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Authors: Joyce Hansen

Out From This Place (14 page)

BOOK: Out From This Place
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Rose watched Little Ray sleeping contentedly with Jason. “I think Mr. Reynolds come tomorrow with a passel of talk. But we standin' fast. Nothing happen. Don't worry, Easter,” she said.

Easter wasn't so sure that nothing would happen. All
night she was startled awake by the slightest noise. When she finally dozed off to sleep, chirping birds woke her up.

Melissa sat by the door, her rifle in her hands. Although it was a weekday, the fields were empty except for the growing cotton plants; even the animals clung close to the gates. Everyone remained indoors, waiting. They waited through the misty, rainy, still morning.

Later on in the morning, however, the sun burned off the mist. The magnolia trees had finished blooming, but roses wound around the open latticework that shaded the veranda of the big house. Robins and blue-green swallows flew in the sunshine. The people of the Williams plantation waited for something to happen.

Finally, the crack of a firearm ended the waiting. Melissa sprung to the door and stuck the nose of her rifle through the slight opening. There was another crack and then rapid firing, coming from the direction of the big house.

Easter, Jason, and Rose, with Little Ray on her lap, huddled in a corner. Easter covered her ears, imagining all of the men being killed. Jason's eyes were huge with fright. Rose rocked Little Ray, who began to whimper. They'd hear shouts and then weapons firing and then silence. Even the birds had stopped singing. When it seemed to Easter that she couldn't stand being confined and not knowing what was happening a moment longer, she heard a tap on the shutter. “Me—Julius. Open up.”

Melissa let him in. “Rose,” was all he said. He walked over to her, and Easter could see in his eyes that something terrible had happened.

Rose knew too. Her large, round eyes filled with tears. She pulled at Julius's sleeve. “Rayford?” she whispered hoarsely. “Something happen?”

“Rayford been shot, Rosie. He … he dead.”

Rose closed her eyes and let out a long, low moan. Easter and Melissa both held the sobbing woman in their arms; then Easter left Rose with Melissa and walked over to
Julius, who stood by the door. He had puffy bags under his eyes.

“How it happen?” she asked him.

“The army come.”

“Rebels?”

“Union, Easter. They ain't no more Rebel army.”

She shook her head as she tried to hold back the tears that wanted to pour out. “I didn't think the Yankee would bring in the army. Why, Julius? Why? How Rayford get…” She began to sob.

Julius wiped her face with his fingers. “The soldiers come through the entrance. They seem skittish when they didn't see nobody. We was in the cottages. They kicked open the door of Rayford's cottage. We hear shootin'—don't know who fire first. I see a couple of soldiers on the ground, and Rayford, Brother Thomas, Samuel, Elijah, and James on the ground with them. They been shot too, but not as bad as Rayford.”

Suddenly, Rose dashed out of the hut and ran toward the cottages. Easter called after her, “It ain't safe, Rose.”

“The soldiers gone,” Julius said, “but they'll be back with more men. They didn't come with too many this first time.”

Easter walked over to Jason, who held the whimpering Little Ray tightly. “I scared,” he said, “but I tryin' to play happy to keep Little Ray from crying.”

“Don't be afraid,” she said, hating her own words. He was right to be afraid. “I goin' to Rose's. You stay here with the baby and Melissa. You actin' like a real little man, Jason. Things clear up soon.” Her shaky voice belied her words.

Easter ran to the cottages. As she neared the buildings she saw the cook waddling down the steps of the big house. She carried two large bundles and wore a dark blue traveling suit. “Y'all is crazy,” she yelled at the men, moving as fast as she could down the road.

Julius and the other ex-soldiers had taken charge and
were trying to organize everyone. Paul was in the house with Rayford.

“The rest of you men go near the woods. You women stay in the quarters. The army will be back,” Julius warned.

“How you going to fight the whole army?” a woman asked. Her thick eyebrows met as she scowled at Julius. “They beat up the Rebels—what you think they do to us?”

“That's right,” Anna added tearfully as she crouched over Brother Thomas. “Look at all these men hurt. And Mister Ray dead.”

