EIGHT

The whole thing started slowly and quietly. Harper was uncomfortable.

"There's no music, sir," he said, uneasy.

"Aye, thank God," Sharpe replied. They watched the four centre columns of French soldiers simply march toward the gates resolutely. "They're mad!" he hissed. "How the hell do they expect to –"

The answer became painfully obvious. The village gun, the long-forgotten gun, stored high up on the roof of the first town house, right across the dirt street from Marjorie's makeshift hospice, pounded into life.

A single shot boomed over the ranks. Two hundred odd men jumped and near-panicked, the sound terrifyingly close behind them. As one they turned and saw the smoking cloud hovering above the house.

The momentum of the gun's recoil sent the entire roof down through the floor. The almighty crash of the gun smashing its way through two floors, demolishing most of the house, did nothing for the nerves of the men.

"Eyes front!" Sharpe shouted, the first to collect his wits. The house continued to collapse and fall as the men stared in horror at the village gates.

The close range of the shot had made it easier. It rammed directly into the wall halfway between both hinges on the right-hand gate.

"Nigel! That bastard!" Harper cried venomously.

"Couldn't have done better if he'd tried," Sharpe cursed, watching the right-hand gate swing perilously. Both hinges had splintered under the weight of it twisting away from the wall and the left gate, which still stood. It creaked and swung, but then came to a stop, leaning on the stone rampart. There was now a huge gap at the bottom. Sharpe turned to Colonel Parker, who was trying to stop his mouth from gaping. "Sir! Gimme two ranks," he said quickly. Parker looked at him.

"Where to?" he asked quickly.

"Other side o' that gate, sir. We'll stop 'em," he said. Parker held his gaze for a long second. He nodded curtly.

"Go. Two ranks," he said. Sharpe turned and ran to the front of the assembled men. "Middle two ranks, on my order, trail arms!" he called. The middle two ranks twitched, fear spreading very quickly. "Trail arms!" he bellowed. They did as told, muskets going to their arms for transit. "On my order, quick march! Follow me!" he called. Deep breaths were taken all round. "March!" he shouted, turning and walking toward the gate. "Rifles! Get that bloody gate down!" he shouted.

Green jackets ran to the base of the gate, kicking and thumping at the edge, pushing it. It gave a huge creak and there was a squeal of wood scraping on stone. It slowly twisted and fell, looking like it had all the time in the world. It landed in the dust, sending clouds of grainy mist up to prevent them seeing the enemy still advancing. Got to get some of them down before they reach the pits, he realized. Harper came running, his huge volley gun in his hand, sliding to stop in the dust next to the assembled men. Sharpe nodded to him and the big Irishman turned smartly. The two green jackets led the two ranks of the South Essex through the gaping hole, walking up and over the fallen gate.

"Rifles! Pick off them bastard officers!" Sharpe roared vindictively. First in, last out. That's our advantage. The riflemen scrambled back up the steps to the gun steps, aiming long-since loaded weapons. A crack rang out, then another, and another. Sharpe noticed sergeants at the edge of the four advancing columns fall.

He spread the South Essex out in a long line, shoulder to shoulder, in two lines. One hundred men had better do it. They have another four ranks yet to move, he cursed. He moved to the side, Harper stamping smartly to attention at the far end, his bayonet in hand, his volley gun slung. Sharpe drew his heavy sword.

"Front rank! At fifty paces!" Sharpe bellowed. "Wait for my command!"

They waited, the French approaching slowly, knowing they had another hundred men to kill after these brave fools, and that they could do it very easily. They were four hundred and twenty-four muskets in total, and right now these English couldn't even fire more than fifty at a time. It was simple mathematics. The two hundred men marched in splendid formation, not a step wrong, their muskets held at the hip, the front hundred men ready to unleash hell.

The sun beat down, the birds wheeled in the cloudless blue sky, and Harper watched the French approach. He smiled slightly. It spread into a grin, and the men nearest him noticed. He looked at them.

