No rights infringement intended. M/F
The Sharpe Fan Fictions of The Mardy Bum
a work of fan-fiction by The Mardy Bum, August, 2006
Come on then! he roared. The officer advanced on him. He drew his right arm back and smashed him across the face. The officer fell to the ground, rolling and getting to his feet. He whipped round, advancing on Sharpe quickly.
Sharpe waited, ducked under the mans quick haymaker. He slammed him in the stomach with his right, straightening and driving his left fist into the mans head. The man reeled and fell again, falling to the dirt. He lay there for a second, before rolling back to his feet. Sharpe stood back one, waiting. The man staggered, putting a hand out to the tree. He felt his lip gingerly, wiping blood from his mouth delicately, looking back at Sharpe.
Here! someone hissed hoarsely, and Sharpe recognised the voice as that of Harris. He didnt turn to look at the few Chosen Men, running up the path that wound up the slight hill, arranging themselves at the tree line to watch. He watched the officer straighten and throw himself at Sharpe again.
He grabbed him and they pushed and shoved. The officer dug his heels into the hard dirt and freed a hand, ramming it into Sharpes face. He was pushed off and staggered. The man saw his chance and grabbed his green tunic, hitting him in the face again and again. He drew his hand back for a third strike. Sharpe rammed his left elbow up to break his grip. He grabbed the mans shirt and fetched him a terrific crack on his head with his own.
The Chosen Men let out a cheer as the man fell backwards, landing in the dirt hard. He climbed to his feet, watching Sharpe undo the last few shiny buttons on his tunic and rip it off, enraged. He threw it behind him and then pulled the braces from his shoulders, pulling his shirt free. He dragged it off over his head, wiping his face with it quickly before throwing it after his tunic.
The officer removed his shirt with dignity, taking his time to get his breath back. Sharpe watched him, his emerald eyes blazing, waiting. He stole a glance and saw there were five Chosen Men, including Harper, squatting at the tree line, squeezing the barrels of their unloaded rifles in nervous excitement.
The man swallowed and sniffed, wiping his nose again before advancing more slowly. Harris grinned, wondering just how hed relate this epic tale to his Spanish girl later. The two men drove at each other, thumping and pushing, and Harris shook his head in appreciation. He realised the reasonable, level-headed almost-gentleman who had been his Major had been replaced by some kind of enraged tiger with more base instincts. Like winning. Like pounding seven shades of shit out of anyone who wanted to belittle him and his command. Like proving he could do it in a sweaty, intrinsic, heat of the moment way. He nudged Harper, who looked back at him, and they grinned, turning back to watch the fighting, as two or three red-coated South Essex privates stole up the hill to see what the noise was about.
Go on, sir! Harper shouted, then turned and nodded to the three men who sank to the ground and watched, open-mouthed.
The South Essex officer was more precise, there was no doubt. But as the two men battled it out, it became obvious that the Major had the advantage. This Lieutenant White was a good sportsman, but the Major didnt care for sport. White pinned him down; Sharpe headbutted. White threw a haymaker; Sharpe ducked and kicked at his knee. The rangy South Essex White was becoming more and more enraged, but it seemed the Major was already there and enjoying it.
Come on, sir! Robinson chimed in.
Stick it to him! Brown shouted, grinning madly.
Time was not on their sides. If White was starting to look short of breath and sweaty, Sharpe was positively running with it, panting for his life. Time was deciding it all. The dirty, under-handed, cheating bar-room-brawl winner that Sharpe was, it wouldnt matter if he couldnt finish it quickly. The Spanish heat and the long days spent marching with nothing but soup and rabbit were taking their toll, and he knew it.
Go on, sir! Harper shouted.
Have him! shouted Brown. Sharpe spat blood, watching White stagger and turn to him again.
Bugger this, he snapped, ramming his boot up into White as hard as he could. White collapsed forward and Sharpe drew his fist back to blind-side him. He hesitated, assessed the situation, and then simply put his hands to his shoulders and pushed White over sideways. The officer fell to the ground and just tried to breathe. The men let out a roar of triumph, laughing and pushing at each other in delight. Harper got to his feet, crossing quickly to Sharpes tunic and shirt, bending and retrieving them quickly. He turned to Sharpe, grinning inanely.
Oh well done, sir, he said proudly. Sharpe spared him a glance, panting his breath back, before walking over to White, who was still face-down and moaning into the dirt. He put his boot to his shoulder and rolled him over, onto his back.
And dont you ever stand there and disobey an order I give you again, you disrespectful bastard, he breathed. White just looked up at him.
Sir, he managed, swallowing. Sharpe removed his boot and stepped back, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He sniffed, ran a hand through his hair to get it from his face, and looked over at the green and red-jacketed men, still laughing and shaking hands.
And you lot, clear off! he called angrily. And not a word o this to anyone! The riflemen jumped to their feet, tossing off cheeky parodies of salutes before hefting rifles, hurrying to the path. The red-coated South Essex lads jumped up and followed quickly, their muskets pointing at the sky. As they disappeared down the path back to camp, Harper walked over to Sharpe.
Youll be wanting some water, so you will, he said cheerfully, still grinning. You should have shaved this morning, sir, thats going to be sore for a wee while yet, and no mistake, he said, looking Sharpes face over and spying the cuts and bruises.
Balls to shaving, get that man up and dressed. Then get him back to camp, he said curtly.
Oh yes sir, Harper said, grinning, handing him his tunic and shirt before turning to the officer. He walked over and crouched. Now then Lieutenant, can I help ye with anything? he asked politely.
Edward! she gasped, watching her husband walk into the officers mess with a bruised and bloodied face. He nodded with as much dignity as possible to the servant, then cut a very quick path to their table. She waited until he had sat before leaning across the table and staring at his cut, injured face. What on Earth happened? she hissed quietly, aware others could hear them from their tables.
Major Sharpe, he said carefully, controlling his volume. He had me fight him to prove hes in charge, he bit out.
How dare he! she hissed, careful not to broadcast it across the local tables. You? In a bare-knuckle fight like some common private? What was it all about? she dared. Her husband, Lieutenant Edward White, leaned across the table and put his hands on top of hers gently.
I made a grave error, my dear. He is a Major, for all a jumped-up commoner can be. He gave me an order, and I, in my idiocy, refused it. He sighed. Oh dear, this soldiering really is more complicated than I thought. If he should communicate to Horse Guards that I disobeyed him He shrugged helplessly. Sometimes I wonder if I really should bother with all this soldiering, he said quietly. She looked at him, horrified. It wouldnt be a bad thing if I sold my commission and got on with the old business with Father, he added. She squeezed his hand angrily, then checked herself.
But youre a good soldier, Edward, she said kindly. And if you werent a soldier I wouldnt be in half of my private clubs in London, she added to herself. You bought your commission, but didnt everyone? And anyway, youve fought in some big battles, and Colonel Lawford likes you, she pointed out. If you have the ear of the Colonel, you wont stay a Lieutenant for long. And even if he doesnt promote you, you can always buy your Captaincy. We have money, after all, she said. He looked at her sadly.
You have money, my dear. I have a failing business, an ailing father, and no military prospects once word gets out Major Sharpe dislikes me. People may not like him but they tend to respect his decisions insofar as ranks go, he said miserably.
But you were so close to Captain, she said desperately. And I so close to finally getting into the ladies circle at Horse Guards Isnt there something we could do about it? she asked amiably. He looked back at her, as the waiter appeared with a fresh bottle of wine. She looked at it, nodded imperiously, and the waiter proceeded to pour it for them. They waited, White looking at his wife the whole time, studying her crafty expression.
What do you mean? he asked.
Well Could he amenable to money, perhaps? she asked. He smiled slightly.
Youve never Youve never met Major Sharpe, have you? he asked, amused. She looked at him.
What does that mean? she asked quickly, and he shook his head.
My dear, I judge him to be impervious to just about any bribe you could offer him, he said, thinking of the small fortune in French gold it was rumoured the Major hoarded somewhere.
Any bribe? she asked innocently.
Good God man, what happened to you? Lawford asked as Sharpe walked into his tent, shako under his arm.
Small disagreement, Colonel, sir, he allowed, knowing his eye was purple and his face scratched. Lawford frowned.
Not drinking, I hope, he said, casting a disapproving eye over Sharpes uniform. And get that damned horse-blanket of yours washed, Major, he said testily. Anyone would think you were a Sergeant, looking like that.
Yes sir, Sharpe said, nodding curtly. Lawford let himself smile, then just shook his head.
Damn it all, Richard, sit down, he said easily, and Sharpe let himself relax. He took the chair in front of him, settling himself in it slowly. Lawford noticed, and waved to his clerk to leave the tent. He waited until the tent flaps had swished closed. So what actually happened then? Between you and me? he asked curiously. Sharpe looked at him.
That Lieutenant White, he admitted. Lawford eyed him.
Hmm. I rather suspected he wouldnt take to you, Richard. What did he do? he asked quietly. Sharpe considered the question, wetting his lips slowly.
Told the men I werent supposed to be here.
Oh, well, you see
Tried to reassign the Chosen Men to opposite sides of the march, Sharpe continued pointedly.
What? Split your command while
Then I told him to report to you and get his orders. He refused. I made it an order. He refused, he said coldly. Lawford sat back, agog.
Well blast his eyes! I hope you gave him a good dressing down, Richard? he said hotly.
Absolutely, he said easily, sitting back in the chair. Bit sore mind, but now hes clear on a few things, he nodded. Lawford grinned, slapping the table.
Im sure he is, Richard, Im sure he is. He grinned at the Major, then shook his head. You know, having you here is a breath of fresh air, Richard. I do so get tired of so many He paused, searching for words.
Pompous little pricks? Sharpe offered innocently.
Just so, Richard, just so, Lawford grinned. Anyway, wont be our burden much longer. Weve had our marching orders from Nosy himself. Tomorrow morning were heading for the village of Pams del Ti, he said smartly. Sharpe nodded.
Very good, sir. Might take the mens minds off a few things, he said.
Like? Lawford asked, surprised. I didnt think they worried about the war effort, on the whole, he admitted.
Like girls, Sharpe grinned, standing.
Oh yes. I see, Lawford shrugged. Well, boys will be boys, he allowed. Go on then, find yourself a girl but see youre up in time to march at the front, all washed and shaved, Richard, he said pointedly. Sharpe nodded.
Of course not, Bill, he smiled, nodding respectfully and leaving the tent slowly. Lawford watched him go, then shook his head, looking back down at his paperwork.
He walked back toward his own tent, the darkness just about down and the fires lit. He smelt the soup boiling, the dirty, unwashed men, but most importantly, the tea brewing. He headed in the direction of his tent and came upon a small gathering of men, round the tea urn, watching it as if it held the secrets of the ancients.
Well? he asked loudly, and Harper jumped slightly. He turned and looked over his shoulder at him.
Oh, there you are, sir, he said pleasantly, then looked at Robinson. Fetch me that, he said, and Robinson looked where he was nodding. He picked up a clean tin cup and handed it to Harper, who picked up the tea urn and poured a little out slowly. He stood and turned to Sharpe. Here you are then sir, try that on for size, he said proudly. Sharpe eyed him before taking it and looking in.
Whats in it? he asked, looking up at the small circle. Brown and Robinson exchanged a glance.
Tea, sir. New leaves from one of Ramonas friends, sir, Harper said politely. Sharpe looked at the rest of them.
Wheres yours? he asked curiously. Harper looked back at the two men before back at the Major slowly.
Weve been drinking it all evening, sir. We saved you this, though, he said eagerly. Sharpe sniffed the rim of the cup.
Smells a bit funny, he said gingerly.
Its been on the boil all the time you were talking to the Colonel, so it has, he said smoothly. Very good stuff, sir. The Spaniards national treasure, sir. Sharpe let his face clear and just shrugged, tipping it back and emptying the cup. He thought about it, running his tongue over his upper lip.
Not bad, that, he said approvingly, handing the cup back to Harper. Harper grinned, turning to look at the two riflemen. They looked at their feet. Get us another, will you Pat? he asked, sitting down next to Robinson. Ramona walked over, carrying a sleepy little Patrick. She sat next to Sharpe carefully, looking at him. Evening, he said, then looked down at Patrick. He was safely wrapped in a warm blanket, dozing happily.
