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"Janie! Janie!" Aleta ran down the main path of the slave quarters. "Come quick! There's a carriage with horses! Something's happening!"
Eleven-year-old Janie stopped sweeping the dirt in front of the cabin she shared with old Aunty Mil. It was a lovely September morning at Rubyhill Plantation, and Janie had been making pretty patterns in the dirt with the broom. Inside the one-room cabin, Aunty Mil warmed herself by a fire. Janie propped the straw broom against the log wall of the cabin and trotted up the knoll toward seventeen-year-old Aleta.
Aleta was Janie's friend, even though they were not the same age. The older girl had taken Janie under her wing in the plantation kitchen when Janie first arrived at Rubyhill six years ago. Aleta acted like a big sister to Janie-even called her "little sis" sometimes-and that was fine. While Janie wore her hair in braids, Aleta covered her own hair with a bright scarf tied in back like a grown woman.
"Come on, Janie," Aleta said. "You got to see this." She grabbed Janie's hand and pulled her the rest of the way up the knoll, taking them both out of the quarters.
The two ran to the front of the Rubyhill Plantation's mansion, the place everyone called the Big House. There in the weedy horseshoe drive stood a fine carriage drawn by a handsome pair of matching gray horses. Janie had not seen such well-fed creatures in a long time, not since the war started and the master and his son rode off to fight in it. Even the Yankee soldiers who came through Georgia two years before had not ridden such fine horses.
She shifted her attention to the carriage itself. It was made of wood and shining leather. The wheels were straight, and their black paint showed through the red road dust. The driver, a white man, sat ramrod-straight, buggy whip in hand, eyes straight ahead. He looked uncomfortable, maybe from all the sudden attention he was receiving from the former slaves of Rubyhill. Janie noticed that he also looked quite well fed. She wondered where he was getting food.
Most of Rubyhill's twenty former slaves joined Janie and Aleta in the front yard, standing at a slight distance from the horse and carriage. It was some sight to see, these pretty horses and their stout white driver sitting in the sun in the middle of the fire-scorched front yard. Janie and Aleta whispered to each other, but the others stayed silent and alert.
After nearly a quarter hour, the former slaves heard a noise behind them. Turning almost as one, they watched two men gently lead Miz Laura down what was left of the broken-down veranda stairs. Miz Laura was the mistress at Rubyhill, and she looked thin and old beyond her years. She wore a too-large, wrinkled black dress and a black straw hat that tied under her chin. Her shabbily gloved hands gripped the arms of the men flanking her as she slowly moved toward the carriage. What's happening here? Janie wondered, but she kept silent.
With some difficulty, Miz Laura climbed into the carriage, helped by the men, who then swung up behind her. She placed a hand on the driver's shoulder. "Wait, please," she said in a soft voice. She turned in her seat to the crowd of freed slaves.
She took her time looking each person in the eyes, one by one. The strangeness of this hit them all; never had Miz Laura-nor any other white person-ever sought direct eye contact with the slaves. The group stood uncomfortably silent, but many, including Janie, returned her gaze.
The woman began to speak in a weary voice. "These men are my cousins from Pennsylvania. That is where I'm from." She paused and looked off in the distance for a moment. "It's become painfully clear that my husband and my son will not be returning to Rubyhill ever again. My family has sent for me, and as I'm certain you can understand, I've decided to return home with them." She paused again and sighed. "I want to thank you good people. You kept me from starving. I do not know how you did it. I even wonder why you did it. But I greatly appreciate it."
Miz Laura looked around her at the Big House, with its broken front pillars, collapsed roof, and blackened walls. She gazed at the stumps of the once-mighty oaks that had lined the long drive, the broken stone walls of the burned-out formal gardens, the acres of overgrown fields, no longer blackened by the fire set by the Yankees but also no longer green with planting.
"I ask your forgiveness," she said suddenly. "I should have insisted my husband give you a better life while I could. I was wrong, and I regret it now, every moment of every day." She stared at her gloved hands for a moment, then looked at the small crowd again. "Stay at Rubyhill as long as you like. Take whatever you can use from the house or from anywhere else on this land. My men won't be coming back. Neither will I. May God bless you all and keep you safe."
Miz Laura leaned back and placed one hand over her eyes. As one of the cousins draped a carriage blanket over Miz Laura's lap, Aleta called out a blessing to the white woman. The others murmured good-byes or remained silent as the driver flicked his buggy whip and the carriage rolled down the drive in a rosy cloud of Georgia dust.
The community of former slaves dispersed thoughtfully. Janie and Aleta waited until they could no longer see the carriage, then they walked quietly back to the slave quarters together. Finally Janie said, "What's it mean, Aleta? Miz Laura's never comin' back?"
"Looks like it," replied Aleta.
As they approached Janie's cabin, Aunty Mil's reedy voice came from the door. "What's going on, Janie-bird?"
