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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Two

       Last updated: Friday, April 1, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 42:

    CHAPTER 19

    Patrick Driscol gazed out of the upper-story window of his boardinghouse in Baltimore, at the crowd swarming in the streets below. The citizens of Baltimore, unlike those of the capital, had responded to the news of the British landing with determination, instead of panic. These crowds weren’t loading carriages with their goods in order to flee the city before the enemy arrived. They were loading wagons with provisions and tools, in order to strengthen the fortifications that would keep the Sassenach from entering Baltimore in the first place.

    “The difference is always in the quality of command,” Driscol stated. “Remember that, lad.”

    He pointed a stubby finger toward Fort McHenry. “To be sure, having a real fortress helps. But those idiots in the War Department could have done as much for Washington—and still can, if they try. Well enough to hold off this sorry lot of invaders, who are gambling like madmen with this risky attack on Washington. But, sadly for us, and for reasons I cannot begin to imagine, Secretary Armstrong chose to place the capital’s defenses under the command of ”—he pronounced the name with clear disgust—“Brigadier General William Winder. Who is a complete and unmitigated incompetent ass.”

    “He was polite enough to you when you reported for duty,” McParland pointed out. “Even if he did tell you there was no suitable military housing in Washington, and that you’d have to come up here to Baltimore.”

    “I didn’t say he was an impolite bastard. I said he was an incompetent ass. The fact that a man may be a gentleman does not qualify him to be a commanding general.

    “As a colonel, Winder undermined Smyth at Black Rock—no great accomplishment, though, seeing as Smyth was an incompetent ass himself. For that, the powers that be made Winder a brigadier. Then, he and Chandler botched the campaign at Stoney Creek. Even managed to get themselves captured while wandering around in the dark. Whereupon, after Winder was returned in a prisoner exchange, the War Department rewarded him again, placing the silly dolt in charge of the capital’s defenses.”

    Driscol surveyed the mob milling below, noting the firm purpose in what easily could have degenerated into chaos.

    “On the other hand, I’ve got to give credit here to the mayor of the town, who rallied its citizens. And to their own trust in Lieutenant Colonel Armistead and his regular troops and sailors manning Fort McHenry. Confidence, lad, that’s the key. Even with militiamen and civilian volunteers, you can accomplish wonders so long as you are confident. Baltimore will stand, watch and see if I’m not right. Whereas Washington . . .”

    He shook his head gloomily. “Winder is the sort of man who frets every morning over which boot to put on first. He’ll dilly and dally and charge back and forth, issuing orders which contradict the orders he gave an hour before— and, all the while, preventing anyone more capable from taking charge.”

    McParland stared to the south, toward Washington. “Good thing we’re here in Baltimore, then.”

    Driscol started to say something, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door. He recognized the knock as that of their elderly landlady. Mrs. Young was a timid woman, and she never presumed to enter the room without knocking at least three times, each knock more hesitant than the last.

    So it was a surprise to see that the door suddenly flew open before either he or McParland had a chance to move toward it. A beefy and imposing man came bursting through, almost pushing Mrs. Young aside.

    “There you are!” the fellow boomed, half cheerfully and half accusingly. He placed a large valise on the table by the door. Judging from the clump it made coming down, the thing was heavy. “The merry chase you’ve led me!”

    Driscol didn’t say anything, peering back and forth between the man and his valise. That thing looked suspiciously familiar.

    His worst fears were confirmed. The voice continued to boom.

    “Winfield made me promise him I’d take you under my care! I daren’t do otherwise, you know, now that word’s come down that he’ll survive his own wounds! So let’s be at it!”

    Driscol stared at him in horror. The lofty brow. The blue eyes, gleaming with certainties. The firm mouth—no hesitations there—and the chin, which was firmer still.

    “Dr., ah, Boulder?” he croaked. “Jeremy Boulder?”

    “The very same!” boomed the doctor. Then he saw the dismay so apparent on Driscol’s face. “Oh, you needn’t worry about the expense, my good fellow! Winfield assured me that he’d cover the bill, even if the War Department reneged.”

    Boulder opened the valise and began rummaging within. “You’re a very fortunate man, you know. I studied under Benjamin Rush himself.”

    Driscol, always calm in battle, felt light-headed and dizzy. Benjamin Rush was the most famous doctor in the United States, a towering figure in American medicine. It was also said of him that he’d drained more blood than all the generals in North America.

    Sure enough . . .

    “We’ll start with the leeches, of course. Then put you on a rigid regimen of daily puking and purging. Plenty of dosages of calomel, it goes without saying. A wondrous drug! ‘The Sampson of Materia Medica,’ Dr. Rush calls it.”

    Driscol didn’t doubt it. Like Samson, calomel had slain its thousands.

    Benjamin Rush was nothing if not a theoretical man. One of his many theories, Driscol had been told, was that negroes were caused by a peculiar form of leprosy. No telling what the great doctor might prescribe as the remedy for that condition. Skin the poor black bastards alive, probably, and smear calomel over the bodies. After bleeding them with leeches.

    It was time for Driscol to demonstrate his own command qualities, now that he stared certain death in the face. He reached out his remaining hand, seized McParland’s arm in a grip of iron, and propelled the youngster toward the door.

    “I’m afraid that’ll all have to wait, Doctor. Just got our orders. We’re commanded—at once—to Washington, to join in the capital’s defense. We’ll face a firing squad if we dally.”

    He shouldered the doctor aside as he passed through the door. With his left shoulder, having no choice in the matter, which produced a spike of agony. The stump still hadn’t completely healed.

    But Driscol ignored the pain resolutely. Wounds, even great ones like the loss of an arm, could be dealt with. Death was absolute.

    Boulder boomed protests behind them as Driscol hurried his young companion down the steep and rickety staircase. All water off Driscol’s back. Far better to face the Sassenach in all their fury than a proper doctor.

    At the foot of the stairs, he paused just long enough to retrieve their weapons from the closet where Mrs. Young had insisted they be kept. Then he located their landlady and paid her the rent due.

    “Will you be back?” she asked in a quavering voice. She glanced nervously toward the stairs. The door at the top shut with a bang.

    “May as well rent out the room to someone else,” Driscoll gruffed. He could see the doctor’s thick legs coming down the staircase. Each step, naturally, boomed. “Who knows when we’ll be back, if at all?”

    He hustled McParland through the front door before the doctor could make his way down. “The vagaries of a soldier’s life, I’m afraid! S’been a pleasure staying in your house, Mrs. Young.”


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