Red Gator crouched behind the thick stand of reeds that he had chosen for his hide. It rested on the end of a spit of mud that extended out into the water and fringed on a field of waist-high swamp grass that stretched for about a thousand feet to the tree line. The field was empty of trees, and was bordered on both sides by water. The setting moon still cast a pale light over the field, and the whole swamp was growing lighter by the moment as the sun crept up the horizon, burning away the last wisps of night mist.
He fondled his long rifle, with its darkened steel barrel and stock of black wood into which the shaman of his tribe had worked charms in silver so that he would never miss. He had a perfect field of fire. When the Englishman came blundering through the trees after him, it would be child's play to take him down.
He reflected that in the time since he had fled Jackson's camp, he could have been halfway to Mobile by now. And no one ever caught him in the swamp. Why had he stayed then? And why, when he had the Englishman with the long sharp knife in his sights, did he change his mind and kill his one-eyed friend instead? He decided that he just couldn't pass up his enemy's fine black scalp with its streak of white. And also, the Englishman thought himself a marksman. Well, then, let's see who's the better man. Killing him wasn't enough. He wanted the Englishman broken and bloodied at his feet, before he took his scalp.
And right on time, here he came, rifle in hand, all fired up to avenge his friend. Well, fools didn't deserve to live.
Red Gator crouched on one knee, and brought his rifle to his shoulder. In a tall cypress tree to his rear, a flock of pigeons that had roosted there during the night stirred uneasily. He eased the hammer back and lined up his sights on his target. The Englishman was just standing there, looking back and forth. He drew in half a breath, held it, gently squeezed the trigger . . .
Sharpe stood at the edge of the swamp grass, then began striding through it. He looked left and right. Where was Gator? Behind one of the trees to the right? In the grass ahead, lying in ambush?
From about four hundred yards to his front, a flock of pigeons leapt into the air from the tree where they had been roosting.
With a belly-jarring effort, Sharpe threw himself flat in the grass as the sharp high crack! sounded in his ear, and a red hot-poker raked across his head.
General Pakenham strained his ears in the morning quiet, trying to discern any hint that Thorton had begun his attack on the American batteries across the river. He heard nothing. Time was running out. He had just come from General Gibbs' column on the right. Colonel Mullens and the 44th still had not taken position at the fore with their ladders and fascines. Gibbs had sent repeated messengers to urge them on, but they still lagged in the rear. Pakenham had once again stressed how crucial the 44th's role was, and then rode off into the mist to his staff's position between the columns.
Now he checked his pocket watch. It was past five o'clock. Already, the east was lightening. He was out of time. Major Harry Smith, seated on his horse at his side, spoke quietly.
"There's no sound from across the river. Something has gone wrong with Thorton. We should re-schedule the attack for another day."
Pakenham shook his head firmly.
"I will wait my plans no longer."
He looked across the misty field, at his columns of waiting soldiers. He drew in his breath.
A single Congreve rocket traced a red line through the morning sky.
They had to attack quickly, before the mist rolled away and revealed them to the American gunners. But incredibly, on the left, no one had told General Keane's column that the rocket was the signal to attack. They stood, staring into the sky at it, as the British artillery opened up, to be answered by the American guns. Suddenly, round shot was coming through the fog, tearing bloody swaths through their ranks. The drums beat out the march, drowning out the screams, and they began to wade forward, irregularly, with no one to tell them. As they drew closer, grape and canister replaced the round shot, leaving a ghastly trail of broken, mangled bodies behind as they pushed forward.
In the front of the column, Colonel Rennie's light troops charged forward, driving the Yankee's forward outposts before them. The fog made identification difficult, and both sides held fire for fear of hitting their own men. The pickets piled into the brick kiln redoubt before the river end of Jackson's line, with Rennie's men right behind. It was hand to hand, bayonets and rifle butts, and the outnumbered defenders were quickly overwhelmed, abandoning the redoubt to seek safety behind the main line. Rennie, bleeding from a wound in the calf, climbed the earthen wall, shouting to his men.
"Hurrah boys, the day is ours!"
Eve as he spoke, a volley of musket balls threw him and his officers broken and dead from the parapet, but his men held the redoubt and began to spike the guns. Then a murderous fire of cannon, grape and musket opened up them. They turned and ran back along the levee road, blasted by fire all the way, leaving scores of their dead behind.
Across the field, Gibb's column saw the rocket and began to move forward. But still, the 44th with their fascines and ladders were no where to be seen. Gibbs sat on his horse, muttering under his breath.
"Let me survive this morning's business and I'll hang Colonel Mullens from the highest tree in this swamp."
Before the column, the riflemen of the 95th deployed in a skirmish line and rushed the canal. The American pickets were ready and began firing as they advanced, giving ground slowly, then turning and running for the safety of Line Jackson, hidden in the fog. The 95th scrambled into the ditch and tried to cut steps up the rampart with their bayonets.
And then, in the space of a minute, the fog rolled away, and the light of the rising sun lit up the entire plain. There they were, the massed might of the British empire, all decked out in shining scarlet and gold, thousands of men lined up in precise formation, flags fluttering in the breeze, drums beating in unison, bugles blowing, rockets firing above them.
The British raised a cheer as they saw the American line. It was the cheer of the doomed. They didn't stand a chance.
Red Gator snarled in annoyance. He had missed! The damned pigeons had warned his target just in time. Not to worry, though. It just made the game more interesting. He signaled with his hand, a gesture invisible from a distance, but discernible from where the renegade Baratarian Henri the Swamp Rat crouched, about fifty feet away, where the grass field began. Gator had linked up with him at a pre-agreed rendezvous. He had wanted to escape immediately, but Gator had insisted that they conclude his business with the Englishman first. And no one ever said "no" to Gator. At least, no one alive.
Now Henri, as they had arranged, began to strike flint to steel, setting fire in one place, than another, than another, crouching down and running across the breadth of the field, the edge of which he had soaked in lamp oil a few minutes before. The wind was blowing away from Gator. It spread the fire, and a line of flame, crackling and smoking in the morning breeze, began to work its way across the field. Working its way towards Sharpe.
