No rights infringement intended. M/F
The Sharpe Fan Fictions of The Mardy Bum
a work of fan-fiction by The Mardy Bum, 14th July, 2006
"Looks fine, sir," Harper said, approaching the small campfire. Major Sharpe was sitting at the small tripod, tea urn in hand, about to pour the first cup of the evening. He looked up.
"What does?" he asked, pouring the tea and handing it to Harper as he sat. The big Irishman looked at it dubiously.
"The supplies that just arrived by mule, sir, a grand turn-out," he said. He looked back at the tea. "Aaiii, but you have a lot to learn about making tea, sir."
The Major spared him a glance before pouring his own tea, setting the urn back on the tripod.
"Well if you'd been here brewin' it instead of farting about with donkeys, we both would have had a better cup," he observed brusquely.
"Yes sir," Harper said obediently. He sniffed at the cup, keeping his eyes on it. Something told him he wasn't to break any more silence. He got comfortable on his camp stool and looked around.
Men were decamped and pretty much taking the boots by the straps; uniform tunics were hung impudently on rifles and muskets as their owners lounged around the grass in the darkness. The tents, arranged in a perfectly straight line, moved in the slight breeze and the fronts flapped quietly. The sound of singing, far off, wafted over the two men's small campfire, made all the more welcome by the lateness of the hour. Someone joined in and they heard men laughing and joking at some other squaddie's expense.
Harper sniffed and looked at the flames in front of him. The tips broke away and floated around, drifting on the slight breeze. They snapped and crackled, punctuating the derisory exchanges of young men making good use of what short time they thought they had.
"Thinking of home, sir?" he asked gamely, wondering just what was provoking the superior officer's slightly sullen look.
"England's a long way off, to be sure, but remember Ireland's further still," he said, trying, as always, to prove this man had it easier than he.
"Home's not a place," Sharpe said quietly. Harper nodded.
"Well then, you'll be wanting to think of your fond memories by yourself, sir." He drained the tea cup, not because he wanted to, but to soften the blow of his earlier criticism. The tea, as he had suspected, was vile, and he suddenly wished his criticism had been much harsher after all.
"I hate fond memories," Sharpe said suddenly, just as quietly, and Harper sighed, reaching out for the tea urn.
Here we go, he thought to himself. Guess I'm not excused just yet. "You don't mean that, sir," he said. He leaned over and checked, but Sharpe hadn't even started on his tea. He set the urn back on the tripod over the flames.
"Yeah, I do," he said.
"But, pardon me for pointing it out sir, you've more fond memories than the rest of us. Especially of the ladies, sir."
"Given a choice between the memories and a real live girl, I'll take the girl every time," he admitted.
"I'm sure you would sir, and what hot-blooded soldier wouldn't?" he quipped, and was surprised by the sudden loud laughter from the Major. He looked at him, trying to remember the last time he had heard him laugh like that.
"Speaking of which, where's Ramona?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be trying to convince her she were right to marry you?" he asked cheekily. Harper smiled, glad to have lifted his spirits.
"She's with a few of the other Spanish girls, sir. Talking, so they are," he said conspiratorially. "Best I not get involved."
"Oh aye? What about?" he asked lightly.
"Men, sir. Oh, you thought soldiers could moan, but sweet Mary Mother of God, you've never heard anyone go on like women can, sir." He sniffed at Sharpe's laughter. "My mother would be red in the face just knowing they were together, talking away like that, so she would." Sharpe laughed louder, straightening in his seat. "The thought of any wife of mine behaving like that, or yours," he added, trying to take some of the enjoyment from his commanding officer's good humour. He realised, too late, that perhaps that had not been the best way to do it. Sharpe's face had stilled and then the wide grin had shrunk. Harper tutted. "Oh Jeez, but I'm sorry sir. Me and me big mouth, sir. Comes from having "
"Shut it, Pat," Sharpe said quietly. "It dunt matter."
"You think we'll make this town thing tomorrow then?" he asked, trying to change the subject.
"Nope." He swilled the tea in the cup, raising it to drink. He hesitated. "That new Colonel will bugger it up and we'll be camping somewhere much like this tomorrow night," he said thoughtfully. He let his arm drop, the tea forgotten.
"He doesn't look the type to be able to read a map, sir," he said reassuringly.
"Who needs to read maps?" he demanded, "He dunt know his arse from his elbow, that one. How you can get through three years of soldiering and not know where a musket ball goes, I can't fathom," he said, shaking his head and wheezing air through his teeth.
"Where is this place, sir?"
"I don't know. I'm buggered if I can remember the name of it. Something foreign," he shrugged, embarrassed at not knowing how to read the name written across the map in his pocket.
"Ah. That'll be on account of you English not having conquered it before, then," Harper grinned.
"Oh, you never know," Sharpe said, and Harper dreaded the next few words, knowing as he did they would be the Major's attempt at levity, "we might get there and find the name's been changed to New Rotherham."
Harper sighed. Sharpe raised his cup to drink, but they heard heavy footfalls and looked up to find the new Colonel approaching. He let his tea wait.
"Bloody hell," he muttered under his breath. The Colonel, a portly little man of no more than five feet, marched over haughtily and stopped by the fire.
"Gentlemen," he boomed, in a friendly voice that seemed to carry over the entire camp.
"Evening, Colonel Parker, sir," Harper said in a very friendly manner, getting to his feet. Sharpe rose slowly, nodding.
"Colonel," he said dutifully.
"Planning the day ahead, I see," the Colonel grinned.
"Sir," Sharpe said non-commitedly.
"Good man. I'll need a favour tomorrow, Major. Seems we have men arriving cartographers and they'll need an escort. Civilians, you see, not used to all this marching and camping malarkey. You'll see to them, won't you Major?" he asked.
"Of course, sir," he said, careful his face did not belie his annoyance.
"Marvellous. Just three of them, Major, nothing your Chosen Men can't handle, I fancy. Apparently they're to accompany us to some village. The General thinks perhaps they could plot some routes for us too, if you please! Hardly seems necessary, what? We know where we're going, just wish Wellington would remember that," he said, his good cheer sliding off for a second. Harper opened his mouth but Sharpe was quicker.
"I'm sure we'll show him, sir," he said, and the Colonel grinned at him.
"So we shall, Major, so we shall. God, I'm glad we're working together, man. My brains and your brawn, eh?" he grinned. Again, Harper opened his mouth but it was Sharpe who spoke.
"Yes sir," he said obediently. Colonel Parker nodded.
"Good man. Well then, as you were," he said, nodding and turning with a flourish. He marched away and Sharpe huffed as he sat down again.
"Bloody civvi-minding again," he tutted. Harper sighed.
"Well, maybe it won't be all that bad, sir. Perhaps one of them's Irish."
Sharpe looked at the big Irishman's face, then just let all the annoyance go and let a small smile crack his stern features. Always trying to find the bright side, eh.
"Go on, Pat, bugger off. I'm going to bed," he said, standing again. Harper looked at his tea cup in his hand. He grinned, then wiped it off.
"But you've not finished your tea, sir," he said innocently. Sharpe looked at him and then got that look in his eye, sticking his chin out obstinately. Keeping his eyes on Harper's, he reached his hand out and tipped the tea on the campfire. Through the hiss and grey smoke, Sharpe sniffed and handed Harper back the cup.
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice small comforts in the name of safety," he said smugly, turning away.
"Well there's no need to be such a smarmy shite," Harper muttered, and Sharpe turned back to him quickly. "I'll be making the tea tomorrow night," he said more loudly, and Sharpe nodded.
"'Night Pat," he said suspiciously, turning and walking to his tent, sliding his tunic off before flipping the opening wider and ducking inside.
Harper watched him go, then grinned to himself.
"Here they come, sir," Hagman said, walking back from the brow of the embankment. He carried his rifle in his right hand, the cloth tight over the flintlock. "Just three horses, sir, dunt look like much baggage," he said. Sharpe looked at him, then up at the hot, blue sky.
"Not much. Just them," he said to himself. Harper came walking up the shingle road, carrying his huge volley gun across his shoulders.
"They've turned again, sir. Looks like he had his map upside down," he said apologetically. Hagman caught his eye and grinned.
"That's alright. Means we won't have to work too hard to catch 'em up again," Sharpe said. He could feel the sweat prickling at his back, just where the strap on the ammunition belt pushed it against his shirt. He fingered his collar and Harper cleared his throat.
"If we were to hang back a little sir, perhaps these cartographers wouldn't know any different if we weren't in full uniform, sir," he said quietly.
"Harper, you get over there and say hello. Make sure they know we're not slowing down fer 'em," Sharpe said curtly, and Harper shot a defeated look at Hagman before walking off, his gun still over his shoulders. "Hagman, get back to the others, have 'em ready when the time comes. I want to catch up with the battalion today," he said.
"Yes sir," Hagman nodded, turning and walking back to the other five Riflemen, currently sprawling on the grass verge. The Major looked ahead, down the shingle road, waiting.
I should move out of the sun, he thought to himself, might keep this tunic from stinkin' like a horse's arse.
He sniffed, the sweat on his forehead turning icy in the sudden breeze, and then walked to the side of the road to be in the shade. He looked at the Chosen Men, sweating and fanning themselves, simply waiting. Moore and Brown were arguing about something to do with frizzens, by the look of them, Hagman listening in and smiling to himself. Harris was enjoying the slight breeze, Robinson and Taylor sharing some amusing stories. Sharpe looked up the road again, listening to the men gossip and chuckle.
Presently they heard the sound of horses' hooves and Sharpe looked at his men.
"On yer feet," he said quickly. They got up obediently, dusting off their trousers and checking weapons. "Look smart," he instructed. They hurried out into the road, straightening into an impressive line of men, weapons standing-to, backs straight, chins high. Sharpe smiled, then looked back down the road.
Harper was leading the front horse, something about the way he walked telling Sharpe that he was in a good mood suddenly. He felt his eyes narrow suspiciously; he couldn't help it. If Harper was happy to see them, they were either carrying copious amounts of brandy, or copious amounts of Irish whiskey. Or tea leaves.
He walked out from the line, his rifle slung, waiting for them. As they got closer he noticed Harper's grin spread from ear to ear, and then looked up at the horses.
They were very fine, expensive looking animals. The first one alone must have cost a year's salary for a Major like him before stoppages. He realized they must be dealing with some high-class family of Spanish nobility and cursed on the inside. Just what we don't need.
The horses got within thirty feet and Sharpe noticed the first rider was quite short, quite slight, but the sword hung from its strap was long enough. It glittered in the sun, and he wondered if it was for show. He looked at the other horses, finding them just as expensive-looking.
Harper led the horses right up to Sharpe and then stopped curtly. He grinned at the Major.
"Major Sharpe sir, the cartographers, sir," he said, plainly amused. Sharpe looked up into the face of the first man. Raven-black curls and a ridiculous top hat greeted him as the man looked down and grinned.
"Delighted to meet you, Mr Sharpe," he said, and Sharpe heard a very English voice. But something about it wasn't right. He nodded.
"And you, Mister?"
"Hindle, Peter," he said, smiling. "This is my brother, Nigel," he said, waving a hand to the second rider, who tipped a hand to his forehead and smiled. He had similarly curly hair, but it seemed more chestnut than black. "And this is my sister, Marjorie," he said. All eyes turned to the sister, sat on the last horse. She had long chestnut hair, this time wavy. She sat tall enough in the saddle, wearing a simple men's white shirt covered with a waistcoat that had been unbuttoned in the heat. She had a cream silk scarf tied quite high around her neck, reminding him of the stocks he hated so much. She just looked at Sharpe, nodding curtly with no trace of smile. "She's been ill, Mr Sharpe the heat, you understand," he said. "She needs rest, as I'm sure we all do."
"That's as may be, Mr Hindle, but we have to rejoin our Light Company. We've already lost half a day's "
"Mr Sharpe, I would be much obliged if you'd let us rest, just half an hour perhaps, before we continue," he pressed. Sharpe looked at him, something about his voice striking him a little peculiar. The man looked back at him, oblivious. Sharpe sniffed, feeling the sweat trickling down his own back. "We would, of course, make all speed as soon as we resumed," Mr Hindle added eagerly. Sharpe was aware of the sweat now apparent under his sword belt, tricking down and soaking into the seat of his trousers, and sighed.
"Alright, Mr Hindle. Thirty minutes, then we continue," he said.
"Much obliged, Mr Sharpe, much obliged," he said, relieved. He turned in his saddle and looked at the others. "Nigel, Marjorie, this lovely man has given us leave to rest for thirty minutes. Let's not upset him by wasting any more time, eh?" he said warmly. Nigel grinned, swinging down from the saddle and taking the bridle of his horse. He looked around the generous bulk of Harper and spotted the group of Chosen Men.
"I say," he said suddenly, "what a fearsome bunch," he said, delighted. Sharpe turned and looked at him, then realised he was grinning in excitement. "Strikes confidence into any man's heart, such a battalion of stout fellows," he crowed. The faces of the six Chosen Men, twenty feet away, broke into small smiles and snorts of amusement.
"That's just a small escort, Mr Hindle," he said. "The battalion's got over two hundred men." Nigel Hindle looked at him.
"Two hundred, you say? Well, I'll be," he said, shaking his head. "And all in red coats, I should imagine? Tell me Harp, is it? Why are these men in green tunics?"
Sharpe could feel Harper's amusement without even having to look at the Sergeant Major.
"Sharpe, Mr Hindle. And they're riflemen, not red-coats." He turned to Harper. "Alright, Sergeant," he said harshly, and Harper nodded, dismissed. Nigel jumped and looked at him, backing away one and turning to his horse. Sharpe looked over, seeing Peter Hindle make no attempt to help his sister from her horse. He turned to look at her and found her staring dead back at him with a baleful look of anger. He stared back at her, wondering just what he had done to warrant that kind of look, then walked over.
"You poorly, Miss Hindle?" he asked challengingly. She looked momentarily surprised, then narrowed her eyes at him. She said nothing. She waved a hand at him to step back, and then lifted her leg over the horse, sliding down and landing on her feet squarely. She looked at him, sniffed and tossed her head, turning and marching off. Sharpe just tutted, unimpressed, and turned and walked back over to his men.
"Nice family," Harper put in quietly, and Sharpe looked at him.
"Why, carrying liquor, are they?" Sharpe shot back. Harper just closed his mouth, surprised by Sharpe's sudden edge. "Fall 'em out, Sergeant, tell 'em to strip off their jackets. They've got thirty minutes, then we march like bloody hell," he said harshly.
Harper turned to look at the men as Sharpe pulled the rifle from his shoulder, carrying it toward the grass verge. He sat, his annoyance plain, and Harper avoided approaching him again. He turned to the men, relaying the orders, and they gratefully pulled off their green jackets. Sleeves were rolled up and shirt-fronts unlaced, and they sank to the green verges again, the relief evident. Harper sat too, Harris finding himself next to him.
"Something wrong with the Major?" he asked, smiling and nodding. Harper looked over at Sharpe, who was stewing quite nicely, due to his sudden anger and his green jacket. He was glad they were twenty feet from him.
"He's just a moody bugger," Harper agreed. "You know how he hates to be held up, and on top of that they're civvies", he added, then looked around. "Come on then, who's carrying?" he demanded. "Brown, my old friend! You never march anywhere without a wee tot," he grinned. Men protested and moaned at their rum ration being summarily commandeered.
