The fast moving shadow outpaced the brick as it arched high over Dewalt Street. I ducked and turned and threw up an arm to block my face. The brick slammed into my wrist and sent me tumbling off balance to the sidewalk. Across the street, Darius Johnson slipped behind a sycamore tree. I saw him for just a second, but I knew it was him.
Darius and another boy ran from the tree into the alley beside Brubaker’s Garage. They turned and each threw a rock before they disappeared behind the building. Darius’s rock bounced off the sidewalk, then rattled the big window on Porter’s Hardware. The other boy’s rock landed in the street. He was a head shorter than Darius and might have been his younger brother. I wasn’t sure. I’d only ever seen him once.
A few drops of blood dripped from my arm. I stood and fumbled in my backpack for a tissue. I held it to the cut as Mr. Porter stepped from his store, his hand on the butt of a pistol sticking from his belt. He looked toward where the boys had run off, then turned and saw me.
“How ya, Miss Katie?”
I held my arm and looked down.
His eyes dropped to my coddled arm and the brick. “C’mon in. Mary Jean’ll have a look at you.”
I followed him into the store. That was okay because Mr. Porter was one of my father’s friends. We stopped at his store for parts when Papa wanted to fix things at our farm, which was pretty often.
Mr. Porter’s wife, Mary Jean, stepped from behind the counter that ran along the right side of the store. A man at the register holding a can of paint followed her with his eyes.
“What happened to you?” Mary Jean said, lifting my arm.
“Ow!” I jumped back. “Darius Johnson threw a brick.”
“Just now, here?”
“You sure who it was?”
“Yess’m.” Darius had been to our farm helping his father. But he was from Wigginstown, on the other side of the fence. He didn’t belong here. Even I knew that.
Mary Jean frowned. “Can you wiggle your fingers?”
“What were you doing here all by yourself?”
“I was supposed to meet Papa at the courthouse. I walked part way with Raeanne, but she’s gone home.”
“Is your father up the courthouse, now?”
Mary Jean looked over to Mr. Porter. “You’d best get him. That wrist is broke for sure.”
* * *
Papa was red-faced on the way to the clinic and spouted words under his breath that I wasn’t supposed to know. His mood wasn’t helped by the long wait while Doc Spruell examined me or by the bill, afterward. We didn’t have a lot of money; Papa made that plain every time we went into a store and to anyone who came to the farm, peddling some such thing. I didn’t see how we were worse off than most everyone else in the county. The rich were only on TV.
“You’re sure it was the Johnson boy?” Papa asked for the fifth time. We were in his pickup on the way home. My arm was wrapped in a soft cast and suspended in a sling. Still, I winced at each bump on the road. They were plentiful both in Hainesville and on the county roads where we lived.
“It was him. His little brother, too.” I wondered why Papa kept asking. My answer wasn’t going to change.
“You didn’t say nothin’ to him, before?”
“I didn’t even know he was there till the brick hit me.”
“He didn’t speak, not ever?”
“He run off back of Brubaker’s before anyone came out and saw him.”
I steadied my arm as we jounced over the railroad tracks.
“You’ve not had words . . . on the farm maybe?”
“He never said more’n thanks when I brought water.”
Papa sometimes took convincing when things didn’t seem right to him. And this clearly didn’t.
“I think he just had a brick in his hand and didn’t know what else to do but throw it at the first person he saw.”
Papa nodded. “He’ll think hard ’fore he does it again.”
* * *
Our farm sat five miles outside Hainesville, Mississippi. The road was paved to within a mile, but the last was gravel as was our drive where the truck’s tires crunched to a stop. Mama stepped off the front porch of our two-floor, white-painted house. She wore her yellow dress and had her hair tied up, as it often was when she cooked. She was at my door, pulling on the handle before Papa turned off the engine.
I climbed out. Mama made sure I was still in one piece and hadn’t been brain injured. Once she’d done that the fuss was pretty much over, and we went inside to the kitchen where she had been holding fried chicken warm in the oven.
Papa ate without saying much except about the hot weather. Mama watched him as though it were he who’d been hurt. He pushed away from the table after a second plate, slipped into his work boots at the back door, and stepped out. I started to clear the table one-handed, and Mama shooed me off.
