When my great uncle, John Calhoun Bell, was county attorney in western Colorado, the local doctor challenged him to a duel. It was 1876. Friends assured Uncle John it was a bluff, so he accepted the challenge. But the sawbones wasn’t bluffing. The code of the west called for double barreled shotguns at twenty yards.

Like other men in my mother’s family, Uncle John was gentle and thoughtful and witty, a most unlikely duelist. Nevertheless, with great fear and trembling, he showed up at Dead Man’s Hill on the appointed Sunday morning. Armed lawyer and armed doctor paced off ten yards each in opposite directions, then turned and fired. Neither fell. Their seconds had emptied all the buckshot from the shells. Uncle John went on to become a judge, serve five terms in Congress, and lived into his eighties.

The aggrieved doctor should have sued Uncle John. Dueling was against the law on the Colorado frontier, as it is everywhere today. Civility, it is said, has moved our grievances from Dead Man’s Hill to the courtroom. But the courtroom can’t guarantee civility. Recently, a judge, losing patience with opposing lawyers locked in a nasty personal battle before him, growled, “This case makes me lament the demise of dueling…but I cannot order a duel and thus reduce the number of counsel I have to put up with!”

Duels between or among families we call feuds. America’s most famous feuding families, the Hatfields and McCoys, had intermarried. Today’s family courtroom feuds can be anything but civil. Except for the shotguns, they are bleak reminders of Dead Man’s Hill. If the law allowed, an impatient judge might send the parties home to settle their differences in an old fashioned feud.

My job is to prevent courtroom feuds over money between family members. “It’s not the money”, both sides insist. Later on I hear, “Well…it’s not the money…altogether.” Then what is it, other than the money, that’s worth ripping and tearing precious family relationships built by generations of patient nurture? I call that something other than money, a “flashpoint”.

Flashpoints start arguments about money, generate conflicts, provoke lawsuits.

Like lightning, some flashpoints are beyond our control…but we can take precautions. Someone in the older generation, now dead, shortchanged a sister, whose children want to square things. How do they right the wrong without unhinging the family?

Like embers, some flashpoints will burn away and cause no harm. Someone in the older generation, now dead, shortchanged a sister, who has forgiven or forgotten, or let it pass. Her children decide not to go there. Like glowing coals in an unattended campfire, some flashpoints smolder, waiting for the wind to blow them into the woods. Flashpoints smolder in people — who are dissatisfied, feel undervalued, left out, unappreciated, disappointed, misunderstood. Flashpoints smolder in relationships — rivalries, jealousies, estrangements, between people who don’t speak. Flashpoints smolder in circumstances — poor health, accidents, misfortune.

A heads up: Families defuse feuds best. Empty family buckshot if you can. Don’t leave family campfires unattended. All too often, it’s lawyers’ wind that blows smoldering flashpoints into the woods.

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