The Duelist's Dilemma

period fiction, short story
The Duelist's Dilemma header image

“Engarde, you godless filth!” bellowed Collin McIntyre, waving his dueling pistol in front of him as though he was clutching the tail of a snake. “I’ll see you dead tonight!”

“Mr. McIntyre, surely this is unnecessary!” said Thomas Allaire, panic pinching his voice. He could barely make out Collin’s features in the flickering light of the nearest oil lamp, but saw enough to register his threatening expression. “Our dispute wasn’t so serious to warrant this!”

“That’ll be for me to decide, Allaire! I’m sick of you. Now pick up your pistol!” said Collin, the sickly scent of alcohol heavy on his breath.

“I most certainly will not. I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve this, but I’m sure we can settle it like gentlemen, and not with this… barbaric practice.”

“You pick up that pistol, or I shoot you where you stand,” said Collin, stepping out of the light as he moved forward in the darkness. Thomas could hear the wooden click of his heels hitting the paver stones underfoot as he approached.

“But, that’s murder! Surely, even you have more sense than that!” said Thomas, breaking out into a cold sweat.

“hmf,” said Collin, staggering lazily as he re-emerged in the light of the lamp near Thomas. “Do you see any witnesses about?”

Thomas took a nervous glance around the dark courtyard they found themselves in. There were a few decorative shrubs and a gaudy old fountain, but no people — none that could be seen, at least. “But surely, someone would hear a pistol go off! You wouldn’t get away with it!”

“Maybe,” Collin shrugged. “But listen to that noisy old ball in there,” Collin pointed to the Townsend mansion across the courtyard. “I reckon that racket will keep them distracted for long enough! Besides, I’ll just tell them we were dueling. Now, pick. Up. Your. Pistol!” said Collin, emphasizing each word between his teeth.

“You’ll be sorry about this!” said Thomas, cowering before Collin as he crouched for the pistol Collin had thrown at his feet moments before. “You mark my words, you savage!”

-1-

“I doubt that. See, I’ve been wanting this for a long time, and a yellow belly like you has got no chance on me!”

“What did I ever do to you?! We’ve argued, I’ll grant you, but that’s no reason to shoot a man!”

Collin rocked towards Thomas like a feral animal. “You think you’re better than me, Allaire? Huh? With your fancy last name, and fancy education? Think I’m not human, cause I work with my hands?” He stuck his calloused finger into Thomas’ chest, spouting drops of spittle with each word. “Well I’ll show you! Mister Townsend will be looking for a new tutor for his daughters, soon enough!”

“you’re a madman, McIntyre,” said Thomas, pulling back with a grimace. “An absolute madman. But seeing as it’s come to this, I might as well say it. Yes, of course I’m better than you!” He paused to withdraw his handkerchief from a pocket and dab spittle from beneath his eyes. “Look at you, even now. You’re a dirty, no-good drunk that can barely speak proper english. I almost pity you, seeing as you were probably kicked by a mule when you were a child.”

“That’s right. There it is,” said Collin, flashing the sad and angry look of a wounded bear. “You disdain me, don’t you? Just like all these other goddamn blue bloods!”

“How could they not hate you, when you behave like this? Causing trouble, threatening…”

“Shut up!” interrupted Collin before Thomas could finish. “Grab your pistol and turn around; we turn on three steps. The sooner I get this bullet in you the better.” But Thomas didn’t move.

“Why should I?” said Thomas. “I have a gun as well, don’t I?”

Collin trained his pistol on Thomas’ chest. “You fancy your odds are better in a face-off like this?”

Thomas shook his head in resignation. “No, I suppose not.”

-2-

“Now, I trust that I won’t go shooting you in the back,” said Collin, almost philosophically. “But I reckon you’d seize on any opportunity your yellow-belly could find. So, either you turn around first, or I shoot you right now!”

Thomas’ face went white as he slowly turned away from Collin. So, this is how I die, then. He thought. By the hands of a philistine gardener. But then another thought occurred to him. Maybe I’ll turn early, on the second step. The bastard won’t expect it! That’s it—and why play fair? I didn’t agree to this! A yellow-bellied opportunist indeed!

