The Espiritu Santa's crew, like their Captain, were eager to meet Lord Cochrane. They called him a devil, and crossed themselves when they spoke of him, yet they reckoned they could match this devil gun for gun and cutlass for cutlass and still beat him hollow. The crew might grumble when they were woken to an unexpected gun practice, or to rehearse repeling boarders, but they boasted of what their hardened skills would do to the devilish Cochrane if he dared attack the Espiritu Santo. They also boasted of the prize money they would win. Cochrane had captured his fifty-gun flagship, now called the O'Higgins, from the Spanish Navy which, stung by the defeat, had promised a fortune to whichever ship recaptured the lost vessel. Ardiles's men wanted that prize, and were willing to sweat as they practiced for it. Sharpe and Harper, deemed to be unskilled men, were allocated pikes and told that their job would be to stand on deck and be prepared to kill any man foolhardy enough to board the frigate. "Though perhaps it would be better if you did not carry weapons at all?" Captain Ardiles suggested when he heard that Sharpe and Harper were expected to be among the pikemen.
Ardiles, who was so reluctant to show himself to his passengers, proved to be a frequent visitor to the lower decks. He liked to inspect the guns and to smell the powder smoke which soured the ship with its stench after every practice session. He liked to talk with his men, who returned his interest with a genuine loyalty and devotion. Ardiles, the crew told Sharpe and Harper, was a proper seaman, not some gold-assed officer too high and mighty to duck his head under the beams of the lowest decks.
Ardiles, on one of his very first tours of inspection of the voyage, had taken Sharpe and Harper aside. "I hear you made your mark?" he asked drily.
"You mean Balin?" Sharpe asked.
"I do indeed, so watch your backs in a fight." Ardiles did not seem in the least upset that one of his prime seamen had been hammered, but he warned Sharpe and Harper that others on board might not be so sanguine. "Balin's a popular man, and he may have put a price on your heads." It was just after delivering that warning that Ardiles had wondered aloud whether Sharpe and Harper could be trusted to carry weapons in any fight against Lord Cochrane.
Sharpe ignored the question and Ardiles, who seemed amused at Sharpe's silent equivocation, perched himself on one of the tables that folded down between the guns. "Not that it's very likely your loyalty will be put to the test," Ardiles went on. "Cochrane doesn't usually sail this far south, so every hour makes it less likely that we'll meet him. Nevertheless, there's hope. We've assiduously spread rumors about gold, hoping to attract his attention."
"You mean there isn't gold on board?" Sharpe asked in astonishment.
"Sir," Ardiles chided Sharpe softly. So far the Spanish Captain had allowed Sharpe to treat him with a scant respect, but now he suddenly insisted on being addressed properly. Sharpe, prickly with hurt pride, did not instantly respond and Ardiles shrugged, as though the use of the honorific did not really matter to him personally, even though he was going to insist on it. "You've been a commanding officer, Sharpe," Ardiles spoke softly so that only Sharpe and Harper could hear him, "and you would have demanded the respect of your men, even those who were reluctant to be under your authority, and I demand the same. You might be a Lieutenant-Colonel on land, but here you're an unskilled seaman and I can have respect thrashed into you at a rope's end. Unlike General Bautista I'm not fond of witnessing punishment, so I'd rather you volunteered the word."
"Sir," Sharpe said.
Ardiles nodded acknowledgment of the reluctant courtesy. "No, there isn't gold on board. Any gold that we might have been taking home has probably been stolen by Bautista, but we went through the routine of loading boxes filled with rock from the citadel's wharf. I just hope that charade and the rumors it undoubtedly encouraged are sufficient to persuade Cochrane that we are stuffed with riches, for then he might come south and fight us. We hear that the rebel government owes him money. Much money! So perhaps he'll try to collect it from me. I'd like that. We'd all like that, wouldn't we?" Ardiles turned and asked the question of his crewmen who, hanging back in the gundeck's gloom, now cheered their Captain.
Ardiles, pleased with their enthusiasm, slid his rump off the table, then went back to his earlier question. "So can you be trusted, Sharpe?"
"What I was hoping for, sir," Sharpe did not reply directly, "was that you might put me aboard a fishing boat?" The Espiritu Santo had passed a score of boats that had come far out to sea to search for big tunny fish, and Sharpe had concocted the idea that perhaps one of the boats might carry him back to Chile where, in alliance with the rebels, he might yet retrieve Dona Louisa's money, exhume Bias Vivar's body and restore his own pride.
"No," Ardiles said calmly, "I won't. I have orders to take you back to Europe, and I am a man who obeys orders. But are you? Whose side will you be on if we meet Cochrane?"
This time Sharpe did not hesitate. "Cochrane's side," he paused, "sir."
Ardiles was immediately and understandably hostile. "Then you must take the consequences if there's a fight, mustn't you?" He stalked away.
"What does that mean?" Harper said.
"It means that if we sight Lord Cochrane then he'll send Balin and his cronies to slit our throats."
Next day there were no more fishing boats, just an empty ocean and a succession of thrashing squalls. Sharpe, under the immense vacancy of sea and sky, felt all hope slide away. He had lost his uniform and sword; things of no value except to himself, but their loss galled him. He had lost Louisa's money. He had been humiliated and there was nothing he could do about it. He had been fleeced, then ignominiously kicked out of a country with only the clothes on his back. He felt heartsick. He was not used to failure.
But at least he was accustomed to hardship, and had no fears about surviving on board the Espiritu Santo. The hard bread, salted meat, dried fish and rancid wine that were the seamen's rations would have been counted luxuries in Sharpe's army. The worst part of the life, apart from the damp which permeated every stitch of clothing and bedding, were the Bosun's mates who, knowing that Sharpe had been a senior army officer, seemed to find a particular pleasure in finding him the dirtiest and most menial jobs on board. Sharpe and Harper mucked out the sheep and pigs that would be slaughtered for fresh meat during the voyage, they scrubbed the poopdeck each morning, they ground the rust off the blades of the boarding pikes that were racked on deck, and each afternoon they collected the latrine buckets from the passenger cabins and scoured them clean. Among the score of passengers aboard the frigate were seven Spanish army officers, two of whom were sailing with their families, and those army officers, knowing Sharpe's history, stared at him with frank curiosity. It was, Sharpe thought, going to be a long voyage home.