The groans and cries of denial floated over the wind, reaching Sharpe's ears. He dug his boot heels into the grass stubbornly, his knees bent and his elbows on them, then looked up at their guests. He was surprised to find Nigel Hindle walking over enthusiastically.
"Well, this is all jolly exciting, isn't it?" he said, in a rather polished, clipped accent, producing a handkerchief from his top pocket and dabbing delicately at his nose.
"Just bloody hot, Mr Hindle," Sharpe said, trying to remain polite.
"Yes, that too," he agreed, then planted himself on the grass next to the officer. Sharpe looked at him, his eyes sweeping over him suspiciously from the grass to his top hat, then shook his head, looking toward the horses again. "Are you a good soldier?" he asked suddenly, innocently.
"I mean, have you killed people and what-not?" he asked, looking at him. Sharpe just huffed. "I see. French, I expect," he said quickly.
"Plenty more where they came from," he said roughly.
"Well yes. But where?" Nigel said lightly.
"France, probably. Should think there's a whole bloody country of the buggers," he said shortly, and Nigel laughed.
"Oh Mr Harp, you do "
"Yes. You do have a singular wit," he grinned, his interruption not stopping his words from tumbling out enthusiastically. Sharpe felt his eyes roll with consternation. "No, I meant are they going to be anywhere near us?"
Sharpe turned his head and looked at him. "Oh be sure."
Nigel swallowed. "I see." He looked over at Peter and Marjorie Hindle, the brother fussing about finding something to sit on to protect his clean trousers from the ground. Marjorie simply sat and then fell backwards, clearly unfazed by grass stains or a little dirt.
"Is yer sister alright?" Sharpe asked curiously, nodding towards her.
"She will be, Mr Harp, she just "
"Yes. She will be, she just needs more rest. A terrible affliction of the throat, you see. Please don't be upset if she doesn't speak to you, it causes her pain," he added conversationally. "Has had it for as long as I've kn as long as I can remember," he said, changing tack swiftly. Sharpe looked at him.
"I see," he said quietly, still studying his profile. Nigel looked at him, then swallowed.
"You know, Mr Harp, I find "
"Yes. I find you a man of extraordinary presence. I, ah, well, this is" He sniffed delicately, and Sharpe simply stared at him, puzzled. Nigel wilted under his stare and lost his nerve, along with whatever it was he was trying to say. He shrugged and got to his feet suddenly, as if kicked. "Well," he said, clearing his throat, "I should see to my brother."
"Aye," Sharpe said thoughtfully.
"Nigel! What are you doing?" Peter Hindle suddenly called. Sharpe and Nigel looked over.
"Simply talking, Peter," he called, in a friendly, dismissive tone. "Getting to know our magnificent protector," he added, turning and nodding to Sharpe before walking back toward Nigel and Marjorie. Sharpe shook his head, feeling it all wash over it and beyond. He put his hands to his tunic and unbuttoned it quickly with the ease of the practised. He slid it off and flung it to the grass, unimpressed by its smell. He rolled up his sleeves and fell backwards, wiping his hands over his face.
He heard the sound of footfalls on the shingle and opened his eyes, putting his elbows under him to look.
"I have the only pocket-watch, sir," Harris said genially, sitting down a few feet from him.
"Bully fer you," he said curtly, moving his elbows out and lying down again.
"That Nigel, sir," he said quietly. Sharpe opened an eye and looked at him.
"Watch your back, sir. Especially with him behind it, sir," he said thoughtfully, clearing his throat.
"Dunt seem the type to know how to use a weapon, much less carry one," he said dismissively.
"Yes sir, I share your doubts there." He paused. "However, it seems Mr Nigel is rather enamoured of you, sir. Might be prudent to keep him at arm's length."
"What does that mean?" he asked, his confusion so innocent Harris chuckled.
"In the same way that Robinson is enamoured of every Spanish skirt that crosses his path, sir," he said slowly.
Sharpe sat up slowly, staring at Harris. "Yer joking"
"I think I'll be getting back to my 'battalion', sir," he said with a wide grin, getting to his feet and doing just that. Sharpe groaned, falling back to grass.
"Bloody great," he tutted to himself. "Wouldn't have minded if it were the sister." THREE
The men marched hard under the sun, tunics off and flung over one shoulder, rifles in their hands, ready. Hats had been stuffed into pockets, shirts were unlaced and the men marched easier for it.
Harper kept the speed up, his hands on his gun, waiting for anyone to cross the road in front of them. He could feel Sharpe's impatience, and looked at him.
He also had his tunic over his shoulder, his rifle in his hand, his boots crunching over the shingle in that curious gait of his. He was watching the road ahead, sweat occasionally dripping from his chin, his eyes communicating most admirably just how much he enjoyed chivvying civilians to hurry.
Their horses were between the officers and the men, keeping good pace with them. Harper knew it would also grate with the Major that these civvies had horses and weren't actually walking themselves, and yet still found excuse to moan.
"I say, Mr Harp "
"Sharpe!" he bit out.
"Yes. Could we stop?" Nigel Hindle called out, as always oblivious to Sharpe's interruption. Sharpe looked at Harper.
"Halt," he said quietly. Harper's mouth rounded into an 'o' shape, his eyebrows arching in trepidation, as he turned to the men.
"Rifles! Halt!" he shouted. The men stopped gratefully, shuffling into line wearily. Sharpe walked round to Nigel's horse.
"Mr Hindle," he said loudly, stopping a few feet from the saddle and looking up at him.
"Mr Harp, I know "
"Sharpe! It's Sharpe! How many bloody times!" he bellowed. The men sniggered. "I'm about this close to marching on without you! You're slowing us down, causing my men to hang back so as they don't have to listen to you moaning about the bloody weather which is always like this, Mr Hindle, it's Spain and you have the balls to demand we stop? This is an army march, Mr Hindle, not a bloody countryside tour!" he shouted. Harper glanced at the men and they stopped sniggering. "Now I were ordered to escort you to meet up with the battalion, and that's what I'm going to do. But it dunt say anything about you being conscious. Now put up and shut up, before we make other arrangements for yer entry into the village!" he roared.
Nigel, atop his horse and visibly shaken, looked at Peter for support of some kind.
"Peter, I only -"
"Chap has a good argument, Nigel," Peter said apologetically. "Look, we can manage, we have horses, eh?" he said brightly. "These poor souls have nothing but their feet. We should be grateful we have our animals, Nigel. Poor Mr Sharpe has bent over backwards for us, wouldn't you say?" he asked charmingly. Nigel let his mouth hang loose a second, causing a ripple of sniggers through the Chosen Men, but Harper hissed and they stopped abruptly.
"Oh, well, yes, I suppose "
"Sergeant, march!" Sharpe snapped, turning and walking to the front again. Harper turned the men and grinned widely.
"Rifles! March!" he called, and the men picked up their weapons and followed the horses.
It was near dark before they sighted the battalion.
"Sir," Harper called, "Hagman reports we're less than a quarter mile behind. They're camping by the river, sir," he said. Sharpe nodded.
"Good. Tell the men to get a bloody move on. Let's catch 'em and camp before proper dark," he said. Harper nodded, floating back toward the men. He found a horse drawing up alongside him and looked up, fearing the worst.
"Mr Sharpe," said Peter, and Sharpe breathed an unconscious sigh of relief. "I would like to apologise for my brother's behaviour. He's harmless, really, but not too bright sometimes. He just cannot bear the hot weather, you see," he said, his pained expression almost making Sharpe feel guilty for his earlier outburst.
"And I can't bear being held up," he admitted.
"I appreciate that, Mr Sharpe, but my brother does not. He has had a wealthy upbringing, and sometimes doesn't understand other people's points of view," he said.
"And you, sir?" he asked plainly. "Do you understand others' points of view?"
"I try, Mr Sharpe," he said pleasantly. "Look, I know it's probably not what you would enjoy, but would you care to dine with us this evening? We have some excellent food," he said warmly. Sharpe sighed.
"Actually, Mr Hindle, I "
"My sister would also like to apologise," he put in. "She feels she has mis-judged you."
"Mis-judged?" he asked, curious. "I've said three words to her."
"Well, women are nothing if not peculiar," he shrugged apologetically.
"You're right there," Sharpe muttered under his breath. He thought of his food rations and the inevitable stolen chicken than awaited him at the army camp, and sighed. "Fair enough, Mr Hindle, I'll have dinner with you lot," he said, looking at him.
"You are too kind, sir," he smiled, relieved.
He marched the men into camp, looking around for Colonel Parker's tent. He grabbed a private walking past his motley band of men and horses.
"Where's the Colonel?" he asked.
"At the end," the man shrugged, not recognising Sharpe's rank with his sash hidden in his pocket. Sharpe released him and turned to Harper.
"Dismiss the men, Sergeant, get 'em bivouacked," he said.
"Rifles! Halt!" he called. The men stopped and Sharpe and the horses continued. Sharpe heard Harper dismissing the group of riflemen and walked on, his gaze passing over the red coated men still putting up tents and lighting campfires. He turned to the first horse behind him, knowing it was Peter.
"Mr Hindle, I have to report to the Colonel. You are free to see to your family," he said, nodding.
"Thank you, Mr Sharpe," he said, turning his horse. Sharpe walked on to the far tent, finding it already up and a full allowance of rations cooking. He paused at the smell of chicken and let his mouth water for a second, before approaching the man at the tent flap.
"Major Sharpe, to see the Colonel," he said. The man ducked his head inside, said something, then pulled it back out quickly.
"Please wait, sir," he said, casting an eye over the tunic still in the officer's hand. Sharpe ignored him and stepped back one, looking around the camp in the falling night. The tent flap parted and Parker walked out, his tunic also spared and his boots off. He smiled when he saw Sharpe.
"Ah, there you are, Major. Thought we'd lost you," he grinned.
"You know civilians, sir, walk slower than Spaniards," he said grimly. Parker nodded.
"Quite, quite," he said, nodding professionally, "bad show of me to make fun, eh?" He waved Sharpe over as he walked from the tent slowly. "Do you know why we're going to this village, Sharpe?" he asked quietly.
"No sir," he admitted. He had been told to go, so he went.
"Supplies, Major. We're going to steal some French supplies. That do you?" he asked.
"Yes sir," Sharpe replied, smiling slightly. "Do they hold the village, sir?"
"Not at all. But they raid it every so often and take what they want. The villagers have got wise to this, and now they simply put it out in the main square on a cart. The French go in, take the cart, and simply walk off with it." He waved Sharpe to follow him as he walked further from the privates cooking for him.
"And the people just let them, sir?"
"Oh you must understand Major that if they didn't provide, the French would simply attack and take it anyway, burning what they want and taking the women too, I shouldn't wonder," he said, grimacing at the prospect as they walked. "This way they get left alone."
"So we're going to walk in and take it, sir?" he asked indignantly.
"Yes Major. What's the matter, too simple for you?" he asked knowingly.
"Well, just seems like "
"Come now Major. We're taking it before the French arrive, that's all."
"Yes sir. But what happens when the French arrive and find there's nowt for 'em, sir? What will they do to the villagers, sir?" he asked curiously. Parker looked at him.
"Do? Do? That's no concern of ours, Major. They are Spanish, you know," he added shortly. Sharpe stared at him.
"We're just going to leave 'em to it?" he demanded. "The General will have a fit, sir!"
"Major, we can't "
"Why don't we just wait for the French to turn up, wipe 'em out, and then take the supplies, sir?" he asked earnestly. The Colonel stopped walking and stared at him.
"My, my, Sharpe," he said quietly. "Can you imagine the furore that would cause in London?" he demanded. Sharpe wasn't quite sure what a furore was, but it didn't sound good.
"Can you imagine what a kick up the arse it'd be for the French?" he countered. "Sir." The Colonel stared for a long moment, then turned away, sighing. He looked back at Sharpe.
"I had heard you were not an easy man to work with," he said quietly. "I had heard you were a bugger for messing up other, better men's plans." He considered Sharpe's face, which looked less than concerned by this. "However, I can see the merit in your plan," he said, his face breaking into a small smile. "Yes I can see great merit in it. Great merit indeed." He put a finger to his chin, turning away again. Sharpe just waited, transferring his tunic from one hand to the other.
Parker turned back to him. "By Jove, I think we'll do it too!" he grinned. "I'll send a rider to Wellington's camp, of course," he said. "All we have to do is get to the village before the French do, ingratiate ourselves with the locals, convince them we're there to stop the French, and then lie in wait," he said. He clapped his hands together. "Marvellous suggestion, Sharpe! Marvellous!" he cried.
"If I could make one more, sir," he said quietly. Parker looked at him, nodding and waving his hand in a circular gesture. "Let's go in and stay out of uniform. So we don't look like we're laying siege to the bloody village - hide our numbers an' that."
"Excellent!" Parker cried, nodding enthusiastically. "As you say, we don't want the French to spot us waiting for them, do we?" He grinned. "Well, an excellent day's work all round for you, Major! Good night then, and sleep easy. Dismissed," he said, patting his shoulder.
Sharpe nodded and walked away slowly, wiping a hand over his face. He walked back through the camp, down the two long lines of tents, looking for his own. Eventually he found one that looked familiar through its green grass stains on the left flap, and walked toward it.
"Harper?" he called.
"He's washing," Ramona said, appearing, as always, as if from nowhere. Sharpe looked at her.
"Washing what?" he asked.
"Himself! He smell like an animal!" she tutted, then looked at him. "And you too! You filthy men, always dirty and muddy. Aaaiii, if there were no women, you men will be smelly and dirty all day" she continued, waving her hands and walking away. He lifted his forearm and smelt the shirt sleeve, then tutted and looked around.
He walked to the tent, dumping his tunic on the made-up bed inside. He peeled off the smelly shirt, looking around for his pack. He found it and opened it, rummaging through, but found no other shirt. Cursing, he stood and picked up the dirty shirt, then slid his tunic back on, not bothering to button it. He ducked back out of the tent and looked around, listening. He smiled and headed in the direction of the water.
He came upon a river, grinning and walking to the rocks that served as a bank. It was a good twenty feet wide, with a fast current and sharp rocks sprinkled through it. He looked at his shirt, then down at himself, and then heard splashing and singing. He frowned, walking to the edge of the rocks and around the largest one to see down the bank. There was Harper, thirty feet upstream, standing chest-deep in freezing running water, splashing and rubbing at his arms with a huge grin on his face.
"Hey! You dozy bog-treader! People have to drink that!" he called out, grinning. Harper looked round.
"Another two minutes and you'd have been in here too, and no mistake!" he called back. "My clothes are already drying, so they are. I've a head start on you!" he shouted.
"Right yer bastard," Sharpe said determinedly under his breath, yanking off his boots and stripping off his uniform in double-quick time. He looked at the fast-running water, feeling the heat of dusk on his skin, and then put a foot in. It was freezing and he hesitated. His other bare foot slid on the rock, and no amount of nimble footwork prevented him from tumbling into the water with a shout. He surfaced, grabbing at his clothes lest they get carried away, and threw them toward the rocks. He heard Harper laughing. "Bastard!" he shouted in his direction, before reaching the rocks and taking down his shirt, dunking it in the water and letting the water flow through it for a few minutes. He let himself start to relax, let the cold water cool his temper, and reached for the trousers.
He did his best to rinse out his uniform, then climbed out and arranged them over the bushes. He stood there, hands on hips, watching the cold water seep out of them and wondering just how long they would take to dry out enough that he could put them back on. He sighed, shaking his head and turning back to the river. He sat on the edge of the rock, dangling his feet in the water. Harper strode over through the waves, looking at him.
