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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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CHAPTER 17

   T
he Dragoons, who had menaced the west of the city,
had ridden around its southern margins to block the eastern escape route. Now they filled the
valley to the south where their helmets glowed bright in the day’s last light. They were led by
the horseman who wore de l’Eclin’s red pelisse, but who carried a sabre in his right hand.

The refugees began to run, but the boggy ground made their panicked flight clumsy and slow.
Most tried to cross the stream, some went north, while a few ran towards the dubious safety of
Sharpe’s Riflemen.

“Sir?” Harper asked.

But there was nothing helpful that Sharpe could say in answer. It was over. No safety lay in
the tumult which still echoed within the city, nor was there time to cross the stream or retreat
northwards. The Rifles were in open ground, trapped by cavalry, and Sharpe must form a rally
square and fight the bastards to the end. A soldier might be beaten, but he never grovelled. He
would take as many of the triumphant bastards as he could and, in years to come, when French
soldiers crouched by camp fires in some remote land, a few would shudder to remember a fight in a
northern Spanish valley. “Form up! Three ranks!” Sharpe would fire one volley, then contract into
the square. The hooves would thunder past, the blades slash and glitter, and slowly his men would
be cut down.

Sharpe cut at a weed patch with his sword. “I’m not going to surrender, Sergeant.”

“Never thought you would, sir.”

“But once we’re broken, the men can give up.”

“Not if I’m watching them, sir.”

Sharpe grinned at the big Irishman. “Thank you for everything.”

“I still say you punch harder than any man I’ve ever known.”

“I’d forgotten that.” Sharpe laughed. He saw that some of the dismounted Cazadores and
volunteers had run to form crude extensions of his three ranks. He wished they had not come, for
their clumsiness would only make his final stand more vulnerable, but he would not turn them
away. He slashed his sword left and right as though practising for the last moments. The French
Dragoons had checked their slow, menacing advance. Their front rank stood motionless a
quarter-mile away. It looked a long distance, but Sharpe knew with what cruel speed cavalry could
cover the ground when their trumpeter hurled them forward.

He turned his back on the enemy and looked at his men. “What we should have done, lads, is
gone north.”

There was a moment’s silence, then the greenjackets remembered the argument that had driven
Harper to try and kill Sharpe. They laughed.

“But tonight,” Sharpe said, “you have my permission to get drunk. And in case I don’t have
another chance to tell you, you’re the best damned troops I’ve ever fought with.”

The men recognized the apology for what it was, and cheered. Sharpe thought what a long time
it had taken him to earn that cheer, then turned away from the Riflemen so they would not see his
pleasure and embarrassment.

He turned in time to see a knot of horsemen ride from the city. One of them was the Count of
Mouromorto, distinctive in his long black coat and tall white boots. Another, in a red dolman
jacket and with hair as gold as the Dragoons’ helmets, rode a big black horse. The waiting French
Dragoons cheered as Colonel de l’Eclin took his pelisse and colback from the man who had worn
them. The Count rode to the rear squadron, the French reserve, while the chasseur took his proper
place at the very front of the charge. Sharpe watched as he adjusted the scarlet pelisse on his
shoulder, as he crammed the big fur colback on his head, and as he drew the sabre with his left
hand. Sharpe prayed that he would see de l’Eclin dead before he himself went down under the
hooves and blades of the enemy.

“Lieutenant!”

Sharpe turned to see Louisa ride up to the rear of his men. “Go!” He pointed eastwards to
where there might be safety. Her horse would give her a speed that was denied to the refugees on
foot. “Ride!”

“Where’s Don Bias?”

“I don’t know! Now go!”

“I’m staying!”

“Sir!” Harper shouted the warning.

Sharpe turned back. Colonel de l’Eclin’s sabre was raised to start the French advance. There
was sodden ground to the right of the Dragoons, and a steep slope to their left, so the charge
would be constricted into a channel of firm ground that was about a hundred paces across. A few
muskets flickered flame beyond the stream, but the range was too long and the flank Dragoons
ignored it.

Colonel de l’Eclin’s sabre dropped, and the trumpeter sounded the advance. The leading
squadron walked forward. When they had gone fifty yards, Sharpe knew, the second French line
would start their slow advance. The third line would stay another fifty yards behind. This was
the classic cavalry attack, leaving enough space between the lines so that a fallen horse in the
front rank did not trip and bring down the horses behind. It was slow at first, but very
menacing.

“Front rank, kneel!” Sharpe said calmly.

