Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (6 page)

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“What Lizzie says don't mean much once she's gone home. You want something in this house, you'd best be asking for it, if you know what's good for you, understand?”

Reluctantly, Ethan let the cake fall back onto the plate.

Daniel nodded toward the door. “Silas is in the parlor. Ask him quiet. You don't want to be disturbing Lyman and herself.”

Ethan's chest tightened. He couldn't even breathe without Daniel dogging him. Well, he didn't want the stupid cakes anymore. He yanked his hand away and spun on his heel. As he turned, the button on his shirt cuff caught a ragged thread in the cloth covering the cakes. The cloth came with him, dragging plate, cakes, and all behind it. The plate smashed to the floor and cakes bounced across the kitchen.

“Now you've bloody done it!” Daniel shoved Ethan away from the mess. “Fetch the broom.”

Ethan had just picked up the broom when he heard another crash, not of breaking crockery, but of something large and solid slamming hard against a wall.

Chapter Four

Ethan spun around to see Mr. Lyman clutching Daniel's frock, pinning him up against the wall. Daniel squirmed, his feet barely meeting the floor. Ethan expected Daniel's face to be frozen with the same fear that knotted his own stomach. Instead, his eyes were blank with resignation.

“The boy's not here a week and you're already teaching him to steal, Paddy?” Mr. Lyman twisted Daniel's cravat to force the boy to look at him.

“I wasn't stealing.” Daniel's voice rasped against Mr. Lyman's choking grip. “Lizzie said—”

“None of your lies.” Mr. Lyman slapped Daniel across the mouth to silence him.

Ethan closed his eyes, fighting the sick feeling in his stomach. He wanted to run, but his legs seemed to be melting beneath him. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Mr. Lyman drawing his fist back to punch Daniel. Without willing it, he opened his mouth. “Please, sir. It wasn't his fault.” His voice came out in a tremulous squeak.

Mr. Lyman whirled. “What did you say, boy?” Anger distorted his distinguished features into a frightening mask.

Ethan watched Daniel fall to his knees. The front of his frock reddened as blood dribbled from his mouth. “He didn't do it.” Ethan's voice was almost a whisper. He backed up until the big worktable stopped him. “I did.” He closed his eyes and ducked his head, waiting for the blow to fall.

When it didn't, Ethan opened his eyes to find Mr. Lyman peering narrowly from one boy to the other. Mr. Lyman spun toward Daniel. Ethan gasped as the storekeeper kicked the Irish boy. Daniel curled up around himself and moaned. “That's for stealing,” Mr. Lyman growled. Whirling, he backhanded Ethan across the face. Ethan staggered, his cheek burning. “And that's for lying.” Ethan cringed against the table, wishing he could crawl underneath it. “Now clean up this mess,” Mr. Lyman said. “Then upstairs with the two of you. Don't show your faces back down here until it's time for chores tomorrow.”

Ethan held a hand to his stinging cheek and stared.

“Well, boy? What are you gawking at?” Mr. Lyman raised his hand again. “Get moving before I lose my temper.”

“Yessir.” His vision blurring, Ethan ducked his head and lunged for the broom.

Mr. Lyman spun out of the room as abruptly as he'd entered it.

Ethan's body turned limp and heavy. He grabbed the table for support as his knees crumpled.

Daniel moaned and slowly uncurled. “Is he gone now?”

Ethan managed a feeble “Uh-huh.” He dropped his broom and knelt beside the older boy.

Daniel drew himself to his hands and knees. Ethan decided he must still be dizzy from the blow, for he could have sworn Daniel almost smiled. “Didn't take you long, eh?” Daniel said. “Not here a week and you're on his bad side already.”

“Are—are you hurt?” Ethan asked.

Daniel shook his head. He pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his bloody lip.

“Why didn't you tell on me? You don't even like me,” Ethan whispered.

Daniel shrugged. “Never said I didn't.” The handkerchief muffled his voice.

“You never said you did.”

Daniel leaned on Ethan's shoulder and pulled himself to his feet, leaving bloody finger marks on Ethan's sleeve. “Well,” he said in a low voice, “I don't like to be making up me mind about a person too quick. Anyway, it'd hardly be fair now, would it? Letting him thrash you and you not even knowing the proper way to get hit.”

