‘A duel! A duel!’ The words spread around town like sickness in winter.
‘Tomorrow at dawn.’
Nobody quite knew who.
‘Out in the evergreens.’
Of course, people speculated and by early evening there were at least eight potential reasons for the duel and a dozen likely participants.
Nobody much slept that night.
In the predawn darkness hushed conversations and hurried footsteps made their way to the dueling circle, out in the evergreens. People crowded amongst the trees and onto the lower branches, hushing one another and waiting with wide eyes.
Dawn came, quick, as it was accustomed to do. ‘And then there was light,’ the saying went.
A half-hour passed, slow. The new day’s light created shadows that made the children jump and point but nobody marched through, looking tall and blustery and holding a cocked pistol at their side, to stand in the sunlight.
Then, just as everybody was about to give up and head home, into the clearing strode a man. Dragging another man, unconscious, behind him. Immediately all the rustles and whispers subsided. And while nobody spoke, all who understood had the same thoughts: This wasn’t proper form; this man didn’t look familiar.
The striding man, wearing a jacket that brushed at his calves and boots darker than midnight, stopped dead center of the clearing and let go his load.
“Do I have witnesses?” he called out, voice timber-cracking.
Nobody answered. They were too busy figuring out who he might be.
Again the man said, “Do I have witnesses?”
Tram Bindle, the butcher, stepped forward. “Aye, you have witnesses.”
“Good.” The man smiled, thin-lipped and toothy. “I can see many shapes amongst the trees but needed to be sure.”
One of the shapes shouted, “Who are you?”
“I am Lieutenant Hirash Stolyan of Sunfleet Rangers, here to arrest the criminal Reginald O’Hannon.”
Murmured conversations. ‘Stolyan? There isn’t anybody named Stolyan in town. Or O’Hannon. And no business named Sunfleet Rangers, either.’
Archie Rusyek, who ran the general store with his three sons, limped forward and squinted at Stolyan. “I know you. You’re that traveler who wandered into town, month or two ago. Been haunting the alley beside my store. You’ve shaved your beard off; that’s why we don’t recognize you.”
Of course. It was obvious once someone pointed it out.
“But who’s this you’ve dragged in here with you?” Rusyek shuffled a few steps closer. “Why, that’s North!”
The townspeople racked their brains. ‘North? Who’s North?’
“He arrived about a year ago,” Rusyek said. “Took up in one of the fields, until someone offered him a room at Brokel’s Inn. Keeps to himself, does the odd fixit here and there.”
Ah, yes. Everybody knew him by sight, but nobody knew him by name.
Bindle cleared his throat. “Good, we know who the duelers are. But for this to be official we need for North to be awake and consenting.”
“O’Hannon,” Stolyan said.
“His name isn’t North. It’s Reginald O’Hannon.”
Bindle had a notebook out and scrawled in it, pencil clutched between meaty fingers. “I’ll put him down as Reginald O’Hannon North.”
Stolyan pursed his lips. “And this isn’t a duel.”
“Yes, it is. We’re here at the dueling place, this duel was registered yesterday at the jail, and I’m recording the official dueling notes. Therefore this must be a duel.”
“I only need witnesses to the authenticity of the arrest.”
“You can’t register a duel and not carry it through due process, Mister Stolyan. If North objects to the duel, then you two can discuss what happens next. But only then.”
After giving his nose a scratch and furrowing his brow, Stolyan nodded. “Okay. The orders I have don’t specify that I must deliver O’Hannon alive. It’s just less messy that way.”
A groan from the grass. Rusyek said, “He’s coming around.”
“So,” Bindle said, “what are the reasons for this duel?”
“Well, there are many, but I’ll keep it simple. This man, this criminal, Reginald O’Hannon, is wanted on six hundred counts of first-degree murder. With no thought to the safety of his crew or his superiors’ orders he piloted his ship directly into enemy fire and then personally used one of the escape vessels for himself, leaving his crew to die at the hands of the enemy. What is more—”
“That’s all we need, Mister Stolyan.” None of it made much sense and the six hundred counts of first-degree murder sounded more than a little extravagant, but duels had been fought over stranger allegations. “Of course, the duel can’t go ahead unless the accused party is consenting.”
Another groan from the grass, and movement.
All in the clearing looked down at North; all standing about the edges of the clearing craned their necks and stood on tiptoes to see what was going on. No-one could ever recall a duel this dramatic!
North raised himself onto an elbow, his blue eyes darting one to the other around the faces he could see. “Duel?”
“Yes, Mister North,” Bindle said, still writing. “Accusations have been brought against you by Mister Stolyan here, and a duel formally registered. But for this to take place you need to provide your consent and we need to witness that you are in sound frame of mind when you do so.”
“Sure, I agree.”
“Don’t you want to hear the reasons for the duel?”
“No,” North said, pulling himself into a sitting position and flexing craggy fingers. Then he grinned at Stolyan, whose look reminded Bindle of how a butcher might regard a dead animal before he began carving it up.
North rolled some spit about in his mouth and swallowed. “But I need a pistol. I don’t seem to have mine with me.”