Aleta waved to Janie and headed back to the yard. Janie waved back and ducked into the cabin. "Miz Laura's cousins come got her. They's goin' north."
"Mm-mm." This was Aunty Mil's response to many things in life. Arthritic and blind with age, she spent her days rocking in a broken chair, trying to keep her old body warm.
The rocker had come from the Big House. Janie had seen the Yankee General Sherman and his soldiers throw it through a glass window when they came through Rubyhill on their path of destruction. The chair had lost an arm and the tip of a runner in the process, but it still rocked. And it had a nice, thick, embroidered seat cushion.
Janie had watched it get rained on in the yard. Then it dried out. When a rainstorm approached again, she had asked the older slaves if she could take the chair to Aunty Mil. The elders had said yes. Janie had picked the glass out of the cushion; then she dragged the chair to the quarters all by herself. At the time, it had been almost bigger than she was. Aunty Mil liked the chair and now rarely left it.
"Wanna sit in the sun, Aunty Mil?"
"Yes, baby girl. Thank you so much."
Janie helped the old woman up, dragged the chair to the dirt path outside the cabin, and placed it square in the sun. Aunty Mil hobbled out and sank onto the now-worn cushion. Janie noticed the old woman's face was bathed in sweat.
"You all right, Aunty?"
"Yes. That fire in there kinda hot all of a sudden is all." Blindness had turned Aunty Mil's eyes light blue. Now she closed them and leaned back. "Ooh, that's a good breeze." She rocked a moment. "Now tell Aunty Mil all about what happened up there."
Janie told the old woman about the handsome carriage and matched gray horses and Miz Laura's speech. "Mm-mm," the old woman responded. "Change in the air." She was suddenly fast asleep. Janie noticed that was happening a lot lately.
Janie grabbed the broom and quickly finished sweeping the yard, swirling patterns in the dirt and thinking about what had just happened. Then she went about her daily task of finding food that Aunty Mil could eat without having to chew, since the old woman was missing many of her teeth. Janie had exhausted most of the plantation's possible stashing places, but she still managed to find some she hadn't remembered before.
And although she couldn't remember every place she had hidden food, Janie remembered the rest of the events of two years ago as if they had happened yesterday. That day was a milestone in her life, like the day her father was sold to the chain gang and the day a year later when little Janie was sold away from her mother and brought here to Rubyhill. The day General Sherman and his soldiers came to Rubyhill marked a line in the Georgia clay; there was life before the Yankees and life after the Yankees. And nothing nowadays was anything like it had been before.
Back then, a runner came panting into the slave quarters one day. He was from Bailey Meadows, a plantation several miles away, and he'd been sent to warn Miz Laura and the others that the Yankees were about thirty miles down the road and headed this way. The word was that they were stealing what they could and destroying anything else in their path.
Miz Laura already had her many valuable things buried in the fields and gardens in case the Yankees might come to Rubyhill. Now the slaves figured they had a couple days to take care of what really mattered, and they got to work.
First they slaughtered and cooked two pigs for the next couple days' food. Then they scattered the other pigs into the fields and woods. They found hiding places for hams and wheels of cheese.
Miz Laura had not given thought to the canned goods and other root-cellar items, but the slaves did. They sent the children to find places in the forest and fields to hide anything small and edible. For three days and two nights, Janie and the other child slaves carted glass jars of fruits, vegetables, and preserves out of the cellar and hid them in the nearby woods. They buried potatoes, carrots, and turnips in the dirt all over the fields. Whatever eggs the hens laid were boiled; after they cooled, the children covered the eggs in mud and tucked them into the slave-cabin fireplaces. Then they chased the hens into the woods.
It was late on the third day when the soldiers arrived. Indeed, they took any food they could find in the smokehouse and kitchen. They took the milking cows and whatever goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens had made their way back to the barnyards. There were no horses left at Rubyhill-they'd already been taken by Confederate soldiers for the war effort.
Now Sherman's men took anything they considered valuable from the house-big, thick rugs, paintings, even stacks of china dishes-and then they set fire to the house, the barns, and the stables, the fields, and every tree they could torch, even the peach trees. The slaves were especially surprised by that part.
In the middle of the screaming and yelling, the Yankee general himself shouted the announcement that the slaves were free. "Every bit as free as I am," he emphasized. Then the troops moved east through the pungent black smoke, singing as they marched. They had not touched the slave quarters.
A few pigs and chickens wandered back during the next week or so. Some hams and cheeses had escaped detection, and potatoes buried in the burned fields tasted nicely roasted when they were dug up. The Yankees had avoided the plantation's beehives, so there was honey.
Soon enough, however, they ate all the hidden food that was easy to find. Except for a few chickens, the remaining livestock had to be killed for meat. The plantation's inhabitants lived off whatever forest edibles they could find and whatever fish and game they could rustle up, vegetables they could grow, eggs from the laying hens, and any food the children found from their many hiding places. It was plenty of work just keeping everyone fed.
