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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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“Lost? How you get lost? Is you a boy or girl?”

“A boy. Name Ezra,” she answered, avoiding his eyes. “My master send me to work for the soldiers. Me and some of the other boys was foraging for food for the camp. They go one way and I go another. I come from 'round here, and I want to visit my master.” She thought about Jason, and tears welled up convincingly in her eyes. “I love my master and I want to see him.” Her full mouth trembled slightly.

“Who your master?”

“John Jennings, suh. He have a tobacco farm near here.”

“Never hear of no John Jennings.”

Her heart sank. “You know Master Phillips? He have a big plantation, and my master sell tobacco to him.”

“There's a good-size plantation about five miles from here, I think.”

Finding the Phillips plantation would be as good as getting to the farm. She knew many of the people there and could get information about Jason. The man kept his gun trained on her. “You sure you ain't no runaway? I could use some help 'round my farm.” He moved closer to her, and the dog stood up. She backed away from him.

“No, suh. I ain't no runaway. Tryin' to get to my master is all. Where you say the plantation is? If I find the plantation, I find my master farm easy.”

He ignored her question. “You look hungry. I'll give you some food, then you help me. Then I'll let you go.”

“Oh no, suh. Have to go now.” She knew that if she ran, he'd probably fire his gun at her and the dog would give chase. Worry lines creased her forehead. “Please, suh. I have to see my master now. Then I go back to the soldiers. I belong to the Confederates. Otherwise I be glad to help you.”

He hesitated and stopped moving toward her.

“Suh, I the property of the Confederates,” she repeated, since that seemed to make him somewhat nervous. “Just want to see my master 'fore the soldiers come look for me. The soldiers near here, so could you tell me where the big plantation is?” she pleaded.

“Get out of here and head yonder.” He pointed toward a field edged with tall pines. “I don't want trouble with them soldiers.”

Easter sped off before the farmer changed his mind. She didn't care about the danger of running in the daytime. She raced across the field toward the pines and found herself back in the woods. Hoping she wasn't going around in a circle, she followed the odor of burning wood, which led her out of the forest and brought her face to face with a large expanse of cotton fields. Male and female hands were hoeing the dirt around the rows of plants. There seemed to be too few workers for the fields that had to be
hoed. Easter rubbed her throbbing head. Although most cotton fields looked alike, there was something familiar about this one.

She knew that across the fields there were peach orchards, and there were live oak trees lining the avenue to the large two-story house where the Phillips family lived. She also knew that behind the big house a footpath led to the slave cabins. This had to be the Phillips plantation.

Easter plopped down onto the ground and cried and laughed all at once. The road that led to the Jennings farm was on the other side of the big house. Before going to the farm, though, she'd look for her friend Rose, who was the cook's helper. Rose would be able to give her all of the news and could probably tell her where Jason was.

Easter slipped back into the woods and made her way to the other side of the plantation. Every bush, tree, stick, and rock seemed familiar now. When she'd gone around the fields and had reached the slave quarters, she carefully stepped out of the forest. There was less chance someone would discover her there, because everyone was working. There were only some children holding hands and turning around in a circle. They reminded her of Jason. He used to love coming to the plantation to play the ring games with the children there. The old woman who cared for the youngsters while their parents worked in the fields didn't see Easter slip behind a row of cabins and walk quickly toward the big house.

By the position of the sun, Easter figured that it was about two o'clock in the afternoon. She wished that she had some kind of bundle to carry so that she'd look as if she was working. Her eyes darted nervously as she gazed around. She didn't want to run into the master or Mistress Phillips. Several men chopping wood ignored her. Two boys carrying water to the fields glanced her way with uninterested eyes. Two unfamiliar women walked toward her. Each carried a large basket of laundry on her head, while deep in conversation.

Easter averted her face as she hurried past them, but they didn't look in her direction. She sensed a strange quietness about the place. She spotted smoke coming from the kitchen, which was a building adjacent to but separate from the big house. If things were still the same, then her friend Rose and the cook would be in the kitchen preparing the Phillipses' supper. Easter knew that Rose and the cook would help her.

