January 2, 1815.
Sharpe was feeling immensely satisfied. He had figured out a solution, one that might both save lives and catch the murdering bastards in the act, and had just presented his proposal to General Pakenham. He would garrison several of the local small villages along the bayous that were potential targets for massacres. Most were small enough to need no more than ten soldiers. They would stay hidden, but ready to act. The villagers might object, but it was for their own good. Let's see how those butchers stood up to a disciplined volley of musketry. Above all, they were to take at least one of them alive so Sharpe could question him (before I gut him like a fish). Pakenham had objected to the requisitioning of his troops, until Sharpe reminded him that the Duke had given him a totally free hand. Pakenham had got his revenge by limiting Sharpe to one hundred men, but that would still be enough to garrison ten villages. Mightily pleased with himself, Sharpe headed out the door of the Villere mansion to make the arrangements. He met Fredrickson on the way.
"Something's up, Richard."
"Morris has volunteered a detachment from the South Essex to go on a foraging mission."
Sharpe thanked Sweet William and headed towards the South Essex's bivouacs. His suspicions were aroused. He didn't know what Morris was at, but if he was sending out men from the South into a hostile countryside, Sharpe was going with them. He could set up a garrison with part of the detachment. And he could interview the villagers to see if they had seen anything.
Twenty soldiers of the 2nd Company of the South Essex were lined up in front of their bivouac, led by Sergeant Bader. Price and D'Alembord were no where in sight. Morris was finishing giving him instructions as Sharpe walked up. The Lieutenant Colonel looked anything but pleased to see him.
"This is no concern of yours, Major."
"Actually, Colonel, it's a fine day, and I'm in the mood for an outing with my old regiment. Where are we off to?"
"A small village to the south, Napoleon's Landing. We are in need of supplies, it is one of several locations we will attempt to buy them at."
"Sounds splendid. Let's be off then."
"I repeat, Major, this does not concern you."
"I am the Duke's investigator, and I can go where I see fit, Colonel."
Sharpe and Morris locked stares for a moment. Morris surrendered.
"Very well, if you insist, Major."
They filed down to the river and piled into one of the navy gigs. Sharpe sat up front, Sergeant Bader was in the rear with the pilot. As before, they made their way down the river without incident. Sharpe was less uneasy this time, his mind was full of plans of which villages he would garrison, what regiments he would draw off of, and hopes of catching the murderers. The soldiers of the South exchanged cheerful banter. He was astonished at how young they were (or had he just gotten older)? Only the Sergeant in the rear was taciturn. The water was calm and the sky peaceful, and if Sharpe didn't know better, he would have thought that all was right with the world.
Napoleon's Landing was higher on the river than Blassenville had been. They had soon turned off onto the Bayou Jumonville, and the little hamlet soon came into sight around a bend in the bank. It was even smaller and more miserable than Blassenville, Napoleon would have to be really desperate before he landed here. No one was stirring.
Then the wind shifted and Sharpe caught the odor. The odor of blood.
Oh no . . .
He saw the first crow stooping down from the sky to land of the wooden jetty. Then another, then three more.
. . . not again . . .
As they drew closer, he saw the first bodies. It had happened again.
Sharpe turned away, gritting his teeth in frustration and anguish. He couldn't make himself look at the village for a long time. He was dimly aware that they were tying up to the jetty, vaguely heard the cries and exclamations of horror. Finally, he got out of the boat and stood on the rickety wood structure that jutted out into the bayou.
The corpses were still fresh, the blood undried. Whoever had done the deed had done it not much more than an hour before.
A little earlier and we might have . . .
He walked through the village, numbed to the horror, not looking. All around him, soldiers were retching. One of the privates, a young man named Newcomb, turned to him.
"Sir, we've got to do some - uhhhh!"
Newcomb was hurled to the ground even as Sharpe heard the rifle shot. He shouted to the stunned Redcoats.
"Take cover! Take cover!"
The killers were still here. They had walked blindly into an ambush.
