American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Saving One's Enemy

In a small town in Kentucky there lived two men who were bitter enemies. One of them, whose name was Rufus Combs, was a blacksmith. The other was a prominent lawyer named Richard Godson. Both were politicians; they had been rivals in many a hard contest, and they hated each other most intensely. They would not speak to each other on the street; they would not both enter or remain in the same room; each went armed to defend himself from the other. Nobody knew the first cause of their unfriendliness; and no one remembered when it had begun.

Mr. Godson had, somewhere on his premises, a vault in which was a gas-making machine. He suspected that there was a leak in the machine, and one day he entered the vault in order to find it. There was indeed a leak, and the vault itself was filled with the escaping gas. Before Mr. Godson could climb out into the open air he was overcome, and fell back senseless upon the floor of the vault.

He lay there for some time before he was discovered. Then an alarm was given, and a number of the villagers hurried to the place. The entrance to the vault was by a small hole cut in the roof; and Mr. Godson's friends, looking down, could see him lying helpless upon the floor.

They knew that the vault was full of gas, and that no one could enter it except at the risk of his life. So they hesitated, and began to talk of plans to reach Mr. Godson without taking any risks upon themselves. One suggested one think, one another; but nothing was done, and the man below was growing weaker every moment.

The blacksmith, Mr. Combs, was at home. He had lately met with an accident and was scarcely able to leave the house. He heard the confusion on the street. He saw men running towards Mr. Godson's; he saw the anxiety in their faces.

"What is the matter?" he asked of one who was passing.

The man told him briefly.

"Give me my hat," he said. "I must go over to Dick Godson's."

As he went along the street, men nudged each other, and one said, "I reckon he doesn't care much what happens to Godson."

He pushed his way through the crowd that was gathered about the vault and looked down the narrow opening at the prostrate form of his enemy. He did not hesitate a moment. He lowered himself through the opening and seized the unconscious man around the waist. Three times he lifted him up until the hands of the friends outside could almost reach him. Twice his strength failed him, and Mr. Godson fell back upon the floor. But the third time the helpers above were more prompt. They grasped the collar of the stricken man and held on; they drew him up into the open air; they gave him restoratives, and soon saw that he was beginning to recover.

Then some one remembered that Mr. Combs was still in the vault. He was so nearly overcome by the gas that he could not climb out unaided. Helping hands were reached down, and he was drawn out, as limp and unconscious as his enemy, whom he had saved.

When at length he recovered from his swoon, he looked around anxiously and asked, "How's Dick Godson?"

They told him that Godson was alive and doing well. "Then, thank Heaven," was his response.

A few days afterward, some curious neighbor said to him, "Mr. combs, why was it that you risked your life to save your bitterest enemy?"

"Well, it was this way," he answered. "Dick Godson is a good hater and a strong man, and I couldn't bear to see him die like a rat in a hole. And I reckon, now, that he and I will be as good friends hereafter as we have been bitter enemies heretofore."

The commissioners of the Hero Fund adjudged this to be an extraordinary example of unselfish heroism, and they awarded to Mr. Combs not only a silver medal, but fifteen hundred dollars in cash.