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THE LONG FURROW
ENRY was a field-hand who lived on Yucca plantation on Cane River in the back country of Louisiana. He was a big black man, strong as an ox, humble as a mule. His eyes asked questions. He was born on the place and had never been more than twenty miles away from it in his life. His wife was a fat, loud-mouthed woman with gold hoops glittering in her ears; she shouted at his four black sons, sang louder than any one else in the African Baptist church, and "meddled" Henry when he was studying things in his mind. When there's fighting in the bigroad you can run home, the old folks say, but what are you going to do when the fighting is in your own cabin?
Henry plowed the east field day after day, year after year. Up and down, slowly, behind his mule and plow. It was known as Henry's field, although of course it belonged to Mr. Guy, the white owner of the two thousand acres that made up the plantation. Henry, in a sense, belonged to Mr. Guy just as the land did.
Along the edge of the field the river drowsed in the sun, choked with purple water-lilies, its bank covered with a thicket of trees and vines. Birds made their nests there undisturbed and green lizards and
old planter, even then, sickly-like and puny from the time he was a baby. Why, Uncle Chawlie could remember him well, a spindling little boy, lying on the floor of the gallery of the big-house painting with water-colors, or leaning back against one of the tall white columns, reading a book.
Guy, his brother, had been the very spit of his father,-diving from high trees into the river, or riding wild horses and rampaging over the country. Later on, when the older boy came home from the State University, he took hold of the place and ran things his own way. When the old planter died you hardly missed him. But Paul had gone away, up North, to lots of different places and then had gone to live over with foreign people somewhere. The negroes had almost forgotten about Mr. Paul until his return. There had been excitement then, for Mr. Paul was mighty sick,-coughing all the time and having fever. Tuberculosis it was. Lots of niggers die of it too. It's bad.
But Mr. Paul seemed to make a joke of it. For instance, he was contrary-minded, and insisted that he would not live in the big-house with Mr. Guy's wife and children,said the disease was catching. Instead he had taken an empty niggercabin nearly half a mile away from the dwelling of the white people, had gone there directly after his arrival, and had stayed there ever since, all by himself. Sometimes he painted at a big easel outdoors, under the blossoming Chinaball-tree. He had been home a month now, and folks had got used to meeting a negro house-man riding on horse
back from the big-house, balancing a tray of smoking dishes, or carrying a coffee-pot in one hand,-galloping his horse so the food would still be hot when he got there.
That was about all Uncle Chawlie knew, but he asked the others. Aunt Dicey, who washed clothes two days each week for the white folks at Yucca, went over sometimes and cleaned the cabin, scrubbed the floors and waited on Mr. Paul. She told stories about solid gold hair-brushes, and of lots of things. she didn't even know the names of,— but who could believe that old woman? A natural-born liar, that's what she was, and always trying to be important in what she knew about white folks's doings. Nevertheless, it was true about the silk clothes; Uncle Chawlie had seen them himself, flopping in the breeze on the clothes-line: "Hones' to Gawd, yo' wouldn' believe!"
Henry, lolling on his elbow in the dark near-by, puffed deep on his pipe and said: "I sometimes sees him when I'm plowin' de eas' fiel'
Looks powerful sick tuh me
but 'e always say, 'Howdy,' friendly-like an' nice."
Uncle Chawlie 'lowed Henry could tell a lot more, but he was one of those shut-mouth niggers, no good at talking,-just studying to himself all the time. The matter dropped. The black men yawned, whistled to their cur-dogs, and disappeared, one after the other in the shadows, riding their sleepy horses toward cabins dotted along the river bank. But Henry sat on, alone in the moonlight, scratching his yellow dog between its ears and thinking about Mr. Paul. Funny thing about your
thoughts-you don't know why they keep on running on things that way. Why, once Henry had got a tune in his head-a baptizing tune-and it stayed there for four days and four nights until he almost lost his mind. Now Mr. Paul was on his mind, just like that tune.
The cotton rows were very long, running all the way across a wide point that jutted out into the river. At the lower end of the field was Henry's house, and at the upper end of the furrow, the cabin where Mr. Paul lived nowadays. From far off, as he walked behind his plow, Henry could see the turkey-red curtains blowing out in the breeze, and the white man lying back in a big chair in the doorway, reading a book, or just sitting there, looking out. His figure danced up and down in the heat waves which swam over the furrows. Mr. Paul wore a purple silk dressing-gown nearly all the time, bright and gay. He liked the same colors that Henry did.
Sometimes Mr. Paul painted at a big picture out under the Chinaballtree before the cabin. Henry couldn't see what he was painting, couldn't guess. He wondered though. Mr. Paul was thin and small, not big like his brother. He had quick hands and red lips and a lot of black hair. From a little ways off he looked a boy and moved about like one, delicate-like and soft.
His hand trembled the day he gave Henry a glass of lemonade through the high wire fence which divided the cabin-yard from the cotton field. Henry had been surprised. Mr. Guy would never have done that or at least not in that
way. Mr. Paul had a big glass pitcher of lemonade on a table just inside the door, and when he saw Henry and his mule approaching down the long furrow, he poured out a glassful and walked into the sunlight, bareheaded, handing it to him through the meshes of the fence. Henry stood on the other side and drank. Lord, but it was good! Nice and cool and satisfying. It didn't seem to satisfy Mr. Paul though for he had hardly tasted it.
When Henry was through drinking, Mr. Paul gave him a cigarette as long as a cigar and lighted a match for him. Their hands touched and Mr. Paul's hand was was cold ... That's what sickness does to you. You can feel Old Death coming.
Henry was mighty sorry for Mr.
