Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (4 page)

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He glanced over at Daniel. The weeks and months and years ahead seemed impossibly long.

In the rapidly fading light, Ethan surveyed his new home. The northwest corner of the attic served as the boys' bedchamber. The bed was piled with bolster and pillows, sheets and blankets, all tidily arranged as if they sat on a real bedstead instead of on a straw-filled tick laid on the floor. Next to the bed stood a battered chest and table. A chipped redware pitcher and bowl sat on the table, along with a couple of towels, a redware mug, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, and a small scrub brush with bristles softened and splayed from long use. Daniel set a bucket of water down under the table.

In the graying light, Ethan retrieved the lump of cloth
that held his clothes. “Where do I put my things?”

Daniel opened the chest and shoved his small pile of clothes to one side. Ethan leaned over to drop his bundle in. Daniel grabbed his wrist and let the trunk slam closed. “Wait,” he said. He took Ethan's bundle in one hand. With the other, he grabbed Ethan's elbow and led him toward the table. Daniel dropped the bundle, opened a drawer, and pulled out a candle stub. He struck a lucifer against the ragged lip of the pitcher.

“What're you doing?” Ethan asked.

Daniel lit the candle. He put a hand on Ethan's neck, tipping his head downward. “Making sure you got no lice.”

Ethan squirmed away. “Of course I haven't.”

“Nor fleas, neither. You'll not be putting your things in with mine if you got fleas.” Daniel grabbed Ethan's shoulder and held him still.

“I don't have fleas,” Ethan protested. Not this time of year, anyway. April was too early for fleas.

“I'd like to be seeing for meself.”

“What difference does it make?” Ethan didn't know anybody who didn't have fleas by midsummer.

“You'll be giving 'em to me, and the next thing herself'll see me itching, and she'll be thrashing me for a filthy Irishman, and I'll not be having that, understand?”

Daniel's talk of thrashing made Ethan decide that he'd better let Daniel have his way. Biting his lip, he stood still while Daniel poked through his hair for nits and checked his arms for fleabites. A lump clogged his throat and moisture pricked his eyes. He clenched his fists, digging his nails into his palms to quell the urge to slap Daniel's hands away.

Apparently satisfied with his examination, Daniel released Ethan. “S'pose you'll do.” He opened Ethan's bundle of clothes and shook out each item before placing it in the chest, making sure there were no moths or worms or beetles
that might contaminate his own clothes. Finished with Ethan's clothes, he planted the candle stub in a cracked saucer caked with tallow. Then he lifted the water bucket he'd brought upstairs and filled the pitcher. He set the bucket down and pointed to another that sat a few feet away. “Two buckets—see? That one for waste, this one for clean water. Don't you be getting 'em mixed up and don't be throwing nothing out the windows. Understand?”

Ethan nodded.

Daniel stripped off his shirt and began to wash. While Daniel's back was turned, Ethan hunted for the little basket Ma had packed for him. He didn't feel hungry so much for the food itself as for something that tasted and smelled of home. Earlier, he'd thought of trying to soften Daniel's temper with an offering from the basket. Now he didn't consider sharing so much as a crumb. He wouldn't give Daniel anything. Ever. Not even if he were starving.

As Ethan picked up the basket, something small and furry squirmed out and scurried away among the squash. His stomach lurched. Two more furry somethings crawled around inside the basket, feasting on Ethan's treasures. In his imagination, he screamed and flung the basket—mice, food, and all—across the attic. Or better yet, at Daniel, and the mice would bite his homely face and tear at his hair. Ethan wished he could turn into a mouse so he could bite Daniel to his heart's content. Then he'd slip away through a crack and run home.

Home
.

And Ma and Pa would greet him like the prodigal son in the Bible and he'd never have to leave again and . . . and . . .

The truth of it is, son, I need you to go
.

Ethan let the basket fall. He pressed his face against the cold window glass until he realized that Daniel was speaking to him. The Irish boy's face was red from scrubbing. With his
wet hair slicked back, his features looked pinched and angular. Like a fox, Ethan thought, and a half-starved, mangy one at that.

“Will you be washing, or will you be standing there all night?”

Numbly, Ethan gave his face and hands a cursory rinse before undressing for bed.