Sharpe lay, face down in the grass. His head throbbed like the siege of Badajoz was going on inside. He gingerly put a hand to his scalp on the left side and winced. His hand came away bloody. Gator's rifle ball had creased his skull as he had ducked. But he was alive.
What a fool he had been, charging into a clearing like that, after a trained marksman! His anger had nearly gotten him killed. All he had been able to think of was avenging Fredrickson. And that had almost played into Gator's hands. Only those birds taking flight had warned him without a split second to spare.
He realized that in this fight, his emotions were as much his enemy as Gator was. He had to think, to strategize, because his opponent was doing the same. And so far, much better than Sharpe was. He had to find a firing site, one that would give him a clear line of vision of the surrounding area, while concealing his location. He twisted around and looked through the thinning grass to his rear, into the swampland that fringed it. And instantly, he saw his place.
It was a dead cypress log, lying half-buried in a mud bank, about ten feet from the water's edge to its rear, about fifty from where he was now. It was partially eaten away, he could lay behind it and fire through one of the gaps in the wood. It would allow him to see, but not be seen. The problem was, how to get there without getting shot?
He felt something on his hand and looked down. A cricket ran across it into the grass. He noticed that there were a lot of insects, crickets, beetles, roaches, running through the grass. All in one direction.
And then he smelled a trace of smoke in the air.
The grass was on fire. And it was heading his way.
He fought down a sudden urge to leap to his feet and run. That would be suicide. Gator would pick him off like a rabbit. His heart began to pound. Now the stream of fleeing animals included frogs, toads, lizards and mice, running in an increasingly steady stream towards the rear of the field. The smell of smoke was stronger now, and he could hear a faint crackling in the air.
He crawled on his belly through the grass, trying hard to minimize how much of his movement he gave away. He made his way to the field's edge, where it ran into the water. The ground was soggy now, it soaked his tunic. But the grass would still burn.
The crackling was louder now, smoke was starting to billow across his hiding place. He coughed and lowered his head below the smoke's level. Still the animals were fleeing around and across him.
Then he froze. A cottonmouth crawled across his arms as he supported himself on them. He felt another serpent on his back. Sharpe didn't move, didn't breathe. The snake reared up and looked him in the face. He could see his features reflected in its shiny black eyes. Its forked tongue flicked at him nervously. Time seemed to stand still. Then the snakes apparently decided that he either was no threat, or the fire was too close to stop and bite him. Both serpents slithered away into the water. Sharpe let out his breath in a long, ragged gasp and rested his head on his hands.
But in the next instant, he raised his head. He was lying at the edge of the thick grass. Just before him, it thinned down to a few strands pushed into the mudbank. Five feet away was the water and safety. And he knew that Red Gator would have this narrow empty space in his sights. He couldn't get to the water without exposing himself to the shot.
The crackling grew louder. He tried to put himself in Gator's place. What would his enemy do? What was he expecting Sharpe to do?
He would expect Sharpe to try to slide on his belly across those five feet of mud into the water. His rifle would be aimed low, just off the ground. But what if Sharpe went in high off the ground? Gator would have to take a fraction of a second to adjust his aim. And that might be just enough to make him miss.
Sharpe realized something else. The water looked shallow, no deeper than waist-high. If he made it to the water and it was shallow enough to stand up in, there would be a chance of hitting back at his opponent. Gator's gunpowder smoke would reveal his position for a few seconds, and Sharpe could take a shot. There would be no time for careful aim, he couldn't give Gator a chance to duck. He would have to sight on the smoke cloud, fire in one motion, and trust to his years of training to guide his eye.
But first, he had to get to the water alive. And to do that, he had to wait until the fire was almost on top of him, until the smoke was thick enough to give him cover. But he must not wait until his cover burned away.
Already, it was very close. He crawled back from the water's edge about ten feet to give himself a running start. He slowed his breathing to calm himself. There were no more fleeing animals. He was starting to feel increasing heat on his left side, and could see a flickering orange glow through the blades of grass.
Wait . . .
He made sure his cartridge box was on his right hip, away from the flames. The last thing he needed now was his ammunition exploding on him. He opened it and took out three cartridges, placing them in his mouth. The thick paper should prevent the powder from getting wet in there, but he was not so sure they would hold up to being immersed in swamp.
Wait . . .
The crackling was a thunder in his ears. He felt like he was lying next to a furnace. He gritted his teeth and ignored the pain.
Wait . . .
Now the smoke was a thick gray-white billow pouring across the water's surface. The flickering was stronger now, and the grass blades next to his head were withering and curling, turning brown, then black . . .
Sharpe came to his feet, his legs churning mud and grass under his boots as he charged forward. Seven feet from the water's edge, he hurled himself off of his right leg and sailed into the smoke-filled air, a full four feet above the swamp's surface.
From his hide, Gator saw the distant, smoke-obscured shape arc through the air, above where he was expecting. In a fraction of a heartbeat, he adjusted his aim slightly up and fired.
Sharpe heard the crack! and felt a wind rip across his back. It was a clean miss. The he hit the swamp, his feet and legs went in and he found bottom in the waist deep water. He flexed his knees to absorb the impact, fought for balance, found it in the next instant, and brought his Baker up to his shoulder. His eyes scanned the distance for the small white puff of gunpowder smoke, sighted in on a clump of rushes in the distance- There! - lined up on it, pulled the trigger, felt the impact of the butt against his shoulder.
It was a once in a lifetime shot, the greatest that Sharpe ever made. The rifle ball tore across the swamp three hundred and thirty yards unerringly towards the dissipating cloud of smoke.
Red Gator peered through the burning grass, almost burned out now, at where his quarry had leaped into the water. His brain was just telling him that he had missed again and that his enemy was aiming at him when he heard what sounded like a hornet flying by his head. Then he felt the sting, and heard the crack! He started back convulsively, and his hand flew up to the right side of his head. It came away covered in blood. The top half of his ear was gone.
He had been blooded.
He stared at his hand, wet with red for a second, and then his face convulsed with a demon's rage. He had been blooded! No one blooded him!
He looked back. The fire and smoke were almost gone. Nothing moved in the swamp. The Englishman was no where in sight. He had used the moment to go to ground. He was learning. So much the better. Red Gator enjoyed a challenge.
