Warning: General Audience
Major Septimus Pycroft rides his white horse through the woods southeast of VilleFranque. He is dressed in the red uniform of the 42nd Regiment. On his head he wears a tan felt hat with a leather band. Over his face, he wears a leather mask that covers all of his head, except his mouth. In place of his left hand, he has a hook.
Something catches his attention. He halts his horse then pulls a telescope from a pouch on his saddle. Using his left armpit to hold the barrel of the telescope, he uses his right hand to extend the telescope. Since losing his hand, he has become very adept at doing things that would have required that he use his left hand. When the telescope is fully extended, he raises it to his eye.
In the distance, he watches a group of French cavalry ride in front of a ruined wall. At the head of the force is a Colonel of the French Guard. The group pauses in front of the wall.
Two horses approach them. The riders are dressed as civilians, but wear masks on their heads. The horses they ride are much better than most civilians ride. Almost all of the good horses have gone to the French army. The lead rider of the two also rides a white horse. The other rider is astride a chestnut. Why do they wear masks?
Pycroft is too far away to hear the conversation between the riders.
The two groups of riders meet and halt to talk. Colonel Cresson addresses the lead rider in French. “Colonel. My friend. It is good to see you again.
The other man sweeps his head from side to side.
Also in French, the other questions. “Should we not find a more discrete place to talk?”
“No, we will be brief. This will be fine.”
“So far, so good with our plan. Now you must convince Wellington to send Nairn on the mission to Rocha Fort.”
Before the other rider can reply, they hear the whinny of a horse.
The masked men turn suddenly towards the sound. On the road behind them, they see a wagon carrying gypsies pass heading away from them. They are not sure what the gypsies have seen.
Cresson watches them. “Bloody gypsies. They’ll have seen us. Merde!” Although he is alarmed that the gypsies may have seen their meeting, Cresson does not react to pursue the gypsies.
The lead masked rider looks to Cresson to act. “As I said, a more discrete spot. Will you silence them?”
When Cresson does nothing, the two masked riders turn their horses to pursue the gypsies. They ride off in haste.
Cresson watches them go. He smiles. “My friend, you will enjoy this more than I.” He turns his horse. With his men, they ride off towards the French lines.
The gypsies were concerned when they saw the meeting being held on the road that they had planned to take. Gypsies are not very welcome most places. They know to avoid people unless crowds can protect them. All they can see are two masked men chasing them. The soldiers did not pursue. The masked riders ride as fast as their horses can carry them. They are confident that they can catch the gypsies’ wagon. The riders close on the wagon quickly.
From within the rear of the wagon, one of the women sees them coming. She cries out to her father who is driving the wagon. “Papa! Papa!”
The wagon is pulled by a single bay horse. Her father slaps the reins to make the horse pulling the wagon go faster. They have another, unsaddled, white horse tied to the rear of the wagon. The white horse has ribbons tied into its tail to mark it as theirs. Even if the wagon was not held back by the tethered horse, the two riders can outrun them.
Zara, the daughter at the back of the wagon continues to call out. “Papa! Papa!”
As the wagon turns a curve behind a column of rocks, her mother calls to her from next to their father on the wagon bench seat.
“Salta, Zara, Salta! Jump Zara Jump!”
Zara quickly climbs out the back of the wagon. She launches herself away from the horse and towards the rocks. She lands in a roll. When she stops, she pulls up her skirts and dashes into the rocks and scrub brush. She hopes that the riders have not seen her.
She has no sooner settled into her hide, than the riders appear. The one on the chestnut shoots a pistol at the wagon.
Zara is relieved that the riders pay no attention to her location. She watches them ride past. They catch the wagon shortly after. The rider of the chestnut seizes the reins of their horse to stop the wagon. Her father is shot by the rider on the white horse when he tries to regain control of the reins.
Zara gasps and covers her mouth as she sees her father fall from the wagon.
Her mother is screaming from the back of the wagon. The rider pulls a second pistol and shoots her. She falls from the wagon to the ground. The rider dismounts to assure that the woman is dead.
The rider of the chestnut dismounts next ot her father. While this man searches her father for any booty, the other rider searches her mother. Her mother wears a gold ring shaped like a serpent on her right hand. The rider removes it from her and puts it on his own finger. He holds in front of his face to admire it.
He calls to the other rider. “Bring the white horse.” The other man unties the horse from the back of the wagon. Both riders mount, then calmly ride back towards Zara.
