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Featured in the Veterans of the Future Wars anthology.
"Battle stations!" Admiral Heisner Bartock shouted as the battle-scarred corvette dropped out of subspace near the fourth planet of the star system he'd once called home. The command sprang from his lips much sharper than he intended. Indeed, after the events of the last week, those words seemed hardly necessary. Yet giving that order afforded him at least one function, albeit small, on this ship he did not personally command.
Once upon a time long past, Bartock presented the perfect image of a dashing young pilot. In those days, his square-cut jaw, gunmetal eyes, and russet hair enjoyed the favor of many a debutante on Prime, but no more. Especially now, denigrated by the deep-etched lines of worry, age, and fatigue, that image survived as but a long neglected memory.
Never one to dwell on idle dreaming, Bartock turned his attention to the more pressing problem at hand. The homeworld's civilian communications net normally flooded the spectrum, yet bridge speakers broadcast nothing but the crackle of heavy static. He tried, without success, to make sense of it all as he scanned every frequency. This can't be happening! Impossible as it seemed, every transmitter remained silent. Nothing! Desolate was not a term commonly applied to this sector, but at the moment, it was the most apt description.
Have we destroyed ourselves in one final fit of insanity? Visual scans confirmed that a once bustling array of satellites, sentry missile silos, observation platforms, and civilian transfer stations were now transformed into one all-encompassing debris field. The discovery left Bartock numb. Who was the idiot in charge that let this happen?
Cutting through the interference on their command frequency, a stressed voice interrupted his thoughts. "Unknown ship, this is Sector Control. Please identify yourself."
He keyed his communicator, "This is Admiral Bartock of the Eleventh Battle Group. My barge took a direct hit, so I transferred my flag to the Vigilant."
After a moment's silence, a voice came out of the static. "Thank God you made it. We’re a bit uncovered here."
"Identify yourself," he ordered.
"For God's sake, Heis, it's Admiral Welstoffen."
"Switch to secure mode before we continue." Bartock changed modes and the bridge speakers fell silent, but the sound in his earpiece continued. "You secure?"
"Yes, now what the bloody hell is going on? First, I get your recall orders, then we’re attacked by our own Fleet, and now I'm parked in the middle of a jumbo-sized junkyard that shouldn't be here."
"The day we all dreaded has finally arrived. Operation New Hope just became No Hope."
Bartock slumped into his command seat. New Hope was the grand plan to create homogenous crews, thereby reducing onboard religious conflicts. Bartock hadn't liked the plan when the Council ordered it, and he liked it even less now. Originally, the admiral feared that this directive would merely elevate problems to a higher level, but even he had failed to anticipate this scale of violence.
"Who started it?"
The voice in his ear answered, "Does it really matter? All sides went off like a flare in a fireworks factory. Damned extremists! They're all alike... tribes of troglodytes destroying each other and anyone else who gets in their way. I told those fools at Prime Central that concentrating the nut groups by ship was a disaster in the making. Now the lunatics have taken complete control of the asylum. All three continents picked a side, then they fell upon each other like plagues of locusts. Three-quarters of the planet is on fire now, the near colonies are in ruins, and Fleet Marines are planet-bound and making a final stand on Markos Alpha." Welly stopped to breathe, then continued, "Your Fleet! How many do you think will make it back?"
Bartock responded with a pain-laced laugh, followed by, "They took us by surprise. I lost six frigates, four dreadnoughts, eleven corvettes, both supply tenders, and all but one of my fighters. In addition to the Vigilant, only two—or at best three—corvettes escaped, and we lost contact with them immediately. For all I know, they imploded in subspace, so this ship is the only one you can count on. Should I report to Headquarters?"
"Only if you’re willing to sort through the rubble to find it. I'm currently located with what’s left of Fleet Ops at our only remaining sub-orbital station, and we're sitting ducks out here."
"Then what are my orders?"
"Remain in orbit and assume command of any ships that make it back to Prime."
"Welly, you've got to be kidding. I only have one fighter and I need to rearm. You do realize that one damaged corvette does not a flotilla make."
"Your ship may not be one hundred percent combat ready, but it's one hundred percent more than we had five minutes ago. You're probably all that's left."
"Then we'll do what we can. Am I to defend Prime or your platform?"
"Neither. Move to the deep colony launch station. Our remaining colony ship is moored there."
"That seems like a monumental waste of resources," Bartock argued.
"The hard truth is that our Confederation is as lost as your fleet. All we can do now is protect the deep space colonies. Hopefully, they're untouched by this madness that overtook us while we were looking in the wrong direction. Under no circumstances can we let those colonies fall into the hands of the fanatics."
"If I'm with the colony ship, that will leave you unprotected."
"There isn’t anything left to protect. Prime is already in chaos and by all reports the near colonies fared even worse."
Swallowing hard to hold back the sickness he felt welling up from the pit of his stomach, Bartock asked, "So, this is how it all ends? What would you have me do? Attack? Defend?"
"Launch the colony ship. Send it to support the outland settlements. Defend the facility if you can and destroy it if you can't. That’s the only way to protect the outlanders until this madness has run its course."
"Who should we be rooting for?"
"None of them. Our battle projections showed that this war would destroy us all, but no one listened. If anything, those fools are splintering into even more factions, each one determined to kill for peace, or their warped version of the word. As far as I’m concerned, a victory by any one of them means the end, not of just the Confederation, but of our entire civilization."
"But the Fleet—"
"The fleet is finished, done for and destroyed. Your battle group was our only hope, but without it to protect us, our position on this station is untenable. Hell, we couldn't survive an attack of heartburn, so our last act... no, your last act must be to protect the deep space colonies."
Heis heard screams in the background and Welly yelled something unintelligible before addressing the admiral for the last time. "Shit! Inbound missiles from planet-side and we've got nothing left to intercept them. You're our last hope now, my friend. Godspeed."
The transmission cut off abruptly, signaling the end of both their communication and Fleet Ops. Heis keyed his set one last time. "Farewell, old friend." but he received no response.
Several ships appeared from subspace as the Vigilant's onboard warning sensors screamed an alert to its already skittish crew. "Damnation!" Captain Gains muttered as he took his command seat next to Bartock.
They listened as a friend or foe challenge blared from the communications net until Gains finally looked to the admiral. "Shall I respond?"
"No, I'll try to buy us some time while you chart a course to the deep space launch facility. If I can't talk us out of this, we may have to fight our way there."
Through the static they heard, "This is Brother Chompier, a devout son of the Divine Hand of God and captain of the Grand and Glorious Heaven's Avenger. Surrender your ship and your lives will be spared."
Bartock activated his communicator." That’s certainly a mouthful for a ship’s moniker, Brother. Where is your original crew?"
"Those of the faith remain."
"That doesn’t answer my question."
"Their fate is none of your concern. With whom do you stand?"
"This is Admiral Heisner Bartock, Commander of the Eleventh Battle Group. I stand with the Fleet."
Several ships rotated to bring their main cannons to bear on the Vigilant.
"That’s most unfortunate, Admiral. Your services would have been useful to our cause."
Behind the Vigilant, six frigates and two dozen corvettes dropped in like vultures from subspace. The new flotilla squared off against both the Vigilant and Heaven’s Avenger, falling into offensive positions as Brother Chompier issued a challenge to the new arrivals. "Unidentified vessels, who commands and where do you stand?"
"This is Captain Ibriem M'tosa of the liberated ship Prince of Paresia."
Bartock groaned, "Good grief, another faction. They're springing up like flies on a week old carcass."
Chompier challenged the newcomer, "So, you have come to meet your death at the hands of the followers of the one true faith?"
The response came immediately. "No, Infidel, there is but one God and he resides in the hearts of my followers. Renounce your heresy and surrender your ships or you will surely die."
The flotillas fell upon each other with abandon, lacking even the slightest hint of restraint. Several ships exploded while those surviving the initial barrage maneuvered, in vain, to seize a decisive advantage. To Bartock, it was a perfect textbook engagement with two exceptions. First, there was a blatant disregard for life, and second, his ship was caught in the kill zone between the two opposing flotillas now intent on mutual annihilation.
Even though his ship was relegated to secondary target status, the fire was just as lethal. The Vigilant took broadside blows from two smaller vessels—one from each opposing fleet—and the ship reeled under impact of their one-two punch.
Knocked clear of his command chair, Captain Gains rose, oblivious to the rivulet of blood streaming down his face, shouting, "Damage report!"
Sections reported in succession.
"Maneuvering engines online."
"Shields down to sixty-five percent."
"Primary batteries online. Weapons hot."
Gains ordered, "All ahead full. Evasion drill alpha. Weapons' stations target any ship firing on us and return the favor. Target their engines and don’t let them turn with us. Watch out for that debris."
The Vigilant slowly rotated on its axis, firing at attacking ships until the crossfire of multiple converging corvettes battered it into a near-junkyard state. Fires continued to flare faster than they could be suppressed, and the ship groaned with the beginning throes of its death dance. Throughout the ship, crew members flew like rag dolls against the now weakening bulkheads. Those who could resume their duties did so with a dedication that brought a lump to their admiral's throat.
Gains shouted, "Full acceleration. Weapons, defensive barrage." The captain watched several smaller ships explode as the Vigilant broke free of the battle zone, then turning to Bartock, "We’re clear for the moment, admiral. What are your orders?"
