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Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty One

       Last updated: Monday, April 25, 2005 17:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 61:

    Two chances saved the life of Robert Ross. The first was that his horse reared up just before the musket volley fired. Startled, probably, by a round from one of the twelve-pounders that flicked its ear. By now, the American gunners were firing canister.

    Most of the volley hammered into the horse, killing it instantly. One round struck Ross in the shoulder. The left shoulder, so he retained his grip on the sword. Another struck him in the rib cage, breaking two ribs and channeling down them to exit from his lower back. A third struck him in the right forehead, a glancing shot, not fatal. Not even a serious wound, really, although a bloody one.

    But it was quite enough to daze the general. And so it was a senseless man in the saddle as his horse collapsed, not one who could throw himself free. A horse weighing half a ton will crush a man that it falls upon.

    The second chance came into play. One of the musket balls passed between Ross’s leg and the horse. It did no worse than bruise the general’s calf, but it cut the saddle girth as neatly as a razor. The saddle came loose and the horse’s dying spasm flung Ross off to the left.

    He landed on his side, his right arm crossed below him. Unfortunately, old reflexes had kept an iron grip on the sword, so his already-injured rib cage had a terrible laceration added from the impact of his body upon the sword hilt.

    He lay there, limp and unconscious.

    “The general’s down!” cried one of the aides.

    The Irish-born Ross was a popular officer. One of the most popular in the British army, in fact. In an instant, half-a-dozen men were there to bear him away from the field.

    Thirty yards to the rear, and somewhat to the left of the field, Admiral Cockburn heard the cry. Cursing, he drove his horse forward to rally the men. Even to an admiral without Ross’s experience in such matters, it was obvious that the assault was on the verge of breaking.


    “Ah, there he comes,” said Driscol with great satisfaction. He swiveled his head back and forth.

    “D’you see him, boys? The fancy-looking bastard on that fancy white horse? That’ll be Cockburn himself. And I want him dead.”


    Cockburn gave Ross’s body no more than a glance as his horse drove past the group of soldiers carrying the general to the rear. Dead, apparently. Gravely wounded, at least.

    At the moment, all that was irrelevant. All that mattered was taking the Capitol. Arrogant and cocksure the admiral might be, but no had ever accused him of lacking courage or will-power. He himself never gave such matters a single thought.

    “Follow me, men!”


    For a moment, after the volley was fired, Driscol had his hopes. But then, seeing soldiers carrying Cockburn away, he had to restrain himself from cursing his platoon.

    Cockburn wasn’t being carried the way Ross had been, like a sack of meal. The admiral was still on his feet—with a man under each shoulder to steady him, true. But Cockburn was still bearing most of his own weight. The admiral had lost his fancy hat, and his steps seemed a bit uncertain. But it was quite obvious that he hadn’t been badly wounded. He was probably just dazed, and winded from falling off the horse.

    No time for a second volley, either. Not only was Cockburn himself being hustled away quickly, but the entire British line was falling back. It wasn’t quite a rout. But a retreat so hasty that within a few seconds Cockburn’s figure was completely lost in the fleeing mass.

    Ah, well. Charles Ball and his gunners were still firing, of course. Ball was no more the man to show mercy on defeated enemies than Driscol himself. A most fine fellow. So there was always the chance that a stray round still might kill the admiral on his way.

    Nervously, one of the volunteers cleared his throat. “Sorry, Lieutenant.”

    There was a time to browbeat men, and a time to do otherwise, and Driscol knew the difference.

    “Never you mind, lad,” he said, straightening up from his crouch again. “The chances of war—and we beat the bastards back. A piece of advice, though.”

    His head swiveled back and forth, giving his men a look that was stern, but not condemning. “Next time you shoot at a man on a white horse, do try to hit the man. Not the horse.”

    The whole platoon stared out of the windows. Even in the half darkness, the carcass of the horse was easy to spot. Although it was no longer exactly in one piece.

    Driscol should have warned them, he supposed. In the darkness, that great gleaming target must have drawn their eyes like a magnet.

    “Ah, well,” he repeated. He knew the quirky chances of war. No man knew them better.


    From their position in the back of the room, where they’d be out of the way of the militiamen, the Rogers brothers watched Patrick Driscol carefully.

    Very carefully, just as they had been for hours.

    Not because they were concerned about his safety, though. Their new assignment as Driscol’s bodyguards had turned out to be almost meaningless. That night, at least. There was now little chance that the British would manage to break their way into the huge building, where the hand-to-hand combat skills of the two brothers would come into play.

    Little chance—largely because of Driscol himself.

    So, as the night wore on, James and John Rogers had been able to devote more and more of their time to considering Driscol from an entirely different viewpoint.

    Within the first hour, his courage and resolution had become obvious. So had his practical intelligence. Thereafter, it was other things they looked for.

    A good sense of humor, of course, was the most important thing. He’d need it.

    Eventually, after observing the sure and relaxed way Driscol handled a mass of nervous and uncertain soldiers, they were satisfied. For all the lieutenant’s grim demeanor, the Rogers brothers hadn’t missed the fact that he was far more likely to settle down a young soldier with a jest rather than a curse. Or break up a quarrel with sarcasm, rather than threats.

    “He’ll do,” James pronounced softly.

    “Do?” his brother whispered back. “He’d be perfect. Except he’s ugly.”

    Driscol came over to them a short while later.

    “It seems you won’t have to do much tonight, lads.”

    They nodded. Then John asked:

    “Have you met our sister Tiana, Lieutenant?”

    Driscol stared at him for a moment, before looking away. He seemed intent on examining a nearby window. Odd, really, since there was nothing to be seen through it except the night.

    He cleared his throat. “Ah. Yes, I believe I have. In a manner of speaking.”

    James smiled pleasantly. “Oh, that won’t do at all. ‘A manner of speaking.’ No, no. A real introduction is called for. As soon as possible, after the battle.”

    “We’ll see to it,” John added. The same serene smile had appeared on his face.

    They waited. There was one last thing that needed to be known.

    Finally, Driscol cleared his throat again. His eyes never left the window. “Thank you. I’d appreciate that. Very much.”

    “Consider it done,” James said.


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