Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Moon looked exasperated. “If we break the bridge at this end, Sharpe,” he explained with exaggerated patience as though he were speaking to a young and not very bright child, “the damn thing will float downstream, but will still be attached to the far bank. The French can then salvage the pontoons. Not much point in coming all this way and leaving the French with a serviceable pontoon bridge that they can rebuild, is there? But if we break it at the Spanish end, the pontoons should end up on this bank and we can burn them.” A barrel load of canister or grapeshot hissed overhead and the brigadier threw Fort Josephine an irritated glance. “Get on with it,” he said to Sharpe. “I want to be away by tomorrow’s dawn.”
A picquet from the 74th’s light company guarded the eighteen women. Six were officers’ wives and they stood apart from the rest, trying to look brave. “You’ll take them over,” Sharpe told Jack Bullen.
“I will, sir?”
“You like women, don’t you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“And you speak some of their horrible language, don’t you?”
“Incredibly well, sir.”
“So take the ladies over the bridge and up to that other fort.”
While Lieutenant Bullen persuaded the women that no harm would come to them and that they must gather their luggage and be ready to cross the river, Sharpe looked for Sturridge and found the engineer in the fort’s main magazine. “Powder,” said Sturridge as he greeted Sharpe. He had prised the lid from a barrel and now tasted the gunpowder. “Bloody awful powder,” he spat it out with a grimace. “Bloody French powder. Nothing but bloody dust. Damp, too.”
“Will it work?”
“It should go bang,” Sturridge said gloomily.
“I’m taking you over the bridge,” Sharpe told him.
“There’s a handcart outside,” Sturridge said, “and we’ll need it. Five barrels should be enough, even of this rubbish.”
“You’ve got fuse?”
Sturridge unbuttoned his blue jacket and showed that he had several yards of slow match coiled around his waist. “You just thought I was portly, didn’t you? Why doesn’t he just blow the bridge at this end? Or in the middle?”
“So the French can’t rebuild it.”
“They couldn’t anyway. Takes a lot of skill to make one of those bridges. Doesn’t take much to undo one, but making a pontoon bridge isn’t a job for amateurs.” Sturridge hammered the lid back onto the opened powder barrel. “The French aren’t going to like us being over there, are they?”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
“So is this where I die for England?”
“That’s why I’m there. To make sure you don’t.”
“That is a consolation,” Sturridge said. He glanced across at Sharpe who was leaning, arms folded, against the wall. Sharpe’s face was shadowed by his shako’s peak, but his eyes were bright in the shadow. The face was scarred, hard, watchful, and thin. “Actually it is a consolation,” Sturridge said, then flinched because the brigadier was bellowing in the courtyard, demanding to know where Sturridge was and why the damned bridge was still intact. “Bloody man,” Sturridge said.
Sharpe went back to the sunlight where Moon was exercising the captured horse, showing off to the French wives who had gathered by the eastern gate where Jack Bullen had commandeered the handcart for their luggage. Sharpe ordered the bags off and the cart to the main magazine where Harper and a half dozen men loaded it with gunpowder. Then the women’s luggage was placed on top. “It’ll disguise the powder barrels,” Sharpe explained to Harper.
“Disguise it, sir?”
“If the Crapauds see us crossing the bridge with powder, what do you think they’ll do?”
“They won’t be happy, sir.”
“No, Pat, they won’t. They’ll use us for target practice.”
It was mid-morning before everything was ready. The French in Fort Josephine had abandoned their desultory cannon fire. Sharpe had half expected the enemy to send an envoy across the river to inquire about the women, but none had come. “Three of the officers’ wives are from the 8th, sir,” Jack Bullen told Sharpe.
“They’re what?” Sharpe asked.
“French regiment, sir. The 8th. They’ve been at Cádiz, but they were sent to reinforce the troops besieging Badajoz. They’re across the river, sir, but some of the officers and their wives slept here last night. Better quarters, see?” Bullen paused, evidently expecting some reaction from Sharpe. “Don’t you see, sir? There’s a whole French battalion over there. The 8th. Not just the garrison, but a fighting battalion. Oh, dear God.” This last was because two women had detached themselves from the rest and were haranguing him in Spanish. Bullen calmed them with a smile. “They say they’re Spanish, sir,” he explained to Sharpe, “and say they don’t want to go to the other fort.”
“What are they doing here in the first place?”
