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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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“Who you want for a wife? Easter?” Jason blurted out.

Easter was embarrassed. “Stay out of grown-up conversation.”

Julius rubbed Jason's head. “That's not a bad idea.”

“Did you see or hear about Obi?” Easter asked.

“No. Didn't meet up with Obi.”

Rose grinned at her. “Easter, Julius look good in them Yankee blues, don't he?”

Easter picked up her fork. “Yes. Bet Obi look good too if he wearin' a uniform.” Julius sighed.

Rayford wiped his mouth. “I didn't expect you to be home so soon.”

“Them Yankee is musterin' us colored troops out early. Heard they don't want to upset the Rebels by havin' too many of us runnin' 'round here with uniforms and guns. Ain't nothing a Rebel hate more than a colored Union soldier.”

The next morning, Easter stood outside of the schoolhouse as usual. She listened to Paul and two other carpenters hammering as they put the finishing touches on the new church building. For a year everyone had been contributing money toward buying the materials for the church.

She heard keys jangling and knew that Rayford was nearby. He waved to her as he passed the cabins. Easter noticed that Paul and the other men were doing more talking and laughing than hammering, and people were coming out of their huts, sauntering to the fields in a relaxed way, as if it were Sunday morning.

However, Virginia, George's wife, ran out of her cabin, calling excitedly after Rayford, “Mister Ray! Mister Ray, come here!” David, Isaiah, and Nathan, looking confused and embarrassed, trailed after their mother.

Easter ran over to her. “What's the matter?”

Virginia seemed not even to hear Easter. Rayford walked
over to the agitated woman. “Mister Ray, that fool husband of mine say he free now and he ain't goin' to work in no fields that he don't have title to.”

Easter chuckled and Rayford seemed amused also. He patted Virginia on her shoulder. “Calm down, Ginny. The man's not wrong, now. But the fields your family's been working do belong to you. Mr. Reynolds is coming here this afternoon. I'm sure he's going to talk to us about the land.”

“That's what I try to tell George, but he head like stone. You talk to him.” Her long thin arms looked like tree branches as she spread them out in frustration.

“Let the man be. He'll work this afternoon. Why don't you and the boys go on to the field?” Rayford jingled his keys as he walked away.

Easter went back to the school, glad that it wasn't an emergency. When she passed the carpenters, she heard Paul say, “George master of his own body now, and his body say it want to rest.”

Later that morning, as the children formed the letters of the alphabet on their slates, one of the women peeped inside the classroom. “Mr. Reynolds here!”

“Children, give me your slates,” Easter said.

“Miss Easter, I want to stay here,” Charlotte protested.

“We'll come back after we hear what Mr. Reynolds has to tell us.” She led the children out of the school. Even though she knew that she wouldn't be getting any land, she was excited along with the others.

As she walked toward the big house, she saw Julius with several of the other young men who'd been in the army. Wearing overalls now, they looked like farmers; however, they still wore their army caps. Every resident of the plantation was there—even the house servants, the cook rushing out of the house nervously wiping her hands on her apron, with the butler behind her. Rayford, Brother Thomas, Elijah, and Paul took their places in front of
everyone else. Easter sensed a tense mood among the people, a change from the lightness of the morning.

There was a middle-aged white couple and a young white man with Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds ran his fingers through his hair. “You people have kept this plantation in fine condition. We all thank God that the awful war has ended and now we can heal our wounds.” His face grew more flushed with every word he spoke.

The three people standing next to him stared unflinchingly into the crowd. A tiny, sad smile hovered around the woman's mouth. Mr. Reynolds continued speaking, his eyes shifting and moving as if he dared not gaze closely at any of the faces before him. “You people have done yeomen's service. The plantation is in wonderful condition, and the Williams family want to reward your labor.”

Easter relaxed. People would get their land.

Mr. Reynolds pointed to the people next to him. “For those of you who do not know, let me introduce Mr. and Mrs. Charles Williams and their son, Richard. The family will pay you fair wages if you remain here and work for them. They will sign contracts for your labor.”

