Authors: Bernard Cornwell
“I’m fond of the girl,” Harper admitted airily. “And she’s a good lass. She can cook, mend, works hard.”
“Is that all she does?” Sharpe asked.
“She’s a good girl,” Harper insisted.
“You should marry her then,” Sharpe said.
“There’s no call for that, sir,” Harper said, sounding alarmed.
“I’ll ask Colonel Lawford when we’re back,” Sharpe said. Officially only six wives were allowed with the men of each company, but the colonel could give permission to add another to the strength.
Harper looked at Sharpe a long time, trying to work out whether he was being serious or not, but Sharpe’s face gave away nothing. “The colonel’s got enough to worry about, sir, so he does,” Harper said.
“What’s he got to worry about? We do all the work.”
“But he’s a colonel, sir. He’s got to worry.”
“And I worry about you, Pat. I worry that you’re a sinner. It worries me that you’ll be going to hell when you die.”
“At least I can keep you company there, sir.”
Sharpe laughed at that. “That’s true, so maybe I won’t ask the colonel.”
“You escaped, Sergeant,” Slattery said, amused.
“But it all depends on Moon, doesn’t it?” Sharpe said. “If he wants to cross the river and try to catch the others, that’s what we’ll have to do. If he wants to go downriver we go downriver, but one way or another we should get you back to Joana in a week.” He saw a horseman appear on the northern hill from which he had first glimpsed the house and town, and he took out his telescope, but by the time he had trained it the man had gone. Probably a hunter, he told himself. “So be ready to move, Pat. And you’ll have to fetch the brigadier. He’s got crutches now, but if the bloody frogs show we’ll need to get him down to the river fast so you’ll have to carry him.”
“There’s a wheelbarrow in the stable yard, sir,” Hagman said. “A dung barrow.”
“I’ll put it on the terrace,” Sharpe said.
He found the barrow behind a heap of horse manure and wheeled it to the terrace and parked it beside the door. He had done all he could now. He had a boat, it was guarded, the men were ready, and all now depended on Moon giving the orders.
He sat outside the brigadier’s door and took off his hat so the winter sun could warm his face. He closed his eyes in tiredness and within seconds he was asleep, his head tipped back onto the house wall beside the door. He was dreaming, and he was aware it was a good dream, and then someone hit him hard across the head, and that was no dream. He scrambled sideways, reaching for his rifle, and was hit again. “Impudent puppy!” a voice shrieked, and then she hit him again. She was an old woman, older than Sharpe could imagine, with a brown face like sun-dried mud, all cracks and wrinkles and malevolence and bitterness. She was dressed in black with a black widow’s veil pinned to her white hair. Sharpe stood up, rubbing his head where she had hit him with one of the brigadier’s borrowed crutches. “You dare attack one of my servants?” she shrieked. “You insolent cur!”
“Ma’am,” Sharpe said for want of anything else to say.
“You break into my boathouse?” she said in a grating voice. “You assault my servant? If the world were respectable you would be whipped. My husband would have whipped you.”
“Your husband, ma’am?”
“He was the Marquis de Cardenas and he had the misfortune to be ambassador to the Court of St. James for eleven sad years. We lived in London. A horrid city. A vile city. Why did you attack my gardener?”
“Because he attacked me, ma’am.”
“He says not.”
“If the world were a respectable place, ma’am, then an officer’s word would be preferred to a servant’s.”
“You impudent puppy! I feed you, I shelter you, and you reward me with barbarism and lies. Now you wish to steal my son’s boat?”
“Borrow it, ma’am.”
“You can’t,” she snapped. “It belongs to my son.”
“He’s here, ma’am?”
“He is not, nor should you be. What you will do is march away from here once the doctor has seen your brigadier. You may take the crutches, nothing else.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she mimicked him, “so humble.” A bell sounded deep in the house and she turned away.
Private Geoghegan appeared then, running up from the kitchen garden. “Sir,” he panted, “there are men there.”
“Boathouse, sir. A dozen of them. All got guns. I think they came from the town, sir. Sergeant Noolan told me to tell you and ask what’s to be done, sir?”
“They’re guarding the boat?”
“That’s it, sir, that’s just what they’re doing. They’re stopping us getting to the boathouse, sir. Just that, sir. Jesus, what was that?”
