To Everything There is a Season
To everything there is a season…A time of war and a time of peace ~ (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8 KJV)
They were all gathered around the supper table enjoying Daisy's juicy fried chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, fresh corn on the cob, and mouth-watering biscuits after a long, hot day filled with routine work. Slim and Jess were too tired after a day of fence mending for much conversation and hardly noticed Mike's uncharacteristic silence.
At length Daisy remarked that she had spoken to Mike's teacher that afternoon in the General Store. The way Mike's head popped up and quickly ducked guiltily back down caught Jess' attention.
"Somethin' happen at school t'day, Tiger?" he asked.
Mike glanced at Daisy's knowing eyes and Slim and Jess' confused ones.
"We-el," he began slowly, poking at his potatoes with his fork, "I fought Billy Thatcher," he said, more to his plate than to those seated around him.
Slim's eyebrows went up. "You hurt?" he asked with concern. Billy had at least a good head on Mike, certainly ten pounds, and was noted for being a bully, besides being Mike's senior by two years.
Mike grinned. "Nope! Didn't hardly lay a hand on me, 'cept once when I didn't duck fast 'nough. I got some bruises, but they don't hurt much," he said proudly.
Slim caught Daisy's eye and assumed what Jess called his "Hard-rock" face. "What started the fight?" He asked in his older brother voice.
"Billy tripped me."
"On purpose?" Jess asked, not much disturbed.
"I think so. Anyway, I told him to apologize and he swung at me." Mike stopped for a mouthful of potatoes.
"Did he hit you?" Slim asked, his hard-rock melting.
"Nope. I ducked an' got him right in the stomach, just like you taught me, Jess."
Jess squirmed and ducked his head to avoid Daisy's death glare. "Yeah, well, what happened next, Tiger?" He asked eagerly.
"He doubled over an' grabbed me an' we rolled around on the ground. Ripped the patch Aunt Daisy sewed on my pants, too."
Daisy sighed resignedly.
"Then Miss Johnson came out an' drug us apart. Gee, I didn't know she was so strong. She sure was mad, too."
Slim and Jess hid their grins, and Slim managed to put enough seriousness in his voice to reply, "I'll bet she was."
"She made us stand in front of the classroom fer the rest of the day an' tol' everybody what we done…"
"What we did, an' we both have to do extra chores fer the rest of the week. I don't see why I got t' do more chores, though, he started it."
"You tell her that?" Jess asked with a grin.
"Yeah," Mike replied, sounding defeated, "But she didn't agree. She said I didn't have t' fight, an' that I was as much t' blame as he was."
"Who won?" Slim asked, to Daisy's displeasure.
"Well, I think I would have, if Miss Johnson hadn't come along. Billy sure looks a heap worse'n I do!" Mike said proudly.
"Good," Jess said, reaching for another biscuit, but Daisy's voice stopped him half-way.
"Jess Harper!" she gasped. "I believe you're proud Mike had a fight!"
"Well, he woulda won it, Daisy," Jess tried to explain.
"That's no excuse! Little boys have no reason to be fighting."
"But it wasn't his fault, Daisy, Billy started it," Slim reasoned.
"He did not have to fight. He could have walked away from it." Slim and Jess both opened their mouths to argue, but Daisy held up her hand. "We will discuss this later."
A gloomy atmosphere seemed to pervade the house for the rest of dinner, and Mike voluntarily went to bed as soon as his homework was completed.
Slim and Jess settled around the fire with cups of coffee, and Daisy and her mending occupied the rocking chair.
After several minutes of silence she looked at the two young men on either side of her.
"Mike could have walked away from that fight," she said softly but decisively.
"The rest of the kids woulda called him a coward," Jess answered without raising his head from studying the inside of his coffee cup.
"He's gotta learn to hold his own, Daisy. It's the way things are out here." This was from Slim.
"And it is the way they will be until someone decides to change it." She waited a moment, and then asked, "Jess, why do you wear a gun?"
