Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811
(#11 in Richard Sharpe series)
Sharpe's Battle is for Sean Bean
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 grey, 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 short cut 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, then there 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't afford 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 he 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 head nor 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 taking the short cut—'
"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 were 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 towards 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.
"It would make good kindling," Harper repeated.
"One thing's certain," Sharpe said as he took the map back from Price, "we haven't crossed the watershed which means these streams must be flowing west." He paused. "Or they're probably flowing west. Unless the world's bloody upside down which it probably bloody is, but on the chance that it bloody isn't we'll follow the bloody streams. Here"—he tossed the map to Harper—"kindling."
"That's what my grand-da did," Harper said, tucking the crumpled map inside his faded and torn green jacket. "He followed the water—"
"Shut up," Sharpe said, but not angrily this time. Rather he spoke quietly, and at the same time gestured with his left hand to make his companions crouch. "Bloody Crapaud," he said softly, "or something. Never seen a uniform like it."
"Bloody hell," Price said, and dropped down to the path.
Because a horseman had appeared just two hundred yards away. The man had not seen the British infantrymen, nor did he appear to be on the lookout for enemies. Instead his horse just ambled out of a side valley until the reins checked it, then the rider swung himself wearily out of the saddle and looped the reins over an arm while he unbuttoned his baggy trousers and urinated beside the path. Smoke from his pipe drifted in the damp air.
Harper's rifle clicked as he pulled the cock fully back. Sharpe's men, even those who had been asleep, were all alert now and lying motionless in the grass, keeping so low that even if the horseman had turned he would probably not have noticed the infantry. Sharpe's company was a veteran unit of skirmishers, hardened by two years of fighting in Portugal and Spain and as well trained as any soldiers in Europe. "Recognize the uniform?" Sharpe asked Price softly.
"Never seen it before, sir."
"Pat?" Sharpe asked Harper.
"Looks like a bloody Russian," Harper said. Harper had never seen a Russian soldier, but had a perverse idea that such creatures wore grey and this mysterious horseman was all in grey. He had a short grey dragoon jacket, grey trousers and a grey horsehair plume on his steel-grey helmet. Or maybe, Sharpe thought, it was merely a cloth cover designed to stop the helmet's metal from reflecting the light.
"Spaniard?" Sharpe wondered aloud.
"The dons are always gaudy, sir," Harper said. "The dons never did like dying in drab clothes."
"Maybe he's a partisan," Sharpe suggested.
"He's got Crapaud weapons," Price said, "and trousers." The pissing horseman was indeed armed just like a French dragoon. He wore a straight sword, had a short-barrelled carbine sheathed in his saddle holster and had a brace of pistols stuck in his belt. He also wore the distinctively baggy saroual trousers that the French dragoons liked, but Sharpe had never seen a French dragoon wearing grey ones, and certainly never a grey jacket. Enemy dragoons always wore green coats. Not dark hunting green like the coats of Britain's riflemen, but a lighter and brighter green.
"Maybe the buggers are running out of green dye?" Harper suggested, then fell silent as the horseman buttoned his floppy trousers and hauled himself up onto his saddle. The man looked carefully about the valley, saw nothing to alarm him and so spurred his horse back into the hidden side valley. "He was scouting," Harper said softly. "He was sent to see if anyone was here."
"He made a bloody bad job of it," Sharpe commented.
"Even so," Price said fervently, "it's a good thing we're going in the other direction."
"We're not, Harry," Sharpe said. "We're going to see who those bastards are and what they're doing." He pointed uphill. "You first, Harry. Take your fellows and go halfway up, then wait."
Lieutenant Price led the redcoats of Sharpe's company up the steep slope. Half of the company wore the red jackets of Britain's line infantry while the other half, like Sharpe himself, had the green jackets of the elite rifle regiments. It had been an accident of war that had stranded Sharpe and his riflemen in a redcoat battalion, but sheer bureaucratic inertia had held them there and now it was sometimes hard to tell the riflemen from the redcoats, so shabby and faded were their respective uniforms. From a distance they all looked like brown uniforms because of the cheap Portuguese cloth that the men were forced to use for repairs.
"You think we've crossed the lines?" Harper asked Sharpe.
"Like as not," Sharpe said sourly, still angry at himself. "Not that anyone knows where the damn lines are," he said defensively, and in part he was right. The French were retreating out of Portugal. Throughout the winter of 1810 the enemy had stayed in front of the Lines of Torres Vedras just a half-day's march from Lisbon, and there they had frozen and half starved to death rather than retreat to their supply depots in Spain. Marshal Massйna had known that retreat would yield all Portugal to the British while to attack the Lines of Torres Vedras would be pure suicide, and so he had just stayed, neither advancing nor retreating, just starving slowly through the winter and staring at the lines' enormous earthworks which had been hacked and scraped from a range of hills across the narrow peninsula just north of Lisbon. The valleys between the hills had been blocked by massive dams or with tangled barricades of thorn, while the hill tops and long slopes had been trenched, embrasured and armed with battery after battery of cannon. The lines, a winter's hunger and the relentless attacks of partisans had finally defeated the French attempt to capture Lisbon and in March they had begun to retreat. Now it was April and the retreat was slowing in the hills of the Spanish frontier, for it was here that Marshal Massйna had decided to make his stand. He would fight and defeat the British in the river-cut hills, and always, at Massйna's back, stood the twin fastnesses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo. Those two Spanish citadels made the frontier into a mighty barrier, though for now Sharpe's concern was not the grim border campaign that loomed ahead but rather the mysterious grey horseman.
