BRANSON COUNTY, North Carolina, is in
a sequestered district of one of the staidest and
most conservative States of the Union. Society in
Branson County is almost primitive in its
simplicity. Most of the white people own the
farms they till, and even before the war there
were no very wealthy families to force their
neighbors, by comparison, into the category of
To Branson County, as to most rural
communities in the South, the war is the one
historical event that overshadows all others. It is
the era from which all local chronicles are
dated,—births, deaths, marriages, storms,
freshets. No description of the life of any
Southern community would be perfect that failed
to emphasize the all pervading influence of the
Yet the fierce tide of war that had rushed
through the cities and along the great highways
of the country had comparatively speaking but slightly disturbed the sluggish current
of life in this region, remote from railroads and
navigable streams. To the north in Virginia, to the
west in Tennessee, and all along the seaboard the
war had raged; but the thunder of its cannon had
not disturbed the echoes of Branson County,
where the loudest sounds heard were the crack of
some hunter's rifle, the baying of some deep-mouthed
hound, or the yodel of some tuneful
negro on his way through the pine forest. To the
east, Sherman's army had passed on its march to
the sea; but no straggling band of "bummers" had
penetrated the confines of Branson County. The
war, it is true, had robbed the county of the
flower of its young manhood; but the burden of
taxation, the doubt and uncertainty of the conflict,
and the sting of ultimate defeat, had been borne
by the people with an apathy that robbed
misfortune of half its sharpness.
The nearest approach to town life afforded by
Branson County is found in the little village of
Troy, the county seat, a hamlet with a population
of four or five hundred.
Ten years make little difference in the
appearance of these remote Southern towns. If a railroad is built through one of them, it infuses
some enterprise; the social corpse is galvanized
by the fresh blood of civilization that pulses along
the farthest ramifications of our great system of
commercial highways. At the period of which I
write, no railroad had come to Troy. If a traveler,
accustomed to the bustling life of cities, could
have ridden through Troy on a summer day, he
might easily have fancied himself in a deserted
village. Around him he would have seen
weather-beaten houses, innocent of paint, the
shingled roofs in many instances covered with a rich
growth of moss. Here and there he would have
met a razor-backed hog lazily rooting his way
along the principal thoroughfare; and more than
once be would probably have had to disturb the
slumbers of some yellow dog, dozing away the
hours in the ardent sunshine, and reluctantly
yielding up his place in the middle of the dusty
On Saturdays the village presented a
somewhat livelier appearance, and the shade
trees around the court house square and along
Front Street served as hitching-posts for a
goodly number of horses and mules and stunted
oxen, belonging to the farmer-folk who had come in to trade at the two or three
A murder was a rare event in Branson County.
Every well-informed citizen could tell the number
of homicides committed in the county for fifty
years back, and whether the slayer, in any given
instance, had escaped either by flight or acquittal,
or had suffered the penalty of the law. So, when it
became known in Troy early one Friday morning
in summer, about ten years after the war, that old
Captain Walker, who had served in Mexico
under Scott, and had left an arm on the field of
Gettysburg, had been foully murdered during the
night, there was intense excitement in the village.
Business was practically suspended, and the
citizens gathered in little groups to discuss the
murder, and speculate upon the identity of the
murderer. It transpired from testimony at the
coroner's inquest, held during the morning, that a
strange mulatto had been seen going in the
direction of Captain Walker's house the night
before, and had been met going away from Troy
early Friday morning, by a farmer on his way to
town. Other circumstances seemed to connect the
stranger with the crime. The sheriff organized a posse to search for him, and early in
the evening, when most of the citizens of Troy
were at supper, the suspected man was brought
in and lodged in the county jail.
By the following morning the news of the
capture had spread to the farthest limits of the
county. A much larger number of people than
usual came to town that Saturday,—bearded
men in straw hats and blue homespun shirts, and
butternut trousers of great amplitude of material
and vagueness of outline; women in homespun
frocks and slat-bonnets, with faces as
expressionless as the dreary sandhills which gave
them a meagre sustenance.