The women talked to Sharpe, both at the same time, both urgently, and he thought he understood that they were claiming to have been captured by the French and forced to live with a pair of soldiers. That might be true, he thought. “So where do you want to go?” he asked them in bad Spanish.
They both spoke again, pointing across the river and southward, claiming that was where they had come from. Sharpe hushed them. “They can go wherever they bloody like, Jack.”
The fort’s gate was thrown open and Bullen led the way through, holding his arms wide to show the French across the river that he meant no harm. The women followed. The track down to the river was rough and stony and the women went slowly until they reached the wooden roadway laid across the pontoons. Sharpe and his men brought up the rear. Harper, his seven-barreled gun slung next to his rifle, nodded across the river. “There’s a reception party, sir,” he said, referring to three mounted French officers who had just appeared outside Fort Josephine. They were waiting there, watching the approaching women and soldiers.
A dozen of Sharpe’s men were manhandling the cart. Lieutenant Sturridge, the engineer, was with them and he kept flinching because the cart had a skewed axle and constantly lurched to the left. It went more smoothly once they were on the bridge, though the women were nervous of crossing because the whole roadway of planked chesses was vibrating from the pressure of the winter-swollen river as it forced its way between the bargelike pontoons. Dead branches and flotsam were jammed on the upstream side, increasing the pressure and making the water break white about the bluff bows. Each of the big pontoons was held against the current by a pair of thick anchor chains and Sharpe hoped that five barrels of damp powder would prove sufficient to shatter the massive construction. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Harper asked.
“All those poor bastards,” Harper said, remembering the awful moment when the pontoon bridge across the Douro had snapped. The roadway had been crowded with folk fleeing the invading French, and hundreds of them had drowned. Sharpe still saw the children in his dreams.
The three French officers were riding down to the bridge’s far end now. They waited there and Sharpe hurried past the women. “Jack,” he called to Bullen, “I need you to translate.”
Sharpe and Bullen led the way to the Spanish bank. The women followed hesitantly. The three French officers waited and, as Sharpe drew near, one of them took off his cocked hat in salute. “My name is Lecroix,” he said as he introduced himself. He spoke in English. Lecroix was a young man, exquisitely uniformed, with a lean handsome face and very white teeth. “Captain Lecroix of the 8th,” he added.
Lecroix’s eyes widened slightly, perhaps because Sharpe did not look like a captain. His uniform was torn and dirty and, though he wore a sword, as officers did, the blade was a Heavy Cavalry trooper’s weapon, which was a huge and unwieldy blade better suited for butchering. He carried a rifle too, and officers did not usually carry longarms. Then there was his face, tanned and scarred, a face you might meet in some fetid alley, not in a salon. It was a frightening face and Lecroix, who was no coward, almost recoiled from the hostility in Sharpe’s eyes. “Colonel Vandal,” he said, putting the stress on the name’s second syllable, “sends his compliments, monsieur, and requests that you permit us to recover our wounded”—he paused, glancing at the handcart that had been stripped of the women’s luggage, thus revealing the powder kegs—“before you attempt to destroy the bridge.”
“Attempt?” Sharpe asked.
Lecroix ignored the scorn. “Or do you intend to leave our wounded for the amusements of the Portuguese?”
Sharpe was tempted to say that any French wounded deserved whatever they got from the Portuguese, but he resisted the urge. The request, he reckoned, was fair enough and so he drew Jack Bullen away far enough so that the French officers could not overhear him. “Go and see the brigadier,” he told the lieutenant, “and tell him these buggers want to fetch their wounded over the river before we destroy the bridge.”
Bullen set off back across the bridge while two of the French officers started back toward Fort Josephine, followed by all the women except the two Spaniards who, barefooted and ragged, hurried south down the river’s bank. Lecroix watched them go. “Those two didn’t want to stay with us?” He sounded surprised.
“They said you captured them.”
“We probably did.” He took out a leather case of long thin cigars and offered one to Sharpe. Sharpe shook his head, then waited as Lecroix laboriously struck a light with his tinderbox. “You did well this morning,” the Frenchman said once the cigar was alight.
“Your garrison was asleep,” Sharpe said.
Lecroix shrugged. “Garrison troops. No good. Old and sick and tired men.” He spat out a shred of tobacco. “But I think you have done all the damage you will do today. You will not break the bridge.”
“Cannon,” Lecroix said laconically, gesturing at Fort Josephine, “and my colonel is determined to preserve the bridge, and what my colonel wants, he gets.”
“Vandal,” Lecroix corrected Sharpe’s pronunciation, “Colonel Vandal of the 8th of the Line. You have heard of him?”