Jess head snapped up, his eyes dark. "You know why, Daisy," he answered his voice taut.
"Did anyone try to shoot you before you put it one, before people knew how good you were with it?"
He dropped his head, memories rising before his eyes. "No." His reply was flat and hard.
"But when word got around how fast you were, other men wanted to test you, to see just how fast you really were."
"But what's that got to do with Mike, Daisy?" Slim asked, his softly-voiced question gently relieving some of the tension that had suddenly descended upon the room like a black shroud.
"I have been told that the only man who needs a gun is the one who wears one. Doesn't the same thing apply to fighting? If Mike's generation learns to settle their differences without violence, 'the way things are out here' will change."
"So until that time you want Mike t' look like a coward?" It was more a statement loaded with sarcasm than a question, and the timbre of Jess' voice showed Daisy's choice of simile had struck a nerve.
Daisy sighed. "No, Jess, I don't, but how much harder is it to walk away from a fight than to pull a gun or raise a fist? A man who can turn his back on violence is a stronger man, I think, than the one who must prove his courage by fighting."
The popping of the fire was the only sound heard for some time as the two men mulled over Daisy's homily. At last Slim raised his head.
"I see what you're sayin', Daisy, an' you're right. Things woulda been a lot different for a lot of folks if more people had thought of that sooner."
"Sometimes a man's gotta fight, Daisy," Jess stated as though he had not heard Slim, and the bitterness in his voice saddened both of his listeners.
"Yes, Jess, sometimes he has to, and I know that as well as any other. I wouldn't be alive today, I know, if you and Slim hadn't fought for us on multiple occasions. But our responsibility is to teach Mike that there is another way. Even if his age does not see the end of settling disputes with violence, at least he will know what to teach his children, and maybe they will see the end. We must show him there is a right and a wrong time to fight."
Long after they had turned in that night Jess lay awake, turning Daisy's words and his own past over in his mind. At last he rolled over and studied the long form of his friend on the bunk across the room, the friend that had shown him that there was more than one way to handle a problem, that a fast gun and a traveling horse were not the only answers.
"Slim," he said softly into the darkness. A grunt was his only answer but he carried on.
"I gave up one gun when I came here, but I can't give up the other," Jess said with soft finality.
Slim rolled over to face him in the darkness. "I know that, Jess, an' no one's askin' you to. I'm not givin' up mine either, if that makes you feel any better."
"Slim, I want Mike t' be able t' handle a gun, t' be able t' protect hisself if he needs to, but he ain't gonna turn out like me. He's gonna be safe walkin' down a strange street without wonderin' if there's a gun walkin' behind him. He ain't gonna wonder if every stranger who rides inta town packin' iron is lookin' fer him, an' like Daisy was sayin', he's gotta know when its right t' stay an' fight an' when t' walk away." Jess' voice was husky in the darkness.
"Those are all things he can learn from you, Jess," Slim said slowly and earnestly, guessing at his friend's doubts and worries. "You've never took part in a fight that wasn't fair, an' you always tried to fight fer the right reasons. Every time you get in trouble it always turns out to be 'cause you've been helpin' somebody down on their luck. Those are the times when it's right to take a stand, and to fight if it comes to it. There's a lot Mike can learn from you, and a lot Andy did learn, more than just being a fast gun and dealin' off the bottom." Slim ended with a grin, and in the darkness was almost sure he could see an answering grin across the room.
Jess' voice confirmed it as he answered lightly, "Yeah, I guess you're right. 'Night, Pard."
As Slim hovered on the edge between wakefulness and sleep, he thought sure he heard, in the faintest of whispers, one last statement from the other bunk.
"An' thanks, Pard, fer teachin' me that a gun ain't the only way out."
This story was inspired by the true story of a difference of opinions over when and when not to fight told by my professor of History and Philosophy of Education. She gave me the idea, I took it from there.