Chapter 11

Sharpe fought down a growing sense of panic. He tried hard to force thoughts of bone-crushing jaws out of his head as he tested his ropes. They were firm, though he could turn his head a little. There was no give in his wrists or his ankles. He pulled his knees up to his chest and tried to slip his bound wrists over his feet, to at least get them in front. He stretched his arms to get the last fraction of length. He failed by about two inches. If he didn't have these damned French cavalry boots on . . .

His heart was pounding now. It was hard to breathe. He had to think. He had to get out of this. Not just to keep on living, but because he owed it to all those who had died at Red Gator's hands, most recently the twenty men of the South Essex. Sharpe felt a pain in his heart as their cries for help echoed in his memory. For them, he had to bring the bastard down. For that, he had to live. And Lucille must not be told that her man had simply disappeared into the swamp without a trace.

Off in the wet darkness, a roar sounded again, closer now. They would be sliding through the water towards the scent of blood. First one would appear, than another, then they would be all around him. He would yell and kick at them with his bound ankles, and they would draw back until they realized that the prey could not hurt them. Then one would grab his feet in its jaws and twist, and twist -

His terror was swiftly overwhelming his ability to reason. He had seen how crocodiles in India tore their prey apart -

India . . .

And out of his past, Sharpe dredged up a slim chance of survival.

It had been in 1800, after the fall of the Tipoo Sultan. Sergeant Sharpe, Tom Garrard, and four of his old mates from the 33rd had been enjoying some liberty in Madras. The arrack had flowed like water, and young Sharpe was feeling his oats. They had been wandering through the bazaar. They watched the snake charmers and drank arrack. They leered at the dancing women and drank arrack. They gawked at the sword swallowers and fire-eaters, and drank arrack. They bargained with merchants for worthless trinkets and got the price lowered to twice what the merchant was asking. Sharpe and Tom had made each other gifts of brass chamber pots engraved with images of Shiva and Kali. And they drank arrack. Then they had come to the fakir.

He was a tiny, wizened brown man who could have been sixty or a hundred and sixty, wearing nothing but a simple white loincloth. He claimed that his meditations and training had given him extraordinary control over his body. They watched as he hooked both feet behind his head and walked around on his hands. They applauded as he ate ground glass without apparent harm. They gaped as he lay across the blades of six tulwars while his assistants took sledgehammers and smashed heavy stones on his chest. They ooohed and ahhhed as he walked across a bed of hot coals with no burns on his feet. And then he had offered to teach one of them to dislocate his shoulders.

If Sharpe had been less drunk, he wouldn't have let Tom push him forward.

He found himself sitting on the fakir's woven mat, as the man took his right shoulder and elbow in his frail-looking hands. With a quick twist and pull, Sharpe's arm was dislocated from its socket. And just as swiftly, the man snapped it back in. Sharpe didn't realize how much it hurt until he was sober. Then, taking Sharpe's left arm, he had shown him how to move the joint back and forth until he found the spot of least resistance, and then how to bear down past the pain until he felt the grinding pop in his shoulder. Then he showed him how to reverse it by anchoring his elbow against a hard surface and then bearing down until he found the spot of least resistance and the joint popped back in. Sharpe did it first under his tutelage, and then half a dozen times without his help. Each time he did it, he and Tom had laughed harder and harder. The fakir declared that Sharpe was a natural talent and asked him to become his student. He promised him that within a year, he would have him sleeping on a bed of nails. Sharpe had declined, and then he and his mates wandered off to get another drink.

When he had woken up the next morning, it was debatable which hurt more, his head or his shoulders. He had sworn he would never do such a thing to himself again.

But he had never been in such a desperate situation before. It was the only chance he could see, and he took it. He breathed deeply, slowly, emptying his mind of all fear, concentrating. He moved his shoulders back and forth, loosening the joints.

From not too far away, he heard something splashing in the water. The roaring had stopped, to be replaced by a low, throaty rumble, coming nearer.

He moved his left shoulder back and forth, looking for the spot of least resistance as he had been taught fifteen years ago. He wished now that he remembered that time more clearly. Things didn't seem so clear-cut now. Then he found it, a spot just off-center where bearing down was a little easier. He bore down, it hurt. He remembered the fakir's words to him: "When it hurts Sahib, embrace the pain as a friend. Plunge into it headfirst, let the pain give you strength and enlightenment." He couldn't go this far, but he thought for a moment of the pain an alligator's jaws could inflict, and bore down harder. And then suddenly, the resistance was gone, he felt the familiar grinding pop inside, and his shoulder sloped smoothly down from the base of his neck.

