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It was funny, Richard Sharpe thought, that there were no vultures in England. None that he had seen, anyway. Ugly things they were. Rats with wings.
He thought about vultures a lot, and he had a lot of time to think because he was a soldier, a private, and so the army insisted on doing a ot of his thinking for him. The army decided when he woke up, when he slept, when he ate, when he marched, and when he was to sit about doing nothing and that was what he did most of the time--nothing. Hurry up and do nothing, that was the army's way of doing things, and he was fed up with it. He was bored and thinking of running.
Him and Mary. Run away. Desert. He was thinking about it now, and it was an odd thing to worry about right now because the army was about to give Richard Sharpe his first proper battle. He had been in one fight, but that was five years ago and it had been a messy, confused business in fog, and no one had known why the 33rd Regiment was in Flanders or what they were supposed to be doing there and in the end they had done nothing except fire some shots at the mist-shrouded French and the whole thing had been over almost before young Richard Sharpe had known it had begun. He had seen a couple of men lolled. He remembered Sergeant Hawthorne's death best because the Sergeant had been hit by a musket ball that drove a rib clean out of his red coat. There was hardly a drop of blood to be seen, just the white rib sticking out of the faded red cloth. "You could hang your hat on that," Hawthorne had said in a tone of wonder, then he had sobbed, and after that he had choked up blood and collapsed. Sharpe had gone on loading and firing, and then, just as he was beginning to enjoy himself, the battalion had marched away and sailed back to England. Some battle.
Now be was in India. He did not know why he was invading Mysore and nor did he particularly care. King George III wanted Richard Sharpe to be in India, so in India Richard Sharpe was, but Richard Sharpe had now become bored with the King's service. He was young and he reckoned life had more to offer than hurrying up and doing nothing. There was money to be made. He was not sure how to make money, except by thieving, but he did know that he was bored and that he could do better than stay on the bottom of the dungheap. That was where he was, he kept telling himself, the bottom of a dungheap and everyone knew what was piled on top of a dungheap. Better to run, he told himself. All that was needed to get ahead in the world was a bit of sense and the ability to kick a bastard faster than the bastard could kick you, and Richard Sharpe reckoned he had those talents right enough.
Though where to run in India? Half the natives seemed to be in British pay and those would turn you in for a handful of tin pice, and the ice was only worth a farthing, and the other Indians were all fighting against the British, or readying to fight them, and if he ran to them he would just be forced to serve in their armies. He would fetch more pay in a native army, probably far more than the tuppence a day Sharpe got now after stoppages, but why change one uniform for another? No, he would have to ran to some place where the army would never find him, or else it would be the firing squad on some hot morning. A blast of musket shots, a scrape in the red earth for a grave, and next day the rats with wings would be yanking the guts out of your belly like a bunch of blackbirds tugging worms out of a land.
That was why he was thinking about vultures. He was thinking that he wanted to run, but that he did not want to feed the vultures. Do not get caught. Rule number one in the army, and the only rule that mattered. Because if you got caught the bastards would flog you to death or else reorganize your ribs with musket balls, and either way the vultures got fat.
The vultures were always there, sometimes circling oil long wings that tilted to the sudden winds of the warm upper air and sometimes standing hunched on branches. They fed on death and a marching army gave them a glutton's diet, and now, in this last year of the eighteenth century, two allied armies were crossing this hot fertile plain in southern India. One was a British army and the other belonged to a British ally, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and both armies provided a feast of vulture fodder. Horses died, oxen died, camels died, even two of the elephants that had seemed so indestructible had died, and then the people died. The twin armies had a tail ten times longer than themselves: a great sprawl of camp followers, merchants, herders, whores, wives, and children, and among all of those people, as it did among the armies themselves, the plagues ran riot. Men died with bloody dysentery, or shaking with a fever or choking on their own vomit. They died struggling for breath or drenched in sweat or raving like mad things or with skins blistered raw. Men, women, and children all died, and whether they were buried or burned it did not matter because, in the end, the vultures fed on them anyway, for there was never enough time nor sufficient timber to make a proper funeral pyre and so the vultures would zip the half-cooked flesh off the scorched bones, and if the bodies were buried then no amount of stones heaped on the soil would stop the scavenging beasts from digging up the swollen, rotting flesh and the vultures' hooked beaks took what the ravenous teeth left behind.Sharpe's Tiger. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Sharpe's Tiger: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam, 1799 by Bernard Cornwell
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