I don't like you fighting, she said sternly. It is dangerous.
Extremely, he agreed amiably.
You fight all the time, she tutted at him. One day you will lose, she pointed out. He chuckled.
Never, he said, taking the now full cup from Harper.
One day you will die fighting. Is that not the same as losing? she asked hotly. He looked at her.
Not if Ive won. Then it dunt matter if I die afterwards, he shrugged. She just shook her head. A Spanish voice called out and she looked up.
Oh, troubles, she hissed, hearing the other girls voice repeat whatever it was she was calling to her. Ramona stood, looking around. Here, you help for a change, she said to Sharpe, handing him her bundle of Patrick.
Hey now, wait a minute But it was too late, Ramona had already let go and unless he wanted the small boy to sprawl in the dirt, he had to take the weight. Harper eyed him but then smiled suddenly, seeing the Majors discomfort. He held the little boy under his arms securely, letting him dangle in front of him. Well look, where - . Oh bugger, he hissed, and caught a stinging slap to the back of his head.
No soldier words in front of my boy! Ramona said sternly. He just looked at her, surprised, not sure how to try and assert himself. Or if it would be wise to. Ramona gave him one final, commanding look before picking up her skirts and turning, racing off across the camp.
Little Patrick yawned and opened his eyes, wondering why his source of heat had left him. He blinked and found Major Sharpe staring back at him, half in curiosity, half in embarrassment. Alright, little man? he said with false cheer, trying to twist his face into what he hoped was a non-threatening smile. Little Patrick just stared, entranced by the uncomfortable-looking man watching him. Harper walked over and sat, and Sharpe looked at him. Here, I think this belongs to you, he said, handing him over. Brown and Robinson grinned at each other as Harper took the small lad and sat him on his knee securely.
There now, arent you the handsome little fella? he said delightedly.
Must get that from his mother, Sharpe muttered, reaching for his cup of tea again. Brown nudged Robinson and gestured at Sharpe with his head. Robinson winked. Sharpe sipped at the tea, then thought about it. What did you say was in this? he asked curiously, yawning. Harper looked at him.
Spanish tea, sir. Very good for the blood, so it is, he said innocently. Sharpe sniffed at that comment and drained the cup. He put it down and then rubbed his hands over his face.
Well then, you make sure these two dont cause trouble wi the girls. Im going to get this flea-ridden thing washed, he said, unbuttoning his tunic as he stood. Harper grinned.
Right you are, sir, he said, bouncing a now fully awake little Patrick on his knee. The boy giggled and clutched at his fathers buttons, making the three riflemen smile.
'Night lads, Sharpe said, walking away from the fire and toward his own tent. He yawned.
Shouldnt have given him a whole cup, sir, Brown said quietly. Harris only had a half, and look what happened to him, he said. Harper chuckled at little Patrick.
Oh nonsense. Mister Sharpes got the constitution of a Ballinderry heifer, so he has. Hell be up and around no trouble tomorrow morning, he said delightedly. Wont he Patrick? Oh yes he will, so he will, he cooed at him proudly.
Sharpe heard something loud and brass-like. It sounded like it was a long, long way off. He ignored it, content to slip back into his dreamy world of half-asleep and half-awake. He felt hed never been this comfortable or relaxed in his life. That thought saw him slip quickly back into a dreamless sleep.
Sir! Sir! someone shouted, and he grunted in annoyance. Sir! Come on, sir, its way after sun-up, so it is! He felt something grab his shoulders and shake him roughly.
Bugger off, he snapped, opening an eye to see Harper looming over him, his face worried. What? he demanded plaintively.
The Colonels looking for you, sir! We were supposed to march half an hour ago, so we were! he cried anxiously. Sharpe felt those words, in that particular order, should be triggering some kind of action, but for some reason he could make himself neither move nor care.
Bugger him, he muttered, letting his eyes close again. Harper swore.
This is all my fault, he cursed, then bent over Sharpe and slapped him with real force.
Jesus, Sergeant! Sharpe cried angrily, waking immediately and grabbing at the wooden edge of the cot to sit up. He heard something creak and wondered in a detached way if it were the bed or some part of himself. Harper stepped back quickly, out of his reach. What the bloody hell were that for!
Were supposed to be marching, sir! The Colonels looking for you to take out the Chosen Men first, sir, and youre sleeping! he cried desperately. Sharpe blinked and rubbed an eye, looking round blearily.
Is it dawn? he asked, unable to make sense of his surroundings. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, its broad daylight, sir! he cried. He watched the Major, but he just looked around uncertainly, showing no signs of getting off the bed. Here, he said, stepping forward and pulling Sharpe to his feet by the open edges of his tunic. Sharpe pushed him off and almost lost his balance. Oh shite, its all my fault, so it is, he hissed. Sharpe rubbed his eye again, not quite sure of the point in being stood up. His face twisted in confusion.
What are we doing? he asked faintly, blinking at the big Irishman.
Just get your things sir, and follow me, sir, he said clearly. Sharpe looked around.
Mary Mother of God! Harper shouted, frustrated. Look, he said, crossing the few feet to the makeshift bedside table. He picked up the sword belt and thrust it at the Major, who caught it.
Bloody hell, this thing's really heavy, you know, he said to himself. Mind you, wouldn't want to face a Frog without one, eh, he chuckled softly. Harper stared at him.
Sir, he said carefully. Sharpe appeared to ignore him, looking at the sword and belt in his hands as if he'd never seen them before. Sir! he snapped. Sharpe looked at him, and Harper cringed at the vacant look in his eyes. Get it on, sir, he said kindly. Sharpe just looked at him. Harper pointed to the sword. That, sir. Get it buckled up, sir, he said. Sharpe 'oh'ed to himself, and more by instinct than his wits, began pulling it round him and buckling it up.
Where are me boots? he asked innocently, as if it wouldn't actually matter anyway. Harper looked at him, then his feet.
There, sir, he said, pointing to his feet. Sharpe looked at them blearily.
Oh yeah, look at that, he reasoned cheerfully, grinning. Harper turned him round by the shoulders and pushed him out of the tent.
Right boys! Harper called, and six Chosen Men appeared and started striking the tent as fast as they could. Sharpe turned and looked at them.
'Ey, them buggers are nicking my tent, he said indignantly, to no-one in particular. Harper wiped a heavy hand over his face and sighed. Sharpe shivered suddenly and hopped from one foot to the other. Buggerin hell, Im dying for a pi
Major Sharpe! Colonel Lawford shouted, his horse coming into view. Sharpe turned to see him. Slowly, gradually, it began to dawn on him that perhaps he was not in possession of his full set of wits this morning.
Er... What's that word? he said to himself, then looked up. Colonel!
Major, the entire South Essex and your own Chosen Men have been waiting an hour for you to lead the scouts ahead so that we may march, sir! Where in blazes have you been, man? he demanded hotly. Sharpe thought about it, realising he wasnt completely sure.
Hes been ill, sir, Harper put in suddenly. Sharpe looked at him.
Ill? Lawford echoed indignantly, Ill?
Bit of a fever, so it was, but hes mostly better now, sir, Harper continued. Hes ready to go though, sir, he said, pushing Sharpe forward a step. He stumbled on the grass verge but kept his balance. He looked up at Lawford, who slid quickly from his horse and walked up to him. He leaned close to him, taking in the slack yet coloured face, and sniffed pointedly.
Hmm. So its not drink, Richard? he asked quietly.
No, sir! he said indignantly. Well, I don't think so.
Well? Was it illness or a woman? he asked softly. Sharpe blinked and Lawford studied his face.
Dont rightly know, sir. Me heads a bit
Illness, Lawford nodded confidently. He stood back, raising his voice. Mister Sharpe has done well to rise this early after a nasty bout of fever like that, Sergeant Major Harper, he called, loud enough for the officers behind him, including one Lieutenant White, to hear. Harper nodded gratefully, and Lawford shot Sharpe one rather damning look before turning back to his horse. Next time, sir, you will do me the courtesy of notifying me of your incapacitation. He lifted an arm and led the mounted officers and the South Essex onwards.
Harper turned and pushed Sharpe sideways, toward the Chosen Men. They grouped around them.
Right then, Mister Sharpe wants us along the two ridges either side of the road, so he does. Hagman, youve got point left, Taylor, youve got point right, he said. Taylor and Hagman nodded, turning and sprinting off to be in front of the marching troops. Harris looked at Brown and Moore, watching Sharpe with grins on their faces. Harper cleared his throat. Right then sir, anything else? he asked loudly. Sharpe looked at him.
Quite so, sir. Well, you heard him gentlemen, Rifles to the front and keep your feet up, or so help him hell break you in two! he ordered fiercely. Brown, Moore, Harris and Robinson nodded, turning smartly and running to get to the front of the South Essex. Harper looked at Sharpe. Im very sorry, sir. I didnt know the tea would do this to you, I swear, he said, looking worried. Sharpe just blinked at him, then his face screwed up in abject confusion.
Tea? he asked, lost. Harper sighed and put a hand on his shoulder, turning him round. He handed him his rifle, then snatched it back off him and turned it the right way round and handed it back, hoping no-one had seen. He pushed the Major in front of him, to catch up with the tail end of the South Essex.
Jesus, but its going to be a long march, Harper said to himself.
By sun-down they had made it halfway to the village, and Colonel Lawford ordered them to fall out and make camp.
Brown and Harris were laughing like men possessed as they put the tent up.
And stone me, but his eyes were large as dog-bowls, Brown managed. Harris laughed.
Youre all in a lot of trouble when he realises what you did! he breathed. It took me a whole day to get over that half cup!
I know and he had nigh-on one and a half, Brown grinned. Harper appeared behind Harris abruptly, and Browns face dropped.
Find something funny, do you Rifleman Brown? he asked loftily. Brown cleared his throat.
No sir, he said immediately.
Thats good. Youll be getting this thing up quickly then, boys, and getting your heads down. We have a lot of walking tomorrow, he said, turning and walking off. Brown and Harris exchanged a look, then wrestled with the canvas.
Harper walked across the line of tents, finding Sharpes by sound.
Well get it off then! Sharpe was shouting viciously. And if I find it there again, Ill boot you in the nadgers so hard youll make a living being the oldest choir boy in the whole bastard parish! he bellowed. Harper closed his eyes in anguish, his mouth rounding into an o shape before he shook his head. He walked on and rounded Sharpes tent to see him stood, hands on hips, watching Robinson quickly unlacing some girls favour from his jacket buttons.
He cleared his throat. Sharpe turned his head and then did a double-take, realising who it was. And you! he shouted venomously. Harper froze. Get this lot away from them girls and into their own beds! Were all getting up at dawn, Sergeant, and if just one man so much as leaves his boots unlaced, Ill find the rustiest bleedin bayonet in the camp and bloody well skewer him on it! he roared. Harper looked at his own feet.
Yes sir! he said smartly.
Now go on, bugger off, the lot of you! he bellowed. Harper looked over at Robinson and gestured with his head. Robinson made himself scarce and Harper turned to Sharpe.
Will you be wanting a drink before you sleep, sir? he asked politely.
Just go, Sergeant, he snapped, then turned and stalked into his tent. Harper cleared his throat, thought for a long minute, then went to his own tent. He ducked inside to find Ramona dressing little Patrick in thick woollen sleeping clothes.
His head hurts, she said conversationally. Harper looked at the little boy.
Patricks? he asked, surprised. Told you that, did he? Is he talking already? he asked, grinning. Ramona looked up at him.
Richards. It will give him a bad head. He wont sleep much tonight.
Oh. Thats bad, so it is, we have a long way to go tomorrow, he said, unbuttoning his jacket and sliding it off. She pinned him with a reproving look.
Then you should not have let him drink it, she said sternly. Is not fair, Patrick. You know he is not big and strong like you. I dont know how he woke this morning, she sighed. Harper nodded.
I know, he sighed with difficulty. Its my fault. Ill make it up to him, so I will, he said lightly, and Ramona looked up at him again, lifting little Patrick to sit up slowly.
