December 31, 1814.
The next three days had passed uneventfully. Sharpe was left to his own devices as Fredrickson attended Pakenham's staff meetings and made sure that the 95th was equipped and prepared for the next action. Twice, Sharpe had tried again to bring up Lucille, and Fredrickson had told him that it was not a good time to talk about it, he had duties to attend to. So Sharpe had spent his time going over his material, both the British and the American testimonies. And he mulled over the menacing image of Red Gator.
He had thought that his visit to the American lines would be unproductive. But it had produced something unexpected: he had a suspect. Under "Who" in his notebook he wrote "Red Gator?" He moved his pencil to the "Why" column. If he were behind the massacres, what was his motive? The tribes of the American territory had little cause to love the Americans, who had pushed them further and further east off of the choicest of their land. What did he hope to accomplish by prolonging the war between Redcoats and Jonathans? Did he plan a new war once the whites were exhausted? A campaign to seize the land back? It made sense.
But Sharpe needed proof. Suspicions and theories wouldn't save a single villager's life. But how was he to get it? He suspected that questioning any of Gator's men would be not only useless but also dangerous. But he remembered the murderous look in Gator's eyes when Sharpe had tossed him the tooth from Blassenville. He sensed that the next move would be Gator's. And like it or not, he had to wait for it. Sharpe had an alligator by the tail, and there was no safe way to let go.
The sun was setting as a noise outside the 95th's mess attracted his attention. He looked through the window. A team of twelve draft horses and some forty sailors were pulling, pushing, and manhandling the first of the Navy's big eighteen-pounders up from the forward artillery park by the De la Ronde plantation to the battery that was being dug for it. They were having a hard time of it, continually pulling the big gun out of the mire. The ground was soft, and the naval mount was designed for moving over a wooden deck instead of a muddy field.
Fredrickson had come back from a staff meeting and told him that any hope of breaching the American line with troops had been given up on. Pakenham and seen no choice but to treat the enemy's field works as a fortified city that would have to be battered down by artillery. And the guns Pakenham had on hand weren't large enough for the job. And so to the Navy had fallen the horrendous task of hauling fourteen of its largest guns sixty miles from Pea Island, up Bayous Bienville and Manzant, and then over a narrow, swampy trail to the British camp, and then to the forward artillery park that had just been set up for the new assault. And now, as night was falling, ten eighteen- pounders and four twenty-four-pounder carronades were being moved up to their forward batteries, along with the guns Pakenham already had.
It was a miracle of backbreaking labor, and only the tars of the British Navy could have done it in just three days of wet, miserable weather. Most of the horses used to drag the guns were permanently lamed and had to be killed. Their meat supplemented the dwindling stores of food in the camp.
Ammunition was going to be a problem. Land battles used much more shot than sea battles did, and they were almost going to have to strip the fleet bare to sustain the three-hour bombardment that it was estimated would be needed to breach the American line.
But the Americans had not been idle. Yesterday, Sharpe had ridden out to look at the Jackson line through his telescope, and he could see that the rampart was higher and the ditch deeper, and every inch of the line bristled with large guns. A head-on attack would be courting disaster. He had walked Salamanca up to the trees bordering the swampland on the American left, the one spot where they had been vulnerable four days before. As before, he tied off his horse and made his way through the trees on foot. His heart sank at what he saw through his glass. All he could do was mutter "Bloody hell."
The American line now extended a full three-quarters of a mile into the swamplands and then swept backwards at a right angle for two hundred yards. To the right of this new line was impassible swamp. The chance was lost, there was no longer a weakness in the American line.
The riflemen behind the wall were alert, and Sharpe got only a quick glimpse before he had to hastily withdraw, with rifle balls knocking chips out of trees near him.
Morale in the British camp was not good. The soldiers sat around their bivouacs, cold, wet, listless, discouraged and hungry. Food was getting short, the nearby deserted plantations had been stripped bare. Every morning, they heard the American camp coming awake to the beat of drums and the playing of vigorous music. Sharpe recognized the tune "Yankee Doodle," among several others. But no music played in the British camp.
