The Duel

In the early history of travel on the great river, gambling was common, and nothing thought of it more than eating and drinking. When, therefore, breakfast was over the following morning, the gentlemen, who stood about in expectant groups, sat down to play, and from that time on, except when meals were served, there was little or no diminution of the game. Throughout the day and far into the night the play went on, sometimes with uproar and curses and show of pistols and huge bowie-knives, but more often without speech or movement of any kind. Around each group lookers-on gathered, but quietly, refraining from so much as touching the chairs of players, lest the latter be unlucky in consequence. Many had charms, according to their fancy: one a hawk’s bill, another a mildewed penny, another the toenail of a murderer; but above all other things, a rabbit’s foot was thought to be most efficacious for bringing good luck. When these devices failed, new cards were called for, or men exchanged seats, no means being left untried to propitiate the goddess of good fortune. In such simple ways as these are the minds of gamesters sustained and diverted, not here or there only, but the world over.
Of the players, some had the semblance of calmness, others were irritable, some truculent; all observant. The panther about to spring upon his prey could not be more watchful or less pitying. The game was always the same—poker; and if by chance a chair was vacated, it was quickly filled by another so that there was never any falling off in number or interest. The players were one and all oblivious of their surroundings, or if the passing of a boat or other happening caused an idle craning of the neck, it was without interest or consciousness. Lust of money lighted up every countenance, and in this there was no difference. Those who lost were morose, some profane; others, half-crazed, cried out pitifully, like children. All, however, were alike anxious and resentful. Those who won were less repulsive than the others, but not less greedy, reaching out for their winnings with glistening eyes and soft chucklings, sometimes with boisterous hilarity, for flesh and blood cannot stand everything. A glance told who were winners, who losers; wrinkled foreheads and anxious faces, oftentimes trembling hands, marking the latter. With the former there was a certain comfort of ease, but they were not the less alert and watchful, lest opportunity for gain should pass unnoticed. Avarice here made no effort to conceal its ugliness, but stood without garments, shameless and unconfused, striving by cunning and bravado, or the mere act of waiting and watching, to satisfy its cravings. This not strangely, for such is ever the case where money is at stake, though the novelty of the situation and the tenderness of men’s hearts may rob the practice of its repulsive features in the case of gentlemen and novices.
My interest, however, was not with the throng, but with Mr. Singleton and Burke, and these I singled out and watched, as they sat somewhat apart, and doing so, meditated many evil things against the latter, but unavailingly. As the game went on, Mr. Singleton from time to time took papers from his pocket and handed them to Burke, for which the latter gave him money in exchange. All the while the poor gentleman lost, and this until the middle of the afternoon, when, with an oath, he pushed all there was before him into the middle of the table. Burke, after a while, and as if hesitating, put up a like amount. Then the end came. Singleton had lost. At this he sat rigid, staring before him, while I, standing by, counted the exhaust of the boat as if it were the pulsations of his life. At last, catching his throat as if choking, striving the while to appear calm, he exclaimed:
“You have won, Burke; that is all. I am ruined, and can play no more.”
Upon this, Burke, drawing the money toward him, answered in a soft, purring voice, as if surprised at what he heard:
“I am sorry, Singleton; but I have won honestly, you will admit.”
To this the other made no answer, but after a moment dropped his face on his arms as they lay extended on the table before him.
At this ending, Mr. Davis, who stood back of Mr. Singleton, leaned forward, and looking Burke coldly in the face, said, in a voice so low that it was scarce audible:
“You are not sorry, Colonel Burke, but have overreached Singleton, and because of it, should return every dollar you have won.”
“I have won fairly; it is mine, and I will return nothing,” Burke answered, looking up surprised at what the other said.
“You have not won honestly, and I must insist that you return the money as I say,” Mr. Davis answered, calmly.
“Not a cent; not to save his life,” Burke answered, scowling.
“Yes, you will. You have cheated him, as you have others; and it is not strange, either, for while professing to be a gentleman, you are nothing but a common thief and blackguard, and as such I shall brand you publicly, so that the gentlemen of my country may hereafter know you for what you are.”
Astonished beyond measure at what Mr. Davis said, Burke fell to trembling as if stricken with palsy; but after a while, his face darkening, he gathered himself together, exclaiming:
“You lie, sir, if you say I have cheated Singleton”; and with the words he drew a pistol, and would have killed Mr. Davis had not Uncle Job restrained him.
“You are not only a cheat, but an assassin, and would kill me without a chance to defend myself, as you have more than one of my friends. You are a coward, and would not think of resenting what I say unless opportunity offered to assassinate me,” Mr. Davis answered, looking Burke in the face, but without moving or raising his voice.
