Chapter 5

December 26, 1814.

Sharpe was up at dawn. He donned his tattered coveralls (had it really been that long since he had lifted them off of Colonel Leroux?) and boots and went outside. A basin of water was set up on an empty cartridge box. He bent down and splashed the wet coldness in his face. It was bracing and drove the last remnants of sleep away.

A low ground fog gave a damp chill to the air and concealed all distant objects in its soft whiteness. The cypress trees around the outbuildings shown like dark islands in a sea of cotton. Fredrickson was up and fully dressed. He had removed his bandage, and his right temple showed only a slight abrasion. He was standing in front of the building, gazing northward towards the unseen American lines. He turned to Sharpe.

"Another lovely morning in Louisiana. What's on your plate for today?"

Sharpe straightened up and grabbing a towel, began to dry his hair. He shrugged.

"Begin my investigation. I guess I'll start asking the people who saw the massacres firsthand."

"Before you do that, you should borrow a horse and take a look at the Jonathan lines and the likely battlefield. You may not like what you see."

As he buttoned his tunic, Sharpe looked a Fredrickson curiously.

"I'll do that."

First, he grabbed a slab of fresh bread with butter and jam (being based on a plantation had its advantages), washed down with a mug of hot tea. Then he headed towards the De la Ronde mansion. He knew just who he wanted to see. Major Harry Smith had one of the few horses in the British expeditionary force, but he gladly lent it to Sharpe. He was a bay gelding named Salamanca, and he still had a lot of spirit. As he bounced up and down on his steed's back, Sharpe told himself he really should learn to ride some day. But then he reminded himself that he was a farmer, and his place was behind a horse, with a plow, not in the saddle. At least not after this.

He cantered along the levee road that ran along the river by the western flank of the Lacoste plantation. The day was warming up, the fog was clearing, and visibility was rapidly improving. With every passing minute, he could see more. He left the road and cut right across the fields of the La Ronde plantation, stopping about three hundred yards in front of and to the right of the mansion, about two thousand yards from the American front lines. He was within range of round shot, but hopefully they would decide that he wasn't worth the trouble. He took out his fine telescope, the one that had been given to Joseph Bonaparte by his brother Napoleon, snapped it open, and looked intently through it.

Fredrickson was right. Sharpe didn't like what he was seeing.

General Jackson had begun a line of batteries behind an old, dried, and partially filled canal that formed the northern border of the Chalmette plantation. It stretched from the levee and into the tree line, some three-quarters of a mile. Workers with shovels were deepening and widening the ditch, it looked like it would be about four feet deep and twelve feet wide. The rampart from the digging was about four feet high, and was reinforced with wooden fence posts that kept it from collapsing into the ditch. Behind the ditch was a barrier of what appeared to be large, square bales of some material (probably cotton, it would absorb our shot) that were stacked six or eight deep. Behind them were the guns. They were mounted on wooden platforms that rested on still more cotton bales that prevented them sinking into the mud. Workers were shoveling mud onto the bales, obviously to prevent their being set on fire and to further absorb any artillery fire. On the far Jonathan right, nearest the river, were two six pounders and a twenty-four-pounder. Commanding the road that Sharpe had recently left was a twelve-pounder howitzer, with another twenty-four-pounder to the left. Beyond the rampart, he could see the roof of a mansion set back about fifty yards behind it. This, he remembered, must be the Macarte mansion, General Jackson's headquarters. He could see more guns pointing from the cotton embrasures, arranged in four batteries. Further openings in the line indicated that more guns would soon be brought up. Before this line, the battlefield stretched back towards the British camp. It was flat as a tabletop. No hills, no gullies, no trees, no folds in the land at all. Just the shortened stubble of harvested sugarcane. A perfect field of fire. An army that marched across of it would be vulnerable to American artillery and rifle fire for the full limit of the guns' range. There would be no place to hide. The casualties would be horrendous. A single round shot going from front to back in a column of men could take out twenty or more. The troops would have to walk almost up to the earthworks before they could even fire a retaliatory volley. The Jonathans wouldn't even have to aim. They could just point their muzzles down the battlefield, load and fire, again and again. It would be a miracle if even one British soldier got within musket range alive. Even then, the Jonathans would take few, if any casualties from behind their thick cotton redoubt. Sharpe had stormed tough positions before, but never in such exposed terrain. It was not a battlefield, it was a killing ground. If Jackson were allowed to complete his line. What were the options? The American right rested on the river. Jackson had set up a second American gun position on the Mississippi's western bank. And then there were the American gunboats. Any force attempting to use the levee road to assault the right would be raked in the flank. The Yankee right could not be turned. There remained the left. Sharpe cantered east toward the tree that marked the beginnings of the swampland, some fifteen hundred yards away. As he rode parallel to the American line, he could see hundreds of workers digging trenches and further embankments, thickening and strengthening the earthwork. He rode within the tree line, dismounted, tying Salamanca to a low hanging cypress branch, and made his way between the trees. The ground was spongy, but still solid. It grew less so as he penetrated further in, but still gave him no trouble. The air was thicker and more cloying here, and there were more mosquitoes. He made his way closer to the Jonathan lines, trusting to the trees to give him cover. No one gave any indication of seeing him. At times, when the trees were thick, he lost sight of the embankment, and then, as he drew closer, he could see it again through the trunks. Finally he stopped at about five hundred yards from the American left and crouched down behind the massive root of an aged cypress. The American left wing extended to the edge of the swampland, but no farther. This rampart was made only of fresh-cut logs, with the gaps between them filled with earth. Obviously, they were expecting no artillery fire on their left, it would be impossible to bring cannon through the swampland close enough to get a line-of-sight shot. Sharpe knew instantly, if Jackson's line had a weak spot, it was here. The line was still incomplete, the guns were not all in place, and there were no cannon at all on the left. The Americans were trusting to the swamp to keep the British from making any significant approach on that side. They seemed to be unaware that the swamp was still passable for troops as much as two hundred yards from the tree line. Through his telescope, Sharpe could see the men behind the works, men in homespun cloth, with round black hats and long guns. Apparently, these were the riflemen that Fredrickson had told him about. But with the trees pushing so close to their lines, the long range of their guns would be neutralized. A large force of regulars could be on them before they knew it. With the rifle's slow reload rate, they would not be able to keep up a quick enough rate of fire to keep them out. As far as Sharpe could see, the left part of the line was their one weakness. There was still a chance of turning the Jonathans' line here.

