Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

Danger on the Border

A broad band of silver moonlight lay across the rippling surface of the little River Rivanna, flowing rapidly through wilderness and sweep of new-made meadowland, bordered by many a tangle of shrubbery and bending sapling, to mingle with the deeper waters of the James. Old Virginia, then young Virginia, lay asleep. It was a land whose thriving plantations sent over to Mother England their great hogsheads of tobacco, but where the settler's axe still hewed out his farm from the pathless backwoods, and the restless and cruel savage prowled on the war trail or followed the deer.

Across the ribbon of light the dark head of a horse, flung back as the animal swam with powerful strokes, cut through the current. On its back sat a straight, slender boy of about fourteen with a gun across his shoulder. The horse made directly for the shore, plunged once or twice in the sand, and finally scrambled up the bank to gain footing on a narrow trail among the trees. The boy looked back, jumped down and stamped vigorously, adjusted something that hung limp behind the saddle and, with a pat of the glistening wet neck, sprang up again and urged the horse forward.

Both seemed to know the way. When an opening among the thick growth was reached, the pace became a sharp gallop, and before long the lights of a broad, comfortable-looking farmhouse gleamed at them from among the trees.

The boy was Thomas Jefferson, the farm-house was his childhood's home at Shadwell, Virginia. Here in the early days of April, 1743, he had been born, and despite the hardships of pioneer life he and the other members of a goodly-sized household had seen many happy days.

To-night as he reached home he found the family gathered about the great fireplace where, in spite of the late spring, a cheerful blaze roared up the wide chimney. His mother sat at one side, a wide cradle near her in which a tiny child lay resting among soft coverlets. A group of girls clustered about her, the youngest rocking a doll cradle of her own. Each girl had her own bit of sewing, and the mother's fingers flew busily among her knitting needles. His father and a neighbor who had stopped to spend the night on his way home stood together with their backs to the blaze discussing the Indian troubles that were beginning once again to terrify the border.

"I tell you, Colonel Jefferson," Tom heard the visitor say, "we must call out the men again. It can't be stood longer. Why, Colonel Madison sends word from Orange County that the Injuns have raided, murdered and burnt almost to his very door!"

Peter Jefferson waved his hand toward a table where a folded paper lay.

"Read the word that's come from Colonel Washington, wife," he said. "Jane, hand the letter to your mother."

"Give it to Thomas, dear. Let him read it." Tom came forward, greeted the neighbor and took the paper to hold it near the light.

It held a moving story of Indian outrage and horror. General Braddock, whose stubborn pride and ignorance of border warfare had brought upon him and the colonies the terrible defeat of nearly two years before, had left the settlers to pay dearly for it. The Indians seemed to have lost all fear of punishment and their war parties were more and more daring and numerous. Whole counties of settlers fled for their lives while the flames that burned many a little cabin consumed the bloody bodies of its inmates.

Tom read clearly, his voice faltering a little as he came to the words:

"The supplicating tears of the women and the moving petitions of the men melt me with such deadly sorrow that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I could offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy, provided that would contribute to the people's ease."

Colonel Jefferson drew a deep breath as the boy read the name at the end of the letter, "George Washington."

"Colonel Washington will do all a man can, Mr. Nevin," he said gravely, "and we'll do our best here in Albemarle County. Colonel Madison has written me also. We must go forward within two days."

He glanced across at his wife, who smiled bravely, although her lips trembled.

The Jeffersons were a sturdy, happy family. The father, Peter Jefferson, surveyor, planter, colonel of the county, justice-of-the-peace and member of the assembly of the time, and whose ancestors had come, long ago, from old Wales to the colony, was a tall, broad-shouldered, silent man, strong enough to be marveled at, even in those days of hardship and vigor. He was fond of books and as clear of mind as he was powerful of muscle. Mrs. Jefferson, a daughter of the fine old Randolph family, was a wise and gentle mother to her growing brood.

"Won't young Thomas, here, and Miss Jane cheer us up a bit with some music?" asked the visitor, in order to break the tension.

Tom glanced hesitatingly at his mother, who smiled and nodded.

"We try for cheerfulness always, Mr. Nevin," she returned. "My husband there insists that to be really brave one must be cheery."

Mr. Nevin glanced at the calm face of Colonel Jefferson.

"I suppose he gets his philosophy from this," he suggested, his eyes twinkling as he pointed to a shelf of worn books above the fire-place. "Shakespeare—I've often heard of him—and this, what is it—The Spectator, eh, Colonel?"

Peter Jefferson got up and took down a volume to lay it upon his knee.

