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Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (7 page)

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Chapter Five

“Why is Ethan sad?” Ruth asked from her perch on Silas's shoulders.

Ethan wondered how Silas put up with his littlest sister. They'd barely left the meetinghouse when Ruth had demanded to ride home on Silas's back. Now she sat drumming on her brother's tall hat and surveying the lumps of newly plowed and planted earth like a queen viewing her realm from her coach.

Silas cupped Ruth's shoes in his hands to keep her from swinging her muddy feet against his chest and dirtying his black tailcoat. His Sabbath clothes made him look very elegant, accentuating his broad shoulders and trim waist. Only his callused, square-fingered hands marked him as a farmer rather than a lawyer or a minister or a storekeeper. He shushed Ruth's question, but Zeloda had already latched on to it.

“Ethan's sad because his mama and papa don't want him no more.”

“Zeloda!” Silas snapped.

Ethan dug his fists deeper into his pockets, bending his head so that his hat brim would hide his reddening face. He focused on walking a narrow line along the straggling border of tufted weeds at the edge of the road. If he concentrated very hard on keeping to the line, he couldn't possibly hear anything Zeloda said.

“That's a horrible thing to say,” Florella said. “They're
probably just sick. That's why they didn't come to meeting today.” Her tone of studied kindness stung Ethan harder than Zeloda's tease.

Ethan stared back toward the center of town. It was half an hour's walk back to the common, then another three home. If Pa or Ma were sick . . .

“Don't be ridiculous,” Silas said. “It's a long walk from Stackpole's Mountain, especially after a week of planting. And with the way the roads are today—” He shook a glob of sticky mud from his shoe.

Silas was right, Ethan thought. With so much work to be done in the spring, Pa and Ma rarely went to church in April or May. As often as not, Pa spent the Sabbath breaking it: doing those little bits of jobs that took fifteen minutes or half an hour here and there; little jobs that Pa said the Lord surely wouldn't credit as work. He shook his head. He'd known from the start that it might be weeks before he'd see Pa and Ma again. It would have been foolish to expect to see them at church this morning. Still, it would have been nice if they'd come. If they'd come, he could have asked Pa if Mr. Lyman was right about discipline and all that.

Silas shook his finger at his younger sister. “As for you, Zeloda, you need to mind your manners.”

“I don't need manners around
him
.” Zeloda jutted her chin in Ethan's direction. “He's only here 'cause his papa doesn't pay his bills and can't afford to keep him.”

Ethan clenched his fists inside his pockets. He wished Zeloda were a boy so he could knock her down.

“You shouldn't talk about Mr. Root like that,” Florella said. “It isn't Christian to mock the poor.” She gave Ethan a prissy little smile.

“We're not poor!” Ethan cast a despairing glance at Silas.

Silas stepped between Ethan and the girls. “It isn't Christian
to mock anybody,” he said. He swung Ruth down from his shoulders. “Girls, take Ruth and get along home.”

Ethan looked away from the girls. It was all a lie. Pa and Ma
weren't
poor. They were just
having a little trouble
, as Pa said. They
did
want Ethan. They hadn't sent him to Mr. Lyman's just to get rid of him. But if they weren't poor, if they did want him, why had they sent him away? Something tugged at his sleeve.

Ruth's cold-reddened lips puffed out in a sympathetic knot. “Don't worry, Ethan,” she said. “If your mama and papa don't want you, you can stay with us. Just like Paddy.”

Just like Paddy
. Ethan closed his eyes and wished he could sink into the mud and never rise up again. He barely felt Ruth's hand squeeze his, then let go. He didn't notice the larger hand resting on his shoulder until Silas gave him a little shake.

“Don't mind them. Ruth and Florella mean well. They just don't know how to say it. And Zeloda . . .” Silas took a deep breath. “She's her mother's daughter.” He patted Ethan's shoulder and nudged him forward. “Don't worry. Maybe your parents will come next week. Or the week after.”

