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Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (8 page)

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“Then why are you still following me? Why don't you find yourself some
to play with?” Daniel said the word
the way he might have said
. He waved his hand at Ethan in dismissal—the hand that still held Ethan's handkerchief. The boys stared at the handkerchief, then at each other, their jaws set and their eyes unyielding. Daniel
crumpled the cloth and threw it on the ground.

“Mr. Lyman was right.” Ethan tried to make his voice as cold and harsh as the wind.

Daniel began walking again, his strides growing longer and faster.

“You're stubborn and bad-tempered and . . . and . . .” In his fury, Ethan couldn't remember the rest of Mr. Lyman's words, so he reached for some of his own. “And mean . . . and nasty . . . and . . . and I hate you! Do you hear that? I hate you!” Ethan shouted.

Daniel stopped with his back to Ethan, his shoulders slack, his hands limp at his sides. Ethan felt an instant's satisfaction that he'd said something that had stung. Then Daniel whirled. “Good!” he shouted. “Maybe you'll leave me be, then!” He turned and continued stalking down the road.

“I hate you!” Ethan shouted again. He searched for the worst insult he could fling. “I hate you—
!” he shrieked. “Paddy—Paddy—Paddy—Paddy—Paddy!”

The name seemed to hit Daniel between the shoulder blades. His stride faltered, his head drooped, and his hands clenched and opened at his sides. Within a few steps, however, he squared his shoulders and cocked his head, as if the name now slid over him without touching him anymore. He didn't look back again.

Although he couldn't see Daniel's face, somehow Ethan knew that he'd disappeared into that mysterious place inside himself. Ethan tried to walk off in the opposite direction, but the mud seemed to hold his feet fast. He stared after Daniel until he disappeared from sight. Even though it was Daniel's form shrinking into the distance, it was Ethan who felt small.

Chapter Six

“Just a minute, Ethan,” Mr. Lyman called out as Ethan followed Silas down the meetinghouse steps.

Ethan cringed. He glanced toward Silas for a clue about how he should act, but Silas was already heading over to join the other young men clustered around Clarissa Smead as thickly as flies around a jelly jar.

“Ethan,” Mr. Lyman repeated.

With a sigh, Ethan resigned himself to facing Mr. Lyman alone. He wondered what he'd done now. For the whole afternoon service, he'd sat up in the gallery with Silas and the rest of the choir, as far away as possible from Mr. and Mrs. Lyman. Unless Mr. Lyman was a sorcerer, he surely couldn't have noticed the two or three times Ethan had nodded off during Mr. Merriwether's sermon. “Yessir?” Ethan said cautiously as he turned, wondering if taking his hat off or bowing would take the edge off Mr. Lyman's temper.

He was surprised to see both Mr. and Mrs. Lyman smiling as if they'd completely forgotten the noontime upset over the wayward chair. “There's someone I want you to meet,” Mr. Lyman said. He stepped a little to the side to present the couple with whom he'd been chatting.

Ethan decided that both hat-tipping and bowing were in order when he recognized the owner of the sawmill and his wife. “G-good day, Mrs. Ward. . . . Sir,” he said, bowing first to the sawyer's wife, then to the sawyer.

“You've met already, then,” Mr. Lyman said.

“Yessir. Pa always takes me when he has to go to the sawmill,” Ethan said, feeling a little less nervous. He loved Mr. Ward's mill, with its great saw ker-chunking up and down, spewing sawdust everywhere while it chewed the logs into boards. It was a pity Pa had to go there only once or twice a year.

“So you're working down to Mr. Lyman's now, eh, young Mr. Root?” Mr. Ward asked, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners when he smiled.

“Yessir,” Ethan said, flattered that Mr. Ward called him
Mr. Root
instead of just

“He has a great deal yet to learn, but I think we'll get along, won't we?” Mr. Lyman raised an eyebrow.

Swallowing the chalky lump that rose in the back of his throat, Ethan said, “I—I hope so, sir.”

Mr. Ward's eyes searched the common. “Peter! Sol! Come here, boys!” he shouted in the booming voice he usually used to make himself heard over the racket of his mill.

Two chubby-cheeked boys about Ethan's age stopped chasing each other and joined their parents. The boys had the same brown eyes and curly dark hair that strayed from underneath their blue woolen caps. Except for a slight difference in height, they could have been twins. Ethan had seen Peter—or maybe it was Sol—down at the mill once or twice, but he'd never had much chance to get to know either of them.