But the attack had to be soon, ideally, tomorrow morning. The longer Pakenham delayed, the stronger the American defenses would grow. Eventually, they would become virtually impregnable. Pakenham could not allow that to happen.

He had to be told. Sharpe turned around and trotted back to Salamanca, untied him, and mounted the saddle. He cantered back towards the British camp, cutting across the plantation fields of Bienvenue until he came to the levee road. Again, if the Jonathans noticed him, they ignored him. Sharpe hoped they would have reason to regret their complacency.

He rode up to the Villere plantation and tied up his horse. He entered and saw Major Smith sitting at a desk outside the closed dining room. Smith looked up from his papers and smiled.

"Ah, Sharpe. How did you find Salamanca?"

"Fine, he's tied up out in front. Thanks for the loan. I've got to talk to General Pakenham, now."

"He's at breakfast -"

"This can't wait."

Smith gazed at Sharpe for a moment, and then shrugged. He got up and entered the dining room, closing the doors behind him. From behind the heavy, scrolled wood, Sharpe could hear Smith and Pakenham's voices indistinctly. Then Smith came back out, closing the door behind him.

"He'll see you, but you'll want to make it quick."

Sharpe nodded and strode through the doors even as Smith opened them for him. Pakenham was seated alone at the long dining table, which was covered with a white tablecloth. He was having breakfast, dining from fine china with the Villere family silverware. He was using his spoon to crack the egg in his eggcup as Sharpe entered. Pakenham did not look until he had finished his delicate task.

"I can give you five minutes, Major Sharpe."

Sharpe stood at attention. Pakenham was a stickler for protocol, he had to make a good impression if he were to get a hearing.

"Sir, I've just come from inspecting the American lines."

"As did I and my staff yesterday afternoon. What of it?"

"I believe that we must launch an all-out attack without delay, sir. The Americans are building a potentially impregnable position, and we must hit them hard before they can complete it. I have found out the American's weak spot, on their left flank."

"In the swampland."

"Yes sir. A determined attack launched at close range out of the tree cover could overwhelm their riflemen before they can reload. From there, we can roll up the American position left to right."

"That is one possible course of action, possibly the most desirable against a trained army. Against this backwoods rabble, it is quite possibly mere alarmist panic. Day after tomorrow, we will make a reconnaissance-in-force, a general advance along the line, and see how the Americans react. That, I think, will reveal their weaknesses far more effectively than your own limited perspective."