"So what did that Colonel Parker have to say?" he asked.
"He said to find that Irishman and make sure he weren't drunk," he replied, seriously.
"Good news is it then?" he asked, putting his hands on the rocks and hauling himself out. He sat on the edge, two feet from his commanding officer, letting his feet sink back into the water.
"We're to go into the village, make friends with the people, and then lie in wait fer the Frogs."
"And then?" Harper asked, grinning.
"We're going to chase 'em off and nick all their food," he said simply, looking at him apologetically. Harper laughed.
"Oh, that's a good one. And I suppose I get to pick the finest apples from the cart?" he asked. Sharpe's smile dropped.
"Yeah," he said seriously. Harper stopped laughing.
"By God, you're serious," he realised.
"As yellow fever," he said.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Harper swore.
"Exactly," Shape commiserated. "It's my fault, I told the Colonel we couldn't just steal a supply cart from the villagers and run away, leaving 'em empty-handed when the Frogs came," he said. "Bloody hell."
"Ah well. Maybe we'll be lucky, and the Frogs will only have half our number of men," he said. "After all, how many Frogs does it take to go and get a supply wagon?" he reasoned.
"I don't know, how many Frogs does it take to go and get a supply wagon?" Sharpe replied, and Harper laughed. They heard someone calling through the trees and Ramona appeared. She caught sight of the two of them, sitting in their white regulation shorts, dripping on the rocks they were sitting on.
"No brains," she sighed simply, walking over and handing each of them a clean pair of trousers.
"Thanks Ramona," Sharpe said, getting to his feet and pulling them on. Harper stood, looking at her.
"I'm smelling much better now," he grinned, and she smiled, shaking her head.
"Yes, but can you follow me back into camp, not dressing like that?" she teased, before squeezing his chin. She turned and walked off, laughing. Harper watched her go.
"You know, I think God put women on the Earth to test us, so he did," he said, shaking his head as he walked away from the river, still holding his trousers in his hand. Sharpe followed him, pausing to push his feet into his boots and collect his uniform.
"You're right there," he agreed, folding his uniform over his arm and buttoning up the front of his trousers securely. Harper disappeared into the darkness, and Sharpe turned and made his way back toward camp. He hadn't gone two minutes before Harper caught him up, his trousers on and carrying his own uniform.
"So, what's all this about dinner with the snooty lot?" he asked curiously.
"The Hindles, Harper. Something about saying sorry fer holding us up, like," he said as they walked.
"Oh. Good food, is it?" he asked. Sharpe grinned.
"Why do you think I'm going?" he asked. Harper slapped him on the shoulder.
"You officers get all the perks, sir," he laughed.
"Hello?" someone called, and they turned to their left to find Nigel Hindle appearing from the bushes. The two men stopped, looking at him.
"Mr Hindle?" Harper asked, surprised. "Did you get lost, sir?" he asked kindly, grinning. Nigel looked the two men up and down, Harper noticing he took his time over Sharpe.
"Er, yes, yes I did," he said urgently, stepping out of the bushes. He looked at Sharpe. His face, this time. "I came to find you, Mr Harp. Peter is rather worried you weren't coming."
"Oh, I er, needed a bath," he admitted, sniffing and wiping a dribble of water from his forehead. His hair still dripped down him.
"Oh yes, I can imagine," Nigel said with a small smile, and Harper cleared his throat.
"Well sir, we need to get back to our tents and cleaned up, if you'll excuse us," he said, pulling Sharpe by the arm. Sharpe nodded to him and let himself be pulled. They heard Nigel crashing around in the foliage and didn't look back. "That bugger's following you, so he is," Harper said.
"Don't be daft, Pat. He's just lost," he allowed, trying to be fair.
"Aye, in more ways than one," he said. Sharpe looked at him.
"So if we were looking fer me, why is still hunting round the bushes?" he asked. Harper and Sharpe stopped, looking back. They looked at each other.
"I told you the rich were a funny lot," Harper sighed. Sharpe shook his head.
"Let's just get back to camp. I've a spare tunic while this lot dries," he said. They walked on.
"Ah, Mr Sharpe, good to see you," Peter Hindle said, meeting him at the tent flaps. He put his hand out and Sharpe shook it cautiously. "Please, step this way you must be hungry after that long march," he said pleasantly.
"A little," he lied, following Peter as he turned and walked around the tent. He found enough food and stools for four people, and walked over, looking around. "All yours?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," Peter said, flapping a hand at the three tents. Sharpe wondered, in a detached way, if Peter really worried about his sister sleeping alone in the middle of an army camp. He pushed it from his mind and looked at him. "Please, sit," he said, waving at the stools. Sharpe chose the one further from the fire in the middle, and Peter sat opposite him. "I just wanted to say thank you for providing us with such splendid safety, Mr Sharpe," he said. "After all, Nigel tells me you think there are French afoot. Tell me, do you really believe so?" he asked, fascinated.
"I know so, sir. Smelt 'em not so long ago," he admitted, but Peter laughed.
"Oh really. Nigel's right, you do have a delightful sense of humour," he grinned. Sharpe just nodded. He got to his feet as he spotted Nigel and Marjorie approaching from behind Peter's tent. Nigel was dressed in a dark evening jacket, with beige jodhpurs that seemed rather more expensive than Sharpe's entire outfit. He looked at Marjorie.
She had changed into an elegant cream bodice, a lacy, fancy blouson over the top. It blew around in the slight breeze as she lifted her long, heavy skirts to step over the tent guy-ropes. Her long chestnut hair was wrapped around a large comb and she had pinned it into place with great success. She had a pale blue silk scarf tied high round her neck, and Sharpe wondered if it was something to do with her alluded illness. He waited.
"Evening, Mr Harp, evening," Nigel said, making no attempt to shake hands. 'Sharpe', the Major mouthed to himself. Nigel didn't notice, merely finding a seat and plonking himself down in it squarely. Sharpe watched Marjorie pick her way to the last remaining free seat with grace. He cleared his throat.
"Evening Mr Hindle, ma'am," he said, nodding to her. She looked up and pinned him with a stare that could have been broken up and served in some of Harper's whiskey. Sharpe's eyebrows raised all by themselves, then he simply gave up and sat slowly. She sat coldly, arranging her skirts and looking at Peter. Sharpe noticed her stern gaze didn't relax much, and for some reason he felt relieved she appeared to treat everyone with such disdain, not just himself.
"Really Mr Harp, you must call me Nigel," he said warmly. Sharpe caught his brother's look of annoyance and filed it away for future reference. "And what should I call you?" he asked.
"Sharpe," he said pleasantly. Peter appeared to smile. Nigel laughed.
"Oh come now. What does your man call you?" he asked.
"My man?" Sharpe asked, confused.
"You know, that fine stout fellow the Sergeant with the big arms," he said. Sharpe frowned, wondering just what kind of description that was supposed to be, and then sniffed.
"Major," he said, and he heard an odd wheezing sound. He looked at Marjorie and saw her laughing, her hand over her mouth. Nigel, however, appeared disappointed.
"Ah well. Anyway, let me serve," he said brightly, springing up from his seat and rushing to the various cooking pots slightly to the left of the tents. Peter looked at Sharpe, bending to pick up a bottle of something dark red. He poured three glasses, handing one to the lady first, before handing one to Sharpe. Sharpe noticed he poured one for Nigel before himself, setting it in the grass by his stool for him.
"So, Major, tell us about yourself," he said warmly. "All we see it what's written in the newspapers and suchlike," he said. Sharpe considered him, wondering just what it was about his voice that struck a chord. He smiled slightly.
"I go wherever Wellington wants, fight whoever he wants, and then go home and clean me kit," he said succinctly. Peter grinned, nodding.
"And you usually win, Mr Sharpe, if what I hear is true," he said. Sharpe shrugged non-commitedly, and Peter looked at Marjorie. "My sister here reads avidly. She says you're quite a headliner," he said.
"She says that, does she sir?" Sharpe asked guilelessly, and Peter reached for his drink.
"Well, you know, she shows me the papers when we can get them," he said slowly. Sharpe nodded, sparing Marjorie a glance.
"I see, sir," he said.
"Really, you must call me Peter." He paused, taking a long sip of the drink. "And wherever do you hail from, Mr Sharpe?" he asked. "Quite a strange voice for an officer, what?" he asked.
"London? Well, can't say I've been there in oh, nearly five years now I must say, eh Marjorie? But last time I was there I can't remember them talking as you do," he said slyly. "I sense a story here, eh?" he said, looking at his sister again. She smiled and nodded, looking at Sharpe and putting her chin in her elbow, resting it on her knee. She watched him and he got the message.
"I was born in London, but moved cities," he allowed. "Bit of a misunderstanding."
"Between gentlemen?" Peter enquired.
"Summat like that."
"Over money, I shouldn't wonder," Peter smiled.
"Over a dead man, Peter," he said quietly. Peter sat back, nodding seriously.
"I see. Is that how you came to be in the army?" he asked. Marjorie looked at Peter, then back at Sharpe. Sharpe eyed her suddenly.
"Summat like that."
"I see. Well, you see before you a travelling caravan of cartographers," he said, indicating Marjorie and himself. "Used to work for Barlow and Sons, did some damned fine work, even if I do say so myself," he grinned. "Did very well out of that, decided to broaden our horizons a little. We volunteered for all this map-making lark out here, and here we are, doing our bit for King and country," he grinned. Sharpe nodded, although he very much doubted he was getting even half the story.
"Will you go back, Peter?" he asked.
"Eventually, Mr Sharpe, eventually," he sighed. Marjorie sniffed and Sharpe looked at her. She frowned at him and shook her head ever so slightly. He let his chin raise and then looked away silently, before letting it fall again, knowing she was still watching him. So he is talking crap, he thought.
"Here we are," Nigel said, appearing with food. They talked, and ate.
Sharpe wandered back to his tent, confused and tired. Peter had seemed nice enough, but had spent the best part of the evening convincing him he was rich yet tired of it all. Nigel had been rather too zealous in his admiration for Sharpe's exploits, while Marjorie had sat and watched, her face indicating to Sharpe very clearly who was telling the truth and when.
He unbuttoned his best tunic as he walked, sliding it off and carrying it by the collar back to his tent. He heard the unmistakable sounds of riflemen gossiping as he rounded the corner.
"What's all this?" he asked, finding Harper, Robinson and Taylor sat round cups of tea.
"Just having a wee blether, sir," Harper said. "Did you enjoy your dinner, sir?" he asked. Sharpe walked past them and sat on the spare stool tiredly.
"Not particularly. Interesting, though," he added thoughtfully. Harper grinned at Robinson.
"And ah, what did you find out then sir?" he asked. Sharpe sighed.
"That Peter lies through his teeth, Nigel's the worst fop since Mr Price, and that sister's got a right mardy stare on her," he admitted. Harper laughed.
"So what lies did Mr Peter Hindle tell you, sir?" Taylor asked. Ten years of snatching purses in London's barrowed streets had taught him to watch people's actions carefully. Sharpe had not sat comfortably.
"He reckons he's rich and dunt want it," he said. "Can't believe that," he added quietly.
"Bet it were a rich father," Robinson put in sourly. "Wish I'd had one."
"Naw says he got rich making maps," Sharpe said, confused. "Is there really money in that?" he asked.
"Depends, sir," Taylor put in. "Work for the right company, you could make a mint."
"Is Barlow and Sons a posh name then?" Sharpe asked. Robinson looked at him, surprised.
"Barlow and Sons? Near Castlefield?" he asked. Sharpe looked at him.
"Aye, he mentioned summat about a castle," he said.
"Castlefield is a place, sir. Up in the Cotton City," he said. "Barlow and Sons are the best cartographers in the parish."
"'The Cotton City'?" Harper interrupted.
"Manchester," Robinson supplied. "Why would he be over here if he made his money wi' them, sir?" he asked, confused. "They hire fer life, they do. Don't want to let you go, in case you end up working fer't opposition and suchlike."
Sharpe looked at him suddenly. "What?" he asked quickly.
"Well, other map houses and... suchlike," Robinson said lamely. Sharpe nodded, grinning. Robinson looked at Sharpe and then everyone else, just as mystified. "What did I say?" he asked nervously. Sharpe shook his head.
"Nothing, rifleman, nothing," he said slowly, but Harper could see his crafty smile was failing to hide some great discovery. "Right then, get yerselves off to yer tents. Go on," he said, getting up slowly.
The next day was spent marching to the village in the boiling heat. As soon as it was sighted, the Colonel halted his men and called a galloper to reach Sharpe and bring him back from his Chosen Men's scout ahead.
Sharpe reached him after half an hour, finding the South Essex fallen out in the heat. He approached the Colonel, who appeared to be sharing a pipe with Peter Hindle.
"Ah, there you are, Mr Sharpe," he said in his booming voice. "Jolly hot day, what?" he grinned.
"Sir," Sharpe replied.
"Well, here we are," he said. "I trust you and your men found nothing?" he asked.
"Not yet, sir," he said.
"Good, good. That means we're here before those damned French," he grinned. "I'll need you and Mr Hindle here," he said. "We're to go in and make friends with the locals. That do you, Sharpe?" he asked, as if the Major had a choice.
"Sir," he said smartly.
"Good man. Well then, Mr Hindle, if you please," he said graciously. Sharpe watched them, wondering why a civilian like Peter was being asked to help persuade a village head that they were there for the village's protection. And food. He followed, ever watchful, keeping the rifle tight in his hand.
They reached the gates of the village and stopped. Twenty foot high and made of solid wood, Sharpe suddenly had a bad feeling. How could it be so easy for the French to simply batter them down and attack the place? These gates were not new, and yet carried no sword or scorch marks. Perhaps they had been taken from another, undamaged entrance, but he sincerely doubted it. He looked around, something making him look up at the tops of them.
He saw a face looking out at him, before it disappeared behind the gate. He started, stepping back one as if this would make it possible to see where the face was now hiding.
"Major?" the Colonel asked, and Sharpe looked down to find the two men had reached the gate and were pounding on it. Sharpe looked up again, saw no face, and walked over.
A small shutter opened and a man looked out at them. Peter smiled, starting up some conversation in Spanish. Sharpe and the Colonel waited, the Major realising why this civilian had been chosen to accompany the Colonel after all. Neither Parker nor Sharpe spoke enough Spanish to order food, and yet this gentleman seemed to be discussing Life itself at great length and with little effort.
Eventually the man closed the shutter and Peter turned to them.
"He's going to let us in," he said. "I've told him we've been sent by Wellington to protect their village, for a small fee in food," he said, looking very pleased with himself.
"I take it he's amenable to the idea?" Colonel Parker grinned.
"Of course, Colonel. He seems most pleased we're bringing red-coats to help him." He looked at Sharpe. "Sorry Major, he thought you were a man-servant in that greenery," he smiled. Sharpe just nodded, then looked around. He's not far wrong at the moment, he thought to himself.
"So do we wait or what?" he asked, looking back at Peter.
"He needs to address the village at large first. He says to give him an hour."
"Good man! Now let's give the soldiers a good talking to, Major. I don't want any trouble here," the Colonel said, nodding to Peter and turning away. He walked off, and Sharpe looked at Peter.
"Did you tell 'em we were here for the Frogs too?" he asked him. Peter looked at him, before taking his elbow and walking him away from the gate. Sharpe freed his arm, unimpressed at the familiarity.
