Sharpe’s Devil is affectionately dedicated to Toby Eady, my friend and agent, who has endured Sharpe and me these many years.
There were sixteen men and only twelve mules. None of the men was willing to abandon the journey, so tempers were edgy and not made any better by the day’s oppressive and steamy heat. The sixteen men were waiting by the shore, where the black basalt cliffs edged the small port and where there was no wind to relieve the humidity. Somewhere in the hills there sounded a grumble of thunder.
All but one of the sixteen men were uniformed. They stood sweltering and impatient in the shade of heavily branched evergreen trees while the twelve mules, attended by black slaves, drooped beside a briar hedge that was brilliant with small white roses. The sun, climbing toward noon, shimmered an atmosphere that smelled of roses, pomegranates, seaweed, myrtle and sewage.
Two warships, their square-cut sails turned dirty gray by the long usage of wind and rain, patroled far offshore. Closer, in the anchorage itself, a large Spanish frigate lay to twin anchors. It was not a good anchorage, for the ocean’s swells were scarcely vitiated by the embracing shore, nor was the water at the quayside deep enough to allow a great ship to moor alongside, and so the sixteen men had come ashore in the Spanish frigate’s longboats. Now they waited in the oppressive, windless heat. In one of the houses just beyond the rose-bright hedge a baby cried.
“More mules are being fetched. If you gentlemen will do us the honor of patience? And accept our sincerest apologies.” The speaker, a very young red-coated British Lieutenant whose face was running with sweat, displayed too much contrition. “We didn’t expect sixteen gentlemen, you understand, only fourteen, though of course there would still have been insufficient transport, but I have spoken with the Adjutant, and he assures me that extra mules are being saddled, and we do apologize for the confusion.” The Lieutenant had spoken in a rush of words, but now abruptly stopped as it dawned on him that most of the sixteen travelers would not have understood a word he had spoken. The Lieutenant blushed, then turned to a tall, scarred and dark-haired man who wore a faded uniform jacket of the British 95th Rifles. “Can you translate for me, sir?”
“More mules are coming,” the Rifleman said in laconic, but fluent Spanish. It had been nearly six years since the Rifleman had last used the language regularly, yet thirty-eight days on a Spanish ship had brought his fluency back. He turned again to the Lieutenant. “Why can’t we walk to the house?”
“It’s all of five miles, sir, uphill, and very steep.” The Lieutenant pointed to the hillside above the trees where a narrow road could just be seen zig-zagging perilously up the flax-covered slope. “You really are best advised to wait for the mules, sir.”
The tall Rifle officer made a grunting noise, which the young Lieutenant took for acceptance of his wise advice. Emboldened, the Lieutenant took a step closer to the Rifleman. “Sir?”
“I just wondered.” The Lieutenant, overwhelmed by the Rifleman’s scowl, stepped back. “Nothing, sir. It doesn’t signify.”
“For God’s sake, boy, speak up! I won’t bite you.”
“It was my father, sir. He often spoke of you and I wondered if you might recall him? He was at Salamanca, sir. Hardacre? Captain Roland Hardacre?”
“He died at San Sebastian?” Lieutenant Hardacre added pathetically, as though that last detail might revive his father’s image in the Rifleman’s memory.
The Rifleman made another grunting noise that might have been translated as sympathy, but was in fact the inadequate sound of a man who never knew how to react properly to such revelations. So many men had died, so many widows still wept and so many children would be forever fatherless that the Rifleman doubted there was a sufficiency of pity for all the war’s doings. “I didn’t know him, Lieutenant, I’m sorry.”
“It was truly an honor to meet you anyway, sir,” Lieutenant Hardacre said, then stepped gingerly backward as though he might yet be attacked by the tall man whose black hair bore a badger streak of white and whose dark face was slashed by a jagged scar. The Rifleman, who was wishing he could respond more easily and sympathetically to such appeals to his memory, was Richard Sharpe. His uniform, which might have looked shabby on a beggar’s back, bore the faded insignia of a Major, though at the war’s end, when he had fought at the greatest widow-making field of all, he had been a Lieutenant Colonel. Now, despite his uniform and the sword that hung at his side, he was just plain mister and a farmer.
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