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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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Sharpe's Rifles

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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Sharpe's Rifles 
by Bernard


Carolyn Ryan


he prize was a strongbox.

A Spanish Major was struggling to save the box, while a chasseur Colonel of Napoleon’s
Imperial Guard had been ordered to capture it. The Frenchman had been unleashed to the task; told
that he could destroy or kill whatever or whoever tried to obstruct him.

The strongbox itself was a chest made of a wood so old that it appeared as black and shiny as
coal. The wood was bound with two iron bands that, though pitted with ancient rust, were still
strong. The old chest was two feet long, eighteen inches wide, and as many inches high. It was
locked with two hasps that were fastened with brass padlocks. The joint between the humped lid
and the chest was sealed with red seals, some of them so old that they were now little more than
wisps of wax imbedded in the grain of the ancient wood. An oilcloth had been sewn around the
strong box to protect it from the weather, or rather to protect the fate of Spain that lay hidden

On the second day of 1809 the chasseur Colonel almost captured the strongbox. He had been
given a Regiment of French Dragoons and those horsemen caught up with the Spaniards close to the
city of Leon. The Spaniards only escaped by climbing into the high mountains where they were
forced to abandon their horses, for no horse could climb the steep, ice-slicked tracks where
Major Bias Vivar sought refuge.

It was winter, the worst winter in Spanish memory, and the very worst time to be in the
northern Spanish mountains, but the French had given Major Vivar no choice. Napoleon’s armies had
taken Madrid in December, and Bias Vivar had fled with the strongbox just one hour before the
enemy horsemen had entered the capital. He had ridden with one hundred and ten Cazadores; the
mounted ‘hunters’ who carried a straight-bladed sword and a short-barrelled carbine. But the
hunters had become the hunted as, in a nightmare journey across Spain, Vivar had twisted and
turned to avoid his French pursuers. He had hoped to find safety in General Romana’s northern
army, but, only two days before the Dragoons forced them into the hills, Romana was defeated.
Vivar was alone now, stranded in the mountains, with just ninety of his men left. The others had

They had died for the strongbox which the survivors carried through a frozen countryside. Snow
thickened in the passes. When there was a thaw it only came in the form of rain; a pelting,
relentless rain that turned the mountain paths into mud which froze hard in the long nights.
Frostbite decimated the Cazadores. In the worst of the cold the survivors sheltered in caves or
in high deserted farmsteads.

On one such day, when the wind drove a bitter snowfall from the west, Vivar’s men hunched in
the miserable shelter of a narrow gully high on a mountain’s crest. Bias Vivar himself lay at the
gully’s rim and stared into the valley through a long-barrelled telescope. He stared at the

Brown cloaks hid the pale green coats of the French Dragoons. These Frenchmen had followed
Vivar every mile of his bitter journey but, while he struggled in the highlands, they rode in the
valleys where there were roads, bridges, and shelter. On some days the weather would stop the
French and Vivar would dare to hope that he had lost them, but whenever the snow eased for a few
hours, the dreaded shapes would always appear again. Now, lying in the shivering wind, Vivar
could see the enemy horsemen unsaddling in a small village that lay in the valley’s bottom. The
French would have fires and food in the village, their horses would have shelter and hay, while
his men sobbed because of the cold which lashed the mountainside.

“Are they there?” Vivar’s second in command, Lieutenant Davila, climbed up from the gully.

“They’re there.”

“The chasseur?”

“Yes.” Vivar was staring directly at two horsemen in the village street. One was the chasseur
Colonel of the Imperial Guard, gaudy in his scarlet pelisse, dark green overalls and colback, a
round hat made of thick black fur.

The other wore no uniform; instead he was dressed in a black, tight-waisted riding coat above
white boots. Vivar feared the black-coated horseman more than he feared the chasseur, for it was
he who guided the Dragoons’ pursuit. The black-coated man knew where Bias Vivar was heading, he
knew where he could be stopped, and he knew the power of the object that was hidden in the
ironbound box.

Lieutenant Davila crouched in the snow next to Vivar. Neither man looked like a soldier any
more. They were swathed in cloaks made from common sacking. Their faces, boots, and hands were
wrapped in rags. Yet, beneath their makeshift cloaks they wore the scarlet uniforms of a Cazador
elite company, and they were each as hard and efficient as any man who struggled in the French

Davila borrowed Vivar’s glass and stared into the valley. Driven snow blurred the view, but he
could see the splash of the scarlet pelisse hanging from the chasseur’s right shoulder. “Why
doesn’t he wear a cloak?” he grumbled.

“He’s showing how tough he is,” Vivar said curtly.

Davila shifted the glass to see yet more Dragoons coming to the village. Some of the Frenchmen
led limping horses. All carried swords and carbines. “I thought we’d lost them,” he said

“We’ll only lose them when we bury the last one.” Vivar slid down from the skyline. He had a
face hardened by sun and wind, a pugnacious face, but saved from coarseness by the dark eyes that
could spark with humour and understanding. Now, watching his men shiver in the narrow gully,
those eyes were rimmed with red. “How much food is left?”

“Enough for two days.”

“If I did not know better,” Vivar’s voice was scarcely audible above the wind’s noise, “I
would think God had abandoned Spain.”

Lieutenant Davila said nothing. A gust of wind snatched snow from the crest and whirled it in
a glittering billow above their heads. The French, he thought bitterly, would be stealing food,
firewood, and women in the valley. Children would be screaming. The men in the village would be
tortured to reveal whether or not they had seen a tattered band of Cazadores carrying a
strongbox. They would truthfully deny any such sighting, but the French would kill them just the
same and the man in the black coat and white boots would watch without a flicker of emotion
crossing his face. Davila closed his eyes. He had not known what it was to hate until this war
had begun, and now he did not know if he would ever root the hate out of his soul.

