Sharpe drifted languidly on the bayou's limpid surface in his small boat. It was a sunny day, the sky was blue and cloudless, and birds sang sweetly in the cypress trees. Water lilies floated on the surface, their blossoms' fragrance mingling with the magnolias growing along the banks. Why hadn't I noticed before how beautiful it was here? Sharpe wondered. I could stay here forever -
And that was when the thing rose out of the water next to his boat, dripping slime and rotted flesh. Through the tattered remains of green-dyed buckskin that clung to its frame, he could see snakes crawling within the yellowish cage of its ribs. Its filed teeth had grown to long, rotting fangs bursting from great extended jaws like an alligator's, and from those hideous jaws erupted a terrible scream of triumph and blood lust and the joy of killing. From the gaping eyeholes of its skull face, colorless eyes glowed madly, and he could see the straggly remains of the flame-red crest of hair on its shaven pate of rotting scalp. Worms squirmed in the remnants of flesh that clung to its face and jaws. It stretched out skeletal claws towards him, and he could see maggots crawling in the greenish-gray corruption that covered them.
Sharpe screamed and scrambled back as it came for him, and he reached for his knife, felt its handle, but then the handle squirmed and changed in his hand and he looked and saw that he held a cottonmouth that buried its fangs in his wrist. And then green-dripping claws gripped his throat in an unbreakable grasp, and long stinking yellow fangs closed down on his face. He screamed again as the horror dragged him out of the boat and down, down, down, into the black slimy depths of the swamp, and his last scream was muted by the water that filled his lungs -
Sharpe started up, bathed in a cold sweat. He was on a wooden table, stripped to the waist, blood running down his right arm, and his left hand was clenching the throat of a gasping, spluttering surgeon who dropped his knife and gripped his wrist in a vain attempt to loosen his grasp. The two surgeon's aides who had been holding Sharpe down before he had knocked them to the ground now leaped up and grappled with him, finally managing to pry Sharpe's fingers loose. He was still panting in terror, looking around, only gradually realizing that he was in a surgeon's station and not at the bottom of the swamp. Lying all around on the ground were groaning, bloody, wounded men waiting for their turn under the probe, the forceps, the knife and the saw.
The surgeon picked his knife off of the floor and scowled at him.
"I've a good mind to leave your arm on and let you die!"
Sharpe raised his left arm defensively, his right hurt too much.
"Bugger you and your knife! You're not touching me!"
The surgeon threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Have it your own way, then. Get gangrene and die a slow death for all I care! I've plenty of other patients."
"I'll take my chances."
The surgeon stormed out. Sharpe turned to one of the aides who had remained behind. Often, they were far more sympathetic than their superiors.
"How is my arm?"
"The rifle ball went through cleanly and clipped the top of the bone. It chipped some fragments loose, but the bone as a whole is intact. We removed the fragments, but the flesh was badly torn up, and the surgeon thought it best to amputate to head off any gangrene."
Sharpe looked around and saw D'Alembord sitting off to the side with a bandage around his head. He looked dazed, but he was conscious.
"Dally, I need a favor from you."
"Whatever I can do, Richard."
"Go out and get me some maggots, at least half a dozen."
D'Alembord's mouth twisted in disgust.
"You heard me."
Nodding dubiously, Dally got up and headed out the door. In half an hour, he returned with a used tobacco tin in which were some ten writhing maggots. Patrick Harper's cure-all was once again to be put to work. Sharpe removed his tunic with difficulty, and placed them on the wound in his right shoulder. One of the aides applied a fresh bandage. Sharpe lay back. They should eat away any gangrening flesh, and leave the sound tissue intact. It had worked the last time he was wounded, it should work again. Even if it didn't, he wasn't going to let a surgeon take off his right arm at the shoulder. You almost never survived an amputation like that. And even if he did, he would be good for nothing, only half a man. He wouldn't saddle Lucille with such a burden.
January 13, 1815.
It was late afternoon on the fifth day since Sharpe had applied the maggots. He was still very tired, and he hurt everywhere, but things were looking hopeful for his arm. It was immobilized in a cloth sling. There was no odor of gangrene, he was not feverish, and the pain seemed to be reducing. Sharpe had left the field hospital after two days, and had been spending his convalescence in the 95th's mess. In another two days, he would remove his bandages and check on how well it was healing. Although dubious of Sharpe's self-doctoring and burdened with three times the expected number of casualties, the surgeon had agreed to suture up the cuts across Sharpe's torso, face, and back. He assured Sharpe that there wouldn't be much scarring. Sharpe considered himself lucky to escape the horrors that so many of the wounded were enduring. He had found a seamstress among the camp followers who stitched up the slashes in his tunic for a couple of shillings. He wondered absently if she was one of Marie Laveau's spies.
