Short Story #342: The Sheriff's Children by Charles W. Chestnutt

Title:  The Sheriff's Children

Author:  Charles W. Chestnutt


Book cover to The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers - Langston Hughes.
After the murder of a man in Troy, an African American man is reported to have been in the vicinity of the area.  The man is pursued and captured to await a trial for the crime.  A war hero for the Confederacy and a well-respected leader, the sheriff is left to protect the man when he is informed that a lynch mob has formed and is going to the prison.  The sheriff makes it there first and secured the place.  When the men arrive asking him to step aside, he challenges the men and warns them that he will need to do the honorable thing and allow the man a trial.  The men leave grudgingly and at one point a shot is fired at the building.  During this commotion, the sheriff had opened the prison cell and through quick thinking, the suspect gets a hold of a gun.  The sheriff tries to talk the man out of doing anything rash but the suspect chides him, saying that he has no chance of getting a fair trial.  Through the conversation, the man reveals that he is Tom, Cicely's son, a woman that was a slave on the sheriff's plantation before the war.  It then becomes clear that Tom is the sheriff's bastard son whom the sheriff had sold years ago.  When this is realized, the sheriff challenges Tom about killing his own father, to which Tom laughs and points out all the inconsistencies of the sheriff's fatherhood.  Tom continues to debate whether to kill the sheriff or not in order to properly escape.  Finally, he decides to murder the sheriff but just as he takes aim, he is shot from behind by the sheriff's daughter.  The daughter had been at home when the sheriff left but came to see that her father was ok.  The shot was not enough to kill Tom and so the sheriff patches him up and leaves him in the cell until morning.  However, when the sheriff returns, he finds that Tom had removed the bandage and bled to death.


Chestnutt writes some of the most fascinating stories about post-Civil War life for African Americans and where they fit in.  Here too, we find a fascinating dynamic that is not so easy to break down.  The sheriff is certainly suspect for his past and yet does his best to maintain order and protect Tom, even though protection of Tom is short term given that he is likely to be found guilty by a white-jury (the only kind at the time).  Tom too is curious in that he is willing to kill to prove that he didn't kill.  There is much gray within the story, which is what Chestnutt seems to go for in many of his tales.  

Short Story #342 out of 365
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read:  12/1/2014
Source:  The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, ed. by Langston Hughes.  Little, Brown, and Company, 1967.  This story can also be found for free at this website.  

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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