No rights infringement intended. M/F
Shadow Play is set in June 1809 in the book "Sharpe's Eagle."

For Wanda, whose off handed comment that, "Sharpe would do it with a provost standing 10 feet away," was my soul inspiration for this story.

My eternal and never ending thanks as always go to Jay for her help in not only creating Lt. Simon E. Puddephatt and her editing skills, which I shamelessly rely on! Also, much thanks to Jay and Jen for their assistance in helping to determine Lt. Puddephatt's fate.

Shadow Play

The streets of Talavera were quiet in the late Spanish afternoon. The few inhabitants who had chosen to remain in the city tended to say behind their doors when they saw soldiers whether they be French or English.

But newly promoted Captain Richard Sharpe was smart enough to know that just because the town's people hid behind their doors didn't mean they weren't watching him. Behind the darkened shadowed doorways Sharpe could feel their eyes following his every move.

Sharpe stared up at the blood red sun just beginning to sink slowly into the western sky. In few days he thought, the fields of Talavera would match the colour of that sun. Like the crest of a flooding river the blood of French, Spanish and English soldiers would flow across the open fields. A good many men would die on both sides, probably some of his own men and perhaps even himself. All for a war which everyone, but the British Army said was lost.

Sharpe continued his walked through the streets lost in thought. His highly irregular uniform was in more disarray than usual. His beloved green rifleman's jacket with silver buttons hung open over his white shirt. His blonde hair was mussed one stray lock falling over his eyes haphazardly. He was cleaner than most British soldiers in Wellesley's army, but he still could have done with another bath.

None of this was on Sharpe's mind however, not his appearance, the upcoming battle, nor his precarious predicament in rank. Sharpe thought instead about his recent visit with lovely Josefina and smiled. His usually dark and serious face softened slightly. It gave him a roughish look that could turn any lady's head. Countess or Courtesan alike fell for the dashing rifleman. Sharpe however, was unaware of this and it was to his advantage.

He had only planned to stop in her rented room at the inn to check on her, but Josefina had a way of persuading him to extend his visit by a couple hours. Unfortunately, Lt. Christian Gibbons, nephew of the foppish South Essex Colonel Simmerson had similar ambitions towards Josefina.

Sharpe closed his eyelids over his dark green eyes and envisioned Josefina's body stretched out naked on the clean white bed sheets of the gigantic soft four-post bed. Her endless raven hair falling around her like an alluring veil.

"Richard," she asked as he was buttoning up his trousers, "you will come back and take me for a walk this evening and then perhaps afterwards some 'exercise'?" she said in her soft seductive voice.

"I don't know," he said. He wanted to, but he had duties to attend to and his duty always came first.

Josefina pursed her kiss-swollen lips in pretty pout. "Surely, as an officer you are allowed to come back into town?" she asked.

Richard tossed on his Rifleman's jacket and kissed her soundly. His tongue thrusting into her mouth. She giggled.

"See you do want to come back,' she grinned triumphantly at him.

"Aye, I do, but I have duties ta see ta as well," he said buckling on his heavy straight bladed sword.

"So, see to them and see that they do not take you too long," she persisted.

Sharpe laughed. "Ya don't give in do ya?"

"Only when giving in gets me what I want," she purred.

"And what is it ya want Countess?" Sharpe asked seductively lowering his voice.

"You will have to come back later and see for yourself if you want to know," she said her hand reaching out to trace an imaginary pattern over Sharpe's thigh. Her fingers flitted in and out of Sharpes inner thigh moving tantalisingly closer to Sharpes manhood.

With gentle reluctance Sharpe removed her hand knowing if he didn't he would soon be right back out of his clothes again and later than ever. He couldn't resist however running his hand over her bare shoulder and down the length of her body.

His hand lingered on her breast. He cupped her breast and lowered his lips to it. His tongue swirled around her nipple. Josefina moaned and Sharpe intensified the pressure, capturing it in his mouth. Sharpes gentle sucking flooded Josefinas body with crest after crest of desire.

By now his self-control was dissipating as quickly as dew in the early morning sunlight. Only his ever-present sense of duty made Sharpe draw back.

Josefina wriggled closer to Sharpe oblivious of her nudity. Her body craving the crescendo his lips had been building to. A soft golden ray of light from the rooms window lazily draped Josefinas body in its heavenly glow. Again Sharpe considered delaying his return to camp.

"You see you don't really want to leave," she teased seductively.

"Yer right, I dunna want ta leave," he groaned his face inches from hers. "But I still have ta go," he breathed. His warm breath caressing her cheek.

He knew it would be so easy to stay in there the room with Josefina and lose himself and his troubles in the refuge of her body. But he knew he wouldn't. For all his problems and burdens his life in the army brought he would have it no other way.

He stood in front of a mirror attempting to straighten out his uniform enough to walk through the streets.

"Richard," Josefina said much more seriously, "it is not just that. It's Gibbons and Barry, I'm frightened of them," she said.

Sharpe could see the fear in her deep brown eyes and knew she was truly frightened of the two lecherous young officers.

"Don't worry," Sharpe said as he planted another kiss on her lips hoping to quiet some of her fears as he left. She tried to nod bravely, but her eyes were still dark and wide with fear. Sharpe wished he felt some of the same confidence he had displayed to Josefina. He did promise her however, he would do his best to return to her later in the evening. Sharpe descended down the inns dark and winding staircase, the wood creaking beneath his feet.

Now, however, Sharpe was late and had to hurry back to camp and see to posting the sentries and check on his men. His heavy French boots, which at one time belong to one of the great Napoleon's officers, thudded down the narrow and uneven cobbled streets.

Flowers drooped and hung limp in their boxes and pots casting lazy shadows over the dark cobbles. They mirrored the sediments of great many of the Spanish people to survive. They echoed the despondent, but firm resolving drive of the people. A tiny seed of hope was slowly returning however, as word spread about the banner of St. James being raised over Santiagio and the French being defeat, if only for a short time.

The sight of a provost disrupted Sharpes introspective thoughts. "Bugger all!" he muttered slowing his walk. It didnt do for any British soldier to go running by the already suspicious provosts.

He was running late as it was he didn't need to be harassed and detained by some bloody provost who thought he was God. Nay, he corrected himself mightier than God, and in the case of the British Army provosts were. Provosts could hang a man on the spot for looting, desertion, or anything else they saw as unbecoming.

Sharpe watched the scene play out before him unnoticed by both the Provost and the red coated soldier. He just hoped the soldier wasn't one of the South Essex's men.

"Youre a drunken disgrace!" Sharpe heard the provost shout.

From about one hundred yards away Sharpe could see the provost seated high astride a sturdy roan. The man had on a uniform, which looked as if it had never seen dirt and wouldn't know what it was if it ever saw it. His red coat gleamed with newness and his white pants where whiter than the freezing January snow that fell in the nearby Portuguese Mountains.

Beyond the uniform Sharpe could see the provost, Lt. Simon E. Puddephatt, although Sharpe did not yet know his name. Puddephatt was a large man. He was shorter than Sharpe's and heavier, but his extra weight was not lean muscle like Sharpes. He was smaller than Harper's bulky powerful build and lacked the Irishman's incredible strength. A ring of soft flab insulated his middle. The flab Sharpe decided also reached up into his round gourd shaped head.

The red coat has been cornered by the provost up against the wall of a derelict home. The once carefully boarded window had been pried open and shatered. Broken glass laid scattered on the ground. Some of the fragments projected a kaleidoscope pattern on the shadow wall.

