THE HARBOR WAS UNUSUALLY busy for Mister Sherman Dixon. He drove his wagon along the shell rock roads of Old Port Fierce. Sherman looked for the man with a tall black hat and a short gray beard whom he was supposed to meet that day to close the deal. Elmo rode the buckboard alongside his good friend and neighbour by then, taking sights and sounds he’d never experienced before. He was looking for another man – the one they called the Miracle-Maker
Being the oldest and largest city in that part of the world, the cobblestone streets of Old Port Fierce were narrow and well traveled. It had ever-increasing traffic and diminishing right-of-ways. The houses were tall, separated by narrow alleys, with high pitched roofs and made chiefly out of tile and tin. They appeared like so many chimney-stemmed pipes on a rack squeezed so tightly together.
Above the many storefronts lining the boulevard, which appeared to form the first floors of these multi-purpose structures were the homes of those that lived and worked there. By accident or design, the storekeepers were conveniently never more than a staircase away from either bed or business. These streets were handmade during hard times. They had outlived not only the masons and carpenters who made them but all who would touch them. Like the wood of an old and petrified tree trunk, they only seemed to grow harder with each passing year.
Most of the older establishments in Old Port Fierce were made of wood with stone block construction being reserved for public buildings. The homes were also built that way to those who could afford such a security. The port could be a dangerous place at times, especially at night. But day or night, there was always something for sale.
There were a variety of street vendors and panhandlers that occupied the downtown area. This added to the colour and commerce of the city, as well as its questionable reputation. They were small, transient enterprises offering no real challenge to the more profitable local establishments. At least whenever they knew they were being watched by the local police. In Old Port Fierce were a number of businesses that catered exclusively to a certain clientele, which will be spoken of at length later on. For the present time, there were enough sites to see in the city by the bay. Elmo wanted to see them all.
“I ain’t ever seen anythin’ like this in Harley!” The turtle-necked driver said while amphibiously rotating his head in each and every direction.
“Ain’t never seen anythin’ like this nowhere,” agreed Elmo, eager with anticipation and feeling somewhat exhilarated by his new surroundings. In spite the fact that he hadn’t a decent night’s sleep in quite some time.
“Is this what Shadytown looks like?”
“No,” said the turtle, Shadytown is where the coloured folks mostly live. Folks like us. We’s goin’ there later on.” said the farmer, having resolved their earlier debate concerning accommodations for that night.
“That’s where Alma Johnson lives, tho’, like I said before, she doesn’t like folks to know it.”
As it were, both travellers had already decided to stay at Mrs. Johnson’s house after all. It was just off Avenue 'D' and right in the center of the place called Shadytown, their final destination.
“Is it far?” Elmo asked. “No, but it take a while to get there,” said Sherman.
“Abraham, he’s kind’a slow, you know.”
Shadytown, as it was unofficially called, was just northeast of Old Port Fierce. It was about five miles into a small part of the city generally reserved for collared folks. This part of Old Port Fierce began with a handful ‘collared’ families that settled their shortly after the war. It had since grown to a sizable city of its own, which accounts for about one fifth of the city’s entire population.
“How soon we get there?” Elmo asked.
“Some time tonight, I reckon. You and I have to go to where the big boats come in first, down by the water, you now.” The farmer said as he looked out towards the sea looking for the tall masts to appear at any moment.
“But say, Mister Cotton, you have already been here once before, like you say, then how come then you be axin’ me so many questions?”
The raccoon smiled because he knew more about Shadytown than he cared to admit. He appeared a little anxious to get there, perhaps a little more than he should have been. He just didn’t want Sherman to know that.
“That was a long time ago, Sherman, and besides, I was just a little boy at the time.”
“You sure is mighty peculiar, Mister Cotton. But you’ve always been like that, I ‘spose. Now let me ask you a question,” the farmer said with his thick heavy head turning slowly around, indeed like that of a fat brown turtle.
“Where are you goin’ after that?”
“I don't know. But I ain't goin’ back to Harley. That’s for sure. Uh-huh! Not me.” Elmo said shaking his head quite frankly.
He still hadn’t told his friend and neighbour what the secret was. It’s because there really was no secret, other than his most recent desire to put out to sea. First he would have to find him; the one Uncle Joe called the ‘Miracle Maker’.
“Leastways, not any time soon.” He said.
This was not to worry his neighbour unnecessarily, or his wife for that matter. Elmo knew they would certainly find out sooner or later that the two of them had indeed crossed paths. There are some secrets that are just impossible to keep.