The brigadier had given a sudden yelp, presumably as the doctor explored the makeshift splint. “Tell Sergeant Noolan,” Sharpe said, “that’s he’s to do nothing. Just watch the men and make sure they don’t take the boat away.”
“Not to take the boat away, sir. And if they try?”
“You bloody stop them. You fix swords”—he paused, then corrected himself because only the rifles talked about fixing swords—“you fix bayonets and you walk slowly toward them and you point the bayonets at their crotches and they’ll run.”
“Aye, sir, yes, sir,” Geoghegan grinned. “But really, sir, we’re to do nothing else?”
“It’s usually best.”
“Oh, the poor man!” Geoghegan glanced at the door. “And if he’d left it alone it would have been fine. Thank you, sir.”
Sharpe swore silently when Geoghegan was gone. It had all seemed so simple when he had discovered the boat, but he should have known nothing was ever that easy. And if the Marquesa had summoned men from the town, then there was a chance of bloodshed, and though Sharpe had no doubt that his soldiers would brush the townsmen away, he also feared that he would take two or three more casualties. “Bloody hell,” he said aloud, and, because there was nothing else to do, he went back to the kitchen and rousted Harris from the table. “You’re to stand outside the brigadier’s room,” he told him, “and let me know when the doctor’s finished.”
He went up to the tower where Harper still stood guard. “Nothing moving, sir,” Harper said, “except I thought I saw a horseman up there a half hour ago”—he pointed to the northern heights—“but he’s gone.”
“I thought I saw the same thing.”
“He’s not there now, sir.”
“We’re just waiting for the doctor to finish with the brigadier,” Sharpe said, “then we’ll go.” He said nothing about the men guarding the boathouse. He would deal with them when the time came. “That’s a sour old bitch who lives here,” he said.
“A shriveled old bitch. She bloody hit me!”
“There’s some good in the woman then?” Harper suggested and, when Sharpe glowered, hurried on. “It’s funny, though, isn’t it, that the frogs haven’t ruined this place? I mean there’s food enough here for a battalion! And their foraging parties must have found this place months ago.”
“She’s made her peace with the bloody frogs,” Sharpe said. “She probably sells them food and they leave her alone. She’s not on our side, that’s for sure. She hates us.”
“So has she told the Crapauds we’re here?”
“That worries me,” Sharpe said. “She might have told them because she’s a wicked old bitch, that’s what she is.” He gazed down the road. Something felt wrong. Everything was too peaceful. Perhaps, he thought, it was the news that the Marquesa was trying to protect the boat that had unsettled him, and the thought of a boat reminded him of what Sergeant Noolan had told the brigadier that morning. The French had crossed the river. Either they had fashioned a usable boat out of one of the undamaged pontoons, or else they had kept a boat in Fort Josephine, but if the French had a boat, any boat, then this road was not their only approach. “Bloody hell,” he said softly.
“They’re coming downriver.”
“There’s that fellow again,” Slattery said, pointing to the northern hill where, silhouetted against the sky, the horseman had reappeared. The man was standing in his stirrups now and waving his arms extravagantly.
“Let’s go!” Sharpe said.
The horseman must have been watching them all day, but his job was not just to watch, but to tell Colonel Vandal when the forces on the river were close to the house. Then the rest of the 8th would advance. Trapped, Sharpe thought. Some Frenchmen were coming by boat, others by road, and he was between them and then he was running down the crumbling staircase and shouting for the rest of his men who were lolling outside the kitchen to get down to the river. “We’ll fetch the brigadier!” he told Harper.
The Marquesa was in the brigadier’s room, watching as the doctor wrapped a bandage about a new splint that replaced Sharpe’s makeshift contraption. She saw the alarm on Sharpe’s face and gave a cackle. “So the French are coming,” she taunted him, “the French are coming.”
“We’re going, sir,” Sharpe said, ignoring her.
“He can’t finish this?” The brigadier gestured at the half-wrapped bandage.
“We’re going!” Sharpe insisted. “Sergeant!”
Harper pushed the doctor aside and lifted the brigadier. “My saber!” the brigadier protested. “The crutches!”
“Out!” Sharpe ordered.
“The French are coming!” the Marquesa mocked.
“You sent for them, you sour old bitch,” Sharpe said, and he was tempted to hammer her malevolent face, but instead went outside where Harper had unceremoniously dumped Moon into the wheelbarrow.
“My saber!” the brigadier pleaded.