An hour later, she plopped down in the big reclining chair in the living room where Papa read the paper. “Done with your school work?” she asked. “You can still do that.”
“Yess’m.” I was watching television from the couch. I’d been excused from my evening chores—feeding the three horses, eight head of cattle, and the pair of goats we kept. That was my part of the farm. Mama kept chickens and sometimes a turkey or two, but they didn’t stay long.
The rest was Papa’s. He grew mostly corn, plus a small field of soy beans, and the thirty acres of tobacco he was most proud of. Nobody in north Mississippi grew it the way he did.
* * *
Papa scuffed his shoes, then shucked them off and closed the back door. He came over and sat beside me. I turned off the TV.
“You’re takin’ the bus home, every day now. You have to stay after, your mother’ll come for you.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“You don’t need to be where bricks are landing.”
“I can’t choose that.”
“You ever see one land on the school bus?”
“On the farm?”
“No. And I never saw one on Dewalt Street before today, either.”
Mama stood and moved to the window. “Someone’s coming up the drive.”
Papa looked to Mama, then he moved to the door and held it open. A minute later, Sheriff Dorton Cromer stepped inside. He nodded to Mama and took off his cowboy hat. He glanced over to me and down to my arm.
“Been over to Wigginstown. The boy says he ain’t been near Dewalt Street. Don’t know nothing about Katie Cornett and no brick.”
“He’s a liar.” I jumped to my feet. “He threw it and ran. Like a regular scaredy cat.”
“He’s got friends and family says he been at the house all day.”
“Nothin’ you’re gonna do about it, Dort?” Papa said.
“Nothin’ I can do. There was fifteen hangin’ by the front steps. More in the side yard. Like they was waitin’. Knew I’d be along. They’d all been with the boy since dinner.”
“And you believed them?”
The sheriff shrugged. “Ain’t like the old days, Tom. Can’t arrest him on just what Katie says. Didn’t nobody else see it?”
“No,” I said. “Mr. Porter came out after the rock hit his window, but they were gone.”
“Sure he didn’t maybe see them through the window? Maybe Mary Jean, too?” The sheriff stared off at the kitchen. “A bit late to call tonight. I’ll stop by in the morning, see what they remember.”
“That’d be enough against all his witnesses?”
“Enough for me to lock him up. He might take a fright, all alone in a cell, and confess.”
“And if he don’t?”
“Then it’s done. County won’t waste a jury’s time on it.”
“Breakin’ her arm’s not a crime? What’s it take to get a jury excited? He have to . . . ?” Papa glanced over at me and turned red, like he forgot I was in the room.
“Take it easy, Tom. I’ll do my job, but they’re not going to send a boy his age to prison over throwin’ a rock.”
“It was a brick,” I said.
* * *
Mama drove me to school the next morning, even after I reminded her Doc Spruell had said I should rest a few days.
“You can walk. You can listen. You can write. And you’re not contagious,” she said.
I couldn’t carry books and open doors, though, and my backpack was hard to slip on and off with my arm in the sling. Fortunately, my best friend Raeanne stood waiting on the sidewalk in front of the red brick building.
Raeanne Batchelder was fourteen, like me. Her copper hair flowed to her shoulders in waves and before this year, when I shot up, she had always been half a head taller than me. Raeanne and I had been friends since third grade when I first attended the town school. We had stayed together in classes since then. Now, starting ninth grade, we shared only three subjects.
“Hey, Rae,” I said, raising my right arm.
“Hey, Katie Corn.” Raeanne met my arm with hers while she eyed my sling. “What happened?”
I felt bad for not calling her, the thought lost in all the excitement of last night. “Darius Johnson hit me with a brick.”
Raeanne gave me a blank look. She lived in town and had never met Darius.
“He’s from Wigginstown.”
In Hainesville, that explained a lot. Wigginstown was on the west side, past the foundry and the landfill. It was a resettlement camp. I’d heard many stories about it, but my only real peeks had been from the road that ran past it on the way to the grain elevator and my one trip with Papa to the gate. Beyond the chain-link fence, the streets in Wiggonstown were rutted dirt. The houses were small, close packed, and looked put together from leavings. Wiggonstown had its own school, but I hadn’t seen it. White people never went there.
