Elena by Karl Miller
Elena by Karl Miller
Prologue – Jibacoa, Cuba: July 4, 1868
In the darkness behind a large, white, two-story mansion just outside the small fishing village of Jibacoa, three rows of twenty balloons line a hundred-foot dock that stretches out into the water. The silk balloons, each about six feet in height and tethered by leather straps to a series of iron rings, move back and forth in the night like distressed phantoms in a strong northerly breeze.
At 10:30 p.m., Edwin Mahone leaves the mansion. Carrying a small lantern, he walks down a paved path to the dock. He extracts a pocket watch, checks it then looks at a silver anemometer which spins rapidly in the steady wind. Mahone strokes his unkempt white beard and walks to the first balloon. Putting on a pair of thin leather gloves, he bends down to examine the payload – a copper sphere about the size of a grapefruit. He holds it in his left hand and manipulates a dial on its face until there is a faint click. Mahone carefully releases the sphere so that it swings again below the balloon then he undoes the end of the tether from its ring. The balloon starts to move upward, stopping at the end of the line. He stares thoughtfully before releasing it into a breeze that will carry it across the Straits of Florida and toward the United States.
Over the next hour, Mahone repeats the procedure until all sixty balloons are gone. He walks to the end of the dock and looks up at the sky for a long while, even after the last payload has disappeared into the darkness. Checking his pocket watch again, he walks back to the mansion.
As he approaches, a slave pulls open two large oaken doors. Mahone passes into an elegant great hall decorated with large tapestries of medieval nobles hunting. He walks to a side hallway, and stops at an iron door that is flanked by life-size white marble statues of Minerva and Adrestia. Pulling out a ring of keys, he opens the door, walks through, and locks it behind him. Mahone descends a long flight of rough stone stairs into a basement lit by several torches held in bronze sconces on each of four walls.
Dominating the room, a long wooden table hold a series of large test tubes that rest in wire racks. Empty copper spheres in varying levels of completion sit on a table to the left of the main one. A dissecting table lies empty to the right.
Mahone walks past the tables and sits down at a maple desk. On its left corner, by a glass vase with roses, sits a black-edged frame containing a picture of a woman in her late-forties. Mahone unlocks a drawer, withdraws three photographs, and spreads them out in front of him. In every picture, a still child with hemorrhaging eyes stares from a face covered in ruptured boils. He exhales then puts the pictures back and locks the drawer.
The scientist stands and walks to the far side of the laboratory where a row of twenty wooden tierces stands by another oaken door. The barrels, sealed in wax, carry the names of various companies and cities. He extracts a key, and opens the door which leads back to the dock from the lower part of the house.
“Hector,” he calls.
A few seconds later, a solidly-built man in his late 30s appears. “Yes, sir?”
“I need you to take these barrels – very, very carefully – down to the end of the dock. I need them to be stacked and waiting in,” he pauses and looks at his watch, “thirty minutes. And use two lanterns to light the path.”
Hector calls out in Spanish, and six slaves assemble at the door. He speaks to them quietly, pointing to the dock. The men bring a small wagon which is promptly loaded with the barrels.
Mahone watches them go, then locks the door behind them.
Twenty minutes later, the barrels stand neatly stacked. The slaves gather in a group, silently watching as Mahone walks up the path from the house. In the darkness over the water, they begin to hear the sound of oars approaching. As the craft comes into view, Mahone salutes a man in civilian clothes at the front of a twenty-foot boat being rowed by eight slaves.
“The knights . . .” Mahone starts.
“. . . have reconvened,” the man answers.
“I’d invite you in for some bourbon but I know the schedule.”
“Another time, sir,” the man responds with a nod and a smile.
Mahone smiles back and motions to Hector who grabs a rope thrown from the boat. The rest of the loading operation proceeds smoothly, with a human chain passing each barrel down into the vessel
In ten minutes, all the barrels are aboard and
covered by a canvas tarp.
“Good luck,” Mahone calls as they push off.
“And to you,” the man answers.
Mahone tells Hector to have the slaves return with the wagon to the house.
After they’ve gone, Mahone takes out a piece of folded paper. “Hector, first thing in the morning, I need you to take this to the new telegraph office in town. Have them send a message to Mr. Gray. They have his information already.”
There is a single word on the paper:
1. Fort Foster: September 25, 1868
The nightmare can start in a number of different places.
Today, it is not a view of herself in her favorite yellow dress, walking down the dusty road alone on the summer afternoon when she ran away from the orphanage. It is not the man grabbing her and pulling her into the woods. And it is not his smell of cheap whiskey as he tears her dress.
Instead, it is the moment when the rapist suddenly sagged on top of her, the same instant she felt his warm, salty blood spray across her face. The nightmare continues with her tightly-closed eyes opening to see Father Escobar standing over them, a dripping Bowie knife in his left hand as he pulls the body off her with his right.
“Don’t look,” he says, but she’s already seen the smooth slice across the man’s throat. Even though it’s a humid, warm afternoon, Elena is shivering. He pulls her damaged dress back in place and, pulling out a cotton cloth, cleans the blood from her.
Father Escobar takes a blanket from his horse and puts it over her. He bends down so he’s face-to-face and talks softly. “Child, there are devils among us disguised as men. This devil has gone back to hell. He cannot hurt you now. Do you understand?” She stares at the face-down man whose blood continues to seep into the ground. “I will pray for the soul of the man this used to be.” Father Escobar closes his eyes. His lips move in silence for a few seconds. When he’s done, they begin to walk back to the road. Elena suddenly turns and drives her heel down violently onto the dead man’s face, the loud crack of his left cheekbone reverberating in the quiet.
