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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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The two women sat together eating bread. Jason slept. David and Isaiah rubbed their eyes, seeming confused. Their bigger brother, Nathan, still slept, snoring loudly. Since Rose had had access to the kitchen, she'd brought most of the food: sweet potatoes, beef jerky, and bread. She passed around bread and sweet potatoes. “Don't y'all
go eatin' everything this morning,” she warned as she watched Julius gobble down a sweet potato. “We have two more days out here.”

“That's right,” Rayford said as he sat down near Rose.

When Melissa and Sarah finished eating they came over to Rayford. “We ready, Mister Ray,” Sarah said.

Mister Ray must be his new nickname,
Easter thought.

Rayford pulled two rifles out of his sack and gave them to Melissa and Sarah. “Go by the creek over there,” he said, pointing to several cypress trees. Julius and Samuel picked up their shotguns. “You go around that side, a few feet past that large oak,” Rayford told them.

Easter turned to Rose. “What're they doin'?” she asked.

Before Rose could answer, Rayford said, “We're all taking turns keeping watch in case someone comes.”

“I help too,” Easter said, taking the sweet potato Rose handed her. She didn't want him or anyone else to feel that she couldn't be useful too.

His eyes drooped wearily. “Can you shoot?”

“If someone show me how, I can.”

“We don't have time to show people how to do things. You just make sure you keep Jason quiet.” He glanced at the boy, who was beginning to stir.

“I will,” Easter said. Jason opened his bleary eyes. “Morning, Jason. Want some bread?” she asked him.

He nodded and gazed around as he ate. “My feet hurt,” he said.

“You don't have on the right clothes. I ask Virginia if them boys have a shirttail or trouser to lend you. And I wrap your feet. Shoes is bad for feet.”

He stared at her as if she'd slapped him in the face. “These clothes fine. Can't wear no shirttail. Too big for that, and gentlemen is suppose to wear shoes, Easter.”

Easter tried not to laugh at him. “You aint' no man. Shirttail better than them hot britches you wearin' and them shoes that's chokin' your feet.”

He took off his shoes and rubbed his toes. “Missy lookin' for me,” he whined.

“She lookin' for all of us,” Rose snapped as she got up and walked over to Isabel to offer her food. Rayford had finished eating and was fast asleep, using his sack for a pillow and covering his face with his straw hat.

The remainder of the day was spent taking turns keeping watch and resting. Easter was glad that Jason was too weary to complain and whine and make the others angry with both of them.

When patches of a red sky began to show through the tops of the trees, Rayford woke up. “We'll be moving on out soon and—” He stopped abruptly, seeming to listen for something.

Easter thought that she heard the sound of voices. Suddenly, Elias and Samuel came running from the spot where they'd been keeping watch. George and Paul followed.

“Someone is comin',” Elias said in a frightened, hoarse voice.

Easter froze where she was sitting. “What happen, Easter?” Jason asked, his eyes wide with fear.

Rayford and the others woke up those who were sleeping. Easter tried to appear calm for Jason. “It's nothing,” she assured him as she stood up.

“Let's go! Keep moving. Everybody take out your guns,” Rayford ordered. Easter promised herself that she would learn how to shoot when all of this was over. Easter noticed that Isabel was trembling and the baby was beginning to whimper. Rayford spun around.

“Quiet that baby!”

“I can't, suh,” Isabel said pitifully.

“She doin' the best she can, Mister Ray! Babies can't help cryin',” Paul said angrily. Rayford didn't answer him.

I never know Rayford was such a hard man,
Easter said to herself.

They moved quickly, getting scratched by the low-hanging
branches. Isabel was ahead of her, and Easter was afraid she'd smother Miriam because she held the baby so close to her body. “Let me hold her, Isabel,” Easter said, panting as they ran. Jason ran next to her.

Isabel handed her the baby, and Miriam stopped whimpering as she stared curiously at Easter's unfamiliar face. While she ran, Easter brought Miriam's face close to her own and made tiny sounds. Miriam grinned and cooed at Easter. Everyone ran desperately. David stumbled and Virginia quickly snatched him up off the ground. Jason fell next, and Rose scooped him up and held his hand so that Easter could concentrate on keeping Miriam quiet.