“Slattery, push the barrow,” Sharpe said. “Pat, get that volley gun ready.” The seven-barrel gun, more than anything, would frighten the men guarding the boat. “Hurry!” he shouted.
Moon was still complaining about his lost saber, but Sharpe had no time for the man. He ran ahead with Harper, through the bushes. Then he was in the kitchen garden and he could see the knot of townsmen standing guard on the boathouse. “Sergeant Noolan!”
“Sir!” That was Harris. “There, sir.”
Bloody hell. Two pontoons, crammed with French troops, drifting downstream. “Shoot at them, Harris! Sergeant Noolan!”
“Forward march.” Sharpe joined the small rank of Connaught men. They were outnumbered by the townsmen, but the redcoats had bayonets and Harper had joined them with his volley gun. Rifles fired from the upstream bank and French muskets cracked from the pontoons. A bullet struck the boathouse roof and the townsmen flinched.
Sharpe said, hoping his Spanish was understandable,
“yo le mataré.”
“What does that mean, sir?” Sergeant Noolan asked.
“Go away or we kill them.”
Another French musket ball hit the boathouse and it was that, more perhaps than the threat of the advancing bayonets, that took the last shred of courage from the civilians. They fled, and Sharpe breathed a sigh of relief. Slattery arrived, pushing the brigadier, as Sharpe hauled the door open. “Get the brigadier in the boat!” he told Slattery, then ran to where Harris and three other riflemen were crouching by the bank. The two French boats, both salvaged pontoons being driven by crude paddles, were coming fast and he put the rifle to his shoulder, cocked it, and fired. The smoke hid the nearest French boat. He started to reload, then decided there was no time. “To the boat!” he called, and he ran back with the other riflemen. They threw themselves into the precious boat. Noolan had already cut the mooring lines and they shoved the boat out into the stream as they untangled the oars. A volley came from the French boats and one of Noolan’s men gave a grunt and fell sideways. Other musket balls thumped into the gunwales. The brigadier was in the bows. Men were scrambling into thwarts, but Harper already had two of the long oars in their rowlocks and, standing up, was hauling on the shafts. The current caught them and turned them downstream. Another shot came from the nearest French boat and Sharpe waded over the men amidships and snatched up Harper’s volley gun. He fired it at the French pontoon and the huge noise of the gun echoed back from the Portuguese hills as at last they began to outstrip their pursuers.
“Jesus Christ,” Sharpe said in pure relief for their narrow escape.
“I think he’s dying, sir,” Noolan said.
“Conor, poor boy.” The man who had been shot was coughing up blood that frothed pink at his lips.
“You left my saber!” Moon complained.
“Sorry about that, sir.”
“It was one of Bennett’s best!”
“I said I’m sorry, sir.”
“And there was dung in that wheelbarrow.”
Sharpe just looked into the brigadier’s eyes and said nothing. The brigadier gave way first. “Did well to get away,” he said grudgingly.
Sharpe turned to the men on the benches. “Geoghegan? Tie up the brigadier’s splint. Well done, lads! Well done. That was a bit too close.”
They were out of musket range now and the two ponderous French pontoons had given up the chase and turned for the bank. But ahead of them, where the smaller river joined the Guadiana, a knot of French horsemen appeared. Sharpe guessed they were the 8th’s officers who had galloped ahead of the battalion. So now those men must watch their prey vanish downriver, but then he saw that some of the horsemen had muskets and he turned toward the stern. “Steer away from the bank!” he told Noolan who had taken the tiller ropes.
Sharpe reloaded the rifle. He could see that four of the horsemen had dismounted and were kneeling at the river’s edge, aiming their muskets. The range was close, no more than thirty yards. “Rifles!” he called. He aimed his own. He saw Vandal. The French colonel was one of the officers kneeling by the river. He had a musket at his shoulder and he seemed to be aiming directly at Sharpe. You bastard, Sharpe thought, and he shifted the rifle, pointing it straight at Vandal’s chest. The boat lurched, his aim wandered, he corrected it, and now he would teach the bastard the advantages of a rifle. He started to pull the trigger, keeping the foresight dead on the Frenchman’s chest, and just then he saw the smoke billow from the musket muzzles and there was an instant when his whole head seemed filled with light, a searing white light that turned bloodred. There was pain like a lightning strike in his brain and then, like blood congealing on a corpse, the light went black and he could see and feel nothing at all. Nothing.