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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 11, 2005 17:54 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 72:

    Staring out of an upper-floor window of the House at the rain-drenched and wind-battered city to the west, Driscol thought his mood matched the sight. Bleak and bitter, just like Washington itself, even if both he and the city were supposed to be celebrating a victory. That victory, however, was being marred not only by the weather, but by the rumors of a slave insurrection.

    The rumors had grown so wild that even a freedman like Henry Crowell, who’d played an important role in defending the Capitol, had been forced into hiding. In his case, fortunately, that wasn’t hard. He was sitting on a chair in a corner of the same room Driscol occupied. McParland and the two Rogers brothers were squatting in the same corner, having a quiet and friendly conversation with the wagon driver. That was probably enough to reassure Henry that he had nothing to fear, as long as he stayed with the lieutenant and his men in the Capitol.

    Driscol was startled by a soft, feminine voice. “What’s that expression you use? ‘A penny for your thoughts,’ I think.”

    His eyes shied away from the source of the words. Not because he didn’t want to look, but because he did—and was afraid of that feeling.

    When the Rogers brothers had offered to introduce him to Tiana, he’d felt his heart surge in a way he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager. And the same again, when they’d made the “real introduction” less than half an hour earlier.

    There’d only been one woman in his life who’d ever produced that feeling in him. A young Irish girl by the name of Maureen. He’d been sixteen at the time, and so had she. The same age Tiana was now.

    He’d never seen Maureen again, after he’d been forced to flee Ireland. For all he knew, she was dead.

    In the years that followed, he’d pretty well squelched that side of his soul. There just hadn’t seemed to be any place for it in his new life as a soldier. Now...

    “My thoughts would hardly be worth a cent,” he said harshly, his lips half twisted. “I’d not pay a half cent for them, myself.”

    “Look at me, Lieutenant.”

    That startled him even more. Softly spoken or not, the tone had been utterly . . .

    Imperious, was the only word.

    He looked. Up. Standing right next to him, all of Tiana Rogers’s height was evident. The girl was about six feet tall, topping him by several inches.

    “What is the matter with you, Patrick Driscol?” she asked quietly. She didn’t seem cross, so much as puzzled. “Do you think I’m blind? Do you really think I needed my brothers to make a formal introduction? When you think I’m not looking, I can feel your eyes on me. Yet when I look, you look away. If you keep it up, I’ll start thinking you’re a lecher.”

    Now, a smile came. “An old and decrepit lecher, at that, too worried about his capacities to do more than leer at a distance.”

    Driscol flushed. There was just enough truth in that statement to make him uncomfortable. He wasn’t, in fact, a lecher—and he knew full well that his capacities were still those of a young man. Still, he couldn’t deny that the Cherokee girl aroused him, in ways he found hard to understand, much less explain.

    Sheer beauty was part of it, of course. The athletic grace of her body even more than the face. Perhaps it was the combination—or, rather, the contradiction. Tiana Rogers was exotic. Half white, half Indian, never seeming one or the other to Driscol. The same with her bearing. At one moment she could act like a princess, the next like a hoyden, the next like a . . .

    Farm girl? Squaw?

    And where, precisely, did one end and the other begin? He’d heard her brother John praise her talents at gutting and dressing a deer. His mother had possessed similar, plebian skills. So had Maureen.

    It was that confusion, not lust, which had kept him so constantly off balance around her. He simply didn’t know what to make of her. Had he not been so attracted to the girl, of course, none of it would have mattered. Given that he was, he’d reacted the way Patrick Driscol usually reacted to being puzzled.

    That thought finally allowed him to smile. Houston, he suspected, would accuse him of sulking in his tent. Not because of a conflict with a king, but because Patrick Driscol resented being confused. Kings he could deal with. Nothing easier, at least in theory. Just cut their throats and bleed them out.

    Alas, such well-worn and simple tactics were quite unsuited to this problem.

    He tried to find the words to explain, as best he could. Fortunately, a welcome interruption came. Houston strode into the room, followed by Secretary of State Monroe and John Ross.