“Is it broken?”
I nodded. “Hairline fracture, Doc says.”
Raeanne took my books, and we stepped inside.
* * *
Mama was waiting when school let out. Raeanne was with me as usual, and Mama agreed to give her a ride home even though it was the opposite direction. We followed traffic along School Street while I tried to talk Mama into letting me stay at Raeanne’s for supper.
“You need to rest . . . and do your school work.”
She turned left on Wilkes Road, escaping the school traffic. It was a shorter route to Raeanne’s than going through town, but the road had worn out a long time ago, and since no one lived on it, the county had let it go.
Raeanne pointed, and we saw several Wiggonstown boys running. They disappeared into a stand of scrub pine just like they were deer.
“Bet it’s Darius,” I said.
Mama slowed and kept her eyes on the trees. We came around a bend and a woman stood in the road next to her mini-van. We pulled beside her and stopped. The woman turned to us and pointed at the cracks in her windshield. I put down the window, since she was on my side.
“Did you see them?”
“Who?” I said.
“The one’s who was throwing. We drove into a storm of rocks, but couldn’t see where they come from.”
The van’s back window went down, and Ashley Minden waved to us. Raeanne and I waved back as Mama stepped into the road. She motioned Ashley’s mother to the front of our truck. The two women spoke a few minutes and kept flicking their eyes toward the trees. Finally, Mama came back, and we followed the van. The road left the trees, crossed a creek, and passed between rows of seven foot tall corn.
“You think that was Darius?” Mama said.
“I couldn’t tell. I just said that ’cause of yesterday.”
“You shouldn’t pass names unless you’re sure.”
I glanced at Raeanne and rolled my eyes. “Darius threw the brick. I couldn’t make out if he was with the boys today.”
Mama slowed as the dust from the van blocked our view forward. She turned and looked straight at me. “But it could have been him?”
I shrugged. “It could have been anyone from Wigginstown.”
A thud hit the roof of the cab followed quickly by two more. The side mirror shattered. Mama slammed the brakes, and we skidded to a stop. More rocks. She grabbed the rifle from the rack in the back window and swung it around.
She opened the door, and a rock bounced off the steering wheel and hit Raeanne’s leg. She shrieked and curled up in a ball. Another rock struck Mama’s shoulder as she stepped out. A third pinged off the door as she kicked it closed and worked the lever on the rifle. She fired four shots into the corn without much consideration of direction. A rock hit her hip. She crossed to the edge of the drainage ditch, put the rifle to her shoulder, and fired. She rotated by degree to her right and fired three more times. The rocks stopped.
Mama didn’t talk the whole way home. Not even when she let Raeanne out at her house and Rae thanked her for the ride. Mama was madder than I’d seen her—red faced, hands tight on the steering wheel, driving fast.
She had plenty to say to Papa, out at the barn, as I watched from the kitchen window. She, a foot shorter, arms waving wildly, hardly giving Papa a chance. I turned away when he gave her a hug. Two minutes later, they stepped through the back door.
Papa picked the phone off the counter and called his brother, Russell. He was the oldest of the three brothers and lived ten miles down the state highway in Ballard. The middle brother, Henry, had “gone north” before I was born and had never been back.
* * *
Uncle Russ stepped out of his truck. He was heavier than Papa and not so tall. He normally had a big smile, but his face was in a tight frown as he crossed the yard to where Papa stood, leaning against the garage. He and Papa both had on the khaki pants and shirt they sometimes wore to meetings. I started for the door. Mama stopped me.
“The men need to talk.”
“I just want to say hello to Uncle Russ. I won’t bother them.”
“He’ll be in after awhile. Why don’t you give me a hand battering up the chicken.”
I reluctantly followed Mama into the kitchen. She pulled out a pail of lard, a sack of flower, and a tray full of herbs and seasonings. I rubbed the lard over the cutup chickens. Mama did the rest.