The one remaining American schooner, the Louisiana dropped down to shell their positions every dawn, and then ran back to the safety of the American lines before Colonel Dickson could retaliate.
Every night, American riflemen shot down any sentry unfortunate enough to come across their sights. But the Americans had paid a price. Each night, Fredrickson had led a patrol of the 95th's best shots to ambush the night raiders. Both sides had lost men in these bitter skirmishes in the dark. But worst of all, some sentries would disappear, and their horribly mutilated corpses would be left for the British to find come dawn. Word was out that this was the work of the Brothers of the Swamp. Sharpe had no trouble believing this. Two nights ago, he had heard a hideous, bloodthirsty scream echo across the battlefield. It could only have belonged to the man called Red Gator. Over the past three days, no fewer than fifteen sentries had been killed.
Every day, Jackson's heavy guns fired upon the forward British headquarters at the De la Ronde mansion. This was a constant annoyance, especially since the British could not retaliate. That was all to change, come tomorrow.
Pakenham had chosen to build the forward batteries the night before the artillery assault, so that the dark would shield their positions from the Jonathans and the soldiers laboring with spade and pick would not be fired on. The six batteries were to be placed in three crescent formations about eight hundred yards from the American line. Fredrickson and the 95th were now out on the flanks of the batteries to protect them from surprise attack. The redoubts were of questionable strength, however. The platforms, constructed in darkness, would not be as firm or as level as Colonel Dickson could wish. Water flooded any hole deeper than eight inches, so regular earthworks were out. All cover for the guns had to be constructed above ground, from whatever they could find. Unfortunately, the British, unlike the Americans, had no access to bales of cotton. Earlier that day, Sharpe had seen soldiers carrying furniture and planks from the plantation houses, and even hogsheads of sugar, all to be piled around the guns and covered with mud. Sharpe wondered how effective a defense it would be from a thirty-two-pounder's shot. But Sharpe had talked to some of the artillery crews, and they were confident. They were Nelson's veterans. These American bumpkins could not stand before them.
Andrew Jackson rode his white horse up and down the line that bore his name, inspecting the defenses for what seemed the thousandth time. One of Killick's gun crew greeted him.
"How do, Gen'ral!"
He acknowledged with a curt nod of his head as he passed. The day was chill, and Jackson's old dueling wounds pained him. They were two, one pistol ball in the chest, too close to the heart to be removed, and fragments of another in his left arm, which had never healed properly after the ball had shattered it. But Jackson's iron self-discipline would never allow him to display his pain before his men, and his face was serene and impenetrable as he inspected each of the line's eight batteries in turn.
Battery 1, nearest the levee road, consisted of two brass twelve-pounders and a six-inch field carronade, all on field carriages. Next came Battery 2, which had a twenty-four pounder manned by part of Cornelius Killick's crew from the Columbia. After this was Battery 3, with two twenty-four pounders manned by Lafitte's Baratarians. Fifty yards down from this was Battery 4, a great thirty-two pounder commanded by Killick himself and his crew. Twenty yards further on was Battery 5, an eighteen-pounder and two six pounders. Next was Battery 6, a brass twelve-pounder. Battery 7 boasted a long brass eighteen-pound culverin, accompanied by a six-pounder. Last was Battery 8, a small brass carronade. Beyond that was the tree line and the newly reinforced left flank.
Jackson took out his telescope and looked towards the British camp, mostly hidden by a curve in the riverbank.
Let them come. They'll find us ready.
January 1, 1815.
