The Alliance, the last of the war frigates, bound tight to the dock by the tie-lines, held fast and creaked against the sharp chop off the harbor. A brackish mix of brown-white froth assailed her starboard. The thick ropes pulled against the pegs of the dock, and as she moved against the unrelenting tide, against the backdrop of gray Atlantic clouds buried in the horizon, the whole world seemed to rise and fall in a neverending whorl of forlorn desolation.
On her port side, gray-skinned men with ghostly pallor, the presence of a deep, malignant hopelessness in their faces, finished loading the wood barrels and boxes for the long journey. These were men sickened and consumed from war. They were beyond simple exhaustion, and instead faced a cruel, incessant hopelessness. Yes, the war had been won, but in the winning, too many had lost brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, sons and daughters, neighbors, friends. In the winning, the persistent question of the cost of their souls would haunt them for generations to come.
Standing at the lonely dock, the Brigadier General found himself, like these men he had fought with, defeated in the face of victory, embraced by an entrenched melancholy. He offered a cursory inspection of the Alliance. Even in peacetime, it would be a war machine carrying him across the angry Atlantic towards home. The young officer was a product of his time, of his training, and of his sense of duty to the causes of liberty and freedom — but mostly he was, and always would be a soldier. The general found himself wondering which of her thirty-six guns fired the final shots of this last, desperate war.
For the briefest of moments, the general who had spent his military career overseas considered the possibility that at least some of his anxiety was fueled by the very idea going home at all. It had been so long since he’d seen Merechevschina. Were there still poppies in the spring? Were the woods still alive with sound in the night? What about the banks of his favorite river? Would he even remember how to fish there? Was any of it even his anymore?
All of it was, he thought sadly, less a part of him now than this new land, the land that had given birth to new sons of liberty through the horrible labor of war. After all, he had bled here with them, his brothers. Poland was simply a place he had been born.
Perhaps, too, his deeply furrowed brow and worried, fidgeting hands were the product of an idea almost as unsavory as war itself. He’d loyally served the causes of freedom and liberty in war in a strange land. But having to borrow money from Haym Salomon, his fellow countryman and the man who had helped finance that very war, to return home seemed particularly unfair, cruel. Was there blood on the General’s hands?
This question remained unanswered, and the Alliance creaked hard against the dock and the breakers. He fancied the idea that she was ready to go, move away from the battered, broken land, take to the water and find a patch of clear sky and calm, blue sea.
The first mate leaned against the port railing and called Aboard!
There was no cheer, no joy in the departure, no clarion sounding of well wishers from the shore, waving. Safe travels! Bon voyage! Go with God! Merely a gray dock in a gray port preparing to float on a gray sea that had too recently run red with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
The Brigadier General turned towards the gangplank. And then, quite suddenly, he found himself in the odd, awkward embrace of Agrippa Hull, his friend and steward.
“Sir,” said Hull, visibly overcome with emotion. After a moment, he pulled back and stood at solemn attention.
And then the civilian saluted his friend. “Travel safe, sir.”
Despite the strange circumstances of their acquaintance and friendship, Kościuszko found himself ready to oblige his friend. He saluted back, sharp, palm pointed out, fingers to the brim of his hat.
“You travel safe, Agrippa,” the Polish accent mangling each vowel.
After another brief moment, the two shook hands, smiled warmly, and the Brigadier General turned and began the slow ascent towards the deck of the Alliance.
Out by the old Tomahawk mine, more or less abandoned for years, now, had been the best place to do the work, anyway. Why bother with having someone else mine the copper, have someone else refine it, and then pay to have it shipped. Didn’t make any sense.
Hull D. Magee had been working in and around the Tomahawk mine all his life. And in more than fifty years, he had never seen ore as pure as what he had now. And with the batch of tin he’d been saving, the next cauldron of bronze was going to be something remarkable.
Hull smiled at the thought of the exquisite work to come. It was good news, because this was easily his best commission yet. The noble statue of the Revolutionary War general was spectacular, transcendent, his masterpiece.
Hull had to say the name several times before he got it right. Polish. Not easy with the strange, looping vowels, the hard consonants.
But he was proud of the clay mold he’d built. Standing tall, hand on a hip, sword at his side.
The trick with statues of people was that they always had to exude a sort of extraordinary confidence, something special. That is what he had told the Polish American committee who had hired him. Any figure, any memorial that was a person — no matter who, no matter the pose — they had to look like they belonged where they were.
That is what he had told the committee, and that, he thought, was why they had commissioned him.
The truth was, he liked to get to know his works, connect to them, understand them. And with this one, his last, he’d felt a connection to Brigadier General Kościuszko. This hero of the Revolutionary War was a good man, decent, honorable, a heart ahead of its time.
Hull D. Magee smiled at the clay mold face of the young general.
Then he heard the motorcycles.