Yet, like most ordeals, it abated swiftly. The humiliated Balin might bear a grudge, but Harper inevitably discovered a score of fellow Irishmen aboard the Espiritu Santo, all of them exiles from British justice, and all of them eager to hear Harper's news of home, and Sharpe, given temporary and flattering status as an honorary Irishman, felt a good deal safer from the Balin faction. One of the Bosun's mates was from Donegal and his presence took much of the sting out of Sharpe's treatment. A week into the voyage and Sharpe was even beginning to enjoy the experience.
The next dawn brought proof that the sea could throw up hardships far worse than anything yet inflicted on Sharpe and Harper. They were scrubbing the poopdeck when the forward lookout hailed the quarterdeck with a cry that a boat was in sight. Ardiles ran on deck and seized the watch officer's telescope, while the First Lieutenant, Otero, who remembered Sharpe and Harper well from the outward voyage, and who was excruciatingly embarrassed by their change of fortune, climbed to the lookout's post on the foremast from where he trained his own telescope forward.
"What is she?" Ardiles called.
"A wreck, sir! A dismasted whaler, by the look of her."
"Goddamn." Ardiles had been hoping it would prove to be the O'Higgins. "Change course to take a look at her, then call me when we're closer!" Ardiles muttered the instruction to the officer on watch, then, before taking refuge in his cabin, he glowered at the handful of passengers who had come on deck to see what had caused the sudden alarm.
Among the spectators were two army officers' wives who were standing at the weather rail to stare at the stricken whaler. Their excited children ran from one side of the deck to the other, playing an involved game of tag. One of the small girls slipped on the wet patch left by Sharpe's holystone. "Move back! Give the ladies room!" the Bosun ordered Sharpe and Harper. “Just wait forrard! Wait till the passengers have gone below."
Sharpe and Harper went to the beakhead where, concealed by the forecastle, they could hide from authority and thus stretch their temporary unemployment. They joined a small group of curious men who gazed at the wrecked whaler. She was a small ship, scarcely a third the size of the Espiritu Santo, with an ugly squared-off stern and, even uglier, three splintered stumps where her masts had stood. A spar, perhaps a yardarm, had been erected in place of the foremast, and a small sail lashed to that makeshift mast. Despite the jury rig she seemed to be unmanned, but then, in answer to a hail from the Spanish frigate's masthead, two survivors appeared on the whaler's deck and began waving frantically toward the Espiritu Santo. One of the two unfolded a flag that he held aloft to the wind. "She's an American," the First Lieutenant shouted down to the forecastle where a midshipman was deputed to carry the news back to the Captain's cabin.
Ardiles, though, was not in his cabin, but had instead come forward. He had avoided the inquisitive passengers by using a lower deck, but now he suddenly appeared out of the low door which led to the beakhead. He nodded affably to the men who were perched on the ship's lavatory bench, then trained his telescope on the whaler.
"She isn't too badly damaged," Ardiles spoke to himself, but as Sharpe and Harper were the closest men, they grunted an acknowledgment of his words, "Hardly damaged at all!" Ardiles continued his assessment of the beleaguered American whaler.
"She looks buggered to me, sir," Sharpe said.
"She's floating upright," Ardiles pointed out, "so, as they say in the Cadiz boatyards, her hull must be as watertight as a duck's backside. Mind you, the hulls of whaling ships are as strong as anything afloat." He paused as he stared through the glass. “They've lost their rudder, by the look of it. They're using a steering oar instead."
"What could have happened to her, sir?" Harper asked.
"A storm? Perhaps she rolled over? That can snap the sticks out of a boat as quick as you like. And she's lost all her whaleboats, so I suspect her topsides were swept clean when she rolled. That would explain the rudder, too. And I'll warrant she lost a few souls drowned too, God rest them." Ardiles crossed himself.
Three men were now visible on the whaler's deck. Lieutenant Otero, still high on the foremast, read the whaler's name through his telescope and shouted it down to Captain Ardiles. "She's called the Mary Starbuck."
"Probably the owner's wife," Ardiles guessed. "I hope the poor man has got insurance, or else Mary Starbuck will be making do with last year's frocks."
Lieutenant Otero, now that the Espiritu Santo was nearing the hulk, slid down the ratlines to leave tar smeared on his white trousers. "Do we rig a towing bridle?" he asked Ardiles.
Ardiles shook his head. "We haven't time to take them in tow. But prepare to heave to. And fetch me a speaking trumpet from the quarterdeck." Ardiles still stared at the whaler, his fingers drumming on the beakhead's low rail. "Perhaps, Sharpe, you'll find out what the Americans need? I doubt they want us to rescue them. Their hull isn't broached, and under that jury rig they could sail from here to the Californias."
The speaking trumpet was brought to the bows. Ten minutes later the frigate heaved to, backing her square sails so that she rolled and wallowed in the great swells. Sharpe, standing beside one of the long-barreled nine-pounder bow guns that were the frigate's pursuit weapons, could clearly read the whaler's name that was painted in gold letters on a black quarterboard across her stern. Beneath that name was written her hailing port, Nantucket. "Tell them who we are," Ardiles ordered, "then ask them what they want."
Sharpe raised the trumpet to his mouth. "This is the Spanish frigate Espiritu Santo," he shouted, "What do you want?"
"Water, mister!" One of the Americans cupped his hands. "We lost all our fresh water barrels!"
"Ask what happened." Ardiles, who spoke reasonable English, had not needed to have the American's request for water translated.
"What happened?" Sharpe shouted.
