Sheriff John Nottingham of Lofton County, VA thought he was having just another perfect day in beautiful early October 2020.
The brutal heat of the summer in southern Virginia had passed, leaving a pleasant warmth as the gallant asters and goldenrod made their last great stands, covering the fallow fields and the meadows with a carpet of purple, white, blue, and gold in which the bees made their last great effort before winter.
The good folks at Honey Heights Plantation were all smiling, knowing the deep, dark late honey that would soon come in … the Slocum family of county fame had a scion that, after slavery, had turned to the then-new art of Langstroth-style beekeeping. Patrick Slocum had converted the first floor of his palatial 18th-century plantation house into a great tourist attraction of a general store, and had never looked back. The sheriff had stopped by the Honey Heights store to get some of the last bottles of golden spring honey and enjoy looking at the old landmark of Southern glory past.
Ah, the comforting old landmarks … Sheriff Nottingham was 67, and knew his leadership as sheriff had preserved the old things, the old traditions, and the old people of the county. He had put on his mask, and the store, having obeyed the county rules to the letter, had put up a big tent outside to greet its customers and show samples of wares that the shopkeepers would go back and fetch at the customer's purchasing request.
“Ain't no reason that none of us should die of this here heavy flu – especially not the keepers of our fine traditions,” the sheriff always said.
Sheriff Nottingham did not realize yet that his generation of “good old boys” with their pretense at cultural and racial superiority had raised two generations of younger men who saw themselves left out of the past and of the future. The leadership and money in Lofton County were much, much older on average than in the rest of Virginia, and jealous of their positions. They had no plans to move aside or share the wealth with the younger men, and the younger men saw that even before Covid-19 had shut down the world.
The old leadership of Lofton County, knowing the threat that Covid-19 was to them, had put together the strictest public safety rules in Virginia. The sheriff had ruthlessly enforced those rules, especially on working-age and young people. He was known to be old in brutality, as the local Black and Latino communities had been saying for decades … but that fact had not even dented his chances at re-election, although he had a younger, vigorous opponent for the first time in ten years.
Captain H.F. Lee of Big Loft, VA's police force was a solid challenger. It said something to Virginians when it looked like old General R.E. Lee had gotten down off his statue horse, returned to his middle forties, and come out against anyone. Yet modern Lee was incorruptible even in ways in which his uncle was not – the captain, seeing how his uncle had fallen, had made a lifetime of not investing in the permitted sins of his culture. Therein lay the reason that Captain Lee was trailing in the polls by a large margin: Lofton County loved its favorite corruptions like a hog loves mud.
However, as Sheriff Nottingham walked down the road from Honey Heights to his car, it was not mud that was on the mind of certain younger men of the county, but blood – the sheriff's blood. Those men realized they had inherited the treatment they thought was only to be inflicted on those they thought to be inferior, and that, combined with the resentment they had of the older men of the county, was enough to move them to a non-political way to get a new sheriff.
The sheriff thought it was his crowd of people with their Confederate flags waving, country music blaring from their big trucks, just driving up the road. He thought they had just stopped to acknowledge their sheriff, who had been keeping them safe since they were in diapers.
He was right.
“We've got the old coot now!”
But then again, no.
“Halt! Put down your weapons and get your hands up!”
It was Captain Henry Fitzhugh Lee along with old Captain Angler from Smallwood, VA, cutting across the field.
“I've been trying to call you, John!” the old captain snarled. “You need to keep your cell phone on – one of these young fools' girlfriends blabbed out what they were going to do to you today to my granddaughter!”
Sheriff Nottingham was now disoriented. Angler had called Lee – the one man with the most to gain if the sheriff were knocked off – and Lee had come into with Angler as reinforcement into what still was a hopeless situation?
Yet new Lee was like old Lee, who understood the psychology of his opponents.
“Stand down,” he thundered. “Put your weapons down and your hands up.”
“You and what army are going to make us!”
“Oh, they're here, right here in this daisy cutter.”
It was then that everybody realized what weapon Captain Lee was holding – he, a retired colonel, had dipped into his “army surplus.”
“I know some of y'all imagine having one of these,” he said sweetly. “Anybody want to see how it actually works? Do I have a volunteer – or 50?”
Nobody volunteered. They put their weapons down and their hands up, just in time for the sheriff's deputies to catch up.
Sheriff Nottingham watched in shock until Captain Angler grabbed his arm.
“I'm driving you to hide out in my rental home in Shortport by the river, John.”
“But my campaign – can you imagine how Lee –?”
“Can you imagine yourself dead, John, with your wife? They went to your house first!”
Reality hit the sheriff like a ton of bricks, and he went with Captain Angler.
Later that week, the sheriff was shocked when Captain Lee called to inquire about his well-being.
“Lee – Lee – what are you doing? You would have been the only man left on the ballot! You should be out crowing about how I needed you to save me!”
“Sir, I am not you, nor am I your younger mirror.”
Sheriff Nottingham's assumed-dead conscience leaped up like a cat, and got his tongue.
“It is my prayer that now that you have tasted the hatred you have fostered, and now understand what others have gone through because of that hatred, you will be a better sheriff for the remainder of your time in office. As for the election, if I cannot prove myself superior to you as a candidate without you being under my feet – or six feet under, as the case would have been – I don't want the position. By the grace of God, I am not bound by the principles that you live by and would have died by, sir.”
After a long, long time of silence …
“Uh … uh … thank you for calling, Captain Lee.”
“You're welcome. Be well and stay safe, sir. See you at the polls.”
Sheriff Nottingham sat down heavily on the sofa too deep for his old knees, but he needed the view through the big bay window to have something for his mind to hold to.
“The kids who are supposed to take up the old charge we raised them for tried to kill me – but Lee, while I'm killing him in politics, saves my life and calls to see if I'm all right? What? What?”
The sun glanced with a smile off the Roanoke River, revealing the gold and blue water and all the colors of the fall in the trees roundabout to be a brand new world, a brand new world in which John Nottingham, at 67 years old, had been graced to arrive so he could reconsider his whole life.