The Unvanquished is sometimes called a Bildungsroman, which is basically a coming-of-age novel (see the "Genre" section for more on that). And in this case, the person who's Bildung (who's coming of age) is Bayard Sartoris.
At the start of the novel he's a tiny Southern gentleman who, up until the Civil War, could have reasonably expected to inherit lots of land and slaves from his dear old dad and be a pretty big deal around Jefferson, Mississippi.
So when every single thing in his life falls apart (the South losing the Civil War, his family losing their house and ending up all over kingdom come), Bayard's got to get a new perspective on what he thinks his life might be like. He's also got to grow up and start making tough decisions, which is why we call this a Bildungsroman.
So. We find out at the beginning of the novel that Bayard is twelve years old (1.1.7), but he really does act like a little kid. He and Ringo build a "living map" of Vicksburg, made of "a handful of chips from the woodpile and the River a trench scraped into the packed earth with the point of a hoe" (1.1.1); basically, what he's describing is a Civil War sandcastle.
The thing is, even for all this child's play, Bayard is constantly making references to the war that is raging around them, even if it doesn't exactly touch them yet. He plays at war and loves to hear stories about the battles that his father tells. But what he sees is the cool, toy-soldier action. He doesn't understand yet how destructive and ugly war can be.
We really get a picture of how small Bayard is at the beginning of the novel through his description of his father: "the little man (who in conjunction with the horse looked exactly the right size because that was as big as he needed to look and—to twelve years old—bigger than most folks could hope to look)" (1.2.1). That note reminds us that a grown-up looks a lot bigger to a twelve-year-old than to other grown-ups. Especially if they're seen as war heros.
That little-man-who-seems-big will be Bayard's inspiration for most of his coming of age, as his dad is a sort of a hero to him. He is always trying to fill his shoes because John is almost always gone, leaving Bayard with his grandmother and the slaves.
When Bayard decides that the Yankee threat is getting too close for comfort, he declares that he and Ringo will have to guard the house. He asks Ringo:
"Are you scared?"
"I aint very," he said. "I just wish Marse John was here."
"Well he's not," I said. "It'll have to be us." (1.3.29-31)
Filling in for Marse (a.k.a. Master) John is a big responsibility, and Bayard tries to act brave, like he imagines his father would. Courage in the face of violence is a big part of adulthood in The Unvanquished, and Bayard's got that model in mind from the start.
There's a rough moment where Bayard's growing up seems to happen all at once. It's the last time he sees Granny. He knows he shouldn't let her go on the dangerous mission, but she tells him to stay: "'You and Ringo look like men,' she said. 'They wont hurt a woman'" (4.4.2). It's funny, her choice of words. It's like she considers the boys to be children, but recognizes that others might consider them to be men.
When she wants to leave to deal with Grumby, Bayard tries to stop her:
"Then you shant go," I said. "I'm stronger than you are; I'll hold you." I held her; her arm felt little and light and dry as a stick. But it wasn't that: her size and appearance had no more to do with it than it had in her dealings with the Yankees; she just turned and looked at me and then I began to cry. I would be sixteen years old before another year was out, yet I sat there in the wagon, crying. (4.4.3)
The difference between physical manhood (Bayard's stronger than his Granny) and emotional childhood (he cries like a wittle baby) is the kicker. Bayard's coming to the turning point, when he won't be allowed to cry anymore because he will be expected to not only look like a man, but act like one too.
The novel ends with Bayard growing up all the way. When his father, that bigger-than-life figure, finally bites the dust (no disrespect), he's got to take his place as the man of the house. And he does so with both words and actions.
When he gets home, his father's buddies are there and offer to off the offender if Bayard isn't up to it:
"You're young, just a boy, you aint had any experience in this kind of thing. Besides, you got them two ladies in the house to think about. He would understand, all right."
"I reckon I can attend to it," I said.
