This may sound very ridiculous, but I had never been to visit the little corner of the plantation where the slaves had lived. Uncle Andrew had discouraged it, and since Uncle Andrew's word had been law, I had obeyed and never bothered to go. Now I walked with George down a little mud path and to a cluster of wooden structures. They were built very close together on tiny plots of land and each plot was surrounded by a small fence. There were rows and rows of these houses, and that was not surprising, for once upon a time my uncle had owned nearly one hundred slaves. Now most of the houses were abandoned and falling apart. It was easy to tell which of the homes were still being lived in and which were not.
George led me up to one of the houses; it was very small and poorly built, with thin walls made of wood that had far too many cracks in it. But I could see the owners were doing their best to maintain it, and the property attached to it. George knocked on the door and there was a shuffling noise on the other side. Presently the door opened and I saw the kind and weather beaten face of Bill. He had a large scar going across his face and down to his neck. I didn't know what caused the scar as I had always been to proper to ask, but I guessed it must have been from some harsh treatment from cruel overseers. Were they my uncle's overseers of the ones of my grandfather, I didn't know, and as stated earlier, I did not think it polite to ask.
"Ah George, Miss Rose," a smile broke out on Bill's face. Bill had about seven teeth in his mouth, and his smiles were frightful and endearing all at the same time. "Do come in," he opened the door and stepped aside. "Miss Rose has come to talk about the sharecropping, has she not?"
"I have indeed," I nodded my head. "George mentioned the idea to my yesterday. I must warn you, Bill, I know nothing about sharecropping, or any other business for that matter."
"Neither do I," Bill laughed, "and neither do the other men, but we'll work it out just the same. Have a seat, I'll get Milly to fetch ya something to drink while I go call the other fellas. George, you come with me."
I perched on the stool Bill had pointed too. Bill took his old, faded hat and together with George they left the house.
I looked around the bare room; there was practically no furniture, three wooden cots, a table, and a couple of chairs, a sooty fireplace with a pot hanging over it.
"Here you go, Miss Rose," Milly said, setting a steaming cup on the table. Milly was Bill's sister, she was younger than him, but didn't know exactly how much younger. Neither Bill nor Milly were sure about their age. They weren't young anymore, that was about as much as they could tell, and both had greying hair and worn out faces, but it was impossible to know for certain just how old they were. There hadn't been anyone to keep records of the births of slaves back in their day. I had never met Milly before because she was always stuck at home caring for their invalid aunt, who was sitting wrapped up in a shawl in the only good chair. Stella was asleep so Milly and I kept our voices in a whisper.
"How are you getting on at the large house?" Milly asked, brushing a few of the grey hairs out of her face.
"We are alright I guess," I replied. "The house is a great disaster; the only rooms that have been lived in are ones of the servant's corners. The rest of the house is covered in dust and cobwebs. I don't know where to find the strength and will power to try and get cleaned up. I know I'll have to do it sometime, we can't keep living like this."
"Once step at a time, Miss Rose," Milly soothed, "one step at a time. Ya can't do everything all at once."
"That is what Elsie says," I laughed, a little too loudly, for Stella stirred and opened her eyes.
"Bless my soul, is that the Miss Rose sitting there?" She asked in a raspy voice.
"The very same," Milly nodded. ""Billy had her come over to talk to the men about getting the land worked again. We's all got to eat and so we's gonna have to work together."
"That Billy has a head on his shoulders, he does." Stella was very proud of her niece and nephew, who were the only of her family who were still alive, at least as far as Stella knew. "Miss Rose, you look so much like you mother. That golden hair, that delicate nose, why even your posture and the way you sit, it is just like her. What an angel your mother was, never did I meet a more kind hearted soul while living on this plantation, and I lived here for over forty years."
"Thank you, Stella," I smiled, "it is very nice to hear someone have something good to say about my mother. I am used to people telling me how she was too independent and too wild."
