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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirty Eight

       Last updated: Saturday, March 26, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 38:

    The reproof was unnecessary, since Tiana had already started. But, in the time that followed—it seemed like half a day—she realized why James had spoken so sharply.

    Tiana had never fired a rifle before, and had been delighted by the result. Now, reloading one, she understood why warriors tended to curse the things— and why even American or European armies rarely used them.

    A smoothbore musket could be reloaded in less than a minute. A rifle . . .

    At one point, she almost despaired completely. Trying to force the bullet down that long and rifled barrel with a ramrod wasn’t beyond her strength, as such. Tiana was a very big woman and had the muscles to match her size. If she’d been standing, she’d have done it readily enough. Not easily, no. But she’d have done it, since she could have leaned her weight into the task.

    But sitting in a canoe! That required pure strength of arm and shoulder. Nor did she dare to use the measure of last resort, which would have been to slam the butt against the ground. As dangerous as that was on dry land—the gun could easily go off—it was impossible in a canoe. Any impact hard enough to force the bullet down past the rifling would punch right through the thin hull.

    Somewhere in the middle of her labors, she heard Sequoyah’s musket go off. Again, James gave out that exultant “hoo!,” but Tiana didn’t look up.

    “Just wounded him, I think,” she heard Sequoyah say apologetically.

    “Who cares?” came James’s reply. “That other canoe just started moving again, and now this one will be slowed. We’ll have time for at least one more shot for both of you. For that matter, we’ve got John’s—”

    Tiana shook her head. “No. I want to save John’s musket until the end.”

    She glanced up quickly, then focused back on her task. “They’re still more than a hundred yards off. I probably couldn’t hit them with the musket anyway. I’m surprised Sequoyah did.”

    Eventually, it was done. Tiana had barely enough strength left to bring the rifle back to her shoulders, and she worried that she might be too weak to hold the gun steady.

    It didn’t matter. By now, the nearest Chickasaw canoe was within fifty yards. That was the one Sequoyah had targeted, not the one she’d shot at.

    At that range, Tiana could hit practically anything, even with a smoothbore.

    Two of the Chickasaws, she saw, had already fired their guns. One, a musket; the other—stupid fool!—a pistol. Vaguely, she could remember hearing the sounds of the gunshots.

    That left one Chickasaw with a loaded gun, the man farthest to the rear. He was starting to bring his musket up.

    Tiana blew him right out of the canoe. Ross’s rifle was a heavy caliber, with a bore well over half an inch. The bullet must have struck the man in the middle of the chest. He almost did a full back somersault before his body hit the water.

    Then Sequoyah’s gun fired again. The Chickasaw with the pistol seemed to fold up and collapse into the canoe.

    “Three down!” barked James. “Forget that one. We’ll go around them, Ross. Start paddling.”

    A moment later, both canoes were driving through the water again. Not a moment too soon, either. Out of the corner of her eye, Tiana saw something flashing toward them.

    Turning her head, she saw an arrow plunge into the river, not more than five yards away. A second later, another one did the same, even closer.

    Looking up, she could see several Chickasaw warriors on the north bank of the river. They were armed with bows. The traditional weapons were too awkward to use well in a canoe, so they must have given their few guns to the men who’d be carrying the attack onto the river.

    They weren’t awkward to use on land, though. And “traditional” didn’t mean the same as “ineffective.” They were within bow range, too, even if at the extreme edge of it.

    Tiana had seen the results of wounds inflicted by arrows. Worse than gunshot wounds, usually, since it was impossible to draw out the barbed arrowheads. They either had to be cut out or pushed all the way through the flesh.

    Removing the hideous things often caused more damage than the initial wound itself. They had to be removed, too. Bullets, dull and blunt, normally did little further damage once they were lodged in a body. And they tended to work their own way out, over time.

    Not arrowheads, with their sharp edges. They’d keep cutting up flesh every time a person moved—and the barbs would make them work their way still deeper.

    James was obviously of the same mind. Instead of staying as far away from the enemy canoe as possible, he steered directly for it. The enemy warriors on the shore wouldn’t dare fire at them, right next to one of their own canoes. Although they were still within bow range, they were far enough away that the Chickasaws on the shore couldn’t aim very carefully.

    “Get ready,” he hissed. “There’s still two of them left in that canoe.”

    Three, really, since the man Sequoyah had wounded wasn’t completely out of the fight. In fact, he seemed to have the only remaining unfired gun. A pistol, which he could use even with one shoulder maimed. If he was tough enough.

    He was. Tiana could see him raising the pistol, grimacing like a madman. At the point-blank range James was bringing them into, he couldn’t possibly miss.

    “Here!” she heard John cry out. Still blinded from the splinters, her brother had been cool-headed enough to follow the progress of the battle by hearing alone. He was holding up his musket, thrusting it in her direction, gripping it one-handed by the barrel.

    Even if Tiana had had the time to reload Ross’s rifle, she wouldn’t have had the strength. But the musket was already loaded. All she had to do was shoot.

    She brought it quickly to her shoulder. But then she realized that James had already brought their canoe almost even with the enemy’s.

    The Chickasaw canoe was on her right. Tiana was right-handed.

    She didn’t even think to shift the butt to her left shoulder. That would have made for an awkward shot, but still an easy one to make, at such close range.

    Instead, from reflex and excitement, she twisted and rose to a crouch. Brought the musket up.

    “Tiana!” James shouted.

    She fired the gun. The Chickasaw with the pistol went over the side of his canoe, spraying blood everywhere. The bullet had struck him in the neck, just above the chestbone.

    Tiana went right over the side of her own canoe, almost capsizing it. Her brother’s musket had been as heavy a caliber as Ross’s rifle. Half standing as she’d been, poorly balanced, the recoil had sent her sailing.

    But she didn’t let go of the musket. Tiana was almost as good a swimmer as her brothers, so she had her head back above the water within seconds. This time she’d remembered to close her mouth, too. She shook her head vigorously, to clear her eyes.

    Unfortunately, that shook loose her turban, which must have starting coming undone somewhere in the course of the fight. Tiana’s hair was long, and black—and she never tied it back when she was wearing a turban. So, at the same time that she shook water out of her eyes, she shook her hair into them.

    By the time she clawed the hair aside, the two canoes were side by side. James was now standing, his legs spaced and maintaining his balance. He held his paddle as easily as a war club.

    One of the two remaining Chickasaws swung his own paddle. James parried the blow easily and then batted the man off the canoe. It was almost a gentle swipe. James simply wanted to clear him aside so he could concentrate on the second warrior, and he didn’t want to risk losing his own balance.

    Fighting in a canoe was ...tricky. As Tiana had just discovered.

    The Chickasaw turned his plunge off the canoe into a fairly graceful dive. He landed in the water not far from Tiana herself. But she paid him no attention, since her eyes were riveted on the battle between James and the last warrior in the canoe.

    James would win it, she was sure of that. She’d been told by old warriors that James was as good with a war club as any they’d ever seen—and a paddle makes for a pretty fair improvisation.

    But he never had to. Another gun went off, just as the Chickasaw was rearing up for a strike. A pistol, by the sound. That surprised Tiana, since—if she remembered everything clearly—by now Sequoyah would have had his musket reloaded.

    She looked over at the other canoe and saw that the shot had been fired by Nancy Ward. There was something grim and merciless about the old woman’s eyes as she watched the last Chickasaw topple overboard.

    Nancy Ward was almost eighty years old. For a moment, Tiana was frozen by the sight. Half exultant—if she could be like that, at that age!—and half-petrified. It was like watching some ancient, terrible creature, rising from its lair.


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