Chapter 77 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Sentence of Judge Lynch.

An undefined suspicion of something of this sort had already crossed my thoughts. I remembered the reply made from the boats, “You shall answer to us. We are the law.” I had heard some mysterious innuendoes as we passed through the woods—I had noticed too, that on our arrival in the glade, we found those who had gone in the advance halted there, as if waiting for the others to come up; and I could not comprehend why we had stopped there at all.

I now saw that the men of the party were drawing to one side, and forming a sort of irregular ring, with that peculiar air of solemnity that bespeaks some serious business. It was only the boys, and some negroes—for these, too, had taken part in our capture—who remained near me. Ruffin had simply approached to gratify his revengeful feelings by tantalising me.

All these appearances had aroused wild suspicions within me, but up to that moment they had assumed no definite form. I had even endeavoured to keep back such a suspicion, under the vague belief, that by the very imagination of it, I might in some way aid in bringing it about!

It was no longer suspicion. It was now conviction. They were going to Lynch me!

The significant interrogatory, on account of the manner in which it was put, was hailed by the boys with a shout of laughter. Ruffin continued—

“No; I guess you han’t heerd ov that ar justice, since yur a stranger in these parts, an’ a Britisher. You han’t got sich a one among yur bigwigs, I reckin. He’s the fellar that ain’t a-goin’ to keep you long in Chancery. No, by God! he’ll do yur business in double-quick time. Hell and scissors! yu’ll see if he don’t.”

Throughout all this speech the brutal fellow taunted me with gestures as well as words—drawing from his auditory repeated bursts of laughter.

So provoked was I that, had I not been fast bound, I should have sprung upon him; but, bound as I was, and vulgar brute as was this adversary, I could not hold my tongue.

“Were I free, you ruffian, you would not dare taunt me thus. At all events you have come off but second best. I’ve crippled you for life; though it don’t matter much, seeing what a clumsy use you make of a rifle.”

This speech produced a terrible effect upon the brute—the more so that the boys now laughed at him. These boys were not all bad. They were incensed against me as an Abolitionist—or “nigger-stealer,” as they phrased it—and, under the countenance and guidance of their elders, their worst passions were now at play; but for all that, they were not essentially wicked. They were rough backwoods’ boys, and the spirit of my retort pleased them. After that they held back from jeering me.

Not so with Ruffin, who now broke forth into a string of vindictive oaths and menaces, and appeared as if about to grapple me with his one remaining hand. At this moment he was called off by the men, who needed him in the “caucus;” and, after shaking his fist in my face, and uttering a parting imprecation, he left me.

I was for some minutes kept in suspense. I could not tell what this dread council were debating, or what they meant to do with me—though I now felt quite certain that they did not intend taking me before any magistrate. From frequent phrases that reached my ears, such as, “flog the scoundrel,” “tar and feathers,” I began to conjecture that some such punishment awaited me. To my astonishment, however, I found, upon listening a while, that a number of my judges were actually opposed to these punishments as being too mild! Some declared openly, that nothing but my life could satisfy the outraged laws!

The majority took this view of the case; and it was to add to their strength that Ruffin had been summoned!

A feeling of terrible fear crept over me—say rather a feeling of horror—but it was only complete when the ring of men suddenly broke up, and I saw two of their number lay hold of a rope, and commence reeving it over the limb of a gum-tree that stood by the edge of the glade.

There had been a trial and a sentence too. Even Judge Lynch has his formality.

When the rope was adjusted, one of the men—the negro-trader it was—approached me; and in a sort of rude paraphrase of a judge, summed up and pronounced the sentence!

I had outraged the laws; I had committed two capital crimes. I had stolen slaves, and endeavoured to take away the life of a fellow-creature. A jury of twelve men had tried—and found me guilty; and sentenced me to death by hanging. Even this was not permitted to go forth in an informal manner. The very phraseology was adopted. I was to be hung by the neck until I should be dead—dead!

You will deem this relation exaggerated and improbable. You will think that I am sporting with you. You will not believe that such lawlessness can exist in a Christian—a civilised land. You will fancy that these men were sporting with me, and that in the end they did not seriously intend to hang me.

I cannot help it if you think so; but I solemnly declare that such was their design: and I felt as certain at that moment that they intended to have hanged me, as I now feel that I was not hanged!

Believe it or not, you must remember that I would not have been the first victim by many, and that thought was vividly before my mind at the time.

Along with it, there was the rope—there the tree—there stood my judges before me. Their looks alone might have produced conviction. There was not a ray of mercy to be seen.

At that awful moment I knew not what I said or how I acted.

I remember only that my fears were somewhat modified by my indignation. That I protested, menaced, swore—that my ruthless judges answered me with mockery.

They were actually proceeding to put the sentence into execution—and had already carried me across to the foot of the tree—when the sound of trampling hoofs fell upon our ears, and the next moment a party of horsemen galloped into the glade.