Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (5 page)

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“Daniel?” Ethan said cautiously.

Without acknowledging Ethan, Daniel picked up his own shovel and went back to work. He moved as if his body were
present but his mind and soul were somewhere else entirely. Even though he forgot to pull his cravat back up over his nose, he didn't seem to be affected by the smell anymore. Ethan wondered how he did that and where his mind had retreated to.

By the time they were finished, Ethan was drenched with sweat and sure that the odor would live in his nose and the back of his throat for days. Still, he'd done a good, hard morning's work. Surely Daniel would be pleased with him now.

Daniel blinked against the sun for a moment, as if he'd just woken up. Clearing his throat noisily, he spat several times into the dirt. He glanced back and forth from the bottom of the privy to the pile of manure Ethan had mounded up at the top of the garden.

Good job. Time for a rest
, Ethan hoped he'd say.

Daniel nodded. “That'll do.” He gathered his shovel and pitchfork. “Though it'd'a been better if you'd'a put it closer to the garden.”

“Not like that.” Daniel snatched the wrinkled little seed potato from Ethan's hand. “You're cutting 'em up to plant 'em, not to be making a bloody stew.” He took several pieces from the basket and thrust them under Ethan's nose. “Look. You been cutting 'em so half of 'em got no eyes, and the other half got two or more.” Grabbing Ethan's worn little pocketknife, he began to demonstrate. “Like this, see?” With a few deft motions, he sliced a potato into eight pieces, each with one little nubbin of an eye just starting to sprout. He jutted his chin toward the hill Ethan had just planted. “And you got to be planting 'em deeper so the vermin won't be getting to 'em before they sprout. Whoever taught you to plant potatoes, anyway?”

“My father.”

Daniel went quiet for a long moment, his eyes growing distant. Then he shivered like a cow shaking off flies. “Your da, eh? Well, you mustn't'a been listening very well, then.”

Ethan bit his lip, irritated that Daniel was right. Pa had taught him the right way to cut and plant the seed potatoes. He'd just been paying more attention to getting the work done quickly than getting it done right. But he wasn't going to admit that to Daniel. He'd been foolish enough to think that if he kept up with Daniel step for step, shovelful for shovelful, through all their chores, the Irish boy wouldn't possibly have any reason for complaint. After three days of trying his best to please Daniel by working just as hard as he could, he should have known it was hopeless. “All right,” he growled, snatching his knife back. “I can do it.”

“Fine. Then make a proper job of it, eh?” Daniel stood over Ethan, arms folded, to supervise the planting of the next two hills. When he seemed satisfied, he grunted, “That'll do,” and turned back to his own work, shuffling his feet to keep his shoes from falling off. He wore a pair of battered brogans that didn't look much different from the potatoes they were planting. Ethan didn't think they gave him much more protection from the shovel than the soles of his leathery feet. But at least they slowed him down so that Ethan had half a chance of keeping up with him.

By the end of the morning, Ethan was only two hills behind Daniel in his planting. Arms and legs aching, he groaned with relief when Lizzie called them in for dinner.

Daniel squinted against the sun, surveying Ethan's work, each hill of potatoes marked with a little stick. “S'pose that'll do,” he finally said. He turned to head toward the house, then looked back over his shoulder at Ethan. “Even if your rows are crooked,” he added.

Ethan panted as he dragged the last box inside. It was his first afternoon working at Mr. Lyman's store, and already he'd worked up as much of a sweat as he did mucking out the barn. He'd
despaired when he'd first seen the load of crates and sacks and barrels crammed into Mr. Palmer's wagon. Ethan and the teamster had hauled down box after barrel after sack after package, and each time they had returned to find the wagon apparently just as full as it had been before. But bit by bit the load had shrunk and the mound of goods in Mr. Lyman's back room had grown, until finally Mr. Palmer had wiped his forehead and said, “That's the last of 'em.”