Lieutenant Price had reached a patch of dead ground halfway up the hill where his redcoats concealed themselves as Sharpe waved his riflemen forward. The slope was steep, but the greenjackets climbed fast for, like all experienced infantrymen, they had a healthy fear of enemy cavalry and they knew that steep hillsides were an effective barrier to horsemen and thus the higher the riflemen climbed, the safer and happier they became.
Sharpe passed the resting redcoats and went on up towards the crest of a spur that divided the two valleys. When he was close to the ridge he waved his greenjackets down into the short grass, then crawled up to the skyline to peer down into the smaller valley where the grey horseman had disappeared.
And, two hundred feet beneath him, saw Frenchmen.
The men were all wearing the strange grey uniform, but Sharpe now knew they were French because one of the cavalrymen carried a guidon. This was a small, swallowtailed banner carried on a lance as a rally mark in the chaos of battle, and this particular shabby, frayed flag showed the red, white and blue of the enemy. The standard-bearer was sitting on his horse in the centre of a small abandoned settlement while his dismounted companions searched the half-dozen stone and thatch houses that looked as if they had been built to shelter families during the summer months when the lowland farmers would bring their flocks to graze the high pastures.
There were only a half-dozen horsemen in the settlement, but with them was a handful of French infantrymen, also wearing the drab and plain grey coats, rather than their usual blue. Sharpe counted eighteen infantrymen.
Harper wriggled uphill to join Sharpe. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he said when he saw the infantry. "Grey uniforms?"
"Maybe you're right," Sharpe said, "maybe the buggers have run out of dye."
"I wish they'd run out of musket balls," Harper said. "So what do we do?"
"Bugger off," Sharpe said. "No point in having a fight for the hell of it."
"Amen to that, sir." Harper began to slither down from the skyline. "Are we going now?"
"Give me a minute," Sharpe said and felt behind his back for his telescope which was stored in a pouch of his French oxhide pack. Then, with the telescope's hood extended to shade the outer lens and so stop even this day's damp light from being reflected downhill, he trained the glass on the tiny cottages. Sharpe was anything but a wealthy man, yet the telescope was a very fine and expensive glass made by Matthew Berge of London, with a brass eyepiece, shutters and a small engraved plate set into its walnut tube. "In Gratitude," the plate read, "AW. September 23rd, 1803." AW was Arthur Wellesley, now the Viscount Wellington, a lieutenant general and commander of the British and Portuguese armies which had pursued Marshal Massйna to Spain's frontier, but on September 23rd, 1803, Major General the Honourable Arthur Wellesley had been astride a horse that was piked in the chest and so pitched its rider down into the enemy's front rank. Sharpe could still remember the shrill Indian cries of triumph as the red-jacketed General had fallen among them, though he could remember precious little else about the seconds that followed. Yet it was those few seconds that had plucked him from the ranks and made him, a man born in the gutter, into an officer in Britain's army.
Now he focused Wellington's gift on the French beneath and watched as a dismounted cavalryman carried a canvas pail of water from the stream. For a second or two Sharpe thought that the man was carrying the water to his picketed horse, but instead the dragoon stopped between two of the houses and began to pour the water onto the ground. "They're foraging," Sharpe said, "using the water trick."
"Hungry bastards," Harper said.
The French had been driven from Portugal more by hunger than by force of arms. When Wellington had retreated to Torres Vedras he left behind him a devastated countryside with empty barns, poisoned wells and echoing granaries. The French had endured five months of famine partly by ransacking every deserted hamlet and abandoned village for hidden food, and one way to find buried jars of grain was to pour water on the ground, for where the soil had been dug and refilled the water would always drain away more quickly and so betray where the grain jars were hidden.
"No one would be hiding food in these hills," Harper said scornfully. "Who do they think would carry it all the way up here?"
Then a woman screamed.
For a few seconds both Sharpe and Harper assumed the sound came from an animal. The scream had been muffled and distorted by distance and there was no sign of any civilians in the tiny settlement, but as the terrible noise echoed back from the far hillside so the full horror of the sound registered on both men. "Bastards," Harper said softly.
Sharpe slid the telescope shut. "She's in one of the houses," he said. "Two men with her? Maybe three? Which means there can't be more than thirty of the bastards down there."
"Forty of us," Harper said dubiously. It was not that he was frightened by the odds, but the advantage was not so overwhelming as to guarantee a bloodless victory.
The woman screamed again.
"Fetch Lieutenant Price," Sharpe ordered Harper. "Tell everyone to be loaded and they're to stay just back from the crest." He turned round. "Dan! Thompson! Cooper! Harris! Up here." The four were his best marksmen. "Keep your heads down!" he warned the four men, then waited till they reached the crest. "In a minute I'm taking the rest of the rifles down there. I want you four to stay here and pick off any bastard who looks troublesome."
"Bastards are going already," Daniel Hagman said. Hagman was the oldest man in the company and the finest marksman. He was a Cheshire poacher who had been offered a chance to enlist in the army rather than face transportation for stealing a brace of pheasants from an absentee landlord.
