Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Rivers of War: Snippet Sixty Four

       Last updated: Sunday, May 1, 2005 00:18 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 64:

    CHAPTER 27

    “There will not be another frontal assault against those murderous guns,” Robert Ross hissed. He was in no mood, any longer, to be polite. “I’ve lost enough men already, Admiral Cockburn, thanks to your headstrong ways.”

    He rolled his head on the cot in the surgeon’s tent, bringing Colonel Arthur Brooke into his field of vision. Brooke was the senior brigade commander and would now have to lead the British army units.

    “D’you hear me, Colonel Brooke?” Ross pointed a finger toward the glowering Cockburn. “I am not relinquishing command to him. You will have to lead the men in the field, but my orders are final.”

    Though enfeebled by pain, Ross matched Cockburn’s glare with one of his own. “The admiral may advise you. That is all. You will not attack the Capitol again. Not frontally, at least. We shall begin siege operations.”

    Cockburn rolled his eyes. He knew as well as Ross did that there would no time to carry through a successful siege of the Capitol, before the British army would be forced to retreat back to the ships on the coast. The most Brooke could do would be to harass the defenders and keep them from sallying.

    Still, Ross felt it necessary to add the directive. He did so because siege preparations would tie up the bulk of his forces, which meant that Cockburn would not have them available for his own uses. Brooke was a solid enough man, but once he left Ross’s immediate presence—or Ross lost consciousness again, which was quite likely—Cockburn might be able to sway him to folly. Not a direct attack on the Capitol, to be sure. Given Ross’s explicit orders, Brooke would refuse to do that, no matter what Cockburn said. But who was to say what other folly Cockburn might seize upon? The rear admiral’s determination to punish Americans wasn’t altogether rational.

    Great folly, at any rate, which might produce great casualties. Ross would allow the admiral his little pleasures, so long as his men were not placed seriously at risk. If for no other reason, because Ross wanted to get Cockburn away from Brooke and unable to influence him.

    “What is the time?” Ross asked.

    “Just after ten o’clock of the evening, sir,” Brooke replied.

    Ross closed his eyes. Pain and exhaustion were threatening to take him under again.

    Not yet.

    “If you intend to burn the president’s mansion, Admiral Cockburn, I would suggest that you get started. You may take a few hundred men with you.” His eyelids lifted slightly. “Not more than three hundred, mind. We’ll need the rest for the siege.”

    “Siege!” Cockburn barked sarcastically. But even the admiral understood that Ross would be unmovable. Angrily, Cockburn turned on his heel and stalked out of the tent.

    “Follow him, Colonel,” Ross ordered. “Let him have enough men for his evening’s arson, but that’s all. Three hundred, no more.”

    “Yes, sir.” Brooke hurried out.

    Once they were gone, the surgeon stepped forward.

    “You must let me take the bullet out, General. The longer we wait, the worse the risk. As it is, gangrene . . .”

    Ross shook his head. “Not till this business is over, and I’m sure my men have been removed from peril.”

    He didn’t add—not to the surgeon—that he didn’t dare allow himself to be entirely incapacitated. Not yet. If Ross were unconscious for hours, during and after surgery, and therefore unable to lead his men any longer, Cockburn might claim that command of the ground forces fell to him.

    The surgeon’s expression was exceedingly anxious. “General—”

    “Oh, be done with it!” Ross snapped. “I understand the risk, Doctor, and the responsibility is mine. If I die, I die.”

    There’s no reason to be rude to the man, Ross chided himself. He’s simply doing his job.

    “Consider the bright side, Doctor,” he added. “At least I’ll return home in good spirits, which is always something an Irishman treasures. Well. Navy rum, at least. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite potion.”

    The doctor smiled crookedly. It was the custom of the empire to return the corpses of top officers to the islands, rather than burying them where they fell. They kept the bodies from rotting during the long voyage by immersing them in casks of rum. It was perhaps undignified, but . . . it worked.


    Colonel Brooke came back into the tent a few minutes later.