“Is Uncle Russ staying for dinner?” I counted twenty-two pieces of chicken—a lot more than the three of us could eat.
“I expect so.”
The clack of a diesel engine drifted in through the open window. With all the food, I was expecting Auntie Jen and her daughter Stacey, half a year older than me. But they didn’t have a second truck. A few minutes later, another vehicle crunched up the drive.
“Can I see who’s here, Mama?”
“We need to go down cellar and pick out vegetables.”
The vehicles were gone when we came back up with carrots and canned corn.
“Is there gonna be trouble?” I asked.
“Reckon there will be, if they find those boys.”
“They’re not stupid enough to throw rocks at a group of men.”
“Then they’ll be back soon enough. Maybe you’d better set the table.”
* * *
The food lay covered on the stove top. Mama was on the couch. I sat cross-legged at her feet. We both pretended to read. A train rumbled in the far distance. A dog, much closer, barked sporadically. Several cars passed on the road. At each one I looked up, more apprehensive as the time passed.
More vehicles, and this time they turned up the drive. Mama stood and glanced out the window.
“They’re back. Let’s get food on the table. They’ll be hungry.”
We reached the kitchen as the side door opened. Uncle Russ entered first. He had Papa’s arm, supporting him on one side, while a tall man I didn’t know held the other. More men stood behind them, outside, talking low in the late evening dusk.
Mama motioned to the living room, and the men helped Papa to the couch. His face was pasty white. The front of his shirt was wet with blood, and it clung tightly to him. I ran to him only to be swept off my feet by Uncle Russ’s huge hands.
“Y’all best step back. Your daddy’s hurt.”
Mama threw sheets on the couch and Papa lay down. More men stepped inside and milled in the kitchen. I recognized Mr. Aldredge, Mr. Bollen, and Mr. Pike. They had farms out our way. A few minutes later, Mr. Endicott arrived. He was a vet and came by, time to time, when Papa needed help with the animals.
He looked at Papa and shook his head. “You need a hospital.”
“Can’t you patch him up here?” Uncle Russ asked.
“He needs blood and a surgeon. This is no place to work, even if I had what I needed.”
“Do the best you can. We can’t take him to the hospital.”
Mr. Endicott nodded and sucked his lips. “I’d guess that’s so.” He went to the sink and washed his hands. He asked me to fetch a bag from his truck. I was sure if I left Papa, I’d never see him again. Mama shooed me toward the door.
“Do as he says, Katie.”
I fetched the bag. Mama placed a mattress pad on the oak table in the dining room, and the men carried Papa there. We gathered four lamps, and Mr. Endicott set to cleaning Papa’s wound. I sat in a corner with Mama and watched. Uncle Russ stood nearby.
The room was hot with all the people and the extra lamps. Mama aimed a fan at Mr. Endicott and motioned for me to join her as she stepped away. I didn’t want to leave, but her glare said I had no choice.
“Let the man do his work,” she said, “We’ve got our own.”
We dragged the spare room mattress downstairs and made up a bed in the den my father used as his office. After Mr. Endicott finished, the men placed Papa on it. They loitered in the kitchen, after, and helped themselves to the chicken. They ate it all, then drifted outside in groups. One by one the trucks left. Finally, Uncle Russ did, too. Then it was just Mama and me sitting with Papa.
Papa slept, but I wouldn’t leave him and watched his every breath. Around eleven, a car came up the drive. Mama looked worried after she glanced out but walked to the front door and opened it. I followed into the hall, reluctant to go farther from Papa.
“Howdy, ma’am. Tom about?” I recognized Sheriff Cromer’s voice.
“He’s gone to Ballard,” Mama said.
“Expecting him home soon?”
“He said he might stay the night. I’ll let him know you came by.”
“Not going to ask why I’m here?”
Mama hesitated a second. “I guessed it was about that boy who broke Katie’s arm. We haven’t had any other business in my memory.”
“Can you tell me where Tom is, right now, maybe a phone number, too.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. He and his brother’ve got a camp somewhere. Just a shack, you know, out in the pine. No phone, or even plumbing for that matter.”
“Isn’t that his truck, sitting yonder?”
