Read Sharpe's Skirmish Online

Authors: Bernard Cornwell

Tags: #War, #Historical, #Historical fiction, #Adventure

Sharpe's Skirmish

BOOK: Sharpe's Skirmish
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Sharpe's Skirmish

By BERNARD CORNWELL.

PART ONE

       "Welcome to San Miguel, Captain," Major Lucius Tubbs said to the officer beside him, "where God is in his heaven and all is well with the world."

"Amen to that," said Sergeant Patrick Harper, standing behind the two officers who both ignored him. Major Tubbs, befitting his name, was a plump man with a cheerful, jowly face who now stood at the ramparts of the small fortress of San Miguel and bounced his hands on the parapet in time to some imaginary music. Next to him, and towering over the shorter Tubbs, was a lean and scarred man in a green Rifleman's jacket that was so patched with common brown cloth that from a distance it looked like a farm-labourer's coat. Beneath the patched coat he wore a pair of leather-trimmed cavalry overalls that had once belonged to a colonel of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and at his side there hung a heavy-bladed cavalry sword that had killed the colonel.

"We shall not be disturbed here, Sharpe," Tubbs said.

"Pleased to hear that, sir."

"The French are gone!" Tubbs waved a hand which suggested the French had simply evaporated. "We shall do our work in these Elysian fields!" Sharpe had no idea what an Elysian field was, and had no intention of asking, but it was plainly a pleasant sort of place for the landscape beyond the river was gentle, peaceful and bathed in Spanish sunlight. "There is just you and I," Tubbs went on enthusiastically, "our splendid men, and enough wine in the store room to float a frigate."

"Amen to that, too," Sergeant Harper said.

Sharpe turned on him. "Sergeant? Take three reliable men and break every damned bottle."

"Sharpe!" Tubbs remonstrated, staring at the rifleman as though he could not believe his ears. "Break the bottles?"

Sharpe looked down into Tubbs's eyes. "The Crapauds may have gone, sir, but the war ain't won yet. And if a troop of monsewers were to come down that road," he pointed south along the road which led from the bridge that the small fortress guarded, "then you and I don't want to be relying on a pack of piss-eyed Riflemen who are so damned drunk that they won't be able to load a rifle, let alone fire one."

Tubbs looked southwards, seeing nothing but unharvested fields, groves of olives, vineyards, white farmhouses and bright red poppies. "But there are no Frenchmen!" The major protested.

"Not a one, sir," Harper valiantly backed up the major.

"They're always damned frogs, sir," Sharpe insisted. "It won't be till we've cleared the bloody earth of the last bloody one that you can claim there are no frogs."

"But breaking the bottles, Sharpe!" Tubbs said reprovingly. "It's good wine, very good wine, and doubtless private property. Have you thought of that?" The major frowned at Sharpe, and then, seeing he had not persuaded the rifleman, tried another approach. "Why don't we just leave the door locked, eh?"

Sharpe sighed. "There ain't one of my men, sir, and I dare say there ain't one of yours for that matter, what can't get through that padlock in half a minute. Sergeant!"

"Sir!"

"Fetch the bottles from the store-room and break them on the bridge."

Sharpe ordered. The fort's store-room was slightly below ground level, and stone-flagged, and Sharpe did not want it flooded with wine, for his men would get down on hands and knees to lap it up. "Now!"

Tubbs sighed, but he dared not countermand the order. He was a Commissary of the Storekeeper of the Ordnance, and though he wore a blue-coated uniform that was generously decorated with silver braid, and though he was accorded the courtesy rank of Major, he was a civilian. His job was to help keep the army supplied with muskets, powder and shot, and Lucius Tubbs had never seen a battle, while the dark-haired, much scarred man beside him had lived through too many. Captain Richard Sharpe had once been Private Richard Sharpe, and he had made the leap from ranks to officer's mess because he was good, frighteningly good, and Tubbs, though he would never have admitted it, was more frightened of Captain Sharpe than he was of the French.

"Sergeant?" Tubbs called after Harper who was reluctantly going down the steps from the firestep. "We might save a few bottles, perhaps? For medicinal reasons?" Tubbs made the suggestion nervously, glancing at Sharpe. "Does not the good book entreat us to 'take a little wine for thy stomach's sake'?" Tubbs pleaded.

"Two dozen bottles in my room, Sergeant," Sharpe said, "for my tummy's sake."

"Two dozen it is, sir," Harper said and went on down the stairs.

"Only two dozen?" Tubbs pleaded.

"When it comes to bottles of liquor, Major," Sharpe said, "Sergeant Harper can't count. There'll be six dozen in my room, and as many again hid somewhere else, but if I don't make a point of breaking the rest then the boys will think this is a public house. It ain't. We've got work to do."

