The Rivers of WarEric Flint



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Chapter 45When the first line of Americans began firing on the Eighty-fifth Foot, Colonel Thornton ordered the regiment to launch an immediate bayonet charge while still in column formation. There would be no forming into a line and firing volleys. Just cold steel, in a headlong assault. Thornton was sure he could sweep aside this first screen of skirmishers, and he didn't want to lose the time or the ammunition that volley fire would require. Until the Forty-third Light Infantry and the West Indian troops could rejoin his regiment with the supplies he'd left behind at the debarkation point, he needed to conserve his ammunition. His assessment proved correct. Almost absurdly so, in fact. The skirmishers fired not more than a round each—many of them, not even that—before racing off into the swamps. A fair number of the Americans dropped their weapons before they ran, and not a single one died at the point of a bayonet—or any other mishap caused directly by British action. One man did break his neck when he tripped over a root and slammed headfirst into a tree. "And will you look at this, sir?" crowed one of Thornton's sergeants gleefully, holding up a gun left behind by an American. "It's a bloody fowling piece!" So it was. If that was typical of the weaponry Jackson had given his forces on this side of the river, Thornton could hardly blame them for running away. He shook his head, and reminded himself that they'd encounter deadlier arms up ahead. There was ordnance there, for a certainty. Still, this easy victory had done wonders for the morale of his regiment. The men had been, as always, obedient and disciplined. But the cold and the drizzle and the hours of muddy labor during the night had left them tired and disgruntled. Now, with the sun finally burning away the mist, their spirits were improving rapidly. "Forward, lads!" he cried, waving his sword. "We'll chase the cowards all the way into New Orleans!" As the distant sound of skirmishing fire faded away—very quickly—Robert Ross lowered his cup of tea onto the table. "That'll have been the Eighty-fifth brushing aside a line of skirmishers, I think. These pastries are quite good, by the way." "Would you like some more?" "Yes, please." Tiana rose and walked toward the bakery. Her long-legged stride made the colorful heavy skirt she was wearing flash like a banner in the breeze. But Ross didn't watch her for more than a second or two. His head turned toward the south, cocked slightly to the side to bring an ear to bear. As soon as the first Kentuckians came into sight, racing like mad toward the "Morgan Line," General Morgan clambered upon his horse and rode out to meet them. He was waving his sword so vigorously that Driscol thought he might injure himself. Perhaps even badly enough to require evacuation for medical care. Alas, no such luck. "Stand your ground, you cowards! Stand your ground, I say!" The Kentuckians dodged around him without missing a stride. The first ones reached the "Morgan Line," bounded over it like deer leaping logs in the forest, and continued racing toward the north.  The ones who followed continued to pour around Morgan, ignoring him like the others. The general had his horse pivoting in circles while he continued waving his sword and screeching commands that weren't so much "commands" as simple curses. At one point, he took a swipe with the sword at a fleeing militiaman who was perhaps twenty feet away. "Think he'll fall off?" Ball wondered. "Doubt it," Driscol grunted. "He's a fair horseman," James Rogers pointed out charitably. "I'm still hoping for a good gash in the thigh, though." Again, no such luck. After the last of the Kentucky skirmishers had leaped over the ditch, Morgan sent his horse racing after them. The horse, by now becoming exceedingly exasperated, did its level best to throw its rider as it vaulted the ditch. But Morgan stayed in the saddle. Within seconds, he was out of sight, pounding off in pursuit of his fleeing men. Still screeching incoherent commands and still waving the sword. "Ah, well," Driscol said. He just shook his head. Charles Ball did the same, and the Rogers brothers were actually grinning. The men of the Iron Battalion would be watching the four of them closely, at this moment, especially Driscol and Ball. The sight of the Kentucky militiamen racing to the rear would have unsettled even veteran troops. Most of the men in the battalion were completely inexperienced in combat, and their nerves would be very jittery. If either Driscol or Ball showed any concern at all, they might start to break. The quite evident good cheer of the two Cherokees helped also. Indians were rather exotic to most of the men in Driscol's unit. Indian warriors, at least. Much like easterners did, the black soldiers ascribed to the Rogers brothers a great deal more experience in warfare than they actually had. If the "wild Injuns" didn't seem worried, why should they be? After a few seconds, Driscol could see that the troops were settling down nicely. He and Ball exchanged a glance. What a pleasure it was, to have such a fine subordinate under his command! As good a top sergeant as any Driscol had ever known. He gave his head one last humorous shake, just for good measure. "At least he's out of our hair for a while." Sure now that his men had been steadied, Driscol turned back to face the oncoming enemy. He couldn't see the British, but he could hear them. The still-invisible soldiers were moving fast enough to make their gear clatter. From the sound of