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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy Five

       Last updated: Friday, May 13, 2005 12:21 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR -- snippet 74:

    There was silence, for a moment.

    Then, suddenly, James Rogers laughed. “That’s ridiculous!” He held up the war club that seemed to be inseparable from him, practically an extension of his arm. “I can fight as well as any Cherokee. But the idea that we’d ever be able to conquer the Americans. It’s just ridiculous. There are too many of them. Kill one, and ten more step forward in their place.”

    But Sam could finally see what Driscol was hinting at. “A thousand years, remember. With lots of twists and turns. And then the Greeks turned the tables again, because the Romans all wound up speaking Greek and quoting Greek philosophers.”

    James shrugged. “So?”

    “So ‘conquest’ is a word with many different meanings.” But Ross was the key here, not the Rogers brothers, so Sam turned to him. “Here’s how it is, John—and I’ll do my best to talk you into it. You and all the others, in the time to come. Stay where you are, and you’ll be crushed out of existence. There’s no way around it. But move—move yourselves, like men, rather than being driven like beasts—and you stand the chance of forging something powerful out there. Something which can shape its own destiny.”

    “And who knows?” Patrick added. “You may end up shaping your enemy, too. Create a nation powerful enough, in a place you can do so, and over time you’ll begin changing the nature of your neighbors.” He looked a bit uncomfortable then. “Now that it’s all over, I’ll admit that Robert Ross seemed a fine enough fellow. Of course, he was born in Ireland.”

    John Ross just stared at him. Driscol shrugged. “Look, lad. I hate the Sassenach as much as any man. But the fact is, I speak their language. So do most Scots or Irishmen. The same language in which the Declaration of Independence was written—and humbled the bastards in their own tongue.”

    He gestured toward the door through which Monroe had departed. “It was that, in the end, which convinced me. The man’s right enough about that. Let two generations pass, and the threads are all tangled up again. So now we Irishmen speak English, and the English argue with themselves about Ireland. Sometimes they even listen to Irishmen. And their cousins here in American— English, Scots, Irish, all tangled together—intrude rudely into the dispute with opinions of their own, which they mostly derived from Englishmen, but didn’t hesitate to impose by force of arms when needed.”

    Patrick Driscol took a deep breath. The quite unexpected reaction of a Virginia politician had cracked, perhaps for the first time in his life, his unyielding animosity toward gentlemen.

    Well, not the first time. Another Virginian named Winfield Scott had done that. But Scott had been a general, and Driscol always gave more leeway to soldiers.

    “My point is this, John. After a time, it all becomes something of a family quarrel. And now, for good or ill, and whether you asked for it or not, your Cherokees have become embroiled in it.” He looked Ross up and down, then glanced at Tiana Rogers and her brothers. “And not just embroiled in the quarrel, either. You’re now embroiled in the family itself.”

    Ross cocked his head. “Granted. Sequoyah’s even talking about creating our own written script. To add to all the rest—the mills, and the separate houses, and raising livestock. Yes, slaves, too. I suppose we’re adopting all the white vices, as well as the virtues. But we’re still different, and we want to stay independent.” He also glanced at the Rogerses; then, smiling a bit, down at his own hand. “Even if we’re none too fussy about who we mate with.”

    Driscol snorted. “I’d say so, given the way you mate with the Scots-Irish. Pack of ruffians—and I know whereof I speak.”

    Driscol flushed a bit, then. He carefully avoided looking at Tiana. All the more so, because he suspected she was grinning at him.

    “Those fancy stories of the ancients, Greek and Roman both. What I think? If you could trace it all back, you’d find some sordid family dispute at the heart of them. Properly dressed up, of course, as the centuries passed. Gods and heroes, the lot. Somebody cuckolded somebody else—probably a cousin—and they got their revenge, and then their children struck back, and they’re still arguing about it to this day even if nobody can remember what it was all about in the first place. Because it just doesn’t matter, any longer.”

