Read A Difficult Boy Online

Authors: M. P. Barker

A Difficult Boy (9 page)

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It wasn't true. It couldn't be. And yet . . .

Ethan thought of how Pa struggled over his accounts, complaining that the fives and the twos and the sixes and the nines got all jumbled up. At the time, Ethan had thought Pa was only joking. But just a month ago, Pa and Mr. Lyman had spent hours together at the store, untangling the scribblings in Pa's dog-eared brown copybook, comparing them to Mr. Lyman's ledgers, patiently straightening out the debits and credits.

Ethan slumped against the wall. Peter and Sol stared at him with shining, laughing eyes. They didn't need to say the word; he could see it in their faces:

As Ethan ran from the house, the Ward boys' singsong refrain rang inside his head:
Sim-ple, sim-ple! E-than's pa is simple!
No matter how hard he ran or how far he got from the Wards, he couldn't outrun their voices shouting in his brain. He'd gone well past the Lymans' before he realized that Sol and Peter's chant had yielded to another voice echoing in his head. This voice had a barbed lilt to it as it said,
Tell you what, lad. I'll call you “fool” for a week or so and see how you like it

Ethan was surprised to see the cattle yard empty by the time he arrived back at the Lymans'. He'd lost track of time, wandering aimlessly after his flight from the Wards'.

Daniel was milking Nell when Ethan came into the barn. Although Ethan walked lightly, he saw Daniel's shoulders stiffen when he entered. But the older boy didn't turn around.

Ethan twisted his hands together. The fingernails of one hand worried at a healing blister in the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger of the other. “Daniel,” he said. His
voice came out in a croak.

Daniel's only response was a change in the tilt of his head.

Ethan tried again. “I—I—”

Daniel's hands continued to squeeze the milk out in an unfaltering rhythm.

Ethan's fingers worked some more. The thin new skin forming over the blister split. The spot burned as the salt from his hands worked into the opening. He rubbed his thumb hard across the sore and cleared his throat. “I'm sorry.” There. He'd said it.

Daniel's hands stopped, then started again.

“I shouldn'a called you Paddy.”

One of Daniel's shoulders lifted, but he kept his forehead pressed to the cow's flank. “Everyone else does.”

“But it's wrong.”

“How can it be wrong if everyone does it?”

“Because you hate it. I shouldn'a said it. It was—it was mean, and I'm sorry.”

“You'll be saying it again.”

“No, I won't.” Ethan edged closer, standing just behind Daniel's shoulder. “I promise.”

Daniel turned his head away. All Ethan could see was unruly red hair and ears and Daniel's neck growing pink near his collar. “I thought you hated me,” Daniel said. His fingers grabbed harder at Nell's teats, his rhythm growing quicker. One hand slipped. A stream of milk splattered on the edge of the bucket, spotting Daniel's trousers with white.

Nell's head bobbed, and her right hoof came up. Ethan stuck out his left foot and blocked the kick before the older boy had time to react. Daniel finally turned his head. Instead of the sullen scowl Ethan had expected, Daniel's mouth was set askew, his teeth gnawing at his lower lip. He didn't seem to understand anything Ethan had just said or done.

“I don't hate you, Daniel.”

“Why?” Daniel asked blankly.

Ethan blinked at the challenge. “I—I—I don't know.”

The two boys stared at each other for a long moment. Then Daniel tilted his head over his shoulder. “Go do your chores.”

Ethan turned to fetch a stool and a bucket.

“But not like that,” Daniel called after him. He rose from the milking stool and stared Ethan up and down.

Ethan realized that he still wore his Sabbath clothes. With the luck he'd been having today, he'd never make it through chores without getting milk and manure all over himself. He didn't know whether his stomach churned more over a possible thrashing or the prospect of a second missed meal. He put his blistered hand to his mouth and sucked on the tender spot.

He cast a despairing glance at Daniel, but Daniel's face had disappeared beneath the frock he was slipping off. Ethan's vision went brown and fuzzy as Daniel dropped the big woolen shirt over him. The frock draped like a blanket almost to Ethan's ankles. He had to roll the cuffs back four times before his hands showed. Even then, the sleeves hung past his knuckles.

