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THE HARLIE

by J. F. Prussing

A Raccoon on the Run

(a novel)

Book Three of ‘The Harlie’ Series


A RACCOON ON THE RUN

(a novel)

Book Three of ‘The Harlie’ Series

by J. F. Prussing


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1 - The Sharecropper
Chapter 2 - The Fly-Catcher
Chapter 3 - The Raccoon and the Sheriff
Chapter 4 - The Drum
Chapter 5 - The Mule, the Moon, and the Redstone Tree
Chapter 6 - The One That Got Away
Chapter 7 - Sailin’ Shoes and a Suitcase
Chapter 8 - The Dark Massiah
Chapter 9 - The Demi-god
Chapter 10 - The Turtle and the Raccoon...
       ... (Just a trick of the light)


Chapter One

The Sharecropper

THE HARLIE ARRIVED HOME LATE THAT MORNING, finding his wife at the washboard. She looked weary and drawn. She had been up all night worrying, it seemed, 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 have used some much-needed rest by then, the Harlie thought it would be best to get right back to work. There was still twenty acres to plow before winter set in; and besides, he thought it might take his mind off all that had happened to him in the mountain.

One by one, the folks of Harley came out of their shacks to greet the new day. Lil’ Ralph was in the yard, playing with a red-tailed rooster. Elmo went to the barn to fetch his plow as Sherman Dixon drove by in his yellow wagon. They waved. Elmo nodded before quickly disappearing into the barn. Sherman shook his big brown head and smiled. “That Mister Cotton sure am mighty peculiar. ‘S’been actin’ that way ever since he come back down from them ol’ hills. Ain’t that right, Abraham?” he questioned the tired looking pony pulling his little wagon that day.

The poor animal was either too dumb, or too weary, to answer the farmer that day. Probably just a little of both, Sherman reckoned.

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 large gray hat that was frayed along the edges, a crackling new pair of denim trousers, and a pair of patent leather shoes with brown laces. He was also sporting a double-pointed beard, what some still might call a ‘goatee’. The whiskers were long, thin and gray, which gave him the appearance of an old black billy-goat, in trousers. His name was Isaiah Armstrong, but most folks just called him ‘Ike’. He was the Harlie’s landlord, and also happened to be the richest man in Harley; at least, that what he liked to say. Ike actually owned half the land in Harley but acted as though he owned it all. Elmo Cotton was still hitching the plow to his farm animal as the greedy landlord warily approached.

“Where them Greens at, boy?” questioned the billy-goat from under a confederate gray slouch hat he’d picked off a dead soldier he found lying in the fields one morning, along with the officer’s military sword, spencer-burnside carbine, and a half-smoked cigar that was still, believe it or not, clenched in the dead man’s teeth at the time of the desecration. He was actually a Brigadier General, a fact Ike was clearly ignorant of at the time (not that it would’ve made any difference, of course) despite the three star insignia and black feathered plume pinned to the side of the hat signifying his superior rank. “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, flummoxed, fixing to argue with someone, or just to be spiteful. Naturally, most folks found the gesture offensive, especially the good and decent women of Harley who considered it not only rude and un-manly but most disrespectful, especially when he did it in front of the children. Others found it downright disgusting, and told him so. But then again, modesty was never one of Mister Armstrong’s strong points. Ike was a man with too much vice and not enough virtue. And it showed. He was, as Joe Cotton once pointed out to his young impressionable nephew one day: “‘a character… with no character.”

Elmo pretended not to hear Ike as he secured the harness around the mule and attached it to the terraplane, hoping he would just go away. He didn’t, of course; he never did. He went right on talking, which the Harlie found most annoying.

“Say now, Mister Cotton,” he continued, “just what you doin’ in the hills anyway? Ain’t no good come out of them ol’ hills. Everyone know that. Nothin’ up there for no Harlies… ‘ceptin’ trouble. Mountains is fo’ Creek folks, white mens – Greens! That’s right. Uh-huh. You belongs down here, on the farm, with yo’ own kind. Speakin’ of which... and that’s just another thing, Mister Cotton,” said the landlord, changing the subject in mid-sentence and scratching himself in the usual disgusting manner, as he was want to do whenever he became agitated, confused, or simply didn’t know what else to do with his hands at any particular moment. “How comes you up and leaves yo’ wife and chil’ all alones on the farm when you knows there’s woik to be done? Now that ain’t right, Mister Cotton. And you knows better than that. Man’s got ‘sponsibilities, you know.” What the inquisitive billy-goat really meant was responsibilities; but between his thick Sothern drawl and apparent lack of education (which was the only thing he actually had in common with the sharecroppers under his auspices) his words were often mispronounced as well as misconstrued. “Them ol’ beans ain’t a’gonna pick they’selves. No, sir! And that’s a fact. But what I really wants to know, Mister Cotton… Mister Elmo Cotton,” he reiterated just to further humiliate the sharecropper that day, which, of course, 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, not a very flattering one, often employed by 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 suggest that they weren’t Harlie at all, and should be embarrassed, if not downright insulted, if anyone had thought they actually were; from Harley, that is. In many cases, the duplicitous individual would usually accomplish this by simply taking on the tone, or vernacular, often associated with the residents of Creekwood Green, a predominantly Caucasians town located on the west side of the Iron Gates; as opposed to the Harlies themselves who, as we all know by now, occupied the swampy lowlands to the east; 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.

“Don’t be goin’ green on me now,” admonished the billy-goat, eying Elmo with more suspicion than ever. “S’been talk ‘bout you goin’ over to old man Skinner’s place. “What’s you want with that crazy ol’ man anyway? They say he done lost his mind. Sumpin’ ‘bout all that gold he keep talkin’ about – Ain’t it? Stay away from them Greens, boy. Ain’t no good on the other side of them ol’ gates.”

Depending on one’s point of view, or perhaps which side of the Iron Gates of Harley one happened to be born on, the expression ‘Goin’ Green’ could, in some cases, be taken as a compliment as well as an insult, and just as gratuitously; although it was usually the latter that prevailed. But on that particular morning, Elmo took it for neither. He was in no mood for such talk; and besides, he’d heard it all before. He knew very well what his nosey landlord was getting at. It was something Elmo had heard all his life, it seemed; and it had nothing to do with bean farming. Ike just wanted to know, like so many others who were not so bold to come right out and ask, if Elmo Cotton was really a Harlie at all; chiefly, one could only imagine, on account of his non-Harlie appearance. It wasn’t the first time Elmo’s ancestral ties were brought into question, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. He wouldn’t have minded so much if the suspicions concerning his past were justified, or could be substantiated with cold, hard facts. They could not, of course; but that didn’t seem to matter. The speculation never stopped; nor did the long glances and whispering words that haunted him even until this day. He just couldn’t see how it was anyone’s business but his own, even if it was true. And so what if he had light skin and blue eyes? Other Harlies had light skin and… well, at least they had light skin; and their eyes were not so dark. And who cares if his hair was not as nappy as perhaps it should’ve been. Was that his fault? Was it a crime? It just didn’t matter; not to Elmo, anyway. But it did to others. And somehow, that’s what really mattered.

“Don’t do it, boy….” regurgitated the billy-goat. “Harlies and Greens don’t mix. Peoples in Harley do lots of talkin’, Mister Cotton. Some folks say you ain't Harlie. Say you is really Green. Now I’s don’t say that… but some folks do.”

He was once accused of being illegitimate, a bastard, and a ‘war child’: the product of an immoral and, therefore, illegal relationship between a white Union soldier and a Negro slave girl. They say it happened during the war, which was not an unlikely occurrence at the time; and there were even a few names brought up from time to time; Elmo Cotton was just one of them. It didn’t make it right; and it certainly didn’t it make it true. And to make matters worse, and add fat to the fire so-to-speak, it was further insinuated, again without any collaborating evidence, that a rape was involved, a young woman from Harley, which was also not uncommon at that time. They say she was engaged to one of the Harley boys, Erasmus’ eldest son, perhaps, Ezekiel; and that the man who done it was an officer, if not a gentleman. If true, it was a capital offense, at least from a military standpoint, as well as a moral outrage, demanding a full investigation as well as court martial. It never went to trail, however; which, if convicted, would have not only ended the soldier’s career, but his life as well with an anonymous bullet through his lustful and adulterous heart. It was the typical punishment for non-cowardly offenses committed during time of war; the more cowardly variety, such as treason and desertion, being executed by a simple hanging. It was a far more humiliating experience, reserved for horse thieves and murderers, unfit for any self-respecting soldier.

There were other rumors concerning the Harlie’s origins that were even more disturbing and equally distasteful; but they are not worth mentioning, as 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 defense, however eloquently stated or passionately argued, would merely create more doubt and raise even more suspicions regarding his personal and private life when, in fact, there was really nothing, as far as Elmo knew, to be doubtful or suspicious about. It is the just the way Harlies are, he reckoned; which is really no different than anyone else, I reckon.

Ike continued: “Don’t bother me none what other folk says and do. I’s just mindin’ my own business. Won’t never see me goin’ Green. Gots me ‘nough to lookin’ after all these Harlies. No sir! I don’t goes messin’ ‘round Creekwood. Stay right ‘chere in Harley. Keeps an eye on thangs. That’s what us ol’ roosters is fo’… keeps an eye on thangs,” winked the billy-goat from under his stolen slouch hat. “’Specially with all these here hens peckin’ ‘round. Someone gots to keep an eye on them hens when they husbands is out lookin’ fo’ gold. Never know when that ol’ fox come around. Gots us some mighty fine hens peckin’ ‘round here, Mister Cotton. Mighty fine hens. Just like Miss Nadine….”

Talking about himself was one thing; talking about his family was another, and something he certainly didn’t appreciate it; especially when it concerned his wife who was more often than not the target of the ol’ rooster’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 legally obliging to the landlord’s outspoken. He was still a sharecropper, and not a very good one at that, and still too poor to be telling Ike Armstrong anything like that. So, he simply pretended not to hear, or care.

“Now hows I gonnna take care of all these hens and keeps an eye on all these thangs ifin’ all the mens goes takin’ to the hills with some Greens? Now hows I gonna ‘complish all that, Mister Cotton?” What Ike was really worried about, of course, was not so much taking care of all those ‘thangs’, which he never did anyway, but rather the money it would cost him if and when the bean crop proved to be as poor as it was expected to be that year, especially with not enough sharecroppers around, not to mention the lack of rain they’ve been having lately.

Feeling that he was somehow owed an explanation (as landlords always do, whether they actually deserve one or not) and not receiving one, Mister Armstrong lived up to his unsavory reputation by warning the Harlie: “Now don’t you be goin’ ig’nant on me, boy!” What Ike really meant to say was ‘ignorant’. It was just a manner of speaking, of course; but Elmo knew what was really on the ol’ rooster’s mind, and so did his landlord.

“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 and stuttered, repeating himself the way women sometimes do when they become hysterical or just verbally frustrated and can’t seem to find the right words to express themselves. “Best minds yo’ business, boy! And minds yo’ beans.”

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 ol’ rooster couldn’t crow 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 farmhouse.

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 colored farmers who had eventually earned their own piece of real estate after fulfilling their ten-year contractual obligation to Mister Isaiah Armstrong. The land they hoped one day to call their own was usually of very poor quality, despite the fact that is was still considered bottom-land which, under normal circumstances commanded a high premium. The bottom-land in Harley was different, however, having long since been depleted of all those natural elements, chiefly through over cultivation and poor farming practices such as slash and burn, associated with the rich soils of the fruited plain. 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 of Harley were known to 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 a 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, squash, cabbage, carrots corn 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. But in Harley, it was the bean that reigned supreme – the Harlie bean, of course! What else? It became an integral part of the little town’s economy, upon which all their efforts were concentrated and so many lives depended on. Naturally, the profits generated by the indigenous bean crop came with volume and was generally influenced by the climate, as well as supply and demand which is perhaps the most determining factor in establishing the true market value of any produce. However, most of the profit generally wound up in the pockets and purses of a handful of greedy landlords, just like everything else in Harley, which was comprised chiefly of Ike Armstrong and a few other ‘old roosters’ who, although maybe not as mean and ugly as Mister Armstrong, were just as greedy and equally reproachable.

The Harlies themselves owned very little, and bought whatever supplies they needed, which was never enough for personal or professional use, from Ike’s general store, which was set up right in the middle of town for the landlord’s own convenience, or so it seemed. The store, which was actually an old dilapidated barn held together with chicken wire and nails sold mostly dry good and hardware, with a few can goods lying around and some dead animal hanging from the ceiling with flies constantly buzzing around. There was very little in the ways of clothing (Harlies in generally made their own) and the little bit that was there was old, dirty and smelly; not at all like the clean, crisp shits and trousers Ike liked to strut around in, especially when he was out looking after the hens. The store was actually 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 the landlords, and a small piece of land they would one day get to call their own, along the roof over their heads, if they were lucky enough to have one, and a bowl of beans at the end of each dreary day; so long as they met their quota, that is. And for that, at least, they were grateful; not so much to the landlords, whom in many ways were really no different than their former slave-masters, but to God Himself, the Father of all farmers, great and small; the God of the wind, rain and fire; the God of earth, and all things above and below the soil; the Almighty hand that plowed and planted the earth five thousand years ago, sowing His seed on every continent, which even now He nourishes with the blood of saints and martyrs, to be harvested at the appointed time and stored in the silos and voluminous vaults of Heaven, until such a time when, on that great and terrible day of Judgment, we either feast at the table of the Lord or are consumed in the bonfires of hell. And don’t be too surprised if, on that great and terrible day, you happen to find yourself sitting at the banquet table alongside a Harlie sharecropper or two, looking around and wondering where in hell all those self-righteous hypocrites are, the ones that spoke the loudest and were so sure of where they’d be at that very moment? Don’t bother. They’re right where they are supposed to be. And so are you.

Sharecropping was not the easiest way to make a living; but for many, it was the only way, especially in Harley. Despite the ultimate reward it promised, that of owning small parcel of real estate the colored farmers could actually call their own, sharecropping was avoided for a number of reasons, not least of which was the simple fact that many of those who entered into the old agrarian institution were known to have died long before they were able to reap any of the rewards and benefits thereof. And no wonder! Sharecropping was hard work, not known to promote the longevity of those who participated in it. It provided the farmers with just barely enough to stay alive; and, in times of drought or just bad luck, they received even less than that.

According to the terms of the typical agreement of the day, they, the sharecroppers, were supplied with a roof over their heads, a plow, a few scrawny farm animals and, if they were lucky enough, a horse or a cow. It was little wonder that the best livestock usually came at a price, set by the landlords, of course; but one that could be paid for in a number of ways that were often questionable and sometimes demoralizing Such things as blackmail and bribery were not below the landlord’s ethical standard, if they had any at all, and were often employed as a means of coercion, especially when everything else seemed to fail. And they usually worked.

As previously mentioned, there was also the promise of a small piece of land, if and when the sharecroppers fulfilled the legal 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 Amadeus 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 themselves, their families, and then some. And indeed, many had raised large and healthy families at the time, usually under the generous auspices and of their former taskmasters who were, in some instances, known to treat their human chattel quite well; affectionately, in some rare cases, with the same care and consideration afforded the age old institution from Genesis to Revelation. It was no small 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.

Historically speaking, the large tracts of land Mister Armstrong claimed title over were actually granted to him by a corrupt governor some years ago, shortly after the war when he was still a relatively young man. Blackmail was involved, naturally; although the facts surrounding the real estate transaction were dubious at best and scandalous at worst, which pretty much summed up the magistrate’s entire administration at the time. After that, Ike never worked another day in his worthless and lecherous life. He didn’t have to. And since then, the only thing he was good at was ‘keepin’ an eye on thangs… lookin’ after the hens’, and generally minding everyone’s business, but his own; and in that, of course, the ol’ rooster excelled.

Mister Armstrong may’ve been an ugly man and a thief by any charitable standard, as well as a horny old rooster and weasel-eyed billy-goat, but he certainly was not a stupid. He had what some folks called ‘horse-sense’ and could be a fairly shrewd businessman, especially when that business had anything to do with his beans – Harley beans, that is. He had no wife to speak of (not that they would ever admit it) which many suggested was the real cause of his belligerent behavior, and the root of his other personal problems as well, which involved not only his many disgusting habits but his misogynistic treatment of women in general. He lived in a fairly modest home along with several young women he conveniently called his ‘sistas’ whom he treated more like wives, but only in the conjugal sense, and often against their will. He was once accused of being a polygamist, in the Mormon tradition of Joseph Smith; a fact he would never freely admit, and one that might actually have landed in jail; the practice of keeping more than one wife being not only illegal at the time but fool-hearty and downright dangerous as well, at least as far as the women of Harley were concerned. Ike had heard stories of the old patriarchs of the Bible, and how they would take hundreds of wives (a notion that would have most men running for the door, as well as their lives) as though one wasn’t enough, not to mention a harem or two of fine concubines, young nubiles, which he took great interest and pleasure in, along with a certain amount of comfort; but not enough to actually marry any one of them or father their children, which, by the way, may have suggested that the ol’ rooster, no matter how much he cocked and crowed and strutted about like King Solomon in all his glory and with all his alien mistresses, was actually quite impotent and, sexually speaking, simply did not ‘measure up’ as a few of the more promiscuous women of Harley would come to agree in their own graphic vernacular; although not one of them would ever say exactly how they came to such a diminutive conclusion. If true, however, it may be the one thing Ike Armstrong had in common with Elmo’s mule – sterility! Along with being ugly and just plain ornery, of course. Not that anyone ever believed they were actually his real sisters, or wives, of course – especially those old enough to have known Isaiah’s biological mother and father; they simply went along with it, well, because to do otherwise would’ve been, in the wary words of the ol’ cock himself: ‘Ig’nant.’

“Now don’t be goin’ ig’nant on me , boy,” he warned Elmo for the second time that day; which Elmo was used to by now, but something he still found offensive, insulting, and downright... well, downright ig’nant.

Isaiah Armstrong was an only and lonely child when his parents mysteriously died, both on the same day, as a matter of fact, and buried in unmarked graves. Some say that Mrs. Armstrong actually tried to poison her lecherous husband one night after catching him in the arms of a local prostitute, and was forced to swallow the fatal concoction herself when, with the help of the harlot, Mister Armstrong administered the lethal dose upon discovering what she was really up to. She died, of course, but not before planting an ice-pick six inches into her husband’s skull as he embraced his whore in bed for one last time. Apparently, the poison took a little longer to work than anyone, including Mrs. Armstrong, expected; just long enough for her to stagger back into kitchen, grab a butcher knife off the table, run back into the bedroom where the Babylon sister was attempting to remove the ice pick from the dead man’s brain, stab her several times in the belly, and die. Needless to say, the ice pick was never removed; but the knife apparently was, as evidenced by the castrated man lying right next to it when little Ike Armstrong slowly opened the bedroom door the following morning and became an orphan. He was never the same since.

Ike was then brought up by an evil but very beautiful aunt, which may, or may not, explain his misogynistic attitude towards women in general, and why he was always on the prowl for another one, as well as his sistas. It soon became clear, to anyone with half a brain at least, that a ‘sista’, or a wife for that matter, was the last thing Ike needed, or wanted. But still, the horny old billy-goat made it a point of stopping by each and every farm under contract on a daily basis. And he always began his rounds just after sun-up when Ike knew for sure that most of the farmers would be out woikin’ in the fields, or, to put it in his own perverted vernacular: ‘…when the roosters ain’t watchin’ the henhouse’. Naturally, most of the hens were awake by then, doing the things that farmer’s wives do; like preparing the meals, feeding the chickens, sweeping the floors, doing the dishes, washing the clothes, and getting their children off to school (if they were lucky enough to be going to school instead of being sent out in the fields with their daddies) or just plain talking trash, or gossiping, as women often do; the landlord himself being a favorite topic of their vitriolic conversation, but never in the charitable sense and seldom without spitting on the ground.

Of course, Mister Armstrong always found this all quite convenient, if not flattering; and he took every advantage he could of the situation, many times at his own expense. But the women of Harley knew better; and they weren’t shy about giving the lustful landlord a good ear-waxing from time to time; or a broomstick, if one happened to be handy. Many used a shotgun, or some other form of firearm, which was often necessary to ward off Ike’s unwelcome advances, especially early in the morning when his ‘sistas’ were off tending to their own nefarious business in town, and there was no one else for him to pester or exploit at the time. Even ol’ roosters get lonely sometimes, I guess.

As for Elmo Cotton, he only wished that Ike Armstrong, along with everyone else in Harley, would just leave him and his family alone. He knew that would never happen, of course: and having Mrs. Cotton around the house didn’t help matters. Nadine was a good-looking woman; and most Harlies knew it, including Ike Armstrong who was not only the most eligible bachelor in town but also the wealthiest, which sometimes makes a difference. But not with Nadine Cotton. The woman had her faults and failings, like most good-looking women do, but adultery was not one of them. It was something she had never considered, not for a minute, not even for all the money in Ike Armstrong’s bankroll. But money wasn’t necessarily the reason for the billy-goat’s early morning visitation, although he would get around to that as well; he had something more personal, more private, in mind that day. As they say in Harlie, as well as other parts of the segregated and colorful South, the man simply had too much ‘jelly-roll’ on his mind’, referring, of course, to that part of female anatomy which should remain, for the sake modesty at least, undisclosed for the time being.

Adultery was actually quite rare in Harley, despite what those in Creekwood Green might say, or think, about it. But it did happen; as often, in fact, in Creekwood Green as it did in Harley; come to think of it – maybe even more so! Elmo sometimes wondered if it would ever happen to him, or his wife; he knew the temptations personally, and noticed how man naturally made eyes at Nadine whenever they around her, which, as long as he had anything to do about it, was as little as possible. And it wasn’t just her.

Elmo Cotton had always been thought of as a handsome man, in his own pale and peculiar way, and considered a ‘good catch’ by more than one lonely Harlie farm girl who might fish at the time. And there were times when the handsome young bachelor actually took the bait; without swallowing it, of course. But that was long before he’d meet up with Nadine Simpson who, after trolling the depleted muddy waters of Harley herself, finally wound up with this thin, pale, and rather odd looking cat-fish hooked to the end of her line one day which many, including Nadine’s mother, suggested should have been thrown back at the time. Fortunately, Nadine had other plans for this weird looking cat-fish; and it wasn’t the frying pan; it was the altar, which, come to think of it, is pretty much the same thing. Either way, you’re cooked. The only difference being: one way takes a little longer than the other. It some way, it only makes it more painful. But that’s what Elmo wanted; and so did Nadine. Since then everything, or so it seemed, had changed… but only for the better. The only other woman he still desired, or even thought of anymore with any degree of fondness or affection, was another farm girl named Regina Johnson; but he never mentioned her name anymore, especially not in front of Nadine, and seldom did he even think of her.

Nadine knew who this ‘other woman’ was, of course; they say farm girls never forget, and they are right about that. But they do forgive, and that’s what counts; that’s what matters. Nadine was no different. And Elmo knew it. It was only one of the reasons the Harlie loved her the way he did. It was the kind of love that didn’t keep score. It was unselfish love; pure and sacrificial, an agape kind of love; the love St. Paul spoke often of his many lovely letters. It was the kind of love only real lovers can have and hold, for any length of time. It was a love men like Ike Armstrong would never know.

But Ike was right about one thing, the Harlie admitted to himself that day: Maybe he should’ve stayed home on the farm after all, and not have gone wondering off in the mountains with seven men and a red-faced devil, even if one of them happened to be his best friend and benefactor. He made it a point never to do anything like that again; not even for gold… especially not for the gold! It simply wasn’t worth it. Not to Elmo. But he didn’t come back empty handed. He had something else; something, perhaps, even better than gold. If only he could figure out what it was. The black stone was still there, in the top pocket of his overalls; right where he’d put it, right where it was supposed to be. And that’s where it would stay, at least for the time being: out of sight and out of mind. If only he could do that with Ike Armstrong, the Harlie imagined.

Nadine Cotton was not the only woman in Harley to keep a broomstick handy after sun-up; although at times she wished she’d owned a shotgun, or at least a pistol, which she was also quite handy with. Bernice Dixon, Sherman’s wife, once had a similar experience with the misogynistic landlord and wound up chasing him for over a mile, which for a woman of Mrs. Dixon’s full-figured proportions was a rare, and quite comical, accomplishment; and one well worth mentioning. But unlike her close friend and neighbor, Mrs. Nadine Cotton, Bernice didn’t use a broomstick, or a shotgun. She used a pitchfork! And she never told her husband what happened that day. Not that it would’ve mattered, of course; Sherman Dixon was the type of individual who relied not so much on his fists, but rather his more affable attributes, such as his ever-widening and effervescent grin, to disarm or dissuade those who would otherwise seek to do him, or anyone in the immediate vicinity, including his own wife, any harm. Make no mistake about it: Mister Dixon may have been naïve in many ways of the world, with an appetite for friends as well as food; but he was no coward. He certainly wasn’t anyone’s fool either; although he could be quite foolish when he wanted to, which is sometimes actually quite different, as any wise fool will tell you. It’s as simple as that. He was who he was: sharecropper, famer, good friend and neighbor. Sherman was… well, Sherman was Sherman. ‘Nough said. And there was a lot more to the fat farmer than most people would ever know. He didn’t want to be brave; he just wanted to be liked, and maybe even loved. Besides, with a wife like Bernice around, and a pitchfork, who needs a hero? And after that last episode, Ike Armstrong never showed his ugly face around the Dixon farm again – even if he did happen to own it; and he maintained a healthy and fearful appreciation for pitch-forks and farmer’s wives, especially the fat ones, ever since. But even that didn’t prevent the nosey ol’ rooster from spying on the fat farmer and his fat wife, or anyone else in Harley, from time to time. He simply paid someone else to do his dirty work for him. And if that didn’t work, he always had his ‘sistas’ who knew how get him the information he wanted, or needed, especially from the other roosters.

The Harlie actually threatened to shoot the landlord himself if he didn’t stop pestering his wife; and he meant it, too! Elmo Cotton was not an envious man; but he was a jealous one, especially when it came to protecting what was his; and that included his wife, Nadine, who, as previously mentioned, was known and admired for her particular good looks. It was something she never tried to hide, either; except whenever the landlord was out and about on his daily rounds, or, as the good woman of Harley who knew better would often put it in their own home-spun pearls of womanly wisdom: ‘…whenever a dog is lookin’ for a bone’.

And Ike Armstrong was a dog; at least in one sense of the word. He once even made mention of Nadine’s generously proportioned breasts in words that left very little to the imagination; and he said it right in front of Elmo’s best friend and neighbor, Mister Sherman Dixon. Naturally, the fat farmer expected nothing less from the landlord and told him so at the time, right to his ugly black face, which, considering Mister Dixon’s affable disposition, Ike found almost amusing. But if the truth be told right here and now, the lusty landlord was right about one thing: Mrs. Cotton did have a magnificent bosom; and her breasts were indeed a spectacular sight to behold. And in the solace and secrecy of his own imagination, Mister Dixon would have to agree, however, with the lustful landlord. He very much liked to look at Elmo’s wife, especially when she went out in the morning sun wearing her white dress, and particularly from behind. He had actually seen her getting undressed one time, which only made him want to look even more. It was an accident, of course; and she didn’t even know he was looking at the time. Nadine Cotton had come over to use their bath tub. He never knew why, but always suspected it had something to do with what happened one day over at the Cotton farm when Elmo Cotton broke the leg of a young white man from Creekwood Green he’d found urinating in his own tub.

It happened some time ago, but the image of Nadine Cotton stepping into the hot tub had stayed with Sherman Dixon ever since. He never told anyone; certainly not Elmo Cotton, whom he would avoid for quite some time shortly after, afraid that he might have somehow found out what happened in a private moment of lust. Bernice was the only one that knew; and she wasn’t about to let him forget, either. How could she? The dress fell to her ankles. Her back was turned to him. She slipped slowly into the tub until the dark brown nipples floated over the milky white surface like two eggs in a frying pan, imagined the hungry farmer. But it wasn’t eggs he was thinking about at the time – it was jellyroll! Sherman thought he would surely lose control. And he would have, too, if Bernice hadn’t suddenly remained him where he was and what he was doing, albeit without Mrs. Cotton being aware of their presence. Needless-to-say, Sherman was ashamed of himself. Mrs. Dixon was sad and angry, but only for a while; farm girls understand these things, even though she wished it was her in the bath tub instead of Mrs. Cotton. It something he never mentioned to Elmo, although he thought about it all the time; and he had jelly-roll on his mind ever since then. Naturally, Elmo knew all along that it was not only the landlord who had eyes for his voluptuous wife; and, in a strange and almost boastful way, it made him feel proud. Hell! Everyone in Harley knew how beautiful Nadine Cotton was, including and perhaps most of all, the women of Harley, although you would never hear them admit to such jealousies. The men didn’t have to admit to anything. It just showed, like horns on a bull.

“Them beans ain’t a’gonna pick themselves now,” reminded Mister Armstrong as Elmo tightened the straps of this mule. It was the landlord’s usually admonishment, one he would often use when addressing the more tardy and less productive sharecroppers of Harley who were busy hitching plows, setting yokes, or, as Ike observed, ‘looking at the wrong end of a mule’ when they should’ve ‘woikin’ the fields’ by now.

“That what you come all the way over here to tell me?” questioned Elmo.

Ike didn’t necessarily appreciate the sharecropper’s wry sense of humor, and wasn’t even sure if he actually understood it. He often found this one particular Harlie a little strange (different might be a better word) and it was not only because of his looks. There was something… un-Harlie about him. Like so many others, Ike always assumed it had something to do with what happened to Mister Cotton not too long ago when he was whipped and thrown into prison for breaking the leg of a Creek-boy. Still, there was something else, thought the landlord, eyeing the sharecropper up and down like he was some kind of criminal or something. “No, Mister Cotton,” he said, returning the Harlie’s sarcasm with scorn while cleaning the dirt from under an overgrown fingernail with the tip of a dangerously long pocket-knife he’d suddenly produced from somewhere out of his trousers, “Gots me mo’ ‘potent things to do. And so do you…” he added, casting a gloomy glance over his tenant’s poorly managed farm, many of the beans already spoiling on the vine.

Elmo knew, of course, that he’d been neglected his crops as of lately. Most farmers in Harley had already begun harvesting by the time he’d returned from the mountain. And there were still twenty acres that needed to be plowed before winter set in, for the spring planting. It was simply a way of preparing the soil in advance for next year’s bean crop, something he’d learned from Mister Dixon who knew about such things. It worked! And it sure made life a hell of lot easier come springtime. But that might have to wait. There was just too much work for one poor Harlie to do, and not enough time to do it. “Say, what you doin’ comin’ ‘round here anyway, Ike?” he suddenly asked, as if he didn’t already know. “A little early – Don’t you think? Look’ye here, the sun ain’t been up but one hour and already you’s…” But he stopped just short of saying it. Elmo just didn’t want to think about it. He knew what the ol’ rooster was up to all right. Hell! they all knew. Everyone knew. And it had nothing to do with sharecropping, or beans.

Ike knew what the sharecropper was thinking; he’d heard comments like that before. It angered him at times (the truth often has that effect; especially when it is so obvious) but never enough for him to let it bother him. He was used to it by now; and besides, the landlord’s lustful reputation preceded him like a ten foot bean pole. It was something he, and everyone else for that matter, simply learned to live with. He actually did have ‘mo’ potent’ things on his mind that day and, believe it or not, they had nothing to do with his twisted libido or sexual peccadilloes. He was thinking more about the current bean crop and the profits it would fetch on the open market that year; and he had good reason.

After hearing about Mister Cotton’s week long absence, Ike knew that Elmo would be coming up even shorter than usual, if he didn’t get some help real soon. “Say, why don’t you be axin’ (Of course, what he really meant to say was ‘asking’) the fat man for help? That’s what neighbors is for, you know. And by the way, that reminds me: Where is Mister Dixon anyway. We gots some bi’ness to discuss.” He was referring, of course, to none other than Mister Sherman Dixon, Elmo’s next door neighbor who also happened to be his oldest and best friend. As to the nature of the ‘bi’ness’ he was referring to, Elmo had not idea, but suspected it had to something to do with what happened between him and Mrs. Dixon, and perhaps a pitchfork . “I don’ts know,” replied the sharecropper, who wouldn’t have told Ike even if he did know.

“Well…” bleated the billy-goat,” if you do sees him, tell him I wants to have a woid with him. And ax’ him to come over and gives you a hand with these here beans. Don’t know when I sees me a crop as bad as this one. Might wants to pick what you can and boin the rest. Mister Dixon, he might can help. Fat men’s always glad to lends a hand. It’s in their nature, don’t you known? They can’t helps it! That’s just the way the fat man be,” noted the instigating landlord, sadly mistaking Mister Dixon’s generosity for a certain kind of weakness; the kind to be taken advantage of for any reason, and as many times as possible. Naturally, Elmo Cotton never did like it whenever Ike Armstrong, or anyone else for that matter, referred to his good friend and neighbor as the ‘fat man’, especially behind his big, fat back. And neither did Mister Dixon, especially when they did it in front of his big, fat face; but he was always either too ashamed or afraid to do anything about it. Most of the time he did nothing. Or maybe he would just smile and shrug it off; sometimes he even laughed and grinned, never knowing that he could easily crush Ike Armstrong, or any other able bodied man, like a dung beetle, if he really wanted to. Or perhaps he did know, which is precisely why he smiled, shrugged, laughed and grinned as much as he did. In fact, at times it seemed that all he did; besides eating of course, which he was also very good at. And the fat man would smile, shrug, laugh and grin his way through almost every obstacle and insult life had to throw at him almost on a daily basis, which was something Elmo was always a little envious of, wishing, in more ways than one, that he was more like the fat man and less like himself. And just to stir the pot, as Ike was want to do whenever he got the chance, the greedy landlord reminder the Harlie sharecropper, ‘Course, you might has to feeds him first. Heh! Heh!” bleated the billy-goat. Naturally, Ike was well-aware, as everyone else in Harley was for that matter, of just how sensitive Mister Dixon was on the subject of his ever-expanding girth and the large amounts of food he would ingest just to sustain such a bulky brown mass. “Fat mens sho’ do like their vittles,” reminded Ike. “And it take a mess of vittles to feed fat man Dixon. Yes it do. Yes, sir. Whole mess of beans to fill that big belly. Heh! Heh! Heh! I hears he liked his catfish, too! That one big ol’ catfish. Yes, sir. I hopes Mrs. Dixon gots herself a big ‘nough frying pan to cooks a catfish that big. I sho’ do. Heh! Heh!”

And here Elmo Cotton was forced to interrupt and give the landlord a piece of advice that might otherwise have gone unheeded. “I be careful what I says ‘bout fat mens ifin’ I was you, Mister Ike,” he admonished the unwelcome billy-goat. “And I be careful what I say ‘bout Mister Dixon. I hears all ‘bout you and Bernice, and ‘bout you bein’ chased off with the pitch-fork. Sound to me like she be cookin’ you in that there frying pan ifin’ she catches you again. Cook you up just like that ol’ catfish… and serves you up for supper. And you knows how much Sherman likes his supper. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout no damn catfish….”

The billy-goat actually looked a little scared, thought the sharecropper. He obviously hadn’t forgotten about the little incident with Mrs. Dixon and the pitchfork. How could he! He still had the holes in his trousers (not to mention a dozen stitched his sistas had to sow into his backside just to stop the bleeding) to prove it; which, by the way, was why he was wearing a new pair of trousers that day. It was another reason Ike was looking for Sherman: talk to Mrs. Dixon’s husband about reimbursing him for the two dollars and fifty cents he had to spend on the new denim trousers he was wearing that day. Not that he’d actually paid for them. Being part owner of the only general store in town did have its benefits; a brand new pair of denim trousers was just one of them. “It come with the bi’ness…’as Ike himself would put it whenever questioned on the matter.”

Elmo had thought about asking Mister Dixon for help earlier that day, but decided against it. He still had his pride, and his wife, if not much else, and reckoned it wouldn’t be necessary after all. Besides, Sherman had his own ‘bi’ness’ to attend to; he certainly didn’t needs Elmo’s, or Ike’s. It would be insulting just to ask. And speaking of insults – That’s another thing Elmo didn’t like about Ike: the way he kept referring to his best friend and neighbor ‘he ‘fat man’. He knew… Hell! Everyone knew how much Sherman hated that name. It seemed he’d been called the’ fat man’ his whole life; even when he was just a little (or perhaps, not so little) boy and it was applied affectionately. It only make it worse. But just like Ike’s shameless indifference towards his own rude and misogynistic behavior, it was something Sherman had learned to live with over the years. Only the farmer’s shame could not be so easily ignored. It preceded him, like wheel-barrel full of Harley beans; just as heavy and difficult to get rid of. But with very curse comes a blessing, I suppose; and even though the ‘fat man’ from Harley hadn’t realized by now, it was his own ‘fatness’ that actually made him what he was: a kind and gentle soul who’d apologize to the devil himself for stepping on his tail, and then sit down to lunch with the fiery old fiend, and a better man than most. ‘Why, if being fat ever becomes a virtue’, Pastor Lee once observed from the pulpit of the First Holiness Congregational Baptist Church of Harley, ‘Mister Dixon would be canonized in a Yankee minute! And I don’t means from a canon. Saint Sherman! Now that there’s a mouthful!’ he sermonized that particular Sunday morning to the amazement and amusement of Mrs. Sherman Dixon and the rest of his congregation, and much to the fat man’s surprise and delight. And who could disagree? Still, it wasn’t a very polite thing to say, even if it did happen to be true. It was one of those things you just didn’t do; one of those things your grandmother wouldn’t want say, either. So, just don’t do it – Please! “And don’t be worrying’ about me, Mister Armstrong. I’s can manage just fine,” was all Elmo had to say to the landlord that day while feeding his mule a carrot he’d just then produced from the pocket of the same faded overalls he’d worn on top of the mountains a week earlier.

But the old black billy-goat wasn’t finished with the sharecropper; not by a long sight. He had played this game before, and knew just what it took to get under the Harlie’s thick skin. “Well now…” continued Ike, for his own perverted amusement perhaps, “How ‘bout just takin’ that harness off that ol’ mule and strappin’ it to that purdy lil’ wife of yours? You knows that ol’ mule of yours ain’t worth a damn, anyhow. Shoot! Ain’t good for nothin’ but dog meat. But Miss Nadine… now, that woman gots some meat on those purdy lil’bones of her. Good meat! Mighty fine flesh. Gots them jelly-roll movements, all up and down,” he gestured in a most suggestive manner, “the kind mens like to look at. Huh-huh. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Yes, sir! That’s a mighty fine woman you got there, Mister Cotton – Mighty fine! Look real good pullin’ that there ter’plane. Better than that ol’ mule… ‘Specially from behind,” he added with a wicked wink and an evil grin, “if you takes my meanin’,”

Elmo did take the landlord’s meaning; but not the bait; not yet anyway. And old goat kept right on scratching himself below the waist as he vomited out his filthy garbage. It only made matters worse.

But the billy-goat wouldn’t stop there. He just wouldn’t let it go. “Now how’s about lending me that purdy lil’ wife… Nadine?” he questioned as if he didn’t know, “maybe all she need is a man who know how to drive her right– a real man! We goes rollin’ and tumblin’ all night long. I drives her al’right. I drives her like a mule...” And at that point Ike Armstrong began hee-hawing like a mule himself, a sick and desperate animal, scratching his genitals and sniffing the air like a hungry dog in search of a bitch.

Meanwhile, Elmo’s own mule stood silently by with head hung low, casually munching on his carrot as if nothing had happened worthy of its immediate attention, or comment. But the Harlie had heard enough. As usual, Ike Armstrong had gone too far. And so, before the landlord could insult him, his wife, his neighbor, his mule, or anyone else for that matter, which was obviously exactly what he intended to do, any more than he already had, Elmo spat on the ground and spoke his mind: “Don’t you be talkin’ about my wife now,” he flat-out warned the foul-mouthed landlord with a certain calmness about him that not only served to accentuate the animosity he was feeling at that moment, but made the billy-goat back up a few paces as well. The Harlie knew all along that any outward sign of hostility, or fear, would only exacerbate the problem and perhaps make matters worse. It would also satisfy Ike’s insatiable lust, which, of course, was all he really wanted anyway; other than humiliate the sharecropper.

Elmo was going to say more – he wanted to say more; but he decided against it. It just wasn’t in his best interest, or that of his family, to do so. He knew that Ike could legally terminate his contract if the crop wasn’t in on time; and he was already three weeks behind schedule. Winter would soon be setting in and the last thing the Harlie needed was to be begging for a place to live in his own hometown. He was actually closer to being homeless than he’d ever been in his whole life. It was a feeling he didn’t particularly like, and one he certainly wasn’t used to. He knew he could always take care of himself – that never seemed to be a problem for the Harlie, even after his father had deserted him, and his mother up and died, leaving him orphaned at a very young and vulnerable age – but how would he take care of Nadine and Lil’ Ralph without the farm, and without a job? It was times like these when Elmo Cotton thought that maybe it would’ve been better if he and Nadine Simpson had never met in the first place. And it wouldn’t be the last.

To make matters worse (if that was at all still possible) Mister Cotton was painfully aware of just how badly the crops were failing; due not only to the poor soil quality he always had to deal with but, moreover, the lack of rainfall recently, which had already decimated a good portion of the produce. It seems that Ike Armstrong was right about one thing, he reckoned – the crops, that is. It was about as bad as it could get for the sharecropper. And he wasn’t only in his suffering. All the other farmers felt it as well, and were just as concerned; not only about keeping their crop alive until harvest, but also about making their quota and wondering if they too would have a roof over their heads that winter, let alone a bowl of beans. Most were all still under legal obligation to produce one crop twice a year or be evicted from their farm. It wouldn’t have been the first time it happened, either. Once, Ike even went so far as to actually set fire to one of his own shacks just to chase away a poor sharecropper who was down on his luck and just wouldn’t leave. The poor man’s family escaped, all nine of them; but the sharecropper died, getting them all out just in the nick of time; but not before being so badly burned in the process that died the very next day after a long night of screaming agony. And the screams were just because of the pain brought about by the arsonist, but because he knew he was going to die and there was no one to look after his widowed wife and kids. He was wrong – Thank God! The wife re-married and the kids all went on to become fine outstanding young men; the eldest, James, becoming the first black fireman to serve in the town of Old Port Fierce. Naturally, many called it arson, and still blame Isaiah Amadeus Armstrong for the unforgivable and, some still say, preventable event. But, being that the local magistrates were all landlords themselves at the time, with little or no sympathy for sharecroppers in general, and no higher power to answer to other than themselves, Ike was never prosecuted, or even held accountable for the actions which, until this day, he took no blame and held no remorse for.

Everyone knows what really happened, of course; and it made them hate the landlord even more. And Elmo Cotton hated the landlord more than most; more than anyone, it would seem. More than his own father, he could only imagine, who he hardly even knew and would never forgive for running out on him and his mother; especially when there were other men, good and decent men, out there willing to die in a blazing holocaust rather than see any harm come their wives or children. The only other man he could have hated more at the time was Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn. But the colonel was dead, and so was Red- Beard; and for that he was glad. He was also thankful the sharecropper’s wife and children survived, despite the cowardly acts of a cold-blooded killer, and more than once wondered if Ike would do the same to him and his own little family; if that’s what it came down. He never doubted the landlord for a minute. “You leave my family be Ike .You here!” was the last thing Elmo had to say to Ike Armstrong that day. And he left it at that, hoping the landlord would do the same.

Before leaving the Cotton farm that day, the ‘ol’ rooster’ bid the farmer a baneful and beguiling farewell. “Mornin’ to you, neighbor. Mornin’…” he falsely crowed from beneath his confederate hat and behind his billy-goat beard, appearing as arrogant and distrustful ever, and perhaps just a little bit uglier that day. “Heeeee-haw!” laughed Ike. “Mornin’, neighbor. Hee-haw! Mornin’. Heeeeee-haw… Hee-haw!”

Elmo knew when he was being made fun of, and he knew when he was being mock; he also knew what was really on the old billy-goat’s mind by then. And it had nothing to do with munching on old cans or butting heads with other billy-goats. Naturally, he could not in good conscience return his landlord’s gratuitous greeting; and so he didn’t even try. The mule was not so generous, however. After it had gulped down the carrot Elmo had been feeding it just before his landlord first arrived on the scene, the mule suddenly went in to some kind of spasmodic convulsion, coughing and naying in fits and spits while shaking its equestrian head in a long and painful jerking motion, suggesting it could no longer breathe and was fighting for its very life. And then, with one final burst from its dilated nostrils, the poor beast finally coughed up what was left of the diseased vegetable. It then fell from the animal’s mouth, partially digested but still very much intact, landing directly on the right toe of Ike Armstrong’s patent leather shoe. And there it lay for quite some time, like a dead orange lizard, until he finally kicked it off like he would a stray turd.

“Oh, and tell Miss Nadine…” said Ike, spitting on his shoe and buffing it off on the back of his stiff trouser leg, “that I guts something else fo’ her.”

“She don’t want nothin’ from you, Ike,” Elmo quickly responded, not wanting to image what was going on inside the landlord’s tortured brain.

The billy-goat just smiled. He then, slowly and suggestively, he slid his left hand down the front side of his pants leg in the usual unmannerly manner. But instead of scratching himself in that most peculiar and private spot, as was his habit, the ol’ rooster simply cupped a big brown paw around the genital bulge that had grown noticeably larger by then, and gently squeezed; the long yellow fingernails digging deeply into the denim clothe like a carrion’s claw around a piece of dead rotten meat . Then he suddenly stopped smiling. “But she do want some of this…” he finally sneered, in a voice Elmo didn’t seem to recognize.

The sharecropper planted his feet firmly in the muddy soil, wondering just how far the landlord was willing to go that day. His fists were clenched behind his back. He knew what he wanted to say; what he should say; what any other man would surely say in a similar situation. But once again, just like before, the words just wouldn’t come. And so, he simply shook his head in disgust as the mule wrestled under its own burdensome yoke. It was not so much a sign of discontent, but one of sheer bewilderment. He was hoping by then that Ike would just go away.

But the billy-goat didn’t budge. It seems he had one more bleat left. “Maybe you wants some then,” he slyly suggested, one hand still firmly ensconced in the bulging blue fiber of his trousered leg; the other scratching out some infectious lice from his long pointed beard. And then he laughed. It was a wicked laugh, and evil sound; and it came from a wicked, evil man, thought the Harlie. But it was not nearly as evil or wicked as the words, or the gesture, that preceded it. You see, in bringing into direct question the Harlie’s manhood, Ike Armstrong had just committed the ultimate sin. It was the worst thing he could have done; and he knew it. It was the ultimate insult that could not go unanswered; more offensive than any f-word, and just as demeaning. It was a challenge, really – a slap in the face and a spit in the eye – Harley style, that is. Ike may as well have raped the sharecropper’s wife in front of him and his child, and left her for dead. It was just that evil. Moreover, there was a reason, and a purpose, behind the gesture. It cut to the quick like a knife and stung like a wasp; and Elmo was not the first to experience it. It was the crouch-grab. And it achieved its desired effect simply by bringing into question the sexual preferences of the one to whom the insult was, intentionally or not, aimed and directed; and, in doing so, create in minds of anyone witnessing the sordid event, even if it is just the two of them, a doubt that would remain forever (or at least until such a time when the victim of the crime could prove himself in a way worthy of his manliness) like a pink ribbon tried around his exposed male member for men to be ashamed of and women to giggle at.

Elmo had heard that laugh before. It was a revealing laught; the kind of laugh small boys sometimes resort to when they’re not telling the truth; but not exactly lying, either. It was what some folks like to call a ‘liar’s laugh’. Ike used it a lot. But in his case, the liar’s laugh was not only meant to offend (that much, at least, was obvious) but, just like the gesture that preceded it, it also took direct aim at Elmo’s manhood, which, in Harley at least, was no laughing matter, and certainly not to be taken lightly. You see, not only had Ike insulted the Harley sharecropper (something Elmo had expected all along to happen, and was actually getting quite used to) but he went a step further this time by offending the farmer’s wife as well in the process. Insulting a man is one thing, and can sometimes be overlooked; but insulting his wife is something else, and simply cannot be ignore. It’s a private affair that touches a very raw and sensitive nerve. It hurts. It smarts. And it should! It belittles and embarrasses. But it also challenges.

It was a challenge, perhaps the only one at the time, that Elmo simply couldn’t afford to ignore, and one that called for a clear and immediate response, the absence of which would only exacerbated the problem by proving its insidious point. It would’ve been far better, and maybe less painful, had Ike out-rightly emasculated the Harlie right there and then by castrating him below the waist with the dull edge of his pocket-knife, and left him bleeding in the dirt with his dismembered organ lying right beside him for all to see and pity, which, come to think of it, was exactly what his wife once said she would do to him if she ever found out he’d been cheating on her. All that was really left for the bearded billy-goat do at that point was to blow the Harlie a flying wet kiss, which, for whatever reason, he just didn’t do. The laugh was enough, or so it seemed.

The entire exchange had lasted less than a minute, and left Elmo feeling the same way he did the time when he was kicked by his mule. Only this time it was not in the backside, which really didn’t hurt as much one might expect, but right in the stomach, the gut; and it hurt like sin. Elmo knew, of course, that if didn’t do something about it, and quickly, it would be all over town by sundown that he was not only a coward, but a ‘girly-man’ as well, which would not only bring further shame upon him and his wife, but make the insult complete. But what else could he do? By then the, old black billy-goat turned his horny head and was already walking away.

Elmo had already picked the vomited carrot up off the ground and was getting ready to throw back it at the billy-goat when, from out of nowhere it seemed, Mister Sherman Dixon just happened to appear, riding heavily on top of his red and yellow wagon. The fat and farmer greeted his Harley neighbor that morning in the usual manner: with friendly wave of the hand and a big broad grin consisting chiefly of two perfect rows of pearly white teeth sandwiched between lips that somehow would’ve looked more appropriate attached to the face of a big-mouth bass. “Howdy, Mister Cotton,” grinned the farmer from ear to ear while climbing down from his wagon to see if everything was all right, “What’s goin’ on?”

“Nothin’,” said Elmo, as the carrot fell harmlessly from his hand.

“Don’t look like nothin’ to me,” Sherman replied in his own innocent and inquisitive way. “Looks more like… like a carrot!”

“Oh, that,” shrugged Elmo, lowering his eyes to the putrid vegetable lying on the ground. He was still hoping to put it good use; but by then, of course, Isaiah Armstrong had slithered away under his stolen confederate slouch hat, and well out of Elmo’s range. “I wasn’t just gonna...”

“You was just gonna what?”

“Nothin’,” repeated the Harlie.

“Hummm,” Sherman mused, “Seems to be an awful lot of nothin’ goin’ on ‘round here…if you ask me, Mister Cotton.”

“Well, no one’s asking,” replied Elmo, realizing at once that he shouldn’t have, at least not so sourly. Sherman had been a good friend and neighbor to him for more seven five years; and they’d known one another even longer than that. He was even best man at Elmo wedding. “I’m sorry, Sherman,” he rightly apologized. “It’s just ol’ Ike.”

Sherman seemed to understand. “Ohhhhh…Up to his ol’ tricks again, is he?”

Elmo kicked the carrot with side of his foot.

As friends and neighbors are often able to do in situations like these, Sherman had guessed by then what was on really on Elmo’s mind. It wasn’t hard to do, simply because it’d been on his own mind as well, ever since he’d heard about Bernice having to chase Mister Armstrong off the farm with a pitchfork. He wasn’t supposes to know about it, and neither was Elmo for that matter. But secrets are difficult things to keep in a small town like Harley; along with anonymity. “Can’t say I blames you, Mister Cotton,” said Sherman, his thick lips quivering for revenge he knew he would never taste, “Ol’ Ike…he be askin’ for it. Don’t suppose that there carrot would do much good tho’.”

“Got me a shotgun in the barn,” suggested the Harlie, considering, a little hastily perhaps, a more lethal method of accomplishing his desire goals just then.

The fat man paused. He could clearly see the anger, as well as a few tears and maybe even some blood, swelling up in vengeful blue eyes of his neighbor and friend. It frightened him; just like it always did ever since they were children. It was those damn eyes of his! They were just so different… so blue. ‘Tain’t natural’, he once told Elmo; not realizing, of course, that they were almost the exact same color as those sometimes seen on the pale faces of those residing in the nearby town Creekwood Green, peering, or peeping perhaps, through the rusty bars of an old iron gate now and then, which made the Harlies nervous and was something they naturally were suspicious of. It was just an innocent slip of the tongue; and Sherman meant nothing by it. “Shotgun make too much noise,” Sherman was quick to reply. What he was really trying to do, however, was give Elmo a little time to settle down. He knew what kind of man Ike Armstrong, and what mischief he was capable of.

The sharecropper insisted, “I’ll get me a knife than…”

“I heard that’,” said Sherman with a calm and cautious coolness about him that spoke for itself. “And I know what you’s thinkin’, too. Yes I do,” he cautiously added. “But it ain’t worth it, Mister Cotton. It just ain’t worth it.”

Elmo disagreed. “It is to me, Sherman.”

“Well, may so. But I sure wouldn’t be usin’ that ol’ shotgun of yours,” cautioned the farmer, “Or a knife…. Leastways not wait until no one is watchin’.

“Don’t worry. No one will see me, Sherman… not even Ike.”

“Well, I saw you!” reminded the fat man.

“That’s different. I wasn’t lookin’,” Elmo defended. “Next time, I’s be more careful”

“I was listenin’ too,” admitted the fat man, attempting to change Elmo’s mind on the deadly business of shooting their landlord. He was thinking that, perhaps, by finding out what’d really happened to drive his neighbor to such desperate and deadly measures, he just might be able to save his life; or, at least the life of his landlord, for whatever it was worth; and maybe even both, if he was successful. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. And it was.

Elmo took the bait. “What’d you hear, Sherman?”

“Well, I did hear somethin’ about Miss Nadine...” began the farmer, seeing that his trap might’ve actually have worked after all. “But you know how ol’ Ike is. It’s just talk. That’s all. All meat and no ‘taters, so to speak. It don’t matter no how.”

“Well, it do to me,” insisted Elmo, feeling a little less angry than he did only a moment ago. He knew what Sherman was doing, and he really did appreciate it; still, he wished he’d thrown the carrot. At least he would’ve felt better about it. He had his problems all right, enough to keep in him awake at night; but having it spread all over Harley of how Ike Armstrong put him down, like a dog it suddenly seemed, like a no good goddamn dog! would surely make matters even worse. And besides, he thought: it just wasn’t right. He could’ve told Mister Dixon even more that day, a whole lot more! about what’s been going on around Harley lately, much of which he still wasn’t quite sure of, and what happened up in the mountains the week before. He had the right, and he had the stone to prove it. But he was either too ashamed or too afraid. Sherman never could keep a secret, anyway, and Elmo still didn’t know if he could trust the friendly fat man whom he’s known for almost all his life and who, although it could never be proven, was probably related to him in one way or another along the ambiguous genealogical bloodline that seemed to run through all Harlies, whether they liked it or not. “And stop callin’ me Mister Cotton. Will ya? For crying out loud, Sherman, we’ve been knowin’ each other since he was chil’runs,” he sighed.

“Whatever you say, Mister Cotton,” the farmer capitulated.

Elmo knew it was useless. But he didn’t want Sherman to say anything about what had just happened. He was too ashamed. And it was just so embarrassing. Besides, people were already talking about him enough as it is. “You didn’t see nothin’,” the Harlie admonished his good friend neighbor that day, perhaps a little more forcefully than he should have. “You hear me, Sherman? Nothin’!”

Once again, the farmer seemed to understand. “Don’t worry, Mister Cotton, I won’t say nothin’,” he said with a firm but re-assuring smile. “I know how peoples is. Yes I do.” He then reached down and picked the semi-digested vegetable up off the ground and casually began wiping it off on his skirt of his shirt. “Besides,” he added after disposing of the dead orange lizard in one gulping bite, “waste of a good carrot.” He then swallowed and belched.

Elmo was amazed. Not only at his neighbor’s voracious and seemingly insatiable appetite but, moreover, at Sherman’s sheer indifference and indiscretion when it came to whatever he put in his mouth and, subsequently, his stomach. One time, he’d actually seen the fat man dispose of a twenty-pound catfish he’d found on the side of a road not far from the bean fields in a similar condition and consuming it in the same undiscriminating fashion: by swallowing the fated fish, whole and uncooked, in one long satisfying gulp; followed, quite naturally, by and equally long, satisfying and extremely loud belch that could be heard for miles away, as some were later to have reported. It was on a hot summer day, too, which made the morsel even less appetizing. No one was exactly quite sure how a argentous catfish wound in the middle of Harley one hot summer day on a dry and dusty road, although there are some kinds of catfish that are known to crawl up on dry land from time to time, using their fins as some sort of amphibious feet, especially in drought conditions when the river ran low. Apparently, this particular fish had been lying there for quite some time, many days, in fact, and was so raw and rancid by the time Mister Dixon found it that the buzzards, that were famous for eating anything that didn’t move, wouldn’t even touch it. “I ‘spose you’re right, Sherman,” replied Elmo, thinking more highly now of the fat man than he ever did before. “Waste of time, too,” he added to his neighbor’s keen and cautious observation. “Killing’s easy”, he said to himself, thinking that Sherman might not even be listening anymore, “Dyin’s hard.” Elmo had seen enough of both already. He was thinking of the friends he left up on the mountain not too long ago; and he was thinking of death – too often it seemed, ever since he came back down. He just couldn’t get it off his mind. “…It’s a good day to die” he suddenly spoke, echoing the words of the dead Indian.

“But it’s better to be alive!”observed the fat farmer, wishing to change the subject and wondering what to make of his neighbor’s gloomy prognostications on such an otherwise bright and cheerful morning, “And not a bad day do be a’plowin’. Don’t you think, Mister Cotton?”

“I reckon so,” said the sharecropper as Isaiah Armstrong passed out of sight, out of range, and out of mind; for the time being at least.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about ol’ Ike,” said Sherman, picking his teeth with a piece of straw he found lying on the ground next to the carrot. “Like I said befo’… He’s all talk. That’s what he is. Shoot! Everyone knows that. Let it go, Mister Cotton. Just, let it go.”

“It’s not what you’re a’thinkin’, Sherman,” said Elmo, not wanting to burden his friend and neighbor with any more of his troubles, but comforted in the fact that there was still someone he could talk to, “But…” There were many things going on in the sharecropper’s mind lately; and he thought he might explode if he didn’t tell someone, even Sherman… especially Sherman! He had a funny feeling about things in general There were times he felt as though he were being watched; almost as if someone had followed him all the way down from the mountain, and was never very far away. He found himself constantly looking over his shoulder; it was not a pleasant feeling. He never said anything to Nadine about it. Why should he? It would only make matters worse; and he knew how much she worried about him.

Deep down he suspected that it all had something to do with what he’d brought down the mountain with him; the Motherstone, as Red-Beard once called it; but he was never be quite sure. One thing he was sure of, however, was that sooner or later folks were going to start talking, asking questions, especially when they found out that Homer and the others weren’t coming back. Naturally, Homer’s wife would be among them; and he couldn’t rightly blame her for that. She would only be doing what any good wife, or widow, would do under the circumstances. Elmo had barley spoken to her since he came back. Why should he? What would he say? What could he say? They were all dead; and that’s all there was to it. The ponies didn’t even make it back. Red-Beard’s body was never properly buried either, which was something the Harlie now regretted not doing himself and for a number of reasons. He turned to his friend and neighbor and said, “I gots somethin’ prayin’ on my mind, Sherman.” He wasn’t thinking about his crops.

Mister Dixon would’ve liked to stay and talk with his neighbor a while longer; not only because it was the neighborly thing to do but simply because, other than a good meal, there was nothing Sherman Dixon liked better than gossip, good or bad, which was usually supplied to him in great juicy nuggets by Mister Lester Cox, whenever the Creekwood Coroner happened to stop by in need of an extra hand or just a place to rest his own weary bones. Even now, questions were being asked, mostly by nosey neighbors. And they weren’t the only ones in Harley who was curious about the sharecropper’s sudden disappearance and weeklong absence. According to the informative undertaker, there was news floating around Creekwood Green as well regarding a recent expedition in the vicinity of the Silver Mountains, and most of it was not good.

The Harlie had been gone for long over a week by now, and hadn’t spoken a word about what happened on the mountain to anyone, not even his wife, simply because he still didn’t understand much of it himself. In a strange and almost hopeful sort of way, he didn’t want to understand it. He just didn’t want to know. He suspected that people were saying things about him that probably weren’t true. Harlies like to talk; they always have, which was just another reason for him to be quiet on the subject. He hadn’t been the same since he returned last Sunday, and it showed. Sherman could hear it in the way his neighbor talked, what he said, and, more importantly, what he didn’t say. And so far, the fat man didn’t like what he was hearing, and not hearing.

Like most farmers in Harley, Mister Dixon was just another sharecropper who plowed and planted and harvested his own little bean crop right alongside his lonely and frustrated neighbor, Elmo Cotton. The two had become fast and reliable friends over the years, not so much because they were neighbors (not that that doesn’t help, of course) but rather because they generally like each other. They had other things in common as well, besides working for Ike Armstrong. They had actually known one another other for as long as either one could remember; ever since they were they were children, and were sometimes thought of as siblings, despite the fact that Sherman outweighed Elmo by at least seventy-five pounds and was, perhaps, three shades darker. Their wives got along as well. In fact, Nadine Cotton and Bernice Dixon were actually related; but neither one was exactly sure just how, as is often the case in such tightly knit communities where bloodlines often blurred and incest is not uncommon.

There was once talk of Elmo marrying one of Sherman’s many cousins. But that was long before he had met Nadine Simpson, the woman who would eventually became the sharecropper’s wife. Her name was Regina Johnson. She was a local girl and very beautiful, even as a child. She’d lived with the Dixons for a while when her mother moved down south, to Old Port Fierce, to work in a suburb of the famous port city known only as Shadytown. Regina eventually followed her and never looked back. Elmo often wondered what become of her, and if she ever thought about him anymore. There was talk of a little boy; no one ever asked who the father was. Elmo’s name was mentioned from time to time. He never saw her again after that.

It was Mister Dixon who’d given Elmo Cotton the first and only ‘thing’ he could actually call his own. It was a mule, and not a very pleasant on at that. It was an old and an ornery animal, the same one, in fact, that had only moments ago vomited up Sherman’s breakfast. It was a poorly fed creature (and with Sherman around, what animal wouldn’t be?) which any other farmer might’ve shot for food by now. Not that it hadn’t crossed Elmo’s mind as well from time to time. It did. But he didn’t want to hurt Sherman’s feelings, or the mule; and so, he decided to give the wretched beast a chance, before he gave it a descent burial, that is, which was more than most folks were willing to give the Harlie at the time.

The mule eventually earned its daily pail of oats, as well as an occasional carrot or two, and proved quite capable of pulling a plow; but only when it was in the mood to do so and not too busy berating its beleaguered master, which it would do from time to time in its own frustrating and argumentative way. Elmo had actually grown strangely fond of the animal, despite the fact that it’d once kicked him in the butt and broke down his barn door for, at least as Elmo was concerned, no particular reason. It was at that time when he began having imaginary conversations with the obstinate equestrian while toiling behind the plow. It didn’t make his workload any easier, and it certainly didn’t help matters when others would observe the Harlie talking to himself under the blazing heat of the hot Harley sun; but it did make the hours pass by more quickly; and for that, at least, Elmo was eternally grateful, and sometimes even appreciative. At times, it was the only conversation he would have all day. Not that he needed, or even wanted, any; it was just a cathartic, and sometimes pleasant, way of passing the time of day. But whenever it did happen, sometimes when he wasn’t even aware of it, the lonely sharecropper was never quite sure which animal was doing the talking, him or the mule. And he never knew which one was the smarter of the two, either: the one pushing, or the one pulling.

Life in Harley was hard. But life’s is always hard, Elmo imagined. Hell! It’s hard everywhere, even in Creekwood Green where there was more work and money to be found. For the most part life went on, it always did, but with increasing suspicion and renewed hostility on both sides of the Harley Gates that seemed to have only grown worse over the years, even after the war – especially after the war! The Harlies, and colored folk in general, were often criticized, contemptuously and unfairly at times, for initiating the great conflict that’d not only cost so many lives but destroyed a cultural way of life that would never be replaced and would never be the same; and they were reminded of it every day of their lives, either by Jim Crow, or the Klan. Or both!

Others were more sympathetic realizing, of course, that slavery was a thing of the past and that the wounds would have to heal, eventually; otherwise, they would only fester over time and get even worse, like cancerous growth that would eventually destroy what was left of the Old South, and Dixie, along with two noble and charitable communities. Despite the rebuilding efforts initiated by the previous Administration, which ended with an assassin’s bullet, and with all the altruisms attached both politically and morally, reconstruction proved to be a long and hard slough. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose. And when everything was said and done, much was said and little was done. It was to be expected. The assassin was caught, in an old tobacco barn; the co-conspirators were rounded up and hung. One was a woman, whose last words were ‘Don’t let me fall…’ just before the trap door sprung open. Many hoped that would be the end of it; but for some the war raged on, if not on the battlefield, at least in the hearts and minds of those who simply refused to forgive and forget. For the most part, the good and decent folks of Harley and Creekwood Green mended their wounds, along with their fences, and made the best of it. In the end, there was little love lost, or gained, between the Greens and the Harlies. Life went on, just as it always did; some for the better; others, for the worse. For many, only the bosses had changed.

Being the older and more established of the two bewildered towns, and boasting a population five times that of Harley, Creekwood Green, naturally assumed a higher position in all the political, social, and economic dealings both during and after the war, which, not surprisingly, the Harlies rarely objected to. The ‘Greens’, as they were often referred to as by neighboring municipalities, and a term they took no particular offense to, would have it no other way. It was their birthright, their inheritance; and the ways things ‘ought to be’. It was a quiet understanding, rooted in a not too distant past when life was less complicated, more black and white (no pun intended), when everyone knew their places, who their friends and enemies were, and acted accordingly.

It may be difficult for some folks to understand, particularly those of a more liberal stripe, but strangely enough, many folks, on both sides of the Iron Gates of Harley, still preferred the old days, which they longed and lived for in their own sentimental and bygone ways, slavery not-with-standing. If nothing else, they were still the proud sons and daughters of Dixie; and they came all colors. But wars are not fought for sentimental reasons, or the right causes; but still, the truth must prevail or die, whether it is welcomed or not. And in the end, the Union held, and the government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the face of the earth. It was simply matter of good and evil, however ambiguously they are sometimes defined. And it could be traced all the way back to Erasmus and Buford Harley, the old slave himself, and his benevolent master.

It was sadness shared by two old men no longer bond or burdened with the chains of the past. It was a relationship doomed from the start, as all relationships are, death being the final arbiter in the irreversible divorce. It was simply the way things were and which, for better or worse, could never be changed. It was something both Buford and Erasmus Harley had found out during the war, together; and they were never the same since. And what they’d found out is sometimes hard to explain, at least to those who have never suffered through it, whether on the battlefield or in the privacies of their own mercenary hearts which, as we all know, can prove as fatal as any bullet.

‘Til death do us part.…’ It seems so final and fatal. Through years of doubt and uncertainty comes to the logical and inevitable conclusion, the predictable end that proves the old philosopher was right after all. Eros fades away, eventually; and Agape lives forever. But what about Phileo? that transient old friend who is neither spiritual nor sexual and seldom demanding. ‘Women – Humph! You can’t live with them… but you just can’t live without them. But that age old axiom it true in any application; even when it comes to the male of the species: you know, those chauvinistic knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who need love just as much as anyone, and, in some cases perhaps even more, simply because… well, simply because they’re too insensitive and stupid to know it. Love. It’s something we can all appreciate at one time or another, sooner or later (sooner we should hope; for sometimes it is too late) and embrace as man and wife, brother and sister, or, as in the particular and perhaps peculiar case of Buford and Erasmus Harley, not as a slave and his master, but as one friend to another. And so too, not unlike Philemon and Onesimus, which the apostle Paul writes about with so much love and affection, in his own large hand we are told, did the odd old couple from Dixie terminate their long-standing and sometimes tenuous relationship one hot July morning in Old Port Fierce. And they did it not in the passionate heat of debate, not with so much anger and hatred, and not with remorse; nor in so many scornful words, the way lovers often do which they later come to regret; not in the solemn silence of defeat, which, just as when General Lee surrendered his sword at Appomattox, would have been just as devastating; and certainly not in despair. Nor did they part with shouts of victory (as if victory can be found in any great divorce) but rather, they parted the way two old gentlemen usually do in these situations: simply and sincerely; in tears, sad and sweet, joyful for the most part; a warm and friendly embrace, a handshake, perhaps, that said more and spoke just as loudly as any Confederate or Union cannon, and in a way that would have made Lee and Grant both pleased and proud.

After that, the slave and his master simply waved, said goodbye, and went their separate ways. And they never looked back. It was as simple as that. That’s all there was to it. They knew it would happen sooner or later; and maybe that’s what made it so hard. No marriage lasts forever and, just like death and taxes (and politics, I suppose) divorce is sometimes a necessary evil, especially after a long and costly war. But there are some things you just can’t run away from; not that you would really want to. Call it tradition, or heritage. Some call it culture. You may kill it, but only temporarily. Like any other living organism, it will always come back, in one form or another (some more recognizable than others) genetically altered by chance or design and with their own methods of survival. The Greens and the Harlies were no exceptions. It’s in the language they spoke; the food they ate, and the gods they worshipped. They were all the same, all equal, if only to themselves. Some even shared the same parents, and would be just as surprised and beguiled as anyone to know it. Many had the same name, too; like Harley for instance, whether they liked it or not, and were equally envied or despised. And despite everything else that may’ve separated the two cultures, not to mention old Iron Gates itself, they always had one thing in common: they all shared the same values and traditions that had been passed down from one generation to the next, along with the supporting principles that made them who and what they were, whether that be Harlie or Green. It was a good time, maybe even a better time, to be alive. Prejudices were, for the most part anyway, kept in the basement along with Uncle Bob’s moonshine whiskey and Aunt Emma’s recipe for rutabaga pie. Discrimination was typically reserved for what flavor of ice cream would be served after dinner or who would be the judge at the next pie eating contest, and was not necessarily a bad word. Children played together under the cypress trees, with not the slightest interest in what color they were or the clothes they worn. Women were treated with respect, and men generally got what they deserved. It worked! Equal? Well, maybe… maybe not. Who among us are equal? And who ain’t a slave? Certainly not Saint Paul, the self-proclaimed ‘bond-servant’ of Christ who wrote so eloquently, in his own loving hand, to Philemon on behalf of his run-away slave, Onesimus, in a short and poignant letter. Nor was Luke, one of the four Gospel writers who was not only a slave but a physician as well, precluded from that distinguished class of man-servants. Separate? Well, they weren’t exactly separate either, at least not the way some folks would have it today. In many ways, the war would change all that, and not necessarily for the better.

It seemed that after the great conflict, things took an unexpected turn for the worse. Some call it the law of unintended consequences; a law often overlooked by politicians, of all stripes, who always seem to know what’s best for everyone else except themselves, and go on to prove it by passing legislation to protect its citizens by taking away those things they cherish the most: like their freedom, for instances, and their guns they use to protect it; and then they wonder why we try to shoot them. Thank God at least a few of the founding Fathers understood this and had enough sense to come up with the Second Amendment: Not so we would have the means to shoot beaver and buffalo for their meat and fur (although that’s important, too) or drive nails into planks of wood at fifty paces for a blue ribbon or just for the hell of it, but rather for a much more important and practical reason; namely, to protect ourselves from those who would deny us that freedom. Think of it! – a law that actually allows us to shoot our own leaders. What a concept! What a country! No wonder they call it the peacemaker. Perhaps what Mr. Lincoln should have done was arm every slave in the confederacy with a Springfield carbine rifle, a Gatlin gun, and enough ammunition to have Jefferson Davis running for cover. Now that’s freedom for you! That’s Emancipation.

For the most part, the Harlies stayed on one side of the Iron Gates, and the Greens stayed on the other. It was just as simple as that, and as plain as black and white. But there are exceptions to every rule. Every now and then you could find the two communities coming back together, as they did before the war, with an even greater appreciation for one another than ever before. It is recorded that shortly after the war, in a church somewhere in Virginia, and old man approached the communion rail to receive the Holy Sacrament. It was the first time a Negro slave ever dared such a thing in that particular church, or any other for that matter south of the Mason Dixon. No one spoke. Nobody said a word. They simply looked: first at the old Negro, and then at the Minister holding the cup containing the Holy Eucharist, who was perhaps just as unsure as everyone as to what he would do next. It never happened before. It just wasn’t supposed to be like that. It just ain’t… But then something else happened; something nobody expected: another old man approached the communion rail that day. He was old and gray, bent with age and a lifetime of worries. He looked broken, like a man defeated. Slowly and deliberately he knelt down right beside the old Negro, bowed his head in silent prayer, and waited on the Lamb of God. It came, of course, to both men that day; and they partook of it together, shoulder to shoulder at the table of the Lord; not as master and slave, nor black and white; but as two free and equal men. No one knows, or remembers, the name of the old Negro; but many recognized the other man. How could they not know? His name was Lee – General Robert E. Lee.

And it didn’t stop, or start, at the communion rail. Even before the war, there were social functions open to all, regardless of race, religion or even political affiliation; such as funerals, wakes, weddings, along with a variety of other church gatherings indispensable to most southern communities, despite segregation, Jim Crow, and all it represented. It wasn’t unheard of, or uncommon for that matter, for wealthier Greens to hire a Harlie or two for the sole and specific purpose of providing the proper accoutrements at such important social gatherings where, as the saying sometimes, but not always, applies: ‘the more the merrier’. And if that special occasion just happened to be a wedding…Well then! What better time and place to be merry? Unless, of course, you happened to be the cold-footed groom who is beginning to have second thoughts about the whole affair; in which case you may as well get drunk and enjoy yourself; for it may be the very last time you actually can. And when it came to more somber events, such as one you might find at your local neighborhood funeral or wake, where the grief stricken family is in need of a good dirge, as well a good stiff drink in the Irish tradition of that special solemn occasion, the Harlies’ talents proved no less entertaining and placed at an even higher premium. For you see, not only were Harlies in general gifted with excellent singing voices, particularly when it came to dirges and other songs of lamentation associated with the burial of the dead, but they were also known be the best mourners money could buy! Naturally, no one could sing the blues better than Harlies who were paid handsomely for their vocal services by many a grieving widow, and perhaps shed a tear or two over the dearly departed husband who should expect and deserve no less, even though, as his widowed wife would surely admit to anyone willing to listen shortly after the ceremony, that he was actually a no-good, two-timing horn-dog with an unpaid bar-tab and a dozen or so women of questionable character all claiming to be the mother of his bastardized children and entitled to half of his sizable estate. It’s often said, in Harley at least, that one good day of mourning was worth more than to three in the fields. The pay was a hell of a lot better, too! And as far as the charitable folks of Creekwood Green were concerned: No ‘send off’ was complete (or even official for that matter) without at least one Harlie on hand to weep and wail for a spell before the coffin was lowered into the ground. It just wouldn’t be proper.

Another time when Greens and the Harlies could be found in the immediate proximity one another, mixing freely and easily, and in substantial numbers, was on Founder’s Day. Held once every five year in center of Middle Square Park, Founder’s Day was a celebration not to be missed, no matter what side of the Iron Gates you happened to hang your hat or call home. It was the time when everyone with any sense of community, or pride, celebrated the day Otis Odie first set foot on Creekwood soil, claiming the good green earth for himself and his posterity, whoever they turned out to be.

Legend has it (and in this case it just happened to be true) that Otis Odie came out of the West and, despite Horace Greeley’s migratory advice, actually travelled East from the land of his ancestors to a place that is now called Creekwood Green. For reasons we are not quite sure of, he left his home, not unlike Brother Abraham one couldn’t help but imagine when the old patriarch made his own famous sojourn from Ur of the Chaldeans on his way to the land of Canaan, and never looked back. He brought along very little: a wagon, a horse, a childbearing wife, a dream, and a gun. He survived the journey, barely, and even managed to keep a diary of his adventures along the way that survives to this day and is kept inside the mayor’s mansion, more commonly known as the ‘Redhouse’ for reasons forthcoming. In it, Otis writes of being hunted and hounded across the wasteland by some cat-like creature, a dark demon of sorts that almost killed him and his pregnant wife, Betsey, along with their unborn child. It’s something the Greens talk about even today, driving many a Creekwood kid under the covers late at night, especially on warm summer evenings when the arid winds blow in off the desert like the howling wolf, a wild cat, or a banshee – that mythological messenger of death who typically comes in the fairy form of a female spirit, which they were also familiar with given their Irish ancestry.

The Harlies had own mythical beast, which they were able to relate to with equal fear and trepidation. But unlike the feline fiend that Otis had spoken of in so much dreadful detail, the Harlie’s monster came in a form they were all too familiar with and just as dangerous. They called it a ‘hell-hound’. It was an animal, a dog to be specific; not unlike the blood hounds employed by the slave masters of old to track down runaway slaves; but it was also a demonic. They were vicious, relentless creatures; not of this world, many would come to agree with no uncertainly as to the hellish origins of this canine devil. And they were real, too! There were others, of course, on both side of the Harley Gates, that suggested the Harlie hell-hound and the mysterious feline that Otis shot in the desert were actually one of the same demonic spirit: Beelzebub, the devil incarnate, that old serpent himself who could anthropomorphically disguised himself in any form he, she, or it so desired, and for any reason. Presently, at least in Old Port Fierce, and especially around Shadytown where sighting of a mysterious wild cat stalking the streets of that sinful city were a source of much concern, spiritually and economically, they called it, for lack of better description and appropriately so, the ‘Lion of Avenue ‘D’ and equated the ferocious feline to the same one mentioned by the psalmist when he prophetically penned the words: ‘They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a great lion crouching in cover.’

And there were many who claimed to have witnessed this lion almost on a daily basis; crouching not in the bush or in cover, but right out in the open, in guttered streets of Shadytown itself, boldly, usually on ‘Fat Moon Friday’ night, the night of the flesh, when it would howl the loudest and wait, crouching silently in the seedy shadows of the Shadytown, for its next victim. Needless-to-say, it never had to wait very long. It was a warning for all to see and hear; and many in Shadytown, as well as Old Port Fierce, would stay up well into the night, praying under the covers, along with their frightened children. Whatever it was, most would come to agree it was real; and if it wasn’t real, that only meant it was something far worse, and dangerous – probably even fatal! But worst of all, it was still out there, somewhere, lurking in the shadows of the wastelands, the desert to south and west of Creekwood County where the fertile green turns, almost inexplicably, to barren browns and blood runs cold, like that of a reptile, just beyond the Iron Gates of Harley where earth and sky meet in one long and thirsty grey line. And there the demon waits with fangs and claws, even until this very day, crouching as a lion in the dark on the lonely nights of the flesh, when men are weakest, and waiting to spring on its next hopeless victim.

They say Otis had three bullets left that night: one for the cat, one for his pregnant wife; and the last one, of course, was for himself. That was the plan. That’s exactly how he was going to do it. He really had no other choice; and he simply wouldn’t have gone any further without his wife. The food and the water were gone by then. The horse was half-dead and the wagon broken beyond repair. There wasn’t a tree in sight; not a single blade of grass or a drop of water. There was just nothing to live for. The desert had consumed him. He cursed himself. He cursed God. And then he cursed the cat that he could still hear moaning in the dark distance. It was a starless night, with a sickle moon hanging low over the horizon like a pale white scimitar. He wouldn’t go back; and he couldn’t go any further. He put the bullets in the chamber of his revolver and went a’looking for the devil himself.

Did he find him? Well, that’s another story altogether, and for another time, perhaps. What Otis did find, however, was a home. You see, he finally did make it out of the desert, eventually; and he came upon a land with many tall trees and a meandering creek running right through the middle of it. There were sweet cedars, tall pines, some gnarly live oaks and even a few majestic old redwoods that appeared to touch the clouds. It was a forest-oasis, or so it seemed, growing right out of the wilderness. Later on, Otis would go even further east to find not only the greenest valley he had ever laid eyes on, but a river as well, as wide and as deep as the sea in some places, and stretching from north to south as far as the eye could see. And everywhere he looked was green; if fact, it was so green that it was right there and then that Otis Odie decided to call his new home Creekwood Green. And it has been called that ever since.

And so, they didn’t die in the desert after all, as Otis himself had once thought was a foregone conclusion. Some called it a miracle, and they may very well be right about that. Only one bullet was fired that night, and even that one missed its mark. The other two were never used, of course; they simply weren’t needed. Otis went on to become the first and foremost mayor of Creekwood Green, with many sons and daughters to follow.

Three towns sprang out of the new frontier: Creekwood Green, Harley and Old Port Fierce. There was eventually a forth – Shadytown, which comprised the northern section of the Old Port Fierce where slaves, foreigners, and other persons of color generally gravitated to both before and after the war. Port Fierce was actually a harbor town established at the mouth of the Redman River (later to be called Old Port Fierce for reason to be expounded upon some other time) where the waters from the Silver Mountains found their way back out to the sea. Old Port Fierce, named after Captain Benjamin Fierce who was original commander of a fort in that vicinity which no longer exists, went on to become one of the busiest and most profitable seaports on the entire eastern seaboard. It had a good and natural harbor, which made it easy for the tall ships of the day with deep draws and high masts to navigate and maneuver in and out of. It also provided the vital supplies, imported mostly from the North, that were so necessary for a new and growing economy. Needless-to-say, many of the ships’ logs and ledgers were known to include generous number of slaves, both before and after the war, the latter of which was said to involve cannibals brought over from the islands of the Pacific and referred to as ferals. But we already know that. Don’t we?

Naturally, the Harlies weren’t around at that time Otis Odie first discovered the new land. And even if they were, they certainly wouldn’t be considered part of his, or anyone else’ posterity. But even that didn’t seem to matter on Founder’s Day. And nothing short of another war could keep the Harlies away from a good party. And the same could be said of the Greens who, likewise, enjoyed their own cultural exchange on the darker side of the Iron Gates once a month and usually during a another famous festival that eventually became known as ‘Fat Moon Friday’. It’s always nice to know that hospitalities, just like all prejudices, I suppose, exists in all quarters, comes in all colors, and from all walks of life.

