Below is the first, of forty chapters from “Loyalty”. Please note that there is graphic violence in this chapter. Subsequent chapters build on the romance of the two protagonists and pull them through seventy plus years of history.
Send Him Victorious
Chapter 1 – Ballinamuck
September 8, 1798. Ballinamuck, County Longford, Ireland.
The rider had been on the move for four days. Four days of little sleep; pursue and be pursued, fighting and fleeing, living and dying. The line was now drawn. Desperately tired, he was, nevertheless, ready. It was his duty. Yet another battle was being waged, his disdain for those of the other colour.
As it was still very early, there was little light by which to see and anything there was to see, was blocked by darkness and blurred by mist. The rider leaned forward on his mount, hoping that the slight change of viewing distance would improve his ability to discern what lay ahead. That failed, as the shadows shifted, hung, then disappeared. The ground hollow and its shapes barred the field of view from his position to that on the other point of high ground.
He noted that it was an unseasonably warm start to the day. But that did not matter. His concern was for what stood behind that shroud.
The first discernible light revealed outlines of trees and hedgerows immediately in front of him. He strained forward again as more light from the breaking day lengthened the line of view. Fuzzy yellows of a harvested barley field, grizzled oak trees, knotted vines on stone fences emerged. There was a building in the distance, a cow in the field, a gate, a house. The hedgerows, trees, shrubs and grass all began to glisten with heavy dew.
But the Irish countryside was not one of pastoral peace.
Beneath the rider, the black horse pawed the trampled sod nervously, sensing the task at hand. He tossed his head, snorting. Two puffs of steam from his nostrils hung in the air, then disappeared. He shook again. The rider leaned over his mane. “Steady. Steady now,” he said, patting his neck. Willy, you are a fine gelding. Be with me again today.
He dared a gaze to his left, looking down the line of riders of his row; all peering; all trying to be quiet. The 23rd Light Dragoons were a smart-looking troop; tall horses, dark chestnuts and blacks. The cavalrymen were dressed in royal blue jackets with detailed white breast plastrons and epaulets, white breeches with a red stripe, black riding boots, Tarleton helmets with blue wool turbans and white and red plumes. All brass was polished. Proud. They were armed with sabres freshly sharpened, pistols and carbines at the ready. Crackin’ good we are, thought the rider, best troop in His Majesty King George III’s service.
“You ready?” asked the private next to the rider.
“Willy’s ready to go,” responded Private Isaac Preston, again patting the horse.
“When do you think the cannons will open up?” asked Private Carter.
“As soon as the gunners can mark their target,” said Preston.
“Can’t wait to get at those buggers,” Carter boasted.
“Right,” replied a less enthusiastic Isaac, facing forward.
“Colonel Maxwell will want a good show. How many French they got, any new regiments?”
“I heard only a thousand, same as we chased the past four days. Mostly croppy rebels.”
“I fuckin’ hate pikes,” said Carter.
“Pikes, muskets, and the few French cannon.”
“I can’t see them. You?” asked Carter, still looking forward.
“I feel like fuckin’ shite.”
“Carter, you better hold it and cover my arse,” replied Preston.
“Shut the fuck up, we’re all tired!” yelled Private Laird from Isaac’s left.
Private Carter was silent.
The 23rds were lined up in two rows, knee to knee, with Lt. Colonel John Shaw Maxwell and Major Edward Pakenham in front. Isaac was in the first row of twenty-six, his group of five privates placed tight between Sergeant Armstrong and Cornet Robinson. In the second row, just two horse-lengths behind, were the other twenty-five.
More light crept over the fields. The sun would be up shortly.
“Can you see? Can you see those pope’s arses?” Carter asked.
“Eyes ahead!” shouted Armstrong.
Two red-coated officers left the British side, riding slowly toward the enemy, white flag in hand, then faded into the now thinning mist.
“Surrender offer,” said Isaac.
“Take it, you Frenchie cowards,” Carter whispered.
Within three minutes the two officers returned into view. Puffs of smoke broke through the last of the mist. Then musket fire echoed. The officers ducked low on their galloping blacks.
“That would be no surrender,” said Isaac a little more loudly. “Now I can see their line on the hill clearly.”
The first volley of the six-pounders drowned out conversation. The Battle of Ballinamuck had begun.
Willy was even more agitated. Isaac held the reins tight, yanking them to get the horse’s attention. Isaac could see that his cavalry line was rocking with anticipation. His gut was in a knot. He knew from experience that some of his unit might not survive the day. I am not dying today, he thought, pulling himself higher in his saddle.
The United Irishmen Rebels and the French returned fire, all the action concentrated at the batteries, volley after volley. Smoke hung in the air. Isaac started coughing. His throat burned. The British cannons now focused a steady fire of balls into the front lines of the Rebels and French infantry. Isaac could hear only muffled sounds. Major Pakenham approached with final instructions.
