THE HARLIE ARRIVED HOME THAT MORNING and found his wife at the washboard. She looked weary and drawn, having been up all night worrying, just as she had been every night since Elmo went away.
Nadine Cotton had nothing to say to her husband, who looked both tired and confused, so she turned, shook her head and tried to smile. She then walked over and kissed Elmo on his cheek. It was more than he expected, and far more than he deserved. Although he could've used some much-needed rest by then, the Harlie thought it would be best to get right back to work. There were still twenty acres to plough before winter set in; and besides, he thought it might take his mind off what'd happened in the mountain, and off Red-Beard.
One by one the folks of Harley came out of their shacks to greet the new day. Lil' Ralph was playing in the yard. Elmo went to the barn to fetch his plough as Sherman Dixon drove by in his yellow wagon. He waved. Elmo nodded back before quickly disappearing into the barn. Sherman shook his big brown head and smiled.
"That Mister Cotton sure is actin' mighty peculiar ever since he come back down from that ol' mountain. Ain't that right, Abraham?" he questioned the animal pulling his wagon.
The poor pony was either too dumb or too weary to answer.
After milking the cow and feeding the chickens and pigs, Nadine Cotton ran back inside the house as another man approached the farm from the north. He was a tall man, wearing a crackling new pair of denim trousers, a wide brim hat that covered most his balding head, and a pair of patent leather shoes. He was also sporting a long, thin, and very pointed beard, many of the whiskers having long since turned to grey, which made him look like an aging black billy goat. He just happened to be the Harlie's landlord. His name was Isaiah Armstrong, but most folks just called him 'Ike'. He owned half the land in Harley but acted as though he owned it all. Elmo was still hitching the plough to his farm animal as the landlord approached.
"Where them Greens at?" Questioned the billy-goat from under a tall straw hat that was slightly frayed around the edges. "Folks commencin' to talk, you know. Say somethin' about you takin' to the hills with ol' man Skinner and some of them Creek mens. Be careful, boy! Don't be messin' with them ol' white boys, now. You hear?" He then spat on the ground and scratched himself below the waist in a most distasteful manner.
It was something Ike was in the habit of doing whenever he was irritated, fixing to argue with someone, flummoxed, or just to be spiteful. Naturally, most folks found it offensive, especially the good and decent women of Harley who considered it not only rude and un-manly but quite disrespectful. Others found it downright disgusting, and said so. But then again, modesty was never one of Mister Armstrong's strong points. Ike was a man of too much vice and not enough virtue.
Elmo pretended not to hear his landlord as he went about preparing himself and his mule for another day of work on the farm; but he knew Ike wasn't finished and was going to keep talking anyway. He always did, of course, which was always irritating.
"Say, just what you doin' in them ol' hills anyway, Mister Cotton? Ain't nothin' up there for us Harlies, 'ceptin' trouble. Mountains is for white folks, Greens. That's right! You belongs down here, on the farm, with yo' own kind. Speakin' of which... and that's just another thing," said the landlord, changing the subject in mid-sentence and scratching his pants in the prescribed manner which, he often did when he became agitated, confused, or simply didn't know what else to do at the moment. "How comes you up and leaves yo' wife and chil' here all alone on the farm, anyway, when you knows there's woik to be done?" He drawled. "Now that ain't right. Man's got 'sponsibilities, you know. Beans ain't gonna pick they'selves. No, sir! And you should know better. But what I really wants to know, Mister Cotton…" said the landlord to further humiliate the sharecropper that day, which was his intention all along, "is just what kind'a man is you anyway? You ain't goin' Green on me now. Is you?"
The term 'Goin' Green' was an expression, and not a very flattering one, often employed Harlies to describe someone (usually another Harlie) who might be, for reasons that were usually but not always quite so obvious, acting or speaking in such a manner as to appear as if they were actually a resident of Creekwood Green; the neighbouring town of predominantly Caucasian extrapolation located on the west side of the Iron Gate, rather than a true Harlie: The differences, of course, being clearly defined not only along cultural and economic lines, but ones that were linguistically and racially divided as well, and quite noticeably at that.