Sharpe turned back. The French were leaving, or rather most of them were, for, judging from the way that the men at the rear of the infantry column kept turning and shouting towards the houses, they had left some of their comrades inside the cottage where the woman had screamed. With the half-dozen cavalrymen in the lead, the main group was trudging down the stream towards the larger valley.
"They're getting careless," Thompson said.
Sharpe nodded. Leaving men in the settlement was a risk and it was not like the French to run risks in wild country. Spain and Portugal were riddled with guerrilleros, the partisans who fought the guerrilla, the little war, and that war was far more bitter and cruel than the more formal battles between the French and the British. Sharpe knew just how cruel for only the previous year he had gone into the wild north country to find Spanish gold and his companions had been partisans whose savagery had been chilling. One of them, Teresa Moreno, was Sharpe's lover, only now she called herself La Aguja, the Needle, and every Frenchman she knifed with her long slim blade was one small part of the endless revenge she had promised to inflict on the soldiers who had raped her.
Teresa was now a long way off, fighting in the country around Badajoz, while in the settlement beneath Sharpe another woman was suffering from the attentions of the French and again Sharpe wondered why these grey-uniformed soldiers thought it safe to leave men to finish their crime in the isolated village. Were they certain that no partisans lurked in these high hills?
Harper came back, breathing hard after leading Price's redcoats up the hill. "God save Ireland," he said as hй dropped beside Sharpe, "but the bastards are going already."
"I think they've left some men behind. Are you ready?"
"Sure I am." Harper eased back his rifle's doghead.
"Packs off," Sharpe told his riflemen as he shrugged his own pack off his shoulders, then he twisted to look at Lieutenant Price. "Wait here, Harry, and listen for the whistle. Two blasts mean I want you to open fire from up here, and three mean I want you down at the village." He looked at Hagman. "Don't open fire, Dan, until they see us. If we can get down there without the bastards knowing it'll be easier." He raised his voice so the rest of his riflemen could hear. "We go down fast," Sharpe said. "Are you all ready? Are you all loaded? Then come on! Now!"
The riflemen scrambled over the crest and tumbled headlong down the steep hill behind Sharpe. Sharpe kept glancing to his left where the small French column retreated beside the stream, but no one in the column turned and the noise of the horses' hooves and the infantrymen's nailed boots must have smothered the sound of the greenjackets running downhill. It was not until Sharpe was just yards away from the nearest house that a Frenchman turned and shouted in alarm. Hagman fired at the same instant and the sound of his Baker rifle echoed first from the small valley's far slope, then from the distant flank of the larger valley. The echo crackled on, fainter and fainter, until it was drowned as the other riflemen on the hill top opened fire.
Sharpe jumped down the last few feet. He fell as he landed, picked himself up and ran past a dunghill heaped against a house wall. A single horse was tethered to a steel picket pin driven into the ground beside one of the small houses where a French soldier suddenly appeared in the doorway. The man was wearing a shirt and a grey coat, but nothing below the waist. He raised his musket as Sharpe ran into view, but then saw the riflemen behind Sharpe and so dropped the musket and raised his hands in surrender.
Sharpe had drawn his sword as he ran to the house door. Once there he shouldered the surrendering man aside and burst into the hovel that was a bare stone chamber, beamed with wood and roofed with stone and turf. It was dark inside the cottage, but not so dark that Sharpe could not see a naked girl scrambling over the earth floor into a corner. There was blood on her legs. A second Frenchman, this one with cavalry overalls round his ankles, tried to stand and reach for his scabbarded sword, but Sharpe kicked him in the balls. He kicked him so hard that the man screamed and then could not draw breath to scream again and so toppled onto the bloody floor where he whimpered and lay with his knees drawn tight up to his chest. There were two other men on the beaten earth floor, but when Sharpe turned on them with his drawn sword he saw they were both civilians and both dead. Their throats had been cut.
Musketry sounded ragged in the valley. Sharpe went back to the door where the bare-legged French infantryman was crouching with his hands held behind his head. "Pat!" Sharpe called.
Harper was organizing the riflemen. "We've got the buggers tamed, sir," the Sergeant said reassuringly, anticipating Sharpe's question. The riflemen were crouching beside the cottages where they fired, reloaded and fired again. Their Baker rifle muzzles gouted thick spurts of white smoke that smelt of rotted eggs. The French returned the fire, their musket balls smacking on the stone houses as Sharpe ducked back into the hovel. He picked up the two Frenchmen's weapons and tossed them out of the door. "Perkins!" he shouted.
Rifleman Perkins ran to the door. He was the youngest of Sharpe's men, or was presumed to be the youngest for though Perkins knew neither the day nor the year of his birth, he did not yet need to shave. "Sir?"
"If either of these bastards move, shoot them."
Perkins might be young, but the look on his thin face scared the unhurt Frenchman who reached out a placating hand as though begging the young rifleman not to shoot. "I'll look after the bastards, sir," Perkins said, then slotted his brass-handled sword bayonet onto his rifle's muzzle.
