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M.C. Higgins, the Great

Illustrated by John Jude Palencar



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About The Book

Discover this transcendent middle grade masterpiece about a young black boy whose quiet rural live in the Appalachian Mountains begins to change—winner of the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award.

Mayo Cornelius Higgins sits on his gleaming, forty-foot steel pole, towering over his home on Sarah’s Mountain. Stretched before him are rolling hills and shady valleys. But behind him lie the wounds of strip mining, including a mountain of rubble that may one day fall and bury his home.

M.C. dreams of escape for himself and his family. And, one day, atop his pole, he thinks he sees it—two strangers are making their way toward Sarah’s Mountain. One has the ability to make M.C.’s mother famous. And the other has the kind of freedom that M.C. has never even considered.


Chapter 1

Mayo Cornelius Higgins raised his arms high to the sky and spread them wide. He glanced furtively around. It was all right. There was no one to see his greeting to the coming sunrise. But the motion of his arms caused a flutter of lettuce leaves he had bound to his wrists with rubber bands. Like bracelets of green feathers, the leaves commenced to wave.

M.C., as he was called, felt warm, moist air surround him. Humidity trapped in the hills clung to the mountainside as the night passed on. In seconds, his skin grew clammy. But he paid no attention to the oppressive heat with its odors of summer growth and decay. For he was staring out over a grand sweep of hills, whose rolling outlines grew clearer by the minute. As he stood on the gallery of his home, the outcropping on which he lived on the mountainside seemed to fade out from under him.

I'm standing in midair, he thought.

He saw dim light touch clouds clustered behind the eastern hills.

Bounce the sun beside me if I want.

All others of his family were still asleep in the house. To be by himself in the perfect quiet was reason enough for him to wake up way early. Alone for half an hour, he could believe he had been chosen to remain forever suspended, facing the hills. He could pretend there was nothing terrible behind him, above his head. Arms outstretched, picture-framed by pine uprights supporting the gallery roof, he was M.C. Higgins, higher than everything.

M.C. smiled. Going to be my best day, he told himself. He let his arms fall, and sniffed a bracelet of cold, fresh vegetable. He bit gently into a lettuce stem, pulling at it until he had an entire leaf to chew.

Will it really be mine -- this mountain? Daddy says it will one day.

He loved the mountain, its long, lingering dawns. But he frowned, squinting off at the hills with night still huddled in their folds.

Now it won't ever be mine.

He shivered as with a sudden chill, and stepped off the gallery.

Pay no mind to what Daddy says.

"We have to leave it," he said softly, "and that's a shame."

M.C. walked quickly to the edge of the outcropping where tangled undergrowth made deep shadows. He avoided looking at the side yard with its burial ground covered with car junk, and his prize like no other.

See it later, he told himself, thinking of the prize. See it when the sun is making it shine.

Slipping through the undergrowth, he took one of the paths down the mountainside. Soon he was striding swiftly through piney woods. The leaf bracelets wafted on air as though in flight, as he plunged and wove among the trees.

M.C. was barefoot, wearing carefully ironed blue jeans and a brown, faded T-shirt. The shirt was the color and fit of a second skin over his broad shoulders. Already he was perspiring. But his motions remained lithe and natural, as he moved easily among trees and shade. Pushing through pine boughs, he continued on his errand.

Bet I haven't caught a single rabbit, just like on Thursday and Saturday, too.

He had to check all three of his rabbit traps and then get home to wait for this new dude to arrive.

They were saying in the hills that some new kind of black fellow had come in with a little box of a tape recorder. All slicked down and dressed to kill, they were saying he was looking to put voices on the tape in his box.

And now M.C. knew how he could get around his daddy and get his mama and his brothers and sister off the dangerous mountain. The idea had come to him after he heard about the dude. Two days ago, greeting the sunrise, there it began in his mind, growing and growing with each new ray of light.