The smell of frying pork drifted out of the slightly open kitchen door. Easter peeped into the room and saw Rose standing over the huge black iron stove, a skillet in her hand.

“Rose, can I come in?” Easter whispered.

Rose turned around quickly, almost dropping the skillet. “Who that?” she asked, squinching her eyes at Easter.

“Rose? It's me. Easter.”

“Easter?” Rose's eyes opened wide with surprise. “That really you? I didn't know you. Oh, Easter. I thought I never see you again.” She put down the skillet and ran over to her.

Easter cringed shamefully when Rose hugged her. “I a dirty, stinking mess, Rose.”

Rose continued to embrace her. “Hush, gal. I smell worse thing than you.” Rose was several years older than Easter and had been like a sister to her, always making her feel secure. That hadn't changed.

“I come back for Jason,” Easter told her. “You know where he is?” She swayed a little unsteadily on her feet, faint now from fatigue and hunger and fear of Rose's answer.

“He right here with us.”

Easter's face spread in a wide smile. “Mistress Jennings didn't give him to Missy Holmes?”

“When your master and Mistress Jennings leave for the West, they sell Jason to Mistress Phillips. I hear Mistress Phillips pay one hundred dollars for him. And I hear Mistress Jennings wanted to take Jason with her, but your
old master sell every living and breathing and growing thing, including Jason. Your old master lose a lot of money when you and Obi run.”

“Good,” Easter said. “He wasn't suppose to be ownin' us in the first place.”

Rose led Easter to a chair in front of a large oak table. “Well, Jason is Mistress Phillips's special servant now.”

“What you mean?”

“Just what I say—he her special servant. Wear a fancy suit and has nothing to do with the rest of us.”

“He act different then?”

“Everything different, Easter.” Rose tried to brush a smudge off Easter's nose. “You hungry and need to wash. I get the tub and draw you some water and give you something to eat. Then I tell you everything that happen.”

The worry lines creased Easter's forehead. “I don't want anyone to find me here.”

“No one come in this kitchen 'less I invite them in,” Rose said as she went toward the door. “Mistress is takin' her afternoon rest. I keep things the way the cook use to keep them.” Her round eyes clouded.

Easter scanned the kitchen. “That's what's different in here. What happen to the cook?”

“She die, not long after you leave,” Rose answered, her voice cracking slightly. Easter felt a lump rising in her own throat, as she remembered how she and Rose used to spend hours and days helping the cook prepare food for the Phillips family on special occasions, how they'd have the kitchen smelling of pies and puddings and candied yams.

Rose brushed her hands quickly across her face. “I miss her,” she said.

“So you the cook now?”

Rose nodded. “Yes. I the boss over these pot and pan. I get one of them children out of the yard to fill the tub with water, and you can clean yourself.” She called several children to bring her the tin tub out of the woodshed and fill it with water from a barrel outside the door. Easter got
up and stood by the pantry closet. If someone came in the kitchen, she'd duck inside.

Rose dragged the tub inside. “Don't look so worried. Nobody come in here.” She handed Easter a cake of homemade soap and a clean rag. Easter took off her filthy clothes and slid into the clear water. Rose held up the torn and filthy shirt and pants and wrinkled her nose. “Think we better burn these before mushrooms sprout out of them.”

Easter closed her eyes as she soaked. “This better than peach cobbler or sweet potato pie or any good thing to eat.”

Rose chuckled. “You must be hungry.”

While Easter bathed and Rose cooked, Easter told her everything that had happened to her and Obi. When she finished her bath, Rose brought her a plain homespun dress and a hairbrush. Easter brushed her thick hair, enjoying the feel of the stiff bristles on her clean scalp.

“Now, I see it's my Easter.” Rose smiled. Her deep dimples appeared in her round face. Easter felt even more tired after the bath. But she was also hungry. Rose gave her a plate of rice and greens cooked with ham.

“Food kind of scarce because of this war. Mistress always feedin' them soldiers. She never did give the field hands too much ration. Only reason me and the cook ate good was because we work in the kitchen.”

