No rights infringement intended. M/F
The Sharpe Fan Fictions of Sylvene
SHARPE'S CURSE PART I
Captain Richard Sharpe woke and stretched lazily. He was curled up on his cot under his blanket, unusual for him as he normally slept on his back. As his senses took in his surroundings, he realized was completely under his blanket. A little puzzled, he lifted his head and his nose twitched. He could smell wood smoke. He wondered if Harper had his tea ready. He opened his mouth to call out for him, "Meow!"
Bloody hell. What was that? He shook his head to dislodge the blanket and peered out from under it. He looked down. Oh no this was NOT happening!
"Rowr!" Panicking, he scrambled out from under the blanket and stood on the tips of his toes, his claws digging into the wool blanket. His fur was on end and his tail twice its normal size. He lashed it angrily. What the hell! How did he he looked around. Yes, he had a tail. Gingerly, he picked up his right hand paw and extended his claws. How did he know how to do that? Jesus wept! What was going on?
He looked around, gathered himself and sprang for his chair. A claw on his left foot caught in the blanket impeding his leap. The front of his body hit the chair and he clawed at the seat, his legs peddled the air, hampered by the blanket that was still snagged in a claw. He succeeded only in dragging the blanket off his cot and tipping the chair forward over himself.
There was the sound of fast moving footfalls and the flaps of his tent opened. Sergeant Patrick Harper thrust his head into his Captain's tent and found no sight of him. The blanket was dragged off the bed and his chair was turned over, but of the man himself, nothing.
Startled, he looked up. He was not wrong. He had heard a cat yowling from the Captain's tent. A lean Tom sat on the campaign table, glaring at him with a malevolent eye. He blinked. It looked totally ticked off. It was a large cat and looked nothing like the moggies he was used to in Ireland. Its fur was neither long nor short but somewhere in between. It looked ruffled and somewhat scruffy. It had long, long whiskers, a fat plume of a tail, and would have been a handsome cat with its green eyes if it did not look, well mean.
"Shoo! Ya mangy beast!"
The cat flattened its ears and hissed at him before meowing again, "Meowrrr!"
Damnit, Harper, it's me!
Harper took a step towards the cat and raised his hand to swat it off the table. The cat flattened its ears again and snarled. Actually snarled at him. He blinked and halted.
"What the hell?" He muttered to himself.
Just try it.
"Where has the Captain got himself off to now?"
"Meow, meow, meow!"
He's sitting right here under your bloody nose!
Harper ignored the cat and looked at the empty cot. There was a round depression on the cot where the cat had curled itself up for the night, leaving orange fur on it. Harper dusted it down and picked up the blanket and pillow that had fallen on the ground.
"No good, scabbie moggie," he muttered, "I bet you did that."
The wee beastie was meowing at him again, Harper thought and the Captain hadn't slept in his bed. He looked around the tent uneasily. But for the cat and himself, it was empty of any other life. His Captain's boots were still under the bed. His jacket, his sword and sash, his pants were all in the tent. A linen shirt was under the chair he righted. Where could the Captain have gotten to? The cat was caterwauling loudly and now paced around the table top, its tail lashing angrily.
"Rowr! Meow! Reowwwrr!"
Harper could hardly hear himself think. He turned and faced the table, shaking a finger at it.
"Now, don't you start!"
He caught himself and muttered under his breath.
"What the hell do you think you are doing, Harper? Talking to a moggie like he understood ye. You will be going mad next."
Sharpe glared. Then he stood on his hind legs and reached for his Sergeant. Before Harper could back away, he found himself with a face full of cat. Its forepaws resting on his shoulders, its claws sunk into the wool of his uniform jacket.
"Rowr. Rrrr Raawr!"
Harper stared into the cat's green eyes. Begorrah, if those eyes did not look like his Captain's eyes. The cat stared at him intensely without blinking. He swallowed. He couldn't move away without incurring damage for he was sure he would get raked if he did. A sudden thought intruded. Oh no it couldn't be, but the Captain's clothes and his shoes were in his tent. He couldn't be running around naked could he? He shook his head. He was really going mad if he thought the cat yowled again, interrupting his thoughts and stared at him intently. Harper swallowed hard. He had to ask. Even if it was the craziest idea outside of Ireland, he had to ask. Softly and diffidently, he asked under his breath, "Captain?"
"Uhh if this is you, meow once."
Harper stared. He licked his lips nervously, disbelievingly.
"Um meow twice."
"Meow, meow, meow."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph." He whispered, his mind reeling.
It was Ramona. Harper turned his head without turning his body.
"In here, Ramona," he called.
"I have breakfast ready. Did you bring Captain Sharpe his morning tea?"
The tent flaps moved and Ramona stuck her head in.
"What are you doing, Patrick?"
Only seeing her husband, she ducked and walked into the tent.
"Oh! A cat! And such a beautiful one!"
Before either man or cat realized what she was about, Ramona had swept Sharpe up in her arms, detangled his claws from Patrick's jacket and cuddled him to her ample bosom.
"Careful! He's mean!"
"Mean? Awww he's a lovely fellow."
She scratched behind his ears. Sharpe purred more.
"Look at that lovely plume of a tail! Where did you find him, Patrick?"
Harper scratched his head.
"In the Captain's tent."
