Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Father Montseny had a key to one of the eastern doors. The key scraped in the lock and the door hinges squealed when he pushed it open. He came with six men. Two of them stayed close to the unlocked cathedral door. They stood in shadow, hidden, both with loaded muskets and with orders to use them only if things became desperate. “This is a night for knives,” Montseny told the men.
“In the cathedral?” one of the men asked nervously.
“I will give you absolution for any sins,” Montseny said, “and the men who must die here are heretics. They are Protestants, English. God will be gladdened by their deaths.”
He took the remaining four men to the crypt and, once in the main chamber, he placed candles on the floor and lit them. The light flickered on the shallow-domed ceiling. He put two men in one of the chambers to the east while he, with the remaining pair, waited in the darkness of the chamber opposite. “No noise now!” he warned them. “We wait.”
The English came early as Father Montseny had supposed they would. He heard the distant squeal of the hinges as they pushed open the unlocked door. He heard their footsteps coming down the cathedral’s long nave and he knew that the two men he had left by the door would have bolted it now and would be following the English toward the crypt.
Three men appeared on the western steps. They came slowly, cautiously. One of them, the tallest, had a bag. That man peered into the big round chamber and saw no one. “Hello!” he shouted.
Father Montseny tossed a packet into the chamber. It was a thick packet, tied with string. “What you will do,” he said in the English he had learned as a prisoner, “is bring the money, put it beside the letters, take the letters, and go.”
The man looked at the black archways leading from the big candlelit chamber. He was trying to decide where Montseny’s voice had come from. “You think I’m a fool?” he asked. “I must see the letters first.” He was a big man, red-faced, with a bulbous nose and thick black eyebrows.
“You may examine them, Captain,” Montseny said. He knew the man was called Plummer and that he had been a captain in the British army, and now he was a functionary in the British embassy. Plummer’s job was to make certain the embassy’s servants did not steal, that the gratings on the windows were secure, and that the shutters were locked at night. Plummer was, in Montseny’s opinion, a nonentity, a failed soldier, a man who now came anxiously into the ring of candles and squatted by the package. The string was tough and knotted tight and Plummer could not undo it. He felt in his pocket, presumably looking for a knife.
“Show me the gold,” Montseny ordered.
Plummer scowled at the peremptory tone, but obliged by opening the bag he had placed beside the package. He took out a cloth bag that he unlaced, then brought out a handful of golden guineas. “Three hundred,” he said, “as we agreed.” His voice echoed back and forth, confusing him.
“Now,” Montseny said, and his men appeared from the dark with leveled muskets. The two men Plummer had left on the steps staggered forward as Montseny’s last two men came down the stairs behind them.
“What the hell are you…” Plummer began, then saw the priest was carrying a pistol. “You’re a priest?”
“I thought we should all examine the merchandise,” Montseny said, ignoring the question. He had the three men surrounded now. “You will lie flat while I count the coins.”
“The devil I will,” Plummer said.
“On the floor,” Montseny spoke in Spanish, and his men, all of whom had served in the Spanish navy and had muscles hardened by years of grueling work, easily subdued the three and put them facedown on the crypt floor. Montseny picked up the string-bound package and put it in his pocket, then pushed the gold aside with his foot. “Kill them,” he said.
The two men accompanying Plummer were Spaniards themselves, embassy servants, and they protested when they heard Montseny’s order. Plummer resisted, heaving up from the floor, but Montseny killed him easily, sliding a knife up into his ribs and letting Plummer heave against the blade as it sought his heart. The other two died just as quickly. It was done with remarkably little noise.
Montseny gave his men five golden guineas apiece, a generous reward. “The English,” he explained to them, “secretly plan to keep Cádiz for themselves. They call themselves our allies, but they will betray Spain. Tonight you have fought for your king, for your country, and for the holy church. The admiral will be pleased with you, and God will reward you.” He searched the bodies, found a few coins and a bone-handled knife. Plummer had a pistol under his cloak, but it was a crude, heavy weapon and Montseny let one of the sailors keep it.
The three corpses were dragged up the steps, down the nave, and then carried to the nearby seawall. There Father Montseny said a prayer for their souls and his men heaved the dead over the stony edge. The bodies smacked down into the rocks where the Atlantic sucked and broke white. Father Montseny locked the cathedral and went home.
The next day the blood was found in the crypt and on the stairs and in the nave, and at first no one could explain it until some of the women who prayed in the cathedral every day declared that it must be the blood of Saint Servando, one of Cádiz’s patron saints whose body had once lain in the city, but had been taken to Seville, which was now occupied by the French. The blood, the women insisted, was proof that the saint had miraculously spurned the French-held city and returned home, and the discovery of three bodies being buffeted by the waves on the rocks below the seawall would not dissuade them. It was a miracle, they said, and the rumor of the miracle spread.