In the distance, from down the river, Sharpe could hear the regular boom of cannon. Admiral Cochrane was hopeful of bringing his fleet up the river and blasting Jackson out of his position. And to do that, he first had to take the American position at Fort St. Phillip, which blocked the fleet's access to the city. The bombardment had been going on since the day after the battle. So far, the Americans were holding out.
A sergeant from the 44th, who were doing picket duty at the camp's forward post, entered and interrupted Sharpe's reverie.
"Begging your pardon, Mister Sharpe."
"The Americans have delivered a message to our forward post, Sir. They request that you meet them on the levee road three hundred yards from their line, one hour from now."
Sharpe's eyebrows raised.
"Yes Sir. I took it on myself to come straight to you, instead of relaying the request to General Lambert. I appreciate what you did for the South Essex."
Sharpe nodded gratefully.
"Thank you, Sergeant. That will be all."
An hour later, Sharpe dismounted gingerly from Salamanca, three hundred yards from the American battery that blocked the levee road. A pang of sorrow tore at his heart as he remembered how just two weeks ago he and Fredrickson had come this way under a flag of truce. He was glad that the horse was well behaved, riding was tricky enough with two good arms, let alone one in a sling. He stood by the horse's head, holding the reins, scratching the beast's ears to calm him. In the distance, he could see two men walking towards him from the American lines. Even in the dimness of dusk, he could recognize Killick and Taylor.
The Commodore's face was drawn up in his usual devil-may care grin. Taylor was smiling as well, Sharpe was still getting used to it on the rifleman's face. Both men shook Sharpe's left hand.
"Hello, Richard. You look like hell."
"How's your arm?"
"Hurts like the devil. I think I'll keep it anyway, though."
"Glad to hear it. And I'm glad we didn't have to shoot each other."
"It would have ruined my day. But give my compliments to General Jackson. He fought a smart fight. He made us fight his battle, on his terms, on his ground. And he whipped us fair."
"I'll tell him. Coming from you, it will mean a lot to him. He respects you."
"You can also tell him that next time, he may not have it all his way. We don't make a habit of losing twice in a row."
"I'm hoping that there won't be a next time. Peace could be declared any day."
"We can always hope."
"I was sorry to hear about Fredrickson."
Sharpe nodded and stared at the ground, not trusting himself to speak over the lump in his throat. After a few moments, Killick broke the silence.
"What'll you do when it's all over?"
"Go back to Normandy. I've got a farm to run. How about you?"
"Well, Congress will cut the Navy to the bone in peacetime, there's no future for me there. I'm going back to the merchant trade. There are new sailing ships building, clippers they're called, faster than anything on the seas. I'm shipping out as First Mate on the Pride of Marblehead, bound for China and the tea trade. We'll be able to make the run there and back in only six months. In three years, I expect to have my own ship."
Plainly, there was something more that Killick wanted to say. He hesitated, then launched into it.
"Richard, why don't you stay here? Resign your commission and become an American citizen! This nation is set to explode outward. The opportunities here are beyond anything you can dream. Huge tracts of land are opening up to the west. Every man who fought in the war gets three hundred and fifty acres. I'm sure I can convince the General that you deserve as much for clearing up the business with the massacres. In a few years, you could be owning hundreds of acres of prime farmland. You'll be richer than you ever dreamed of in France. And you can send back to Normandy for your woman."
Sharpe smiled and shook his head.
"Thanks again, Cornelius, but Lucille would never leave her farm. It's been in the family for too long. And I can't do without her. So Normandy will have to be enough for me."
Cornelius' expression told Sharpe's that he had expected his refusal, but he had wanted to make the offer anyway. He shrugged, smiled, then took out a flask of brandy and held it out.
"One last drink, then."
Sharpe took a swig, handed it back to Cornelius, who followed suit and then handed it to Taylor, who likewise partook. There wasn't much more to say. Cornelius held out his left hand.
"You're a hell of a friend, Richard."
Sharpe shook his hand, and then Taylor's, who spoke for the first time.
"Good-bye, Taylor. Good luck with that girl of yours."
He turned his attention back to Killick.
"You've got a hell of a country here, Cornelius. Some day, we'll be fighting on the same side."
They looked at each other for a moment more. Though neither would admit to it, they both sensed that they would never see each other again. Finally, Sharpe broke the spell and said what neither of them wanted to say.
