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Danny's Own Story By Don Marquis Characters: 16871

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Thirty men with guns would be considerable of a proposition to buck against, so we didn't try it. They took us out of the wagon, and they pinted us down the road, steering us fur a country schoolhouse which was, I judged from their talk, about a quarter of a mile away. They took us silent, fur after we found they didn't answer no questions we quit asking any. We jest walked along, and guessed what we was up against, and why. Daddy Withers, he trailed along behind. They had tried to send him along home, but he wouldn't go. So they let him foller and paid no more heed to him.

Sam, he kept a-talking and a-begging, and several men a-telling of him to shut up. And him not a-doing it. Till finally one feller says very disgusted-like:

"Boys, I'm going to turn this nigger loose."

"We'll want his evidence," says another one.

"Evidence!" says the first one. "What's the evidence of a scared nigger worth?"

"I reckon that one this afternoon was considerable scared, when he give us that evidence against himself-that is, if you call it evidence."

"A nigger can give evidence against a nigger, and it's all right," says another voice-which it come from a feller that had a-holt of my wrist on the left-hand side of me-"but these are white men we are going to try to-night. The case is too serious to take nigger evidence. Besides, I reckon we got all the evidence any one could need. This nigger ain't charged with any crime himself, and my idea is that he ain't to be allowed to figure one way or the other in this thing."

So they turned Sam loose. I never seen nor hearn tell of Sam since then. They fired a couple of guns into the air as he started down the road, jest fur fun, and mebby he is running yet.

The feller had been talking like he was a lawyer, so I asts him what crime we was charged with. But he didn't answer me. And jest then we gets in sight of that schoolhouse.

It set on top of a little hill, partially in the moonlight, with a few sad-looking pine trees scattered around it, and the fence in front broke down. Even after night you could see it was a shabby-looking little place.

Old Daddy Withers tied his mule to the broken down fence. Somebody busted the front door down. Somebody else lighted matches. The first thing I knowed, we was all inside, and four or five dirty little coal oil lamps, with tin reflectors to 'em, which I s'pose was used ordinary fur school exhibitions, was being lighted.

We was waltzed up onto the teacher's platform, Doctor Kirby and me, and set down in chairs there, with two men to each of us, and then a tall, rawboned feller stalks up to the teacher's desk, and raps on it with the butt end of a pistol, and says:

"Gentlemen, this meeting will come to order."

Which they was orderly enough before that, but they all took off their hats when he rapped, like in a court room or a church, and most of 'em set down.

They set down in the school kids' seats, or on top of the desks, and their legs stuck out into the aisles, and they looked uncomfortable and awkward. But they looked earnest and they looked sollum, too, and they wasn't no joking nor skylarking going on, nor no kind of rowdyness, neither. These here men wasn't toughs, by any manner of means, but the most part of 'em respectable farmers. They had a look of meaning business.

"Gentlemen," says the feller who had rapped, "who will you have for your chairman?"

"I reckon you'll do, Will," says another feller to the raw-boned man, which seemed to satisfy him. But he made 'em vote on it before he took office.

"Now then," says Will, "the accused must have counsel."

"Will," says another feller, very hasty, "what's the use of all this fuss an' feathers? You know as well as I do there's nothing legal about this. It's only necessary. For my part-"

"Buck Hightower," says Will, pounding on the desk, "you will please come to order." Which Buck done it.

"Now," says the chairman, turning toward Doctor Kirby, who had been setting there looking thoughtful from one man to another, like he was sizing each one up, "now I must explain to the chief defendant that we don't intend to lynch him."

He stopped a second on that word LYNCH as if to let it soak in. The doctor, he bowed toward him very cool and ceremonious, and says, mocking of him:

"You reassure me, Mister-Mister-What is your name?" He said it in a way that would of made a saint mad.

"My name ain't any difference," says Will, trying not to show he was nettled.

"You are quite right," says the doctor, looking Will up and down from head to foot, very slow and insulting, "it's of no consequence in the world."

Will, he flushed up, but he makes himself steady and cool, and he goes on with his little speech: "There is to be no lynching here to-night. There is to be a trial, and, if necessary, an execution."

"Would it be asking too much," says the doctor very polite, "if I were to inquire who is to be tried, and before what court, and upon what charge?"