Captain Plummer was recognized and his body was carried to the embassy. There was a makeshift chapel inside and a hurried funeral service was read and the captain was then buried in the sands of the isthmus that connected Cádiz to the Isla de León. The next day Montseny wrote to the British ambassador, claiming that Plummer had tried to keep the gold and take the letters, and his regrettable death had thus been inevitable, but that the British could still have the letters back, only now they would cost a great deal more. He did not sign the letter, but enclosed one bloodstained guinea. It was an investment, he thought, that would bring back a fortune, and the fortune would pay for Father Montseny’s dreams: dreams of Spain, glorious again and free of foreigners. The English would pay for their own defeat.
“We’re stuck, sir.”
“Good God incarnate, man, can’t you do anything right?”
Sharpe said nothing. Instead he and Harper stripped off their cartridge boxes and jumped overboard to find themselves in four feet of water. They heaved on the pontoon, but it was like trying to push the Rock of Gibraltar. It was immovable and they were stranded fifty or sixty feet from the eastern bank on which the French pursued them, and over a hundred and fifty yards from the British-held bank. Sharpe ordered the other soldiers to get in the river and push, but it did no good. The big pontoons had grounded hard on a shingle bank and evidently intended to stay there.
“If we can cut one of the buggers free, sir,” Harper suggested. It was a good suggestion. If one of the pontoons could be loosed from the others then they would have a boat light enough to be forced off the shingle, but the big barges were connected by ropes and by stout timber beams that had carried the plank roadway.
“It’ll take us half a day to do it,” Sharpe said, “and I don’t think the Crapauds will be happy.”
“What the devil are you doing, Sharpe?” Moon demanded from the raft.
“Going ashore, sir,” Sharpe decided, “all of us.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“Because, sir,” Sharpe said, forcing himself to stay patient, “the French will be here in half an hour and if we’re in the river, sir, they’ll either shoot us down like dogs or else take us prisoner.”
“So your intentions?”
“Go up that hill, sir, hide there, and wait for the enemy to leave. And when they’ve gone, sir, we’ll cut one of the pontoons free.” Though how he would do that with no tools he was not sure, but he would have to try.
Moon plainly wanted to suggest another course of action, but none came to his mind so he submitted to being carried ashore by Sergeant Harper. The rest of the men followed, carrying their weapons and cartridge boxes over their heads. Once ashore they made a makeshift stretcher from a pair of muskets threaded through the sleeves of two red coats, then Harris and Slattery carried the brigadier up the steep hill. Sharpe, before leaving the riverbank, collected a few short sticks and a scrappy piece of fishing net, all of which had been washed onto the rocks, then he followed the others up to the first crest and saw, looking to his left, that the French had climbed to the top of the bluff. They were nearly half a mile away, which did not stop one of them loosing off his musket. The ball must have fallen into the intervening valley and the report, when it came, was muffled.
“This is far enough,” Moon announced. The jolting of the crude stretcher was giving him agony and he looked pale.
“To the top,” Sharpe said, nodding to where rocks crowned the bare hill.
“For God’s sake, man,” Moon began.
“French are coming, sir,” Sharpe interrupted the brigadier. “If you want, sir, I can leave you for them, sir? They must have a surgeon in the fort.”
Moon looked tempted for a few seconds, but understood that high-ranking prisoners were rarely exchanged. It was possible that a French brigadier might be captured soon and after prolonged negotiations would be exchanged for Moon, but it would take weeks if not months, and all the while his career would be stalled and other men promoted over him. “Up the hill if you must,” he said grudgingly, “but what are your plans after that?”
“Wait for the French to go, sir, detach a pontoon, cross the river, get you home.”
“And why the devil are you carrying firewood?”
The brigadier discovered why at the top of the hill. Private Geoghegan, one of the men from the 88th, claimed his mother had been a bonesetter and said he had often helped her as a child. “What you do, sir,” he explained, “is pull the bone.”
“Pull it?” Sharpe asked.
“Give it a good swift tug, sir, and he’ll like as not squeal like a piglet, and I straightens it then and we bind it up. Would the gentleman be a Protestant, would he, sir?”
“I should think so.”
“Then we don’t need the holy water, sir, and we’ll do without the two prayers as well, but he’ll be straight enough when we’re done.”