“We’ll separate,” Vivar said suddenly.

“Don Bias?” Davila, his thoughts elsewhere, had misheard.

“I shall take the strongbox and eighty men,” Vivar spoke slowly, “and you will wait here with
the other men. When we’re gone, and when the French are gone, you will go south. You will not
move until you are sure the valley is empty. That chasseur is clever, and he may already have
guessed what I am thinking. So wait, Diego! Wait till you are certain, then wait another day. Do
you understand?”

“I understand.”

Vivar, despite his agonizing tiredness and the cold that leached into his very bones, found
some enthusiasm to invest his words with hope. “Go to Orense, Diego, and see if there are any of
our men left. Tell them I need them! Tell them I need horses and men. Take those men and horses
to Santiago, and if I’m not there, ride east till you find me.”

Davila nodded. There was an obvious question to ask, but he could not bring himself to

Vivar understood anyway. “If the French have captured the strongbox,” he said bleakly, “then
you will know. They will trumpet their capture across Spain, Diego, and you will know because the
war will be lost.”

Davila shivered beneath his ragged cloaks. “If you go west, Don Bias, you may find the

Vivar spat to show his opinion of the British army.

“They would help you?” Davila insisted.

“Would you trust the English with what is in the strongbox?”

Davila considered his answer, then shrugged. “No.”

Vivar eased himself to the crest once more and stared down at the village. “Perhaps those
devils will meet the British. Then one pack of barbarians can kill the other.” He shuddered with
the cold. “If I had enough men, Diego, I would fill hell with the souls of those Frenchmen. But I
do not have the men. So fetch them for me!”

“I will try, Don Bias.” It was as much of a promise as Davila dared offer, for no Spaniard
could feel hopeful in these early days of 1809. The Spanish King was a prisoner in France, and
the brother of the French Emperor had been enthroned in Madrid. The armies of Spain, that had
shown such fine defiance the previous year, had been crushed by Napoleon, and the British army,
sent to help them, was being chased ignominiously towards the sea. All that was left to Spain
were fragments of its broken armies, the defiance of its proud people, and the

The next morning, Vivar’s men carried the strongbox to the west. Lieutenant Davila watched as
the French Dragoons saddled their horses and abandoned a village that had been plundered and from
which the smoke rose into a cold sky. The Dragoons might not know where Bias Vivar was, but the
man in the black coat and white boots knew precisely where the Major was going, and so the French
forced their horses to the west. Davila waited a full day; then, in a downpour of rain that
turned the snow to slush and the paths to thick mud, he went south.

The hunters and the hunted were moving again, inching their intricate paths across a wintry
land, and the hunted were seeking the miracle that might yet save Spain and snatch a glorious
victory from defeat.


ore than a hundred men were abandoned in the village.
There was nothing to be done for them. They were drunk. A score of women stayed with them. They
were drunk too.

Not just drunk, but insensible. The men had broken into a tavern’s storeroom and found great
barrels of last year’s vintage with which they had diluted their misery. Now, in a bleak dawn,
they lay about the village like the victims of a plague.

The drunks were redcoats. They had joined the British army because of crime or desperation,
and because the army gave them a third of a pint of rum a day. Last night they had found heaven
in a miserable tavern in a miserable Spanish town on a miserable flint road that led to the sea.
They had got drunk, so now they would be left to the mercy of the French.

A tall Lieutenant in the green jacket of the 95th Rifles moved among the bodies which lay in
the stable yard of the plundered tavern. His interest was not in the stupefied drunks, but in
some wooden crates that had been jettisoned from an ox-drawn waggon to make space for wounded and
frost-bitten men. The crates, like so much else that the army was now too weak to carry, would
have been left for the pursuing French, except that the Lieutenant had discovered that they
contained rifle ammunition. He was rescuing it. He had already filled the packs and pouches of
his Battalion with as many of the precious cartridges as the Riflemen could carry; now he and one
Rifleman crammed yet more into the panniers of the Battalion’s last mule.

Rifleman Cooper finished the job then stared at the remaining crates. “What do we do with
them, sir?”

“Burn it all.”

“Bloody hell!” Cooper gave a brief laugh, then gestured at the drunks in the yard. “You’ll
bleedin‘ kill ’em!”

“If we don’t, the French will.” The Lieutenant had a slash of a scar on his left cheek that
gave him a broodingly savage face. “You want the French to start killing us with our own

Cooper did not much care what the French did. At this moment he cared about a drunken girl who
lay in the yard’s corner. “Pity to kill her, sir. She’s a nice little thing.”

“Leave her for the French.”

Cooper stooped to pull open the girl’s bodice to reveal her breasts. She stirred in the cold
air, but did not waken. Her hair was stained with vomit, her dress with wine, yet she was a
pretty girl. She was perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, she had married a soldier and followed
him to the wars. Now she was drunk and the French would have her. “Wake up!” he said.

“Leave her!” All the same the Lieutenant could not resist crossing the yard to look down at
the girl’s nakedness. “Stupid bitch,” he said sourly.

A Major appeared in the yard’s entrance. “Quartermaster?”

The Lieutenant turned. “Sir?”

The Major had a small wipy moustache and a malevolent expression. “When you’ve finished
undressing women, Quartermaster, perhaps you’d be good enough to join the rest of us?”

“I was going to burn these crates first, sir.”

“Bugger the crates, Quartermaster. Just hurry up!”

“Yes, sir;‘

“Unless you’d prefer to stay here? I doubt the army would miss you?”

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
12.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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