Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“As well as the good Lord permits. Yourself?”

“Bored with this waiting. Why doesn’t the bastard attack?” Sharpe looked at his Company, most of whom dozed in the sun as did the men of the South Essex’s other nine companies. A few officers strolled in front of the somnolent lines. The whole British army seemed asleep, except for a few sentries on the skyline.

Major Hogan, his grey moustache stained yellow by the snuff to which he was addicted, looked Sharpe up and down. “You’re looking well. I hope you are because I might need you.”

“Need me?” Sharpe was putting on his black shako, picking up rifle and sword. “What for?”

“Come for a walk.” Hogan took Sharpe’s elbow for a second and steered him away from the Light Company up the long slope that led to the ridge-crest. “You have news of Colonel Leroux for me?”

“Leroux?” For a brief moment Sharpe was lost. The events of Salamanca seemed so long ago, even far away, and his mind at this moment was concerned with the battle that would be fought for the San Christobal Ridge. He was thinking of skirmishers, of Riflemen, not about the tall, pale-eyed French Colonel who was in the city’s fortresses. Hogan frowned.

“You met him?”

“Yes.” Sharpe laughed ruefully. “I met the bastard.” He told Hogan about the capture of the Dragoon officer, of the parole, of the man’s escape, and finally how he had chased him up the hill. Hogan listened intently.

“You’re certain?”

“That he’s in the forts? Yes.”

“Truly?” Hogan had stopped, was staring hard at Sharpe. “You’re really certain?”

“I saw him climb in. He’s there.”

Hogan said nothing as they finished the climb to the ridge top. They stood there, where the ground dropped steeply away to the great plain where the French were gathered. Sharpe could see an ammunition tumbril coming forward to the closest battery and he had to fight back the thought that his own death might be on that cart.

Hogan sighed. “God damn it, but I wish you’d killed him.”

“So do I.”

Hogan stared, Sharpe suspected without seeing, at the French army. The Major was thoughtful, worried even, and Sharpe waited as he took from his pocket a scrap of paper. Hogan thrust it at Sharpe. “I’ve carried that for two months.”

The paper meant nothing to Sharpe. It had groups of numbers written like words in a short paragraph. Hogan smiled wryly. “It’s a French code, Richard, a very special code indeed.” He took the paper back from Sharpe. “We have a fellow who can read these codes, a Captain Scovell, and damned clever he is too.” Sharpe wondered what the story was behind the scrap of paper. A French messenger ambushed by Partisans? Or one of the Spaniards who tried to smuggle messages through hostile territory, the paper hidden in a boot-heel or hollow stick, a man captured and killed so that this piece of paper could reach Hogan? The French, Sharpe knew, would send four or five identical messages because they knew that most would be intercepted and delivered to the British.

Hogan stared at the numbers. “It’s one thing to decode these messages, Richard, it’s another to understand them. This one’s the Emperor’s own code! How about that?” He smiled in understandable triumph at Scovell’s victory. “It was sent from the man himself to Marshal Marmont and I’ll tell you what it says.” He read from the numbers as if they were words.“ ”I send you Colonel Leroux, my own man, who works for me. You are to afford him whatever he requests.“ That’s all, Richard! I can read it, but I can’t understand it. I know that a Colonel Leroux is here to do a special job, a job for the Emperor himself, but what’s the job? Then I hear more things. Some Spaniards have been tortured, skinned alive, and the bastard signed them with his name. Why?” Hogan folded the paper. “There was something else. Leroux got Colquhoun Grant.”

That shocked Sharpe. “Killed him?”

“No, captured him. We’re not exactly trumpeting that failure about.”

Sharpe could understand Hogan’s misery. Colquhoun Grant was the best of the British Exploring Officers, a colleague of Lord Spears who rode brazenly on the flanks of the French forces. Grant was a severe loss to Hogan, and a triumph for the French.

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