[A winter story to counter the summer heat. Enjoy!]
The curly-haired youth slammed the book shut and ran downstairs. His father had hitched the mule team to the wagon. A tall, Black slave about David’s age was loading the back. Isaiah Isaacs put his arm on his son’s shoulder.
“Business is brisk, so I can’t leave. Give Tom a hand loading and get these things up to Highland.”
“The Monroes’ new plantation?”
“Aye, just past Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello.”
“I wish they hadn’t moved last month.”
“They may be wishing they were still in town, too. They invited the Madisons for Christmas, and the place really isn’t ready for company.”
Soon the boys were heading east on Main Street. Dark, grey clouds poured over the Blue Ridge. The perch on the wagon exposed them to the cold wind, especially Tom, who wore an extra tunic but no coat. Now and again snowflakes streaked across their path.
They rode quietly at first. Tom counted deer and small animals. David dreamed of sailing to Europe and the great cities where his parents had grown up. He missed his friends in Norfolk, but Father had said they could not make a go of it there. To David, Charlottesville seemed so crude, like a brick village in a thick forest.
Tom finally broke the silence. “You like to run?”
David snapped out of his daydream and frowned at Tom. Then he looked back at the road.
“You like to run?” Tom repeated.
“Why do you ask?”
“‘Cause I like to run.”
“Good thing you do. I’ve seen you running to Main Street from Highland or the Monroe farm west of town.”
“We live at Highland. We used to live in King George County. Mr. Jones sent my mother and me to help set up the Monroes’ new place.”
Tom’s confidence bothered David. Slaves here seemed so cocky, not like the ones in Norfolk or Williamsburg.
“Mr. Jones is Mr. Monroe’s uncle and friend,” Tom went on. “He looks after the Monroes’ things when they’re gone, which is often. You know that Mr. Monroe is going to be governor now.” He sat up a little straighter. “And he was ambassador to France before.”
David scowled, pretending to concentrate on the winding road that climbed the side of Carter’s Mountain. Tom took the hint and sat quietly for another half hour. The snow began to stick.
“The Monroes give us Christmas off,” said Tom finally. “And presents, too. I want my own coat, ’cause I spend so much time outside. We get presents right after Church. How about you?”
“We’re Jewish. Christmas is a Christian holiday, though we take the day off, too.”
Tom started shivering.
“How come you’re so different from Mr. Isaacs?”
David stopped the team and set the brake. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing much, ‘cept your father is so easy to talk to. So friendly, I mean. He said you been slaves, too, though I can’t see how.”
“Let’s get blankets on the mules,” said David. “Their sweat is starting to freeze.”
Tom got down with the blankets and covered the mules. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to walk for a while.”
David returned to his daydreaming, relieved to have the talkative slave down on the ground. They passed Monticello. The road levelled off and began snaking around the north side of the mountain. The mules plodded forward with no orders from the reins.
The snow fell thickly, driven by the stiff wind. Suddenly the cold turned warm and wrapped David in a coziness. He dozed off and fell forward.
Tom felt the wagon stop, then he heard the crash. David’s frozen fingers on the reins were pulling the mules toward each other. The team started from the noise but stopped in confusion. That saved his life.
Tom started to run toward Highland. About ten yards away, he stopped. A rescue party would have to come out in the dark, he thought. The snow collected quickly where he stood. He returned to the wagon.
He climbed the spokes of the front wheel. That made the wagon roll downhill. The confused mules staggered. Tom reached desperately for the edge of the seat to keep from falling and hauled himself up. He set the brake and looked down.
David lay still. Tom climbed down carefully and pulled the reins away. He tied them to the brake as he had seen drivers do, then turned back to David.
A trickle of blood was drying on David’s temple, but he was breathing steadily. Tom tried to heave him up but slipped on the tongue and fell.
The crash startled the mules again, and they almost stepped on Tom. He forced himself not to move while the panic swelled in his chest.
Slowly, he climbed back to the seat. He got a rope and used it to pull David up. Tom laid him on soft bags in the back and tied the cover over him and the cargo.