Across the river, Lieutenant Colonel Thorton and his five hundred men had disembarked unopposed, four miles below the American batteries. Even as they formed up into columns, they heard the noise of artillery from across the river. The attack had begun, and they were already behind schedule. The marched north at double-quick time, flanked by three small gunboats armed with carronades in the bows.
They encountered the Yankee forward line after a mile. These quickly evacuated their position and fell back on the second line. Here they tried to make a stand. But they were Kentucky militia, ill trained, poorly armed, hungry and exhausted. Thorton quickly outflanked them, and they fired a few rounds and dashed back to the main defensive line under General Morgan. Here, in the ditch and breastwork, they would make their final stand.
As Gibbs ordered the column's final advance, the three American batteries before them opened up, punching large bloody holes in their advancing ranks, holes that stretched from the column's head to its tail. Obedient and disciplined, the soldiers quickly closed up the holes, as the Jonathan's cannons smashed them open again and again. But in too many place, the men of the 44th stopped to exchange fire with the American line instead of charging it. It was a futile effort; they couldn't even see the Americans behind the mud rampart, while they themselves were open targets. Men and parts of men were hurled in every direction. It was a slaughter.
Still the column advanced into the hail of iron, whole sections of it being mowed down. As they drew up to the mud wall, a thirty-two pounder filled to the brim with musket balls discharged its load into the head of the column, sweeping away two hundred men in one terrible instant of raining blood and tissue and bone.
Now the column was two hundred yards from the rampart, within range of the small arms. Four lines of Yankee sharpshooters opened up, one after another, in a non-stop curtain of fire. Rifles, muskets, even pistols opened up. They couldn't miss if they tried.
The British batteries fired rockets by the bushel, leaving their scarlet trails across the sky. The American guns replied in an awful ruckus of exploding shells and bodies. But the British artillery could not reply effectively, for the march of General Keane's column crossed their line of fire. There was a constant rolling fire of tremendous noise like pealing thunder. From behind the Jackson line, the Jonathan band had begun playing "Yankee Doodle."
Andrew Jackson rode up and down the line on his white horse. He looked out at the battlefield. Already, it was heavily shrouded in smoke.
"Stand to your guns. Don't waste ammunition - see that every shot tells."
Gibbs' column continued forward. The 21st, in the lead, was withering under the devastating fire. Behind the rampart, the American ranks rotated, line after line, the front rank discharging their weapons, stepping back to reload, as the second line advanced, emptied their guns at the British, and then made way for the third line. After them, the fourth line waited to take their place. The fire was continuous, no interruption, no interval. Jackson's voice rang out above the din.
"Give it to them boys! Let us finish this business today!"
The front and flanks of Gibb's column melted away under the unrelenting fire. The forward ranks gave back, throwing the rearward ranks into disorder. It was like a scene from a nightmare, rolling thunder pealing out from the American rampart, the pitiful screams and cries of wounded and dying men, the whoosh of the rockets, the roar of the cannons, the blast of chain shot and grape. The carnage was frightful. With each shot, more and more Redcoats collapsed to the ground, so that the bodies began to stack on top of each other, wounded men pressed into the mud by the weight of their comrade's bodies. Sergeants threatened to run any man through with their pikes if he tried to take cover. The commands of Yankee officers sounded.
"Shoot low! Shoot low! Rake them boys, rake them!"
Sharpe had made it to the log in about five seconds. Now he lay prone behind it, and rested his Baker on the near side where it had rotted away. The muzzle was flush with the long crack in the log's far side. He could draw a bead on anything in his line of vision in a second. And he could not easily be seen. Sharpe grabbed a handful of dark green swamp muck and slopped it on his face and hands. No sense risking his white skin giving him away. Fortunately, the steel barrel of his Baker was covered with a brown patina, there was no danger of the sunlight glinting on it and revealing his location.
He peered at the clump of reeds from which the gunpowder smoke had faded away. Was Gator dead? Every instinct that Sharpe had told him no. Was he still there? Or had he moved? Perhaps not, it was too perfect a hide, and Sharpe would have seen his movement. In any case, he couldn't have moved far. Sharpe took the panorama into his line of vision, concentrating on letting nothing escape his notice. And he waited.
And now the duel had become a test of patience. The one who lost patience and made a hasty shot without a clear target would be put at a deadly disadvantage. He would have revealed his position, and it would be nearly a full minute before he could reload and shoot again. During that time, he would be vulnerable.
And so both opponents lay behind their hides, not moving, all their concentration on the small range of territory behind which the other must be.
Sharpe found himself slipping into the focused state of consciousness that the sniper must achieve when he faces one of his own kind. His breathing slowed, became measured. His heartbeat decreased as his body shut down all unnecessary functions, all focused on the single concentrated activity of watching that narrow strip of land that concealed the man he must kill. Lucille, the farm, Fredrickson, his past, his hopes, his fears, all faded and disappeared. All that existed was he and his hidden enemy.
A mosquito landed on his forehead and bit him. He didn't notice.
Leeches sought the flesh of his ankles. He didn't feel them.
A bull alligator gave an early morning bellow. He didn't hear it.
A crayfish crawled onto a lily pad, to be swallowed by a bullfrog, which itself was snapped up a moment later by an alligator gar. He paid no attention to this or the thousand and one dramas of kill and be killed, eat and be eaten that were unfolding in the swamp all around him. They did not exist.
From the distance beyond the trees came the crash and boom and crackle of cannon and musket, the cheers and screams of men fighting and dying. They could have been on the moon for all the attention he paid to them.
His entire world had closed down to a small clump of reeds three hundred and fifty yards away.
The sun crawled up higher through the hazy sky. Still, he paid no attention, was unaware of it. Everything in him was focused on watching. And waiting.
You might as well make your move, you bastard. I can wait here all year if I have to.
It was Gator who broke the stalemate. He had little respect for the Englishman's abilities, in spite of his lucky shot. If he had, he would have continued the waiting game until his opponent lost patience and did something stupid. But he was impatient. He had had a sudden inspiration, while the battle was still going on, he would kill Jackson and pay him back for Horseshoe Bend! The fool would be riding behind the line up and down on his white horse. An easy target. And then he would head east and try to stir up the Seminoles to war against the whites.
But first he must finish his business with the Englishman.
