Authors: Al Lacy
Hugh Mulvey stood on the boardwalk and watched Dan Johnson ride away. Turning back to the door, he stepped inside, hung a sign on the door that he would be back later, and hurried down the street toward the sheriff’s office.
Edward Colvin was in the front yard of the mansion, giving instructions to two male slaves about trimming the shrubbery, when he saw a buggy racing down the lane from the road.
Looking back at the slaves, he said, “Any questions about how I want it done?”
Both shook their heads, saying they understood his instructions. Leaving them, Edward looked back to the oncoming buggy and saw that it was Chief Constable Hugh Mulvey. He angled across the yard toward the hitching posts near the porch.
Seconds later, Mulvey skidded the horse to a halt near where Edward stood and said, “Is your father on the place?”
“Yes, sir. He is administering discipline to a slave in one of the barns at the moment. I’ll escort you into the sitting room, then go tell Pa that you’re here.”
While Mulvey waited, he admired the expensive paintings on the sitting room walls. In a couple of minutes he heard soft footsteps, then saw Martha Colvin come through the door.
“Oh! Chief Mulvey! I didn’t know you were here.”
He rose quickly to his feet. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Are you here to see Finn?”
“Yes. Edward brought me in here, saying he would go after his father.”
“May I have one of the maids get you some tea?”
“No, thank you, ma’am. I just need to see Finn for a few minutes and be on my way.”
When footsteps came from the rear of the house, Martha glanced toward the hall. “This must be Finn and Edward now. You’re sure I can’t have some tea brought to you? I know it’s hot.”
Mulvey managed a weak smile. “No. Really. Thank you.”
Finn came through the door. Edward quickly disappeared as Finn said, “Let’s go to my den, Hugh. We can talk in private there.”
Martha stepped aside, allowing the chief constable to move past her, and watched as the two men hurried down the hall.
When they were seated in overstuffed chairs that faced each other, Finn said, “All right, Hugh. What’s got you looking so worried?”
Finn’s features hardened. “What’s he done?”
“Asked me to arrest you and send you to trial for murdering Nathaniel. He was going to go to Jake, too, but I told him I’d talk to Jake about it.”
Finn laughed. “See there, Hugh? Didn’t I tell you somebody would try to make something of my drunken son shooting off his mouth?”
“You sure did.”
“Did Dan bring up that George was drinking when he filled everybody’s ears with it at the tavern?”
“No. He didn’t say a thing about it until I asked him if George was drunk at the time.”
“And what did he say then?”
“He said word is that George had put down enough whiskey to at least make a man slur his words.”
“Well, Mr. Dan Johnson will have to learn that George was so stinking drunk he hardly knew what he was saying. In fact, when word first came to us what was being said by men who heard him in the tavern, I told George that when anybody brought it up to him, to tell them he was so drunk he doesn’t even remember saying it.”
“Hey, that’s quick thinking. That’ll make it look even more like there’s nothing to it.”
“So what about Jake?”
“I went to his office right after Dan left. Told him about Dan coming to me. Our good sheriff is still holding fast to what we both told you we’d do—take the position that since George was drunk, it wouldn’t offer substantial proof of your guilt.”
“That’s good, Chief!”
“Jake said to tell you he’d have come with me today, but he had some papers to serve for Judge Weatherby, and he had to do it immediately. Last thing he said was to tell you that as long as he wears the sheriff’s badge, Finn Colvin has nothing to worry about from the Charleston County sheriff’s office.”
Finn chuckled. “Good for him,” he said as he left his chair and went to his desk. Taking out a key, he opened a drawer and picked up a thick envelope stuffed with currency.
“So, what story are you telling about Nathaniel’s death?” Mulvey asked.
“Well, Nathaniel had been having problems with stomach pain for quite some time. That day, my boys and I took him into the barn to examine him, and while we were in there, poor Nathaniel died in my arms.”
Nodding, Mulvey said, “All right. Who knows what could have gone wrong inside him? Good enough.”
Finn took a wad of currency out of the envelope and peeled off several bills. Handing them to Mulvey, he said, “Here’s a special bonus for you above your usual monthly amount.”
The chief constable’s eyes widened. “Thanks, Finn.”
Peeling off a like amount, Colvin handed the wad to Mulvey and said, “Give this to Jake for me, and tell him the same thing.”
