Authors: M. P. Barker
M. P. B
Holiday House / New York
Copyright Â© 2008 by M. P. Barker
All Rights Reserved
ISBN 978-0-8234-3038-3 (ebook)w
ISBN 978-0-8234-3039-0 (ebook)r
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Barker, M. P. (Michele P.), 1960â
A difficult boy / by M. P. Barker.â1st ed.
Summary: In Farmington, Massachusetts, in 1839, nine-year-old Ethan experiences hardships as an indentured servant of the wealthy Lyman family alongside Daniel, a boy scorned simply for being Irish, and the boys bond as they try to right a terrible wrong.
ISBN 978-0-8234-2086-5 (hardcover)
[1. Indentured servantsâFiction.
2. Social classesâFiction.
4. Irish AmericansâFiction.
5. Swindlers and swindlingâFiction.
HOLIDAY HOUSE is registered in the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office.
For my parents, who continue to think everything I do is wonderful, even when it isn't
And for Joe, for love, patience, and really, really good dessert
“I don't want to go.” Ethan curled his arms around his knees, drawing them to his chest.
The hay whispered beneath Pa's shoes as he crossed the haymow. He sat next to Ethan, his long legs stretched out in front of him. The early afternoon sun slanted through the cracks between the barn's boards, casting bars of light and shadow across Ethan and his father.
Ethan wished he could stay here forever in the sweet musty haymow; stay here watching the barn swallows swoop and dive and return to their young nestled snug against the roof's peak; stay here listening to the comfortable rustle of Tess in the stall below, tending to her new calf; stay here sitting with his father, not moving, not saying anything, because all there was to say now was good-bye.
Pa put an arm around Ethan's shoulders and drew him in. “The truth of it is, son, I need you to go.” The striped light cast harsh shadows across Pa's lean features. Ethan couldn't remember when his father didn't have gray circles under his eyes or creases around his mouth and across his forehead. But this was a kind of tired that Ethan hadn't seen before. Pa blinked hard, as if his eyes hurt. “I thought we settled this,” he said. “It's a good opportunity for you. If you mind your work well, maybe in a couple of years Mr. Lyman will teach you to clerk in his store. It's a good skill to learn.” He tousled Ethan's thick brown hair. “You don't want to grow up a dunderhead
about business like your father, do you? Remember how much time it took Mr. Lyman to help me straighten out my account book?” He laughed, but Ethan didn't join him.
It was all about business, wasn't it? At night, when Pa and Ma thought Ethan was asleep, he'd heard them talking of how much they owed Mr. Lyman for the mortgage on the farm and their account at the store. When Mr. Lyman had come over with the indenture papers, all the talk had been of Ethan learning a skill, but that hadn't been the half of it. Moneyâthat had been the other half. Who would have thought one boy's work could make the difference between keeping and losing a farm?
So he'd pretended to believe that it would be an adventure to go across town and live in the big white house with the great columns. He'd tried to feel proud that he'd be working like a man, even though he was only nine. He'd almost convinced himself, until a few minutes ago, when Pa had told him that the Lymans' Irish boy, Paddy, had arrived to fetch him. Then his chest had grown tight with panic, and he'd bolted out of the house and into the barn.
Ethan's stomach knotted. He wasn't sure whether he was more afraid of what would happen if he left or of what would happen if he stayed.
Pa handed Ethan his hat. “It's only a few years. George and Mercy Lyman are good people. They never made me feel a fool for being backward with my accounts. You'll like it there if you set your mind to it. Now come on down. Paddy's waiting.”
Ethan wiped his sleeve across his face and followed his father down the ladder. Ma waited outside with a basket of food and a cloth-wrapped bundle containing his clothes. Chloe and Maria hung back behind her, suddenly shy of their big brother. He wondered if they'd miss him. Benjamin
still slept in his cradle; he wouldn't even notice Ethan was gone.
“Well, Ethan.” Ma set down bundle and basket. She wiped her eyes on her apron before she cupped Ethan's face in her callused hands. Her look made something ache deep inside his chest. “I put some caraway cakes and bread pudding in your basket. I'm sure you'll have better at the Lymans', but I just wantedâ” She knelt in the dirt and hugged him hard.
He breathed in the familiar smell of her: harsh odors of sweat, sour milk, and soiled nappies, sweetened by cinnamon, nutmeg, and molasses from the morning's baking. The ache in his chest threatened to split him in half. He squeezed his eyes closed so he wouldn't shame himself with tears. If only he could carry the feel and smell of her with him.
Someone cleared his throat and spat into the dirt. Ethan opened his eyes and looked over Ma's shoulder. A strange boy stared back at him, his gray-green eyes cool and hard. The boy was perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old and not much taller than Ma.
So this was Mr. Lyman's Irish boy, Paddy. Red hair, a faded shade halfway between rust and straw, stuck out any old how from under his battered brown cap. Freckles peppered his pale face, and his ears stood out like teacup handles. His body was all sharp angles and knobby joints, as though someone had glued his skin right to his bones and had forgotten to put the muscles in between.
Paddy's feet scuffed in the dirt. The cuffs of his broadfalls exposed bony ankles and gnarly feet that looked tough enough to go bare in January, never mind a mild April afternoon. He reminded Ethan of an old stocking stretched long and thin, worn and frayed at heel and toe and cuff.