"I didn't know Captain Sharpe liked cats. Where is he?"
"He's missing, Ramona."
"Aye. All his clothes are here, but he's missing, and there's this damned cat with his green eyes."
"Patrick," she chided, "It is a lovely cat."
Ramona looked down at the cat in her arms. Its eyes were slitted half closed in ecstasy but she could still see the green.
"It does have pretty green eyes."
Harper stirred unhappily and Ramona looked at her husband in puzzlement. "What is it Patrick?"
Harper was rubbing the back of his head and looked pained. The unspoken communication confirmed her suspicions. She looked at the purring bundle of fur in her arms then back at her husband
"Oh, Patrick. Surely you don't think that you do think that"
She looked at the cat again and addressed her next words to it as much as to humor her husband as to actually address the cat.
"Gato. Are you the Captain?"
Richard was pleased. Progress. He was hungry too. Ramona smelled of fried eggs and sausage. Before either Harper or Ramona could speak further, there was a loud cough outside and then an aristocratic face stuck itself in. It was one of the General's Aides.
"Uhh he's in the privy right now, sir." Harper responded.
The man frowned. "If you would pass him a message, Sergeant."
"Of course, sir."
"The General's compliments. Captain Sharpe is to attend on him and Major Hogan at his earliest convenience."
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! They were in for it now.
"I'll let Captain Sharpe know the moment he returns, sir."
The aide nodded and withdrew. Ramona was still stroking the cat which was purring in oblivious pleasure.
"Jesus, Ramona, what are we to do now?"
Ever the practical woman even if she did not believe that the cat in her arms was Captain Sharpe, she smiled at her husband. "We eat. We will think better on a full stomach."
Sharpe concurred, purring loudly as Ramona carried him out of the tent.
If the chosen men were surprised to see a cat sharing their mess, they said not a word. Not even at the copious amount of sausage it was able to eat for an animal of its size, nor when it put its face into the mug of tea. Sergeant Harper was uncharacteristically silent. Perkins chewed on his own breakfast slowly and stared at the cat. Why was a ginger cat with green eyes eating off the Captain's plate and drinking tea out of his mug? He didn't know cats drank tea and why was Sergeant Harper serving it? He wanted to ask but his Sergeant's grim foreboding countenance made any questions he had die in his throat unspoken.
He swallowed his own sausage and stared at the cat again. It was done eating and was cleaning itself. First it licked its front paws, then with one paw, it rubbed at its ears and head and gradually groomed down its body. He was still staring when the cat paused in its ablutions and glared at him. Its tongue halfway out of its mouth, one leg stuck up high in the air.
What are you looking at, Perkins?
Perkins blinked, blushed and buried his face in his mug. He wasn't going to ask. He wasn't going to ask! Hagman mumbled about fairies under his breath. Harris studiously read his book. When he couldn't stand it any longer, Perkins spoke up.
"Umm where's the Captain, Sarge? General Wellington's aide came looking for him earlier."
Harper looked pained now and Perkins was beginning to be alarmed. His Sergeant was staring at the cat. Harper had been thinking and thinking hard. He looked up and found both Hagman and Harris staring at him too. He would have to trust the men. Captain Sharpe shared their mess. His face grim, he addressed the cat.
"Same code sir, once for yes, twice for no?"
His voice fell to almost a whisper.
"That's the Captain, lads."
Shock, bewilderment and disbelief chased themselves across the faces of the men.
"Are you sure, Sarge?" asked Hagman.
"Ask him some yes/no questions."
Harris and Hagman looked at each other while Perkins stared open mouthed at the cat. Harris started first.
"What's two and two?"
"Meow, meow, meow, meow."
"I said yes/no questions!" Harper snapped, provoked.
"Er yes. Quite. Ummm"
"But he answered it, Sarge." Perkins interjected.
Hagman asked diffidently, "Are you really Captain Sharpe."
"Is it Sunday today?"
"Are we in Portugal?"
"Are we in Spain?"
"Is this the year 1811?"
"God in heaven," he whispered.
Harris was still staring at the cat in disbelief but was unable not to speak up.
"Perhaps, sir the gypsies we passed on the road last week may be able to help. Not that I really put in any store in the stories of magic and witchcraft, but it couldn't hurt to ask, could it?"
Do it. Find them or take me to them.
"The General, sir. What are we going to tell him?" Perkins asked in hushed tones.
Harper had made up his mind.
"We stall. Harris, you and Hagman go look for the gypsies. I will tell the General that Captain Sharpe is ill. Perkins, you stay here in camp and stall anyone looking for Captain Sharpe"
Perkins was playing with Sharpe when Harper returned. He was dragging a bit of string around for the cat while it pounced on it with energetic abandon, occasionally trying to make off with the string. The young man and the cat were enjoying themselves. Harper gaped at the impropriety.
Perkins looked up in surprise.
Harper hurried up to the young rifleman and hissed softly, "That's the Captain."
"Oh. Yeah. Right, Sarge."
Embarrassed and uncertain, he addressed the cat as he stuffed the bit of string into a pocket,
"Sorry, sir. Didn't mean to, sir."
"Meowrrr!" Sharpe sulked.
It was the morning of the second day that Sergeant Patrick Harper had lied to the General. It was not really a lie, he had rationalized. Captain Sharpe was really indisposed. He just wasn't really ill. The lie laid heavy on his tongue as he stood nervously in the General's tent.