"Put some distance between us and the others. If we’re lucky, the zealots might finish each other off. If not, at least we have a head start reaching the deep colony launch facility. We’re going to rig it to blow before they figure out what we're up to. Have your best AI wizard suit up and report to me at the aft landing bay."
"Why not just destroy it from here?"
"Not good enough. I want every microchip on board that station fried to the consistency of chewing gum."
"And if they come after us?"
"Take them out, or slow them down. If it looks like they will capture the facility, barrage it into oblivion, even if we're still on board. Get the AI guy to the landing bay on the double. When the dreadnought launches, pick us up. I want to get back into the fight as soon as possible."
Bartock left the bridge, feeling guilty about deceiving the good captain. Yes, destroying the launch facility was imperative, but not the colony ship. If there was any chance he could get that thing to fly, he would do his best to assure that it left the system without a scratch. Misinformation was a necessity, for there was no telling who was listening, even aboard this ship. If the enemy learned of his full intentions, they would be ever more fervent in their attempts to stop him, whereas destroying the colony ship might even serve their purpose. Let them think he was a destroyer, and maybe it would buy him the time he needed.
The admiral was still struggling with his pilot's suit as he reached the flight deck. Stepping out onto the vast, open launch bay, he found a lone female officer stood before him, snapping her helmet in place. She opened her faceplate and saluted. "Ensign Evida D'lano reporting as ordered, sir."
Almost in reflex, he returned her salute and watched as she dropped hers. Why did Gains send her? Didn't he know this might be a suicide mission? The admiral blurted, "Why were you selected for this mission, Ensign?"
Her answer forestalled any further discussion. "Admiral, I'm the best damn AI guy on this ship."
"Good! Ever been in a fighter, Desanto?"
"D'lano, my name is D'lano and I've never been in a fighter."
He let the lapse in protocol slide. "No time like the present, follow me."
Bartock led the way into a fighter, motioned D'lano toward the co-pilot's chair, and secured the hatch. He donned his helmet, dropped into the pilot’s seat, and checked his controls. Satisfied that the ship was launch worthy, he looked over to see the ensign firmly ensconced in her seat. She appeared to be calm, but D'lano's paled face accentuated her eyes, now considerably wider than they’d been in the bay.
Bartock smiled to see her death grip on the armrests. "What’s the matter, Ensign?"
"I thought there would be a pilot."
He chuckled. "You needn’t worry about that. I’ve logged a lifetime of hours in these things. I started out as a gun jockey. Don’t know why I ever left them... especially now. "
"Oh." She didn't sound convinced.
They launched at combat speed, with Bartock dodging several incoming missiles. He rolled wide of a burning hulk and accelerated toward his objective. Banking hard and fast, he broke free of the debris field, now grown to engulf the entire engagement area. He tweaked a two second slip into subspace, emerging some distance from the battle, "See that space station?"
D'lano glanced up at the object growing larger on the fighter's battle screens. "That's our deep colony launch facility; I’ve seen it on the holovids."
"See the dreadnought moored to the starboard side?"
"That's the last of our deep space vessels designed to travel between galaxies. Once a colony site has been selected, colonists pile on board and it takes them there."
"Where are the rest of them?"
"Only had four, three are sitting in orbit off what we refer to as the outlander colonies. At least, that's where I hope they are. The ships remain with the colonies in case a disaster requires immediate evacuation. Once the colony is established and capable of supporting itself, the ships are programmed to return home."
"What do the captains and crews do in the meantime?"
"No crews. The ships are fully automated and controlled by the onboard computer."
"That’s impossible! Ships aren't that sophisticated. Even a minor unforeseen special abnormality could throw a guidance system disastrously off course. Automation can't cope with the unexpected."
"For the rest of the fleet, you’re correct, but these four ships are special. These onboards are sentient."
"Pardon me, sir, but I'm an AI specialist. If ships were capable of that, I would know."
"I assure you, they are quite capable. To be honest, I was counting on you having at least some knowledge of them, and the nature of their onboard AIs."
"Why?" D'lano asked nervously.
"We have to program it to launch, and travel on autopilot all the way to Newark Colony without passengers. When it gets there, I want it to command the onsite ships to override previous instructions, park themselves, and never come home unless so ordered by another human." Bartock fired his braking rockets. "Don't panic, I'm coming in a little hot so we may experience a hard landing."
Much to the admiral's surprise, the fighter touched down softly on the dreadnought’s landing bay. Bartock and his equally relieved passenger stepped out onto the receiving platform, and the admiral handed D'lano a secure code lock. "Go to the bridge. This will give you access to take care of the programming. These AIs talk, so it should be easy."
"Go to the bridge and talk to the computer," D'lano reiterated. "That’s all? Surely, you didn’t need me for that. Why am I really here?"
He tried not to sound condescending. "It should be obvious by now that the whole damned universe is falling apart. I expect chaos to reign in this system for a long time, if not forever. If the colonies survive, someday they may want to come home to pick up the pieces... assuming there are any to pick up. The four deep space ships will be needed for that eventuality even if it never happens in our lifetimes. The override has to be some kind of failsafe, something the colonists out there can use to activate the ships. You understand—when they figure out your failsafe, they’ll be smart enough take control of the assets." His explanation was interrupted by the impact of several missiles. "Shit! There goes plan A."
"The ensign staggered but righted herself. "What's plan B?"
As the station stabilized, Bartock grabbed the ensign by the arm. "I'm working on it. Give me that key and move." He propelled her forward into the ship's main corridor.
They burst onto the bridge, "Ship! This is Admiral Bartock."
A soft female vocalization, albeit slightly mechanical, responded, "Acknowledged. My facility is under attack, Admiral."
"Launch as soon as you can."
"I began pre-launch procedures when the current engagement commenced. We are ready for immediate departure."
"Do it, and destroy the facility as you do," Bartock ordered.
"That will not be necessary. I have uploaded the facility computer’s data, wiped its memory, and reprogrammed it to melt all memory blocks as directed per Security Protocol Zulu. Thereby, the deep space facility has been rendered inoperable."
"Then Launch!" Bartock shouted as another rocket blast reverberated through the hull.
The dreadnought shuttered as it broke free of its moorings, emitting a strange whirring that built to a crescendo, then muted. D'lano's expression conveyed both confusion and concern. Bartock smiled, hoping to ease her concern as he pressed the code lock into her hand. "Keep this handy."
D'lano scanned her surroundings apprehensively. "Is something wrong with this thing?"
"Don't panic. The sound you're hearing is our next-generation rip engines cycling up. They're quite different."
"Where are we going?"
"Where it that?"
Bartock pointed generally to their front. "About two galaxies in that direction."
D'lano blurted, "But I don’t want to go out there. I want to stay here. Everyone I care about is back on the Vigilant."
Bartock turned to her, his voiced softened. "I’m sorry, Ensign, I didn’t plan for events to roll out as they have."
The ship interrupted, its voice also reflecting an added tone of sorrow. "Do not regret your decision, Admiral. This was the only course of action left open to you. In any event, there is no turning back. The Vigilant and all on board perished prior to our launch. If you wish to view its destruction, I can download the sensor data."
Stricken, Ensign D'lano began to weep. "My fiancé, my friends... all dead?"
As she cried, Bartock placed his arm around her shoulder and whispered, "Yes, along with Prime and all of our hopes and dreams."
"How could they..."
So many friends and comrades gone, better men than I, Bartock thought. Why did this duty fall to me? Hell, I couldn't even save my own command. What can an admiral with no fleet do at Newark?
Bartock, barely able to suppress his own grief, tried to sound confident as he answered the shaken ensign. "I don’t know, but they did. Over that, we had no control, but you and I still have a mission to carry out. When the danger is passed, there will be time for tears, but that time is not now."
D'lano composed herself. "Then what are we supposed to do?"
"Save this ship and with it perhaps all that’s left of our civilization."
The computer chose to rejoin the discussion. "My stasis units are located on the second level near the bridge, next to my computer interface module."
They moved swiftly to the main computer terminal, where Bartock activated two stasis units while D'lano programmed the fail-safe to reawaken them at their destination. She paused, "What safety cushion should I program for wakeup?"
"Make it fifty years. That should be long enough to ensure no one has found a way to track us."
"Aye, aye, sir." Ensign D'lano turned to enter the numbers using the ship's AI override. After shedding one last tear for all she had lost this day, the ensign inadvertently entered five-zero-zero, not five-zero, into the ship's safety protocol.
Bartock checked and rechecked the engines. He should have been supervising D'lano's actions, but he chose instead to privately view the death of the Vigilant and her crew. It had the impact of a knife buried hilt deep into his heart. Damn this mission, Damn those bastards! Damn myself for leaving. "You died well, Gains. I only wish I could have been there with you."
As he ordered the sequence to replay for the third time, the ship's computer interrupted, "There is nothing you could have done to save the Vigilant."
"I know, I know, but for once I wish I could be the master of my own fate, not a nursemaid for someone else's ship."
The ship answered, "Living with honor is preferable to dying with honor."
"From your perspective, not mine."
"But in the end, you must do what duty demands, and the outland colonies depend on how well you perform that duty on this day."
"That may be true, but I don't have to like it."
"And yet you will survive, Admiral."
"Yeah, great, the last admiral goes down in history as a coward who ran from his final battle."
