Not For Honour Alone, Part 20
Morning dawned grey, cold, and drizzly. Edrington watched as Sharpe and Harper meticulously stopped their rifles' muzzles and wrapped the locks in oilskin cloth in an effort to keep the powder dry. It was a necessary precaution. They were now almost three days ride behind enemy lines; three days removed from the safety of the British army. A dubious safety, to be sure, considering they were all listed as deserters, but it was better than a French prison. And he was not a fool; he knew that the best hope of their returning safely lay in the two Riflemen.
Once his rifle was protected Sharpe hunched into his greatcoat and slouched on his horse. His mood quickly grew foul; rain always had that effect on him. He glared at Antonia, riding behind Harper, swathed in the Irishman's huge coat. Despite his arguments in her favour the evening before, he was regretting bringing her along. If the needed to fight their way through she would be a hindrance.
Something of Sharpe's dourness transmitted itself to the rest of the men. Even the ordinarily irrepressible Kennedy was quiet and withdrawn. At a glance from Edrington Kennedy had raised his eyebrows, shrugged, and rolled his eyes toward Sharpe.
Harper alone seemed immune to the captain's bad temper and the effects of the dismal weather. He rode straight-backed and smiling, occasionally whistling. He chatted with the woman in a strange mix of English, Gaelic and Spanish. It was doubtful whether she understood one word in three, but the sound of his voice seemed to have a positive effect on her. She seemed less scared, even going so far as to shyly smile at Edrington.
The sun had broken free by the time they stopped beside a small copse of trees to rest the horses and stretch their legs. Sharpe walked away and stood by himself, his gaze determinedly westward. His posture alone was a deterrent to conversation; Edrington hardly needed Harper's words of warning.
"He always gets like this, he does." the quiet Irish voice spoke. "It'll work out for the best, you'll see."
"Does he think standing and staring like that will bring Portugal closer?" Kennedy asked.
Edrington snorted. "Probably. He's certainly strong-willed enough." He thought for a moment. "Not that its a bad thing."
"No, not a bad thing. A man like that would need a will of iron to have accomplished what he has." Kennedy sighed. "I suppose that makes him seem hard, but I don't see it that way."
Edrington glanced at his friend. "Oh? And how do you see him?"
Kennedy shook his head, a sardonic smile on his face. "How I see him doesn't matter, Hal. If you are going to succeed in this it matters how YOU see him. Think about it" And he walked away.
Edrington was thinking about it. Sharpe had a reputation throughout the army for being hard, even ruthless, but he was showing little of those characteristics. True, he was obstinate, pigheaded, stubborn to the point of irrationality, and damned annoying at times. But he was also honourable and decent, living by a code that demanded he be fair to everyone, regardless. In short, Edrington smiled to himself, he's not unlike me.
If he's obstinate and pigheaded than I'd say he's very like you.
Edrington grinned at the echo of his wife's voice in his head. As always, Sarah went straight to the point, even if only in his imagination. He sighed deeply, missing her. As soon as this is over, he promised her in his heart, I'll come home to you, and the children.
The shout spun both Edrington and Sharpe around to see Owen frantically waving his arms. Almost at the same moment Edrington became aware of the thump of approaching hoofbeats. He broke into a run, Sharpe just a step behind him. He could see the small squad of French dragoons they had encountered the day before, coming closer. There was no time to run; to escape. They would have to fight.
He saw Antonia grab the horses' reins and pull them closer to the trees, taking shelter with the animals. Harper had his rifle loaded and at his shoulder. He fired, and the sergeant leading the group fell from the saddle. A split second later Edrington felt the wind of a rifle ball pass his head; Sharpe had fired, and another trooper fell forward over his horse's neck.
Owen's musket went off, then the higher pitched sound of a pistol split the air. Kennedy had fired, and felled another dragoon. There were still seven of them left, but at least the odds were better now.
Unwilling to waste any time reloading Sharpe tossed his rifle away, drew his heavy sword and charged at the nearest dragoon. With a shout he swung the blade in a great arc, slicing through the muscles and bones of the horse's jaw. The animal screamed and reared, dumping the rider. The dragoon quickly scrambled to his feet and met Sharpe's sword with a parry that set both blades ringing.
And that was the last thing Edrington saw, because he quickly had his hands full. He drew his own sword and parried the downward slash of a trooper. He ducked out of the way, then caught the stirrup and heaved with all his might, spilling the rider off into the dust. He ducked under the horse's belly and came out swinging on the other side.
