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Windrush - Blood Price

Windrush - Blood Price

Book excerpt

Prelude

Crimea, November 1854

Lieutenant Colonel Pendleton drew on his cigar and blew a perfect smoke ring. Coughing softly, he hugged the greatcoat closer around his shoulders as protection against the biting wind that sliced from the Russian steppes.

'Good evening, sir,' Captain Dowling huddled into his comforter and stamped his feet.

'Evening Dowling.' Pendleton spoke through a haze of smoke and the condensation from his breath.

'It's a cold one,' Dowling said.

'It's healthy,' Pendleton replied. 'Why man, when I was in India we sweltered by day and night. We would have given good money for a brisk morning such as this!'

'Brisk is an understatement, sir,' Dowling said. He glanced forward, where the white tents of the British camp stood in regular rows upon the uplands. A scant mile away, the walls of Sebastopol glowered at them, held by stubborn Russian infantry who for two months had withstood everything that the British, Turkish and French armies could throw at them. Dowling did not flinch as a Russian cannon barked out, too far away to be any threat to them. Grey powder smoke drifted from the walls.

'That's the Russians giving the French a morning wake-up call,' Dowling said casually.

'Come with me, Dowling,' Pendleton said. 'I'm going to inspect the men in the trenches, and I might need a runner.'

Dowling started. 'Yes, sir,' he said. 'I'll get my revolver.'

Pendleton nodded. 'You should never be without it on campaign. You never know when the enemy is going to attack. When we were in Afghanistan, the Afghans kept us on the hop with ambushes and attacks I can tell you!'

'Yes, sir,' Dowling buckled on his pistol belt. 'Shall I lead the way?'

'I know the way, damn it!' Pendleton pushed in front, still exuding blue smoke from his cigar. He slipped down into the communication trench that led to the first parallel, the rearmost of the series of allied trenches that faced the southern half of Sebastopol. The north of the city, as Dowling knew only too well, was still open for the Russians to bring in resources and reinforcements from their seemingly inexhaustible manpower.

With his feet sinking into liquid mud, Pendleton splashed forward, keeping his head below the level of the parapet as he negotiated the trenches and came towards the third parallel, the position closest to the Russians.

'Sir…'

'Keep your head down, Dowling!' Pendleton ordered. 'The Russians just love to pot a British officer.'

'Yes, sir,' Dowling said.

They squeezed against the side of the trench as two privates passed, supporting a wounded man between them. All three were haggard and worn, stained with mud and unshaven, yet all held their rifles and both unwounded men stopped to salute.

'Never mind that,' Pendleton acknowledged them with a raised finger. 'Get that man to a hospital tent at once. What happened?'

'Russian sharpshooter, sir.' The speaker was about thirty, with the stripes of a corporal on his sleeve.

Pendleton grunted. 'It's time we did something about them,' he said. 'Come on Dowling, and be careful.'

Soldiers crowded the third parallel, gaunt-faced privates in poverty-thin uniforms crouching behind the parapet or peering forward toward the Russian lines, harassed sergeants with rags over their feet in place of boots and young ensigns with the eyes of old men. They threw hasty salutes and drew aside to allow Pendleton and Dowling to pass.

'These men are having a rough time,' Pendleton muttered. 'When we get back to camp, Dowling, I want you to set up hot meals for them and see about finding warm clothing. They are dying of the cold out here.'

'Yes, sir.' Dowling thought it best not to mention that a few moments ago the colonel had considered the cold to be healthy.

Pendleton stopped behind a wall of sandbags and addressed a young officer. 'How are we holding out, Yarrow?'

'Sir,' the lieutenant was care-worn, with dark shadows around his eyes and dirt ingrained in the lines of his face. 'Sorry sir, if I had known you were coming…'

'I didn't know myself that I was coming, Yarrow,' Pendleton said cheerfully. 'How are things?'

Lieutenant Yarrow screwed up his face. 'We have one man wounded sir, and sent down to the hospital; all the rest are present and correct, yet there is a wounded man somewhere out there,' he nodded in the direction of the Russian lines, 'between them and us. We hear him moan from time to time yet we can't see him.'

'The devil, you say,' Pendleton frowned. 'We can't allow that. The poor fellow must come from another regiment. Maybe the Rifles or the 113th; they are always fooling around in front of the trenches.'

'That was how they shot Private Connor sir. He tried to rescue the wounded man and a sharpshooter got him.'

