It was fast approaching ten o’clock in the morning, and sunlight flickered down through the trees, bouncing off the metal of the pistols’ barrels. The heat was close to unbearable. I had removed my cravat and waistcoat, and I had unbuttoned my shirt to the fifth button, rolling the sleeves to my elbows. It barely helped at all. This was just about the hottest day I could recall, and I had lived in Alabama my entire life.
While I remained fairly calm, my cousin was beside himself. He fidgeted with his shirt collar, and paced, staring at the ground as if he were trying to find something of interest in the dirt. The sweat stains on his shirt were quickly growing, which was strange to me, since he had always dealt with the heat very well.
I glanced over my shoulder at the other party, and they were preparing their weapons. Joshua Cromwell looked shaky and nervous, though nowhere near as bad as Ben. I looked back at my cousin, and he was gazing in the direction of the Kenswood plantation house.
All women had been banned from attending the event, and that included his wife. Miss Amelia was confined to the mansion, and she had fought tooth and nail, claiming that she had a right to see her husband win and prove that he deserved her hand in marriage. Ben had been the one to convince her that it was unseemly for a member of the fairer sex to do such things as watch dueling matches.
I turned my attention back to the other party, and saw that Cromwell was practicing his dueling technique. Ben had been practicing all morning, and it had nearly driven me out of my mind. His technique has always been excellent---better than mine, even--- so he had no real reason to be worried. Cromwell, on the other hand, was clumsy. He appeared to have pretty sharp aim and a steady firing arm, but his turn was all wrong. Very clumsy. I glanced at his second, a broad-shouldered, hulk of a man. He didn’t prove much better.
I waved my cousin over and leaned in close.
“Okay, Ben. These guys don’t look that tough. You can see for yourself that Cromwell is nothin’ but talk. And his second is even bulkier than he is. We have this in the bag, my man.”
Ben shook his head. “You don’t think they aren’t just doing that to throw us off?”
I gave my cousin a look. “I don’t know, Benny, but you’d better not practice anymore. At least, not where they can see you. It’s better to have the advantage walking into a duel and not have your opponent know about it.”
“But do I really have the advantage?”
Ben looked at me with earnest eyes, but my cynicism got the better of me, and I only pursed my lips and gave him a solid whack on the shoulder.
“You’ll be fine, buddy. Now get ready and call him out. Do your lady some justice.”
Ben smiled halfheartedly, and after inspecting his revolver one final time, he made his way to the spot where the duelers would start their pace-off. I stood near the fence next to Amelia’s father, Royce Kenswood. He had requested to attend since the duel was taking place on his property. Ben’s father, Douglas Kingsley, was in attendance as well, along with Cromwell’s younger brother, Victor.
Cromwell approached his spot, grinning maliciously, and he stood with his back to Ben’s.
“Ready to hand over your woman, Kingsley?” he taunted.
Ben let out a snort. He was either uninterested in the taunts, or he was too afraid to say anything back.
Royce stepped forward and held up his hands, but neither dueler looked at him. Ben stared at the sky, and Cromwell’s eyes were fixed on the ground before him.
“Each dueler is to take forty paces straight ahead, where each footfall is laid to the beat of my voice. Upon reaching forty, the duelers are to pivot, aim and fire, and the man whose aim is truest will win. When one man is shot, his second will resume the duel in his position. The fight will continue until both members of one party are dead.”
I saw Ben shudder at these words, and I said a silent prayer, wondering how I ever got myself caught up in this mess. Royce made his way back to his spot at the fence, and I noticed that Cromwell’s legs were shaking.
Hmm, I thought, not so uppity as you were yesterday, now are you?
* * * * *
There he was, drunk as a polecat, and swaggering toward the verandah. Cromwell had malice in his eyes and I could see it from where I stood, a hundred yards away on the lawn. Royce spotted him and went livid. His blue-green eyes widened in disbelief and anger, bulging from his head as if there were immense pressure on his brain. He clenched his fists so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and swiftly, he reached into his inside coat pocket and drew out a small handgun. He cocked it and fired once into the air.
The guests at the wedding reception gasped and murmured, turning to see the source of the gunshot. Cromwell tripped and fell, startled by the sound. He slowly looked up, only to find that Royce’s pistol was now pointed at his face.
