The time was December 1872, and Jason had a comfortable two-room suite at a hotel in Saint Louis, Missouri. Christmas went on all around him. Soft snowflakes swirled down outside in the cold, dark night, but inside it was warm and pleasant. He should have been lonely, with no family, but Jason was not; Fiona McEwen was there taking stock of herself in front of the full-length mirror. She was fretting over uncooperative bloomers and a bodice that exposed one-eighth of an inch too much cleavage. Fiona scowled at the problem in that petulant way she had.
Jason was ready, being careful of his black, wool trousers and white, ruffled linen shirt. He was slowly nursing a short whiskey and a cigar, resting on the night table. They were going out to dinner when Fiona was finally content with her appearance.
A timid knock on the door interrupted Jason's watching Fiona struggling with her undergarments. He went to the sitting room, closing the door to the bedroom, and opened the outer door to face a short, thin man, dressed in a wrinkled suit and overcoat. A gloved hand with a handkerchief was retreating from his nose, just as his head tilted back to let go another massive sneeze. Jason stepped back quickly and saved his shirt and trousers. It was a close call for his only proper, dinner clothes.
Jason got the stranger seated with a large brandy and stood a safe distance away. His cold was terrible, and he looked miserable. "I'm Lawrence Keene, an attorney from New York."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Jason said. "I hope you get better soon; perhaps you should move west."
After Jason had convinced Keene he was Jason Pike, past commander of the 6th Ohio Cavalry during the late war and currently working as a United States Deputy Marshal, Keene told Jason why he had come.
"I'm representing Sir James Kenyon, a London barrister. He's in New York, bedridden after a rough November crossing of the Atlantic. He came to America to discuss the details of your inheritance," Keene said, pausing to wipe his nose, and looking up, Jason knew, for a reaction to what he said.
Jason showed him no reaction, mainly because he didn't know what Keene was talking about, and decided to keep his ignorance to himself. "Continue, sir."
"Sir James is elderly; in fact, he's ancient. He requests you come to New York. Sir James was a very close friend and confidant of your grandfather, Sir Alfred Pike. The Estate he left you after his passing is quite substantial."
A grandfather, an Estate, what nonsense was this. Jason's father had emigrated from Liverpool during 1838 to take up farming in the Ohio Valley. He had told his wife and young Jason that he had been an orphan. There had been no mention of or communication with a family left behind in England. Yet Jason's father had been well-spoken as if he had had a privileged education, usually reserved for the wealthy. Now Jason knew why; live and learn.
Fiona appeared in the room. Her dress was pale blue, and it narrowed from several petticoats wide at the floor, to her slender waist, then up to envelop and accentuate her breasts. Fiona's knowing smile told Jason she had heard all the pneumonia-bound lawyer had to say.
"Oh, sweet Jesus, Pike, you're already an insufferable and unscrupulous bastard. Even worse you'll be, now that you're rich through no endeavor of your own," she said in a Scottish brogue she had inherited from her father. "A gift from providence, I very much doubt, will improve you."
Jason took Fiona to New York, and that helped. They went shopping and saw a popular play on Broadway. Fiona had never been east before and was impressed with the sophistication the cities offered, while at the same time despising the crowded and unhealthy conditions.
On the second morning after their arrival, Jason went to see Sir James in his suite at a posh Fifth Avenue hotel. Sir James Kenyon was a tall, old fellow stooped over with age, sporting a grandiose mustache, and thick, bushy sideburns that covered most of his veiny, red cheeks. The room was overly plush and too warm for Jason, but he guessed it suited Sir James.
After introductions, Sir James offered cognac in a delicately cut crystal glass. "Your grandfather and I were particularly fond of this batch. It lasted a lifetime. This is the last bottle. I brought it for you to sample." he said, sitting on a couch, and tossing a plaid blanket over his lap. Jason stood by the window, glancing down at the busy street.
"In the English Channel, 1825, your grandfather and I were lieutenants on HMS Windfire. In a storm, we came upon a French cargo brig that was floundering on a sand bar off Cherbourg, and we pulled their crew to safety aboard Windfire. Afterward, the French Captain sent us a dozen cases of this cognac."