No matter how fast they ran, the sound of voices grew nearer. Then, in an instant, the voices took form and surrounded them.

“We'll shoot! Stop!” a man yelled.

They halted, and Easter felt like sobbing as this moment forced her to relive how she and Obi had been captured by Confederate soldiers. Miriam started to whimper again, and Isabel took her and rocked her until she was silent. Easter recognized the Confederate forage cap of the man who spoke. There were three other men with him. All of them had muskets and rifles. One of them carried a shotgun. Easter wasn't sure whether they were really soldiers. One wore a slouch hat, but he carried an army haversack on his back. Another had on a straw hat. The third one was bareheaded, but he wore an army jacket and had a shotgun like the kind every farmer in South Carolina owned.

“Well, look what we found here,” the man in the straw hat said.

“You ain't found nothing here,” Paul responded slowly and deliberately.

“But trouble,” George added.

The man in the forage cap moved in close to George. “Who you think you're talking to?”

George pointed his gun at the man's nose. “Nobody,” he said softly.

“Now we know y'all is runaways,” the bareheaded fellow said. “Be nice and put down them guns you stole and come with us quietly and there'll be no more trouble.” He turned to the other men. “Reckon we could get a nice reward for returning this bunch.”

“Only returning there'll be is you returning to the dust after I shoot you,” Rayford said.

The man wearing the forage cap reddened like the sky. “You probably ain't had sense enough to put shot in them guns. We'll string you up by your thumbs and make you call us suh like you're suppose to.”

Jason hid his face in the folds of Easter's dress. She felt someone stir by her leg and looked down to see Melissa crouched at her feet, her rifle pointed toward the men. They couldn't see her. Easter stared up at the sky, not wanting to draw attention to Melissa. Melissa's face was set hard as granite. Easter prayed that Melissa wouldn't be seen doing whatever it was she was preparing to do.

The veins in Rayford's temple strained at his skin as he yelled. “You better leave us. You ain't taking no one here.” Rayford's loud words even made Easter flinch.
He so angry he lose his proper talk,
she said to herself.

“We'll shoot you,” the one in the forage cap said, waving his gun menacingly.

“And we'll shoot you back,” Rayford answered.

Julius adjusted the butt end of his rifle on his shoulder. “There be more of us than you, and you may shoot one or two of us, but we'll get all of you.”

Straw Hat spit on the ground. “Y'all ain't got the nerve to shoot a white man!”

The second the words left the man's mouth, Easter heard the click as Melissa drew back the hammer on her rifle. The straw hat flew straight off the man's head. He looked as if he'd faint. Someone else fired around the men's feet,
and the four of them took off. The baby screamed loudly as if she too were ordering them to go.

“We coming back for you with more men,” one of them yelled. “Y'all ain't getting away with this.”

“Come on,” Rayford ordered. “We got to get out of here!”

The children stumbled and tripped, but they kept going. Even Jason didn't whine. Rayford halted everyone when they reached a grove of live oaks draped with moss. They all collapsed on the ground. “We rest here. I don't think they'll be back. If they really had some men to come back with, they wouldn't tell us,” Rayford said. “They're probably runaway soldiers themselves. It's too dangerous to keep running while it's still light. Soon as dusk comes, we'll head out again.”

Paul put his arm around Melissa. “Melissa, you have eye like eagle. That Rebel's hat flew off his head like duck swooping out of water.”

They laughed softly at the memory of it. Jason got up and stood on a log. “I the hat,” he said, grinning, and jumped backward off the thick chunk of wood.

Everyone chuckled even more, trying not to laugh too loudly. “Boy, you a silly thing,” Easter said.

Rose's dimples were deep as she held her stomach and wiped her eyes. “You a crazy little jack-a-behind,” she said. Even Rayford's strained mouth curved into the slightest of smiles.

Easter sat down and leaned against a tree. Jason rested his head on her shoulder. She recalled that when she and Obi had escaped to the coast, someone had been going to take them to the other side of the river, but they had been captured by Confederate soldiers. She felt as if she was repeating her life, except this time she had Jason with her. She looked at them all as they sat quietly waiting for the dark. “It dangerous at the coast,” she whispered in a voice small and fearful.

