Read Sharpe's Fury - 11 Online

Authors: Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Fury - 11 (6 page)

BOOK: Sharpe's Fury - 11
6.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Let him,” Sharpe said and they raised the rifles so the barrels pointed at the sky. A succession of Frenchmen went to stand by the river and all politely waved their thanks when they were done. Harper waved back. Sharpe went from man to man and found they had nothing but three pieces of biscuit between them. He made one of Sergeant Noolan’s men soften the biscuit with water and divide it equally, but it was a miserable dinner.

“We can’t go without food, Sharpe,” Moon complained. The brigadier had watched the division of the biscuits with a glittering eye and Sharpe had been certain he was planning to claim a larger share for himself, so Sharpe had loudly announced that every man got exactly the same portion. Moon was now in a filthier mood than usual. “How do you propose feeding us?” he demanded.

“We may have to go hungry till morning, sir.”

“Good God incarnate,” Moon muttered.

“Sir!” Sergeant Noolan called and Sharpe turned to see that two companies of the French had appeared by the bluff. They were in skirmish order to make themselves a more difficult target for the rifles.

“Pat!” Sharpe called down the slope. “We’re pulling back! Up you come!”

They went south, carrying the brigadier again, struggling over the steep slopes to keep the river in sight. The French pursued for an hour, then seemed content merely to have driven the fugitives away from the stranded pontoons.

“Now what?” Moon demanded.

“We wait here, sir,” Sharpe said. They were on a hilltop, sheltered by rocks and with a fine view in every direction. The river ran empty to the west while, off to the east, Sharpe could see a road winding through the hills.

“How long do we wait?” Moon asked snidely.

“Till nightfall, sir. Then I’ll go and see if the pontoons are still there.”

“Of course they won’t be,” Moon said, implying that Sharpe was a fool to believe otherwise, “but I suppose you’d better look.”

Sharpe need not have bothered because, in the dusk, he saw the smoke rising above the river and when dark fell there was a glow across the side of the hill. He went north, taking Sergeant Noolan and two men of the 88th, and they saw that the French had failed to free the pontoons, so instead had ensured they were useless. The barges were burning. “That is a pity,” Sharpe said.

“The brigadier will not be happy, sir,” Sergeant Noolan said cheerfully.

“No, he won’t,” Sharpe agreed.

Noolan spoke to his men in Gaelic, presumably sharing his thoughts of the brigadier’s unhappiness. “Don’t they speak English?” Sharpe asked.

“Fergal doesn’t,” Noolan said, nodding at one of the men, “and Padraig will if you shout at him, sir, but if you don’t shout he won’t have a word of it.”

“Tell them I’m glad you’re with us,” Sharpe said.

“You are?” Noolan sounded surprised.

“We were next to you on the ridge at Bussaco,” Sharpe said.

Noolan grinned in the dark. “That was a fight, eh? They kept coming and we kept killing them.”

“And now, Sergeant,” Sharpe went on, “it seems that you and I are stuck with each other for a few days.”

“So it does, sir,” Noolan agreed.

“So you need to know my rules.”

“You have rules, do you, sir?” Noolan asked cautiously.

“You don’t steal from civilians unless you’re starving, you don’t get drunk without my permission, and you fight like the devil himself was at your back.”

Noolan thought about it. “What happens if we break the rules?” he asked.

“You don’t, Sergeant,” Sharpe said bleakly, “you just don’t.”

They went back to make the brigadier unhappy.

the night the brigadier sent Harris to wake Sharpe who was half awake anyway because he was cold. Sharpe had given his greatcoat to the brigadier who, being coatless, had demanded that one of the men yield him a covering. “Is there trouble?” Sharpe asked Harris.

“Don’t know, sir. His Excellency just wants you, sir.”

“I’ve been thinking, Sharpe,” the brigadier announced when Sharpe arrived.

“Yes, sir?”

“I don’t like those men speaking Irish. You’ll tell them to use English. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Sharpe said, and paused. The brigadier had woken him to tell him that? “I’ll tell them, sir, but some of them don’t speak English, sir.”

“Then they can bloody well learn,” the brigadier snapped. He was sleepless through pain and now wanted to spread his misery. “You can’t trust them, Sharpe. They brew mischief.”

Sharpe paused, wondering how to put sense into Moon’s head, but before he could speak Rifleman Harris intervened. “You’ll forgive me, sir?” Harris said respectfully.

“Are you talking to me, rifleman?” the brigadier asked in astonishment.