Ethan's face brightened. “Or maybe even this afternoon. Maybe they'll go to the afternoon service. D'you think so, Silas?”

Silas hesitated a moment before answering. “Maybe.” He nudged Ethan again, and they started back to the Lymans'.

By the time Ethan and Silas arrived, Mrs. Lyman and her daughters were laying out dinner: a chicken pie and bread and cakes and puddings baked yesterday, and the usual complement of pickles and preserves.

Silas rubbed his hands together and stooped in front of the fire. It crackled brightly after the chilly service and the cold walk. Ethan hovered near Silas, basking in the heat radiating from the black iron fire frame.

Heavy footsteps announced Mr. Lyman's arrival. Ethan
slipped behind Silas and hunkered down in his jacket, his head bowed, his shoulders rounded. Already he'd learned Daniel's trick of making himself small and inconspicuous when his master was around.

Mr. Lyman stalked into the room and surveyed the table. The line between his eyes deepened, and his mouth curved downward into a scowl.

The room grew quiet when Mrs. Lyman and her daughters noticed Mr. Lyman's expression.

The storekeeper turned to his wife. “Mrs. Lyman, is Lizzie here to dinner today?”

“No. She went home after milking.” Mrs. Lyman's dark eyes narrowed as she, too, spotted the flaw.

Ethan shivered in spite of the fire. He couldn't see the point of Mr. Lyman's questions, but he knew they meant trouble for somebody.

“Are we expecting a guest?”

“No, dear.”

Mr. Lyman tugged the front of his tailcoat straight and rubbed his hands together. “That's what I thought. Where's Paddy?”

“He went to wash up,” Florella said.

Mr. Lyman raised his chin and shouted toward the kitchen. “Paddy! Come in here!”

Daniel's face, pink and shiny, peeked through the doorway. “Sir?” His wet hair was combed flat against his head, but already little tufts had strayed from their place and stuck out however they pleased. He tied his cravat around a damp, drooping collar.

“I said, come here.”

Ethan's stomach writhed at Mr. Lyman's tone. Whatever was coming, he didn't want to see it.

Daniel entered the parlor slowly, keeping the table between himself and Mr. Lyman.

“Come
here
!” Mr. Lyman pointed to the carpet directly in front of him.

Daniel edged around the table and stopped at the spot indicated.

“Have you forgotten how to count, you Irish idiot?”

“No, sir.”

“Then why are there too many chairs around this table?”

Ethan did a quick mental inventory. There was Mr. Lyman's big chair with the arms, then the four yellow painted chairs, Daniel's swaybacked rush-seated chair, and one of the ladder-backs that the hired men usually sat on. One chair too many.

Daniel frowned at the errant seat as if it had walked into the parlor on its own. Mr. Lyman's hand across Daniel's mouth directed the boy's attention back to his master.

Mr. Lyman's toe tapped out a muffled rhythm on the carpet. “Well? I'm waiting for an answer.”

“I—well, sir, I remembered you let me sit to dine on the Sabbath when I first come, so I thought you'd be wanting Ethan to do the same. I thought he could have me chair, and I could—”

Mr. Lyman's other hand came up this time. Daniel staggered at the blow. He would have fallen into the table if Mr. Lyman hadn't grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pivoted him away. He shook the boy hard and shoved him against the wall. Ethan winced when Daniel's head met the edge of the mantel.

“You
thought
? You're not here to think, boy. You're here to do what you're told. No less and no more. If there are to be any more chairs set out, Mrs. Lyman or I will tell you, understand?”

“Yessir,” Daniel said mechanically, his eyes blank. A tendril of blood trickled down his chin.

“B-b-b—” Ethan felt words trying to come out of his mouth. He wasn't sure what he could say that would do any good, but it didn't feel right not to say anything. Silas's fingertips
dug into his shoulder. Ethan glanced up. Silas moved his head slightly from side to side.

Mr. Lyman whirled toward Ethan. “Do you have something to say, boy?”

Ethan looked past Mr. Lyman at Daniel, still suspended in Mr. Lyman's grip. Daniel moved his head from one side to the other, just once, as Silas had done.

