THE BATTLE OF YORK
This is my original short story, which is part of the mythology later used in my novel, Liberty Bell and the Last American. The novel is written in a much different style.
Three thousand years have elapsed since the passing of America. Though scholars have uncovered multitudes of valuable archaeological evidence, little written literature exists from that era. It is indeed unfortunate that books made of paper were replaced by magneto-optical storage by the middle of the twenty-first century. The world-wide magnetic field disaster of the last decades of that century did more than herald a new Dark Age—it erased the literature and history of the world, even as the accompanying geological disruptions obliterated cities and landmarks.
Fortunately, near the end of the twenty-fourth century, an unknown scholar passed through the American regions, collecting the stories and legends we now call “The Americana.” Though we can expect little accuracy from a people dependent on electronic data storage rather than oral tradition, we believe there is always a grain of truth concealed within the tales. But to quote one of the figures from the Americana itself: “When the Legend becomes fact, print the Legend.”
Young General Washington rode alone on his white stallion through the vast forest of Yoosemitee. His battle-axe, Valleyforge, hung glistening from the pommel of his saddle, the blood fresh-scrubbed from its edge. He had slain too many soldiers in the war against the Gauls and American Natives, and was glad to be going home.
I will never fight again, he thought, but will return to the Mount of Vernon to become a surveyor and farmer. There was no pursuit more important to any country than to improve its agriculture and its breed of useful animals. How he longed for the simple cares of a husbandman.
He brooded on the horrors of war, his dead comrades, and the American Native maid, Pocahontas, whom he had loved. He loved her still, though she had betrayed him to the Gauls.
In his people’s language his name, General, meant pertaining in common to all, and that was what he had become, a leader to the American tribes in Virginia. As a youth, an enchantment had been laid on him by the Wise Woman, Betsee Ross, the Star Weaver, that he could never tell a lie. Because of this, some called him “Honest Gen.”
As the last rays of twilight turned the ancient American forest golden with dust and sent the shadows streaming east, he heard the cry of the hawk and the distant howls of wolves. He shivered uneasily. The sequoias rose all around, hundreds of feet tall, the trees the American Natives called the Silent Giants. His men had accompanied him through most of his journey, until he had chosen to shorten his trip by going through the woods. Even the bravest had refused to follow him then, for the forest was said to be haunted. At the time he had thought it just as well; he had wanted to be alone, to try to forget. He had intended to pass through the woods and into the safety of Virginia before nightfall, but weariness had overtaken both him and his mount, and in his brooding he had dawdled.
He dared ride no farther that night for fear of losing his way. Already shapes grew gray and indistinct. The howling of the wolves sounded nearer.
If I continue, I will lame Silver, he thought. He stroked the stallion’s neck, then reined him to a stop. He dismounted, then led him forward a few paces, intending to make camp beneath one of the great trees. The shadows seemed to close around him.
The hoot of an owl overhead startled him. “My nerves are frayed,” he murmured.
General removed Silver’s bridle and saddle and let him go free. He was unconcerned about the stallion wandering off; the horse was loyal as a hound. Silver nickered uneasily, as if he too distrusted the woods.
“Easy, boy,” General murmured automatically. Though he preferred traveling unseen through Yoosemitee, he needed to start a fire to ward off the wolves. Picking up twigs and dead limbs, he soon had enough wood to last the night.
He knelt with flint and steel. Sparks flew and a tiny flame sprang up. Before he could fan it into a full fire, Silver nickered again.
General looked up, then stood, his hand to Valleyforge. A spectral green light haloed the enormous tree trunk. Washington crept around it and looked across the forest floor.
A man approached, a tall, inhumanly broad figure carrying a lantern that glowed with an unearthly luminance. Washington felt his mouth go dry; his heart pounded against his chest, for he thought he recognized the intruder. He wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go if the Pilgrim sought him. He drew Valleyforge and held it close.
The figure paused a few feet from Washington. The lantern light spread at General’s feet, turning the ground emerald and olive.
“General Washington,” the figure said, his voice a deep drawl. “I am Waynejon. Some call me the Pilgrim.”
“Have you come for me?” General asked. Despite his best effort, his voice trembled.
The Pilgrim rumbled a laugh. “I’m not Death, if that’s what you mean. I’m a man. I put my pants on one leg at a time.”
Washington remained unconvinced. According to legend, the Pilgrim had died many times, but death could not keep him, for he was cursed to walk the earth until the end of the age because of an ancient wrong. He stood a head taller than Washington, who was a tall man himself, and wore a square, black hat with a buckle at its front, a black cloak, and ebony riding chaps. A black eyepatch covered one eye and a rooster stood on his left shoulder. He carried an ancient blunderbuss.
