The Tenth Man
by Michael Leonard
The warm night buzzed with the song of swamp crickets and the tenth man was still alive.
The Judge’s office faced the courthouse green, and even that somber old drunkard found the sights and smells of a spring evening more alluring than his drab office.
“Doctor, our business seems complete,” he said. “I tell you, there’s an inn across the alley that offers the finest oysters in Mississippi. Why not join me for a plate and a pint this fine evening?”
The suggestion was entirely agreeable to me. My business took me from home before the rising of sun or servants, and it was now late evening.
The old Judge gripped me tightly above the elbow and led me down the back stairs and across the rutted alleyway. The aroma of exotic cooking spices challenged the heavy river smells of Natchez.
On most nights, the back of Marcel’s Inn hides in shadow, but the rising moon showed a white frame structure of two stories. On one side, a covered porch in the Charleston style ran the length of the building. The brick walk we followed was thickly bordered with rose bushes, and the spreading tails of the Judge’s ample frock coat caught and pulled at the thorns as we passed.
He led me to the rear entrance, chattering about the recent Presidential election and the collapse of Northern political strength. So intense was his commentary that he failed to notice the white-clad serving man, hiding behind one of the large oaks in the yard. The old black man peered out from behind his tree as we passed and, locking his eyes on mine, he shook his head violently from side to side. I attempted to stop and question him, but the judge was not to be distracted. He never paused in his dialogue but dragged me through an open door and into a large, dimly lit dining room.
“At least with Franklin Pierce in the White House, we’ll be left alone to tend our own affairs,” he said. “I tell you Doctor, that man Scott is nothing but a vain peacock who would have ruled the South at the point of a bayonet … ”
The Judge’s declaration was interrupted by a bottle that flew past his face and exploded against the wall, not three feet from his head. Startled and shocked, we stood frozen in the doorway.
The dining room, normally filled and bustling even at this late hour, was dark and quiet. Indeed, only the sounds of distant swamp crickets and our boots crunching on shattered glass relieved the strained silence. The room we surveyed was empty; or almost so, for sitting in shadows at the far end of the longest table, was a solitary figure.
The Judge lurched forward in a rage and would certainly have attacked the figure had I not grabbed him and arrested his movements.
“What’s the meaning of this? Do you know who you are dealing with, sir?”
The voice that answered from the dark was low and smooth and well known to us both.
“Judge Delaney, I do know you, sir; and you Doctor Herbert. And I tell you both, I heartily resent the disparaging comments you are making about a hero of the recent war.”
The Judge’s indignation evaporated in an instant, to be replaced by a more elemental emotion. Through my grip on the Judge’s arms, I felt the momentary flutter of pulse and then, a shiver of terror.
The dark figure rose into the filtered light; a silver banded pistol in one hand and a gleaming bowie in the other. Before him, the table was littered with empty wine bottles, brothers of the one that had so recently greeted our entrance.
The Judge forgot to breathe and, as a result, his first words failed him. He inhaled and started again.
“Captain Duncan, I … I certainly meant no insult.” The dark room was silent and still. The Judge licked his lips and spoke again.
“Surely sir, being a good Democrat of wide repute, even you can respect the General but belittle his politics?”
“Democrat or Whig be damned, sir! That man is a hero and I’ll not have him ridiculed in my presence.”
As he spoke, Duncan swept the table clear with his bowie. The sound of shattering glass seemed to drain all intelligence from the Judge. His eyes followed the sparkling, silver of the pistol and his heavy lips quivered but he said nothing.
Like so many fine young men, Captain Charles Duncan had followed the Flag and Colonel Jeff Davis’ regiment to Mexico … and returned a different man.
“Duncan,” I said. “We all know the General’s bravery and honor were proven in Mexico; just as yours were.”
“Yes, proven in Mexico,” he answered, “And nine times since. We shan’t forget that, shall we.” He dropped his voice and raised the pistol before his glistening eyes.
He swayed slightly and dropped into his chair. The pistol lay again on the boards and a wine glass took its place in his hand. The Judge flushed as the immediate threat passed but he couldn’t stop looking at the man whose reputation with a dueling piece, had frozen his heart.
Duncan slipped the knife into its scabbard and gestured slightly with his right hand. A waiter, flushed with fear, flew from a back room with a full bottle of wine.
“Bring these gentlemen oysters and ale,” he ordered and pointed us out as though the room was crowded with diners. “Their hunger makes them weak, so be quick.”
He chuckled softly and broke the seal of the new bottle.
“Our … Our thanks, sir,” said the Judge, backing toward the open door, “But we couldn’t intrude.”
Duncan slammed the bottle onto the table with a violence that sent a red geyser streaming into the air.
“I insist, sir,” he said.
The Judge dropped like a stone into a nearby chair, which creaked in surprise at the unaccustomed weight. Duncan’s eyes, bright again for the moment, shifted to mine.
He spoke softly this time. “Please, do me the honor, Doctor.”
I took a seat as Duncan struggled to his feet. Once standing, he was forced to steady himself with one hand on his chair back.
“Tonight is a special supper. I had the table set for thirteen, as you may observe,” he waved one hand at the empty chairs. “However, I sent no invitations, so you see gentlemen, I am delighted that you could join me.”
Duncan staggered into an awkward bow and as he slumped back into his chair, the waiter delivered plates and tankards and just as rapidly disappeared. Our host watched the Judge self-consciously pick at the shellfish.
“I declare Judge, you remind me of someone. Just after the war, it was, but I can’t grasp the memory.”
“Well, sir. I’m … I’m sure it was a congenial relationship.”
Duncan snapped his fingers and roared with laughter. “Congenial? Oh, yes. Very congenial, until I killed him on the field.”
