Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Listen to me.” He spoke quietly. “We’re not here for heroics. It’s not our job to capture the forts, understand?” They nodded. Some grinned. “The other Light companies do that. Our job is to find one man, the man we captured. So we stay behind the attack. If we can we move to one side, out of the firing line. I don’t want casualties. Keep your heads down. It’s skirmish order all the way. If we capture the forts, then our job is to search the prisoners. Normal squads. I don’t want anyone going off on their own. There’s no bloody reward so don’t go in for heroics. And remember. This bastard killed young McDonald and he killed Colonel Windham. He’s dangerous. If you find him, or if you think you’ve found him, tie the sod up. And I’m paying ten guineas for his sword.”

“What if it’s worth more, sir?” It was Batten’s voice; the whining, grumbling, never satisfied Batten. Harper started towards him, but Sharpe held up a hand.

“It is worth more, Batten, probably twenty times more, but if you sell it to anyone else but me I’ll have you digging latrines for the rest of the bloody war. Clear?”

The others grinned. A private soldier could hardly expect to sell a valuable sword on the open market. He would be accused of stealing it, and the penalty for theft could be hanging. Some Sergeants would pay more, but not much more, and make their profit in Lisbon. Ten guineas was a big sum, more than a year’s wages after deductions and the Company knew it was a fair offer. Sharpe raised his voice again. “No bayonets. Load, but flints down. We don’t want them knowing we’re coming. One musket banging off and they’ll be giving us canister for supper.” He nodded at Harper. “Right turn, you know where we’re going.”

Harper kept his voice low. “Right turn!”

“Captain Sharpe!” It was Major Hogan, hurrying towards the main battery where the eighteen pounders sounded.

“Sir!” Sharpe snapped to attention, saluted. In front of the Company they were formal, correct.

“Good luck!” Hogan grinned at the men. They knew him well, the Riflemen had spent weeks with him before they were forcibly joined to the South Essex, the redcoats remembered him from Badajoz or nights when he had come to seek Sharpe’s companionship. The Irish Major looked at Sharpe, turned his back to the men, and made a resigned gesture. “Good luck to you.”

“Not good?”

“No.” Hogan sniffed. “Some idiot messed up the ammunition supply. We’ve got about fifteen rounds for each gun! What the hell use is that?”

Sharpe knew he meant the big eighteen pounders. “What about the howitzers?”

Hogan had taken out his snuff box and Sharpe waited while the Major inhaled his usual huge pinch. He sneezed. “God and his Angels!” He sneezed again. “Bloody howitzers! They’re not denting the bloody place! A hundred and sixty rounds for six guns. It’s no way to run a war!”

“You’re not hopeful.”

“Hopeful?” Hogan waited as an eighteen pounder fired one of its precious, dwindling ammunition stock. “No. But we’ve persuaded the Peer to attack just the centre fort. We’re firing at that.”

“The San Cayetano?”

Hogan nodded. “If we can grab that, then we can build our own batteries there and hammer the others.” He shrugged. “Surprise is everything, Richard. If they don’t expect us…‘ He shrugged again.

“Leroux may not be in the San Cayetano.”

“He probably isn’t. He’s probably in the big one. But you never know. They may all surrender if the middle one falls.”

Sharpe reflected that it could be a long night. If the other forts did decide that resistance was futile then the surrender negotiations could take hours. There were, he guessed, a thousand men in the three garrisons and they would be difficult to search in the darkness. He glanced ruefully at the Palacio Casares behind him. There was a chance, a good chance, that he would never manage to arrive on time. Hogan caught the glance. “You invited?”

“To the celebration? Yes.”

“So’s the whole damned town. I just hope there’s something to celebrate.”

Sharpe grinned. “We’ll surprise them.” He looked round to see his Company being marched into an alleyway and he gestured at their backs. “I must go.”

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