I know by now most all of you’s acquainted with those books that man Twain put out a few years back,’ bout ol’ Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, how they faced robbers and rode the Mississippi, and how they freed that nigger boy—especially how they did that. My Daddy used to read me those books, a couple years ago, back when I’s still little, and I’d laugh and laugh at all that they got into, but that part never sat right with my Daddy or me. It just never seemed right’s all.
My name’s William Randall, from Guntersville, Alabama, and that’s why I’m writin’ this, ‘cause I figured what I seen the other day put a new shine to it fer me, might be something folks’d be interested in. I don’t know; it just made me see it a little differently is all.
It was a hot day, like every other one in Alabama in August, and most folks was stayin’ out the sun as much as they could. Most folks, but not old Finn, he’s drunk again and slumped up against a post of ol’ man Johnson’s store, his whiskey bottle restin’ on a water barrel all happy like, and him just mutterin’ to himself like he always did. Now, ‘fore you say it, I know what you thinkin’: it’s him, right, Huckleberry Finn. But that’s just ‘cause of how I started this. Without that he’d be just what he was to all of us, a crazy old drunk who wandered the town in a stupor, wearin’ his hat low and crooked, and occasionally sellin’ pelts to ol’ man Johnson for money for whiskey.
Every now and then some fool’d get up the gumption to make sport of him, but before he’d get to, one of the older men would lay a hand on him and hold him back for a second. They’d point out that wicked scar what ran across his old, leathery face, and that bitch of a buck knife he kept in his boot, and they’d say a word or two about what he’d seen, and the young fool’d go lookin’ for somthin’ easier. See, Old Finn’d been an Indian fighter; and what’s more, he’d done it under General George Crook. He’d been there in Oregon when they curtailed the Paiute in under a year, and then in Arizona when that big time chief surrendered. That’s who Old Finn was to us, and most every man an’ boy in town figured that after what he done and saw, well, we’d just let him drink his peace, and so he did, usually.
But that day, that damn hot day, things was gonna be diff’rent. To begin with, a right fine dandy of a Southern gentleman had come rollin’ into town, all piss and vinegar and screamin’ ‘bout some nigger boy who’d run off from workin’ for him, still owin’ for his tools and board, somethin’ ‘round forty or fifty dollars or so. He loved sayin’ his own name too, I’ll say that much, ‘cause he seemed to throw it ‘round in jus’ ‘bout ev’ry sentence.
“Well by God almighty and my Daddy’s ghost,” he’d started in when he first got to town, “the name of Peyton Farquhar will not be trampled by a thievin’ nigger.”
He’d started off at the Gem saloon, bought a round of drinks and just started bellowin’ and threat’nin’.
“Boy told them others he had family herebouts, in this fine town of yours,” he said, slappin’ our town’s sheriff Jim Dawson on the shoulder, “and by God I mean to find him here, and make him pay me what he owes, I’ll take it outta his hide personally, if I gotta, or my name ain’t Peyton Farquhar.”
His words wasn’t without support, and here and there someone’d say he’s right, or that it was a shame how things had gotten since the war, and it only took another couple rounds ‘fore his generosity with the liquor reminded that fool John Hooley that them Roberts niggers what lived in that livery they ran at the edge of town had a new boy workin’ for them.
Well, that was enough to set Farquhar off lookin’ for the boy, terrorizin’ the Roberts’ and turnin’ over every place in town where a nigger might go. He whooped and hollar’d all aroun’ the town, never lettin’ anyone forget his name or what that thievin’ boy had done to him, or how no God blessed Southern man could ever hope to walk with his head raised if he let this kind of uppity nigger get away with what he’s doin’. And finally, just about noon, when that fat sun hung heaviest in our unforgivin’ Alabama sky, he caught the boy, hidin’ over behind Miss Sheriden’s boardin’ house, and he drug him out into the middle of town, right in front of Johnson’s store, beatin’ him and raisin’ all Cain.
“Good people of Guntersville, Alabama,” he started palaverin’, “as my name is Peyton Farquhar, this nigger has stolen’, and not just from me, good people, but from every…good…southern…man…among…you.”
As he said them last words he rained down a nasty blow between each one with a ridin’ crop, smashin’ it across that boy’s face, or shoulders, or hands, whatever he could hit, and growin’ louder with each word. Folks was startin’ to gather by this time, watching that southern dandy rain all hell down on that boy. Farquhar seen ‘em all, and it only made him beat him worse. The boy was wailin’ and pleadin’ by this point, sayin’ he’d pay anythin’, only don’t kill him, but Farquhar wouldn’t listen. He just kept raisin’ that crop and crashin’ it down, screamin’ ‘bout Southern blood and how the niggers had polluted us all, and how he was gonna have his payback, and between each word he’d strike that boy again, blood flyin’ up each time he raised that crop.
Then, just like that, he’d stopped, but not because he had even an inklin’ of mercy in him, no sir, it was ‘cause of Old Finn. He stood there, more erect, more sober than any man in Guntersville had ever seen him, and he held that dandy’s crop in his hand, keeping it from crashing back down. Farquhar let it go and spun ‘round on Old Finn, fury in his eyes, but one look at that leathery face and that evil scar, some men claimed had been put there by Geronimo himself, and he chose the better part of valor.
“Sir, you are impeding my recompense of money’s owed.” The dandy spat.
Old Finn spoke then, his voice barely more than a whisper, and his clear, cold eyes squarely fixed on the dandy’s own, “You hit that man again and I’ll kill you.”
For a second, it seemed that Farquhar would yield, but his damn fool nature wouldn’t let him, he had more honor than sense, and he started to laugh.
“Well,” he chuckled, “there’s our problem sir, this here ain’t no man, sir this here’s a nigger.”
“Maybe he is,” Old Finn spoke slowly, “and maybe he isn’t, by I tell you this, you hit him again and you’ll be dead.”
I could see that Old Finn had that bitch of a buck knife out, but Farquhar couldn’t, and he started to reach towards his coat’s inside pocket, maybe for a knife, most likely for a pistol. Old Finn’s shoulders kinda shivered, like a mountain lion’s do right before it pounces. Farquhar’s hand went into his coat and the whole thoroughfare held its breath.
The shot rang out, rending the silence in twain, and that boy slumped forward, gunshot and dead. Ten paces down, stood the sheriff, his pistol smoking.
“There, goddammit,” he spat, “that’s that. Now goddammit Finn, I don’t want no trouble..”
But Old Finn couldn’t hear him, he was already back in that place he went to every time he drank himself out of our world. He stumbled backwards about fifteen paces and slumped back down against the rail of ol’ Johnson’s store, lifted his whiskey bottle and took a pull, deep and long, and that was that.
The Sheriff talked to Farquhar and cleared everything up by telling the dandy just who Old Finn was and how we let him be and such. Farquhar just stared at Old Finn for a minute like he was lost, then shook his head, like he’s clearin’ it, and loudly announced he’s buyin’ drinks at the saloon.
Everyone but Old Finn went, he just sat there, drinkin’ his whiskey and mutterin’ like he always did. All around him the world went on just as it always had, and that nigger boy lay dead in the street waitin’ ‘till nightfall came and his folks could come collect him.