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Rivers of War: Snippet Two

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



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 2:

    PART I: The Tallapoosa


    February 6, 1814 Fort Strother, Mississippi Territory

    The first time Sam Houston set eyes on Andrew Jackson, the general’s left arm was in a sling, and he was losing his temper.

    “Do I make myself clear, sir?”

    Jackson’s eyes were like small blue volcanoes erupting under bushy blond eyebrows and an even bushier head of sandy-gray hair. The scar on his forehead actually seemed to be throbbing.

    Sam had heard tales about that scar. Supposedly, it had been put there decades ago, during the Revolution, by a British officer. After seizing the home occupied by Jackson and his family in the Carolinas, the Redcoat had ordered a thirteen-year-old Jackson to shine his boots. Jackson had flat refused, and hadn’t changed his mind even after the officer slashed him with a saber.

    When he’d first heard the story, Sam had been skeptical. Now, watching Jackson with his own two eyes, he didn’t doubt it any longer. The general’s jaws were clenched, his bony fists were clenched, his whipcord body was clenched. He seemed ready to jump right out of his uniform and start pummeling the officer who was facing him.

    “Answer me, blast you! ” Jackson bellowed. Shrieked, rather, since he had a high-pitched voice. The general thrust his head forward so aggressively, his chin leading the way like the ram on an ancient war galley, that his fancy hat fell right off his head. The two-cornered general’s hat landed on its side, like a shipwreck on a reef. Jackson paid no attention to the mishap.

    The officer who was facing him—somebody in the Tennessee militia, judging from the uniform—was doing his level best not to wilt under Jackson’s fury. But his level best . . .

    Wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

    The man sidled backward a step, his eyes avoiding Jackson’s accusing gaze. “Tarnation, General,” he muttered, “you can’t just—”

    “Yes, sir, I can! And, yes, sir—I most certainly will! I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again! ”

    For the first time, Jackson seemed to catch sight of the two officers who had entered his command tent. He glared at General John Coffee first. But the glare was fleeting, nothing more than a split second’s reflex.

    “Coffee,” he stated tersely. The greeting had an approving air to it, from what Sam could tell.

    But then the glare turned on Sam himself, so he didn’t have any time to ponder the matter.

    It was quite a glare, too. Easily worthy of one of the heroes in Sam’s treasured Iliad. Maybe not quite up to the standards of Achilles, but certainly the equal of anything Agamemnon or Menelaus could have managed.

    “And you, sir!” the general barked. “You’re wearing the uniform of a regular soldier in the army of the United States of America. Can I assume that you will follow orders?”

    The general’s eyes flicked to the militia officer. Jackson said nothing, but the glance alone was enough to make clear what he thought of the fellow.

    Sam might have been amused, except he was starting to become angry himself. He didn’t like bullies, never had, and the general looked to be about as bad a bully as he’d ever encountered.

    “Yes, sir,” he said stiffly, straightening up to his full height of six feet two inches. “I took the oath and I’ll obey orders. Presuming the orders are lawful, that is.”

    With that, he fell silent. For a moment, it looked to Sam as if the general would literally explode. His pale face seemed so suffused with blood and fury that his temples threatened to burst. Both of them were throbbing now.

    Then, to Sam’s surprise, the general grunted a little laugh. “Ha! Got some backbone, do you? Good.”

    Jackson pointed a stiff finger at the target of his rage. “The issue in question here, young ensign, is whether or not these miserable militiamen will be allowed to desert their country in its time of need. I have informed this—this— this—individual that I will have shot any militiaman who attempts to desert.”

    The fact that the general’s left arm was in a sling only added emphasis to the rigid, accusing finger of the other hand. For two reasons. First, because Jackson seemed to have an uncanny knack for striking dramatic poses. The lion, wounded, yet still able to challenge the hyena. Second, because the militia officer knew—so did everyone, including Sam himself—that the wound in question was the result of a recent shootout at a hotel in Nashville between Jackson and his friend Coffee and the Benton brothers. The pose might be histrionic, but Jackson’s capacity for violence was by now a legend on the frontier.

    Again, that jaw thrusting forth. “Damn me if I won’t, sir!” he roared. “I’ll shoot them myself, if I have to!”

    The jaw receded, leaving the man a sinking wreck. Jackson’s eyes turned back to Sam. “I will trust you to carry out the order, young ensign. If you’ve got spine enough to stand up to me, you ought to have spine enough to shoot a worthless deserter.”

    The officer, though sinking, hadn’t quite dropped out of sight yet.

    “General,” he pleaded, “the terms under which the men enlisted—”

    “Blast your terms, sir! Blast them, I say!”

    This time, Jackson’s finger pointed out of the tent. “Do the Red Sticks care about your ‘terms’? I’ll crush those savages, so help me I will—and you’ll be there to help me do it. You will, sir! Don’t doubt it! Or I’ll crush you first!

    “Now get out of my sight. Your protest has been heard, adjudged wanting in all right or reason, and summarily dismissed.”

    With that, the general took a half step back himself, as if he’d encountered a bad smell. The officer took advantage of the momentary space and scuttled out of the tent.


    After he was gone, Jackson shook his head. “God save us from militiamen,” he growled. “Lawyers, every one of them. And shysters at that.”

    His eyes came back to Sam, ranging, for a moment, up and down the uniform that identified him as a regular in the Thirty-ninth Infantry, U.S. Army. While European armies had adopted close-bodied coats or jackets in the course of the Napoleonic wars, American uniforms remained the traditional cutaway style, with elaborate lapels, facings, and turnbacks. Coats were still closed with hooks and eyes rather than buttons.

    Sam’s uniform was typical. The coat was blue and long-skirted, with scarlet cuffs and a standing collar. The woolen trousers were white, plain, and tucked into his boots. He had his tall leather infantry cap—often called a “tombstone shako”—tucked neatly into the crook of his arm.

    After an inspection that lasted for several seconds, Jackson seemed satisfied. “Fortunately,” he continued, “I now have real soldiers on the spot. What’s your name, Ensign? And how long have you been serving the colors?”

    “Sam Houston, sir. I enlisted in March of last year.”

    Jackson eyebrows lowered slightly. “Houston. I believe I’ve heard about you. Aren’t you the one who was adopted by the Cherokee?”

    The sentence seemed almost like an accusation, but . . . not exactly. Sam couldn’t really tell what lay beneath it.

    “Yes, sir,” he replied. “When I was sixteen, after I ran away from home. I lived for three years with John Jolly and his people. He’s the one adopted me, and gave me my Cherokee name.”

    “And that is?”

    “Colonneh, sir. It means ‘The Raven.’ ”

    Jackson sniffed. “Nasty birds, ravens. On the other hand, they’re also tough, and smart. Let’s hope they picked the right name. Do you speak the language?”

    “Yes, sir.”


    “Yes, sir.”

    “Do you get along with the savages?”

    “Very well, sir.” Sam’s big shoulders shifted. “And I don’t take kindly to people insulting my family.”

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