"There's schooling for a man in the wilderness in this, friend Nevin," he said. "Many a time, when I've been out surveying in the woods, I've had it in the bosom of my hunting shirt. If I can bring Tom up to love it as I do, I'll be pretty well pleased."

Mrs. Jefferson looked across at Tom, who stood tuning up his violin.

"There's no fear on that score, Peter," she murmured. "Music and books—they're what he loves best."

Colonel Jefferson drew down his brows and gazed into the fire.

"True enough. And yet they are not all. A man can't have an independent mind—one that is really free—in a weak body. The body must be looked to. What do you say, neighbor?"

Mr. Nevin laughed and touched the swelling muscles of Colonel Jefferson's arm.

"Wa-al, Colonel, it's a text that's got a good preacher in you. I'm told you can stand two thousand-pound hogsheads of tobacco on end with a single motion! I don't doubt the boy's body will be right enough. He's a well grown lad for his age."

Peter Jefferson smoothed his beard with one large brown hand. "The lad will do well enough, I hope. He gets on with his studies with Mr. Douglas, I believe. But time will tell."

He leaned forward to help a little girl to his knee. Silence fell upon them, broken by the snapping of the fire, as they listened to the playing of the boy and the singing of his sister. Bits of quicksteps, reels and jigs, simple melodies and tunes followed one another, and the sweet voice of Jane Jefferson, to the boy's accompaniment, filled the room with the quaint music of the old psalm tunes.

After awhile, at a nod from Mrs. Jefferson, Tom put down his fiddle and Jane took up her sewing again. Mr. Nevin was greatly pleased and thanked them with rough but ready appreciation.

"Times change," he went on thoughtfully. "That boy's fiddlin' reminds me of my brother at his age. I remember he played the fiddle at the fair on St. Andrew's Day." He chuckled. "There was twenty of 'em, ma'am, twenty fiddlers. I remember how the notice ran: 'A fiddle to be played for by twenty fiddlers, no person to have the liberty of playing unless he bring a fiddle with him!' When Neil heard of it, nothing would do but he must take his fiddle and go. But he couldn't play well enough to win the fiddle. After it was given to a lad of twice his size who played like a whirlwind, all twenty of 'em got together and played, each one a different tune, as hard as they could go it! Wa-al! As for Bedlam! I've heard some rackets in my time, but that one beat 'em all! Such a squeaking and a squawking I never expect to hear again!"

Colonel Jefferson's rare, deep laugh rang out above the shouts of the children.

"What else did they do, Mr. Nevin?" asked Tom, moving nearer.

The visitor passed his hand through his thin hair thoughtfully.

"Do? Wa-al, it was a great celebration. Let me see. There was a race. Twenty horses was in it and the course was three miles long. Five pounds was the prize and nobody was allowed to start a horse unless he'd paid in half a pistole. Then twelve boys, each twelve years old, ran a race of a hundred and twelve yards for a hat worth twelve shillings. I won a hat myself that day—a mighty good one, too, Colonel—at cudgeling. Then there was silver buckles that some of the lads wrestled for, a pair of shoes was danced for, and Sally Smith won a pair of fine silk stockings for being the handsomest country maid at the fair—and a mighty proud one she was, too, when she got 'em." Mr. Nevin chuckled again. "Oh, 'twas a grand day, Mrs. Jefferson."

Colonel Jefferson smoothed the little head that lay against him.

"Times are changing. Folks have little enough heart about here just now for fairs," he said soberly.

Mrs. Jefferson drew out a needle from her knitting and turned the stocking about.

"Peace and safety will be won again—even on the border," she said earnestly. "I feel that the time will come when you brave men may stay peacefully at home. The Indians 'must be conquered!"

"True; but now—can you be ready to take the trail in two days, Nevin? I must send word to Washington in the morning."

"I shall be ready, sir," answered the other heartily. "You can count on me to do all I can to get rid of the varmints."

"Good. We must all stand and act together. That is the only way to make Virginia safe."

"You are right, sir," agreed Nevin.

When bedtime came—all too soon—the children left the three before the fire to resume their talk of Indian troubles and plans for going forward to help the young commander of Virginia's soldiers—Colonel George Washington.

The dreams of young Thomas Jefferson, that night, as he lay in his bed under the low sloping roof of the farmhouse, were a mixture of fiddlers playing a whirlwind of tunes for a wonderful fiddle, and of painted Indians thirsting for the blood of the settlers, slipping single-file along the forest trails of old Virginia, while his broad-shouldered father and he hurried madly along in hot pursuit.