"I ain't drunk, guvner! I swear!" slurred the drunken red coat, who looked in even more rag tag shape than Sharpe's Riflemen. His white pants were nearly black with dirt and his red coat was torn and stained almost beyond repair.

Sharpe watched the red coat stumble and stagger all the while proclaiming his sobriety. Sharpe looked on with disgust. He had no love for provosts, but he also had no sympathy for soldiers who could not follow simple orders. All soldiers had been prohibited from the city of Talavera. Officers like Sharpe however, were allowed to come and go in and out of the city.

"Do you know what the penalty is for disobeying orders?" the provost asked with malicious glee.

The red coat shook his head.

"I can have you flogged, you impudent bastard. You're as drunk as a rolling fart!" Puddephatt shouted.

Sharpe involuntarily winced at the mere mention of flogging. He personally could attest to the pain and humiliation it brought not only during, but forever afterwards. He had once been flogged almost to death, for a crime he hadn't committed. On his back he still carried the scars and the burning vengeance that one day he would find the officers who had wronged him and kill them.

Sharpe's painful memory was shoved back into the past by the continued ranting of the provost combined with the cowardly begging of the red coat.

"I think I'll wait till you're sober, after you've puked your guts out then I'll have you flogged so you feel every single lash," he threatened maliciously.

Whimpering sounds and tears poured from the redcoat.

Then the provost said something which Sharpe couldn't hear. Through the dancing shadows he noticed an immediate change in body language from the red coat. The drunkard was no longer cowering.

"What the devil?" thought Sharpe.

Then the answer became shockingly clear to him. Sharpe saw the provost motion for the red coat to hand him something. He watched in earnest as drunken soldier handed over his purse to Puddephatt.

The provost tossed the pouch in his hand judging its weight. He then poured out all, but a few coins into his hand and pushed them deep down into his own pocket. After which he tossed the virtually empty purse back to the red coat and ordered him out of the town.

Sharpe was in such a state of amazement watching the scene play out before him. He was a second too slow to react as the provost turned towards him. Lt. Puddephatt caught sight of Sharpe before he could disappear into a dark neighbouring alleyway.

"Shite!" Sharpe swore venomously knowing he was in trouble for having seen the provost demand and take payment for his silence.

Lt. Puddephatt spurred his roan into a trot aiming directly at Sharpe. He stopped directly in front of Sharpe, who had to hold back his laughter. He had been charged at head on by French Cavalry with their swords drawn and ready to cut him down. By comparison a portly trotting provost was a poor match for inciting fear.

Puddephatt cornered Sharpe just as he had the red coat, blocking him in between the street and a building wall. Sharpe was only a few feet from escaping into the alleyway, but evading the provost would only cause more problems. He would have to stay and deal with the authoritative bastard.

"Halt!" called Puddephatt, "state your name and your business," he said over enunciating every syllable as if Sharpe spoke a foreign tongue.

Sharpe sauntered over to the side of Puddephatt's horse. "Captain Richard Sharpe, Light Company of the South Essex," he mocked openly in broad vernacular.

Puddephatt sneered disdainfully glaring at Sharpe's open tattered jacket, French trousers, and irregular straight edged steel sword. "Captain? Captain? Since when did rag muffins like you become Captains?"

The only standard British issue items on Sharpe were his green jacket and his officer's sash.

"Since General Wellesley promoted me," Sharpe said calmly.

Puddephatt snorted. "Impossible, that would mean you, you, you, came from the ranks," he spat out the words in his whiney voice as if they were a contagious disease.

"Aye," Sharpe answered with a smile. He quickly took in Puddephatt for what he was. He noted the curly brown hair poking out from underneath his hat and his dull, but calculating eyes. He reminded Sharpe of a child's marionette he had seen as a young lad once in London. Puddephatt had an uncanny resemblance to that villainous marionette with his pudgy round cheeks and thick fleshy lips.

"And what about ya?" he asked.

"Me?" Puddephatt said insulted that this lowly gutter sow should have the audacity to question him.

"Well, 'Captain' and I don't believe you are one, you lying dog. I am Lt. Simon E. Puddephatt," he said with more majesty than the Prince Regent himself. "Now who are you and what is your business in Talavera?" he asked again.

Puddephatt raised his hand as if to strike Sharpe, but Sharpe was to quick to avoid him spinning on his heel and circling around to the front of Puddephatt's horse. Sharpe would have liked to drag the pompous bastard off his horse show him exactly what a real soldier was. But he couldn't. His promotion and his very career were already in dire straits due solely to Sir Henry Simmerson. To assault a provost, even a deserving one would only give Simmerson more ammunition against him.

Sharpe held his mounting anger back. "I told ya I'm Captain Richard Sharpe of the South Essex. My business were ta check on the welfare of a Lady here under me protection," he said invoking his rights as an officer.

Puddephatt eyed Sharpe with a mixture of suspicion, revulsion, and fear. He was sure the rifleman had seen him take a fee for his silence from the drunken soldier, but he couldn't be completely sure.

Instead he laughed belittling Sharpe, A lady with you? adding further insult he added, more like a cheap worn out whore.

Sharpe longed to bash his fist into Puddephatts arrogant face. It wasnt the first or last time he had been insulted by another officer. Most treated him with indifference to inferiority in the officers mess. On the battle field they were forced to admit begrudgingly, if only to themselves there was no one better than Sharpe.

Sharpe hated the pompous superiority the man thought he held over him. Based solely upon a stroke of fate that Puddephatt had been born to money and privilege, whilst Sharpe had been born to prostitute mother and raised on the streets of London.

" And what were you doing just now?" Puddephatt asked Sharpe anxiously.

The waning light wavered over the two men. Sharpe knew that wasn't the real question he was being asked. What he was really being asked was did you see me demand that soldiers money. "I was on me way back ta camp," Sharpe answered honestly, while dodging the implied question. Sharpe had been in the Army long enough to know how to handle authority figures.

Sharpe may not have a formal education like the rest of Wellesley's officers, but he had learned the ways of life on the streets of London and in the army in India as a young private. For what he lacked in the niceties of a formal education he made up for with uncanny street smarts and naturally honed instincts.

Sharpe's evasive answer didn't fool Puddephatt who knew he had been caught. "You gutter scum! You're no Captain! I'll see your bloody hide swinging like a deserter," he growled suddenly swinging one of his booted feet into Sharpe's back.

Sharpe flew face first into white stucco wall next to him. The unexpected contact with the wall cut Sharpe's lip open and left a bright red smear of blood on the wall. Puddephatt was quick for his size, but Sharpe was quicker. With the agility of an alley cat Sharpe had recovered and turned to square off with Puddephatt.

Sharpe greens eyes darkened with shadows of anger and near blood lust. He was a survivor and fought with the intensity of one. He fought fair, but without regard for gentlemanly pleasantries. Sharpe reached out and caught Puddephatt round the throat like wild chicken. Fearful squakings of terror filled panic gurgled in Pudephatt's throat.

The power abusive bully unexpectedly found himself at the mercy of enraged Richard Sharpe. Puddephatt feared the possible retribution from the rifleman so much he would have wretched if his throat hadn't been constricted.

The confrontation between Puddephatt and Sharpe was unexpectedly interrupted by a surprise passer by.

"Afternoon Richard," cheerfully called Major Hogan. Hogan was an engineer, spymaster, and all around right hand man to General Wellesley.

