Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The South Essex were piling their arms, going to the village to steal doors and furniture that could be broken into fires, and Sharpe did not want to rest. There was unfinished business, and it frustrated him because he did not see how to finish it, and he wondered if the Palacio Casares was even now being searched for Leroux. He could go back to Salamanca now, but he could not face La Marquesa.

Major Forrest walked over to Sharpe’s horse and looked up. “You look like a statue, Sharpe.” He held up a captured bottle of brandy. “Join us?”

Sharpe looked to the southern edge of the battlefield where smoke was still rising from the fight. “Do you mind if I see the end of it, sir?”

“Help yourself.” Forrest grinned at him. “Take care, I don’t want to lose you again.”

„I’ll take care, sir.“ He let the horse find its own way between the grass fires and the wounded. The sun was almost gone, already a pale moon was high in the evening sky, and he could see where the French rearguard sparkled the dusk with their muskets. A dog whimpered beside the dead body of its master, barked as Sharpe’s horse came too close, and then ran back to its vigil.

Sharpe was depressed. He had always known that he could not possess La Marquesa, yet he missed her, and he was saddened because they had both deceived, there was so much left unsaid. It too was unfinished business. He rode slowly towards the gunfire.

The last French Division had arrayed itself on a small, steep ridge that blocked the tracks into the wood. The ridge allowed six and sometimes seven ranks of men to fire at the

British, each rank firing over the heads of the ranks in front, and the twilight was stabbed by the French flames.

The Sixth Division, that had already defeated Clausel’s brave hopes, advanced against the obstacle. They had already won a great victory and now they thought that this rearguard, this impudent line, would melt before their musket fire in the dusk. The musket duel began. Line against line, and the cartridges were bitten open, the powder tipped, and the flints snapped forward, and the French line held. It fought gloriously, hopelessly, in the knowledge that if they collapsed and ran for the road that led eastwards through the woods, the cavalry would come after them. Darkness was their hope, their salvation, and the last French Division stood on their small steep ridge and they galled the Sixth Division, flayed it, and the Battalions shrunk man by man.

British artillery jangled its way over the plain, turned, and unlimbered on the Sixth Division’s flanks. The horses were led away, the guns’ trails unhooked from the limbers, and the red-bagged ammunition was piled beside the weapons. Canister. The gun-layers eyed the French line dispassionately; at this range they could not miss.

Nearly every ball from the splitting tin containers would count on the French ridge. The guns jumped backwards, smoke belching, and Sharpe saw the French fall sideways like wheat hit by buckshot. Still they fought. Fires had started in the grass, adding to the smoke, and their flames were lurid on the underside of the battle smoke that hung in skeins over the spitting muskets. The French held their place, the dead fell on the slope, the wounded struggled to keep firing. They must have been terrified, Sharpe thought as he watched them, because they knew that the battle was lost, that instead of marching to the gates of Portugal they would have a long harried retreat into Spain’s centre, yet still they fought and their discipline under the onslaught of musket and canister was awesome. They were buying time with their lives, time for their shattered companions to make their way eastwards towards the bridge at Alba de Tormes. And there, the British knew, a Spanish garrison waited to complete the destruction.

The fight could not last, whatever the bravery of the French, and the end was signalled as the Fifth Division, which had attacked the French left beside the cavalry earlier in the day, were marched onto the French rearguard’s flank. Two British Divisions fought a single French Division. More guns came in a slew of dust and chains and their canister split apart in the heart of the guns’ great flames. More fires caught in the grass, their flames throwing wavering black shadows as the twilight turned to night, and the end had to come. There was a pause in the musket fire of the Sixth, an order was repeated from Company to Company, and there was the great noise of the scraping bayonets coming from scabbards. The line flickered with reflections from the seventeen inch blades.

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