“You look like you’re getting ready to eat. If you’ll share your fire, I have some salted beef in my pack.”
General nodded, then finding his voice, tried to sound confident. “What brings you to the woods?”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve been looking for you.”
“And then,” Waynejon concluded, “the boys got the cattle to the railhead.”
Washington laughed and sighed. The fire cackled warmly before the pair. They sat across from one another, the flames between them. In the last hour, General had lost most of his fear. “An excellent tale. Whatever happened to the lads?”
“They turned out to be good men, most of ’em. But they’re all long gone to their reward on Boot Hill by now.”
In the subsequent silence Washington asked, “Why were you looking for me?”
“You get to the point. I like that.”
The Pilgrim took a drink of coffee from a tin cup, then gestured with it toward the woods. “This country, this new land, it’s wild, untamed. It could be a great nation, different from any other, a place where people could come from all over the world. A place of freedom.”
“We all want that. It’s why my forefathers came.”
“Mine did the same. They fled the dark realm of the Old World to escape the tyrants. But it’s not enough, General. The people aren’t free.”
“We’ve driven the Gauls back to France.”
“But you didn’t get Bone Apart, the Skeleton Man.”
Washington shrugged. “He escaped to Mexico. No American can cross the Rio Grande and live. An enchantment prevents it.”
“He’s done more than escape. He’s made alliance with the Huns.”
Washington drew a deep breath. This was bad news. The Huns, led by their leader, Hitler, the Wolf Prince, were a constant threat, raiding the coasts on their dragon-headed ships, striking and then fleeing. Was there never an end to peril?
“And it’s not just Bone Apart and Hitler,” Waynejon said. “There’s a powerful wizard living in the dark regions of the Canadian north, whose heart is cold as the bitter winds that blow there. The Mounties can’t stop him because he’s conjured a giant from the Old World, tall as a mountain. They’re climbing down the steep cliffs from the ice fields with their armies, preparing to march to York. The Huns, whose longships wait outside York Harbor, have promised the wizard great rewards if he helps them conquer America. The Gauls are reforming along the Rio Grande. We’re in danger, General.”
“What can we do?”
“Only the Words of Power in the iron box on Mount Rushmore can stop the giant. The titan has no strength against them.”
“Mount Rushmore!” A chill ran along Washington’s spine. “None have ever gone there and returned.”
“It doesn’t matter what others have done, General. I’m asking you.”
“It was not my intention to seek further adventures.”
“You gained a reputation in your battles against the Gauls.”
“I heard bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
Waynejon laughed. “Sarcasm doesn’t suit you.”
“I meant none. By the miraculous care of Providence, I was protected beyond all human expectation, for I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt. It was an exhilarating experience, but one I have little desire to repeat.” He shook his head. “I fear you have chosen the wrong man.”
“How do you figure?”
Washington hesitated, not wanting to say the words. “My men love me, but though we seem to return from the war in triumph, it isn’t true, at least not for me. I was the one who began the war against Gaul, when I urged the Virginian governor, Dimwiddie, to build Fort Necessity at the joining of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers. Had we not confronted the Gauls there, the colonies might have been spared much bloodshed. There should have been another way.
“Under my leadership, we struck out to attack Fort Duquesne. Though I knew better, out of my own vanity, we went like soldiers on parade, for I thought our movements were unknown. In my pride, I had told our plans to . . . someone . . . I cared for deeply, someone who betrayed us. We were unexpectedly attacked by three thousand Gauls and American Natives, and though our numbers were nearly thrice their own, my men were struck with such a deadly panic that nothing but confusion and disobedience of orders prevailed amongst them. We broke and ran as sheep before the hounds. If Braggart had not reinforced us at the end, the final battle would have been lost. Braggart himself, a mighty commander, was wounded behind the shoulder and into the breast. He died three days after.
“No, Pilgrim. I, a failure in all I have undertaken, am not the man to perform this deed. You must place your trust elsewhere.”
Waynejon took a long sip of coffee. “Seems to me that’s the thing about this country, General. It’s a land of second chances. Someone must go or America is lost.”
Washington, who had ducked his head in shame, looked up into the Pilgrim’s steady eyes, and for a long moment they held each other’s gaze. Finally, General murmured, “If I make the attempt, who will help me?”
“Near the slopes of Rushmore waits the Iron Hewer. Go to him. He will show you the way.”
Washington stared into the fire and sighed. War had found him again and he could not refuse. Human happiness and moral duty were inseparably connected. “I suppose it is easier to prevent an evil than to rectify mistakes,” he said. “I will set out tomorrow morning.”