"Very generous," Jason commented. Sir James must be as old as he looked, Jason decided.
"The Frenchman was from a wealthy family. His parents probably sent it," the Englishman said.
Jason sipped the strong, old beverage and found it exceptional. "This is wonderful.
"I'm curious about the falling out that must have occurred between Sir Alfred and my father, George Pike. Dad never mentioned his background, yet we all sensed he had seen more of what a privileged life offered than most other men."
"Your father, George, was a nonconformist," Sir James' voice took on a vile, disgusted tone. "A bloody dissenter, a liberal—how did one of those sneak into your family—he was more concerned about the laboring class than his own family and heritage. For God's sake, he ran with Lord Byron's disciples and that crowd of poets and writers! Never have I seen someone reject such a birthright, a legacy most men can only hope to dream about. And yet the 1830s was an era when it was quite fashionable to be intense about political convictions. They finally had a great, noisy fight and your father went off to America to till the soil like a commoner.
"You're certainly more a fitting example of your family line."
"I don't understand," Jason asked innocently, "How so?
"Dear boy, you're a soldier. Your ancestors were all warriors, always willing and damned, bloody competent at defending the Crown. Your great-grandfather commanded one of Wellington's Brigades at Waterloo. His brother commanded a ship of the line in Nelson's squadron at Trafalgar. Your Uncle John, your Father's younger brother, was a captain in the Light Brigade; he died at Balaclava charging the Russian Artillery. John Pike was the finest horseman your family ever produced, except, possibly for you," the patronizing old British lion paused. "I haven't seen you sit a horse."
"I haven't fallen off one recently," Jason offered.
"Sir Alfred traced your lineage and family name to a common Saxon pikeman in Henry the V's army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415." He raised his glass with the last of the French Cognac in toast of old victories. "God save Queen Victoria." Jason stood for the toast, feeling quite self-conscious. He sipped the cognac, and Sir James kept talking.
Jason thought back to a day during the political rumblings when his own country was preparing to go to war, the American Civil War. Early in the conflict his Father had walked up to twenty-year-old Jason, working in the wheat-field, and said, "John Sherman has urged me to raise a company of volunteer infantry. I have to do it. I left England a long time ago because of the way the rich treated the laboring classes. I felt guilty about my place in society, and I won't run away again from the conflict that always plagues humanity. Men of good conscience need to strive to achieve a society that values freedom over property." That was all George Pike ever told a young Jason, leaving him thoroughly confused about his Father's past and the legacy he was leaving his son. For Jason, it was an absurd shock to find out now his Father had deserted a family, holdings in England, and a distinguished military tradition.
George Pike led his company of Ohio Infantry off to war and died with most of them at Bull Run, attacking Tom Jackson's Virginia Brigade. Jason tried not to admit to himself this conflict which killed his Father would soon also be his war to fight.
"Excuse me, what did you say," Jason asked Sir James.
"After your father's death, Sir Alfred commissioned a firm in New York to keep track of your movements, send him clippings of your exploits. He was pleased with your quick rise to command—sometimes family traits skip a generation—and the brilliance of your regiment's combat record."
"Why all the covert surveillance," Jason asked? "Why didn't the old gentleman just come out and say 'hello,' if he was so proud of what I did? The bad feelings should have ended at Bull Run when my father died, still dedicated to the laboring class, by the way."
Sir James ignored the taunt. "Sir Alfred had a tragic flaw common to some well-bred Englishmen." He pointed a bony, white finger at Jason, as if it was his fault, "your grandfather had too much pride; he feared you would reject him just as your father did."
"What's all this leading to, Sir James?" Jason asked, having lost some patience.
"Your inheritance, of course; your grandfather changed his will from your Cousin Rudolph's favor to yours this summer, when he learned he was terminally ill."
"Your grandparents had three children: George, your father, John, and Jessica. John died in the Crimean War. Jessica, your Aunt, married Heinrich von Deisten. He was a Prussian Industrialist. They are both gone now. Rudolph Von Deisten, their only child, and your cousin is a colonel in the army and ardently supports Count Bismarck. There normally would not be so much concern in Her Majesty's Government, except most of Sir Alfred's Estate consists of ownership of munitions factories and naval armaments foundries. Do you know of Bismarck and understand the global implications?" the old walrus asked.
