December 27, 1814.
Sharpe sat on the edge of his bed, pulling on his boots. It was another foggy morning, and Fredrickson had been up and out by the time he had woken up. A pot of tea was on the fire, and he had just poured himself a steaming mug when Fredrickson burst in the door.
"Word is out that something is going to take place down by the river that'll be worth seeing. Come on."
His curiosity aroused, Sharpe put down his mug and followed his friend. He seized his sword belt as they went through the door, buckling it on as they quickly proceeded through the camp. Through the lifting fog, Sharpe could see that a lot of the soldiers were heading in the same direction, south, towards the levee. There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.
Fredrickson replied over his shoulder as they walked.
"General Pakenham has gotten annoyed with those two American schooners in the river on our flank."
As they drew near the levee, Sharpe's eyebrows raised; there was something new. Two batteries of artillery were set up facing across the river. There were two nine-pounders, four six-pounders, two heavy carronades and one heavy mortar, the last three with shipboard-type mounts.
"Where did we get those from?"
"Courtesy of the Royal Navy" Fredrickson replied. "They hauled them overnight sixty miles from our base on Pea Island. Pakenham wanted them in place before dawn, so he could give the Yankees a proper good-morning."
Sharpe recognized the gunnery officer, Colonel Alexander Dickson. He was a bespectacled, scholarly-looking man, resembling a teacher more than a soldier. At Salamanca, the Colonel had used red-hot round shot to destroy the French garrison's stores and force their surrender. It seemed he was using the same weapon this morning. Sharpe could smell the heat in the air from the furnace in which Dickson was heating his ammunition. Sharpe and Fredrickson joined the crowd along the levee, looking out over the river. The fog was lifting, slowly at first, and then more swiftly as the morning sun burned it away. Through the thinning mist, they could make out two small American warships on the river, one about half a mile away, and the other close to two miles distant.
As soon as they could see the ships, the ships could see them and recognize their danger. Sharpe could see sailors running frantically all over the decks and rigging, running out the guns, reefing the sails. But there was no wind, they could not escape. Dickson, standing to the left of one of the howitzers, brought his sword down.
The British cannon boomed, and the red-glowing projectiles arced over the water like meteorites. The fell short of the farther ship, but bracketed the nearer one on both sides, hissing as they plunged into the cool green. The nearer ship returned fire from four of its port guns, the broadside was erratic, hastily aimed, and the shot fell short, splashing into the water a hundred feet from the batteries.
Water splashed around the farther ship in a few places, but most of the second volley crashed into the nearer ship, it was obvious that Dickson was concentrating his fire here. It brought down rigging and spars in a burning tangle, sailors scrambled to keep from being pinned under the wreckage. The ship drifted helplessly, no one even attempting to steer it now.
Dickson had the range now, and half a dozen red hot iron balls smashed into the wooden deck. Instantly, fires began to blaze on the craft. The sailors now turned their attention to fighting the fires, dumping buckets of sand on them. But one, in the main hold under the cables quickly blazed out of control, and they drew back from its heat. The fire caught in the rigging and furled sails. Billowing smoke shrouded the vessel. Sharpe could see an officer standing on the prow, waving his sword at the men. Apparently, the order to abandon ship had been given, for they began to lower the boats and making for the opposite shore.
Dickson now turned his fire to the farther ship. The crew had realized they were becalmed. They had attached hawsers and now they manned their boats, frantically rowing in an attempt to tow her out of range. Glowing cannonballs fell into the river about them, and Sharpe felt he could almost hear the water hiss. A single shot burst on the deck, and some crewmen fell, apparently injured. But others attacked the small fires that started up, snuffing them out.
The nearer ship was ablaze now from stem to stern, and the crew was pulling away in the boats for all they were worth before the magazine blew. It did so, with a thunderous roar that shook the ground under Sharpe's feet and rained burning fragments all around. All up and down the levee, British troops cheered and whooped in triumph, Sharpe and Fredrickson joining in enthusiastically.