"Your hypothesis is incorrect. A heroic death that serves no purpose is not honorable. Real courage comes from accepting responsibility for a vital task—however distasteful you believe it to be—and carrying it through to the end."
"Are you saying the Vigilant and her crew died without honor?"
"They gave their lives to grant you the time needed to render my launch station useless. The Vigilant was not yours to command, and dying on board would have been a futile gesture. Your path lies in warning the colonies, so you must turn your attention to our future."
Bartock shook his head. "How the hell did a hunk of programmed circuits become such a haughty philosopher?"
"Perhaps I have an old soul," the ship answered, sounding strangely amused.
Disheartened and discouraged, yet mulling those last words, Bartock joined D'lano in the passenger area. Stasis units lined the walls and Bartock directed her to one nearby. "These gadgets prepare an occupant for long term suspended animation. Answer all of its questions, then go to sleep. You'll awaken at the other end, none the worse for wear."
"I know what a stasis unit does." An underlying anger tinged her response.
Don't push it Heis. She's got enough on her plate already. He explained as gently as he could. "I'm sure you do, Ensign, but these aren't your average stasis units. They're the equivalent of a deep space hospital, designed to maintain a body during extended inter-galactic voyages. If you have anything wrong when you go in, it's fixed by the time you wake up. It was our way of ensuring that our colonies have a high probability of survival. Most units don't work on the genetic level, but these do... Go ahead and activate it."
"Yes, sir." She turned away, moving like an automaton. As he watched her open the lid to her unit, Bartock's mind filled with conflicting emotions. Poor kid just lost everything. She's putting on a good front, but I can tell that she's crying on the inside. I'm proud of her. He loosened his tunic. I should say something to her, but, damn it all, I don't know what to say. How could I console that great a loss? It's too personal. A crusty old admiral should be able to take it in stride, but will she? It's too soon to tell.
Bartock opened his capsule, stripped, and slid into the mechanism, his mind racing. She's young, damned good looking, and she'll probably meet somebody to fill the void on Newark. He considered that briefly before a new thought emerged. What if the colonies have failed? We haven't received a single transmission from them since they launched—couldn’t have considering the distance. What will we do if D'lano and I are all that's left of civilization? He glanced over to see her removing her tunic. She's got guts, she's smart, and she's gorgeous. Absolutely beauti— Damn it Heis, stop it! She's too young for a decrepit old man like you... and yet, if we're the only two left...
The cover of his unit slid into place and the computer intoned, "Please state any special medical requirements."
Bartock replied, "None..." He cast a quick glance in D'lano's direction and changed his reply. "No! Belay that— Program maximum rejuvenation."
When the hiss of air exchange signaled the start of the suspension process, Bartock relaxed. Whatever the future holds for us, we'll face it... perhaps even together. A hint of a smile crossed his lips as consciousness slipped into dreams of possibilities.
Get more thrilling military sci-fi in Veterans of the Future Wars!
Featured in the Veterans of the Future Wars anthology.
Old soldiers never die…
Years earlier, a missile strike had left the centre of the Bridge with a ragged and fatal wound, the roadway melted-blasted-twisted by forces Kim barely understood. He’d seen such forces in action on dozens of occasions and on dozens more he’d studied the ruins, cold testimony to the destructive will of Homo sapiens.
The congealed slag reminded him of an old lava-flow he had once seen on his son’s television—cooled and grey and lifeless. The muscles of his face trembled for a moment with an old sadness. He would not watch a television again... and he would never see his son.
He turned his attention away from the colossal lesion, away from the late summer humidity that welded his mottled green private’s uniform to his torso, away from the arthritic pain that throbbed in his spine. His attention was needed elsewhere, since the man staring back across the hole in the motorway wore a different uniform than his.
The fifty meter-wide gap in the Bridge was small enough to fire across. And far enough that each man squinted at the other and reached into his breast pocket for his glasses.
When—after a full minute—the other man hadn’t yet gotten himself sorted, Kim cradled his Enfield rifle in his left arm and considered the Bridge’s wound again. The desolate beauty of it—the way its sheer scale dwarfed him and his opponent both—stirred memories of recent history. Memories of a global plague erasing billions of lives, from infants to the middle-aged. Memories of sovereign nations and fundamentalist paramilitaries all accusing each other of creating and unleashing the disease... until words became bullets and missiles and invasions...
Not for the first time, he chuckled over the tragic comedy of a World War passing into the hands of the elderly, until septuagenarians like himself found themselves abandoned on foreign soil fighting more out of habit than for any higher purpose.
He glanced up at the corporal in the khaki uniform opposite him. The poor old fellow was not evil—he was not to be hated. He was simply protecting his country from invaders.
Perhaps he was out scavenging for some small community of breeding-age people, while others protected them from kidnap and a new form of slavery. Anyone who could find and control breeders would inherit the earth. “Women under fifty,” Kim’s Colonel had once said. “This is what we hunt.”
Women, he thought. How long since I’ve seen one, touched one? All curves and silky hair. He sighed. Soldiers. It’s always other soldiers.
Movement drew his attention back to the man in khaki. He was fumbling a pistol from its holster. Kim shifted his Enfield and felt a pang of pity for his enemy; at this distance, a revolver was no match for a rifle. Perhaps his enemy realized that too, turning and making for the cover of a nearby car-wreck.
It was the perfect opportunity to pick him off, now while his back was turned. But Kim scraped the sole of one boot on the missile-chafed asphalt and wondered again what had drawn the other man here.
Kim had felt the pull of the bridge as soon as he’d seen it, drawn by something instinctive, irrational. Adrift without the leadership of officers long dead, he’d had no tactical reason to come out here. He certainly hadn’t expected to find anything, much less another man in uniform.
He settled his rifle stock on the roadway, leaning the barrel against his thigh while he fished in his belt-pouches for his cigarette packet. He slid one out, lit up, and drew deeply, all before the other man made it to the relative shelter of the burned and buckled Toyota.
The poor old fellow looked like he’d sustained an injury to one leg. Then again, it might just be arthritis.
He arched his back in a sympathetic stretch.
On a whim, he raised the pack in the air.
The corporal didn’t notice immediately, too busy positioning his feet and hands—moving in stages—until his elbows rested on the car bonnet, bracing the pistol. When he noticed Kim’s gesture, he gawked, eyes growing round. For a long moment, Kim thought his enemy might not understand, or might think he was being mocked.
Then the man pushed himself upright and rounded the car. Kim didn’t speak a word of the local language, but the signals the corporal made communicated clearly enough: Would I like a cigarette? Hell, yes.
Kim smiled around his smoke. It had been weeks since he’d seen another human being, and that had been another old man in an ill-fitting khaki uniform. He’d shot him dead. He’d had to. Now the need to be courteous was rising up to overwhelm his battle-habit, like a long-forgotten memory surfacing to blur present-sight.
For a long time, they regarded each other and the gap between them. How to get a cigarette across that yaw?
Younger men might have climbed up and across the remains of the gantries, meeting somewhere in the middle. The two old soldiers would have to rely on brains where brawn had deserted them.
In the end, the pulley system took them over an hour to craft. The spools of fishing line which Kim had picked up on his travels combined well with pieces of rubble and a loose cable drooping diagonally across the breach. He detached the belt-pouch with his cigarettes and lighter inside, attached it to the line.
The rig worked well. They congratulated each other with nods and smiles. The corporal sent the pouch with the cigarettes back across the gap before he lit up.
Upon retrieving his pouch, Kim discovered an additional item inside: one of those small bottles that populated hotel room fridges. His enemy raised a similar bottle in toast. They drank together and rested from their labors, rubbing distractedly at the aches and pains their endeavors had caused. Kim was very glad he had decided against climbing across.
When the booze was gone, he stepped closer to the torn edge of the roadway. Only a few years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to see anything from the middle lanes of the Bridge. Now he could not only see the water far below, but the missile-strike had smashed away more of the structure to his left, revealing a small island and a partial view of other small promontories lining the water’s edge beyond that. He drank in a panorama of greens, blues, grays, and browns, painted here and there with the brush of human ‘progress.’
It occurred to him that the beauty of the harbor would survive after the last remaining people were long gone. This filled him with a strange hope, the emotion spider-crawling its way up his chest and constricting his throat. He found water in his eyes. At least human insanity hadn’t ruined everything.
The cigarette had burned its way to the filter now. He dropped it onto the road and captured it beneath his boot, grinding it into the asphalt before the wind could snatch it away and dump it in the harbor. He considered lighting another—cancer was the least of his worries—but the lateness of the hour turned his thoughts to shelter.
He regarded the enemy a few moments more.
Nine cartridges left. One less bullet meant one less rabbit dinner. It seemed a waste—of ammunition and of effort. Actually, it seemed rude, especially after sharing a smoke and a drink.
Kim found himself shouldering his rifle. He straightened, snapped off a salute, and trudged back along the roadway.
* * *
For six days, the two men met this way. Each day they shared booze and smokes. Once, they shared a rabbit Kim had roasted over a fire that morning, hunched in the broken corner of a city bank. Another day, they split a six-pack the corporal had found in his travels.
The beer was warm. The other man didn’t seem to care and neither did Kim.
* * *
On the seventh day, the corporal didn’t appear.