Sharpe saw the girl's clothing which had been tossed under a crudely sawn table. He picked up the greasy garments and handed them to her. She was pale, terrified and crying, a young thing, scarcely out of childhood. "Bastards," Sharpe said to the two prisoners, then ran out into the damp light. A musket ball hissed over his head as he ducked down into cover beside Harper.
"Bastards are good, sir," the Irishman said ruefully.
"I thought you had them tamed?"
"They've got different ideas on the matter," Harper said, then broke cover, aimed, fired and ducked back. "Bastards are good," he said again as he started to reload.
And the French were good. Sharpe had expected the small group of Frenchmen to hurry away from the rifle fire, but instead they had deployed into a skirmish line and so turned the easy target of a marching column into a scattered series of difficult targets. Meanwhile the half-dozen dragoons accompanying the infantry had dismounted and begun to fight on foot while one man galloped their horses out of rifle range, and now the assorted dragoon carbines and infantry muskets were threatening to overwhelm Sharpe's riflemen. The Baker rifles were far more accurate than the Frenchmen's muskets and carbines, and they could kill at four times the distance, but they were desperately slow to load. The bullets, each one wrapped in a leather patch that was designed to grip the barrel's rifling, had to be forced down the tight grooves and lands of the barrel, whereas a musket ball could be rammed fast down a smoothbore's unrifled gullet. Sharpe's men were already abandoning the leather patches in order to load faster, but without the leather the rifling could not impart spin to the ball and so the rifle was robbed of its one great advantage: its lethal accuracy. Hagman and his three companions were still firing down from the ridge, but their numbers were too few to make much difference and all that was saving Sharpe's riflemen from decimation was the protection of the village's stone walls.
Sharpe took the small whistle from its pouch on his crossbelt. He blew it twice, then unslung his own rifle, edged round the corner of the house and aimed at a puff of smoke down the valley. He fired. The rifle kicked back hard just as a French musket ball cracked into the wall beside his head. A fleck of stone slashed across his scarred cheek, drawing blood and missing his eyeball by half an inch. "Bastards are bloody good." Sharpe echoed Harper's tribute grudgingly, then a crashing musket volley announced that Harry Price had lined his redcoats on the hill top and was firing down at the French.
Price's first volley was enough to decide the fight. Sharpe heard a French voice shouting orders and a second later the enemy skirmish line began to shred and disappear. Harry Price only had time for one more volley before the grey-coated enemy had retreated out of range. "Green! Horrell! McDonald! Cresacre! Smith! Sergeant Latimer!" Sharpe called to his riflemen. "Fifty paces down the valley, make a picquet line there, but get the hell back here if the bastards come back for more. Move! Rest of you stay where you are."
"Jesus, sir, you should see in here." Harper had pushed open the nearest house door with the muzzle of his seven-barrel gun. The weapon, originally designed to be fired from the fighting tops of Britain's naval ships, was a cluster of seven half-inch barrels fired by a single flint. It was like a miniature cannon and only the biggest, strongest men could fire the gun without permanently damaging their shoulders. Harper was one of the strongest men Sharpe had ever known, but also one of the most sentimental and now the big Irishman looked close to tears. "Oh, sweet suffering Christ," Harper said as he crossed himself, "the living bastards."
Sharpe had already smelt the blood, now he looked past the Sergeant and felt the disgust make a lump in his throat. "Oh, my God," he said softly.
For the small house was drenched in blood, its walls spattered and its floor soaked with it, while on the floor were sprawled the limp bodies of children. Sharpe tried to count the little bodies, but could not always tell where one blood-boltered corpse began and another ended. The children had evidently been stripped naked and then had their throats cut. A small dog had been killed too, and its blood-matted, curly-haired corpse had been tossed onto the children whose skins appeared unnaturally white against the vivid streaks of black-looking blood.
"Oh, sweet Jesus," Sharpe said as he backed out of the reeking shadows to draw a breath of fresh air. He had seen more than his share of horror. He had been born to a poorhouse whore in a London gutter and he had followed Britain's drum from Flanders to Madras and through the Indian wars and now from the beaches of Portugal to the frontiers of Spain, but never, not even in the Sultan Tippoo's torture chambers in Seringapatam, had he seen children tossed into a dead pile like so many slaughtered animals.
"There's more here, sir," Corporal Jackson called. Jackson had just vomited in the doorway of a hovel in which the bodies of two old people lay in a bloody mess. They had been tortured in ways that were only too evident.
Sharpe thought of Teresa who was fighting these same scum who gutted and tormented their victims, then, unable to bear the unbidden images that seared his thoughts, he cupped his hands and shouted up the hill, "Harris! Down here!"
Rifleman Harris was the company's educated man. He had once been a schoolmaster, even a respectable schoolmaster, but boredom had driven him to drink and drink had been his ruin, or at least the cause of his joining the army where he still loved to demonstrate his erudition. "Sir?" Harris said as he arrived in the settlement.
"You speak French?"
"There's two Frogs in that house. Find out what unit they're from, and what the bastards did here. And Harris!"
"Sir?" The lugubrious, red-haired Harris turned back.
"You don't have to be gentle with the bastards."
Even Harris, who was accustomed to Sharpe, seemed shocked by his Captain's tone. "No, sir."
