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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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Even as that realization struck him, Sharpe also realized that he was acting like a Rifleman,
not like an officer. He had taken shelter, he was looking for a target, and he did not know what
his men were doing back in the gorge. Not that he had any desire to go back into that trap of
rock and bullets, but such was an officer’s duty and so he picked himself up and ran.

He shouldered through the assembling Spaniards, saw that the mule lay kicking and bleeding,
then was aware of a buzzing and cracking about his ears. The carbine bullets were spitting down
into the gorge, ricocheting wildly, filling the air with a tangle of death. He saw a greenjacket
lying on his belly. Blood had spewed from the man’s mouth to stain a square yard of melting snow.
A rifle cracked to Sharpe’s left, then one to his right. The greenjackets had taken what cover
they could and were trying to kill the Frenchmen above. It occurred to him that the French should
have put more men on the heights, that the volume of their fire was too small to overwhelm the
road. The thought was so surprising that he stood quite still and gaped at the high
skyline.

He was right. The French had just enough men on the heights to pin the ambush down, yet the
killing would not be done by those men, but by others: That knowledge gave Sharpe hope, and told
him what he must do. He began by striding down the road’s centre and shouting for his men.
“Rifles! To me! To me!”

The Riflemen did not move. A bullet slapped into the snow beside Sharpe. The French
cavalrymen, more used to the sword than the carbine, were aiming high, but that common fault was
small consolation amidst their bullets. Sharpe again shouted for the Riflemen to come to him but,
naturally enough, they preferred the small shelter offered at the base of the cliffs. He dragged
one man out of a rock cleft. “That way! Run! Wait for me at the end of the gorge.” He rousted
others. “On your feet! Move!” He kicked more men to their feet. “Sergeant Williams?”

“Sir?” The reply came from further down the chasm, somewhere beyond the skeins of rifle smoke
that were trapped by the rock walls.

Tf we stay here we’re dead ‘uns. Rifles! Follow me!“

They followed. Sharpe had no time to reflect on the irony that men who had so recently tried
to kill him now obeyed his orders. They obeyed because Sharpe knew what needed to be done, and
the certainty of his knowledge was strong in him, and it was that certainty which fetched the
green-jackets out of their scanty shelter. They also followed because the only other man they
might have trusted, Harper, was not with them, but still tied to the wounded mule’s
tail.

“Follow! Follow!” Sharpe jumped a wounded Spaniard, twisted as a bullet slashed past his face,
then turned to his right. He had led his men almost to the mouth of the canyon, just behind the
place where Vivar still formed his own dismounted cavalrymen into line. Once, years before, a
fall of rock had slid down to make a shoulder of scree and turf and, though the slope was
perilously steep, and made even more perilous by the melting snow, it offered a short cut to the
hillside which, in turn, led to the heights above. Sharpe scrambled up the rockfall, using his
rifle as a staff, and behind him, in ones and twos, the Riflemen followed.

“Skirmish order!” Sharpe paused at the top of the first steep slope to shrug off his
encumbering pack. “Spread out!”

Some of the Riflemen suddenly realized what was expected of them. They were supposed to
assault a steep and slippery slope at the top of which the French would be protected by the
natural bastions of jumbled rock. Some of them hesitated and looked for cover. “Move!” Sharpe’s
voice was louder than the gunfire. “Move! Skirmish order! Move!”

They moved, not because of any confidence in Sharpe, but because the habit of obedience under
fire ran deep.

Sharpe knew that to stay in the gorge was to die.

The French wanted them in there, pinned by the carbines above to be slaughtered by the
Dragoons who would charge from the roadblock. The only way to prise this ambush apart was to
attack one of its jaws. Men would die in the attempt, but not so many as would die in the
blood-reeking sludge and horror on the roadway.

Sharpe heard Vivar shout a word of command in Spanish, but he ignored it. The Major must do
what he thought fit, and Sharpe would do as he thought best, and the strange exaltation of battle
suddenly gripped him. Here, in the filthy stench of powder smoke, he felt at home. This had been
his life for sixteen years. Other men learned to plough fields or to shape wood, but Sharpe had
learned how to use a musket or rifle, sword or bayonet, and how to turn an enemy’s flank or
assault a fortress. He knew fear, which was every soldier’s familiar companion, but Sharpe also
knew how to turn the enemy’s own fear to his advantage.