"The line is already dangerously strong, sir. Our men will be targets for nearly a mile across a completely exposed field. We should attack all along the line, at dawn when the ground fog gives us cover. The men should go in with bayonets only. You know that if their muskets are loaded, they will be tempted to stand in the middle of the field and trade shots with the Yankees. With bayonets, they will be in the middle of their works before they have a hint that we are there. We can use fascines and scaling ladders to bridge the ditch, and the main thrust should be on their left - "

Pakenham threw his napkin on the table in irritation. Ever since that blasted court-martial business, Major Sharpe had continued to intrude into his carefully ordered life like a recurring cold.

"Enough, Sharpe. My staff is completely competent, and have concluded that a reconnaissance-in-force is necessary to probe the American position, as a pre-requisite to any other action."

"But sir-"

"Major Sharpe, your purview during this campaign is the investigation of the alleged massacres of American civilians. When I intrude into your investigation, then you may tell me how to conduct this campaign. In the meantime, you will leave said campaign to me as my field of responsibility, not yours. Is that clear?"

Sharpe seethed inwardly, but he knew when to retreat.

"Perfectly, sir."

"Good. I will expect you on the field for the action. You may choose your ground, left or right. I will make a point of examining the American left. We will see if they are as vulnerable as you seem to think. That will be all."

"Yes sir."

Sharpe stood at attention, spun on his heel, and exited. He stalked out of the door, past Major Smith before the latter could ask him how things had gone. Smith had treated him decently, and Sharpe could not have trusted himself to hold his anger in.

Damn! I swear, that is the last time I ever try to tell a British General anything! The pompous stuffed shirt! Let him walk into the American cannons if he wants to!

He reflected that if the Duke had been in command, this conversation would have been completely unnecessary. Wellington would never have considered giving battle under so many disadvantages. Well, Pakenham had said that the investigation was Sharpe's purview. So be it! Whatever happened to the army, his hands were clean. He had tried, and his experience in a hundred fights had been thrown back in his face. He would begin his investigation.

And he would begin it with Fredrickson.

"Just what do you know about the massacres, William?"

Fredrickson was seated across from him at the mess table. He stared reflectively at the ceiling for a moment. Sharpe had a notebook and pencil that he had gotten from the quartermaster and sat ready to take notes. Fredrickson fished a piece of paper out of his tunic pocket and referred to it.

"Well, I never visited any of the sites myself. As you might remember, I had other things to occupy my attention. There were eight sites in all in Maryland, along the route of our march on Washington and Baltimore, but some miles away from it along the flanks. First there were four small villages, all tiny out-of-the way places. None of them had any military value at all. I have them written down here; Blade's Corner, Durndale, Norburg, and Fallstown. Then there were four country estates, Towson, Caton, Lothian, and Sunderton. There were a few survivors, all of whom claimed that British soldiers did the job. At all of the sites, evidence implicating our army was found, haversacks or cartridge boxes, regimental buttons clenched in dead fists, shako plates lying half-buried in the ashes. I overheard some soldiers who had gone over Blade's Corner to buy some supplies. They were quite shaken. Apparently, whatever they saw was really abominable, even with a war going on. Like I said earlier, the Americans filed a formal protest, but both Ross and Cockburn denied any knowledge of the massacres beyond what those soldiers had reported. Soon after, three of our foraging parties were massacred to a man, the bodies mutilated. We made a formal protest, and this time the Americans denied any knowledge of it. And that's really all I know. Except that there were rumors that General Ross was on to something before he was shot."

"But you have no ideas if he suspected anyone?"

"If he did, he didn't tell me."

Fredrickson's tone became speculative.

" I wonder if that's what he meant when he said to me 'find out' just before he died?"

Sharpe thanked Fredrickson and set out for the camp. He spent the rest of the day

interviewing those soldiers who had viewed the massacre sites firsthand. He would go to the battalion commander and find out from him what companies had been on foraging expeditions to the villages or estates in question. He then found out from the sergeants what specific troops had gone. Word had gotten around the camp that full cooperation was to be given him, and he had no difficulties. The company commander would set him up, usually sitting on a log by the campfire, and the soldiers would be sent over one by one to answer his questions. Throughout the interviews he conducted, Sharpe kept as careful notes as he was able. Sharpe found that his own time in the ranks allowed him to put the soldiers quickly at ease.

"Hello, Private Gray, isn't it? Have a seat. You've been told that I want to ask you some questions? Good? Now I want you to tell me what you saw when you came into Blade's Corner. Tell me everything, and don't leave anything out."

"Thank you, Major. We was marching to the village to buy some food, stores being low, you see, when we sees a cloud of black smoke rising into the sky. We marched in at the double step. Awful it was, bloody awful. All dead, everyone. Men, womenfolk, even the little ones. Worst thing I ever seen. Hacked up terrible like sir, none of 'em put up much of a fight. The whole place was burning when we got there. . ."

