The sun was sinking into a cushion of gold and scarlet, it touched the killing ground with crimson and it promised to give enough light for a little time more. Time enough for more blood to be spilt on an earth that already reeked with the stench of it.
To the spectators on the great ridge the battle had appeared as something like a surging spring tide seething into a place that was usually above the high water mark. The tide had surged from the west, running swiftly over the plain, and then it had struck the obstacles of the Arapiles. The righting had churned. For a moment it had looked as if the French centre would flow irresistibly towards the city, through the small valley, but it had been held, the two Divisions in column broken, and the fighting had surged back, past the Arapiles, and now the fighting drained off to the south and east; away from the city.
The fighting was not done, yet already the scavengers were on the field. The wives and children of the British were stripping enemy corpses. When it was darker they would start on men of their own side, slitting the throats of the wounded who resisted them, but for the moment they plundered the French while the Bandsmen cared for the British wounded. The South Essex followed the Sixth Division for a small way, but then orders came for them to rest and the men dropped where they were.
The drummer boy, with the worried intensity of a child given a great responsibility, had clung to Sharpe’s horse and the Rifleman was grateful for the saddle. The wound throbbed, he was tired, and he forced himself to respond to the greetings of Leroy and Forrest, of the other officers, and they teased him for having a horse. He was tired, but still restless.
Musketry came from the south. The fighting still went on.
Sharpe sat on his horse, her horse, and he watched, without really seeing, as a small child tugged at the ring on a ringer of a naked corpse. The child’s mother was stripping another Frenchman nearby, slicing open the seams, and she snapped at the child to hurry because there were so many corpses and so many looters. The child, dressed only in a cut-down skirt of her mother’s, picked up a discarded French bayonet and began hacking at the ring finger. Prisoners were being herded, disarmed, and led to the rear.
The French had been beaten. Not just beaten, they had been utterly defeated. Half their army had been broken and the survivors were running for the road that led eastwards through the southern woods. Only a rearguard stopped the vengeful British and German cavalry from hacking into the fugitives, but the cavalry pursuit could wait. The French were stumbling, discipline lost, back through the cork woods and oak trees to the town of Alba de Tormes. The battle had been fought in a huge bend of the river and Alba was the only town with a bridge that could take the French east to safety. Many men would use the fords, but most, with all the baggage, the guns, the pay chest, and the wounded, would make for the mediaeval bridge at Alba de Tormes. And there stop. The Spanish had a garrison in the town, a garrison that commanded the bridge, and the French were trapped in the great river bend. The cavalry could ride in the morning and round up the fugitives. It was a great victory.
Sharpe stared at the smoke that lay above the battlefield in long pink ribbons. He should be feeling the elation of this day. They had waited all summer for a battle, wanted it, and no one had dared hope it would be this decisive. This year they had taken Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and now they had defeated the so-called Army of Portugal. Yet Sharpe was haunted by failure. He had protected La Marquesa, who was his enemy, and he had failed to capture Leroux. He had been beaten by the Frenchman. Leroux had put Sharpe in the death room, he had broken Sharpe’s sword, and Sharpe wanted revenge. There was a man alive who could boast of beating Sharpe, and that hurt; it throbbed like the wound, and Sharpe wanted the pain to go. He was restless. He wanted one more chance to face the Kligenthal, to possess it, and he touched the hilt of his new sword as if it were a talisman. It had yet to be blooded.