“You should educate yourself, Captain,” Lecroix said with a smile.
“Read the accounts of Austerlitz and be astonished by Colonel Vandal’s bravery.”
“Austerlitz?” Sharpe asked. “What was that?”
Lecroix just shrugged. The women’s luggage was dropped at the bridge’s end and Sharpe sent the men back, then followed them until he reached Lieutenant Sturridge who was kicking at the planks on the foredeck of the fourth pontoon from the bank. The timber was rotten and he had managed to make a hole there. The stench of stagnant water came from the hole. “If we widen it,” Sturridge said, “then we should be able to blow this one to hell and beyond.”
“Sir!” Harper called. Sharpe turned eastward and saw French infantry coming from Fort Josephine. They were fixing bayonets and forming ranks just outside the fort, but he had no doubt they were coming to the bridge. It was a big company, at least a hundred men. French battalions were divided into six companies, unlike the British who had ten, and this company looked formidable with fixed bayonets. Bloody hell, Sharpe thought, but if the frogs wanted to make a fight of it, then they had better hurry because Sturridge, helped by a half dozen of Sharpe’s men, was prising off the pontoon’s foredeck and Harper was carrying the first powder barrel toward the widening hole.
There was a thunderous sound from the Portuguese side of the bridge and Sharpe saw the brigadier, accompanied by two officers, galloping onto the roadway. More redcoats were coming from the fort, doubling down the stony track, evidently to reinforce Sharpe’s men. The brigadier’s commandeered stallion was nervous of the vibrating roadway, but Moon was a superb horseman and kept the beast under control. He curbed the horse close to Sharpe. “What the devil’s going on?”
“They said they wanted to fetch their wounded, sir.”
“So what are those bloody men doing?” Moon looked at the French infantry.
“I reckon they want to stop us blowing the bridge, sir.”
“Damn them to hell,” Moon said, throwing Sharpe an angry look as if it was Sharpe’s fault. “Either they’re talking to us or they’re fighting us. They can’t do both at the same time! There are some bloody rules in war!” He spurred on. Major Gillespie, the brigadier’s aide, followed him after giving Sharpe a sympathetic glance. The third horseman was Jack Bullen. “Come on, Bullen!” Moon shouted. “You can interpret for me. My frog ain’t up to scratch.”
Harper was filling the bows of the fourth pontoon with the barrels and Sturridge had taken off his jacket and was unwinding the slow match coiled about his waist. There was nothing there for Sharpe to do, so he went to where the brigadier was snarling at Lecroix. The immediate cause of the brigadier’s anger was that the French infantry company had advanced halfway down the hill and were now arrayed in line facing the bridge. They were no more than a hundred paces away, and were accompanied by three mounted officers. “You can’t talk to us about recovering your wounded and make threatening movements at the same time!” Moon snapped.
“I believe, monsieur, those men merely come to collect the wounded,” Lecroix said soothingly.
“Not carrying weapons, they don’t,” Moon said, “and not without my permission! And why the hell have they got fixed bayonets?”
“A misunderstanding, I’m sure,” Lecroix said emolliently. “Perhaps you would do us the honor of discussing the matter with my colonel?” He gestured toward the horsemen waiting behind the French infantry.
But Moon was not going to be summoned by some French colonel. “Tell him to come here,” he insisted.
“Or you will send an emissary, perhaps?” Lecroix suggested smoothly, ignoring the brigadier’s direct order.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Moon snarled. “Major Gillespie? Go and talk sense to the damned man. Tell him he can send one officer and twenty soldiers to recover their wounded. They’re not to bring any weapons, but the officer may carry sidearms. Lieutenant?” The brigadier looked at Bullen. “Go and translate.”
Gillespie and Bullen rode uphill with Lecroix. Meanwhile the light company of the 88th had arrived on the French side of the bridge that was now crowded with soldiers. Sharpe was worried. His own company was on the roadway, guarding Sturridge, and now the 88th’s light company had joined them, and they all made a prime target for the French company that was in a line of three ranks. Then there were the French gunners watching from the ramparts of Fort Josephine who doubtless had their barrels loaded with grapeshot. Moon had ordered the 88th down to the bridge, but now seemed to realize that they were an embarrassment rather than a reinforcement. “Take your men back to the other side,” he called to their captain, then turned around because a single Frenchman was now riding toward the bridge. Gillespie and Bullen, meanwhile, were with the other French officers behind the enemy company.