The words hung over the crowd like thick storm clouds. At first, Easter thought she'd heard wrong. The shocked silence was as vast as the sky; then voices of people shattered it like the thunder that warns of a storm.

Rayford stood as still as a block of wood. “That's not what you promised us. You promised us that after the war we'd be given the amount of land we tilled, and that we could buy additional acres,” he said calmly and slowly and clearly.

“That's right.” Brother Thomas pointed an accusing finger at Mr. Reynolds. “You told us that very thing.”

The family said nothing.

“I knew it,” George yelled at Virginia. “That's why something tell me not to go in them field this morning.”

Easter wondered how this could happen. How could a
promise be broken as if it were nothing, as if it were just an old toy?

Mr. Reynolds held up his hand. “The government has changed its policy. Our new president, Mr. Johnson, has ordered that the plantations are to be returned to their original owners. We are healing the wounds of war. Don't you people understand that?” He held his large hands out to them pleadingly. “We are trying to help everyone. Is it fair that this family should lose everything? We are trying to heal wounds. The family will pay you good wages to work for them. You can stay in your homes, and you are free men and women. What more could you ask?”

“We ask that you keep your promise!” Paul shouted.

“We thought we was workin' for the government, not the Williams family,” another man added.

“The master and mistress get all their property back except us!” someone yelled.

Everyone talked at once. Easter was as outraged as those who'd toiled in good faith as she gazed at their disappointed and angry faces.

Mr. Reynolds addressed Rayford. “You have done a wonderful job. You're a talented, intelligent fellow who will do well in life. But now I must have the keys to the barns and other buildings so that I can return them to the family.” He held out his hand.

Rayford folded his arms, and the other men gathered near him, as if forming a wall. “I ain't returnin' nothing,” he spat out. “We had a bargain, and I mean to make you keep it.”

Brother Thomas's barrel chest and strong, muscular arms seemed to bulge. He spoke to the Williams family, his former owners. “You ain't gettin' all this land back. This Yankee make a bargain with us,” he said, pointing to Mr. Reynolds, “and we holdin' him to it.”

A chorus of “Yes! We holdin' him to it” erupted behind Thomas.

Mrs. Williams's cool exterior finally crumbled. “Thomas?
How could you do this? You were one of our best …” She broke down in tears and couldn't continue. Her husband ignored her, while the son tried to comfort his mother.

Mr. Reynolds had run his fingers through his hair so many times that it seemed to stand on end. Charles Williams had turned the color of a pomegranate. “All of you will be arrested and whipped,” he threatened.

“Calm down, sir,” Mr. Reynolds said. “We'll settle this directly.” Turning to Rayford again, Mr. Reynolds held out his hand once more. “Give me back those keys, now,” he demanded. “You are defying the orders of the United States government.”

“We're not giving anything back!” Rayford yelled in a loud rush of words like a dam finally bursting. “Not one boll of cotton, not one cow pea, until we get our land!”

“If we don't get the land we work for, then we leave this plantation an' you lose the whole crop!” Brother Thomas shouted.

“Yes,” another man spoke out. “You know all the good people sign contract for the year an' they already workin'. This place be in ruin if we leave now.”

One of the young men who'd served with Julius in the army yelled, “If you don't agree to give us the land, I burnin' down everything 'fore I go. Won't have to worry about crops then.”

Another man agreed with the ex-soldier. “Yes, we burn the place down like the good General Sherman done.” Mr. Reynolds and the Williams family grew pale.

The crowd moved forward. Paul stepped in front of Rayford and stood nose to nose with Mr. Reynolds. “Y'all best leave. Bad for your health if you stay here.”

Easter saw fear in the faces of Mr. Reynolds and the family as they headed quickly toward the plantation gates. Suddenly, the butler jumped out of the crowd and ran after the quickly retreating whites. “I ain't part of this, Massa. I ain't with these crazy people. I still want to be with you.”

