Fran is this month’s winner of $525.00 for a historically accurate, deeply researched, story on sacrifice. The school referenced is real, founded in 1837, and is currently called Cheney University.
Bio: By age 16, I had attended 13 schools. My teen years, I dreamed boldly (Astronomer? Mathematician?); married the man who made me tingle whenever we mingled. Thirty years later, he became an ex. I manage our vacuum repair business alone. It's grown to fill many community needs.
Unfair randomness fills life, but I've never stopped dreaming dreams, or ceased celebrating life’s sunrises and sunsets.
With difficulty I’ve learned, when experiencing a rare moment of perfect joy, I must give thanks. Only if stored wrapped with thankfulness, can a joyful memory become a warm ember within the depths of my soul, warming when icy despair fills the air.
Life is good not in spite of its hardships, but because of the purpose we discover while struggling against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
The chain of life continues. My children wonder how their children will handle life’s challenges.
Without further ado, “No Greater Love” by Fran Tabor.
The summer of 1845 was one of those rare, perfect summers farmers pray for, but rarely get. Farmers made money, and the tradesmen who made money off farmers made more money. That year, everyone felt he had a better chance at having his personal dream come true.
Tobias knocked loudly on the kitchen door, but did not wait for anyone to open it. Taller than average, he ducked when he entered. His wide-brimmed, felt hat skimmed the lintel. His broad shoulders brushed the door’s narrow frame.
Outside, pale blue light edged over the eastern horizon, harbinger to true dawn.
Inside, the red glow from the stove’s firebox provided the only light, but that was all the light Anne needed to prepare bread for her master’s family. Away from home, she might have been just another slave, but here she was Queen of the Kitchen. Elbows deep in bread dough, Anne looked up at her unexpected visitor.
“Toby, what you doin’ here so early? You knows Ellie needs her sleep and that lazy stable boy won’t be ‘round at least another hour.”
“I’s here to see Master Jefferson. It’s the first of the month.”
Anne gave the dough a vigorous punch. “Is it now? Don’t you usually see him early evening?” She winked. “Just when Ellie have free time?” She let her questions dangle in the air, hoping to get more information. Tobias Johnson said nothing.
Anne folded the elastic dough, punched it again. “Soon’s I gets this in the pan, I’ll tell Master Jefferson you here.”
“No need, he said go straight to his library. Said he’d be waiting for me.”
Tobias started to walk through the kitchen.
Anne shouted, “Stop right there. No one walks on my master’s floors with barnyard trampin’ boots.” She plopped the shaped dough into its baking pan, draped a cloth over it. Anne wiped her hands off on her skirt; then grabbed a short, stiff straw broom. Pointing to the kitchen door, she commanded, “Sit, brush the soles of your boots so clean they be cleaner than a church pew.”
Tobias complied. Every visit, Tobias wondered if Anne believed her earthly servitude was an audition for the day she was in charge of the pearly gates, for surely God’s standards could not be higher than hers.
Anne scrutinized his progress.
Tobias started to stand up. “I’s done.”
Anne pointed to a speck of hay.
How can she see anything in this dim light? He brushed it off.
Anne snorted approval, let him get up. She admired his broad, very black, very handsome face. If only he wasn’t so smitten with Ellie… “You been comin’ to see Master Jefferson the first every month what, five, six years? How come?”
Tobias grinned. “Not time for tellin’.”
“I won’t be wastin’ lantern oil to light your way. I’ll lead you to master’s library.”
“You knows I don’t need no guide. I think you just curious ‘bout my business with Master Jefferson.”
“Me an’ everyone else ‘at knows.” With a sassy hip sway, she headed down the still dark hall.
A rooster crowed three times in rapid succession.
Anne stopped sudden. Tobias bumped into her. To keep from falling, she braced herself against the hall’s wainscoting. She whispered loud, “Rooster crow three times fast early morn, somethin’ bad gonna happen.”
“Not this mornin’. This mornin’ be best mornin’ ever.”
“This morn, somethin’ evil come.”
“You knows the way. I gots taters need peelin.’ Anne rushed back to kitchen safety.
Tobias rounded the final corner alone. Lantern light from the library cast a brown-honey glow onto the hall’s wooden floor. Tobias Johnson politely removed his worn, floppy hat as he walked through the wide-open double door opening into the heavily draped library.
William Jefferson the Third looked up from his massive writing desk. He rose immediately, went to the door; looked left and right before personally latching and locking the thick double door. Next, he went over to an elaborately carved buffet stand where an expensive bottle of brandy sat on an embossed silver platter. Two crystal brandy snifters stood next to the bottle; Old English style WJ’s etched into their outward curving sides. Frosted lines swirled around the stylized monograms, curved upward; accentuating each glass’s natural taper.
Jefferson dropped the brass room-key onto the polished tray. In the library’s silence, its landing ‘clink’ reverberated like a Chinese gong.
