by Charles W. Chesnutt
Branson County, North Carolina, is in a remote and very conservative part of the United States of America. Society in Branson County is among the simplest one can find anywhere. Most white people own the farms they work on and, even before the Civil War, there were not many families so rich that they considered any of their neighbours as "poor whites."
To Branson County, like most rural communities in the South, the war is the most important historical event. It is the time from which all local events are dated – births, deaths, marriages, storms. No description of the life of any Southern community could be complete without mentioning the huge impact of this great war.
Yet the war that had rushed through the cities and along the great highways of the country had, relatively speaking, only slightly disturbed the slowness of life here, remote from railroads and rivers. To the north in Virginia, to the west in Tennessee, and all along the coast the war had been very hard; but the thunder of its guns had not disturbed Branson County, where the loudest sounds heard were from a hunter's rifle or the song of a musical Negro on his way through the forest. General Sherman's army had passed through the east on its march to the sea; but no soldiers had ever made their way to Branson County. The war, it is true, had robbed the county of the flower of its young men; but the people were not so touched by the uncertainty of the fighting or the pain of defeat as in many other areas.
The nearest thing to town life in Branson County is found in the little village of Troy, 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 brings the fresh blood of civilization and business but no railroad had come to Troy. If a traveller, used to busy city life, had ridden through Troy on a summer day, he could easily have imagined himself in a deserted village. Around him he would have seen unpainted weather-beaten houses and many roofs covered with rich grass. Here and there he would have met an animal lazily eating his way along the main road and more than once he would probably have woken some yellow dog, sleeping away the hours in the hot sunshine on the road.
On Saturdays the village was a little livelier, and the trees along Front Street were used to rest horses and thin oxen belonging to the farmers who had come to visit the two or three local shops.
Murder was rare in Branson County. Every well-informed citizen could tell the number of killings in the county for fifty years, and whether the murderer had escaped, either by running away or by a not guilty verdict, or had been hanged. 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 left an arm on the field of Gettysburg, had been murdered during the night, there was intense excitement in the village. Business stopped and the citizens met in little groups to discuss the murder and consider who the murderer might be.
It seemed that a strange Negro had been seen going towards Captain Walker's house the night before, and had left Troy early Friday morning. The sheriff organized a party to search for him and, early in the evening, when most of the citizens of Troy were at supper, the suspect was brought in and put in the county jail.
By the following morning the news of the arrest had spread all over the county. A much larger number of people than usual came to town that Saturday, men in hats and home-made shirts; women in home-made dresses, with faces as empty as the sandy hills which gave them a miserable income.
The murder was almost the only topic of conversation. Many interested people visited Captain Walker’s house and gazed at the face of the old soldier, now cold in death; and more than one cried while remembering the happy smile, and the joke – not usually funny but always good-natured – which the captain had liked to tell. There was a growing feeling of anger among these hard men towards the murderer who had cut down their friend, and a strong feeling that hanging was not a harsh enough punishment for this crime.
Towards noon, there was an informal meeting in Dan Tyson's store.
"I hear that the judge is sick," said one, "and that the case will have to wait till next week."
A look of disappointment went round the crowd.
"It's the worst murder ever in this county," said another.
"I suppose the black thought the Captain had some money," added a third speaker.
"The Captain," said another, looking like he had better information, "has left two cases of Confederate money, which he expected would be good some day or another."
This started a discussion about Confederate money but in a little while the conversation returned to the murder. "Hanging is too good for the murderer," said one. "He ought to be burnt."
"Well," said a round-shouldered farmer, who, in spite of his peaceful look and faded grey eyes, had once been a brave rebel chief, "what are you going to do about it? If you men are going to sit down and let a black kill the best white man in Branson, and not say or do anything, I'll move out of the county."
This speech gave direction to the rest of the conversation. It does not matter if the idea of losing the round-shouldered farmer led to the result or not but the crowd decided to lynch the Negro. They agreed that this was the least they could do to avenge the death of their murdered friend, and that it was a suitable way to pay respect. They had some idea of the law and suspects’ rights, but in the excitement of the moment these were forgotten; a white man had been killed by a Negro.
