Warning: Mature Adults only
British Camp - Christmas Day - 1814.
Richard Sharpe sat in the prow of the second navy gig, watching intently as the windings and turnings of Bayou Bienville ("good town" my arse) opened before him. Major General Pakenham, young, handsome, brilliantly uniformed, sat in the first one, a little ahead of him. Both boats were filled with the gold and glitter of the generals staff. They led fifteen barges filled with troops. Sharpe had not spoken to any of the officers since they had embarked from the Statira, with the exception of a short greeting to Captain Thomas Hardy, commander of the brig Anaconda, whom he had met briefly at Trafalgar. The freezing wind had been against their sails overnight, and it was not until early morning that they entered Bienville where the red flag that Keane had left marked his point of egress.
The scene that opened up before him was a wild one of luxuriant vegetation, cypress and oak hanging over the water on either side, bedecked with the trailing gray beards of spanish moss, in places blocking out the sun. A white egret flew across the bayou and perched atop a tree. Reeds choked each bank, lilies lying thick on the green waters surface, and stands of palmettos stuck out of the water here and there.
It was wild, but it was not unfamiliar. Sharpe found it uncannily reminiscent of the wetlands of India that he had seen years before. The heat was not so oppressive (it was winter, after all). But the intense, unbroken greenness, the cloying wetness in the air, the sudden, driving rains, were just as he remembered them. It was quiet, except for the occasional slap of a fish or a frog jumping in the water, the rustling of small animals in the underbrush, and the call of birds from the trees, much like the Indian swamps.
A bunch of cypress branches hanging low across the river swept across the boat, and Captain Wylly reached out to push it out of the way. As he grabbed it, one of the nearby branches opened its mouth and hissed at him. The snake was of just the same shade of brown as the tree, except for the inside of its mouth, which was stark white. Choking in panic, Wylly hurled himself back against several of his comrades, knocking them down with him. The serpent, twined around the trees branches, gave a goodbye hiss as the barge left it behind. Sharpe almost succeeded in hiding his grin. Served the pompous little ass right. Their Cajun guide was less restrained. He cackled.
"That there feller be de cottonmouth. Kill you quick! You swell up and go pop! Make big mess in de boat."
Sharpe remembered the cobras and kraits of India. How you would have to keep one eye on the ground when out on the march, just in case you stepped on something that would object to it. How you would have to check your bedding before you went to sleep and your boots before you put them on. Yes, this was so much like India, a place where death could lash out without warning.
Then he began to see the alligators. First one, then five, then twenty, then more than he could count as the barge rowed by. And this too, was familiar to Sharpe. He remembered a time in India shortly after the siege of Seringapatam.
The Light Company of the 33rd of Foot was patrolling the country near the Tungabaidra River in northern Mysore. Sergeant Sharpe had seen a clearing that he wanted to cross, divided by a muddy stream. He stepped to the edge and waded in, holding his musket high. The water wasnt even to his waist, the stream no more than twenty feet wide. It would be simple to cross. He could still remember the fear in the voice of one of the Hindu bearers that accompanied them.
"No sahib, no! Muggers! Muggers!"
Sharpe had glanced, uncomprehending, at the wildly gesturing man. Muggers? What
Then the huge shape erupted out of the water in front of him, and the yard-long, tooth-studded jaws snapped in his face. Sharpe had not known how fast he could move until that instant. He leaped higher and farther than he would have believed possible, and ended up sitting on the muddy bank. Several shots from the muskets of his mates discouraged the monster from pursuing him, and it sunk back into the cloudy water where it had been hiding.
For the remainder of his time in India, Sharpe was very leery of approaching water, any water. You simply never knew what was hiding in it.
The alligators he was seeing now were not quite as large as the Indian mugger crocodiles, but they were big enough; some looked to be better than twelve feet long. They were everywhere, piled on the banks of the bayou, or floating on its surface, with only eyes and snout visible. They did not move, but Sharpe knew they could be as quick as lightning when they wanted to be.
Yes, this was a land of sudden death. A fine place for a soldiers Christmas.