Two glasses. That mean Mr. Jefferson’s expectin’ another gentleman. But if so, why lock the door? Tobias scanned the room’s corners, the shadows cast by the carved tables, the far corner hidden by an over-sized leather chair. Somethin’s different…Mr. Jefferson? Me?
Out of habit, Tobias glanced down at his scuffed work boots. Yes, clean. As if they could be anything but spotless after the thorough brushing Anne forced him to do before entering her master’s house. No, he was as he always was. It’s Mr. Jefferson that’s different, scary different.
I hope the white of my eyes don’t show too much. I’m a born-free man, here to redeem my wife, my babies. Mustn’t give cause for story telling. He knew men talked of slaves so scared their eyes went popping-wide, like black dots on white billiard balls. He feared ever appearing so afraid.
Tobias possessed pride. Born free, lived free. He was his own boss, mending harnesses all up and down the river. Born free; but in love with Ellie, Mrs. Jefferson’s personal slave.
Years earlier he and Miss Ellie had pledged beneath a full moon and married secret. This coming Sunday they would marry again, in a church, married in the eyes of the law.
Mr. Jefferson looked directly at Tobias, as though looking at an equal. That ain’t natural. Tobias rolled the edge of his hat rim tighter.
Mr. Jefferson spoke softly. “This house was designed by my grandfather. Sound does not escape this room, save the loudest screams. Even those are a faint whisper, easily ignored, not heard by any except those with the sharpest ears.” A hint of smile. “Even Anne can’t tell what is said in here.”
Tobias glanced back at the locked doors. He forced his eyes to a narrow squint.
Jefferson continued. “My grandfather always said, sometimes being a gentleman requires privacy, complete privacy. Today, I understand what he meant. May I offer you a brandy?”
Tobias felt his eyes open wide. Damn, I’m bug-eyed now for sure. Tobias tried to sort out if it were fear or shock unraveling his well-practiced self-control.
Tobias squeaked, “No thank you, Mr. Jefferson, sir.”
He regained control of his vocal cords. “I’ve not touched a drop since’n we made our pact five years ago. I learned I don’t miss it none. I don’t aim to start again, now’s I’m ready to buy my lady.”
“Will you allow me to have a glass?”
Tobias nodded yes. His grip on his hat tightened.
Jefferson poured himself a generous amount. He indicated a chair in front of his writing desk. “Please, sit.” Jefferson sat behind the desk.
Tobias, every hair on his arms raised, went to the indicated seat. He sat slowly, on the chair’s edge; ready to spring up the moment Mr. William Jefferson returned to normal.
Jefferson tilted the glass, studied the brandy within it. Without tasting it, he sat the glass down. He opened a desk drawer, pulled out a ledger and a metal money box. He pulled a key from his waistcoat pocket and opened the box. His fingers drummed on the ledger. He opened the book, found a page.
“Tobias, Mister Johnson, I always prided myself on being a gentleman, a man of honor; a man whose word was equally good to highborn and slave alike.”
Tobias felt deep pain twist his gut. “Yes sir, all knows you a God-fearin’ man.”
Jefferson looked across the wide desk. “Today, you are a better man, a more noble man, than I. Today I am forced… today I must… Mr. Tobias Johnson, I know you have one hundred dollars cash on you, the final payment for your wife and sons.”
Jefferson slid the open ledger book over to Johnson. He pointed to the entries as he spoke.
“This is the amount I agreed to accept. These are your payments, at least a full dollar every month on the first, without fail. Many times, you paid more. Here’s what you owe, One Hundred Dollars.” Jefferson took a deep breath. “When you leave this room, I will tell everyone you are just another dumb darkie, can’t add, you owed me one hundred fifty dollars, leaving fifty left. Your wife and kids, still mine until you pay in full.”
Tobias stared. He wanted to feel anger, but felt only helpless, lost.
Jefferson picked up his glass; again, without bringing it anywhere near his lips, put it down. He looked around the room. “I’m going to miss this place.”
Tobias leaned forward. “Mr. Jefferson, I’ve knowed you since you was learnin’ to walk. I knowed your pa and heard tell of your grandpa. You, breakin’ your word.” Tobias pointed to the empty glass by the brandy. “Offerin’ me a drink. Somethin’ powerful wrong.”
Jefferson picked up his glass again, started to sip but put it down, the brandy still not tasted. He leaned back in his chair. “My best friends and myself went together to buy a merchant boat. A good boat, good captain. I pledged my home as collateral for my share, figuring I could pay from a few harvests if the venture didn’t work out.”
Tobias frowned. “Harvests all good this year. That’s why I made a full hundred.”
Jefferson nodded. “Harvests are good, weather in the Atlantic, not so good. Twenty nine days ago, the ship sank.”
Jefferson said, “The bank contract I signed had many pages. I didn’t read all of them. Should have. The contract demands full payment in thirty days if the boat sinks. I need Two Thousand Five hundred Fifty dollars by noon tomorrow.”
“That’s more money than your land’s worth!”
Jefferson nodded agreement. “Tomorrow, I lose my home and everything in it. The bank inventoried all my collateral, including your family. I can’t sell them to you. If I keep my word to you, I go to jail.”