"The Captain was a soldier," said one of his friends. "He'll sleep better if he knows that we’ve done justice."
By agreement the lynch party were to meet at Tyson's store at five o'clock in the afternoon and continue from there to the jail, which was down Lumberton Dirt Road. When the lynching had been arranged and the leaders chosen, the crowd left, some to go to their dinners, and some to get more help.
It was twenty minutes to five, when an excited Negro rushed up to the back door of Sheriff Campbell's house, which stood a little away from the jail. A black woman came to the door.
"Good day, Sister Nance."
"Good day, Brother Sam."
"Is the sheriff in?" asked the Negro.
"Yes, Brother Sam, he's eating his dinner," was the answer.
"Will you ask him to come to the door a minute, Sister Nance?"
The woman went into the dining-room and a moment later the sheriff came to the door. He was a tall, fit man, with a redder colour than most Southerners. A pair of intelligent grey eyes looked out over a full beard, once sandy-coloured but now mostly grey, which could not hide the strength of his mouth. The day was hot; the sheriff had taken off his coat and had his white shirt open at the neck.
"What do you want, Sam?" he asked the Negro, who stood with his hat in his hand.
"Sheriff, they’re going to hang the prisoner who's locked in the jail. They're coming this way now. I was lying on some corn down at the store, when I heard Doctor Cain and Colonel Wright talking about it. I ran here as fast as I could. I heard you say once that you wouldn't let anybody take a prisoner away from you without walking over your dead body, and I thought I'd let you know before they come, so you could protect the prisoner."
The sheriff listened calmly, but his face grew more serious, and a decided look lit up his grey eyes. He stood straighter, feeling like a soldier who expects to meet the enemy face to face.
"Thanks, Sam," he answered. "I'll protect the prisoner. Who's coming?"
"I don’t know who’s coming," replied the Negro. "There's Mister McSwayne, and Doctor Cain, and Major McDonald, and Colonel Wright, and a lot of others. I was so afraid I’ve forgotten more than half of them. I expect most are here by this time, so I'll get out of the way, because I don't want anybody to think I was mixed up in this business." The Negro glanced nervously down the road towards the town and moved like he was going away.
"Won't you have some dinner first?" asked the sheriff.
The Negro looked with interest at the open door, and smelt the beef and greens.
"I haven’t got time, Sheriff," he said, "but Sister Nance can give me something I could carry in my hand and eat on the way."
A moment later Nancy brought him a huge sandwich. The Negro quickly put his old hat on his head and, taking the sandwich in his hand, hurried across the road and disappeared in the woods.
The sheriff went back into the house and put on his coat and hat. He then took down a shotgun and loaded it with buckshot. Filling a revolver with fresh bullets, he put it into the pocket of the coat he wore.
An attractive young woman watched all this with worried surprise.
"Where are you going, father?" she asked. She had not heard the conversation with the Negro.
"I’m going over to the jail," answered the sheriff. "There's a mob coming this way to lynch the black we've got locked up. But they won't do it," he added.
"Oh, father! Don't go!" cried the girl, holding his arm; "They'll shoot you if you don't give him up."
"Don’t worry about me, Polly," said her father comforting her, as he took 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 bullets too often to be frightened away from my duty. You stay in the house," he continued, "and if anyone disturbs you, just use the old gun in the top drawer. It's a bit old-fashioned, but it did good work a few years ago."
Knowing her father’s character, she let him go without trying again to change his mind.
The sheriff of Branson was a man far above the average wealth, education, and social position in the village. He came from one of the few families in the county that before the war had owned a lot of land and many slaves. He had graduated from the State University and still read modern literature. He had travelled in his youth, and was respected in the county as an expert on all topics connected with the outer world.
At first a strong supporter of the Union, he had been against the many people in his native state who wanted the South to leave the United States and become a separate republic, as long as there was a chance to change public opinion. When this became pointless, he joined the Confederate Army rather late in the war but fought bravely in many battles and eventually became a colonel. After the war, he had been chosen by the people as the best man to be sheriff. He had done the job for several years and was popular with everyone.
