It was back-breaking work, and it went even more slowly because it had to wait after plowing and planting and chopping the cotton they grew to pay Marse Little’s rent. They worked on summer evenings, when they were tired, and on Sunday afternoons, when they wished they were resting. Within a month, they had cleared a path down to the river and laid planks over the wet ground. They stood on the river bank, surrounded by the willows that grew where the river curved, and looked with pleasure at the island.
Truehart said, “We’ll call the place Willow Bend.”
“Willow Island,” Bernie said, looking at the willows that grew there too.
Tree by tree, stump by stump, patch of grass after patch of grass, they had cleared enough land by mid-summer to see where the first cotton field might be. During cotton harvest the work slowed even further. After a day of picking the bolls and toting the sacks, no one had the strength to cut grass or fell trees or pull stumps. Even the mules were too tired for any more effort.
The word had spread that Jim Truehart and Ben Thornton were making a farm out of the swamp, and when their friends and neighbors had a moment, they came to see it. They went home pleased, if not impressed—“Ain’t much to see,” they told anyone who hadn’t. “A lot of mucky ground.” But it was more than mucky ground. It was reclaimed swamp, and every bit of it belonged to a black man who had paid cash for it.
It took another year to clear enough for a cotton field, a stand of corn, a kitchen garden, and a place to build a house. That year Truehart charged his wife with growing the last crop on the Little place—she hired one of the Glover boys to help her—and he moved to Willow Bend to plant his first cotton crop there. He didn’t hide what he was doing, but he didn’t talk to Marse Little to let him know. It wasn’t Marse Little’s business. The land was sold, and Truehart reckoned he could improve it or burn it, whatever he pleased, without Marse Little’s say-so.
At the end of the season, Truehart came back to his house on the Little place to eat dinner with his family. At the table, he said to Bernie, “Them Egyptians were right, honey. Bottom land’s the best in the world for cotton.”
Niecy asked, “How many bales?”
“We’ll know for sure once it’s ginned and weighed, but I reckon a bale and a half an acre.”
Niecy looked at him with astonished eyes. “On swampland!”
“Next year we stop renting from Marse Little and we move there. Our own place.”
Marse Little heard something. He sent one of his house servants, a little boy that Truehart didn’t know, to summon Truehart to see him. Truehart shook his head when he heard. He was a Union Army veteran and a free man. He owned his own place, and Marse Little could fetch him, just like back in slavery days.
He went back to the grand house with the deep carpet and the heavy furniture and the gold ceiling.
Marse Little said, “I hear you raised a cotton crop on that swampland I sold you.”
“A few bales, Marse Little,” Truehart said politely.
“A bale and a half an acre, I heard.”
“Just a few acres, Marse Little.”
Marse Little glared at him. He said, “I thought you were going to raise corn and hogs on that place.”
“Plant a corn crop next year, Marse Little. Along with the kitchen garden.”
“You ain’t thinking of quitting my place!”
“Wouldn’t break any agreement, Marse Little. But if I didn’t sign for next year, someone else would be glad to rent from you.”
“Swampland,” Marse Little said slowly. “I sold you swampland.”