Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Twenty. An Unsafe Position

On receiving the alcoholic douche, Calhoun had clutched his six-shooter, and drawn it from its holster. He only waited to get the whisky out of his eyes before advancing upon his adversary.

The mustanger, anticipating this action, had armed himself with a similar weapon, and stood ready to return the fire of his antagonist—shot for shot.

The more timid of the spectators had already commenced making their escape out of doors tumbling over one another, in their haste to get out of harm’s way.

A few stayed in the saloon from sheer irresolution; a few others, of cooler courage, from choice; or, perhaps, actuated by a more astute instinct, which told them that in attempting to escape they might get a bullet in the back.

There was an interval—some six seconds—of silence, during which a pin might have been heard falling upon the floor. It was but the interlude that often occurs between resolution and action; when the mind has completed its task, and the body has yet to begin.

It might have been more brief with other actors on the scene. Two ordinary men would have blazed away at once, and without reflection. But the two now confronting each other were not of the common kind. Both had seen street fighting before—had taken part in it—and knew the disadvantage of an idle shot. Each was determined to take sure aim on the other. It was this that prolonged the interval of inaction.

To those outside, who dared not even look through the doors, the suspense was almost painful. The cracking of the pistols, which they expected every moment to hear, would have been a relief. It was almost a disappointment when, instead, they heard the voice of the major—who was among the few who had stayed inside—raised in a loud authoritative tone.

“Hold!” commanded he, in the accent of one accustomed to be obeyed, at the same time whisking his sabre out of its scabbard, and interposing its long blade between the disputants.

“Hold your fire—I command you both. Drop your muzzles; or by the Almighty I’ll take the arm off the first of you that touches trigger! Hold, I say!”

“Why?” shouted Calhoun, purple with angry passion. “Why, Major Ringwood? After an insult like that, and from a low fellow—”

“You were the first to offer it, Captain Calhoun.”

“Damn me if I care! I shall be the last to let it pass unpunished. Stand out of the way, major. The quarrel is not yours—you have no right to interfere!”

“Indeed! Ha! ha! Sloman! Hancock! Crossman! hear that? I have no right to interfere! Hark ye, Mr Cassius Calhoun, ex-captain of volunteers! Know you where you are, sir? Don’t fancy yourself in the state of Mississippi—among your slave-whipping chivalry. This, sir, is a military post—under military law—my humble self its present administrator. I therefore command you to return your six-shooter to the holster from which you have taken it. This instant too, or you shall go to the guard-house, like the humblest soldier in the cantonment!”

“Indeed!” sneeringly replied the Mississippian. “What a fine country you intend Texas to become! I suppose a man mustn’t fight, however much aggrieved, without first obtaining a licence from Major Ringwood? Is that to be the law of the land?”

“Not a bit of it,” retorted the major. “I’m not the man—never was—to stand in the way of the honest adjustment of a quarrel. You shall be quite at liberty—you and your antagonist—to kill one another, if it so please you. But not just now. You must perceive, Mr Calhoun, that your sport endangers the lives of other people, who have not the slightest interest in it. I’ve no idea of being bored by a bullet not intended for me. Wait till the rest of us can withdraw to a safe distance; and you may crack away to your heart’s content. Now, sir, will that be agreeable to you?”

Had the major been a man of ordinary character his commands might have been disregarded. But to his official weight, as chief officer of the post, was added a certain reverence due to seniority in age—along with respect for one who was himself known to wield a weapon with dangerous skill, and who allowed no trilling with his authority.

His sabre had not been unsheathed by way of empty gesticulation. The disputants knew it; and by simultaneous consent lowered the muzzles of their pistols—still holding them in hand.

Calhoun stood, with sullen brow, gritting his teeth, like a beast of prey momentarily withheld from making attack upon its victim; while the mustanger appeared to take things as coolly as if neither angry, nor an Irishman.

“I suppose you are determined upon fighting?” said the major, knowing that, there was not much chance of adjusting the quarrel.

“I have no particular wish for it,” modestly responded Maurice. “If Mr Calhoun will apologise for what he has said, and also what he has done—”

“He ought to do it: he began the quarrel!” suggested several of the bystanders.

“Never!” scornfully responded the ex-captain. “Cash Calhoun ain’t accustomed to that sort of thing. Apologise indeed! And to a masquerading monkey like that!”

“Enough!” cried the young Irishman, for the first time showing serious anger; “I gave him a chance for his life. He refuses to accept it: and now, by the Mother of God, we don’t both leave this room alive! Major! I insist that you and your friends withdraw. I can stand his insolence no longer!”

“Ha—ha—ha!” responded the Southerner, with a yell of derisive laughter; “a chance for my life! Clear out, all of ye—clear out; and let me at him!”

