Captain George Armstrong Custer,
Jr. looked back over his shoulder, toward the fort's main gate.
The cold breeze of early morning smelled of the waters off the Gulf
that lay only a few miles distant.
Fort Whitley's tiny barracks
were two hundred yards away, and its timbered walls enclosed the
largest yard of any fort in America. Nearby, a table and two rows
of chairs stood untenanted, looking lonely and out of place in the
midst of such spaciousness. The space was necessary for their work,
though, as Fort Whitley was not a simple frontier fortification,
not just a lonely link in a chain that stretched out into hostile
territory. Fort Whitley, as George liked it put, was where they
built the future.
"Still no sign of him,"
"He'll be here," George
replied. I hope, he added to himself. The knot in his stomach twisted
a turn tighter and he turned back toward the yard.
The wind grabbed the doors to
the huge oversized barn and pulled them against the blocks that
held them open. Men in blue struggled against guy ropes that hung
from the huge construction above them. They tramped through the
barn's doorway and into the mud, pulling their prize out of the
hangar and into the morning wind. The breeze freshened and the soldiers
dug their heels into the soggy turf. One man slipped on the dew-wet
grass and slid forward on his rear. Derisive laughter was cut short.
"Stand to, you bastards,"
Sergeant Tack shouted. "This is no time for games."
Elisha chuckled. "As if
Tack ever allows that there is a time for games."
"Oh?" George said.
"You forget poker."
Elisha's smile broadened. "Ah,
but I didn't, sir. To Tack, poker is not a game, but a business."
The two officers shared a laugh
and watched as the sergeant put his men and the subject of their
labors back under control. The subject of their labors hung in the
air above them. George looked up as its midsection emerged from
It was huge; taller than a house
and over a hundred feet long. The cigar-shaped frame was made from
steel and the new metal known as aluminum. The white fabric that
stretched to cover it shone in the morning light, making the craft
look like some odd, symmetrical cloud lassoed and brought to Earth.
Beneath its bulk, attached like sucker-fish to the belly of an airborne
whale, hung the cabin and engine cars. Cabling from the dirigible's
sides helped support the cars and steering vanes, and it was these
wires that sang in the damp morning wind.
George had fought hard for the
giant contraption. He had pushed for its acceptance, had battled
for its commission, and had overseen its construction. It was the
child of his own work and that of his friend, Ferdinand, an obscure
German count who had worked for the Union during the Civil War.
Their discussions, with minor modifications and the application
of American resources, had created the two things George had sought.
First, the craft would provide
the Army with an edge in its "conflict" with the Alliance.
To call it a war was an overstatement in George's opinion. To be
sure, ever since white men had realized that the Gulf of Narvaéz
could be crossed, there had been difficulties with the tribes of
the Alliance, but these skirmishes and battles hardly constituted
a war. America had weathered real wars with Britain, France, Mexico,
and even with itself. Now the only obstacle that stood in its way
was the one that had been there all along: The Cheyenne Alliance.
Second, it would provide George
with a way to establish his name as his own, instead of simply being
known as the son of his father.
"This is the future,"
George said as he stared up at the recalcitrant craft. "No
more horses and sabers for the Army. From this day forward we will
rely on men and machines to lead us to victory."
Elisha shrugged. He flipped up
the collar of his blue wool topcoat and held it close against the
chill breath of Spring's memory. "If you say so, Captain. For
myself though, I just don't see the generals lining up for a ride
in this behemoth or turning in their fine stallions for one of those
George tried to envision his
father in one of the fanciful Benz carriages instead of on Vic or
Dandy and smiled at the image. He took a deep lungful of air and
released a frosty breath. "You are right. There's just something
refined about sitting a horse that mechanical engines cannot replace.
But horses are useless against the Cheyenne."
Elisha looked as though he might
have argued that point as well, but the sound of voices from the
direction of the gatehouse drew his attention.
