|Disclaimer:No rights infringement intended
Warning: Mature Adults only
Warning : This story is adult fiction (well, in a mild sort of way), containing a touch of m/f.
One by one the weary riflemen tried to ease the tension and aching muscles in their shoulders. They had been marching a little before early sunrise, and the weight of ill-fitting knapsacks was beginning to numb muscles in their necks and across their backs. Shrugging tired shoulders, they attempted to shift the dead weight from one pressure point to an area not already blistered and sore.
"Not far to go now, lads. Another mile or three." Their Captain's voice was jovial, but the forced cheerfulness didn't fool any of them; the underlying weariness was evident to all. Being an officer did not mean you were immune to burning muscles and tired feet. "We'll stop at that little farmhouse with the broken fences, it can't be much further. Take a short break, get some fresh water, and the rest of the trip back will seem like no time at all."
The riflemen grunted in response, but Richard Sharpe saw the exhaustion ease a little in the faces about him. His men, he thought fiercely, were the best in the entire British army. The endless patrols they had endured of late, however, were taking a heavy toll on their physical and mental well being. This last outing had only been three days, but it might as well have been three weeks to look at his riflemen's haggard faces and their fatigued gait. He suspected their tempers were frayed to match, for since they had left the camp where they had spent the night they had barely spoken to each other. It was better that way, at least it meant no one was snarling and snapping at his friends in irritation.
The path wound through the sparse forest for another half-mile, then petered out to rough grassland and rocky terrain. Now they were no longer in the shade of the trees the summer sun, rising higher in the sky, blazed down unimpeded, and Sharpe was aware his own stride was rapidly getting shorter and shorter. The sweat trickled steadily between his shoulder blades, running in thin rivulets down his back to be caught in the waistband of his trousers. It was as irritating as the drops that ran down his forehead, stinging into his eyes. Pausing briefly to remove his shako and wipe his forearm over his brow, he gestured to another stand of trees that stood in their path.
"There, lads. Just inside that grove of trees ahead. I'm sure that farmhouse is there, and we can rest awhile and get some fresh water from the well." Sharpe's features drew into a frown as he surveyed his men. "Your arm bothering you, Cooper?"
The tall rifleman shook his head, grunting an unintelligible reply. His flesh wound was now a little over a week old, but he had been so morose and withdrawn on this entire patrol it was difficult to know whether the injury was the root of the problem or not. Shrugging his shoulders in irritation, Sharpe shifted his backpack to a more comfortable position and strode towards the beckoning growth of trees before them.
A short distance into the wood, the riflemen came upon the anticipated farmhouse. Nestled in a tiny valley, the dilapidated buildings were a welcome sight. At some point in its life this farm had certainly been a well cared-for home, no doubt providing a comfortable if not prosperous living. Now, however, the fact that it had fallen on hard times was painfully obvious. Stone fencing was gaping in places; the heavy pieces of slate scattered about. The fields that ought to have been hayed by midsummer were sadly overgrown, the tall grasses waving in the faint breeze. Glancing curiously about them the soldiers walked through the gap in the fence, the wooden gate that once would have barred their way lying askew and rotting. Weeds grew in abundance, wrapping unhindered about the mouldering gatepost.
As they drew closer to the farmhouse, the full state of disrepair became apparent. Slates were missing from the roof, leaving little doubt that it leaked in heavy storms. Paint peeled from the heavy shutters, and at least two of them hung drunkenly from broken hinges. The outbuildings prospered little better. The smaller of the two, one that appeared to be a coop for chickens, ducks and geese, was in slightly better condition. Made of wood, the door doubled as a ramp for the birds to go and come as they pleased, but by the look of the thick layer of droppings that slicked its surface, it had been a long time since the ramp had been raised and locked in place. The few chickens and geese that were in sight scratched aimlessly about the yard, ignoring the green-clad intruders. The larger of the two outbuildings was made of stone, and presumably housed the larger animals, if the farm still possessed any. Desperate, the French would have scoured the countryside as they foraged, and any and all sheep and cattle not safely hidden would have gone to feed the ever-empty stomachs of hungry soldiers. The barn was in a sorry state, anyway. The roof sagged so steeply in the middle that the large doors would not close. Hanging half-open, rather apologetically, they bespoke a malaise that afflicted the entire country.
Shrugging his shoulders in irritation to dispel the depression that nibbled at the corners of his mind, Sharpe spied the well he was seeking halfway between the farmhouse and the barn. He strode quickly to the stone circle, and with a sigh of relief eased the pack from his shoulders to the ground. Slowly he unbuttoned the top of his jacket, then pulled the black neckscarf loose with a satisfied sigh.
"Right, lads. Rest easy. Let's have a drink, and take a load off for a half-hour. Here, Pat, get that bucket down that well. I feel like I could drink the bloody thing dry."
With soft grunts of relief and pleasure the riflemen lowered their own packs and sat where they stood on the dry, dusty ground. Young Perkins automatically sat close to Hagman, his head lolling on the older man's shoulder and his mouth curving in a contented grin. Hagman turned his head slightly to glance at the boy, a slight deepening of the creases at the corners of his brown eyes the only sign that he was smiling indulgently at the youth. Redheaded Harris dropped heavily on the other side of the older man, clasping one hand tightly in the other and raising them both as far as he could above his head in a stretch that made aching muscles scream in protest. He felt better for it, though. Only Cooper, his dark eyes dispirited and his face sombre, sat a little apart from the others, close enough so as not to appear rude, yet far enough away to discourage conversation.
Patrick Harper, slowly flexing his broad shoulders, turned to do as he was bid, and began winding the handle that lowered the wooden bucket into the well. Sniffing disdainfully, he muttered to no one in particular, "This rope's in such a fine state, we'll be lucky if the bucket makes it all the way back up. Perkins, ye'd better make ready lad, in case I have to send you down the well after it."
At the sound of his name Perkins' eyes opened, and he turned to look at the big Irishman with a flicker of concern crossing his face. Then he felt the slight tremour in the thin shoulder he leaned upon that signaled Hagman's silent laughter, and he knew his leg was being pulled once again. With an exaggerated huff of annoyance he turned away and settled his cheek once more against the rough fabric of Hagman's green jacket.
Smiling, Harper grasped the rope and jerked it several times back and forth, pulling the lip of the bucket under the surface each time. Water flowed into the bucket, slowly at first and then with a rush, filling it, and Harper began to turn the crank once more, bringing the heavy, brimming bucket to the surface. He untied the battered tin ladle that was attached to the crank with twine, and dipped out a full ladle of the shimmering cold water, passing it first to his Captain.
Sharpe accepted the ladle with a grateful smile and drank the entire contents greedily. It ran down his chin and dripped freely onto his bared chest. He shivered at the touch of the cold drops, in spite of the summer heat. With a broad grin he wiped his stubbled face on his sleeve, passing the ladle back to his Sergeant and leaning on the stone well with a contented sigh. Harper dipped another ladle and drank himself. The coldness of the water made him gasp for a moment, then he finished as much as he wanted before tossing the remainder on the ground. The few drops were swallowed quickly by the parched earth.
"Almost as fine as the waters back home," he voiced, garnering an amused glance from his Captain. Dipping the ladle full once more, he leaned forward and nudged Perkins gently.
Opening his eyes once more and smiling up at the big Sergeant, Perkins accepted the proffered ladle and drank leisurely, letting the cool water flow slowly down his throat. Two more mouthfuls, then he turned and raised the ladle to Hagman's lips. The older man leaned back imperceptibly, and the boy tipped the ladle slightly, allowing the water to flow slowly into his mouth. Hagman swallowed, but not quite quickly enough, and the water trickled languidly over his chin and down his neck, making tiny rivulets in the dust upon his skin. Harris, waiting patiently for his own drink of water, found the sight both intimate and sensual, and turned his head away with a soft smile. As he did so, a movement caught his eye.