“Stay!” cried the major, hesitating to turn his back upon the duellist. “It’s not quite safe. You may fancy to begin your game of touch-trigger a second too soon. We must get out of doors before you do. Besides, gentlemen!” he continued, addressing himself to those around him, “there should be some system about this. If they are to fight, let it be fair for both sides. Let them be armed alike; and go at it on the square!”

“By all means!” chorused the half-score of spectators, turning their eyes towards the disputants, to see if they accepted the proposal.

“Neither of you can object?” continued the major, interrogatively.

“I sha’n’t object to anything that’s fair,” assented the Irishman—“devil a bit!”

“I shall fight with the weapon I hold in my hand,” doggedly declared Calhoun.

“Agreed! the very weapon for me!” was the rejoinder of his adversary.

“I see you both carry Colt’s six-shooter Number 2,” said the major, scanning the pistols held in hand. “So far all right! you’re armed exactly alike.”

“Have they any other weapons?” inquired young Hancock, suspecting that under the cover of his coat the ex-captain had a knife.

“I have none,” answered the mustanger, with a frankness that left no doubt as to his speaking the truth.

All eyes were turned upon Calhoun, who appeared to hesitate about making a reply. He saw he must declare himself.

“Of course,” he said, “I have my toothpick as well. You don’t want me to give up that? A man ought to be allowed to use whatever weapon he has got.”

“But, Captain Calhoun,” pursued Hancock, “your adversary has no knife. If you are not afraid to meet him on equal terms you should surrender yours.”

“Certainly he should!” cried several of the bystanders. “He must! he must!”

“Come, Mr Calhoun!” said the major, in a soothing tone. “Six shots ought to satisfy any reasonable man; without having recourse to the steel. Before you finish firing, one or the other of you—”

“Damn the knife!” interrupted Calhoun, unbuttoning his coat. Then drawing forth the proscribed weapon, and flinging it to the farthest corner of the saloon, he added, in a tone of bravado, intended to encowardice his adversary. “I sha’n’t want it for such a spangled jay-bird as that. I’ll fetch him out of his boots at the first shot.”

“Time enough to talk when you’ve done something to justify it. Cry boo to a goose; but don’t fancy your big words are going to frighten me, Mr Calhoun! Quick, gentlemen! I’m impatient to put an end to his boasting and blasphemy!”

“Hound!” frantically hissed out the chivalric Southerner. “Low dog of an Irish dam! I’ll send you howling to your kennel! I’ll—”

“Shame, Captain Calhoun!” interrupted the major, seconded by other voices. “This talk is idle, as it is unpolite in the presence of respectable company. Have patience a minute longer; and you may then say what you like. Now, gentlemen!” he continued, addressing himself to the surrounding, “there is only one more preliminary to be arranged. They must engage not to begin firing till we have got out of their way?”

A difficulty here presented itself. How was the engagement to be given? A simple promise would scarce be sufficient in a crisis like that? The combatants—one of them at least—would not be over scrupulous as to the time of pulling trigger.

“There must be a signal,” pursued the major. “Neither should fire till that be given. Can any one suggest what it is to be?”

“I think. I can,” said the quiet Captain Sloman, advancing as he spoke. “Let the gentlemen go outside, along with us. There is—as you perceive—a door at each end of the room. I see no difference between them. Let them enter again—one at each door, with the understanding that neither is to fire before setting foot across the threshold.”

“Capital! the very thing!” replied several voices. “And what for a signal?” demanded the major. “A shot?”

“No. Ring the tavern bell!”

“Nothing could be better—nothing fairer,” conclusively declared the major, making for one of the doors, that led outward into the square.

“Mein Gott, major!” screamed the German Boniface, rushing out from behind his bar; where, up to this time, he had been standing transfixed with fear. “Mein Gott—surely the shentlemens pe not going to shoot their pisthols inside the shaloon: Ach! they’ll preak all my pottles, and my shplendid looking-glashes, an my crystal clock, that hash cost me von—two hundred dollars. They’ll shpill my pesht liquors—ach! Major, it’ll ruin me—mein Gott—it will!”

“Never fear, Oberdoffer!” rejoined the major, pausing to reply. “No doubt you’ll be paid for the damage. At all events, you had better betake yourself to some place of safety. If you stay in your saloon you’ll stand a good chance of getting a bullet through your body, and that would be worse than the preaking of your pottles.”

Without further parley the major parted from the unfortunate landlord, and hurried across the threshold into the street, whither the combatants, who had gone out by separate doors, had already preceded him.

“Old Duffer,” left standing in the middle of his sanded floor, did not remain long in that perilous position. In six seconds after the major’s coat-tail had disappeared through the outer door, an inner one closed upon his own skirts; and the bar-room, with its camphine lamps, its sparkling decanters, and its costly mirrors, was left in untenanted silence—no other sound being heard save the ticking of its crystal clock.