Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction
The Lieutenant threw away his broken sabre and scrambled towards the low cloud. “Rifles!
Rifles!” Men heard and closed on him. They scrambled uphill together and made a large enough
group to deter the enemy. The Dragoons went for individuals, the men most easily killed, and they
took pleasure in thus avenging all the horsemen who had been put down by rifle bullets, all the
Frenchmen who had jerked and bled their lives away on the long pursuit, and all the jeers that
the Riflemen had sent through the biting air in the last bitter weeks.
Captain Murray joined the new Lieutenant. “Outfoxed us, by God!” He sounded
The small group of Riflemen reached safety short of the clouds, up where the litter of rocks
made the ground too uneven for the Dragoons to follow. There Murray stopped his men and stared,
appalled, at the carnage beneath.
The Dragoons rode among the dead and the defeated. Riflemen with slashed faces reeled among
them, others lay motionless until grasping hands turned the dead bodies and began ripping at
pouches and pockets. The Quartermaster watched as Major Dunnett was pulled to his feet and his
uniform searched for plunder. Dunnett was lucky. He was alive and a prisoner. One Rifleman ran
downhill, still trying to escape, and the man in the black coat and white boots rode after him
and, with a chilling skill, chopped down once.
“Bastards.” Murray, knowing there was no more fighting to do, sheathed his Heavy Cavalry
sword. “God-damned bloody crapaud bastards!”
Fifty Riflemen, survivors from all four companies, had been saved from the rout. Sergeant
Williams was with them, as was Rifleman Harper. Some of the men were bleeding. A Sergeant was
trying to staunch a terrible slash in his shoulder. A youngster was white-lipped and shaking.
Murray and the new Lieutenant were the only officers to have escaped the massacre.
“We’ll work our way east,” Murray said calmly. “Maybe we can reach the army after
A morose swearword sounded from the big Irishman and the two officers glanced down the valley
to see the British cavalry at last appear in the drizzle. The chasseur saw them at the same time,
and the French trumpet called the Dragoons into order. The British, seeing the enemy’s
preparedness, and finding no sign of infantry, withdrew.
The Riflemen on the cloud’s edge jeered at their retreating cavalry. Murray whipped round.
But the jeer had drawn the attention of the dismounted Dragoons on the slope below, and they
believed the mocking sound had been aimed at them. Some of them seized carbines, others took up
fallen rifles, and they fired a ragged volley at the small group of survivors.
The bullets hissed and whiplashed past the greenjackets. The ragged volley missed, except for
one fatal bullet that ricocheted from a rock into Captain Murray’s side. The force of the bullet
spun him round and threw him face down onto the hillside. His left hand scrabbled at the thin
turf while his right groped in the blood at his waist.
“Go on! Leave me!” His voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
Rifleman Harper jumped down the slope and plucked Murray into his huge arms. The Captain
sighed a terrible moan of pain as he was lifted. Below him the French were scrambling uphill,
eager to complete their victory by taking these last Riflemen prisoner.
“Follow me!” The Lieutenant led the small group into the clouds. The French fired again, and
the bullets flickered past, but the Riflemen were lost in the whiteness now. For the moment, at
least, they were safe.
The Lieutenant found a hollow among the rocks that offered some shelter from the cold. The
wounded were laid there while picquets were set to guard its perimeter. Murray had gone as white
as cartridge paper. “I didn’t think they could beat us, Dick.”
“I don’t understand where they came from.” The Lieutenant’s scarred face, Murray thought, made
him look like an execution. “They didn’t get past us. They couldn’t!”
“They must have done.” Murray sighed, then gestured to Rifleman Harper who, with a gentleness
that seemed odd in a man so big, first unstrapped the Captain’s sword belt, then unpeeled his
clothes from the wound. It was clear that Harper knew his business, and so the Lieutenant went to
peer down the fogged hillside for a sight of the enemy. He could neither see nor hear anything.