“The Wards live just down the road from us. I—” Mr. Lyman paused and put his arm through his wife's. The couple exchanged a sociable smile. “—
thought you ought to get to know some boys a bit more . . . suitable. Boys your own age,” Mr. Lyman added, nodding toward Peter and Sol.

“They're suitable when they've a mind to be, just like all boys,” Mrs. Ward said with a laugh that made her cold-flushed cheeks even pinker. She tucked a straying curl of dark brown
hair back under her bonnet. “Ethan's staying at the Lymans”,' she explained to her sons. “Why don't the three of you walk home together and get acquainted? Your father has some business to talk over with Mr. Lyman.” With a smile, she took Mrs. Lyman's other arm and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “And we ladies would like to have a chat.”

Mrs. Lyman smiled back, looking not nearly as stern as she had at dinner.

“Where do you live?” Peter, the older boy, asked as they walked. He squinted at Ethan and curled his lip. “I've seen you at the meetinghouse and maybe now and then at the mill. But you don't go to our school.”

“I s'pose I will too, this winter,” Ethan said. Not the summer term, though; Silas had told him he'd be needed on the farm all summer. “But I used to go to the district five school, up on Stackpole's Mountain,” Ethan added.

“It's not really a mountain,” Peter said scornfully. “Just a big hill.”

“But everybody calls it that,” Ethan said. “Pa says it was a mountain when the Stackpoles started living on it years and years ago, but there's been so many of them that they wore it all down.”

Peter and Sol both laughed, and Ethan felt a little more at ease.

“C'mon up to the house,” Peter said, breaking into a run. “There's plenty of good sticks in the brush pile we can use for playing soldier.”

Ethan followed the boys up the road to the Wards' large red house. They rooted around in a pile of branches behind the barn until they found a proper stick for Ethan. Then they declared war, chasing each other across pastures and fields, shooting each other out of trees, and dying in noisy and dramatic agony. First, they were rebels and redcoats, then Indians and settlers. Their rifles became swords and lances, and they played knights jousting on the tourney field. The swords and
lances became cutlasses, and they were pirates boarding a treasure ship. The cutlasses had just turned to spears, and they were in the midst of becoming cannibals in the Sandwich Islands when a tall dark-haired boy leaned over the fence and shushed them.

Ethan recognized Mr. Ward's oldest son, Joshua, who usually assisted his father at the mill. He was a little older than Daniel, maybe eighteen or so. He walked with a spring to his step and a jaunty air, as if life rested lightly on his shoulders. “Ho now, lads. Aren't you supposed to play
on the Sabbath?” But he was grinning and his blue eyes sparkled.

“Oh, Joshua. We were only being cannibals,” Sol said.

“And were you going to pass the Sabbath by eating a few missionaries?” Joshua laughed. “Now what would Mr. Merriwether say about that?”

“We weren't really going to eat anybody,” Peter said.

“You can eat anyone you like for all I care, so long as you're quiet about it.” Joshua winked. “And you keep your mouth closed when you chew.”

“I thought you were keeping company with Clarissa Smead this afternoon,” Peter said. “I guess you couldn't charm her into asking you to tea after all.”

Sol snickered.

Joshua's eyes lost a little of their sparkle. “She—um—she was otherwise engaged.”

“Prob'ly with Silas Lyman or Francis Tolliver,” Peter said to Ethan in a whisper deliberately loud enough for Joshua to hear. Then he sang out, “Joshua likes Clarissa! Joshua likes Clarissa!” Sol quickly joined the chant. Joshua looked as though he couldn't decide whether to be angry with his brothers or just ignore them.

“It looked to me like everybody likes Clarissa,” Ethan said, a little baffled by the spell she seemed to cast over all the
young men. Dainty as Ruth's china doll, she'd been dressed up in a striped silk gown and pink bonnet and shawl that looked too thin for such a blustery day. Ethan supposed she'd meant to look pretty, but in his opinion she'd only looked too stupid to know enough to wear a cloak. Then again, she probably had no fear of taking a chill with so many young men around her to ward off the breeze.

Joshua seemed to notice Ethan for the first time. “Aren't you the boy working over to Mr. Lyman's?”

