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,” Elisha said.
“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 the barn.
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 steam-driven carriages.”
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 U.S. Army.
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 hat.
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 last.”
“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 clear?”
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 operation.”
“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!”