Kim waited for several long hours, until storm clouds rose threateningly in the distance to spoil the makings of a spectacular sunset. It was time to make ready for whatever sleep he could snatch in the scant shelter of the ruined bank. He turned and tramped back toward the southeastern pylon where bridge joined land, fingering the cigarette that had remained unlit all day.
What had happened to his enemy, his polite and courteous enemy? Accident? Heart-attack?
A further possibility caused him a sharp intake of breath. Perhaps there was another man in a mottled green uniform wandering around this city; perhaps the two had met overnight. At a distance, the corporal might have mistaken such a person for his newfound drinking companion and waved hello, when he should have been reaching for his pistol. The thought made Kim’s stomach churn.
At first he thought the rumbling was distant thunder. When the army truck appeared from behind the vehicle corpses that littered the roadway toward the city, he froze. He nudged the rifle’s safety as the truck shouldered past a burnt-out Ford and lumbered to a stop near him.
He squinted. Yes, behind the wheel sat the fellow from the bridge.
But was that cause for relief or alarm?
The engine stopped running with a sigh and a gurgle. The driver’s door creaked open. The corporal climbed carefully down from the cab and steadied himself. He put a hand to his hip.
Kim raised the rifle a few degrees.
The corporal’s hand came up bearing a large bottle of scotch.
And both men smiled.
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They took turns. Two men held Lorenzo's arms while the third beat him. They broke ribs. They mashed his nose into butter. They punched his eyes until the skin swelled and purpled together and he couldn't see and the blood streamed into his mouth. They knocked out several teeth. In what order they did these things, he couldn't tell. Then they threw him over the rail and left him to drown.
But he didn't drown. Eight months later, Lorenzo leaned behind the post of a saloon porch, studying the building opposite. Passersby paid him no mind, either too intent on knocking through the batwing doors behind him or too drunk to care coming out. Just another loitering rowdy soul, exceptional only for his ugliness, a toothpick in his open mouth to keep it moist because he could no longer breathe through either nostril.
A half-dozen men exited the gambling house across the street, cheerful, back slapping. Pockets full of winnings. After months of hunting and hours of waiting, Lorenzo pulled farther behind the post, drew his Remington. Held it steady, deliberately not aiming at the man in the center, the man in the black coat and string tie. Lorenzo wanted to take down the others first, remove them from play, before facing Specht alone.
The hammer receded. He squeezed the trigger.
A hand grabbed his wrist, pushed the muzzle skyward.
Lorenzo shook free and spun in fury. Next to him stood a man with waves of orange hair, smirking as if he had caught Lorenzo sneaking an apple pie off a windowsill.
Lorenzo cocked his fist but the orange-haired man pointed up and across the street.
Lorenzo squinted, following the man's finger. On top of the building beside the gambling hall was a cigar billboard. Awkward lines jutted from behind the nearest edge—the brim of a hat, a foot or so of carbine.
"Specht's man," said orange hair. "You would've been lucky to get off a single round."
A sharpshooter. In the event some chump in the gambling hall ran after Specht, defrauded and wrong for trouble. But not today. Specht and his associates, on horseback, were already thirty yards down the street. The squatting figure on the rooftop rose, wandered out of sight toward some invisible ladder or staircase. Onto the next town, the next hustle.
Lorenzo shoved his Remington into its leather holster. "What's it to you?"
Orange hair smiled wide. "Nothing to me whether you live or die, smart guy. But since I done you a favor, perhaps you could return the civility. There's someone who'd like to meet you."
Lorenzo stepped closer. "Walk on. I owe you nothing."
Orange hair shrugged. "Suit yourself. Just figured if you want revenge on Tanner Specht, you might as well be paid for it."
A few streets away was a large house with rooms for let. Orange hair ushered him into the sitting room before closing the door behind Lorenzo, leaving him alone with the woman.
She introduced herself as Bethesda Valasquez and invited him to take a chair. Lorenzo hesitated, afraid his slightest movement might tear the wallpaper or upset the claw-footed china cabinet or break the tea service spread in front of her. But he noted the estimation in her eyes—so brown they were almost black—and crossed to the table to sit without rattling any cups or saucers.
"I don't know the exact circumstances of why you're hunting him, Mister Lorenzo, but I can deduce two facts. One, because we're discussing Tanner Specht, it involved gaming for money. And two, due to your obvious injuries, you were accused of cheating, which led to violence."
"I've never cheated at cards in my life. I don't need to."
"I said accused, Mister Lorenzo." She sipped from her steaming cup. Lorenzo wondered how she could drink something so hot near the midday temperature.
"I already know how he did it," said Lorenzo. He’d had plenty of time to think, being laid up in the sharecropper's shack, the wife nursing him to health after her husband fished him out of the river. "He shook my hand before the game. I reckoned it odd at the time, but that's how he put the card in my sleeve."
Valasquez nodded—Lorenzo tried not to glance at the acorn skin of her throat and chest. "A magician's sleight-of-hand and a dab of spirit gum to make it stick. It can't fall out too soon. The game needs to be well underway. Eventually, the heat or sweat makes it loose."
It had been hot that night. Lorenzo had lifted his handkerchief to his forehead and the fifth ace launched from his sleeve onto the tabletop. It was the prearranged signal. Specht and his buddies snatched his gun while Lorenzo was still staring at the card.
"They beat you and took your money," she said. "Not just the money on the table but everything on you, which they considered fair penalty. And, of course, no one on the boat came to your defense because you were an obvious card cheat and card cheats are the lowest form of humanity."
Lorenzo pushed his saucer away. He couldn't have tasted the tea anyway—or the jelly and cream. He couldn't taste anything. A man needs a sense of smell to taste. "I've been tracking Specht from the moment I was well enough to walk. Your fellow interrupted me just now. I need to get on the road after them, Miss Valasquez." He made to stand.
"We... have a history," she said. "Specht has stolen a considerable sum from me, as well. But I have an idea of how to ameliorate my situation—our situations."
Lorenzo stayed in his chair. "I'm listening."
"Tanner Specht is not a United States citizen. He only comes north to make his money—to swindle Americans like you. Now he is returning home. To do that, he must take a steamboat up the river to his ranch."
"Outside Rio Grande City."
Lorenzo gnawed on his toothpick.
"Specht will be unable to avoid gambling on the riverboat. It's his nature. Someone adept with cards might be able to use his nature against him."
And she told him her plan.
* * *
It was better if no one saw them traveling together. They agreed to meet in Brownsville, near the mouth of the river. Lorenzo rode to the coast, sold his horse, bought passage. Days later, the gangplank dropped and the tide of passengers pushed him off the ship and down the pier. At the foot he stopped to read the inscription on the iron gate overhead:
TRUST IN THE STATE A LITTLE LESS AND IN MANKIND A LITTLE MORE.
His saddlebags slung over his shoulder, Lorenzo walked under the gate and into the Republic of the Rio Grande.
Brownsville was the country's only major port—also its biggest city. It was impossible for Lorenzo to walk a straight line; something or someone always seemed to cut across his path. Black porters hoisted heavy bags, stevedores rolled enormous casks, horse-drawn wagons veered close to his toes. Smack in the middle of the boulevard, a dozen mules stood hitched to posts, and traffic swirled and eddied around them in conflicting currents, the coach drivers hollering and shaking their fists. Lorenzo took to the boardwalk but it was an inconsonant trail, abruptly changing height or width or ending altogether, only to reappear intact a few yards later.
So he walked in the street beside it.
He dodged stalls and hucksters, many of them gold mad—they sold maps to gold mines, shovels for digging gold, pans to collect it. When he stopped to buy a cold lunch, the grocer regarded his American notes like the handbills from yesterday's traveling circus and pointed him toward a nearby bank. There Lorenzo exchanged his paper for gold and silver coins. Everywhere flew the colors black and white and red, unfamiliar aphorisms painted on the sides of buildings telling Lorenzo Advise me, but do not force your opinion on me and By virtue of exchange, one man's prosperity is beneficial to all others.
He found the hotel and was directed to the suite registered under the false name Valasquez said she would use. Orange hair—his name was Delaney—answered the door. He led Lorenzo to a parlor opening onto the veranda. Lorenzo helped himself to a bottle of whiskey and leaned against the balustrade, mesmerized by the street below. It was like a hundred gusts of wind rippling through tall grass every which way.
"I've lived in Texas most of my life," he said when he felt her standing in the doorway, "And I've never seen any people so well-armed. Even the young fillies strap six-guns around their waists."
Lorenzo turned to see if Valasquez wore a set too. She didn't. Instead she had her hair down, volcanic glass against the shoulders of her jacket. She had worn it pinned last time. Now it looked more...
He returned to staring at the street.
She considered him sidelong as he pulled on the bottle. "You really don't know much about this country, do you?"
Lorenzo shook his head. "I know women have the vote here. Understand they even want to give it to the Negroes."
"They won't, on general principle. Most would rather fall on a pitchfork than so much as wish a Negro good day."
"The joke's on you and anyone who thinks it makes a difference. Women's suffrage is a protection against increasing the size of our tiny government. Men know voting for bigger government would give women more power. So out of spite they don't."
"They give the vote so nobody can do anything with it? Balled up way to run a country."
"Does it seem so awful?" Down at the river, a steamboat moaned its pipe-organ stack—coming or going, bringing people or shipping things away. "When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. 'Law is organized justice,' said the philosopher—anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren't enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers."
