Monday, August 6, 2018

"Sharpe's Wine" - My Bernard Cornwell homage

Hi all!

Well, I have more stuff coming up soon (after all, Gen Con just passed!) but first, I wanted to share my finished short story homage to Bernard Cornwell and Richard Sharpe... Sharpe's Wine! I've been working on it for a little while, and basically did it to create a little traditional, hit-all-the-high-notes short story to see if I could contribute a little something that fit the feeling of a true Cornwell piece.

So, if you have a little spare time, and want to read the story of a little-known adventure of Richard Sharpe, please give it a read!:)

Note: This story is meant to take place roughly in the midst of Sharpe’s Eagle, some time after the loss of the South Essex’s colors at the battle at the Bridge of Valdelacasa.

Captain Sharpe cuffed the sweat from his eyes and leaned in to peer through his glass again.  The Spanish countryside shimmered in the heat, the tall grasses and small collection of houses at the bottom of the quiet valley seeming to ripple like water.
“Anything, Sir?” asked Sergeant Harper from beside him.
Sharpe didn’t answer.  He slowly swung the spyglass from left to right, trying to figure out where the enemy had gone.
The two men lay in the long, dry grass, propped up on their elbows, atop a low hill at the edge of a valley in the Castilla region of Spain.  Behind them, low and hidden beneath the crest of the hill, were another dozen or so men, half in red coats, half in green jackets, waiting for their dour commander to give them an order.   They sat in the tall grass, talking softly or trying to get a few minutes of sleep while they could.
Sergeant Harper coughed politely, as if to avoid asking the question again, and Sharpe growled.  “Nothing, Sergeant.  I’ll let you know when I see something.”  He reached the end of the valley, and swung his glass back to check it over again, wondering if he had somehow missed something in the swells of dusty grassland.
“Maybe they kept moving, Sir?” suggested Harper.
Sharpe didn’t answer, but continued to sweep his glass slowly along the valley.  He knew the enemy had to be somewhere, and his orders didn’t leave much room for interpretation.
It was a beautiful piece, made in London and given to him by none other than Sir Arthur Wellesley himself after the battle of Assaye.  It was even inscribed; "In gratitude.  AW.  September 1803."  But staring through the lenses for too long strained his eyes, and so Sharpe looked down into the valley without it.
He reached down to his half-empty canteen, his eyes still searching.  A quick sip of tepid water helped wash some of the dust out of his mouth.
“I don’t know,” Sharpe finally admitted.  “The tracks died out, and I’m not seeing anything showing they left this valley.  They’ve got to be here.”
“The houses?” asked the big sergeant, looking expectantly at his Captain.
“Must be,” said Sharpe, sounding frustrated.  There was no better place to hide in the silent valley, and there was no way that any enemies could have been moving fast enough to have gotten clean away and not left any trail.  
Sharpe looked again down at the houses, without the magnification of his telescope. It wasn’t even enough to be called a village; built along a small stream that ran down the center of the valley, maybe seven or eight farm houses, low, that familiar white-ish color that was so common in this part of the world, the largest at the far edge of the village.  The dusty road ran straight through the center of the hamlet, and disappeared among the hills on the far end of the valley.  Red terracotta tiles covered the roofs of the houses.  There were a few large fields, and some fenced in meadows for grazing along the roads… Sharpe’s eyes narrowed.
Harper nodded.  “No livestock.”
The two men slid back down the hill, out of sight of anyone who might be in the village.   
“They’re there,” said Sharpe.  “There should be something… cows, pigs… chicken, even.  Someone is eating well today.”
“So if they are there… now what?” asked the massive Irishman.
The tall Captain frowned, his eyes narrowing, and thought.

Nobody had ever told Sharpe why this priest was so important, but he had gotten the order to find him, at all costs, from his Colonel, Sir Henry Simmerson.
Simmerson had called Sharpe to his tent urgently, sending Ensign Denny out into camp to pass on the message.
“Pardon me… sir?” asked Denny nervously from the flap of Sharpe’s tent.
Sharpe grunted uninvitingly from his seat on his cot, his eyes never leaving the hanging mirror as he did his best to run an old razor over his chin.
“Sir, the Colonel would like to see you.  Now.  In his tent, if you would?”
Sharpe scraped a bit of stubble off the side of his jaw.  “The Colonel?”
“Yessir.  Colonel Simmerson?”
“I know who our Colonel is, Ensign.  What does he want?” said Sharpe.
“Of course, sir!” said Denny, gulping.  “I don’t know, sir.  What he wants, I mean.  He didn’t tell me.  I’m sorry, sir.”
Sharpe had sighed, and dropped the razor into a mug of dirty water.  He stood up, grabbing a scrap of cloth to dry his face as he came out of his small tent.  “Whatever the Colonel wishes, Ensign Denny,” Sharpe said, shaking his head.  Nothing good could come from this.