Or rather Major Tubbs had work, and to do it he had three Spanish labourers and one Scotsman, MacKeon, who was a Foreman of the Ordnance, which meant that MacKeon would do the work and Tubbs would take the credit for it, for that was the way of the world. Not that much credit would ensue from MacKeon's efforts, but in their small way they would help win the war against the French who, a month before, had been whipped at Salamanca. Arthur Wellesley, now the Viscount Wellington of Talavera, had bamboozled them, dazzled them, unbalanced them and then half destroyed them. So the frogs had gone. They had marched north with their tails between their legs, and the French garrison of the tiny riverside fort of San Miguel had run with them, but they had left behind, locked in the fort's store-room, close to five thousand muskets.

The priest of San Miguel de Tormes had discovered the muskets after the French left, and he remembered the supply convoy that had brought them.

The weapons were supposed to travel further south, to Soult's army, but the cavalry regiment which should have escorted the convoy across the Sierra de Gredos had never turned up and then, in the manner of armies, the weapons were forgotten and the garrison commander had put them in the store-room where the priest had discovered them. The priest had also found the wine, which was locked away with the guns, and, being an honest man, he had padlocked the store-room again and sent word to the British, and now Major Tubbs had arrived to take possession of the muskets. His job was to make sure the guns were all serviceable, after which they would be cleaned, oiled and given to the guerilleros who harassed and ambushed and terrified the French forces who had occupied Spain. Sharpe, and his Light Company of the South Essex, were charged with the duty of guarding Tubbs's men while they did their work.

But guard Tubbs's men against what? Sharpe doubted there was a Frenchman within a hundred miles of this bridge across the River Tormes. Marmont, beaten at Salamanca, was retreating northwards, while Marshal Soult was pinned south of the River Guadiana by General Hill. In truth, Sharpe thought, the two officers and fifty three men of his Light Company could drink wine from now until MacKeon finished his work and it would make no difference, but Sharpe had not stayed alive by complacency. The frogs might have been defeated at Salamanca, but they were not yet beaten.

He ran down the stairs of the fort, crossed the courtyard and walked out of the gate onto the bridge where Patrick Harper and three riflemen had just begun the melancholy task of smashing the wine bottles. The Light Company, resting on the bridge, was protesting the destruction and, though the louder voices ceased as soon as Sharpe appeared, the company still let him know their feelings by thumping the butts of their rifles and muskets on the stones of the roadway. "Lieutenant Price!" Sharpe called.

"Sir?" The lanky Price had been resting in the shade of a wayside chapel built at the bridge's northern end and now jerked up as though he had been woken.

"I saw some strange uniforms among those vines," Sharpe pointed south down the long white road which stretched towards the hills of the Sierra de Gredos. "The vineyard beside that white farmhouse, see it?"

Price peered. "The far vineyard, sir?" He asked in disbelief.

"The very far vineyard," Sharpe confirmed. "Take the whole company and search for the bastards. Looked like a dozen of them."

Price frowned. "But if they see us coming, sir, they'll..."

"Run away?" Sharpe asked. "I wouldn't run away from you, Harry, why should they? On your feet, all of you! You've got work!" He strode across the bridge, stirring the company who were dust-stained, sweat soaked and exhausted. They had been marched back from Wellington's advancing army for this duty and they had been on the roads for two long days and all they wanted now was to sleep, drink and sleep again. "Sergeant Huckfield!"

Sharpe called. "Form the company! Sharply, now! Don't want those rascals escaping!"

Lieutenant Price was standing on the bridge parapet to stare at the vines that lay at least two miles away across a dry landscape shimmering in the summer heat. "I don't see anyone there, sir. Maybe they were there, sir, but not now."

"Go!" Sharpe shouted. "Don't let the bastards get away! Hurry! At the double!" He watched the company leave, then turned to Harper. "Is that the fastest you can break those bottles, Sergeant?" Harper and his three men were fetching the bottles from the store room, then stacking them beside the wayside shrine which was a small stone building about ten foot square with a plaster Madonna inside, and only then carrying them one at a time to the bridge parapet. "A spavined cripple could break them faster than you," Sharpe snapped.

"Maybe he could, sir," the big Irishman said, "but you wouldn't be wanting us to be slipshod, now would you, Captain? Must do a thorough job, sir.

Have to make sure each one's properly broken." He tapped a bottle on the parapet. "And you wouldn't want broken glass on the road, sir, now would you."

"Just get on with it," Sharpe snarled, then climbed back up to the fort's parapet where Tubbs was watching the Light Company march southwards.