Beside Gator crouched Henri the Swamp Rat. He had been warned not to move or speak. Now, without turning or breaking his concentration, Red Gator spoke to him in a soft rumble.
"Henri, make a wide circle to the left. The shallow places are close enough together here for you to cross with no problem. Come in behind him and flush him towards me."
Henri shook his head. He didn't want to be here, anywhere near this blood-crazed maniac. And he didn't want to get involved in his blood feuds.
"That's your job! I pilot the boat, ca va?"
A hand like a steel vise shot out and gripped his windpipe. Henri clawed feebly at the hand as he began to turn blue. Gator's voice was gentle, though his words were not. His colorless eyes blazed dangerously in his green painted face.
"Ye'll be doin' what I tell you, when I tell you, or I'll rip your throat out here and now. Do we understand each other, Bucko?"
Henri nodded frantically, and Gator released him. He repressed his coughs, because he knew what would happen to him if he revealed their hide. Then he picked up his long-barreled blunderbuss and withdrew a few feet to the left. He looked through the swamp across the route he would take. Gator didn't look at him, all his attention was once again focused on his unseen prey.
For just an instant, Henri wondered if he could get his gun up in time to shoot Gator. Then he could get to his boat and get out of here alive. Without looking at him, Gator spoke softly, menacingly.
"Don't even think about it."
Henri didn't dare take the chance. He knew how blindingly fast the giant half-breed could be. He turned around and darted out from around the reeds, towards the next hiding place.
Sharpe saw a flash of movement to the right of the clump of reeds he had been focusing on. He tracked it, sighted, and fired. A puff of smoke and sparks rose from his flash pan. But no shot. He had misfired! Cursing in frustration, he began to clean out the damp powder from his barrel, replacing it from one of the three cartridges he had saved. Had the figure he had seen so briefly been Gator? He didn't think so. It had been clad in brown instead of green. Was someone else with him? Trying to flank him? He would have to divide his attention between his front and flank now. This wasn't good.
Gator's eyes widened as he focused on the small cloud of smoke that rose from the half-buried log that he had been scanning across. But no shot sounded. A misfire! The Englishman hadn't figured on a shooting fight in all this dampness. That was why Gator used one of the new percussion cap rifles that almost never misfired. And now the Englishman had revealed his position. He smiled and sighted on the spot where he had seen the smoke. If his opponent showed himself again, he belonged to Red Gator. Death went to the man who made the first mistake. And the Englishman had just made it. No escape this time. The Englishman had been luckier than any man had a right to be. But now, his luck had run out.
Now Gibbs' column was at the ditch. But where was the 44th? Where were the fascines and scaling ladders? Gibbs looked towards the rear. He waved his hat.
"Here comes the 44th now."
A detachment of the 44th was indeed coming forward, but without the fascines and ladders. Colonel Mullens was no where to be seen. General Pakenham himself was leading them towards the rampart. He waved his hat, spurring them on. Suddenly, a rifle ball struck Pakenham's bridle arm, while another ploughed into his horse's neck. As the dying steed fell to the ground, he jumped clear and mounted the spare horse that his aide was leading.
Gibbs' column pressed forward in the face of that murderous fire, their path strewn with the dead and wounded. Almost all the officers were down, and without them, the column began to break down into small detachments. But more and more Redcoats were turning and running. The flashing, roaring hell before them was just too much. They could endure no more.
In vain, Pakenham tried to stem the tide. He pointed back towards the American deathtrap to their front.
"For shame, remember that you are British soldiers. This is the way you should go!"
He galloped across the field and found General Gibbs, who was screaming at his men to re-form and advance. They ignored him and fled headlong. He turned to Pakenham.
"I am sorry to have to report to you that the troops will not obey me. They will not follow me."
On the British left, General Keane made his move. He had held the 93rd Highlanders back in reserve. Now he rode forward to their commander, Colonel Robert Dale.
"Oblique to the right on a front of one hundred men and support General Gibbs' attack."
Dale saluted and the Highlanders headed into the fire. The bagpipes played "Monymusk" and the tartan trousered soldiers moved forward at a quickstep, their bayonets gleaming in the morning sun, Colonel Dale leading the way. For a moment, the 21st halted their flight and prepared to renew the attack.
But then, at a range of one hundred fifty yards, the Americans poured their most murderous fire yet onto the 93rd's column, rifle, grapeshot, round shot, buckshot, musketry raked their entire line, both front, and left flank, shredding them into red fragments. Colonel Dale looked for the fascines and ladders by which his men would scale the ramparts, but they were no where to be seen. Nor was any of the 44th. Instead, he saw the remnants of the 21st crouching in the ditch. Just then, he was pierced through with grapeshot and fell lifeless to the ground. Undaunted, his men stepped over him and kept coming, but slower now. About one hundred yards from the rampart, someone (it was never discovered who), called "halt," and they stopped. They stood motionless, as steady as a rock, and the Yankees rained down on them a fiery hell, grape and canister mowing down whole companies, but the rifles and muskets wrecking the greatest havoc. There was no one left to order them to attack or retreat, so they stood helplessly, waiting for orders. They were shot down like fish in a barrel, only a handful even returning fire. As they fell, they cried in rage at dying without even striking a blow. Within a minute, six hundred of them, two thirds of their number, littered the bloody field.
The open field from the river to the woods had become one vast killing ground. Whole regiments were shattered, broken, and dispersed. There was no order left in the ranks. Men and horses were running in all directions. General Lambert, bringing up the reserves from the rear, could make nothing of the chaos. He stopped a retreating soldier.
"Have the Americans attacked?"
"No, we attacked, sir."
