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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty

       Last updated: Monday, April 25, 2005 05:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 60:

    Robert Ross’s horse was shot out from under him by a salvo from the American guns. A grapeshot that shattered the poor beast’s skull. It was no new experience for the general, so he landed safely and was on his feet within seconds. He never even lost his grip on his sword.

    He could even, for a moment, bless the soggy ground that was causing so much trouble for his advancing soldiers. The mucky soil had cushioned his impact.

    His aides were at his side already. One of them started brushing the mud from the general’s uniform.

    “Leave that alone!” Ross snapped. “Get me another horse.”

    He had to get in front of this charge and lead it, or it would collapse. The American gunnery was proving even worse than he’d feared. He was certain now that he faced the worst eventuality he might have faced. Those were U.S. Navy sailors manning the guns.

    Most British army officers derided Americans as “Cousin Jonathan.” But, with a few exceptions like Cockburn, British naval officers did not, and for good reason. Not after the Guerriere and the Frolic and the Macedonian, and Lake Erie.

    A horse was brought up. Another brown one, of course. Ross’s aides knew his habits.

    Once mounted, Ross waved his sword and charged forward. The front line of his army was now within seventy yards of the breastworks, and he could sense them wavering.

    They’d suffered fearsome casualties already. The treacherous and slippery ground had slowed the advance, and they’d had to cross hundreds of yards in the face of enemy fire. The fact that it was a night attack hadn’t helped them, either. The terrain provided no cover, and the illumination from the burning Navy Yard was enough to provide the enemy gunners with clear targets.

    Very heavy fire. As they had demonstrated many times since the war started, American gunners could work their cannons faster than British ones.

    Suddenly, the lighter and sharper sound of musket fire was added to the hell’s brew. The Fourth had come within range of the multitude of enemy riflemen Ross could see in every window of the two Capitol buildings.

    A lot of musket fire. British casualties would start mounting still faster.

    “Follow me! ” he bellowed. “I’ll dine in the Capitol tonight, or in hell!”


    Driscol had been waiting patiently, in the Senate room where he’d taken his position with a single platoon. The lieutenant had made no effort to stop the rest of the soldiers, in the other rooms, from firing their muskets whenever they chose, even though he knew most of them would start firing long before the enemy was in range. He’d have had no way of controlling them anyway, scattered as they were throughout the building. Maintaining volley fire wasn’t as important in defending a fortress as it was on an open battlefield, anyway.

    But he could control that one platoon, and he’d done so easily. No need to bring the threat of McParland and the two savage-looking Cherokees to bear. Driscol didn’t even think of them. The troll was in full presence, now, and that was more than enough.

    “Easy, boys, easy.” He didn’t shout the words, didn’t need to. Even over the thunder of guns and muskets, Driscol’s voice carried easily through the chamber. “Won’t be long now. Sassenach officers are vile beasts in every other respect, but they don’t lack courage. He’ll be coming along any moment. And we’ll kill him.”


    Monroe’s final dash to the western doors proved simple. American soldiers were stationed and ready there, of course, and they were indeed anxious. But their anxiety was directed at wondering whether or not Crowell’s supply run would make it back in time.

    “Let me, sir,” Crowell whispered to Monroe, as they neared the Capitol. Realizing the wisdom of the words, Monroe let the driver lead him the rest of the way up the hill. A black face in the fore would mean only one thing to the sentries.

    Sure enough, before Crowell had even reached the building—he’d headed for the House—soldiers were coming out to greet him. Unarmed to boot, because they were already racing toward the wagons drawn up below, to help the dragoons unload them and bring in the munitions and other supplies.

    So, Monroe’s entrance into the Capitol proved something of an anticlimax. None of the soldiers paid any attention to him as they poured out in a little flood. He’d been identified as one of Crowell’s companions, which was good enough for his bona fides. For the rest, the soldiers cared only about the black man’s precious cargo.

    In fact, Monroe had to more or less force his way past them and into the building. Once there, not knowing where else to go, he headed toward the central chamber. By now, the sound of musket fire was continuous. The assault was clearly reaching a climax.


    Driscol had good eyes, and particularly good night vision. He’d been hoping for the sight of a white horse, since he detested Cockburn more than he did most Sassenach. But he spotted the brown one easily enough, wasn’t fooled for an instant.

    “That bastard!” he called out. “The one on the brown horse, charging forward. D’you see him, boys? Look for the sword and the gold fancywork.”

    Some of the men in the platoon called out their answer, but Driscol didn’t need it. He watched the way most of their shoulders shifted slightly, the way those of riflemen do when they’ve spotted a target. Holding their muskets in a line, these men would probably prove pitiably wretched. But most of them had grown up hunting. If they didn’t really know how to fight, they did know how to shoot.

    “On my command,” Driscol growled. “Any man fires before that, I’ll grind his bones for my soup.”

    He waited, cold and merciless, hunched at one of the windows and gauging the range.

    Quite a splendid officer, that was. Fearless and resolute. Probably the very commander himself, Robert Ross.

    Which was even more splendid. The best way to kill a snake is to crush the head.

    “Fire! ” Driscol roared. More of a snarl, really. He controlled his voice, because the acoustics in the chamber were far better than those of a battlefield— and one of his full-throated roars would have startled such men. Might throw off their aim.

    Two seconds after the volley went off, Driscol straightened up.

    “I’m proud of you, boys,” he pronounced.


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