it, though, he thought they'd stripped away everything but the essentials. "Grapeshot, I assume?" "Yes, sir." Like any good sergeant, Ball knew when to shift to military formalities. "All the guns are loaded with grapeshot. I told the men not to use canister until I gave the order." Driscol eyed the distance. The British would be in a direct line of sight for more than two hundred yards before they could reach his fieldworks—and Driscol had taken advantage of the past two days to turn his section of the "Morgan Line" into something deadly serious. "They'll probably launch a bayonet assault immediately, Sergeant. So they'll get here more quickly than they normally would. We'll shift to canister after the first round." "Yes, sir." Quickly, Ball left to pass along the order. He was back within half a minute or so. Driscol's section of the "Morgan Line" was more in the way of a bastion than anything else. In fact, his men had started calling it Fort Driscol. Deliberately, almost sure that the Kentuckians would break, Driscol had designed the bastion so that it could protect his men from three sides. Only the rear was left open. Of course, the fieldworks had been hastily erected, using nothing more elaborate than dirt and logs. But his freedmen had set to the work with a will, and had managed to create something quite substantial in a very short time. Best of all, before they'd left the city they'd somehow scrounged up—stolen, most likely—a fair amount of wrought-iron fencework. The fancy fake spearpoints that tipped those fences had been designed for decoration. But, embedded into the walls of the bastion and slanted outward, they made an effective barrier. Decorative iron was still iron. The three hundred men of the Iron Battalion were anchored on the twelve-pounder, with the six-pounders positioned on the flanks. Driscol had placed the remaining ordnance—three four-pounders and two three-pounders—in the spaces between. About half his men would work the cannons, under the direction of Ball and his naval veterans. The other half were armed with muskets, pikes, and swords. The pikes had been made up in the iron shops. The "swords" were rarely that. Most of them were just the biggest knives the men could find, although some of them were armed with cutlasses that Houston had sweet-talked from Lafitte's Baratarian pirates. The Baratarians had been willing enough, since Jackson was using them as artillerymen on the Jackson Line. Driscol thought the pikes and blades would be more useful than the muskets. He'd concentrated his training on the cannons, of course. There really hadn't been time to train men properly in the use of muskets, as well. And freedmen, unlike white frontiersmen, didn't grow up with muskets in their hands. So Driscol had simply taught them how to load and fire a single round. Some of them, either from a bit of experience or simply because they had the knack for it, would probably manage to reload and get off another shot. Most of them, after firing the first round, would drop the muskets and take up simpler weapons. On an open field, Driscol's battalion would have been mincemeat. But here, especially facing the headlong bayonet charge that Driscol expected, he thought they'd do quite well. They were nervous, of course, but they were also burning with a determination to prove themselves—a sentiment Driscol had spent the past weeks nurturing as assiduously as he could. Which... was assiduous indeed. If soldiers had been flowers in a garden, Patrick Driscol would have been reckoned one of the world's finest gardeners. The British were almost here, he thought. He had just time enough left for a little speech. "All right, lads." His rasping voice, half-shouting, carried superbly well. "There is nothing complicated about this. There are no maneuvers required of you. All you have to do is stand your ground and fight." His pale eyes ranged across the faces of his watching soldiers. Their attention was riveted on him. "The enemy will attack and try to kill us, or drive us off. The first might happen. The other will not. We will win on this ground, or we will die on this ground. But whichever it is, we will not retreat. It's nothing but stand and die, or stand and win. Do you all understand?" A wave of nodding heads came in response. There was no hesitation. He smiled then. That thin, cold smile of his, but a smile nonetheless. " 'Tis normally at this point in my little speech that I threaten my men with the consequences, should they fail me. Grinding bones for my soup, and such." A tittering little laugh swept the soldiery. "But I'll not do that here. Not today. Not with the men of the Iron Battalion. There's no need. You will do what your mates and your nation require of you, I am certain of it." He paused, wondering what he might add. Nothing, it seemed. Henry Crowell, standing with a ramrod by the twelve-pounder, swept off his cap and waved it in the air. "I saw the major break the bastards at the Capitol, and he'll do it again today! A cheer for the major, boys!" Driscol was genuinely astonished at the cheer that went up. Loud, vigorous, full of confidence and enthusiasm. More than he'd ever hoped for, in truth. To be sure, he thought the cheer itself was ridiculous. As if the simple name Driscol chanted over and over again was some sort of magical talisman. But he made no protest. Perhaps it was, to such men. As soon as he caught sight of the American line—much more substantial, this one, ranging across hundreds of yards of front—Thornton paused just long enough to assess the thing. The American left, anchored on the river, would