“That’s good. That’s mighty fine.” Waynejon set his tin cup down. “I have to be on my way. Thanks for the grub.”
Without another word, the Pilgrim rose and strode into the woods, his broad back disappearing into the shadows. Washington shivered, feeling very much alone.
For seven days General rode through the forest of Yoosemitee, and on the eighth reached the wheat-covered plains of Kansas. The whole earth shook with the pounding hooves of herds of buffalo pursued by the valiant Comanches, who looked dreadful in their war paint. To escape their notice—for they had no love of the white man—Washington hid himself among the amber waves of grain. At night, storm clouds built in the south and swept over the plains, the lightning tearing at the sky, the tumult of the thunder reminding Washington that should he survive Rushmore, he would have to face the wizard and his giant.
He crossed the country of Mount Ana, a stark land, all sky and earth, and came in the evening to the banks of the Little Bighorn, where sat a rider on a white horse caparisoned in midnight blue. The rider, too, who had a golden moustache and penetrating blue eyes, wore blue and gold, with a deep blue cape. His curling hair, falling down to the middle of his back, shone like ripe wheat in the sun. But Washington did not believe fine clothes necessarily made for fine men, any more than fine feathers made fine birds.
“Hurrah, good sir,” the stranger called. “What brings you to the banks of the Bighorn?”
“I am Washington, who cannot tell a lie, a son of Virginia. I seek the Iron Hewer on the slopes of Rushmore.”
“Then you seek death,” the stranger replied. “I am Custard, named for the creamy white of my skin and my golden hair. I am called Arm Strong for my might, Lord of Horsemen, Captain of the Seventh Cavalry.”
Washington perceived this Custard had no lack of vanity, though he was indeed a mighty warrior. But General said, “I have never been to Rushmore before. Perhaps, if you know the way?”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“I seek the Words of Power to defeat the Wizard of Canada.”
Custard gave Washington a long look before replying. “I will take you at least part of the journey, though I cannot tarry long. I have unfinished business here. The Sioux have risen against me.”
Together the two set off toward Rushmore. Along the way, Arm Strong told tales of his many deeds. Though he listened politely, Washington found such boasting distasteful, for it had always been his motto to show his intentions through his works rather than his speech.
“And someday,” Custard said, “I will be the President of all this country, from east to west, and men everywhere will praise my name.”
“I am unfamiliar with the word, president,” Washington said.
“Like a king, but even greater, presiding as judge over the land.”
“Perhaps, if the Huns and Gauls can be driven back,” Washington said, thoughtfully, “but even a president should answer to the people.”
“The people should answer to their liege lord, not the other way around.”
“That is the old way, the manner of royalty,” Washington said, as he stared out at the endless horizon. “Like all the dark necromancy of the Old World, it should best be forgotten. It will not be like that here. The purpose of all government, as best promoted by the practice of virtuous policies, ought to be the aggregate happiness of society. As the Pilgrim told me, America should be a place where everyone has a voice.”
“You have seen the Pilgrim?” Custard asked.
“Yes. He was the one who sent me.”
Arm Strong fell silent then, and dared brag no more of his own accomplishments.
After two days travel they reached the Black Hills of Dakota, where they rode through the gloom of perpetual twilight and eternal shadows, for the sun never shone in that dismal country.
As they struggled through the gloaming, Washington spied a great eagle watching them from the back of the carcass of a bull buffalo, which the bird had apparently slain. As the travelers passed, General gave a respectful bow from his saddle and called out, “Greetings, Master of the Air. I see you will have a fine feast.” But the eagle only watched the men with unwinking eyes.
That evening, they came to a valley ringed in jutting peaks, and had traveled only a short distance when a cold voice called to them from the heights. “Who dares trespass on the aeries of the eagles?”
High overhead, its talons clinging to the tallest peaks, stood an eagle twice the size of a stallion.
“I am Washington,” General said, “with my companion Arm Strong, seeking passage to the Mount of Rushmore.”
“This day we will surely break your bones,” the eagle screeched, “for I am E. Perilous Union, mother of the eagles who make their homes both in the Peaks of Usps and the Mountains of the Moon.”
Other, smaller eagles, lurking on the lesser crags encircling the travelers, raised their voices in agreement.
“Hear us, I beg you,” General called, in as brave a tone as he could muster. “Spare us, not for ourselves, but for the sake of our mission, for we are on a journey for the freedom of our countrymen.”
A ruffling of wings passed around the heights.
“Freedom!” E. Perilous cried. “Freedom! You speak the sacred word of the eagles. What is the meaning?”