“Father Sebastian disappeared at the same time that a small group of Frenchmen passed through Trujillo, Captain.  For reasons I cannot enter into, reasons that are rather above the paygrade of a Captain, Headquarters demands that he must be found before it is too late!”  
Sharpe kept his eyes straight and level while Simmerson barked at him.  It was a trick he had learned as a private, dealing with officers; he stared just above their heads, never moving, responding to everything with a crisp “Yes, sir!” or “No, sir!”  It was often the best way to deal with officers, and Simmerson was no exception.
       “And so, Sharpe,” growled Simmerson, his voice starting lower but rising as he went, “I am tasking you to find him.  Take no more than fifteen men.  You may draw supplies from the quartermaster, and I want you back here in no more than seven days with the priest!  Do I make myself perfectly clear?!”
       Sharpe nodded.  “Yes, sir.”
       He could feel the irritation radiating from Simmerson’s small black eyes, and he had to hold back a smirk.
“What, no questions, Captain?” demanded Simmerson, sure that the know-it-all former private would challenge him in some way.
“The Light Company, sir?” asked Sharpe.
Simmerson sneered.  “Lieutenant Gibbons will take command of the Light Company,” he said.  “We will all somehow manage in your absence, I assure you, Captain!”
“Yes, Sir,” said Sharpe, his eyes glued to the canvas of the tent.
Simmerson dismissed Sharpe with an impatient wave.  
Waiting just outside the tent flap was Patrick Harper, and he fell into step with his Captain as he walked past.
“So, where are we off to this time, Captain?” asked the cheerful Irishman, who had been carefully listening to the entire conversation just outside the tent flap.
Sharpe shook his head, his boots raising dust as he stalked back to the relative peace and quiet of the Light Company tents.  “We are supposed to find some idiot priest who managed to get himself captured by some Frogs and bring him back here, for ‘reasons a bit above the paygrade of a Captain,’” said Sharpe, investing the last part with a particular venom.
Harper laughed.  “Ah, just the South Essex starts to get comfortable, sir… you can always count on the good Colonel to come up with something!”
Richard Sharpe didn’t answer.  Everyone knew that when Colonel Simmerson got bored, Colonel Simmerson was dangerous.  The man, who was fabulously wealthy and had patrons at Whitehall, had raised the regiment himself, and now he was determined to make himself famous.  After the disaster of the Battalion losing its colors, Simmerson was trying to make up ground.  The Battalion had been in camp for several weeks, without any word of the enemy, so Simmerson was sure to jump on this mention of the French.  But Sharpe would be damned if he would get anyone killed for it.
He turned to Harper.  “We need twelve men.   Food for four days.  It might end up being nothing, Patrick.”
Sergeant Harper nodded.  “I think I know just the boys!” he said, a broad smile on his friendly face.  “Rescuing a priest…  I can’t think of a better way to spend a few summer days!”

The men had spent two days getting to Trujillo.  While it was nice to be out of camp and out from under the thumb of Simmerson, the summer was brutal, dry and hot.  The sun beat down on Sharpe and his men as they crossed the rocky hills, leaving them to wipe the sweat from their foreheads and curse under their breath.  Harper had, as Sharpe had expected, picked carefully, a mix of redcoats and rifles..  Dan Hagman was the senior rifle, a Chosen Man who was the most accurate of them all, even at forty years old.  The regulars were all from the Light Company, trained by Sharpe and Harper, with the help of Captain Lennox, who at died at Valdelacasa.  While not up to the level of the greenjackets, Sharpe knew they were reliable men, fighters all.
After beginning their march through the Spanish countryside on the second day, which started off comfortably enough but became a furnace by mid-morning, the group had gotten to Trujillo.  Trujillo was a small town up on a low rocky hill.  On the outskirts of town were a few larger farms and villas.  There were olive orchards and fields surrounding the town, and one entire side of the hill was vineyards.  The town itself was centered on a plaza with a small stone church at one end. As with many small Spanish towns, the church was the center of this small town.  It was named after a Spanish saint, Teresa of Avila, a nun who was said to have once slept there.  There were always some pilgrims around the plaza, people looking for blessings or the sick looking for prayers; in fact, just as Sharpe and his men marched into the plaza, a small caravan of about ten pilgrims arrived from a different direction.
Sharpe dismissed the men once they reached the plaza, where they fell out into the shade and refilled their canteens at a village fountain.  Sharpe knew he could trust the men to stay close and stay sober.  Every man in the Company knew that Sharpe had only three rules; fight well, don’t get drunk without his permission, and don’t steal, except from the enemy or if starving.  Each man knew that the French might be nearby, so they stayed relatively sober as Sharpe and Harper walked into the darkness of the church.
Harper crossed himself as he entered, but Sharpe just stalked to the front of the church.  Sitting in the front pew was an old man dressed in a priest’s habit, carefully reading a battered, old bible.
As Sharpe came to a stop, the priest looked up.  His watery blue eyes peered up at Sharpe, thinning white hair surrounding a bald pate.  “Can I help you, son?” he asked, his Irish accent thick.
Sharpe started just a bit.  While he was used to hearing Irishmen in the army, he hadn’t expected to find one in a small, out-of-the-way Spanish church.  “I’m Captain Sharpe.  I was told that a priest was kidnapped?  From here?”
The old man stared at Sharpe for a second.  Then he nodded.  “Yes!  Yes, yes, please, come with me,” he said, standing and motioning to a door that led to a back room.
Sharpe and Harper followed the priest, the vague smell of wine wafting off of him, into a back room.  It was clearly a combination kitchen and dining room, and the priest waved them to sit at a rough wooden table in the middle of the room.  The Irish priest cleared some wooden cases of wine off the table, and the two soldiers sat on a bench, the priest sitting opposite them.
“My name is Father Erin.   I know, I know…” he said, smiling, “That’s a lass’ name, but it’s been my family name for six generations, and I suppose I won’t be changing that now!”  His eyes were friendly, looking at Harper and then back to Sharpe.   “People are always surprised to find an Irishman in Spain, but Ireland is doing just fine in God’s eye; it’s the rest of the world that needs His help!”
Sharpe nodded impatiently, Harper smiling broadly.  “What can you tell us about your man, the one who is missing?”
“Father Sebastian?  Well, he was taken,” said the old priest, his eyes wide.
Sharpe pushed down the urge to shake the priest.  “I know,” he said, forcing patience.  “What can you tell me about it?”
Father Erin frowned.  “Not a lot, I’m afraid.  A small group of Frenchmen came through a few days ago.  They stole some food and drink and a few horses.  They came through the church, stealing what they could, and they took Father Sebastian, too.”
“Any idea why?”
The Irish priest shrugged.  “Can’t rightfully say.  They seemed to be looking for him, though.  Their commander, a small man, blonde moustache, asked specifically for him.  Then they went out to our villa on the outskirts of town… the church, we have a small villa, where we have fields, and where we teach, like a school?  Then when we arrived, he was gone.  There was also some wine, and his...”
Sharpe waved his hand impatiently, cutting the Irish priest off.  This was strange; what would a bunch of French soldiers in Spain want with a priest from some village in the middle of nowhere?  “So which way did they go?”
Father Erin flapped his hand vaguely towards the wall of the church.  “They went east, following the road… a few mounted, the rest marching.  Twenty five of them, maybe?”
Sharpe nodded again.  He was thinking... about how far ahead the French were, and what they might be doing with the priest, and exactly how they would catch the French and rescue him, while Erin began to talk again.
A few more minutes of the chatty, possibly inebriated priest talking and Sharpe and Harper listening didn’t reveal much, unless you cared about how Father Erin made it to Spain, and the history of the priests in this town making wine.  Harper made a fantastic audience, asking several questions and nodding sagely, Sharpe fairly certain the Sergeant was only looking to irritate him.  Apparently Father Sebastian was some sort of wine-maker; some of the wine in the crates in the kitchen were his.  The priest even poured a small cup from a bottle plucked from one of the crates and gave it to Harper to taste, clearly proud of it, describing the barrels in which it was aged and how Sebastian chose the particular hillside the grapes grew on and how it had a little smoky taste to it.  The large Sergeant nodded like a good Christian at all of this, sniffed the wine carefully, and then drank it down, nodding appreciatively as he did.
“Now, can I ask, Father… I’ve always wondered... when you are stomping on the grapes in those big barrels… it seems like a lot of work to… well, do you get out of the tub when you have to relieve yourself?” the huge Irishman asked with a grin.
The priest laughed.  “Being a God-fearing man, son, I of course will insist that I do, but I don’t presume to speak for everyone.  Not everyone is as civilized as we Irish, Sergeant!”
“Thanks for the information, Father,” Sharpe interrupted, just as the priest was in the middle of an explanation of what made the grapes in Trujillo so special.  He stood.  So… a priest, taken, no reason why, and now they had to get him back.  “I’m not sure we’ll find your priest, but we’ll do what we can.  Thank you for your time, Father.  Sergeant?”
Harper followed Sharpe out of the darkened church and into the bright Spanish sunlight.  

