But the nights been worst of all. We just hope Jep Loach falls to sleep quick from whiskey and the day's travel. It's when he don't that the bad things happen—to Mama and Aunt Jenny both, and now just to Mama, with Aunt Jenny sold off. Only Mama and me left now. Us two and Aunt Jenny's baby girl, li'l Mary Angel.
Every chance there is, Mama says them words in my ear—who's been carried away from us, and what's the names of the buyers that took them from the auction block and where're they gone to. We start with Aunt Jenny, her three oldest girls. Then come my brothers and sisters, oldest to youngest, Hardy at Big Creek, to a man name LeBas from Woodville. Het at Jatt carried off by a man name Palmer from Big Woods....
Prat, Epheme, Addie, Easter, Ike, and Baby Rose, tore from my mama's arms in a place called Bethany. Baby Rose wailed and Mama fought and begged and said, "We gotta be kept as one. The baby ain't weaned! Baby ain't..."
It shames me now, but I clung on Mama's skirts and cried, "Mama, no! Mama, no! Don't!" My body shook and my mind ran wild circles. I was afraid they'd take my mama, too, and it'd be just me and little cousin Mary Angel left when the wagon rolled on.
Jep Loach means to put all us in his pocket before he's done, but he sells just one or two at each place, so's to get out quick. Says his uncle give him the permissions for all this, but that ain't true. Old Marse and Old Missus meant for him to do what folks all over south Louisiana been doing since the Yankee gunboats pushed on upriver from New Orleans—take their slaves west so the Federals can't set us free. Go refugee on the Gossett land in Texas till the war is over. That's why they sent us with Jep Loach, but he's stole us away, instead.
"Marse Gossett gonna come for us soon's he learns of bein' crossed by Jep Loach," Mama's promised over and over. "Won't matter about Jep bein' nephew to Old Missus then. Marse gonna send Jep off to the army for the warfaring then. Only reason Jep ain't wearin' that gray uniform a'ready is Marse been paying Jep's way out. This be the end of that, and all us be shed of Jep for good. You wait and see. And that's why we chant the names, so's we know where to gather the lost when Old Marse comes. You put it deep in your rememberings, so's you can tell it if you're the one gets found first."
But now hope comes as thin as the winter light through them East Texas piney woods, as I squat inside that log pen in the trader's yard. Just Mama and me and Mary Angel here, and one goes today. One, at least. More coins in the pocket, and whoever don't get sold tramps on with Jep Loach's wagon. He'll hit the liquor right off, happy he got away with it one more time, thieving from his own kin. All Old Missus's people—all the Loach family—just bad apples, but Jep is the rottenest, worse as Old Missus, herself. She's the devil, and he is, too.
"Come 'way from there, Hannie," Mama tells me. "Come here, close."
Of a sudden, the door's open, and a man's got Mary Angel's little arm, and Mama clings on, tears making a flood river while she whispers to the trader's man, who's big as a mountain and dark as a deer's eye, "We ain't his. We been stole away from Marse William Gossett of Goswood Grove plantation, down by the River Road south from Baton Rouge. We been carried off. We...been...we..."
She goes to her knees, folds over Mary Angel like she'd take that baby girl up inside of her if she could. "Please. Please! My sister, Jenny, been sold by this man already. And all her children but this li'l one, and all my children 'cept my Hannie. Fetch us last three out together. Fetch us out, all three. Tell your marse this baby girl, she sickly. Say we gotta be sold off in one lot. All three together. Have mercy. Please! Tell your marse we been stole from Marse William Gossett at Goswood Grove, down off the River Road. We stole property. We been stole."
The man's groan comes old and tired. "Can't do nothin'. Can't nobody do nothin' 'bout it all. You just make it go hard on the child. You just make it go hard. Two gotta go today. In two dif'ernt lots. One at a time."
"No." Mama's eyes close hard, then open again. She looks up at the man, coughs out words and tears and spit all together. "Tell my marse William Gossett—when he comes here seeking after us—at least give word of where we gone to. Name who carries us away and where they strikes off for. Old Marse Gossett's gonna find us, take us to refugee in Texas, all us together."
The man don't answer, and Mama turns to Mary Angel, slips out a scrap of brown homespun cut from the hem of Aunt Jenny Angel's heavy winter petticoat while we camped with the wagon. By their own hands, Mama and Aunt Jenny Angel made fifteen tiny poke sacks, hung with jute strings they stole out of the wagon.