

“You wanted me to do Nell. I'll do Nell.”

Daniel cocked his head to blink at Ethan. His pale eyebrows gathered, then smoothed. He shrugged. “Suit yourself. Just remember you're milking a cow, not playing the bloody pianoforte.”

Ethan clenched his teeth and planted himself against Nell's side, his left arm poised against her hind leg. From the corner of his eye, he could see Nell's cloven hoof and, next to
it, Daniel's feet, bare and bony and filthy. He felt Daniel's eyes on him, waiting for the next opportunity to scold and sneer. Ethan reached for the cow's udder and grasped teat and bag just as Daniel had demonstrated. When he felt Nell's muscles bunch against his forehead, he stiffened his arm, jabbing his elbow into Nell's hock when her heel came off the floor. Her foot came back down, hard and fast, and stayed there.

His first squeeze brought the milk out in a feeble trickle. The next squeeze was better. The milk came in only a thin string compared to the ropy stream Daniel had produced, but it came. He had the bucket a quarter full before Daniel's feet disappeared and the weight of being watched vanished.

Ethan was used to working hard: chopping wood, picking stones in fields and garden, hoeing, digging, hauling wood and water. None of it seemed to use the muscles that milking Nell did. His fingers cramped, and he lost the rhythm of pinch and squeeze. The stream of milk faltered into short spurts.

He gradually became aware of motion around him. Stanchion boards rasped open, and the cattle clomped out of the barn. He heard the scrape-scrape-scrape of someone mucking out the barn. His wrists and the backs of his hands tingled, but he forced his fingers to keep moving.

The cows murmured in the barnyard like children waiting for a friend kept after school. He heard the men chatting and laughing outside. Laughing at him, no doubt. His fingers kept moving, though his shoulders felt rigid. The milk went from small spurts to drops to nothing. He pressed his lips together and tried again, forcing his fingers to continue working the udder that was now soft and loose in his hands.

Something nudged his leg. Daniel's feet reappeared next to Nell's. “Let's have a look, then.”

“I can do it.” Ethan felt sure Daniel wanted him to give up, to be sent home in disgrace.

Daniel crouched and shouldered him away. He put a thumb and forefinger at the top of one teat, then gently slid his fingers down. Nothing came out. After repeating the test with the other three teats, he nodded. “I s'pose that'll do.” He gave Nell a parting slap on the rump and walked away.

Ethan stared after him. Daniel paused at the door to the cattle yard. “Well, are you going to be leaving her in all night?”

“You call that washing up?” Daniel grabbed Ethan's arm and shoved him back in front of the pump. He tossed a little scrub brush into the tin basin that sat under the spout, sending a splash of water into Ethan's face and down the front of his shirt and vest. “There,” he said, flicking a glob of soft brown soap onto Ethan's cheek. “Hands
and
face. Ears, neck, nails. The lot.”

“How can I finish washing my buckets with you boys blockading the pump?” Lizzie dropped the last two milk pails on the floor with a hollow thunk.

“It's this new lad,” Daniel said. “You'd think he'd never laid eyes on a pot of soap before.”

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