There was a clearing of throats and a shuffling of feet fur a minute. One old deaf feller, with a red nose, who had his hand behind his ear and was leaning forward so as not to miss a breath of what any one said, ast his neighbour in a loud whisper, "How?" Then an undersized little feller, who wasn't a farmer by his clothes, got up and moved toward the platform. He had a bulging-out forehead, and thin lips, and a quick, nervous way about him:

"You are to be tried," he says to the doctor, speaking in a kind of shrill sing-song that cut your nerves in that room full of bottled-up excitement like a locust on a hot day. "You are to be tried before this self-constituted court of Caucasian citizens-Anglo-Saxons, sir, every man of them, whose forbears were at Runnymede! The charge against you is stirring up the negroes of this community to the point of revolt. You are accused, sir, of representing yourself to them as some kind of a Moses. You are arraigned here for endangering the peace of the county and the supremacy of the Caucasian race by inspiring in the negroes the hope of equality."

Old Daddy Withers had been setting back by the door. I seen him get up and slip out. It didn't look to me to be any place fur a gentle old poet. While that little feller was making that charge you could feel the air getting tingly, like it does before a rain storm.

Some fellers started to clap their hands like at a political rally and to say, "Go it, Billy!" "That's right, Harden!" Which I found out later Billy Harden was in the state legislature, and quite a speaker, and knowed it. Will, the chairman, he pounded down the applause, and then he says to the doctor, pointing to Billy Harden:

"No man shall say of us that we did not give you a fair trial and a square deal. I'm goin' to appoint this gentleman as your counsel, and I'm goin' to give you a reasonable time to talk with him in private and prepare your case. He is the ablest lawyer in southwest Georgia and the brightest son of Watson County."

The doctor looks kind of lazy and Bill Harden, and back agin at Will, the chairman, and smiles out of the corner of his mouth. Then he says, sort of taking in the rest of the crowd with his remark, like them two standing there paying each other compliments wasn't nothing but a joke:

"I hope neither of you will take it too much to heart if I'm not impressed by your sense of justice-or your friend's ability."

"Then," said Will, "I take it that you intend to act as your own counsel?"

"You may take it," says the doctor, rousing of himself up, "you may take it-from me-that I refuse to recognize you and your crowd as a court of any kind; that I know nothing of the silly accusations against me; that I find no reason at all why I should take the trouble of making a defence before an armed mob that can only mean one of two things."

"One of two things?" says Will.

"Yes," says the doctor, very quiet, but raising his voice a little and looking him hard in the eyes. "You and your gang can mean only one of two things. Either a bad joke, or else-"

And he stopped a second, leaning forward in his chair, with the look of half raising out of it, so as to bring out the word very decided-

"MURDER!"

The way he done it left that there word hanging in the room, so you could almost see it and almost feel it there, like it was a thing that had to be faced and looked at and to

ok into account. They all felt it that-a-way, too; fur they wasn't a sound fur a minute. Then Will says:

"We don't plan murder, and you'll find this ain't a joke. And since you refuse to accept counsel-"

Jest then Buck Hightower interrupts him by yelling out, "I make a motion Billy Harden be prosecuting attorney, then. Let's hurry this thing along!" And several started to applaud, and call fur Billy Harden to prosecute. But Will, he pounded down the applause agin, and says:

"I was about to suggest that Mr. Harden might be prevailed upon to accept that task."

"Yes," says the doctor, very gentle and easy. "Quite so! I fancied myself that Mr. Harden came along with the idea of making a speech either for or against." And he grinned at Billy Harden in a way that seemed to make him wild, though he tried not to show it. Somehow the doctor seemed to be all keyed up, instead of scared, like a feller that's had jest enough to drink to give him a fighting edge.

"Mr. Chairman," says Billy Harden, flushing up and stuttering jest a little, "I b-beg leave to d-d-decline."

"What," says the doctor, sort of playing with Billy with his eyes and grin, and turning like to let the whole crowd in on the joke, "DECLINE? The eminent gentleman declines! And he is going to sit down, too, with all that speech bottled up in him! O Demosthenes!" he says, "you have lost your pebble in front of all Greece."

Several grinned at Billy Harden as he set down, and three or four laughed outright. I guess about half of them there knowed him fur a wind bag, and some wasn't sorry to see him joshed. But I seen what the doctor was trying to do. He knowed he was in an awful tight place, and he was feeling that crowd's pulse, so to speak. He had been talking to crowds fur twenty years, and he knowed the kind of sudden turns they will take, and how to take advantage of 'em. He was planning and figgering in his mind all the time jest what side to ketch 'em on, and how to split up the one, solid crowd-mind into different minds. But the little bit of a laugh he turned against Billy Harden was only on the surface, like a straw floating on a whirlpool. These men was here fur business.

Buck Hightower jumps up and says:

"Will, I'm getting tired of this court foolishness. The question is, Does this man come into this county and do what he has done and get out again? We know all about him. He sneaked in here and gave out he was here to turn the niggers white-that he was some kind of a new-fangled Jesus sent especially to niggers, which is blasphemy in itself-and he's got 'em stirred up. They're boilin' and festerin' with notions of equality till we're lucky if we don't have to lynch a dozen of 'em, like they did in Atlanta last summer, to get 'em back into their places again. Do we save ourselves more trouble by stringing him up as a warning to the negroes? Or do we invite trouble by turning him loose? Which? All it needs is a vote."