For a day Sharpe and his men followed the road out of Trujillo in the direction that the French had gone, with no sign that the French had left the road, leaving what passed for civilization and heading out into the empty countryside.  
“Apparently the grapes in Trujillo are unique in the country, sir.  The ground on the hill is, too, which makes the wine particularly special.  And it was, too… a grand red, if I may say.  Smoky, almost,” said Harper, walking beside Sharpe, who made no sign of listening.  “And to think, the church holds all that land!  It’s almost like God’s wine, don’t you think, sir?”
Sharpe stifled a sarcastic response, instead looking back over his shoulder at his men.  They were good men all, and while the regulars weren’t quite in the marching shape of the riflemen, they kept up.  
“Ah, well, would you look at that!” exclaimed Harper, looking off to the west.  Sharpe turned to see a small bird rise up from some bushes.  “A black-throated diver, I think!  What a beauty!”
Again Sharpe had to hold his tongue, the heat and dust and ridiculous search grating as his nerves almost as much as the irrepressible good nature of Patrick Harper.  
On the morning of the second day the party came to a wide, grassy valley.  Sharpe ordered the men to rest below the crest of the ridge, and crawled up to look down on the valley with Harper at his side, looking for some missing Frenchmen and a missing priest.

“So, now what?” repeated Harper.
Sharpe looked at the dozen men who had gathered around him.  “They’ve got to be there.” He motioned to two of the men, a rifleman and a regular.  “Peters, Horrell, I want you two to circle around to the other end of the valley, keep an eye on the road leading in.  Stay low, and stay out of sight. Let me know if anyone comes or goes.”  He looked at Harper.  “Sergeant, I want two men posted watching those houses at all time.  The rest can rest.  Tonight, I’ll go take a look.”
Harper nodded, and the men looked at each other, glad to get orders from their Captain, glad to finally have something to do.  
            The day eventually began to cool as the sun set, the valley still silent and dusty.  Nobody and nothing moved among the houses, and nothing entered or left the valley, and Sharpe’s men lounged, waiting.  
Finally night fell, Sharpe not allowing a fire to be lit.  It took some time before it was dark enough.  Sharpe was on the ridgeline again, looking down at the houses.
“There’s definitely someone there, sir… they’ve lit a fire,” said Harper, pointing towards the largest house, which, although the doors and windows were firmly closed, still had some smoke rising from the chimney.
“I guess they don’t expect anyone to be around,” said Sharpe.  
            Harper looked at him.  “So, how d’you propose taking a peek?”
            Sharpe shrugged as he pulled his canteen off.  “Just sneak down and give it a look,” he replied.  There wasn’t a lot of cover between the ridge and the houses, and it might take an hour to get there moving slowly, but the grasses were tall enough, and there wasn’t much moon.  
            “No sentry?”
            Sharpe looked down at the houses for the hundredth time.  “I’m not seeing anything at all down there.  Maybe they’re asleep.”
            Sharp slid his cartridge box and haversack off his shoulders.  He didn’t anticipate a gunfight, and would run back to the ridge at the first sign of trouble.  He still kept his sword.  His men, minus Peters and Horrell, and led by Harper, would watch carefully for any trouble.
“Alright then.  I’ll be back.  Keep quiet,” he said, and Patrick nodded seriously.  He slipped over the ridge and started down the hill.
It took a little more than an hour, and Sharpe was careful the whole way.  He stayed low in the grass, slowly moving from bush to bush, clump of grass to clump of grass.  Occasionally he looked over the tall grass, the houses getting closer, the night silent.  Looking back at the ridge behind him, all he saw was blackness below the night sky.  It was unlikely anyone would see one man moving down through the darkness.
Eventually Sharpe found himself in a row of bushes along the road, near the closest small house.  The night was quiet.  Silently he crept through the shadows and up to the wall of the house.  The shutters of the house were closed, but Sharpe was able to peer through a crack in one.  Nothing but blackness inside; there wasn’t anyone home.  He edged through the night to the next building.  Again, nobody home.  He peeked around the edge of the house, looking across a small, empty space at the largest house.  Like the others, the shutters and door were closed, but a trickle of smoke could still be seen against the sky, a greyish smudge against the black-blue night.
And then suddenly the door banged open, startling Sharpe so badly that he nearly jumped backwards.
Out stormed a girl.  She was small and clearly young… maybe ten or so.  She was wearing a dirty white shift dress, and no shoes.  Black hair tumbled down across her back as she stalked out of the building and into the darkness.  
Then, immediately behind her, came two French soldiers.  
Sharpe froze.  One of the Frenchmen stopped at the door, the other nearly having to run to keep up, calling after the girl in French, Sharpe unable to understand what he said.  But the girl turned on him fiercely, and snapped back in French.  Whatever she said seemed to have the desired effect, as the pursing French soldier stopped in his tracks, and the other burst into laughter, oddly loud after so many hours of silence.  The girl spun back around and disappeared in the bushes.
Sharpe carefully watched around the corner of the farmhouse, invisible in the inky black of the night.  The two French soldiers both wore the uniforms of voltigeurs, the yellow and green epaulets visible even in the dark.  The one by the door continued to chuckle as his comrade stood, looking a bit lost, in the middle of the empty yard.
A minute later the girl came back out of the bushes, adjusting her shift, and walked right back past the soldiers with a quick comment in French.  Both soldiers followed her back inside, the one still chuckling, closing the door behind them.
            Sharpe exhaled, not even realizing he had been holding his breath.  