It just so happened, and was no mere coincident, that Founder’s Day and Election Day always happened to fall on the day, albeit only once every four years. And no wonder! There was simply no better way of turning out the vote than throwing a party; and, depending on the candidates, it was sometimes the only way to get anyone to vote at all, or out of bed for that matter, especially if they’d been out the night before on ‘Fat Moon Friday’, which did, although not very often, coincided with the other gala events from time to time. Naturally, the politicians knew and were well aware of all this; and, perhaps, that is why they made sure that there was always a plentiful supply of alcoholic beverages on hand for that one special occasion that was so vital to their political survival. Some would later suggest that it had something to do with the actual act of voting itself. Hey, if your candidate of choice actually turned out to be the ‘low down, lying skunk, egg-sucking dog’ that his opponent had always claimed him to be, you could always say that you were drunk when you nominated him in the first place, partisanship not-with-standing, and therefore cannot be held anymore accountable for putting the weasel-faced bastard into office than you can be for, say, urinating on your neighbor’s lawn after polishing off a keg or two of Charlie Kessler’s potent corn-brew, double footprint brand, with him. Alcohol and politics can be a very volatile mixture; an almost as dangerous as alcohol and marriage. Both are strong medicine, and they may not be for everyone. It may also be the same reason why so many altar-bound bachelors sometimes, but not always, inebriate themselves the night before the sacred vows are consummated. It just might be a good excuse to have on hand one day, and maybe a legal one, if and when you happen to find yourself pleading before the local magistrate for a divorce that has been long in the making and extremely overdue; but one your estranged wife, and her lawyer, are adamantly opposed to; if for no other reason than to simply torment you for the rest of your no-good, low-down, dirty, cheating, lazy, pitiful and pathetic life; or better yet – just for spite! ‘Well, you know, Judge…’ you just might say in that dark and desperate hour, if it ever comes to that, ‘I was drunk when you married me to that old bitch in the first place!’ Which, by the way, is all the more reason for inviting him to officiate at your next marriage as well, which will undoubtedly be just as doomed to failure as the first, along with several reliable eye-witnesses (preferably all male and married themselves) who will be able to swear on a stack of Gideon Bibles that, just like the first wife you married under the evil influence of old John Barleycorn and divorced, you were undoubtedly in the same inebriated condition when you married the second, and held just as unaccountable, at least in a court of Law. And it might even work! But just don’t count on it.

Perhaps Saint Paul had the right idea after all when he said: ‘I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I’. Marriage, like all other great and noble institutions, is best left to the professionals, and not to drunks, scoundrels, liars and deceivers. ‘But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn’. But how would he know? Or could it be that the Great Evangelist was once married himself? as some scholars suggests. Do you think? He never did tell us – well, not exactly, and not in so many words – what that ‘thorn in his flesh’ really was. Do you suppose? And wasn’t it the old tent-maker himself who once counseled Saint Timothy regarding the medicinal benefits of alcohol along with a prescription to ‘take a little wine… for the digestion’? It would seem that the apostle of the Gentiles knew a thing or two about wine and weddings, not unlike his Lord and Master, Jesus of Nazareth, who combined and blessed them both in performing his first miracle at Canaan. Not that I’m condoning either one, of course; especially when taken in excess and performed for all the wrong reasons; but if one is going to marry anyway and/or become a drunkard (notice how the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive) and it simply cannot be avoided… well, then naturally one must have the proper ingredient to do so. Don’t you think?

And if beer happens to be your beverage of choice…well then, what better beer to have on hand than Creekwood Green cornbrew? There was just no better brew to be found in Creekwood Green, Harley, Old Port Fierce, Shadytown, or anywhere else on God’s dry earth for that matter, including Old Port Fierce, which was famous for its many hospitable inns, taverns, and seaside saloons. And of all the beer ever brewed in that part of the known and civilized world, none could compare with Charlie Kessler’s Creekwood Cornbrew, especially when it carried the conspicuous double footprint label branded right into the side of the small wooden keg in which it was carefully contained. ‘Double Print’, as it is called ‘till this very day, was first brewed by Ezra Kessler, Charlie’s own esteemed and beloved father and the man who is credited for inventing the beer famously known for its potency as well as its distinct flavor. It was more than just a beer… It’s ‘Double Print!’ It’s tradition. And it’s good.


Chapter Two

The Fly-Catcher

ONE DAY, SHORTLY AFTER RETURNING HOME from the mountains, Elmo Cotton went to visit his Uncle Joe. He felt that if he didn’t tell someone about what’d happened soon, he would burst. Either that or someone else would tell the old man first, which, more than likely, would be a lie, and make it that much more difficult to explain.

Joe Cotton lived at the end of a dirt road in a house he not only owned, but had built himself over thirty-five years ago. It was a small, simple structure, constructed chiefly of southern pine and live oak. It had a tin gable roof overhanging a slightly elevated porch that made up the entire front face of the house. As he eagerly approached, Elmo could already hear the faint but familiar sound Uncle Joe’s rocking chair as it lazily rolled over the uneven planks that made up the floor of the old man’s porch.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

Just as he had for almost every day since he could remember, the Harlie found his uncle sitting on the porch in his favorite rocking chair with a pipe stemming loosely from his thick, frog-like lips. It was a quiet cloudless morning as the smoke from his pipe rose up from the yellow stained bowl like virgin vapors on their way to Paradise.

Joseph Cotton wore a clean white shirt and navy blue cotton trousers hiked nearly all the way up to his chest, in the style preferred by older men of his generation, and held there by bright red suspenders. To pass the time of day – but mostly just to amuse the children of Harley who would come and visit him from time to time – Uncle Joe, as he was affectionately called by almost everyone related to him or not, would sit lazily in his rocking chair from dust to dawn, smoking his pipe and catching horseflies in his large brown hand as they flew within striking distance of his unassuming but deadly presence. Like a bolt of greasy black lightening appearing from out of a clear blue sky, the lethal appendage would strike suddenly, silently, and without warning, not unlike the sticky adhesive tongue of a reptile that stealthfully darts its amphibious missile at whatever prey happens to stray within striking distance. Snatching the winged creature in mid-air and applying the death grip, he would then mercilessly drain the life from the fated fly, as a boa slowly but surely constricts its prey, in his big brown paw, just as he’d done a thousand times before. And it wasn’t that easy to do. Others have tried and failed, obviously lacking the skill, talent, dexterity or sheer athleticism to accomplish the deadly deed. Perhaps they were simply too kind. Sometimes, he would let the insect go; other times, he didn’t. It all depended on the audience and whatever mood he happened to be in on any given day. It was all up to Joe whether the unsuspecting creature lived or died. Most he let go; some never make it out alive. Life can be like that at times; so can death… and not just for horseflies. It seemed to amaze just about everyone who witnessed the event, except the flies, of course; you might even call it artistic – poetry in motion! Not that the horseflies were that slow; but rather that Joe Cotton, even at the ripe old age of sixty-four and weighing in at three hundred and forty pounds, was so… so fast!

He was a fascinating old gentleman who knew more about living, and all the other wild wonders of the world, than most folks gave him credit for. Joe was a modest man, honest and humble in the ways old gentlemen are often associated with, especially when there’s nothing left to hide and they’re too old to care anymore. Joe was a good man, too, despite what a few jealous relatives, who really knew very little of Joseph Cotton, had to say about him. Naturally, Daisy Cotton was not one of them; and neither was Elmo. They were both related to the old man by blood; Joe being Daisy’s older brother whom who she came to live with shortly after her husband, Reginald, ran away. Elmo liked the old man he called Uncle Joe, almost as much as he liked Homer Skinner, which was saying quite a lot. He never knew his real father, of course, except for some vague recollection of the sound of his voice which, for some strange reason, had remained with him over the years, the way certain odors sometimes do, and even though he was only two years old when his father disappeared. It was a sound, and a smell, he simply couldn’t forget, as the two often go hand in hand in triggering our memories at the oddest hours, and all the deep dark secrets we would sometimes rather forget, whether we welcome them or not. It was not a distinctive voice, like that of his Uncle Joe’s, which was soft and deep, like that of a fat and lazy bull frog croaking at the moon, but rather, it was an ordinary voice that the Harlie remembered so well. It was actually not unlike the sound his own voice, which, although he could never hear it as others do, always made him uncomfortable whenever he heard it played back to him in the echoing sound of an empty room, or his own of his mind.

He had learned only recently of his father’s inexplicable and untenable behavior, mostly from his Uncle Joe: how Reginald Harley deserted his wife only one year into a failed marriage. Elmo was too little to know what actually happened at the time and, quite frankly, too young to care. Whatever happened to his fated father would remain a mystery, even to Joe Cotton who seemed to have know Ezekiel the best; the two actually being thought of as siblings at one time, despite the obvious differences: ‘Zeke’, as he was called more often than not, being the taller and thinner of the two Harlies and, as a few of the older women still remember, the better looking as well. For reasons he would never explain, Joe spoke very little of Zeke after he ran away. It was as if a part of him died that day. It broke Daisy’s heart, too. Perhaps that’s why he was so reticent about it; or maybe he was still angry at the man for doing such a terrible thing to his sister. It didn’t make sense, then or now. Not to Joe! and certainly not to Reginald Cotton’s son. And if the old man did know anything more about the sharecropper’s father, he just wouldn’t say. But there was more to it than that Elmo, always imagined; something Uncle Joe simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell him. He didn’t know how or why he knew this; he just did. He could hear it the big man’s voice, every time he opened his frog-like mouth.

The Harlie never did forgive his father, and, for the most part, simply tried to forget him. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t so much for what he did to him, although that in and of itself was inexcusable) but for what he did to his mother which, in the end, is what really killed her. Reggie Harley simply up and left one day. He ran away; and, in doing so he not only forfeited his rights as husband and father but, as far as Elmo was concerned, forfeited his rights as a human being by committed the ultimate unpardonable sin. It was something he just couldn’t get out of his mind, no matter how much he tried, and something he would just as soon forget, if only he could. But he had other things on his mind that particular morning, which is why he was there in the first place. That’s why he came: to see his uncle Joe; to talk to him. And so, he told the old man everything he could remember about what had happened on top of the mountain that day…well, not exactly everything. There were parts he was intentionally leaving out, for personal reasons. Nothing that really mattered, he reckoned. Not to anyone but himself. And so, Elmo Cotton talked while his uncle mostly listened, rocking away in billowing clouds of rich aromatic smoke that reminded the Harlie of burning incense, the kind often found in Catholic Cathedrals as the pontiff purifies and prepares the alter in the traditional order of the high-priest Melchizedek, with frankincense and myrrh, the same gift of the Magi that was set before the infant King. The aroma filled the air. He breathed it in, like oxygen, filling his lungs with life and his head with visions of strange and beautiful places, like the kind his uncle would sometimes talk about on the front porch; faraway places, somewhere across the sea. There was something mysterious about it; something old and Hindu. It was pure and pagan, aboriginal, wild and primitive, and feral, like a cannibal campfire on the banks of the Amazon.

“So, you say the gun just went off?” questioned the large man through the long white stem of his pipe. He thought, perhaps, that he should first hear his nephew’s interpretation of the events as they unfolded, before coming to any hasty conclusions. “Now, is you coitin’ ‘bout that? Absolutely coitin!” added the old black man in a thick Southern drawl that either mitigated the distinctive sound of the letter ‘r’ rendering it practically undetectable to the human ear, or precluded it from his verbal discourse entirely for whatever anatomical or psychological reason. Or maybe he just found it too difficult to pronounce; as older folks sometimes do, especially when they’re missing the teeth needed to produce that rolling and royal sound that glides off the tongue so naturally, so freely and fluently, with the letter ‘r’.

“Just like that,” replied Elmo. “I heard it!”

“Hearin’s not always seein’,” reminded Joe in his famous frog-like voice. “And seein’s not always believin’.”

Elmo agreed, of course; but he stuck to his story, however ambiguous and unbelievable it might have sounded at the time. “The gun… it just went off!” he repeated in vain.

“Now don’t be showin’ me them ol’ horns, boy!” Joseph Cotton admonished his young nephew that day on his front porch; and not for the first time in their relationship.

“Huh?”

“It’s them horns of yours, son. Them horns! You know, the ones on tops of yo’ head. ‘Member?”

Elmo did remember. It was an old adage; the old man’s ways of reminding his young impressionable nephew, in perhaps the way he knew how, of just how easy it is to get caught up in a lie; moreover, how conspicuous you become in the deceitful attempt. It was merely a verbal attempt at describing the formation of those dual satanic appendages, sometimes referred to as ‘horns’, that can suddenly appear, sprouting it would seem, and to one degree or another, on the haunted heads of those participating in the beguiling act of deceit; or, to put it in Uncle Joe’s vernacular: ‘When they’s lyin’ like the devil! It was something his uncle had been warning Elmo of ever since he was a little boy; and always it seems with a wary eye and a heavy hand resting on top of his nephew’s head as if searching for evidence of the diabolical growth. It actually began as an old wife’s tale about a little boy who, for reasons which were never quite clear, always told lies. Elmo had heard it many times before (it was one of his uncle’s favorite stories) and wondered, even now, why he kept forgetting it. It seemed that every time this one particular little boy told a lie these… these tiny horns would sprout out of the top of his nappy little head; just a little at first, but they would keep on growing, slowly, inch by inch, popping right out of the little boys thick duplicitous skull, until… lo and behold! he looked no different than the prince of darkness himself, that fallen angel, Lucifer; a little younger perhaps, but just as pointy-headed and proud, and red as a freshly painted barn. All that was missing was the long tapered tail, cleaved feet, and the pitch-fork.

“Don’t be showin’ me them ol’ horns now!” Joe croaked again, puffing out a warning on his pipe. “Don’t do it, son…”

It was something he would say to his nephew whenever the truth was in doubt; or, even worse, when it was not the whole truth or merely a portion thereof. And worse of all: when it was a flat-out lie. Sooner or later, usually later, the truth would eventually come out. It always did between Elmo and his uncle; no matter how hard he tried to hide or whitewash it in his own beguiling and duplicitous way; which never seemed to work anyway, at least not with Uncle Joe who was as good as catching lies as he was at catching horseflies on the front porch of his house. It was good advice; and even at a young and tender age, Elmo Cotton had realized that most of Joe’s stories were only meant to teach him a lesson, which, of course, is sometimes the only way to explain to children, as well as certain adults, that which they could otherwise never comprehend or appreciate. The young Harlie never did take the stories literally… well, at least not that literally; but he always took them to heart, which is exactly where the old man was aiming at all the time, and more than once found himself checking the top of his head for just in case. ‘l can spots them ol’ horns anywhere!’ the old man would boast through puffs of billowing white clouds, “…even when they’s not showin’,’ he would sometimes add, just to keep his young nephew on his toes.

“Don’t be showin’ them horns – You hear?”

It was an admonishment younger generations may not appreciate, or even understand; many finding the phrase out-dated, condescending, patronizing, disingenuous, and maybe even a little insulting – like being spanked, verbally. It was one of those things they just felt better off without; like whips and chains, I suppose, and other devices cruelly and equally employed in the not so distance past; not only to break their spirits but their arms and legs as well. Besides, it just sounded like something your grandmother would say; or the way a ‘Massa’ might talk to his ignorant slave. It was demeaning; and it was just not right. Some old timers might disagree, however, having sprouted a few horns of their own in their younger and perhaps more ‘devilish’ years, realizing by now how important it is to remind the younger folks just how dangerous, destructive, and just plain stupid! lying can actually be. As once eloquence by none other than the Reverend Willie B. Wright of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’: ‘When you dines with that ol’ devil… don’t forgets to bring you a long ‘nough spoon – Amen?’ The old evangelist knew what he was talking about. And he meant every word of it; not just about the dining arrangements, but the horns as well. You see, like most of the gentlemen of that enslaved generation, Willie and Joe actually believed in the devilish stigmata, which is another reason why they were usually the first ones to notice the hideous growth whenever it manifested itself, especially when it reared its ugly head on the innocent skulls of their own sons and daughters.

“But Uncle Joe! It just went off…”

The Harlie wondered if the old man could see them right now; at times, like these for instance, it appeared he could see right through him. He didn’t think it would hurt just to make sure. And so, reaching for the top of his curly head, ever so discreetly, pretending to comb away a few stray horseflies that somehow escaped his uncle’s famous death grip, Elmo Cotton suddenly thought he could feel two little bumps forming, slowly but surely, on the top portion of his skull. It made him nervous, just like it always did. And it made him wonder. Still, he persisted in his own version of ‘the truth’: “It just went off... the gun, I mean,” he tried once again to explain in the only way he knew how, “it just … went off.”

“Now don’t you be showin’ me them ol’ horns’, boy!”

And who among us hasn’t shown ‘them ol’ horns’ once in a while? Why, even Saint Peter, or so I’ve read, sprouted a few ivories of his own from time to time. Not least of all when he not once, but three times! as a matter of Gospel fact, denied the One he claimed to love the most, and whom he had only hours before swore to defend with his very life. To go back even further – How about Jacob? Talk about a scoundrel! He cheats his brother out of his birthright and then lies to his own father about it. And wasn’t Father Abraham equally duplicitous to his Egyptian host when, out of fear for his own life, he declared his wife, Sarai, to be his sister? Why, even good King David had his moments. Are we any better than these Biblical heroes? Or do our own horns sometimes gleam so pearly white that we mistake them for jeweled crowns of kings or the hallowed heads of saints? And if so, what then do we make of Lucifer’s proud and pompous head in all its hideous glory? And how much more shall we desire to wear such an unholy crown? Perhaps a crown of thorns is the only one fit for the head of a king, after all.

‘But there ain’t no horns!’ Or so some may declare. ‘It’s just manner of speech.’ They may be right, of course; but only in the physical sense. They’re still there; sometimes, you just have to look a little harder, and deeper, to find them. ‘Yeah…but that don’t mean they’s real!’ others will still argue with just as much passion and logic. The truth is: ‘them ol’ horns’ can be found just about anywhere, and on anybody, if you look long and hard enough; especially in the highest places where they’re often hidden in among sapphires, rubies, and diamonds. In fact, the only place you won’t find them is in the most unlikely places: those hideous and horrible dungeons of the deep where devils fear to tread, such as Leper colonies and prison camps. Don’t look there. You won’t find them. But you may find a halo or two resting on the hooded heads of the friars and nuns who minister to these poor wretched souls, that are in such dire and desperate need of salvation, despite their many crimes and transgression, and who, if we are to believe the Sermon on the Mount, are actually closer to receiving it than many on the outside of those same impenetrable walls who are, in some cases, in more need of the holy assistance and even less likely to ever find it. It could be argued, and indeed it already has, that Salvation often comes quickest to those who need it the most, at times in their lives when it seems most difficult to acquire, and in the most unlikely places, like prisons and hospitals where truth and beauty not only survive, but thrive! in all their anonymous glory.

The old man resumed his gentle inquisition under the ubiquitous CREAK – CREAK – CREAKing of his rocking chair and slow steady draws on his pipe. “And you say the others... they’re all dead. Mister Skinner, too?”

Elmo nodded in the affirmative, while the horns slightly receded.

Joseph Cotton and Homer Skinner were actually very close friends; and news of the deputy’s demise, if it were true, hurt the old man as much as much as it did his young nephew – maybe even more so, on account of their closeness in age. There were a great many things the Harlie didn’t know, or understand, about his uncle, as well as the man who took him into the mountains that day; and there were many questions that still remained unanswered. Perhaps that too was about to change. “My, my, my,” the old man sighed with a heavy heart and hung head. “Poor Mister Skinner... He was a good man, son – better than most folks will ever know.”

Naturally, Elmo agreed. But he didn’t have to say so; at least not in so many reassuring words. He’d actually said it a thousand times before, even when he wasn’t talking about it. It showed; just like them ol’ horns. It just showed.

“This sure am tro’blin’,” acknowledged the smokey old frog with a wrinkled and worried look about him, “Mighty tro’blin’”. He was thinking, of course, of what his nephew had just told him; but he was also thinking of what might happen next if Elmo was, in fact, telling him was the truth, which he was beginning to think might actually be the case, for a change. “Eight dead Creekmens… And one live Harlie? Tro’blin’, tro’blin’, tro’blin’… And you who say you didn’t do it. Eh, son?”

“I swears, Uncle Joe. I, I…”

“That’s al’right. I believes you, son.” said Joe, softly. “And don’t be too quick to swear. Swearin’s mighty powerful woids. Don’t use ‘em ‘less you really has to. “Eight, you say… Hummm? Now, that’s a curious number. Mighty curious. Maybe even an evil one. A bad sign, you know. And you say one of them... this here, what you call him now… Red-face?”

“Red-Beard, Uncle Joe. They calls him Red-Beard,” Elmo insisted for specificity’s sake as well as his own credibility. “But his real name was Horn. Colonel Horace Horn He was in the Army, I think. Some of the other mens just calls him Colonel... Or Rusty. On account of his beard, I ‘spose. It was red. Had this here uniform, too...” Elmo didn’t think it was necessary to describe the conflicting colors of the Red-Beard’s military clothes in any more detail; and so he didn’t.

Joe Cotton had heard the name before. But it was a long time ago. He’d never met the colorful colonel, but was well aware of his heroics on the battlefield; and that he came from an old Creek family, which included many important people. He also knew a little of Red-Beard’s ambiguous past and treasonous reputation. There was something else, too… but Joe thought it best to keep it all to himself, for a while anyway, even if it meant showing a little of his own horns, which was bound to happen under the circumstances. “And you say this Red-Beard... Er, Horn fellow, done shot himself?”

“I said the gun just went off,” Elmo insisted, “That’s all.”

“That don’t answer my question, boy,” piped the frog, “Whose gun?”

The young man tried to answer, but just couldn’t.

By then Joe felt that his nephew might be hiding something; and so he asked him again, “Whose gun went off, Elmo? Tell me the truth now.”

That time the nephew did reply. “I don’t know.” And it was the truth.

“You sure ‘bout that?”

The Harlie looked down on the ground more confused than ever. He wasn’t sure of anything, except for that fact that he was there when it happened. He heard it. He saw it. He was holding the gun; and, and “…it just…went off.”

It was the colonel’s gun, alright; the same one Red-beard aimed right in the Harlie’s face just before he fell; the same one he shot the rattlesnake with. It had to be! Elmo kept thinking to himself as his uncle stared down at him with his big brown bloodshot eyes. Or could there have been... another?

For the first time since coming down from the mountain, Elmo began wondering about that, among other things. He wanted to talk to Joe some more about what he was thinking just then, and about a feeling that he was being watched, or followed; but knowing it would probably only make matters more complicated, or even worse, he decided against it.

“My! My! This is more even tro’blin’ than I foist ‘spected,” Joe exclaimed in a thick Southern drawl. “I hoid of men that sometime shoots themselves… you know, by accident. But this here don’t sound like no accident to me. No sir! It don’t make no sense either. It... And you say he was shot in the chest?”

Elmo nodded again. “That’s what it look like to me.”

The frog frowned. “Look’ye here, son,” he further insisted, “Now, if I’m gonna be shootin’ myself... I be puttin’ the gun to my head. Like this here,” he demonstrated by pointing to his own head with a stiff brown finger, which, coincidentally, was about the same size of a forty-four caliber gun barrel, and pulling the imaginary trigger. “Sumpin’s bad wrong, boy,” he sighed. “Sumpin’ just ain’t right ‘chere. Besides, only a damn fool would go ahead and do sumpin’ so foolish as killin’ his-self…‘ceptin’ maybe he have himself a damn good reason. And I don’t see no reason here, boy. Unless there’s sumpin’ you ain’t telling me, boy.

Elmo shook his head. No.

“It just don’t boil the beans, son. Now what kind of man do you ‘spose would go ahead and do such a foolish thing?”

Elmo didn’t know the answer to that either; but it certainly didn’t sound like the man he’d left on top of the mountain that day. It didn’t sound at all like the colonel. And it was just as difficult to believe it was an accident. Suicide? No. Red-Beard wasn’t that kind of man; and neither was Rusty Horn. After all, he was an officer; and colonels just don’t make those kinds of mistakes. Why, even a dumb Harlie bean farmer could figure that out, Elmo said to himself with no sense of shame, or pride. But he also knew his uncle was right about one thing: ‘It just don’t boil the beans.’ He couldn’t have said it any better himself. And the gun “… just went off.” or so the Harlie maintained.

Joe still couldn’t help but wonder.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

“Now what make a man do sump…”

Then suddenly, without thinking about what he was doing at the time, and without the slightest bit of hesitation, the Harlie pulled the Motherstone out from under his overalls and showed it to his bewildered Uncle for the very first time. It was actually the first time he’d showed it to anyone, including his wife. “Maybe this,” he said, allowing the stone to fall freely into Joe Cotton’s wide and wooly lap. He was amazed at how light it suddenly felt. He was even more amazed at just how easily he let it go.

The rocking chair came to a sudden creaking halt, right in the middle of a rock. There was a certain sadness in the old man’s eyes, as Joe looked down at what was just placed in his lap. They were deep, dark and heavy, and wrinkled with age by so many crow’s feet betraying an inner woe that only now became apparent to the young and sympathetic sharecropper. It was the same sadness Elmo thought he saw in his uncle’s eyes when he’d first told him that Homer was dead. It was something the old man just couldn’t hide, even if he’d wanted to. And he didn’t.

Joe Cotton put down is pipe, picked up the stone, and held it up to the early morning light. He then began to examine it at arm’s length, to compensate, it would seem, for his far-sighted vision which, although myopically affecting every other aspect of his daily life, never seemed to detract one iota from his fly catching capabilities. Indeed, it was a handicap that only seemed to enhance the old man’s powers in that regard, in the same way, I suppose, that allows blind men to hear, and deaf ones to see, more than they otherwise could under normal conditions, and perhaps more than they ever had before; certainly more than the rest us with full sensory perception. It is a well known and medically documented fact that the loss, or reduction, of any one of the five physical senses more often than not serves to heighten the sensitivity of one, or perhaps even all four, of remaining senses.

With the squinting eyes of some old pop-eyed sailor that had gazed too long on sea and sky, he studied the stone from a variety of angles. He studied at it way a miner might gaze into a piece of recently quarried quartz crystal, searching, perhaps, for clues of more precious minerals hidden within. In Joe’s big brown hands the stone suddenly appeared small, insignificant, and fragile; like a chicken egg, only black, imagined Elmo. Joe Cotton didn’t know exactly what it was, or even what to make of it; but it was something he had seen before. And seeing it again, after all these years, suddenly made him feel older than he actually was; and he was already feeling quite old by then. He placed the stone back on his tired lap, picked up his pipe, and stared at it for a while longer through clouds of thick gray smoke.

Meanwhile, and for no particular reason, Elmo reached out and touched the old man’s hand as it rested on the arm of the chair. Despite its rough and rugged appearance, the skin was soft and subtle, and had a delicate feel to it, like soft brown leather. It reminded him of Homer’s hand, only much darker, and without the transparency.

Then, little by little, the chair began to and rock and roll once again in its old familiar fashion; and the smoke began to rise, just as it had always done before.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

Only now, there was a certain seriousness vibrating through the old piece of furniture, as if an electrical charge had suddenly and somehow been introduced into the grain of the oak itself, energizing each tightly compressed fiber and driving the chair with a new rhythmical force beyond the old man’s power to comprehend or control. It was a disquieting motion, alarming its own electro-mechanical aspect, producing an unnatural sound, which, to Elmo’s young and sensitive ears sounded a little less comforting, and maybe a little less familiar, than it did only moments ago. It was something the old man might’ve noticed as well in the calmness of his quiet deliberation and be equally concerned over. But he did nothing to stop it; he didn’t even try. “You know, Elmo,” he finally said, as the rocking chair slowly regained its previous attitude, “I think it’s about time you and me had us a little talk.”

It was something Joe Cotton had been meaning to do for quite some time now. “You know...” he cautiously began with one eye on the stone and the other on his nephew. But then he paused, as if wondering if the time was right.

Meanwhile, Elmo pretended not to notice anything was wrong; he knew something was not quite right. He could see it in the big man’s eyes, which were suddenly as deep and dark, and as round, as the stone itself.

“No, maybe you don’t know,” the big man resumed, quite frankly, and with a long drawn out sigh. “And that’s the problem, I ‘spose.” His voice cracked a bit; but Joe quickly composed himself, as old folks do in times like these, knowing full well that once the course has been charted, it’s too late to turn back. The anchor was weighed and the sails were already billowing in the breeze. And so, enunciating each word loudly and clearly enough so there would be no mistaking their meaning, the old man admitted for the very first time, “You’re name ain’t Cotton. Now that’s the foist thing you gots to know, Elmo.” He paused. “But I thinks you already knows that by now.”

Elmo blinked.

“And the second thing you gots to know,” croaked the frog, “which is not too different than the foist, is this: “The man who they say yo’ daddy is… well, he ain’t. And that’s a natural fact. And the man who done married yo’ momma… well, his name ain’t Cotton.”

What the old man was attempting to impart on his young nephew that day, as delicately has he could and without getting too personal, was simply this: The man who Elmo had always thought of as his father, Mister Reginald Cotton, the same man who mysteriously ran away so many years ago, was not his father. In fact, they weren’t related at all; at least not by blood which, for all intents and purposes, is what really matters.

Elmo was confused, and it showed.

“You see, son… it’s like this:” And here the old man had to search hard for the right words, “Yo’ daddy…your real daddy, well, he’s not from around these ‘chere parts; that is to say, he not from Harley. He’s what you calls a Creek man; you know, the kinds of folks that lives over younder.” Here Joe pointed with the stem only his pipe in the general vicinity of the nearby bordering town. “He from that place they calls Creekwood Green.”

Elmo nodded, “You mean where all those white folks lives.”

“That’s right, son… where the white folks be,” confirmed Joe. “Tho’ some us older mens still calls ‘em ‘Creeks’ ‘or ‘Crackers’ and other such woids as that. Some folks calls ‘em ‘Greens’.

“I heard that,” Elmo rejoined, familiar with the pejorative words without really knowing exactly how or why they actually came about, except for ‘Creeks’ of course, which was easy enough to understand simply because of the town they came from, Creekwood Green.

But Joe could still see the confusion in the young man’s eyes; and so, he thought it best to come right out with it. “Yo’ momma was raped,” said the old man, lowing his voice just enough to let Elmo know that he was being told something he would rather not hear. “You know what that means – Don’t you, boy?”

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

Elmo had to think about it. Not that he didn’t know the meaning of the word, and all the evil implications associate with it; he did. He simple didn’t know what to do with it at the moment. It was like trying to swallow an apple in one gulp, or a whole loaf of bread with nothing to wash it down with. He just couldn’t do it. All he could really do at that point was to nod and ask “Who?”

“I don’t know…Well, let’s just say I’s not ‘zactly sure,” spoke the frog a little more honestly as puffy white clouds rose up out of the little round bowl.“But I do know this: the man what done this ter’ble thing to yo’ momma is yo’ real daddy…and that he be a white man.” Here, the old man paused, withdrawing the stem from his rubbery wet lips and leaning a little closer. “The only other thing I can tell you,” he added, almost in a whisper, “is that the man who done this ter’ble thing to yo’ momma was a soldier… just like the man you just told me about… the one you calls Red-Beard.”

The thought that entered the Harlies mind just than was so horrible that, even if it were true, it was something he simply refused to believe it.

Joe could sense the young man’s anxiety, and knew he was at least partially responsible. “Now befo’ you gets any ideas,” he said leaning back in his rocking chair, “or do something foolish, you gots to know this, Elmo – I just don’t know. It was during the war, you see, and… well, these things do happen. Now that don’t make it right, and like I said… I just don’t know.”

Elmo thought long and hard on this ambiguous revelation and, much to his uncle’s consternation, suddenly replied “My momma… She know who he is.”

Inserting the flattened end of his pipe back between his rubbery lips, Joe Cotton simply nodded. He realized, of course, that Daisy had to know who he was. She knew; and so did Reggie. But just like Daisy Cotton, who had never fully recovered from the traumatizing event which would eventually kill her, emotionally as well as physically, it was a secrete all three would take to the grave, or so they thought. “She knew, Elmo,” the black man finally had to admit, as much as he wished he hadn’t, “but she never say a woid about it. Not to me… not to nobody.”

Somehow, Elmo believed him. And he really didn’t seem to care. It simply didn’t matter. What did matter, however, was why it took his uncle so long to tell him. Not that it made any difference, or that it would somehow alter their relationship in any significant way. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. And so, he merely shrugged his shoulders as if to say: Okay, Uncle Joe. Now, tell me what’s really the on your mind?”

Joe smiled. He seemed to understand. He reached out and pulled his nephew so close to his face that Elmo could count feel the whiskers and counts cracks in the old man’s un-shaven face as they filled with tears. It was not so much the shrug that made his uncle smile that day, nor the unspoken words manifested therein; but rather it was Elmo’s seemingly ambivalent attitude (that strange and innocuous combination of ignorance and indifference that comes so naturally with youth) towards the thorny and difficult subject Joe had always considered much too private and personal to talk about, especially with his young nephew, that cracked a smile to the old frog’s face just then. You see, it really didn’t seem to matter. Not anymore! Not to Elmo Cotton anyway. He said so himself. Not in so many words, maybe; but in the only way he could; the only way he knew how: with a simple smile and shrug of the shoulders Joseph Cotton came to know and love so well. It spoke wondrous volumes; and it was all the old man really had to hear that day...

And so, the truth finally came out (well, some of it at least) along with a few tears. But the wise old frog knew all along that the truth is never quite that simple, and is sometimes not what it appears to be. It all comes down to a matter of perspective, he’d always maintained: how we look at things, what we make of them, and sometimes where we find them. In fact, there were times when more truth can be found in a single page of fiction, or the incredible tall tales of a lonely old man like Homer Skinner (and we all know how tall and incredible those could be!) than we can in Franklin’s Almanac the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and combined. The truth is often like that, I suppose: like searching for the Jodo Bird; something Reggie once told Joe about not so many years ago when he returned from sea. It was said to be a myth, or legend, something the sailors of Old Port Fierce still spoke of in their own reminiscing and wonderings ways, or just to pass the time. It was something about an elusive bird of prey they referred to as ‘Jodo’. It was said to inhabit an island of volcanic proportions somewhere in the South Pacific, exclusively, and was thought to be extinct at one time. Joe remembered it well. ‘They said that ‘Ol’ Jo’ lives on tropical island paradise in the Parrot Archipelago,’ he once mentioned to little Elmo Cotton when he was still too young to understand, or remember, “deep inside a volcano, in a place they calls ‘The Land of the Bleeding Rock’, which was a colorful euphemism for an island that really did exist and was once under the military command of a famous army General named Walter Stanley. Some of the Islanders, as well as the soldiers who are stationed there to this day in the newly constructed fort, still refer to the lonely atoll by its native appellation, Ishtari-Toa, which means, quite literally, ‘Island of two volcanoes’.

And it is on this same tropical island where the Jodo Bird was said to live and nest high atop the cratered head of the larger of the two active volcanoes, Apo, appropriately named for the great sun-god himself who dwelled within the mountain of the Sun. Not far from him, and adorned in all her raw naked beauty, the result of a recent eruption that had left the smaller of the two mountains in smoldering ash and burning cinders that could still be seen glowing in the night by ships at sea passing near the barbarous coast of Istari-Toa, sat the goddess Lunani. She reigned in the adjacent hill directly behind Apo’s massive green shoulder in the mountain of the moon, her pockmarked landscape appearing as scared as the lunar surface itself. Separating the two natural formations, and thus dividing the island deities, was a deep valley that ran east to west through a dense rain forest situated in the center of the island. It was called, appropriately enough, the Valley of the Sun; for indeed it was perhaps the only place in the immediate vicinity where the face of Apo, the sun-king, could be seen in all awesome and overwhelming glory.

It was further stated, with no small amount of wonder or credibility, that once a year the Jodo bird would fly out of the fiery furnace, located somewhere deep inside Apo’s crowned and cratered head, and circle the island in search of a mate, which, of course, would never be found, for the sad and simple reason that this fine avian specimen was, in fact, the last of a this peculiar species. And who-so-ever was bold and cunning enough to snare the elusive silver-crested, hooked-bill, web-footed Jodo bird, would not only command the queen’s ransom in gold, which would indeed be enough to sink an entire fleet of Spanish galleons, but be crowned, for good or evil, the divine and eternal king of Istari-Toa.

Anyway, that’s the way Joe Cotton remembered it. That’s exactly how a familiar young sailor once described it so many years ago when he spoke the truth, disguised as it sometimes comes in colorful stories and wonderful parables that make sense only when seen through the innocent and adventurous eyes of a child and interpreted by the wise; for sometimes that’s the best way (perhaps, the only way) for the truth to be told, understood, and believed. And that is also why it’s so hard for some folks to find and grasp it, and impossible for others. And what exactly is the ‘Truth’? Well, if you really want to know the truth… it is simply this: You have to want it first, before you find it; and, just like the Jodo Bird, you have to believe it, before you can actual have it. And another thing about the truth, the old man suddenly realized, was something he’d always tried to impress upon his young nephew, and something he might have forgotten himself if Elmo wasn’t there to remind him just then; and it was this: The truth just ain’t worth a damn unless it’s the whole truth. And it was time for Joe Cotton to tell the whole truth.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

And so, the old man pulled a long red handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his broad brown forehead, which almost looked as if it was leaking by then, and told the truth. He didn’t know exactly how to do it; but he gave it his best shot. “The man who married yo’ momma was Reggie Cotton, tho’ that wasn’t his real name; he just borrowed that name, so-to-speak, from me. His real true name was Harley, Ezekiel Harley, tho’ most folks just calls him ‘Zeke’. He was one of twelve sons born to Mister Erasmus Harley, who I thinks you already knows about.”

Elmo nodded, having heard the famous name, Erasmus Harley, mentioned on several occasions, mostly by the older folks in town would speak of the dead patriarch from time to time through toothless smiles and cloudy memories, sometimes referring to him by his African name, which the Harlie cold never seem to remember. Like so many African slaves at the time whose real names were summarily stripped from them long before they ever set foot on the fruited soil, along with whatever cultural identities they may have clung to during the long arduous voyage that spirited them from their African homeland, so too would the off-spring that sprung from that same old tree pull up their roots and start life all over again in the world of E pluribus Unum, where princes are pounded into paupers, slaves become kings, and even begging, with a little ingenuity and elbow grease, can be turned into a profitable enterprise.

Who didn’t know about old Erasmus Harley? Certainly everyone, in Harley at least, had heard the name, if not the entire story, about the old patriarch who walked away from his master, Buford Harley, shortly after the Great Emancipation. He was not only the founder of the town they both currently resided in, the name of which alone bears tribute to the great man, but its chief architect and first mayor. Not only that, when he died, at the ripe old age of ninety-six, Erasmus Harley was also one of the wealthiest, having the knowledge and the foresight (acquired talents he magnanimously attributed to his former friend and employer whom he never really considered his master, even though it was something that was just understood at the time) to begin planting the famous Harley beans in the rich muddy of the region that was custom made for such a agricultural enterprise. But we already know enough about that.

“Anyway, continued the old frog, “Zeke and Daisy got married right ‘chere in Harley. I was what you calls the ‘best man’, and was there when them two young lovers foist jumps over the broom stick.” What the old man was referring to, of course, was the age old tradition, still practiced by many colored folks through-out these United States, of jumping over a broom ceremoniously placed on the ground right after the sacred vows are taken as a symbol of…of… well, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. It was a tradition, one of those old customs that simply survived over the years, like so many others, the exact meaning of which is not nearly as important as the mere fact that it had actually did survive, when so much of the past had been taken away.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

Naturally, the old man would have liked to end the story right there, but he didn’t. If Elmo was to know the truth, he would have to know the whole truth. Joe Cotton knew that by now, and so he resumed: “Daisy found out she was with child one month after the weddin’. ‘Course, everyone thinks they knows who the daddy is. But they was all wrong, you see. It wasn’t Zeke. He know that… and so do Daisy. They both know Zeke ain’t the father.”

Naturally, Elmo didn’t have to ask how, or why. He knew enough about a woman’s cycle, and ‘fightin’, to follow his uncle’s logic.

“Now when Zeke foist hears the news, he go mad. Naturally, he wants to kill the man who did that there ter’ble thing to yo’ momma; but like I say befo’, Daisy wouldn’t tell, only that it was a white and that he was a soldier man. That’s all she say about it. And I gusss that’s when ol’ Zeke really lose his mind. ‘I gots to gonna leave that girl, Joe!’ he say to me one day, mad as the devil. And he meant it, too! I can tell by the way he talk. He be tellin’ me the truth tho’. And I guess you can’t blames him fo’ that. Most any man would do just the same, under those coicumstances. But with Zeke it was a little bit different. You see, son, Zeke be a proud man, from a proud family; just like his daddy, ol’ ‘Rasmus. He be what you calls a jealous man; which, when you gets right down to it, I ‘spose we all is. But that don’t excuse what he do next.”

And what was that? the Harlie spoke with his eyes.

“He did ‘zactly what he say he do,” said the old man with a look in his clouded eyes that betrayed his true feeling on the whole unwholesome subject he wished might have turned out otherwise. “He run away. Zeke Harley just up and go away, leavin’ that poor pregnant woman behind. And there she was, getting’ bigger and bigger by the day. It was all the talk of the town. And some folks can be real mean ‘bout that, too. And they’s some evil-minded people out there, Elmo. Evil as sin! It hoit Daisy… Hoit her bad, son – real bad! But she just go on, mindin’ her own bi’ness, even tho’ deep inside I knowed she was dyin’. And as he said it, the pipe in Joe’s leathery lips went dead, extinguished it would seem by lack of oxygen. Joe removed it and placed it on the arm of his chair.

Elmo tried to hold back the anger he was feeling at the moment, as well as a tear that suddenly appeared from the corner of his eye. “So that’s why he run away then…” the sharecropper spoke out loud, even though he knew the answer by then, “Because of me.”

Striking a match along the textured surface of the stone, which burst brightly into a blue and yellow flame, the old man re-ignited his pipe replied: “There be some evil-minded people in this here woild, Elmo, who might say a wicked thing like that. But they’s just talkin’ like the devil, you know. ‘Course you was just a baby back then and didn’t know any better. But anyone who say such an evil thing like that is woise than the devil his-self! Besides, it wasn’t nobody’s fault. Ain’t yo’ momma’s fault. Ain’t your daddy’s fault. Coitinly ain’t yo’ fault. In fact, I really don’t even think it was that soldier man’s fault, either, come to think of it.” What the old man was really thinking, and what he dare not say out loud, especially not in front Daisy Cotton’s son, was just how beautiful Elmo’s mother really was, and how almost every man in town tried to court her at one time or another. Ezekiel Harley just happened to be one of them. He also came from a very old and well-respected family, which always helped in those romantic situations, despite the eventual outcome. “It just happened,” said Joe, “It was just one of those, what’s you call? – Happenstances. So don’t let anyone be tellin’ you any differently now. They just be lying; showin’ them ol’ horns. Tain’t nobody’s fault! Zeke just go away. And that’s all there is to it. Shortly after that,” he said, dragging the red handkerchief along his beading brow once more, “Daisy up and died.”

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

Elmo looked at the ground, his heart hardening even as the tears swelled up in his downcast eyes. “He killed her then,” he silently spoke, just loud enough for his uncle to hear

Joe stuffed the handkerchief back in his trousers. “Well,” the old man responded, “You might say that, Elmo… But not me. No, sir! I won’t say that. I just say can’t it’s true. But then again,” he added with a long labored draw on his pipe, “I can’t say it ain’t, either. I just don’t know, son.”

“Zeke killed her!” Elmo insisted, “And that’s the truth – Ain’t it, Uncle Joe?”

“Killin’s a mighty pow’ful woid, son,” admonished the frog, “ – a serious woid! And like I said… I don’t knows if it’s true or not. And neither do you, boy. All I knows for sure is that Zeke run away. Just like he said he would. Ain’t nobody surprised. Not even Daisy, I ‘spose. She know. She had to know. Ol’ Zeke never did tell anyone where he was goin’. Not me… not nobody! And I reckon he told me just about everythin’ back in those days. We was like brudders, you know, me and Zeke – just like brudders! All he says to me at the time is ‘I gots to go away, Joe. I gots to go.’ You was just a lil’ baby boy back then, you know; maybe two or three years old. Just beginnin’ to talk! Zeke never tell me where he go. He just puts on them ol’ travelin’ shoes, just like he said he would, and he go. Foist he goes to Creekwood Green, see? Lookin’ for the man that done that ter’ble thing to yo’ momma, I ‘spose.”

“You mean that white man, Uncle Joe?” Elmo wondered out loud, “…the soldier man?”

“I reckon,” Joe replied, although he was never too sure about that, either. “It was about that same time when Zeke changed his name. Begins callin’ his-self Cotton – Reginald Cotton. Don’t ask me why. He never told me. Never even asked! – tho’ I always ‘spect it has sumpin’ to do with that Creek woman, the one they say he done moidered. The Law, you know. And it’s been his name ever since. Not that I ever objected, of course. Shoot! it’s just a name – That’s all. I was only tryin’s to help. It’s good name, son,” the old man added, as if Elmo had to be reminded, “Cotton! Yes, sir. Done carried it mysef all these seventy… seventy… well, let’s just say I carries it all my natural life; fo’ as long as I can remember… and that’s a long time. And it’s a name I was never ‘shamed of. It’s yo’ momma’s name, too; befo’ she was married, that is. She be my baby sister, you know. And now it’s yo’ name. It was Daisy’s idea. She didn’t want… well, let’s just say she like the name – Elmo Cotton. And so does I! So don’t you be ‘shamed of it, either. You here?”

It was the only name Elmo had ever know; the only once he answered to. It was a name he was neither ashamed nor proud of; although he couldn’t say the same for his father, Reginald Cotton, Zeke Harley, or whatever he called himself. And he wasn’t even ashamed of him. It was beyond same. He was just angry; and that anger had only grew over the years, festering inside him, some inner turmoil slowly boiling like a pot of Harley beans on the stove. The angry eventually trued to hatred; and the hatred consumed him, to this very day. He could never forgive him for what he did; to him, and especially his poor mother who, even in her unfathomable grief, never stopped loving him. It was a hatred he would take with him to the grave, and beyond if that was at all possible. And he would take his father with him, if only…

“And that’s the last anyone sees of Reginald Cotton… and Zeke Harley,” sighed the old man, running a crooked fingers over the cold black stone, “Leastways here in Harley. But sometimes it ain’t so easy to run away,” he cautioned, “‘specially when you’s runnin’ from the truth… like Zeke was. News of his whereabouts crop up from time to time. Say ol’ Zeke took up with another woman, a white woman from Creekwood Green. Some say he moidered her. I never believe that tho’. No mo’ than I believe he killed Daisy. Zeke never do a thing like that. He just wasn’t that kind of man. But I reckon Zeke knew what he was after. He always did have an eye fo’ the womens, you know; and it don’t matter where they come from, or what color they be. Not to Ezekiel Harley it don’t. Heh – Heh – Heh,” he suddenly chuckled, the way old man often do when reminiscing on old acquaintances they knew, or thought they knew, so well. “It just don’t matter to ol’ Zeke.”

“I do to me…” replied Elmo.

It occurred to the Joe Cotton that perhaps he’d gone too far. Maybe his nephew wasn’t ready for the truth. He thought about that while caressing the face of the strange black stone Elmo had placed in his lap earlier. He glanced down at it more than once, occasionally scratching the smooth parabolic surface with a thick yellow fingernail, as if trying to find out what, if anything was inside of it.“Some folks say that Zeke and Annie was lovers,” he slowly began again. “Say they was gonna get married. But I don’t believe that. Things like that just don’t happen. Not then, not now; leastways, not around these here parts. Not in Harley. Her kin folk wouldn’t allow it. Come to think of it… neither would ol’ ‘Rasmus! ifin’ he was still alive. Tain’t natural. And besides,” the old man exhaled, “it just ain’t right. And I coitainly don’t believe he moidered that white woman either; the way some folks say. I knows Zeke… and whatever else he do – and what he did to yo’ momma was a ter’ble, ter’ble thing, mind you – he would never do sumpin’ like that,” he cautiously added, neither ready, willing or able, at least at that point, to accuse his best friend and neighbor of the serious sins of adultery and murder without any proof or evidence; especially not in front of Daisy Cotton’s orphaned son. It would only make matters worse, Joe concluded; even if it was the truth.

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

“So that why he runs away…” the Harlie concluded on his own, “Because of some ol’ white woman!” He couldn’t help but notice that as he spoke, his uncle’s hand were shaking, the way Mister Skinner’s often did whenever he was nervous, or scared; the way they appeared just before old deputy went back into the tunnel that day on the mountain, just before he died. Elmo wanted to say something about it just then but knew there was nothing he could do to calm the old man’s nerves. Something was bothering him. It showed, and not just in his trembling hand. And so, he didn’t even try. Besides, he didn’t think it would be proper, or polite. “Is you alright, Uncle Joe?” he just had to ask anyway.

Joe smiled. And as he did, his hands stopped shaking as it rested on top of the stone. “There something else you should know about Zeke,” he said, a little reluctantly perhaps. “Like I said befo’, no one know where he go after that. Some folks say they sees ‘im in Ol’ Port Fierce, down ‘round Shadytown Creekwood Green. Other folks spys him in Creekwood Green. And that may be true. Because, well, you see… Annie, the white woman, well, ain’t nobody know what happened to her, either. She disappeared… just like that!” declared the old fly-catcher with a quick snap of his big brown fingers; so quick, sudden and loud that it threw Elmo’s head back in a jolt, “Just like Zeke. There was talk of moider. Some say Zeke done killed her, after they run off together. Naturally, them Greens do most of the talkin’; Harlies knowed better, of ‘course. And thems that knowed Zeke, like me fo’ instance, know he never do a thing like that. “Ol’ Zeke, he do some mighty foolish things in his life – done some bad things, too; but he ‘coitinly wasn’t no moiderer. And I knows that fo’ a fact! But then again…” the old man sighed, drowning, it would seem, in his own perspiration, “I reckon nobody ever know fo’ sho’… ‘cept God.”

“And the devil…” Elmo replied. “He know.”

The fly-catcher shook his head.

“I’ll find him,” the Harlie insisted, thinking out loud on the front steps of his uncle’s porch, perhaps more hastily than he should have at the time.

The frog replied: “Not around ‘chere you won’t.”

“Where then?”

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

“I don’t know, son.”

“I hate him,” said the Harlie, softly, but with no amount of uncertainty.

“Now what make you go ahead and say a thing like that, Elmo?”

“I don’t know, Uncle Joe. It’s just that....”

“Daisy wouldn’t like to hear you talk like that.”

Elmo replied, “She’s dead… ‘Member?”

Here the old man paused as the chair came to a creaking halt. He knew all along it was only a matter of time, and that sooner or later it would all come down to this; although he still wasn’t exactly sure how he would handle it. As he stopped to think about it, however, a lone horsefly just happened to fly within his grasp.

It was big and black, with a greenish tint boldly displayed on the tip of its multi-eyed head. It was quick, too! Elmo noticed, darting through the air like it knew exactly where it was going at any given moment. In more ways than he cared to remember, it reminded the Harlie of the firefly that pestered Homer by the campfire that night. Only this one appeared to have no intention of perishing in the flame like some spirit in the night. This one looked like it meant business, thought Elmo, whatever that was.

Joe knew it was there along, of course; he’d been watching it for some time now. He took a long deep draw from pipe, placed the expired bowl on the arm of his chair, and blew a cloud of intoxicating smoke in the general direction of the horsefly. Then he waited.

Elmo looked on in anticipation and amazement as the fated fly boldly circled once or twice around the old man’s head, coming to a complete stop it would seem, in mid-air! where it hovered for a brief and fatal moment just before, before…..

In one effortless motion – SWOOSH! Joe Cotton snatched up the insect in mid-flight with a single swipe of his big brown paw. It happened so fast, so quickly, and so silently, just like always did, that if Elmo happened not to be looking directly at it that very same second, he would have missed it entirely. It happened just that fast, that quick – Just like that! And then, as he did a hundred times before, the Harlie sat and watched as his uncle held the horsefly for a moment in a tightly closed fist. He didn’t even have to look. It was there. He knew it was there. Elmo knew it was there. And so did the horsefly. Only this time there appeared to be a slight hesitation on his uncle’s part to kill the unsuspecting insect. His hand was shaking again. Elmo wasn’t sure why. Maybe, he thought, Joe Cotton was just getting old, like he’d said earlier; or perhaps, he had just become more merciful in his old age. Never-the-less, Joe Cotton crushed the last bit of life from the insect in one long and loving squeeze – the death grip. He then let the lifeless body fall silently to the ground. “It’s the smoke…” Joe insisted, striking a Lucifer match-head across the rough naked palm his hand and re-igniting the little white bowl, “Gets ‘em every the time. They just can’t resist it. Slows ’em down, you know.”

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK

went the rocking chair once more, as if nothing had happened that hadn’t happened a thousand times before. It seemed that Joe Cotton had made up his mind by then. After hearing everything his nephew had told him, suspecting some of it might not be as true as he would have preferred, he pulled the pipe from his lips and said in that familiar frog-tone voice, “And now you has to go away, Elmo.”

At first, Elmo wasn’t quite sure to make his uncle’s last statement. There was something disturbing about it. It just didn’t sound right; not like his Uncle Joe anyway. And it didn’t seem to make sense either. Go away…? When? Now? It didn’t really sound like a request. Was it an order? Or maybe, he thought, the old man just tired and simply asking him to leave. Perhaps he wanted to take a nap, the way old men sometimes do, especially after a long talk and a long smoke. But sill… ‘And now you has to go away, Elmo’. It just didn’t boil the beans, as they say in Harley. It was the first time his uncle ever asked him to leave. It never happened before. Harley was his home. And Uncle Joe was the only kin he had; the closest thing to a real father he could ever imagine; besides Homer Skinner, that is. Go away? But then, gazing deep into the keen crows-feet eyes of the old fly-catching frog, Elmo suddenly realized what his uncle was trying to tell him that day, as much as he didn’t want to, and in his own unambiguous way. He was simply telling his nephew the truth.

“Just like Zeke?” Elmo suggested.

The old frog nodded. “Just like Zeke…” Joe reminded his nephew that day, realizing, of course, there was really no other way. “And here, take this damn thing with you,” he further instructed, handing the Motherstone back to his bewildered nephew.

Elmo was strangely relieved that his uncle gave the stone back to him. Somehow he was thinking that he might not; not at that moment anyway, and not so easily. Naturally, he had to ask: “What is it, Uncle Joe?”

The old man looked down at it one last time. “ – A stone!” he curiously smiled, “What else?” And as he said it – SWOOSH! Out shot the big black cannonball as another fated fly fell into the killing embrace of the famous fly-catcher, “It’s yours…”

CREAK – CREAK – CREAK


Chapter Three

The Raccoon and the Sheriff

THE MEN OF HARLEY worked in plain patched overalls and not much else, driving their horse driven plows through the silty soil and muck that so sustained their meager way of life. The women gathered the indigenous crop, known as Harley beans, in long white aprons, their red kerchief heads bobbing through the beanstalks as their children ran barefoot beside them holding on to the innocence and ignorance of youth for a few short years before they too were wearing patched overall, long white aprons, and working the fields of Harley just like their parents.

The weeks passed slowly, too slowly for the sharecropper. The work was hard, especially that time of year when there was both harvesting and plowing going on, the latter in preparation for next year’s spring planting, and little time to do it. There had been a lack of rain all that year; and so, the current crop was meager, of poorer quality than usual, and with a very low yield. The only consolation was the fact that there would be less harvesting to do, which would afford Elmo a little more time to plant his cover crop of cabbage that winter and, perhaps, get a few other things done around the farm he’d been neglecting for the last three years. He’d also planted some barley and rye earlier that year and, with a little bit of luck, he might even be able to brew a little ale. He could sure use some.

Elmo had been finding it difficult to concentrate on his work as of lately. Not that driving a plow behind a slow and obstinate mule demanded any measure of intellectual capacity; it’s just that Elmo had other things on his mind to consider; like what his uncle had told him on his front porch not too long ago; not to mention a sheriff by the name of John Townsend who’d been asking questions about him. He tried not to think about it too much, even though he’d already made up him mind on one aspect of his predicament. He would have to leave Harley, for a little while anyway; he just couldn’t decide when.

Sometimes, like today for instance, he wondered why he continued to work at all. He didn’t have to look further than his own front door for the answer. It was his family, of course, Nadine and the boy. If not for them, thought the sharecropper on more than one occasion, he would’ve left Harley a long time ago; and he probably wouldn’t come back. But it was a little more complicated than that. He still had seven more years of farming left on his contract; and somewhere, in Isaiah Armstrong’s house, there was a piece of paper with the initials ‘E.C.’ scribbled on the bottom that said so. The last thing Elmo Cotton needed was more trouble with the Law. But he suspected it was already on its way. And he really didn’t think there was anything Joe Cotton could say, or do, to change any of that, no matter what he knew about the sheriff.

Three weeks had passed since the sharecropper returned home from the mountain, and already rumors were spreading around town about a certain Harlie and a number of missing Creekmen. One was more incredible than the other, and no two were ever quite the same, varying in details that no one, except maybe the Harlie himself, could have known or predicted; and, of course, they all swore it was the truth. One version of that ‘truth’ was that Homer Skinner had found what he was looking for: the gold he’d spoken of often enough with such a wide and varying audience; and that he and his suspicious companions blew up the old mine after finding the tainted treasure and fled out west to spend their ill-gotten gain in secret squander. Another rumor, which was actually close to the truth, was that they were all dead, and that Elmo Cotton, the Harlie, had something to do with it; although no one could actually say exactly what that was or how he might have been involved in the crime. Obviously, there was no evidence to support the allegation (not yet, anyway), no motive; and the certainly wasn’t any gold. Unless, of course…

But Elmo Cotton was just as poor as ever, or so it seemed; and why in the world would he still be hitched to the back of a mule if he did find the gold? It just didn’t boll the beans. But that didn’t stop the suspicion, the lies, or the gossip. There were other stories as well, some involving the consumption of human flesh, which were too (pardon the pun) difficult to digest. The one thing they all had in common, however, was that they all included the name Elmo Cotton; it seemed to come up each and every time, in one way or another. And the rumors didn’t stop at the Iron Gates of Harley. Word quickly spread for miles around that there were a number of men from Creekwood Green looking for a young, light-skinned Harlie with blue eyes; and one of them just happened to be Sheriff John Townsend.

It was Mrs. Skinner who had first noticed her husband’s unusual long absence, and brought it to the sheriff’s attention shortly after he’d failed to return from his last trip into the mountains. It wasn’t uncommon for Homer to be gone for a week or two, especially that time of year when the weather was more to his liking. But after three weeks had passed she’d became understandably suspicious, and maybe a little worried. And so, she promptly went to the authorities: in this case the Sheriff of Creekwood County, Mister John Townsend, and his deputies.

There was a search, of course; the results of which were still pending investigation and being kept secret for ‘reasons of public safety’ according to the sheriff. They came back with only one dead body; and it wasn’t Homer’s. There was no sign of what’d happened to Mister Skinner or any of the others, including four horsemen, a large Negro and his Indian companion who’d last been seen riding North West out of Harley in the company of a red-bearded army officer. And with no evidence to prove otherwise they were all, with the sole exception of Elmo Cotton, presumed either dead or missing, or both. There was no such presumption in regard to Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, however. He was indeed dead. There was no mistake about it. It was confirmed not only by his uniform, but by a large hole in Red-Beard’s chest that Lester Cox, the Creekwood coroner, attributed to being the most likely cause of death; although, without a weapon, it was something he couldn’t prove it in a court of law. But he did manage to stitch up the gaping wound in Red-Beard’s chest, even though it really wasn’t necessary for the funeral. The one thing he couldn’t do, however, was get the colonel’s eyes to close. He tried every trick in the book (Standard Techniques In Funerals and Formaldehydes – otherwise known as S.T.I.F.F. ) but nothing seemed to work. Not even the tried and true pennies placed on the eyes! They simply wouldn’t stay put. ‘Oh well…’ Lester was overheard by one of his assistant’s that dark day in the mortuary, ‘better a blind saint than a seeing sinner’. The body was laid to rest in Creekwood Green, at a cemetery reserved for dead and forgotten soldiers. An old army chaplain said the Eulogy. He was buried in the same bloody uniform he was wearing on top of the mountain where he was found with a hole in his chest. There was no flag. There were no flowers. Only a headstone that simply read: Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn – Soldier. There was also a coffin… and, of course, a money back guarantee.

Naturally, there were many questions. Not only had Mister Horace Horn been an officer in the United States army, a colonel by all official reckoning; but he also happened to be related, if not by blood than at least by marriage (not his own, of course; there was just no written record that Horace had ever married or fathered any children) to one of the oldest and most prominent families in the territory – the Odies. ‘Might be a matter for the military…’ sheriff Townsend suggested at the time, hoping, perhaps, to let the government handle the controversial case rather than having to adjudicate it himself. Military tribunals were not only more discreet, he was keen to realize, they were quicker too! And with all the Odies and Horns to consider, it probably wasn’t such a bad idea; especially since the Horn boys (Rusty was actually one of five brothers) were to known to take the Law into their own ruthless hands from time to time and ask questions later. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on what side of the Law you’re on, I suppose) it’s not always that easy to get answers from a dead man.

It was suspected that the Harlie might know something about what had actually happened, especially since he was the only one to return from the mountain that day. Against her own better judgment, but upon the advice of her in-laws, Mrs. Skinner testified seeing her husband ride off in the direction of Harley the morning he’d disappeared along with the red bearded colonel and a few others, some of which she had recognized. She just assumed that Elmo would be going with them, even though she’d warned her husband not to involve the Cotton’s in any of his ‘crazy schemes’. She turned out to be right, of course. And when the body of Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, also known as ‘Red-Beard’, was found up in the hills with a hole in his chest large enough to rule out any accident, folks naturally became suspicious. They began asking questions, and looking in the general direction of Harley for answers. It happened just like Joe Cotton said it would.

People talk; they always do, especially in Harley where reading and writing skills were about as rare as hens’ teeth and just as scarce. At first Elmo shrugged it all off as rumor and gossip. How would they know? How could they? They weren’t there? Even he was never quite sure of what’d actually happened that day on top of the mountain, the events of which at times seemed more like a bad dream he would just as soon forget. And he was there! Perhaps that’s why he had so much trouble remembering them. Or maybe he was just ‘showin’ his horns’ again, as his uncle suggested. Either way, he tried not to think about it. Besides, he’d other things on his mind, including the sheriff and his deputies who were lately seen riding right up to the Iron Gates of Harley, stopping just short of making an arrest, it would seem. And there was still plenty of work to do around the farm.

In little time it was understood all around the territories that a man from Harley shot dead a man from Creekwood Green somewhere in the vicinity of the Silver Mountains, Mount Wainwright to be more specific, and that the sheriff was looking for a young Harlie named Elmo Cotton. It came as little or no surprise, to anyone, including the Harlie himself who knew, in his own dreadful heart, that it was just a matter of time.

To mitigate suspicion, it would seem, the sharecropper merely laughed when he first heard the news from his wife, hoping that his own callous indifference would put to rest any doubts she might be entertaining at the time regarding his own involvement, which he himself still wasn’t sure of. But at times like these, the Harlie’s cavalier attitude sometimes worked against him. Nadine Cotton may’ve only been a simple farm girl, and naïve in many ways of the segregated world she knew so little of; but she could be shrewd and resourceful when need be, and knew when something wasn’t quite right, as most women do in serious situations that naturally awaken those maternal instincts they are famous for, especially when it concerns their children. It was obvious that something was bothering her husband ever since he came back down from the mountain. It was even more obvious that he’d been avoiding her lately. Marrying Elmo Cotton may not have been the smartest thing Nadine Simpson ever did, but it was certainly wasn’t the dumbest, or the worst. She loved her husband, and he loved her; although at times he could be strangely quiet, alone in thoughts she’d could never understand and had long since stopped trying to unravel. It seemed there were just some places a farm girl could not go. Not that she really wanted to, of course; it as just one of those things her parents warned her about before they were married. That’s another thing about farm girls – they seldom listen to their parents, at last when it comes to farm-boys and marriage.

There were things Elmo never told his wife that were, for the most part, of little or no consequence, he imagined; things that would only have embarrassed him and made her angry, if he did. ‘Don’t worry ‘bout it…’ he would often say when, after a long hard day behind the plow, his wife would meet him at the door, worn and weary, and with ‘all the troubles in the world’ resting on her slender shoulders. That’s when he began staying out late at night, and not always in the fields, much to his wife’s concern. ‘Mens is sometimes like that’ her mother once told her. But this was different. Nadine knew when something was wrong. She could tell by the way her husband tried to laugh it all off, as if nothing were wrong, at least nothing that wouldn’t eventually go away, on its own, ‘… the way it came’, as General George Washington once said of the virus he contracted one fateful evening while surveying the cold damp hills of Mount Vernon, and the one that eventually killed the old warhorse. Elmo pretended not to notice his wife’s cold probing stare. It was a look he had seen before, and one he’d been exposed to ever since he returned. It was difficult to avoid and almost impossible to escape. It was the look any farmer could relate to, especially if they were married to farm girls who knew enough about farm-boys to know better. And it always made him uncomfortable: like he’d just done something bad, or wrong; or even worse, if he’d done something ’Bad-wrong!’ which, as we all know, is something you just don’t want to do, whether you live on the farm or in the city. It was a look Elmo was familiar with, typically accompanied by a disdainful verbal admonition, a choice of words only a farm girl would know, that made him even more uneasy. But Nadine Cotton was an understanding and loving woman; and the warnings, although administered for the Harlie’s own good, was never meant to hurt, only protect. If she really wanted to hurt him, she could do that, too; as any farm girl with a frying pan and broomstick can tell you.

It wasn’t until his wife came home in tears one day that Elmo finally realized that he was in serious trouble. She was crying, it seemed, on account of some gossip she’d been exposed to at Ike’s general store that day concerning not only her husband’s indictment in the matter of the deceased army officer, but his most certain conviction. ‘Just a matter of time…’ she happened to overhear Mrs. Myrick telling Mrs. Dixon in a most un-neighborly and unnecessary way. ‘I always knew that Elmo was up to no good!’ the widow Furley butted in, even though she lived clear on the other side of Harley, miles from the Cotton farm, and only came into Ike’s store every other Saturday just to hear the latest gossip. And then there were the men who, in more ways than one, could be just bad as the women when it came to such innuendo. ‘Them Creek peoples won’t be satisfied ‘til they see a Harlie swingin’ on the Redstone and dancin’ in they sky. Humph!’ as the store clerk insensitively observed that same day, right in front of Elmo’s own wife, as he ran his greasy dirty fingers through the pickle barrel. Hanging from the end of a rope, which was the usual punishment for murder and other capital offenses, was what he really should have said. But he didn’t have to; everyone knew exactly what he meant, including the sharecropper’s wife.

“But the gun just went off…” Elmo tried to convince his wife that day, just as he did his Uncle Joe a few days earlier. He often wondered how much more difficult it would be to convince a judge, or a jury. He’d been down this road before, it seemed; and he still had the scars to prove it. Only this time there were eight men involved – not just one with a broken leg who probably deserved a whole lot worse than he got – and six of them were white. One was dead. He didn’t think anyone would believe him, and wished by then he’d listened to his wife after all and not have gone off with Homer and the others. But most of all, he wished that he’d never heard of the names Red-Beard, Rusty, or Colonel Horace Horn. Maybe Ike was right, he said to himself: “Should’a stayed on the farm… where I belongs.”

And what did he have to show for it? Certainly not any gold; not even five dollars, which was all he ever wanted anyway; and that was just to buy Nadine the new bathtub she’d been wanting ever since…well, ever since the incident with the Urinator. To this day, she still refused to use the same tub Dick Dilworth peed in, even after Elmo had scrubbed it clean with lye soap and acid. She chose instead to bath over at Mrs. Dixon’s house next door, which was actually more than a mile away. But it was worth the effort, as any self-respecting farm girl would agree, especially if you knew Dick Dilworth. It was during one of those daily visits that Sherman Dixon accidently saw her undressing in the tub which, until this very day, Mrs. Dixon still has doubts about. More than once the Harlie told his wife that she was just acting foolish. Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t. It was something only a woman would, and could, understand, as he himself finally came to realize. And the old tub was still there, next to the kitchen door, right where it had always been! Nadine wouldn’t allow him to move it. It was a farm girl’s way of reminding her husband of what a terrible thing it was that happened to her, and perhaps getting him to buy her a new one in the process. The truth of the matter was that ever since the incident occurred, Elmo never felt comfortable bathing in it either, but, unlike his modest wife, would never ask to use another man’s bathtub. It just wasn’t… right! In fact, whenever he did take a bath at home, which wasn’t nearly as often as he should have, as far as Nadine was concerned, the Harlie dirt farmer was only reminded of little Dick Dilworth, currently deceased, and how badly he needed a new bathtub. All he needed now was five dollars to buy a new one. But he didn't even have that. All he had to show for himself was and the strange black he’d brought back down from the mountain, the Motherstone, which he still thought to be of some value, although he didn’t know how much. He kept it hidden (where else?) under the old bathtub where he knew for certain Nadine Cotton would never find it, simply because it was the last place in the world she would ever look – for anything!

He would sometimes sneak out of the bed, late at night when he knew his wife was sleeping under the covers, just to look at it. It never changed, not like it did that one time on the mountain. It was as black and dull as the day he lifted it from the hands of the dead man, and just as worthless, despite whatever Colonel Horn saw in that day that made him want it so badly. It was, after all, just a plain, simple, and quite ordinary looking, stone. And it was black. There was nothing special about it; at least nothing Elmo could see, or tell. There were no more lights, no more lines, no more sounds or colors, no more images – no life! And there were definitely no more pictures moving inside as they once did when it sprang to life up on the mountain that day. Not like before. Presently, the stone was nothing more than a simple round inorganic object, as black as the back of Sherman’s hand, Elmo imagined, and as dead as the man who he once held it.

He hadn’t exactly figured out what it was yet; but still, he reckoned it must be worth something… to somebody. Otherwise, why all the fuss and bother? And why did Red-Beard want it so badly? It was enough to kill for; that much he was sure of. But was it enough to die for? Surely, it must be worth something, the Harlie kept telling himself. He wished Homer was still alive to help him; the old man always knew about these sorts of things.

* * *

THEN ONE DAY, just as Joe Cotton predicted, the sheriff came riding into town on a tall gray mare. He found Elmo working in the fields, as usual, behind his mule and terraplane.

Sheriff John Townsend as a fair man, just like Uncle Joe said he was; and he was willing, or so it seemed, to hear the sharecropper out. Elmo told the sheriff everything he knew about what’d happened that day up in the mountains, leaving out only a few minor details he thought to be of little use or consequence. He figured that they were nobody’s business but his own, and, in the larger scope of things, really didn’t matter anyway.

The two men talked for a while, with the sharecropper doing most of the taking and the lawman doing most of the listening. He seemed satisfied with Elmo's account of what happened, or, more specifically, what didn’t happen; but he was still troubled over a few other things; and it showed. Elmo could see it in his eyes. They talked some more.

“The gun just went off,” Elmo told the sheriff that day, just as he already told his uncle and his wife. And other than that, there was really nothing left for him to say.

John Townsend might’ve left it at that, but there was something in the Harlie’s apology that made him suspicious; and so, he thought he’d talk to the sharecropper a little more about it. “You’re Joe Cotton’s boy. Ain’t you, son?”

“He’s my uncle,” said Elmo, even though he couldn’t see how that really mattered.

“Good man, Joe,” mused the sheriff. “Good farmer too! Used to buy my beans from him; a while ago, back when he was sharecropping. Harley beans, you know. Good stuff! A little hard on the digestion… but mighty tasty.” The sheriff of Creekwood County had a way of talking in short, quick sentences that made him sound very serious at times, the way lawmen often do; but in a reassuring sort of way.

It was always customary for Harlies not to talk personal matters with anyone from Creekwood Green, and visa-versa, particularly when it concerned matters involving the Law and other Harlies, and especially not to the sheriff or any of his deputies. It was just one of those things, I suppose; it was to be expected. Without being asked to, and feeling just a little bit guilty about leaving out certain parts of what had actually happened, Elmo repeated his apology. “The gun just went off….”

As he’d done on previous occasions, and perhaps more out of habit than anything else, Elmo reached for the top of his head to see if his horns were showing – again. They were not, of course; but that didn’t necessarily mean he was being entirely truthful, as the sheriff was just then beginning to suspect. He pulled his hand away just in time, pretending instead to scratch his nose.

As far as Sheriff John was concerned self-defense would be a reasonable and logical enough explanation for what probably happened, in view of the circumstances and if, in fact, Mister Cotton was defending himself at the time. After all, Red-Beard was shot in the chest, not in the back, which would only support the Harlie’s argument, if you can call it that. Whether or not he was actually guilty of murder was something for a judge, and perhaps a jury, to decide reckoned the sheriff; even though Elmo hadn’t really admitting to any such crime just yet – The gun just went off. But of course, guns normally just don’t ‘go off’ by themselves, he was also was quick to observe; but never-the-less, it does happen from time to time, and for any number of reasons, mostly mechanical, although he just couldn’t recall anyone actually using it as an excuse in a murder trial. Someone had to pull the trigger. And if not the Harlie – Then who?

The sheriff knew Colonel Horn from previous encounters, and found it difficult to believe that anyone, especially a poor young sharecropper like this one, could have taken Red-Beard down so easily, and with just one shot. In fact, it was difficult to imagine that one round could bring Red-Beard down at all. It was a gunshot wound, apparently, that had killed the colonel. He was hit in the chest, at about twelve paces according to the coroner, Lester Cox, which means he probably knew the man who killed him. It was a direct hit, but shotgun wounds are not always fatal; and the resilient colonel had survived much worse, thought the sheriff, mostly during the war, not to mention getting shot to pieces once on the battlefield and sown back together in some diabolical fashion. Colonels just don’t down that easily. John Townsend had personally put a bullet in Rusty’s leg when he was actually gunning for another outlaw named Alvin Webb who just happened to be riding with the red bearded colonel that day. At the time, he thought he hit the wrong mark; now he wasn’t so sure.

Maybe the gun did just ‘go off’, as the sharecropper so adamantly protested, thought Sheriff John Townsend. But that didn’t explain everything; and there were a few things he hadn’t told the Harlie yet; things which could, and would, make a difference in his trial, if that’s what it finally came to. There was always a chance, and maybe even a good one, that Elmo Cotton wasn’t telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth which, as any judge or prosecuting attorney will tell you, is just as bad, or even worse; to which a good defense attorney would surely object. But until he could prove otherwise, or come up with evidence against him, Sheriff John Townsend knew that he would have to give the Harlie the benefit of the doubt, which was more than anyone else in Creekwood County was willing to give him, and more than he actually deserved under the fatal circumstances. It was the only fair thing to do. There was already talk of a lynching; and the ones talking the loudest were the ones that knew the least, as they typically do in these situations, about the Law.

Sheriff Townsend considered the case still under investigation and pending for the moment. There were no charges filed, and nothing he could hold the Harlie on; and so, he did nothing, for the time being anyway. Besides, Mister Elmo Cotton hadn’t committed any serious crimes as of lately, aside from beating another young man and breaking his leg, which Sheriff John always considered a miscarriage of justice. Having made the initial arrest in the case of Dilworth Vs. Cotton, he was well aware of circumstances surrounding the crime, including trespassing (even though the land technically belong to Ike Armstrong, which didn’t seem to help in the Harlie’s defense) and urinating on private property; in Elmo’s case, his wife’s bathtub, which John Townsend found even more offensive, along with a most of the women on the jury that day. But breaking a man’s leg is a serious offense, not to mention the beating he also sustained, especially in Creekwood Green where the trial actually took place, and particularly in front of an all white jury. ‘Just one of the things…’ was all Sheriff John could say at the end of a long hot summer’s day. He always considered the sentence a little hash, then and now, and had a sympathetic eye for Harlies ever since, especially this on particular Harlie, Elmo Cotton, who seemed to have more than his share of bad luck. Joe Cotton was right, the sharecropper couldn’t help but wonder: John Townsend was a ‘fair man’.

Legally, however, he should have brought Elmo in for questioning; at least it would have given the appearance that he was doing his job. But even that would not be enough for some folks. John Townsend had always believed that the Harlie bean farmer was treated unfairly for his previous offense, and that he’d already been punished enough for a crime that surely would’ve been excused, or at least mitigated to some extent, by more a more lenient jury and those with less prejudicial minds. ‘Hell’s hounds!’ he barked out loud at the time of Elmo’s brief but humiliating incarceration, ‘I would’ve shot the little bastard myself…’ Sheriff Townsend knew Dick Dilworth was a troublemaker from the start, as were most young men who associated themselves with the likes of Alvin Webb and the tobacco-spitting surveyor to whom he was sporadically employed and presumed dead as well by then, and probably had it coming. But he didn’t deserve to die, if, in fact, what the Harlie was telling him was the truth. And neither did the others, including Colonel Horace Horn who, as far as sheriff Townsend was concerned, should have been the prime suspect in the case, if not for the fact that he was already dead, along with the seven others who, as a matter of protocol, were still officially listed as missing.

“Too bad about Homer,” lamented the sheriff with an affectionate sigh of respect. “We were friends. I saw his wife – I mean, his widow – Mrs. Skinner, only yesterday. She’s not taking it too well, you know. Gettin’ on in years, poor woman. Mrs. O’Brien was with her over at the house, the carpenter’s wife. Looked mighty upset. Such a pretty young woman, too, considering...”

Elmo noted the sheriff’s use of the words was and widow. He suspected that Mister Townsend knew he wasn’t telling the truth, at least not all of it; and it made him anxious. He was also feeling sorry for the women, especially Mrs. Skinner who he was always very fond of, despite of what she told the sheriff. He hadn’t talked to her since he returned, and wondered if he should. But what could he say? He was afraid that she would blame him for Homer not coming home; and he just didn’t think he could bear that. “I’m sorry ‘bout that,” he said to the sheriff; and he meant it, too. “Mister O’Brien was a friend of mine.” There was nothing else to say.

“I liked Hector,” John continued, pushing up the brim of Stetson to get a better look at this unusual looking Harlie, “…fixed my roof once. Hell of a carpenter! What’s that they called him…Oh yes! The Hammer. Good name for a good man. Married that pretty young girl too! Oh, well. She’ll find another, I reckon. They always do, you know. I heard there’s a child involved, a boy. Didn’t know ol’ Hector had it in him! Too bad. The others left no wives or children behind, if I’m not mistaken.”

He wasn’t. As it were, they were all, except for Homer and Hector, dyed- in- the- wool bachelors with no immediate families to speak of; at least, not they were aware of or would freely admit to. If either Sam or his Indian companion had entered into the sacred Institution marriage, in whatever form it may have presented itself to either of the two practicing pagans, or if they had any kin at all that might be wondering what had happened to them by now, no one knew; and no seemed one care. As far as the Law was concerned, they were merely statistics; and not very important ones at that.

“Well, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself,” stated the sheriff with a hint of friendly optimism. “I hope so. But you never know... not until we find the bodies,” he added while eyeing the Harlie for any sign of retreat from his earlier statement.

Elmo showed no such sign of revising or editing his story at that point. And except for occasionally reaching up to touch the imaginary horns sprouting from his head, he was feeling guiltless as a newly born baby. “Mister Skinner was my friend,” the Harlie tried to explain.” It was the truest thing he’d said that day.

“Homer was a good ol’ boy,” agreed the sheriff. “And so was that fellow with the mustache, Smiley – a surveyor, I think. I don’t rightly know too much about the others tho’.”

Actually, the sheriff was showing some horns of his own that day; he had his reasons. You see, John Townsend did, in fact, know a great deal more about the others than he was admitting to just then, particularly about the man they called Red-Beard and his outlaw accomplice, Alvin Webb. He was supposed to know. That was his job; that’s what he got paid for. He’d been watching them both for quite some time now. He’d known Rusty Horn for a number of years, and considered him a dangerous individual; others in his profession went so far as to declare the renegade colonel insane, especially after what had happened on the battlefield. There was talk of rape; but that was many years ago, and nothing ever came of it anyway. Alvin Webb, on the other hand, was just plain stupid. And when you combine stupid and dangerous…well, reckoned the sheriff of Creekwood County that day, you had a fine recipe for disaster.

John Townsend was very much aware of Red-Beard’s infamous past and traitorous activities, as well as his frequent trips into Eulogy to meet with others if his ilk, like Alvin Webb for instance. Naturally, he suspected foul play whenever the names Horn and Webb were spliced together. ‘Scofflaws’, he called them. ‘Bad apples!’ was another expression often associated with the pitiful pair, which only gave further credence to the Elmo’s incredible story. But none of that seemed to matter. They were just opinions. And Mister Townsend wasn’t paid for his opinions, only arrests. Besides, he was only concerned about the fact, as most lawmen are if they’re honest and good. Sheriff John would get his man, or men (or woman for that matter – all things being equal in the unbiased eyes of the Law) sooner or later; preferably sooner. It was his job. It’s what he got paid for. What happened after that didn’t matter; it was none his concern; although he’d always thought he might make an exception in the case of Colonel Horn and Alvin Webb, whose nooses he would’ve gladly knotted if, in fact, fate hadn’t stepped in, denying him of that ambitious endeavor by disposing of them first. He knew something was up because they’d been too quiet, and he hadn’t heard much about them lately. But he didn’t say anything just then; he didn’t want to alarm Elmo by telling him too much at once; and he didn’t want to spook him, either. Running away would only make matters worse – for both of them, he warily imagined.

The facts would speak for themselves. And then it would be up to the a judge and a jury, just as it was not too long ago when a young Harlie bean farmer was tied to a tree, beaten like a dog, and thrown into a prison of petrified wood for doing what any other man would have done under similar circumstances, if not more. It still bothered him. And if you were to ask the sheriff of Creekwood County exactly what a criminal looks like at that time, meaning, of course: is he more likely to be black or white? Sheriff John would have merely shrugged his shoulders while cleaning the barrel of his famous six-guns and said: ‘Don’t rightly know, son… But I knows one when I sees one. And I damn sure don’t see no criminal here,’ he would just as well have added in defense of a poor young Harlie named Elmo Cotton.

But the jury didn’t necessarily agree. And they wouldn’t agree this time either; if, in fact, that’s what it came to. Elmo Cotton would be guilty as sin, just like before, despite the lack of any evidence against him. And there was nothing he, Joe Cotton, the sheriff, or anyone could do about it. There were just some things that never changed in Harley, or Creekwood Green. The only difference would be the penalty. This was not just about breaking the leg of some white boy he found in peeing in a bathtub. No. This was murder. This was serious business. This was how widows and orphans were made. And Elmo knew it.