"Captain Sharpe is still ill?"
"Yes, sir. Must have been something he ate, sir. Disagreed with him something fierce, sir."
Wellington frowned. It was unlike Captain Richard Sharpe to allow something as simple as indigestion to keep him from his duty. He wondered what the rogue was up to and where he was. He commanded unusual loyalty from his men and Sergeant Patrick Harper seemed nervous and was unusually verbose. In his experience, non-comms did not offer more than asked by their superior officers.
Looking at his aide, he asked, "Have you seen Captain Sharpe at all, Digby?"
"No my lord, Captain Sharpe was not in his tent or camp. Yesterday or today, sir."
"He was in the privy, sir." Harper volunteered, "I told Mr. Digby that when he came by, sir."
Hogan looked at the nervous Irishman and murmured softly. "You wouldn't be trying to pull one over me, would you Patrick me lad?"
Harper jumped, "Sir! No, sir! He really is indisposed. Sir!"
No one else had noticed the cat that had slipped in the tent at Sergeant Harper's heels except Hogan. He had seen it yesterday as well but had not thought to comment upon it. It was an uncommonly handsome cat and he would have sworn it was listening to their conversation as it sat attentively if partly concealed under a stool.
Hogan looked at the Sergeant. He was mangling his shako. Something was definitely wrong, but the Sergeant would not talk with many ears around. With a small movement Hogan signaled his superior officer. The frown on Wellington's face deepened and his mouth turned down. What now? He wondered impatiently. He'd learned to listen to his exploring officers and Hogan had distinguished himself over the years, often with the help of Sharpe. This should be a simple exercise of assigning Sharpe and his men once more to assist Hogan in scouting the land and he was impatient at the delay. With an imperial nod, Wellington motioned to the entrance to his tent. His well-trained aides left and let the tent flaps down behind them.
"Well, Sergeant, where is Captain Sharpe?" Hogan asked once they'd allowed time for the General's aides to move away.
Sergeant Patrick Harper grimaced in an agony of indecision.
"Spit it out, Sergeant." Wellington ordered brusquely.
"Well, you see, sir. Captain Sharpe, well, he he's been cursed, sir."
"Cursed, Sergeant? What do you mean?" Asked Hogan.
"All we know is that he that he's not himself, sir. He's changed, sir." Harper said miserably.
"Where is he, Sergeant?" Demanded the General.
Impatient with Harper's hemming and hawing, Sharpe stepped forward.
Just tell him the truth, Harper!
Hogan jumped and looked around, bewildered. He was sure he heard Sharpe's voice. Wellington had looked down at the imperious meowing. A large orange cat sat by his chair, looking up at him with intelligent eyes.
Shit, sir! Thought Harper as Sharpe leapt onto the table, his tail held high.
Wellington was a little taken aback at the effrontery of the animal, but it appeared friendly enough and he had always liked cats. It was a lovely animal with a muscular body and slender sinewy legs and he was surprised into speaking aloud, "Well, where did this handsome fellow come from?"
Harper blurted out, "That's Captain Sharpe, sir."
The General had extended a hand to stroke the friendly animal and paused in total stupefaction at Harper's words.
"Sharpe?" Wellington stared first at the cat, and then directed his piecing gaze at the hapless Sergeant. "Have you gone mad, Sergeant?" Wellington asked, shocked at the man's words.
He had heard Sharpe earlier, thought Hogan as he stared at the cat in astonishment. It had ginger fur and green eyes. Unwilling to believe it and yet unable to stop himself, he asked, "Richard?"
Yes, it's me, sir.
Hogan gasped in shock and Sharpe turned in sudden hope.
You can hear me, sir?
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph Yes, yes I Richard. Er meow once for yes and twice for no. Do you understand me?"
"That's what I've been doing, sir." Harper said, hope creeping into his voice.
"Good God!" Wellington had watched the proceedings with disbelief and now interrupted. "Has the entire world gone mad? You don't mean to tell me that both of you believe this this animal is Richard Sharpe?"
"Yes, sir." Harper affirmed nervously.
Hogan was still gaping at the cat, shock making his tongue stumble, "I I am trying to determine that, sir."
"You cannot be serious, Hogan." Wellington snapped, but Hogan did not reply, his attention on the cat.
"Are you Richard Sharpe?" Hogan asked of the cat.
"Meow once, Sharpe."
"Dear God" Wellington looked around impatiently.
"That's not conclusive, Hogan. If indeed this cat is Richard Sharpe"
The General looked around his desk then tapped the maps that the cat was sitting on.
"Here. Show me the fortresses of Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo."
Sharpe turned his head and looked at the map. It was a map of Northern Spain. The wrong map.
Standing, he walked over to the edge and pushed the book weighting it down off and pawed at the maps. Extending his claws a little, he managed to lift it. Ah! Success! It turned and curled. He patted the edge and it rolled over. He nudged it again to look at the map beneath. Thank God, it was the right map. Rolling the top map further back, he squinted at the writing on the one below, seeking the names near the Portuguese border. There they were. He patted the area with a paw and looked up. The men had stared intently as the cat pawed at the edge of the top map and rolled it up. Now Wellington's mouth fell open. Unable to believe his eyes, he stared at the map as he grappled with the undisputable fact that the cat had understood him, could read and very possibly was Captain Richard Sharpe.
