Authors: Bernard Cornwell
There had once been five good stone bridges crossing the Guadiana between Badajoz and the sea, but they had all been blown up by the contending armies, and now there was only this one French pontoon bridge to provide a link between the emperor’s siege forces. It was not used much. Travel in Portugal or Spain was dangerous for the French because the guerrilleros were merciless, but once every two or three weeks the pontoon bridge would creak under the weight of a battery of artillery, and every few days a dispatch rider would cross the river escorted by a regiment of dragoons. Not many local folk used the bridge, for very few could afford the toll and fewer still wanted to risk the animosity of the twin garrisons who were, as a result, mostly left in peace. The war seemed far away, which was why the defenders manning the ramparts in the early morning were dreaming of women rather than looking for the enemy troops who had followed a goat track from the darkened heights into the blackness of the valley to the west of Fort Joseph.
Captain Richard Sharpe, commander of the South Essex Light Company, was not in the valley. He was with his company on a hill to the north of the fort. He had the easiest job of the morning, which was to create a diversion, and that meant none of his men should die and none should even be wounded. Sharpe was glad of that, but he was also aware that he had not been given the easy job as a reward, but because Moon disliked him. The brigadier had made that plain when the six light companies had reported to him in Lisbon. “My name’s Moon,” the brigadier had said, “and you’ve got a reputation.”
Sharpe, taken aback by the offhand greeting, had looked surprised. “I do, sir?”
“Don’t be modest with me, man,” Moon had said, stabbing a finger at the South Essex badge, which showed a chained eagle. Sharpe and his sergeant, Patrick Harper, had captured that eagle from the French at Talavera, and such a feat, as Moon had said, gave a man a reputation. “I don’t want any damn heroics, Sharpe,” the brigadier went on.
“Good plain soldiering wins wars,” Moon had said. “Doing mundane things well is what counts.” That was undoubtedly true, but it was odd coming from Sir Barnaby Moon whose reputation was anything but mundane. He was young, only just a year over thirty, and he had been in Portugal for little more than a year, yet he had already made a name for himself. He had led his battalion at Bussaco where, on the ridge where the French had climbed and died, he had rescued two of his skirmishers by galloping through his men’s ranks and killing the skirmishers’ captors with his sword. “No damned frog will take my fusiliers!” he had announced, leading the two men back, and his soldiers had cheered him and he had taken off his cocked hat and bowed to them from the saddle. He was also said to be a gambler and a ruthless hunter of women and, because he was as wealthy as he was handsome, he was reckoned a most successful hunter. London, it was said, was a safer city now that Sir Barnaby was in Portugal, though doubtless there was a score or more of Lisbon ladies who might give birth to babies who would grow up to have Sir Barnaby’s lean face, fair hair, and startling blue eyes. He was, in brief, anything but a plain soldier, yet that was what he required of Sharpe and Sharpe was happy to oblige. “You need make no reputation with me, Sharpe,” Sir Barnaby had said.
“I’ll try hard not to, sir,” Sharpe had said, for which he had received a foul look, and ever since Moon had virtually ignored Sharpe. Jack Bullen, who was Sharpe’s lieutenant, reckoned that the brigadier was jealous.
“Don’t be daft, Jack,” Sharpe had said when this was proposed.
“In any drama, sir,” Bullen had persevered, “there is only room for one hero. The stage is too small for two.”
“You’re an expert on drama, Jack?”
“I am an expert on everything except for the things you know about,” Bullen had said, making Sharpe laugh. The truth, Sharpe reckoned, was that Moon simply shared most officers’ mistrust of men who had been promoted from the ranks. Sharpe had joined the army as a private, he had served as a sergeant, and now he was a captain, and that irritated some men who saw Sharpe’s rise as an affront to the established order, which, Sharpe decided, was fine by him. He would create the diversion, let the other five companies do the fighting, then go back to Lisbon and so back to the battalion. In a month or two, as spring arrived in Portugal, they would march north from the Lines of Torres Vedras and pursue Marshal Masséna’s forces into Spain. There would be plenty enough fighting in the spring, even enough for upstarts.
“There’s the light, sir,” Harper said. He was lying flat beside Sharpe and staring into the valley.
“There it is again, sir. See it?”