"Uh, oh", the redhead murmured. "I think maybe here comes trouble."
Instantly alert, Richard Sharpe straightened his stance, no longer leaning on the stones of the well. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked out across the farmyard, shading his green eyes with his hand to cut the glare of the sun. None of his men moved, yet all eyes shifted to follow the direction of their captain's glance.
The figure making its way towards them across the farmyard was tiny, yet boldness was evident in each step and the determined set of the shoulders. Broad and stocky, the voluminous skirts identified the figure as a female, and a hitching limp and slow tread bespoke her advanced years. As she drew nearer, the soldiers could clearly see her jaw firmly set in a scowl, and anger snapping in her dark eyes. She did not hesitate, but limped up to set herself directly in front of Sharpe. Barely coming halfway up his chest, she nevertheless poked him fiercely in the ribcage and let loose a furious torrent of Spanish, every other syllable emphasized with a further jab to the captain's chest.
Caught by surprise, Sharpe stood there a few moments and took the painful digs with a grunt of stupefaction. When the pain finally registered, he attempted to step backwards from the old woman, but his heel collided with the well and he had to spread his hands to regain his balance, affording the woman time to connect with several more well-placed jabs. Angry now, Sharpe gripped the offending hand tightly by the wrist and turned to glare at Harris.
"For the love of God, Harris. What in bloody hell is the hag saying?"
Desperately trying to wipe the laughter from his face, Harris put as much earnest consideration in his voice as he could. "I'm not sure, Sir. She is speaking very quickly. If you like, I could ask her to slow down?"
Harper choked off a strangled snort of laughter, then attempted a concerned expression at his captain's sharp intake of breath.
"Anything, Harris. Just hurry up, will you, before she has me down the bloody well."
Acutely aware that Hagman was shaking with silent laughter next to him, Harris looked up at the ugly old woman and calmly asked her why she was angry, what had they done, and would she please speak a little more distinctly, as his Spanish was not perfect.
Upon hearing her own language the old woman visibly relaxed, and Sharpe deemed it safe to release her captive wrist. Keeping one baleful eye on the captain, she turned slightly to Harris and began another tirade in Spanish. Nodding encouragingly, Harris slowly let his features ease into an expression of commiseration, and he clucked softly in sympathy.
Irritation rising by the minute, Sharpe glanced rapidly back and forth between the old woman and Harris, until finally his patience snapped. "Well, what the bloody hell is she saying?"
"Er," Harris looked up at his captain apologetically, "she is rather upset at our lack of good manners, sir."
"Well, sir, you must admit that we did not ask permission to come onto her property, and then we helped ourselves to her water supply without as much as a by-your-leave. Sir."
Sharpe drew a quick breath and scowled. "Hmph. I suppose she has a point." Pursing his lips tightly, he muttered, "So find out what she wants, Harris."
Smiling, Harris spoke gently to the old woman again. She seemed taken back at his query, and pensively rubbed the wart on her chin as she regarded the riflemen with a speculative look in her dark eyes. Finally she turned back to Harris and gave him her rather lengthy reply. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, then turned again to his captain with a twinkle in his eyes.
"She says she would like payment, sir."
"Tell me something new, Harris," Sharpe growled as he turned to look at the rest of his riflemen. "Everybody in this bloody country wants payment of some kind." If he hoped to find support among his men he was sadly disappointed, as except for Hagman each of the soldiers was desperately trying to hide the grin that animated his tired face. Only Hagman was unsmiling, and his gaze was fixed intently on the old woman, his brow furrowed and a seriously contemplative look in his brown eyes. Sighing at the lack of support, Sharpe reached into his jacket for his meagre purse, and slowly began to pull the drawstrings apart.
"Oh, no, sir," Harris interrupted him with a smirk. "She doesn't want money."
"Well, what then?" Sharpe paused in the motion of counting out a few coins, and looked down at the redhead in puzzlement.
His smirk widening, Harris gestured expansively, taking in the dilapidated view about him. "This place is in a terrible state of disrepair, sir. She would like the services of at least one of us for a short time, sir, to umm, do a little reconstruction." Harris paused as his captain's jaw dropped with incredulity, then hastily continued. "It would be a very nice thing to do, sir. And Wellington is always encouraging better relations with the locals. Sir."
There was silence for several moments, broken only by the muffled sniggers from the rest of the riflemen, and the rustle of cloth as the old woman folded her arms across her stout belly and glared at the men about her. Tired of the humour being displayed at his expense, Sharpe made a rapid decision.
"Fine. I agree. So, which of you lads is going to volunteer, then?" Instantly the smirks vanished from every face, and the riflemen looked at each other in surprise and trepidation. The old woman, the scowl on her face deepening, tapped one foot on the dusty ground in growing impatience. His hands on his hips, Sharpe surveyed his men with ill-concealed amusement. "Well, come on, lads. Don't all shout at once, now."
There was no sound for several moments, then as Sharpe turned away Hagman cleared his throat. "Ah, sir." As Sharpe swung back to stare at him, the old soldier looked up guilelessly. "Francis said he wouldn't mind, sir. Staying, I mean."
Ignoring the quick intake of breath, Sharpe looked behind Hagman to Cooper, whose glance flitted rapidly from the back of Hagman's head to his captain, a look of bewilderment on his face. His protest died on his lips as Sharpe grinned broadly.
"Good man, Cooper. I'll not soon forget this." Reaching for his pack broke the sudden tension in the air, and of a sudden each rifleman was also scrambling for his own knapsack. Looking up to squint at the sun, Sharpe smile broadened. "Looks like you'll have the entire afternoon, Cooper. And I don't mind if you're a little late getting back. Here, I'll write you a chit so's you won't have any grief should ya be challenged getting back into the camp. Whatever the hour."
Licking his lips, Sharpe took his notepad and blunt pencil, carefully printing the note that would allow Cooper to pass unchallenged, or to escape the frightening tag of deserter should he be caught away from his regiment. Composing his features, Sharpe leaned down and tucked the chit inside Cooper's left pocket, ignoring the painful look of disbelief on the big man's face. Smirking, Sharpe patted Cooper's cheek gently.
"Make sure you do your best to please the old lady, now. Remember, Wellington values good relations with the local population, so try not to do anything that might antagonize her? And Cooper try to smile a little."
Sharpe straightened, and with a grin he nodded at the rest of his men, then bowed graciously to the old lady. She glared back at him suspiciously, then allowed a contented smile to cross her sullen features as she eyed the speechless Cooper still sitting on the sun-baked ground. The rest of the soldiers had shouldered their rifles, and were eager to march once more. Casting sympathetic looks back at the hapless Cooper, they followed their captain across the yard and out though the broken gate to the path that led back to the British camp.
The riflemen had disappeared into the grove of trees, and still Cooper sat on the warm earth staring at the path they had taken. When it became apparent that they were truly not coming back, he forced himself to slowly look up into the eyes of the old woman who stood quietly in front of him, her arms still folded across her ample breasts. Her dark eyes were narrowed and she appeared to be assessing him carefully. Then she smiled. The gesture made Cooper shudder, for she was not the most appealing of sights.
The smile revealed a mostly toothless mouth, a black gap where her top front teeth ought to have been, and the bottom teeth badly discoloured. Grey hair escaped from the dark scarf that covered her head, and as well as the large wart that was prominent on her chin, her left cheek contained an ugly, wine-coloured birthmark. Cooper tried not to stare at the mark, but like a nagging toothache his attention kept being drawn back to the disfigurement. The woman had a pronounced hump on her back and the deformity caused her head and upper body to thrust forward slightly, giving her that determined look that had disconcerted his captain so. Realizing that he was to be at this harridan's beck and call for the rest of the day, Cooper swallowed hard and slowly pushed himself to his feet.