The portly Irishman was smiling cheerfully as he leisurely strode over to the two men in his white pants and blue coat. Hogan projected the deceiving appearance of a happy go lucky Irishman, but behind the facade was a smart and cunning brain. His advantage was that many men allowed his carefree image to cloud their judgement and under estimate him. It ultimately was their downfall.

Sharpe reluctantly dropped his hold on Puddephatt's throat. Puddephatt immediately doubled over coughing and rubbing his battered throat. He eyed Sharpe with a look of pure hatred.

"Ah Lt. Puddephatt I see ya've met Captain Sharpe," Hogan smiled.

Puddephatt was still unable to speak, so he simply nodded. He had finally managed to regain enough air to stand up right.

"Did ya know Captain Sharpe here once saved the General's life?" Hogan asked. "He took down three men in a minute and that was when he was still a sergeant. Isn't that right Richard?" Hogan asked Sharpe, ignoring the blood dripping from Sharpes open lip.

"Yes, Sir," Sharpe answered standing at attention.

"Good, good," Hogan nodded. " Ya know the General was just sayin' ta me, 'Hogan,' says the General 'Captain Sharpe is my best rifle commander. I want ya ta see that he's gettin' on, Hogan,' says the General."

"Im very well, Sir," Sharpe answered.

"I'll be glad ta tell him. Ya know I was just on my way ta see him," Hogan said looking directly at Puddephatt. "It would be a real shame ta report ta General that Captain Sharpe wasn't well."

"It would make the General very unhappy," Hogan added pausing to pull a pinch of the snuff he always carried in a tin from his pocket. Hogan inhaled a pinch of snuff from his wrist before continuing, "and when General isn't happy those who are making the General unhappy become unhappy themselves," he said his meaning very much implied to Puddephatt.

Puddephatt swallowed the lump in his throat. For all of his high handed talk Puddephatt was a coward at heart. He had the guts to stab a man in the back, but not to fight him straight on.

"Of course neither of ya two lads would have anything ta worry about," Hogan said cheerfully.

"No Sir, nothing atoll, Sir," Puddephatt answered in a tightly controlled voice.

"Excuse me," Sharpe said giving Puddephatt a slight shove as he moved out away from the darkness of the wall and into the street along with Hogan.

Sharpe's shove caused Puddephatt to take an unwanted step backwards into a fresh pile of manure. Losing his balance Puddephatt landed on the ground in the manure from his own horse.

Sharpe smirked as Puddephatt's impeccable uniform was now stained and smelled like a stable that was in need of a good mucking out.

Puddephatt slipped and fell a couple more times as he tried to stand up. After several attempts he was finally able to get to his feet. Each fall increased the deterioration of his uniform and transmission of unpleasant odour to his body. If it weren't for Hogans presence he would have attacked Sharpe on the spot. But he wasn't stupid enough to try anything in front of Major Hogan. He would bide his time and when Sharpe was alone he would make the rifleman pay dearly for the humiliation he had just caused him.

Hogan made several tisking sounds. "Lt. Puddephatt," he said shaking his head, "it doesn't do fer one of the General's provosts ta be seen lookin' no better than a stable hand," Hogan said. "Yer supposed ta be settin' a fine upstanding example fer the other soldiers ta follow," he said.

"Perhaps ya should stick ta stayin' above yer horses bottom rather than, being under it. It doesn't seem ta suit ya lad," Hogan said. His sneezing brought on by his snuff hid his wicked grin.

Sharpe couldn't help but smile at Puddephatt's increased humiliation at Hogan's hands. I always did like Hogan Sharpe thought to himself.

Oh dear, Hogan said with feigned fretfulness, I do hope yer sudden lack of co-ordination isnt from excessive drink. He paused and furrowed his brow then continued after what appeared to be serious thought, As I tell the lads drink should be savoured and taken only at select moments.

Sharpe had a devil of a time keeping a straight face as Hogan uttered his last sentence. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would bet Hogan could hold his liquor better than nearly every man in Wellesleys army.

"Richard would ya care ta accompany me back ta camp?" Hogan asked blowing nose loudly into a handkerchief.

"Of course, Sir," Sharpe answered. Finally he felt the thick sticky blood running from his lip. He took the back of his hand and whipped it away.

Sharpe and Hogan walked down the main road out of Talavera together. They left Puddephatt behind to glare vengefully after Sharpe.

Hogan pulled a silver flask from his inside coat pocket. He unscrewed a the cap and took a long drink, then offered the flask to Richard.

Is this a select moment? Sharpe asked accepting the flask and grinning.

"Right now we both could use a drink, that makes this a moment and 'select' as in I'm selecting we have one," Hogan grinned back broadly in utter innocence.

Both men laughed and knew drink was as much as staple of the British Army as bullets and britches. Sharpe took a long drink of Hogans Irish whiskey. Their boots crunched on the dirt and bits of gravel in the road as they walked along.

"Richard, Richard, Richard," Hogan said shaking his head. "Don't ya have enough problems between, Simmerson, dat dandy nephew of his, Josefina, and this next battle? Don't let yerself get caught brawling with provosts, if ya do even the General himself won't be able ta help ya," Hogan said seriously.

"Mightn't matter if Simmerson 'as his way he'll 'ave me demoted and sent to the West Indies to die within a month of malaria," Sharpe spat out as they walked along.

"That bloody fool has more bloody fools like him in Parliament, the Bastards have cut our funds, and unless ya and the General both do something great here we all may be in a lot of trouble," Hogan said darkly.

Sharpe nodded. What could he say? Everything Hogan said was true. The Army was short of money, Wellesley was in jeopardy of being replaced by the likes of Simmerson, and he was being forced to fight for his very existence in the army.

The walls of Talavera faded behind them as they walked closer to the Armys camp. The green and muted brown colours of long grassy fields turned into dense clumps of dark forest. The slight breeze eased the two mens discomfort from the heat and the leaves rustled in the trees. Long finger like branches stretched out as if knowing to wave in salute to the officers nearly upon them.

"What about the Spanish?" Sharpe asked.

Hogan reached up to stroke his wiry moustache. "Ya seen 'em yerself, Richard, more fit fer a parade before the King than a skirmish on a battlefield," Hogan said wearily. "Have ta keep 'em around though ta stay in the country. The whole thing's a political powder keg just waitin' ta be touched off."

"Aye," Sharpe agreed.

"Now wat was dat business all 'bout back there?" Hogan asked as the road took them into the tall withered trees.

" I saw the Lt. do something he oughtn't have been, Sir," Sharpe said tactfully.

He followed by recounting the story how he had been coming back through town and seen Puddephatt with the drunken soldier. He explained seeing Puddephatt demanding and taking a bribe and subsequently letting the drunk go free. He omitted the bit about his extended stay with Josefina in her hotel room.

Hogan frowned. "This isn't good Richard. The army can't afford corrupt officers," Hogan said.

"No, Sir," Sharpe agreed.

"Ya realise Puddephatt isn't goin' ta take ya catchin' him lightly," Hogan said. "Watch yer back, Richard. Watch yer back," Hogan cautioned.

They walked a little way further in silence.

"And speakin' of backsides how is the lovely Josefina doin?" Hogan asked nonchalantly.

Bloody hell! Sharpe thought. The man knew everything. Then again as a spymaster it was Hogan's job to know everything that went on in the French, Spanish and especially the British camps.

They walked past several small groups of soldiers camped along the stream. The water looked cool and Sharpe momentarily dreamed of bathing in clear running stream. Later he told himself. Later he would enjoy the pleasures the stream had to offer.