I know you will. I will make you, she said. Take him that drink there, she said, pointing to the bedside table.
What is it?
It will help his head. Maybe tomorrow he wont shout so much, she said, then looked at little Patrick. And tell him not to say such words when our little boy can hear him, she said. Harper smiled.
Ill try. If I come back without a head, youll know the right of it, he said gingerly, picking up the cup and walking back out of the tent. He rounded the side and walked to Sharpes, noticing the candle was still lit. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and pushed at the tent flap. Sir? he asked quietly.
What do you want, yer bastard? Sharpe demanded angrily. Harper ducked inside, finding him on his back on the bed, the heels of his hands in his eyes. Hed taken his boots and tunic off, but that seemed to have been the most he could manage.
I came to Ramona sent me, sir, he said craftily, knowing while he wouldnt take anything from Harper, hed trust anything Ramona sent so long as it didnt smell like manure.
And what does she want? he asked roughly, letting his hands drop. He glared at the Irishman. Harper shifted his feet, made sure his cheerful expression didnt falter, and held out his hand with the cup in it.
She says for you to drink this, sir. Itll help your head, so it will, he said. Sharpe just watched him for a long moment. Then he sat up slowly, taking the cup and peering in it. He sniffed it and then sipped it carefully. Jesus sir, but Im awful sorry, so I am, he said quietly. Sharpe pinned him with a look that could have frozen over a great many circles of Hell without even trying, and then drank the rest of the cup.
What would have happened if wed been fighting today? he demanded. Harper thought it best not to answer. Sharpe huffed, then handed him back the cup. Tell Ramona, ta very much. He hesitated, letting his anger subside for now. And you get to bed. Dont think about it. Just be ready for tomorrow, he said, more reasonably.
Oh I will sir, thank you sir, he said, taking the cup gratefully and backing out of the tent. He let the tent flaps fall shut behind him, waiting for the inevitable muttered curse from his superior officer, but it never came. He turned and walked back to his own tent.
Well be inside Pams del Ti tomorrow, dear, White said as they sat round their own campfire, huddled near their tent.
Not soon enough, she grumbled. Honestly, I couldnt leave you to march without me, Edward, but really, the sooner we find proper shelter the better.
You couldnt? he asked, marvelling at her incredible beauty in the flicker of the fire. Her long black hair was twisted into plaits, pinned neatly back, and her grey eyes looked at him, the fire reflected in them, almost making them jump red.
Of course not, she smiled, putting her hand on his knee. What would you do without me to guide your career? she teased. He smiled, nodding.
True, true. You know Im grateful to you, for all your engineering and politicking, he said warmly.
Oh Edward, I never wanted you to be grateful. I just want you to love me, she said quietly, mindful of how many soldiers were camped around them. And secure me us a pensionable wage.
Oh I do, Liza, I do, he said quietly. Without you Id still be a man of no means or position. Thanks to you, I have a commission, good friends in some important officers, and a path to promotion, he said. You are clever and wise, and you are the most beautiful creature Ive ever seen, my dear.
Oh really, she scoffed coyly, hoping it were true.
I may not be a famous hero like Major Sharpe, but I have you to come home to, he said, well pleased. She looked at him, her smile dropping.
And what of Major Sharpe? What do we do? Hes out to ruin you, you know, she said sternly. He looked at her, surprised.
Really? But the Colonel said that
If you listen to any of the gossip around this camp youll know that the Colonel is a friend to Major Sharpe, she interrupted. Of course hed want to smooth any ruffled feathers he doesnt want you causing more trouble for his friend, she tutted, even if the Major was at fault. Honestly, dear, fighting like schoolboys in the dirt. Im almost ashamed of you.
Almost? he asked, surprised. She smiled slightly.
It seems camp gossip is that youre quite a fighter, Edward. Some soldiers here quite respect that, she said craftily. He let his shoulder straighten.
Yes, well, couldnt let him think little of me, could I? he said.
Another few minutes and Im sure you would have won, she added slyly.
Do you know, perhaps youre right, he said brightly, as if the idea were only just occurring to him. She smiled on the inside. He fights dirty, you know. Terribly dirty, he said miserably.
Well what do you expect from someone like him? she tutted. He studied her beauty in the firelight. They were quiet for some moments.
So me going and shaking his hand, making sure there are no hard feelings you dont think that would help? he asked honestly.
Oh Edward, you are a noble soul, but really, you dont understand people as I do! she scoffed. No, hell shake your hand and tell you everythings settled, but really, hes going to write straight to Horse Guards and tell them of your alleged disrespect, she tutted.
But it wasnt alleged. I refused a direct order to
Because it was a silly order, given by someone who really shouldnt hold a commission at all, much less a Majority, she snapped. Think back, Edward, what happened when you refused? Did anyone else get angry with you?
Well, er, no, he admitted, remembering there had only been privates around them at the time. But
No buts, Edward. Hes a scoundrel and a bully, and its not his place to be giving a fine, noble gentleman of birth like you an order to do anything, she said haughtily. He looked at her.
You really think so? he asked quietly, wondering why he never saw things as clearly.
Of course I do, dear Edward, she said warmly. Look, its time we were asleep, I think. This army has a habit of waking and walking early, she said. He nodded.
Youre quite right, my dear, quite right, he said, standing. She stood too.
Ill say goodnight to the Colonel it doesnt hurt to stay in his good books, she said, leaning up and kissing his cheek. Have the bed turned down for me, she said wickedly, turning and lifting her skirts, walking away. He sighed happily, turned for the tent flaps, and ducked inside.
Excuse me, where may I find Major Sharpe? she asked. The ginger-haired private in his green jacket looked at her.
In his tent, maam, he said respectfully.
Oh. And where may that be? she asked, trying her best dazzling smile. The man turned and pointed, then let his arm drop.
Perhaps I should escort you, maam its not safe for a proper lady to be amongst so many soldiers tents, he said. She smiled.
Why, thank you very much, young man, she said warmly.
Rifleman Harris, maam, at your service, he said, taking her elbow gallantly and leading her across the minefield of women-less squaddies. He stopped outside Sharpes tent. Er, sir? he asked loudly, ruffling the tent flaps. There was a long pause. Harris cleared his throat and banged on the wooden post next to him. Sir? he called again.
Buggerin ell, came the sleepy, muttered response. Harris? What the bloody hell do you want? Sharpe demanded much more loudly, obscured by the flaps.
A lady to see you, sir, he said pointedly. They heard a low muttering before a weary Sharpe appeared at the tent flaps, stripped to the waist and looking very much irritated.
Miss, he said curtly. Summat I can do for you? he asked. Harris looked at him, then shifted his eyes up to the side.
I am Madam Elizabeth White, she said warmly, holding out her hand. Sharpe just looked at it. He sniffed, as if hed rather be anywhere else, then put his hand up and squeezed her fingers quickly, letting his hand drop again. She regarded him with a crafty smile. I am sorry to have disturbed your sleep, Major, she said, but I believe we have something to settle. Sharpe looked at Harris.
Alright rifleman, he said tersely, and Harris nodded and turned, walking away with a huge smile on his face. He walked straight toward Harpers tent.
How can I be of service, maam? he asked pointedly. She looked at the tent flaps helplessly. He shifted so that he was in the way, and waited. She felt annoyance flicker but smiled warmly at him, trying her best.
I am told you and my husband disagreed, she said politely. He nodded.
My husband is not a clever man, Major. He often does not realise his errors until much, much later, she said serenely. She noticed his eyes did not leave hers, even though she had made sure the shoulders of her dress had slipped as she had walked over.
And? he asked. She smiled.
I would like to try to persuade you that hes not a bad man, Major. He just needs guidance from time to time. You would be the perfect instructor, Major, someone who has had so much field experience, she gushed, leaning closer to him. His eyes narrowed slightly. I beg you not to write Horse Guards over such a minor disagreement, she said, her eyes pleading the best way she knew how. He just regarded her, then looked over her head suddenly. He cleared his throat.
Ill think about it, he said. If he steps out of line again, hell damn well watch me write it, the bugger, he thought vehemently.
Oh Major, how charitable of you, she said delightedly, stealing another step closer to him. She flicked her eyes over him, noticing the scars and abrasions. How different a build he is to my Edward, she mused. Her eyes fell on the long, angry scar over his left shoulder and collarbone. She lifted a hand to touch it. Oh my, how perfectly vicious, she said quietly. He moved back so that her hand missed him. She looked up at him in the weak light of the campfires, noticing his eyes steal over her quickly. I wonder, Major, if theres something I could do to persuade you to put off writing that letter? At least, until morning, perhaps? she asked quietly. He looked at her for a long moment, and she knew hed accept. All men did.
At last he wet his lips and straightened unconsciously. Actually, there is summat you could do, he said softly. She smiled, stealing closer slightly. He didnt move.
For you, Major? Name it, she whispered. He swallowed.
You could go back to your tent, Mrs White. Your husband must be looking for you, he ground out. She looked at him, then realised he wasnt joking.
You filthy little gutter-snipe! she fumed. How dare you refuse me? Me! What makes you so high and mighty after fighting like the ruffian toe-rag you are? She controlled her seething rage admirably, turning her infuriated huff into a passable attempt at a long, reluctant sigh.
Yes, he must, she said, her tone as regretful as she could make it, given her boiling anger. Well then. If you should feel the need to write to Horse Guards I pray you think of me first. I can be very grateful, Major, she said quietly.
Good evening, maam, he said, his voice a thick rumble.
She controlled her face, swallowing the anger finally. You unconscionable swine! You think you can intimidate me with your height and cold arrogance? There is no way Id let Horse Guards receive your letter! Ill teach you to treat me as a woman of no importance! I bid you a good night, Major, she said with a warm smile, you shall be in my thoughts this evening, she added truthfully, backing away slowly.
Your servant, maam, he allowed. She turned quickly, lifting her skirts clear of the ground and disappearing into the night.
Sharpe let out a long breath, letting his shoulders sag in relief as he watched her go. Bugger me, he muttered, shaking his head and ducking back inside the tent. He flopped back down on the cot, got comfortable again, and sighed through his nose.
He twisted and turned, trying to regain the rest hed had interrupted. But he was no longer in the mood to sleep.
The men marched well, in perfect columns, making Lawford smile proudly. They may not be the 48th, but they were just as shiny and orderly, he told himself. He looked over at Lieutenant White, watching the men.
I say, Mister White, about your little tussle with the Major, he said. White looked over at him.
Sir, he said obediently.
Be as well to let it go, man. Mister Sharpe doesnt hold a grudge. He actually told me you were a good fighter, he said pleasantly.
Me, sir? he asked, surprised. But I had assumed the Major thought ill of me, sir? he asked.
Ah well. Dont like the word assume, myself, he said cheerfully. Take away U and ME and youre left with an ASS, he said. White nodded.
I see, sir, he smiled. Lawford looked at him.
Anyway, Ill have a quiet word, might be able to persuade him not to put pen to paper. After all, it was just to show the common privates that no-one disobeys him, you see? he said craftily. White looked back at him.
Is that so, sir? he asked, grateful.
Oh absolutely. I mean to say, Mister White, that if you had disobeyed one of my orders, Id have had you shot, he said cheerfully. White looked at him quickly, swallowing. Seems you rather got off lightly there, old boy, he added, looking at White with a big smile. White nodded.
It would appear so, sir, he allowed. Do you think it wise I talk to the Major, sir? he asked.
Talk to him? Why? Lawford asked.
Well, to Make him see there are no hard feelings, sir, he said. I wouldnt want my commission marred by such an incident, sir. Men do talk, and all that, he said. Lawford smiled.
Yes, why not. Just salute him and make him feel youve learnt your lesson, old boy. That should do it. And next time he makes the merest suggestion, you jump to it, what? he said pleasantly. White nodded.
They rode, the men marched, and the Spanish sun beat down on them all relentlessly.
Fall em out, Sergeant, Sharpe called, watching the South Essex, half a mile behind them, already doing just that. Harper turned and ordered the Chosen Men about, and they came off the high ridges and grouped round the tall Irishman.
Right then, we camp up here tonight, he said, and they nodded, knowing their tents were being carried by the mules of the South Essex.
