John had appeared late one night, a fugitive over the Georgia/Florida border, a thin blonde dentist, heavily armed in the warm air, breathing heavily and coughing as a result, though his eyes and body gave an impression of unusual stillness. He had been leading his horse, its hooves wrapped in sacking, and tied it to a post of the porch ready, should his quiet knock be unanswered.
Thomas. It was Thomas. He would understand. He had understood when John had shot at the usurpers at the river. He had been in the war and knew that sometimes one had to kill.
He stood outside, poised to knock. On the other side of the door was light, warm lamps, a friendly calm, a small self-contained family, food and hospitality. Outside, it was so starkly real, adrenaline and excitement vibrating in the air around his ears, his hands feeling dry, and aware of every single texture, from the usually imperceptible grain of the leather harness to the horse's coat with every hair defined, to the touch of breath and air and then the grain of the wood under the smooth white paint when he knocked.
And then, there was Thomas, haloed in light, opening the door to him, a question on his face, a finger to his lips. It was late and everyone else was asleep. John was embraced though - solid arms around him, glad to know him present and safe. He put the horse in the stable, after a whispered exchange and went to sit on the chesterfield with his young uncle. There was coffee from the stove and leftover chicken stew, biscuits and jam. John felt ravenous, very aware of each mouthful, yet at the same time scarcely realising he was eating.
"We've heard, you know. News spreads fast."
John nodded. He had expected it, but his uncle's name was McKey, not Holliday. They would not think to search here for a murderer. Strangely, he felt nothing about that, thinking of the bare fact as though he were reading a telegram meant for someone else. You are a murderer.
He felt nothing of that, though there were nerves from the gun, hiding, running, thinking of pursuit, of search. His heart thudding and his cheeks grinning almost headily in nervousness and
accomplishment when he had hidden and no one had come pounding after him.
"You are going to Texas."
"One last thing that was needed. I can't marry Mattie now."
"Yes?" Surely he understood.
"You're a good man. Don't forget, or let anyone tell you otherwise. Even if it has already been said."
John looked into his eyes, caught in surprise. That had not been what he had expected, but rather talk of the seriousness of death. Of course it had been said.
"You got them both? And you will go away?"
John nodded. He was strangely disinclined to talk, for once. His tongue seemed caught. It was not like him, he realised. "And one in Atlanta." His eyes met his uncle's again. That was surely news. There hadn't been a breath of accusation over that one. "They can't treat a woman like that, a widow, our
widow, the children..."
"Of course not." He said it again, a tone of almost coaxing still in his voice. "You are a good man, John."
"And I will go away to Texas."
"The country is full of Ku Klux Klansmen. If you kill one, they will all retaliate. Forrest himself has abandoned them. You know that. And think of Mattie."
"Thomas? Tom?" His voice was quiet, his head bowed slightly, his eyes turned up to his uncle. He had looked inside himself before he had started out. "I don't think I could have gone, if I had not killed them - if I had not made myself have
to leave. It was for Mattie as much as the Hollidays..."
"I know, John. Here - I'll make up a bed for you. Just a moment. It's late."
"Pardon? You must stay, tonight at least..."
"I'll sleep here. It doesn't seem right, to use a bed, trouble you all. I don't feel... right. Too... I feel too much movement, restlessness, as if I am already gone. I feel..." John looks down at his hands. Suddenly he is voluble again. "I feel, with the disease, as if I were dead already, condemned. If not for murder, just for... contamination maybe. I don't want to cough and to be ill in your bedding, your room, air... I've felt like this from the time I was told... I shall die, but I am dead, and..."
"Shh. Hush. It is not so." Tom rose and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "I'll get you a nightshirt anyway, and a quilt. You can't sleep in your clothes. You must not put me in the position of being called a poor host."
And John changed, feeling skeletal in the voluminous soft cotton, and carefully folded his clothes in some gesture of being a considerate guest. He sat down on the couch again, his feet bare on the carpet, feeling its wool on his soles, and the way his toes pressed into it when he rocked his weight to them. Thomas returned with a murmured whisper to the gently closing bedroom door. He had a pillow and carried over his arm a big green quilt worked in white hoop patchwork.
"There. Lie down. Keep your chest up, right? To help you breathe?" He tucked the quilt around John as if he were a child again - his nephew, almost his younger brother. His voice was calm, sad, saying goodbye in the dark. "Hey. I'm proud of you. I'll always be proud." One final whisper, and a hand to the hot forehead. And the last thing he saw, as he turned the wick on the lamp, were the eyes shining blue and clear at him, fading into darkness. And Thomas went back to his bed with his wife, leaving the young dentist to sleep, he hoped, on the couch.Name: John H. Holliday, DDS.
Word Count: 1019
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Nulli Virtute Secundus