Chester, a former slave and now a free man, is driving our hero George Thompson to his stepfather’s plantation house, sitting at the James River in Virginia. Chester and the stepfather, Robert, were raised together as children during the Revolutionary War. Chester tells George how Robert’s mother–by her own hand–lost the plantation and all else they owned.
We rode among Quarterpath’s shady oaks, birches, pines, and bulrushes surrounding still marshes that reflected the sky, then slipped into a path darkened with trees and brush that huddled together. “This is the shortcut to the plantation,” Chester said. “I knows my way. Born and raised there.”
I came out of my frustrations. “You once lived on the Thompson plantation?”
Chester threw me a sly glance. “Yessuh! I knowed your pa when he was a boy. Little Robbie. We grew up together. He lived in the big house. My mama and me, we lived in the cabin nearby.” He chuckled. “I sat on my mama’s patience too many times. The overseer had enough of me, too, so he ordered me to find a playmate and leave folks be in the fields. Little Robbie was comin’ out of the house wit’ his nose in a book, lookin’ all righteous, when I goes to him sayin’, ‘You wanna play wit’ me?’ He pauses from his book wit’ the most serious face, and says, ‘What did you have in mind?’ Before long, we was laughin’ and weavin’ in and out of those tall tobacco stalks, with them fat leaves slappin’ us in the face. We got the overseer mad, particularly durin’ the cuttin’ and harvestin’. Robbie and me, we almost got cut.” His face clouded. “Then things changed a bit.”
“All I know is that my stepfather and his mother lost the plantation to a fire, when he was eleven—Jesus.” I covered my mouth: Robert Thompson and I were the same age when we were forced from our childhood homes.
“You know why the fire? ‘Cause his ma heard rumblin’ in the distance. She was sure the British was comin’, and if they was comin’, that meant they would put fire to her crops, just like they did to other folks’s property. So what’d she do? She took the flame herself.” He shook his head at the pity of it. “Missus Caroline Thompson, that was her. She screamed at the overseer and field hands, ‘Burn the crops!’ They looked at her like she lost her mind. So she lit a torch and ran through the fields. Men tried to stop her, but Missus Caroline, she was faster than them. See, it wasn’t the British she heard, but God’s thunder in the sky. October sixteenth, 1781. Later turned out to be the rainiest night I never seen.”
“Where was her husband?”
“Col. Thompson? He’d died of the yellow fever in the islands months before, while he was movin’ ‘munitons to the patriots here. Everything was left to the missus.” Chester stared ahead as if his past unfolded before him. “But that fire, mmm, mmm. It wasn’t no fire, it was a firestorm. The fields was all ablaze, loud and hot. Their light turned the big house from white to orange. Folks was runnin’ around, screamin’ at her and coughin’ from the black tobacco soot flyin’ in the air. But she just stared at what she made, with that thunder boomin’ in the distance. And little Robbie and me, I run up from one direction, he from the house, and we stared at it together. Like I said, the rains came, but it was too late.
“After that Cornwallis fellow surrendered to General Washington, my mama and me was sold to different men. I never saw her again.” He snapped the reins to hurry us along. “Missus Caroline sold her things, too, expensive things. Fancy silver and porcelain, some gold. Her husband’s effects. Then she and Robbie left for town. Just that house remains.”
We reached a clearing. The Thompson house loomed ahead, as if awaiting me. To the right was a kitchen house and open barn. Inside the barn, my stepfather’s bald-face mare peeked out, hitched to his red riding chair.
Chester rode to the house’s front door, then motioned to our left. “Over there was our cabin. It’s gone now.” He gazed left at the fields, then the big house, with its painted green door and a new, shiny brass knocker. Memories stretched his mouth into a bittersweet grin. His eyes watered with sadness. “My mama could turn a bowl of oysters into quite a meal.” His gaze returned to his left, as if ghosts waved to him from the fields where he had played.
“Suh.” I stretched out my hand to him, and we shook. His palm was rough and thick like weathered leather. “May God bless you for delivering me here.”
Chester nodded. “You be sure to tell little Robbie that Chester gives his regards, hear?”
I saluted. He rode off.
I could have limped along the side of house to my stepfather out back. But long ago in those sunny years of my youth, Richie and I had been forbidden to enter the house. I was a man now, and the door was ajar. I entered.
© L.A. Hider Jones. All rights reserved.