Ethan leaned against a barrel and waited while Mr. Lyman and Mr. Palmer made notes in their account books. Then the burly teamster shook Mr. Lyman's hand, clapped his dented straw hat back onto his head, and was gone. Ethan straightened, presenting himself for Mr. Lyman's next orders.

The storekeeper peered down his nose at Ethan and gave him a curt nod. “Well, that's a decent hour's work for you, boy.” He smiled. “You may be small, but you can certainly work hard. Your father would be proud of you.”

“Th-thank you, sir.” Ethan felt a warmth grow inside his chest at the idea of making Pa proud.

Mr. Lyman tucked his chin in tighter and made a little humming noise in his throat. Ethan wasn't sure, but the noise sounded vaguely pleased. “Do you think this work will suit you, then, boy?”

“I—I hope so, sir.”

Mr. Lyman sat at his desk. He laid his ledger down and set his pen in the inkwell. With a deft motion, he flicked his coattails out from under his backside. “And how are you and Paddy getting along?”

Ethan's mouth snapped shut. It took a moment for his mind to shift to the new subject. “Oh, um, f-fine, sir.” He wondered if Daniel had been telling tales about him to Mr. Lyman or Silas.
He thought Silas was satisfied with his work, but Daniel—well, Daniel was never satisfied with anything, was he?

Mr. Lyman nodded. “He's not giving you any trouble, then?”

“N-no, sir,” Ethan said hesitantly, remembering how Pa had cautioned him against complaining.

“Now, now, boy. You must be honest with me. What's he done?”

“I—well, not anything, really. I mean, he's showing me what to do, like Silas says he should.” What exactly could he say about Daniel? When Ethan thought hard about it, the Irish boy really hadn't
done
anything, had he? Maybe he'd been rude and ill-tempered, but he hadn't struck Ethan or cursed him, though he sometimes looked on the verge of doing so. All he'd done was make Ethan work harder than he'd ever worked before. Mr. Lyman surely wouldn't fault him for that. No, it wasn't anything Daniel
did
, exactly, just the way he
was
—as Lizzie said,
Just Paddy being Paddy
. “He's just not very friendly, that's all. He seems cross all the time. Cross and unhappy.” Ethan surprised himself with the last word. Until just now, he'd never given much thought to how Daniel might feel—if he had any feelings at all.

Mr. Lyman's eyebrows lifted. “Unhappy?” He laughed. “What reason could he have to be unhappy?”

“I—I d-d-don't know, sir.” Ethan pondered the question a bit and made a guess. “His—well, he's got no family, has he?”

Mr. Lyman shook his head. “A tragedy, that. Quite the tragedy.” But he didn't elaborate, and somehow Ethan felt it would be rude to ask.

Ethan suddenly saw Daniel's moodiness in a different light. “I didn't really think about it that way before. I s'pose that, maybe, well, sir, I s'pose maybe if my mama and papa
and everyone who liked me was gone, maybe I'd be unhappy, too. Wouldn't you?”

“Gone,” Mr. Lyman repeated. He reached into a cubbyhole in the desk and pulled out a little silver oval, a bit bigger than a watchcase. When the storekeeper opened the case, Ethan caught a glimpse of a tiny portrait. “Gone,” Mr. Lyman said again, his eyes growing sad and distant. He closed the case and put it away gently, as if it were a flower he didn't want to crush.

“D'you s'pose that's why he's so cross all the time?”

Mr. Lyman shivered away the peculiar expression and put a thin smile on his face. “Don't be silly, boy. That was a long time ago. Now he has everything a boy could want. More than his parents ever could have given him.”

“Oh.” Ethan scratched his head, trying to fathom the mystery that was Daniel. “I guess he just doesn't like me, then.”

“Well, don't fret over it, boy. He's merely envious. Already you're showing more promise than he ever did.”

“I am?” Ethan's puzzlement over Daniel faded with the comforting thought of his own superiority.