Ethan rubbed his cheek and gaped. Maybe it was true what they said about the Irish being mad.

The boys cleaned up the mess in silence. It wasn't until they had retreated to the attic that Ethan mustered the courage to speak again. “What did you mean by—”

Daniel hissed Ethan to silence. He crouched at the head of the stairs and cocked his head.

Ethan heard footsteps in the hall below. He tensed as the sound stopped at the door at the bottom of the attic stairs. Metal slid against wood, then a bolt clicked home. Daniel wouldn't be wandering anywhere tonight.

Daniel's mouth twisted in an ironic grimace. “Could be worse. He could'a come up.” He padded up the last two stairs and shuffled across the attic. “What did I mean by what?”

“Uh—” Ethan tried to remember what he'd been asking. “About there being a right way to get hit.”

Daniel snorted an odd, humorless laugh. “You just have to be knowing a few tricks, is all.” He pulled his frock off over his head. “You see, Lyman, it's just knocking you down that he's after,” Daniel said, unbuttoning his vest and dropping it on the bed. “So the sooner you fall, the sooner he'll stop hitting you. But you have to do it so he thinks he's got a proper lick in at you, but without really letting him.” He shrugged his braces off his shoulders and untied his cravat.

“You mean, he didn't—didn't hurt you?”

Daniel gingerly touched his mouth, then his ribs. His cheek twitched when his fingers probed his side. “Well, not as much as he thinks he did.” He took Ethan's arm and led him toward the window. “How 'bout you?” Turning Ethan's face toward the fading light, his long fingers probed the red mark on Ethan's cheek. “Not bad,” Daniel said. “Prob'ly won't even bruise.” He gave Ethan a push toward the little table. “Put some cold water on it and it'll be fine. Least we didn't get a switching.”


Daniel raised an eyebrow. “You never been switched?”

Ethan shook his head. “Pa mostly gives me extra chores. He says he might as well get some good out'a me being bad, and hitting never got any kindling chopped.” Ethan took one of the rags from the table and sloshed some water onto it. “Why'n't you just tell him I did it?” He held the rag to his face. The cool moisture eased his throbbing cheekbone.

Daniel soaked a cloth and held it to his mouth. “Wouldn'a mattered. I'd'a just got thrashed for lying, too.” Daniel's eyes narrowed over the rag. “How come you told him you done it?”

“I—I don't know.” An hour ago, Ethan would have sworn that nothing would have given him greater joy than to see Daniel on his knees, his face blooming bright with blood. Instead, he'd only felt sick to his stomach. “It was the truth,” he said, although he hadn't told the truth for its own sake. All he'd wanted was to make Mr. Lyman stop. He sat down on a fat warty squash that was nearly as big as he was. “Does he—is he like that all the time?”

“Not if you do your work proper and keep your mouth shut and mind your manners and stay out of his way. And don't be dropping anything. And don't be making him angry. And—”

“It's not right.”

“I never said it was. That's just the way it is.” Daniel's voice was as matter-of-fact as his words.

“Aren't you afraid of him?”

“Nah. He'll only knock me about a bit, then let me be. Why waste your time fearing something that can't kill you?” Daniel put his rag aside and dug through his pockets. “Besides, every now and then when he's not looking, I settle up with him.” He drew out a handful of broken tea cakes and offered them to Ethan. “Here. I'll eat the bloody ones if you're squeamish.” He picked out a few pink-smudged cakes and kept them for himself.

Ethan gasped. “Wha—”

“'S'all right. There's no broken crockery in 'em.” Daniel's mouth twisted into something that was almost, but not quite, a smile. He blew a little dirt and pocket lint from a bit of tea cake and popped it in his mouth. “No sense throwing all Lizzie's good baking to the chickens, eh?”

Ethan twisted the button on his shirt cuff until it couldn't turn any more. He released it and watched it twirl back into place. Strange how something so small could cause so much trouble.

Mr. Lyman cleared his throat. “Well, boy, there's no need to look so timid. I'm not going to bite you. I only want to talk to you about last night.”

Getting bitten was the least of Ethan's worries. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hanging back out of Mr. Lyman's reach. “I'm sorry, sir. I won't do it again, I promise,” he blurted, although he wasn't sure what he was promising not to do.