The murder was almost the sole topic of
conversation. A steady stream of curious
observers visited the house of mourning, and
gazed upon the rugged face of the old veteran,
now stiff and cold in death; and more than one
eye dropped a tear at the remembrance of the
cheery smile, and the joke—sometimes superannuated,
generally feeble, but always good-natured—with
which the captain had been wont to greet his
acquaintances. There was a growing sentiment of anger
among these stern men, toward the murderer who had thus cut down their friend, and a strong
feeling that ordinary justice was too slight a
punishment for such a crime.
Toward noon there was an informal gathering
of citizens in Dan Tyson's store.
"I hear it 'lowed that Square Kyahtah's too
sick ter hol' co'te this evenin'," said one, "an' that
the purlim'nary hearin' 'll haf ter go over 'tel nex'
A look of disappointment went round the
Hit 's the durndes', meanes' murder ever
committed in this caounty," said another, with
"I s'pose the nigger 'lowed the Cap'n had
some greenbacks," observed a third speaker.
"The Cap'n," said another, with an air of
superior information, "has left two bairls of
Confedrit money, which he 'spected 'ud be good
some day er nuther."
This statement gave rise to a discussion of the
speculative value of Confederate money; but in a
little while the conversation returned to the
"Hangin' air too good fer the murderer," said
one; "he oughter be burnt, stidier bein' hung."
There was an impressive pause at this point,
during which a jug of moonlight whiskey went the
round of the crowd.
"Well," said a round-shouldered farmer, who,
in spite of his peaceable expression and faded
gray eye, was known to have been one of the
most daring followers of a rebel guerrilla
chieftain, "what air yer gwine ter do about it? Ef
you fellers air gwine ter set down an' let a
wuthless nigger kill the bes' white man in
Branson, an' not say nuthin' ner do nuthin', I 'll
move outen the caounty."
This speech gave tone and direction to the rest
of the conversation. Whether the fear of losing the
round-shouldered farmer operated to bring about
the result or not is immaterial to this narrative; but,
at all events, the crowd decided to lynch the
negro. They agreed that this was the least that
could be done to avenge the death of their
murdered friend, and that it was a becoming way
in which to honor his memory. They had some
vague notions of the majesty of the law and the
rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the
moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had
been killed by a negro.
"The Cap'n was an ole sodger," said one
of his friends solemnly. "He 'll sleep better
when he knows that a co'te-martial has be'n hilt
an' jestice done."
By agreement the lynchers were to meet at
Tyson's store at five o'clock in the afternoon, and
proceed thence to the jail, which was situated
down the Lumberton Dirt Road (as the old
turnpike antedating the plank-road was called),
about half a mile south of the court-house. When
the preliminaries of the lynching had been
arranged, and a committee appointed to manage
the affair, the crowd dispersed, some to go to
their dinners, and some to secure recruits for the
It was twenty minutes to five o'clock, when an
excited negro, panting and perspiring, rushed up
to the back door of Sheriff Campbell's dwelling,
which stood at a little distance from the jail and
somewhat farther than the latter building from the
court-house. A turbaned colored woman came
to the door in response to the negro's knock.
"Hoddy, Sis' Nance."
"Hoddy, Brer Sam."
"Is de shurff in," inquired the negro.
"Yas, Brer Sam, he's eatin' his dinner," was
"Will yer ax 'im ter step ter de do' a minute,
The woman went into the dining-room, and a
moment later the sheriff came to the door. He
was a tall, muscular man, of a ruddier complexion
than is usual among Southerners. A pair of keen,
deep-set gray eyes looked out from under bushy
eyebrows, and about his mouth was a masterful
expression, which a full beard, once sandy in
color, but now profusely sprinkled with gray,
could not entirely conceal. The day was hot; the
sheriff had discarded his coat and vest, and had
his white shirt open at the throat.
"What do you want, Sam?" he inquired of
the negro, who stood hat in hand, wiping the
moisture from his face with a ragged shirt-sleeve.
