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Mending Horses: Excerpt

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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.

CHAPTER TWO

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.

“Himself?”

“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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Mending Horses

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Mending Horses
by M.P. Barker

(A sequel to A Difficult Boy)

Holiday House, 2014
ISBN: 978-0823429486

Get a sneak preview! Read the first two chapters here.

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Mending Horses

Daniel Linnehan is an indentured servant no more. He has his papers, his beloved horse, Ivy, and a new direction in life. But an Irish teenager, wearing fine clothes and riding an even finer horse, is asking for trouble.

After a terrible misunderstanding leaves Daniel beaten, the peddler Jonathan Stocking takes Daniel under his wing. But Billy, another Irish youngster traveling with Mr. Stocking, is not thrilled that the two must work together, first as peddlers on the road and then in a traveling circus where Daniel heals and trains the skittish circus ponies and Billy charms audiences with a singing voice from heaven.

All too soon, past secrets catch up with them, bringing danger and heartache.

This deeply moving sequel to A Difficult Boy weaves an indelible piece of historical fiction into a gripping adventure that explores themes of patience, courage, kindness, and the true meaning of family.

Click on the following links for more information:

Excerpt
Frequently Asked Questions
Awards and honors
Reviews
Book group discussion guide
Educator’s Guide Based on Common Core Curriculum Standards
Bibliography
Helpful websites
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Gallery of Images related to the book

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A Difficult Boy: Frequently Asked Questions

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Click on the cover to order your copy.

How long did it take you to write A Difficult Boy?

It took about ten years from the day I wrote the first scene to the day I had the published book in my hand, but the book went through at least five drafts in that time, and I didn’t write all day every day (I had to work for a living, too!). The first draft took about two years to write, and it was about 700 pages long–about as big as a telephone book! Well, of course, that was much too big, so it took me about two more years to whittle that down to a mere 500 pages. The next two drafts brought it down to about 350 pages. Meanwhile, I was trying to find an agent or a publisher –that took even longer than writing the book! After Holiday House bought the book, I worked with Regina Griffin and Leanna Petronella, my editors there, to tighten the story up some more, and took another 50 or so pages off it. Whew!

Is the story based on historical events? Were Ethan and Daniel real people?

BALL-01-0011-for-webNo. Both the story and the setting are fictional. I couldn’t find a real town that was exactly the way I imagined Farmington, so I invented a town on the western edge of Hampden County, Massachusetts, near the Farmington River.

Although Ethan isn’t a real person, his story was inspired by the document at left, which I discovered in the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum’s archives. The document was a bill that a man sent to an indentured boy’s mother, charging her for the cost of catching the boy when he ran away. That got me thinking: What kind of man was that master? Why did the boy run away? What would happen if his mother couldn’t pay the bill?

Before I knew it, the characters of Mr. Lyman and Ethan began to take shape. After that, Daniel made his appearance. Irish immigrants like Daniel came to New England in large numbers in the 1820s and 1830s to build canals and mills. So I used that information to help me imagine why Daniel’s family might have come from Ireland.

Jonathan Stocking, the peddler, was based on research I did at Old Sturbridge Village about peddlers in New England. I’d originally intended Mr. Stocking to make a very brief appearance, but he insisted on developing into a more prominent character. He also insisted on being quite different from the character I’d originally intended. I’d envisioned a tall, thin fellow in his twenties as the peddler. But when I started writing the scene, Mr. Stocking turned into a short, round, older man with a checkered past and a variety of talents. Mr. Stocking continued to pester me to tell his story, so watch for more adventures involving Mr. Stocking and Daniel in my next book, Mending Horses.

How did you research the period?

My training at Old Sturbridge Village involved learning about almost every detail of life in a New England town of the 1830s. When I worked there, I did many of the chores Ethan and Daniel do, like milking cows, mucking out the barn, planting crops, turning the manure pile, etc. So I used that experience when I described the way things looked and sounded and felt and smelled in the story (especially the smells!).

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Me during my Old Sturbridge Village days

At Sturbridge Village, I also learned about the opinions and beliefs of people from the time period. It was interesting to see the ways in which people have changed since then—and the ways they haven’t!

Sturbridge Village has a fabulous research library, which provided a wealth of information. I also did a lot of research at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum and Mystic Seaport Museum . I searched through reference books, old newspapers, indenture agreements, account books, and diaries and reminiscences of people who’d lived in the time period. For example, when Mr. Pease, the hired man, tells anti-Irish stories to aggravate Daniel, I adapted Mr. Pease’s tales from some jokes that were published in newspapers from the 1830s.

I also relied on several former co-workers from the Village for advice and fact-checking. I’m especially grateful to Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, for going over the manuscript to root out any historically inaccurate situations. He’s an amazing guy—I swear he has a photographic memory!

Do you speak Irish (Gaelic)?