"Stand firm, lads! We have a surprise for them, just see if we don't!" he called confidently. The men just waited, fingers rubbing triggers, nerves knotting and unknotting continuously.

Sharpe watched the four columns. Now or never. "Front rank… fire!" he shouted suddenly.

The sudden explosion of fifty muskets was deafening, even to a half battle-deaf soldier like Sharpe. The balls flew out and straight into men waiting for them, their accuracy boosted by the short range. Men were thrown back and into the soldiers behind, who simply stepped over or around them and kept advancing. They closed ranks into three columns, holding a formidable unbroken line.

"Front rank, kneel! Reload!" Sharpe shouted. As one the red-coats kneeled quickly, reloading just as fast as they could.

"Rear rank… muskets!" Harper shouted. The weapons snapped up ready. "Rear… fire!" he roared. The second volley thudded squarely into the three columns, sending men sprawling as before. The French closed again, forming just two columns, this time four men deep. "Rear, reload!"

"Front, make ready!" Sharpe shouted. The front rank stood and aimed. "Front – fire!"

Again the volley burst forth, again the soldiers absorbed the musket balls, again men fell. The survivors closed ranks quickly, but Sharpe could see they were thinning piteously. He had them.

The second rank fired, the first rank fired, and just as Sharpe was sweating over the men getting within thirty feet, the French opted to halt and open fire.

Red-coats fell, the survivors closing ranks, chivvied by Harper. The two green jackets stood, seemingly impervious to fire, and Harper grinned. Invincible, the pair of us, he thought, wondering if any Irish king had ever felt as grand facing down a foreign enemy. He looked over at Sharpe, his stare seething as the bowels of Hell even as he ordered the men to fire, and looked back at the French. He heard a drum and his sudden good mood faltered; two more ranks of French were on the move, straight toward them.

They think they can keep sending men to simply batter us down, do they? Harper grinned a feral imitation and looked over at Sharpe. He was now grinning maliciously, and Harper shouted for the second rank to reload as Sharpe had his rank stand and return fire.

The remaining ranks were too thin, just one man deep now, and Sharpe could sense the men wanting to split and run. But they didn't. The two fresh ranks arrived, filling out the columns by a hundred men, and now they kept the columns two men deep. Sharpe's grin widened. They were trying to bring more muskets to bear at once. Let them, he grinned viciously.

He heard the shouts of the men, and the two new ranks paced forwards, firing indiscriminately. They advanced as one, over one hundred and fifty men stomping at the dirt, eager to get near the English as they heard the order to fix bayonets. They screwed them in quickly, looking up to find the English had stopped firing.

The French Colonel shouted, and the French broke into a run, shouting and screaming like the very demons from Hell. The English twitched.

"Steady! Reload!" Harper shouted. The two ranks bit and spat, rammed and cocked, and waited, watching the foreign devils charging at them. Hands on raised muskets shook. Sweat poured. And still Sharpe and Harper grinned.

The Colonel massed another rank. He poured them after the first. The French, all two hundred and fifty of them, stampeded.

Suddenly they were no longer running. The seventy remaining South Essex muskets stared, incredulous, as nearly a hundred Frenchmen simply stumbled and disappeared into the dirt. The men behind couldn't even stop. Most simply fell over the first, landing headlong in the dirt themselves. Others piled on top of them, and still more, until Harper was doubled-over, unable to stop himself laughing.

"Front!" Sharpe shouted, his voice sober as a Provost Marshall. "Fire!"

The South Essex' volley slammed straight into the men still standing, as they tried to step over and avoid trampling their own men.

"Rear rank!" Harper commanded proudly, "Fire!"

It was too much. The French ranks broke and simply ran in all directions.

"Ranks! Re-form! Fire at will!" Sharpe roared over the noise.

The soldiers shuffled out into one line, stepping round fallen comrades, aiming and firing as they liked. He heard the sound of a horse on the fallen gate behind him, and glanced round to see Colonel Parker approaching with another rank. That left one inside, he tallied.