"Shurff, dey gwine ter hang de pris'ner w'at's
lock' up in de jail. Dey 're comin' dis a-way now.
I wuz layin' down on a sack er corn down at de
sto', behine a pile er flourbairls, w'en I hearn
Doc' Cain en Kunnel Wright talkin' erbout it. I
slip' outen de back do', en run here as fas' as I
could. I hearn you say down ter de sto' once't
dat you would n't let nobody take a pris'ner 'way
fum you widout walkin' over yo' dead body, en I
thought I'd let you know 'fo' dey come, so yer
could pertec' de pris'ner."
The sheriff listened calmly, but his face grew
firmer, and a determined gleam lit up his gray
eyes. His frame grew more erect, and he
unconsciously assumed the attitude of a soldier
who momentarily expects to meet the enemy face
"Much obliged, Sam," he answered. "I'll
protect the prisoner. Who 's coming?"
"I dunno who-all is comin'," replied the negro. "Dere's Mistah
McSwayne, en Doc' Cain, en Maje' McDonal',
en Kunnel Wright, en a heap er yuthers. I wuz
so skeered I done furgot mo'd'n half un em.
I spec' dey mus' be mos' here by dis
time, so I'll git outen de way, fer I don' want
nobody fer ter think I wuz mix' up in dis
business." The negro glanced nervously down the
road toward the town, and made a movement as
if to go away.
"Won't you have some dinner first?" asked
The negro looked longingly in at the open
door, and sniffed the appetizing odor of boiled
pork and collards.
"I ain't got no time fer ter tarry, Shurff," he
said, "but Sis' Nance mought gin me sump'n I
could kyar in my han' en eat on de way."
A moment later Nancy brought him a huge
sandwich of split corn-pone, with a thick slice of
fat bacon inserted between the halves, and a
couple of baked yams. The negro hastily
replaced his ragged hat on his head, dropped the
yams in the pocket of his capacious trousers,
and, taking the sandwich in his hand, hurried
across the road and disappeared in the woods
The sheriff reëntered the house, and put on his
coat and hat. He then took down a double-barreled
shotgun and loaded it with buckshot.
Filling the chambers of a revolver with fresh
cartridges, he slipped it into the pocket of the
sack-coat which he wore.
A comely young woman in a calico dress
watched these proceedings with anxious surprise.
"Where are you going, father?" she asked.
She had not heard the conversation with the
"I am goin' over to the jail," responded the
sheriff. "There's a mob comin' this way to lynch the nigger we've got locked up. But they
won't do it," he added, with emphasis.
"Oh, father! don't go!" pleaded the girl,
clinging to his arm; "they'll shoot you if you don't
give him up."
"You never mind me, Polly," said her father
reassuringly, as he gently unclasped her hands
from his arm. " I'll take care of myself and the
prisoner, too. There ain't a man in Branson
County that would shoot me. Besides, I have
faced fire too often to be scared away from my
duty. You keep close in the house," he continued,
"and if any one disturbs you just use the old
horse-pistol in the top bureau drawer. It 's a little
old-fashioned, but it did good work a few years
The young girl shuddered at this sanguinary
allusion, but made no further objection to her
The sheriff of Branson was a man far above
the average of the community in wealth, education,
and social position. His had been one of the few
families in the county that before the war had
owned large estates and numerous slaves. He had
graduated at the State University at Chapel Hill,
and had kept up some acquaintance with current
literature and advanced thought. He had traveled
some in his youth, and was looked up to in the
county as an authority on all subjects connected
with the outer world. At first an ardent supporter
of the Union, he had opposed the secession
movement in his native State as long as opposition
availed to stem the tide of public opinion. Yielding
at last to the force of circumstances, he had
entered the Confederate service rather late in the
war, and served with distinction through several
campaigns, rising in time to the rank of colonel.
After the war he had taken the oath of allegiance,
and had been chosen by the people as the most
available candidate for the office of sheriff, to
which he had been elected without opposition.
