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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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But Sharpe had not cut at de l’Eclin’s horse. Instead, with a speed to match the chasseur’s
own, he had raised the strong blade above his head and held it there like a quarterstaff to take
the sabre’s impact. That impact drove Sharpe down, almost to his knees, but not before his right
hand released the sword’s hilt and snatched for the chasseur’s sword arm. Sharpe’s sword thumped
on his own shoulder, driven by the deflected sabre-blade, but his fingers had seized de l’Eclin’s
wrist strap. He released the sword blade from his left hand and hooked his fingers about the
Frenchman’s wrist.

It took de l’Eclin a second to realize what had happened. Sharpe was clinging on like a hound
that had sunk its teeth into a boar’s neck. He was being dragged along the boggy ground. The
horse twisted and tried to bite the Rifleman. The chasseur hammered at him with his free hand,
but Sharpe hung on, tugged, and tried to find a purchase on the soggy ground. His naked right leg
was smeared with mud and blood. The horse tried to shake him loose, just as Sharpe tried to drag
the Frenchman out of the saddle. The sabre’s wrist strap was cutting like wire into his
fingers.

De I’Eclin tried to unholster a pistol with his right hand. Harper and a group of greenjackets
ran to help. “Leave him! Don’t touch him!” Sharpe shouted.

“Bugger him!” Harper slammed his rifle butt at the black horse’s mouth and it reared so that
de I’Eclin lost his balance and, with Sharpe’s weight pulling him backwards, fell from the
saddle.

Sword-bayonets rose to slash down at the Frenchman. “No!” Sharpe screamed desperately. “No!
No!” He had fallen with de I’Eclin and, thumping onto the ground, had lost his grip on his wrist.
The Frenchman twisted away from Sharpe, staggered to his feet, and slashed his sabre at the
Riflemen who surrounded him. Sharpe’s sword was lost. De I’Eclin glanced to find his horse, then
lunged to kill Sharpe.

Harper fired his rifle.

“No!” Sharpe’s protest was drowned by the hammer of the gun’s report.

The bullet took de I’Eclin clean in the mouth. His head jerked back as though yanked by an
invisible string. The Frenchman fell, the blood fountaining up into the darkening sky, then his
body flopped onto the mud, jerked once more like a newly landed fish, and was still.

“No?” Harper said indignantly. “The bastard was going to fillet you!”

“It’s all right.” Sharpe was flexing the fingers of his right hand. “It’s all right. I just
didn’t want a hole in his overalls.” He looked at the dead man’s leather-reinforced overalls and
tall, beautifully made boots. They were items of great value, and now they were Sharpe’s. “All
right, lads. Get his bloody trousers off, and his boots.” The Riflemen stared at Sharpe as though
he was mad. “Get his bloody trousers off! I want them. And his boots! Why do you think we came
here? Hurry!” Sharpe, though Louisa and a dozen other women watched, stripped off his ojd boots
and trousers where he stood. The last of the light was draining from the sky. The remnants of
Dragoons had fled. The wounded moaned and scrabbled at the damp grass, while the victors moved
among the dead in search of plunder. One of the Riflemen offered Sharpe the glorious pelisse, but
he declined it. He did not need such frippery, but he had desperately wanted the red-striped
overalls which fitted him as though they had been tailored just for him. And with the overalls
came the most precious of all things to any infantryman: good boots. Tall boots of good leather
that could march across a country, boots to resist rain, snow, and spirit-haunted streams, good
boots that fitted Sharpe as if the cobbler had known this Rifleman would one day need such
luxuries. Sharpe prised away the razor-edged spurs, tugged the boots up his calves, then stamped
his heels in satisfaction. He buttoned his green jacket and strapped on his sword again. He
smiled. An old flag, made new, flaunted a miracle of victory, a red pelisse lay in the mud, and
Sharpe had found himself some boots and trousers.

The old gonfalon, Louisa told Sharpe, was sewn into the new. She had done the work in secret,
in the high fortress, before she had left Santiago de Compostela. It had been Major Vivar’s idea,
and the task had brought the Spaniard close to the English girl.

“The Sergeant’s stripes,” she said, “are made from the same silk.”

Sharpe looked at Harper who walked ahead with the Riflemen. “Don’t tell him, for God’s sake,
or he’ll think he’s a miracle worker.”

“You’re all miracle workers,” Louisa said warmly.

“We’re just Rifles.”

Louisa laughed at the modesty which betrayed such a monstrous pride. “But the gonfalon worked
a miracle,” she said chidingly. “It wasn’t such nonsense, was it?”