“S'pose that'll do,” Daniel said. “Mind you don't trip on the hem. I'm not picking you up if you fall on your arse.” He picked up his milk bucket. “And don't you be expecting no beans with your tea. I hear Zeloda and Mr. Lyman et 'em all up at dinnertime.” His lips parted, exposing a row of surprisingly even teeth that looked out of place in the rest of Daniel's pinched, homely face. Until that moment, the nearest thing to a smile Ethan had ever seen on Daniel's face was an ironic twist that looked more like pain than pleasure. Until that moment, Ethan would have said Daniel didn't know how to smile.

Chapter Seven

“Why so glum, Ethan?” Lizzie asked.

Ethan shrugged off her question and picked up the digging bar. The iron chilled his fingers. He'd been out of sorts all morning, even though he usually enjoyed helping Lizzie in the kitchen garden. There was a friendly ease to her that was missing from the rest of the Lyman household.

A pile of long, twiggy branches waited at the end of the row where they would plant the peas. The branches would go into the holes Ethan made with the digging bar and would provide a framework for the peas to cling to as they grew. Ethan and Lizzie had planted two rows so far. The pea brush looked like a miniature forest springing up in their wake. A gloomy, dead forest, Ethan thought. The day was overcast and windy, threatening snow more than rain. He had a hard time imagining the bare branches covered with white blossoms and fat green pea pods come July. Today it felt as though spring were in full retreat, and it would never stop being gray and dismal and cold.

“Lizzie, does your pa owe Mr. Lyman a lot of money?” he finally asked.

Lizzie poised her hands on her hips. “Now, that's a rude sort of a question. Why ever would you want to ask . . .” She frowned. “Oh. That's not why I work here, Ethan. It's different from you and Paddy. I'm not bound out. The Lymans pay me by the day, like Mr. Pease and Mr. Wheeler.”

Ethan rubbed his hands to warm them up. “So—so why
you work here, then?”

“When I was about thirteen, Mrs. Lyman hired me to help out after Ruth was born. Then she wanted help with the gardening and sewing and such. Pretty soon she wanted help with the dairying, too, so I started coming nearly every day, and, well . . .” Her shrug sent her shawl slipping down one shoulder. “Here I am.”

“Do you like it?” Ethan thudded the bar into the narrow trench they'd dug for the peas.

“Mrs. Lyman pays well enough, and I like nice things.” She pulled her ragged shawl tighter around her, crossed the ends over her waist, and secured it behind her back with a snug double knot.

Ethan pursed his lips doubtfully. Lizzie's stained and faded brown flannel dress was the color of an overdone Indian pudding. The combination of her ancient dress, her frayed shawl, and her murky yellow apron made her short, plump body look like an old chair whose stuffing had settled in all the wrong places.

“I don't wear my nice things here, silly! Not to get milk and manure and soil all over.” Lizzie laughed. She seemed to be the only one in the Lyman household who could laugh without looking to anyone else first to see if laughter would come amiss. Her laugh always made Ethan feel warm inside. He liked her gingerbread-colored eyes that turned up at the corners when she smiled. But she wasn't pretty, at least not the way people thought pretty should be. The young men in town admired girls like Clarissa Smead, who was slim and delicate with translucent white skin and long, elegant hands. “Besides,” Lizzie continued, “I have to think about my wedding, don't I?”

Ethan nearly drove the digging bar through his foot. He leaned heavily on the bar to regain his balance. “Who—when—you're getting married? To who?”

Lizzie glanced over the high garden fence, toward the field where Silas struggled to pry loose a boulder. “I don't know. But someday I will, and I should have some money and things set by, shouldn't I?”

“Uh—I s'pose so. But do you like working here?”

Lizzie untangled a branch from the pile. “It's as good as anywhere else, I suppose.”

“Mrs. Lyman—she—does she—did she ever hit you?”

Lizzie looked up sharply. “If she did, I'd be off like a shot, and who'd make her prize-winning butter and cheese for her then? Just because she pays my wages doesn't make her better than me.”

“I can't leave, though, can I? That's what being bound means, doesn't it?” Ethan said.

“I'm afraid so. There's lots of legal papers and things, aren't there?” She shook out the pea brush. “It won't be so bad, Ethan. Just do your work as best you can and keep out of trouble.”

