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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty One

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2005 23:37 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 31:

    For a moment, the clouds of gun smoke cleared enough for Driscol to see what Scott was doing with the other regiments. He understood the maneuver immediately—and it was all he could do not to whoop with glee.

    Driscol’s own Twenty-second Regiment had pinned the British, and now—finally, at last!—an American army had a general worthy of its soldiers. Scott would match their confidence with his own, using the kind of bold and daring stroke that Napoleon would have favored.

    Suddenly, the sergeant was spun completely around. The blow didn’t even register as such until he stumbled to one knee. Then, looking down at his left arm, saw that a musket ball had struck it.

    Destroyed it, rather. Driscol had seen more battle wounds than he could remember. If he survived the battle, he knew that he was looking at an amputation.

    At the very least. The elbow was a shattered mass of flesh and blood. That meant an amputation somewhere in the upper arm, not the lower. Most men did not survive such, not in the conditions of a battlefield surgery. Not for long. If blood loss and shock didn’t kill them, infection would.

    So be it. It was a given that wounded men died after battles. Winners and losers alike. All that mattered was victory.

    Then the pain arrived, in a searing wave that all but blinded him for a moment. He gritted his teeth, and pulled away from it by sheer force of will. Still on one knee, Driscol called out the commands.

    Reload! Ten paces forward!


    It seemed to McParland as if the troll’s voice was a bit off. But he didn’t give it much thought. Truth to tell, the young soldier was hardly thinking at all any longer. Reality had shrunk down to an endless cycle of repeated actions. There was nothing much beyond that, other than noticing—briefly, and without dwelling on the matter—the bodies of his mates as they were flung aside or crumpled to the ground, often showing hideous wounds.

    So it came as a complete surprise when he stumbled across the troll’s body as he stepped forward into the gunsmoke.

    Stumble against it, rather. The troll was down on one knee, but he wasn’t dead. His left arm looked to be a complete ruin from the elbow down, and he was awkwardly trying to bind it up with his one good hand. McParland realized that he had shouted the last orders even after he had been wounded.

    Very badly wounded, from the look of it.

    The troll glanced up at him. “Bind this for me, would you? Then help me up.”

    Confused, McParland looked down at his musket. How was he supposed to . . .

    “Just put the bloody thing down!” the troll rasped. “Consider yourself on detached duty for the rest of the battle, young McParland. I promise I won’t stand you before a firing squad.”

    McParland had been trained to dress wounds, so once his mind cleared, he set down the musket and went about the business, quickly and efficiently. That done, he helped the troll to get back on his feet.

    “Where are the boys, lad? I’m feeling a bit light-headed.”

    McParland did a quick estimate, in the battle murk.

    “They’ve made the paces, Sergeant.”

    The young private didn’t think, with a wound like that, he’d have been able to do more than croak. Or scream. But the troll’s bellowing, piercing voice had not a quaver in it this time.


    The volley hammered every other thought or sensation aside. It really was like standing right next to a lightning bolt. Or so McParland imagined. He’d never actually stood right next to a lightning bolt, since he wasn’t insane.

    Or hadn’t been, at least, until some mad impulse he could no longer remember clearly had led him to volunteer for the army.

    Amazingly, the troll was now grinning.

    “It’s going well, lad. I can tell. The volleys have that sure and certain victorious air about them.”

    McParland had no idea how the troll had come to that conclusion. As far as he could tell, the universe was a place of sheer confusion. The volleys weren’t so much sounds as periodic, paralyzing bursts of chaos.

    Still, the words cheered him up.

    Why not? If anyone could make sense out of this madness, it would be a troll.

    “Help me forward now, lad. I will not fall until I see the Sassenach broken. In front of me, goddamn them. Lying at my feet, whipped like curs.”

    Again, that voice. Like a lightning bolt itself.


    Ten paces forward!


    The aide saw the truth before Riall could bring himself to accept it.

    “If we pull back now, sir, we can still salvage the army. Wait another few minutes, and...”

    Riall glared at him. Then, went back to glaring at the battlefield.

    The aide waited.

    A minute went by. Then another.

    The British army was caught in a vise from which they barely had time to extricate themselves. Scott’s flanking attack, however reckless it might have been, had been carried out so well and so swiftly that Riall’s forces hadn’t been able to move quickly enough to counter it.

    In truth, they hadn’t moved at all. The American lines in front of them had never flinched. Indeed, had kept coming forward every time they fired.

    “Never seen the like,” Riall muttered. “What has Cousin Jonathan been eating lately?”

    French food, the aide was tempted to reply. But, wisely, he refrained from uttering the quip. Riall didn’t have a good sense of humor even on his best days.

    Which this one most certainly was not.

    “Order retreat. We’ll fall back across the Chippewa, while we still hold the bridge.”


    The British soldiers didn’t start breaking until the order came. Even then, stiffened by professional training and experience, they were never routed. But the last few minutes were ghastly. Captain Townsend brought his guns forward and added canister to the havoc being wreaked by the American musketeers, who were now firing from oblique angles into a mass of soldiers caught in the closing trap.

    They got out, but not before they left more than five hundred men on the field, dead or wounded.

    American casualties were only three hundred or so.


    “I’m still alive,” McParland said wonderingly. “Not a scratch on me.”

    The troll said nothing. Just watched, with a look of satisfaction on his face fiercer than anything McParland had ever seen, as the last British soldiers stumbled across the distant bridge. The ground that lay between them and that bridge looked like a red carpet, from the uniforms on the broken bodies covering it. And the blood, of course.

    The most amazing thing happened then. McParland never told anyone, afterward, because he knew he’d be called a liar. But the troll’s eyes filled with tears.

    “Those bastards broke two of my nations,” he heard him whisper. “They won’t break this one.”

    After a few seconds, McParland cleared his throat. “. . . Sergeant, we’d really better get you to the surgeon. That’s a nasty wound. Really nasty.”

    The sergeant glanced down at his left arm.

    “Oh, aye. I’ll lose most of it. I doubt me if even a top surgeon in Philadelphia could fix this ruin—and there’ll be no top surgeons in an army camp, you can be sure of that.”

    McParland turned him around and they began hobbling away.

    “On the bright side,” Driscol continued, “I’ll just grow myself another arm.”

    By the time McParland got him to the surgeon’s tent, he decided the sergeant was joking. He wasn’t certain, though.


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