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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty Seven

       Last updated: Friday, March 25, 2005 22:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 37:

    CHAPTER 16 June 18, 1814

    Tiana and her companions left the island before daybreak, hoping to elude the Chickasaws altogether. If they pushed hard, they’d be safe by midafternoon, and they could make it to Ross Landing by nightfall. The area around Chatanuga was not one any hostile Chickasaws would venture near.

    Her brother James predicted that the maneuver wouldn’t work, and it didn’t take long to find out that he was right. Just as the sun was coming up, they saw two canoes coming upriver toward them. Even at a distance, they could see that the canoes were packed with painted warriors.

    “Chickasaws, sure enough,” James said, reading the colors on the distant faces. That was enough, even if he couldn’t see the specific patterns yet. He swiveled and studied the river behind them.

    “Go back?” asked his brother. “Or go ashore?”

    “Neither, I think. There’s at least one canoe back there, although I can barely see it.” His eyes quickly scanned both riverbanks. “And they’ve probably got warriors in the woods, too.”

    The canoe bearing John Ross, Sequoyah, and Nancy Ward drew alongside.

    “What should we do?” asked Ross. The question was asked flatly and calmly. Technically, it could be argued that Ross was in charge of the expedition. But the young man was self-confident enough to know that James Rogers would have a better idea what to do than he would.

    “Go at them directly. That’ll keep the numbers closer to even. And they’ll have the sun in their eyes, this time of day. If we can get past them, they’ll never catch us.”

    His brother John winced. “True—if we get past them. They’ve got five men on each of those canoes, to match against our total of five.”

    Seeing that Nancy Ward was giving him a cold look, he hastily added: “Six, I mean.”

    Ward snorted, and drew a pistol from under her wrap. The Spanish-made weapon looked even older than she did. “I knew how to use this before your grandfather was born.”

    She wasn’t bragging, either. Nancy Ward had earned the title of War Woman among the Cherokee following the battle of Taliwa, against the Creeks, sixty years ago. After her husband Kingfisher had been killed, Nancy had picked up his gun and led the final charge that drove the enemy off. She’d been eighteen years old, at the time.

    “Does everyone have a gun?” asked Ross. The question was really aimed at Tiana. He already knew that the four men in the party did.

    “No,” she replied. “Just this.” She unlaced a small parcel at her feet and drew out a knife.

    James shook his head. “Actually, she does have a gun. Or will have”—he pointed into the other boat—“after you lend her your rifle.”

    Ross stared down at the weapon in question. It was a very expensive-looking rifled musket. The kind of hunting weapon that only a rich family like the Rosses could afford.


    “Don’t be stupid,” James said curtly. He bent down, lifted his own musket, and passed it forward to his brother John. “We’ve got three long guns. Sequoyah’s got one of them, and he’s a good shot. I’m giving mine to my brother, because John’s a better shot than I am. And our sister is a better shot with a rifle or musket than either one of us. Probably with a pistol, too.”

    He flashed her a grin. “But I can still outwrestle her. So can John. Although neither one of us has tried in a while. Too risky, with her temper.”

    After a moment, Ross’s face got that easy, relaxed smile Tiana had come to recognize in the days since she’d met him. He really was a very self-assured young man.

    She decided that she liked him. It was too bad that he was already married, to a woman named Quatie. He’d probably make a better husband than Sam Houston, even if he wasn’t as handsome.

    Ross handed the rifle to her across the little distance separating the canoes. “I probably couldn’t hit anything with it until we got close. And if I understand the plan right, we’re going to keep as much distance as we can.”

    He cocked an eye at James. Tiana’s brother smiled blandly.

    “We’ll go straight at the Chickasaw canoes until we get within musket range. Then we’ll veer off and try to pass them on the southern side.”

    “Shooting all the way,” his brother muttered. “As great war plans go, this one isn’t going to be remembered.”

    “Best I could come up with.” James hefted his paddle and began stroking again.

    “We’ll lead. You follow,” he said to Ross and Sequoyah. Ross was in the rear of their canoe, Sequoyah in the bow. He’d stop paddling once they got near enough, then use his musket. In the middle, Nancy Ward had her pistol resting in her lap.

    Tiana, also in the middle of her canoe, admired her newly acquired rifle. It was a beautiful-looking thing.

    “I don’t like Chickasaws,” she pronounced.

    “Who does?” said James, from behind her. “And when did you ever meet any Chickasaws?”

    “This is the first time. I’m a good judge of character.”