Now it began to make sense to Jason. All the propaganda about the glories of soldiering and sailing for Great Britain had to be leading somewhere. With the unification of Germany complete and the emphasis on imperialism, easily supported by German militarism, it was apparent the German Hegemony would grow and presumably come to challenge Britain's far-flung colonial empire, in perhaps less than a generation. "Excuse me for being blunt and, I suppose, also rude. What is the monetary value of this inheritance?" Jason asked.
"A very rough estimate might be in the neighborhood of one million pounds sterling."
"And my cousin is contesting the will," Jason guessed.
"Yes, Rudolph has filed the papers. The case could be locked up in the courts for years, and the factories shut down, idle."
"You need me to press my claim to keep this inheritance, consisting of armaments manufacturing facilities, from falling to a growing and ambitious rival, right Sir James? You're not working for Alfred's Estate. You're working for the British Government."
Sir James stood straight and tall, as best he could, and said, "The Crown doesn't want Pike Ltd. to pass to the Prussians," his voice cracked, and tears welled up in his wrinkled, old eyes. "We can't have our lads ever have to advance on the fields of battle against cannon forged from machinery or expertise developed in Manchester and Leeds."
Jason nodded. "Alright, I suppose this matter deserves further investigation and is worth a trip to Great Britain," Jason found himself saying as he sipped the last of the cognac.
Jason sent Fiona McEwen home to Saint Louis with the promise of expensive presents upon his return. Then Jason and Sir James took passage on a steamship to Bristol, England, and from there a train to London. Along the way, Jason studied Alfred's journal and a breakdown of his fiscal holdings. His great grandfather, another George Pike, had built an industrial empire, starting with the family's blast furnace business in Liverpool, during the 1780s. This George Pike developed new techniques for mounting both naval guns, and later, horse drawn artillery. The patents alone made him a fortune, and he used the money to open foundries in other cities, and his holdings multiplied. The industrial revolution, the beginning of the modern age—for better or worse—had begun because of the need for larger and stronger guns.
Sir James set Jason up at the Dorchester Hotel. His first guest was all business.
"I work in procurement for the Royal Navy, Mr. Pike, and I do a great deal of trade with Pike Ltd.," Captain Clane said. "I'll be brief, sir. Sir James indicated to me you'll fight, participate in a duel if necessary, to secure your inheritance. Is this true?"
"I never said that to Sir James. That's his evaluation of my past and his take on my character. Captain, I'm not able to answer questions about what I intend to do. But if you have something to tell me about Pike Ltd., please proceed. The navy is my company's best customer, and I hope we can continue to supply you and the army with quality ordnance."
Clane smiled. "Right now, you have a stable of brilliant, innovative engineers and metallurgists. They are on the verge of new designs that could be extraordinary in the scope of this era's naval gunnery.
"If the Germans get Pike Ltd., we lose dies, molds, and patents. But what's worse is that this team of engineers will be dispersed as they all go to seek new jobs. They're on the brink of a first generation of recoilless naval guns that will change our era's history. I came here to tell you Pike Ltd. will become far more valuable, and her importance to Great Britain in the future, than the firm's present value." They continued to talk for a half hour and then Clane left.
Jason shrugged and smiled. What could he say, in this affair, Jason knew he was merely a knight, expecting to be well-paid.
* * *
The next morning Jason paced across Sir James' office on Trafalgar Square. He stared out the bay window at the cold rain falling on Admiral Nelson's statue. Jason distinctly remembered the trend of the conversation that morning, because it was when Dear Cousin's Rudy's letter arrived. He wanted Jason to meet him in Belgium to discuss the estate. "Why Belgium?" he asked.
"Because of Belgium's dueling laws, if both participants are foreign nationals the local authorities turn a blind eye, even if a fatality results," Sir James explained.
"Do they do that to encourage tourism?" Jason asked and saw disapproval in Sir James' ancient eyes.
The American walked right up to the old British lawyer. "I'm not afraid to meet him. I just don't know a damn thing about those skinny blades Europeans duel with," Jason confessed.