The other ship, meanwhile, had pulled beyond the range of Dickson's guns. It fired a defiant but futile broadside, which fell far short. Sharpe reflected that Dickson should have targeted that ship first, crippling it before it got out of range. There would have been ample time to destroy the nearer ship before it could escape.
Still, any victory was welcome. Sharpe continued to cheer with the rest as the blazing hulk of the destroyed American schooner slipped beneath the waves.
Sharpe had a few more interviews to conduct, and he began them after the celebrations had died down. There were twelve more soldiers, and their reports told him nothing new. The gave the same sickening stories of wholesale slaughter and barbarous cruelty. Sharpe continued to take notes. He would try to compile them tonight and see what conclusions he could draw.
But as he was finishing with the last soldier, Fredrickson approached the log he was sitting on. His face was grim.
"You're going to want to take a little trip down river. And you'll want me with you."
"There's been another massacre."
Sharpe was on his feet in an instant, a cold, sick feeling starting in his heart.
"A foraging party just found it. It's a little village about six miles downriver from here, called Blassenville. From what I hear, it's bad. Really bad."
God, the horror has come here.
Half an hour later, Sharpe and Fredrickson were heading down river in one of the navy gigs, piloted by a sailor from the fleet. No one spoke. The current was with them, and it was easy going. Neither man was inclined to appreciate it, however. Nor did they notice the limpid green of the river, the languid blue sky, or the lush vegetation along either bank. They had thoughts for nothing except what they would find in Blassenville, and they were not looking forward to finding it. The sailor sensed their black mood and kept a discreet silence.
They reached the curve in the river called the English Bend in less than an hour. Here it turned sharply to head almost due north towards the American fort at St. Leon. They turned into the Terre aux Boeufs Bayou, which was still navigable, and rowed up it with little difficulty. Sharpe and Fredrickson scanned the banks warily, their hands on their rifles. They saw no one, only birds, snakes, frogs, and alligators.
Their first hint of Blassenville was the cawing of the crows and vultures. As they drew nearer, they saw them, a lot of them, circling in the air and perched on nearby branches.
Christ, no . . .
Sharpe smelled death before he saw it.
Blassenville was a miserable hamlet of ramshackle buildings on the bayou's edge. It looked like one good rain would wash the whole place away. Perhaps it would have been better if that had happened.
The boat pulled up to the rickety quay and the sailor threw a line over a wooden post. Sharpe stepped out and looked around. A few seconds later, Fredrickson was standing beside him.
It was bad. Worse than Sharpe could have imagined. He had seen the brutality of the French in Spain, but before this, it paled in comparison. Not even General Loup's Wolf Dragoons had been this depraved.
Nothing was stirring in the village of Blassenville. Nothing but the carrion birds. And they were feasting. The bodies were piled in the muddy lanes between the shacks. Dozens of them. Men. Women. Children.
Sharpe began to walk down Blassenville's central lane. Blood was everywhere, and his shoes stuck to the rough boards with every step he took. The stink of gore and entrails grew worse every minute.
He looked at the first body he came to, a man, about forty, his head split. His arms were still raised as if to ward off the blow.
Next he came to a woman. Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, her mouth still gaping in horror. From the position of her skirt, she had been violated even as she died.
None of the residents had been shot. All had been killed with knives or hatchets, bayoneted or sabered. Whoever had done it had plainly enjoyed the work. As far as Sharpe could tell, none of them had put up any fight. He saw no weapons in their hands.
From then on, only a part of Sharpe's mind registered what he saw. The rest of his mind shut itself off, so that later, he could remember only the general sense of horror, but few details. That was merciful.
But he would always remember the swarming flies, millions of them it seemed.
He knew that he came upon children's bodies, but could remember nothing of how they died. Except for the two who were skewered on a single cavalry saber stuck into the wall.
Occasionally, his mind would register a choked cry from Fredrickson as he stumbled onto another atrocity.
He came to one shack whose door was hanging loosely open, and peered inside, only for an instant before he drew back. That was all the time that he could stand to look at the flayed bodies hanging from the rafters like sides of beef in a butcher's shoppe. He never knew if any of them were children.
Interspersed with the corpses were the remains of army gear, British army gear, haversacks, cartridge boxes, canteens, buttons, and shako plates.