"I intimated we were here against any and all comers," he said quietly. "I get the impression he does not fear the French so much as soldiers in general," he said.
"The men'll keep to themselves," Sharpe said, and Peter looked at him dubiously. "They know that if they steal or go on the rampage they'll be hung," he said firmly. Peter looked surprised.
"Oh. Well in that case, we have nothing to worry about," he said.
Sharpe and Harper were walking the village, getting an idea of the size and general lay-out. The town houses were large and cool, painted easy yellow and oranges, making the whole place look gay and relaxing. The first two town houses had caught Sharpe's attention; the one of the right hand side of the street because it had a wide, open kitchen on the ground floor, and the opposite house because it had an ancient-looking eight-pound gun on top. He had wanted to walk up and inspect it, to see if it could be used in defence, but time constrained him to rejoining the South Essex and finding them places to pretend to be locals.
Colonel Parker was standing on a balcony, one storey up, watching the street of red-coated men march up and into pre-destined lodgings. He caught sight of the green-jacketed Major and grinned. "Mr Sharpe! Up here, sir!" the Colonel called down.
Sharpe looked up and then at Harper. "Bloody hell, now what does he want?" he muttered. "Sergeant, get the men settled and find me."
"Sir," Harper nodded, and Sharpe turned and walked to the building, finding the stairs and climbing them two at a time. He arrived at the top and pulled his shako off, slinging his rifle and hearing the Colonel's voice booming from one of the rooms.
"I'm sure you won't mind, it's only for a few nights," Colonel Parker was saying. Sharpe knocked smartly on the half-open door, and the three occupants turned. "Ah, Mr Sharpe. Be with you in a moment. Just settling the Hindles," he said. Sharpe nodded, hanging back in the hallway, noticing Marjorie was not among them. He found that odd. He listened as the Colonel persuaded the two Hindles to billet the three of them in the same room. At last he said his goodbyes and walked to the door, walking out and closing it behind him. "Right then, Mr Sharpe, you're this way," he said. Sharpe followed as the Colonel strode off.
"Me, sir?" he asked.
"You, sir," the Colonel grinned. "Don't expect a Major under me to rough it with the grunts, when he can have fine rooms befitting his rank," he said. Sharpe let his shoulders sag.
"But it's not necessary, sir," he said, feeling the first pangs of guilt.
"Oh but it is, Mr Sharpe. You need a clean-up and a fix-up, sir. You're starting to look like one of your men," he said as they walked the landing. Sharpe began to protest that he always looked like that, but the Colonel would not be swayed. "Nonsense, man. To think you'd rather be sleeping in some barracks, ten men to a room. The very thought," he scoffed, leading on.
He found him a room at the back of the town house, a small but very clean affair. Just as he was left to himself and let his pack fall onto the bed, someone knocked on the half-open door. In walked Nigel.
"So here you are, Major. Marvellous, simply marvellous," he said, grinning. Sharpe just looked at him.
"Mr Hindle," he said politely.
"I was, er just wondering" He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting someone to be there.
"Well?" Sharpe asked.
"Well, Mr Harp, I "
"Yes. I was wondering if you felt safe, sir," he said nervously.
"Oh dear me," Nigel said faintly, wringing his hands. He crossed and sat on Sharpe's bed abruptly. "I'm awfully worried, you see," he said needlessly. "I I'm rather averse to being attacked by French soldiers," he continued, "I'm not really a physical type. Scares me wretched," he added, looking just that. Sharpe stood back, pinching at his nose absently, looking to the window.
"Look, er Mr Hindle," he began, then didn't know what to say. "Look, we have more than enough soldiers to stop 'em from getting into this place. You saw the gates," he said, then looked back at him. "It'd take a gun to get through 'em, and I can't see the Frogs dragging a proper-sized cannon all the way over them hills, just to come and get a cart of food."
"I see. So what you're saying is you feel safe," Nigel said hopefully.
"Yes," Sharpe lied glibly.
"Oh, well that's a relief," he said, sagging slightly, letting his hands drop. He looked at Sharpe curiously. He opened his mouth but there was a knock on the door. They looked up to find Marjorie looking at them. She seemed amused, but then just gestured to Nigel with her head. He stood and walked over. "Peter, is it?" he asked pleasantly. She nodded, and he moved to walk past her. She looked at Sharpe, winked, and followed him out.
Sharpe frowned after her, then sighed and turned to the window, looking out. He heard boots on the landing and in walked Harper.
"There y'are sir, been looking all over for you, so I have," he said. "The Colonel found me, told me to bring your belongings up," he added. "You staying here, sir?"
"Looks that way," he said grumpily. He looked at the pack on his bed. "What belongings was he talking about?" he asked, confused.
"Beats me, sir. He seems to think we travel with matching suitcases," he grinned. Sharpe smiled at last.
"Well consider me stuff brought up already, Harper," he said. "Get back to the men, and wait wi' em while we find out how long we're going to be stuck here," he added.
"Yes sir," he said.
"And Harper," he said quickly.
"Keep an eye on that Nigel bloke," he said darkly, and Harper grinned.
"Oh yes, sir. No problem, sir," he said, turning and walking out.
The food was plentiful and the wine flowed as the Colonel regaled them with tales of epic battles and brave heroes, fighting and dying in their hundreds. The heads of the village appreciated the running translation from Peter, and it seemed the slight hum of Spanish voices and the Colonel's booming oratory would go on forever.
Sharpe was seated next to one of the village heads, an old, wise looking man with a huge pipe in his mouth. He ate very little and listened a great deal. Sharpe wondered suddenly if he'd heard the one about having more ears than mouths meant you had to listen twice as much as you shouted, and couldn't help smiling to himself at the memory. He found it hurt less than it used to.
On his left was Marjorie, who had used every excuse to stifle her yawns for the past hour. She was dressed very finely in a silk dress and matching modest shawl, and again had a pale cream scarf tied high round her neck. Sharpe had said very few words to her, but she seemed to be in a good mood, despite her hidden weariness at the Colonel's verbosity.
"Well said, Colonel," Nigel said suddenly, clapping abruptly. "You really are a most gifted speaker, sir," he said enthusiastically.
Sharpe heard the words and for a long moment wondered why he'd said them out loud. Realisation dawned and he looked at Marjorie. She noticed and looked at him quickly, her eyes widening slightly. She looked away from his knowing stare quickly, picking up her wine glass and sipping at it, keeping her face away from his.
He smiled slightly, unconsciously wetting his lower lip with his tongue as he reached out for his own wine glass. He drained it and placed it back on the table deliberately. He cleared his throat clumsily.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I must check on the picquets," he said apologetically. The Colonel nodded.
"Oh yes, of course," he said. "Wouldn't do to have the French appear in the night, would it?" he allowed. "No, sir," Sharpe replied, nodding to everyone respectfully. "Good evening gentlemen," he said. "Miss," he added, smiling at Marjorie serenely. She stared at him, but he simply shoved back his chair and got to his feet, walking from the room. He rounded the door and grinned to himself, before walking off down the landing. He was nearly to the top of the stairs of the town house when he heard feet. He stopped and turned.
Marjorie was looking at him, annoyed. She crossed the ten or so feet between them and looked up at him.
"Yes?" he asked, amused. She folded her arms, huffing. "'Night Miss," he said graciously, inclining his head and turning away.
"Smarmy arse," she hissed suddenly. He froze and thought about the voice for a long second. He turned slowly.
"You're a bad liar, and so's yer brother," he pointed out coldly.
"Takes one to know one," she countered. His eyes narrowed.
"So why do you do it?" he demanded, riled at having been deceived.
"You're too nosy by half," she snapped.
"And you're a bad-tempered little princess," he shot back.
"Bloody snob!" he challenged stubbornly. They stood there, staring at each other in the half-light. She smiled suddenly, then shook her head.
"If only you knew, Major," she said sadly. She looked around, then put a hand out and pulled him by the elbow of his tunic. He glared at her but followed down the stairs and out into the yard. She walked on, away from the steps, looking at him over her shoulder. He followed cautiously.
"Well?" he demanded. She bit her lip, waiting for him to draw closer before falling into step beside him.
"What do you think we're really here for?" she asked quietly. He studied her face, drawn to the familiar sound.
"To give the Frogs a good kickin' and take their food," he said carefully. She grinned, and they walked in silence for a long few minutes. It struck him they were heading back toward the soldier's lodgings.
"It's not just that," she said quietly, and he watched her keenly. He thought about it, and their wandering took them to a large barn door. She leaned on it, looking up at her.
"What else could it be?" he asked. "What do you know?" he added, wondering why he trusted anything she said. He realised he had done so since he had met her; following her cues during dinner with her brothers, finding her being the brains behind Nigel's whereabouts without questioning it. He could have smiled at himself.
"If it were just that, would we need the locals all made up with us?" she said, one eyebrow raised. He stared at her.
"Where are you "
They heard feet behind the barn door and she looked at him, waving a hand over his mouth before turning and running back through the darkness. For some reason he did not doubt her ability to find her way back or keep herself safe as she did so. It bothered him slightly, until the barn door was wrenched open and Harper stopped next to him.
"Jesus, another one!" he breathed, and Sharpe turned from watching the darkness to look at him.
"'Ey?" he asked, not quite sure what conversation they were having.
"She talks just like you, sir!" he said.
"Not quite," he said thoughtfully. "Get in there," he said, pushing him back inside the barn. He followed, finding the other six Chosen Men lying in the straw, dosing.
"Were that the young lass, sir?" Hagman said knowingly, and Sharpe looked at him.
"Aye, a right turn-up fer the Day Book," he said ruefully, and Hagman laughed. He sat up in the straw as Harper crossed over, watching Sharpe.
"But she talked just as funny as you, sir! All bent and cock-eyed, and no mistake!" he said, surprised still. Sharpe looked at him, amused, and Harper heard Robinson give a wary huff, rousing himself from his straw bed. Hagman cleared his throat pointedly. "Not that it's a bad thing lovely lilt, so it is," he added hastily.
"Apart from the one them Pennines slackers use," Robinson put in cheekily.
"'Ey, less o' your lip, Cotton City boy," Sharpe snorted, amused, and Hagman chuckled quietly.
"Now, now, yer all just upset because yer not proper Cheshire lads. 'S no shame in it I were born a Cheshire-man and I'll die a Cheshire-man," he said proudly.
"Jesus, have you no ambition, man?" Harper quipped, and they all shared a chuckled. "Is that why she kept silent the whole time, sir?" Harris asked suddenly from a far corner of the hay. "I notice her brothers are better spoken."
Robinson and Hagman saw Sharpe shoot a familiar warning look at Harris, but he was obviously ensconced too far back in the darkness to notice. Sharpe snorted suddenly in amusement.
"They're not brothers," he said dismissively.
"Oh no? What makes you say that, sir?" Harper asked curiously.
"Cos Nigel keeps forgetting that Marjorie's supposed to be his sister," he said, then smiled broadly. "And as Harris says, he speaks too gentile-like."
"But so does that Peter, sir," Harper pointed out. Robinson, Hagman and Sharpe looked at him, a similarly knowledgeable expression on their faces.
"That's learnt, that is. And I think I know what it's trying to hide," he said thoughtfully.
"Where do you think they're from, sir?" Robinson asked eagerly.
"Don't know. Have to get her to open her mouth first," he said, his mind on other things. Robinson and Hagman exchanged a glance, Harper grinning. Sharpe noticed. "What?" he asked, that look of innocent confusion on his face.
"Shouldn't be too hard, sir," Harper reassured him.
"You heard her, Pat. She's not exactly enamoured of me," he stressed.
"Wear her down with kindness, sir. All women love the polite and gentile," Harris put in.
"I'll do you a swap then," he said easily, unamused. "You can amaze her, talking about all them books and poetry stuff you read." He waited, but they heard Harris sniff in the darkness.
"Thank you, but I think she'd respond better to an officer," he said smugly.
"Bloody hell," Sharpe muttered. FIVE
"Sharpe! You'll want to hear this!" Colonel Parker shouted down the street. Sharpe split from Harper and walked up the dusty street. They, the rest of the Chosen Men, and the entire South Essex were now mostly out of uniform, all in local clothes borrowed or bought from the villagers. The Spanish girls had enjoyed making the foreign soldiers pay full coin for the clothes, and although the threat of a short sharp drop had prevented many men from pursuing them, they had also enjoyed fraternizing with the formerly red-coated strangers.
Colonel Parker himself was dressed as a farmer, and Sharpe had to admit he looked completely convincing. He stopped and looked at him.
"Sir," he said. The Colonel was looking at Peter Hindle, and the man stood next to him.
"This erstwhile fellow is a village scout, just back from the path the French usually take to get here," he said, nodding to the man. He smiled nervously, not following a scrap of the English conversation. "He says still no sign."
"Right sir," Sharpe said, covering his relief. "Then we have time for fortifications, sir."
"Fortifications? They're not bringing a whole battalion, Major," he grinned. "Don't bother yourself with that kind of thing. Just keep your men from the girls, and wait for the foxes to raise their heads. We'll soon see them off," he said haughtily, clapping Sharpe a mighty slap on his shoulder. Sharpe took a step to balance himself and then looked at him.
"But sir, if we start now we can "
"Really, Major, this good fellow says we needn't worry," Peter interrupted. "He says they're probably only bringing a hundred men." He looked at the man. "Si?" he asked. The man looked at him, then at Sharpe. He nodded.
"He's got no clue what yer talking about, man," he snapped. "Ask him in Spanish."
Peter said something quickly and the man smiled, relieved. He nodded and rambled on for a moment. Sharpe just looked at him, then at Peter. Nice trick. Worked first on him, then on me. Nearly, he thought. He looked at the Colonel, thinking.
"Permission to fill sandbags, sir?" he asked innocently. "Fer a small wall, give the men something to do, keep 'em out of trouble, sir," he added. The Colonel looked at him.
"Yes, why not Major, good thinking, what?" he said, grinning. "Good man. Dismissed," he said. Sharpe nodded and turned, walking back to the men, his rifle slung. He reached Harper and swore, viciously and at length. Harper just waited.
"What's he done?" he asked carefully, his tone light.
"He's taking that Peter Hindle's word on everything," Sharpe said, being careful to keep his voice down.
"Is that bad, sir?" he asked, following Sharpe as he strode back toward the barn.
"It is when I don't trust the bugger as far as I could throw him," he snapped. "Come on. Get the Chosen Men up, steal me some South Essex men, and get 'em all digging," he said. Harper just followed.
They were diligent in their work, Sharpe mucking in for lack of something else to do. He looked up and around, pausing to survey the apparently haphazard holes and trenches. He leaned over his shovel, wiping the sweat from his face with his sleeve, before rolling it up.
Despite the heat and feeling naked without the feel of a rifle hanging off his shoulder, he had to admit it was a peaceful kind of satisfaction, digging. He had felt great personal satisfaction at seeing soldiers perform well, at battalions decimating French columns in an organized manner, and even receiving his Majority, raising him to where he was now. But digging gave him a feeling that he'd done something good without having had to kill anyone. It was a different kind of sense of worth, an alien one.
He sighed, looking around and finding Nigel and Marjorie watching them. He heard a clang of metal and looked to his left, finding Harris looking at him. He mouthed the word "gentile" at Sharpe, who huffed and picked up his shovel, walking over to the two of them slowly.
"Miss," he said suavely, then cleared his throat and added, "Mr Hindle."
