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Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (36 page)

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“Come on, lad. Let's ride for a bit.” Daniel swung himself onto Ivy's back. He kicked his left foot free of the stirrup and held a hand out to help Ethan get into the saddle in front of him. He pressed Ivy into an easy walk. “I know you mean well, but
don't you see? How can I live easy here with all that's happened?”

Ethan looked toward the Berkshire foothills. Once Daniel crossed them, he might as well be on the other side of the ocean. He thought of Mr. Bingham's brother, who had always promised to return but never had. “Why do you have to go so far? Can't you just go to Westfield or Pittsfield, or—or—”

“Talk travels fast and far, lad. I want to go somewhere the talk won't reach.”

“It's not fair.” Ethan's lower lip jutted out.

“Ain't you learned that by now? Me da once told me that he come here so he could start new, with nothing hindering him from making his own way in the world. If he failed, well, he'd at least know it was all on his own account and not for someone keeping him back. I want to get far enough away so there won't be no Lymans or talk of Lymans to poison me life, somewhere I can rise or fall on the strength of me own hands, where I got no one to thank or blame but meself.”

“Is there really such a place, even out west?” Ethan twisted to look up at Daniel's face.

Daniel's gray-green eyes were soft and distant. “I don't know. But I got to find out, don't I?”

Daniel circled Ivy to the west, then turned south along the river, past their old fishing and swimming spots. When they turned back east, he gave the reins to Ethan until they reached Daniel's thinking place. Daniel slid from the mare's back and paced the foundation, then sat on the mound where the chimney used to be. He pointed up at the Lymans' house. The sun sparkled off the big fan-shaped attic window.

“The first time I went home from Lyman's to see me ma and da,” Daniel said, “I told me ma I could see our house from me window. She said she'd put a candle out where I could see it, so I'd know she was thinking about me. I'd watch
nights until the candle went out, and I'd fancy she was saying her good-nights to me. It made me feel better, thinking I wasn't working up there for nothing, and there was someone as minded what become of me. But that was a long time ago.” Daniel walked over to the lilac bush; the brambles Silas had weeded out had grown back already. He gently separated the shrub from the prickly shoots and uprooted the briars. “Sometimes—I—I fancy maybe I can feel 'em here, and they can hear me. Daft, eh, lad?”

“I don't know.” Ethan squatted next to his friend and helped pull the brambles out. He grabbed the shoots carefully, trying to place his fingers between the thorns.

Daniel didn't seem to mind how the brambles bit his fingers. The lilac's seedpods rattled against the boys' shoulders as they worked. When they were done, Daniel started to wipe his hands on his trousers. He caught himself before he dirtied his new clothes. He gave Ethan a crooked smile and began to wipe his hands on the grass instead.

“Here.” Ethan dug his handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to Daniel.

“Ta, lad,” Daniel said, brushing the dirt from his hands. “I just thought I'd come and tell 'em where I'm going. So they won't miss me, see. It's just a notion, mind.” Daniel went back to the chimney mound. He closed his eyes and sat in silence for a long time, his face quiet as if he were listening to someone that Ethan couldn't hear.

Daniel let Ethan take the reins all the way home. But there was no joy in the honor, even though it was a perfect day to ride: sunny and warm, with a breeze stirring Ivy's mane. The light had made the shift from stark white to pale yellow that would eventually mellow into the gold of autumn. The whir of crickets and cicadas had risen to an anxious rattle, as if
they knew they had less than a month left for singing. There would still be sweltering days ahead, but the season had crested and begun to slip toward fall. It seemed right to Ethan that the summer had chosen this day to begin dying.

Ethan could feel that Ivy wanted to run, but he didn't let her. The sooner they got back, the sooner they'd have to say good-bye. They'd nearly reached Ethan's house before he spoke. “Daniel—”

“Aye?”

All the way back, Ethan had been reflecting on what Daniel had said back at his thinking place:
It made me feel better, thinking there was someone as minded what become of me
. “I mind. I mind what becomes of you.” The words stuck in his throat as though he'd swallowed some of the brambles they'd pulled.

“Do you, now?” Daniel took the reins and halted Ivy in front of the house. He slid off the horse and helped Ethan down. “That's grand, lad. That's what brothers are s'posed to do, ain't it?”

It was all Ethan could do not to fling his arms around his friend and beg him once more to stay. But he'd vowed he wouldn't shame Daniel or himself with tears. He held himself stiffly, ready to shake Daniel's hand like a man.

Daniel took something out of his pocket and slipped it into Ethan's hand. “Here. Take care of this for me.”

