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Excerpts from Duel in the Wilderness by Karin Clafford Farley

(a children's book based on George Washington's own diary, published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia)


Chapter One

The Mission

Wednesday, October 31, 1753--Williamsburg, Colony and Dominion of Virginia

The young soldier reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out the letter with the broken wax seal on the back. He read it all the way through again even though he had memorized the brief message since it had been delivered early that morning.

Major Washington, Esquire,

You are ordered to present yourself before the Governor and the Council at the Capitol Building at Noon today.

Robert Dinwiddie

George bit his thin lower lip as he studied the few words on the paper, searching for some meaning he might have missed. But the single sentence could not be made to reveal more. Refolding the paper, he stuffed it back into his pocket. He fixed his blue-gray eyes on the closed double doors of the Council chamber as if willing them to open. "What are they saying about me, the Governor and those principal men of the colony deciding my fate in there? Why don't they call me before them and get it over with? What are they debating about? I can just hear one of those overstuffed great landowners saying, 'What? George Washington? Why, he is no gentleman. He toils for his living with his hands, a surveyor of land. A person of no importance. Never will be. A young upstart. How dare he ask that a mission of such importance be entrusted to him?'"

George's face burned as he thought of the embarrassment he was about to suffer before the Council. "I will look like a fool. Why did I listen to Colonel Fairfax and offer my services to the Governor? I must have taken leave of my senses."

Yet even as he blamed himself, George could not quite put out the fire that burned in his heart. If he could be appointed to carry out this mission, he dreamed, then he might become an important man in the colony. Maybe he could realize his father's ambition to regain a place for the Washingtons at the Council table in there.

George's back was to the Council chamber when the doors opened and Nathaniel Walthoe, the clerk of the Council, came out to speak to him in a nervous whisper. "Major Washington, His Honour, the Governor, and the members of the Council would be pleased if you would come in now?"

George's heart began to pound. His naturally pale skin faded beneath his brown hair caught in a queue at the back of his neck. For one frantic moment, he feared his powerful legs might not hold him if he tried to take a step because they seemed to have turned to jelly.

He had learned in childhood to be wary of people so he prepared to face the Governor and the Council members by withdrawing into himself. He arranged the muscles of his slightly smallpox-marked face into a mask to hide his feelings. His large fists were clenched at his sides, but he forced them open. He pulled himself up to his full six-foot, three-inch height and threw back his broad shoulders. Holding his head high, he strode into the Council chamber, his boots sounding a slow, even march on the wide planks of the floor.

George stood at attention while the secretary introduced him. Then, extending his right leg forward as was the custom, he bowed deeply to the Governor and the Council members.

Robert Dinwiddie, the royal lieutenant governor, sat in a carved wood and cane armchair topped with a crown at the far end of the large oval table. The table itself was covered with a brightly woven turkey carpet littered with quill pens, inkwells, and papers. Only eight members of the twelve-member Council were present. They sat in identical chairs, except for the crown, on either side of the table. George stood alone at the open end. No one smiled or attempted to put George at ease, not even his friend, Colonel William Fairfax.

George fixed his eyes on the Governor; they never wavered. His muscles never twitched. His mouth, set in a firm, thin line, never quivered, except once. As George looked at the Governor, he could not help seeing him as a fat, melting candle. His red face drooped down onto his double chins which met his fallen chest which had slipped onto his overhanging stomach. George felt one corner of his mouth curve up as he fought back a grin.

In spite of his appearance, Robert Dinwiddie was no fool. His sharp blue eyes narrowed, almost disappearing into his fat face as he studied the young man before him. "Major Washington, I have informed the Council members of your offer to act as a diplomatic messenger to carry a letter to the French commander and learn by what right he has come into His Majesty's lands beyond the Allegheny Mountains on the River Ohio," he said in a thick Scottish accent.

Before Governor Dinwiddie could say more, one of the elderly Council members struggled to his feet. "Your Honour, I must protest! When you said the Major here was a younger brother of the late Major Lawrence Washington, I did not realize how much younger. Why, he is but a boy! How can you think of sending him on such a delicate mission to the French? We need a man of experience! Mature judgment! I'll wager he has not yet reached his majority. He would have to ask his mother's permission to go!"

Laughter broke out around the table.

Burning under such cruel joking at his expense, George felt his control over his fiery temper slip away from him, and he did not care. Anger flashed in his eyes. He knew he should not speak while standing at attention, but the words were out before he could stop them. "I turned twenty-one early this year, Sir!"

His protest went unheeded as another councillor joined in. "Your Honour, I agree. I did not realize when we confirmed your appointment of Mr. Washington to replace his late brother as adjutant that he was not nearer in age and experience to the three other adjutants of the dominion's militia."

This time George caught a shake of the head and a warning look from his friend, Colonel William Fairfax. He struggled to control his temper by clamping his teeth over the inside of his lower lip until he tasted blood.

Robert Dinwiddie answered their protests. "Gentlemen, you know I have offered this mission to several other older, more qualified men. They have all found reasons to decline it. The Major here is a military man. We need a military man to spy--ah--er--assess the French buildup of forces in the Ohio country."

Colonel Fairfax interrupted. "Gentlemen, I have known Major Washington for many years. His brother Lawrence was my son-in-law. George is like a second son to me. Since the age of fifteen, he has earned his own way as a licensed surveyor for this colony and has the reputation for being one of the most skillful. He has traveled many times to the frontier in the course of his work. He is used to the hard, out-of-doors life."

"But has he ever crossed the mountains to Logstown or Murdering Town?" someone shouted out.

Colonel Fairfax answered by asking his own question. "Who has crossed the mountains? That is a dark and mysterious land to us. The Indian tribes have allowed some traders in; men who are useful to them. Sometimes we have coaxed a few of the Indians to the edge of the wilderness to give them presents, to assure them we are their brothers. But no high official of the government has gone beyond the mountains. Not from this colony nor any other that I know of. Now this fine young man, one of our own Virginia militia adjutants, has volunteered to undertake this critical task, and you question, Sir? Could you endure the hardships of such a journey, Sir? Certainly I could not. His youth is what recommends him most. I say we engage him."

But the councillor was not to be put off. "Last year, His Honour tried to send a letter to the French by Trader William Trent, a man of long experience in the wilderness. Even Trent was afraid to go north of Logstown toward Lake Erie where the French are known to be. Traders have been taken prisoner or killed, their goods taken, and they themselves sent to gaol in Canada. Every day more Indians ally themselves to the French, who reward them for killing Englishmen. If Major Washington is like a son to you, how can you suggest he make a journey from which he has so little hope of returning?"