After he leaves east Texas, Paul works for several years for the gray-haired woman, Hattie Crenshaw. She treats him well and encourages him to start his own furniture-making business or to get more schooling and become a teacher, lawyer, or doctor. Paul likes Hattie but remains aloof, and, when her daughters get married and their husbands take control of the farm, Paul and Mitchell leave. Next, the two men work in a turpentine camp, draining resin from trees until the trees are dead and useless shells. Paul dislikes this treatment of trees and even more strongly dislikes the men in the camp—many of the white bosses and workers are convicts or murderers, and the bosses are viciously racist. One incident in particular haunts both Paul and Mitchell. The white bosses had perfunctorily buried a black man killed in a brawl without any gesture toward justice or respect for the dead man, and they also hunted down and killed a black man who fought with a white man, leaving his body to rot in the camp for all the workers to see.
Next, Paul and Mitchell work in lumber camps for a boss named Jessup, who holds a bitter grudge against Paul because he looks white. One morning, Jessup is wickedly glad to find that Mitchell, who has gone courting, is absent. He uses Mitchell's absence as an excuse to punish Paul, and he tells Paul that he must do both his and Mitchell's work that day, or he will turn him in to the sheriff. Paul begins to work calmly, certain that Mitchell will arrive before long. He does, and although the two men work steadily through the day, Jessup is not satisfied and demands that Paul work the next day, Sunday, without pay, again threatening to turn him over to the sheriff. Paul struggles with his temper but ultimately concedes. Frustrated, the two men go down to Miz Mary's, the local saloon. Paul usually does not go to the saloon, preferring to write letters to his sister and read. Consequently, Paul is not popular among his fellow workers. That night at the bar, he sits in a corner writing when Maylene, one of Mitchell's girls, sits down with him, asking him questions about Mitchell. Before long, another man comes over and tries to snatch Maylene away from Paul's table. Soon enough Paul and Mitchell are engaged in a fight with the man and escape only when Miz Mary breaks up the ruckus.
That night, Paul sits up thinking and devises a plan: after he finishes work on Sunday, he and Mitchell will leave the camp for Vicksburg, where Hattie Crenshaw recommended he work with her acquaintance, a skilled carpenter. By leaving at nightfall, they will be gone before Jessup realizes that they are missing. Mitchell joins Paul on the slope the next day, and the men put in their last day at the camp. At noon, Maylene brings them lunch. The men eat gratefully, and finally Mitchell tells her of their plan. She agrees to help and at nightfall provides them with a pack of food.
Mitchell and Paul walk all night and only stop to eat the next day at noon. Paul tells Mitchell his goal: to settle down on his own patch of land. Mitchell scoffs at his dreams, explaining that he only wants to live freely and be. The two men walk until nightfall, when at last they set up camp and sleep. Suddenly, they wake up to white men with shotguns accusing them of stealing chickens. The strangers are surprised by Paul's white-looking face. Paul, sensing that they believe he is a white man, convinces them that they did not steal the chickens. When the men leave, Paul and Mitchell conclude that they must split up, deciding that they are too conspicuous as a pair. They agree to send word to each other when they have reached their destinations, and they go their separate ways.
Paul walks until night and, exhausted, sleeps. When he wakes, he finds himself in the most beautiful stretch of land he can imagine, and he decides without hesitation that this is the land he wants to own. An old black man approaches him, and Paul asks him who owns the land. The man explains that it used to be Granger land but now belongs to a northerner, J.T. Hollenbeck. Because of the economic devastation of war, the Grangers were forced to sell some of their land. Paul approaches Mr. Hollenbeck, who tells Paul he is not ready to sell but that Filmore Granger may be willing to sell more of his plantation land. Paul tucks this information away and continues his trek to Vicksburg.
Paul's work situations illustrate the tenacity of the institution of slavery and the devastating racism upon which it was built. Although Paul is freer than, say, his mother, he still must accept injustice and brutality from white men. The bosses in the turpentine camps adhere only to their own racist code of justice, murdering a black man for beating a white man without any sort of trial, investigation, or pause for reflection. They leave his rotting body in the camp as a reminder to the black workers of how little they value or respect the lives of black men. In the logging camp, Paul must bear rude and derogatory language from his boss and must work without pay if his boss demands it. He cannot leave this job if he wants to, for fear of being chased and hung by Jessup and the sheriff; instead Paul must sneak off at night. At the same time, emancipation has given Paul a little more freedom to move about and be. Paul earns wages for his work that he can save in a bank, and he can leave a job he cannot tolerate to find another one. However, the white bosses' treatment of black men shows that emancipation has only partially freed blacks from white power and that in many ways they are as thoroughly entrapped in an intractable social system of injustice and oppression as before the war.
Paul's actions and decisions demonstrate his attempts to learn to successfully negotiate and resist the system of power. He has learned, as we see in his interactions with Jessup, to control his temper in the face of bigotry. Though Paul is outraged at Jessup's threats and demands, he understands that he cannot meet this anger head on, or he will be destroyed. Instead, he must outmaneuver it, which he accomplishes by planning a clever and daring escape. Later, he responds to white bigotry in another way: when the men accuse Paul and Mitchell of stealing, Paul uses his white appearance to cow their threats. Paul demonstrates that not only can he outsmart white authority, but he can also manipulate it. Though Paul cannot make use of the rights and privileges afforded to whites, he does have a number of tools and skills that he can use to chisel out the kind of life he wants to have for himself.
Maylene's character illustrates the especially circumscribed conditions in which black women existed after slavery and, scholars argue, which exist today in a lesser form. She is not only subordinate to white men and women but also to black men. Maylene has much less flexibility in how she provides for her physical well being. An escape like Paul and Mitchell's would invite rape, abuse, and possibly death toward her. She cannot earn money chopping logs or training horses. Instead, she must work in a house or a bar. Moreover, she knows that her long-term well being depends on finding a provider. The man on whom she has set her sights, Mitchell, is not inclined to tie himself down to any part of a society so biased against the progress of black men. In the bar, the man who snatches her away from Paul clearly expresses the fact that he does not care whether or not she wanted to sit with Paul. To him, she is merely a means of expressing hostility toward Paul.