“It is a word sacred to us as well,” Washington replied.
“Mother,” another eagle called across the heights. “Let us spare these men who speak of Freedom, for when I met them on the plains, the pale-faced one bowed and addressed me with respect.”
“Is this so?” E. Perilous Union asked. “Tell us then, children of men, the purpose of your journey.”
Washington did so, and when he was done, E. Perilous said, “We have heard of this evil wizard and despise his ways. Because my son, Apollo Leven, asks it, I will permit your passage. More, in the sacred name of Freedom, I will send him as your guide.”
Washington and Custard thanked the mother of the eagles, and Apollo Leven lifted himself above the crags to accompany them.
As they continued through the Black Hills, wolves and evil spirits tried to destroy them, and more than once they battled for their lives, but Washington, his face grim and terrible to behold, fought with his great axe, Valleyforge, that shone silver in the darkness; and Arm Strong, wielding a golden blade, proved dreadful in combat. Apollo Leven strove beside them as well, and his terrible beak and talons slew many a foe.
The eagle led them true, and they finally saw Mount Rushmore looming in the distance, awful and majestic, a living monster shaped like a mountain with four heads. The heads were craggy and ill-formed, and shifted from side to side, guarding the treasure.
“The Iron Hewer lives at the base of Rushmore,” Arm Strong said, “where the behemoth cannot reach him.”
They came by twilight to a house made of iron. As they approached, a figure stepped out dressed in simple gray garments and bearing no arms. Around his bald head he wore a circlet with five silver stars that glistened in the dusk.
Washington expected to be challenged, but the man raised his hand in salute and gave a slow smile. “Welcome, strangers, and be at ease. I am Eisenhower Iron Hewer, but my friends call me Ike.”
Washington found he liked Ike immediately, and the two travelers dismounted and introduced themselves. When General told Eisenhower why he had come, the Old Commander shrugged. “Though I have never liked war, I won’t shirk from a fight, especially if Waynejon sent you.”
From out of his larder, Eisenhower prepared a fine meal, though where he got his victuals Washington could not guess. Afterward, full and content, they sat before the hearth, drinking hot coffee and smoking tobacco from wooden pipes, listening to the wind whistling around the iron eaves, while Apollo Leven stood in a corner, his eyes reflecting golden in the flames.
“There is only one way to approach the creature,” Ike said. “All its heads face south, except for the fourth one, which looks to the north. But that head is blind in one eye. If we’re careful, we can creep up the northwestern slope. The box containing the Words of Power is hidden in a cave below the monster’s chins. We’ll know if it sees us, for its faces, which normally resemble rough stone, always take on the features of its victims.”
“Can the monster be slain?” Custard asked.
“A single blow to the mountain’s heart can kill the beast,” Eisenhower replied, “if the warrior who delivers it is pure of soul.”
“Who knows if such a man is among us?” Washington asked.
“I would like to try my hand at it,” Custard said, “if the chance arises.”
“Such a task is not for me,” Eisenhower said. “I am unworthy. I’ve sent too many men to their deaths.”
“Is that why you live here alone?” Custard asked. “A warrior such as yourself would be highly honored in York.”
“I live here to serve and have had all the honors I need. I have led good men.”
“You display great humility,” Washington said. “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”
“I have not fought for such, sir,” Custard said, “but for the glory of combat. You give me much to consider. Still I would like to set my good right arm against the monster.”
“The Pilgrim sent me here many years ago, to act as a guide. There is a prophecy that one day a man will destroy the creature and use the Words of Power to preserve the land. I hope you are that one, but many have scaled those slopes. None have lived to tell of it.”
“These are strange times,” Washington said, “filled with magic.”
“True,” Ike replied, sagely, “but things are more like they are now than they have ever been before.”
Washington nodded his head and stared into the fire. It was good to befriend a man of Ike’s wisdom.
The three companions rose with the morning light. They left their horses in Eisenhower’s stables and went on foot, angling toward the west, while Apollo Leven wheeled away to watch from a distance, lest his presence alert the four faces. If the monster saw them, it gave no sign. By mid-day they reached a region strewn with boulders, near enough that they could see the heads closely. Washington gaped up at them. Three faced toward the men, one away. They were large as houses, and all looked identical, with gray eyes, weather-beaten noses, and thin lines for mouths. Their guttural voices rose and fell, as they murmured among themselves in a foreign tongue.
The travelers headed north until they came to a point behind the mount, where only the easternmost face kept watch, its left eye staring vacantly down the slope.
“We begin the assault here, just before sundown,” Eisenhower said.
“Shouldn’t we wait until dark?” Arm Strong asked.