He had filled the office for several terms, and was
universally popular with his constituents.
Colonel or Sheriff Campbell, as he was
indifferently called, as the military or civil title
happened to be most important in the opinion of
the person addressing him, had a high sense of
the responsibility attaching to his office. He had
sworn to do his duty faithfully, and he knew
what his duty was, as sheriff, perhaps more clearly than he had
apprehended it in other passages of his life. It was,
therefore, with no uncertainty in regard to his
course that he prepared his weapons and went
over to the jail. He had no fears for Polly's safety.
The sheriff had just locked the heavy front
door of the jail behind him when a half dozen
horsemen, followed by a crowd of men on foot,
came round a bend in the road and drew near the
jail. They halted in front of the picket fence that
surrounded the building, while several of the
committee of arrangements rode on a few rods
farther to the sheriff's house. One of them
dismounted and rapped on the door with his
"Is the sheriff at home?" he inquired.
"No, he has just gone out," replied Polly, who
had come to the door.
"We want the jail keys," he continued.
"They are not here," said Polly. "The sheriff
has them himself." Then she added, with assumed
indifference, "He is at the jail now."
The man turned away, and Polly went into the
front room, from which she peered anxiously
between the slats of the green blinds of a window that looked toward the jail.
Meanwhile the messenger returned to his
companions and announced his discovery. It
looked as though the sheriff had learned of their
design and was preparing to resist it.
One of them stepped forward and rapped on
the jail door.
"Well, what is it?" said the sheriff, from
"We want to talk to you, Sheriff," replied the
There was a little wicket in the door; this the
sheriff opened, and answered through it.
"All right, boys, talk away. You are all
strangers to me, and I don't know what business
you can have." The sheriff did not think it
necessary to recognize anybody in particular on
such an occasion; the question of identity
sometimes comes up in the investigation of these
"We're a committee of citizens and we want
to get into the jail."
"What for? It ain't much trouble to get into
jail. Most people want to keep out."
The mob was in no humor to appreciate a
joke, and the sheriffs witticism fell dead upon an
"We want to have a talk with the nigger that
killed Cap'n Walker."
"You can talk to that nigger in the courthouse,
when he 's brought out for trial. Court will be in
session here next week. I know what you fellows
want, but you can't get my prisoner to-day. Do
you want to take the bread out of a poor man's
mouth? I get seventy-five cents a day for keeping
this prisoner, and he 's the only one in jail. I can't
have my family suffer just to please you fellows."
One or two young men in the crowd laughed
at the idea of Sheriff Campbell's suffering for
want of seventy-five cents a day; but they were
frowned into silence by those who stood near
"Ef yer don't let us in," cried a voice, "we'll
bu's' the do' open."
"Bust away," answered the sheriff, raising his
voice so that all could hear. "But I give you fair
warning. The first man that tries it will be filled
with buckshot. I'm sheriff of this county; I know
my duty, and I mean to do it."
"What's the use of kicking, Sheriff?" argued
one of the leaders of the mob. "The nigger is sure to hang anyhow; he richly deserves
it; and we 've got to do something to teach the
niggers their places, or white people won't be
able to live in the county."
"There 's no use talking, boys," responded the
sheriff. "I'm a white man outside, but in this jail
I'm sheriff; and if this nigger 's to be hung in this
county, I propose to do the hanging. So you
fellows might as well right-about-face, and march
back to Troy. You've had a pleasant trip, and the
exercise will be good for you. You know me. I've
got powder and ball, and I've faced fire before
now, with nothing between me and the enemy,
and I don't mean to surrender this jail while I 'm
able to shoot." Having thus announced his
determination, the sheriff closed and fastened the
wicket, and looked around for the best position
from which to defend the building.
The crowd drew off a little, and the leaders
conversed together in low tones.