"She was independent, but she was good and kind. She cared for us slaves; she was the only one of the Beverly family who thought of us as more than property. Why, I remember when our Billy came down ill but that ole' Fletcher made him work anyways and when Billy couldn't keep up he starting flogging him and then your mother appeared on the scene and begged Fletcher to stop and Fletcher wouldn't. And do you guess what your mother did? She put her hand out in protest and Fletcher's whip struck that lily white hand. I remember that day so well; I was there when it happened. You do know the story, do you not Miss Rose?"
"I read it in my mother's diary," I nodded my head. ""Mr. Fletcher said it served my mother right for interfering with matters that did not concern her."
"He was a terrible man," Stella shuddered, "terrible man. The Massa Beverly didn't mind the men beating the slaves, but somehow your Mama managed to get Fletcher fired, even though he was the head man in charge."
"Mama knew my grandfather wouldn't get rid of Fletcher just because he struck her. Grandfather would be mad at Mama for interfering, so she went a different route. She started spreading gossip about how Fletcher had struck her with his whip and soon the entire county was talking about it and the news reached Grandfather Beverly's ears and he was furious because it was painting him in a bad light so he fired Fletcher to make himself look like a good father. He was furious with my mother as well though, and forbade her to go to the slaves."
"She was a prudent girl, she was," Stella smiled. "And she never stopped visiting us. She brought food and medicine and taught many of the slaves to read and write. She was such a little rebel, such a little rebel. If her father told her not to do it, than she went ahead and did it. I was very sad to hear that she died, very sad indeed. We all thought Miss Helen, or Mrs. Greensten I should say, would pass away long before Miss Evy did. Strange how fate turns out."
"Strange indeed," I nodded my head.
"My daughter, Bella, she was your mother's personal slave," Stella kept on talking. I saw Milly roll her eyes. Obviously Stella talked a lot and poor Milly was tired of hearing about it. "Harriet used to be her personal slave but then for some reason she was switched to kitchen duty and the Massa gave Bella to Evy instead."
I decided to remain silent on how Harriet hadn't actually been put on kitchen duty, the less people who would go gossiping about who Harriet had really been, the better, if only for the sake of little Evy and Arthur.
"And when Miss Evy ran away, she took Bella with her. I was sad of course to be parted with my daughter, but I was glad she was able to obtain freedom. I do often wonder what happened to her, and where her road led. I wonder why she did not stay with Evy, perhaps she would have been able to keep the young Miss from getting into so much trouble. She was a good deal older than Evy, married too."
I hadn't heard about this part of the story, I didn't even know there had been a Bella, and my curiosity was bursting at the seams. "What happened to her husband?"
"He was a freeman; they married about a year before Bella became Miss Evy's maid. The night Miss Evy and Bella disappeared, he disappeared too, so I am thinking he ran off with them."
"There must be some way to track them down," I mused. "If only I had my mother's last diary, there would be clues in there for sure."
"Is it missing?"
"I'm afraid it is." I sighed, remembering how Sammy had written me saying that that diary was in Colonel White's possession. Not much chances of me getting my hands on it, because even if my some miracle he did show up at my door, I wasn't sure how to ask him for something so personal. Why were the odds always against me?
Our conversation was put to a halt by the opening of the door and the stomping of heavy feet. Bill and George had returned with the rest of the men. I turned from Stella and Milly and found myself looking at the most rag tag set of men I had ever seen. They were dressed in old, faded and ragged clothing. The hard lines on their faces spoke of a life filled with difficulties. What little faith I had in my endeavor disappeared entirely as I gazed at these people my uncle had once owned. What was I to say to them? I wanted to just run out of the door and forget this whole idea, but with seven men blocking my entrance that was not an option. Besides, I wasn't a coward! I had made it through this war alive, surely I could get through this.
"Come on, Sarah," I thought, "faint hearts never got plantations up and running again." I took a deep breath and smiled at the men.
"Thank you for coming," I spoke in what I hoped was a firm, yet pleasant voice. "I am sure you all know why I am here and I hope we will be able to settle and arrangement that will be beneficial for us all."