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Rosa McCauley hurried her little brother along. She did not turn around. Rosa knew this white boy’s voice. Franklin often picked on them as they walked home from school. “Don’t stop,” she urged Sylvester.
“What’s the matter? You coloreds can’t hear?” Rosa heard the boy’s footsteps on the dirt road behind her. “Or are y’all just stupid?”
There were no houses on this stretch of road; just scrubby pine woods and cotton fields, red clover and poison ivy. Everything they passed was dusty and wilting in the autumn heat.
Rosa could hear Franklin breathing close now. Go away, she wished. Just go. There wasn’t anybody meaner in the whole town of Pine Level, she thought. Maybe in all of Alabama. Why was he always picking on her? She walked on, faster now, holding herself tall. Inside her head, she said Bible verses for strength.
“Uppity, ain’t ya?”
Rosa kept her eyes ahead. Sylvester was crowding near to her, his arm brushing the skirt of her dress. He stumbled as he tried to make his short legs keep up with hers.
“Slow down some,” he whimpered.
“Run, little nigger!” Franklin shouted. He didn’t have to yell it. The hate word slammed into Rosa’s mind and burned in her gut.
Beside Rosa, Sylvester tripped. His knee hit an old brick on the road.
“Ouch!” he yelped.
“Oh, baby fall down.” Franklin laughed cruelly. “Do he want another boo-boo?”
Rosa whipped around, her dark eyes flashing. “Don’t you dare touch my brother!”
“Oh, ho. Now who’s talking proud! I just want to help.” But the look on Franklin’s face meant more trouble. He made a fist and took a step toward them. Before she could think, Rosa picked up the brick that had tripped her brother.
“Leave us be!” she yelled, and brought the brick up by her head, ready to throw. Rosa was trembling all through with anger. Franklin wasn’t going to get away with it—not today. “Go home!” she snarled.
“You couldn’t hurt me with that ol’ brick,” Franklin said. His words were brave, but his pale eyes were wide with surprise. “You’re just a girl.” He was stalling, Rosa could tell. “And,” he said, his voice getting louder, “a scrawny nigger girl at that.”
The word dug into her.
“I been pickin’ cotton all fall,” Rosa said, “I may be little, but my arm’s as strong as your’s has ever been!” She pulled the brick back as if to throw it into his face.
She watched Franklin’s eyes narrow as he looked at her arm. Rosa held her breath. “I ain’t going to get into it with no ten-year-old,” Franklin told her. He took a step back and looked quickly around him.
He’s looking for help, Rosa thought. She forced herself not to smile. She knew she was small for her age. And she was black, too. But she had threatened Franklin. And he was backing off! Rosa stood as tall as she ever had in her life. She felt Sylvester’s hand grab hers.
“Wouldn’t be fair to fight a girl, nohow,” Franklin said. Rosa knew he was just saying it to make himself feel better. He backed down the road, his eyes never leaving the brick in her hand. “You just watch yourself,” he threatened. Finally, he turned and stalked away.
A mockingbird sang in the silence. Rosa let herself grin. She reached down and hugged Sylvester tight. “Time we be going home,” she told him, brushing off his dusty coveralls. “I can’t wait till Mama hears what I did to Big Bad Franklin.”
* * *
“You mean to tell me that you stood right up to that white boy?” Mrs. McCauley’s hands were on her hips, her face set and hard. The cackling of chickens floated through the open door of their little farmhouse.
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Rosa grinned at her mother. She set her school papers on the table and went on. “He made a fist like he would hit me, so I picked up a brick. I even made like I might hit him.” The look on her mother’s face stopped her. Rosa bit her lip.