The Dragoons evidently thought the band of survivors too small to worry about. The fifty Riflemen
had become the flotsam of war, mere splinters hacked from a sinking endeavour, and if the French
had known that the fugitives were led by a Quartermaster, they might have been even more
But the Quartermaster had first fought the French fifteen years before, and he had been
fighting ever since. The stranded Riflemen might call him the new Lieutenant, and they might
invest the word ‘new’ with all the scorn of old soldiers, but that was because they did not know
their man. They thought of him as nothing more than a jumped-up Sergeant, and they were wrong. He
was a soldier, and his name was Richard Sharpe.
n the night, Lieutenant Sharpe took a patrol
westwards along the high crest. He had hoped to determine whether the French held the place where
the road crossed the ridge, but in the freezing darkness and among the jumble of rocks, he lost
his bearings and grudgingly went back to the hollow where the Riflemen sheltered.
The cloud lifted before dawn, letting the first wan light reveal the main body of the French
pursuit in the valley which lay to the south. The enemy cavalry was already gone to the west, and
Sharpe stared down at Marshal Soult’s infantry which marched in dogged pursuit of Sir John
“We’re bloody cut off.” Sergeant Williams offered his pessimistic assessment to Sharpe who,
instead of replying, went to squat beside the wounded men. Captain Murray slept fitfully,
shivering beneath a half-dozen greatcoats. The Sergeant who had been slashed across the neck and
shoulders had died in the night. Sharpe covered the man’s face with a shako.
“He’s a jumped-up bit of nothing.” Williams stared malevolently at Lieutenant Sharpe’s back.
“He ain’t an officer, Harps. Not a real one.”
Rifleman Harper was sharpening his sword-bayonet, doing the job with the obsessive
concentration of a man who knows his life depends on his weapons.
“Not a proper officer,” Williams went on. “Not a gentleman. Just a jumped-up Sergeant, isn’t
“That’s all.” Harper looked at the Lieutenant, seeing the scars on the officer’s face and the
hard line of his jaw.
“If he thinks he’s giving me orders, he’s a bugger. He ain’t no better than I am, is
Harper’s reply was a grunt, and not the agreement which would have given the Sergeant the
encouragement he wanted. Williams waited for Harper’s support, but the Irishman merely squinted
along the edge of his bayonet, then carefully sheathed the long blade.
Williams spat. “Put a bloody sash and sword on them and they think they’re God Almighty. He’s
not a real Rifle, just a bloody Quartermaster, Harps!”
“Nothing else,” Harper agreed.
“Bloody jumped-up storekeeper, ain’t he?”
Sharpe turned quickly and Williams, even though it was impossible, felt that he had been
overheard. The Lieutenant’s eyes were hard as flint. “Sergeant Williams!”
“Sir.” Williams, despite his assertion of disobedience, stepped dutifully towards Lieutenant
“Shelter.” Sharpe pointed down into the northern valley where, far beneath them and slowly
being revealed by a shredding mist, a stone farmstead could be seen. “Get the wounded down
Williams hissed a dubious breath between yellowed teeth. “I dunno as how they should be moved,
sir. The Captain’s…“
“I said get the wounded down there, Sergeant.” Sharpe had stepped away, but now turned back.
“I didn’t ask for a debate on the God-damned matter. Move.”
It took the best part of the morning, but they succeeded in carrying the wounded down to the
derelict farm. The dryest building was a stone barn, built on rock pillars that were meant to
keep vermin at bay, and with a roof surmounted by crosses so that, from a distance, it looked
like a small crude church. The ruined house and byres yielded damp and fungus-ridden timbers
that, split and shredded with cartridge Powder, were coaxed into a fire that slowly warmed the
wounded men. Rifleman Hagman, a toothless, middle-aged Cheshire man, went to hunt for food, while
the Lieutenant put picquets on the goat tracks that led east and west.
“Captain Murray’s in a poorly way, sir.” Sergeant Williams cornered Sharpe when the Lieutenant
returned to the barn. “He needs a surgeon, sir.”
“Hardly possible, is it?”
“Unless we… that is…“ The Sergeant, a squat, red-faced man, could not say what was in his
“Unless we surrender to the French?” Sharpe asked acidly.
Williams looked into the Lieutenant’s eyes. They were curious eyes, almost reptilian in their
present coldness. The Sergeant found a truculence to brace his argument. “At least the crapauds
have got surgeons, sir.”
“In one hour,” Sharpe’s voice implied that he had not even heard Williams’s words, Til inspect
every man’s rifle. Make sure they’re ready.“
Williams stared belligerently at the officer, but could not summon the courage necessary for
disobedience. He nodded curtly and turned away.
Captain Murray was propped against a pile of packs inside the barn. He offered Sharpe a feeble
smile. “What will you do?”