New Years Day dawned on a plain wrapped in an impenetrable fog. Work had gone on through the night, from half past eight until nearly six in the morning. Now the noise of construction had ceased, and a deafening silence ruled in the thick whiteness. Everything took on a surrealistic aspect in the near-solid mist. Not being officially attached to any unit, Sharpe had refrained from spending the night in the field with the 95th and instead gotten a few hours of sleep in his room. It was Fredrickson's command, after all. Now it was perhaps an hour before the regiments turned out to assemble behind the batteries, ready to exploit any breech the guns made. He made has way along the levee road towards where he knew the 95th had to be. To his left, the river flowed unseen. In the empty whiteness, the few hundred yards from the mess building to the forward positions seemed to go on for miles. Sharpe had begun to wonder if he had somehow missed the artillery positions and was about to stumble onto the American line. General Jackson might have an unexpected guest at breakfast. But then the crouched forms of the men of the 95th loomed up before him. In the thick fog, they looked like green grasshoppers preparing to leap. They were nervous, remembering the night attack of a week before. The entire American army could be advancing on them in this fog.
From them, he was directed to Fredrickson, who had taken up a position to the left of the battery just across the road, his wig, eye patch and false teeth already removed. All was as ready as Colonel Dickson could make it. Directly along the levee were two twenty-four pounder carronades aimed over the river, ready to target the Louisiana if she came within range. Just across the levee road were four eighteen-pounders and three heavy mortars. In the center were two nine-pounders, three six-pounders, and two heavy mortars. On the right were six eighteen-pounders and four twenty-four-pounder carronades. Sharpe could see the looming mass of the nearest eighteen-pounder, but nothing beyond that. He turned to Fredrickson, who crouched next to him, peering into the fog to the front, gripping his rifle.
"Are you sure the guns are in place? We can't see beyond the first battery."
Sharpe didn't like the eerie echo that his words left in the thick mist, and said no more. So they just waited. And waited. And waited.
At seven o'clock, the fog showed no sign of lifting. Eight o'clock came, there was no hint of improved visibility. Nine o'clock, still, all was silent, drifting gray-white.
Ten o'clock. Sharpe was beginning to wonder if the bombardment would be called off until a better day, when the thick mist began to dissipate with astonishing speed. In less than a minute, the battlefield was pristine and crisp in the late morning sun, and the Jackson line showed clearly before them. From behind the line, Sharpe could see men marching and officers on horseback, apparently the Americans were holding a late morning review.
He looked right to the central battery. Colonel Dickson brought his sword down.
And the special brand of hell that Richard Sharpe knew so well belched and erupted across the battlefield.
Sharpe had seen bigger bombardments, but few so devastatingly concentrated on such a small field. Thirty barrels hurled a three-hundred-and-seventy-two pound iron volcano point-blank at the American lines. Congreve rockets by the dozen shot into the air with a scarlet glare and lingering screams. The noise of the bombardment hit Sharpe like a great soft fist. The ground shook under his feet like an earthquake. The sun grew dimmer as the drifting smoke began to obscure it.
Squinting through the smoke, Sharpe saw the Jonathan's earthen rampart taking hits, geysers of dirt fountained into the air. He glimpsed officers on horseback waving their swords, shouting orders, and soldiers running around like ants whose nest has been kicked. He saw the Macarte mansion at take at least ten hits in five seconds, pieces of roofing, brick, and wood flying high into the morning air, twisting in the sunlight as they came down. It was the highest and most obvious target behind the Jackson line. Sharpe thought of the fine furnishings, the carpets and paintings, and reflected that Fredrickson, with his love of beautiful things, must be upset. The mansion was quickly being turned into a shattered wreck.
We should attack now.
The Americans were in confusion; a strong push with the infantry might break through. As he thought this, Sharpe could see a battalion of skirmishers from the 93rd Highlanders marching into the tree line on the right, in an attempt to turn the American far left. It was too little, too late, and in the wrong place.
Pakenham should have done that a week ago.
Sharpe figured that they would receive a hot reception, the far left was concealed in the trees, and was the one portion of the Jonathans' lines that had not come under fire.
