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The Bloodybacks stole through warm darkness to the killing.
A hidden moon silvered chasms of cloud and offered a wan glow which silhouetted the jagged spikes of pine tops on the western horizon. The eastern sky was unclouded; a pit of blackness studded with the clean brightness of stars. The paths beneath the trees were dark, utter dark, a blackness in which long files of men cursed softly.
The sun would rise to bring the steamy, breath-stealing heat of the full day; yet even now, in the night's small hours, there was a close, stifling warmth that made the men sweat beneath their thick woolen coats. Red coats. The men were soldiers; six companies of Redcoats who followed their leaders through a wooded defile toward a tavern, a crossroads, and the enemy.
A stream made its homely sound to the south, the wind rattled pine branches, while the night hordes of insects drowned whatever noise the nailed boots made on the dry and fallen needles. A whispered order was passed down the files of men. They stopped and crouched.
Private Sam Gilpin's hands were slick with sweat. His body prickled with the heat. A horse whinnied.
It had to be an enemy's horse, for the Redcoats had come on foot. Even the General was on foot. The sound told Sam that the enemy must be close, very close, and, despite the cloying warmth, he shivered suddenly.
His musket would not fire. None of the soldiers' muskets would fire, for they had been ordered to unscrew the dog-heads and take out their flints. A musket without a flint could not spark the powder, so it could not fire a bullet, but nor could a careless man stumble in the dark and fire a shot which would warn the enemy.
The Redcoats had come in the warm darkness, in silence, and the enemy was close.
"Follow!" Again the order was a whisper. Sam's company was led off the path into the blackness beneath the trees. Each man tried to walk silently, yet twigs snapped, dry pineneedles crunched together, and once a brass-bound musket butt crashed loud against a pine trunk.
The sound made the men freeze, but no warning shout came from the enemy lines. Sam wondered if the enemy was waiting, awake and ready. Were their muskets loaded, flints drawn back, cocked to blast flames and smoke and death into the trees? His heart pounded heavy with the fear of a soldier before the killing. Sweat stung his eyes. It was hard to breathe the resinous air. The file moved again and Sam saw the smear of a red glow to his left and he knew it marked the enemy encampment.
Sam stopped, crouched. The redness was the remnant of a camp fire. There were other dying fires visible through the trees. The glowing embers revealed the shapes of dark buildings. Again a horse whinnied, but Sam could see no movement around the fires.
"Bayonets! Bayonets!" The order was a hoarse whisper.
Sam tugged his bayonet free of its scabbard. He had sharpened the blade to a wicked point in the dusk; now he slotted it over his musket's muzzle and twisted it into place. The grease that kept the bayonet free of rust was sticky on his palm. All around him he could hear the scrape and click of blades being fixed and it seemed impossible for the enemy not to hear, but still there was no shout or musket flash. Sam took a leather lace from his ammunition pouch. He tied one end around the blade's shoulder, and the other. he lashed to the musket's sling-swivel. Now no enemy, could seize and wrench the blade away, nor, twisting the bayonet free of dead flesh, would he lose the weapon to a corpse.
There was fear in Sam, but also exhilaration. He feared letting his comrades down, he feared Captain Kelly's disappointment or Sergeant Scammell's scorn, he feared his own fear, yet he also had the fire of a young man's pride inside him. They were the redcoated Bloodybacks, the kings of the castle, cocks of the dungheap, and soldiers of the King, and in a moment they would be unleashed like rough-pelted hounds to tear and savage the King's enemies.
Footsteps sounded to his right and Sam saw the tall dark shape of Sergeant Scammell pacing along the company's front. "You're not here to fucking dance with the buggers, you're here to kill the fuckers. You hear me?" Scammell's voice was a mere whisper, but still fearsome. Few men in the company liked Scammell, but even those who hated him were glad of his presence this night, for, in the confusion of battle, the Sergeant displayed a chilling efficiency. The embers of the enemy's camp fires reflected dull red on the steel of Scammell's seventeen-inch bayonet.
Sam fingered his own greased blade. It was a threesided bayonet, channeled to release blood so that the blade would not stick in flesh. It was not a weapon for cutting, but for stabbing. "Go for their bellies or throats," Scammell was whispering. "Don't tickle the bastards, kill diem!"
Captain Kelly and Ensign Trumbull had their sabres drawn. The two officers stood at the edge of the trees, staring at the enemy. Kelly was tall, quiet, and liked by the men Trumbull was thirteen, a schoolboy given an officer's coat: and despised. Sam saw the small twitching of the Ensign's sabre blade and knew the boy was nervous.
Sam's twin brother was Also nervous. "You'll stay Close, Sam?" Nate asked.Redcoat. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Redcoat by Bernard Cornwell
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