Dude going to make Mama a star singer like Sister Baby on the radio, M.C. thought. We'll have to travel with her -- won't that be something? But Mama is better than Sister Baby. He'll make her the best anybody ever heard.

The dude had already been told about M.C.'s mother and the kind of voice she had.

What if he gets to home when I'm gone? No, too early for him. He'll have to walk it, M.C. thought. Probably lose himself about twice before he makes it up the mountain.

M.C. lived three miles inland from the Ohio River. His rabbit traps were strung out at the edge of a plateau between Sarah's Mountain, where he lived on the outcropping, and a low hill called Kill's Mound. On the Mound lived the Killburn people, whose youngest son was the same age as M.C.

M.C. smiled to himself as he moved like shadow through the damp stillness. Ben Killburn was just his age but only half his size. M.C. was tall, with oak-brown skin, like his mother; yet he was muscular and athletic, like his father. He had a hard strength and grace that helped make him the best swimmer ever to come out of the hills. The first time he had tried to swim the Ohio River, a year and a half ago, he almost drowned.

His father, finding him exhausted, vomiting on the river bank: "You think that river is some mud puddle you can wade right into without a thought?"

And then, his father beating him with his belt: "A boat wouldn't go into that water not knowing how the currents run. (Whack!) I'm not saying you can't swim it (Whack!), as good a swimmer as you are. (Whack!) But you have to study it, you have to practice. You have to know you're ready. (Whack-whack-whack!) I'll even give you a prize, anything that won't cost me to spend some money. (Wham!)"

M.C. left the path and plunged into weeds of ginseng and wild daisy in a clearing. Standing still a moment, he searched until he spied the first trap half-hidden. Cautiously he picked his way toward it, for he had placed the trap at the edge of a long, narrow ravine. Across the ravine was Kill's Mound but he could hardly see it. An abundance of trees grew up from the bottom of the ravine, blocking his view. He couldn't glimpse the Killburn land, or houses and barns at all.

M.C. stopped again. He gave off a soft call. Cupping his hands tightly around his lips, he pitched the call high enough to make it sound like a young turkey gobbling. He remembered that when he was a child out with his father, they often came upon a whole flock of wild turkeys. Now all such birds were rarely seen.

M.C. listened.

Deep in the ravine, there came a soft answering sound, a yelp of a hound puppy nipped on the ear by his mama.

Ben Killburn was there waiting, as M.C. figured he would be. And after M.C. checked his traps, he would have time to spend with Ben.

Calling like birds and animals wasn't just a game they played. It was the way M.C. announced he was there without Ben's daddy and his uncles finding out. M.C. wouldn't have wanted to run into the Killburn men any more than he would want his own father to know he was playing with Ben. Folks called the Killburns witchy people. Some said that the Killburn women could put themselves in trances and cast out the devil. Killburn men and women both could heal a bad wound by touching, although M.C. had never seen them do it. Boys scattered around the hills never would play with Ben. They said it was because he was so little and nervous. But M.C. had played with Ben from the time he was a child and didn't know better. When he was older, he had been told. Now he guessed Ben was like a bad habit he couldn't break and had to keep secret.

The traps M.C. made were a yard long, a foot high and a little more than a foot wide. He had put them together from scraps of wood and chicken wire.

Better soon take them apart, he thought. Stack them, so when we move...

He checked them. Not a one of them is sprung, he said to himself.

Peering through the chicken wire, he saw that his lure of lettuce was still in place and rotting from two days of heat. The animal trails took the rabbits through the weeds into the ravine where they drank at a stream, and on to Mrs. Killburn's large vegetable gardens.

Maybe her greens have gone sour, M.C. thought. Not one rabbit come even close.

Disgusted, he held the raised trapdoor in place. He reached inside and tore lettuce loose from the first trap. He threw the rotting lure as far as he could into the ravine. Cleaning out the other two traps, he took fresh lure from his wrist bands.

Just a waste of time, he thought, shoving lettuce into the traps. But I'd sure like to taste some wild meat.

