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Rivers of War: Snippet Fifty Seven

       Last updated: Friday, April 22, 2005 17:55 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 57:

    CHAPTER 24

    The moment Driscol emerged onto the open area between the twin buildings of the Capitol and looked across the ground to the east, he knew that the Sassenach were, indeed, forming up for the attack.

    Even in the relative darkness, they were an impressive sight. The scarlet uniforms weren’t bright, of course, the way they would have been in daylight. But the martial color was clear enough, in the red glow reflected from the low clouds that now covered the sky. The huge, flickering flames from the Navy Yard reflected off the metal trimmings and the gun barrels and the brassards on the shakos, making the assembled force seem even more menacing than it would in daylight.

    There was something demonic about the appearance of that half-visible army threatening the Capitol; as if those lobster uniforms were filled with great clawed monsters in fact, instead of men.

    Driscol took a deep breath, as he always did before a battle in which he faced British soldiers. He needed that breath, to still an old terror. The very first time he’d seen that sight had been on the road from Randallstown, where the Sassenach had broken the men of County Antrim. Sixteen years old, he’d been that day, armed with nothing better than a pike.

    He’d spent the night that followed hiding in the fields, while the British hunted down the United Irishmen and slaughtered them without mercy. Prisoners, the wounded—the Sassenach had murdered them all, and dumped the corpses in a sandpit. One of the bodies had been that of Driscol’s older brother.

    As always, that one deep breath was enough. His eyes ranged the artillery battery, taking satisfaction in what he saw. The guns themselves were manned by Barney’s sailors, which meant he’d have no fear that they’d be handled fumblingly. Nor were these men who would be wondering how soon they should flee.

    Better still, the space between the guns was occupied by naval marines. Captain Samuel Miller had led those marines at Bladensburg, and by all accounts they’d acquitted themselves as well as Barney’s artillery. There were close to a hundred of them—almost the entirety of Miller’s unit, in fact, except those who had been killed or wounded at the earlier encounter.

    Unfortunately, Miller himself had been one of those wounded at the battle, so he was not present. But the marines had fallen immediately into practiced formations, and they were accustomed to working closely with Barney’s gunners.

    So Driscol left them to their own devices. He’d been far more concerned with organizing and steadying the soldiers who’d taken positions inside the two buildings. Those soldiers, sheltered by the walls of the Capitol, were in considerably less danger than the artillerymen and marines. But they had nothing like the experience of the veterans manning the big guns.

    Houston came trotting over, the moment he spotted Driscol, with John Ross just a step or two behind him. He looked concerned, but no more so than any commander making his preparations on a battlefield. Driscol couldn’t detect so much as a trace of fear in the captain’s face.

    He wasn’t really surprised. He’d learned enough of Houston’s actions at the Horseshoe Bend to know that, whatever weaknesses the captain might have, lack of courage was certainly not among them. Driscol had participated in enough headlong frontal assaults in his life to know what it took for a man to be the first over the wall in the face of enemy fire. In sixteen years of almost continual warfare, Driscol had managed the feat only twice. Houston had done it in his very first battle.

    “What d’you think, Patrick?” Houston asked as he came up to him. “How soon should we open fire?”

    Driscol glanced at Charles Ball, who was standing by the twelve-pounder on the House side of the battery emplacement. In the darkness, it was impossible to discern the black artilleryman’s expression, but something about his stance practically quivered exasperation. Houston must have been pestering the poor man since he first spotted the enemy assembling for the attack.

    “Might I suggest, sir, that you leave that decision to Ball and his men. They know what they’re doing.”

    Houston looked a bit confused. “But shouldn’t I be the one to give the command?”

    “Oh, certainly, sir. But the way this works, you see”—here anyway, he told himself—“is that Mr. Ball will give you the meaningful eye, and then you solemnly instruct him to do what he plans to do anyway.”

    Houston peered over at Ball. “I see. Well, that makes sense.”

    “And, ah . . .” Driscol cleared his throat.

    Houston grinned in response. “Oh, Patrick, please. I assure you I’m not really a fool, even if I’ve been charging all over foisting citations from the Iliad on people as if they were patent medicine. I won’t pester Charles any longer. I promise.”

    “Splendid, sir.”

    For such relaxed good sense, a reward seemed in order. “It’s perfectly acceptable, of course—when Ball lets you know the time has come—for you to bellow the order in a fine Homeric manner.”

    “Oh, good. I was looking forward to that. And where will you be, if I need you?”

    “It’s hard to say, sir. Wherever the troops seem to be the shakiest.”

    Houston nodded. “You’ll have McParland with you, of course. If I might make a suggestion of my own, why don’t you ask James and John Rogers to join you, as well?” He pointed to his left. “They’re right over there, lurking in the shadows out of old habit. Just tell them I sent you.”

    Driscol cocked his head a bit, in a questioning gesture.

    “Just trust me, Patrick. Whatever McParland can’t manage in the way of intimidation, they will. And if it comes to fighting hand to hand—I’ll be blunt here—you’ve only got one arm left. The Rogers brothers will make good the lack. Especially James.”

    Driscol looked down at his stump. He suddenly realized that he hadn’t given that any real thought at all. To be sure, he was right-handed, and he had a pistol stuffed in his waistband. But that was good for only one shot. How was a one-armed man to reload the bloody thing in the middle of a melee?

    His eyes moved to the shadows against the wall of the House. He hadn’t even spotted the two Cherokees there. That wasn’t because of their skin color, which wasn’t really all that much darker than a white man’s. Like their half sister Tiana, the Rogers brothers probably had as much Scot as Cherokee ancestry.

    It was because they were completely still. Even now, when he was trying to spot them, he could barely do so.

    For a moment, Driscol felt a little disoriented. His experience at gauging fighting men was extensive, and based on long-standing experience. But he now realized that, as with his missing arm, he’d been blind to what should have been obvious. True, those two Indians might not be of much use standing in a line, armed with muskets. But if the British breached the walls, and the affair was reduced to a desperate business in the rooms and corridors of the Capitol . . .

    “I’ll do so, sir. And thank you.”

    A sudden hissing sound burst upon them from the east, accompanied by a flare of light. Turning their heads, they saw the first volley of rockets coming toward them.

    It was as good a time and place as any to find out if the commodore was right. So Driscol never moved. Never so much as twitched a finger. Beside him, Houston did the same, taking his cue from the lieutenant. So did John Ross.

    They’re certainly spectacular-looking things, Driscol thought, during the few seconds it took the Congreves to make the flight. The sight and sound of them was positively fearsome. But—

    The rockets began landing, those of them that hadn’t exploded in the air from short fuses.

    —impressive looking and sounding was just about the limit of it. One of the rockets landed not far from the six-pounder, on the northern end of the battery. But as well protected as the battery now was, by the breastworks, the burst caused nothing in the way of casualties, and there was no harm to the gun.

    Two others managed to impact the walls of the Senate. By sheer luck, one exploded just as it hit the wall, but it didn’t do any real damage beyond shaking loose some of the sandstone cladding. The other one exploded prematurely, so that what hit the walls were simply bits of rocket debris. With walls like that, the British might as well have been throwing pebbles.

    There was another rocket that hit the corner of the House, but it caromed off harmlessly into the darkness and exploded a few seconds later, after it had landed on open ground.

    Most of the rockets accomplished nothing. Some of them landed far short, others veered wildly to the side, and two sailed over the Capitol entirely.


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