Elijah is sent into Chatham to fetch the mail for Buxton. There is a post office in the settlement, but the mail has not come for a couple of weeks, so someone must go to town to see why. When he gets to Chatham, Elijah discovers that the regular postman has had a "terrible accident," and that the mail would have to be picked up in town until a new postman is ready to take over the route. Elijah is given one package and a letter. His heart sinks when he sees that the letter is for Mrs. Holton, and that it is from Fairfax County, Virginia. Elijah knows that letters from America never bring good news.
Upon arriving at home, Elijah shows his mother the letter, and tells her whom it is for and where it is from, as she has never learned to read. Knowing instinctively that the letter bears bad news for Mrs. Holton, Ma dresses in her Sunday clothes and makes Elijah do the same. Before leaving for Mrs. Holton's place, Ma cautions Elijah, telling him he will have to read the letter to Mrs. Holton, and that he must be strong. A group of neighbors come along to offer their support, and when they arrive at Mrs. Holton's home, she welcomes them, even though she knows that they bring bad tidings. The letter, written in flowery language by a white woman named Miss Poole, says that Mrs. Holton's husband John was caught trying to escape, and was punished so severely that "his body could not endure." Mrs. Holton does not flinch as Elijah reads the letter, and when he is done, she bravely assures everyone that she is going to be all right. She had known in her heart that her husband was dead, and hopes only that he somehow sensed that his family was safe, and that "he knowed how beautiful his girls look when they free."
With consummate dignity, Mrs. Holton invites everyone to share the food they have brought, and thanks them for coming to lend their support. She and Ma discover that they had both come from adjacent plantations in Virginia, and find comfort in the fact that they hail from the same place. As they walk home, Ma praises Elijah for not being "fra-gile," and Elijah glows with pride, even as her words ironically make him want to cry (Chapter 13).