Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Yes, sir.” Price was coated with sweat-streaked dust.

Harper came with Sharpe, but no one else, and for the fourth time they climbed the ravine and the two tall Riflemen walked slowly towards the first fort to fall. Sergeant McGovern had seen nothing. His men had searched the building again, but he swore it was empty, and Sharpe nodded. “Go back to Lieutenant Price, Mac. Send a man to bring Sergeant Huckfield back.”

La Merced had received very little of the bombardment and there were no corpses in the smallest fort, so the only hope left was the dead in the San Cayetano. Sharpe and Harper went slowly into the ghastly courtyard and looked at the grisly pile. There was nothing for it but to search.

The corpses lolled unnaturally after they had been raked down from the stack. Sharpe looked at each face, and each was a stranger, and then he went up to one of the less damaged parapets and stared with Harper across the river. The clean, green hills were pale in the sunlight. He looked at his hands, stained with the dirt and blood of death, and swore long and foully.

Harper offered his canteen and said nothing. He knew what Sharpe was thinking; that the Light Company had pulled an easy duty, a detachment that had given them days by the river and nights in wine shops, and in return they had failed in the one thing they had been asked to do.

Huckfield’s men filed beneath the parapet and the Sergeant looked up at Sharpe and offered help. Sharpe shook his head. “There’s nothing here! Go on. We’ll join you in a minute.”

“What now, sir?” Harper sat on the parapet.

“I don’t know.” He glanced at the small fort, La Merced, and wondered if he should search it again, but he knew it was empty. He could wait for the fires to burn down in the San Vincente and then rake through the ashes looking for a body. By God! He would do it! And he would pull the damned convents down, stone by bloody stone, until he had found the Frenchman. His new shirt was stained and stinking, glued to his chest with sweat. He thought of La Marquesa, of the coolness of her rooms, of the bath that waited for him and the chilled wine on the mirador. He shook his head. „He can’t have escaped. He can’t!“

“He did before.” Harper offered cold comfort.

Sharpe thought of La Marquesa’s silk smooth skin ripped from her body, inch by inch, and the thought of Leroux torturing her made him shut his eyes.

Harper swilled his mouth with water and spat it into the ditch. “We can search again, sir.”

“No, Patrick. It’s no damned good.” He stood up and walked wearily down the steps into the courtyard. He hated to admit failure, but he did not think another search would reveal anything. He stopped, waiting for Harper, and stared at a French corpse that had been disembowelled. The man was naked, his wound had laid him open so that his spine was visible through his stomach, but Sharpe was not seeing anything. He was just staring, his thoughts hammering at him. Harper saw the stare and looked himself at the corpse.

“Funny, that.”

“What?” Sharpe was startled from his reverie.

Harper nodded at the corpse. “That other poor bugger was gutted, just like that. Except the other one lived.”

“Yes.” Sharpe shrugged. “Funny things, wounds. Remember Major Collett? Not a mark on him. Other poor bastards live with half their stuffing taken out.” He was making conversation, trying to hide his disappointment. He moved away, but Harper still stared at the corpse. “You coming? Patrick?”

Harper crouched and batted at the flies with a hand. “Sir?” His voice was worried. “Would you say this one had his full kit, sir? I know he’s a bloody mess, so he is, but…‘

“Oh God in heaven! Christ!” Sharpe knew that the corpse’s guts could have been lost in an explosion, they could have been tossed to the stray dogs that scavenged the wasteland at night, or they could have been scooped out to make the perfect disguise. “Oh Christ!”

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