“Sergeant Williams thinks I should take you to a French surgeon.”
Murray grimaced. “I asked what you wanted to do.”
Sharpe sat beside the Captain. “Rejoin.”
Murray nodded. He was cradling a mug of tea, a precious gift from one of the Riflemen who had
hoarded the leaves in the bottom of his ammunition pouch. “You can leave me here.”
“I’m dying.” Murray made a deprecatory shrug to show that he wanted no sympathy. His wound was
not bleeding overmuch, but the Captain’s belly was swelling blue to show that there was bleeding
inside. He nodded towards the other three badly wounded men, all of them with great sword cuts on
their faces or chests. “Leave them too. Where will you go? The coast?”
Sharpe shook his head. “We’ll never catch the army now.”
“Probably not.” Murray closed his eyes.
Sharpe waited. It had started to rain again and a leak in the stone roof dripped insistently
into the fire. He was thinking of his options. The most inviting choice was to attempt to follow
Sir John Moore’s army, but they were retreating so fast, and the French now controlled the road
that Sharpe must take, and thus he knew he must resist that temptation for it would only lead
into captivity. Instead he must go south. Sir John had marched from Lisbon, and a few troops had
been left to protect the Portuguese capital, and perhaps that garrison still existed and Sharpe
could find it. “How far is Lisbon?” he asked Murray.
The Captain opened his eyes and shrugged. “God knows. Four? Five hundred miles?” He flinched
from a stab of pain. “It’s probably nearer six hundred on these roads. D’you think we’ve still
got troops there?”
“We can at least find a ship.”
“If the French don’t get there first. What about Vigo?”
“The French are more likely to be there than Lisbon.”
“True.” The Light Division had been sent to Vigo on a more southerly road. Only a few light
troops, like these Riflemen, had been retained to protect Sir John Moore’s retreat. “Maybe Lisbon
would be best.” Murray looked past Sharpe and saw how the men were brushing and oiling their
rifle locks. He sighed. “Don’t be too hard on them.”
“I’m not.” Sharpe was instantly defensive.
Murray’s face flickered with a smile. “Were you ever commanded by an officer from the
Sharpe, smelling criticism, bridled for an instant, then realized that Murray was trying to be
helpful. “No, sir, never.”
“The men don’t like it. Stupid, really. They believe officers are born, not made.” Murray
paused to take a breath that made him shudder with pain. He saw Sharpe about to enjoin him to
silence, but shook his head. “I haven’t got much time. I might as well use what there is. Do you
think I’m being damnably rude?”
Murray paused to sip at his tea. “They’re good lads.”
“But they have an odd sense of what’s proper. They expect officers to be different, you see.
They want them to be privileged. Officers are men who choose to fight, they aren’t forced to it
by poverty. Do you understand that?”
“They think you’re really one of them; one of the damned, and they want their officers to be
touched by something more than that.” Murray shook his head sadly. “It isn’t very good advice, is
“It’s very good,” Sharpe lied.
The wind sighed at the corners of the stone barn and flickered the flames of the small fire.
Murray smiled sadly. “Let me think of some more practical advice for you. Something that will get
you to Lisbon.” He frowned for an instant, then turned his red-rimmed eyes to Sharpe. “Get
Patrick Harper on your side.”
Sharpe turned to glance at the men who were crowded at the barn’s far end. The big Irishman
seemed to sense that his name had been mentioned for he offered Sharpe a hostile
“He’s a troublemaker, but the men listen to him. I tried to make him a Chosen Man once,”
Murray instinctively used the Rifle’s old term for a Corporal, “but he wouldn’t have it. He’d
make a good Sergeant. Hell! Even a good officer if he could read, but he won’t have any of it.
But the men listen to him. He’s got Sergeant Williams under his thumb.”
“I can manage Harper.” Sharpe said the words with a false conviction. In the short time that
he had been with this Battalion, Sharpe had often noticed the Irishman, and he had seen for
himself the truth of Captain Murray’s assertion that he was a natural leader. Men crowded to
Harper’s campfire, partly to relish his stories, and partly because they wanted his approval. To
the officers he liked the Irishman offered a humorous allegiance, while to those he disliked he
offered nothing but scorn. And there was something very intimidating about Rifleman Harper; not
just because of his size, but because of his air of knowing self-reliance.