"Very well, Sir. She's been enjoying Talavera, Sir," Sharpe answered.

"Richard," Hogan scolded affectionately, "as me grandmother use ta say, never bull shite a bullshiter."

"I'd be willing ta bet the General's favourite horse ya've been enjoying her as much as she's been enjoying ya and neither of ya knows a wit 'bout Talavera," Hogan smiled.

Sharpe didn't bother to deny it. There wasn't any point both men knew it was true. "Aye, we did find we had mutual interests," Sharpe grinned back.

Hogan laughed. "And I'm sure none of those interests have anything ta do with that nice room with a bed shes been stayin in, he teased.

Sharpe blushed slightly at their bawdy conversation which made Hogan chuckle even further.

"Are ya really on yer way to see the General?" Sharpe asked anxious to move the topic of conversation away from Josefina.

Hogan nodded gravely. "I am. We have a lot more preparation ta do before the battle," he said.

The jovial mood between the two deflated with talk of the battle. Everyone knew Wellesley was out numbered, but Sharpe had seen Wellesley in tougher spots in India. Somehow he always managed to pull a miracle victory when he needed one; he needed one now.

Sharpe himself needed a miracle as well.

"Are ya thinkin' 'bout that eagle?" Hogan asked reading his mind.

"Aye," Sharpe nodded. "It's the only way I've got to keep me captaincy and to keep me promise to Major Lennox," Sharpe said. "Have ta replace the Regiment's lost colour with an imperial eagle."

This time it was Hogans turn to remain silent. He could tell Sharpe he really didnt have to capture an Eagle in the coming battle, but they both knew it would be a lie. The eagle was one and only thing that could ever erase the shame and dishonour cast upon the South Essex.

Richard Sharpe would once again have to make the impossible a reality. That such a burden fell to any man Hogan pitied him and at the same time knew there was no man who could carry the brunt of the burden and turn it to his advantage like Sharpe.

The two men shortly parted, Hogan going off to see General Wellesley and Sharpe to see to his rifle company. Before they separated Hogan reminded Sharpe, Keep yer guard up, ifin ya want ta stay alive Richard.

Sharpe continued on alone toward his men passing several more camps of men. Low fires burned in the middle of the groups. The men sat or stood around the fire drinking their tea. They laughed and joked eyeing Sharpe warily as he passed by them.

Sharpe hoped to Christ that the lads had behaved themselves. As punishment for losing the Kings colours Wellesley had demoted the South Essex to a fetch and carry battalion. Sharpe and his men had been saved only by recapturing the regimental colours and a French cannon. But Sharpe knew it wasnt wise to test Wellesleys generosity.

A small wave of relief swept over him as he came upon his own mens camp in perfect order. Sargent Patrick Harper greeted him cheerfully and handed him a mug of tea. Sharpe thanked the big Irishman sipped at the scalding brew cautiously.

Sentries? asked Sharpe continuing to sip at his tea.

I was 'bout ta send Cooper and Harris, Sir, Harper reported.

Sharpe nodded his approval. How have the lads been? he asked.

Harper understood the question for what it was; has there been any trouble with anyone. Alls been quite, Mr. Sharpe, he said.

Sharpe looked over his men. They were a rag tag bunch. Most of them drunkards, and criminals, but every last one a crack shot. Their uniforms had long ago lost their new sheen and they carried sturdy French packs on their backs. But for all their dirt and grim their rifles glistened brighter than the King Georges dining silver.

Sharpe had to smile. No matter how bad his men might look and what they might have done prior to the army they were his. Each and everyone one of them had proven himself exceptional in battle. He was proud to command all of them, from the young Perkins, to the old Cheshire poacher Hagman, all the way to the drink prone, but worldly Harris.

"The lads have enough rounds?" Sharpe asked concerned about the men's store of ammunition. Enough ammunition was a vital necessity to any rifle company.

"They do, but they're runnin' low on food, Sir," Harper said showing some concern.

Bugger all! Sharpe thought. If it wasn't one thing it was another. There was always a shortage of one kind or another. Though Sharpe new he was lucky. Riflemen were considered crucial and usually got their supplies better than most of the other companies.

"I'll ask the quartermaster about it," Sharpe said without much enthusiasm.

He knew what he'd be told. There wasn't enough food nor any extra for even the precious riflemen. The Spanish had not fulfilled their promise to feed the British Army and the quartermaster couldn't do anything for Sharpe or his men.

"How's Miss Josefina?" Harper asked changing the subject in hopes of lightening Sharpe's dark mood.

Sharpe flashed a fleeting smile. "Ya do fight dirty Harper," he said recognising what the Irishman was up to and thanking him in his own way for the gesture.

Harper smiled back understanding Sharpe's unspoken gratitude. The two men may have been separated by the protocols of their difference in rank, but they were the best of friends.

"Josefina's fine, Patrick," Sharpe finally answered.

"No unwelcome visitors then?" asked Harper referring to Lt. Gibbons and Barry.

"No," Sharpe said, "but I'm not counting on those two ta stay quiet for long."

"That'd be real smart of ya Mr. Sharpe," Harper agreed. "Gibbons is ta much like his uncle. Both of 'em have the cowardice and hatred of the devil in 'em," he said.

"Aye," Sharpe agreed watching the last rays of the sun struggling vainly to shine over the horizon. Both Simmerson and his nephew were greedy and cowardly.

"Ya goin' back ta check on Miss Josefina tonight, Sir?" Harper asked.

"Thought about it," Sharpe said absently tossing the dregs from his mug into the fire. His mind was on Lt. Puddephatt more than Josefina the moment. He knew his business with Puddephatt was still unfinished, a fact which the provost was unlikely to forget now, if ever.

"Thought, Sir?" Harper questioned him. "Are ya feelin' alright, Mr. Sharpe?" Harper asked.

He thought Sharpe would have to be either sick or barmy to stay away from a woman like Josefina. When as an officer Sharpe could come and go in Talavera as he pleased.

"Of course I am," Sharpe snapped said irritably.

"Then why would ya want ta leave a fine lady like Miss Josefina alone tonight hmmmmm?" Harper asked grinning slyly.

Sharpe saw the bawdy mischief dancing in Patrick Harper's eyes and laughed.

"It might help ta relax ya Sir. Get ya ready fer battle," Harper said. He secretly hoped by spending time with Josefina would distract Sharpe at least temporally from Simmerson, his nephew, and the blasted imperial eagle he had to win.

"Are ya tellin' me I need ta get.." Sharpe began to ask in humour.

"Dat's exactly what I'm tellin' ya, Mr. Sharpe," Harper interjected cutting off Sharpe.

"Is this the equivalent of me tellin' ya don't get drunk unless I tell ya?" Sharpe asked jokingly.

"Well, not exactly, Sir," Harper said. "I could never order ya, ya being an officer and all, let's just say dat I'm suggestin' it," he grinned.

Sharpe laughed. He allowed himself to flashback to the delectable moment earlier with Josefina as he was dressing. He could almost feel the satin of her skin beneath his fingers. It didn't take much for Sharpe to decide he wanted finish what he had started.

Besides, he thought he could soon be sent to the West Indies and be dead within a month. Why not enjoy the here and now.

"I think I will see to Josefina's safety," Sharpe said with implied meaning.

"I thought ya would, Sir,' Harper said knowingly.

As Sharpe got up to leave and make the return walk to Talavera he gave one final order to Harper. "Make sure none of the lads decide to go into Talavera, that's an order," he said.

