Chapter 78 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

In the Hands of the Sheriff.

At sight of these horsemen my heart leaped with joy, for among the foremost I beheld the calm, resolute face of Edward Reigart. Behind him rode the sheriff of the parish, followed by a “posse” of about a dozen men—among whom I recognised several of the most respectable planters of the neighbourhood. Every one of the party was armed either with a rifle or pistols; and the manner in which they rode forward upon the ground, showed that they had come in great haste, and with a determined purpose.

I say my heart leaped with joy. An actual criminal standing upon the platform of the gallows could not have been more joyed at sight of the messenger that brought him reprieve or pardon. In the new-comers I recognised friends: in their countenances I read rescue. I was not displeased, therefore, when the sheriff, dismounting, advanced to my side, and placing his hand upon my shoulder, told me I was his prisoner “in the name of the law.” Though brusquely done, and apparently with a degree of rudeness, I was not displeased either by the act or the manner. The latter was plainly assumed for a purpose; and in the act itself I hailed the salvation of my life. I felt like a rescued man.

The proceeding did not equally content my former judges, who loudly murmured their dissatisfaction. They alleged that I had already been tried by a jury of twelve free citizens—that I had been found guilty of nigger-stealing—that I had stolen two niggers—that I had resisted when pursued, and had “wownded” one of my pursuers; and that, as all this had been “clarly made out,” they couldn’t see what more was wanted to establish my guilt, and that I ought to be hung on the spot, without further loss of time.

The sheriff replied that such a course would be illegal; that the majesty of the law must be respected; that if I was guilty of the crimes alleged against me, the law would most certainly measure out full punishment to me; but that I must first be brought before a justice, and the charge legally and formally made out; and, finally, expressed his intention to take me before Justice Claiborne, the magistrate of the district.

An angry altercation ensued between the mob and the sheriffs party—in which but slight show of respect was paid to the high executive—and for some time I was actually in dread that the ruffians would carry their point. But an American sheriff is entirely a different sort of character from the idle gentleman who fills that office in an English county. The former is, in nine cases out of ten, a man of proved courage and action; and Sheriff Hickman, with whom my quasi judges had to deal, was no exception to this rule. His “posse,” moreover, hurriedly collected by my friend Reigart, chanced to have among their number several men of a similar stamp. Reigart himself, though a man of peace, was well-known to possess a cool and determined spirit; and there was the landlord of my hotel, and several of the planters who accompanied several of the young planters, behaved in a handsome manner; and the law prevailed.

Yes! thank Heaven and half-a-dozen noble men, the law prevailed—else I should never have gone out of that glade alive!

Justice Lynch had to give way to Justice Claiborne, and a respite was obtained from the cruel verdict of the former. The victorious sheriff and his party bore me off in their midst.

But though my ferocious judges had yielded for the present, it was not certain that they would not still attempt to rescue me from the hands of the law. To prevent this, the sheriff mounted me upon a horse—he himself riding upon one side, while an assistant of tried courage took the opposite. Reigart and the planters kept close to me before and behind; while the shouting, blaspheming mob followed both on horseback and afoot. In this way we passed through the woods, across the fields, along the road leading into Bringiers, and then to the residence of “Squire” Claiborne—Justice of the Peace for that district.

Attached to his dwelling was a large room or office where the Squire was used to administer the magisterial law of the land. It was entered by a separate door from the house itself, and had no particular marks about it to denote that it was a hall of justice, beyond the fact that it was furnished with a bench or two to serve as seats, and a small desk or rostrum in one corner.

At this desk the Squire was in the habit of settling petty disputes, administering affidavits at a quarter of a dollar each, and arranging other small civic matters. But oftener was his magisterial function employed in sentencing the mutinous “darkie” to his due the sheriff—sterling men, who were lovers of the law and lovers of fair play as well—and those, armed to the teeth, would have laid down their lives on the spot in defence of the sheriff and his demand. True, they were in the minority in point of numbers; but they had the law upon their side, and that gave them strength.

There was one point in my favour above all others, and that was, my accusers chanced to be unpopular men. Gayarre, as already stated, although professing a high standard of morality, was not esteemed by the neighbouring planters—particularly by those of American origin. The others most forward against me were known to be secretly instigated by the lawyer. As to Ruffin, whom I had “wounded,” those upon the ground had heard the crack of his rifle, and knew that he had fired first. In their calmer moments my resistance would have been deemed perfectly justifiable—so far as that individual was concerned.

Had the circumstances been different—had the “two niggers” I had stolen belonged to a popular planter, and not to Monsieur Dominique Gayarre—had Ruffin been a respectable citizen, instead of the dissipated half outlaw that he was—had there not been a suspicion in the minds of many present that it was not a case of ordinary nigger-stealing, then indeed might it have gone ill with me, in spite of the sheriff and his party.

Even as it was, a long and angry altercation ensued—loud words, oaths, and gestures of menace, were freely exchanged—and both rifles and pistols were cocked and firmly grasped before the discussion ended.

But the brave sheriff remained resolute; Reigart acted a most courageous part; my ci-devant host, and proportion of stripes on the complaint of a conscientious master—for, after all, such theoretical protection does the poor slave enjoy.

Into this room, then, was I hurried by the sheriff and his assistants—the mob rushing in after, until every available space was occupied.