"Dear boy, you are being challenged. Choose bullwhips or crossbows, sabers, rapiers, or pistols. You two can bloody-well wheel out twelve-pound field pieces and take potshots at each other over a valley. Jason, you choose the weapon."
Jason nodded. "All right," he said slowly. "That's better: a gunfight." Sir James set it up for two weeks hence in a grove south of Dinant, a small village halfway between Waterloo and the crossroads at Bastogne.
Four days later Jason found himself in a field south of Ramsgate, a couple hundred meters from the White Cliffs of Dover. Sergeant Major Connors of the Royal Lancaster Rifles was going to give him some brushing up in the discipline of hand-held firearms. He was said to be someone with expert knowledge and skill. "This is a British Army Revolver," he began, holding up a John Adams Mark II, .455 caliber, double-action handgun. "This is the cylinder. This is the barrel."
It was 10 minutes before he let Jason shoot the damn thing and Jason shook his head. "Don't like it at all; the balance is off," Jason criticized. "You let your officers carry this lump of iron?"
Connors, cool as a cucumber, asked, "What did you bring with you?"
Jason produced his own new Colt Single Action Army .45 caliber pistol with a 7½ inch barrel. He gave the sergeant major a competent demonstration of American marksmanship until Connors seemed satisfied, possibly even impressed, but said nothing. Jason wondered what Her Majesty's Government would have done if the sergeant major had judged his abilities were not up to this contest.
All too soon Jason found himself in a grove of sparse, leafless Elms on a Sunday morning late in February 1873, just south of the pleasant hamlet of Dinant. Jason was in a coach with Sir James. Deisten was late, and it was cold. "Punctual bloody Prussians, late for their own damn duel," Sir James said vehemently, shuffling miserably about in his seat. Jason knew he was hoping for friction from local movement to create some heat. Jason got out, walking around, which seemed better than shivering in the coach.
Finally, the Germans arrived; their coach stopped, and the Prussian stepped out. Rudolph Von Deisten looked like Jason; tall and lean, cruel around the corners of the mouth, and his dark, intense eyes pricked Jason like cold, sleeting rain.
Jason was wearing a sheepskin coat and tan, denim trousers. The Prussian was attired in an immaculate, sky-blue tunic, with two ornamental, vertical rows of brass buttons, a blood-red sash over fine white trousers, and polished black, leather boots. Rudolph also wore a peaked, military cap.
"No points for looking dashing, my boy," Sir James whispered in Jason's ear as he waved at Cousin Rudy. How the hell did he know Jason wondered.
The cousins walked toward each other, and Rudolph bowed, clicking his heels in that pretentious Prussian habit that irritated most Englishmen and all Americans. "I wish to thank you for coming, Captain Pike. I am sorry the circumstances are not more congenial," Rudolph ventured slowly in heavily accented English.
"Yes, I agree," Jason said, feeling very uncomfortable with this conversation.
"You must be a brave man," Rudolph complimented.
"And, one of considerable skill," Jason added. "We are both warriors, colonel. There can be no other way for men such as we choose to be."
"We could have been comrades under different circumstances," Rudolph said. "But the Gods chose to make us mortal enemies; there is no changing that. I am sorry."
"I agree." And they shook hands.
"I have here Captain Pike and Colonel Deisten's procedures for the duel," said the Dutchman, a neutral retained by Sir James and Deisten's counsel. "As agreed to previously by both parties; the weapons are to be modern revolvers of individual choice. The procedure is straight-forward. Both combatants will face off at one hundred meters and commence walking toward each other. You both fire at your own personal choice of distance. The duel ends when one of you is not willing, or able, to continue. This will be signaled by dropping your pistol," the Dutchman finished.
Two portable tables were set up a few feet apart. Sir James had his assistant layout Jason's Colt on one table, and Deisten's companion used the other table. The new Colt SAA revolver—also nicknamed the Peacemaker—was less than three months old and its performance was flawless. The newly-designed pistol was a promotional gift from Colt Industries to Jason, because of his status as a celebrated United States Deputy Marshal, and would be offered to the public later this year. The gun was made by Colt to be as perfect as they were capable of, and a factory gunsmith had worked the trigger assembly to react to a feather's touch. The longish, rifled-barrel was what Jason needed for this confrontation.