“You lie!” Burke answered, striving to raise his weapon; but Uncle Job preventing, took it from him, saying soothingly, and with a fine air of cheerfulness:
“You must not kill him in that way, Colonel, if you do not care to give up the money, but make him answer for his words as gentlemen are expected to do when they say aught against another. He is bound to give you satisfaction, bound to Colonel. Excuse me,” he went on, in answer to Burke’s look of surprise, “if I am meddling in a matter that does not concern me, but I can’t stand by and see a man thus insulted. You must call him out; it will not cause you any trouble afterward.”
“He will not call me out, nor do I care to meet him,” Mr. Davis answered, coldly. “All I ask is that he return the money he has taken from this poor gentleman, or even half of it, if he will not pay back the whole.”
“I’ll not pay back a cent, and you lie if you say I will not call you out! I will, and kill you, as sure as there is a God in heaven! I only wish there was opportunity,” Burke replied, rising to his feet, his rage passing all bounds.
“You will not lack opportunity, Colonel Burke, for here it is,” Mr. Davis replied, his high courage flaming up. “The boat is slowing up for wood, and the country about hidden with trees, so we can settle our affair without interference, or its coming to the knowledge of any one, if you are not inclined to return Singleton’s money.” Burke making no response to this, Mr. Davis presently went on: “Come, then, if you have the courage, which I doubt,” saying which he turned toward the forward part of the boat, Uncle Job remarking so that both could hear:
“Go on, Mr. Davis; I will attend to the details of the meeting.”
This near prospect seemed not at all to Colonel Burke’s taste, and he would have held back, but Uncle Job taking his arm and urging him to protect his honor, partly by pushing and partly by coaxing, prevailed on him at last to follow Mr. Davis, who had now been joined by Mr. Lincoln.
All this time Mr. Singleton had not stirred, but lay as if fallen in a fit. Nor did he make any sign of life as we moved away; for I followed on, though some way off, determined to see the end of it. Passing the crew, who were loading wood amid the cries and curses of the mate, Mr. Davis struck into the forest, the others following. In this way, coming presently upon a cleared spot, he stopped, saying:
“This place will do. Mr. Lincoln, will you favor me by acting with Mr. Throckmorton, should he require assistance?”
“Certainly, I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, Mr. Davis, though this is something new to me,” Mr. Lincoln answered, in a kindly voice, but without any enthusiasm whatever.
tumblr_odwecuesoq1re8yego1_1280“It is new to me, and distasteful and nowise expected,” Mr. Davis responded. “There is, however, no other way now; and besides, only private justice can reach such men as Burke. He has robbed other friends of mine and murdered them afterward, as he would have murdered me a few minutes ago.”
To this Mr. Lincoln made no reply, save to grasp Mr. Davis’ hand. Holding it thus a moment, as if about to say something more, or reluctant to leave the other, he at last turned about without further speech. Uncle Job meanwhile coming up, calmly surveyed the field as if such things were matters of everyday occurrence with him and of no account whatever. At last, looking toward Mr. Davis and Burke, he asked:
“Is it your wish that I should attend to the details?” and on their bowing assent, he went on: “As the meeting must be with pistols, the distance is the only thing to consider. Have you any wishes in regard to that?”
“I am quite content to leave the matter in your hands, Mr. Throckmorton,” Mr. Davis responded.
Burke saying nothing except to nod his head, Uncle Job went on:
“If the matter is left to me, I shall arrange that you stand back to back twenty paces apart, and upon the word being given, turn and fire, or advance before firing, if you wish. Each principal will be entitled to one shot and no more. Is this satisfactory?”
“It suits me,” Burke spoke up quickly, in a soft, insinuating voice. “Count five, the last number being the signal to fire—the last number, you understand.”
“The arrangement is satisfactory to me,” Mr. Davis answered; “but be quick, if you please, for time presses.”
Matters being thus arranged, Uncle Job placed Mr. Davis, and doing so gave him one of the two horse-pistols he had brought with him, and such as were in common use in those days. Then pacing twenty steps away, he placed Colonel Burke as he had done Mr. Davis, giving him the duplicate of the other’s weapon. The principals being thus fixed, he rejoined Mr. Lincoln, who stood looking on with troubled countenance. Facing about, Uncle Job turned toward Burke, as if expecting to see him throw down his weapon and cry for mercy. Instead, he stood firm, and with a look of such deadly hate in his sallow face that I shuddered at the sight. Seeing this, Uncle Job turned to Mr. Lincoln as if uncertain what to do next, but Mr. Davis, observing the pause, spoke up with some impatience, saying:
“Come, Mr. Throckmorton, why lose time? Let us get through with the business.”
