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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 229


An hour's riding brought the party near the “Heritage
Place;” the young men rode ahead to reconnoitre, and
one soon returned and reported, to the astonishment of
every one, that Toadvine was actually in the field; and
that by leaving the main road, threading a deep, but not
impassable sluiceway, he could be easily cut off from all
connection with the house, and if he attempted escape after
he discovered that he was to be arrested, he would
have to take to the woods, when “he could be run down
at leisure.”

Gen. Bledsoe at once decided upon taking advantage
of the opportunity thus unexpectedly offered, to make an
easy capture, and in another instant the horsemen were
galloping to their several assigned places, distributing
themselves so that Toadvine had no other way of escape
than by striking into the fastnesses of the swamp.

The doomed man soon discovered that there were persons
in his vicinity, but still remained unconscious of his
danger, and also of the extent of his crime. Two or three


Page 230
horsemen, carrying guns, could be easily accounted for,
“the chase,” and the habits of the country making firearms
familiar; their appearance created no alarm; but
when further attracted by moving forms through the distant
trees, it flashed upon him like lightning, that a band
of armed men were in pursuit of him.

Rushing to his horse, that was cropping grass by the
edges of one of the field roads, he leaped upon his back,
and, as if Mildmay was most likely to now befriend him, he
turned the animal's head towards Heritage Place; but
before he had rode many yards he was hailed to stop—
turning suddenly, he went headlong down the field, when
again he discovered that the fowling-pieces bore directly
upon him; desperate, and alarmed for his life, he now
turned his horse's head, as Bledsoe had anticipated, toward
the swamp, and fairly flew, with speed; accelerated
no doubt, by a number of curs belonging to the negroes,
barking and howling at his rear; with a bound he cleared
the fence, and knowing the country well, it seemed as if
he would escape, so rapidly did he disappear amid the rich
mellow gloom.

But Toadvine had those upon his track, who knew the
swamp even better than himself,—persons who had, for
years, pursued the deer and wild cat through the very
labyrinth he was then threading; and those persons, conscious
of their power, rode even leisurely along, knowing
that he must, almost without an effort, soon fall into their

Mildmay, from the time that Toadvine left him, had
been engaged in looking over papers, brought to his recollection


Page 231
by opening his memorandum book, and he was,
while listening to the unusual noise of the dogs barking in
the field, startled by the appearance of Wash, who, with
distended eyes, announced to his master “dat a big party
of gentlem was hunting down in de new ground.”

Mildmay, from an upper gallery, glanced over the
field, just in time to see Toadvine's fearful leap, and as he
discovered the armed men follow in pursuit, he was instantly
impressed with the belief that something serious
had happened.

Without betraying his excitement, he ordered Wash to
saddle his horse, that he might ride down and see what
was going on. It was with difficulty that he could repress
his impatience until the boy arrived with his steed, and
still more was it painful to retain an ambling pace, when
he descried that Annie's affectionate eyes were bent upon
him. But once relieved of all necessity for restraint, he
put spurs to his horse, and followed swiftly on the new-made

In the meanwhile, it would seem that Gen. Bledsoe's
party crossed the diameter of the circle made by Toadvine,
in his ignorance of the ground he was going over, and ere
the pursued was aware of it, he was surrounded. A dozen
“shots” had sight upon him at once, and he was commanded
to stop, and reining up his horse, he sat in his saddle a
perfect picture of blank despair.

The pursuers rushed upon him, and checked their excited
horses so close to his person, that his hair was fanned
by the distended nostrils of their foaming steeds.

“Dismount, you wretch!” cried Bledsoe, as he kept his


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spirited horse by main force to the ground, “dismount, I
say; we have a better way to serve your carcass than to
let it hang across a Spanish saddle.”

To Toadvine, the command seemed to cause the world
to be passing away as a sheet of fire. He knew that he was
guilty of some crime, but the uncertainty of its extent
magnified his fears, and he felt as if an awful judgment was
upon him. Looking around, he saw faces familiar in appearance,
yet glaring upon him with strange and intense
passion; a confused ringing sound passed through his brain,
and fainting, he fell from his horse.