“You’re sure not making my job any easier, son,” spoke the sheriff, taking on a more serious view of the matter at hand.

“But the gun just went off,” repeated the sharecropper, as honestly as possible, just like he did a hundred times before, it seemed; and even though it wasn’t really necessary anymore.

“Maybe Rusty finally got what was coming to him,” Sheriff John concluded, “Maybe not. How the hell should I know? I ain’t no Judge. Never liked him much myself. S’been a burr in my saddle ever since I took this damn job. Same goes for Webb. Bad apples. Both of ‘em!”

Naturally, the Harlie couldn’t agree more, but thought it best not to offer any opinions at that time. He knew he was innocent. And that was enough – for now.

But the lawman was willing to go a little further than that. “You know,” he said, “it may not be my place to say so, but I’ll say it anyway. I don't think you killed Horn, son. And if you really want to know the truth, I just don’t think you have it in you.”

It was the first time the sheriff, or any other white man as far as he could tell, had called him son. And he said it so matter-of-factly that Elmo almost believed him. The Harlie was suddenly feeling a little better than he did only a moment ago, knowing that Sheriff Townsend was just as suspicious of the man they called Red-Beard as he was at one time. It probably didn’t mean much; but at least it was a good sign. Perhaps Uncle Joe was right, he tried to convince himself… about John Townsend anyway.

“But don’t be getting the wrong idea, Mister Cotton,” said the sheriff, dismounting his horse for the first time that day, like he may have decided to stay just a little while longer. “It’s not that I believe everything you just told me; because, frankly, I don’t. It’s just that I don’t think it’s probable that you killed the colonel... Possible maybe; but not probable. I know about these things, son.”

There it was again, Elmo thought to himself: ‘ – Son’

“That’s my job. I knew Rusty. Knew who he was, where he came from, and what he was capable of. Besides,” added the sheriff, eyeing the sharecropper with a discriminating squint that spoke of many years of chasing down desperadoes in the desert sun and putting them either behind bars, or six feet under, “like I said before, I just don’t think you got it in you, boy. Rusty wouldn’t let you do it... and neither would Red-Beard,” he winked, hinting that he was well aware of Mister Horn’s unique psychological profile which he’d found disturbing and well as dangerous. “He wouldn’t have allowed it to happen.”

Although he really didn’t want to, and for reasons he couldn’t explain, the Harlie was just about to agree with the sheriff’s latest observations and leave it at that; but he didn’t. He felt dismissed; as if he’d somehow just been insulted. And he was probably right. But it went a little deeper than that. You see, whether or not he had actually killed Red-Beard was no longer the issue, at least not at the moment; the fact that he was incapable of doing so, however, was. It was simply a matter of pride, ego, self-respect; something all men, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, are always aware of. And even if he didn’t kill the infamous outlaw, there was no reason (at least none that the Harlie could think of) that said he couldn’t have if, in fact, that’s what he really wanted to do. He had the chance; like the time when he approached the sleeping red giant with murder on his mind and fire in his hand. And he would’ve done it too! If not for…

And here the Harlie was more uncertain than ever about what really happened that day in the mountains. “The gun just went off,” he whispered once more, almost wishing he’d pulled the trigger himself. And was that so difficult to believe? he further imagined, looking straight up at the mounted sheriff. After all, he had the chance and he had the motive, he even had the weapon: Red-beard’s own revolver! He also had a damn good reason – to stay alive. And there was no one there to stop him, either. In fact, now that he thought about it, the only thing that prevented him from doing what the sheriff said was so impossible was the stone itself, the Motherstone.

That’s when it happened, he suddenly remembered. It came alive. Just like that! All he had to do was light the fuse and run like hell. Just like Rusty did earlier inside the tunnel. “Should’a just killed the sum’bitch…” Elmo mouthed, loud enough for the sheriff to hear. Indeed, it would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to do. As easy as… ‘as falling off a log’, as Little Dick Dilworth would’ve said, if he was still alive to say it, imaged the Harlie, almost as if the young man was standing right there at that very moment, on the other side of a bow-saw. It’s not so hard to kill a man… it’s done all the time. It was something Elmo wished he’d done himself, if for no other reason than to prove to the skeptical lawman that, when it came to killing a man: a Harlie, even a poor dumb dirt farmer like himself, could be just as good, or bad, as any Creekman. Hell! Maybe even better! And considering the fact that Harlies, and Negroes in general, always have more to prove than anyone else anyway– Well then, who better to do the killing? Especially if that means killing Creeks, Crackers, Greens, whites, colonels, Red-Beards, or whatever the hell you want to call them.

But before the sharecropper could defend himself any further or express what he was feeling at the time, even if that meant confessing to a crime he may, or may not, have committed just to prove a point, the sheriff rejoined, “Just don’t see how... But that don't matter,” he quickly added for the sake of justice. “What’s done is done. The man’s dead. Some say you killed him, son. And that’s all there is to it.”

Suddenly, the Harlie didn’t seem so brave; the truth can sometimes does that to a man. So, he just stood there in back of his mule and plow, wishing by then that sheriff John Townsend would just go away.

“And don't get me wrong, boy,” warned the sheriff, staring down the Harlie with those Chinese eyes; the kind of eyes cowboys sometimes exhibit whenever they squint in the mid-day sun, making them look even more serious than usual, “Nothing I just told you changes anything. To tell you the truth, I might’ve said too much already. I ‘spect you'll be hearing from me again, soon, real soon. Could be an indictment... maybe even a trial,” he further speculated after some careful legal reckoning. “It’s all for the best, I ‘spose. These things have a way of running their course. Takes time. Problem is, not everyone understands that. Know what I mean, son?”

Elmo shook his head – No.

“He was in the army, you know. Rusty, or Red-Beard as you call him came from an old family – the Horns. His father fought in the Revolutionary war, right alongside of General Washington, or so they say. His grandfather father…” but here the sheriff hesitated. “Well, never mind about that. Let’s just say there’s more about Colonel Rusty Horn than most folks know, or care to know. He has connections, mind you. Folks in mighty high places. And they don’t take kindly to Harlies.”

“You mean peoples who look like me,” said Elmo.

“They ain’t too fond of me, either,” reassured the sheriff, “even tho’ I only do what they pay me to do. Most of all, they don’t like anyone tellin’ them what they can and can’t do. They have their own Law; not like the ones made for you and me. Theirs is different. And they have their own brand of Justice. It’s swift! Even tho’ it ain’t always right. Best watch yourself, boy” warned the sheriff, stiffly. “Rusty… I mean Red-Beard, had as many friends as he did enemies, some a lot meaner than he was, including four brothers who I ‘spect to be a’knockin’ on my door befo’ too long.” And here the sheriff hesitated again before going on. “They found a gun, you know – a six-shooter. It was the colonel’s alright. I know. He once tried to shot me with it.”

The Harlie looked down and drove his toes into the muddy soil beneath his feet. He knew what was coming next.

“Don’t ‘spose he killed himself,” the sheriff thought out loud. “Men like Horn don’t do that sort of thing. Not even when they’re supposed to,” he added, recalling what had happened that day on the battlefield, wishing Red-Beard had done the right thing at the time and spared him the trouble of doing it himself. Sheriff John knew, of course, that sooner or later, he would’ve shot the renegade colonel, or at least watch him swing from a tree. It was only a matter of time, he’d always reckoned. “We found some ponies, but not the ones we was lookin’ for. You say they were – How’s that you put it? Swallowed up?”

“The white cow, too,” stated the bean farmer for the record, referring, of course, to Red-Beard’s white Brahma bull; the one the colonel was so fond of and rode instead of a horse. “The ground just opened up, and he go down. Blackie, too! That was Mister Homer’s horse. The ponies… they all run away. Don’t know what happened to em’,” he added to further substantiate what the sheriff apparently already knew.

“Well, I don’t suppose the owners will be claiming them any time soon. Don’t know of any man who would leave his horse behind, unless...” Again, the sheriff was careful not to tip his hand. “You know, Mister Cotton, I don’t suppose anyone would believe a thing you just told me. And to tell you the truth, I couldn’t say I blames them. Hell! I don’t know what to believe. This here is family business, boy – Serious stuff! You understand? Blood is thicker than wood. Nobody’s gonna listen to a…”

“But you listened,” suggested the Harlie, pleading for time and perhaps a little sympathy he knew just wasn’t there. “You believe me, Sheriff Townsend – Don’t you?”

“I get paid to listen. That’s my job, son. And like I said before: I don’t matter what I believe.”

Elmo leaned an elbow on his plow. “What should I do?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” the sheriff replied with an honest but blank expression on his face. “Nothing, I reckon; at least for now. Just go on home, boy. We’ll see...”

The words, although not very encouraging, gave the Harlie a glimmer of hope that perhaps things weren’t quite as bad as he thought they were. He not only liked the squinty-eyed lawman, but believed every word he said. There was no reason not to. John Townsend hadn’t lied to him, at least not yet; and he hadn’t tried to trick the Harlie, either, into doing or saying something he didn’t want to, which was something he’d heard of from others less fortunate than himself. It was a good sign; a hopeful sign. Besides, didn’t his uncle say the sheriff was a good man – a fair man? Maybe Joe could help, talk to the sheriff; explain things, man to man so-to-speak. But he couldn’t see how. Besides, everyone knew there were two sets of laws: one for Greens, and the other for Harlies. That’s just the way it was in Creekwood County. That’s the way it’s always been. And there wasn’t anything that was going to change that. Not even E-mancipation, which might have only made matters worse on the ‘dark’ side of the Iron Gates of Harley. “I guess there’s nothing left to say,” said the Harlie, putting his back into his work.

“Nothing I can do, Mister Cotton,” said the sheriff, pausing briefly for affect. “There are no witnesses.”

“Just me,” sighed the Harlie, fully aware of what it all meant by then.

The sheriff looked just a little worried. He had a right to be. “Be careful, son. I know these Horn boys. They don’t need no witnesses. Don’t leave none, either. Just bodies… if you take my meanin’.”

Elmo did.

John Townsend waited for another moment before climbing back on his horse to see if Elmo Cotton understood exactly what he’d just been told. “Don’t know if I could stop ‘em, son… even if I wanted to,” he stated as plainly as he could. “This is Harley, boy. It ain’t Creekwood Green. Now you just try to remember that.”

Elmo stood silently, footing the brake of his plow and trying to figure it all out. Never before did he suppose that he'd be in so much trouble with the Law, or anyone else for that matter. Not like this. It was all too much for him to think about. It was almost too much for one Harlie to bear. He just wanted to get back to work and be left alone. But he knew that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. “If only Mister Homer was here,” he whispered to the mule. “He'd know what to do.”

Elmo was right; Homer would know what to do. He was perhaps the only one who could help him now. He was the only man, other than Rusty Horn, who might be able to explain what really happened. And now both of them were dead.

“Oh, by the way,” said the sheriff just before leaving, and choosing his words very carefully it seemed. “Don’t be thinkin’ of going anywhere too soon. Y’hear?”

Elmo looked at the sheriff as if to say – Where would I go? He could see that the sheriff wasn’t satisfied. And so, he spoke his mind on the matter as plainly as he knew how: “Don’t worry, sheriff”, he said without blinking. “I ain’t a’gonna run.”

There was a certain look in the Harlie’s eyes that didn’t escape the sheriff’s attention as he said it. It wasn’t necessarily a look of defiance, or confidence for that matter, that John Townsend observed when he gazed down into those clear blue eyes that looked so, so strangely out of place in Harley. It was something else. It was that same look he’d seen on the faces of men on the gallows who, even as the noose was being draped around their necks, calmly claimed their innocence, right up until the bitter end, in fact, with that same innocent and innocuous look that spoke volumes and said more than a thousand defense attorneys ever could. It was something that went beyond pride. There was an honesty about it, and an innocence that defied all law and logic. The sheriff had seen that look before. The only problem was – jurors seldom did. And he knew it.

“Just doing my job, son.” reminded the sheriff, sympathetically smiling down from his tall gray horse. Like a Shinto priest before a promising young student, those Chinese eyes squinted once more in the hot noonday sun. He was obviously impressed with the Harlie’s newly acquired temerity, and maybe even a little surprised. At times like these a stubborn attitude can be the surest sign of an innocent man – as John Townsend was surely hoping for in the case of Elmo Cotton – but not always.

He genuinely liked the young man from Harley; but he wouldn’t let that, or anything else for that matter, stand in the way of administrating the duties he was sworn to uphold. He wondered if there was anything else he could say that might help the man who had already been unfairly beaten down once in his in life; and perhaps there was. “Ever do any ‘coon huntin’, boy?” squinted the priest out of nowhere, throwing the Harlie a little off his guard at the moment.

Having hunted for his food on more than one occasion, at times going hungry in the process, the Harlie squinted right back, “A little…” he said. “But I was never much good at it” he had to admit. Which is precisely why he kept his shotgun stashed away in the barn most of the time; fearing that he might actually have to use it one day, and hurt someone in the process – himself, most likely. “You mean, them big ol’ ‘coons that come out late at night?” he curiously questioned the sheriff.

“That’s right. See ‘em down by the river sometimes?”

“With them big ol’ black eyes?”

“Like a bandit!” asserted the priest.

“And that big busy tail?”

“Make a mighty fine hat!”

Almost without thinking, the Harlie suddenly confessed: “Almost got me one with my shotgun once! Think I missed him tho’. He got away.”

“Most do,” The sheriff agreed. “They’re quick, you know; and cunning – like thieves.” It was obvious John Townsend knew a thing or two about coon hunting, as well as other more dangerous game. You might say it came with his profession, as well as the territory. He also knew when he was on the right trail. He could smell a raccoon a mile away. It was a distinctive, wild, scent. And he could smell it right now. But it wasn’t ‘coon he was hunting for just then.

“He was a big one!” Elmo suddenly exclaimed, “All black and brown, with a stripped tail. Had these big eyes too! Real mean lookin’. Stood right up on his behind legs when I took aim at him, just like… like he knew I was gonna miss all the time,” he wondered out loud. Funny thing tho’ – that ol’ ‘coon wasn’t even a’scared of me. Not one bit a‘scared!”

“Kind’a sounds a little like you; don’t it, son?” said the prairie priest with a hint of blood in his eye. “What, with them big blue eyes of yours, and that skin... And oh, and by the way,” the sheriff digressed for a moment, “Are you sure you ain’t from Harley? Not many Harlies got your color. I mean... ain’t none as light as you are, son; if you don’t mind me sayin’ so. Sure you ain’t from Creekwood Green, boy?” the priest squinted once more.

It wasn’t the first time Elmo’s ancestry had been brought into question. He’d been asked questions like that before; mostly by other Harlies, however; which disturbed him even more, and understandably so. And so, he did what he always did in situations like these. He simply nodded.

The sheriff apologized. “Just curious, Mister Cotton. Only a manner of speaking, that’s all. No offense.”

“”I’m Harley,” the raccoon softly spoke, neither ashamed nor proud at the time of who, or what, he was.

John Townsend knew he was being rude and, perhaps, a little disingenuous. He didn’t mean to be; it just came with the job. He’d played his hand perfectly. The raccoon was on the run. The dogs were on the loose; they already had picked up the scent. They would follow him everywhere, no matter which direction he went, and no matter how far. They were only doing what they were bred to do, what they were supposed to do: Kill raccoons. It came natural to the hounds. It was in their blood. But Sheriff John would let them rest for a while, before the real chase began. The hunt would have to wait for another day. The time just wasn’t right.

Before leaving that day, Sheriff John Townsend gave the Harlie another squint and a small piece of advice; an admonition, really. Call it a ‘head-start’ if you like; just for the sport of it, I suppose. “Now, don’t be like that ol’ ‘coon’, boy,” he said in a voice of authority. “He may get away from me once in a while; but he sure as hell won’t never get away from the dogs. Ain’t no way to get away from the hounds, boy. Them dogs will catch that ol’ ‘coon every damn time. Run ‘im right up a tree! Then all you have to do is flush ‘im out, or just wait. It’s just a matter of time. Hound dog will never go head to head with a ‘coon, mind you. They’s smarter than that. Ol’ coon gots these here powerful front claws, you see, and razor-sharp teeth. Once saw a ‘coon kill a hound… one of Ben Mancil’s dogs, if I’m not mistaken. Tore into him like nobody’s business. Poor dog didn’t stand a chance. ‘Coons can do that, you know. And they will, too!” reminded the sheriff, “if you get them riled enough. Best let them dogs chase ‘im up a tree; the shotgun will do the rest. It’s as simple as that, boy,” said the sheriff, squeezing the trigger just a little bit harder. “It’s just that easy.”

“As easy as falling off a log...” replied the Harlie, still uncertain about what actually did happen up in the mountains, but quite sure of what the sheriff was attempting to tell him that day in his own Creekwood Green way.

The ‘coon hunter was satisfied in knowing he’d done the right thing by giving Elmo a fair warning, and maybe even a head start. The priest in him smiled as well, reckoning he might’ve just saved the life of an innocent man and earned a little piece of salvation in the process. And before he left that day, the sheriff squinted out one last warning: “Oh, and another thing, boy. Like I said before, we did find Rusty’s gun. But what I forgot to mention was the fact that it was loaded at the time. And all the bullets were still in the chamber… six-shooter, I believe. He waited to see if the Harlie had anything else to say on the matter.

Elmo looked at the ground as if trying to remember something he might’ve forgotten. But he came up just as blank as always. He just couldn’t remember. “The gun... it just...”

“I know,” replied the sheriff, as if he’d heard it all before, “it just went off,”

“Just like that,” the Harlie responded, more adamantly than ever. “That’s all I can tell you.” Elmo was apparently frustrated by then, and it showed. He was thinking, just as he did earlier on his uncle’s front porch, that there might be something he was forgetting – something he didn’t see, or someone... “It’s all I gots to say,” Elmo finally concluded, although he was never absolutely sure about that, either. “That’s all I knows.”

“Well, then know this, Mister Cotton” rebuked the lawman for Elmo’s own sake, and perhaps more harshly then he actually wanted to at the time. “Horn wasn’t killed with a hand gun…or rifle. He was killed with a shotgun. Left a mighty big hole in his chest. Shotguns do that, you know. Never did find the murder weapon. But we will,” he added with the keen eyes and sharp nose a well-seasoned hunter. “We’ll find it.”

Elmo Cotton didn’t own a rifle, or even a handgun for that matter; but he did own a shotgun, or a blunderbuss as uncle once called it. It was one of the few things he actually did own. And the sheriff knew that as well by now. He knew because the Harlie had just told him so, without even knowing it perhaps. His Uncle Joe gave it to him on his sixteenth birthday. It was a rusty old shotgun with a tricky trigger, a poor sight, and a very wide spread. And it did leave ‘a mighty ‘big hole’, just as the sheriff described. But he hadn’t fired it in over a year, ever since he used the antiquated firearm on his own dog, to put him down with. Elmo remembered because it made him very sad at the time. He didn’t want to. The dog was old with the mange; he had broken leg and was also going blind. It was the only thing left to do. They would sometimes go hunting together for rabbit; even trapped a raccoon once, as the Harlie previously described. He missed the coon. And he missed that that old hound. The sheriff could see it in those big blue eyes. He’d played his hand well. He didn’t cheat; and he didn’t lie. He was only telling the truth. And he got what he wanted.

It was just then when Elmo suddenly recollected fetching the shotgun from out of his barn and putting it in his bag just before taking to the mountains that day with Homer and the others. He never did bring it back; in fact, he never even saw it again after that. He’d assumed, at least up until just then, that he simply lost it; or perhaps it was stolen. He didn’t know who, or how, or even why anyone would want it anyway, especially considering how they all laughed at him when he first dragged it out of the barn. He was even beginning to suspect that perhaps thirteen wasn’t the lucky number after all; and that maybe there was someone else. And with all that that in mind, the Harlie raccoon was also beginning to think that Sheriff John Townsend wasn’t the only once hunting coon.

The sheriff was thinking no differently, although he was still playing his cards close to the vest. He was keeping his opinions to himself, at least for the time being, and a close eye on the Harlie. He knew all along that the gun that killed the colonel must have belonged to Elmo, which was one reason he’d brought up the subject of ‘coon hunting in the first place. It was an old hunter’s trick, simple and effective; one the old hunter had used many times before when interrogating desperate criminals. And unlike the Harlie’s missing shotgun, it always worked; and this time, it worked perfectly, just the way it was supposed to.

Sheriff John was not really trying to trap the Harlie; he was merely attempting get to the truth, at least as much of it as he could without causing too much alarm, or suspicion. It was one of those things that came with his badge, unpleasant at times, but necessary – like pulling a bad tooth, he reckoned; something an old man with a tooth ache could appreciate, and might’ve even agreed with at the time, if he was still alive. ‘Give a man enough rope and he’ll hang his own grandmother,’ the sheriff once confided to an old deputy who once wore a similar badge. It was Homer Skinner. And he was right.

John Townsend rode away from Harley that day with much to think about. It’d been a while since he’d done any serious ‘coon hunting; and it wasn’t something he wasn’t particularly looking forward to this time. But it also happened to be something he was still very good at, along with poker and horse shoes, which he seldom lost at. Only this time it wouldn’t be ‘coon he was hunting. The game he had in mind just then would be far more dangerous… more human.

Feeling very much by then like a ‘raccoon on the run’, as the sheriff so shrewdly observed, Elmo Cotton was almost ready to confess and turn himself in. It seemed like the only thing left for him to do; the right thing to do. And not just for his own sake, he quietly imagined; he still had a wife and child to think about. Besides, he had to be guilty of something. But what? Something deep inside him told him that the time just wasn’t right. Not yet anyway. Maybe he should have another talk with his uncle, he reckoned as the tall gray horse and its rider disappeared out of sight. He liked Sheriff John Townsend, but was glad to know that he was finally gone. He knew he would be back, of course; sooner rather than later perhaps. His only hope was that the squinty-eyed lawman would’ve given up ‘coon huntin’ by then and gone fishing instead.

As soon as the sheriff was gone, Elmo went straight for the barn with his mule and plow. Once inside he slammed the door shut and sat down on a small pile of hay. He wasn’t thinking about his job anymore, or the beans. He was thinking about a gun, the one that left a ‘mighty big hole’ in the dead man’s chest, and what became of it. Perhaps he didn’t take it up to the mountains after all, he suddenly began to wonder, the events of that fateful trip becoming more uncertain with each passing moment. Maybe he only thought he did.

He got up and began looking all around, everywhere he could think of, including a few places he’d even forgotten about. But after thoroughly searching the old wooden structure, which turned out to be little more than a small shed, Elmo came up empty handed. He knew he would. The old blunderbuss was simply nowhere to be found inside the barn, which is where he should have left it, he only now regretted, where it belonged. But somehow that didn’t surprise him very much. What did surprise him, however, was just how lonely and scared he actually was. He never felt that way before; not even just before he was whipped and thrown into prison. At least then he knew what to expect… well, sort of. And he was ready for it.

Quickly throwing a black tarp over his plow and placing a bucket of oats around the long weary neck of his mule, which it actually hadn’t earned yet but accepted with typical indifference, Elmo headed back to the house to do some serious thinking. He wouldn’t work anymore that day; he couldn’t if he’d wanted to. Before heading home that day, and looking out over all the unplowed acres, Elmo spotted another man standing not very far from the Iron Gate. It didn’t look like a Harlie; at least not like any Harlie Elmo ever saw; and he imagined that he’d seen just about every Harlie there was to see in Harley by now, whether he’d wanted to or not. This was someone he’d never seen before. It certainly wasn’t Sheriff John; he wasn’t even riding a horse. He was just… just standing there. Even from a good distance, the sharecropper could tell that the man he was presently looking at definitely did not belong in Harley; any more than a Harlie belonged in Creekwood Green. The stranger in the fields was not like him, or any other Harlie he could imagine. For one thing he was much too pale; and he wasn’t even wearing overalls. Probably just some nosey Creekman reckoned the raccoon, suspiciously by then. Merchants from Creekwood Green were often seen in Harley this time of year, examining the crop, haggling over prices with the local landlords, and otherwise hobnobbing with their brother merchants; others were there strictly for business and in a much more official capacity.

They called themselves ‘Crop Inspectors’. It was their job, their sole responsibility, to inspect the beans before any transactions were made. It was a public service provided by the magistrates and paid for paid through a general fund taken up by the local merchants to perform the vital function of inspecting the produce prior to purchase. What they were actually looking for were diseases, infestations, or anything else that might influence the local bidding, including poor quantity and low yield, all of which went into the current market value of any particular crop. It was all they really had to do. They were paid handsomely for their professional services and, for the most part, took their jobs seriously, which, when you get right down to it, is the least you might expect considering that’s all they had to do anyway. For the most part, they were honest individuals who performed their duties with fairness and precision, even though there were those who would argue that the Inspectors were sometimes biased or corrupt and held too much power and control over the market price of the produce in question. They did, of course, and were certainly not immune to the corruptive influences of bribes and other gratuities they were bound to encounter in that critical line of work. It was part of their job, along with pre-determining the real market value of the produce before the actually haggling began, and being a general pain in the ass to many of the landlords, especially the ones that couldn’t afford to pay the graft these legally authorized extortionists, ghoulishly known as ‘Spectors’, so often demanded.

The ‘Spectors’ always came from somewhere else, like Creekwood Green, or even from as far south as Old Port Fierce, to perform their exacting task. Of course, this didn’t surprised the Harlies very much; they were accustomed to such scrutiny, and expected nothing less from the rich and powerful merchants who were suspicious of just about everyone in general, not only Harlies, including themselves, which is why they were so rich and powerful to begin with, one could only imagine. But brains are not only for the rich and powerful, although it often appears that way; and wisdom comes in all colors. By the time the ‘Spectors arrived, most of the Harlie sharecroppers, usually under orders from their landlords, had already removed any and all suspicious looking beans from their crop that might otherwise have influenced their market value in a negative way, and stuffed then down their trousers for their own private consumption.

Actually, the wives of these faithful farmers would often use the inferior produce to mill into bean grits, a staple diet of Harlies even until this day. Needless to say, Ike Armstrong had become well acquainted with many of these ‘Spectors, taking advantage of the corrupt institution whenever and wherever he found it; however reproachable he became in the process. They say a good ‘Spector knows a bad apple when he sees one. This is true. And if that apple just happened to be wearing a brand new pair of overall, a plume-feathered hat, and a billy-goat beard…well then, they knew they would eventually find a big ugly worm living inside it, somewhere. Depend on it.

But the man standing in the bean field that day didn’t look like any crop ‘Spector Elmo had ever seen; and he thought he’d seen them all by now. There were a number of other things about the stranger that the Harlie found disturbing that particular afternoon. He just looked different; too different it would seem, even for a Creek man. For one thing, this one had a beard, and a long one at that; and the clothing he was wearing was like nothing like he’d ever seen before. Even from a distance, Elmo could clearly make out that they were not really clothes at all, but some kind of animal skins, or fur, draped loosely over an otherwise tall and naked body. His arms appeared long and subtle, protruding through the tick black fur, not unlike his lower legs and feet, which, from the same distance, appeared to be covered with strange markings, like wounds, or scars that had never healed properly. He also appeared to be holding something in his hands. It looked like a walking stick at first but, at second glance, appeared to me something more mechanical, like…like a shotgun, thought the Harlie.

Equally disconcerting was the man’s head, which, in comparison to the rest of his lean and lanky frame, seemed abnormally large and covered his long dark hair that blended so naturally into his equally protracted beard that it was virtually impossible to tell where one began and the other left off. The only other noticeable characteristic Elmo could make out at the time was what appeared to be a pair of glass spectacles protruding from a long and sharply pointed nose, the kind Homer would sometimes wear, which became visibly evident when the piercing rays of the sun hit them at a particular angle. They were the kind of eyeglasses old men would sometimes use for reading, and appeared oddly out of place with every other grizzly aspect of this modern day knuckle dragging Neanderthal.

Exactly what the bearded man was doing standing in a Harley bean field in the middle of the day would remain a mystery for quite some time. Elmo Cotton had seen strangers, including many white ones, pass through the bean fields before and for a variety of reasons, but none like this one. He looked like a man possessed; one that that might’ve been living in the woods for quite some time; a Mountain-man as Homer Skinner once called them. He looked dangerous, as mountain men sometimes do, and maybe even a little nervous, thought Elmo from a respectable and guarded distance, almost as if he were waiting for someone, or for something, to happen – perhaps both. But nothing did happen; and no one else showed up. If this mountain-man, or whatever the hell he was, was indeed waiting for someone, the Harlie couldn’t begin to imagine who would ever want to meet such a strange and evil-looking individual.

The Harlie’s first instinct, even at a distance, was to run from the stranger as fast as he could. His second, if he still had his shotgun, would be to shot the bastard. And he probably would’ve done one or the other by now, had not the mysterious intruder just then suddenly, and intentionally it would seem, fixed his inquisitive gaze on the Harlie himself, which, for some unexplainable reason, made Elmo freeze, like a mud-puddle in March.

The fur-covered bipod was looking directly at him by then, with the same his glassy eyed gaze that seemed to sparkle in the noonday sun. Naturally, this made Elmo even more suspicious than before, and even a little scared. There was no one else in the fields that he knew of at the time, except for his mule; not even Ike Armstrong, who could sometimes be seen making his rounds through the bean fields of Harley on his ill-gotten errands, was anywhere in sight.

The other farmers had all gone home by then; their wives long before that in order to start preparing the evening meal and do the things they were expected to have done before their husbands returned from a hard day ‘woikin’ the fields. Elmo was the only one left in muddy fields of Harley that day, and was about to go back inside himself. But he couldn’t stop staring at the glassy-eyed man in the fields, wondering who it might be and what he might want. And he could not help but think that he’d seen that face before; he just didn’t know where or when.

And then the thought suddenly occurred to him that the man staring at him might very well be a kin to Colonel Horn, perhaps even one of the five bothers the sheriff had warned him about earlier. Maybe it was Red-Beard himself! the Harlie shuttered to imagine, raised from the grave like some diabolical Lazarus, to wreak his vengeful hatred on the one who put him there to begin with, even if it wasn’t the Harlie. But it didn’t look at all like anyone Elmo could think of at the time. On second glance, he didn’t even look human.

Elmo Cotton had made the acquaintance of a number of Creek people in his short and harsh life, but couldn’t recall ever coming across this peculiar face; it would be a difficult one not to remember. But resting assured that it was not the infamous colonel, or one of his equally infamous brothers, at least as far as he could tell, Elmo felt a little more relaxed and relieved. He actually pitied the man in the field that day whoever he was, and who may, after all, have been in some kind of real trouble, judging solely from his wounds and vagabond appearance. Trouble was one thing the Harlie could certainly relate to. So he simply waved to the man and smiled. It may not have been the smartest thing the Harlie ever did, but it was certainly the friendliest, and perhaps the most neighborly. And a good friend and neighbor is something Elmo Cotton certainly could have used just then, aside from Sherman Dixon, of course, who he knew he could always count on, especially at dinner time. The man never waved back.

And so, the Harlie sharecropper turned his back on the stranger and headed for home. Reaching the front door of his little house in Harley, half expecting to find John Townsend standing there waiting for him, the sharecropper silently slipped inside and bolted the door behind him. He never even saw the shotgun leveled straight at his back. He’d escaped, for the time being anyway; and he didn’t even know it.


Chapter Four

The Drum

BANG!

Nadine Cotton was sweeping the floor of her kitchen when her husband slouched through the door that day, dragging himself inside. It was still early in the afternoon and Lil’ Ralph was sitting on the floor banging an old copper kettle with a big wooden spoon.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

“Not so loud, son,” admonished the boy’s father, rather softly, over the penetrating noise of the kettle drum, “You’ll wake up ol’ Ike.” The Harlie was referring, of course, to his landlord, Mister Isaiah Armstrong, who was known to take a nap almost every afternoon after he’d finished making his rounds.

“Home kind’a early, ain’t you?” said Nadine, bending over a broom she was poking under the kitchen table. She didn’t even look up.

Elmo didn’t answer. He just stood here, staring at her from behind. Even bending over and pushing a broom, Nadine looked good. She always liked good; especially from behind, Elmo would always tell her, when there was nobody else around. He pulled down the straps of his overalls one at a time and let them fall to his sides. The sweat from his body accentuated the scars on his back, like the magnified grains of a freshly varnished plank of mahogany. He was still hot. It only made him want her more.

The little boy seemed to be reading his mind. It was a difficult thing for him to do.

BANG! BANG!

“You hear what I said, boy?” the sharecropper warned his son for a second time, a little more a little harshly than the first. He knew the little boy was merely trying to get his attention, but he found the sound annoying, particularly that afternoon. It reminded him of a similar sound he’d hear in church not too long ago where a woman, a girl actually, was pounding on an old snare drum. It was an ancient instrument; probably left over from the war, he remembered thinking at the time, with a large red eagle painted predominately on the rounded surface of cylinder. It was loud as hell too! with that Rata-tat-tat! Rata-tat-tat! sound percussionists often refer to as paradiddles. The only difference between the little drummer girl and the boy was the snare; a deficiency little Ralph Cotton was more than happy to compensate for with sheer volume.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

To which Elmo promptly replied: “This here ain’t no church, boy!”

Naturally, Lil’ Ralph disagreed; and he said so whole-heartedly by striking the copper even louder, harder, and longer

BANG!

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

It was the kind of noise that, under normal circumstances, would drive his father either right up the wall or out the door; but in his weary and anxious state of mind, Elmo simply ignored it; or at least he tried to.

Nadine noticed her husband’s apathy at once. It was disturbing as well as disquieting; and it was obvious. She knew something was bothering him; he hadn’t eaten all day. He just stood there looking sad and tired with his straps hanging down to the floor like a man who didn’t know if he was coming or going. Nadine was worried. He’d been acting that way ever since he came down from the mountain; as if she and the boy weren’t even there. It was more than strange; it was frightening. And it just wasn’t natural. “Wipe yo’ feet!” she scolded her husband, trying to get his attention without appearing overly concerned. “I don’t needs you draggin’ yo’ dirt all over my clean house... Humph! Can’t you see I’s sweepin’ the flo’?

The barefooted Harlie looked down and shook his head in silence. “What flo’? he wondered out loud. He was right, of course; there was no floor! – only dirt. But over so many years of constant sweeping and walking, it had settled down to where it was nearly as hard and dense as concrete. And as far as dirt, he wanted to shout: ‘Damn it, woman! It’s already dirty!’ But he didn’t. Instead, he only laughed.

Nadine didn’t think it was funny; she never did. But she smiled anyway, putting away the broom and shuffling over to the wood stove where a large pot Harley beans was just then coming to a boil.

Elmo loved it when his wife smiled; even when she really didn’t meant it, or want to, which was more often than the Harlie imagined. Nadine Cotton was only trying to do her best, even if that meant going through the motions of sweeping a floor that wasn’t there or smiling when she should be crying. It’s something women do best; and they do it better than anyone else, most of all their husbands: They make do; they make the most of what they have; sometimes, they can even make something out of nothing. Like Nadine Cotton, for instance, who could make a meal out of a bucket of beans, and a floor out of a pile of dirt. And she never failed! It reminded Elmo of the way children sometimes play with imaginary toys they don’t really have, in the hope that just by pretending, perhaps, it will bring them that much closer to one day having the real thing; kind of like Ralph and his kettle drum, he supposed, only without all that damn Rata-tat! Rata-tat! Rata-tat! racket. “Hot out there today, Nadine,” he said, wiping his imaginary shoes on the imaginary floor, just to make his wife smile again. “Hot as Satan’s toes, I reckon.”

“Now don’t you be bringin’ the devil’s name inside this here house, Elmo Cotton,” Nadine immediately rebuked her husband with the long end of a spoon. “Not after I after I done cleaned it. Lord don't like that kind of talk anyway. And neither do I – Humph!” she scowled.

“Lord never have to work for a livin’,” replied her husband, picking up a towel from the table to wipe off the sweat of a hard day’s labor, “That’s for damn sho’”

“Hush yo’ mouth!” she shouted right back. “And don’t be using my good clean towels to wipe your nasty ol’ self. Humph! And don’t be cussin’ in front of Lil’ Ralph. It ain’t right. And you ain’t right – Humph!” she reminded him, while stirring the beans on the stove.

The little boy agreed with his mother, of course; and being at that tender age when speech had not yet caught up with comprehension, he was forced to express his thoughts in the only way, and by the only means, available to him at the time: That’s right! – with three shape blows to the kettle.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

“Goddamnit!” Elmo responded.

Nadine warned her husband: “Lord don’t ‘preciate no blasphemin’.”

To keep the peace and, perhaps, his marriage, Elmo gave up the argument at once; but not the towel. “Well, the Lord never work for Ike Armstrong.”

Nadine suddenly wanted to change the subject. But she didn’t; which is something else women happen to be very good at. “There you go again,” she said with a shaking head. ” Is that all you ever think about – that crazy ol’ man, Ike?”

“That crazy ol’ man owns this here farm,” the farmer was quick to remind his wife, “In case you hasn’t heard, woman. Alongs with everthing else ‘round ‘chere.... ‘cluding this ol’ shack.”

“This ol’ shack happens to be our home,” Nadine replied, a little angrily.

“He can have it back, then” Elmo returned, sharply. “I don’t wants it no mo’. Don’t needs it’

“Where we’s gonna sleep then?”

“Sleep in the woods. Good ‘nough for critters… good ‘enough for us.”

“And lil’ Ralph?” Nadine argued.

“He get used to it.”

“Well, you best get used to sleepin’ alone then. ‘Cause I ain’t sleepin’ likes no animal. And neither is Ralph. Humph!”

“Won’t be the first time, woman.”

To which the farmer’s wife responded: “Damn you, Elmo Cotton.”.

He knew it wasn’t in his wife’s nature to talk that way, thinking he should stop right there. But he didn’t, of course. “Ike can have this ol’ house… and everythin’ in it, fo’ all I’s care.” He then turned to his attention to his son who was still underneath the kitchen with his kettle and spoon. “Ain’t that right Ralph?” he questioned the drummer.”

BANG! BANG!

Nadine dropped the spoon into the boiling pot. She’d heard that kind of talk before coming from her husband, but never in front of the child and never with so much animosity attached to it. She didn’t like it, and didn’t think he should be encouraging the boy. “Well, he you can starts with this ol’ nasty tub, too,” she said, throwing a quick and sour glance over at rusty metal basin sitting in the corner of the room. It was, in fact, the same bathtub Dick Dilworth once peed in, initiating a series of events that, perhaps, had something to do with the Harlie’s present predicament.

Elmo had always promised to buy her a new one, which, he knew by now, was the only way he would ever get rid of the old one. But now he wasn’t quite sure. Glancing over at the old tub Dick Dilworth once used for his personal chamber pot only made Elmo sad. For ever since the day in the old oak Hammock when he and the young man from Creekwood Green sawed the log in two under the wise and watchful eye of the Old Hammer, and later on spliced their bloody hands on it, he’d all but forgotten about the horrible incident that occurred not so long ago. And even though he was presumed dead, Elmo could still hear the voice of the boy with the beard at time, especially when he was taking a bath, whispering in his ear, ‘Why… it’s as easy as fallin’ off a log’. Dickey was still watching, it seemed, and listening. It was something Elmo simply couldn’t explain, and something his wife would never understand.

“Humph!” answered Nadine, fishing the spoon from the boiling pot. “Don’t know why you keeps it around here anyway, after…well, you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

“Same reason you keep that damn kettle ‘round…” responded the Harlie, “Just to makes me mad.” He was referring, of course, to the same copper kettle lil’ Ralph was currently using to make himself heard that day, along with making his father’s life as miserable as possible. “Besides, it was your idea…” the Harlie reminded his wife.

She didn’t want to argue about it any longer; in fact, she didn’t want to argue at all. And neither did Elmo, who was felling a little ashamed of himself by then, and rightfully so. Apparently, Lil’ Ralph had heard something in his father’s voice he didn’t recognize; something he didn’t particularly like. Sarcasm, like shouting, sometimes has that affect on children. It’s something they can’t understand. They don’t know what it is; but they seem to know exactly what it means; and they are usually the first to detect it. ‘BANG! BANG! BANG!’ the boy loudly protested, like judge on the bench gaveling down two quarrelsome attorneys, with his trusty kettle and spoon.

“Crops ain’t doin’ too good,” the sharecropper reminded is wife, wanting to change the subject by now.

“Maybe you just ain’t working hard ‘nough,” challenged the farmer’s wife, exchanging her spoon for a broom and bending over it in a most suggestive way.

BANG!

Elmo wiped his mouth and swallowed. He obviously had something else on his mind, which had nothing to do with working. And it showed. Just like them ol’ horns….

Naturally, Nadine Cotton was only doing any farm girl would do, what all wives do; she was doing what was best for her family. Elmo realized this, of course; but still, he was not a little surprised at the boldness of his wife’s accusation, even though he knew she was not telling him something he didn’t already know – the truth. Never-the-less, he was still the man of the house, even though it actually belonged to Ike Armstrong, and thought it high time he remind her of that as well. “What you talking about?” he demanded to know in that falsetto voice that always betrayed his true feelings. “I’ve been workin’ all summer long, Nadine. And now it looks like I’ll be workin’ all winter too! What more you want from me, woman? I’s doin’ the best I can.”

Mrs. Cotton didn’t particularly appreciate the caustic tone of her husband’s voice. She’d heard it before, just before he was whipped and sent off to prison; and she didn’t like it then, either. “Well, we’ll just have to work a little harder then… both of us,” she suggested, even though she knew it wouldn’t do any good, as so much of the crop was already beginning to spoil in the fields. “I still know how to pick them beans, you know.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Nadine Simpson worked in the fields picking beans; and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Elmo spent Christmas in his overalls. The farmers of Harley generally worked all year round, along with their wives and children, and under all weather conditions. But Nadine hadn’t been well as of lately. Elmo suspected that she might be pregnant again; but she wasn’t showing, at least not yet, or telling. Besides, she already had enough work to do around the house, not to mention tending to the chickens and pigs, and doing all the other things her husband didn’t seem to have the time for anymore. The beans wouldn’t wait; and neither would Nadine Cotton. But Elmo wouldn’t have his wife out in the fields, not in her present condition. It was simply a matter of Harley pride. “You ain’t a’gonna work the fields, woman, “the Harlie told his wife, “And that’s all there is to it.”

The farmer’s wife answered her husband it in the way she always did in situations like these when she knew she was right. “Humph!” she said, folding her arms in front of her like a Roman Gladiator presented before Caesar in the Coliseum; the way her father used to do whenever he meant business, which surely must’ve had old man Simpson smiling in his grave just then. She would work the fields, of course, and do whatever else it took to keep her family together, even if it meant going against the stubborn wishes of her husband. But to keep the peace, at least for the time being, the farmer’s wife dropped the subject as the gladiator drops his sword and picked up her broom. “Well, there must be somethin’ I can do,” she insisted, knowing that it was only a matter of time before Elmo gave in to her wishes, and his better senses.

“Pray, woman,” Elmo replied, almost as a joke.

“Wouldn't hurt,’ replied his wife, with her own brand of sarcasm. Nadine never knew her husband to be a praying man; and he seldom went to church. But that didn’t prevent her from praying for him each and every day. It only made her pray harder.

“‘Course, it never help befo’,” argued Elmo; suddenly wished he hadn’t.

“That’s ‘cause you ain’t never tried, sugar,” said Nadine, stirring the beans with one hand while sweeping the floor with the other.

“That’s ‘cause I’s too busy workin’ all the time, woman.”

“Humph!” acknowledged the farmer’s wife.

The little boy concurred on the back of the copper kettle.

BANG! BANG!

Elmo shook his head. “Lord don’t listen to me no-how, Nadine. Besides, I’s tried prayin’ once – ‘Member! It don’t work than, and it still don’t work.”

Mrs. Cotton remembered the last time they prayed together. It was right before her husband was whipped and sent off to prison. They’d stayed up all night. And when he was finally released from jail, Elmo was more convinced than ever that God, if he did exist, simply didn’t care, which, in his own agnostic mind, was even worse. And his views on the subject of religion in general hadn’t changed since.

“God don’t answer no prayers,” he stubbornly insisted, even as the wounds on his back slowly healed, and his heart hardened. “He just don’t!” It was the last time the Harlie ever prayed.

All Nadine could say at the time was: “Yes he do, Elmo… Sometimes he just say no.”

It was something the Harlie still couldn’t quite understand. It only frustrated him. And he took out his frustration on his wife by doing what he always did in these kinds of confrontational situations – he ignored her.

Nadine took her husband’s sudden silence not as surrender, which it was actually meant to be, but rather as a sign of disrespect which, of course, was the last thing on Elmo’s mind when he did it. Moreover, she was beginning to suspect that he really didn’t appreciate all she did on the farm, along with raising a young noisy child who demanded almost all of her attention; and she thought that it was about time she told him so. “Don’t be goin’ quiet on me, Elmo Cotton!” she angrily shot back, twirling her broom around like it was Japanese Samurai sword. “What you want from me, anyway?”

”I wants…” replied the sharecropper, turning his back to his wife and speaking perhaps a little too soon, “I wants you to sweep the damn floor and shuts yo’ mouth.”

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Like an angry pre-menstrual Amazon thrusting her spear at a retreating bull, Nadine Cotton darted the broomstick at her husband, leaving yet one more scar across his naked back. “That ain’t all I’s shut'” she cried, reaching down and tearing the spoon from the little boy’s hand. “And sweep the damn flo’ yourself!”

Elmo picked up the broom. He looked at it. Then looked back at his wife. “I ain’t sweepin’ no floor, woman,” the farmer protested.

“I ain’t yo’ woman,” said Nadine Cotton, tears running down her cheek as she handed the spoon back to her son, “I’s yo’ wife.” She then picked up her broom and went back to work as a farmer’s wife should.

Elmo collapsed in one of the two chairs at the only table in the middle of the house as his wife went back to stirring the pot on the stove. He felt sorry for her and, as he’d done other times in the past, tried to figure out why she married him in the first place. He was also feeling sorry for Lil’ Ralph who just sat there chewing on the end of the wooden spoon, knowing by then, even at the young and unblemished age of three and a half years, that there was something seriously wrong with his daddy. He looked as though he might cry.

Nadine suddenly wished she hadn't said it; but it was too late. She was right of course: Elmo hadn’t been working as hard as he should have, or could have; and they both knew it. It’s been that way ever since he came back down from the mountain. Lately, he felt tired and frustrated, like he never could get enough sleep; and he didn’t even know why. He wanted to talk to her about it; but he couldn’t. It would only make matters worse, he imagined, and it was something he didn’t understand himself. And so, he simply tried to hide it from her, as usual, which wasn’t an easy thing to do with a farmer’s wife. It was something he was almost ashamed of.

He would sometimes stay out in the fields, long into the night, just to make it look as though he was actually working when he really wasn’t. But that didn’t fool Nadine Cotton. She knew when something was wrong, and, like any other farm girl, she knew when things weren’t getting done. She wasn’t nearly as naïve, or weak, as she appeared to be, modesty preventing her from asserting those masculine qualities farm girls are sometimes known for exhibiting, and are often embarrassed of. Nor was she as innocent as the Harlie himself had once suspected. And she certainly wasn’t as stupid; as other farm girls could be, under certain circumstances or placed in situations they were unfamiliar with, in which case they could be dumb as door-nails and as dense as diamonds. Nadine Cotton was not one of them. She was woman to be reckoned with; she came from good stock, and a proud family. She also had a habit of speaking her mind, just like her father, old man Fred Simpson, especially when she was lied to. And she wasn’t immune from using profanity from time to time. It was something she acquired, no doubt, from that same dear old dad, whose tongue could, in words of the farmer’s own darling daughter: ‘…peel the paint off the @#$%^&*’ing walls!’ from time to time. Not unlike a couple of old surveyors we all know and love so well.

Nadine Cotton was a good woman; and Elmo knew it, no matter how much she scolded him. She was better than he deserved; and he knew that, too. Nadine had been the daughter of a sharecropper and was used to not having much. And now she was married to one, and she had even less to show for it. There had been other proposals, naturally; but nothing ever came of them. There was a man, an obese grocery store clerk with a pimply face who took a job in Ike’s general store for a while. He proposed to her just before Elmo did. Her mother told her to accept; her father reluctantly agreed. She accepted, but not without telling Elmo first. He was crushed, devastated, and swore he would kill the fat man if ever they met face to face. The clerk died the very next day of natural causes; the product of an abnormal heart combined with the strain of carrying around so much fatal flesh, or so claimed the coroner, Lester Cox. So did Nadine’s father; and under similar circumstances Lester duly noted. But in the case of the acquiescent farmer, his heart had simply broken. She took it as a sign, and went ahead and married the sharecropper. She never knew how close she was to becoming a widow; and Elmo never knew how close he was to becoming a cold-blooded murderer, even thought in the eyes of many, including fat man’s grieving mother, he was already a murderer, at least in his own jealous heart, and the reason her son was currently dead. Naturally, Nadine never agreed. She seldom complained after that; it only made the Harlie jealous, and want her even more. And she deserved no less. She was right about many things, although marrying Elmo Cotton may not have been considered one of them, at least according to a few fair-weather friends and distant relatives who never got to know the strange looking young man with the blue eyes and curly brown hair the way she did. They warned her against it, saying it just ‘wasn’t natural’. Hell, he didn’t even look like a Harlie.

Ike Armstrong had once described the young tenant farmer as a question mark with a nose attached to it; and he wasn’t far from the truth. It was actually one of the nicer things he ever said about Elmo Cotton. But there were other questions as well: Who were his parents? Where did they come from? And what was he doing up at old man Skinner’s all the time? Some remembered his momma as being a poor woman whose husband ran away three years before she died, and that was about it. Elmo remembered even less, and didn’t like it when other people brought it up, which, unfortunately for him, was all too often. The only family he considered anymore consisted of an old man who would sit in his rocking chair all day telling stories and catching flies, an aunt and a few cousins in Old Port Fierce he’d only seen once as a child and didn’t care to ever see again, and, of course Nadine and Little Ralph. And that was enough. Homer was dead. And now it seemed that he might even be losing them as well.

Six years of working the farm and all Elmo Cotton had to show for it was a rusty terraplane, an out-dated shotgun that probably didn’t work anymore, an argumentative mule, a rooster, some chickens, a few pigs, and a dead dog. He also owned a thin and sickly cow that came with his wife as a dowry; it was all Sally Simpson could afford after paying for her dead husband’s funeral. Not that the anxious young bridegroom demanded anything. He didn’t. And he never once complained. Elmo was a happy man. He knew Nadine was just a poor farm girl when he married her; but so were all the girls in Harley, and none were as pretty as Nadine. What little she brought to the altar that day was enough, as far as Elmo was concerned. She didn’t even have a wedding dress; just a long white robe she wore around the house. ‘Just tell her to come with the clothes on her back,’ said the groom to one of her brothers the day before the wedding, ‘or without them… for that matter.’ She did come, with all her clothes, of course; and it just so happened they were the same clothes she wearing that day; the same ones she got married in. It was a simple white dress with a long pleated skirt and buttoned in the back. It was obviously designed to cover as much of the female anatomy without compromising the utility the designer obviously had in mind when he, or she, fashioned the garment. It was clearly a dress for a farm-girl; the western equivalent of the Islamic Burka (minus the traditional head-dressing and veil) worn by Muslim women throughout the Middle East with modesty and chastity in mind, which may also explain why Muslim men are often so temperamental and hostile. No wonder they’re so quick to declare Jihad on the infidel and cut off the head of anyone who disagrees with them. And is it no surprise that the Prophet Mohammed himself (peace and blessings be upon him) with all his wives and concubines, still lusted after his own daughter-in-law? Let’s just hope, and pray, the seventy-two virgins are not so discrete, or fashionable. But even smothered in so much cotton and lace, Nadine Simpson was the epitome of womanhood and the envy of all her peers. ‘I swear that woman can raise a blister on a brick,’ Elmo once confided to his closest friend and neighbor, Mister Sherman Dixon who, as we’ve already found out, was more aware of Nadine’s natural beauty than the Harlie suspected. And he planned to keep it that way.

Elmo Cotton knew he’d gotten the best of the bargain when he married the farmer’s daughter; and he always treated her with the respect she so rightfully deserved. Unlike some of the other farmers at the time who’d thought it their masculine duty to administer corporal punish on their wives from time to time, even when they didn’t deserve it or just because they could, the Harlie never raised a hand to his wife. He’d always thought that if ever came to that, he would simply walk away and never come back; he would have to; he would have no other choice. Elmo Cotton simply could not hit wife; and he once told Sherman he would shot one man who ever laid a harmful hand on her. Needless-to-say, he was thinking about Ike Armstrong, whom he’d long suspected of lusting after his wife, when he said it. Mister Dixon understood, and said he would supply the murder weapon, a pearl handled pistol he once purchased in Shadytown from a man who went by the name of Mister Green, since Elmo’s old shotgun ‘never worked a damn, anyway’ according to the farmer. But it was still somewhere up on the mountain, for all Elmo knew, buried along with the others. Either that, he imagined, or it had simply been stolen, which, after all he’d heard from Sheriff John Townsend appeared to be the more likely. He looked at his wife and smiled.

She’d put down the spoon and broom by then, and floated by him like a beautiful black butterfly dressed in gossamer wings. The Harlie reached over, grabbed her by the apron string and pulled her towards him. He didn’t want to lose her. If he did, he knew he would lose everything. And Elmo Cotton would never allow that happen. He put his arm around her thin bottleneck waist, drawing her closer to his nearly naked body. She collapsed into his lap. And he kissed her on the mouth until she could hardly stand it.

BANG! BANG! went the kettle.

“Um! Um, Um,” she cooed in her husband’s ear, feeling the bulge between them growing harder and stronger. “I ain’t been kissed like that in a long time, sugar.”

By then Elmo had one hand on his wife’s backside while trying to undo the buttons on the back of the dress with the other. He suspected it would take so doing; or undoing, as the case may be. She did nothing to stop him. “Sometimes I just don't know about you, Mister Elmo Cotton” she said in that condescending voice woman sometimes employ when they don’t know what else to say, but feel they have to say something, “But I knows what on yo’ mind.

“It ain’t them beans, woman,” The Harlie responded.

“Supper’s almost ready.”

“I’s can wait.”

BANG!

“But not lil’ Ralph.”

The Harlie growled, “Damn buttons! Why you ‘spose they put so many….?”

“Best we eats first, sugar, “Nadine insisted, “Man don’t live on love alone… And he don’t fight so good on an empty stomach.

Pop! went the button.“And neither do the woman,” he replied.

The farmer’s daughter smiled: “Is you ready to fight?”

It made the famer smile; just like it always did. “Is the cock ready to crow?”

Naturally, what Nadine Cotton really meant by ‘fight’ was, from a purely linguistic perspective, the furthest thing from what the word actually implies in its more common definition; although it is a term that could be equally applied in a variety of ways, including the sexual act itself which, as we all know (at least those who practice it in its most basic and natural form) can be extremely confrontational, and even combative at times. It can also be quite draining, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. In other words: love-making is a serious business which should never be taken too seriously. It’s what happens when irony and paradox collide. Wanna fight? It’s an old expression, employed in one way or another by men and women all over the procreating world in their own particular and peculiar vernacular. Fight? It’s Universal! and it’s only natural. It happens all the time; whenever and wherever Cupid bends his bow to let fly those amorous arrows of desire. It’s the art of love-making, of course, pure and simple; and it can be serious business. “Is you ready to fight?” It was not so much a challenge as it was a request; a contract, a covenant, a meeting of the minds, along with other essential organs, which, once proposed and accepted is seldom reneged upon by either party involved. In the case of the farmer’s wife, it was merely her way of approaching her husband, sexually speaking of course; and it never failed to get his attention. Maybe it was just the ways farm girls think; the way they are; something in their DNA perhaps. Or maybe it was something she’d witnessed out in the barn one fine spring morning that first formed the connection in that fertile farm girl brain: an act, an image, primitive and primordial, bare and basic, gloriously essential, wild and wonderful, natural and instinctive, in all its naked truth; like a horny young bull mounting a receptive wet heifer out in the fields. It was life on the farm. It was natural; and it was good. ‘Be fruitful and multiply!’ It’s not a suggestion: it’s a command. It was a lesson she learned long ago; something she would always remember. She would take it to the altar, to the grave; but first, she would take it into the bedroom, or maybe even the barn. It would happen one night when the moon is big and bright, like honeydew melon up in the night sky, round and ripe and ready to eat. The bell would ring. They shake hands. They kiss; and they come out swinging. The bell ring again! They go back to corner of the bed, exhausted. It’s the end of round one. There’ll be many more. Fighting? Well, I guess it all depends on ones point of view… and now you like to fight.

The Harlie slowly slid his hand up the opened back of his wife’s dress. He paused, caressing the middle part of her back where the shoulder blades meet at the base of the neck. He could almost count each vertebra. She responded by running her fingernails over his own bare back, able to distinguish each and every raised scar which she knew like the veins on the back of her hand. She kissed him on the chest. He responded. And then… Pop! Off came another button.

Nadine Cotton was a farm girl; and as such, she’d learned at an early age what certain parts of the anatomy were meant for. For the farmer’s wife, or daughter for that matter, making love came natural; as natural as sitting down to a breakfast of bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning, you might say, or taking a bath in the creek. Sex could also be an exhausting experience for the Cottons at times, but one that always left them both quite pleased and satisfied. And it could occur anywhere, at any time, even in the middle of the day when he would put down his plow and she at her broom just long enough for a quick … er, fight. And after a short rest and a quick bite, the Harlie was always ready, willing and able to go back to his plow, and she to her broom. It never failed, at least not before he went off into the mountains. And fighting had never been the same since.

The Harlie never knew for sure exactly how, or even why, his voracious wife came about referring to their love making activities as ‘fightin’’ despite previous attempts of elucidation, but he did have his suspicions. Actually, it was an observation made by his nervous young bride shortly after they began sharing the same name and, therefore, the same bed. It seemed that whenever Elmo became sexually aroused, as it often the case for healthy young bridegrooms, his exposed member would quickly take on the distinctive form for which it is characteristically known. Gorged with blood and genetically fueled with five thousand years of evolutionized male testosterone, this proud and noble instrument would invariably stiffen and protract, expanding to its maximum dimensions, like a well engineered suspension bridge in all its erectile glory. Then, naturally poised in this most prominent position, the manly appendage would, with a little imagination of course, assume the phallic appearance of some ancient weapon of war; such a battering ram, or a Spartan siege engine that was employed so effectively against the impenetrable wall of old Athens; or, to put it more organically, the raised horn of a charging rhinoceros, the substance of which is said to have aphrodisiacal qualities about it; potent powers that are rare, expensive, and most effective, especially when topically applied to the subject organ or digested internally. Imagine, if you will, the tapering tusks of Hannibal’s elephants as they trampled over the Alps in search of Roman blood. Not even Scipio with a hundred legions could stop them. Or, in a more contemporary sense, think of the steely blue barrel of a loaded gun, cocked and aimed, finger on the trigger, in a deadly and deliberate direction. Fightin’? Well…what else could you call it?

Another long and sensual kiss. The Harlie’s hand went south, tracing a fine line along the small of his wife’s back. The flesh was warm and firm, soft and subtle, like the serpentine skin of a reptile. He could almost hear her ‘hissssssss….’ as the dress became undone.

Being a farm girl, Nadine naturally understood all these signs. She’d seen them before, even as a young girl when farmer Simpson would sometimes allow her to witness the act of copulation in its most basic and bestial forms, which she found both stimulating and educational at the time, along with the actual birthing process. It was an essential part of animal husbandry and farming in general. And seeing the same physiological manifestations in her husband’s countenance and sharing the same biological instincts and urges, Nadine Cotton knew exactly what to do. “Wanna fight?” she seductively smiled.

BANG!

Invariably, the answer would always be yes. It didn’t even have to be said. It was simply understood; and the fight was ready to commence. Except for during daylight hours, when Lil’ Ralph was typically roaming about the house in search of those curiosities that naturally draw a little boy’s attention, the fight would sometimes last well into the night; Elmo usually being the first to cry uncle with the blanket loosely draped over his tired and naked body like the white flag of surrender. No one actually ever won the ‘fight’ of course: no one was supposed to; and, in that sense, nobody really lost. It was not that kind of an exchange. It was, after all, just a tumble in the hay; but it’s also necessary, at least once in a while: like a good meal, a fine cigar, or a glass of whiskey. It’s only natural. And when it was all over, both sides would simply get up, brush themselves off, declare victory, or at least a truce, and, if they hadn’t fallen asleep by then in each other’s arms, go about their business and live to fight another day. That’s the beauty of it! It’s the glory and story of love. That’s how it works! There ain’t no winners; and there ain’t no losers only participants. And that’s what fightin’ is really all about, the Harlie finally came to realize after one unusually long and exhausting fight. But nothing lasts forever, not even a good fight; and, maybe that’s the way it should be. It’s what makes you want it even more. That’s what makes it so special, so…. personal. And inside the little house in Harley that day, Elmo suddenly found himself wanting it more than ever. Sure, he was tired; but he was not that tired. “What’s for supper, woman” the farmer asked his wife, even though food was still the last thing on his mind at the time.

He went deeper still. Down… down… down and under to that special area of the anatomy only lovers are familiar with. The farm girl followed in pursuit, shifting her weight in her husband’s accommodating lap as the last button burst open, exposing, for a brief and tantalizing moment, the twin peaks of the of the volcano erupting within.

Nadine answered in a low and sultry voice: “What does you think, Elmo?” It was raw and sensual; the kind of animalistic sound women are sometimes known to project as a verbal expression of their deepest and darkest desires. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be enunciated with words; although the Harlie always loved it when she called him by name, and the way she would lick those thick red lips while forming a perfectly round circle along the inner edges of her mouth whenever she vocalized the distinctively deep sound of the letter ‘O’. There was something dark and mysterious about it, like an African aphrodisiac brewed by a Zulu witchdoctor in the inner jungles of the Congo. It had a magical ring to it; something like…like Mojo! All it took was a growl, a moan or a groan, or perhaps the purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr of a kitten. Nadine knew them all; and she knew just how to use them: “Is you ready to fight, Elmooooooooooooooooo…?” It made her husband melt. There was masculine quality about it, something primordial and primitive, like the sexual act itself. It was the kind of voice that Elmo always found strangely attractive. And it worked, every time.

Elmo grinned, “Beans! What else?”

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG1 BANG! BANG! Ralph soundly agreed.

As the little boy banged on the back of the kettle, the beans on the stove suddenly came to a fast and ferocious boil. The pot bubbled over into the fire as Nadine jumped to her feet while quickly buttoning up the back of her dress. This didn’t mean that the fight was over. It was merely a brief intermission; the kind young married couples with kids have to deal with from time to time, and are actually quite accustomed to.

“Oh, by the way,” his wife added, almost as an afterthought, while placing the beans on the table to cool off a little. “There was a man come here today. Say he be lookin’ for you.”

Elmo slouched back down in the chair. “That’s just Mister Townsend,” he said with no particular concern, “You know, Sheriff John. But I already talked to him. It was nothin’. Don’t worry ‘bout it.”

“It ain’t no sheriff, Elmo.”

The Harlie sat up. “Is you sure?”

“I knows what Sheriff John look like,” said Nadine, as she began undoing the long row of buttons once more; this time by herself.

“He come here?”

“Walk right up to the front door,” replied his wife, growing increasingly suspicious and undoing the buttons a little more slowly. “At first I thought it might be that ol’ billy-goat, Ike Armstrong… lookin’ for the end of my broom again. But it ain’t him.

“Lucky for him,” Elmo thought out loud.

Nadine continued, “Said he was lookin’ for the man of the house. He was real polite, too; that way I know he ain’t Ike. Said he needs to speak to you ‘bout somethin’ impo’tant.”

Elmo didn’t like what he was hearing, and wondered why she didn’t tell him sooner. “What you tell him, Nadine?” he asked.

“I told him you was out in the field, working. What you think I told him?”

“He a Creekman?”

“I don’t know. But he not from around here, that’s fo’ sho’,” she drawled, trying her best not to worry her husband un-necessarily. “Didn’t look like any of those Creek people, either. Not likes Mister Skinner and his wife, anyway.

“What’d he look like, Nadine?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Elmo,” said the farmer’s wife, still undoing her dress and wishing by now she hadn’t brought it up. “He look like one of them hill-peoples. You knows, the kinds that lives up in them in them ol’ mountains.”

“His hair… Did he have long hair?”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded.

“And a beard?”

Again, she nodded.

Elmo thought right away of the man he’d seen standing in the fields earlier that same day; the one with the long beard and glassy eyes that was staring at him so strangely. “Go on, woman,” the farmer prodded his wife.

“He kind’a ol’ lookin’, just like Mister Homer, but wiry. Don't look like he from around here tho’,” Nadine resumed, nervously. She then let the dress fall freely from her shoulders, gathering up around her ankles like the skin of a shedding snake. And there she stood, naked and beautiful, in a rippling pool of pure white cotton. She was concerned, naturally, and perhaps just a little annoyed, over her husband’s sudden interest in the man she was having so much difficulty describing; and it showed. “He be a white man, I can say that much; but I don’t know what he wants. Ain’t nothin’ in Harley for white mens. So I told him goodbye, and that he best be on his way. Funny thing, tho’,” she added, almost as if she might’ve forgotten. “He was wearin’ all these here animal clothes. Look like a bear or something. Like to sacred Lil’ Ralph half to death! Should be ‘shamed of his-self, goin’ around frightenin’ little chil’runs like that.”

The Harlie was undressed down to his draws when he asked with all seriousness, “He carryin’ a gun, Nadine?”

His wife looked nervously all around the house. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so. And where the boy at?” she suddenly began to wonder.

By then Lil’ Ralph had crawled under the bed with his drum because he knew what was coming.

Elmo breathed a pregnant sigh of relief and walked over to look out the window. He was about to say something to his wife when suddenly

BANG! BANG! BANG!

“There he go again…” said Elmo.

The sound made Nadine feel a little bit better; at least she knew where her son was. “There was somethin’ else,” she just then remembered. “I don’t know… but he had these, these marks on him. All over his arms, like scars or something.” She then ran a long slender finger over her husband’s naked back as if to help explain what she saw that day. “Look like cuts that healed up some time ago, likes, likes….”

“Likes mines?” said Elmo, as the finger traced a line along a raised white scar tissue traversing the Harlie’s broad back

“Uh-huh. Like someone done him in pot-ash.”

What the farmer’s wife was referring to was actually an old trick employed, at times, by the more spiteful women of Harley. It was typically reserved for gigolos and two-timing husbands, or arresting the un-welcomed advances from overly stimulated men, like Isaiah Armstrong, that might be looking for a little fight of their own. Sometimes they would wait for him to fall asleep, then dose the unsuspecting devil with a smoldering bucket of the hellish concoction. It usually left a scar; and it always burned, like sin. It was supposed to burn. It hurt. That’s what made it so effective. And it worked too – every time! The rooster would think twice before entering the hen house again; and the cock would not crow for many days to come. Needless-to-say, it was something Nadine Cotton would never, ever! do to her own faithful husband. She would just kill him; as any self-respecting farm girl would.

“What else?” coaxed her husband.

“Well, he not a bad lookin’ man, I ‘spose... except for maybe all them nasty scars. Make him look scary, real strange-like – and evil! Had him a real sharp nose, too; like most Greens do. Not like us Harlies. And he was wearin’ these here… what that you calls em?” And here the naive farm girl made two little round circles with her fingers and held them up to her eyes out of sheer ignorance. “Likes the kinds old folks sometime be wearin’ fo’ readin’ and such,” she tried to explain.

“You mean ‘spectables, Nadine. They’s calls ‘em ‘spectables – eyeglasses!” Elmo elucidated. They’s fo’ old folks who can’t see too good. Mister Skinner done lost…. Oh, never minds about that. It ain’t im’potant. You say he was wearin’ them… Is you sure ‘bout that”?

“Sho’ I’s sho’” she insisted. “He spoke real nice, too; kind’a sweet come to think of it. Some words I don’t understands. Must be what you calls… an edge’cated man. Not like that nasty ol’ Ike, I says to myself. Say he be comin’ back real soon, too, Elmo. Don’t know what fo’. He didn’t say. Didn't give a name, either. Just say he be a’comin’ back – that’s all.”

Elmo couldn’t help but think it was same man he'd seen standing in the field just before he turned in his mule and plow. Who else could it be? But then again, there have been so many people coming and going lately, he didn't think one more would make any difference. But it did make him feel a little uneasy, vulnerable. He felt naked; and he was.

Nadine sensed the tension in her husband’s unclothed body and, like the good wife she was, decided to do something about it. She walked over to the window and reached for his crotch. She squeezed him gently, and repeated her earlier challenge in the same soft and sultry voice: “Still wants fight, Elmo?”

A noise came from under the bed.

BANG!

The sharecropper answered his wife the usual manner; he said nothing. Instead, he reached for is overalls that were piled up on the kitchen floor and put them back on. He then walked over to the bed where he reached down the bed and plucked up his young son like a trapper pulling an opossum out of its from its hole, along with the copper kettle drum and long wooden spoon. He picked him up, threw him over his shoulder like a small sack of Harley beans and carried the boy outside.

He soon found a piece of rope lying on the ground he’d been looking for earlier, which he used to tie the little drummer boy to small apple tree he’d planted there when they were first married. It hadn’t grown much bigger since then; but it could still do the job. With a stern look and a stiff finger, the father admonished his noisy and impetuous son: “You wait here, boy! I’ll be right back. He let him keep the kettle, but not the spoon.

Back inside Nadine Cotton was sitting on edge of the bed, naked as a Nubian bride and ready to, to…. well, fight – What else? “How ‘bout supper?” she smiled upon her husband’s quick and anticipated return.

The Harlie slammed the door behind him and eagerly began pulling the straps from his shoulders. “The beans can wait…” he smiled right back. “I’s can’t.”

As it had happened so many times in his painful past, the Harlie’s troubles all melted away, like ice on fire, in the warm embrace of his wife’s long, loving embrace. There was really nothing else to say. Elmo was a happy man; and he was glad Nadine was there to remind him of that. She was always there, it seemed; and she always understood. She was the only one that ever could.

“Is you ready to fight now, Elmooooooooooooooooooo…?” she moaned one last time.


Chapter Five

The Mule, the Moon, and the Redstone Tree

IT WAS ALREADY LATE SEPTEMBER, and the sun was still as hot as it had been all summer, and the real work of harvesting hadn't even started. The Harlie grew wearier and more suspicious with each passing day. Elmo couldn't even begin to help Nadine around the house with all the domestic chores that still had to be done: the roof needed fixing, the stove needed a new smokestack, and Nadine still wanted a new bathtub. She worried about her husband more and scolded him less, knowing, of course, that it would only make matters worse if she did.

Sheriff John Townsend did stop by several more times by the end of the month, just like he said he would. And each time he rode through the iron gates of Haley on the old gray mare, his head seemed to hang just a little lower, and his eyes squinted just a little bit more, than they did the day before. Elmo was sure by then that there would be a trial after all; and he certainly didn’t want to be in Harley when it happened. He knew the verdict, of course; it was as plain as black and white, and as clear as the stripes on his back.

“Mighty hot… for September,” spoke the Harlie to no one in particular while braking his plow for a minute under the noonday sun to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He looked at the mule and added “I reckon we could both use a little rest.”

The sun had always played tricks on the Harlie’s mind, and that day was no exception. Thoughts of what’d happened in the mountain still haunted him; even in the daylight hours when he’d hoped work would take his mind off it. He was actually more scared than he should’ve been, all things considered, and suspicious of just about everyone. He was just not himself lately, as his wife was so keen to observe. He had changed somehow. He was different. And it all began the day he came down from the mountain. Was it something that happened in the long dark tunnel? Confined spaces frightened him, and he avoided them whenever possible, along with rats and bats… and other things. But he wasn’t only thinking of the tunnel, which was most likely the cause of his recent phobia; he was also considering the time he’d already spent locked up in the Redstone Tree for beating Dickey Dilworth. Even in the quiet open fields he felt trapped, like a raccoon with nowhere to run.

The sound of thunder still echoed in his ears. He could see the rocks falling all around him; he could still feel the water rushing by his toes and feet. He could smell the smoke, and fell the fire. He could even feel the earth moved under his feet from time to time. It was like living in a dream, a nightmare; and he just couldn’t wake up. And then there were the dreaded footsteps in the dark. SPLISH – SPLASH – SLPISH –SPLASH. They seemed to have followed him all the way back to Harley. But most of all, and what he found most disturbing, were the voices. He could still hear them. They never went away. And they always sounded the same; like they were crying, it seemed; just like they were before all hell broke loose. They were the voices of dead men: Smiley, Webb, Sam, Boy, Homer, Hector, and, of course there was Little Dick Dilworth still crying out in the dark for his momma. And they were just as scared as he was. It was the same cacophonous noise he’d heard inside the tunnel that dark day on the mountain. And there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Even from the bean fields of Harley, he could see the tall pines of the Silver Mountains; and beyond that, the volcanic crown of Mount Wainwright itself, where it all began. It stood before him, looming in the distance, like a great conical tombstone rising out of the desert, not unlike the mighty Masada where a handful of brave Jews defiantly made their last stand, choosing death, even at their own hands, over tyranny. It was a daily reminder of all the Harlie was trying so desperately to forget. Like a green and purple haystack that had been sliced in half, the crater appeared ominously silent, floating on a vapor in the early morning mist, a monumental tombstone, poking its head through a cloud like the horns on top of the Harlie’s his own steamy head.

For no particular reason, Elmo suddenly found himself visualizing Red-Beard’s distorted face inside the ominous cloud. In a strange and disquieting way, it almost made him feel as though the crazed colonel was still alive. But that couldn’t be, he imagined, Rusty was dead, and so was the colonel; the sheriff had told him so. They’d found the body, but not the gun that killed him. It was shotgun, just like the one that he’d brought up in the mountains with him that day. He was also thinking of the man in the field. He knew the two were somehow connected; he just didn’t know how, or why. Or maybe it was just his imagination. It was at that point when the sharecropper first began questioning his own mental faculties.

Along with everything else that was on Elmo’s mind, he began thinking more and more of what he’d brought back with him the mountain that day, the so-called Motherstone, the same one that once rolled out of the dead man’s hands and into his own. Other than his Uncle Joe, he hadn’t shown it anyone, not even his wife. He didn’t think she’d understand anyway. He was right, of course. How could she? He didn’t know what make of it himself. One thing he did know, however, was this: Whatever it was, it was his. Uncle Joe said so. And that’s all that seemed to matter. The only question now, he reckoned, was – what to do with it?

“Might fetch me a dollar and a quarter,” he said to his mule in the strange and casual way he was accustomed to addressing the dumb animal. It was almost as if he were chatting with a friendly neighbor, or a ghost, about, say, the weather or the price of coffee, just to pass the time of day. “It ain’t gold… but it must be worth something. You think?”

The mule responded accordingly in its own imaginary and ambiguous voice, which somehow always came across as confrontational: ‘The colonel thought so…”

“Uh-huh,” said the Harlie, admiring the mule’s reasoning, which was always a source of comfort and relief. “Could buy Nadine that new bathtub she’s been a’wantin’ – and maybe some new shoes for lil’ Ralph. Hell! I’ll get me some shoes for my own damn self,” he suddenly realize, glancing sown at his own sore and naked feet. “What’s that you say, Mister Mule? You say Harlies don’t wear no shoes? Well, I know one Harlie who do – Ike Armstrong – That’s who! He’s Harlie; at least that’s what he say he is. And done he gots him some shoes! Humph! Mighty fine shoes, too!”

“Gots more than shoes,” reminded the mule.

“I heard that,” the Harlie agreed. “Ol’ Ike’s got more of everythin’, I reckon. Yes he does.”

The mule concurred with a weary but confident nod.

“Gots more than most… More than he needs,” insisted the Harlie, continuing his curious conversation with the animal just to amuse himself and, perhaps, ease his troubled mind. “What more do he want?”

The mule knew. “Don’t you know?” it asked.

“No, I don’t.”

“I thinks you do.”

Elmo responded: “I thinks you lost yo’ mind, Mister mule.”

“Your wife…” said the beast. “He want Nadine.”

“Well, he have to kill me first.”

“He want that, too.”

Even though the words proceeded from his own quivering lips, the farmer still didn’t recognize them for his own. And even though he knew it was true, he didn’t want to talk about it. “Hush up, you ol’ jackass!” he rebuked the animal. “Ain’t no one talks ‘bout Nadine like that – but me! You hear? Besides, I don’t believes you anyway.”

“Then you’re a fool, Mister Cotton,” replied the mule, glibly.

Elmo didn’t particularly like being called a fool, even by himself. But it was true, and he knew it. He also knew how Ike felt about his wife. It made him think. “You know, Mister Mule, you just might got somethin’ there.” Elmo never forgot what the landlord said to him that day he returned from the mountain: ‘Say howdy to Miss Nadine for me, now. And tell her I’s be looking for her’. Those were his exact words, recalled the Harlie, wishing now that he hadn’t. And they still stung, like acid on an open wound. “Did you see him? He was holdin’ that thing between his legs when he said it! Did you see that, mule? Did you see it! Even a dumb ol’ jack-ass know what that means.

“Mens do that all the time,” answered the mule.

“No. Not all mens... Leastways, not when they’s talkin’ about another man’s woman, they don’t. No they don’t.”

The mule tilted its head, the way dogs sometimes do for….well, for no reason at all it seems, which makes it that much more difficult to not to notice. “Is that why you wants to kill him?” it seemed to be saying.

Elmo paused, as if hearing a knock on the door around midnight when no one was expected. Go away! He wanted to shout. But what came out instead was: “Shut up!”

“It’s not so hard, you know…” suggested the beast.

“What not so hard?”

“Killin’ a man.”

“Who said anythin’ ‘bout killin’, mule?”

“You did. Remember?”

Elmo was confused; he had no one but himself to blame. “You mean the colonel?”

“It was easy. Wasn’t it?”

“But I didn’t… It wasn’t me. The gun...”

“I know, I know,” said the mule, shaking its sorry head. “– it just went off. You already told the sheriff that.”

“I’s in enough trouble as it is,” he reminded the animal. “Killin’ ol’ Ike ain’t gonna make it any better.”

“Can’t make it any worse….”

“Now look’ye here, Mister mule… killin’s again’ the law. You knows that! Besides, I’s ain’t that kind’a man.”

“What kind is that?”

“The kinds what do murder,” Elmo reminded himself. “Ain’t never kilt a man. Ain’t never entered my mind.” He knew it was a lie, of course; and so did the mule.

“I know one man who think you is. And he dead now.”

“The grocery clerk…” Elmo suddenly recalled: the man who wanted to take Nadine from him. He almost did. And now he was dead, just like the mule said, just like old man Simpson. “That’s different… and besides,” he protested, “I didn’t kill that man.”

“That not what his momma say,” argued the mule.

Elmo had no answer. In fact, she wasn’t the only one in Harley that felt that way. It was no secret that Elmo Cotton had asked Nadine to marry him first. Even the man with the pock-marked face knew it. ‘And that’s why Mister Cotton did what do,’ shouted the grieving mother of the fat man who was just as fat and ugly as the three hundred pound corpse. ‘That’s why he killed my boy. It’s murder!’ she cried, even as Lester Cox lowered the triple-sized coffin into the muddy soil, which took ten strong men and the better part of the afternoon to accomplish.

“That’s right!” hee-hawed the mule. “That’s what they say: Kilt one man already. Killin’ another man ain’t gonna make no difference. And if anybody deserve to be killed, that be Ike Armstrong. Yes he do. Shoot! I kills him myself, ifin’ I could holds the gun and pulls the trigger, joked the fingerless quadruped. “You know you wants to. They’s gonna kill you anyway, boy. We’s all gonna die! Might as well...”

“Damn you, mule!” scolded the Harlie, wishing Mister Dixon had never burdened him with such a worrisome beast, “You knows I ain’t no murderer. And you knows I ain’t got me no damn shotgun. It was stolen! Up there in them hills. You was there! Remember? And if I did have me a shotgun, I just might shot you instead – Humph!”

“Then you is a murderer,” reasoned the animal.

Elmo knew the mule was right, of course, and therefore couldn’t rightly argue with the animal’s sterling logic. If he’d killed one man or one hundred, it wouldn’t have made any difference; the punishment would be just the same. Death! Why, even a dumb jackass could see that. The trail was over before it began, just like before. The verdict was final; it was spelled out and written in petrified blood, the blood of the Redstone Tree: Death by hanging. That’s how murders die.

Elmo produced a small green carrot from top pocket of his overalls and shoved it in the animals face.

“So why not make the crime fit the punishment?” suggested the mule, as if reading his master’s mind, while chewing on his cud.

Like the yoke bearing down on the back of a beast, the Harlie could already feel the rope tightening around his fated neck. He began wondering if maybe he really did kill Rusty Horn, and not have known that he did it. It was possible. He had heard of such things happening before; they were usually the result of some traumatic experience, something the sufferer would just as soon forget, like getting kicked in the head by a mule. Or, maybe he just didn’t want to remember. Guilt, as all sinners know, has a way of protecting itself and, can sometimes be disguised in denial. Just ask any alcoholic, an honest one if you can find him.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the Harlie had killed, either; if, as the mule so eloquently stated, that also included animals as well. He did it before by putting put down his own hound dog after it gotten the mange and was too old and blind to hunt anymore. But that was different; it was a mercy killing, and he didn’t want to do it anyway. He was good dog too. Even if he couldn’t catch a rabbit, or a raccoon, anymore. Naturally, it made the Harlie sad to have to shoot the poor animal. It was just one of those things. It had to be done, he reckoned, like putting down a lame horse. It really wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be and, even though he still had doubts about it from time to time, it was something he would just rather not talk about; and he would do all over again if he had to. Like the mule said: it ain’t that hard. Well, damn it! he thought, maybe it should be. Murder, killing or whatever you want to call it, even when it is justified, should be difficult. It shouldn’t be easy; at least not that easy, as easy as putting down a dog, or squashing a horsefly. That’s what makes killing so serious, so personal, and so… so real! Perhaps that’s what war is all about, and why they so difficult to win – sometimes impossible. And thank God for that! It’s suppose to be hard, and ugly; if they weren’t, we would have too many them. War without pain and death would not only be ridiculous, it would be impractical, and far too expensive; and it would never end. Wars are dirty and dangerous propositions, and messy, like cutting off a limb or surgically removing a diseased organ, a heart or lung perhaps, and hoping the patient can somehow survive. Naturally, they are to be avoided at all cost; and, just like the return of the Lord, the day and the hour we know not when, we should always be prepared: like having a shotgun in the barn, or a Colt 45 in your holster… just in case. That’s why they call it the ’Peace-maker’. Think of it! The war-child did, but not so the dog, or the mule. And he did it with his own shotgun; the same one that was now missing from his barn. He did at close range, the way these things supposed to be done. The dog never knew what happened. In fact, at the time, he almost seemed to understand, with that same tilted head and those same soul searching eyes dogs are famous for, even in the face of certain death. Ignorance, at least in the case of the loyal cyanine, is not only bliss, it is actually quite charitable. He didn’t even blink, or bark, Elmo suddenly remembered. He just sat there, looking straight up at his master with a wrinkled old face and those big brown eyes. His nose was cold and wet. But the gun was so old and rusty that it almost backfired that day, taking the Harlie himself down as well. It took only one shot to the head. It was easy.