"She rolled over! We were close to the ice when a berg broke off!"
Sharpe translated as best he could, for the answer made little sense to him, but Ardiles both understood and explained. "The fools take any risk to chase whales. They got caught by an iceberg calving off the ice mass. The sea churns like a tidal wave when that happens. Still, they're good seamen to have brought their boat this far. Ask where they're heading."
"Valdivia!" came the reply. The whaler was close now, close enough for Sharpe and Ardiles to see how gaunt and bearded were the faces of the three survivors.
"Ask how many there are on board," Ardiles commanded.
"Four of us, mister! The rest drowned!"
"Tell them to keep away," Ardiles was worried that the heavily built whaler might stove in the Espiritu Santos ribs. "And tell them I'll float a couple of water barrels to them." Ardiles saw Sharpe's puzzlement, and explained. "Barrels of fresh water float in saltwater."
Sharpe leaned over the rail. "Keep away from our side! We're going to float water barrels to you!"
"We hear you, mister!" One of the Americans dutifully leaned on the makeshift steering oar, though his efforts seemed to have little effect for the clumsy whaler kept heaving herself ever closer to the frigate.
Ardiles had ordered two barrels of water brought onto deck and a sling rove to heave them overboard. Now, while he waited for the barrels to arrive, he frowned at the Mary Starbuck's wallowing hulk. "Ask them where Nantucket is," he ordered suddenly.
Sharpe obeyed. "Off Cape Cod, mister!" came back the answer.
Ardiles nodded, but some instinct was still troubling him. "Tell them to sheer away!" he snapped, then, perhaps not trusting Sharpe to deliver the order with sufficient force, he seized the speaking trumpet. "Keep clear! Keep clear!" he shouted in English.
"We're trying, mister! We're trying!" The man on the steering oar was desperately pushing against the whaler's weight.
"Trying?" Ardiles repeated the word, then, still in English, he swore. "The devil! They didn't lose their tryworks when they rolled!" He turned to shout toward the quarterdeck, but already events were accelerating to combat pace and Ardiles's warning shout was lost in the sudden chaos.
For just as Ardiles turned, so a massive wave lifted the whaler's square stern and an officer on the Espiritu Santos quarterdeck saw that the Mary Starbuck's rudder was not shorn away after all, but was in place and being steered from a tiller concealed beneath the whaler's deck. The rudder was bringing the heavy boat toward the Spanish frigate, which meant the steering oar was faked, which meant the shipwreck was faked, a fact that Ardiles had simultaneously guessed when he saw that the whaler's tryworks, a brick furnace built amidships in which the whale blubber was rendered down into the precious oil, had survived the apparent rolling of a ship that had destroyed three solid masts.
The Spaniards were shouting in warning, but the Mary Starbuck was already within ten feet of the frigate. A man aboard the whaler suddenly cut free the American flag and, in its place, unfurled a red, white and blue flag which was unfamiliar to Sharpe, but all too familiar to Ardiles. It was the flag of the Chilean rebel government. "Beat to quarters!" Ardiles shouted, and as he called the order aloud, so the hatch covers on the whaler's deck were thrust aside and Sharpe, astonished, saw that a huge gun was mounted in the hold. It was a carronade: a squat, wide-mouthed, short-range killer designed to shred men rather then smash the timbers or rigging of a ship. Sharpe also saw, before he and Harper dropped for cover behind the nine-pounder cannon, that a mass of men was seething up onto the whaler's deck. The men were armed with muskets, pikes, cutlasses, pistols and grapnels.
"Fire!" The order was shouted on board the Mary Starbuck, and the carronade belched a bellyful of iron scraps and links of rusted chain up at the Espiritu Santa's waist. Most of the missiles struck the starboard gunwale, but a few Spanish crewmen, helping to lower the first water barrel over the side, were thrown back in a sudden spray of blood. The barrel, holed in a hundred places, sprayed drinking water into the bloody scuppers.
Grapnels came soaring across the narrowing gap of water. The metal hooks snagged on rigging or thumped into the decks. The Espiritu Santo's crew, trained to just such an emergency, reacted fast. Some men started slashing at the ropes attached to the grapnels, while others ran to seize pikes or muskets. "Gun crews! Gun crews!" Ardiles had left the frigate's bows and was striding back to the quarterdeck where the children were screaming in terror. "Passengers down to the orlop deck!" Ardiles was astonishingly calm. "Quick now! Below!"
Musket balls whiplashed up from the whaler, which suddenly struck the frigate's side, so hard that some of the Espiritu Santo's crew were knocked down by the force of the collision. The first boarders were already swarming up their ropes. Sharpe, snatching a glance from the beakhead, saw two of the invaders fall back as their rope was cut free. Another, gaining the gunwale, screamed as a pike slammed into his face to blind him and hurl him back to the Mary Starbuck's crowded deck. The attackers, jostling at the ropes, were screaming a war cry that at first sounded jumbled and indistinct to Sharpe, but which now became clear. "Cochrane! Cochrane!" Ardiles, it seemed, was having his dearest wish granted.
A grapnel soared high over the Espiritu Santo's bows to fall and catch on the beakhead. For the moment Sharpe and Harper were alone on the small hidden platform of the beakhead, and neither man moved to cut the rope free. "We're joining the fight then, are we?" Harper asked.
"I like Ardiles," Sharpe said, "but I'm damned if I'll fight for a man on the same side as Bautista."
"Ah, well. Back to the wars." Harper grinned, then instinctively ducked as another carronade fired, this one from the forecastle above them. The Espiritu Santos forecastle carronade, unable to depress its muzzle sufficiently, had not done great damage to the attackers, but its noise alone seemed to encourage the Spaniards who now began to shout their own war cry, "Espiritu Santo! Espiritu Santof
"So what do we do?" Harper asked.
