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Rivers of War: Snippet Twenty Six

       Last updated: Friday, March 11, 2005 10:00 EST



    THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 26:

    “So be it,” he stated. “At least I’ll still have the best sergeant in the army. So, have you spoken to the boy yet?”

    “No, sir. I’ll wait till later tonight. For the moment, the best thing for the little bastard’s quaking soul is to wallow in the admiration of his mates.”

    Scott cocked his head quizzically. “Admiration? I’d have thought . . .”

    Driscol smiled. “Oh, it’ll be a very adulterated sort of admiration, sir. To the untrained ear, most of it will sound like ridicule and derision. But admiration it is, be sure of it—with more than a trace of envy.”

    The brigadier kept his head cocked, inviting Driscol to continue.

    “It’s like this, sir. Poor boys have little enough to brag about, and precious few accomplishments to their name—nor any great prospects of improving their lot. As it is, assuming he lives that long, young McParland will be able to brag to his grandchildren that he was once executed by a firing squad, and lived to tell the tale. Of course, by then the story will have changed a great deal. His offense will have become quite a bit more glamorous than desertion—something along the lines of heroic insubordination in the face of a tyrannical officer, I imagine— and there’ll certainly be no mention of the sobbing and incontinence.”

    Scott chuckled. “I understand. Still, I’d think there’d be some of the soldiers who’ll harass the boy.”

    Driscol’s jaw tightened. “Never you mind about that, sir. Such matters are beneath notice for an officer of your rank. I’ll deal with the matter, should it arise.”

    The brigadier studied him for a moment. Then, smiled thinly. “Yes. I imagine you will. Very well, Sergeant. It’s a small thing, but I’d appreciate it if you’d check in on the boy tonight.”

    Then Scott unclasped his hand and pointed to a nearby table covered with papers. “Meanwhile, there is news. Some good, some bad. The bad news is that Napoleon has abdicated the throne. On April 6, according to the newspaper accounts I received from the capital. That means the British no longer have their hands tied. They’ll be coming at us full force, now. Wellington’s veterans, for sure; perhaps Wellington himself.”

    Driscol took a deep breath, absorbing the information. That part of it, concerning the future actions of the British, he gave but a moment’s notice. The Sassenach were a given. Mostly, he pondered the fate of Napoleon, a man he’d once admired deeply, and had fought for until the emperor’s overweening ambition had finally driven Driscol to leave his service and come to America.

    “On a more cheery note,” Scott continued, “I just received word from General Brown. He’s on his way back to Buffalo and expects to arrive within the week. He proposes to advance on the enemy no later than the end of the month.”

    Driscol grunted his satisfaction. Say what you would about Jacob Brown, the man was a fighter. The New Yorker had no formal military training at all, and was hopelessly lost when it came to the fine points of tactics and maneuvers. But he was willing to leave such matters to Scott, and, best of all, he didn’t get in Scott’s way.

    “You’ll be commanding the First Brigade, sir?”

    Scott nodded. “Yes. The Ninth, Eleventh, Twenty-second, and Twenty-fifth Regiments. Ripley will be in command of the Second Brigade.” Scott’s air of satisfaction faded a bit. “The ragtag-and-bobtail—the Pennsylvania and New York militia units; some Indians and Canadian volunteers, also—will be dignified with the title of ‘Third Brigade.’ Porter from New York will command them.”

    A politician. That figured. But Driscol didn’t care about Porter and his puffed-up “Third Brigade” any more than Scott did. Whatever real fighting was done would be done by the regulars.

    “I’ll see to it the men are ready, sir.”

    “Thank you, sergeant.”


    When Driscol entered the tent McParland shared with several other enlisted men, a quick and hard glance was all it took to send the rest scuttling hurriedly into the night beyond. McParland himself remained on his pallet, doing his best not to cower.

    His best was . . . pitiful.

    “Oh, be done with it,” Driscol growled. “The monster from Antrim got his jollies today, well enough. I just came to see how you were doing.”