The Dragoons walked their horses, for they wanted to keep their dressing tight. They would
accelerate soon, but Sharpe knew they would not spur into a gallop until just seconds before the
charge crashed home. Musket shots and screams sounded from the city, evidence that Spaniard still
fought Frenchmen in the darkening streets, but that battle was no longer Sharpe’s
concern.

Colonel de l’Eclin raised the sabre in his left hand and the first squadron went into the
trot. The trumpet confirmed the order. Sharpe could hear the cavalry now. He could hear the
jingle of curb chains, the slap of saddle flaps, and the thump of hooves. A guidon reared above
the front rank.

“Steady, lads, steady.” There was nothing else Sharpe could say. He commanded a ragged line of
men who would resist for an instant, then be ridden over by the big horses. “Are you still there,
Miss Louisa?”

“Yes!” Louisa’s nervous voice came from behind the ranks of Riflemen.

“Then, if you’ll forgive me, bugger ofF!”

His men laughed. Sharpe could see the Dragoon’s pigtails bouncing beneath the darkening
helmets. “Are you still there, Miss Louisa?”

“Yes!” This time there was defiance in her voice.

“It isn’t gentle, Miss Louisa! They’ll hack about like bloody butchers! They may not even
notice you’re a girl till they’ve sliced half your face away. Now bugger off! You’re too pretty
to be killed by these bastards!”

“I’m staying!”

Colonel de l’Eclin raised his sabre again. Sharpe could hear the creak of saddles now.
“Hagman? That cheating bastard is yours.”

“Sir!”

Sharpe forgot Louisa. He crammed himself between two of his front-rank men and held his sword
high. “Wait for my word! I’m not going to fire till the bastards are breathing down our necks!
But when they come we’re going to make these sons of whores wish they hadn’t been bloody born!”
The approaching horses tossed their heads nervously. They knew what was coming, and Sharpe
allowed himself a moment’s pity for the butchery that he must inflict. “Aim at the horses!” he
reminded his men. “Forget the riders, kill the horses!”

“For what we are about to receive,” Harper said.

Riflemen licked powder-gritted lips. They nervously checked that the rifle pans were primed
and the flints well seated in the leather-lined dogheads. Their mouths were dry and their
stomachs tender. The vibration of the trotting horses was palpable in the soil, like the passing
of great guns on a nearby road. Or, Sharpe thought, like the tremor of thunder on a sultry day
that presaged the stab of lightning.

Colondel de l’Eclin lowered his curved blade in the signal for his men to go into the canter.
In a few seconds, Sharpe knew, the trumpet would call for the gallop and the big horses would
surge forward. He took a breath, knowing he must judge the moment for this one volley to
exquisite perfection.

Then the lightning struck.

There were only just over fifty men, but they were Vivar’s elite company, the crimson-coated
Cazadores, who burst from the city to charge downhill. It was a tired squadron, wearied by a
night and day of fighting, but above them, like a ripple of glory in the dark sky, flew the
gonfalon of Santiago Matamoros. The scarlet cross was bright as blood.

“Santiago!” Vivar led them. Vivar spurred them on. Vivar screamed the war cry that could
snatch a miracle from defeat. “Santiago!”

The slope gave the Cazadores’s charge speed, while the banner gave them the courage of
martyrs. They struck the edge of the first French line like a thunderbolt and the swords carved
bloody ruin into the Dragoons. De l’Eclin was shouting, turning, trying to realign his men, but
the banner of the saint was driving deep into the French squadron. The gonfalon’s long tail was
already flecked with an enemy’s blood.

“Charge!” Sharpe was running. “Charge!”

The second French squadron spurred forward, but Vivar had foreseen it and swerved right to
take his men into their centre. Behind him was a chaos of milling horses. Cavalry hacked at
cavalry.

Halt!” Sharpe held both arms out to bar his men’s mad rush. “Steady, lads! One volley. Aim
left! Aim at the horses! Fire!”

The Riflemen fired at the untouched horsemen on the right of the French charge. Horses fell
screaming to the mud. Dragoons kicked boots from stirrups and rolled away from their dying
beasts. “Now kill the bastards!” Sharpe screamed the incantation as he ran. “Kill! Kill!”

A rabble of men ran to the broken French line. There were Riflemen, Cazadores, and country men
who had left -their homes to carry war against an invader. Dragoons hacked down with long swords,
but the rabble surrounded them and slashed at horses and clawed men from their saddles. This was
not how an army fought, but how an untutored people took terror to an enemy.

