Politics, strategy, cleverness and guile had brought on this battle. Now it was up to the soldiers.
He could see to his right where the Sixth Division marched in small columns towards the great French column. It would be, perhaps, two minutes before the new Division formed its two deep line and the muskets could try again to stop the massive French attack, and he knew there was a job for the South Essex in that short time. The Battalion were at the valley’s end, the Grenadier Company hard against the Teso San Miguel and acting as a hinge. The other nine companies were swinging back in the face of the French and the Light Company, on the left of the line, were swinging fastest and loading slowest. Sharpe could see Major Leroy, commanding the left five Companies, swearing at them and gesturing. Sharpe understood why. If the small Battalion line swung fully back to the hillside then the column could pour out into the open ground of the British rear. Leroy wanted to hold the South Essex, force the column to edge to its right and thus straight onto the muskets of the Sixth Division. The South Essex was like a desperately frail breakwater that had to force a tidal wave away from empty ground and into a channel prepared for it.
The space behind the Battalion was littered with wounded, and the bandsmen were tugging them backwards, away from the heels of the retreating companies, and Sharpe rode there and beckoned to a drummer boy. The lad gaped up at him as he slid from the horse. “Sir?”
“Hold the horse! Understand? Find me when this is over. And don’t bloody lose it!”
He could hear the drums, the cheers of the French, and the crackle of muskets seemed drowned by the great noise. The attack was in the valley, coming forward, and the South Essex thought they were the last obstacle between the French and Salamanca. They fought, but they stepped back after each shot, and Major Leroy galloped his horse behind the thin line and his voice pierced at Sharpe’s ears. “Still, you bastards! Stand still!” The Major was nearing the Light Company, who stepped back the fastest, and he swore at them, cursed them, but while he checked the Light Company the others bent backwards and Leroy was seething in his anger. He saw Sharpe and there was no time for a greeting, for surprise. The American Major pointed at the Company. “Hold them, Sharpe!” He galloped right, to the other Companies, and Sharpe drew his sword.
Harper’s gift. It was the first time he had carried it in battle and the blade was bright in the valley’s gloom. Now he would find if it was lucky.
He stepped past the flank of the Company and the men were red-eyed, their faces smeared black with powder, and at first no one noticed him. They knew Leroy had gone and they were stepping backwards, their ramrods awkward in their hands, and suddenly a voice they knew, a voice they feared never to hear again, was shouting at them. “Still!” They checked in their surprise, began to grin, and then they saw the anger on Sharpe’s face. “Front rank! Kneel!” That would stop the bastards. “Sergeant Harper!”
“Shoot the next bastard who takes a step back.”
They stared at him as if he was a ghost. They froze, bullets half rammed down barrels, and he bellowed at them to load, to hurry, and it was the first time he had shouted in a month and the strain tugged at the huge, tender bruise low on his stomach and Harper saw the twinge on his Captain’s face. The front rank was kneeling now, more frightened of Sharpe’s anger than the French, and the Riflemen were tap loading their guns, not bothering with the greased leather patch that gripped the grooves of the barrel. Sharpe knew it was a waste of a good weapon. “Rifles!” He pointed to the open end of the line, nearest the French. “Move! Load properly!”
The sound of the French was close, overwhelming, and he wanted to cringe from it, to turn and watch it, but he dared not. His men were loading again, their training overcoming their fear, and he watched as the ramrods came up and out of the barrels and were propped against mens’ bodies. The muskets were levelled towards the French. He glanced to his left and saw that number Five Company had already fired and he had to trust that no man in the Company disliked him enough to aim deliberately at him. “Fire!”
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