“It wasn’t nonsense,” Sharpe confessed. He walked beside her horse, ahead of Major Vivar and
his Spaniards. “What happens to the gonfalon now?”

“It goes to Seville or Cadiz; wherever it will be safest. And one day it will be returned to a
Spanish King in Madrid.” Already, in the small villages and towns through which the Riflemen
marched, the story of the gonfalon was being told. The news raced like a fire in parched grass;
telling of a French defeat and a Spanish victory, and of a saint keeping an ancient promise to
defend his people.

“And where do you go now?” Sharpe asked Louisa.

“I go where Don Bias goes, which is wherever there are Frenchmen to be killed.”

“Not Godalming?”

She laughed. “I do hope not.”

“And you’ll be a Countess,” Sharpe said in wonderment.

“I think that’s better than being Mrs Bufford, though it’s uncommonly nasty of me to say so.
And my aunt will never forgive me for becoming a Catholic, so you see some good has come from all
this.”

Sharpe smiled. They had come south, and now they must part. The French were left behind, the
snow had melted, and they had come to a shallow valley above which the February wind blew cold.
They halted at the valley’s rim. The far crest was in Portugual, and on that foreign skyline
Sharpe could see a group of blue-uniformed men. Those men watched the strangers who had come from
the Spanish hills.

Bias Vivar, Count of Mouromorto, dismounted. He thanked the Riflemen one by one, ending with
Sharpe whom, to Sharpe’s acute embarrassment, he embraced. “Are you sure you won’t stay,
Lieutenant?”

“I’m tempted, sir, but,” Sharpe shrugged.

“You wish to show off your new trousers and boots to the British army. I hope they let you
keep them.”

“They won’t if I’m sent back to Britain.”

“Which I fear you will be,” Vivar said. “While we are left to fight the French. But one day,
Lieutenant, when the last Frenchman is dead, you will come back to Spain and celebrate with the
Count and Countess of Mouromorto.”

“I shall, sir.”

“And I doubt you will still be a Lieutenant?”

“I imagine I will, sir.” Sharpe looked up at Louisa, and he saw a happiness in her that he
could not wish away. He smiled and touched his pouch. “I have your letter.” She had written to
her aunt and uncle, telling them they had lost her to the church of Rome and to a Spanish
soldier. Sharpe looked back at Vivar. “Thank you, sir.”

Vivar smiled. “You are an insubordinate bastard, a heathen, and an Englishman. But also my
friend. Remember that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then there was nothing more to say, and the Riflemen filed down the hill towards the stream
that was the border with Portugal. Bias Vivar watched as the greenjackets splashed through the
water and began to climb the further slope.

One of the men waiting on the Portuguese crest was impatient to discover who the strangers
were. He scrambled downhill towards the Riflemen, and Sharpe saw that the man was a British
officer; a middle-aged Captain wearing the blue coat of the Royal Engineers. Sharpe’s heart sank.
He was coming back to the strict hierarchy of an army that did not believe ex-Sergeants, made
into officers, should lead fighting troops. He was tempted to turn, flee back across the stream,
and take his freedom with Bias Vivar, but the British Captain shouted a question down the
hillside and the old constraints of discipline made Sharpe answer it. “Sharpe, sir.
Rifles.”

“Hogan, Engineers. From the Lisbon garrison.” Hogan scrambled down the last few feet. “Where
have you come from?”

“We got separated from Moore’s army, sir.”

“You did well to get away!” Hogan’s admiration seemed genuine, and was spoken in an Irish
accent. “Any French behind you?”

“We haven’t seen any in a week, sir. They’re having a hell of a time from the Spanish
people.”

“Good! Splendid! Well, come on, man! We’ve got a war to fight!”

Sharpe did not move. “You mean we’re not running away, sir?”

“Running away?” Hogan seemed appalled by the question. “Of course we’re not running away. The
idea is to make the French run away. They’re sending Wellesley back here. He’s a pompous bastard,
but he knows how to fight. Of course we’re not running away!”

“We’re staying here?”

“Of course we’re staying! What do you think I’m doing? Mapping a country we intend to abandon?
Good God, man, we’re going to stay and fight!” Hogan had an ebullient energy that reminded Sharpe
of Bias Vivar. “If the bastard politicians in London don’t lose their nerve we’ll run the bloody
French clear back to Paris!”

Sharpe turned to stare at Louisa. For a moment he was tempted to shout the good news, then he
shrugged it off. She would learn soon enough, and it could change nothing. He laughed.