“Troop, we will take on the front line and veer off to the west of the hill. Do not stop. The cannon will fire to half six, then we ride. Follow me,” yelled Pakenham, nodding at Isaac.
Isaac returned a trusting nod. He was now ready for the trumpet to signal the charge. The barrage continued.
“Guns stopped,” commented Private Watson, to Isaac’s right.
“Wait,” cautioned Isaac, raising his hand.
Gilchrist’s trumpet sounded.
Kicked into action by Isaac’s spurs, Willy’s hooves pounded into the barley field. There was one hedgerow to mount and then into the line of fire. The 23rds continued in two even rows at a quick pace. Willy’s hooves clicked on the top rocks of the fence. Musket balls zoomed from a cloud of smoke. The Rebel line was closing.
Random fire. Hard ride. Eighty feet.
Isaac lifted his carabine, dropping the reins, firing on the run.
Hole in line.
Slash. Kick off pike. Thrust. Cut. Rebel down.
Turn. Left boot pulled down. Off balance. Sliding!
Watson’s sabre cut into the pikeman’s head. Blood droplets winged toward Isaac. He yanked out the pike, unrighting himself. He turned right to leave the melee, spotted Laird, trapped. He stared, then dug his spurs into Willy, pulling free of the Rebel line. He and Willy galloped down the slope, where they rejoined the 23rds in formation.
Seated and breathing hard, Isaac counted horses and riders returning to the line. Fourteen, twenty, fifty-two. All accounted for, save one. Two men had minor gash wounds. Great fortune, they would survive. Where is Laird? Don’t see him.
His concern was quickly confirmed. “Sir, Laird is down. I saw him take a pike in the side,” Private Wilson reported to Pakenham.
“Thank you, Mr. Wilson, we will send a search team when the action is over,” called out Pakenham.
The cannon barrage picked up again. The Rebel line held.
Tough bastards, thought Isaac.
The pounding continued.
Pakenham approached the waiting lines of the 23rds. “Wait for the gunners.”
Isaac responded, “Aye, sir,” in unison with the other troopers. He could see the Rebel line now collapsing to the rear. It looked like they were retreating.
Pakenham returned again. “We are to cut off the retreat to the east. General Lake’s orders – take no prisoners.”
“Right, sir,” echoed the troop members.
Pakenham produced a sketch map and pulled it out for Isaac to see, as their knees touched. He pointed to their position and the town’s roads.
“Preston, if we take this road, cut through this farm and curl around, we can cut them off at the bog. Can you lead us through that bog?”
“Yes, sir. The dull lighter greens will show us the high ground. Any other units?”
“Armagh boys. We move on the trumpeter’s call,” said Pakenham, moving down the row to repeat the instructions.
Gilchrist sounded the trumpet and they were off. Isaac urged Willy into a quick canter, with the troop following in rows of four. Isaac was two horse-lengths behind Pakenham. They cut behind the batteries and infantry. The horses emerged onto a road, then thundered off to the east. About a mile down, they turned right and moved east of Ballinamuck. Another right turn; through into a lane, then cut across a pasture field.
Enemy in sight. Full gallop. Riders spread out.
First rebels entering bog water. Sporadic gunfire.
Slash. Stop horse. Turn left. Stab. Man down. Blood splatter.
Next rebel. Slash. Miss. Past target.
Next rebel. Waist deep. Pursue.
Slow step, step, step.
Horse up to knees. Rebel chest deep.
Two hooves pressed down on the rebel’s shoulder. The rebel disappeared. Bubbles emerged from stirring water.
The bubbles ceased.
A brown coat rose up from the churned water. A mat of wet red hair mixed with heather followed. The corpse slowly rolled over. The unshaven face of a youth emerged. His blue eyes were wide open, staring at Isaac.
Isaac stopped his racing mind. Around him was the sound of pain. Grunts and screams of men and boys being cut down in the water. The cavalry had gone blood mad.
The water turned murky brown with spreading red. Green moss stems and white roots floated amid the red and brown.
The sun peeked over the trees. There were parts everywhere: an arm, a head, a torso. A hat floated without an owner.
Isaac was frozen. The face, with blue eyes, was still staring up at him. He turned Willy around and breathed in the sweet, heavy odour of death.
He vomited. He closed his eyes. The sounds continued.
Within minutes the bloody work was done.
“Troop assemble!” he heard Pakenham yell. Gilchrist followed with a trumpet call.
Willy and Isaac moved to dry ground. The troop followed, a number of them now sporting hats, green cockades, foreign pistols and sashes stripped from the dead.
