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Mending Horses: Image Gallery

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Mending Horses: Frequently Asked Questions

From John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; or Secrets of the Stage, Green-Room and Sawdust Arena

From John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; or Secrets of the Stage, Green-Room and Sawdust Arena

Where did you get the idea for Daniel joining a circus?

When I started writing A Difficult Boy, I didn’t have a sequel in mind. But as I was editing the first book, I real­ized that Daniel’s story really wasn’t finished. I kept wondering what he would do and how he would manage in the world, especially since he’d spent most of his life being told what to do. So I thought he might look for Mr. Stocking, the peddler from the first book, for advice. Because Daniel is a natural horse whisperer, I knew he would want to do something with horses, and I at first thought he might get involved with the military, in the cavalry service, but that didn’t feel right to me. So I began thinking about what other jobs might involve horses, and the circus seemed like a natural fit. It also provided lots of opportunities to create interesting characters and situa­tions.

Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, NY

Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, NY

How did you do the research for Mending Horses?

Some of the background for “Mending Horses” came from work that I did as a historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, which is a living history museum in Massachusetts. There, I learned about daily life of people in 19th-century New England. But working at OSV didn’t teach me about early 19th century circuses, so I did a lot of research at the Museum of the Early American Circus in Somers, New York. They have circus post­ers, account books and journals, publications, and more. The website of the Circus Historical Society was another excellent resource. Most important of all were the works of Stuart Thayer (1926-2009), who wrote wonderful books and articles about pre-Civil War American circuses.

From William Guild, A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads

From William Guild, A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads

I also had to do a lot of research about the Irish immigrants living and working in New England mill towns and work­ing on the railroad. Brian C. Mitchell’s The Paddy Camps: The Irish of Lowell, 1821-1861 was a wonderful resource for some of that information.

I learned about the Western Rail Road from newspaper accounts of the time period, papers and records of the Western Rail Road, and from Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, who has done considerable research on Irish railroad workers in 19th-century New England.

To learn more about the horse training elements of the story, I attended demonstrations by horse trainers like Monty Roberts, read lots of books about horse whispering, and had the opportunity to observe a young woman who retrains abused horses. I also read about 19th-century horse trainers like John Rarey, who was known for his humane methods of training.

Is Mending Horses based on real people, places, or events?

With the exception of Farmington, Massachusetts, and Chauncey, Connecticut, all the towns and villages mentioned in the book are real places. All of the people in the story are fictitious, except for the landlord at the inn in Springfield toward the end of book. There really was a Jeremy Warriner, whose inn was famous for hospitality and good food.

One event that actually occurred was the arrival of the Western Rail Road in Springfield, which happened on October 1, 1839—perfect timing for my story. I’d known that the railroad was under construction in the late 1830s and early 1840s, but it wasn’t until I’d already chosen the date for my story and decided to make Hugh a railroad worker that I learned of the October 1 event, which fit in perfectly.

dan rice & learned pigWhile Mr. Chamberlain’s traveling show is fictitious, the stunts that his players perform are based on circuses of the time period. James “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), Dan Rice (1823-1900) and Joe Pentland (1816-1873) were just a few of the real-life performers who provided the ideas for my characters and their performances.

How were circuses in the 1830s different from circuses today?

In the 1830s, circuses were just beginning to evolve into their present form. At first, circuses of the 18th century were primarily exhibitions of skilled horseback riding, and didn’t tend to travel. Traveling acrobats, magicians, singers, and jugglers generally performed separately from such shows. Menageries also tended to be distinct entities; at first they were more like traveling zoos than collections of performing animals. By the late 18th century, circuses had begun to incorporate non-equestrian performers. By the 1830s, show managers were bringing together menageries, equestrian acts, acrobats, comedians, and singers into large traveling shows. Shows might include things we don’t normally associate with circuses today, such as opera singers, displays of artwork, dramatic performances, or panoramas of historic events. Traveling tradesmen, peddlers, teachers, exhibitors, lecturers, and performers—what we might today think of as “sideshows”—often followed a circus in order to take advantage of the potential customers drawn by the larger show.

Courtesy of the Springfield History Museums

Courtesy of the Springfield History Museums

Why is Mr. Chamberlain’s show called a museum instead of a circus?

In many New England towns in the 1830s, there were laws that either prohibited traveling performers, or levied heavy licensing fees. Shows like Mr. Chamberlain’s Peripatetic Museum sometimes might call themselves an “exhibition” or a “museum,” or might emphasize the menagerie portion of the show in order to evade those laws. In spite of such laws, newspapers, diaries, and other records show that acrobats, menageries, trick riders, and other traveling entertainers roamed throughout New England. Advertisements for such shows often went to great lengths to assure audiences that programs would be educational, morally uplifting, and “chaste.”

