“They’ve made it,” he whispered, and his fists curled in an excitement that Grey shared. “God, they’ve made it!”

Well enough, and the men at the foot of the cliff held their breaths; there was a guard post at the top of the cliff. Silence, bar the everlasting noise of tree and river. And then a shot.

Just one. The men below shifted, touching their weapons, ready, not knowing for what.

Were there sounds above? Grey could not tell and, out of sheer nervousness, turned aside to urinate against the side of the cliff. He was fastening his flies when he heard Simon Fraser’s voice above.

“Got ’em, by God!” he said. “Come on, lads—the night’s not long enough!”

The next few hours passed in a blur of the most arduous endeavor Grey had seen since he’d crossed the Scottish Highlands with his brother’s regiment, bringing cannon to General Cope. No, actually, he thought, as he stood in darkness, one leg wedged between a tree and the rock face, thirty feet of invisible space below him and rope burning through his palms with an unseen deadweight of two hundred pounds or so on the end, this was worse.

The Highlanders had surprised the guard, shot their fleeing captain in the heel, and made all of them prisoner. That was the easy part. The next thing was for the rest of the landing party to ascend to the cliff top, now that the trail—if there was such a thing—had been cleared. There they would make preparations to raise not only the rest of the troops now coming down the river aboard the transports but also seventeen battering cannon, twelve howitzers, three mortars, and all of the necessary encumbrances in terms of shell, powder, planks, and limbers necessary to make this artillery effective. At least, Grey reflected, by the time they were done, the vertical trail up the cliffside would likely have been trampled into a simple cow path.

As the sky lightened, Grey looked up for a moment from his spot at the top of the cliff, where he was now overseeing the last of the artillery as it was heaved over the edge, and saw the bateaux coming down again like a flock of swallows, they having crossed the river to collect an additional 1,200 troops that Wolfe had directed to march to Levi on the opposite shore, there to lie hidden in the woods until the Highlanders’ expedient should have been proved.

A head, cursing freely, surged up over the edge of the cliff. Its attendant body lunged into view, tripped, and sprawled at Grey’s feet.

“Sergeant Cutter!” Grey said, grinning as he bent to yank the little sergeant to his feet. “Come to join the party, have you?”

“Jesus fuck,” replied the sergeant, belligerently brushing dirt from his coat. “We’d best win, that’s all I can say.” And, without waiting for reply, he turned round to bellow down the cliff, “Come ON, you bloody rascals! ’Ave you all eaten lead for breakfast, then? Shit it out and step lively! CLIMB, God damn your eyes!”

The net result of this monstrous effort being that, as dawn spread its golden glow across the Plains of Abraham, the French sentries on the walls of the Citadel of Quebec gaped in disbelief at the sight of more than four thousand British troops drawn up in battle array before them.

Through his telescope, Grey could see the sentries. The distance was too great to make out their facial expressions, but their attitudes of alarm and consternation were easy to read, and he grinned, seeing one French officer clutch his head briefly, then wave his arms like one dispelling a flock of chickens, sending his subordinates rushing off in all directions.

Wolfe was standing on a small hillock, long nose lifted as though to sniff the morning air. Grey thought he probably considered his pose noble and commanding; he reminded Grey of a dachshund scenting a badger; the air of alert eagerness was the same.

Wolfe wasn’t the only one. Despite the ardors of the night, skinned hands, battered shins, twisted knees and ankles, and a lack of food and sleep, a gleeful excitement ran through the troops like wine. Grey thought they were all giddy with fatigue.

The sound of drums came faintly to him on the wind: the French, beating hastily to quarters. Within minutes, he saw horsemen streaking away from the fortress, and he smiled grimly. They were going to rally whatever troops Montcalm had within summoning distance, and Grey felt a tightening of the belly at the sight.

The matter hadn’t really been in doubt; it was September, and winter was coming on. The town and fortress had been unable to provision themselves for a long siege, owing to Wolfe’s scorched-earth policies. The French were there, the English before them—and the simple fact, apparent to both sides, was that the French would starve long before the English did. Montcalm would fight; he had no choice.

Many of the men had brought canteens of water, some a little food. They were allowed to relax sufficiently to eat, to ease their muscles—though none of them ever took their attention from the French gathering before the fortress. Employing his telescope further, Grey could see that, while the mass of milling men was growing, they were by no means all trained troops; Montcalm had called his militias from the countryside—farmers, fishermen, and coureurs du bois, by the look of them—and his Indians. Grey eyed the painted faces and oiled topknots warily, but his acquaintance with Manoke had deprived the Indians of much of their terrifying aspect—and they would not be nearly so effective on open ground, against cannon, as they were sneaking through the forest.

It took surprisingly little time for Montcalm to ready his troops, impromptu as they might be. The sun was no more than halfway up the sky when the French lines began their advance.