Now it was the turn of the right arm. He looked for the spot, seemed to find it, and bore down. But the resistance was greater here, the pain more severe. Sharpe didn't let up, he knew if he did, he might not be able to force himself to continue. He bore down, down, down, harder, harder, and still the shoulder resisted.

Then in the darkness, he saw a long, indistinct shape moving towards him. He bore down once more, and with a pop, his shoulder slipped out of joint. And his arms were suddenly some three inches longer. Both of his shoulders ached dully. He knew from experience that the pain would increase with each heartbeat, and that soon it would grow too intense for him to do anything. He had to move fast. He drew up his knees to his chest, the kneecaps barely breaking the water's surface. He brought his bound wrists against the heels of his boots, and with a flick of his arms, he was past the heels and his wrists were sliding across the soles and up over his toes.

His arms were still tied, but tied in front of him now. He couldn't raise his arms over his head without intense pain, but otherwise he could use both of them. He cupped some water in his hands and splashed it onto the leather thong around his neck to cause it to slacken a bit. He was able to get his fingertips under the topmost loop of the thong, stretching it out a fraction of an inch from his neck. Twisting his neck, he jammed his chin down into the stretched space, and got it inside the loop. Shaking his head back and forth, he worked the thong up his chin and over his lower lip, then seized it in his teeth. Now he had an anchor. Gripping the thong tightly with jaws and fingers, he jerked his head and body hard to the left. The right side of the thongs slid up a fraction of an inch on the tree. Then he jerked head and body hard to the right. The thongs straightened out, sliding up on the left.

He drew his legs up and jammed them hard into the tree, the heels of his boots digging into the bark a fraction of an inch and giving him some purchase. Making sure that the majority of pressure was on the thong between his teeth, he began a series of jerks, left, right, left, right, left, right. With each jerk, the thongs slid diagonally a fraction of an inch up the tree, and then straightened out. As he worked his way up the cypress, he gradually straightened out his legs.

Left, right, left, right. His hips were at the surface now, his legs half straightened out. He drew his knees up again, stabbed his heels into the tree. Left, right, left, right, inch by inch, by inch, he worked his way up the trunk. Something, several somethings were moving out in the darkness, but he paid them no attention. All his effort, all his being centered on his slow progress, up inch after inch, left, right, left, right. Luckily, the trunk had no insurmountable knots, sometimes he had to jerk right, right, right, several times before he could get over a small lump. Then left, right, left, right.

Now he was a good five feet above the water's surface. As he was preparing to draw up his knees again, the moon came out from behind some clouds and lit the scene up.

There were alligators all around the base of the tree. Big ones, at least a dozen. They milled around in confusion, the blood trail ended here, but they could not find its source. For the moment, they ignored the strange creature working its way up the tree. The moonlight showed on their teeth and glowing eyes.

His progress now had a new element of desperation, he smashed his heels into the trunk, increasing the pace of his upward progress, left-right-left-right-left-right. He looked up and saw his goal, Red Gator's knife. It jutted from the trunk, about five feet above his head. He continued left-right-left-right, trying hard to shut out the increasingly aggressive noises from below. Now he was four feet away, he tried to reach up his hands and grip the hilt, but the pain in his shoulders was too great, and he lowered them with a gasp. He reflected that now that he was too high for his boots to reach the ground, if his boots lost their purchase on the trunk, he would slowly strangle, at least until the alligators dragged him down.

He worked up, left-right-left-right. Three feet from the knife. He raised his arms again, touched the handle, and then had to lower them as searing agony lanced out from his shoulders. Left-right-left-right-left-right. Now two feet from the knife. Keeping his arms bent and his elbows close in, he reached up, and found the pain was endurable this time. He placed the thong around his wrists against the blade, and began to saw back and forth. They parted with ridiculous ease, the blade was razor-sharp. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, ignoring the increasing ache from his shoulders. And then his hands were free.

He gripped the knife's handle, and began carefully to work it side to side, up and down, maintaining a constant pressure on the thong in his teeth and his heels on the trunk. He must not slip now. He could feel the blade working its way loose from the wood bit by bit. From below him, he felt a wind near his leg and heard a splash. The alligators had noticed him He wondered if they could leap high enough to reach him.

The give of the blade in the wood increased, it slid out more and more, and then it was free. He was about to lower the knife and saw through the thong around his ankles, when he heard another splash and his heart froze in his chest as out of the corner of his eye, he saw a big gator rise up out of the darkness, its jaws agape. It's teeth scraped along the toe of his left boot, failed to find purchase, and then fell back with a splash and a thrashing of scaly bodies.