Names for circuses could get pretty creative and elaborate. Here are a few actual show names from the 19th century:

  • The Hippozoonomadon and Athelolypmimanthem
  • Yankee Robinson’s Colossal Moral Exhibition with Egyptian Wallapuss
  • L.B. Lent’s Universal Living Exposition, Metropolitan Museum, Mastadon Menagerie, Hemispheric Hippozoonomadon, Cosmographic Caravan, Equescurriculum, Great New York Circus and Monster Musical Brigade
  • P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Hippodrome, Polytechnic Institute & International Zoological Garden
  • John Robinson’s Great World’s Exposition, Museum, Aquarium, Animal Conservatory & Strictly Moral Circus
  • W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows, Consolidated Three Ring Circus, Menagerie, Gallery of Wax Statuary, Russian Roller Skaters, Elevated Stage, Encyclopedia and Races
  • J. Taylor’s Great American Double Circus, Huge World’s Museum, Caravan, Hippodrome, Menagerie and Congress of Wild and Living Animals

Was it common to sell a child whom a parent didn’t want?

Well, technically it wasn’t legal to sell a child in New England in the 1830s. However, a parent could apprentice a child to a craftsperson or farmer, in effect giving the master under the apprenticeship agreement nearly complete control over the child. This arrangement was also referred to as an indenture, hence such children were sometimes called indentured servants. So when Mr. Stocking offers to “buy” Billy from Hugh Fogarty, he’s not literally buying the child, but offering to take Billy on as an apprentice or indentured servant. Such arrangements might happen if a parent were too impoverished to take care of his or her children. Parents also apprenticed their children in order to get them trained for a particular trade or craft. A parent might also hire a child out as a worker for day wages–any pay the child received would legally belong to the child’s parent or guardian.

Where did Mr. Stocking get the things he sold from his wagon?

In the 1830s, there were a lot of manufacturers of tinware in Connecticut, and they would sell their products through peddlers who traveled across the country. Peddlers also might add things like brooms, sewing supplies, patent medicines, books, and dozens of other products to their wares, which they might obtain by trading with storekeepers or wholesalers. In Mending Horses, Mr. Stocking’s cousin Sophie is married to a man who makes tinware and supplies Mr. Stocking with many of the goods he sells. Like other peddlers, Mr. Stocking also carries dozens of other products in addition to tinware.

Who are the people on the cover?

The cover was created by artist Richard Tuschman. A young actor/model posed for Daniel. Billy was played by the child of one of the artist’s friends. They did a photo shoot in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the artist developed the cover based on the photos from that shoot. The horse is named Lumpy, and according to the artist, “The biggest challenge was that Lumpy just wanted to eat the grass.”

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Thanksgivings past and present

Roast Turkey and StuffingJust popping in here for a quick note on Thanksgiving, one of America’s oldest and most historic holidays. Here are  five fun facts about Thanksgivings of the past.

1 – Although Thanksgiving was celebrated throughout New England, Christmas festivities were often banned or at least discouraged until the mid-1800s. Ministers even preached anti-Christmas sermons condemning the holiday. (Okay, that’s really a Christmas fact–so sue me! Find out more about the lack of Christmas spirit in New England here.)

2 – New England’s early settlers also celebrated Fast Days, which were basically the opposite of Thanksgiving–instead of stuffing yourself with good food, you’d abstain from dining and meditate on your sins. Sounds like a real hoppin’ good time, doesn’t it? (You can learn about Fast Days here.)

3 – Until 1941, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different dates in different states. It was the governor of each state who would declare when Thanksgiving would occur. You can find an example of one of these proclamations online here.

4 -The Pilgrims probably did not eat cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving. Sugar was too expensive to sweeten cranberries and pumpkin pie, and white potatoes were not yet commonly eaten by either the English or the Wampanoag. (Go to the Plimoth Plantation Web site to find out more about what the Pilgrims did and didn’t eat.)

5 – Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), who wrote the Thanksgiving poem “Over the River and Through the Wood,” was more famous during her lifetime for her work to abolish slavery and advocate for women’s rights. (Find out more about Lydia Maria Child here.)

For more fun facts about Thanksgiving, check out these Web sites:

Find out the real history of Thanksgiving on Plimoth Plantation’s Web site.

Follow this link to listen to Dennis Picard of Storrowton Village in West Springfield, MA, talking about New England Thanksgivings in the 19th century.

Looking for some traditional New England Thanksgiving recipes? Check out Old Sturbridge Village’s Web site.

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Mending Horses: Music

mh cover final

Click on the cover to order your copy today

There’s a lot of music in Mending Horses. I thought readers might enjoy listening to some of the songs mentioned in the book.

Billy’s songs

Near the beginning of the book, Billy sings a lullaby to Daniel after Mr. Stocking rescues him. Although the song isn’t named in the book, I imagine that it is “Táimse im Chodladh” (“I Am Sleeping, Do Not Wake Me”). Ciara Walton sings a lovely version on YouTube.

