“It’s nice to be back. How is it?”
Price glanced at the closest men, then grinned at Sharpe. “Still the best Company in the Battalion, sir.”
“They had me, sir.” They both laughed to cover a mutual pleasure. Price glanced at Sharpe’s stomach. “And you, sir?”
“The doctors say another month.”
“Harps said it was a miracle.”
Sharpe smiled. “He performed it, then.” He turned to watch the column go on. It was like some mindless machine that was grinding its way northwards, aiming at the city, and he knew that soon the valley would fill with French guns and cavalry unless the column could be stopped. One of his men shouted over the swell of drums and French cheers.
“Harps says you was living in a palace with Duchess!”
“Harps is a bloody liar!” Sharpe pushed through the knot of men and grinned at the big Sergeant. “How are you?”
“I’m doing all right. Yourself, sir?”
“It’s fine.” Sharpe looked north to where the valley was littered with bodies. .“ Casualties?”
Harper shook his head. He sounded disgusted. “Two wounded. We went back too bloody fast.” He nodded at Sharpe’s shoulder. “You got the rifle back?”
“Yes. But I need ammunition.”
„I’ll fix that for you, sir.“ Harper turned as a new sound filled the valley. It was like a hundred children dragging sticks along park railings, the sound of the volleys that the Sixth Division were slamming into the column’s head. The Sixth swore that this day they would restore the reputation that had been sullied by the time they took to capture the three fortresses. They had approached the great column in small columns and then, in the enemy’s face, they swung into line and waited for the French to come into musket range.
The two-deep line curled round the head of the column. The men fought like automatons, biting the cartridges, loading, ramming, firing on command so that the volleys’ flames ran down the face of the line, again and again, and the bullets twitched at the fog of powder smoke and hammered the French. The British volleys made the column’s head into a pile of dead and wounded men. Frenchmen who had thought themselves safe in the fourth or fifth rank suddenly had to cock their muskets and fire desperately into the smoke bank. The column checked. The drums still sounded, but they no longer paused for the great shout. The drummer boys worked their sticks as if they could force the men over the barricade of the dead and onto the Sixth Division, but the men at the column’s front were flinching from the murderous fire. The men behind pressed forward, the column crushed and bulged, and the drummer boys faltered. Some officers, brave beyond duty, tried to take men forward, but it was hopeless. The bravest died, the others shrank back from the British fire, and the column heaved and jerked like some I giant snared animal.
There was a pause in the British volleys. It was filled with a new sound, a scraping and clicking as the hundreds of long bayonets were taken from belt-scabbards and fixed on the muskets. Then a cheer, a British cheer, and the long line came forward with their blades level and the great column, that had so nearly turned the battle, turned instead into a panicked crowd. They ran.
The French had tried to send galloper guns through the small valley to blast the Sixth Division away, but the guns had been broken by the British artillery. The French gunners who still lived put their wounded horses out of their agony with their short carbines. The valley floor was thick with the remains of battle. Bodies, guns, canteens, pouches, haver-sacks, spent cannon balls, dead horses, the wounded. Everywhere the wounded. The French column was a running mass of fugitives, fleeing the steady line of the Sixth Division that came forward into the small valley which was covered by a tenuous awning of smoke. The sun touched the smoke layer with red. The Fourth Division reformed itself, drew bayonets, and went on with the Sixth. The British went forward, the French back, and Clausel’s centre was gone. It had extracted a price for its defeat, a high price, but it was over. The Eagles/Went back, they left the Greater Arapile, the French were^running from the field. The French left had been destroyed, utterly destroyed, in just forty minutes. The centre had tried and failed, and now all that could be done was for the French right to form a barrier on the edge of the plain to stop the British pursuit.
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