Colonel or Sheriff Campbell had promised to do his duty and he knew clearly what that was. He, therefore, prepared his guns and went over to the jail. He was not worried about 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 near the jail. They stopped in front of the building, while several of the leaders rode a little farther to the sheriff's house. One of them got off his horse and knocked on the door.
"Is the sheriff at home?" he asked.
"No, he has just gone out," replied Polly, who had come to the door.
"We want the keys of the jail," he continued.
"They’re not here," said Polly. "The sheriff has them with him." Then she added, "He is at the jail now."
The man turned away, and Polly went into the front room, where she looked worriedly out of the window towards the jail. Meanwhile the man got back on his horse and told his friends that it looked like the sheriff had learned of their plans.
One of them walked forward and knocked on the jail door.
"Well, what is it?" said the sheriff, from inside.
"We want to talk to you, Sheriff," replied the spokesman.
The sheriff opened a little window in the door and answered through it.
"All right, boys, talk. You’re all strangers to me, and I don't know what you want." The sheriff did not want to recognise anybody; the question of identity sometimes comes up in cases of lynchings.
"We're the citizens’ leaders 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 not interested in jokes, and the sheriff's one fell dead.
"We want to have a talk with the black that killed Captain Walker."
"You can talk to that black in the court-house next week. I know what you want, but you can't have my prisoner today. 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 go without food just to please you."
One or two young men in the crowd laughed at the idea that Sheriff Campbell needed seventy-five cents a day; but the others frowned at them.
"If you don't let us in," shouted a voice, "we'll break the door open."
"Break it," answered the sheriff, speaking louder so that everyone could hear. "But I warn you. The first man that tries to get in 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, Sheriff?" argued one of the leaders of the mob. "The black is sure to hang anyhow. He deserves it; and we've got to do something to show them who's boss or white people won't be able to live in the county."
"There's no use talking, boys," answered the sheriff. "I'm a white man outside, but in this jail I'm sheriff; and if this black's going to be hanged in this county, I plan to do the hanging. So you men should march back to Troy. You've had a pleasant trip and the exercise will be good for you. You know me. I've got guns and I've come under fire before now, with nothing between me and the enemy, and I don't plan to surrender this jail while I can shoot."
The sheriff closed and locked the little window in the door and looked around for the best position to defend the building. The crowd went back a little and the leaders talked together in whispers.
The Branson County jail was a small, two-storey building, well-made but with no decoration. Each storey was divided into two large cells. Each of the four cells had a heavy iron door. The jail seldom had many prisoners in it, and the downstairs windows were covered with wood. When the sheriff had closed the little window in the door, he went up the steep wooden stairs. There was no window at the front of the first floor and the best position to watch the crowd below was the front window of the cell where the only prisoner was.
The sheriff unlocked the door and entered the cell. The prisoner was in a corner, his yellow face shaped by terror in the semi-darkness of the room. Cold sweat was on his forehead.
"For God's sake, Sheriff," he murmured, "don't let them lynch me. I didn't kill the old man."
The sheriff glanced at the frightened prisoner with a look of contempt and hatred.
"Get up," he said sharply. "You will probably be hanged sooner or later, but it won’t be today, if I can help it. I'll unlock your chains and, if I can't hold the jail, you'll have to fight the best you can. If I'm shot, it’s all over."
There were iron chains on the prisoner's ankles, and on his wrists. The sheriff unlocked these and they fell noisily to the floor.
"Keep away from the window," said the sheriff. "They might shoot if they see you."
The sheriff pulled a bench towards the window and laid his revolver on it. Then he took his gun in his hand and stood at the side of the window where he could watch the movements of the crowd, without being seen.
The lynch gang had not expected any defence. Of course they knew there would be a formal protest and perhaps a shot or two to excuse the sheriff in the eyes of a lawyer. They had not, however, come prepared to fight a battle, and none of them seemed ready to lead an attack on the jail. The leaders talked together, waving their hands about a lot, though the distance was too great for the sheriff to hear what was said. At last, one of them broke away and rode to the lynchers, who were waiting for instructions.
