The All-Black Town: Part 2

Word quickly spread among Truehart’s neighbors, the tenants on the Little place, that Truehart had bought two hundred acres of Marse Little’s swamp. No one knew Truehart for a fool, but no one understood it. Even his cousin Ben Thornton, who had fought alongside him in the 1st Mississippi, was dubious. “I’ll come to see it,” he said, “but I still don’t know what you’re going to do with it.”

A few days later, Truehart hitched his mule to his wagon, and Thornton climbed in to sit next to him. Truehart’s twelve-year-old daughter Bernie sat in back.

Thornton asked, “Bernie, honey, did you bring your rifle?”

“Not today,” she said politely. Unlike the rest of her family, who were brown and sturdy, Bernie was tall and slender, with a coppery glow to her face. Where the Trueharts were deliberate, Bernie was quick in every way, smart in her mind and with her tongue, and hot in her feelings. Truehart and Niecy loved their daughter, but she put them in mind of the old tale of the catbird, who laid its eggs in other birds’ nests. More than once, they wondered if the catbird had brought her.

Like her father, Bernie was at ease with a rifle. Truehart had first taken her hunting when she was ten, and had seen how well she did and how much she enjoyed it. He gave her an old muzzle loader and taught her how to use it. At twelve, she could shoot a swamp rabbit through the eye at fifty feet. She didn’t shoot for sport. The family ate everything she bagged. She needed a better gun. Truehart thought he’d pass his old repeater along to her when he bought a new one for himself, even though it would exasperate Niecy as much as it would please Bernie.

They took to the dirt road that wound toward the river. This land was planted in cotton, and in January, last year’s stalks, broken and shriveled in the cold, looked weary and worn, without the promise of February’s awakening or April’s lush new growth. The air was chilly and damp. No skeeters this time of year—the standing water closer to the river was too cold for them to breed. The birds were quiet, too. They saw a few hawks fly overhead, looking for mice or squirrels, but the ruckus that birds made in summertime was gone. The frogs slept for the winter, burrowed into the mud beneath the more-solid earth. The countryside waited for the sun and the heat of spring.

A stand of trees, oaks and cypresses, marked the end of the cotton fields and the beginning of the bottom land that was still swamp. The road stopped there. Truehart halted the mule and all three of them, Truehart, Thornton, and Bernie, looked in the direction of the river, which they couldn’t see for the thicket of trees that grew in the strip of land next to it.

On Truehart’s land, the cypresses and oaks grew, the cypresses bent and gnarled, the oaks tall, so close together that a man would have trouble walking among them. On the branches, now bare of leaves, they could all see the ropes of last year’s wild grape and muscadine vines. Under the trees grew a cover of marsh grass, brown and withered now, but still over a foot tall. The air smelled different here, like leaves and grass decaying in water.

Thornton said, “I reckon that ground is mucky.”

Truehart didn’t reply. He was looking somewhere beyond the thicket. Thornton asked, “What are you looking at?”

Truehart said, “Trying to figure where I’ll plant cotton and where I’ll plant corn.”

Thornton laughed. “Can’t see the ground for those trees, can’t stand on it for the mud, and you’re seeing a cotton field.”

“That’s why I bought it.”

“Have to clear it first.”

“I know.” Still looking at the horizon, Truehart said, “Need a scythe for that grass and an axe for those trees. And a mule, maybe two, to get those stumps out.” He looked at Thornton. “If you help me, it’ll go faster.”

Thornton knew that tone of voice. It was Jim’s old driver voice, his coaxing voice, that he had taken to war with him and used when he became Sergeant Truehart. “What do I get for it?”

“Fifty acres,” Truehart said.

Bernie, who had been scanning the horizon for reasons of her own, asked, “Daddy, does our land go all the way down to the river?”

As Thornton thought, Truehart told his daughter, “It does, honey. And we own the island in the middle of the river, too.”

Bernie said, “In school we studied those Egyptians. They used to live by a river bottom, on that Nile River, and they grew wheat and barley and cotton. Teacher says they still grow the best cotton in the world.”

Truehart said, “Bottom land’s the best soil for cotton. Here, just like in Egypt.”

Thornton sighed. “I’ll come along, and I’ll bring my Davey.”

Bernie said, “I can help too. I can cut grass.”

Truehart, who had not driven a gang since he left to fight in 1864, had a team again. He grinned. “All right,” he said.