Authors: Deborah Hopkinson
To Maya, Stewart, and Ruby
(who, like Shake, is a very good dog),
and special thanks to the real Nick
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“Hey, kid. Get back here and empty your pockets.”
Nicholas Dray whirled to see a burly policeman pointing a black club right at him. He froze in astonishment. This should not be happening. Not to Nick the Invisible.
Nick could count only three things he was good at. First, he could pick cotton. Working cotton—planting, thinning, chopping the weeds away with a hoe, and picking—was about all he’d done for most of his eleven years.
Nick wasn’t bad at writing, either. Oh, not putting words together to tell a story or anything, just making letters and words look nice. Back in Texas, he would often come home after working in the fields and sink down with his back against their wooden shack. Before long he’d be scratching in the dust with a stick until Pa yelled at him to finish his chores or Gran called him in to eat some steaming-hot corn bread.
Being invisible was Nick’s third and newest skill. He’d only gotten good at it since becoming a road kid, since that morning a few weeks ago when he’d finally taken off from the Lincoln Poor Farm for Indigents and Orphans.
Nick had worried a lot about whether he’d be able to make it to California from Texas. But between begging rides from farmers and even hopping a few freight trains, things had gone pretty well. Not one policeman or official-looking person had paid him any mind. In fact, Nick had gotten so confident, he’d begun to think of himself as Nick the Invisible.
So how could he have let this policeman sneak up on him? How could it be that now, when he’d finally arrived in San Francisco, just where he wanted to be, he wasn’t invisible at all?
“Hey, kid, didn’t you hear me the first time? Get back here and empty your pockets.” The policeman’s yell drowned out the clanking of a cable car. The big man lumbered closer, looking like a giant bear, with bushy red eyebrows sprouting every which way. “I saw you stick your grimy hand into that vegetable cart.”
“You can’t send me back. I didn’t take anything, Bushy Brows,” Nick mumbled out loud, pushing off into a run.
And that was true enough. Nick hadn’t stolen a thing—at least not yet. He’d only stopped to feast his eyes on the bright lettuces and cabbages and breathe in the fresh, sweet scent of oranges piled in neat rows. He couldn’t help it. He was that hungry.
Nick pulled his old brown cap over his curly hair and lunged into the crowd. His wild hair could be a problem. It made him easy to spot—and made it easy for policemen like Bushy Brows to remember him.
Nick never used to mind his hair. For one thing, Gran kept it cut close during cotton season so as to keep his head cooler. She’d always told Nick his hair was a gift from his mother. Since his mother had died when he was born, Nick didn’t carry any real memories of her, not the kind that make you sad, anyway. There was just that faded wedding photograph in a cracked frame that Gran kept free of dust as best she could.
“My, how Janet would’ve laughed to see such a shock of wild curls wasted on a boy,” Gran would say in her soft drawl as Nick sat on an upturned bucket while she trimmed away. She always made sure to scatter the cut locks to the wind so the birds would have something for their nests.
Nick risked a glance back at the policeman. Another mistake. He wheeled forward again to find a well-dressed man with a thick brown mustache barreling down on him.
At that moment, Bushy Brows let loose an earsplitting cry. “Stop. Thief!”
“A thief, eh? I’ll teach you, young ruffian,” growled the man, thrusting out a long black umbrella.
“Ow!” Nick cried out as the umbrella hit his shins. The man made a grab for him, but Nick twisted away, his heart pounding. His head felt light from not eating.
Nick did his best, though. He skipped around businessmen in suits and hats, ladies in long dark skirts and crisp white shirtwaist blouses, deliverymen toting crates and boxes. Veering onto the cobblestone street to avoid bumping a tottering elderly lady, he found himself face to face with a snorting horse pulling a cart.
“Easy, Betsy,” the driver crooned to his mare. “You watch it, boy. Lucky for you I ain’t driving one of those fast new automobiles.”
By now Nick was panting. He could feel drops of sweat trickle down the back of his neck. This should have been easy, but everything was going wrong. And then, just when he felt sure he’d left the police officer behind, he tripped.
Nick threw out his hands, scraping his palms hard on the sidewalk. He groaned and closed his eyes, feeling a wave of sickness wash over him. It all sounded far away: laughter and voices, the ironclad wheels of wagons clattering along on cobbled streets, cable cars screeching and clanging.
“I got you.” Nick felt something hard jab into his back.
The large, round officer loomed above him, panting slightly. Nick looked up and tried to bring the man into focus. His eyebrows were enormous, with hairs sticking out in all directions like a thicket of blackberry branches.
The officer poked. “Get up, boy.”
Nick got to his feet slowly. He staggered a little, feeling dizzy with hunger. “I didn’t take anything, sir. Honest.”
“You talk funny. You’re not from here, are you? We got enough problems with the Chinese without snotty runaways roaming the city,” the policeman grumbled. “Now turn out your pockets and tell me where you live.”
Nick’s heart sank. He stuck his hands into his pockets, closing his right hand tightly around the two coins he’d kept safe for so long.
What was it Mr. Hank had said that last day? “Once a picker, always a picker.”
A cotton picker. Maybe, after all, the boss man had been right. Maybe that’s all he’d ever be.
Before. Before the Lincoln Poor Farm for Indigents and Orphans, there’d been Mr. Hank’s farm. Nick and Gran had landed there in late summer, after they’d been driven off their sharecrop.