High above Sharpe, silhouetted against the grey clouds, a French officer redeployed his men to
face the new threat. The dismounted Dragoons who had lined the canyon’s edge, must now scramble
to their right to face this unexpected attack on their flank. They moved urgently, and the first
French bullets hissed whip-quick in the freezing air.

“I want fire! I want fire!” Sharpe shouted as he climbed, and was rewarded by the cracks of
the Baker rifles. The Riflemen were doing what they were trained to do. One man fired as his
partner moved. The Dragoons, still searching for new positions in the high rocks, would hear the
bullets spin past their ears. The French did not use rifles, preferring the faster musket, but a
musket was a clumsy weapon compared to the slow-loading Baker.

A bullet hissed by Sharpe. He thought it must have been a rifle bullet fired from behind him
and he wondered if one of his men, hating him, had aimed at his back. There was no time for that
fear now though it was a real fear, for in India he had known more than one unpopular officer
shot in the back. “Faster! Faster! Left! Left!”

Sharpe was gambling on his instinct that the men who had been positioned on the heights were
only enough to hold the ambush down, and he hoped he was stretching those men too thin. He went
further left, forcing the French to move again. He saw a face in the rocks ahead, a moustached
face framed by the odd pigtails of the French Dragoons. Dragons was the French and Spanish name
for them, and that thought wisped by Sharpe as the face disappeared behind a puff of smoke and
again he heard the distinctive smack of a rifle bullet. A rifle! A Baker! He suddenly knew these
must be the same men who had split apart Dunnett’s four companies of Riflemen at the bridge; they
were using captured British rifles, and the memory of that defeat gave him a new anger which
drove him onwards.

Sharpe turned abruptly towards the centre of the enemy’s weakened line. Somewhere on the
hillside behind he had abandoned his unfired rifle and drawn his new sword. The weapon would make
him a mark to the Dragoons, an officer to be shot, but it also made him visible to his men.

His legs were hurting with the effort of climbing. The slope was steep and ice-slick, and
every footfall slid back before it took purchase. Anger had driven him up the hill, but now fear
made him frail. Sharpe was panting, too out of breath to shout any more, conscious only of the
need to close the gap on the French. He had a sudden certainty that he would die. He would die
here, because even a Dragon could not fail to kill him at this short range. But still he climbed.
What mattered was to prise open this jaw of the trap so that Vivar’s men could escape up the
hill. Sharpe’s heart pounded in his chest, his muscles burned, his bruises ached, and he wondered
whether he would feel the bullet that killed him. Would it strike clean, throwing him back to
slide in blood and thawing snow down the slope? At least his men would know he was no coward. He
would show the bastards how a real soldier died.

A Spanish volley sounded beneath him, but that was another battle. Further off a trumpet
sounded, but it had nothing to do with Sharpe. His world was a few yards of slush with rocks
beyond. He saw a shard of white struck by a bullet from a rock and knew some of his men were
firing to give cover. He could hear other Riflemen following him, cursing as they slipped on the
icy slope. He saw flashes of pale green in the rocks - Dragoons - and he jerked aside from a puff
of smoke and the crash of the carbine rang in his ears. He wondered if he was dreaming, if he was
already dead, then his left boot found a firm foothold on an outcrop of stone and he pushed
desperately upwards.

Two guns hammered at him. Sharpe was screaming incoherently now; a scream of pure fear turning
into a killing rage. He hated the whole world. He saw a Dragoon scrambling backwards with a
ramrod in his hand and the big sword, Murray’s gift, cleaved down to smash into the man’s ribs.
There was a moment when the blade was gripped by the flesh, but he twisted the steel free and
swung it left so that blood drops spewed into the face of a French officer who lunged with his
own sword at Sharpe’s belly. Sharpe let the enemy blade come, twisted aside, then rammed the
guard of his heavy sword into the Frenchman’s face. A bone cracked, there was more blood, then
the officer was on the ground and Sharpe was smashing at the man’s face with the disc hilt of his
sword. A greenjacket ran past, sword-bayonet already bloodied, then another Rifleman was among
the rocks.

Sharpe stood, reversed the sword, and stabbed down. On the long slope beneath him he could see
two men who, in their green coats, lay like discarded rag dolls. A carbine fired to Sharpe’s left
and up there, unprotected from the wind, the smoke was snatched clean away to show a frightened
Dragoon turning to run.