Jason glanced at Deisten's Steinmetz .48 caliber, double-action revolver with an even longer barrel than Jason's Colt. The sharp, crooked lines, not at all flowing like a Colt or Remington, were damned businesslike. It was such an ugly gun; it must be very precise. Deisten was. Cousin Rudolph had won the pistol championship for the German Army for the last three years. Sir James found that out the day after Jason's terms for the duel left London for Berlin.
Jason lost his temper at the time and stormed around Sir James' office. The old man comforted, "Why doubt your abilities? I don't. Sergeant Major Connors said you handle a pistol like Robin Hood with a bow."
"That is an absurd comparison. No one knows how talented Robin Hood was with a bow and arrows, or even if he actually existed," Jason pointed out.
"Yes, precisely," Sir James said, staring at Jason. "You're exactly the right man for the job, son."
"Don't call me, 'Son,' Sir James," Jason said. He walked out of the office thinking that, at worst; Sir James expected the duel to end in a tie.
Jason watched as Deisten vigorously examined the cylinder chambers, then the barrel. He was meticulous and exact. Deisten raised the barrel, then the cylinder to the rising sun and rotated it slowly examining the inside surface, searching for any stray speck of dust or burnt powder that might dare remain. Jason knew Sergeant Major Connors would have exhibited a bright smile at the detailed ceremony.
Then Jason decided to pay his cousin a compliment. When Jason had been in Europe selling artillery after the American Civil War, he had witnessed a battle. "I saw your brigade in action at Koniggrat. It was a proper and well-timed movement; impressive," Jason said, speaking about the Austro-Prussian War, while dismantling the Colt for a hasty last-minute inspection.
"That was a magnificent day," Rudolph smiled. "We won the war that day!" And they both laughed. What more could a soldier possibly ask for?
Sir James walked over, a grave countenance up front. "Jason, Rudolph," he said, sounding stern, fatherly, and mildly sad. "I trust you gentlemen will carry this procedure through with a certain amount of decorum."
"Of course," Rudolph said, with another bow and boot-clicking. "Tell me, Sir James; are you still active with the British Foreign Service?" Rudolph queried.
A bit late for that type of comment to unsettle Jason, he thought; a hint of desperation caused the Prussian to say that, a chink in his armor, a show of nerves. "We all have conflicting interests, Rudolph. That is why we have this serene setting to let God choose the victor, rather this, especially for you two soldiers," the old lion parried dryly, "than a stuffy courtroom and verbose, powdery-wigged barristers dictating your fates, and more importantly your fortune."
Jason worked through his pistol and tried to finish at the same time as Rudolph. He did not want to stand around waiting for the Prussian. Finally, they were both done cleaning their weapons, and both combatants loaded their pistols. Deisten turned around smartly holding the Steinmetz at his side. Jason took off his overcoat, and the cold wind immediately cut right through the white linen shirt he wore. No matter, this would not take long.
Jason buckled on his tan, leather belt with a narrow cut holster on the left side. It was a worn and comfortable fit. The rawhide thong tied just above the knee held the holster low on his hip. The leather was still moist from last night's oil, as Jason dropped Colt's new revolver into the holster. He was ready.
"Cousin Jason," Rudolph said. Damn, Jason thought, knowing Rudolph's intension. "I am sorry for this affair. You do not have to do this for the British," Rudolph said carefully, and none too quietly.
Sir James looked down at the ground, rubbing his eyebrows, while he was groaning quietly. Then he rubbed his chin whiskers, muffling—what Jason decided was—a stream of curses.
"Don't think me a misguided patriot, Rudolph. I'm not here for someone else's queen or country. This is for the money," Jason said in a loud and deadly voice. Jason had decided if he lost this contest, he wouldn't want his relation feeling guilty for his death since Rudolph was a real patriot to his country. And Jason just felt himself an American ambitious to be wealthy much more than someone eager to do a favor for the British.
Then Jason told his cousin, "Drop that revolver right now. Go home, or I'll kill you. Make this mistake and it will be your last, cousin."