“I told you, he left after supper with his brother. They took his truck.”
“No ma’am you didn’t. You mind if I come in?”
Mama hesitated again, then backed from the doorway. The sheriff eased inside. I stood at the other end of the room—a final barrier between him and the short hall to Papa’s now closed door.
“Whatcha doin’ Katie, still up on a school night?”
Mama turned and looked surprised. I was not fifteen feet away, listening to her lie to Sheriff Cromer.
“Mama was helping with my homework.” I scooped my CS history book from the floor. “We were studying how some people up north thought it better to kill us than to let us live free in our own country.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Says so right here.” I stepped toward the sheriff and flipped open the book. He put up a hand, halting my advance.
“Where’s your daddy?”
Mama stepped beside me. “Leave her out of this.”
“He’s gone with Uncle Russ.” I repeated Mama’s words. “He left right after supper.”
The sheriff’s eyes scanned the room. They settled on the sheets balled up on the couch. I could see spots of blood on them. He was farther away, but they were plainly there.
“Are you going to put Darius in jail?” I asked.
The sheriff turned and looked me straight on. “Won’t be possible, now. He was killed over near Wilkes Road.”
I took a sharp breath and covered my mouth.
“Is that why you’re here?” Mama asked.
“Tell Tom I need to see him as soon as he gets back. I can help him now, but this is gonna turn uglier than a McKechney wedding by morning.”
From a corner of the living room window, I watched the sheriff’s car turn onto the road. The lights quickly disappeared, like he’d shut them off, not like he’d gone far enough to reach the corner.
“I think he’s watching,” I said.
Mama bit her lip. “Then, we’d better be careful. You go on up to bed. It’s late.”
“I want to stay with Papa.”
“Go up and put on your nightgown. At least we can make things look normal.”
* * *
I crept downstairs with the lights off a few minutes later, carrying a blanket and pillow. I curled up on the floor near Papa and fell asleep. I woke in the dark. Mama was in a chair by the window.
“Is he still out there?” I asked.
“Shush, now, and go to sleep.”
“Is he going to arrest Papa?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
“Is that why you didn’t tell the sheriff where Papa is?”
Papa gave a low groan and rolled to the side. “What are you two conspiring about?”
Mama bent down and rubbed his head. “Dort Cromer was here. Said he’d be back. Katie thinks he’s out on the road, waiting for you.”
“I can’t let him find me like this.”
“He said he can help.”
“I’m sure he would, but it’ll be out of his hands. Did Russ tell you what happened?”
Mama shook her head.
Papa looked at me.
“I’m old enough to hear. Sheriff already told me Darius Johnson got killed.”
“That all he said?”
Papa swallowed and reached for a glass of water on the table beside the mattress. Mama handed it down.
“There was Wiggonstown men on the road when we got there, looking for a lost boy. Darius was with them. We took him aside, and he admitted he threw the brick at Katie. We were set to bring him in till the others came out of the corn. They was carrying a young’un.”
Mama collapsed in a chair. “Was he . . . .”
Mama sat with her hands over her face, shaking her head. It took a second for me to understand. She thought her shots into the cornfield had killed someone. That was impossible. We couldn’t see anything but a wall of corn, and we had no idea which direction the rocks came from. She had just tried to scare the boys off. With all the rocks falling on us, she had been scared herself.
Tears poured down Mama’s face, but she didn’t speak. Papa watched and waited. He didn’t know. Mama hadn’t told the whole story.
“They were throwing at everyone on the road,” I said. “We stopped ’cause they broke Mrs. Minden’s windshield. Not surprising someone chased and shot one of them.”
“I didn’t . . .” Mama moaned.
The shrill ring of the phone sounded extra loud in the predawn stillness. Mama didn’t move. Papa couldn’t. I didn’t dare—nobody called at 5 a.m. with good news. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen rings. It stopped, leaving Mama’s snuffling the only sound in the room.
After what seemed minutes, I asked, “What happened to Darius?”
Mama and Papa looked at me, as though just remembering I was there.
“He run,” Papa coughed. “And all hell broke loose.”