"Mr Harp, it's lovely "
"Yes. So lovely to see you all working hard," he said, waving a hand at the riflemen and the twenty or so men that had been commandeered from the South Essex. "You must be thirsty, dear man," he added, turning to his canteen on his belt.
"I'll survive," he said. "You don't mind the heat, miss?" he asked politely, wondering just what the bloody hell he was supposed to do next. She eyed him, seemingly amused. He noticed her scarf of the day was pale pink to match her white blouse and red heavy skirt.
"Nice colour, that," he said, nodding toward it, and she smiled before looking at Nigel. He looked back at her.
"Oh, yes. Peter was wondering what it is you're doing out there?" he asked innocently. Marjorie looked back at him, her eyes hooded. Sharpe smiled at her, hoping it looked friendly but suspecting it was coming out grateful.
"Just giving the men summat to do, Mr Hindle," he said easily. "I hate to see bored soldiers. Makes 'em do stupid things, what with so much distraction about," he said, except his concentration wasn't what it should have been, and the last word came out as "abaht". He shifted his eyes to Marjorie unconsciously. She grinned, before wiping it off and looking out at the men. She sniffed delicately, waving air at her face, and Nigel looked at her.
"Well, I daresay we've dug enough ourselves, wouldn't you?" he said, looking at her.
"I bet she rattles on all day when there's no-one to hear her, like," Sharpe said suddenly, and they both turned to look at him. Suddenly he wanted to her to stay behind and him to leave. He wondered why.
"Oh, I see, ha!" Nigel chuckled, "Very funny, Mr Harp," he added, patting him on the shoulder and finding his shirt damp. "Well then," he said awkwardly, wiping his hand on his coat, "we'll get inside where it's a little cooler, eh?" he said to Marjorie. She nodded, but as Nigel turned away she looked back at Sharpe and winked.
He pursed his lips, thinking, as she turned and walked off, following Nigel back toward the big gates and the village inside. Sharpe picked up his shovel thoughtfully and walked back to the hole he had started. He slammed it into the ground as Harris wandered up.
"Gentile, sir?" he asked quietly.
"Every slippery bloody eel you can name," Sharpe muttered, hacking at the dirt mercilessly.
Harper walked inside the town house, laying his shovel against the side of the kitchen basin and leaning over it, pouring water in from the jug next to the basin. He washed his hands, humming to himself, splashing the water against his face. He heard someone behind him in the kitchen and turned.
"Oh, Miss Marjorie," he said happily. She looked at him curiously. "Oh that's right, you don't speak miss. Ah well, my loss, I'm sure," he continued. "Was there something I could do for you, miss?" he asked. She smiled, reaching into her pocket and taking out a small piece of paper. She walked over slowly, handing it to him. He began to open it but she put her hands out to his, holding them closed. He swallowed and looked at her at close range.
She was definitely very good-looking, but not in a classical sense, he reasoned. More like a sneak-up-on-you kinda way, he thought to himself. He nodded.
"I'll give it to the Major, shall I?" he asked innocently. She nodded, then smiled and leaned over, kissing his cheek softly. He waited until she had smiled and left as silently as she'd come. Then he let out a long sigh. I'm a married man. I'm a married man, he repeated to himself, stuffing the paper in his pocket and picking up his shovel. He walked back outside, trying to appear unhurried. He looked around just beyond the gates, where everyone was now filling gunny sacks with the turfed dirt, but couldn't see Sharpe. "Shite," he muttered, then wandered back inside the gates.
He turned left and walked up the dirt road, heading for the town house and hoping the Major had gone back to his room. He walked in the door, quietly for a big man, and walked up the stairs slowly. He reached the landing and walked along, but paused when he heard voices.
"It's him, no?"
"Oh don't be silly," someone said, and he recognized the voice as that of Nigel Hindle.
"It's Look, you needn't worry," Nigel said, indignant. "I'm still prepared to do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes," he said, his thin voice desperate.
"Just remember how you begged me to spare him on the crossing."
"I do, every day I do," Nigel said, his voice taking on a whining timbre. Harper's face twisted into derision for the owner. "I owe you, I know."
"Just make sure you remember that," said the voice. "Tell him I said hello. And if I catch you with that filthy little soldier, telling him anything "
"Would I?" Nigel said innocently. Yes, you bloody would, you stinkin' fop, Harper thought immediately. He turned and fled from the corridor, opening a door and flying in. He shut it almost completely and stuck his eye to the gap, watching.
"Did you want summat, Pat?" came a quiet mumble, and he turned to find Sharpe dosing on his back, over on the bed near the window.
"Quiet! Sir," he hissed, and Sharpe snapped awake. He put his elbows under him and looked over. Harper waved at him not to move and looked back at the door. He watched a short, bulging mass of man appear from Nigel's door and walk slowly down the landing. He noticed the ragged, farmer's clothes and large floppy hat. The man began to walk down the stairs and Harper heard the bed creak slightly. Sharpe appeared at his elbow.
Harper closed the door quietly, then looked at the Major. He put a finger to his lips. Sharpe nodded and gestured to the door. Harper shook his head and they waited, not daring to breathe, until they heard Nigel's door open and close, and his boots clatter down the stairs slowly.
Finally Harper breathed out. "Jesus wept," he sighed, turning and walking to the window.
"Well what is it?" Sharpe asked. Harper turned and walked away from the window.
"Nigel, sir. That's what it is. He had some man in his room sir, scared of him so he was, only he didn't sound Spanish or like one of you English," he added. Sharpe looked alarmed.
"French?" he asked.
"Don't know sir. He told Nigel to stay away from talking to you sir, sounded proper threatening, and no mistake," he said. Sharpe turned thoughtful. "Oh, and Miss Marjorie asked me to give you this, sir," he said, producing the crumpled paper from his pocket.
"When?" Sharpe asked, unfolding it and peering at it.
"Just before I came upstairs and eavesdropped on Nigel, sir," he said.
"Nice work, Pat," he said quietly, thinking. He read the note again. "Alright. You get back to it, tell the lads to make sure those holes are left open. They have to be kept open till it goes dark, understand?" he asked.
"Yes sir. Will we be filling them in after dark then sir?" he asked as Sharpe turned to the door.
"Aye," he said, disappearing out the door.
"Funny time to be doing that," he said to himself, then just shrugged and walked out, closing the door behind him.
"Miss?" Sharpe called, wandering round the barn. A cow stirred and he looked at it. "You tread on me I'll share you out to the lads fer breakfast," he hissed. The cow ignored him.
The door to the barn opened and closed, and he turned and found Marjorie looking at him.
"Well?" he asked shortly, then kicked himself. "I mean, er " He cleared his throat. "Nice to see you again, miss," he said, forcing a pleasant demeanour on his stern features. She walked over, folding her arms. "You sent for me?"
"I did," she said, and he raised an eyebrow. "You won't do that in front of Nigel again," she said sternly, and he grinned.
"If you say so, miss. What did I do?" he asked knowingly. She searched his face.
"Nigel dunt know. He thinks I have a genuine 'affliction'," she said quietly.
"So you don't?"
"Does it sound like it to you, Major?" she said tersely. He shrugged. She huffed. "Look, I'm just trying to look out fer me brother, that's all," she continued. He waited, but she had played this game before. "What do you know about Nigel?" she asked.
"Only that he's not your brother," he said cautiously, his smile dropping. "Is there summat else I should know?" he asked gamely.
"He likes you. Really likes you," she stressed. "Peter's upset about it and he's just pretending it's not all going to end in tears 'fore bedtime," she snapped. "It's proper cocked, all of it," she spat, turning away from him. He looked at his feet, suddenly feeling bad for her. He walked over, stopping short of putting his hand on her shoulder.
"Look, miss "
"Marjorie," she said quietly, not turning.
"Miss Marjorie, if you want me help, you'll have to tell me what's going on," he said. "Starting with who you lot really are."
She turned and looked up at him. "We're cartographers, Major. Always have been."
"You and your brother are. I'm willing to bet Nigel's not even a map-reader," he scoffed. She studied his face, and he just looked back at her. She sighed, wiping her hands over her face. She walked round him to the glass-less window, looking out. She unbuttoned her small cropped jacket and slid it off, hanging it on the post in the cow gate.
"You want to know who we really are?" she asked. "Some things show it better than others," she added quietly. She turned to look at him, undoing the bow at her neck. She pulled it loose and walked over to him, pulling the pink scarf from her neck slowly. He looked at her, his eyes sliding down her neck to the right side, finding a scar.
It was a good three inches long, angry red and half an inch wide. It was criss-crossed with tiny white lines, as if a brush had been swept over it many times. He simply looked at it, his eyebrows raising and his mouth pursing as if it meant nothing.
"I've seen worse," he said confidently. "I've had worse," he added darkly. She stared at him, but she seemed relieved. "What happened?"
"Accident," she said reluctantly, and Sharpe nodded, looking at his feet.
"You're lucky, it's not a war-wound," he said charitably. She snorted.
"Well, kinda," she said, and he looked at her. "It were a" She hesitated, thinking perhaps it was a desperate thing she was about to do. "It were a cotton-loom accident. Some lad hadnt secured the loom arm. It came loose and and almost took me head off," she finished angrily.
"Bloody hell!" he frowned, imagining it. He'd seen looms himself, and the thought of her mangled by one of the large, clumsy machines pushed the invective from him more forcefully than he'd meant. "What did you do?"
"I picked meself up alright, and grabbed a bucket," she shrugged, her anger subsiding.
"For the blood?" he asked, astonished.
"To crack the little bleeder over the head with," she smiled, and he laughed. "He came off worse that me a year later he fell into the canal."
"Fell?" Sharpe prompted.
"He owed money," she shrugged. "So did we. We left."
"You and your brother?" he asked.
"Brothers," she stressed, and Sharpe sighed, shaking his head. She shrugged, holding her hands up. "Alright, yeah, me and me brother," she admitted. "And Nigel."
"What's his real name?" he dared.
"Nigel Hindle, would you believe? That way it's easier for him to remember he int the sharpest bayonet int box, is he?" she said easily. He grinned, at her words and her meaning.
"So what's your real name?" he asked. She eyed him.
"Is yours really 'Sharpe'?" she asked curiously. He frowned.
"Well, yeah," he said, confused. She nodded.
"You're lucky. Thought maybe you'd changed it, like."
"Why would I do that?" he asked, still looking monumentally puzzled.
"To hide yer background. Thought p'raps you were a 'Sharples' originally." She paused. "Though with an accent like yours, don't suppose changing yer name would do any good."
"So what is your name? Yer real one?" he asked, fascinated. For some reason he found he desperately wanted to know. He tried to believe it was because he hated the thought of being deceived, but he let himself vaguely acknowledge that there may well be another reason.
"Schofield," she admitted guiltily. "Peter didn't want it following us out here, so he took Nigel's name fer ours. He learnt to speak all posh and turned us into this gentile family of map-makers," she added. He wet his lips, looking over at the window thoughtfully, then back down at her.
"And you? Why didn't you learn to talk all proper-like?" he asked, curiosity burning.
"I'd like to say it were cos I felt bad about us leaving the Cotton City behind," she said slowly. So you are from the Cotton City, he reasoned.
"But?" he prompted, smiling in anticipation.
"But I just can't change the way I speak," she shrugged helplessly, "same as you." She paused, and he watched her, struck by her sudden, happy smile. "Do you know this is the longest conversation I've had wi' anyone in since we left England?" she asked wearily, wiping her hands over her face. He felt himself wilt on the inside.
"Well, I don't want to put you out, love," he said, turning reluctantly to go. "I'll "
"Major," she said quickly, putting her hand on his arm, pulling at him to stop. "That's not what I meant." She eyed him, and he swallowed. "I meant it's been grand," she finished lamely. He smiled.
"How grand?" he dared. Usually he felt particularly clumsy around women, but there was something about Marjorie that put him at ease.
"Grand enough to invite you to dinner tonight," she said. "That is, if the French don't attack."
"I'm sure they wouldn't be so peevish," he said with a disarming grin. "But won't your brother mind?" he asked, his smile fading.
"Shouldn't think so, he's not coming," she said frankly, and he grinned.
"Well then, I'll have to accept."
"Nine o'clock, Major," she said sternly. He inclined his head respectfully, turning for the big barn door. He was halfway there when she called out to him. "Oh, and Major," she said. He stopped and turned, looking at her. "Don't worry about washing them farmer's clothes out. You won't be in 'em fer long."
"Oh aye?" he asked innocently, one eyebrow raised, but a cheeky grin spread over his face as he put his hand to the door.
"The fight against the French? Getting back int uniform for the battle?" she prompted.
"Oh. Aye, of course," he said knowingly, disappearing out of the door, pulling it to behind him. SIX "
Well? What does he say?" Sharpe asked. Peter looked at the scout, then back to Sharpe.
"He says still no sign. Very odd, that. He says they're usually here prompt. It is the fifteenth today, isn't it?" he asked gingerly, taking out his pocket watch and peering at it. Sharpe shrugged.
"Summat like that."
"Ah." He snapped the watch shut and pushed it back in his pocket. He dismissed the scout, who nodded and walked off down the dirt street. Sharpe turned to go. "Mr Sharpe," he said quickly. He turned and looked at him. "I, er It seems I have mis-judged you," he said quietly.
"Not you as well. I think I'll get a notice put on me back," he said tersely, "One that says: 'I'm not an arrogant bastard'," he added curtly. Peter smiled.
"No, I I notice Marjorie asked you to dinner, last night."
"And what was it you talked about?" he asked quietly. Sharpe smiled.
"I did all the talking, she did all the listening, what with her not being able to speak, like," he allowed. Peter nodded.
"I see. Told her all about your amazing victories against the French, what?" he smiled.
"Actually, no," he admitted. They had talked about London, and how close Hallam and Ashton-Under-Lyne really were after all. How it had been such a stroke of luck that two people, thrown so far apart, could have so much in common. Was it the up-bringing, she'd wanted to know. Was it the cities that had made them what they were? Was it the country that had made them both harder on the outside than in? Sharpe wet his lips, pushing the thought away abruptly. "About England."
"I see," he said easily. "Perhaps tonight you'll let her get more rest, eh Mr Sharpe?" he needled. Sharpe looked at him quickly.
"Now look here Mr Hindle, nothing happened that's not in King's Regulations," he said harshly, eager to scotch any rumours where Marjorie was concerned.
"Oh dear chap, don't think for one minute I'm accusing you of anything," he said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "What I meant was, her lamp was lit for a long time after you'd left. Left her a book, did you?" he asked lightly.
"No," he admitted, puzzled. Peter patted his shoulder, then nodded.
"Well then. I'll go find that useless brother of mine. At best, he's simply lost," he said with a laugh, turning and walking off. Sharpe watched him go, then his thoughts turned back to Marjorie.
Harper walked into the barn, throwing down his shovel and letting himself sit heavily in the hay.
"All done, Sarge?" Brown asked from across the hay. Moore sat up and watched.
"All done, lad. Every wee thing he wanted." He lay back and closed his eyes.
"What's he up to, Sarge?" Moore asked curiously. Harper sighed.
"God only knows."
It was quiet, save the snores of the Chosen Men. The door creaked open and Sharpe walked in, looking at them and tutting.
"If I'd known it were a holiday I would have brought drink," he said sarcastically. "Well come on, there's stuff to do yet," he added indignantly.
