I stared at the bottle. I promised myself I wouldn’t do this again but, like the useless lump of benighted flesh that I am, I went out and bought another one. This one would be the last; definitely the last. I know I’ve said it before, but I mean it this time. It had cost me everythin’, this stuff; my wife and kids, my job, my friends, and even my health. I wish I could say that it’d cost me my self-respect, but I lost that decades ago durin’ the war when I was so filled with hate that I forgot to see the humanity in anyone who didn’t agree with me. I was righteous.
I spent years blamin’ everyone else for everythin’; the night horrors, the flashbacks, and the uncontrollable bursts of temper, but I eventually had to face the truth. It was me. I hated who I was and what I had become. I was a man full of hate and devoid of self-responsibility. Everyone was to blame for the world’s ills but me; from the people who celebrated when the South’s economy collapsed with the abolition of slavery and the cost of war, to the carpetbaggers who swooped in to profit from the bargain prices. I was totally blind to the fact that I had acted in self-interest too; for what was best for me financially; to listenin’ to bellicose politicians and demagogic preachers to cherry pick the slogans and war cries which backed up my already hardened views. People who disagreed were dumb, worthless, and godless. Wasn’t slavery in the bible? Didn’t they deserve anythin’ they got in this life and the next? I was smart and educated, so surely I knew better than a dumb laborer. Wasn’t I righteous?
And I made sure they really got it. I swept down on them with a flamin’ sword of vengeance How had my hate grown to such a degree? It had started as irritation and mutterin’ under my breath at dissenters and had culminated in bein’ part of a splinter group from Quantrill’s raiders. We torched, stole, and violated. It was easy to think of them as a lower kind of human when men were fightin’ back; it became a little harder when I faced screamin’ and cursin’ women, scrappin’ like a wild cat caught in a trap, but it was the little ‘un who finally got me. I thought I was visitin’ the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation but ... it was impossible to look into those big blue orbs and not see the eyes of my very own precious Virginia. The injured innocence kicked me in the belly like a mule, and stripped me back to the bone. I climbed to my feet, wipin’ his mother’s blood from my jacket and saw him starin’ at me from the doorway like a little blond angel. He was completely still; I know now he was rooted to the spot in fear, but it seemed unworldly in the chaos goin’ on at the time. I still see that face every night in my dreams, before he turned and ran. I let him go, creeped out by the old eyes in a young face. They were the mirror which finally forced me to see what I’d become and the vortex of spiralin’ enmity in which I had spun a net of real evil. What kind of man does that to a little boy’s ma right in front of him? How can he claim to be righteous?
I gave up after that and went back to the farm, but I couldn’t take to that or the schoolteachin’, so joined the railroad. At least the speed gave me some excitement. My body craved the rush. There was nuthin’ normal about what was left of my mind, my brutalized mind flinched at the soft touch of gentle flesh and kind words. Whiskey numbed the angst until Margaret couldn’t take another excuse, another curse, or another blow. She up and left me, takin’ Virginia with her. More booze was the answer again. It wasn’t so great the next mornin’, but in the moment it made me feel righteous enough.
All those hangovers made me miss work. I got fired from the railroad and then from the place I tended bar; mostly because I tended to myself more than the customers. I was a drifter and a saddle tramp, takin’ anythin’ I could get to keep body and soul together. Lack of money helped me to kick the habit, or maybe it kicked me. I’ll never really know, but I hardly touched the stuff anymore. Not until I saw him. He was full-grown now, but I’d know those blue eyes anywhere, but the only question in them this time was when to strike. When you look right into a man’s soul while he’s examinin’ yours, it ain’t the flesh you recognize, it’s the spirit; and even though he moved like lion and wore a tied down gun, I could see his heart still bore righteous pain.
And I ain’t afraid to say he scared me. I know he saw me. That cold, blue stare pieced my very essence, releasin’ whatever strength I had left like so much water tricklin’ through graspin’ fingers. My memory went right back to the war, but this time I wasn’t caught up in righteous anger. I saw things through that kid’s eyes now that time and life had added distance and defeat. I was a ruttin’, bloodthirsty beast; unfit for the company of anyone or anythin’ but a bullet. Margaret was right to take Virginia away. Everyone was righteous but me.
My tremblin’ hand reached out and grasped the neck of the bottle. I knew he was comin’ for me. Did I want to be here when he arrived? Could I reap what I had sown? I pulled out the cork and raised it to my lips, tippin’ it back and pourin’ it down my worthless gullet until every last drop was drained. That should be enough to do the job. I put down the empty morphine bottle, already feelin’ the numbness spreadin’ across my foggy brain. Now for the whiskey. That should take me out of this veil of tears nicely and present me in front of my maker to do what I can to make amends. They say he forgives miserable sinners; now that would be righteous indeed – so why am I so afraid?