“Begging your pardon, sir, I am. If I might, sir, with respect?”

“Go on, man.”

“It’s just, sir, as Mister Sharpe says, sir, that they don’t speak English, being benighted papists, sir, and they were only discussing whether it might be possible to build a boat or a raft, sir, and they do that best in their own language, sir, because they have the words, if you follow me, sir.”

The brigadier, thoroughly buttered by Harris, thought about it. “You speak their wretched language?” he asked.

“I do, sir,” Harris said, “and French, sir, and Portuguese and Spanish, sir, and some Latin.”

“Good God incarnate,” the brigadier said, after staring at Harris for a few heartbeats, “but you are English?”

“Oh yes, sir. And proud of it.”

“Quite right. Then I can depend on you to tell me if the teagues brew trouble?”

“The teagues, sir? Oh, the Irish! Yes, sir, of course, sir, a pleasure, sir,” Harris said enthusiastically.

Just before dawn there came the sound of explosions from upriver. Sharpe stared north but could see nothing. At first light he could see thick smoke above the river valley, but he had no way of knowing what had caused that smoke, so he sent Noolan and two of his men to discover what had happened. “Stay on the hilltops,” he told the 88th’s sergeant, “and keep a lookout for Crapaud patrols.”

“That was a damn fool decision,” the brigadier said when the three rangers had gone.

“It was, sir?”

“You’ll not see those men again, will you?”

“I think we will, sir,” Sharpe said mildly.

“Damn it, man, I know the teagues. My first commission was with the 18th. I managed to escape to the fusiliers when I became a captain.” Meaning, Sharpe thought, that the brigadier had purchased out of the Irish 18th to the more congenial fusiliers of his home county.

“I think you’ll see Sergeant Noolan soon, sir,” Sharpe said stubbornly, “and while we’re waiting I’m going south. I’ll be looking for food, sir.”

Sharpe took Harris and the two of them walked the high ground above the river. “How much Gaelic do you speak, Harris?” Sharpe asked.

“About three words, sir,” Harris said, “and none of them repeatable in high company.” Sharpe laughed. “So what do we do, sir?” Harris went on.

“Cross the bloody river,” Sharpe said.

“How, sir?”

“Don’t know.”

“And if we can’t?”

“Keep going south, I suppose,” Sharpe said. He tried to remember the maps he had seen of southern Spain and had an idea that the Guadiana joined the sea well to the west of Cádiz. There was no point in trying to reach Cádiz by road, for that great port was under French siege, but once at the river’s mouth he could find a ship to carry them north to Lisbon. The only ships off the coast were allied vessels, and he reckoned that the Royal Navy patrolled the shore. It would take time, he knew, but once they reached the sea they would be as good as home. “But if we have to walk to the sea,” he added, “I’d rather do it on the far bank.”

“Because it’s Portugal?”

“Because it’s Portugal,” Sharpe said, “and they’re friendlier than the Spanish, and because there are more frogs on this side.”

Sharpe’s hopes of crossing the river rose after a couple of miles when they came to a place where the hill dropped to a wide basin where the Guadiana broadened so that it looked like a lake. A smaller river flowed from the east, and in the basin where the two rivers joined, there was a small town of white houses. Two bell towers broke the tiled roofs. “There has to be a ferry there,” Harris said, “or fishing boats.”

“Unless the frogs burned everything.”

“Then we float over on a table,” Harris said, “and at least we’ll find food down there, sir, and His Lordship will like that.”

“You mean Brigadier Moon will like that,” Sharpe said in mild reproof.

“And he’ll like that place too, won’t he?” Harris said, pointing to a large house with stables that stood just to the north of the small town. The house was of two stories, was painted white, and had a dozen windows on each floor, while at its eastern end was an ancient castle tower, now in ruins. Smoke drifted from the house’s chimneys.

Sharpe took out his telescope and examined the house. The windows were shuttered and the only signs of life were some men repairing a terrace wall in one of the many vineyards that covered the nearby slopes and another man bending over a furrow in a kitchen garden that lay beside the Guadiana. He edged the glass sideways and saw what looked like a boathouse on the riverbank. Sharpe gave the telescope to Harris. “I’d rather go to the town,” he said.

“Why’s that, sir?” Harris asked, staring at the house through Sharpe’s glass.

“Because that house hasn’t been plundered, has it? Kitchen garden all nice and tidy. What does that suggest?”

“The owner has shaken hands with the French?”

“Like as not.”

Harris thought about that. “If they’re friends with the Crapauds, sir, then perhaps there’s a boat in that shed by the river?”