The Branson County jail was a small, two-story
brick building, strongly constructed, with no
attempt at architectural ornamentation. Each
story was divided into two large cells by a
passage running from front to rear. A grated iron door gave entrance from the
passage to each of the four cells. The jail seldom
had many prisoners in it, and the lower windows
had been boarded up. When the sheriff had
closed the wicket, he ascended the steep
wooden stairs to the upper floor. There was no
window at the front of the upper passage, and the
most available position from which to watch the
movements of the crowd below was the front
window of the cell occupied by the solitary
The sheriff unlocked the door and entered the
cell. The prisoner was crouched in a corner, his
yellow face, blanched with terror, looking ghastly
in the semi-darkness of the room. A cold
perspiration had gathered on his forehead, and
his teeth were chattering with affright.
"For God's sake, Sheriff," he murmured
hoarsely, "don't let 'em lynch me; I did n't kill the
The sheriff glanced at the cowering wretch
with a look of mingled contempt and loathing.
"Get up," he said sharply. "You will probably
be hung sooner or later, but it shall not be to-day,
if I can help it. I 'll unlock your fetters, and if I
can't hold the jail, you 'll have to make the best fight you can. If I'm shot,
I'll consider my responsibility at an end."
There were iron fetters on the prisoner's
ankles, and handcuffs on his wrists. These the
sheriff unlocked, and they fell clanking to the
"Keep back from the window," said the
sheriff. "They might shoot if they saw you."
The sheriff drew toward the window a pine
bench which formed a part of the scanty furniture
of the cell, and laid his revolver upon it. Then he
took his gun in hand, and took his stand at the
side of the window where he could with least
exposure of himself watch the movements of the
The lynchers had not anticipated any
determined resistance. Of course they had
looked for a formal protest, and perhaps a
sufficient show of opposition to excuse the sheriff
in the eye of any stickler for legal formalities.
They had not however come prepared to fight a
battle, and no one of them seemed willing to lead
an attack upon the jail. The leaders of the party
conferred together with a good deal of animated
gesticulation, which was visible to the sheriff from
his outlook, though the distance was too great for him to hear
what was said. At length one of them broke
away from the group, and rode back to the main
body of the lynchers, who were restlessly
"Well, boys," said the messenger, "we'll have
to let it go for the present. The sheriff says he'll
shoot, and he's got the drop on us this time.
There ain't any of us that want to follow Cap'n
Walker jest yet. Besides, the sheriff is a good
fellow, and we don't want to hurt 'im. But," he
added, as if to reassure the crowd, which began
to show signs of disappointment, "the nigger
might as well say his prayers, for he ain't got long
There was a murmur of dissent from the mob,
and several voices insisted that an attack be
made on the jail. But pacific counsels finally
prevailed, and the mob sullenly withdrew.
The sheriff stood at the window until they had
disappeared around the bend in the road. He did
not relax his watchfulness when the last one was
out of sight. Their withdrawal might be a mere
feint, to be followed by a further attempt. So
closely, indeed, was his attention drawn to the
outside, that he neither saw nor heard the prisoner creep stealthily
across the floor, reach out his hand and secure
the revolver which lay on the bench behind the
sheriff, and creep as noiselessly back to his place
in the corner of the room.
A moment after the last of the lynching party
had disappeared there was a shot fired from the
woods across the road; a bullet whistled by the
window and buried itself in the wooden casing a
few inches from where the sheriff was standing.
Quick as thought, with the instinct born of a
semi-guerrilla army experience, he raised his gun and
fired twice at the point from which a faint puff of
smoke showed the hostile bullet to have been
sent. He stood a moment watching, and then
rested his gun against the window, and reached
behind him mechanically for the other weapon. It
was not on the bench. As the sheriff realized this
fact, he turned his head and looked into the
muzzle of the revolver.
"Stay where you are, Sheriff," said the
prisoner, his eyes glistening, his face almost
ruddy with excitement.
The sheriff mentally cursed his own carelessness
for allowing him to be caught in such
a predicament. He had not expected anything
of the kind. He had relied on the negro's
cowardice and subordination in the presence of
an armed white man as a matter of course. The
sheriff was a brave man, but realized that the
prisoner had him at an immense disadvantage.
