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Rivers of War: Snippet Forty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 6, 2005 15:00 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 46:

    “I will have those twelve-pounders, sir!” Sam Houston insisted, rising in the saddle. “What’s the gol-derned use of hauling the things all the way to Georgetown?”

    After clambering aboard his own horse, William Simmons glared at him.

    “None, Captain, for all I know! But General Winder has given explicit orders for all troops to abandon the capital and rally at Georgetown. Unless you intend to be insubordinate, you must follow his orders. And so must I—and I will not have these guns fall into the hands of the enemy!”

    Sam studied the man for a moment. Simmons was an accountant for the War Department, for whom the entire day had been hours of sheer chaos. The intense heat of an August day in Washington didn’t help matters. There were clouds gathering in the sky, but the humidity was as intense as ever. By now, in the middle of the afternoon, the man was a festering bundle of weariness, anger, uncertainty, and confusion.

    Unfortunately, although he was a civilian, Simmons’s position gave him something in the way of authority here, for the mob of militiamen who’d gathered around the president’s house. The fact that Simmons had taken it upon himself to order the mansion’s sole remaining servant to bring out the presidential brandy and serve it as refreshments for the soldiers had sealed the matter.


    There was no point in pulling out lofty citations from the Iliad in this situation. That left wheedling and conniving. Sam was good at both of those, too, if his mother’s opinion was anything to go by.

    Sam gave the accountant his most winning smile, then pointed to the carriage of the nearest twelve-pounder, perched beside the front gate of the president’s house. “I ask you to consider something, sir. These are ornamental guns, you know. Look at the carriages. Purely decorative! Those wheels will break long before you could reach the heights of Georgetown.”

    Simmons stared at the two cannons. Sam’s statements were . . .

    Preposterous. The field guns were perfectly serviceable, and their carriages in splendid condition.

    Before he could say anything, however, Sam hurried on, now speaking quietly. “It’s an explanation, after all, should General Winder ever inquire about the matter.”

    For a moment, Sam thought Simmons’s angry expression was aimed at him.

    “That’s hardly likely!” the accountant snapped. Then, sourly: “I was dismissed from the War Department just last month, you know—after twenty years of service.” His expression turned more sullen than ever. “’Twas due to a clash between myself and Secretary of War Armstrong, concerning proper accounting procedures. All the sense in the world is wasted on men like him and Winder.”

    For a moment, Sam considered using Simmons’s newly admitted lack of authority against him. But that wouldn’t do much good with the militiamen who surrounded them. In Sam’s experience, men were prone to support any fine fellow who handed out free liquor.

    Again, Odysseus was called for, not Achilles.

    “It was certainly unfortunate that Secretary Armstrong chose to place General Winder in command of the city’s defenses. What could he have been thinking?”

    “What, indeed!” Simmons barked. He gazed for a moment longer on the twelve-pounders, before his eyes came back to Sam.

    “And just what do you propose to do with them, my fine young captain? Two twelve-pounders will hardly hold off the enemy.”

    Truth to tell, Sam didn’t really have a good answer to that question. All he knew was that the moment he caught sight of those two splendid guns, when he and his companions arrived at the president’s house, he was bound and determined to do something with them.

    But this was no time for public uncertainty. “General Jackson had but a six-and a three-pounder at the Horseshoe Bend, you know. I was there, and I can tell you they gave excellent service.”

    That was a black lie. The things had been completely useless, and Sam had the scar on his leg to prove it. Nevertheless, he pressed on with assurance and good cheer. “These will do well enough, Mr. Simmons.”

“And how do you even propose to use them? You told me you were an infantry officer, not an artilleryman. You’re facing British regulars here, Captain, not wild savages.”

    Mention of “wild savages” drew the accountant’s skeptical eyes to Sam’s small group of companions.

    Fortunately, Sequoyah and the Ridge children had donned American clothing that morning. Unfortunately, the Rogers brothers had done no such thing. James hadn’t even bothered to tuck away his beloved war club.

    Tiana Rogers was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, she too had outfitted herself in American apparel for the occasion. On the other hand, the big girl was far too imposing and good-looking, in her exotic way, not to draw attention to herself.

    Skepticism was growing rapidly in the accountant’s expression. Sam drew himself up haughtily.

    “A delegation from the Cherokee Nation, sent here expressly by General Jackson. Even includes two of their princesses.”

    Nancy Ridge looked suitably solemn and demure.

    Tiana, alas, grinned like a hoyden.

    Best to distract the accountant, Sam thought hurriedly. He pointed a finger at John Ross, whose appearance and uniform made him look like a white man. “Lieutenant Ross here is a wizard with artillery, sir. Very experienced with the big guns.”

    John’s eyes widened. Sam ignored him and pressed forward.

    “Oh, yes,” he said, chuckling. “General Jackson gave him no choice in the matter, seeing as how the lieutenant can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a pistol or a musket. But give him a proper-size gun—!”

    Wide as saucers.

    Forward, ever forward.

    “Indeed so. Ross is murderous with the big guns. He’ll wreak havoc upon the enemy, Mr. Simmons, be sure of it! Grapeshot is his preferred ball, of course.”

    Then, Sam decided it was time to add a modicum of truth to the matter. Just a pinch.

    “Look, Mr. Simmons,” he said softly, almost conspiratorially. “I don’t honestly know if the lieutenant can make good his bloodthirsty boasts. Achilles himself would be daunted by the task. But if nothing else, he and I are determined not to let the British come into the city. Certainly not without at least firing some shots. We need those guns, sir.”

    By now, a large crowd of soldiers had gathered around the two men on horseback. While they’d been arguing, a new batch of men had come up and pushed their way to the front of the mob. These looked to be under some sort of discipline, at least, even if the lieutenant in command had only one arm and was riding on a wagon instead of a horse.

    On the positive side, the newly arrived officer was glaring at Simmons, not Sam. Quite a ferocious glare it was, too. The one-armed lieutenant’s face looked as if it belonged to Grendel’s brother, or one of the monsters in the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. Simmons spotted the same ogre’s glare. He threw up his hands.

    “Oh, do as you will, then! The cannons are yours, Captain Houston, if you’d be such a fool.”

    And with that, he rode off.

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