"But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?"
"The philosopher wasn't against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application," said Valasquez. "So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that's exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals."
"Only the wealthy, you mean."
"How is that worse than America? There the politicians and judges are just as rich as they are here. Except your government steals money from everyone else—to give to those politicians and judges, making them even richer."
Lorenzo coughed. It was his rendition of laughter. "Well," he said, inspecting the street, "I have to admit, I don't see any Mexican soldiers."
"If you want to see them, Mister Lorenzo, you have to go to the capital at Laredo. The Mexicans post a pair of sentries outside their embassy."
The steamboat departed the next morning. It was much smaller than other riverboats Lorenzo had traveled on, a broad stern-wheeler with very shallow draft. A pair of derricks sat forward for grasshoppering over sandbars. Yet the cabin deck was comfortable and there were enough passengers for Lorenzo to melt into. The officers and Negro waiters knew Specht. Showered him with attention. Specht didn't have his whole gang with him—just his bodyguards. Lorenzo could feel their unease when they glanced at him. Unnerving at first. But soon he understood they failed to recognize him; the scars, the missing teeth, the zigzag crumple in the middle of his face broadcasted a harder life than theirs and they thought of themselves as very hard men.
Lorenzo allowed this doubt to simmer in their souls as he watched the river go by, the olive ribbon so narrow he swore he could stretch out his arms and touch both banks. The shore was rocks and weeds that grew dead-looking as sticks, punctuated here and again by mesquite and black willow and hackberry which thinned into prickly pear and scrubby grass beyond; a jagged, broken palisade of green hemming the buffs and browns of the desert. Seen on a map, each riverbank was painted differently—to the left-hand lay Mexico, to the right was Republic land north to the Nueces, yet to a traveler the countryside was indistinguishable.
At mealtimes Lorenzo kept far from Specht, eating with an assortment of passengers. Once, at dinner, a debate emerged regarding a proposed import duty, the first of its kind for the Republic. Some at the table argued this would create a more equitable structure for funding the courts and what-not, reducing reliance on the patrons, but the rest said a duty would be the wellspring of protectionism, misused by the legislators to punish those industries and producers they disfavored while benefitting those who were, more likely than not, their supporters. It amused the table to ask taciturn Lorenzo his opinion on the matter.
"Seems to me whoever stands to profit the most from events is the body fighting hardest for them to come about," he said.
Which satisfied both sides as an indictment of the other.
They shuffled freight and passengers at Progreso and Edinburgh. From there it was nonstop upriver to Rio Grande City, the northernmost boundary for the steamboats. Lorenzo waited until Specht was in his stateroom and knocked on the door. Specht invited him inside and offered a cigar, very mannerly, and they sat and smoked while Lorenzo briefly recounted the events of eight months ago. Specht's demeanor assumed a more drained and serious expression.
Finally Lorenzo told him about Valasquez and how she had employed Lorenzo to win Specht's money at cards.
"A riveting tale, Mister Lorenzo," said Specht, regarding his cigar. "And how are you supposed to do this?"
"By cheating. By introducing a chilled deck into the game." He meant a deck where the cards had been previously arranged to deal Lorenzo the winning hand.
Specht chuckled. "Dear Miss Valasquez. Some time ago I outbid her for a parcel of land she very badly wanted. I'm afraid she hasn't forgiven me for it. And how much do you stand to make on this endeavor?"
"Twenty percent of the winnings. I reckon I can do better."
Lorenzo turned and pitched his cigar through the open window. It might have gone into the water or it might have landed on someone's head or started a fire. "I've two-thousand dollars' worth of gold in my pocket she staked me for playing money. But I've also got this," and he pulled a slip of paper from inside his coat and passed it to Specht. "It's a check drawn on the First Republic Bank of Rio Grande City for another five-thousand. As you can see, it's already made out to you."
Specht examined the paper.
"The idea was for me to throw the check into the pot once I believed your goose was nearly plucked. You would take the bait and match it with currency. Then the chilled deck was to be dealt. I would win the hand and take back the check along with your five-thousand plus."
Specht pulled on his cigar, exhaled.
"What I propose," said Lorenzo, leaning close, "Is that you and I let bygones be bygones. I don't want revenge. I want money. You keep the check and pay me half of it now. That along with the two thousand in my pocket puts me way ahead of twenty percent. We dock at the City and go our separate ways. You cash the check and you've made twenty-five hundred for doing nothing."
Specht rolled the cigar in his fingers. "What about Valasquez? She'll want you dead."
"Four-and-a-half in gold can buy me a fast horse with plenty left over."
Specht held the check up to the light. "It is her signature," he said.
As Specht stacked the coins before Lorenzo, the corner of his mouth curled and he said, "The least you can offer me is the chance to win some of this tonight in the saloon. I rarely meet such a worthwhile player. No tricks, no cheating—for either of us. Simply gentleman to gentleman."
Lorenzo nodded. "I'd like that."
After supper, the staff pushed the furniture against the walls of the saloon, leaving a single table in the center. They arranged chairs around it like the bleachers in an arena, the passengers spilling their whiskey-and-sodas rushing to claim the closest seats. Specht and Lorenzo sat across from each other, with another pair of gamblers—they said their names were Howes and Newcomb—between them, hot for the action. To stay honest, they recruited a waiter as dealer. Tipping him soon became a competition in itself to assure he didn't favor one philanthropist over the others.
The game started in high spirits, Specht making jokes to an appreciative crowd while they muttered and gasped at the give-and-take. Lorenzo won some rounds, folded on others, but rarely was beat outright by a better hand. Specht searched for Lorenzo's tell but the other man was too cool to reveal it—or perhaps the dead nerves in his face were incapable of demonstrating emotion. As the game ground on and much of the audience, sleepy or drunk, lurched off to their staterooms, it became apparent the plane of the tablecloth had tilted to shift an abundance of specie toward Lorenzo. Specht turned irritable, snapping at the dealer and Howes and Newcomb. They endured his insults with brush-offs or silence.
Finally Specht slammed another useless hand onto the cloth as Lorenzo pulled a gleaming pile toward him and Lorenzo said, "I can understand why you're upset. Even with seventy-five percent odds against me, you still can't win."
Specht looked at him sharply. "What did you say?"
"Come on," said Lorenzo. He inclined his head toward Howes and Newcomb. "You think just because one grew a mustache and the other cut his off, I don't recollect the three men who whupped me that night?"
Specht's lips went tighter than piano wire.
"Why don't you tell these two shave-tails to take a swim and you and me play some real cards?"
The alcohol turned icy in the veins of the remaining onlookers and the dealer, who really just wanted to go to bed, stepped away from the table. Everybody was thinking, Here it comes. Then Specht gestured. Howes and Newcomb scraped up what money they had and faded into the shadows of the saloon.
Several deals more and it was over: Specht couldn't match the raise. A few coins lay scattered like breadcrumbs in front of him. "Congratulations." He stared calmly at Lorenzo. "I just hope something terrible doesn't happen to you—again—before you buy that fast horse."
Lorenzo signaled a waiter leaning against the bar. The waiter reached behind the counter, walked over, presented a thick square of cloth given to him earlier by Lorenzo. Lorenzo paid for the favor with a ten-dollar round, unfolded the square into a waxed canvas bag and pushed his winnings over the table lip and inside. He stood and hoisted the bag onto his shoulder.
"I figure it doesn't make no difference," said Lorenzo. "The only reason you gave me that twenty-five hundred before is because you planned to take it back one way or another. Now excuse me. I'm going to step outside and breathe some fresh air."
He made it to the starboard promenade just as Howes followed him out the door, drawing. Lorenzo shot the man in the gut, then ran aft. A bullet zipped by his ear and he saw Newcomb coming out the saloon's stern doorway. They blazed away at each other, both a little wild, before Newcomb grunted, seesawed over the railing, and fell into the paddle.
Everybody on the riverboat was awake and hollering. Lorenzo looped the drawstrings of the bag around his left wrist several times, white-knuckled the cords. Specht ran onto the deck with a Sharps rifle—who knows where he got it—blowing the guardrail beside Lorenzo to splinters. Lorenzo dropped him in the knee, and while Specht lay there groaning, he put a second in the other one. Lorenzo was forever damaged. Least he could do was to give Specht a limp for the rest of his days.
"You still have the bank check but you'll find Miss Valasquez emptied that account this morning," Lorenzo called to him. "You could have confirmed it with the bank ahead of time—if it was possible to send a telegraph from a boat."
Then gunfire came at Lorenzo from nineteen directions, passengers and sailors shooting at him because any stranger witness to aggression will always take the side of the person bleeding on the ground whether he's a beatified saint or the man who just raped your sister. Lorenzo ducked his head and stepped off into the water.
He kicked hard to escape the suction of the paddlewheel. The bag dragged him toward the sand, an anchor chained to his arm, but he couldn't have let go if he'd wanted. He thrashed and spluttered, and when there wasn't river in his mouth he damned the Republicans and their aversion to paper tender. Through sheer mule-headed stubbornness, he willed the bag and himself into the shallows, bullets churning the water around him.
"Let's go, smart guy," and Delaney was hauling him toward the shore. The bank was a fireworks of blasting and gun smoke. Valasquez's people returned the riverboat's volley, shattering glass, evoking screams, knocking out lanterns, starting fires when the kerosene splashed. The vessel suddenly became very quiet and retreated around an oxbow.