Couldnt we get back to the main camp, sir? Robinson asked Harper. He wanted his tent and a bed, rather than sleep on the cold grass verge.
No we bloody could not, rifleman, Sharpe said testily from behind him. Sort yourself out.
Yes sir! he barked, turning and hurrying out of earshot. Harper looked at Sharpe.
And why are we up here all alone, sir? he asked lightly. Sharpe looked at him.
Because, one: Im not convinced were alone up here on this silent hill, and two: I know where you keep your tea, and its not here, he said shortly. Harper nodded.
I see, sir. He looked around at the failing light. You really think theres someone else around here? he asked. Sharpe walked to the edge of the bluff, looking down. The light was fading quickly but the dip in the hills, where the South Essexs dirt road cut through, was still plainly visible. He looked to his right and then slowly surveyed right round to his left. Harper waited.
I do. Someone as dunt know how to use a telescope, he said, half to himself. He continued to watch and then suddenly looked at Harper. Youre on watch, Sergeant, he said with some satisfaction. Harper nodded.
Yes sir, he said resignedly, walking to Sharpes position and sitting slowly. He let his feet dangle over the edge of the bluff, laid his giant volley gun across his lap, and got comfortable. Sharpe watched him for a long moment. He started to walk away, then stopped and turned back.
Pat, he said quietly. The big Irishman twisted and looked back at him. He waited, but it seemed the Major was undecided as to what to say. He looked at his feet, then looked away and wet his lips slowly. He looked back at the Sergeant. Little Patrick looks like you.
Harper was surprised and puzzled by the uncomfortable look on Sharpes face. He smiled, trying to put him at ease. Oh, I know sir. Thanks for noticing, sir, he said cheerfully. Sharpe opened his mouth, perhaps to say more. But then he just nodded to Harper once, shook his head slightly, and walked off briskly. Harper watched him go, wondering. Then he looked out over the hills, looking for whatever it was Sharpe had seen to make him believe they werent alone.
The next morning they rose early, marched early, and reached the village of Pams del Ti by late afternoon. The South Essex were garrisoned just outside, making camp and spreading round in a horseshoe. The Chosen Men had made camp but then, at Sharpes allowance, had gone into the village. The first place they found was the brothel, not entirely by accident.
Harper walked through the streets and shook his head, walking back to the inn at the head of the village. He walked in and found Sharpe enjoying proper fresh bread and meat at a table near the back. He walked over and sat down, laying his gun on the table top carefully.
Where are they all? Sharpe asked quietly.
Next door. In the brothel, he admitted. Sharpe looked up at him, then just shook his head and looked at his food.
Id have thought the first place theyd look for would be a decent place to eat, he grumbled. Harper smiled, noticing Sharpe had cleaned most of the plate except for the cheese on the side. He wondered if he dared steal it.
Ah well, sir, some mens priorities lie in different directions, he said easily.
So long as they dont forget the way back to their tents, he said. He broke off a piece of cheese, looking at it dubiously. He licked it gingerly, decided it wasnt too strong for his taste after all, and shoved in unceremoniously into his mouth. Harper looked down at the remaining cheese. Sharpe noticed. Here. Get that down you, he said, pushing the plate toward the Irishman. He smiled.
Thank you sir, he said, breaking off a piece and biting into it gratefully. You know, sir, he said presently, you should eat cheese more often. Calm your temper, so it would, he said cheekily, and Sharpe looked at him.
Is that why you did it? he asked.
Did what, sir? he asked innocently, opening his eyes wide.
Spike me tea. What was in that crap? he asked, smiling ruefully, and Harper grinned.
Ah sir, that would be telling, he said gently, taking another bite of cheese. Suffice to say, I thought you could do with a good nights rest, sir. It does bring on good soldier sleep, sir, he said.
Aye, and a right headache afterwards, he said, Not to mention making me pie-eyed till sundown. Harper nodded.
Well, Ramona gave me some the other night, sir. I slept like a log, so I did, with no bad head or other problems the next day. I wasnt to know youd take to it like that, he said philosophically. Sharpe snorted in amusement.
You should know that anything you have should be halved for little me, he said, and Harper looked at him.
Little you and your big kick like a huge mule, oh Im sure, Harper chuckled. He finished off the cheese and looked at Sharpe. Well come on then, sir, he said, standing. Sharpe looked up at him.
Well I promised the lads youd have just one drink with them, sir, just to show theres no hard feelings. About the tea, and the shouting, sir, he said. Sharpe huffed.
Im not drinking when theres Frogs about outside, and us marching fer north country, he said resolutely. Harper put his big knuckles on the table, leaning over and looking at Sharpe from his greater height.
If there are indeed Frogs about, then theres the entire South Essex ready for them. And its not like were staying, sir. Its just one drink, sir. Just one, he emphasised. Sharpe sighed, realised he had no choice, and gave into his slight guilt. He got up slowly.
Alright, he said wearily. But just one.
I love you! Harper crowed at the top of his voice, his feet stumbling on the dirt track. Sharpe laughed out loud, the alcohol coursing through his blood nicely.
No you dont, yer daft Paddy, he grinned. Harper stumbled on the road, and Sharpe grabbed his arm. He slipped under his huge limb and steadied him. Bloody ell, you Irish cant half drink, he breathed.
Oh yes, sir, I surely do, Harper rambled. You think Id go through all that shite and killing for someone I didnt think was just as rotten as me, sir? he hiccupped. The dirt street in front of them seemed to go on forever, the light near pitch and the heat making the sweat stand out on their foreheads.
Thats yer job, he growled, trying to keep Harper upright. It was hard; he was heavy. Harper put his hand out against the brick wall to the track, taking some of his weight.
Oh no sir, not really, he said happily. Most officers are arsewipes, nothing more, he added. And to think I nearly killed you sir, well He belched loudly. And no mistake, he finished.
Balls did you I had you and you knew it, he said. If she hadnt turned up I wouldnt be propping you up right now, he chuckled.
Jeez, but Im awful sorry about her, sir. I should have killed that bastard scum long before, sir, its all my fault, he wheezed, his voice turning plaintive. I should have seen it, sir, its all my fault.
Pat, shut it, Sharpe said easily.
Yes sir, he said sulkily, then hiccupped. And Im sorry about the tea, sir.
Pat, will you shut up about the blasted tea? he laughed.
God save Ireland, wheres Robinson when you need a refill? he sang suddenly.
The last thing we need is a refill. Now come on, one foot in front o the other, if you can still manage it, Sharpe smiled, despite the weight of the six-foot Irishman on his shoulder.
Now weve both been drinking like me Da at an Irish wake, sir, can I call you Dick? he asked cheekily.
If you want a crack round the ead, Sharpe allowed. Now shut it and walk straight, we have to be back. Its going to take you a week to sleep this lot off, and yer wifes probably already climbing the walls wondering where we are.
Youre so right, sir. She does worry, he said conspiratorially.
Sharpe! someone called from behind them. The two men stopped and turned, surprised that another soldier would be out on the lane by themselves. A dark figure appeared as if from the brick wall itself. Major Sharpe! the voice snarled.
Sharpe heard Harpers quick intake of breath. The figure, his features lost in the darkness, lifted a hand. Something glinted in the weak moonlight. Harper grabbed Sharpes shoulder, pushing him roughly.
Even in his drink-addled state Sharpe knew something bad was happening. He shoved at Harper to push him clear.
A single pistol shot rang out. Harper shouldered Sharpe roughly. Suddenly he was on the ground, a terrible pain in his chest. He felt his head hit the packed dirt, made hard by lack of rain, and everything started to fade. He felt his eyes roll up.
Bugger, he heard himself think. Or thought he did. It went black.
He heard a faint roaring sound. It started to get closer. He opened his eyes and looked around. He could see a dirt lane and a brick wall some ten feet away in the gloom. He realised the sound was blood pounding in his ears.
He lifted his head, fighting to breathe. He let his head fall back again, desperately trying to suck air into his lungs. He raised his left hand, finding it covered in blood. He jumped, feeling himself shake suddenly. He tried to sit up, and then coughed suddenly, his throat dry.
He controlled his ragged breath enough to get air into him. He put his elbows under him, finding something weighing him down. Something was pinning him to the ground by his stomach and legs. He put his hand to it. It was warm.
Buggering ell. I cant even remember where were supposed to be. We? He started, finding his hand was on Harpers back. He struggled to sit up, realising it was Harper both pinning him to the hard, unforgiving road and preventing him from breathing. Relieved he wasnt actually hurt, he shoved at him.
Oi, Pat, get up, he growled. He struggled and heaved, rolling Harper off him. He stopped suddenly, finding the front of his uniform trousers and tunic covered in blood. He put his hands to them quickly but nothing seemed to be painful. He looked at Harper automatically. Shit! Pat! he gasped. The blood had flowed from an entry wound to Harpers side. He scrambled out from under him and to his knees, rolling Harper to his back to look at him. He slapped his face, hard.
What? he slurred, blinking up at him. Oh, sir, he said cheerfully, blinking and belching, loudly and at length. I wasnt drinking, not really sir, he grinned. Sharpe reached inside his own tunic and brought out his handkerchief, folding it over several times and pressing it to the bloody hole. He looked around, then down at himself and yanked at his sash, pulling it off and using it to secure the linen to Harper's side.
Pat, get up, Sharpe said quickly, yanking at his jacket. Harper hiccupped, then looked around.
Already? Jeez, but its not yet dawn, he moaned. Sharpe pulled at him and they got to their feet laboriously. Harper slipped but Sharpe grabbed at him, shoving his shoulder under the big mans arm and yanking his arm over his neck. Never could climb trees, sir, Harper burped. Weak knees, you see.
Pat, just walk, he snapped.
Oh sir, just let me sit for a wee
Sergeant! Im not carrying you! Now snap out of it! he growled. Harper tried to straighten.
Yes sir! he barked, walking as best he could. Where are we going, sir?
Back to camp to find Ramona. Come on! he snapped.
Sharpe and Harper crashed through the picquets and were accompanied by Chosen Men all the way back to Harpers tent. Sharpe steadied him and half-supported, half-pushed him toward the feeble-looking bed. He looked around as Harper fell onto it gratefully, shivering and moaning with the exertion.
Ramona! Sharpe shouted, running from the tent and finding her halfway to the tent flap, being pulled along by Harris urgently.
Dont shout, the baby is
Ramona, come here and help me with Patrick, he said tersely, and she let fear steal over her face.
Why? What happened? she dared, lifting her skirts and racing over to the tent flaps. She ducked in and to the bed, dropping to her knees and looking at her husband. She grabbed his hands and squeezed them, then looked back at Sharpe. You! Go to Browns tent, tell the woman to bring a doctor, now! she commanded. Sharpe turned and ran from his vantage-point at the flaps. Ramona looked at her husband, pulling a hand free and smoothing his damp hair from his face. Oh Patrick, what did you do? she asked, her voice thin. She resisted the urge to cry.
I was I was just looking after the Major, so I was, he managed quietly. She smiled suddenly, although it brought her dangerously close to tears.
You always do, she said, leaning over and kissing his forehead. She let a tear run down her face but sniffed it away. You rest now, we take care of you. Later I tell you that you are a stupid fool, when you have strength to argue, she smiled.
Of course. Always do what your wife tells you, he whispered, relaxing. She watched him close his eyes and put her hand to her mouth, steeling herself.
She turned away resolutely, finding a large bowl and looking for clean linen. She cleared a space round the bed and then heard Patrick crying. She hurried outside to the Spanish woman hurrying over to her already, carrying little Patrick. She took him in her arms gratefully and bounced him against her softly.
Oh now, there, there, she managed, trying to sound as calm as she felt. You sound like your father when youre tired, she smiled, and little Patrick slowed his grizzling. He leaned against her and she felt him start to settle.
She looked up at the sound of pounding feet and found Sharpe had returned with a small man carrying a large black bag.
You, in there, he said, pointing, and the man nodded and ducked inside the tent. You hey, he said to Ramona, his command sliding off him like dew. He walked over to her, but didnt know what to say. She looked at him, her eyes churning with anger. You know hell be alright. He always is, he said gruffly. He looked over her head to the tent flaps, watching the doctor inspect Harper and open his bag.
