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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Three

       Last updated: Saturday, April 2, 2005 16:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 43:

    “You sure, Sergeant?” McParland asked, once they reached the safety of the street, and put some distance between themselves and the doctor. “Uh, Lieutenant, I mean. I guess.”

    Technically, the promotion still hadn’t gone through. Neither had the pay increase. The wheels of the War Department turned very slowly.

    “Am I sure?” Driscol snorted. “You must be joking. If I’m to be bled any further, thank you, I’ll have it be done by bullets and bayonets. I’ll have a much better chance of surviving.”


    Driscol continued to exercise his talent for decisive command by sequestering a wagon, three blocks away. This wagon, unlike most of the ones that were crowding the streets of Baltimore, wasn’t heading toward the fortifications, laden with tools. Instead it was heading inward, toward the city center, loaded with foodstuffs.

    Best of all, the driver was a black man. Driscol didn’t have much experience with the negroes of America, but he was reasonably certain that it would be easier to browbeat this fellow than it would a white man.

    “And we’ll need you to drive it, too,” he finished. He lifted the stump of his arm. “Afraid my wagon-driving days are over, and . . .”

    He left off the rest. There was no point in publicly humiliating McParland. His family was too poor to afford a wagon, so McParland had no experience driving one. The same had been true of Driscol’s family, but he’d learned to drive a wagon as he had learned most everything except his personal beliefs and blacksmithing, during his years in Napoleon’s service.

    The lieutenant’s tone addressing the negro was firm but pleasant enough, as if he was unaware of the pistol and sword belted to his waist or the musket that McParland wasn’t quite pointing up at the black man.

    The wagon driver was relatively young, not more than thirty, and very powerfully built. At the moment, however, despite his Herculean physique, he bore a close resemblance to a rabbit paralyzed by the sight of a snake. The only thing that seemed firm about him was his grip on the reins.

    “I’m a freedman, sir,” he protested. “Was born free, too.”

    “All the better!” Driscol stated forcefully. “You won’t need an explanation to keep your master from whipping you, after he finds out that you’ve gone.”

    Despite the assuredness of his words, however, Driscol was taken aback. He had assumed that the man was a slave. His clothing was shabby, but the wagon he was guiding was well built, and obviously well maintained. From the look of the thing, Driscol had thought it belonged to a prosperous farmer. The sort of vehicle that could serve to haul produce on weekdays, and the farmer and his family to church on Sunday.

    The black man’s dark eyes flicked back and forth from Driscol to the wagon. The lovingly maintained wagon, Driscol now realized.

    The soldier from County Antrim felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was no stranger to poverty himself, and he knew how thin the shield could be that kept destitution at bay. He’d intended to write the man a note, providing him with an official excuse to deflect the wrath of his master. Now that he understood the driver was a freedman . . .

    He sighed and reached for his purse. With only one hand, the task was a bit awkward. But recent experience had taught him how to manage it, well enough.

    “It’s all I own, sir,” pleaded the negro. “Took me eight years working in the foundry to save up enough to buy it. Spend most every half cent I can raise to keep it up proper.”

    The purse now open, Driscol sighed again and dug deeply into it. That wasn’t hard to do, alas.

    At least the few coins he came up with were good Spanish currency. Unfortunately, most of those were reales, what New Englanders called ninepence and Pennsylvanians called elevenpence, but most Americans usually referred to simply as a “bit.” A reale was worth approximately one-eighth of a dollar. “Two bits” was the standard slang for a quarter dollar, since, in normal exchange, Spanish coinage was a lot more common than American.

    Still, as modest as it was, a reale was real money, and nobody doubted it. So were the two American half-eagles nestled among them. Those were genuine gold, not paper issued from a state or wildcat bank somewhere.

    The driver was still looking forlorn, although the sheer desperation that had been on his face earlier was gone. Driscol examined the wagon for a moment, estimating its worth, and then sighed again.

    “Look, my man,” he said, “the chances are that you’ll earn more money selling your produce in Washington than you will here—and you’ll probably pick up a princely payment from people desperate to be taken out of the capital.”

    “And if I don’t? What if the Sassenach burn my wagon, too?”

    Driscol was startled, hearing that term issue so unexpectedly from the lips of a black man. He’d thought most negroes in America were rather partial to the British, since one of the favored British tactics in the war was to free slaves and try to use them against their former masters. So, at least, claimed the shrill accounts in the newspapers.

    The startled look he shot the negro brought, for the first time, something other than fear and anxiety to the black man’s face. Amusement, or something close.

“They’re mostly Irishmen in Foxall’s Foundry, sir,” the driver said quietly. “I got along well with some of them.”

    The emphasis was on the word some. Driscol wasn’t surprised. Plenty of his countrymen—even former United Irishmen—had begun acting like Sassenach themselves, once they arrived in America. They did so, not because they were any richer than they’d been in Ireland, but simply because they now had negroes they could lord it over. It was a side of human nature that Driscol had seen many times. Give some men, be they never so wretched, a different breed of men they can sneer at and feel superior to, and they will often enough become the willing lickspittle of the rich and mighty.

    The fact that Driscol understood the phenomenon did not make him despise it any the less. The Sassenach had left his father dying on an iron tripod, but that Scots-Irish blacksmith’s ideals had not soaked into the ground along with his blood. Not so long as his son was still alive, anyway.

    “Some colored folk can believe the promises of Englishmen,” the driver continued, “but not me. I can read, sir. Not too well, but well enough to figure out that slaves ‘freed’ by Sassenach are just cannon fodder for ’em.”

    “And isn’t that the truth?” Driscol growled. “Stupid bastards. Just as stupid as all the Irishmen and Scotsmen who choose to wear English colors.”

    For the first time, he studied the black driver as he might study any man. And found himself feeling slightly ashamed that it was the first time he’d done so, since he’d arrived in the New World.

    “Not so ‘new’ after all, I guess,” he chided himself under his breath. “Da would whup me good.”

    “I didn’t catch that, sir.”

    “Never mind,” Driscol muttered. He reached into the special pocket of the purse and drew out his prize. Four years, now, he’d hoarded the thing. A genuine Portuguese joe, a gold coin worth about eight dollars.

    “Look here. You get us to Washington, and if anything happens to the wagon, I’ll give you this. I know it won’t replace the wagon, but it’ll go a ways toward it. And . . . well, it’s all I have.

    “But one way or the other, I am going to Washington.”


    By the time they’d reached Baltimore’s limits, the driver seemed to have relaxed. Enough to have exchanged names with Driscol—his own name was Henry Crowell—and even swap a jest.

    “Never seen a man so eager to head toward trouble. You must be running away from a woman, Lieutenant.”

    “Worse!” barked Driscol. “I’m running away from a doctor. Did you know you have leprosy, by the way?”

    Crowell’s eyes widened. He glanced at Driscol, who was sitting right beside him on the driver’s bench, and making no apparent effort to keep his distance. “If that’s so, Lieutenant, you must be crazy.”

    “It’s a special kind of leprosy,” Driscol countered. “Only negroes have it. That’s why you’re black. Not contagious to white people, not even Irishmen.”

    Crowell looked down at his dark hands, holding the reins in a sure and powerful grip. “Do tell. Where did you learn that, Lieutenant?”

    “From the same doctor I’m running from.”

    “Oh.” Crowell clucked and flipped the reins. The carriage sped up just that little bit.


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