Finishing the chore, M.C. fluffed up weeds where he had trampled them down, making the traps less obvious. Then he started down into the ravine, grabbing hold of a wood post of a vine bridge. The bridge hung across the ravine to a landing on Kill's Mound.

My bridge, M.C. thought.

One time he had kept on thinking about how often Ben's mother had to climb up the side of the ravine to go anyplace. Usually she carried one of her babies on her hip. Slowly it had come to him what could be done.

"Vines are thick," he had told Ben. "You get your daddy and your uncles to cut them and make a weave."

He told Ben that wood posts had to go in solid ground on each side of the ravine. He told how to soak the vines, then loop them at the top and bottom of each post, and how to weave the vines so they'd stay tight. How to tie them.

I figured it, M.C. thought, admiring the simple lattice weave of the bridge.

Only one trouble.

Ben was so used to living the same, he hadn't trusted a new way of doing. It had taken Ben forever to make up his mind that M.C. knew what he was talking about. When he had finally told his father, Mr. Killburn dropped everything and set to work making the bridge.

Stretching himself out, M.C. held on to the post for as long as he could. Then he let go and plunged, running, sliding and falling down into the ravine. He had to keep watch for patches of seepage, which dried up in one place only to form again in another. The patches could be soft and muddy, or bottomless like sink holes. Growth covering them was yellow-green or black with rot.

Either way, M.C. thought, each is trouble.

He made it down the ravine without any danger to himself and into the midst of it, where the stream gurgled along.

Something swooshed over his head, M.C. ducked in a crouch. He smiled and turkey-gobbled softly. Staying down, he craned his head up and around to see.

Ben Killburn had come swinging out of the trees on the opposite side of the ravine, his hands and legs spidery tight around a strong, old vine. He swung back, swooshing through the air some four feet above M.C.'s head.

"Hurry up." Ben silently mouthed the words as he glided, rising into the trees on the Kill's Mound side.

The ravine was an ancient place, with trees taller than most others over the hills. Once there had been a river through it. Ben's grandmother remembered all about it. She'd put on her bonnet and ride that river meander to the town of Harenton near the Ohio River.

Now there was only the stream and seeping wetness. Because the trees grew so huge, M.C. suspected that the river still flowed underground. Not only were they massive but they were entwined with vines as thick as a man's arm. Maybe the vines were poison ivy grown monstrous from Killburn magic.

M.C. liked the idea of witchy vines.

Funny they never cause me to itch, or Ben, either.

The vines tangled up and up to the very tops of trees. They connected with other vines and other branches, forming a network that shut out hard sunlight. Dampness became trapped with heat, causing fog to hang eerily just above the ground.

Wouldn't want to be caught down here in the night, M.C. told himself. He shuddered, picturing vines reaching for him and looping themselves around his neck.

M.C. jumped over the stream and headed for Ben waiting on a high branch. Ben's unsmiling face was pale yellow and always looked slightly peaked. He had shocking red hair, thick and long. All of the Killburn children had the same hair, in varying shades of red.

As M.C. came nearer, Ben's gray eyes lit up. He grinned, showing small, pointed teeth. He straightened his knees, then bent them, as if he would jump for joy.

M.C. always felt bigger and strong around Ben, like he wasn't just anybody passing by. He was M.C., and he made a show of examining the vine he would use, which hung down the side of the tree trunk. He grabbed it above his head and braced his feet against the trunk. Leaning far back, he tugged hard on the vine. Positive it would hold his weight, he walked up the tree and climbed onto the branch next to Ben.

The branch twisted horizontally from the tree, searching for sunlight. To balance themselves, the boys had to stand still and hold tight to their vines. For a moment they stared at one another in a silent regard. M.C. liked Ben and felt sorry for his being small and alone when he didn't want to be either. He admired Ben because Ben was a witchy. And he knew that Ben thought a lot of him, since he was like no other boy and would play with Ben. Tall and powerful, M.C. didn't mind being by himself, could do anything well.

