Read an Excerpt
Sharpe swore. Then, in desperation, he turned the map upside down. "Might as well not have a bloody map," he said, "for all the bloody use it is."
"We could light a fire with it," Sergeant Harper suggested. "Good kindling's hard to come by in these hills."
"It's no bloody use for anything else," Sharpe said. The hand-drawn map showed a scatter of villages, a few spidery lines for roads, streams or rivers, and some vague hatchings denoting hills, whereas all Sharpe could see was mountains. No roads or villages, just gray, bleak, rock-littered mountains with peaks shrouded by mists, and valleys cut by streams turned white and full by the spring rains. Sharpe had led his company into the high ground on the border between Spain and Portugal and there become lost. His company, forty soldiers carrying packs, haversacks, cartridge cases and weapons, seemed not to care. They were just grateful for the rest and so sat or lay beside the grassy track. Some lit pipes, others slept, while Captain Richard Sharpe turned the map right side up and then, in anger, crumpled it into a ball. "We're bloody lost," he said and then, in fairness, corrected himself "I'm bloody lost."
"My grand-da got lost once," Harper said helpfully. "He'd bought a bullock from a fellow in Cloghanelly Parish and decided to take a shortcut home across the Derryveagh Mountains. Then the fog rolled in and Grand-da couldn't tell his left from his right. Lost like a wee lamb he was, and then the bullock deserted the ranks and bolted into the fog and jumped clear over a cliff into the Barra Valley. Grand-da said you could hear the poor wee beast bellowing all the way down, thenthere was a thump just like you'd dropped a bagpipe off a church tower, only louder, he said, because he reckoned they must have heard that thump all the way to Ballybofey. We used to laugh about it later, but not at the time. God, no, it was a tragedy at the time. We couldn'tafford to lose a good bullock."
"Jesus bloody wept!" Sharpe interrupted. "I can afford to lose a bloody sergeant who's got nothing better to do than blather on about a bloody bullock!"
"It was a valuable beast!" Harper protested. "Besides, we're lost. We've got nothing better to do than pass the time, sir."
Lieutenant Price had been at the rear of the column, but now joined his commanding officer at the front. "Are we lost, sir?"
"No, Harry, I came here for the hell of it. Wherever the hell this is." Sharpe stared glumly about the damp, bleak valley. He was proud of his sense of direction and his skills at crossing strange country, but now he was comprehensively, utterly lost and the clouds were thick enough to disguise the sun so that be could not even tell which direction was north."We need a compass," he said.
"Or a map?" Lieutenant Price suggested happily.
"We've got a bloody map. Here." Sharpe thrust the balled-up map into the Lieutenant's hands. "Major Hogan drew it for me and I can't make headnor tail out of it."
I was never any good with maps," Price confessed. "I once got lost marching some recruits from Chelmsford to the barracks, and that's a straight road. I had a map that time, too. I think I must have a talent for getting lost."
"My grand-da was like that," Harper said proudly. "He could get lost between one side of a gate and the other. I was telling the captain here about the time he took a bullock up Slieve Snaght. It was dirty weather, see, and he was talking the shortcut"
"Shut up," Sharpe said nastily.
"We went wrong at that ruined village," Price said, frowning over the creased map. "I think we should have stayed on the other side of the stream, sir." Price showed Sharpe the map. "If that is the village. Hard to tell really. But I'm sure we shouldn't have crossed the stream, sir."
Sharpe half suspected the lieutenant was right, but he did not want to admit it. They had crossed the stream two hours before, so God only knew where they were now. Sharpe did not even know if they were in Portugal or Spain, though both the scenery and the weather looked more like Scotland. Sharpe was supposedly on his way to Vilar Formoso where his company, the Light Company of the South Essex Regiment, would be attached to the Town Major as a guard unit, a prospect that depressed Sharpe. Town garrison duty was little better than being a provost and provosts were the lowest form of army life, but the South Essex was short of men and so the regiment had been taken out of the battle line and set to administrative duties. Most of the regiment was escorting bullock carts loaded with supplies that had been barged up the Tagus from Lisbon, or else were guarding French prisoners on their way to the ships that would carry them to Britain, but the Light Company was lost, and all because Sharpe had heard a distant cannonade resembling far-away thunder and he had marched toward the sound, only to discover that his ears had played tricks. The noise of the skirmish, if indeed it was a skirmish and not genuine thunder, had faded away and now Sharpe was lost. "Are you sure that's the ruined village?" he asked Price, pointing to the crosshatched spot on the map that Price had indicated.
"I wouldn't like to swear to it, sir, not being able to read maps. It could be any of those scratchings, sir, or maybe none.
"Then why the hell are you showing it to me?"
"In a hope for inspiration, sir," Price said in a wounded voice. "I was trying to help, sir. Trying to raise our hopes." He looked down at the map again. "Maybe it isn't a very good map?" he suggested.