He was almost out of time. There was none left to free his ankles. He looked down. The water at the base of the tree was a solid mass of scaly backs and snapping jaws. Falling among them would mean certain death. He would have to leap. To get out as far as he could, and then swim for it. It was a desperate chance, but it was the only one he had.

He drew up his legs and braced his heels against the tree. Slowly, carefully, he began to saw through the thong around his neck. One gave way, than another. He had to time it right, he wouldn't get a second chance. He had to land with his weight forward, or he would fall back among the gators.

Another thong gave way, and another. Another alligator leaped for him, its jaws snapping two inches below his feet. There were three more thongs. Then two. Then one.

He drew the knife's edge across the last thong and, straightening out his legs, launched himself into the night. It seemed like it took forever to fall. He saw everything as if it were a dream, the trees and the water, the alligators below, coming closer, closer. The night air rushing by -

He landed fifteen feet out from the tree, at the joint between a great alligator's body and tail, his legs flexing to absorb the impact, then launching him out again. Before him was clear water, all the gators were bunched about the tree. The alligator he had landed on lashed out with an angry roar, sinking its teeth into the neck of the gator to its right that it thought had attacked it. The second alligator tore itself free and roared its defiance. They clamped jaws, and all around, other alligators joined in the fight.

Sharpe swam with the speed of terror. He flailed at the water with his arms, his bound legs going like a dolphin's tail. He didn't allow himself to think of what was going on behind him.

For five seconds, the gators fought. It took another two seconds for them to realize that their prey was no longer on the tree. Another two seconds for them to locate him, flailing away through the water. Another second for the whole pack to set out after him. Thus, Sharpe had a lead of ten seconds. It was barely enough. He felt like he swam for ten minutes.

But before he knew it, his legs were thudding into mud, and he crawled up on to a low bank, a few inches above the swamp's surface. Frantically, he slashed at the thongs on his boots, slashing the surface of both. The thongs gave way, and he struggled to his knees. The alligators slid through the water, hissing at him menacingly. They were more hesitant to attack him on land, but that wouldn't last long. He had to find a place he could defend until dawn. The ache in his shoulders was quickly becoming overwhelming. He found a dead tree stump, braced his left elbow against it, and then with a convulsive thrust, rammed his shoulder back into joint. He reversed and did the same with the right arm. This one was less cooperative and he had to try three times before it worked. The pain continued, but at least for now, grew no worse.

Then all of a sudden, the reality of his situation fell on him in a black wave. He was in the middle of a swamp, filled with alligators, poisonous snakes, quicksand, and God knew what else. It was the middle of the night, he could barely see. He had no idea which way the camp was. He could see no place of refuge, no high mud bank or low-branching tree he could climb. The only question seemed to be: How long before something got him?

Without thinking, he plunged off the bank into the darkness. He tore through the swamps, panic, so long held at bay, finally arriving in force. He crossed stretches of shallow swamp where he half waded, half swam, and across deeper stretches where he swam alone, interspersed with mud banks that were anywhere from six inches to two feet above the water line. Fortunately, most of the alligators in the area had been attracted to the blood scent around the tree where he had been tied, and he encountered none. Finally, exhaustion seized him, and he lay gasping and panting on one of the higher mud banks. Darkness concealed the leeches that fed on his blood. Some degree of rationality returned to him.

He kept his breaths deep and slow to calm himself. He got to his feet and looked around, peering off into the darkness, trying to see anything that would help him get his bearings. All he could see were the dancing lights of thousands of fireflies everywhere, flashing on and off, on and off.

Then he looked closer. One of them wasn't flashing. It burned steadily, without a flicker, and it stayed in the same place. It wasn't a firefly. It was something else. A window to a hut? A lamp on a boat? What if it was Gator? Well, at least he had a weapon. And a damned impressive one at that.

The knife he held in his hand was a massive thing, almost a short sword. Its broad, thick, single-edged blade was wider than that of his Heavy Cavalry sword, and over a foot long. The last three inches of the top scalloped down to a vicious point. A brass crossguard protected his hand. The handle was rosewood, riveted with brass, and he could see that the tang ran the whole length of the grip, making the knife virtually unbreakable. Given his situation, he would have preferred a gunboat, but the knife would have to do.

Whatever the steady light was, he was in no position to be choosy. It was closest thing to hope that he had seen in this place. He began to beeline towards it, making his way across deep and shallow channels, across mud banks and stands of rushes and palmettos. As he drew closer, the light grew larger, and took on an orange tinge, in contrast to the yellow-green of the fireflies. The light seemed to have square corners. A window?