Between them was an unspoken agreement. Ben was never to touch M.C. with his hands and risk losing his only friend.

The problem for both of them was that they couldn't walk a path together for fear M.C.'s father or others might see them. M.C. would walk the paths and Ben would stalk him, hidden in the trees. That way they could be together and have no trouble.

"I go first," M.C. suddenly said. He shoved off the branch, swinging out through the ravine. He was carried in a long sweep through the ground fog. In an instant, he appeared shadowy, like a ghost riding lazily on thin air.

Vines are fine, he thought lightly. He felt the coolness of mist on his bare arms. But they aren't the best ride.

M.C. reached the far side. Then Ben swung off the branch and rode low through the fog. Just above the stream, he passed M.C. on the way back.

"I got a ticket to ride," M.C. sang softly as he passed.

Ben grinned with pleasure.

M.C. landed on the branch and pushed off at once. Again he and Ben reached the stream at the same time, from opposite directions.

"Hi, you bro'," M.C. whispered.

"Hi, you M.C.," Ben whispered back, holding tight to his vine.

In slow, ponderous sweeps, they rode back and forth. Their old vines creaked with the strain. The boys swung slowly, and finally they slowed completely.

M.C. caught up his vine with his feet. When he could reach it with one hand, he twisted it up and around his legs and wrapped it around his waist. He let himself hang there above the stream, with his feet dragging in the cool water. Ben did the same.

They swayed gently around in the stillness. Ben looked just as happy as he could be. M.C. was feeling pretty good himself, just listening and feeling the depth of silence. He even glanced at Ben's hands. They were small and appeared almost ordinary, except each hand had six fingers. Ben had six toes on each foot. Folks said all the Killburn men had toes and hands the same.

Eying Ben's witchy hands, M.C. assured himself that the sixth fingers weren't wildly waving and making magic. They were the same as the other ten holding on to the vine. Only they were extra.

M.C. let the sound of the stream become distant. He could hear voices from the Killburn land nearby -- snatches of words, their meaning lost on the mist. Dishes made their scraping noise. Chickens, clucking and fussing for food. Farther off, he thought he heard the deep cough and hum of machines.

Bulldozers, working so early?

Sound again from the house -- a fretful cry of a child.

"Where's your daddy now?" M.C. said softly to Ben.

"He's at home," Ben said. "And Uncle Lee and Uncle Joe. No work until tomorrow but they fill up the icehouse by evening time."

"Are they going to cross that swinging bridge any time soon?" M.C. didn't like running into Killburn men.

"Not likely before afternoon," Ben said. "Then I have to help them."

If M.C. ran into the Killburn men, his father had warned him never to let them cross his path.

"And your mama?" M.C. said. "Haven't seen her in a while."

"She at home," Ben said. "She was gone most of last night."

"Getting out the devil?" M.C. said, respectfully. He tried to be polite when speaking of Mrs. Killburn's power.

"Deliverin' a baby," Ben said.

"Oh," M.C. said, and then: "Are her greens any good this year?"

"Nothing's any good this year," Ben replied. "My daddy says it will get worse with mining going on everywhere."

"What does mining have to do with your mama's vegetables?" M.C. asked.

Ben was silent a moment, as if he didn't want to talk about it. Reluctantly, he said, "Well, Daddy and Uncle Joe went for miles north and east following the coal seam, looking for mining cuts. They didn't go to Sarah's Mountain because of what your daddy might do. But wherever else, they lay hands on the cuts...."

"You mean they thought to work magic on the hills?" M.C. stared at Ben in disbelief.

"I'm just telling you what they had to do," Ben said. "Daddy says it didn't work straight off but that maybe it will slow the ruin down."

"Naturally it didn't work," M.C. said. "That's why folks stay clear of your father, for doing things like that."

"He just can't find a way to heal a mountain is all," Ben said. Looking at M.C., his eyes were anxious, innocent.

