Death On The Dunes

Story Written By Franklin Sams 


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Sun rays beam down through clouds over the ocean.

On the lonely, wind-swept barrier island, thirty miles south of Charleston, the two men stood exactly twenty paces apart.  They faced each other and patiently waited for the single word that would change both of their lives.  

Over the sound of the relentless breakers pounding the white sand of Edisto Island came the dreaded command.:  "Fire."

A pistol shot rang out.  A split-second later another report echoed across the wind-swept strand.  Then it was silent.  Very silent.

It wasn't destiny that brought these two men here.  It wasn't fate.  It was a cold, prearranged plan.

The story began two weeks earlier in Charleston.

Arthur Gilland was 28 years young and enjoyed life to the fullest.   He was a native of London, but was visiting friends who had a home in the lower part of the city.

During a conversation someone remarked on the easy, casual way of life the people of the Sea Islands in general, and Edisto inparticular, lived.

This was almost like a challenge to the adventuresome young Englishman. 

"I shall wake these people up," he boasted.  "And at a supper, to which I shall invite you, on my return, I will show you some momentoes of my trip."

 Soon after this he left for Edisto.

 While on the island, he had words with a native Edistonian known to us today as Mr. Bailey.  No one knows if the insult was real or fancied, but an exchange of cards followed which led to a challenge being offered and accepted.

Gilland was an expert marksman.  His reputation with a dueling pistol was known throughout the Lowcountry.  It was said that he could "snuff a candle with every shot."

Bailey also had a reputation.

"He couldn't hit the side of a barn," is the way one of his friends summed up his ability with a hand-gun.

Still, he had accepted Gilland's challenge to meet at the local dueling grounds called the "Sands."

His friends urged him to practice.  Bailey took their advice and after a few sessions could "hit the barn, but little else."

The appointed day dawned and both men, along with their seconds and a few friends, set out for the "Sands."

Bailey's group was slowed by the presence of an ox-cart driven by a white-haired old slave.  In the cart was more evidence of Bailey's preparations.  Fully expecting the worst, he had brought along a mattress, upon which, perhaps lifeless, he could repose on the long march homeward.

Included in his party was a surgeon.

Gilland's small group, mounted on horseback, overtook and passed the slower moving Bailey party.

As the young Englishman galloped ahead toward the sound of the breakers, he looked upon the planter with contempt.  Everyone in Bailey's party, including the old ox pulling the high-wheeled cart, seemed to hang his head in shame.

It was obvious to Bailey and his friends that Gilland had made no such preparations.

Sunrise was at 6:36 and both groups increased their pace so that they would be at the "Sands" at the appointed hour.

At the "Sands" it was chilly.  the temperature was in the low 40s and a north wind was blowing.  A Charleston newspaper, The Mercury, reports that the weather was "fair" on that day.

As soon as the sun broke the binds of the misty ocean, the chilly salt-air began to warm.

Still, Mr. Bailey was cold.

After the men had tied their mounts to the weather-beaten palmettoes up by the dunes, they began their various tasks.

Gulls and terns, their breakfast hour disturbed by the activity, peirced the air with maniacal screams.

Now it was almost time.

Gilland strutted about very calmly.  He had been through this procedure many times and his nerves were hardened to it.

Bailey was also calm.  He had made his peace with his Maker and knew that he could do no more to ready himself.

The seconds called the combatants together and explained the dueling procedure:

"You will face each other at 20 paces.  You then will be asked 'Gentlemen, are you ready?'  Then:  'Fire--one--two--three--hold.'"

The time was very near.  The angered birds seemed to understand and were quiet.

 As Mr. Bailey's second handed him his weapon, he lowered his voice and said, "Your only chance is to fire on the word," then he bowed and stepped back towards the dunes.

Now it was only Gilland and Bailey.

Standing north and south so as to avoid the glare of the rising sun, the pair eyed one another with cold, hard eyes.

For an instant there was the colplete stillness of death;  the the question came:

        "Gentlemen, are you ready?"

        Affirmative answers were given.


 Before the count to three could begin a pair of shots echoed over the beach.

When the smoke from the black powder was blown away by the gentle sea-breeze, a man was seen to quiver.  He staggered, then fell to the white sand.

At the Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, the oldest such church in South Carolina, stands a weather-worn, nearly forgotten stone marker.

Inscribed upon it is:

Born in London, England, 1811
Died February 12, 1839
"Prepare to meet thy God"