Somehow, the fat brown turtle could tell something was going on. He didn’t know exactly what, but thought it might have something to do with Regina. It showed in Elmo’s eyes, just as he saw it when they were both little boys growing up in Harley together.
There was a look that Harlie had never quite outgrown. It had guilt scribbled all over his face (even when he wasn’t guilty of anything in particular and had nothing to be ashamed of). It was just like them ol’ horns his uncle was so quick to observe sprouting from the top of his head. There was the look that he had on his face while putting his hand down the back of Regina Johnson’s dress. It was the same look his wife would occasionally tell him to,
“Wipe off yo’ face…! Before, I wipe it off for you.” The one she had grown accustomed to over the years. It was easy to see that the Harlie’s plans and ambitions went further than Old Port Fierce. He would need more than a wagon to get there. Sherman knew that by now, Elmo needed a boat, and a big one. Considering the fact that the largest boat he had ever set foot on was only a raft. The prospects of going to sea seemed more unlikely than ever. This was something he would have to work out once he’d taken care of the business that he came here for. Nothing would stop him from that, not even Regina Johnson. Nothing would stop the turtle from ‘axin’ more questions.
“If you don’t minds me sayin’ so, Mister Cotton,” the turtle said as they rolled along past some old warehouses that looked somewhat deserted
“This is all mighty peculiar to me. Just what be goin’ on with you anyway? You never use to be like this... all secret-like, talkin’ ‘bout some Miracle-Man you’s ‘spose to find. Sumpin’ wrong with you, Elmo?” Sherman would only address his life-long friend and neighbour by his first name when something was bothering him. Elmo knew this, of course, and picked up on it right away. After mulling it over in his mind for a moment or two, the Harlie thought it might be time to spill a few beans.
“Someone's been following me, Sherman,” He said with no immediate concern, “…ever since I left Harley.”
The turtle looked not a little surprised. “Who dat?” he asked.
“Oh, I don't know, maybe someone who knows me... It ain’t no lawman, Sherman, and it sho’ ain’t Nadine. He looked more like an animal with long dark hair – and a beard! Saw him three times already. Twice back in Harley. Once down by the river when I was...”
“When you was what?” The turtle eagerly asked.
Elmo shook his head.
“You wouldn’t understand, Sherman.”
How could anyone as innocent and naïve as Sherman Dixon ever comprehend all he’d been through? There was so much Elmo didn’t understand about him, especially the part about becoming a demi-god. He still had trouble dealing with it from time to time. The Motherstone or whatever it was he’d kept in his pocket for over a year that would come alive almost at will. It would be even more complicated, and just as impossible to explain.
“It’s just that sometimes… well, sometimes, I feels like someone wants me dead. Don’t know who, might not even be a person, Sherman.”
Elmo could find no words to express what was troubling him at the time. Anticipating the worst, which was another habit of the turtle Elmo sometimes found irritating. Sherman finished his neighbour’s thoughts for him.
“A Hellhound,” He said out loud, recalling just then the words he’d heard earlier being sung from the back of his wagon. It was actually more of a question than it was a comment, and one that begged for an answer.
The raccoon didn’t comprehend the turtle’s response at first. Not yet feeling quite that desperate. He thought that he knew what his neighbour was talking about. Elmo could tell the difference between a Hellhound and a man, even from a good distance. For one thing, Hellhounds don’t go walking on two legs, and can’t swim either, not as far as the Harlie knew anyway. They certainly don’t wear eyeglasses, or ‘spectables as the Harlie referred to them. Homer wore them himself. Just then, the ‘Great Raccoon’ remembered. This wasn’t a man at all. It was a demi-god, not unlike him, which made a big difference. Demi-gods, as you may well know, could look like anything or anybody – even a Harlie! Besides, if it really were a Hellhound, as Sherman so keenly had erroneously suggested, it surely would’ve caught him by now.
“Ain’t any Hellhound, Sherman,” he said, condescendingly. “Could be something worse tho’...”
Try as he may, the bean farmer with the turtle-head couldn’t think of anything worse than a Hellhound. Who could?
The Hellhound, as alluded to above, was a legendary animal, more fiction than fact. It was said that they possess supernatural powers. Most Harlies had learned about this mythical beast before they could actually pronounce the word. Born and bred in the fiery furnaces of the earth and heeled in that satanic kennel. The Hellhound struck fear into every Harley heart, big and small, young and old, and especially those already inclined to superstitious belief, like most women and children of that time.