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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 2, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 20:

    Jackson drove it home, as relentlessly as he’d driven the campaign. “They don’t stand a chance, Sam, not in the long run. Leave me out of it. Leave the whole U.S. Army out of it. Then what? I’m not even their worst enemy. They can call me Sharp Knife, but what do they think those cussed Georgians are? Tens of thousands of rapacious little razors, that’s what.”

    And that, too, was no more than the truth. Even by the standards of white settlers on the frontier, the Georgians were notorious for their land avarice. They were just about as notorious—among Tennesseans, anyway—for not being worth a damn in a straight-up war against the hostiles. But it didn’t matter, not in the long run. Georgians might run for cover every time the Indians went on the warpath, but they were back again soon enough. Killing Indians whenever they had a chance, grabbing their land, burning everything they couldn’t steal.

    If they had the martial reputation of locusts, they had the voracity as well. And the numbers.

    “You could . . .” But Sam didn’t even have the chance to finish the sentence.

    “Stop them? How?” Jackson’s expression wasn’t quite a sneer. Not quite. “How am I—how is the whole U.S. government, for that matter—supposed to stop hundreds of thousands of settlers from shoving in on Indian land? Stop playing the innocent, Sam. You know those people as well as I do, because they’re our own. The ‘people of the western waters,’ some call them. They’re Scots-Irish immigrants, the most of them. Being honest, not all that much different from the Indians. Just as feisty, for sure—and there are a sight more of them.”

    Sam couldn’t help but smile. The truth was, the people who had produced both he and Jackson weren’t very far removed from being barbarians themselves, even today. They were flooding into north America just like, in ancient days, the Gauls and Germans had flooded into western Europe. Today’s “people of the western waters” had been yesterday’s border reivers, often enough.

    “How is anyone supposed to stop them, Sam?” The general picked up his hat and, for a moment, looked like he might smash it back onto the table.

    “What would it take?” he demanded. “I’ll tell you what.”

    He did smash the hat back on the table. “We’d have to scrap our precious republic and replace it with something like the stinking tsars have set up in Russia, that’s what. Turn everyone into serfs so we could establish a level of taxation necessary to keep a huge standing army in the field. That would keep the people in their place. Over my dead body!”

    Sam studied the hat. He’d studied mathematics, too, when he’d been a schoolboy. And he could recognize an immovable equation when he saw one.

    Jackson flicked the much-battered hat aside. “So that’s one option,” he stated flatly. “Give it twenty years—thirty, at the outside—and ‘the Cherokees’ will just be a name. Something schoolboys study in books.”

    Sam took another deep breath. He took off his own cap and ran fingers through his hair. “And the other?”

    “You know it as well as I do. Relocation. Let the Cherokees—all of the southern tribes—move across the Mississippi. If they want to keep their independence, fine. Let ’em do it somewhere else.”

    Sam smiled crookedly. “You sound like my foster father—his older brother Tahlonteskee, even more. That’s what they’ve been advocating for almost twenty years now.”

    Sam’s hair was even bushier than the general’s, so he could keep busy with it for a while. “Not with much luck, though, in terms of convincing most of the Cherokees. Their opponents keep asking difficult questions. Just for starters: What’s to keep the same thing from happening down the road a spell? Give it another fifty years—a century, for sure—and there’ll be more settlers wanting their new land.”

    The general started fiddling with his hat, trying awkwardly with one hand to press it back into shape. Sam’s smile got more crooked still, and he reached across the table.

    “Here, General, let me do that. Out of curiosity, by the way, do you have a bunch of these stashed away somewhere?”

    Jackson handed over the hat, chuckling. “Of course.” A long, bony finger indicated one of the chests in a corner of the tent. “I had Rachel send me half a dozen, after Coffee gave me the idea. I’d like to salvage this one, though, if we can. I’ve only got two left, and the things are blasted expensive.”

    As Sam did his best to knead the hat back into shape, Jackson went on.

    “If that turns out to be the case, then to blazes with them. Am I supposed to be their nursemaid, too? Tarnation, Sam, if the Indians are given half a century to put together a real nation of their own out there—and they still can’t manage the affair—then let them go the way of all broken nations. Let them join the Babylonians and the Trojans. That’s just the way it is. Always has been, always will be—just like the British will break us if we let them.”

    That seemed fair enough, to Sam, at least in the broad strokes. The devil, of course, was in the details.

    “I’ll help you, sir, as best as I can,” he said evenly. “I’ll do my best to convince them. But you know as well as I do that there are a hundred different problems. The help that the U.S. government always promises the Indians somehow never materializes, or if it does so, it’s always in dribs and drabs. Why? Well, let’s start with the fact that most Indian agents are crooks and swindlers and thieves, and the ones who aren’t—like Colonel Meigs or Benjamin Hawkins—are the ones you usually quarrel with the most.”

    Jackson glared at him. “Can’t stand the bastards,” he growled. “Nothing but blasted injun lovers, the both of ’em.”

    “So am I, General,” Sam said mildly, “when you get right down to it. I grew up among them, and I’ve got as many Cherokee friends as I do white ones. If I’d stayed a few more years, I’d probably have wound up marrying a Cherokee girl. I can even tell you her name. Tiana Rogers, my foster father’s niece.” He handed the hat back to Jackson.

    Jackson snatched the hat, still glaring. Sam sat up straight in his chair and returned the glare without flinching.“That’s the way it is, sir. Take it or leave it.”

    After a moment, and not to Sam’s surprise—no longer, now that he’d taken the general’s measure—Jackson began to chuckle.

    “My own injun lover, is it?” He placed the hat gently back on his head. “Well, why not? Maybe you can do with magic and your glib tongue what I’d have to do with a sword and a torch. Well, if you can, I won’t object.”

    Sam took another deep breath. “That’s not enough, General.”

    The glare flared up again. It was like staring into two blue furnaces.

    “What? ” he demanded. “You’re adding conditions, too?”

    Sam smiled easily, and spread his hands again. “I wouldn’t call them ‘conditions,’ sir. Not exactly. Let’s just say I want a promise from you that you’ll back me up, when the time comes, as much as I’ll back you up until then. I don’t know when or where that’ll be, I admit, or even if it’ll ever be. But I still want your word on it.”

    At first Jackson didn’t say a word, and, for a moment, Sam was sure that he was about to snap a flat and angry refusal.

    But, whatever he would have done, he was interrupted before he could respond. A man stepped through the tent’s entrance, pushing the flap aside, and came two steps into the tent. Then he stood still and very erect. He had a dark complexion, like a part-blood Indian, but he was wearing a white man’s clothes.

    Jackson’s glare was transferred onto him. “Who in the blazes are you, sir? I don’t recall inviting you to intrude upon my privacy!”

    The man replied in perfectly fluent English. “Yes, you did. The word is in all the towns that you are looking for William Weatherford.”

    Jackson lunged to his feet, his anger instantly replaced by eagerness. “You know where the murdering bastard’s to be found? Splendid! There’ll be a reward for you, be sure of it.”

    The man’s face showed no expression at all. Suddenly, Sam rose and reached for his sword.

    But the man ignored him.

    “I am not an informer. I am William Weatherford. Also known as Red Eagle. I led the attack on Fort Mims. They say you intend to hang me for it.

    “Do it then, Sharp Knife.”

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