“I suppose that helps, too,” the priest says, looking at the child thoughtfully.
Elena’s eyes open. As usual in the aftermath of her nightmares, a light sweat coats her body. She rests for a few seconds then raises her head off the smooth limestone block which serves as her pillow, and swings her legs off the flat board she uses as a bed.
She stands and walks across the room which was once the ground floor of the blockhouse of a long-abandoned fort from the Seminole Wars. Elena splashes her face with some warm water from a porcelain basin then sits in front of a glass mirror. She stares at herself, at the intense green eyes that contrast with her tan skin, at the thin nose, and the mouth that almost always seems on the verge of a scowl. Elena frowns at the light patch of acne by the left corner of her mouth then she brushes and braids the brown hair – almost bleached blonde at its ends from the sun – that hangs to the middle of her back.
Finished, she walks out of the blockhouse and crosses the fort’s parade ground. Once a collapsing ruin comprised of two wooden blockhouses at diagonal corners of a rotting stockade, Elena and her grandfather, Holathe, have rebuilt the fort into something suitable for her purposes. She walks out the open gate, and strides toward the Hillsborough River a hundred yards away.
As she approaches, Elena sees the twelve-foot alligator Holathe nicknames Trouble resting on the near bank.
“Time to move,” she calls to the reptile which stares back at her impassively. She picks up a stone and whips it so it skips off the sand right in front of Trouble’s face. The alligator hisses then moves into the water and swims a safe distance away to the other side of the river.
Elena walks to a bathing hut that starts a few feet from the river and slopes down into the water. She unlocks its doors and enters, changes her clothes on a small bench, then walks down a set of wooden steps descending to a partially-submerged door that opens into shoulder-deep water. Elena swims half a mile downstream then returns. A shade under six feet tall, she is lean but muscular and moves with a lanky athleticism. Back at the bathing hut, she clambers out of the water, and pulls on a pair of black pants. Elena adds a long-sleeved white shirt over which she puts a black vest with three silver buttons then steps into a pair of knee-high black boots.
She walks back to Fort Foster, to the blockhouse opposite the one in which she lives. When Elena opens the long door, a series of mirrored plates instantly convert sunlight into a subdued illumination for the room, revealing three tables – one covered with glass jars full of powders, the second with iron shells of various sizes, and the last with various pieces of unfinished machinery.
Elena carefully measures and mixes three of the powders and pours the result into the bottom half of a 6-pound iron casing. She then slowly twists the top half onto the bottom to complete an artillery shell.
Holding her creation, Elena walks to the side of the fort opposite from the river. A line of three cannon – a 6-pound bronze field gun, a 10-inch mortar, and a 12-pound howitzer – stand facing a long field pockmarked with tree stumps and craters. As Elena loads the ball into the cannon, Holathe appears. He is about sixty years old, with a long pony tail and a weathered face. Significantly shorter than Elena, he dresses in a patterned long shirt and a red turban, and carries a rifle.
“Hello, daughter. What is it today?” he asks.
“Just wait,” Elena says, motioning him to stay back. She bends down and checks the projected trajectory, aiming for a spot in the field about 400 yards away.
“You should take cover,” she says, donning a pair of black goggles. Holathe follows suit, and watches as Elena lights the fuse.
The cannon fires, and throws a ball to the designated point, where it lands with a thud near the splintered remains of a slash pine.
Holathe looks at her, and arches his eyebrows. “Was that it?”
Without answering, she takes a Whitworth rifle from a shed by the cannon, and loads a hexagonal bullet. Raising the gun to her shoulder, she extends a set of sights along the barrel and takes aim. Exhaling, she pulls the trigger. An instant later a fireball rises eighty feet in the air, with a blast that staggers both of them.
“Daughter,” Holathe says with slight alarm, “aren’t you worried about a fire?”
“Watch,” Elena says, pushing the goggles up onto her forehead. A few seconds afterward, the blast dies down and extinguishes.
She smirks, and walks over to the blast site, her nose full of the sulfurous smell left by the explosion.
As she makes her way across the field, a strange bird dives down and lands in front of her. About the size of a large eagle, the bird is made of light steel, with two propellers on each wing and a push propeller in the rear. It watches Elena with eyes made of gold-colored glass.
“Good morning, Mother,” it says in a metallic voice punctuated by the sound of steam releasing.
“Good morning, Catherine,” she responds.
A moment later, three similar mechanical birds land, surrounding Elena.
“Leo, Teresa, Peter – hello.”
The birds begin to talk in an almost excited fashion, drowning each other out.
“Wait – one at a time,” Elena says, and points to Peter.
“Strange things. At water fort,” he says, his crystal eyes fixed on Elena. “An air ship. A metal ship. A strange flag. Look and see,” Peter says, and raises its left wing.
Elena reaches down and extracts a small cylinder.
“Wait, children,” she says, and walks back to her laboratory. Adjusting the lighting, she opens the canister, and processes several sheets of treated paper through trays of chemicals. As promised, a strange but not altogether unfamiliar banner – two crossed blue bars against a red field – appears on the plate.
Elena walks back to the drones, and bends down by Leo. “I want you to take the news to Major Kilpatrick at Fort Brooke. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mother,” he says, and ascends into the morning sky.