naturally be the strong point. There'd be some regulars there, manning the battery. Musketeers and a handful of light ordnance were spread across the middle. There would be the weakest point, but he didn't want to charge with batteries firing on him from the two flanks. Even if he broke through, his casualties would be severe. He studied the solid-looking fieldworks to the left of the field. That was where the new freedmen battalion was positioned. For a moment, he was tempted to turn the charge to head directly for them. As a rule, a unit like that would break easily. But... He was mindful of the possibility that the Capitol veterans might be there. Probably were, in fact, now that he finally got a good look at their fieldworks. Someone with determination and authority was in charge there. Remembering the carnage in Washington, he decided that a direct assault would be too risky. "Right," he said to his aides. They clustered about him while the men took a moment to rest. "We'll avoid the American right, and make our drive along the river. That new unit looks to be solid—but with as little training as they've received, they'll be like lost lambs once the line gives way. If we can break the American line at the river, the entire line will come apart. The freedmen and militia won't retreat for the good and simple reason that they don't know how. They'll run like rabbits, and we'll hunt them like hounds." He waited just long enough to see if any of his lieutenants had any doubts they wanted to express. As he expected, none did. "Right, then. Nothing fancy." He raised his voice so it could be heard by the men at the head of the column. "It'll be a column charge with bayonets, lads! We'll do or die!" A cheer went up. A very good one, Thornton thought. He drew his sword, held it high, and took his place near the head of the column. "To victory!" "Damnation," Driscol growled, seeing the British angling toward the other end of the line. He'd been expecting them to attack him at once, and had prepared accordingly. But Ball was already giving the order to replace the grape with round shot. At the range the British column was keeping, all the way across the field, grapeshot would be a hit-or-miss affair. Ball's method for switching rounds was simple and sanguine. The entire battery fired the grapeshot that was already loaded, and then started reloading with round shot. "Hit-or-miss," after all, isn't the same as "miss." If the freedmen battalion was poorly trained with muskets, they knew how to deal with heavy ordnance. Very soon, they were ready to fire again. "Rake 'em, boys!" Charles Ball yelled. "Rake the bastards!" Again, the battery erupted, all but the one six-pounder that was too far out of position on the right. It was as neat and sweet a volley as any Driscol had ever seen. Grazing shots, too, the most of them. Ball had veterans aiming the guns. The cannonballs hit the ground in front of the column, and skipped into the mass of men at waist level. The effect wasn't as devastating as it would have been if the cannonballs had struck stony ground, scattering splinters of rock to accompany the balls themselves. But not even the soggy ground along the banks of the Mississippi could keep those balls from caroming into the British column with deadly force. One ball missed entirely, from what Driscol could tell through the cloud of gunsmoke. But the rest hit the enemy column like mauls wielded by a giant. The only thing that kept the casualties from being worse was that Driscol had only a few guns and was firing on the British column from an angle across the field. "Enfilade fire," as it was called, was usually devastating against a line, because the shot could strike so many men. But it was much less effective against a column that was no more than a few men wide. If Driscol's guns had been firing head on, a single ball might have slain and maimed a dozen British soldiers. As it was, Driscol saw one of the balls—must have been from the twelve-pounder—pick up four men and hurl their broken and shredded bodies into the river. Ross could feel his face tighten. Two volleys, fired like thunderclaps. Even from the distance, there was no mistaking the thing. That'll be Driscol, he thought. The man like a stone. Near its head, Thornton ignored the havoc being wreaked on the center of the column. He'd known his men would take casualties from the other American battery while they charged the one by the river. At the moment, he was far more concerned about the damage he was taking from straight ahead. The battery they were charging was doing quite well itself. Grapeshot killed two men in what was now the front rank. Thornton simply leaped over their bodies. The battery on the American left was within fifty yards. Thornton knew how terrifying a mass of bayonets would be, coming at the run. That battery would break, so help him God. "Forward!" he cried. He was no longer waving the sword. Now, he had it gripped for the killing stroke. "Rake 'em, boys, rake 'em!" Ball was doing a splendid troll imitation himself, so Driscol let him be. The one time he started to move forward to assist, John Rogers held him back with a hand on the shoulder. "Just stay here, Patrick." The Rogers brothers had no use at all for military protocol. "He's doing fine, and if you get crushed by a cannon recoil scurrying around like a fussy hen, me and James will never hear the end of it from Tiana." Driscol didn't try to fight off the restraining hand. John's words were true enough. The first bit, at least. The idea that Patrick Driscol would let himself get carelessly