He nodded to the Colonel and stepped aside, bringing his sword down from its resting place on his right shoulder. But the Colonel simply waved his hand in an "after you" gesture. Sharpe nodded his gratitude and turned, to see the new rank swell the muskets already cutting down the French ranks. Men shouted in fear and confusion. Someone was shouting in French, red-coats were firing and screaming at the enemy. Muskets coughed and flamed, butts were slammed into the dirt as the barrels were reloaded. The minutes swept by, unnoticed.

Sharpe lifted his rifle, cocked it slowly, and raised it to his eyes. He drew a bead on the French Colonel and grinned.

Something made him pause, however, and although he still aimed, some part of him made him wait. He was surprised to see the Colonel raise his hand to him. To him! He was retreating!

Sharpe relaxed, the edge of his hand feeling over the frizzen slowly to find the S-shaped cocking arm. He eased it back cautiously, ready to snap it back to full cock, watching the French officer. He sensed movement from the corner of his eye and he raised his eye from the gunsight, opening his left one to see over the barrel clearly. Suddenly he realized the obvious; the French Colonel had not been signalling to him at all, but Colonel Parker, next to him on his horse.

He smiled ruefully at himself, letting his rifle down but keeping the barrel up lest the ball roll down and drop out. He let out a huge sigh through his nose slowly, watching the French pick themselves up and turn and stagger back whence they came. He looked at the men of the South Essex, and was surprised to hear Colonel Parker's voice.

"Cease fire!" he bellowed across the noise. Silence fell. They watched the French stagger and retreat slowly, still watching these craft English carefully. "Alright, off you go. Looter's rights, boys," the Colonel said cheerfully. The men slung their muskets and started walking slowly toward the dead French. There were still live men crawling from the pits, and the red-coats stared at them for a long moment.

One man bent down and offered his hand. The French gawped at him before taking it and accepting his help to clamber out of the hole. Someone laughed at the absurdity, and that was that.

Soldiers, red-coated and blue, laughed at the ridiculous afternoon. Soldiers who had not ten minutes ago been trying to kill each other now helped each other find their feet and weapons. Sharpe watched, humbled to silence, as two red-coats stripped a dead Frenchman of his valuables before helping a live one heft him over his shoulder so he could be returned for burial. He shook his head, looking up at Parker.

"Well, Major Sharpe, a good day, wouldn't you say?" he asked. Sharpe smiled wearily.

"Not so bad, sir," he agreed. His face fell. "The cannon!" he snapped, turning abruptly and marching back inside.

"Sergeant Major, let's watch out for this lot. Then we'll get them inside and roll called, what?" the Colonel grinned.

"Yes sir!" Harper grinned with conviction. He stepped forward and felt something flap against his leg. He looked down to find a musket ball had torn straight through the side, opening his trousers to the weather. "Damn the buggers!" he hissed. "Now I'll need new boots. And they've all got such small feet, so they have." He looked up to find Sharpe had left the field. "Now why's he in such a hurry?" he asked himself.

Sharpe ran into the square, dispersing the men still waiting in their one rank. They ran out of the gate, eager to join the scavenging. He ran on to the barricade and squeezed himself round, finding the town house full of red-coats. He scanned the room quickly and his eyes fell on Harris.

"What you doing?" he asked, shocked. Harris grinned.

"This man's trading me a Marquis de Sade for French gold, sir," he grinned, indicating a wounded red-coat sitting up on the kitchen table. The red-coat looked suddenly much less wounded at the mention of gold, Sharpe noticed. He tutted dismissively, still searching the room.

"Have you seen Marjorie?" he asked. Harris looked at him, pocketing his newly acquired book.

"She left just as I came in, sir. Said she wanted to find her brother," he said helpfully. Sharpe looked at Peter, lying on the linen, a hand pressing a scrap of it to his temple. Harris shook his head. "Not that one, sir," he said. "The other one."