Ethan nodded.

“How d'you like living with that Irish devil they have over there?”

“He's always cross,” Ethan said with a shrug, pretending it didn't bother him.

“I'd watch my back if I were you,” Joshua said. “Those Irish are unpredictable. I heard of a family out in Southwick who hired themselves an Irish girl for their dairying. She was neat as you please and worked as hard as the day is long. Or so it seemed. . . .” He let the unfinished story hover over them for a moment.

“What happened?” asked Sol.

Joshua stooped to the boys' level and fixed each one with wide eyes. “She hadn't been there a week when she cut their throats while they slept”—Joshua slashed a finger across his neck—“and made off with silver, jewelry, money, and all.” He stretched himself back up to his full height and patted Ethan's shoulder. “So you'd best watch yourself if you don't want to wake up with your throat slit. Especially a boy like you.”

Ethan ran a finger under his collar. “Like me? What do you mean a boy like me?”

Joshua shrugged. “Oh, you know.” He tapped an index finger against his temple and winked. “Simple,” Joshua said. “Like your father.”

Peter chanted, “Sim-ple, sim-ple! E-than's pa is sim-ple!” In a moment, Sol had joined in.

Ethan's cheeks burned. He knew what simple was. Simple was Martha Cooney, whose face was shaped like someone had folded it up and then unfolded it wrong, who couldn't do more than recite her ABCs, even though she was all of sixteen. That wasn't Pa at all. Pa knew lots of things. Pa could take a tool that you'd swear had no life left in it and somehow make it do for another season. Pa could reach inside a cow that was having a hard calving and turn the calf around and make it come out right. Pa could tell you the names and ways of the animals and birds that hid in the hay fields and woodlots. Pa could tell a story so you'd think you could see it all happening in front of you.

“My pa is not simple, and neither am I!” Ethan clenched his hands into fists, ready to fling himself at Joshua.

Joshua wrinkled his forehead and spread his hands in apparent surprise. “I heard that your pa had to bind you out because he was too simple to keep his books straight.”

“Liar!” Ethan launched himself at Joshua. Peter and Sol grabbed Ethan's arms and held him back while he kicked and struggled to be free.

Joshua laughed. “Now, now, little man, who are you to be calling folks liars?” He gave Ethan a patronizing pat on the head. “You want proof?”

“You can't prove it and you know it!”

“Stop your noise and I will.” Joshua gestured toward the house. “Come inside and listen for a bit.”

Peter and Sol relaxed their hold and Ethan shook himself loose.

“Coming?” Joshua smirked. “Or are you afraid to find out the truth?”

“I'm not afraid.” Ethan followed the Ward boys into the kitchen.

Joshua marched into the parlor, leaving the door between the two rooms ajar so the boys could hear. The three of them hunkered down by the doorway.

“Your brothers still out playing with that Root boy?” Ethan heard Mr. Ward ask.

“Oh, they're having a jolly time together. Didn't you go to school with Mr. Root?” Joshua asked, his voice all innocent curiosity.

“Well, he was just a bit of a lad when I was finishing school. Your aunt Kezia, she's closer to his age.” Mr. Ward chuckled. “Said she never could tell what Hannah Bartlett saw in him, slow as he was.”

Peter and Sol held their fists up to their mouths to stifle their giggles.

“Slow?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, yes. The master used to say Gideon Root's writing might as well be Greek, the way he made his letters and numbers upside down and sideways and backwards and inside out. At first the master thought Gideon was playing some sly schoolboy trick to mock him. But when he couldn't beat it out of him, the master had to give it up and admit that Root wasn't being sly, only stupid.”

Peter and Sol snorted into their fists.

“They used to call him ‘Simple Gideon.' ” Mr. Ward sighed. “Children can be cruel sometimes. But he grew up well, Gideon did. He's a hardworking man, and you couldn't find a better-hearted, more honest fellow. It's not just book learning makes a man, you know, Joshua.”

Ethan's empty stomach turned cold and leaden. Mr. Ward's praise was no balm for the stab of
Simple Gideon

“And now Root's boy is over to the Lymans'. At least Gideon won't have to worry about him there. George will do right by him, you can be sure of that. Ah, well, it's a pity Root hasn't gotten any better at doing his figures.”

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