The two men stood thus for a moment, fighting a
harmless duel with their eyes.
"Well, what do you mean to do?" asked the
sheriff with apparent calmness.
"To get away, of course," said the prisoner, in
a tone which caused the sheriff to look at him
more closely, and with an involuntary feeling of
apprehension; if the man was not mad, he was in
a state of mind akin to madness, and quite as
dangerous. The sheriff felt that he must speak the
prisoner fair, and watch for a chance to turn the
tables on him. The keen-eyed, desperate man
before him was a different being altogether from
the groveling wretch who had begged so
piteously for life a few minutes before.
At length the sheriff spoke:—
"Is this your gratitude to me for saving your life
at the risk of my own? If I had not done so, you
would now be swinging from the limb of some
"True," said the prisoner, "you saved my
life, but for how long? When you came in, you
said Court would sit next week. When the crowd
went away they said I had not long to live. It is
merely a choice of two ropes."
"While there's life there's hope," replied the
sheriff. He uttered this commonplace mechanically,
while his brain was busy in trying to think out
some way of escape. "If you are innocent you
can prove it."
The mulatto kept his eye upon the sheriff. "I
didn't kill the old man," he replied; "but I shall
never be able to clear myself. I was at his house
at nine o'clock. I stole from it the coat that was
on my back when I was taken. I would be
convicted, even with a fair trial, unless the real
murderer were discovered beforehand."
The sheriff knew this only too well. While he
was thinking what argument next to use, the
"Throw me the keys—no, unlock the door."
The sheriff stood a moment irresolute. The
mulatto's eye glittered ominously. The sheriff
crossed the room and unlocked the door leading
into the passage.
"Now go down and unlock the outside door."
The heart of the sheriff leaped within him.
Perhaps he might make a dash for liberty, and
gain the outside. He descended the narrow stairs,
the prisoner keeping close behind him.
The sheriff inserted the huge iron key into the
lock. The rusty bolt yielded slowly. It still
remained for him to pull the door open.
"Stop!" thundered the mulatto, who seemed
to divine the sheriff's purpose. "Move a muscle,
and I 'll blow your brains out."
The sheriff obeyed; he realized that his chance
had not yet come.
"Now keep on that side of the passage, and
go back upstairs."
Keeping the sheriff under cover of the
revolver, the mulatto followed him up the stairs.
The sheriff expected the prisoner to lock him into
the cell and make his own escape. He had about
come to the conclusion that the best thing he
could do under the circumstances was to submit
quietly, and take his chances of recapturing the
prisoner after the alarm had been given. The
sheriff had faced death more than once upon the
battlefield. A few minutes before, well armed, and
with a brick wall between him and them he had dared a
hundred men to fight; but he felt instinctively that
the desperate man confronting him was not to be
trifled with, and he was too prudent a man to risk
his life against such heavy odds. He had Polly to
look after, and there was a limit beyond which
devotion to duty would be quixotic and even
"I want to get away," said the prisoner, "and I
don't want to be captured; for if I am I know I will
be hung on the spot. I am afraid," he added
somewhat reflectively, "that in order to save
myself I shall have to kill you."
"Good God!" exclaimed the sheriff in involuntary
terror; "you would not kill the man to whom you
owe your own life."
"You speak more truly than you know," replied
the mulatto. "I indeed owe my life to you."
The sheriff started. He was capable of surprise,
even in that moment of extreme peril. "Who are
you?" he asked in amazement.
"Tom, Cicely's son," returned the other. He had
closed the door and stood talking to the sheriff
through the grated opening. "Don't you remember
Cicely—Cicely whom you sold, with her child, to the speculator on his
way to Alabama?"
The sheriff did remember. He had been sorry
for it many a time since. It had been the old story
of debts, mortgages, and bad crops. He had
quarreled with the mother. The price offered for
her and her child had been unusually large, and he
had yielded to the combination of anger and
"Good God!" he gasped, "you would not
murder your own father?"