I’ve heard several versions of “Deirdre’s Lament,” the song that Hugh hears Billy singing at the circus. Some are set to new music rather than the traditional tune. I found two versions on YouTube; I’m not sure whether they are traditional versions, or are modern adaptations, but they’re still beautiful. There’s one by Trio Nocturna and one by Heather Alexander .

Two beautiful versions of “Siuil a Ruin” (the song Billy sings to Hugh near the end of the book) are on YouTube, one by Connie Dover  and one by Clannad.

I couldn’t find a recording of “The Last Link is Broken” (the song that Augusta taught to Billy, and that Liam hears Augusta singing) on the Internet, but you can find the lyrics online here.

Edward Bunting’s 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland is a great resource if you’re looking for more traditional Irish tunes.

violinMr. Stocking’s songs

Mr. Stocking plays several songs on his fiddle. At the barn dance, he plays “Oft in the Stilly Night.” During the circus, he plays “Flowers of Edinburgh” and “The White Cockade” to accompany the dancing ponies’ routine. Later in the story, he plays “The Minstrel Boy” and “Soldier’s Joy.”

To find popular songs from the 1830s, go to the Library of Congress’s “Music for the Nation” website, where you’ll find sheet music for hundreds of songs and a list of greatest hits organized by date.

If you’re looking for more music from 19th-century New England, I encourage you to check out these two collections recorded by the musicians of Old Sturbridge Village:

Village Green – Music of Old Sturbridge Village

A 19th Century Music Sampler Featuring the Musicians of Old Sturbridge Village


Other music:

Although Heidi Talbot’s “Start it All Over Again” is not a 19th-century song, the lyrics makes me think of Liam and Augusta, so I’m including a link to it here.

While writing the book, I listened to a lot of music by Celtic artists and American folk musicians to inspire me. Here are some of the musicians on my playlist:

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Mending Horses: Excerpt

mh cover final

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Wednesday, August 28, 1839, Chauncey, Connecticut

“Mark my words, Walter,” Jacob Fairley said to his apprentice. “That horse is stole, and some evil done to get her, too.”

The blacksmith jutted his chin toward the handsome chestnut mare walking toward his shop. She moved so smoothly that a less observant smith might not have noticed the slight hitch in her gait. But Jacob Fairley had an eye for horses—an eye for people, too. A less observant man might have paid little attention to the red-haired boy leading the mare: a scrawny half-grown fellow with a spotty complexion and enormous ears. But Jacob knew that the boy’s bottle-green jacket, black cravat, and boots were much too new and fine for him. Bare feet, tattered broadfalls, and a patched-at-the-elbows shirt would have suited him better. The horse suited him even less than the clothes. Certainly neither horse nor clothes belonged to him.

“Stole?” Walter’s swallow bounced his Adam’s apple into a fat lump. “What—what do we do?”

Jacob laid a finger alongside his nose. “We wait, boy. We watch and wait.”

The strange boy led the mare into the blacksmith’s yard. He nodded to Jacob and Walter and lifted his cap. “Good day, sir. May I?” He gestured toward the trough.

Jacob nodded back.

The mare slurped the water, the boy pulling her head away when she drank too greedily. “Slow, lass, slow,” he murmured.

“That’s a fine horse you got there, boy,” Jacob said. “Your father must’a paid a pretty penny for her.”

The stranger gave Jacob a narrow look with his gray-green eyes, then shifted his glance away. He fidgeted with a buckle on the bridle. “She’s me—my master’s.” His voice had a strange twist to it, like he was trying to make his words come out some way they didn’t want to come.

“He must regard you highly, putting you in charge of a horse like that.”

“Oh, well. It’s only fer—for an errand. But her shoe’s come loose, see?” He lifted the mare’s right front hoof. “Can you mend it?”

“If you got cash money to pay. I don’t give credit to strangers.”

“Aye—yes. I can pay. I don’t want her lamed. My master’ll thrash me something fierce if I bring her back lame.”

Jacob doubted the boy planned to return to his master, if he’d even left his master alive after taking his horse and clothes and goods. A closer look at the boy confirmed his judgment. While the horse was impeccably groomed, the boy’s clothes were rumpled, as if he’d slept out of doors. His hands were grimy, and his face was smudged with dirt and the sparse beard of a fair-haired boy who’d only just begun to shave.

The boy tethered the mare to the hitching post and unfastened her tack. Jacob nudged Walter. He tilted his chin toward the bulging valises.  “He don’t have that load packed for no errand,” he whispered. “Help him put them bags someplace where you can have a look inside.” Louder, he said, “Give the fella a hand, Walter.”

Walter took the saddle from the stranger and hung it over one of the rails of the ox sling. The stranger shrugged out of his coat, folded it carefully, and laid it across the saddle. He did the same with the vest. He then unbuckled one bag and pulled out a brush and a halter, leaving the flap laid back. Walter rummaged through the open bag while the stranger turned his back to trade bridle for halter and brush the saddle marks from the mare’s hide. The stranger talked softly to the horse as he worked, grooming her with sure, rhythmic strokes. It was a pity the boy was a thief. For all his mean looks and shifty eyes, he did have a way with a horse.