“No. They see as well at night as in the day, but at twilight the setting sun will be in their eyes.”
For three restless hours the companions waited for sunset, saying little, thinking of the coming encounter. Custard stared fixedly at the mount.
“Ike,” Arm Strong finally said, “exactly where would the killing blow have to be struck? I cannot rightly determine the location of the beast’s heart.”
Eisenhower pointed. “There, just between the two central heads. Front or back makes no difference.”
“And the Words of Power?” Washington asked.
“A few yards farther down in a narrow cave. It’s hard to see from here.”
“You have guided us well,” Washington said. “You need not accompany us.”
“I don’t have to, but I will. I’ve always stood with anyone who made the attempt.”
When the sun was still three finger-widths above the horizon, Eisenhower ordered the travelers to move out. They crept between the boulders, keeping always to the blind side of the head, and were soon scrambling up the mountain slope. Pine trees provided concealment until they were two-thirds of the way up, but after that the mount lay barren.
Washington’s heart pounded in his chest as he climbed. He tried not to look up at the terrible face above him. At first he could not see the cave, but then he spied it, a narrow opening half-covered by an overhanging shelf. If they could reach it, the head would be unable to see them.
Abruptly, the terrible visage turned, with the sound of rock scraping on stone, and the three flattened themselves against the boulders, scarcely daring to breathe. For a moment the good eye swept along the slope, but the sunlight blinded it, making it squint and look away. The men kept climbing.
Custard was the first to reach the cave, and he helped the others under the protection of the ledge. They clapped one another on the back and turned toward the opening.
It was little more than a niche in the rocks, and Washington searched only a short while before finding the iron box set in a recess. It proved neither long nor heavy, and he drew it out easily and opened the lid, which needed no lock with such a terrible monster guarding it. Within lay a brown parchment.
“The Words of Power,” Washington whispered. He placed the scroll within his breast pocket and slipped the box back into its place.
“Have any ever come this far before?” Custard asked softly.
“Only two,” Ike said. “Their bones are strewn across the slope.”
Shuddering at Eisenhower’s words, Washington told the Old Commander to lead them back down.
They were nearly to the tree line again before Washington realized Custard was not behind him. He turned to discover Arm Strong ascending the mount. General clutched Eisenhower’s shoulder and pointed to their comrade.
“That vain-glorious fool!” Eisenhower hissed.
Reaching the region above the monster’s heart, Custard raised his sword high above his head, shouting, “Die, beast, in the name of Arm Strong, Captain of the Seventh Cavalry!”
He looked magnificent at that moment, his cape billowing, his golden hair sweeping back behind his head, the last rays of the sun glinting on his blade. With all his power, he thrust downward.
The sword snapped beneath the weight of the blow, leaving Custard gaping at it in astonishment.
A scraping noise filled the heavens as all four of the monster’s heads swiveled toward the captain. General gasped, for the faces had transformed into the features of Custard, Washington, and Eisenhower. Only the head with the blind eye remained unchanged.
The air filled with roaring as the heads screamed their rage. The whole mount trembled as vast arms rose from either side, reaching toward Custard.
“Let’s go!” Eisenhower ordered. “He won’t make it.”
“No,” Washington cried, handing Ike the parchment. “Take it and flee!”
General did not hear Eisenhower’s reply; he was already sprinting toward Custard, Valleyforge unsheathed. Though it had taken several minutes to creep down the mount, he ascended in seconds and was beside Arm Strong as the giant arms groped toward both of them. Washington saw his own face, filled with hatred, glowering down upon him.
Do I really look like that? he thought. My nose seems so large.
At that moment Apollo Leven streaked from the sky to harrow the faces with his talons. But the action bought the men only a moment before the rocks erupted around them, lifting them off the ground and sending them sprawling down the incline. Custard’s expression was wild, but he held a knife in his hand as he rolled to his feet. Washington scrambled back toward the mountain’s heart, axe upraised, staring straight into his own seething eyes.
The mount rippled beneath him, but as he fell he brought his axe down on his target with all his strength. He expected nothing but the destruction of his weapon, followed by his own death, but Valleyforge cut easily through the rock.
The whole mount screamed, a deafening blast. Blood rilled from the wound, covering General in ichor. He rolled on his back and saw the faces above him, including his own, writhing in their death struggles. He watched himself expire, the light leaving the eyes, the head lolling downward.
The mountain shuddered and sank. The four dead faces stared across the plain.
For a moment, Washington could hear nothing, but finally Custard’s voice came to him, as the captain helped him up. “You have shamed me, sir, and saved my life. I am forever in your debt.”