"Shoot," M.C. said and fell silent. He pictured Ben's father pressing his hands on giant gashes made by strip mining. And it just about irritated him to death, he didn't know why. Two years ago bulldozers had come to make a cut at the top of Sarah's Mountain. They began uprooting trees and pushing subsoil in a huge pile to get at the coal. As the pile grew enormous, so had M.C.'s fear of it. He had nightmares in which the heap came tumbling down. Over and over again, it buried his family on the side of the mountain.

But his dreams hadn't come true. The spoil heap didn't fall. Slowly his nightmares had ceased and his fear faded within. But then something would remind him, like the chance to get off the mountainside with the dude's coming. Like Ben's father acting the fool. M.C. would get edgy in a second.

"Tell me about the dude again," M.C. said, to hide his irritation.

"Is it time for him to be coming?" Ben asked.

"Soon time," M.C. said. "And I have to be heading back, too, so tell me about him."

"I already told you," Ben said.

"I know that," M.C. said, "but I want to hear it one more time before he gets here. Tell me again."

Ben sighed. "Well, I did just like you said. I asked everybody if they seen him, from here to Harenton. Just on the outskirts, on this side of town, folks had seen him. He appear to be heading east toward the river. He's staying close to town, afraid of the hills, I guess. Anyway, I head for the river and I ask everybody: 'You seen a dude come by here with a tape recorder?' And they say, 'Yea!' And laugh their heads off. They been putting him on just to hear how they sound on the tapes. Say, 'This song been in my family for a hunnerd and fifty year.' Dude believe them, too, and tape them up good."

"Tell about how he looked," M.C. said eagerly.

"I haven't even got to him yet."

"Well, hurry up, you taking too long!" M.C. said.

"He was all right," Ben began. "I find him sitting on the dock with some men fishing. You could tell right away he was the dude."

"Tell it," M.C. said.

"Well, he was eating his lunch real careful and slow, like he wasn't that hungry. He looked more tired than hungry and more blue than tired. I guess he finally figured out that folks had been putting him on -- 'a hundred and fifty year' made up last week. He didn't look like he was very happy about that. Wonder why a one made last week ain't no good?"

"Maybe that wasn't it all," M.C. said. "Maybe what he got wasnt't any good."

"Maybe," Ben said. "Anyhow, here's the part you're waiting for: He had on some of the prettiest boots I ever did see. A real baby-soft leather, man, and shining like two black stars."

"And the hat was leather, too?" M.C. asked.

"The hat was suede," Ben said. "And the jacket was suede, too. And the pants must of cost more than thirty dollars."

They sat above the stream in awed silence, with great, still trees leaning near.

Finally Ben broke the quiet: "I told him all about your mama. I didn't lie one bit. He'll come over, as excited as he was -- what will you say to him?"

"Not much, at first," M.C. said. "Seems like I been waiting forever for him to come. So I might as well wait to see what he'll offer." He grinned. "And if he's really going to do something for Mama, I'll ask for some money. You know, just enough for us to pack up with some new clothes so we can travel on out of here."

"You really believe he's going to make your mama a star?" Ben asked. He saw M.C. stiffen. Quickly Ben added: "Sure will hate to see you leave." Uncomfortably, he looked away from M.C.

"I'll come back, maybe," M.C. said kindly. "See if you be still swinging." He laughed softly.

"Is your daddy going to want to leave the mountain?" Ben asked him.

M.C. went tight as a drum inside. "What you want us to do -- let Mama go off all by herself, huh? With some dude we don't even know?"

"I was just asking," Ben said. "Shh, don't talk so loud. I know you have to get out from under the spoil heap. I just can't see why you think some --" Abruptly he left off, afraid of upsetting M.C. again.

"I'm wasting my time," M.C. said. "Have to get on out of here." He loosened the vine around him. Pumping his body slightly, he slid to the ground next to the stream.

"Why can't you stay?" Ben said.

M.C. sighed. "You know why." Ben never wanted him to leave. "Because the dude might already be at home."