            “There’s a girl,” said Sharpe.
            Even Patrick Harper’s voice nearly rolled it’s eyes.  “Oh, Jesus wept!  There’s always a girl!” he said.
            Sharpe ignored the outburst.  “A little girl, maybe ten years old.  I think about ten, maybe a few more, French soldiers, all in the largest house.”  The French were clearly feeling rather confident; Sharpe had made it all the way up to the windows of the building without making a sound, and had managed to peek in through the slats of the shutters and get a rough count of Frenchmen.  
            “Are we going to go down now?” asked Rifleman Jenkins, who had been with Sharpe since the retreat to Corunna.  “Catch them sleeping?”
            Sharpe shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “There is a sentry.”
            Harper looked at him sharply.  “A sentry, sir?” he asked, the disbelief obvious in his voice.
            Sharpe nodded.  Somehow they had missed him; they had all missed him.  As Sharpe had started back from the houses, he had used some haystacks as cover.  Just as he came up behind one, he was startled by a cough, a cough that was so close that Sharpe expected a hand on his shoulder.  He had frozen in place, eyes wide, ears listening.  After a moment he realized where the cough had come from.
            “In a haystack,” said Sharpe.  “Near the westmost house.  Maybe two of them.”  It was a fantastic position, one which had escaped the notice of all of the British, and it was only sheer, blind luck that Sharpe’s careful trip down to the houses had been along a path, maybe the only path, that was difficult to see from there… but if more than one man tried it, they would be seen.  
            “Just one of us neak down, cut their throats, Sir?” asked Hagman.
            “No… would take too long to do it right.  To get down there again would take forever, and when the sun came up, it would be behind them.”
            “So what’s the plan, sir?” asked Harper.  “Anything we try, they’ll see us a half mile away and cut us up before we can get close.  Do we wait until tomorrow night?”
            Sharpe paused a moment.  He knew they could just turn around and head home now, just tell Simmerson they had no luck finding the damn priest, let the damn French go, making sure nobody got killed on this ridiculous fool’s errand.  But his ego wouldn’t let that happen.  He was given an order, and he’d carry it out.  He just didn’t know how it would be possible.
            And then, a moment later, he began to see how.

            “A wagonload, Captain!” huffed Private Peters, still catching his breath.  “Maybe 15 men and women and a few children.  Pilgrims.  And then two priests on donkeys, all heading for Trujillo, to the church.”
            Richard Sharpe frowned, and nodded.  “You stopped them?”
            Peters nodded curtly.  “Yessir.  Me and Horrell, sir.  I came to let you know; he’s got them hidden in a grove of trees right off the road.  Couldn’t let them go through the village.”
            Sharpe appreciated what his men had done.  If the pilgrims had gone through the town, with the French there… well, maybe the French would have let them go, but all too often, these sorts of encounters turned out bloody and horrifying, as the humanity on both sides had been worn out by the savage war.
            Sergeant Harper looked at Sharpe.  “So?”
            “So nothing,” said Sharpe.  “Turn them around, Peters.  Tell them to head home… the Church is…”
            He paused.
            An idea had come to him, as suddenly as a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.
            “Wait.  Take me to them.”