2. New York City: September 26, 1868
Wearing a white gauze mask that covers his face up to the eyes, John C. Breckinridge blends in easily with the thin crowd walking on Wall Street. Whether it’s a hurrying businessman, a mother with her children, or a vendor selling roasted chestnuts, they all wear some variation of a cloth over their faces. A prostitute in a red mask eyes Breckinridge from the shadows but he doesn’t notice. He passes Broad Street, and arrives at Delmonico’s, its doors flanked by stone pillars allegedly brought from the ruins of Pompeii.
“Good evening, sir,” a doorman says as he allows Breckenridge inside. As soon as he walks in into the cream and mahogany dining room, a maître d’ escorts him down a side hallway with three doorways. A door opens and reveals an elegantly-decorated room with a small dining table in its center at which sits a man in his early thirties, balding but with a heavy beard. The maître d’ exits, closing the door behind him. The man at the table immediately stands and walks to Breckinridge with his hand extended, and smiles as his guest removes his mask.
“Truly honored to meet you finally,” Jay Gould says as they shake hands.
“The honor is mine,” replies Breckinridge with a grin of his own. The former Vice President is in his late-forties and has piercing, intelligent blue eyes. Unlike his days in elected office, he is wearing a large mustache.
“Please, sit,” Gould says, gesturing to the seat opposite his. “The world falls apart, but Delmonico’s keeps going.” Stepping to a well-stocked bar in the corner of the room, Gould continues. “We’ve got some of your fine Kentucky bourbon here. Is Old Crow acceptable?”
“Perfect,” Breckinridge answers as Gould pours a heavy amount into one tumbler and a lesser amount into another. He returns to the table and puts the larger drink in front of his guest.
“Travel went well?”
“No problems,” Breckinridge answers. “Not surprisingly, the port is fairly empty right now.” He takes a large sip from the glass.
“Truly incredible how this whole situation happened,” Gould remarks. “President Wade calls it ‘a historic outbreak of influenza.’”
Breckinridge’s face is impassive. “It’s a strange sickness, for certain.”
“I received an anonymous note a short time before the Times reported the first cases. It recommended I invest in medical goods.” Gould looks at his guest intently. “Thank you. I made a sizeable profit.”
The former Confederate Secretary of War looks across the table for a moment, then nods with a slight smile.
“I assure you – we’re in a completely private setting.” Gould pauses. “How?”
The guest takes a deep breath. “Suppose there was a scientist. Mind you, I’m not a scientific man myself – but suppose there was a scientist that figured out a way to mix diseases, to cook them up, if you will, to have a desired effect.”
“But how to spread it like this? According to what I’ve read, over fifty percent of the whole Northern population caught the plague. The Union army has an infection rate of nearly eighty percent. But the South, curiously, less than twenty percent.”
“Say a few – ambitious, let’s call it – well-placed people who supplied the military were to add a highly contagious version of the disease to certain products.”
“Like a smallpox blanket?”
“But not just blankets. All types of clothing, dyes, equipment.”
“The government has hushed this up, no doubt. It also explains all the mysterious balloon stories that have been in the papers.”
“That would be the second wave,” Breckinridge said, “a backup plan. Launch some from land, some from ships off the coast. Again, I’m not a scientist, but what if there was a way to create a trigger based on latitude and longitude? So the payload could open and spread disease as it drifted along?”
Gould makes a disapproving look. “A lot of non-combatants are sick.”
Breckinridge leans forward. “There was a lot of suffering in our part of the world the last few years, too. And the illegitimate Mr. Wade promises to inflict a lot more.” He sits back. “In any case, very few people actually die. There’s just that hideous rash, a loss of hearing, and a loss of most – but not all – vision. Unpleasant, debilitating – but almost never lethal. Our scientist did a lot of costly experimenting to develop the right mixture. And the effects will pass with time. Two or three years, and most will be fine again.”
“But why?” Gould asks. “You know a very harsh response will happen at some point when the right people figure this out. It’s a pretty extravagant piece of revenge, but it seems pointless and more than a little vindictive for a war that’s over.”
“But it’s not over!” Breckinridge says emphatically. “Communication doesn’t flow so well since the outbreak, but I can tell you military activity has started again. Fort Jefferson, out in the Gulf of Mexico, is ours now. We have men heading to Florida from all over the South.”
“Why would a fight this time ultimately be any different than the last?”
The former Secretary of War gives a small smile. “This time we have Revenge, Determination and Independence. And Phoenix, too.”
Gould looks at him quizzically.
“We spent a lot of money getting the best weapons we could. Revenge is an ocean-going ironclad, much more advanced than what was used in the war. Determination is a land monitor unlike anything that’s ever been used in battle. Independence is a frigate we outfitted when we captured Fort Jefferson in the Gulf of Mexico. And Phoenix,” he smiles, “is a new type of balloon – one that can drop bombs and let sharpshooters fire from a height no land weapon can reach.”
“Impressive,” Gould replies. “But that’s only four weapons against the entire force of the Union. After you win one or two battles, I ask again, why is the long term outcome going to be different?”
Breckinridge takes a gulp of the Old Crow. “A few reasons,” he says expansively. “First, thanks to the so-called ‘influenza,’ the Union doesn’t have enough troops to fight a war. Second, we’re only talking about four states leaving – Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. I hate to admit it, but those aren’t ones the Union is going to miss enough to fight over. It’s not like splitting the country in half. Third, having a little separate country in the corner of America gives the Northerners a safety valve on the issue making the South comply. If people don’t want to accept the Feds interfering with their rights – fine. There’s plenty of land in the new Confederacy.”