And so it had gone through the day. Sharpe interviewed over thirty soldiers from the 4th, the 21st, and the 44th. All had much the same thing to say. All were still shaken at the horrific memories. One or two even wept, and Sharpe had put a sympathetic hand on their shoulders until they could continue.

"The crows was picken' at 'em, wouldn't have been much left if we'd come a day later."

"Arms, legs, heads, lying everywhere, piled up in big stacks like. . ."

"Underneath her body was a haversack with the Kings' Seal on it plain as day . . "

"One family, a mother, a grandmother, five children, were in a cottage with the door burst like they had barricaded themselves. Didn't do them no good, though. . ."

". . . there was flies buzzing everywhere . . ."

"Some were gutted, just like pigs at butchering time, but gutted alive. . ."

". . . and this little feller had a silver button clutched in his fist. It was marked with the 44th 's mark . . ."

"Most of the folk had crowded into the town meeting house. We found what was left of 'em in there after it had burnt down. I hope most of 'em died from the smoke, instead of the flames, y'know. . ."

"The smell was hideous, sir, hideous . . ."

". . . the footprints leadin' up to the village were of booted feet, sir, like we wear,"

"Some of were skinned, sir, believe it or not, skinned like rabbits, with their carcasses hangin' from the ceiling with all their veins showin. . ."

"I saw folks scalped, sir, don't call me a liar, scalped like red Indians had got to 'em. . ."

"I saw . . . oh God sir! I saw children pinned to the wall by bayonets. One little wee one looked so much like me own daughter . . ."

"We don't do things like that sir, not our army! Do we?"

". . . worst thing I ever seen . . ."

"Horrible, sir . . ."

". . . just awful . . ."

"I'll see those little ones' faces in me dreams for the rest of me life . . ."

"ghastly . . ."

"hideous . . ."

"obscene . . ."

"unspeakable . . ."

By the end of the day, Sharpe was sick at heart from hearing over and over again the atrocities that these soldiers had witnessed. He had spent his life killing, but he had a professional soldier's honor, and the very idea of innocents being deliberately singled out for such wholesale slaughter disgusted him. He had several pages of notes that he would have to review. And tomorrow, there were a few more soldiers to question.

But he had one more interview to conduct before he called it a day. Colonel Francis Brooke, Ross' second-in-command and effective commander of the assault force that was to have stormed Baltimore, was now here as a member of Keane's staff. Perhaps Ross had mentioned something to him. There was only one way to find out.

He walked to the Villere mansion, and found Fredrickson and Smith out in front discussing the attack scheduled for the 28th. Smith looked up and greeted Sharpe.

"Good evening, Major Sharpe. How has your investigation gone?"

"I've kept busy. Have you seen Colonel Brooke?"

"He rode out to survey the assault routes for the coming action."

"Can I borrow Salamanca again?"

"Of course, I'll send my man around to saddle him up."

"Want some company?" Fredrickson asked.

Sharpe nodded. Within a few minutes, they were riding out along the levee road towards the Bienvenue plantation in the orange light of the setting sun. Some clouds in the south threatened rain. Sharpe was mounted on Salamanca; Fredrickson on his dam, a sorrel mare named Vimeiro. Sharpe couldn't help but notice that Fredrickson sat considerably easier in the saddle than he did. Obviously, something else he had picked up somewhere. He scanned ahead in the growing dusk, then pointed. Several hundred yards ahead, they could see a lone, mounted figure in a red uniform, looking through a telescope at the American defense line. That had to be Brooke. They spurred across the cane fields towards him.

In the shadow of the cypress trees at the edge of the swamp, Red Gator studied his target. He had been lying in wait here since late morning, totally still, barely breathing, with the patience and absolute concentration of the hunter. Soldiers had come and gone during the day, and he had let them go, waiting for a bigger prize. And now a fine, juicy British colonel had come into range. Prey always came to the hunter.

A motion in the periphery of his vision made him turn his head. A poisonous cottonmouth was crawling along the ground next to where he lay. It stopped and raised its head, its beady black eyes staring into his pale blue ones with apparent fascination. Slowly, imperceptibly, he eased his fighting knife out it its sheath. The snake turned away to continue on its route. He brought his knife down with a thwack! and the serpent's headless body thrashed and jerked convulsively. Gator reached out a hand and gripped it. With his pointed teeth, he ripped the scaly skin away and bit into the meat, savoring the cold saltiness of snake blood. It wasn't as satisfying as man's blood, but enough of that would be shed, and soon. He turned his eyes back to the colonel. The fool thought himself safe, just because he was beyond the range of any British sharpshooter. A mistake he would pay for. With his left hand, he picked up a pinch of dust and released it, a few grains at a time, to check the wind. There was none. He whispered through his mouthful of snake as he aimed his rifle.