            It took about thirty minutes to skirt around the small hamlet and to the out-of-sight grove where the pilgrims had been kept.  Sharpe and Harper stepped into the small clearing, dirty and sweating in the dry, dusty heat of Spain.  Private Horrell greeted the two men and brought them to the priest in charge of the pilgrims, a short, dark skinned man with curly black hair poking out from under a large brimmed hat and a surly look on his face.  “Sir, this is Father Lopez…”
            “Senor, please, this is not allowed!” interrupted the priest, as soon as Sharpe and Harper got close.  “We are pilgrims, simple pilgrims, and we have nothing to do with your war!”
            Sharpe shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Father, but the French are in the hamlet ahe…”
            The priest scoffed.  “We are Spanish, senor!  We are blessed!  God will look after his people, and will…”
            It was Sharpe’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, Father, I’m sure he will.”  He paused, and looked around him.  It was as Peters had described… about 15 pilgrims, men, women, and children… all peasants… with two priests, this dark haired one and a younger one leading them.   “Father,” said Sharpe.  “I need your help.”
            The priest’s eyebrows raised.  “Senor, as I said, this is not our war!  We are simple pilgrims.  Our country, our people, we are sick of war.  You English, you…”
            Now Harper interrupted.  “Your country needs your help, Father.”  He gave the priest a long, meaningful look. “And if your flock is ever going to get to Trujillo, ye need our help.  So… let’s all be helpful, okay?”
            The priest looked first at Harper, whose smile was betrayed by serious eyes, and then at Sharpe, whose expression was rarely welcoming and warm in the best of times… and he nodded.
            “God bless Spain!” exclaimed Harper.
            “Father,” said Sharpe, “I need your hat.”
            “Okay,” said Sharpe an hour later, after the majority of his force had joined Harper and him in the small wood, and now knelt around him.  “Dan, I want you to take four of the rifles and work your way down towards the village as best you can.  That little stream, the bed is deep enough, there are some bushes along the creek you can use as cover… they can’t cover more than a few men, but that’s all you need.  Make sure you have your eyes on the houses nearest this end of the village and on the fields, in case they send men to the flank.  You’ll cover us.”  Hagman nodded.
            “Now Pat, I want you to take the clothes from these pilgrims,” said Sharpe.  Harper raised an eyebrow.  “Their cloaks, all of that… and get the rest of our boys into them.”
            Patrick Harper grinned.  “We’re pilgrims now, sir?”
            Sharpe nodded.  “Just off to pray to a saint.  Cut up some cloth, too, as wigs for some of the boys… make them look more like women, at least from a little ways away.  That should get us close enough.”
            Harper nodded and grinned impishly.  “You going to be leading us, sir?  The moment they see you, the Frogs will know… you don’t look like a godly man, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, and you don’t speak a lick of Spanish…”
            Sharpe knew that what Harper said was true.  While being bigger than practically every man in Spain was fine when it came to fighting, he did stand out a bit.  He thought for a moment, and then turned to the disconsolate priest.
            “Well, Father Lopez… you may get to lead your pilgrims to Trujillo after all.”