Zara has been sitting in her hide sobbing. She has just watched her family killed by these men. When they ride towards her, she does all she can to avoid the sense of panic that they now she is there. She is helpless to do anything. She shrinks as close to the rocks. They talk in English as they ride past her. They say nothing of searching for anyone else.
To be sure that they are gone, she waits and waits. When she is sure that they are gone out of sight, Zara cautiously leaves the rocks and runs to the wagon.
“Mama?” “Papa?” she calls softly.
She reaches her mother first. She kneels to check her for any signs of life. Her mother lies lifeless in her hands. Zara begins to cry as she hugs her mother’s body. She kisses her, then rises to check her father. He too shows no signs of life. Still crying, she too hugs and kisses her fathers body.
Zara sits with her parents for some time. Eventually, she rises. She drags the bodies of her parents a spot under a tree at the side of the road. She pulls a spade from the wagon to try to dig graves for them.
From his hiding spot, Pycroft watched the events along the road. As surviving woman starts to dig the graves, he decides to help her. He rides slowly down to the wagon so that he does not startle the woman.
Zara has been scratching at the soil with only the spade. The number of stones in the ground makes it very difficult for her. As she bends down to remove another stone, she hears a sound behind her. She turns to see a rider who wears a hooded mask riding on a white horse. Since one of the men that killed her parents rode a white horse and was masked, she fears he has come back for her. She drops the spade to flee to the nearest rocks. When she reaches the rocks, she cowers behind a large formation. “Have the men come back? Will they kill her too?”
After a long moment, she hears no one pursuing her. She peeks out from the rock. The rider still sits his horse and watches her location in the rocks.
While the woman hides in the rocks, Pycroft dismounts to help her. He ties his horse to the rear of the wagon. He finds a length of rope, as the woman has not secured the wagon, he hobbles the wagon horse so it may not run away with the wagon and his horse.
Slowly, he walks to where Zara had been digging. He examines both of the bodies to confirm that they are dead. From the way that they lie, he was sure, but checks their pulses. After, he picks up the spade to work the ground that Zara had been digging. It would be better if he had a pick. He starts clearing the hole with the spade. It will take time.
Zara has watched him. She is puzzled that he is digging a grave. Earlier, the men killed, pilfered and rode away. They man is caring for the dead. Why would a man who has killed her parents, now help to bury them? Maybe this is not one of the men who pursued them. While she questions what she sees, she remains in the rocks to be sure that she is safe.
Pycroft works at the ground for more than thirty minutes. Fortunately, there has been no frost to make the ground even harder. Although it has been difficult, he has been able to scratch two graves deep enough to keep scavengers away from the ground. He carefully lowers the bodies into each grave.
When both of the bodies lie in the graves, he removes his hat and holds it over his left chest. With his head lowered, he offers words over the grave.
“Then shall the dust return to the earth, as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
“And fear not them, which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
After pausing silently for a long moment, he shovels dirt onto each grave. When done, he pats the soil and piles the many rocks from the holes and nearby onto the top so that scavenger animals would not easily be able to get at the bodies. He has seen too many graves that were dug hastily ravaged by scavenger animals.
As he finishes, he notices a light that shimmers and dances on the trunk of the nearby tree before it moves away to another tree in the distance. Shortly, the light returns to the tree next to him. He turns to see which direction the light source comes from. When he locates the direction,
“You’ll have to wait this time Nairn.”
Not far from where Pycroft helps Zara, Nairn and Sharpe stand. This location is the point that Nairn normally signals to meet with Pycroft, Nairn pulls a small rectangular mirror from his pocket.
Nairn says, “I must convince Pycroft to use explosives again, which he swore not to do. On top of that, he will be at the beck and call of your hero, that bugger Brand.”
“Brand’s a brave man, sir. I’ve seen him in action.”
“Yes well, he’s been out there on his own for a good few years. Every time he comes back to the camp, he’s a hero. It’s gone to his head, Sharpe. He’s a law unto himself. Sometimes he is outside the law.”
Sharpe wonders what Nairn means by that statement.
“Maybe he uses rough methods. He gets results. So do you, sir.”
“Well, Maybe I do, Sharpe. But, I don’t take pleasure in it.”
“You’re a damn liar.” Sharpe smiles.
He starts at his right side to flash light from the sun. After three or four flashes he moves the mirror an eighth of a turn to his left to flash again.
While Nairn signals, Sharpe uses his telescope to see if the signal is received and returned by anyone.
When Nairn has completed a full semi-circle turn of signals, he moves the mirror back to his right to start again.