Then something else caught his eye. An object was lying near another woman's butchered corpse. He bent, picked it up and looked at it for a moment. It was whitish, cylindrical, slightly curved, pointed at one end, blunt at the other and pierced with a hole. It was between two and three inches long. He shrugged and absently stuck it in his pocket.
It took them only a few minutes to determine that none of the sixty or so inhabitants had survived, unless they had fled into the swamp. The two of them couldn't have endured much more of wandering among the dead, anyway.
Then, as if by unspoken mutual consent, both Sharpe and Fredrickson walked to the quay's edge, knelt down, and violently emptied the contents of their stomachs into the water. Again. And again. And again. The sailor sat in the boat and wisely said nothing.
When they finally looked each other in the face, both men were pale and sick looking, barely holding their emotions in check. Sharpe's voice was a low croak.
"Burn everything. These people don't deserve to be left like this for the crows and the flies."
Fredrickson nodded, too numb with horror to argue.
The surrounding ground was damp, so the fire wouldn't spread far. The wood of the shacks was also damp, and they had to find some dry swamp grass to get flames kindling in several different shacks. But eventually, every structure in the village was blazing. The sickly sweet stench of roasting human flesh rose into the air.
Sharpe tried to ignore the smell as he watched the pillar of greasy, black smoke mounting into the sky. He turned to Fredrickson. His eyes were like ice, his voice bleak.
"There won't be any court-martial."
"What do you mean?"
"Whoever did this, we're not bringing them back for a trial. Trials are for men, and the things that did this aren't even human. When we find these butchers, whoever they are, we kill them. Every last one of them. We put them down like a pack of mad dogs."
"Then give me your hand on it."
They clasped hands, and the look between them said everything. There would be no mercy shown. They would never stop until they had caught the animals that had done this thing and put them in the ground. All of them.
They both turned to the boat and sat down in it without another word. The sailor knew what to do without being told. He pushed off, back to the river.
Behind them, Blassenville burned, a funeral pyre for those who had tried to make a life there.
Late that night, Sharpe sat at the table in the 95th's mess, squinting at a sheet of paper by the dim light of a candle. A driving rain pounded on the roof. Beside him was his notebook in which he had recorded the soldiers' testimonies. He had spent the last two hours reviewing them. In his hand was a pencil, and he had drawn three column headings across the top of the page:
Who? Why? How?
He twisted around in his chair. Fredrickson was in his bedroom. Sharpe could see him through the open door slipping off his tunic and tossing it over a chair, then easing his suspenders off his shoulders.
"William, what do you think?"
"Someone is trying to set us up."
"How do you mean?"
"Someone wants the Americans to believe that we are behind all the slaughtering of civilians that has been taking place since August. If we were, do you think we'd be stupid enough to leave so much evidence behind, at every site?"
Sharpe made a note under 'Who?' His next question was as much to himself as to William.
"But who? I can't think of any one in the British Army that could be behind this, at least not on this scale. It would take at least thirty or forty men to wipe out a village like that with none escaping. At most, we have had maybe that many desertions in total since we got here. They couldn't all be in on it. And the massacres were going on in Maryland before they started here. But still, witnesses claim that they saw British regulars doing the butchery."
Sharpe looked intently at the paper, as if he could make an answer jump off of it.
"Word must have gotten around to the villages in Maryland about what was going on. But none of the villagers tried to escape until their escape was cut off. Their killers were able to get right in among them. How were they able to do that?"
He pressed his hands to his temples in his intensity of concentration.
"If it's the Americans, why? What would they stand to gain by killing their own people? And what would we gain, for that matter? Booty? There was looting from the estates reported, but no loot to be had from the villages."
Sharpe thought again, and then raised his head in sudden inspiration.
"Someone wants the war to go on, they don't want a peace treaty signed. They want such bitterness and rage on both sides that the negotiations will fall through and Jonathans and British will keep on fighting here until they bleed themselves dry. But who is doing it?"
Sharpe made a note under 'Why?' stared at the wall, then came to a sudden decision.
