Its time to go home Paddy
Part 1 continues from where Sharpe's Challenge left off. On their way home to England, Sharpe and Harper find themselves in the company of a baggage train heading to Madras. Making up the train are soldiers from the King's and the East India Company's armies, commanded by the young Ensign Beauclere, engineer Major Tredinnick and Subedar Pillai. Included in the train are a redcoat prisoner named Barabbas, an Indian princess and her retinue, and Tredinnick's pregnant wife. Sharpe and Harper themselves have been charged with escorting Marie-Angelique Bonnet to the hill fort of Kalimgong, where her fiancÚ, Major Joubert, is stationed. When the train is attacked by forces of the legendary bandit leader Chitu, the Subedar is wounded while Beauclere and Tredinnick prove to be ineffectual commanders. They are saved by the timely arrival of Colonel Dragomirov and his cavalry squadron, but with Dragomirov pursuing the retreating bandits and no one more qualified in the train, Sharpe is forced to take command.
Trouble comes from within the train as well. Sharpe discovers that Barabbas is in fact the son of Obadiah Hakeswell, the man who murdered Sharpe's first wife. Flying into a fit of rage, Sharpe almost kills Barabbas on the spot, stopped only by Harper's intervention. They also face opposition from Colour-Sergeant Wormwood, a lazy, racist soldier from the King's Army who dislikes Sharpe's methods and fosters feelings of resentment among the men under his command. When Sharpe punishes two of Wormwood's men for drunkenness and attempted rape, they decide the only course of action is to assassinate Sharpe.
Arriving at Kalimgong, Sharpe and Harper discover the entire garrison dead, except for the fort's commander, General Simmerson Sharpe's old enemy. Strung up naked in the courtyard, Simmerson's mind is addled with the heat and he seems to only speak nonsense, such as "save the harvest." Major Joubert's body is not found among the dead, to Marie-Angelique's relief, but neither are the Company ledgers that reveal what has been stolen from the fort. The Subedar succumbs to his wounds and dies. Continuing on, the train finds a farming village destroyed by bandits, the entire harvest stolen, and everyone dead but a young girl who witness the whole attack. Between what the girl saw and Simmerson's addled ramblings, Sharpe realises that not only were these people growing opium for the Company to use as currency, but Colonel Count Dragomirov and Major Joubert were responsible for the slaughter in the village and at Kalimgong, using bandits as scapegoats so they could steal the opium.
The train is forced to leave mounts and wagons behind when the bridge over a river is destroyed. While crossing, Dragomirov, his cavalry and his false bandits arrive and try to kill everyone, so that no one can testify to his activities. The redcoats and Dragomirov's forces shoot at each other from across the river. Joubert grabs Marie-Angelique and rides off with her. Sharpe tries to pursue, but Wormwood uses the chaos to try and kill Sharpe, managing only to wound him in the shoulder. As Harper drags Sharpe to safety on the other side of the river, Part 1 ends.
Dragomirov's troops take heavy losses from the British forces and retreat. Once his wounds are treated and his strength returns, Sharpe takes a horse and leaves to rescue Marie-Angelique while Harper takes command of the train. Further down the river, Sharpe and Joubert fight with swords, until Marie-Angelique shoots and kills Joubert with his own pistol. Together they try to return to the train but Dragomirov's cavalry finds them, and takes them to their field headquarters on the Indian plains. Meanwhile, the men of the baggage train are losing the will to fight with Sharpe gone and Major Tredinnick severely wounded, though Harper and Beauclare do their best to lift the men's spirits. During the night, Tredinnick leaves the train and tries to ambush Dragomirov, but fails, and is fatally stabbed and left for dead. His loyal second, Lance Naik Singh, arrives just in time to hear Tredinnick's dying words: a message from Dragomirov that Sharpe is dead.
Dragomirov shows Sharpe around his field headquarters, where his bandits live and Indian slaves produce opium, to demonstrate the size of his operation and therefore how far he will go to stop Sharpe from exposing him. He offers Sharpe a role within the operation and promises to keep the baggage train prisoner rather than kill them, but Sharpe refuses. Later, he threatens to give Marie-Angelique, who has been dosed with opium, to the bandits for their pleasure, so Sharpe agrees to lead Dragomirov to the train and convince Harper to surrender. During the night Dragomirov has Sharpe chained in a pit with cobras to ensure he doesn't try anything, but despite this, Sharpe gets free, rescues Marie-Angelique and takes her away. With the baggage train, Wormwood keeps insulting Sharpe and demanding that the train surrenders to Dragomirov. Harper succumbs to a case of kidney stones, but Singh helps him recover. The next day, Sharpe returns to the train, and learns of Tredinnick's death.
The train comes to the next town, and is in the process of resupplying when Mrs. Tredinnick goes into labour. Realising the train can't keep going, Sharpe begins making preparations for the men to defend the town from an attack by Dragomirov. He gets the town's leader, the real Chitu (though only a simple farmer), and the rest of the townsfolk on-side for the upcoming battle. Singh repairs a very old cannon to use in the defence. Wormwood wants to run and join Dragomirov's forces, but the men of his section decide to fight alongside Sharpe. That night, Sharpe apologises to Barabbas for his earlier treatment and agrees to let him fight, but later, Wormwood frees Barabbas and tells him that Sharpe plans to murder him in the morning. Both Barabbas and Wormwood ride away from the town, but while Barabbas' destination is not revealed, Wormwood meets with Dragomirov and offers him the secrets of Sharpe's defences.
On the day of the battle, Simmerson and "Field Marshall" Chitu command one flank of the defences, Sharpe and Harper command another, Singh operates the cannon and Beauclare defends the women, who are barricaded inside a Christian missionary house. When Dragomirov attacks, the train puts up a solid defence, but they are unable to push back the enemy. Beauclare is killed while defending the missionary house. Wormwood fights at Dragomirov's side and kills several of the men who were formerly under his command, until Harper kills him in a hand-to-hand fight. At the last moment, British cavalry soldiers arrive, led by Barabbas, who had ridden the entire night in order to bring aid and reinforcements. Sharpe duels Dragomirov and kills him.
After the battle is over and the dead are buried, Sharpe says his goodbyes to Marie-Angelique, who talks of visiting Sharpe's farm in Normandy, and Simmerson, with whom he has an almost-friendly conversation, before he and Harper ride off for home.
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