“Come on Pycroft, you old buzzard.” Nairn scans the horizon to their front.
Sharpe looks to Nairn after his remark. He doesn’t understand the comment. “You and Pycroft were good friends, weren’t you?”
Nairn replies without looking at Sharpe. “Just like you and me, Sharpe.”
Sharpe turns back to their front. He comments meekly. “Yes, sir.”
Sharpe is not sure that they are friends. Nairn, like most of Wellington’s officers comes from money. Pycroft too. Sharpe started as a private in a line regiment. He served in the Netherlands and then in India. While in India he was whipped when his sergeant tricked him into fighting. He was saved from a near-fatal number of lashes to help an officer on a mission to rescue a captured officer. For his part, he was promoted sergeant. Later, at the battle of Assaye, he saved Wellington’s life. In return, promoted him to ensign. Since then he has done his duty as an officer. But, many of the gentry officers don’t accept him. In fact, they are afraid of him because he has more experience than they.
Nairn turns to look at Sharpe after the tone of his reply and no further comment. He is concerned that he has offended Sharpe. He knows of Sharpe’s struggles within the officer corps. But, he would rather have few other men with him on a dangerous mission or in a fight.
“That’s a damn fine telescope that you have, Sharpe.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Sharpe had acquired the telescope after the Vitoria. The Telescope had belonged to King Joseph of Spain, Napoleon’s brother. It replaced a telescope that he had been given to him by Wellington. That telescope had been destroyed by the French Major Ducos when Sharpe had been captured before Vitoria.
Sharpe says no more about the telescope. He continues to scan their front for signs of a return signal.
Pyecroft draws on it. He holds the cigar with his hooked hand. With his other hand, he removes his hat.
“Tho I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.”
“Receive oh Lord the spirits of these poor unknown gypsies and send down Thy vengeance upon their murderers” .”In nombre de Padre, el Hijo y Espirto Santo, amen.”
Zara has watched him through all of his work. She does not understand why this man wears a mask. But, she is sure he was not one of the men who murdered her parents. She leaves her hide and walks toward the man.
Pycroft hears her approach. He turns his eyes towards her. The unknown girl walks cautiously towards him. At the edge of the graves, she stops and lowers her gaze to the graves. After she looks to Pycroft, she squats to place her own rock on each grave.
“Dear Lord, what are you going to do for this poor girl?”
While he speaks, Zara looks up to Pycroft.
Pycroft turns away, disposes of his cigar and mounts his horse.
Zara stands. She has nothing left except the wagon, a bag of clothes and the bay horse. What few coins her family had on them, the men took. From the wagon she takes the bag of clothes. Underneath the wagon bed, her father had fastened a small box that looked like it was part of the wagon suspension. She removes it and takes the coins that were hidden within. She will abandon the wagon as she will not need it nor the remaining belongings of her parents.
Zara decides to keep the horse. She unhitches the bay from the wagon and leads the horse to where Pycroft sits on his horse. She lowers her head and approaches Pycroft. When she stands next to Pycroft, she raises her eyes to him.
Slowly Pycroft extends his good hand to signal her to go with him. As the bay has no saddle, she takes his hand and climbs behind him. Together they ride in the direction of the signal light.
Sharpe continues to scan the horizon for any sign of a reply to Nairn’ signal. Nairn has stopped signaling. He too watches their front.
On another scan from the right, Sharpe sees movement. From a copse of trees he sees a rider, with another horse in tow. The rider wears the red coat of a British officer. He also wears a hooded mask.
“There he is, sir.”
Nairn opens his own telescope to look in the direction Sharpe has signaled
“Ah, that’s him alright.”
“Ah ha! I’ll be damned! Septimus has a girl with him.” Nairn is clearly amused
Sharpe looks puzzled towards Nairn. He had not seen a second rider. Nor had he heard Nairn use Pycroft’s Christian name.
“Silly, ain’t it?” Nairn grins and returns to looking through the glass.
Before he can say more, they hear a shot fired.
From the right, five French Dragoons ride towards Pycroft. One has fired a carbine. At that range it has no effect other than to alert Pycroft and Sharpe. Another fires his carbine. They ride on a course that converges with Pycroft’s.
Sharpe watches. He calculates the distances separating the two groups.
Nairn too has seen the pursuit. “Good God, they’re never gonna make it.”