Elmo never fired the gun after that, but kept in the barn for safekeeping, just in case he ever had to use it again. He hoped that would never happen. And for many days after, he would still whistle for his dog from time to time, whenever he saw a rabbit or a raccoon running through the brush. The dog never did come; and the raccoon always got away. The Harlie had merely forgotten he’d killed the poor animal; perhaps just like he killed Red-Beard. The difference between the two, however, was that he still regretted killing the dog.

“They say you killed him,” regurgitated the mule, along with a mouthful of carrot cud.

Elmo shot right back. “Killin’ ain’t the same as murderin’.”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“Who you ask.”

“Red-Beard...” whispered the Harlie under his breath, recalling a conversation he’d once overheard between Homer Skinner and the infamous colonel Horn.

The sun was beating down harder than ever. There was no rain in sight, not even a cloud in the sky. “That’s what you really want,” repeated the beast. “That’s what this is all about. Ain’t it? Red-Beard’s dead, and so is Homer. It’s all about Ike now? He gots it comin’ to him, you know. It’s as easy as…”

“As fallin’ off a log,” Elmo continued, thinking not so much about the words once uttered by Little Dick Dilworth just before they said goodbye outside the long dark tunnel, but something, or someone, else. A man, dressed in fur. He was standing off to the side, by the cave. He was there. There was something in his hands. A gun maybe? The Harlie was leaning on his the handle of his plow and thinking it over when his mind suddenly shifted back to the man in the bean field, the same shaggy ‘hillbilly’ Nadine said came to his door the day before. He seemed to have vanished – just like that! the way mountain men sometimes do, he imagined. Elmo didn’t know how, or why, but he began thinking that he might’ve seen this man before, the day Red-Beard was shot to death on top of the mountain. He didn’t know if it was the glasses, the beard, or the strange looking clothes. There was something familiar about him. But the Harlie just couldn’t remember what it was. Maybe he just didn’t want to remember.

But the mule did. “He was there, you know – behind the rock.”

Forgetting his work all together by now, Elmo Cotton drove his plow into the muddy soil. He remembered hearing some rocks falling by the tunnel just before the gun went off and seeing something moving in his peripheral. But there was so many other things going on at the time that he never knew for sure what was really happening. There was a gun pointed in his face. Elmo knew he was going to die. He was scared. It was getting dark. There a black cloud over the mountain. The earth moved! It opened up. The ponies ran away. The sound of a gun. BOOM! A cloud of smoke! Homer! he cried. The old man was still there, but he was dead. And then everything was black. He couldn’t remember anything more. But the mule was right about one thing, the Harlie had to admit: there was someone there, someone... He looked to the ground and drove his bare toes deep into the muddy soil. “It just went off!” he shouted in the sacred solitude of the bean fields where he thought no one could hear him; only louder than ever before, as if that might somehow absolve him of the crime. But someone else did hear; and it wasn’t the mule.

“Who’s there?” the Harlie whispered out loud.

No answer.

He looked at the mule. Still, no answer.

Elmo was going to say something to the animal; but he didn’t. Instead, he picked up his plow and went back to work. And so did the mule.

* * *

AS AUTUMN SET in and the winds began to blow down from the mountains into Harley and beyond, Elmo grew more and more restless. With each passing day his face became longer as the days became shorter. Most folks usually found relief and comfort in the cooler temperature around that time of year, which they would sometimes enjoy by taking a short but well deserved break late in the afternoon. But not Elmo Cotton; he didn’t have the time for any of that. There was too much work to do; and he was already a week behind.

Nadine often wondered what was going on inside her husband’s head. She knew that something was wrong; something was bothering him. And when she asked him about it, which wasn’t very often, Elmo would quickly change the subject or suddenly remember something else he should be doing just then and disappear into the fields, or somewhere. He wanted to tell her – everything! He really did; but he knew she wouldn’t understand. How could she? She was just… just a woman. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep it from her. Keep what? He wasn’t even sure what it was he should be hiding; unless, of course, it was the truth. But what is the truth? He’d asked himself that same question at least a thousand times; but, just like Pilate before him who washed his hands in the blood of the Lamb two thousand years ago, the Harlie received no answer. He wouldn’t know the truth if it struck him in the face, or shot him in the chest. So, rather than telling the truth, or admitting what was really going on, he simply tried to avoid her, which was becoming more and more difficult to do. It only made the farm girl more suspicious. Elmo was never very good to lying to his wife either; and besides, Nadine Cotton just wasn’t an easy person to deceive, especially with those damn horns on top of the Harlies head showing all the time.

Then one day the sharecropper received an unexpected visit from Mister Lester Cox, the official coroner and undertaker of Creekwood County, which included the township of Harley and much of the surrounding area. At times, Lester would journey as far south as Old Port Fierce to peddle his specialized goods and services, which were as necessary there as anywhere else. Mister Cox had even done business in Shadytown from time to time, where folks generally took a dim view, and were naturally suspicious, of white men in black coats who profited from death by selling coffins they couldn’t afford anyway.

Lester just happened to be making his rounds in Harley that day, in search of new or potential customers when he heard the news that a certain young sharecropper might soon be in need of his professional services; of which he would be more than happy to oblige, at the usual rate, of course. Besides that, he needed the work. With the war over, and most of the bodies properly disposed of, business was down – six feet to be precise. He was headed in that direction anyway to purchase a sack or two of the famous Harley beans, which he would serve to his higher paying clientele on those special occasions where refreshments and other accoutrements were called, and paid, for. Naturally, he would also stop by Charlie Kessler’s Brewery that day to pick at half a dozen kegs of ‘Double print’ cornbrew to wash down the beans with.

Despite a rather long and drawn out face, and the sobering personality that naturally accompanies those in that morbid line of work, Mister Cox was actually a gregarious and light-hearted fellow with friendly disposition; although you would hardly know it merely by the sober expression impressed, at birth perhaps, upon his dark and dreary countenance that would and could break out in tears at the drop of a hat (or a silver dollar) which well-suited his unique and unenviable profession. Along with a sincere and sentimental smile, Lester Cox was also, chiefly on account the travels his industrious trade would take him, know to be not only a fair and honest man, but a reliable source of the latest news and information; and, in that sense, at least, he was always welcomed.

Having served the good (and not so good) people of Harley and Creekwood Green for the past twenty-two years, Mister Cox had a way of knowing just about everything going on between the two opposing towns, whether he was supposed to or not. ‘Comes with the territory’ Lester would say, having figured out long ago how closely related grief and gossip actually are, and how to make the most of them, and the best of both worlds. And no wonder! If you can’t trust our own undertaker, well then…Who can you trust? Mister Cox knew exactly what to say and when to say it. He also knew when not to say it, or just keep quiet, which also came in quite handy in his chosen line of work. Lester was a master at communication as well as disguises. He had to be. It can with the job, like the smell of flowers and formaldehyde. Lester knew his clientele well, both living and dead. He knew their pasts, their presents and, especially, their futures; although not as well as he would have liked; the grim reaper not being known for his punctuality. ‘We all gotta go sometime,’ was one of his favorite expressions. And he would say it in a low conciliatory voice, that re-assuring kind undertakers are famous for. He made it sound so… unavoidable; desirable, in a strange and morbid sort of way that only Lester could afford. He knew who was dead and who wasn’t; more importantly, he knew where all the bodies were buried. He knew because, more than likely, he put them there.

According to Mister Lester Cox, the word around both towns was that there would be a trial, after all, and that Elmo Cotton was as good as hung, which, of course, was what brought him Harley in the first place. Better known for his sympathy rather than his subtlety, the Creekwood undertaker consoled the Harlie by first extending his condolences, however premature and un-welcomed they might’ve been at the time, along with promising the unfortunate sharecropper not only a professional embalmment and proper Christian burial but the right proper coffin to suit his own specific needs and personal tastes; and his budget, of course.

Cedar was Lester’s favorite and personal recommendations, chiefly because of its rich sweet scent, water resistance, and other desirable characteristics found in better coffins everywhere, including a bell alarm which could be sounded from within the wooden sarcophagus with a simply pull of a string attached to a bell mounted at the headstone; if, in fact, the dearly departed was not as departed as he or she, or anyone else for that matter, otherwise might’ve wished them to be. Naturally, mistakes like these happen from time to time; and they are quite unfortunate, as well as embarrassing, whenever they do. “But not my clients!” Lester would proudly proclaim, and rightfully so, “When I plants ‘em… they stays planted.” Not everyone agreed, of course; which is precisely why Lester incorporated into all his contracts a ‘money back guarantee’ to any unsatisfied customers; something that not only increased his profit margin by a hundred percent, but confounded his competition, who were rumored to ‘bury first and ask questions later’, many of whom were quickly seen scrambling to revise their own morbid contracts to include the lucrative clause, retaining the bell… well, just in case. It just made good business sense; and business, for Lester Cox anyway, was never better.

Eventually, these lively corpses that had somehow managed to escape not only the grim reaper but the doctor’s knife and the embalmers needle as well, become know, appropriately enough, as ‘dead-ringers’. Needless-to-say, they always got their money back, and kept the coffin as an added bonus. Redwood was Lester’s second timber of choice; cypress coming in a close third. Mahogany, along with other varieties ‘soft woods’, were his least favorite, chiefly on account of their tendency to rot too quickly. Hard woods, such as poplar and oak, were good, too; but they were expensive and heavy, and hard on the pall-bearers. “Cedar and red keeps the termites away,” the undertaker would note in his official capacity; “ – and they don’t leak!” Pine was the cheapest, of course: a simple rectangular box with four handles and covered with a plain linen cloth. It did the job, but that’s about all. ‘And besides,’ he would caution his more frugal minded customers: ‘pine boxes are for tramps and cheap whiskey. Needless-to-say, Lester sold many of these in Harley, as well as Shadytown; and he would occasionally give them away, charity permitting, especially when he was overstocked.

Lester also received a small commission on each coffin he sold that he didn’t personally manufacture himself, although he was always careful never to be too much of a salesman in times of grief and consolation. ‘Nobody likes a pushy undertaker,’ he would say quite sincerely, and correctly. ‘It ain’t good for business… and besides, it just ain’t right.’ You see, Lester was not only a fair and honest man, but he god-fearing one as well. He realized, of course, that one day in the not too distant future, someone else would be driving his hearse, and that he would be the one in the back, inside a box, and destined for a six foot hole just like everyone else. When it came to matters of the here-after: ‘You can never be too careful’, Lester often proselytized. Charity has its own rewards, and there are no money back guarantees. And to further promote his morbid business, of which he himself would soon be on the receiving end of, Mister Cox was always quick to point out: “And when you got to go… there ain’t nothin’ better than a ‘Cox Box’ (the name Lester himself invented and applied to own special line of cedar and redwood coffins) to get you where you ought’a be.” And no one knew that better than Lester Cox.

Many considered Lester an artist, and a damn good one at that, marveling at his many occupational skills and talents, especially when it came to utilizing his own special embalming technique that were actually an old family secret, or recipe if you will, passed down from one generation of Coxes to another, as fiercely protected as Aunt Bea’s recipe for holiday fruitcake or Uncle Lummis’ meatloaf surprise (the surprise being meat itself; not that anyone ever questioned where it came from but… rumor has it that ever since Uncle Lummis began preparing his famous ‘meaty’ dish, there seemed to be alot less dogs and cats roaming the streets of Creekwood Green than there used to be) and just as difficult to digest. It was said that Mister Cox could indeed put a smile on any corpse – on the Lucifer himself, in fact; if, on that glorious day of the devil’s fated demise he was commissioned to perform the satanic ritual that would rid the world of evil once and for all. Lester was a master at bringing the beauty out of death. Work for him was a labor of love and, in many cases, a downright challenge.

As previously hinted upon, Lester was also a generous man who, after the embalming procedure, would often throw in a free shave and haircut (Mister Cox was also a proficient barber when need be and quite the haberdasher) whether the dearly departed needed one or not. Most did, of course; including not a few of his female clients, the hair follicles continuing to function long after Riga-mortise set in, allowing for beards and mustaches to crop up over the putrid dead skin even in the most delicate places. Manicures and pedicures were not uncommon in Mister Cox’s parlor. And he would apply liberal amounts of make-up to the bloodless cadavers, just to make them their best. It was, after all, the way they would be remembered. “Every corpse a testimonial!” boast the undertaker.

For a modest fee, Lester was also known to provide other accoutrements as well to his deserving cliental, such as formal clothing for those who couldn’t afford them or had never owned them in their previous existence. And for the sake of family and friends, the Creekwood coroner would sometimes clothe his more destitute customers in his own fine linens, which he would stealthfully remove from the body only moments before the celestial hearse was sealed forever, and save them the next poor customer. It was said that many a tear would fall inside Mister Cox’s funeral parlor. And if, for whatever discourteous or neglectful reason, there were not enough mourners at the wake to achieve the desired effect, the magnanimous caretaker would often hire a Harlie or two, out of his own deep and generous pockets, to act as professional mourners for the solemn occasion and, perhaps, sing a hymn or two. ‘Can’t no one can sing the blues like them Harlies!” he stated quite correctly. Not only was Lester Cox proud of his work but, as he pointed out to the Harlie that very same day: “It comes with a full money back guarantee, son… if not completely satisfied.”

Elmo wasn’t thinking about funerals or wakes, least of all his own, that day; and he certainly wasn’t thinking about coffins. But he was intrigued at the caretaker’s proposal; and he did appreciate the concern. It was all done so… so professionally, he thought. Elmo had heard all about the scented coffins, the flowers, undertaker’s generous attitude towards Harlies in general, and, most of all the special magic Mister Cox would work on his lifeless clientele, at times making them more famous, or infamous, in death than they ever were when they were alive, and just as loved or loathed. Needless-to-say, the Harlie was quite impressed. However, the fact that it all came with a ‘money back guarantee’ still puzzled him greatly, just as it did everyone else, come to think of it. He was also considering other things Mister Cox had told him that day, including what Sheriff John and his deputies found up the mountains. Elmo wasn’t surprised. But what really made him uneasy was the fact that it’d taken everyone so long to find out. It was not good news. And so, naturally, he tried to keep it from his wife. But Nadine already knew more than her husband suspected and didn’t push him too hard on the subject; especially after Mister Cox’s unexpected visit, which she thought a little premature, and his promise of a ‘money back guarantee’, which was something she had a difficult time with as well. The sudden and untimely appearance of the Creekwood coroner had not only made them both a little nervous that day, but slightly confused.

It seemed there was just nothing Nadine Cotton could do to ease her husband's troubled mind or soothe his burning brow, which would break out in fever now and then, keeping him up late into the night pacing circles on the floor and smoking his corn-cob pipe; a habit he’d only recently acquired, and one she certainly didn’t particularly appreciate, especially since corn-cobs, at that time at least, were commonly used as a sanitary device in the extraction the fecal matter after a bowel movement. But fevers, like bowel movements, don’t last forever, the farm girl was quick to observe. Elmo’s did. He also complained of headaches and dizzy spells, something he never did before. He found it difficult to sleep, and would wake up at all hours of the night, rolling in the bed and sweating on the mattress, despite the chilling temperatures that crept in with the night that time of year. And then he would simply get up, light up his corn-cob pipe and begin pacing the floor all over again, occasionally glancing out the window as if he was expecting someone, or something. He would even walk in his sleep at times; at least, that’s what it seemed like to his wife who would sometimes follow him around like a mother hen looking after a sick chick. His son, Ralph, who also noticed his father’s late-night activities, once mistook him for a ghost, or, as the little boy so aptly put it, as only little boys can do – the ‘bugger-monster!’

He didn’t even want to ‘fight’ anymore, which told Nadine that something was seriously wrong. He’d also become strangely quiet during these stressful nocturnal episodes, and would stand by the window for hours looking out on the moonlit fields that still needed harvesting and plowing, many of the un-picked beans already withering on the vine. He began taking to the bottle as well, another newly acquired vice the Harlie had suddenly, and much to his wife’s chagrin, took habit of. But fortunately, that only lasted as long the bottle did, which was never very long; at least, never long enough to have any lasting effect or cause any serious damage. The truth was, he simply couldn’t get as drunk as he wanted or needed to at the time; corn liquor, beer, and other alcoholic beverages being considered a luxury most Harlies simply couldn’t afford. In fact, the only spirits they sometimes indulged in were those they could produce for themselves, like homemade wine, bathtub gin, or moonshine whiskey – White lightnin’! They learned to make out of leftover grain from those who they sometimes referred to as the ‘hill-peoples’.

More than once (especially when he was drunk) the Harlie stumbled from the bed and out into the kitchen. He wasn’t looking for food, or liquor, as his wife suspected at the time, but something just as desirable. And it wasn’t his pipe. Nadine knew what he was after. It was under the bathtub, right where he kept it. She saw him put it there soon after he came down from the mountain; and he kept going back ever since. She didn’t exactly know what it was, except that it was round and black; but she knew for sure what it was doing to her husband, and her. And she hated it. And when he did finally come back to bed, it was as if two perfect strangers had somehow crawled into the same sack, accidentally perhaps, and fallen asleep on opposite sides of the bed.

“Come back to bed, sugar,” she implored her frustrated husband as she lay awake alone in bed that cold and lonely night.

Elmo was standing, silently starring out of the open window just as he did the night before and the night before that. He reached for his corn-cob pipe, the same one that he’d picked up on the road not far from where Sherman found the dead catfish, struck a match across the course surface of the sill, and lit it. Before long he was blowing steady streams of thick white smoke through his dilated nostrils. He liked the soothing affect nicotine had on his senses, and tried not to think about the corn-cob too much. One of the older women who worked in the fields had given him the tobacco. It wasn’t nearly as strong or aromatic as the Cuban cigar he’d smoked around the campfire with Homer and Hector one starry in the woods, which he was too inexperienced to fully appreciate at the time; it was certainly not as enjoyable, owing perhaps to fatal fact that he no longer was in the fellowship of men with common cause and common interests. Besides, thought the Harlie, his mind drifting through the billowing white clouds: Nobody likes smoking alone…or drinking for that matter, as he pulled the cork from the jug.

But his mind was not on his smoke, or the drink. He wasn’t even thinking of his wife at the time. He appeared, however, to be wrestling with one inescapable thought in mind, like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in his own personal trail, that particular night; an activity sometimes produced under the influence of the tobacco plant’s most potent and active ingredient, nicotine, which those in the medical profession classify as a ‘stimulus barrier drug’, the effects of which can include, along with a variety of other symptoms, a temporary concentration of brain activity, which would also explain the addictive nature of the drug, and why those who imbibe in the sacred weed find it so difficult to quit. Drawing heavily on the short stem of the pipe, Elmo gazed up at the crescent moon riding high over the mountains through a long disjointed cloud. The moon was silvery and white, like the metal found on the edge of a fine Turkish blade, a scimitar of Ottoman origins; a Persian weapon that speaks in that ancient and alien tongue, warning of an advancing army camped just over the desert horizon: Crusaders on horseback; the Knights Templar, perhaps; black riders with white faces, carrying guns and crosses. And on the lunar surface there was a horse; and on the horse there was a man; and the man was in the moon. He was wearing a badge and had Chinese eyes; he was also carrying a rope. And silhouetted against the orbiting satellite, like a black crucifix fixed upon the milky white host, stood the infamous Redstone Tree, as cool and clear as it had ever appeared to him, more frightening than he could ever had imagined, and deadly to behold. Elmo responded by blowing a long cloud of white smoke out the window and up into the deep dark heavens, where, as he would one day come to know, it all began.

Lil’ Ralph had already fallen fast asleep on the sofa next to the stove by then. It was his favorite place in the whole house, especially on cool autumn nights such as these when the winter wind first began to howl. He would often fall asleep there, but always ended up in bed, or at least under it, with his mother and father whether they were asleep or not. It was only natural; after all, he was still only a boy.

Nadine eyed her husband coldly from across the little room, wondering if there was anything she could say, or do, that might drive him back to bed and under the covers where he belonged. He looked wildly exhausted, she thought, the way insomniacs often do in that agitated state of alert drowsiness. She repeated her earlier concerns, but from a more spousal point of view. “What’s the matter, Elmo? Why’s you so blue? What’s ailin’ you, sugar?”

Elmo clenched the stem of his pipe firmly between his teeth and answered in a low but forceful voice. “Nothin’,” he said.

Nadine didn’t believe him, of course. “Come to bed…” she begged with a long suggestive sigh.

“It ain’t that…” he sheepishly replied.

“What is it then?”

“Nothin’,” he repeated.

The Harlie was lying, of course; he wasn’t a sheep, he was a goat; the horns proved it, although he was too wrought with worry to notice them at the time. But Nadine could see them as clear as the pointed red tail between her husband’s bare naked legs. The devil was showing his horns again. He was just too tired to fight, both literally and figuratively; and, as men often do in these situations, he was too proud to admit it. Twice that week he’d refused his wife’s nocturnal advances: once, when they were alone in the barn and the smell of hay and hyacinth suddenly reminded her, the way odors often do, of the first time they’d made love, despite the repercussions that surely would have ensued if old Farmer Simpson had caught them in the immoral act only three days before the wedding. And the second time was the night he returned from the mountain when, in her usual seductive way with her hands in the proper position, she casually beseeched him in that low and sultry voice, “Elmoooooooooo…” she moaned. It was usually enough to reduce him to a quivering bowl of giblets, or at least get his attention. “Is you ready to fight?” she reiterated the previous proposal from across the cold and clouded room. It didn’t work then, either. That night would be no different.

Elmo laid the pipe on the open windowsill and walked away.

Nadine rolled over and put her face to the wall. She knew it would only be a matter of time. She could already hear the footsteps shuffling over floor as he headed for the kitchen, just like he’d done every night since he returned. She knew what would happen next. He reached down under the tub.

As tired and frustrated as she was that night, not only from her husband’s nightly wonderings and wanderings but the never-ending chores of being a farm wife and mother, she was bond to stay awake. She only wanted to talk to him a little, but knew she would first have to get him back in the bed. “It's that black thang again– Ain’t it? That, that stone!” she nearly shouted, positioning herself at the edge of the little narrow bed and staring coldly at her unreceptive husband. She knew what he was on his mind. And it wasn’t her.

“Shhhhhhh… You’ll wake up the boy,” cautioned Elmo, from inside the kitchen, which was actually just another part of the one large room making up the entire wooden structure, but cut off from view by a stack of makeshift cupboards in the center of the room. It was something he’d been expecting, but was actually a little surprised she’d brought it up so soon, and so suddenly. It was the first she ever mentioned the stone with so much passion and disdain. Naturally, he’d expected her to find it herself, sooner or later, preferably later, under the bathtub where she knew it was hid all along. She did, of course, although it was the last place on earth he thought she would ever look, all unpleasantries considered. And even if she did find it, he’d believed he would be able to explain it, somehow. He was wrong about that, too. He couldn’t. The words just weren’t there. But the stone was. “Go back to sleep,” he silently spoke, kneeling by then on the floor in front of the old tub like a man getting ready to vomit up his supper after a long night of drink and debauchery. “It’s alright,” he whispered, reaching under the tub and running his finger over the glassy black orb.

Nadine lied back down on the bed, her back facing the wall. She knew what he was up to. “Seems you wants that black thing more then you wants me,” she declared outright in a voice as cold and dark as the night itself, and just loud enough wake up the child who was sleeping on the sofa.

Elmo froze, jerked his hand out from under the tub and stood up in the darkness in his underwear like a naughty child who’d just awoken from a bad dream and was caught peeing on the floor out of sheer panic.

“I said…Ain’t that right, Elmo?” she repeated, only more loudly, which woke up the boy driving him off the sofa and under the bed where he safe, or so he imagined, from the dreaded bugger-monster.

The Harlie had it coming, and he knew it; but still, it was something he wasn’t quite prepared for. Not yet anyway. He walked slowly over to the bed and crawled over his wife like she wasn’t even there. They lay back to back for a while, like a married couple that was too old, too familiar, and just too tired to do anything else. There was nothing else he could say, or do; so did nothing, although he knew that was a mistake.

Nadine Cotton was not a woman to be crawled over so easily; and she certainly would not be ignored. Turning slender her body a hundred and eighty degrees on the bed and taking carful aim, she placed a knee directly into her husband’s backside and demanded a full explanation. “It’s that thang,” she growled through the threads of the old patched quilt she’d sown together as a child, which she knew, even then, would one day adorn her own matrimonial mattress. At the time, however, she had no idea of just how cold and lonely a wedding bed could be, “– Ain’t it!”

The Harlie was lying opposite her and facing the wall when the blow occurred. He quickly pulled the blanket over his head and pretended not hear. The sharecropper knew his wife well enough to know it was not a question at all; it certainly was not a request. It more like an order: a warning, actually; a statement, pure and simple, accurately applied and painfully delivered, the only way a farm girl could. It was deliberate and direct, as kicks in the backside usually are, and something that demanded an immediate response, the absence of which would only exacerbate the problem by confirming her suspicions and worsen his dire predicament. But he had nothing to offer; nothing to say. So instead, he simply got up, walked back over to the opened window, which was actually the only one in the entire house, picked up his pipe and stared blankly back out at the moon and stars above. Sleep would have to wait that night, if it ever came at all; and so would the fight, they both quickly and sadly began to realize.

The moon was still playing hide-and-seek with the cloud as he stood there by the open window more frustrated than ever. It was a Harvest moon, which only reminded him of all the work he’d neglected so far. The mountain was asleep, or so it seemed. It looked old and lonely, the way Homer did just before…just before he died, the Harlie was thinking. A cool dry wind was blowing through the fields. He could feel it. It was cold. It smelled like, like winter. “It’s not what you think, Nadine,” he finally spoke, refusing to meet her face to face.

It was not what his wife wanted to hear. And she told him so in no uncertain terms. “Now how do you know what I’s thinkin’!” she suddenly exploded from under the quilted comfort. “Humph! If you did know what I’s thinkin’... you wouldn’t standin’ over there in your under-draws all by your lonesome-self, like some damn fool,” she further erupted, as any woman would under the circumstances, and as every husband deserves once in a while, especially when he is, in fact, standing in his under-draws and acting like ‘some damn fool’ in front of his own wife when he should be sleeping besides her.

“I’s gonna bury it…” Elmo heard her say from under the blanket.

It was the first time Nadine Cotton had talked to her husband in such a bold and brazen manner, and in that tone of voice. It sounded almost like a threat. “You'll do no such thing, woman,” he replied from across the room in voice his wife barely recognized.

“So you finally noticed, huh?”

Drawing heavily on his pipe, the Harlie paused. “What?” he said, expelling the long white ghost from his nostrils.

“That I’s a woman. That’s all.”

The Harlie just been emasculated, and by his own wife. He felt embarrassed and ashamed, like he did when Ike Armstrong verbally abused him in the bean field not too long ago. In making such a statement, with its sexual implications, she was also questioning her husband’s masculinity, which insulted him even more. It was something she never had to remind him of before. It hurt, like all castrations do, whether they are preformed physically or verbally. And it wasn’t so much the cut, or the open wound it left behind, that pained him so, but rather the hand that held the sacrificial knife. It was a familiar hand, a beautiful hand, small, subtle, and strong; there was also a ring in one of the fingers. He didn’t know what to say, but he knew he had to say something. And so he did. “All right, Nadine. You’re a woman! I can sees that. But I’s still the man…” he answered like a legless man after an amputation who can still feel the absent toes in the dead and lifeless stump. “I be the man, Nadine!”

“Don’t be too sure ‘bout that, Elmo” she returned, driving the blade just a little deeper into the flesh; more, perhaps, than was actually necessary, or called for.

It was not what the Harlie said next, but what he didn’t say that suddenly made his wife sit up on the bed and take notice. He said nothing. And that was a mistake, too. It was one thing to put down Nadine Cotton who, being raised as a simple farm girl from Harley and the daughter of a sharecropper herself, was actually quite used to such rude and boorish behavior, but it was something else entirely to ignore her. Not that Fred Simpson would ever abuse his own farmer’s wife in such a cruel and segregating manner (he knew better than that) but living on a farm did have its moments; things could sometimes get ugly, as well as dirty. Nadine Cotton deserved better then that; and so did old man Simpson, even in his grave. And Elmo knew it. But that didn’t stop him from saying what he said next, which was probably even a bigger mistake: “Just what is it you wants from me anyway, w-woman?” he stammered through his pipe.

It was the way he said it that finally forced his wife out of bed that night. “Well, if you don’t know by now, Elmo Cotton,” she fumed, standing beside the bedpost like some nocturnal spirit in distress. “You ain’t never gonna know.”

“Oh... that,” he sighed, almost apologetically. “Now I gets it.”

“Oh, no you don’t!” the apparition struck back. “And you ain’t never gonna get it, if you keeps on talkin’ like that! Oh, no you won’t… Humph!”

The Harlie realized, perhaps a little too late, exactly what he’d done. He’d just scorned his own wife; and for that, he was truly sorry. The pipe had died out by then, along with his last desire. After several unsuccessful attempts to re-ignite the corn-cob bowl, he climbed back into the bed. It seemed the fire was out and there was nothing he could do about it. With his circumcised tail shriveled up between his legs, and his horns tangled in the quilt, Elmo tried his best to apologize. “I’s sorry, Nadine,” he said, nervously drawing his hand to her shoulder and pulling it back just as uncertainly. He was close enough to hear her breathing; but he was afraid to touch his own wife. He was more afraid not to. “It’s just...” he tried to explain

Nadine Cotton tried to understand. They’d had their moments in the bedroom before, but nothing like this. This time it was different; this time the fight was for real, and it had nothing to do with sex. It hurt them both, and in different ways. “Used to be almost every night…” she distantly sighed. “What’s wrong with you anyway, Elmo? I’s your wife. Don’t you know me?”

At least she was still talking to him, the Harlie was relieved to hear. “I’s just ti’rd,” he said, instinctively reaching for the top of his head to see if his horns were showing, “That’s all.”

“Ti’rd of what, Elmo? Me?”

He was going to say yes, if only to put an end to it all, but knew even that was a lie; even though, in truth, there were many times when he really was tired and just wanted to be left alone, even from his own wife. Without meaning, or wanting, to hurt her, Elmo made the same mistake he’d made only a moment ago. He said nothing. It was the one thing, the only thing, he could’ve done to make matters worse; which, of course, it did.

Nadine Cotton simply could not bear the silence, especially in her own house, under her own roof, in her own bedroom, and particularly from her own husband. “Don't you be goin’ quiet on me again, Mister Elmo Cotton!” she quickly responded, jumping on top her husband to personally confront the problem face to face, once and for all, like she should have done when he first began acting this way. “I know what you is thinkin’. I’s your wife. Remember? You should’a left that thang (the Harlie equivalent of ‘thing’) up in the mountains, where it belong, with Mister Homer – Humph! You say you’s gonna bring me back some gold. Humph! Say you’s gonna buy new a new bathtub. Humph! Well I don’t don't see no gold, and I damn sho’ don’t see no new bathtub. No I don’t! Just what it is that thang you brought back anyway, Elmo? What kind of stone is that? Where you find it? Let me see it. Give it to me!” she suddenly demanded in a voice that left the Harlie a frightened, and perhaps a little angry.

Just then a cold wind rolled down from the mountain, along with sudden streak of lightening that burst through the open window with a clap of thunder, followed by a long hard rain. From across the room it blew the blanket off the bed. Nadine screamed and fell to the floor. Elmo jumped up, rushed over to the window, and pulled in the shutters. He then ran back to comfort his wife who was rolled up on the floor by then like a shivering white ball in the corner of the little room. “It's alright, Nadine,” he whispered in her ear as he picked up his wife and put her back into to bed. “Just fo’gets it. Fo’gets everythin’.”

“No... You fo’gets it,” she whispered right back, turning her face hard against the wall. “And forget about me.” She meant it, too. The farmer’s wife had made up her mind on the whole matter by then, and there was not enough wind and rain or thunder and lightning in Heaven or on earth to make Nadine Cotton change it. All it did was to confirm her previous suspicions and what she’d been thinking about ever since her husband returned from the mountain with that… that ‘thang’.

Elmo lay on his side of the bed that night looking out the open window holding the pillow to his chest. He couldn’t sleep. He wasn’t thinking about his wife anymore; he was thinking about the stone, that ’thang’, and they both knew it. Nadine stayed awake as well; but she would not comfort her husband that night, and pretended to sleep instead. From under the covers the Charlie’s wife suddenly began to cry, softly, wondering what else she could do. It seemed there was nothing left to say. They couldn’t even ‘fight’ anymore; his horns would only get in the way, the farmer’s daughter sadly imagined

It was over. Elmo could hear it in the sobbing of her voice. He could feel it when he tried to touch her again. Nadine wept. The Harlie shook his head. She’d never spoken like that to him before. It sounded so final, like the sound of a door being slammed in his face and bolted. It was the door to his wife’s heart; and he didn’t have a key. It didn’t even sound like her. It was enough to make him weep. And he did. He broke down and cried right in front of her, perhaps for the very first time.

Maybe it was the sobbing that finally brought the Harlie’s wife back to him that night; something in his tears, perhaps, falling like the so many shingles off a broken and wind -worn roof. Or perhaps it was something else. Nadine‘s husband was not a crying man. She knew that, of course, which is exactly what prompted the farmer’s wife to do what she did next. Sensing the sudden urgency and desperation in her husband’s tearful response, and pitying him for the first time since they’d met, the farmer’s wife buried her feelings, as well as her pride for the time being, and turned around so that she and Elmo were face to face on the bed again. She did it not because she had to, and not because she was his wife, but simply because she wanted to. They were still husband and wife. And there was nothing in this or any other world that could change that. Not even that…that ‘thang’. She thought she might talk to him a little more. “You know peoples is talkin’ about you, Elmo,” she softly spoke, “all over Harley. They be sayin’ such things… Po’ Elmo Cotton. Elmo be sick. Elmo in trouble. Mister Cotton done lost his mind. Must be goin’ crazy! And that ain’t all they be sayin’. Some folks is talkin’ about someone dyin’, getting’ kilt up in them hills… Ter’ble things, Elmo. Ter’ble! Sheriff John be comin’ ‘round all the time now. And he ain’t just talkin’ to you, sugar; he be talkin’ to lots of folks. And now all Harley be talkin’ about you. Me, too! And Lil’ Ralph…” she added with more than a little concern. “And it ain’t right, Elmo! It just ain’t right. There even be talk of a trial... goin’ to jail... and somethin’ ‘bout a hangin’! Do you hear me, Elmo? They talkin’ ‘bout a hangin’! Soon, they’ll be talking ‘bout me and Lil’ Ralph like you’s already dead. That ain’t right, neither. And why you ‘spose they do that, Elmo. Why! It’s ter’ble. Just ter’ble! We ain’t never done nothin’ wrong. Why?” she wept. Why?” And here the farmer’s wife paused. “It has somethin’ to do with that stone – Don’t it?” she finally had to ask, even though she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

It did have something to do with the stone. Elmo knew it did; he just didn’t know what it was; at least not yet. And even if he could explain it to her, or anyone else for that matter, it wouldn’t have made any difference; it certainly wouldn’t have made her feel any better, he sadly concluded. And so, he didn’t even try. Instead, he did the only thing he could think of at the time. He told her what he should’ve been telling her all along: “I don’t know Nadine… I just don’t know. And that’s the truth,” he sighed.

The truth was enough, for the time being anyway; and it actually seemed to work. The Harlie’s wife was satisfied for the first time in a long time. It was all she really wanted to hear that night, even though she knew deep down that Elmo still wasn’t telling her everything. And so Nadine Cotton closed her eyes and went to sleep in her husband’s arms. She knew that wouldn’t be the end of it; and so did Elmo. In fact, it was only the beginning.

Sleep did not come easily for the Harlie, not like it did for his wife who, despite all that had happened, and didn’t happen, that night had fallen into a snoring slumber. And so he went back to the window, just for a while, to think things over. The rain had stopped by then, but a chill remained in the air and the floor was still wet. He was thinking about his wife and what she’d told him only moments ago, about the talk, the rumors, and most of all about that….thang. The gossip simply couldn’t be avoided, not in a small town like Harley anyway; and it really didn’t bother him as much as it should have. It was the thought of dying that still had him tossing and turning. Death! It was something he wasn’t quite ready for. Not yet. Not now! and certainly not the kind of death he would have to face if… His eyes rolled in his head and finally settled on a familiar shadow, formed perhaps by the moonbeams passing through the low-hanging branches of a nearby evergreen tree, dancing on the ceiling. It reminded him of what happened the day his Uncle took him into Creekwood Green to see a man being hanged. It was something he would never forget. The images remained with him to this day: the rope, the black hood, the Pastor reading the Bible, and all those faces, not to mention the horrible sight of the hooded executioner, the one they called the ‘Grasshopper’. He was a big man whose face, some say, was deformed beyond all human reckoning; an accident of birth, it was suggested at the time, and one too horrible to behold. The hood just made it more convenient. He didn’t talk; he said not a word as he performed the deadly deed; although it is reported that once when asked by a local newspaper editor if he had any remorse for his actions or sympathy for those he’d executed, the gentle giant simply shrugged (and perhaps he even smiled that day; but we will never know, for by then the black hood had become such a permanent part of Grasshopper’s grim attire, he refuse to take it off) and replied: “What happens between man and his Maker is none of our business. It’s my job to make the arrangements.

But what frightened the Harlie the most about capital punishment was not the men who participated in the ultimate act of Justice, but the means by which it was delivered. It was the image he was chiefly afraid of: the Redstone Tree, a petrified redwood, standing right in the middle of town, bare of bark and branches, leafless and lifeless save one single arm that formed the crotch of the ‘Hangman’s knee’ upon which the dead man hung, suspended in time and space for all Humanity to ponder. Simply stated, the Hangman’s Knee was the one remaining branch from which rope and noose were suspended. Like a ship’s boom it loomed straight out over the grassy green of the park, perpendicular to its smooth skinned host, and equally petrified in that frozen position. Together, tree and branch provided the ultimate penalty in Creekwood County (which included Harley and all the surrounding territories) for those committing the most capital offenses, which included, among other things: rape, horse-stealing, cattle-rustling and, of course, murder.

Despite Mister Cox’s earlier condolences, sweet smelling coffins, and anything else the Creekwood coroner could offer his perspective client that day, including a money back guarantee, Elmo never really thought it would come to that – Not a hanging! He just wouldn’t allow it. And he didn’t think the sheriff would, either. Never-the-less, it was something the Harlie would rather not think about; and so, however impossible that was, he simply tried not to.

As previously descried, he’d been to a hanging once before. It involved a horse thief, whose name presently escaped the Harlie, which was a capital offense at the time (and should be today! if the owner, or the horse, had anything to say about it). Not that it mattered; no one seemed to have know him, except for maybe for a few unsympathetic relatives who looked as though they didn’t want to be there in the first place, the man whose horse he stole, and, of course, the horse. It happened in Creekwood Green, not too long ago. It was done right in the center of Middle Square Park, just as it always had been, at the Redstone Tree. It was three summers ago. His Uncle Joe had brought him there just for the occasion, without his mother’s consent. He just thought it was the right thing to do. Elmo was sixteen years old at the time; old enough to know, reckoned ol’ Joe Cotton; ‘…and there are some things a man just has to sees to knows,’ he admonished his young nephew at the time. Homer was there, too.

It was a mild and pleasant day, as just then recalled leaning on his widow sill on the other side of twilight, but still very hot. The sun was shining. It was cloudless day. The sky blue and there were birds flying overhead. The park was crowded that day, he recalled, and there were children playing in the park; there were even some other Harlies on hand whose faces he couldn’t place at the time. ‘Good day for a hangin’,’ he remembered an old man saying to him as they stood and watched the Creekwood execution, more commonly known as ‘The Grasshopper’ for reasons that will soon become apparent, place the noose over the condemned head of the criminal.

It was the first hanging Elmo had witnessed; it was also the first time he’d ever seen a man die. He hoped it would be the last. It wasn’t. And it all happened right there beneath the Redstone Tree, just like it always did. Everyone was invited, including Harlies. As it were, ‘colored’ folks, as well as Indians, had always been invited to the gruesome event of capital punishment, and for good reason. It reminded them of what happens to evildoers in general, be they red, white or black, and without prejudice. The Law did not discriminate; at least it wasn’t supposed to, and neither did the Grasshopper. His ropes came in all sizes and lengths; the nooses he knotted himself, testing each one for strength and performance the day before the execution, usually by fastening them to sandbags corresponding the actual weight of the condemned prisoner and dropping them in the prescribed manner. If the hemp broke, which is exactly what happened that particular day, the executioner knew he had failed; in which case he would simply construct another one on the spot and begin the whole process all over again, perhaps using a thicker rope and a few more knots; a little whale oil always helped, and even made for a more comfortable fit and a cleaner break. It was the only time it had happened, and was actually quite embarrassing; of course; it would never happen again. Fortunately for the executioner, and everyone else for that matter, there were a family of Harlies in attendance that day who were able to save the day, along with the Grasshopper’s reputation, by entertaining the disappointed and beleaguered crowd with hymns of lamentation: ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and a few bars of ‘Nearer my God to thee’ while the hooded headsman knotted his noose. Lester Cox was there too, naturally; taking the opportunity to show off his latest line of Coxes’ coffins, which included a magnificent casket made of solid ebony with mother-of-pearl inlay and African ivory handles that nobody could afford anyway, and peddle a few plots in the process. The condemned man’s relatives settled on the plain pine box, Lester’s least expensive, draped in a white linen cloth (the prisoner requesting black, which unfortunately, Lester didn’t have in his wagon at the time). ‘It’s more than he deserves,’ a gray-haired prostitute was heard murmuring as she handed Mister Cox her last silver dollar. She may have been the prisoner’s mother.

As it were, ‘colored’ folks, and Harlies in particular, had always been invited to the gruesome event of capital punishment, and not just for their entertainment value. It served to remind them, and anyone else for that matter, of what happens to evildoers in general, black and white. Everyone in the adjoining townships were encouraged to attend the executions as well, which included, but were not necessarily limited to: incarcerations, whippings, dunkings (which were performed in a nearby duck pond), pilloryings, tar and featherings, along with various other forms of human punishment (some still like to call it correction) know to mankind at the time and practiced without prejudice. It turned out to be an excellent crime deterrent; not just for Harlies, but for everyone! Naturally, having the sharecroppers attend the execution of a Creekman, or woman for that matter, made the punishment that more effective, and just. It merely adding to the humiliation, especially if the individual being ‘strung-up’ was a bigoted racist predisposed to hating non-whites in general and Harlies in particular, and who would just as soon be drawn and quartered in their absence with his lifeless head placed on a spike for everyone to see and spit upon (if, indeed, it was within his power to do so) rather than go to hell where he would undoubtedly spend eternity in the company of murders and thieves no unlike himself, with his last visual image of Humanity being that of a black man staring straight up at him with smile as wide and white as the Pearly Gates themselves. Perhaps the prospect of having so many sorrowful black faces looking up at him, pitifully, and knowing that it was the last earthy vision his evil eyes would behold, would be more shame than one white man could bear in a lifetime, especially a bigoted one. But bear it he would, and must; and he did. And wouldn’t it be surprising if this same poor and pitiful soul, repentant at last like the thief on the cross in a final moment of reflection and forgiveness, was met on the other side of eternity, not by Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates of Paradise, but rather by a old Negro cook standing in front of an old rusty barbecue pit with a smile on his face and a spatula in his hand Surprising? Why, it would be downright liberating! Talk of Justice!

But the Redstone Tree was not only an instrument of Justice and death, although it was all that and more; it was, moreover, the visual representation of the seriousness of the Law, how it worked, and what it stood for. It was both principal and agent combined in the same organic red object, with a single solitary function. And it worked. All the time! Every time it was tried, in fact; sometimes, even when it wasn’t supposed to. But Justice is not always just, and it’s not always equal. It’s a human invention, at least in our own flawed and finite interpretation of it; and it does not always conform to the Law of God, which is precisely why God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy gave us the Law to begin with; and even then it doesn’t always work. Just ask Moses! Or Uriah the Hittite, if you don’t believe me. Justice is not always blind, either… well, at last she isn’t colorblind. Hell! Any Harlie could tell you that much. Justice can be also be subjective at times, ambivalent, vague, sweet and sour, good at best and wicked at worst, fickle to the bone and, just like a woman apt to change her mind at the drop of a hat. And her scales are tipped not only by the corruptible hands of man, but sometimes by the finger of God Himself, who lords it over not only man and nature but all his other creations as well, animate and inanimate, in this world and the next, above and below, there and beyond, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Even the devil does God’s bidding from time to time, whether he realizes it or not; but not for the reasons he believes and much to his own diabolical chagrin and infernal frustration. Not all miracles come with healing; some come with pain, and even death; ask any martyr, or saint. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,’ as the apostle clearly states. And in his own benevolent and self-absolving way, the executioner will invariably claim, rightly or wrongly, that he is merely doing God’s work and earning his daily bread in performing his duties and carrying out his responsibilities, regardless of what he, or anyone else, may think of its application; and, that in doing God’s bidding, however humanly conceived and fallibly executed, he is simply obeying the Infinite’s Will. Of course, he too will one day, just like the rest of us fools, find out if he was right or wrong, and whether Paradise was made for fools and mortals such as us, and the hangman.

The man being executed that day was indeed a Creekman. Whether or not he actually hated Harlies, as our bigoted friend once did, was difficult to tell; but Elmo did recall that the man smiled at him before the black hood was draped over his hideous head. It could’ve meant anything, he imagined – or nothing. He was strung up on a Sunday morning, right before church services, with everyone watching, including many women and children from Creekwood Green, and a handful of Harlies. Along with horse theft, the condemned was alleged to have raped a woman; presumably, the wife of the man’s whose horse he had stolen. No one was exactly sure which crime he was actually being hanged for, both crimes carrying the same terminal sentence. Nobody really cared; except maybe the man at the end of his rope.

‘The Tree’, or Ol’ Red’ as it was affectionately referred to at times by many of its many most ardent admirers, was actually all that remained of an ancient Redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) that had died over a hundred years ago and since turned to stone. Diminished over the years to one third its original dimensions by time and elements, the giant Sequoia was thought to have once stood over a hundred feet tall, which, coincidentally, was approximately the same height of the great Colossus at Rhodes depicting the Greek god Helios. But unlike that Mediterranean masterpiece included as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world which we now can only witness through the myopic eyes of historians and artists, the Redstone Tree survived, for the most part anyway, as a stark red reminder of a once towering and glorious past, however grimly presented. Jutting out of the blood red obelisk was a lone and leafless branch, the aforementioned ‘Hangman’s Knee’ that reached ominously out over the grassy green knoll of Middle Square Park at a perfect ninety degree angle just as it had done for over two thousand years. It made the Harlie shutter every time he thought of it, or passed by the lifeless trunk that had once served as his home and prison for ninety days and an equal number of cold and lonely night. For it was there, inside the impregnable fortress of petrified wood Elmo Cotton was punished for a crime which, as far as he was concerned, was never committed. The limb itself was approximately eight inches in diameter and about fifteen feet or so above the ground, the dimensions required to fulfill its indispensable purpose. It looked rather like the crooked finger of an old man; all twisted and pale, and as cold and hard as the trunk it sprang from.

Now it was from this same solitary branch the doomed individual would, barring any unforeseen circumstances of course, hang by the neck until dead. It didn’t take long; a few seconds was all it took, depending, that is, on the strength of the man at the end of the rope, his determination to live, and the skill of the executioner. As always, there were those who, either through mechanical malfunction or sheer will power, refused to die so quickly or easily, at least not without putting up a good fight. Naturally, it only prolonged the agony and delayed the inevitable. ‘Dancin’ on air’ or ‘swingin’ from the Redstone’ were just a few colorful expressions ascribed to these unfortunate individuals whose necks were not instantaneously broken by the force of the fall (a determining factor when considering the size and length of rope actually needed to support the weight of the prisoner, which, although calculable to one degree or another is not always that accurate, as we already know) and could still be seen struggling for their last breathe long after the trap door swung open beneath them. For these unlucky few, a bullet through the brain would be a more merciful means of execution. But, as Sheriff John himself once replied, in the direct and impersonal manner expected of those in position of authority, when asked to do just that by the flailing father one these same die-hard individuals who’d been convicted and sentenced to death for sexual molesting a child: ‘Waste of a good bullet…’ The deviant recidivist only got what he deserved, and it wasn’t one of sheriff John’s the bullets. He finally died that day, but not before dancing a ‘gig in the air’ that lasted for nearly fifteen suffocating minutes until his lifeless body hung cold and limp. It was a grim reminder of the God’s awesome and infallible Will. And it is man’s job, his responsibility, his oath and honor, his sacred duty, to carry out that Will by whatever means necessary. It’s just that plain and simple; something a child could understand, even if he is too young appreciate or handle such truth. Everyone in Creekwood County and beyond recognized it for exactly what it was. It was The Redstone Tree: Truth and justice personified in petrified wood, persevered for generations to come, standing tall and straight like the Statue of Liberty carved in stone, not in New York harbor where the huddled masses go to migrate (Imagine that, aliens… with unalienable rights!) but right there in the middle of America where the light of Justice burns just as brightly, not from a lady’s lighted torch but rather from a tree: a tree with a great red trunk and a bloodstained arm, crowned with rows and rows of razor sharp spikes splintering outward like shark’s teeth or so many jeweled barbs on Lucifer’s satanic crown, and as old as Eden.

Reserved for such egregious crimes as the ones adjudicated above, capital punishment remained an option, beyond mitigation, left open to both judge and jury at all times, if not for the sake of Justice then at least for whatever deterrent effect if might have on future and potential law-breakers contemplating such a wasted life of crime and debauchery. And if that alone has saved one life, prevented one woman from being raped, or one horse from being stolen… well, then perhaps the Redstone Tree has indeed served its purpose after all, despite its questionable reputation and even at the expense of any innocent blood that might have been spilt in the process, which, of course, is to be expected from time to time in all due process. Sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

Of course, there will always be those namby-pamby milksops who will argue, quite eloquently at times from their own liberal perspective, that the shedding of even one drop of innocent blood should be reason enough to warrant an immediate and universal moratorium on all capital punishment whatsoever. And to further their magnanimous and merciful cause (never mind what the families of the victims of such heinous crimes might have to say about it) these same sanctimonious nincompoops have recently proposed that Ol’ Red along with its bloody and infamous limb should be cut down and tossed onto the bonfires of hell along with all of man’s other failed and flawed inventions they likewise deem too cruel and unusual to exist. But let their own their own children be murdered, their own wife raped, or their own horses stolen right from under their saddle, and then, maybe, just maybe, their rhetoric will not wax so eloquently; and they may even begin to look at Justice from a quite different and more personal point of view; the way it should be observed, and applauded; the way it was meant to be: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life, and served with a vengeance

But through all the doubt and debate, Ol’ Red worked. It always worked! It had to work. And it worked not only for capital punishment, but for lesser offense as well, including, larceny, bank robbery, perjury, wife-beating (but only if she didn’t deserved it), vagrancy, public intoxication, or just being a nuisance to society and a general pain in the ass, not to mention breaking another man’s leg for peeing in a bathtub. And for these and other lesser crimes and misdemeanors, the Redstone Tree served as a fine and functional prison. For, in the hollow base of Redwood there was placed (either by natural or unnatural design – No one knew for sure) the makings of a small but comfortable prison cell that was sealed off from any and all outside influence by a row of strategically iron bars inextricably embedded into the petrified wood thereof, so as to incarcerate the inmate within the confides of The Tree indefinitely and with no possible means of escape other than risking life and limb by assailing from within the crowned head of ‘Ol’ Red’ only to be caught up in the end, if he were so bold to make such a foolhardy attempt in the first place, in the razored jaws of death, the sharks’ teeth waiting him above; and there to be impaled on top of The Tree, in a fashion that might be familiar to the bloodthirsty prince of Romania, Vlad the Impaler, like some mortally wounded trophy for all to see and pity, and thus be warned: ‘Now don’t let this happen to you!’

Many considered Ol’ Red a necessary evil; a thing of beauty in whatever application it was utilized. Even those who’d spent a night or two locked up in the Tree for crimes they may or may not have committed, would surely agree; if they knew what was good for them;. and if asked upon release whether or not the punishment was fair and just, the answer would invariably be – Yes! Except, of course, for the most unrepentant and hard-boiled criminals who will, with their last dying breath, plead their innocence (funny how they’re all innocent at one time or another) before God and man, reminding us all of the good and holy works they’d performed in their corporeal existence, even as they stand before the Great White Throne; in which case God, being the sole Judge and undisputed arbiter in all things, mortal and immortal, and who will surely have the final say on that great and terrible day, will turn to the unrepentant soul and repeat the words of the Savior: ‘Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity; for I have never know you.’

Enough! We leave eternity to God. For now all that remains is a question for mere mortal minds to ponder: Is punishment, capital or otherwise, administered by the fallible hand of man? Or is it omnipotent hand of God that holds the rod that strikes the saint as well as the sinner? Does it even matter? You be the Judge. You decide.

But before you do, let us now consider the executioner himself, the one they called the ‘Grasshopper’, who bears closer examination in that regard. He was a relatively young and heavy-set man who wore a dark brown robe that covered most of his broad body. His hood was black and hung darkly down to his well-rounded shoulders; not so much for the sake of anonymity, although that too was certainly a consideration, but for more personal and practical reasons. As evidenced by the entomological appellation assigned to the hangman (one not of his own choosing by the way) it was said, or rumored as the case may be, that the young man’s face had been deformed, perhaps at birth, in the exact likeness of the insect for which he would forever be associated with – the Grasshopper. And not just any grasshopper. For it was further suggested that the executioner’s head did, in fact, bear a keen and uncanny resemblance to that of the many fat brown grasshoppers known to inhabit the grassy meadows just outside the perimeter of Middle Square Park and beyond. They were, by all accounts and by far, the most fascinating and perhaps the ugliest creatures of the insect world ever to crawl from the crucible of evolution. Observed up close and studied in microscopic detail, their mechanical-like movements and mandible body parts could be accurately compared to the unnatural design of some extraterrestrial’s alien armor and adorned in much the same protective utility. But Mother Nature can sometimes be ingeniously cruel in that regard, foregoing aesthetic beauty for practicality’s sake. And who can blame her? Besides, who’s to say what is beautiful, and what ain’t? Imagine, if you will, what a real grasshopper might think of any one of us, Adonis, or even the handsome hammer himself, Hector O’Brien, if per chance we were to meet on a personal level, such as the negative Israelites coming upon the Nephilim, the infamous giants of Genesis, in whose eyes they were as grasshoppers their eyes. What would a real grasshopper say? Not much I suppose! What would it think of some clumsy giant biped that couldn’t even fly, stomping carelessly through the mashes and meadows in all it human ugliness, swaggering so nakedly and destructively about? Bewildering pity is what first comes to mind. Beauty is what we, or it, perceive it to be, I suppose, whether viewed through the myopic eyes of man or the kaleidoscopic lenses of an insect.

On any given day (except for Sunday’s, of course; the Sabbath being no respecter of professions) the Grasshopper could usually be found in his typical position: standing beside the Redstone Tree just below the Hangman’s Knee with feet apart and his arms folded in the customary position associated with that profession. For the most part, the hangman kept to himself, maintaining his anonymity by way of the ominous black cloth which draped the hideous head beneath the impenetrable curtain. His real name and true identity was never revealed to the public, of course; and he would most likely be buried in the same ominous dark uniform, not-with-standing any unscrupulous attempts to have it removed either out of disrespect, revenge, or sheer curiosity. Besides, Lester Cox simply wouldn’t allow it. It would be like, in the analogical words of the undertaker: ‘…peaking underneath the circus tent just to get a glimpse of poor John Merrik, the Elephant Man, in all his uncovered curiosities; or, ‘… lifting the golden mask off Tuttenkumen, the famous boy king, long after his departure into the land of the dead.’ He was the Grasshopper, the lone hangman of Creekwood County, a man masked in mystery and myth, both literally and figuratively; the original man in black. But like the ten evil reports that came back to Moses outside the land of Canaan, we are all as grasshoppers, at least in the eyes of our enemies. Joshua and Caleb would disagree, of course; and they did.

And in that same Biblical vein, isn’t it Moses himself, the author of Leviticus, who permits us to partake of the insect in question, the grasshopper, and not the Prodigal’s pig? It’s Kosher, you know, and packed with protein. And wasn’t it the tiny grasshopper’s first flying cousin, the locust, along with wild honey, that sustained the Baptist in the Jordan as he made way in the wilderness for the coming of the Lord? Despite their horrid appearance, as we may or may not perceive it to be, these famous flying insects were never-the-less quite tasty and pleasing to the palate, especially when properly boiled or fried in accordance to the more popular recipes of the day. And at such events and auspicious occasions such as the one Elmo had witnessed the day of the hanging, they could be purchased by the dozen for the modest sum of fifty cents forth by one Mister Freddie Fripp, who would not only cook the grasshoppers to a delicious turn but serve them up proudly and promptly, along with a dish of his less famous but equally acclaimed frogs’ feet. It was winning combination if ever there was one, a gastronomical delight, a feast fit for king or slave, and a treat well worth the wait.

‘Nothing goes better with boiled grasshopper than Fripp’s famous fried frog’s feet!’ the chef himself would boast during such gruesomely appetizing events. Of course, they would always taste better and go down easier with generous quantities of beer. Naturally, there was always plenty of Charlie Kessler cornbrew on hand (preferably the ‘Double Footprint’ brand – Charlie’s best) to properly wash down the tasty morsels with; which, by the way is just another reason why Capital Executions were so popular in Creekwood Green, and why folks would come from all around, as far away from Old Port Fierce in fact, to not only enjoy the festive accession but get a mouthful of fried grasshopper and frogs feet in the process. It was the first time the Harlie had ever tasted such a strange but delectable dish, and the first time he ever got drunk on beer, which he knew right there and then would certainly not be the last. Elmo occasionally still got drunk, but never so much as to entirely forget that distinctive taste and satisfying flavor Freddie Fripp’s fried frog’s feet and boiled grasshopper would leave on his lips and remain there for many days to come. It was something he would never forget; and somehow, even until this day, it always reminded him of death. And it was all right there, right beneath the Redstone Tree, to remind him, just in case he ever did.

And so it was on same inanimate object, ‘Ol’ Red’, that the condemned died that day, gazing down, if only for a moment, on the curious spectators below with their smiling faces and picnic baskets. Those faces would be the last he would ever see: faces of family and friends, if he had any; familiar faces, if there were any; sympathetic faces in the crowd, if any could be found; faces with no names; bearded faces, clean-shaven faces, faces hidden under tall hats or behind fences; There were the faces of women and children, too; faces of strangers, black and white, young and old faces; grim and happy faces; sad faces as well; Mostly, there were curious face; some with no expressions or meaning attached to them at all; and these, perhaps, were the most hideous faces. And, of course, there were the faces of those individuals whose lives were forever altered and shattered by the indiscriminate actions of the man at the end of his rope. As witnessed by the Harlie the day of the execution, there were three faces that stood out more than the others and simply could not be ignored. One was the face of the woman who’d been raped by the doomed criminal; another was the face of a man standing next to his horse. And the last face, of course, was the face of the dead man’s grieving mother. It spoke not a word; but it spoke the loudest. The face of Justice was also there that day. It seemed to be smiling.

The mere thought of hanging from the Redstone tree, or any other tree for that matter, frightened the Harlie beyond all human comprehension. Getting whipped in public was one thing; hanging was something entirely different; it was final and fatal; and there was no appeal. Some considered it a modern-day crucifixion; apparently, they know nothing of Calvary, or Roman resolve in such grave matters. The shame alone would be more than the he could bear, Elmo imagined that night, staring out the window at a cold crescent moon presently hanging over his head like the sword of Suleiman coming down hard on the holy head of the sainted Crusader. Would Nadine and Lil’ Ralph be there to see him die such a lonely and horrible death? Would he cry. Would they watch? The thought was too horrible to sustain. And so, he turned around and went back to bed.


Chapter Six

The One That Got Away

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Elmo Cotton woke up long before his wife, who was lost somewhere under the blanket. He walked straight over to the bathtub, reached underneath and pulled out the stone.

She didn’t take it after all. He knew she wouldn’t. He also knew, more than anyone, just how hard-headed and stubborn Nadine Cotton could be when she wanted to. But she did not go against her husband’s will, no matter how corrupt and misguided it was by then; and that meant a lot to him, perhaps more than she would ever know. “Well, I guess that means I’s still the man…” the Harlie said to himself; even though he his wife was right, and he did spend the night sleeping with his pillow.

And he was still wondering just exactly what it was he'd taken home from Wainwright's mountain. He was guessing by now that it must be worth a great deal more than he’d first suspected, more than a new bathtub anyway. He thought of turning it over to Sheriff John Townsend; although he didn’t think that would really do any good or make any difference. But it might just prove that he was telling the truth – or most of it, anyway. Besides, he knew deep down that it wasn’t the sheriff he was trying to convince. It was only himself. And he needed help.

Against his earlier suspicions and better judgment, the Harlie placed the stone back under the tub. He knew that Nadine was aware of that by now; she’d already told him so, in so many unmistakable words. He just didn’t know how she found it. She would never go near the tub before; not after what happened with Dick Dilworth – Never! He’d hoped that she would ignore it after that, or simply forget about it; but somehow, he knew that was going to happen either. But if he couldn’t trust his own wife... well then, who could he trust? He was beginning to feel that it might not have been so bad if she did bury the ‘thang’ after all, just like she said she would; someplace, perhaps, where even he couldn’t find it. At least then he might be able to stop thinking about it. But that wouldn’t do. Besides, he was still ‘the man’; and so he decided to keep it, for a while longer anyway.

Strapping on his overalls, the sharecropper walked briskly out into a cool clear Harley morning. He went straight to his uncle’s house that day, looking for some well-needed advice. As usual, Joe sitting out on his front porch, rocking in his favorite chair with a long white pipe angling from his frog-like lips like the boom from a sheet-less mast. But the fire was out; there was no smoke; other than that, it was just like he’d he never even gotten up.

As soon as their eyes meet, Joseph Cotton knew something was not right. He’d been expecting it all along, and was hoping to have some better news for his nephew by now. He didn’t, of course. And so far, things have only gotten worse; at least from what he’d heard from Sheriff John Townsend whom he’d spoken to only yesterday

There were many things Elmo wanted to say to his uncle that morning: things he’d been thinking about since their last meeting; dangerous things, things with consequences. And they all came in the form of a question that summed up all his thoughts in one short sentence: “What do I do now, Uncle Joe?” he asked.

Sensing a certain anxiety in Elmo’s approach, along with what by now could only be described as abject fear, Joe Cotton looked at his nephew and said: “It don’t look good, son,” There was a sense of urgency in his voice that Elmo didn’t recognize but one that he immediately picked up on; although it was a quiet urgency, almost desperate, the kind he would sometime hear in Nadine’s voice when she was frightened or just uncertain about something. He did not like the sound of it at all.

Apparently, his uncle had heard more news out of Creekwood Green concerning his young nephew and the Law. It came by way of Lester Cox, of course; three days ago, and it was not good. He’d talked to Sheriff John Townsend about it the very next day, and was doing some serious thinking on the matter when his nephew arrived just then. He was worried, and it showed. His face was more wrinkled than usual, the crows’ feet around his eyes having protracted, it seemed, to cover his entire face. He looked both worn and torn, and didn’t try to hide it. The conversation he had with the sheriff did not bode well for the Harlie. There was a warrant. Sheriff John tried to mitigate the situation by telling Mister Cotton that the case was still ‘officially under investigation’; but Joe knew better than that, and he knew what it meant, especially when it came to Harlies. He was also wise enough to know that the time was no longer on his side.

“What do I do?” Elmo repeated, alarmed at the old man’s hesitation.

Joe had already told Elmo, perhaps not in so many words, that he would have to go away, eventually; but he didn’t say where, or even when. It was a decision the Harlie would have to make on his own. He pulled a Lucifer match from his pocket which he struck on the palm of his hand. Joe Cotton reckoned it was time to for some serious talk, straight talk; but he thought he might do a little fishing first. He spoke slowly and deliberately, carefully choosing his words: “You know, son” he began, sucking each syllable through the pipe as the little bowl ignited in flames, “Just ‘cause a man run, that don’t mean he’s a coward. Puff! Puff! Puff! Lot’s of mens run… including me from time to time. Puff! Puff!

Elmo found that hard to believe, and it showed. He’d never seen Joe Cotton run from anything, or anybody; except one old woman who used to come around to his house now and then, asking him to marry her. But that was a long time ago, and Joe always managed to slip away from her. “Is you talkin’ ‘bout ol’ Miss Myrick?” questioned Elmo, attempting to change the subject, perhaps.

The old man smiled through his pipe.

PUFF! PUFF!

“Only one way to fights a woman,” he confided in his young nephew that day.

“How’s that?” asked the Harlie, just to amuse the old man.

PUFF!

“You fights ‘em with yo’ hat,” the uncle replied.

“Yo’ hat?” questioned the youth.

“That’s right,” insisted Joe, “yo’ hat. Foist you grabs it… and then you run!’

PUFF! PUFF!

It was clear by then exactly what the old man was talking about; and it wasn’t about Miss Myrick, women, or hats. He was talking about running; moreover, he was talking about freedom; or, as General George Washington himself once found out when he was chased out of New York City by the British redcoats: Sometimes it’s better to run, and live to fight another day. “Tain’t no shame…” reminded the smoky old frog

The General was right, of course; and so were the old slaves who ran just as quickly through the underground railroads with an angry master and a hell-hound on their trail. And Joe Cotton was also right when, suddenly and slowly, he turned to his nephew and said with a sigh: “You do what you thinks is best, son. But whatever you do… don’t look back.”

Elmo took the bait and swallowed it. He knew what his uncle was doing, or at least saying. He’d done it before. It was simply the old man’s way getting his point across without telling him exactly what to do. “You mean I should leave – Don’t you, Uncle Joe?” the Harlie asked, knowing the answer before it was given.

The lines on the old man’s face tightened. He’d been thinking about it for some time. There was no other way; he knew that by now. “Sheriff John say he be comin’ back, Elmo,” piped the frog, “And he be lookin’ fo’ you.”

Elmo tried not to look surprised. “I ain’t a’gonna run,” he said without hesitation, even though he didn’t believed it himself; not for a minute.

“He just be doin’ his job, son,” reminded the old man.

Joe Cotton didn’t necessarily believe everything being said about his nephew as of lately; but he did believe many of the thing told to him by John Townsend. Why shouldn’t he? He and the lawman were actually close friends… well, at least as close as Harlies and Greens were allowed to become at the time. And the sheriff had never lied to him before. What worried him most, however, was the inescapable fact that the murder weapon was found. It was a shotgun; a blunderbuss, to be more specific. Joe knew immediately who it belonged to. He knew because he’d given it to his nephew on his wedding day, which he now regretted. That’s why the sheriff came over to see him. To show him the gun. There was no mistake about it. It was his firearm, the same gun that blew a hole in the colonel’s chest. It was Elmo’s gun. Still there were so many unanswered questions like: How did it happen? Why? What was the motive? Were there any witnesses? Sheriff John thought he knew the answers, but even he wasn’t sure. Joe Cotton didn’t know what to believe. But he did believe in Elmo; and that’s all that mattered, for the time being anyway. And that was enough. “Never like to see a good man run,” said the fly-catcher, just as a big blue and green horsefly buzzed in to view. “But sometimes… sometimes, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. And that’s just the way it is, son.”

It was not what his uncle said to him that day that made Elmo even more depressed than he already was, adding to his frustrations and fueling his fears, but rather the way he said it. It was almost as if Joe didn’t believe him anymore, like he couldn’t be trusted. It made the Harlie feel sick and light-headed. He was actually hoping that his uncle would tell him to stay with him, for a while anyway, at least at least until things settled down a bit. That way, he could still look after Nadine and the boy while staying out of sight. It was a big enough house; and not many people passed by that way, except maybe for some children that would come by occasionally just to see the old man catch flies in his big brown hands. Joe Cotton had thought of it also, but knew it would be the first place the sheriff would come looking for him; and so he decided against it. Harley was too small; there was just was nowhere to hide. “Yes, sir… man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” the old man reiterated under the creaking of the wood, the puffing of smoke, and the buzzing of the fly. It was more than just a suggestion.

“But I can’t just run away,” argued the Harlie, suddenly changing his tune as Joe knew he would. “It only make it worse, Uncle Joe. They’s gonna say: ‘T-there! You see! That proves it! That proves he done it!’ You know folks is,” Elmo tried to explain, growing more frustrated and, perhaps, a little angry with each stuttering word. “I didn’t kill that man. I didn’t. The g-gun went off – just like I say befo’. I swears it, Uncle J-Joe.

The chair suddenly stopped rocking, just like it did before. Putting his pipe aside for a moment and leaning forward, which took some noticeable effort for a man weighting close to three hundred and fifty pounds, Joe Cotton appeared to examining his young nephew’s head for any sign of dishonesty. “Well…” he concluded with a big broad smile, which Elmo recognized immediately and took some sudden comfort in. “I don’t see them ol’ horns no mo’, son. So you must be tellin’ the truth.” And he let it go at that.

It made Elmo smile as well, knowing the old man the way he did. He was even beginning to feel a little amused at the time, and actually thought it was funny – about as funny as talking to a mule, he supposed. “And you ain’t a’gonna see them ol’ horns no mo’, Uncle Joe,” he insisted, almost as if he believed it himself. Now all he had to do was to make the sheriff believe it; but that wouldn’t be so easy. As far as John Townsend was concerned, he was already a ‘raccoon on the run’. The sheriff said so. And that’s when he knew he would have to leave.

Picking up his pipe and resuming his back and forth motion in a more relaxed and familiar attitude, Joe Cotton was satisfied. He knew what his nephew was thinking, and knew he would do right thing after all. So he said nothing more about it. Instead, he just sat there like a sleepy old bull-frog, rocking on his front porch in his favorite chair, doing what he did best, reminiscing of days gone by and catching flies in the palm of his hand.

Suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, a great green horsefly appeared and was already circling around the old man’s large gray head. The sleepy-eyed frog already had the flying insect in his deadly sights. Elmo saw it too; and he smiled because he knew what was about to happen; what always happened. And all he had to do now was watch, and wait. He knew it wouldn’t take long.

And just like it did a thousand times before, the big black hand of Joe Cotton shot out from his side like a silent but deadly cannon ball. The only difference was: this time, he missed. He just… missed. It may’ve been the very first time it ever happened. The fly just got lucky, thought the Harlie at first, if indeed luck can be ascribed at all to such a small and insignificant creature. It survived, not unlike the little black chick inside Homer’s hen house one cold and frosty morning; and not unlike the firefly that burst into the flames at the campfire in the woods. This one lived. It had survived, just like Elmo Cotton; just like the Lucky Number. And then it simply flew away. Just like that. PUFF! It was gone. It was the one, perhaps the only horsefly, that’d ever gotten away for Uncle Joe Cotton. “You see, son,” said the frog through clouded eyes and a growth of old gray whiskers,” I’s can’t even catch that ol’ horsefly no mo’.”

Elmo thought his uncle might’ve missed the fly on purpose, just to make a point, whatever that might be. He was wrong, of course. “Well, that don’t mean a thing,” said the Harlie, noticing how old and tired his uncle really was.

“It do to me,” puffed the frog, sadly.

Elmo lowered his head.

“But don’t worry, son,” Joe managed to smile, “This here ain’t about me. It’s about you. Remember? To hell with that ol’ horsefly anyway! I’ll get ‘em next time. Don’t you worry ‘bout that. Just you wait and see!” Now, what was it we talkin’ about?”

“I reckon,” said Elmo, not knowing quite where to begin, “we was talkin’ ‘bout me leavin’. Ain’t that right?”

“Man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” repeated his uncle for the third time that day, his eyes at half-mast again.

“But how?” asked Elmo, as uncertain as ever, “Where? Wha…”

“Just put on your sailin’ shoes, boy,” croaked the frog.

“Huh?”

“You hoid me.”

PUFF! PUFF! PUFF!

“But I ain’t got no shoes,” replied the barefooted raccoon.

“That’s just a ‘spression, son,” explained the fly-catcher (what Joe Cotton really meant to say was ‘expression’ but it came out in the usual abbreviated vernacular) “– a manner of speech, don’t you know?”

“What do you mean, Uncle Joe?”

Joe laughed, the smoke breaking through his breath, and said, “I mean just what I say, boy. Put on them ol’ sailin’ shoes and go. Just… go!”

The Harlie had heard of many kinds of shoes in his short and shoeless lifetime, and for all difference occasions. They were talked about and sung of by the old black men in the fields, and in their own ambiguous manner of speech, which they would occasionally use from time to time to express feeling they would otherwise not be able to communicate with a limited amount of education and in their own metaphorically way. It may simply have been the way their ancestors talked to one another in a previous existence, bound up with so many chains and superstitions, when every word they uttered was carefully listened to and weighed by slave masters and plantation owners who were used to such signs and always on the lookout for ‘niggers with too much education and not enough work to do’.

Most notable of the euphemistic footwear were, in the words of the older slaves who probably never even owned a pair in their entire s lives of servitude and segregation, ‘dem ol’ walkin’ shoes’. As in the case of ‘puttin’ on them ol’ walkin’ shoes’, which, of course, was just another, and perhaps more effective, way of saying: ‘Enough, already! It’s high time to just get the hell out of here!’ And the sooner the better, one might add. These old gentlemen would often talk like that. Or better yet, they’d put it to song, musically accompanied by an old guitar, a banjo, or a simple blues harp, which is just another name for a harmonica. It was actually a unique blend of Southern spiritual hymns mixed with American folk music, and a little Irish whiskey just to give it some kick (as in kick-dancing, I suppose) and go down a little easier. It was merely another way of leaving their worries troubles behind, for a while at least, and perhaps a little selfishly; in the only way they knew how, and as often as possible.

You see, whenever the mood or circumstance presented itself, which usually occurred on a daily basis for most Harlies, these poor old souls would simply put on their ‘walkin’ shoes’, their ‘runnin’ shoes, their travelin’ shoes, or whatever other ‘shoes’ just happened to fit them and their specific needs at any given moment, and simply – well, leave. Or in more rare and obscure cases, such as the one previously described, they might have considered putting on ‘them ol’ sailin’ shoes’ and taking to the sea, in favor of whatever refuge they may find aboard one of the many tall ships putting out to foreign ports whose names they couldn’t pronounce and places they could only dream of. It was just that simple. ‘That’s what shoes is fo’! would be a typical response you may expect from any one of these self-described ‘rollin’ stones’ who would up and leave at of a drop of a hat, or the wail of an angry woman. And if they couldn’t do it literally… well, at least they could do it in a song; figuratively speaking, of course, which is sometimes just as good, or better. They called it ‘the Blues’.

The Harlie knew what the old men in the fields were thinking about when they sung such songs, and how they must have felt. He knew because he was feeling pretty much the same way himself by then. And he knew it was just his uncle’s way of telling him what they both already knew: It was time to go. Maybe ‘sailin’ shoes’ was just another way to say the same thing, Elmo rightly reckoned. But still, he didn’t want to go it alone; he just didn’t think he had it in him. And he was about to say so when just then the old man, perhaps sensing his nephew’s hesitation, repeated himself, as old men sometimes do when they have nothing else to say on matters of grave consequence, or just to make it stick: “Sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, son,” he heavily sighed. “Just go, Elmo. Just go...”

“You mean... like Zeke?” the Harlie inquired, without really thinking about what he was saying at the time.

That’s exactly what Joe Cotton was thinking about; although he didn’t want to come right out and say it just yet. But what else could he say? What could he do? He simply nodded.

PUFF!

Joe Cotton was a simple man, an honest man; and he never lied… well, not that we know of. And even if he did, which is something only old men and young women can sometimes get away with, he did it for all the right reason, or so he reckoned. But there was no reason to lie. Not now. Elmo was right. Zeke did run away, just like…

“A a raccoon on the run…” spoke the Harlie, as if completing his uncle’s own thought lat the moment, and recalling what the sheriff had told him earlier that week

Joe sat up in his chair, causing it to suddenly stop rocking again. “Now who told you that?” he asked with a curiously raised brow.

“Nobody,” shrugged the raccoon. “It’s… what’s that you calls it? – a ‘spression. Like you said, Uncle Joe… it’s just a manner of speech.”

Joseph Cotton knew better. “You’ve been talking to the sheriff again – Ain’t you, boy?”

“That’s just the way he talks,” Elmo tried to explain. “Asked me if I ever do any ‘coon huntin’. ‘Spect he was just trying to get me to tell him something he wants to hear.”

Joe did not look surprised. “Hummmm,” he mused, drawing heavily on the end of his pipe, “What you tell him, boy?”

“I told him the truth, Uncle Joe; just like you told me to. Told him I done shot me a ‘coon once, but he got away. Never did kill him tho’. Just shot at him, with that ol’ shotgun you gave me. Remember?”

Joe Cotton remembered alright. It was the same gun he’d given his nephew right after his wedding, as a present. It was actually called a blunderbuss, although most folks just called it a shotgun not knowing any better. It was the weapon of choice of pirates and privateers on the high seas who made good and deadly use of their wide spread at short distances. It was especially effective when boarding combatant ships, space being a very rare and valuable commodity in the close quarter fighting, or fired from mastheads into approaching enemy vessels at their most vulnerable and valuable assets, their masts.

Joe had actually acquired the gun one day when a one-legged sailor once showed up on his front porch looking for a meal and something to sell it. It was just after the war; and, being that slaves were forbidden to own firearms, or anything else for that matter, up until then, it was first and only gun the bean farmer ever owned. The sailor, who just happened to be on shore leave at the time and recovering from the war-wound that had left him in such a debilitated state, claimed with all honesty but no official documents, that the weapon once belonged to a Captain Maximilian Orlando – ‘The most famous sea captain that ever was!’ the sailor proudly pontificated. And to further his credulity on the matter, the dismasted mariner went on to explain to the suspicious bean farmer that he had pried it from the vice-like grip of a dead pirate who, only moments before having boarded his targeted vessel in the heat of a great sea battle, had it directly aimed at Captain Orlando himself and was about to pull the trigger. And it was just then, so the sailor swore: ‘The galley-hatch swings open – see? And out pops ol’ Spider!’ He was referring, of course (although Joe had no way of knowing it at the time) to a young Negro cook who had recently been brought onboard to fill that the vacant position; and who, chiefly on account of his ‘spider-like’ appearance, at least in the eyes of his suspicious shipmates who were not accustomed to seeing such long and dark limbs on any man, black or white, was unanimously dubbed with that specific etymological appellation. And it was this lowly ‘Spider’ cook who, armed with nothing more than a twenty-five pound skillet, bludgeoned the pirate assassin into an early grave, to the astonishment and cheers of his fellow shipmates. It was a brave gesture the skipper of the Firefly would not soon forget, and one the young black cook was handsomely rewarded for. It was a great story, Joe recalled, even if it wasn’t true. He bought the gun anyway, paying for it with three sacks of beans and a half gallon of hard liquor, which the solicitous sailor emptied right there on the Joe’s front porch that day. And the gun had hung proudly over the farmer’s fireplace (although, he would’ve much preferred the skillet) until such a day when he took it down and presented it to his newlywed nephew.

He called it a present; not that Elmo would ever be foolish enough to make use of the odd-looking antique that was so old and rusty by then that it probably didn’t work anyhow, but simply because he wanted him to have it. Joe had only once fired the old blunderbuss, just to make sure he hadn’t gotten bamboozled on the deal. He had no use for it after that, and so he hung over the fireplace, ‘…to scare off burglars and nosey neighbors,’ he would sometimes say. He hoped his young nephew would do the same by placing it over his own fireplace some day, even though he knew Elmo had no fireplace to hang it over, just an old rusty stove, and never have to use it. Joe was actually glad to get rid of it. Still, there were times when he missed just having it around; and the fireplace looked so empty without it. Sometimes it made him sad. It was something he’d acquired from a Redman Indian, an old acquaintance from across the river who once suggested to Joe that even inanimate objects, especially those of great personal value and significance, such as pipes, knives, spears, bows and arrows, tomahawks, and guns, even old musketoons like the one that hung for so long over the old man’s fireplace, contain certain metaphysical properties beyond their natural application and design, despite what others may say about them. “It never woiked a damn anyhow,” said the tired old frog, just as he did at his nephew’s wedding. He was lying of course. It did work! It had always worked. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the man who shot Red-Beard… if you know where you can find him.

Elmo never told his uncle what happened to the gun, or that he’d ever lost it. He didn’t think it was that important, at least not as important as the sheriff seemed to think it was. But the fact remained that the shotgun, the blunderbuss, the musketoon, or whatever you want to call it was still missing; and the only explanation the Harlie could come up with was that someone had stolen it. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t know when; but he was beginning to think he knew who might have taken it. So far, it was only a hunch; someone he’d seen in the fields not too long ago; but he wasn’t quite sure. And even if he was right, he still didn’t know why.

“You tell him anything else, son,” asked Joe, “about the gun?”

“No… Only that I didn’t kill that man, the one they found on the mountain, the man they calls Red-Bead.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this befo’, boy?”

Elmo was slow to respond. “Didn’t think it was that impo’tant, Uncle Joe. The sheriff…”

“You talk to Mr. Townsend?”

Elmo hesitated. “He do most of the talkin’, Uncle Joe.”

“What he tell you?”

“Told me you and him was friends. Known each other for a long time. He likes you, Uncle Joe. Likes you alot! That’s what he said.”

PUFF! PUFF!

“That’s true,” croaked the frog trough a thick cloud of smoke, “We do goes back quite a while, me and Sheriff John. Knew him when he was a just a little boy. Knew his daddy, too; Jack was his name. He be just the same back then. Had them ol’ squinty eyes, too…”, “I think he likes me, too,” Elmo rejoined. “But it hard to tell hard to tell… you know, with those squinty ol’ eyes of his.