You could almost smell the bastards coming before you heard them, the oil and grease burning off the Harleys and the Yamahas. Hull would come out of the shop this time. He didn’t want them vandalizing the likeness of the general.
Last time, the bikers — Sons of Liberty, they called themselves — had trashed his studio. Broke some tools and wrecked two clay molds he’d just finished. Not this time. They wanted to intimidate him, shake him down? Fine. But they weren’t going to wreck his work.
Outside the studio, the bikes were already rounding the large dirt yard. Yellow red dust spiraled into the late autumn air, and each rider throttled around two, then three times, circling the yard, circling Hull.
Each one looked much like the other. Long beards peppered with gray. Black vests with an eagle and a Dixie flag. Some wore pistols strapped to their waist, some had knives as long as half his arm. Black jeans, cut with grease and dirt. Black boots, black sunglasses. Some wore bandanas, some just pulled their hair back in long, sickly braids.
“Hey, boy,” said the voice of the first one climbing off his bike amid the dying of the engine noise. Hull called this one Blondie in his head, because his hair was the color of faded, sad straw.
Hull said nothing.
“Boy, I’m talkin’ to you,” the biker was face to face with Hull now, a good four inches shorter than the sculptor.
Hull again said nothing.
“Boy,” and Blondie jabbed a quick left to Hull’s gut, doubling him over. “When I say something, you say, yes sir.”
Hull whispered it with the little air he had left.
“Now, boy,” Blondie licked his lips and moved to quiet down the laughing thugs around him, a dozen of them. “We were here a month ago. Talked about you needing protection from just such violence. Are you ready to… employ our services for these kind of occasions?”
The men around him laughed again, as Hull rose up, taking in air slowly.
“Yes,” said Hull, trying another deep breath.
Blondie was taken aback, not ready for yes.
“What?” he said, looking suspiciously at Hull.
“I said yes.”
“You gonna pay us?” Blondie licked his lips with greed.
“Yes. Yes, sir. You make good on that promise to… protect me. Yes. I’ll pay you. You give me two weeks?” Hull paused for effect. “I’ll double it for twice the time.”
This time, Blondie didn’t say anything. A quiet had come over the bikers.
Hull wondered if he’d gone too far. These were thugs, and they were foolish, greedy men. And he had assumed stupid. Now he conceded to himself that his assumption was a gamble.
Finally, one of the men towards the back of the lot guffawed carelessly.
“Two weeks, you got double for us, boy?”
“Two weeks. Double. But that buys me twice as much time, right?”
“Oh, right,” smiled Blondie, nodding, laughing to the rest of the crew who were tittering with sloppy greed. Dollar signs flashed in the dim light of their eyes.
In moments, the Sons of Liberty would be gone.
And in two weeks, Hull D. Magee would be gone, too. Gone forever. His latest work would be ready in just a couple of days, and a day after that, en route to St. Petersburg, Florida. By the end of two weeks, he’d be moved out of the trailer next to the studio and moved into his condo not far from the beach.
Hull D. Magee was four generations in Arkansas. And he wasn’t going to leave because a bunch of thugs wanted him out.
Hull was leaving because he was ready to retire. To hell with the goddam Sons of Liberty. In two weeks, they could figure out the empty lot for themselves.
It’s a fucking set-up.
Mikey’s last, panicky words were ringing in his ears, still.
Mikey. He would be dead, right? Yeah, for sure. Teddy had seen him take at least three to the chest. Maybe he’d taken one in the head, too. Wasn’t sure. But it’s a fucking set-up was the last thing Mikey said — screamed, really. And he was exactly right.
So that was his final image of Mikey, a man he’d known all his life. Standing from the table at the restaurant — knocking his chair back, actually — pointing to the gunmen out the glass front window pane, and the bullets slamming into his chest, little bloody spurts out of each hole.
Angie died a goddam hero, far as Teddy was concerned. He hoped Pop heard about that, at least. Angie was up and through the shattered pane glass before it had even all come down. Teddy saw him take a bullet in the leg — rip right through those white fucking pants at the upper calf — and the big meathead never even slowed down. Was going to run that car down on foot.
Teddy grimaced and coughed into his left hand. He looked at the palm for blood and saw none. Good.
He didn’t specifically remember seeing big Angie lying face down in the street, but that’s exactly what happened, he was sure of it. The guys in the SUV had automatics, let fly plenty of ammo. Big Angelo, running, maybe limping, down the middle of the goddam road right downtown, all dressed in white, his big shiny bald head. Easy target.
Maybe, Teddy thought, he got off a couple of shots, got at least one of those fucking bastards.
Teddy’s guts felt like they were on fire, and he couldn’t pull his right arm away, kept it tight against himself, felt the wet of the blood.
So his boys were dead. And he wasn’t doing so hot.