Pycroft drops the line to the bay horse and spurs his horse to go faster. With two passengers, the horse struggles to carry them at speed. Pycroft turns to the left to leave the road. It will take him sooner to the stream that they will have to cross. There is no cover that they can use from where they came He does not know, but hopes, that this route takes him to Nairn.
The French dragoons sense an easy prey. They have drawn their sabers and hold them in attack position over their heads. They split into two groups of two and a single rider. Two ride on each flank, while the single rider follows directly behind.
Nairn and Sharpe watch. Nairn thinks they are helpless to aid Pycroft.
Sharpe says “Best we can do is down one of them, sir. What about the other four?” Unlike most officers who carry a saber and sometimes a pistol, Sharpe carries a Baker rifle. The same weapon used by his sharpshooters. This weapon can kill at 200 yards from a well-trained marksman. When he first joined the Rifles, his commanding officer would hold competitions to determine who could shoot the best. Sharpe had been among the better marksmen. He is well-trained and experienced.
“Septimus will have to think of something.”
While Nairn watches only, Sharpe raises the rifle to his shoulder and aims at the leading dragoon on Pyrcroft’s left. He squeezes off the shot.
The dragoon is hit in the right shoulder with enough force to roll him out of his saddle and off the horse. The riders behind momentarily stop. They scan to see where the shot was fired. They are surprised to see a puff of smoke on the hill on the other side of the stream. As there is only one puff of smoke, they quickly resume pursuing Pycroft.
As he approaches the stream that they will have to cross to reach where he thinks Nairn signalled, Pycroft pulls a small bag from his satchel. He tosses the bag rearward. The bag contains an explosive. When it hits the ground, the shock sets it off near the closest rider. The explosion disembowels the horse and throws the rider over the horses head to land on his head. He dies instantly.
The pursuit is now only three. But, he cannot use the explosive trick again. Nor can he stop. The French could capture him by threatening with their carbines. Pycroft rides his horse into the stream. As the horse plunges into the water , it struggles and staggers. Pycroft and Zara fall from the horse.
The remaining dragoons see their opportunity and gallop towards the waiting victims.
Sharpe has had time to reload. He aims at the first rider he sees and fires. This rider is closer than the first. He too is taken from the saddle. The pursuing French are now down to two. Enrage by the losses of the other three, they continue to pursue and plunge into the stream to surround Pycroft.
As the first dragoon attacks, Pycroft uses his hook to stop the saber strike, then to pull the rider from his horse. Before the rider can recover, Pycroft uses the tip of his hook to slit the man’s throat.
The last dragoon is wary, but still attacks. He sees two other British officers on the bank joining the fight. He is now outnumbered.
Sharpe yells at the rider, drops his rifle on the bank, then charges on foot into the stream. He has drawn his heavy cavalry sword as he dashes into the stream. The dragoon is now between Pycroft and Sharpe.
Pycroft is unarmed but stands in an aggressive posture in front of Zara. The dragoon heard Sharpe’s challenge and turns towards Sharpe. The man with the woman can wait.
Sharpe has faced cavalry before. He knows that to defeat the rider, defeat the horse. The water will slow the horse more than on dry land. It is still not easy. He will have to be patient.
As the dragoon urges the horse towards Sharpe, Sharpe quickly moves to the side away from the dragoon’s saber. While the dragoon changes hands, Sharpe cuts his sword at the horse’s mouth.
Wounded, the horse rears and throws the dragoon into the water. Sharpe skirts the horse and buries his sword into the dragoon’s chest.
Pycroft has already helped Zara to get to the shore where Nairn waits. He holds Sharpe’s rifle.
Sharpe cleans his sword, then too walks to the shore. The three men stand quietly, briefly. They let some of the adrenaline bleed from them before they speak.
Nairn speaks first. “Good to see you Septimus.”
“Wish I could say the same.” He responds as he faces Nairn.
Nairn lowers his eyes then turns his head to Sharpe. “Major Sharpe.”
Pycroft turns and offers his hand to Sharpe. “Thank you Sharpe. Good shots. Well played with that last rider too.”
Sharpe takes the hand and shakes. “Sir.”
Nairn interrupts them. “You’re probably wondering why I called you in from the hills, Pycroft.”
“No, I’m not wondering. You want me to blow something up. The answer is, no. I don’t use explosives anymore.” Pycroft stares at Nairn defiantly.
Sharpe has been a bystander to their conversation. “You could have fooled me back there, sir.”
“Those explosives are for my personal use.”
Sharpe decides to press the issue no further. “Who’s the girl?”
“She’s a gypsy. Her parents were murdered.”
