Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Bowes clapped his hands. He was a short man, built strongly and he climbed on a mounting block set beside one of the houses. “Remember, lads! Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” This was the Sixth Division’s first battle in Spain and the men listened eagerly, wanting to impress the rest of the army. “Ladders first. After me!”

Sharpe cautioned his own men to wait. Harper would lead the first squad, then Lieutenant Price, while Sergeant McGovern and Sergeant Huckfield had the others. He grinned at them. Huckfield was new to the Company, since Badajoz, promoted from one of the other companies. Sharpe remembered when, as a private, Huckfield had tried to lead the mutiny before Talavera. Huckfield owed his life to Sharpe, but the bargain had been good. He was a conscientious, solid man, good with figures and the Company books, and the memory of that distant day, three years before, when Huckfield had nearly led the Battalion into mutiny was faded and unreal.

The street emptied, the attackers filing into the wasteland, and Sharpe still waited. He did not want his Company mixed with the others. He almost held his breath, listening for the first shot, but the night was silent. “All right, lads. Keep yourselves quiet.”

He went first, through the passage between the houses, and the ground dropped into a steep pit that had been made when the sappers threw up one of the flanking batteries. The nine-pounders were silent behind their fascines.

He could see the other companies ahead, crammed into the shallow trench. It had not been made for the attack, instead it was the remnants of a small street and it gave cover because the destroyed houses either side were banks of rubble. He dared not raise his head to look at the San Cayetano. There was a hope that the French were dozing, not expecting trouble, but he had no reason to suppose that their sentries would be any the less watchful because the night was quiet.

A ladder, far ahead, banged on rubble and there was the sound of loose stones falling. He froze, his senses acute for an enemy reaction, but still the night was quiet. There was a soft background noise, unceasing, and he realised it was the wash of water against the piles of the bridge arches. An owl sounded, south of the river. The light was pearl grey, the west soaked in crimson, the air warm after the day’s heat. The people of Salamanca, he knew, would be walking the stately circles in the great Plaza, sipping wine and brandy, and it would be a night of rich beauty in the city. Wellington was waiting, fearing surprise was lost, and Sharpe suddenly thought of La Marquesa, up on her roof or balcony, staring at the darkening shadows of the wasteland. A bell struck the half-hour past nine.

He heard a scraping and clicking ahead and knew that the attackers were fixing bayonets ready to run from the cover and rush the jumbled waste ground towards the San Cayetano. Lieutenant Price caught Sharpe’s eye and gestured at one of his men’s bayonets. Sharpe shook his head. He did not want the blades to betray the position of his company, far back, and they had no business, anyway, in attacking the fort.

“Go!” Bowes’ voice broke the silence, there was a scramble of feet and the sunken road ahead of Sharpe heaved with bodies that clambered over and through the rubble. This was the moment of danger, the first appearance, for if the French were ready, expecting them, the guns would fire now and decimate the attack.

They fired.

They were small guns in the forts, some were old and captured four pounders, but even a small gun, loaded with canister, can destroy an attack. Sharpe knew the figures well enough. A four pound canister was a tin can, packed with balls, sixty or eighty to a can, and when it was fired the tin burst apart at the gun’s muzzle and the balls spread, like duckshot, in a widening cone. Three hundred yards from the muzzle the cone would be ninety feet across, good odds for a single man in the line of fire, but not if several guns’ cones intersected. The San Cayetano, ahead of the attack, had only four guns, but the San Vincente, across the gorge, the biggest fort, could bring twenty to bear on the flank of the British attack.

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