No. I did consider learning Irish, but it’s such a complicated language that I found the prospect a bit intimidating. So I called on a couple of experts to help me out. Thomas Moriarty, a professor from Elms College (my alma mater), and George Bresnahan graciously translated all the Irish bits for me.

How were you able to make the details of riding so vivid? Are you a horse lover? Do you own a horse? Do you ride?

horsesmallI’ve loved horses ever since I was a kid. I read all Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, and probably drove my mom crazy cutting pictures of horses out of magazines and newspapers. But my family couldn’t afford a horse or riding lessons, so I didn’t get the chance to learn to ride until I was in my twenties. Although I never owned a horse, I took riding lessons for several years, and helped take care of a couple of horses at the stable where I took my lessons. I don’t know that I was ever much good, but I had fun!

The best teacher I had was a red-haired girl named Kathy, who taught me to ride much the same way that Daniel teaches Ethan. No, we didn’t ride the horse together the way Ethan and Daniel do in the book, but Kathy described how to sit in the saddle and hold my posture just the way Daniel does, and she showed me how to get a feel for the horse’s motion. She also recommended a book called Centered Riding by Sally Swift, which was a real eye-opener. From that point, everything just started to click for me and my riding improved immensely.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to ride for several years. But I hope I will be able to do it again someday!

Is Ivy based on a real horse you either owned or rode?

Ivy is based on a combination of real horses I’ve observed and fictitious ones that I’ve read about. When I took riding lessons, there was a girl at the stable who had taken care of one of the stable horses for so long that the two of them had formed a very special bond. She would run around the pasture and play with this horse sort of the way Daniel plays with Ivy in the book–although Daniel and Ivy play a bit rougher!

gilsmallWhen I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, I became friends with a very special man named Gil Barons, who drove a horse and carriage around the village. Gil was in his seventies when I met him. He’d been around horses all his life, and told me lots of stories about the horses he’d known. He had a very special bond with his horse Monty, whom he’d owned for more than twenty-five years. I’m sure I picked up a lot just watching Gil and Monty work together.

Who are the two boys on the cover?

Well, that’s an unsolved mystery! Marc Tauss, who created the cover, used a photo that he found in an antique store. There was nothing to identify the boys in the photo, which probably dates from the late 1800s. He collaged the picture with a 19th-century account book and a horse silhouette to create the stunning cover image. (To see more of Marc’s work, check out his web page at http://www.marctauss.com/)

Add your own questions below:

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A Difficult Boy

COVERWITHSTICKER-for-web Award-Winning Historical Fiction from Holiday House

by M.P. Barker

Hardcover ISBN: 978-0823420865
Paperback ISBN:  978-0823422449
Also available in e-book format.
To purchase a copy, click here.

It’s 1839. Young Ethan Root doesn’t want to work for Mr. Lyman, the wealthy shopkeeper in their small Massachusetts town. But Ethan has no choice—it’s the only way to pay off his family’s debt to the man. Ethan tries to befriend the Lymans’ other indentured servant, but Daniel, as everyone says, is a difficult boy. Sixteen years old, Irish, and moody, Daniel brushes off Ethan as if he were a pesky gnat. Ethan resolves to ignore the brusque older boy, but is then shocked to see how cruelly Mr. Lyman treats Daniel. Soon, Ethan, too, is suffering Mr. Lyman’s blows, and the two boys have only each other, as no one comes to their aid. Their shared love for a horse helps the boys overcome their differences and forge a tentative friendship. But when they take a desperate measure to protect the horse they love, the boys set off a chain of events that could destroy them both.

Click on the following links for more information:

Read an excerpt
Frequently Asked Questions
Awards and Honors
Reviews
Educators’ Guide Based on Common Core Curriculum Standards
Book Group Discussion Guide
Gallery of images of people, places, and documents from the book
Websites for more information about 19th-century America
Bibliography

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News and Interviews

News Items:

8 Jun 2015: Mending Horses named as a “Must Read Book” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book

9 Apr 2015: Mending Horses named as one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Fiction Books for Youth

25 Jan 2015: Mending Horses reviewed in The Greenfield Recorder

7 Nov 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Reminder

22 Oct 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Springfield Republican

8 Oct 2014: Article about M.P. Barker appearing at Teen Reed Week event in Worcester Telegram & Gazette

17 Sep 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Springfield Republican

 Jul 2014: Article about M.P. Barker in PRIME magazine

Apr 2014: Mending Horses received a starred review in Booklist

1 Apr 2014: Article about Mending Horses on Masslive.com

15 Feb 2014: Mending Horses received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews

16 Oct 2008:Worcester Telegram & Gazette article about M.P. Barker and Class of 2k8 mini-tour.

9 Sep 2008: Springfield Republican article about M.P. Barker discussing A Difficult Boy at the Bellamy Homestead

24 Jun 2008: A Difficult Boy featured in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

18 Jun 2008:“The A List”–“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” interviews Western Mass. authors about their summer reading.