As he attained his full height Cooper towered over the old woman, and she took a step backward in surprise. The hump on her back made it awkward for her to look up, and she seemed to be twisting her body into an uncomfortable position as she craned her neck. In spite of his situation Cooper experienced a quick wave of pity, so he sat on the edge of the well to make it easier for her. He found her steady, calculating stare rather unnerving, and when she made no attempt to speak to him he decided he would have to undertake the first effort.
Clearing his throat, he muttered, "Umm, what exactly would ye 'ave me do? Missus?"
The woman didn't answer him, just stared with those unsettling dark eyes. Feeling a little flustered, Cooper gestured expansively to the buildings and yard about them, then tapped himself on the chest. "I'm willin' ta work for yer, ma'am, 'cept yer gonna 'ave ta tell me what needs doin'. Or at least tell me what yer wants done the most."
Slowly the woman smiled her snaggle-toothed grin once more, nodded and muttered to herself, then turned and waddled towards the house. With a resolute sigh Cooper pushed away from the well; picking up his knapsack and rifle, he cautiously followed her. She mounted the single step to the veranda heavily, crossed the creaking boards and disappeared inside the house.
Unwilling to accompany her, Cooper laid his pack on the veranda and leaned his rifle against the wall, then stood and waited, fidgeting impatiently. When she reappeared, the old woman had a hammer in her hands. Slapping it in Cooper's unresisting palm, she waved towards the tilting shutters, then turned her back on him and lumbered into the house once more.
Blinking at her disappearance, Cooper turned to stare at the shutters, leaning sadly like drunken soldiers. Heaving another sigh of resignation, he stepped towards them for a better look. "And I didn't even get to enjoy a drink," he muttered irritably. It would keep; perhaps after he did something with these wretched shutters.
On closer scrutiny, the shutters proved to be in a better state of repair than he had originally thought. The paint might be peeling, but the wood itself was solid; there was no sign of rot. At some point in time they had been allowed to swing freely, perhaps in a heavy wind, and the constant stress on the upper hinges had torn the nails from the window frame. Dropping to his knees, Cooper rummaged through the weeds carefully with his long fingers. In a few minutes he found what he had been seeking, long and rusted nails. All he could find were two, but they would suffice as a temporary measure.
Looking about him, he spotted an old wooden washtub on the low veranda, leaning against the wall close to the door. Hissing as the boards creaked under his weight, he rolled the tub off the veranda and under the window, then upturned it and stepped up. His height allowed him to reach the loose top hinges without stretching unnecessarily, and he closed the left shutter and eased it back up into its correct position. Holding it in place awkwardly with his left knee, he grasped one nail firmly and drove it into the frame at a slight angle, seeking to find fresh wood that would hold the hinge. Pleased with the way the shutter now swung on its hinges, Cooper jumped down, slid the tub over, and repeated the process on the right side of the window.
With both shutters now hanging at the correct angle, he turned with a satisfied smile to step off the washtub, only to look down into the sharp eyes of the old lady. For a brief moment he thought she seemed angry, then she thrust the large tankard she held in her hands towards him. Startled, he wavered for a few seconds before stepping down and hesitantly taking her offering. Drinking carefully, he sighed with pleasure at the first taste of the cool water, and quickly emptied the tankard.
Passing it back, he smiled a little shyly at the old woman, and muttered, "Gracias."
Taking the tankard back she snorted, clearly amused at his atrocious accent, but as she turned away Cooper thought he caught a fleeting look of gratification on her grim face. Refreshed and feeling a little more at ease, Cooper looked about to see where he could turn his hand next.
His eye fell on the stone fencing. It ran about the entire farmyard, and as it passed behind and around the large barn arms branched away to connect with the building, forming several animal pens of varying sizes. All the walls were in variable stages of disrepair. Laying the hammer on the overturned washtub, Cooper walked over to the wall to the right of the barn and placed both hands on the top of the barrier, lightly easing himself over to the inside of one of the animal pens. The ground was littered with pieces of slate of irregular sizes. Stepping over the largest hole in the fence, he found many more pieces of slate on the other side. Deciding that this was as good a place to start as any, he bent with a will and began tossing the pieces of slate over the fence into the pen. When he had gathered all he could find, Cooper hopped back through the hole in the fence, removed his woolen green jacket and rolled up his sleeves to begin work in earnest.
The erection of stone fencing that contained no mortar was an art form and Cooper was no great talent, but he had strength and he had patience. The trick was to fit together slate pieces of exactly the right size such that they would interlock tightly to form a sturdy barrier impervious to the vagaries of the weather or the pressure of heavy animals. Constructed properly and repaired on a regular basis, such a wall could stand forever. This one had clearly been neglected for a very long time.
Squaring his shoulders, Cooper bent to pick up and try the first piece of slate. It was like a giant puzzle, and he quickly became engrossed as he attempted to solve it. The sun rose higher and poured down unmercifully as he discovered that the boredom of disregarding stone after stone was overridden by the sense of elation when he found one that fit exactly. After a while he realized he could almost tell by looking at a piece of slate as it lay on the ground whether it would fit or not, and he experienced a childlike sense of delight when he was proven right. Normally a gregarious man, Cooper thought the quiet contentment he was experiencing a little surprising at first, but the feelings of pleasure he found working in peaceful solitude were growing, and he knew he both liked it and needed it right now.
So immersed was Cooper in his work that it came as a shock when he discovered he had repaired the last hole in the fencing for this pen. Straightening to his full height he winced at the painful twinges in his back and hips brought on by the constant bending, and he rubbed his still healing arm unconsciously.
Glancing around, Cooper noticed for the first time that this pen had no gate, the only entrance being a small door in the back of the barn. As he bent again to pick up the remaining pieces of slate on the ground to toss over the fence into the adjoining pen, the door to the barn opened, and he was propelled flat on his ass by a small tidal wave of eager goats.
For a few moments he lay still on his back, the breath knocked from him when he hit the ground. Looking up he found himself staring into soft brown eyes as the kid standing on his chest nuzzled his left ear inquisitively. Unable to keep the smile from his face, Cooper gently put the animal to one side and attempted to get back on his feet. It wasn't easy, as more animals pushed against him in avid curiosity. Shooing them away he saw the old woman leaning against the open barn door, convulsing with silent laughter at his predicament.
Scowling, Cooper bent and retrieved his jacket that one of the kids had pulled from the fence, then he bent and began to pick up the slate pieces and began heaving them over the fence. Each time he bent he found his face full of investigating noses, and twice more he had to rescue his jacket from a kid that insisted on tugging it down off the fence. It was impossible to be annoyed under such an onslaught, and Cooper eventually found himself laughing along with the old woman.
Once all the slate was cleared into the adjoining pen, Cooper took stock of the animals about him. It had seemed like a large herd, but in reality there were only three adult females who browsed the coarse scrub grass, and four kids who were fast losing interest in him, finding much more excitement in playing together. Still smiling, Cooper placed his hands on the top of the wall as he prepared to heave himself over the fence in order to begin repair on the adjoining pen. As he was about to throw his right leg over, the old woman spoke.
Halfway over the wall Cooper paused and looked over at her. She still stood in the doorway, and as she caught his eye she beckoned. For a moment he hesitated, then he slowly lowered himself to the ground, picked up his jacket and walked towards her. She turned abruptly and disappeared into the barn.
Following her through the door Cooper was momentarily blinded going from the brightness of outside to the gloom inside the barn. He pulled the door to behind him, turned, and stumbled over a large coil of rope on the floor. Grimacing as he skinned the knuckles on his right hand, he pushed himself back to his feet only to trip on a pile of planking, falling with a crash onto several metal boxes. Feeling his way more carefully, he discovered one of the open boxes contained nails. At least I know where to find them now, he grumbled silently as he eased himself back to his feet once more. Taking his time, with his eyes growing accustomed to the dim light, Cooper negotiated his way to the main doors without further mishap, startling only once as a large rat scurried over his foot. The floor of the barn was an obstacle course, and part of his mind was absently cataloguing its cleanup as one of the growing list of chores that needed immediate attention. Pulling open one of the sagging doors, he stepped once more into the bright afternoon sun.
