IN the younger days of the Republic there lived in the county of — two men, who were admitted on all hands to be the very best men in the county; which, in the Georgia vocabulary, means they could flog any other two men in the county. Each, through many a hard-fought battle, had acquired the mastery of his own battalion; but they lived on opposite sides of the Courthouse, and in different battalions: consequently, they were but seldom thrown together. When they met, however, they were always very friendly; indeed, at their first interview, they seemed to conceive a wonderful attachment to each other, which rather increased than diminished as they became better acquainted; so that, but for the circumstance which I am about to mention, the question, which had been a thousand times asked, “Which is the best man, Billy Stallions (Stallings) or Bob Durham?” would probably never have been answered.
Billy ruled the upper battalion, and Bob the lower. The former measured six feet and an inch in his stockings, and, without a single pound of cumbrous flesh about him, weighed a hundred and eighty. The latter was an inch shorter than his rival, and ten pounds lighter; but he was much the most active of the two. In running and jumping he had but few equals in the county; and in wrestling, not one. In other respects they were nearly equal. Both were admirable specimens of human nature in its finest form. Billy’s victories had generally been achieved by the tremendous power of his blows, one of which had often proved decisive of his battles; Bob’s, by his adroitness in bringing his adversary to the ground. This advantage he had never failed to gain at the onset, and, when gained, he never failed to improve it to the defeat of his adversary. These points of difference have involved the reader in a doubt as to the probable issue of a contest between them. It was not so, however, with the two battalions. Neither had the least difficulty in determining the point by the most natural and irresistible deductions á priori; and though, by the same course of reasoning, they arrived at directly opposite conclusions, neither felt its confidence in the least shaken by this circumstance. The upper battalion swore “that Billy only wanted one lick at him to knock his heart, liver, and lights out of him; and if he got two at him, he’d knock him into a cocked hat.” The lower battalion retorted, “that he wouldn’t have time to double his fist before Bob would put his head where his feet ought to be; and that, by the time he hit the ground, the meat would fly off his face so quick, that people would think it was shook off by the fall.” These disputes often led to the argumentum ad hominem, but with such equality of success on both sides as to leave the main question just where they found it. They usually ended, however, in the common way, with a bet; and many a quart of old Jamaica (whiskey had not then supplanted rum) were staked upon the issue. Still, greatly to the annoyance of the curious, Billy and Bob continued to be good friends.
Now there happened to reside in the county just alluded to a little fellow by the name of Ransy Sniffle: a sprout of Richmond, who, in his earlier days, had fed copiously upon red clay and blackberries. This diet had given to Ransy a complexion that a corpse would have disdained to own, and an abdominal rotundity that was quite unprepossessing. Long spells of the fever and ague, too, in Ransy’s youth, had conspired with clay and blackberries to throw him quite out of the order of nature. His shoulders were fleshless and elevated; his head large and flat; his neck slim and translucent; and his arms, hands, fingers, and feet were lengthened out of all proportion to the rest of his frame. His joints were large and his limbs small; and as for flesh, he could not, with propriety, be said to have any. Those parts which nature usually supplies with the most of this article – the calves of the legs, for example – presented in him the appearance of so many well-drawn blisters. His height was just five feet nothing; and his average weight in blackberry season, ninety-five. I have been thus particular in describing him, for the purpose of showing what a great matter a little fire sometimes kindleth. There was nothing on this earth which delighted Ransy so much as a fight. He never seemed fairly alive except when he was witnessing, fomenting, or talking about a fight. Then, indeed, his deep-sunken gray eye assumed something of a living fire, and his tongue acquired a volubility that bordered upon eloquence. Ransy had been kept for more than a year in the most torturing suspense as to the comparative manhood of Billy Stallings and Bob Durham. He had resorted to all his usual expedients to bring them in collision, and had entirely failed. He had faithfully reported to Bob all that had been said by the people in the upper battalion “agin him,” and “he was sure Billy Stallings started it. He heard Billy say himself to Jim Brown, that he could whip him, or any other man in his battalion;” and this he told to Bob; adding, “Dod darn his soul, if he was a little bigger, if he’d let any man put upon his battalion in such a way.” Bob replied, “If he (Stallings) thought so, he’d better come and try it.” This Ransy carried to Billy, and delivered it with a spirit becoming his own dignity and the character of his battalion, and with a colouring well calculated to give it effect. These, and many other schemes which Ransy laid for the gratification of his curiosity, entirely failed of their object. Billy and Bob continued friends, and Ransy had began to lapse into the most tantalizing and hopeless despair, when a circumstance occurred which led to a settlement of the long disputed question.
