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Rivers of War: Snippet Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, February 13, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 8:

    As he ruminated, The Ridge listened for The Whale and his two companions. That was a waste of effort, really, since he knew full well that the men would perform their task soundlessly.

    Sure enough, the first sign The Ridge got of their progress was the sight of the three warriors, coming down the river. The Whale and his companions, all of them expert swimmers, were crossing the stream without trying to fight the current, moving quickly, surely, and quietly.

    “Get ready! ” he hissed. The words were pitched in such a way that, while they wouldn’t be heard by anyone across the river, they would alert all of the nearest Cherokee warriors. He could rely on them to pass the word along to the remaining hundreds crouched farther back in the forest.

    That left only . . .

    The Ridge hesitated. On the one hand, he wanted to observe the young man next to him under fire. On the other hand, it was also critical that the American cavalrymen didn’t work at cross-purposes with what the Cherokee warriors were going to be doing. Once everyone started piling across the river, there was a serious risk that the allies would start killing one another in the midst of the chaos. White soldiers, even regulars, were notorious for not making fine distinctions between friendly and hostile Indians, especially once their blood was up.

    Granted, most Indians didn’t make fine distinctions between friendly and hostile whites, as well. But in situations like this one, the white soldiers had the advantage of wearing distinctive uniforms, which the Indians didn’t.

    For this campaign, it had been mutually agreed that all the Cherokees would wear two distinctive feathers and a deer tail in their headbands. The Ridge was hoping that would be enough to keep the American soldiers from firing on Cherokees by accident. Still, it would be smart to make sure that Coffee knew exactly what they were doing—and Ross was the obvious person to send as his liaison. The young Cherokee’s English was fluent. More than fluent, really, since English was his native language.

    So The Ridge arrived at his decision. “Find General Coffee and tell him we’re crossing the river,” he ordered Ross. “Do what you can to make sure the Americans don’t start shooting at us, once they follow us across.”

    Ross’s mouth quirked. “They’re cavalrymen, don’t forget. By the time they finally bring themselves to abandon their precious horses—since there’s no way to get them across the river easily—it’ll probably all be over, anyway.”

    The Ridge chuckled softly. There was quite a bit of truth to what Ross said, but . . .

    “Do it anyway.”

    Ross hesitated. Just long enough, The Ridge understood, to make clear that he wasn’t afraid to join the fight. It was very smoothly done, for such a young man. Then, moving not quite as quietly as an experienced warrior would have, Ross faded into the forest and was gone.

    The Ridge turned his attention back across the river. The Whale and his companions had reached the canoes and were already sliding three of them into the water. They were big canoes, and they’d have only one man guiding each one. The current being what it was, they’d come across the river quite a ways farther down from his position. He did a quick estimate of where they’d land, rose from his crouch, and started heading that way.

    His own movements, unlike those of Ross, were almost completely silent. That was simply long habit, so ingrained that The Ridge wasn’t even conscious of it. The noise of the battle being waged somewhere on the other side of the small peninsula was such that even if he had set off an explosion on his side of the river, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed.


    Major Montgomery pulled out his watch.

    “Fifteen minutes,” he announced.

    “We’re ready, sir,” stated Houston. The two officers were standing twenty yards in front of the arrayed lines of the Thirty-ninth Infantry, facing the enemy fortifications.

    Montgomery took the time to move back and inspect the ranks himself. That wasn’t because he doubted the ensign’s assessment; it was simply because Montgomery had learned—largely from watching General Jackson—that soldiers were steadied by the immediate and visible presence of the officers who would lead them in an attack.

    “God, I love regulars,” the major murmured. Montgomery himself was only a “regular” in a purely formal sense. Still, even in his short military career, he’d come to share Jackson’s distrust of militia volunteers.

    Taken as individuals, militiamen were no different from regular soldiers. Better men, actually, in most ways. Certainly, as a rule, more successful men. The regular army was notorious for attracting vagabonds and drunkards to join its ranks, just for the sake of the steady pay and regular provisions; whereas militiamen were frequently respected members of their communities.

    But even those members of the militias who weren’t lawyers soon enough adopted a lawyerly view of their rights and obligations. That usually meant a keen sense of the right to leave the service the moment their short term of enlistment was up.

    As he walked slowly down the well-formed ranks of the Thirty-ninth Infantry, here and there giving a soldier a careful inspection, Major Montgomery’s lips twisted into a half-sarcastic little smile.

    Regulars, God bless ’em.

    Most of the men were armed with the older-style Model 1795 .69-caliber musket that Jackson had wanted for this campaign. The weapon wasn’t as handy as the Model 1803 .54-caliber Harpers Ferry rifle that was the standard issue for regulars, but it had the advantage of a fixed bayonet mount—and all the bayonets were fixed. Jackson believed in the value of cold steel.

    They looked splendid, too, in their real uniforms with their high-collared blue coats and white trousers. Best of all, Jackson’s quartermaster had somehow managed to finagle iron cap plates for the Thirty-ninth’s tall headgear. The men would go into battle with their heads shining the regiment’s name in the sunlight, instead of having to make do with painted imitations.

    Vagabonds or not, when the time came these regular soldiers could be counted upon to do their duty, and do it well. Whatever coat of mail they might pass on to their offspring, assuming they knew who their bastards were in the first place, it might well include a half-empty bottle of whiskey as part of the insignia. Should, by all rights, for at least half of them. Still, there’d be no petticoats there. Not a one.

    Montgomery came back forward to stand alongside Ensign Houston. He pulled out his watch again.

    “Five minutes to go. And, yes, we’re ready.”


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