The brigadier had a shielded lantern and, by raising one of its screens, could flash a dim light that would be hidden from the French. It glowed again, made faint by the dawn, and Sharpe called to his men. “Now, lads.”
All they had to do was show themselves, not in ranks and files, but scattered across the hilltop so that they looked like partisans. The object was to make the French peer northward and so ignore the attack creeping from the west.
“That’s all we do?” Harper asked. “We just piss around up here?”
“More or less,” Sharpe said. “Stand up, lads! Let the Crapauds see you!” The light company was on the skyline, plainly visible, and there was just enough light to see that the French in Fort Joseph had registered their presence. Undoubtedly the garrison’s officers would be training their telescopes on the hill, but Sharpe’s men were in greatcoats so their uniforms, with their distinctive crossbelts, were not visible, and he had told them to take off their shakos so they did not look like soldiers.
“Can we give them a shot or two?” Harper asked.
“Don’t want to get them excited,” Sharpe said. “We just want them to watch us.”
“But we can shoot when they wake up?”
“When they see the others, yes. We’ll give them a greenjacket breakfast, eh?”
Sharpe’s company was unique in that while most of its men wore the red coats of the British infantry, others were uniformed in the green jackets of the rifle battalions. It was all because of a mistake. Sharpe and his riflemen had been cut off from the retreat to Corunna, had made their way south to the forces in Lisbon, and there been temporarily attached to the redcoated South Essex and somehow they had never left. The greenjackets carried rifles. To most people a rifle looked like a short musket, but the difference was hidden inside the barrel. The Baker Rifle had seven grooves twisting the length of its barrel and those grooves gave the bullet a spin that made it lethally accurate. A musket was quick to load and fast to fire, but beyond sixty paces a man might as well shut his eyes rather than take aim. The rifle could kill at three times that range. The French had no rifles, which meant Sharpe’s greenjackets could lie on the hill, shoot at the defenders, and know that none of the infantry inside Fort Joseph could answer their fire.
“There they go,” Harper said.
The five light companies were advancing up the hill. Their red uniforms looked black in the half-light. Some carried short ladders. They had a nasty job, Sharpe thought. The fort had a dry ditch and from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the parapet was at least ten feet and the top of the parapet was protected by sharpened stakes. The redcoats had to cross the ditch, place the ladders between the stakes, climb into the musket fire of the defenders, and, worse, face cannon fire as well. The French cannons were undoubtedly loaded, but with what? Round shot or canister? If it was canister then Moon’s troops could be hit hard by the first volley, while round shot would do much less damage. Not Sharpe’s problem. He walked along the hilltop, making sure he was silhouetted against the lightening sky, and miraculously the French were still oblivious of the four hundred men approaching from the west. “Go on, boys,” Harper muttered, not speaking to all of the attacking troops, but to the light company of the 88th, the Connaught Rangers, an Irish regiment.
Sharpe was not watching. He had suddenly been seized by the superstition that if he watched the attack, then it would fail. Instead he stared down at the river, counting the bridge’s pontoons that were dark shadows in the mist that writhed just above the water. He decided he would count them and not look at Fort Joseph until the first shot was fired. Thirty-one, he reckoned, which meant there was one pontoon every ten feet, for the river was just over a hundred yards wide. The pontoons were big, clumsy, square-ended barges across which a timber roadway had been laid. The winter had been wet all across southern Spain and Portugal; the Guadiana was running high and he could see the water seething where it broke on the pontoons’ bluff bows. Each boat had anchor chains running into the river and spring lines tensioned between the neighboring barges across which the heavy baulks ran to support the chesses, the planks that made the roadway. It probably weighed over a hundred tons, Sharpe reckoned, and this job would not be over until that long bridge was destroyed.
“They’re dozy bastards,” Harper said in wonderment, presumably speaking of Fort Joseph’s defenders, but still Sharpe would not look. He was staring at Fort Josephine across the river where he could see men clustered about a cannon. They stepped away and the gun fired, belching a dirty smoke above the river’s thinning mist. It had fired a round of canister. The tin can, crammed with bullets, tore itself apart as it left the cannon’s muzzle and the half-inch balls whipped the air about Sharpe’s hilltop. The boom of the cannon rolled and echoed up the river valley. “Anyone hit?” Sharpe called. No one answered.