Henri jumped to a low, muddy hillock covered in slime and swamp grass. He dashed across a waist deep channel to the next one. He was glad it was day, and most of the alligators would be sleeping. He considered just getting to his boat and getting out of here. Then he remembered the two Brothers of the Swamp who had tried to desert. Red Gator had taken off after them. He brought them back two days later and skinned them alive in front of the others. Henri could still remember their screams. No one escaped Red Gator in the swamp. He shuddered and continued making his way through the morass. When he judged the distance was right, he angled right and began to come in behind the Englishman. His blunderbuss was good at thirty-five yards, and filled with twelve musket balls, he couldn't miss. Then he saw a slight movement about fifty yards ahead, and crouched down. He was directly behind the Englishman's position. The motion was the man training his rifle once again on Gator's hide. Moving slowly, taking care not to splash as he waded through the water, Henri came closer and closer. His target's attention was focused ahead, he still gave no indication that he had heard him. The distance closed, forty-five yards, forty, thirty-five, and thirty for good measure. Just ahead of him was a low mud bank, about five feet long, overgrown with swamp muck. He would rest on that to aim. He placed one foot on the mud, kneeled down with the other, brought up his gun, clicked back the hammer, put his finger to the trigger -
And suddenly the mud bank he was kneeling on moved beneath his feet! A massive reptilian head rose from the water, goggle eyed, covered in leeches, with a huge hooked beak that could have bitten his leg off. The enormous alligator snapping turtle that he had disturbed hissed at him angrily.
In the next few seconds, three shots rang out in quick succession.
Henri stumbled back in panic, his shot going wild into the air, his frantic cry echoing through the swamp.
In a single smooth motion, Sharpe rose, turned, brought his rifle up to his shoulder, and fired. The rifle ball took Henri full in the chest and tore through his heart. He was dead before he hit the water.
Red Gator saw the flash of green uniform appear in his sights, just where he thought it would be. He squeezed his trigger.
Sharpe was still watching his attacker hit the water when a molten sledgehammer hit him from behind, spun him around, and threw him to the ground.
Red Gator hissed in triumph through his pointed teeth.
He waited a few minutes to be sure. But he saw no sign of movement. He reloaded, rose, and began to make his way through the burned field towards the Englishman's hiding place, his rifle held ready. He hoped he wasn't dead. He wanted to see the look in his eyes when he took his scalp.
The huge alligator snapping turtle snuffled curiously at the leg of Henri the Swamp Rat's floating corpse. Then, determining that it smelled sufficiently like the fish and waterfowl it commonly preyed on, it seized the ankle in its jaws and dragged the body beneath the surface into deeper water. Soon, a spreading red cloud marked the place.
Across the river, Thorton halted his advance some seven hundred yards from Morgan's line. He could see that Morgan was overextended, and his line was weakest on his left. That then, would be the point of attack. Because speed was vital, they would go in with the bayonet alone. He would feint on the right towards the river with a hundred Royal marines, where the Americans were strongest. The he would send the 85th Regiment around the left. A bugle sounded the charge. A shower of rockets screamed into the sky. Thorton's marines rushed forward and Morgan's men opened up on them with crushing effect and brought them to a halt. A murderous round of grapeshot from the American's twelve pounder and two six pounders sent them recoiling back.
But then the 85th hit the American flank with full force. The flank was turned and the center gave way. As the Yankees came under fire from both the front and rear, they tried to turn their cannon on the new attackers but it was too late. They fired a last volley and fled in wild panic. Thorton could see General Morgan vainly trying to rally his troops, then giving up and riding after them.
The British vaulted over the ditch and mounted the rampart, pouring over in a wave. The American batteries had discharged their last cartridges and now their teams spiked the guns, pitched them into the river, and fell back under heavy fire.
General Pakenham looked around him, and suddenly realized what was happening to his army. Utter, humiliating defeat was staring him in the face. He turned to his aide, and told him to order up General Lambert's reserves. Before the aide could ride back to give this order, he was wounded, and it was never given. Pakenham turned to where the 93rd still braved the American's fire. With his remaining good arm, he took off his hat and waved it at them in salute.
"Hurrah, brave Highlanders!"
As the words left his mouth, a terrible crash of grapeshot struck him. One pierced his thigh and went on through to kill his horse, throwing both to the ground. As he fell, one of his aides rushed forward and caught him in his arms, raising him up. That was when another shot struck Pakenham in the groin and pierced through to his spine. As he fell again, the Highlanders broke and fled at last.
Semi-conscious, Pakenham was moved to the rear and placed in the shade of a tree, out of range of the American guns. The surgeon declared the wound mortal. A few minutes later, Lieutenant General Edward Pakenham died.
At the head of his column, General Gibbs had gotten to within twenty yards of the rampart when he received a shot in the belly. Writhing in agony, he was carried to the rear. After a day and a night of excruciating pain, he would die.
On the British left, General Keane was wounded in the neck and groin and carried from the field. He would survive. Within a minute, the entire British high command had been removed from the battle. Completely demoralized, the surviving men of the column ran from the killing field to hide in any wet ditch, behind any tree or bush they could find. Officers struck them with the flat of their swords, cursing them for their cowardice, but nothing could make them turn around and face the destruction behind them again.
Sharpe lay on his back in the mud behind the log, looking up at the blue sky and wondering what he was doing there. Then he remembered the impact and realized he had been shot. He looked to his right. His shoulder was welling out dark red blood that was soaking his sleeve all the way to the wrist. The rifle ball had hit in the rear, and there was a small hole in the jacket's front, it had gone all the way through. But had it shattered the bone? He tried to move it and gasped in pain. Whatever shape his shoulder was in, he wouldn't be doing any shooting with it anytime soon. He was already feeling light-headed from blood loss.
As he looked around him, he saw that even if his shoulder would allow him to shoot, he couldn't. The rifle ball had gone on through his shoulder and into his rifle's stock. The wood was shattered and splintered. Useless.
This is a fine fix you've gotten yourself into, Sharpie old boy. You've got a useless right arm, a shattered rifle, and a man you saw kill six armed soldiers in less than ten seconds is coming to take your scalp. All you need to make it a perfect bugger of a day is for Jane to show up as his new love.
He looked around for something, anything that could give him a chance.
And then he saw the stand of reeds. Hollow reeds . . .
Red Gator leapt around the log, his rifle poised to fire. He looked around, bewildered. He could see the imprint in the mud where the Englishman had been laying, and his shattered rifle lying off to the side. But no Englishman. He was gone. Where? He couldn't have run off with a rifle ball in him . . .
Then Gator saw the reed sticking out of the swamp that bordered the mud bank he stood on. The hollow reed. A hollow reed that a man might breathe through while he was underwater. Gator shook his head in pity.
"Oh, Englishman! That trick is older than these swamps."