It is said that a hundred gamecocks will live in perfect harmony together if you do not put a hen with them; and so it would have been with Billy and Bob had there been no women in the world. But there were women in the world, and from them each of our heroes had taken to himself a wife. The good ladies were no strangers to the prowess of their husbands, and, strange as it may seem, they presumed a little upon it.
The two battalions had met at the Courthouse upon a regimental parade. The two champions were there, and their wives had accompanied them. Neither knew the other’s lady, nor were the ladies known to each other. The exercises of the day were just over, when Mrs. Stallings and Mrs. Durham stepped simultaneously into the store of Zephaniah Atwater, from “down east.”
“Have you any Turkey-red?” said Mrs. S.
“Have you any curtain calico?” said Mrs. D. at the same moment.
“Yes, ladies,” said Mr. Atwater, “I have both.”
“Then help me first,” said Mrs. D., “for I’m in a hurry.”
“I’m in as great a hurry as she is,” said Mrs. S., “and I’ll thank you to help me first.”
“And, pray, who are you, madam?” continued the other.
“Your betters, madam,” was the reply.
At this moment Billy Stallings stepped in. “Come,” said he, “Nancy, let’s be going; it’s getting late.”
“I’d a been gone half an hour ago,” she replied, “if it hadn’t been for that impudent huzzy.”
“Who do you call an impudent huzzy, you nasty, good-for-nothing, snaggle-toothed gaub of fat, you?” returned Mrs. D.
“Look here, woman,” said Billy, “have you got a husband here? If you have, I’ll lick him till he learns to teach you better manners, you sassy heifer you.” At this moment something was seen to rush out of the store as if ten thousand hornets were stinging it; crying, “Take care – let me go – don’t hold me – where’s Bob Durham?” It was Ransy Sniffle, who had been listening in breathless delight to all that had passed.
“Yonder’s Bob, setting on the Courthouse steps,” cried one. “What’s the matter?”
“Don’t talk to me!” said Ransy. “Bob Durham, you’d better go long yonder, and take care of your wife. They’re playing h-l with her there, in Zeph Atwater’s store. Dod eternally darn my soul, if any man was to talk to my wife as Bill Stallions is talking to yours, if I wouldn’t drive blue blazes through him in less than no time.”
Bob sprang to the store in a minute, followed by a hundred friends; for the bully of a county never wants friends.
“Bill Stallions,” said Bob, as he entered, “what have you been saying to my wife?”
“Is that your wife?” inquired Billy, obviously much surprised and a little disconcerted.
“Yes, she is, and no man shall abuse her, I don’t care who he is.”
“Well,” rejoined Billy, “it an’t worth while to go over it; I’ve said enough for a fight: and, if you’ll step out, we’ll settle it!”
“Billy,” said Bob, “are you for a fair fight?”
“I am,” said Billy. “I’ve heard much of your manhood, and I believe I’m a better man than you are. If you will go into a ring with me, we can soon settle the dispute.”
“Choose your friends,” said Bob; “make your ring, and I’ll be in with mine as soon as you will.”
