Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (23 page)

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“What's that?”

“Just an old shirt. I put some of the wormwood inside it, so it's like a poultice.”

The damp, fragrant cloth soothed the welts that ran from Ethan's shoulders to his backside. The wormwood drew the sting out, leaving behind a cool, fuzzy numbness. “It feels nice,” he said around the last bite of rusk. “Ta.”

Daniel made a funny startled noise and shifted out of Ethan's sight.

“He says I can't work in the store or go to meeting for two weeks,” Ethan said.

“I don't fancy he'd want too many folks seeing how he marked you up.”

“Maybe I shouldn'a called him a liar.”

Daniel made a strangled noise that seemed to have a curse mixed up in it. “ 'Twasn't hardly very clever of you, was it, now?” he said. Ethan heard sounds that he recognized as Daniel's getting-ready-for-bed noises.

“He said Pa was stupid. He said Pa sent me away because they don't want me no more.”

“Oh.” The getting-ready-for-bed sounds stopped. “Your da's not stupid,” Daniel said. “And he hadn't no choice about sending you here.”

“And Mr. Lyman
is
a liar.”

“Aye. But you'll have to say you're sorry for calling him so.” Ethan heard the double swish of Daniel shrugging his braces off first one shoulder, then the other. Fabric rustled as Daniel stepped out of his trousers. The contents of his pockets made a muffled thud against the floorboards.

“I won't say I'm sorry. Not ever.” Ethan sat up in bed, the damp shirt sticking to his back.

Daniel knelt and grasped Ethan's shoulders. “Aye, you will. Unless you're wanting another thrashing for breakfast tomorrow. And another for dinner and tea, as well.”

“But I'm
not
sorry. He
is
a liar.”

Daniel's fingers dug into Ethan's arms. “You'll say you're sorry, understand?” His voice was soft but insistent.

“If I do, I'll be a liar just like him.”

Daniel sighed and loosened his grip. “Well . . . you can say you're sorry without having it be a lie, now, can't you?”

Ethan gathered the shirt around himself like a shawl. “How?”

“You must be sorry for some of what happened today.”

“No, I'm not. Not one bit.” But his voice faltered as he thought about another thrashing in the morning, and another and another until he said the right words.

“You're not sorry that cloth got spoilt?”

“Well-l-l-l—”

“You're not sorry you got thrashed? Or maybe you like being strapped.”

Ethan shuddered. “Of course I don't.”

“You're not sorry you missed your tea?”

“I—I guess I am.” The rusk only reminded him how empty his stomach was. He wished Daniel had managed to steal three or four instead of only the one.

“You're not sorry I had the work of milking your cows while you was up here nursing your arse?”

“He locked me up. . . .”

“And you're not sorry he did?”

“I . . . I s'pose. . . .”

Daniel settled back on his heels and crossed his arms. “Well, then. You can say you're sorry for what happened, then, can't you?”

“I . . . I guess so.”

“So you can tell Lyman you're sorry and not take back calling him a liar, see?”

“I—I—”

Daniel shrugged as if he didn't care anymore. “It's your own business, of course, if you'd rather be thrashed and starved for a week or two. It never done me any good. If you do it your way, he'll only win in the end. If you do it my way, you'll be keeping your pride
and
your skin.” Daniel crawled over to his side of the bed and slid between the sheets.

“I hate him.” Ethan settled under the covers and adjusted the shirt over his back. He pillowed his cheek against the rag,
releasing more of the wormwood's scent as he crushed it.

Daniel wriggled to the far edge of the bed, avoiding the wet shirt and the growing damp spot spreading across the sheet and blanket. “Can't say I'm overfond of him meself.”

“I wish he was dead.”

The silence stretched out so long that Ethan thought Daniel had fallen asleep. But finally the Irish boy spoke. “I did, too, once. I said so to me ma. She told me if you wish someone ill, it only comes back at you in the end. So you're better to wish somebody good.”

Ethan closed his eyes and conjured up the best wish he could. “Then I wish I was your brother.”