behind a cannon being fired was just ridiculous. "Rake the bastards, you blasted currees! You got no excuse to miss since they ain't firing back! Any crew misses its shot I'll cut your ears off and fry 'em up! My voudou queen got one hell of recipe for it, too!" Granted, Ball's version involved a lot of unseemly leaping about, but Driscol made allowances. You couldn't reasonably expect African trolls to have the same customs as northerly ones. And he was getting the result they needed. Between Ball's energetic leadership, and the sure confidence of the core of veterans from Barney's unit, the men of the Iron Battalion were going about their work swiftly and effectively. Even, to all appearances, calmly. The sweat now coating their dark faces and bodies was simply that caused by the heat of the rising sun and the work of firing cannons. It was everything Driscol could have hoped for. He might lose this day—die this day—but not before gutting the Sassenach. Stoically, Robert Ross sipped his tea. The sound of the batteries was almost continuous now. But, always, with that regular punctuation. One battery maintaining volley fire while the other simply blazed away as best it could. Miles away, out of sight, Ross could see it as if he were there. Thornton had done exactly what he would have done—avoid Driscol's unit and attack the American line across the field. By the river, probably. He'd suffer bad casualties in the doing, of course. But once the hinge was shattered... Yes, it might work. Undoubtedly would work, if Thornton had enough men. Once the flank gave way, men as inexperienced as the Kentucky militia and the hastily trained freedmen would be lost. Orderly retreat, disciplined regroupment—all that would be completely beyond their grasp. They'd simply break and run, peeled away like rind from a fruit. "Unless," he muttered. Tiana gave him a blank-faced look. In fact, there'd been no expression on her face at all, since the battle began. "Unless what, Robert?" Ross took a deep breath. "Unless Driscol does what I damn well think he's going to do, the stubborn Scots-Irish bastard. Simply stand, like a stone. He'll force Thornton to come at him." There was still no expression on her face. "Stand and die, you mean." The British general reminded himself sharply that the man he was speaking of was loved by the girl across the table. Deeply loved, in fact. Of that, he was by now quite certain, even if he often found her Cherokee way of expressing it puzzling. "Perhaps. You never know, in a battle. Believe it true, Tiana. You simply never know until it's over." When Sam Houston encountered his first Kentuckian, fleeing from the battle he could hear in the distance, he neither shouted nor waved his sword. He wasn't holding his sword in the first place, having recognized what a dangerous practice that was in a long march so forced it was almost a run. He simply grabbed the man by the scruff of the neck as he raced past, spun him around, and sent him sailing back toward the front lines. "You so much as look back at me once, and I'll break your neck! You will fight, so help me!" The militiaman didn't look back. Encouraged by Houston's example, other men in his regiment used similar methods of persuasion as they encountered more fleeing militiamen. By the time Houston and his men reached Patterson's battery, they'd rallied perhaps a hundred of the Kentuckians. "Thank God you've arrived!" Patterson cried. "They're fighting hot and heavy down there! Don't know how much longer they can hold!" "Then why are you still here?" Sam snarled. Patterson gave him an odd look. Confusion, mainly, not anger. Sam stopped, planted his hands on his knees, and took some deep breaths. He needed a rest. And if he did, so did his men. "My apologies, Commodore." Sam had spoken unfairly, and he knew it. Sam didn't doubt Patterson's courage any more than anyone else did, and he knew Patterson's chief responsibility was making sure that whatever else happened, the big guns didn't fall into enemy hands. His battery was positioned directly across the river from the field of Chalmette. If the guns of the battery were seized by the British before Patterson had a chance to spike them, it would take only minutes to shift them upstream far enough to start ravaging the Jackson Line. His wind back, Sam straightened and peered across the river. The British forces over there were in position to launch an assault, but hadn't so far made a move to do so. They were waiting, he guessed, to see what happened on the west bank. Then he looked at Patterson's battery. "Give me the two three-pounders and enough men to haul and fire them. Even if the enemy seizes them, they won't do much damage firing across the river. But I can use them downstream." Patterson didn't hesitate. "Yes, certainly." Five minutes later, rested, Houston and his regiment were off again. Almost running now, with two three-pounders bouncing along behind. From the second-floor window of the Macarty house, watching through an eyeglass, Jackson saw the British break the hinge of Morgan's line of defense by the river. The battery put up a stout fight, but before long it was overwhelmed. The rest of the line started peeling away, Kentucky militiamen scattering like chaff in the wind. He swiveled the eyeglass far around, looking north. Yes, there was Houston, coming fast. Thank God. Swiveled it back. It was hard to tell much, more than a hundred yards past the riverbank. But he could see clouds of gun-smoke, billowing like clockwork. That'd be Driscol and his freedmen, solid as a rock. The general lowered the glass and