The air was filled with fireflies scribbling abstract words on the warm summer night. With lantern in hand, Jasper darted across the field to the stables. The maid, Clara, had already informed Mr. Booth, the stable master, that Jasper required a horse to run an urgent errand for Mr. Jefferson.
As Jasper reached the stable, the lanterns hanging from the beams were burning bright. He entered quickly, rushing through the stable doors and bumping straight into the burly, ruddy-faced Mr. Booth.
"Watch it, boy!" the angry stable master growled. "You damned slaves are as clumsy as you are stupid, ain't ya?"
Jasper didn't respond.
Mr. Booth raised his arm as if to strike him and shouted, "I said, 'ain't ya?'"
"Yessir," Jasper agreed reluctantly, gritting his teeth, bravely bracing for the impact of Mr. Booth's hand.
It did not come.
Instead the stable master shooed the young man away with an angry, "Go on, get out of my sight. Myles has a horse ready for you, and don't even think about selling that old nag for some money and telling me she ran away. I know how shifty you slaves are. Never forget that nag's life is worth more than yours, ya hear?"
"Yessir," Jasper nodded. "Thank you, sir."
Unable to bear another second in Mr. Booth's whiskey- stinking presence, Jasper raced off, running through the hay to the far end of the stable.
He rounded the last stall and saw Myles' back, his shirt wet with sweat. He was pulling the bridle over the old nag's head, talking to the horse gently. "That a girl, you're all right. You've got an important job to do tonight."
The horse bobbed her head up and down as if responding to the young man's calming voice.
Jasper smiled as he watched. Myles was the same age as Jasper, both twenty-two-years-old. They were the same height, the same build, sturdy and strong and fit from a lifetime of hard work. There was only one difference: Myles was white, and Jasper was not.
The young stable boy fastened the bridle.
He tied the reins to the saddle.
He ran his fingers through his hair and turned-and at the sight of Jasper, he grinned from ear to ear.
"Good evenin' to you," Jasper smiled.
"Good evenin' to you too," Myles beamed back.
"I brought you something." From his pocket, Jasper produced a napkin which he unfolded to reveal a piece of shortbread. "Fresh from the oven. It's still warm."
Myles's eyes lit up.
He took a bite of the shortbread and, still holding it, offered Jasper a bite. The two finished it together, savoring every sweet mouthful.
"Now I have something for you," Myles said with a large, white grin.
With his fist, he grabbed Jasper's shirt, scrunched the lapel and pulled him into a kiss. Both young men sucked in a breath of air as their lips crashed together. Their hands pawed at each other's hair, shoulders, backs, chests.
But without warning, the two suddenly heard the cough and spit of the grisly Mr. Booth approaching.
Jasper and Myles separated quickly.
Mr. Booth appeared around the corner of the stall.
"What's taking so long? Ain't you got that wretch outta my stables yet?"
"He's just leavin', boss," Myles said, quickly helping Jasper slide his foot into the stirrup and giving him a leg up into the saddle. As he did so, he whispered in Jasper's ear. "The old drunk will be leaving for the tavern soon. I'll be here when you return. Hurry back to me."
Jasper settled in the saddle, his heart thumping.
A moment later, Mr. Booth stomped into the stall and slapped the old nag on the ass. "Go on! Get outta here!"
Jasper gripped the reins just in time as the horse galloped out of the stall, out of the stables and into the night.
Philadelphia was small, a city still in its infancy, barely a century old and only now beginning to transform itself into more than a mere settlement. Jasper's journey to the other end of Market Street was swift, and Mrs. Gilmore was generous with her parchment, handing Jasper a scroll of ten sheets or more.
With God's speed, the young servant galloped back to the Graff stables as fast as the old nag would go.
When he arrived, Myles was waiting for him at the stable doors.
There was no sign of Mr. Booth.
"He's gone," Myles confirmed as Jasper dismounted.
As soon as his boots hit the ground, he reached for Myles and kissed him. "I must take these parchments to my master. Will you wait for me?"
"Of course I will," Myles said, his blue eyes melting into Jasper's. "I'll make sure the old nag's watered. The poor thing looks exhausted."
"She couldn't wait to carry me back to you," Jasper laughed. "I'm sure she couldn't." As if to agree, the old nag gave a whinny.
Running as fast as his legs would carry him, Jasper bolted back to the house, tore up the stairs then paused at the parlor door to catch his breath and compose himself before entering.
"Ah, Jasper!" Mr. Jefferson sighed with relief. "Thank heavens, you're just in time."
Jasper took the blank parchment scrolls from his shoulder bag and handed them to his master. "Have you found your words, sir?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes. No. Not yet." Jefferson rubbed his temple with his ink- stained fingers. "I will. I know I will find the voice of the people before this night is through."
"I hope He does, sir," Jasper said. Through the open window behind Jefferson, he could see the stables a short way across the field, could hear the old nag whinnying happily, knowing that Myles had just watered and fed her. "Will there be anything else, sir?"
"No, thank you, Jasper. You've been a great help." He smiled at his loyal servant and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Soon will come a day we will all celebrate for a very long time. I assure you."