I waited for Papa to continue. He shifted in his bed and the rhythm of his breathing slowed. I moved very close. His eyes were closed. He’d fallen asleep.
The phone rang again. I looked at Mama and ran to the kitchen to answer it.
“Katie? Uh, is your mother right there?” It was Auntie Jen, and she didn’t ask what I was doing up at that hour.
Mama had drifted into the kitchen, and I handed her the phone. She said a few words and listened. I heard only Mama.
“Oh my god, when?”
“Are you going to be all right?”
“Did they say anything about coming here?”
“Thanks, Jen. We’ll talk later. I’ve got to get Tom and go.”
Mama hung up the phone and turned to me. “See if anyone’s still out there and bring around the truck.”
* * *
I dressed without lights and slipped outside. The moon was near-full and clouds scarce. I made my way to the corner of the barn and scanned the road. It was empty directly in front of the house, but I couldn’t see up the road to where the sheriff’s car had gone. I cut around our corral and skirted the edge of a tobacco field as far as the ditch beside the road. There was definitely no one on the road. I turned back for the house, breathing easier.
Then, I saw it: a vehicle the other direction, sitting beside the road a couple hundred yards past the driveway. I bent low, too late realizing the driver could see me even better than I could see the car. I pretended to tie my shoe. Then I stood and crossed the ditch and started down the road. I had as much right to ask the sheriff what he was doing as he had to be sitting there.
It wasn’t Sheriff Cromer, though. It was Deputy Cole. He was old and heavy and liked to come to town with his beagle dog, letting it bark at anyone that happened near the bed of his truck. But he was alone now in the patrol car, and his head lay back against the rest. I moved slowly away, then raced down the driveway to the pickup parked beside the barn. The key was always in it. I started it and pulled it to the back door.
“I told you to hurry,” Mama said. She had two paper sacks stuffed full on the table in the kitchen.
“Deputy Cole’s down the road. He was asleep just a minute ago. He didn’t see me. I promise.”
“Past the phone pole toward Culver’s.”
“C’mon. You have to help me with your father.”
We got Papa to his feet, me on one side using my good arm, Mama on the other, and walked him to the truck. We got him in, fetched the sacks, and stepped around to the driver’s side. I slid in next to Papa who leaned against the door. Mama started the truck and crept forward without lights.
“Where’s the path?”
“To the right, Mama, around the wagon. More right. Straight ahead, now.”
We cleared the gate and passed beside our vegetable garden. “How can you see?”
“I just can, Mama. I just can. Go left a little.”
Papa farmed three hundred fifty acres set out in three large crop fields with two smaller fenced pastures. Between the fields were packed dirt lanes we used to move wagons and equipment. When crops were growing, they were the only way we could get around on the farm.
We came out into the last field. We’d put it to hay and had baled it for the second time only a few weeks earlier. It was hard ground and no path was needed through it. Mama kept to the center, maneuvering between the huge round bales to reach the gate on the back fence. Beyond it, the farm road crossed a shallow creek on a wooden bridge, then met a gravel road that came out a mile down on the county blacktop.
Mama let me out. I opened the gate, and she pulled through. As I closed the gate, a car started up in the trees by the creek. I jumped into the truck bed and tapped on the back window.
She crossed the bridge and swung onto the road. She put on the headlights, just as the other vehicle did the same. Mama drove fast, and I felt the truck sliding on the loose rock. I sat with my back to the cab, my good hand clutching a tie-down hook. The headlights behind us disappeared into the cloud of dust.
Mama turned left at the blacktop and really picked up speed. We were half a mile down the road when the other headlights approached the intersection, then vanished as we entered a curve. I watched behind us, my legs scrunched to my chest to ward off the cool wind. When we slowed for the Overton cutoff, the headlights reappeared.
Mama turned left, and I slid into the side wall. We tore down a long straightaway. I watched the lights behind us slow for the intersection, then stop before continuing straight on. I turned to look ahead. Trees, poles, and signs came out of the darkness with frightening speed. I tapped on the window, then pounded on it. We crossed a narrow bridge, the truck inches from the concrete abutments.
“Mama,” I screamed. “They’re gone.”