hollered something. None of his lieutenants in the room understood a word. They couldn't have, anyway, since there really weren't any words. That had been just a shriek, half glee and half fury. Still clenching the eyeglass, Jackson turned from the window and stalked from the room. Down the stairs, and out of the house. He shook the eyeglass toward the southeast. "Come at me, Pakenham! Tarnation, come at me!" Pakenham was standing next to a tree, near the riverbank. Watching. Softly, steadily, like a metronome, he kept pounding the trunk with the bottom of his fist. He'd wait before ordering the assault here at Chalmette. He wouldn't act until he knew what was happening across the river. He'd wait. So help him God. The God who ruled battles, and all else. He... would... wait. Chapter 46The American lieutenant died at his post, after firing a last round of canister from his twelve-pounder that killed three British soldiers and wounded several more. In their fury, no fewer than four of Thornton's soldiers bayoneted the man repeatedly after they reached him, practically ripping his body into shreds. Gasping for breath, Thornton looked down at the corpse. The lieutenant still gripped the smoldering fuse in his hand. Sometime later, Thornton knew, he'd feel admiration for the man. The unknown lieutenant had just added to the splendid reputation which the little U.S. Navy had gotten in the course of the war. But at the moment, he felt more like stabbing the corpse himself, with his saber. That battery had hammered the Eighty-fifth worse than Thornton had expected. After a few more breaths, Thornton regained his wind. Amazingly enough, in that last charge, he hadn't himself suffered as much as a scratch, even though he'd been in the lead much of the way. But what next? A round from the battery still firing on the American right killed another British soldier and scattered his squad, right in front of Thornton's eyes. Damnation! Against all logic and reason, that bloody unit was still in place and still firing its cannons with the same rate and accuracy that had ripped the Eighty-fifth throughout the charge. The rest of the American line had peeled away and raced to the rear, even before the assault overwhelmed the artillerymen on the riverbank. But the other battery hadn't so much as flinched. So much for logic and reason. As often, applied to military affairs, they'd proved to be treacherous beasts. Quickly, Thornton considered his options. None of them were good. "Shall we charge them, sir?" asked Lieutenant Colonel Gubbins, Thornton's immediate subordinate, nodding toward the American battery a few hundred yards away. Thornton thought about it—quickly, because the battery was continuing to fire on them. Now that the Eighty-fifth had reached the redoubt on the riverbank, the men were somewhat sheltered. But not enough, and certainly not against fire that accurate. Standard procedure would have been to silence the battery before pressing onward. No commander wanted to leave an enemy bastion threatening his rear. But Thornton decided to risk it. He had to take the main American battery, farther to the north, with its big cannons. And he had to do it quickly. "No, we'll keep pressing on. However good that new American unit has proven to be, I don't think its commander will risk a sortie against our troops on the open field. And if he does, we'll turn and crush him." Gubbins scanned the area, then nodded. "Soon enough, too, we'll be out of their range. Out of sight, for that matter, once the column moves a few hundred yards off." Thornton saw that Gubbins was right, and his grim expression lightened considerably. The American commander had established his line at a place where the cypress swamps were fairly distant—exactly the opposite of what Jackson had done across the river. Just a few hundred yards north, the swamps closed in again, leaving an open area not more than two or three hundred yards wide between the cypress and the waterway. Once the British column reached that narrow neck, they'd be out of sight of the American battery altogether. "Do you want to leave a detachment behind, sir?" Gubbins asked. "Yes. They'll serve to guide the Forty-third and the West Indians, once they arrive." Thornton looked over the guns they'd seized from the naval detachment. One twelve-pounder and two six-pounders, neither of which the Americans had found time to spike. For a moment, he was sorely tempted to take the cannons with him. But they wouldn't be enough to affect whatever battle started across the river on Chalmette field; and, in the meantime, the detachment he left behind would need those guns to defend themselves against the American battery that was still in place. "Leave as small a detachment as we can manage, but not so small that they might be overrun by those bloody bastards over there. Make sure they've enough experienced men to handle the guns we leave behind, as well." Gubbins moved off. Thornton began organizing his regiment to make a rapid movement out of the shelter of the redoubt. Such as it was. "Give it to 'em, boys!" hollered Ball. "Any crew slacks off I'll have their legs in with the rest of the shrimp in Marie's pot!" Brandishing a cutlass, he glared at the crew of the twelve-pounder. "Don't you be grinning at me, Corporal Jones! Those long legs of yours'll fit, too! That voudou queen got the biggest cook pot in New Orleans!" Ball was demonstrating that his superb performance at the Capitol had been no fluke. He had as much of a knack for handling novice recruits as he did the veterans he'd had with him in Washington. Better