The Story of Jonas

Maurine F. Dahlberg

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

JONAS EASED OFF HIS HURTFUL SHOES AND WIGGLED HIS toes up and down. His feet ached from being squeezed so tight, and they had been pricked where the shoe nails stuck through the stiff leather. But Master William and Miz Julia liked for their house servants here at Split Oak Farm to dress fancy, and those were the only shoes Jonas had. One pair of shoes a year, that was what slaves got.
“Jonas, time to eat!” called Esther from the kitchen below.
“Be there in a minute!” he hollered back down. “Just taking off my good clothes.”
Esther was the Hoopers’ cook. Jonas helped her in the kitchen, and he helped Leola, the house girl, clean the Big House and wait on the Hoopers. Leola was about his age, thirteen or so, and she and her older brother, Tate, who worked in the hemp fields, were Jonas’s friends.
Esther had worked in the hemp fields, too, until last fall, when Jonas’s mama, who had been the cook, died of the cholera. Esther wasn’t nearly as good a cook as Mama had been, but she got in a huff if Jonas told her how Mama would have done something. “That ain’t the way I does it,” she would answer stubbornly. So, because Jonas liked her, he tried to keep quiet.
Every time Jonas pictured Mama’s sweet face, he still felt as if a powerful hand were wringing his heart, squeezing out more tears than he’d have thought a heart could hold. Each day he visited her grave, out behind the field hands’ cabins. Her gravestone was a flat rock from down by the Blackwater River, etched with what he guessed said Nancy, her name, and 1858, her burying year. He’d sit beside that rock and talk to Mama, and it would bring him comfort.
Jonas’s daddy had died, too, long ago, but his grave was on Master William’s daddy’s farm, Hooper Hall, which was down the road a piece. Daddy had had to stay there when Mama and Jonas had been sent here to Split Oak Farm. Jonas reckoned that if Daddy’s grave had a stone, it would say Ben and the date he died, about eight years ago. Jonas had accompanied Master William to Hooper Hall several times, but he’d never had the courage to ask if someone would take him to Daddy’s grave. He hoped he could visit it someday so he could say, Remember me, your little Jonas that you used to carry round on your shoulders? I’m near growed-up now, but I ain’t forgot you. I still love you and Mama.
Esther called impatiently, “You coming, Jonas? We gotta eat so’s we can wash the dishes.”
“Coming!” Everything at Split Oak Farm was hurry, hurry, on account of there being so much work to do. Split Oak Farm wasn’t large, but it was one of the best hemp farms in Saline County, Missouri. Master William was strict about how his hemp was grown and prepared, and buyers knew it would make strong rope and sturdy bagging for cotton bales. The field hands were kept busy year round, planting, raising, cutting, drying, and breaking apart the tough hemp plants, and the house servants had to wait on the commission men, bankers, and merchants who often came to call.
Jonas took off his white table-waiting shirt and folded it carefully on his cornshuck mattress. Then he went down the narrow, winding steps, wearing just his britches.
Esther was dishing up chicken stew out of a cast-iron pot that hung from a crane over glowing coals on the hearth. As Jonas came in, she turned around. “Honey, what you trying to do, get pneumonia? Ain’t even May yet, and you running around without no shirt on!”
“It be almost May, and plenty warm.” Jonas took the steaming bowl of stew she gave him, carried it to the worktable, and sat down on a cane-bottom chair.
Esther brought her bowl and settled across from him, her chair creaking a complaint. It was used to Jonas’s dainty mama, not to big, fat Esther.
Esther was stout and had light-hued skin, the color of walnut shells. Jonas was small, like Mama, and his skin was as dark and glossy as chestnuts. He was darker than Mama had been—more like Daddy. Mama had always said he had Daddy’s wide grin, too. It pleased him, knowing he took after both his parents. It made him feel that they were still alive, through him.
He lifted the blue towel that covered the bread basket, but only crumbs met his eye.
“Ain’t no more bread,” Esther said. “Them folks in the Big House done et it all. They sure can eat. Ain’t much left when they gets finished.”
“I forgot, Master Percy ate the last of the bread.” Jonas sighed. “He eat like a prize hog. At supper, he had four slices of bread, three bowls of stew, and half the apple pie.”
“Lordy.” Esther shook her head. “That man gonna eat up all we got in the larder.”
Jonas told her, “He ain’t no joy to wait on, neither. Thinks I ain’t nothing but a set of hands and feet, put on Earth to fetch and tote for him.”
Master Percy was the Hoopers’ grown-up son. None of the servants liked him, and his mama and daddy didn’t seem to know what to do with him. He’d failed in school, couldn’t keep a job, and didn’t take to farming. He gambled and drank, and had no-account friends. He wasn’t even comely to look at. Like Jonas, he’d gotten his looks from both his parents, but in his case the result was unfortunate: with his mama’s narrow face, long, bony nose, and light brown hair, and his daddy’s pale gray eyes, he looked like a fish.