All three nodded their farewells, and Sharpe turned around, mounted Salamanca, and headed back towards the British camp. He didn't look back once.
Half way back to the camp, Sharpe diverted towards the tree line, dim in the gathering dusk, and tied up his horse. There was something he had to do. He came through the trees to the bayou's edge. Shaking off memories of his dream, he sat down where the water started, and looked across the still surface, deep blue in the twilight, dotted with cypress trees hung with spanish moss. Already, the night mist was beginning to drift across it. In the distance, he heard an alligator call, and a loon's cry answered it.
He had wondered if she would be here, but it came as no surprise that she wasn't. Perhaps it was for the best. It had been hard enough to turn down her invitation to stay here and be her man. Looking into those dark, mesmerizing eyes again would only make it harder.
For the first time in days, he remembered the Gris-gris bag around his neck. For protection, she had said. Well, he had defeated Red Gator against all odds. And when he had walked across the battlefield to rescue the South Essex, a lot of shots had missed him. He touched the bag, remembering how cold it had been to his hand. It wasn't cold now.
Marie had said that he would know when it was time to take it off. He did so, and slipped the stone collar off of the bag's neck. He emptied the contents out onto the ground. There were no skull fragments. Just fine, gray dust. Strange . . .
And then, off in the distance, gently but very distinct, he heard her singing. He didn't understand the words, but the tone was sad, gentle, soothing.
"Aris mouri l'ale . . .
Masiyon k'pran ason
pa we'l mashe awezon,
Dogwe . . . Djo.
Aris mouri l'ale . . .
Masiyon k'pran ason
pa we'l mashe awezon,
awezon . . . awezon . . . aris-o,
Dogwe . . . Djo.
Aris mouri l'ale . . .
Masiyon k'pran son
ou pa we'l mashe awezon . . ."
For an instant, Sharpe thought he saw a small boat with someone in it, far off in the mist over the bayou. And he knew, in her own way, Marie was saying goodbye.
He remembered her words to him:
"A part of my loa is now yours, too. The swamp is in your blood. It will always be a part of you."
Perhaps it would be, but not enough of a part to make him stay.
He got up, headed through the trees, mounted Salamanca, and made his way towards camp. As he walked his horse between the bivouacs, her singing was still echoing in his ears, until he heard other singing. It was the same soldiers from the 21st that he had heard the day he arrived (was it really only nineteen days ago?), with the music box that squealed like a tart in heat and the Spanish guitar that sounded as if it had not been tuned since the Spanish Armada. They were playing another soldier's song he knew very well.
"I'm lonesome since I crossed the hill,
And o'er the moor and valley,
Such grievous thought my heart does fill,
Since parting with my Sally.
I seek no more the fine or gay,
For each does but remind me,
How swift the hours did pass away,
With the girl I left behind me."
As he listened, the images of the bayou began to fade in his mind, to be replaced by other images, images of a ramshackle farmhouse, a stone wall in need of repair, a small flock of sheep grazing in a field, piglets rooting around their mother in they sty, and a slender, brown haired woman holding a baby boy, looking down the road, watching, waiting . . .
He began to sing the second verse under his breath.
"Oh, n'er shall I forget the night,
The stars were bright above me,
And gently lent their silvery light,
When first she vowed to love me.
But now I'm bound to Brighton Camp
Kind heaven then, pray guide me,
And send me safely back again
To the girl I left behind me."
And Sharpe smiled. It was time to go home.
Back to the girl he'd left behind him.
February 12, 1815.
Sharpe stood at the rail of the Statira, thinking over the events of the past month. He flexed his right arm, a day out of its sling, working his muscles back and forth. The maggots had done the job, and he had discarded them nearly a month ago, after his shoulder had healed without a trace of gangrene, just sound, pink scar. He hoped they had enjoyed their last meal. His sword was freshly oiled in its scabbard, and his rifle, with a fine new walnut stock made by the ship's carpenter, was slung across his shoulder.
Admiral Cochrane's assault on Fort St. Phillip had been a dismal failure. Jackson had been able to re-supply the fortress from New Orleans, and the British had given up on January 18th after nine days of bombardment. The fleet had dejectedly made its way down the Mississippi to the triumphant cheers of the American garrison.