Hogan led the Riflemen back up the hill. “I suppose your Battalion went back to
England?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“If it went to Corunna or Vigo, it did. But I don’t imagine you’ll join them.”

“No, sir?”

“We need all the Rifles we can get. If I know Wellesley he’ll want you to stay on. It won’t be
official, of course, but we’ll find some cranny to hide you in. Does that worry you?”

“No, sir.” Sharpe felt a burst of hope that perhaps he would not be doomed to a
Quartermaster’s drudgery again, but could stay and fight. “I want to stay, sir.”

“Good man!” Hogan stopped at the hilltop and watched the Spaniards ride away. “Helped you
escape, did they?”

“Yes, sir. And they took a city from the French, not for long, but long enough.”

Hogan looked sharply at the Rifleman. “Santiago?”

“Yes, sir.” Sharpe sounded defensive. “I wasn’t sure we should help them, sir, but, well…“ He
shrugged, too tired to explain everything.

“Good God, man! We heard about it! That was you?” It was plain that this Captain of Engineers
would make no protest at Sharpe’s adventure. On the contrary, Hogan was clearly delighted. “You
must tell me the story. I like a good story. Now! I suppose your lads would like a meal?”

“They’d prefer some rum, sir.”

Hogan laughed. “That, too.” He watched as the Riflemen walked past him. The greenjackets were
ragged and dirty, but they grinned at the two officers as they passed, and Hogan noted that
though these men might lack regulation shoes, and though some had French greatcoats rolled on
French packs, and though they were unshaven, unwashed, and unkempt, they all had their weapons,
and those weapons were in perfect condition. “Not many escaped,” Hogan said.

“Sir?”

“Of the men who were cut off from Moore’s retreat,” Hogan explained. “Most just gave up, you
see.”

“It was cold,” Sharpe said, Very cold. But I was lucky in my Sergeant. The big fellow there.
He’s an Irishman.“

“The best are,” Hogan said happily. “But they all look like good lads.”

“They are, sir.” Sharpe raised his voice so every tired man could hear the extravagant praise.
“They’re drunken sods, sir, but they’re the best soldiers in the world. The very best.” And he
meant it. They were the elite, the damned, the Rifles. They were the soldiers in green.

They were Sharpe’s Rifles.

Historical Note

The retreat to Corunna was one of the most gruelling exploits ever forced onto a British army.
The miracle of the retreat was that so many men survived to turn and repel a French attack
outside the port. Sir John Moore died in the battle, but his victory gained enough time to let
the surviving troops embark on the ships sent to save them.

The French had succeeded in driving Britain’s army, all but for the small Lisbon garrison,
from the Peninsula. It was heralded in Paris as a victory, which it was, though no one seemed to
notice that the campaign had drawn French troops away from their primary task which was to
complete the invasion of Spain and Portugal. That invasion was never completed. Yet, in February
1809, few people could have foreseen that failure, and only a handful believed that Britain,
after the defeat of Moore’s campaign, should keep a military presence in the Peninsula.

Yet, in the spring of 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley, one day to be known as the Duke of
Wellington, took command of the Lisbon garrison that was slowly, even grudgingly, expanded into
the army that was to win a string of remarkable victories which would end with the invasion of
France itself. Those victories form the framework of the Richard Sharpe books, which have already
taken Sharpe and Harper into southern France.

This, then, is an early story, told against the background of the brutal French occupation of
Galicia. That much of the book is accurate. The French did capture Santiago de Compostela, and
did sack its cathedral, and did fight vicious battles against the growing resistance in the
Galician hills. The rest, alas, is fiction. The scholars even tell us now that the romantic
derivation of Compostela from the Latin campus stellae, ‘field of the star’, is also a fiction.
They say the name truly derives from the Latin word for a cemetery. It is often wise to ignore
scholars.

Marshal Soult was supposed to conquer all of Portugal before the end of February 1809. Racked
by supply problems and tormented by partisans, he could only reach as far as Oporto on the
northern bank of the Douro river, in northern Portugal, from which defence line he was to be
ejected by Sir Arthur Wellesley in May. Then, having driven the French from Portugal, Wellesley
turned east into Spain to gain the first of his Spanish victories, Talavera. Other British
victories would follow, some astonishing in their brilliance, but those victories obscured (at
least to the British) that far more Frenchmen died at the hands of the Spanish people than in
battle against the British. The Spaniards were overwhelmingly partisans who fought the guerrilla,
the ‘little war’. Those guerrilleros fought La Guerra de la Independencia as the Spanish call the
Peninsular War, and some of their enemies were indeed anfrancesados.

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
11.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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