Last month Master Percy had lost another job—a nice one that his daddy had gotten him in the nearby town of Boonville, filing papers in a lawyer’s office. Jonas and Leola knew he had lost it because they heard Master William hollering at him in the parlor. Master William hollered so loud that they giggled, saying probably the whole state of Missouri could hear him. But they stopped giggling when they found out that, without a job, Master Percy could no longer pay the rent at his Boonville boardinghouse and had talked his parents into letting him move back here to Split Oak Farm.
During his visits, Jonas and Leola had come to hate Master Percy. He was bearable when his mama and daddy were watching, but once he was out of their sight he became arrogant and cruel. He ordered the two house servants around and jerked them by the arms. He cuffed Jonas on the back of the head, and he pinched Leola in places where he oughtn’t to be pinching a gal.
“Thank the Lord he’ll be leaving soon,” Esther said. “Master William agreed to pay his way out to them gold fields, didn’t he? Ain’t that what you and Leola said?”
Jonas explained, “Master William agreed to pay his way, but only if Master Percy goes with folks he approves of. And they ain’t found nobody yet.”
Master Percy had been talking about those gold fields since last fall. At first Leola, Esther, and Jonas had nearly laughed their heads off. Imagine thinking you could dig up gold pieces the way you’d dig up beets or potatoes! How could Master Percy be so foolish? But it turned out that the fields were real. The newspapers had stories, which he read aloud at the dinner table, about the many thousands of people at the gold fields and the gold they were finding. He had bought guidebooks and maps that said how to get there.
Then one day Master Percy had gotten an invitation to go with two friends. Jonas remembered how excited he was when he came to the dinner table and announced, “Dag and Bud are going to the gold fields, and they want me to come along!”
But for once Master William was firm with his son. “No, Percy, you are not going with the Chalmers brothers—not if you want me to pay for your trip. Those two boys are troublemakers. If you go, it will be with somebody mature and trustworthy—somebody who doesn’t drink or gamble or take crazy chances. I’ll ask my acquaintances. Perhaps one of them knows someone who’s going and would take you along for a fee.”
Now Esther stood up and stretched. “Well, I sure hope Master Percy go away soon, whether it be to the gold fields or to the Devil.” She looked at Jonas. “You done eating?”
Jonas nodded, his mouth full. Together, the two of them carried the kettle of hot water from the fireplace over to the worktable, filled the dish-washing and dish-rinsing pans, and hung the half-full kettle back over the fire. Jonas wasn’t fond of dish washing, but he knew he wouldn’t be doing it forever. Last winter Master William had called him into his study and told him some exciting news.
“Now that I am getting older and the farm is doing so well, I’ve decided I will soon need a manservant,” he’d said. “I think you have the makings of one. When it’s time, I’ll send you to Hooper Hall to learn from my father’s manservant, Ebenezer.”
“Yes, sir.” Jonas had said it quietly and calmly, because that was how servants were supposed to speak. But if he hadn’t restrained himself, a happy yell would have worked its way up his throat, and his feet would have started to dance. “Sir? When you reckon it be time?”
The master had pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on his desk, considering. Then he’d grabbed a pencil, stood up, and walked to the door. “Come and stand over here with your back against the wall. Stand up straight and hold still.”
Jonas had stood there, hardly breathing. Master William had drawn a short pencil line right above his head, looked at it, and drawn another line above that one.
“When you get this tall,” he’d said, pointing to the top line, “you’ll be ready.”
The second line was about half a thumb’s length above the first one. Jonas had thought, Why, it won’t take no time to grow that much! But now the snow had melted and the trees were misty-looking with green buds, and he hadn’t grown at all. He checked every week when no one was watching. The only way he could reach that line was to stand on his tiptoes, and he knew Master William wouldn’t let him do that when measuring time came.
But someday he’d reach that line. It made him smile to think about it. A manservant was as high up the ladder as a slave boy could dream of getting. He’d wear a fine suit, and sleep on a pallet in the master’s bedroom. He’d lay out Master William’s clothes, greet visitors, and be trusted with family secrets. He’d probably have a little boy, maybe Jigsy, to run errands for him. Best of all, he’d have been trained by Ebenezer. The straight-backed, grizzle-headed old man was the perfect manservant—dignified, discreet, loyal, and smooth-tongued. Jonas watched him admiringly whenever he accompanied Master William to Hooper Hall.
Jonas was drying the big serving bowl, dreaming about being Master William’s manservant, when he heard quick footsteps coming down the pathway from the Big House. The kitchen door creaked open and Leola came in. Her dark eyes were big with worry in her thin, tan face.
“Jonas, Master William want to see you.”
“He want to see me? Why?”
“Don’t know. He just say fetch you. He be in the parlor with Master Percy.”
Jonas’s mind raced. What could the master want with him so sudden-like?
“Do Master look happy?” Esther asked Leola.
“Not unless having his mouth frowning down to his chin mean happy.”
A chill went through Jonas. “You think I be in trouble?”
She shrugged helplessly. “Ain’t got no idea. When I took them tea earlier, they was talking about Master Percy going to them gold fields. I don’t know how your name got brought up, though. Now come on! The master don’t like to wait.”