"I can't find out anything more here. Tomorrow, I'm going to go to the American camp under a flag of truce. There may be someone there who knows something. Will you come with me, William?"
He spoke without turning around, and heard Fredrickson's grunt from his room.
"Whatever. You might remember though, that there may be a battle tomorrow. Depending on how things go, they may not be that inclined to talk to us."
Sharpe nodded, Fredrickson had a point. But for the life of him, he couldn't see any other way to break his investigation loose from the stagnation it was mired in.
And it was no longer just a matter of doing a job for the Duke. Not since he had seen those poor souls in Blassenville. Now it had become personal. And he would not let go of it, not until he found who was behind it and made them pay.
But it was a dangerous business, to be sure. And the chances of not coming out of it alive were getting better all the time. And that was why he needed to get things straightened out with William. Like now.
He kept his eyes on the table as he spoke.
"William, we need to talk about . . . Lucille -"
Fredrickson's response was a loud snore. Sharpe turned to see him sound asleep on top of his bed, still clad in shirt and trousers.
He sighed. Not yet. He rose, blew out the candle, and headed towards his own bed.
December 28, 1814.
The ground fog had bled away, and the morning was crisp and clear. Sharpe breathed it in, letting it clear away the last remnants of sleep. From the back of Salamanca, he looked to his right down the British battle line. He saw General Samuel Gibbs and his staff and rode towards them. He was aquatinted with Gibbs from both India and the Peninsula, and on board the Statira, the General had been courteous, if distant towards him. Now he rode up to the General and saluted.
"Sir, Permission to accompany your Brigade on its reconnaissance of the American left?"
Gibbs returned the salute.
"Permission granted, Major Sharpe. Please try to stay out of the way."
Pakenham had formed the army up into two columns, the left hand one consisting of Keane's brigade, the 7th and the 43rd, with the 95th out in front in a skirmish line. Backing them up were the light mortars and half of the Congreves. It was proceeding along the levee road next to the river.
Sharpe had sensed that Fredrickson wanted his independent command un-contested, so he had told his friend that he would be one the right with General Gibbs' brigade, the 4th, the 25th, the 44th, and the South Essex, supported by the two three-pounders and the other half of the rockets. This force marched along the edge of the cypress swamp, sending a screen of light troops into the swamp itself to test the Yankee left. It would be here that Sharpe would attach himself. If there was to be a breakthrough, it would be here, and Sharpe wanted to be there for it. Besides, the generals might not see the opportunity unless he pointed them in its direction. General Lambert held the 93rd Highlanders and the 5th West India in reserve with two nine-pounders and two six-pounders.
As Sharpe looked up and down the line, he had to admit that it looked impressive. He wondered if the Americans would agree. The troops stood in perfectly disciplined ranks. Drums beat and bugles played across the field, the colors flew at the head of each regiment.
He was unaware of the hostile eyes on him, as Lieutenant Colonel Morris, hung over once again, sat on his horse at the head of the South Essex.
Damnation! Why did he have to show up here? And just when things were going so well.
Sharpe saw a young ensign on horseback, obviously some one's aide-de-camp. He leapt from Salamanca and pressed his reins into his hands with a quick 'Here,' and then ran to put himself in the midst of the skirmish line that was to dare the swamp. They would proceed parallel to the tree line for about half the distance to the Jonathan lines, and then push into the swamp at a distance of about five hundred yards and try to flank the American left. General Pakenham and his officers sat on their horses in the narrow lane between the columns, where they could ride within moments to any part of the field.
A reconnaissance-in-force, Pakenham had called it. Sharpe didn't like how that sounded. It lacked the commitment to full-scale battle that was necessary to win. And the best reconnaissance was done in stealth, not with the whole army. He noticed, however, with some satisfaction that the tremors he had felt at Toulouse had not returned, at least not with the same intensity. His mind was clear, he felt very alive; full of the rush that preceded an action. He unslung his Baker and checked the load, it was ready. He made sure his sword was slung within easy reach.