Sharpe walked back across the settlement's tiny plaza. His men had searched the two cottages on the stream's far side, but found no bodies there. The massacre had evidently been confined to the three houses on the nearer bank where Sergeant Harper was standing with a bleak, hurt look on his face. Patrick Harper was an Ulsterman from Donegal and had been driven into the ranks of Britain's army by hunger and poverty. He was a huge man, four inches taller than Sharpe who was himself six feet tall. In battle Harper was an awesome figure, yet in truth he was a kind, humorous and easy-going man whose benevolence disguised his life's central contradiction which was that he had no love for the king for whom he fought and little for the country whose flag he defended, yet there were few better soldiers in all King George's army, and none who was more loyal to his friends. And it was for those friends that Harper fought, and the closest of his friends, despite their disparity in rank, was Sharpe himself. "They're just wee kiddies," Harper now said. "Who'd do such a thing?"
"Them." Sharpe jerked his head down the small valley to where the stream joined the wider waterway. The grey Frenchmen had stopped there; too far to be threatened by the rifles, but still close enough to watch what happened in the settlement where they had pillaged and murdered.
"Some of those wee ones had been raped," Harper said.
"I saw," Sharpe said bleakly.
"How could they do it?"
"There isn't an answer, Pat. God knows." Sharpe felt sick, just like Harper felt sick, but inquiring into the roots of sin would not gain revenge for the dead children, nor would it save the raped girl's sanity, nor bury the blood-soaked dead. Nor would it find a way back to the British lines for one small light company that Sharpe now realized was dangerously exposed on the edge of the French outpost line. "Ask a goddamn chaplain for an answer, if you can ever find one closer than the Lisbon brothels," Sharpe said savagely, then turned to look at the charnel houses. "How the hell are we going to bury this lot?"
"We can't, sir. We'll just tumble the house walls down on top of them," Harper said. He gazed down the valley. "I could murder those bastards. What are we going to do with the two we've got?"
"Kill them," Sharpe said curtly. "We'll get an answer or two now," he said as he saw Harris duck out of the cottage. Harris was carrying one of the steel-grey dragoon helmets which Sharpe now saw were not cloth-covered, but were indeed fashioned out of metal and plumed with a long hank of grey horsehair.
Harris ran his right hand through the plume as he walked towards Sharpe. "I found out who they are, sir," he said as he drew nearer. "They belong to the Brigade Loup, the Wolf Brigade. It's named after their commanding officer, sir. Fellow called Loup, Brigadier General Guy Loup. Loup means wolf in French, sir. They reckon they're an elite unit. Their job was to hold the road open through the mountains this past winter and they did it by beating the hell out of the natives. If any of Loup's men get killed then he kills fifty civilians as revenge. That's what they were doing here, sir. A couple of his men were ambushed and killed, and this is the price." Harris gestured at the houses of the dead. "And Loup's not far away, sir," he added in warning. "Unless these fellows are lying, which I doubt. He left a detachment here and took a squadron to hunt down some fugitives in the next valley."
Sharpe looked at the cavalryman's horse which was still tethered in the settlement's centre and thought of the infantryman he had captured. "This Brigade Loup," he asked, "is it cavalry or infantry?"
"The brigade has both, sir," Harris said. "It's a special brigade, sir, formed to fight the partisans, and Loup's got two battalions of infantry and one regiment of dragoons."
"And they all wear grey?"
"Like wolves, sir," Harris said helpfully.
"We all know what to do with wolves," Sharpe said, then turned as Sergeant Latimer shouted a warning. Latimer was commanding the tiny picquet line that stood between Sharpe and the French, but it was no new attack that had caused Latimer to shout his warning, but rather the approach of four French horsemen. One of them carried the tricolour guidon, though the swallowtailed flag was now half obscured by a dirty white shirt that had been impaled on the guidon's lance head. "Bastards want to talk to us," Sharpe said.
"I'll talk to them," Harper said viciously and pulled back the cock of his seven-barrelled gun.
"No!" Sharpe said. "And go round the company and tell everyone to hold their fire, and that's an order."
"Aye, sir." Harper lowered the flint, then, with a baleful glance towards the approaching Frenchmen, went to warn the greenjackets to hold their tempers and keep their fingers off their triggers.
Sharpe, his rifle slung on his shoulder and his sword at his side, strolled towards the four Frenchmen. Two of the horsemen were officers, while the flanking pair were standard-bearers, and the ratio of flags to men seemed impertinently high, almost as if the two approaching officers considered themselves greater than other mortals. The tricolour guidon would have been standard enough, but the second banner was extraordinary. It was a French eagle with gilded wings outspread perched atop a pole that had a cross-piece nailed just beneath the eagle's plinth. Most eagles carried a silk tricolour from the staff, but this eagle carried six wolf tails attached to the cross-piece. The standard was somehow barbaric, suggesting the far-off days when pagan armies of horse soldiers had thundered out of the Steppes to rape and ruin Christendom.
And if the wolf-tail standard made Sharpe's blood run chill, then it was nothing compared to the man who now spurred his horse ahead of his companions. Only the man's boots were not grey. His coat was grey, his horse was a grey, his helmet was lavishly plumed in grey and his grey pelisse was edged with grey wolf fur. Bands of wolf pelt encircled his boot tops, his saddlecloth was a grey skin, his sword's long straight scabbard and his carbine's saddle holster were both sheathed in wolfskin while his horse's nose band was a strip of grey fur. Even the man's beard was grey. It was a short beard, neatly trimmed, but the rest of the face was wild and merciless and scarred fit for nightmare. One bloodshot eye and one blind milky eye stared from that weather-beaten, battle-hardened face as the man curbed his horse beside Sharpe.