“Indeed, yes. If he wouldn't persist in his—his—Irishness . . . If he would only resolve to be more like an American, well, then, he could be as successful as I'm sure you'll be.”

“I will?” Ethan stood up a little straighter. Wouldn't Pa be pleased that Mr. Lyman expected him to be a success!

“If—” Mr. Lyman raised a finger to emphasize the
if
. “If you apply yourself and study and work hard. It's what your father wants for you, isn't it?”

“I—I think so.”

“He did a wise thing sending you here. It's a smart man who knows his own limitations.”

Ethan felt confused. He liked what Mr. Lyman said about
Pa being smart and wise, but he wasn't sure about that part about limitations.

“He wants the best for you. And he knows you'll have it here, that I can do things for you he can't, teach you things he can't.”

Ethan nodded slowly. “Yessir. That's what he said the day I left. Though I don't quite understand all of it.”

“If you don't understand, boy, you only need to ask.” Mr. Lyman leaned forward in his chair, his blue eyes warm with sympathy.

“Those papers he signed, 'bout the indenture, and all. It's complicated, isn't it?” Pa had shown him the papers, but there had been so many big words in such curvy handwriting that it had made his head spin trying to read them all.

Mr. Lyman shrugged. “A lot of words, but it's really a simple business transaction. You work for me, and in exchange, you learn a trade. Two trades, in your case, so you can count yourself lucky. There's few better than Silas to teach you husbandry, and few better than myself to teach you business, if you'll forgive my vanity.” Mr. Lyman chuckled. “There are other responsibilities, as well. You're to conduct yourself properly, and I'm to make sure you have a proper moral upbringing. Nothing so difficult there, eh?”

Ethan shook his head, although he had a feeling that
proper
in the Lyman household might be more complicated than
proper
in his own home.

“And you get your room and board and one set of clothes a year. So don't be too eager to grow out of them.” His eyes twinkled at his joke. “But you're liable for any damages you'd cause to me. Not that you would, of course.” He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “Oh, and you can't marry without my permission.” Mr. Lyman cast him a slantwise glance. “You
don't have any secret lady friends that I need to worry about, do you?” His mouth pursed in a suppressed grin.

Ethan made a face and shook his head.

“Well, then, there you have it. Now you just work hard and learn as much as you can, and you'll be surprised how quickly the time will pass. Before you know it, your nine years will be up and you'll be leaving us a better man than you came.”

Nine years
, Ethan thought. For him, that was a lifetime.

Ethan fitted a smooth oval stone to his sling and squinted one eye shut. He studied the three cackling crows perched on the fence. The first was Mrs. Lyman, who'd pulled his ear and made him go without breakfast because he'd come to the table uncombed and unwashed after morning chores. The second was Nell, who'd kicked the bucket from the evening's milking all over his trousers and shoes. And the third one—the largest and the one who cackled the loudest—that one was Daniel.

That'll do. That'll do
, the Daniel-crow seemed to say.

“‘That'll do. That'll do,'” Ethan mocked back. The sling whistled over his head. The stone bit the fence rail with a satisfying crack, right next to the Daniel-crow. With a shriek, the three birds flew up, black silhouettes against the setting sun.

Ethan's stomach rumbled, making him think of the plate of tea cakes left over from the evening meal. Lizzie had said she would set them aside for him and Daniel. He trotted up the road and back toward the house, pointedly ignoring Daniel, who sat on the chopping block sharpening his pocketknife.

The kitchen was empty. Ethan walked over to the little side table where the plate of cakes sat neatly wrapped in a blue checkered cloth. He'd barely lifted a corner of the cloth
and taken one of the round white cakes when somebody grabbed his wrist and spun him around.

“What d'you think you're doing?” Daniel whispered. “You fancying a thrashing already?”

“B-but Lizzie said . . . ,” Ethan stammered, surprise turning to anger. Daniel might be able to boss him around in fields and barn and attic, but he had no right to lord it over him in the kitchen, too. “You heard her. She told Silas she set them by for us.”

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