He blinked to adjust his eyes a second time, and saw the old woman standing by the side of the house. She gestured and he slowly walked towards her. When he reached her, she pointed to the overturned washtub. Thinking she wanted it returned to the veranda, Cooper bent to lift it, only to have the woman slap his right arm. Yelping as the pain from his injury lanced through his arm, he looked up at the woman in confusion. A frown on her face, she hissed in exasperation, gripped him by both elbows and pushed him with a strength that surprised him, until he lost his balance and sat heavily on the washtub. Smirking with evident satisfaction, the old woman turned and waddled across the veranda and into the house.
Totally bewildered by now, Cooper sat quietly and gently rubbed his sore arm. He didn't have long to wait. The old woman reappeared from house, in one hand carrying the tankard and in the other a large tin platter. Shuffling up to him, she laid both plate and tankard beside him on the overturned tub.
The smell of the fresh bread tickled his nostrils immediately, and when he picked up the small loaf he found it still warm. He grinned spontaneously, and as he abruptly realized just how ravenous he was, he tore off a sizable hunk with his teeth. Chewing delightedly at the taste of delicate herbs, he surveyed the rest of the plate. Three great pieces of a soft cheese, a slab of cold pork and two small apples made for a veritable feast. His mouth full of bread and cheese, Cooper reached for the tankard to wash the food the food down, and almost choked. Instead of the water he was expecting, the tankard contained a tart, cool cider. Once he recovered from his surprise he smiled again, then looked up as he heard the old woman chuckle. She leaned against the house, watching him closely with keen, dark eyes. He raised the tankard to her in a gesture of thanks, then turned his attention back to the food. After suffering endless dry and rotting army rations, he didn't intend to leave a crumb of this offering.
Much later, with only the apples left to consume and aware she had not moved but was still leaning against the wall of the house, he raised his head to look at her once more, and experienced a quick wave of consternation. He was aware of the heat rising in his face and was appalled to realize he was actually beginning to blush. It was the way she was staring at him. Her dark, hooded eyes were unnaturally bright and their riveting gaze made him uneasy, but it was the lascivious leer she made no effort to hide that caused his stomach to lurch and his throat to constrict as he tried to swallow a bite of apple. At first he thought it must be his imagination, but no, there was no mistaking the lecherous smirk on her wrinkled face. As he gazed at her in disbelief, he saw her tongue slide over her lower lip in a lustful display of open desire, and the warmth in his face flared to a burning heat.
Stumbling to his feet he grasped his jacket blinding, muttering rapidly, "Gracias, gracias," under his breath as he hastened back towards the barn. He was mindful of her low throaty, mocking laugh as it followed him across the farmyard.
Safe once more in the gloom of the old barn, he leaned against one of the supporting pillars to catch his breath. The more he thought about the scenario, the more he realized he must have been imagining things. "Too much sun", he murmured to himself. "That's all it were, too much 'ot sun. Cooper lad, yer lettin' yer imagination run away wit' ya. The old woman's fifty iffen she's a day, not likely there's an once of desire left in them old bones."
Having reassured himself, Cooper took stock of his surroundings in the old barn. With the faint light allowed in by the tilting doors he could now easily make out the things around him. The inside of the barn was well stocked with almost everything a person would need for making repairs. There were heaps of corded rope, two separate stacks of planking, and over to his left a pile of slate shingles. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dirt and dust. It appeared as though someone had planned on extensive repairs a long time ago, yet for some reason had never gotten around to doing them.
A rustling at the back of the barn caught his attention. Drawing nearer, he started at the soft snort, then relaxed as he recognized the familiar smell of cattle. Closer observation revealed two cows crowded together in a single stall, and between them a bright-eyed calf. Gingerly moving around the large creatures Cooper found another door to the outside, and it opened to the second penned enclosure running off the stone barn.
Taking great gulps of the warm, clean afternoon air, Cooper laid his jacket on the fencing and went to work in a virtual frenzy. Hoping hard effort would clear his mind, he lifted piece after piece of heavy slate to the walls, only slackening his momentum after an hour when both his back and his injured arm loudly protested the unrelenting pace. Straightening, he groaned out loud and chuckled to himself at his foolishness. "That's some imagination ya got, Cooper lad. The old witch would no doubt 'ave 'eart failure if she knew what ya thought she were thinkin'". He voiced his thoughts aloud, and the very sound of the words made him realize just how ludicrous his imaginings had been. "And if the lads knew what you were thinkin', they would never let ya live it down. 'Specially Dan."
Cooper smiled to himself, a peaceful warmth pooling in his stomach at the thought of the older Rifleman. He knew he was favoured to count the gruff, taciturn Hagman as one of his friends. The past few days had been hard, with old painful memories dredged up and put on display for all his mates to see. Hagman's silent sympathy had been a crutch to lean on, and his covert, gentle touches a lifeline in Cooper's ocean of hurt and guilt. Breathing easier, Cooper bent once more to the ground, and he picked up another piece of slate to test with a lighter heart.
At that moment the old woman came though the door of the barn, and Cooper spun about to face her, heavy slab of slate between them like a safety shield. Rapidly he scanned her face, but her features were bland and uninterested. She carried in her hands the tankard, which she offered when she stopped in front of him. Warily he put aside the slate and took the tankard from her fingers, alert for some change in her expression, but the woman's eyes were guarded and her face impassive. The tankard contained water this time, and Cooper drank it down appreciatively. When finished he passed it back with a soft "Gracias", and she took it without comment.
Relieved and inwardly chiding himself for his over-active and silly imagination, Cooper turned and bent once more to the slate. It was then that he felt the touch, and he whirled in apprehension. The woman was already walking away, but he knew she had touched him. Patted his ass in fact. The set of her shoulders gave nothing away, but he could still feel her light caress on his buttocks. In spite of the afternoon's hot sun, he shivered.
He waited, holding his breath until she had once more entered the barn and shut the door behind her before he bent once more to his work. His throat was dry, even though he had just finished the tankard of water. Biting his lower lip he mentally slapped himself. "She's just an old woman, lad. She can't hurt ye. What's she goin' ta do, force ye in ta lettin' 'er 'ave her wicked way wit ye?" Cooper snorted at his own absurd foolishness, and shook his head fiercely. It seemed to clear his mind, and he felt decidedly a little more light hearted as he resumed repair once more on the broken fencing.
So immersed in the work did he become, that only when the final slate was fitted securely in position did Cooper realize just how much time had passed. He wiped his sleeve over the beads of sweat on his brow, and glanced at the sky with some concern. The sun was beginning to sink low in the west, and at the height of summer he knew that it had to be very late in the day. Frowning inwardly he picked up his jacket and started for the barn, when the door opened and the woman appeared once more. Involuntarily Cooper took a step backwards, but the woman simply beckoned briskly and turned back inside the barn. Trying to dampen the rising feelings of unease he followed her, closing the door behind him. Manoeuvring about the large-bodied cows, he crossed the barn slowly, this time successfully avoiding the piles scattered about the floor, and slipped through he main door into the farmyard. The old woman was standing on the veranda of the house, and she beckoned to him once more. Surreptitiously his eyes slid to the main gate and safety, and he took a couple of steps in that direction.
