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Rivers of War: Snippet One

       Last updated: Friday, February 4, 2005 09:00 EST



The Rivers of War – snippet 1:


    May 30, 1806 Harrison’s Mill Logan County, Kentucky

    The duel was to be held just across the state line in Kentucky. The government of Tennessee would enjoy the luxury of looking the other way. Although the illegal affair involved some of its more prominent citizens, their activities would be taking place outside its legal jurisdiction.

    Kentucky would do the same, of course, simply because the perpetrators would be out of the state as soon as it was over. And they were all a bunch of cussed Tennesseans, anyway.

    The first group was in high spirits as they made their way to the agreed-upon dueling ground.

    “Twenty-four paces, you say?” asked Charles Dickinson, who was to be one of the principals in the duel. He said it with a smile on his face; as well he might, since it was a pointless question. He’d already asked it a dozen times that morning, and received the same answer every time.

    Dickinson had finished reloading his pistol. He waved it toward a nearby tree. “That tree looks to be standing about twenty-four paces away. Pick a leaf, gentlemen, if you would.”

    His companions—half a dozen of the “gay blades of Nashville,” as the newspapers liked to call them—were feeling just as festive as Dickinson. After a short and energetic wrangle, they settled upon a particular and distinctive leaf.

    No sooner had they done so than the pistol in Dickinson’s hand came up, quickly and smoothly. The gun fired, and the leaf fluttered to the ground. Dickinson’s shot had severed the stem.


    By contrast, the mood of the other party was grim.

    “You don’t stand a chance against him,” stated the principal’s second, General Thomas Overton. “Dickinson’s probably the best shot in the whole of Tennessee.”

    His companion, a fellow general of the Tennessee militia, nodded silently. The nod was somewhat on the jerky side, though the man showed no sign of nervousness. His bony head was perched atop a narrow neck, which connected it to a slender body that looked to be all bone and gristle.

    “I’ll have to take the first shot,” he declared. “No point trying to beat Dickinson there.”

    Overton winced. “You may very well not survive that first shot,” he observed bleakly.

    The principal shrugged. “Oh, I think I’ll be all right. Long enough, anyway. And I don’t see where I’ve got any choice, anyhow. I said I’d kill the bastard, and I intend to be true to my word. Whatever it takes.”

    The surgeon who accompanied the two generals said nothing. He didn’t even wince, although he’d be the one who’d have to keep the general alive afterward, if that was possible.

    There was no point in wincing. A man might as well wince at the movement of the tides.


    Once both parties had arrived at the dueling ground, the lots were drawn. Dickinson’s second, Dr. Hanson Catlett, won the choice of position. Overton would have the count.

    There was no point in delaying the affair. As soon as the principals had taken their positions, at the twenty-four-foot distance they’d agreed upon, Overton’s voice rang out.

    “Are you ready?”

    “I am ready,” Dickinson replied cheerfully.

    “I am ready,” came the stolid voice of his opponent.

    “Fere! ” cried Overton, pronouncing the word in his old-country accent.

    Dickinson’s pistol came up like a streaking lizard. The gun fired the instant it bore on the target.

    The Tennessee general hadn’t even lifted his firearm yet. A puff of dust rose from the breast of his coat. He staggered back a couple of paces, clenching his teeth. Slowly, he raised his left hand and pressed it to his chest.

    But he never lost his grip on the pistol in his right hand.

    Dickinson gaped, drawing back a step. “Great God!” he cried out. “Did I miss him?”

    “Back to the mark, sir! ” roared Overton. He raised his own pistol and aimed it at Dickinson. “Back to the mark, I say!”

    Dickinson’s face went blank. He stepped forward and resumed his position at the mark, his pistol now lowered to his side. He’d had his shot, and by custom, he had to wait his opponent’s return.

    All eyes moved to the opponent. The situation was clear. Honor had been satisfied, beyond any shadow of a doubt. A magnanimous man would respond by refusing the shot, or simply firing into the air.

    This particular Tennessee general was already famous for any number of things. Magnanimity was not one of them. Slowly and deliberately, he raised his pistol and took aim. He squeezed the trigger.

    Nothing, beyond the slight click as the hammer stopped at half cock.

    Everyone held their breath. What would the general do now?

    His companions, who knew him very well, didn’t hold their breath for more than a second.

    The general drew back the hammer and fired again.

    Dickinson reeled, struck below the ribs.

    His friends leaped to his side, catching him even before he fell. They lowered him to the ground and began stripping off his coat. Blood was spilling everywhere.

    “Passed right through him!” one of them called out. “He’s bleeding buckets!”

    Overton strode over to the wounded man, but the surgeon didn’t bother to follow. From his experience, he knew Dickinson would die from such a wound, no matter what anyone did. And he had his own principal to attend to.

    “Let me see your wound, General,” he said quietly. “You were hit, I believe?”

    The general took his eyes off the sight of his opponent, lying there on the ground. As always, the surgeon was struck by the color of those eyes. A sort of bright blue that wasn’t particularly pale, but still always reminded him of ice.

    The blue eyes were startled now. “I believe he did pink me a little. Forgot all about it.”

    He opened the coat. After some probing, the surgeon determined that Dickinson’s bullet had broken two ribs and was buried somewhere in the general’s chest.

    He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll be able to remove it. It’ll be too close to your heart.”

    The general shrugged, without even wincing at the pain that movement must have caused him. “I’ll just have to live with it, then.”

    Overton left the group of men clustered around the fallen Dickinson and walked back. “He won’t want anything more of you, General. He’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

    He then took the general by the arm and began leading him away. As he did so, two of Dickinson’s companions rose from the shattered body and came charging toward them. Overton half raised his pistol by way of warning.

    But the two men, though furious, were not armed. Or, at least, they didn’t have any pistols in their hands.

    “That was ungallant, sir!” one of them cried. “Ungallant, I say!”

    The general glared at him. Before he could speak, though, the other man joined in.

    “And you may be sure that we will publish a report on this affair! There will be a scandal! Be sure of it, sir! Charles Dickinson is a popular man in Nashville!”

    “Publish what you will,” snarled the general, “but I caution you not to publish anything like Dickinson did, or I’ll challenge you, too.”

    Then the pain from his wound caused his teeth to clench, for a moment. The general’s long and gaunt jaws lent themselves well to teeth clenching.

    “He insulted my wife, once,” he continued. “I let that pass after he apologized, since he’d spoken the words while drunk in a tavern. But then he called me a coward, and a blackguard, and a worthless scoundrel, and did so in print. Be careful, sirs, I urge you.”

    The general turned away, then, finally allowing Overton to guide him off the killing field.

    One of Dickinson’s companions looked to the surgeon. “It was ungallant, sir. I say it again.”

    The surgeon spread his hands. The gesture wasn’t a pacific one, just a recognition of reality.

    “He said he’d kill Dickinson, and he did. Even—deliberately, mind you— took the first shot in order to do it. What did you expect from him, sir? He is Andrew Jackson. Such is the nature of the man.”

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