19 May 2008: Springfield Republican article about M.P. Barker and A Difficult Boy

4 May 2008:A Difficult Boy mentioned in the Sunday Springfield Republican and the Boston Globe.

Radio Inteviews:

22 September 2014: Radio interview on The Bill Newman Show (WHMP-AM) [interview starts around 28:20]

26 March 2014: Radio interview on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon

Guest Blogs and Online Interviews:

9 November 2017: Online interview
Write Angles Conference blog

11 June 2015: Online interview
Linda Crotta Brennan’s Lupin Seeds blog

26 November 2014: Online interview
Sheila Boneham’s Writers & Other Animals

26 October 2014: Guest blog on writing and riding
Sheila Boneham’s Writers & Other Animals

Fall 2014: Interview in Ultimate YA

20 October 2010: Online interview
Damsels in Regress

2 January 2010: Online interview
Kathleen Ernst’s Sites and Stories blog

2 June 2008: Online interview at Susan Vanhecke’s Adventures in Authorhood website.

20 May 2008: Online interview about hair, nails, and killer sparkly red shoes to die for
Shop Talk with Laura Bowers

3 May 2008: Online interview
Trainspotting Reads Teen Book Reviews

25 Apr 2008: Online interview
Author Jessica Burkhart’s Blog

22 Apr 2008: Guest blog on indentured servitude in the 19th century
Nineteenteens

18 Apr 2008: Online interview
Nineteenteens

14-19 Apr 2008: Virtual book launch party for A Difficult Boy at the Class of 2k8 web site
Day One: About the Book
Day Two: About Writing
Day Three: Character Portraits
Day Four: The Face that Got Me My Agent
Day Five: Adventures in Living History at Old Sturbridge Village

14 Apr 2008: Guest blog on cutting a manuscript from 700 pages to 300
Darcy Pattison’s Revision Notes

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About the Books

Fiction:
mh cover final
Mending Horses
by M. P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2014)
ISBN: 978-0823429486
Click here to order your copy
Click on the cover for more information

Three outcasts – an Irish orphan, a roving peddler, and a child fleeing an abusive father – mend each other’s broken lives as they heal a circus’s mistreated horses.
2015 Banks Street College of Education “Best Children’s Books” list
 2014 Kirkus Prize nominee
2015 Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth
2014 VOYA “Top Shelf” Reading List

 

 

COVERWITHSTICKER-for-webA Difficult Boy
by M.P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2008)
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0823420865
Paperback ISBN:  978-0823422449
Also available in e-book format.
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

Their shared love for a horse brings together two indentured servants, who must overcome their differences to outwit their master and win their freedom.

2010-2011 William Allen White Award Master List
2008 International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society
2003 PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus Discovery Award winner

Nonfiction:

sis-prov-pic-for-web140 Years of Providential Caring: The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts
by Tom Shea, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Michele P. Barker

(Sisters of Providence, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-9672840-1-9
Click here for purchasing information
Click on the cover for more information.

Co-authored with Tom Shea and Suzanne Strempek Shea. Written in celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Sisters’ arrival in Holyoke and the 120th anniversary of their incorporation as a congregation of the Springfield, Massachusetts, diocese, this book explores the history of a group of extraordinary women, from their roots in Montreal to the present.

 

chicopee-cover-for-webImages of America: Chicopee
by Michele Plourde-Barker

(Arcadia Publishing, 1998)
ISBN: 978-0738590066
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

A pictorial history of a Western Massachusetts industrial community from its first settlement in the 1660s to the post-World War II era, featuring more than 200 vintage images.

 

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About the Author

dancingsmall-for-webI’m a historical consultant and author of two historical novels, A Difficult Boy (Holiday House, 2008), and Mending Horses (Holiday House, 2014). Both books are set in 19th-century New England, and reflect my background as a historical interpreter and archivist.

In the 1990s, I did a stint as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, where I got to time-travel on a daily basis to 1830s New England. You can do all the research you want, but there’s nothing like sitting with your face against a muddy cow’s belly and getting slapped upside the head with a manure-soaked tail to give your story that “been-there-done-that” feeling, and to add a new and pungent dimension to the words “in your face.” After Sturbridge, I became an archivist at the Springfield History Museums, where I got paid to snoop through old diaries, letters and personal papers.

Writing A Difficult Boy and Mending Horses allowed me to combine my childhood dreams of becoming a novelist and owning a horse with my grown-up jobs as an archivist and historian. Although I never did get that dream horse, I got to invent one in Ivy, the mare that Daniel takes care of in the books.

I’m also the author of two nonfiction books: 140 Years of Providential Caring (Sisters of Providence, 2012), a history of the Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts, co-authored with Tom Shea and Suzanne Strempek Shea; and Images of America: Chicopee (Arcadia Publishing, 1998), a pictorial history of Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Besides being a writer, I’m also a freelance historical consultant. My other projects have included exhibits, nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, planning studies, local history publications, and more.

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