A sixth sense told Harper something was wrong. It was unlike Sharpe no to trust the men to follow an order they had already been given.

"What goin' on?" Harper asked knowing there was more to Sharpe's double order.

"There're provosts around, Patrick and they're lookin' for an excuse to hang someone, anyone," Sharpe said thinking specifically of Lt. Puddephatt. He wouldnt put it past Puddephatt to seek his revenge on him by going after one of his men.

"Bloody provost," Harper muttered. "The lads already know the orders," he assured Sharpe.

"Good. See that they follow them," Sharpe said.

"I will," Harper promised.

As he began to walk away from the camp Sharpe turned and said to Patrick Harper loud enough for all the men to hear, "Tell any man if I catch 'im in town I'll shoot him meself!"

Sharpe began the long dark walk back to Talavera his Baker rifle slung over his shoulder. The cool night air had settled in around them. Sharpe's walking helped him ward off the chill. The moon, like an enormous pearl lay on the black satin of the night sky. Every few moments a cloud would pass in front of it and the roadway would darken and the shadows around him deepen like a bottomless pit.

The journey passed by quickly. Sharpe made good time. The entire trip he kept his senses ready and alert for any signs of danger. It was unlikely that anyone was lying in wait for him. No one knew he was coming back into the city. However, there were French around lying just on the opposite side of the stream. Who knew whether or not they'd be tempted to sneak over.

Still ever cautious Sharpe reached out with all of his senses. His ears detected the ramblings of the night animals, but no horses. His sense of smell, sight, touch, everything went into heightened perception. It was amazing to him how his body reacted to the possibility of danger.

It was as if his body had been born ready for danger and could instantly transform itself into battle mode when called upon. The soft lights of the city became closer. The city's lights were a beacon welcoming Sharpe in from the darkness into her walls.

He made his way down the narrow streets and alleyways to the inn where Josefina's room was. He made sure to take the quietest most uninhabited streets. He wanted to avoid any further confrontations with Lt. Simon Puddephatt or any of his of his kind, who might be willing to help Puddephatt obtain his retribution on Sharpe. But there wasn't anyone about. Lights burned brightly in several taverns, but other than that the streets were dark and empty.

Upon reaching the inn he had asked Hogan to select for Josefina he knocked softly on her door.

"Who is it?" he heard her muffled voice ask from behind the heavy wooden door.

"It's Richard," he called back.

Sharpe heard the lock click back and the door creak open. He stepped in to see Josefina in a long dressing gown.

"Richard!" cried Josefina throwing her arms around him as he stepped over the threshold.

Richard encircled Josefina in his strong arms. His hands cover the soft satin of her dressing gown. He felt the added barrier of her undergarments separating his hands from her skin.

"You came back to take me for a walk," she said gleefully.

Sharpe frowned. He didn't want to be wondering about. There was a good chance there were provosts wandering about.

Josefina saw the reluctant look on Sharpe's face. "Richard I've been in this room all afternoon," she pouted.

"And whose fault was that?" he grinned.

"Yours. You seduced me under your spell and me and kept me here," she said teasingly.

"I seem ta recall it bein' the other way 'round," he said huskily running his tongue lightly down her neck.

Josefina shivered with excitement. She had known many different kinds of men before she had become a countess. Some rich and some poor, but never quite like Richard Sharpe. He had an instinctive sexual hunger that other men envied and women desired.

Josefina's hand crept towards the waist of Sharpe's trousers. " I need to keep up my energy and after all that food," she said gesturing to an empty dinner tray.

Sharpe sucked in tight breath. Josefina's light tickling touch at his waist was getting to him more than she realised. The soft lamp light in the room wavered and danced casting a warm rich glow over Josefina's skin.

"Are ya sure ya want ta go out? Gibbons and Barry might be out," he tried to dissuade her.

"Even if they are, if I am with you I will feel safe," she purred.

Sharpe rolled his eyes upwards. What was he to do? He knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help, but give into her.

"Alright, but ya have ta put some clothes on," he grumbled.

Josefina scurried over to the wardrobe and pulled out an icy blue coloured dress trimmed with lace and shimmied into it. Richard fast learning his way around the workings of women's clothes did up the row of buttons running down the back.

Quickly Josefina pinned up her long black tresses in a suitable style. She slipped white kid slippers on her dainty feet and accepted Richard's arm as they left the room.

Arm in arm they strode out into the black streets of Talavera together. The moon continued to play hide and seek behind the clouds as they walked.

"I'm glad you came back," Josefina said breaking the silence between them.

"Why's that?" Sharpe asked leading her down one of the better lit streets. He wanted to avoid any dark alleyways or places where someone could hide in the shadows to ambush him.

"I like having you around," she smiled up at him.

Sharpe gave a soft laugh. "Ya like me because I pay fer yer room and keep Gibbons and Barry away from ya," he said not with malice, but with brutal honesty.

"True," Josefina shrugged, "but that isn't the only reason," she said.

"It isn't?" Sharpe said as they passed down a row of quite homes.

"No, Richard. You are very kind and good to me. Not all men would be. You are a gentlemen," she said.

Sharpe was about to say something about his being a gentleman being questionable, when Josefina cut him off. "I know you didn't start out a gentleman, just as I didn't start out a countess, but you have the heart and honour of a real gentleman," she said with quiet but strong conviction in her words.

Sharpe wasn't quite sure what to say. He was flattered and at the same time embarrassed by Josefina's compliments. Most officers and all gentlemen didnt come from foundling homes like him. But if Josefina thought him a gentleman he would let her.

The stars dazzled above the pair as they continued to walk. Like a million shinny gold coins they sparkled so close and yet just out of reach. Sharpe thought it might be easier to pull down one of those stars than to take an imperial eagle.

"You're thinking about the battle aren't you?" Josefina said astutely.

"Aye," Richard answered.

"I know you will get your eagle," she said with confidence. "You would get a hundred of them if you had to."

Sharpe hoped he never had to prove her theory right. He knew one would be problematic enough. It had never yet been done, but he knew it could be. It wouldn't be easy, but it was possible.

"I'll get it. I have to," he smiled. He suddenly felt more confident.

In those few moments Sharpe was so lost in thought he failed to see a figure on horseback rounding the street corner nearing them. Sharpe saw him in the nick of time and pulled Josefina back into a shadow covered doorway.

"Richard," Josefina complained, but he put his hand over her mouth silencing her.

In the dim glow of the moonlight Sharpe recognised the shiloutee of Lt. Simon Puddephatt just thirty feet from them. Sharpe swore softly, but with venom.

Puddephatt hadn't seen them Sharpe decided. He was simply sitting there waiting. Sharpe wanted to escape the cramped doorway, but before he did he wanted to make sure Puddephatt wasn't up to something.

In the time he had been observing Puddephatt Sharpe had forgotten he had left his hand covering Josefina's mouth. He was only reminded when he felt her warm tongue brush over the palm of his hand.

Sharpe's stomach suddenly tightened along with his trousers. "Josefina," he groaned.

But Josefina ignored him, thinking it was a game. She slid her tongue up the palm of his hand to his long nimble fingers. Fingers that could load and fire four shots a minute with a Baker rifle and could touch a woman's body with exquisite torture.

Her pink tongue flicked over Sharpe's fingers. Sharpe tried to keep an eye on Puddephatt, but was having extreme difficulty in ignoring Josefina. She sucked one of Sharpe's fingers into her mouth. With deliberate slowness she ran her tongue over his finger sliding it in and out of her mouth. Her teeth gently scrapped his fingers. She brushed soft wet kisses over his knuckles and the back of his hands.