"Sure," he said; there was no surprise, nothing at all, in his voice because he had already rehearsed this: "I reckon we all knew that's what you would say." (7.3.4-6)
George Wyatt, John's friend, gives Bayard the chance to claim he's too young to do the manly thing (he's 24 years old at this point—that's old enough to be CEO of a start-up, these days). Of course that would be totally unacceptable, and Bayard has to declare that he's a man by saying he'll take care of the revenge.
There's something to see in the way that Bayard "attends to it." He doesn't follow the traditional manly path of blowing the other guy's brains out. Wyatt's reaction to Bayard's plan, which basically involves walking into the office unarmed and letting the other guy shoot at him, shows us that Bayard has grown up into a new breed of Southern gentleman:
"You aint done anything to be ashamed of. I wouldn't have done it that way, myself. I'd a shot him at once, anyway. But that's your way or you wouldn't have done it." (7.4.23)
So, Bayard is a man, and he has earned the respect of his peers because he isn't a coward.
However, he has turned away from the violence that has been part-and-parcel with the behavior of all the adults in his life up until now. He's grown up and taken his father's place, but he's going to do things a little differently.
When we see Bayard's relationship with Ringo we can't help but ask… what, exactly, is their relationship? If there were an "It's Complicated" button for pseudo-family members, that's what they'd have to press. The boys are the same age and they have shared a room their whole lives just like brothers, even if Bayard gets the bed and Ringo sleeps on a pallet on the floor.
We do hear that Ringo's father is Simon (1.2.6) but since he is barely mentioned in the novel, and since Ringo is treated like a part of the family (almost), we have to ask ourselves whether John might not have been behind Ringo's conception, if you know what we mean.
After all, the practice of a white master fathering children with slave women was pretty widespread in the Old South. (There are even testimonies on the sexual abuse of slaves—pretty rough stuff.) And of course, the kids who resulted from those unions were not recognized as part of the household: they were slaves like their mothers. But the special place that Ringo has makes us wonder if he's not Bayard's brother.
So what are we talking about? Let's present our evidence for the secret, half-brother relationship between Bayard and Ringo.
When Bayard and Ringo are playing with their map of Vicksburg, we get a quick-and-dirty rundown of the family tree of the Sartorises' slaves: "Then suddenly Loosh was standing there, watching us. He was Joby's son and Ringo's uncle" (1.1.1). So we find out that Joby's the grandfather, Loosh is his son, and Ringo is his grandson and Loosh's nephew.
So where's Ringo's dad? "So Simon went with Father; he was still in Tennessee with the army" (1.2.6). Of course, that explanation comes later, and is very brief compared to the mentions the other slaves get, making Simon a sort of an afterthought. Which maybe he is as a stand-in dad, too.
Bayard says that "Ringo and I had been born in the same month and had both fed at the same breast and had slept together and eaten together for so long that Ringo called Granny 'Granny' just like I did" (1.1.21). It's clear that the boys are different races, and if they're born in the same month they obviously have different mothers (duh, they're not twins).
But they have grown up as though they were brothers, sharing everything, including a grandmother. And it's unlikely that all the slave boys, even if they were born the same time as Bayard, would get that sort of treatment.
If John is Ringo's father, and if he knows it, it must be really painful for him not to participate in avenging his death, which is the duty of the son. We can see this pain in his exchange with Bayard:
"Wait for me here," I said.
"I'm going with you," he said, not loud; we stood there under the still circumspect eyes and spoke quietly to one another like two conspirators. Then I saw the pistol, the outline of it inside his shirt, probably the one we had taken from Grumby that day we killed him.
"No you aint," I said." (7.4.7-9)
In their culture, everyone expects John's son to avenge his death; Bayard doesn't do it, but Ringo is prepared to. So either John was like a father to him, or…
None of this evidence proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bayard and Ringo are brothers, and we don't think Faulkner wants us to know. But the hint, the possibility, is always there, and the unfairness that one son would be treated so differently than the other just drives home the fundamental injustice of slavery.