Barnaby, the jailer, offered his.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Bindle’s voice rose effortlessly to the tops of the tallest trees. “We have a duel.”
Rusyek vacated to the edges of the clearing and two of his sons volunteered to be the duelers’ seconds. It took a bit of prompting for Stolyan to hand over his weapon, which looked different to any pistol either of Rusyek’s sons had ever seen: impossibly silver and lighter than a leaf.
Bindle retreated a few paces. “Gentlemen, please stand back to back and pace twelve steps out. Remain facing away from each other. Your seconds will hand you your pistols, in their holsters, and you will strap them on. When I whistle you will then turn and fire. The first to fall is the loser.”
Quick shuffling took place amongst those at clearing’s edge who were within the declared firing line; they either packed themselves in somewhere else or took their chances crouching or lying chest-down where they stood.
Everybody noticed North’s head darting from side to side, his eyes looking over and through all of them. ‘He’s going to run,’ was the consensus, but he didn’t.
“Are we ready, gentlemen?” Bindle said.
Both men nodded.
The seconds handed the duelers their guns and they strapped them on. The clearing fell completely silent. Even the nearby birds thought better of chirping.
And then a shrieking whistle and both men whirled about, pulling their guns from their holsters and firing. Two shots, but only one report? Nobody could watch both men at once and some saw Stolyan jerk his right shoulder back and grimace and others saw what couldn’t be possible. North disappeared. Just like that. Into thin air. One moment he stood there, knees slightly bent, firing, his teeth bared, and then he was gone. Some later said a flash of light flew from Stolyan’s muzzle into North, but the others dismissed that as silly talk. Nobody could see bullets fly.
But regardless of what people thought they saw, North was gone.
Shocked eyes stared at where he had been and then over at Stolyan, who clasped a hand to his shoulder, shrugged it a couple times and said in a throaty voice, “A stinger, that was.”
Nobody moved. Bindle held his pencil above his notepad, but didn’t have the wits to write. The jaws of Rusyek’s two sons hung open dumbly.
“You were all witnesses?” Stolyan asked.
Bindle nodded, unable to find words.
“Good.” Then Stolyan disappeared too.
Definitely a flash of light this time and Stolyan definitely vanished, just as North had.
Silence hung about for the next few minutes, everybody expecting the two men to reappear from the trees. Finally Bindle walked over to the spot Stolyan had stood and peered at the grass. Then he made his way over to where he thought North had stood and peered at the grass.
“Well?” someone said.
“Nothing.” Bindle scratched his head with his pencil and bent to pick up the jailer’s pistol. “Like they were never here.”
‘How can that be?’ raced around the edges. Conversation started, rose in volume, everybody offering theories at once.
“The Circus,” said a voice over the babble. Peggy Scheller, the green-grocer’s wife.
“Yes, the Circus,” Allam Veebeers, the milliner, said. “Of course.”
‘Why the Circus?’ everybody wanted to know.
“Well,” Scheller said, “they’re coming next month, aren’t they? And last time they were here they didn’t make very much money. We wanted new shows and amusements and didn’t bother going more than once.”
“It makes perfect sense,” said Veebeers. “They send a couple of people in to hang about a bit and then they show us one of their new tricks, but do it in a way that really grabs our attention, and suddenly we all want to spend our money there and see the shows. It’s brilliant.”
“I bet you knew all about this, Archie Rusyek, you old sly dog!” Scheller said.
Rusyek didn’t, but it sounded plausible and if people thought he was in the know they were more likely to come into his shop for a gossip and that meant they would buy extra things while they talked, so he said, head inclined modestly, “Well, I can’t really say one way or the other.”
That sealed the deal. The Circus it was, pulling the best stunt they’d ever seen. Everybody wandered back to town, replaying the duel over and over, wondering how the two duelers did it and whether they were still hiding in the forest waiting for nightfall before dashing back to the Circus.
Everybody except for little Joshua Thornleaf. He’d watched the duel from directly behind North, belly-first on the grass, and he knew Bindle looked at the wrong spot in the clearing for where North had been. And he also knew he saw something drop to the grass just after North disappeared.
So Joshua waited until he was sure the clearing and trees were empty, then crawled over to where North had stood.
And, sure enough, there was a pile of ash hidden amongst the grass. Joshua touched some of it. Still warm. But that wasn’t what he’d seen falling. He thrust his hand into the ash, wiggling his fingers around until he found something hard and cold.
He picked it up, blew on it, turned it over in his hand. A medallion, like the jailer’s, but silver, not bronze, and shinier.
On the front was a large pale-green circle with rings around it and little blotches of brown here and there inside. Above the circle the words Sunfleet Command were plainly etched, and below, Captain O’Hannon. And on the back another inscription that Joshua read with squinted eyes and moving lips: It is the duty of all men to conquer the stars.
He looked at the medallion some more, holding it up to the sun, turning it over, smiling as light glinted off it.
Then he put it in his pocket and strolled back towards town, whistling the Circus theme and imagining what it would be like to vanish into thin air.
Did you enjoy this story? Read more of my short fiction here on Simily and in Dry Ice: A Short Story Collection, available at all good electronic bookstores!
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