Richard, Ramona said sternly, and he looked down at her. What did you do?
He studied her face, recognising the accusing eyes all too well. I dont blame her. Nothing, Ramona. We were walking back from that tavern down the street. We were both pretty drunk Then this man just appeared out of nowhere, he said, trying to remember clearly. He had a pistol. Pat tried to get in the way, he said quietly. I tried to stop him. But hes bigger n me, he shrugged apologetically. She sighed, then shook her head, looking down at baby Patrick.
This man, the doctor said loudly to get everyones attention, is three sheets to the wind, sir.
That is a bald-faced lie! Harper cried indignantly. Well, maybe just one and a half, he allowed, and the doctor looked back at him. Sharpe strode over and into the tent quickly.
Well? Can you take it out? he asked.
Of course. It will be relatively easy, he said. Its not in far. Doesnt seem to have been closely fired. However, he will need a lot of rest, he said officiously. Sharpe looked at Harper.
Yes sir, he said, rolling his head to look at him.
Hes taking it out.
What? I dont think so, sir, he said indignantly. Im not letting some English apothecary near me with those
Pat, shut it. Theres no-one else as can do it. And yer wifes watching, he said. Harper closed his mouth.
Ah well. Thatll be me losing the argument then, he said philosophically, gritting his teeth in pain. Sharpe looked up at the doctor, then looked round, finding Ramona watching them. He gestured with his head.
Come on, she whispered to little Patrick, turning and walking away quickly. Sharpe looked back at the doctor, who was arranging candles and knives on the makeshift bedside table. Harper turned to look but Sharpe stopped him.
Why did you do that? Step in front of me? he asked, putting his hands on the side of the bed, crouching down and looking down at him.
Couldnt have him shoot you, sir, he said, pain showing on his face.
You have a wife and a boy, Patrick. Ive got nothing. Just think on dont be so selfish next time.
Its not selfish sir, its my duty to Aed Meranach Ua hEochada.
Whats that? Sharpe asked, confused.
You mean whos that, sir. The last proper King, sir, who would not have his home and lands controlled by others, and gave them a bloody good fight to the finish.
Whats that got to do wi any of this? he asked, still with a patent look of confusion on his face. Harper smiled up at him, despite the feel of the doctor pulling the shirt away from him. He knew he was looking for the best way to dig.
You have to be able to recognise the fighting spirit in people you meet in this life, sir. I have.
Dont be so bloody Irish.
Its kept me alive this far, so it has.
It damn-near killed you that time! Sharpe protested. He looked up at the doctor. He looked back at him, nodding. Sharpe looked at Harper. You know whats coming next, Pat, he said quietly.
Oh yes sir, he said. Just a shame weve no rum, he said quietly, and Sharpe swallowed.
The last thing you need is more rum. He paused, wetting nervous lips. Ready?
I suppose so, sir, he said amiably, and then put his left hand up, nearest Sharpe. He gripped it in his left firmly, and for a moment it looked for all the world as if they were about to arm-wrestle. Harper nodded to him, and Sharpe looked up at the doctor.
The doctor leaned over Harper, putting his cold fingers to his skin and raising the long-nosed tweezers. Harpers grip on Sharpes hand tightened. Sharpe had visions of the big man breaking his hand before it was over. He swallowed.
Harper hissed and jumped suddenly as he felt the touch of the candle-heated metal. Jesus! he spat, clamping his mouth shut. He twisted to his left and grabbed at Sharpes shoulder with his right hand. His fingers dug into the tunic and shirt easily, his other hand threatening to crack bones. Oh shite, he breathed. Sharpe put his right hand to his far shoulder, supporting some of his weight.
Give it a minute, he bit out. Nearly there. He looked at the doctor, who shook his head. He huffed.
Youre a bad liar so you are, Harper breathed.
Must get that from you, he said. Harper grabbed at him, grunting and twisting in pain while the doctor did his best. It seemed to go on forever, the minutes ticking away painfully. Nearly there, Sharpe said eventually.
Near my arse! Harper cried angrily.
Ill get you a drink when this is all over, Sharpe snapped. Now stop being such a girl.
Itll have to be a really big drink sir, he grunted.
Next time you can get shot pulled out of you and Ill stand there promising you drinks, he cried.
Next time neither of us will get shot, Sharpe said, trying not to show how much Harpers hand was crushing his.
The doctor leaned back, smiling at the round shot in his tweezers. Harper relaxed.
Tell me its out, sir, he breathed. And tell him Irishmen dont really carry gold in their bones. Thats just a faerie story, so it is, he breathed. Sharpe breathed out.
Its out, he confirmed. Harper nodded, then his grip just loosened, and he had passed out. Sharpe pulled his hands from his and his shirt, letting him fall to the bed. He flexed his hand to get some feeling back, then stood slowly and looked at the doctor.
He was busying around his instruments, tidying them away and looking for fresh linen to act as bandage. Sharpe looked down at Harper, shaking his head.
Ill patch him up. Make sure hes covered and that he rests. See that he gets a little tincture of brandy to help him recover, the doctor said. Sharpe snorted.
His tinctures come in pints, he observed, then noticed the doctor watching him darkly. Alright, he nodded. He turned away to the flaps, walking out and stopping in the near-dark. He wiped his hand over his mouth, realised it was smeared with warm blood, and tutted, wiping his mouth with his other tunic sleeve.
Well sir? Harris asked. Sharpe looked to where the sound had come from, but couldnt see him.
Hell be alright. Bit of blood gone, mind, he said uneasily. He heard a rustle and Harris appeared from the bush to his left.
What happened, sir? he asked carefully. Sharpe blew out a sigh, letting his hands rest on his hips as he pursed his lips and thought for a long minute.
To be honest, I havent a bloody clue, he said helplessly. Harris nodded.
Ramona appeared, carrying a sleeping little Patrick. She glared at Sharpe and then walked straight past him, into the tent. He turned and followed her in, finding the doctor had dressed the wound and was packing his things into his black bag.
Ramona stood by the bed, then crouched and picked up Harpers hand gently, covering it with her own. Sharpe crossed to the bed and stood for a second, before appearing at her side and crouching too, his knees up to his chin. He folded his arms to lean on his knees, settling his chin on his arm and thinking, watching Harper sleep. She spared him an annoyed glance, then just tutted and lifted her spare hand to his arm, squeezing gently.
Are you hurt? she asked. He shook his head.
Not so youd notice, he said grimly. He was quiet for a long moment. I dont know why he did it, he said eventually. I thought hed know better than to throw away everything hes got like that. It were a stupid thing to do.
She looked back at Harper. No, not stupid. Noble, she said quietly.
All the noble people I know of are dead, he said flatly.
He did it to protect you, Richard. He loves you, she shrugged.
Aye, so he says when hes right pissed-up, he mused. She lifted a hand immediately and slapped him over the back of his head abruptly. He jumped, surprised.
I told you, no soldier language in front of my boy, she said sternly. He just lifted his hand to rub where shed hit him.
Sorry, he mumbled, feeling ashamed. What is it about Ramona that makes me feel like Im five years old? he wondered suddenly.
What will you do now? she asked quietly. He let his hand drop, watching Harper. She studied his face, one that suddenly looked vengeful, and felt a slight shiver.
Find em. Find em as did this, he breathed. She swallowed.
He looked at her, then at little Patrick. He looked away and smiled slightly. The feral imitation of humour was somehow more worrying than his usual scowl. Ask em why.
Ramona woke, hearing the thud of hoof-beats and looking around. She was curled up on the thick matting and blankets by her bed, wrapped up in a blanket. She sat up slowly, looking around.
Harper was asleep, looking peaceful at last. She heard and felt what must have been the heaviest horse in Spain gallop past their tent. She just edged to the side of the bed, looking over at her husband and feeling his forehead. She nodded to herself and then looked round for little Patrick, sleeping peacefully in her pile of bedding.
The horse galloped on and came to an abrupt stop outside Colonel Lawfords tent. The galloper, a tall, wiry man of an indeterminate young age, hastily conferred with the men on guard. One ducked in and roused Colonel Lawford.
Barely a minute later Lawford appeared, pulling on his tunic and shouting for Lieutenant White.
Five minutes later the camp was in turmoil.
Sir! Harris called, seeing Sharpes blonde hair darting through the throng of redcoats and Spanish women. It was closing on the Chosen Mens heap of hastily struck tents. Sir!
Harris! Get the men in line, were leaving, Sharpe called. Harried watched him veer off to the side, heading for Ramona and her friends, hastily loading their baggage onto the small wagon. Harris turned back to look at the Taylor.
Well then. Guess Im Acting Sergeant Major, he grinned. Come on then, he said cheerfully. Taylor grinned and helped him furl the tent, then rounded up the other four Chosen Men.
Sharpe stopped next to Ramona. Are you right? he asked urgently. She turned and looked at him.
I am fine. Tell Harper he cannot march today, she said, turning to another girl and taking the canvas from her, passing it to the girl currently standing on the back of the wagon. Sharpe opened his mouth. No! Ramona said suddenly, turning on him. He is hurt, and needs rest and care. He cannot march, I dont care who you are, she said vehemently. Sharpe caught her arm and dragged her, wrenching and hissing, from the wagon. He stopped them almost at the tree-line, away from any accidental ears.
Look, he hissed angrily, I dont want him marching either. And hes not going to today. Just you keep him on that wagon and under cover, make sure no-one sees his uniform, understand? he demanded. She wrenched her arm free, staring up at him. She took in his stern face, the scarred urgency, and huffed loudly.
Is it trouble for you? she asked hotly. He looked at her, considering what to say, it seemed.
Major! Major! Rounded up all your Rifles, yet? Lawford called suddenly. Sharpe looked over her head to the mounted Colonel, watching them, eagle-eyed, from twenty feet away. Sharpe nodded.
All but me, sir. Were ready, he called. Just give us the word.
Then I do, sir, I do! Lawford called, nodding. Sharpe nodded, then looked back at Ramona.
Not if hes not found. Just make sure hes safely hidden, alright? he hissed, looking back down at her. She sighed and nodded.
I will hide him. Im sorry, Richard, she said unexpectedly. He didnt look at her.
Yeah well. Were all sorry for summat, he muttered, resting his hand on his sword as he walked off resolutely.
I dont see why were in such a damned hurry, sir, White complained. Lawford spared him a glance.
Because the French have a head-start on us, thats why, he said shortly. That man from the 42nd said a second battalion of infantry were already on their way to fortify the existing French force in the village, he tutted.
Why are they there, sir? White asked, confused. He hadnt seen a map recently, and was sure hed become completely turned around. Lawford looked at him.
The road that runs from that village crosses the river, he said slowly. The river is long and winding, but its how the damned French army have been keeping themselves supplied. Apart from the usual food and essentials, theyve also been using it to carry their powder reserves, he said.
Ah. So if we take the village, and cut them off from the river then theyll have no supplies and no ammunition? he ventured.
Quite so, Lieutenant, he said, relieved.
I see, sir, White nodded. He thought for a while, and Lawford wished theyd make it to the village before White began asking awkward questions. Who will command the final push, sir? he asked hopefully.
If all goes well, the newly gazetted Captain Campbell, and our own Major Sharpe, he said.
Major Sharpe? he echoed, surprised. Lawford looked at him.
He does have experience in these things, Lieutenant, he said archly. Youd do well to remember that.
But well, I heard he was incapacitated, sir, White managed.
Hardly. Ive never known him to be unable to fight, he scoffed, then paused. Where did you hear this, Mister White? And in what manner? he asked curiously.
Oh well, you know, soldiers do talk around camp, he said weakly. I heard someone tried to steal from him sir, on the village road. Heard there were pistols involved, sir, he added. Lawford snorted.
Well if there were, it all came to naught. I saw him this morning, Lieutenant, as ready for battle as ever, he said.
Oh. Well, jolly good, White said, relieved. Strange. Even though he's treated me so badly, itd be a shame to lose someone as upright as Major Sharpe, he caught himself thinking. Something made him sit up straighter in the saddle and look at the Colonel. But when we reach the village sir well only have the South Essex, he said quietly.