"Well, boys," said the man, "we'll have to forget it for now. The sheriff says he'll shoot. There ain't any of us that want to follow Captain Walker just yet. Besides, the sheriff is a good man and we don't want to hurt him. But," he spoke directly to the crowd, which began to show disappointment, "the black ain't got long to live."
There was a murmur of disagreement from the mob, and several voices said that they should attack the jail. But the mob slowly and angrily went away.
The sheriff stood at the window until they disappeared. He kept on watching even when the last one was out of sight. This might be a game, to be followed by another try. He concentrated on the outside so closely, in fact, that he neither saw nor heard the prisoner move quietly across the floor, put out his hand and pick up the revolver which lay on the bench behind the sheriff, and move as noiselessly back to his place in the corner.
A moment after the last of the lynching party had disappeared, there was a shot fired from the woods across the road; a bullet flew by the window a short distance from where the sheriff was standing. Quickly, with the instinct of guerrilla army experience, he fired twice at the smoke which showed where the bullet had come from. 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 realised this fact, he turned his head and looked into the revolver.
"Stay where you are, Sheriff," said the prisoner, his eyes shining, his face red with excitement.
The sheriff had not expected anything like this. He had depended on the Negro's cowardice in front of an armed white man without even thinking about it. He was a brave man but realised the prisoner had the advantage.
"Well, what do you plan to do?" asked the sheriff.
"To get away, of course," said the prisoner, in a voice which made the sheriff look at him more closely. If the man was not mad, he was just as dangerous. The sheriff felt that he must speak to the prisoner carefully and wait for a chance to regain the advantage. The clear-eyed, desperate man in front of him was a different one from the coward who had begged for his life a few minutes before.
At last the sheriff spoke:
"Is this your thanks to me for saving your life and risking my own? You could be hanging from the branch of a tree at this moment."
"True," said the prisoner, "you saved my life, but for how long? When you came in, you said I would be in court next week. When the crowd went away they said I hadn’t got long to live. A choice between two ropes!"
"While there's life, there's hope," replied the sheriff. He murmured this cliche while his brain was busy trying to think out some way of escape. "If you’re innocent, you can prove it."
The Negro kept his eye on the sheriff. "I didn't kill the old man," he replied; "but I can never prove it. I was at his house at nine o'clock. I stole the coat that I was wearing when they caught me. I would be convicted, even with a fair trial, unless the real murderer is discovered beforehand."
The sheriff knew this was true. While he was thinking what to say next, the prisoner continued:
"Throw me the keys – no, unlock the door."
The sheriff stood undecided for a moment but then crossed the room and unlocked the door.
"Now go down and unlock the outside door."
The sheriff thought. Perhaps he could run and escape. He went down the stairs, the prisoner close behind him.
The sheriff used the huge iron key. He still had to pull the door open.
"Stop!" shouted the Negro, who seemed to understand the sheriff's thinking. "If you move, I'll kill you."
The sheriff realised that his chance had not yet come.
"Now go back upstairs."
The Negro followed him up the stairs. The sheriff expected him to lock him into the cell and escape. He thought that the best thing he could do under the circumstances was to agree quietly and arrest the prisoner again later. The sheriff had faced death more than once on the battlefield. A few minutes before, well-armed and with a brick wall between him and them, he had offered a hundred men a fight; but he felt instinctively that he could not play games with the prisoner, and he was too careful to risk his life stupidly.
"I want to get away," said the prisoner, "and I don't want to be captured because, if I am, I know I will be hanged on the spot. I am afraid," he added thoughtfully, "that to save myself I’ll have to kill you."
"Good God!" shouted the sheriff, "You wouldn’t kill the man you owe your life to."
"You are cleverer than you think," replied the negro. "I really do owe my life to you."
The sheriff looked up. He was surprised, even in that moment of danger. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Tom, Cicely's son," he answered. He had closed the door and stood talking to the sheriff through the little window in the door. "Don't you remember Cicely – Cicely that you sold, with her child?"
The sheriff did remember. He had been sorry for it many times since. It had been the old story of debts and bad crops. He had argued with the mother. The price offered for her and her child was very large and he had given in to anger and financial need.
