Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“You can take mine. Ride her easy!” Leroy opened his pouch and took out a folded piece of paper. “Here’s Captain Delmas’s parole. You give that to the Officer of the Day at Headquarters, understand?”

“Yes, sir.” McDonald was excited.

Leroy gave the Ensign a leg up onto the horse. “You know where Headquarters is?”

“No, sir.”

“Nor does anyone.” Windham grumbled. He pointed south. “Go that way till you find the army, then go east till you find Headquarters. I want you back here by dusk and if Wellington asks you to dinner, say you’re spoken for.”

“Yes, sir.” McDonald grinned delightedly. “Do you think he might, sir?”

“Get away with you!” Windham acknowledged Delmas’s salute. The Frenchman turned once more to look at Salamanca, staring intently as though looking to see if any British troops had yet made their journey back from the fords and were entering the city streets. Then the pale eyes turned to Sharpe. Delmas smiled. “Au revoir, M’sieur.”

Sharpe smiled back. “I hope your mother’s pox gets better.”

Windham bristled. “Damned unnecessary, Sharpe! Fellow was perfectly pleasant! French, of course, but pleasant.”

Delmas trotted obediently behind the sixteen year old Ensign and Sharpe watched them go before turning back to the gorgeous city across the river. Salamanca. It would be the first bloodless victory of Wellington’s summer campaign, and then Sharpe remembered it would not be quite bloodless. The makeshift fortresses left in the city would have to be reduced so that Wellington could pour his supplies and reinforcements across the long Roman bridge. The city of gold would have to be fought for so that the bridge, built so long ago by the Romans, could help a new army in a modern war.

Sharpe wondered that a bridge so old still stood. The parapets of the roadway were crenellated, like a castle wall, and almost in the centre of the bridge was a handsome small fortress arched above the road. The French had not garrisoned the tiny fort, leaving it in the possession of a statue of a bull. Colonel Windham also stared at the bridge and shook his head. “Bloody awful, eh Sharpe?”

“Awful, sir?”

“More damned arches than bones in a rabbit! An English bridge would be just two arches, ain’t I right? Not all that waste of damned good stone! Still, I suppose the Spanish thought they were bloody clever just to get it across, what?”

Leroy, his face still terribly scarred from Badajoz, answered in his laconic voice. “The Romans built it, sir.”

“The Romans!” Windham grinned happily. “Every damned bridge in this country was built by the Romans. If they hadn’t been here the Spanish would probably never cross a river!” He laughed at the idea. “Good, that! I must write it home to Jessica.” He let his reins drop onto his horse’s neck. “Waste of time this. No damn frogs are going to try and cross the bridge. Still, I suppose the lads could do with a rest.” He yawned, then looked at Sharpe. “Your Company can keep an eye on things, Sharpe.”

Sharpe did not answer. The Colonel frowned. “Sharpe?”

But Sharpe was turning away from the Colonel, unslinging his rifle. “Light Company!”

By God! And wasn’t instinct always right? Sharpe was pulling back the flint of his rifle, moving ahead of Windham’s horse while to his right, down in the small valley which approached the southern end of the bridge was Delmas.

Sharpe had seen the movement in the corner of his eye and then, in a moment of shock, recognised the baggy pantaloons, the brass helmet, and only a rifle could stop the Frenchman now. Only a rifle had the range to kill the fugitive whom Sharpe’s instincts had said not to trust. Damn the parole!

“Good God!” Colonel Windham saw Delmas. “Good God! His parole! God damn him!”

God might well damn Delmas, but only a Rifleman could stop him reaching the bridge and the safety of the French forts on the far side. Delmas, low on his horse’s neck, was a hundred yards from the Riflemen, with the same distance to go to the bridge entrance. Sharpe aimed for the big horse, leading the galloping beast with his foresight, tightening his finger on the trigger and then his view was blocked by Colonel Windham’s horse.

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