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Rivers of War: Snippet Nine

       Last updated: Monday, February 14, 2005 22:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 9:


    There were some Creek warriors not far from the riverbank, as it turned out. Even if they hadn’t been posted as guards, they were too alert not to notice when The Whale and his two companions started sliding canoes into the river.

    With a great shout, several of them rushed down to the water’s edge, waving the crimson-painted war clubs that had given the Red Sticks their name. Most of the clubs were the type known as atassa, which were very similar in shape and design to a sword, concentrating the force of the blow on a narrow wooden edge. Many, however, were ball-headed clubs, or tomahawks with flint or iron blades.

    The Whale’s two companions got their canoes into the river and started paddling them across. But The Whale himself had some trouble untying the tether on his chosen canoe. By the time he got the canoe freed, it was too late. The Red Sticks were right on him.

    The Whale hadn’t encumbered himself with weapons when he swam the river, so all he had for defense was the canoe’s paddle. The Ridge saw him rise up and smash the first Red Stick in the ribs with the edge of it. The Creek warrior went down instantly. His rib cage must have been shattered, and he might even be dead. The Whale was very strong.

    But there were four more Red Sticks surrounding the intruder. He was only able to block one club strike and break another warrior’s arm before he was struck down himself, his head bleeding profusely. Half-dazed, The Whale dropped his paddle and scrambled into some brush by the riverbank.

    No doubt the Creeks would have followed him and finished him off, but by then one of them had caught sight of the hundreds of Cherokees massed in the woods on the other side of the river. He gestured to his fellow warriors, and the expression on their faces almost caused The Ridge to laugh.

    Meanwhile, the two canoes were already more than half the distance across, and it was obvious to the Creeks that they would soon be facing an invasion of their fortress on its unprotected river side.

    So, they left The Whale unmolested and began running back to alert the rest of the Red Sticks. By the time they were all out of sight, the captured canoes had reached the southern bank. The Ridge was the first to pile in. The Whale and his companions had taken care, right off, to seize the paddles for all the canoes and stack them in the ones they’d seized. So all the Cherokees who crammed into the canoes could help drive them back across the river. As experienced as they were with such things, it took less than a minute before they were starting to clamber onto the opposite bank.

    The Ridge didn’t bother giving any orders, now. Cherokees might not have the mindless discipline of white soldiers, but they didn’t need to be told the obvious. Several Cherokee warriors, each holding a paddle, were already untying the rest of the canoes. They’d paddle them back across to load up more warriors. Within a few minutes, the vanguard that had crossed in the first two canoes would be reinforced by hundreds more.

    “Can The Ridge handle it alone?” General Coffee asked, leaning forward in the saddle.

    John Ross nodded firmly. “Yes, sir. And, ah . . .” His voice trailed of, as he searched for the right words.

    Coffee frowned. “Yes, I think I know what you’re getting at. He’s more worried about being shot by my soldiers than he is about the Creeks, isn’t he? Can’t say I blame him.”

    Coffee pursed his lips and stared into the distance, examining what he could see of the river.

    “All right, then. I’ll keep my cavalry on this side for an hour. But I’ll have them spread out all the way around the horseshoe, with orders to shoot any Indian who tries to swim across. The one thing General Jackson is determined about is that we’re going to crush the Red Sticks, here and now. They’ll either surrender or die. None of them are going to escape.”

    He looked down at Ross again, his expression bleak. “You understand? Make sure you tell The Ridge to keep his Cherokees on the other side, once they’ve crossed, no matter how desperate it gets. Those fancy feathers and a deer’s tail won’t look like anything once they’re soaking wet and dragging behind heads of men swimming across the river. They’ll just get shot in the heat of battle . . .”

    He didn’t finish the sentence, because he didn’t need to. Ross understood the harsh realities as well as anyone. To most white men, one Indian looked just like the next. There were some who could tell the difference between the hair styles worn by the different Indian tribes, but not many. All the more so because of the habit men had in the southern tribes of wearing turbans as often as not.

    John suppressed a sigh. This was no time to dwell on the unfairness of life. There was still a battle to be fought and won, this day.

    “I’ll tell him, sir,” he said, then he raced off.


    A horseman came charging up the field toward Montgomery and Houston, where they were standing in front of the Thirty-ninth. Even at a distance, Sam was pretty sure it was the same militia officer he’d seen harangued by Jackson the day he arrived in Fort Strother. Houston had good eyesight.

    Montgomery had been on the verge of ordering the attack. But, seeing the oncoming officer, he held off. “Better see what he has to say. Jackson must have sent him.” The major snorted. “The blasted fool. On a field like this, he’ll break that horse’s leg if he isn’t careful.”

    Even on an uphill slope, at the pace he was driving his mount, the militia officer would arrive within seconds. Sam was already certain he knew the message he was bringing. The officer had plucked off his hat and was waving it frantically toward the Creek fieldworks, using only one hand to guide the horse.

    “Blasted fool,” Montgomery repeated.

    “Sir, I think General Coffee—or the Cherokees, more likely—just launched an attack on the enemy from across the river,” Sam said.

    Montgomery squinted at the log fortifications. The open field which led to that barricade sloped from a rise to the north of the peninsula. The Thirty-ninth was arrayed on that rise, ready to start its charge. Most of the charge would be on level ground, since the rise ended less than half the distance to the wall. But their current position did give them, at the moment, a decent view over the top of the enemy fieldworks.

    “I think you’re right. I can see Red Sticks—quite a few of them—scrambling away from the barricade.”

    Sam was pretty sure his eyes were better than the major’s, and he’d already seen the same thing.

    But there was no longer any need for them to guess. The militia officer finally came within shouting range.

    “The general says to attack at once! Coffee has launched a diversion in the enemy’s rear!”

    “That’s it, then,” Montgomery said. He drew his sword, which, like Sam’s, was scabbarded on a two-inch waist belt. Thereafter, the swords parted company. Officers were expected to purchase their own weapons, and Montgomery was a prosperous man. His weapon was a fine clipped-point saber, silver-mounted with eagle pommel and an ivory grip. Sam’s was a straight sword he’d purchased from a down-at-heels artillery officer who’d resigned from the service. The sword could best be described as utilitarian.

    On the positive side, Sam had also bargained well enough to get the man’s pistol in the deal. He didn’t think much of the sword, but the sidearm was a dandy Model 1805 Harpers Ferry cavalryman’s pistol. It was against regulations, true, but he’d stuffed it into his waistband that morning, and Montgomery hadn’t done more than look at it cross-eyed for a few seconds.

    Jackson hadn’t looked at it at all.

    Montgomery hawked up some phlegm and spit on the ground. Then, loudly, he said, “Ensign, give the signal!”

    Trying not to smile, Sam waved his hand, and the drum began pounding the signal to advance.

    Their one and only drum. When Jackson’s army had marched out of Fort Strother on March 13, to begin what everyone hoped would be the final campaign against the Red Sticks, it had been discovered that there was only one drummer boy left in the little army. All the others, it seemed, had reached the end of their enlistment, and had gone home.

    Another commander might have been nonplussed by the fact. But Old Hickory, after five minutes worth of yelling about worthless thirteen-year-old lawyers, had simply snarled that men could march as easily to a single drum as they could to a thousand. They’d just have to listen a little harder.

    So as the drum began its own battle against the din, the men began to move.


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