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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 20, 2005 11:55 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 56:

    “Don’t worry yourself about the rockets, Lieutenant, at least not beyond the question of morale. The truth? Congreves are frightening, when you first encounter them, but their effect is almost entirely upon the mind. As actual weapons, they don’t amount to much.”

    Driscol’s blocky face showed no expression at all. “I’d come to suspect as much, from the accounts I’d heard. Inaccurate, I take it?”

    Barney chuckled. “If I was one of the men firing them, I’d be as concerned that the blasted things might decide to land on me as on the enemy. Not to mention the fact that they’re bloody dangerous to fire in the first place. From what I’ve seen, they’re far more likely to blow up in your face than even the most poorly made cannon.”

    Driscol and Barney simultaneously scanned the chamber. They were both gauging the walls that lay beneath the fancy trappings.

    “The rockets have no real breaching power, either,” Barney stated. “To take the Capitol, firmly defended, the British would be far better off with some real siege guns. But I saw no such at Bladensburg.”

    The stump of Driscol’s left arm twitched, as if he’d begun an old gesture that was now impossible. A moment later, with a rueful little smile on his face, the lieutenant brought up his right hand to scratch his chin.

    “The big guns from a ship of the line would do the trick,” he commented. “But can you imagine the difficulty of taking such out of a ship, and hauling them here all the way from the coast?”

    Barney smiled. “I’m a naval officer myself, Lieutenant Driscol. That’s not a chore I’d want to be assigned, for a surety.” He shook his head. “No, I don’t think you need worry about siege guns. As I said, I saw none at Bladensburg. In fact, I saw little proper artillery at all in the possession of the enemy. Just a barrage of Congreves. Less than a handful of field pieces—two three-pounders and one six-pounder, nothing more.”

    His good humor faded. “Mind you, the Congreves did quite well when it came to panicking our troops. But that was on an open field, with little enough in the way of shelter. Worst of all, of course, was that our top command was—”

    He cleared his throat. “Well. Inadequate to the task, let’s say.”

    Barney peered up at Driscol. The lieutenant was not tall, but he seemed as wide and solid as an old oak.

    “I daresay that won’t be a problem here.”

    Driscol’s answering smile was a cool thing, just barely this side of cold.

    “No, sir. That’ll not be a problem here. Captain Houston’s not got much in the way of experience, but he’s stalwart—and I believe I’ll be able to make good his lack when it comes to the rest.”

    “Yes, I imagine you will.” Barney glanced around the chamber again. “It’s possible that one of the rockets might by great poor chance come through one of the windows—and then, by still greater poor chance, explode at that very inopportune moment. If so, you’ll suffer some bad casualties. But even then, the havoc will be confined to one room of the building.”

    Driscol nodded. “I’ve already seen to a surgery, sir. As it happens, there were several doctors among the Baltimore volunteers. Enough to staff surgeries in both wings of the Capitol.”

    “Proper doctors, is it?” The commodore decided to keep his true feelings to himself. “Well. That’ll bolster the men’s confidence.”

    From the momentary look that flashed across the lieutenant’s face, Barney suspected that Driscol shared his own low opinion of “proper doctors.” In truth, for all that the Cherokee girl’s immodesty had startled Barney, he was rather inclined to think that her savage Indian methods of medicine were less likely to produce bad results than those of educated white doctors. For many years now, Barney had noted that the death rate of wounded men taken to a hospital was worse than it was when they were tended on an open field, or even left to their own self-treatment.

“Humours,” the doctors claimed, were at the bottom of all illness and disease. If so, Barney was convinced, the “humours” which seemed to follow doctors around were worse than any other.

    Lieutenant Ross came in, this time alone. “Captain Houston would like to see you, Lieutenant. He thinks the enemy are beginning their attack.”

    Driscol departed at once. Barney was pleased, but not surprised, to see the way the man moved—with a tread that covered ground swiftly, but still seemed sure, rather than hurried or nervous. The commodore knew that tread, allowing for the difference between one learned on soil and one learned on a rolling ship’s deck. Just so had he himself moved, in times past, when battle loomed.

    “Damned if I don’t think we’ll win this thing,” he said softly to himself. “And wouldn’t that be a wonder, to save a day I’d thought already lost in ignominy.”

    The pain and weariness threatened to overwhelm him, now. He gave Tiana a pleading look, and within seconds she had him lowered back on the settee. She was a very graceful girl, he thought, as well as a strong one.

    “When this is over,” he murmured, “I’ll speak to some people I know. I’m quite sure a good school can be found for the children.”

    Tiana’s expression bore a sudden undertone of anger. Barney chuckled. “Oh, please, girl. For you, of course, something more suitable would have to be arranged.”

    That seemed to mollify her.

    But what? he wondered, closing his eyes. There was a notable shortage of finishing schools for Amazons. Nary a single one, as far as he knew.

    He heard a familiar hissing sound, muted by the walls, but quite audible nonetheless.

    “Well, it’s started,” he said.

    “Are those the Congreve rockets you and the lieutenant were talking about?” asked one of the Cherokee boys.

    “Oh, yes. Nasty-sounding things, aren’t they? But don’t be afraid.”

    “I’m not!” insisted the lad stoutly. “Just curious.”

    The commodore didn’t believe that for an instant. He himself, for all his experience, had been a little shaken by the dragon fire when he first encountered it. But the boy seemed to believe it, which was all that really mattered.

    Joshua Barney couldn’t have recited a single verse of the Iliad to save his life or soul. Yet he had no doubt at all that, thousands of years earlier, boys in bronze armor standing atop and in front of the walls of Troy had assured themselves that they were really not afraid.

    All lies, of course. But lies that they made true, because they believed them.


    All traces of twilight were gone by the time Monroe and his escort reached the president’s mansion. But, even in the dark of night, it was impossible to miss the Capitol. That would have been true even if the Naval Yard hadn’t been burning like an inferno. A barrage of rockets was blazing down upon the seat of the nation’s legislature, adding its own flaring illumination. Clearly enough, the British had decided to soften up the defenses by a bombardment, before trying to storm them.

    “Are you certain about this, sir?” asked the lieutenant. The young officer nodded nervously toward the Capitol. “Be a risky business, that, trying to get in.”

    James Monroe hesitated, before he answered. Now that the task of smuggling his way into a fortress under siege was actually at hand, he found himself hesitating a bit. What sane man wouldn’t?

    On the other hand, ambition and honor impelled him powerfully forward.

    Ambition, because as secretary of state he was widely considered President Madison’s logical successor. Armstrong would take the blame for this disaster. If Monroe took his stand with the men defending the Capitol, he would come out of it smelling like the proverbial rose. Assuming he survived, of course. But that was always a risk for one who chose to lead a nation.

    Even more, there was honor at stake, too. In the end, perhaps, the survival of the nation itself. Monarchs and their courtiers might flee their capitals easily enough, because their legitimacy was a matter of blood. But if no leading elected official of a republic placed himself beside the valiant junior officers who were resisting the enemy in that republic’s very capital, when given the chance, could such a republic deserve the name at all?

    “Yes, I’m quite sure. Lead the way, Lieutenant—and quickly. If we arrive before the British fully launch their assault, we should be able to make an entry through one of the western doors.”


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