"My father?" replied the mulatto. "It were well
enough for me to claim the relationship, but it
comes with poor grace from you to ask anything
by reason of it. What father's duty have you ever
performed for me? Did you give me your name, or
even your protection? Other white men gave their
colored sons freedom and money, and sent them
to the free States. You sold me to the rice swamps."
"I at least gave you the life you cling to,"
murmured the sheriff.
"Life?" said the prisoner, with a sarcastic
laugh. "What kind of a life? You gave me your
own blood, your own features,—no
man need look at us together twice to see
that,—and you gave me a black mother. Poor
wretch! She died under the lash, because she
had enough womanhood to call her soul her own.
You gave me a white man's spirit, and you made
me a slave, and crushed it out."
"But you are free now," said the sheriff. He
had not doubted, could not doubt, the mulatto's
word. He knew whose passions coursed beneath
that swarthy skin and burned in the black eyes
opposite his own. He saw in this mulatto what he
himself might have become had not the
safeguards of parental restraint and public
opinion been thrown around him.
"Free to do what?" replied the mulatto. "Free
in name, but despised and scorned and set aside
by the people to whose race I belong far more
than to my mother's."
"There are schools," said the sheriff. "You
have been to school." He had noticed that the
mulatto spoke more eloquently and used better
language than most Branson County people.
"I have been to school, and dreamed when I
went that it would work some marvelous change in my condition. But what did I learn? I
learned to feel that no degree of learning or
wisdom will change the color of my skin and that
I shall always wear what in my own country is a
badge of degradation. When I think about it
seriously I do not care particularly for such a life.
It is the animal in me, not the man, that flees the
gallows. I owe you nothing," he went on, "and
expect nothing of you; and it would be no more
than justice if I should avenge upon you my
mother's wrongs and my own. But still I hate to
shoot you; I have never yet taken human life—for
I did notkill the old captain. Will you promise to
give no alarm and make no attempt to capture me
until morning, if I do not shoot?"
So absorbed were the two men in their colloquy and
their own tumultuous thoughts that neither of
them had heard the door below move upon its
hinges. Neither of them had heard a light
step come stealthily up the stairs, nor seen a
slender form creep along the darkening passage
toward the mulatto.
The sheriff hesitated. The struggle between his
love of life and his sense of duty was a terrific
one. It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery
should hesitate at such a moment, when his life
was trembling in the balance. But the baleful
influence of human slavery poisoned the very
fountains of life, and created new standards of
right. The sheriff was conscientious; his
conscience had merely been warped by his
environment. Let no one ask what his answer
would have been; he was spared the necessity of
"Stop," said the mulatto, "you need not
promise. I could not trust you if you did. It is your
life for mine; there is but one safe way for me;
you must die."
He raised his arm to fire, when there was a
flash—a report from the passage behind him. His
arm fell heavily at his side, and the pistol dropped
at his feet.
The sheriff recovered first from his surprise,
and throwing open the door secured the fallen
weapon. Then seizing the prisoner he thrust him
into the cell and locked the door upon him; after
which he turned to Polly, who leaned half-fainting
against the wall, her hands clasped over her heart.
"Oh, father, I was just in time!" she cried
hysterically, and, wildly sobbing, threw herself
into her father's arms.
"I watched until they all went away," she
said. "I heard the shot from the woods and I saw
you shoot. Then when you did not come out I
feared something had happened, that perhaps
you had been wounded. I got out the other pistol
and ran over here. When I found the door open,
I knew something was wrong, and when I heard
voices I crept up stairs, and reached the top just
in time to hear him say he would kill you. Oh, it
was a narrow escape!"
When she had grown somewhat calmer, the
sheriff left her standing there and went back into
the cell. The prisoner's arm was bleeding from a
flesh wound. His bravado had given place to a
stony apathy. There was no sign in his face of
fear or disappointment or feeling of any kind. The
sheriff sent Polly to the house for cloth, and
bound up the prisoner's wound with a rude skill
acquired during his army life.