Sharpe did not know the swamp, so he had no idea of how much danger he was in. He had forgotten that his blood soaked clothes were still laying a scent trail in the water. He was closer now, and he could see the light distinctly, square and orange and unblinking. He thought he could make out a shape behind the light, perhaps a hut.

He was waist deep in water. He reached out with his left arm to push aside a clump of rushes, so that he could get a better look.

And that was when a huge alligator lunged out of the darkness and clamped its jaws down on his left forearm.

Sharpe's fighting instincts had been raised to a feverish pitch. His thinking processes, his reaction time, were working at a far quicker rate than normal. It was this that saved his arm. Even as he saw the massive black shape hurtling out of the water, all glowing eyes and flashing teeth, even as he felt the gigantic, crushing pressure on his forearm, he hurled himself onto the great reptile's back, locking his legs around its belly and driving his knife into the tough leathery hide. So when the gator began its death roll, turning over and over and over in the water, Sharpe, on its back with his arm in its mouth turned with it. Though his arm was dreadfully wrenched as the beast whipped its head back and forth, the gator could not gain the leverage to twist the limb off. Enraged, the alligator quickened its death role, its instincts taking over. Sharpe clung to its back, striving to find a place to drive his knife home. It felt like his arm was being crushed in a great vise, he felt no pain from its teeth, just the enormous pressure. He was screaming and cursing in pain, rage and fear, though he didn't know it. He felt branches and tree stumps punching into his side as the alligator rolled against them. He ignored the pain and kept on stabbing. Some instinct told him to time his breathing so that he inhaled when he was out of the water and exhaled when he was in it. His timing was not perfect, again and again he inhaled foul water, and his coughing and choking made him swallow more as the roll continued. The world revolved between black sky and blacker water, black sky and blacker water, sky, swamp, sky, swamp. But still he clung to the great scaly back, something in the back of his head told him that if he lost his grip, he would lose his arm the next instant, and his life a moment after that.

It felt like he had been clinging forever, though it could only have been a few seconds. Then he found a weak spot in the leathery hide. The great steel blade sank in an inch or two. With a grating hiss like a doused fire, the gator released his arm and arched its back convulsively, throwing him off. He flew through the air, landing in shallow water, scrambling to his feet. Something massive, a great scaly tail, hit him like a sledgehammer in the left rib cage, knocking him down again as the breath gasped out of his lungs. Pain dazzled his eyes, blackness edged his vision, then his head went below the surface and the cold water snapped him back to consciousness and he scrambled to his feet, lunging for the surface. He rose, chest deep in water, to face a pair of massive, tooth-studded jaws snapping in his face! He smelled the creature's breath, cold and foul, as if it had eaten things long dead. Desperately, he backpedaled, frantic to put some distance between his head and those terrible jaws that snapped so close that he could feel the impact in the air. Back and back he went, the only thing, in his mind to get away from those jaws that came on and on.

And then his back thudded into a cypress tree, he could retreat no further. The jaws yawned in his face, and the world seemed to slow down. He clearly saw the great fangs and the water dripping down from them. He saw the white doughy flesh hanging down from the roof of the mouth. The jaws came closer, closer! And Sharpe acted on pure instinct. If he had stopped and thought, he never would have done what he did next.

He launched himself forward off of the tree, a missile of flesh tipped with an outstretched arm holding a great knife. First the knife and then the arm disappeared down the great jaws and he angled the blade upwards. He was staring into the beast's glowing eyes, mere inches from his own. He felt resistance, and then give as the living bear-trap crashed down, the massive force of the bite driving the keen steel through the roof of the mouth and into the puny brain, deeper and deeper until the crossguard crunched into the flesh and the blade erupted through the skull and out between the eyes like a grotesque horn.

Sharpe felt again a terrible, crushing pressure as if a ton of boulders had fallen on his right arm. The great alligator hurled itself into a convulsive death roll, and Sharpe was jerked off his feet and pulled along with the beast. He gave a single, strangled cry of rage and pain and fear and swamp water flooded into his mouth.

Then the gator spasmed all along its great length, and was still. And so was Sharpe, his head and chest resting on its snout, his right hand and arm down its gullet.

And all was still in the swamp. All except for the crickets and the frogs, and the distant bellowing of alligators.

But then, a light separated itself from the square, orange light that Sharpe had been making towards. It slowly came closer, and resolved itself into a small lamp, suspended from a slender canoe. The boat came alongside the still combatants, reptile and man, and the lantern was raised high. A voice spoke in astonishment.

"Sacre Damballah!"

Then hands stretched out from the boat and reached for Sharpe.

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Last update 16/7/01