But suddenly, they heard footsteps falling down the stone pathways of the courtyard. “Mr. Allaire?” It was Abigail Townsend, Mr. Townsend’s youngest daughter, adorned in her finest white dress, replete with a garniture of pearl white ribbons at her back. She wore a broad smile on her face at having found Thomas. “What are you doing all the way out here?” Then her big blue eyes found the pistol in his hand and her smile died as it bloomed, contorting into a stunned terror. “Groundskeeper McIntyre?” she said shakily. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing to worry your pretty little head about!” slurred Collin, shooing her with his free hand. “Get back to the party now.”

“Are you preparing to duel?!” said Abigail, wide-eyed. “Why, Mr. Allaire, I never would have expected this of you! Such recklessness!”

“It’s not by choice, Young Mistress. Groundskeeper Collin has forced me,” said Thomas, glancing toward Collin with a smirk. “He’s threatened to shoot me down if I don’t.”

“But that’s awful! You can’t do this Mr. McIntyre!” said Abigail, pulling at Collin’s arm.

“What will you do now, Collin?” said Thomas triumphantly. “There’s a witness. Surely you won’t murder a child in cold blood.”

“You’re a heartless man, Allaire, you know that?” said Collin, staring at little Abigail sadly. “to use a little girl like that. But I am not. Of course I won’t be killing her.”

“Wonderful, so it’s settled then!” said Thomas, moving to replace the dueling pistol in its case. Abigail looked back and forth at the two of them, confused at what had just transpired.

-3-

“…I’ll still be killing you, though,” said Collin, moving his pistol back up. “don’t put it away just yet.”

“But… the witness!” said Thomas, gesturing to Abigail in shock.

“I don’t care. I’ll see you dead tonight, and damn what comes next!”

“You’re a hopeless fool, McIntyre!” said Thomas, shouting in panic. “You’ll hang for this!”

“Eh,” shrugged Collin. “It’s her word against mine. I’ll take my chances.”

“Please, listen to reason!” shouted Abigail as she continued to tug at Collin’s arm.

“You run along now,” said Collin as he gave her a strong shove that sent her toppling on her back. “There. You ready Allaire? Turn around or I fire—and on my count!”

“One!” said Collin. As each man took a step, neither saw Abigail pick herself back up and stand between them. She had a few seconds to stop them, she reckoned, and she gathered her breath to scream.

“Two!” Collin took a second step.

“Gent-” Cried Abigail, her voice suddenly cut short by the sound of gunshot.

-4-

Thomas held his smoking gun aloft, his face alight with a premature grin of victory. “Didn’t expect that, did you…” and his eyes fell on young Abigail, limp on the ground with a bullet in her chest. “Abigail? Oh god! No!” Thomas’ face went slack as he keeled over.

“You yellow-bellied bastard!” said Collin, who had spun around upon hearing the gunshot. “I knew you’d try and cheat. I knew it! …And you’ve shot the Townsend girl?!”

“It just as well could have been you!” said Thomas, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief. “How was I to know she’d put herself between us?”

“If you’d waited, we’d have heard her before we shot!” Collin shook his bearded head and snarled. “A cheating coward and a child killer. I should shoot you down where you stand!” Collin raised his still-loaded gun at Thomas.

“Now you wait just a minute! I never wanted this duel! Her death is equally on you. Don’t you try to pass blame onto me!”

“That’s not how I see it,” said Collin, aiming down the scope to fire.

“Wait! Wait!” said Thomas, flailing about like a poorly devised puppet. “How do you think it’ll look, shooting me here? What will people say when they find the Mr. Townsend’s daughter and her tutor, both shot dead in the courtyards?”

Collin lowered his gun in hesitation.

“That’s right!” said Thomas, smiling maniacally beneath the sweat that coated his face. “it won’t look good! What’ll they think, Groundskeeper McIntyre?”

“I suppose it’d be a bit hard to explain…” said Collin.

-5-

“That’s right it would,” said Thomas, slowing his breath as he began to relax. “That’s right…”

The two stared at each other in dead silence, the gun hanging in the air like a neglected signpost between them.

“Well,” said Collin, with a drunken smirk. “They’ll hang the both of us for this!”