They both stepped out, and began to strip very deliberately, each battalion gathering round its champion, except Ransy, who kept himself busy in a most honest endeavour to hear and see all that transpired in both groups at the same time. He ran from one to the other in quick succession; peeped here and listened there; talked to this one, then to that one, and then to himself; squatted under one’s legs and another’s arms and, in the short interval between stripping and stepping into the ring, managed to get himself trod on by half of both battalions. But Ransy was not the only one interested upon this occasion; the most intense interest prevailed everywhere. Many were the conjectures, doubts, oaths, and imprecations uttered while the parties were preparing for the combat. All the knowing ones were consulted as to the issue, and they all agreed, to a man, in one of two opinions: either that Bob would flog Billy, or Billy would flog Bob. We must be permitted, however, to dwell for a moment upon the opinion of Squire Thomas Loggins; a man who, it was said, had never failed to predict the issue of a fight in all his life. Indeed, so unerring had he always proved in this regard, that it would have been counted the most obstinate infidelity to doubt for a moment after he had delivered himself. Squire Loggins was a man who said but little, but that little was always delivered with the most imposing solemnity of look and cadence. He always wore the aspect of profound thought, and you could not look at him without coming to the conclusion that he was elaborating truth from its most intricate combinations.
“Uncle Tommy,” said Sam Reynolds, “you can tell us all about it if you will; how will the fight go?”
The question immediately drew an anxious group around the squire. He raised his teeth slowly from the head of his walking cane, on which they had been resting; pressed his lips closely and thoughtfully together; threw down his eyebrows, dropped his chin, raised his eyes to an angle of twenty-three degrees, paused about half a minute, and replied, “Sammy, watch Robert Durham close in the beginning of the fight; take care of William Stallions in the middle of it; and see who has the wind at the end.” As he uttered the last member of the sentence, he looked slyly at Bob’s friends, and winked very significantly; whereupon they rushed, with one accord, to tell Bob what Uncle Tommy had said. As they retired, the squire turned to Billy’s friends, and said, with a smile, “Them boys think I mean that Bob will whip.”
Here the other party kindled into joy, and hastened to inform Billy how Bob’s friends had deceived themselves as to Uncle Tommy’s opinion. In the mean time the principals and seconds were busily employed in preparing themselves for the combat. The plan of attack and defence, the manner of improving the various turns of the conflict, “the best mode of saving wind,” &c., &c., were all discussed and settled. At length Billy announced himself ready, and his crowd were seen moving to the centre of the Courthouse Square; he and his five seconds in the rear. At the same time, Bob’s party moved to the same point, and in the same order. The ring was now formed, and for a moment the silence of death reigned through both battalions. It was soon interrupted, however, by the cry of “Clear the way!” from Billy’s seconds; when the ring opened in the centre of the upper battalion (for the order of march had arranged the centre of the two battalions on opposite sides of the circle), and Billy stepped into the ring from the east, followed by his friends. He was stripped to the trousers, and exhibited an arm, breast, and shoulders of the most tremendous portent. His step was firm, daring, and martial; and as he bore his fine form a little in advance of his friends, an involuntary burst of triumph broke from his side of the ring; and, at the same moment, an uncontrollable thrill of awe ran along the whole curve of the lower battalion.
“Look at him!” was heard from his friends; “just look at him.”
“Ben, how much you ask to stand before that man two seconds!”
“Pshaw, don’t talk about it! Just thinkin’ about it ‘s broke three o’ my ribs a’ready!”
“What’s Bob Durham going to do when Billy let’s that arm loose upon him?” “God bless your soul, he’ll think thunder and lightning a mint julip to it.”
“Oh, look here, men, go take Bill Stallions out o’ that ring, and bring in Phil Johnson’s stud horse, so that Durham may have some chance! I don’t want to see the man killed right away.”
These and many other like expressions, interspersed thickly with oaths of the most modern coinage, were coming from all points of the upper battalion, while Bob was adjusting girth of his pantaloons, which walking had discovered not to be exactly right. It was just fixed to his mind, his foes becoming a little noisy, and his friends a little uneasy at his delay, when Billy called out, with a smile of some meaning, “Where’s the bully of the lower battalion? I’m getting tired of waiting.”
“Here he is,” said Bob, lighting, as it seemed, from the clouds into the ring, for he had actually bounded clear of the head of Ransy Sniffle into the circle. His descent was quite as imposing as Billy’s entry, and excited the same feelings, but in opposite bosoms.
Voices of exultation now rose on his side.
“Where did he come from?”