Gould is quiet. Finally, he walks to the bar, brings the bottle back with him, and replenishes both drinks. “So, what happens next?”
“The alleged ‘President’ Wade – the reptile he is – will finish his grand tour of the South in Tallahassee. According to my sources, it will be followed by a vacation in St. Augustine. And that’s where we’ll take him.”
“If he’s killed, what does that accomplish?”
“We’re not going to kill him,” Breckinridge says, taking another drink. “Merely capture him. They put Jeff Davis in prison – we’ll return the favor. And then, quietly, before the news gets out and embarrasses the Feds, we’ll use some back channel communications to offer a deal. If they want their president back, they’ll let us go peacefully.”
Gould takes a drink. “How do you figure into this? Kentucky is not part of this new Confederacy.”
“We’ve had a lot of secret meetings with all the former members of the Confederate Congress – at least those who are still around – from the four states in question, and even taken votes. They approached me to be president. I don’t want to talk about my own accomplishments, but they felt that my experience and contacts would help the new country survive. My intent – before Wade started imprisoning former Southern leaders – was to just settle down to private life in Lexington, but I felt I had to stand up to this barbarism. It also sends a sign to all other Southerners that they’re welcome in the new Confederacy. Besides, right after the declaration, I’ll be moving to my new home in the capital city of Atlanta.”
“So where do I come in?” Gould asks.
“For a small investment, we can guarantee an almost complete monopoly on certain commodities.”
“A year’s exclusive rights on Mississippi cotton.”
Gould reflects in silence. “And what do you need?”
“Two million in gold.”
The investor inhales then exhales. “I’ve heard stories about money smuggled out from the old Confederacy before it fell, so why the need for more?”
“That was used to finance our war effort. New, improved weaponry. Munitions for the troops that are gathering. We need money, though, to pay our troops in the field.”
“Patriotism isn’t enough?” Gould asks wryly.
“Not after what they went through the last time.”
Gould stares at the ceiling for a full minute without speaking. “One million in gold will be sent now. The rest once you get a favorable response from the Feds after you’ve interrupted Wade’s vacation. And – two years’ monopoly.”
“That’s fair,” Breckinridge replies. “I’m on the Charleston, docked at South Street. We’re leaving next week so I can lead the fight.”
“The gold will be there by mid-afternoon tomorrow,” Gould replies. “But if this scheme fails, we never met.”
3. Fort Brooke, September 27, 1868
In the middle of the parade ground at Fort Brooke, Major Edward Kilpatrick looks up at the controlled approach of metal through the sky. The officer stands five foot ten inches, and although only in his early-forties, has a prematurely gray trim to his brown hair and beard.
Standing with him, Captain Joshua Lind catches sight of the vulture-sized bird as well. “What the hell is that?” His hand drops to the Colt Army Model revolver at his belt.
“A messenger. Don’t worry – he’s friendly. It’s a machine made by Elena, our neighbor.”
Lind gives a puzzled look.
“Elena is a native genius. She lives with her grandfather, and is basically the caretaker at old Fort Foster.”
“She made that thing?” Lind is incredulous.
“She made four of those birds – and a lot of other things, too. When she was a child, a priest saw she had talent at science, so he looked after her education. When she turned eighteen, he sent her to a girls college in Macon. From what I understand, the other girls didn’t really like her. Elena is a mix of everything, which apparently made them uncomfortable. She left after two years and has been at Foster ever since.”
“But if the right people knew about this . . .”
“That’s exactly what she doesn’t want to see happen. She trusts us to keep this secret here. Maybe one day, she’ll change her mind. But for now, we agree to respect her wishes. Her grandfather is about the only one she communicates with regularly. I’ve known him for the last ten years. A great man, and a moderating influence on her.”
“Why does she need to be moderated?”
“She’s a very, how do I put it, unusual figure. Not only a genius, but she’s the best shot I’ve ever seen. And can throw a knife into a two-inch target from twenty feet away. When I talk with her grandfather, I don’t ask what she does and I don’t want to know, but there has been very little crime in Tampa since she started living at Foster.”
As he finishes the sentence, Leo swoops in, skidding to a stop a few feet from the officers. The bird’s blue glass eyes fix on Lind.
“Hello, Colonel. Who is he?” it asks in a metallic, halting voice, each word preceded by faint whirring and clicking.
“A friend,” Kilpatrick answers. “From our leader.”
“Yes, our leader. He will visit. Soon.”
Leo seems unsure then finally speaks. “A message.”
“Please tell me.”
The bird’s left metallic wing rises. With the sound of a puff of steam, a small compartment opens underneath. “Please take.”
Kilpatrick bends down, removes the pictures and examines them. He frowns. “When made?”
The Major hands the plates to Lind who looks them over. “This is Fort Jefferson, correct?” he asks, alarm in his voice.
Kilpatrick nods, then bends down to the drone. “Tell mother thanks.”
“Yes, sir,” Leo responds. With another puff of steam, it extends its wings, rises straight from the ground and moves off, gradually accelerating into the warm sky.
“So we are confident, then, that these pictures are real?”
“Yes. We need to find who’s doing this – and how big this plot extends. Never seen an airship. Some balloons in the war, but nothing like that. I’d definitely tell President Wade to not make his planned trip to Florida until we make sure it’s safe.”
“There’s absolutely no way he will cancel. He needs to show the country he’s in charge, and to reassure loyalists in the South.”