"We start with that big bugger up there." Sharpe jerked his chin up toward the forecastle carronade. He had to shout, for more big guns were firing, these new ones from down below on the gundeck where the Spanish were evidently firing straight into the Mary Starbuck's upper deck. Sharpe could hear the screams of men being disemboweled and flensed by the close-range horror of the big guns. Sharpe jumped, caught the edge of the forecastie's deck, and hauled himself up to where three men were serving the carronade. One of them, the gun captain, snapped at Sharpe to fetch some quoins so that the breech of the carronade could be elevated.
"I'm not on your side!" Sharpe yelled at the man. Behind Sharpe, Harper was struggling to haul his huge weight up the sheer face of the forecastle which, though only eight feet high, was too much for a man as heavy as Harper, which meant that Sharpe, for the moment, was alone. He grabbed one of the carronade's heavy spikes: a six-foot shaft of hardwood tipped with an iron point. The spike was used to aim the heavy gun by levering its trail around, and the wooden deck under the carronade's tail was pitted with holes left by the sharp iron point. Sharpe now lunged with the spike as though it was a bayonet. He did not want to kill, for his attack was unexpected and unfair, but the gun's Captain suddenly pulled a pistol from under his coat and Sharpe had no choice but to ram the spike forward with sudden and savage force so that the iron point punctured the man's belly. The gun Captain dropped his pistol to grip the spike's shaft. He was moaning sadly. Sharpe, still lunging forward, slammed the wounded man against the rail and, still pushing, heaved him overboard. Sharpe let go the spike so that the gun Captain, blood cartwheeling away from his wound, fell to the sea with the spike's shaft still rammed into his belly.
Sharpe turned. He ducked to retrieve the gun Captain's pistol and the carronade's rammer, swung with terrible force by one of the two remaining crewmen, slashed just above his head. Sharpe's right hand closed on the pistol just as he charged forward to ram his left shoulder into the Spaniard's belly. He heard the man's breath gasp out, then he brought the heavy pistol up and hammered it onto his attacker's skull. The third crew member had backed to the inboard edge of the forecastle where he was uselessly shouting for help. Harper, abandoning his attempt to climb the forward face of the forecastle, had ducked through the galley and was now climbing the companionway steps which led from the maindeck. The third crewmember, thinking that help was at last arriving, leaned down to give Harper a helping hand. Harper grabbed the offered hand, tugged, and the crewman tumbled down into the churning mass of men who fought in the ship's waist.
That larger fight was a gutter brawl of close-quarter horror. Cochrane's invaders had succeeded in capturing a third of the Espiritu Santos main deck, but were now faced by a disciplined and spirited crew that fiercely defended their ship. Cochrane's men, screaming like demons, had achieved an initial surprise, but Ardiles's hours of practice were beginning to pay dividends as his men forced the invaders back.
Sharpe, seeing his very first sea fight, was horrified by it. The killing was done in the confining space of a ship's deck which gave neither side room to retreat. On land, when faced by a determined bayonet attack, most soldiers gave ground, but here there was no ground to give, and so the dead and dying were trampled underfoot. The heaving ocean added a horrid air of chance to death. A man might parry a thrust efficiently and be on the point of killing his opponent when a wave surge might unsteady him and, as he flailed for balance, his belly would be exposed to a steel thrust. One of the Bosun's mates who had made Sharpe's first days aboard such misery had been so wounded and was now dying in the scuppers. The man writhed in brief spasms, his hands fluttering and clawing at the broken sword blade that was embedded in his belly. A midshipman was bleeding to death, calling for his mother, which pathetic cry swelled into a shriek of terror as a rebel stepped back on the boy's sliced belly. That rebel then died with a pistol bullet in his brain, hurled back in a spray of bright blood to slide down beside the Bosun's mate.
"God save Ireland," Harper muttered.
"Is the gun loaded?" Sharpe slapped the carronade, then ducked as a stray musket bullet slapped over his head.
"Looks like it!"
Sharpe found another spike which he used to lever the gun's trail around so that the carronade faced straight down the Espiritu Sanyo's length to menace the quarterdeck, where Ardiles was assembling a group of seamen. Those seamen were undoubtedly intended to be the counterattack that would finish off Cochrane's assault. Sharpe hammered a quoin out from under the carronade's breech, thus raising the muzzle so that the dreadful weapon was pointing straight at the quarterdeck. The carronade was a pot of a gun, not a long, elegant and accurate cannon, but a squat cauldron to be charged with powder and metal scraps that flayed out like buckshot. A carronade's range was short, but inside that brief range it was foully lethal.
The whole ship quivered as another broadside slammed from the frigate's gun deck to shatter the heavy timbers of the whaler. Most of Cochrane's men were off the whaler now and crammed onto the Spaniard's deck where they were hemmed in by bloody pikes and bayonets. Ardiles, preparing his reserves to slam into the left flank of the invaders, was making things worse for Cochrane by destroying his only chance of escape by pounding the whaler into matchwood. Smoke was sifting from the open hold of the Mary Starbuck. Presumably some of the wadding from one of the Espiritu Santa's cannons had set fire to a splintered timber inside the attacking ship.
Harper cocked the flintlock that was soldered onto the carronade's touchhole. Naval guns did not use linstocks, for the spluttering sparks of an open match were too dangerous on board a wooden ship crammed with gunpowder. Instead, just like a musket, the gun was fired by a spring-tensioned flint that was released by a lanyard. "Are you ready?" Sharpe gripped the lanyard and scuttled to one side of the gun to escape its recoil.
"Get down!" Harper shouted. Ardiles's men on the quarterdeck had at last seen the threat of the forecastle carronade and a dozen muskets were leveled. Sharpe dropped just as the volley fired. The sound of a musket volley, so achingly familiar, crackled about the ship as the balls whipsawed overhead. Sharpe answered the volley by yanking the carronade's lanyard.