“What are you doing here?” Royce demanded fiercely.
Cromwell, now feeling pretty low, slowly got to his feet.
“Well, sir, I . . . uh . . .”
He was stammering considerably, probably both from the alcohol he had consumed and his intense fear of Royce. He took a deep breath, placed a scowl on his face and started to reach into his pocket for his own gun.
Royce kept his gun level at Cromwell and said, “Don’t make another move, or I’ll shoot you!”
Cromwell froze, but he looked no less angry and not at all affronted.
“Look here, Kenswood, my father is the sheriff of this goddamned town, and---”
“Do I look like I care who your relations are?” Royce asked shrilly. “Just tell me why the hell you’re on my land uninvited!”
Cromwell, still attempting to right his wrongdoing, began to stammer a response to Royce.
“Well, sir. . . you see, I was. . . Uh . . . Oh, I came here ‘cause---”
“Never mind! I don’t give a damn why you’re here! Get the hell off my property!”
“But sir, I---”
“Now, before I contact the authorities.”
“Hey, my fath---”
Royce started down onto the grass, brandishing his weapon, but Cromwell quickly reached into his pocket and drew out his own gun. Royce, seeing this in advance, fired at Cromwell, missing his left ear by only centimeters. But just as Cromwell aimed his pistol to retaliate, another shot rang out into the evening air. Everyone’s heads jerked in the direction of the sound, and from the shadows, my cousin came running.
“Two against one, you lout,” Ben taunted, aiming his revolver at Cromwell’s chest with both hands.
Royce regarded Ben with surprise, but turned to Cromwell and leveled his gun once more. Cromwell, seeing that he was outnumbered, kept his pistol raised in one hand, and held the other up in a gesture of negotiation.
“Excuse me, Kenswood . . . and Kingsley . . . but why don’t we come to an agreement?” he said, taking the time to look at both Ben and Royce. His eyes seemed to linger on Ben.
“What kind of agreement?” Royce snapped, still unwilling to yield. Ben remained silent, but his eyes said what his voice didn’t. He was clearly enraged, and I knew rage, or even anger, to be something that Ben rarely revealed.
Cromwell gave Royce a smug look. “Well,” he began, “it seems to me that a duel between three people is unfair and most definitely one-sided, especially since two of the duelers are from one family.”
Royce and Ben only exchanged looks, then turned back to Cromwell.
“I just thought that perhaps, we could arrange a fair duel, where the two sides of the argument could come together in a proper manner. Yes, maybe the persons most directly involved should duel.”
Cromwell’s eyes fell upon Ben, locked in an expression of pure hatred. I regarded my cousin’s face for a response, but his expression didn’t change. His eyes stayed fixed on Cromwell’s fat, ugly, face, and his gun remained aimed at the man’s chest.
“What are you sayin’, Cromwell?” Royce demanded.
“I’m saying that me and Kingsley here should have ourselves a duel.”
“Suits me just fine,” Ben murmured. His voice was venomous.
“What for? What the hell good is a duel gonna do?” Royce asked.
Cromwell narrowed his eyes, and said, “We’re gonna duel for the hand of Miss Amelia.”
“What?!” Ben exclaimed. “That’s ridiculous! I’m already married to her! Are you mad?!” His aim faltered, and Cromwell quickly brought his own gun up, pointing it at Ben.
“It’s not the least bit ridiculous, Kingsley, if you understand what I mean. I’m aware that you and Miss Amelia are betrothed now, but that can change in an instant . . . that is, if I win the duel.”
Ben’s eyes widened, and he suddenly realized Cromwell’s intention. I got the impression that Ben could no longer put up a good front. Now, he was genuinely afraid.
“You mean . . . you mean we’re going to ---” Ben swallowed hard. “--- fight to the death?”
Cromwell’s fat face contorted into the most sinister of sneers, and he smiled maliciously. “Absolutely,” he replied, almost laughing.
Until this point, Royce had been standing nearby, letting the two young men debate. He continued to aim his gun at the trespasser, but he could no longer contain his opinions, and he leapt forward.