After a few scary mistakes with the reins and the brake, Tom got the team moving. Slowly, confidence grew between Tom and the mules. He sat near the brake, ready to stop with one hand and pull reins with the other. The blizzard blew stronger.
Tom could hardly see the ears of the mules through the snow when he heard a shout behind him. He stopped the wagon and untied the cover. David’s terrified expression turned furious when he recognized Tom.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Tom shouted. He struggled to his feet, slapping Tom’s outstretched hand away. “You’re going to get a whipping like never before, when we get to Highland.”
“You were freezing. I—”
“I was not. I felt fine, you stupid slave!”
“You fainted and fell. I had to get you covered.”
“I am not! You’re being stupid yourself, now.
David punched Tom in the stomach. Tom fell backwards, bouncing off the left mule. He landed in a bush and lay still, choking down the rage. David was climbing down.
“What you do that for?” Tom asked.
“‘Cause you’re a sassy slave that doesn’t know how to talk properly.”
“I talk just fine. You can’t go around hitting people.”
“You’re not people.”
“I am, too. Slaves are people who lost a war.” He ducked the next punch and turned to run. David grabbed him. They fell together and rolled down the embankment. Each got in a sloppy punch, falling in the snow and swinging wildly.
The fight stopped when they hit a large oak so hard that it stunned them both.
David felt dizzy. His head hurt, and Tom looked a little out of focus to him. The world began to spin. He saw Tom turn suddenly toward him.
The slave caught David under the arm and eased him down against the tree. Tom sat next to him.
After a few moments, David said, “Thanks.”
“Did I really faint back there?” David asked.
“Uh-huh. You fell headfirst in between the mules. They almost stomped us both.” They lay against the oak while the snow collected on their faces. “Did you really mean what you said?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know. Father says slavery is wrong, but I never heard him say it to anyone but Mother and me. What did you mean about losing a war, anyway?”
Tom got up and reached down to pull up David. “My father was an army commander.”
“Yes. He was killed in a big battle near our town. The enemy burned the city and marched everyone to the coast as slaves.”
They staggered up the hill to the wagon.
“You were born in Africa?” David asked.
“No, white men bought my mother at the market on the coast. I was born on Mr. Jones’ plantation four months after she arrived.”
Soon the team was making its way slowly through deep snow. Tom found more blankets in the back. They bundled up and ate Mrs. Isaacs’ mince pies.
The bitter wind abated as the team worked around the mountain. The sky was brighter now, which told them that the cloud cover was thinning above the falling snow.
“What do you like besides running?” David asked.
“Walking alone in the woods, mostly,” said Tom.
The snow stopped falling when they reached a fork in the road. The road to the left led down to Shadwell, where Mr. Jefferson was born. The other road led past Highland. Pink streaks formed in the clouds as the sun eased behind the Blue Ridge to the west.
The main house was set back a mile from the road. It was a simple, two-story building, even smaller than David expected. Like most large plantations, Highland had dependencies – stables, smoke house, workshops – out back and a kitchen attached to the basement. Unlike most plantations, at Highland the house slaves lived in the basement of the main house. Tom’s mother was hanging greens on the front porch.
“You know, Tom, maybe Christmas is a good idea,” said David. “One time in the year when we can all be decent to each other.”
“Maybe so,” said Tom.
David put out his hand, and Tom grasped it.
“Merry Christmas, Tom.”
“Merry Christmas, David.”
This Christmas story is fiction, although an Isaiah Isaacs did settle in Charlottesville around the time that the Highland house was ready for the Monroes late in 1799. His son David owned the store in 1823, when Thomas Jefferson laid down a street plan for the city. James Monroe, law student and friend of Thomas Jefferson, was four times Governor of Virginia, twice Ambassador to France and the fifth President of the United States. James Madison, a drafter of the Constitution and fourth President, lived in nearby Orange County. Monroe did invite the Madisons for Christmas in 1799.
© 1992, 2022, JT Hine
Come back next week to read about Tom’s story. It will be fun.