Marse Little sent for him again, and reluctantly, Truehart went. Without even asking him to sit, Marse Little said, “Didn’t bring your cotton to me for ginning.”
“No sir.” Like slavery days: No suh.
“Who ginned it for you?”
Truehart studied his shoes. He said, “Mr. Levy, over in Itta Bena, told me of a man in Greenwood who has a gin.”
Little’s face got red. He said, “Why would you deal with Levy?”
Truehart didn’t look up. He dropped his voice. He told a lie to spare Mr. Levy, too. “I’m in debt to Mr. Levy. So Mr. Levy insisted on it. That I take my cotton up to Greenwood.”
Little’s voice rose. “Why are you in debt to him? You should be bringing your business to me.”
Truehart said mildly, “Marse Little, I reckon I’m free to be in debt to one man rather than another.”
Little glared at Truehart. “I don’t care for that man Levy. He’s altogether too polite to niggers.”
Willis, seeing Truehart’s success with his mucky ground, wanted to buy land too. He asked Truehart if Marse Little might sell any more of his swamp. Truehart said, “Don’t think he’s inclined, and even if he were, don’t want him to know we buying any more land.”
“How do we get it?” Willis asked.
Truehart said, “We go roundabout.”
The next time he went to Mr. Levy’s, he stood at the counter, thinking of what he might pretend he needed. Levy said, “Jim Truehart, something bothers you.”
Truehart looked down to hide his surprise. Levy saw him. Knew his heart. He looked up. “Mr. Levy, I’m still greatly obliged to you for helping me gin my cotton.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I’m hoping to raise a little more cotton next year.”
“You need more land,” Levy said.
“I do,” Truehart said.
“Mr. Little won’t sell?”
“Not to me,” Truehart said.
Levy considered. “I could help.”
“Can’t ask you to do that, sir. Can’t have Marse Little mad at you, too. But if you hear of anyone else who has swampland to let go, I’d be obliged if you’d tell me.”
Levy nodded. Then he grinned. “I hear things,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”
A few weeks later, when Truehart came into Itta Bena for the mail, he stopped at Mr. Levy’s store. Levy said to him, “We go out back, talk quiet.”
They stood in the yard behind the store, where a flock of chickens pecked at the dirt. A stray pig wandered into the yard and Levy slapped it on the rump. It ran away, snorting. Levy said, “Mr. Taillefer’s man stopped in last week.”
Marse Taillefer had been the biggest landowner and slaveowner in the county before the war. He wasn’t up to Marse Little’s standard, but he was rich enough. Truehart asked, “What did he say?”
“Says they have some swampland.”
Truehart forgot himself. He raised his eyes and looked into Joe Levy’s sad, sallow, lined face. “Would he sell it?”
“Wouldn’t hurt to pay him a visit.”
Truehart nodded. Levy said, “Mr. Taillefer don’t care much for Mr. Little. Might help you to know.”
“It would, sir.”
Levy said, “Go see him.”
Truehart asked, “Mr. Levy, how did you come to treat black folks like you do?”
Mr. Levy looked up, and Truehart was struck again by his resemblance to the late President Lincoln. Levy said, “Five years ago, the tsar in Russia was assassinated. He was the king over Russia and over Poland, too. After that, the Cossacks came to my little town in Poland, drunk and angry, blaming the Jews for the tsar’s death. They murdered as many men as they could, and the women—” he hesitated, as though the words were too hard to say. “They forced the women, and then they slaughtered them, too.” He rubbed his face, as men did when they were trying not to weep. “I lost my wife and my children, and I barely escaped with my life. After that I came to America.”
Truehart looked into Levy’s grief-stricken face. He said, “It were a massacre.”
Levy said, “We called it a pogrom in Jewish, but you’re right. It were a massacre.”