“Why,” said one of his seconds (all having just entered), “we were girting him up, about a hundred yards out yonder, when he heard Billy ask for the bully, and he fetched a leap over the Courthouse and went out of sight; but I told them to come on, they’d find him here.”
Here the lower battalion burst into a peal of laughter, mingled with a look of admiration, which seemed to denote their entire belief of what they had heard.
“Boys, widen the ring, so as to give him room to jump.”
“Oh, my little flying wild-cat, hold him if you can! and, when you get him fast, hold lightning next.”
“Ned, what do you think he’s made of?”
“Steel springs and chicken-hawk, God bless you!”
“Gentlemen,” said one of Bob’s seconds, “I understand it is to be a fair fight; catch as catch can, rough and tumble: no man touch till one or the other halloos.”
“That’s the rule,” was the reply from the other side.
“Are you ready?”
“We are ready.”
“Then blaze away, my game cocks!”
At the word, Bob dashed at his antagonist at full speed; and Bill squared himself to receive him with one of his most fatal blows. Making his calculation, from Bob’s velocity, of the time when he would come within striking distance, he let drive with tremendous force. But Bob’s onset was obviously planned to avoid this blow; for, contrary to all expectations, he stopped short just out of arm’s reach, and, before Billy could recover his balance, Bob had him “all under-hold.” The next second, sure enough, “found Billy’s head where his feet ought to be.” How it was done no one could tell; but, as if by supernatural power, both Billy’s feet were thrown full half his own height in the air, and he came down with a force that seemed to shake the earth. As he struck the ground, commingled shouts, screams, and yells burst from the lower battalion, loud enough to be heard for miles. “Hurra, my little hornet!” “Save him!” “Feed him!” “Give him the Durham physic till his stomach turns!” Billy was no sooner down than Bob was on him, and lending him awful blows about the face and breast. Billy made two efforts to rise by main strength, but failed. “Lord bless you, man, don’t try to get up! Lay still and take it! you bleege to have it!”
Billy now turned his face suddenly to the ground, and rose upon his hands and knees. Bob jerked up both his hands and threw him on his face. He again recovered his late position, of which Bob endeavoured to deprive him as before; but, missing one arm, he failed, and Billy rose. But he had scarcely resumed his feet before they flew up as before, and he came again to the ground. “No fight, gentlemen!” cried Bob’s friends; “the man can’t stand up! Bouncing feet are bad things to fight in.” His fall, however, was this time comparatively light; for, having thrown his right arm round Bob’s neck, he carried his head down with him. This grasp, which was obstinately maintained, prevented Bob from getting on him, and they lay head to head, seeming, for a time, to do nothing. Presently they rose, as if by mutual consent; and, as they rose, a shout burst from both battalions. “Oh, my lark!” cried the east, “has he foxed you? Do you begin to feel him! He’s only beginning to fight; he ain’t got warm yet.”
“Look yonder!” cried the west; “didn’t I tell you so! He hit the ground so hard it jarred his nose off. Now ain’t he a pretty man as he stands? He shall have my sister Sal just for his pretty looks. I want to get in the breed of them sort o’ men, to drive ugly out of my kinfolks.”
I looked, and saw that Bob had entirely lost his left ear, and a large piece from his left cheek. His right eye was a little discoloured, and the blood flowed profusely from his wounds.
Bill presented a hideous spectacle. About a third of his nose, at the lower extremity, was bit off, and his face so swelled and bruised that it was difficult to discover in it anything of the human visage, much more the fine features which he carried into the ring.
They were up only long enough for me to make the foregoing discoveries, when down they went again, precisely as before. They no sooner touched the ground than Bill relinquished his hold upon Bob’s neck. In this he seemed to all to have forfeited the only advantage which put him upon an equality with his adversary. But the movement was soon explained. Bill wanted this arm for other purposes than defence; and he had made arrangements whereby he knew that he could make it answer these purposes; for, when they rose again, he had the middle finger of Bob’s left hand in his mouth. He was now secure from Bob’s annoying trips; and he began to lend his adversary tremendous blows, every one of which was hailed by a shout from his friends. “Bullets!” ” Hoss-kicking!” “Thunder!” “That’ll do for his face; now feel his short ribs, Billy!”