"No, it will be yours, cousin." The Prussian shook his head, and they both respectfully nodded to each other.
Jason walked to the south end of the clearing, and they faced off at a previously marked one hundred meters. Deisten held his pistol straight up, arm bent at the elbow in the classic dueling pose. There were no hints of a lack of confidence now from either combatant, just two professionals, facing off.
Jason knew he would have to be in top form today. A self-inflicted pep talk was in order. If his first round went off center, drop down and count on that swift, steady aim as the front sight moved about the target. Those reflexes got Jason through the war and the confrontations with criminals afterward.
The strategy of this gunfight was simple: just get close enough to shoot effectively. But, of course, matters of life and death grew infinitely more intricate. Since Jason and Rudolph were both excellent marksmen with their handguns, this would be a long-range duel Jason decided, probably firing between seventy down to fifty yards, such as the confrontation when Wild Bill Hickok killed Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri just after the war.
The Dutchman signaled the start of the duel with a drop of his pudgy arm and a hasty retreat behind his coach. Jason began walking evenly and slowly, left-hand dangling at the pistol's grip. No more posturing banter: only shootists—deadly serious—closing on each other. Jason quickly calculated how fast he was walking. How quickly did the ground go by? He wanted to shoot at sixty yards. That distance should have been just a little longer than what Rudolph was used to, Jason hoped, but still within his abilities. Jason did not want to get within fifty yards of that devil of Prussian efficiency—the man or the pistol.
Five seconds had passed, and another five or seven seconds would bring the combatants sixty yards apart. No more time to contemplate strategy. Watch the Prussian as they closed, watch his eyes; Jason focused.
They were closer, and Jason could see his cousin's eye distinctly now. The American glanced about one last time—breaking his own cardinal rule—the Elms, the sun, and the pleasant glade. Then it was sixty yards, . . . fifty-nine, . . . fifty-seven, . . . fifty-five. The German's arm holding the Steinmetz dropped. The Prussian turned to give Jason his narrow right side, as the black muzzle of his pistol's barrel lusted toward the American.
Jason's right knee buckled, left leg thrusting out as his torso dropped down. He saw the smoke from the discharge and felt the chill of whistling death close by his ear, even as he heard the German pistol boom. Now, it was just instinct, reflex, and instantaneous. As his left foot stamped down on the soft, rotting winter leaves, the Colt was drawn, cocked, his left arm leveling as his right knee hit the ground. With swift and practiced alignment of eye, rear sight, front blade sight, and the target—a patch of blue cloth just under a man's armpit, inches from brass buttons on his chest—the Colt sent forth its deadly charge. The cylinder rotated; the heavy pistol ready to speak again.
Deisten's correct uniform was splotched with a messy, crimson hole in his right side. He stepped back faltering but turned to face Jason, raising the Steinmetz again. Jason knew it never could have occurred to him to drop the pistol. His motions were sluggish, and Jason guessed his brain was stunned, a dying man's vain gesture to duty. Jason put the next bullet dead center, smashing Rudolph's breastbone to sharp splinters through his lungs and heart. Deisten fell back and twisted over on the ground.
Jason slowly rose and looked with disgust at the gun in his hand. He holstered the Colt pistol without ceremony—no twirling the weapon like the shootists in the wild west shows—and walked toward his cousin. The Belgium Doctor they had retained took only seconds to confirm Rudolph von Deisten's death. Jason kneeled by his cousin's body and picked up Rudolph's left hand. The small indentation of white skin on his fourth finger said something painfully obvious.
"You moved, dropped down," Rudolph's second said. "That wasn't honorable."
Jason shrugged. "Where I come from it is, and with Rudolph it was necessary.
"Where's his wedding band?" Jason said.
"He took it off. Rudolph did not want you to know. You just made a soldier's wife a widow with two small sons," the second Prussian said. He handed Jason a gold ring and the American pushed it onto Rudolph's finger before they carried the colonel and placed him in the coach.
Rudolph's young family was just another inconsequential fact Sir James had not wanted to muddle up Jason's simple, little colonial head with, and Jason had not thought to ask.