“I ain’t happy about taking in an old lady and a kid,” Mr. Hank had grumbled. “But I’m short of hands right about now. If you can keep up and put in a full day’s work, you can stay.”
“My grandson picks cotton faster than a grown man, Mr. Hank,” Gran assured him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks a hundred pounds a day when the cotton is at its peak.”
Mr. Hank scoffed, “He looks too skinny. Probably lazy, too.” And from that moment, Nick made up his mind to try.
For the next two weeks, Nick picked from daybreak to dusk. He came close to bringing in a hundred pounds in a single day, but he never could quite make it.
“Grandson, I’ll give you two bits tonight if you can do it,” Gran said on that last morning. He bent to give her a sip of tepid water from the dipper.
“We don’t have a dime to spare, Gran, never mind a quarter.” Nick’s heart turned over, but he had to grin. “Not yet, anyhow. But before long, I’ll make enough to get us out of here.”
“It would sure be nice to have our own house again,” she murmured, shaking her head. “I never thought I’d miss that shack on Mr. Greene’s place. But where do we go now? No farmer wants to give an old lady and a skinny kid a sharecrop.”
“I’ve got that all worked out, Gran. We’re gonna leave Texas and head to California,” Nick said all in a rush. He’d been thinking about this plan for so long but had never put it into words before. “I got the idea even before Pa left and we lost the sharecrop. You remember Miss Reedy, my teacher? She told us all about the city of San Francisco. That’s where we’ll go.”
“California? That sounds as far away as the moon.” Gran’s voice was hoarse, but there was still a twinkle in her warm brown eyes.
“We can get there, Gran, I know it.” Nick held her hand in his. He could feel how work had weathered and hardened her skin. “Miss Reedy said San Francisco was the Paris of the Pacific. You know, like Paris, France. It’s a great, golden place on a bay of blue water. Tall buildings reach as high as the clouds, and cable cars run up and down hills as steep as cliffs.”
Gran shook her head a little. “Now what would we do in a grand place like that?”
“I’ll get a job,” Nick went on, talking fast, half afraid she’d start laughing and call it a foolish dream. And maybe it was, but now that he’d started, he couldn’t stop. “We’ll find us a little room. Miss Reedy says there’s sometimes a cool fog in San Francisco, so it won’t be hot and dusty like here. And we’ll never pick cotton again.”
“Never pick cotton again…,” Gran repeated in a whisper. She looked into Nick’s eyes. “Why, I believe I can just see you on the streets of that bright city.”
Gran’s breath seemed ragged and uneven, as though it hurt to talk. She pressed his hand, then let go. “Now you get on, or Mr. Hank will be mad. And don’t fret about me—Elsie Turner promised she’ll look in later.”
The fields that day had been thick with pickers. Men and women, some as old as Gran. And children, too. Others were so small they could only toddle behind their mamas. Nick knew most everyone by name. Elsie Turner’s daughter, Rebecca, had taken to tagging after him.
“Daddy says I can’t stop till I fill my bag or I’ll get a whipping,” she’d whined just the day before. “You pick sooo fast, Nick. Can’t you
give me some of yours?”
Rebecca asked him this just about every day. As usual, Nick growled in return. “Go away, Rebecca. You can’t pick if you’re jabbering the whole time.”
But that hadn’t stopped her questions. “You ever been to school, Nick?”
“Not much,” he admitted. “We used to live on a sharecrop before we came here. I’d go to school sometimes, when my pa didn’t need me in the fields. I liked parts of it just fine.”
“I’m five, too little for school,” announced Rebecca. “Did you pick cotton when you were five?”
Nick grunted. “I’ve picked cotton since I could walk.”
On that last morning, Rebecca hadn’t bothered him at all. Nick found himself looking around for her. He spotted her in the next row over, her shoulders slumped. Rebecca moved slowly, her small bag trailing behind her. Nick thought a breeze might knock her over.
There had been dew in the early dawn. Nick didn’t like picking on dewy mornings. For one thing, it made his clothes damp and cool just when the morning was chill. Worse was what the dampness did to skin.
Nick’s fingers were so callused and rough from picking, he didn’t suffer much. But he figured the morning dew had made little Rebecca’s skin soft. So soft the hard points of the cotton bolls had dug into her fingers, drawing tiny pricks of blood each time she reached inside to pluck out the white fiber.
“Rebecca,” called Nick in a loud hiss. “Scurry up to me and hold open your bag.”
In a flash, Nick pulled out an armful of cotton and stuffed it into her sack. Rebecca went back to her row, her bag dragging behind her, too miserable to smile her thanks.
By mid-afternoon, an enormous sun filled a glaring white sky. Nick’s sack could have been packed with river rocks, it was that heavy. He wanted to rest, to stretch out between the rows of cotton and fall asleep on the warm earth. Nick felt everything was against him—the sun, the heat, the prickly cotton bolls, the stubborn cotton itself.
I can’t give up,
Nick told himself. Even if the bag got so heavy it made him weave like a drunken man. Even if the muscles in his shoulders burned into his bones. Sweat stung his eyes, but Nick didn’t stop to wipe it away. He made himself keep picking, steady and quick.
Now grab the cotton at its very roots. Now pick it out clean. Right hand, left hand, both together.
A hundred pounds, a hundred pounds,
he chanted silently.
A hundred pounds for Gran.