The world hammered apart in thunder, in an explosion so close and hot and violent that Sharpe thought he was surely dead as the frigate shivered and dust spurted out of the cracks between her deck planks. Sharpe's second and more realistic thought was that the barrel of the carronade had burst, but then he saw that the gun, recoiling on its huge carriage, was undamaged.
The explosion had been aboard the Mary Starbuck. A store of gunpowder in the whaler's hull had ripped itself apart in a moment's blinding horror, tearing her deck into shards and exploding the wounded into the sea. Now what remained of the whaler was ablaze. The dark red flames leaped voraciously from her oil-soaked planks to flare as high as the Espiritu Santo's topmasts.
"Mary, Mother of God," Harper said in awe, not at the incandescent whaler, but rather because the Espiritu Santos mainmast was toppling. The explosion had ripped out the frigate's chain-plates and now the great mast swayed. Some men, now recovering their wits after being stunned by the concussion of the explosion, shouted in warning, while others, from both sides of the fight, were desperately slashing at the remaining grapnels so that the roaring blaze on the whaler would not leap across to destroy the frigate. Beyond that chaos Sharpe could see a red horror on the poop- and quarterdecks where the blast of his carronade had taken a terrible toll among Ardiles's men.
A rebel officer shouted a piercing warning. The swaying mainmast splintered and cracked. Canvas billowed down onto the deck and into the sea. The collapsing mast dragged in its wake the fore topmast and a nightmarish tangle of yards, halyards, lines and sails.
"Come on, Patrick!" Sharpe cocked the pistol and jumped down from the forecastle. A Spanish sailor, groggy from the explosion, tried to stand in Sharpe's way so he thumped the man on the side of his head with the pistol's heavy barrel. A Spanish army officer lunged at Sharpe with a long, narrow sword. Sharpe turned, straightened his right arm and pulled the trigger. The officer seemed to be snatched backward with a halo of exploding blood about his face. Smoke from the burning whaler whirled thick and black and choking across the deck. Sharpe hurled the pistol away and snatched up a fallen cutlass. "Cochrane!" he shouted, "Cochrane!" A mass of Cochrane's men were swarming toward the frigate's stern. The explosion and the subsequent fall of the mast had torn the heart out of the frigate's defenders, though a stubborn rear guard, under an unwounded Ardiles, gathered for a last stand on the quarterdeck.
To Sharpe's left was a tall man with red hair who carried a long and heavy-bladed sword. "To me! To me!" The red-haired man was wearing a green naval coat with two gold epaulettes and was the man the rebels were looking to for orders and inspiration. The man had to be Lord Cochrane. Sharpe turned away as a swarm of Spanish fighters came streaming up from the gundeck below. These new attackers were the frigate's guncrews who, their target destroyed, had come to recapture their maindeck.
Sharpe fought hand to hand, without room to swing a blade, only to stab it forward in short, hard strokes. He was close enough to see the fear in the eyes of the men he killed, or to smell the garlic and tobacco on their breath. He knew some of the men, but he felt no compunction about killing them. He had declared his allegiance to Ardiles, and Ardiles could have no complaint that Sharpe had changed sides without warning. Nor could Sharpe complain if, this fight lost, he was hung from whatever yardarm was left of the Spanish frigate. Which made it important not to lose, but instead to beat the Spaniards back in blood and terror.
Harper climbed the fallen trunk of the mainmast. He carried a boarding pike that he swung in a huge and terrifying arc. One of the Irish crew members, having decided to change sides, was fighting alongside Harper. Both men were screaming in Gaelic, inviting their enemies to come and be killed. A musket crashed near Sharpe, who flinched aside from its flame. He ripped the cutlass blade up to throw back an enemy. The cutlass was a clumsy weapon, but sea fighting was hardly a fine art. It was more like a gutter brawl, and Sharpe had grown up with such fighting. He slipped, fell hard on his right knee, then clawed himself up to ram the blade forward again. Blood whipped across a fallen sail. A sailor trapped beneath a fallen yard shrieked as a wave surge shifted the timber balk across his crushed ribs. Balin, his face and hand still bandaged, lay dead in the portside scuppers which now ran with the blood from his crushed skull. A group of rebels had found room to use their pikes. They lunged forward, hooking men with the crooked blade on the pike's reverse, then pulling their victims out of the Espiritu Santa's ranks so that another pike-man, using the weapon's broad axe-head, could slash down hard. The pikemen were driving the frigate's guncrews back to the poopdeck where a rear guard waited with Ardiles and Lieutenant Otero.
The ship lurched on the swell, staggering Sharpe sideways. A bleeding man screamed and fell into the sea. It seemed that the Espiritu Santo must have taken on water for she did not come fully upright, but stayed listed to starboard. A volley of musket fire from Ardiles's group on the quarterdeck punched a hole in the rebels' ranks, but Cochrane, seeing the danger, had led a rampaging attack up to the poopdeck and now his men clawed and scrabbled up the last companionway to attack Ardiles and his men on the quarterdeck. Royalist Captain faced rebel Admiral. Their two swords clashed and scraped. More rebels were running past their leader, swarming up to the quarterdeck where a final, fanatic group of Spaniards, including most of the army officers, stood to protect their royal ensign.
A few despairing men still fought on the main deck. Sharpe kicked a man in the ankle, then hammered down the cutlass hilt as the man fell. Two men slashed at him, but Sharpe stepped back from their clumsy blades, then sliced his own forward. A rebel joined him, stabbing forward with a bayonet, and suddenly the portside steps to the poopdeck were open. Sharpe ran up. Above him, on the quarterdeck, Ardiles was pressed back by the man Sharpe supposed was Cochrane. Ardiles was no mean swordsman, but he was no match for the red-haired rebel who was taller, heavier and quicker. Ardiles lunged, missed, retreated and was toppled over the railing by a sudden thrust of his opponent's sword. The Spanish Captain fell onto the poopdeck at Sharpe's feet. Sharpe stooped and took his sword.
"You," Ardiles said bleakly.
"I'm sorry," Sharpe said.