They diverted from the wide Bayou Bienville into its narrower tributary, Bayou Manzant. The sun was rising, the air was heating up and seemed more oppressive in the narrow channel. The rotten stench of the place grew more pungent. It was almost as bad as Obediah Hakeswills socks on those rare occasions when he had hung them out for an airing. And with the heat came the mosquitoes. Sharpe slapped absently at the back of his neck for the fifteenth or twentieth time, he couldnt keep count. His well-dressed companions were having the same trouble, but seemed to take it less in stride. They thought it highly improper for mosquitoes to bite gentlemen, especially when they had so many common soldiers to choose from.
The channel twisted and turned, now so shallow that the rowers stood up and punted with their oars. Still narrower channels opened up on either side, crisscrossing the swampland. Their boats scraped the muddy bottom, and the oarsmen signaled a halt. They got out, pushing their way through the clinging mud and thick reeds, and made their way along the narrow, boggy path for somewhat less than a mile. As bad as the path was, it was far better than trying to move across the swamplands would have been. The ground grew drier and more solid, the path more discernible. Mercifully, they had left most of the mosquitoes behind, and now had mostly horseflies to contend with. From up ahead, they could hear an occasional musket shot in the distance. Officers leading, the column made their way through the cypress forests for something over a mile, until the Villere plantation buildings could be seen in the distance. Crowded around them now were the bivouacs of the British encampment. It was late morning, about eleven oclock.
The arrival of Pakenham and his staff was heralded by a salute from a battery of nine-pounders. Those troops on hand around the Villere plantation buildings raised a cheer, sticking their hats on their muskets or swords and raising them up above their heads. General Keane and Colonel Thorton were waiting as Pakenham arrived. Pakenham exchanged salutes and handshakes.
"Good morning, John. What was that shooting I heard?"
"We were driving the American pickets out of their advanced positions in the Lacoste plantation. They withdrew to their own lines. Weve set up camp."
Sharpe looked around the camp. It was set up with the Villere mansion as its hub. Pakenham and his staff would billet and take their mess there. The smaller outbuildings of the plantation would serve as messes for the battalion and company officers. Grouped between the mansion and the outbuildings was the artillery park, with its batteries of three-pounders, nine-pounders, three brass howitzers from the fleet, and the ever present, ever useless Congreve rockets. Beyond the buildings was an open space for a parade ground.
The first order of business was to find the mess of the 95th Rifles officers. Sharpe hailed a lieutenant of the 4th.
"Lieutenant, wheres the 95th messing?"
The Lieutenant pointed north.
"A mile north, third outbuilding on the left at the Lacoste plantation."
Sharpe nodded his thanks and began walking in the direction the Lieutenant had pointed. The mile of fields between the Villere and Lacoste plantation buildings was filled with the bivouacs of the rankers. Each company had grouped its men around a large bonfire. Men sat on logs about the fire, drinking tea, munching biscuit, or drying their socks. Others checked their muskets and other gear. A handful were writing letters. Most were just lazing around their bivouacs, enjoying the hazy sun after the chill night. As he made his way through the camp, Sharpe noted what regiments he saw. He had served alongside of many of them on the Peninsula. There was the 4th Foot, the Kings Own, veterans of Corunna, Badajoz, and Salamanca, among other actions. Beyond them, towards the river, he could see the bivouacs of the 44th Foot, another regiment of Badajoz and Salamanca. He walked through the camp of the 7th Foot, who he remembered from Salamanca when Pakenham had commanded them. He came next to the 21st Foot, the North British Fusilers, who had aided in the final push into French territory.
As he walked through the regimental camps, Sharpe felt increasingly at home and in place, in marked contrast to the strained relationships of the officers mess on board the Statira. These men, the common soldiers, the heroes of the nation when they were needed, old Noseys scum of the earth when they were not, these men understood and appreciated him. What he had accomplished in his life counted here. Now and then, he would see a ranker or an officer he recognized, and would exchange a friendly nod. From the direction of the campfire of a company of the 21st, someone was squeezing an old music box that squealed like a tart in heat, while his accompaniment was provided by a Spanish guitar that sounded as if it had not been tuned since the Spanish Armada. He heard an old familiar soldiers song:
"How happy the soldier who lives on his pay,
And spends half a crown on six pence a day;
He fears neither justices, warrants nor bums,
But pays all his debts with a roll of the drums.