still, Driscol knew, the men themselves were blooded now—and in the best possible manner. Bloodlessly, for them. They'd been able to prove to themselves that they could inflict damage on an enemy before that enemy could attack them directly. When and if the British came at them, they'd have confidence that fighting back would make a difference, even in the face of a terrifying bayonet charge. When, he thought, correcting himself. There'd be no "if" involved. True enough, from what he could tell the British commander was getting ready to push onward, leaving Driscol and his battalion behind. But it was obvious that they'd faced only a portion of the British forces, thus far, not more than a regiment. There had to be more coming. The British were pushing this assault far more vigorously— almost recklessly—than they ever would have for a simple diversionary movement. Driscol thought there would be at least another thousand soldiers arriving now on this side of the river. They'd be here soon enough. In the meantime— "Look, Sergeant! The bastards are leaving!" Excitedly, one of the gunners pointed toward the river, where the head of the British column could be seen moving to the northwest. "They're running away!" Ball was there in an instant, swatting the man. Fortunately, he did it with his bare left hand, not the cutlass. "And what do I care, you stupid curree? Get back to your post! Fire on 'em, boys! Keeping firing, the Lord damn you! I want those bastards bled and gutted every step of the way!" Splendid, splendid. Driscol wondered if Jackson's quirkiness would extend as far as to allow Driscol to promote Ball to a commissioned rank. Maybe. You never knew, with Jackson. After the sound of the guns faded, Robert Ross looked at Tiana, sitting across from him at the table on the square. Her face had remained expressionless, but seemed tighter than before. He started to open his mouth, prepared to reassure her, but stopped almost at once. He brought the cup of his tea to his lips, to disguise the moment's lapse. How could he reassure her? Driscol might well be dead by now. Or not. Battles were unpredictable things. There had been many times in his life when Robert Ross had thought the peculiarly abstract nature of military terminology—those fussy and precise terms like enfilade and all the rest, often enough drawn from a foreign tongue—served the main purpose of shielding soldiers from the raw certainty that battles were nothing but chaos, carnage, ruin, and agony. Battles would be unbearable, faced without that prism to shield the human heart and mind. "He's dead now, isn't he?" There was no tone at all in Tiana's voice, though the voice itself seemed brittle. Robert shook his head firmly. "There's no way to know, girl. Trust me about this. There is simply no way to know." Steadily, like a metronome, Pakenham's fist kept pounding the tree trunk. Very gently, now. "I wonder if he's being wise, sir," commented Gibbs, watching the British column that was continuing north along the riverbank. Pakenham shook his head firmly. "We shall not be secondguessing Colonel Thornton, General. He knows he's far behind schedule. No fault of his own, of course. So he's leaving that bastion behind, and going for the critical guns. What other course can he follow?" Pakenham wondered what he might have chosen to do, in Thornton's place. He didn't wonder more than a moment, though. The very same thing. Err on the side of aggressiveness, if err you must. "A splendid regimental commander," he pronounced. "I'll see him knighted, so help me God." Jackson was back at his window, studying the battle through his glass. Once the British column moved past the naval battery they'd overrun, he lowered the glass and shook his head. "I will be good goddamned," he stated, lapsing into blasphemy. "The niggers held. The only ones that did except the regulars, goddamn all Kentuckians." He swiveled his head and glared at his aides. "What's the name of Driscol's chief sergeant over there? The black one, I'm talking about—black as the ace of spades. The fellow he brought with him from Washington." The aides glanced at each other. Reid cleared his throat. "Not sure, sir. 'Ball,' I think." The glare was joined by a grin that was, if anything, more ferocious still. "Well, he's Lieutenant Ball now. Army regulations be damned, along with the whole state of Kentucky." Jackson turned back to the open window, leaned out of it, and shook the eyeglass in the direction of New Orleans. "Take that, you trembling bastards! Take that, you craven curs! Rot on your stinking plantations, you treacherous cowards!" He continued in that enthusiastic vein for a time, becoming more vulgar and profane as he went. Andrew Jackson, in a mood for cursing, was extraordinarily good at it. When Houston saw the oncoming British column, he skidded to a halt. "Hold up!" he shouted. "Form a line!" Fortunately, the sailors from Patterson's unit were veterans, so they had the three-pounders in line quickly enough to give the rest of Houston's regiment an anchor point. The three-pounders were positioned directly across the narrow dirt road that led up the riverbank. Houston placed his Baltimore dragoons on either side, and extended the Capitol volunteers in a line stretching toward the nearby swamp. There was no time to make breastworks, of course. The British weren't more than three hundred yards away by now. But Sam was sure that, firing in a line against a narrow column, his men would at least be able to hold the British for a few minutes. That left Major Ridge and his two hundred Cherokees. "Can you get