But then a change came over the American lines. No longer were the soldiers running around in chaos. Now they moved with purpose, they ran to their guns. Sharpe saw the barrels being withdrawn behind the rampart. He imagined the scene going on behind the American line. The teams ramming down the cartridge, the gunner piercing the touch hole, the team standing by with worm, bucket, and sponge. The smoke drifted clear of the battlefield, and they could see that the American defenses were virtually untouched. The thick cotton bales covered with Louisiana earth had absorbed the British shot. For a moment, all was suddenly silent on the field. The calm before the storm. Then the black barrels of fourteen large cannons were run out of the firing holes of the rampart from one end to another, in a very business like way.
"Oh - " Fredrickson began.
"- shit . . ." Sharpe finished.
The American's return barrage was devastating. It began from the battery by the levee and rolled down the line to the trees. The speed and precision of their fire was uncanny. Shots went beyond or before the British batteries, but they corrected with the next volley. And now it became plain how inadequate a defense the makeshift earthworks of those batteries were. One after another, the earthen ramparts were hit, spewing pieces of tables, chairs, planks from houses, barrel staves and hoops. The unstable gun platforms took their toll, as Sharpe saw a British eighteen pounder thrown off by its recoil and hurtled backwards off the platform, the crew scattering in panic. Its limber stock lodged six feet deep in the mud, too deep to get out without a horse team.
Sharpe saw one of the carronades to his right take a hit from a thirty-two pounder. Splinters from its shattered carriage flew through the air, and the barrel sagged, pointing towards the ground. One of the eighteen-pounders across the levee road received a high, arcing shot, and shrapnel from the hit bounced into the cartridges of canister and powder.
Sharpe, Fredrickson, and all around them hit the dirt as the powder exploded with an ear splitting roar, and the angry metal bees buzzed overhead. Even above the boom of the guns, Sharpe could here the roar of triumph from the Jonathans.
Fredrickson got to his feet and wordlessly gestured Sharpe to follow him. They ran forward a hundred yards. The men of the 95th had to be pulled back from their exposed positions, this was obviously going to be a battle of iron monsters, in which flesh and blood could do nothing. Shouting was useless in the din, so they pulled the men to their feet and pointed towards the rear. In fives and tens, the riflemen gave back, withdrawing behind the guns.
On the levee, the carronades were trading shots with the Louisiana, and it was plain that the ship's longer range fire gave it a decided advantage. The British red-hot round shot fell with hisses and splashes into the water, and then the carronades took a direct hit from a thirty-two pounder and toppled into the river in a mass of metal, wood, and mangled flesh.
And now they came under fire from a new direction. Looking to his left, across the river, Sharpe could see a new American works firing on them from the opposite side.
Already, they had the range, and hits were coming all around them.
Sharpe felt a violent explosion that seemed to be just behind him, an earsplitting roar and a splash of hot wetness threw both him and Fredrickson to the ground.
I've been hit! Or William has!
He felt no pain. That did not necessarily mean anything. He had seen men with both legs blown off who had not known it until someone had pointed it out to them. He looked down at himself, everything seemed to be in place, but he was covered in sticky brown. If not blood, then what . . .? He looked at Fredrickson, who was covered in the same stuff.
"William, are you hit?"
"I don't think so. How about you?"
"I'm all right. What is this stuff?"
Sharpe scooped a fingerfull off of his shoulder and cautiously touched it to his tongue.
One of the hogsheads of sugar buried in the nearest battery's earthworks had been hit by a red-hot round shot from across the river. The sugar had caramelized in the intense heat and exploded outward. They were covered in melted sugar.
They stared at each other, too struck by the sheer absurdity of the situation to speak. Then they began to laugh, slapping each other on their sticky backs as they shook with mirth. For the second time since he had come to America, Sharpe was convulsed with uncontrollable humour. They just lay there, laughing and laughing, as iron death whistled over their heads and great gouts of earth flew up into the air and the smoke of cannon shrouded the battlefield like the fog had done that morning.