Before, however, he reached the ground, he was in the
arms of one of the men, and by the time he recovered his
senses, the rope that had deprived poor Jack of his life,
was around another victim's neck.

Toadvine, the instant he felt the cord, comprehended
his fate, and uttered one long, loud shriek for mercy; but
ere he could have repeated that heart-rending cry, the power
to do so would have been at an end for ever, had not Mildmay,
glowing with excitement, rushed into the ring; checking
his speed so abruptly, that his horse's hoofs ploughed
their way deeply into the virgin soil.

Dark and lowering looks were turned upon the intruder,
which instantly cleared away, as some one exclaimed,
“Mildmay, by the gods!”

This name electrified with sudden life the sinking and
terror-stricken Toadvine, who frantically seized Mildmay's
feet, and begged him for the love of God, to interfere and
save his life.

The young man though calm, was, nevertheless embar




[Description: 726EAF. Illustration page. At center, a man in hat and shirtsleeves supports another man who has been cut from a noose and offers him something to drink. The men are surrounded by six other men on horseback. The man in hat and shirtsleeves is talking to one of the riders at right. In the background, the remains of the noose hang from a tree.]

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Page 233
rassed, and turning instinctively towards Gen. Bledsoe,
whom he did not know, he begged to be informed as to the
meaning of the scene enacted before him.

The fact that Toadvine was Mildmay's overseer, and
that it was Mildmay's wrongs the party was professedly
about to redress, caused his unannounced and unexpected
presence to be greeted with a respect that might, under
other circumstances, with persons so excited, have been
attended with a different result.

Gen. Bledsoe, in a few and hastily-delivered words, explained
the outrage.

“And Jack is dead?” said Mildmay, snapping his eyes
as if awaking from a sleep.

“Yes, dead!” said Bledsoe, “and murdered by that
skulking wretch who is hanging at your heel.”

“A shame and an outrage!” said Mildmay, his face
darkening, as he kicked himself loose from the overseer's

“A shame indeed,” said Gen. Bledsoe, his face burning
with excitement, “and that he may not serve others so,
tuck him up boys, and let the buzzards have their rights.”

“You would not hang this man,” said Mildmay, leaping
from his horse, and literally throwing himself as a
shield over Toadvine's prostrate form. “You would not
hang this man. Let me beg of you, gentlemen, that the
laws have their sway; let my injury go unredressed, rather
than tarnish our honor with so great a wrong as this.”

“The laws be d—d,” said a fellow, in an Arkansas
blanket coat, seizing hold of Toadvine's shoulder. “If
you've got nothing but the law to reach this 'ere gentleman


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with, he's as good as clear to-day; ain't he, Gineral Bledsoe?”

At the mention of this name, Mildmay turned toward
the person addressed and said:

“General Bledsoe, for such I understand you to be,
permit me to beg as a personal favor, that you will leave
this man in the hands of the law. The case is too plain
to fear that he will escape the penalty due his crime, and
to the extent of the law, will I see that he is prosecuted
and punished.”

“What say you, gentlemen?” asked Bledsoe, looking
around upon the group of excited faces—and after scanning
them for a moment, he said, with a graceful wave of the

“Mr. Mildmay, that creature is your prisoner.”

At this announcement, the spectators fairly rocked to
and fro with the sudden reaction of their moral feelings,
and Toadvine fell to the earth as if struck by the hand of

“Well, he's made a die of it, any how,” said the owner
of the green blanket coat, looking at Toadvine with comical
pity, and loosening the cord about his neck,—“but
maybe,” the fellow continued, “this will bring him too,”
and with the most affecting attention, he took his whiskey
bottle from his pocket and held it to Toadvine's nostrils.

“You see,” said General Bledsoe, looking at Mildmay,
and playfully pointing at the rough Samaritan before him,
“you see that Ben Puckett isn't so bad a man after all,
although he has a poor opinion of the laws.”