“Yes. That seems likely…” said Thomas, ringing his hands absent-mindedly.

“…What should we do, then?” said Collin.

“You can start by putting away that damned weapon!”

“Not a chance of that,” said Collin as he re-trained the firearm on Thomas. “I’ve agreed I won’t be shooting you for now, but said nothing about putting the gun down. I’m no fool, Allaire.”

“Very well,” said Thomas, as he began to pace back and forth. “Do as you will.”

“Well, what’ll we do then?”

“I’m not sure, Collin! Does it look like I find myself in these situations often? You come up with something!”

-6-

“Well… I could just shoot you now…” said Collin, flashing a lazy, boozy grin.

“On second thought, never mind. I’ll think of something.”

“Much obliged!” said Collin as he sat down on the ground, his gun trained on Thomas.

“Okay, I believe our best recourse is to hide the body.”

“Oh, you don’t say? I’d thought your fancy education would be worth more than that.”

“I’m open to suggestions!” said Thomas, irritation pushing past his fear.

“Relax, yellow-belly. I agree with you… But she’ll be missing. There’ll be questions.” said Collin.

“Indeed there will, but none we will be obliged to answer,” said Thomas. “There will be nothing linking us to her disappearance, if we do it right.”

“And how do you suppose that we manage this, anyhow? Old Townsend is a powerful man; he’s got resources. You can bet your fancy little mustache that he’ll comb the whole province with hounds before he lets up.”

“So they find the body,” said Thomas, throwing up his hands. “That doesn’t implicate us, necessarily!”

-7-

“What’ll they do when they find the body, and there’s a musket ball in her chest, eh? They’ll suspect foul play. They’ll start investigating. Get enough people in that party talking and they’ll narrow down on us—process of elimination and all.”

“Well, I’m impressed McIntyre, I didn’t know you had such an aptitude for foresight. You might have used it a bit sooner.”

Collin flashed a hairy smile and gave a wobbly curtsey, ever careful to keep his eyes trained on Thomas, but said no more.

“Well, I suppose necessity is the mother of all invention,” said Thomas with a sigh. He walked over to little Abigail’s lifeless corpse and stuck his fingers in the wound.

“Oy! Stop that right now, you!” said Collin, shaking his gun in Thomas’ face. “Have you no respect for the dead?”

“I’m removing the musket ball,” said Thomas as he pulled out his fingers, now glistening with blood. They held the misshapen iron pellet between them. “There, now there’s no bullet wound.”

“She still looks deadly wounded to me,” said Collin, pointing at the hole in Abigail’s chest with the tip of his boot.

“We can dump her off the cliff at the edge of the property. With any luck, the damage from the impact will make her bullet wound indistinguishable.”

“I suppose that works,” said Collin, staring at Thomas with a dark suspicion. “You’re an insidious devil, Allaire; a real sick man.”

“Well, you didn’t seem to have any ideas.” said Thomas, shrugging. He was starting to feel in control again, and his fear was dampened by a course of action. “I take no pleasure in this.”

-8-

“Pft,” said Collin, spitting at Thomas’ feet. “I could be fooled! You yellow-bellies are all the same. When push comes to shove, you’ve got not a spec of decency!”

“Fear will drive a man to do wretched things,” said Thomas, as he grabbed Abigail’s feet. “Are you going to help with this?”

“That’s a little girl, lying dead between us,” said Collin, incredulous. “Can’t we at least say a prayer?”

“You weren’t so sentimental when you started the duel,” said Thomas, raising a raven-like eyebrow.

“I’d have prayed for your soul, after I killed you,” said Collin.

“I’m touched,” said Thomas. He tucked his empty pistol under his belt and began to drag Abigail by the feet. Her wavy blonde hair painted a trail in the dirt behind her.

“Wait, you’re leaving a trail!” said Collin, as he kicked dust across the lines left by the hair.

“If you would grab her arms, that wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Not happening, yellow-belly, I’ll be keeping my gun on you.”

“Then we find ourselves at an impasse,” said Thomas, dropping the legs to the ground with a thud.

-9-

Collin stared at Thomas critically. “You promise no funny business, now?”