    The captain was smiling cheerfully, as he so often was. And, as it so often did, the smile warmed Driscol. His brother had smiled like that, before he died on the road from Randallstown to Antrim, and had been tossed into the sandpit by the Sassenach. Such a smile would never come to Patrick Driscol—and might not have, being honest with himself, even if his life had been different. But seeing it on Houston’s face reminded him of all the many families in the world that had not been destroyed.

    “Mr. Monroe’s made me a proposition, Patrick—and it involves you.”


    After he’d heard what Houston had to say, all of Driscol’s earlier bleak thoughts returned. Rude though it might be, he went back to staring out the window. For a moment, his sentiments were so hostile that he was unable to speak.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t speak at all, he thought. What’s the point? He’d probably just ruin his own chances, small as they were already with an arm now missing.

    But a lifetime’s stubbornness wouldn’t let him remain silent. He reminded himself that a man who advocated letting the blood from monarchs should at least have the courage to speak the truth to a secretary of state. And face the prospect of being broken from the ranks with the same unyielding courage he’d faced lines of Sassenach muskets.

    So he turned back and looked at Monroe. “Fine words, Mr. Secretary. I’m sure they came from you, even if young Sam here gave them a heady and enthusiastic lilt. But I’m no great believer in airy sentiments.”

    He pointed into a corner of the room. “I’m sure you didn’t notice him when you came in. But you might ask yourself why Henry Crowell is huddling over there.”

    Everyone turned to look in the corner, where the black wagon driver was sitting. Just as startled as everyone else had been by Driscol’s words, Crowell’s eyes were wide.

    “Oh, aye,” Driscol said, half snarling. “It’s not safe right now for a freedman in the city. Any man with a black skin. It seems there are rumors of a slave insurrection, and half the soldiery is out there charging about to put it down.” The rest, he did snarl: “While the Sassenach, needless to say—the ones who did burn and loot and plunder—make their escape with no pursuit.”

    He kept the finger pointing, as steadily as a musket. “So Henry Crowell, who brought the munitions which held the enemy at bay, cowers here in a corner. Not knowing, even, what’s happened to the wagon which is his sole means of earning a livelihood. And slavemasters give speeches about the glories of republicanism in the chamber below, and come up here to propose schemes for bringing just settlements to the Indians. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I fail to see why Patrick Driscol should lend himself to the furtherance of the lies and hypocrisies of gentlemen.”

    Driscol’s pale eyes were cold, but all the hot, boiling anger surfaced in the words. “Oh, aye, it’s always class that tells, isn’t it? You’ll ladle praise onto a stinking Sassenach general for his gallantry. But let me ask you, Mr. Secretary, when you were governor of Virginia, did you ladle the same praise onto the man named Gabriel when you hung him? And if not, why not? What crime was he guilty of, other than opposing the tyranny of his so-called betters, with arms in hand?”

    The anger was all encompassing, now. The cold, pale eyes moved to John Ross.

    “And you, Lieutenant. What is your complaint? That the white man won’t let you remain on your plantations, lording it over your own slaves?” He jerked his head toward the Rogers brothers. “Just a few hours ago, they were telling me—boasting, to call things by the right name—that most of your chiefs have plantations as fine as any white men. Your Major Ridge, I’m told, is a great man—and nothing proves it so much as his twenty slaves. So you, too, are nothing but lordlings who, like all lordlings since the dawn of time, seized their status by theft and murder and then used the plundered goods to prove the status. And now—now—have the unmitigated gall to claim that you are the victims of injustice.”

    He turned away. “Be damned to all of you. Do what you will. But do not ask me to give it my blessing, much less my active participation.”

    His eyes searched the city below. Looking for a dwelling wretched enough that he might be able to afford it—on whatever income a discharged lieutenant might have.

    Sergeant, he reminded himself. His promotion to lieutenant had not been approved as yet by the War Department. And now, of course, surely wouldn’t be.


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