Today, Janie thought she remembered where she had buried a jar of preserves, and she set out with a large spoon for digging. After digging in an area around a patch of rhubarb gone to seed, she did indeed find a glass jar of peach preserves. She cleaned it off with her apron, then carefully cradled it to take back to Aunty Mil, eager to give her something sweet and soft.
On the way, she saw several of the former slaves gathered around the pump. Janie spied Aleta and headed for her side. Seventeen-year-old Blue, a well-liked young man, was saying to the others, "I believe it's time to go in the Big House and see if there's somethin' we can use."
An elder shook his head. "Miz Laura may think nobody comin' back here, but sooner or later, somebody be back to claim this land, burned or not."
After a long pause, Aleta spoke up. "Well, for now, I think Blue's right. We ought to find what we can use around here. Miz Laura said we could-we all heard her. I say let's go to the Big House."
The Big House cook shook her head. "I want nothin' to do with going in there. That house is haunted."
Blue looked at her and laughed. "You been goin' in there for years. Why you say it's haunted now?"
"Miz Laura was there then. It don't feel right going in there now. Too much misery."
"Come on, Cookie," said Aleta. "Miz Laura gave us her blessing. You heard her. Let's you and me go in there together and see what we find. No need to fear an empty house. It's just empty." Aleta linked arms with the heavyset cook and pulled her along to the back door of the house. "Let's go find us something good, Cookie."
Janie hurried back to her cabin with the preserves and woke up Aunty Mil. "I found something soft for you, Aunty," she said as she pried open the jar.
The old woman dipped a finger in and tasted the peachy sweetness. "Ooh, child, you done it now," she cackled. "Tastes that good."
"I'll be right back, Aunty," said Janie. "People going in the Big House like Miz Laura said we could. I'll see if I can find something else for you to eat." She handed a spoon to Aunty Mil.
"I thank you, Janie-bird." Aunty Mil stopped dipping her finger into the preserves and began spooning little bites, savoring the syrupy fruit. "I thank you for many things, baby girl."
Janie laughed and trotted through the quarters again. A slight girl but with strong legs and arms, Janie was always running or dancing about, and she was known as a good worker. She remembered a time when they weren't always trying to find food, but it seemed like that's all they did now. And Janie was always hungry.
Maybe there would be some surprises in the Big House. Maybe there was even food still hidden somewhere in there.
Janie hurried up to the Big House.
Chapter Two Inside the Big House
Janie, Aleta, and Blue stood inside what was left of the main entrance hall of Rubyhill's Big House and looked up the charred spiral staircase to the hole in the roof. They had entered with the cook through the side door, and now the three young people stood in this front hallway. Miz Laura had called it the foyer.
It felt strange to Janie to be inside the Big House. In the past two years, Miz Laura had not moved much of anything since the day the Yankees destroyed so much of it. She'd ordered the others to leave things as they were for some unexplained reason. It was a mess.
"Dunno how that woman stayed in her right mind living like this," muttered Aleta.
"Seems she lost her right mind," offered Blue.
Aleta shrugged. "Sounded right in her mind to me when she left. Sounded sad is all."
Janie gazed around the foyer, which was a big room in itself. She vividly remembered the parties here before the war and how she'd peek in from the dining room. It was something to see, all those ladies in their great big hoopskirts, milling about, holding on to the arms of tall, well-dressed gentlemen. They had all fit in here just fine with plenty of room to spare.
Now this once grand entrance area was dark and dingy. The door to the front veranda was tied shut with baling twine. Scattered around the room were broken urns and glass from window panes and once-beloved possessions, sagging drapes, slashed paintings of previous Rubyhill inhabitants, and general filth. It plainly showed the two years of neglect that had followed the fire.
"Maybe we can use them drapes," Aleta remarked. She was a good seamstress. "I could make blankets out of 'em."
Janie hesitantly slid open the pocket doors to the parlor. Since the upstairs fire, this was where Miz Laura had been living, and she hadn't left the room much at all. One of the former slaves had continued to help her, cooking and doing her laundry. This was done for her strictly out of kindness, since slavery was over.
At any rate, it appeared that Miz Laura had been sleeping in this room on a once-fine couch, its velvet ripped open by a Yankee's sword. She'd left her blankets and bedclothes strewn around. Janie tiptoed over to them. She shook them out and set them aside to be used by the community of former slaves.
Excerpted from Janie's Freedom by Callie Smith Grant Copyright © 2006 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 17, 2013
The year is 1867, and even though the Civil War is over, former slave, Janie, has stayed with her mistress, all this time.
However, the owner leaves the plantation in the hands of the slaves, to do whatever they want. Everything is different now, and Janie has to learn how she should cope with the drastic new changes. It's hard for her to make the right life-changing decision, and leave her old life behind.
I loved this book! It was hard to set it down after I began reading it. Out of the 7 Sisters in Time books, that I have read, this one is the most exhilarating and satisfying, so far!