"Well, I'll walk you part way," Ben offered.

"Suit yourself," M.C. said, "but we'd better say so long here, in case we run into somebody."

Although they were only a few feet apart, M.C. raised his hand in a wave.

"Bye," Ben said.

"You keep yourself cool, you hear?" M.C. told him.

Ben sat dangling above the stream, odd-looking and shriveled, festering on the vine.

"Ben? I'll be back maybe on Wednesday."

"Maybe I'll see you before then, on the paths," Ben said.


M.C. turned from the ancient place of vines and of mist. He scrambled up the steep side of the ravine as fast as he could go. At the top, he stopped to look down. There was Ben coming toward the side, ready to climb. M.C. pushed through the weeds into the woods. In less than five minutes, Ben was somewhere off the path, stalking M.C. from behind.

The thought that Ben was near but unseen was all right with M.C. Although M.C. was still edgy, he felt his senses become heightened with minute sight and sound. Where he moved and saw, Ben was moving and seeing the same. The fact was a comfort.

He's my spirit, M.C. thought. He can see me and everything around me and the path, too, Good old spirit.

Only a few miles from the Ohio River, they were in country where once -- no more than ten years ago -- there had been elk and deer. It was still deep country where people liked nothing better than the quiet of staying close to home. Boys M.C.'s age endured school in the steel town of Harenton. Awkward, with twitching hands and no pine needles to touch or branches to hang from. In class, tongue-tied, they thought themselves stupid. Their teachers thought them slow. They endured it all. Until time to go home, to live again, ingenious in the woods.

Hills were crisscrossed with footpaths and animal trails. Only a hunter like M.C. could distinguish the telltale signs of trails. Anyone could follow the footpaths. Some had names from long ago, such as Wee Woman Path, Mighty High and Mighty Low. There were still some old, rutted wagon roads, which deadended at blinds and began anew up steep hill slopes. A few of the roads near coal seams had been broadened and flattened smooth by heavy machines. No one M.C. knew walked the roads.

As always, M.C. kept to Sarah's High Path. It ran the length of the plateau shouldered by hills, with Kill's Mound at one end of it and Sarah's Mountain at the other. Where the woods angled up and then down sharp inclines, M.C. had no sweeping view in any direction. He could see the path ahead of him and he could sometimes see miles of blue sky above. There were houses scattered throughout the plateau, but the path veered away from them. To reach a house, hidden, M.C. would have had to take lesser paths branching off from Sarah's High.

He could hear birds singing, some doves and quail. When bob-whites sang in the morning, it meant rain to come in the night. He heard the drone of catydids rising and falling. His own breathing was loud in his head. In his ears, gnats whined thinly and he could feel close, damp heat.

"M.C." Ben's voice light on the air, as if he had spoken within M.C.'s mind. "There's somebody." So near him off the path, M.C. was startled.

Someone was ahead of M.C. on Sarah's High. Probably some woman going into town. He knew everybody within a square mile of Sarah's Mountain. He knew them by sight, if not to say more than good morning.

M.C. studied the figure, but she didn't move with any kind of ease.

It's not any woman. It's a girl.

He bent his knees slightly so he could move silently on his toes. He knew Ben would be doing the same.

Think it's Mary.

Willis people lived in the south plateau quite near Sarah's Mountain. Mary was one of the daughters and not much older than M.C. She was as strong as any boy and she would slap you for looking at her. Mary had thick, coarse hair that was black-shiny and almost straight.

"Some Indian blood," M.C.'s mother had told him. "That long hair hold all of her strength. You just see how weak she is if you twist her hand around."

M.C. grinned again. Mary Willis was as strong as a horse. He knew because, thinking she had no strength, he had caught her once on the path. Coming up noiselessly behind her the way he knew how to stalk, he had grabbed her arms and tried to pin them. He had whispered that he thought she was just so nice.

"M.C., you let me go!"

He had tried to steal a kiss right from her cheek. Leaning around her pretty hair, he'd almost made it. Mary Willis broke his grasp and hit him with her fist.