Daniel stiffened. He held his breath for a very long time, then he spoke so softly that Ethan could barely hear him. “No. No, you don't.”

Chapter Eighteen

“Silas, what's over there?” Ethan asked. He and Silas had been hoeing a field of pumpkin seedlings across the road from the secret place where Daniel sometimes went at night. If anybody knew what the spot signified, Silas might, and it might be a long time before there would be another opportunity to ask him.

“Grass,” Silas said matter-of-factly, not looking up from his hoeing. “Not very good grass, mind you, but if I manure it well this season, it might do for a little hay next year . . . or maybe—” He didn't break his rhythm as he spoke; his hoe cut big even swaths through the weeds, leaving them behind to wilt in the blistering sun.

“No, no,” Ethan said impatiently. “I mean there's something peculiar about it. There's a sort of funny bit.” He pointed with his hoe. “Over there. You can't see it from the road, but—”

Silas straightened, wiping his forehead on his sleeve. He eyed Ethan sharply from under the shade of his tall straw hat. “And when were you wandering over there?”

“Just—just exploring. Sometimes. When I have an afternoon free, I like to walk around and see what's where. It's allowed, isn't it?”

“Yes, it's allowed.” Silas ran his handkerchief along the back of his neck. “You don't know the story, then,” he said.

Ethan shook his head.

“I thought everybody knew,” Silas said. “Come on, then.
Let's take a walk.” Still carrying his hoe, Silas strolled to the fence and hoisted himself over the rails with a smooth, easy vault that reminded Ethan of Daniel leaping onto Ivy's back.

Clumsily, Ethan climbed the fence and followed Silas across the road to the little rise where Daniel had nearly disappeared from view on the night Ethan had followed him. The site didn't seem nearly as foreboding in the daylight. The apple trees lining the road had leafed out and now cast soft pools of welcome shade instead of ominous skeletal shadows.

Silas and Ethan walked to the top of the bank and looked down. The ground fell gently away to a broad flat spot where the grass grew thinly.

A scrubby bush stood to one side of the flat space. The scrawny plant was about four feet high and nearly choked by brambles. Ethan noticed something familiar about the weaker plant's heart-shaped leaves. The wind stirred them, and he caught sight of a few stunted clusters of lilacs, long faded and starting to go to seed.

“It's here, isn't it? That funny bit you were asking about,” Silas said.

“I think so.” At first, Ethan couldn't find the square that Daniel had paced the other night. The raking shadows of the rising moon had revealed contours in the earth that the brightness of midmorning and the long, scraggly grass now hid. His bare feet felt what his eyes couldn't see. His toes found a depression a couple of inches deep. He felt a subtle difference in the earth and the grasses and weeds inside the depression from those outside it. He paced it off as Daniel had, finding the boundary by walking with one foot on the high side and one on the low. It was a rectangle, not a square, measuring about eight by ten paces.

The odd little mound in the center of the rectangle was easy to see even in the daylight, though it looked much
smaller, no more than a foot at its highest point. The grass was thinner there than in the rest of Daniel's secret spot.

“It used to be Paddy's house,” Silas said.

“His house?” Ethan's eyes widened as the puzzle fell into place in his mind.

“Most of the bricks and foundation stones are gone, whatever somebody could use again, and the cellar hole's filled in. But you can still find the shape of it.” Silas pointed east, toward his own home, which stood like a white sentinel on the hill that overlooked the field. “You can see our place from here. And Paddy could see his house from our attic.”

“What happened?” Ethan asked.

“It burned.” Silas continued to pace the outline of the foundation.

Ethan shuddered.

“Paddy was a little older than you when it happened. He saw the light from the window upstairs and ran down here. We all came down after him, but there was nothing we could do. It was December, and it was hard to get water to put the fire out. We threw snow on it, but we didn't save much. It was already burning pretty badly when we got there. Nobody could get inside to help Paddy's family, although he tried.”

“He—he went inside?”

Silas nodded. “He said he could hear his brother crying.”

“Brother?” Ethan repeated, reeling with the new information.