He kept running, though, already at the park, the one he hated. But if he could swing onto a bus, he might have a chance. A bus, maybe jump a cab in front of that one office building.
Teddy heard the sirens and knew he’d have to get out quick. He started thinking about the closest safe house.
Then he heard the footsteps and that weird goddam language he couldn’t figure out.
“Nie jest się po nim!”
He couldn’t understand the words, but knew they had seen him, knew they were coming after him.
“Człowiek żyje nie pozostawiają!”
He did not understand the words, but the lower octave and the rasp was all he needed to hear. Basically, Teddy figured: kill him.
Close enough: Leave no man alive.
Teddy ran across the park, beyond the fountain, towards the stage.
He thought back on the way the night was supposed to go, a meeting arranged by Uncle Lou, fairly standard.
Meet with these guys, let ‘em know how it goes with us, Lou had said. This was a new crew, new faces on the scene in Tampa, wanting to do their stuff in St. Petersburg, in Clearwater, and even up in Tarpon Springs.
The new guys, as everyone knew, had to pay, well, the old guys. That was Teddy and his family.
Teddy felt himself fall against a statue. He didn’t know who it was, what any of the inscription said. He coughed again, and this time saw a palm full of dark red blood. Not good.
He breathed hard and closed his eyes for just a moment. Maybe — just maybe — the guys would miss him on the other side of the statue of the guy with a sword holding, what? A scroll?
Teddy knew they were there, in front of him. Waiting. Knew it even before he opened his eyes again.
The man was big, not as tall as Angie, but heavy, strong. He had dark facial hair and a suit that didn’t fit quite right.
The .45 looked strangely small in his thick hand.
“What’s your name?” Teddy whispered.
“Co z tego?” The man looked confused, but smiled just a bit. He had won, after all.
“He wants to know, what is your name,” said a smaller man, out of breath, with the strange accent, standing behind him.
The big man smiled and took a step towards Teddy.
“Casimir,” said the man as the smile left his face.
Teddy closed his eyes one last time and laid his head back against the bronze plaque of the noble, beautiful statue.
In the last frantic instant, Kościuszko remembered.
“Agrippa!” he screamed at the top of the gangplank, turning, looking desperately for the tall, black man in the crowd of longshoremen, sailors and dock workers. “Agrippa!”
He couldn’t be seen.
The general turned and shoved his way down, elbowing past sailors who cursed him under their breath, ignoring his rank.
And then, with breathtaking suddenness, Agrippa appeared. The look on his face was almost relief. Was his friend back to stay? Wouldn’t he stay?
“Agrippa, thank God,” Agree-pa, tank Got, Kościuszko breathed out a sigh, put his left hand on his friend’s shoulder and lowered his head in relief.
“Yes, sir,” Agrippa smiled a slight smile, waiting for his friend to compose himself.
“Agrippa, you must travel to Virginia and deliver this,” Var-gee-nee-ya… “Please, my friend, you must take it to him. It must be delivered to his hands. In this, Agrippa, you cannot fail.”
With his right hand, Kościuszko held a simple envelope, parched, with the name — and only the name — on the front. Agrippa did not read it. He maintained eye contact with the general.
“Yes, general. I will do it. You have my word. Shouldn’t take but a few days to get…,” Agrippa was earnest now, as he always had been in addressing his friend, the Brigadier General.
“Agrippa, this is different. He must see it, and he must do what it says. Implore him. On my behalf. Yes, Agrippa?”
“Yes, general. It will be done. I will write to you in Poland, and you will know it is done.” Agrippa’s brow was furrowed.
“Thank you, Agrippa.” the Brigadier General clasped his friend’s arm, knowing, believing the letter would reach its destination safely. It was in the most capable hands he had known in his time in this new world.
The Brigadier General said goodbye to his friend once more and, feeling a sense of relief, allowed himself a smile as he set foot aboard the Alliance, looking back for Agrippa once more, not seeing him in the crowd.
As for Agrippa, he had waited until he was on the far side of Boston before he even looked at the envelope.
He had hired a carriage and pointed his driver south, knew where he was going, knew even what the letter might say. That is why Agrippa would not open the parchment envelope, would not read the letter. He already knew.
Agrippa thought of his friend, the man who had treated him as an equal, not as a servant, and certainly not as a slave.
This man — this young man with a strange accent from a faraway place Agrippa would never see — was different. He was a hero, someone to be celebrated, revered, honored.
Agrippa missed his friend, and allowed himself the indulgence of a reminder. He would look at his friend’s handwriting on the front of the envelope, neatly written in black ink, a calm, steady hand. The writing of an engineer by training. The letters, measured across perfectly, each space, each swirl and turn of the letters in the name fitting together just as they should. He admired the writing, and the name on the envelope, another son of newfound liberty.
The carriage rolled south, towards Virginia.
This story was originally submitted to Creative Loafing for their annual fiction contest.
© 2016 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.