“I’ll just get my tools so’s I can fix that shoe,” Jacob said. He jerked his chin toward Walter, signaling the apprentice to join him in the shop. “Well, boy, what did you find?”

“Just like you said, Mr. Fairley. New goods. Clothes and things, all like they was just from the tailor or the store. Money, too. I heard it jingle in the bag. Stole, just like you said.”

Jacob nodded grimly and selected a hammer.

“And—and another thing,” Walter continued. “Did you hear him talking to that horse, sir?” His voice squeaked a little with excitement. “Strange words. Foreign-sounding.”

Foreign. That settled it. “Walt, you run and fetch Constable Ainsworth. Tell him we got a thief here. And who knows but he might be a murderer as well.”


“What town is this?” Daniel Linnehan asked the blacksmith.

“Chauncey,” the man replied. He bent to take a closer look at Ivy’s hoof.

“We’re here, lass,” Daniel murmured to the chestnut mare. After blundering around the hills of northwestern Connecticut for several days, he’d decided to track down the tin peddler Jonathan Stocking. At last he’d reached the town where the little man had claimed to have kin, a cousin or some such who supplied the peddler with the tinware that he carried in his wagon. If the fellow wasn’t in town now, he no doubt would be soon, at least if Daniel recalled their last conversation aright. He’d no idea, though, exactly what he’d say to the man, if the fellow even remembered him.

As he’d done a hundred times since leaving Farmington, he felt his pocket in vain for the wooden horse Da had made for him so many years ago. He’d always touched it for luck or turned to it for comfort the way Ma had turned to her rosary. As he’d done a hundred times, he regretted giving it away as a parting gift to his young friend Ethan.

It was foolish to feel so. He’d no need of toy horses and childish superstitions. He was a free man now, a man of property, no longer a bound boy indentured to work off his father’s debts to George Lyman. He had a pocketbook full of papers proclaiming his freedom and his right to all the goods in his possession. Including Ivy.

Especially Ivy. He touched his forehead to the mare’s and rubbed her cheek as the blacksmith prized out the nails and removed her loose shoe.

He’d never dared hope to own the mare whose ears flicked to catch his every word, whose heart beat with the same pulse as his own. The only thing he’d wanted more than Ivy had been his freedom, which by all rights should have taken him five more years to earn. But now, two months shy of his seventeenth birthday, he had both freedom and Ivy. He should have felt…should have felt…

A crow let out a raucous cry and soared up from the field of Indian corn across the road from the smithy. The bird swooped and dove and rose again, laughing with its harsh voice, cutting through the air as if it owned it. Aye, he should have felt like that: noisy and glorious and exultant. It should have been a grand feeling in his breast, not a lost one.

He’d never imagined freedom would feel this way, that he’d be hesitant to meet a blacksmith’s eye, that a simple business transaction would tie a knot in his throat. He’d thought he’d never be afraid again. But he was still the same boy inside, uncertain, wary of the next taunt or blow.

It was a relief to know that he’d soon see a familiar face. Maybe that was what had drawn him to seek the peddler. Even though Daniel had seen him only twice, the little man had known things about Daniel that he hadn’t known himself. He’d known how it was with Ivy, and how Ethan would become his friend, even though Daniel hadn’t thought he needed one.

The last time he’d seen the peddler, the little man had a boy with him, a boy who spoke Da’s language and sang Ma’s songs. Back then, it had hurt to hear those words, those songs coming from that boy’s lips. But now he thought it might feel good.


Walter slipped out of the blacksmith shop and cut around to the road. He glanced back. Mr. Fairley stooped next to the red mare, her hoof cupped in his hand. The foreign boy bent over him, showing him the loose shoe. Walter shivered, seeing how easy it would be for the foreigner to take Mr. Fairley unawares, just like he must’ve taken the real owner of that horse.

But Mr. Fairley wasn’t unawares. He’d been clever enough to see through the stranger’s lies and was more than a match for the stranger in wits and strength. Hadn’t Walter himself felt the weight of Mr. Fairley’s striking arm when he’d dawdled about a chore the way he was dawdling now?

“Run and fetch Constable Ainesworth,” Mr. Fairley had told him, not stand and think. So run he did.


Tilda Fowler took a wet shirt from the laundry basket and shook it out smartly. The sleeves made a sharp snapping noise as they grabbed at the air. She jabbed a clothes-peg in each end of the hem and stooped for another garment.

“Mama, look! There’s Walter Sackett running up the road like the devil’s chasing him.”

“Sally, tend your chores and don’t be dithering about the blacksmith’s boy,” Tilda scolded her daughter. Lately Sally had nothing in her head but boys, boys, boys. Just the same, Tilda tugged the clothesline down below her nose and peeked over the laundry toward the road.