"Ohhh…. shit," he breathed, turning and running through the house. He crashed through the huge hole made by the locals bringing in the wounded, running to the remains of the town house opposite. He suddenly felt glad he still had his rifle.

He slid to a stop in the dust, looking round. "Mar!" he shouted. "Marjorie!"

"Richard!" she called, and he turned to his right and hurried round the side of the torn up house. He found a side of the wall missing and picked his way through.

"Mar, what the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded angrily, struggling over the bent up wood, thatch and masonry. He looked around.

Marjorie was crouched in the rubble, her back to him. She turned at the sound of his boots sliding over the masonry and turned. She had tears down her face, forging deep canals in the dust. He made his way over, looking over her shoulder carefully.

Nigel was lying on his back covered in red dust, one hand out and in hers firmly. He was breathing but blood trickled from his mouth slowly. Sharpe put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing.

"We have to get him out," she said quietly. Sharpe swallowed, assessing the damage and his face showed his doubt. Nigel looked at him.

"Sorry, dear chap," he whispered. "Had to. Peter?" he asked. Sharpe patted her shoulder, then nodded at Nigel.

"I'll get him. Lie still," he said quietly. He turned and picked his way back out of the rubble, jumping out to the street. He unslung his rifle and pointed it down, letting the ball run out to the ground. He cocked it and let it off, the resulting crack loud enough to send dust from his sleeve spinning away in the warm summer breeze.

He waited, and within two minutes green jackets came running from the back of the hospice. He turned to them.

"Harris, Harper, get Peter over here on the double," he said quietly. They nodded and ran back toward the house. Hagman looked at him.

"Did you find him, sir? The one as let the gun off?"

"Aye," he said uneasily.

"What'll happen to him now, sir? Will you give him over to the Colonel?" he asked quietly. Sharpe looked at him.

"No need. In a few minutes there'll be no point," he admitted. Hagman nodded sadly.

"Best be there for the lass, then sir," he said wisely, patting Sharpe's shoulder before turning away. Peter emerged from the house, followed rather more slowly by Harper, Harris and now Taylor and Robinson. Peter tore across the open ground and toward the house. Sharpe grabbed his arm, yanking him to a stop.

"Peter!" he shouted tersely. The man stopped trying to free himself and looked at him. "He's not got long. Say goodbye," he said softly. Peter wrenched his arm free, horrified. He threw himself at the opening in the wall, slip-sliding inside and over to him.

"Nigel!" he cried, and Marjorie stood and backed away carefully. Peter collapsed on the piles of masonry and wooden cannon wheels, grabbing Nigel's hand. "Nigel," he whispered, his throat tight.

"Peter," he whispered warmly, smiling. "Mr dear Peter. I'm so sorry… This is my reward," he managed painfully. Peter looked over the blood spilling over his shirt, the deep stains up his sides from his back. He swallowed.

"Oh Nigel, what did you do?" he whispered.

"I… I owed him, you see. At Declaré… He was the friend of Pierre, got me the berths on that ship from Liverpool… Had to, you see. He wanted me to… to sell you to them, Peter. Well, I… I couldn't," he said, a tear breaking from his eye and running over his temple. It dripped on the sandy stones.

"Nigel."

"Had to pay him back for the journey. You thought I was a proper gentleman, with money. Couldn't… couldn't let you down, dear Peter," he whispered.

"You're such a fool, Nigel," he said quietly, his eyes blurring. "I loved you anyway. You were always a proper gentleman."

"So kind of you…" Nigel managed. He swallowed. "This is my reward. For betraying you, and your kind sister. She only tried to protect you from me. She was right to," he whispered hoarsely. "Tell her… she is a proper lady. I'm so ashamed," he admitted, closing his eyes.

"I am. You did all this so I'd think well of you? I already did," he smiled. It made a tear start from his eye.

