It was a different place and a different time. Prejudices carried by the characters are by no means held by the writer. Warning for language and bigotry.
My father told me he believed in the South and the Confederacy. He told me in word and deed. And he lied.
Fifteen years old, John started school.
His mother had died with his gentle hand channelling his will that she breathe and experience tiny seconds of almost-ease even in unconscious coma.
Mattie had gone with her family to try to rebuild her own broken father.
Thomas and William had bought land below the Florida line, starting families.
Francisco Hidalgo had returned from the war to his own family and home back in Griffin.
The major had married Rachel, barely older than John.
The Major had in essence adopted yet more children – orphans and former slaves.
His Uncle John and cousin Robert remained in Atlanta.
John was alone and he was going to become a dentist.
Fifteen years old, John started school.
John loved school. It was his train ticket to Atlanta and a home with Robert and his uncle. It was dignity and his future. It was books, tools and knowledge. It was new worlds opening like fireworks and the more he worked the more he knew, and the more he knew the more he could see of the new worlds until he could dwell in them as his knowledge of them blossomed new nebulae for him to learn and explore unending. And John was very good at working hard.
Classical literature comforted him and kept him company. Tales of war and heroes; sacrifice; loyalty and principles; swirling intentions, errors and motives clung to their parallels in what he himself had lost and what those he admired had tried. Lee and Jackson and the cavalry officers, had worked their impossible triumphs, not only in victories but also in the hearts of their men that should have been broken. Now it had been brought to nothing. And Jefferson Davis was still in prison, in chains, John thought. There were the personal stories also, and John held them close, learning to be
more as well as to know more. Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades. He was waiting to be.
After school he went to the dentists’ office, learning. When he was not there or in the school library he was in the fields practicing with guns, thinking of soldiers. His appearances at home became more casual and were barely noticed. He avoided the Major and Rachel. The new children had his place with no right, as Francisco had grown up as his father’s choice for a son – his Mexican ward over the thin blond boy with the torn mouth and ragged speech, named not for him but for his doctor brother.
At school though, the other students neither knew nor cared of this. The Major was part of the Northern court, which upheld the punishing taxes set to ruin Southern farmers and place their homes and farms in the hands of carpetbaggers. The Major was part of the court which was set to impose Northern law in which it placed any Northerner or former slave above any Southerner. The Major was head of the Freedman’s Bureau in Valdosta and wore their blue uniform in the town, training and mustering resources for former slaves when Southerners themselves had such needs. The Major had helped to bring about so much of what they had feared and against which they had fought, leaving families bereft and destroyed. The Major did these things, but it was John who bore their anger and scorn.
They dared do nothing under the eyes of Mr. Vardenoe, who was universally loved and respected, or the other teachers, but he was left severely alone in school, working always on his own. In the schoolyard and street it was different and they jostled and jeered at him, taking his things and throwing furtive but bruising kicks and punches. He fought and hated, hating his father, waiting to be free himself. And practicing with his guns.
“John Johnny Yank”
“His whole family are traitors.”
“His father ran away during the war.”
“Freedman’s Bureau boy, where’s your uniform?”
“He takes our money for his n___ friends. Let’s take his bag.”
“So your father sleeps with the neighbour girls. Does he sleep with all those n___s too?”
“Traitor, traitor, traitor. Johnny Johnny Yank.”
“Can’t even talk properly yet. Waaah Waaah Waaah. Little baby. Where’s your Mommy? Run to Mommy.” John was a thousand miles from running or crying. And his mother was dead.
“I’m not. Goddamn you all to Hell.”
“Maybe your mother slept with the slaves too, hey, Yankee boy.”
“I’m going to kill
you.” Blind rage, but there were too many and he was held back as they kicked him.
“Little Johnny Yank wants to fight a duel. That’s for Southern gentlemen not for Yankee cowards.”
John struggled and pulled – towards, not away. But he had grown so thin during the war and scarcely ate now. There had been too many people and too little food. And now he wouldn’t eat with the others at the table, taking food when he detoured through the kitchen. It wasn’t stealing, and he ate it as ashes, because he had to. He brought out his secret pride to hurl at them. ”I
brought my uncle back from the war. What did you
” He spat it out. “Ten to one!”
“That’s worse than nothing – bringing more of your traitor family here. Traitor! We’ll show you
what traitors deserve!”