“You’re being absurd, Cromwell! My daughter already chose Benjamin! I’m sorry, but you’re too late! This duel is preposterous and completely unnecessary! Recall it immediately, or I’ll send for your father!”
Cromwell shook his head stubbornly, and turned his head to look at Royce. “Stay out of this, Kenswood. This is between me and Kingsley, now. We’ll see who deserves Miss Amelia.”
“No, you won’t!” Royce protested. “There are other ways to solve this problem than through a ---”
Uncle Doug, who had been watching quietly from the verandah, approached Royce and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Really, Royce. That isn’t necessary. Let the boys fight it out. It’ll all come out in the wash . . . just you wait.”
Royce stared at Uncle Doug with an expression of dumbfounded shock. “Are you serious, Douglas?”
Uncle Doug smiled serenely and replied, “Yes. I haven’t been this serious since the day I said my vows with Carol. Trust me.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder at his father, and Uncle Doug nodded his head once. Ben turned back around. Apparently, Uncle Doug had great faith in his son’s dueling skills.
“But, but a fight to the death, Douglas?” Royce asked, still shocked.
“Although I don’t approve of murdering anyone, I think in this duel, it is appropriate.”
Royce sighed and shook his head, then motioned with his hand to let the young men know that he approved.
Cromwell chuckled. “It’s settled then. We will duel over the hand of Miss Amelia, and whoever is the last man standing--- or alive, rather--- will have her. You’re not afraid, are you Kingsley?”
“Not at all.” I couldn’t detect any immediate fear in my cousin’s voice.
“Then since I called the duel,” Cromwell continued, “you can choose the place, the time, and the weapons.”
Ben took a deep breath. “We’ll duel at the edge of the woods on the western side of the Kenswoods’ plantation, at ten o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. We’ll use handguns to make it easy . . . Each dueler brings his own weapon.”
Cromwell’s fat lips curled into another smirk. “Good. We’ll each have time to choose a second, though I probably won’t need one.”
Ben glared at Cromwell. “Confidence is often the downfall of the unwise,” he retorted.
“I don’t need your damned proverbs, Kingsley. Be at the spot at nine o’clock, prepared to lose.”
Ben only shook his head and let his aim fall. Cromwell, with another nasty glare sent Ben’s direction, placed his pistol back inside his coat, and sauntered off. We all watched him until he disappeared around the corner of the house. Ben turned around to face his father.
“Why are you so confident in me?” he asked.
Uncle Doug only smiled. “I think you’ll surprise yourself, Benjamin.”
Ben only stared at him blankly. “Are you sure? I have to kill him to win, Father. And his second, too. I don’t want to lose Amelia!”
Uncle Doug laughed, “Well, my boy, you’re forgetting that you have the advantage! By choosing to duel tomorrow, you can still have your wedding night!”
Ben only blushed.
“Anyway,” Uncle Doug said, “I suppose you should go find yourself a second, Benjamin. You’re not going to have much time to do it tomorrow.”
As Ben, Royce and Uncle Doug started toward the house, I turned back to my little clique, pondering what had just happened. I pretended to be interested in what was being said around me, but my attention was certainly elsewhere, and in attempt to try to forget my cousin’s affairs, I poured myself another glass of claret and downed it.
Later that night, I was playing a few rounds of poker with a few of my buddies. We were drinking and getting pretty rowdy; several of us were making crude jokes and the others were howling with laughter. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my cousin approaching, his wife held tightly to his side. He looked as though he had just been to hell and back, so I decided to try to lighten his mood, even though I was certain of the cause of his miserable expression.
“Hey there, Ben! What’s the matter? Why do you look so melancholy? You should be happy! You’ve got yourself a real keeper!” I chimed.
Amelia blushed, and Ben only cleared his throat. “Well, Justin, I’ve gotten myself into a situation. One of my wife’s ex-suitors has challenged me to a duel at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, and I want you to act as my second.”
Without looking at Ben and pretending to be completely ignorant of the situation, I nodded and said, “Sure, I’ll be your second. Who’re we up against?”
“Joshua Cromwell, the sheriff’s son . . . You know, Solomon Cromwell’s oldest boy.”
I slowly turned my head to face my cousin, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“How’d the hell you get yourself into that mess, Benny? I mean, you’re a pretty good shot, but . . . the sheriff’s son? Man . . .”