            When the first French sentry saw them trundling down the dusty road towards the small village in the valley, he gave out a loud whistle, and immediately the doors of the two largest houses flew open and French soldiers hustled out.  A half dozen came right out to the road, muskets held at the ready, while another half dozen spread out into the fields on both sides of the road, several voltigeurs scattered among them.  An officer joined his men on the road, his hand on the hilt of his sword, although his frown melted away when he saw the sorry procession coming down the road… a beat up old wagon with nearly a dozen dusty, dirty Spanish peasants hunched in it, most of whom were women with the long, dark hair most Spaniards had, and leading them, a pair of priests on donkeys, a short one in front, a taller one wearing a hat in back.
            “Pilgrims?” one of his men said, and Lieutenant Broullard nodded.  The Spanish were a faithful people, and Spain was full of pilgrims.  However, Lieutenant Broullard thought, no matter how hard they prayed, it seemed that life in this dusty country was always hard.  It wasn’t at all like France, a lush countryside full of life… Spain was hot and harsh, and Broullard couldn’t wait to leave it, to get home to his small farm in Auvergne, to his wife and four small girls.
            The small procession drew to a halt when the French appeared, but Broullard walked into the road and waved them forward, and that gesture, along with the dozen muskets waiting, seemed to do the trick.  The priest at the front of the group, a short man with curly black hair, nervously prodded his donkey forward again, followed by the large priest on the donkey behind him and then the wagon.
            Sharpe turned his head slightly, his face largely covered by the brim of the hat he was wearing.  His eyes were searching the edges of the small creek that ran through the valley, looking for some sign of his riflemen, but he didn’t see anything.  He would just have to trust that Hagman and his other men were there.  He turned his attention back to the thin French officer coming towards them.
            Lieutenant Broullard stopped next to Father Lopez’s donkey and nodded at him, while three of his men walked over to the wagon.  “Father,” he said in passable Spanish, a genuinely apologetic look on his thin face, “I’m afraid I cannot let you pass without taking a look at your people and what you have with you in your wagon.”
            The priest looked down at the Frenchman, and then back at the larger priest, who had ridden up behind him.  Broullard looked at the larger priest, and then looked back at Father Lopez… and something about the nervousness in Lopez’s eyes, and the look on the half-hidden face of the rather large priest who had now ridden up right next to the French officer…
            “NOW!” shouted Sharpe, and he lashed out with one huge fist, catching Broullard full in the face, while his second hand brought up a pistol from inside his habit.  Broullard dropped like a sack of bricks, just as the “pilgrims” in the wagon leapt up, pulling muskets and rifles out from under bags and rags.  Before the French could react the British men in the wagon opened fire, and five of the French men on the road were down.
            Sharpe took all of this in in an instant, and leveled his pistol at the last Frenchman standing on the road, a tall man with the mustache and pigtails of a veteran, and before the stunned man could bring his musket up Sharpe fired, the ball catching the man in the chest with a thump, throwing him down.
            On either side of the road the French voltigeurs recovered quickly, and began to level their muskets to fire, when suddenly a quick fire crashed into them from the rifles hidden along the creek bed.  At that range the rifles were deadly; half of the men in the near field dropped, and the rest instinctively ducked down into the golden wheat.  The Frenchmen in the far field were able to fire some hurried shots, but only a single ball found a target, one of the British regulars in the wagon grunting in pain as it tore into his thigh.
            “MOVE!  RELOAD!” roared Harper, as he leapt down out of the wagon and quickly moved into cover along the fence and bushes on the side of the dusty road.  Redcoats and rifles, all still wearing the rags of the pilgrims, spilled out of the wagon and into cover, reloading as quickly as they could. 
Sharpe looked down and saw that the French officer was out cold, and quickly swung down off of his donkey, which surprisingly hadn’t moved an inch since the shooting started.  Father Lopez had tumbled right off his mount, only half on purpose, and was lying flat on the ground, his hands over his head.   Sharpe crashed down next to Harper, who handed him his rifle and his sword, which had been hidden in the wagon’s bed.  “Not a bad start, sir!” said the Irishman, who somehow managed to look like he was enjoying himself despite French bullets cracking over his head.
Sharpe didn’t answer, but instead rolled onto his back to see what the Riflemen in the creek bed were doing.  Judging by the smoke, Hagman was moving them down along the creekbed to engage the Frenchmen on the other side of the stream, just as Sharpe would have done.  Two of the Frenchmen in that field were already down, and there didn’t seem to be any more fire from the near field.
But the gunfire had attracted more attention.  From the two larger houses spilled more Frenchmen, almost two dozen, including several wearing the red epaulets that indicated they were Grenadiers.  Often the largest, fiercest men in the battalion, the Grenadiers were used to press home the attack and break through the enemy lines where the fight was fiercest.
Sharpe saw them coming.  “DAN!” he bellowed over the cracks of the muskets and rifles.  Obviously there was no way for Hagman to respond, but Sharpe caught a glimpse of Rifleman as they dashed down the streambed and began to fire on the newest French reinforcements.  A sergeant at the front of the group was the first to go down, clutching his belly, a testament both to the Rifles’ accuracy and the careful picking of targets by their owners, leaving the newly arrived reinforcements without leadership and looking anxiously for the source of the fire.
Sharpe looked out to the fields on their flanks.  Both groups of French voltigeurs who had been there were gone, either dead or fled, and the new group was just mustering out into the road between the buildings, and so Sharpe turned to Harper, who was in the midst of reloading his rifle, and the mix of regulars and riflemen who were now hunched in cover along the road, a few bullets cracking through the air overhead.  “Okay!” he bellowed, “Make sure you are loaded, one quick volley, and then we go!”  His men nodded, a few grinning, although Rifleman Hine’s usual arrogant look had been replaced with one that suggested he was maybe ready to be sick. 
Sharpe looked at him.  “Hine,” he said, his voice suddenly calm and level.
Hine looked up at Sharpe.
“One shot. One charge.  They’ll be done.  Can you give me that?”
Hine looked at Sharpe, then at the men around him, who were all watching him expectantly, several bullets still cutting through the air around them.  “Yessir,” he said, nodding, taking a deep breath.
            Sharpe nodded.  “Good.  Fix bayonets.”  There was series of loud clicks as the men fixed their bayonets or, in the case of the riflemen, their sword bayonets.  Everyone appeared to be ready.  “Let’s go!” Sharpe said, and he leapt up.  “Ready!” he bellowed, and the mix of Riflemen and regulars stood and leveled their firearms.  
The sudden appearance of a line of armed men along the fenceline at the road checked the still-organizing Frenchmen, who hadn’t been entirely sure what was going on… they just knew that their comrades were either dead or gone, and suddenly a line of armed men had appeared, bayonets glinting, in front of them.
“FIRE!” yelled Sharpe, and at once they did, a rolling cloud of acrid smoke obscuring their targets.  The volley crashed into the French troops on the road, throwing down a handful of them, and causing the rest to flinch at the violence of it.
“CHARGE!” roared Sharpe, and he charged through the smoke, dragging his sword out of its scabbard as he went.
He came out of the smoke to find the French in some disarray.  Their officers down, fired on by some unknown assailant on their flank, and now flailed by this volley from their front, they were not really ready to fight.  Several men had loaded their muskets and quickly fired.  A ball whipped past Sharpe’s shoulder, another snatched down one of the South Essex men in a cloud of red mist, but the rest, hurriedly aimed, either missed or went high.
And the British crashed into them, bayonets stabbing forward, with a roar.          
Sharpe ripped his sword forward in a huge arc, forcing two French soldiers backwards.  They had no place to go, backing right into the men behind them, and one fell, his throat ripped out by the tip of Sharpe’s blade.  The second tried to lunge forward with his bayonet, being pushed forward by the man behind him, but Sharpe sidestepped it and moved forward, inside the range of the bayonet, and punched the man in the face with the hilt of his huge sword.  A musket fired next to Sharpe, loud, and another Frenchman was in front of him, screaming, jamming his bayonet forward, when suddenly one of the South Essex men took him from the side, and the Frenchman screamed a high pitched, shrill scream as he fell, the British bayonet deep in his chest.  
With a little space cleared around him, Sharpe was now faced by a knot of five French soldiers, including three Grenadiers, but then Harper was there at his side, his seven barrelled Nock gun at the ready.  It was a massive gun, originally designed as a naval gun, intended to be used from the rigging to clear the deck of an enemy ship.  In the hands of the huge Rifleman, it was instead used to clear the road.  Harper pulled the trigger, and the gun fired, the boom sounding like a small cannon.  Three of the Frenchmen were thrown down, but two of them, both Grenadiers, survived, and now raised their muskets and fired.
Sharpe threw himself to the side just as they brought up their muskets and he saw one trying to adjust his aim to follow Sharpe as he pulled the trigger.  There was an explosion of smoke in front of him and he felt the air as the bullet cracked past his head.  Next to him he heard a grunt, and in his peripheral vision saw Harper flinch backward.  Sharpe was then moving up and forward, his massive, straight bladed cavalry sword swinging in a glittering arc.  The Grenadier in front of him, a tall man with a blond beard, blocked the blade with his musket and then smashed himself forward, catching Sharpe with his shoulder and throwing him back several feet.  The Frenchman then stamped his foot forward, trying to find Sharpe with his bayonet, and Sharpe again tried to sidestep and close the distance. 
But this time his opponent was expecting it, and again he smashed bodily into Sharpe, knocking the Rifle Captain violently to the ground.  Sharpe hit the ground with a heavy thud, his breath forced from him, and the Grenadier drew his musket back again to stab… and suddenly the large Frenchman gasped as a bullet smacked right into the center of his chest, right where his two crossbelts met in an X.  He fell just as the second Grenadier turned his attention from Harper to the now-prone Sharpe.  The French soldier lifted his musket high, fully intending to drive his bayonet down through Sharpe’s body and into the dusty road beneath him.
But Sharpe didn’t give him that opportunity.  He quickly rolled to the side while simultaneously dragging his sword across, at ankle level.  While missing the full weight of a body behind it, it was enough to crash into the Grenadier’s ankle and throw him off balance, which in turn gave Sharpe enough time to scramble to his feet.  But the Grenadier was quick; he lunged forward with his bayonet, and Sharpe ducked aside, and the Guard’s injured ankle couldn’t support him, and the bayonet ripped sideways into the flowing priest’s robes that Sharpe was wearing, where it got stuck.  The Grenadier’s mouth opened in shock, and then Sharpe’s blade cut down into his shoulder, sending the Frenchman crashing into the dust.
“Pat!” cried Sharpe, looking over, but he saw the Irishman down on the road beside him, his hand clutching his arm, blood seeping out from between his fingers.  
Harper gritted his teeth.  “I should have ducked,” he hissed, the pain obvious.  Sharpe knelt down next to him and pried his hand away from the wound.  “It’s not so bad, sir,” said Harper, and Sharpe realized with a sudden surge of relief that Harper was right; the bullet had hit the Sergeant in the arm, but the bullet had largely grazed him, hitting the meat but not shattering a bone.  The big Irishman was already getting to his feet, his teeth still gritted in pain, surveying the results of the attack as a veteran sergeant should.
And in the eyes of the veteran sergeant… despite a bullet to the arm, things looked good indeed.