    The boy sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m all right, Sergeant.” He was honest enough to add: “Once I got cleaned up, anyway.”

    Driscol studied him, for a moment. Then, pulled up the only stool in the tent and sat on it.

    “I won’t desert again, Sergeant. I promise.”

    “Promises are for officers and gentlemen, youngster. The likes of you and me have simpler ways. You tell me you won’t do it again, and there’s an end to the matter. If things turn out otherwise, I’ll shoot you myself. Certainly won’t bother wasting ammunition with another firing squad.”

    McParland wiped his nose again. “I wasn’t scared, Sergeant. Of the Brits, I mean. I was just awful homesick. I miss my mother something terrible.”

    Driscol looked at him bleakly. “Homesick? Try watching your home burn to the ground, sometime, torched by British soldiers. Miss your mother? My mother passed when I was six, taken by disease like so many on the island. I have longer memories of my father. The most vivid of them was watching him die after being chained to a tripod in the center of our town and given five hundred lashes by a British soldier.”

    The sergeant’s voice was low and level, but the cold rage that flowed underneath was enough to paralyze McParland’s nose wiping.

    “So fuck you and your homesickness, McParland,” Driscol continued. “I don’t want to hear about it. If the Sassenach win this war, you’ll have plenty to be really sick about, believe you me. And in the meantime—”

    He jabbed a stiff, stubby finger at the young soldier. “You enlisted in the United States Army and you will damn well do your duty. With no whining, no puling, no sobbing, and no pissing and shitting in your trousers. Is that clear?”

    “Yes, sir. Uh, Sergeant.”

    Driscol nodded, rose from the stool, and left the tent. Once outside, his eyes ranged from one campfire to another, looking for his next target.


    Corporal Hancock and Privates Lannigan and Wright were crouched around a campfire, exchanging sarcastic remarks about a certain incontinent teenager, when a figure stepped out of the shadows and cast a pall upon their comradely conversation.

    Short and squat, he reminded Hancock of a troll, straight out of fairy tales. Without a word of greeting, the troll moved forward into the light and squatted by the fire. Then, drew forth his dirk and began heating the blade over the flames.

    “There’s always at least one nasty bully in every regiment,” the troll commented. He rotated the blade, exposing both sides to the heat. “Pitiful, really, since they’re always such wretched amateurs.”

    The troll said nothing, for a moment. Then: “Did you admire the way I cropped the sixth one’s ears, lads? Efficient, I thought. The hot blade cauterized the wounds as soon as it made them. Saved the surgeon no end of work.”

    Hancock remembered flinching as the troll had done the manual labor involved in the punishment of the sixth deserter, who hadn’t been executed. He’d severed the man’s ears and branded his cheek—and his boot had been enough to send the man flying out of the camp.

    Apparently satisfied with the temperature of the blade, the troll withdrew it from the flames. Then, slowly, he gazed from one soldier to the next. The troll had rather light-colored eyes, Hancock recalled, at least in the sunshine. An odd shade of blue-green that matched his pale complexion. At the moment, however, they were black pits. Above those sunken eyes, the low, broad brow seemed like a stone. The nose between them, a crag; the cheeks on either side, a pair of bony bastions. It was best not to think about the mouth and jaws at all.

    “If there’s any bullying of young McParland, I’ll find out about it. Don’t think I won’t. If I question a soldier with my spirit in the work, his bowels will turn to water.”

    The hellhole eyes looked down on the blade, which was still shining slightly from the heat. “And when I do, the bullies will discover their true place in the world. Very quickly and, oh very thoroughly.”

    With that, the troll rose and left the campfire. You couldn’t say he “walked,” exactly. Human beings walk. It was more of a lurch, except that it was astonishingly quiet, and there no air of unsteadiness about it at all. The three soldiers remained silent for long moment afterward.

    “He wouldn’t,” Private Wright finally protested. “It’s against the rules.” Corporal Hancock and Private Lannigan agreed with him immediately. But the conversation around the campfire failed to regain its former wit. Before long, they went off to their separate tents.


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