1. Twist of fate
The young man was on the train to Dallas, dreaming. His thoughts were towards his dear mother. She had passed away after months of pain. Her terrible disease was quite common in those days and the young John Henry couldn't get his beloved mother out of his mind. She had been very close to him, his only son, and he missed her very much. He was more distant from his father, and especially since the latter had remarried shortly after John Henry's mother's passing. This hastened marriage had displeased the young man.
He coughed several times. The coughings were painful in his chest and throat. The fits occurred on regular basis and John Henry had visited a doctor although he had easily foreseen the conclusion of the physician for obvious reasons: his dear mother had died coughing her lungs out. And the dreadful diagnosis of the doctor had been stated as if it had been a death sentence to the young John Henry Holliday, 21 years old: he suffered from consumption, a common term for tuberculosis.
I prefer to call it consumption, though, John Henry thought. After all it is indeed a good definition of the disease: it consumes you from the inside, burnin' your lungs until you end up coughing them and your guts out. Goddamn illness!
Learning he had contracted the tuberculosis was indeed terrible for the young man who had planned his life, working as a dentist in his home in Georgia with his family and above all his love Mattie. She was his first cousin and meant the world to him. They were both very much in love and John Henry had planned to marry her. Although intermarriage was frowned upon -and especially in catholic families- it was pretty common at that time, in the South, after the Civil War, for the families had been scattered. However, fate had decided otherwise: John Henry would never marry Mattie. His doctor, who happened to be his uncle, had advised him to leave Georgia and head West where the dry climate might relieve his consumption.
"John Henry, you have to understand -and I hate to be the one telling you this- that your condition is already quite advanced," he had told him. "My only advice to you is: leave Georgia. Go to Texas. It's not that far and as soon as you're cured, you'll come back to us." The voice of his uncle was soft and sad. John Henry knew very well -by experience with his mother- that tuberculosis was not something you could easily overcome. This was a lethal sickness.
"But... I can't leave Mattie behind..."
"As I said, you'll come back once healed. She'll be waitin' for you, son, that is my promise to you."
"You're right, uncle. I know you're right, but all this is happening so fast, I..." John Henry's voice was but a whisper and he felt tears his eyes. He repressed them at once.
"I know it's hard to hear, John Henry, but I suggest you'd try everything to get better. The humid air of the South is all but recommended to tuberculars. I hear the western states offer hot springs to people in your condition. You should go ahead and give it a try."
The young Holliday nodded. His uncle was right. Still, he couldn't bring himself to abandon his present life. "This is all very sudden... An hour ago, I still thought of myself as a fine dentist and now, what will become of me?" he said, absent.
"In order for you to get better, John, you will have to follow my advices. Now do I have your full attention? Because this is something you'll have to remember always." The look on his uncle's face was stern and serious as he sat in front of John Henry, behind his desk. The young man looked at him and waited him to go on. "I want you to get a lot of rest on your journeys West. You will have to avoid any stress or excitement, you'll have to eat nutritious meal and cut out alcohol. No smoking either. These vices would destroy you. You won't have any intimate relations with women. Now, this is important. Not regarding Mattie but your frail health and lungs. You'll easily understand all this for you'll soon have trouble breathing and you'll have difficulties performing exhausting activities. The sun and the dry air of the West will do you good, however."
Holliday chuckled on his seat, back in the train to Dallas. The recollection of this last conversation with his uncle was something he'd gladly take out of his mind and forget. But the worst memory he had was his goodbye to Mattie. Her beautiful face was still in his mind and her bright smile illuminated his gloomy mood and tore him apart at the same time because he knew this was a sight he would most certainly never see again. After all, who could recover from tuberculosis, one of the most lethal diseases in 1873?
"I'm leavin', darlin'," John had told Mattie as he caressed her soft cheek. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it tight.
"Leaving, John?" she asked, tears rolling down her fair face.
He nodded and repressed the tears himself. God, why was it so hard to bid farewell to the love of his life? "I cant' stay, Mattie. Your father told me so himself. I promise if I'd have the choice, I'd rather stay. Because I love you. I always have and always will. You remember that, girl." He gently kissed her forehead and then her lips. She hugged him tenderly.
"I can't let you go, John. I love you too so much... Maybe I could come with you?"
"Now, I don't believe that would be a good idea, Mattie. Besides, I'll be back soon."
"Do you promise?"
He nodded. But in the truth, he knew this was a lie. God, how he wished he was wrong, though... "I'm gonna miss this..." he said, nostalgic, as he gestured to the familial plantation and more generally the state of Georgia.
"I know, John, I know. Who wouldn't...?" she answered, just as nostalgic. Georgia, as any southern state, had this kind of magic and brightness in it which made it unique and unforgettable. Once you got there -and even more so if you were born there- you had difficulties leaving it. John H. Holliday, a refined southern gentleman, was deeply in love with his home state and knew he'd always miss it. Georgia would never leave his heart and mind, no matter where he'd go. After all, this special thing about the southern states had gotten the Confederates a war in which they had fought hard to preserve their beloved country. A Southerner at heart, John Henry would work hard in whatever he would undertake and never let anyone disrespect him.
Holliday's refine southern qualities mixed with his refine southern psychotic look at life would make him one of the deadliest gunslinger of the Wild West.