The soldiers were set at the front of their column, marching in step, a thin line of red that heralded the unruly rabble, no man carrying less than two pairs of pistols, powder and ball, and a knife or sword. They did not hesitate in their march. Their numbers were too many, their noise now too great for any sudden surprise. They merely marched onwards, the line trembling with the glint of metal in first light, and then they spread from a line of pointed verticality to a gloved hand, wide enough to envelop the village.
The initial fusillade issued by the Onslow’s musketeers was the first and last display of order during the engagement. The villagers all seemed to pause for a divine moment of communal disbelief. They scattered under the advent of noise. Naked children, women still rising from their tasks, men half drenched in sleep. The motion was odd, the movement of buzzing flies who chose not to settle, and some ran in circles, others from building to building, and though cries arose, and a few men emerged from their huts grasping bows, no order was left among the victims.
There was little gunfire. The villagers who had armed themselves with bows and arrows, or reached for spears were shot down immediately. The remainder were overwhelmed by the first muddy tide of Roberts’ men, who howled their way from one end of the village to the other, then swept in upon themselves, like a wave returning from a cliff face.
After the initial manic burst, the morning turned to one of celebratory sport. The Fortunes separated into small hunting parties, clearing out the women and children who had run into the trees and the chest-high undergrowth and dragging them back into the center of the village before executing them. Hardy gathered the smallest of the corpses, those of children of five years and less, and piercing the flesh underneath their chins, threaded vine out of their mouths, and hung them like lanterns from the largest of the trees.
The Fortunes removed one hundred and twenty bushels of grain from the Ibo warehouses, and leaving a pyre of flesh at the center of the village, set about firing the buildings. The flames took hold as if the brittle structures were anxious to be engulfed, and the village erupted into a brilliant heated roar of branches embracing fire. The morning sun was obscured by a black and putrid smoke. Williams turned from the stench of burning meat and walked from the blood drenched dirt, away from the village. He held his arms tight to his side, as if to prove to any who looked down upon him that he was blameless in the bloodshed.
Under the trails of smoke, Williams saw Innocent bending over in the knee high grasses. The surgeon joined by Williams’ side, and together they approached the Dogon. He did not look up, intent on his business.
“Dear Lord,” said the surgeon, “What savagery is this?”
“‘There with a pitiless knife,'” quoted Innocent, standing over the brutalized body of the Ibo chief, “‘they sliced his nose and ears off: they ripped away his genitals as raw meat for the dogs, and in their fury …'” Innocent paused, took careful aim, and brought his boarding axe downward, “‘… they lopped off his hands and feet.'”
“You black bastard,” breathed Magnes, nearing the small congregation. His voice conveyed that he was thoroughly impressed by the body’s devastation.
“Ask William,” said Innocent, “I do this as Christ before.”
“Odd’s plot,” breathed Williams slowly, staring down at where Innocent had bored a fleshy hole in between the chief’s thighs. He wiped a hand across his eyes, pretending to wave away smoke.
“When Christ found Melanthius,” said Williams, “in his kingdom …”
“The business,” said Innocent, “is finished. Come, Christ also says, “‘It is an impious thing to exult over the slain.'”
Innocent took one step from the body, and then leant over and wiped his bloody hands on the long grasses.
Though many bodies were burned, while some swayed from trees and still more lay still in the undergrowth surrounding the village, Roberts instructed his men to retreat as quickly as possible. If there were survivors, and the Captain was forced to make the presumption, then their tragedy had transformed the living into messengers. The Fortunes had little knowledge of the terrain, no information of the surrounding countryside and did not wish to fall foul of an Ibo war party. The curved teeth of elephants, and the weaved baskets of grain were raised onto shoulders and they marched again.