“Sure will. Jake will appreciate it as much as I do. We’re both glad to be of service to a generous man like you.”
Finn laughed. “Well, being rich does have its advantages. I know you and Jake are being paid by a few other plantation owners. But since lawmen don’t make much pay, this ought to be helping both of you to live a little better.”
“It sure is. We’re both putting some money aside for a rainy day.”
“Good. Well, you probably need to get back to your office.”
“Right,” said Mulvey, rising from the chair and stuffing Jake Washburn’s bonus into one of his pockets. “You tell George to stick to his story.”
“He’ll stick to it, all right.”
Colvin walked outside with the chief constable. Edward was with a second pair of slaves, giving directions as they planted flowers in front of the wide, sweeping porch.
When Mulvey drove away, Finn walked to where Edward stood.
“Everything all right, Pa?”
“So what did he want?”
“To tell me that Dan Johnson wanted him and the sheriff to arrest me and put me on trial for murdering Nathaniel.”
A sour look settled in Edward’s eyes. “Dan Johnson, eh? So what’re Mulvey and Washburn going to do?”
“Nothing. They will stick by the fact that George was drunk when he blabbed about my beating Nathaniel. We’ll be fine, son. But I do need to talk to George. Will you find him and tell him I’ll be in my den?”
“Sure,” said Edward, and headed toward the rear of the mansion.
Finn was seated in his favorite overstuffed chair, browsing through the latest edition of the
South Carolina Gazette
, when George entered the den.
“Little brother said Hugh Mulvey was here and you wanted to talk to me.”
Laying the paper down, Finn said, “Yes. Did Edward tell you what Mulvey was here about?”
“Dan Johnson. He told me what the fool is saying.”
“Everything’s fine, son. With Jake Washburn, too.”
“So is there a problem, or did you just want to fill me in on Hugh’s visit?”
“The problem, George, is your getting drunk. You’ve got to learn to take a couple of drinks and leave it alone. When you’re in public and you drink too much, your tongue comes loose, and you can’t seem to control it. If you’d kept your mouth shut at the Three Lanterns the other day, I wouldn’t be having to ask for help from Mulvey and Washburn to make sure I don’t get charged with murder. Dan Johnson will ride this thing as far as he can, and I’m sure his father will, too.”
George’s jaw clenched and there was cold fire in his eyes as he said, “Dan Johnson. Maybe he needs his mouth shut. I’d like to—”
“Forget it. We don’t need that kind of trouble. Just don’t get drunk and shoot your mouth off anymore. Understood?”
The flame left George’s eyes as he met his father’s gaze. “Yeah. I understand, Pa. I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful from now on.”
Finn laid a hand on George’s shoulder and squeezed it. “Good. I’ll take your word for it. You can go back to whatever you were doing.”
It was just before nine o’clock the next morning when Chief Constable Mulvey looked up from his desk to see Sheriff Washburn come through the open door. The air was warm, and Mulvey even had a couple of windows open.
Washburn pushed his hat to the back of his head as he approached the desk. “Guess Dan’s not here yet?”
“Nope. Sit down.”
Washburn eased onto the chair in front of the desk. “Your officers around?”
“Not at the moment. But if they should be here when Dan comes, they won’t hear anything they shouldn’t. We’ll just lay it on the line to Dan and tell him there’s nothing we can do.”
“Good,” said the beefy sheriff, glancing out the front window. “Here he comes now.”
Both men stayed seated as Dan entered the office. There was a second chair in front of the desk.
“Morning, Dan,” Mulvey said warmly. “Come sit down.”
When Dan was seated, he looked at Mulvey and said, “So, how did the investigation go, Chief?”
Easing back in his chair, Mulvey said, “I went to Sheriff Washburn after you left, as I said I would.”
“Told him what you told me. He had important business, so he couldn’t go to the Colvin place with me. Anyway, I went to the Colvin place and talked to Finn. I told him what you said. He laughed about it. Said there wasn’t a word of truth in it … that George just goes way out of his mind when he gets drunk. I talked to George and he admitted he was drunk but said he doesn’t remember saying anything about his father beating Nathaniel.”
“You didn’t swallow that, did you?”
Mulvey leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk. “No, I didn’t. I probed further. I asked Finn exactly what did happen with Nathaniel. He told me Nathaniel had been having problems with his stomach for quite some time.”