"My name is Loup," he said, "Brigadier General Guy Loup of His Imperial Majesty's army." His tone was strangely mild, his intonation courteous and his English touched with a light Scottish accent.
"Sharpe," the rifleman said. "Captain Sharpe. British army."
The three remaining Frenchmen had reined in a dozen yards away. They watched as their Brigadier swung his leg out of the stirrup and dropped lightly down to the path. He was not as tall as Sharpe, but he was still a big man and he was well muscled and agile. Sharpe guessed the French Brigadier was about forty years old, six years older than Sharpe himself. Loup now took two cigars from his fur-edged sabretache and offered one to Sharpe.
"I don't take gifts from murderers," Sharpe said.
Loup laughed at Sharpe's indignation. "More fool you, Captain. Is that what you say? More fool you? I was a prisoner, you see, in Scotland. In Edinburgh. A very cold city, but with beautiful women, very beautiful. Some of them taught me English and I taught them how to lie to their drab Calvinist husbands. We paroled officers lived just off Candlemaker Row. Do you know the place? No? You should visit Edinburgh, Captain. Despite the Calvinists and the cooking it is a fine city, very learned and hospitable. When the peace of Amiens was signed I almost stayed there." Loup paused to strike flint on steel, then to blow the charred linen tinder in his tinderbox into a flame with which he lit his cigar. "I almost stayed, but you know how it is. She was married to another man and I am a lover of France, so here I am and there she is and doubtless she dreams about me a lot more than I dream about her." He sighed. "But this weather reminded me of her. We would so often lie in bed and watch the rain and mist fly past the windows of Candlemaker Row. It is cold today, eh?"
"You're dressed for it, General," Sharpe said. "Got as much fur as a Christmas whore, you have."
Loup smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. He was missing two teeth, and those that remained were stained yellow. He had spoken pleasantly enough to Sharpe, even charmingly, but it was the smooth charm of a cat about to kill. He drew on his cigar, making the tip glow red, while his single bloodshot eye looked hard at Sharpe from beneath the helmet's grey visor.
Loup saw a tall man with a well-used rifle on one shoulder and a battered ugly-bladed sword at his hip. Sharpe's uniform was torn, stained and patched. The jacket's black cord hung in tatters between a few silver buttons that hung by threads, while beneath the jacket Sharpe wore a set of leather-reinforced French cavalry overalls. The remains of an officer's red sash encircled Sharpe's waist, while around his neck was a loosely knotted black choker. It was the uniform of a man who had long discarded the peacetime trappings of soldiering in exchange for the utilitarian comforts of a fighting man. A hard man, too, Loup guessed, not just from the evidence of the scar on Sharpe's cheek, but from the rifleman's demeanour which was awkward and raw-edged as though Sharpe would have preferred to be fighting than talking. Loup shrugged, abandoned his pleasantries and got down to business. "I came to fetch my two men," he said.
"Forget them, General," Sharpe replied. He was determined not to dignify this Frenchman by calling him 'sir' or 'monsieur'.
Loup raised his eyebrows. "They're dead?"
"They will be."
Loup waved a persistent fly away. The steel-plated straps of his helmet hung loose beside his face, resembling the cadenettes of braided hair that French hussars liked to wear hanging from their temples. He drew on his cigar again, then smiled. "Might I remind you, Captain, of the rules of war?"
Sharpe offered Loup a word that he doubted the Frenchman had heard much in Edinburgh's learned society. "I don't take lessons from murderers," Sharpe went on, "not in the rules of war. What your men did in that village wasn't war. It was a massacre."
"Of course it was war," Loup said equably, "and I don't need lectures from you, Captain."
"You might not need a lecture, General, but you damn well need a lesson."
Loup laughed. He turned and walked to the stream's edge where he stretched his arms, yawned hugely, then stooped to scoop some water to his mouth. He turned back to Sharpe. "Let me tell you what my job is, Captain, and you will put yourself in my boots. That way, perhaps, you will lose your tedious English moral certainties. My job, Captain, is to police the roads through these mountains and so make the passes safe for the supply wagons of ammunition and food with which we plan to beat you British back to the sea. My enemy is not a soldier dressed in uniform with a colour and a code of honour, but is instead a rabble of civilians who resent my presence. Good! Let them resent me, that is their privilege, but if they attack me, Captain, then I will defend myself and I do it so ferociously, so ruthlessly, so comprehensively, that they will think a thousand times before they attack my men again. You know what the major weapon of the guerrilla is? It is horror, Captain, sheer horror, so I make certain I am more horrible than my enemy, and my enemy in this area is horrible indeed. You have heard of El Castrador?"
"The Castrator?" Sharpe guessed the translation.