“He really should reconsider. With our forces depleted, we’re not going to able to offer a lot of protection if this plot is real. Maybe we can bring in troops from other states, but it’s still not going to be a lot.”
“I understand, but we have to do the best we can. The schedule cannot be changed.”
“Well, let’s at least let everyone know what’s out there. Come with me,” he says, and leads Lind toward his headquarters. Using the pen and paper on his desk, he writes out a brief message – FORT JEFFERSON TAKEN BY UNK HOSTILES. VESSELS HEADING NORTH – UNK DESTINATION. He passes it to Lind. “This work?”
Lind reads it and nods.
Kilpatrick calls in a corporal. “Arrange for this to be telegraphed to For Marion and to the garrison at Tallahassee right away. Keep this secret.”
A short time later, the corporal returns and salutes. “I’m sorry, sir, but the telegraph’s not working.”
Kilpatrick looks at Lind with a grim expression. “Send men on horseback then.”
A few days later, a return rider from Tallahassee appears and hands Kilpatrick a note. Scouts see movement toward St. Augustine. Bring your men here immediately
The officer slips the communication into his pocket and gives the order to his garrison to get ready to move.
4. St. Augustine, Florida: October 9, 1868
Colonel John Sprague walks out from his quarters onto the parade ground of Ft. Marion, once known as Castillo de San Marcos when the Spanish erected it in 1695. Constructed of coquina, and surrounded by a shallow moat, its thirty-foot high walls face the town on one side, and the Matanzas River on the other. Sprague, in his late-fifties with deep-set brown eyes, walks up a set of stone steps to the ramparts, and joins Major Kilpatrick. They look at a group of tents on the field beside the fort.
“We’ve emptied the town – except for a few diehards – and, after a lot of arguing, got Wade to agree to stay in the most secure room in the fort. We have makeshift earthworks at each of the access points to the city, with three cannon and a dozen men at each. We’re putting torpedoes in the river for the ships you warned about. Sank a line of ships to block entrance from the Atlantic. Not sure what to do about this mysterious airship. But the bottom line is even with Wade’s personal escort, we’ve got fewer than 1,000 men, and our intelligence tells us the enemy has about five times that.”
Kilpatrick is quiet.
Sprague looks out over the walls. “Do you have a wife?”
“No, she died in childbirth during the war.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Any family?”
“No, the baby died as well.”
“Well, if you have anyone at all you care about, you may want to write them.” He’s quiet again.
“Any word on the ships?” Kilpatrick asks.
“Not since your communication. How were you able to find that out, by the way?”
“There are sympathizers in the area. Some Seminoles that let us know what they hear.”
“Thank God for them. Although, even with the knowledge, I don’t know how long these walls are going to last once they start getting hit with shells.” He puts his hat on and turns toward the stairs. “Well, I’m off to check our positions in town.”
Kilpatrick salutes. A few minutes later, he walks out the main gate of the fort and heads to his quarters at the Magnolia Hotel.
5. Starke, Florida: October 10, 1868
At Camp Freedom, what had been a cattle field by train tracks outside the small town of Starke a short time earlier has now become several rows of tents, with a population growing from barely 500 to well over 4,000. Each day, more and more arrive, singly or in small groups, not only from Florida, but from all over the old Confederacy as well.
Around fire pits, as night falls, cooks prepare evening meals. By the pit closest to the tracks, a thin man hunches over a banjo, picking out ragged arpeggios. Above everything, a flagpole displays the banner of a nation that is weeks from birth.
In the largest tent, General John Brown Gordon is leaning over a table, stroking his goatee as he examines a map of Florida, when an orderly arrives and announces an arrival. Gordon follows him out of the tent and sees a crowd gathering as Breckinridge approaches on a white horse, accompanied by about fifty men and two slowly-moving wagons.
The politician in the former vice president takes over. When he reaches Gordon, he salutes, slides off his horse, and shakes hands vigorously, a huge smile on his face. Two soldiers quickly push four crates together as a makeshift stage, and Breckinridge quickly jumps on it.
He gives a short speech, punctuated by cheers, and brings Gordon up at the end as he finishes dramatically, his voice rising to a shout. “This man will lead us to victory, to a new nation, to the correction of history!”
The crowd surges forward, causing Breckenridge’s bodyguards to circle around him and escort him through the cheering men to General Gordon’s tent.
Once the two men are inside, they walk to the map table. Gordon is about to start talking when Breckenridge interrupts him.
“Before we start talking strategy, please be sure to have your quartermaster distribute two barrels of the gold coins tonight, and let the men know the rest will be paid after our victory. Now, what’s the latest?”
“The Yanks clearly know we’re out here. Our spies tell us they’re desperately trying to get troops to St. Augustine but probably have fewer than a thousand.”
“And we are at?”
“We should be close to five thousand when we move out,” Gordon replies. “Most of them quite experienced.”
“He gave his last speech in front of the Florida legislature, and is about two days from St. Augustine.” Gordon pauses. “Can I ask why we didn’t simply take him at Tallahassee?”
“If we took him then – or even now – it could seem more like a kidnapping. When we take him after a real battle in the field, it will show everyone we are a legitimate army of a legitimate country.”
“Look, it shouldn’t be too difficult in either circumstance.”
“Agreed, a five-to-one superiority is tough to stop.” The general continues. “The plan is to take the troops by train to Jacksonville – which is the end of the line – then march by foot to St. Augustine. We should be in position by October 13. Are we still confident of naval support?”
