Bethany House Publishers
As much as anything, I reckon you might say I’m a storyteller. And if you’re new to my storytelling, which I reckon a few of you might be, I’ll get started by saying that this is a story about two girls in the South in the year 1865. Of course, it’s different than most stories because it’s true. I’m just telling what happened. What happened to us.
What we’d been doing before you joined us is the same thing colored folks had been doing as slaves for years on the plantations of the South—picking cotton. I wasn’t a slave no more, thanks to Mr. Lincoln, but we’d still been picking cotton as a way to make money and survive that year after the war between the North and South got done.
We’d been picking for weeks and we were still picking. On this particular day when my story gets started, when Katie and I, along with the others, went out to the fields to start picking cotton again, we had no idea that that same evening a set of suspicious eyes would be watching us from the woods. Neither did we have any idea that at that very moment someone was riding toward Rosewood who would change everything in ways that Katie and me couldn’t have imagined in a million years. More for me even than for her.
But let me back up just a minute first.
After Katie paid off the first of her mother’s loans at the bank in Greens Crossing, we came back to Rosewood about as happy as we’d been in a long time.
We were so tired! We’d been picking cotton from sunup to sundown for three weeks.
So when we got back late that afternoon, the four of us girls who were living together and who this story’s about took baths. Then after supper we sang and danced and celebrated and went to sleep almost too tired to climb the stairs, but contented as we could be.
Katie—that’s Miss Kathleen Clairborne, who you might say is the owner of the plantation called Rosewood where we live, even though she’s only fifteen years old—she wanted to get right back out to work in the field the next day. We didn’t really know who the owner was, but in the meantime, because we were the only ones there and she’d grown up there, she was acting like about as good an owner of a plantation as anyone could. That’s how we’d got the money for the bank, by picking the cotton that her mama and Rosewood’s slaves had planted earlier that spring before the war was over. And now from only having a few dollars left, Katie had more than a hundred fifty dollars in the bank. But I told her I thought she needed at least one day of rest. The cotton would still be there waiting for us the next day, I said.
By the way, my name is Mayme—that’s short for Mary Ann. Mayme Jukes, that’s what they call me. I’d been living with Katie for five months, ever since both of our families had been killed at the end of the war.
We had two other girls with us. Emma was a tall, scrawny, scatterbrained colored girl like me. She was real good-looking, though, which wasn’t like me—so good-looking, in fact, that she’d got herself pregnant from a nearby white plantation owner who was now looking for her and trying to kill her and her little baby, who was called William.
So besides keeping ourselves alive after our families were killed, Katie and me were trying to protect Emma and William from anything bad happening to them. Another little girl called Aleta Butler was living with us too, whose mother had also been killed. She wasn’t an orphan like us. Her father was still around somewhere and we didn’t quite know what to do about him. But for now we were all four together trying to keep Katie’s plantation going as best we could, without anybody finding out we were alone so they’d take us away.
I’d come to live at Katie’s more or less by accident in April of that same year. Ever since then, the two of us had lived at her plantation house alone, milking the cows and making bread and butter, and taking care of ourselves. Katie showed me books and helped me learn to read better. And I taught her how to do things like milk cows and chop wood and sing slave songs. She read me stories from books and I told her stories I’d heard and made up. And it didn’t take long before Katie was doing all kinds of things for herself. Even though I was older, and Katie was always telling me that she wouldn’t have Rosewood anymore if it weren’t for me, if anybody could have been said to be in charge around the place, it was Katie.
I was now sixteen, Katie was fifteen, and Aleta was nine. I wasn’t sure about Emma. I figured she might be a year older than me, but she could be so dim-witted sometimes it was hard to tell. But I’d learned to love her in spite of how she was. We’d both risked our lives for each other, and that can’t help but draw people close together.
When Katie’s mama’s loan came due, at first we didn’t know what we’d do. But then I was out in the fields and noticed how much cotton Rosewood had growing. I told Katie about it. Since the cotton was now ripe, we decided to see how much of it we could pick. It turned out to be worth more than we figured, and Katie got enough to pay off the whole first loan, even with a hundred seventy-eight dollars left over. At the same time, Katie had opened a bank account for me too—in my very own name—and put twenty dollars in it for me.
After taking the cotton into town, like I said, I told Katie we ought to take the next day catching up with our regular chores about the place and getting a little rest. Then the next day after that we went back out into the fields and started again on the cotton. Since we’d seen how much four girls could accomplish if they just put their minds to it and worked steady, it didn’t seem quite so hard now, especially since for the last couple days before the loan was due we’d had help from one other person. He was a tall, soft-spoken black boy by the name of Jeremiah. I didn’t know exactly how old he was either, but he seemed about my age, probably sixteen or seventeen.
I reckon I ought to tell you about him too.
Katie had known Jeremiah’s father for a while. His name was Henry and he worked at the livery stable in Greens Crossing. He and Jeremiah had been separated for a long time, like slaves everywhere from the same family often were. But after the slaves had been set free, Jeremiah had searched for his daddy and had recently found him here and was now staying with him. Jeremiah found out what we were up to at Rosewood—pretending to operate the plantation without any grown-ups around. So far he hadn’t said anything to his father or anyone else. So I guess you could say he was in on our scheme too, though we hadn’t planned it that way. He was a strong and mighty fine-looking boy. At least in my eyes he was. I don’t know if good-looking means the same in white people’s eyes. My skin was a lot lighter than Jeremiah’s, but we probably looked similar to white folks. I’ve sometimes wondered if all black folks look ugly to white folks. That’s the idea you get when some white people look at you. Not people like Katie, of course. But I reckon this is just my way of saying that there were times as we picked at Katie’s cotton that I found myself glancing at Jeremiah just because he was so handsome in my eyes, whatever anyone else might have thought.
As Katie and me and Emma and Aleta and Jeremiah were out again in the fields picking cotton, though not quite so fast and frantic as before, laughing and talking and I guess you’d almost say enjoying it—if a black person in the South could ever be said to enjoy picking cotton—we looked up and suddenly saw a rider approaching.
We’d had all kinds of loony schemes that we did when people came to the plantation to make believe Katie’s mama was still here and make Rosewood seem normal. But now we were out in the fields and didn’t have time to do anything like run and set a fire going in one of the cabins or hide Emma and William.
The rider caught us by surprise and there we all were for him to see. We stopped our work and stood stock-still, watching him come from the direction of the house.
Katie and I glanced at each other. Emma got a look of terror on her face, dropped her satchel, and ran to grab William from the buckboard where he was sleeping, then bolted for the house. I could see from Jeremiah’s eyes that he was giving mighty serious consideration to bolting in the opposite direction. But then we all realized that to do something foolish like that would look more suspicious than anything. So we let Emma go and just stood and waited.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Jeremiah’s papa, Henry, was watching us from the woods while all this was going on. He’d been getting mighty suspicious about me and Katie for quite a while—suspicious, I reckon you’d say, in a good way, wanting to help us more than anything. But we’d still avoided him and tried to keep him from finding out about our scheme at the plantation.
As soon as his son Jeremiah got involved and knew our secret, however, that set Henry’s curious mind going all the more. That’s when he determined to find out once and for all what was going on. On that day he’d come out after his work at the livery and was now watching us all picking cotton and muttering to himself that he needed to have a talk with both us and Jeremiah and get to the bottom of the mystery of Rosewood.
But before he could think about it further, up rode the rider we had seen, and Henry sunk down out of sight where he’d been crouching at the edge of the woods. He watched for a minute or two more, then crept back deeper into the trees and went back to town without anyone seeing him.