The Empire had soldiers aplenty, and guns to hand them as well. Bullets were common, cannons more rare, and a decent beef was bloody impossible while they were in Hindu land. But nothing seemed to stump the supply corps as much as a decent, leak-free tent.
So Georgie, who had been there the longest, took his recruits by the arm and showed them the rows of black artillery guns. "Now Jackie, Mackie, Johnny and Jim – we all know what the drill says, and how it shows you sleeping in fine, ordered rows, on a fine open plain." He gestured to the swampland around them, sickly bush and clouds of mosquitos in all directions, except on the low ridge where the cannons were lined. "I see neither plains, nor – alas! – too much order. So you listen up, boys, and I'll tell you all of where real soldiers sleep…"
Soon they all slept beneath the cannons, hundreds of boots lying in state. Or so joked Mackie, who was quick with words and quicker with his fingers, until Jackie smacked him and told him to keep his morbid thoughts for tonight.
Between friends, beneath moonlight, when the booze flowed and the tobacco made the night smell almost like home; then death was a joke and each soldier wore Lord Nelson's cap of courage. Things were quite different, while they walked past the grumpily waking rows of soldiers.
Mackie liked to take the piss, but when Jackie gave him that look, even he knew to keep his mouth shut.
His silence lasted beyond their nightly game, until they split up and Jackie was already half-dreaming beneath his cannon. But no long peaceful sleep for him tonight; barely had he closed his eyes, when he tensed and heard a rustle.
When he came to India, it was as recruit Jackson Brown, though nobody called him that except his papers. When their group was nearly crushed near Najafgarh, he earned the nickname he'd carry so triumphantly home to London: Tiger Brown, the man who hears you coming and leaves no traces that show where you have gone.
Now, Mackie could sneak on the lightest feet, but there is no man who can wholly disappear like the tiger.
There entered a naked arm beneath his temporary shelter, silent and sneaky, clearly up to mischief. Jackie showed no mercy to the would-be thief; his grip was harsh and the cannon was hard, and it made quite a satisfying clang when he yanked, and introduced it to his assailant's head.
The filthy curses following swiftly revealed that it was – of course – Mackie.
"What are you doing?" he whispered, suddenly fearing he had cracked what little sanity remained behind Mackie's skull.
"Well, live, you certainly do!" his friend said, pushing his fretting hand away. "I thought we should continue our earlier discussion."
And then Mackie bent close, and his breath was hot even in the thick Indian night. "Listen up, Jackie my man. You're a fellow with a profile girls wouldn't spit at, and your manners aren't half off."
"And you came to tell me this, right now? Couldn't wait til breakfast?"
Mackie laughed, low and teasing. "Jackie, oh Jackie, there are plenty of things I know, that aren't fit for any army table. But we'll talk about those later…"
He pulled at him, beckoning, and with little reluctance, Jackie crawled out from his bed. There had always been something compelling about Mack and his quick hands, from the first day he saw him. When he'd speared a rat on his blade, nailing the little critter as soon as it poked its nose near their stores.
"Come on, then, and tell me – how do we know the living from the dead?"
"I – are you drunk?"
Mackie's laugh was low and biting, but he still bothered to explain; a gift of patience that Jackie knew to treasure, and never dared waste. They walked with care behind the cannons, their path almost beyond the range of the torches' light.
"They sleep here, soldier-boys all, so obedient beneath their cannons. In a day or a week or some months, how many won't be dead or trashed? How many will go home with shattered nerves, missing arms and fingers and hearing and sense? For how many..." Mackie stopped them, pressed him against the metal until Jackie squirmed, yet did not dare to interrupt. "How many of these boys are corpses, just waiting to be chopped apart?"
"All," replied Jackie, whose lack of philosophy had never indicated a fool, "like men everywhere in the world."
Mackie's laugh was low and hungry, and he tapped him steadily on the breast. "See, my Tiger? You know the answer – and that is why I even bother with you."
The kiss was not completely unexpected; Jackie was tall, but slim and finely built, and he knew he earned his share of looks. But when Mackie pulled him down and took the kiss, as were he the King and Jackie the jewel of his empire – when hands that stole lives as easily as they nicked trinkets slid hot inside his wrinkly shirt, while hips pressed close and everything was demanded – then Jackie was surprised to find just how much he was willing to surrender.
There was nothing given in this kiss; Mackie took, with lips and hips and pushing, pulling, hungry, hungry hands. Jackie groaned as fire devoured him, the cannon behind him hard and unyielding – and harder yet, he thought madly, was surely his straining prick.
"Soldiers sleep beneath the cannons," Mackie sang in his tuneless way, "dreaming the dreams of the not-yet-dead. Let's make sure, fierce Tiger, that tonight at least we live!"
Then he climbed the cannon – one foot on the great wheel, a grunt and heave – and offered Jackie a hand up.
"Come on, my soldier boy!"
And Jackie, silent as the tiger and suddenly well-heeled as the loyal dog, took the hand, took the offer and joined his friend on the cannon.