Walter Sackett looked like a plucked chicken when he ran, all flapping elbows and flailing legs and pimply skin. Tilda wondered how he managed to keep his head from falling off his scrawny neck. He caught his toe on a rut and sprawled face-first in the dirt. Tilda ducked under the shirts, headed out to the road, and hauled the boy to his feet.

“What’s your hurry, boy? You set Mr. Fairley’s shop afire?”

“No, ma’am.” He bounced on the balls of his feet as though he needed to find an outhouse quick. “It’s robbers—a robber, I mean—I got to get Mr. Ainesworth.”

“Someone robbed Mr. Fairley?” Tilda asked.

“No, ma’am. Not yet, I mean, that is—”

Tilda grabbed Walter’s shoulders and gave him a little shake. “Spit it out, boy. What do you mean?”

The boy stopped bouncing. “There’s this fella came to the shop—a foreign fella, all slicked up in new clothes on a fancy horse and a saddlebag full of goods—” He bent close to Tilda’s ear and lowered his voice. “—all stolen. He tried to make out like they was his, but Mr. Fairley, he knew, but he didn’t let on, just so’s this foreigner wouldn’t get suspicious and bolt. He’s keeping this fella busy down at the shop while I fetch the constable.”

“Who’d he rob?” Sally asked.

“His master,” Walter said before Tilda could scold Sally back to her chores. “Robbed him and murdered him, most likely. Prob’ly lying in the woods with his throat slit from ear to ear.”

“Oh!” Sally gasped, her eyes saucer-wide, her hands clasped tight at her breast.

Tilda wasn’t sure which disturbed her more: the idea of a robber and possibly a murderer at the blacksmith’s, or the way Walter Sackett’s eyes latched onto Sally’s clasped hands. Or rather, what was beneath them.

“Well,” Tilda said, rubbing her hands on her apron. “We’d best not keep you. Run along and fetch the constable.”

Walter’s head jerked up as if he’d forgotten Tilda’s presence. “Uh—yes—yes’m,” he said, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a bead on a string.

The boy ran down the road as if the dust cloud at his heels pursued him. “Sally, get inside,” Tilda said. She turned toward her daughter, but Sally was already gone, not toward the house, but across the east pasture and halfway to the Wolcotts’ place.


“…and there was still blood on his hands.” Sally gasped, breathless from her dash across the pasture and over the fence.

Beulah Wolcott squealed with terror. At least Sally guessed it was terror, though in truth, it might have only been envy that Sally had gotten a juicy story before she did.

“…and his horse’s feet were red with it,” Sally continued. “Trampled him down after he was dead, you see, so nobody would recognize the body.” She hadn’t seen Beulah’s face turn quite that shade of green since the time they’d stolen some of Papa’s tobacco, just to see where the fun was in chewing and spitting like a man.

“What body?” Beulah’s papa poked his head out of the barn doorway.

“The dead man’s. The one this foreigner killed,” Sally said.

“What foreigner?”

“The one down at the blacksmith’s.”

There was a clatter of tools, and Mr. Wolcott came out of the barn with an ax in his hand. “There’s been a killing down to Jake Fairley’s?”

“On, no, sir.” But Sally’s heart doubled its pace. It would be exciting if there was a killing, something to talk about for weeks and weeks. “But there is a killer. He killed his master and who knows how many others, and Mr. Fairley is keeping him there waiting for Walter to fetch the constable.”

“A foreigner, you say?”

“Oh, yes. Speaks nothing but gibberish. Probably a Papist on top of it.”

Mr. Wolcott hefted his ax. “And Jake all alone with him? Good God!”

The excited flutter in Sally’s heart landed in her stomach and turned into a lump of granite. Mr. Wolcott was a slight, even-tempered man. Sally couldn’t see him standing against a murderer. Another lump of granite lodged in Sally’s throat as Mr. Wolcott kissed the top of Beulah’s head. “Tell your mother I’m going to Mr. Fairley’s. But don’t tell her why,” he said. His fingers brushed his daughter’s cheek, as if he feared he might not see her again.

Beulah’s chin quivered as her father walked away. Sally had a sick feeling that her own face was the same greeny-gray color as Beulah’s.

“What do we do?” Beulah’s whisper rose to a mousy squeak.

To the west, Sally saw Mr. Gilbert and his sons digging potatoes. To the south, Mr. Finch gathered windfall apples. When Sally turned back to her friend, Beulah met her eyes and nodded, as if she’d had the same thought.

Beulah wiped her eyes on her sleeve, squeezed Sally’s hand, and whispered, “We have to hurry.”


“Killed them all, and they never had a chance, and now Papa’s gone to help catch him.” Beulah’s voice faded into a series of hiccupping sobs.

Seth Gilbert gave the girl his handkerchief. Poor thing, practically in hysterics, and no wonder, too. “There, dear. We’ll go, won’t we?” He wondered if there was time to go home for his musket. The only weapons he and his sons Levi and Noah had to hand were their shovels and pocketknives, but there was safety in numbers, and with Jacob Fairley and Enos Wolcott, they’d be five—no, four. Best to go now and not waste any time. He frowned at Noah, his youngest. “You’re not coming,” Seth said abruptly. Noah opened his mouth to protest, but Seth continued. “Find whoever you can and tell them to join us.”