through that cypress?" Sam asked. Ridge glanced at the swamp. "It'll take a bit of time." "Sure. I'll give you the time. You get in there and hit them on the flank." He peered into the distance. "There's not more than two hundred yards between the river and the swamp, where I'll stop them." Ridge left immediately, fading swiftly into the underbrush with his Cherokees in tow. John Ross went with them, without waiting to hear what Sam wanted him to do. Sam was a little surprised by that. John was normally punctilious about military protocol, even if his own status in the U.S. Army was somewhat anomalous. But, clearly, the young Cherokee captain had decided his identity here was with his own nation. So be it. Houston wouldn't really have known what to do with him anyway. The situation was about as clear and simple as it could get: the American regiment would start firing on the British once they got within a hundred yards, and keep shooting until it was all over. "We'll stand here, boys!" he shouted. Belatedly, he remembered his sword. A moment later, he had it waving about. "We'll win here or we'll die here, but whatever else, we shall not retreat!" The regiment sent up a cheer. A bit too wavering a cheer, to Sam's mind. "D'you hear me, blast it! We'll stand and win, or stand and die!" His mind raced through the Iliad, then raced back again to the beginning. Yes, that verse would do nicely. "Since great Achilles and Atrides strove, Such was the sov'reign doom, and such the will of Jove!" Most of the veterans from the Capitol burst into laughter. "I'm getting a little predictable," Sam muttered. But... Being predictable, he decided, was probably a good quality for a military commander. To his men, at least, if not the enemy. And besides, that laughter from the veterans seemed to have braced the morale of the rest even more than the preceding cheer. He wondered why that should be so, other than the general quirkiness of the human soul. But he didn't wonder for long. The British were coming fast, now. They'd be breaking into a full run any moment. The oncoming rows of bayonets made them seem not so much like an army, but a single beast. A great huge snake, making its strike. "All right, boys, let's kill that snake!" They were in range now, Sam decided. Certainly for the three-pounders. "Let 'em have it!" The cannons went off before he finished the sentence. Grapeshot shattered the front lines of the column. "Let 'em have it, I say!" The first musket volley was fairly done, if somewhat ragged. But the men shot straight enough, the most of them. And if their ensuing fire was ragged, it didn't slack off. They had the inevitable advantage that a line always has, firing on a column. There wasn't much coming in the way of return fire, to rattle his inexperienced troops. And—though Sam didn't know it—those first volleys decapitated the snake. Colonel Thornton's shoulder was shattered by a grapeshot. The blow spun him around. Reeling but still on his feet, his face pale with shock, he stared at Gubbins. "Keep the men—" Whatever Thornton's last command might have been went unspoken. A musket ball penetrated the back of his head and blew out his left eye. Gubbins wiped the gore off his face. "Forward, damn you! Forward, I—" He choked, clutching his throat, torn by a musket ball. Blood spewed out instead of words. Another musket ball struck him in the ribs, spinning him sidewise; then another passed through his jaw, smashing out most of his teeth along the way. Gubbins collapsed. On a dirt road by the Mississippi River, he bled to death. "You're in command, sir!" cried the pale-faced young lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth. "Colonel Thornton and Colonel Gubbins have both fallen." Captain James Money of the Royal Navy stared at the head of the column, some fifty yards or so in front of his own marines. The column was bunched up, now. No longer a column as much as a ragged lot of men trying to form an impromptu line, with no officers and a narrow front to boot. The charge had stumbled to a halt. Bayonets wouldn't do it here, clearly enough. Money looked back at the rest of the column. "Right. No help for it, then. We've got to form a line and fight it out. Lieutenant, I want—" A musket ball struck his left shoulder and drove him to his knees. Turning his head, his mouth open, Money saw a wave of wild savages pouring out of the cypress swamp. The Indians had begun their charge with a volley, apparently, as soon as they emerged from the trees. A volley of sorts, at least. Money's mind was too dazed to remember exactly what he'd heard. All he could do was watch as the savages slammed into his unprepared men. They fired again, once—no volley there; just each savage as he would, those who had muskets—and then began killing with war clubs and spears. Captain Money detested this idiot war in the gulf. The terrain and climate were the worst he'd ever encountered. Nothing that happened in the next half a minute caused him to reconsider his opinion. Certainly not the war club that shattered his skull. "Back! Back to the woods!" Major Ridge's voice, like Driscol's, was eminently capable of carrying across a raging battlefield. "Get back now!" For a wonder, the warriors obeyed him. That alone, John Ross knew, as he plunged back into the cypress along with the others, was enough to make clear Ridge's status. Cherokee warriors weren't terribly prone to discipline. Ferocity, yes. Obedience in the face of commands— He actually chuckled, once he reached the dark safety of the trees. Not hardly. Apparently Ridge heard the chuckle. John had