Back on the road, Isaac could see the French in the distance surrounded by the Armagh militia. A French flag was being waved madly by an Armagh man to cheers of his troop. There was Archibald Acheson, the young Lieutenant Colonel of their regiment. The 23rds passed a regiment of victorious infantry walking back to the command area at the north edge of the village. Another combined group of cavalry and infantry passed, leading a small group of rebels at gunpoint towards the command area.
“The hangman’s noose for you bastards!” yelled Carter.
The 23rds reached the command area. Isaac reported to Major Pakenham, “No losses, sir.” Others echoed Isaac.
“Well done, 23rds,” responded Lt. Colonel Maxwell. “We routed them. French General Humbard is defeated. Long live the King!”
Isaac dismounted and took his first look at himself. The sabre had drying blood along its length. His right arm was covered with dried blood spatters. He wiped his face with a handkerchief; more blood. Boots and pants were splattered with mud. His left boot was cut open. Although unhurt, his right shoulder ached. Willy was inspected first by Isaac and then by the Veterinary Surgeon. He too had fared well with only a few scrapes.
“Good horse,” patting Willy’s flank.
The Battle of Ballinamuck was over. The French had surrendered. Hundreds of United Irishmen were captured and killed. More would be hung. Bodies lay strewn on the lush fields across the townland. The losses for the British: minimal.
It was still early morning.
The 23rds moved north of town to make camp in a pasture. After four continuous days on the march, chasing the French, multiple engagements, it was time for cleanup and a stationary meal. After placing a cook pot on the makeshift fire, Isaac laid out his tent, placing his bag on Laird’s empty space. Poor bugger. Must be wounded. God help him on the surgeon’s table.
But when Sergeant Armstrong dismounted in front of the tent and looked at Isaac, he knew. “Christopher Laird is dead. We found him piked on the field,” announced Armstrong.
“Preston, take his belongings to the Colonel’s tent.” He tossed a bag and Laird’s helmet to Isaac.
Isaac did as instructed, the bedroll and small leather bag removed. He returned, determined to set up a memorial for his friend. To a pole, he affixed a white cloth and tied it to the tent guys. The bloodied helmet was placed at its base.
He had just completed that when Armstrong yelled, “Attention!” Carter dropped his bowl, mouth full of porridge.
Four horses with officers approached, slowly walking into the camp. From the white hair, Isaac knew exactly who was inspecting. The generous proportions tucked into a red coat and white breeches identified General Viscount Cornwallis beside the thinner and younger General Lake. Following were Colonel Maxwell and Major Pakenham of the 23rds.
Isaac and his troop stood still, facing forward. Cornwallis saw Isaac’s “cairn”, nodded, but continued. Pakenham sported a proud face, almost a grin, as did Maxwell. Maxwell briefly stopped in front of Isaac’s tent. He nodded his head, recognizing Laird’s place.
That evening Wilson picked up the conversation over the fire, rum ration in hand. “The Major. Guess where he is this eve?”
Carter said, “At the local tavern. With a young miss on his lap.”
“No, at home, entertaining Cornwallis,” said Wilson.
“Bugger, clean sheets and…”
“That makes sense. The Major’s home, Pakenham Hall is just thirty miles from here,” reflected Isaac.
“And a roast pig, bottles of French wine, pastries,” smiled a distracted Carter, lost in a food mirage.
“And a new promotion waiting,” returned Wilson.
“Good for Ned,” completed a defensive Isaac. He stood up, raising his mug of rum. “To we the victors. To King Billy.”
The others rose. “King Billy!” shouted the other three Orangemen of the 23rds.
“Catholics be damned!” they cheered.
Pat Kelly of the 23rds, attending an adjacent fire, jerked his head up to see.
Mugs raised and clunked together again.
Isaac crawled into his tent, exhausted, while his troop mates talked over the fire. He reached into his pack, pulled out a small item wrapped in thin leather, bound with a cord. Untying the cord, he removed a small logbook. In its binding he found a graphite piece. Facing the fire, through the tent flap, he opened to his last entry. He began.
September 7. In the morning we were surrounded by thousands of rebels in the old castle motte at Granard. It looked like sure defeat as we were totally outnumbered. Just Lord Longford’s small militia and us. Thank God, Major Porter and his yeoman force from Cavan arrived to bolster the Loyal forces. We fought long and hard through most the day. The slaughter filled the streets and fields. Chris fought so valiantly. Shoulder to shoulder with me, covering each other’s backs.
September 8. This day we defeated the French of General Humbard. Our armies under Cornwallis and Lake were too strong. The 23rds were valiant. Hundreds of the rebels died, their leaders captured. Bodies littered the fields and bogs. Chris Laird died. God rest his soul.
Is this conflict over?
Isaac rolled over, then sat up, looking into the dark. He reached out, placing his hand on the empty bedroll space next to his.
End of Chapter 1