“Woman, shut up and get them wounded men to the quarters,” Elias shouted.

“Don't tell her to shut up. We women has a right to say something too,” Mary shouted back at Elias. “We need doctors, not more fighting.”

Another man tried to calm her. “There'll be more fighting. Go on back to the quarters and help them sick men.”

Easter's body was drenched with sweat as she strained to help Anna get Brother Thomas to his feet. Julius came over and helped them pull him up. Thomas moaned in pain from his leg and arm wounds.

“We fix you up,” Anna said as Thomas put one arm around Easter's shoulders and the other around her. His blood dripped down Easter's arm. She felt as if she would collapse under the big man's weight, yet she struggled with Brother Thomas and concentrated now only on helping the wounded.

Brother Thomas opened his mouth, which was slightly twisted, but no sound came out.

“Dear Jesus,” Anna cried, “he can't talk.”

Julius held Brother Thomas's face. “Say something,” he begged.

Thomas only grunted and cried in pain. One of the women helped another man get up. “We takin' these wounded men to the cottage,” she said. “We can't drag them to no quarters.”

Samuel held his hands up in resignation. “Y'all women hardhead.”

Rose's cottage became an infirmary. Rose, Isabel, Paul, and the woman who took care of the children, Aunt Louise, were in the bedroom with Rayford. Easter and Anna cleaned Brother Thomas's wounds, and then Easter helped with the rest of the injured men. She held one man's hand while one of the women took a bullet out of his arm with a knife.

Rose walked into the kitchen with the keys in her hand. “This what he die for—this,” she said, throwing the keys onto the table.

Easter sat down next to Rose at the table. Suddenly, everything Rayford had been trying to tell her over the past several years made sense. “He ain't die for no keys, Rose, he die for the land. And because he a man. Men fight and die for what they believe in. Like the war, Rose.”

Rose covered her face with her hands and tears trickled between her fingers. “Do it make sense to keep fightin' when you know you can't win? What's the sense in all us bein' dead?” Rose's voice was muffled by her hands.

Easter watched the four injured men.
How can we win and keep on living too? That's what we have to find out.
She put her arms around Rose as she turned the question over and over in her mind.
Do we always have to fight and die?

Rose picked up the keys. “I make sure Rayford get he land.”

Easter stood up. “Rose, you sit and rest while I help the others.”

But Rose stood up too. “I have to keep busy. Aunt Louise an' Isabel getting Rayford ready to bury,” Rose said. “I make some tea, Easter.”

Easter went outside to throw away the dirty water and get a fresh supply. She walked to the well near the cottages. The men were still ordering frightened women and children back to the quarters. When she finished drawing the water, Easter saw the young black man who worked as a courier
for Mr. Reynolds. She hurriedly took the water inside and rushed back to find out what the messenger wanted.

He had ridden through the gates on a horse, waving a big white shirt on a stick. His hands shook nervously now as they clutched the reins. Easter joined the rest of the crowd that rushed over to the messenger. “Who runnin' things here?” he asked.

Julius strode up to the messenger. He handed Julius an envelope, and Julius quickly opened it and removed a letter. He stared at it a moment. Easter could tell by the way he stared at the paper that he couldn't read. She went to his side. “I try read it for you, Julius,” she said. He gave her the note.

The powerful plantation grapevine system still worked. Someone raced to the men who'd been posted near the woods and told them that Mr. Reynolds's messenger was there. More of the women left the quarters when they saw the men running from the woods. The children stayed with Melissa and the few women who remained in the huts. Even Isabel and Aunt Louise left the cottage.

Elias was waving his arms at everyone. “Get back to the woods. You women go back to the quarters!” The women ignored him.

Easter watched the people running from the woods and the quarters. “Go on, read the note,” Julius ordered.

“I waitin' for the rest. They comin', so they might as well hear it too.”

“That's right, daughter,” Aunt Louise said. “This note for all of us.”

When everyone was assembled, there was a hush as Easter read in a soft, halting voice.