He loosened his cloak of scalps, letting it fall to the mud, and strode out into the hip deep water until he was standing next to the reed. He raised his rifle butt, and then smashed it down -
Into nothing but mud. He pulled it back out and stared at it in confusion. He had been so sure -
And then Sharpe erupted out of the water near the hollow reed he had stuck in the mud, beside which he had been crouched, holding his breath. He swung his great cavalry sword in his left hand. The clumsy stroke hit Gator's rifle, shattered the percussion hammer and nipple, cutting deep into the brass lockplate.
Gator reacted quickly. He dropped the now useless weapon as Sharpe thrust at him, allowing the blade to slide past his chest and then gripping Sharpe's sword hand and pulling it further along. Bracing his legs, he smashed his forearm into Sharpe's left elbow and began to use it as a bar against which he slowly, inexorably bent Sharpe's arm back. Sharpe gradually bent double in a vain attempt to escape the pressure. He grunted as the pain flowed along the elbow and up his arm, through the hand and into his fingers. Sharpe thrashed, looking for leverage with his legs. He held on as long as he could, but the pressure kept increasing, increasing, until he could stand it no more! He opened his throbbing fingers and the sword dropped into the water. Before Gator could continue the pressure and break his arm, he got one of his boots planted on Gator's hip and pushed off with all of his strength. Sharpe tore out of Gator's grasp and hurtled through the air, landing in the water and quickly scrambling to his feet, hip-deep.
Let's see how the Englishman does without his long sharp knife.
Sharpe drew the big fighting knife, holding it point down. He held it left-handed, his right dangling uselessly at his side. Gator drew his tomahawk. It was a very formidable weapon. Larger than a normal tomahawk, at over two feet long it was the size of a sailor's boarding axe. It was a spontoon tomahawk, and its head, rather than being a hatchet blade, was a barbed, diamond-shaped double-edged blade like a dagger. Opposite to this was a viciously pointed spike. The haft was of blackened wood inlaid with strange designs in silver, similar to the ones on Gator's rifle. The easy way Gator held it made it plain that he was an expert in its use.
Gator's smile was almost lustful.
"Make it easy on yourself, Englishman. Drop the knife, and I promise I won't take more than four strokes to finish you."
Sharpe assumed a fighting crouch, the knife held out in front. Gator shook his head reproachfully.
"Have it your own way then, Englishman. The slow death it is."
Amazingly, a few courageous Britons had not fled or lost heart. Some two hundred men reached the ditch, trying to scale the parapet. But without ladders, they could not reach the top. They scrambled up the wall and slid down into the soft mud, again and again. Lieutenant Gleig finally reached the summit and tensed to spring among the enemy when a rifle ball struck him in the head and he fell back, stunned, into the ditch. Several of his men carried him to safety. He survived.
Major Wilkenson and Lieutenant Lavack of the 21st reached the ditch with about twenty men. The rest had been cut to pieces by cannon and musket fire. They jumped across it and mounted the rampart, one man standing on another's soldiers to reach the top. Wilkenson pulled himself above the breastwork and was instantly riddled with grapeshot and rifle fire. Dying, he was pulled into the American lines. Lavack mounted the rampart, two rifle balls pierced his hat, but he was unharmed. He demanded the surrender of the American troops below him, and couldn't understand why they were laughing. Then he looked behind him and saw that he was alone, his soldiers cowering in the ditch. Shamefaced, he surrendered his sword and climbed down among the Yankees.
On the British far right, the West Indian troops made their way through the swampland in a diversion against the once-vulnerable American left, but General Coffee's riflemen dispersed them in less than ten minutes.
Within two hundred yards of the American line, a long British bugler, fourteen years old, had climbed a tree and straddled a limb. Throughout the battle, he had continued blowing the charge with all the breath in his lungs. While cannonballs and grapeshot whistled around him, tearing off branches of the tree, he continued to blow the charge. As the British army gave back in confusion, he blew with determination and strength. Finally, an American soldier climbed the tree and took him prisoner. When he was brought into the camp, the Yankees praised him for his courage.
A mile to the rear, General Lambert was informed of Pakenham's death and the severe wounding of Gibbs and Keane. Slowly, cautiously, he began to move forward. But ahead of him was sheer chaos, a shattered mass of retreating soldiers, many with ghastly wounds. The surgeons would be busy tonight. Already, Lambert's troops were coming under fire from the American batteries. Lambert was in command of a beaten army. The retreating regiments were shattered beyond recall. All he could do was cover their retreat.
Across the river, Lieutenant Colonel Thorton, painfully wounded, was still on his feet. He had occupied the American battery, but could not turn the guns on Jackson's flank, for their teams had spiked them before they had retreated. He sent a dispatch across the river to report his success and request new orders. The order came back from General Lambert. He was to retire from his position, re-cross the river, and rejoin the main army.
In bitter disappointment, Thorton's men destroyed the guns, ammunition and stores they had captured, re-boarded their boats and sailed back across the river.
Red Gator began to circle Sharpe, who turned to keep facing him. Gator was making lazy little figure eights with the tomahawk, and the blade made a Whff! Whff! as it swung through the air. His eyes had a mocking gleam to them. He moved slowly, hypnotically, like a cobra. Whff! Whff! Whff! Whff! Then WHIIIF! The tomahawk lashed out, drew a long bloody gash across Sharpe's chest, and withdrew before he could even raise the knife. Sharpe gasped in sudden pain.
God! I never saw it coming!
Gator ran his tongue along his blade, savoring the taste.
"Your blood is sweet, Englishman. I want more."
It could have been a killing, or at least a disabling wound, but it had not bit as deep as it could have. It hurt and it bled, but he could continue.
Gator continued to circle. Whff! Whff! WHIIIF! Sharpe saw the tomahawk heading for his groin and slashed low to block it, but it was a feint. Gator shifted and brought the blade down from above, coming in on Sharpe's bad arm, slashing him across the body from right shoulder to left hip. New pain blended with old.
Aghhh! The man is like a striking snake!
Sharpe had thought himself fast, but he realized he had not known what fast was until now. But again, it could have been a killing blow, but Gator had deliberately made it a wounding one only. And then Sharpe understood the meaning of the slow death. Gator would cut him, and cut him, and cut him, again and again, continually passing up opportunities to kill him and finish it. He would do this until Sharpe was bleeding from dozens of wounds, until he was so weak from loss of blood that he could not continue, until he collapsed helpless to the ground. Only then would Gator strike the killing blow. This was the slow death.