Big John Rambo stopped them. He was older and wouldn’t have been in school at all if he had been able to get a better education during the war. A man had been beaten unconscious and strung up by his thumbs recently. And in a few years an axe wielded by a Ku Klux Klan member would cave in the head of another of John’s uncles. His mill and home would be burned and his widow and children robbed and terrorised. And the Klansman would be mysteriously killed shortly before John left for Texas. But now the older boy descended from the rail from which he had been watching. He was calm and easily slow moving. Everyone looked up to him and at his interference John was held and no longer abused. “Actually,” John Rambo said, “That’s a very good idea. We are here to learn, and here is an opportunity to learn about duelling.” He turned to John. “Are you the offended party?”
Before he could answer the original boy he had threatened stepped up as spokesman. “No! He’s offended us
! He’s offensive.”
“All right,” the older boy said and turned to John, giving him a firm but keen look. “That means you have been challenged. And in turn that means you choose the weapons, place and time. And you both will need to choose seconds.” He looked as well at the boy who had stepped forward.
Despite himself, John felt warmth glowing from his stomach down to his groin and up into his chest with rosy light. If his arms had not been pulled back he would have hugged himself. He was finally going to kill one of them.
He practiced every day. There was no one better. He was really and finally going to kill one of them. Despite himself his sure voice carried a quality of almost sweet wonder. “Directly after school tomorrow, by the swimming hole. With pistols.”
John Rambo looked at him still more keenly at his tone but nodded. “All right. I will bring the weapons. Seconds?”
The other boy named one of those who held John, who hesitated heartbeat. “Lee Smith.”
“Lee isn’t here.”
“Obviously.” Lee was older as well. John was released into the general chatter and his next words were missed. “I will bring weapons also.”
The next day John had the Major’s matched set of officer’s revolvers folded in a blanket under his chair. Yet the day did not drag. He was neither restless nor nervous and felt no compulsion to watch or listen to the clock. He found himself riveted and relaxed. His mathematics seemed to write themselves as he floated above it. In rhetoric his words flowed and soared. Mr. Vardenoe smiled a him.
At the creek the afternoon sun splattered everything in leaf shadows, but there was a long grass bank and the area was left private to the boys alone. The light would hinder the others more than John. He had carefully oiled and loaded both guns. The Major rarely used them and they were immaculate and perfect. On arrival John handed the bundle to Lee, who greeted him with a sympathetic pat on the back. It was the job of the seconds to examine the weapons, but again John was unconcerned. They were perfectly matched.
He saw everyone else was also relaxed. John Rambo had the other boys sit under the trees. He had a wooden box himself, into which John’s opponents were reaching as he came forward with Lee. “Seconds: inspect the weapons.” John Rambo was conducting the procedures with formality.
John looked into the box and went still and cold. They were beautifully crafted. They were wood.
brought weapons. Look. Mine are loaded.” John took and unfolded the blanket to reveal the nickel-plated revolvers glinting in the sun.He brought real duelling pistols.
The whisper went around with a ripple as the other boys recoiled.
Again John Rambo broke the tension, laughing. But if his was diffusion, trying to lighten the situation, that of the younger boys was derision, tinted with nervousness. Lee was not laughing. He knew John and the absolute sincerity with which he flashed into anger.
His hand, half calming and half warning, rested on John’s shoulder, his fingers talking to him with pressure. And John, cheated, was rising to temper.
“I’ve taken enough from them. I’ve
been insulted. I’ve
chosen the weapons. And I mean
to kill them.” His teeth clicked, barred in what was almost a snarl. Impetuous and hair-triggered, he didn’t notice the departure of reason and judgement.
So John Rambo held the advantage. “All right,” He said again, steady, firm and determined. “So you are the injured party.” It was barely a gamble.
“Damn right.” John was mortally offended. “They’ve insulted and assaulted me too many times and I mean to kill them.” He repeated himself.
“There is no need to swear.” The older boy’s look was warning as well and he turned back to the others. “If he is the injured party, and if he
is challenging you
, as he surely seems to be, than it is you
who select the weapons. And I strongly suggest you choose mine.”
There was general consent, general relief and general admiration for John Rambo’s logic. But John himself was not placated.
“What a stupid farce
. Talk about cowards!
If you think I’m going to join in your stupid baby games you can think again!” he shook off Lee’s hand and refolded the beautiful deadly revolvers, leaving the others all to mill and chatter, their voices rising behind him in a swell.
And ever after John had nervous respect. And ever after he carried a gun – in Valdosta it was the old Navy Colt his Uncle John had given him. And when John Rambo and his older friends hatched their plans to blow up the courthouse, John was included.Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 1892
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Nulli Virtute Secundus