"Josefina, stop!" he hissed, but without much conviction.

He spun a hundred and eighty degrees and flattened her up against the hard wooden door.

"There's a provost sitting out there," he whispered furiously.

Josefina responded by kissing his bare chest where his shirt hung open in a v. "But he can't see us can he?" she whispered back breathlessly.

"Bugger it!" Sharpe thought. What better way to get back at Puddephatt than by performing illicit behaviour right under his nose without him knowing it. Sharpe pinned Josefina firmly against the wall and claimed her lips in an aggressive and hungry kiss.

His lips moved over hers bruising them. The slight stubble on his face scratched at her delicate skin. Her tongue duelled with Sharpe's, each parrying the other's moves. Sharpe swallowed Josefina's primal groan of desire.

Sharpe's lips quickly left Josefina's only to find the base of her throat. Her skin tasted like sweetest cream to Sharpe. His hands wantonly taunted Josefina's breasts, which heaved against the confines of her dress. She ached for Richard's touch. Selfishly Richard yanked the bodice of her dress lower nearly exposing her entire breasts. Greedily he found her with his hands and lips. He stroked and caressed them with a savage passion.

With a consuming need Sharpe's teeth raked over her breasts. Their typical slow and gentle lovemaking replaced by a primitive need deep within both of them. Josefina could feel Sharpe's rough skin scrape across her sensitive breasts. It was an excruciating sensual pain that only made her crave him al the more.

Sharpe's own body was demanding he take Josefina there and then. Their breath came in ragged and shallow gasps. Both had forgotten where they were and about the by standing Lt. Puddephatt.

Puddephatt sat atop his horse. He shifted uncomfortably. How he'd like to catch Sharpe doing something, anything. The rifleman needed to be taught a lesson and put in his place before he could muck up Puddephat's money system.

Even though Puddephatt had been born to the money and privilege Sharpe had not he had not. Puddephatt had not been blessed with the same luck as the lowly born Sharpe. This was especially obvious when looking at Puddephatt's gambling record and subsequent losses.

Just then he heard a thud of what sounded like a door nearby. His eyes strained into the darkness hoping it somehow would be Sharpe looting a house.

Josefina's hands mindlessly needed the feel of Sharpe's flesh. Slipping under Shapre's shirt her hands roamed over the front of his body. In the darkness of the shadows Sharpe anxiously felt through Josefina's skirts and petticoats. He jerked them up around her waist. His hand slid up her thigh and around her soft rounded bottom. As Sharpe stroked her Josefina gasped in pleasure.

His fingers barely lingered on her inner thigh before they made their way higher, to the centre of her femininity. Sharpe stroked her with rough sensuality. Her body responded to his touch becoming even hotter for him. Hungrily she began freeing Sharpe from the confines of his trousers.

Sharpe felt his trousers pushed lower and felt the cool night air against his naked flesh. The distant pawing of Puddephatt's horse reminded Sharpe of the near by danger. The tenseness of the moment intensified Sharpe's need to have Josefina right there out in the open.

Josefina wasted no time in finding Sharpe's maleness. She stroked him with fevered passion. Squeezing him tightly she felt him harden with each touch. She pulled him closer his manhood pressing tightly against her half naked body.

"Now, Richard!" Josefina demanded deliriously.

"I have ta have ya right here! Right now!" he ground out on the brink of losing control.

Unable to see each other in the darkness both Sharpe and Josefina felt there way over one another's bodies. Josefina could smell the excitement and sweat as she breathed in against Sharpe's skin. She could smell the wood smoke of campfires and the dampness of the river near the riflemen's camp.

Sharpe shoved Josefina's feet wider apart. He clutched Josefina's bottom and pulled her tightly against him as he entered her in one swift movement. Josefina clung to Sharpe as she felt his hard length slide home into her body. She wrapped her arms around his neck and bottom, urging him in deeper.

At the height of her craving for Sharpe she bite into the tender flesh of his neck. They muffled their groans and pants as Sharpe raised Josefina to meet his every thrust. He pulled her toward him as he repeatedly plunged into her.

Their weight rocking against the door made it rattle. Had they been listening they would have thought it sounded like rolling thunder, but they weren't. They were both too lost in each other's bodies. Their only concern was filling the other and finding the fulfilling moment when they both relinquished themselves to the other.

Franticly Josefina tried to pull Sharpe's body in harder to hers. Her body ached for release. Sharpe drove on further as her heard Josefina's first cries of release. Josefina held onto Sharpe for fear of losing the feel of their bodies together. Dragging her body closer to him with one final thrust he felt himself let go. His boots scrapped on the rough cobbles as shudders of mind spinning pleasure rolled over his body. He felt his legs slacken and his body go numb as he leaned further into Josefina and the door.

At the same moment Josefina and Sharpe were losing themselves in the throws of ecstasy Lt. Puddephatt heard the rattle of what sounded like a door again. Not an man to believe in coincidences he was about to nudge his horse forward to investigate when a bright ginger coloured cat came with its fur flying dashing out of the alleyway.

The cat tore under Puddephatt's horse's feet and as it raced by him momentarily spooking the roan. The big horse danced about and Puddephatt struggled to get the animal back under control. "Bloody cat!" Puddephatt cursed still trying to settle his nervous horse.

Exhausted and unsettled from their frantic lovemaking Sharpe and Josefina gripped one another for support. Sharpe struggled to restore his breathing and heart beat to a normal rate.

Sharpe helped Josefina straighten her dress while he straightened his uniform. Neither of them said a word for neither of them had ever experienced so powerful a release of sexual passion. Josefina's hands trembled as tried to help Sharpe with his trousers.

"Are ya able ta walk?" Sharpe whispered hoarsely.

"Yes, I think so" Josefina whispered back, her voice unsteady. "That's what I call making a stand."

"Aye," he agreed. "I can deliver as well," he retorted. He kissed her with a soft tenderness.

Josefina took hold of Sharpe's arm steadying her wobbling legs. Together they emerged together from the shadows into the soft moonlight. Sharpe quickly led Josefina down into the protective darkness of the alleyway. Sharpe twisted and turned through every back street, keeping to the darkness as they headed back to her room trying to avoid being sighted by Puddephatt.

Puddephatt caught a glimpse of Sharpe's green jacket as he turned the corner out of sight. A black shadow covered him as his tongue licked his fleshy lips in anticipation. Here was the perfect opportunity to take his revenge and rid himself of Sharpe, but not before Sharpe suffered the same sort of degregating humiliation he had inflicted upon him.

"Enjoy this moment Sharpe, it'll be your last!" Puddephatt said to himself.

When Sharpe had rid himself of his whore he would be alone. He would have to go back through Talavera to get back to the Armys camp. Puddephatt decided that was when he would strike. His eyes narrowed to slits and burned into the now dark and empty alleyway.

This time there would be no Hogan to interfere on Sharpe's behalf. If the Rifleman went missing everyone would assume he deserted. He could use the upcoming battle to dispose of Sharpe's body he decided. With so many dead who would notice that Sharpe's body had been dead for some time. Sharpe would be just another nameless British soldier buried in the a mass grave in Spain.

Puddephatt eased back into his saddle. The moon re-emerged from behind coal coloured clouds of night. Its light returned and reflected in the dew slicked cobbles of the street. Puddephatt was now confident he would have his revenge upon Sharpe. The upstart rifleman's minutes were severely numbered.