“Like a China-man’s,” the old man acknowledged, having looked into the window of the lawman’s soul on more than one occasion. “He’s a good man, Elmo. And maybe he do like you, just like you say. He do like to hunt ‘coon. Know that fo’ a fact. You know, me and ol’ John – I mean Sheriff Townsend – we used to go huntin’ together. Shot us a mess of ‘coon, we did. Yes sir! Had us some mighty fine times, too. Chased this one ol’ ‘coon clear across Harley all the way to the Redman River, and then down to Ol’ Port Fierce. He was a big ‘un! The dogs finally got ‘im, you know. Hounds always do. Treed him, I believe. Then we flushed him out. And then…” And here the old man paused briefly to catch his breath and re-ignite his faltering pipe, which he seemed to be struggling with a little by then. “Well, let’s just say Sheriff John and me had us a mighty fine supper that night.”

“What is you tryin’ to say, Uncle Joe?” questioned the Harlie, even though he knew it wasn’t necessary.

The fly-catcher leaned forward in his chair. “Sheriff John knows what he doing, son,” he said with a pull of the pipe. “He’s trying to trap you, boy, just like that ol’ ‘coon. Seems to me like the trap done woiked! But he just doin’ his job, I ‘spose.”

Elmo knew exactly what was on his uncle was talking about, and what the old man was thinking about; and it wasn’t necessarily about ‘coon. He’d been thinking the same lately. There was no longer any doubt in his mind. Elmo Cotton was already a raccoon on the run, just like the sheriff said, whether he chose to be or not. And there was nothing he could do about it. He thought about what Joe had told him earlier, about the sailin’ shoes. He looked down at his own naked feet and shrugged back at the old man leaning back in the chair, “Ain’t got me no sailin’ shoes, Uncle Joe,” he said with reluctant smile.

The old man could see that and seemed to understand. He even managed to smile back at his barefooted nephew, noticing for the first time, perhaps, two large dark circles that suddenly and somehow appeared to have formed around the Harlie’s otherwise pale blue eyes. Maybe Sheriff John was right after all, he suspiciously wondered. No… Joe thought to himself, bending over to look more closely into the bandit-like eyes of the frightened young man standing before him. It couldn’t be. Could it? He was almost tempted at that point to turn the sharecropper around just to see if there was black and brown ring-tail trailing behind him as well. But he didn’t. Instead, he paused, sat back in his chair and laughed, “Raccoon don’t wear no shoes,” he reminded his nephew, “Don’t needs ‘em.”

Elmo cocked his head from side to side, the way animals sometimes do when they’re hungry, confused, or simply want to be acknowledged. “What?” he said, unaware of what was going on inside the frog’s simple but fertile brain, “Something wrong, Uncle Joe?”

“It’s a ‘spression, boy… just a manner of speech,” returned the old frog, as his nephew did only a few moments ago. “Shoes or no shoes, you has to leave Harley. And you gots to go real soon. I know that now. And so do you, I reckon.”

PUFF!

Elmo nodded, although he still wasn’t sure; and he still didn’t like the way his uncle keep looking at him, with those sagging crow’s-feet eyes of his, like he’d just done something wrong. “Where can I go?” spoke the raccoon, more with his eyes then with his mouth by now.

“You know,” Joe began after some quiet consideration, “Sometime you has to know where you is, before you know where you is goin’. Some folks say if a man don’t know where he be a’goin’…well then, it don’t matter which way he go, or what road he take. So if I were you...” He then stopped himself short when he suddenly realized that it was his nephew who was running this time, and not Zeke Harley. And at that moment he even entertained the idea about along going with Elmo, at least as far as Old Port Fierce where he still maintained some old acquaintances and connections, just as his nephew had suggested earlier. But he knew that wouldn’t do. His days were numbered. He knew that by now; and he might even slow the raccoon down. Time was running out. Besides, his own sailin’ shoes just didn’t fit him anymore. But they might fit Elmo; and that’s just what he had in mind. “Well…” Joe Cotton finally resumed, “I ain’t you. I’s just me, a tired and broken down old man who can’t even catch that ol’ horsefly no mo’. Go where your heart tells you, son. But use your head, too. And be careful, son. Lots of evil out there in the woild! It’s a long hard road, boy, especially for raccoons without no shoes.”

As if to agree, Elmo bent over and looked down at his two shoeless feet. And as he did so, the Motherstone rolled out of the un-buttoned pocket sown into the top of his overalls and fell to the ground with a cushioning thump.

“Go south…” Joe firmly suggested after a moment of serious contemplation while picking up the stone that had just landed dangerously close to his planted foot, “to Ol’ Port Fierce. There’s a choich, down along Avenue ‘D’, in a place they calls Shadytown. There be a man there… a preacher-man. His name is Willie – Willie B. Wright. He be the Pastor. They calls him the Miracle-Maker. He’s a good man, Elmo. Find him, and you just might find what you’s lookin’ for... and everythin’ else, too, I ‘spose. And oh!” he added, handing the black stone back to his nephew just as he’d done on previous occasion, “take this with you, please.”

Elmo looked at the stone, back at his uncle, and then back at the stone again. He sensed a certain anxiety in the old man’s eyes, which by then had grown cold and dark. He though t he might try one last time. “What is it?” he asked, feeling a little ashamed of himself by now.

“I just don’t know,” replied the fly-catcher, with as much honesty as his conscience would allow. “And that’s the truth, son. All I know is that it belong to your daddy once. And now… I guess belong to you. So take it with you, boy. Who knows? Might come in handy. You never know. Could just save your life one day! Your daddy used to think so. Told me so himself. ‘Mister Joe’, he says to me – he likes to call me Mister back then… don’t ask me why – ‘This here stone won’t never lets me die…’ That’s what he said, alright. Thems his ‘zact woids. Don’t know ‘zactly why he said it, tho’, or what he mean by that. Kind’a likes to scares me at foist. Puts the spooks in me. Could be he talkin’ trash, or just drunk at the time. Ol’ Zeke… he could be like that sometimes. I don’t know. Maybe…” said Joe, his voice trailing off like the wake of a ship gliding out to sea on one last voyage, “maybe, there’s just some things we’s not ‘spose to know. Not yet, anyway.”

PUFF! PUFF!

The thought suddenly occurred to Elmo that, in his own round-a-bout way, his uncle was trying to tell him something, something about this so-called ‘Miracle-Maker’. Go South… There’s a choich… on Avenue …‘D’ did he say? In a place called Shadytown. Elmo had heard of such a place. He’d actually been there once, when he was still a small boy. It was not far from Old Port Fierce. He remembered it now, but only vaguely. There was a harbor…with boats. Lots of boats! Some of Sherman’s relatives still lived there, in Shadytown; his aunt, perhaps. There was a small house at the end of a dirt road. There was a white picket fence. And there was a girl… a girl! Regina… he suddenly spoke out loud, much to his uncle’s astonishment – Or was it his amusement?

“She still there,” reminded the fly-catcher. “But I wouldn’t… I mean…That is to say… She not who you be lookin’ fo’, boy.”

The old man never actually said it, at least not in so many words; but Elmo knew for certain, right then and there, that Zeke Harley and this… this Miracle-Man, Maker, or whatever he was, were both one of the same person. He wasn’t exactly sure how or why he came to this conclusion. He just did. He also knew by then where it was he had to go, and what he had to do.

“The gun just went off...” said the sharecropper one last time as his uncle fell asleep on his porch in his favorite rocking chair that day. His pipe was still hanging loosely from his lips, and Elmo could hear the CREAK-CREAK-CREAKing all the way home, it seemed.

Those were the last words the Harlie would ever hear from his uncle, Joseph Cotton, at least on this side of Paradise. He walked away that morning with more on his mind than ever before, never even noticing that the rocking chair had stopped rocking long before he reached the main road.

On his way back home that day, Elmo was wondering about many other things. Most of all, he was wondered if the horsefly really did get away when Joe went to grab it, or if his uncle just let it go on purpose. He reckoned he’d never know. And then he thought again about what Joe Cotton had told him that day: ‘Could be just some things we’s not ‘spose to know’. Joe knew; and so the Miracle-Maker. One of them would soon be dead.

PUFF!

* * *

NEWS OF HIS UNCLE’S DEATH reached Elmo Cotton at his plow the following day. They say the big man died right there on his own front porch, in his favorite rocking chair, with a white pipe lying on the ground next to him. He never even made it back inside.

Actually, nobody even knew that Joe Cotton was dead until a few of the neighborhood children came by the next morning, just like they always did, to see an old man sitting in his rocking chair and catching horseflies in his hand. Only this time the chair wasn’t rocking and the Joe wasn’t moving. A little girl touched the old man’s arm and noticed that his head was hanging to one side, like a rag doll’s, and his mouth was open; and that his big brown hands were motionless, and were almost touching the floor. There were also some flies buzzing around the dead man’s head. When she went to brush them away, the chair rocked about an inch or two, causing the body to slump forward. She didn’t scream, as some other children might’ve done under such disturbing circumstances; rather, she cried, simply and softly as the flies scattered away. Curiously, one large horsefly remained behind, proudly perched on the dead man’s ear long after the little girl had disappeared. It was still circling and buzzing around the fly-catcher’s head when Lester Cox finally arrived in his official capacity. The fly was still alive. And that’s when everyone knew for sure that Ol’ Joe Cotton was really dead.

The Harlie cried that day also; and he didn’t cry alone. There were many tears shed that afternoon, and not only in Harley. There were those in Creekwood Green who had many fond memories of the legendary bean farmer who could catch horseflies in his bare hands. News of the old Negro’s demise eventually reached Old Port Fierce by way of Lester Cox whose mortuary services were often required in the Southern districts, particularly down around Shadytown, where a few of Joe’s close friends and relatives were said to have once lived and were probably still alive. Prayers and Benedictions were said by more than one denomination. A special service was added that night at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ where the pastor, Willie B. Wright, eulogized the old man in song and prayer. He also cried that night. It was one of his best homilies.

A funeral was held the following day for Joseph Cotton, the only man in Harley (or anywhere else for that matter) who could catch horseflies in his bare hands with so much grace, ease, and deadly accuracy. He was buried in his own back yard, naturally, right next to the old apple tree. He was placed in a simple pine box with four handles and a plain cotton cloth, the kind Harlies were accustomed to, and cheapest ones in Lester’s parlor. Much to his credit and charitable reputation, and perhaps for more personal reasons, Mister Cox had offered to ‘send off’ Ol’ Joe in one of his more expensive models, a magnificent redwood casket he’d hand-carved himself. It had ivory handles, mother-of-pearl inlay, a hinged lid, and lined in royal purple velvet, which some suggested Lester might’ve been saving for himself. All Free of charge! And planted in the undertaker’s own private burial plot. But the Harlie wouldn’t hear of it. For he knew Joe Cotton to be not only a simple and humble man, but a frugal one as well, who would never approve of such extravagance; insisting, on more than one lively occasion, that he preferred to be buried in his own back yard, and as quickly and cheaply as possible. And so, Elmo opted for the simple pine box, which, since he was his uncle’s legal heir and beneficiary, albeit not the only one as we shall soon find out, was his decision to make. He only hoped he’d made the right one.

Joe was buried in the same white shirt and faded blue trousers he died in; the ones with the wide red suspenders pulled tightly up to his chest that he’d always wore. The only thing missing was the pipe, of course, along with one other article of clothing Joe Cotton had been wearing when they found him stiff as hand spike; including his white patent leather shoes which Lester Cox had carefully removed just before the lid of the pine box was nailed shut and lowered into the muddy ground. There was a reason.

Elmo never would forget the old man. How could he? He remembered the strange and fascinating stories he told, fact or fiction, and the lessons behind each and every one, which, like many of the Biblical parables he’d learned as a child that had remained with him over the years, would reveal themselves in their own good time. But most of all he remembered the special kindness one man provided to a poor widow and her orphan son at a time when they needed it the most. His name was Joe Cotton. And now he was dead.

Unfortunately, the deceased had little to leave his nephew, or anyone else for that matter, having given away most of his personal belongings at various stages of his long and charitable life, often with very little thanks but much satisfaction. There were a few distant relatives who’d showed up at the funeral, having traveled many miles up from Old Port Fierce and Shadytown, not only to pay their respects but, more importantly, to be there for the reading of Joe Cotton’s last will and testament, which everyone naturally assumed would be read right after the burial, as was the common practice of the time, along with getting crying drunk and stuffed with as much food as could possibly fit on one plate in such times of personal grief and mourning.

Most were disappointed, with the last will and testament anyway; simply because, as it turned out, Joseph Cotton didn’t leave a one. In fact, he never even wrote one! But that didn’t prevent some from speculating about the old man’s money, which was said to be hidden somewhere on his estate, which is often the case with lonely old bachelors who are sometimes accused (fairly or unfairly) of hoarding their wealth in mason jars, root cellars, or even buried in their own back yards where, even in that perpetual state complacency their unbeatable hearts will never be too far removed from its secret treasure. The rumors were false, of course; along with any suggestions of money, wealth, or hidden treasure, which, of course, left not a few of Joe’s long-lost relatives (some whom had traveled many expensive miles just to be there) high and dry, and just as poor and miserable as ever. Although, it did help them shed a few more tears than they otherwise would have under the circumstances, providing for the proper atmosphere at least. But the tears they shed were not for Joe; they were only in it for themselves, as friends and relatives can often be in times like these when, if like Mister Ebenezer Scrooge we are allowed such mortal and morbid observations in death we find out who our real friends, and relatives, are and what they’re really made; hopefully, it will be better stuff that we once thought of in our previous physical condition. Like so many others, they’d heard rumors, mostly of gold, that had long since been buried, along with so many dollar bills, in mason jars, not unlike the confederate currency stored in a similar manner as payment to Southern sympathizers during the war, in Mister Cotton’s back yard, or, since Joe house didn’t have a root cellar, stashed away up in his attic.

Almost everyone knew that Joe Cotton as a bachelor, and a thrifty one at that, often to the point of sometimes being falsely accused by those who didn’t know the old gentleman any better as ‘stingy’, although the old farmer himself would have much preferred the word ‘frugal’ attached to his small but well-deserved legacy. There were those who’d claimed, again with no substantial proof or real hard evidence, that Ol’ Joe Cotton had been to the mountains, as well as to sea; where, if there was any truth at all to the greedy gossip, he’d found his fortune in those parts of the world where such treasures are stored, and sometimes even forgotten, which he likewise hid somewhere on the premises. And even if it there was no gold or buried pirate treasure, it was well worth the three-day ride all the way up from Shadytown, which was many miles north of Old Port Fierce, just to make sure – damn sure! that there wasn’t any. You can never be too careful about these things, I suppose. And you never really know – You know? At least not until you find out for yourself, as many did that day, albeit to their own greedy disappointment.

But not all went away empty-handed. There were a few items attached to Joe Cotton’s estate that still had to be distributed to the next of kin; fairly, of course, assuming the dead man would’ve wanted it that way (which he actually didn’t) most of which was simply up for grabs by then. And grab they did! With pain and persistence took everything out of the old man’s house they could get their greedy hands on, anything that wasn’t nailed down, and a few items that actually were, including a matching pair of crossed swords that Joe had once hung over his mantle piece in place of the blunderbuss he’d given to his nephew as a wedding present, along with a stuffed deer’s head he’d mounted just above the pointed tips of the daggers, and some old picture frames he had nailed to the wall. He’d also left at least a half a dozen bottles of rum in cupboard over the stove, which were summarily carried off by a suspicious looking young man who wasn’t even related to the fly-catcher. Pilfered as well from the farmer’s modest dwelling that day was all his silverware, knives, forks and spoons, along with so many pots and pans that predominantly hung from the tiny kitchen attached to the back of the old man’s house, including an old iron skillet with a noticeable dent in the pan. Perhaps it was the same famous frying pan that forever put out the lights of a murderous pirate whose filthy finger had once pulled the trigger of the blunderbuss he no longer owned, the same one that almost killed the captain. Maybe, maybe not... but it was always nice to know it was possible.

One of the items that had somehow escaped the scavenging eyes of the vultures that day was Joe’s treasured collection of pipes; the ones he kept in a long rack next to his bed, like so many miniature smoke stacks chimneying up to the sky. They were his most prized possession, more important than any buried treasures, as far as Joe was concerned, and far more valuable. He had accumulated them over the years, twelve altogether (five of which had mysteriously disappeared throughout the course of the bereavement) of varying shapes and sizes, and colors! including the clay pipe that was found at the feet of the dead man the day he died in his rocking chair. It was actually a present presented to fly-catcher one day by a young black sailor he was very familiar with, Zeke Harley. He was a cook onboard a ship called the ‘Firefly’ at the time, a man who would stop by Joe’s house now and then to help him a little around the farm, and the man who would marry his sister. In exchange for his efforts, as well as the pipe, the sailor walked away from Harley that day with a new pair of shoes and a new name: Reginald Cotton, soon to become known among his seafaring peers as ‘Spider’ Cotton, for reasons one day to be further elaborated upon. Joe was more than happy to do it; he was even more pleased with the pipe. It was clay pipe with a long white stem and etchings engraved on the bowl, which was a common practice for sailors of the day, like the scrimshaw they carved out of excess whalebone during their more idle hours at sea. It was a rather simple device, in both beauty and function; still, it was Joe’s favorite, and one he would partake of at least twice a day before ceremoniously placing it back in the smokestack rack every night just before going to bed.

Despite the fact the Joseph Cotton didn’t leave a will, and with all real property, including the house and farm, destined to many months of probate, the Harlie didn’t exactly go away empty handed that day. He’d received, only because nobody else seemed to want or need them at the time, his uncle’s favorite rocking chair, the smoke stack rack of pipes, and a broken suitcase with a big brass buckle on the side. Inside the suitcase was a pair of patent leather shoes with long black laces. They were the only shoes Joe Cotton had ever owned; the same ones we was wearing the day he died, which Elmo assumed had been removed by Lester Cox and placed in the suitcase for safe keeping after the wake. He called them his sailin’ shoes, and there was always a shine on them. The suitcase had a small note attached to it with the name Elmo Cotton written on it suggesting, if nothing else, to whom it now belonged. It was apparent to nearly all the vultures, including Joe’s cousin Bulla who’d been selfishly eyeing the old suitcase all along from a comfortable distance, that Elmo should have it, along with the rocking chair and the pipes, of course, which nobody seemed to want anyway, chiefly on account of vultures, at least those of the human variety, are not only as greedy and stupid as their winged cousins at times, but are also known to be very superstitious in these matters. You see, unlike the carrion-eating buzzards that thieve on the rotting flesh of the dead and are not particular about such personal possessions, they, Joe’s relatives that is, would just as soon be boiled in blood and served to Satan himself rather than even go anywhere near the cursed objects in question, upon which sat the very man, no less than three days ago, in fact, they had all but plucked the eyes from, and in whose bloodless lips those same pipes once penetrated. It simply wasn’t worth it. But everything else, of course, was fair game; including the suitcase, if only they could figure out a way to get that too.

As it turned out, the rumors of buried treasures and attics stuffed with gold were quickly put to rest having been dispelled and properly disposed of by so many shovels, rakes, hoes, pick-axes and ladders that suddenly appeared that day, from out of nowhere it seemed, going through every nook and cranny of the old man’s humble estate until there was nothing left but four walls and a tin roof, and even they looked shamefully naked. They torn up everything; floorboards and rugs, inside and out, along with every square inch of earth that might be hiding some hidden treasure, a piece of silver, perhaps, a nugget of gold, never mind how small or insignificant. They even took the old man’s stove, which had to be carried out of the kitchen on the backs of four young men at the behest of their demanding grandmother who had claimed, with so many crocodile tears, that she was indeed Joe’s long-lost cousin Bulla, and that ‘the dear ol’ soul’ would’ve wanted her to have it anyway. Naturally, Miss Myrick was there, old and gray by now, but determined as ever and still looking for a proposal. All she found was an empty house and an empty hat-rack, which she took just the same.

By the end of the day, anything in the old man’s household that could be dug up, pried open, broke loose, and otherwise forensically examined for the smallest amount of intrinsic value, was either carried away by hand, or carted off in wheel-barrels depending, of course, on the size and weight of the load, or their so-called ‘Inheritance’. It was done quickly and methodically, professionally, you might say, and with same thoroughness one would expect from Attila and his pillaging Huns as they picked and pilfered their way across Eurasia from the Ural to the Rhine. And still, there was no treasure, buried or otherwise. But they kept looking anyway, long into the night and the very next day. Actually, the only thing they might’ve found, if they’d kept on digging in Joe Cotton’s back yard, was Joe Cotton himself; for indeed, that’s exactly where the old man was buried. Needles-to-say, they probably would’ve taken the dead man’s only gold tooth, his wooden leg, and his glass eye as well, if they ever got that close; and if Joe actually had any to spare; not that he would need them in those the mansions of glory where he was undoubtedly residing at that very moment in the company of martyrs and saints; indeed, they may’ve sucked the very marrow from those lifeless bones if they thought it might add one corpuscle to their already depleted and degenerate lives, and then go through the poor man’s pockets, just for good measure, like some common grave robber and lift the pennies from the dead man’s eyes, if Lester Cox hadn’t already taken the precautions of relieving his cold-blooded cliental of such worldly encumbrances before sending him off on that celestial journey where passports are not needed and money pays no passage.

It was common practice and an age old custom (one seldom practiced nowadays for health and environmental concerns) for most folks to be buried, as comfortably and quickly as possible, in the familiar surroundings of their own back yard. It was a good one too! It just made sense; not to mention the fact that it was alot cheaper than being buried in a private cemetery or mausoleums, which most folks couldn’t afford anyway, particularly Harlies, like old Joe Cotton, especially after he’d been cleaned out of house and home by a bunch of low-life, money-grubbing, dirt-digging relatives, half of which he’d never even met before, and the other half he wished he never had. It was also a whole lot safer, especially in the aftermath of a long and expensive war, when grave-robbing became a common, if not exactly legal, way of earning an honest living. It seemed that not even a man’s own lawn was sacred anymore. But even as the greedy in-laws dug up Joe Cotton’s back yard in search of…What! the Harlie could hear his uncle laughing in his grave, in the same frog-like voice he came to know and loved so well. There simply was no gold. Never was. Never will be. It seemed that the old fly-catcher had gotten the last laugh, after all, even if he didn’t catch the fly. And Elmo Cotton was laughing right along with him that day.

As for the house itself, and other real property, which was willfully and legally deeded to Joe’s next to kin upon death, it was put into probate until such a time the relatives could decide on who, or whom, his next to kin actually were. It had always been assumed that Elmo Cotton, being the nephew of the deceased, was the obvious heir apparent, especially considering the fact that Daisy Cotton, Joe’s younger sister, was also dead and they were his closest blood relatives. But having lived a long and prosperous life, and with more than a few years mysteriously unaccounted for, many imagined that Joe’s extended family would and could be debating that fine legal point long after Joe’s bones had turned to dust and the old house plowed under to make way, no doubt, for yet another Harley bean field, which, if Ike Armstrong is still around at that time and has anything to say about it, was already as good as plowed and planted.

Elmo was there with his wife that day, along with a handful of well-wishers, near-do-wells, and other nosey neighbors, including Mister Sherman Dixon (who wasn’t actually nosey at all and Elmo’s oldest and closest friend) and his fat wife, Bernice. He was amazed not only at how many of these ‘so called’ relatives actually showed up for his uncle’s long awaited and much anticipated funeral that day (many of whom he was meeting for the very first time and a few Joe probably wouldn’t have recognized himself) but also at just how expeditiously they disposed of the old man’s entire estate, like vultures scavenging the remains of a dead animal, one could only imagined. And they were not ashamed – at least they didn’t appear to be – either, of what they we doing. And to make matter worse, Elmo was too sad, too distracted, or simply too afraid to say, or do, anything about it. Ike was there too! Not that he was a friend of the family, or anyone else’s family for that matter. Apparently, he’d made his presence available that day just to see who the farm might go to, in hopes, perhaps, of buying it back from the lucky individual the very same day, and at a price well below market value, needless-to-say; so he could then turn it around for a profit, or rent it out to yet another poor and stupid sharecropper and start the whole ugly process all over again. Or perhaps he was there to comfort the many lonely and grief-stricken women, widows and spinsters among them, who might well be in need of some unsolicited advice, a little male companionship, or perhaps just a shoulder to cry on. Either way, he was sure he could accommodate any and all of them. And by the end of the day, Ike had his hands full, just like all the other scavengers.

Among the smoke-stack rack of chimney pipes, Elmo was both pleased and relieved to notice that one with the long white stem, his uncle’s favorite and most prized possession, was still there. It was the same one that had been found lying on the ground next to the dead man, which, for reasons that simply could not be explained, had somehow survived the confiscating claws of the carrion. As it were, Mister Lester Cox, the Creekwood undertaker, had taken the liberty, out of professional courtesy perhaps, of procuring certain items from the dead man’s person, including the white clay pipe, which he deemed too personal to be thrown to the scavengers whom he was used to dealing with on a regular basis and disliked as much as anyone. He would remove the items at the appropriate time, for safe-keeping, and for the right person to have. Like many others that day, Lester was a close and dear friend of the late Mister Joseph Cotton whom he would stop to chat with from time to time on the little front porch in Harley, or whenever business brought him in that general vicinity, which was more often than most Harlies would have preferred, and less often than Lester would have liked. He’d always liked coming to Harley, and he especially enjoyed old man’s company. Lester was sad to see him go; but he knew all along, as all undertakers do, if they know nothing else, that it’s only a matter of time. And Joe’s time was up. Perhaps the final arrangements were made during one such visit, a common practice at that time between caretaker and client. It was all part of the Mister Cox’s service, like the flowers and the coffin; and of course, the ‘money back guarantee’.

After everything was said and done, Elmo Cotton walked away from the little wooden house, perhaps for the very last time, with an old beat up suitcase with a funny pair of shoes inside, which he believed were intentionally placed there, his uncle’s collection of favorite pipes, and a handful of memories he stuffed into the top pocket of his overalls, and was gone. He’d have to come back some time later on for the rocking chair, however, and was hoping that Sherman might lend him a hand; or better yet – a wagon! It wasn’t much, but Elmo was happy to have it all the same; and he took them all, counting his blessing as a sign of Providence and perhaps better things to come; and he took all three. Some called it ‘junk’; but to him, it was the best present he’d ever received, other than the blunderbuss, of course, which he used to keep inside his barn, and was still missing. It was the same shotgun he was now more convinced than ever that was used to kill Red-Beard (as if an inanimate object in and of itself is actually capable of committing murder) and the one his uncle had given to him three years earlier as a wedding present. And it suddenly occurred to him, as he knelt down and kissed a lonely white stone that had been placed at the head of his uncle’s grave by an elderly black gentleman wearing an odd looking hat and a long blue over coat, someone whom no one seemed to recognize at the time, that Joe would’ve wanted that way. He was right, of course; and so was the old gentleman with the funny hat and long coat. The headstone simply read: Joseph Cotton – Harlie. There were no other words. There were no dates.

The first thing Elmo did after the funeral was to try on his uncle’s shoes. He couldn’t fill them, of course; but he kept them anyway. He would call them his ‘sailin’ shoes’ in honor of the man who once wore them so plainly and proudly. He then placed them back inside the suitcase with the reverence they so richly deserved, and buckled it closed. He didn’t think he would ever try them on again. All he really wanted was the rocking chair, anyway, to give to his wife, hoping it would make of for the new bathtub he’d once promised her but could never afford. He wished he could’ve given her more; but after the vultures were through, there was very little left worth taking, or giving. He knew Nadine would understand. She always did. That’s just the way farm girls are, I suppose.

But along with the suitcase, the shoes, the rocking chair and pipes, there was something else the Harlie took away with him with that day that he treasured above all others. And it was something he never even asked for. That was a name; his name: Elmo Cotton. It was the name his mother had given him, her own maiden name, in fact, despite the fact that his father’s name was Harley, Ezekiel Harley, and legally and rightfully his (if he wanted it, that is) and something he was still trying to come to terms with; unsuccessful, it would seem. ‘And it’s a good name, son!’ as his dead uncle once said to him not too long ago on the front steps of his porch. ‘– Cotton!’ croaked the frog. ‘Now that’s a mouthful!’ It was a name he could be proud of; and one he wore so well. It was the name he’d always preferred over his real one, which he now knew now to be ‘Harley’. He hated that name, almost as much as he hated Ezekiel Harley. He wished he never heard of either of them

It seemed Joe Cotton had told his nephew a great many things just before he died; more than he actually should have, and perhaps more than Elmo really wanted to know. It was almost as if Joe knew he would die the day after he and his nephew had their last little chat on the front porch of his little house in Harley that day. Perhaps the old fly-catcher knew that his time had finally come, as old men usually do when they’re too old and tired to care anymore, and there’s nothing left to live for. They speak of life and death in metaphors, in that melancholy mood they are sometimes associated with, as Joe often did, if they speak of it at all. Whether or not it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy is another matter, and something for younger men to ponder. It is not death they are chiefly afraid of; it is dying, or rather the act of dying, they find most disquieting.

It just then occurred to the Harlie there were other things his uncle was trying to tell him that last day on the front porch, albeit in his own esoteric and sometimes ambiguous way. It was something about his father, perhaps, Zeke Harley, and something about… about the stone. It was all very new and strange to him. Still, Elmo wondered if Joe Cotton had told him everything. He didn’t think so; and maybe that’s why he was also warned him: ‘Could be some things we’s just not ‘spose to know’. The words haunted him still, almost as much as another admonition he received in a similar manner: ‘Sometimes you just has to know where you is…befo’ you know where you’s goin’. Maybe that was just the old man’s way of saying there were some things Elmo had to figure out for himself. Maybe not.

After the funeral, Elmo went straight back to his farm with a broken suitcase tucked under his arms, a pipe between his teeth, and a pair of white patent leather shoes. He would go back for the rocking chair some other time, when Sherman could help him with his wagon. There were still a few scavengers buzzing around his uncle’s house when he’d left. He had hoped they would all be gone by the time he returned, and that the chair would still be there. As usual, he was hoping for an awful lot.

He walked home alone, his wife and the boy having gone over to Mrs. Dixon’s house for the remainder of the afternoon as women generally do in solemn situations like these. Nadine suspected her husband wanted to be alone for a while anyway. She was right. It was a long walk home, and Elmo had a lot to think of – mostly about what he would do next, if anything.

As the lonely sharecropper approached the bean fields of Harley, all he could still hear was the familiar foghorn voice of his dead uncle blowing in his ears: “Put on them sailin’ shoes, boy!” He kicked opened the door, flew inside, and flung the suitcase and shoes on the bed. He went straight for the bathtub. It was still there. The stone was right where he’d left it, underneath the tub. In a sad and peculiar sort of way, he was almost hoping that it wouldn’t be, thinking, or hoping, that maybe his wife had reconsidered her earlier threat and buried it out in the back yard just like she said she would; as if one burial that day wasn’t enough. He was glad she didn’t.

Suddenly, the black stone meant a great deal more to the Harlie than it did only one day before; and at that point he became determined to find a safe place to keep it, at least until he could decide exactly what to do with it, and himself as well. ‘Put on them ol’ sailin’ shoes,’ the voice sounded from beyond the grave once more. He wasn’t exactly sure what the old man was trying to tell him at the time; but he was sure of one thing: he would have to leave Harley, and the sooner the better, he reckoned. He would go south, of course. There was no other way. He was sure that his uncle would’ve agreed… if only he could.

Before putting the Motherstone back under the tub, he had to look at it one more time. It appeared no different than it did since the last time he’d looked at it: dull, black, and dead. It looked almost like a corpse, Elmo morbidly imagined, not unlike that of his own dead uncle just before the lid on the pine box was nailed shut and lowered into the cold muddy soil. The only difference was that Joe Cotton was much larger and actually appeared to be sleeping at the time of his immortal internment. Unlike the dead man, however, Elmo knew that the stone would come back to life, sooner or later, he optimistically suspected, just like it did before, on top of the mountain that day. It had to. He wasn’t exactly sure how he knew this, or even why; he just did. All he had to do was wait. But with autumn setting in, the days growing shorter and the nights getting longer, the Harlie didn’t have time to wait. He was becoming increasingly frustrated. He was impatient and poor, and felt he should be going. He knew the time was right; there was nothing left to do. And so, the Harlie tired on the white patent leather shoes for the second time that day. They still didn’t fit.


Chapter Seven

Sailin’ Shoes and a Suitcase

THAT NIGHT, the Harlie felt no different than he did any other night, except for the fact that he knew he would be soon be leaving. His wife still was hiding under the covers. They hadn’t ‘fought’ in over a month, and things hadn’t improved since; although Nadine had been feeling a bit more sympathetic towards her beleaguered husband since the death of his uncle, whom she too had grown particularly fond of in only a few short years.

Crawling out of bed in the small hours of the morning when it was still very cold and dark outside, Elmo headed to the bathtub to see if the stone was still there. It was. He had abandoned his earlier commitment to hide it in another location, assuming that Nadine would eventually find it, no matter where he tried to hide it, and that she was probably too afraid to touch it anyway – the stone, that is.

As he sat down next to the stove, Elmo could hear her sleeping. He placed the stone gently on the table. She stirred as he touched the alluring black surface in the same way he would sometimes touch his wife. She turned softly on her side, letting the blanket slip to the floor. She was still sleeping; and she was naked. Elmo watched her from the kitchen table for a while, thinking that she might really be awake and was only teasing, or testing, him; or perhaps both. It wouldn’t be the first time. It was all part of the ‘fight’ – the part Elmo used to always look forward to before they became estranged. He knew what he wanted, of course; but he just didn’t know how to go about getting it anymore. And it was right then and there he knew for sure that it was time to leave; for he’d forgotten what to do with his wife; he couldn’t even remember the smell of his own family anymore. It was time to put on his ‘sailin shoes’. It was time to go.

Just then Lil’ Ralph appeared, as usual, from out of nowhere. He was rubbing the sleep from his dreamy black eyes, but otherwise awake. He looked straight up at his father and, as if looking right through him, innocently asked, “Where you goin’, daddy?”

“Nowhere, son” replied Elmo as he carried Lil’ Ralph back to bed. “Now go back to sleep, and be a good boy – Y’hear?”

And so he did. But not without wondering if he would ever see his father again.

A dog barked, the rooster crowed, as the pig climbed out of his muddy bed in search of the corncob he’d been nibbling on the night before. The chickens pecked the cold damp mud, looking for morsels of food while occasionally taking the time to preen their pretty feathers in front of their jealous sisters. The cow mooed and mule kicked the side of the barn, as usual, summoning its master, or for anyone who might be awake at such an ungodly hour, to fetch it a pail of oats, or a least a carrot. It was the beginning of another long hard day in the short life of a Harley sharecropper.

Elmo Cotton stood over the bed in patched overalls watching Lil’ Ralph crawl between his mother's legs. Nadine was still sleeping with the blanket pulled tightly up to her chin. He tried to speak to her, but the words just wouldn't come. He knew what he wanted to say, what he had to say; he just didn’t know how to say it. And so, bending over the bed, the Harlie went to kiss his wife goodbye one last time before leaving that day. He didn’t want to wake her and stopped just short of touching her soft and subtle lips that were only slightly parted. Nadine never looked so beautiful as when she was sleeping, he was thinking just then as he pulled the suitcase out from under the bed; and that’s the way he wanted to remember her.

Inside the small brown container, Elmo Cotton placed everything he owned, which was barely enough to fill it; everything, that is, except for what the suitcase was actually made for – a suit, which is something never expected to own anyway.

The sailin’ shoes that his uncle had left him, or so it seemed, him took up much of the space, leaving just enough room for a few personal belongings, including his uncle favorite pipe and a bag of tobacco Mister Lester Cox had given him shortly after the funeral; apparently it was something he was able to salvage from the fly-catcher’s pockets, along with a handkerchief, a small flask of whiskey, two nickels, three pennies, and a faded photograph of a young woman no one seemed to recognize. Anything else that belonged to Elmo would have to remain, which really wasn’t that much anyway; including his farm tools, a rusty plow, a few hungry animals including one ornery old mule, and a seldom used bathtub, all of which Nadine would just have to make do with until such a time, if ever, he returned to the little farm in Harley. Into the luggage container the Harlie also placed the Motherstone. Somehow, he thought, it appeared smaller than it did before, and felt even lighter.

When he first went to close the lid of the suitcase, Elmo noticed that the big brass buckle on top, which was obviously meant to lock the luggage, was ostensibly broken, not unlike everything else he owned. And so, as usual, the Harlie improvised by securing the case with a long leather strap he found in the top draw of the dresser. It was the same black belt Nadine employed for punishing Lil’ Ralph whenever he deserved it, and sometimes even when he didn't, which was something the Harlie sometimes found objectionable and could definitely relate to. It really didn’t hurt much; the bark of the belt being far worse than its actual bite. And at least it didn’t leave any scars or break any bones, Elmo was quick to learn; only a few blistering welts that quickly faded away, unlike his own, and healed on their own. It only made it that much easier for him to remove the instrument of terror, at least in the eyes of one little boy who hasn’t lived long enough to appreciate newer and more effective forms of corporal punishment, when the time finally came. It was the least he could do for his own flesh and blood, he imagined, especially after trying him tom the tree the other day.

But that was all in the past now. He didn’t want to think about it anymore; he just wanted to be on his way. He went straight to the barn, gave his sickly cow a pumpkin for breakfast and watched her chew the rind from side to side, hoping it might provide a little milk for Lil’ Ralph later on. After feeding the mule a pail of oats, Elmo Cotton locked the barn door, looked back at the house for one last time, and was on his way.

It was a short walk through the bean fields of Harley that morning, and one Elmo was finding not nearly as difficult as he thought it would be. He was surprised that he wasn’t feeling as guilty as he thought he should, as he kept trying to remind himself that it was, well, ‘…only for a while’. But every time he said it, his hand instinctively reached for the top of his head. ‘Now don’t be showin’ me them ol’ horns, boy!’ a voice cried out in his head.

It was that quiet time of the morning, just before daybreak, what some still call ‘…the other side of twilight’. He saw another sharecropper plowing the soil in preparation of his winter bumper crop; something the Harlie suddenly realized he should be doing right now. There was a woman in a blue dress picking beans and collecting them in a long white apron. They didn’t even notice him; or, if they did, they didn’t seem to care.

Along the way, Elmo passed by his uncle’s house, or what was left of it. He stopped for a moment. It appeared empty, almost haunted, especially after being scavenged for the last four or five days by relatives Joe Cotton probably never even knew he had. The first thing he noticed was that the old rocking chair, the one he meant to go back and get just the other day, was now gone. He’d forgotten all about it. One of the buzzards must have taken it away, he reckoned. And his wife really wanted it, too. It was just one more thing he blamed himself for. The porch looked cold and lonely without it. There was no one there. Even the flies wouldn’t come around anymore.

As he approached the Iron Gates of Harley, Elmo looked back out over bean fields of Harley, half expecting to see his wife running after him with a bag of beans, or something else to eat, they way she used to do when they were first married and he would sometimes head over to Homer’s house for extra work. She never came, of course; she was still fast asleep with Lil Ralph rolled up beside her like a little brown ball.

The Harlie stopped and rested for a while at the Iron Gate. He must have passed through those rusty old bars at least hundred times by then, but never before did they look so old, so broken, and so mean. It wasn’t very often that a man from Harley was going out rather than coming in; and he wondered if anyone was watching, a feeling he’d been carrying around with him ever since the episode in the bean field. Not for the last time he thought about turning around and going back. But it was too late. All he could think of was what Homer once told him. It was only seven weeks ago, but it seemed like seven years: “Well, Mister Cotton... It’s about time!”

Beyond the bean fields and the old Iron Gate, Elmo looked back one last time, knowing he was well out of sight of the farmhouse by then. From the corner of his raccoon eye, he thought he saw someone duck behind the masonry wall on the north side of the gate just then. But he was so far away, and the figure was so small, that it could’ve been just about anyone, he imagined. He thought of the man he’d seen earlier that week in the field: the one with the long black beard and the glassy eye; the one dressed up like an animal. It might’ve been the same stranger his wife had spoken with earlier that day; the one she’d described to him in such grizzly detail. Still, the Harlie wasn’t convinced that they were both one of the same. But whoever, or whatever it was, it made him move… like a raccoon on the run.

And so, Elmo Cotton left Harley for good that day and never looked back. All he had was a suitcase, a pipe, and a pair of shoes; and that was enough; for now anyway. He also had the Motherstone. He ran and he ran, until he could run no more, and then walked.

* * *

IT WAS THE END OF OCTOBER and Nadine Cotton was sweeping the floor inside the little house of Harley. It had been two weeks since her husband had left without word or warning; and she hadn’t stopped crying since.

There was work to be done in the fields, the roof was leaking, Ralph was running a fever, and Nadine Cotton was still taking her baths over at her neighbor’s house. Things were not just looking good for the farm girl. The Dixons stopped now and then to help the poor woman as much as they could, but it was never enough; Bernice had her own house to take care of, and Sherman always seemed to be needed somewhere else. They had even loaned her some money to buy the things she and Ralph needed from the Harley General store. “…Just ‘til Elmo come home,” insisted Sherman with a warm sympathetic smile. Of course, he had no idea when that might be, since nobody, including the sharecropper’s wife, knew where he went off to, or when he would return; if he ever did return. It was almost as if he disappeared, just like… ‘Just like his daddy,’ the farm girl wondered out loud on more than one suspicious occasion. She wasn’t the only one. Sheriff John Townsend had made a similar connection the day he and the raccoon first met.

John Townsend rode into Harley the very next day on his tall gray horse. Nadine Cotton greeted him at the front door with Lil’ Ralph tugging at her apron. All she could tell him that day was what something the sheriff of Creekwood County had long expected to hear: Elmo Cotton was gone. And that’s all there was to it.

The honest lawman with the narrow eyes didn’t look very angry; but he certainly was concerned, and perhaps a little frustrated by then. He pitied the woman and felt genuinely sorry for her, and the little boy. He’d suspected all along that something like this might happen, and wasn’t particularly sorry that he didn’t do anything to prevent it; although he knew that he would probably be held accountable anyway, to one degree or another.

Sheriff Townsend had actually expected the raccoon to run. You might even say that he knew it all along. In fact, he may very well have facilitated the Harlie’s timely escape not only with his own suggestive words, but also by prolonging the investigation as long as he did; longer, perhaps, than he should have without making an official arrest. He was glad he waited, however; and glancing down at the little brown boy, he knew he’d made the right decision. He told Mrs. Cotton not to worry.

The boy looked up at the man with the shiny gold badge and no eyes. “Daddy?”he smiled, not making it clear if he had somehow mistaken the man on top of the horse for his own absent father, however unlikely that was, or if it was just a little boy’s way of enquiring of the sharecropper’s whereabouts. He’d also noticed the holstered six-guns hanging from the sheriff’s belt and tied down to his thigh, and was secretly hoping he would take one of them out and shoot something, like the pig for instance, which he never liked anyway.

The sheriff smiled back. “That’s alright, son”, he answered the boy, although it was really meant for the woman, “We’ll find your daddy. He probably just went a’huntin’. That’s all.” John Townsend didn’t like lying to the little brown boy; but he didn’t know what else to say and, under the circumstances, didn’t think he was really that far from the truth. Maybe the Harlie did go a’huntin’ after all, the sheriff was just than trying to convince himself. But who was he a’huntin’?

Nadine didn’t necessarily know if what the sheriff had just said was a good thing or a bad thing. But she did know Sheriff Townsend well enough to know that he would have go after Elmo sooner rather than later. He had to. That was his job. She was also well aware by now of all the trouble her husband was in, along with seriousness of the charges; although, technically, no charges had been officially filed as of yet. All she really knew was that a Creekman was found dead on top of the mountain soon after Elmo came back; and that he died, or was killed rather, with a shotgun; the same kind of shotgun that Elmo kept out in the barn and was now gone, just like her husband. Any farm girl could figure it out, even a dumb one, which Nadine certainly wasn’t. She knew what it all meant, especially when the man shot dead just happened to be white, the only one to come back down was a Harlie; a Harlie who was seen by more than one eyewitness riding off into the mountains shortly before it all happened. And the fact that this particular Harlie, Mister Elmo Cotton, was presently missing and unaccounted for certainly didn’t help matters; in fact, it only made him guiltier, at least in the discerning eyes of a squinty-eyed sheriff, and the Law. It only made the situation that much more complicated; and Nadine wasn’t a complicated woman. There were many things she still didn’t understand, and not just about her husband. But she told Sheriff John everything she did know, including having seen a strange looking man on the farm shortly before Elmo disappeared. And she hadn’t seen him since, which only made her a little more nervous; and the sheriff, a little more suspicious. John appeared to believe everything the farmer’s wife told him (he really had no reason not to) and told her so. He said he’d be back.

For a variety of reason, most of them self-serving, Ike Armstrong allowed Nadine Cotton to stay on the farm even though he wasn’t obliged to, legally or otherwise. He could have easily evicted her; after all, it was not her initials that were on the contract, only her husband’s; and that would be enough. Word around town was that the greedy landlord still had eyes for Mrs. Elmo Cotton; and words spread quickly in Harley. But not nearly as fast as Nadine Cotton’s broom, which she kept close by her side at all times, especially when Mister Armstrong just happened to stroll by her house each and every morning around ten o’clock in his rebel gray slouch hat, crackling new jeans, and patent leather shoes, with treachery in his heart, a bulge in his trousers, and a little too much time on his hands.

For the most part, the sharecropper’s wife kept to herself. She tried to stay busy which, under the circumstances, was not a difficult thing to do on a farm without a farmer around. She picked whatever crops were left wilting on the vines, pumped the churn, feed the pigs and chickens, milked the cow, cussed the mule, and generally did all the things she’d always done as a farm girl, and then some. Naturally, Nadine’s’ mother would stop by from time to time, along with one or two of the farm girl’s brawny brothers; but they had their own farms to consider; and ever since Fred Simpson had died life on the farm just wasn’t the same. But Nadine Cotton was a proud woman, and she would only accept so much charity, even from well-intentioned friends and in-laws. Besides, every time they stopped by, it seemed a certain amount of ‘s’plainin’ was in order, which was just another way of saying they simply wanted her to ‘explain’ exactly why she married such a lazy, no-good, light-skinned, blue-eyed, lower-than-a-snake’s belly, egg-sucking dog like Elmo Cotton anyway! She was beginning to wonder why herself.

The Dixons helped, too, of course; and so did a handful of other Harlies who were understandably sympathetic towards Mrs. Cotton’s unfortunate and, as some might say, undeserving, circumstances. The widow Skinner came by a few times to do whatever she could, but mostly just to keep an eye on Lil’ Ralph while Nadine was out in the fields, picking and plowing, or driving Ike Armstrong off with the business end of her broom. It was a never-ending ordeal. Ike certainly didn’t make things any easier for the sharecropper’s wife.

Then there were those who blamed Elmo for the poor woman’s predicament, and rightfully so. Others blamed his wife, erroneously assuming that it was she who’d driven off her husband for more personal reasons that were not only unsubstantiated but downright cruel and totally false. They were both wrong, of course; folks like that usually are in situations like these. They’re the type of people, those sad individuals, who actually find comfort in the suffering and misfortunes of others; as if the only way they can be happy is to make everyone else around them, especially the ones they love, just as miserable as they are, or maybe more. Still, it was difficult for many to believe that Elmo would just leave her and the boy the way he did, even if the rumors and gossip was true; they just never took him for that kind of man – the kind of man his father was, perhaps. The landlord, on the other hand, had always thought otherwise. He knew more about what happened up in the mountains than he was admitting. He knew the man some still referred to as Reggie Cotton, whose real name was Ezekiel Harley; and he knew of Colonel Rusty Horn, as well, the man they called Rd-Beard. He had even heard of a man who went by the name of Tom Henley, one of the ‘hill people’, and how he was somehow involved with Homer Skinner and the seven men who went up to the mountain and never came back. Secretly hoping that Elmo Cotton was gone for good (he had no reason to think otherwise) or perhaps dead, the misogynist landlord made up his mind to get to know Nadine Cotton on a much more personal level, after what might be considered a proper grieving period, of course. And he wasn’t the only one with jelly-roll on his mind. Lately, Ike was thinking that that period was just about up. He was even thinking that she should’ve capitulated by now – if she wanted to stay on the farm, that is, and if she knew what was good for her, and her little boy.

But Nadine Cotton never gave in and she never gave out, not even when she too was beginning to think that her husband might never be coming back. And whenever Lil’ Ralph would ask her, “Where my daddy at?” the Harlie’s wife would simply repeat what the sheriff had told the boy earlier: that his daddy just ‘went a’huntin’; and she would leave it at that. And just like Sheriff John Townsend, she was closer to the truth than she knew.

For a while the Harlie found sanctuary in the Great Northern Woods. It was a quiet place, a secret and sacred sanctuary where he felt a man could do some real thinking. It was also a filled with a variety of trees and several small creeks running down from the mountains. It was a place he was familiar with, having traveled those same wooded roads on several occasion with Homer Skinner, in happier and less stressful times. There were also wild animals about that he might make good use of. He’d heard stories, mostly from Homer, of the large grizzle bears that roamed thereabout; one in particular that was not only fond of human flesh but also possessed a special appetite for raccoon.

Along the way he came upon a small hollow in the woods he thought he recognized. It was, in fact, the same sacred hollow the party of nine once made camp under the moon and stars, smoking cigars, dreaming of gold, and talking of better times to come. He was in the foothills, west of Harley and directly north of Creekwood Green, not far from Silver Mountains where it all began. He was awake that night, and so was Homer, although the old man never even knew it at the time. There was a firefly with a long green tail. It seemed to know a great deal about what was going on than it should have, thought the Harlie. And now they were both dead.

By then the leaves on the trees were turning, creating a vast organic tapestry of orange, green, red and yellow. It was the perfect place to hide, imagined the raccoon, resting for a spell in a fallen rainbow of dead leaves. There were also a fairly large number of evergreens around and about that would help camouflage his presence and serve his stealthful purpose even better. He could climb them, perhaps, and keep a sharp lookout to the east, where his fears were always directed. Eternal vigilance would be his companion, his motto, and loneliness his best friend. He also thought it would be an easy place to do some hard thinking. He had no immediate plans other than to merely survive, and his future was uncertain at best. He was alive at least and, well, that’s all that seemed to matter for the time being.

His thoughts vacillated from one day to the next, just like his moods, that turned and blended into one another like the leaves and the rainbow. Sometimes his mind was clear, like a stream of fresh running water; other times, it was as foggy as the mist that surrounded him each and every morning when he woke up under the colored umbrella of foliage. At night he became more uncertain, ambivalent, and confused; although he did find a certain comfort in the night that always seemed to be lacking in the daylight hours. It was sacred feeling he sometimes wished would never end. He also found sleeping in the woods better than sleeping in his own bed, even though it was cold outside and he didn’t have anyone to comfort him at night; like a wife, for instance. Sometimes he wondered if he would ever ‘fight’ again. Autumn was in the air, and the cool mountain breeze seemed to put out the fire that sometimes still burned in his brain, for a while anyway.

One night as he lay beneath a tapestry of stars that appeared to him like so many candles burning brightly in the Heavens, the Harlie looked up as the moon moved slowly through a long dark cloud. Silhouetted against the lonely lunar orb, the cloud seemed to transform itself right before his eyes, in much the same way that shadows sometimes suddenly appear in children’s bedrooms, late at night; and how they would sometimes, somehow, come alive, taking on not only the familiar and friendly appearances we are comfortable with, but with ghosts and goblins, and other things too terrible to imagine, dancing on the walls and ceiling and being a general nuisance. It’s usually enough to drive the little ones straight under the blanket, along with their parents.

But the Harlie had no blanket, or parents; and even if he did, there was nowhere for him to hide. The ghosts merely laughed at him. The Heaven’s heaped him, they mocked him, and the cloud only reminded him all he’d left behind. In it, he could make out the form of a woman in a long white apron laboring in a field, moving slowly and methodically through the moonbeams and mushrooms. Naturally, it reminded him of his wife, Nadine. But for whatever reason, he was thinking more of his mother just then, Daisy Cotton, who died when he was only five years old. They looked very much alike, he imagined, Nadine and Daisy (at least that’s what people who knew them both had told him) mostly in their faces. It was no wonder Elmo Cotton proposed to Nadine Simpson only a week after they’d met. What was more of a wonder was that she’d actually accepted.

Daisy Cotton was small woman with a light brown complexion (at least by Harley standards) and the ‘face of an angel’ people would say. Many had called her beautiful, including Joe Cotton, her older bother who was likewise said to be a handsome hunk of Humanity in his younger and more virile years. ‘It’s in the blood!’ he would boast at times, for his sister’s sake more than his own personal vanity. Perhaps it’s the same blood that once flowed through the veins of the Queen of Sheba, the African Queen who may not have only seduced King Solomon but, according to legend, preserved the royal bloodline as well. She had high cheekbones, straight black hair, and a reddish brown skin-tone with a hint of yellow that betrayed a distant Mongolian past; shades and shadows of the Kahn, perhaps (a fact that she would neither confirm nor deny, even if it were true) and seemed to go so well with her name – Daisy, Daisy Cotton.

No one was quite sure where Daisy Cotton came from, although it was rumored that she was born on a slave ship, as were most of the older folks of her generation; and that her own parents, unable to survive the trans-Atlantic voyage were summarily buried at sea sometime before the start of the war. All she could remembered of her clouded past was being shuffled from one home to another until, as Providence would have it, she ended up in Harley where she made the acquaintance of Ezekiel Harley, Erasmus Harley’s eldest son. In fact, it was Zeke who’d first introduced this strange young beauty to the local community who knew, almost from the start, they were bond to be man and wife.

A distant and quiet woman by nature, there always appeared to be an alien presence about Daisy Cotton that men found appealing and women found disturbing. She had the contour eyes of an Oriental princess and the full, sensuous lips of an African Queen. Everything about her was exotic, including the only name she went by at the time, Delilah, which was eventually shortened to Daisy.

Her beauty was that which shone inward rather than outward; calmly, like the serene smile on the face of some brown-skinned Mona Lisa. There was certainty in her smile, something time could not erase, and melancholy could not mask. It was a pure and simple smile that spoke volumes without uttering a single syllable. It was the face of a woman who, despite a mysterious past and uncertain future, knew exactly who she was and where she was going. It was the face of Daisy Cotton.

The Harlie saw it. He knew it. He recognized it instantly. How could he not? It was better to gaze at than moon or star. It was more powerful than the sun, he imagined, with all its orbiting satellites; it would surely outlast the grave. It was the incorruptible face a woman, as deep as and as dark as the Heavens themselves. And if God had a face, Elmo suddenly began to realize, perhaps for the first time in his short and chauvinistic life, it would have to be that of a woman. A black woman! It just made sense. It may even be the face of Daisy Cotton, he couldn’t help but wonder as Mother Nature enveloped him in her own maternal instincts and nursed him through the night.

With his gaze firmly fixed on the celestial night sky, the raccoon suddenly recalled a conversation he’d had with his wife had on the subject of his parents as they lay in bed one night after a long and exceptionally exhausting ‘fight’. He was thinking about his mother, as well as his father, and what the two ever saw in one another, other than himself. ‘Don’t know why she ever married him anyway,’ Elmo remembered saying to his wife on a night such this, speaking of the woman he knew everything, and nothing, about. ‘Must’a been a powerful desperate woman to marry a man by the likes of Zeke Harley. Should’a stayed in N’Orleans… where she belong. Better off if she done never been born. N’om sayin’, ‘Dine?”

Nadine understood exactly what her husband was saying, or at least trying to say; but that didn’t necessarily mean she agreed with him. He suddenly recalled his wife’s logical response at the time, which only a farm girl could deliver, along with a sharp knee to his backside: ‘Hush yo’ mouth, Elmo Cotton! You don’t know what you’s talkin’ about. Besides, if she never be born, then how is you ever goin’ get here? And Lil’ Ralph, too!’ she frowned.

“I ‘spose,” was all the Harlie could manage at the time, even though wished they’d never met.

Nadine Cotton could never understand her husband, and the strange habit he had of talking off the top of his head, extemporaneously, especially when it came to disturbing subject of Elmo’s parents, which continued to be the source of gossip and innuendo for many years to come. Her own mother, Sally Simpson, had warned her against getting involved with the blue-eyed Harlie; she had her reasons, of course, and her sources; although she was careful never to voice her concerns or suspicions in front of her future son-in-law, even when they turned out to be true. Fred was not so judgmental, he suddenly recollected, but could never quite bring himself to disagree with his wife, at least not to the degree the young couple would have him, and certainly not to her face.

The only real image Elmo had of his mother and father was faded photograph taken right after their wedding that Joe had hanging on his wall before it was torn down and carried off by one of the vultures. ‘They was married right ‘chere in Harley’, stated the old man. I was there. The bestest man! But that was a long time ago, son, and I wasn’t much of a church-going man back then. Still ain’t, I reckon. But that don’t mean I ain’t a God-fearing man, mind you. We all gets saved in God’s good time, I suppose; some faster than others, that’s all. Let’s just say it took me a little longer than most. It happened right after the war, you know, when folks be fussin' and fightin' over all kinds of foolishness. Should’a seen him, Elmo! Daisy dressed all in white, and yo’ daddy so tall and proud, just like one of them mens in the picture book. And a real gentleman, too!’

The sentiment did didn’t necessarily please the Harlie, at least not as much as the fly-catcher thought it should have at the time; and it certainly didn’t lessen the animosity Elmo still felt towards his father; not in the least. He simply could never forgive the man for running out on him and his mother the way he did. And for that he would surely die, he solemnly swore for the first time in his life. He wondered if Lil’ Ralph would one day feel the same way about him some day. After all, wasn’t he was doing the exact same thing? For different reasons perhaps; but still… ‘Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” his uncle would say from time to time, with no one in particular in mind, or so it seemed. The thought frightened him to no end.

Homer would certainly have agreed with Joe Cotton, if he were still alive to do so; for he’d made the exact same observation himself; although, unlike Elmo’s recently deceased uncle, the kindly old deputy was more sympathetic and somewhat reluctant to express his true feeling to the young sharecropper he’d grown so fond of over the years. Both men had known Zeke Harley at one time or another, which is probably why they’d both come the same proverbial conclusion ‘Apple don’t fall far from the tree…,’ and moreover, they both knew, or at least suspected, what actually became of the man who became Reginald Cotton. And even though the meetings had occurred a very long time ago, and were casual at best, the conclusions reached by the two old gentlemen who’d lived on opposite side of the infamous Iron Gates for so long were indeed justified, and probably true. It something they had both suspected Elmo would find out for himself one day, eventually; but neither one would ever know.

Other than his wife and young child, Joe Cotton and Homer Skinner were the only two people in the world that Elmo ever truly loved. And now they were both dead. He knew they would’ve understood why he ran away. At least his uncle would; after all, it was he who had suggested it, in one way or another. He really had no other choice. Whether or not he could ever convince Nadine of that was another matter. He never even tried. As the moon fled and hid its fleeting face behind a long dark cloud moving slowly over the mountain, the raccoon tried not to think about it.

He stayed in the foothills all through the fall, watching the leaves fall from the trees one by one until every branch was bare, except of course for the ubiquitous evergreens; and even they were beginning to look as cold and damp, as weary and weathered as the Harlie himself. Naturally, the raccoon knew that he couldn’t stay there forever.

* * *

AS AUTUMN TURNED INTO WINTER and the chilling winds came down from the Silver Mountains, the raccoon thought he might travel south for a while. And so, with suitcase in hand and a hunger in his heart, the Harlie did just that. He made it a point of steering clear of Creekwood Green, for obvious reasons, not least of all to avoid being spotted, which, for a Harlie at least, is easier said than done. It is also a well known fact that raccoons generally tend to stay as far away from all human contact as possible, whether they’re on the run or not. Elmo was no exception.

He traveled the back roads, south and east, which really weren’t roads at all, just small animal trails meandering throughout the lower woodlands like the many creeks and streams he was forced to negotiate along the way. Elmo still wore his overalls, which, except for his suitcase and its meager contents, was about all he owned. He traveled barefoot and light, mostly at night, chiefly out of fear of being seen, and at the risk of being eaten or attacked by some other animal, one perhaps hungrier and bigger than himself. He made no campfire.

The night air was very cold by then; there were signs of snow. The chill sometimes cut him to the bone, especially late at night when the wind blew down from the mountains like a freight train, turning water into ice. But that’s just the way it is sometimes when you’re a raccoon on the run, or any other animal for that matter; life is a game of chance (not a very friendly one) and Nature holds cards.

Then one day the Harlie came upon a small log cabin out in the woods. He’d stumbled upon it, accidentally it would seem, just south of Harley, not very far from the sandy banks of Redman River. It was a place where the Indians (a term some folks still used, quite erroneously in fact, in describing the native people that dwelled on the east side of the Redman River) once lived. In more recent times they were known simply as Redmen, chiefly on account of the distinctive skin color associated with that particular race of aborigines having its origins in the Americas who were driven out of the territory by the early settlers, or so the Harlie were led to believe. It was also the same place where a Creek woman, from nearby Creekwood Green, was once killed. It happened not too long ago, not far from the old Indian campgrounds. As the story goes, she’d come down to the wash her cloths and perhaps take bath on the west bank of the Redman River, which it is called to this day; although in more ancient times it was referred to in the Redman’s savage tongue as ‘Obi day-Si’ which loosely translates into ‘River of Living Water’; or, in more ancient times the ‘Great White Snake’. And it was there, on those same sandy shores she was savagely raped by a Redman warrior, the son of a great chief, who had falsely mistaken her for a some kind of demigod, or white princess, he was destined to wed, presumably on account of her fair complexion and reddish-blonde hair which the old legends spoke of in such graphic and alien detail. When the woman (no could ever quite agree on exactly who she was or where she came from) refused to capitulate, the determined red prince summarily raped and killed her, thinking, perhaps, her impregnated body would live on in some reincarnated state and eventually give birth to a son who, by virtue of her divinity and his own royal blood line, would undoubtedly turn out to be nothing less than a demigod as prophesized by the tribal medicine man and written in the stars. Despite the local legends and the cosmological decree, the demigod never appeared; but the woman did! Well, that is to say her dead body did. It was found buried in a shallow grave, on those same sandy shores that were now tainted with the blood of a great white goddess, which, in his own aboriginal tongue and in defense of his ignorant son who was eventually brought to trail and justice, the old chief insisted was the will of the gods, and that he predestined son, the demigod, would never-the-less be born (although he never explained exactly by what means or miraculous process all this would happen, or when) fulfilling the ancient prophecies. Furthermore, insisted the old chief, even on his death blanket with his high priest at his side, the boy-king would return! ‘…From out of the west’, noted the king’s high priest whose primary job it was to predict such apocalyptic events, and be boiled in own blood if his prognostications failed to manifest. Naturally, being the high priest to a Redman chief was not an easy job, and certainly not to be envied.

It was a good story, and perhaps even true. But there actually was no evidence to prove it, other than some bloody footprints left in the sand that, even to this day, cried out for blood, much like the sacred soil that covered the body of the innocent Able; they could’ve belonged to anyone. But it was the Indians themselves who paid the ultimate price; not only in the land they were forced to relinquish (rape and murder being no more than a poor but convenient excuse to employ the power of Eminent Domain over all Indian territories west of the Redman River, thus driving them out of their ancestral homeland) but with their very lives; thousands, in fact, lost in a fierce, bitter, and unsuccessful battle that ensued shortly afterwards in response to Manifest Destiny. But they didn’t die in vain, and they didn’t die alone; for the soil the raccoon presently stood upon that day was sacred and hollow ground, consecrated with not only the savage blood of the Redman, but that of the brave soldiers who fought there as well. Elmo reckoned that not too many people came that way anymore; at least not that he knew of, and especially not any young white women from Creekwood Green who believed in such tales and legends, and like to take baths in the river.

It was a quiet place, nicely nestled in a small hollow of the winter woodlands and surrounded by so many towering evergreens. It was actually the original site of an old forgotten Indian camp, once established on the west side of the river long before the white settlers arrived, that had since been abandoned. The door was slightly opened; there was no lock. Elmo had actually been looking for food when he’d come across the unexpected shelter, and though it might be a good place for him to rest for a while and maybe spend the night. He pushed open the door and went inside.

The cabin, or what was left of it, appeared to have recently survived a fire of some magnitude, as the whole east side of the structure was charred black with smoke and ash, but still very much intact. There was a window broken in with bits of glass lying about the floor, as if someone had attempted a quick and successful escape. It would be the first time in over three weeks the roaming raccoon slept indoors and, being that it was very cold outside and his feet were almost frozen by then, he decided to stay for a spell.

Immediately, Elmo noticed a large fireplace on the south side of the interior. Not only was there presently nobody at home, but it appeared as though no one had lived there for quite some time; at least no woman, he quickly reasoned, as evidenced by so many layers of dust, dirt and debris that surely would have driven her straight to the broom; and her husband (if she was lucky enough to have on) straight to barn, or the outhouse, which were conspicuously missing from the little farm on the frontier. Perhaps they’d left for a safer, more secure, or maybe even a more profitable, environment, he imagined. From the looks of things, he concluded, maybe they’d made the right decision and were gone for good. He didn’t think anyone would mind if he stayed there for a while; and even if they did, the most they could do, legally anyway, was ask him to leave. Besides, winter was still setting in, and the thought occurred to him that the cabin might be his best, and perhaps his only, chance of survival. And best of all, there were no landlords or nosey neighbors around (at least as far as he could tell) and definitely no sheriffs. In fact, he hadn’t see a single soul since he arrived, except maybe for a few wild animals that had obviously made use of the cabin for similar reasons and were probably just looking for food and shelter, like any animal would and should But even animals have a home, somewhere, he wondered in a quiet moment of jealous abandonment, whether it’s a nest, an old hollow log, or just a hole in the ground. Elmo certainly couldn’t blame them for that; he was, after all, a raccoon on the run himself and felt a certain bond of brotherhood with his fellow survivalists and knew what it was like to be cold, hungry, and frightened. At least animals had one another to keep them company, which was more than Elmo could say at the time

The red-brick fireplace was actually the only functional part of the cabin left un-scorched after the blaze, and may’ve been what caused the unfortunate incident to begin with, thought the Harlie. There some animal hides tacked to the wall, of varying colors and species, along with an axe placed conspicuously over the door which he knew would come in handy. A small wooden cabinet had been constructed into one corner of the building, inside which Elmo was most pleased to find an old but still very functional set of cutlery, including a large wooden handled ‘Bowie’ knife, named in honor of its inventor, the famed American frontiersman, Colonel James ‘Jim’ Bowie, with the cutting edge of the lethal blade still fully and functionally intact. Perhaps it was the same knife once presented to Colonel Davy Crockett, another great American statesman who would earn the prestigious tile as ‘the King of the wild frontier’ and crowned with a coon-skinned cap, by the old pioneer himself. You never know. He slid the knife into his pocket thinking, perhaps, it would certainly come in handy. There was also a small table and chair near the broken window, and not much else. But that was enough, for now at least. In fact, the only thing missing from his new home, as far as the Harlie was concerned, was a bed. But all in all, it seemed like a good place for the Harlie to hang his hat (if he had a hat to hang, that is) at least until he decided what he would do next.

He slept on the floor the first night, which was made out of very soft pine and saw dust. He even found a few old blankets stuffed between the mitered logs, apparently put there to keep out the cold wind, which he also made good use. He would have made fire in the fireplace, of course; but he had no matches and just couldn’t find any. But at least it was warm inside; and the following morning when he awoke, more refreshed than he’d been in a long, long time, he immediately began doing what he could to make the cabin more comfortable, or at least a little more like the home he once knew. “If only Nadine was here’, he said to himself while searching for some dry wood outside he might use to start a fire, “she’d have this place fixed up in no time.” He was right, of course; but he knew it would never happen.

By that afternoon, he’d not only repaired the broken window with some loose floor boards he found near the base of the hearth, but had also managed to bar the door from inside with a two by four timber he’d borrowed from open-beam ceiling. And then, the Lucky Number really got lucky. He found a small tinder-box on top of the fireplace that he’d overlooked the day before. It was dry. And in no time at all, the fireplace was ablaze with bright yellow flames, lighting up the little cabin in a soft orange glow. It was the first time Elmo had felt the warmth of fire since he’d left home. It was a good feeling, a human feeling, and one he intended to keep as long as he could.

While chasing a squirrel across the floor that had awoken him the very next morning, the Harlie came across a few loose boards that opened up into a small root cellar directly beneath the floor of the cabin. It’d been excavated long ago, apparently to store modest amounts of perishable foods, particularly in the winter, and especially meat, which could keep for months in the subterranean frost. It was also a place the animals couldn’t easily get to, which only made it that much more practical. The only problem, however, was that there simply wasn’t any food to be found in the cellar by then. It was all gone. ”Oh well, I guess I’s ain’t the Lucky Number after all,” the Harlie sorely imagined, placing his suitcase down into the hole for safekeeping, along with the sailin’ shoes and pipes. And with them went the Motherstone.

The evergreens surrounding the old Indian camp were proud and tall, not unlike the Redmen themselves who’d once cut them down for their thick flakey bark and soft pulp, which their squaws would make multiple good use of. Elmo would sometimes climb the piney branches, looking for anyone that just might otherwise he looking for him. He vowed that he would kill anyone who came after him, including Sheriff John Townsend; although he sincerely hoped it wouldn’t come to that because he still liked and respected the sheriff with the Chinese eyes more than actually wanted to.

His innocence remained intact, even if he did kill the Colonel Horn, a fact he was not ready to admit, or deny. The gun just went off, he repeated over and over again until he almost believed it himself. It was all he could he do, all he could remember. It was a defense he would take to the grave, if he was fortunate to ever have one, and if the animals hadn’t already properly disposed of his decomposing corpse by the time someone stumbled, accidentally perhaps, upon the unrecognizable remains in the wilderness. And indeed, it was beginning to look as though that’s exactly what would happen. He did not fear death, as animals never do, at least not in human aspects; he only hoped it would be quick and painless, and on the raccoon’s own terms, not someone else’s.

* * *

IT WAS WELL INTO DECEMBER BY THEN. The days grew shorter and his horns grew longer, along with the raccoon’s shadow. Christmas came and went and Elmo Cotton simply didn’t care. He learned to live off the land; and in doing so, realized just how little a raccoon on the run actually needed. But still, he wanted more. He wanted what he just couldn’t have; and he didn’t know exactly what it was yet. He only wanted the truth. The words ‘Thems that wants don’t get’ came to mind more than once, although he could never remember exactly where he’d heard them before.

He survived those cold and lonely months on whatever he could catch and kill with his Bowie knife, along with wild berries and roots he foraged from the sparse vegetation, which was meager at best, especially that time of the year when Nature, a well as the competition, was most inhospitable. He lived on rabbit and other small game that were easy enough to catch in a few simple but effective traps he’d also found in the root cellar. And when the first snow came, the tracks left by the animals in the snow made it that much easier. The raccoon was learning quickly. He had to. It was a simple matter of life and death; it was survival. It’s what animals do.

Occasionally, he would catch a fish or two from the icy waters of the Redman River that was running low that time of year. With the aid of a small sewing kit and a few bits of twine left over by the previous occupants of his new home, the Harlie soon became quite the fisherman, and was actually amazed at just how easy it was to catch the small silver fish called mullet, known to more serious and experienced fishermen in pursuit of larger game simply as bait. He also, much to his surprise and delight, and having never actually acquired a taste for amphibious meals back home, became rather fond of the fishy flesh, once he got past the bones and scales and learned the proper technique of cleaning the slippery cold creatures. He could still never forget the time Sherman Dixon gulped down a dead catfish he’d found lying in the muddy bean fields of Harley, which only made the sharecropper from Harlie come to appreciate the fat farmer he knew and loved so much, and missed even more.

By nightfall he would always go straight back to the cabin with whatever food he could catch, which he would cook over the open flame of the fireplace. Before the flesh met the flame, however, he would always pull up the floorboards to make sure that his suitcase was still in the root cellar. It was not so much the suitcase he was concerned about, but rather what was inside it; and he wasn’t only thinking his uncle’s sailin’ shoes. Knowingly or unknowingly, it was always the Motherstone that his hand invariably reached for first. It was still there.

Among other things, the Harlie began to notice, not much to his surprise, that it was becoming more and more difficult to catch his daily supper each day. Naturally, most of the land animals were in hibernation by now, which was their only escape, it would seem, from Mother Nature’s wintery wrath. The fish, however, always seemed to be reliable game.

The winds howled down from the north, and the snow would sometimes reach such a height that he had trouble just opening the cabin door without being assaulted by an avalanche of the powdery white substance, which at times had reached all the way up to the icicled eves of the little cabin. It’d forced the raccoon to spend more time inside the lonely shelter than he otherwise would have, and drastically limited the amount of wood he could collect for the fireplace. Curiously enough, the more difficult it became to sustain and feed himself through that cold and lonely period of self-inflicted isolation, the more he appreciated and respected what little he did have; and, in that sense, everything seemed to taste just a little bit better than it did before.

Although he was feeling stronger than he ever did before, Elmo also noticed that he was rapidly losing weight, a fact that didn’t seem to bother him at all, but was still something he thought about. He killed a raccoon one unusually cold and dark afternoon that came scratching at the door, which he cooked it over an open fire and ate in silence. That didn’t seem to bother him either, not as much as he thought it would anyway. He made a hat out of the raccoon’s naturally insulated hide; bandit-like eyes in front and a bushy brown ring-tail trailing behind in the back. And beneath it all Elmo’s hair grew long and wild, his beard becoming thicker and courser with each passing day until he’d sprouted a full face of wooly brown whiskers, something the young Harlie was never able to accomplish before. It was also something he was actually quite proud of, even though there was no one else there to admire it. It suited him well, and the Harlie no longer considered himself a merely boy with a beard, but something much more. Somewhere between Harley and the old Indian camp Elmo Cotton had became a man.

He wished more than once that Dick Dilworth could be there to witness his new facial crop, imagining how satisfying it would be to sit and compare beards with the boy who once peed in is bathtub. No doubt, reckoned the bearded raccoon, Little Dick surely would’ve sprouted his own manly mane by now, if only he’d lived long enough to do so. It made him sad to think they would never meet again. And if by chance, or the grace of God, they were to come face to face in one of the many mansions in the sky, would they even recognize one another? Or are beards even allowed in the celestial city? As though instead of greeting you at the Pearly Gates with a haloed head and the keys to the Eternal City strapped hermetically to his sides, the old fisherman is standing there garnishing a pair of sheep shears, a barber’s razor, and pile of dead whiskers at the holy feet of the saint. He was even beginning to wonder if his own wife would recognize him by now. He could all but see Lil’ Ralph scurrying up the tallest available tree for cover, if and when he ever did show up again in front of the little house in Harley. When he looked at himself in a cool pool of water one day, it suddenly occurred to him that he didn’t even look like a Harlie anymore; in fact, his hairy reflection suddenly and somewhat remained him of a man he once saw standing in a bean field, and again at the at the Iron Gates of Harley. It frightened him.

When the snow turned to ice, the Harlie raccoon used the skins of the animals he’d previously killed for protection from the elements. He wore the their hides over his overalls, which only further reminded him of the man he could not seem to stop thinking about, the one with the long beard and pointed nose, the man with the wooly clothes and thick eyeglasses, the man with the gun. But after a while, when there was a sudden break in the winter and there was much work to be done, Elmo became too busy to give it a second thought and quickly put it out of his mind, although somehow he knew it would return, just like it always did, just like the man himself.

Then one day when the ice began to melt, the Harlie noticed that a large brown grizzly had wondered out on the frozen ice to paw for fish. Cautiously approaching the center of the pond where the water was deepest and the ice was at its weakest, the bear came upon a fishing-hole Elmo had cut into the frozen water earlier. The fated and unfortunate animal had just secured his fishy supper when the ice it had been precariously standing on suddenly gave way and broke beneath its clawed and furry feet. The warm-blooded mammal struggled for a while, attempting to extricate itself from an icy grave of its own making, but never made it. Elmo suspected the doomed beast might’ve been either very old or very sick, perhaps both, as bears are typically are more resilient than that. He simply died floated face down in the icy surface of the water, with a fish still hooked in one of its lifeless claws. It looked like an easy meal. It wasn’t.

After several failed attempts, Elmo somehow managed to drag the dead carcass from its icy grave. The meat, he imagined, would sustain him through the remainder of the winter; and the fur obtained from the hide of the providential beast would keep him all the warmer. Properly skinning the semi-frozen animal with his Bowie knife, which was just what it was designed for in the first place, proved an easy enough task. Absent its feral furry coat, the bear appeared not unlike a dead human cadaver; so much so that butchering the beast would actually make the Harlie ill. He then removed the vital organs, cleaned out the entrails, and went about preparing the dead animal with the precision and care only Lester Cox (had he been there at the time to witness the autopsy) could appreciate. Naturally, the Harlie would much rather have preferred slaughtering a pig or a cow, but he wasn’t in Harley anymore; and besides, the bear meat proved to be very tasty, even when eaten raw, just like the fish. He placed the leftover meat in his cellar freezer beneath the floorboards of the old cabin. It was so voluminous that it left only a small amount of space for anything else, including his suitcase, sailin’ shoes, and a few other personal items; not to mention his uncle’s beloved pipes and, of course, the Motherstone.

The following day, with a belly full of bear meat and feeling particularly brave, he tried on his uncle’s shoes once more, thinking that perhaps they might fit him by now. They did not. He wore them anyway, but only inside the cabin where they would not be exposed to the harsh elements of the winter, or ridicule – if by chance a passing stranger happened to catch a glance at a raccoon in sailin’ shoes. He suspected his uncle would have laughed, in his famous bull-frog voice, at such a comical site, and then rolled over in his grave. Besides, he didn’t want the other animals to see him either; it was too embarrassing. Raccoons have their pride, if not much else, even when they’re on the run.

It was March, and winter was not giving up her ghost without a fight. The white waters of the Redman River were running unusually high that time of year. A brief warm front had caused some of the accumulating snow in the mountains to melt away prematurely that year, swelling the banks well beyond their normal capacity. The ‘The Great White Snake’, as the rapidly moving water of the Redman River was ostensibly described by the local inhabitants of that region, in keeping with the tradition of their red-skinned brothers, was sleeping at the time; but not for long. For as everyone knew, most of all the Redmen who still dwelled in the flood plain, the ‘great snake’ would rise once more, and come roaring back to life, fueled by the melting snows coming down from the mountains, like herds of white buffalo thundering over the open prairie. And with the snake, the creeks and streams would rise, flowing with life and all the other precious elements that promote and sustain it, eventually emptying out into the vastness of the sea where they were began and where they belong. Somehow, Elmo knew he would end up there as well; someday, but not just yet.

At night Elmo lay awake in his furry pillow wondering what he would do next. He knew he could not stay there forever, and suspected the owner of the cabin would soon be coming back; it would only be a matter of time, he sadly supposed. The weather was getting warmer, too; and that would more than likely bring other visitors as well, some less welcomed than others. Surely, he thought, there must be someone looking for him by now. He reckoned the sheriff meant what he said back in Harley, especially about raccoon hunting, and took him at his word. ‘They might outrun me, son,’ Elmo recalled the squinty-eyed law man telling him one day in his own front yard, ‘but that ol’ coon will never out run them hounds. Ain’t no one ever gets away from them hounds, boy! They’ll tree that ‘coon every time.”

The sheriff was right, of course; he knew what he was talking about. And he wasn’t talking about ‘coons. He was talking about a frightened young man and the Law. No one was more aware of that than the raccoon on the run himself, Elmo Cotton. He knew John Townsend had a deadlier game in mind at the time: the kind that fights back, on two legs, and not only when it is cornered, or ‘treed’. But somehow, it really didn’t matter. He would keep on running, as long as he could; if cornered, he would kill. It’s only natural; what any animal would do. And he was really no different after all, the Harlie finally concluded, and perhaps even more dangerous. As these and other primordial thought passed through his hairy head, the raccoon’s skin grew thicker, fuller, and less sensitive. His blood ran cold, and his heart turned to stone. Kill… or be killed. That was no longer just a saying – it was cold hard fact. It was the law of survival; the law of the jungle. It was that pure and simple, that natural, and that real. The raccoon would survive, just like he did on the mountain that day, just like the little black chick.

And so Elmo decided to stay, a little while longer perhaps. He had a place to sleep and plenty to eat. He had his suitcase and his sailin’ shoes; and there was still enough bear meat down in the cellar to last until spring. He had his pipe. And he also had the Motherstone. He lacked nothing, except maybe his innocence, and perhaps a few extra bags of tobacco. And then, suddenly, he remembered what he was doing there, why he came, why he ran, and most importantly, what he still had to do. He had to find the Miracle-Maker. He had to find Zeke Harley. But all that could wait; even hatred has its hibernations, which only makes it stronger.

Many years ago there was an amazing blacksmith who made the most beautiful rings anywhere. The rings were very rare and very valuable. The blacksmith only gave them to the most deserving of animals, that is to say, the noblest. For instance, the lions were given a ring to wear around they're neck, but we call it their mane. This story, though, has to do with the mischievous raccoon. The raccoon desperately wanted a ring but was clearly undeserving due to his solitude and lack of general helpfulness. The raccoon was thinking about how to get a ring, but he kept having one reoccurring idea: steal it, for this is the way the raccoon thought, not nobly but dishonestly. On the decided night, the raccoon ventured out to find the blacksmith's forge. He searched it all over and finally found five rings in a drawer. The raccoon instinctively threw his hand out to snatch the rings, but he dropped one. Because of the thickness of the ring it made a loud thud when it hit the ground. The blacksmith immediately ran into the room. He found the raccoon holding four rings and picking up the fifth. The blacksmith had an extremely short temper. He then told the raccoon, "If you desire a ring so greatly you're willing to steal from me then you can have them!" To the raccoon's surprise, there was much more to the blacksmith than appeared; apparently the blacksmith wielded supernatural powers which he used on the raccoon. "You and your kin shall remember this mistake forever. You'll get the rings, but they won't be the beautiful gold before you," said the blacksmith, "instead you'll have an everlasting mark placed upon you." The blacksmith placed five rings on the raccoon's tail, the mark of the thief.


Chapter Eight

The Dark Massiah

BY THE END OF MARCH winter had died a quick and painless death and spring was already in the air. The Harlie found himself spending more and more time on the banks the Redman River, watching the boats as they appeared from the north gliding gently downstream like so many leaves on a pond. To pass the time of day Elmo Cotton built a raft by tying some loose logs together that he’d found stashed behind the cabin. For a paddle he used a broken flood board. He didn’t think anyone would miss it anyway.