Depending on ones point of view, I suppose, and which side of the Iron Gates of Harley one happened to be born on, the expression 'Goin' Green' could, in some cases, be taken just as gratuitously for a compliment as it could an insult; although it was usually latter that prevailed. But on that particular morning, Elmo took it for neither. He was in no mood for semantics, or Ike's cruel and incendiary remarks. Besides, he'd heard them all before. It wasn't the first time his ancestral ties were brought into question, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. He wouldn't have minded so much if the many suspicions concerning his genealogy could be substantiated with cold hard facts; they could not. And he just couldn't see how it was anyone's business but his own anyway, especially when he himself didn't exactly know what they were
He was once even accused of being a bastard, a 'War Child', the product of an immoral and, therefore, illegal relationship between a white Yankee captain and a Negro slave girl. They say it happened during the war, which was actually a common occurrence; but that still didn't make it right, and it certainly didn't it made it true. And to exacerbate the controversial issue, it was further insinuated, again without any collaborating evidence, that a rape was involved, which, of course, would've made it a capital offence, at least from a military point of view, deserving not only a court martial and military tribunal on part of the offending soldier, but one that would most likely end with a firing squad; the punishment typically reserved for non-cowardly offences during a time of war; the cowardly kind, of course, such as treason, being executed by simple hanging.
There were other rumours concerning the Harlie's origins that even more disturbing and equally distasteful, but they are not worth mentioning; most lies never are. Elmo didn't necessarily agree with any of these false accusations; nor did he disagree. He simply decided long ago to ignore such innuendo, reckoning that any apologies he made in his own defence, however eloquently stated or passionately argued, would merely heighten the suspicions and, perhaps, raise even more doubts about his personal and private past. It is the just the way Harlies are, I suppose, which is really no different than anyone else.
What Elmo didn't appreciate, however, was anyone talking about his family, especially about his wife whom was more often that not the target of the landlord's lewd and lascivious observations. And suddenly Elmo wanted to tell him so; he just didn't know how to do it. He couldn't say it to Ike's face, not for seven more years anyway, until he was no longer obliging to the outspoken landlord. He was just a sharecropper, and a poor one at that, too poor to be telling Ike Armstrong anything like that. So, he simply pretended not to hear, or care. 'Being 'ig'nant' was what some folks called it. It was not a difficult thing to do in Harley; and sometimes, it actually worked.
Feeling that he was somehow owed an explanation, as landlords always do, I suppose, Mister Armstrong lived up to his unpleasant reputation by warning the Harlie: "Now don't you be goin' ig'nant on me, boy!" What Ike really meant to say was 'ignorant'; but Elmo knew exactly what he meant, and so did the landlord. It was just a manner of speaking, of course.
"I don't know what you're talkin' about, Ike," Elmo causally replied in a friendly but bewildering tone.
"You knows what I'm talkin' 'bout... Yeah! That's what I'm t-talkin' 'bout. Humph!" Ike stammered, repeating himself the way women sometimes do when they become verbally frustrated and can't seem to find the right words to express their hysterical but sometimes well-founded opinions. "What you gots in mind anyway? Best minds yo' beans, boy! And minds yo' business, too."
As he finished hitching up the mule, Elmo simply shrugged and smiled. "You mean just like you?" He noted with a discernable amount of sarcasm.
The landlord couldn't smile back because he knew the Harlie was right and was only trying to rile him a little. So he just stood there scratching himself below the waist like he suddenly wanted to pee, and looking in the general direction of Elmo's farm house.
The Harlie knew what was on the landlord's mind, and it wasn't peeing.