    “The admiral’s gone, sir. On his way to the American president’s mansion.”

    Ross nodded. Then, finally, he relinquished his hold on consciousness. Darkness was peace, and a blessing.


    “Got himself another white horse, I see,” Sam Houston said wryly. He lowered the telescope through which he’d been peering from an upper window on the south side of the House. “There’s a man who is set in his ways.”

    “It is the admiral, then?” asked Driscol. He’d been almost certain, even without the aid of a telescope, but not positive.

    The conflagration at the Navy Yard was still growing, and had begun spreading to nearby buildings. They could hear the sound of collapsing structures, as well as periodic explosions as the roaring flames encountered munitions. As impressive as the fire was, however, the Naval Yard was too far away for those flames to pose a direct danger to the Capitol—which also meant that the illumination was still far poorer than daylight.

    Sam shrugged. “I could hardly distinguish his features at this distance, even with a glass and even if I knew what he looked like. But unless there’s another British naval officer with that much gold braid and a devotion to white horses, I’d say that has to be Cockburn.”

    Driscol leaned out of the window and looked down. Hungrily, he studied the three-pounder that Ball and his sailors had positioned to guard the southern flank of the Capitol.

    “Leave it be, Patrick!” Houston said, laughing and clapping the smaller man on the back. “Clearly he’s learned his lesson. He’s staying well out of range. Even with a twelve-pounder, it’d be sheer luck to hit the bastard.”

    Driscol didn’t leave off his calculations. “Now, yes. But maybe when he returns he’ll get careless.” He straightened and pushed himself away from the window. “No harm in being prepared, after all. With your permission, sir, I’ll see to it.”

    Still chuckling, Houston agreed and waved him off. Driscol headed out the door immediately, McParland and the Rogers brothers in tow.

    As James passed through the door, he looked back at Sam and grinned.

    “Asgá siti,” James said cheerfully. “Just the way it is.”

    Houston brought the telescope back to his eye and returned to his study of the enemy movements. He lacked Driscol’s experience, but he had no trouble understanding what the British were about. Most of their men had begun setting up their own fieldworks on the ground facing the eastern side of the Capitol. But now they were moving detachments into place, threatening—well, guarding, anyway; they weren’t really much of a threat—the northern and southern flanks as well.

    At least, looking out from a window on the south side of the House, Sam didn’t have to listen to the sounds of injured and dying British soldiers on the grounds to the east.

    That was . . . ghastly.

    The heavy musket balls were bad enough. They shattered bones whenever they struck a limb squarely, mangling arms and legs so badly that amputation was almost always required if a man’s life was to be saved. But most of the casualties had been inflicted by Ball’s cannons, and they’d been firing grapeshot during most of the British assault.

    What Ball and his men called “grapeshot,” at least, even though Ball had explained to Sam at one point that it wasn’t really the nine-shot cluster that the term technically signified to naval men. Apparently, such wired clusters of very large balls caused too much damage to cannons for them to be favored much in land battles. What Ball’s gunners were calling “grapeshot” was really just heavy case shot: three-ounce bullets as opposed to the balls weighing half as much that were used in regular canister.

    The technical details aside, the heavy balls were utterly deadly within four hundred yards. The British soldiers had been forced to advance that far with no cover whatsoever, over muddy and slippery terrain that they couldn’t see well because of the darkness. By the time they’d gotten near enough for Charles and his gunners to switch to canister, they’d already suffered casualties so bad that one volley of canister had been enough to break the final charge.

    There were still hundreds of them out there. Many were dead, of course, but the majority were merely injured—if the term “merely” could be applied to the most horrible wounds imaginable.

    Thinking about those men, Sam came to a sudden decision. He didn’t begrudge Patrick Driscol his feelings toward the English, but Sam simply didn’t share them. He closed the telescope and strode from the room, his mind working on who he should send. He’d go himself, but . . .

    No. If Driscol didn’t strangle him, the secretary of state probably would.


Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image