With a row de dow,
Row de dow, Row de dow,
And he pays all his debts with a roll of his drums."
Sharpe found himself whistling to the tune.
"He cares not a Marnedy how the world goes;
His King finds his quarters and money and clothes;
He laughs at all sorrow whenever it comes,
And rattles away with the roll of the drums.
With a row de dow,
Row de dow, Row de dow,
He rattles away with a roll of his drums."
Sharpe began to sing the third verse under his breath.
"The drum is his glory, his joy and delight,
It leads him to pleasure as well as to fight;
No girl, when she hears it, though ever so glum,
But packs up her tatters, and follows the drum.
With a row de dow,
Row de dow, Row de dow,
Shell pack up her tatters and follow the drum."
He was truly happy farming with Lucille. But for all that, a part of him would forever be wed to the army. He would always belong here.
He continued his walk through the camp. Next was the 43rd foot, famous as having the quickest rates of musket fire in the British Army, reputedly five rounds a minute. Then came the 85th foot, Bucks Volunteers, who had seen action at San Sebastian, Nivelles, and Bayonne. They had suffered terrible casualties, and had been rebuilt from a core of only twenty officers and two-hundred-and-fifty men. Sharpe had met their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel William Thorton, and respected him as a brave and resourceful officer.
To their right, towards the dense trees that bordered the cypress swamps to the east, he heard the noise of bagpipes coming from a camp. That would have to be the 93rd Foot, the Sutherland Highlanders. Uniform materials were in short supply. Sharpe could see that their bonnets were without their customary jaunty black ostrich feathers, and instead of their traditional kilts, they all wore trousers in their regimental tartan. Sharpe reflected that it must have galled them.
Sharpe broke into a broad smile when he came to the next camp. It was the 23rd, the South Essex, the Prince of Wales own Volunteers, his old command. He remembered well how he had been saddled with them before Talavera, a gang of raw recruits who only knew what their commander, Colonel Simmerson told them, that they were worthless scum, fit only for him to wipe his arse on. Sharpe had shown Simmerson what a little respect and decent treatment could accomplish (not that the bastard ever learned the lesson). The Souths performance at Talavera, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, and Vittoria had proven Sharpes ability as a teacher. Several familiar faces looked up and smiled as Sharpe passed by, Kirby, Sergeant Huckfield, Peters, Horrock. And there were Captains Harry Price and Peter DAlembord. They saw him and ran out to meet him, broad smiles on their faces. Harry spoke first, pumping Sharpes hand.
"Mister Sharpe, Sir! What a surprise!"
Sharpe grinned as he spoke. "You never know what riff-raff youll run into in an army camp. So they didnt ship you two off to Ireland after all?"
DAlembord, or "Dally" as he was known, chimed in.
"Well, the army can always change its mind! But what brings you to this tropical Eden? I though you were farming in France?"
"Im on business for the Duke. But Im glad to see both of you. Well have to visit later and catch up."
Sharpe walked on, smiling. Friends were rare, and those were two good ones.
Finally, he came to the camp of the 95th. The green jacketed Chosen Men. They were the four companies of the 3rd Battalion. Sharpe waved in greeting to the men he knew. He had been in the 2nd Battalion, and many of these riflemen were unfamiliar to him. But they knew him, by reputation if nothing else. On board the Statira, he was an accident, a freak of whimsical nature. But here he was the ranker who had come up from private all the way to major. Who had captured the Eagle at Talavera. Who had led the forlorn hope at Badajoz. Here he was a legend.
He was Sharpe.
He tried hard to conceal his pleased smile as older veterans pointed him out to young riflemen.
Now he crossed out of the encampment. Just ahead were the outbuildings of the Lacoste plantation. Third on the left, the Lieutenant had said. He walked across the groomed lawn to the long, low buildings single door and reached for the knob. As he did so, it swung open, and William Fredrickson stood framed in the doorway.
It was debatable which one of them was the more surprised.