“HOLD your fucking fire, you villains! Fire before you’re ordered, and I’ll give your fuckin’ heads to the artillery to use for cannonballs!” He heard the unmistakable voice of Sergeant Aloysius Cutter, some distance back but clearly audible. The same order was being echoed, if less picturesquely, through the British lines, and if every officer on the field had one eye firmly on the French, the other was fixed on General Wolfe, standing on his hillock, aflame with anticipation.

Grey felt his blood twitch and moved restlessly from foot to foot, trying to ease a cramp in one leg. The advancing French line stopped, knelt, and fired a volley. Another from the line standing behind them. Too far, much too far to have any effect. A deep rumble came from the British troops—something visceral and hungry.

Grey’s hand had been on his dagger for so long that the wire-wrapped hilt had left its imprint on his fingers. His other hand was clenched upon a saber. He had no command here, but the urge to raise his sword, gather the eyes of his men, hold them, focus them, was overwhelming. He shook his shoulders to loosen them and glanced at Wolfe.

Another volley, close enough this time that several British soldiers in the front lines fell, knocked down by musket fire.

“Hold, hold!” The order rattled down the lines like gunfire. The brimstone smell of slow match was thick, pungent above the scent of powder smoke; the artillerymen held their fire, as well.

French cannon fired, and balls bounced murderously across the field, but they seemed puny, ineffectual, despite the damage they did. How many French? he wondered. Perhaps twice as many, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter.

Sweat ran down his face, and he rubbed a sleeve across to clear his eyes.

“Hold!”

Closer, closer. Many of the Indians were on horseback; he could see them in a knot on the left, milling. Those would bear watching.…

“Hold!”

Wolfe’s arm rose slowly, sword in hand, and the army breathed deep. His beloved grenadiers were next to him, solid in their companies, wrapped in sulfurous smoke from the match tubes at their belts.

“Come on, you buggers,” the man next to Grey was muttering. “Come on, come on!”

Smoke was drifting over the field, low white clouds. Forty paces. Effective range.

“Don’t fire, don’t fire, don’t fire …” someone was chanting to himself, struggling against panic.

Through the British lines, sun glinted on the rising swords, the officers echoing Wolfe’s order.

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“They’ve made it,” he whispered, and his fists curled in an excitement that Grey shared. “God, they’ve made it!”

Well enough, and the men at the foot of the cliff held their breaths; there was a guard post at the top of the cliff. Silence, bar the everlasting noise of tree and river. And then a shot.

Just one. The men below shifted, touching their weapons, ready, not knowing for what.

Were there sounds above? Grey could not tell and, out of sheer nervousness, turned aside to urinate against the side of the cliff. He was fastening his flies when he heard Simon Fraser’s voice above.

“Got ’em, by God!” he said. “Come on, lads—the night’s not long enough!”

The next few hours passed in a blur of the most arduous endeavor Grey had seen since he’d crossed the Scottish Highlands with his brother’s regiment, bringing cannon to General Cope. No, actually, he thought, as he stood in darkness, one leg wedged between a tree and the rock face, thirty feet of invisible space below him and rope burning through his palms with an unseen deadweight of two hundred pounds or so on the end, this was worse.

The Highlanders had surprised the guard, shot their fleeing captain in the heel, and made all of them prisoner. That was the easy part. The next thing was for the rest of the landing party to ascend to the cliff top, now that the trail—if there was such a thing—had been cleared. There they would make preparations to raise not only the rest of the troops now coming down the river aboard the transports but also seventeen battering cannon, twelve howitzers, three mortars, and all of the necessary encumbrances in terms of shell, powder, planks, and limbers necessary to make this artillery effective. At least, Grey reflected, by the time they were done, the vertical trail up the cliffside would likely have been trampled into a simple cow path.

As the sky lightened, Grey looked up for a moment from his spot at the top of the cliff, where he was now overseeing the last of the artillery as it was heaved over the edge, and saw the bateaux coming down again like a flock of swallows, they having crossed the river to collect an additional 1,200 troops that Wolfe had directed to march to Levi on the opposite shore, there to lie hidden in the woods until the Highlanders’ expedient should have been proved.

A head, cursing freely, surged up over the edge of the cliff. Its attendant body lunged into view, tripped, and sprawled at Grey’s feet.

“Sergeant Cutter!” Grey said, grinning as he bent to yank the little sergeant to his feet. “Come to join the party, have you?”

“Jesus fuck,” replied the sergeant, belligerently brushing dirt from his coat. “We’d best win, that’s all I can say.” And, without waiting for reply, he turned round to bellow down the cliff, “Come ON, you bloody rascals! ’Ave you all eaten lead for breakfast, then? Shit it out and step lively! CLIMB, God damn your eyes!”