Two more men were shot down before they got into the cover of the huts. The structures were windowless, so they crouched behind them to return fire. Sharpe cautiously peered out from the edge of a hut one hundred-fifty yards across the village's sparsely cultivated fields, then pulled back as a near miss showered him with splinters. He had seen the distant puff of gunpowder smoke from the trees beyond, they were facing trained marksmen. The Redcoats of the South Essex crouched down helplessly, they knew their muskets didn't have the range, they could make no response. One looked out from behind his cover a second too long and received a rifle ball through the eye. He was hurled back dead before he hit the ground.
Sharpe lay prone, training his Baker on the spot where he had seen the smoke, and waited. Perhaps they would get overconfident. Perhaps they had never met a rifleman from the 95th before. If they made a mistake, he would be ready. From right behind him, he heard the grating voice of Sergeant Bader.
"Major, we don't stand a chance. We've got to surrender!"
Sharpe answered without turning around.
"Look around you, Sergeant. Do you think these people take prisoners?"
Even as he spoke, Sharpe saw a figure break from cover and run across the tree line, right across his sights. He led him a little and squeezed the trigger. The sparks and smoke flashed in his face. He grinned in satisfaction as the figure threw up his arms and fell headlong. That was the first payment for Blassenville. There would be others.
Sharpe was about to explain to the Sergeant that they would have to hold their positions until night. His Baker would force the attackers to keep their distance. Then they would make a break for the boat under cover of darkness. But before he had a chance to say any of this, Sergeant Bader took his musket by the barrel and swung it at Sharpe's head, the butt catching him behind the right ear. Sharpe saw a flash of stars. Bader reversed his swing into Sharpe's skull, and he saw only blackness.
The soldiers looked at Bader in shock. As he fixed a handkerchief to his bayonet and slotted it on the barrel, he explained to them.
"He's crazy! They would have killed each and every one of us. Our only chance is to surrender."
He stepped over Sharpe's prone body, holding his improvised white flag in plain sight. He stepped into the corridor between the huts and began to wave it back and forth.
Thirty figures broke from the trees and started for them, their rifles aimed. Bader kept on waving as he talked to the soldiers.
"Drop your muskets. We're surrendering."
The soldiers were hesitant, but they had been trained to trust their sergeant, and their muskets clattered to the ground as they raised their hands. The men who had come out of the trees were Indians, clad in brown homespun, all armed with Kentucky rifles, with knives and tomahawks at their belts. Some had heads shaved except for crests, others wore their hair bound or wore black slouch hats. The last one was a full head taller than the rest, clad in green-dyed buckskin and a cloak of scalps, with a flame red crest above his bald pate and a black long rifle in his hand. The Brothers of the Swamp had come.
Sharpe's head ached abominably. He felt a rough wood surface under his cheek. He tried to put his hand to the lump behind his ear, but for some reason, he could not. He opened his eyes. He was lying on the jetty; his ankles bound together, his wrists tied behind his back. His rifle and sword, had of course, been taken. A hand gripped his hair and hauled him to his knees. He looked into the leering, malevolent face of Red Gator.
"I told you we'd meet again, Englishman."
Sharpe looked around. The soldiers of the South Essex were disarmed and stood off to the side, with half a dozen Indians covering them with their rifles. All except Sergeant Bader. He walked up to Red Gator, who released Sharpe's hair, stood, and nodded his approval.
"Colonel Morris did well."
"I'll tell him you said so, sir."
"You would, except for one thing."
"We leave no witnesses."
An expression of fear was just coming over Bader's face when one of Gator's men jerked his head back and cut his throat from ear to ear with a knife. He gave only the least gasp of surprise as his blood bubbled down his tunic and he slumped to the ground.
Gator's men looked to him in expectation, and he nodded, grinning his hideous pointed-tooth grin. Like a flock of vultures, the Brothers of the Swamp descended on the cowering Redcoats, who could only put up their hands in helpless protest as the Indians drew their knives and hatchets.
"No, we're prisoners -"
"For God's sake, have mercy-"
"Major Sharpe, help us!"