"Mary Mother of God," Harper hissed, getting to his feet. Robinson, Hagman, Taylor and Harris appeared from under the hay like magic. "Alright then, on your feet," he said wearily, counting the six heads to be sure. He looked at Sharpe. "Where to, Major?"
"The kitchens," Sharpe said with a smile. "There's food needs sortin'."
"Now that's more like it!" Robinson grinned, elbowing his way to the front and tearing off out the door. The others followed, but Harper hung back.
"That young miss, sir?" he asked. Sharpe looked at him. "Did you get any information from her? I take it you got her on your side then?" he smiled innocently.
"Palm of me hand, Pat," he said confidently with a grin, and Harper 'o'ed his mouth at him. "I don't want to know what you do in your spare, lonely time sir, I was just asking after the lady, so I was," he grinned, clapping a hand to the Major's elbow and walking out. Git, Sharpe thought with a grin, looking at his feet. He looked up and saw Harris leaving slowly.
"Harris," he said quietly. The rifleman stopped, looking at him.
"Yes, sir?" he asked, amused. He had an idea what he would be asked.
"That Spanish scout, out the front," he said, gesturing with his head. Harris' smile faded. He had expected to be quizzed on women. Again.
"Go talk to him. There's summat not right here, and that scout knows more 'n he's letting on. Go and be nice to him, get him to tell you what he really knows about the Frogs coming," he said. Harris nodded.
"Yes sir." He turned to go.
"And Harris," he said quickly.
"Yes, sir?" he asked, looking at him.
"You were wrong, Harris. Not all women like the gentile things in life," he said, winking at him and walking past him. Harris watched him go, frowned, and then shook his head, heading out of the barn.
He knocked on the door politely, waiting on the landing. After a long moment the door opened. Marjorie looked at him. She gestured with her head and he walked in, looking around. She closed the door behind him, turning to look at him.
"I hope yer men are happy, Mr Sharpe," she said quietly.
"The last time I saw 'em this happy, it were cos they had whole box-full o' new flints," he admitted cheerfully, and she smiled.
"That must be a rifleman thing," she allowed, walking to the window and drawing the blinds slowly. He looked over at the table and saw hot food waiting. She looked at him. "Well go on then, sit down and get some food. You look tired," she said, following him to the table.
"Been diggin'," he said dismissively, pulling a chair out by the back. She just looked at him, and he gestured with his head. She smiled and sat in it, and he pushed it up for her.
"Well thank you, Mr Sharpe, I'm sure," she said. "Who'd a known a little Tyke like you would have such manners?" she smiled.
He sat in the chair opposite. "Who'd a thought a girl who used to work looms would be here at all," he countered, and she looked at him.
"True." She waved a hand at the food; simple but well roasted chicken, with roasted jacketed potatoes and a few green and orange looking vegetables. He spied a jug of gravy stock next to it and she noticed, picking it up and leaning over, pouring some on the pile of food on his plate. It flowed decidedly slowly.
"Bloody hell, you could surface a road wi' that!" he cried, most pleased, and she laughed.
"Something told me you'd like it thick," she said, pouring some on her own plate. She set the jug down. "It's nice to have someone who understands, int it?" she said to herself, it seemed. He picked up his fork.
"Yeah," he admitted quietly. He waited for her to start eating, then tucked in himself. "Makes it harder to lie," he added.
"Mr Sharpe, I'm sure "
"Well then Richard," she said, trying the name on for size. "I wouldn't lie to you. I'd hoped you'd understand that, at least," she said flatly. He shook his head.
"Not you, Marjorie, your brother," he said carefully.
"Why would Peter lie to you? About what?" she asked, surprised.
"He thinks he can use that Spanish scout to convince me of summat that's not true," he said. "He's playing a very dangerous game, Marjorie."
"You can call me Mar," she said easily.
"Well then." He huffed. "Do you know when the Frogs are coming?" he asked tersely. She looked at him.
"Richard, if I knew, you're the very first person I'd tell," she said dismissively, and he felt his pride jump. Something about the tacit way she'd said it made him believe her. "And anyway, I thought the scouts were watching for 'em?" she asked, looking at him.
"They are. But I don't trust the buggers. I've got men of me own watching, ta very much," he said quietly, and she laughed. "What?" he asked, bemused.
"You! Oh, I wish Dad could have met you," she said.
"Could have?" he asked gingerly.
"He passed away. A good ten years ago now. A good man. A bloody good cartographer." She sighed, then looked back at him. "And your father? What does he do? No, wait, let me guess," she said, waving her hands up to stop him interrupting. "A farmer, right? No, wait he's a a town crier! Yeah, a town crier that's why you shout like it comes from yer boots," she giggled. He opened his mouth but she waved her hand at him. "No - he's a soldier too, most like. A Colonel, o' course. He bought you your commission as a Lieutenant, but you worked yer way up to Major all by yourself," she said, watching him.
"I've never paid fer a commission," he admitted. "Started out as a bloody Sergeant, like Harper."
"What? Oh, well... that sounds about right," she nodded suddenly. He looked at her, indignant.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he said, a little stiffly. She smiled slyly.
"Only that I were right - you are a dirty little ranker after all."
He laughed abruptly, resting his elbows on the table and sliding his left hand over the knuckles on his right. He looked at the food, then back at her. "You know... this is..." He cleared his throat, looking down at the food and then removing his elbows from the table guiltily. "You realise this chicken's stolen," he said, to fill the sudden silence. She smiled.
"Absolutely. I stole it," she countered, and he smiled again. "So, come on then, what does yer dad do? Can't be worse than a cartographer," she reasoned. She noticed his smile fade. "What?" she asked.
"I don't know what he did. Never met him," he admitted, and she closed her mouth.
"Oh. Sorry," she said awkwardly.
"What for? Were it your fault?" he asked curiously, and she grinned.
"Now you sound more like me father. Stop it," she said. He smiled and they got on with eating. "You know," she said quietly, "Dad would have found all this very strange. His two children out in Spain, one of 'em entertaining some foppish waster, just cos "
"Thanks very much, Mar," he interrupted, and she grinned.
"You know what I mean. He'd turn in his grave if he knew well, about Peter and Nigel," she said quietly, and he kept judiciously silent. It was quiet for a long moment, and he suddenly appreciated the chicken.
"How did he meet Nigel?" he asked.
"It's a strange story, actually," she said. "Nigel was working for Declari, a rival mapping house. One day he came over and delivered some papers, said they were new maps of Spain, and could he leave 'em for Peter. Well, I thought he might as well. Turned out he'd seen Peter going to and from work every day. Love at first sight," she shrugged, and Sharpe sat back slowly, pushing all the thoughts away that that brought up.
"How did Peter take it? Him working fer a rival company?" he asked.
"He was upset, Richard. He were head over heels for Nigel, that much was clear. But Well, I just put up with it cos Peter's my brother my older brother. Other people society would not have been so understanding. He didn't want scandal and public outrage," she said. "Nigel's boss knew people as could spirit us out on a ship from Liverpool, so one night we went. I went cos we were that close," she brought her fingers together to indicate an inch "from being chucked in the canal fer not paying debts. I had no reason to stay, and Nigel said he knew people as could help us get on our feet in sunny Spain." She shrugged. "I had no reason not to trust Nigel, seeing as how he thought the world of my brother, and I couldn't see him betraying that. So here I am."
Sharpe studied her face, her candid tale belying the rich clothes she wore. He noticed tonight's scarf was pale pink. There was a knock at the door and Sharpe stood. He looked at her, then at the door.
"Yes?" he asked.
"It's Harris, sir," he called. Sharpe dropped his napkin on the table and crossed to the door. He opened it and gestured him inside. "There you are, sir. I went looking in your room, but it was empty, so I assumed you'd be in here, sir." He looked past him to Marjorie, nodding. "Evening miss," he said eagerly. She just nodded, smiling.
"Well?" Sharpe asked impatiently. Harris looked back at him.
"Oh, er, the scout sir? It took me three bottles of wine, sir, but he's being paid by the French. Seems they're two days away, and they're bringing a full infantry battalion. No cavalry, no guns, they can't get them here in time. The Spaniard was supposed to keep us thinking they weren't coming, sir, and when they arrived at dawn the day after tomorrow, we'd be caught with our trousers down, sir." He paused. "Begging your pardon, miss," he said, nodding to her apologetically. She grinned.
"Good work, Harris. Now go and repeat that to the Sergeant Major, but not Colonel Parker."
"Do it. Tell Harper to start on them other things I told him about," he said. "And not a word of this outside the Chosen Men, understand? I don't care if bloody Wellington appears, you're not to tell him, either. Dismissed."
"Yes sir," he nodded firmly, saluting and turning, disappearing from the room. He closed the door quietly, thinking. She watched him.
"So the scout were lying," she said softly. He looked at her.
"And so were your brother, Mar," he said apologetically. "That scout's been paid by the Frogs. Whether Peter knows or not, he's helping him to keep up the ruse." He walked back to the table slowly, sitting on the chair sideways, putting his elbows on his knees. She leaned back in her chair, watching him curiously. He rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers slowly, thinking.
"Richard," she said quietly. He looked at her. "Why did you Why did you let your man spill everything like that? In front of me?" she asked curiously. "I'm Peter's sister. Why do you think I'd not tell him what I've just heard?" she asked plainly. He studied her face, searching for an answer that wouldn't sound as lame out loud as it did in his head.
"I trust you," he managed eventually, realising everything sounded just as lame out loud as it did in his head. She huffed with amusement.
"Hardly. You don't trust anyone," she replied.
"Alright, I'm hoping I can persuade you not to tell yer brother about what we've discussed tonight," he said, straightening.
"Oh you were, were you?" she asked, amused. "And how were you going to do that?"
"Appeal to yer sense of what's that word? Coming from the same place?" he asked, and she laughed.
"Oh Richard, you are a card," she giggled, and he grinned, not just relieved she wasn't scathing of his ignorance, but amused she shared and accepted it.
She straightened and looked around the room slowly. "Right Dinner," she said smartly, holding her hand up and counting off a finger, "done. Talk of family and the French, done," she said, counting off another finger. "Get past sticky issue of my brother and Nigel, done," she added, touching a third finger. She looked at him, letting her hands drop to the table. "Well then, just one thing left. Do me a favour," she said. He looked at her, eyebrows raised in innocent query. "Get over there and turn down me bed."
He gawped for a second. "What, just like that?" he asked, not moving.
"Well did you want summat else?" she challenged. "I don't know about you, but I'm not playing this game any longer. The Frogs will be here day after tomorrow, Richard. You'll go off and fight. Now you and I both know you've got a bloody good chance of surviving and coming back to me, but who can be sure?" she asked frankly.
"I weren't aware I were supposed to be coming back to you," he said, grinning gamely.
"Oh Richard, don't be facetious," she said dismissively, standing and walking over to stop in front of him.
"I'll do me best," he said as he looked up at her, wondering what 'facetious' meant.
"You'd better do a damned sight more than that," she remarked.
She turned over under the warm cotton sheets, finding him sleeping on his front, to her right. She caught sight of some long, thin scar and pushed the sheets down, finding more criss-cross scars across his back. She stared at them, fascinated, wondering what they were. She inched closer and put her finger out, touching one of them gently. He started and lifted his head swiftly.
"It's alright, the place int on fire," she smiled quietly, and he huffed through his nose, letting his head fall back to the pillow. She slid her finger down the scar slowly. "What are these?" she asked curiously.
"Scars," he said succinctly, rolling onto his back deliberately. She watched him, but he just got comfortable and sniffed to himself, clearly attempting to go back to sleep.
"You don't like them?" she asked, putting her hand under her face and propping herself up on her elbow to watch him.
"You don't need to be ashamed of them, Richard."
"Who says I am?" he said irritably, opening his eyes and looking at her in the gloom. She smiled.
"Takes one to know one," she admitted quietly. He watched her, and she wondered what was going through his head. "You know, scars are not who we are," she added. He raised his hand to her bare neck lazily, sliding his fingers down it slowly.
"Oh aye? So why do you hide yours?" he asked. She didn't answer. "Cos they are." He paused. "I'm just a soldier who were flogged raw fer summat he didn't do, and you're just a loom girl on the run from Nigel's old boss," he said, resigned.
"Balls, Richard!" she snapped, and he grinned delightedly. "You're a Major, with titles and medals and Eagles and armies crushed beneath you," she said flatly. "They might have whipped you while you were a grunt, but they sure as bloody hell couldn't beat the tiger out of you," she added, her eyes flashing. He grinned.
"And I'm just lost in Spain," she sighed, falling onto her back and looking at the ceiling. "Bloody hell, what am I doing in this odd country?" she asked herself. He rolled onto his left side, leaning over her.
"Trying to convince people yer more than what you were, same as me," he said softly. She looked at him, putting a hand to his face, feeling the rough stubble and studying the emerald green eyes.
"Oh Richard," she sighed unhappily. "What happens to the villagers while you and yer brave men are fighting?" she asked.
"They hide behind the barricade," he said simply. "We give the Frogs a good pastin', and come home fer dinner," he said cheekily. She giggled.
"It's going to be that easy, is it?" she asked, grinning.
"Well, for you, maybe. I have to actually do some fighting," he said.
"Be careful. Don't get any more scars," she said quietly, her face losing its humour. He looked her face over with intent, thinking. "Don't die here, Richard, so far from home," she whispered.
"Dunt matter. I don't have a home."
She let her face register her anguish, before pulling his head toward her. She kissed him once, before guiding his head down to rest on her collarbone. He slid his hand across her and to her side, pulling her in, and she slipped her arm round his back, holding his head to her neck securely. She squeezed him to her once, pulling the sheets up over them.
"You will one day. A bright, sunny place with your own buildings. All yours. Safe." She closed her eyes, heard him sigh comfortably, and drifted off to sleep.
The crack of a rifle woke him smartly. He sat up, looking around, disorientated. Marjorie was still sleeping, the room was still mostly dark, but suddenly another rifle fired and he heard the unmistakable sound of Hagman sounding the alarm.
"Frogs! Frogs, sir! Marching this way!"
He sprang out of bed, grabbing up his farmer's trousers and pulling them on roughly.
"Bastards!" he hissed to himself, "They said tomorrow!" He yanked on his boots even as he hopped to the window. "Hagman! Dan! Dan!" he shouted into the dawn.
"Sir!" Hagman shouted, looking up.
"Wake the Colonel, tell him I want to hold the line inside the gate. Make sure he does not step out of the gate!" he bellowed.
"Sir!" he acknowledged, and ran off. Men started to wake and fuss, voices started to rise, and he turned back to find Marjorie waking, blissfully unaware of what was happening.
"Mar, get up!" he called, hurrying over. She snapped awake, looking round.
"What is it?" she demanded, looking for her silk slip. He grabbed it from the bedside chair and tossed it to her. He snatched up his shirt, pulling it on over his head quickly.
"Frogs. They even lied to the old man. They're coming," he said, running back to the window. "Sergeant Major!" he bellowed.
"Typical!" Marjorie tutted, pulling on her slip and jumping out of bed. She managed to locate most of her clothes from around the room.
"Harper!" Sharpe roared from the window.
"Sir!" came an answering shout.
"Get the men up on them gun steps!" he shouted, "As close to the main gates as they can get. How close are the Frogs?" he demanded.
"Couple of hours, sir!"
"Then get the men back in uniform!"
"But it's "
"They lied, Harper! Everyone bloody lied!" he shouted, turning and checking Marjorie was decent before running from the room and across the landing, down the stairs.