"Who the hell are you?" the red-haired man asked from above Sharpe.
"A friend! Are you Cochrane?"
"I am, friend, indeed I am." Cochrane sketched a salute with his sword, then turned to lead the attack on the desperate group that waited to defend their flag. On the poop and main decks the victorious rebels disarmed Spaniards, but about the great gaudy ensign a terrible battle still waged. Pistols flared, muskets crashed smoke. A rebel squirmed in awful pain in the scuppers. Other rebels, trying to fire down at the stubborn stern guard, climbed the mizzen rigging, but Lieutenant Otero, seeing the danger, ordered a group of the frigate's marines to fire upward. One of the rebels screamed as a bullet thudded into his belly. For a second he hung from the ratlines, his blood spraying bright across the driver-sail, then he fell to crash down into the sea. Another rebel, losing his nerve, leaped after his dying colleague. The horror was not all visited on the attackers. One of the Espiritu Santos midshipmen, no more than eleven years old, was clutching his groin from which blood seeped to spread along a seam between two scrubbed planks of the quarterdeck. The boy was weeping and on his face was a look of utter astonishment. The Mary Starbuck, her fire roaring like a blast furnace, had drifted away from the frigate. The sea between the two ships was littered with wreckage and dead and drowning men.
Lieutenant Otero ordered a final quixotic charge, perhaps hoping to kill Lord Cochrane, but his men would not obey. A rebel officer shouted at the stern guard to surrender. Sharpe, the handle of his cutlass slippery with blood, climbed to thicken the ranks of the rebels who now made a threatening semicircle about the frigate's last defenders.
"Surrender, sir!" Lord Cochrane called. "You've done well! I salute you! Now, I beg you, no more killing!"
Lieutenant Otero crossed himself then, bitterly, threw down his sword. There was a clatter of falling guns and blades as his men followed his example. An army officer, disgusted, hurled his own sword overboard so he would not have to surrender it to rebels. A ship's boy wept, not because he was wounded, but because of the shame of losing the fight. A rebel slashed at the ensign's halyard and the bright flag of Spain fluttered down.
"Where are the pumps?" Cochrane shouted in urgent and execrable Spanish. It seemed an odd way to celebrate victory, but then the frigate lurched, and Sharpe, to his horror, realized that the Espiritu Santo, just like the burning Mary Starbuck, was sinking. "The pumps!" Cochrane shouted.
"This way!" Sharpe jumped down to the poop, then to the waist. From there he slithered down a rope to the gundeck where the main pumps were situated. He saw that the explosion of the Mary Starbuck had made a terrible slaughter on the gundeck. Until the moment the whaler blew up, the frigate's gunners had been firing point-blank through open hatches into the wooden hull that had been grinding against the Spanish warship, but the explosion had speared flame and debris through the open gun hatches to fan slaughter through the low-beamed deck. Two of the frigate's guns had been blown clean off their carriages. One dismounted gun was lying atop a dying, screaming man. Cochrane killed the man with an efficient slice of his sword, then shouted at his men to start the pumps working.
"Chippy! Find me the chippy!" Cochrane roared. The carpenter was fetched and ordered to discover the extent of the damage to the frigate's hull, then to start immediate repairs. The wounded Spanish gunners moaned. The frigate was already listing so far over that roundshot were rolling across her deck. "Can't talk now, bloody boat's sinking," Cochrane said to Sharpe. "We'll all be dead if we don't watch it. Pump, you bastards! Pump! Put the prisoners to work! Pump! Well done, Jorge! Well fought, Liam! But start pumping or we'll all be sucking the devil's tits before this day's done!" Cochrane, ducking under the gun-deck's beams, scattered praise and humor among his victorious men. He set the rear pump working and peered down into the orlop deck where the women and children cowered. "Not flooded yet, good! Maybe there's hope. Christ, but that bugger should never have exploded. Are you Spanish?" This last question was addressed to Sharpe, shouted as Cochrane climbed nimbly back up to the bloody and wreckage-strewn main deck.
"Are you now?" Cochrane brushed ineffectively at the powder stains on his green uniform coat. "I suppose I've got to take the proper surrender from their poor bastard of a Captain. Rotten luck for him. He fought well. Ardiles, isn't it?"
"Yes," Sharpe said, "he's a good man," then took a pace backward as Captain Ardiles, his face stricken, walked with fragile dignity toward Lord Cochrane. The Spanish Captain had retrieved his sword, but only so that he could offer it in surrender to his victor. Ardiles held the sword hilt forward, the gesture of surrender, but he could not bring himself to speak the proper words.
Cochrane touched the hilt, his gesture of acceptance, then pushed the weapon back to Ardiles. "Keep it, Captain. Your men fought well, damned well." His Spanish was enthusiastic, but clumsy. "I also need your help if we're to save the ship. I've sent a carpenter down to the bilge, but your man will know the timbers better than he will. The pumps are going. That damned explosion must have sprung some of the timbers! Would you fetch your ladies up? They'll not be harmed, I give you my word. And where's the gold?"
"There is no gold," Ardiles said very stiffly.
Cochrane, who had been speaking and moving with a frenetic energy, now stopped still as a statue and stared openmouthed at Ardiles. Then, a second later, he looked quizzically at Sharpe who confirmed the bad news with a nod. "Goddamn!" Cochrane said, though without any real bitterness. "No gold? You mean I just blunted a sword for nothing!" He gave a great billow of laughter that turned into a whoop of alarm as the Espiritu Santo gave another creaking jolt to starboard. A cutlass slid down the canted deck to clash into the scuppers. "Help me!" Cochrane said to Ardiles, and suddenly the two men disappeared, lost in technical discussion, while beneath Sharpe's feet the pumps clattered to pulse puny jets of water over the side.