“Definitely – and maybe some other tricks, too. I understand the special train arrived?”
“Yes, sir. We have it safeguarded and covered in canvas.”
“Should be quite a show,” Breckinridge remarks with a smile.
6. St. Augustine, Florida: October 12, 1868
At 11:20 p.m., two Union sentries on St. Augustine Road come to full attention when they see a man holding a white flag and riding a black horse. A young woman on a brown colt accompanies him, with a pack horse trailing behind them.
“Halt,” the taller of the two sentries yells out when they’re about a hundred yards away. “What’s your business?” he asks, holding his gun nearly at firing position.
The woman replies. “Major Kilpatrick is here, is he not?”
He looks at her suspiciously. “Maybe. This ain’t the best time for a visit.”
“Tell him Elena is here. And we’re not here for a social visit.”
“Y’all get off the horses and stay put,” he says. Not taking his eyes from the visitors, he tells his companion to relay the message back to the fort.
A few minutes later, Kilpatrick rides up on a black horse. He salutes the sentries and canters past them to the visitors, then slides off. Kilpatrick and Holathe shake hands, then the officer turns to Elena.
“This is not your fight,” he says sternly.
“That’s my decision,” she answers. “My grandfather is a Seminole; his wife was a slave who escaped and made her way to his tribe. My other grandfather was a major in the British Army who was stationed in St. Augustine; he married a local woman descended from the original settlers. In a way, I walk with all of them. I breathe with all of them. I cannot sit back while we tear this world – their world – apart again.” She pauses. “Besides, we slipped past the enemy army on the way here – I think you’re going to need the help.”
Kilpatrick shrugs in frustration. “You’ve never seen this before. People will be blown into pieces in front of you. There will be screaming like people have turned into animals. It’s non-stop horror. It’s like walking into hell.”
“Thank you for the warning. I do know something about violence,” she adds drily.
“Promise me, at least, that if we’re about to lose, you’ll get out and back to safety.”
“You know perfectly well I’d never promise that.”
Resigned, he slumps in the saddle. “All right, then, let’s go.”
The group passes through the pickets, and heads up St. Augustine Road. Over the bridge, they ride around the six-foot-tall earthworks and into a nearly empty St. Augustine.
They pass a few homes lit with candles where a few stubborn holdouts have refused to depart. Bonfires with sentries around them mark the ends of the main streets. At the waterfront, they see a group of men loading a boat, readying to place a last few torpedoes in the water to stop any ships that may try to attack from the river.
When they reach the Magnolia Hotel, they dismount and walk into the lobby, Elena and Holathe each carefully carry a large wooden box they remove from the pack horse. Kilpatrick salutes a soldier behind the desk.
“These are volunteers. Please give them rooms on the second floor.”
The soldier eyes them suspiciously but leads them up the stairs.
Elena tries to sleep on the bed, but it’s too soft so she lies on the hard wooden floor and uses a book for a pillow.
At about four in the morning, she stands and walks to the mirror. She stares at herself for a minute, then she opens a leather pack, and takes out a small glass jar.
Elena is about to remove the lid when there’s a knock on the door.
She opens it, and sees Holathe standing in the hallway with his rifle by his side.
“I saw the light on in your room. Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she says. “Just getting ready. Come in.”
She sits back down at the mirror. Putting two fingers into the jar, she takes black pigment made from berries, charcoal, and oil, and begins to make a thick black line downward from her hairline at the middle of her forehead. Holathe grips her shaking hand and steadies it so the line is straight, down the center of her face.
“I was scared, too, the first time I fought,” he says. “The army had invaded our lands, and we decided to fight back. It was not an easy thing to do, there being so many of them with weapons so much better than ours. I thought to myself, ‘the worst thing that can happen is not that I get killed, but that I look bad doing it.’ So I went to a different place in my mind and let my body go forward without my fear to hold it back. Or so I thought. But the fear had a way of creeping back in. I got through that fight without any hurt. But I was scared the whole time. You will be, too. Just accept it, and use the fear to make yourself better.”
Elena nods but her hand is still unsteady when she makes a horizontal black line of the same thickness as the first across her face, from ear to ear, shutting her eyes as she does it.
Holathe follows her as she walks out her doorway, down the stairs, and out into the still night.
They load the pack horse with the wooden cases then walk to the empty St. Augustine Cathedral. Elena enters while Holathe waits outside.
A single candle burns by the tabernacle under the crucifix. Elena walks down the main aisle and kneels at the railing in front of the altar. She prays silently for a few minutes then stands.
“Let’s get over to the fort,” she says in a determined voice. Holathe notes that her hands have stopped shaking.
7. St. Augustine, Florida: October 13, 1868
No one notices the first shot of the battle when it happens at 6:32 a.m. Phoenix, a hundred-foot-long airship with a twenty-foot gondola hanging below it, drops a 12-pound bomb from two thousand feet in the air. It lands in mud fifty feet from the south wall of the fort and fails to detonate. Shortly after, a second lands in the moat, but explodes harmlessly, sending water spraying up into the pre-dawn sky. Around the top of Fort Marion, five cannon stand on each of the fort’s four walls, with groups of riflemen spread in between them. At the initial sounds of violence, all the defenders quickly feel the special mix of trepidation and excitement spread through them.