Josefina didnt question the route Sharpe led her through on the way back to her room. The alleys twisted and turned, narrowing and widening. All of it made her think of a labyrinth where the mystical Greek minotar half man half bull had lived.

The darkness rolled in and ebbed like waves around them. Josefinas kid slippers slipped on the moist cobbles. She clutched Sharpes arm in order to stay on her feet as he rushed through the streets.

She tried to ask why they were hurrying, but Sharpe genteelly, but firmly pressed a finger to her lips. Finally, they arrived at Josefinas room. Josefinas breath was ragged from running to keep up with Sharpe's long legs. Her hair had fallen from its pins and dark locks curled around her face framing it.

They entered the room from the dark shadows. The fire was bright and had a homey feel to it compared to the dark damp streets. The fire's rich warmth wrapped around them like a protective blanket.

Richard, why were we running? she asked. Did you, did you see them? Gibbons and Barry? she asked fearfully. She didnt fear the two lecherous officers as long as Sharpe was there. It was when he was gone she feared they may try to come near her.

Nay yer safe, he said.

Josefina understood his emphasising "your" excluded him. She shivered. Richard you have to leave dont you? she said already knowing the answer.

He nodded. He instructed her to bolt the door tightly after he left.

As he turned the doorknob Josefina called after him. Be careful, Richard, she said the raw emotion in her voice betraying her deep feelings for the rifleman.

Sharpe nodded solemnly. Lock yer door, he repeated before he left.

Sharpe waited to hear the grating slide and subsequent click of the bolt before he left. His boots thudded down the stairs and once again that night he returned to the cool dark damp streets of Talavera. The green dewy plant leaves were a eerie white in the moonlight.

Sharpe paused and allowed his senses to scour the darkness for danger. Despite the chill beads of sweat dotted Sharpes forehead and pricked his skin. The wavering moonlight made it impossible to visually detect anyone. Shadows appeared and then disappeared just as quickly.

The white stucco of the buildings absorbed the darkness making them black. Sharpe knew it was both an advantage and disadvantage. The shadow would just as easily conceal his presence as they would an enemy's.

There was an unnatural stillness to the night. It was as if all things godly had abandoned the city of Talavera. Sharpe had no choice, but to venture out into the thick pitch. He allowed himself one more final moment to check for any signs of danger, but felt nothing.

The blackness reminded Sharpe of a book Harris had once mentioned called The Inferno. He recalled Harris' description of it being about a journey through hell. Sharpe pushed the morbid thoughts from his mind. Hell on Earth or more specifically Talavera was his only concern at the moment.

Sharpe walked quickly, but cautiously through Talavera. He didnt know if Puddephatt had seen him with Josefina or not, but he had to base his movements on the assumptions he had.

As Sharpe came to a cross in the alleyway he heard the noisy scrapes of boots running on the street. He instantly sank into the shadows and flattened himself against the nearby wall.

The scraping became louder as the boots came closer and closer. Sharpes heart began to race and his breath quickened. His body was responding to the danger, but his mind remained clear.

A British soldier raced into the middle of the cross and paused. He looked franticly at the three different alleyways. Sharpe could hear his laboured breathing and smell the mans fear. It was smell he knew well from the battlefields of India to those of the Peninsula. No matter where you were the smell of the fear of death was the same. It had its own distinct characteristics that let the hunter know their prey was at their most vulnerable.

Before the soldier had a chance to pick an escape route another figure appeared. The hesitation had cost the red coat his chance to escape. From the same alleyway Sharpe had seen the red coat initially come from emerged another figure. This one was on horseback. Sharpe didnt even have to guess who it was. Lt. Puddephatt.

The rounded body of Lt. Puddephatt drew nearer. His horse walked out from the darkness and into the moonlight that lit up the middle of the cross. Unlike the red coat whos kit reflected the light Puddephatt seemed to absorb the light like a black hole.

You were looting, Puddephatt said gleefully to the red coat.

No, I wasnt! Honest! panted the red coat.

Honest men dont run, sneered Puddephatt.

They would from Puddephatt decided Sharpe, who kept still in the masking cloak of the shadows.

I, youyou startled me. I was afraid, babbled the red coat.

Afraid of what? asked Puddephatt with a sick sort of calm malice. What would an innocent man have to fear? he asked looking down at the sword hanging at his side.

The redcoat said nothing. He knew his life would depend on his reply. Puddephatt drew his long gleaming silver sword and held the point to the red coats neck. The tip gently pushing into the mans skin. Sharpe saw a thin trickle of blood run down the mans neck.

Afraid of what? Puddephatt repeated.

Still the red coat did not answer, could not answer. Fear had rendered his brain useless. Puddephatt poked and prodded the sword down the red coats body. He paused upon touching upon a firm bulge in the side of his coat.

Give it here! Puddephatt ordered.

Clumsily the red coat pulled his purse from the inside of jacket. He fumbled with it eventually handing it over to Puddephatt. Puddephatt yanked open the purse and dumped a pittance of coins into his pudgey gloved hand.

Is this all you have? asked Puddephatt in disgust.

The red coat nodded.

A pity it isnt enough to persuade me to spare your miserable thieving life, he said without a trace of regret. Puddephatt wanted blood. He would rather have Sharpe's, but since the Rifleman wasn't around the looting soldier would have to do.

Puddephatt raised his sword and was about to slash down on the red coats throat when Sharpe charged out from the shadows.

Despite that the man was probably was a thief Sharpe couldnt let him be murdered in the street. There were rules for the punishment of looters. Usually hanging, but somehow hanging seemed kinder than being killed and left in the streets to rot. No man deserved that, not even a looter.

Sharpe lunged for Puddephatts saddle girth. In one quick movement he yanked the girth free and pulled. Puddephatts saddle and him along with it tumbled from his horse.

The redcoat not about to waste an opportunity took off into the darkness, running as if the demons of hell were after him. He told himself if he escaped he would never steal anything ever again, no matter what anyone told him.

A surprised Puddephatt hit the street. Im going to kill you Sharpe! he raged looking up to see Sharpe towering over him.

Sharpe dove on top of Puddephatt putting his full weight behind his punches to Puddephatt's face and stomach. They rolled from the shadows to light in the street each fighting for the upper hand. Puddephatt managed to land a punch to Sharpes ribs more out of luck than skill. The stinging blow snatched the air from Sharpes lungs and he gasped for air. The cobbles jutted into the mens bodies as if they themselves were a participant in the fight.

Puddephatts momentary advantage left as quickly as it came. Sharpe used his superior body strength to pin Puddephatt beneath him. Sharpes childhood on the streets of London had taught him how to fight. He used every advantage he had. Sharpe knew if Puddephatt got the upper hand he would try to kill him. Already he could feel the hatred radiating from Puddephatt.

Sharpes blows had bloodied Puddephatts face. His rounded face had become even more swollen with bruises. A gunshot thundering from the darkness caused a frenzied Sharpe to cease his beating of Puddephatt.

Out of the shadows of the fourth alleyway walked General Sir Arthur Wellesley and Major Hogan holding a smoking pistol. Both their faces were expressionless. Wellesley towered over Hogan by a good foot. The General was a commanding figure that inspired both awe and fear in his men to say nothing of his opposition.

On yer feet Richard, Hogan said calmly.

Sharpe scrambled to his feet. His uniform was dirty and his face had scraps where Puddephatt had managed to connect with several punches.

Ya too! Hogan order looking down at Puddephatt with total disdain.