The cannon’s fire only made the defenders of the nearer fort stare at the hill more intently. They were aiming one of their own cannon now, trying to elevate it so that the canister would scrape the skyline. “Keep your heads down,” Sharpe said. Then there was a dull rattle of musketry and he dared to look back at the attack.
It was almost over. There were redcoats in the ditch, more on ladders, and even as Sharpe watched he saw the redcoats surge over the parapet and carry bayonets at the blue-uniformed Frenchmen. There was no need of his rifles. “Get out of sight of that damned gun,” he shouted, and his men hurried off the crest. A second cannon fired from the fort across the river. A musket ball plucked at the hem of Sharpe’s greatcoat and another drove up a flurry of dew from the grass by his side, but then he was off the hilltop and hidden from the distant gunners.
No gun fired from Fort Joseph. The garrison had been taken utterly by surprise and there were redcoats in the center of the fort now. A panicked stream of Frenchmen was running from the eastern gate to cross the bridge to the safety of Fort Josephine on the river’s Spanish bank. The musket fire was slowing. Maybe a dozen Frenchmen had been captured, the rest were fleeing, and there seemed to be scores of them running toward the bridge. The redcoats, screaming their war cries in the dawn, carried bayonets that encouraged the panicked flight. The French tricolor was hauled down before the last of the attacking troops had even crossed the ditch and wall. It had all been that quick.
“Our job’s done,” Sharpe said. “Down to the fort.”
“That was easy,” Bullen said happily.
“Not over yet, Jack.”
“The bridge, you mean?”
“Got to be destroyed.”
“The hard bit’s done, anyway.”
“That’s true,” Sharpe said. He liked young Jack Bullen, a bluff Essex boy who was uncomplaining and hardworking. The men liked Bullen too. He treated them fairly, with the confidence that came from privilege, but it was a privilege that was always tempered by cheerfulness. A good officer, Sharpe reckoned.
They filed down the hill, across the rocky valley, over a small stream that fell cold from the hills and so up the next hill to the fort where the ladders were still propped against the parapet. Every now and then a petulant gun fired from Fort Josephine, but the balls were wasted against the earth-filled wicker baskets that topped the parapet. “Ah, you’re here, Sharpe.” Brigadier Moon greeted him. He was suddenly affable, his dislike of Sharpe washed away by the elation of victory.
“What? Oh, thank you. That’s generous of you.” Moon did seem touched by Sharpe’s praise. “It went better than I dared hope. There’s tea on the boil over there. Let your lads have some.”
The French prisoners were sitting in the fort’s center. A dozen horses had been found in the stables and they were now being saddled, presumably because Moon, who had marched from the Tagus, reckoned he had earned the privilege of riding back. A captured officer was standing beside the well, disconsolately watching the victorious British troops who were gleefully searching the French packs captured in the barracks. “Fresh bread!” Major Gillespie, one of Moon’s aides, tossed Sharpe a loaf. “Still warm. The bastards live well, don’t they?”
“I thought they were supposed to be starving.”
“Not here they’re not. Land of milk and honey, this place.”
Moon climbed to the eastern firestep, which faced the bridge, and began looking into the ready magazines beside the guns. The artillerymen in Fort Josephine saw his red coat and opened fire. They were using canister and their shots rattled on the parapet and whistled overhead. Moon ignored the balls. “Sharpe!” he called, then waited as the rifleman climbed to the rampart. “Time you earned your wages, Sharpe,” he said. Sharpe said nothing, just watched as the brigadier peered into a magazine. “Round shot,” Moon announced, “common shell and grapeshot.”
“Not canister, sir?”
“Grapeshot, definitely grapeshot. Naval stores, I suspect. Bastards haven’t got any ships left so they’ve sent their grapeshot here.” He let the magazine lid drop and stared down at the bridge. “Common shell won’t break that brute, will it? There are a score of women down below. In the barracks. Have some of your fellows escort them over the bridge, will you? Deliver them to the French with my compliments. The rest of your men can help Sturridge. He says he’ll have to blow the far end.”
Lieutenant Sturridge was a Royal Engineer whose job was to destroy the bridge. He was a nervous young man who seemed terrified of Moon. “The far end?” Sharpe asked, wanting to be sure he had heard correctly.