Everyone turned toward her. “We know that,” Paul said.

“This the most dangerous thing I ever done,” Isabel remarked softly.

Rose clutched her bundle tightly. “Easter already been to the coast,” she informed the others.

Rayford rubbed his half-closed eyes. “You should've gone across to the islands when you had the chance.”

“Easter come back for me like she promise,” Jason piped up.

“Hope you appreciate what she done for you,” Virginia said. They all murmured their agreement.

“Easter,” Isabel said in her soothing voice. “Tell us what happen to you at the coast.”

Easter told her story so softly that only those who listened closely could hear. “You a brave one,” Virginia said when Easter had finished. The other women nodded.

Rayford stood up. “Time to leave,” he whispered hoarsely. “We'll get to those Sea Islands, because that's what we have the will to do.”

“All of us together with one will,” Elias added.

They traveled for two more nights, sustaining and supporting each other. Easter was unafraid, now that she felt that she was really part of the group. Only when they arrived at the coast on the third morning did her fears return. She and Obi had been captured, when they'd almost reached their destination. She held Jason's hand tightly.

Rayford stopped where the woods were beginning to thin out into an open area. “You all stay here. Me and Julius will go to the man who is supposed to take people across.”

“Mister Ray,” George asked as he rubbed and flexed his long legs, “you think you be safe? Better let the rest of us men come with you. Leave the women and children here.” He faced the women. “You hear any trouble. You run and hide in these woods.”

Easter was relieved when Rayford refused. “No. Only me and Julius. If there's any soldiers or patterollers, we have passes and a good story for them. They'll be suspicious if
there's too many of us. If we don't come back in fifteen or twenty minutes, go back over there by those trees.” He pointed toward a heavy growth of cypress trees and thick brush. “Wait there for us.”

“What if you don't come back?”

“Let Easter make you one of her basket boat and sneak out here at night,” Julius joked.

“We'll be back,” Rayford said in a confident voice.

Easter sat on the rock-strewn ground, and Rose and Jason sat on either side of her.

“I scared,” Jason whimpered quietly.

“Nothing to be scared of, Jason. We almost there.” She glanced knowingly at Rose. Rose's big dark eyes looked frightened. Easter couldn't look at her. “You know what the rest of this plan is, Rose?” she asked, staring at the ground.

“Rayford tell me a boatman been taking people over to the Yankee in his flatboat.”

“But there's Rebel camps on this side of the river. They shoot at the Yankee boats.”

“Well, they ain't no Rebels on this spot, Rayford been told. They may be farther over. The man he seein' was the headman on a big rice plantation on one of them islands. When the Yankee come and take over the Sea Islands, the man come on this side of the river and carry runaways across.”

“I hope he there,” Easter mumbled.

“Rayford say the man been doin' this since last year.”

Easter's eyes took on a faraway expression. “I wonder if I find Obi soon,” she said.

Rose shrugged her shoulders. “Rayford tell me there's a lot of islands. You don't know which one Obi's on. The main thing is, when we get to the other side we be free, Easter.”

Easter was suddenly startled by footsteps. Rose and Virginia stood up quickly. Melissa drew her rifle.

“It's only just me,” Julius announced. “Come on. We got a river to cross.”

They rushed out of the woods, following Julius to a weather-beaten shack. Rayford stood outside talking to a small dark man. The river looked like a gray ribbon unraveling in the morning mist. The man smiled as they approached him. “Glad you get here safe. Just in time too. I gettin' ready to carry these people across,” he said, nodding toward several other men and women.

Easter looked around nervously as they walked toward the river, afraid to get excited or happy until they were actually on the island. She and Jason held on to each other as the man plied the flatboat across the river. The mist was so thick that she couldn't see the opposite shore. The boatman's voice seemed to float eerily out of the fog and the lapping water as he spoke. “Been takin' people over to the other side since the Yankee come. The runaways call me the Freedom Man. And I call this thing the Freedom Boat.”

BOOK: Out From This Place
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