“But I want to go, too,” Noah said.

Seth grabbed the boy’s shoulder and shook him. “This is important, son.”

“You can be like William Dawes and Paul Revere,” Levi added.

Seth threw Levi a grateful glance. “Yes, just like him.”

Noah puffed out his chest and nodded. “Yes, sir,” the boy said, and was gone.


Constable Chester Ainesworth was having a very bad day. A weasel had gotten into the henhouse during the night and ravaged the flock, leaving only a trio of tough, scrawny hens behind. Of the prized chickens Amelia had fattened and primped for next month’s agricultural fair, not a one was left. Cleaning up the blood, feathers, and torn bodies with their stench of tainted meat had been a joy compared to facing Amelia’s distress over her lost flock.

After a scorched and dismal breakfast, Chester had discovered a leak in the barn roof that had ruined a good quantity of hay. In the process of mending the damage, he’d spilled a box of nails and hammered his thumb.

In the afternoon, he’d found the cattle placidly grazing among his pumpkins, having broken down their pasture fence and forsaken the tough August grass for the cornstalks standing sentry over the pumpkins. It seemed that everything he wanted to keep in was bound and determined to get out, and everything he wanted to keep out was equally set on getting in.

He returned to the house to find a babble of frantic women, excited children, and agitated men blocking his front door, all of them vexed because Chester had been out when they thought he should have been in. He caught snatches of conversation that made him wish he’d stayed out.

“…he killed them in their beds, the whole family,” said Caroline Dunbar’s grating squeal of a voice. “Slit their throats one by one and robbed ’em and then set the house on fire…”

Chester circumnavigated the group, hoping to slip into the kitchen and fortify himself with a glass of rum before facing the horde. Walter Sackett stood on the doorstep talking to Amelia, his hair sweat-plastered to his forehead. The blather of the crowd kept Chester from catching any of his words.

“…ain’t nobody safe in their homes anymore,” said a man on Chester’s left. “He bashed in their brains while they slept, and then made off with a thousand dollars in silver and gold…”

“…assaulted the women and girls, then chopped them to pieces with an axe…”

Chester told himself that his neighbors were probably stirred up over some newspaper story about a faraway crime. Nothing sensational ever happened here. Chauncey was so tiny, it merited only three sentences in the gazetteer.

“…a gruesome sight as you’d ever want to see,” someone grumbled in harsh bass tones. “He cut off their heads with a scythe, as easy as mowing hay…”

Or perhaps the tale of the chicken massacre had circulated through town and returned transmogrified into something more ghastly.

“…and when the constable came for him, he shot him dead,” said a voice at Chester’s elbow.

Then again, perhaps not.


Daniel stood with his cheek pressed to Ivy’s, overseeing the blacksmith’s ritual of fitting, nailing and filing. The familiar task was almost a comfort when set against the uncertainty and bewilderment that had been his lot for the past several days.

The more time and distance he put between himself and Farmington and the Lymans, the more he discovered how ill-prepared he’d been for the journey. The number of simple things he didn’t know seemed unending. Finding a night’s lodging, for example, should have been easy enough. At first glance, landladies and tavernkeepers would greet him with fair and smiling faces. But their smiles faded when he opened his mouth and his Irishness showed itself—that Irish turn to his words he’d fought so hard to keep ever since that horrific day six years ago, when fire had taken his parents, his baby brother, and his home. Now he tried to flatten his vowels like a native-born New Englander. Even so, asking for food or lodging, or a barn to stable Ivy for the night was a challenge. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t remember ever asking for anything where the answer hadn’t been no.

Finding his way was another problem. A line on a map and a road on the ground were different things entirely. He might blunder about until winter, trying to puzzle out where to go, where to stay, how to speak, and how not to get robbed. Finding the peddler had quickly turned from a whim to a necessity.

“There, that should do it.” The blacksmith released Ivy’s foot and straightened.

Daniel blinked out of his fog. “Yes, thank you, sir,” he said. At least he remembered to say yes instead of aye and thank you instead of ta. He stooped to check the smith’s work, then glanced up to ask about the peddler.

The blacksmith wasn’t looking at Daniel or at Ivy, but at something behind them.

Releasing Ivy’s hoof, Daniel rose and turned. A little sandy-haired man stood at the edge of the blacksmith’s yard, an ax in his hand. Another next to him held a pitchfork, and another a spade. There were more behind them and coming up the road. Others carried weapons rather than tools: a rusted sword, a twisted bayonet, battered muskets. Daniel wondered if he’d arrived in town on training day. Perhaps the blacksmith was captain of the militia and…

But the men weren’t looking at the blacksmith. Their dark, cold gazes fixed on Daniel.


The constable’s parlor was jammed with people, some standing on chairs to get a better view, some trying to shove their way in from the hall. Those out in the yard jostled at the open windows, trying to thrust their heads and shoulders into the room.