A squad of soldiers on horseback
turned in from the road and through the gate into the yard. They
were followed by four open carriages with high-seated drivers like
in the days of Lincoln. The dignitaries—senators and a few representatives
who had come to view the official launch—sat in the high seats
and craned their necks for a better view of the huge aircraft. Behind
the carriages were more riders, but not enlisted men. These were
old men, most portly, all but one wearing the dress blues of the
The one rider who was not in
uniform wore a long topcoat of dark wool, pale riding pants, and
a high-collared shirt with a cravat of watered silk. From beneath
his high statesman's hat flowed his trademark: locks of golden hair,
now paling with age. It was George's father, the Boy General, Hero
of the Civil and Mexican Wars, and the Savior of the Battle of Kansa
Bay. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Sr., President of the United
States of America, laughed with the generals and congressmen as
they rode into the yard beneath a clear, crisp morning sky.
Men ran across the yard from
the barracks. They assembled near the barn with a great deal of
cursing and clattering of equipment. Custer brushed at his mustaches
and beard with a gloved hand as they rode toward the ranks. His
eye glanced toward where George stood with Elisha, but he did not
acknowledge his son. The clenched fist in George's stomach, rather
than relenting at his father's arrival, only gripped him the more.
Colonel McCormack, commander
of the remote outpost, stepped before the small detachment. He saluted
his commander-in-chief and was rewarded with a tip of the presidential
Custer dismounted, followed by
the generals who did the same although with less agility. The statesmen
all debarked. A few soldiers were dispatched to stable the horses
and unhitch the teams. The guests moved to the empty chairs. They
milled about, chatting with one another, but did not settle into
the chairs provided them. McCormack stepped to the table, pulled
a sheaf of paper from his coat pocket, and cleared his throat.
George heard Elisha groan. "Please,"
the young lieutenant said. "No speeches."
McCormack was pre-empted, however,
when Custer walked up and shook the Colonel's hand, engaging him
in friendly exchange.
"God bless the president,"
Elisha said. George hid a smile.
At forty-six years of age, George's
father made an imposing figure. With a confidence borne of two decades
of command, he walked slowly towards the dirigible as he conversed
with the officers and senators.
"My lord, but it's big,"
George heard his father say as they strolled closer. "Bigger
than I'd imagined."
George and Elisha raised hands
to salute as the president and their colonel drew near. The colonel
touched his brim, releasing them. The president squinted.
"Tell me again why these
savages won't just shoot you down and feed you to their lizards?"
"Sir," George replied.
"We will be too high for them to do any damage."
"I see." Custer was
obviously unconvinced. He turned to the colonel. "And they've
flown it successfully?"
McCormack straightened. "Absolutely,
Mr. President. Several times, sir, and each time better than the
"So, they haven't crashed
the thing in what? Four months?"
"Five, Mr. President."
McCormack smiled with pride. George winced. He knew his father.
While the colonel beamed at having exceeded the president's estimate,
George knew that the question had been designed to point out the
fact that there had been even a single crash.
"Colonel McCormack, let
me put it thusly. Four months, five months, a year; it makes no
difference. Anything less than perfection is sub-standard. Is that
The colonel's ruddy cheeks paled
and blushed at the same time. "Yes, sir," he said.
George stepped forward. "Sir,
I was in command of the ship when we ran into trouble. The fault
for the mishap is mine."
The tall, lean Custer looked
down at his son with the look of stern regard that George and his
sisters had come to call "The Official Glare." It usually
preceded what his father considered a bon mot of common sense.
"The fault may be yours,
Captain, but the responsibility is still the Colonel's."
"Yes, sir," George
replied and stepped back.
"Mr. President," McCormack
said, having regained his composure. "If you and the other
gentlemen care to join me, we can review the plans for the dirigible
and for its mission while the men prepare for its departure."
The president smiled and nodded,
once more the Spirit of Geniality. The colonel led the way.
Elisha humphed. "How are
you, Son? Good to see you, Son. You're looking well, Son."
"That will do, Lieutenant."
"I'm sorry sir. It just
seemed that a little 'hello' wouldn't have done the old man in."
"I said, that will do."
George took a deep breath. "Remember that he is here as the
president, not as my father."
"It's not a family reunion."
"It's an historic military
"As you say, sir."
George ground his teeth, not
sure what infuriated him the more, Elisha's studied deference or
his father's complete lack of parental warmth.
"Ah," George bristled.
"To Hell with you both. Sergeant Tack!"