Colonel de l’Eclin swivelled his horse to keep the rabble at bay. His sabre hissed to kill a
Cazador, lunged to drive a Spaniard back, and sliced to parry a Rifleman’s sword-bayonet. The
Dragoons were being driven to the boggy ground where the horses slithered and slipped. A
trumpeter was dragged from his grey horse and savaged with knives. Knots of Frenchmen tried to
hack through the mob. Sharpe used both hands to hack down at a horse’s neck, then swung back to
send its rider clean from the saddle. A woman from the city sawed with a knife at the fallen
Frenchman’s neck. Fugitives were running back from the stream’s eastern bank, coming to join a
slaughter.

A trumpet drove the third French squadron into the chaos. The field was bloody, but still the
white gonfalon floated high where Bias Vivar drove his crimson elite like a blade into the enemy.
A Spanish Sergeant held the great banner that had been hung from a cross-staff on a pole. He
waved it so that the silk made a serpentine challenge in the dusk.

The Count of Mouromorto saw the challenge and despised it. That streamer of silk was
everything he hated in Spain; it stood for the old ways, for the domination of church over ideas,
for the tyranny of a God he had rejected, and so the Count raked back his spurs and drove his
horse into the men who guarded the gonfalon.

“He’s mine!” Vivar yelled again and again. “Mine! Mine!”

The brothers’ swords met, scraped, disengaged. Vivar’s horse turned into the enemy as it was
trained to, and Vivar lunged. The Count parried. A Cazador rode to take him in the rear, but
Vivar shouted at the man to stay clear. “He’s mine!”

The Count gave two quick hard blows that would have driven a weaker man from the saddle. Vivar
parried both, back-cut, and turned the cut into a lunge that drew blood from his brother’s thigh.
The blood dripped onto the white boots.

The Count touched his horse with a spur; it went sideways, then, to another touch, lunged
back. Mouromorto snarled, knowing that this battle was won as his long sword lunged at his
brother.

But Vivar leaned back in the saddle, right back, so that his brother’s blade hissed past him
and could not be brought back fast enough as he straightened and speared his own sword forward.
The steel juddered into Mouromorto’s belly. Their eyes met, and Vivar twisted the blade. He felt
pity, and knew he could not afford pity. “Traitor!” He twisted the blade again, then raised his
boot to push the horse away and disengage his long sword. The steel shuddered free, blood gushed
onto the Count’s pommel, and his scream was an agony that died as he fell onto the blood-soaked
mud.

“Santiago!” Vivar shouted in triumph, and the shout was carried across the small valley as the
Cazadores rallied to the banner of the dead saint and raised their swords against the third
French squadron.

The Riflemen were hunting among the remnants of the first two squadrons. Dragoons were turning
their horses to flee, knowing they had been beaten by the savagery of the attack. A Cazador’s
sword opened the throat of the French standard bearer, and the Spaniard seized the enemy guidon
and raised it high in celebration of victory. Colonel de l’Eclin saw the capture of the small
flag and knew that he was beaten; beaten by the great white gonfalon of Matamoros.

“Back!” The chasseur knew when a fight was hopeless, and knew when it was better to save a
handful of men who could fight again.

“No!” Sharpe saw the Colonel order the retreat, and he ran towards the Frenchman. “No!” His
ankle still hurt from his jump from the cathedral platform, the pain made his run ungainly and
the soggy ground half tripped him, but he forced himself on. He outstripped his Riflemen and
still shouted in frustrated anger. “You bastard! No!”

De l’Eclin heard the insult. He turned, saw Sharpe was isolated from the greenjacketed men
and, as any cavalry officer would, he accepted the challenge. He rode at Sharpe, remembering when
he had fought the Rifleman before that he had used the simple ruse of switching his sabre from
right to left hand. That stratagem could not be repeated, instead the Colonel would rowel his
horse at the last moment so that the black stallion surged into a killing speed that would put
all its momentum behind his sabre stroke. Sharpe waited with his sword ready to swing at the
horse’s mouth. Someone shouted at him to jump aside, but the Rifleman held his ground as the big
black horse bore down on him. De l’Eclin was holding his sabre so that its point would spear into
Sharpe’s ribs, but in the very last second, just as the spurred horse surged for the kill, the
Frenchman changed his stroke. He did it with the quickness of a snake striking, raising and
turning the blade so that it would slash down onto Sharpe’s bare head. De l’Eclin shouted in
triumph as his sabre came down and as the Rifleman, whose sword had missed his horse, crumpled
beneath that stroke.

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
13.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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