They lit a fire. Lorenzo sprawled on the ground beside it, drenched and huffing. Someone threw a camp blanket around him. Delaney unsheathed a Bowie knife and severed the drawstrings around Lorenzo's wrist.
He exhibited the heavy money bag to Valasquez like a prize salmon. "He did good. It's all here, Madam President."
"Madam President?" said Lorenzo. "You're right, Miss Valasquez, I don't know much about this country."
"If women can vote, then it stands to reason they'll vote themselves into authority," Valasquez replied as she scabbarded her rifle. "Unfortunately, due to the peculiar laws of our republic, I have so little authority to abuse. In any other country I could have used my position to seize Specht's land. My engineers tell me there's rock oil beneath it. But now I believe Mister Specht will be forced to sell the parcel to compensate for tonight's losses. I will be the buyer."
"Every garden has its serpents." Lorenzo spat water and grit. "And what about me? Do I keep my fifty percent?"
Delaney picked his nails with his Bowie. The others waited, gunstocks on their hips or hands near their belts. Lorenzo knew his six-shooter was empty, his cartridges as full of the Rio Grande as he was.
Valasquez appraised him. Something there, in those eyes. In the firelight. Then she turned, undid a horse's saddlebag, and tossed a lump of clothing onto the ground.
"Why don't you step out of those wet things and we'll discuss it," she said. "It's a hundred miles to Laredo."
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Lord Philips dipped a quill pen into the ink well. Just as he brought the pen nib to the ledger the door to his office swung open. The squeal of unoiled metal made his arthritic hand jump and droplets of blue-black ink cascaded along the page. He fixed his Aide-de-Camp with his one good eye. “Damn you. Don’t you know how to knock?”
Captain Samuel Fitzroy, all red coat and powdered wig, stood in the doorway, a dispatch case tucked under his right arm. “Sorry, My Lord. I’ve gathered together the list of Colonelcies for your approval. You will, perhaps, recall from our discussion of last—”
A tired harrumph from Lord Phillips cut him short. “All right, bring it here.”
The captain placed the list before him and stood to attention. Lord Philips ran an aged finger down the list. “I recognize most of the names, but who the devil is George Washington? Some militia captain or other?”
The captain cleared his throat. “He’s a Virginian, and—”
Lord Phillips brought a frail hand slapping down on the desk, making the ink well jump. “Damn it, Samuel. He’s a colonial. Good at fighting Red Indians no doubt, but you’re telling me that someone in London would have me approve his appointment over those of regular Army officers?”
The captain nodded. “Yes, he did fight the Delaware, and the Shawnee. But he also served as aid-de-camp to General Braddock, during what the colonials insist on calling the French and Indian War. He’s really quite gifted.”
Lord Philips sat deeper in his plush chair. “Yes they are all quite gifted, and most of them have connections in parliament if not at court. What is there to this...” he peered down at the list, “George Washington to recommend him politically?”
“There are rumblings of discontent within the colonies, My Lord. We would do well to have one of the colonial elite in the regular establishment. There’s a letter attached to the list signed by the king granting you discretion to make such an appointment.”
“Mmm... I shall think on it. Send in Admiral Collins. I have other matters to attend to at the moment.”
* * *
Virginia Frontier, 1759
A fierce wind lashed the tent of Colonel of Militia George Washington. He brooded over the tattered and inaccurate map spread out on his camp desk. A voice drew him away from his tactical musings.
“Begging your pardon, sir.” William, a private in the Virginia militia, leaned through the tent flap. Washington beckoned him enter.
The fifteen year old militia man snapped a salute. “Sir, there be a representative of the commander of the regular forces to see you.”
Washington let out a sigh. “They’re probably going to saddle me with another General Braddock. When will those upper class Englishmen learn the differences between European and frontier warfare? I know how to fight, and I’m as loyal to the British Empire as any son who hails from Britain’s shores.” He rolled up the map and pushed it inside a leather tube. “Send him in forthwith.”
A broad-chested individual wearing the red coat of a regular officer entered the tent and gave a curt nod. “Good evening, sir. May I introduce myself? I’m Captain Jeffery Windsworth, aid to General Horrocks.”
“Have my letters provoked a response from London after all this time?” Washington inquired.
“Indeed, sir. I have the happy task of informing you of two notable events.”
Washington clasped his hands behind his back, his face unreadable. “What then is the first piece of auspicious news?”
Captain Windsworth smiled as he unrolled a vellum scroll, and read aloud:
“GEORGE THE THIRD, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, and His other Realms and Territories King, Defender of the Faith—
The Captain then stepped forward and clasped Washington’s hand. “Congratulations, sir. And may I add to the foregoing that General Horrocks is recommending to London that your Virginians be made a Royal Regiment, with you as its colonel.
Washington smiled for the first time during their exchange. “That’s excellent news, Captain. Thank you for bringing it to me. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to advise the officers and men of this Royal Virginia Regiment of their new status.”
* * *
Alfred Silversmith—banker, ship-owner, and politician—steepled his fingers under his three chins. “You do not find this undertaking beneath your dignity, Colonel?”
Washington kept his face imperturbable, a skill most needed when dealing with elites. “Nay, sir, I’ve heard about this mob of Whigs, stirring up the locals. I don’t believe that a farmer or labourer will take up arms and disturb the King’s Peace.”
“When do you strike out with your Royal Virginians?”
“An hour before sunrise. The general wants me to be up to Concord, lest those farmers become possessed by some fever.”
Silversmith leaned forward and whispered, “Do you think Governor Thomas would object to a little wager?”
“Considering he, as Governor, has enforced the Massachusetts Government Act, I would dare say he is up for any wager.”
Silversmith let forth a veritable thunder of laughter. “Oh, yes, I dare say you are right, my dear Colonel, but to the matter at hand. I am prepared to wager three guineas that you will put the rebels to flight with no more than a single volley.” He then signalled a servant for a glass of sherry.
Washington smiled. “Since the French never ‘put them to flight’ with a single volley, I’ll accept your wager.”
A servant appeared a moment later with the sherry. Silversmith raised his glass in salute. “I would wish you luck, my dear Colonel, but I doubt you will need it.”
* * *
Four miles outside of Boston, 1775
Washington surveyed the tricorne-hatted men who fanned out on either side of the column. If the rebels wanted to take potshots at his Virginians, then his irregulars would see the rebels driven-off or killed. He knew all too well the minutemen would not stand in the middle of the road and meet his regulars toe-to-toe.
The long dirt ribbon, which passed for a road between Boston, Lexington, and Concorde, slowed his march and allowed the rebels time to gather. No doubt, the local rabble rousers would make good use of that time to gather their strength. Every hedge, stone wall, bridge, and copse of trees was now a potential ambuscade.
Musket fire heralded the day. Beyond a quilt-work of fields and farm houses, the reports echoed. Lieutenant Phelps rode up to Washington and saluted. “With your permission, sir, I’d like to take a platoon up the road to support the Loyalists.”
“No, Lieutenant, take half-a-dozen mounted men and ride for the battle. Determine the enemy’s disposition and strength. Then report back with all haste.”
Phelps’ jaw dropped for a second, but he saluted, wheeled his horse about, and galloped to the head of the column. Washington watched as he gathered the riders and made his way past the cluster of farms.
Lieutenant Colonel Briggs, a recent arrival from England, swatted flies away from both himself and his mount. “Blast, I thought I left those bloody horse-biters back in North Carolina.”
“One never leaves flies or rats behind. They are always with us.” Washington trailed off into deep thought. “Briggs, how best do we deal with such disaffected fellows?”
“A sharp lash sir, but only one stroke. We must end this here and now, lest the other colonies throw in with New England.”
Fifteen long minutes passed. Washington turned to Briggs with the intention of sending more riders out, but before he could issue the order Phelps and four riders appeared around a bend in the road. Phelps waved the other riders away and made for Washington.
Ashen and perspiring, Phelps reigned in his horse. “Permission to report, sir?”
“Calm yourself, Lieutenant, and tell me what you have witnessed.”
“I counted a good fifty rebels with another forty approaching from the north. The Loyalists have a strong position and are holding the next stretch of road, but they are in danger of being flanked.”
Briggs cut in, “Begging your pardon, Colonel. Let’s send in five companies along with the rest of the irregulars.”
Before Washington could reply, Phelps toppled from his horse. Washington turned and roared over his shoulder, “Fetch my surgeon now!”
Arriving with all due haste, the surgeon pulled away Phelps’ red coat to reveal a crimson rose spreading across his white jacket. Washington shut his eyes and cursed himself for not noticing the man’s wound earlier.
“Briggs,” he hissed through his rotten teeth. “Take the companies and the irregulars and sweep this rabble from the road.”
Briggs wheeled his charger about and bellowed orders. At once, a sea of Redcoats rose from the surrounding fields. The light company, trained at Washington’s insistence in frontier warfare, together with their irregular counterparts, formed a skirmish line ahead of the main body, while several companies of dragoons from Boston covered the flanks.
The Royal Virginians marched forward, their white trousers now soiled by the mud churned up from the movement of hundreds of men.