Ethan's mother sniffled as she released him.
“Now, Hannah, he's only going to the other side of town,
not the other side of the world,” Pa said.
“It might as well be, for all that we'll see of him,” Ma replied sharply.
“Don't be silly. We'll likely see him in a few weeks or so,” Pa said. “And no doubt Mr. Lyman will let him visit now and then.”
Ethan winced at the reminder of how long it might be before he'd see his family again. The three hours' walk to the Lymans' might have been three days, or three weeks even. He knelt to hug Pa's arthritic old dog, Scratch, burying his face in the dog's coarse, dusty fur, delaying his last farewell to Pa. Finally, he stood up straight and solemnly held out his hand to his father, the way men were supposed to say good-bye. Pa swooped him up in a hug that pressed his ribs hard around his lungs and heart. Ethan's glance strayed over Pa's shoulder and caught Paddy staring at them with a peculiar light in his gray-green eyes. Paddy lowered his gaze quickly, but Ethan still felt the boy watching from beneath his pale lashes.
“Who'll look out for him at Mr. Lyman's?” Ma asked as Ethan hefted his bundle of clothes and Pa handed Paddy the basket of treats.
His eyes still downcast, Paddy shrugged. “S'pose it'll have to be me, won't it?”
Ethan's insides squirmed. Paddy didn't sound interested in anything that needed looking after.
“Right, then,” Paddy said. “Let's be off or we'll be late for chores.” He walked with a brisk long-legged stride, not looking back to see if Ethan followed.
Ethan glanced back at his family, the dusty brown house, the weathered barn and swaybacked shed. He tried to hold them fast in his mind, like a picture in a book. When he looked ahead, Paddy was already well down the road. Ethan trotted after him, clutching his bundle to his chest. They'd gone all the way past the schoolhouse and beyond Potter's
farm before Paddy slackened his pace.
Ethan swallowed hard. Make the best of things, Pa always said. “Soâso your name's Paddy?” he asked.
One of Paddy's shoulders lifted and lowered. “That's what they call me,” he said, as though somebody's name and what people called him weren't necessarily the same thing.
“Why do they call you that?”
“Because I'm Irish.”
“But you don't like it.”
Paddy's mouth twisted. He shifted Ethan's basket to his other hand. “Clever of you to notice.”
“Why?” Ethan asked. “Why don't you like it, I mean?”
Paddy's eyes narrowed. “Tell you what, lad. I'll call you âfool' for a week or so and see how you like it.” His voice had an odd slant to it, his sentences all ending on an upward lilt. When Paddy said
, it sounded more like
, sliding into the next word so that it almost seemed a part of it. His
's had round, soft shapes instead of the flat, straight ones Ethan was used to hearing. But there was hardness enough in the
sounds, which clicked like a bolt being shot home.
Ethan wondered if the Irish boy always spoke in riddles. “What
your name, then?”
Paddy stared hard at Ethan. He seemed to regard the question as a challenge or a threat. Then his face softened. “Daniel. Daniel Linnehan,” he said carefully, as if he wanted to make sure he said it exactly right.
“Then I'll call you Daniel, or Dan, or whatever you like.”
Daniel's eyebrows bunched together. He took a deep breath and nodded. “Daniel, then. But not in front of himself.”
“Mr. Lyman. Or herself, neither.”
“Do you like working for the Lymans?”
Daniel shrugged. “I'll be liking it better when I leave.”
“Why? Is your family very far away?”
Daniel's spine stiffened. He spun around to face Ethan. “Don't be asking me any questions unless you're sure you want to know the answers.” His face closed up like a door slamming shut.
The rest of the journey was long, dusty, and silent.
“So you're Gideon Root's boy.” Mr. Lyman's eldest son, Silas, swept a hand through his sweaty blond hair as he studied Ethan. Two other men stood with him in the Lymans' barnyard, staring Ethan up and down the way they'd inspect an ox standing for auction.
Ethan snatched off his hat with a hasty “Yessir.”
The barrel-chested man standing next to Silas grinned at Ethan. His flat hat squashed his dark hair onto his forehead and made his chubby cheeks seem even rounder. “Not very big, is he?” Laughter lurked behind his brown eyes. “Maybe we should send him back until he grows some, eh, Phinney?” He winked at the third man, who let out a wheezy chuckle. Their laughter scalded Ethan's ears.
Silas's long face remained solemn. “How old are you?” he asked. His frown warned that he might take the other man's advice.
“Nine. Ten in August. And I can work hard.” Ethan squared his shoulders and drew himself up straight, trying to look as big and strong and old as he could. For the whole long, silent walk, he'd wanted nothing more than to turn and run back home, but now that Silas seemed inclined to send him away, all he could think about was what Pa had said in the barn.
I need you to go
The first man elbowed Phinney's ribs. “Introductions, Phinney. Where's our manners?”
Phinney swept his hat off and grinned. “Phinneas J.
Wheeler. Pleased to meet you.” He was slightly built, with hands and feet that seemed too big for his body. His eyes, hair, and clothes were all the same murky brown, as though someone had rinsed him in the tobacco juice that dribbled out of the corner of his mouth when he laughed.
The first man bowed low and presented his right hand for Ethan to shake. “Rufus Pease. You stick with Phinney and me, and you'll learn a thing or two, boy.”