Whff! Whff! Gator continued to circle. Sharpe had no intention of standing and waiting for the next stroke. He hurled himself forward, slashing at Gator's face. Gator parried easily. The hard, sharp clack! of steel on steel echoed through the swamp. Sharpe stayed with him for three passes of attack and counter-attack, high, left, and low, and then Gator ripped upward in another long, painful cut almost straight up Sharpe's breastbone. Obviously, Gator had far more experience in this strike- and-move style of fighting. He also had a reach advantage of nearly three inches.
Sharpe fought for his balance, shaking his head to clear it. With each passing second, he was getting weaker and dizzier from losing blood. He didn't seem to be able to get enough air with each breath. He heard a ringing in his ears.
The giant was circling again, twirling his tomahawk Whff! Whff! Whff! Whff!
Sharpe focused his attention on it, straining to see from where the new attack would come. Then, like lightning, Gator tossed the tomahawk to his left hand and delivered a deep slash down the right side of Sharpe's face, from eye to jaw. Sharpe twisted to strike out with his knife, but already, Gator had darted just out of range, and continued circling, now casually tossing his weapon from one hand to the other. His grin was confident.
Sharpe was getting desperate. He had to land a blow, had to draw blood. He tried a feint for Gator's belly, and then shifted and came in high on his right. Gator wasn't fooled; he brought his tomahawk up to block it, locking his blade with Sharpe's. Then he lunged for Sharpe's throat with his sharpened teeth! Shuddering, Sharpe drew back as they came together with a click! an inch from his throat. He stumbled on a hidden root under the water, fought to regain his balance, and found it as Gator brought his tomahawk down, this time from left shoulder to right hip, crossing his previous slash.
Sharpe gasped and reestablished his fighting stance, bent over, knife held out point down. He shook his head in another effort to clear it. He was growing increasingly dizzy as he circled to match Gator. The giant continued to circle, step over step, twirling his tomahawk Whff! Whff! Whff! Whff!
Then, Gator seemed to grow bored. He stopped circling, lowered his weapon to his side, and beckoned Sharpe forward with his hand, pointing at his chest, inviting Sharpe to strike him, if he could. Sharpe was almost out on his feet, and he only partially understood the gesture. But he recognized the target.
His stab at Gator's heart was slow, off balance. Gator simply leaned to the right and raised his left arm so that Sharpe's knife hand passed between it and his side. Then he clamped his arm down hard, pinning Sharpe's arm against his body. Gator gripped Sharpe's upper left arm in his mighty hand and pivoted, swinging Sharpe in a half circle and slamming him brutally backwards into a cypress tree. The breath left Sharpe's lungs in an agonized wheeze. It took him an effort of supreme will to not drop the knife.
Gator reversed the swing, ramming the smaller man face-first with murderous force into another cypress. As he released his opponent's arm, he slashed across Sharpe's back, and then reversed and caught him again across the back with the back spike, making a bloody figure "X."
Gator stepped back, twirling his tomahawk back and forth - Whff! Whff! Whff! Whff! Sharpe turned and stood leaning against the tree, gasping for breath, covered in blood, his knife hanging down at his side. Then his legs gave out and he fell to his knees.
Gator saw a beaten man looking back at him. He was disappointed. It had been too easy, he had hoped the Englishman would put up more of a fight. It was time to finish this.
He came in, his tomahawk raised high to sever his enemy's collarbone, the first of several killing strokes he intended. He voiced his terrible battle cry.
The tomahawk came down - and suddenly, Sharpe's knife was there to block it. The blades locked together. Sharpe swiftly raised his right arm and gripped Gator's weapon wrist firmly, trapping it. He had held back his trump card until the very last second. For he could use his right arm after all.
Gator looked into Sharpe's eyes. There was no defeat in them. Then Sharpe grinned wolfishly. Then Sharpe was coming off his knees with every ounce of energy that he had been saving. His knife was up and stabbing even as Gator made a frantic and too late grab for his weapon hand. Sharpe drove the knife into Gator's belly, and he didn't strike to wound. The knife sunk in deep, and Sharpe twisted it as he pulled it out in a great gush of blood and slashed Gator twice, once up and across the chest from belly to right shoulder, once across the chest from right shoulder to left ribs. Only then did Gator's frantically groping hand find Sharpe's knife hand. They grappled, and Sharpe stared his enemy in the eyes. The pained surprise in Gator's face was almost comical.
Sharpe now had the initiative, and he wasn't going to give it up. He smashed his knee into Gator's groin and drove his forehead into the giant's face, savoring his grunt of pain. Again, he struck high and low, and he felt the satisfying breaking of cartilage in Gator's nose as he smashed his head into it. One last time, groin and nose, smashing the remnants of both still further. As he did this, he released Gator's weapon hand, and jerked his own from the giant's grasp. Gator fought for balance, windmilling his arms. Sharpe threw all of his loathing, his hatred, his outrage into a mighty kick that erupted from the water he stood in and caught Gator square in the middle of the chest. He fell backwards, still clutching at the air, against a cypress tree. A tree with a jagged stump of branch sticking out from the trunk.
Gator shrieked in agony as the branch tore through his right chest like a spearhead, jutting out a crimson stained six inches. He clawed at the branch, which was too thick to break. He tried to bring his tomahawk to bear on it but could not find the leverage. He clawed at Sharpe, who stood watching out of range. Blood ran in thick rivers down his chest into the water, spreading out in red clouds. Finally, his struggles grew weaker and weaker, until he dropped the tomahawk into the water and hung limp. He wasn't quite dead; he looked at Sharpe and his voice croaked out.
"What's your name, Englishman?"
Red Gator stared at him for a moment, and then he jerked up and down on the impaling branch like a grotesque puppet. After a moment, Sharpe realized that he was laughing.
All the time, I thought I had to beware of the Englishman's long sharp knife. But I forgot about his name.
He looked at Sharpe again.
"I still like your scalp."
Then Gator's head sagged, and he fell limp, hanging from the branch, waist deep in water.