Daniel felt as if he stood outside himself, seeing himself as one of the spectators might: a stranger with nothing to say in his own defense. The contents of his bags lay in an untidy sprawl across the constable’s table. Funny how quickly he’d attached himself to those bits of cloth and leather and metal and paper. He’d barely had anything of his own before, had never thought about how important the word mine could become, how quickly mine could become entangled with me. It felt as if his guts were laid out there, instead of only his goods.

“What’s the charge, Chester?” snapped a sharp-nosed, silver-haired man who sat in an upholstered chair behind the table. He held a candlestick, which he periodically rapped on the table to silence the crowd. From the man’s attitude and the deference everyone showed him, Daniel guessed him to be the justice of the peace.

The constable showed none of the older man’s poise. Dressed in sweat-dampened work clothes, he slouched in a wooden chair next to the justice. He stared balefully at the goods strewn across his table. He rubbed his eyes and seemed disappointed that neither goods nor crowd had disappeared when he put his hands down. “Damned if I know,” he muttered. “So what is it, Jake?” he said, a little louder. “This fella’s stolen something from you?”

“Not yet.” The blacksmith stepped forward and crossed his burly arms over his chest. “I never gave him the chance.” The crowd mumbled its approval.

“Then why in blazes did you haul all these people into my parlor?” the constable demanded.

“He stole these goods from someone, that’s why.” The smith grabbed a shirt and waved it under Daniel’s nose. “Now tell me how a boy like that comes to have goods like this?”

The justice’s and the constable’s stares felt like an ox yoke across Daniel’s shoulders. “Th-they’re mine,” was all the answer he could blurt out.

The blacksmith picked up the books: the fat little volume of Shakespeare the peddler had given him and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe—a parting gift from Lizzie, the Lymans’ dairymaid. Daniel cringed at the sooty marks the blacksmith made on Ivanhoe’s pages as he riffled through them. “I suppose these are his, too?” The blacksmith sniffed. “I doubt the brute can even read.”

Daniel choked back a retort. Whether dealing with powerful men like George Lyman or schoolyard bullies like Joshua Ward and his mates, it had always been safest to be mute and passive. But now it was time to say something, anything, and he didn’t know what to say. “They’re m-mine, too,” he stammered.

The room burst into contemptuous laughter. “Yours?” the blacksmith said, echoed by half a dozen others. “Yours?”

His mind began to retreat into that safe place inside himself that he’d built when he’d learned that the way to end trouble was to submit and endure. The rapping of the justice’s candlestick pulled him away from the temptation to withdraw and give up.

He cursed himself for an idiot. His defense was right there in front of him. He’d just been too daft with panic to tell them about the papers Lyman’s son Silas had given him. “I got papers.” He gestured toward the table. “Bills of sale. References. They’re all there in that pocketbook.”

The blacksmith grabbed the small leather case. He let the papers spill to the floor and trod on them. “Forged, no doubt.”

Daniel felt as if the blacksmith’s boot heel had ground into his chest. “And how would I be forging ’em, then, if I can’t read?”

A corner of the constable’s mouth twitched up before the man hid it behind his hand. The blacksmith’s face flushed, and he looked as if he wanted to strike Daniel. “Stolen, then,” the blacksmith said. “How do we know you haven’t killed this fellow and stole his goods and his papers?”

“Of course I didn’t kill him. He’s me.”

“And what proof do you have?” the justice of the peace demanded, rapping the candlestick against the table. The constable winced as the metal knocked the polished surface.

“Is there anyone who can vouch for you, boy?” The constable’s voice was almost gentle. The justice of the peace looked disgruntled that the constable had taken over the hearing—if the hubub could be called a hearing–but the constable continued, “Anyone at all who knows you?”

Daniel shook his head. Ivy was the only one who knew him. She could show them all she pleased that nobody else had a right to her, but they’d only see her as stolen goods.

The constable massaged his forehead, then his temples. He looked almost as miserable as Daniel felt. “So you have no proof you’re who you say you are. And you, Jacob—” He pointed to the blacksmith. “—have no proof he isn’t. And I have no grounds for a warrant.”

Somebody at the back of the room shouted, “But we know he’s a thief!”

Daniel stared at the papers at the blacksmith’s feet—the papers Silas had worked so hard to gather. If they wouldn’t believe Silas’s papers, surely they’d believe the man himself. “Send word to Silas Lyman in Farmington—Farmington, Massachusetts, that is. He’ll speak for me. I used to work for his father, George Lyman.”

“And how will he do that with his throat cut?” snarled the blacksmith.

“C-cut?” Daniel clutched at his own neck. It couldn’t be true, and yet it made all too much sense. It must have been an unforgivable betrayal for Silas to turn against his father and help Daniel to freedom. It wasn’t hard to imagine the elder Lyman slitting Silas’s throat in revenge. What better vengeance than to place all the blame on the Irish lad who’d just left town?

