Not For Honour Alone
"GOD DAMN THEM TO HELL!!!"
Wellington's anger spilled over, and the hapless aide that had delivered the news to him of Sharpe and Edrington's disappearance stood, terrified lest the general turn those blazing blue eyes on him. Colonel Adler, the chief of staff, stood nearby, his countenance unperturbed. He had seen too many of these tantrums, and he knew from long experience that they passed as quickly as they arose.
"Bloody Hell!" the general shouted one last time, slamming his fist down on the makeshift desk. Adler winced slightly, expecting the dilapidated furniture to splinter to pieces, but it held together. Once Wellington had sat and his breathing began to return to normal Adler ventured a question.
"Should we send out a patrol after them, my lord? They can't have gone very far."
"No colonel. Let them go." He laughed ruefully. "I knew he would do this. I should have arrested him last night for even thinking it."
"Nothing, Adler." He smiled, a grim smile that did
little to dispel the tension in the tent. "They'll return.
And when they do I'll have what's left of their hides. If the
French don't get them first."
They had left nearly an hour before dawn and rode hard for almost three hours before Edrington called a halt to give the horses a chance to rest. Truth be told, he was glad for the respite himself. His injured shoulder was aching fiercely; in fact it felt like someone had branded him. He took a casual glance around at his companions. Harper was as relaxed as Edrington had ever seen him; apparently in his element when courting trouble with authority. He was conversing quietly with Kennedy, who had visibly quaked when first introduced to the Irish giant. Owen was silent and somewhat morose; not being accustomed to hours spent on horseback. He winced slightly as he swung from the saddle. And Sharpe...
Edrington stifled the impulse to laugh out loud, for it was clear that Sharpe was no horseman. He rode the colonel's spare horse, a beautiful bay mare, like a sack of oats that had been thrown over the saddle. Elegant he was not, but he had stayed on the animal's back and had kept up with the rest of them. But at that moment he was cursing quietly as the horse danced lightly sideways, preventing him from dismounting.
Sergeant Harper reached out with one hand and steadied the horse, allowing his captain to swing down. With his other hand he stroked the soft-as-velvet nose before addressing himself to Sharpe.
"You have to be understanding with an animal like this, sir." he said. "None of your bad moods with this beauty!" He was smiling as he said it.
"Who does that remind you of?" Kennedy asked Edrington, with a nod toward Sharpe who was at that moment glaring at the horse.
Edrington lost his battle to keep the laughter under control. It was a hopeless case; Sharpe looked entirely too much like Hornblower at that moment.
"I wonder why he didn't join the navy." he said, and the two of them laughed.
Sharpe simply glared.
"Sorry, Sharpe." Kennedy said, with a last hiccup of laughter. "You just reminded us both of somebody we knew." He looked wistful for a moment. "Someone I knew a lifetime ago." He smiled slightly and walked away, joining Owen and Harper as they tended the horses.
Edrington stood beside Sharpe. "What is with your friend, Colonel?" Sharpe asked.
"You mean Kennedy?" Edrington said. "Why do you ask?"
Sharpe shrugged. "He's not what I would have expected. I mean, just look at him!" he said, gesturing to where Kennedy stood, laughing with Harper.
Edrington watched the pair for a moment. "Well, that is easily explained. Archie has relatives in Ireland. They're probably exchanging stories about that." He glanced at Sharpe. "By saying he's not what you expected I suppose you're referring to the fact that he comes from an upper class family but still manages to treat others with respect." He started to walk away and gestured for Sharpe to follow him. "A man can learn a great deal about democracy serving in His Majesty's navy, Sharpe. Unlike this army, merit counts in the navy. And Archie served well. He was wounded at Trafalgar, and resigned his commission shortly afterwards."
"And promptly used the image of a hero of that battle to get himself elected to Parliament." Sharpe said with a sneer.