Washington left Phelps with his surgeon and rode to the head of the column. The men raised their hats cheering as they recognized their colonel. As the Royal Virginians wheeled to the northwest, the number of volleys increased to two per minute.
A sergeant next to Washington cleared his throat and grinned. “Sounds like them Massachusetts boys want to have themselves a fight.”
Washington ignored the comment, keeping his eyes on the road. Greyish-white smoke wafted through a thicket of trees near a bridge. He noted the skirmishers with their hatchets and pistols moving into the wood. The Royal Virginians maintained their discipline, not speeding their steps.
An excited lieutenant called out, “Look, sir, to your left.”
A dozen rebels—some with muskets, others with axes or pistols—shot out of the concealing wood. One man managed to make it to the edge of the river before a ball knocked him clear off his feet. His hat tumbled down and floated on the slow water, moving downstream like a swan.
Sergeants ordered the men into column, using muskets in place of traditional pole arms. From time to time, they glanced up the road, looking for signs of rebel skirmishers.
The sound of musketry faded away, reduced to the occasional shot. Washington dismounted. He rubbed the sides of his aching legs, but kept his eyes fixed upon the road. A mob of men appeared from between the trees. Thirteen disheveled and disarmed rebels, some stumbling and streaked with dirt and blood, flanked by light infantry made their way to the Royal Virginian line.
Washington signaled to a sergeant, who in turn ordered forward a fatigue party with buckets of water. The rebels slumped on the muddy grass at the edge of the road. Each man accepted the water with mumbled thanks. Washington stood over the defeated men, taking their measure.
“I am Colonel Washington, officer commanding the Royal Regiment of Virginia. I am empowered to grant you pardon if you promise to never again take up arms against His Majesty.”
For a minute, no one uttered a word. And then a sergeant drove his fist into a rebel’s jaw, knocking him over. Washington bellowed, “Sergeant, let that man be. Place them under guard. We will deal with them later.”
Rain drizzled over the silent woods, only the murmur of the river and the low chatter of men breaking the silence. Redcoats and irregulars tended to their wounded or guarded an impressive collection of captured muskets, hatchets, daggers, and ammunition. Washington crumpled a piece of paper in his large fist, despite his best attempts to keep his emotions to himself. A few rain drops caused the ink to run down the paper, obscuring the numbers of Virginian dead and wounded.
He handed the paper to Briggs. “My eyes are still quite good, Briggs. All the same, please read aloud the number of Virginians killed.”
Briggs squinted at the smudged writing. “Looks like forty eight, Colonel.”
“That’s what I thought. More rebels than our spies thought we would face on this trek. Send out gallopers. I need to know whether the powder stores at Lexington have been secured.”
He shook his head as he thought of the folly of General Martin not ordering the removal of the artillery pieces from Fort Ticonderoga. If the rebels captured those guns, they could occupy the heights overlooking Boston.
Briggs shook his head, “Begging your pardon, sir, we should get the regiment up the road. We should not wait for news to reach us.”
Washington sighed, his hope of a quick engagement dashed. He ordered the Royal Virginians to take to the road once more. The trek to Lexington would require three hours of marching. He noted the lack of fire from the surrounding woods, his light infantry and Loyalist irregulars had obviously made the rebels feel uncomfortable.
Briggs seemed to read his thoughts. “If I may say so, sir, this journey would be a rough business if not for your Loyalists.”
Washington gave an affirmative grunt.
“I mean, sir, the rebels are drawn to the Loyalists as surely as nails to magnets. Of course, we are here to hammer those nails which stand up.”
* * *
For two hours, the Royal Virginians marched down the muddy road to Lexington. And then a rider approached them at full gallop. Washington watched as he conversed with the forward elements and was then directed to him. The excited man spluttered it as he spoke, “Colonel, I’ve spoken with a Loyalist captain from Lexington. He reports that they are holding, but they require our presence to take the fight out of the rebels.”
Washington thanked the man and signaled for the advance to continue. A thick grey-white smoke covered the southern edge of the town. The still forms of men dotted the surrounding fields. An occasional larger form denoted a horse or cow slain in the cross-fire. A barn, wreathed in flame and smoke, stood beside the road. Several farmers dashed back and forth with buckets in a vain attempt to douse the blaze.
Washington turned to Briggs. “Send in Royal Virginians. I want this day’s business over with.”
The Royal Virginians marched to within two-hundred paces of the rebel line. The rebels pulled away from the battered Loyalist barricades and formed a line two ranks deep.
Washington ordered the Royal Virginians to form up in two ranks. A sergeant with lungs of brass then bellowed, “Prepare to fix bayonets.” There followed the swishing noise of steel against leather as each man placed the steel ring over the muzzle. And the sergeant concluded the command, “Fix—bayonets.”
The sergeants signaled, and the Royal Virginians marched double time. Most of the rebels busied themselves with powder and shot, but some took note of the advancing regulars and fled from the field.
The rebel line erupted into smoke and fire as the Royal Virginian line halted at fifty paces. Redcoats twisted or fell forwards or backwards. Men closed ranks, muskets clapped to their shoulders. Another volley raked the Royal Virginians, and then on command they leveled their muskets and fired as one man. Their disciplined fire tore a bloody hole in the rebel ranks. Even men in the second row fell under the hail of lead shot.
Washington nodded to Briggs who in turn nodded to the Drum Major. Seconds later, the drums of the Royal Virginians sounded out the charge, and the scarlet coated regulars with bayonets fixed fell upon the farmers and laborers of Massachusetts. The regulars from Virginia slammed into the rebel line, stabbing and clubbing.
Making use of smoke and the confusion inherent in battle, scores of rebels fled into the surrounding farms and woods. Washington watched the chaos, his face grim, his hands clenching and unclenching the reins of his mount.
“Recall the light troops and have them assist with the wounded and burial details.”
Long Island, 1776
Washington marveled at the huge number of men disembarking from the skiffs and ferries. King George had spared no expense in this expeditionary force. General Howe’s dispositions made rebel escape almost impossible.
Despite this awesome display of imperial might, Washington felt a twinge. In spite of the Crown’s almost unbroken string of battlefield successes since Concord and Lexington, the rebels still fought on—perhaps in the mistaken belief that the French, enemies only fifteen years earlier, would join their cause.
According to reports, Major General Israel Putnam lay sheltered with the rebel Army near the western tip of the island. To their credit, the rebels had constructed a series of earthworks near Brooklyn. Washington, who observed the defenses from the south, doubted at first that Putman would offer battle on the hills, but would rather fall back to these earthworks. As the day wore on, he frowningly revised his opinion.
He reread his orders. He was to attack the northeastern-most hill and turn the rebel’s flank. Correspondence indicated the Jamaica Road, which ran behind the hills, remained unguarded. Spies also noted that Major General Sullivan commanded the rebel forces closest to Washington’s proposed line of attack.
He turned to Briggs. “Did General Howe send any further orders? What am I to do once I have turned their flank?”
“Nothing. I think the General wants to avoid casualties on both sides.” Briggs raised an eyebrow. “Seems reasonable to me. After all, we’re all British subjects.”
“What about the Hessians?”
“They are to attack the rebel front and to keep them occupied while we turn their flank.”
Washington shook his head. “Very well, get the men forward; I want us raining down fire and brimstone before the rebels slip across the Hudson and into New York.”
* * *
The Royal Virginians marched in silence along the high road. Reports reached Washington that light infantry had captured several rebel pickets and even forced an innkeeper and his son to guide them. A night march with thousands of men trying to remain undetected left too much to fate, but Washington knew he had no choice.
The sound of musket fire and the cheers of the rebels at dawn set Washington fuming. He shook his head. Hmm—nary a rebel sentry to be seen. However, the sound of battle makes our duty clear.
He rode to the head of the column. “Follow me, men. If we do this right, it is back to Virginia before the first leaves fall.”
The rebels poured another volley into the Hessians before they realized their peril. At first, the Royal Virginians appeared as shadows amid the trees, but within minutes their presence caused consternation in the rebel ranks.
A round sang past Washington’s ear. He ignored the angry ball and signaled Briggs to quicken the advance. The Virginians took the rebel position at bayonet point, killing a few and driving off the rest. The pang Washington felt prior to the battle returned. While his Virginians would never carry the title of gentlemen, the Hessians found savage delight in bayoneting even those incapable of offering any resistance. Shameless!
A torrent of beaten men streamed down the hillside, the rebel general, Sullivan, among them. Washington observed the stand by the Maryland Militia, who despite fearsome odds held out alone against the advancing Redcoats.
“What brave fellows they are, eh, Briggs?”
“Yes, Colonel. But they are, after all, British.”
A dispatch rider clattered up to Washington. He touched his gloved hand to the brim of his battered tricorne. “Colonel, General Howe’s compliments, you are to hold this position until further orders.”
“What?” Washington’s brow furrowed. “And let the rebels regroup or, even worse, retreat across the river?”
The rider shrugged, wheeled his horse, and galloped away. Washington remained silent for a full five minutes. His aides neither spoke nor left his side. Briggs finally said, “Colonel, if I may?”
“The rebels are done. All that’s needed is one final push. Let’s give it to them. Throw forward your Loyalist irregulars as skirmishers and back them up with the light company.”
Washington clasped his hands behind his back and paced. “That would justify my reinforcing them if they get into trouble, wouldn’t it?” He then turned and gave Briggs a crafty smile. “A fine idea, Briggs. Take command of the light company, and go find me some trouble.”