“His brother, Michael. The child must have been three or four. But it was too hot. The house was falling down around Paddy, and he couldn't reach any of them. Nobody could. We had to drag him out. They made me hold him because he kept trying to go back in.” Silas shivered all over, as if it had suddenly turned winter again. “You've seen the scars on him.” He rubbed his forearms.

Ethan nodded.

“His arms and hands were all burned, and some of his hair burned off, too. Even so, he fought me. I held him down and put snow on his burns. I didn't know what else to do. I never heard anybody scream like that before. I thought he was dying. When we took him home, he was so sick. I don't know if it was from the cold or the burns or from—” Silas shook his head and closed his eyes. “Maybe all of it. He took a fever, and then he really
was
dying. The doctor even gave up on him.”

“But he didn't die,” Ethan said.

Silas shook his head. “Mrs. Nye,” he said. “She wouldn't give up, even when the doctor said it was no use.” With his hoe, he began to hack at the brambles that surrounded the feeble lilac bush. “So now you know.”

Ethan picked up a lump of broken brick and studied it while he framed his next question. “Silas . . .”

“What?”

“Why does your father hate Daniel?”

Silas raised an eyebrow. “Daniel? Did he tell you to call him that?” Just like everybody else, Silas called Daniel
Paddy
. Well, not quite like everybody else. When Mr. and Mrs. Lyman or Mr. Pease or Mr. Wheeler said
Paddy
, it was more than just a name. Or rather, less. There was something sly about it that seemed meaner to Ethan than if they said
fool
. But when Silas said
Paddy
, it was just a name. No more than a name, but no less, either.

“No. I just—well, it's his name, isn't it?” Ethan watched Silas's face carefully from under the shade of his hat brim.

Silas nodded, his mouth drawn in a thoughtful line. “I'd almost forgotten—I haven't heard it in so long. I thought he'd forgotten, too.”

“Your father won't even let Daniel keep his own name. Why does he hate him so?”

Silas blinked dully at Ethan, as if he didn't understand.

Ethan blinked back. “You see how he hits him,” he continued.

“When Paddy's folks died, he was left with nothing but debts.”

Ethan couldn't understand what Daniel's father's debts had to do with the way Mr. Lyman acted. “What about this?” He spread his arms to indicate the field around him. “He had this, didn't he?”

“It was mortgaged.” Silas didn't seem anxious to return to work. He kept chopping the weeds away from the pathetic little shrub.

“And now it belongs to you,” Ethan said.

“To Him.” Although Silas hadn't named
Him
, Ethan knew from the odd way he said it that Silas meant Mr. Lyman. Ethan cast a sidelong glance at Silas, whose profile was a younger, sharper tracing of his father's. Silas never addressed Mr. Lyman as anything but
sir
. Never
Papa
or
Pa
or
Father
. When speaking in Mr. Lyman's absence, Silas never said
my father
, but only
he
or
him
. Yet somehow it was always clear which
he
Silas meant, because he said the word in a different way from all the other
he
s and
him
s in his life. For Mr. Lyman, all Silas's
he
s and
him
s sounded as though they had capital
H
s, the way some people talked about God.

Or the devil.

Ethan shook off the thought. He threw a worried glance up at Silas, as if he feared the young man could hear what was inside his head. “So your father had to keep Daniel because of his indenture?”

Silas shook his head. “Paddy first came here to work off part of his father's debt. When Matthew Linnehan died, his creditors laid claim to his property—what was left of it—” He made a sweeping gesture that took in the remnants of the house and the scrubby land around it—“to pay his debts.”

“Creditors?” Ethan asked.

“Well, as it turned out, He was the only one.”

Somehow Ethan wasn't surprised. “So your father took the land and Mr. Linnehan's debt was paid off?”

Silas nodded. “Legally, that was the end of Paddy's obligation to Him, and His to Paddy. So then it was up to the overseers of the poor to take charge of Paddy, since he had no property and no family.”

“Did they put Daniel on the vendue then?” Ethan asked, remembering his lessons with Mr. Bingham.

“The vendue is only for people who have a settlement here, people who were born in this town.”

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