The brigadier protested. Why not wait till they were across the river, he wanted to know, and blanched when Sharpe said that could be two days. “Soonest done, soonest mended, sir,” Private Geoghegan said, “and if we don’t mend it soon, sir, it’ll set crooked as can be. And I’ll have to cut your trouser off, sir, sorry, sir.”
“You’ll not damned well cut them!” Moon protested hotly. “They’re Willoughby’s best! There isn’t a finer tailor in London.”
“Then you’ll have to take them off yourself, sir, you will,” Geoghegan said. He looked as wild as any of the Connaught men, but had a soft, sympathetic voice and a confidence that somewhat allayed the brigadier’s apprehensions, yet even so it took twenty minutes to persuade Moon that he should allow his leg to be straightened. It was the thought that he would have to spend the rest of his life with a crooked limb that really convinced him. He saw himself limping into salons, unable to dance, awkward in the saddle, and his vanity at last overcame his fear. Sharpe, meanwhile, watched the French. Forty men had worked their way over the bluff and now they were walking toward the stranded pontoons.
“Buggers are going to salvage them,” Harper said.
“Take the riflemen halfway down the hill,” Sharpe said, “and stop them.”
Harper left, taking Slattery, Harris, Hagman, and Perkins with him. They were the only men from Sharpe’s company stranded on the pontoons, but it was a consolation that they were all good riflemen. There was no better soldier than Sergeant Patrick Harper, the huge Ulsterman who hated the British rule of his homeland, but still fought like a hero. Slattery was from County Wicklow and was quiet, soft-spoken, and capable. Harris had been a schoolmaster once and was clever, well-read, and too fond of gin, which was why he was now a soldier, but he was amusing and loyal. Dan Hagman was the oldest, well over forty, and he had been a poacher in Cheshire before the law caught him and condemned him to the army’s ranks. There was no better marksman in any rifle company. Perkins was the youngest, young enough to be Hagman’s grandson, and he had been a street urchin in London as Sharpe had once been, but he was learning to be a good soldier. He was learning that discipline tied to savagery was unbeatable. They were all good men and Sharpe was glad to have them, and just then the brigadier gave a yelp that he managed to stifle, though he could not contain a long moan. Geoghegan had eased off the brigadier’s boots, which must have hurt like hell, and somehow managed to take down Moon’s trousers, and now he placed two of Sharpe’s sticks alongside the broken calf and wrapped one of the brigadier’s trouser legs about the limb so that it gripped the sticks. He tightened the pressure by winding the trouser leg as though he wrung water from the material. He tightened it until the brigadier gave a hiss of protest. Then Geoghegan grinned at Sharpe. “Would you help me, sir? Just take the general’s ankle, will you, sir? And when I tell you, sir, give it a good smart pull.”
“For God’s sake,” the brigadier managed to say.
“As brave a man as ever I saw, sir, so you are,” Geoghegan said, and he smiled reassuringly at Sharpe. “Are you ready, sir?”
“How hard do I pull?”
“A good tug, sir, just like pulling a lamb that doesn’t want to be born. Are you ready? Take firm hold, sir, both hands! Now!”
Sharpe pulled, the brigadier gave a high-pitched cry, Geoghegan screwed the material even tighter, and Sharpe distinctly heard the bone grate into place. Geoghegan was stroking the brigadier’s leg now. “And that’s just good as can be, sir, good as new, sir.” Moon did not respond and Sharpe realized the brigadier had either fainted or was in such shock that he could not speak.
Geoghegan splinted the leg with the sticks and the net. “He can’t walk on it, not for a while, but we’ll make him crutches, we will, and he’ll be dancing like a pony soon enough.”
The rifles sounded and Sharpe turned and ran down the hill to where his greenjackets were kneeling on the turf. They were about a hundred and fifty yards from the river and sixty feet above it, and the French were crouching in the water. They had been trying to haul the big barges off the shingle, but the bullets had ended that effort and now the men were using the pontoon hulls as protection. An officer ran into the shallow water, probably shouting at the men to get to their feet and try again, and Sharpe aimed at the officer, pulled the trigger, and the rifle banged into his shoulder as an errant spark from the flint stung his right eye. When the smoke cleared he saw the panicked officer running back to the bank, holding his scabbarded sword clear of the water in one hand and clutching his hat in the other. Slattery fired a second time and a splinter smacked up from one of the pontoons. Then Harper’s next shot threw a man into the river and there was a swirl of blood in which the man thrashed as he drifted away. Harris fired and most of the French waded away from the pontoons to take shelter behind some boulders on the bank.
