Read an Excerpt
The First Test
Katie came out of the store and walked toward the wagon, glancing up at me with a little smile on her face. Behind her I saw the hawk eyes of Mrs. Hammond staring at us through the open window.
"Don't say nothing, Miss Katie," I whispered, trying to keep my lips from moving. "She's watching!"
Katie started to turn around.
"Don't look!" I said.
Katie turned back toward me. As she climbed up and sat down, I stared straight ahead, trying to keep the kind of look on my face that white folks expected out of colored slavesdull and expressionless, like they aren't thinking of anything, like they don't even know how to think.
But inside, my mind was racing. If we can make Mrs. Hammond believe everything is fine, I thought, we oughta be able to make anybody believe it!
Katie took the leather, released the wheel brake, then flicked the reins, and we bounced into motion along the street. I knew we were both dying of curiosity to look back. But we couldn't yet, 'cause we both knew Mrs. Hammond was likely still watching us.
"I did it, Mayme!" Katie finally said softly. "I think I made her believe Mama sent me into town."
"Don't forget, Miss Katie," I said, "we gotta go back and see her again."
Suddenly I heard someone speaking to us. I nearly jumped out of my skin!
"Mo'nin' to you, Miz Kathleen," called out a friendly voice.
I turned to see a tall, lanky black man on the side of the street tipping his hat and smiling broadly.
"Hello, Henry," said Katie, pulling back on the reins, then stopping the horses.
The man approached. I saw his eyes flit toward me for a second. But I still kept looking straight ahead. It was a little hard, though, 'cause sauntering up beside him a couple steps behind was a black boy just about as tall who looked about the same age as Katie and me. I could feel his eyes glancing my way too.
"How's yo mama, Miz Kathleen?" he said.
"Uh ... everything's just fine, Henry."
A funny expression came over his face, like he'd noticed Katie's stepping sideways to avoid answering his question directly. But before he could say any more, Katie spoke up again.
"This is Mayme, Henry. She's going to ... uh, work for us."
"Dat right nicehow 'do, Miz Mayme. Ah's pleased ter make yo 'quaintance."
He paused briefly, then looked to his side and then back. "I don' bleeve you two ladies has eber made 'quaintance wiff my son Jeremiah.Jeremiah," he added, looking at the boy, "say hello ter Miz Kathleen an' Miz Mayme."
The young man took off the ragged hat he was wearing, glancing down at the ground and kind of shuffling like he was embarrassed, then looked up at the wagon.
"How 'do," he said. "Glad t' know you both."
"I ... I never knew you had a son, Henry," said Katie as the boy looked down again. "Did ... I mean, does my mama know?"
"Can't ermagine she could, Miz Kathleen," replied Henry. "I neber talked 'bout him much on account ob how much it hurt ter 'member him. 'Twas all I could do ter keep from cryin' downright like er baby. Him an' his mama, dey was sol' away from me, you see. Dat be when Jeremiah bin jes' a young'un. An' after I bought my freedom, I dun search high an' low ter fin' 'em, but I neber foun' so much as a tiny noshun where dey might hab git to. But after der proklimashun, Jeremiah dun come a-lookin' fer me. His mama, she dun tol' him enuf where fer him ter make his way here ter Greens Crossing."
Once or twice while he was talking, I could tell that Henry's son was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I could feel my neck and face getting hot all over, but I just kept staring down at my lap and pretended I didn't notice.
"Is your wife here too?" asked Katie.
"I'm sorry t' say she ain't, Miz Kathleen. She din't make it through der war."
"Oh ... I'm sorry."
"Dat's right kind er you t' say, Miz Kathleen.Say, hit seems ter me dat bridle er yers is frayin' an' 'bout ter break. You don' want ter hab no horse runnin' loose wifout a good bit in his mouf. Why don' you two come ter da livery an' let me an' Jeremiah put on a new piece er leather? Won' take but er jiffy."
"Uh, we don't have time just now. We've got to get back. Well ... good-bye, Henry," said Katie, giving the horses a swat with the reins.
We continued on again, and for some reason I was glad to be done with Henry and his son. As we rode off down the street I was dying to glance up, and I almost did too. But I'm glad I didn't, because I could feel that he was looking at us and watching us ride away.
We didn't have anything else to do in town, but when we'd made our plans to come in, we thought it might be good for folks to see me and Katie, just to get used to the idea of seeing us together. So in spite of what she'd just said to Henry, Katie led the team through town, greeting a few people she saw that she knew, pretending to be about some business or other, though we weren't. Then when we reached the end of the street, we went around behind a few houses and headed back the way we'd come.
"You want me to come in with you, Miss Katie?" I asked when we stopped in front of Mrs. Hammond's store for a second time. "To carry out what you're buying? She'll think it a mite strange if you carry it yourself."
"I wouldn't have thought of that, Mayme," she said. "Yes, come in with me."
We got down and walked into the shop. I kept a step or two behind Katie and kept my eyes down. I wanted to look around, and especially to get a good faceful of Mrs. Hammond, but I didn't dare.
"I see you're back, Kathleen," said Mrs. Hammond, glancing over at me for a second with a look like I had some kind of disease. "I have your mama's things ready. Tell her to take them out," she added, nodding her head in my direction.
Katie looked over at me. "Take these things out to the buggy, Mayme," she said.
"Yes'm, Miz Katie," I answered slowly, taking a step forward.
At the words, Mrs. Hammond spun around with fire in her eye and glared at me.
