This story is by Leah Ruth and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The troops were half-starved, under-clothed, and running dangerously low on morale. Three hours late, the last soldier joined the band at the edge of the Delaware River. While the infantry loaded weapons onto a Durham boat, General Washington spotted the newcomer and pulled him aside.
“Catherine?” Washington asked, his voice barely audible.
She nodded in reply.
“What are you doing in a soldier’s uniform?” he frowned sternly. “These were not your orders.”
“Sir, you need my help,” she replied without disrespect, looking straight into his eyes as she spoke.
“We do not need your help, Miss Heyer. You are a woman, not a foot soldier,” he rebuked.
“I am also an apprentice of Benjamin Franklin’s,” she spoke in whisper scarcely louder than the wind.
The general reminded her that her task was to deliver Mr. Franklin’s instructions. She countered that she was the only one who understood them.
George Washington was one of few who knew about Catherine’s involvement in Mr. Franklin’s experiments. Catherine had thought of herself as an inventor. Washington had never taken the arrangement seriously, but Mr. Franklin seemed to enjoy her company, and one did not argue with Benjamin Franklin.
“I have just as much right to fight for my country as any American,” the false soldier pleaded. Her eyebrows arched in concern. She might be the only one who could help General Washington’s men cross the Delaware.
Reluctantly, Washington posted her on the starboard side behind him, close, so he could watch over her. Then he delivered a simple speech and gave the order to pull anchor.
Four other men occupied the vessel headed towards Trenton. Catherine noted a map of jagged scars that trailed from jaw to fingertip marking the man rowing next to her, Johann Sidelinger. His younger brother, Cornelius, worked rope into a net on the port side.
Closest to the general stood Captain Taylor, a civilian. The grey-bearded man had spent 30 years at sea as the captain of his own ship. Still, he spoke to the general with the respect of a subordinate. She turned to look at the last man who had volunteered for the mission closely guarding the weapons near the hull. He seemed to belong to them, and them to him. A skilled craftsman, Private Smith deserved his name.
It was one hour shy of midnight as they left their humble port. The wind and rain began to pick up as they neared the halfway mark, nature acting on the side of the enemy. The men pulled their coats tight, muskets near. Catherine felt a beating in her chest almost as strong as the waves that rocked the small vessel. She was not afraid to die for her country, but battling what lay in wait beneath the night was another terror altogether.
Rain turned to hail an hour after midnight. Catherine felt the water thickening with each pull of her oar, but she refused to let her weariness show. Her muscles had grown strong from working as a laundry maid, washing twice as fast as her peers so she could study with Mr. Franklin in the evenings. Tonight, even the men struggled against the freezing temperatures.
The third time their watercraft stuck fast between icy peninsulas Catherine jumped out to assist. Fingers stiff like icicles inside her gloves, she and Cornelius Sidelinger pushed with all their might until the bow broke free.
The ice opened up like the mouth of a hungry dragon. Thunder tore the sky at its seams until it burst into streams of fire. The collision of furies shook Catherine like a kite in hurricane. Grasping the rope tossed by Washington, she scrambled back into the boat seconds before Johann’s little brother fell through the ice. The wind caught Catherine’s scream as he disappeared into the deep.
In a pool of inky water and churning ice, black eyes rose out of the depths. An armored spine followed, each razor sharp scale climbing endlessly higher into the woeful sky until even the night stood in its shadow. Johann and Taylor attacked with their wooden oars. The creature bellowed. Baring its teeth, it wickedly snapped at their wooden spears, splintering them like chaff. Twirling its body like a snake, it dove back into the billows.
“Grab the net!” Taylor called above howling winds.
The smith joined the captain. Washington loaded his musket. Taylor ordered them each to add weight to the ropes. Metal, spears, anything that would slow the creature down. As the men wove, Catherine addressed General Washington.
“Sir, I need to speak with you,” her voice was a low as she could manage. Not quite as low as a man’s, but she hoped Taylor wouldn’t notice.
Washington continued to work without lifting his face.
The creature rose up from the waters and crashed into the side of the boat with a force that nearly turned the vessel over. Five warriors crashed to the floor. Captain Taylor shouted for the net to be released upon the terror. It snapped at the ropes, tearing through the metal objects imbedded within. As lightning struck, tiled panels raised upon the beast’s back shimmered like iron. Washington’s musket fired bullets that merely sparked as they ricocheted off bronze skin. It leapt into the air and dove, carrying the net inside open jaws.
Catherine shifted her gaze upwards as heaven’s veins glowed white. She followed the bright lines to a tree on the river’s edge. As the tree erupted in fire her determination set.
“General Washington,” she raised her voice to a shout, adrenaline feeding her bravery.
He looked up, struck by her boldness and alert.
“Ropes won’t work. This creature will tear through them in seconds. Its armor is too tough to be pierced by our muskets,” Catherine warned.
Lightning struck. The creature ripped open the river and wrapped its claws around Captain Taylor. Johann lunged at the chest with a spear. The beast dropped its hold on the seafarer, trading him for younger prey.
Catherine opened a leather bag and pulled out a thick chain. Her fingers worked hurriedly as Smith defended the front of the boat; his bullets bouncing off the beast like fireworks. Angrily, it returned to the water, leaving a glistening trail of red across the wooden ship. Johann held his left arm close, his right hand missing. Taylor’s chest was painted in blood.
“What are you doing, Catherine?” Washington demanded. He sounded angry as he told her she should not have come; she knew it was driven by fear.
“You have to listen to me,” she begged, fingers still working furiously with the chain.
“I do not have to listen to you, Miss Heyer,” he emphasized her feminine title.
“General, woman or not, I might be your only hope getting to the other side of this river,” she looked him steadily between the eyes.
The passion and bravery in her voice reminded the general of himself at a young age. His steely eyes measured her in a pause that seemed to last hours.
“Very well,” he acquiesced.
Waves broke the ice ahead, warning the crew they would not be alone long. While the creature stalked, Catherine shared one last look with her unexpected ally, said goodbye to the other men on the vessel, and leapt onto the ice. Her movement garnered the attention of the lurking terror. Smoke curled from its nostrils as it swam towards her.
“Hand me the spear,” she commanded.
Private Smith handed her a long silver spear. Washington made one last protest, his duty to protect the woman fighting against his will to defeat the enemy. But he could not defeat the Hessians at Trenton if he were to die before they crossed, she reminded him.
“I have just as much right to die for my country as you.” She gave him a sad smile that felt like goodbye. Miss Heyer reminded him to aim for the stomach, and then she ran. Duty and honor coursed through her veins. Though her strides only seemed to gain her inches at a time, the beast had yet to catch her. A few more yards.
Catherine Heyer dug her heels into the ground, thrust the spear skyward, and prayed. She would have to trust the general to do his part; the time was now. Victory or death.
Clawed feet broke through the ice as it pounded forward. Catherine’s heart pounded between her ears as she gazed the fiery storm above. The scent of metal tickled her nose. Her cheeks counted the pebbles of hail. If heaven would be her friend, she might survive. If there was any grace in heaven, General Washington would cross the Delaware alive. Under his command, the small, budding nation, might live and last and thrive. One woman held the fate of a nation in her hands. Washington held a harpoon. Only a small silver chain and hope connected them.
General Washington released the harpoon.
Silence fell, roars surged from the beast’s mouth, and lightning struck.