How soft the rolling fields seem this morning! Each one cordoned off by a picket fence and framed in forests of copper and gold. The familiar fragrance of my uncle’s tobacco crops consumes the entirety of my stagecoach and the surrounding valleys of the Potomac. Memories of chasing small game through that wood as a child warm my spirit, but I have come today for another purpose.
“Ho, there!” the driver calls, halting the team before my uncle’s estate.
An aristocratic footman stands watch over the matching ornate front doors. His powdered wig crowns his lofty stature, offering the final complement to his regal attire.
“Good morning,” I say, as he greets me with a bow.
The footman rights his torso and extends his arm to the opposite end of the mansion. “Master John waits for you on the southern lawn, sir.”
I nod as I pass, thank him, and make a quick line for the doors onto the rear veranda. She doesn’t need to know any of this. It’s gentleman’s business. My palms turn cold as I pass through my aunt’s sitting room. Why can’t John understand? I cannot stop the matters of my heart any more than I can slow a runaway stallion. How dare he force my love to endure such a decision!
Edgar, their faithful butler, greets me with the slightest bow as I descend the stone stairs into the southern lawn. A tall row of pines stands watch over the perimeter of this Mediterranean-themed garden.
“If you please,” Edgar says, extending an open hand deeper into the gardens.
John stands stoic in the far corner, his back turned away from me. On any other day, his gleaming blond hair would be reason for a braggart’s feud. A feud of different sort ferments in his educated mind today, I’m certain.
“I didn’t think you would come,” he says. His southern drawl makes him less and less discernable from his father every time we meet.
“You know I don’t want this, John.”
His sleek head of hair trembles. “You brought it to this, Gabriel. I had no other choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” I say, striding over to his side. I set my left hand on his elbow. “Let us live our lives in peace.”
He tugs his jacket free of my feeble grasp and storms past me to the stone bench next to Edgar. His lifelong servant raises a lavish oaken chest and opens its lid. My hands won’t stop trembling.
“If you please,” Edgar says. He lowers his brown eyes to the short grass opposite John. I oblige him and take apprehensive steps to join them. The melting mists do little to cool my feverish mind.
Edgar nods to the pair of pistols in the chest. “Choose your weapons.”
Fine weapons they are! Barrels hammered from a single piece of iron and polished walnut hilts inlaid with curling leaves of sterling silver. Both masterpieces rest in a velvet bed.
“You first,” John says, rolling up the cuffs of his jacket.
“I have to defend her honor, Gabe.” He jabs his index finger into the chest. “Now, choose.”
Should I take the one on his side of the box or my own? He did mark his territory on that side right away. Would John possess an icy heart capable of such a fiendish act? She is his little sister. Perhaps, I shouldn’t underestimate a brother’s fury.
I take the pistol nearest me. Its hilt feels cold and lifeless.
“Very well,” John says, taking the other for his own.
He strides to the center of the lawn and turns his back on me for a second time.
“Ten paces,” Edgar instructs, closing the small chest, “then, turn and fire.”
I walk on unsteady legs to mirror John’s position. My heightened senses pick up his hammer’s click. In slow and deliberate motions, I raise my pistol to my side and draw its silver hammer back.
“John, I beg of you. There has to be a better honor than this.”
“Better honor?” His tone drips with sarcastic venom.
“You shame both houses with your torrid affair, cousin!” His boot crunches in the short grass. “One.”
I mimic his actions on my side, the point of no return slipping through my grasp. The Virginia air smells fresher; the birches pearled bark – more captivating.
My right foot passes over the left and mashes a fallen leaf into the ground. One pace after another, we advance across the lawn.
“Emily and I can’t help our feelings for one another anymore than you for Johanna.”
Sweet finch! Why must you mock me with your songs of love and happiness?
“No!” It’s Emily. Her breaths come in labored spasms as she storms off the veranda. “John, enough!”
His relentless march continues. “Nine.”
I hear my beating heart in my ears. A high-pitched ringing – not that of a bell, but some other tone – clutters my mind. I steel my nerves for the inevitable.
“Gabriel, don’t.” The patter of her bare feet on the stone stairs turns to hissing grass. “You don’t understand.”
I spin on my boot heels and take aim. How can I do it? Sunbeams race down the barrel as its bead passes over his chest. My round speeds off in a cloud of sulfurous white smoke. It sinks into his torso with a metallic ping.
In the same breath, his mini-ball bores a hole deep into my ribcage. Searing heat and pain drop me where I stand. The magnificent firearm dangles on my finger a moment longer, and then falls to the decaying leaves.
“Gabriel!” She’s at my side. Her supple hands cradle my head next to her stomach. “John. What have you done?”
His approaching footsteps betray his attempts to conceal his arrogance. “Your appraisal of both my speed and honesty were at fault, cousin.”
I blink back another wave of tears as he draws a silver serving platter from inside his jacket. A lone indentation blemishes its otherwise immaculate surface. It falls to my other side with a dull thud. I draw my right hand before me. Just as I supposed – drenched in bright red blood. My head lulls to one side. It’s getting harder to inhale. Shimmering silver, then darkness.