"Senior." Her loud voice had an air of command in it, and Cooper halted abruptly in his tracks. Turning to face her again, he saw clearly the look of annoyed irritation on her face, and she beckoned once more, an impatient gesture. Sighing in defeat, he slowly began to walk towards her, and this time when she disappeared through the door into the house he picked up his pack and rifle and followed her, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Once inside the house impressions crowded upon him, assailing his various senses all at once. Unlike the old woman's drab appearance, the interior of the house was bright, filled with cheerful colour. There were several vivid paintings on the wall, crudely depicted floral displays in riotous, brilliant hues. The paintings were reflected in the large bouquet of wildflowers that sat in the centre of the rough harvest table. The display was haphazard, and the colours in the bouquet clashed; yet Cooper found the overall effect spirited and happy. The floor was stone like the walls, swept bare, and the overall lingering impression of the entire room was once of neatness, cleanliness andpeace.
Overpowering was the scent that tickled his nostrils. It came from the heavy iron pot that hung over the fire, and increased in intensity each time the old woman stirred the contents with the long ladle. There was the delightful aroma of herbs, and vegetables, andCooper swallowed hard, aware that he was beginning to salivate rather excessively. At that moment, the old woman turned from the fire, and grinned knowingly at him. She waved him to the table and turned back to the fire. He hesitated for a few moments, until the overpowering fragrance from the cooking pot drew him closer. Putting his pack and rifle down carefully just inside the door and laying his jacket on the tabletop, he sidled closer, drawing one of the two chairs under him to sit in quiet anticipation.
The old woman took a tin plate from the table and ladled it full of the thick, steaming stew. Placing it down in front of Cooper she nodded her go-ahead to him. He needed no more encouragement to pick up the fork already in place for him and attacked the stew like a man who hadn't seen such food in months. The stew was full of potatoes and carrots and onions and chicken and barley and Cooper shrugged and gave up on trying to mentally catalogue the ingredients. It burned his mouth, but he didn't really care. Clearly amused, the old woman laid another loaf of her bread beside his plate, then turned to pour him a tankard from a large jug on a small counter. Watching her, Cooper mentally crossed his fingers, and his luck held. The tankard was full of the wonderful cool cider instead of water, and he beamed his appreciation to the woman before tucking into the stew once more.
Pushing his earlier feelings of unease to one side, Cooper ate to surfeit. After his first plate was empty, the woman wordlessly removed it and filled it once more, then silently topped off his tankard with more cider. When he finally pushed his plate away, Cooper had to admit that he was feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Made a proper pig o' meself, he thought. It was only then, as he watched the old woman bend stiffly to light a candle from the dying fire, that he realized just how late it was. There was still a little light in the evening sky, but covering the last two or three miles to the British camp in the dark was not something he looked forward to.
Leaning back in the chair he belched softly, then rose slowly to his feet and gathered his jacket in his hands. Now that the moment had come for him to leave, he realized he was terribly unsure how to go about it. The old woman stood silently, her back to the fading embers of the fire, watching him intently.
"Ah, it's awfully late. Me captain ain't goin' ta be right pleased wit' me when I get back. 'E's a right stickler, is Captain Sharpe. Gets upset real easy, 'e does" Cooper's voice trailed away when he realized he was rambling. As he spoke he had been slowly backing up, had stumbled clumsily over his own chair, and knew his face was beginning to colour as he tried to straighten the seat under the table. "Er, the food were wonderful, it were. Best I've 'ad. Ma'am. Er thanks. Thank you. Gracias" He continued to back up slowly, nodding his head to her the entire time, and realized he looked a right proper fool as he did so. Reaching the door, he bent and fumbled to pick up his rifle.
She continued to gaze at him the entire time, her expression searching and contemplative. Finally she leaned forward and picked up the candle she had placed in a chamberstick on the table, and turned away from him, waddling towards a door to Cooper's left. At the doorway she paused, then turned once more to face him, her face expressionless.
Cooper closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He had not drunk so much cider that he was not aware of what she was asking him. Christ, how did he manage to get into situations like this? More to the point, how in hell was he going to get out of this one? Vaguely he was aware that sweat was again beading on his brow, and this time not from the heat.
"Er, ma'am that's a real kind offerand it ain't that I don't appreciate it, but I'm real late, and I mean the food were good an' all, butI mean," he stared at the pattern in the stone floor and tightened his grip on his rifle until his knuckles were white and hurting. "Another time, maybe?" He blundered to silence, aware of how lame he was beginning to sound to his own ears.
Looking up, he couldn't miss the expressions that flitted briefly across her lined face, for her features were illuminated clearly in the stark candlelight. Disappointment, rejection, hurt, humiliation, embarrassment they were all there for Cooper to read, and he felt his own face burn with a flush of shame.
"Oh, bloody 'ell," he muttered, chewing his lower lip. After all, what would it cost him? The old woman had been more than kind; she had fed him well, and the Lord only knew how much of her own precious supplies she had expended on him. So what if she weren't the best looking woman he had ever had? Once he blew the candle out it wouldn't matter much. Besides, it had been a long time since he hadwell, it probably wouldn't be too hard to get it up, all things considered.
Taking a deep breath, Cooper let go of the death-grip he had on his rifle and laid it once more against the wall by the door. Smoothing his jacket against his arm, he slowly approached the old woman. She had not moved. As he sidled passed her, their glances met, and he was momentarily surprised by the softness that lurked in her brown eyes. Then he was through the doorway into the room beyond.
The generous size of the bedroom made him pause. The sleeping area wasn't a rough bunk but a real bed, a wrought iron frame that twisted and curled upon itself, filled with a large mattress and colourful coverings that were turned down to reveal crisp white sheets and covered pillows. It all looked so clean and smelled fresh. To his left was a wide vanity with overmirror; the top of the furniture covered with brushes and bottles as well as a large pitcher and basin. Tendrils of steam curled from the basin, spreading ever-changing patterns of mist across the face of the mirror.
Resigned now, Cooper laid his green jacket carefully across the iron headboard. Slowly he tugged the end of his shirt from his pants and pulled it over his head, laying it on top of his jacket. Turning about he sat on the edge of the bed, sinking in the softness of the mattress. He bent, ignoring the sharp protest from his back muscles, and eased out of one boot, then the other. Woolen socks followed, tucked methodically in each boot, then slid to one side. As an afterthought he untied his scarf, placing it with his shirt. Clad only in his trousers, he placed his broad hands on his knees and looked up at the old woman, permitting himself a wry smile.
She still stood in the doorway, her penetrating gaze searching his face. He had the fleeting thought that perhaps she, too, had reservations about what was to follow. Then she shrugged and stepped into the room, placing the chamberstick on the vanity. Her hands ran up her hips to her waist, slipping under the drab outer blouse that she wore, and Cooper's gaze dropped once more to the floor as he suddenly developed an interest in the intricately patterned bedside carpet.
As he stared at the carpet, he caught sight of the dark skirt falling to the floor out of the corner of his eye. He bit his lower lip, and another skirt followed. And another. And another. And one more. Puzzled, he could not prevent his eyes from rising to look at the old woman. Skirts lay pooled in disarray about her ankles like a discarded bouquet of flowers, and she was now only clad from the waist down in a thin, white cotton underskirt. Gone, too, were the square, wide hips.
Seeing she had his full attention, the old woman smiled her gap-toothed smile and cackled mirthfully. Slowly she raised her hands to her black blouse and carefully, deliberately she began to undo each button, from the bottom to the top. Cooper, mesmerized, could not look away if he tried. With a movement that could only be described as sensuous, the old woman slipped first one shoulder, then the other out of the drab blouse, hanging it gently over the back of the small vanity chair. His eyes were drawn to the piece of clothing, his bewilderment all too apparent.
The blouse was padded, sleeves and waist, and on the back lay the old woman's twisted hump, cleverly sewn into the fabric. Cooper, comprehension slowly trickling into his jumbled thoughts, tore his eyes from the clothing to look at the old woman, catching just a brief twinkle of humour in her dark eyes. She stood before him, now a slender figure in her simple cotton undergarments, then she sat in the chair before the vanity.