Eisenhower reached them a moment later and fell immediately to his knees before Washington. “You are the one,” Ike cried, taking the circlet of five stars from his forehead and casting it at Washington’s feet. “The one who was to come. You have ended my vigil. Accept my service. Wherever you go, I will go also, and will serve you until my death.”
“I too will follow you,” Custard said, though he did not kneel. “Accept my service as well, General.”
Scarcely understanding their words, Washington stared up at his defeated foe. “But how?” he exclaimed. “How could a failure such as I be worthy to destroy the beast when Arm Strong could not?”
Apollo Leven glided to a landing and placed his large head under General’s hand. “Do not question the turn of events, Washington Paleface, but accept the fealty of these men, and mine as well, for I too would follow you.”
Still overwhelmed, Washington laid his hands on the shoulders of the two men. “I do not understand, nor know where this will lead, but I cannot refuse the service of such brave warriors, nor of this great eagle. Now rise. We have a giant to kill.”
“Another?” Ike asked.
They spent the night in Eisenhower’s house, where Washington cleaned the blood from himself and his garments. In the morning they left Rushmore far behind, and the four dead heads gaped at them to the edge of the horizon.
They rode once more across the darkness of the Black Hills, and as they went Eisenhower asked, “General, why did you go back for Custard? You had the scroll. If you and I had died, there would have been no one to stop the wizard.”
“I could not leave him behind.”
“If a commander thinks expending ten thousand lives will save twenty thousand later, it is up to him to do it.”
“Custard was not ten thousand, but one,” Washington said. “And though you have a point, I labor to keep alive in my breast that little spark of celestial fire called Conscience. I could not desert him and live with myself.”
They passed back into Mount Ana, where Custard seemed to grow increasingly nervous. At last they came once more to the banks of the Bighorn River, where they topped a hill and found a giant American Native standing before them. Behind him sat a creature with the head of a stallion whose eyes were lit with madness and another with the head of a bull.
“I am Bitter Gall,” the native said. “The appointed time is come.” He raised his arms and hundreds of warriors suddenly appeared over the hills, dressed in feathers and skins, war-paint covering their fierce faces.
Sweat broke across Arm Strong’s brow, but he said nothing.
“What do you want?” Washington asked.
“Your people have sinned and there must be death,” the sitting bull said.
“I have done it!” Arm Strong burst forth. “I am not what you think me, General. I admit it, now. I have shed the blood of children. I spoke before of unfinished business. Long ago, it was prophesied that I would meet my death by the banks of the Little Bighorn. I hoped to redeem myself in the slaying of Rushmore, but I failed there, too.”
“Only one life is required,” the crazed horse said. “One of you three. But none shall pass until the deed is done.”
“I have accepted the fealty of this man,” Washington said, “and I cannot tell a lie. I am responsible for him. I will accept the punishment in his stead.”
For a moment Arm Strong’s eyes became crafty. But he looked at Washington and shook his head. “No, General. I have been a villain, but you returned for me on Mount Rushmore when I would not have done the same for you. You must live to fight the wizard. My fate is sealed. You have shown me the way to restore my honor, and I will go with the sun shining on my face.”
Custard bowed low to Washington, then strode down the hill toward Bitter Gall, passing out of the story and into history. But Washington wondered if someday, he too would have to pay for the deaths of so many of his men in the battle of Fort Duquesne.
Washington and Eisenhower, grieving at Custard’s loss, made their way through the forest of Yoosemitee, where they had many adventures. At last they came to York, a city of magnificent spires. Others heard of Washington’s heroism on Mount Rushmore, and warriors came to him offering him their service, so that he gathered a group of America’s finest around him. Of these, Lafayette DeGaul was one of the greatest. Though a Gaul, he had vowed to follow Washington when General had saved his life many years before, and had been with him through the Gaul and American Native War.
“Mon General,” Lafayette said, “it is good to see your face. The wizard, accompanied by his giant, approaches the city and is encamped beyond the banks of the Mighty Delaware. Those sent to stop it have been smashed to bits. I was just preparing to go myself, to die for the cause of freedom.”
DeGaul was a wild-eyed man, with a moustache and plumed hat. Until he met Washington, he had been a member of the famous Musketeers, who had fought against the powers of darkness and evil in the Old World.
Washington assembled his company, which had grown to over five hundred men, just inside the gates of York. As he looked upon them, despair ran through him, for they were poorly armored and had little supplies, the Hun’s blockade of the harbor preventing needed goods from entering the city. Despite his reservations, he drew a deep breath and addressed them briefly, explaining the situation.
He ended with: “The time is now near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be Freemen or Slaves. The fate of untold millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
The men gave a ragged cheer while Apollo Leven wheeled and cried overhead.