After a temporary cease-fire to collect the dead and wounded from the battlefield, Jackson had continued his round-the-clock harassing fire of the British position. Denied any sleep, the Redcoats' morale sank lower and lower. Rumor had it that any day, Jackson would go over to the attack, and sentries were accordingly doubled. It did little to stop the nightly raids of Tennessee riflemen. General Lambert tried to raise his army's spirits by daily parades, but it was hopeless. Food was in increasingly short supply. It rained day after day, and the river overflowed its banks, pouring into their bivouacs. There was no shelter from it, the entire camp was under ankle-deep water. It was as if the very elements were trying to flush them out. There was no help for it. The army had to withdraw.
Lambert, a careful, meticulous man, had planned for this eventuality. He had only enough boats to remove half of the troops at a time, and it was a seventy mile trip to the fleet and back. To divide his army in the face of an impending American attack was to risk its annihilation. Thus, he determined to march overland through the bayou to the Fisherman's Village at the mouth of Lake Borgne. There, the army would entrench themselves as securely as possible while they were evacuated. They would have to tramp through a morass that had never known a human foot.
For nine days working parties under the guidance of engineers had labored to build and broaden a nine-mile road through the bayou. It was backbreaking labor. Long stretches provided no firm footing, so they bound together bundles of reeds and laid them across the quagmires. Lumber was cut from the woods to build bridges over the broader ditches.
On the night of January 18th, Lambert, knowing he could not remove them, had spiked his heavy cannons and broken the carriages. At nine o'clock that evening, the army began to withdraw, leaving pickets to follow up as a rear guard. Campfires were left burning to fool the Jonathans. The troops left under strict orders of absolute silence. Since Sharpe was considered walking wounded, he left with them.
At least the weather was favorable. A heavy fog shrouded their departure, and it did not rain that day. But the leeches and mosquitoes assaulted them in ravenous hordes. The first troops managed to get through easily enough, but as one rank followed another, the reed bundles were driven into the mud and water until there was no more road. Soldiers sank first ankle deep, then knee deep into the mud with each step. The blackness of night only made it worse.
Sharpe had been crossing a stream when he began to sink helplessly into quicksand, to his waist, and then to his chest, and still he sank. The soldier behind him was sinking too. Sharpe flailed desperately, and someone threw him a canteen belt that he managed to loop around his left arm, just as the other man's head disappeared with a terrified cry beneath the heaving brown surface. Frantically, Sharpe got his right arm out of the sling and made a desperate grasp down into the quagmire for the man's hair, but his fingers found nothing, it was too late. They hauled Sharpe out, panting and trembling.
Throughout the night, the army kept up the grueling march, and the first ranks staggered into Fisherman's village at dawn. Hundreds of black slaves who had escaped from their plantations were waiting for them, and begged to be taken off with the troops.
Lambert had no room for them, and regretfully advised them to return to their masters. Dawn showed Sharpe an endless sea of weeds and water. The alligators lined the margins of their route as if watching for stragglers, and it seemed that every branch bore a poisonous serpent. Late that morning, Sharpe staggered into the village and fell sound asleep on the ground. He woke several hours later, cold and stiff, and huddled with some men from the South Essex near a fire of reeds. Like straw, they burned quickly and had to be continually replenished. Together, they ate their last morsels of salt pork.
Bivouacs were set up around the rim of the lake, and sentries were posted. Their officers told them to make themselves comfortable, a comment that provoked bitter jeers.
They had been forced to leave what little shelter they had behind. The only food they had left was ship's biscuit moistened with rum. It was freezing cold at night, and poured rain during the day. Mosquitoes, alligators, leeches, and snakes were everywhere.
As before, Sharpe was amazed at the endurance of the sailors who manned the oars hour after hour. The barges plied back and forth around the clock, taking first the gravely wounded, then all noncombatants, the baggage and stores and the few pieces of light artillery that had been salvaged. Last to go were the troops. Regiment after regiment embarked and headed for the fleet. The wind and rough seas slowed the evacuation to a snail's pace. American gunboats harassed them continually, capturing isolated barges filled with soldiers who they took prisoner. The British landed three barges full of soldiers to attack the American crew where they had tied up their gunboat, but the Americans, hidden in the reeds, ambushed them and sent them in confused retreat. After that, the barges formed squadrons and stayed close together, with armed launches providing an escort. The last regiments to embark were the 85th, the 7th, and the 95th Rifles. Finally, on January 27th, the entire army had rejoined the fleet.
While the fleet waited at anchor, they were joined by a number of new ships containing eight hundred fifty men of the 40th Foot and a siege train, reinforcements for Pakenham's occupying force. They were quickly enlightened as to how things stood.