Edrington sighed. "Why do you always have to assume the worst of people?" he asked. "His election to Parliament is quite recent, I can assure you. And if I know Archie, the main reason he did it was not for his own prestige, but to genuinely help the people who elected him." He shook his head. "You're right about one thing though, Sharpe. He is rarely what anybody expects of him."
"How long have you known each other?"
"Thirteen years." was the prompt reply.
Sharpe raised an eyebrow. "It must have been pretty memorable." he said. "How you met, I mean. You didn't even have to think about it."
Edrington laughed. "Memorable? Perhaps. Sometimes I wish it wasn't. But I gained a life-long friend from that experience, so I suppose I shouldn't complain."
"I envy you, in a way." Sharpe said.
Edrington stopped walking and stared at Sharpe, stunned. "Envy me? Whatever for?"
"You have those kinds of friends. Every person I've ever counted as a friend has ended up dead."
"What about Harper?" Edrington asked with a nod behind him.
"Pat?" Sharpe asked. "He's a sergeant. Perhaps if I wasn't an officer we could truly be friends, but the way things are...."
Edrington laughed. "I'm going to let you in on a secret, Sharpe. Rank means nothing in the real world, and it means even less when your emotions are involved. Do you think that I consider Sergeant Owen to be simply a man that serves under my command? I trust him, in a way I admire him, and quite frankly, I like him. I would call that friendship, wouldn't you?"
Sharpe smiled slightly in return. "I suppose so."
"But if you ever tell any of my fellow officers what I just said I'll have your liver served up for dinner in the mess. Understood?" Edrington said, still smiling.
"Understood, my lord."
"Who knows? With a little luck I may even start to like you, Sharpe."
"God forbid, sir."
They walked back over to the others. Owen had located a stream nearby and was allowing the horses to drink from his shako.
"All well, Owen?" Edrington asked.
"Then let's get moving."
They made camp that night in a hollow on the side of a hill. With luck they would be invisible to any venturesome French patrols. Harper lit a small fire and Owen laid out dinner, such as it was.
"Owen?" Edrington asked. "Where did all of this come from?" he said, gesturing to the bread and dried beef that had materialized from Owen's pack.
"I nicked it, sir." he said with a grin.
"I suppose I'll have to ignore the crime of theft, considering the rest of the trouble we're all in right now."
"Yes sir, I expect you will."
Harper cleared his throat. "Sir? Colonel?" he began. "I don't usually ask a lot of questions; its often best not to know. But what exactly are we after here? Or should I ask who?"
"No 'who', Pat." Sharpe answered. And he proceeded to tell Harper and Owen about what he had discovered regarding the musket that Andrews had been carrying the night of the explosion. "Major Harlan wouldn't have risked using an armourer or a blacksmith with the army, so it must have been somebody in the last village we were near."
"So we're risking everything, especially our lives, on a hunch?" Harper asked. He threw a quick, apologetic glance at Edrington. "Beggin' your pardon, Colonel, but there's no proof of any of this."
"You're right, Harper. Its entirely a hunch. Based on what I know of Major Harlan. Mainly the simple fact that he's a coward. So even if we find the person who - shall we say adjusted? - that musket, chances are that he won't be a direct link to Harlan. Our job won't be finished until we can prove all of this."
"If its even done then." Kennedy spoke up for the first time. He came closer to the fire and sat on a convenient rock. "Harlan may be a coward, but he's not lacking intelligence, or imagination. He'll be prepared with plausible explanations for almost any accusation we may throw at him. We're risking a great deal more than he is."
They were all quiet, digesting Kennedy's words. There wasn't a man among them who wasn't aware of the pitfalls ahead of them. Even if they came out of this alive they still faced disgrace, ruin, and, quite possibly, death for the simple act of desertion.
"No use dwelling on it." Sharpe said. "Its
done, and we need to see it through." He looked around at
the ring of faces in the firelight. "We fight together,
win or lose. No turning back."