All that Sharpe saw in a few seconds, because it was his trade to see ground and understand its use for killing men, and he knew, too, that if he had deceived La Marquesa then this would be the killing ground. Some men had already died here. In the wide valley between the British ridge and the French escarpment, Riflemen were fighting a desultory battle with French skirmishers. The Rifles had pushed the enemy back to the very crest of the escarpment, killing a handful, but no one was taking that battle very seriously. The second outbreak of fighting was serious. Portuguese troops had been sent to take the Greater Arapile, out in the plain, and the French infantry raced them to its summit, then poured musket fire down the precipitous slope and so the Portuguese had failed. The French had taken one of the two gun platforms that dominated the killing ground and already Sharpe could see French cannon on its summit. Two British guns sat silent on the Lesser Arapile. Their crews let their uniforms dry off from the night’s rain and they wondered what the day would bring. Probably, they thought, another desperate, scrambling march to get away from the French. They wanted to fight, but too many days of this campaign had ended in despondent retreat.
He rode close to the small farmhouse that was built at the southern end of the ridge crest. It was busy with staffofficers and Sharpe stopped the horse and slid uncomfortably to the ground. A voice made him turn round. “Richard! Richard!”
Hogan walked towards him with his arms outstretched, almost as if he wanted to embrace Sharpe. The Major stopped, shook his head. “I never thought to see you again.” He took Sharpe’s hand and pumped it up and down. “Back from the dead! You look better. How is the wound?”
“The doctors say a month, sir.”
Hogan beamed in delight. “I thought you were dead! And when we took you from that cellar.” He shook his head. „How do you feel?“
“Half strong.” Sharpe was embarrased by Hogan’s pleasure. “And you, sir?”
“I’m well. It is good to see you, it is.” He looked at the horse and his eyes widened in surprise. “You’ve come into money?”
“It’s a gift, sir.”
Hogan, who loved horses, peeled back the stallion’s lips to look at its teeth. He felt its legs, its stomach, and his voice was filled with admiration. “He’s a beauty. A gift?”
“From La Marquesa de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba.”
“Oh.” Hogan reddened. “Ah.” He patted the stallion’s neck, glanced at Sharpe. “I’m sorry about that, Richard.”
“Why? I suppose I made a fool of myself.”
“I wish I could with her.” Hogan grinned. “Did you tell her?”
“And she believed you?”
Hogan smiled. “Good, good.” He could not resist his pleasure. He danced a few ludicrous jig steps on the grass and beamed at Sharpe. “Oh good! We must tell the Peer. Have you had breakfast?”
“Then have more! I’ll have my servant stable your horse.” He stopped and looked at Sharpe. “Was it hard?”
Hogan shrugged. “I’m sorry. But if it works, Richard…‘
If it worked there would be a battle. The great drying plain south of the village, around the hills, would become a killing ground, spawned in a dark night of thunder, betrayal, and love. Sharpe went for more breakfast.
The sun rose higher, its heat stronger, and it dried the killing ground and baked the rocks till they could not be touched. It hazed the horizon and made the air shimmer above the flat rock summits of the two Arapile hills. The gunners spat on the barrels of their cannon and watched the spittle hiss and boil away, and that was before the guns fired. Insects were busy in the grass and wheat, butterflies flickered above the poppies and cornflowers, and the last ragged clouds of the rainstorm died and disappeared. The land crouched beneath the heat and it was seemingly empty. From the ridge or the escarpment, from any of the hills, a man could not see more than one hundredth of the hundred thousand men who had gathered at the Arapiles that day. Wednesday, July 22nd, 1812.