Knowing how few warriors he had, Washington ordered a special surprise in the form of large, mysterious crates loaded onto the supply wagons.
As they rode out through the gates of York toward the Canadian Ice Fields, a crowd assembled to watch them go, young women pinning flowers and kisses on the warriors. Washington was approached by one of the most beautiful ladies he had ever seen, with pouting lips and eyes that flashed like fireworks. Her dark hair flared long and wild over a necklace hung with wooden teeth, suspended over a dress of forest green. She handed him a red, white, and blue standard covered with thirteen stars and stripes.
“Take this, General,” she said, “and fight for York. The Star Weaver herself has enchanted it, washing it in the tears she sheds for those who die beneath the titan’s heels. Tie it to your axe-handle in your moment of need, and its magic will give your blade power.”
He reached down from the heights of Silver’s back to take the cloth, and for a moment their hands and eyes met. “What is your name?” he asked.
“I thank you for this,” Washington said.
She smiled and watched him ride away.
“She is a beauty, that one,” Lafayette said.
“There is no time for such things,” Washington replied, but his hand felt warm where she had touched it, and he raised the standard high.
For three days the company traveled north, and by the second afternoon icy winds began to blow. Snow flurried at evening, and the warriors soon rode through banks of white. It was bitterly cold, and Washington’s men lacked sufficient clothing.
By mid-afternoon the company reached the edge of a valley, where ran the Mighty Delaware River. In the vale’s center stood the giant, Britannia the Great, hundreds of feet tall, an enormous creature with the face of a woman, wearing a crown and carrying a heavy mace that it used to pound the earth. Wherever it walked or struck, it flattened houses, fields, and living things, a brutality that came to be known as the Stamp Act. The wizard stood upon the titan’s shoulders and an army of ten thousand red-clad warriors followed behind.
“How can we face them?” Lafayette asked.
“I have a plan,” General said. “But the Words of Power will not work unless the monster hears them, so I must be very close. We will wait until nightfall.”
The snow fell harder as evening progressed. The men carried half-shrouded lanterns, but it was still difficult to see through the storm. Everyone shivered with the cold, but Washington led them to the banks of the Delaware, accompanied by the wagon filled with the mysterious crates. They found boats upon the shore, left there at Washington’s request by his American Native friend, Massasoit. In the dead of night, scarcely able to find their way, the company crossed the torrent of the Mighty Delaware, Washington standing upright, holding the red, white, and blue banner before him. He shivered from more than the cold, knowing that if the wizard or Britannia discovered them upon the waters, they would be doomed.
After a long hour, they reached the farther shore. Washington divided the men into three sections under the command of Eisenhower Iron Hewer, Stonewall Jackson, and Benedict Arnold, three of his greatest warriors. Giving them their orders, General turned to Lafayette. “The rest is up to us, I fear. Come with me.” Washington took the banner Martha Custis had given him and tucked it beneath his cloak.
Together, the two comrades crept toward the titan, whose gigantic form blocked the stars. They slipped through the sentries, then waited until moonrise. As the first rays lit the land, Lafayette called in a loud voice just outside the tent of the Wizard Cornwallis. “Come out, great magician, for we have seen your might and know we have no chance against you. Come and accept our surrender.”
The sentries around Cornwallis’s camp leapt to their feet, but Lafayette drew his bow and covered them. “Stand back, my friends. We surrender to Cornwallis alone.” As the guards hesitated, the wizard appeared at the tent door, a dazzling lantern in his hand. Lafayette lowered his weapon.
The wizard wore a bulky red robe and a white, pointed hood, which allowed only his dark eyes to show. His voice was grating as he spoke. “Who dares interrupt the slumber of Cornwallis, Grand Wizard of the Empire?”
“It is I, Lafayette DeGaul, with the great General Washington, who asks you to accept his surrender.”
The giant, Britannia, gave a low rumble and raised its mace, but Cornwallis bid it stay its hand.
“Why do you come slinking to me in darkness?” Cornwallis demanded.
“We came as quickly as we could, to end the bloodshed, for who knows what this behemoth of yours will do?” Lafayette replied.
Cornwallis laughed. “I almost believe it. How like your people, the wretched refuse of the Old World, vermin sent to pollute these fair shores, fit to be nothing but slaves. When York is overthrown, I will show you how such should be treated.”
“We are willing to do as you say,” Lafayette said through gritted teeth. “Only accept our surrender.”
“I have heard of you, Washington. It is said you cannot tell a lie. Answer me then, Commander, is that truly why you have come? I will believe it from your lips.”
