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Rivers of War: Snippet Ten

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 16, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 10

    They had several hundred yards to cover, and Montgomery paced the charge accordingly. At the beginning, it was more in the way of a fast march than a “charge,” properly speaking. Sam was eager to close with the enemy— just to get rid of his nervous energy, really, not because he felt any bloodlust. Still, he appreciated the major’s foresight.

    Maybe Homer’s ancient Achaean heroes could run hundred of yards and fight a battle at the end—though Sam had his doubts—but their feebler modern descendants would be winded if they tried to do the same. The pace Major Montgomery established wouldn’t tire out soldiers who were accustomed to frontier wilderness terrain. Sam guessed that the major would only order a real charge once they were within fifty yards or so of the breastworks.

    True enough, that mean they’d be exposed to enemy fire that much longer, out in the open. Still, better that than to try to scale those fieldworks exhausted and out of breath.

    It was hard, though, at least for Sam, to maintain that disciplined pace. Already, the Creeks were starting to fire arrows at the oncoming Thirty-ninth.

    They’d save their powder and bullets until the infantry regulars were within a hundred yards.

    Sam’s mother routinely accused him of being “high-strung.” True, his mother was a harsh woman, given to exaggeration when she criticized some-one—which she did frequently, especially her children. Still, he knew there was at least some truth to it.

    So, he did his best to dampen the instincts that were shrieking to send him racing toward the enemy. He still didn’t feel anything resembling the wrath of Achilles—which, in and of itself, suited him just fine. Sam had never much liked Achilles. He’d always found the Trojan Hector a far more appealing character.

    No, it wasn’t bloodlust or fury, he finally decided. He had no particular desire to pitch headlong into battle, no matter how much he wanted to make a name for himself. He was simply wound tight and ready to run, like a racehorse, now that the contest was under way.

    That realization helped him to focus. Sam Houston had determined that he would pass through his life like a fine thoroughbred, not a plow horse. Better a short and glorious life than a long and dull one.

    “Better yet,” he murmured, “a long and glorious life.”

    “I’m sorry, Ensign, I didn’t catch that,” said Major Montgomery, marching along next to him.

    Embarrassed, Sam cleared his throat and tightened his grip on the sword. “Nothing, sir. Just talking to myself.”

    Sam eyed an arrow that was speeding in his direction. More and more were falling now, though few were yet finding their targets. He didn’t break stride, but he did edge slightly to his right, almost crowding Montgomery. The arrow passed safely three feet to his left.

    “Don’t,” said the major. The word was spoken firmly, even sternly, but the tone wasn’t accusatory. “In a fight, you can’t see every danger. Just ignore it all, young man. That’ll help steady the men—and it’s in God’s hand now anyway.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    And that, too, young Sam Houston filed away for later study. He suspected the major was right—but he still thought it was a foolish way to fight a battle. Of course, that might just be his Cherokee upbringing at work. Cherokees, like all Indians Sam knew of, generally thought that the white man’s headlong way of fighting was just plain stupid.

    Perhaps it was. But it was also a fact that white men eventually won their wars with Indians, if not always all the battles. Maybe this was part of it.

    He chewed on that concept, too, for a time. Indeed, he became so engrossed in thought that Montgomery’s bellow caught him by surprise.


    Breaking into a run, the major led the way, waving his saber. The fieldworks weren’t more than fifty yards distant now.


    By the time John Ross got back to the river and crossed on the first available canoe, the battle on the other side—between The Ridge’s Cherokees and the Red Sticks—was well under way.

    It was a swirling, confused melee; hundreds of Indian warriors fighting singly or in small clusters, clubbing and stabbing one another among twice that many tall trees. John heard some shots ring out, as well. The Cherokees had been provided with guns by Jackson. Not enough to arm every warrior, to be sure; but they had gotten far more guns from the Americans than the Red Sticks had been able to obtain from the British and Spanish enclaves down on the coast.

    But there weren’t that many shots, for this size of a battle. Even someone as inexperienced in fighting as John Ross could tell as much. He wasn’t surprised, though, now that he saw the terrain. The fight between Cherokees and Creeks on the southern end of the peninsula was simply too close up, too entangled in forest and brush. By the time a man could see his opponent, his gun usually wouldn’t be any more use than a large and clumsy club. That being so, why not use a real war club from the outset?

    John, on the other hand, was no more proficient with traditional Cherokee weapons than he was with the Cherokee language. His loyalties to his nation were clear, but the truth was that he was far more comfortable with the white man’s ways of doing most things.

    So, like any young white man would have done in his first battle, Lieutenant John Ross drew his pistol and charged forward. He would have preferred a rifle, but proper officers didn’t carry such.

