The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
Keith's investigations proceeded until at last he felt justified in preferring before the Bar Association charges of irregular practice against James Ware, Bernard Black, and--to his great regret--Calhoun Bennett. He conceived he had enough evidence to convict these men legally, but he as yet shrank from asking for an indictment against them, preferring at first to try for their discipline before their fellow lawyers. If the Bar Association failed, however, he had every intention of pressing the matter in the courts.
Almost immediately after the filing of the complaint he was waited on in his office by a man only slightly known to him, Major Marmaduke Miles. The major's occupation in life was obscure. He was a red-faced, tightly buttoned, full-jowled, choleric Southerner of the ultra-punctilious brand, always well dressed in quaint and rather old-fashioned garments, with charming manners, and the reminiscence of good looks lost in a florid and apoplectic habit. This person entered Keith's office, greeted him formally, declined a chair. Standing very erect before Keith's desk, his beaver hat poised on his left forearm, he said:
"I am requested, suh, to enquiah of yo' the name of a friend with whom I can confer."
"If that means a challenge, Major, I must first ask the name of your principal," returned Keith.
"I am actin' fo' Mr. Calhoun Bennett, suh," stated the major.
"Tell Cal Bennett I will not fight him," said Keith quietly.
The major was plainly flabbergasted, and for a moment puffed his red cheeks in and out rapidly.
"You mean to tell me, suh, that yo' refuse the satisfaction due a gentleman after affrontin' him?"
"I won't fight Cal Bennett," repeated Keith patiently.
The major turned even redder, and swelled so visibly that Keith, in spite of his sad realization of the gravity of the affair, caught himself guiltily in a boyish anticipation that some of the major's strained buttons would pop.
"I shall so repo't to my principal, suh. But I may add, suh, that in my opinion, suh, yo' are conductin' yo'self in a manner unbecomin' to a gentleman; and othuh gentlemen will say so, suh! They may go even farthah and stigmatize yo' conduct as cowardly, suh! And it might even be that I, suh, would agree with that expression, suh!"
The major glowered. Keith smiled wearily. It did not to him at the moment that this would be so great a calamity.
"I am sorry to have forfeited your good opinion, Major," he contented himself with saying.
The major marched straight back to the Monumental, where Bennett and a number of friends were awaiting the result of his mission. The major's angry passions had been rising, every foot of the way.
"He won't fight, suh!" he bellowed, slamming his cane across the table. "He won't fight! And I stigmatized him to his face as a white-livered hound!"
Calhoun Bennett sank back pale, and speechless. His companions deluged him with advice.
"Horsewhip the craven publicly." "Warn him to go heeled, and then force the issue!" "Shoot him down like the dog he is!"
But the major's mighty bellow dominated everything.
"I claim the privilege!" he roared. "Egad, I demand the privilege! It is my right! I am insulted by such a rebuff! Now that I have acquitted myself of Cal's errand, I will call him out myself. Ain't that right, Cal? I'll make the hound fight!"
The old major looked redder and fiercer than ever. There could be no doubt that he would make any one fight, once he started out to do so, and that he would carry the matter through. He was brave enough.
But little Jimmy Ware, who had been doing some thinking, here spoke up. It seemed to him a good chance to get a reputation without any risk. Since James King of William had uncompromisingly refused to fight duels, his example had been followed. A strong party of those having conscientious scruples against the practice had come into being. Keith's refusal to fight Bennett, to Ware's mind, indicated that he belonged to this class. It looked safe.
"Pardon me, Major," he broke in suavely; "but each in turn. I claim the right. Cal had first chance because he had personally warned the man of the consequences. But I am equally accused. You must admit my prior claim."
The major came off the boil. Puffing his red cheeks in and out he considered.
"Yo're right, suh," he conceded reluctantly.
After considerable persuasion, and some flattery as to his familiarity with the niceties of the Code, the major consented to bear Jimmy's defiance. He entered Keith's office again, stiffer than a ramrod. Keith smiled at him.
"There's no use, Major, I won't fight Cal Bennett," he greeted his visitor.
"I am the bearer of a challenge from Mistah James Ware," he announced.
"What!" yelled Keith, so suddenly and violently that Major Miles recoiled a step.
"From Mistah James Ware," he repeated.
Keith laughed savagely.
"Oh, I'll fight him," he growled; "gladly; any time he wants it."
The major's face lit up.
"If you'll name yo' friend, suh," he suggested.
"Friend? Friend? What for? I'm capable of arranging this. I haven't time to hunt up a friend."
"It's customary," objected the major.
"Look here," Keith swept on, "I'm the challenged party and I have the say- so, haven't I?"
"Yo' can name the weapons," conceded Major Marmaduke Miles.
"All right, we'll call this revolvers, navy revolvers--biggest there are, whatever that is. And close up. None of your half-mile shooting."
"Ten yards," suggested Major Miles with unholy joy.
"And right away--this afternoon," went on Keith. "If that little runt wants trouble, egad he's going to have all his little skin will hold."
But the major would not have this. It was not done. He waived conducting his negotiations through a second, but that was as far as his conventional soul would go. He held out for three o'clock the following afternoon.
"And I wish to apologize, Mistah Keith," he said, on parting, "fo' my ill- considered words of a short time ago. I misunderstood yo' reasons fo' refusin' to fight Mistah Bennett."
