Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Lord love you, no, sir. The Frenchies, now, we might sling ‘em in the pit, or at least the burial detail does, sir. I mean there’s no point in making a folderol about them, sir, not seein’ as ‘ow they’ve been trying to do us, sir, if you follow me. Their officers, now, they’re different. They might get the…’

Hogan cut him off. “The British, you fool! What happens to them?”

The perfectionist in the body-man was offended. He shrugged. “Their mates get ‘em, don’t they? I mean the Battalion, sir, does ’em a proper service, with a priest. That’s ‘em over there. Waitin’ for their interdment, sir.” He pointed to the stack.

“And if you don’t know who they are?”

“Sling ‘em, sir.”

“What happened to the bodies you got today?”

“Depends, sir. Some ‘ave gone, some are waiting, and some, like this ’ere gent‘, are bein’ attended to.” He invested the phrase with dignity.

Sharpe was in none of the coffins. Sergeant Huckfield levered the lids open, but the faces were all of strangers. Hogan sighed, looked up at the swallows, then down to Price. “He’s probably buried already. I don’t understand it. He’s not here, not in the wards.” Hogan did not believe his own words.

“Sir?” Huckfield was raking through the pile of uniforms that had been slit open, searched, and then tossed into a corner of the small courtyard. He held up Sharpe’s overalls, the distinctive green overalls that Sharpe had taken off a dead French officer of the Imperial Guard. Hogan, like Huckfield, recognised them instantly.

He turned back to the one-eyed man whose stitches, now that an officer was present, were smaller and neater. “Where are those clothes from?”

“The dead, sir.”

“You remember the man who wore those?”

The man squinted with his one eye. “We get ‘em naked, as often as not, an’ the clothes come after.” He sniffed. “Buggers have already searched ‘em. We just burn ’em.” He peered at the overalls. “Must ‘ave been a Frenchie.”

“Do you know which bodies are French?”

“Course we do, sir. Buggers tell us when they bring ‘em.”

Hogan turned to Huckfield and pointed at the pile of shrouded French dead. “Open them, Sergeant.” He noticed, almost for the first time, the huge bloodstain on the overalls.

It was vast. No man could have lived through that.

The body-men protested as Huckfield began slitting at the grey shrouds, but Hogan snapped at them to be quiet, and he and Price watched as face after face was revealed. None were Sharpe. Hogan turned back to the body-man. “Have any been buried yet?”

“Lord, yes. Two cart loads this afternoon, sir.”

So Sharpe was buried in a common grave with his enemies. Hogan felt the beginnings of a sob and he swallowed, stamped his feet as if it were cold, and looked at Price. “It’s your Company now, Lieutenant.”

“No, sir.”

Hogan’s voice was gentle. “Yes. You’d better march in the morning. You’ll find the Battalion at San Christobal. You’ll have to tell Major Forrest.”

Price shook his head obstinately. “Shouldn’t we find him, sir? I mean the least we can do is dig a decent grave.”

“You mean, dig up the French dead?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hogan shook his head. “Fire a volley over the grave tomorrow morning. That’ll do.”

It was all, Hogan thought as he walked slowly back to the Headquarters, that Sharpe might have wanted. No, that was not right. He did not know what Sharpe wanted, except success, and to prove that a man who came from the gutter could compete with anyone, be as good as the most privileged, and perhaps it was better that he should find peace now rather than strive after that remote dream, and then Hogan dismissed that thought as well. It was not better. Sharpe had been turbulent, ambitious, but one day, Hogan supposed, that restlessness would have found satisfaction. Then, curiously, Hogan found himself resenting Sharpe, resenting him because he had been killed and was thus denying his friendship to those who still lived. Hogan could not imagine being without Sharpe. Just when life seemed to reach an even keel the Rifleman could be relied on to upset things, stir them up, make excitement from dullness, and now it was all gone. A friend was dead.

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