    Less than fifteen seconds later, John was glad he’d been armed with only a pistol. A Red Stick came around a tree, screaming out a war cry, and tried to brain him with his war club. John barely had time to throw up his arm and block the blow. Fortunately, his forearm intercepted the club well down the shaft, or he would have had a broken arm instead of just a badly bruised one.

    The Red Stick drew the club back for another blow. He was a terrifying sight, in that moment. His mouth was open in a rictus of fury, and his painted face made him look like a demon.

    John never knew, then or later, whether he pulled the trigger of his pistol out of fear or rage, or just pure reflex. Probably all at the same time, he concluded.

    He wasn’t even aware that the gun had gone off—the sound of it was overwhelmed by the chorus of war cries and the confusion of the moment. Then he saw the Red Stick’s left leg flung aside and a spray of blood erupt from his thigh. The warrior’s strike missed him by a good foot, and the warrior himself staggered for two paces before collapsing.

    But to John’s dismay he rose again, almost instantly, screaming another war cry. The .62-caliber bullet would have shattered the bone, had it struck the leg squarely. But it had only inflicted a flesh wound. A bad one, to be sure—the man would eventually bleed to death if he didn’t tie up his leg—but not bad enough to stop him.

    John stepped back, wondering what to do. Even against a half-crippled opponent, his pistol with its twelve-inch barrel was a poor match against a real war club, especially when the club was being wielded by a religious fanatic. What was worse, he certainly didn’t have time to reload.

    The Red Stick lurched toward him, still screaming. The smartest thing for John to do was simply to run away, of course. Fanatic or not, the Creek would have no chance of catching him, not with that bad a leg wound. Or by the time he did, at any rate, John would have been able to reload.

    But John couldn’t stomach the thought of being seen as a coward. So, he braced himself, took a firm grip on the pistol butt, and decided he’d try to deflect the coming blow—

    Then another Cherokee came around the same tree, as silent as a ghost, and shattered the Red Stick’s skull with a single blow. From the amount of blood and hair and gore that was already covering his ball-headed war club, this wasn’t the first brain he’d spilled that day. The warrior paused to stare at John.

    “Stupid,” the Cherokee growled in English. “Why didn’t you just run away?”

    The newcomer was no older than John himself. He glanced around quickly to make sure there were no other enemies in the immediate vicinity, and then grinned at him. “Stupid will make you dead,” he continued, but he said it quite cheerfully now. “I’m James Rogers. You?”

    “John Ross.”

    He’d never met Rogers, but he’d heard of him. He was one of the sons of Captain John Rogers, the Scottish sometime-adventurer and sometime-adviser for John Jolly’s chiefdom. The sons were said to be close friends, in fact, of the American ensign Houston whom The Ridge had found so interesting.

    Rogers grin widened still further. “You’re John Ross?” He switched to Cherokee, in which he proved to be quite a bit more fluent than John himself. “From the way you look and the uniform you’re wearing, I thought you were an American. The John Ross, from Ross Landing? The same one who made a fortune swapping stuff with the Americans down on the river by Chatanuga?”

    In keeping with the language, Rogers used the Cherokee name for Lookout Mountain.

    John nodded.

    “In that case,” Rogers jibed, switching back to English, “you’ve got no excuse. I’m only half Scot. You’re supposed to be much smarter than me.”

    Ross grinned back. “That’s only if you believe what the Scots say.”

    Rogers pointed at John’s pistol with his gruesome club. “Better reload that thing now. This fight is turning into a mess.”

    Trying to keep his hands from shaking, John did as Rogers suggested. “I’m looking for The Ridge,” he told Rogers. “I’ve got to warn him that Coffee has all his men lined up on the river, ready to shoot anyone who tries to cross back over. That means Creeks, not us, of course, but . . .”

    Rogers barked a laugh. John grimaced.

    “Exactly. So I need to find—”

    “It doesn’t matter. The Ridge has no intention of retreating, believe me. We’ll stay here until it’s done.” Rogers waved his club in a little half circle. “As for where he is, who knows? Best advice I can give you is just to follow the screaming. Wherever it’s loudest, you’ll probably find The Ridge. He does love that sword the Americans gave him.”

    Rogers eyed the pistol. “You reload pretty well, I’ll give you that. So if you don’t mind, I think I’ll stay with you. I’ll handle any Red Sticks who make it past your deadly gunfire.”

    “That probably means most of them,” John admitted.

    “Probably,” Rogers agreed amiably. “But ‘most’ is still better than ‘all.’ ”

    They encountered two more Red Sticks before they finally found The Ridge. Ross fired twice, missing both times. Rogers did all the killing, although Ross had one of the men grappled by the legs before James brained him.

    “You’ll make a good diplomat, people say,” Rogers commented idly, as they moved through the trees.

    John hoped he was right. He’d certainly never be famous as a warrior.


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