The thick rope swung toward me and I caught it with both hands. The weight threatened to pull me off the platform. I repositioned my grip, ignoring the roughness of the rope, and gazed across the vast expanse of the barn. Dust motes played in the sunlight and Ellen laughed from the fort on the other side of the mow. One swing and I would be there by her side.
“Hurry up, Francie. Are you gonna jump or not?” Billy John stared at me from the bottom of the ladder. He crossed his skinny arms over the bib of his much patched overalls. I stuck my tongue out then repositioned my hands. I hooked one leg around the rope, and pulled back a little further. The knotted end bumped against the platform edge. My heart thumped hard in my chest.
“Come on, Francie.” Ellen encouraged from the other side. “I can hear kittens.” She disappeared over the edge of our hay fort, no doubt in search for the soft balls of fur.
Hot air whipped through my twin braids as I launched myself into the open air. Only the rope kept me from plunging headfirst into the stall below, where Old Red watched my flight with bored interest. I waved at the bull as I crossed over his head.
As the rope dipped to its lowest point in the empty space between the mows, the dinner bell clanged. I clung to the rope as it started its assent to the opposite mow. When I could see the fort safety beneath my feet, I let go of the rope and plunged into the hay. Ellen was already sprinting out the barn door when I looked down. Billy John glowered at me from the other side.
“Thanks a lot, Francie.” He frowned at me before scampering down the ladder. He’d be sore at me for hours, but it was my turn to go first.
When I got to my ladder, Billy John was there looking up at me. The smile on his face warned me the moment before the whole ladder shifted out of my reach and thumped onto the barn floor.
“Put it back, Billy John.” I called, but he swaggered out of the barn without a backward glance. I cautiously crawled across the thick beam and looked down at the large pile of loose hay underneath. More than once Ellen had dared me to jump, but I was never brave enough.
I was still sitting on the beam when a second ring of the dinner bell jolted me to action. Da would be waiting impatiently for his dinner. I gulped, closed my eyes and pushed off. I hit the top of the hay hard, and rolled down the side. With my feet firmly under me, I ran out the door, and into the hot summer evening. Mama was standing at the big triangle with her hands on her hips. She tsked as she pulled me into the house, taking bits of hay out of my braids as we went.
Da’s dark scowl followed me across the room as I washed my hands quickly and took the only chair left at the table – the one right beside him. I had no more than sat down, when Da took his big fingers and thumped me on the head. I knew better than to rub the spot. Billy John smiled at me in triumph.
Da listened intently to the news as we quietly ate what Mama had prepared. I sat ridged throughout the meal, waiting for those big fingers to connect with my skull again. I saw the gleam in Billy John’s eye just before he upset his cup. Da thumped my head at the disturbance. Mama handed Ellen a cloth to clean up. She was still wiping the mess when the sports report came on. Da’s favorite team was losing. Whap. I flinched as Da’s knuckle connected with my scalp. Billy John’s grin grew.
I endured four more thumps before asking to be excused. I wouldn’t be getting dessert, but it didn’t matter. I felt my lumpy head as I left the table, promising myself that Billy John would be sitting next to Da tomorrow night for dinner. As I rushed to the barn, I couldn’t help smile. Billy John might be eating Mama’s peach cobbler, but I was going to enjoy another swing on that old rope.
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