Author's Note: Yes, another Obadiah Hakeswill story! Bernard Cornwell and Pete Postlethwaite created such a fascinating, unforgettable character that inspired me to write about him once more. As usual, I don't own Obadiah or the Sharpe universe, but am just borrowing for entertainment purposes only.
Abigail Prentice sighed wearily as the wagon slowly clattered into the army camp near Badajoz. She glanced briefly at her cousin and his wife, who both looked equally weary and travel-worn. Sighing again as the wagon jolted hard going over a rut, she silently fretted about how her trip to Spain had not turned out to be the grand adventure she had hoped for.
In her late thirties, Abigail had long yearned to travel, wanting to escape the tedium of her spinster's life in a small English village, even if just for a short time. But, until recently, she'd never had the opportunity to do so, as no one had been willing to travel with her, and it was out of the question for an unescorted lady to go alone. Her widowed mother simply would not have tolerated it
Her opportunity finally came several weeks before, when her married cousin and his wife, were sent by their church on a mission trip to Spain, mostly to minister to British troops there. They had offered to take Abigail along on the condition she help with the work, and her mother had reluctantly agreed, unable to object to such chaperones. And despite caring little for the idea of evangelization, Abigail had jumped at the chance, knowing it was the only one she would ever get. The unattractive, outspoken woman had missed out on getting a husband, so she had no intention of allowing this trip to slip through her fingers as well.
Since the group had arrived in Spain the month before, they'd spent most of their time traveling from one army camp to the next. One time, however, they had stopped at a small Spanish town and her cousin, John White, had attempted to convert some the Papists there. The three of them had ended up being banished from the town, so they'd stuck to the army camps since that incident. John was just as happy visiting such camps, as there were plenty of backsliders and Irish Catholic soldiers for him to preach to.
This had irritated Abigail immensely. What did it matter which denomination a Christian adhered to? They were all praying to the same God, in any instance, so let the Papists finger their rosaries and burn their incense. It didn't make one iota of difference to the middle aged woman. She'd come to Spain to see the Spanish towns and the Spanish people. If she'd wanted to see more Englishmen, she could have remained at home and done that with much less bother.
Sighing again as the wagon rumbled to a halt in front of a blond, green jacketed officer and several similarly clad men, Abigail reminded herself that even this army camp was preferable to remaining at home in her boring little village where nothing of interest ever happened.
The blond officer walked over to the wagon to greet them, with his eyes sliding over Abigail to linger on her cousin's young wife, Marianne, with her blond curls, before finally turning his attention to John. Abigail was used to being practically invisible to men, so the behavior of this man, while not endearing him to her, did not surprise her. Since being in Spain, the giggling, juvenile Marianne had garnered all the male attention from those they met.
"Can I help you?" Richard Sharpe asked, his tone of voice somewhere between curiosity and exasperation, as he wondered what these three civilians were doing in camp in the middle of the siege of Badajoz.
"Yes, you may," John White said unctuously. He was a weedy, prematurely grey man, one year Abigail's senior. "I am Reverend John White. Indicating the two women, he continued "This is my wife, Marianne, and my cousin, Miss Abigail Prentice."
"Ladies," Sharpe briefly acknowledged the women, then waited for the man to continue.
"We're here to minister to the men, to provide spiritual guidance," White explained, puffing up with pride..
Barely repressing the urge to snort in derision, Sharpe replied, "We're in the middle of conducting a siege here." He indicated Badajoz in the distance with a sweep of the hand. "The men don't have time for that sort of thing right now. You and the ladies would just be in the way. And we already have a regimental chaplain."
"I can't think of a better time, considering that many of these men will soon meet their maker," White replied, sniffing. "What better time for them to get right with God?" Seeing that Sharpe still was unimpressed, he quickly added, "We are expected. We sent word ahead and I believe a Colonel Windham is anticipating our arrival. If you could be so kind as to direct us to him?"
Sharpe gestured to young Perkins to show White the way to Windham's tent, now through with the man. "If you'll go with Rifleman Perkins, he'll take you to the Colonel."
Sergeant Harper, who'd been standing by Sharpe, spoke up. "I'll be helping the ladies to find them some quarters, sir, so I will."
"Good idea, Pat," Sharpe said, his eyes still on Marianne White. "Believe I'll walk with you." Ignoring Abigail, he moved to help the petite Marianne from the wagon.
Harper rolled his eyes indulgently at Sharpe's obvious interest in the comely Mrs White, as he moved to help the older and far less attractive Abigail Prentice to get down.
"Thank you, Sergeant," Abigail said primly, as she accepted Harper's hand to alight from the wagon. "I appreciate your assistance."
"It's my pleasure, so it is," Harper replied gently. Turning to a large, red jacketed private, he called out, "Clayton! Come and get the ladies' bags and follow us."
Clayton obeyed the sergeant's orders good-naturedly, acknowledging each woman with a tip of his shako before attending to the bags.
Abigail trailed slightly behind the three men as Sharpe took Marianne's arm to lead her to the guest tents, which were on the far side of the camp, away from Badajoz. Her observant eyes darted around as they walked, watching camp residents going about their normal activities. As was to be expected, most of the camp denizens were men, but there was a smattering of lower class women among them, which surprised her.
"Who are those women?" she asked Harper, pointing.
"Mostly soldiers' wives brought out from England, they are, but there are a few Spanish and Portuguese women what some of the men married, plus a few random local women just following the army, doing such jobs as cooking and laundry. He did not mention the ones who attached themselves to the group in order to make their livings on their backs, as that wasn't a fit topic to speak of to a lady.
"Oh, what a grand adventure it must be for the wives who got to come from England with their husbands!" Abigail enthused.
"No, it's a lot of hard work for them, so it is," Harper replied, repressing the urge to roll his eyes at the naive woman. "But they came because they want to take care of their men. Some of them have lost three or four husbands since they came here." Seeing the shocked look on her face, he added, "A wife that loses her husband in battle has to get married again within a month or she'll be made to leave the army camp, you see. So they marry again as quick as possible so they won't be left behind when we go back to England.."
"Oh, my!" Abigail lapsed into silence then, not quite knowing how to respond to that. She returned to her observations of camp activity, glad that Sergeant Harper did not attempt to revive the conversation.
A moment later, a loud, raspy voice called out, "Clayton! Quit wastin' time with them women! I got some work I needs you to do, you lazy bastard!"
"Mind your own business, Obadiah," Harper snapped impatiently. "I've got Clayton doing something for me right now. I'll send him your way when I'm done with him and not a moment before!"
Abigail swiveled her head in the direction of that intrusive voice to find a rawboned red-coated sergeant a few years her senior. The man had an oddly lumpy face with prominent cheekbones, a shaved head with currently fashionable side whiskers, and a malevolent aura radiating out from his blue eyes. But, rather than being repelled by him, Abigail was fascinated. When the man's gaze met hers and momentarily held it, she shivered involuntarily as he briefly raised one eyebrow to her.
She instinctively knew that this sergeant was unlike any man she had ever met before and made a mental note to seek him out later to see what made him tick. Perhaps visiting this army camp wouldn't be quite so boring, after all.