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Rivers of War: Snippet Twelve

       Last updated: Saturday, February 19, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 12:

    When he was excited, Andrew Jackson’s high-pitched voice was often unpleasant, even shrill. But it was a piercing voice on the battlefield, able to cut through almost any din of shouting and gunfire.

    It was certainly doing so now. From his vantage point atop the hill, Jackson had acquired a perfect view of the storming of the barricade. There’d been a sharp pang of grief, of course, when he saw his good friend Lemuel Montgomery killed. But, as always with Jackson, grief would have to wait its turn when more pressing matters were at hand. Whatever else, the man was a fighter first and foremost. And, for him, the excitement of battle would always override anything else at the time.

    He was excited now. Excited enough, even, to lapse into profanity.

    “Goddamn me, but that’s a soldier!” He snatched off his fancy hat and waved it like a sword. “Go for ’em, lad! Give the savage bastards Jesse!”

    The men standing around him matched his grin. Most of them were artillerymen, and they were out of the battle now, so they had plenty to grin about anyway.

    Jackson jammed the hat back on his head. Then, still grinning, he turned to one of his aides.

    “Do remind me, however, not to call them savages in the presence of that fine young fellow. He might take umbrage, and I do believe he’d be dangerous in a duel.”

    The aide grunted. “Especially if he had the choice of weapons.”

    Jackson’s grin became wider than ever. Wider, and more savage than any of the men killing each other on the field below, of whatever color.

    Leading, Sam soon discovered, was pretty much indistinguishable from chasing. Once their fortifications were overrun, the Creeks seemed to have no idea what to do. Not surprising, really. It was unusual enough for Indians to have built such an impressive line of defense. Sam would have been astonished to discover that they’d prepared lines of retreat, as well.

    But they hadn’t, as he expected. The Creeks reminded him of the Icelandic clansmen he’d read about in Sturluson’s stories, based on ancient Icelandic sagas. Endless clan feuds which produced a race of hardy, resourceful, and ferocious warriors.

    But not soldiers, really. Certainly not in the modern sense of the term. They just didn’t have the ingrained customs and habits that produced ranks of disciplined men who formed what could properly be called an “army.”

    Sam knew that it would have taken all of Chief Menawa and William Weatherford’s authority and political skills to have gotten the Red Sticks to build that breastwork at all. There was no chance they would have gotten them to build a secondary line of defense—or even, for that matter, have developed a battle plan that provided clear contingencies in the event that the fortifications were overrun.

    So, now, everything was confusion and chaos. As individual warriors, the hundreds of Red Sticks still at large on the peninsula were as feisty as ever. More so, probably, since desperation had been added to fanaticism and the ever-present Indian courage, to keep them fighting. But they were fighting as individuals, now. Or, at most, in small clusters gathered around the figure of one of the chiefs or war leaders.

    Following that initial heady charge after the retreating Creeks, therefore, Sam called a halt to the pursuit. He also was discovering that battles were incredibly exhausting, something Homer hadn’t mentioned in his poems. Despite being in better physical condition than most of his men, Sam was just about winded.

    Houston’s voice had none of Jackson’s piercing qualities, but it was still a big man’s voice—and that of a man who’d never been in the least bit bashful. So when he called out the order, it brought the soldiers up short, quick enough. And, soon thereafter he had their lines reformed. He even took the time to make sure that every soldier had reloaded, and done it properly. It the heat of a battle, it was common for soldiers to forget to reload, or to double-load—and it was by no means unheard of for an excited man to fire a ramrod instead of a bullet. Which left him with neither a ramrod nor the means to reload his weapon.

    That done, he ordered the soldiers forward in a steady march, ready to fire a volley as soon as any cluster of Red Sticks large enough to warrant a volley appeared. They’ll do so soon enough, he thought. He could hear the sounds of fighting on the other side of the high ground, and he was sure that by now the Cherokees had crossed the river in large numbers.

    Coffee’s cavalrymen, too, perhaps, but Sam suspected it was mostly Cherokees who’d crossed the river. Coffee and his cavalry were probably still on the opposite bank, chewing on the matter.


    John Ross and James Rogers found The Ridge, ironically enough, only by circling around in the chaos of the battle and coming back to the riverbank. Some of the Red Sticks were trying their best to escape across the Tallapoosa, and The Ridge was just as determined to see to it they didn’t.