"Good God! You wouldn’t murder your own father?"
"My father?" replied the Negro. "It is fine to admit the relationship but surely you can’t ask anything from it. How have you ever been a father to me? Did you give me your name or even your care? Other white men gave their coloured sons freedom and money, and sent them to the free States. You sold me."
"At least I gave you life," murmured the sheriff.
"Life?" said the prisoner, with a laugh. "What kind of life? You gave me your own blood, your own looks – no man can look at us together twice and miss it – and you gave me a black mother. Poor woman! She died under the lash. You gave me a white man's courage and you made me a slave."
"But you’re free now," said the sheriff. He had not doubted, could not doubt, the Negro's word.
"Free to do what?" replied the Negro. "Hated by the people I belong to far more than by my mother's."
"There are schools," said the sheriff. "You’ve been to school." He had noticed that the Negro used better English than most Branson County people.
"I have been to school, and dreamed when I went that it would make some marvellous change in my life. But what did I learn? I learnt that no learning will change the colour of my skin. When I think about it seriously I don’t care much about this life. It’s the animal in me, not the man, who tries to escape hanging. I owe you nothing," he went on, "and expect nothing from you; and it’s only fair that I should avenge my mother’s death and my own life. But still I hate to shoot you; I have never yet killed anyone – because I didn’t kill the old captain. Will you promise not to try to capture me until morning, if I don’t shoot?"
The two men were so concentrated on their own stormy thoughts that neither of them heard the door below move. Neither of them heard a step on the stairs or saw the figure stand behind the Negro.
The sheriff couldn’t make up his mind. The struggle between his love of life and his duty was a terrible one. It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate when his life was in danger.
"Stop," said the Negro, "Don’t promise. I couldn’t trust you even if you did. It’s your life for mine. There is only one safe way for me; you must die."
He raised his arm to fire, when there was a flash, a shot from the hall behind him. His arm fell heavily at his side, and the pistol dropped at his feet.
The sheriff recovered first from his surprise and picked up the fallen weapon. Then he threw the prisoner into the cell and locked the door. Afterwards, he turned to Polly.
"Oh, father, I was just in time!" she said and 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 was afraid 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 came upstairs. I reached the top just in time to hear him say he would kill you."
When she was calmer, the sheriff left her standing there and went back into the cell. The prisoner's arm was bleeding. 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 to clean the prisoner's wound.
"I'll have a doctor come in the morning," he said to the prisoner. "It will do very well until then, if you keep quiet. If the doctor asks you how you got the wound, you can say that the bullet from the woods hit you. It would do you no good for everyone to know that you were shot while trying to escape."
The sheriff was in an unusually thoughtful mood that evening. He put salt in his coffee at supper. He gave no answer to many of Polly's questions. When he went to bed, he lay awake for several hours.
An hour or two before, standing face to face with death, he had seen his life in the clear light of truth and now, in the silence of midnight, he saw that he owed some duty to this son of his. His anger against the Negro had died away, and in its place there was great sorrow. He might have sent him to the free States and given him an opportunity to live his life and use his talents; he might have given his son freedom; or least of all, but still something, he might have kept the boy.
The sheriff remembered his own youth. His name was respected; he had had a future to make; a young bride had made him happy. The poor Negro now in jail had none of these things – no name, no father, no mother – and until the past few years no possible future, except one vague and shadowy.
It was then natural to change the direction of his thoughts from what he had not done to what he still might do. He could allow his prisoner to escape; but his duty as sheriff prevented this. He could, however, investigate the murder and try to discover the real criminal because he believed in the prisoner's innocence; he could get a lawyer for him. When the sheriff decided this, he fell asleep and woke up late the next morning.
He went over to the jail before breakfast and found the prisoner lying, his face turned to the wall; he did not move.
"Good morning," said the sheriff, loud enough to wake the prisoner.
There was no answer. The sheriff looked more closely; there was something unnatural about the boy’s position. He quickly unlocked the door and, entering the cell, heard no sound of breathing. He turned the body over – it was cold and stiff.
The prisoner had taken the bandage from his wound and bled to death during the night.
He had clearly been dead several hours.