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Rivers of War: Snippet Fourteen

       Last updated: Monday, February 21, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 14:

    When Houston drew near, Jackson nodded. “That was well done, young man. Very well done, indeed. A most gallant charge. Please accept my admiration and respect, as well as the gratitude of your nation. I’ll see to it that you get a promotion.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    Jackson finally took his hand from the sword hilt and pointed at the bandage on Houston’s leg. “Your wound?”

    Houston stared down at the bandage, which had a few fresh red spots mixed in with the brown of old bloodstains. “Oh, it’s not much, sir. It’s still bleeding some, but I’ll manage well enough till this is over. Certainly not as bad as it was for poor Major Montgomery.”

    A look of regret passed over the general’s face. “Yes. Well, it’s not over yet.”

    Houston smiled thinly. “Not hardly, sir.” He turned and pointed toward the river. “Between us and the Cherokees, we’ve driven the Red Sticks off the high ground, but there are still plenty of them forted up here and there in the forest. This peninsula must comprise hundreds of acres, all told. As heavily wooded as it is . . .”

    Jackson nodded, understanding full well the realities of warfare in the wilderness. The Indian warrior wasn’t the match of the white man in a pitched battle on an open field, or in a siege. They lacked the organization and discipline for such. But in their own element they were unsurpassed; as dangerous as wild boars.

    “Any chance they’ll surrender?”

    “I doubt it very much, sir. Not yet, anyway. There’s still plenty of fight in ’em.” The ensign gave the sky a glance, gauging the sun. “They’ll for sure try to hold out until sunset, and then make their escape across the river.”

    Jackson glared again, although not with the sheer volcanic fury that he’d unleashed on the aide.

    “Tarnation, I’ve given Coffee clear and firm instructions—”

    The ensign was bold enough to interrupt. Jackson was rather impressed.

    “And he’s carried them out, sir.” Houston gestured toward the two Indians, who were now standing only a few feet away. “This my old friend James Rogers—he’s the one on the left with the war club. And Lieutenant Ross. John Ross, that is. I just met him for the first time today, but I’d heard of him.”

    Jackson gave the two Cherokees a quick examination, most of which was spent studying the war club Rogers held. Clearly enough, it had been put to good use.

    He grunted his satisfaction, then cocked an eyebrow at the ensign. “And the point is? I’m assuming you didn’t interrupt your commanding officer in the midst of a battle simply to introduce your friends.”

    Houston flushed. The ruddy complexion under his mass of chestnut hair turned pink. He looked like one of the brightly painted Christmas ornaments that German immigrants were starting to turn into a popular custom. It was all the general could do not to burst into laughter. Despite the severity of his rebuke, he approved of this young ensign. Approved of him mightily and heartily, in fact.

    “Lieutenant Ross here serves as one of General Coffee’s aides, sir,” Houston explained. “He was the one Coffee sent to warn The Ridge not to cross the river again. Which he did—he and James spoke to The Ridge himself.” Houston squared his shoulder and stood very straight. “That’s because it was The Ridge and the Cherokees who grabbed some canoes and created the diversion that gave us our initial advantage.”

    The last statement was spoken in a slightly combative tone. Not belligerent, precisely. And not precisely aimed at Jackson. But Houston sounded like a man who felt he’d made his point, and had been proven right.

    Yet again Jackson stifled a smile. For all that he routinely referred to Indians as savages, he understood them quite well. He wasn’t all that different himself, in many ways. Like any Cherokee or Creek or Choctaw chief, he magnified his own influence by gathering young leaders around him and making them his protégés. Political authority, among white men on the frontier as much as the Indians, was mostly an informal matter.

    But it wasn’t enough for his protégés to be smart and capable. Not enough, even, to be physically courageous, as well. They also had to have the strength of character to stand up to Jackson himself, if need be. Without that, they were useless to him.