And he set down agin. You could see he had made a hit with the boys. They was a kind of a growl rolled around the room. The feelings in that place was getting stronger and stronger. I was scared, but trying not to show it. My fingers kept feeling around in my pocket fur something that wasn't there. But my brain couldn't remember what my fingers was feeling fur. Then it come on me sudden it was a buckeye I picked up in the woods in Indiany one day, and I had lost it. I ain't superstitious about buckeyes or horse-shoes, but remembering I had lost it somehow made me feel worse. But Doctor Kirby had a good holt on himself; his face was a bit redder'n usual, and his eyes was sparkling, and he was both eager and watchful. When Buck Hightower sets down the chairman clears his throat like he is going to speak. But-

"Just a moment," says Doctor Kirby, getting on his feet, and taking a step toward the chairman. And the way he stopped and stood made everybody look at him. Then he went on:

"Once more," he says, "I call the attention of every man present to the fact that what the last speaker proposes is-"

And then he let 'em have that word agin, full in their faces, to think about-

"MURDER! Merely murder."

He was bound they shouldn't get away from that word and what it stood fur. And every man there DID think, too, fur they was another little pause. And not one of 'em looked at another one fur a minute. Doctor Kirby leaned forward from the platform, running his eyes over the crowd, and jest natcherally shoved that word into the room so hard with his mind that every mind there had to take it in.

But as he held 'em to it they come a bang from one of the windows. It broke the charm. Fur everybody jumped. I jumped myself. When the end of the world comes and the earth busts in the middle, it won't sound no louder than that bang did. It was a wooden shutter. The wind was rising outside, and it flew open and whacked agin' the building.

Then a big, heavy-set man that hadn't spoke before riz up from one of the hind seats, like he had heard a dare to fight, and walked slowly down toward the front. He had a red face, which was considerable pock-marked, and very deep-set eyes, and a deep voice.

"Since when," he says, taking up his stand a dozen feet or so in front of the doctor, "since when has any civilization refused to commit murder when murder was necessary for its protection?"

One of the top glasses of that window was out, and with the shutter open they come a breeze through that fluttered some strips of dirty-coloured papers, fly-specked and dusty and spider-webbed, that hung on strings acrost the room, jest below the ceiling. I guess they had been left over from some Christmas doings.

"My friend," said the pock-marked man to the doctor-and the funny thing about it was he didn't talk unfriendly when he said it-"the word you insist on is just a WORD, like any other word."

They was a spider rousted out of his web by that disturbance among the strings and papers. He started down from above on jest one string of web, seemingly spinning part of it out of himself as he come, the way they do. I couldn't keep my eyes off'n him.

"Murder," says the doctor, "is a thing."

"It is a WORD," says the other man, "FOR a thing. For a thing which sometimes seems necessary. Lynching, war, execution, murder-they are all words for different ways of wiping out human life. Killing sometimes seems wrong, and sometimes right. But right or wrong, and with one word or another tacked to it, it is DONE when a community wants to get rid of something dangerous to it."

That there spider was a squat, ugly-looking devil, hunched up on his string amongst all his crooked legs. The wind would come in little puffs, and swing him a little way toward the doctor's head, and then toward the pock-marked man's head, back and forth and back and forth, between them two as they spoke. It looked to me like he was listening to what they said and waiting fur something.

"Murder," says the doctor, "is murder-illegal killing-and you can't make anything else out of it, or talk anything else into it."

It come to me all to oncet that that ugly spider was swinging back and forth like the pendulum on a clock, and marking time. I wondered how much time they was left in the world.

"It would be none the less a murder," said the pock-marked man, "if you were to be hanged after a trial in some county court. Society had been obliged to deny the privilege of committing murder to the individual and reserve it for the community. If our communal sense says you should die, the thing is neither better nor worse than if a sheriff hanged you."

"I am not to be hanged by a sheriff," says the doctor, very cool and steady, "because I have committed no crime. I am not to be killed by you because you dare not, in spite of all you say, outrage the law to that extent."

And they looked each other in the eyes so long and hard that every one else in the schoolhouse held their breath.

"DARE not?" says the pock-marked man. And he reached forward slow and took that spider in his hand, and crushed it there, and wiped his hand along his pants leg. "Dare not? YES, BUT WE DARE. The only question for us men here is whether we dare to let you go free."

"Your defence of lynching," says Doctor Kirby, "shows that you, at least, are a man who can think. Tell me what I am accused of?"

And then the trial begun in earnest.

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