The rest of the transformation Cooper watched in wonder as a shadowy reflection in the mirror. The old woman slid the heavy scarf from her hair, exposing a mass of dark curls piled and pinned on the back of her head. Raising one hand to her chin, she peeled the large, unsightly wart from her skin. There was a cloth by the basin and she dipped it in the warm water, then scrubbed vigourously at her face. When she raised her head once more, her warm olive skin reflected in the mirror, her cheeks and forehead, throat and neck unlined. Hardly daring to breathe, Cooper watched in fascination as she dipped water from the basin with a pottery tumbler, then picked up a small brush from the vanity. Dipping it in the tumbler, she put it in her mouth and began to brush briskly. Afterwards, she slowly wiped her face once more, and turned to face him.
He wasn't sure exactly what he expected; perhaps that the reflection was only in his imagination and the reality would show the old woman as before, but the person who gazed at him hesitantly, her fingers fluttering nervously in her lap, was indeed the pretty girl of the mirror. Slowly she smiled, a timid smile, but enough to reveal her even, white teeth.
For what seemed like forever they stared at each other, the anxiety slowly rising in the room. Cooper was aware of a clock ticking monotonously in the background. Breaking the tension, he stood, towering over the young woman as he leaned past her. He picked up a hairbrush from the vanity and sat once more on the edge of the bed, extending both arms to her in invitation. Her dark eyes never left his face as she stood in front of him, her now slender figure wraith-like in the flickering candlelight. Lightly he placed his large hands on her hips, slowly turning her about, then parting his knees slightly and gently drawing her back to sit in his lap. She trembled a little under his touch.
"I used ta do this wit' me sisters. When I were young. They all 'ad beautiful 'air, just like you." Carefully he pulled the pins from her hair, and the dark mass tumbled between them, streaming down over her back and his chest. Raising the hairbrush, he began to work on the thick curls, removing knots and tangles with a patient, soft touch. He felt her sigh under his ministrations. "Like that, do ye lass? Yer a rum one, and no mistake. 'Ad me danglin', ya did. There's another tangle, gone." His quiet voice took on a song-song aspect, and he felt her swaying gently in time to his words. Reaching higher with his fingers, he touched the hair of her forehead, the hair that had been exposed under her headscarf, and felt a fine grit. Ashes.
"Aye. Ain't you the proper little actress." With the last of the tangles brushed from her hair, Cooper now began to feel uncharacteristically hesitant. The warmth from her slender thighs and soft buttocks was slowly seeping up his long legs to his groin, and his body's response was inevitable. He laid the brush beside him and gave her a gentle, but insistent push. She did not move; instead she reached under her hair at the back of her neck and began to untie the top ribbon that fastened her thin cotton bodice. Twisting a little in his lap, a movement that made him catch his breath, she tapped the next ribbon, then touched the back of his right hand with her fingertips.
"Ayudeme. Por favor?" He did not understand her words, but the meaning in her voice was clear. Knowing he was now committing himself, he slipped his hands under her hair and deliberately unfastened the line of ribbons, one by one, his fingers stiff and clumsy. Pushing the cotton to each side, he laid his palms flat against her naked back. The warmth trapped under her hair was comforting, and he leaned forward to touch his lips against the soft skin at the nape of her neck. She smelled good. Warm and spicy.
The light kiss goaded her into motion. Drawing away from him slightly she pulled the cotton undergarment from her shoulders, then swiveled on his lap. All of a sudden Cooper found his arms full of warm, eager, squirming young woman as she cuddled as close to him as she could, her hands running up and down his back. Raising her head she nuzzled his cheek, not seeming to mind at all the rough, three-day old stubble that scratched her. Her buttocks ground into his lap, and he knew she had to notice the state of his arousal. Embarrassed, he tried to shift her slightly.
"Lass, I" his attempt at speech was muffled as she covered his mouth with her own. Opening it to try again only resulted in her being able to slide her tongue along side of his, at the same time as she slipped her arms under his, pulling him tightly against her. He could feel the warm firmness of her breasts against his chest, and his control melted away.
Wrapping his long arms about her, he began to return her kisses. There was an almost frantic, animalistic feeling to the way they grasped and pulled at each other, and Cooper was distantly aware of his breath, now coming in gasps. Clutching her close he rose, turned, and laid her on her back on the bed. Her slender fingers were immediately at the waistband of his trousers, seeking the method of opening them. His hands were busy brushing her hair back, exposing her breasts. He feasted his eyes on them for only a moment, then his hands were touching, squeezing, bruising. Callused fingers rolled her hardening nipples, and he heard her groan.
Cool air reached his groin, and he knew she had succeeded in opening his trousers. Her fingers were tugging hard in frustration, so he stood away from her for a moment, just long enough to slide his trousers from his hips and down to the floor, where he stepped from them. At the same time his rough hands were at her calves, rolling the thin cotton underskirt up her slender legs, past her knees, over her thighs. Anticipating she arched her buttocks off the bed, and he had the skirt ruched to her waist in one swift motion. Immediately she drew her legs up, allowing her knees to part. Scrambling back onto the bed, her hands tugging at his arms, he slid between her open thighs.
It happened so fast and so smoothly. His hands forced their way under her, lifted her hips easily, then he was pushing relentlessly into her body with one fierce shove. She gave a grunt that was half pain, half relief. Her body was ready for him, but she was still small and tight. He didn't care; at that moment nothing would have stopped his frenzied rutting. All the pain, hurt and shame that had been dredged up in him over the past week he pounded into her. She grasped his hair tightly in her fingers, wrapped her legs about his hips, and accepted it all.
Reaching his climax quickly, Cooper cried out in his release, a keening wail that ended in a shuddery whine. Pulling air into his lungs in great gasps, he slowly collapsed upon the young woman, his face buried in her dark hair that fanned out over the pillow. A sense of lassitude enveloped him, and for the first time in a long time he felt a little peace in his mind.
Reality intruded quickly, as the girl under him began to struggle. Drowsily he murmured, "Sorry, lass. I forgets 'ow 'eavy I am. 'Ere, I must be crushin' ya." He winced as he hoisted his weight on his arms, the sharp pain reminding him that his injury was not yet healed. The grin that started on his face died quickly as the girl, once freed from his bulk, began to scramble away from him, pushing ineffectually at his right arm.
"Whoa, lass. Yer in a frightful 'urry of a sudden. Take yer eh, lass, what's wrong?" The laughter in Cooper's voice changed to soft concern as the girl, unable to get around his imprisoning arm, curled on her side into a tight ball facing away from him, her fist firmly clenched against her mouth.
"'Ere, lass. Come 'ere." Gently he tried to turn her, and when he met with stiff resistance he lay on his side beside her, his right arm about her protectively, and lightly stroking her cheek. "I know, lass. Ye feel incomplete, I know. 'Ere, let me." He slipped his left arm under her unresisting body to hold her firmly, and slowly trailed his right hand from her cheek down over her breasts, where he began to stroke again. Delicately at first, then with more insistence. He was patient, and eventually was rewarded when her clenched first uncurled, lying open on the pillow. She moaned softly. When he brushed a nipple with the palm of his hand, she pushed forward into his touch.
"Aye. That's better, in't it?" Cooper pulled carefully, and she rolled on her back into the cradle of his left arm. Now his left hand could reach and continue to caress her breasts, while his right was free to trail slowly down over her ribs, her stomach and her belly, coming to rest against her soft curls. He hesitated a few moments before insinuating one finger into the warmth between her legs, then paused once more to gauge her reaction. She held her breath for several moments, finally releasing it with a soft sigh as she parted her legs to allow him access.
"Lovely, lass. Take yer time now, I'll not leave ya again like that." He murmured softly to her, holding her protectively close at the same time as his fingers continued to caress and tease. Soon he began to feel her tense again, only this time he knew she was not fighting him, but struggling to attain her own release. She whimpered twice, then cried out as she shuddered under his hands, and he continued to touch until he felt her relax.