Sergeant Williams shot the man, then stabbed him with his bayonet. He was shouting like a
fiend. Other Riflemen reached the summit. A knot of Frenchmen tried to form a rally square at the
canyon’s edge and Sharpe shouted for his men to attack. The greenjackets scrambled over patchy
snow that was flecked red. Their faces were stained with powder and their lips were drawn back in
a snarl as they moved like a wolfpack towards the Dragoons, who did not wait for the charge but
broke and fled.

Bullets hissed from the Dragoons positioned on the far side of the gorge. A Rifleman spun,
fell, then spat blood as he struggled to his hands and knees.

“Sergeant Williams! Kill those bastards!” Sharpe pointed across the canyon. “Get their bloody
heads down!”

“Sir!”

The trumpet sounded again and Sharpe veered back towards the slope he had climbed. At its foot
Vivar had formed his men, but the French had expected it. Their main force had been barricaded on
the road and now, from the Spaniard’s left flank, a company of Dragoons was lined for the charge.
“You!” Sharpe grabbed a greenjacket. “You!” Another. “Kill those buggers.”

The rifles snapped at the horsemen. “Aim low!” His voice was snatched by the wind. “Low!” A
horse went down. A man fell back from his saddle. Sharpe found a rifle among the rocks, loaded
it, and fired downwards. Sergeant Williams had a dozen men sniping over the canyon, but the rest
of the greenjackets were now pouring fire at the cavalry. They could not stop the charge, but
they could unsettle it. A riderless horse stampeded in the snow, while another dragged a bleeding
man across the charge’s face.

Vivar retreated. His thin line of men would have been turned into carrion by the Dragoon’s
swords, and so the Major took shelter in the gorge. The French commander must have realized that
his own charge was doomed, for the horsemen were pulled back. If the cavalry had funnelled
themselves into the rocks, and done so without the help of cover from above, they would have been
massacred by rifle fire.

Stalemate. Somewhere a wounded man sobbed in a terrible wailing voice. A limping horse tried
to rejoin the cavalry’s ranks, but fell. Cartridge wadding smoked in the snow. Sharpe did not
know whether two minutes or two hours had passed. He felt the cold seep back into his bones; a
cold that had been vanquished by the sudden emergency.

He grinned to himself, proud of his greenjackets’ achievement. It had been done with a
ruthless speed which had unbalanced the enemy and taken away their advantage, and now there was
stalemate.

The French still barred the road, but Sharpe’s Riflemen could harass those sheltering behind
the low barricade, and they did so with the grim enjoyment of men revenging themselves. Two
French prisoners had been taken on the heights; two miserable Dragoons who were shoved into a
hollow of the rocks and guarded by a savage-looking Rifleman. Sharpe guessed there had never been
more than three dozen Dragoons on each side of the chasm, and he could see no more than sixty or
seventy either behind the barricade or in the ranks of the aborted charge. This could only be a
detachment of Dragoons, a handful sent into the mountains.

“Lieutenant!” Vivar shouted from beneath Sharpe. The Spaniard was hidden by the loom of the
rocks.

“Major?”

“If I reach the barricade, can you give me fire?”

“You’ll never make it!” If Vivar attacked the barricade, then his flank would again be open to
the horsemen. Sharpe had seen what Dragoons could do to scattered infantry, and he feared for
Vivar’s dismounted Cazadores. The carbine was not the Dragoons’ real weapon; they relished the
power of their long straight swords and they prayed for rash fools on whom to wield the killing
blades.

“Englishman!” Vivar shouted again.

“Major?”

“I spit on your opinion! Give me fire!”

“Fool,” Sharpe muttered, then shouted at his men, “Keep their heads down!”

Vivar’s men broke cover in a column of threes. The first time he had attacked, Vivar had made
a line, but now he aimed his men like a human battering ram at the road’s obstruction. The
Galicians did not march forward, but ran. Smoke puffed from the barricade and Sharpe’s men opened
fire.

The mounted Dragoons, just forty strong, saw the scarlet-coated enemy come into the open. The
horses wheeled and were spurred into a trot. Vivar ignored them. A Spaniard fell, and his
comrades swerved round his body and reformed beyond. A trumpet sounded high and shrill, then at
last the Major stopped his men and turned them towards the threatened flank.

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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