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Authors: Joyce Hansen

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BOOK: Out From This Place
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“What happen when we get to the island?” Paul asked him.

“The Yankee tell you where to go.”

Easter had only one question:
Is Obi on the other side?

Chapter
Four

We landed under the protection of the Union fleet, and remained there two weeks, when about thirty of us were taken aboard the gunboat P——; and at last, to my unbounded joy, I saw the “Yankee.”

Susie King Taylor
Reminiscences of my Life in a Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops

“We free,” Isabel cried, kissing Miriam.

“We free!” They all shouted as they stepped off the flatboat. The men hid their rifles and shotguns in sacks before leaving the boat. Sarah sank to one knee, head bowed. Easter looked up at the sky. “Thank you, God,” she whispered.

On shore, soldiers in strange blue uniforms mingled among what seemed to be hundreds of black people. Easter studied the scene before her: men, women, children, old people, infants—all in a jumbled mass. One elderly man in rags lay lifeless on the ground. A young woman hobbled on crutches and one leg. There were women in finely tailored dresses and hats, and women with their garments in shreds and their heads tied with cloth. There were field hands wearing dirty overalls and torn trousers, and carriage drivers still in their embroidered jackets.

And there were children everywhere. A baby about a year old wandered aimlessly, crying. One little girl about ten kept five younger children in tow while she carried a baby. Easter almost cried as she watched a white-haired old grandmother surrounded by a brood of children stretch her hands to a bewildered-looking young soldier. A tall, stately white woman in a plain black dress walked over to the children and the elderly woman. She seemed out of place among the crowd of fugitives and soldiers.

The new arrivals gazed silently at the scene. Finally Rayford said, “We'd better talk to one of these soldiers and find out where we can settle.”

“Where is we, Easter?” Jason asked, looking worried.

“We made it to Yankee territory, Jason. Now we goin' to find Obi.”

“There're a lot of islands in this territory. Obi could be on any one of them,” Rayford said.

“I go to each one until I find him,” Easter replied.

“That might not be possible.”

“But if we free, why can't I look for Obi now?”

Rayford started to answer her, but Jason interrupted. “I want to go back home, Easter. Why you bring me here?”

“That's enough,” Rayford said to both of them. “We have to find food and shelter, then we worry about finding folks.”

“That's right,” Paul agreed. “We have to find our new life.”

Rayford led them toward two soldiers, who by the gleaming medals on their jackets and by the way they barked orders appeared to be officers.

“Are all of you families?” one of the soldiers asked. “We can't be responsible for the young children.”

Easter had trouble understanding his speech. Jason, mouth open slightly and eyes open wide, stared at the man's mouth in fascination.

“Yes sir, we are all family members here,” Rayford answered.

“We need laborers to work on one of the cotton plantations. Can you people do that kind of work?”

“Yes,” Rayford answered.

The young officer turned to another soldier standing next to him. “They seem healthy and strong. Better than most.”

Easter thought that it was pretty rude to talk about people who stood right in front of you. She stared at the shredded rags on her feet and wondered how she'd begin to find Obi in all of this mess and confusion.

“You go to the plantation now,” the soldier told them. “Hurry along to that man standing by the wagon over there.” He pointed to a young black man standing next to a rickety wagon drawn by two mules. Easter heard Elias whisper to Melissa, “This don't sound like we free. He orderin' us to go.”

Rayford shifted from one sore foot to the other. “Sir, do we get pay for our work?”

“Yes. We need laborers to grow the crops on the abandoned plantations.”

“That sound better,” George mumbled.

“How much money do we get?” Rayford asked.

“That's up to the superintendent of the plantation. He'll tell you. But you will be paid.”

Paul, holding Miriam, asked, “We free now?”

“Well, the Rebels can't buy and sell you as long as you're with us. Now, go to those people by that wagon, and you'll be taken to the Williams plantation.”

They started to walk away, but Rayford stopped. “Sir, what's the name of this island?”