Dear Rayford,

We do not wish to have any further bloodshed or to hurt you people, but you are willfully disobeying government orders and have created a state of insurrection. The Williams family, however, will discuss
other terms that we think will be quite agreeable and fair. If we do not receive an answer within the half hour, we have no choice but to move you out forcibly.

Emerson Reynolds

There was a momentary hush. Paul's hammering as he made Rayford's coffin was the only sound.

Aunt Louise spoke out first. “Tell them we talk to them. We can't fight the army,” she said.

Julius shouted her down. “No! Ain't nothing to talk about. They just cheat us again.”

“How we beat them?” a woman screamed.

They yelled back and forth. Easter stood there, holding the letter limply at her side, the question surging through her mind, as well.
How can we get what we want without getting hurt?

“The superintendent want an answer right away,” the messenger shouted. “Y'all better tell him something before they send the army in here again.” His small eyes seemed to do a nervous waltz in his head.

Julius glanced at Easter. “Our schoolteacher will answer the letter, and she will say that we will not give up. We demand our land.”

A woman pointed to the cottages. “Rayford in there dead, and other mens is hurt. Easter will send a message sayin' we goin' to discuss this problem.”

The men and women continued to argue back and forth—most of the women not wanting to continue fighting. The messenger leaned over his horse toward Easter. “Miss, you better hurry and answer that note. This the United States army these people foolin' with.”

“What you waitin' for, Easter?” one of the men asked, glaring at her. “Write a note tellin' Reynolds that we ain't talkin'. This just some more of their tricks.”

“That's what you and some of these men sayin', but that's not what these women sayin',” Easter told him.

Gregory, one of the ex-soldiers who'd been in the army
with Julius, snatched the letter out of her hand. “You ain't the only one who can read and write. I'll answer this note.” He
ran
up the steps of the big house in order to get paper and pen. The women yelled after him.

Easter turned to the messenger. “Wait. I be back with a note.” She
dashed
to the quarters with the women following her.
Hope I can write faster than him,
she thought.

“The first note I get, I takin',” the messenger yelled after them.

Easter rushed into her cabin. A few children had joined Jason and Little Ray inside. The women explained to the surprised Melissa what had happened, as Easter took a wooden stationery box out of her basket. The box held the paper, pen, and ink that Miss Grantley had given her so that they could correspond. Easter wrote quickly, hoping that Gregory was still searching for pen and paper:

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

We will talk to you. Do not shoot us anymore.

The People of the Williams
Plantation

Easter read the note to them quickly and hurried to the messenger. She was relieved to see that he was still there, steadying his horse, which pranced nervously. She reached him and handed him the note just as Gregory ran down the steps of the big house and the women had caught up to Easter.

“Wait,” he shouted to the messenger.

The messenger hesitated.

“Go on!” Easter said firmly. “We don't need no more shootin' and killin' in here.” He turned his horse around and left.

“Where you going? Come back!” Gregory shouted.

The women faced the men. “We give him the note. We tell Mr. Reynolds that we discuss this problem,” Easter said.

“Who give you the right to speak for us?” Gregory asked.

Easter spread her arms to include the other women. “Is what we decide. Not me alone.”

“We give her the right,” Anna said as the women drew closer to Easter. “We don't want fighting.”

Julius frowned. “What did you say?” Easter repeated the gist of her reply.

“You had no business to say that!” the ex-soldier said in a rage.

The women bore down on him. “We say no more fight, so there be no more fight.”

Elias calmed the men. “It done. You men know we can't win no battle with the whole army.”

Easter walked toward the cottages. She felt drained now, and her head throbbed. Aunt Louise put her arms around Easter. “Thank you, daughter,” she said softly.

“Wish all this trouble was over,” Easter said.

The old woman smiled sadly. “Trouble never over. Just have to learn how to ride it, like you ride a wild horse.”

Chapter
Thirteen

For we are all ready in the boat, and they seek to cast us in the sea.

Sam Aleckson, ex-slave
Before the War and After the Union

BOOK: Out From This Place
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