"I'll have a doctor come and dress the wound
in the morning," he said to the prisoner. "It will do
very well until then, if you will keep quiet. If the
doctor asks you how the wound was caused,
you can say that you were struck by the bullet
fired from the woods. It would do you no good to have
known that you were shot while attempting to
The prisoner uttered no word of thanks or
apology, but sat in sullen silence. When the
wounded arm had been bandaged, Polly and her
father returned to the house.
The sheriff was in an unusually thoughtful
mood that evening. He put salt in his coffee at
supper, and poured vinegar over his pancakes.
To many of Polly's questions he returned random
answers. When he had gone to bed he lay awake
for several hours.
In the silent watches of the night, when he was
alone with God, there came into his mind a flood
of unaccustomed thoughts. An hour or two
before, standing face to face with death, he had
experienced a sensation similar to that which
drowning men are said to feel—a kind of
clarifying of the moral faculty, in which the veil of
the flesh, with its obscuring passions and
prejudices, is pushed aside for a moment, and all
the acts of one's life stand out, in the clear light of
truth, in their correct proportions and relations,—a
state of mind in which one sees himself as God may
be supposed to see him. In the reaction following his rescue, this feeling had given place for
a time to far different emotions. But now, in the
silence of midnight, something of this clearness of
spirit returned to the sheriff. He saw that he had
owed some duty to this son of his,—that neither
law nor custom could destroy a responsibility
inherent in the nature of mankind. He could not
thus, in the eyes of God at least, shake off the
consequences of his sin. Had he never sinned, this
wayward spirit would never have come back from
the vanished past to haunt him. As these thoughts
came, his anger against the mulatto died away, and
in its place there sprang up a great pity. The hand
of parental authority might have restrained the
passions he had seen burning in the prisoner's eyes
when the desperate man spoke the words which
had seemed to doom his father to death. The
sheriff felt that he might have saved this fiery spirit
from the slough of slavery; that he might have sent
him to the free North, and given him there, or in
some other land, an opportunity to turn to
usefulness and honorable pursuits the talents that
had run to crime, perhaps to madness; he might,
still less, have given this son of his the poor simulacrum of
liberty which men of his caste could possess in a
slave-holding community; or least of all, but still
something, he might have kept the boy on the
plantation, where the burdens of slavery would
have fallen lightly upon him.
The sheriff recalled his own youth. He had
inherited an honored name to keep untarnished;
he had had a future to make; the picture of a fair
young bride had beckoned him on to happiness.
The poor wretch now stretched upon a pallet of
straw between the brick walls of the jail had had
none of these things,—no name, no father, no
mother—in the true meaning of motherhood,—and
until the past few years no possible future, and
then one vague and shadowy in its outline, and
dependent for form and substance upon the slow
solution of a problem in which there were many
From what he might have done to what he
might yet do was an easy transition for the
awakened conscience of the sheriff. It occurred
to him, purely as a hypothesis, that he might
permit his prisoner to escape; but his oath of
office, his duty as sheriff, stood in the way of such
a course, and the sheriff dismissed the idea from
his mind. He could, however, investigate the
circumstances of the murder, and move Heaven and earth to discover
the real criminal, for he no longer doubted the
prisoner's innocence; he could employ counsel for
the accused, and perhaps influence public opinion
in his favor. An acquittal once secured, some plan
could be devised by which the sheriff might in
some degree atone for his crime against this son
of his—against society—against God.
When the sheriff had reached this conclusion
he fell into an unquiet slumber, from which he
awoke late the next morning.
He went over to the jail before breakfast and
found the prisoner lying on his pallet, his face
turned to the wall; he did not move when the
sheriff rattled the door.
"Good-morning," said the latter, in a tone
intended to waken the prisoner.
There was no response. The sheriff looked
more keenly at the recumbent figure; there was
an unnatural rigidity about its attitude.
He hastily unlocked the door and, entering the
cell, bent over the prostrate form. There was no
sound of breathing; he turned the body over—it
was cold and stiff. The prisoner had torn the
bandage from his wound and bled to death during
the night. He had evidently been dead several