"Indeed. Because of what he does to French soldiers, only he does it while they are alive and then he lets them bleed to death. El Castrador, I am sorry to say, still lives, but I do assure you that none of my men has been castrated in three months, and do you know why? Because El Castrador's men fear me more than they fear him. I have defeated him, Captain, I have made the mountains secure. In all of Spain, Captain, these are the only hills where Frenchmen can ride safely, and why? Because I have used the guerrilleros' weapon against them. I castrate them, just as they would castrate me, only I use a blunter knife." Brigadier Loup offered Sharpe a grim smile. "Now tell me, Captain, if you were in my boots, and if your men were being castrated and blinded and disembowelled and skinned alive and left to die, would you not do as I do?"
"To children?" Sharpe jerked his thumb at the village.
Loup's one eye widened in surprise, as though he found Sharpe's objection odd in a soldier. "Would you spare a rat because it's young? Vermin are vermin, Captain, whatever their age."
"I thought you said the mountains were safe," Sharpe said, "so why kill?"
"Because last week two of my men were ambushed and killed in a village not far from here. The families of the murderers came here to take refuge, thinking I would not find them. I did find them, and now I assure you, Captain, that no more of my men will be ambushed in Fuentes de Onoro."
"They will if I find them there."
Loup shook his head sadly. "You are so quick with your threats, Captain. But fight me and I think you will learn caution. But for now? Give me my men and we shall ride away."
Sharpe paused, thinking, then finally shrugged and turned. "Sergeant Harper!"
"Bring the two Frogs out!"
Harper hesitated as though he wanted to know what Sharpe intended before he obeyed the order, but then he turned reluctantly towards the houses. A moment later he appeared with the two French captives, both of whom were still naked below the waist and one of whom was still half doubled over in pain. "Is he wounded?" Loup asked.
"I kicked him in the balls," Sharpe said. "He was raping a girl."
Loup seemed amused by the answer. "You're squeamish about rape, Captain Sharpe?"
"Funny in a man, isn't it? Yes, I am."
"We have some officers like that," Loup said, "but a few months in Spain soon cures their delicacy. The women here fight like the men, and if a woman imagines that her skirts will protect her then she is wrong. And rape is part of the horror, but it also serves a secondary purpose. Release soldiers to rape and they don't care that they're hungry or that their pay is a year in arrears. Rape is a weapon like any other, Captain."
"I'll remember that, General, when I march into France," Sharpe said, then he turned back towards the houses. "Stop there, Sergeant!" The two prisoners had been escorted as far as the village entrance. "And Sergeant!"
"Fetch their trousers. Get them dressed properly."
Loup, pleased with the way his mission was going, smiled at Sharpe. "You're being sensible, good. I would hate to have to fight you in the same way that I fight the Spanish."
Sharpe looked at Loup's pagan uniform. It was a costume, he thought, to scare a child, the costume of a wolfman walking out of nightmare, but the wolfman's sword was no longer than Sharpe's and his carbine a good deal less accurate than Sharpe's rifle. "I don't suppose you could fight us, General," Sharpe said, "we're a real army, you see, not a pack of unarmed women and children."
Loup stiffened. "You will find, Captain Sharpe, that the Brigade Loup can fight any man, anywhere, anyhow. I do not lose, Captain, not to anyone."
"So if you never lose, General, how were you taken prisoner?" Sharpe sneered. "Fast asleep, were you?"
"I was a passenger on my way to Egypt, Captain, when our ship was captured by the Royal Navy. That hardly counts as my defeat." Loup watched as his two men pulled on their trousers. "Where is Trooper Godin's horse?"
"Trooper Godin won't need a horse where he's going," Sharpe said.
"He can walk? I suppose he can. Very well, I yield you the horse," Loup said magniloquently.
"He's going to hell, General," Sharpe said. "I'm dressing them because they're still soldiers, and even your lousy soldiers deserve to die with their trousers on." He turned back to the settlement. "Sergeant! Put them against the wall! I want a firing squad, four men for each prisoner. Load up!"
"Captain!" Loup snapped and his hand went to his sword's hilt.
"You don't frighten me, Loup. Not you nor your fancy dress," Sharpe said. "You draw that sword and we'll be mopping up your blood with your flag of truce. I've got marksmen up on that ridge who can whip the good eye out of your face at two hundred yards, and one of those marksmen is looking at you right now."
Loup looked up the hill. He could see Price's redcoats there, and one greenjacket, but he plainly could not tell just how many men were in Sharpe's party. He looked back to Sharpe. "You're a captain, just a captain. Which means you have what? One company? Maybe two? The British won't entrust more than two companies to a mere captain, but within half a mile I have the rest of my brigade. If you kill my men you'll be hunted down like dogs, and you will die like dogs. I will exempt you from the rules of war, Captain, just as you propose exempting my men, and I will make sure you die in the manner of my Spanish enemies. With a very blunt knife, Captain."
Sharpe ignored the threat, turning towards the village instead. "Firing party ready, Sergeant?"
"They're ready, sir. And eager, sir!"
Sharpe looked back to the Frenchman. "Your brigade is miles away, General. If it was any closer you wouldn't be here talking to me, but leading the attack. Now, if you'll forgive me, I've got some justice to execute."
"No!" Loup said sharply enough to turn Sharpe back. "I have made a bargain with my men. You understand that, Captain? You are a leader, I am a leader, and I have promised my men never to abandon them. Don't make me break my promise."
"I don't give a bugger about your promise," Sharpe said.