"Watch how you speak to your betters, girl!" she said, almost yelling at me. "Didn't Mrs. Clairborne tell you how to address her daughter? You are to call her Miss Clairborne or Miss Kathleen."
"Yes'm," I nodded, feeling stupid for forgetting something so simple.
All of a sudden the door banged open behind us and a man stormed in. He walked straight up to the counter and started talking to Mrs. Hammond. I snuck a glance at him and his profile seemed familiar. And if there was a white man that I knew or that knew me, that couldn't help be anything but bad. So I quickly turned away from him.
"You seen a runaway nigger girl anywhere?" he said to Mrs. Hammond. "I figured you'd know if there'd been any talk."
"Why, no," replied Mrs. Hammond, though I saw her hawk eyes dart my way and narrow slightly as she said it. "Whose is it?"
"One of our brats is missing. She might have a baby with her."
At the word, I saw Katie start to glance my way, but then she stopped herself.
"A babygracious," said Mrs. Hammond. "Did she steal it?"
"Nawit's her own. Since all this commotion with Lincoln's proclamation ..." he went on, then paused.
Now for the first time he seemed to notice me standing on the other side of the store. I kept my head down but knew he was looking me over. Apparently satisfied because I had no baby and was too thin to be carrying one, he turned back to Mrs. Hammond.
"You know how it is now," he said. "The girl wouldn't give me a day's work, and now she's up and disappeared."
"I'm sorry," said Mrs. Hammond. "I've heard nothing."
"All right then, guess I'll be going. You keep your ears open, though, you hear."
He turned and walked out, throwing me a scowl as he went by that worried me a bit, like I might be familiar to him too but he didn't know why. I let out a breath of air when the door closed. Whoever he was, I didn't like him!
As soon as he was gone, I walked forward and took the two packages off the counter and slowly walked toward the door. As I passed by her I saw that Katie's eyes had gotten all wide again. She looked at me, and I looked at her, but neither of us said a word. I think we were both thinking, We'd better get out of here before anything worse happens!
A minute later I walked back in and picked up the last of the three packages wrapped in brown paper. Then we left the shop together. I was conscious of Mrs. Hammond's scowl staring at our backs the whole way out to the street.
We were both mighty relieved to get up on that buggy and finally start back toward Katie's home. We felt like laughing, but we couldn't yet because we were still in town.
"Hello, Reverend Hall," said Katie as we passed the church at the edge of town.
The minister, who was walking toward the church from town with his back toward us, turned and then when he saw who it was, beckoned toward Katie. At first Katie didn't slow up, intending to keep on going. But he ran toward us and called out, so that Katie had to rein in the horses.
"Good morning, Kathleen," said the minister, walking up to the wagon, puffing a little. "I wanted to ask a favor of youtell your mama to come see me, would you?"
"Yes, Reverend Hall."
"Your father and brothers aren't home yet?"
"Uh ... no, sir."
"Well, some of the men are having a hard time of it when they come home after so long at war. There's a man on the other side of town who is drinking so much that his wife and daughter are sometimes terrified of him."
"My daddy doesn't drink like that," said Katie.
"I'm sure not, Kathleen, and I am glad. But there are other problems too. Men change from war and I just want your mama to be prepared. Tell her to come see me when she can."
"Yes, sir," said Katie, flicking the reins.
Relieved again to be on our way, eventually the last of the houses disappeared out of sight behind us. What the minister had said sobered Katie for a minute. But pretty soon we both started thinking about Mrs. Hammond again.
Finally we couldn't help it. I started to giggle and Katie burst out laughing so hard I thought she was gonna scare the horses into a gallop.
"That was the beatenest thing I ever saw!" I said.
"with Mrs. Hammond. You were acting like a regular grown-up back there in her store, Miss Katie."
Katie was still laughing too hard to say anything.
"One thing for sure, you knocked poor old Mrs. Hammond into a cocked hat!"
"What about you?" said Katie as she laughed. "Yes'm, Miz Katie," she said in a gloomy voice, trying to imitate how I'd sounded. Then she started laughing again. "And with that long face and staring down at the ground. You were doing more playacting than I was!"
"Except for my mistake of calling you Miss Katie! That just about put her on to us."
"It didn't, though."
"But did you notice that look on that fellow Henry's face? He didn't seem too altogether pleased with your answer after he asked about your mama."
"He's always been nice to me, nicer than just about anyone. But I didn't really notice Henry too much with his son standing there. I can't believe it. And to think that they haven't seen each other in all those years."
I didn't reply. I didn't know what to say about Henry's son. But there's no use denying that I couldn't help thinking about him for the rest of the day. But Katie's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"Do you think that man in the store was looking for Emma?" she asked.
"I reckon," I said. "Leastways, that seems likely."
"Should we tell her?"
"That's up to you, Miss Katie. But it'd likely set her into an almighty panicas if she isn't in enough a one all the time as it is."
"You're right, Mayme. I don't suppose there's any reason to tell her ... not unless something comes of it."
Neither of us said anything for a spell, then slowly a smile spread across Katie's face as we rode along.
"Mayme," she said excitedly, "we did it!"
"You did it mostly yourself, Miss Katie," I said.
The thought sobered her up some. She stopped laughing and got a funny look on her face, like she realized I was right and was almost proud of herself for it.
Then she smiled. "I guess I did at that, didn't I?"
"You sure did, Miss Katie ... I mean Miss Kathleen."
We both burst out laughing again.
A Day to Pick Your Own Cotton (SHENANDOAH SISTERS, Book 2) by Michael Phillips
Copyright © 2003, Michael Phillips