“No, I think I can beat him, Justin, but the only problem is that it’s a fight to the death.”
I just shrugged my shoulders. “So? We’ve won duels before. A duel to the death only means that you can’t miss, especially if he has the first shot and misses ---”
Amelia turned to face Ben. “You two have fought duels together before? Why did you never tell me?!”
But Ben just glanced at her, and I continued as if I hadn’t heard her.
“--- I’m just concerned that he’s tryin’ to trick you, Ben. What if he turns you in to his old man for agreeing to fight an illegal duel? You’ll be arrested, and you’ll be up shit crick. . . . Say, what’re you dueling for, anyway?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Amelia blurted. “They’re fighting over me!”
I turned to look at her, giving her one of my classic sarcastic grins. “Well, then, I guess we’d better win, huh?”
She smiled back (and just as sarcastically, I might add). I laughed, taking my eyeglasses off to wipe them on my cravat.
“Okay, Ben,” I said. “Tell me where and what weapon, and I’ll be there to defend your precious maiden. . . . ‘Course, by then, she won’t ---”
“That’s fine, Justin,” Ben said, interrupting me. “We’ll be at the edge of the woods on the western side of the Kenswood plantation. Be there at half-past nine with your Colt.”
I grinned and turned back to my cards. “Will do, pal.”
And with that, I returned to my game.
* * * * *
Now, I sighed and kept my gaze focused on my cousin. Ben was still sweating profusely, and I could see his lips moving silently. Perhaps he was speaking his own little prayer. Royce turned his head to look at me, and I saw the apprehension in his eyes. He knew that Cromwell was an excellent shot. It was an undisputed fact in these parts of Alabama. I tried my best to give him a reassuring smile, but it wouldn’t come. I couldn’t shape my face into anything more than a blank stare. This was the first time in years I could remember being genuinely afraid. I had never felt such anxiety going into a duel before, and Ben and I still had yet to lose. But this one was different. This was a fight to the death, and I was terrified for my own life and the lives of my cousin and his new bride.
Royce began to clap out a cadence with his hands. It was a strong, steady, slow cadence. A little faster than one footfall per second.
“I will count four beats, and then you will begin your paces to the sound of my voice,” Royce said.
“Step sharply now, Benjamin,” Uncle Doug whispered.
Royce clapped a series of four beats, then began his countdown.
“One, two, three, and go.”
Ben straightened his posture, threw his chin in the air, and swung his left leg out, digging his heel so far into the soft ground that I could see the markings made by his hobnailed brogans. Cromwell’s pace was relaxed and free, and contained almost no marksmanship at all. It looked unprofessional, to say the least.
Show him up, Ben, I thought.
Royce’s counting was quickly nearing the halfway point. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen . . .”
To my left there was an outburst of excitement from Cromwell’s brother.
“All right, Josh! Come on!” Victor whooped.
The next few seconds went by so quickly that I can scarcely recall any of it. I had seen it coming, and perhaps it had been the reason I was so apprehensive about dueling with Joshua Cromwell.
Royce’s voice continued the countdown: “ . . . Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one . . .”
At the count of twenty, Cromwell pivoted on his heel, fast as lightning. I was shocked at the agility with which he did it, because I had witnessed his clumsiness only moments earlier. That’s when I realized what was happening. It suddenly seemed like the entire world was in slow motion. I watched as Cromwell brought his arm up, and I glanced at Ben, who still had his back turned.
“Ben, watch out!” I screamed.
My cousin whirled around, just as Cromwell fired his pistol. For a moment, all I saw was gunpowder smoke, but I heard what had happened. There was the sickening sound of human bone cracking, and then I heard a pitiful, moaning wail, but I didn’t have the time to think about it, because Cromwell was already pointing his pistol at me.
Without a glance at my cousin, I focused my attention on Cromwell and his partner. I swung my right leg out, planted my foot firmly on the ground, and brought my revolver to eye level. And only a fraction of a second before I fired, I heard another shot ring out in the morning stillness.
The sound echoed through the woods, and the gunpowder smoke once again hung over the scene. I heard a pair of ‘thuds,’ as if two bodies had fallen to the ground. But instead of looking to see what had happened, I jerked my head toward the onlookers in an attempt to see who had fired the other shot.