An air of deep discouragement permeated the fleet, coexisting with a sense of relief at finally departing the wretched place. The soldiers who had come in such confidence of glory were now the pictures of dejection. Their ranks were thinned, most of their officers dead, their uniforms tattered, their bellies empty, their discipline gone. Many officers' wives were mourning their dead husbands. Generals Pakenham and Gibbs had been packed in casks of rum for their transport back to England and their hero's funerals. But such treatment was reserved for commanding officers.
As the fleet pulled out to sea, Sharpe had stood at the rail and watched the green coast drawing away. He was thinking of Fredrickson. Sweet William had been laid to rest in an unmarked mass grave with the other fifty men of the 95th who would never return to England. Sharpe had stood there, bare-headed in the rain, reflecting on how few of his comrades from the Peninsula were left. He had muttered a prayer to whatever God watched over soldiers that Fredrickson's qualities as an officer and a friend would count for something. Haste had necessitated that it be a shallow grave, and Sharpe knew that the rain would eventually wash away the dirt, revealing the bodies to the scavengers of earth and air. Soon, there would be nothing left but some odd bones to hint to the occasional passerby that what lay here were once men who had had hopes and dreams just like they did. And if no one remembered them, it would be like they had never lived at all.
Goodbye, William. I won't forget you.
Sharpe's eyes were wet, and he wiped them. The damned salt air always made them water. Then he had watched the coastline receding in the distance until it was out of sight.
Now, two weeks later, Sharpe stood at the same rail watching another British assault. Three days before, Lambert and Cochrane had launched a combined land and sea operation against Fort Bowyer, which lay at the end of a long peninsula guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay and the port of Mobile. Capturing Mobile would allow them to cut across country and reach the Mississippi above New Orleans, bypassing the strongpoint and giving them control of the river. This time, everything had gone according to plan. The assault had been textbook perfect, with the British setting up proper siege works, digging trenches and parallels, while the fleet bombarded the fort from the sea. In the forefront of the assault had been the South Essex. Already, the bitter memory of New Orleans was fading from their minds. Now, the fort had just surrendered its three-hundred-seventy-five man garrison and a large supply of guns and ammunition. He watched as the triumphant Redcoats entered through the fort's gates, as the Stars and Stripes were lowered and the Union Jack raised. Tomorrow, they would occupy Mobile and secure a firm foothold on the continent. Jackson had won a battle. He had not won the war.
A hail from the lookout attracted Sharpe's attention. It was a strange British frigate, approaching from the east. Sharpe snapped open his telescope and scanned it. It was the Brazen, out of Jamaica. They were hoisting signal flags, probably indicating that they had dispatches to deliver. The Statira raised flags in response, and soon a small boat set out from the new ship with several officers on board. Sharpe stood at a distance as the officers were welcomed aboard. For a few moments, he could see the newcomers and the Statira's officers conferring excitedly. He could only hear scattered words, but among them was "Ghent." The crowd broke up. While he was hurrying by, Major Harry Smith paused and turned to Sharpe.
"Richard, a peace has been signed. The war is over!"
Sharpe stared, trying to take this in.
"The treaty was signed in Ghent. Both sides will keep their territories as they were before the war began. We're going home."
"When was the treaty signed?"
"Ah, let me see . . . Christmas Eve it was, this last 24th December."
Sharpe stared out to sea, and Major Smith proceeded on his business.
24th December. Christmas Eve. The day before he had landed in Louisiana with General Pakenham to begin this mad business. 24th December. Two weeks before the disastrous battle.
It had all been for nothing. The massacres had not impeded the peace negotiations.
The dead piled up in their thousands before Line Jackson had died for nothing. All because word could not be gotten from Ghent quickly enough to inform them all that the battle need not have been fought. For nothing.
The massacre of the detachment of the South Essex. For nothing.
All his wounds and hurts. For nothing.
Months spent away from Lucille and the farm. For nothing.
Fredrickson's death. For nothing.
Sharpe just stood there, staring out to sea, trying to understand it all.
What a sick sense of humor fate has.
And Sharpe began to laugh. He started with a chuckle, and then threw back his head and brayed in laughter. He laughed and laughed, until he was holding his ribs, gasping for air, and shaking in laughter. For the third time since he had come to America, he gave way to uncontrollable laughter. But this time, there was no humor in it, only pain and bitter irony. He laughed, and men stared at him as if he were a madman. But he didn't care. He just kept laughing, and the sound of his laughter echoed and re-echoed across the sea and through the fleet.
If he hadn't laughed, he would have cried.
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Last update 18/7/01