The Judge’s face paled and he attempted to steady his hand at the expense of a hapless oyster.
“Are you not even curious as to which one he was? No? Just as well. I can’t be sure if he was the second or third. They become confused after five or six … ”
His hand slowly caressed the pistol.
The Judge’s eyes followed Duncan’s fingers as they traced the silver pattern of hammer, lock, and trigger guard.
The room was silent; only the crickets sang in the distance.
“And you, Doctor. You were almost one of them, do you remember?”
I nodded. “I had no quarrel with you, Duncan.”
“Still, I would have killed you. I don’t remember why … but I’m sure it was a grave matter.” He chuckled. “Oh yes, affairs of honor are often grave matters.” He laughed again and raised his glass part way to his lips.
“Mark me, Doctor. Always kill your man before you forget his offense.” He winked at me and finished the glass.
His eyes grew dull and they looked past us to the dark night outside the door. A few drops of red wine dripped from the corner of his mouth.
The Judge, sensing an opportunity to escape, began edging his chair away from the table. The scraping sound brought our host back to life.
“Doctor, do you recall the Darcey family? The very lowest of men in thought and deed. Surely Judge, you were closely acquainted with the Darcey’s? Cousins perhaps? Well, no matter.” He poured himself a fresh glass and swirled the liquid before his eyes.
“It all started with the eldest brother, I believe, and within a fortnight, I faced and finished all three. They came to me in turn, you know, each anxious to avenge the one before. I can’t even recall the face of the last. Why do you suppose that is?”
Again, the silence was only broken by the sound of pouring wine and distant crickets.
“Only met that lad twice; the day he died and the night before.” He blinked and smiled into his glass before emptying and filling it again. “Ah yes. It was late at night when he called me out and I was…well,” he said, raising his glass in mock toast. “I was not well that evening,” he smiled and drank again.
“Doctor, I’m pleased that we did not meet on the field. I believe you are a good man. Not like those others; they deserved their end.”
I responded without thinking. “But the Lord said, `Vengeance is mine. I shall repay.'” Even as the words left my mouth, I regretted my hasty answer.
Duncan slammed his glass to the table and gripped his pistol, standing and ranting with a fervor that shook the very walls.
“And in nine cases, good Doctor, can you deny that I was the instrument of that vengeance? Can you deny that I was the strong right arm of the Lord? Have I not performed in His service? Am I not an extension of His will?”
“I would not presume to interpret His will,” I answered softly.
“And I would not presume to curb it,” he cried. “If my lot is to visit His judgment on ten sinners, then His will be done!”
“Ten?” I asked?
“Oh, yes. Ten. Did I fail to mention? I have an engagement tonight, and even if there be some truth in your accusations, then at least tonight’s affair is well deserved.”
I was stunned. The Judge remained paralyzed but I leaped to my feet in protest and horror.
“But Duncan, a duel at night? That’s madness. And in your condition? Surely your second will intervene?”
“My condition?” Duncan roared with laughter and sent the last bottle careening to the floor. “Don’t disturb yourself, Doctor. I assure you that I see most clearly when I am in this condition.”
“But, who is the man? Where is your second? Surely this affair can await the morning hours?”
“Enough questions. I must not be late. Believe me, I need no second. And comfort yourself, Doctor. This man does not deserve to see another dawn.”
Duncan turned swiftly and, knocking the chair to the floor behind him, he strode from the room.
The Judge rose and scurried from the room, disappearing out the back door and into the dark. I sat stunned, trying to understand the mad scene I had just witnessed.
I am no stranger to violence but Duncan’s rage was a terrifying force … a force that could destroy anything or anyone it encountered. Still, this duel was insane and I knew it must be stopped.
I hurried from the inn. I walked quickly, almost running first to Duncan’s darkened rooms and, after searching the nearby streets and alleys, hastened to the stable to collect my chestnut mare.
The flat, grassy river banks below Natchez have witnessed much bloodletting in years past, but the two sites I thought most likely, yielded only dark, empty fields and the soft cacophony of the swamp crickets.
An hour passed as I walked my puzzled mount down empty lanes and narrow, dark corridors of ancient oaks. My state of mind gradually sobered from desperation to exhaustion as the futility of my search became clear. The moonlight filtered through the hanging moss and silvered the woods on either side of the path. I finally accepted my own foolishness but as I turned the reins for home, a deep commanding voice cut through the dark like a saber and arrested both horse and rider.
Despite the dark and the heavy undergrowth, Duncan’s voice rang clear and cold through the night.
“And you, sir, are a coward and murderer. It will be my singular pleasure to remove your soul from the company of honorable men.”
Startled, it took me several seconds to realize that Duncan’s denunciation was not intended for me. I pressed my reluctant mount off the path and through the tangled growth that screened a large, open plain along the river.
Reaching the edge of the field, I saw the familiar silhouette of Captain Charles Duncan, alone against the silver, moonlit water.
As I watched, unable to move or even breathe, he took four measured paces and halted with drill field precision. Then, he turned slowly and gazed across the dark and empty field.
As his right arm extended, the moonlight reflected off of the silver banded dueling pistol that now pointed steadily into the empty night. I tried to yell but my voice froze in the horror of the moment.
As if by command, he returned the pistol to the ready position and then, without hesitation, brought the muzzle to his own temple.
A single pistol shot echoed across the plain and, for just a moment, the swamp crickets were silent in the dark.
Michael Leonard is a former business executive in the high tech, finance and real estate industries in Georgia, but for the last 15 years, he has earned his living as a staff and freelance business and marketing writer. During that period, he also wrote a regional newspaper column and hosted a local radio talk show called The Real Estate Corner. However, he decided to transition to fiction when he found himself introducing some pretty snappy dialog into the middle of a boring, 200-page accounting manual.