“Thirty-seven... thirty-eight... thirty-nine.”
As Big Monty was released from the manacles, an unearthly moan seeped from his bloodied lips. He sprawled face-down, dust whirling around his oozing limbs and torso.
“Take him away.”
Carefully, Bert and Dovie lifted Big Monty into the back of the wagon, mindful of the gaping slashes on his ebony back.
“You’ll be fine, love,” Dovie whispered in his ear.
Bert snapped the reins, and Monty groaned again as the wagon moved forward. Mercifully, the sounds ceased.
“Sula will mend him up.”
Dovie stroked Monty’s matted, damp hair, then her tears flowed, glistening droplets mingling with crimson-tinged sweat.
“It’s not fair, Bert. He were only learnin’ us to read.”
“I know, Dovie.”
“Master’ll be mad. Monty’s his best man.”
It was a known fact that secret schools were operating in Savannah, Georgia, whites teaching slaves, slaves teaching slaves, all illegal, all punishable by law.
John Paul Winston had taught Big Monty to cipher and read, as it was beneficial to his job, but it was illegal, too. Winston had no idea Monty was sharing his gift with his enslaved brethren at a secret school in his off hours. Now, Monty’d been discovered and immediately punished.
The wagon rolled to a stop.
“You get the master, Dovie. I’ll go find Old Sula. She’ll make a poultice.”
Dovie ran to the big house. Within minutes, John Paul Winston was at the slave’s shack, leaning over Big Monty, a scarlet flush creeping up his neck as he surveyed the damage done to his slave’s back. Sula was already applying a soothing poultice while Dovie stroked Monty’s cheek. Monty stared at the wall, his eyes glazed.
“How long have you been going to the secret school?”
“Some months, sir,” Dovie answered.
“Did you know it was forbidden?”
“Why was Monty helping?”
“Everyone was wantin’ to read. Books. The Bible, sir.”
Sula straightened. “I’ll change the poultice in a bit. Stops bleedin’ and kills pain.”
Winston lightly touched Monty’s shoulder.
“This won’t go unnoticed, Monty. Unlawful or not.”
A growl came from Monty’s throat.
“I didn’t hear, Monty. Say it again.”
“You, too, sir.”
Under Sula’s care, Big Monty healed, and he resumed his chores with his former vigour. But the ridges on his back remained raised and angry, a legacy of his desire to pass on the blessing of reading. Before long, the three were gone during off hours again. Their absence was noticed by their owner, who correctly surmised that they were attending the slave school, so great was their desire to read.
Winston became obsessed with a desire to find the school. And what did he propose to do if he did? Deny his chattel the same privilege he had already illegally granted to Monty? Bring his property safely home?
Finally, unable to resist the compulsion to look but one more time, Winston trailed Dovie and Bert into Savannah. Bert took the wagon to a stable, then he and Dovie set out on foot. Winston followed at a distance, watching as they ducked into a door in an alley.
Winston followed and knocked. The door opened a mere sliver.
“May I help you?”
“May I come in?”
Monty appeared, pulled Winston in, and shut the door.
“Why are you here?”
“I came to see.” Ten pairs of eyes peered at Winston.
“You must leave, sir. You’ll get us whipped.”
“Please. Let me see the fruit of your labour. Of my labour.”
A Bible was produced.
“In the beginning was the Word...” *
The door burst open. Two soldiers and a man in a black robe entered.
Everyone stared in frightened silence.
The black-frocked man addressed Winston. “Are you aware, good sir, that this is an unlawful assembly, and furthermore, it’s illegal to teach blacks to read.”
“He’s here for a recital, as it were,” said Monty.
“Are you the teacher?”
The soldiers seized Monty, dragging him into the alley.
“Unpleasant bit of business. I’m sorry, sir. On your way, the rest of you.”
“No! Stop,” commanded Winston. “Let him go. I’ll take it.”
“I said I’ll take the whipping. Leave him be.”
A chorus arose from the slaves, soldiers, and the robed man, but Winston was adamant. He removed his overcoat and pulled his shirt from his trousers.
The tears rolled down Monty’s cheek as Winston took each stripe.
...and dwelt among us... *
*John 1: 1, 14b KJV
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