“No funny business.”

“Very well, then,” said Collin, sticking the pistol in his trousers. “I’ll grab the arms.”

“Much obliged.” said Thomas.

Collin and Thomas hauled the body out of the courtyard and across the field to the east, guided only by the dim light of a crescent moon. Progress was slow, as the dimensions of the corpse proved awkward to manage for the drunk and tipsy men, but they soldiered on despite this difficulty, in a heady silence. It was the sort of silence that thickened the air around them, and soon the weight of that quiet summer night became an unbearable oppressor.

“It’s a damn shame…” said Collin, desperate to fill the void. “The poor girl. I never meant for this to happen.”

“Indeed. And none of it needed to happen at all,” said Thomas. “If you weren’t so fixed on killing me.”

“I’m not the bastard that shot the girl!”

“You need not remind me…” said Thomas, and the silence returned for a moment. Eventually, he spoke again. “Tell me, what did I ever do to you, to make you want to kill me?”

“You really don’t know?” said Collin, dropping Abigail’s arms in vexation. “You can’t even fathom to guess?”

-10-

“Should I be able to?”

“Her name is Emma. Ring any bells?”

“The maid?”

“That’s right. The one you bedded!”

“Keep your voice down!” said Thomas, looking about. “We don’t want anyone finding us out here.”

“Damn you to hell!” whispered Collin fiercely. Thomas could hear tears choking up his voice.

“And what about Emma, then?”

“You broke her, you bastard! You broke her!”

“I did nothing of the sort.”

“She loved you, and you tossed her aside after you got what you wanted!” Collin’s voice was rising again. “Too beneath your station to keep around, was she?”

-11-

“…Ah,” said Thomas, nodding his head. “So you loved her, then.”

“Damn right I loved her! With all my heart! But she wouldn’t have me…” said Collin, now sobbing near uncontrollably. “I tried, oh believe me, I tried. I waited on that woman hand and foot: I fixed every creaky floorboard in her room, planted her favorite flowers in the garden; she was plenty thankful, but that was all I was due, a few thank yous.” Collin shook his head. “Tell me, Allaire, do you even know what her favorite flower is?”

Thomas shook his head, furrowing his brow in discomfiture.

“Course you don’t.” continued Collin. “Course you don’t. But she loved you. Oh she loved you before you spoke a word to her!”

“I’m sorry, Collin.”

“I accepted that she’d fancy you more. It hurt, you bet it did,” said Collin, ignoring Thomas. “But I accepted it, you being all sophisticated and handsome. I tried to be happy for her; It’d be a better life with you, I reckoned…” he wiped some snot from his nose. “But then I saw how you were treating her, like a play thing to be used up. I saw how you looked down on her, saw how she just accepted it! She didn’t even seem to notice, you treating her so poor.

“Here was the woman of my dreams, the creature I cherished more than anything, the girl I’d do anything for, and she ignored me, choosing a man who treated her like a stray animal. I tell you, that hurt more than anything… that man deserved to die.”

“I’m sorry, Collin. I had no idea.”

Collin waved his hand dismissively. “Save it, Allaire. There’s no need,” He cleared his throat of the last sniffle, and picked Abigail’s hands back up. “Enough blood’s been shed over this. I won’t be shooting you anytime soon.”

“I don’t know what to say, Collin. I…”

-12-

“Say nothing,” said Collin. “This is just the way it is.”

Thomas nodded and picked up Abigail’s feet. They were almost at the cliff.

“There it is!” said Collin, peering over the rocky edge of the drop. Far below, there was the faint noise of a trickling stream, but the dark of night obscured the fall from sight. “I can’t see nothing down there. It’s all blackness.”

“Don’t worry, the fall’s steep enough for our purposes,” said Thomas. “Oh, and before I forget—your pistol.” Thomas presented the gun to Collin. “God knows, I want nothing to do with it.”

“Ah, right. I suppose I should keep the set whole.” said Collin, accepting the pistol with a reluctant hand, and sticking it in his trousers with the other one. “So what’s the story, then? She wandered out here and fell down the cliff?”