"Did I hear you say that you saw uniforms, Sharpe?" Tubbs asked anxiously.

"Enemy? Surely not. Surely not here!"

"Didn't see a damn thing, Major," Sharpe said. "But if they've got enough energy to make a protest, they've got energy to go for a march. Don't want them getting slack, do we?"

"No," Tubbs said weakly, "no, we wouldn't want that." He turned to look at the small village of San Miguel de Tormes that stretched along the river's northern bank. It was not much of a place; a couple of dozen houses, a small church, an olive press and the inevitable tavern. Northwards was the plain which lay under a heat haze. A smear of white showed in the shimmering air just beyond a small grove of trees that straddled the Salamanca road. "Is that smoke, Sharpe?" Tubbs asked.

"Dust, sir," Sharpe said.

"Dust?"

"Kicked up by boots, sir, or hooves."

"Dear me!" Tubbs looked alarmed and fetched a telescope from the tail-pocket of his blue coat.

"It won't be Frenchmen, sir," Sharpe reassured the Major, "not on that road."

"They certainly don't look friendly, though," Tubbs said anxiously, staring at a band of horsemen who had just emerged from the grove of cork oaks. There were some twenty men, most in wide-brimmed hats and all bristling with weapons. They had muskets slung on their shoulders or holstered in their saddles, and sabres and swords hanging by their stirrups. None was in uniform, though a few wore scraps of old French equipment. Tubbs shuddered. The Major did not consider himself an inexperienced man, indeed he reckoned he had seen more of the world than most folk, yet he had rarely seen such a murderous gang of cut-throats.

Besides the muskets and sword, the horsemen had pistols, knives and one rider even had a great axe slung beside his saddle, and as they drew nearer Tubbs could see that their faces were scarred, moustached, sun-darkened and unsmiling. "Guerilleros?" He suggested to Sharpe.

"Like as not, Major," Sharpe agreed.

Tubbs sighed. "I know they're supposed to be on our side, Sharpe, but I can never truly trust them. Little more than bandits."

"That's true, sir."

"Cut-throats, rogues, criminals! They're not above slitting a British straggler's throat for the value of his equipment, Sharpe! They're not to be trusted!"

"So I've heard, sir."

The Major lowered his telescope and looked with horror at Sharpe. "You don't suppose, Sharpe, that the wine belongs to them, do you?"

"I doubt it, sir," Sharpe said. The wine was French plunder, stolen from one of the local vineyards, and the wine's original owner had probably died when the frogs pillaged his property.

"My God, man!" Tubbs said, "but if the wine does belong to them, they'll be furious! Furious! Call your men back!" Tubbs stared at the retreating Light Company, then turned to gaze at the horsemen. "Suppose they want payment for the wine, Sharpe? What do we do?"

"Tell them to bugger off, sir."

"Tell them to... Oh, my God!" Tubbs was alarmed because one of the riders had broken from the group and was now spurring towards the fortress. He raised his glass again, stared for a few heartbeats, then looked astonished. "Good Lord!"

"What is it, sir?" Sharpe asked calmly.

"It's a woman, Sharpe, a woman! And armed!" Tubbs was gazing at a thin-faced, good-looking young woman who trotted towards the small fortress with a gun on her back and a sword at her side. She swept off her hat as she approached, loosing a torrent of long black hair. "A woman!"

Tubbs exclaimed, "and rather beautiful."

"She's called La Aguja, sir," Sharpe said, "which means 'the needle', and that ain't because she's handy with the cotton and thread, sir, but because she likes to kill with a stiletto."

"Kill with a... you know her, Sharpe?"

"I'm married to her, Major," Sharpe said, and went down the stairs to greet Teresa.

And reflected that, maybe, whatever they were, he was in the Elysian Fields after all.

Major Pierre Ducos was no more a proper Major than was Lucius Tubbs, but nor was he quite a civilian, though he wore civilian clothes. A policeman, perhaps? Yet that did not do justice to the exquisite subtlety of Ducos's mind, nor to the influence that he could wield. He was a small man, balding and slight, who wore thick spectacles. At first glance he might have been taken for a clerk, or perhaps a scholar, except that his sober clothes were too well tailored, and then there were his eyes. They might be short-sighted, but they were also as cold and green as a northern sea, suggesting that mercy and pity were qualities long discarded by Major Pierre Ducos. Pity, Ducos considered, was an emotion fit only for women, while mercy was the prerogative of God, and the Emperor deserved sterner virtues. The Emperor needed efficiency, dedication and intelligence, and Ducos supplied all three, which was why he had the Emperor's ear. He might be a mere Major, but Marshals of France worried about Ducos's opinion, because that opinion could go straight to Napoleon himself.

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