“Me own side's by the window.” Daniel stripped off his broadfalls and threw on an old shirt. “You keep to your side and don't be hogging the covers, understand?”

Clenching his teeth, Ethan crawled into bed while Daniel blew out the candle. He settled himself as close to the edge of the mattress as he could, stiffening when he felt Daniel slip into bed next to him, grab a handful of covers, and turn his back. Ethan stared up at the ceiling, silently releasing the tears he'd held back all evening.

He hated it: hated the big white house with everything so clean and fine that he was afraid to breathe; hated every cow in the big barn, especially Nell; hated all the farmers who'd stood outside laughing while he'd been milking; hated Mrs. Lyman, who wouldn't let him sit at dinner. But most of all he hated the gawky, ugly boy lying in bed next to him.

Daniel pitched about in the bed. He yanked all the covers over to his side, then kicked them off again, shoved his pillow away, then pulled it back and thumped it down. He made a grumpy, huffing noise and flung himself out of bed, dumping sheet and blanket onto Ethan's head.

Cautiously, Ethan tugged the covers away from his face. A fan-shaped piece of star-spattered sky framed Daniel's silhouette. He stood at the window for a long time, his hands splayed like spiders against the glass.

Just as Ethan began to wonder if Daniel was going to sleep standing up like that, the boy swung away from the
window. Ethan couldn't see exactly what Daniel was doing, only the lighter gray shape of Daniel's body drifting among the attic's shadows. When the lower half of Daniel's form disappeared, Ethan guessed that Daniel had put his trousers on, the dark cloth hiding his pale legs. When Daniel's shirt seemed to sink into the floor and the padding sounds of Daniel's feet faded away, Ethan knew that Daniel had gone down the stairs and outside.

Ethan crept out of bed to see what Daniel had been staring at. A cap of stars hung over the black outlines of the western mountains. He picked out the road and some vague dark shapes that might have been trees. He stared until little flecks of rust and amber fuzzed his vision. For a moment, he thought he saw something moving along the road. He rubbed his eyes, and the blacks and grays settled back into their proper shapes. No, there was nothing. Daniel was mad, that was all. Mad, as everybody said the Irish were.

Ethan settled back in bed. His slumber was shallow, his dreams uneasy and full of Daniel's cold gray eyes, the men's mocking laughter, Nell's hooves flashing in front of his face, and of trying and trying to run away home, but being unable to find his way back.

He woke in a panic, not knowing where he was. The only things that he recognized were the waking cries of songbirds announcing the last hours before sunrise. As his mind cleared and he remembered where he was, he heard a shuffling noise next to the bed. A gray shape loomed over him.

Daniel flopped onto the mattress and quickly fell into a snoring slumber. Sunrise, Ethan realized, would come too soon for both of them.

Chapter Three

Daniel scraped a shovel through the mess of sodden straw and manure that covered the barn floor behind the stanchions. He drew together a steaming heap and pitched it out a small side window. “Like this, see?” His shovel rasped against the slick floorboards. “Get it all off or the floor won't dry proper, and then the boards'll rot, and there'll be hell to pay.”

When he'd risen that morning, Ethan had sworn not to talk to Daniel unless it was absolutely necessary. He'd managed all the way through the morning's feeding and milking. But he wouldn't stand for being treated like a simpleton. “I know how to muck out a barn,” he said.

Daniel squinted and looked Ethan up and down. “Aye. And you said you knew how to milk a cow, too, didn't you?”

Ethan lowered his eyes, his cheeks growing hot.

“And watch your step, 'cause I'm not picking you up if you slip and fall on your arse.”

Ethan scraped the mess together into a pile below the window. His shoulders jarred when the shovel caught on a protruding nail head or an uneven board. The reek of urine and manure filled his throat. He clamped his mouth shut against the smell. He'd thought cleaning up after Tess had been a chore. But the Lymans owned fifteen Tesses, and all of them seemed to have waited until milking time to relieve themselves. He sighed and dug in again.

Daniel laid his own shovel aside, took up a pitchfork, and began to walk out.

“Where're you going?” The question came out of Ethan's mouth before he remembered his vow of silence. He wrinkled his nose. Sometimes questions seemed to spring out of him as if they had a life of their own.

Daniel glanced back over his shoulder. “You have your chores to do. I have mine.”