Jefferson gazed at a distant point, ignoring the room he was in and the man he was with. “My wife and daughter will be entertaining friends tonight, a sweet sixteen birthday celebration, without a clue tomorrow we will be homeless.”
He removed three bills from his cash box, leaving it empty. He held up one. “I will be giving this to my wife. She will use it to buy the fixings for tonight’s dinner.” He picked up the other two. “Tomorrow I will use one these to take a stage out of town. The other, I will give to my wife. Her choice, she and my daughter come with me, or go back home to her Ma.”
Tobias felt pity for Jefferson, then shock at himself for feeling pity. “Which will she choose?”
“I don’t know.” His voice cracked. “She’s always had servants… cannot live as a servant.”
The two men looked at each other. Suddenly they were neither white nor black. They were two men facing the loss of their women.
Tobias looked at the bottle and empty glass. “I’ll have that brandy now.”
Jefferson jumped up, poured as much into the second glass as he had his own, handed it to Tobias and sat down. Holding his glass, he held it out to Tobias. At Tobias’s confused look, he explained they were to clink their glasses together for a toast.
Their glasses clinked.
Jefferson toasted. “To a damn world.” They both drank. “God doesn’t need to send me to hell. I am already there.”
Tobias nodded. “We’s both there. Over two thousand dollars. Hell, you could buy a good farm for less. You could buy----”
Tobias’s eyes went wide, more than wide enough to look ‘bug-eyed’, but he did not care. “Mr. Jefferson, if’n you had the money today, the whole Two thousand five hundred fifty, if you could give that money to your banker, will you let my wife and sons be free? Will you give them this hundred dollars?” He pulled out a hundred dollar bill from the pouch hidden under his shirt. “Do I have your word as a gentleman and a child of God Almighty, if’n you have your money today, my family’s free and you give them this hundred note?” Tobias stood up, held out his hand. “Will you shake on it?”
William Jefferson the Third stared at Tobias’s outstretched hand. He looked up at Tobias.
William Jefferson the Third stood. “I would shake hands with the devil himself, if he could keep that promise.” He shook hands.
Tobias drained his brandy snifter. “One thing I need ask you do.”
“Have my wife and children dress in their best, bundle up everything their’n. Take them in your buggy to the corner of Market and Center early afternoon today.”
William Jefferson paled. “I can’t. This whole week is wailing week. They’ll think----“
“They will think what will be true tomorrow, if you don’t get your money today.”
Jefferson nodded. “They will think I’m bringing them to sell, most likely to separate your babies from their mother.”
Tobias handed William the hundred dollar bill. “I’m trusting you.” He stood up. “Do you think I could borrow your oldest vest?”
Tobias nodded. “It will make it easier to get the money.”
“I’ve given you my best brandy. Might as well give you a vest, too. ” He grabbed the key and headed for the door. “Wait here.” He unlatched the doors, shoved them open and rushed out.
The doors started to swing shut. Tobias shouted, “You oldest vest!” the doors shut.
A few minutes later William Jefferson returned with an elaborately embroidered, but worn out vest. Tobias examined it carefully, nodded. “Perfect.” Tears started streaming down his face.
“Mr. Jefferson, you have one of those fancy cloths for nose blowing on you? I can’t leave this room crying. And maybe one more sip of that mighty fine likker? Ain’t never taste the like before.”
Jefferson pulled a lace handkerchief from his sleeve. He poured another drink for both of them.
Tobias blew his nose loudly.
Both men finished their drinks.
Tobias gazed into his empty glass. “Preacher man says these things hold empty courage, but today I don’t care what kind of courage they hold, ‘cause I needs every kind there is.”
Jefferson said, “You will not do anything…wrong?”
Tobias replied, “Wrong? God decides right and wrong. I just knows I will get your money.” He sat the glass down. Holding the vest as though it terrified him, Tobias left.
Mid morning, Anne (wearing her go-to-market shawl), Mrs. Jefferson and her newly sixteen year old daughter, Alice, walked down Market Street. A throng of friendly, chattering shoppers filled the wooden sidewalks lining the cobblestone street. Mrs. Jefferson maintained her usual monologue.
“Today’s weather is so nice, I don’t mind Mr. Jefferson denying us the use of the buggy. I must say, he has been acting mighty peculiar lately. Why, just yesterday---”
Alice squeezed a question between her mother’s words. “Ma, I smelled liquor on his breath when he kissed us good bye. Could Pa be…?”
Mrs. Jefferson laughed. “Don’t be silly. Not your Pa.”
Anne laughed with Mrs. Jefferson. “Lots of men get all weird actin’ when they realizes their little girls becomin’ women. One minute they’s proud how beautiful their daughter changin’. Next minute, they wants the baby back. Flippin’ back and forth ‘tween wanting every young man to notice their girl’s charms, to wantin’ none of them to notice; Papas of sixteen year old women just naturally go crazy.”
Mrs. Jefferson nodded. “That is God’s own truth.”
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