Shortly afterward, a Confederate column of three hundred men begins approaching the Union position on St. Augustine Road on the south side of the bridge crossing St. Sebastian River. Standing on the San Pedro bastion of the fort, Kilpatrick, Elena and Holathe see flashes breaking the darkness as the engagement begins; they hear the staccato bursts of gunfire starting a little over half a mile away to the southwest.
Behind the earthworks at the bridge, the soldiers manning the three 12-pound Napoleons wait until the Confederates are three hundred yards away before opening fire with canister. The three teams alternate loading and firing to keep the Confederates at bay, and the advance stalls with the invaders pinned down about two hundred yards down the road from the Union position.
As the sun starts to rise shortly after seven, the main Confederate attack appears to the northwest of the fort – two thousand men headed by General Gordon begin approaching the earthworks on Shell Road Breckinridge hangs toward the rear of the troops to give Gordon space to lead. The Federal artillerists at the Shell Road earthworks manage to keep the attackers at bay for three rounds, their grapeshot ripping through the massed men marching toward them. For a few minutes, it looks like they will be able to succeed in holding back the Confederates – until the attacking soldiers part to reveal a machine moving slowly behind them.
About forty feet long, Determination is a land ironclad riding on eight sets of four treaded iron wheels. It has two turrets, both with gun ports spaced every three feet in each so that the 12-pound cannon inside each can swivel to fire in almost a complete range of sight. Inexorably, it approaches the earthworks. When it reaches a hundred yards from the Union troops, its cannon ports crack open. A few seconds later, its guns fire at the Union position but both shots are absorbed by the earthworks.
Determination keeps moving toward the position though, slowly closing the distance as the Confederate soldiers take cover behind the tank’s armor. The Union cannon fire solid rounds at the ironclad, but they bounce off the three-inch thick plating. From fifty yards away, the tank’s gun ports open again. This time, its shots do damage, smashing the carriage of the lead cannon and flipping it on its side, pinning two men whose animal screams rise above the continued sounds of gunfire from the St. Augustine Street fighting.
Elena, watching from the walls, leans down to her four drones who have arrived and sit in a line at her feet. Reaching into one of the two wooden boxes she and Holathe brought, she extracts an iron shell and places it in front of Leo.
“Drop on that,” she says, pointing to Determination. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mother,” Leo replies, taking the shot in its metal talons then flying off. A few seconds later, there’s a massive explosion as the shell strikes the tank directly between its turrets. When the smoke clears, the machine is only slightly dented, although dozens of troops near it lay in varying degrees of damage on the ground. The remaining soldiers, emboldened at the tank’s apparent invulnerability, continue to advance behind the machine. Some of them target Leo with rifle fire, and two bullets hit it, the bird spiraling down and smashing into the ground.
Watching from behind Ft. Marion’s walls, Elena frowns, picks up the Whitworth rifle and steps into an opening in the fort’s wall. She aims at the mass of troops in the distance and fires then stands back behind the wall, reloads, and emerges to fire again.
Suddenly, a voice on the western wall of the fort yells “Ships approaching!” and points to the southeast at the Matanzas River.
Nearly a mile away, Independence, at full sail, begins heading down the river. Behind it, Revenge steams into view, a hundred feet long and covered in four-inch thick iron plating. As the two ships reach a point about a half mile from the fort, there is an enormous blast as the Independence strikes a torpedo. Immediately, it begins listing to its port side, and drifts into shallower water where it grounds. In charge of the Revenge, Captain Isaac Brown turns to his engineer. “Follow exactly where the frigate went before it got hit. They’re not going to put torpedoes in the same place.”
The Revenge moves forward unimpeded, and begins steaming up the river unharmed. Shortly afterward, its gun ports open and start firing at Ft. Marion. After finding the range, the heavy shells start breaking down the eastern and southern walls, starting at the top, and methodically moving downward, blasting away the nine-foot thick coquina. The cannon on Ft. Marion’s walls fire back but to no effect, their shots bouncing off the iron plating of the Revenge. After a few minutes, the eastern wall gives way, collapsing with a roar into a pile of rubble, its cannon falling down toward the river. Watching above from the Phoenix, Mahone confidently directs the crew to descend, so its sharpshooters can fire more effectively at the Union troops.
Meanwhile, Determination finishes rolling over the dirt mounds of the destroyed gun emplacement and has started to approach the fort directly from the southwest across a long field dotted by palm trees and some small bullet-riddled huts. Elena gives a shell to each of the remaining drones and sends them into the battle. They swoop through the heavy smoke, and release the shells into the thickest grouping of soldiers. The resulting explosions tear through the Confederate army, leaving several hundred lying dead or wounded on the field. Rebel sharpshooters start firing at the drones, striking Catherine in the left wing. She spins out of control and splashes onto the river bank in a crumpled heap of metal.
Elena gives two of the remaining shells to Teresa and Peter. They fly over the field again, and drop their charges, one of which rips another hole in the army while the other fails to detonate, then return to the fort.
The bullets, which had been whizzing past sporadically before, resume with a new intensity after a few seconds after the blast as the attackers regroup and get to within three hundred yards of the fort.
In Matanzas River, the Revenge begins to focus its fire on the southern wall, its shots drilling into the coquina and exploding only fifty feet from where Elena stands, shaking the ground with each impact.
Determination is only about two hundred yards away from the fort, and the Confederate troops, sensing victory as Ft. Marion’s remaining walls start to take serious damage, begin to swarm toward the fort from behind the tank, firing as they run. Elena ignores the enemy fire and continues to shoot methodically from the opening.
