Bernard Cornwell – 1809 01 Sharpe’S Rifles

Bernard Cornwell – 1809 01 Sharpe’S Rifles

Bernard Cornwell – 1809 01 Sharpe’S Rifles

Sharpe’s rifles : Richard Sharpe and the French invasion of Galicia, January 1809

For Carolyn Ryan


The 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 inside.

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 died.

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 enemy.

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.

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Categories: Cornwell, Bernard