Ethan unwrapped the knotted handkerchief. The little wooden horse nestled inside gleamed a mellow golden brown. He shook his head. “I can't take this. Your pa made it for you.”

Daniel knocked Ethan's hat askew. “I didn't say you was to keep it, you fool.” He swung himself into the saddle before Ethan could give the little horse back. “I'm just lending it to you. Until you can come and bring it back to me.” Ivy danced and reared underneath him, eager to run and play. He whirled her away and down the road before Ethan could recover his breath enough to say “Ta.”

Acknowledgments

As of this writing,
A Difficult Boy
is officially older than Ethan, its main character (although thankfully
not
older than Daniel!). Along the way I've accumulated a long list of people who've helped in various ways. If I've forgotten anybody, please forgive me.

First, I'd like to acknowledge the members of the Long-meadow Writers and Poets and the Oak and Stone Writing Groups, without whom this book would not have even been started. Nearly half of the story was written during workshop sessions, and members' encouragement and enthusiasm helped me see the book through to the finish. Their comments also helped immensely with the editing. Thanks to Julia Starzyk (for inspiring exercises and editing), Beth Clifford (for additional editorial advice), Lise Hicks (for yelling at me at a very critical stage), Anna Bowling and Melva Michaelian (my present Wednesday night support group, who've continued to see me through to the not-so-bitter end), Mary Jane Eustace, Maureen Kellman, Bill Lang, Amy Lyon, Melinda McQuade, Lauretta St. George-Sorel, Beryl Salinger-Schmitt, and Peggy Tudryn.

Thanks to Florence and Paul Muller-Reed for their constant and relentless encouragement and for making me write five pages a week, whether or not I felt like it. If my writing group comrades made me start the story, it was Flo and Paul who made me finish it.

Thanks to my agent, William Reiss of John Hawkins and Associates, for giving Ethan and Daniel a second chance. And thanks to my editor, Regina Griffin, for giving Ethan and Daniel a home, and to Assistant Editor Leanna Petronella for picking up where Regina left off.

A huge thank-you to Carol Munro, for friendship, cheerleading, continuity checking, helpful criticism, and diligent (and unpaid) editorial advice. Carol, I owe you big-time!

Thanks to Dennis Picard, historian extraordinaire, for saving me from anachronisms, illegal and improbable plot twists, and other historical faux pas. If I've made any errors, it's in spite of his help, not because of it.

Thanks to Thomas Moriarty and George Bresnahan for providing Irish translations.

Thanks to my early readers, who endured the telephone book–sized version: Dru Bronson-Geoffroy, Pat Cahill, Marlissa Carrion, Chris Creelman, Chris DeFilippis, John and Jo Ellis-Monaghan, Stan and Nancy Graziano, Fran Holland (thanks also to Fran for proofreading), Jessica Holland, Margaret Humberston, Judith Jaeger, Patti Millette, E. Catherine Tobler, and the Skarzynski clan—Terri, Jim, Cindy, and Stan. Thanks, of course, to my parents, Joseph and Rhea Plourde; my siblings, Rosemarie Plourde Buxton and Christopher Plourde; my Aunt Theresa and Uncle Joe Chevalier; and my husband, Joe, who had to read it because they're related to me.

Thanks to the PEN New England Children's Book Caucus for recognizing
A Difficult Boy
with the 2003 Discovery Award. Special thanks to Nancy Hope Wilson of PEN New England for advice and encouragement. And thanks to Jessica Holland for nagging me into entering the PEN competition in the first place. Thanks also to Jessica for encouragement, enthusiasm, timely nagging, and revisional inspiration, and to her writing group members Marlena Zapf and Kristin Kladstrup for helpful comments and long-distance support even though they've never met me.

Thanks to the University of Southern Maine's 2001 Stonecoast Summer Writers' Conference, where the manuscript first met strangers' eyes and, miraculously, did not crash and burn. Dennis Lehane and Karen Joy Fowler, both wonderful teachers, were inspirations. Remembering their words of encouragement kept me from giving up when things looked bleak. Thanks to fellow Stonecoasters for encouragement and lots of constructive criticism.

Thanks to Judith Jaeger for encouragement and advice on shameless self-promotion.

Thanks to the research libraries at Old Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport Museum, and the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (where I've been archivist for the past eleven years). Thanks especially to CVHM, since it was coming across a document in the archives that inspired the story. Special thanks to Margaret Humberston, head of library and archives (and the best boss I've ever had), for flexible scheduling, encouragement, and extremely large blocks of chocolate.

Most important of all, thanks to Mom and Dad for giving me a passion for books.

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