“Daughter – please!” yells Holathe. As he stands to grab her, a bullet strikes him in the temple and he falls heavily to the ground. Stunned, Elena drops her rifle and crouches down by her grandfather, cradling his head, seemingly not aware she is in the open and no longer protected by the wall. Kilpatrick jumps out to shield her and immediately is hit in his right elbow by a Confederate bullet, his blood spraying in an arc across the ground as he drops beside Holathe.
“We’re going to have to surrender,” Sprague shouts as the eastern end of the north wall breaks apart.
At the sound of his voice, Elena’s eyes take on a new ferocity. She rests Holathe’s body on the ground, and turns to Teresa and Peter. She manipulates their controls, then tries to give instruction to them over the noise.
“Do you understand?” Elena yells after she’s done explaining.
“But, but . . .” they say back in unison, their eyes blinking.
“Do you understand?” she repeats.
“Yes, Mother,” they both say, and each pick up one of the last two shells that remain in Elena’s case.
A few moments later, Teresa, flying two hundred feet above the Revenge, sees its forward gunport begin to open, the muzzle of its cannon rolling out to fire at the fort. She dives straight down, aiming at the small opening above the cannon barrel. As she flies quickly through the narrow gap, her wings strike the sides of the port and shear off, leaving her to hurtle past the startled gun crew, finally smashing against the opposite wall. Teresa’s green eyes look back at the startled grimy faces that stare at her in surprise just as the shell she carries explodes.
From the fort, the defenders see the ironclad shudder and rise up in the middle with an enormous grating thunder as the metal plates rip apart and the exposed timbers of the wooden hull snap and splinter. The ship splits jaggedly in halves that fall away from each other, then sink rapidly in the Matanzas River.
To the northwest, Peter makes a straight line at Determination, aiming at the space between the tank’s wheels. The drone crashes into the ground right in front of the machine which promptly runs over the bird. A moment later, a massive detonation lifts one end of Determination two feet off the ground then it drops back down with a thud, the tank slumping down into the dirt, smoke pouring out of its gunports.
At the loss of their machines, the confidence shown in the Confederate approach evaporates. The soldiers stop moving forward toward the fort and instead stare at the tank tilted forward like a fighter knocked out on the canvas. The end begins when a handful of solders start to walk away, fear making them accelerate into a mindless rush from danger, slamming blindly into other soldiers who, themselves infected by panic, also begin turning away from the fight. As the terror takes hold, many drop their guns and start to sprint whenever any opening shows in the mass of soldiers on Shell Road. General Gordon, swearing at the top of his voice, strikes at them from horseback with the flat of his sword, but they are obeying a new leader now, and in a few moments, the fight is over.
Breckinridge, watching from the rear, sags in his saddle and joins the retreat. The noise of the fighting turns sporadic then stops completely. A thin cheer erupts from Ft. Marion’s walls.
As a medic wraps Kilpatrick’s arm, Elena holds her grandfather’s body again, his blood soaking her shirt. In a few minutes, it becomes quiet enough that the sound of airship’s steam engine can be heard as it moves slowly away.
Elena lays Holathe to the ground, then picks up her rifle. Four hundred yard above in the gondola, Mahone turns to a sharpshooter to express his disgust but Elena’s bullet takes away both his words and his throat.
Epilogue – November 1, 1868
A wagon drawn by two brown horses approaches on the dirt road that leads to Fort Foster.
“Hello?” the driver yells as he gets close.
From out of the woods, Elena appears, dressed in her usual outfit of a long-sleeved white shirt, black pants, and black knee-high boots. “Major Kilpatrick?”
“’Formerly’ Major.” With his left hand, he points to a right arm that has been amputated just below the elbow. “They allowed me to resign. Henceforth, I’m a civilian.” He carefully climbs down from the wagon.
“What will you do now?”
“Learn to use my left hand,” he says, with a laugh. He walks to the rear of the wagon and pulls back the canvas that covers the bed. “I thought you’d want this.”
She leans over and looks at the crumpled remains of Catherine and Leo. She reaches down, runs her fingers over them, then is quiet for a moment. “Thank you. Can you bring them inside the fort?”
“Of course,” Kilpatrick says, and clambers up awkwardly to take the reins as Elena quickly leaps into the seat next to him.
“They found the wreckage of the balloon off the coast. Looks like everyone drowned.”
Elena nods but says nothing.
“Not sure if you heard, but the new Confederacy died before it was born. And the Republicans dropped Wade from their ticket and replaced him with Grant. I guess everyone realized a softer touch works better than bitterness.”
“I don’t care about politics,” Elena says with a shrug. “What will you do now?”
“Not sure.” He hesitates. “If it’s all right with you, can I live for a while where your grandfather stayed?”
She waits a moment before answering. “I don’t need you to look after me.”
“I know that. You’re a lot tougher than I am. And I wouldn’t be much good at it anyhow,” he says, raising his damaged arm. “I just need some time and some peace. And I’ll keep my distance. If I do wind up coming around too much, I’m sure you’ll let me know.”
“I can do that. But as far as peace, I can’t promise anything. It does get loud sometimes.” She gives one of her rare half -smiles.
They arrive at the laboratory, and work together to move the remains of the two machines inside. When they’re done, Kilpatrick takes the wagon down the path to the chickee where Holathe lived. Elena’s sleep that night is one of the rare ones without a nightmare. The next morning is cool, blue, and pleasant. When she wakes and walks outside to the river, Trouble is quietly sleeping in the sun on the far bank.
Copyright Karl Miller 2019