He bowed his rotund, tightly buttoned little figure and departed, to strike Jimmy Ware with complete consternation.
Duels in the fifties were almost an acknowledged public institution. Although technically illegal, no one was ever convicted of any of the consequences of such encounters. They were conducted quite openly. Indeed, some of the more famous were actively advertised by steamboat men, who carried excursions to the field. Keith's acceptance of Ware's challenge aroused the keenest interest. Outside the prominence of the men involved, a vague feeling was current that in their persons were symbolized opposing forces in the city's growth. As yet these forces had not segregated to that point where champions were demanded, or indeed would be recognized as such, but vague feelings of antagonism, of alignments, were abroad. Those who later would constitute the Law and Order class generally sympathized with Ware; those whom history was to know as the Vigilantes felt stirrings of partisanship for Keith. Therefore, the following afternoon a small flotilla set sail for the Contra Costa shore, and a crowd of several hundred spectators disembarked at the chosen duelling ground.
Nan knew nothing of all this. Keith was now in such depths of low spirits that his wearied soul did not much care what became of him. He put his affairs in shape, shrugged his shoulders, and went to the encounter with absolute indifference.
The preliminaries were soon over. Keith found himself facing Jimmy Ware at the distance he had himself chosen. A double line of spectators stood at a respectful space on either side. Major Miles and an acquaintance of Keith's who had volunteered to act for him were posted nearer at hand. Keith had listened attentively to the instructions. The word was to be given--one, two, three. Fire! Between the first and last words the duellists were to discharge the first shot from their weapons. After that they were to fire at will. One shot would have sufficed Jimmy Ware; but Keith, without emotion, filed with a dead indifference to any possible danger and a savage contempt for the whole proceedings, had insisted on the full measure. He was totally unaccustomed to weapons. At the word of command he raised the revolver and fired, carelessly but coolly, and without result. One after the other he discharged the six chambers of his weapon, aiming as well as he knew how. It did not occur to him that Ware was firing at him. After the sixth miss he threw the revolver away in cold disgust.
"This is a farce," said he, "and I'm not going to be fool enough to take part in it any longer."
Jimmy Ware, delighted at finding himself unharmed, and confident now that bluff would go, started to say something lofty and disdainful. Keith whirled back on him.
"If you want 'satisfaction,' as you call it, you'll get it, and you'll get it plenty! I'm sick of being made a fool of. Just open your ugly head to me again, and I'll knock it off your shoulders!" His eye smouldered dangerously, and Jimmy Ware, very uncertain in his mind, took refuge in a haughty look. Keith glared at him moment, then turned to the crowd: "I'll give all of you fair warning," said he. "I'm going to do my legal duty in all things; and I'm not going to fight duels. Anybody who interferes with me is going to get into trouble!"
An uproar ensued. All this was most irregular, unprecedented, a disgrace to a gentlemen's meeting. The major roared like a bull. If a man would not fight, would not defend his actions, how could a gentleman get at him except by street brawling or assassination, and both of these were repugnant to finer feelings. A dozen fire-eaters felt themselves personally insulted. The crowd surrounded Keith, shouting at him, jostling him, threatening. A cool, somewhat amused voice broke in.
"Gentlemen," said Talbot Ward, in so decided a tone that they turned to hear. "I am a neutral non-partisan in this little war, I am for neither party, for neither opinion, in the matter. I, like Mr, Keith, never fight duels. But may I suggest--merely in the interest of fair play--that for the moment you are forgetting yourselves? My opinion coincides with Mr. Keith's that duelling is a foolish sort of game, but it is a game, and recognized; and if you are going to play it, why not stick to its rules? Mr. Keith, and Mr. Ware have exchanged shots. Mr. Ware has therefore had 'satisfaction.' Now Mr. Keith and I going to walk--quietly--to the boat. We do not expect to be molested."
"By God, Tal!" cried Major Miles in astonishment, "ye' don't mean to tell me yo're linin' yourself up on the side of that blackleg!"
"Well," put in a new voice, a very cheerful voice, "I don't pretend to be neutral, and I'd just as lief fight duels as not, and I'm willing to state to you all that though I don't know a damn thing about this case nor its merits, I like this man's style. And I'm ready to state that I'll take his place and fight any--or all of you--right here and now. You, Major?"
All eyes turned to him. He was a dark, eager youth, standing with his slouch hat in his hand, his head thrown back, his mop of shiny black hair tossed from his forehead, his eyes glowing. The major hummed and fussed.
"I have absolutely no quarrel with you, suh!" he said.
"Nor with my friend yonder?" insisted the newcomer.
"I should esteem it beneath my dignity to fight with a craven and a coward, suh!" the major saved his face.
The stranger glanced at Keith, an amused light in his eyes.
"We'll let it go at that," he conceded. "Anybody else?" he challenged, eying them.
Every one seemed busy getting ready to go home, and appeared not to hear him. After a moment he put on his felt hat and joined Keith and Ward, who were walking slowly toward the landing.
"Well," remarked a rough-looking Yankee--our old friend Graves of the Eurekas to his friend Carter--"I didn't know anything would cool off the major like that!"
"I reckon the major knew who he was talking to," replied Carter.
"Who is the cuss? I never saw him before."
"Don't you know him? I reckon you must have heard of him, anyway. He's just down from the Sierra. That's the express rider, Johnny Fairfax--Diamond Jack, they call him."
Graves whistled an enlightened whistle.