He nodded and moved on down the trench. That was what Daniel said, too. Ethan glanced toward the bottom of the garden, where Daniel was digging a bed for onions. “Daniel can't leave either,” Ethan said. He thrust the iron bar into the soil.

“Daniel who?”

“Daniel—you know—” Ethan made a small gesture toward the bottom of the garden. A little parade of chickens trailed after Daniel, gobbling up worms and grubs in his wake.

“Oh.” Lizzie followed Ethan's glance. “I'd forgotten he had any name other than Paddy.”

One of Daniel's brogans flapped open at the toe. “He needs new shoes,” Ethan said.

“He needs trousers, too, unless he intends to stop growing this year. I'm sure Mr. Lyman'll get him some, once he notices.
Or once Paddy asks.” She centered the end of a branch in the hole Ethan had drilled with the digging bar.

“He won't ask.” Ethan and Daniel had quarreled about it that morning, after one of the calves had stomped on Daniel's bare foot. Daniel's idiotic refusal to ask for what he needed had soured Ethan's mood.

“But Mr. Lyman is supposed to buy him clothes. It's part of the indenture. It always is. At least that's what I've been told.” Lizzie grasped the branch close to the ground and shoved it into the soft earth. “Well, he usually gets Silas's castoffs, but it's the same thing, really.”

“He won't ask Silas, either.” Ethan sighed. “He doesn't make sense.”

“I think Paddy only makes sense to Paddy,” Lizzie said.

“Doesn't he have any friends?”

Lizzie peered brightly at Ethan from under the flopping brim of her calico garden hat. “Aren't you his friend?” she asked in a teasing voice.

Ethan rammed the bar into the loosened earth three times, making a neat little round hole. “I mean boys his own age, like from when he was in school.”

Lizzie frowned and shook her head. She tamped the earth down around the branch with her toe. “He's so odd—the way he talks, the way he looks, the way he just
. The other boys tormented him something awful.”

Ethan helped Lizzie set the last few pieces of brush. She fetched the peas she'd left soaking in a bowl. Kneeling next to the row, she sprinkled some of them at the base of the brush, then sat back on her heels and stared down the garden toward Daniel. “One winter, three or four years ago, Joshua Ward took a notion that he couldn't abide Paddy's red hair, so he and his friends set on him and cut it off.”

“Joshua Ward?” Ethan said. He watched Daniel place his
spade, step on it, and turn the earth in a steady mechanical rhythm. He couldn't picture Daniel three or four years younger any more than he could picture him without his willful shock of marmalade-colored hair. It wasn't hard, though, to picture Joshua Ward bedeviling him.

“I don't think I've ever had such a fright,” Lizzie continued. “When I came on them, there were four of them holding Paddy down on the ground, and Joshua kneeling on Paddy's chest with his pocketknife in his hand. I was sure they'd killed him. Paddy lay there so still, and there was hair and blood all over the snow. The blood was only because Paddy'd hit one of them in the nose trying to get away, but I didn't know that.” Her lips turned up in a wan little smile. “I imagine they heard me screaming all the way to Boston. But it scared the boys away.” She spread another handful of peas in a tidy line. “It was so odd.” She rocked back on her heels, her forehead creasing. “After they left, Paddy lay there in the snow, ever so still, for such a long time, just staring up at the sky with such a—a—” She swallowed and looked down at her row of peas as though she could find the right word spelled out in them. “—such an empty look in his eyes, that I thought perhaps the fright had stopped his heart, like you read about sometimes in the newspaper.” She shuddered again, then forced an uneasy laugh. “It nearly stopped
heart, I can tell you that.”

Ethan realized he'd left off planting to hear the story. Hastily, he dropped clumps of peas down in the bare spots until he caught up with Lizzie. “Did Mr. Lyman thrash him?” he asked.

Lizzie scattered peas faster as she talked. “Why? It wasn't Paddy's fault. Anyway,” she continued, scrubbing at her muddy fingers with her apron, “Papa and Mr. Lyman had a long talk with Mr. Ward. After that, the boys mostly left Paddy
alone for the rest of the term. But he didn't go back to school the next winter.” Reaching the end of the row, Lizzie picked up a hoe to push the soil onto the newly planted seeds.

Ethan did the same. The blades of their hoes pushed toward each other from opposite sides of the row, piling up a little hump of dirt at the base of the pea brush.

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