I now considered the contest settled. I deemed it impossible for any human being to withstand for five seconds the loss of blood which issued from Bob’s ear cheek, nose, and finger, accompanied with such blows as he was receiving. Still he maintained the conflict, and gave blow for blow with considerable effect. But the blows of each became slower and weaker after the first three or four; and it became obvious that Bill wanted the room which Bob’s finger occupied for breathing. He would therefore, probably, in a short time, have let it go, had not Bob anticipated his politeness by jerking away his hand, and making him a present of the finger. He now seized Bill again, and brought him to his knees, but he recovered. He again brought him to his knees, and he again recovered. A third effort, however, brought him down, and Bob on top of him. These efforts seemed to exhaust the little remaining strength of both; and they lay, Bill undermost and Bob across his breast, motionless, and panting for breath. After a short pause, Bob gathered his hand full of dirt and sand, and was in the act of grinding it in his adversary’s eyes, when Bill cried “ENOUGH!” Language cannot describe the scene that followed; the shouts, oaths, frantic gestures, taunts, replies, and little fights, and therefore I shall not attempt it. The champions were borne off by their seconds and washed; when many a bleeding wound and ugly bruise was discovered on each which no eye had seen before.
Many had gathered round Bob, and were in various ways congratulating and applauding him, when a voice from the centre of the circle cried out, “Boys, hush and listen to me!” It proceeded from Squire Loggins, who had made his way to Bob’s side, and had gathered his face up into one of its most flattering and intelligible expressions. All were obedient to the squire’s command. “Gentlemen,” continued he, with a most knowing smile, “is – Sammy – Reynold – in – this – company – of – gentlemen?”
“Yes,” said Sam, “here I am.”
“Sammy,” said the squire, winking to the company, and drawing the head of his cane to his mouth with an arch smile as he closed, “I – wish – you – to tell – cousin – Bobby – and – these – gentlemen here present – what – your – Uncle – Tommy – said – before – the – fight – began?”
“Oh! get away, Uncle Tom,” said Sam, smiling (the squire winked), “you don’t know nothing about fighting.” (The squire winked again.) “All you know about it is how it’ll begin, how it’ll go on, how it’ll end; that’s all. Cousin Bob, when you going to fight again, just go to the old man, and let him tell you all about it. If he can’t, don’t ask nobody else nothing about it, I tell you.”
The squire’s foresight was complimented in many ways by the by-standers; and he retired, advising “the boys to be at peace, as fighting was a bad business.”
Durham and Stallings kept their beds for several weeks, and did not meet again for two months. When they met, Billy stepped up to Bob and offered his hand saying, “Bobby, you’ve licked me a fair fight; but you wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been in the wrong. I oughn’t to have treated your wife as I did; and I felt so through the whole fight; and it sort o’ cowed me.”
“Well, Billy,” said Bob, “let’s be friends. Once in the fight, when you had my finger in your mouth, and was pealing me in the face and breast, I was going to halloo; but I thought of Betsy, and knew the house would be too hot for me if I got whipped when fighting for her, after always whipping when I fought for myself.”
“Now that’s what I always love to see,” said a by-stander. “It’s true I brought about the fight, but I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t o’ been on account of Miss (Mrs.) Durham. But dod etarnally darn my soul, if I ever could stand by and see any woman put upon, much less Miss Durham. If Bobby hadn’t been there, I’d o’ took it up myself, be darned if I wouldn’t, even if I’d o’ got whipped for it. But we’re all friends now.” The reader need hardly be told that this was Ransy Sniffle.
Thanks to the Christian religion, to schools, colleges, and benevolent associations, such scenes of barbarism and cruelty as that which I have been just describing are now of rare occurrence, though they may still be occasionally met with in some of the new counties. Wherever they prevail, they are a disgrace to that community. The peace-officers who countenance them deserve a place in the Penitentiary.
This chapter was taken from Longstreet’s famous collection of short stories, Georgia Scenes, published in 1835.