"Oh, Dear God." Wellington whispered the words while putting a hand to his head.
Harper stifled a sigh of relief.
Sharpe patted the General's other hand with a soft paw in commiseration. He could hardly believe it himself.
After both Hogan and the General had questioned Harper on the circumstances surrounding Sharpe's transformation, he had been dismissed so there was naught he could do but return to camp. He'd left the Captain in the General's tent where Major Hogan continued to confer with General Wellington.
"You can actually understand him, Hogan?"
"Yes, sir. Strangely enough, I do."
I'm glad someone does, sir.
"What did he say, Hogan?"
"That he's glad someone could understand him, sir."
Hogan paced. Thinking aloud as he did so. Sharpe was perched on the table watching him pace, his forepaws curled under himself comfortably. Wellington had picked up his dispatches again. The fingers of one hand tapped the table idly. Obeying his feline instincts, Sharpe nudged the hand and rubbed his head against it. Wellington, used to cats from his boyhood, acquiesced to the demand without thought.
"I could still make use of you, Sharpe. Indeed it might even work better. You could do more go where a man could not. At the same time, we could see if we could find the gypsies as Sergeant Harper suggested; to see if they could help in someway. It is a long shot, but I have come across different tribes in my travels"
Hogan was rambling on, certain of the privacy of the General's tent. "Your Sergeant said the men had not been successful as yet in finding the tribe you recently passed, but on horseback, we would cover more ground. I could rig up a basket for you to sit on."
"Sharpe? Are you attending?"
Hogan stopped pacing. Wellington was stroking the cat absently while perusing his dispatches. Richard was delighting in the pleasure. Hogan gaped and shook his head.
"That's Captain Sharpe, sir."
Wellington paused, shock on his face when he realized what he was doing.
"Good Heavens! You are right, man. I had forgotten. Excuse me, Sharpe."
Richard glared at the interruption. Hogan glared back.
"You're a man, Richard, not a cat."
Sorry sir, forgot.
"What did he say, Hogan?"
"He says he had forgotten too and apologizes. I'll just take the Captain, sir. We'll leave in the morning. Good day to you, my lord."
Hogan paused in his attempt to pick up Sharpe who was looking at him in a most annoyed manner.
I can walk!
"We had intended to send not only Sharpe, but his men with you."
"We will be able to travel faster on horseback, sir."
"Captain Sharpe, you and your men are assigned to Major Hogan." was the dry enjoinder. "Good luck, gentlemen, do come back in one piece."
"Thank you, my lord."
The sun was warm in the camp. Sharpe sat outside his tent, his plumed tail curled around his feet, his eyes half closed.
Sharpe opened his eyes then half closed them again, ignoring the dog.
He blinked and looked up disdainfully.
What are you doing here?
Sharpe sniffed superciliously at the hound as only a cat could.
This is my territory, thank you.
Is not! The dog barked.
Sharpe indicated his tent with a movement of his head.
My tent. My men, my campfire.
The dog snuffled the ground and looked at the cat suspiciously.
I don't remember your scent yesterday.
Ain't my problem.
Hey now. You could be more polite.
The dog growled. Sharpe flattened his ears and growled back. The dog hesitated then began to bark again. Faster than the dog could react, it found itself with a bloody nose. It howled and retreated. Sharpe shook his paw in distaste.
Urgh dog blood. Go away dog, you bother me.
I'll be back! It barked as it slunk away.
Discretion sometimes being the better part of valor, Sharpe leapt up onto the table to better keep an eye out for returning dogs. The sun was warm and he began to nod. The nature of the cat overpowering that of the vigilant rifleman, he was soon stretched out under the somnolent rays of the sun, fast asleep.
Dog breath in his face woke him. He opened an eye, then the other. Yawned rudely in the hound's face then sitting up, washed a paw. It was Colonel Barkley's Great Dane. Quite large enough to place his face on the table.
The dog puzzled at the cat's scent.
You are Man?
Man! He's just a cat!
Sharpe peered over the edge of the table.
Oh, it's you, nose scratch.
The dog took affront to the insult and lunged. His companions joined in, leaping at the table. Sharpe hissed and swiped his sharp claws across another cold nose. He was outnumbered. The table was being jostled hard and could tip at anytime. A retreat seemed prudent. The Great Dane tried to restore order and failed but it was facing the other dogs, it's back the same height as the table.
Sorry boy. I'll make it up to you.
He leapt, landed on the Great Dane's back and dug his claws in. The dog howled in pain and bolted through the camp, trying to dislodge his tormentor. Sharpe screamed in challenge. The commotion brought the riflemen running.
"Captain Sharpe, sir!" Perkins shouted as the Great Dane ran past with the cat on its back, pursued by three other hounds.
"Hush lad!" Harper cried as they ran after the dogs. "The less that know, the better."
Sharpe's claws were beginning to lose purchase, but Major Hogan's tent was ahead. With swift calculation, he bunched his muscles, waited for the right moment in the Great Dane's gait then leapt off, landing on all four feet before continuing his retreat post haste.