The net result of this monstrous effort being that, as dawn spread its golden glow across the Plains of Abraham, the French sentries on the walls of the Citadel of Quebec gaped in disbelief at the sight of more than four thousand British troops drawn up in battle array before them.

Through his telescope, Grey could see the sentries. The distance was too great to make out their facial expressions, but their attitudes of alarm and consternation were easy to read, and he grinned, seeing one French officer clutch his head briefly, then wave his arms like one dispelling a flock of chickens, sending his subordinates rushing off in all directions.

Wolfe was standing on a small hillock, long nose lifted as though to sniff the morning air. Grey thought he probably considered his pose noble and commanding; he reminded Grey of a dachshund scenting a badger; the air of alert eagerness was the same.

Wolfe wasn’t the only one. Despite the ardors of the night, skinned hands, battered shins, twisted knees and ankles, and a lack of food and sleep, a gleeful excitement ran through the troops like wine. Grey thought they were all giddy with fatigue.

The sound of drums came faintly to him on the wind: the French, beating hastily to quarters. Within minutes, he saw horsemen streaking away from the fortress, and he smiled grimly. They were going to rally whatever troops Montcalm had within summoning distance, and Grey felt a tightening of the belly at the sight.

The matter hadn’t really been in doubt; it was September, and winter was coming on. The town and fortress had been unable to provision themselves for a long siege, owing to Wolfe’s scorched-earth policies. The French were there, the English before them—and the simple fact, apparent to both sides, was that the French would starve long before the English did. Montcalm would fight; he had no choice.

Many of the men had brought canteens of water, some a little food. They were allowed to relax sufficiently to eat, to ease their muscles—though none of them ever took their attention from the French gathering before the fortress. Employing his telescope further, Grey could see that, while the mass of milling men was growing, they were by no means all trained troops; Montcalm had called his militias from the countryside—farmers, fishermen, and coureurs du bois, by the look of them—and his Indians. Grey eyed the painted faces and oiled topknots warily, but his acquaintance with Manoke had deprived the Indians of much of their terrifying aspect—and they would not be nearly so effective on open ground, against cannon, as they were sneaking through the forest.

It took surprisingly little time for Montcalm to ready his troops, impromptu as they might be. The sun was no more than halfway up the sky when the French lines began their advance.

“HOLD your fucking fire, you villains! Fire before you’re ordered, and I’ll give your fuckin’ heads to the artillery to use for cannonballs!” He heard the unmistakable voice of Sergeant Aloysius Cutter, some distance back but clearly audible. The same order was being echoed, if less picturesquely, through the British lines, and if every officer on the field had one eye firmly on the French, the other was fixed on General Wolfe, standing on his hillock, aflame with anticipation.

Grey felt his blood twitch and moved restlessly from foot to foot, trying to ease a cramp in one leg. The advancing French line stopped, knelt, and fired a volley. Another from the line standing behind them. Too far, much too far to have any effect. A deep rumble came from the British troops—something visceral and hungry.

Grey’s hand had been on his dagger for so long that the wire-wrapped hilt had left its imprint on his fingers. His other hand was clenched upon a saber. He had no command here, but the urge to raise his sword, gather the eyes of his men, hold them, focus them, was overwhelming. He shook his shoulders to loosen them and glanced at Wolfe.

Another volley, close enough this time that several British soldiers in the front lines fell, knocked down by musket fire.

“Hold, hold!” The order rattled down the lines like gunfire. The brimstone smell of slow match was thick, pungent above the scent of powder smoke; the artillerymen held their fire, as well.

French cannon fired, and balls bounced murderously across the field, but they seemed puny, ineffectual, despite the damage they did. How many French? he wondered. Perhaps twice as many, but it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter.

Sweat ran down his face, and he rubbed a sleeve across to clear his eyes.

“Hold!”

Closer, closer. Many of the Indians were on horseback; he could see them in a knot on the left, milling. Those would bear watching.…

“Hold!”

Wolfe’s arm rose slowly, sword in hand, and the army breathed deep. His beloved grenadiers were next to him, solid in their companies, wrapped in sulfurous smoke from the match tubes at their belts.

“Come on, you buggers,” the man next to Grey was muttering. “Come on, come on!”

Smoke was drifting over the field, low white clouds. Forty paces. Effective range.

“Don’t fire, don’t fire, don’t fire …” someone was chanting to himself, struggling against panic.

Through the British lines, sun glinted on the rising swords, the officers echoing Wolfe’s order.

“Hold … hold …”

The swords fell as one.

“FIRE!” and the ground shook.

A shout rose in Grey’s throat, part of the roar of the army, and he was charging with the men near him, swinging his saber with all his might, finding flesh.

The volley had been devastating; bodies littered the ground. He leapt over a fallen Frenchman, brought his saber down upon another, caught halfway in the act of loading, took him in the cleft between neck and shoulder, yanked his saber free of the falling man, and went on.