Zara has been standing close and behind Pycroft since they climbed out of the stream. Sharpe, Zara and Pycroft are wet and cold after the fight with the French in the stream.
“She’s too frightened to tell me what happened.”
Nairn offers. “We have gypsies back at the camp. She can stay with them tonight. Gypsies look after their own.”
“So they do, Charles. We could all profit from their example.” With sarcasm dripping from these next words, he concludes, “Especially when cutting fuses.” Pycroft takes Zara’s hand and leads her away.
Nairn is hurt by Pycroft’s last comment. He turns to watch Pycroft leave.
Sharpe moves next to Nairn. Together they watch Pycroft stride away. Sharpe turns to Nairn. “After you.” He adds with a chuckle. “Charles.”
Nairn looks to Sharpe indignantly. He is speechless. He looks at Sharpe, then decides to go follow Pycroft. He returns Sharpe’s rifle to him.
Sharpe waits to follow. He holds his rifle on his hip and smiles broadly. He too follows Pycroft.
Sharpe is the least wet of the three who had been in the stream. He goes to Sycorax to retrieve his blanket. He leads his horse to Pycroft.
“Major Pycroft. Maybe your gypsy can use this to stay warm until her clothes dry. We should go elsewhere to light a fire.”
“Thank you, Sharpe.” He takes the blanket, shakes it out, then drapes it over Zara’s shoulders.
Zara accepts the blanket. “Thank you. My name is Zara.”
Pycroft offers his name. “Nice to meet you Zara. I am Major Pycroft.” He turns to Sharpe.
“This is Major Sharpe.”
Sharpe is near enough to hear her name as well. He nods when Pycroft introduces him.
“And the man in blue, is GENERAL Nairn.”
Nairn observed Sharpe’s kind action. He hears Pycroft’s inflected introduction. Even so, he removes his blanket and offers it to Pycroft.
“Thank you, Charles.”
“General” Sharpe returns to addressing Nairn by his rank. “I will go make sure the dragoons on the other bank are dead and to collect anything that we may use from them.”
“Very good, Sharpe. Yes, we should know to which unit they belong.
Sharpe approaches the downed French horse, first. The horse is still alive and struggling to rise. He should shoot it, but wants to avoid anymore gunshots. He draws his sword, then plunges it into the horse’s neck to avoid spraying blood everywhere. Quickly, the horse stops struggling
That horse’s rider lays nearby, with his neck twisted at an angle that is not natural. Sharpe checks the man for coins and papers. He finds a few small coins, but nothing else useful. He removes the dragoon’s unit and rank insignia and adds them to his pouch.
The first rider, that Sharpe had shot, lies still in the grass. Sharpe finds some more coins, a flask of brandy and some sausages wrapped in waxed paper. Nearby, the rider’s horse has returned to its owner and stands nervously. Sharpe takes its reins and leads it back to the stream. The other three French horses have wandered away out of sight. The bay has come to the stream to drink.
Downstream of the fight, Sharpe finds two more bodies ashore on the bank. The third body is nowhere to be seen. But, there are no signs that someone has left the stream.
After collecting some more coins, a flask of brandy, a flask of wine and some dried cheese, he finishes the search.
Besides the horses, he also retrieved two carbines and ammunition which he added to the bay’s burden to carry.
Sharpe mounts Sycorax and with the two horses in tow, rides back to the opposite bank where the others wait for him.
Pycroft had retrieved his horse and had checked his kit that all was secure.
Sharpe dismounts, then offers the French horse’s reins to Pycroft. “Pycroft, here’s a horse for your gypsy to ride.”
He removes one of the carbines and a cartridge box to give to Nairn.
“General, we may need this before we get home.”
“Find anything interesting, Sharpe?”
Sharpe takes the coins that he collected.
“A few coins. Pycroft, give these to your gypsy. She probably has no funds.”
Although Pycroft saw Zara take the coins from beneath her wagon, he accepts the coins, then gives them to Zara who quickly puts them in a pocket within her skirt.
“General, I found nothing on the dragoons that we need to discuss here. Let’s get away. There may be more dragoons in the area.”
“Aye, we can put a few miles between here and home before we stop to warm up.”
“And to eat. I found some food and drink we can use.”
Nairn jibes at Sharpe. “Ah, how resourceful. Once a Quartermaster, always a Quartermaster. Eh, Sharpe?”
Sharpe grimaces a smile. He knows Nairn does not mean harm by the comment. He doesn’t like the reminder.