Mildmay forced a sickly smile, and asked, directing his


Page 235
eye to Bledsoe, “if he could get Mr. Puckett to take the
prisoner to the jail at Beechland, if he were paid liberally
for the trouble?”

“Certainly you can,” said the general with vivacity,
“and I will be responsible that Puckett will never let him
go until he has the jailer's receipt in full for the amiable

“I'll go to jail,” said Toadvine with a humble voice,
and absolutely grown wan and pallid with the terror he had

“Of course, you will,” said Puckett, while tying Toadvine's
elbows behind him,—“of course you will; ain't I
promised to take you?” and Puckett laughed at his own

The crowd now dispersed. All left evidently satisfied,
for you could hear the merry, ringing laugh of different individuals,
expressive of a consciousness of being relieved
from a fearful responsibility.

Toadvine, once on his way, soon arrived at Beechland
jail. He managed, in the course of conversation along the
road, to secure Puckett's friendship, but could not overcome
the sturdy Kentuckian's innate sense of honor sufficient
to induce him to let his prisoner go, as was suggested
under the plea of “accidental escape.” Puckett was too
powerful as a man, to make it probable that he could be mastered
in a scuffle, and too ambitious mentally, to be willing
to have it reported that he was outwitted, when placed in a
responsible position.

“And what do you 'spose,” said Toadvine to Puckett,
as Beechland appeared in view,—“what do you 'spose


Page 236
they make such a fuss about the killing of Jack for, any

“'Cause you didn't own him,” said Puckett with a patronizing

“Perhaps that was it,” replied Toadvine, still as if in
a dream, and riding a short distance he resumed: “I never
heard such a fuss about killing a nigger before. Thar
was Bill Stiger down at the `Oaks' who chopped a darkee
into pieces with a cane knife, and bragged on it arterwards,
and he was never touched.”

“And didn't the Grand Jury find a bill?” inquired

“No,” said Toadvine emphatically, “Stiger run off
the sheriff with a double barr'l, and swore he would shoot
any juror that dar'd indite him.”

“And the matter ended thar, did it?” inquired Puckett
with solemnity.

“Of course it ended,” said Toadvine, overflowing with
a sense of his own unjust treatment—“of course it ended,
and Stiger could have gone to the Legislature the next
'lection, only he wouldn't.”

“Well, it's too bad,” said Puckett with a sympathetic
voice, “that they treat you so; but no matter, Toady,”
said he playfully, “Buss', Orcutt, and I, will come up
in your room and play `poker' and `seven up,' and you
shan't want for friends, you know—and we'll have a real
good time of it, and no mistake.”

With this assurance, Toadvine, who was unaccountably
depressed in spirits, when left to his own reflections,
brightened up, and saw that lying in jail a few weeks wasn't


Page 237
so bad after all; while, like many other men in a similar
situation, he began to realize a kind of satisfaction in
the prospect he had before him, of becoming an object of
real attention to the crowd about the court-house.

Upon arriving at the suburbs of Beechland, Puckett
relieved Toadvine of the hated rope that had heretofore
bound his elbows, the prisoner solemnly promising not to
attempt to get away, and Puckett threatening to split Toadvine's
head open, if he did forfeit his honor by any such
performance; “for you see,” said Puckett, opening for the
last time the knots in the cord,—“you see, Toady, I gave
my word
to General Bledsoe, that I would take you to jail,
and I must do it if I help you out agin at sundown.”

The ever busy Orcutt answered the first knock at the
jail door, and he started back with some surprise at seeing
Toadvine safe and sound before him:—“Why, I thought
you went off this mornin',” said the jailer, unconscious of
the severity of his allusion.

“But he didn't, though,” said Puckett mysteriously,
“though he was at the `went off place,' wasn't you, Toady.”

The jests were too suggestive to the overseer of the dark
side of his situation, and with a pallor upon his cheek, he
requested to be shown to his room, saying that he “felt
sick, and wanted rest.