Somehow they stopped the ship from sinking, though it took the best part of that day to do it. Cochrane's men salvaged the mainsail that had fallen overboard when the mainmast fell and from it cut great squares of canvas. They sewed the squares together to make a huge pad that was then dragged under the ship by means of cables which were first looped under the frigate's bows, then dragged back under her hull till the huge pad of material was fothered up against the sprung timbers. The explosion on board the whaler had driven in a section of the frigate's hull, but once the canvas fother was in place the pumps at last could begin to win the battle. Behind them, on an ocean scattered with the flotsam of battle, the Mary Starbuck gave a last hiss of steam as she sank.
On board the captured Espiritu Santo the wounded were treated. The surgeon worked on deck, tossing the amputated limbs overboard. A step behind the surgeon was the Espiritu Santos Chaplain, who gave the final unction to dying seamen. To those who were dying in too much pain the Chaplain gave a quietus with a narrow blade. Once dead the shriven sailors were sewn into hammocks weighted with roundshot. The last stitch, by custom, was forced through the corpse's nose to make certain he was truly dead. None of the corpses twitched in protest. Instead, after a muttered prayer, they were all slid down to the sea's bed.
"What a resurrection there'll be on the Day of Judgment!" Cochrane, his emergency work done, had asked Sharpe and Harper to join him on the frigate's quarterdeck from where they watched the miserable procession of dead splashing over the side. “Just think of Judgment Day," Cochrane said exuberantly, "when the sea gives up its dead and all those sailormen pop out of the waves and start hollering for a tot of rum and a heavenly whore." His Lordship had protuberant eyes, a strong nose, full lips and an excited, energetic manner. "Christ," he hit Sharpe on the back, "but that was a close thing! They're the best fighters I've ever seen on a Spanish ship!"
"Ardiles's great ambition was to fight you," Sharpe explained. "He trained his men for years. All he wanted to do was to fight and beat you."
"Poor bastard. I sneak up on him like a rat, and he was dreaming of an honest broadside-to-broadside battle, eh?" Cochrane seemed genuinely sympathetic, "but a broadside pounding match was exactly what I wanted to avoid! I thought that sneaking up like a rat would do less damage to this ship, now look at it! No mainmast and half a bottom blown away!" He sounded remarkably cheerful despite the appalling damage. "You didn't give me the honor of your name, sir." he said to Sharpe, whereas the truth was that he had not given Sharpe a moment of time to make any kind of introduction.
"Lieutenant Colonel Richard Sharpe." Sharpe decided to go full fig with his introduction. "And this is my particular friend, Regimental Sergeant Major Patrick Harper."
Cochrane stared at both men with a moment's disbelief that vanished as he decided Sharpe must be telling the truth. "Are you, by God?" Cochrane, flatteringly, had evidently heard of the Riflemen. "You are?"
"Yes, my Lord, I am."
"And I'm Thomas, Tommy, or Cochrane, and not 'my Lord. I was once a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, till the buggers couldn't stand my company so they turfed me out. I also had the honor of being held prisoner in the Fleet prison, and I was once a member of Parliament, and let me tell you, Sharpe, that the company in prison is a damned sight more rewarding than that available in His Fat Majesty's House of Commons which is packed full of farting lawyers. I also once had the honor of being a Rear Admiral in His Fat Majesty's Navy, but they didn't like my opinions any more than the Order of the Bath liked my company, so they threw me out of the navy too, so now I have the signal honor to be Supreme Admiral, Great Lord, and chief troublemaker of the Navy of the Independent Republic of Chile." He gave Sharpe and Harper an elaborate bow. "Pity about the Mary Starbuck. I bought her off a couple of Nantucket Yankees with the very last cash I possessed. I thought I'd get my money back by capturing the Holy Spirit. Awful damned name for a ship. Why do the dagoes choose such names? You might as well call a ship Angel-Fart. They should give their boats real names, like Revenge or Arse-Kicker or Victory. Are you really Richard Sharpe?"
"I truly am," Sharpe confessed.
"Then just what the hell are the two of you doing on this ship?"
"We were thrown out of Chile. By a man called Bautista."
"Oh, well done!" Cochrane said happily. "First class! Well done! You must be on the side of the angels if that piece of half-digested gristle doesn't like you. But what about that sniveling turd Blair? Didn't he try to protect you?"
"He seemed to be on Bautista's side."
"Blair's a greedy bastard," Cochrane observed gloomily. "If we ever get off this ship alive you should look him up and give him a damned good thrashing." His Lordship's gloom seemed justified for, despite the fothering and the pumping, the condition of the damaged frigate seemed to be suddenly worsening. The wind was rising and the seas were steeper, conditions that made the damaged hull pound ever harder into the waves. "The fother's shifting," Cochrane guessed. He had turned the Espiritu Santo northward and the captured frigate was running before the wind and current, yet even so her progress was painfully slow because of the damaged hull and the amount of wreckage that still trailed overboard.
Cochrane's sailing master, an elderly and lugubrious Scot named Fraser, threw a trailing log overboard. The log was attached to a long piece of twine which was knotted at regular intervals. Fraser let the twine run through his hands and counted the knots as they whipped past his fingers, timing them all the while on a big pocket watch. He finally snapped the watch shut and began hauling the log back. "Three knots, my Lord, that's all."
"Christ help us," Cochrane said. He frowned at the sea, then at the rigging. "But we'll speed up as we get the damage cleared. Eight days, say?"
"Ten," the sailing master said doubtfully, "maybe twelve, but more probably never, my Lord, because she's taking water like a colander."
"Five guineas says we'll make it in eight days," Cochrane said cheerfully.
"Eight days to what?" Sharpe asked.
"To Valdivia, of course," Cochrane exclaimed.
"Valdivia?" Sharpe was astonished that Cochrane was trying to reach an enemy haven. "You mean there isn't a harbor closer than that?"
"There are hundreds of closer harbors," Cochrane said blithely, "thousands of harbors. Millions! There are some of the best natural harbors in the world on this coast, Sharpe, and they're all closer than Valdivia. The damned coast is thick with harbors. There are more harbors here than a man could wish for in a thousand storms! Isn't that so, Fraser?"