He looked much as Sharpe remembered him. The eye patch over the left eye, the false teeth and swarthy complexion gave him the appearance more of a bandit than a soldier. But the patch was of good black silk instead of the mildewed cloth Sharpe remembered, and his wig was of a much better quality. He wore a fine officers uniform of the 95th, with gray overalls reinforced in the crotch with leather padding, and Sharpe recognized his saber as a Kligenthal. On his shoulders, Sharpe could see the insignia of a major, he had been promoted. Aside from that, the only thing unusual about his appearance was the linen bandage wound around his forehead, slightly bloodstained at the right temple.
They gaped at each other for a few moments. Fredrickson recovered first.
"Well look what the sea-winds blew in! What happened, couldnt you find enough trouble in France to get into?"
Sharpe held out his hand.
Fredricksons hesitation was almost imperceptible. Then he smiled and gripped Sharpes hand.
"Hello Richard. Its good to see you. Come in and have a drink."
They entered the cool interior. The only light was from the sun shining through the windows, but it was enough. Fredrickson set out two tin cups and poured out some dark red wine from a stoppered bottle.
"This is a passable Bordeaux. It seems that the Creoles still have some French culture."
Both men took a long drink. Refreshed, Sharpe set down his cup. He indicated Fredricksons bandage.
"It looks like youve already had a taste of the culture here."
"We had some late night guests two evenings ago. They took us by surprise, but we managed to give them a proper welcome. Seriously, it was some of the hottest action Ive seen since our last liberty in Toulouse."
Fredrickson leaned forward.
"Now, Im dying to know. What in blazes are you doing here?"
"Im here on assignment from the Duke."
"You know of them?"
"Every man in the army knows of them. The Americans have filed formal protest, both here and in London. We denied any knowledge of them, but the Jonathans are skeptical. If they start up here, theres no chance the Americans will believe us."
"Well, since General Ross died, I figured the Duke would need a right-proper bastard to get to the bottom of it. And now you show up."
"William, I "
Sharpe wasnt sure what he was going to say next, but he had to bring up the subject of Lucille some time, and it seemed best to do it quickly. He never got the chance. A bugle blew in the distance. Both men recognized it. Fredrickson stood up.
"A review. I guess General Pakenham wants to see his new army."
He picked up his hat, put it on, and buckled on his sword belt. Sharpe stood up and donned his own hat. Fredrickson turned to Sharpe, an odd, almost embarrassed expression on his face.
Sharpe looked at his friend inquisitively.
"Since Major Mitchell was taken prisoner night before last, Ive been ranking officer of the 95th. I know you have seniority, but "
Sharpe held up his hands to stop his friend.
"William, Im here to conduct an investigation. Nothing more. Command is yours, and welcome to it. If you need me, Im here for you, but I know how to keep out of the way."
Fredrickson smiled in relief.
"Well, lets show General Pakenham the 95th Rifles."
Together, they left the building and walked over to the 95ths camp. Sharpe glanced at Fredrickson out of the corner of his eye. He didnt quite know what to make of the situation. For all his cordiality, he sensed that Sweet William wasnt entirely glad to see him. The memories of Lucille obviously still stung. But they would have to settle that later.
Fifteen minutes later, they stood on parade in the large open space before the artillery park. The army was drawn up in two rows, each regiment forming a column, their officers at the head. Sharpe stood at attention next to Fredrickson as Pakenham and his staff rode their horses up and down the columns inspecting the men. It was an review like any of the dozens that Sharpe had endured, and it was no longer than average.
Directly across from them, the South Essex was drawn up. Sharpe allowed himself a trace of pride at how smart they looked. At their head, mounted on a bay, was their commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel. Price and DAlembord flanked him on their own horses. His head was turned away from Sharpe as he watched Pakenham riding down the bisecting row. Then he turned towards Sharpe, who drew his breath in suddenly through clenched teeth.
It was Morris.
Sharpe had not seen him since India, but he would have recognized him anywhere. He had gained some weight, his hair was grayer, his face more florid, covered with a network of tiny blood vessels. Obviously, he was still drinking heavily.
Morris, who was everything he detested in British officers, cruel, dishonorable,
cowardly, inept, owing his commission to money, and nothing but money.