He hadn’t gone out more than fifty feet before the current began taking him further downstream than he actually wanted to be, and at an ever increasing rate of speed. When he finally managed to paddle back to shore, which took every bit of the raccoon’s recently acquired strength, Elmo found out that the current had indeed landed him about a mile south from where he first began. With that in mind, he seriously began to think about taking his raft further downstream, perhaps all the way to Old Port Fierce, which, after all, was his final destination.

But for the present, he knew it would be a foolish thing to do. The water was moving much too rapidly by now; and he just didn’t have the navigational skills, not yet anyway, to handle such a bold and dangerous adventure. And besides, anyone with a curious mind would surely be wondering what a long-haired Harlie with a suitcase was doing out on the river that time of year, and so far away from home. A raft was just no place for a raccoon on the run, at least not for the time being; and it just wasn’t worth the risk. The snake has too many eyes, he finally concluded. It would just have to wait. With so many boats suddenly appearing on the river, mostly sailing downstream towards the old port city by the bay, a slow moving raft would stand out like... well, like a slow moving raft, the Harlie could only imagine. Perhaps there was another way.

But that didn’t stop the raccoon from crossing the river, which is exactly what he did one day when the water ran high and the current not so strong. Leaving his suitcase and sailin’ shoes behind in the root cellar, he boarded his raft and set his sights on a group of cypress trees collectively growing on the eastern shore of the Redman River. He took the Motherstone with him. For some unexplainable reason the rafting raccoon reckoned that he might not be returning any time soon, although his intentions at the time were quite the opposite; and the thought of someone stumbling upon the cabin, perhaps as innocently and accidentally as he once did, simply would not allow him to leave it behind. He could always find another suitcase, he imagined, dragging the raft down to the icy edge of the water; and as far as the sailin’ shoes... well, they really were just an old pair of shoes after all, and they too could be replaced, although perhaps not as easily as the suitcase, he sadly suspected, while pushing the little wooden craft off the shore and into the strong current of the Redman River into the very fangs of the Great White Snake. The pipe he could always do without, and besides, he was nearly out of tobacco anyway. He reckoned his uncle would understand.

When he finally reached the other side of river, after strenuously guiding the make-shift raft through a moving maze of protruding rocks and swirling white eddies, and once nearly being swept off the deck of the floating floor, Elmo Cotton had not only lost sight of the cypress trees but everything else that was fair and familiar to him, including the cabin itself. The thought had suddenly occurred to him that if he were to try to go back now, he would have to carry the raft at least ten miles back up stream and launch it from there just to get back to where he’d started from, if that was even possible.

“Well”, he said to himself while recollecting yet another one of his dead uncle’s favorite expressions: “No matter where you go…thar’y’ar’”. It was just one of many of Joe Cotton’s ambiguous and somewhat confounding ways of making the most out of difficult situations, albeit in a bewildering sort of way. It was also an excellent way of reminding us all, as well as himself perhaps, that Man, through his own free will, always seems to possess, no matter what the circumstances, the unique and uncanny ability to know exactly where he stands at any given moment, whether it’s at the bottom of the ocean, the mountains of the moon, or just sitting in a rocking chair on his own front porch catching horseflies in his hands, although without the poetic rhetoric. No matter where you go…thar’y’ar’. It’s his center of gravity, so to speak; where he feels most comfortable. It’s right where he belongs. Right here! Right now, cocooned in his own little world of egocentric imaginings, the center of the Universe, and everything else! wrapped up like a diamond in the folds of the earth, the glowing spark in the heart of an Arctic crystal. And there he stands! bold and defiant to the bitter end, yet safe and secure, and humbled in the presence of his Creator, though suns explode, galaxies collide and satellites fly about his hard hooded head. No matter where you go…thar’y’ar’. It sums it all up one simple and comprehensive sentence that anyone, even a Harlie, could understand. It’s an old man’s cure, medicine with a potent punch and a powerful message: that amalgamated mixture of truth, ambiguity, paradox, and wisdom… with just enough humor thrown in to make it easy to swallow. It just makes sense, and it works… well, at least most of the time; and besides that, it tastes good too! It’s really no different than catching horseflies with your hands, I suppose; that is, making something that is very difficult (and we all know, at least those of you who’d ever tried to catch a horsefly in your bare hands, just how difficult that can be) appear so easy, almost natural, you might say, or not nearly as difficult as we make them out to be. And so, dragging his water-logged raft up on the sandy banks of the Redman River, Elmo laughed, “No matter where you go….thar’ya’ar. He then hid the raft between two large rocks jutting out into the icy water, threw some dead leaves on top of it, and left. Looking back, even he couldn’t recognize it anymore.

Once on the other side of the ‘Great White Snake’, the Harlie saw for the first time where the Indians actually lived. It was a long and narrow island forming a natural land barrier separating the Redman River from the ocean to the east. The island, for in fact that’s exactly what it was, was approximately fifty miles long, no more than three miles across at its widest location, and two yards at its most narrow, the southern tip terminating at the port of Old Port Fierce where the great river emptied out into the sea at the naturally formed inlet.

Naturally, the island was never considered prime real estate, which is why the Redmen fled there in the first place to escape the onslaught of the white invaders from the west with their firearms, cannon, and whatever other contrivances they used to further their manifest destiny. It was there in the naturally isolated lowlands of the coast, which held no particular interests to the newly arriving settlers, where the Redmen finally found sanctuary, if not a new home. It was not a place they wouldn’t have chosen themselves, but one where no one would bother them, being isolated from the mainland by the great white snake and cut off from the ‘uncivilized’ world of the bearded invaders. Besides, where else would they go? The island was infested with swarms of hungry black mosquitoes, pesky sand fleas and ricks, alligators, water moccasins, and other amphibious vermin too numerous to mention that lived and thrived in the salty soup of the cypress swamp. It was a hard life; still, it was better than living with the human parasites that had forced them out of their originals hunting grounds on the west side of the great white snake.

The Island, which, if translated from the repatriated Redmen’s own native tongue, became known as ‘The Island of Long’ or, in a simplified and more abbreviate manner of speech: ‘Long Island’. It was an inhospitable environment, compared to the more vegetated and developed mainland, with sandy soil, cypress and evergreen trees that grew mainly along the protracted shoreline, and armies of red ants that took no prisoners. There was a wide variety of grass, shrubs, sea-oaks, mangroves, saw-grass palmetto, seagrapes, and other lowland vegetation that somehow managed to not only survive but thrive in the loamy soil and brackish aquifer of the coastal region. For many years the ‘long’ island was considered uninhabitable, and thus worthless, at least from economical point of view. Serving no useful purpose, other than breeding mosquitoes and alligators, particularly in the summer months when temperatures and humidity was at their highest, most settlers avoided the area all together, preferring to make their homesteads further inland where the climate was more to their liking and disposition. Naturally, this suited the Redman just fine. And as far as they were concerned, anywhere there were no white men was Paradise.

Having long evolved from a long race of wanderers, the Indians of the Redman River adapted easily to their swampy surroundings, settling down naturally among the cypress and sea oaks in their epidermal teepees. It was even suggested by some of the early settlers that these strange and wonderful people might actually be the legitimate descendants of the ancient Israelites; a lost tribe, perhaps; or simply one migratory branch of the Diaspora that had somehow managed to escape their Babylonian captors and find their way across the ocean to the new world by means that have long since been buried on the pagan shores of America, along with the Arc of the Covenant, or simply forgotten. And why not? The Jews have always been a most resourceful people, along with being stuff-necked and hard- hearted at times; they were also skillful mariners, as evidence by Captains Noah himself. And these migratory advances were by no means limited to the Mediterranean. In fact, it’s an historical fact that when Marco Polo first set foot in the land of the Kahn, among the first aboriginals to greet the young Venetian merchant were a small but very distinct group of Chinese Jews. We don’t know if they were selling tailor-made clothing or jewelry at the time, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they were. It is no wonder then that among Orientals in general, and the vast empires established throughout South East Asia by that great and noble race, the Chinese are, even until this very day, often referred to as the ‘Jews of the Orient’. And not only for the unmistakable ties to the ancient Hebrews, but a keen and accurate business sense shared by both cultures. To further evidence this incredible theory, the Redmen still make mention, quite biblically in fact, of this one ‘great god’ that dwelled in the mountains of their ancestral homeland somewhere in the lofty vicinity of the Silver Mountains. Unlike the other gods and demi-gods of the Indian legends, of which there were many and whose names were as clearly defined as their realms they lorded over, this one particular god had no name; or, if he did (and this is where the legend really become interesting) it was forbidden to speak of, especially among anyone outside their own royal race. Furthermore, this singular and solitary deity was said to live among the clouds, in a house of gold, high on a mountaintop, the description of which (as reported in a few old journals kept by the earlier setters who’d not only lived among these red-skinned occidentals but had actually married into their secluded tribe) bears an uncanny resemblance to none other than Mount Wainwright itself, which has already been described in great detail.

There were other parallels worth mentioning as well; one of them being that this one ‘great god’ was a god of fire, in that he would sometimes make his holy presence known in the form of a flaming birch tree, high atop the eastern slope of the great mountain, which, not unlike the famous ‘burning bush’ of the Bible that Moses found so compelling, burned in similar perpetuity without being consumed in the process. This strange and un-natural phenomenon was said to have been witnessed by more than a few of the original settlers of Creekwood Green who not only documented the extraordinary sight but went as far as to worship on top of the mountain themselves, having made the appropriate and logical connections as to the true identify of this one great and powerful spirit, which, in the end, I suppose, they took for none other than the one true God of the ancient Israelites themselves: Jehovah. Yahweh.

Other Indian tribes that occupied the northern regions of the Silver Mountain range at the time considered it Big Medicine and avoided the area as much as possible, fearing that this one omnipotent being, who was said not only to be a very jealous and quick to anger, would, for a myriad of religious reasons, throw his holy fire down in their general direction and smote them all to cinders and ash, if they ever dared to set foot on the sacred soil; He was also said to be a god with a special appetite for human sacrifice, blood in particular; and he had a very long memory. Those of more contemporary minds suggested that the Indian legends were nothing more than superstition, some old squaw’s tale manufactured to keep their inquisitive and adventurous children from wondering across the river and into the foreboding mountains, where they weren’t welcomed anyway, simply by scaring them half to death with their tales of terror. Apparently, it worked! Hey, that’s what legends are for – Aint they?

Since the Redmen, along with their women and children, of course, were forced to abandon their fertile homeland in the west, chiefly through coercion, unfair treaties, and bad politicians, many of the old legends simply disappeared or were just forgotten by now. And not unlike their Semitic forefathers (if, in fact, they were the true descendants of that noble race of monotheistic nomads) who were persecuted by similar means under Pharaoh’s whip and Nebuchadnezzar’s tyrannical rule, these occidental gypsies would eventually come to realize that perhaps their real home, their only home, their true home, lies not in this world but another world altogether; and that nothing lasts forever, including gods and demi-gods. All they really knew and what had sustained them for so long, was mobility, adaptation, and occasional hardship, which, for the most part, they accepted with typical reserve, expecting little in return except for that, which, according to their ancient legends, had been prepared for them by the great god of fire long before the there was earth, sea and sky.

‘The happy hunting ground’, as it was loosely, very loosely, translated into the white man’s vulgar language, was part of this promise. It was a place of great natural beauty and wonder, unlimited resources, and eternal peace and contentment, not unlike the Heavenly Mansion in which the equally persecuted Christians claim as their own eternal reward; or Allah’s promised paradise, along with seventy-two virgins, awaiting the Muslim jihadist whose life is sacrificed for the sake the prophet (Peace be upon his holy and blood-stained turban) Mohammed; but not nearly as black and bleak as Seoul, the place of the dead, written of so ambiguously by their Judean ancestors who slumber silently until this very day in that mysterious dungeon of uncertainty. And even if they should ever arrive at such an idyllic setting, either through death or bodily ascension, to where the deer and antelope play among herds of galloping buffalo, it would come as no surprise to these globetrotting Neanderthals if they were somehow just as unwelcome and persecuted there, as they were everywhere else, or so it seemed.

Warriors by profession and pacifists by nature, the Redmen survived on practicality and instinct, as well as fish and vegetables. Instead of hunting deer and buffalo and other large game as they once did on the grassy mainland, they turned their minds and hearts, along with their tomahawks and spears, to the sea. Trading their ponies for outrigger canoes and beating their bows and arrows into fishing hooks and spear-poles, they hunted the vast watery plains for dolphin, snapper, snook, lobster, shark, sea turtles, and whatever other edibles the ‘Big Water’ to the east would provide them, including many species of whales that swam the shallow shores at certain times of the year. In time, the more ambitious Redmen, along with a few adventurous women whose gender was always in question, would paddle their bark-clad outriggers up to twenty miles offshore in search of more fruitful fishing grounds among the great coral reefs. One of these expeditions actually managed to captured and kill a great humpback whale that was ceremoniously brought back to the Island of Long and immediately proclaimed a demi-god, never mind the fact that it was a dead demi-god, along with the brave young sailor who darted the fatal harpoon spear.

Soon after the deification, the great Leviathan was naturally cut up to pieces, cooked over a tremendous bonfire constructed of a hundred felled trees, and consumed by the entire tribe for many moons to come, the deified bones of the blubbery beast forming the framework of the great chief’s teepee, and oil of the whale keeping their torches burning brightly for many long nights on the Island called Long. Indian legend also had it that as a result of their untimely evacuation from the mainland, these brave sea-warriors paddled even further east, far across the ocean itself in search of a land that was said to be the place of their true origin. It was a sacred place, far to the west, said to be a land of a thousand islands where the gods lived among them and made their homes in the mountains of the sun and the moon. Whether or not these red-skinned Marco Polos ever did find the islands of their ancestors would remain a mystery. It would be a shame if they didn’t, but just as difficult to imagine such small and fragile vessels making it that far across the great Pacific by way of Cape Horn since that was, and still is, the only navigable waterway allowing for such a voyage, without the aid of modern technology. The nearest landmass was calculated at more than fifteen hundred nautical miles away; a voyage to make any sailor more than a little home-sick and perhaps even sea-sick. But even if they didn’t make it, you would at least have to give them the credit for trying. The Harlie certainly did, thinking it nothing short of a miracle that he’d survived just crossing a mere river. Maybe he didn’t need a Miracle-Maker after all, he was beginning to wonder, as the world seemed like not such a big place after all.

With little else to do, and all the time in the world to do it, Elmo Cotton thought he might do a bit of exploring now that he was actually on the long island. It was still early in the morning and the sun was shining. He brought along the Bowie knife he’d found, which he stealthfully strapped to his leg underneath his overalls for quick and easy access. He also took with him the Motherstone, which he kept buttoned up in the top pocket of his overalls, close to his heart; and that was enough. He went south, for no particular reason, overalled and barefooted as usual, staying close to the river’s edge so as not to lose his bearings. He hadn’t traveled very far before he came across a small group of Indians gathering just off the eastern bank of the Redman River. They appeared peaceful enough, so he observed; and they were all women, or so it seemed, except for some obviously male children playing near the shallow edge of the water; and they were all shamelessly naked, including the women who were apparently taking their bath. He thought they looked friendly enough, peaceful, in fact, and maybe even welcome to strangers; but the suspicious raccoon wasn’t willing to take any un-necessary chances on finding out. Not right now anyway.

From a safe and reasonable distance, the raccoon remained hidden behind a manifold cypress tree nestles among the mangroves. He spied them for a while, admiring how easily and gracefully the children swam under the water as the women went about their business. They reminded him of so many little red sea-lions, the kind he’d once seen in a picture book, only without the glossy black finish. Several of them, the women that is, were beating animal skins against the river rock as a means, no doubt, of cleaning them. They were just as naked as their children and equally indifferent to their shame. Despite a predominant chill in the air clearly evidenced by the Harlie’s own visible breathe, others appeared to be washing themselves, rather vigorously it seemed, and unaware of his stealthful presence. He noticed one woman in particular with long black hair and very large pointed breasts who was sitting alone on a stone by the water’s edge. She was washing her hair, or so it seemed, that cascaded down over her naked brown shoulders like a waterfall of black water. It reminded him of the long straight strands that once curtained the head of the dead Indian, Boy, before his ‘big sleep’, and just as bold and black.

The Harlie blushed, as most married men will shamefully do in situations like these, thinking that she was perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on, maybe even more beautiful than his own wife, which, if you remember what has already been said about Nadine Cotton, was saying quite a lot. Naturally, having not laid eyes on a member of the opposite sex for quite some time, it was understandable that the love-starved Harlie would entertain such lustful longings; and even if the river goddess had not been so attractive, she was still a woman; and as any sea-sick sailor, or desperate drunk for that matter, will surely tell you: ‘Any port in a storm…’ It was a long tempting moment for the lonely raccoon, and one he wished would last forever. Her eyes appeared to be smiling, almost laughing, as they sparkled in the morning sun like the light rays reflecting off the mirrored surface of the water. Her breasts were like two oversized grapes hanging firmly from the vine, full of juice; and ready to be squeezed.

Elmo stood and stared at her from behind the cypress tree or a very long while, perhaps longer than he should have, never realizing, of course, that he was also being watched. Never even suspected it! And not only by the women who were very much aware of the raccoon’s presence by now, but their children as well who, so long as their naked mothers did not appear alarmed by the whiskered intruder peering at them through the mangroves that day, secretly laughed among themselves.

He’d heard that some of the island dwelling Indians still held deep grudges against the white man of the west, which he couldn’t rightly blame them for. And even though Elmo wasn’t exactly white, he wasn’t exactly black, either. He certainly wasn’t red; and that alone could present a serious problem. In fact, the Harlie didn’t know what he was. Not that it really mattered anymore – it didn’t. At least not any more than it ever did before. But it might just matter to the Redmen, he cautioned himself, who may not be so ambivalent to the color of a man’s skin as he was. Prejudice comes in many shapes and forms, and in all colors, one could only imagine. And so, the curious raccoon thought it best just to watch and wait, for a while anyway.

He didn’t have to wait long. For before he knew what had happened, Elmo Cotton was summarily snatched up by two strong-armed Indian braves who’d been watching him with just as much curiosity and intrigue as he was watching their women and children. Without word or warning they proceeded to beat the Harlie not only with their savage fists but with very heavy sticks as well, while a third Indian, a fat man with a bulging naked belly, held him to the ground. He would have hollered for help at that point, but he didn’t remember how; and besides, he didn’t think anyone would hear him anyway, except for maybe the naked women he’d been spying on who would, if they were anything like Harley women, he imagined, beat him to a bloody red pulp and leave him for buzzards. He wasn’t sure for how long he was beaten and passed out before the final blow.

He awoke to find himself being secured to a long wooden pole by a fat man and then lifted onto the naked shoulders of two young savages that had just beaten him. Suspended in the air, upside down, like a pig bound for the slaughter, he began to cry. The ropes (they were actually strips of Spanish moss taken from a nearby willow oak) were bound around his wrists and ankles so tightly that they actually began to bleed. The women looked on, as if they’d been expecting it along, whispering to one another the way women often do, down by the river while washing their savage bodies with animal fat and lye. The river goddess turned her fair native head in shame, however, covering her ripe red breast as though she had just been violated in some sacrilegious way, while secretly pitying the man on the pole she’d at first taken for some demi-god by virtue of his blackness, not to mention the old legends that spoke of such ‘dark spirits’, a product, perhaps, of some divine intercourse, coming forth from out of the west. The children merely laughed.

Beaten and bruised and very much afraid by then, the raccoon on the run knew that he was in trouble. He was caught. Like a frightened and wounded animal, the raccoon was shuttled off, all the way back to the Redman camp, hanging mercilessly in that same horrid horizontal position, bouncing and bleeding with every savage footstep all along the way.

Upon arriving at the Redman camp, which was about a mile or two upland of the rising river, Elmo Cotton was painfully untied and presented to an old, tired looking, man as if he were a human trophy, or some other strange and fascinating animal that had just been captured in the wild. The old chief, for all intents and purpose, the King of Long Island, as evidenced not only by the respect shown to him by all the other natives in the immediate vicinity, but by a very large and magnificent head-dress sitting proudly atop the royal head like the feathered crown of some ancient warlord. Some of the women he’d seen earlier bathing in the river were there as well, partially clothed by now, ministering to the king, along with their laughing naked children. Apparently, they’d followed them all the way back from the river, although he never remembered seeing them as he hung upside down from the bending and bouncing pole.

The Harlie was suddenly the center of attention. He stood silently for quite some time, occasionally examining his wounds which appeared to still be bleeding, as the royal chief, along with a growing number of other men in head-dress and dark paint, apparently of some high-ranking order, sat and stared like students at the Stoic feet of Epictetus. Occasionally, they would turn their feral faces and talk to one another in what, to Elmo at least, came across more like mere sounds or noises, rather than actual words associated with any distinct or discernable language, accompanied by so many hands gestures. Whatever was said, whether communicated by hand or mouth, it was understood by everyone in attendance that day that the old chief clearly had the last word, or sound, in all matters great and small. It was just that obvious. And through it all the others continued to speak, almost as if they were quietly and casually debating among themselves exactly what to do with their newest and strangest looking trophy. Would they kill him first and then cook him? The raccoon shuttered to imagine; or perhaps do both at the same time, as Homer once suggested in regard to the cannibal diet. Neither thought was particularly appealing, and perhaps not very appetizing either, he surmised, noticing how skinny and thin he had become since leaving home, his overalls draped loosely about his body like the baggy old cloths of a half-starved scarecrow, hardly enough meat on his bones by now to feed a hungry maggot. Out of the corner of his eye, he also noticed a large fire in the middle of the camp being stoked by several bare-breasted women. He was hoping that the flames were not meant for him; and if they were, that he would be dead long before he found out. Others simply looked on with varying degrees of curiosity, hungrily eyeing their prey from an ever- shortening distance.

It’d been so long since he’d actually had to speak to anyone that Elmo thought he might’ve forgotten how exactly to do it. And when he did finally manage to put a few muttered syllables together, which took a great deal more effort than he thought it should, the raccoon was promptly beaten all over again by the same two warriors who’d captured down by the river, along with the fat man who struck him in the head every time he tried to say something. It seemed nobody was interested in what, if anything, the poor Harlie had to say at the time. And so, he made it a point not to say anything else, to anyone! Not even if he were to be barbecued at the stake, which was beginning to look more and more likely.

What happened next came as a total surprise him – Nothing! Well, almost nothing; at least nothing he mightn’t already have expected. After being properly presented to the king, the aging monarch with a long grim face, the Harlie was summarily stripped of his overalls, which he found not only a embarrassing but downright shameful, especially considering how many women and children were present at the time who appeared to think nothing of it, as though seeing a grown naked man in front of them was something they came across every day, like a head of cabbage, or corn on the cob. All he could do was try to cover his shame, at least as much as he could under the circumstances. He only had two hands.

He was then approached by a tall lanky individual with a clean shaved head and long pointed teeth. There were many dark images either painted on, or sown into, his elastic red skin. They were actually tattoos, the kind typically found among islanders of the south Pacific as well as the aboriginal tribes of the Americas. Elmo was later to learn that this illustrated individual was none other than the high-priest of the tribe whose investigative duties included, among other pagan practices, the intrusive body search he about to perform on the alien raccoon with a viciousness and thoroughness not to be equaled or surpassed. It was both personal and invasive, leaving no orifice unmolested; and it was not done in private. Everyone looked on, like children at a carnival watching wide-eyed and wonderful as the bearded lady let down her vale. Almost immediately, the high priest noticed the Bowie knife strapped to Elmo’s naked leg, which he summarily removed with a sharp tug that left the raccoon bleeding where the serrated edge of the blade had breached the skin. Holding the weapon to his twisted tattooed face and licking the blood off the metal’s edge, the Red priest threw the naked raccoon a long hard glance that seemed to suggest he had tasted it before. He may have actually been smiling. He then resumed the examination with more determination than ever, and in a most private manner, leaving no cavity or crevice unmolested.

It was the most humiliating experience Elmo had ever experienced, and the first time he’d ever been so thoroughly examined, and in such a confidential manner, even by his own wife. Need-less-to-say it was something he did not find particularly enjoyable, as it was still quite cold outside and he was still feeling very embarrassed, especially in full naked view of all the women who, although not particularly shocked at the sight of your average naked man in their own native mist (Indeed, most of their male counterparts were practically just as naked as Elmo at any given moment and apparently comfortably at ease with their manhoods exposed, even in their most excited states of arousal which the women, possibly just for spite, seemed to take little or no interest in) were, at least by outward expression, obviously impressed with the raccoon in this most personal regard. Elmo Cotton couldn’t help but notice this sudden interest in him, at least from a female perspective, and thought it something he might somehow take advantage of. Whatever was going on, it was certainly better than being barbecued alive, which was what he’d been expecting all along, and still hadn’t ruled out entirely for that matter. Besides, there was nothing he could do about it anyway.

And then the tall tattooed man with the shaved head picked the Harlie’s worn and torn overalls up off the ground and began examining them in much the same through fashion as he did the Harlie himself, only more delicately and with greater care and interest, or so it seemed. Undoing the single metal button fastening the oversized top-pocket of the denim, he reached into the soiled fabric and, judging from two large circles painted symmetrically around the eyes of the high priest, the circumferences of which seemed to have expanded exponentially by then, along with an evil smile that suddenly and sadistically appeared on his otherwise cheerless chin, the hairless man apparently had found what he had ostensible been looking for all along: a stone. And not just any stone, but the one that’d been brought down from the mountain – the Motherstone. Tossing the denim aside like a discarded dish rag, he took up the stone and examined it more closely, with the precision and care reserved for relics of antiquity, or other such items of priceless value. He smiled, then quickly and quietly disappeared inside a long house made of sticks and mud, not to be seen again for quite some time. He took the stone with him.

Meanwhile, the Harlie was dragged off by the same two strong-arms who’d beaten him twice already and brought before a large white tent with a single black circle inscribed on the outer surface of the pyramid. He was then pushed through a small opening cut into the canvass at the base of the tent, which was immediately sealed and secured from the outside with thick leather strips. The entire conical structure was constructed of thick animal hides supported all around by so many long white poles curving gracefully upward to the summit where the tapered ends all came together like the towering top of a massive shock of wheat. Little did the Harlie known at the time, but the white poles hitherto described were actually the dried bones of the legendary humpback whale previously made mention of. It is said that the meat from the beached leviathan, which was instantly proclaimed a providential gift from the gods, its very remains deified in the pagan practice prescribed for such prodigies, fed their tribe for many sheltered weeks to come, sparing the Redman from an otherwise certain extinction; the blubber they stripped from the carcass further serving to insulate them from what would later be called in their own expressive language the ‘Big Freeze’. It was the same deified bones of the mammal that presently formed the inner skeleton of the Harlie’s calcified prison.

There were blankets thrown loosely about the dirt floor of the tent which were made of the same organic material as the rest of the prison, which the Harlie refused to touch at first, thinking that to do so might only land him in more trouble, if that was at all possible. He immediately noticed a substantial amount of sunlight inside the structure, which apparently was coming down in long steady streams through a small opening at the inner apex of the tent where the sacred whale bones meet and were fastened together with so many strips of dried leather. Apparently, this was no ordinary tent, thought the naked prisoner, covering his groin area with a piece of cloth he found lying next to him on the floor. He was right, of course; for it was, in fact, the dwelling establishment, or wigwam, of the old chief-king himself who, for reasons undisclosed, had remained outside with his two bodyguards and a number of other distinguished dignitaries of the tribe debating, or so it seemed, some matter that urgently demanded their full and undivided attention. There was a small fire burning in the center of the tent, sending long white streams of smoke up though the vented chimney, along with scraps of what looked like dried red meat. There were also some clay vessels placed strategically along the circumferencing wall that may have contained….What? The Harlie did not want to find out.

As a guest, which indeed he was by then but just didn’t know it, the Harlie might have felt comfortably content in such hospitable surrounding; but at that point in time, he would have much preferred to be back at the cabin, or even locked inside the Redstone Tree, as he once was, with a bloody back and the scars to prove it. The only difference between the two solitary cells, he imagined, was that the Redstone was smaller and less comfortable and that at least there was a reason for being there, even though he never did agree with it; and he also had more clothes to wear. Peeping out though a small hole discriminately cut in the side of the canvass prison, the raccoon could clearly see the two warriors that had beaten him twice already. Apparently, they were not only the king’s private bodyguards but his jailor as well.

Meanwhile, outside the sealed tent, the old patriarch continued conversing with his counsel, chiefly made up of numerous male member of the tribe, relatives perhaps, who happened to be his closest advisors. Among them, Elmo spotted the tattooed man with the shaved head who’d since reappeared from out of his mud house. Not only was he the king’s High Priest, but he was also his first cousin as well; a fact which, even if the Harlie had been made aware of somehow, wouldn’t have made any difference to him. They talked for a very long time, sounding as if they were discussing some matter of grave importance on the subject of which they’d just made a monumental decision.

When the consul of warriors had concluded, the Harlie was escorted back outside the wigwam, whereupon he was immediately and ceremoniously dressed in finely stitched animal skins and crowned with a hat made up of some so tall and colorful peacock feathers. He was then brought once more before the king and his court. He was also given back his overalls, a gesture he was not expecting, but one he was eternally grateful for, although he didn’t know the words to express his gratitude at the time. He went straight for the button and undid the flap. The stone was right where he’d left it, much to his surprise and delight, inside the top pocket of his overalls; and so was his Bowie knife! Apparently, the High Priest had put them both back; either that, or someone else, probably the old chief himself, had ordered him to do so. Elmo would never know. And he couldn’t have cared less. He was happy just to have them back in his own possession. The Motherstone was still his.

By then, the chief and his warriors had gathered themselves together and were sitting in a large comfortable circle around a small but intensely strong campfire surrounded by many heavy stones. Among them, they were passing around a pipe that appeared be the hollowed out handle of an old tomahawk with eagle feathers streaming down from the long, hot tube. The smoke ubiquitously filled the air; and even at a respectable distance, Elmo could smell a rich pungent aroma. It was tobacco, of course! he quickly surmised, a weed commonly inhaled by Harlies and Greens alike and known for its distinct smoke and odor, and one the raccoon had lately become particular fond of and familiar with. But there were other ingredients in the mix; something with a Hindu flavor, a hint of the Himalayas, far stronger and more powerful than tobacco, with an aroma that reminded the Harlie of burning rope, or hemp, along with the narcotic effects associated with that particular plant species.

Around and around went the pipe, from one red hand to the next, as the smoke gathered over their heathen heads in fluffy white clouds of fragrant forgetfulness, which, along the calming effects so the nicotine drug, created a certain serenity that was pervasive throughout the entire village. The smell also reminded Elmo of the bean fields back in Harley when the earth was torched before the planting season to help improve the soil, only not as sweet and with a lot less smoke. He also observed that while he’d been forcibly indisposed inside the king’s private pyramid, two wild pigs had been ceremoniously slaughtered, impaled on the same torturous pole used for his earlier transport, and were presently roasting deliciously over another open fire being attended to by several beautiful bare breasted women.

It was at that point Elmo was invited to sit down in between the High Priest and the old chief-king himself who, much to his astonishment, suddenly began speaking to the Harlie in his own native and recognizable tongue while handing the tomahawk pipe to his newly arrived guest in a magnanimous gesture of pardon and praise. Elmo eagerly accepted the pipe and inhaled the smoke slowly, so as not to embarrass himself as he once did nearly half a year ago in the Great Northern woods when, under the moon and stars and talk of gold, Homer handed out the coveted Cuban stogies to all his ill-fated companions. Exhaling the fragrant smoke from his dilated nostrils, the Harlie could not help but think of Hector O’Brien, and how delightfully and deliciously he enjoyed the intoxicating effects of the addictive weed. He wished the Old Hammer was with him just then, along with the other treasure hunters.

Whatever the Harlie did, or said, at the time to facilitate his release, he would never know. All he knew was that, for some undisclosed and perhaps providential reason, he was suddenly the center of attention, sharing the table of the king and his High Priest rather than the fate of the two wild pigs, which presently roasting over the open fire.

In time, Elmo was to learn that old chief was indeed the reigning king of the island on which he currently resided (a fact the Harlie had surmised the moment he laid his raccoon eyes on the venerable old gentleman) and that his name was ‘Long Arrow’. It came as little or no surprise then, when he also learned the name of the swampy island: Long Island, or, as previously described in a more accurate translation: the Island of Long; named, obviously for the king himself; or perhaps one of his ancient ancestors who, no doubt, shared that same illustrious name with all its protracted significance and royal implications.

Despite the unorthodox appearance in which he was humbly disguised, the old chief sovereigntly ruled all the lands north and south to where the island itself terminated at two naturally formed inlets: east as far as the Redman River, which he referred to by its more native appellation of ‘The Great white Snake’ and west as far as the great green ocean itself, which the king, in his own simple but descriptive eloquence, called ‘the great green ocean’. Subsequently, Elmo was introduced to all the other Redmen sitting around the campfire that evening, one by one, in proper native protocol, and with all the pomp and ceremony demanded of such an auspicious occasion, in what was quickly evolving into nothing less than the biggest barbecue the Harlie had ever had the pleasure to attend. And best of all, as he was also quickly to surmise, he wasn’t going to be the main course after all; in fact, it was beginning to look as though he might very well be the guest of honor. And indeed he was!

You see, Elmo Cotton wasn’t just any raccoon; and the aging king was about to tell him so; but before he did, Long Arrow reminded his unexpected guest, as matter of warrior protocol and for the benefit of all in attendance, that it was well within his authority to have the Harlie skinned alive and boiled in his own blood for what he did down by the river that day, if, of course, things had turned out differently. As it were, several of the women Elmo had spied that day were, in fact, the king’s own daughters; not least of all the dark-haired beauty who was presently sitting beside him and commanding much, if not all, of the raccoon’s undivided attention. It was a crime punishable by death, which was all but certain until, that is, the High Priest, of all people, came to the timely conclusion that had since changed everything. You see, what the Harlie didn’t know at the time, but would soon to find out much to his astonishing delight, was that he was indeed and in fact a god, a demi-god to be more precise, as well as the guest of honor.

Upon the approval of the High Priest and few other distinguished elders of his tribe, Long Arrow took the Harlie’s arrival, however unceremoniously or ignobly it may’ve occurred, as the long-awaited answer to an old pagan prayer he was invested in, which was simply this: to ensure the survival of his people by providing them with a son, or even a grandson for that matter, who could one day take his own proud place on top of the cypress throne as Lord of the Long Island, with all the vain-glorious pomposities befitting such a regal and lofty position. It was all part and parcel of one old legend in particular that makes mention of a lone ‘dark spirit’ (or demi-god, as he was alluded to by those who remembered and still spoke of such metaphysical manifestations) who would come out of the west, through fire and water, with powers of intrigue and consequence, which would in time restore the people of the Long Island to their former glory, much of which had already been plundered by enemies of old, contaminated or stolen by the white settlers of the north, or simply lost in antiquity, and bless them with many generations of peace and prosperity.

Curiously, it was specifically mentioned, if not in actual written text then at least by word of mouth, which as we all know can be easily and falsely misinterpreted at times and generally misconstrued, that this one destined deity would arrive ‘dressed in the deep blue heavens’. It was also said that this same divine entity would arrive in the mortal form of benevolent ‘dark messiah’ with ‘stars in his eyes’; and that furthermore, he would be well endowed and generously proportioned, particularly from the waist down, as a sure sign of his omnipotent power and potency, not unlike the great ‘Long Arrow’ himself who, as the name clearly suggests, was similarly blessed by the god in that specific area, and whose sexual exploitations were in and of themselves legendary to say the least. With a few minor exceptions, which under the circumstances could be easily overlooked from his majesty’s point of view, the description fit the Harlie to a tee. And it also fit the bill. For it was in fact by water he’d arrived on the island, although not as welcomed as he should have liked; and he was still wearing his old denim overalls, faded as they had become by then through constant exposure to the elements, but still very much blue in appearance. And indeed, his eyes did sparkle, like a blue light emanating from some distant sun in an even more distant galaxy. And as for being extraordinarily endowed in other areas, most notably those concerning his naked masculinity as evidenced by his earlier examinations and confirmed by the approving smiles of the river nymphs… well, let’s just say that modesty prevented the humbled raccoon from owning up to any such assertions, even if they did happen to be true. Besides, it was one of those things Elmo simply couldn’t take any credit for anyway. But he did find it all very amusing, if not all together flattering.

To add to this extraordinary co-incidence (if, in fact, all the events leading up to the Harlie’s present deification had happened merely by accident or chance, precluding, of course, the intervention of Providential assistance) it was also stated, and in no uncertain terms, that this same god-like creature born of fire and water would bring with him an object of great importance and consequence, a gift from the gods that would not only rescue the Redman from the brink annihilation but provide the means necessary to return them to their ancestral homeland, something that had not been seen or spoken of for ten generations. Exactly what this miraculous gift might be, or by what magically means it would transport an entire village through time and space, was never clearly defined. In fact, very little was actually known of this indispensible gift from the gods, other than it was said to have originated in the Redman’s native homeland which was said to lie not, as some of the more moderates counselors holding the king’s effervescent ears would later come to suggest, on the far side of the Redman River, but rather in a place much further away, far across the ‘Big Water’ which was an Indian name ambiguously bestowed upon any large body of water with no discernable shoreline. In fact, this thing, which could be nothing less than Indian equivalent to the Hebrew Arc of the Covenant was said to have originated on the other side of the world, which, geographically speaking would place the holy relic, along with the ancestors of this once proud and noble race of people, somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean at one time or another; on an island, perhaps, as the old legends indicate in their own vague and mysterious ways.

If such a place did exist, getting there would certainly prove a daunting, if not impossible, task for any able-bodied mariner, and a challenge beyond the technological scope of these aboriginal seamen. For not only would it require negotiating the capricious Cape around the southern tip of South America that has already laid to a waste, as well as a watery grave, many a gifted commodore and crew, but even greater navigational skills than those of their famous forefathers who’d once performed a similar miracle, but in reverse; and then, only to face the expansive unknown of even higher seas and the typhoons they are known to generate in the warmer latitudes of the Tropics.

Allowing for human error in discerning such native ambiguities, not to mention all the subtleties and hidden meanings lost or destroyed in their various translations, and owing to the power of logical deduction, one might easily come to the foregone conclusion that what these reminiscent red mariners were actually referring to, so lovingly and longingly in their own native discourse, was that their Polynesian forefathers, along with their many myths and legends, did, in fact, make the transoceanic voyage from far across the sea; and they did so in vessels not very different then what they themselves were already accustomed to, such as the sturdy outrigger canoe they had relied on for over a thousand years, as opposed to other indigenous Native American tribes whose migratory instincts lead them across the Bering Straits, in dog sleds perhaps, where they first set hard their Asiatic faces and wooly moccasins to the frozen Alaskan tundra and thus began their southern trek to Mexico and the Andes beyond.

Indeed, what many of these tribal trans-oceanic nomads still believed (whether they could ever hope to prove it or not is another matter) was that their true land of origin, a place they naturally preferred to be and were compelled to return to some day by whatever means at their disposal to do so, was actually to be found somewhere in the vast southern hemisphere of the Pacific Ocean. Naturally, to accomplish such as a daring and dangerous enterprise as circumnavigating the globe, which is exactly what they would be attempting to do in the process, would require not only the navigational skill requisite for such a voyage but a knowledge of the ocean, particularly regarding it man undulating currents, very few possessed at the time, along with the courage needed for such an uncertain expedition. Perhaps they were only following in the wondering footsteps of those ancient Ishmaelites who, possessing neither ship nor sail to plow them through the sandy sea of the Sinai, relied instead, as Magis and mariners have done for millennia, on little more than a single shining star to guide them though the wilderness to their destinations, whether it be Bethlehem or Barbados. Maybe it was those same nomadic Ishmaelites who, after haggling with Judah and his brothers over the price of a slave doomed to the pit, transported the future Prime Minister of Egypt by way of that same celestial sign safe and sound to the house Potiphar. Perhaps we are all born under a wondering star; one we are destined to follow, as the Israelites did while fleeing Pharaoh’s armies in the desert, or die in the process.

It’s in the Semitic blood – the sea and the sand; the same unforgiving wilderness set in two deadly extremes; one sinks ships and drowns sailors in eye of the tempest; the other, entombs armies and buries empires in silicon, slowly perhaps, but with the same suffocating effects. The nomad and the mariner may have more in common than we know. Think of it! Peter was a fisherman, as well as a Jew. Paul was a pilot, as well as a tent-maker; perhaps not a very good one – taking into account a shipwreck or two (a common occurrence on the rocky Mediterranean coast at the time) which he’d not only survived but went on to incorporate into the Holy Log as a sure sign of God’s unalterable and unsinkable will – but a sailor none-the-less! And can anyone doubt Brother Noah’s nautical credentials, not to mention his boat-building skills? Brother Jonah, vile burglar and stowaway that he was, could tell you a thing or two about whaling. And not only did Captain Moses manage to part the waters of the Red Sea and traverse it, with the help of God; but he destroyed his pursuers in the process. And exactly how did the twelve lost tribes, the Diaspora, land up on every continent of the watery globe if not by sea? You tell me. The similarities are as endless as the sands of the Sinai. It’s something a Galilean would know.

But there was another element to the story, and one Long Arrow was keen and quick to point out that smoky evening to his distinguished council and curious guest, and it was this: According to the legends of old, and as hinted upon in the previous narrative regarding the white woman who was murder down by the river one day, allegedly by a warrior prince who’d mistaken her for a goddess as well as his predestined bride, there was more to the story. As you remember, the woman was raped, or so it was speculated upon further examination of the exhumed body; although exactly how she died was debatable and something even the medical authorities could not come to agreement on. The Redmen, however, had their own theory; and they were staking their lives on it… well, at least the life of the warrior prince who was eventually brought to trail and convicted of a crime he refused to take responsibility for and was hanged never-the-less to satisfaction of the dead woman’s relatives and the chagrin of the Indian tribe. It was not so much the theory, however reliably it was received through local myth and legend, but the prophecy thereof that inspired the Redmen to such hopeful acclamations. For legend had it, and therefore could not be disputed, that the woman did not die (at least not in the spiritual sense as that is how goddesses exists) after all, but merely fled her physical body after the marriage was consummated – never mind how forcefully and painfully it was accomplished – at the exact moment of conception, to give birth at the appointed time. Why, it was nothing less than an immaculate conception! Or so it was reported at the time; although this one involved a spirit far darker and more dangerous than the Holy Spirit that presided over the Virgin Birth two thousand years ago, and perhaps more human. To substantiate the divine purpose of the conjugal act, as well as his own innocence (which by the way, the jury would never buy) the doomed prince went on to explain how one day the product of that supernatural intercourse would manifest itself in the form of a demi-god, another dark spirit, perhaps, not unlike the one that had overshadowed his dead princess bride on the tainted shores of blood stained river; and furthermore, that this same dark spirit, this demi-god, as prophesized in the ancient text, would indeed and in fact‘…come out of the West… dressed in deep blue heavens…with the stars in his eyes… and bearing gifts of eternal life…’

The description fit the Harlie to a tee, like a mythological glove, right down to the most intimate and delicate detail, as evidenced by the High Priest’s anatomical examination, parts of which had made Elmo blush more than just a little; something the Indians naturally could not comprehend but found rather interesting, in an amusing sort of way. To further advance the prophesy, and perhaps the king’s personal agenda, it was further stated that this ‘Dark Messiah’ would indeed bless the Redmen, especially the Red-women, in ways that would not only increase the population of the tribe tenfold, but keep their squaws happy for many moons to come; although exactly how this was to be accomplished was never fully explained to any degree of specificity. Obviously, this was a job for a Messiah! No matter what denomination or color, an indispensable one at that. For as any warrior knows, if he knows anything at all – particularly if he knows what’s good for him – is this: A happy squaw makes for a happy warrior. Not a truer statement, outside the Biblical text itself, has ever been uttered on this side of Paradise. It’s perhaps the one thing all progenitors of the human race will agree on; something that has not only sustained and multiplied mankind since Adam and Eve first came to the same fruitful conclusion, but one that may well have kept us all from systematically castrating ourselves, psychologically if not surgically, for sanity’s sake, or going completely and collectively insane in the process. It’s called sex. And it works! Sometimes it works too well. But so does abstinence… every time it’s tried, in fact.

It seemed that Elmo’s timely entrance into the mystical world of the Redman was nothing short of miraculous; as if God had dispatched yet another prophet, not to be vomited up like Jonah to preach Salvation on the pagan shore of Nineveh, although perhaps just as reluctantly, but rather, like Moses, to lead His people out of the bondage; a bondage not of slavery, but sterility; and do so by providing them with the only necessary ingredient missing from the Indian Passover – a king! And with the unexpected and long-awaited arrival of the Harlie, along with the promise of deliverance in regard to their own nautical Exodus, all that…and more, suddenly seemed well within their native grasp. It was Salvation in blue jeans! And nothing short of a miracle.

So that, among other reasons soon to be revealed, is why chief Long Arrow immediately proclaimed Elmo Cotton the ‘Dark Messiah’, demi-god deluxe, and of the highest order, which not only held him in the king’s highest esteem and good graces, but also made him eligible to marry any one of his majesty’s many beautiful daughters, which, as you might have already suspected, was the king’s top priorities. Naturally, or perhaps supernaturally, being a demi-god did have its advantages, or so the High Priest attempted to explain to the newly anointed deity on that very auspicious occasion after weighing all the evidence. And having a supernatural being for a son-in-law was indeed ‘Big Medicine!’ as the hairless wonder went on to explain, much to the delight of the impotent king. And so, in the end everyone was happy: the chief, the High Priest, the warriors, the squaws, the Harlie – and most all, the king’s daughters in waiting… all twenty seven of them! one of which was soon to become a goddess in her own rite; that is, if Long Arrow had anything to say or do about it; and being that he was the one and only king on the whole Island of Long, with the undisputable power to decide who lives and who dies, and by what means…well, what do you think?

Elmo appreciated the old man’s honesty as well as his hospitality, accepting the divine title, albeit reluctantly at first, with all the pomp and glory surrounding his newly acquired apotheosis, and with the seriousness it so richly deserved, which, under the accommodating circumstances he’d suddenly found himself in, was not a difficult thing to do. The raccoon thanked the old chief many times over, not only for his for his generosity, but also for his restraint; for despite the festive atmosphere and all the conciliatory gesticulations, Elmo Cotton still felt he was in violation of…well, something, if not just ingenuousness, his own godhood notwithstanding, which even the Harlie knew was only a temporary reprieve, to be milked for all it was worth and taken every advantage of , especially if it precluded him from being barbecued to a crispy death in the court of a cannibal king, and that not everyone sitting at the royal table that night shared the old man’s enthusiasm. Indeed, like any other raccoon invited to dine at the table of a farmer whose henhouse he’d recently, albeit instinctively and unsuccessfully, raided, the Harlie sensed that he was still in grave danger, and not only for what happened down by the river but for impersonating a god as well. He couldn’t say why, or who it was that precipitated such wary apprehensions; but his thoughts, as well as his darting eyes, always seem to return to the tattooed man with the shaved head. There was something sinister about him, despite all his re-assurances and acquiescence. The raccoon could smell it. He did, after all, order the Harlie to be stripped and beaten in the first place. But putting his suspicions aside, at least for the time being (after all, he was the guest of honor in the king’s dining room) Elmo Cotton was soon to learn a great deal more, not only of his regal host, but of many of the other things concerning his unheralded arrival. He would also get to know the Redmen, and women, themselves, on a more personal and individual basis, as would be expected of any newly-anointed deity, and in time earn not only their loyalty and praise, but their respect as well.

One of the first things Elmo had learned that night, mostly from the king himself, along with his educated daughters who not only understood the Harlie’s language but could speak it quite fluently, and with an eloquence befitting their rich royal heritage, was that the name of the Indian tribe he would soon become lord and master over was, in their own native lexicon, ‘Okeepanokee’ which, loosely translated into the English vernacular, simply meant:’ Tribe without a name.’ Exactly what prompted Long Arrow or any of his illustrious ancestors to adopt such an ambiguous and unedifying name would remain a mystery for many moons to come, but one the raccoon could well appreciate, considering his own clouded and questionable past, which he would soon forget altogether, along with his own name.

As previously mentioned, the old chief’s was called Long Arrow. It was a name that suited him well, literally, figuratively and, most of all, physiologically, and one that did old proud warrior justice. He sat upon a wooden cypress throne constructed of petrified wood surrounded by his many loyal and admiring subjects, young and old alike. Indeed and in fact he was the king of the Long Island and had been, or so he claimed, since his nineteenth birthday when he’d ascended into the regal position shortly after his royal father, a successful king in his own imperial right, albeit not a very good swimmer by his own admission, had drowned at sea as the result of an unfortunate fishing accident. What the old chief didn’t reveal to his raccoon guest, however, was that the doomed monarch had been drinking voluminous quantities the white man’s ‘firewater’ just prior to manning his royal vessel, a twenty-five foot outrigger canoe of royal proportions, and had accidentally fallen overboard while attempting to pull in great white shark that had unintentionally taken his bait. Even as the king clung to the bamboo spar supporting the out-stretched pontoon, kicking and screaming for his royal bodyguards, the great shark partook of the royal flesh, which, although not as familiar to his own discriminating pallet, was just as satisfying and perhaps easier to catch. And that was the end of Long Arrow’s fisherman father who, as legend has it, was eventually, and quite naturally I might add, reincarnated into the physical form of humpback whale whose massive black hump was last seen cruising somewhere off the lesser Antilles in vengeful pursuit of a great white shark; perhaps the same fishy fiend that’d brought about the king’s untimely metamorphosis, and is undoubtedly fish food by now.

It only goes to show you that even in the deepest and darkest corners of this woeful and waning world of ours, in the inky blackness of a subterranean landscape, with all its secret vaults and hidden graveyards that neither lens nor photon has yet to penetrate, shielded, perhaps, from the very eye of God, we are all savages, and cannibal by nature, mere links in a food chain extending back to dawn of creation. Down, down, and deeper down still; whereupon those un-swept floors, pressurized beyond all human endurance, slink and sliver in that same voluminous void, instinctively, blindly, forever reaching upwards and outwards as they have done for ten million years, some undiscovered species that may yet contain, albeit in infinitesimal measure, the immortal substance of man. And if that’s the case, perhaps Charles Darwin is correct in his Evolutionary proposal: that we are all mutantly and mutually inclusive in a long series, or string, of accidents (some happier than others) that culminated in a creature advanced enough to comprehend this incomprehensible truth. The problem with Mister Darwin’s theory, of course, other than just being a theory, is simply this: The fittest doesn’t always survive. Consider the dinosaur or the wooly mammoth, if you can find one, or Nietzsche for that matter. What’s not supposed to kill us doesn’t necessarily make us stronger…sometimes, it actually does kill us; just like bad jokes, bad whiskey, jealous women – and politicians! Natural selection is not that selective, either; it may not even be natural. There are no fossil records, at least none that anthropologists can agree on with any amount of certitude, of a missing link, Sasquatch, Big Foot, or any other mutant freak of Nature (at least that we know of) in any of the species! to substantiate the transformational claim so vital to the Naturalist’s revolutionary idea which is at the core of his radical belief. It simply doesn’t exist! Despite numerous ambitious attempts to find or manufacture such a freakish hybrid by those who followed in the faulty footsteps of their fool-hearty master: an overly ambition biologist whose legacy in life was to be remembered, and perhaps even loved, in the inspiring words old blasphemer himself, as ‘…the man who murdered God.’ If nothing else, and if science is of any use here, we are not evolving at all, but devolving! As proven by Darwin’s own data, no less, which clearly suggests an increase number of mutations, where there should, if the survival of the fittest and laws of natural selection apply, actually be a decrease. That’s why we have so many separate, distinct, unique and individual species; so few, if any, we can combine, and none of which can actually reproduce. Diversity, not necessity, may be the real mother of invention, and proof positive of God’s omnipotent existence. In other words, there’s no such things as monkey-men or mermaids (except maybe in our own selective imaginations, where they not only belong but are free from extinction, or at least the cruel knife of the vivisectionist) no matter how inviting, intriguing, or logical they may sound or appear; and that we are no more likely to come across one of these fantastic creatures any more than we are would ever come face to face with, say, a griffin, a sphinx, the fabled faun or fated unicorn, furry fish, or even the elusive elephant-bird for that matter; at least not genetically, and definitely not by natural selection. But the scientist and the theologian make for strange bedfellows. And philosophy and micro-biology don’t always mix; and neither does anthropology and metaphysics for that matter. They’re insoluble, I suppose, like oil and water, or religion and politics. Let’s just all agree, if we can agree on nothing else, that we’re mutually doomed to extinction, no matter what we are, or where we come from, and all equally in need of Salvation.

As an outward sign of some proud pagan past which, as legend would have it, began, and thus would eventually end, in the sea, or perhaps out of simple respect for the dead, the old chief proudly displayed so many rows of ivory white shark’s teeth, in their natural pre-extracted order, draped loosely about his royal neck like so many precious pearls strung on a lady’s necklace. It was fine sharkish jewelry, each razor sharp tooth worth its weight in gold, the equivalent, perhaps, of a hundred buffalo hides, six proud stallions, or a fine young squaw, and just happened to be the common currency of the island at the time. Like the wampum of the Manhattoes, who had sold their own scared soil for a trunkful of trinkets appraised at approximately twenty-four American dollars, the Indians of the Long Island would come to rely on such natural resources as the monetary basis for their limited but functioning economy. But not even all the teeth in the ocean, as diverse a species it may be, could compare with or be a substitute for that other distinguishing trademark that set the aging monarch majestically apart from and above all his loyal constituents. It came in the form of his namesake: a single ‘white arrow’ with a long feathered shaft suspended gracefully from the center of the savage’s loin-clothed waist, the pointed end of which hung decoratively down in a most prestigious manner to the barbaric tips of his unclipped toenails like some phallic symbol suggesting, and perhaps betraying, the kings potency, which was suspect from the start. And if that wasn’t enough, the man they called ‘Long Arrow’ sported no less than twelve raccoon tails attached to a massive head-dress, which had been ceremoniously placed on his regal white-haired head shortly after the main course was severed, a savage dish consisting of roast pig, raccoon (of course), snake, fish, snails, broiled peacock, something that looked like barbecued lizards, along with an assortment native fruits and vegetable served on long green palm leaves fit for any demi-god, or king.

The sovereign title, along with his prodigious arrow and coon tail head-dress actually meant little to the old chief who, at least by the kings countenance, seemed humbly ignorant and quite indifferent of such royal regalia in general, along with the power and potency invested in the sacred relics. He wore them chiefly (no pun intended) to please his more superstitious subjects who held such symbols in high esteem, and well…it’s the sort of thing kings are expected to do, I suppose. And they meant even less to his many wives, ninety-five and counting, along with enough concubines to rival the Saudi prince, who were also present at the feast that night, more concerned with the aging monarch’s inability to provide them with a son and heir than any ornamental talisman. It was a wife’s worst nightmare, not to mention a tribal disaster, and one they deemed simply untenable. Naturally, it was the kings own wives who were ultimately blamed, either rightly or wrongly, for the catastrophic non-event, which the king’s personal witch-doctor (an old but virile individual who’d impregnated enough women in his long and learned life to re-populate the entire Cherokee Nation) attributed to a lack of enthusiasm, or perhaps some evil spirit.

Attempts were made by the royal physician to cure the king’s malicious malady; but after many moons and even more magical potions administered directly, and quite painfully I might add, into the royal member, the arrow, which once flew so straight and true, still refused to fly. The old warrior simply could not hit the target. Not that he didn’t try, and certainly not through lack of female participation in cultivating the royal seed, as evidenced by the many daughters he had sired in the procreative process, but perhaps for more biogenetical reasons: the suppression of the vital ‘Y’ chromosome so necessary in the production a bouncing baby boy. And even though his first wife had died in childbirth many moons ago, the old patriarch persisted, not only living up to his virile reputation, but fathering no less than twenty-seven children (all girls, needless-to-say) in all, which, by the way, is a tribal record to this day. Naturally, Long Arrow was highly regarded not only for his longevity, wisdom, and strength, but also, as the long stiff shaft itself would clearly suggest to even the most pious and Puritan among us, his proud masculinity. But even that was in doubt as of lately; for along with the inability to produce a male heir, with all its dire implications, it was becoming quite evident by then, at least from a visual perspective, that the king may very well be suffering from a more serious problem – impotency. There were rumors, naturally, spread mostly among the women of the Long Island, that not only were the king’s famous arrows no longer able to fly straight and true as they once did, but that the old archer couldn’t shoot at all! As if the woody instrument itself had withered and waned, like a wilting branch badly in need of pruning, a mere shadow of its former glory, an empty quiver, an unstrung bow, as limp and loose as the iconic shaft hanging from his lifeless loins; or, in a more modern and medical diagnosis: erectile dysfunction.

Alas! For all his promiscuity, all his sexual prowess, all his long straight arrows and busy brown tails, all his beautiful but bewildered wives and countless concubines with open hearts and open legs, pagan prayers upon their pagan breasts, not to mention every potent prescription the witch-doctor could conjure up and pump into the royal vein, and all other means at the king’s disposal to satisfy his every lustful wish, the old monarch simply could not produce. Not a single one! Not one bouncing baby boy in the whole vaginal bunch! And therefore, there would be no heir – not yet, anyway – to sit upon the cypress throne after its present occupant was dead and buried; at sea, of course, along with his famous fisherman fathers to whom he would certainly have an awful lot of explaining to do, adding, no doubt, to the king’s on-going frustrations and ever-increasing anxiety, which may very well have been the underlying cause of his present predicament to begin with.

And the king did not suffer alone, as monarchs seldom do in these delicate dilemmas; for indeed the problem was epidemic by the time the Harlie had arrived, resulting perhaps from the incestuous relationships that so often exist in such isolated environments and the products they produce including, low birth rates, lethargy, mental retardation, down syndrome, sterility, impotency, and all the other debilitating and ancillary effects associated with inbreeding of the races. In other words: a poisoning of the well, a drastic and dangerous contamination of the gene pool, and one perhaps of their own making.

The tattooed Redman, the one with the shaved head who, as Elmo was quick to soon learn, was also the High Priest of the Long Island, declared it a curse, brought about, perhaps, by some evil spirit, like the one spoken of in the legends of old that not only predicted but precipitated such cataclysmic events. But the king, being a simple and practical man by nature, as most monarchs are, especially the wise and successful ones, as well as a man of eloquent discourse, vehemently disagreed, however, comparing his spiritual advisor to, among other things, that prominent part of the male anatomy most often associated with the head of the uncircumcised penis, which, of course, is just another way of saying that the High Priest was thinking with his emotions rather than his intellect; like women are often accused of, I suppose, either rightly or wrongly, but without the same sexual reference, of course. In other words, the High Priest was a dick-head; and the king told him so.

Long Arrow wasn’t thinking about curses, evil spirits, or anything else he had no legal or regal authority over at the time; and he wasn’t one to be overburdened with or distracted by legends, old or new, his mind naturally gravitating towards more earthly enterprises and personal concerns, such as sex, death, taxes, and, of course, an heir to his throne. But there was one legend he did take seriously…very seriously, in fact; and that was the legend of the demi-god from the west, as presently personified in one Elmo Cotton, the Harlie, the blue-eyed raccoon in overall, the ‘Dark Messiah!’ the same demi-god providentially seated at the right hand of the king in whom he, as well as the entire Okeepanokee Nation, placed all their hope and trust.

But not all the gods were smiling down from their lofty perches in the starry heavens that evening; one in particular seemed rather disturbed; and it showed, in the form of a long dark cloud that suddenly and sharply, not unlike the one Elmo noticed the night he gazed out the window as his wife lay in bed, fragmented the very face moon. The Harlie himself was still a little ambivalent about the whole situation; for although buoyed up by the news of his unexpected divinity, something he’d yet to fully comprehend in all its mind-boggling dimensions and generally appreciative of the accolades and accoutrements associate with such a prestigious position, Elmo was not particularly impressed, at least not just yet, and perhaps not as much as he should have been under the circumstances. Maybe it was because, deep down, he felt so…so unworthy of the prestigious title he’d done so little, actually nothing, to earn and didn’t deserve in the first place; but more likely, it was simply because he instinctively knew, as raccoons often do in these crowded situations, how conspicuous he had become, and how many eyes were presently cast in his direction, some not as friendly as others. He was, however, much relieved to learn (mostly from the High Priest who also proved to be quite fluent in the raccoon’s native tongue) that being recognized as a demi-god did, by all divine rights and supernatural protocol, preclude him from being burned at the stake, boiled in the pot, skinned or buried alive, scalped, disfigured, mutilated, castrated, or desecrated in any other undignified fashion unbefitting his newly acquired status, regardless of whatever crime he may, or may not, have committed. It was an indulgence he simply could not afford to be without at the time. Besides, to refuse such deification would not only insult the king, but further serve to infuriate all the other gods and demi-gods, said to have numbered in the tens of thousands, who were well renown not only for their fierce loyalty when it came to protecting and promoting those of their own divine rank, whether they’d earned it or not, but for severely punishing those demigods who would otherwise reject, dismiss, trivialize, or generally ignore the immortal status bestowed upon them in that enviable and much sought-after position. It simply wouldn’t do. And so, all things considered, and hoping he would turn out to be a better god, demi-god...or whatever it was he was supposed to be, than bean farmer or ‘Combobulator’, Elmo Cotton took the job.

Suspicious of most things in general, particularly whenever there is a human element involved, the raccoon was naturally a little apprehensive of his immediate surroundings, however hospitable and inviting they may’ve presented themselves at the time. He never forgot, not for a single satisfied moment, not even at the height of his coronation and subsequent ascension into godhood, which actually took place that very same evening directly after the pig feast, that no matter what anyone said, and no matter how many brave warriors swore eternal allegiance and pledged their lives, as well as their bows and arrows, to him, Elmo Cotton would never forget that he was still a fugitive, a raccoon on the run, and nothing more; and that there were still those who would kill him in a heartbeat, demi-god or not, who were most likely scouring the countryside at that very moment on the lookout for a blue-eyed raccoon in overalls; and that they were not nearly as far away as he would’ve liked them to be; and furthermore, there was nothing he could do about it.

Times being what they were, Elmo Cotton accepted the position, along with all its unforeseen implications and responsibilities, if for no other reason than simply not to offend the one man on the Island of Long who could, as previously decried, have him skinned alive and boiled in his own blood if he so desired to do so; for although being a demi-god did have its rank and privileges, Elmo understood from the start that there was still only one king of Long Island, and that was Long Arrow himself. He alone reigned supreme, mortal though as he was; and there was no god or demi-god in Heaven or on earth that could change that. Besides, reckoned the raccoon with a certain but unfamiliar wisdom that had somehow accompanied his newly acquired celebrity: when someone calls you a god or a demi-god, or even thinks of you as such, it is not usually a good idea not to argue with that individual; at least, not openly, and not until you’re absolutely certain he is wrong. It could only complicate matters. Elmo, at least for the time being, would do no such thing and accepted his new title with all the pomp and power and awesome responsibility that went along with it, whatever that turned out to be. And as far as Long Arrow’s daughters were concerned…well, the Harlie would just have to think about it. He still loved his wife very much and hoped he would eventually be with her again, some day, perhaps. But the king’s daughters were very beautiful. All twenty-seven of them! – And virgins, too, no doubt. The temptation was practical unbearable. Perhaps, thought the demi-god, this was the first true test of his divinity.

The bean farmer from Harley had broken many vows and promises in his short and, up until now at least, uneventful life; and he suspected he would break a good many more before all was said and done. But his wedding vow was something he took seriously, very seriously, and one that he swore he would never break. Besides, Mrs. Cotton would never allow it anyway. She’d told him so, and on more than occasion: ‘The only way you’s gettin’ out of this here marriage, Mister Elmo Cotton,’ she would say to him in her own passionate and honest way (which was really the only way farm girls knew how to talk to their husbands on such delicate matters of infidelity and divorce) ‘…is feets first!’ And that goes for demi-gods too! she may as well have added at the time, if she knew of what a demi-god was, that is.

And she would say it in that same deep throaty voice she would often use when she meant business: ‘So you wants to fight, Elmoooooooooo’ She’d even gone so far as making the necessary funeral arrangements with Mister Lester Cox, the Creekwood County Coroner, just in case his professional services were ever required in that regard, which, of course, Elmo was always made aware of, not only by Lester himself, but by everyone else in Harley who would remind the sharecropper, either jokingly or in all dead seriousness (more than likely a combination of the two, and every chance they got) of the fatal consequences of entertaining such adulterous thoughts, not to mention actually engaging in them, and especially being married to a farm girl like Nadine Simpson. Naturally, what these same inquisitive folks, the men of Harley in particular, always failed to mention was the simple and sometimes unspoken truth that not only had their own jealous and suspicious wives made similar arrangement with Mister Cox, but even went as far as paying the famous undertaker – in advance, no less! – for those same perfunctory services, in the sad and all too predictable event the dearly departed had left them with little or no purse to perform the proper obituaries; which, needless-to-say, was usually the case in most Harlies relationships at the time.

But now that he was a god, or at least a demi-god, the Harlie was beginning to think that soon all of that too may change; especially when it turned out that one of the king’s twenty-seven daughters, who went by the delicate and descriptive name of ‘Little Flower’ and was by far the prettiest, just happened to be the same beautiful young woman he’d spied down by the river washing her long black hair in the sun when he was still a mere mortal; the very same blossoming princess, in fact, with the large pointed breasts and smiling eyes who was presently seated at Elmo’s side like goddess in waiting. And there she would remain, along with all her jealous sisters and dozen or so vestal virgins summoned by the king that fateful evening to minister to their every need. Perhaps she was already a goddess and just didn’t know it, Elmo dared to imagine, wondering just how many ways there are for gods make love. He was certainly willing to find out… well almost. Maybe being a demi-god wasn’t going to be so difficult after all, he finally capitulated. Naturally, Nadine would disagree with that assessment. But she just wasn’t there.

And so, despite all ambivalences, mixed emotions, and any other reasonable doubts and vacillations he still may’ve been harboring at the time, particularly when it came to protecting and maintaining his life-saving anonymity, Elmo Cotton decided to stay, for a while at least, depending, of course, on how long he was welcome, or perhaps some other unforeseen factors that may very well turn out to be beyond the control or influence of gods and demi-gods, like himself. Only time would tell. His only concern at the moment (if, in fact, demi-gods were expected or even allowed to be consciously concerned about anything at all outside their own private indulgences and metaphysical thoughts) was that someone might discovered, either by accident or design, that he was just a Harlie after all and as human as anyone else on the Long Island, or anywhere else on the godless globe for that matter. It was a risk he was willing to take, reluctantly perhaps, along with all the subsequent consequences.

And so Elmo Cotton became a demi-god in his own rite. His hair grew long and curly and his skin darkened until he looked as savage as anyone else on the Long Island. And if not for his overalls, which he was obliged to wear at all times as a symbol of his supernatural identity, he might’ve easily been mistaken for one of the Redmen themselves, as he easily blended right in, his divinity not-with-standing.

A Native American legend tells how the raccoon acquired a wonderful, but costly gift. A raccoon can tell exactly when a persimmon is ripe to eat. A very important skill, for if the fruit is picked one day too early, they are sour enough to pucker one's mouth, picked a day too late and they are too mushy to eat. According to legend, a man was called by the Great Spirit to take a journey. He was told to leave at once. The Great Spirit explained to the man that this was a journey of the spirit and not the body. He must not stop to eat or drink until the task was completed. This particular man was, unfortunately, not quite ready for such a spiritual journey, for when he came to a grove of persimmon trees, he could see that the fruit was perfect for eating. He could not resist the temptation. The man stopped and ate till he could eat no more. The Great Spirit was furious. He told the man he would never complete the journey because he had disobeyed. The Great Spirit told the man that he would spend the rest of his days scurrying around the earth as a small, furry creature. The man begged and pleaded for forgiveness, but the Great Spirit remained firm. He turned the man into a raccoon. An animal that leaves footprints like a human, uses his hands like a man, and has the ability to always know when the persimmons are just right for picking.


Chapter Nine

The Demi-god

IN THE DAYS AND WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED, the Harlie lived the life of the demi-god; a life he could never have imagined back in Harley, and one he was only beginning to understand. It was a totally new and different experience, wild and wonderful in its Pantheistic glory; Paganism in its purest form. It was where he belonged; at home with the flora and fauna, and all his brother demi-gods, comfortable in his own raccoon skin, and equal… well, only to himself. He adopted, as orphans often do in these situations, a certain fatalistic philosophy: the kind that seeks God from within, rather than without; and in doing so, he finds only himself.

He became proficient with the bow and arrow, the spear, the tomahawk, as well as an assortment of knives and blades (perhaps not as finely detailed as the cutlery he’d found inside the cabin, but just as sharp and deadly as his Bowie knife) used for hunting various game. He also learned the proper use of the spear, which proved to be effective not only for killing bears and larger game, but just the thing for impaling the numerous species of fish that naturally sought refuge in the shallow shoals and rocky reefs forming the protracted coastline of the Long Island. He even learned some of the Redman’s language; although Long Arrow still spoke to him in perfect English, not only for the sake of expediency but to avoid any miscommunication or embarrassment, as one can never be too careful when conversing with a god, or even one of the many lesser demi-gods who, for their private pleasures and often at their own expense, are famously known for not only misinterpreting the mortal thoughts of man, but manipulating them to their own mischievous advantage.

He also learned a thing or two about deep-sea fishing; although his first time out in one small but sea-worthy out-rigger canoes naturally made him very seasick, which he found rather embarrassing – being a demi-god and all – and which also gave pause to not a few of his fellow native mariners who thought it rather suspicious. In spite of being dreadfully ill at the time, he did manage to hold it in; at least enough to satisfy the concerns of all on board, among them the High Priest who may have been reconsidering the Harlie’s credentials by then. Elmo suspected all along that the tattooed priest was having second thoughts about his divinity, and made it a point to be more careful and discreet in the future, no matter how much it inconvenienced him. There was something sinister, thought the demi-god, about the bald-headed holy man who was not only the Island’s High Priest but new ‘Medicine Man’ as well, since the old Medicine Man who’d been treating the king for his impotency had been recently dismissed for lack of success as well as having his adulterous way not a few of Long Arrow’s concubines; for professional reasons, or so he begged the king’s pardon even as the king’s arrows pierced his heathenish heart. The High Priest, whose name it was forbidden to enunciate for reason that remained unclear, even to the demigod, not only commanded the king’s royal ear but had a great deal of influence over Long Arrow’s decisions, despite the fact that he was still considered, in the sharp and cynical words of the old chief himself: a dick-head, of the highest order, and reminded of it more than once. Elmo, of course, shared the king’s sentiments, but kept his observations, as well as his comments, to himself, for the time being at least. The High Priest asked too many questions, and seemed just a little too interested in the Harlie’s past, even for a Medicine Man who was typically allowed such personal liberties. Elmo meant to say something about it to the chief, but thought it best not to come between the king and his priest. It was unbecoming of a demi-god to do so, and could be considered impolite. It might even be dangerous. Besides, protocol simply wouldn’t allow it.

Although he knew it was against the Law, Elmo couldn’t help but notice that some of the more ambitious Redmen warriors did, in fact, carry rifles as well as other firearms. Exactly where, when, or how, they came into possession of such lethal and coveted weapons, the Harlie dare not guess, although he’d heard, mostly from his dead uncle, that pirates would often trade their old pistols and muskets with the coastal natives in exchange for fresh fruit, gold, or perhaps the sun-kissed hand of a nubile princess, which always proved to fetch a very high premium. At one point, Elmo was presented with one such firearm – a shotgun, no less! which he naturally declined. Having once nearly killed himself with his own blunderbuss, the time he put down his dog and buried him in his back yard, the Harlie preferred to stick to the bow and arrow, and his Bowie knife, instead. Besides, what would a demi-god do with shotgun anyway? Despite his uncertainties about the future, he felt he’d made the right decision at the time. And he still, even after four and half years, felt sorry for the hound dog he was forced to put down. After attempting to demonstrate, rather comically it seemed, to his well-armed subjects exactly how the unfortunate accident occurred, the warriors all agreed that the demi-god had made a wise choice in preferring the bow and arrow over the gun; however, they could never fully comprehend why their distinguished guest buried the dog after he’d killed it, as he went on to explain. They considered such action not only silly but totally unwarranted; an insult to his brother demi-gods and unlucky as well – not to even mention a complete waste of good dog meat. It soon became clear to the Redmen, and particularly the High Priest, that this Dark Messiah from across the water indeed had much to learn not only about himself, but his subjects as well. Naturally, they would be more than happy to teach him.

And learn the Harlie did. He slept in their mud houses and wigwams; he ate their food and drank their wine; he smoked their special blend of tobacco and herbs and hunted with the Redmen all throughout the season, on land and at sea. After successfully hunting down and killing one exceptionally large raccoon proclaimed by the High Priest, after careful examination, to be an evil spirit and demon of the highest order, the Harlie hunter was ceremoniously bestowed with the prestigious title of ‘The Great Raccoon.’ For as it turned out, these fury little scavengers, considered a natural nuisance in other parts of the civilized world, were, according to the Redman’s religion, supernatural beings, slightly lower than demi-gods, but still a little higher on the metaphysical plane than mere mortals men of any particular affiliation. In other words, they could be angles or devils, depending, of course, on how you approached them. Apparently, Elmo had approached this one very carefully, and killed it with one fatal dart, which, he supposed at the time, more than made up for the one he’d missed with his ill-fated blunderbuss back home.

The Great Raccoon! It was a name the Harlie took with an anomalous mixture of humility and pride, as well as a certain amount of irony; but he took it all the same, and would soon answer to no other. It pleased the king, as well as his many daughters in waiting; and, as raccoons were considered sacred on the Long Island, just as they are in other aboriginal parts of the uncivilized world, it only furthered his reputation as a demi-god and warrior. Hell! Who needs a Miracle-Maker when you have that kind of power? the Great Raccoon quickly came to realize. And he would come to learn a great many other things about the Okeepanokee: dark and dangerous things, deep things, steeped in legend and mired in myths of a distant past; secret things, not unlike the undisclosed initiations of the Free Masons, or the bloody oaths of the Mormons. And with a new face and a new name, ones to match his celebrated status and much coveted title, the onetime Harlie sharecropper took on a new personality, a whole new identity! He still wore his faded blue overalls (some things you just can’t change, I suppose) in which he kept the Motherstone, safely buttoned deep within the denim fabric, forever in touch with his own immortalized heart; but outwardly, he draped himself in furs and feathers, painting his eyes and nose black, not unlike the marked bandit itself, the masked mammal in whose honor he was appropriately named, and that seemed to roam freely all over the Long Island in numbers too high to count, especially at night when the moon waxed brightly over the red river, or kill. The mask of the raccoon, with its tell-tale white and black stripping, suited the Harlie well while, at the same time, protecting his anonymity; and it was actually quite appropriate, he couldn’t help but wonder. It was the mark of a thief, an outlaw and fugitive which Elmo still very much considered himself, notwithstanding is recently acquired divinity. It may very well have been the mark of Cain, passed down from one murderous generation to the next, along with the black skin sometimes associated with the Biblical curse, he further postulated. However, the Redmen of the Okeepanokee had a different explanation regarding the famous facial disguise of the raccoon. This is the tale of how Raven the Trickster was once himself tricked, and of what he did when he found out who'd tricked him.....

One bright and sunny dawn, many years ago, Raccoon was trotting back to his burrow after a long night's successful hunting, when he came across Raven's longhouse in the forest. Raccoon saw Raven himself through the longhouse's half-open doorway, in fact, but Raccoon couldn't quite see what Raven was doing. It was all very mysterious. Now, in those days Raccoon didn't look much like he does today. In those days, Raccoon's fur was all one color, a smooth, glossy gray from nose to tail. But Raccoon was just as curious then as ever. Rather than go about his business the way any well-behaved animal would, Raccoon decided to find out just what Raven was up to. He crept quietly closer to the side of Raven's longhouse, so he could see what Raven was doing without himself being seen. Peering through a chink in Raven's longhouse wall, Raccoon could see that Raven had taken out a few of the treasures he'd been hiding - as you know, Raven loves to collect shiny objects - in a great cedar chest at the foot of his sleeping mat, and was cleaning and arranging them with care. On this particular day Raven was admiring five beautiful silver rings, a matched set that he had spirited away from a young squaw while she was washing her clothing in the stream near Raven's home. Raccoon saw the rings and coveted them, for he has always been much like Raven in his love for bright, shiny objects. But he knew that Raven would never willingly give him the rings. So Raccoon slipped quietly away from the longhouse and went back to his burrow to think of a plan, to steal the rings from Raven without getting caught. Late the next night, when the moon had risen and set and Raven was fast asleep, Raccoon came creeping back to Raven's longhouse through the dark woods. This time, Raccoon was wearing a mask to hide his eyes, and he carried a torch close to his chest, making the light leap up and illuminate his face from below. As you can well imagine, this made Raccoon look very frightening. Raccoon crept up to the window of Raven's longhouse and began moaning in a most ghostly voice. "Oooh ! Ooowoooh !" Raven awoke with a squawk of fright, and saw Raccoon's horrible torchlit mask peering in his window. "Oowoowooh !" moaned Raccoon again. Raven leaped from his sleeping mat. Raccoon hastily put out his torch and ran around the corner of Raven's longhouse in the darkness to enter the front door, counting on Raven to run out the back in panic. But Raven was naturally brave, and recovered quickly from being frightened. Instead of running out the back as Raccoon had intended, Raven picked up a cudgel and ran out the front! Although Raccoon was surprised by Raven's quick action, he was not so surprised that he forgot what he'd come for. It was a close shave, but Raccoon was able to reverse course and elude Raven in the darkness without being seen, while Raven went crashing out through the undergrowth around the longhouse, looking for his attacker. Quickly running around the back of Raven's longhouse, Raccoon scurried inside and opened up Raven's cedar chest. The beautiful rings Raccoon had coveted lay on top. Raccoon discovered that he couldn't pick up the rings and hold his torch at the same time. And he couldn't just leave the torch behind; he'd need it to make his way through the dark forest without the moon in the sky to provide light. Thinking quickly, Raccoon took his long, bushy gray tail and slid each ring onto it in turn. Just as he got the fifth ring onto his tail, he heard Raven running back through the bushes. Raccoon closed the cedar chest, lit his torch again from Raven's fire, and scurried out the back of the longhouse, unseen, just before Raven burst in through the front. Grumbling and squawking in frustration, the exhausted Raven went back to his bed. Raccoon was long gone. He scurried back through the forest, through the damp underbrush, skirting the sulfurous hot springs that marked the trail to his burrow, where he removed the silver rings from his tail and hid them in his own secret place. When Raven awoke the next day, he noticed that his cedar chest was not quite in the same place as he'd left it. His first thought was for his treasures. Pulling the cedar chest out and opening it up, Raven saw that his prized silver rings were missing! Raven knew then that he had been tricked - that the ghost he'd seen last night had not been a ghost at all, but one of the animals of the forest. But Raven did not know which one. Raven went to all the animals of the forest: to Bear, to Chipmunk, to Badger, to Rabbit, even to Eagle - but without having any luck. Finally, late in the afternoon, Raven came to Raccoon's burrow. "Halloo," called Raven. "Raccoon? Are you in there?" Raccoon trembled in fear but hid it with gruffness as he came to the mouth of his burrow. "What do you want, Raven? I was sleeping." Raccoon considered including a yawn for dramatic effect, but decided against it. "Out late last night, were you?" Now Raccoon did yawn. He couldn't help it. "No, I've been sleeping in my burrow. I always do during the day. What do you want?" Raccoon's act of innocence was very well-done. Although Raven was by nature a very suspicious animal, he was convinced. "Oh, nothing," Raven sighed. "Well, then, I'll just go back to sleep." Raccoon turned to go back into his burrow, and at that moment Raven caught sight of Raccoon's tail. There were five black rings of tarnish on the gray fur. "Oho!" said Raven, pointing at Raccoon's tail. Raccoon whirled around and around, trying to get a glimpse of it. When Raccoon saw the evidence of his theft displayed on his tail for all to see, he hung his head in shame, and confessed his whole plan to Raven. Raven chuckled ruefully at the way he'd been taken in. That didn't stop him from being angry, though. After Raccoon had gone sheepishly inside his burrow and brought out the rings he'd stolen, Raven sat him down on a tree stump and passed judgment. "Raccoon, from now on you shall bear the marks of your theft, as a reminder to you and all the creatures of the forest. Forevermore, your tail shall bear the marks of the rings you stole from me. Your paws shall be black, to remind you of the torch you held. And you shall wear a mask like the one you wore to scare me. I have spoken." And it was so. Then Raven went back to his longhouse, to hide his treasures in a safer place. And Raccoon, after suffering many jeers from his friends in the forest, eventually came to love his distinctive new coat even more than the old one. But Raccoon never really learned his lesson. Although he never again tried to take anything from Raven, he still comes to us sometimes, like a thief in the night, wearing his mask and markings and looking for good things he can steal.

Raccoons, as Elmo quickly learned, were considered sacred on the Long Island, ‘Big Medicine’, invested with certain unalienable properties yet to be disseminated, and held in the highest esteem. That is not to say, however, they were treated as demigods themselves, never having achieved that lofty and legendary status. Neither where they protected in any discernable way, as it is in various eastern religions where certain animals, such as cows and monkeys, roam the crowded streets of place like Calcutta and Bangladesh unmolested and untouched, licensed, as it were, to go about their business with little or no interference from the Humanity they’d since left behind in their newly reincarnated state of existence. Rank does not always have its privileges, sometimes, it just has enemies; which is why, I suppose, you seldom see a general on the battlefield. It’s no different in the animal world. The meat of the raccoon, despite its somewhat gamey taste, made up a substantial part of the Redman’s carnivorous diet. It was also considered quite the aphrodisiac when eaten raw, and partaken of in its uneviscerated state. And it seemed to work! for everyone, that is, but the king, who, on the advice of his adulterous physician was said to have partaken of enough of the furry little critters to have them permanently placed on some future Darwinian’s endangered species list and doomed to extinction, if the natural selection of man had anything to say about it, and have grown a tail by now. Needless-to-say, it did nothing to improve the king’s flaccid condition or sagging reputation; it certainly didn’t help matters between Long Arrow and his Medicine Man who, as a result of his covertness, would become target practice. The Harlie would often cook the meat himself over an open flame and pass it around to his fellow warrior’s right after the hunt as if the meaty mea l came from his own deified body. It wouldn’t be the first time a god invited his subjects to partake of his own flesh. It’s only natural, I suppose.