Bugger, thought Lawford. And the 42nd, he said out loud, trying to sound reassuring.
Ah. And what strength do they have, sir? he asked. Lawford avoided looking at him, instead leaned forward to brush imaginary dust from his horses ears.
When the galloper left them, more than a hundred, he said carefully.
Just one hundred? White gasped. But were only two hundred ourselves, sir! he put in. What strength will the French have? he asked.
They, Lieutenant White, will have two companies of foot, he said quietly. And perhaps even a few guns I can say I forgot to mention.
White swallowed. So were in a bad way, are we? he dared. Now Lawford did look at him.
You could say that, he allowed. White swallowed again, but couldnt take his gaze from the Colonels. However, we know something the French dont, he said with a slight smile. White felt a small spark of hope.
And that is, sir? he asked. British guns are on their way? The 48th Regiment? Oh please, let it be the 78th on their way?
That were coming, Lieutenant, he grinned. White looked away deliberately, to his horses ears.
Oh. Well then, he said weakly.
Sharpe and the six remaining Chosen Men scoured the way ahead, walking the ridges that towered above the road cut into the beautiful countryside. Although they were a good quarter-mile ahead, Sharpe couldnt help thinking of Harper, knowing he wouldnt get any sleep lying in the back of the wagon. The road would be potted and holed, the cart would be clattering along, bouncing up and down like the shako of a redcoat, and there was no way in any Hell the Sergeant Major would get any rest. Still better than marching over these bloody hills though, he thought grimly.
Harris appeared at his side. Sir? he asked. Sharpe neither broke stride nor looked at him.
Rifleman? he asked tersely.
Whats going on, sir? he asked. We were just told to move out. Theres a rumour going about that were marching to catch up with some Frogs, sir, he said added.
That we are, Harris, Sharpe replied. Seems a galloper from the 42nd has told the Colonel were to help them take back a village. If we dont, the Frogs carry on shipping their powder up to where they need it, he said. That a problem? he asked.
"Not at all, sir, Harris grinned impudently. He cleared his throat. I, ah well, you should know
What is it? Sharpe said, looking at him.
Well sir, just that We saw to the Sergeant sir, hell be ready for a good old-fashioned Frog-pasting when we get where were going, sir, he beamed. Sharpe looked down to check where he was putting his feet.
And hows that, rifleman? he asked.
Tea, sir. We gave him some of that tea that you found so restful. Hell be sleeping soundly, sir, he winked. Sharpe looked at him, then let the barest of smiles crack his stern expression.
Good lad, Sharpe nodded, and they kept up the quick pace. It was quiet for a long time.
Sir, he said eventually, and Sharpe looked at him. Well, that lady, sir, he said thoughtfully.
Well? he asked. Harris looked puzzled.
According to the Essex lads, shes a rather devious piece of work, sir, he said gingerly.
And you trust the word of a few Essex boys? he asked. He grunted to himself, shaking his head.
What did she want, sir? he asked.
Youre supposed to be the foremost authority on women, rifleman. Well, them as read, anyway, he allowed. What do you think she wanted?
Apart from the obvious, sir? Harris grinned. Sharpe let himself smile, then shook his head.
Did you get a good look at her, Harris? he asked.
Oh yes, sir, Harris said enthusiastically, then cleared his throat. Well sir, what I meant was I had time to see her properly while I was escorting her to your tent, sir, he said formally. She seemed very likeable, sir. It appeared she was hoping to see the inside of the roof of your tent, sir, he grinned. Sharpe gave a short laugh, surprising the Green Jacket.
Are you joking? Try and get in a tumble with that and Id more n likely puncture summat! I mean, theres nowt wrong with a thin girl, but I like a little meat with my potatoes, he admitted, and Harris grinned. Go on, get back there and tell Taylor to pick his bloody feet up, he said, gesturing with his head.
Yes sir, Harris grinned, letting himself slow. Sharpe was left to dominate the hill by himself as Harris fell into step beside Taylor, chivvying him to catch up.
Sharpe lay in the dirt, pulling his telescope out from his sash and opening it, giving the end a quick buff before laying it on the grass verge in front of him. He looked out through the darkness, wishing theyd made better time.
He saw the lights of fires in front of tents, soldiers no doubt making themselves dinner in the form of stolen chickens or even brewing tea. He counted the fires, then the tents, and cursed fluidly and filthily as he spotted the two French guns sitting facing out from the four-foot high village wall. He studied them, finding they were only three-pounders after all. Small, but not useless, he tutted.
He swept the sight across toward the village proper, spotting the French soldier on guard. He was standing next to the entrance to the makeshift barrier theyd erected. He watched him, then tried to gauge how far they were from each other.
Four hundred yards. Id have a good chance, he thought. Wish I could get Hagman up here. Hed have him right through the bloody eye. He huffed and collapsed the telescope, crawling back away from the edge and then standing slowly.
He walked back to the circle of Chosen Men, finding they had taken the words quick look over the hill to mean they could fall out and rest for a moment. They had dumped packs and rifles on the grass, falling on their behinds and arguing over who was going to make the tea.
Ey! Sharpe hissed, and they all stopped and looked up at him. Keep yer voices down, and no bloody tea. You want them Frogs to know were up here? he demanded hoarsely. They bowed their heads and instead went for their canteens, hoping they had some water left.
Sod the Frogs, Sharpe thought vindictively, this lot just better make what tea we have left last till we can get fresh supplies. Its either that or risk that Spanish shit Harper carries. He felt a shiver down his back involuntarily, and sniffed to himself. Robinson had dubbed Harpers Spanish tea the Elephant-killer and the name had received a warm welcome, although some of the men seemed to be keeping a different name in mind. Having seen a few of the beasts up close, Sharpe doubted it could live up to its name, but he had not wanted to spoil the lads fun by telling them that even something that could put Harper out for an entire day wouldnt fell an elephant. It was always best to go into a fight believing your betters were invincible, after all.
He paused to check they were all present, finding them all cleaning and wiping rifles and bayonets, muttering to each other quietly. He sought Harris red head, and walked over slowly.
Harris? he asked quietly. Harris looked up at him, torn from his argument that the Marquis de Sade had far more imagination than anyone gave him credit for, to Rifleman Moores evident relief.
Sir? he asked, getting to his feet. Sharpe looked at him for a long moment.
That wife, he said softly. Harris nodded, smiling. Whites not clever enough to get upset or take revenge. But the wife? he asked. Harris smile dropped.
You think she had something to do with you two being shot at? he whispered hoarsely. Sharpe just looked at him.
Whites a half-wit. Brave, fights like a cock in a ring, but hes not the sharpest flint in the supply cart, is he? he reasoned. Harris nodded thoughtfully. Something tells me he didnt get where he is through being a good solider boy. Do you think she had owt to do with it? he asked.
It could explain why no-one checked you were both dead, sir. After all, any decent thief or hired man would have done. You both would have had pistol shot through your ears, he said matter-of-factly, just to make sure. He looked puzzled. If it was indeed the wife, perhaps she managed to do it herself and then fled, scared or was simply unable to reload the pistol. Or unable to bring herself to check, he shrugged.
Small mercies, eh, Sharpe said to himself. Would she do all that fer him, though? he asked. Harris sniffed.
If shes engineered his rise to Lieutenant and I hear he was head-hunted for the Essex sir, and not by Colonel Lawford then perhaps shes worried youve broken his career by writing to Horse Guards of his refusal of your orders, sir, he said. He caught the look on Sharpes face as he looked away slightly. You did write, didnt you, sir? he asked, surprised.
No, I bloody didnt. It were a mistake hell not be stupid enough to make again, and the army needs officers like him. He may be witless but at least hes not a conniving, thieving bastard like the rest of em.
Harris cleared his throat, rightfully deducing he should not expect an answer. Or maybe she thought to stop you before you wrote, sir, he added gingerly.
I dont know. These women work in mysterious ways, eh, he said ruefully, and Harris smiled.
Just like God, sir, he grinned impudently. Sharpe looked at him.
I wouldnt go that far.
Well that would make a change. Sir, he added quickly, realising his mouth had run away with him. Sharpe just looked at him, then shook his head before thinking to himself.
Harris, about this wife, he said quietly. He waited. Dont say a word. To anyone, he added.
You never know whos repeating this gossip around the camp, and I dont want her knowing we think shes capable, he said darkly. Harris nodded.
Yes, sir. A wise decision, he said quietly. Sharpe nodded, turning and walking away toward the other men.
And he says: how am I supposed to tighten a frizzen wi that! Hagman joked, and Robinson just leaned over and pushed at his arm, shaking his head.
Youre a bad story-teller, he hissed. Hagman grinned, then realised Sharpe was standing over them, watching. But when he looked up he found the Major looking out over the hill. He let his hands pause. Summat on yer mind, sir? he asked quietly. Sharpe looked down at him, as if suddenly aware someone was speaking. He looked at him for a long moment.
Daniel, he said brightly, pushing his sword back slightly on its chains, crouching in front of the rifleman. When you were a poacher, how many times did they catch you? he asked, interested. Hagman grinned.
Just the once, sir. That were all it took, he admitted. Sharpe smiled.
So in all that time, youd fetched onto their land, like? Shot what youd wanted, and just left? And no-one ever saw you? he asked thoughtfully. The old Cheshire-man grinned.
Just as you say, sir, he said proudly. Sharpe looked up, away across the hill, thinking. He looked back down at the ground between their feet, putting his hand out and pulling at the grass. He secured a tuft of browning, parched grass, sifting it through his fingers slowly. Hagman waited. Something told him major things were afoot, and he shifted in nervous excitement.
What did you use as cover, rifleman? he asked innocently.
The dark. Sir, he added, as if it should be obvious. Sharpe sniffed to himself, and Hagman waited impatiently. There it was; the slight narrowing of the eyes, the shifty tongue against the top lip: Sharpe was hatching a plan.
Bit dry this, int it? the Major said conversationally.
Aye. Wouldnt take much to start a raging hill-fire, sir, especially if some rifles open pan were let off, he said, grinning. Sharpe nodded, a tiny, cunning gleam in his eye.
Do you think them Frogs know much about poaching? he asked knowingly. Hagman let his grin spread slightly.
Might do, sir. But poachers what know about starting fires, sir? Eeeee, couldnt say, he agreed. Sharpe nodded his thanks, standing and turning. He found Brown dozing a few feet from the others, his rifle uncocked, resting down his leg, the muzzle perched in between his crossed ankles. He walked over slowly, then pushed at him with his boot.
Ey, Brown, he said. The rifleman opened his eyes and looked up, startled.
Sir, he said immediately. He hadnt been with the Chosen Men long, but hed learnt to nap when he could. He began to get up, grabbing his rifle securely. Sharpe waited until he was on his feet.
Quietly, now, he warned. Get back to the Colonel, he said, letting his hand slide off the sword hilt to reach inside his tunic. He pulled out a wizened, stubby pencil and a sheaf of paper. Give him this, he said, opening the paper and licking the end of the pencil, scratching something on it quickly. Brown waited. Sharpe hesitated a few times, Brown thinking it was over the content, Sharpe knowing it was over the spelling, and then signed it off. Dont open it, and dont stop to wipe yer arse with it. It has to get to him before the Essex catch us up, he said.
Right, sir, he said smartly, putting his hand out for it. Wouldnt matter if I did open it, sir, I cant read, he grinned. Sharpe grinned, opening the paper to show Brown, pointing each word out.
Give this man twice his rum ration and any free Spanish bird to help him clean his rifle, he said, and the seated men laughed quietly.
Sir? Brown asked, unsure. Sharpe folded it and handed it to him.
Go on, get, he said chucking a thumb back at the hill.
Yes sir, he said smartly, turning and setting off at a decent pace back whence theyd come. Harris looked up.
Hes a good man, sir, he said quietly. Sharpe turned and looked at him.
As are we all, Harris. Well, except fer you, he grinned, and the men chuckled quietly, going back to removing powder deposits from barrels.
Well Major? Lawford asked, lying on the grass verge and spying the entire village. Sharpe lay beside him, his own telescope similarly at work.