Captain Sharpe, do you know what the punishment is for striking an officer? Wellesley asked him in a sharp commanding voice Sharpe knew meant trouble.

Yes, Sir. Shooting offence, Sir, Sharpe said. How much had Nosey and Hogan seen he wondered? Surely they had to know that he hadnt randomly attacked the provost. Sharpe looked to Hogan, trying to convey with his eyes what had happened.

Hogans face remained impassive.

Sir Arthur looked down his hooked beak nose at Sharpe. Its good to see you know the rules Captain Sharpe, Wellesley said. Its a pity that you of all people do not Lt. Puddephatt, Wellesley said his eyes glaring sharply at Puddephatt.

You struck an officer Lt. Puddephatt; Captain Sharpe, he said.

Sharpe looked on in a sort of shock. Puddephatt was being reprimanded for hitting him. Sharpe didnt know what the general was up to, but whatever it was he knew he was now in the clear or any wrong doing.

Richard, Hogan said looking to Wellesley who nodded his head in affirmation. I think ya should go tonight and keep watch over Miss Joesfina.

Sharpe paused. His green eyes flickered between the tightly controlled face of Wellesley and Hogan.

Hogan seeing Sharpes unease said, No, ya done a fine job Richard. A fine job, but Josefina needs to be watched over. Go do yer duty Richard, Hogan ordered with a smile.

Yes, Sir. Thank ya, Sir, Sharpe said with a smile. He turned and walked back down the alley towards the inn and Josefinas room.

Puddephatt glared up him as he left. Sharpe didnt know what Hogan and the general had in store for Puddephatt, but he decided it would certainly be unpleasant for the corrupt provost.

Wellesley and Hogan waited until Sharpe had safely left before they dealt with Puddephatt.

Puddephatt knew he was in trouble. If there was one thing Wellesley hated more than thieving behaviour of his soldiers it was corruption of the men whose job it was to police the men's behaviour.

The blood flow from Puddephatt's face had slowed, in some areas dark red clots were forming. He knew he was in trouble, but the full magnitude of the situation had yet to hit him. He stood before Hogan and Wellesley in a dazed stupor.

The moonlight illuminated Sharpe as he disappeared leaving behind a foreboding sense of blackness.

Hogan stole a glance at Sir Arthur. Hogan knew the general better than almost anyone. And at the moment he could see behind the Wellesley's calm exterior the fires of outrage burned with wild abandon.

"I'm about to fight a battle," Wellesley began, "in which I am already out numbered. I need every good man I have," he said in a low deadly voice.

Puddephatt simply stood there oblivious either from fear of Wellesley's wrath or from Sharpe's pummelling blows to the head.

"I will not have my men preyed upon, extorted from or murdered! "The French have more honour than you," Wellesley said grinding out each syllable.

"Your job lieutenant, was quite simple, Know the rules and see that they are enforced," Wellesley said. "As it WAS your duty," Wellesley said emphasising the word was, "you should be well aware of the punishment for disobedience."

Puddephatt's face paled under his bloody mask. Realisation was slowly dawning on his sadistic and greedy mind.

"There will be two parts to your punishment," Wellesley said. "First, you will hand over every penny you have extorted from my men and with it you will pay to ensure Captain Sharpe keeps his promotion," Wellesley ordered.

That snapped Puddephatt out of his stupor. How he hated Sharpe and Wellesley at that moment. The money was his, all of it. Never, would he give a shilling to Sharpe.

Wellesley could see the disobedience raging inside Puddephatt.

"You do not have a choice in this matter Lieutenant! Your position and indeed your very existence on this soil is forfeit to me!" roared Wellesley.

"Sir Arthur," Hogan whispered to the General. "I don't think it would be a good idea to hang Lt. Puddephatt," Hogan whispered.

"In God's name why not?" exclaimed Sir Arthur to Hogan.

Hogan tilted his head and arched an eyebrow at the General in response.

"Ah the men's morale," Wellesley said calmly.

"Yes, Sir," Hogan said. "And,"

"And the authority of the provosts," Wellesley finished.

"Exactly, Sir," Hogan said.

"Hogan," said Sir Arthur suddenly staring intently at Puddephatt, "can you get a hold of a French uniform?" he asked.

"That's easy enough, Sir," Hogan replied wondering what the crafty General was up to.

"Good, get one," ordered Wellesley.

"Very good, Sir Arthur."

"And Hogan, your Spanish spies," Sir Arthur asked.

The mention of the Spanish dropped all the pieces into place for Hogan, who quickly calculated what Sir Arthur had in mind. By then Hogan was well a head of Wellesley. "I have just the lady for the job Sir Arthur," Hogan said.

"A lady?" Wellesley asked curious.

"Yes Comadante Teresa, leader of a group of Spanish partisans. The French call her 'La Aguja,' 'the needle.' Don't ask why," Hogan said a proud and knowing look.

Wellesley decided he didn't want to know anyway. He trusted his spymaster and engineer beyond measure. "Very good, Hogan," he said. "Have Comadante Teresa take the former lieutenant to her band of partisans as a gift from the British army," Wellesley said.

Hogan nodded. It may not have been a hanging, but Hogan knew what Puddephatt would go through at the hands of the Spanish partisans would be a thousand times worse than hanging.

The partisans hated the French without reserve. The French they captured were often tortured before they were killed in retribution for the thousands of innocent lives they had taken.

"Sharpe did well Hogan. Damn well!" said Sir Arthur.

"Yes, Sir," Hogan agreed.

"See that Puddephatt's ill gotten monies go to insure Sharpe's promotion," Wellesley ordered.

"It'll be done, Sir," Hogan assured.

"I've always said you can always count on the rifleman and Captain Sharpe," Hogan said.

"You don't have to sing his praises to me!" Wellesley interjected. "The man saved my life. I know quite well what Captain Sharpe is capable of."

Sir Arthur looked at street where a beam of moonlight divided dark and light by a stark line. "Odd this line we draw between good and evil," Wellesley murmured.

"Aye, good and evil are chained together in the heart," Hogan replied.

"Shadows play and interesting trick on the world, obscuring the line between light and dark," Wellesley said. "Oh and Hogan," Sir Arthur said as they began walking back to Sir Arthur's quarters after having Lt. Puddephatt taken quietly away," you'd better see to that young man who Puddephatt was accosting, before he thinks be told to loot is a common order."

"Of course Sir Arthur," Hogan said as they walked into Talavera's darkness.

Sharpe made his way back to Josefina's room. His body was a bit bruised and sore from his brawl with Puddephatt, but he knew just what to do to take his mind off his aches and pains.

Yet again Sharpe left the dark streets of the city for the bright warmth of Josefina's room. He was beginning to think his life was a steady journey from light to darkness and back again. And maybe it was he thought.

Sharpe rapped his knuckles lightly on Josefina's door. 'It's Richard," he called softly.

In minute later he heard the heavy bolt slide away and Josefina peek her wide eyes through the crack between the door and the frame.

"What are you doing here?" she squealed with delight.

Josefina quickly threw open the door and let Sharpe in. It was then that she noticed the cuts and nicks on his face.

"What happened to you?" she asked running her hand gently down the side of Sharpe's face.

"Nothing ya can't fix," he growled playfully as he swept her into his arms and headed for the bed.

"Don't you have to be back?' Josefina asked worriedly.

"Not until morning," Sharpe smiled wolfishly covering her body with his on the bed. "And I know just what to do until then," Sharpe said wickedly aas Josefina pulled his mouth to hers.

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