He coughed, a loose rattling sound, and a thin spray of bloody spittle stained the sheets. The nurse leaned in with a fresh towel to wipe red foam from his chin but the Colonel pushed her gently away and took a long, deep swallow of wine. He closed his eyes and held the thick red in his mouth, savoring the earthiness and memories. When he swallowed it was with a grimace of pain and the glass shook in his hand, spilling wine across his chest. His glare stopped the nurse and she settled back into the chair beside his bed. His other hand hovered to the bandages around his belly.
“Bah, if a man’s to die there are worse things to taste on his lips. Eh, Captain Fletcher?” His voice was strained but he spoke with clipped, quiet, precision. “What was the last thing you tasted? The morning gruel? Vomit and fear? Bollocks, man, pour yourself some Malbec.”
Fletcher stood firmly at attention at the foot of the bed. His uniform was caked with dust, blood and soot. “Really, Sir, I’m not sure you should be drinking.”
The Colonel snorted. “Yes, well clearly you’re not the one dying. I intend to enjoy my final moments.”
“Do you also intend, Sir, to continue with your message to the Brigadier?”
Colonel Francis Beckwith Shackleberry eyed the young Captain and his brow furrowed briefly, two battalions meeting on open ground, then relaxed.
“Quite. Quite ready,” conceded the Colonel. “I believe I’ve been sufficiently fortified by the wine. Jameson, where the devil are you? It’s so bloody dark in here I can’t see a thing.”
From across the room Private Jameson snapped to attention.“Yes, Sir! Ready to take diction, Sir. Please do continue, Sir.”
“Jameson!” Wincing, the Colonel eased himself onto an elbow and stared at the Private.
“You are hereby ordered to stop calling me Sir. For the time-being we are simply three men discussing the brutality of war. Sieges in particular. Collectively we shall piss on protocol.”
The Colonel looked at the nurse. “Ms. Folsom, please ignore or pardon my directness. And could you be so kind to decant a bottle of Shiraz?” He settled back into the bed and blood burped through the gash in his stomach further staining his bandages.
“Lovely.” he groaned softly. “Delightful. Now, where was I? Right, today we enter the third month of the siege, Afghan and Ghilzi howling at our gates. We remain quite outmanned and our fort, I use this word generously, suffers more daily prodding than a Parisian tart. Despite this abuse she remains solid if not inspiring. It is my belief that Jellalabad will stand.”
“The Afghans appear frustrated by the lengthy siege and continue pressing our walls, ill-content to wait for our supplies to diminish or reinforcements to arrive. Today a small contingent, a half dozen wild-eyed malcontents, breached the wall and were met by myself and some boys of the 13th Foot. The Afghans were balls deep in the stables when we...”
“Sir,” Captain Fletcher took a small step forward, “you have a colorful gift for metaphor but I hardly think that is appropriate for a military missive.”
Shackleberry rolled his eyes and took a smaller sip of wine. “Well said, Captain. You hardly think so your opinion on the matter hardly matters. If I may continue?”
Fletcher blushed, set his jaw and glanced at the others in the room. He offered a small nod. “Please do.”
The Colonel held out his empty glass to the nurse. “Some Shiraz, please, I’ve hardly the time to let it breathe.”
With his palm he wiped sweat from his brow, leaving an oily smear, then combed his fingers through his shock of silver hair. The nurse refilled his glass and applied the corner of a clean towel to his forehead. He allowed her this indulgence and sat silent while she fussed over him. The report of musket fire was muted through the door to Shackleberry’s quarters and his breathing was loud, wet and bubbling. As she settled back into her seat the Colonel offered her a smile and took a sip of his Shiraz.
When the Colonel continued, the words came slowly and his voice sounded thick. “Pistol in hand I had the deep misfortune to engage a scrappy, young Ghilzi at close quarters. I fed him some shot but not before he cut me ass to cake-hole with a Khyber knife. Eviscerated, by God. I hear I’ve left some goodly portion of my intestines in the stable and imagine I’ll not live through the hour.”
The Colonel paused as a gurgling flatulence escaped his wound and he sighed and nodded towards the nurse. “Pardon me. Mortifying, that.”
He continued, “I understand the knife has been recovered and I request that it be sent to my wife, Eleanor, along with my uniform.” His head sagged and Fletcher stepped alongside the bed catching the wine glass that was slipping from the Colonel’s hand.
“Private Jameson,” Fletcher said, “I believe we have enough for the report to General Sale. You’re dismissed. Nurse, kindly fetch Doctor Norman.”
As the nurse and Private Jameson hustled through the door Fletcher turned back to his superior officer. “You’re an honorable man, Colonel. When the time comes, I should hope to face death with such...grace. At least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you died in service to God and Queen Victoria.”
“Bah,” the Colonel spat, “you’re an idiot.” Shackleberry closed his eyes. “I’ve not done this for the Queen. I’ve done it for myself. Every challenge, every battle. The enemy has always been incidental.”
“My final advice to you, Fletcher, is to find yourself and lay siege.” A shudder ran through the Colonel’s body and he clenched his teeth. Groping he grabbed a fistful of Fletcher’s uniform and pulled him close. The smell of death and feces filled the Captain’s nose and he tried to pull away but the Colonel was possessed in his final moments and his grip was iron.
“Do not rest until you’re buried and dead, Fletcher. You have your orders.”
The Captain nodded and the when Shackleberry relaxed his hand Fletcher took several quick, involuntary, steps backward. Regaining his balance he straightened his jacket, knocking dust from his lapel, and breathed deeply.
“Good man, Fletcher. Now fetch me some wine.”