“N-n-no, sir,” Ethan said.

“I hope not.” Mr. Lyman relaxed his grip on Daniel. “Now take those chairs away, both of you, and get out of here.” He shoved Daniel against the wall and stepped aside.

Daniel wiped his mouth on his sleeve, took a broad step around Mr. Lyman, and picked up the offending chair.

Silas released Ethan's shoulder and gave him a little push forward. Ethan picked up Daniel's chair and followed him into the kitchen. As he passed Zeloda, she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. Florella hissed at Zeloda and pinched her elbow.

Daniel stood by the kitchen fireplace, dabbing his lip with his shirt cuff. He spat a mouthful of blood into the fire, then explored his mouth with his fingers, as though counting his teeth. “And they tell me I'm no Christian,” he mumbled, his mouth still full of fingers. “You'd think he'd be giving his arm a rest of a Sunday, wouldn't you? More fool me for believing he might.” He spat again.

“Are you—are you hurt very bad?”

“Nah. No teeth loosened and nothing broken but me head, and that's no loss when you're an Irish idiot, is it?” He rubbed the back of his skull, then looked at his red-stained fingertips.

“You're bleeding,” Ethan said.

“S'pose so.” Daniel wiped his hand on his trousers.

Ethan looked from Daniel to the parlor door. “But—but what about our dinner?”

“No dinner for you and me today, Sunday or no. When he says get out, you don't come back 'til he sends for you. Unless you're wanting a thumping, too. 'S'only beans anyway.” Daniel nodded at the squat brown bean pot sitting on the kitchen table. Ethan wouldn't have missed the beans much, but he couldn't help thinking about the chicken pie and the cakes.

Daniel took his brown woolen frock from its peg by the door. He shrugged himself into it, then leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, his lips pressed together. His face turned so pale that Ethan wondered if he was going to be sick. After a moment, he took a breath, opened his eyes, and grabbed his cap. Before putting it on, he lifted his hand to his head again. Ethan saw the pale orange hair turning a shade darker around Daniel's fingertips.

“That looks bad.” Ethan pulled out his handkerchief. “Here.”

Daniel folded the cloth into a pad and held it to the back of his head. He went to the outside door and began to open it, then paused with his hand on the latch. Slowly, he closed the door, letting the latch fall quietly back into place. He returned to the kitchen table and stared down at the bean pot. Using Ethan's handkerchief for a pot holder, he lifted the lid. His tongue flicked at his bleeding lower lip, and his mouth worked for a few moments as he watched the steam curl slowly up from inside the pot. A little bit of color returned to his cheeks. With a resolute tilt to his chin, he pursed his lips. He spat a bloody mouthful into the pot, stirred the contents, and replaced the lid.

Daniel set his cap firmly on his head, pulling the brim down low over his forehead. Without a word or a glance to Ethan, he walked out, his steps long and certain.

“Daniel! Daniel, wait!” Ethan shouted, running down the road. The cold stung his ears and cheeks, but the running warmed him soon enough. He was gasping for breath and damp with sweat when Daniel finally stopped and turned around.

“What?”

“Where're you going?” Ethan asked.

Daniel rubbed his head. “None of your business. I don't need you telling himself me doings.”

“Me? What did I do?” Didn't Daniel want to be friends? Why else had he set a chair for Ethan?

“Only got me head bashed and me dinner missed.” Daniel rubbed hard at the back of his head, as if to remind himself of the trouble Ethan had caused. His eyelids puckered and he bit his lower lip.

Ethan's mouth worked for a few moments before he could get the words out. “But I—I didn't do anything. I never asked you to set a chair for me.” His damp shirt felt like a layer of ice forming around him.

Daniel stopped and stared at Ethan. His gray eyes matched the threatening sky. “I shouldn't do it now if you begged.”

Ethan folded his arms across his chest to hide his shivering. “Fine. Keep your stupid secret. Who wants to go anywhere with you, anyway?”

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