“Mm-hmm. Said Nathaniel told George his stomach was hurting him so bad that he just couldn’t work in the fields.”
“Yeah? So how did that sound to you?”
“Well, I wanted to be sure this story was true, so I told Finn I’d like to talk to some of the slaves.”
“Well, I talked to probably two dozen of them. They all confirmed that, indeed, Nathaniel had been having stomach trouble for quite a while. And those who were right there when Nathaniel was taken into the barn said that Finn was kind and gentle to him. They didn’t hear any flogging going on. After a while, Finn and his sons came carrying Nathaniel’s dead body and saying he had died in Finn’s arms.”
Dan shifted his position on the chair and glanced at the sheriff, then said to Mulvey, “Finn, no doubt, put the fear in his slaves, forcing them to lie to cover his crime.”
Mulvey shook his head. “I don’t know about that, but let’s say you’re right. How do I prove they lied?”
“You can’t,” put in Washburn. “And besides, if you could find some slaves who would say they were lying—that they knew Finn beat Nathaniel to death inside the barn—no Negro’s testimony counts for anything here in the South.”
“Too bad that’s true,” said Dan. “So are you men going to find the Three Lanterns patrons who heard George say his father beat Nathaniel to death? Must’ve been a pretty good number of them, from what I’ve heard. Their testimonies would bear weight in court.”
Mulvey shook his head. “Not so, Dan. Even if those who heard George say it were willing to testify, it wouldn’t hold up in court because George was drunk at the time and not responsible for what he said. In fact, he doesn’t remember saying such a thing.”
Dan looked at Mulvey for a moment, then said, “Because he was drunk and doesn’t remember—or says he doesn’t—that’s it? Matilda is a widow because her husband was murdered, but the murderer walks away a free man?”
Mulvey shrugged. “I’m sorry, Dan, but there’s nothing that Sheriff Washburn and I can do. You have to look at it this way.
Maybe George really was just shooting off at the mouth, and whether he remembers what he said or not, maybe Nathaniel did die with stomach problems as Finn says.”
Dan set his jaw. “You could open the grave and take a look at the body. If there are bruises, you’ll know Finn is lying.”
Mulvey looked at Washburn, who was already shaking his head.
“Can’t do it, Dan,” said the sheriff. “Nathaniel is buried on private property. We can’t open the grave. I feel like Chief Mulvey does. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do.”
Zack Johnson was at the small barn where the buggies and the buggy teams were kept when he saw Dan drive around the mansion and head his direction.
“How’d it go, son?”
“Let me put the buggy and the horses away first, Pa.”
When Dan emerged from the barn, he told his father about his talk with Mulvey and Washburn at Mulvey’s office. “I don’t care what they say, Pa, Finn is guilty of murder.”
“Of course he is. But as you and I know, Finn has both of those men in his pocket, and they aren’t going to bring him to trial. I appreciate that you were willing to try, but to pursue it further would do no good.”
Dan sighed and removed his hat, running splayed fingers through his thick mop of dark brown hair. “I did what I could. It’s in the Lord’s hands now.”
“He can handle it, son.”
The next day, Ol’ Mose was working in a flower garden at the rear of the Colvin mansion with a slave named James, who was in his seventies. As they planted seeds together, James said, “Ol’ Mose, you is still carryin’ a burden ’bout Nathaniel. I c’n see it in yo’ eyes.”
“Well, I guess I’m not tryin’ to hide it from anybody but the
Colvins an’ the overseers, James. It bothers me no end that Massa Finn and his boys have beat other people to death, and it bothers me that they mistreat us so.”
“Guess dat ain’t gonna change unless those men die,” said James, his wrinkled face reflecting the sunlight.
“The only other answer would be that they get saved,” said Mose. “If Massa Finn would become a Christian, he wouldn’t mistreat his slaves anymore. The same with Massa George and Massa Edward. My heart has been heavy for the whole family for a long time. I want to see Miss Martha saved, too.”
“Wouldn’ dat be wonderful!” James said.
“I feel I have to work with Massa Finn, first,” said Mose. “If he would get saved, he would be a real help in gettin’ the rest of the family saved. I’ve talked to him many times over the years about bein’ saved, but he just won’t listen. I have to keep praying for him, and keep tryin’.”