We get a few men down there, sir, right near the buggers, and start a few fires. While theyre charging about all confused, we take out the soldiers as are camping round the village. Im hoping whoevers in charge rounds up his men from inside and brings them out in some kind of defensive line. Then the South Essex and whats left of the 42nd give them a right going over, he said. He let the telescope drop from his eye and looked at Lawford, waiting. The Colonel appeared to think about it.
So you rouse them first, then we come in, bayonets twirling? he smiled. I like that. He sighed suddenly. Hmm. What about the guns? he asked. I was told they had none.
Cant see as theyve been set right or are being manned, sir, he said. The wheels arent fastened down, theres nowt under them to stop them moving too far under charge. And there are no men near them, sir. Where are their gunners? he asked. Lawford let his telescope drop and looked at him.
Good lord, man. Youre assuming quite a bit, he said, clearly unimpressed.
Yes sir, Sharpe said, suitably chastised. Lawford sighed, then lifted the telescope and looked back over the village slowly.
But then its not as if we have a choice, is it? he asked miserably. This lot dont know were here, their reinforcements are on their way, and word has it powder has been spotted making its way up-stream as we speak.
Theres powder coming up the river, sir? Sharpe asked, his mind whirling. Lawford grinned.
Now, now, Major, he said craftily, one set of Frogs at a time, eh? He waited, but Sharpe didnt answer. After all, we need your men down there creating havoc, dont we? he said pleasantly.
My men, sir? he asked. Lawford collapsed the telescope and looked at him in the moonlight.
Well of course, Major. You dont think Id leave lighting fires and picking off Frogs while theyre running round like chickens with their heads cut off to the muskets and pride of Essex, now do you? he grinned.
But were just seven men, sir, he said.
Seven? Lawford asked, raising his eyebrows. Sharpe wet his lips, swallowing quickly.
Youve still got Rifleman Brown, sir, he said easily. Lawford grinned.
Ah, he said knowingly. Alright then, how about ten of my precious redcoats, eh? Thatd bring it down to four or five men each, he said. That do you, Richard?
Sir, he said smartly. The Colonel grinned.
Good man, he said, crawling away from the edge. Sharpe followed, and the two officers straightened within earshot of the Chosen Men, who kept their heads down. Ill send the rifleman
back straight away, with my men. Youre to advance as soon as youre ready, Major. Sir?
The reinforcements are on their way, and its already past one in the morning, Richard, he tutted, fumbling for his watch and opening it. Honestly, you really should get yourself a timepiece.
Sharpe nodded. Its on my list, sir, he said, and the Colonel grinned. He snapped the watch shut and pushed it back into his pocket.
One more thing, Richard, he said slowly. Were told there are British in there somewhere, he said.
In the village?
In the village. Seems more than a few families were on their way to Lisbon, got stuck. The French have left them alone, which is pretty decent of them really, but once this is all over, itd be nice to get them back in once piece, you see? he asked. Sharpe nodded, and he gave him a long, tired look. Well, Ill wish you luck. I hope to see you alive and well on the other side of all this, he said quietly. It suddenly dawned on Sharpe that the Colonel was slightly embarrassed. They looked at each other for a long moment. Lawford put his hand out, and Sharpe shook it slowly. Good luck, Richard. Dont die, he stressed.
Sharpe snorted in amusement. Dont send me all yer brainless bastards, Bill, he said dryly. Lawford grinned, letting his hand drop.
Perish the thought, he said. He nodded once and then turned smartly, walking away into the night, where his horse was waiting with a redcoat keeping it quiet. Sharpe watched him walk away, then shook his head, crouching down and wiping his hands over his face.
Couldnt wait till dawn, could it? he grumbled. Has to be after a day of marching on nowt but soup and tea. He yawned, and Hagman cleared his throat.
Might be an hour before they get back here, sir, he said quietly. You could always rest yer eyes for a moment. Ill be awake, he said warmly. Sharpe considered him.
You know, Ive come to realise that yer the only one here as has any brains, he grinned, putting his hand to his sword and twisting it round slightly, sitting on the cold, hard ground. Hagman moved over and sat with his back against Sharpes, and the two of them raised their knees and rested their arms on them, getting comfortable. Their mutual weight kept them both up, and Hagman hummed quietly to himself as Sharpe let his eyes close. Just for a minute, he told himself.
Jesus, but I leave you alone for five minutes and you sleep when everyone else is ready to tear into some Frog, sir, Harper tutted, pushing at Sharpes shoulder. He woke instantly, looking up and round. He found Harper looking down at him, carrying his huge volley gun in the crook of his arm. Sharpe sniffed and got to his feet laboriously, patting Hagman on the shoulder as he did so.
Well its alright for you, you just sleep all day while the rest of us have to bloody walk, he smiled quietly, as Harper handed him his rifle. Are you right?
I am that sir, I am that, he smiled. Sharpe nodded and looked around, spotting Brown crossing the grass toward them. He looked beyond him and his smile faded.
Right then, lets crack on, he said softly, gesturing to the South Essex men with his head. Rifles, he said smartly, and the men got to their feet, Robinson and Moore being shaken awake hastily. Sergeant, I want the Rifles and South Essex with me, on your word.
Sir, Harper said smartly. He gestured to the Chosen Men with his head and gun, and they simply grouped and got themselves into a correct line for marching off. Harper looked over at the South Essex redcoats before sauntering over. Right you lot, he hissed, keeping his voice down. You and me are going to sneak down that hill, set fire to some grass, and then blast the bejesus out of some Frogs. Are you ready? he snapped. The men just looked at him, speechless. I said, are you ready? he repeated, slightly louder.
Sir! they chorused hoarsely.
Then lets be having your sorry arses in line! he snapped. They shuffled and formed a line of ten men, musket butts at their feet, barrels held proudly in their right hands. Right then. Any man that makes a noise will be summarily set upon by the French, understand? he barked.
Yes sir! they urged. He grinned and turned, hefting the gun in his hands and looking to Sharpe. He drew his sword, standing it in the dirt unceremoniously. He unbuckled his sword belt and then threw the length of leather over his shoulder, grabbing it and buckling it back up across him, shifting the scabbard to lie across his back. He made sure the hilt would be within easy grabbing distance, then undid his officers sash quickly, unwinding it and pulling it free. He pulled the scabbard round slightly, looped the sash round the end a few times, pulled it tight, and then wound the sash back round him once, anchoring the scabbard to stop it from sliding about and making noise. He lifted the sword from the earth, tapping the side of the point against his raised boot to free it of the dirt, and then slid it carefully back into the scabbard. He tugged it round to make it easier to pull, should he need it. He looked up and caught Harper watching him, smiling slightly.
Well Im not losing it to the mud, Sergeant, he said indignantly. Some poor long-suffering bugger probably slaved over this fer a week or two, he added slyly.
That he did, sir, that he did, Harper grinned, warmed that the Major would think so much of the length of steel. Sharpe grinned, picked up his rifle and slung it over his right shoulder, and nodded to Harper.
Lets go, he said, turning and starting off along the hillside, keeping back from the edge so as not to be seen. The Chosen Men fell in behind him, and Harper led the South Essex redcoats along in the rear.
They slipped and slid down the hard packed earth to the base of the hillock, moving straight to the line of bushes and shrubs that had sprung up over time along a marshy patch of ground. Sometime before a stream had perhaps bedded there. Now all that was left was boggy ground that supported a nice hedge of covering foliage for the red uniforms.
Sharpe plunged straight into the marshy ground, oblivious of the squelching and mud that gave until he was up to his ankles. He crouched over as much as he could, stealing a look behind him to see that the Chosen Men were following suit. They crept forward, following the natural cover, closer to the French tents.
There was a cough and a sniff, and Sharpe dropped suddenly, holding out a hand to the rifleman behind him. He swallowed and looked through the bush slowly, realising they were within breathing distance of two French soldiers on picquet duty.
He turned and found Moore right behind him. He nodded to him, then chucked a thumb over his shoulder at the sound of the Frenchmen shuffling about on the other side of the shrubbery. Moore reached behind him and drew his short knife, switching his grip on it. Sharpe put his hand to the back of his breeches and drew his officers dirk, looking back at Moore. He nodded sharply and they straightened abruptly.
The two Frenchmen jumped, startled, as two hands grabbed at their mouths, silencing them. The two knives were slammed into their backs with deadly weight, and the men sagged slowly. Moore and Sharpe let them slowly to the ground, then let go to struggle through the bottom of the bushes, dragging the dead men through. Sharpe and Moore wiped the bloodied blades on their trousers before replacing them in their rests.
They left the dead men lying in the mud and carried on.
They crept on, inch by silent inch, wary of any sound in any direction. At last they could hear the chatting and joking of the French soldiers, and Sharpe turned and crouched in the mud. He pointed at Moore, Harris and Taylor, then turned and pointed to the first sound of the first tent in front of them. He unslung his rifle and jabbed a finger at the powder pan, then the bush, lifting and ticking off five fingers. They nodded smartly. He pointed at each of them, then indicated his ear and finally tapped his chest. They nodded and he thumbed them to leave. They moved off quietly in the mud.
Hagman, Brown and Robinson appeared next. He repeated the message, indicating the next three tents, and they moved off.
Harper appeared low in the mud, followed by the ten redcoats. Sharpe repeated the instructions silently, and Harper nodded. Sharpe raised his rifle as if to fire, then ticked off two fingers. Harper grinned, nodding. Sharpe grinned and chucked his thumb at him to leave. Harper turned and waved the redcoats on behind him. They moved off and Sharpe waited until they were well gone before peering through the bushes carefully to watch the French.
He moved round slowly, pulling the rifle from his shoulder and winding the strap round his left arm securely. He pulled the rifle onto half-cock and pushed the frizzen forward, opening the pan slowly. He reached into his cartridge box and pulled out a paper cartridge, biting the top off and spitting it into the dry grass. He heard the soldiers shout suddenly and his hands froze. He lifted his head slowly to see through the bush. But they were simply arguing over what looked like chicken, and Sharpe breathed out again, pouring a half-measure of powder into the pan of the rifle. He folded the top of the cartridge and tucked it in the officers sash where he could grab it later. He slid the frizzen closed carefully and then turned, creeping back behind the French tents currently in enfilade.
He peered to his left, looking for the other Green Jackets, but they had followed their orders well and were invisible. He licked the traces of bitter powder from his mouth, spat into the grass, and then had a thought. He pulled the cartridge from his sash, opening it and reached through the bush, scattering the powder indiscriminately over the grass. He smiled to himself, drawing his hand back and tossing the paper away.
He leaned forward again and held the Baker rifle frizzen-down toward the grass. He rested it sideways on the ground, hoping this would go off as he hoped, and squeezed back on the trigger.
The resulting pop and fizz sent the grass into a quick whoof of flame. He withdrew his hand and rifle quickly, ramming it back through the bush and turning, hurrying away from the scene, further along. He grabbed at his cartridge box as he struggled through the mud, taking a fresh paper cartridge and biting it open. He paused to shove the ball in his mouth before priming the pan with the powder. He heard similar pops and hissing noises from somewhere in front, and then there was shouting in French. He snapped the frizzen shut, poured the remaining powder down the barrel, and spat the ball down it with fervour. The French shouts intensified, the camp started to erupt in shouts for water and help, and Sharpe drew his ramrod, sliding down the barrel and giving it a single hard shove before withdrawing it and twirling it in his nimble fingers, placing the rod back in the stock. He crouched again, heading off to find the others.
Fire was tearing through the wild, parched grass, heading in all directions. As the French leapt to the defence, hastily shouting for and wasting good drinking water trying to halt the advance, Sharpe heard calls and shouts in English too. He stopped and looked over the bush to see the French running and panicking nicely.
He grinned and shifted, bringing his left knee up to rest his elbow on. He brought the rifle to his eye and closed his right one, hugging the stock to his shoulder and choosing a target. He found one, a Sergeant with the brains to be organising shovels, and squeezed the trigger.
The man shot backwards as if yanked from behind, his head snapping back as the bullet caught him in the throat. The soldiers next to him froze and turned, looking in Sharpes direction vaguely. They began to shout another warning, but he ignored it. He reached for his cartridge belt and began to reload as he heard the crack of other Bakers reduce the French camp to complete disarray. Sergeants shouted for order and lines, men grouped and found their weapons, and suddenly Sharpe found himself looking through the bush at forty men hastily loading muskets. He swore, then took a deep breath.