The angry shriek of a cat mingled with the yelps of dogs and men shouting made Hogan scramble out of his tent. He gaped at the sight before him. Sharpe was racing towards him in a streak of muscled power. Several large hounds were closing the distance and behind them, green clad riflemen followed, shouting at the dogs. He was struck in the chest with the force of a spent canon ball and stumbled backward. Before he could even cry out in pain, Sharpe had clambered up his coat, clawed his way around his shoulders and was screaming defiance at the dogs from the top of his head. He could feel Sharpe's claws sunk into the back of his coat, the prick of sharp claws on his back and scalp. Good lord, Hogan thought. The man was fast, as cat, he was faster. There were more important matters at hand though. Putting up a hand to steady the cat, he kicked out at the hounds.
"Yaaargh!" He shouted, "Be off with you, you mangy curs! Away!"
The riflemen had arrived, strong hands hauled at dog collars, pulling them away from the Major who was in danger of being tripped. Sharpe was still screaming insults at the dogs.
"Rowwerrrr. Reeeowrr! Raaaaaarwwrrrr!"
Bloody, flea bitten mongrels! Filthy cowards all of you!
"You aren't helping, Sharpe." Hogan muttered under his breath as order was restored.
Bored. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored. Colonel Hogan had admonished him to stay in his tent and out of trouble until they were ready to leave the next morning. He had explored the tent several times, stuck a paw in every nook and cranny, pushed everything off the table and now lay under the cot, swatting a bored paw at the webbing that held the mattress.
Hmmm there was a loose thread. He caught a claw on it. Tugged. Hmmm more loose threads. He swiped at it and then dragged his claws down. Ooo, that was satisfactory. He did it again. Then with the other paw. A few more swipes. Oh, look! Stuff! He scrabbled at it with his back claws. Fun! Feathers!
"Richard? Are you still in here?"
Startled, Richard paused. His mouth was full of feathers. He stared at the destruction he had wrought. Ut-oh. What the hell had he been doing? Better get rid of the evidence. He spat.
Under the cot, sir.
"Well, you didn't quite have to hide, Sharpe. I brought us some tea. I'd like to discuss what we need to do this next week."
Argh! He had a claw caught. He tugged. This was embarrassing. He couldn't get lose. He tugged harder.
"What are you about, Richard? Come out."
In a minute, sir.
He tugged harder, pushed at the webbing and used his legs to kick at the mattress. Hellfire! Now he had a claw on his foot stuck too. He struggled so hard, he shook the cot. Hogan stared at the shaking cot for an incredulous moment then went on his knees and looked under his cot.
"Good heavens, Richard, you've destroyed my mattress!"
If Sharpe could have blushed, he would have.
Sorry, sir. Didn't mean to.
"What's the problem?"
Uhh I need some help, sir... I'm stuck.
Hogan pushed aside the feathers and chuckled at the sight of the cat with a claw on a front paw and rear hooked on the rope webbing.
"I'll have you unstuck in a minute."
SHARPE'S CURSE PART II
Wellington was stroking Sharpe again. Hogan smiled bemusedly. He didn't know the General liked cats, but there was Richard sprawled across his maps and his all important dispatches while Colonel Barkley complained about him.
"So you are saying that this idle little fellow beat off four dogs?" Wellington asked. His tone was amused. That Sharpe did not object to the description showed how far gone he was under the spell of the caressing hand. Sharpe looked boneless as only a cat could. Almost rolled entirely on his back, a front leg raised in the air, the paw dangling as the General scratched under his chin. Barkley looked at the way Wellington was stroking the cat.
"Is he yours, then sir?"
"I only met this handsome fellow this morning and he has been a perfect gentleman. Major Hogan has taken him under his wing."
"I'll take care of any damages, Barkley." Hogan offered.
"Nonsense, Hogan!" Wellington turned to Colonel Barkley, "Isn't your black beast the size of a small horse? I would have feared for the cat. He must have frightened him terribly."
Barkley was beginning to have his own doubts, "Perhaps the little beast was only trying to get away yes, he must have been frightened. Quite. Quite. Doubt a cat could really have routed four dogs."
"I would say it could not have, Barkley." Wellington replied.
"Just a misunderstanding, eh? Fighting like dogs and cats." Colonel Barkley chuckled at his own joke.
After Barkley left, Hogan again reminded the General.
"That is Captain Sharpe, sir."
Wellington paused in what he was doing, swore under his breath before smiling deprecatingly at himself as Sharpe butted his hand with his head and demanded his attention again.
"As a cat, he is a restful little fellow isn't he? Demanding, but rather restful."
The basket Hogan tied in front of his saddle was perfect. Sharpe could sit up or lay down as he chose. Somehow, the gait of the horse was easier to handle in his current form. Sergeant Harper and the Chosen Men accompanied them, and they lived off the land as much as off their own stores. Sharpe ranged farther than he could have as a man, returning to report to the Colonel who took notes and made drawings on his maps. Often, he slipped behind the enemy lines while his men waited nervously for his return.
It was towards the end of a week out in the field when Sharpe smelled cooking fires, horses, goats and dogs.
"Meowwrr. Mrrr. Mowrr."
Some sort of encampment up wind, sir. I can smell cooking fires and roasting chickens.
"French?" enquired Hogan
No, the horses are clean. I also smell goats and dogs.