The breeze was slight, the sun strong, and two hundred and ten soldiers in the South Essex, back in fighting uniform, stood and sweated. The two blocks of men stood inside the gates, between the village walls and the barricade the riflemen and commandeered men had produced. The barricade blocked the main street that ran directly from the front gates, right through the entire village. It connected all side streets and walkways. If infantry got into that, they could go anywhere they chose.
The Chosen Men, green-jacketed and ready, were positioned in the gun steps, heads down below the line of sight from the other side. It was a superfluous precaution. Not even a mounted officer could have seen them from the other side at that height. The long barrels of the rifles were resting on the top of the wall, the men wiping their foreheads and waiting.
Colonel Parker sat on his horse, his reins held neatly in his right hand. Inside he was cursing the weather, the French, and the man who had designed army uniforms. Obviously he'd never left England.
Sharpe was walking from one rifleman to another, from one gun step to another, checking one last time. He stopped just past Taylor, leaning a hand on the wall and looking over.
And there they were. What looked like hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers, their blue jackets and bright white trousers shimmering in the heat as they marched. They were still far enough away that he needed his telescope to see them clearly.
He inspected the man in charge, on his horse. He seemed unlike other French Colonels he had had dealings with; this one was thin and tall. He watched them approach, thinking perhaps they had almost an hour before all hell would break loose.
He collapsed the telescope slowly, thinking. What was the Colonel going to do? A straight attack or some kind of clever feint? He huffed.
"How many, sir?" Taylor asked carefully. Sharpe looked at him.
"Not nearly enough," he lied. It must have been convincing, for Taylor relaxed slightly and turned to Moore, fifteen feet from his right, grinning. Sharpe turned away deliberately, finding the ladder and shinning down it quickly. He paused at the bottom, looking around. He walked over to Colonel Parker's horse, parked in front of two ranks of red-coats, half the total. "Sir," he said respectfully. Parker looked at him, his horse flicking its ears to ward off flies.
"Major," he said quietly. "Seems we were led up the garden path, what?" he said sourly. Sharpe pursed his lips.
"Not too far, sir," he allowed. Parker looked at him.
"Oh? You've noticed the eight ranks of Frenchmen, have you?" he asked loudly. Sharpe didn't look up at him.
"We have rifles."
"Damn it all, Sharpe! They outnumber us two to one, man! We're fenced in here like cattle and you're banging on about some fancy muskets!" he spluttered. Sharpe kept his mouth judiciously shut. "What we're going to do when they get through those gates I don't know," he said, just as hotly.
"They'll have a job, sir. Those gates are pretty "
"The army don't pay you to think, man!" he shouted suddenly. He paused, looking at the ranks of red-coats, standing ready and sweating in the heat. He sighed. "Look, Major... Everyone's nerves are a little tested this morning. You'll forgive me, won't you?" he asked, and his voice sounded slightly tremulous. Sharpe hoped he wouldn't break before the French fired their first shot.
"Of course, sir," he said, then realised perhaps the Colonel just didn't want to die having just taken his fear out on a subordinate. He looked at him. "They have to reach the gates first, sir," he added. Parker looked at him.
"Meaning?" he asked, his temper much restored. Sharpe sniffed dismissively.
"We might have left some holes lying about, sir. After we filled them bags for the barricade," he said innocently. Parker looked up at the gates quickly, thought about it, then looked back down at Sharpe.
"But I didn't see any holes!" he protested, as though he wished he were wrong.
"Well, couldn't have 'em left open, sir. Someone might have fallen in," he said innocently. "We covered 'em over, like. Made 'em safe. Well, if you know they're there, sir," he added.
Parker stared at him. "And how many of these holes might there be?" he asked, aghast.
"Just a few, sir."
"Damn it, Sharpe, I need to know so that our men don't fall in them themselves!" he cried. Sharpe looked at him, then transferred his rifle to his left hand, lifting his right to point out rough areas.
"About thirty feet from the gates, sir. Around ten on the right, covering the right hand gate and its approach, and about the same on the left. About fifteen foot wide, arranged in a slanted pattern, like window shutters, sir."
"And five or six spreading round the sides sir, in case the buggers try and sneak round 'em," he added. Parker stared at him, speechless. "If the men stay close to the gates, they won't come anywhere near 'em, sir," he said confidently. He was greeted with silence and looked up at Parker. "Sir?"
"You you devious, obfuscating little officer!" he bit out, shocked. "Goddamn man, but I'm glad you're here!" He laughed suddenly, drawing looks from the other men, relieved their commanding officers didn't appear worried. Sharpe cleared his throat.
"I'm not," he said, and Parker looked at him.
"Oh. Yes, quite," he allowed, much more quietly. He looked ahead again. "You really think those fancy muskets of yours will make the difference?" he asked.
"Oh be sure," Sharpe said menacingly, thinking of the battle ahead. "Sir," he added, remembering where he was.
"Well then. I shall lead our splendid South Essex, Major. I charge you with the task of leading your precious rifles to cut down as many French as possible. Amenable to you, sir?" he asked haughtily. Technically it was an insult; a Colonel sweeping the board and taking command of the entire day, leaving a full field Major in charge of seven men and fourteen rifles. But Sharpe smiled, relieved. He didn't want South Essex soldiers.
"Yes sir," he said smartly. Parker nodded. Sharpe turned to him and nodded respectfully, turning to walk over to the gates slowly. He paused at the bottom of the ladder, then thought of Marjorie. He huffed and looked over at Harper, leaning semi-alert on another ladder. He walked over slowly, stopping near him. "Pat," he said quietly. Harper looked at him, noticing the Major wasn't even looking at him. He took the hint.
"Yes, sir?" he asked softly, looking away from him deliberately.
"You seen Nigel or Peter?" he asked gingerly.
"You seen Mar?"
"Miss Marjorie, sir?" he asked pointedly. "Yes, sir. Kitchen, that open one in the first town house, sir," he said, not looking at him. Sharpe huffed to himself. He thought about it.
"What's she doing there?" he demanded.
"Preparing bandages and water, sir. Clever girl, that one," he said appreciatively.
"And not worried about rough hands, so I hear."
"Yes sir," he grinned, scanning the wall. Sharpe looked around, then turned to him purposefully.
"Sergeant, eye on the men," he said loudly, slinging the rifle over his shoulder.
"Yes sir," Harper said loudly, tossing off a jaunty salute. Sharpe turned and walked back toward the Colonel, nodding before turning slightly and heading for the barricade. He skirted the edge of the nine foot wall and squeezed between the barricade and the first town house. He found the open doorway and walked inside, finding Marjorie clapping her hands to chivvy the Spanish girls into sorting linen and clearing space for wounded men. She didn't make a sound, but it didn't matter; she spoke no Spanish and they spoke no English. She pointed and clapped her hands at them, waving and flapping at them. They busied around as if she were the loom master herself, and Sharpe grinned.
"Hey, slow down, you'll have someone's eye out," he said warmly.
She turned around and spotted him. She smiled, then walked over slowly. She raised an eyebrow at him, folding her arms. "I'm just here to check on you civvies, then I'm back in the front line," he said quietly. She let worry cross her face, and he gave her his best, most confident look. "'S nothing to fret over, we've done this before, you know. And I'm not dead yet."
She put her hand out to his left arm, her finger poking into the old musket ball-hole in his green tunic. She shook her finger in it, looking at him. He grinned, shaking his head.
"It were there when I got it," he lied cheekily, and she shook her head, pulling her finger away. He grabbed her hand before she could draw it away. "Just keep yer head down, alright lass?" he asked seriously. She watched him, then pulled her hand out of his grasp and turned it palm up, waving the fingers at him. "What?" he asked. She pointed at his rile, then beckoned with her fingers again. "You want a rifle?" he asked, astonished. She put her hands on her hips and he put his hands up in surrender. "Can you shoot a pistol?" he asked. She nodded immediately and he looked at her just looked. She waggled her fingers again and he sighed. "Alright, wait here, I'll get you one," he said. "I don't know, bloody women," he muttered as he walked back toward the door. He heard a short, sharp trill of a whistle and turned to look at her. She poked her tongue out at him mischievously and he chuckled before turning and walking back toward the South Essex.
He rooted around the stacks of ammunition pouches and found a pistol, shaking it to make sure there was no powder in it already. He picked up a horn of powder and a handful of pistol shot, walking back round. He walked in to find Peter grabbing her by the wrist.
She wrenched herself from his grasp and stood, staring at him accusingly. Sharpe stood tall in the doorway.
"'Ey!" he called loudly. Peter turned to him.
"Oh, there you are, thank goodness," he said quickly. "Look, tell her to get back to the house with us," he said urgently. "She's not safe here, and you know it."
"I know she dunt want to leave," Sharpe said walking over slowly. Peter looked wild with fear, his hair mussed and his shirt carelessly buttoned. Sharpe swallowed, wondering how desperate he was. "Best to let her do as she pleases. You know women, stubborn as mules," he said dangerously. Peter stepped closer to her.
"You're not taking her anywhere, Sharpe!" he cried angrily. "She's my sister! I know she's nothing to you, nothing! You soldiers are all alike, wandering from camp to camp, taking whatever girl you fancy, casting them aside when you're bored! Well you're not doing it to my baby sister, sir! You might be a famous war-hero, but I'll see honour satisfied if you so much as "
He was silenced as something brown crashed into the side of his head. He fell on the piles of linen safely, and Sharpe just looked at Marjorie.
"Steady on, love!" he breathed, stepping over him and crouching down to look at him. She dropped the wooden bucket hastily and took a step back. Then she took a deep breath and put her hand to Sharpe's ammunition belt over his back, pulling at it.
"Leave him, he'll be fine, the hypocrite," she said angrily. He stood, then handed over the pistol he still carried. "Is it primed or loaded?" she asked seriously. He just looked at her for a long moment. "Well?" she asked, shaking it as he had already done, listening for powder. She put her hand out for the powder horn and shot.
"No, neither," he said, his hand hesitating. "Can you load and prime the pan "
"Richard, just go," she said dismissively. "That man of yours were right. Everyone lied and and you got caught with yer trousers down," she grinned. He smiled briefly. "You send yer wounded men in here. We'll hold the kitchen. You hold the fort," she said. She looked up at him, amused at her own words, then put her free hand to the whistle chain on his ammunition belt, pulling on it and forcing him to step closer. She kissed him suddenly, making it count. She pushed him away, her hand out for the horn and shot. He handed them over. "Go and kick seven shades o' shit out of the Frogs," she smiled grimly. He nodded; he would, too. Not because she had told him to, not because it was his commission to do so, but because he could. And he knew it was perhaps his only talent in this life. "Now think on: don't die."
He nodded, straightening unconsciously. He turned and walked out the door. She flicked up the pistol, arranging the horn in her hand to tip it toward the pan. She caught sight of a figure walking past the window and looked up, seeing him turn and walk backwards, his rifle in his hands, grinning at her as he left. She smiled, then turned her attention back to the pistol.
The whole thing started slowly and quietly. Harper was uncomfortable.
"There's no music, sir," he said, uneasy.
"Aye, thank God," Sharpe replied. They watched the four centre columns of French soldiers simply march toward the gates resolutely. "They're mad!" he hissed. "How the hell do they expect to "
The answer became painfully obvious. The village gun, the long-forgotten cannon, stored high up on the roof of the first town house right across the dirt street from Marjorie's makeshift hospice, pounded into life.
A single shot boomed over the ranks. Two hundred odd men jumped and near-panicked, the sound terrifyingly close behind them. As one they turned and saw the smoking cloud hovering above the house.
The momentum of the gun's recoil sent the entire roof down through the floor. The almighty crash of the gun smashing its way through two floors, demolishing most of the house, did nothing for the nerves of the men.
"Eyes front!" Sharpe shouted, the first to collect his wits. The house continued to collapse and fall as the men stared in horror at the village gates.
The close range of the shot had made it easier. It rammed directly into the wall halfway between both hinges on the right-hand gate.
"Nigel! That bastard!" Harper spat venomously.
"Couldn't have done better if he'd tried," Sharpe cursed, watching the right-hand gate swing perilously. Both hinges had splintered under the weight of it twisting away from the wall and the left gate, which still stood. It creaked and swung, but then came to a stop, leaning on the stone rampart. There was now a huge gap at the bottom. Sharpe turned to Colonel Parker, who was trying to stop his mouth from gaping. "Sir! Gimme two ranks," he said quickly. Parker looked at him.
"Where to?" he asked quickly.
"Other side o' that gate, sir. We'll stop 'em," he said. Parker held his gaze for a long second. He nodded curtly.
"Go. Two ranks," he said. Sharpe turned and ran to the front of the assembled men. "Middle two ranks, on my order, trail arms!" he called. The middle two ranks twitched, fear spreading very quickly. "Trail arms!" he bellowed. They did as told, muskets going to their arms for transit. "On my order, quick march! Follow me!" he called. Deep breaths were taken all round. "March!" he shouted, turning and walking toward the gate. "Rifles! Get that bloody gate down!" he shouted.
Green jackets ran to the base of the gate, kicking and thumping at the edge, pushing it. It gave a huge creak and there was a squeal of wood scraping on stone. It slowly twisted and fell, looking like it had all the time in the world. It landed in the dust, sending clouds of grainy mist up to prevent them seeing the enemy still advancing. Got to get some of them down before they reach the pits, he realised. Harper came running, his huge volley gun in his hand, sliding to stop in the dust next to the assembled men. Sharpe nodded to him and the big Irishman turned smartly. The two Green Jackets led the two ranks of the South Essex through the gaping hole, walking up and over the fallen gate.
"Rifles! Pick off them bastard officers!" Sharpe roared vindictively. First in, last out. That's our advantage. The riflemen scrambled back up the steps to the gun steps, aiming long-since loaded weapons. A crack rang out, then another, and another. Sharpe noticed sergeants at the edge of the four advancing columns fall.
He spread the South Essex out in a long line, shoulder to shoulder, in two lines. One hundred men had better do it. They have another four ranks yet to move, he cursed. He moved to the side, Harper stamping smartly to attention at the far end, his bayonet in hand, his volley gun slung. Sharpe drew his heavy sword, once again appreciating the weight and balance. Perfect instrument fer putting the fear of God into them Frogs, he thought, wishing it didn't sound so specious.
"Front rank! At fifty paces!" Sharpe bellowed. "Wait for my command!"
They waited, the French approaching slowly, knowing they had another hundred men to kill after these brave fools, and that they could do it very easily. They were four hundred and twenty-four muskets in total, and right now these English couldn't even fire more than fifty at a time. It was simple mathematics. The two hundred men marched in splendid formation, not a step wrong, their muskets held at the hip, the front hundred men ready to unleash hell.
The sun beat down, the birds wheeled in the cloudless blue sky, and Harper watched the French approach. He smiled slightly. It spread into a grin, and the men nearest him noticed. He looked at them.
"Stand firm, lads! We have a surprise for them, just see if we don't!" he called confidently. The men just waited, fingers rubbing triggers, nerves knotting and unknotting continuously.
Sharpe watched the four columns. Now or never. "Front rank fire!" he roared.
The sudden explosion of fifty muskets was deafening, even to a half battle-deaf soldier like Sharpe. The balls flew out and straight into men waiting for them, their accuracy boosted by the short range. Men were thrown back and into the soldiers behind, who simply stepped over or around them and kept advancing. They closed ranks into three columns, holding a formidable unbroken line.