    He was in the water himself, in fact, when they found him. Standing thigh deep in the muddy current and battling it out with a Creek warrior.

    It was an arresting tableau, and for a moment John was transfixed by the sight. Somewhere along the line, The Ridge must have lost his sword—indeed, any weapon he might have been carrying. He was grappling the Red Stick, hand to hand. The Creek was the taller man, though he didn’t have The Ridge’s width of shoulder and muscular mass, so it was a fairly even match.

    But he was much younger, too, and didn’t have The Ridge’s experience. In a wrestler’s movement too quick for John to follow, The Ridge freed one of his hands, snatched a knife scabbarded at the Red Stick’s waist, and stabbed him in the belly with it.

    The Creek warrior screeched in pain and fury. He grappled The Ridge all the harder, ignoring the blood spilling out of his body. He got a better grip on his opponent, since that quick knife thrust had removed one of The Ridge’s arms from the wrestling match.

    Despite his terrible wound, John thought the Creek might still have a chance to win the fight. Hesitantly, he raised his pistol. He was afraid to fire, though. He just wasn’t a good enough shot, even at this short range, to be sure he’d hit the right target.

    James’s hand on his arm brought the pistol down.


    Rogers had seen what Ross hadn’t—yet another Cherokee warrior ready to jump into the river from nearby brush.

    The new arrival went into the water and with three powerful and steady strides came up next to the two combatants. He had a spear in his hand, and the thrust that followed had all the cold and terrible precision of a wasp sting. The blade of the spear sank deep into the lower back of the Creek, well away from any part of The Ridge.

    The Cherokee withdrew the spear with an expert and vicious twist of his wrists. The Red Stick was paralyzed by pain and shock, his back arched like a bow. The Ridge pushed him away and stepped back, leaving a clear target.

    The second spear thrust went right through the man. John, paralyzed himself by the spectacle, saw several inches of the blade protruding from the Creek’s abdomen. Blood poured off the spear, adding its burden to water already stained bright red despite the muddy current.

    James’s hand went to John’s shoulder, and gave it a little shake. “Come on,” he murmured. “Let’s give him the warning.”

    John shook his head to clear the moment’s horror. “Yes,” was all he could say.


    As soon as he’d gotten out of the water, they told The Ridge of Coffee’s plan. He gave the opposite bank of the river nothing more than a quick glance. By this stage in the battle, John realized, the warning was almost pointless. Cof-fee’s cavalrymen were already visible all along the riverbank. They were dismounted, and had brought their rifles up, ready to shoot any Creek who tried to cross.

    And anybody else, most likely.

    But The Ridge seemed more interested in Ross himself. He looked the younger man up and down, slowly and carefully. John was suddenly glad for his scuffled appearance. Even more, for the bruise on his cheek that he’d picked up when James hadn’t deflected a war club quite in time. Most of all, for the blood spattered all over his American-style uniform. True, none of it was his; and, true also, the enemy blood had been spattered onto him by the efforts of his companion. Still, it was living proof that he’d been in the thick of battle; and, whatever else, he hadn’t flinched.

    The Ridge grunted, and looked to James. “How is he doing?”

    James smiled, in his easy manner. “Well enough. I think he’ll make a better politician than a warrior, though.”

    Honesty compelled John to speak, then. “I can’t do much worse.”

    The Ridge was back to studying him. Then, after a few seconds, he grunted again.

    “You’re here,” he said softly. “Good politicians are harder to find than warriors anyway.”

    For the first time since John Ross had met The Ridge, the older man actually smiled. The expression looked almost weird, on that blocky and fearsome face.

    But John thought it might be the best smile he’d ever seen. He’d never doubted his own loyalties—nor did anyone, he thought—but his upbringing had always left him feeling like something of an outsider in the Cherokee world. In much the same way, he suspected, that the American ensign who was about his own age must often feel among white people. How could an adopted Cherokee feel otherwise?

    Yet, somehow, though none of the blood covering him was his own, nor had any of it had been put there by his own deeds, he knew that he had just crossed a final line this day.

    The Ridge had smiled upon him. Every Cherokee knew that The Ridge almost never smiled.

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