“Santa Elena,” the soldier answered.

Easter wanted to ask how she could get from one island to another in order to find someone, but she couldn't approach these strange-talking white men.

They traveled over sandy roads. The wagon driver worked on the plantation they were going to. “Live on the Williams place all my life,” he said. “Lot of our people leave
when the Yankee come and free us, but me and my family stay and work for soldier. My pa is Brother Thomas, a preacher man. Glad more people like you folks is comin'. Too much work for the few of us who here on the plantation.”

Easter ignored the man's chatter and observed her new surroundings. The most noticeable sensation was the pungent smell of saltwater mixed with the odor of green plants.

Jason noticed it too. “Smell funny 'round here,” he exclaimed.

The waxy green leaves of marsh elder and salt myrtle grew out of the sandy soil near the marshes. “This is a watery place,” Rose commented.

After riding for about an hour, they crossed a small wooden bridge built over a creek and reached the Williams plantation. The creek ran through the plantation. Easter was surprised at how large the place was—much larger than the Phillips plantation. They passed the dairy, smokehouse, spinning house, and fowl house as they rode toward the family home.

Gates marked the entrance to the plantation. An avenue of live oaks, with Spanish moss hanging like long brown beards, lined the path from the gates to the big house. The house was encircled by a veranda. Magnolia and dogwood trees stood near either side of the house. A group of sturdy cottages sat behind the big house. Farther back from the cottages, near the stables, the slave quarters began, long rows of dilapidated huts facing each other.

Fences for the cattle and other livestock looked like large white circles on the green grass. The vegetable gardens, where the plantation's food was grown, were adjacent to the quarters. Beyond the shacks in the quarters stretched cotton fields, as far as the eye could see. Men and women with long hoes turned over the dirt around the cotton plants.

Instead of a mistress and master, soldiers in blue uniforms and a gray-haired man in a long dark coat sat in the shade
of a flower garden. The new laborers left the wagon, and the driver instructed them to present themselves to the gray-haired man. “That's the superintendent,” he said, “Mr. Reynolds.”

Jason's heels were worn down, the buckles were gone from his shoes, and his white stockings were now charcoal gray. The ruffles on his shirt had been destroyed by a low-hanging branch. He found his voice after a long, wide-eyed silence. “Is they Yankee?” he whispered to Easter.

“Yes, Jason.”

“Well, where is they horn?”

The other boys snickered.

“Hush up that foolishness,” Rayford ordered.

Jason ignored him. “Missy say Yankee have horn and tail. I know that one in the coat is hidin' the longest tail in the world.”

David, Isaiah, and Nathan roared. Their father glared at them, and they stopped laughing. Easter pulled Jason's ear. “This ain't no time for play.”

“Sir,” Rayford said to Mr. Reynolds, “the soldiers sent us here to work.”

The man fingered a set of keys dangling from his belt and ran his fingers through his graying hair. His large watery eyes appeared tired. “This land no longer belongs to the former owners because they are rebelling against the United States government,” he said automatically, as if he'd been repeating the same speech for a long time. “If you work this land, then you will have a share in it because you will have helped us in this war effort.”

Jason covered his mouth and began to giggle. “The words stuck up in he nose.” Isaiah let out one laugh before he was popped on the side of his head by his father.

Rayford glared at Jason. “You mean, if we work here for the government, we get to keep some of the land for ourselves?” he asked.

“That's a good possibility,” Mr. Reynolds answered, staring at Rayford closely.

“Well, excuse me, sir,” Rayford continued, “but is this a true bargain? We will get this land if we bring in the crop?”

“Yes,” Mr. Reynolds snapped impatiently.

“Well, sir, could you write that on a piece of paper?”

There was a gasp among the crowd.
He get whipped now for sure,
Easter thought to herself. She peeped at Rose, who beamed proudly at Rayford.

The man looked as if he was astonished by Rayford's request. “The United States government isn't making contracts with … with anyone. You help us, and we'll help you people.”