"There, little one. There." His left hand brushed the damp tendrils of hair from her forehead, and he kissed her brow with a smile. She moved closer to snuggle against him. "Wait now." He slipped his arm from under her and began to rise. The flickering candlelight illuminated the quick aspect of disappointment that crossed her face, so he touched her cheek and smiled. Easing around her he stood on the floor. His hands gripped the cotton skirt still bunched at her waist, tugging gently. Finally realizing what he wanted, she grinned and arched her back once more, allowing him to slide it down her legs. Laying it over the chair, he turned again and lifted her easily in his left arm, pulling down the covers under her. When he laid her on the cool sheets she reached for him, a shy smile lighting her face. Taking only the time to blow out the candle, he slid in beside her, and she cuddled close without hesitation.
When his head touched the pillow, he realized how truly exhausted he was. With the young woman warm in his arms, drowsiness claimed him quickly. He only had a vague memory of her whispered, "Gracias," in his ear, before he fell asleep.
Cooper woke slowly, and the night was still dark about him. For brief seconds the surrounding softness and warmth confused him, then he remembered. The young woman still lay in the confines of his arms, and she smelled so good. Sometime in the night she had changed position so that now they both lay on their sides, her back tight against his chest, the curve of her ass spooned by his groin. His left arm lay draped over her possessively. Giving in to impulse he brushed his lips against the back of her neck. She made a contented, sensual sound, and rubbed her buttocks into his groin, teasing his erection. Then she raised her left leg and slid it back to rest on his thigh. It was a clear invitation.
Wriggling into a better position he gripped her hip and held her steady, slowly entering her from behind. It was awkward, but clearly effective to judge by the increase in the contented sighs she was making. Taking his left hand from her hip he stroked her belly for a few moments, then touched the warmth between her legs, gently stimulating in a rhythm with his leisurely, rocking motions. Unhurried and patient, this time he made quite sure of her pleasure before he gave into his own. With her pulled close against his body, he was still safe within her as he drifted into sleep once more.
The sky was just beginning to lighten when Cooper woke again. Somehow they had managed to twist in their sleep so his head now rested on her breast. She was already awake, her fingers twining in his hair.
Raising his head he smiled, an anxious, tentative smile that broadened when she returned it. "Buenos dias, Senior. Ah good morning?"
"Aye. Good morning." Slowly he drew away from her, raising to rest his weight on his right elbow, chin cradled in his right hand. With his left forefinger he tapped her nose. "Are ya goin' ta tell me yer name? We're close enough now, don't ya think? Name. Yer name." Cooper frowned as she shook her head, amused. He tapped himself on the chest. "Cooper. Cooper. That's me name. Cooper."
She cocked her head, humour in her dark eyes. "Copper?"
He laughed. "Cooper. Co-o-o-oper."
"Copper." She nodded solemnly.
"Close enough." He gave up in merriment, then touched her between her breasts. "And you?"
She nodded, smiling shyly. "Nina."
"Nina. Nina." Cooper experimented with the sound of it. He liked it. "Nina. That's a right pretty name, Nina." He cocked his head. "So, where's yer 'usband, Nina? Pretty girl like you must 'ave a man about. A 'usband." He laughed at her baffled expression. Her nose wrinkled when she concentrated, and he realized he liked the way it made her look. He caressed her cheek, then tapped her pillow. Her eyes followed his movements as he tapped his own pillow. "'Usband?"
He watched as shadows darkened her soft eyes; she looked away, her lower lip trembled until she bit it, hard. "Muerto." She struggled for the words, then met his eyes once more. "Dead." She reached above her head and touched his green jacket gently. "French kill."
Cooper took her small hand in his large one and pressed it tightly. "'E were a soldier, and the French killed him." She nodded solemnly, pulling his hand against her cheek. They were quiet together for a long while, then he rubbed the hair at her temple between his fingertips. It still held a slight gritty residue of ash. "Why are ya goin' ta so much trouble ta make yerself look like an ugly witch, then? Pretty Nina."
She laughed, stemming the threatening tears that glistened in her eyes. His words might mean little, but she clearly understood his question. "Esconda. Ahsoldados. Esconda."
Cooper took a guess. "Hide? A disguise to hide from soldiers."
She beamed. "Si. Si, Copper. Hide."
He stroked her cheek once more with his thumb. "So, why show me?" He touched his chest. "Me. I'm a soldier. Soldier. Why not hide from me?"
She leaned forward and kissed his mouth softly, before drawing back with a shy smile. "Good man."
Her simple words formed a little pool of warmth in his stomach. Grasping her hand again he leaned towards her, but she pulled back, smiling. Freeing herself from his grip, she put her hand in the centre of his chest and pushed. Shaking her head as he reached again, she thrust the covers from her, got to her knees, and climbed nimbly over him. She giggled as he attempted to pull her down and had to slap his hands away repeatedly. Once she was standing on the floor, she forced him back down in the bed again, for he attempted to rise.
Turning her back to him, Nina picked up the basin of water and padded naked out of the room. Cooper heard the scrape of the heavy iron pot on its hook, and a few moments later she reappeared with the basin again. She kicked the chair to the side of the bed and set the basin down, them took the towel from the vanity. Before he realized what she was about, she pulled the blankets from him with one quick yank. Laughing at his embarrassment, she motioned for him to turn over.
Nina sat beside him and wet the cloth in the basin. The water was warm, and the touch of it against his back was pleasant. Once he got over his self-consciousness and relaxed, it began to feel positively blissful. She washed away the dirt, the grime, the sweat and the ache of the last few days. His skin dried naturally in the warm air, and he began to sigh under her caring hands. She bent and whispered in his ear, "Copper like, hmmm?" He grinned in response.
All too soon she was patting his buttocks, a clear signal to roll over. Discomfited, he hesitated until she slapped his ass once more, this time none too gently. Turning over, he was aware of the rising heat in his face, but a knowing smirk was the only rejoinder he received to his obvious arousal. She was gentle as she washed him, yet brisk and efficient. He felt a twinge of disappointment when she finished and put the basin back on the vanity.
He half rose and reached for her, but she pulled out of his reach and laughed once more. "No, Copper. Desayuno. Usted come. Eat."
He lunged and grasped her about the waist before she could escape; brushing her hair aside he kissed her ribcage under her left breast until her struggling ceased. "Later. A body can always eat. Eh, Nina?" His lips brushed the warm smoothness of her belly; looking up at her he smiled invitingly. "Later?" This time when he drew her towards the bed and down, she made no resistance.
For breakfast she fed him bread and cheese, with a black drink that was strong and bitter. It woke him up very quickly. She watched him as he ate, and he grinned to see her sit quietly, her slender body once more cocooned in the endless layers of clothing. Although she had not yet donned her makeup her hair was already pinned up, waiting the drab scarf that would conceal its lustre. There was a great despondency in her dark eyes, but when he would raise his eyes to gaze at her she would return his smile brightly.
Cooper ate slowly, but eventually he could put the moment off no longer. "I got ta go, Nina lass. Me captain will likely use me own guts ta hang me wit'. I'll 'ave ta tell 'im ya 'eld me captive against me will. Or mebbe I'll tell 'im ya just pull a spell on me. 'E just might believe that, seein' as 'ow 'e thought ya were a witch, anyway."
Getting heavily to his feet Cooper pushed the chair back. His pack and rifle were waiting by the door. With heaviness creeping into his heart he shouldered his knapsack and gripped the rifle tightly. There were words he knew he ought to say, but try as he might, they would not come out. Squaring his shoulders he turned, opened the door and walked out into the bright morning.
For a long time he stood on the veranda staring at the farmyard about him. Once it must have been a pretty place, of that he was certain. Idly he wondered how long Nina's husband had been dead, how long she had been alone in this place. There was just so much to do, but it really would not take such a tremendous effort. With a little care and patience a hard worker would soon have it looking just fine once again, he mused, a contemplative look spreading across his sharp features. He was aware that Nina had slipped noiselessly out of the house and now stood beside him. Looking down at her doubtful expression, he grinned.