Rifles! Drop em! he roared. There was a muted cheer and the sounds of the rifles suddenly intensified. A sudden explosion of louder, meatier sound signalled the entrance of the ten men from the South Essex. As ordered, Harper was making them fire five at a time, then reloading while the other five fired.
It was cutting the forty men down very quickly. Suddenly there were barely a handful standing there, fiddling panicked fingers, trying to load cumbersome great muskets when all they wanted to do was run. Sharpe aimed his rifle and took out the tall, responsible-looking officer at the end of the line. The soldiers watched him fall, horrified, then simply turned and ran with their muskets back into the fearsome blaze that was consuming the tents.
Sharpe lowered his rifle, assessing the damage and grinning.
Rifles! Fall back! he shouted. He spotted red and white moving through the bushes across the grass and got to his feet, slinging the hot rifle over his shoulder and running as fast as he could through the mud, back toward the hillock. As he reached the base he met up with Harper, who was grinning from ear to ear.
Done it, sir, he breathed. Sharpe nodded.
Now they have to panic and call out the men from the village, he said. Come on, he gestured with his head. Get the Essex into line, make the Frogs thinks were more than we are, he said.
Sir! Harper barked, turning and bullying the redcoats into order. Sharpe turned to look at the powdered, sweaty riflemen.
Nice work, he grinned. Now we get ready for their main force, he said. Robinson swallowed.
Is this where the South Essex and the 42nd come in, sir? he asked. Sharpe looked at him in the darkness.
This is where we stop em from leaving the village walls until the others arrive, yes, he corrected, and Robinson looked at Hagman fearfully. He simply sniffed and began reloading his rifle quickly, prompting the others to do the same. Sharpe turned to find Harper had arranged the South Essex and they had reloaded. He turned again to look back at the village, but all they could see was blazing grass and tents.
They heard shouting still and villagers appeared with buckets, dousing the grass around the fire, hoping to stop it spreading much more. It seemed they couldnt care less for the tents, and Sharpe grinned at the thought of any supplies having been destroyed. He unslung his rifle and began loading it quickly, waiting.
Spread em out, he said to Harper, who nodded and shouted for the South Essex to form one long line. Rifles, independent fire, drop as many of the bastards as you can, officers first, he said calmly, as if asking what tomorrows weather would bring. They smiled and started to spread, checking rifles and charges quickly. Sharpe looked up, his rifle ready, watching the blaze start to burn itself out at the edges already. He waited, wanting to hear the sound of French trumpets summoning men to group, or a drum, or just something that meant the French were ordering their men into rank and file, ready to march out into the gloom and attack the mysterious force of eighteen men.
The wind changed, whipping sparks and embers from the fire across the grass. Someone hawked and spat, Sharpe felt his fingers digging into the barrel of the rifle, and still no-one appeared. There was a long, long silence. Suddenly he heard the sound of hoof-beats and realised it was coming from behind him.
Well Major? Lawford called, approaching on the horse. Sharpe looked back at the quieting fire, then ran his tongue over his upper teeth, his face betraying his discomfort.
Theyre not going fer it, sir, he said, frustrated. Lawford huffed.
Are you sure? he barked. Sharpe didnt turn to look at him.
No. Looks that way though, dunt it? he said, disgusted. Lawford stood in his stirrups, watching. Everyone peered at the fire screening the villages outer wall and gate from their sight. Minutes ticked away, and still nothing moved. Buggerin hell! Sharpe spat, running a hand through his hair and spitting more saltpetre into the grass. Lawford cleared his throat, sitting back down in the saddle comfortably and straightening his shoulders.
Well then, seems we fall back and
Sir! Hagman shouted suddenly, alarmed. Sharpe looked at him, found him pointing at the right hand side of the camp, and turned to look. He did a double-take as he recognised the sounds and blurred image of a French battalion marching in formation across the hill.
The reinforcements! Lawford hissed angrily. Damn it all, what a bally mess this is! he cursed. He huffed loudly. Thats why theyre not running out here and risking it, Major, their help has arrived! Right then. We all fall back, regroup, and go at this like gentlemen, he ordered. Major, return your South Essex volunteers and your Rifles to me. I need you to lead half the men. You have Lieutenant White as your aide.
Sharpe gawped at him. But the
Snap to it, man! Lawford shouted, and Sharpe did indeed snap to attention.
Yes sir! he barked, then turned to Harper. Sergeant, repair the men. Rifles, he barked, turning to them, trail arms, follow me! he called.
Harper marched the South Essex men back to the main regiment. The riflemen slung their weapons and followed a seething Sharpe back toward the combined ranks of the South Essex and 42nd Regiment of Foot, currently standing to and waiting for orders.
Sharpe nodded to the riflemen, who nodded at him gratefully, sharing his upset at being separated, before running to the outside file of the ranks, standing to. Sharpe strode to the head of the ranks, straight to Lieutenant White.
You and me are taking the battle to them, Lieutenant, he snapped hotly, and White looked at him fearfully.
Yes sir, he said smartly. Sharpe stared straight ahead, ignoring Whites surreptitious inspection of his face. Went well, did it? The plan, I mean, sir? he asked hopefully. Sharpe turned a look on him that would have set fire to pavement cobbles.
Worked like a bugger, White. Why do you think Im here instead o taking villages and rivers from Frogs? he demanded angrily. White nodded.
Ah. Well These things dont often go as planned, do they sir.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, in proving foresight may be vain: the best-laid schemes o mice an men, gang aft agley, an leae us nowt but grief an pain, for promised joy! said a booming voice, and White and Sharpe turned slowly to their left. An officer was stood, shaking his head, adjusting the white straps across his blazing red jacket. He sniffed to himself, brushing powder from his sleeve, then realised he was being stared at. He looked up. Oh, scuse me, sir, he said, his accent thick and his smile broad. But I find a bit o new-fangled Rabbie does naebody any harm, he shrugged cheerfully. Sharpe studied his uniform, with the deep blue kilt and spanking white covers to his smart marching boots. It certainly looked familiar.
Major Sharpe, he nodded warily. The man looked surprised, then straightened.
Lieutenant Mackenzie, sir! he nodded warmly. Youll be the man who was so good to our Mister Lennox, no? he grinned. Sharpe considered him.
Maybe, maybe, he said, realisation dawning. 78th? he asked.
Once perhaps, he allowed. Now Im with the 42nd, sir. Found myself quite detached, he said sadly. Sharpe wondered just what could have happened to have separated any fierce devil-in-a-skirt from his fearsome regiment, and shrugged it away to ponder another time. Harper crossed to the officers, nodding at Mackenzie, sparing White a glance before stopping next to the tall Scotsman. They began talking and Sharpe marvelled at how easily Harper could make a friend of anyone who had anything he wanted. He wondered if it was booze or tea that Mackenzie had, then looked back ahead.
Lawford rode back smartly, stopping in front of the officers and sliding from his horse quickly. He looked at Sharpe.
Right Major, you will command Lieutenant Mackenzies ranks, sir.
Sir, Sharpe confirmed. Instructions?
None in particular just do what comes naturally to you, Major, beating the living hell of anyone not on our side, he smiled. Sharpe nodded, petulantly refusing to smile about it. Lawford looked at White. And you, sir, will help him in any way you can. You have a lot to prove, after all, he said sternly.
Of course, sir! White said immediately. Sharpe didnt look at him. He had sounded fervent enough. I just hope the fop dunt run at the first sight of the Frogs.
Lawford turned and walked off, calling to the Captain on the far side of the field. Sharpe let his tongue wander over his teeth slowly, then put his hand to his left side unconsciously. It was then that he realised he still had the sword across his back. He shifted his rifle to his left hand and reached over with his right to draw the blade slowly, careful not to nick his ear with it. White turned at the sound, swallowing at the sight of the impressive blade.
Sharpe hefted the sword hilt up in his hand, letting go and changing grip nimbly before it had fallen too far. He jammed the business end into the hard earth, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
Thats a nice sword, sir, White said pleasantly. Who gets it when youre dead later today? he added innocently. Sharpe flicked his gaze at Harper before turning an amused glance on the oblivious White.
Sergeant, what is going to happen to my sword when Im dead? he asked quietly, turning and looking at the tall Irishman, currently dwarfed some three inches by Mackenzie.
Harper cleared his throat. Well you see, sir, he said, smiling broadly at White, Mister Sharpe will be carrying that sword till it breaks, so he will. It wont be passing to any other hand, save that of King Aed Meranach Ua hEochada himself, sir. Mackenzie looked at Harper, then at the sword, grinning.
You think Mister Sharpe will outlive that blade, Sergeant? White asked, eyeing the sturdy, redoubtable weapon standing up proudly from the dirt.
Oh yes, sir, he said confidently.
But that things never going to break, he protested. Harper just looked at him pointedly. They turned to face forwards, silence hanging over them as they heard Lawford shouting and organising the far ranks under Captain Campbell.
Just hope them buggers on that side hold up, Sharpe said, looking over and watching the ranks move and wheel perfectly enough.
That they will, sir, Mister Campbell will see to that, Mackenzie said pleasantly. Sharpe nodded.
Theres summat comforting about knowing we have some 78th men among us, he said, mostly to himself, and Mackenzie grinned.
Do you think do you think well win today? White asked quietly, and Sharpe heard the jump in his voice, if no-one else did. He heard the nerves, the fear, and swallowed himself.
Jesus sir, but you never ask an Englishman that, sir, Harper tutted. They always lie, so they do.
Oh aye? Sharpe asked, looking at him with a small smile.
There was an Englishman, Irishman, and a Scotsman, Mackenzie said suddenly, all waiting for the battle to start, when
Sir? White asked, thin-lipped.
No, no, youre alright, Im just composing out loud, Mackenzie said dismissively. So there they are, on the eve of battle, and this laddie asks shall we die today? He paused, looking at Harper. And the Irishman said?
The Irishman said, dont be daft, sir, good soldiers dont die, they get taken by banshees back to their mothers, he said, grinning. Unless theyve been good, then they get taken to the brothel, so they do.
Mackenzie grinned at him. And the Scotsman said? he said to himself, looking up at the rising sun. The Scotsman said not till weve killed every last bastard opposing us, he nodded. White swallowed. And the Englishman said? he continued, looking at White.
Oh, I see, er He stole a glance at Sharpe, but he was waiting too. Well then, the Englishman said, er not today? he offered lamely.
And the Bastard said, if Im bloody dying and going to Hell today, Im kicking every last buggers teeth in on the way there, just to make sure I get a warm spot, Sharpe said, the men laughing at him. And the last one as gets in the tavern at the far end of that village buys the drinks, he added, and there were nods and sounds of agreement all round.
Major! Lawford shouted, and Sharpe turned quickly, grabbing the sword and forgetting about his scabbard altogether. He pulled it from the ground and straightened. Move em out, Major!
Sharpe took two paces forward, turned smartly, and looked at Harper. He moved to the side and sidled round, watching the ranks like a hawk.
South Essex! Shoulder arms! he commanded. The ranks lifted their muskets from the ground, sitting them in the crooks of their arms securely. Ranks! Prepare to march! he shouted. He let the cry die away before taking a deep breath. I am not dying today, he thought vehemently. I still have to find that bitch and work out what to do with her. Ranks! March! he bellowed, turning quickly and setting off at a fast pace. White and Mackenzie fell into step beside Sharpe. Harper hung back, watching to make sure the ranks snapped to it. They marched off, back the mile and a half to the village.
The sun rose slowly, clearing the top of the hills for the first time. Birds sang in the scattered bushes, the wind rustled the beautiful trees, and a hundred and sixty men marched toward an uncertain future.
None of this really happened. I made it all up. And, of course, there is no village of "Pams del Ti".
I hope you found all eight of the borrowed film titles...
No green-jacketed Sergeant Majors were (permanently) harmed during the writing of this fan-fic, and we are pleased to announce that baby Patrick turned out none the worse for his encounter with Sharpe.
~ The Mardy Bum,
15th July, 2006.
Hong Kong S.A.R.