Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The attackers had gone to ground, defeated, and the French jeered at them, shouted insults, and the cannon fire died away.

There were no more men to throw into the attack, except Sharpe’s Company and he was not going to sacrifice them to the gunners. At Badajoz the army had gone on attacking, again and again into worse fire than this, in a smaller space, until it had seemed to Sharpe that all the canister in all the world could not go on killing the stream of men that had poured at the breaches. This attack had started with three hundred and fifty men, and there were no more. It was done.

The cannon smoke turned the dusk into false night and the French threw a lighted carcass, packed straw soaked with oil and bound in canvas, over their parapet. Shouts came from the wasteland. “Back! Back!”

Some men risked the fire, stood up, and ran. The French stayed silent. More men plucked up courage and the survivors, bit by bit, began their retreat. Still the French held their fire, happy that the British had given up, and men stopped to pick up their wounded. Sharpe looked at his Riflemen. “Back you go, lads.”

They were silent, depressed. They were used to victory, not defeat, but Sharpe knew they had been betrayed. He looked at Harper. “They knew we were coming.”

“Like as not.” The huge Irishman was easing the flint of his rifle, unfired, into the safe position. “They had the guns double-loaded. They knew.”

“I’d like to get the bastard who told them.”

Harper did not reply. He gestured ahead of them and Sharpe saw a man, staggering in the rubble, coming towards them. He had the red facings of the 53rd, the Shropshires, and his face was the colour of his uniform. Sharpe stood up, slung his rifle, and called to the man. “Here! Over here!”

The man seemed not to hear. He was walking, almost drunkenly, weaving on the stones, and Sharpe and Harper ran towards him. The man was moaning. Blood poured from his skull. “I can’t see!”

“You’ll be all right!” Sharpe could not see the man’s face through the blood. His hands, musket discarded, were clutched at his stomach. He seemed to hear Sharpe, the blood-soaked head quested towards the sound, and then he fell into Sharpe’s-arms. The hands came away and blood pumped onto Sharpe’s jacket and overalls. “It’s all right, lad, it’s all right!”

They laid him down and the man began to choke. Harper twisted his torso over, cleared the man’s throat with his finger, and shook his head at Sharpe. The Shropshire man vomited blood, moaned, and muttered again that he could not see. Sharpe undid his canteen, poured water on his eyes, and the blood, soaked there from a canister wound on his forehead, cleared slowly away. “You’ll be all right!”

The eyes opened, then shut immediately as a pain spasm shook him and blood seemed to well from his midriff. Harper tore at the man’s uniform. “God save Ireland!” It was a miracle he was still alive.

“Here!” Sharpe undid his officer’s sash, handed it across, and Harper pushed it beneath the body, caught the end, and tied it as a crude bandage round the horrid wound. He looked at Sharpe. “Head or legs?”


He took the man’s ankles, they lifted him, and struggled with the burden back towards the houses. Other men were limping on the stones. The French were silent.

They put the man down in the street, full now once again with men, and Sharpe bellowed for bandsmen. The soldier was fighting for his life, the air scraping in his throat, and it seemed impossible that he could survive the wounds. Sharpe shouted again. “Bandsmen!”

An officer, his uniform unstained by dust or blood, his red facings and gold lace new and pristine, looked past Sharpe. “Dale. No musket.” He was dictating to a bespectacled clerk.

“What?” Sharpe turned and looked at the Lieutenant. Harper raised his eyes to heaven, then looked at Sergeant McGovern. The two Sergeants grinned. They knew Sharpe and knew his anger.

“Equipment check.” The Lieutenant looked at Sharpe’s rifle, then at the great sword, then at the Rifleman’s shoulder. “If you’ll excuse me, sir.”

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