Delay – Excerpt
24 August 1814 – 1615 hours, Washington City
Dolley rode down the center of Pennsylvania avenue, Sukey and Mr. Smith riding on her flanks, pulling street signs from the rain-softened ground.
Pierre L’Enfant’s magnificent plan called for Washington City’s great avenues to be named for states, each 160 feet wide, including a pavement of ten feet and a gravel walk of thirty feet planted with trees on each side, leaving eighty feet of paved street for carriages and carts. Pennsylvania Avenue featured the longest stretch of cobblestone, from the Mansion to the bank of the Tiber Creek, where it ended abruptly at a narrow wooden footbridge and a frequently flooded fording site. Most of the other great avenues had been cleared of trees, about half of those graded, and a few were graveled and regularly maintained. Newly arrived foreign dignitaries who knew the city only by studying maps and reading L’Enfant’s specifications often wondered if they’d come to the right place.
The evening sun burned into her back and cast a thirty-foot shadow before her as she scanned Capitol Hill for the approaching Redcoats. We must slow their romp through the city. Sam called this a delay mission, excruciatingly difficult since you must hit the enemy hard enough to slow him, yet not allow yourself to become decisively engaged. A quick, painful jab to the nose followed by quicker repositioning, then another jab. Trade the two miles to Rock Creek for two hours of time.
Pennsylvania Avenue was almost deserted. Soldiers fleeing Bladensburg were long gone, and only a few scattered refugees remained, mostly on foot, plodding toward Georgetown carrying whatever would fit into a wheelbarrow or carpetbag. Most stared at the road before them in abject despair, but the few who did look up gazed at her and Sukey in wide-eyed astonishment, a reaction Dolley attributed to their demonic facemasks.
They encountered a farm wagon piled high with trunks and furniture, pulled by two mules, driven by a middle-aged woman. Beside the woman sat a pigtailed girl of about ten. A man and three teenage boys walked beside it, muskets in hand to discourage looters. All appeared exhausted and worried.
“Pa! Look!” cried one of the boys, pointing at Dolley. “It’s Blue Lightning!”
The wagon stopped, and the family stared at them.
The man squinted into the sun, hand shading his eyes. “Blue Lightning is a woman?”
“Two women!” squealed the girl, pointing at Sukey.
Sukey stood in her stirrups, knife and tomahawk raised to the heavens, and screamed the Cherokee war cry, and to Dolley’s amazement the entire family responded by raising their hands into the air and screaming it back to her, word for word, as if they’d heard it before.
The girl squealed in absolute delight, leaped from the wagon and ran toward Dolley, the bright yellow bows on her pigtails bouncing about her face like angry butterflies.
Dolley reined in Abigail, and the girl bobbed a curtsy. She regarded Dolley with enormous brown eyes, her face full of wonder and angelic innocence.
Dear Lord, if ever you grant me the gift of a baby girl, let her be as sweet as this dear child. Dolley clasped the girl’s shyly extended hand.
“Blue Lightning, I just adore the way you torment those evil bastards before rendering your final justice!” She drew her finger across her throat while making a horrid sound, then giggled. “But just this once, do you mind killing them quickly? Until the British are gone we have to stay with Auntie Gretchen, and she’s a flaming Federalist swagnabber.”
Evil bastards? Final justice? Dolley stared at the girl in total befuddlement, replaying the girl’s words in her mind and failing to make sense of them. Swagnabber?
“Pleeeeeeze?” The girl smiled and batted her puppy-dog eyes.
Good heavens, the little spitfire thinks I’m deliberating! Dolley nodded.
“God bless you! Be prepared!” The girl kissed Dolley’s hand and ran to Sukey, joining her brothers in ogling the blunderbusses.
Be prepared? Where did she—
Mr. Smith rode up, chuckling. “Looks like your secret is out.”
“But how did—”
“Go ahead, Jedediah,” said the woman. “Deborah and I can take care of ourselves.” The man kissed the woman on the cheek and shouted for the boys. They ran down Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the Capitol, all of them shouting to the world that Blue Lightning had come to save them.
“Huzzah for Blue Lightning!” cried the mother and daughter, together, each brandishing a pistol overhead. The mother urged the mules toward Georgetown.
Dolley returned the little girl’s wave, then beckoned to Sukey. “Leave the street signs. Let’s stay together.”
Sukey nodded, waved to the mother and daughter, then joined them. “Mizz Dolley, when the Good Lord blesses me with a baby girl, I want her to be just like that.”
Dolley shook her head and continued toward the Capitol, passing buildings where wide-eyed faces peeked from shutters or peered around cracked doors.
“Blue Lightning!” screamed an old woman from the front porch of a tiny, unpainted house. She waved an ancient musket over her head, another old woman brandished an ax. “What shall we do?”
Dolley waved, thoughts racing. What should I say? Fight and have the British kill them? Do nothing and perhaps be murdered or raped like the women of Hampton? “Pray! Pray for us and our country!”
Alerted by the father and three boys, people were emerging from doorways, staring at first, then cheering and calling for their friends. Many shouted the question: “What shall we do?”, and to each of these she shouted the same answer: “Pray for your country!”
The intersection of Louisiana and Pennsylvania Avenue was home to a large number of prominent businesses, and people were streaming from those businesses into the intersection’s large plaza. Hundreds crowded the plaza by the time they reached it, all applauding and cheering for Blue Lightning. The crowd parted and they rode along a narrow corridor through its midst. Children reached out to touch them as they passed, women called for them to Remember Hampton!, men loudly suggested gruesome methods of execution, and when Sukey stood in her stirrups and screamed the Cherokee war cry, the crowd screamed it back in deafening volume and cheered even louder.
“Sukey, stop that!” Dolley hissed. Under the mask her face burned with embarrassment.
“They need a hero,” said Mr. Smith. “Some hope.”
“How do all these people know about Blue Lightning?” Dolley asked.
Mr. Smith grinned and winked at her. “I certainly didn’t tell them.”
* * *