"Front rank, kneel! Reload!" Sharpe shouted. As one the red-coats kneeled quickly, reloading just as fast as they could.
"Rear rank muskets!" Harper shouted. The weapons snapped up ready. "Rear fire!" he roared. The second volley thudded squarely into the three columns, sending men sprawling as before. The French closed again, forming just two columns, this time four men deep. "Rear, reload!"
"Front, make ready!" Sharpe shouted. The front rank stood and aimed. "Front fire!"
Again the volley burst forth, again the soldiers absorbed the musket balls, again men fell. The survivors closed ranks quickly, but Sharpe could see they were thinning piteously. He had them.
The second rank fired, the first rank fired, and just as Sharpe was sweating over the men getting within thirty feet, the French opted to halt and open fire.
Red-coats fell, the survivors closing ranks, chivvied by Harper. The two Green Jackets stood, seemingly impervious to fire, and Harper grinned. Invincible, the pair of us, he thought, wondering if any Irish king had ever felt as grand facing down a foreign enemy. He looked over at Sharpe, his stare seething as the bowels of Hell even as he ordered the men to fire, and looked back at the French. He heard a drum and his sudden good mood faltered; two more ranks of French were on the move, straight toward them.
They think they can keep sending men to simply batter us down, do they? Harper grinned a feral imitation and looked over at Sharpe. He was now grinning maliciously, and Harper shouted for the second rank to reload as Sharpe had his rank stand and return fire.
The remaining ranks were too thin, just one man deep now, and Sharpe could sense the men wanting to split and run. But they didn't. The two fresh ranks arrived, filling out the columns by a hundred men, and now they kept the columns two men deep. Sharpe's grin widened. They were trying to bring more muskets to bear at once. Let them, he grinned viciously.
He heard the shouts of the men, and the two new ranks paced forwards, firing indiscriminately. They advanced as one, over one hundred and fifty men stomping at the dirt, eager to get near the English as they heard the order to fix bayonets. They screwed them in quickly, looking up to find the English had stopped firing.
The French Colonel shouted, and the French broke into a run, shouting and screaming like the very demons from Hell. The English twitched.
"Steady! Reload!" Harper shouted. The two ranks bit and spat, rammed and cocked, and waited, watching the foreign devils charging at them. Hands on raised muskets shook. Sweat poured. And still Sharpe and Harper grinned.
The Colonel massed another rank. He poured them after the first. The French, all two hundred of them, stampeded.
Suddenly they were no longer running. The seventy remaining South Essex muskets stared, incredulous, as nearly a hundred Frenchmen simply stumbled and disappeared into the dirt. The men behind couldn't even stop. Most simply fell over the first, landing headlong in the dirt themselves. Others piled on top of them, and still more, until Harper was doubled-over, unable to stop himself laughing.
"Front!" Sharpe bellowed, his voice sober as a Provost Marshall. "Fire!"
The South Essex's volley slammed straight into the men still standing, as they tried to step over and avoid trampling their own men.
"Rear rank!" Harper commanded proudly, "Fire!"
It was too much. The French ranks broke and simply ran in all directions.
"Ranks! Re-form! Fire at will!" Sharpe roared over the noise.
The soldiers shuffled out into one line, stepping round fallen comrades, aiming and firing as they liked. He heard the sound of a horse on the fallen gate behind him, and glanced round to see Colonel Parker approaching with another rank. That left one inside, he tallied.
He nodded to the Colonel and stepped aside, bringing his sword down from its resting place on his right shoulder. But the Colonel simply waved his hand in an "after you" gesture. Sharpe nodded his gratitude and turned, to see the new rank swell the muskets already cutting down the French ranks. Men shouted in fear and confusion. Someone was shouting in French, red-coats were firing and screaming at the enemy. Muskets coughed and flamed, butts were slammed into the dirt as the barrels were reloaded. The minutes swept by, unnoticed.
Sharpe slid his heavy sword back into its scabbard. He lifted his rifle, cocked it slowly, and raised it to his eyes. He drew a bead on the French Colonel and grinned.
Something made him pause, however, and although he still aimed, some part of him made him wait. He was surprised to see the Colonel raise his hand to him. To him! He was retreating!
Sharpe relaxed, the edge of his hand feeling over the frizzen slowly to find the S-shaped cocking arm. He eased it back cautiously, ready to snap it back to full cock, watching the French officer. He sensed movement from the corner of his eye and he raised his eye from the gunsight, opening his left one to see over the barrel clearly. Suddenly he realised the obvious; the French Colonel had not been signalling to him at all, but Colonel Parker, next to him on his horse.
He smiled ruefully at himself, letting his rifle down but keeping the barrel up lest the ball roll down and drop out. He let out a huge sigh through his nose slowly, watching the French pick themselves up and turn and stagger back whence they came. He looked at the men of the South Essex, and was surprised to hear Colonel Parker's voice.
"Cease fire!" he bellowed across the noise. Silence fell. They watched the French stagger and retreat slowly, still watching these crafty English carefully. "Alright, off you go. Looter's rights, boys," the Colonel said cheerfully. The men slung their muskets and started walking slowly toward the dead French. There were still live men crawling from the pits, and the red-coats stared at them for a long moment.
One man bent down and offered his hand. The Frenchman gawped at him before taking it and accepting his help to clamber out of the hole. Someone laughed at the absurdity, and that was that.
Soldiers, red-coated and blue, laughed at the ridiculous afternoon. Soldiers who had not ten minutes ago been trying to kill each other now helped each other find their feet and weapons. Sharpe watched, humbled to silence, as two red-coats stripped a dead Frenchman of his valuables before helping a live one heft him over his shoulder so he could be returned for burial. He shook his head, looking up at Parker.
"Well, Major Sharpe, a good day, wouldn't you say?" he asked. Sharpe smiled wearily.
"Not so bad, sir," he agreed. His face fell. "The cannon!" he snapped, turning abruptly and marching back inside.
"Sergeant Major, let's watch out for this lot. Then we'll get them inside and roll called, what?" the Colonel grinned.
"Yes sir!" Harper grinned with conviction. He stepped forward and felt something flap against his leg. He looked down to find a musket ball had torn straight through the side, opening his boot and trousers to the weather. "Damn the buggers!" he hissed. "Now I'll need new boots. And they've all got such small feet, so they have." He looked up to find Sharpe had left the field. "Now why's he in such a hurry?" he asked himself.
Sharpe ran into the square, dispersing the men still waiting in their one rank. They ran out of the gate, eager to join the scavenging. He ran on to the barricade and squeezed himself round, finding the town house full of red-coats. He scanned the room quickly and his eyes fell on Harris.
"What you doing?" he asked, shocked. Harris grinned.
"This man's trading me a Marquis de Sade for French gold, sir," he grinned, indicating a wounded red-coat sitting up on the kitchen table. The red-coat looked suddenly much less wounded at the mention of gold, Sharpe noticed. He tutted dismissively, still searching the room.
"Have you seen Marjorie?" he asked. Harris looked at him, pocketing his newly acquired book.
"She left just as I came in, sir. Said she wanted to find her brother," he said helpfully. Sharpe looked at Peter, lying on the linen, a hand pressing a scrap of it to his temple. Harris shook his head. "Not that one, sir," he said. "The other one."
"Ohhh. shit," he breathed, turning and running through the house. He crashed through the huge hole made by the locals bringing in the wounded, running to the remains of the town house opposite. He suddenly felt glad he still had his rifle.
He slid to a stop in the dust, looking round. "Mar!" he shouted. "Marjorie!"
"Richard!" she called, and he turned to his right and hurried round the side of the torn up house. He found a side of the wall missing and picked his way through.
"Mar, what the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded angrily, struggling over the bent up wood, thatch and masonry. He looked around.
Marjorie was crouched in the rubble, her back to him. She turned at the sound of his boots sliding over the masonry. She had tears down her face, forging deep canals in the dust. He made his way over, looking over her shoulder carefully.
Nigel was lying on his back covered in red dust, one hand out and in hers firmly. He was breathing raggedly, blood trickling from his ear slowly. Sharpe put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing.
"We have to get him out," she said quietly. Sharpe swallowed, assessing the damage and his face showed his doubt. Nigel looked at him.
"Sorry, dear chap," he whispered, "Forgive a hopeless romantic... Had to, you see?" He swallowed with difficulty. "Peter?" he asked. Sharpe patted her shoulder, then nodded at Nigel.
"I'll get him. Lie still," he said quietly. He turned and picked his way back out of the rubble, jumping out to the street. He unslung his rifle and pointed it down, letting the ball run out to the ground. He cocked it and let it off, the resulting crack loud enough to send dust from his sleeve spinning away in the warm summer breeze.
He waited, and within two minutes Green Jackets came running from the back of the hospice. He turned to them.
"Harris, Harper, get Peter over here on the double," he said quietly. They nodded and ran back toward the house. Hagman looked at him.
"Did you find him, sir? The one as let the gun off?"
"Aye," he said uneasily.
"What'll happen to him now, sir? Will you give him over to the Colonel?" he asked quietly. Sharpe looked at him.
"No need. In a few minutes there'll be no point," he admitted. Hagman nodded sadly.
"Best be there for the lass, then sir," he said wisely, patting Sharpe's shoulder before turning away. Peter emerged from the house, followed rather more slowly by Harper, Harris and now Taylor and Robinson. Peter tore across the open ground and toward the house. Sharpe grabbed his arm, yanking him to a stop.
"Peter!" he shouted tersely. The man stopped trying to free himself and looked at him. "He's not got long. Say goodbye," he said sof
tly. Peter wrenched his arm free, horrified. He threw himself at the opening in the wall, slip-sliding inside and over to him.
"Nigel!" he cried, and Marjorie stood and backed away carefully. Peter collapsed on the piles of masonry and wooden cannon wheels, grabbing Nigel's hand. "Nigel," he whispered, his throat tight.
"Peter," he whispered warmly, smiling. "Mr dear Peter. I'm so sorry This is my reward," he managed painfully. Peter looked over the blood spilling over his shirt, the deep stains up his sides from his back. He swallowed.
"Oh Nigel, what did you do?" he whispered fearfully.
"I I owed him, you see. At Declari He was the friend of Pierre, got me the berths on that ship from Liverpool Had to, you see. He wanted me to to sell you to them, Peter. To the French. Well, I I couldn't," he said, a tear breaking from his eye and running over his temple. It dripped on the sandy stones.
"Had to pay him back for the journey... You thought I was a proper gentleman, with money. Couldn't couldn't let you down, dear Peter," he whispered.
"Oh Nigel, you're such a fool," he said quietly, his eyes blurring. "I loved you anyway. You were always a proper gentleman."
"So kind of you" Nigel managed. He swallowed. "This is my reward. For betraying you, and all these soldiers... and your kind sister. She only tried to protect you from me. She was right to," he whispered hoarsely. "Tell her she is a proper lady. I'm so ashamed," he admitted, closing his eyes.
"No, I am. You did all this so I'd think well of you? I already did," he smiled. "I thought the world of you." It made a tear start from his eye.
"No. I did all this for you... I wanted us to be happy in this this dusty country. And now you'll you'll have to bury me in it. In all this dust Think of me, Peter, when you reach Liverpool and and feel the sun feel the sun on your face." His breath rattled in his chest loudly.
"I'll never feel the sun on my face again," he whispered.
"Now who's being a fool, Peter?" Nigel smiled gently. "Take Marjorie back to back to England. She's not happy here. Look after her. Don't let her tarry with that soldier... He'll love her, and she'll love him... and then when he dies on some foreign battlefield it'll break her heart." He gave a great sigh. "I'm so I'm so sorry, Peter," he rasped.
"Nigel, I forgive you. For all this. It's me who's sorry you did all this for me. It wasn't worth it."
"Yes it was. You're you're a a fool," he managed, struggling bravely.
"Then we both are."
Nigel smiled at him warmly, and Peter squeezed his hand. Nigel's eyes glassed over, and he let out a long, relaxing breath. Peter closed his eyes, and bent over his hand.
Marjorie turned and skittered over the rubble, dashing outside and running headlong into Hagman. She cried out in fright, looking up quickly. He smiled kindly and she grabbed onto him, shaking. Hagman lifted his head and looked at Harper. The Irishman nudged Sharpe's elbow, who was perched on the wall, crunching at gravel with his boot heel. He looked up at the Sergeant, a question on his face. He gestured to Marjorie with his head, and Sharpe threw him an unidentifiable look before lifting his rifle, handing it Harper, and walking over.
Hagman turned her from him gently, and she looked up into the face of Sharpe.
"Nigel's dead," she whispered. He nodded.
"Yeah," he confirmed softly.
She looked up at him, into his bright green eyes. The incongruity of his bedraggled, unkempt appearence against his calm, noble demeanour made her swallow and control herself. She took in his grimy, dusty face and took a deep breath, sighing it out slowly. She put her hands up and stroked his disarrayed, sweat-drenched hair back from his face, straightening it. She slid two fingers over his cheek, wiping away a tiny splatter of something she suspected was blood. She smiled apologetically, letting his green eyes communicate their worry, and she let her hands slide down the front of his uniform.
She put her hands to her face, scraping the hair back from it and tugging it into some semblance of order. She put her hand out and he looked at her, a question on his face. She reached up and put her hand to his tunic, unbuttoning it quickly, sending an amused look direct from Hagman to Harper. But she simply put her hand inside and pulled out the handkerchief, putting her other hand out to Hagman's canteen. He handed it to her and she poured water over the hanky, before wiping it over her face repeatedly. She sniffed, handed the hanky and the canteen back to the men. She pulled her blouse straight smartly.
"Well we can still do summat about the living wounded," she said, straightening and walking off toward the hospice.
Harper and Harris watched her go, their mouths open. They looked at each other for a long moment.
"God save Ireland, but that's a proper lady and no mistake," Harper breathed. They turned as they heard a horse approaching.
"Think we'll be safe now, Sharpe?" the Colonel called down. Sharpe looked up at him.
"Probably. It'll take 'em a week to get strength from the French lines, sir," he said confidently. Colonel Parker nodded.
"Well, this is a tale and a half, eh? They'll be telling this story all over Spain next week, I shouldn't wonder, what?" he grinned. Harper, Harris and Hagman looked up at him, their faces about to erupt in contempt for stolen credit.
"Probably, sir," Sharpe agreed. Yeah, telling the tale of brave Colonel Parker and his South Essex, he snorted.
"Have to make sure they tell it right, eh? Me and a couple of Chosen Men ordering my South Essex around like clockwork, beating down a formidable foe, rescuing Spanish food and girls, blah, blah, blah, eh?" he asked. Sharpe grinned.
"Yes sir," he said gratefully. And he knew. He knew the Colonel realised what had really saved the Light Company and the village, with its supplies and villagers now firmly supportive of these crazy English.
It hadn't been Baker rifles, or muskets, or steady action under fire. Nor had it been nerves of Sheffield steel, quick thinking or the courage of a paltry two hundred men against twice that.
It had bean Sharpe's pits.
None of this really happened. I made it all up.
However, Manchester was indeed a city helped on its way to greatness by spinning cotton, and Ashton-Under-Lyne and Hallam really are only about 30 miles (roughly 50 km, I think) apart.
No green-jacketed Majors were harmed during the writing of this fan-fic. Although certain double-crossing yet woefully backbone-lacking unfortunates discovered the hard way why you're better off writing about cannon than playing with them.
~ The Mardy Bum,
15th July, 2006.
Hong Kong S.A.R.