    He took another deep breath. “I am not a fool. I know perfectly well that my blessed Scot and Irish ancestors were a pack of brawling clansmen, mostly illiterate and always pigheaded. More than willing to kill each other and steal each other’s sheep at the bidding of some mangy clan chief whose ‘palace’ wasn’t much more than the biggest hut in the village. The English played us all for fools. Played this one against the other—most any clan chief was always willing to be bribed—”

    Seeing Ross wince, Driscol snorted. “Yours, too, eh? I’m hardly surprised. And so what?—if, in the end, our demands for justice are couched in the Englishman’s tongue. More than that—are couched in English ways of thought. But not entirely, because we shape them for our own purposes. And then—”

    Grudgingly: “They pay some attention. Some. Even start to think a bit differently themselves. Not because they want to, but because they’re forced to. That’s always the problem with a family quarrel. You can’t ignore the bastards, because they’re yours. Especially if they’re mean, tough bastards with a house of their own. And that’s the heart of Houston’s plan, when you get down to it. Move now, while you can still do it as a solid and intact nation, not a band of refugees. Build a house of your own now, in a place where you’ll have enough time to build it strong and big.”

    Ross was following him intently, but obviously still not convinced. He stared out the window, for a moment. Then, looked back at Houston.

“It will never happen without a break, at some point. Some place, some time, where a line is finally drawn. ‘This far and no farther.’ ”

    Houston nodded. “Sure. Let people push you and they’ll push you forever. But the other mistake is to push back when you’re standing on thin air. Which is where you are today, John—and, if you’re honest, you know it yourself. General Jackson will strip you of your land, sooner or later, don’t think he won’t. And how will you stop him? On that land?”

    “And you’ll support him,” came the accusation.

    Houston didn’t flinch. “If it comes to it, yes. I’ll fight for a worthy cause, John, but this one is already lost. And in the meantime, my own nation—the only republic on the face of the earth—needs that land to grow. Which is also a worthy cause, and one which is not lost.” He shrugged. “I don’t claim that it’s ‘just,’ because I couldn’t begin to figure that out. ‘Justice’ mostly depends which side you’re on—and I’m an American, when all is said and done.

    “Give yourself another cause, though, John, and you can count on me. My word on it.”

    Ross’s gaze came back to Driscol. “And your word?”

    Driscol snorted. “Do I look like a bloody gentleman? My word! That wouldn’t buy you a pint of whiskey. But I will give you my advice, as a soldier. Any commander who insists on standing his ground when the battle is lost is a fool and a blunderer. Worse than that, he’s a killer of his own men. Retreat’s never pleasant, but there are times when it’s necessary. Retreat, regroup, and fight again on ground that favors you.”

    He looked at Tiana. She and her brothers. If she’d been grinning earlier, she wasn’t now. Neither she nor her kinsmen. Driscol continued. “I don’t know much about your nation, but this much is obvious—you’re in no condition to even fight this battle, much less win it. So do what’s necessary. Retreat in order to buy yourselves the time you need. Whether you use that time wisely or not, of course, will be up to you. But that’s no business of mine.”

    “What is your business, then?” Tiana interjected, before Ross could say anything.

    Driscol shrugged, uncomfortably. “What I agreed to.” He jerked a thumb at Houston. “Help this young idiot buy you the time.”

    “That’s not what I meant. What is your business? ”

    He stared at her blankly. “I’m a soldier, girl.”

    She shook her head. “That’s a trade, not a business. You could have chosen to take the English king’s colors. Plenty of Scotsmen and Irishmen do. And don’t tell me otherwise! My father was a Tory soldier in the Revolution, after he came here from Scotland.” Impishly: “Although he’ll never admit it today.”

    Driscol’s mind was a blank. “I still don’t understand the question, girl.”

“I’m sixteen years old. And Cherokee. So I’m not a girl.”

    She gave her brothers a quick, fierce, warning glance. Wisely, they kept their peace.

    Then, with that impish smile that Driscol could feel pulling him like the tides: “What I think, Patrick Driscol, is that your business is lost causes.” She gave Houston a cool, dismissing sniff. “Whatever he thinks about it.”

    Private McParland burst into the room.

    “Dolley Madison’s back! And she says there’s going to be a victory ball.”


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