Loup had expected that kind of answer and so shrugged. "Then maybe you will give a bugger about this, Captain Sharpe. I know who you are, and if you do not return my men I will place a price on your head. I will give every man in Portugal and Spain a reason to hunt you down. Kill those two and you sign your own death warrant."
Sharpe smiled. "You're a bad loser, General."
"And you're not?"
Sharpe walked away. "I've never lost," he called back across his shoulder, "so I wouldn't know."
"Your death warrant, Sharpe!" Loup called.
Sharpe lifted two fingers. He had heard that the English bowmen at Agincourt, threatened by the French with the loss of their bowstring fingers at the battle's end, had first won the battle and then invented the taunting gesture to show the overweening bastards just who were the better soldiers. Now Sharpe used it again.
Then went to kill the wolfman's men.
Major Michael Hogan discovered Wellington inspecting a bridge over the River Turones where a force of three French battalions had tried to hold off the advancing British. The resulting battle had been swift and brutal, and now a trail of French and British dead told the skirmish's tale. An initial tide line of bodies marked where the sides had clashed, a dreadful smear of bloodied turf showed where two British cannon had enfiladed the enemy, then a further scatter of corpses betrayed the French retreat across the bridge which their engineers had not had time to destroy. "Fletcher thinks the bridge is Roman work, Hogan," Wellington greeted the Irish Major.
"I sometimes wonder, my Lord, whether anyone has built a bridge in Portugal or Spain since the Romans." Hogan, swathed in a cloak because of the day's damp chill, nodded amicably to his Lordship's three aides, then handed the General a sealed letter. The seal, which showed the royal Spanish coat of arms, had been lifted. "I took the precaution of reading the letter, my Lord," Hogan explained.
"Trouble?" Wellington asked.
"I wouldn't have bothered you otherwise, my Lord," Hogan answered gloomily.
Wellington frowned as he read the letter. The General was a handsome man, forty-two years old, but as fit as any in his army. And, Hogan thought, wiser than most. The British army, Hogan knew, had an uncanny knack of finding the least qualified man and promoting him to high command, but somehow the system had gone wrong and Sir Arthur Wellesley, now the Viscount Wellington, had been given command of His Majesty's army in Portugal, thus providing that army with the best possible leadership. At least Hogan thought so, but Michael Hogan allowed that he could be prejudiced in this matter. Wellington, after all, had promoted Hogan's career, making the shrewd Irishman the head of his intelligence department and the result had been a relationship as close as it was fruitful.
The General read the letter again, this time glancing at a translation Hogan had thoughtfully provided. Hogan meanwhile looked about the battlefield where fatigue parties were clearing up the remnants of the skirmish. To the east of the bridge, where the road came delicately down the mountainside in a series of sweeping curves, a dozen work parties were searching the bushes for bodies and abandoned supplies. The French dead were being stripped naked and stacked like cordwood next to a long, shallow grave that a group of diggers was trying to extend. Other men were piling French muskets or else hurling canteens, cartridge boxes, boots and blankets into a cart. Some of the plunder was even more exotic, for the retreating French had weighed themselves down with the loot of a thousand Portuguese villages and Wellington's men were now recovering church vestments, candlesticks and silver plate. "Astonishing what a soldier will carry on a retreat," the General remarked to Hogan. "We found one dead man with a milking stool. A common milking stool! What was he thinking of? Taking it back to France?" He held the letter out to Hogan. "Damn," he said mildly, then, more strongly, "God damn!" He waved his aides away, leaving him alone with Hogan. "The more I learn about His Most Catholic Majesty King Ferdinand VII, Hogan, the more I become convinced that he should have been drowned at birth."
Hogan smiled. "The recognized method, my Lord, is smothering."
"Is it indeed?"
"It is indeed, my Lord, and no one's ever the wiser. The mother simply explains how she rolled over in her sleep and trapped the blessed little creature beneath her body and thus, the holy church explains, another precious angel is born."
"In my family," the General said, "unwanted children get posted into the army."
"It has much the same effect, my Lord, except in the matter of angels."
Wellington gave a brief laugh, then gestured with the letter. "So how did this reach us?"
"The usual way, my Lord. Smuggled out of Valenзay by Ferdinand's servants and brought south to the Pyrenees where it was given to partisans for forwarding to us."
"With a copy to London, eh? Any chance of intercepting the London copy?"
"Alas, sir, gone these two weeks. Probably there already."
"Hell, damn and hell again. Damn!" Wellington stared gloomily at the bridge where a sling cart was salvaging the fallen barrel of a dismounted French cannon. "So what to do, eh, Hogan? What to do?"
The problem was simple enough. The letter, copied to the Prince Regent in London, had come from the exiled King Ferdinand of Spain who was now a prisoner of Napoleon in the French chвteau at Valenзay. The letter was pleased to announce that His Most Catholic Majesty, in a spirit of cooperation with his cousin of England and in his great desire to drive the French invader from the sacred soil of his kingdom, had directed the
1. /Sharpe's Christmas.doc
2. /Sharpe's Ransom.doc
1. /Sharpe's Siege.doc
1. /Sharpe's Revenge.doc
|One's own Kingman, Christ person, Woman God. At battle with a mass astrengent. The bond||Документы|
1. /Sharpe's Devil.doc
1. /Sharpe's Regiment.doc