Morris who had conspired with Hakeswill to set him up to be flogged. Sharpe had sworn he would someday pay him back for those two hundred lashes.
Morris, who young Ensign Sharpe had beaten senseless when he had refused to lead the 33rds Light Company in an assault on the Indian stronghold of Gwalighur. Sharpe had led the assault himself, and his heroism had forestalled Morris efforts to have him court-martialed.
Morris, who Hakeswill had told him was in Dublin, then a major.
Morris, who somewhere, somehow, had gotten the money together for a Lieutenant Colonels commission.
Morris, who was now commanding officer of Sharpes own South Essex!
Fredrickson noticed the expression on Sharpes face, the fixed stare. He looked at the officer that had Sharpes attention, Lieutenant Colonel Morris . . . Morris! He recalled what he knew of Sharpes background and put two and two together.
"Is that the Morris who "
"Pakenham wont allow any trouble. You cant call him out."
"Dont worry. Im an officer now, his equal. I dont need a duel. But Ill be damned if Im going to skulk around his heels. Im going to face him down and let him see that the private he flogged made better of himself than he ever would have guessed."
"Well, you know your own business. When youre finished with him, come back to the 95ths camp. Ill be with the lads of 3rd Company."
The bugle sounded, signaling the end of the review. The regiments turned and began to march back in column to their encampments. Sharpe walked over to where Morris sat on his horse, watching the South Essex file past, led by the two Captains.
"Lieutenant Colonel Morris!"
Charles Morris turned, an expression of peevishness on his face. He had drunk too much brandy the night before, and was more than a little hung-over. He opened his mouth to say something suitably abusive to this rifleman. Then he took a more careful look, and searched his drink-befuddled memory. There was something about this man that
Then it came to him.
"You recognize me. Good, we can do without introductions, then."
"What do you want, and what the devil are you doing in that uniform?
"Im an officer in the Rifles now. Unlike others I might mention, I earned it."
"Dont be impertinent. I repeat, what do you want?"
"I see youre still drinking."
"That is none of your business."
"It is if it affects your command. Those lads you command, the South Essex, theyre my lads. I trained and led them, from Talavera through to Toulouse."
"Well theyre mine now. I bought the commission, I command. I need no help from you. I dont know what accident put you in a majors uniform, but Sergeant Hakeswill always said you were no good. I heartily endorse his opinion."
"Oh yes, Hakeswill. Hes dead, you know. He was a deserter, a traitor, and a murderer. I stood him up against a wall and shot him. Hes rotting somewhere in Spain now."
"That is of no interest to me. I have no further time to waste on you."
He turned his horse and gave it his spurs, but Sharpe stepped in and gripped the reins. A thuggish looking sergeant (Morris seemed to specialize in these) stepped forward.
"Trouble here, Sir?"
Sharpe turned a warning glance on the Sergeant, who backed off. Morris reassured him.
"Its all right, Sergeant Bader."
Sharpe spoke once more. His voice was soft, almost gently menacing. His smile was fearsome.
"Theres just this, old friend. Even though I no longer lead them, I have a special place in my heart for the South Essex. You see that you do right by those boys. If you dont, if you throw away even one of their lives for no good reason, then you and I will settle accounts. Thats all."
He released Morris reins. Morris raised his riding crop to strike the cheeky bastard in the face, then he saw the look in Sharpes eyes and reconsidered. He struck his horse on the neck and rode off along the departing South Essexs flank.
Sharpe walked back to the 95ths camp, a host of conflicting emotions seething in his mind. It began to rain, and was soon coming down hard. He saw Sweet William sitting by the fire of the 3rd Company. Fredrickson looked up as he approached.
"Is he still alive?"
"Youre losing your touch. But youre just in time. The 4th has prepared a little spectacle for us."
He got up, but would answer nothing to Sharpes queries. They walked across the open fields to the east, about halfway to the swamps. A group of soldiers of the 4th were gathered in a large circle, with a smattering of officers and men from the other regiments. In the middle of the circle was a muddy pool of water about thirty feet across. In it, hissing menacingly, was a small alligator, about four feet long.
