Three hundred and fifty men, the Light Companies of two brigades of the Sixth Division, were crammed into a street that ran behind the houses facing the wasteland. It was the closest cover to the centre fort, the San Cayetano, but no one, apart from a handful of officers, was allowed to look at the ground they had to cover. Surprise was everything. There were twenty ladders, each surrounded by its carrying party, and they would be the first to rush the two hundred yards towards the fort’s ditch. They would jump into the excavation and then put the ladders against the palisade.
Sharpe could hear the crack of rifles, startling the swallows who flew in the dusk. Riflemen had surrounded the forts for the six days since the army had entered Salamanca, living uncomfortably in shallow pits of the waste ground, sniping at the French embrasures. The evening sounded normal. The French could not have detected anything unusual in the rhythm of the siege. The big guns fired intermittently, the rifles cracked, and as the light faded so did the sound of the firing. It would seem, Sharpe hoped, a peaceful night in the three forts built on the hill above the slow-sliding river Tormes.
A big Sergeant with a scarred face tugged at a rung of one of the ladders. It bent, fractured, and the Sergeant spat moodily against a wall. “Bloody green wood!”
Harper was loading his seven-barrelled gun, carefully measuring powder from his Rifleman’s horn. He grinned up at Sharpe. “Met that Irish priest while you were chatting with the Major, sir. Wished us luck.”
“Curtis? How the hell does he know? I thought this was secret.”
Harper shrugged, then tapped the butt of the huge gun on the ground. “Probably saw this lot march in, sir.” He jerked his head at the Light Companies. “Don’t exactly look as if they’ve come for a Regimental dance.”
Sharpe sat and waited, head back against the wall, the loaded rifle between his knees. It seemed strange, on this perfect summer’s evening, the light fading into translucent grey, to think of the vast, secret war that shadowed the war of guns and swords. How had the priest known this attack was to take place tonight? Were there French spies in Salamanca who also knew? Who might have already warned the fortresses? Sharpe supposed there might be. It was possible that the French were ready, eagerly awaiting the first attack that they would shred with canister.
Sharpe had only seen one French spy. He had been a small Spaniard, jolly and generous, who had purported to be a lemonade seller outside Fuentes d’Onoro. He proved to be a Corporal in one of the Spanish Regiments that fought for the French and Sharpe had watched the man hung. He had died with dignity, a smile on his lips, and Sharpe wondered what bravery it took to be such a man. El Mirador, Sharpe supposed, had that bravery. He had lived in Salamanca, under French occupation, and still he had sent his stream of intelligence towards the British forces in Portugal. Tonight Sharpe was fighting for that brave man, for El Mirador, and he looked up at the fading light and knew that the attack must come soon.
“Sharpe?” A senior officer was looking at him. Sharpe struggled to his feet and saluted.
“Brigadier General Bowes. I’m in command tonight, but I gather you have your own orders?” Sharpe nodded. Bowes looked curiously at the strange figure, dressed half as an officer and half as a Rifleman. The Brigadier seemed satisfied. “Glad you’re with us, Sharpe.”
“Thank you, sir. I hope we can be useful.”
Bowes gestured abruptly towards the hidden fort. “There’s a crude trench for the first seventy yards. That’ll cover us. After that it’s up to God.” He looked with frank admiration at the wreath on Sharpe’s sleeve. “You’ve done this sort of thing before.”
“This won’t be as bad.” Bowes moved on. The attackers were standing up, straightening their jackets, obsessively checking the last few details before the fight. Some touched their private talismans, some crossed themselves, and most wore the look of forced cheerfulness that hid the fear.