Paul. Wished he could do something. "Is yo' feelin' betta to-day, suh?" he said, and the white man answered: "Yes, I'll be well soon. I like the heat. I had forgotten how good it feels to be warm."
He said other things too, harder to understand. About the plowed land he talked, and about the mules and niggers and growing cotton: "A man forgets these things in cities . . . This is what I need. Simple things, like you, Henryyour plow and your mule and this good black earth with green things growing in it."
Yes sir, that's what sickness does to you. Sickness comes on horseback but it goes away on foot. Sometimes it never goes away. Mr. Paul had fever right that minute, and when white folks are sick they always seem sicker than niggers . . . they look sicker.
Henry began feeling sorrier and
sorrier for Mr. Paul. Every time he came down the long furrows he looked and looked. The eyes of the two men met, held, until Henry turned his mule and plow around, and went back again.
When he came down the third row, Mr. Paul said: "Come and sit under the tree, Henry, and talk to me for a few minutes,-Guy won't mind. I'll tell him."
Henry looked up and down the wire fence. It was very high, two full widths of woven hog-wire. There was not a hole in it anywhere. It stretched out nearly half a mile, past the orchard, past the vegetable patch, clear to the edge of the flower garden of the big-house. Two years ago old Uncle Isaac, who lived in the cabin then, had been given the care of Mr. Guy's fine game chickens. Game chickens can fly high and are much too valuable to be stolen by niggers. The fence was to protect them. The chickens were gone now, gone like poor old Uncle Isaac, but the barrier remained.
Back of the cabin the long, empty chicken-runs stretched out almost to the river bank; at the end of these, the fence turned at a right angle and continued away from the cotton field a quarter of a mile or more until it joined the picket-fence around the stables and mule lot. To get to the cabin from the field you had to walk clear up to the big-house, where Mr. Guy sat in his "office." An explanation would be due for leaving your mule and plow. Mr. Paul couldn't get out into the field or to the river bank, and Henry couldn't get into the cabin-yard. Henry had to explain all this to Mr. Paul, because he didn't want the white man to think
him unthankful for his offer. He went off behind his mule again, trying to make up his mind to ask the white man to let him come over some evening instead. Mr. Paul could tell him things he wanted to know, about men in far-away places, and cities.
But there was that fence. It was so high, and you couldn't cross it without breaking it down. And you couldn't do that, of course. Henry found it hard to talk through the wire. It got into the way of what you were trying to say. Besides, it is mighty hard to say things to white folks so they can understand you.
There were two questions Henry wanted to ask. If anybody in this world could answer them, it was Mr. Paul. Why was it that Henry couldn't get on, couldn't better himself? Why was it that he had to work, just like his old mule, day after day until he died? Stuck, like a fly in molasses. Henry wanted to learn too bad. But everything hindered him. His wife laughed and shouted, or got mad and burned up his books. She taught her four black sons to laugh too. "Nigger is nigger," she said, mocking him, shaming him before people. But that wasn't true, and Henry knew it.
He sighed and bent his head over the plow: "Git up, mule," he said. The beast strained forward under the weight of the heavy soil.
Up and down the field, slowly. Furrow after furrow.
another of those long, good-smoking cigarettes. This time they talked of the picture Mr. Paul was painting. Henry wanted to see what it was, so Mr. Paul turned it around. Henry could see it was a stretch of cotton field, with a plow and a nigger coming along Mr. Paul had put him in a picture without Henry knowing a thing about it. That was a strange thing, too. Henry couldn't see the picture very well because it was some distance from him, but he could see what it was. He was pleased and proud. This was something to tell the black men on the store gallery to-night. But someway, when the time came, he couldn't do it, even when the conversation turned to the sick man again.
People had come all the way from town to see Mr. Paul, but he had refused to see them, according to kitchen gossip-just wouldn't be bothered: "An' he's sure one sp'iled white man," Uncle Chawlie concluded.
"Huh! It wuz swellin' up whut bust de poutin' pigeon!" came the comment from a shapeless black shadow at his elbow.
"E ain't sp'iled! 'E ain't proud!" Henry startled them all with the passion of his reply: "'E's a sick man, dat's whut 'e is!"
But Uncle Chawlie said only: "Aie-yie!" a comment which can mean anything or nothing. There was a long silence broken by the whining of mosquitoes and the stamping of the sleepy horses tied to the railing. Henry rose, whistled to his cur-dog and started home.
Across the narrow river the lights in the cabins were winking out, one after another.
The next night Henry didn't go to the store to loaf and visit with the other men. Instead he sat by the smoky oil-lamp in his cabin and tried to read from a book he had. His wife and children, already in bed, called out impatiently for him to put out the lamp, but Henry paid no heed. He wanted to learn to read better. Things came so hard. It was harder to read than plow, and he was tired already from the day's plowing. But it was nice to look out along the furrows and see the light in Mr. Paul's cabin. Mr. Paul was reading too.
It was the next night that Henry went out alone for the first time. His wife's nagging voice worried him more than usual:
"Fo' Gawd's sake put out dat lamp, Henry! De room is full o' mosquitoes dis minute. T'row dat ole fool book away an' lemme git some res'!"
Henry rose, blew out the lamp and went outdoors. The yellow dog, lying in the dark by the side of the house, beat his tail upon the hardbaked ground. For awhile Henry sat on the steps watching the light that glimmered in the cabin across the field. There was a light in the parlor of the big-house too, to-night. Company there. He wondered if Mr. Paul had walked over to spend the evening for once he had seen him walking through the orchard late at night after leaving the big-house. But that was a month ago. Mr. Paul seldom walked nowadays.
Finally Henry began to walk down the rows that he had plowed that day. The light in Mr. Paul's house urged him on. Maybe the white man was sick and needed something.