The bugles sounded the advance, and Gibbs' brigade moved forwards at a measured pace. They marched past the burning shells of the De la Ronde and Bienville mansions, fired by the American advance guards as they pulled back. Sharpe was about two hundred yards before the front rank of the line infantry, in a loose formation with the 4th's light troops. They were not riflemen, but they were competent professionals, he was in good company. The trees should provide them with cover from the rifles until they could get within musket range of the American left.
A stupendous roar of cannon drew Sharpe's attention to the far left. The four batteries of Jackson's right had opened up on the front ranks of Keane's brigade, and the remaining American schooner was adding its own deadly fire from its anchorage in the river. Even all the way across the battlefield, Sharpe winced. He could see small objects flying in the air where the cannonballs hit. He knew they were body parts. He could hear faint screams carried on the wind. The British artillery boomed in response. The ever-present Congreves arced over the Redcoats' heads towards the American lines with their great swooshing sound. A few might even have hit the target. Acrid smoke was already drifting across the field. Now the crack of Yankee long rifles added their part to the cannons. Keane's boys were being thoroughly chewed up. As he had predicted, the field before Jackson's line had become a perfect killing-ground, and this was only the merest taste of what would happen if the Jonathan commander completed his defensive works.
On either flank of Keane's column, the five hundred men of the 95th crouched low, scanning the American rampart for targets before firing. Fredrickson squinted through the thickening smoke as rifle balls and grapeshot whistled around his ears. As he had feared, the American line was proving a death trap.
We should have attacked days ago, under cover of the morning fog.
Sharpe could see some of the soldiers of the 7th breaking ranks to take cover in any shallow ditch they could find, while their officers cursed and threatened them. The 95th had already gone to ground and were returning fire. Now he could see the mortars and Congreves turning their fire towards the schooner, and the reserve nine-pounders were being brought forward by their horse teams to add their fire. As explosions threw up earth all around them, they frantically unhitched and aimed their weapons. But it was plain that the ship's heavier guns had the range advantage. Sharpe saw no hits on the vessel, only splashes in the water before it.
So far, Gibbs' men had come under only desultory fire from the Jonathan center. Now they veered off to the right into the tree line, heading towards the far American left. Sharpe peered ahead, looking for skirmishers. He spotted them in a loose pattern two hundred yards ahead, hiding behind the trees. Already, rifle balls were singing among the light troops, who were not yet in range to respond with their muskets. They moved past Sharpe at the double-march as he dodged from tree to tree, looking for a shot that would not put British troops in the line of fire. He lined up on a short rifleman in a blue homespun smock and black slouch hat. Sharpe's shot took him high in the chest and knocked him over. He looked for another opportune target, but all he could see in his front were the backs of the advancing light troops. The Americans poured a steady fire into them while pulling back in good order. These riflemen were good, but not in the same class as the one who had killed Colonel Brooke. The British fell, but kept on coming.
He looked to his left at the pounding of hooves, as Pakenham and Colonel Dickson rode past, trying to get a better look at the American position. They disappeared into the drifting smoke, and after a moment, Pakenham rode back alone, sparing Sharpe a single glance as he trotted past. Sharpe ran forward to see the American skirmishers running back towards their log wall, with the 4th and the 21st in hot pursuit. A new volley of rifle fire from the reinforcements behind the wall slowed their advance.
Sharpe saw Dickson halfway up a cypress tree, looking through his telescope. He called up.
"Colonel Dickson, what is happening?"
Dickson lowered his telescope and looked down at him.
"General Pakenham has told us to hold fast here while he brings the reserve artillery to our support. We are out of range of the ship here, and the Americans have massed most of their artillery in front of Keane's brigade. Then we will try to turn the enemy here on the right while Keane holds them down on the left."
Sharpe nodded and turned his attention back to the American line, where the battle had turned into a shooting match at short range. He ran towards it, reloading his rifle as he ran. He hurled himself prone two hundred yards from the log wall and looked for a target. He saw a black hat from behind the logs, saw an arm in brown homespun pushing a ramrod up and down. He aimed, waited for the smoke to clear. The ramming stopped, the man was turning towards the wall, and Sharpe pulled the trigger, feeling the recoil against his shoulder. The Jonathan threw up his arms and disappeared from sight, the rifle flying through the air.