Sharpe would hear those cries for the rest of his life. Particularly the last one. The Brothers of the Swamp hacked and stabbed, and the protests and pleas for mercy and help turned to screams and gurgling cries. All Sharpe could do was kneel a few feet away, straining futilely at his ropes. He cried out in helpless horror.
"No! Nooooooo -"
Red Gator turned around, and a fist the size of a nine-pounders' shot smashed into the base of Sharpe's skull. Once again, he knew blackness, this time a mercy.
The slaughter was over quickly. The Brothers of the Swamp bent to take the scalps, and one of Gator's men stepped over to Sharpe's prone form, seized him by the hair, jerked his head back to expose the throat, and raised his knife. Gator's great hand fell on his man's wrist, and he shook his head. The man backed off hastily. No one ever was fool enough to come between Red Gator and his chosen prey. The giant half-breed slung Sharpe's bound body over his shoulder and strode to the end of the jetty. A Brother had paddled one of the canoes they had hidden to the jetty's end and tied it off. Without a word, he threw Sharpe's body into the bottom of the boat, got in himself, untied the line, and paddled down the bayou. None of the Brothers asked him where he was going. They didn't want to know. All they knew was that he occasionally took bound enemies into the swamp. And only he returned.
Sharpe gasped and spluttered as some foul-smelling liquid hit him in the face and ran down his tunic. He tried to open his eyes, but they were gummed shut. He hung (hung?) for a second, as his mind adjusted to his condition. An artillery duel was taking place inside his head. He was standing upright, his back to some rough surface. He was cold from the chest down. He tried again and pried his eyelids open.
It was night. All around was inky blackness from which came the sound of frogs and crickets. It was the swamp. He was in water up to his chest. The hard surface at his back was the cypress tree to which he was tied by a leather thong coiled several times around the trunk and his neck. His wrists were tied together behind his back; his ankles were lashed together. The only light came from a lantern in the prow of the canoe that floated by his head. Crouched in the canoe, like some monstrous gargoyle of the swamp, was Red Gator. In his hand, he had an empty bucket. Sharpe felt some thick, vile-smelling liquid dripping off his face and head into the water. He recognized the stench. It was blood. The giant smiled at him hideously.
"Have a good nap?"
Sharpe said nothing. Gator didn't need his response; he was content to talk.
"Throwing me that tooth was a fool move, Englishman. It sealed your death. No one interferes in my business and lives to tell the tale."
"What is your business?"
Gator seemed to consider a moment, then he shrugged. He probably figured that Sharpe wasn't likely to do any talking.
"Word is that you and the Yankees are likely to make peace soon. That doesn't go down well with me, so I've been working to make sure that the two of you fight on until the last one of you kills the next-to-last with his dying blow."
"My lads and me, we've been working both sides against each other. We scouted for your army up in Maryland. We move fast, your see, not even cavalry can run over broken country as fast as we can. So whenever we went out to scout out the American army's position, there was still plenty of time to find a small, out of the way place where you murderin' English would do another of your foul deeds. No one ever guessed what we were doin."
"And what you're doing is killing innocent women and children."
"White women. White children. Their blood is just as red and sweet as any man's. And it's working. Already, half the Yankee army believes that you English are nothing but a pack of murderin' animals. By the time I'm done, the other half will think the same."
"Why did you kill the patrol? They'd surrendered."
"And who says we killed them? I'm thinking your General Pakenham'll figure that it was those Yankee louts getting' revenge for all the villages you Brits have murdered. Who'll tell him different?"
"How were you able to come into the villages with no one suspecting you?"
"Sometimes we put on Yankee uniforms. They have a way of breeding trust among these folk. Of course, no one lived to give us the lie. Other times, we'd wear Redcoat gear and make sure that at least one survivor escaped to tell the tale of your muderin' rampages."
"What's Morris part in all of this?"
"Ah, the darlin' Colonel. I needed a supply of equipment from your army to leave at all the villages and mansions where you murderin' English had your rampages. He supplied me, and told me when and where the foragin' parties would be goin' out. In return, he got a share of the profits from the booty we sold. A spineless worm, but useful."