Chapter
Twelve

The great cry of our people is to have land.

Tunis Campbell, ex-slave

Easter was numb from the shock of what had happened. How could the government, or whoever made the rules, change things and hurt people who trusted it? She rubbed her throbbing forehead as she followed the others to their old meeting place behind the stables. “This ain't over yet,” Julius warned. “They be back.”

“How many of you men are willin' to make them give us our due?” asked one of the men who'd been in the army with Julius.

“We stay and fight.”

“Don't give up the keys, Mister Ray.”

“You did the right thing, Mister Ray.”

Easter listened.
Yes, keep them keys,
she said to herself.

An older man shook his gray head as he sat down slowly on a log. “I don't feel right takin' old Master and Mistress lands. I movin' to Elenaville.”

Brother Thomas slapped his fist in his open palm and faced the man. “Who been in them field working for nothin' all these many years? Tell me that. We ain't askin' for all the pies, just the ones we baked. Me and my family work ten acres. That's all I askin' for. What's the sense in bein' free if you don't have nothing? What kind of freedom
is that, fool?” His eyes looked as if they would pop out of his head as he leaned into the man's face. He lost his breath for a moment. Anna rushed to his side, patting him on the back.

But the cook, her hands on her hips, disagreed. “This ain't none of our place. I want to stay here and work for Mistress like I use to do.” She glared at Rose. “That cottage you been livin' in use to be mine 'fore I move to the big house. Now that my mistress is return I movin' back to my cottage.”

Rayford swung around. “You ain't moving nowhere!” he shouted.

Another woman tapped the cook on the shoulder. “What you goin' to tell your mistress about them clothes you been sellin'?”

“This ain't no time for us to be fussin' with each other,” Paul yelled at both of the women. “Those of you who want to stay and work for the Williams family, that's your business, but don't get in our way.”

Easter and Jason held hands. He pulled her toward him so that he could whisper in her ear. “Easter, let's go look for Obi now. I don't want to stay here.”

She squeezed his hand. “We will Jason. Soon as the new teacher come.”

The cook and the old man walked away from the rest of the group. “I goin' to Elenaville,” he mumbled. “This is Master and Mistress land.”

“We leavin' too, Rayford,” George announced. “I takin' my family and the money we save and we leavin'.”

“Don't give up now, man,” Rayford said. “You and your family worked three years for this land.”

There were tears in Virginia's eyes as she followed her husband and sons toward the huts. One of the ex-soldiers said, “We have to figure out what's going to happen next, people, 'fore they come back.”

“Maybe they send in patterollers,” someone suggested.

“No. We under the authority of the army. Ain't no
authority now except the Union army, so we—” Julius stopped short as if something had hit him. “The army. They could send in the army.”

“They wouldn't do that,” Brother Thomas said. “The army free us.”

Rayford's face seemed as hard as stone. “We don't know what they'll do, so we have to be prepared for anything. Those of us from the Phillips plantation have rifles and shotguns.”

Brother Thomas sat on a log, his breathing still labored and heavy. “Master Williams had many gun in the house, but the Yankee take those when they first come here. Some of us have shotgun and rifle.”

Julius put his hands in the pocket of his overalls. “We all brought back guns from the war.”

Easter felt as frightened as she had when she'd run away from the Confederate camp. She prayed that there wouldn't be any shooting or fighting.

That night, Rose and the baby slept in the cabin with Melissa and Easter. The other families who lived in the cottages moved out, and all the women and children stayed in the quarters. If there was any shooting, they would be safer there. The men slept in the cottages in order to be close to the big house and the gates. They figured that anyone entering the plantation would come that way rather than from the woods. Several men stayed in the area of the huts to protect the women and children, and a few men were posted at the edge of the woods as a precaution.

Only the children slept soundly. The heavens opened up that night, and it stormed. “This rain may be a good sign, Rosie. Nobody come here in a storm,” Easter said.

BOOK: Out From This Place
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