Easter wiped her mouth. “This like a feast after eatin' nothing but pork fat and hardtack.”

Rose grimaced. “Sound like something that put a hole in your stomach. What's hardtack?”

“Biscuits the soldiers make.”

Easter dozed off at the table while waiting for Rose to finish serving dinner to Mistress Phillips. Rose shook her gently when she returned to the kitchen. “Easter, you sleep in the shed with me. I come back later to finish cleaning and to …” Her voice trailed off.

“To what?” Easter asked.

“Nothing,” she answered quickly, wrapping her plump arm around Easter's shoulders. “You don't know how happy I am to see you.”

“Rose, I happy to see you too, and I want to see Jason.”

“Let's go to the shed, and I give you the news.”

It was dusk when they left the kitchen and walked toward the tiny shed where Rose slept. A black couple strolled from the slave quarters past the big house to the gate of the plantation. That struck Easter as unusual. She remembered that there used to be a curfew, and no one could walk toward the gate without being stopped.
Maybe they have a pass to go somewhere,
she told herself.

When she and Rose reached the shed, Rose lit a candle. A lumpy old horsehair mattress covered with a patchwork quilt lay on the floor. A stool standing next to the mattress and a small scratched table were the only furniture in the room. A red and white gingham dress hung on a peg, and one set of underclothes was neatly folded on the table.

Rose and Easter sat on the mattress. “There be a lot of change since you an' Obi run away. Girl, I pray Master Jennings and his brother Wilson don't find you. Wilson so angry at how you two get away he say he goin' to kill Obi. Master Jennings say no, he ain't lettin' Wilson kill two thousand dollars. They look for you all up and down the countryside. Then they sell the farm and leave for the West.”

“How you know all that they say?” Easter asked. She knew that Rose liked a good story and often added her own little touches to the telling.

“Rayford tell me. He overhear Master Phillips talking about it.” Rose gazed at her worn slippers. “You remember Rayford?”

Easter nodded. How could she forget Rayford, with his sparkling white shirt and pants that made his smooth black face look like polished ebony; Rayford, who stood as stiff and straight as Master Phillips; Rayford, who had secretly learned how to read and write. He had been Master Phillips's
proud personal servant. Some of the other blacks on the plantation called him Massa Rayford.

Easter knew something else about Rayford. “Rose, I tell you a secret, but you promise not to say anything.”

Rose moved closer to her. “Lip tight like a clam,” she said.

“The night me and Obi run, it was Rayford who help us. He and some of the people here is hidin' guns and knives in coffins.”

Rose laughed. “I know about that, Easter. I been to one of them fake funerals. Everything change all at once. Master Phillips take sick and die, then all we hear is that the Yankee is comin' to free us, and the people run away from this place like mouse runnin' from cat.”

“I could tell things was different around here, Rose. Where they run to?”

“Some stay in the swamp and the woods. Some get caught by the patterollers—they in the prison. Most we never see again. That's when Master get sick, when all his property run away.” Rose lowered her voice to barely a whisper. “Mistress plannin' to move the rest of us to Texas till the war over. But some of us ain't going with her. That's why Rayford an' them been hidin' guns an' knives—so we can protect ourselves when we leave here.” Her round eyes were frightened and excited at the same time. “I know I could trust you with this news, Easter.”

Easter nodded. “Where you runnin' to?”

“Rayford and some of the other men have it all plan. Rayford been sneakin' and readin' the paper and he know everything that's happenin' with this war. Yankee take over the Sea Islands and that's where we goin'. You free if you get where them Yankee is.”

Easter grabbed Rose by the shoulders. “That's where I want to go, to the Sea Islands! That's where Obi is!” Her eyes shone with hope and excitement as she smiled. “I get Jason and we come with you.”

“Well, we wasn't plannin' on takin' Jason. He stayin' here in his fancy clothes.”

Easter's smile vanished and the creases appeared on her forehead. “I come back for Jason, to take him to the islands with me.”

BOOK: Out From This Place
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