Clucking to his horse, Hogan turned. "It may be a band of gypsies, Richard. We may be in luck."
"Let us scout it out first, sir." Harper said as with a motion, he sent two pairs of riflemen up ahead. It was not long before they returned with their reports.
"Six wagons, sir. A few carts, donkeys, horses and other life stock. They look like they've been here a few days."
Hogan called out as they approached the wagons. The markings were familiar. They were in luck. He had crossed paths with this particular tribe before. Several voices responded, inviting him to the circle.
Richard leapt down from the saddle to do his own reconnaissance, leaving his Sergeant to bivouac the men on the edge of the encampment and set a piquet.
I'll be back.
Before he had gone far, he was found by the camp cats. He paused, accessing the situation. He had not encountered this many strange cats in one place.
Hello stranger. Hello.
They prowled slowly forward and fanned out to encircle him. He moved uneasily and showed his teeth in a silent snarl. He easily outweighed them but still, they were many.
What are you doing here? Who have you come with? How did you come here?
I come on my own. I go where I choose.
He growled, allowing them to know he would stand against them. Outnumbered or no.
The cat fight could be heard from the camp fire. Hogan had been eating slowly, expecting Sharpe to join him so he could slip him a few morsels from his plate. He looked up uneasily now.
"It's just the cats," one of the men said, not looking up from his plate, "they get into little fights over the queens over territory."
Another chuckled. "We move often, so there's always fight over territory."
Hogan looked in the direction of the angry shrieks uneasily. "I brought my cat with me."
There was laughter now. "If it is male, it will learn soon, who holds the woods. If it's female, it will learn who leads the pack."
The sounds grew louder. They could hear thrashing in the underbrush. It sounded, to Hogan's ears, like a fearsome fight. Another angry shriek, a howl. A scream. He hadn't known that cats could make so many different sounds. Then the underbrush rustled and a large ginger cat walked into the firelight. The flames cast a reddish glow on its fur. It held its large plumed tail with its black streak down the center high, stalked into the circle of the firelight and sat by Hogan regally. It was bloody. An ear had been chewed on. Some fur was missing from its side and there was a gash over an eye.
"Are you all right?"
Never felt better, sir! But I'm hungry now and that chicken smells good from here.
Sharpe seemed to be bursting with energy and practically swelled with pride. Hogan looked dubious, but not knowing what else to say or do, he set his plate down and Sharpe ate lustily. The men were buzzing with talk at the appearance of the cat. "
That is your cat?"
"It is some cat! What kind is it?"
"It comes from the ancient lands of the Abyssinians. A grand cat it indeed is." The new voice hushed all others. The clan matriarch had deigned to join them. Men stood to lend a hand to the old woman. A chair was brought for her. A plate filled.
Sharpe looked up, cocking his head to look at the clan matriarch. She was attended by three young women who gasped and cooed at the sight of him. He sat up in alarm as hands reached out for him.
Ladies! Your pardon!
More than a pair of hands were on him and before he could run, he was swept into warm arms and a soft bosom.
Hogan chuckled as the young women fussed over Sharpe and cuddled him.
"Stop fussing, Richard, I wager you are in good hands."
According the woman the same respect her clan did, Hogan addressed her after she had finished her meal.
"This is my cat, mother. Have you met him before?"
She smiled. "Maybe I have, and maybe I have not."
"He is hurt. Will you help him?"
"Maybe I will and maybe I will not."
"May I ask that you will?"
The old woman looked at Hogan shrewdly.
"He is important to you."
"To General Wellington as well, mother. He is useful to me in this form, but we need him as he was if we are to drive the French out of this country."
"And why is that important to me?"
"The French harass you, do they not? You do not have safe passage through Spain while they hold half of it."
"There is never safe passage for the Rom."
"But they make it more difficult."
"You speak true."
"The French destroy and despoil the countryside. We British do not. We only seek to liberate Spain from the clutches of Napoleon."
The matriarch was silent. That she had seen. Seen the carcasses of animals rotting in the sun, felt the pain at the despoiling of the earth mother. She was still a moment longer, then she silently sorted through the many small pouches hung around her neck and waist and extracted one. Selecting a piece of chicken, she dipped her fingers in the pouch and sprinkled some of the contents over it, and placed it on the plate on the ground. With a clap of her hands, she called her attendants and demanded they loose the cat.
Sharpe leapt down and shook himself, before returning to Hogan with a scowl. He was just beginning to enjoy himself. Ahh more chicken. He was still hungry after that fight. Hogan watched as Sharpe gobbled the last bits of chicken down and began to wash himself. As the firelight waned, the gypsies began to sing. Sharpe had tucked his forepaws under himself, curled his tail around himself and closed his eyes. Soon, however, he settled into a ball and little cat snores could be heard.
"Bring him to my wagon. I will tend his hurts."
Hogan obeyed. Lifting the limp cat and following the old woman to her wagon. Within the wagon, he laid Richard on a bench as instructed and tried to press a small purse on the woman.
"Do you think to bribe me for my aid?" Her tone was cold.
"No, mother," Hogan murmured humbly. "I have been a guest with you before and not once have I brought anything to your fire. Gold is the only thing I have to share."
She accepted the purse then with a nod. "Very well, you may return for him in the morning." Hogan returned to the small encampment the riflemen had made. Sergeant Harper had raised a blanket tent for him and looked around for his Captain.