“Perhaps,” Sharpe said dubiously. A door in the courtyard by the old castle ruin opened and he saw someone emerge into the sunlight. He nudged Harris, pointed, and the rifleman swung the telescope.

“Just a frow hanging out the washing,” Harris said.

“We can get our shirts laundered,” Sharpe said. “Come on, let’s fetch the brigadier.”

They walked back across the high hills to find Moon in a triumphant mood because Sergeant Noolan and his men had failed to return.

“I told you, Sharpe!” Moon said. “You can’t trust them. That sergeant looked decidedly shifty.”

“How’s your leg, sir?”

“Bloody painful. Can’t be helped, eh? So you say there’s a decent-sized town?”

“Large village anyway, sir. Two churches.”

“Let’s hope they have a doctor who knows his business. He can look at this damned leg, and the sooner the better. Let’s get on the march, Sharpe. We’re wasting time.”

But just then Sergeant Noolan reappeared to the north and the brigadier had no choice but to wait as the three men from the 88th rejoined. Noolan, his long face more lugubrious than ever, brought grim news. “They blew up the fort, sir,” he told Sharpe.

“Talk to me, man, talk to me!” Moon insisted. “I command here.”

“Sorry, your honor,” Noolan said, snatching off his battered shako. “Our lot, sir, blew up the fort, sir, and they’ve gone.”

“Fort Joseph, you mean?” Moon asked.

“Is that what it’s called, sir? The one on the other side of the river, sir, they blew it up proper, they did! Guns tipped over the parapet and nothing left on the hill but smitherings.”

“Nothing but what?”

Noolan cast a helpless look at Sharpe. “Scraps, sir,” the sergeant tried again. “Bits and pieces, sir.”

“And you say our fellows are gone? How the hell do you know they’ve gone?”

“Because the Crapauds are over there, sir, so they are. Using a boat. Going back and forth, they are, sir, back and forth, and we watched them.”

“Good God incarnate,” Moon said in disgust.

“You did well, Noolan,” Sharpe said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“And we’re buggered,” the brigadier said irritably, “because our forces have buggered off and left us here.”

“In that case, sir,” Sharpe suggested, “the sooner we get to the town and find some food, the better.”

Harper, because he was the strongest man, carried the front end of the brigadier’s stretcher while the tallest of the Connaught Rangers took the rear. It took three hours to go the short distance and it was late morning by the time they reached the long hill above the big house and the small town. “That’s where we’ll go,” Moon announced the moment he saw the house.

“I think they might be
sir,” Sharpe said.

“Talk English, man, talk English.”

“I think they’re sympathetic to the French, sir.”

“How can you possibly tell?”

“Because the house hasn’t been plundered, sir.”

“You can’t surmise that,” the brigadier said, though without much conviction. Sharpe’s words had given him pause, but still the house drew him like a magnet. It promised comfort and the company of gentle folk. “There’s only one way to find out, though, isn’t there?” he proclaimed. “That’s to go there! So let’s be moving.”

“I think we should go to the town, sir,” Sharpe persisted.

“And I think you should keep quiet, Sharpe, and obey my orders.”

So Sharpe kept quiet as they went down the hill, through the upper vineyards and then beneath the pale leaves of an olive grove. They maneuvered the brigadier’s stretcher over a low stone wall and approached the house through wide gardens of cypress, orange trees, and fallow flower beds. There was a large pond, full of brown leaves and stagnant water, and then an avenue of statues. The statues were all of saints writhing in their death agonies. Sebastian clutched at the stub of an arrow piercing his ribs, Agnes stared serenely heavenward despite the sword in her throat, while next to her Andrew hung upside down on his cross. There were men being burned, women being disemboweled, and all of them preserved in white marble streaked with lichen and bird droppings. The ragged soldiers stared wide-eyed and the Catholics among them made the sign of the cross while Sharpe looked for any sign of life in the house. The windows remained shuttered, but smoke still drifted from a chimney, and then the big door that opened onto a balustraded terrace was thrown open and a man, dressed in black, stepped into the sunlight and waited as though he had been expecting them. “We had best observe the proprieties,” Moon said.

BOOK: Sharpe's Fury - 11
6.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Circles of Confusion by April Henry
Caníbales y reyes by Marvin Harris
The Plug's Daughter by Michelle, Nika
Linked Through Time by Tornese, Jessica
Apocalypsis 1.08 Seth by Giordano, Mario
Apprehended by Jan Burke