Most of the farmers of Harley were sharecroppers, just like Elmo Cotton, and equally poor. The only exceptions were a handful of the middle-aged coloured farmers who had eventually earned their own small piece of real estate after fulfilling their ten-year contractual obligation to Mister Isaiah Armstrong. The land they had acquired was usually of very poor quality where most of the money crops, like cotton and tobacco, had a difficult time growing. But for whatever reason, the Harley beans, not unlike the generous and reliable rice crop that also seemed to thrive in the muddy fields of Harley, did exceedingly well. In fact, the bean stalks would sometimes reach a height of six feet or more and, in a good year, bring in two or three crops, which not only helped sustain the subsistent farmers of the region with enough food to hold them over the winter, but also provide a little extra income to buy much needed seed and hay; or maybe even a new pair of overalls, or shoes!
Other crops of the region included corn, greens, cabbage and carrots and, of course, cotton, the cash crop of the South, which, along with tobacco, grew abundantly in the rich and fertile soils making up the larger plantations of Creekwood County to the south and west of Harley. Profits made on the Harley beans were generally small, depending on supply and demand and other ancillary factors determining the current market value. And whatever little money the poor and pitiful crop did produce went, in one way or another, to the landlords, just like everything else in Harley.
The Harlies themselves owned very little, and bought whatever supplies they needed, which was actually very little and never enough for personal or professional use, from one general store set up in the middle of town for the sake of convenience -- the landlords' convenience, that is. The store, which was actually an old dilapidated barn with a few dry good and hardware supplies thrown about some empty stalls, was owned and operated by a few of the landlords, Ike Armstrong being the principal partner in the questionable enterprise. They charged exorbitant prices for their sub-standard products that were financed out at extremely high rates designed to keep the sharecroppers forever in their debt and, as Ike would often say with a twisted and evil grin, 'woikin' da fields'.
For the most part, the sharecroppers of Harley worked solely for their freedom, if and when they could afford it, a roof over their heads, if they were lucky enough to have one and, perhaps, a bowl of beans at the end of each dreary day. And for that, at least, they were grateful. Not so much to the landlords, whom they knew were really no better, or different, than their former slave-masters, but to God Himself, the Father of all farmer, great and small, who'd ploughed and planted the earth five thousand years ago, sowing his seed on every continent along the way, which even now He nourishes with the blood of saints and the sun of Salvation, to be harvested one day and stored in the holy silos and voluminous vaults of Heaven, until such a time when, on that great and terrible day, all will be judged accordingly, especially the landlords, and be seated at the cornu-copious table of the Lord, or consumed by the bonfires of hell.
Sharecropping was not the easiest easy way to make a living, but it was sometimes the only way. And despite the ultimate reward it promised, that of actually owning a small piece of land to call their own, sharecropping was often avoided for a number of other reasons, not least of which was the simple fact that many of those who entered into that unique and legal form of slavery were known to have died long before they were able to reap any of the benefits thereof. And no wonder, sharecropping was hard work, and not known to promote the longevity of those who pursued it. It provided the farmers with just barley enough to live on; and, in times of drought or just bad luck, they received even less.
According to the terms of the typical agreement of the time, the sharecroppers, were supplied with a roof over their heads, a plough, a few scrawny farm animals and, if they were fortunate enough, a horse or a cow. As previously mentioned, there was also the promise of a small piece of land, if and when they fulfilled the obligations of their contracts, which typically took about ten years to accomplish. It was something the landlords dangled before the poor farmers, day and night, like a carrot on a stick, and not a very appetizing one at that. Many considered it blackmail, extortion, a bad deal, or worse. But for most Harlies, especially after the War, sharecropping was the only deal to be found, anywhere.
And nobody knew that better than Isaiah Armstrong, the richest landlord in all of Harley, and perhaps the ugliest. Many wondered if they weren't in fact better off woikin' those same fields before the Great Emancipation as mere slaves. At least then, it could be argued, they had enough to feed their own families. And indeed, many had raised large and healthy ones, at that, under the generous auspices and of their former task-masters who were, in some instances, known to treat their human chattel quite well, and even quite affectionately in some rare cases. It was no wonder that some of the older folks of Harley still sang of the 'good ol' days' before the war, before the landlords, and before the likes of Ike Armstrong.