"The Captain, sir?" He enquired.
"We will return in the morning for him."
Harper wanted to ask more, but stayed his tongue. He could only trust, hope and pray.
The cat was handed to Hogan. It was totally limp and he was alarmed. However, it was warm and pliant in his hands. He could feel its heartbeat and its even breathing. The old woman had cleaned the blood off its fur and cleaned its wounds. Hogan lifted it up to his face.
"Richard?" He whispered.
It purred softly.
"What will need to be done now, mother?" He inquired politely of the clan matriarch.
"He sleeps. He heals. And when he wishes to be man again, he will."
With no other choice given him, Hogan draped the cat into the basket, made his farewells and left the gypsy encampment. He had what he had ranged the land for and now it was time to return to camp.
Wellington was poring over the maps that Hogan had made, listening intently as he made his report. The intelligence gained was invaluable and Hogan had managed to take notes of French troops and their movement as well.
"You've done an excellent job of mapping the country, Hogan. You've even managed to note number and type of guns the French have."
"It is advantageous in some ways to have Sharpe in this form, sir."
"Yes, well," Wellington paused. "Captain Sharpe. You said that you had found a Romany tribe you've guested with before?"
Both men looked up at a shout and saw the large orange cat lope in from the direction of the picquets, nimbly avoiding horses, carts and marching men. He'd been hunting again, Hogan thought. There definitely was something large in his mouth.
"When he wishes to be man again?" Wellington asked quietly. Sharpe was displaying more cat-like traits with each passing day.
"That was what the old woman said, sir."
"It looks like he's caught another young rabbit."
"Yes, it does."
"You understand him, don't you, Hogan?"
"Frighteningly, sir Yes, I do."
As the men watched each keeping his own counsel, the cat approached and laid its latest catch at the General's feet.
The camp was getting used to the sight of the large cat that spent much of its time between Major Hogan's and General Wellington's tents. Wellington had sent the Light Company of the South Essex out under Lieutenant Price and none had dared question where Captain Sharpe was. There was nothing for Sharpe to do except get into trouble and he had managed to do that with aplomb. He was frustrated, agitated and surly. He beat up the camp cats and cowed the dogs except for Colonel Barkley's Great Dane. The only time he was calm was when he was with Wellington. For whatever reason it was, the General also remained in a better temper when Sharpe was around, and it was only Wellington who could stroke him into a relaxed purring mound of fur.
The nights were getting colder now and Sharpe was reluctant to leave the warmth of the tent. He had resisted Wellington's every effort to turf him out until the General had given up. He was now comfortably ensconced on the General's lap, purring loudly as Wellington stroked him.
Hogan chuckled. "Better you than me, sir. He's already destroyed two mattresses of mine."
"You let him sleep with you?"
"He can't stay in his own camp without his men around. It's cold. He's a cat."
Then he grinned.
"Although, I'm not the one stroking him into a nerveless purring ball of fur."
Once again, Wellington paused abruptly in his actions. Sharpe complained and the General went back to stroking.
"It is rather nerve wracking if one thinks about it," admitted Wellington wryly, "but he does look like a cat and behaves like a cat."
Hogan chuckled and turned to leave the tent, pausing to add before he left, "Oh, by the way sir, he snores."
Wellington rolled his eyes.
He was still stroking the purring cat.
"You are lucky I have use for you in this form, Mr. Sharpe."
"Sharpe, just settle down!"
The cat was kneading, purring happily.
"Argh! Watch those claws!"
Sharpe purred loudly and ignored the jerking under his paws, simply adjusting his weight until Wellington stopped moving, before settling down comfortably. This was nice. He was warm and content. He had long ago acknowledged his wish for Wellington's approbation. He wanted the General to like him and he liked that Wellington liked him. He found himself enjoying the General's company. He enjoyed listening to the discussions of military strategy as he lurked in his tent and wished he could participate in them. He just needed to be a man again. Gain new rank and then another, and another. He yawned sleepily.
Wellington muttered under his breath and shifted into a more comfortable position under his blanket. How on God's green earth had he allowed Hogan to talk him into this? Sharpe had curled up on his chest and now purred contentedly. Wellington glared.
"Does Colonel Hogan actually allow you to sleep ON him?" He asked testily.
The only response he received was another contented purr. He probably did not! He grumped, but could not find it in him to turf the cat off. It was a companionable creature and he had to admit that he enjoyed having it near. He had always enjoyed the company of animals when he was a boy, and sometimes, he missed Jack, the little terrier he had with him in India. Even if it were a little disturbing if he thought into it, he enjoyed the company of Richard Sharpe as a cat. The rumbling purr lulled him to sleep and he did not hear the little cat snores as it in turn found sweet slumber.
Wellington woke slowly with a sense of well being. He had slept surprisingly well and stirred sleepily in the early morning chill. As his senses slowly came to life, he was aware he was not alone in his bed. Ah yes, the cat. But the cat was not quite so large. He opened his eyes.
Richard Sharpe was woken from deep slumber by a startled cry. He jumped and opened his eyes, staring straight into General Wellington's shocked face.
He fell off the General's campaign bed onto the cold ground. He was naked.
"Good God, Sharpe, you are naked!"
