Why am I early? This is insane, he thought.
The damp morning cold could not compare to the ice that sat in his stomach. Billy Anspach absently watched wisps of fog hover above the wet grass. The field shimmered with tiny gems that held the first sunbeams lancing through the bare trees and patchy mists.
Through the ground Billy felt the approach of horses before he heard them. Four Morgans of the distinctively chestnut-red Hawley line emerged from the trees and wound around the curving track that followed Antietam Creek. The commanding figure of George Hawley led three men whom Billy knew only by sight.
A hundred paces from Billy, George Hawley swept off his horse before it came to a full stop, moving with agility not usually seen in one so large. The three others also dismounted and one of them walked briskly toward Billy. When ten feet away, he said, “Mr. Anspach, I am Jason Weaver, Mr. Hawley’s second. Where is your second?”
“What’s a second?”
“I see.” Weaver turned on his heel and returned to Hawley, who still had not looked at Billy. Billy heard Hawley’s voice rise and watched him pound a fist into his other hand. Weaver returned. “Mr. Anspach, Mr. Hawley offers Cornelius Ethridge as your second. Mr. Ethridge has acted as second on quite a number of duels. Will this be satisfactory?”
In a blur, Billy chose his weapon from a carved cherrywood box that held two ivory-handled dueling pieces. Before Billy knew what had happened, Mr. Ethridge divorced himself from the Hawley entourage, set up a small folding table, and began loading Billy’s pistol. Billy watched Ethridge measure black powder and pour it down the barrel, watched him push a piece of wadding down with the ramrod. Then Billy’s eyes focused on the gray sphere Ethridge took from a metal canister. Ethridge set this pill of lead on the barrel’s mouth, then covered it with another piece of wadding and pushed everything home with the ramrod. Ethridge then pulled back the hammer and set a primer cap on the nipple and handed the pistol to Billy. The metal now hung heavy from the end of Billy’s arm.
Across the clearing, George Hawley threw off his riding cape. Billy blinked as he tried to focus on the big man. Hawley wore a gray tunic and pants barely distinguishable from the gray bark of the bare trees and the fog. Billy examined his own brown pants and dark blue jacket that sharply contrasted with the background. He cursed himself for not thinking of such things.
Cornelius Ethridge stepped close. “Have you ever dueled, Mr. Anspach?”
“That tall gentleman over there, Hamish Wallace, will act as referee. When he calls, both you and Mr. Hawley will assemble in front of him. He will place you back-to-back. Then he will instruct you to take twenty paces away from each other. He will then tell you to turn and fire. Aim and fire as quickly or as slowly as you choose. The duel is not finished until you both fire your pistols or one of you cannot continue. If neither of you is hit, and Mr. Hawley, as the aggrieved party, wants to continue, we reload and have another exchange. Any questions?”
“Which is better? Fast or slow?”
“It depends on your shooting, Mr. Anspach. Some take their time and aim carefully; some let fly quickly to keep from being hit first.”
“And Hawley? What does he do?”
“It would not be seemly for me to say.”
Wallace moved to the center of the clearing and stood alone. “Gentlemen,” he called. In the still morning, his voice seemed unusually loud. Billy found his feet walking of their own volition until he stared up into the dark, haunted eyes of Hamish Wallace.
Wallace nodded to each man in turn and said, “Are we ready to start, gentlemen?”
“Of course, we’re ready. Let’s get things moving here, Wallace.” For the first time, George Hawley looked at his opponent.
Hawley’s eyes gleamed like an enraged feral hog, lacking any of God’s higher attributes. Billy suddenly felt very small and very weak. He did not understand how he had come to be in this place.
The two men faced each other as Hamish Wallace’s voice droned through preliminaries. In those few seconds, Billy’s toe touched something hard in the soft ground. Absently, Billy pushed his toe into the obstruction and uncovered a brass belt buckle. Throughout the area people had been finding strange tokens of the battle that had taken place three months earlier. Here lay a relic of some man’s life, now completely forgotten. How much blood had seeped into this soil? Billy wanted to throw up, but he had nothing in his stomach.
Pointing at the belt buckle, Hawley said, “That’ll be you soon enough, boy.”
One second Billy was looking into the tunnels of hate that held Hawley’s eyes, the next he was counting off his steps as Wallace’s voice cut through the stillness. Somehow, when he heard twenty, he remembered to stop. Then time stretched and Billy became aware of everything around him.
The pungency of damp oak leaves rose from underfoot. Upstream, a heron’s sharp kraaanking call reverberated. Antietam Creek, low now, burbled over smooth stones rimmed with ice. Red-winged blackbirds in low thickets along the shore rang their first metallic notes of the day.
The world was awakening. Living creatures, fat from a summerful of life, poked their heads into the day and chittered and squawked, and scratched, and buzzed. Billy Anspach wondered why he was holding four pounds of metal that could send a heavy pill of lead through space and cleave a man’s head in two.
At Hamish Wallace’s command, Billy turned, aimed, and fired. At the same instant, a mushroom of blue smoke belched out of the gray fog and a star-hot pellet of metal buried itself in the meat of Billy’s chest and cut a tunnel of pain through rib and flesh and shattered his left shoulder blade before it reentered the air, flying on to burrow an inch deep in the soft trunk of a poplar tree.
The bullet had hit no vital organs, but the pressure wave of the bullet’s impact stunned Billy’s heart. Blood stopped flowing through his veins and his body began to die.
Cornelius Ethridge bent over Billy’s blood-soaked body. From across the clearing, Hawley growled, “Ethridge bring me my damned pistol.” Ethridge trotted across the wet grass to the cherrywood box and laid the pistol into its velvet-cushioned bed, next to its mate. He closed the lid and turned the key in the brass lock. Straightening up and digging in his jacket pocket, Ethridge then extended his right hand to Hawley, palm up. Beside the brass key a gray sphere of lead sat in sharp contrast to soft pink flesh. They exchanged a silent nod.
Hawley likewise dug in his pocket and extracted a Mormon twenty-dollar gold piece that caught the winter light and turned it to summer in Hawley’s meaty paw. “Metal for metal,” he said as he dropped the heavy coin onto Ethridge’s palm and then scooped up the round shot and the key. He tossed the shot in his hand a couple of times. “You got fast hands there, Ethridge. Remind me never to play poker with you.”
Hawley secured the pistol box behind his saddle and swung up onto his horse. “Throw that trash in the creek. Let’s fatten up them catfish for spring fishin’.” He dug his heels into his mount and galloped away followed by his two other associates, leaving Ethridge behind.