Captain S. M. Harvey had been so successful as a whaler that, by 1840, while still a relatively young man, he was able to retire to a comfortable lifestyle.  He decided to leave the northern winters behind and, after giving the matter due consideration, chose New Orleans as his new home.  He was welcomed and soon became a prominent and popular member of the city's society.  Captain Harvey married Louise Destrehan, who was from a distinguished Louisiana family, and they settled down to a serene and happy life.
   But the Captain's serenity - not to mention, his life - was threatened one day following an altercation during a card game at the home of a friend.  He and another guest, Albert Farve, got into a heated discussion and action followed words when the Captain became so provoked that he punched Mr. Farve in the nose.  Unfortunately - undoubtedly, because he wasn't accustomed to the Creole way of life - the Captain hadn't stopped to consider the consequences of such a move.
   In New Orleans, in the 1800's, an act such as that was considered high insult and a man who was accosted in this way inevitably demanded satisfaction, usually in the form of either a sword fight or pistols at twenty paces.  Creole honor was a delicate thing and men could be insulted over the most trivial of events, a word - even a look - might end in a duel.  In fact, more duels took place in New Orleans than any other city in the country.  In the early to mid-1800's, hardly a day went by without at least one duel being fought.  One Sunday, in 1839, there were ten consecutive duels beneath the ancient oak trees on the dueling ground.  (In the beginning, St. Anthony's Garden, behind St. Louis Cathedral, had been used as a dueling site.  But the priests complained of the noise, so the duels were moved to the Allard plantation, now a part of City Park.)
   Therefore, it was to no one's surprise that the next day found Mr. Farve's appointed second arriving at the Captain's home to deliver his challenge for a duel on the field of honor.  Captain Harvey had a nice life and he wasn't very happy about the prospect of surrendering it over something as trivial as a card game.  He had no experience in dueling, with either sword or pistol.  What was worse, he knew that Mr. Farve did have experience.  The situation didn't look promising.  However, the Captain was aware that refusing the challenge would bring so much disgrace upon his family that he would probably be forced to leave town in the face of it.
   Fortunately, the Captain was not a man without a certain amount of ingenuity and he put that ingenuity to work.
   When one man challenged another to a duel, it was left to the person who'd been challenged to choose the weapon.  Men had clashed with swords, knives, pistols, shotguns and even with a poisoned pill - where a drawing was held to determine which man would take the pill.  The old oak trees on the dueling ground had been witness to every conceivable type of weapon.
   Or, so one might have thought.
   As Mr. Farve's second stood on Captain Harvey's doorstep that bright winter morning, waiting to learn what his choice of weapon might be, he couldn't have guessed what he was about to hear.  You can imagine his astonishment when the Captain boldly announced, "Whaling harpoons!"
   The second objected.  Could a harpoon actually be considered a weapon?  To answer the question, Captain Harvey led the second to his backyard.  He picked up his harpoon, walked off twenty paces, turned and took aim at a tree.  The harpoon flew and found its mark dead center.  The tree promptly split in half.  The second, somewhat startled by this exhibition, exclaimed, "What do you suppose my friend to be?  A fish!?"
   But the Captain was adamant.  Harpoons it would be.
   The second immediately returned to his friend, Mr. Farve, and reported the weapon of choice and the skill with which the Captain used the device.
   After thinking the matter over carefully, Mr. Farve decided that, perhaps, after all, the insult wasn't as grievous as first thought.  "We will," he said, "let bygones be bygones and not discuss the matter again."  (An excellent example, if I ever heard one, of discretion being the better part of valor.)
   The ancient, moss-laden oaks still stand on the old dueling ground in City Park.  The duels, of course, are no more.
   Although, some say that in the solitude of an early morning, when fog shrouds the mighty oaks and hardly any mortal is stirring, the incessant counting off of twenty paces and the clang of saber on saber can still be clearly heard.
   I, myself, have never heard such things.  But I keep an open mind.
                                         -- Nancy Brister


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Harpoons at Twenty Paces