Made my nose bleed a minute, too, M.C. remembered.

He was now within ten feet of the figure ahead of him.

Catch her again!

But it wasn't Mary, he knew in a moment. The one ahead of him didn't look like anyone from the hills. She carried a bundle. It was a round kind of green cloth sack on rope fixed with slipknots on her back. She moved warily, glancing to either side of the path.

A stranger.

M.C. stalked expertly, tense with a hunter's joy of discovery. Strangers didn't often come into these hills alone. When they did come, they took pictures of hills and houses, even of weeds and rocks. To M.C.'s amazement, they'd pick anything that bloomed, even when it was poison. And usually they ended up by getting themselves lost. Once some of them had come up Sarah's Mountain to get a view. They'd asked for water, but seeing Jones, M.C.'s father, they had backed off.

I got them some water, M.C. thought. So what did they do?

They had watched Jones. They came near, to smooth water over their necks and faces, but they wouldn't drink. Smiling and nodding at M.C., quickly they had gone down the mountainside. M.C. never did figure out whether they feared well water or his father.

The girl on the path ahead of him now wasn't one of them. He could see her dark skin showing beneath a light blue shirt. M.C. stalked nearer, close enough for her to hear him. Right on her heels, he gave her a low whistle, knowing he was wrong to scare her. He had a loud, screaming whistle through his teeth, just as if he was older and whistled at girls every day.

She kept on walking. He couldn't tell if he had frightened her. She reached back to adjust the bundle on her back. Turning sideways but not missing a stride, she gave M.C. a look that slowed him down. She wouldn't bother to yell at him, the look seemed to say, let alone hit him. He had time to notice she wore a clump of bracelets, when suddenly she walked off the path into the trees. M.C. listened. By the quickening swish-swish of pine boughs, he knew the moment she discovered Ben and broke into a run.

Ben must have been standing as still as some light-colored tree trunk, with eyes. M.C. had to smile.

"Wouldn't've hurt you!" he called.

When he could no longer hear any sound of her running, he continued on, trying to picture what the girl had looked like. She wasn't tall, that he could remember. But he was left with no general impression.

Just her eyes, M.C. thought. Dark and slanty. Looking old.

He felt more than a momentary interest in her, but not much of an image of her on which to play his curiosity. In his rush to get home, he let her slip away out of his thoughts.

Just some stranger.

It was probably eight o'clock by now. The dude would have to be on his way.

The path dipped off the plateau and ended at what had once been a wagon roadbed reaching all the way around the base of Sarah's Mountain to its far side. Where M.C. came off the plateau, it was a gully formed in years past by rainwater running off the mountain into wagon ruts. It was a bone-dry, barren place edged with trees.

M.C. stood, feeling heat rise from the bald earth of the gully. He looked in back of him up to the plateau. He knew Ben had stopped there, and was turning around now, ready to trot home.

See you, Ben, he said to himself.

Ben answered in his thoughts, See you.

M.C. turned back to the gully again and walked a third of the way into it. To his right was Sarah's Mountain, a great swell of earth rising to outline the sky. Her growth of trees was washed light green by morning sun and mist. Halfway up was the ledge of rock, the outcropping, on which M.C. lived with the rest of his family. The whole outcropping was partially hidden by trees. Only one who knew where to look would see a house at all.

Near the house, something was shining. M.C. caught a blinding gleam right in the eye. He smiled, clambering over the lip of the gully and onto a path that rose steeply up the face of the mountain. Holding on to tree trunks and branches when he had to, he picked and sometimes nearly clawed his way. There was an easier path beginning farther along the lip of the gully, but M.C. was in too much of a hurry to take it. He panted and grunted with the effort of his climb. He paused to look up and was rewarded by a sharp flash of light.