Mr. Lyman smiled and nodded. Seated at his tall secretary, he looked like a benevolent judge, with no trace of the
fierce disciplinarian of last evening. “I'm sure you mean that now, but a bad influence is hard to fight off.”


Mr. Lyman's face grew serious and thoughtful. “You may think I was rather . . . severe . . . with you boys last night. But you must understand that while you're in my care, I'm responsible for keeping you on the right track. For making sure you're . . . well disciplined. Do you understand?” His words were steady and even, with no sign of temper.


“Discipline.” Mr. Lyman seemed to savor the word like a sweet on his tongue. “Discipline is the key to raising a boy. It's why your father sent you here. Did you know that?” His chair squeaked as he shifted his weight toward Ethan.

“No, sir.” Pa hadn't said anything about discipline.

“Your father is a kind man. Indulgent. It does no harm to indulge a girl. But a boy . . .” Mr. Lyman shook his head. “Discipline,” he repeated. “A well-disciplined boy makes a successful young man. Look at Silas. How many men do you think would have the management of three hundred acres at twenty-two years old? But he didn't get that way by himself. Discipline was the key.” Mr. Lyman pointed a finger, as if the word hovered in the air before him. “And a well-disciplined boy has to be careful of whom he looks to for an example.” The finger turned on Ethan. “Do you understand?”

“An example?”

“Do you think your father would be pleased if he learned you were picking up bad habits from a liar and a thief?”

“No, sir.”

“No, indeed.” Mr. Lyman's sigh sounded heavy with weariness.

Ethan dropped his head and began worrying at the button again. Would Mr. Lyman tell Pa that Ethan had turned
into a thief and a liar not a week after leaving home? Would Mr. Lyman send him back in disgrace?

Mr. Lyman continued. “Paddy has always been . . . difficult. Of course, he can't help it; it's his nature. You don't know how I've struggled to curb his temper, his willfulness, his stubbornness. But he's still a difficult boy: unruly, clumsy, full of mischief. He could lead an unwary boy down the wrong path, and we don't want that, do we?”

“I—I don't suppose so, sir.” Ethan twirled the button, drawing up a little twist of cloth at his wrist. The cuff dug into his skin.

“If Paddy tries to lead you astray, you come and tell me, and I'll set him right.”

“Right?” Ethan gave the button another twist. His pulse thudded against the twisted cuff, an uncertain rhythm under his fingers.

“You can help me make sure he's headed down the right path. You want to help Paddy, don't you, boy?”

Ethan nodded as if he understood. It seemed important to Mr. Lyman that he understand, almost as if it would make the storekeeper sad rather than angry if he didn't.

Mr. Lyman settled back into his chair, resting his hands on his knees. “I don't know what's to become of that boy when he leaves here. A man needs intelligence and discipline, but Paddy . . .” He sighed as if he'd suddenly grown weary. “His birth deprived him of the first, but I thought I could give him the second. If the boy's fit to do no more than serve, at least he could serve well.”

“Serve, sir?”

Mr. Lyman raised his head. “Yes, of course. It's the way the world works. Some are fit to rule and some are fit only to serve. Do you understand?”

“I—I think so, sir.” Ethan wondered which Mr. Lyman
thought he was. He twisted his button one more time.

“That's a good boy.” Mr. Lyman hooked a thumb into his vest pocket. “So you just remember to come to me when you see him going wrong. Can you do that?”

Ethan chewed his lip. He wasn't sure he wanted Daniel set right if it meant more bloody lips and bruised ribs. But he had to give Mr. Lyman an answer. “I understand, sir,” he said.

“Good. That's settled, then.” Mr. Lyman opened a small black ledger and dipped his pen in the inkwell. “Now, on to business. You'll have to pay the cost of the breakage. You know that, don't you?”

“Me?” Ethan's voice squeaked.

“Well, your father, of course. I'll add it to what he already owes. You'll pay it off in time.” Mr. Lyman blotted the notation and closed the book. He leaned forward. “I'm glad we had this little talk. I trust you'll give me no further trouble.”

“No, sir. I'll try, sir.”

“Good, good. After all, we don't want your father hearing you've been a difficult boy, do we?”

“No, sir.” Ethan twisted his button again. He felt a snap, and it came away in his fingers.

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