“Yes. Something like that,” said Thomas. There was a pause as the two men stood at the lip of the fall, staring at the child’s body between them. A light wind picked up over the cliff, and whistled between the rocks like a restless soul in flight. It made Collin’s hairs stand on end.

“Let’s get this over with,” said Collin, picking the arms back up.

Thomas nodded, grabbing the legs. “On three.” he said. “One. two. three!”

They let out stifled grunts, and hoisted Abigail Townsend into the gorge below. Within a few seconds, there was a watery thud as the body hit the riverbed in the depths of darkness. Upon hearing the noise, Collin nodded and turned away from the cliff, but Thomas moved to block his path, his eyes darting about in a nervous fever.

“What is it, Allaire?” said Collin, unsettled by the look in his eyes.

-13-

“I’m sorry. I truly am,” said Thomas.

“Sorry for wha-” said Collin, his words suddenly interrupted by Thomas’ boot digging into his solar plexus. He crumpled to the ground, winded.

“Idiot! You thought you were going to try and kill me and get away with it? Not a chance.” said Thomas as he kicked Collin’s head savagely.

“But…” said Collin, dazed on his back, head dangling over the cliff. “I forgave you.”

“I’m afraid that’s not enough. You’re a liability, you see? One that’s proven quite risky to my health,” said Thomas, as he nudged Collin’s waist with his foot. “And it would be much better for me if you just went away.”

Collin could feel his center of gravity shifting over the edge of the cliff and scrambled to right himself, but his drunk muscles responded lazily to his commands, and Thomas’ boot fell on him relentlessly. Soon, his body would join Abigail’s down in the abyss.

Unless… Thought Collin, reaching for the loaded gun in his trousers. I blow his head off. He pulled the pistol out and aimed it as quickly as he could, but Thomas grabbed the barrel of the weapon and directed it away from his person.

“Stupid fool! As if I hadn’t seen that coming?” said Thomas, but he still wrestled for control of the gun.

The two struggled, each fighting with all their strength to gain the upper hand. Thomas kicked at Collin’s ribs furiously as he tried to torque the pistol out of his wrist, but Collin was a sturdy man who had endured a lifetime of physical labor, and held firm.

Then, suddenly, a shot rang off. The loud noise of the firing gun cleansed the night of sound once more, and there was total silence as Thomas dropped to his knees, clutching his chest.

-14-

“I’m dying!” said Thomas, eyes wide. “You’ve killed me!”

“Course I did, you dirty yellow-belly. Course I did.”

“You’ll hang for this! You’ve got no cover story now!” said Thomas, his words weakening with his breath. “You’ll hang…”

Collin didn’t respond, and watched in silence as Thomas’ life flickered out before him. After a few moments, he stood up and tapped the body with his foot. It rocked, but remained limp. Collin nodded and let himself collapse back onto the ground; his nose throbbed with a deep pain, and he could taste blood in his mouth. “Yep, that’ll hurt later.” he said to himself.

Morning was fast approaching, and the sky overhead had already turned an inky blue with the coming dawn. A few particularly industrious birds chirped in the distance, and Collin could almost smell the dew on the grass through his broken nose. It was turning into a beautiful day, but Collin’s brain was slowly sobering, and would do anything to forget the corpses that haunted his vision when he shut his eyes.

“Well, quite a mess this is.” he said to himself, staring at the remains of Thomas Allaire. “Quite a damned mess.”

He lay there, for a time, unsure of what to do. He considered going back to the Mansion and laying low, but with his busted up face, there would be too many questions. So then he considered doing the noble thing, and confessing everything to Mr. Townsend; he’d probably hang, but at least he’d die with a clear conscious. “But Emma,” he thought out loud, realizing that he would know her hatred before his death. He pictured the scorn spilling from those pretty green eyes, triumphant, as she watched the noose tighten around his neck.

“No, that won’t do.” he said to himself. “That won’t do at all.” So Collin stood and walked to the edge of the cliff, sat back down, and swung his legs over the edge… But caught between a cowardice of two sorts, he remained paralyzed, his feet dangling like those of a child on a swing. “Look at this, Thomas!” he said, laughing half heartedly. “You’ve turned me into a god damned yellow belly.”

-15-

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