The Loyalist irregulars, backed by the light company, fanned out across the fields and swamps to their front. From the hill top, Washington and his command observed the surrender of individuals and isolated groups. A steady trickle of prisoners scurried back to the British lines.
Briggs rode back to stand beside Washington and pointed down the hill. “For every rebel who puts his hands up, we need a man or two to escort him back. Given this situation, I urge that we deploy forward the entire regiment.”
Washington nodded. “Agreed.”
All eight companies marched forth in a broad red ribbon, the fifes and drums setting the pace. A captain removed his hat and gestured to the east. A large number of Redcoats moved up behind the Virginians.
Briggs smiled. “Colonel, it would appear that General Howe agrees with your tactics.”
“Yes, my dear Briggs, nothing brings men on side like a victory.” He paused a moment to think. “Oh, and, Briggs?”
“God save the King.”
* * *
“Fitzroy, are you there, man?” Lord Philips called down the hall.
“Yes, My Lord, I am just arranging the last of the missives for you.”
Fitzroy entered the chamber and placed the pile of letters upon the writing desk. Lord Philips repositioned his monocle. “Blast, I hate this cyclopean invention. If I had but two good eyes. Still, I should not feel sorry for myself; a French musket ball does not know the difference between the eye of a private or a general.”
He thumbed through the letters and pulled one to his nose. “Is this the same George Washington that I gave a commission to back in... oh, what year was it?”
“1759, My Lord.”
“Yes, yes, 1759. I understand he tweaked old Howe’s nose at the battle for Long Island, forced him to move the rest of the army onto Brooklyn Heights, captured the whole damn lot of them. Putnam, Sullivan, Chester, and we even killed a handful of the junior captains. Can you imagine what a mess this whole colonial affair might have been if I had not commissioned this Washington?”
The captain smiled. “No, sir, I could not.”
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Beau never knew much about time. He knew that the sun went up and the sun went down. Between those times, They filled his bowl and gave him water. They played fetch and took him to the park. Sometimes She would rub his tummy while They watched television, and sometimes He let Beau ride in the car with the window down. Sometimes They left, but They later returned. Beau never worried because, although They did not look like him, They were his pack, and They would always come back for him.
So, the first day the sun rose, and his bowl remained empty, Beau became concerned. She always filled his bowl in the morning and He in the evening. It was quite unlike them to forget. Beau trotted all through the downstairs looking for Them, but found no sign. Though the sun was up, perhaps They were still sleeping. Yes, that was it. Beau would have to run into Their room, leap on the bed, and lick Their faces until They woke, went downstairs, and filled his bowl. Happy in this thought, Beau reached the top of the stairs as fast as his little legs would carry him and ran straight into the bedroom. He crouched and leapt for the bed, missing the first time as he normally did, but made it on the second.
The bed was empty. He sniffed the covers, and they smelled like Them. Perhaps They were hiding. Beau started digging into the bed, but no one sprung up to hug him. He spun in circles on the mattress, thinking. Had They returned last night? How long had his bowl been empty? He knew the sun was up and his tummy ached, but why were They not here to feed him? This was not right. He sat on the bed with a plop, tongue hanging from his mouth as he decided what next to do.
Cat sauntered into the room. If she was surprised by their absence, she gave no indication. Beau barked once to alert her to their problem, but she ignored him, leapt onto the windowsill, and began bathing herself. Maybe this was her fault, Beau thought. Perhaps she had finally done something to Them, as he often feared. He kept barking at her, desperate for her confession. She stared at him a moment, then continued swiping her paw over her head.
This was too much for Beau. He jumped from the bed and ran to the window. Unable to reach her, he stood on his hind legs and barked. Finally, he gave up and laid down on the floor, watching her. She would have to come down sometime. As she licked her side, she glanced out the window and froze. Her twitching tail slowed to a stop. She stared outside for a long time, longer than was natural even for her. Beau lifted his head. When she turned back, her look seemed... mournful.
Beau had known Cat his whole life, and this was not an acceptable expression for her. They were gone, his bowl was empty, and now Cat looked strange. Beau did not feel right. Something was not good, not good at all. His fur prickled the way it did before a thunderstorm or the time He hurt his hand in the kitchen, and She had to drive him away. Beau barked but felt no better. Cat looked at the wall, as if deciding something, then leapt to the floor. Beau followed her from the room. He wanted to know what her look meant, but she did not turn round again until she reached the front door. There, she shared another look. This look conveyed many things, all of which he did not like—apologies, farewells. Then she slipped out through the cat flap. Beau was never to see her again.
Shaken by Cat’s sudden departure, Beau ran right back upstairs to the window which had so concerned her. He stood on his hind legs and tried to peek out, but he had never been quite tall enough to do this properly. He climbed onto the nearby chair, then reached his front paws towards the window until they could rest on the sill.
At first, nothing seemed remiss. The neighbor’s car, parked across their front lawn, was all wet because Beau’s favorite fire hydrant was spraying water up into the air. To Beau, the water looked strange and beautiful, and he realized he was thirsty as well as hungry. As he watched the water, another car smashed into the neighbor’s. Beau winced but kept watching. A woman-stranger stumbled from the car, screaming and covered in hurt, as His hand had been when He hurt himself. Beau worried, as he did not like seeing people hurt. He barked, hoping to alert someone, and wagged his tail when he saw the neighbor stumble from her home. She would help. She approached the woman slowly, and the woman-stranger kept screaming. When the neighbor reached her, she held the woman-stranger down and bared her teeth. Beau’s stumpy tail stopped wagging as the neighbor gnawed on the woman-stranger the way he did his favorite bone. This was not how people behaved. Beau whimpered and removed himself from the window.
Things were more than wrong, but he did not know why or what to do. He jumped onto the floor and ran in circles before flying downstairs to the cat flap. He knew he should help the stranger-woman, but he could not leave as Cat had. The one time he’d tried to fit through her flap, he’d gotten stuck. They’d had to take him to the vet because his tummy got all scratched and hurt. He knew better than to try again. He ran to the other door behind which the car lived. He pawed at it, but it would not open. He ran back to the room with the television and leapt onto the couch. He looked out the windows, but there were only more people covered in hurt. Though they were only people, they scared him. They seemed sick and made odd noises. They felt like danger, and Beau knew he did not want them to find him.
He ran back upstairs and leapt onto the bed in one great jump—They would have been so proud of him had They seen—and dug at the covers. If he scratched enough, dug deep enough, he would find Them, and They would know what to do. So he dug and spun and scraped the covers aside and, when that didn’t work, he shook the pillows and kicked them off the bed and kept digging and digging until, finally, he was out of breath. He sat there, panting, listening to the noises from outside—sirens and screaming—and Beau trembled as he did in a storm. So, like a storm, he crawled under the bed, put his nose between his paws and waited for it pass.
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The alarm bell clanged obnoxiously at 5:45 and John rolled over and resisted the temptation to throw the clock across the room. Like its owner, the wind-up alarm clock was a little out of date, very functional, and at times very annoying.
John liked to think of those things as some of his good qualities. In any case, they went well with being a cop. That was all John ever wanted to be growing up in South Baltimore. Dad had worked on the docks and expected his oldest to follow in those footsteps. But Uncle Willie had been a police officer and told wild tales of cops and robbers – some of them even true. By the time he was 5, little Johnny was hooked. By 10, he was reading the crime log in the newspaper.
Dad gave up fighting it and decided to help. When John got out of high school and applied to the force, his application landed deep in a pile of also-rans. The physical tests and lie detector had been easy, but John had never excelled at academics and the entrance exam was no exception.
That’s where dad intervened. He took him to see City Councilman Anthony Bonanno, allegedly a distant relative to mafia don Joe Bonanno. In Baltimore’s Little Italy, that actually was a vote-getting bonus and Bonanno played it up as a don of local politics.
John still remembered the look on the councilman’s face as his father spoke. When Bonanno seemed confused why he should help, dad reminded him he was a shift foreman. “It’s for the union,” he said. That meant votes. Bonanno just smiled and replied with a straight face, “Wisnieski, eh? Good Italian name.”
Like any bureaucracy, the city police operated on favors. Bonanno made a quick phone call and John’s mediocre test scores were ignored. One name was added to the recruit list, another subtracted. The scales of justice went back into balance—Baltimore style.
John was determined to never need that kind of help again. He became a damn good cop.
He was still the first one in on his shift and usually the last one out. With the special events this week, he had lots of company. Everyone was pulling overtime as the city celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Ft. McHenry.
John toasted a frozen bagel and downed black coffee while scanning the headlines. The morning Sun was unusually large, filled with photos of sailing ships from around the world—in town to mark the event that gave the U.S. its national anthem.
He choked slightly when he saw that the president would be joining the Sunday festivities to recall the actual flag raising. Without trying, John found himself humming the end of the anthem, the words floating through his head like a school boy. He even mentally shouted “O” like a true Oriole fan.
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
“Damn right it does,” he said to himself. He was happy to see the president, despite the headaches the visit would bring. But something was raising the hair on the back of his neck. The ex had called it his “Spidey sense.” And right now it was flashing warning signs. Without even thinking, he double-checked the Glock to make sure it was loaded.
He dropped the paper and headed to the office.
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