    That was enough to make James laugh out loud. “Saying that! With you coming on this trip for no good reason than chasing after a bird!”


    The plan went wrong right from the start. The first shot fired was by one of the oncoming Chickasaws. It was a stupid shot, made while they were still out of range.

    Dumbfounded Tiana saw her brother John twist suddenly. Then, clap one hand to his face.

    She looked down and saw that his paddle had been shot right through, shattered by the lucky bullet just below John’s grip, as he’d been raising it for another stroke. What was left of it, he tossed into the river while he pawed at his eyes.

    “Splinters,” he hissed. “Can’t see a thing.”

    “It’ll be up to you and Sequoyah, Tiana,” James said grimly. “Don’t miss.”

    He started picking up the stroke, to make good for their brother’s incapacity. Tiana gauged the distance and shook her head.

    “Stop paddling. The current’s not bad, as long as you aren’t rocking the canoe.”

    With a quick backstroke, James brought the canoe almost to a standstill. He was just as proficient with a paddle as he was with a war club. Next to him, moving more awkwardly, John Ross did the same.

    “Have at it, girl,” James said.

    Tiana brought the fancy rifle up to her shoulder, sighting down the barrel. Ross’s gun even had a rear sight, to match up against the front one. That’d be pointless with a smoothbore musket.

    The range was long, well over a hundred yards, and probably closer to two. On dry land, braced properly, Tiana would have been confident enough in the shot, even with one of her father’s muskets. Here, sitting in a canoe braced only with her own knees . . .

    But the current was smooth, so the canoe was almost steady now that James had stopped paddling. And with the rising sun behind her, she had an excellent view of the target.

    She’d trust John Ross, she decided. He might be a bad shot, but by all accounts the man was a shrewd trader. He’d have bought the best rifle available.

    She aimed at the lead warrior in the canoe on the left. She’d try for a belly shot, as low as she could. If she missed, at least she might damage the canoe.

    As always, when the gun went off, she was a little surprised. One of the reasons Tiana was such a good shot was that she knew how to squeeze a trigger instead of jerking it. She ascribed that to the superior virtues of women, trained in such practical and patient arts as sewing. Men, hunters, always tried to do things with a swagger.

    “Hoo!” she heard James bellow. “Knocked him flat!”

    She looked up and saw that he was right. Her shot must have caught the Chickasaw in the bow square on.

    As good a rifle as Ross would have bought, her bullet might have passed right through the first man and hit the one behind him. The whole crew of that canoe collapsed into a confused pile, and the craft itself began yawing to the side.

    She glanced at the canoe next to hers, and saw that Sequoyah had already assessed the new situation. He had his own musket up, aiming it at the other canoe.

    Then, he shook his head and lowered the weapon. “Still too far, with my gun. If I miss the shot, I’ll have to waste time reloading.”

    “Keep paddling ahead?” Ross asked.

    “No,” replied James. “Just keep the boats steady in the current, to give Sequoyah and Tiana as good a shot as possible. Let them come to us, while the sun’s still half blinding them. The longer it takes, the better. Tiana will need a lot of time to reload that rifle.”

    He twisted in his seat, squinting back. “The canoe behind us is still a long way upriver. I’m sure they thought we’d go ashore. So they stayed back as far as possible. That way they wouldn’t be swept past our landing spot by the current.”

    Tiana heard her brother John chuckle, even as he kept wiping his eyes. “Can you blame them? Who’d expect Cherokees to turn a simple river fight into a stupid formal duel? Good thing our father isn’t here.”

    Tiana chuckled herself. Her father had fought a number of duels in his life, but not one of them had been what you could call “formal.” Hell-Fire Jack’s opinion of formality in a gunfight ranked somewhere below his opinion of worms.

    Best time to shoot a man is before he’s even got a gun in his hand. Better yet, before he’s even looking at you. Best of all, when he’s drunk or asleep, or both.

    “Stop pawing at your eyes!” Tiana snapped, trying to keep her mind focused. “Splash some water on your face.” Unkindly, she added: “Even blind, you ought to be able to find some water. We’re in the middle of a river.”

    John leaned over and stretched out his right hand. Then, started splashing water into his eyes.

    “They say white men have tender and sensitive girls for sisters,” he muttered. “Mothers, too.”

    “Not that I’ve seen,” Tiana retorted.“Maybe in the East. The way Sam tells it, his mother—”

    “Tiana!” James barked.“You’d better get started on your reload. That’s a rifle, not a smoothbore musket.”


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