Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

They all expected a battle. The French had been manoeuvred out of Salamanca, but Marmont had left the garrisons behind in the three fortresses, and it was obvious to even the least soldier that once the French Marshal had been reinforced from the north then he would come back to rescue his men trapped in the city. The British waited for him, hoping he would attack the great ridge that barred the road to the city, the ridge behind which Sharpe reunited his men with the South Essex.

McDonald was dead, buried already, killed by a thrust of Leroux’s sword between his ribs. Major Forrest, in temporary command after the death of Windham, shook his head sorrowfully. “I’m truly sorry about the boy, Richard.”

“I know, sir.” Sharpe had hardly had time to know the Ensign. “You’ll want me to write to his parents?”

“Would you? I’ve written to Windham’s wife.” Forrest was shaving from a canvas bucket. “A letter seems so inadequate. Oh dear.” Forrest was a kind man, even a meek man, and he was ill-suited to the trade of warfare. He smiled at Sharpe. “I’m glad you’re back, Richard.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharpe grinned. “Look at that.”

Isabella, small and plump, was brushing at Harper’s jacket even as she welcomed him tearfully. The whole Battalion was bivouacked on the grassland, their wives and children in attendance, and as far as Sharpe could see, east and west, other Battalions waited behind the ridge. He walked up to the crest and stared north at the great plain that was bright with poppies and cornflowers. It was over those flowers, over the sun-bleached grass, that the enemy would come. They would come to crush the one army that Britain had in Spain, one army against five French, and Sharpe stared at the heat-blurred horizon and watched for the tell-tale spark of light reflected from sword or helmet that would say the enemy was coming to do battle.

They did not come that day, nor the next, and as the hours passed so Sharpe began to forget the events of Salamanca. Colonel Leroux lost his importance, even the golden haired Marquesa became a remote dream. Sharpe did his job as Company Commander and he filled his time with the day to day rhythm of soldiering. The books had to be kept up to date, there were punishments to mete out, rewards to be given, quarrels to ease, and always the business of keeping bored men up to their highest standard. He forgot Leroux, he forgot La Marquesa, and on the third day on the San Christobal Ridge he had good reason to forget.

It was a perfect day, the kind of summer’s day that a child might remember for ever, a day when the sun shone from a burnished sky and spilt light on the poppies and cornflowers that were spread so lavishly in the ripening wheat. A small breeze stole the venom of the sun and rippled the crops, and onto that perfect stage, that setting of gold, red and blue, came the army of the enemy.

It seemed almost a miracle. An army marched on dozens of roads, its flanks far from each other, and in a summer’s campaign it was usual for a man never to see more than a half dozen other Regiments. Yet suddenly, at the order of a general, the scattered units were drawn together, brought into one great array ready for battle and Sharpe, high on the wind-cooled ridge, watched Marmont perform the miracle.

The cavalry came first, their breastplates and sword blades reflecting the sun in savage flashes at the watching British. Their horses left trampled paths in the flower-strewn wheat.

The infantry were behind, snakes of blue-jacketed men who seemed to fill the plain, spreading east and west, and among them were the guns. The French artillery, Napoleon’s own trade, who made their batteries in full view of the ridge and lifted the burning barrels from the travelling position to the fighting position. Major Forrest, watching with his officers, grinned. “There’s enough of them.”

There usually are, sir,“ Sharpe said.

Hussars, Dragoons, Lancers, Cuiraisseurs, Chasseurs, Guardsmen, Grenadiers, Voltigeurs, Tirailleurs, Infantry, Artillery, Bandsmen, Engineers, Ambulance men, Drivers, Staff, all of them pulled by the beat of the drum to this place where they became an army. Fifty thousand men brought to this patch of land half the size of a country parish, a patch of land that might become well-manured with their blood. The Spanish farmers said the crops grew twice as well the year after a battle.

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