They continued laughing. Every time they tried to stop and get up, one of them looked at the other and they started again, falling back onto the grass and gasping in hilarity. They kept at it until the mutual barrage began to let up around noon. By one in the afternoon, it had stopped. The fleet had brought up only enough shot for a three hour bombardment, and that was more than exhausted.
The Jackson line was unbreached. The artillery barrage had failed. Nelson's veterans had failed.
As the drifting smoke thinned, Sharpe finally got to his feet and looked at the British batteries. The last traces of laughter died in his throat. They were a pitiful sight. At least half of the guns were disabled, knocked off their platforms, split by direct hits, their carriages smashed or burning. The bodies of artillery crew lay up and down the line, at lest thirty of them, some whole, and some in pieces. The walking wounded were helping those who could be moved to the rear. Those who could not be moved moaned piteously. It was the only sound. The sense of gloom was palpable
Off to the right, he could see the dispirited Highlanders returning from their attack on the Jonathans' far left. As Sharpe had predicted, it had been repulsed, the Yankees were no longer vulnerable there.
In the distance, they could hear the Jonathans cheering. Sharpe could see the distant specks of hats being thrown in the air beyond the rampart. The American band started up "Yankee Doodle." It seemed to mock the moans of the wounded. Sharpe just stood in the paralysis that follows defeat and watched.
He had no idea of how close death was to him at that very moment.
Three hundred yards away, Red Gator sat in his hide in the branches of a cypress tree at the edge of the tree line. He eased the butt of his extended-barrel black rifle into his shoulder and lined up his sights on the Englishman. Even at that distance, there was no mistaking his fine black scalp. His sword gave him away. It was not curved like those the others officers wore, but straight. Like a long knife. It would be an easy shot. He thumbed the hammer back and lightly caressed the trigger. There was something almost godlike about drawing a bead on a man with a rifle. He had the power to strike him down from a distance, and there was nothing the Englishman could do to save himself. He drew in a breath, held it, his finger tightened slightly on the trigger -
And then it relaxed, and he dropped his aim.
No. This is too easy. For this Englishman with the long sharp knife, I must think of something special. Something very special.
Then he ran his tongue over his pointed teeth and smiled. He had thought of something very special indeed.
It took Sharpe and Fredrickson an hour scrubbing in the river to get the last of the sugar out of their uniforms, and over an hour to get the last trace out of their hair. Periodically, they still snickered at the memory. When they finally finished, it was beginning to rain, and they made their way back to the 95th's mess. Somehow, the subject of Lucille just didn't seem appropriate to the occasion, so Sharpe stayed silent.
The English cannon were left where they were. The Americans could have made off with them with little danger to themselves. But they did not chance it, and by dark, the rain had stopped, and the British brought forth teams of sailors and whatever horses were left to drag them away. The ground was knee deep mud, and it would take all night. By dark, the Jonathan artillery continued its harassing fire, both from the Jackson line and from the battery across the river.
Lieutenant Colonel Morris woke with a start, but did not move. He stared at the ceiling of his room in the 23rd's mess; dim moonlight through the open window the only illumination. He had been sleeping soundly. But something had wakened him. What -?
He had gone to bed with the window closed.
A soft, deep voice spoke inches from his head. It spoke an Irish brogue.
"Good evening to you, Colonel."
A claw of ice seized Morris' heart in a death grip, and he froze in terror. He was here. He had entered without a sound through the window, and now crouched next to him in the dark. Morris didn't look. He kept his gaze fixed on the ceiling. If he saw those terrible pale eyes in that gargoyle's face leering at him through the darkness, he would die, he knew he would. It was several seconds before he could summon the courage to speak.
"W-w-what do you want?"
"You know a tall English greenjacket officer, with a fine black head of hair and a scar on his left cheek?"
Numbly, Morris nodded. Sharpe? What did he have to do with Sharpe? The voice continued.
"I want him. You're going to give him to me. This is how . . ."
Morris listened without speaking as his terrible visitor outlined his plan.
The presence in the room receded and was gone. It was an hour before Morris dared look to make sure.
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Last update 15/7/01