Sharpe looked at the young French lieutenant who was standing in front of him, a livid bruise on his cheek.   The Lieutenant’s eyes took in everything.  The growing pile of French dead that the British troops were stacking up.  The French prisoners sitting in a circle next to one of the houses.  The victorious British troops wrapping up wounds and sharing bits of captured garlic sausage taken from French packs.  A small group of the Rifles grumbling as they smashed several cases of wine that they had found in a house, cases which Sharpe had immediately ordered destroyed so that none of the men would drink themselves sick.
Finally his eyes came back to Sharpe himself.  He nervously scratched at his blonde moustache, and said something in French that sounded like a question.  Sharpe, who spoke no French, frowned, and the man said something else, this time in Spanish.
Sharpe looked at Father Lopez, who was now standing next to him.
“He wants to know, senor, what you will do with his men that you captured?”
Sharpe looked back at Lieutenant Broullard.  Broullard was doing his best to look strong in front of the English Captain, but Sharpe could read the mix of concern and shame in the man’s eyes.  Behind him, Harper coughed.
“Yes, Sergeant?” 
Patrick Harper shifted a bit where he stood, wincing and moving his arm a bit to get it more comfortable in the makeshift sling.  “Well, we can’t rightly take’em with us, Sir…”
Sharpe nodded, sighed.  He was tired, that wave of the exhilaration of battle long since receded.  While the French were indeed his enemy, he couldn’t possibly march a dozen or more prisoners, some of whom were wounded, back to the British army.  He felt the French Lieutenant’s eyes on him.  “Well, I’m not going to kill him and his men, if that’s what he’s worried about,” he said to the priest, who translated for the Frenchman, who immediately looked relieved.  “But what about this priest, Sebastian?”
Lopez spoke, and the French officer nodded and responded, and pointed to the largest house behind him.
Sharpe’s eyes swung to the house.  Standing beside the door, guarded by two redcoats, was a large priest in rough robes and, beside him, the girl Sharpe had seen the night before.
Sharpe and Harper walked forward, Harper’s rifle held casually over his uninjured shoulder.  “Father Sebastian?” the sergeant asked, his Irish accent thick.
“Indeed!” said the priest, a calm smile on his wide, tan, simple face.  
Then the girl stepped in front, her eyes fierce, her face scowling, her fists balled up.  “Who are you?” she demanded of Harper, her Spanish accent thick.
Sharpe heard one or two men chuckle, and Harper, who towered over the girl, grinned a wide grin at her ferocity.  “Just the men sent to rescue you, senorita, if you please.”
“Father,” said Sharpe, nodding sharply at the priest.
            Father Sebastian looked Sharpe over, taking in his ragged uniform, the worn rifle, the look in his eye, and recognized immediately the sort of man he was facing.  “Yes, Captain.  I have to thank you and your men for finding us, for rescuing us,” he said in a deep voice, his accent thick.  “I hope you did not suffer for our sake.”
            Sharpe nodded.  “Two men dead, another five wounded.  Whatever you have, or do, you must be important.”
            A concerned look came across Sebastian’s face.  “I am sorry, Captain, but I don’t have any idea what you mean.  I…”
            Sharpe waved his hand.  “Whatever it is, I don’t care, Father.  It’s above the paygrade of a Captain.   I just need to get you back.”  Sharpe looked at the girl, who was now standing, arms crossed defiantly, next to Rifleman Jenkins, who was twice as tall but no fiercer looking than the girl.  “And her?”
            Father Sebastian smiled.  “My sobrina, Captain… my niece?  Sofia.  She is staying with me, learning mathematics and English and French and the like, when the French came.  They took her, maybe to ensure that I behaved?”  The priest nodded, and then looked directly at Sharpe.  “And this Frenchman?” he inquired, nodding at the Lieutenant who, knowing he was being discussed, shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
            Sharpe nodded.  “What about him?”
            “If I may, Captain?  While I know that we Spanish harbor no love for the French, Lieutenant Broullard here, his men, have really been quite kind.  I would appreciate if you could show him and his men mercy?”
            Sharpe looked at the priest.  “Really?” he said, his voice slightly disbelieving.  “They didn’t torture you?  Your niece?”
            “Torture me?!  Mio dios, no, Captain!” exclaimed the priest, looking positively mortified.  “Why on earth would they torture an innocent priest?  And the Lieutenant took Sofia under his protection… he said she reminded him of his youngest daughter.”
            Sharpe frowned.  If it wasn’t information that the priest knew and the French wanted, some list of spies or agents, then what was it?  “Well, what the hell did they want with an innocent priest in the first place, then?” 
            Harper eyes widened in mock horror at Sharpe’s blasphemy.  Sebastian didn’t seem to mind, but again shrugged. “The only thing that he asked about was wine, Captain.  Apparently their General wanted me for my wine making?”
            “Fine,” said Sharpe, irritated by the priest’s dogged reluctance to admit what was really going on here.  “Wine.  Gather your things; we leave soon.”  And he turned from the priest and his niece to organize his men for the march back to Trujillo.