He caught the dragoon off guard, and his first swing knocked the sword from the Frenchman's hand. He went for the eyes, using a technique his brother had taught him. The Frenchman stumbled back, raising one arm to protect his sight. Edrington quickly reversed his motion and back-swung, laying the dragoon's guts open with one slash. He stepped over the crumpled body to confront the next man
Kennedy had caught Sharpe's rifle and had quickly reloaded the weapon. He fired one shot before a dragoon was on top of him. He used the rifle to block a sword stroke, jumping back and away from the horse. The dragoon smiled and saluted him, an ironic gesture that angered Kennedy. He dropped to one knee and swung the rifle's brass tipped butt, catching the horse just beneath the knee. The animal's leg buckled, and the trooper quickly dismounted.
He was huge; a giant of a man that made even Harper look small in comparison. Kennedy's eyes widened at the sight, but he refused to back down. He knew he could never match this man in size and strength, so he would have to make up for it in quickness and agility. Even as he thought that the sword came at him, and he quickly spun away, using his motion to bring the rifle's muzzle crashing against the back of the Frenchman's head. All the blow did was knock off his helmet.
Now desperately thinking of a way to get out of the situation Kennedy kept out of reach of the giant, dancing aside whenever the sword came close. His elusiveness frustrated the trooper; the slashing motions grew wider and wilder with each failure.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Harper reloading his rifle, watching Kennedy in his desperate bid to stay away from the huge sword. Harper nodded once, and Kennedy took his eyes away from the dragoon for a moment to acknowledge the Irishman. The trooper grinned and swung his blade in a great arc, forcing Kennedy back again.
He stumbled on a stone and fell to one knee. The Frenchman howled in triumph and raised his sword for the killing stroke. At the last possible second Kennedy dove to one side, rolled, and came to his feet just as Harper threw the rifle to him. Spinning around he cocked the weapon and fired. The bullet took the huge trooper in the back, just below his heart. With a half-choked gasp the man fell to his knees, than to his face, and lay still.
Kennedy struggled to catch his breath. He tossed the rifle back to Harper.
"Thanks." was all he said.
"My pleasure, sir." Harper responded with a grin before turning back to the fight raging around Sharpe.
The captain was tangling with three dragoons, all of them dismounted. He swung his sword wildly, forcing the trio back and away from him. Blood showed on his jacket from a cut on his upper arm, but it didn't phase him in the slightest. He concentrated his attention on the nearest trooper; blocking a thrust and using his sword's heavy guard to scratch the other man's face. He spun around and slashed again, catching the Frenchman's knee.
One of the other dragoons had circled behind Sharpe, ready to deliver a deadly blow to his unprotected head. Harper moved to help his officer, but Edrington arrived first. At a run, he crashed full speed into the dragoon, knocking the man to the ground and driving the breath from his lungs. He swung once, slashing the trooper across the buttocks. Blood poured from the wound and stained the ground. Without another thought Edrington thrust the sword into the man's back, feeling the muscles close around the blade. He twisted the blade to keep it from catching, and with a heave jerked the weapon free. He turned to stand at Sharpe's side, facing the other two men. With identical grimaces of anger the two officers advanced on them, making short work of their enemies.
The last two dragoons were still mounted, and they stared in horror at what had become of their comrades. The younger of the pair took one look at Sharpe's face and wheeled away, urging his horse to a gallop. His fellow quickly followed.
The boom of the seven barreled gun echoed as Harper fired at the fleeing forms, but they were already out of range.
When the sound of the hoofbeats died they stood and took stock of their situation. Eight dragoons lay dead on the ground and the stench of blood was heavy in the air. Antonia came out of the shelter of the trees, leading the horses. She looked shocked, as well she might be. The fight had been short, but savage.
Edrington managed to find his breath again. "They'll be back, with more men. Let's get moving." he ordered.
They quickly mounted. Antonia was nearest to Edrington, so he grabbed her arm and swung her up behind him. As he did so pain shot from his shoulder and down his arm. He couldn't suppress a yelp.
"Sir?" Owen's voice, concerned as always. "Sir, are you all right?"
"Yes, God damnit!" Edrington snarled. "Right
enough to get the hell out of here and someplace safer! When
we stop for the night we can tend wounds." He nodded toward
the westward road. "Now move!"