'Is that so? Well, we'll just have to try again, won't we?' Pendleton grinned. 'We never left anybody behind for the Afghans to cut up and I won't do it here.' He looked around, saw exhausted men led by very young officers and knew they needed something to lift their morale.

'I'll go myself,' Pendleton decided. 'An officer should never send a man to do something he is not prepared to do himself.' He winked at Dowling. 'That should cheer the men up, eh? They can see the colonel actually in the field rather than sitting in a warm tent back in camp.'

'Yes, sir,' Dowling said, 'but it won't cheer anybody up if you get killed…'

'Well then, I shall just have to make sure that I stay alive! Come along, Dowling!' Pemberton stopped as a moan came from the barren land in front of the trenches. 'Is that the wounded man now?'

'Help me,' the voice was small, from an obviously badly injured man. 'Water … help me … mother!' The voice rose an octave and then died away to an agonised sob.

'Be careful, sir,' Yarrow cautioned as Pendleton rolled over the breastwork and into the darkness beyond. Dowling followed, less skilled than his colonel, keeping his head as far down as possible as he tried to merge with the landscape.

The ground was cold and bare, with pools of chill water in the gouges where shells had exploded, and sullen patches of grass protruded like the pleading hands of dying men. Pendleton crawled slowly forward in the direction he judged the wounded man to lie. For a moment he was back in his youth, proving himself in front of the cynical veteran soldiers, but when he put his knee down hard on a sharp stone he cursed, and reality returned. He was a forty-eight-year-old man, a solid regimental officer but destined to rise no further in the army unless he performed some stupendous feat of suicidal gallantry that reached the attention of people in Britain.

'Help me please,' the voice was fainter as the man's wound made him weaker.

'Hold on,' Pendleton called softly. 'We're coming for you!'

A rocket soared up from behind Sebastopol's walls, flickering temporary light across the ground and highlighting the cheekbones of Dowling's thin face. Pendleton took the opportunity to glance around, searching for the injured man. A hundred yards beyond the tussocks of rough grass sat an oddly shaped rock, the shattered shell of a tree and what might have been the recumbent body of a man.

'I see him,' Pendleton whispered. 'Follow me, Dowling.' Keeping his line of sight on the injured man, he ignored the return of darkness and crawled on as fast as he dared.

He heard the rustle of somebody in the grass an instant too late. 'Who's that?'

The double-edged blade of the khanjali entered the side of his neck before he realised it, and thrust deep. Lieutenant Colonel Vernon Charles Pendleton died on the cold ground six hundred yards in front of the walls of Sebastopol. A dozen shadowy figures flitted toward him and the tall man who crouched beside his body.

The tall man ran experienced hands through the pockets, removing a handful of coins, a gold watch and a small bundle of letters. Cleaning his khanjali on Pendleton's jacket, he crawled back to the shelter of the shattered tree and stood up. For a single second moon-light passed over him, a tall, rangy man in the dark uniform of a Cossack, with an eye-patch disfiguring his face. Then he loped away into the dark as silently as he had appeared.

Chapter One

British Camp outside Sebastopol, Crimea

14th November, 1854

It began around four in the morning, a roaring wind that wakened them and flapped the canvas around their ears. It developed in a steady sequence of gusts that increased in strength so that by five the tent was wrenching at the guy-ropes and the single central pole was bending with the strain of holding the rain-sodden canvas in place.

'The whole tent is going to collapse,' Lieutenant Elliot grabbed hold of the pole in alarm. 'Here, Windrush, give me a hand here!'

Jack watched for a second, threw on his jacket and greatcoat against the cold and joined Elliot. Immediately he grappled the pole; he felt the pressure of the wind threatening to rip the entire edifice down.

'It's stormy!' Jack had to shout above the increasing howl.

The wind cracking the canvas above his head drowned Elliot's reply. He looked up as if the Russians had made a sudden sortie. 'What the devil is happening here?'

'It will pass in a minute,' Jack said. 'Hold on tight, or we'll lose the tent.'

Wrapping their arms around the pole, they anchored their feet in the ground and held on desperately as the wind increased minute by minute, with the canvas bellying and staining above and around them.

'Did you hear about Captain MacDonald of the 95th?' Elliot had to shout above the roar of the wind, the flapping of the tent and the clatter of objects rolling around outside.

'No!' Jack shook his head. 'And at the minute I don't care much about a dozen Captain MacDonalds!'

'They found him on the ground after Inkerman with twenty bayonet wounds. He's in a dangerous condition in hospital.'