And it wasn’t just raccoon. Dogs, which were also considered sacred on the Long Island, although in the more domesticated sense, were equally valued for their meat, which is why, I suppose, there were so few of them to be found; and the ones that were found were typically kept as watch-dogs or family pets and well-fed, enjoying all the benefits befitting man’s best friend, right up until the very end, which usually occurred with a knife being driven into the animal’s heart, or a tomahawk blow to the brain. In fact, the dog meat was considered not only a delicacy but ‘food for the gods!’ as the Redman would say, reserved for such deities, including gods, demi-gods and other supernatural dignitaries the Harlie would become most familiar with. Along with the canine treat, the Great Raccoon was also served generous portions of opossum, beaver, rabbit, squirrel, muskrat, armadillo, skunk (after being carefully disemboweled and properly prepared, of course), wild boar, and even rats! which there always seemed to be a plentiful supply of and were cooked, mostly by the children who caught them, directly over an open flame.

Needless to say, there was always a generous supply of sea food placed before the demi-god, including, among other edibles: oysters, mussels, sea-turtles, crab, lobster, gator-tail, dolphin, swordfish, snapper, snook and catfish; although ever since the day Sherman devoured the dead catfish he’d found in on a back road in Harley, Elmo Cot... I mean, the ‘Great Raccoon’, held a distinct aversion towards any kind of food with the word cat attached to it, or long whiskers for that matter, especially those with eyes starring right back at him. He may not have been alone in that regard. Naturally, as in all discriminating cultures, there are some animals that are simply ‘taboo’; like cats for instance, which the Okeepanokee considered unwholesome and unclean, owing perhaps to the distinctly feminine qualities associated with the feral felines which they also considered bad luck. It’s similar, I suppose, to the way Orthodox Jews observe the Torah by avoiding certain kind of animals, like the pig, which Muslims, the sons of Ishmael, find equally offensive to their religious sensibilities, if not more so; so much, in fact, that one drop of the swine’s contaminated blood, or so the blood-thirsty Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) tells us, is enough to preclude them from entering into Paradise and the amorous arms of the seventy-two virgins who, fortunately enough, would never know what they were missing. Unfortunately, for the pig that is, the Okeepanokee knew of no such dietary restrictions, religious or otherwise, and delighted in fatty flesh the of the wild boar ever chance they got… barbecued, of course

But it was raccoon that reigned supreme on the Island of Long; and so the hunted and the hunter became one, and the Great Raccoon went on to kill so many of the ring-tailed critters that they soon became as rare as hens teeth, and that much more difficult to find. He ate them whole and raw, and in ever increasing numbers, crowing himself with their pelted heads and tying their lifeless tails to the back of his own royal headdress which soon out-numbered even that of the old king – a fact, the High Priest was quick to make note of with a no small measure of suspicion. The other Redmen found it somewhat amusing at first, but soon became equally suspicious, wondering if, in fact, if the demi-god had indeed gone crazy, which, as it turns out, is not so uncommon and has been known to happen from time to time, particularly among the darker deities such as the Great Raccoon. Or maybe, they further speculated in the privacy of their own teepees, he was some kind of mischievous spirit, the demoniac, the kind also spoken of in many of their own mysterious legends, and perhaps not as benevolent as they first thought him to be. In other words: The trickster!

Part of the spiritual role and nature of raccoons is expressed in the fact that they traverse the three worlds of air, earth, and water. They are arboreal, climbing and living in the upper world of trees and hollow stumps, yet they travel almost exclusively on the ground. Raccoons also have the peculiar habit of seeming to wash their food, which gives them a special connection to the water. Raccoons are also a major source of food themselves, which associates them with fecundity. They are very tricky animals as well, causing their spirit to overlap with the nature of Trickster himself. This character trait that makes Trickster like a Raccoon Spirit is specifically the ability to mislead. This aspect of the raccoon is well known to hunters, who soon discover their clever techniques for misleading their pursuers, such as doubling back on their own trail, or hiding in the hollow of a tree. This misdirection is also associated with their nocturnal lifestyle, where the darkness renders all their pursuers at least partly blind.

A number of major spirits have close ties to the raccoon nature. One of these is Wojijé, the Meteor Spirit. He is the spirit of any ‘star’ that has a tail. Thus he is represented as a child owning a ball with a raccoon tail attached to it, a toy which he is always throwing around. In another story, he wears a complete raccoon skin from head to toe. Wojijé is a spirit of fecundity, and stands opposed to purely predatory animals such as dogs. Thus in the upper world the raccoon is identified with the comet or meteor; but it also has an identity with a spirit known as the ‘Red Star.’ Each of Red Star's brothers except the youngest, who does not hunt, returns home each day with a particular kind of animal. All the brothers eventually turn into the kind of animal that he habitually hunts except the one who hunted raccoons. He turned into the Red Star. Red Star may be the Evening Star, as his younger brother is Morning Star, but in any case, Red Star is said to be the Waterspirit Bluehorn. Thus the raccoon is at once identical to stellar objects and to the spirits that dwell in rivers and lakes, which reflects the fact that the raccoon is both arboreal and strongly associated with water on account of its unusual habit of taking its food to the edge of the water and immersing it before it begins to eat. This Waterspirit aspect of raccoons is expressed in Trickster.

Trickster, like Wojijé, has a raccoon blanket which he always carries with him. Trickster himself is strongly identified with the raccoon nature, a fact expressed in his eating of a whole raccoon family, where consumption may express the internalizing of the nature of what is consumed, as it is almost universally in mythology. In one of his misadventures, Trickster lies by a river bank with an elk skull on his head and his raccoon blanket draped over his body. This makes him look like a spirit, and in this context he is portrayed variously as an Elk Spirit or a Waterspirit. He misleads the people into thinking this in order to get them to crack the skull in which his head has become lodged. However, in the end, like a Waterspirit, he allows medicines to be made out of part of his ‘body,’ namely the elk skull in which he jammed his head. This again identifies the raccoon nature with the Waterspirit who is particularly noted for misleading people.

The raccoon seems to have a special relationship to fish. A whole group of tales recounts how two hunters following a raccoon trail him right up to a tree stump. When one of the hunters looks in, he sees in the water that has collected inside, not a raccoon at all, but a fish. One of the men eats this raccoon-turned-fish, and as a result, finds himself overcome with thirst and must seek out the lake to quench it. Soon he becomes a Fish Spirit himself. In this role he grants his friend blessings. In one variant, it is Waterspirits that set this train of events into motion, so that the raccoon-fish is their servant.

Raccoons frequently live in the hollows of trees, including the open hollow of tree stumps. Trickster, when he goes for a ride on the back of a vulture, is the victim of a trick when the vulture banks sharply and dumps him into a hollow tree stump. He is unable to climb out, but gets the attention of a group of women by pretending to be a raccoon. They cut a hole in the tree, and see Trickster's raccoon blanket, which convinces them that they have indeed cornered a raccoon. But Trickster persuades them to plug the hole with their clothes and to return naked to their village for help. This encounter with Trickster-as-raccoon, misdirects the women so that they lose all sense of limits in the pursuit of appetite, just as the man who ate the raccoon-fish could find no limits to the pursuit of quenching his thirst. In one story, a raccoon finds a group of blind men in their lodge and soon sets them to fighting each other by silently intercepting their food as they pass their dishes from one to another. On another occasion a raccoon misdirected two blind men into a lake, for which the indignant villagers killed him and tacked his hide to the base of a tree. This once again expresses not only the association of a raccoons with the bases of trees, but their nature in leading people astray. These two associations are found in the saga of Bladder and his brothers. A giant white raccoon, the size of a bear, once led each of Bladder's brothers to a tree growing out of a cliff, or a hollow tree in which the raccoon concealed himself. Once one of the brothers had been led there, the evil spirit One Legged One, would descend and kill him. One Legged One would make their skins into bladders. Here again the raccoon leads them astray, this time in the service of an evil spirit. Bladder himself is the very embodiment of misdirection, and in a sense, the raccoon has taken over Bladder's role as the leader of his brothers. Misdirection is also evident in a supernatural competition between good and bad spirits in which they attempt to jump over a hill. Trickster shoots Grasshopper and the Meteor Spirit with raccoon liver, knocking them off course and giving the good spirits the victory.

The following tale, The Raccoon and the Blind man, represents the raccoon as the mischief maker, as the animal of like propensities among other tribes is the coyote:

There was a large settlement on the shores of a lake, and among its people were two very old blind men. It was decided to remove these men to the opposite side of the lake, where they might live in safety, as the settlement was exposed to the attack of enemies, when they might easily be captured and killed. So the relations of the old men got a canoe, some food, a kettle, and a bowl and started across the lake, where they built for them a wigwam in a grove some distance from the water. A line was stretched from the door of the wigwam to a post in the water, so that they would have no difficulty in helping themselves. The food and vessels were put into the wigwam, and after the relations of the old men promised them that they would call often and keep them provided with everything that was needful, they returned to their settlement.

The two old blind men now began to take care of themselves. On one day one of them would do the cooking while the other went for water, and on the next day they would change about in their work, so that their labors were evenly divided. As they knew just how much food they required for each meal, the quantity prepared was equally divided, but was eaten out of the one bowl which they had.

Here they lived in contentment for several years; but one day a Raccoon, which was following the water’s edge looking for crawfish, came to the line which had been stretched from the lake to the wigwam. The Raccoon thought it rather curious to find a cord where he had before observed one, and wondered to himself, ‘What is this? I think I shall follow this cord to see where it leads.’ So he followed the path along which the cord was stretched until he came to the wigwam. Approaching very cautiously, he went up to the entrance, where he saw the two old men asleep on the ground, their heads at the door and their feet directed toward the heap of hot coals within. The Raccoon sniffed about and soon found there was something good to eat within the wigwam; but he decided not to enter at once for fear of waking the old men; so he retired a short distance to hide himself to see what they would do. Presently the old men awoke, and one said to the other, ‘My friend, I am getting hungry; let us prepare some food.’

‘Very well,’ replied his companion, ‘you go down to the lake and fetch some water while I get the fire started.’ The Raccoon heard this conversation, and, wishing to deceive the old man, immediately ran to the water, untied the cord from the post, and carried it to a clump of bushes, where he tied it. When the old man came along with his kettle to get water, he stumbled around the brush until he found the end of the cord, when he began to dip his kettle down upon the ground for water. Not finding any, he slowly returned and said to his companion, ‘We shall surly die, because the lake is dried up and the brush is grown where we used to get water. What shall we do?’

‘That cannot be,’ responded his companion, ‘for we have not been asleep long enough for the brush to grow upon the lake bed. Let me go out to try if I cannot get some water.’ So taking the kettle from his friend he started off.

So soon as the first old man had returned to the wigwam, the Raccoon took the cord back and tied it where he had found it, then waited to see the result.

The second old man now came along, entered the lake, and getting his kettle full of water returned to the wigwam, saying as he entered, ‘My friend, you told me what was not true. There is water enough; for here, you see, I have our kettle full.’ The other could not understand this at all, and wondered what had caused this deception.

The Raccoon approached the wigwam to await the cooking of the food. When it was ready, the pieces of meat, for there were eight of them, were put into the bowl and the old men sat down on the ground facing each other, with the bowl between them. Each took a piece of the meat, and they began to talk of various things and were enjoying themselves.

The Raccoon now quietly removed four pieces of meat from the bowl and began to eat them, enjoying the feast even more than the old blind men. Presently one of them reached into the bowl to get another piece of meat, and finding that only two pieces remained, said, ‘My friend, you must be very hungry to eat so rapidly; I have had only but one piece, and there are but two pieces left.’

The other replied, ‘I have not taken them, but suspect you have eaten them yourself;” whereupon the other replied more angrily than before. Thus they argued, and the Raccoon, desiring to have more sport, tapped each of them on the face. The old men, each believing the other had struck him, began to fight, rolling over the floor of the wigwam, upsetting the bowl and the kettle, and causing the fire to be scattered. The Raccoon then took the two remaining pieces of meat and made his exit from the wigwam, laughing Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha; whereupon the old men instantly ceased their strife, for they now knew they had been deceived. The Raccoon then remarked to them, ‘I have played a nice trick on you; you should not find fault with each other so easily.’ Then the Raccoon continued his crawfish hunting along the lake shore.

The Great Raccoon would never admit to any such treasonous and ill-conceived notion, not openly anyway. But he never actually denied it, either. Under the circumstances, ‘Leave em’ guessin’, was not such a bad idea, as many a monarch should know.

In very short order, at least by all previous accounts, Elmo Cotton became a legend, ‘Big Medicine’, with powers and privileges equal to, or surpassing, even those of the High Priest, and with just as much access to the king’s ear; never mind the fact that by then Long Arrow’s hearing had diminished, not unlike some other vital organs we need not mention, to a point of near uselessness. His stature rose, along with a well earned reputation; and he was revered as the demi-god he was ceremoniously proclaimed to be, which, considering Elmo’s age at the time was actually quite an accomplishment for any mortal, especially a Harlie.

After he’d finally proven himself, and as many had already expected, the Great Raccoon was offered the hand of Long Arrow’s youngest daughter who, as previously mentioned, just happened to be the lady of the river with the high pointed breasts and the most beautiful woman the Harlie had ever laid his raccoon eyes on. She also happened to be fourteen years old at the time, which Elmo found rather interesting; although he’d known of some girls back in Harley whose ‘cherries were picked’ long before there sixteenth birthday, and were already ‘showing’ long before they waddled down the altar in child.

If Elmo hadn’t already been married, the decision would’ve been an easy one. But that just wasn’t the case. Now he had a real problem: for, by refusing Long Arrow’s generous but self-serving offer, the Great Raccoon would not only be putting his own life, mortal or immortal, at risk by insulting his king, who happened to be his biggest supported and chief benefactor, in such a manner, but he may very well doom to the heirless monarchy in the process. And it wasn’t as if he didn’t care. If not for his wife and child, the Harlie might’ve indeed taken the Indian princess for his wife-goddess; but he knew it would break Nadine’s heart if she ever found out, in which case he was also putting his life in jeopardy. He never forgot (How could he?) Mrs. Cotton’s earlier admonishment on the subject of infidelity and the consequences thereof: ‘The only way you gets out of this here marriage, Mister Elmo Cotton… is feets fist!’ The farmer’s daughter said what she meant, and she meant what she said, even when it was said in jest. ‘You wants to fight?’

As for Long Arrow’s youngest daughter, Little Flower, who was every bit as sweet and lovely as her name clearly suggests, Elmo was still not so sure. He knew, of course, that if he had her for just one moment, he would want her forever. It was the same with his wife. Beautiful women always seemed to have that effect on him; and he knew he wasn’t alone in that regard; it’ the price you pay for being a man, I suppose. It’s been happening for eons. It is the reason women invented marriage in the first place, or so Homer Skinner once tried to explain to the newlywed Harlie in his own metaphorical way: ‘…So that their husbands couldn’t just drop whatever it is they happen to be doing at the time whenever some pretty young gal walks by with a wink and a nod, and go chasing after her like a goddamn salmon swimmin’ upstream through the current, just to fornicate with the floozy...’ At least not without paying a very heavy price, he might as well have added simple because it was true. For most men (and thank God for the resourcefulness of their stubborn and jealous wives) that price was usually much too high to pay; and besides, it just wasn’t worth. Still, some have to learn the hard way. Elmo Cotton, who’d bore the brunt of many a woman’s scorn in his own private past, and lived to tell about, knew exactly what Homer was talking about at the time; but that never prevented him from stopping whatever he was doing once in a while and taking a look around, especially the salmon were swimming upstream, pink and round, and pleasing to the eye. Naturally, Nadine was usually there to reel him in, and give him plenty of time to think about the fish he had at home while sleeping on the couch a night or two. Whoever said ‘…Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn’ certainly knew what he talking about. He also knew a thing or two about salmon fishing; and he was probably married. And for that reason alone, the Great Raccoon suddenly began to realize that he would soon have to be on his way.

There were a great many things the Harlie could by now do that he never could do back in Harley, or anywhere else for that matter; but being unfaithful to his wife was just not one of them. Of all the sins he’d ever committed, more perhaps than he was aware of, adultery was never one of them; and he intended to keep it that way. He still loved his wife very much; and he knew Nadine would always feel the same way about him, even he was never exactly sure why, and even if he never did return. The bond was still there, just as strong as ever; maybe even stronger! in some remote and mysterious way; the same way it is sometimes easier to tell the truth to a complete stranger than it is not to lie to those we love. Absence doesn’t only make the heart grow fonder, it actually makes it stronger. Anonymity has its privileges; familiarity breeds contempt; but there are some bonds that simply can’t be broken, at least not without a great deal of pain. So, in the end, Elmo remained faithful to his wife and graciously, but with a visible amount of shame and regret, refused the king’s generous offer, even though at times he wondered if Nadine Simpson would have done the same for him if the situations were somehow reversed. Perhaps he’d never know; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And what if he never did return? What then! The thought had entered Elmo’s raccoon mind from time to time. And what if he was killed, by accident or design; either way becoming more and more a distinct possibility. Who would ever know? Certainly not Nadine. Who would care? And would he really want his poor widowed wife to suffer more than she already has? Could he blame her for marrying again? Every boy needs a father. He knew that better than anyone, having been abandoned himself at a very early age. And now, here he was doing exactly what his own father had done. He remembered what his uncle had once said to him: ‘Apple don’t fall far from the tree, boy’. Joe Cotton was right, of course; he always was. The thought sent shivers up and down the raccoon’s furry spine. Nadine would never forgive him. It would break her heart. But after all, it was he who had broken hers first. His son would curse his own name. He could not go through with it. It was the least he could do, and the most, for Nadine and Lil’ Ralph Cotton.

The old chief seemed to understand; but he was left that day with a wound in his brave and broken heart that would never heal and would soon take his life. His daughters tried to console him, as did the High Priest and all the king’s counselors and warriors that surrounded him that day, but to no avail.

In the days that followed, Long Arrow grew weary and grim, until one day when he silently slipped into his great white pyramid, put out the fire, went to sleep, and never woke up. The Great Raccoon would never know what happened; although deep down he knew that it had something to do with his refusal to take the hand of his youngest daughter in marriage, thus denying not only the king but the entire Redman tribe an heir to the cypress throne. There was talk of one of the other handsome young braves providing Little Flower, or any of Long Arrow’s twenty-six daughters for that matter, with a son who might one day ascend the Cypress throne; much of it coming from the Great Raccoon himself who, as demi-gods often do, had great say and influence over tribal matters in general, particularly those of great consequence. But the king’s daughters simply wouldn’t hear of it. It was their father’s dying wish that the Great Raccoon provide the seed and semen needed to fertilize the egg and give root to the tree that would one day blossom into manhood thus fulfilling the prophecy and ensuring the survival of a doomed and dying race. It was more than mortal man could accomplish. It was something only a demi-god could do, so stated the High Priest who had commanded so much of the dead man’s attention. Besides, what would any self-respecting princess (never mind what race, religion or nationality) want with a mere mortal when there’s a demi-god somewhere around the house? It would be like… like drinking moonshine whiskey in the kitchen when you got Kentucky bourbon in the basement.

Of course, Elmo realized that he may be partly to blame for the untimely demise of the great monarch and wished there was something he could’ve done, short of breaking his marriage vows, that is. But there are some things even a demi-god cannot do, much to the disappointment and perhaps even the chagrin of the rest of the tribe who simply couldn’t understand how such an unfortunate event could’ve occurred in the presence of a…a god! Despite his best efforts, the High Priest and witch-doctor tried everything in his limited power to revive the royal corpse, including numerous spells, potions, incantations, and every other magical remedy he could think of; but there was no medicine strong or powerful enough to raise the dead king from his mortal slumbers. It only gave the Harlie one more reason to leave. But until such a time, and he still wasn’t quite sure exactly when that day would come, Elmo Cotton lived comfortably and contently among the Indians of the Redman River, not-with-standing the death of his chief benefactor and protector.

It proved to be a peaceful and learning experience for the Harlie sharecropper who, up until now, never knew just how free and easy life could be without constantly being told how poor and stupid he was by men like Ike Armstrong. It was a Pantheist’s Paradise! And although he was still allowed to maintain his demi-god status after refusing to marry the chief’s daughter, Elmo Cotton began thinking a little less of gods and demi-gods and more about his suitcase and sailin’ shoes, which, as far as he knew, were still in the root cellar of the cabin back across the river. He was also thinking more about the stone he brought down from the mountain, the one he presently kept in his pocket. He knew by now that it must be something of great consequence after all, and probably had something to do with fact that he was still alive, recalling to mind how his fortunes had suddenly changed once it was discovered. It troubled him think that the High Priest knew that as well; which was why, especially after the death of the king, he found himself being followed more closely than ever by the tattooed ‘Dick-head’. Exactly why it was given back him when he was first taken prisoner and still considered a mere mortal was a mystery Elmo hadn’t yet solved. He still thought that Long Arrow probably had something to do with that as well; but with a dead king and a vacant throne, all that could and would change very quickly, imagined the Great Raccoon, as much as he tried not to. The only other disturbing news that came to the Harlie’s attention was once when a young Indian scout reported back to the camp with news of a strange new demi-god that was presently seen roaming the western bank of the Redman River; not very far, the scout suspiciously reported, from where the Great Raccoon himself was once generously washed up by the gods; perhaps, he suggested, it some evil dark spirit, more powerful than the Great Raccoon himself.

When Elmo pressed the young Indian brave for further details concerning this unsettling event, the new deity was described to him as: “…a great white warrior dressed like a bear, with four eyes and...” And here the scout reached out and touched the face of the Great Raccoon, savagely running his fingers through Elmo’s wild whiskers, attempting to explain, to explain…What? “A beard!” Elmo ejaculated, suddenly realizing how scarce facial hair actually was among the Okeepanokee whose soft and subtle complexions made the Harlie, at least by comparison, look like Rip Van Winkle in search of the nearest barber after his famous snooze. And even when the follicles did appear on the unblemished face of the warrior, through some genetic mutation or hormonal imbalance, one could only imagine, they were summarily removed by plucking them out at the root, as a woman of high-society might vainly tear out her own protracted eyebrows, or any other unsightly growth detracting from her…‘natural’ beauty. Ironically, or perhaps not, it was the women of the Long Island, particularly the older ones, who displayed, rather proudly it would seem, such traces of beard and mustache, the silky black threads of which they would groom on a daily basis. Fearing that the evil spirit might somehow strike him down at any moment for revealing as much, the young scout refused to divulge any more information regarding the mysterious visitation, becoming strangely quiet on the subject. Since then, he simply refused to talk to anyone at all, and was appropriately re-named ‘Man-without- tongue’ by one of the more opinionated Okeepanokeeians of the tribe. Naturally, the description of this alien demi-god immediately brought to mind images of the hairy stranger Elmo had once seen in the bean fields of Harley, and perhaps the same one who ducked behind the iron gate just as he was about to leave. Coincidence? He couldn’t be sure. Not yet anyway.

In time, additional sighting of this ambiguous spirit were confirmed by other warriors returning home from the river, which quickly became the talk of the tribe, as well as local legend. For indeed, it was suggested that this new ‘river’ spirit was yet another demi-god, not unlike the ‘Great Raccoon’ himself, only darker in nature and, for that reason alone, perhaps even more powerful. And this one had a beard! much longer, thicker, and blacker than anything Elmo could ever manage to cultivate and something you just don’t find on your average demi-god; at least not the ones the Okeepanokee were accustomed to worshipping. The High Priest seemed to know something about this particular spirit, further speculating that the mere presence of the Great Raccoon may very well have initiated the unexpected and supernatural manifestation of the spirit itself. Or perhaps, it had something to do with Elmo insulting the king by not taking his daughter’s hand in marriage when he was obliged to, insinuated the High Priest while eyeing the Great Raccoon with a little more disdain than usual. What the tattooed ‘Dick-head’ wasn’t saying at the time, but believed all along never-the-less, was that this new ‘river’ spirit was merely looking for something of grave importance, something that was perhaps stolen from him in some previous existence, something…like black stone he’d found in Elmo’s stripped overalls the day the Great Raccoon was tied to a stick and beaten like a rug. It was the same stone he was to return to the demi-god, albeit against his better judgment and by order of the king, that very same day. He knew by then that one of them would have to die. The only problem, of course, was: How do you kill a god?

Elmo thought otherwise, and suspected all along that it was only a mortal man that they were so afraid of – the same man, perhaps, that’d been following him ever since he’d left Harley; the same one who’d spoken to his wife nearly half a year ago. He said nothing, however, about his past encounter with this so-called ‘dark spirit’ to his subjects and pretended not to even care, as demi-gods are famously known for in situations like these when they feel their authority threatened or challenged by other spirits they are not quite sure of. You can’t really blame them, I suppose; there’s simply nothing worse, or so vain, as a frightened demi-god, especially when his job is at stake. Besides, it’s not the sort of behavior you would expect of them, or any other self-respecting deity for that matter. Not only would it make him appear feeble and weak, but it might even get him killed. Then he would be a dead demi-god, as well as a cowardly one. It just wouldn’t do. The Great Raccoon had some serious thinking to do. And so did Elmo Cotton.

As in any culture, past or present, the spirits and gods of the Redman’s world were not to be taken lightly; not even those of the lesser demi-gods, like the one previously described that had lately made such a disquieting appearance on the banks of the Great White Snake – the one with the beard. Being neither particularly good nor bad spirits by nature (if indeed Nature had anything at all to do with their metaphysical make-up) these divine transients were, not unlike raccoons in general, considered mischievous creatures, dangerous at times, and the source of much superstition. This was even more likely in their diminished states of being, which was suggested to have happened over long periods of time, possibly through physical contact with mortal flesh, particularly in un-natural acts of sexual intercourse, resulting in such contaminated hybrids as the giants found in the pages of Antiquity. It was a union doomed from the start. For the most part, these dark and dangerous spirits were generally avoided. They were said to possess the power of seduction, as well as corruption, as evidenced by the imbecilic scout, ‘Man-without-tongue’, who, shortly after his brief encounter with this one particular demi-god, was last been seen paddling his canoe far out to sea in what could only be describes as ‘a dazed state of quiet delirium’. He never did return, of course, which the other warriors took as a bad omen, a sign, Big Medicine! and one that only made them, and especially the tattooed priest, that much more suspicious, not only this new ‘four-eyed, fur-clad, bearded white demi-god of the river’ but of the Great Raccoon was well. It would seem that not even the gods are immune from discrimination, and suffer the slings and arrows just like the rest of us at times. Let’s just hope, and pray, they have thicker skins.

Not long after the supernatural sightings, Elmo came to realize that he could no longer live in the Redman’s world, even after many of the dead king’s counselors and relatives had exonerated the Great Raccoon of having anything to do with the death of their beloved monarch; despite the sudden appearance this new four-eyed river spirit and Man-without-tongue’s mysterious absence. He was still a demi-god, and a powerful one at that, and as such could not be expelled from the Long Island without Long Arrow’s consent, whose regal corpse had, for over six weeks by then, lie rotting inside the same whale-bone tent Elmo was once held prisoner in, as the tattooed priest tried in vain (mostly for the benefit of those who would otherwise have him skinned alive and boiled in fish oil for not at least trying) to resurrect the royal bones of their beloved, benevolent, and very dead king. It was the least he could do; but as usual, just as Elmo suspected, it just wasn’t enough.

As it were, not a few of the king’s most loyal and trusted warriors still had it in mind to marry off one of his many daughters to the Great Raccoon, even after he’d already rejected the proposal on personal grounds and previous occasion. But it was still considered Big Medicine to have a demi-god living among the tribe, even a reluctant one. And with no sons to take over the supreme vacant position, they could sure use some Big Medicine, not to mention a Messiah. But the man within the god told the Harlie that that could never be. And so, once again, the Great Raccoon gracefully, albeit a little more adamantly this time, declined the generous offer. Besides, he was no longer the only demi-god on the island, as there were more and more sightings of this new demi-god who, for whatever supernatural or metaphysical reasons, chose to stay on the far side of the river, keeping his identity, as well as his distance, from all the others, or so it seemed. It was only a matter of time… thought Elmo; and there just wasn’t room enough for two demi-gods on the Long Island. Sooner or later, one of them would have to go, or die.

And so, taking off his ring-tailed headdress, removing his furs, and putting down his bow and arrow, Elmo Cotton was once again just ordinary Harlie, and raccoon on the run. Surprisingly, he’d even found his old raft. It was right where he’d left if over six months ago, down by the river, not far from where he first caught glimpse of the river goddess who, if things had worked out differently, might’ve been his wife. And as he paddled his way across the back of the ‘Great White Snake’, he looked back one last time, hoping to see her sitting on the rock by the river’s edge, combing her long black hair, perhaps, and smiling at him. Instead, all he saw was the bearded four-eyed demi-god, for the very first time, in fact; in full view! and in all his furry glory. He had finally made it. And it was just as Elmo had suspected. It wasn’t a demi-god at all! Not unless they started wearing ‘spectables’, he said to himself, like the reading glasses Homer once wore… or, he also began to imagine, like the ones the stranger in the bean field was wearing that day. And this one also just happened to be carrying a firearm, the Harlie quickly realized, gazing back at lone figure starring at him from the river. “Now why would a demi-god…?” he wondered out loud. And just before the glassy-eyed figure disappeared behind a lone cypress tree, he fired off a round of buckshot that flew directly over the Harlie’s head from clear across the river. Whoever, or whatever, it was, Elmo knew by now that it could have easily kill him. The shot was only a warning, he thought to himself; but he just couldn’t be sure. He was sure about one thing, however; and that was that somehow, somewhere, perhaps in the very near future, the two demi-gods would meet again, maybe even face to face; and the next time, there would be no warning. And so, he simply waved goodbye to the Redmen warriors, the Long Island, the dead king and his twenty-seven daughters, the river goddess and would-be wife, and finally to the demi-god himself. After that, he never looked back.

When he finally arrived back on the mainland, the Harley raccoon ran straight to the cabin. He wanted to make sure that his suitcase was still there. It was. The only problem, however, was that someone else had found it first. The floorboard had been torn up while he’d been away across the river, and the meager contents of his suitcase were scattered all over the floor, including his uncle’s prized patent leather sailin’ shoes. Apparently, they were nothing in the suitcase worth stealing; unless, of course, the thief was looking for something else, like a stone for instance. Elmo removed the Motherstone from his overalls and looked at it like he had never looked at it before; he swore he would never let anything like that happen again.

* * *

AS THE WEATHER BECAME WARMER and the days grew longer, and the skies turned from silver blue to bloody red, the Harley raccoon reckoned it was about time for him to be moving on. He realized that someone would eventually come looking for him, maybe even the sheriff with the Chinese eyes, the ‘coon hunter. He might even bring along a posy. And others would follow; a bounty would make sure of that. It always did. But the Harlie would survive that as well, somehow. He always did. And for whatever reason, the former demi-god and reluctant Messiah was beginning to think that maybe his fortunes were being guided by something more than sheer dumb luck and coincidence; and that he might not be the ‘lucky number’ after all, as he once supposed. He only wished he knew who, or what, it was that seemed to have such an influence over him – and why.

But he never had to look very far. At night, he saw it in the moon and stars; during the day light hours, he could see it in the rays of an intensifying sun. He saw it the rain, in the clouds, and in the trees; he saw it in the animals as well, many of which had already crawled out of their winter hibernations in search of the promises of spring; and most of all, he saw it in the reflection of his own raccoon face whenever he chanced to stop for a moment and gaze into the reflective waters of a still pond, or the medal of his Bowie knife which he would sometimes use as a mirror. And what exactly was it he saw? besides the whiskers and black-eyed mask he still wore, even though he was no longer the Great Raccoon. It was hope; and it was springing up all around him, it suddenly seemed, in all its yawning strength and blossoming beauty. It was spring! And it was as if he was seeing it for the very first time, and all through the vagabond eyes of a raccoon; eyes that, if he looked real close, sometimes appeared as if they were crying, even when they were not. It was more than a feeling. It was instinct, which, as far as he was concerned, was even better. It was the will to survive, to live, to reproduce, like any other animal. But most of all, he saw it every time he looked into the glassy black globe of the Motherstone, which was never more than a heartbeat away.

By now, the stone was all Elmo could think about. It was always on his mind, it seems; sometimes, a little more than others. It was like living in a dream, simultaneously existing in two separate and very different universes: one in which you can live in but are never totally satisfied; the other, you are satisfied with, but can never really live in. Either way, you are a stranger. But what exactly was it? He still hadn’t figured that out yet; and perhaps he never would. But he was sure of one thing: he just couldn’t live without it. Only time would tell, he imagined. He didn’t exactly know when, or how and why. He just knew; and that was enough, for now anyway. Was it magic? Uncle Joe seemed to think so; or at least, that’s the impression he gave to the sharecropper just before he died. There was something about the stone that commanded his immediate attention, all the time. It compelled him in ways he simply couldn’t understand, and it happened more and more each day he was on the run. He simply could not keep his mind, or his eyes, off of it for any length of time, even when he tried to on several occasions, which somehow made him feel a not little frightened. He had once actually entertained the thought of destroying it, if that was at all possible, and be done with it. But how? And with what? Fire? It had already survived a volcano, or so it seemed; but then again, so did he. Or maybe, as Nadine once suggested in a wake of a long intense argument, he would simply bury the damn thing, for a while at least, and come back for it at some other time. But where? He no longer had a back yard. And even if he did, there were so many burrowing about; one of them would eventually find it. Or even worse, suppose someone else found it instead: a farmer, or a miner, perhaps; he knew he wasn’t alone. Homer found it, and he wasn’t even looking for it; and so did Red-Beard. And then there was the demi-god. What if he had followed him across the river? as Elmo was recently beginning to suspect. Was it the stone he was after? He’ll never get it… The Harlie vowed to himself right then and there. I breaks it first! Not that he would ever do it, of course: for most precious gems, as far as he knew, were immune to such destructive forces, having long since been reduced to their bare basic elements by Nature, or a combination thereof, which only makes them stronger. Besides, smashing it to bits would only multiply his dilemma by making it that much more difficult to conceal. He wondered what would happen if he simply threw it as far as he could into the river. Would it sink like… like a stone? The raccoon couldn’t begin to imagine; and he wouldn’t do that either. It was just a thought; and a bad one at that. He knew by now that he would have to destroy himself first; and perhaps, he suddenly realized, that’s exactly what the demi-god, or whoever he was, had in mind.

And just what was it about this particular stone that was so different from all others? Sure it was black, and it was beautiful, Elmo imaged; but lots of stones are black, some even blacker and more beautiful than the Motherstone, and certainly more precious, as far as their monetary value is concerned, such as silver and gold; not to mention diamonds, which he’d so far only heard of. He once came across a black onyx stone that an old miner brought down from the hills one day. He claimed at the time that the dark gem or ‘black diamond’, as he falsely but adamantly referred to it as, was worth a hundred times its weight in gold; or at least as much as the Harlie’s farm, the miner insisted, which, relatively speaking, wasn’t worth very much, and didn’t even belong to him anyway. Whatever became of the poor black miner and his ‘black diamond’, Elmo would never know. But it was a pretty stone, the black onyx, and something Elmo always wished he could have owned.

And perhaps he already did. Maybe what he had was something even better! There was something his own precious black stone that intrigued the Harlie more than any other he could imagine, including the miner’s so-called ‘black diamond’. There was something miraculous about it, magnetic, even if it never came back to life again like it did on the mountain that day; and even if it wasn’t worth the price of a new bathtub, which he had been promising his wife for so long. Man made or natural, mineral or machine, there appeared to be something special about it. But in the Harlie’s small raccoon hands, it presently appeared lifeless and dead, just as dead as his Uncle Joe. But there was something else the Harlie found very special, almost personal, about the stone: the fact that his uncle saw very much the same thing that he saw in; although it was something he didn’t seem particularly interested in talking about at the time. If indeed, the old fly-catcher knew what it was, he simply wouldn’t say. But whatever it was, it belonged to Elmo now, just as Joe Cotton said, and no one else; and that’s all that seemed to matter. And considering how lonely and poor Elmo had become since leaving his farm and family behind in Harley, it was indeed worth something… to him anyway.

But it was, after all, just a stone – Or was it? The Harlie knew better by now; but what happened to it up on the mountain still confused and confounded him. Was it just a dream? Or was it a miracle? Red-Beard was certainly no dream. Was it real? He was there. He saw it all. Did it really happen that way? The gun just… went off! The Harlie could still see the colonel lying there in the dirt, in blue and grey, all broken and bruised and covered in his own blood. And he was holding on to the Motherstone as though his very life depended on it. Perhaps, that’s why he was dead.

And that’s when it happened, Elmo just then recalled: The lights! The lines! The sounds! And the pictures! There were all there – right inside the stone! It wasn’t a dream. It was real! But what was it? The Harlie still had no answers. But whatever it was, it was alive. He knew that by now. He remembered everything; everything, that is, except for: Who shot Colonel Horn? Somehow – and he didn’t know how or why – he felt that if he knew the answer to that, he would know the answer to everything. And then maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have to run anymore. But Elmo didn’t know; and he was still a raccoon on the run; he thought he would be for the rest of his life. It didn’t take a demi-god or a Messiah to figure that out. And even though the Great Raccoon didn’t realize it at the time, the Motherstone was still showing him the way.

Like a needle on a compass, the loadstone of which invariable draws the needle in one true direction, the stone always pointed the Harlie in that same direction, only in reverse. It always, inevitably, pointed him South. It was a magnetic phenomenon, which, just like everyone else who came in contact with the stone, affected him in ways he simply could not begin to understand. It frightened him at times. It was almost as if the stone was forcing him to look at things in ways he never looked at them before, challenging and compelling him to go where he otherwise dare not go. But where? and more importantly – Why? In a strange and almost comforting way, the raccoon was only beginning to feel that the choices he’d made so far, as well as others he would certainly have to make in the future, had already been made for him, somehow. There was also a certain reassurance in knowing that, although he never knew for sure whom or what it was that was making those choices, they were always the right decisions. After a while, he didn’t even think about it anymore. He just knew it was right; and somehow, that was enough.

And then one day it happened. It was towards the end of a long, hot, and cloudless day. It was springtime. The air was fresh and clean. And so, the Harlie decided to go for a walk down by the river, as he usually did before sitting down to supper. He had brought along his suitcase and sailing shoes, having grown increasingly wary that the thief who had ransacked the cabin earlier might eventually return, looking for more than shelter, perhaps.

Although the water was still very cold for that time of the year, and running dangerously low, he thought he might go for a swim, just to wash the day’s dirt from his body. Lowering the straps and stepping out of his overalls, Elmo checked the top pocket to make sure the Motherstone was safe and secure. And then he checked it again. He rolled the denim cloth up into a tight blue ball, placed it inside the leather suitcase, and buckled it shut. Walking nakedly about for a while, he soon found an old sea-oak with a hollowed out trunk standing near the water’s edge. He looked nervously around before placing the suitcase deep inside the trunk of the tree, and headed straight for the water.

The water was colder than he though it should be; and so, he washed himself as quickly and as thoroughly as he could before wading back to the shore. Shivering cold and wet, the raccoon crawled up the sandy bank of the Redman River and headed straight for the sea-oak to fetch his few belongings. He reached inside the suitcase for his overalls, which were still tied up in a blue ball, and was becoming very cold by then. He pulled them out quickly with a sharp tug that must’ve undone the top button of the denim, allowing the Motherstone to fall freely out of the cloth and roll along the ground on downward trajectory straight for the water’s edge. With accelerated speed and inclined momentum, the stone quickly and suddenly found its way into the same icy blue waters from which the Harlie had just emerged. His first and most natural impulse was to go after it, which he quickly did without hesitation, forgetting everything else for the moment, including a pair of corrective lenses spying on him from far across the chilling white water.

Naturally, Elmo dived right in after it. After only a few frozen and frantic seconds, he came up with the stone firmly ensconced in his trembling wet hands. With his mind on nothing else at the time, he then sat down on the beach for a moment to catch his breath and think of how stupid and careless he had been lately. And then, just as he’d done a hundred times before, he looked deep into the Motherstone, the shinning black surface of which had presently taken on a new shimmering dimension, as if the watery baptism had suddenly and somehow brought forth from the stone some new and different aspect it’d previously lacked.

And as he held the stone his cold and wet hands, as a mother might hold her newly christened son over the holy fountain of Salvation, Elmo noticed something very different about it. It was rounder, it seemed, smoother to the touch; and indeed, it felt lighter than ever before, at least more than usual. And then, something strange happened to the stone, something that hadn’t happened since Elmo found it on the mountain – It came alive! And it came alive just like it did before when Colonel Rusty ‘Red-Beard’ Horn held it in his own murderous hands on top of Mount Wainwright almost a year ago.

It happened just like it did on back then. It was a miracle! First the fine white lines appeared, cascading over the surface of the black stone in steady rhythmic streams of motion, horizontally, and then vertically. The lines grew thicker, and brighter, as if competing with and crowding one another for space on the curved radius of the cold black slate. And then came the sounds. Indescribable and inscrutable sounds, like…like music! But it wasn’t exactly music, at least not like any music Elmo had ever heard, in church or anywhere else. It was better! Like nothing the Harlie had heard since, since he first witnessed the vital transformation on top of a mountain of gold.

The lines faded and the colors quickly followed, unfolding into a spectrum of exploding lights, a rainbow of colors; and it happened all in an instant, the blink of an eye, or so it seemed. It was…Magic! The lights became sounds; the sounds became words; and the words, they became images, just as they did before. And then the stars came out, one by one, growing in intensity and brightness. Once again, the Universe was opening before Elmo’s raccoon eyes. He was soaring, just like an eagle it seemed, high above the clouds, above sea and sky, in the upper atmosphere of the ozone, in the hazy purple twilight where Heaven and earth meet and become practically indistinguishable from one another. It was a place the dead Indian, Boy, certainly must have visited on one of his many a celestial voyage through the galaxy, Elmo could easily imagine; before the ‘big sleep’ set in; a place where gods, devils, demi-gods and angels stratospherically congregate when they’re not too busy making love and war.

And then the descent began, slowly at first but with ever-increasing velocity. Down and down he went, deeper into the vortex as water down a drain, the sky revolving all about him like a blue and white marbled shaft, a tornado, spinning and waxing out of control in an ever downward trajectory but growing larger and clearer with every quickening revolution. If he wasn’t so frightened just then, it might have been wonderful. And then, out of nowhere it seemed, the earth suddenly appeared. He could see trees, but only the leafy green tops. And there was water off in the distance; a river, perhaps. Life!

He was back on top of the mountain again. But where was everyone? Where was Homer? he began to wonder out loud, as if he had expected to see the old man standing there on top of the mountain, with his boots and badge, and his silly old toothache, like he’d been waiting for him all along. ‘Well… it’s about time,’ he all but expected to hear just then. Instead, he saw many strange men, wearing even stranger looking clothes, like those of the Redmen, only longer; and they were all white. They were talking to one another, but their voices were undistinguishable, incoherent, and far away it seemed. And then they all disappeared, and Elmo was left all alone.

He glanced down. The stone was still there. It appeared white hot, like the stuff the sun is made of; and yet, it didn’t burn. There were sparks everywhere, appearing as so many blinking stars in the deep dark Heavens; or maybe, as Elmo first thought, it was just the sun reflecting off the wet surface of the stone. The sparks then turned into fireflies that seemed to be hover about some inner mounting flame that suddenly and somehow emerged from the very the heart of the stone. They reminded the Harlie of the night he spent with Homer under the moon and stars, in the shadow of the mountain, when the old man thought he was asleep. He remembered the firefly with the wicked green glow, and he how it finally came to its fiery death, devoured as it were by the flames of the campfire. And then the fire went out.

From out of nowhere, or so it seemed, a face appeared; not portrayed on the hard wet surface of the stone, but rather from deep within the mineral itself. At first, he thought the face in the stone was merely a reflection of his own image. He’d seen before under similar circumstances; but never was it so clearly defined, which is why he knew in an instant that the face didn’t belong to him. The image, if you could still call it that as it had presently assumed the three dimensional aspects associated with all other physical objects, was blurry at first; distorted, as if impregnated with tiny grains of sand that Elmo attempted to brush away with the tips of his frozen fingers, but just couldn’t. And then, right before his eyes, as if sculptured by some unseen hand, and in a matter of mere moments, the distinctive, shapely, and unmistaken head of a woman materialized in all its finely chiseled and feminine glory.

The face appeared crystallized, as if frozen in time like a multi-dimensional hologram, which Elmo was irresistibly and inextricably drawn to. It was the face of a woman; a face he’d seen once before but could not remember where, or when. She had long delicate features and flowing red hair that draped well over her shoulder like tongues of orange flame. But what was most striking about her, were her eyes. They were green, like those of a feral feline, savagely beautiful, and wild. Yet, they were soft and sorrowful, in a bewildering sort of way, and merciful. They spoke to him; but not in so many words. It was more like hearing a beautiful melody, the meaning of which is better understood without words. They seemed to tell a story, a tale of passion and woe, paradoxically shrouded in mirth and melancholy. It was a pretty face, plain and simple; but in a uniquely beautiful way. It was merely the face of a woman.

It could’ve belonged to any Creek woman, he imagined. It was that white and fair. Her skin was smooth, too; not even a blemish. She might’ve been an angel for all he could tell, like the ones he once saw in a picture book in Mrs. Skinner’s parlor. Whoever she was, she was not from Harley; that much he was sure of; although, it was always possible that she might’ve been there at one time or another. There were times, especially during the war, when some of the good women of Creekwood Green would brave the Iron Gates and assist their Harlie sisters whose husbands were often taken away by confederate officers, for logistical reasons, or simple ran away to fight for their own freedom on the clandestine rails of what was known at the time as the ‘Underground Rail Road’, a vast, complicated, and sometimes deadly, system of transporting runaway slaves, usually with the assistance of evangelicals and other like-mined abolitionists, through the swamps and backwoods of Dixie and across the Mason-Dixon, where at least they had a fighting chance for freedom. Elmo simply couldn’t help but feel that he’d seen the face before. And then, just as he did on top of the mountain one day, the lights went out, and so did he. In what seemed like a dream, the raccoon found himself resting beside a cool stream in the woods. All around him were tall leafy trees with bright red bark, the color of rusty nails. He sat up in the many blades of grass that came clear up to his knees and could think of no other place he would rather be at the moment.

Spying the idyllic surroundings, he spotted a freckled face young boy fishing in a nearby stream. He was sitting under an apple tree and holding a long rod that angled far out over the still blue water beyond. The boy couldn't have been more than nine or ten years old, Elmo imagined, not much older than his own little boy, Ralph. And he was so quiet and still that the Harlie thought he might actually be sleeping at the time, which, if fact, he was, even as the pole played in his innocent young hand with a catch, the rod suddenly bent and the line went tight, making a clean crease across the surface of the water. The boy did not so much as move.

Elmo stood up and shouted out over the tall blades of grass, ‘Hey! Look! – You gots one, boy!’

Oblivious, or so seemed, to any sudden movements, and taking no immediate actions to the Harlie’s vocal enthusiasms, the boy still didn’t answer. Not a single red hair on his head had stirred.

By then the excited raccoon was well on his feet and heading straight for the creek to see just what the problem was, or if there even was one. He still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the situation, and wondered if the boy was indeed fast asleep, or just plain deaf and dumb. Either way, Elmo thought he still might be able to assist the boy, or at least give him some much-needed instructions on creek‑fishing, something the Harlie had learned from his Uncle Joe when he was just about the same age. Poor lil’ feller,” he thought to himself, don't even know hows to hold the pole. ‘Tain’t no way to catch a damn fish!’ he hollered.

The rod bent some more, and nearly went under this time. “Hey!’ the raccoon shouted out again, much louder than before. “Reel 'im in, boy! Quick! Don’t let ‘im get away now. I say, reel 'im...”

Suddenly, and from out of nowhere it seemed, there came a voice. “Stop,” it said, with no particular aim or direction. It was not a particular loud voice, nor was there anything in its vocal vibrations to suggest any real urgency or alarm, other than the fact that it seemed to be everywhere, ubiquitous and omnipresent at the same time.

“Stop!”

‘There it go again,’ said the Harlie to no one but himself, looking over the tall blades of grass as he drew closer to the stream.

It was a man’s voice Elmo had heard; that much he was sure of. There was a masculine quality about it; something children are most aware of. It was earthy, resonant; and it didn’t seem to be very far away at all. But where? he wondered. And to whom was it speaking?

It was a powerful voice, too; one Elmo didn’t particularly like at the time. It was also intimidating, in a patronizing sort of way that perhaps he should’ve been used to by now. It was a voice that meant what it said and said what it meant, and had to be reckoned with sooner or later. It was a voice that meant business. But at the same time, it was good and wholesome voice; and it did exactly what it was suppose to, what it was meant to do all along: It stopped the Harlie, dead in his raccoon tracks, just like it would any other creature, mortal or immortal. What else could he do? He had no other choice.

There, in a small clearing somewhere off in the woods, stood a woodsman. He looked tall and grim, and very old, but still very strong. And he was holding in his hand a double‑bladed axe, one edge of which was still wedging a small log that was in the process of being split in two when the incident occurred. He must've been working very hard that day, thought the frozen Harlie, judging by the amount of logs that were already split and piled up high besides the old man in a great tall stack. There were beads of perspiration covering the not only the old man’s furrowed gray forehead, but his entire neck and chest as well, a single drop of sweat dangling precipitously from the tip of his venerable old nose. His wore long pants and no shirt, and his arms were as thick as small tree trunks, the purple veins rising visibly to the surface like confluent rivers branching and meandering off in their own indiscriminate directions. He also had a long beard that seemed to match the steely white wool that covered so much of his expanded chest. He was lean and muscular (for an old man, that is) which gave him the appearance of someone much younger, perhaps still in the prime of life. He might’ve been a Creekman, thought the raccoon, cautiously, of course, but he was too far away to tell. And even if he was, it really didn’t seem to matter. Not as far as he was concerned. But there was something else about this woodsman. Even from a distance, Elmo could see that he was a man of authority, a man of reckoning, a man probably made of the stuff lesser men were not. And his voice was loud and clear, as he spoke out once more: ‘Be careful, son… and don't move’. He was, of course, talking to his own son by then, the little boy fishing in the stream.

At first, and for whatever reason, Elmo thought that maybe the woodsman was still talking to him, as he’d done only moment before, only now in a more fatherly and less frightening tone as he might’ve expected. But turning his attention back to the stream, the wide-eyed raccoon noticed that the boy was suddenly alerted by the sound of the old man’s voice, as well he should’ve been. And not only that – he’d let go of the pole by then, and lost the fish! It made the Harlie a little more than angry, thinking that the boy should’ve paid more attention and caught the fish by now, if he’d only listened to him, instead of the old man, he sadly surmised.

But there was something else, besides the benevolent voice of his own father, that’d finally caught the boy’s waking attention, causing him not only to drop pole into the water but stand at sudden and apprehensive attention. The Harlie noticed it as well; for there, on the opposite side of the creek, crouched in the shadow of a tall evergreen, lurked a hungry lion ready to spring. It was a big cat, with menacing green eyes, a slick silvery coat, and a masculine mane that appeared to surround its entire head in a yellow halo of hair. Its fangs were long and sharp, like the twin white tusks as the saber-toothed tiger. There was blood in the cat’s whiskers, as it hissed in the familiar feline sound associated with that particular species. Its other teeth appeared as two rows of very sharp knives, as pure and white as virgin snow protruding from the dark red jaws of the beast. The claws of the lion were exposed as well, unsheathed as it were from their soft-mittened housings, waiting for just the right moment to strike.

The sudden and unexpected appearance of the dangerous mammal didn’t afford the Harlie much time to think about what to do next, as it surely must’ve caught the youthful fisherman off his guard as well. It looked first at the boy, who was by now standing straight up and alert but not necessarily afraid, and then back at the woodsman who appeared calmly concerned, but from a much greater distance.

The boy didn’t appear to perceive any immediate danger. For the time being, he simply stood and stared curiously at the cat, occasionally turned his gaze back to the woodsman, whom Harlie had rightfully guessed by then to be boy's own father. Neither of them appeared particularly worried at the time, but the old woodsman was seriously and genuinely concerned for the safety of his son, and it showed. He’d seen the lion before; that much was self-evident, even to a raccoon on the run. With his old gray eyes firmly fixed on the lion’s every movement, the woodsman remained cool and calm.

By then, of course, the big cat had stalked well within striking distance of the boy and was well with range to attack. It was easy for the Harlie to see, even in a dream, what was about to happen next. And there was nothing he could do about it. But the boy still didn’t move, and the old man kept his composure as if he’d rehearsed this scene a thousand times before and already knew the outcome of the play. He repeated his previous admonition: ‘Don’t move, son’. And he said no more.

Apparently, and for reason’s the Harlie couldn’t quite seem to understand, the boy’s father did nothing else to arrest the dire and dangerous situations; in fact, it almost appeared as though he would go right back to work, spitting logs just as he’d been doing before the potentially fatal incident took place. He certainly didn’t do what Elmo had expected him to do. But the lion, the lion did exactly what it was expected to do, what any carnivorous creature does in situations like these. It only did what comes natural, what it was made to do. It growled.

The boy turned his head to the woodsman, and the back at the lion again. He looked scared by then, as any little boy should under such perilous circumstances. Something had to be done, and fast. The Harlie felt a deep and sudden compassion for the boy and, moreover, a growing and unabated anger at the reluctant woodsmen for not doing what any good father in his right mind and heart surely would’ve done by now for in defense of someone he might’ve loved. And for that reason alone, he decided to take matters into his own raccoon hands. Elmo moved.

Then suddenly the woodsman spoke out for a third time. Only this time he did so in a slow, steady, and almost instructive tone that sounded more like a father talking to his son what to do rather than a direct command. And in his dream this is what Elmo heard the woodsman say: ‘Listen to me, son, and listen very carefully. This is important. Now, do exactly as I tell you, and nothing else. You hear?’

The boy gulped and nodded.

But the lion was listening too, or so it seemed, shaking its massive mane from side to side, as if slightly confused at the cautious words of the boy’s father. It had seen this wood-chopper before, and knew who He was. He was a great hunter who’d stalked him in the past. His arrows were long and sharp; they have pierced the lion’s hide many times, but never fatally – not yet. It was a hunt that’d been going on now for over two thousand years; the game was just as dangerous as it ever was, and the stakes even higher. The lion growled and hissed, its venomous fangs glistening in the morning sun, shooting daggers into its paralyzed prey.

‘Now, go in the water…’ the woodsman instructed next, a little more sternly, his eyes forever fixed on his prey. ‘Go ahead, son. It’s alright. I’m here,’ he further coxed the boy, ‘and walk in all the way into the water. And don’t stop until I tell you to; not even if it’s over your head and you can’t feel the bottom anymore. Do you understand, son?’

The boy opened his mouth but, as it sometimes happens with little boy’s when they are suddenly overwhelmed with a certain dread they can neither comprehend nor avoid, nothing came out. He was speechless with fright by then, and quickly became bewildered and distressed. He wanted to cry, but was too scared. And so he did the only thing he could do, what he was supposed to do all along; he listened to his father and followed his instructions to the letter, he went forward into the water, even as the lion made ready to spring on the far side of the stream. It was almost too easy, thought the Harlie, sadly, thinking for sure that the wicked woodsman actually meant to sacrifice his own flesh and blood in order to appease the feline fiend from hell.

But the father knew exactly what he was doing, which was more than Elmo could ever imagine. He also knew what he was going through the boy’s head at that perilous and uncertain moment. And so he spoke again: ‘Don’t worry, son. Just do as I say and everything will be alright. I promise. And don't come out until I say so. Go ahead now, boy. Go ahead,’ he quietly commanded. ‘And don't be afraid’.

The boy was hesitant at first. And no wonder! He wasn't even sure if he could swim, having never tried it before, at least not in water over his head. Besides that, the current in the stream had suddenly picked up by then, and there were now many rocks and other sharp objects in the stream that only frightened him more. And so, he looked to his father for assistance, re-assurance, hoping, perhaps, that the old man would soon be coming running over to help him at any moment, preferably with his axe. But it just didn’t happen that way.

All the while, the Harlie kept his distance, thinking that it was really no longer his business, and hoping for a quick and merciful kill. He shuttered at the thought and tried to cover his animal eyes, for there was little or nothing he could do about it by then. This was between father and son. And Elmo knew what it was like to be deserted in times of trouble; it only made him pity the boy even more. But the thought hadn't occurred to him, or the boy for that matter, that at most the water in the stream was only shoulder high at its deepest point; and that even for a child, the prospect of drowning was extremely unlikely, if not impossible.

And for the time being the boy still wasn't in real and immediate danger, not while that danger, the lion, that is, remained at a respectable distance and his father was still close enough by to rescue him, if he really wanted to. It is an understandable fact, at least as far as little boys are concerned, that if it can't reach you, it can't touch you; and if it can't touch you, then it can't hurt you. But that's why little boys are what they are: little boys, and why they sometimes have to learn the hard way if they are to learn at all, especially when it comes to evil and dangerous things like lions. And still the danger was far enough away as to not constitute an eminent threat. As a matter of fact, it was also a danger that hardly seemed worth the risk of drowning, or even getting wet over. And from a practical standpoint, it was a hazard that would only be nearer in proximity to the boy if he did what his father was telling him to do him to do, which was to into the water, rather than run back to the woodsman, which was clearly still a viable option at that point.

These and a myriad of other notions passed through the raccoon’s conscientiousness as he lay sleeping on the beach that day with the Motherstone still resting in his trembling wet hands. It was almost as though he was reading the boy's thoughts, like his mule would do to him on occasion, and felt just as confused. It was almost as if they were both thinking the same thing; as if it were he, the Harley sharecropper and bean farmer was the one in imminent peril and being asked to make the decision rather than the woodsman’s son. Would he choose correctly? Would he go into the water, despite all he knew by then, and regardless of the fatal outcome? Or would he run, like the scared and frightened and lonely raccoon that he’d become. What would the boy do? He still didn’t know.

Of course, the possibility of actually drowning that day never really existed at all. But the boy didn’t know that; and neither did the Harlie who was even more surprised at what happened next. You see, the woodsman did know what would happen all along. He always knew. You might even say he was expecting it. He’d actually done it many times before; but not always with the same results, and not always with the same boy. But this one knew what to do. And he did it! which was exactly what his father had told him to do. He walked straight into the water, a little hesitantly at first, but with a growing confidence that made the crouching lion lick its salivating lips in anticipation. With the water leveling his shoulders by now, and his head bobbing on the surface like bright red cork, the boy halted and stood there until he heard otherwise. And then the woodsman smiled from a distance, and almost appeared to laugh right out loud. Whether the boy did what he did out of fear of the lion or respect for his father didn’t seem to matter. He did it, and that’s all there was to it. Of course, if he’d done anything more, or less, the lion would’ve had the upper hand, or paw that is, and surely would’ve killed the boy by then.

But the raccoon still didn’t realize exactly what was going on, and he wanted to scream: ‘Run for your life, boy! Run!’ He felt for sure that the lion would take advantage of the situation by attacking the boy in the shallow stream and strike at once. After all, the water wasn't that deep, even in the middle, or so it seemed. At worst, the hungry cat would only get a cold bath, he further imagined, and at best, a healthy young meal, which apparently was all he really wanted anyway. Whether or not the boy had realized this as well, and why he did what he did, would remain a mystery to the raccoon for some time to come. Elmo knew what he would've done under similar circumstances – run like a raccoon! And that’s exactly what he did.

The last thing Elmo remembered before waking up on the sandy shores of the ‘Great White Snake’ was looking back and seeing the boy smiling, and waving back to his father by the woodpile with a big yellow fish in his hand. The lion was gone by then, of course, and was nowhere to be seen. The father simply waved back, laughed, and went right on with his work as though nothing had happened, at least not anything he hadn't expected to happen all along.

Sharp and cunning is the raccoon, say the Indians, by whom he is named Spotted Face. A crawfish one evening wandered along a river bank, looking for something dead to feast upon. A raccoon was also out looking for something to eat. He spied the crawfish and formed a plan to catch him.

He lay down on the bank and feigned to be dead. By and by the crawfish came near by. "Ho," he thought, "here is a feast indeed; but is he really dead. I will go near and pinch him with my claws and find out."

So he went near and pinched the raccoon on the nose and then on his soft paws. The raccoon never moved. The crawfish then pinched him on the ribs and tickled him so that the raccoon could hardly keep from laughing. The crawfish at last left him. "The raccoon is surely dead," he thought. And he hurried back to the crawfish village and reported his find to the chief.

All the villagers were called to go down to the feast. The chief bade the warriors and young men to paint their faces and dress in their gayest for a dance. So they marched in a long line--first the warriors, with their weapons in hand, then the women with their babies and children--to the place where the raccoon lay. They formed a great circle about him and danced, singing:

"We shall have a great feast
On the spotted-faced beast, with soft smooth paws:
He is dead!
He is dead!
We shall dance!
We shall have a good time;
We shall feast on his flesh."

But as they danced, the raccoon suddenly sprang to his feet.

"Who is that you say you are going to eat? He has a spotted face, has he? He has soft, smooth paws, has he? I'll break your ugly backs. I'll break your rough bones. I'll crunch your ugly, rough paws." And he rushed among the crawfish, killing them by scores. The crawfish warriors fought bravely and the women ran screaming, all to no purpose. They did not feast on the raccoon; the raccoon feasted on them!


Chapter Ten

The Turtle and the Raccoon

(Another trick of the light)

BEFORE LEAVING THE OLD INDIAN CAMP, he burned down the cabin and thus completed a job left unfinished. It was a sad and melancholy moment, and one the Harlie would just as soon forget. And so, with his suitcase firmly in hand, he continued his journey by picking up the trail that headed south along the western bank of the Redman River. Once again, Elmo Cotton was a raccoon on the run.

More than once, he looked back over his shoulder, thinking that someone might still be following him. He was never completely sure if he was alone, not since he’d first left home. And just as he turned onto a dirt road that ran parallel to the river, he thought he saw the tall stranger once again, the demi-god. It looked like the same figure he’d once seen in the bean fields and at the Harley Gates; and then a third time not too long ago, on the other side of the river. He was standing in the ashes of the burnt cabin, appearing almost as if he were waiting for someone. He’d be waiting for a long time, Elmo imagined. “Go to hell” barked the raccoon as he turned tail and headed straight for the river.

For the present, the Harlie’s destination was Old Port Fierce, the harbor-town located southeast of Harley where the Redman River emptied into the sea. It was named for Captain Benjamin Fierce, the original commander of a fort that once stood there during the war but no longer exists, except for a few grave-markers where some dead soldiers had been buried.

Old Port Fierce was a busy place where the tall ships came in, either to load and unload their cargo or simply rest after logging many nautical miles at sea. It was a dry haven for sailors, merchants, and other mariners that stayed in town just long enough spend their hard-earned wages, which, of course, never seemed to take very long. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon your point of view, I suppose, most of their meager monetary gains usually found its way into the pockets of saloon keepers or the purses of prostitutes that thrived in the northwest section of the old port city, especially along Avenue ‘D’, not far from the inlet, in a place known only as Shadytown.

With the exception of a man-made reef jutting out into the sea, consisting mostly of submerged concrete boulders, old scrap iron, and a few shipwrecks, the broken masts and smokestacks of which could easily be seen at low tide, the port itself was chiefly a product of Nature. The jetty stretched about hundred yards or so out into the bay, strategically located for both commercial and military convenience, occasional reinforced with other man-made materials supplied by the merchants themselves. At one time, the military had jurisdiction over the entire territory and, to a certain extent, they still do. But due to changing demographics and certain economic factors that came about as a result of the war, much of that had changed since then.

With the opening of more lucrative ports along the Eastern seaboard that were more accommodating to the larger vessels that cruised the oceans with ever-expanding hulls and deeper drafts, the old port had actually declined in the use it was originally designed for, as did the rich and diverse communities surrounding the port. And to make matters worse, as far as the sea-merchants were concerned, there was the new railway system to compete with which was rapidly displacing the transport and cargo ships of the merchant marines. Not only did these so called ‘Iron Horses’ from the North prove to be more profitable from an economical and operational standpoint, but they were not subjected to pirates and renegade privateers that still roamed that watery part of the globe in search of booty, or whatever else they could plunder. But even they were becoming part of a distant and shadowy past, the skull and crossbones of their Jolly-Rogers having lost since lost their famous grin, replaced as of lately by military banners flown by ironclad warships and the merchants who paid them to keep them afloat.

For some, the war never did end; and if they could no longer turn a profit by supplying arms, smuggling slaves, running contraband, or merely sinking or boarding enemy vessels – never mind which flag might’ve flown over the doomed and desirable ships – they would find some other way to make a living; which of course, they did, never forgetting, however, their salty roots and barbarous past. For the most part, they simply traded in their crossed swords for six guns, their longboats for horses, their Jolly Rogers for the stars and stripes, and their gold for greenbacks. Hell! they may have even shaved off their beards by now. Instead of wreaking their own special brand of terror on the high seas, these modern-day buccaneers simply turned their spyglass and guns to stagecoaches and railway cars, which, although not nearly as profitable as the frigates and galleons they were accustomed to boarding, with hulls packed full of guns and gold, were far easier to negotiate, and seldom shot back. Some of these went on to become famous politicians, statesmen, ambassadors, lawyers, and other semi-legitimate professionals – even bankers! What they used to steal they would now buy, which, in some cases, was a whole lot cheaper, and easier! Extortion was just another way of doing business, on land as well as sea. There was something old and traditional about it, something…Sicilian. Nobody complained. No one dared. Some of the more notorious businessmen tried to legitimize their nefarious professions by giving a portion of their ill-gotten profits to the poor, in the same spirit the marauding Mongols would sometimes throw pennies to widows and orphans they plucked from the pockets of their dead husbands and fathers. Leopards seldom, if ever, change their stripes; they never change their ways. For a while, at least, the world was theirs for the taking, a virtual cornucopia of un-taxes treasures; their own ubiquitous and bountiful oyster bed, there for the picking.

But Beneath their altruistic masks and charitable endeavors, they were still thief and pirate at heart. The sea was in their blood; they were sons of sailors. And when they weren’t plowing the oceans, plundering other vessels, or killing one another over English pounds, Spanish pieces of eight, Ecuadorian doubloons, or good old plain silver dollars, there was really no other place these seadogs would rather be than old Port Fierce. It was place to ‘drop an anchor, pull a cork, and dry some wood’ as they say in their own salty vernacular. And what better place to do it than good ol’ Port Fierce? Naturally, being located so close to the ocean itself, and with a deep enough harbor to accommodate the long and heavy draws of their ever-increasing hulls, was only one of the port’s many advantages the captains and commodores of these vessels were appreciative of, especially when a quick and clean get-a-way was in order, which was known to happen at the drop of a hat, a slip of the lip, or the sound of a gun. But as the saying goes: ‘Any port in a storm’. And Old Port Fierce was just as good as any, I suppose, maybe even better.

More than once, Elmo thought about first going back to Harley before continuing his uncertain sojourn, just to see if circumstances might have had changed since he’d left, or if anyone knew, or even cared, if he was still alive, not least of all his own wife and child. He would have to pass close enough by the ‘Iron Gates’ on his way down south; it was simply unavoidable, unless, of course, he chose to take a more westerly route, which would take him into parts unknown and places, at least from what he’d heard about them, he’d rather not be. But he decided against both. It was just too risky. He was still a fugitive and a raccoon on the run. Besides, he couldn’t face his wife; not yet, anyway. The time was just not right; and besides, he was too ashamed. And there was still a sheriff with Chinese eyes who, even at that very moment, might be out there somewhere huntin’ ‘coon’. He decided to stay close to the river, the Great white Snake, the one he knew so well.

A year had passed since he’d first left home. He thought for sure there was a bounty on his head by now, which, as far as the Harlie was concerned, was just as good as a rope around his neck. Elmo Cotton, the Harlie, had a date with the Grasshopper; and he knew it; he just didn’t know when, and, from that point on, began wondering if he would ever go home at all. The prospects did not look too good. And so, he traveled south staying as far away from Harley and Creekwood Green as possible, out of sight and out of mind. If necessary he knew he could always make a quick and clean get-a-way across the Redman River, the Great White Snake, which was never more than a stone’s throw over his left shoulder. He intended to keep it that way. Elmo didn’t have a raft anymore – he’d burned that as well, along with the cabin; but, unlike some less fortunate land-locked animals, raccoons do know how to swim; in fact they’re very good at it, and can actually drown a dog, if the canine is foolish enough to follow a coon into the water. It was just something else the raccoon had learned about himself, mostly from the Indians, that he knew would eventually come in handy. And it did.

The waters of the Redman River were unusually low for that time of the year, exposing the rocky contours that formed the backbone of the Great White Snake, a term, by the way, first coined by the Indians and later used by the Creekman who lived there about to describe the rapid flowing motion caused by the natural geographics and hydrodynamic phenomenon otherwise known as ‘the Rapids’ and forcing the water along at a much greater velocity than it otherwise would when the river ran high. Looking back to the east and over the rushing white hump of the snake, he thought he could see smoke plumes rising up over the Long Island in the vicinity of where the Redman camp should be. The smoke was dark and ascended in large ominous clouds, which, if his memory served him correctly, meant only one thing: something bad had occurred, something evil.

The raccoon’s first impulse was to run back to get a better view, and perhaps even swim across the river to see what it was all about; after all, he was still a demi-god, at least in the eyes of those who could still appreciate it; but calling to mind the evil High Priest and the bear-skinned demi-god who may very well be the subject, if not the source, of the smoke, concluded that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea after all. Besides, he wasn’t quite ready for a Second Coming; and neither were they, he reckoned. But still, the Harlie found himself drifting closer and closer to the water’s edge, as if drawn there by the same hydro-dynamic force, perhaps, the same magnetic energy that was also driving him closer to the sea itself. It was his destiny; that watery part of the world he was so unfamiliar with. It’s where he had to go. The stone had told him so; and so did the sailin’ shoes.

As previously alluded to, Elmo cotton had only recently learned how to swim; and ever since the Motherstone suddenly sprang back to life on the bank of the river, the fear of drowning was always on his mind. He couldn’t imagine a more helpless and horrible way to die. It frightened him to n o end. The dreams he’d been having recently and the incident with the bear might’ve had something to do with his newly acquired hydrophobia; it certainly didn’t help matter. Not to mention the fact that not too long ago he’d once almost drowned, in little more than two feet of water, deep inside a hungry mountain. He clearly recalled the little boy fishing by the stream, along with the lion and the woodsman, and shuttered to think what might’ve happened if the boy hadn’t listened to his father. And then there was the stone, and all its watery images. He could still vividly see the face of the woman with the red hair and green eyes. But it was more than a face. It was real. More real than anything else, perhaps.

At length, the raccoon came to a place along the sandy slopes of the river where there stood a tall log cabin alone in the wilderness. It was not at all like the cabin he’d found earlier in the woods, the one he’d destroyed. For one thing, this one was occupied, as clearly evinced by the smoke emanating from a tall brick chimney attached to the north side of the cabin. It also appeared well kept and very clean. There were even curtains in the windows. He kept far enough away from the structure so as not to be noticed; but not so far that he couldn’t hear the sweet sound of the woman within. She was singing, it seemed; the melody coming from an opened window that looked like it might’ve been made of stained glass, the kind he’d seen inside a big church in Creekwood Green that Homer had once taken him to. Among other verses, this is what the raccoon on the run heard that day:

“A sailor's like is like the sea
That rolls in with the tide
It comes and goes, then fades away.
But never really dies...”

The sound immediately put the raccoon at ease, even though he was very suspicious, and the words made him wonder. It was sad song, something about a sailor… Maybe the woman’s husband, he imagined. Did he die? At sea, perhaps? It was hard to tell. The words were too vague; the song, unfinished. The woman’s voice reminded him of the way Nadine would sing while mending socks or pumping a churn back home in Harley, especially on such a bright and sunny morning as this one. It was a good sound, he reckoned, something he hadn’t heard in quite some time.

Not far from the cabin Elmo spotted a young boy standing near the water’s edge. He was skipping flat stones across the glassy surface of the water. The water was calm that day, and the Harlie counted nine skips from one stone alone. It was a good throw, and a lucky number at that! The boy appeared to be about the same age as Lil’ Ralph, which only left the Harlie feeling more homesick than ever. He wondered what his son was doing just then. Probably banging on an old copper kettle with a long wooden spoon, he imagined, and driving is poor mother crazy.

Except for his Indian acquaintances, he hadn’t spoken to another human being in over a year, and was surprised at just how quickly the time had passed; it didn’t seem like all that long ago. After being alone in the woods for so long, Elmo thought he might have a word with the woman, or perhaps just say hello to the boy who looked like he could use a little male companionship, even it was just a Harlie. Actually, he just wanted someone to talk to – anyone! And it didn’t matter who. But these were Creekfolk, reckoned the raccoon, instinctively; and recalling prejudices of the past, a whip across his back, and a sheriff who had a thing for hunting coon, he thought that maybe it would be in his best interest to keep his distance, for a while at least.

Still, he wanted to talk to someone, even though he wasn’t quite sure what it was he would actually say. By now his hair and whiskers had grown long and wild; he doubted that even his own wife would recognize him. He was still dressed in his blue overalls, which were very old and dirty by now, in some places as thin as skin. He felt ashamed, embarrassed. And he really didn’t want to frighten anyone, especially not a little boy who probably had never even seen a Harlie like him before. Of course, he was still a fugitive from justice, and very much a raccoon on the run. He waved to the boy by the water’s edge. With stone in his hand, the boy smile and waved back, his face was freckled by the sun. And just as he turned to walk away, Elmo could hear the woman calling the boy home for supper: “Jim-Bob! Jim-Bob Moses! Time to eat!” she shouted in the way mothers often do.

The boy didn't appear to hear her calling him home that day. Or maybe he just wasn’t listening, Elmo speculated, having witnessed such behavior from his own son from time to time under similar self-absorbed circumstances. As he rounded a bend in the river, he could hear woman’s voice cry out once more: “James Robert Moses! You get in here right this minute! You hear? Supper's almost ready!” And when Elmo turned his attention back to the boy, he was gone – just like Lil’ Ralph.

* * *

TO PASS THE TIME OF DAY, the raccoon on the run and former demi-god skipped a few stones of his own across the tranquil back of the Great White Snake as he strolled along its serpentine banks. In his own meandering mind, the Harlie pictured all kinds of boats sailing up and down the deep blue channel of the river that day and into the old port city where he knew his destiny to lie. Beyond that, he imagined – Who knows? He had never been this far south before, except for one time when Joe Cotton took him to Old Port Fierce to visit distant some relatives who lived there at the time; but that was so long ago he could barely recall their names, or faces. All he remembered what that it was smelly and crowded, just like his uncle said it would be; and noisy, too: ‘The hum of the hive!’ is how an old man once described it to his eager young nephew at the time.

Walking along the river bank that day with suitcase in his hand, Elmo decided once and for all he would go to Old Port Fierce; and from there…well, he would have to just wait and see. His first destination, of course, would be Shadytown where he hoped to find the man they called the Miracle-Maker, who he still wasn’t sure even existed. And where would he look? Would he even recognize him? All he had to go on was what his uncle had told him, “…it’s in a choich, son, on Avenue ‘D’, in a place called Shadytown. They calls him the Miracle-Maker. At least it was a start. He reached inside his pants leg and ran his fingers over the serrated edge of his Bowie knife. This time it would be different, he said to himself, remembering what happened that day on the mountain. This time there would be no doubt, no hesitation, and no fear. They would both know who the murdered is this time.

And then, just like the stone had told him in so many, he would take to…to the sea. All signs pointed him in the same watery direction. It was his true North, no matter where the compass needle rested. It all began to make sense: the Motherstone, the ‘sailin’ shoes, the boy fishing in the stream; and now, the river in all its awakening glory! Beckoning more clearly and loudly than ever. Water was his future, his hope and salvation. In the romantic words of the mariner: ‘Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down into a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it….’ Not unlike wretched Jonah who once upon a time set out on his own fantastic voyage across the Mediterranean Sea (no less in size, perhaps, than the vast Pacific itself in the eyes of more ancient mariners who first went down to the sea in ships with lateen sails) to escape God’s unrelenting pursuit, all the way to the pillars of Hercules if that’s what it took! so too would the rambling raccoon flee his own mortal persecutors, hopefully with more favorable results, or at least without being drawn up like an anchor and cast into the belly of some wayward whale who was after all, simply doing the Almighty’s bidding. Would the Harlie share a similar fate as the reluctant prophet? He could say. But he would first have to find a ship, bigger perhaps than the ones he’d seen floating up and down the river that day, to affect such a bold undertaking, and one that wasn’t too particular about its passengers. His ambitions ran deeper than that, as deep and dark as the mysterious ocean itself, and just as dangerous. But those kinds of ambition are expensive, and would cost the Harlie more than he could presently afford. It seemed that no matter where he went, or how far he traveled, money was always at the root of his problems. Some things just never change, I suppose.

With little or no capital to speak of, and no particular skills, other than bean farming which he really wasn’t very good at anyway, that might be easier said than done. He knew he would eventually have to earn some money to pay his fare, if indeed he ever got that far. Life in the city would be very different from what he’d been accustomed to; and despite what he’d heard regarding Cornelius G. Wainwright III and his doomed expedition, Elmo Cotton, perhaps better than anyone: there was no such thing as a free lunch, a free ride, or a free anything for that matter. Everyone pays… one way or another. That’s just the way it was, in Harley or anywhere else, even in Old Port Fierce. He would just have to make some money. But how? He wasn’t very good at farming, or mining. Hell! He wasn’t even much of a Combobulator. And having survived in the wild for so long, he’d even forgotten how to cook, preferring his meat raw by now, like any other animal, having discovered early on that it was not only tastier that way, but more nourishing as well, when prepared in its natural un-eviscerated state. Still, there must be something he could do….

He’d heard of men who were known to hide away on the ships – ‘Stowaways,’ his uncle once called them, with a certain amount of disdain in his froggy old voice for these floating freeloaders. Hobos of the sea!’ was another colorful expression often applied to these nautical nomads who, for whatever risky reason, abandoned the iron rails and boxcars they’d grown so accustomed to, in exchange for the cramped quarters of a leaky vessel and a boundless blue sea. ‘And they coitinly ain’t no gentlemen!’ he recalled his uncle saying at the time, as if he’d personally run across one or two of these ‘stowaways’ in some previous existence. They were actually lazy and evil men who would slit a captain’s throat, if you gave them half a chance, or at least a bottle of rum, and then plant the knife on you. Becoming one of these ‘stowaways’ was something Elmo’s never considered and dreaded more than ever; but it might be his only ticket after all. And he was more determined than ever to get on board one of the ships once he reached Old Port Fierce. That was the plan, for now anyway; and he was sticking to it. And he didn’t care how long it took, either; of course, he would much rather prefer it to be sooner, rather than later.

The very next day, lady luck would shine her fleeting face down upon the Harlie for the first time in a very long time. Nearing the southern border of Creekwood Green, where the serpentine river began its slow and widening journey back into the sea, the raccoon spied a small wagon traveling south along the sandy right-of-way. Assuming there was a bounty on his head by then, he quickly concealed himself behind a tall earthen berm rising up like a rampart from the ground along the edge of the river.

The wagon, which appeared freshly painted yellow and red, was being drawn by a single horse that not only looked both worn and weary but was obviously too small for the burden it bore that day, which was to pull a full wagonload perhaps ten times the poor creature’s own weight. It was a cargo consisting of so many burlap bags carelessly piled high atop one another in such a haphazard fashion that it was a wonder they hadn’t fallen off the wagon by then. It was even more of a wonder the little wagon was able to move at all, thought the Harlie from behind the loamy berm. Indeed, it was a comical sight, if not so pitiful, and one that, under any other circumstances, would have made him laugh right out loud. But there was something else…

The man driving the wagon looked vaguely familiar. He appeared not unlike the Harlie himself, only much darker and a whole lot heavier. At first glance it would appear to be just another dirt farmer on his way to the harbor with a wagonload of produce. But if that farmer just happened to be coming from Harley, then he was sure to recognize Elmo Cotton, which, needless-to-say, was the last thing the raccoon on the run wanted to happen that day, or any other day for that matter. He also noticed, almost immediately, that not a few of the burlap sacks had somehow burst open, scattering the precious produce into the sandy soil below. Oblivious, or so it seemed, to his ‘leaky’ condition, the driver of the vehicle never even noticed; nor did he once look back to see the trail he’d left behind, all the way to Harley perhaps, presently being fed on by hoards of hungry seagulls as far back as the eye could see. They were beans, of course; and not just any beans – they were Harley beans! Elmo could smell them a mile away. No other bean gave off such a unique and odorous scent; and, unlike other beans grown in and around that region, Harley beans grew all year round, yielding two generous crops – one harvested in the autumn; the other, although in a much lesser yield, the springtime Apparently, the beans on the back of this particular wagon were of the latter variety, and on their way market… well, most of them anyway. And the fact that they were Harley beans could mean only one thing: the driver of the wagon was also from Harley. For the time being, the raccoon kept his presence unknown, as well as his distance. It could be someone he knew; but then again, it could be someone who knew him as well, and therefore someone who could easily identify him; and for a raccoon on the run, that could be extremely dangerous. But still, he had a long way to go, and the thought of hitching a ride on the back of a wagon, even a slow moving and leaky one with a fat dim-witted driver, became more and more than appealing. He would just have to wait and see.

It was not all that unusual for bean farmers to make the long and arduous journey into Old Port Fierce that time of year; but neither was it very likely. Typically, the merchants would make the transactions in Harley and, being distrustful of everyone in general, supply their own transportation for the precious and perishable produce. It was also a way making an additional profit by deducting the cost of transporting the beans to their final destination from the price they would eventually pay for them. It was a common practice at the time, and one the merchants tried not to take unfair advantage of, even though they certainly could have considering the circumstances; and besides, the Harlie’s often had no other choice. Business is business; and sometimes you do what you have to do, in Harley or anywhere else. Only a few Harlies actually owned a wagon, and Elmo was never one of them. They would make the long journey down to Old Port Fierce themselves, despite the ever-present dangers they faced on the long and winding road which only seemed to increase the closer they got to the port city by the bay. Highway robbery was more than just an expression, it was a reality; almost a way of life! according to not a few of local pedestrians who knew the area better than others. Muggings were also not uncommon. And it seems that Harlies in general, and especially after the war, became the prime target of such criminal enterprises. And more often than not the only ones in authority who were in a position to either stop of mitigate the illegal activity, simply chose to look the other way, like the police for instance.

