Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Twenty One. A Duel within Doors

Once outside, the major took no further part in the affair. As the commanding officer of the post, it would have been out of place for him to have given encouragement to a fight—even by his interfering to see that it should be a fair one. This, however, was attended to by the younger officers; who at once set about arranging the conditions of the duel.

There was not much time consumed. The terms had been expressed already; and it only remained to appoint some one of the party to superintend the ringing of the bell, which was to be the signal for the combat to commence.

This was an easy matter, since it made no difference who might be entrusted with the duty. A child might have sounded the summons for the terrible conflict that was to follow.

A stranger, chancing at that moment to ride into the rude square of which the hotel “Rough and Ready” formed nearly a side, would have been sorely puzzled to comprehend what was coming to pass. The night was rather dark, though there was still light enough to make known the presence of a conglomeration of human beings, assembled in the proximity of the hotel. Most were in military garb: since, in addition to the officers who had lately figured inside the saloon, others, along with such soldiers as were permitted to pass the sentries, had hastened down from the Fort on receiving intelligence that something unusual was going on within the “square.” Women, too, but scantily robed—soldiers’ wives, washerwomen, and “señoritas” of more questionable calling—had found their way into the street, and were endeavouring to extract from those who had forestalled them an explanation of the fracas.

The conversation was carried on in low tones. It was known that the commandant of the post was present, as well as others in authority; and this checked any propensity there might have been for noisy demonstration.

The crowd, thus promiscuously collected, was not in close proximity with the hotel; but standing well out in the open ground, about a dozen yards from the building. Towards it, however, the eyes of all were directed, with that steady stare which tells of the attention being fixed on some engrossing spectacle. They were watching the movements of two men, whose positions were apart—one at each end of the heavy blockhouse, known to be the bar-room of the hotel; and where, as already stated, there was a door.

Though separated by the interposition of two thick log walls, and mutually invisible, these men were manoeuvring as if actuated by a common impulse. They stood contiguous to the entrance doors, at opposite ends of the bar-room, through both of which glared the light of the camphine lamps—falling in broad divergent bands upon the rough gravel outside. Neither was in front of the contiguous entrance; but a little to one side, just clear of the light. Neither was in an upright attitude, but crouching—not as if from fear, but like a runner about to make a start, and straining upon the spring.

Both were looking inwards—into the saloon, where no sound could be heard save the ticking of a clock. Their attitudes told of their readiness to enter it, and that they were only restrained by waiting for some preconcerted signal.

That their purpose was a serious one could be deduced from several circumstances. Both were in their shirt sleeves, hatless, and stripped of every rag that might form an impediment to action; while on their faces was the stamp of stern determination—alike legible in the attitudes they had assumed.

But there was no fine reflection needed to discover their design. The stranger, chancing to come into the square, could have seen at a glance that it was deadly. The pistols in their hands, cocked and tightly clutched; the nervous energy of their attitudes; the silence of the crowd of spectators; and the concentrated interest with which the two men were regarded, proclaimed more emphatically than words, that there was danger in what they were doing—in short, that they were engaged in some sort of a strife, with death for its probable consummation!

So it was at that moment when the crisis had come. The duellists stood, each with eye intent upon the door, by which he was to make entrance—perhaps into eternity! They only waited for a signal to cross the threshold; and engage in a combat that must terminate the existence of one or the other—perhaps both.

Were they listening for that fatal formulary:—One—two—fire?

No. Another signal had been agreed upon; and it was given.

A stentorian voice was heard calling out the simple monosyllable—


Three or four dark figures could be seen standing by the shorn trunk on which swung the tavern bell. The command instantly set them in motion; and, along with the oscillation of their arms—dimly seen through the darkness—could be heard the sonorous tones of a bell. That bell, whose sounds had been hitherto heard only as symbols of joy—calling men together to partake of that which perpetuates life—was now listened to as a summons of death!

The “ringing in” was of short duration. The bell had made less than a score of vibrations, when the men engaged at the rope saw that their services were no longer required. The disappearance of the duellists, who had rushed inside the saloon, the quick, sharp cracking of pistols; the shivering of broken glass, admonished the ringers that theirs was but a superfluous noise; and, dropping the rope, they stood like the rest of the crowd, listening to the conflict inside.

No eyes—save those of the combatants themselves—were witnesses to that strange duel.

At the first dong of the bell both combatants had re-entered the room. Neither made an attempt to skulk outside. To have done so would have been a ruin to reputation. A hundred eyes were upon them; and the spectators understood the conditions of the duel—that neither was to fire before crossing the threshold.

Once inside, the conflict commenced, the first shots filling the room with smoke. Both kept their feet, though both were wounded—their blood spurting out over the sanded floor.

The second shots were also fired simultaneously, but at random, the smoke hindering the aim.

Then came a single shot, quickly followed by another, and succeeded by an interval of quiet.

Previous to this the combatants had been heard rushing about through the room. This noise was no longer being made.

Instead there was profound silence. Had they killed one another? Were both dead? No! Once more the double detonation announced that both still lived. The suspension had been caused as they stood peering through the smoke in the endeavour to distinguish one another. Neither spoke or stirred in fear of betraying his position.

Again there was a period of tranquillity similar to the former, but more prolonged.

It ended by another exchange of shots, almost instantly succeeded by the falling of two heavy bodies upon the floor.

There was the sound of sprawling—the overturning of chairs—then a single shot—the eleventh—and this was the last that was fired!

The spectators outside saw only a cloud of sulphurous smoke oozing out of both doors, and dimming the light of the camphine lamps. This, with an occasional flash of brighter effulgence, close followed by a crack, was all that occurred to give satisfaction to the eye.

But the ear—that was gratified by a greater variety. There were heard shots—after the bell had become silent, other sounds: the sharp shivering of broken glass, the duller crash of falling furniture, rudely overturned in earnest struggle—the trampling of feet upon the boarded floor—at intervals the clear ringing crack of the revolvers; but neither of the voices of the men whose insensate passions were the cause of all this commotion! The crowd in the street heard the confused noises, and noted the intervals of silence, without being exactly able to interpret them. The reports of the pistols were all they had to proclaim the progress of the duel. Eleven had been counted; and in breathless silence they were listening for the twelfth.

Instead of a pistol report their ears were gratified by the sound of a voice, recognised as that of the mustanger.

“My pistol is at your head! I have one shot left—an apology, or you die!”

By this the crowd had become convinced that the fight was approaching its termination. Some of the more fearless, looking in, beheld a strange scene. They saw two men lying prostrate on the plank floor; both with bloodstained habiliments, both evidently disabled; the white sand around them reddened with their gore, tracked with tortuous trails, where they had crawled closer to get a last shot at each other—one of them, in scarlet scarf and slashed velvet trousers, slightly surmounting the other, and holding a pistol to his head that threatened to deprive him of life.

Such was the tableau that presented itself to the spectators, as the sulphurous smoke, drifted out by the current between the two doors, gave them a chance of distinguishing objects within the saloon.

At the same instant was heard a different voice from the one which had already spoken. It was Calhoun’s—no longer in roistering bravado, but in low whining accents, almost a whisper. “Enough, damn it! Drop your shooting-iron—I apologise.”