Royce was staring at us all, wide-eyed and mouth agape. Uncle Doug was standing upright, his legs splayed, and he held his head up, as if he were a deer that sensed danger. Victor was off and running toward his brother.
That’s when I looked back at the duelers. I noted that I had hit my target, dead on. I had shot Cromwell’s second in the jugular. Faintly, I could hear little gurgling sounds as his heart pumped out short spurts of blood. Satisfied and recovering from my nerves, I then turned my attention to my cousin.
I had been expecting to see Ben lying on the ground with a bullet hole in his chest or forehead, but that was not the case. He was on the ground, propped up on his right elbow and clutching his left shoulder. Crimson blood leaked out of his wound and oozed through the spaces between his fingers. He was breathing hard, and his eyes were wild. He was staring at Cromwell, his gun still clutched in his left hand.
Gradually, my eyes followed Ben’s line of sight, and there, on the ground a few yards from his comrade, lay the body of Joshua Cromwell. Victor was crouched over Cromwell’s head, and he was whimpering. There was a clean bullet hole right between Cromwell’s eyes. Amazed by my cousin’s accuracy under his circumstances, I slowly made my way over to where he lay.
“You okay, buddy?” I asked, kneeling down.
Ben turned his head to look up at me. His eyes brimmed with tears, and his lips were slightly parted. Seeing this childlike vulnerability in a man whom I had always admired as my family, dueling partner and friend was almost unbearable.
“I killed him, Justin,” he said, blankly. “I killed him. Like a cold-blooded murderer.”
I just stared at him for a moment, pressing my lips together. He turned his gaze back to Victor and Cromwell’s body.
“You had to do it, pal,” Uncle Doug chimed, making his way toward us. Royce was at his heels.
“But I . . . I ruined someone else’s life, just to take mine back. That’s not the least bit fair.”
Ben hung his head and choked back a loud sob.
“Hey, it’s all right, Benny,” I said. “That’s what they teach you at West Point. Not only do they teach you all sorts of ridiculous, goofy subjects, they teach you how to kill. And how to kill properly. He didn’t feel a thing. It was just and humane . . . unlike mine.” I glanced once more at Cromwell’s second and shuddered as the blood continued to flow freely from his gaping neck.
“That’s exactly right, Justin,” Royce said, nodding. Like Ben, Royce had graduated from West Point Academy. He had also served in the Mexican-American War.
Ben looked up again, this time with the tears streaming down his cheeks. Uncle Doug and I helped him to his feet and steadied him, since he was dizzy due to loss of blood.
“Take him back to the house,” Royce said. “He needs to see Amelia and get that wound fixed up. I’ll take care of matters here. And don’t worry. We’ll find a way to avoid lawsuit for this.”
Uncle Doug and I escorted Ben back to the house, leaving Royce with Victor and the bodies. Amelia was waiting at the door.
“Oh, thank God!” she exclaimed when she saw us coming.
She opened the door for us and then cried out when she saw Ben’s bleeding shoulder.
“He’ll be fine, Amelia,” Uncle Doug said. “He’s a trooper. Just go fetch some bandages, some water and a hot iron.”
Amelia ran off, while we sat Ben in a chair. Now that he had been brought back to reality, he was moaning and groaning in pain, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget his shrieks as we cauterized his injury with the hot iron. Once his wound had been bandaged, Uncle Doug set Ben’s shoulder and placed his arm in a sling. Luckily, the ball had only grazed the bottom of Ben’s collarbone and had split the bone neatly.
Finally, I helped Ben to the parlor, since he still felt a little weak, where he sat down with Amelia. She merely watched him, barely able to contain her happiness and curiosity.
“He’ll be fine,” I repeated. “He’ll survive, as long as he has you.”
Ben turned his head to look at his wife and grinned. It was just about the biggest grin I’d ever seen.
“Yes,” he said, “as long as I have you.”
I smiled and left the room, deciding to let them have some time alone. Fifteen minutes later, I was seated in Royce’s study with the curtains drawn, toasting Cromwell’s valiant efforts with a shot of whiskey.