Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Fairest Portion of the Globe Excerpt

By late afternoon, they had reached the great Ohio. The fort was almost in view. Lewis’s heart began to race a little, and he straightened his uniform and checked the brass buttons to make sure they had the required shine. He was starting a new chapter now, the one that would bring him fame and glory. He would endeavor to earn the trust of his new commanding officer, whoever it turned out to be. He would strive to hold his tongue, to learn, to seek wisdom instead of notoriety. He would prove himself to be a top-notch soldier—

Fort Washington squatted on the riverbank, smoke curling lazily out of its chimneys. On its right lay the red-painted log homes of Cincinnati, dotting two bluffs that cascaded down to the Ohio. Captain Harrison grinned, no doubt thinking about his bride-to-be, and spurred his horse forward.

Lewis saw Harrison suddenly yank on the reins as a sound ripped through the air: a wrenching, awful scream, a death-cry soaring skyward, a howl torn from a dozen throats. For a terrible moment, Lewis sat frozen in the saddle. He hadn’t heard that sound since his childhood in Georgia. A doused fire, his mother’s fearful eyes, men running, the ground soaked with blood—

He stared at Harrison, his eyes wide. “Indian attack!”

Harrison frowned and shook his head. “Can’t be—”

“That’s the Miami war cry! The blasted devils are inside the fort!” Lewis grabbed his rifle off the saddle and flung himself to the ground. “Come on!”

He took off, racing towards the sound of battle. Men who had been on fatigue duty in the gardens outside the fort were running back to the stockade, yelling in confusion, scrambling for their weapons.

Harrison dismounted and raced after him, shouting. The damn fool had forgotten his rifle. A bucktoothed private rushed past them, his hands and knees black with dirt, his face waxy with panic. Lewis tried to grab the boy and spin him around, get him ready to face the enemy.

“Damn you, let go!” The man kicked himself free and kept on running.

So much for Anthony Wayne’s peace, and the preparedness of the great United States Army! Well, he’d make the savages pay dearly for his life. He had lead balls and priming powder in his pockets. He’d take a few of the red devils with him before they got his scalp!

The Miamis, in full war paint, rode screaming down on the soldiers of Fort Washington. The horses kicked up a haze of mud and dust, and their red-and-black painted riders looked like avenging demons in the approaching twilight. Squinting, Lewis thought he spotted some Army-issue rifles among them. Goddamn thieves must’ve taken the arsenal!

Up ahead, he saw General Wayne and General Wilkinson, the army’s second-in-command, standing calmly on a mudflat beside an overturned wagon. Some men had turned it into a breastwork and were cowering behind it. Wayne and Wilkinson were making no attempt to rally the men or defend themselves from the horde of Indians bearing down on them. Were they impossibly brave, or just plain insane?

Harrison screamed behind him. “Ensign Lewis, stop! For God’s sake, I order you to halt!”

Lewis ignored him, racing on. Leave it to somebody like Harrison to quiver like a little girl when it came time to fight. He dove behind the wagon, worked a lead ball free from his pocket, and rammed it home. A striking warrior was coming right at the commanding general, his horse breaking into a gallop, his tomahawk swinging through the air as he sang out his haunting war cry. Lewis tightened his finger on the trigger, no longer breathing, praying for the strength to be brave enough to do what he had to do—

Lewis raised himself up in a crouch behind the wagon bed, lifted the rifle to his shoulder, and took aim. The brave’s eyes widened when he realized he faced more than cringing unarmed men. Lewis tightened his finger on the trigger, aiming at the center of the Indian’s broad chest. A single ball, right through the heart—

“Lewis, for God’s sake, no! ” Harrison was at his side. For reasons he could not comprehend, Harrison grabbed the barrel of the rifle and wrenched it upwards. Big hands tore at the back of his coat. Jesus, no, they were about to be scalped—

He struggled to level the rifle at the mounted Indian and yanked the trigger. The brave flattened himself across the horse’s neck as the muzzle boomed in an explosion of powder. God help me, I missed. Lewis howled with rage as Harrison twisted the still-smoking rifle out of his hands. He pawed at his belt, clutching for his knife—

“You God-rotten, miserable caitiff idiot ! ” a voice roared. Someone shook him so hard his teeth banged together. “You egregious arse-wipe—you pathetic excuse for a soldier—”

Then he went flying, his tailbone thudding hard on the ground as he skidded into the mud and came to rest against an upturned wagon wheel. He stared around in panic and confusion. The person who had knocked him down was General Wayne. Around him, he noticed that the running and screaming had ground to a halt. Soldiers and Indians alike were standing there open-mouthed, listening to General Wayne shout profanities. He turned his wondering eyes back to the Miami warrior and noticed for the first time that the brave had blue eyes and red hair.

“Damn me for a fool,” Lewis gasped. He glanced around at the other Indian faces. They were all white men, soldiers, painted up to look like Indian warriors. It was nothing but a training exercise.

“This is the most appalling excuse for an Army I ever saw!” Wayne ranted. “No defense at all—everybody standing around with their thumbs up their arses—good thing it wasn’t a real attack, we’d be finished!”

He turned to a man on the garden detail. “Do you need a map to point you in the direction of your company, private? And you! Did no one ever show you how to form a redoubt? Seems everybody needs instructions on how to shoot a rifle—except this wretch, who nearly took out one of our own officers. A devil of a job getting the men prepared, Captain Harrison.”

Harrison withered under Wayne’s contemptuous gaze. “Where the hell have you been, anyway? What in God’s name were you thinking, being away from the fort during an important training maneuver? Or did you think it wasn’t important?”

“Uh, of course, sir,” Harrison stammered. Sweat poured down his pale face. “It’s just that you told me to finish the courts martial at Fort Greeneville, and to report back with Ensign Lewis—”

“Ensign Lewis?” Wayne frowned. “Who the hell is Ensign Lewis?”

Harrison pointed a thin finger in Lewis’s direction. Wayne curled his lip. “Oh, right. Him. The screw-up.”

Lewis bowed his head, a burning hole where his stomach had been. Why the hell couldn’t he ever get it right? Wayne would have him drummed out of camp this time for sure. He imagined Wayne ripping off his shoulder straps and making him walk through a double line of men right out the gate, their eyes turned away, not wanting to look upon his shame. It had been a mistake, that’s all. A terrible mistake...

“Harrison, get this mess sorted out. I want every man back on fatigue duty—yes, I know it’s getting dark. They’ll work until they can’t see their hands in front of their faces. There’ll be half rations issued for supper tonight. Each company will report for drill early tomorrow morning.”

The men groaned in dismay and began to shuffle around. Wayne turned to Lewis. “As for you, my lovely trigger-happy friend, Captain Harrison will escort you to the yellow-house. Wait for me there.”

“Sir...” The red-headed savage cleared his throat. Lewis dared to raise his eyes to the man he almost shot. To his surprise, the officer was looking at him with sympathy.

“Sir, I’d ask for leniency for Ensign Lewis. Being he’s new here, how was he supposed to know what was goin’ on? It was a bad mistake, General, but an honest one, and no harm done.” The man wiped sweat from his face, smearing war paint across his cheeks. “I don’t want any man cashiered on account of me, sir.”

“Cashiered? No such luck, Clark. Not with that shortage of junior officers you’re always complaining about. This army needs clerks. You’ve said so yourself, sir!” Wayne grinned fiercely. “Ensign Lewis, meet Lieutenant William Clark, of the Chosen Rifles. Your new commanding officer.”

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