            It took three days to get back to Trujillo, slowed as they were by the wounded and by Father Lopez and his pilgrims, who insisted on joining them.  Things had worked out well, actually, as the wounded were put in the wagon, and the pilgrims walked.  Sharpe couldn’t take prisoners, and so had taken the guns from Broullard and his men and destroyed them, and told them to march back to their army; the French left the village soon thereafter, and the villagers themselves filtered back in from the hills, where they had been hidden.  While some of their livestock had been killed and eaten by the French, they had kept enough with them to survive.
            Patrick Harper enjoyed the trip back to Trujillo, chatting amiably with Father Sebastian about Spain and local wildlife and especially about winemaking, which the huge Irishman had taken a recent, amateur interest in.  He also seemed to enjoy teasing Sofia, whose fierce scowl would occasionally drop in gales of laughter as the massive Sergeant, such a terror with his enemies yet strangely such a natural with children, played the fool for her.  The pilgrims, and Father Lopez, still treated Sharpe with some nervousness, keeping a fearful distance, which suited Sharpe just fine.  And slowly but surely, the strange procession of soldiers, priests, pilgrims and one fierce little Spanish girl made its way back to Trujillo.

            Sharpe stood at attention in front of Colonel Simmerson in the large kitchen of Father Sebastian’s villa outside of town.  Father Sebastian sat at the rough wooden table in the room, his niece Sofia sat beside him,   a large case of his finest wine on the table.
            “Two dead, and five wounded Sharpe?” demanded Simmerson, his small bloodshot eyes boring into the Captain.
            “Yes sir,” said Sharpe, staring just above Simmerson’s head.  “Ran into some Frenchmen.”
            Simmerson snorted.  “Well, I hope you gave better than you received, Captain!”  He shuffled through some papers in his hands, as if looking for something.  “Seven casualties?  For such a small job?”
            Richard Sharpe’s flinty eyes suddenly drifted downwards, downwards until he was looking Simmerson in the eye.  “There were a lot of Frenchmen. Sir.”
            Simmerson’s lip curled a bit, but there was a moment of hesitation in his eyes.  Just then, there was a loud bang as the front door of the priest’s villa banged open, and Sharpe heard several men walking, speaking loudly as they did, and suddenly Sir Arthur Wellesley came striding into the room, along with several staff officers.  He pulled up short when he realized who was in the room, and also as he realized that he had entered at some moment of tension.
            “Ah.  Colonel,” said Wellesley, nodding curtly at Simmerson.  His eye flitted over to Sharpe.  “Captain.”
            Simmerson, his eyes still afire, turned his back to Sharpe and gave Wellesley a curt salute.  “Ah.  General.  So I take it you have accepted my invitation to dinner?” he said, doing his best to sound both dignified and strong.
            After a moment, Wellesley turned his eyes back to Simmerson.  “In a way.  I suppose my messenger never arrived?”
            Simmerson’s mouth opened slightly and then closed.  “I am afraid not, Sir.”
            “Ah,” said Wellesley, nodding like he had decided it was time to deliver bad news.  “Well, I’ll be making this divisional headquarters for now.  I’m afraid you’ll have to find yourself a new billet in town.  So sorry.”  He paused to allow Simmerson to digest this news, and then turned back to his staff officers.
            Simmerson’s recoiled slightly, his mouth open now.  “Oh!  Well… Sir… but the cook… this case of wine… the winemaker…?  That you liked…?” and he motioned towards the table, towards Father Sebastian and the case of wine.
            Wellesley turned his attention back to Simmerson with a slightly furrowed brow, as if irritated, and then nodded curtly.  “Ah. Yes.  That red wine, that was from this town.”  He looked at Father Sebastian.  “It is quite delicious.”  Sebastian smiled at the General.  “And I suppose this is for me?” Wellesley said, nodding at the case of wine on the table.
            “Ah,” said Simmerson.  “Yes.  Sir.”
            Wellesley nodded again, the look of irritation still in his eyes.  “Well… quite thoughtful.”  He turned to one of his aides.  “We can open that case with dinner.”  He then turned back to Sir Henry.  “Much obliged.  Well… not enough time in the day.  We should get going.”
Wellesley was ready to leave.  He turned on his heel. “Captain Sharpe.  I hope you are staying out of trouble.”
Sharpe saluted.  “Yes, sir.” 
            And Wellesley swept out of the kitchen, his staff officers following him, Sir Henry Simmerson following a moment later, looking a bit like a boy who had lost his dog.
            Sharpe turned to Father Sebastian, who looked a bit awestruck, and Sofia, who had a huge grin splitting her tan face.  For a moment he just stood there, shaking his head slightly.  All of this… the march, battle, the casualties… so Simmerson could curry favor with Wellesley.  “It really was about the wine,” he said.
            Sebastian nodded, a warm smile breaking across his tan, open face.  “I told you, Captain.  It really was about the wine.”
            Richard Sharpe shook his head and stood.  He nodded to Father Sebastian, then winked at the little girl standing beside him, who winked back fiercely.  Sharpe then walked over to the table, slid one of the bottles of red wine out of the case, tucked it under his arm, and left the kitchen, heading back to camp, to drink a toast to their adventure, with Sharpe’s Wine.