The British artillery was firing as fast as the guns could be served. Each boom shook his flesh. He gritted his teeth, squirmed aside from the point of a half-seen bayonet, and found himself panting, eyes watering from the smoke, standing alone.

Chest heaving, he turned round in a circle, disoriented. There was so much smoke around him that he could not for a moment tell where he was. It didn’t matter.

An enormous blur of something passed him, shrieking, and he dodged by instinct and fell to the ground as the horse’s feet churned by. Grey heard as an echo the Indian’s grunt, the rush of the tomahawk blow that had missed his head.

“Shit,” he muttered, and scrambled to his feet.

The grenadiers were hard at work nearby; he heard their officers’ shouts, the bang and pop of their explosions as they worked their way stolidly through the French like the small mobile batteries they were.

A grenade struck the ground a few feet away, and he felt a sharp pain in his thigh; a metal fragment had sliced through his breeches, drawing blood.

“Christ,” he said, belatedly aware that being in the vicinity of a company of grenadiers was not a good idea. He shook his head to clear it and made his way away from them.

He heard a familiar sound that made him recoil for an instant from the force of memory—wild Highland screams, filled with rage and berserk glee. The Highlanders were hard at work with their broadswords—he saw two of them appear from the smoke, bare legs churning beneath their kilts, pursuing a pack of fleeing Frenchman, and felt laughter bubble up through his heaving chest.

He didn’t see the man in the smoke. His foot struck something heavy and he fell, sprawling across the body. The man screamed, and Grey scrambled hastily off him.

“Sorry. Are you—Christ, Malcolm!”

He was on his knees, bending low to avoid the smoke. Stubbs was gasping, grasping desperately at Grey’s coat.

“Jesus.” Malcolm’s right leg was gone below the knee, flesh shredded and the white bone splintered, butcher-stained with spurting blood. Or … no. It wasn’t gone. It—the foot, at least—was lying a little way beyond, still clad in shoe and tattered stocking.

Grey turned his head and threw up.

Bile stinging the back of his nose, he choked and spat, turned back, and grappled with his belt, wrenching it free.

“Don’t—” Stubbs gasped, putting out a hand as Grey began wrapping the belt round his thigh. His face was whiter than the bone of his leg. “Don’t. Better—better if I die.”

“The devil you will,” Grey replied briefly.

His hands were shaking, slippery with blood. It took three tries to get the end of the belt through the buckle, but it went at last, and he jerked it tight, eliciting a yell from Stubbs.

“Here,” said an unfamiliar voice by his ear. “Let’s get him off. I’ll—shit!” He looked up, startled, to see a tall British officer lunge upward, blocking the musket butt that would have brained Grey. Without thinking, he drew his dagger and stabbed the Frenchman in the leg. The man screamed, his leg buckling, and the strange officer pushed him over, kicked him in the face, and stamped on his throat, crushing it.

“I’ll help,” the man said calmly, bending to take hold of Malcolm’s arm, pulling him up. “Take the other side; we’ll get him to the back.” They got Malcolm up, his arms round their shoulders, and dragged him, paying no heed to the Frenchman thrashing and gurgling on the ground behind them.

Malcolm lived, long enough to make it to the rear of the lines, where the army surgeons were already at work. By the time Grey and the other officer had turned him over to the surgeons, the battle was over.

Grey turned to see the French scattered and demoralized, fleeing toward the fortress. British troops were flooding across the trampled field, cheering, overrunning the abandoned French cannon.

The entire battle had lasted less than a quarter of an hour.

He found himself sitting on the ground, his mind quite blank, with no notion how long he had been there, though he supposed it couldn’t have been much time at all.

He noticed an officer standing near him and thought vaguely that the man seemed familiar. Who … Oh, yes. Wolfe’s adjutant. He’d never learned the man’s name.

He stood up slowly, stiff as a nine-day pudding.

The adjutant was simply standing there. His eyes were turned in the direction of the fortress and the fleeing French, but Grey could tell that he wasn’t really seeing either. Grey glanced over his shoulder, toward the hillock where Wolfe had stood earlier, but the general was nowhere in sight.

“General Wolfe?” he said.

“The general …” the adjutant said, and swallowed thickly. “He was struck.”

Of course he was, silly ass, Grey thought uncharitably. Standing up there like a bloody target, what could he expect? But then he saw the tears standing in the adjutant’s eyes and understood.

“Dead, then?” he asked, stupidly, and the adjutant—why had he never thought to ask the man’s name?—nodded, rubbing a smoke-stained sleeve across a smoke-stained countenance.

“He … In the wrist first. Then in the body. He fell and crawled—then he fell again. I turned him over … told him the battle was won, the French were scattered.”


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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