The Valley of the Shadow

Miller knocked at the door. There was no response. He went round to the rear of the house. The dog had slunk behind the woodpile. Miller knocked again, at the back door, and, receiving no reply, called aloud.

Mrs. Butler! It is I, Dr. Miller. Is my wife here?”

The slats of a nearby blind opened cautiously.

“Is it really you, Dr. Miller?”

“Yes, Mrs. Butler. I am looking for my wife and child⁠—are they here?”

“No, sir; she became alarmed about you, soon after the shooting commenced, and I could not keep her. She left for home half an hour ago. It is coming on dusk, and she and the child are so near white that she did not expect to be molested.”

“Which way did she go?”

“She meant to go by the main street. She thought it would be less dangerous than the back streets. I tried to get her to stay here, but she was frantic about you, and nothing I could say would keep her. Is the riot almost over, Dr. Miller? Do you think they will murder us all, and burn down our houses?”

“God knows,” replied Miller, with a groan. “But I must find her, if I lose my own life in the attempt.”

Surely, he thought, Janet would be safe. The white people of Wellington were not savages; or at least their temporary reversion to savagery would not go as far as to include violence to delicate women and children. Then there flashed into his mind Josh Green’s story of his “silly” mother, who for twenty years had walked the earth as a child, as the result of one night’s terror, and his heart sank within him.

Miller realized that his buggy, by attracting attention, had been a hindrance rather than a help in his progress across the city. In order to follow his wife, he must practically retrace his steps over the very route he had come. Night was falling. It would be easier to cross the town on foot. In the dusk his own color, slight in the daytime, would not attract attention, and by dodging in the shadows he might avoid those who might wish to intercept him. But he must reach Janet and the boy at any risk. He had not been willing to throw his life away hopelessly, but he would cheerfully have sacrificed it for those whom he loved.

He had gone but a short distance, and had not yet reached the centre of mob activity, when he intercepted a band of negro laborers from the cotton compress, with big Josh Green at their head.

“Hello, doctuh!” cried Josh, “does you wan’ ter jine us?”

“I’m looking for my wife and child, Josh. They’re somewhere in this den of murderers. Have any of you seen them?”

No one had seen them.

“You men are running a great risk,” said Miller. “You are rushing on to certain death.”

“Well, suh, maybe we is; but we’re gwine ter die fightin’. Dey say de w’ite folks is gwine ter bu’n all de cullud schools an’ chu’ches, an’ kill all de niggers dey kin ketch. Dey’re gwine ter bu’n yo’ new hospittle, ef somebody don’ stop ’em.”

“Josh⁠—men⁠—you are throwing your lives away. It is a fever; it will wear off tomorrow, or tonight. They’ll not burn the schoolhouses, nor the hospital⁠—they are not such fools, for they benefit the community; and they’ll only kill the colored people who resist them. Every one of you with a gun or a pistol carries his death warrant in his own hand. I’d rather see the hospital burn than have one of you lose his life. Resistance only makes the matter worse⁠—the odds against you are too long.”

“Things can’t be any wuss, doctuh,” replied one of the crowd sturdily. “A gun is mo’ dange’ous ter de man in front of it dan ter de man behin’ it. Dey’re gwine ter kill us anyhow; an’ we’re tired⁠—we read de newspapers⁠—an’ we’re tired er bein’ shot down like dogs, widout jedge er jury. We’d ruther die fightin’ dan be stuck like pigs in a pen!”

“God help you!” said Miller. “As for me, I must find my wife and child.”

“Goodbye, doctuh,” cried Josh, brandishing a huge knife. “ ’Member ’bout de ole ’oman, ef you lives thoo dis. Don’ fergit de headbo’d an’ de footbo’d, an’ a silver plate on de coffin, ef dere’s money ernuff.”

They went their way, and Miller hurried on. They might resist attack; he thought it extremely unlikely that they would begin it; but he knew perfectly well that the mere knowledge that some of the negroes contemplated resistance would only further inflame the infuriated whites. The colored men might win a momentary victory, though it was extremely doubtful; and they would as surely reap the harvest later on. The qualities which in a white man would win the applause of the world would in a negro be taken as the marks of savagery. So thoroughly diseased was public opinion in matters of race that the negro who died for the common rights of humanity might look for no meed of admiration or glory. At such a time, in the white man’s eyes, a negro’s courage would be mere desperation; his love of liberty, a mere animal dislike of restraint. Every finer human instinct would be interpreted in terms of savagery. Or, if forced to admire, they would none the less repress. They would applaud his courage while they stretched his neck, or carried off the fragments of his mangled body as souvenirs, in much the same way that savages preserve the scalps or eat the hearts of their enemies.

But concern for the fate of Josh and his friends occupied only a secondary place in Miller’s mind for the moment. His wife and child were somewhere ahead of him. He pushed on. He had covered about a quarter of a mile more, and far down the street could see the signs of greater animation, when he came upon the body of a woman lying upon the sidewalk. In the dusk he had almost stumbled over it, and his heart came up in his mouth. A second glance revealed that it could not be his wife. It was a fearful portent, however, of what her fate might be. The “war” had reached the women and children. Yielding to a professional instinct, he stooped, and saw that the prostrate form was that of old Aunt Jane Letlow. She was not yet quite dead, and as Miller, with a tender touch, placed her head in a more comfortable position, her lips moved with a last lingering flicker of consciousness:⁠—

“Comin’, missis, comin’!”

Mammy Jane had gone to join the old mistress upon whose memory her heart was fixed; and yet not all her reverence for her old mistress, nor all her deference to the whites, nor all their friendship for her, had been able to save her from this raging devil of race hatred which momentarily possessed the town.

Perceiving that he could do no good, Miller hastened onward, sick at heart. Whenever he saw a party of white men approaching⁠—these brave reformers never went singly⁠—he sought concealment in the shadow of a tree or the shrubbery in some yard until they had passed. He had covered about two thirds of the distance homeward, when his eyes fell upon a group beneath a lamppost, at sight of which he turned pale with horror, and rushed forward with a terrible cry.