"No. I did all this for you... I wanted us to be happy in this – this dusty country. And now you'll… you'll have to bury me in it. In all this dust… Think of me, Peter, when you reach Liverpool and – and feel the sun… feel the sun on your face." His breath rattled in his chest loudly.

"I'll never feel the sun on my face again," he whispered.

"Now who's being a fool, Peter?" Nigel smiled gently. "Take Marjorie back to – back to England. She's not happy here. Look after her. Don't let her marry that soldier. When he dies on the field it'll break her heart." He gave a great sigh. "I'm so… I'm so sorry, Peter," he rasped.

"Nigel, I forgive you. For all this. It's me who's sorry – you did all this for me. It wasn't worth it."

"Yes it was…. You're… you're a – a fool," he managed, struggling bravely.

"Then we both are."

Nigel smiled at him warmly, and Peter squeezed his hand. Nigel's eyes glassed over, and he let out a long, relaxing breath. Peter closed his eyes, and bent over his hand.

Marjorie turned and skittered over the rubble, dashing outside and running headlong into Hagman. She cried out, looking up quickly. He smiled kindly and she grabbed onto him, shaking. Hagman lifted his head and looked at Harper. The Irishman nudged Sharpe's elbow, who was perched on the wall, crunching at gravel with his boot heel. He looked up at the Sergeant, a question on his face. He gestured to Marjorie with his head, and Sharpe threw him an unidentifiable look before picking up his rifle, handing it Harper, and walking over.

Hagman turned her from him gently, and she looked up into the face of Sharpe.

"Nigel's dead," she whispered. He nodded.

"Yeah," he confirmed softly. She looked up at him, into his bright green eyes, and his calm, sad demeanour made her swallow and control herself. She took in his sweaty, bedraggled, dusty look and sighed slowly. She put her hands up and pushed his disarrayed, sweat-drenched hair back from his face, straightening it. She smiled slightly, letting his green eyes communicate their worry, as she let her hands slip down the front of his uniform.

She put her hands to her face, scraping the hair back from it and tugging it into some semblance of order. She put her hand out and he looked at her, a question on his face. She reached up and put her hand to his tunic, unbuttoning it quickly, sending an amused look direct from Hagman to Harper. But she simply put her hand inside and pulled out the handkerchief, putting her other hand out to Hagman's canteen. He handed it to her and poured water over the hanky, before wiping it over her face repeatedly. She sniffed, handed the hanky and the canteen back to the men, then pulled her blouse straight smartly.

"Well we can still do summat about the living wounded," she said, straightening and walking off toward the hospice.

Harper and Harris watched her go, their mouths open. They looked at each other for a long moment.

"God save Ireland, but that's a proper lady and no mistake," Harper breathed. They turned as they heard a horse approaching.

"Think we'll be safe now, Sharpe?" the Colonel called down. Sharpe looked up at him.

"Probably. It'll take 'em a week to get strength from the French lines, sir," he said confidently. Colonel Parker nodded.

"Well, this is a tale and a half, eh? They'll be telling this story all over Spain next week, I shouldn't wonder, what?" he grinned. Harper, Harris and Hagman looked up at him, their faces about to erupt in contempt for stolen credit.

"Probably, sir," Sharpe agreed. Yeah, telling the tale of brave Colonel Parker and his South Essex, he snorted.

"Have to make sure they tell it right, eh? A couple of Chosen Men ordering my South Essex around like clockwork, beating down a formidable foe, rescuing Spanish food and girls, blah, blah, blah, eh?" he asked. Sharpe grinned.

"Yes sir," he said gratefully. And he knew. He knew the Colonel realized what had really saved the Light Company and the village, with its supplies and villagers now firmly supportive of the English.

It hadn't been Baker rifles, or muskets, or steady action under fire. Nor had it been nerves of steel, quick thinking or the courage of a paltry two hundred men against twice that.

It had bean Sharpe's pits.

THE END

coming soon: my second fan-fic, "Sharpe's Tea"...