At this, everything being fixed, and there being no excuse for further delay, Uncle Job called out, but no longer with any heart in his voice:
“Are you ready, gentlemen? Remember, when I count five, turn and fire, or advance before firing if You choose. Remember, five is the signal. Are you ready? One, two, three, four—” As the last number was called, Burke whirled about, and with quick aim fired. At this Mr. Lincoln’s and Uncle Job’s faces blanched, and they turned to Mr. Davis as if expecting to see him fall, Uncle Job calling out mechanically the final number, “Five.” Upon hearing this, and not before, Mr. Davis turned about unharmed, but feeling his shoulder with his free hand as if he had been hit. Looking in the direction of Burke and observing his smoking pistol still upheld, Mr. Davis’ face lowered and he hesitated for a moment; then, without remark of any kind, he straightened himself up, and keeping his weapon extended, advanced slowly toward where his opponent stood. As he went forward, Burke’s face, from being red, turned purple, and then a livid white, his eyes and cheeks falling in as if he had been dead a month. When Mr. Davis had gone some distance, Burke, unable to control himself longer, screamed out in deadly fright:
“For God’s sake have mercy, Mr. Davis! Don’t kill me! No, no, you can’t, Mr. Davis; it would be murder.”
Paying no heed, Mr. Davis kept on until he was within a few feet of Burke. There stopping, the fire of his eyes seemed to consume his enemy, for Burke, losing all control of himself fell on his knees, crying out in the most craven manner:
“For God’s sake, as you are a Christian, don’t kill me, Mr. Davis! I’ll give back the money; I never meant to keep it, I swear to you, as God is my judge. I have children, Mr. Davis—little things. Surely you could not kill me”; and moaning and purring like a cat, the wretch dropped on his elbows, limp and undone. NORFLOXACIN LACTATE
“Let you live to go on robbing and killing men, you scoundrel! You deserve a dozen deaths for the murders you have committed,” Mr. Davis answered, without stirring or lowering his weapon.
“I know it, Mr. Davis, but have mercy! I will never play cards again if you will let me off, nor harm any one! So help me God! Have mercy! have mercy!” and he dropped his face on the ground, unable longer to look upon Mr. Davis’s towering height and angry countenance.
“You do not deserve to die by the hands of a gentleman, and I will spare you, though you would have murdered me; but on condition that you turn over to Mr. Throckmorton the money you have taken from Singleton, and afterward do as I say,” Mr. Davis answered, without making any move.
Upon this, Burke, rising to his knees, answered in his soft, whimpering voice:
“I will do anything you say, Mr. Davis. I never meant to keep the money, and Singleton shall have every cent back”; and clutching his pocket with trembling hands, he drew forth a leather book, and searching it through and through, presently gave Uncle Job a handful of papers and money, saying: “There, that is all I have; every penny!”
Receiving what was tendered, Uncle Job put it in his pocket, and then, as if to assure himself, took the book from Burke’s hand, and looking it through, presently came upon another paper, which he held up to view, saying:
“See, Mr. Davis, he would still have robbed Singleton of this, a bill of exchange for five thousand dollars.”
“I did not know it was there, I swear to God!” Burke answered, dropping forward again on his elbows, as if this last act would surely cause his death.
“You did, you scoundrel,” Mr. Davis rejoined; “but no matter. What I require of you now is that you remain here until the boat leaves, for if you come aboard or show yourself or cry out, I will kill you as I would a wolf.”
“You will not leave me here, Mr. Davis, surely?” Burke purred, looking around at the dark forest.
“Yes, I will,” Mr. Davis answered. “A walk of a few miles will take you to a landing where you will find a boat by which to get out of the country. Come, do you agree?”
“I must, if I am allowed no choice,” Burke replied, rising to his feet.
Upon this ending of the matter Uncle Job secured the pistol Burke had dropped, and the three, without exchanging a word, took their way to the river, the bell clanging the boat’s departure as they neared the landing. On the way Uncle Job lagged far behind, and with downcast head and sorrowful visage. Poor man! he had judged Burke to be a coward, and sure to give up Singleton’s money rather than fight. So that his bravado on the field, and attempt to assassinate Mr. Davis, had come to him in the nature of a shock, and now when it was all over, his having suggested the meeting appeared to him in the light of a very foolish, if not criminal, act. Because of this he did not feel elated over the restoration of the money, as he otherwise would, but looked upon what he had done as silly in the extreme, and mourned accordingly.