“Forward!” The last light was draining in the west over Portugal, there was a cheer from the British, the line surged forward towards the battered French, but the battle had one surprise left.
Sharpe heard the hooves behind him, and took no notice, and then the urgency of the sound, the speed of the single horse, made him turn. A lone cavalry officer, resplendent in blue and silver, his sabre drawn, was galloping at the French line. He was shouting like a maniac. “Wait! Wait!”
The Company nearest Sharpe heard the sound, checked, and a Sergeant forced a gap in the files. Officers shouted at the cavalryman, but he took no notice, just urged on his horse that was labouring with the effort, raked by spurs, and the turf flew in clods behind the hooves. “Wait! Wait!” The officer went for the gap and the French; on the ridge, were just shadows as they turned and ran for the safety of the dark woods.
The cavalryman went through the gap in the British infantry and he still screamed defiance at the French as they disappeared. He set his horse at the bank of the ridge, scrambled up, and his sabre flailed like a whip as he forced his horse after the enemy. Sharpe urged his own horse forward. The cavalryman was Lord Spears.
Spears had disappeared into the dark trees and Sharpe, pulling his clumsy sword free of the scabbard, went round the flank of the British line, in front of the silent, smoking guns, and the slope of the small ridge was horrid with French dead. Officers of the Sixth Division shouted at him, cursed him, because he was in their line of fire, but then his horse tipped over the crest and he was riding for the deep shadows. He could hear shouts ahead, then musket fire, and Sharpe ducked his head as La Marquesa’s horse went into the trees.
Spears was in a small clearing among the trees, fighting a crazy lone battle with French fugitives, and Sharpe came too late. The cavalryman had ridden the length of the clearing, chopping down with his sabre, and as Sharpe arrived he was turning the horse, hacking down, and a French Sergeant was on his other side, musket raised, and Sharpe saw the flash, saw Spears go rigid, and then the French fled into the trees. Spears’ mouth opened, silently, he seemed to shake, and then he slumped in the saddle. The sabre hung beside him, his arm limp, and he was gasping for breath.
Sharpe rode to his side. Spears’ right hand was clasped to the silver and blue of his uniform and, between the fingers, dark blood stained the cloth. He looked at Sharpe. “I was almost too late.”
“You’re a fool.”
“I know.” Spears looked past Sharpe to the three bodies he had made in the clearing. “It was good swordwork, Richard. You know that, don’t you.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Call me Jack.” Spears was fighting to control his breath. He looked disbelievingly at the blood that stained his hand and jacket. He shook his head. “Oh, God.”
Sharpe could hear the infantry of the Sixth Division coming into the trees. “Come on, my lord. A doctor.”
“No.” Spears’ eyes glistened. He blinked rapidly and seemed ashamed. “Must be the musket smoke, Richard.”
“Get me out of here.”
Sharpe sheathed his sword for the second time that day, and both times it had been unblooded, and he took the reins of Spears’ horse and led it out of the trees. He skirted the advancing infantry, not wanting to be fired on by a nervous man, and they came out onto the small ridge a hundred yards from where the last fighting of the day had happened.
“Stop here, Richard.” They were at the top of the bank. The fires and the darkness of the battlefield were spread out in front of them.
Sharpe still held the reins of Spears’ horse. “You need a doctor, my lord.”
“No.” Spears shook his head. “No, no, no. Help me down.”
Sharpe tethered both horses to a misshapen, stunted tree. Then he lifted Spears from the saddle, and laid him on the bank. He made a pillow from his own greatcoat. He could hear the Sixth Division hacking at branches with bill-hooks and bayonets, making their fires, and the battle, at last, was truly over. Sharpe opened Spears’ jacket, his shirt, and he had to tug the linen away from the wound. The bullet had driven some threads of the shirt into the chest and they stuck out, matted and obscene, like thick hairs. The hole seemed very small. Blood welled in it, glistened black in the moonlight, then spilt dark on Spears’ pale skin. Spears grimaced. “It hurts.”