"Did you kill General Ross?"
The giant nodded proudly.
"He was the only man in your army with sense enough to see through me plan. When he started questioning me men, he was gettin' too close to the truth. Me and my lads were scouting ahead of him, up the North Point, just a little before the Yankee line. There was Yankee sharpshooters all around, it was simple for me to take up position under cover right in their midst. The fool had more courage than was good for him, sitting up on his horse as he did. Even at three hundred yards, a child could've made the shot. After that, I shot two American riflemen so they would get the blame."
"By this time, things were getting a little too hot for me lads and I, so we deserted your army and made our way down here to the swamps, where we all grew up. You've been kind enough to bring the war down here to us. So we all went to General Jackson and swore we were friendly Choctaws, eager to defend our land from the invadin' Redcoats. And now we're in business again."
"And what now?"
Gator spoke with drooling relish.
"Ah, now comes the grand finish. Five days from now, on the anniversary of the day when I put a knife in the back of me dear departed father, me lads are going to pay a visit to New Orleans. A fine celebration it will be. We'll be dressed in British uniforms this time, courtesy of dear Colonel Morris. We'll have a grand time of it, we will. General Jackson has stripped the city of every healthy man. All that are left are the old, the sick, women and children. There'll be none to stop us. The streets will run red. But this time, there will be witnesses, hundreds of them, who will swear on a stack of bibles that you murdering Brits have done your worst deed yet, butchering dozens of them in the middle of the city in broad daylight. General Pakenham can deny until he drops dead, it'll do him no good. If you've grandchildren, they'll be dead and gone before peace is signed. And when the ground is littered with Brit and Yankee dead as far as the eye can see, it will be time for a new leader, one who can weld every tribe from here to Canada into one vast alliance that will reclaim all our ancestral lands, the fulfillment of Tecumseh's dream. And why shouldn't it be me? 'Twas my plan, after all."
He leered at Sharpe, enjoying his enemy's helplessness.
"Now, what do you think o' that, Englishman?"
"I think you're a sick animal that needs to be put down."
"But I'm thinkin' it's not you that'll be doing the puttin.' You see, you're going to meet me true brothers."
Out in the swamp, distant, but not too distant, Sharpe heard a deep, throaty roar. Another one answered it. The roars of bull alligators. Gator tipped his head back, his eyes closed, savoring the sound. His voice was a low hiss.
"Ahhh, there they are. Timid beasts they be, usually won't come anywhere near a man. Unless he's tied up out in the middle of a swamp. Unless he's soaked in blood."
He reached out a hand and stroked Sharpe's hair, lovingly.
"But then, there's that fine scalp of yours, Englishman. And loath I am to give it up. Which is why I've tied your neck to this tree. I'm thinking me brothers will take your body and leave me your head. I'll be back for it, and your fine black scalp will have a proper home on me cloak."
Gator drew his massive knife, inspected the blade, the gently ran it through Sharpe's hair.
"I'll be needin' this in a few days. Best leave it where I can find it."
He reversed his grip from handle to blade and with a single swift motion, hurled it into the cypress Sharpe was tied to. It quivered in the wood, some ten feet above his head.
"If you need a knife, feel free to borrow mine. Oh, I forgot, you can't reach it, can you?"
He settled into the canoe, picked up the paddle, and smiled his alligator-tooth smile.
"Be sure to give me brothers a proper greeting, Englishman. They like a bit o' a struggle, they do."
Sharpe glared at his enemy. His voice was ice.
"We'll meet again."
Gator's smile broadened.
"Not this side of Hell, Bucko."
He turned the canoe and paddled off into the darkness, which swallowed up the faint glow of his lamp.
From the blackness, nearer now, came another roar. And another. And another.
Sharpe was alone, soaked in rancid blood, tied up in the middle of the swamp.
And the alligators were coming.
Somewhere in Hell, Obediah Hakeswill was laughing.
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Last update 15/7/01