At the edge of the pool was a Private of the 4th, a hulking youth the size of Harper, who from the dull, vapid expression on his face had about a third of the Irishmans intelligence. Next to him was his sergeant, who, from the look of him, was the worst striped bastard in the British Army, at least now that Obediah was feeding the worms. He spoke to the private.
"Now, Hindson, you knows that them officers have got to have their mess, good and proper."
Hindson nodded, looking dubiously at the alligator.
"But it seems that were getting a little bit short of fresh meat; why weve emptied out these two plantations cleaner than me dear departed Aunty Flos ears."
Christ, he even talks like Hakeswill.
"So here it is, fresh meat, just waiting to be caught by an aspiring young feller like you."
"But Sargent Crossfield, why do I have to catch it?"
"Well, I could catch it meself, but I figgered, theres young Hindson just waiting to show that hes the stuff that corporals are made of. When those officers have a joint of fresh meat on their plates, theyll ask what splendid fellow obtained these fine vittles? And Ill be there to tell them it were none other than yourself. You do want to make corporal, dont you?"
"You know I do, Sergeant-"
"Then theres your promotion, waiting for you."
The hulking youth looked again at the alligator, which had a formidable head full of teeth in spite of its small size. He swallowed nervously and edged his way into the pool, which came up to his knees. The reptile gave back, hissing even louder. When he was within three feet, the big youth threw himself at the gator in a flying leap. It disappeared beneath the brown water. Seconds later, Hindsons belly hit the water with a huge slap, and he disappeared for a second beneath the surface. He got to his feet, covered in mud from head to toe. He looked like some legendary swamp monster. The alligator was no where in sight. He scanned the surface as he began to walk around and through the pool. Onlookers gave catcalls of encouragement. Again and again, Hindson saw, or though he saw something beneath the surface and grabbed at it, only to come up with handfuls of mud and reeds. Then, he scanned close to the water, and again threw himself flat on something below the surface. There was a flurry of arms, and legs, both of the uniformed and scaly variety, a lashing tail. And then silence. The water was calm. Sharpe was half-ready to dive in to rescue the Private, when Hindson rose to his feet again. There was no sign of his quarry. He bent low, scanning the water left and right.
And that was when a pair of jaws broke the surface and fastened themselves in his crotch. Hindson let out a high-pitched scream and took off running for the trees. The alligator, hanging for dear life, dangled between his legs.
The soldiers were whooping and howling in laughter. Sharpe made a futile effort to restrain his snicker, which turned to a chuckle, which turned to a full laugh, which turned to a breathless guffaw. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath, holding his belly, tears pouring from his eyes. Every time he almost got his wind back, he started laughing again. Fredrickson was next to him on the ground, also gasping in laughter, but he was the first one to be able to speak.
"If he doesnt make corporal, we could always start a boys choir!"
Sharpe sat up and peered after the distant form of the fleeing Private.
"Hell need full-length robe!"
"We should change his rank from private to privates!"
"That little gators brought home the bacon today!"
Sharpe had not laughed so hard in years. Finally, he gasped, and regained control of himself. He and Fredrickson stumbled to his feet, still chuckling periodically.
Fredrickson noticed a Major of the 4th and motioned him to come over.
"Major, this was a rare spectacle."
"I think that the Private has earned his promotion today."
"Then youll see to it that the sergeant keeps his promise?"
"It shall be done."
Sharpe and Fredrickson headed back towards the 95ths camp, still chuckling at the memories of what they had witnessed. As they drew near the fire, Sharpe smelled something appetizing. Some sort of creature had been roasted, and a rifleman handed Sharpe a cypress twig skewered with meat. Sharpe looked at it hesitantly, and Fredrickson grinned.
"Dont worry, its chicken, not gator."
There was bread fresh from the bakery to go with it, and more wine from their canteens. After a time, Sharpe leaned back, satisfied. The rain slackened off, revealing that the sun had set, and night fell quickly thereafter. Sharpe looked at Fredrickson speculatively.
"So William, just what have you been doing with yourself these past months?"
Fredrickson, sighed, got into a more relaxed position, and began his story.