"That's right, me Bucko. Just a wee little bit closer now . . ."

Sharpe and Fredrickson rode towards Colonel Brooke, who was still peering through his telescope. As he heard the noise of approaching hooves, he put the scope down and looked behind him as the two riflemen came up on his left side. Brooke nodded politely, gesturing towards the American lines.

"A hard nut to crack, if we are put to it, gentlemen. Good evening, Major Fredrickson. And it's Major Sharpe, isn't it? Here to investigate the massacres?"

Sharpe nodded.

"Yes sir. I was hoping to ask you some questions."

"I witnessed nothing firsthand, as I am sure you are aware."

"But you were General Ross' second-in-command, sir, and we have reason to believe that he was on to something, or someone. Did he say anything to you about his suspicions?"

Brooke thought for a moment. The sky grew darker as the clouds gathered.

Red Gator lined up his sights on his target, ignoring the two new horsemen who had taken up positions beyond him. Their presence would make claiming his prize more satisfying. He focused all his attention on the distant shape in red on top of the horse. He let his breath out slowly. His forefinger lightly caressed the trigger. He drew in his breath, held it and squeezed . . .

"Now that you mention it," Brooke said, "He once told me that I would do well to keep an eye on - urrrkk!"

Brooke convulsed as he was thrown from his starting horse by some massive, unseen power. His hand clawed spasmodically at the wet red stain that had appeared over his heart. Only when he had hit the ground did Sharpe hear the high flat crack! of the rifle. He whirled in the direction of the sound.

"There!" Fredrickson cried. Sharpe followed his pointing hand to the quickly dissipating gunpowder smoke on the edge of the tree line.

"Let's go!" Sharpe shouted. He and Fredrickson spurred their horses towards where the shot had come from, crouching low in the saddle. They dismounted, Fredrickson there an instant sooner, leaping from the saddle. He handed his reins to Sharpe, who stood behind him holding Salamanca's reins. Fredrickson scanned the ground for a second, then pointed again at a flattened area, near which was the half-eaten carcass of a cottonmouth.

"That's where he was."

Sharpe looked back at where Brooke's dead body was lying.

"God, look at the range! It must be better than three hundred and fifty yards!"

Fredrickson scanned the area behind them.

"Closer to four hundred, I'd say. Not one man in ten thousand could make a shot like that. Not even Taylor."

"Or Hagman." Sharpe added. Even amidst the unexpected shock, he was awestruck. Never had he come across a marksman of this skill. Never!

Fredrickson poked at the remains of the snake. Sharpe bent closer to look.

And then from behind them, echoing across the field, came the scream.

It was the most terrible sound that Sharpe had ever heard, and he cringed involuntarily. It was filled with triumph, bloodlust, and the joy of killing. It was a scream of mockery and a scream of challenge. It was a scream that he would have sworn no human could have made.

It was a scream that Fredrickson recognized. Both men whirled around.

A giant of a man stood over the supine body of Colonel Brooke. He was clad in dark green-dyed buckskin. His face was dark, peculiarly colored, perhaps painted. He was bald except for a tall crest of hair as red as a flame. He held his arms over his head. In his right hand, he held a long Kentucky rifle.

In his left hand, he held something small, hairy, and dripping blood. It was Colonel Brooke's scalp.

Incredibly, the shooter had circled around through the tree line while Sharpe and Fredrickson had ridden to where he had been. Then he had cut across the field behind them, on foot, and taken his prize while they stared at the remains of his meal.

And now he sprinted across the field towards the safety of the tree line. He ran like a deer, his rifle clenched in one hand, Brooke's scalp in the other. Quickly, Sharpe handed the two horses' reins to Fredrickson and unslung his Baker. He kneeled and drew a bead on the dashing figure, remembering to lead him slightly. The light was dim, it was a long shot, but he would not get a better one. He squeezed the trigger, the hammer came down, the pan sparked, and the report of the Baker rifle echoed across the field.

He missed.

The shot whipped by his target's back a good two feet behind it. The running figure put on a final burst of speed and disappeared into the trees. Sharpe cursed under his breath.

From the woods, receding in the distance, the scream came once more, a final note of triumph. Sharpe sensed that pursuing this man into the dark woods would be suicidal. He stood, and he and Fredrickson peered into the trees helplessly.

God! What am I up against?

It began to rain.

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Copyright © 2001 Alan Kempner and his licensors. All rights reserved.
Last update 15/7/01