'Trust you to know what is going on,' Jack shouted. 'I always said that you have a pigeon in Raggles' tent listening to everything that our lords and masters say.'

'Raggles?' Elliot looked shocked, 'that is no way to speak of our esteemed commander, Windrush! You should treat him with respect and call him His Excellency Lord Raglan.'

'And you should call me sir, Elliot. After all, I am your superior officer.'

'Yes, sir, Captain Windrush, sir,' Elliot said. 'Forgive me for not bowing your highness, but if I release this pole the tent will take off, and your royal and distinguished person will be left sodden on this godforsaken lump of rock they call the Crimea.'

'I'll let you off this time,' Jack said, 'but don't make a habit of it!'

There was a yell from outside, followed by a string of oaths that would make even the most foul-mouthed of marines blush scarlet. 'I think somebody has lost their tent,' Jack said.

'That was Major Snodgrass's voice,' Elliot told him. 'Should we go and offer to help?'

Jack shook his head. 'No.' He felt a surge of satisfaction that Major Snodgrass should be suffering. 'If we let go, we will only join him in the cold, and that helps nobody. I wonder if Raggles did anything about the Russian soldiers bayonetting our wounded.'

'He did,' Elliot staggered as the pole nearly bent double. His feet slid on the trodden wet grass that comprised the floor. 'He complained to Prince Menschikoff about the ungentlemanly behaviour of the Russian infantry.'

'So we can expect an apology soon, then?' Jack heard the sarcasm in his voice.

'Indeed not. The good Prince said he “was sorry for it, but if men come and fight an ignorant people without provocation in their own country, they must expect it.” '

'I thought Crimea belonged to the Tatars before the Russians grabbed it,' Jack said.

'Don't split hairs, Your Majesty, sir,' Elliot said. 'Anyway, Menschikoff might get a surprise soon because Lord Raglan has asked for reinforcements. He wanted to storm Sebastopol right after Inkerman but that French fellow, Canrobert, said we weren't strong enough as long as Johnny Russ has a large field army waiting to attack us in the rear.'

'The Ruskis tried that at Inkerman and got well licked for their pains,' Jack said. 'Canrobert should damn well do as he is told.'

Both men relaxed in a sudden lull in the storm. 'It's us that has to do as we're told,' Elliot said. 'The British Army is down to 16,000 fit men. The French have many times more than we have. We are dancing to a Canrobert's jig, not he to ours.'

Jack grunted. 'Wellington will be turning in his grave, with our men doing what the Froggies want.'

'Aye, and there's worse,' Elliot said. 'General De Lacy Evans wants the entire army to leave the Crimea for the winter.'

'Run away?' Jack stared at him. 'A British general wants us to retreat before the Russians?' He shook his head. 'I can hardly believe what I am hearing!'

'He is not the only one,' Elliot said.

'How do you know these things?' Jack grabbed the tent-pole as the wind increased once more.

'Ah,' Elliot said, straining to hold the pole in place as the wind resumed. 'That would be telling.'

They both looked around as somebody unlaced the tent flap from outside, causing papers to fly around the interior.

'Shut that damned flap!' Jack roared until Colonel Maxwell poked his head in and shouted:

'Windrush!'

'Oh sorry sir, I didn't know it was you.'

'Get you down to Balaklava and make sure my wife and daughter are safe in this storm. I have this damned regiment to look after. Hurry, man!'

Jack nodded. 'Yes, sir.' In his concern about keeping the tent-pole in place, he had not thought how the storm might affect others. He mentally kicked himself for his neglect: what did a tent matter when Helen and her mother may be in danger down at Balaklava?

The instant that Jack released the tent-pole, the pressure of wind proved too much for only one man. Elliot yelled as the canvas cover whipped away, taking the pole with it and leaving them both exposed to the elements with all their possessions scattering around them. Staggering in the wind, Jack realised what damage the storm was doing to the British camp as tents were flattened or had vanished completely, men were lying in the open or struggling to stand and personal goods, and military equipment was rolling across the ground.

'This is terrible!' Jack shouted, ignoring Elliot's despairing grab at the last of the canvas.

'I'm worried about Mrs Maxwell and Helen!' Colonel Maxwell shouted. 'Their ship sails this morning! They are in Redgauntlet! Got the name? Redgauntlet!'

Jack flinched as the wind blasted a shako into his face. 'They are not sailing in this, surely?'

'I should say not!' Colonel Maxwell roared. 'I want you to go down and make sure they're all right. If they are not on the ship yet, make sure they stay on land. Got it?'

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