Ethan grunted and scraped and dug and pitched, finding a rhythm that kept the work going without requiring any thought. He heard Silas and Mr. Pease and Mr. Wheeler working above and around him: the rustling noises in the loft overhead as one of them pitched down hay or straw, the steady thock-thock of another one splitting wood in the yard, the rattle of chains and tools as a third sorted the things he'd need for his day's work. Meanwhile, the sheep and cattle and pigs and chickens bleated and lowed and grunted and cackled to each other in the yard.

There were so many sounds that he didn't notice the new noise until he'd nearly finished mucking out. The sound was not quite humming, not quite singing, and not quite talking, but somehow all three at once. It continued as a steady presence underneath the talking and the animal noises, like the sounds of crickets and frogs on a summer evening, the kind of sound that would lie unnoticed underneath all the other sounds until everything else was silent. Except this sound wasn't comfortable and familiar like crickets and frogs. He felt cold as he heard unfamiliar words with ghostly intonations. But ghosts didn't walk in the day, did they?

He set his shovel aside and followed the voice until he reached the stall where Mr. Lyman kept Ivy, his dainty chestnut mare. Ethan peeked inside.

Daniel stood nose-to-nose with the mare, Ivy's chestnut
forelock mingling with the Irish boy's disheveled mop of pale rusty hair. The strange humming-singing-talking voice came from Daniel, sounding as though it came from somewhere deeper than his throat. His strange, soft words were full of shushing and whooshing sounds, muted
c
's and
t
's that clicked gently together instead of clattering, and rumbling
w
's and
v
's that vibrated like humming bees.

Ethan couldn't make any sense of the words, but the mare seemed to understand them. She murmured back to Daniel as she huffed at his hair and his cheek. Daniel's hands moved over the mare's neck as if he were performing a magical incantation. Little clouds of dust and loose hair danced around him before they settled to the floor.

Ethan held his breath. He let it out when he saw that Daniel merely burnished the mare's coat with thick handfuls of twisted straw. He seemed changed, although Ethan couldn't explain how. He was still trying to figure it out when Silas came through the barn, a rake and shovel in his hand.

“What's he doing?” Ethan whispered. He feared that talking any louder would break the spell.

“What—Paddy?” Silas shrugged. “Tending to the horse. That's part of his chores.” He didn't seem to see anything extraordinary about the way Daniel tended to a horse.

For a second Ethan saw what Silas did: just an ordinary boy grooming an ordinary horse. Then Daniel smiled up into the mare's face and said one of his magic words to her, and the spell took shape again.

“But what's he saying?”

Silas laughed and patted Ethan's shoulder. “Oh, that's just some Irish talk. Paddy says she's the only one who can understand that Gaelic of his.”

At Silas's laugh, Daniel turned. His face went blank, as if he'd been far away and it took an effort to recall himself.

“Mrs. Lyman wants the privy cleaned out this morning,” Silas said. “Why don't you take Ethan once you're finished up in here?”

Daniel nodded as Silas turned away. When he looked down at Ethan, his features sharpened. “You finished mucking out?”

Ethan glanced from Daniel to the horse, unsure whether he'd only imagined the transformation. Somehow the mare had smoothed the roughness and angles and sharp edges off Daniel. But they were all back now.

The Lymans' necessary was set at the edge of the hill just behind the house, so that the waste fell into a dark, airless, stench-filled, fly-ridden, closet-sized cavern cut into the slope. Daniel and Ethan took off their cravats and tied them over their faces to filter out some of the smell, but their eyes still watered, and they had to take turns retreating for air as they worked. Ethan was more than eager to be the one to trundle the wheelbarrow to the manure pile at the top of the kitchen garden, even though it listed to the right and the wheel kept getting bogged down in the newly thawed soil.

When he returned, he wondered if he looked as ill as Daniel did. The older boy's freckled face had a greenish sheen to it. Or maybe he was only tired from having wandered about all night. Ethan wondered again where Daniel had gone. He set down the wheelbarrow and picked up his shovel to go back to work. Then he noticed the peculiar look in Daniel's eyes, as though he were suddenly oblivious to everything around him—to Ethan, the privy, even the stench and the flies. He seemed to be staring at something far away and yet inside himself at the same time.

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