Sharpe had told Fredrickson that the left flank was the only possible weakness in the American line. As he saw Gibb's column filing into the trees that bordered the swamp, Sweet William knew what had to be done. Keane's column had to get the Jonathan's attention on their right and hold it, to give Gibbs every opportunity of success. And that was the job of the 95th.
Fredrickson rose to his feet, holding his rifle over his head. Every rifleman heard his roar.
The Greenjackets rose to their feet as one man and plunged into the inferno, guns blazing.
Suddenly, Sharpe saw at least half of the Americans leave the firing line and move off to the left, towards Keane's position. Sharpe didn't know what had prompted them to do that, but it had suddenly given the British a local superiority of nearly five to one. Sharpe instinctively stood up and drew his sword. His roar sounded over the field.
"Now! They've weakened their lines! We can take them now!"
As one, the light troops stood and charged with a roar. There was no stopping them.
And then, clearly, they heard the bugle.
It was calling withdrawal.
Sharpe looked back in the direction it had come from. What in the hell was Pakenham thinking?! They were about to turn the Jonathan left, just as he had urged. To draw back now . . .
But already, the British were doing just that, the automatic obedience to command that had been drilled into them overriding their battle-rush. They fell back in order, still firing and receiving fire, dying and dealing death at near point-blank range.
Sharpe plunged his sword into the earth in sheer frustration.
Damn all generals and the mothers that bore them!
Pakenham had had victory in the palm of his hand, and he had let it slip away. He had called a withdrawal, for God knows what reason, just as they were prepared to roll up the American position like a Turkish carpet.
Sharpe had an uncomfortable feeling that the General would never get a better chance. He hoped he was wrong.
But there was nothing to do now but withdraw with the rest of the men. He pulled back, zigzagging as he ran to throw off the Jonathan riflemen. He felt shots whip by him, but none came close. When he came out of the tree line, the withdrawal was taking place all across the battlefield. Only drifting smoke moved before Jackson's line. He could see two of the six-pounders lying abandoned and probably spiked, their carriages smashed. A sprinkling of dead lay across the field, Sharpe guessed that they had lost about sixty. Light casualties for nothing gained.
Pakenham was still mounted and speaking to several of his officers near the smoldering wreckage of the De la Ronde mansion as Sharpe rode up. The general looked up in annoyance. He spoke before Sharpe could open his mouth.
"Before you start, Major, you should know that I have determined that artillery is both the most efficient and the most economical way of reducing the American works. We will wait for the heavy guns to be brought up from the fleet, and then smash the enemy to ruin."
Sharpe shook his head in denial.
"Sir, I had no comment to give on the battle." Though I could! he thought. "We agreed that that would be your area."
Pakenham sighed in irritation.
"All right, what is it, then?"
"I request permission to approach the American lines under a flag of truce."
"What! For what earthly reason?"
"My interviews of British troops has taken my investigation as far as it will go. I am hoping that the Americans may be able to shed some light on the massacres."
"Out of the question. These are not ordinary soldiers, Sharpe, which we may treat with under the rules of war. They are half-civilized rabble who recognize no rules. You may well be shot on sight."
"That's as may be sir, but our agreement also was that the investigation would be my area."
Sharpe did not add, nor did he need to, that Pakenham's brother-in-law the Duke of Wellington had personally specified that he was to be given a totally free hand when it came to investigatory matters. Pakenham knew it, and he didn't like it one bit.
"You'll have to do without an escort. I'll not risk any of my men on this hair-brained scheme."
"I need to take only one man, sir, Major Fredrickson of the 95th, a personal friend."
"Very well, so long as he freely volunteered."
Sharpe snapped his hand to his shako in salute.
"Thank you, sir."
He turned his horse and rode off towards the Lacoste mansion. Pakenham called after him.
"If you fail to return, don't expect a rescue mission!"
Sharpe barely heard him as he rode away. Already, his mind was on what would happen next.
Tonight, he would speak to General Jackson.
If the Yankee pickets didn't shoot him first.
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Last update 15/7/01