"Copper?" His grin broadened. He liked the way she said his name, the way her nose wrinkled as she stared up at him. He towered over her diminutive height.
"Still a lot of work to be done, pretty Nina." He gestured at the roof above them. "I bet yer roof leaks terrible when it rains, and that barn sags wors'n Major Hogan's belly." He hesitated. "Would ye mind much iffen I was to return and work a bit more? The camp ain't far, you knows that. Captain Sharpe, 'e might not mind. Said I should 'ave rested me arm more before goin' back ta duty, anyway. Would ya like that, lass, iffen I returned?" Aware that he was prattling, Cooper trailed into silence.
Nina continued to gaze up at him, her lower lip caught between her teeth. "Re-turned?"
"Aye, lass. Come back, like."
Slowly, understanding flooded her features. Her eyes lit with an inner fire, her smile threatening to split her face. "Si, Cooper. Come back. Back, yes. Si." Her arms slipped about his waist and she hugged him tightly, rubbing her cheek against the rough wool of his jacket. "Come back."
Cooper hugged her in return, touching his lips to the top of her head. They stood like that for a long time, neither wanting to lose the comfort of contact with the other. She released him first, pushing him away with laughter. "Usted va, Copper. Go."
Shouldering his rifle, Cooper leaned down for a quick kiss, then stepped off the veranda. Long strides rapidly crossed the yard, but he halted at the yawning gate to look back. She waved, a slight curling of raised fingers, and he smiled to himself as he continued on his way into the shade of the woods, quickly finding the faint path that led the way to the British camp. "You want to do what?"
"Sir, you did say"
"You're out of you're mind, Cooper!"
"But it was your idea to"
"Cooper! You're a soldier, not a bloody carpenter!"
Cooper sighed. Captain Sharpe was not taking this well. Not well at all. Squaring his shoulders and determined not to give the battle up without a good fight, he tried once more. "She's a right nice old lady, sir. And it would only be a few hours a day. And it were you wot' said I should get the muscles in me arm tuned up."
"Cooper, I don't think"
Sensing a slight wavering in his captain's determination, Cooper pressed his advantage. "And Wellington said to impress the locals with our friendliness, like." His voice took on a wheedling tone. "The old lady really could use a 'and, sir. She's all alone, and it's too much for 'er, really, being all alone, like."
"You're repeating yourself, Cooper."
"It ain't far, sir. And ya don't really need me 'ere, do ya sir? And it would only be fer a short time."
"Well, I suppose"
Sensing victory, Cooper couldn't quite keep the smirk from his face. "I might even get ta learn a few words in Spanish, sir."
Glaring up at the tall rifleman, Sharpe's brows furrowed and his lips pursed in suspicion. "Really? I'm beginning to think there's more to this than you're letting on, Cooper. I don't like being made a bloody fool of." Scowling, he crossed his arms and shook his shaggy blonde head, unconsciously rubbing the bruise on his chest where the old woman's jabs had connected. "Come clean, Cooper. What's the real reason this old crone has so much appeal all of a sudden?"
Cooper knew he was blushing, he could feel the slow burn rise in his cheeks and colour even the tips of his ears. Unable to meet his captain's eye, he dropped his gaze and aimlessly began tracing patterns in the dirt with the toe of his boot. Chewing the inside of his lower lip he finally muttered in chagrin, "Well, sir she she's one damn fine cook, sir."
Sharpe guffawed. "I might have know, Cooper. Trust you to be thinkin' about your bloody belly above all else. On to a good thing, are you?"
Cooper smiled at his captain apologetically, and Sharpe shook his head with a grin of good humour. "Fine, Cooper. You win. At least hard work seems to have done you some good. Not like the rest of the lazy bastards in this company." Seeing Cooper's spreading grin, Sharpe raised an admonishing finger. "But you report to me once a day. Understood?"
"Yes, sir! Every mornin', sir! May I go now sir?"
Sharpe waved the rifleman away, and watched after him as the tall man strode across the dusty, hard-baked ground of the British camp. There was a definite spring in his step. A few moments later his large Irish Sergeant sauntered up, a question in his broad face.
"So, did ya find out what Cooper got himself up to last night? Terrible time to be comin' home, it was. Looked darn pleased with himself, so he did."
Sharpe turned a baleful eye on his Sergeant. "Pat, is there any bloody tea on the go? I get the feeling that I've just been bamboozled, only I'll be damned if I can figure out how"
Cooper had a hard job keeping the smile from his face. He tried to settle his features into a more serious mien, but it was impossible. The smile just kept stealing back. Only one more thing to do, he thought, then I can make my way back to the farm.
Approaching the area of his own tent, Cooper saw the familiar sight of the longhaired rifleman perched on a stool in front of the small tent he shared with young Perkins. As usual the older man was indulging in his favourite pastime, lovingly cleaning and polishing his rifle. Cooper strode up to him and stood by his side, waiting. When it became apparent Hagman was not going to acknowledge him, Cooper put his hands on his hips and snorted his annoyance.
"You old bugger." Cooper's voice was soft, barely audible to an ear less keen than the old soldier's.
Allowing himself a brief upward glance, one bushy eyebrow slightly raised, Hagman gently blew a speck of dust from the stock of his rifle. "I 'ope that were meant in the kindest possible way, Francis."
"You knew. You bloody well knew all the time."
"Aye." Cooper scowled at Hagman's laconic reply.
"Well? Are ya goin' ta tell me, or 'ave I got to beat you senseless before ya give it up?"
Hagman rested the rifle on his lap and smiled up at the tall man. "She were good, Francis, I grant that. Real good. Why, I almost missed it meself." The faintly incredulous tone of voice told Cooper just how unlikely the older man considered that possibility. "But it were 'er 'ands. Face done up ta look worse'n a five day corpse, but 'er 'ands were lovely. Right delicate. Soft and fine, I expect." He grinned slyly. "Were they?"
Cooper felt his colour rise again, and the leer vanished from Hagman's face. He reached out and touched Cooper's injured arm with great gentleness. "Good night, Francis?"
"Yeah. It were a real good night." He smiled down at the old soldier affectionately. "Thanks, Dan." When Hagman nodded gravely in acknowledgement, Cooper turned on his heel, and strode briskly away.
Hagman watched him go for a long moment, a wistful smile on his face, then he bent to work on his rifle once more. He hummed quietly to himself. Short minutes later Perkins approached and threw himself at the older man's feet, rolled to his side, and looked up at his companion.
"Just saw Cooper heading out of camp again. Where's he off to on his own?"
"Oh, back to do a little more farmin', lad."
Perkins smooth brow furrowed, and he sucked on one knuckle reflectively. "Why? Can't imagine anything more boring than repairing fences and waiting for things to grow. Doesn't seem like Cooper's cup of tea, either."
"Oh, I don't know lad. I would say it 'as it's good points." His normally solemn features softened as he gazed down on the boy with indulgent affection.
"Oh yeah? Hmphh. Such as."
"I think there's a lot to be said, Ben, for puttin' things right. Fixin' what's broken. Mendin' and repairin'. 'Specially them what's rusty." Hagman smiled, one of his impish grins.
"Rusty? What are you wittering on about, Dan?"
"Them farm implements what hasn't had regular use gets rusty. Give 'em a couple good doses of oil, and a proper work-out, and they be good as new." By now his smile had turned to a full-throated chuckle. He stroked the barrel of his rifle gently.
"Aye. Nothin' works so well as a well-oiled tool that's had lots of lovin' care."
"What's so funny, Dan? I hate it when you won't tell me what you're laughing at. Stop it. Dan? You're smirking, Dan, it's not fair. Oh, damn you"