“Just keep them there,” Sharpe said. “As soon as they try to shift those barges, kill them.”
He climbed back up the hill. The brigadier was propped against a rock now. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Frogs are trying to salvage the barges, sir. We’re stopping them.”
The boom of the French guns in Fort Josephine echoed down the river valley. “Why are they firing?” the brigadier asked irritably.
“My guess, sir,” Sharpe said, “is that some of our boys are trying to use a pontoon as a boat to look for us. And the frogs are shooting at them.”
“Bloody hell,” Moon said. He closed his eyes and grimaced. “You wouldn’t, I suppose, have any brandy?”
“No, sir, sorry, sir.” Sharpe would have bet a penny against the crown jewels that at least one of his men had brandy or rum in their canteen, but he would be damned before he took it away from them for the brigadier. “I’ve got water, sir,” he said, offering his canteen.
“Damn your water.”
Sharpe reckoned he could trust his riflemen to behave sensibly until they managed to recross the river, but the six fugitives from the 88th were another matter. The 88th were the Connaught Rangers and some men reckoned them the most fearsome regiment in the whole army, but they also had a reputation for wild indiscipline. The six rangers were led by a toothless sergeant and Sharpe, knowing that if the sergeant was on his side then the other men would probably cause no trouble, crossed to him. “What’s your name, Sergeant?” Sharpe asked him.
“I want you to watch over there,” Sharpe said, pointing north to the crest of the hill above the bluff. “I’m expecting a battalion of bloody frogs to come over that hill, and when they do, sing out.”
“I’ll sing right enough, sir,” Noolan promised, “sing like a choir, I will.”
“If they do come,” Sharpe said, “we’ll have to go south. I know the 88th is good, but I don’t think there’s quite enough of you to fight off a whole French battalion.”
Sergeant Noolan looked at his five men, considered Sharpe’s statement, then nodded gravely. “Not quite enough of us, sir, you’re right. And what are you thinking of doing, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“What I’m hoping,” Sharpe said, “is that the frogs will get tired of us and bugger off. Then we can try to float one of those pontoons and get across the river. Tell your men that, Sergeant. I want to get them home, and the best way home is to be patient.”
A sudden rattle of rifle fire drew Sharpe back to Harper’s position. The French were making another attempt to free the pontoons, and this time they had made a rope by linking their musket slings together and three men were bravely fastening the line to one of the samsom posts. One man had been hit and was limping back to the shore. Sharpe began reloading his rifle, but before he had rammed the leather-wrapped ball down the barrel, the remaining Frenchmen sprinted back to their shelter, taking the line with them. Sharpe saw the rope come dripping from the river as men hauled on it. The line straightened and tightened and he guessed that nearly all the French were tugging on it, but he could do nothing about it for they were hidden by the big boulder. The line quivered and Sharpe thought he saw the pontoons shift slightly, or perhaps that was his imagination, and then the rope snapped and Sharpe’s riflemen jeered loudly.
Sharpe looked upriver. When the bridge had broken there had been seven or eight pontoons left on the British side and he was sure someone had thought to use one as a rescue craft, but no such boat appeared and by now he suspected the French cannons had either holed those pontoons or else driven the work parties away from the shore. That suggested rescue was a remote hope, leaving him with the need to salvage one of the six stranded barges.
“Does this remind you of anything?” Harper asked him.
“I was trying not to think about it,” Sharpe said.
“What were those other rivers called?”
“The Douro and the Tagus.”
“And there were no bloody boats on those either, sir,” Harper said cheerfully.
“We found boats in the end,” Sharpe said. Two years ago his company had been trapped on the wrong side of the Douro. Then, a year later, he and Harper had been stranded on the Tagus. But both times they had found their way back to the army, and he would again now, but he wished the damned French would leave. Instead the troops hidden beneath him sent a messenger back to Fort Josephine. The man scrambled up the hill and all the riflemen turned to aim at him, hauling back the flints of their weapons, but the man kept looking back, dodging and ducking, and his fear was palpable and somehow funny so that none of them pulled their triggers.
“He was too far away,” Harper said. Hagman might have dropped the man, but in truth all the riflemen had felt sorry for the Frenchman who had shown bravery in risking the rifle fire.
“He’s gone to fetch help,” Sharpe said.
Nothing happened then for a long time. Sharpe lay on his back watching a hawk slide in the high sky. Sometimes a Frenchman would peer round the rocks below, see the riflemen were still there, and duck back. After an hour or so a man waved at them, then stepped cautiously out from the boulder and mimed unbuttoning his breeches. “Bugger wants a pee, sir,” Harris said.