stayed close to him throughout the charge out of the swamp, and the quick retreat back into it. He gave the younger man a crease of a smile. "Amazing, isn't it? But it only worked because they aren't stupid." John nodded. The attack had caught the British completely by surprise, and had inflicted a lot of casualties on them. But John's own experience in the swamps on the night of the twenty-third had taught him how dangerous British soldiers could be, once they were planted and ready to fight. There were still at least twice as many enemy soldiers on that road as there were Cherokees. If Ridge had tried to stand and slug it out, they'd have started getting butchered. "What now?" he asked. Ridge was peering through the trees at the British column on the road. John, doing the same, could see British officers racing up and down, bringing order to their troops. Faster than he would have imagined possible, the enemy was forming a line to defend their flank. "We'll just wait a bit," Ridge answered. "Let Houston do whatever he's going to do first, and then we'll see what things look like. If they come at us, here in the swamp, we'll rip them. The same would happen to us, if we were stupid enough to charge back out there against that line." It made sense to Ross. So, he took the time to reload his pistol. He'd even hit an enemy soldier with the round he'd fired during the charge, he thought. That wasn't much of an accomplishment, of course. Not at point-blank range, against a mass of men caught with their backs to the river. John added the experience to the long list he was compiling, which was proving to him that there was something ultimately absurd about war. Or, at least, the way men talked about it. Why did men boast so, about a field of endeavor whose greatest achievement was to do the crudest thing imaginable, in as simple a way as possible? No Cherokee woman, after all, would have bragged that she'd made the ugliest garment in the world, using the fewest possible stitches. "Shall we charge them, Colonel Houston?" Lieutenant Pendleton asked eagerly. "We bloodied 'em good!" Sam took a moment from his study of the enemy to glance at the young dragoon officer who was standing next to him. He was tempted to say, Do I look like an idiot? The British, their charge having been broken, were forming a line about one hundred and fifty yards away. He was amazed at the speed and precision with which they'd done so. Sam knew perfectly well his own regiment would have made a dragged-out mess of the business, if they could have even managed it at all after suffering such casualties. And he could practically feel the savage eagerness of the British soldiers to see him marching toward them. Oh, they'd get some of their own back, then! Surely they would. "No, Lieutenant. Face facts—that's the first thing an officer has to learn. Those are regulars over there, and we aren't. So we'll not be so foolish as to try matching them line against line. Tell the men to start digging in and form a breastworks, and tell the three-pounders to hold their fire unless the enemy advances. They'll be getting low of ammunition, anyhow. We'll just stand here. That's really all we need to do. If we keep the enemy away from the commodore's guns, we've done our job." It was almost comical, the way Pendleton's face fell. "Now, Lieutenant." "Yes, sir." Pendleton raced off. Well. Slouched off hurriedly. But Sam wasn't inclined to chide him over his posture. Now that the immediate danger was past, he was worrying about Driscol and his men. Were they still alive? If so, they were trapped back there— and Sam didn't dare charge to their rescue as long as the British had that line across the road. If the enemy broke his charge, which they most likely would, there'd be nothing between them and Patterson's guns. "Why is everything so quiet now, Robert?" Somehow, she'd still managed to keep her face expressionless. But Ross thought the lines of the face itself were tighter than any drum he'd ever seen. "The assault's been beaten off," he said, trying not to sigh. "For the moment, at least." He suspected that his own face was as tightly drawn as Tiana's. Under the circumstances, for the moment was a meaningless phrase. Ross knew the battle plan Thornton had been following. The thing either had to be done quickly, or there was no point in doing it at all. The tree was starting to shed bark, under that softly but steadily pounding fist. Gibbs was genuinely amazed. He'd never seen Pakenham able to restrain himself to such a degree in a battle. Wellington, he knew, would have been pleased to witness Pakenham's unwonted control. The duke had won the Peninsular War because he'd always been able to contain himself, when the need be. Something few of his immediate subordinates could have managed. Including Gibbs. If he'd been in command here, despite his own great doubts about the prospects, the men would have started across Chalmette field at least an hour earlier. They might have even carried the day. Who was to know? Leading a charge was so much easier than being the commander who had to order it—or refrain from doing so. Another piece of bark fluttered to the ground. "Come at me, blast you," Jackson hissed. He was back on the line now. He didn't n

ed a glass to see the British formations, hundreds of yards away. Not when all he had to do was look across the bareness of Chalmette field. He'd cover that beautiful empty field with red-coated corpses, if they came across. He knew it as surely as he knew the sun would rise on the morrow.

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