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Rivers of War: Snippet Eleven

       Last updated: Friday, February 18, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 11:


    Sam ran pretty well for a man of his size, but he couldn’t match Montgomery.

    The major was a big man himself, as tall as Sam if not as heavily built, but he just seemed to bound through the hail of arrows and bullets now being fired at the oncoming Thirty-ninth by the Red Sticks forted up behind their barricade.

    Sam took his lead and example from Montgomery, not knowing what else to do. There was something bizarre about the whole experience. It just didn’t seem reasonable for a man to race through deadly missiles with less thought and concern than he’d give so many raindrops in a shower.

    It wasn’t that Sam was scared, really, although by all rights he should have been frightened out of his wits. This was easily the most dangerous thing he’d ever done in his life, and he wasn’t a cautious man.

    He’d been even less cautious as a teenager. Plenty of his Tennessee townsmen in Maryville had thought the sixteen-year-old boy had been a lunatic to run away from home and travel through sixty miles of wilderness to live with savage Indians for three years. But it had seemed a reasonable proposition to Sam, at the time, compared to working on his mother’s farm or as a clerk in his brother’s general store. Still did, for that matter. Clerking wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, and farming was worse yet.

    So, he’d enlisted and given his oath, even pressed for a commission as an officer. The government having carried out its part of the bargain, Sam was now obliged to make good on his end of the deal. And if that involved charging a log wall armed with nothing more than a sword and a pistol, well, so be it. The Red Sticks pelting him with arrows and bullets were just . . .

    Irrelevant, he decided. Sam, who’d memorized two-thirds of the poem, conjured up something from Alexander Pope’s marvelous translation of the Iliad to steady himself.

    But know, whatever fate I am to try By no dishonest wound shall Hector die; I shall not fall a fugitive at least, My soul shall bravely issue from my breast.

    When Montgomery reached the wall he was ten feet ahead of Sam. The major clambered up the log fortifications using only his left hand, still waving his saber in the right.

    He shouted something. Sam thought it was Follow me! but he wasn’t sure. Between the gunfire and the screams of the Red Sticks on the other side of the barricade, he couldn’t hear himself think.

    Not that there was any thinking to be done, really. It all seemed very simple. Climb the wall, get on the other side, do your best to beat down your enemies before they did the same to you.

    Montgomery reached the top of the wall and dropped into a crouch, ready to leap across.

    Then he shouted again. It was a wordless cry, this time, nothing more than a dying reflex as lungs emptied for the last time. Sam was sure of that. He could see the blood and brains erupting from a bullet that passed right through Montgomery’s head.

    The major fell back to the ground, his body passing Sam as he clambered up the wall.

    “Follow me! ” Sam shouted. Pretty damn good and loud, too, he thought. But he didn’t try to wave the sword he carried in his hand. He’d save that for when he reached the top.

    Finally he was at the top of the wall. It had seemed to take forever. Since Montgomery’s crouch hadn’t done much good for him, Sam decided to emulate what he imagined an Achaean would have done. Achilles, anyway, if not Odysseus.

    He started to rise. Started to raise his sword, ready to wave it about now and shout Follow me! again. The painted faces of the Red Stick warriors staring up at him from the ground below were just a colorful blur in his mind.

    He never even saw the arrow coming.

    Fortunately, his foot slipped just as he started to stand, and what would have been a heroic posture turned into an ungainly sprawl. Fortunately, because had he kept his footing, that arrow would have plunged deep into his groin. As it was, the missile simply sliced a gash along the outside of his thigh before caroming off to the side.

    It didn’t even hurt. Sam realized he’d been wounded only when he spotted the blood soaking his trouser leg.

    But he just shrugged it off. He was a big man, there was a lot of meat and muscle there, and the wound wasn’t spouting the way it would if an artery had been severed. It was, quite literally, nothing but a flesh wound.

    Besides, Sam had far more pressing concerns. Sprawled across the wall the way he was, his head was now within reach of the enemy—and, sure enough, a Red Stick was trying to brain him with an atassa.

    Frantically, Sam brought up the sword. By sheer good luck more than any conscious intent, the blade intercepted the haft of the club. There wasn’t enough power in that awkward parry to do more than deflect the club, but deflected it was. Off balance, the Red Stick stumbled past.

    Seeing nothing else to do, Sam threw himself off the wall and landed on his hands and knees on the enemy side of the barricade. Instantly, he came to his feet, feeling a rush of relief greater than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Whatever happened now, at least he’d be standing up to face it.

    What was happening now was that the same Red Stick was trying to brain him again. For the first time since the battle began, Sam got angry.

    That bastard was trying to kill him!

    Stupid bastard, too. Most white men didn’t really know how to handle an Indian war club up close. Guns and knives were a white man’s weapons. But Sam had been trained in wrestling and hand-to-hand fighting by his Cherokee friends John and James Rogers. James, in particular, was a veritable wizard with a war club.

    His reflexes took over. A sword wasn’t quite as handy as a war club, but close enough. Sam parried the strike and returned the favor.

    Then . . .

    He discovered that a sword had both an advantage and a disadvantage over a war club.

    The advantage was that it had a blade.

    The disadvantage was that it had a blade.

    Sam was strong, even for his size. He’d brained the Red Stick, sure enough. And now he had a sword stuck in the man’s skull.

    No time to work it loose, either. Two more Red Sticks were upon him, and still more were aiming their bows his way.

    There was nothing he could do about the arrows that would be coming. He left the sword where it was, drew his pistol, and fired it at point-blank range into the chest of one of the two Red Sticks. Then, threw the pistol into the face of the other and grappled with him.

    A good hip roll and the warrior was slammed into the ground with enough force to wind him and jar the war club out of his hand. Sam dove for it, eager to have a usable weapon. He didn’t even notice that the headlong plunge took him out of the path of three arrows that sank into the wooden barricade behind.

    He came up with the atassa just in time to see dozens of Thirty-ninth Infantry soldiers pouring over the wall. With their blue coats, they looked like a wave crashing over a too-flimsy dike.

    The Red Sticks at the wall reeled back from the assault. Sam charged forward to place himself once again at the lead.

    “Follow me! ” he bellowed again, waving the war club.

    Even at the time, he thought it was a silly war cry. He had no idea where he was leading them, after all. It just seemed like the right thing to do, under the circumstances.

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