“I—I got to go upstairs and put on my shirt and shoes.”
Jonas ran upstairs, threw his ruffled white shirt over his head, jammed his feet into his shoes, and hobbled down the steps, still tucking his shirt into his pants.
Esther clasped his arm. “Honey, keep your eyes down and your voice low. Don’t do nothing to anger nobody.”
“I be all right,” Jonas assured her. But he was trembling as he and Leola went out the door and up the walk to the Big House. Master William seldom whipped his people, but he did other things that hurt, such as thumping their heads against the wall, pulling and twisting their ears, and, worst of all, switching their legs with his riding crop.
Leola said hesitantly, “I reckon I could tell Master William I couldn’t find you nowheres. Maybe he’d forget what it was he wanted.”
“No, I’ll go in,” Jonas replied. Then, because they both knew that such a fib could get her a switching, he added, “But thank you kindly.”
As they went up the walkway to the Big House, music, sweet and haunting, drifted up from the cabins. That was Tate, playing his reed flute. Tate had been moody lately, but he still played that flute like an angel come down from heaven. With all his heart, Jonas wished he could sit out here on the porch with Leola and listen to Tate’s music instead of having to go see Master William.
When Leola opened the back door of the Big House, it swung smoothly and silently. The floorboards of the hallway shone, and the candles flickered brightly through their clean glass chimneys. Leola and Jonas did a good job of keeping the Big House nice, and they were proud of it.
Surely, thought Jonas, Master William ain’t found fault with my work.
The two padded quietly to the parlor doorway.
“I be waiting outside,” Leola whispered.
Jonas smiled at her, grateful.
Master William looked up and saw them. “Come in, Jonas. Leola, you may go.”
He was sitting in the upholstered chair by the fireplace, his back as straight as a board and his hands in his lap. Jonas glanced up long enough to see that his bushy gray eyebrows were drawn together and his mouth looked as though he’d just sipped vinegar.
Master Percy slouched in another chair, sulking. His lanky hair hung down around his face, and he picked at a fingernail. Like his daddy, he wore a white linen shirt, good wool britches, and costly black boots.
Seeing those boots, Jonas thought, Huh! Ain’t no nails pricking their feet.
Master William beckoned. “Come here.”
Jonas walked over to Master William, his head bent. He told himself, Try to act dignified, like a manservant. Act like old Ebenezer. Keep your eyes down and speak softly. If he hurts you, just set your jaw and don’t howl or whimper.
Master William said briskly, “I have a job for you to do.”
“Yes, sir?” Jonas felt light-headed with relief. He wasn’t in trouble, after all!
“My son is going on a trip out West. You’ll be going with him.”
“Sir?” Jonas was so startled that he almost looked Master William in the face. He caught himself and lowered his eyes before the master noticed.
“You’ll be going to the gold fields with my son and about twenty more men. You’ll cook for Percy and two others—the wagon train leader and a doctor. You’ll also do their laundry, build the campfires, help drive the oxen, and do any other chores you’re assigned.” He hesitated. “As I recall, you can do all those things. You light the kitchen fire in the mornings, and help cook the meals. You’ve helped old Susie with the laundry, and you drove the oxen when Elijah was sick last year in plowing time. Am I right?”
“Yes, sir.”
Master William gave a nod. “Good. You’ll leave on May seventh. That’s a week from Saturday.”
He’d leave in less than two weeks! In a small voice, Jonas asked, “Sir? How far we going on this trip?”
“The gold fields are about eight hundred miles from here.”
“Eight hundred miles, sir?”
Master Percy snorted and looked up from his fingernailpicking. “Oh, Papa, that doesn’t mean anything to a slave boy. Think of it this way, Jonas. The church is a mile from here and Hooper Hall is four miles. We’re going eight hundred miles. Now, what do you make of that?” He sat back, looking smug.
“I—I don’t know, sir.” The numbers hopped around in Jonas’s head like crickets. He wasn’t even certain how much a hundred was. He was sure of his numbers only up to twelve. Twelve let him read the clock and measure a foot. Twelve was a dozen, and anything higher was a-dozen-and-one and so on, up to two dozen. But how many dozens did it take to make eight hundred?
“Can’t puzzle it out, can you, boy?” Master Percy laughed. Gleaming in the lamplight, his teeth looked small and sharp. A fish with coyote teeth, Jonas thought.
“Stop teasing him,” Master William said. “Jonas, it will take six weeks or so to reach the gold fields. Depending on how lucky my son is at gold-digging, you will be gone about a year.”
“A year, sir?” Surely Jonas had heard wrong!
“Yes, a year.”
Jonas felt weak, and there was a funny buzzing in his ears. “But, sir—”
The master waved a hand in dismissal. “That’s all. You may go now. And, Jonas …”
He smiled slightly. “Perhaps when you get home you’ll be tall enough to reach that pencil mark.”
“Yes, sir.” At least that would be something to look forward to during the long, unimaginable year to come.
Copyright © 2007 by Maurine F. Dahlberg