Rayford stared at the man for a moment and then turned to the others. “What do you want to do?” he asked.

“We stay here,” Elias said. “At least we get pay.” The rest of them agreed.

“Each family gets two and a half acres to till and forty cents a day. You can rent land from us to grow your own vegetables on.”

“Suh,” Melissa said, “we don't want to work on Sunday.”

“I know, I know,” Mr. Reynolds said impatiently. “The other people on this plantation already told me that they want Sundays off.”

Easter became increasingly disappointed as she walked with the rest to the former slave quarters. This was just another plantation; they'd be spending long hot days in the cotton fields. She came to the island to find Obi, not to pick cotton. When they reached the quarters she saw that the dwellings were crude log huts, even smaller than those on the Phillips plantation.

“Master Reynolds say these last four cabin are for us,” George said, surveying the area.

“Why you call the man Master? That's slavery time talk,” Julius corrected him. “Call him Mr. Reynolds.”

George waved his hand at Julius. “It all the same.”

Melissa and Sarah would share a cabin with Easter, Rose, and Jason. The two families each had a cabin, and the single men shared one.

“What kind of freedom is this? I never live in a slave hut,” Easter complained.

“Neither did I,” Rose said. “I sleep in a shed, and you sleep on Master Jennings's kitchen floor. Least this hut be our own.”

“And I slept in the big house. Had my own room in the servant's quarters,” Rayford reminded Easter. “And I ain't complaining!” Rayford left them and went with the other men to look at his new home.

“I just glad to have a roof over my head,” Sarah said quietly.

But when they opened the cabin door Easter felt like crying. It was worse than she'd thought. “The Jennings kitchen better than this,” she moaned.

Jason looked outraged. “This place nasty!” he yelled.

Melissa grimaced. “Come on, Sarah. We go get some water so we can clean that floor.” They put their bundles on the floor and left.

“The first thing we have to do is daub those chinks with clay and sweep out this room,” Rose mused, scanning the floor and walls. There were two pallets on the floor, three beds hanging on pegs and folded against the wall, a fireplace, and a bench. Easter lay her rug before the fireplace, and Jason immediately sprawled on it and fell asleep.

“I help you clean in here, but me and Jason can't stay long, Rose.”

Rose dropped her sacks near Jason's head. “Easter, where you goin'?”

“I have to find Obi.”

“That ain't possible. You don't even know where he is. You can't go runnin' all over the place lookin' for somebody with this war goin' on. Never know when there be a battle right here. Don't think them Rebels ain't go try and get these islands back.”

Easter crossed her arms defiantly. “I run away from my master and mistress. I run away from the Rebels, and I run again if I have to.”

Rose reached into one of her bundles and removed several wooden plates and a small pot. “You can't make things the way
you
want them to be. Obi might not even be thinkin' 'bout you.”

Rose's words were like the lash of a whip across Easter's back. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Rayford entered the room. “That place we have is worse than this. We don't have enough beds,” he said to Rose.

Rose found a broom near the fireplace and started sweeping around Jason's head. “Easter don't want to stay.”

“I have to find Obi,” she explained.

“Where will you go? How will you live?”

“That's the same thing I ask,” Rose said.

Rayford sat on the bench. “We stay here and work and we'll have something of our own when the war's over. You can look for Obi when the war ends.”

“When it be over?” she asked. He didn't answer her.

“You act like you ain't got all your senses!” Rose shouted, pulling out her quilt and shaking it furiously.

“Rose is right. You were lucky before. How you and that boy getting from island to island? Who's going to protect you? Him?” Rayford asked, pointing to the sleeping Jason.

“God protect me,” Easter replied.

“God protect those who know how to protect themselves,” Rayford muttered.

“Give me one of them guns. I learn how to shoot, then I protected.”

“I ain't giving you anything. You better stay with us.”

“Easter, don't be so hardhead,” Rose said.

BOOK: Out From This Place
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