“What—what’s become of himself, then?” He barely managed to choke out the question.


“His da. Silas’s da, I mean. George Lyman.”

The slight man stepped forward, shoving at Daniel’s shoulder. “Don’t pretend you don’t know. You’re the one that killed them all.”

“All? They’re all of ’em dead?” Lyman had seemed subdued and shaken, the last time Daniel had seen him, but mad? Insane enough to kill his whole family and himself?

“All—killed in their sleep,” called a voice from the crowd.

The accusations grew louder around him. The justice of the peace and constable shouted for order, and the justice rapped the table, but everything melted into a sea of angry faces, a whirlwind of frenzied voices confirming the death of every last Lyman.

Daniel’s knees gave way underneath him. His stomach rolled and pushed up into his throat. He cradled his head in his arms. “Oh, God, oh God. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

A massive hand grabbed his collar and hauled him upright. “There, you see?” the blacksmith’s voice boomed in his ear. “There’s guilt written all over him.”

Copyright 2013 by M.P. Barker


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A Difficult Boy: Bibliography

Click on the cover to purchase your copy.


Carson, Gerald. Country Stores in Early New England. Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Old Sturbridge Village, 1955.

Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Benes, Peter, editor. Itinerancy in New England and New York. Boston University: Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, 1984.

Wright, Richardson. Hawkers & Walkers in Early America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1927.


Bowker, Nancy. John Rarey: Horse Tamer. London: J.A. Allen, 1996.

Brown, Sara Lowe. Rarey: The Horse’s Master and Friend. Columbus, Ohio: The F.J. Heer Printing Co., 1916.

Rarey, John S. The Modern Art of Taming Wild Horses. (reprint) Watertown, Minnesota: Nath Thoroughbreds, 1998.


Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail

Imagine digging a trench 84 miles long with picks and shovels. That’s what I was trying to do (no, not the farmington-canal-4-for-webdigging, just the imagining part) as my husband, my dog, and I walked along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in Suffield and Granby, Connecticut. Nearly 200 years ago, this shade-dappled bike path was a major commercial waterway running from New Haven, Connecticut to Northampton, Massachusetts.  And it was all dug by hand.

In the days before railroads and automobiles, transporting goods by water was cheaper and quicker than hauling it overland with teams of horses or oxen over pothole- and rut-filled dirt roads that could be impassable after heavy rains. Boating your goods up and down river is great when you have a nice broad, deep river with a gentle current. But what do you do when your rivers won’t cooperate—when rapids, shallows, and waterfalls obstruct the way? Build a canal, of course. The Erie Canal, running from Albany to Buffalo, New York, is perhaps the most famous and successful canal system in the United States. But there were other canal projects that attempted to imitate the Erie’s success.

The Farmington Canal (a.k.a. the New Haven and Northampton Canal) was one of those projects. The investors who built it broke ground in 1825, and had the canal completed by 1835—ten years of digging and grading and lock-building—all by hand. Most of the laborers were Irish immigrants recruited by the canal’s investors. (In the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of Irishmen came to New England seeking their fortunes by working on canals, dams, factories, and, eventually, railroads. In A Difficult Boy, Daniel’s father was one of those immigrants, and in Mending Horses, one of the characters works on building the railroad in western Massachusetts. farmington-canal-1-for-webYes, that would be working on the railroad all the live-long day.)

The Farmington Canal’s investors couldn’t have had worse timing. By the late 1830s, railroads were beginning to crisscross New England, making the canal obsolete not long after it was opened. In 1848, the New Haven and Northampton Company filled in the canal and built a railroad along the route.

Much of the rail line was abandoned in the 1980s, so now, like many old railroad lines, the New Haven and Northampton has become a series of bike paths from New Haven, Connecticut, to Southwick, Massachusetts. In Connecticut, 54 miles of the canal/railroad route have been converted to bikeways.

farmington-canal-2-for-webAs we walked the portion of the trail that runs from Suffield to East Granby, we saw remnants of the old rail line—tracks that hadn’t yet been taken up, an old railroad station converted to a law office. In one section of the trail, what looked like an abandoned dirt road paralleled the trail for some distance, leading us to wonder if that was part of the towpath along which horses or oxen would have hauled barges from Long Island Sound up to Massachusetts and back.

On other parts of the trail, remains of locks and retaining walls are visible, and one lock in Cheshire has been restored as part of the Lock 12 Historical Park. (You can find photos of Lock 12 on Joanna Kaplan’s “The Size of Connecticut” blog.) One of these days, maybe we’ll make it down to Cheshire to check it out. It definitely looks like some wicked cool history stuff.

Even if you can’t get to Connecticut, you’re likely to find lots of wicked cool history stuff on a rail trail near you. You can check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy web site to find out if there’s a rail-trail near you.

You can find more information on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail here:

Farmington Canal Rail to Trail Association

Farmington Valley Trails Council

Connecticut State Parks site

Article about the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail


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