Sharpe looked around desperately for something to cover himself with. He grabbed at the blanket.
Wellington held it tight. He was not letting it go.
"Sir? Are you alright, sir?" It was one of the sentries on guard.
"Everything's fine, private. The cat startled me."
Wellington glared at the hapless Captain and hissed.
"Put some clothes on, man!"
"Can't sir. I don't have any." Sharpe whispered back.
"I can't wear your clothes, sir!"
"You don't have a choice, Mr. Sharpe. Unless you want to be seen running naked from my tent Dear God. Half naked would be just as bad maybe worse."
Sharpe looked around desperately. The camp was beginning to stir, the familiar early morning sounds at once reassuring and alarming. With no other choices before him, he stood and reached for the General's buff breeches. Wellington fell back into his bed and put his hand over his eyes. He heard Sharpe swear under his breath.
"Is there something wrong Captain?" His voice was frosty and clipped.
"No, umph sir. Mmmph!"
Sharpe swore again.
"Then I would appreciate that you stop swearing."
"Sorry sir." He was still grunting. "A bit tight, sir."
He swore again as he struggled to get the breeches up, sucking in his breath as he tried to button them. Wellington opened his eyes to a view of his breeches sharply delineating the curves of Sharpe's rear and closed them again. He moaned. He could only pray that they got out of this mess without anyone seeing a half dressed Richard Sharpe leaving his tent.
Richard Sharpe stopped and turned.
"Major Hogan, sir." He moved the small bundle he held behind him.
"You are returned to us."
Hogan clapped both hands on Sharpe's shoulders and grinned.
"Glad to have you back! When did you arrive?"
Sharpe was beginning to feel a burn to his ears.
"Uhh this morning, sir."
"You were near camp I hope?"
"Quite near, sir."
"Capital! Capital! Come with me, m'boy. I'm on my way to see the General. He'll be glad to see you."
He will not, thought Sharpe morosely as Hogan turned him and began to propel him towards the General's tent.
Sharpe stood at attention in front of Wellington, his shako in one hand, a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bit of string in the other. Major Nairn had arrived that morning as well and all three men were conferring over the maps that Hogan had drawn, occasionally asking a question of him and throwing a word or two of praise at him for his work. He didn't need witnesses to this, he thought. How could he return the General's breeches to him in front of Hogan and Nairn? He'd have to do it another time.
"Excellent, Sharpe. How close did you say you managed to get to the French lines?" Major Nairn asked.
"Very close sir." Actually, he had strolled behind the lines when he was in the form of the cat.
"So you are certain of the number of guns, Sharpe?" asked Wellington.
"Yes, sir. Unless they've managed to move more in, sir."
"Argh!" Sharpe jumped. Major Nairn looked up at the startled exclamation.
"It's only a cat, Sharpe. Quite a handsome fellow too."
A large ruddy tabby wound around Sharpe's legs. He looked down at it with some trepidation. The cat jumped up on the table and Wellington began to scratch its head.
"He's yours then, sir?" Hogan asked, at first taken aback but now, amused.
"He seems to have adopted me, Hogan. He shared my breakfast this morning."
Sharpe stiffened in indignation. The General had never shared his breakfast with him!
"Why," said Hogan, "It's the spitting image of Richard, is it not?" He asked Wellington.
It was not! Sharpe stewed silently; unwittingly jealous of the attention the new cat was receiving.
"Richard?" asked Nairn, puzzled.
"A cat which met its end in a particularly nasty manner," Wellington said drily.
"How do you know this isn't the same cat?" Nairn asked curiously of the men who were almost cooing over the cat.
"He's not quite Richard's spitting image. Young Thomas here has yellow eyes and he's rather much redder in the fur," murmured Wellington as he scratched its head obligingly, "and less surly. Much less surly."
"By far!" agreed Hogan as the cat began to purr.
Sharpe bristled visibly. Surly? Let them try to be stuck in the shape of a cat!
It was all Hogan could do to keep a straight face. Major Nairn looked suspiciously at the two men who seemed to be sharing a private joke.
"This morning, he said, sir?" Hogan enquired of Wellington.
"Yes, Hogan." Wellington was amused and in an expansive mood. Hogan hid a smile. This cat seemed to keep the General in good humor too.
"The cat wasn't sleeping with you was it?" Hogan ventured, hiding his glee.
"It was, Hogan."
"I told you it snored, sir."
"So you did."
Sharpe could feel the back of his neck burning now, almost convulsing with embarrassment. Bloody hell! They were enjoying this!
"If there is nothing else, sir?" He asked, "May I be dismissed?"
Wellington smiled benignly as he stroked the cat. "You may go, Sharpe."
Sharpe tried not to smirk as he decided to hand the small package to the General. "Thanks for the loan sir." Let Hogan and Nairn speculate over that!
"My pleasure, Sharpe and Sharpe?"
Sharpe paused in the action of ducking out of the tent and turned.
"Try not to lose your trousers again."
Sharpe's mouth fell open and the burning in his neck rushed to his face. Bloody hell! The General had managed to turn the tables on him.
"Sir." He managed to choke out before he scurried as fast as his dignity would allow him, away from the General's tent; seething with a mixture of embarrassment and chagrin, plotting wild plans of fitting revenge. Just let one of THEM get turned into a cat or summat!