Sharpe leaned against another tree to steady himself. He had played a deadly game, fighting left-handed, pretending to have no use of his right arm. He had exposed himself to several potential death strokes, and it had taken all his self-control to not use his right arm to block. It was Gator's choice of the slow death that had given him his only chance. He had played off of Gator's overconfidence and gambled that he would open himself to an unexpected counter-stroke.
He had one task still to perform. He walked up to where Gator's body hung, and cautiously reached out with his right hand and touched him -
And instantly Gator locked his massively muscled arms around Sharpe, pulling him towards him! Sharpe cried out in pain and shock as the branch on which Gator was impaled pierced his chest. He felt blood flowing down his tunic. Gator snarled in his ear.
"We feed me brothers together, Sharpe! Give us a hug!"
He snapped again at Sharpe's throat with his teeth, catching part of his collar. He threw all his massive strength into a final effort to impale Sharpe on the bloody branch that jutted from his own chest. Sharpe gasped as the branch sunk in another fraction of an inch. He tried to bring up the knife, but it was pinioned to his side by Gator's arm. Then he got his right hand under Gator's chin and pushed his head back and his enemy snarled and tried to bite his hand. Sharpe threw all the strength of desperation into his right arm, ignoring the agony that gripped it in teeth of iron because he had to, for it was all that stood between his pounding heart and that jagged point.
For a few seconds, they snarled into each other's faces, straining sinew to sinew, muscle to muscle, with neither gaining ground. And then Gator called up his totem the Great Alligator for strength, and tightened his arms about Sharpe's back, pulling him down, and down, and down, onto the impaling branch, one fraction of an inch at a time. Sharpe gasped in pain as the sharp wood gouged deeper and deeper into his flesh, glancing off of a rib, slicing still deeper, deeper . . .
And then a vision came to Sharpe. A vision of the butchered men, women, and children of Blassenville and Napoleon's Landing and all the other places. A vision of Colonel Brooke struck from his horse and dying. A vision of the twenty soldiers of the South Essex, pleading with him to help them as they died. A vision of Fredrickson lifeless at his feet. And those visions turned to rage, and rage turned to strength. With a shuddering effort, he stopped the branch's point just short of his beating heart. Something burst inside Sharpe's head, and blood trickled from his nose. And then, with veins bulging out on his face, inch by inch, he began to straighten out his right arm, pushing his bleeding chest up and off of the branch, as Gator's arm lock across his back trembled and, little by little, began to give way. And with each inch he pushed away, he gained a bit more purchase to bring his knife hand up and up until with a snarling grunt he freed it and drove it towards Gator's right side. Gator released his lock across Sharpe's back, reaching down with his right hand to grasp Sharpe's knife hand with the strength of desperation, while his left arm still strove to drag Sharpe down onto the impaling branch.
Sharpe put all his loathing into his knife hand, loathing for this blood-drunk thing that called itself a man, this butcher of innocents, this torturer of women and children. And his loathing gave his knife hand strength that drove it forward, strength that increased as his enemy's hand weakened, as he heard Gator's agonized grunt when the steel point slipped into his flesh. And Red Gator remembered Tecumseh's final words to him:
"The knife that has tasted your blood will be the knife that will kill you at last."
Sharpe looked into those evil, colorless eyes and saw his enemy's spirit begin to crumble before his relentless will. He put all his strength, all his rage, all his loathing into his knife hand, drove it deeper and deeper between the ribs, and saw the fear of death finally enter Red Gator's eyes. Sharpe snarled through clenched teeth as he drove the knife deeper with each name, and then with each word.
"For General Ross! For Colonel Brooke! For the South Essex! For Fredrickson! For--the--women--and--the--children!"
The cross guard smacked into the ribs as the blade cut his enemy's black heart in half. Gator convulsed, starting in his body and extending out through his head and limbs that rattled against the tree in his agony. His head flew back, and a great gush of blood erupted from between his pointed teeth. The arm across Sharpe's back grew limp, and the hand fell from Sharpe's knife hand. For a moment, the colorless eyes seemed still to leer at Sharpe through their film of red.
And then Red Gator fell limp, and his head sagged down across his chest, with blood flowing down from his mouth. And he did not move again.
All the strength flowed out of Sharpe with the final exertion. As he fell to his knees, he maintained his grip upon the knife, pulling it from the wound. He knelt, the water up to his chin, gasping for air, shaking with exhaustion. If someone had come along and seen him kneeling before Gator's impaled corpse, they might have likened it to a worshipper before some grotesque crucifix.
It was a long time before he staggered to his feet. Going back to where he had seen it go into the water, Sharpe searched beneath the surface for his sword. He found it, lifted it out, and shook the water and muck from its length. He would have to oil it later to prevent rust. If he lived.
He went back to where Gator was hanging and poked him with the sword several times. He really was dead. Then Sharpe took the knife and did what he had to.
When he was finished, he turned back towards the battlefield and waded out of the water onto the mud bank. All during the battle, he had been aware on a dim level of the noise of musketry and cannon fire from the field before line Jackson. Now, ominously, the field was silent except for an occasional musket shot. He kicked the obscene cloak of scalps into the water and slung his shattered rifle over his shoulder.
It was fortunate that it was day, because the alligators had been slow to respond. But already, he could see them sliding through the water to investigate the sounds of struggle and the scent of blood. He didn't want to tempt fate by staying around.
He looked at his enemy's hanging corpse once more. Sharpe had defeated him by the narrowest of margins. He would never face a deadlier foe than Red Gator.
He began to make his way back towards the battlefield. He staggered across the burned grass towards the tree line. He was so tired. He was tempted to lie down and rest, but he sensed he might never get up again if he did that. He had to keep moving. Every part of him hurt. His wounds were crusted, but they opened again with fresh bleeding every step he took. But his right arm hurt worse. It hung limp at his side, the sleeve soaked in drying blood from shoulder to cuff, pulsing in agony with each heartbeat. He had put a massive strain on it during the fight, and only now did he realize how much. He touched it with the flat of his sword and winced.
He liked his right arm. He hoped he would get to keep it when this was over.
Behind him, he heard the noise of the alligators feeding.
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Copyright © 2001 Alan Kempner and his licensors. All rights reserved.
Last update 18/7/01