Apparently, the farmer Elmo had spied on the road that day was one of the lucky ones. For not only did this one own his own wagon, but a horse as well! Although the poor animal, having to pull such a tremendous load let alone the fat man holding the reins, was perhaps not so lucky. Unlike the denim-clad raccoon, the driver of the particular vehicle was conspicuously dressed in plain black trousers, a patched brown shirt that rode up his back like the checkered shell of turtle, and a conspicuous smile on his fat round face, so permanently fixed, observed the Harlie, that not even Lester Cox with all his mortuary magic would be hard pressed to remove; not that he would ever want to, of course; but the challenge alone would certainly be appealing to a man of such anatomical skills. The driver’s clothes seemed to accommodate his broad brown frame while complimenting the brightly painted wagon. Elmo also noticed, from a comfortable and reassuring distance, that the driver of the wagon also appeared to be wearing shoes, which only added to the raccoons suspicions, since not too many Harlies, except for maybe Ike Armstrong and a few of the other wealthy landlords, owned, or even wore shoes; footwear, of any kind, being considered somewhat of a luxury reserved for those who could afford them.

Climbing over the berm and finding temporary refuge behind the manifold trunk of a ficus tree, the raccoon came in for a better look. Once in the immediate proximity of the slow moving wagon and upon closer examination of its leaky contents, not to mention the fat man on the buckboard, Elmo recognized the farmer almost immediately as none other than his old friend and neighbor, Mister Sherman Dixon. Like most farmers from Harley, Mister Dixon was just another sharecropper on Isaiah Armstrong’s farm, not unlike Elmo himself, before he became a raccoon on the run, that is, who was on his way to the market with a wagonload of freshly picked Harley beans, which was something Elmo should’ve been doing himself by now, if he had a horse and a wagon, instead of standing behind a ficus tree and spying on his best friend and neighbor like some goddamn fool. Well, at least it wasn’t the sheriff, he thought with a long sigh of relief, guarding against all possibilities and willing to rule nothing out when it came to protecting his anonymity, as well as his life.

The painted wagon came to a sudden and abrupt halt as Elmo emerged from behind the sheltering tree like scarecrow in search of a pole. He approached the wagon with a nervous wave and a smile, not knowing for certain how he might be greeted in return under the circumstances, or if he would be greeted at all. He wasn’t quite sure if he was doing the right thing at the time, considering Mrs. Dixon and Mrs. Cotton talked to one another on a regular basis, not to mention the fact that Sherman Dixon simply couldn’t keep a secret if his life or money depended on it. But he was so weary from walking all day, and so starved for company, that a ride with an old friend appeared to be just the thing Elmo needed to boost his dwindling spirits. It was a risk he was willing to take. “Howdy, Sherman,” he said, as if he’d spoken to him only yesterday.

Without immediately recognizing his old Harley acquaintance, Mister Dixon looked somewhat surprised and, understandably, a little uneasy at first. He’d run into trouble on the road before and was suspicious of just about everyone, especially strangers, whether they knew his name or not. “Who dat?” he demanded to know in an usually high-pitched voice that some would come to say sounded suspiciously like that of a woman at times.

Elmo lowered his head, as if he was either too afraid or ashamed to say anything else. “It’s just me, Sherman,” he finally admitted, stirring the sandy soil with his bare toes, “– Elmo.”

The unexpected event of meeting another Harlie on the road, especially so far from home, gave Mister Dixon further pause for concern. The voice, he thought, sounded familiar; but still, he didn’t recognize the man behind the voice, or the beard. And even if he did, it would only have made him that much more suspicious; for he hadn’t actually seen his good friend and neighbor in many months and still wasn’t sure if he remembered what he looked like. “How do I knows that?” he questioned the bearded man before him with a long hard stare, his previous smile having long since fled from his otherwise cheerful cheeks.

It was the first human voice Elmo had heard in a long time; and it sounded not unlike like his own. It was a good sound, too; a familiar sound; like the sound of a dog’s tail slapping the tiles on the kitchen floor late at night, or a woman singing in the kitchen. It just felt right, like slipping into an old pair of slippers, he imagined, even though he had never owned a pair of slippers, except for the sailin’ shoes inside his suitcase which he never wore anyway. “Know what?” the raccoon wondered out loud, arching an eyebrow, not a little offended at the sudden inquisition. It just wasn’t like Sherman to be so unfriendly. It was downright… un-Harleyish! And Elmo had a good mind to tell him so. But then, after a much needed pause of self-examination, Elmo suddenly came to the realization that it was not Sherman’s fault for the present state the ambiguity, but rather his own. Why, his own wife wouldn’t have recognized him, he had to admit while wiping his face and running his hand though the long dirty locks on top of his head so that he looked a little more like the man Sherman Dixon once called neighbor and friend. He even managed to smile through a year’s growth of beard, which may have also added to the fat farmer’s uncertainty.

After rubbing his eyes, tilting his head this way and that, and leaning backwards a time or two just to make sure he wasn’t seeing things, Sherman Dixon finally realized who it was he was actually talking to. The famous smile slowly returned to the fat man’s face, along with a very distinctive laugh that could only have come from the soiled lungs of a Harley bean farmer. It was loud, clear, and it was that real! “Well, I’ll be… You sho’ could’a fooled me, Mister Cotton!” declared the driver of the wagon between two perfect rows of pearly white teeth and sudden fits of laughter. “Didn’t rec’nize you at first, Elmo… but I must confess right ‘chere and now, those overalls do look mighty familiar. Yes, sir – mighty familiar! And they smells familiar, too!”

“They’s the only ones I got,” reminded Elmo.

Then, suspiciously eyeing the brown luggage hanging from the Harlies unusually thin arm, the driver further inquired, “Say, what you got there, Mister Cotton… Lunch?” Although it was totally unnecessary, the fat man from Harley would always address his male acquaintances by their last name, preceded by the tile of ‘Mister’, even if they were old and familiar acquaintances like Elmo Cotton. It was just the way he was brought up; something his momma taught him. Some things just never changed; and thank God for that.

Attempting to avoid a subject he was sure would come up sooner or later anyway, Elmo sheepishly replied, “No…It’s just a suitcase, Sherman. That’s all.” He then instinctively tried to hide the bag between his raccoon legs.

Sherman had seen the suitcase before. “That belong to Joe Cotton,” he noted, having been at the funeral the day Elmo received it, along with some other inheritances, including the old man’s pipe collection and some old shoes and Joe Cotton’s favorite rocking chair which had somehow disappeared the day after Joe Cotton was buried, “That be his bag,” repeated the fat man, “Ain’t it?”

“Well, it’s mines now,” returned the raccoon, a little suspiciously.

“And the shoes, too?”

“They’re inside. Never did fit me no-how.”

“Well, I guess ol’ Joe won’t be a’needin’ them no mo’. That’s fo’ dang sure,” smiled the fat man. “Not unless they wears shoes in Heaven.”

“I wouldn’t know ‘bout that, Sherman.”

“Now if he goes to that other place… you know? Ooooweee!” cried the driver, like he just stepped on the devil’s red hot tail. “Now I knows they has to wear shoes down there. All that fire and ash. Hum, hum…”

Elmo laughed, but with traces of sadness in his voice, the way they sometimes do in Harley. He knew Sherman only meant well when he spoke of his deceased uncle that way. And he also knew he’d made the right decision. “I’s sure glad to see you, Mister Dixon. I surely am.”

The farmer was pleased as well, and was just as surprised to see his good friend and neighbor, if not more so. But he was still just a little bit concerned. “Say, where you been, Elmo? Folks been a’lookin’ for you,” he stated as a matter of fact after the initial shock of the reunion quickly turned into the casual conversation they were both more accustomed to. Nodding his head beneath a carpet of tiny black springs, Sherman cautioned his neighbor, “Folks s’been axin’ (which was just a Harleyism for the word ‘asking‘) ‘bout you. Sheriff’s been comin’ ‘round, too, you know.”

“His name is Mister Townsend,” reminded the raccoon, “John Townsend.”

“Gots them funny lookin’ eyes, like… like…”

“Like a China-man,” Elmo assisted.

“That’s him, Mister Cotton!”Sho’ am mighty peculiar. He be axin’ lots of questions, too; mostly ‘bout coon huntin’…or sumpin’ like that there. Don’t be comin’ ‘round as much as he used to tho’,” noted Sherman in a more relaxing tone, “Not since you up and left, that is. ‘Spect he still be lookin’ for you. Lots of folks s’ been lookin’ for you, Elmo, or so I’s been told. All this talk ‘bout you and Mister Homer goin’ off with some Creekmens. And then sumpin’ ‘bout findin’ a dead man up in them there hills. And they say…” And here the farmer became understandably silent

Elmo scratched his head. “They say I killed him. Ain’t that right, Sherman?”

Pausing a moment to catch his breath, Sherman continued. “Folks say lots of things, Mister Cotton, foolish things. But that don’t mean…” He was obviously having trouble speaking his mind, chiefly on account of Elmo’s unfamiliar appearance, but mostly because he was still a little confused. Never-the-less, he knew what he wanted to say, and said it: “It don’t mean a thing, Mister Cotton. Not a thing.”

For reasons he decided to keep to himself, Elmo tried to look surprised and unconcerned at the same time. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, especially for someone who had been alone for so long and in no need for such pretensions; and besides, he could already feel the duplicitous horns sprouting once more from his furry head. Then he tried to pretend that he just didn’t care, which he found even more difficult. But he knew he’d have to do some explaining sooner or later, if he expected a ride. Harlies are just funny like that. They like to know whom they’re sharing their wagon with, as well as their meals and beds, even if they are old friends and neighbors; and they don’t like being asked a lot of foolish questions either. Sherman Dixon was no different in that regard, only a little more friendly about it, especially when there was food involved and he was on the receiving end. Elmo thought it best to play dumb and get as much information from his cautious neighbor before willingly supplying any of his own. But he knew he would have to be subtle about it. Harlie’s don’t like being played that way; and they certainly don’t like being used. They had been used for such a long time, like old dish towel; and you can only use a towel for so long, before it stops being a towel and becomes a rag. And then all you can do is toss it away.

Among other things, Sherman was also a well-known gossip and tattle-tale (although he would never admit to such scandalous accusations) but he was never malicious about it and never once intentionally set out to hurt anyone. He was also curious about things going on in and around Harley, and always seemed to know what people were saying and thinking at any given moment and on almost any subject. Naturally, most of Sherman’s information came from Mister Lester Cox, the Creekwood Coroner and undertaker-at-large, who would occasionally employ the services of the fat brown turtle and his painted wagon whenever an extra hand, or a hearse, was needed; or if he just wanted the company and needed someone to talk to. Even undertakers have their melancholy moments, I suppose, perhaps more than most. He always paid the farmer well for his services; once with a custom made, super-deluxe, hand-carved, double-wide, silk-lined, cedar coffin with brass handles and mother-of-pearl inlay, specifically designed to accommodate the fat man’s well proportioned dimensions; whenever, that is, he was ready to make use of it… with the standard money back guarantee, of course. It was a generous offer, but one the fat man seldom made mention of, and hoped he wouldn’t have to make use of for a very long time.

Elmo had been gone for so long by then that news, any news, from home would have been welcomed; even if it were the kind of news he would rather not hear. At that point, even gossip was golden. And knowing his neighbor the way he did, Elmo knew he’d struck the mother-load! When it came to finding out the news of the day, the week, or for that matter, the entire year, there was no better source than Mister Sherman Warren Dixon. “What else they sayin’ about me, Sherman?” asked the Harlie, coolly, as if he still didn’t care.

“Ohhhhh, just the usual,” said the driver, as if it really didn’t matter. “But don’t pay them no mind, Mister Cotton. You know how folks is. They’s just nosey-bodies… like ol’ Ike. Most folks just wants to wants to know when you is comin’ home, Elmo. That’s all. Say, when is you comin’ home, anyway? If’in’ you don’t minds me axin’.”

“I do mind,” said the Harlie, perhaps a little more harshly than he really meant to, or should have. “I mean…That is…I just don’t know,” he retreated.

Sensing a certain amount of anxiety in his neighbor’s response, and the mixed messages it seemed to be conveying, Sherman insisted, “Don’t worry, Mister Cotton. Ain’t nobody say nothin’. Not me, anyway. No sir! Not Ol’ Sherm. Mum’s the word. And I ain’t a’gonna say no mo’ about it. Not me. Not another word. You knows me, Elmo. Theys can string me up on the Redstone Tree, and I don’t talk. And I don’t be axin’ no foolish questions, either. Humph!”

And at that point, the raccoon almost believed him.

“Now, tell me, Mister Cotton,” the turtle winked and whispered in the strictest confidence, “when is you comin’ home?”

With a hint of sarcasm that probably wasn’t necessary, but never-the-less did not go entirely un-noticed by his potential driver, Elmo replied in the usual manner Sherman was so accustomed to by now: “When folks stop axin’ foolish questions – That’s when!” Then he smiled and winked right back as if to say, “…But that don’t nes’cerily mean you, Sherman.”<

Mister Dixon smiled back, the way friends often do in awkward situations, and decided to just drop the subject. “I ain’t said nothin’.”

“All right, then. You did the right thing, Sherman.” But he somehow thought that he owed the friendly farmer an explanation. And besides, he still needed a ride. “I don’t know how to explain this...” he began.

Before Elmo could go any further, and feeling a little ashamed of himself for having greeted his neighbor with such gloomy news from back home, Mister Dixon leaned down from his wooden perch and whispered in confidence once more, “I know. It’s a secret. That’s it… Ain’t it, Mister Cotton? It’s a secret.”

In his own innocent and ignorant way, Sherman was right – it was a secret; and the sly raccoon was beginning to think that he might just use that to his own advantage in not only explaining the ambiguity surrounding his unexplainable disappearance but also in obtaining what he really wanted in the first place – a ride, and without sounding too presumptuous about it. And so, putting a finger to his raccoon lips in a silencing gesture, Elmo Cotton quietly cautioned his good friend and neighbor: “Can’t talk now, Sherman. Not there. It ain’t safe. Too many…” He then darted his eyes in one direction and then another, as if someone was indeed spying on them at that very moment, just for effect. “They could be anywhere,” he further suggested without necessarily revealing the source of his anxiety which, considering the circumstances, was not altogether unfounded. “You never know… You know?”

The smile quickly flew from his farmer’s fat friendly face as he nervously glanced over his left shoulder, just as Elmo expected, to see if anyone was indeed watching, or listening at the time. He then lowered his voice even more. “You reckon, Mister Cotton?” he quietly asked.

“I reckon,” nodded the raccoon, feeling just a little bit guilty of taking advantage of the farmer’s gullible nature, and in such a beguiling sort of way. He was still hoping for a fast and free ride, and with no questions asked – if in fact that were at all possible in Mister Dixon’s wagon. He knew he was asking for a lot. But that’s what friends are for, he imagined; they’re supposed to be there when you really need them, whether they like it or not. “Never know who might be listenin’,” he further admonished.

And then, as if the trees had suddenly sprouted ears, and rocks grew eyes, the driver leaned down from his wagon, looked here and there, and nervously whispered back, “It’s them Creek people… Ain’t it? You would think they would leave us Harlies be by now. Humph! Ain't none of their business what we’s doin’ no-how. Where’ve you been anyhow, Mister Cotton?” he asked for a second time that day, reconsidering the sudden seriousness of the situation. “You know, your farm ain't been lookin’ too good. S’been almost a year now. Is you in some kind of trouble, Elmo?”

“Best not talk around here, Sherman. Not right now anyway. Say, how ‘bout a ride?” he further suggested, as if the idea had only just then occurred to him, “My feets…they’s barkin’ at me!” he sorely added, digging his toes deeper into the sandy soil just to make it stick.

“Sure thing, Mister Cotton,” returned Sherman, resuming his natural smile, but still somewhat confused over the Harlie’s secretiveness. “But why didn’t you just say so in the first place?”

“Well… You see, S-Sherman,” Elmo began to stutter, wishing by now he’d simply told this neighbor the truth to begin with, which, knowing Mister Dixon the way he did, was going to happen anyway.

“And that’s another thing,” snapped the turtle, glancing at the suitcase hanging conspicuously behind the raccoon’s back by then. “If yo’ feets is hurtin’ that bad, as much as you say they is, then why don’t you just put on them ol’ shoes you has inside the suitcase? The ones yo’ uncle Joe done left you. Now, I ain’t none too smart, Mister Cotton, and I ain’t one to go a’pryin’, but I reckon them shoes might work a whole lot better if you puts ‘em on yo’ feet, where theys belong.”

Elmo silently agreed, thinking now that he might be better served just walking the rest of the way to Old Port Fierce as were his original intentions. But the shoes still didn’t fit, and he was too ashamed to admit it. Besides, his feet really didn’t hurt that bad, the soles of which had grown so thick and calloused by now that he hardly even noticed them anymore. All he really wanted was a ride, and maybe just to change the subject. The last thing he wanted to do, however, was to open the suitcase for fear that anyone, including his best friend and neighbor, should see what he was really hiding inside. Earlier that day, Elmo had removed the stone from the top pocket of his faded overalls and placed it inside the suitcase where he thought it would be less conspicuous. “They calls ‘em sailin’ shoes,” was all he said, and left it at that. .

“Now look’ye here, Mister Cotton,” Sherman tried to explain, “I done heard of workin’ shoes. I done heard of travelin’ shoes. And I sure done heard of them ol’ walkin’ shoes. But if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, Mister Cotton, I ain’t never heard of no... what’s that you calls ‘em – sailin’ shoes?”

Recalling an earlier commitment he’d made to himself not to reveal any more about his current situation than necessary, the raccoon barked right back, “That’s right, Sherman! You never did hear of them. Not from me, anyway. And just try to remember that. You hear?”

The turtle replied, “Just axin’, Mister Cotton – That’s all,” cranking in his telescopic head an inch or two back into his hard brown shell.

It was the second time Elmo had admonished his good friend and neighbor that day, rather crossly he now thought; and he feeling ashamed of himself. They had known each other ever since they were kids, and always got along just fine…well, except for the time Elmo had to punch the fat little boy in the stomach for, for… Hell! He could even remember that anymore. He wanted to apologize to Mister Dixon and say how sorry he was, not only for being rude and un-neighborly but also for punching him in the stomach; but instead, he simply shrugged and smiled, “How ‘bout that ride, Sherman?”

“That’s what friends is fo’,” replied the turtle, thinking little or nothing about it.

“Thank’ye, neighbor!” the Harlie gratefully acknowledged. He then climbed into the back of the overloaded wagon and quickly buried himself in the rough burlap sacks. It felt good. It smelled good. It smelled like…like Harley! And it reminded him of everything he once knew and loved so well. Immediately he began shuffling his naked feet through some of the cool green beans that had fallen out of their bags just like he used to do as a child. It felt just like home. And in a strange and almost shameful sort of way, it made him sad, knowing that he couldn’t go back. Not yet anyway. But it also made him that much more determined to keep his whereabouts unknown; and so he tried to put it out of his mind.

“Well, you still ain’t told me where you is goin’,” said Sherman, while waiting for his horse to finish grazing on a patch of scrub grass it happened to find growing in the sugar sand, “Or is that a secret, too?”

Elmo didn’t know what to say. “Nowhere in particular,” he lied.

“Alright then,” the driver acquiesced, as if it was none of his business anyway, “But nowhere can be just about anywhere, Mister Cotton… if you don’t knows where you is goin’, that is,” he said half-jokingly.

Under any other circumstances Elmo might’ve even laughed; but the facts simply wouldn’t allow it. His neighbor’s observation, however extemporaneously expressed, only reminded the Harlie of what his uncle once told him, not too long ago it suddenly seemed, along those same logical lines: ‘Foist, you has to know where you is, befo’ you can know where you is goin’. He wondered if Sherman had heard it from the old man as well. “I can’t tell you, Sherman. I can’t tell anyone,” he finally confessed after a long and deliberate pause, “And that’s just the way it is.”

The turtle shook his massive armored head. “You sure there ain’t sumpin’ troublin’ you, Mister Cotton?” he asked. “You sho’ is actin’ mighty peculiar.”

“Is you gonna talk, or is you gonna to drive?” barked the raccoon in a voice the turtle almost didn’t recognize.

“First you has to tell me where it is you wants to go,” insisted the driver, patiently waiting for Abraham to finish his crab-grass meal, which he was still chewing from side to side. And then, suddenly, from out of nowhere it seemed, a familiar voice sounded from the back of the wagon.

“I’m goin’ where can't nobody find me, Sherman,” Elmo finally admitted as truthfully as circumstances would allow. “But first I gots to finds me this here Miracle-Maker.” He left it at that, and hoped Sherman would do the same.

Sherman did not. “Miracle-Maker? he asked. Who that?” And with that, the fat farmer reached forward and gave the horse a slap on the rear that set the poor pony’s feet once again to moving.

“Someone my uncle... Oh, never mind, Sherman. Just drive.”

“Well now, Mister Cotton, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no Miracle-Maker. But I do knows sumpin ‘bout miracles. And I’ll be damned if I ain’t got one sittin’ right ‘chere in the back of my wagon,” said the turtle, turning his head a hundred and eighty degrees just to make sure. “Yes, sir, Mister Cotton, when I first ‘spected it was you, I thought I done seen me a ghost. Why… you bein’ gone for so long. And all that talk about dead men and such. Not to mention the fact that ol’ Lester… I means, Mister Cox, already done made you up a coffin. A fine lookin’ box too! You should see it, Elmo! Almost as pretty as the one he made up for me. ‘Ceptin’ mines is a little wider abouts the middle… Just like me, I ‘spose. And that ain’t all! Some folks even say you’s dead! But I don’t believe none of it. No, sir! And here you is, Mister Cotton, right ‘chere in the back of my wagon. Now ain’t that a flip! And if that ain’t no miracle, then I don’t know what is.”

Here the pony suddenly stopped, lugubriously lowering its head and neck for one last mouthful of Crab-grass, which it instinctively knew would probably be its last. “Oh, and about this here Miracle-Maker of yours…” Sherman continued, having not forgotten what the raccoon had just said to him, “all I can say is, I hopes you finds one. And if you thinks you can finds him in Old Port Fierce… Well then, this yo’ your lucky day, Mister Cotton. And you sho’ is in the right place. ‘Cause that’s ‘zackly where you’s goin’…if you’s goin’ with me, that is.”

As the Harlie sat up in the back of the wagon it suddenly dawned on him that if he couldn’t trust Sherman Dixon, then he couldn’t trust anyone. And that seemed just plain silly, maybe even a little stupid; and it certainly wasn’t neighborly. He also knew that sooner or later he’d have to tell someone where he was going. What if, after all, he never did come back? What if he died? There would be too many questions left un-answer. Nadine deserved better than that, and so did Little Ralph, he imagined, even though he was too young to understand. “Well… in that case, Mister Dixon,” the raccoon finally acknowledged, “I guess I’m goin’ to Old Port Fierce!” It was where he was going anyway; and, on the whole, it did make Sherman feel a little better about things. Besides, it was his wagon, and he did have the right to know. It was just the right thing to do

“‘Spose to meet a man there by the name of Hatch… Mister Elijah Hatch,” said the turtle to the raccoon, as the horse resumed its long and weary journey, “Came by Harley not too long ago. Took one look at my crop and made me an offer right then and there on the spot. Didn’t even haggle! Say he a merchant-marine, or sumpin’ like that. Say he headed for the Islands, whatever that is. Goin’ on one of them big ol’ sailin’ ships, I reckon. Say the captain be needin’ some vittles – the kinds that don’t spoil so easily… like beans and grains and such. He be lookin’ for some horses, too. But not like ol’ Abraham here,” the farmer was quick to explain, meaning, of course, the little pony pulling the wagon that looked as old and tired as the mule he once gave to Elmo as a wedding present, and just as slow.“Too old, you know. Don’t get me wrong, Mister Cotton. He’s a good ol’ horse. Do everythin’ he supposed to do, and then some. But I don’t reckon he’ll be around much longer. Yes, sir, I’s gonna miss ol’ Abe. Don’t think he be missin’ me, tho’… or this here ol’ wagon either. Ain’t that right, Abe?” he questioned the dumb beast, in much the same way Elmo used to converse with his own ornery mule.

Naturally, it made Elmo think once more of the old mule he brought back down from the mountain that day. It occurred to him how much he missed their little conversations, even though he knew animals can’t talk and it was only his imagination. He suddenly wished he’d been kinder to the animal. As if reading the Harlie’s sobering thoughts and looking down on his own beast of burden laboring under the yoke, Sherman felt it necessary to relay some more troubling news he though his passenger should know at the time. “Ike tried to take that ol’ mule of yours, Mister Cotton,” he said in a long heavy breath, “Sumpin’ ‘bout a contract. Say you ain’t never comin’ back no-how. Say it belong to him now. But Miss Nadine, she wouldn’t let him. No, sir! Chased him away with the broom. He had it comin’ too. Never did belong to him anyway. Shoot! Everyone knows I done give you that mule, Mister Cotton, at your weddin’ – ‘Member?”

Elmo remembered alright, but the mere mention of his wife’s name suddenly drove out any and all other thoughts he might have been entertaining at the moment. And it showed, even though Sherman never took the time to turn around and notice.

“Don’t know what he wants with that damn mule anyway,” Sherman continued, “Ain’t like he don’t have enough mules of his own… and horses, too!” But anyway…where was I? Oh yeah! So I tells this here Mister Hatch feller that I ain’t got but one horse, ol’ Abraham here. And he ain’t no good for nothin’… ‘cept pulling this ol’ wagon. And he ain’t much good at that, either, I says. And I damn sho’ ain’t got me no mule. But I gots me plenty of beans! I tells him. Best damn beans in all Harley!”

“Best damn beans in the whole damn county!” Elmo agreed, running his hands and toes through oblong pellets as if they were nuggets of pure green gold. And as he did so, the Harlie was suddenly struck with a bold idea. “You say, this man…this here, Mister Hatch?” he questioned with a sly look in his raccoon eyes, “You say he be goin’ to the Islands? That’s what you said now – Ain’t it, Sherman?”

“I say what I said,” acknowledged the turtle, a little suspiciously.

“Well, Sherman,” Elmo began, “I may be just a po’ dirt farmer who don’t know much about nothin’. But I do know sumpin’. And I knows he ain’t goin’ get to them islands in no damn wagon. That’s for sure.”

“Not unless that wagon can float,” the turtle wondered out loud. “And I ain’t never seen me one of those… not yet anyway.”

“He ain’t a’goin’ to swim there, either.”

“Too far…” Sherman agreed. “Shoot! Mister Cotton, even I knows that.”

Elmo shook his head. “Well, the way I sees it, that man gonna need a boat! Ain’t that right, Sherman?”

“Mighty big boat.”

“A ship, Sherman. They calls ‘em ships. Uncle Joe told me so.”

“I heard that.”

“Is he a good man, Sherman?” asked Elmo, “I mean this Mister Hatch?”

“That’s what I hear,” shrugged the turtle. “Give me a right fair price on these here beans. Promised me mo’ money, too; ifin’ I delivers ‘em on time. I ‘spose that mean befo’ the boat…. I means ship, go away.”

The Harlie had to laugh.

The turtle took it as a good sign.

“When that is, Sherman?”

“Don’t know fo’ sho’, Mister Cotton. But soon – real soon! Told me to be in Old Port Fierce by Saturday. And that means tomorrow, if I’s not mistaken. And I’s runnin’ behin’ as it is. Maybe we…”

“Well…what we waiting for!” voiced the raccoon in the back of the wagon.

“We’s waiting for ol’ Abraham here to stop fillin’ up his damn belly,” said Sherman.

“How long that gonna take?”

The turtle shrugged his shell. “Don’t right know, Mister Cotton. Gots him a big belly... just like me. And he don’t like to be rushed neither. He mighty peculiar like that. Abe mighty peculiar ‘bout lots of things. Tho’ I ‘spect he just bein’ ig’nant. But wait here a minute, Elmo. Maybe I can talks to him a little bit.” And here the fat farmer slowly climbed down from his wooden perch to see just what was the matter.

The pony was still gnawing on a mouthful of crab-grass when Sherman came up behind him and whispered something into the horse’s ear. Elmo couldn’t hear what he said, of course; but whatever he said, it appeared to do the trick. For at that very moment, the wheels of the wagon began to roll and the wagon moved forward. It seems that, aside from grabbing one last grassy morsel, the pot-bellied pony had taken the opportunity of discharging its bowels, which its master hadn’t noticed until just then when he happened to step right in it.

“Sum-bitch!” cursed the fat man as he wiped the fresh manure from the thinly worn soles of his shoes. “He do that just to makes me mad, you know” he sighed out loud.

“Looks like it done worked,” the raccoon wryly noted, not used to hearing his neighbor use such foul and offensive language; not even on a poor dumb animal. “Maybe ol’ Abe ain’t as dumb as he looks.”

“Maybe,” replied the turtle. “But you gots to admit, he sure am ugly.” It reminded Sherman of a picture he once saw in a newspaper of a tall man with a scratchy beard. He was wearing a big black hat, the kind that looks like the cylindrical top of stove pipe, for which it is appropriately named. His face was sunken and shallow, like that of a man aged well beyond his years, or someone with all the weight of the world bearing down on him. And his eyes were dark and deep, but with a life in them that spoke of better times to come Mister Dixon would later come to know who that man was, which was just one reason he’d named his little pony after the Great Emancipator himself.

“Ugly is as ugly does,” reminded the raccoon, waving the obnoxious fumes from his face.

Before climbing back up on the wagon, the farmer insisted, “Oh, I’m not mad at that, Mister Cotton. Like I say befo’, that’s just ‘ol Abe’s bein’ ig’nant. He’s like that now and then, you know.” With the problem solved, at least for the time being, Sherman shook the reins and the little pony proceeded; but not nearly as quickly as Elmo would have liked. “That’s another thing,” Sherman added. “He too damn slow, too,”

“Ever try usin’ a carrot?” suggested the raccoon, “It sometime work for me… with he mule, that is.” He was thinking of the time, a hundred years ago it suddenly seemed, when his own infernal animal vomited up one of the tapering orange roots in the un-welcomed presence of his landlord, Ike Armstrong. It was the same piece of semi-digested vegetable that Sherman had gulped down so easily that same day, just like the dead catfish he found on the road, and with no apparent ill effects.

“Tried that once,” said the owner of the horse.” Didn’t work tho’. Like you say, ol’ Abe, he ain’t as dumb as he looks. Just ornery and ugly… and slow, too!” he reiterated with a sharp slap on the reins.

From a different and perhaps more personal perspective, the raccoon suggested, “Ever think of usin’ a whip?” Naturally, the benevolent farmer had never even considered such cruel methods of coercion, not even when it came to animals. He didn’t think it was right; and besides, he just didn’t have the heart. “You mean like the one they used on you, Elmo?” the driver casually enquired. He was thinking, of course, about what had happened to the man in the back of the wagon shortly after he’d broken another young man’s leg for peeing in his bathtub. Sherman was there when the Grasshopper laid the cat-o-nine-tails on the Harlie’s bare back. He could still see bits of flesh clinging to the long leather strips. It was something he would never forget. And, of course, neither would Elmo.

The raccoon didn’t even flinch. The sting of the whip had since disappeared, but the purple stripes on his back were still visible through the straps of his overalls. He hardly thought about them anymore, or why they were even put there in the first place. Whatever it was that had transpired between the two ‘boys with beards’ up in the mountains that day seemed to have healed all wounds. Time has a way of doing that, I suppose. And besides that, Dick Dilworth was dead; and it wasn’t right to think unkindly of the dead. And so he tried not to. “It wouldn’t hurt,” Elmo finally suggested, thinking that a little corporal punishment might not be such a bad idea after all, if it meant nothing more than making the wagon go a little faster and getting them both that much closer to their mutual destinations.

The driver only frowned at the idea. “It hurt you, Mister Cotton... Didn’t it?” he sheepishly responded without really thinking the matter through. Then, drawing his turtle-like head back into the silent sanctuary of his bulky brown shell, he sighed, “I’s sorry, Mister Cotton. Truly, I is,” he sincerely apologized. “I don’t means what I say. I’s bein’ ig’nant a’gin. Just like ol’ Abraham.”

The Harlie seemed to understand. “Ah shucks! That’s alright, Sherman,” he smiled. “We’s all ig’nant sometimes.”

The cruel episode the farmer had brought up, quite unintentionally, of course, was one that’d taken place so long ago that the Harlie had all but forgotten about it by now. It was presently as far from his mind, and eyes, as the scars themselves. “Forget about it, Sherman” the raccoon smiled, “– I did.”

Now it was Sherman’s turn to change the subject, which he was glad to do anyway, as the wagon rolled laboriously over the sandy white soil. “Bad crop this year, Mister Cotton,” he said, as if it were something Elmo didn’t already know. “Not much rain, you know. S’been like that for some time now. ‘Course, if there ain’t no rain, there ain’t no crop. Now how’s we ‘spose to farm if there ain’t no crop, Mister Cotton?” Sherman demanded to know, as if he really expected an answer. “And ol’ Ike, he don’t care. Say it don’t matter to him if it don’t rain. Nothin’ he can do ‘bout that anyway. It only means we has to work that much harder. He say it’s in the contract.”

“Well, I ain’t never heard of such a thing,” the Harlie replied, allowing a handful of beans to fumble loosely through fingers. “And I ain’t never read no damn contract,” he coarsely added, which, of course, was true – although Joe Cotton did try to explain to him exactly what it all meant at the time he scribbled his initials on the legally binding document – since he never did learn to read, except for a few small words Mrs. Homer tried to teach him whenever he stopped by to help Homer with his chores.

“And neither did I,” replied the farmer, who had signed his own name under similar conditions, but always too ashamed to admit it. “But Ike say that ain’t no ‘scuse,” he angrily stated. “Well, you know what he can do with his damn contract. He can… And oh, by the way,” he just then remembered, “Some of these here beans is from yo’ farm, Elmo.”

“Look too good to come from them ol’ fields, Sherman.”

Sherman pretended not to hear. “Nadine told me to see if I can get some money for them, so she can buy her a new cow. Old one died, you know.”

Elmo had always been fond of the cow, just like his mule perhaps, but in a different sort of way. He would sit and watch the old heifer chewing on a pumpkin while he was milking her early in the morning. He would sometimes try to mimic the side to side motion of the bovine’s teeth, which, for some unfathomable reason, little Ralph found very amusing. “She was sick when I left,” acknowledged sharecropper. He wasn’t too surprised, just a little sad; and not just for the cow. He knew things were already hard enough for Nadine, and he suspected they would only get worse. “Might use it to buy her a new bathtub instead,” he thought out loud.

“She still come over now and then to…well, you know,” blushed the farmer, not thinking it appropriate to bring up Mrs. Cotton’s private business at the time. Perhaps he was recollecting the time he saw her naked in the bathtub; perhaps not. It was just one of those things he tried not to think about, at least not in front of her husband.

“That’s alright, Sherman” the Harlie replied, although the fat farmer would never know for sure if he was talking about the beans, or his wife. And maybe that’s the way it should be.

“Didn't want to see ‘em go bad,” continued the farmer, “the beans, that is. Not that they were much good to begin with,” he was thinking at the time. “Nothin’ lasts forever. Not even these ol’ Harley beans. But if’in’ you wants me to, Mister Cotton, I gives you the money instead – whenever I gets it, that is; after all, you’s the man.”

Elmo wasn’t so sure anymore. “Give it to Nadine… all of it,” he worded from the back of the wagon. Then he paused. “And don't tell her I told you that. Don’t tell her you saw me, either. And I mean that now, Sherman!” he boldly admonished his neighbor in a most un-neighborly manner. “You hear me? Don’t you say nothin’. Nothin’!” And then the raccoon became strangely silent.

Sherman giddy-upped the pony and, surprisingly, the weary beast seemed to respond accordingly. “Don’t worry, Elmo, I won’t say nothin’ – if that’s what you wants. I guess you know what's best. But if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, Mister Cotton, you sure is become mighty peculiar. And if you don’t minds me axin’, what exactly is you gonna do in Old Port Fierce anyway, besides lookin’ fo’ this here Mir’cle-man of yours?

“Maker, Sherman! Miracle-Maker. That’s what they calls him.”

“Who?”

“Uncle Joe – That’s who”

“He say that?”

“Told me so his-self.”

“Who he is?” asked the turtle, sounding a little more demanding than Elmo would have liked at the time.

“I don’t know,” Elmo lied.

“Then how you gonna finds him?”

Elmo wanted to end the conversation right there and then, wondering how it got that far in the first place. But this was no ordinary Harlie he was dealing with: this was Sherman Dixon. He knew he had to say something. “There’s a church. In a place called Shadytown. It’s not far from Old Port Fierce. North-west, I think. Leastways, that’s what Uncle Joe told me. Do you know where that is, Sherman?”

The turtle looked not a little surprised. “Kowns ‘zactly where that is!” he exclaimed.

“You do?”

“Uh-huh,” nodded the turtle, “That where Alma live. You remember, Alma Johnson? She my wife’s momma, you know. Her husband, he dead now. Died up in Harley, long time ago. Bad whiskey, they say. Alma say he just got what he deserve. That why she move down south. Had to go away. Nothin’ left for her up in Harley anyway. Needs a man to work the farm, and Alma…well, I guess she just too old to finds her another husband. But she a good woman, Mister Cotton; a church-goin’ woman. Good cook, too! She live right there in Shadytown now. Down ‘round Avenue ‘D’, if I’s not mistaken; which I hopes I ain’t ‘cause, to tell you the truth, Mister Cotton, I gots me a mind to spend some time there myself, and maybe even a little money, after I gets rid of these here beans, if you take my meanin’.

Elmo nodded.

“Alma, she takes kindly to tavelin’ folk,” reminded the turtle. “‘Specially thems that gots relations to her, if you know what I’m sayin’. Say, Mister Cotton, why don’t you comes along with me. Alma don’t minds. Gots plenty of room. She be happy to sees you!”

Keeping in mind his fugitive status, as well as what he’d already knew of Sherman’s relatives, Elmo had to think it over for a moment. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said with some hesitation. “You’re kin. And that means she has to take you in. Me? I’s just another Harlie. And I and don’t wants to be obligin’. Besides, I ain’t gots no money.”

Sherman laughed. “Shoot! Alma don’t wants yo’ money. She glads to help.” It was a wholesome laugh, the sound of a man who knew the value of money, but never let it cloud his judgment or get in the way of his friends. The trouble with Sherman, however, was that he simply could not understand why so many others did. “We’s all Harley now, Mister Cotton,” he re-assured his reluctant passenger. ‘Besides, I gots me some money – See?” And as he said it, the fat man reached down and pulled off his shoe, exposing the broad beamed foot of a Harley bean farmer, in all its earthy unctuousness. The shoe he’d removed just then was a full size thirteen, double wide; at least, that’s what Lester Cox told him the day he purchased the footwear from the Creekwood coroner. Naturally, Sherman never asked the resourceful undertaker exactly where, or from whom, he’d obtained the extra large shoes. Not that Lester would ever reveal such privileged information; but he did mention at the time of the transaction that the previous owner of the shoes was a very wealthy man of generous proportions who had expired on the day of his own wedding, right there on the altar, even as the sacrament was administered and the sacred vows exchanged, as a matter of matrimonial fact when, out of nowhere it seemed, a woman run up from the back of the church holding her seven month pregnant belly in one hand and a pistol in the other. She never made it to the altar, being wrestled to the floor by one of the bride’s beefy brothers; but she did manage to get off one shot. And that’s all she needed, or wanted. She lay bleeding on the floor as the portly groom fell face down in a bouquet of red roses, leaving his widowed wife behind to pick up the pieces and pay the bills, not to mention the cost of burial. Being a woman of modest means and humble upbringing, she offered Mister Cox her dead husband’s shoes as payment for services rendered, which Lester gladly accepted, knowing, perhaps, that was all the poor woman had left after the wanting woman’s lawyer got through looting the dead man’s estate for statutory rape, as well as suing her brother for causing her miscarriage when he wrestled the poor unfortunate woman to the ground. On the death certificate Lester wrote down ‘Accidental’ as the cause of the big man’s untimely demise. What he really wanted to put down was ‘Unavoidable’; but he couldn’t find any such justification in the Coroner’s Handbook. And, knowing what he did of the three main characters involved, he simply couldn’t call it murder. It was later revealed that this was not the first time the pregnant woman approached the altar in such a ‘family way’ and that the fat man may very well have been the victim of a fraud, planned and perpetrated many times before, and with equal success, by the pistol packing momma. It was insinuated that her lawyer might also be involved, to one extent or another; but there was no indictment. As it turned out, she was actually the mother of six bastard children, all from a different relationship. She didn’t call them bustards, of course; mothers never do, not even the bad ones. But perhaps they should; then, maybe, we wouldn’t have so many of the little bastards. It was an unhappy ending and something Lester preferred not to talk about. The truth, he would say, is sometimes ugly; but, never-the-less, it’s still the truth. There was no trial.

The shoes were old and worn, having lost much of their original polished luster, as well as their value, by now. They even looked like something you might expect to find on the feet of a corpse; after it had been lying in and the ground for a year or two, perhaps. Never-the-less, they were still the most beautiful things Sherman Dixon had ever laid his turtle eyes on, other than Mrs. Cotton stepping out of the bathtub, and something he simply would never let go. He then reached deep inside the leather toe of the dead man’s shoe and produced seven silver coins he’d hidden there for safe-keeping, or emergencies that were know happen along the road from time to time. “It isn’t much,” he humbly stated before placing the coins back in their leathery safe, “But they’d all mines! So I reckon I can take care of myself. Humph! Now how about you, Mister Cotton? What is you gonna do? You ain’t got a place to stay. You ain’t got any money. And you ain’t even got any shoes, ‘ceptin’ for those… What you calls ‘em again?”

“Sailin’ shoes!” exclaimed the barefooted raccoon. “They calls ‘em sailin’ shoes, Sherman. My uncle give ‘em to me. But they too big, you know. That’s why I keeps ‘em in the suitcase,” he sadly had to confess.

The fat man was right about one thing: That’s about all Elmo had, except for a few other things he’d hidden away in his suitcase, which he wasn’t willing to share with anyone, including his pipe. The shoes were of no practical use, not yet anyway; and the stone he show to no one, he thought to himself without saying anything about it to his suspicious driver. And as for money… well, he never had much of it anyway; it never was problem in the woods, and something he rarely even thought of anymore. You don’t miss what you never had, or so the saying goes. But even a raccoon on the run needs a little money now and then, especially if his destination is a place like Old Port Fierce where, as they say in Harley at least: ‘Life’s cheap, dyin’s easy, and nothin’s free’. He knew accommodations would be expensive. He was right.

But Sherman did say some of the beans were from the Harlie’s own farm. And even though he hadn’t worked it in almost a year, Elmo thought that he should at least get something for his efforts, however little and however long ago it happened. “‘Spose I could use some of that money to rent me one of them boardin’ houses I hear tell of. Must be one in Shadytown,” he said thinking out loud. Elmo had heard of such places from his Uncle Joe who’d been there enough times to know. Truth is, he’d been there himself, once when his uncle took him to Shadytown to visit some relatives shortly after his mother had died. He was only a child at the time, and remembered thinking it as the last place he wanted to be. The people there were all strange to him, unfriendly; some of them he didn’t particularly like. But time changes everything, including people, the raccoon wisely reckoned, with only himself to look at for evidence of that. He didn’t know if that was necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. But he knew he would soon find out.

“Boardin’ house! You mean up ‘round Avenue 'D'?” questioned the driver who had been that way more than once before and was well aware of the temptations the old city had to offer a young man; or woman, for that matter.

Not being all too familiar with the old neighborhood, as Sherman obviously had been, nor of its infamous reputation, Elmo merely shrugged and said, “I reckon.”

As it were, Shadytown was a sociological experiment that began at the turn of the century when the trading ships from the north first dropped anchor in the naturally formed harbor of the bay. It was a place where virtue and vice co-existed side by side, comfortably for the most part, suspicious at times, in the same symbiotic relationship first formed on the western frontier, especially in the newly formed towns that sprang up along old military trails or wherever there was gold to be found, and usually by men. And where men go, the women are sure to follow, albeit not necessarily in the traditional sense. Serving its transient constituency as it had for over a hundred years, Old Port Fierce stood as the oldest active port on the southern seaboard, having changed little over the years, except maybe for the size of the ships that found their wakeful way to the infamous city by the bay, and perhaps a few more banks and other business establishments, some of questionable enterprise serving characters of equal suspicion. You could often find them standing in smoke filled gambling halls, saloons, as well as in church, kneeling at the pew, perhaps, right next to the man who, only hours ago, had just stolen his coat, or his wife. It all depends, of course, on the day of the week and their own personal status of Salvation. Or maybe they were just hungry; not only for the word of God, but whatever morsels they could lick from the plates of the Master. And in that case, there was really no better master to have than the Reverend Willie B. Wright, and no better place to be than the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ where the plates were always full and the dog most welcome. It was there on these same solicitous streets, with their steeples and bars, the sailors would often go to spend their hard-earned lay or simple pass the time of day; or better yet, the night. It was a diverse enterprise shared by merchants, shop-keepers, pimps, prostitutes, priests and preachers, each peddling their own brand of salvation and competing for the souls that so proudly paraded the streets of Avenue ‘D’ on a nightly basis.

“Best not let your wife hear you talk like that,” warned the portly bean farmer, “Or my wife either! Lord knows Bernice don't want me goin’ to no boardin’ house. No, sir! Not in Shadytown leastways. She knows what goes on there. Shoot! Everyone knows what goes on in them ol’ boardin’ houses. Ain’t no secret. And ain’t no family man gots no business on Avenue ‘D’. That’s what Bernice say. Ain’t nobody! Ain’t no’how! Why, you should be ‘shamed of yo’self, Mister Cotton, for even thinkin’ such a thing. –‘Shamed!”

It seemed that the raccoon had been on the run for so long he’d almost forgotten what real shame felt like. Or maybe he just didn’t want to remember. “If I ain’t mistaken, Sherman,” he earnestly enquired, “ain’t that where Alma Johnson lives now – in Shadytown?” As previously mentioned, the Harlie had been there once before. Only, he didn't remember much about the northern part of Old Port Fierce, otherwise know as Shadytown, except for a little house at the end of a dirt road surrounded by a white picket fence. It was the house that Alma Johnson lived in, along with her unwed daughter, Regina. She was the eldest of Sherman’s wife’s three sisters. She was also the prettiest; a fact that neither of the two traveling sharecroppers, or anyone else in Harley, would ever disagree with, or could easily ignore. “That’s what you said,” Elmo insisted. “Aint it? You say she be in Shadytown.”

“I say what I said,” replied the turtle, in his usual perspicacity. “But Mrs. Johnson, she don't like to talks about it much. ‘Cause of what folks say about that part of town. Too much evilness, I ‘spose. You know how womens is. Alma be funny like that, too. She used to live up in Harley, you know. But that was a long time ago, when her husband, Isaac, still alive. She moved to Shadytown shortly after he died. ‘Member? Some say she had no choice… whatever that mean. Don’t suppose she wants to tho’. Queer things happen in Shadytown, she say – Mighty queer. Queer folks, too! She rather not too many folks know where she live now, if you takes my meanin’,” said the driver, rather discreetly.

Even though it really made little or no difference to him where Mrs. Johnson lived or how she got there, the raccoon nodded in agreement from the back of the wagon. The pony did the same from up front as if it had heard the story many times before and was only being polite to its gossipy taskmaster. Indeed almost everyone in and around Harley were aware of the queerness, and sin, associated with Shadytown. Elmo had heard things about that part of the old city, especially one street in particular known as Avenue ‘D’ which was said to be the queerest and most sinful of all. But he wasn’t necessarily thinking about Avenue ‘D’ at the time, or Old Port Fierce for that matter. He was thinking about a girl he once knew.

Sherman was thinking about the same girl, who happened to be his sister-in-law, and continued his discourse in perhaps a more delicate manner. “Regina live there now too, with her momma. You ‘member her, Mister Cotton – Regina Johnson? Used to live up in Harley with Alma and the girls.”

The silence coming from the back of the wagon that spoke volumes. The turtle heard it loud and clear, and suddenly wished he hadn’t brought it up. Of course, Elmo remembered. How could he not remember? Sherman was well aware of what happened between Elmo Cotton and ‘Gina’ Johnson. Hell! Everyone knew, even Nadine. But that was all in the past now, or so he thought at the time. But the mere mention of her name was enough prick the raccoon’s sensitive ears; and, apparently, that’s exactly what happened.

Suddenly, Elmo lost all desire to go to Shadytown, and wished he’d never climbed into the back of the little wagon. In fact, he suddenly wished he was back at the cabin, where at least he knew he was safe; or better yet, on the Island of Long where women were to be subjected, and not feared. But it was too late; the Great Raccoon was on his way to Old Port Fierce, and Shadytown. He wasn’t exactly sure which one they would arrive at first, but considering the close proximity of the two towns, and the girl who now lived there in the little house with the white picket fence, it really didn’t matter. He knew that sooner or later they were bound to meet again. And he was right.

“She have a little boy now,” continued the driver, steadily, like a skeptical but skilled surgeon removing the bandage of on old wound to see if it has healed yet. “His name is Oley, Oley Johnson. He a good boy. He live with Alma and his sister. Regina never done got married, you know. Guess it was just one of those things. Eh, Mister Cotton?”

No response; only more deafening silence from the back of the little wagon.

Regina Johnson was the last person Elmo ever expected to see again. It just wasn’t supposed to happen; his wife would make sure of that. Nadine Cotton was able to overlook all of Elmo pasts indulgences; all, that is, except for one – Regina Johnson. It was warning given to him, with hard cold stare to match, just before they jumped over the broom together and got married. It was a look, and a warning, the Harlie knew he would take to the grave, at least if he knew what was good for him. ‘That’s just the way farm girls is…’ the uncle admonished his newly groomed nephew on the front porch of his little house shortly after the wedding ceremony that took place in Farmer Simpson’s parlor, ‘They protects what’s theirs… and that includes you!” said Joe, poking a big brown finger directly into Elmo’s small chest at the time, just to make it stick. ‘So stay away from Gina Johnson… You hear me, boy! Nadine won’t have it. She’ll leave you fo’ sho’. Don’t even thinks about it.

He’d brought up her name only once after that; and he couldn’t even remember why. It was the only time Nadine ever threatened to leave him. Uncle Joe turned out to be right, as he usually was, especially when it came to women, which, by the way, was actually a little surprising since the old fly-catcher never did marry. But he made his point; and so did Mrs. Elmo Cotton who drove hers home with the business end of a carving knife one particular evening when, at the climatic end of an exceptional round of love-making, or fighting if you prefer, the raccoon cried out Regina’s name (perhaps inadvertently or subconsciously; he couldn’t remember actually saying it at the time, but knew he would be reminded of it for the rest of his life) at the height of the orgasmic release. With the point of the knife pressed firmly into his burning flesh, the poor Harlie promised it would never happen again. Needless-to-say, it turned out to be the last ‘fight’ they would have for quite some time; and even then, it just wouldn’t be the same.

“Just one of those things…” repeated the man at the head of the wagon, “Just one of those things…”

Elmo didn’t want to talk about it anymore; he didn’t even want to think about it – or her, or the boy. He only wanted to be left alone. And he was going to tell his neighbor to be quiet and mind his own business; but instead, he only buried himself, along with any lustful longings, further and deeper in the beans and said with a sigh: “How should I know, Sherman?”

Having witnesses first hand Elmo’s first awkward and unsuccessful advances towards the young farm girl named Regina Johnson, Sherman seemed to understand. It was Elmo’s first attempt at sex and doomed from the start. It happened, naturally, inside the barn one day in Harley where Regina Johnson was living at the time with her mother, Alma, and her two younger sisters, Sophia and Bernice, the latter being the youngest and Sherman’s future wife. Elmo was only thirteen at the time; ‘Gina’ Johnson, a year older. It was the raccoon’s first experience in dealing with the femme fatal, which at the time seemed to him more of a curiosity than anything else.

It was a time in the young Harlie’s life when his own teeth first began to ache. Not for gold, adventure, or anything like that (that would all come later, of course, as Homer Skinner had found out already) and not necessarily for a woman, as some might come to suspect, although that was certainly part of it. What Elmo Cotton was really looking for was something different, something far more alluring and, perhaps, more dangerous. What he wanted, what he needed, more than anything else was simply that which he couldn’t have. And he didn’t even know what it was. Not yet. Regina Johnson just happened to be there when it happened. It all seemed so innocent at the time, so right, and so... natural. They thought they were alone. They weren’t. Sherman had been eavesdropping at the time (an equally natural phenomenon, if not as innocent) from right outside. Peeping and peering in through a crack in the barnyard door, he’d seen it all; or at least he thought he did, which was actually far less than what Elmo would later claim to have happened that day on the other side of the barnyard door. It’s true that boys will be boys, and will sometimes lie when confronted by others of their kind on the hot and heavy subject of sex, about which, even though they claim to know everything there is to know about it, actually know very little, or at least just enough to be dangerous. But that’s what boys do. Girls realize this, of course – or at least they think they do – and that’s what makes them girls. It all goes back to Adam and Eve, I suppose. Sin has no gender.

Mister Dixon never told his best friend what he saw, or what he didn’t see, that day inside the barn (best friends seldom do in situations like these, at any age) but he always remembered what happened. And now that they were both older, and perhaps a bit more callous to the cruelties that the young sometimes inflict upon one another in the jealous rivalries of youth, the peeping Tom, or Sherman in this case, at last confessed; and he did so in the only way he knew how: he laughed. “Reckon you done caught Miss Regina behind the barn, after all – Eh, Mister Cotton?” Heh! Heh! Heh!” he laughed again, even though he knew by then that he probably shouldn’t have.

“I didn't thinks anyone be watchin’,” replied the raccoon, slightly embarrassed and even a little angry by then with the turtle for not only having spied on him, albeit so many years ago, but for just now ‘fessing up to the crime. There was simply no excuse for it. He slipped slowly and silently further into the beans.

Sherman didn’t seem to notice, and laughed even louder at his neighbor’s expense. “You sho’ look funny, Mister Cotton… And Gina, too!” he howled. Say, what you tryin’ to do with her anyway?”

“What you talkin’ about, Sherman? I didn't even get her dress off,” the raccoon fought back.

“I know…That what makes it so funny, Mister Cotton. Heh! Heh! Heh!” laughed the driver even louder than before.

Elmo was not so amused; and he wanted to say so. But he didn’t. He knew it would only make it that more shameful and, perhaps, even funnier! The truth can be like that at times. He remembered Regina Johnson alright. How could he not? He remembered exactly what happened and, more importantly, what didn’t happen inside Farmer Johnson’s barn that day; and he didn’t consider it a laughing matter. But Sherman was right about one thing, he finally had to admit: it was pretty funny. And even funnier now! as all things take on a more comical aspect the further we are removed from them.

Feeling slightly more at ease in the company of such a fine and excellent turtle, the raccoon thought he might open up even more and, as they say in Harley ‘spill the beans’ by telling Sherman all about what had happened to him since leaving his little farm and family, and in particular what he and his uncle had talked about just before the old man died, especially in regard to Zeke Harley, the man he called the Miracle-Maker, who would soon be dead, if he existed at all and Elmo Cotton had anything to say about it. But he decided that it wasn’t the right time. He didn’t think Sherman would understand; and even if he did, there was nothing he could do change things. And besides, Sherman wasn’t good at keeping secrets, and was already asking too many questions. So, to avoid any further interrogations or un-necessary complications, the raccoon slid silently back into the beans and began singing the words to a song he often heard his uncle singing on the back porch while he was catching flies.

“Woke up this mornin’ feeling the blues
So, I puts on these here ol' walkin’ shoes.
Go down to the crossroads, and makes me a deal
Now I gots me a Hellhound at my heel...”

“Oh, by the way, Mister Cotton” said the driver, not sure what to make of the melancholy melody and wondering what his good friend and neighbor was really up to. “Ifin’ you has nowhere in particular to go, and ifin’ you wants to, that is, well, you can stays with me at my Auntie’s house.

The Johnson’s had three daughters: Regina, Sophia and Bernice. Bernice Johnson was the youngest, and the homeliest (which also meant she was the fattest and ugliest) and would eventually become Mrs. Sherman Dixon. Farmer Johnson died shortly after Bernice was born, leaving his wife, Alma, and the other two siblings to work the farm alone. It wasn’t easy, being all females; but they somehow managed and eventually carried out the terms of old man’s Johnson’s contract, himself a sharecropper under the hard black thumb of Ike Armstrong who’d recently been granted a generous portion of bottom land for services rendered both before and after the war, which, for reasons that remained mysteriously undisclosed, were never documented.

It happened a very long time ago, when Elmo was only thirteen years old, a mere child, and orphaned as well. The smell of the freshly cut beans made him think of the times when he and Regina Johnson would sneak off together behind the barn or into bean fields when they thought no one was watching them. He recalled the first time he nervously put his hand down the back of ‘Gina’ Johnson’s blue dress. It was funny how the smell of Harley beans always reminded him of that, and of her, even until this day, in fact, and especially when they were freshly cut and still green. As he sat back smothering in the intoxicating aroma that brought back so many memories, both good and bad, he could still feel the smooth brown skin beneath the blue cotton dress; how warm and moist if was, dark and delicious, like the unctuous meat of an undercooked game bird with all its natural juices preserved under an oily surface of fine black pubescent hairs. It was the Harlie’s first taste of a woman. But it was only a taste. He knew he come back for more. And so did Gina.

He was actually glad when he’d heard that Miss Regina Johnson had left town to go live with her mother in Old Port Fierce; and so was Nadine. He didn’t realize it at the time, but it only made him want her even more. It was something he never told his wife. He’d never forgotten what she’d once told him after a long and exhaustive night of love-making at the pointed end of a carving knife when he once whispered the name of Gina Johnson in the heated throes of a long and passionate embrace. It was the same admonishment she’d used on more than one occasion: ‘The only way you get out of this here marriage, Mister Elmo Cotton – is feet first!’ Somehow, with the edge of the knife glowing so sharply before the raccoon’s fretful eyes and the handle held so firmly in his wife’s small but powerful hands, the warning took on a whole new meaning. “I’ll cut it off first…’ she added the following morning just to let him know she meant business. And, like I said before, fightin’ was never the same after that.

“Now how about it, Mister Cotton?” squeaked Sherman from the buckboard of the slow moving transport. “You wants to go with me to Mrs. Johnson’s house, or not? ‘Cause I ain’t a’goin’ to no damn boardin’ house. That’s fo’ sho’. That’s fo’ dang sho’! Besides, they’s too ‘spensive. And Harlies ain’t gots that kind of money no-how,” he correctly stated.

The thought of actually seeing Gina Johnson again both frightened and excited the Harlie raccoon. He didn’t suspect that she knew he was married to Nadine by then; not unless Sherman had told her already, which, considering the fact that they were, after all, brother and sister-in-law, was always possible; but because of the distance that separated the two in-laws, it was still not very likely unless, of course, Gina Johnson had some other means of gathering such personal information, which knowing farm girls the way he did, was not entirely out of the question. They can be very resourceful in that regard, especially when they want to be. But if such a meeting were ever to take place, what would he say to her? What would she say? It would be a difficult and awkward moment, for both of them, he sometimes imagined; and it was something he really wasn’t looking forward to. But in the end, the helpless romantic decided to take Sherman up on his generous offer, at least until they got to Old Port Fierce. “You think she remember me… Alma, I mean?” Elmo inquired from the back of the wagon, which suddenly seemed to be moving more slowly than ever.

“Alma ‘members everybody” Sherman insisted, knowing his mother-in-law better than his own wife in many ways. “Believe me, Mister Cotton, that woman never forget a thing.”

The Harlie actually had another Johnson in mind when he said it, but didn’t say anything more to Sherman about it. He didn’t think it was necessary.

“Oh, and another thing, Mister Cotton,” cautioned the fat farmer before he forgot, which was something that happened to Sherman more often than he cared to admit, “Ol' Ike’s been talkin’ ‘bout you lately. S’been going all around Harley, tellin’ folks how you is dead, or some such foolishness. Now, why you think he be doin’ sumpin’ like that, Elmo? That ain’t right.”

The raccoon agreed, thought he knew the answer. He just didn’t want Sherman to hear it, not yet anyway, and not under those circumstances. “You don’t believe that now, do you, Sherman?” he said with audible air of indifference.

“‘Course not!” declared the farmer, sounding a bit more confused than usual.

“Good. Then neither do I,” replied the raccoon.

“Huh?”

“Never mind, Sherman. Can you drive a little faster?”

“Ohhh... I gets it,” acknowledged the farmer at his own expense. “That’s a joke, Mister Cotton! Ain’t it?”

“Not a very good one, I’m ‘fraid,” answered the raccoon as he tried to laugh it off.

The turtle laughed too. “But I tell you sumpin’ what ain’t no joke,” he warned the Harlie on a more serious note. “And it ain’t funny at all. Ike’s been talkin’ to Miss Nadine. See him over there at the farm almost every day. He’s makin’ eyes at her, Mister Cotton. And you know what that mean, if you know what I mean… I mean.”

Neither driver nor passenger was laughing at that point. Elmo knew exactly what his neighbor was talking about. And Sherman was right, it wasn’t funny. It was devastating.

The driver continued. “Now, I don't know fo’ sho’ what be going on, and I sho’ ain’t one to gossip. Likes to mind my own business, you know. But I do know one thing, Mister Cotton – Folks is talkin’. Talkin’ up a storm! And you know what that means in Harley, when folks begins to talk. Don’t you?””

As the raccoon sat motionlessly between two lopsided bags of beans, a quiet rage that had been building up inside him ever since he’d left the farm suddenly felt like it would explode. He was angry, and didn’t want to run anymore. All he really wanted at moment was to jump out of the wagon and run straight back home, just as fast as his raccoon legs could carry him, and kill Isaiah Armstrong, just like the mule suggested over a year ago. It was something he should have done a long time ago, he was thinking to himself just then, reaching down and feeling the distinctive outline of his Bowie knife though leg of his overalls. It didn’t really matter how he did it (although it would have been convenient if he still had his shotgun) and he didn’t care if anyone saw him. After all, he was a criminal – a murderer, no less! That’s what they were all saying back in Harley. Wasn’t it? “They started it… Not me,” he whispered out loud, trying to keep his thoughts to himself at the moment. “Say there’s gonna be a hangin’? Humph! Well, I’d like to see someone try to put a rope around this Harlie’s neck. I’ll kill ‘im first. I’ll kill ‘em all!” he boldly stated, without considering the consequences or who might be listening.

Like any other wild animal, a raccoon will fight back when he knows he trapped or cornered. The Harlie was no different. And if he was a criminal, and a murderer, like everyone said he was, why should they expect anything less from him? And what if he did kill someone? That’s what murderers do. Ain’t it? They kill! And if anyone deserved to be killed, that would certainly be Ike Armstrong. The Landlord had it coming, especially after what Sherman had just told him. And if not Elmo Cotton – Then who? In his own feral instincts told him he was right. Why not kill the landlord? Any other man would have done that by now, and taken his medicine along with the consequences. Besides, he’d killed once before, up on top of the mountain, or so he was told. So why not do it again? What the hell’s the difference? Why not kill ten, or a hundred? How about a thousand! Ah… Killing ain’t so hard,” he’d almost convinced himself by then. Murder’s easy! But living… Now that’s hard. To borrow an expression from a dead colonel: ‘It’s the easiest thing in the world to kill a man…once you knew how to do it, once you have ‘the knack’. Why, it’s just like... like killing a fly, Elmo dared to imagine, thinking of the horseflies his uncle would squash in his lethal hands on his front porch in Harley. And who would blame him? And with all the other sharecroppers Ike had taken advantage of over the years, and all the women he’d molested, if not physically then at least mentally and emotionally, it was a wonder Lester Cox hadn’t already sized up the greedy landlord for a cedar-lined coffin along with a ‘money back guarantee’ Taking advantage of a poor and stupid dirt farmer was one thing (he could certainly understand that, even though he was always too afraid to do anything about it) but taking advantage of another man’s wife when her husband wasn’t around to protect her…well, that was something entirely different. It just wasn’t right, or proper, even if that man happened to be a criminal and a murderer.

Naturally, the raccoon on the run knew that his good friend and neighbor only meant well, and that Sherman was only trying to help, just as he always did. Maybe it was the fat farmer’s way of getting Elmo to go back home, where belonged, even though they both knew by then that he would have to stand trial. Nothing moves a man to anger more than thinking of his wife with another man, I suppose; it’s the stuff wars are fought over, and what men die for. It was good try. And it almost worked. But Elmo knew better. He thought he knew his neighbor better than that. He didn’t. “Let em’ talk,” was the raccoon’s final response to the deeply disturbing question. “I know my own wife. And Nadine knows me! She know what to do.”

Naturally, the turtle was quick to defend the raccoon’s interests, as well as his wife’s honor. “I know what you’s thinkin’, Mister Cotton,” he said with a reassuring nod, “and you gots the right to say what you say. Ol’ Ike, he know better than to mess around with Nadine. She’s a good woman. No need to worry about that, Mister Cotton. But if I was you...” he began to add.

“If you was me, Sherman!” Elmo interrupted. “If you was me…” he suddenly withdrew, trying to control all the emotions swelling up inside him at the time, “you’d be doin’ the same thing. Or else, or else, you wouldn’t be me. Do you understand?” he said, even thought he wasn’t sure if he understood it entirely himself.

The farmer didn’t understand; he couldn’t if he tried. “Huh?” was his only response to the paradoxical inquiry.

“Forget it. Sherman. It’s just a manner of speech.”

“Alright then, but I'll tell Nadine…”

But once again, he was cut short by the frustrated raccoon in the same ambivalent manner. “You tell Nadine… You tell her. You… You… Oh, go ahead and tell her whatever you wants to, Sherman. I don’t give a damn no mo’.” He then rested his head down on a fallen sack of beans and began to weep in private.

Sherman’s eyes grew round and moist as he slowly turned and looked back at his lonely passenger in back of the wagon. It was a pitiful sight to see a grown man cry, he thought, and something he wasn’t quite used to, especially when the man doing the crying was someone he’d known for so long and never seen in such a distressful and sorrowful state. It was the first time he ever saw another man cry like that.

The tears, which Elmo made no attempt to hide, were real. Sherman was worried about his neighbor and wondered if there was anything he could do to help. He cursed himself for saying too much already and for just being plain stupid. He should’ve listened to Elmo and minded his own business. Mister Cotton was right, he concluded; and, as usual, he was wrong. Sometimes you do need more than a carrot, and sometimes it hurts. And so, picking up the whip he was once so reluctant to use, Sherman Dixon cracked it across the back of his tired little pony and cried out loud: “Giddy-up Abraham! You ol’ jackass.”

Reluctantly, the animal obeyed.

As the sun burned brightly overhead, the little red and yellow wagon rolled slowly along the River’s edge. By then, the road had turned into soft white sand mixed with tiny fragments of seashells, which meant only one thing: They were rapidly approaching the harbor of Old Port Fierce, where the tall ships were. Both the farmer and the raccoon were hoping that they weren’t too late.

Feeling a little less grieved over the latest news from back home, Elmo sat up in the back of the wagon inhaling the distinctive aroma of freshly cut Harley beans mixed with the salt of the sea. It was a good smell, and a good combination. It reminded him of church, when as children he and Sherman would chew the sweet-tasting sprouts up in the balcony during the Sunday service and spit them down on the pig-tailed heads of unsuspecting girls below. He never realized that the sense of smell could be such a powerful reminder. It was the good smell, the smell of his family, which he sometimes found disturbing, but now today. Not now. It was the smell of his wife baking bread in the kitchen, the smell of Lil’ Ralph doing what babies do best; it was the smell of his mother, from what he could remember of her, holding him close to her breasts. It was also the smell of working in the muddy bean fields of Harley. How could he ever forget it? But that’s what makes the Harley beans what they are, he imagined, the smell. That smell! It was the scent of a workingman, perfumed with blood, sweat and tears. But mostly sweat. He could smell his dead uncle was in those beans, too.

It reminded Elmo of story he’d once heard from Joe Cotton when he was still a little boy. And just like the smell of the Harley beans, the story had stayed with him all those years, as all good stories should. The words rang true, thought the Harlie, his eyes still a little watery as they slowly but surely approached the city by the sea. And now that he was a raccoon on the run, the story took on a whole new meaning for Mister Elmo Cotton, the Harlie. It went something like this….

ONE FINE DAY THERE WAS A RACCOON with a long black nose, black eyes, and a bushy brown tail. And like all critters of the woods, he had just one thing on his mind: a quick and easy meal.

All morning long the raccoon roamed the countryside in search of something that suited his taste, which naturally included anything that didn’t have a taste for raccoon. He searched long and hard but at last could not find a morsel to eat – not even a borrow rodent or a scrub jay, which were suppose to be plentiful that time of year. And so, with an empty stomach and four sore feet, the hungry raccoon sadly began his long journey home to his hole in the ground.

Before long, the raccoon came upon an open field where he spied a great white eagle lying suspiciously on the ground. The bird was crying in pain because it had just been wounded. The coon’s hopes suddenly brightened, in that a damaged bird appeared to be fair and easy game; and he hadn't tasted foul in over a year. 'Hey there!' the raccoon smiled, raising his tail and licking his short black snout. 'What have we here? An eagle brave enough to lie alone in an open field; or, should I say, foolish enough?'

‘Neither foolish nor brave, Mister Raccoon,’ replied the eagle, boldly looking up from the ground, ‘and only slightly damaged, as any coon can clearly see who would be kind enough to notice.’

'Kindness...’ grinned the raccoon, ‘is a virtue. And being virtuous only makes me hungry’.

'Ahhhhhh!' replied the eagle. 'You mustn't always judge a bird by its feathers. Not all that glitters is gold, or so the saying goes. Appearances can be deceiving, you know, even to a wise and noble raccoon such as yourself’.

The raccoon stroked his beautiful brown tail and stared with pity at the helpless foul for a long time with his big brown eyes. He could find no reason to spare the eagle; but still, he was intrigued by the temerity this particular bird. He knew, naturally, that the eagle would surely die if left alone for any length of time out in an open field. And he was getting hungrier by the moment just looking at the poor and pitiful creature. ‘Under the circumstances,’ the coon finally concluded after thinking it over for a while, ‘Death would only do you justice; and it would fill my belly as well. So, that puts me in enviable position of solving both our problems in one quick bite’.

‘Indeed, it would do me no good to argue such a logical point,’ stated the damaged foul, while carefully preparing his case. ‘But first hear me out; like they say: ‘All that glitters is not gold’.

‘Oh, very well,’ the raccoon nodded, ‘But make it short; and I promise you a quick and painless death’.

‘Well,’ began the eagle in its own lawyerly way, ‘Do with me as you wish and live long to regret it. But first let me tell you something you don’t know. My name is Walter, and as you might’ve guessed by now I am a prince among eagles. My nest lies high in the Silver Mountains, miles above the clouds. I don’t imagine you’ve ever seen it; if you have, it was only by chance I should wonder. Anyway, to make a long story short,’ he said, even though his intentions were just the opposite, ‘I was on my way South... to pick a feather or two with my brother eagles when suddenly, and from out of nowhere, this nasty black arrow found me in flight’. He then held up a broken wing and showed the raccoon that there was indeed a long, black, and nasty looking arrow piercing his left wing.

The raccoon was not impressed, or surprised; nor was he moved to pity the fallen white eagle. ‘Go on!’ he insisted, becoming a little more impatient with the bird’s sad and unfortunate story.

‘Well,’ continued Walter, as a matter‑of‑factly, ‘I was horrified! I was Mortified! I was Humiliated, to say the least. Who wouldn’t be! And who would dare such a thing? And on my birthday, too! I could’ve screamed… Come to think of it – I did! And in doing so, I lost all aerodynamic control of the situation. Who wouldn’t? Flying is a very serious business. If you don’t believe me, just try it sometime for yourself. Have you ever tried to fly with a broken left wing? No, I suppose you haven’t. How could you? You’re a raccoon! You might as well try to chase butterflies. It ain’t easy, you know’.

By that time, the raccoon was growing even more impatient, not to mention very hungry. ‘I never tried such a thing,’ he growled, taking one step closer to his meal.

‘I realize that,’ said the eagle, dragging himself two steps backwards, ‘Just a matter of speech, my fine fellow. So where was I? Oh, Yes. Bless my beak! I thought I was a goner... and I might’ve been!” he insisted, ‘if not for this fluffy field of grass, which I luckily just happened to land in. Not that luck had anything to do with it, mind you. Even an eagle’s fate may be guided by more than the four winds, or a high-flying projectile’.

‘I would say,’ said the raccoon, drawing ever so closer to his prey, ‘that right now your fate is guided by the appetite of one hungry raccoon. I would also say that you are beginning to bore me with your sad little story. If you spare me the rest of it, I may just drag your sorry feathers home and give you a proper cooking rather than eat you here and now, as was my original intention’.

‘And that would suit me just fine,’ lied the eagle, seeing that his own plan was still in effect, for the most part, and working to his advantage. Walter knew that the owner of the arrow would soon come to claim his mark – and the sooner the better, as far as he was concerned. If he could only stall the raccoon a just little while longer, the eagle imagined, he just might get out of this mess with no more than a broken wing and a bruised beak. He was quite aware, as most eagles are under these and other circumstances, that any self-respecting farmer would much prefer a healthy raccoon to a busted eagle any day of the week. He was also quite aware that, although clever in many wild and wicked ways, the raccoon was no match for own superior intelligence and much underestimated avian brain. However, the fact remained that he was dealing not only with a very clever raccoon, but a very hungry one; that could make all the difference. And so, he devised a new and more cunning plan.

‘Mister Raccoon,’ said the prince of eagles (if that what he actually was, which, of course, he’d yet to prove to the raccoon’s satisfaction) knowing the end was indeed drawing near one way or another, ‘Before we go any further and you do what you must, what raccoons do best, that is, I should like to repay you for your kind offer of taking me home for a proper stuffing rather than eating me here in this cold and lonely field. A prince such as I deserves nothing less! But first hear what I have to say, and mark my words well: Long before any man walked the earth, my fathers and their fathers before them roamed the heavens for time untold. We were kings of the sky and lorded over all manner of bird and beast. Even the dinosaurs genuflected in our presence. Why, it wasn’t until the age of Man when things took a turn for the worse. Man! Phew! They ruined it all! They cut down the forests, dried up the lakes. They killed the birds and beasts, and other creatures as well. And what did we get in return. I’ll tell you what – Pollution! It’s a wonder there’s anything left at all.’

The raccoon was suddenly intrigued; for now, the eagle spoke of a common enemy – Man. He’d been hunted by them before and once nearly killed when he was chased up a tree by a pack of hungry hounds, only to escape by the hair of his whiskers when the farmer’s wife suddenly screamed out loud at the sight of her prized cock being dragged from the henhouse by a very large and determined fox. Naturally, the hounds obeyed by bolting straight back to the farmer’s house, leaving the lucky raccoon to climb down the tree and run back off into the wild.

And ever since then, the raccoon had avoided humans at all cost. But all this did not alter his decision one bit; nor did it change his plans, or menu. However, he did wish to hear the bird out; it was the least he could do. And so, he and lay down in the tall green grass and listened with open eyes, ears, and mouth.

‘As time went by,’ continued the Walter, ‘Man made game of every bird and beast he could catch or kill. All but the White Eagles of the North escaped his treachery…Well, at least up until now, as you can plainly see. Damn my hollow bones and feathered brain for getting myself into such a mess!’ cursed the bird. ‘I’m a disgrace to my flock. A real Dodo! Anyway,’ he continued, appearing quite beside himself by then, ‘it was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose. And lucky for you, my fine fortunate friend; for you see, not only am I a prince among eagles, but I happen to be a very wealthy one. For many years, more than you can imagine, I suspect, my fathers were lords over the sky, kings in their own right, and highly regarded. Man, despite all his wickedness, honored them with gifts of silver and gold, and treasures beyond description. In time the eagles of the North, of which am one, stored up enough gold in their nests to buy a small kingdom, if we wanted one; that is; generally speaking, eagles have no use for such ephemeral and superficial things, and are content to live in our own heavenly space. But we do love gold! Who doesn’t? And if you look up in the mountains to the north, just through those clouds,’ he pointed with his one good wing, ‘you just might…There it is. Gold! You see it?’

The raccoon suddenly sprang up, forgetting, for a moment at least, his own immediate hunger. Stretching out his neck and proudly lifting up his bushy brown tail, he fixed his black bandit eyes steadily to the North. And in a moment of joyful hope and anticipation, he thought he saw the faint glimmer of gold high on top the misty mountain.

‘You see? You see!’ cried the eagle, appearing equally excited at the lofty yellow glow. ‘There it is! And here am I. The last and least of my kind, and the only guardian left of my father’s – or should I say, your – treasure? It’s all yours now, I guess! That is if you’re not too busy stuffing your belly with bruised beaks and broken bones to go and get it. It won’t last forever, you know. Already I can see others climbing the mountain. It won’t be long now, I suppose’.

And it looked as though the Walter’s plan had succeeded after all, and better than he actually thought it would. You see, by then the raccoon was so full of greed and lust that he’d forgotten all about his hunger (which, by the way, he might’ve satisfied right on the spot if he were not so gullible and easily tricked) and was already thinking of ways to bring the gold down from the mountain and spend his fortune. And without so much as a ‘thank you’, ‘goodbye’, ‘good luck’, or even a hardy paw-shake,’ he started towards the great mountain in a trot.

He hadn’t traveled very far, however, when suddenly and from out of nowhere, it seemed, he heard the sound of running feet thundering up ahead and advancing in his direction. He’d heard that sound before; and he knew what it meant. At once the raccoon knew he was a fool and cursed himself for being beguiled by the eagle and tricked so easily. ‘Rats!’ he cried. ‘Out-foxed! By a bird-brain, no less. Why, I should’ve eaten the nasty little trickster when I had the chance!’

But it was too late.

The sound and smell of the farmer grew nearer and nearer. There was no time to lose. There was no gold; it was only a trick of the light, as the raccoon now understood. The best he could hope for was a quick get-a-way, if that was at all still possible. Turning around, he headed straight back to where he’d left the eagle, but the farmer were so close by then that he could feel his broad-booted footsteps vibrating the earth all around. He glanced back; and seeing the giant farmer armed with a longbow and knife, he bolted for his life.

When the raccoon next saw the eagle, he was dragging himself through the open field, painfully it seemed, along with his broken wing and bruised beak, the black arrow still lodged in his wing. It was a pitiful sight, but the raccoon didn’t care; he was still very angry at the eagle for tricking him and was tempted to stop and take a bite out of the prince just for spite. But he didn’t want to take the chance; and besides, he had his own problem to deal with at the moment. The farmer was chasing him by then and, for a clumsy old fellow, he was very fast; but the raccoon was faster, and the hounds, he thought, were soon to follow. It was only a matter of time. He’d been down this road before.

And just when the raccoon thought that he was out of the woods, so to speak (of course, he would much rather be in them at that very moment) a knife popped out from behind and nipped off beautiful bushy tail brown tail. He barked like a dog and ran even faster. And when at last he was at a safe distance, or so he imagined, the raccoon stopped to catch his breath. Looking back he saw the farmer pick up the white eagle by the tail feathers and stuff him into his sack. And as he rode off back towards the farmhouse, the raccoon could hear the prince of the eagles crying out a final word of beguiling admonition: ‘All that glitters is not gold!’ At first it sounded almost like an apology. But then the eagle laughed, and the raccoon knew he’d been tricked.

When the raccoon returned home to his hole in the ground that evening, weak and weary from the chase, and without his beautiful tail, he was very angry, and still very hungry. He wept over his loss because his tail was so long and beautiful. He guessed by then that it would most likely end up on someone’s head, as a hat or something, or over the farmer’s mantle piece. The thought of it made him ill. After all, what is a raccoon without his tail? He felt as though he’d been emasculated and castrated all in one blow. It was disgraceful. He was afraid to go out of his hole, even at night when none of the other animals were around to laugh at him.

As time went by, the raccoon grew bitter and bold, and schemed to get even with the farmer one day for all the trouble and humiliation he caused him. And so, one night when the moon was full and bright, the old he-coon crept out of his coon-hole and headed towards the farm house. He traveled far and wide into the land of the giants, which, by the way actually was much farther than he’d ever journeyed before. By midnight, he came to a big red farmhouse with a detached barn and a wooden chicken shed. As quiet as a raccoon (they can be extremely quiet whenever they want to be, you know) he made his way past the barn and through the giant’s garden until he came atlas to an open window.

Slowly, he climbed up to the ledge and poked his cold wet nose inside through the open widow. And there, high over the giant’s fireplace, the raccoon saw his own beautiful brown coon-tail. It was tacked to the mantelpiece, just as he suspected, like some kind of trophy, along with a number of other tails both big and small. “Rats!’ he said under his raccoon breath.

Meanwhile, the farmer was snoozing contentedly at the table with a pile of white eagle feathers at his feet, and a very big belly. The raccoon grinned and almost laughed out loud. So…he thought to himself, his black eyes wide with dilating with vengeful delight, the eagle finally got what he deserved. It only reminded him; and he was still very hungry. And so he pulled the curtain down over the open window and decided to make the most of the situation.

Sneaking back through the garden and past the barn, the hungry raccoon stopped at the hen house. And before the rooster even knew what happened or could sound the alarm, the raccoon was in and out with the farmer’s fattest and prized hen. It was just that quick and easy – as quick and easy as slicing off a tail, the coon rightly imagined.

Stopping by the farmer’s gate with a fat and frightened hen in his mouth, the raccoon looked back to see the farmer stomping out of his front door in his bright red long-johns. He had a shot-gun in one hand and a long sharp knife in the other. But it was too late. The raccoon got away. All the farmer found that night in the hen house were some shocked and surprised hens nervously counting their chicks and eggs, some loose flying feathers, and one worried old rooster. The angry farmer ordered the rooster to start explaining. But needless-to-say, the cock could not crow. He’d been napping also – just like his giant master.

The following day, the raccoon sat in his hole and devoured the fatted hen. The farmer had roast rooster that same evening and slept even better. When at last the raccoon finished his meal, he looked up to the mountain and thought he saw a soft shimmer of light. He shook his head and, as he fell asleep, softly sighed, ‘All that glitters...

End of Book Three

Continue to Book Four - The Miracle-Maker

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