"I got a ticket to ride," he gasped. ""

The path veered closer to the outcropping where there was undergrowth of sweetbrier. It cut through the tangled, prickly mass of the brier and brought M.C. out onto the outcropping. The ledge he stood on was like a huge half-circle of rock sticking out of the mountain. Behind it, the mountain rose another three hundred feet to the summit. Up there, just below the summit, was a gash like a road all the way across. It had a seventy-foot vertical wall made by bulldozers hauling out tons of soil to get at the coal seam. And up there was something like an enormous black boil of uprooted trees and earth plastered together by rain, by all kinds of weather. Some internal balance kept the thing hanging suspended on the mountainside, far above the outcropping, in a half-congealed spoil heap bigger than M.C.'s house.

At home, finally, he saw that the house was shut tight. His mother, his father, both gone to work. The kids, on their way to swim. One side of the house to the rear was smack up against the mountain where the ledge curved around it. On the other side of the house was a grape arbor, the expanse of yard and M.C.'s prize like no other.

It was always his shining beacon.

Pretty thing, you.

He had won it, practicing on the Ohio River, testing his strength against strong currents every day for weeks. He had known when he was ready.

I wasn't scared. I did it and I never want to do it again. I won't ever have to.

Jones said, name what you want, real quick. And I saw it just as clear. All over town in Harenton. Front of the post office. The police station.

His prize was a pole. It was forty feet of glistening, cold steel, the best kind of ride.

M.C. gazed up at its sparkling height. There was a bicycle seat fixed at the top. He had put it there himself and had attached pedals and two tricycle wheels below it on either side.

He didn't know how his father had got the pole without money. Jones had let him deep-foot the pole in the midst of the piles of junk in their yard. There were automobile tires, fenders, car bodies, that Jones had dragged up the mountain over the years. But Jones had long since forgotten about putting together a working car.

Wonder why he won't ever throw away that junk, M.C. thought. How'd he get the pole? Probably the same way he got the junk. Maybe he just took it.

Maybe it had been abandoned, like the cars, or perhaps it had been given to Jones out of the rolling mill in the steelyard at Harenton. Ten feet too tall, it could have a flaw somewhere, a weak structure from uneven firing.

Looks just fine from here, M.C. thought. He stood there studying his pole, admiring its black and blue tint in the sun. It was the one thing that could make him feel peaceful inside every time he saw it.

Gingerly, M.C. climbed up on the car junk. He leaned over and gripped the pole.

"Let's go for a ride."

He dried his sweating palms on his shirt. Then he jumped off the pile. And twisting his legs around, he climbed the slippery, smooth steel the way only he knew how.

Copyright © 1974, 1999 by Virginia Hamilton

About The Author

The recipient of nearly every major award and honor in her field, including the 1992 Hans Christian Andersen Award, Virginia Hamilton (1934–2002) was the first African American woman to be awarded the Newbery Medal, for M.C. Higgins, the Great. Renowned as a storyteller, anthologist, and lecturer as well as a novelist, Ms. Hamilton made her home in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

About The Illustrator

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (September 1, 1999)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780689830747
  • Grades: 4 - 7
  • Ages: 9 - 12
  • Lexile ® 560L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

Nikki Giovanni The New York Times Book Review Virginia Hamilton has joined the forces of hope with the forces of dreams to forge a powerful story.

The Boston Globe Many books are described as absorbing, but this one is, truly, from its very first paragraph.

Chicago Sun Times The style is haunting and musical, and the characters walk through the reader's mind long after the book is over.

Horn Book Magazine ...A memorable picture of a young boy's growing awareness of himself and his surroundings.

Booklist A unique experience for mature readers.

Kansas City Star You'll cheat yourself if you assume this one is only for children.

Awards and Honors

  • National Book Award Winner
  • ALA Newbery Medal
  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • Horn Book Fanfare
  • SLJ Best of the Best Books
  • Oregon Battle of the Books List
  • New York Times Outstanding Children's Books of The Year
  • Lewis Carroll Shelf Award
  • Boston Globe/Horn Book Award
  • Hans Christian Andersen Award, US Honor

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