Washington dared not answer, knowing the truth would spring unbidden from his mouth.
“I thought so,” Cornwallis said, signaling to the giant.
“Scatter!” Washington ordered.
The Americans moved just in time to avoid a shattering blow, as Britannia brought its mace down with all its force. The impact tossed Washington off his feet, but even before he hit the ground he was unrolling the scroll containing the Words of Power, for this had all been part of his plan, to bring the giant close to the earth in striking. On landing, Washington instantly sprang up and began reading in a mighty voice.
At the first word, everything seemed to freeze in place, as if time had stopped. Britannia remained immobile as Washington spoke:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights . . .
On and on Washington read, his voice growing stronger with the reading, his delight rising as he saw the wizard and the giant both helpless against the words. He raised his arms as he ended: And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
The moment General finished, Cornwallis fell to his knees. When he tried to rise, Lafayette, with the speed of thought, raised his bow and placed an arrow through the wizard’s evil heart.
“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” Lafayette cried.
Britannia gave a terrible scream, for the Words of Power began to turn its feet to stone. With a snarl, it fled toward the south, stomping away on increasingly clumsy members.
A roar rose from the valley’s edge as hundreds of fireworks, the contents of the mysterious crates, were released at once. The sky erupted in red, white, and blue flares as Eisenhower, Arnold, and Jackson led the Americans into the valley toward the Red Army, which was milling in confusion, stunned at being attacked from a direction they thought safe.
“The giant!” Washington cried. “It heads toward York.”
Washington and Lafayette captured two of their enemies’ horses and sped after the titan, but the mounts could not keep up. As soon as they reached their camp, Washington leapt off his steed and onto Silver, who stood waiting for his master, impatiently pawing the earth.
“Go on!” Lafayette shouted to Washington. “Go on, Mon General! I will catch up.”
Faster than the wind, Silver ran, while Washington kept his eyes upon the giant. But when he reached the banks of the Mighty Delaware, General found the titan had already crossed. He nearly despaired at that moment, until Apollo Leven streaked out of the sky and landed before him.
“You must ride upon my back,” the eagle screeched.
Still bearing the banner Martha Custis had given him, Washington climbed in front of Apollo Leven’s wings. The eagle took a single bound and streaked over the great river.
Yet fast as they were, the monster strode far ahead. It steadily approached the gates of York, dwarfing the city’s gleaming spires. Washington was still some distance behind it as it raised its mace, preparing to sweep the metropolis away.
In desperation, General lifted Valleyforge and tied the banner to its pommel. As he let it fly, the weapon streaked toward the giant, the flag streaming behind, and as it flew it grew, powered by the flag’s enchantment. It struck Britannia full in the back, and the monster writhed away, stumbling as it went, its massive feet missing the gates of York.
In its frenzy, it thrashed into the water. Most of its lower body was stone, and it moved with awkward, hesitant jerks. Crossing the bay, it pulled itself onto a massive rock rising out of the harbor. By the time it reached the top, its waist had turned to stone, leaving it unable to move its legs. Gradually the effect crept up its body. It raised its enormous mace in defiance and turned its face toward the sea, looking for its home across the waters.
Washington’s axe, returned to its former size, fell from the giant’s back and clattered down the rocks.
With the giant and the wizard destroyed, the Red Army, thinking the fireworks the beginning of an enormous assault, fled in terror. Washington returned to his men and led them back into the city in triumph, the whole company singing When General comes marching home again. Washington was declared a great hero and some wanted to make him king, but he refused, remembering Custard’s words of a new office of president.
He recalled what the Pilgrim had said as well, and realized that America was indeed a place of second chances.
The Gauls retreated from Mexico, and Hitler drew his boats back across the sea. Although Washington searched through all of York for many weeks, he found no sign of Martha Custis, nor anyone who knew her. However, he did find his axe with the flag still tied to its pommel, on the shores of the rock where the giant stood.
Afterward, a great Convention was held in honor of Washington’s victory. A tremendous plan was conceived to build an enormous door, gilded with gold, across York harbor, to prevent the Huns from ever attacking again.
There was talk of tearing down the stone titan, but Lafayette had the last word. “Let it rather be a symbol, this vanquished foe. And we will call it Lady Liberty, for with its defeat we have won our freedom.”
Being a poet as well as a warrior, in mockery of the words the wizard had spoken, Lafayette etched the following lines upon the base of the rock where the giant stood:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The Convention ordered a flame lit atop the statue’s mace, that became a torch burning across the waters, so bright it could be seen from the shores of the Old World. And when the kings and emperors of that shadowy realm looked upon it, they trembled.
© 2004 by James Stoddard.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.