    Andrew Jackson had been a bully as far back as he could remember. As a boy, he’d bullied other boys; as a man, other men. He’d bully anyone he could, and he’d do it in a heartbeat.

    He was phenomenally good at it, too. That wasn’t and never had been because he was an especially large man. Although, even there, Jackson’s whipcord body was one that could do far better in a fight than many people would have suspected just looking at him.

    Yes, Jackson was a bully, and he made no apologies for the fact. Indeed, he worked at it, the way a smart man works to improve his skills. It enabled him to get things accomplished he could not have accomplished otherwise.

    But he also knew—he’d seen it all his life—that a stupid bully collected nothing around him but yes-men, fawners, toadies, and lickspittles. Who, as a rule, were good for absolutely nothing else. And what did that accomplish?

    So. Ensign Houston was looking better all the time. Jackson was starting to develop great hopes for him.

    But that was for later. Today, there was still a battle to be won.

    He looked up at the sky. There were still several hours of daylight left, even this early in the year with the solstice just passed. Enough time, he thought, to drive the matter through before night fell.

    Whatever else, Jackson wanted the Creeks defeated—no, more than that: broken and pulverized—before the sun set.

    It wasn’t so much that he feared fighting them in the dark, though that certainly wasn’t something he looked forward to. But Jackson knew from long experience that the red men were in many ways a more practical breed than whites. They had their superstitions, to be sure, but they had their reason, as well. Indians preferred ambush and surprise attacks to open battle, and they simply weren’t given to pointless last stands. Not, at least, if there was a viable alternative.

    Which there would be, if hundreds of them were still at large come nightfall. There was no way in creation that John Coffee, even if he had thrice the force he had covering the riverbank, could prevent Creeks from escaping the trap under cover of darkness.

    “All right,” he said. “Is there any place in the peninsula where they seemed to be centered?”

    Houston’s eyes ranged the forested peninsula. “I don’t think so, sir, but it’s hard to tell. Everything’s pretty confused right now, what with the Thirty-ninth and the militiamen milling around on this side of the peninsula and the Cherokees starting down by the river. We met them on the high ground—”

    He grinned coldly for moment. “I even managed to discourage the militiamen from shooting at The Ridge and his men, if you can believe such a wonder.”

    His hand slid to the butt of his pistol, which was stuck in his waistband. The ensign had apparently made a priority of recovering it, after that initial dramatic charge across the barricade.

    Again, Jackson had to stifle a smile. He was pretty sure that Houston’s “discouragement” had included threatening at least one militiaman with the nonregulation weapon. Possibly several of them. Under that genial, boyish exterior, Jackson suspected that Houston could throw an impressive temper tantrum himself.

    “Indeed,” the general said mildly, looking down at Houston’s large hand covering the pistol butt. “I have found myself that militiamen generally need discouragement, from time to time. And even more in the way of encouragement. They’re a flighty bunch.”

    Houston took the hand away from the pistol. The gesture was almost surreptitious. There’d be some complaints coming from the officers, Jackson knew, about the coarse young regular officer who’d had the unmitigated gall to bully— outright bullying, sir!—stalwart citizens of Tennessee who were temporarily serving under the colors.

    Jackson wasn’t concerned about it. He could bully militia officers in his sleep. With a handful of exceptions, he wouldn’t trade the young ensign standing before him for all the militia officers in the United States. If they complained, he’d set them straight.

    Hurrying past the awkwardness, Houston continued. “If I might make so bold, sir, I’d recommend that we take the time to reorganize, and then start driving the Creeks in that direction.” He pointed toward a portion of the forest that seemed indistinguishable from any other. “I’ve been told there’s a ravine down that way that’d wind up making the bottom of the trap.”

    Jackson ignored the presumptuousness of an ensign telling him that they had to “reorganize”—as if that wouldn’t be blindingly obvious to the most incompetent general in history. The rest of the advice seemed sound enough.

    “See to it then, Ensign. Pass the word to Colonel Williams yourself. I’ll handle the militiamen.”

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