"Aye, it is, my Lord."
"Then why go to an enemy harbor?" Sharpe asked.
"To capture it, of course, why else?" Cochrane looked at Sharpe as though the Rifleman was mad. "We've got a ship, we've got men, we've got weapons, so what the hell else should we be doing?"
"But the ship's sinking!"
"Then the bloody ship might as well do something useful before it vanishes." Cochrane, delighted with having surprised Sharpe, whooped with laughter. "Enjoy yourself, Sharpe. If we take Valdivia, all Chile is ours! We're launched for death or victory, we're sailing for glory, and may the Devil take the hindmost!" He rattled off the old cliches of the French wars in a mocking tone, but there was a genuine enthusiasm on his face as he spoke. Here was a man, Sharpe thought, who had never tired of battle, but reveled in it, and perhaps only felt truly alive when the powder was stinking and the swords were clashing. "We're sailing for glory!" Cochrane whooped again, and Sharpe knew he was under the command of a genial maniac who planned to capture a whole country with nothing but a broken ship and a wounded crew.
Sharpe had met Spain's devil, and his name was Cochrane.
The wind rose the next day. It shrieked in the broken rigging so that the torn shrouds and halyards streamed horizontally ahead of the laboring frigate as she thumped in slow agony through the big green seas. Both rebel and royalist seamen manned the pumps continually, and even the officers took their turns at the blistering handles. Sharpe and Harper, restored to grace as passengers, nevertheless worked the sodden handles for three muscle-torturing hours during the night. Besides the women and children, only Cochrane and Captain Ardiles were spared the agony of the endless pumps. Ardiles, suffering the pangs of defeat, had closeted himself in his old cabin which Cochrane, with a generosity that seemed typical of the man, had surrendered to his beaten opponent.
In the gray morning, when the wind was whistling to blow the wavetops ragged, Lord Cochrane edged the broken frigate nearer to land so that, at times, a dark sliver on the eastern horizon betrayed high ground. He had not wanted to close the coast, for fear that the captured Espiritu Santo might be seen by a Spanish pinnace or fishing boat that could warn Valdivia of his approach, but now he sacrificed that caution for the security of land. "If worse comes to worst," he explained, "then perhaps we might be able to beach this wreck in the channels. Though God knows if we'd survive them."
"Channels?" Sharpe asked.
Cochrane showed Sharpe a chart which revealed that the Chilean coast, so far as it was known, was a nightmare tangle of islands and hidden seaways. "There are thousands of natural harbors if you can get into the channels," Cochrane explained, "but the channel entrances are as wicked as any in the world. As dreadful as the western coast of Scotland! There are cliffs on this coast that are as tall as mountains! And God only knows what's waiting inside the channels. This is unexplored country. The old maps said that monsters lived here, and maybe they do, for no one's ever explored this coast. Except the savages, of course, and they don't count. Still, maybe the O'Higgins will find us first."
"Is she close?"
"Christ only knows where she is, though she's supposed to rendezvous with us off Valdivia. I've left a good man in charge of her, so perhaps he'll have the wits to come south and look for us if we're late, and if he does, and finds us sinking, then he can take us off." He stared bleakly at the chart which he had draped over the Espiritu Santos shot-torn binnacle. "It's a devil of a long way to Valdivia," he said under his breath.
Sharpe heard a sigh of despair in Cochrane's voice. "You're not serious about Valdivia, are you?" Sharpe asked.
"Of course I am."
"You're going to attack with this broken ship?"
"This and the O'Higgins."
"For God's sake," Sharpe protested, "Valdivia Harbor has more fortresses than London!"
"Aye, I know. Fort Ingles, Fort San Carlos, Fort Amargos, Corral Castle, Fort Chorocomayo, Fort Niebla, the Manzanera Island batteries and the quay guns," Cochrane rattled off the list of fortifications with an irritating insouciance, as though such defenses were flimsy obstacles that were bound to fall before his reputation. "Say two thousand defenders in all? Maybe more."
"Then why, for God's sake?" Sharpe gestured at the exhausted men who stared dull-eyed at the threatening seas that roared up astern of the damaged frigate, hissed down her flanks, then rushed ahead in great gouts of wind-blown chaos.
"I have to attack Valdivia, Sharpe, because my lords and masters of the independent Chilean government, whom God preserve, have ordered me to attack Valdivia," Cochrane suddenly sounded glum, but offered Sharpe a rueful grin. "I know that doesn't make sense, at least not till you understand that the government owes me a pile of money that they desperately don't want to pay me."
"That still doesn't make sense," Sharpe said.
"Ah," Cochrane frowned. "Try it this way. The government promised me hard cash for every Spanish ship I captured, and I've taken sixteen so far, and the buggers don't want to honor the contract! They don't even want to pay my crews their ordinary wages, let alone the prize money. So instead of paying up they've ordered me to attack Valdivia. Now do you understand?"
"They want you to be killed?" Sharpe could only suppose that with Cochrane's death the debt due to him would be canceled.
"They probably wouldn't overmuch object to my death," Cochrane confessed, "except that it might encourage the damned Spaniards, so I suspect that the reasoning behind their order is slightly more subtle. They don't want to pay me, so they have issued me an impossible order. Now, if I refuse to obey the order they'll send me packing for disobedience, and refuse to give me my cash as a punishment for that disobedience, but if, on the other hand, I dutifully attack and fail, they'll accuse me of incompetence and punish me by confiscating the money they owe me. Either way they win and I am royally buggered. Unless, of course," Cochrane paused, and an impudent, wonderful grin crossed his face.
"Unless you win," Sharpe continued the thought.
"Oh, aye, that's the joy of it!" Cochrane slapped the rail of the quarterdeck. "My God, Sharpe, but that would be something! To win!" He paused, frowning. "Why was there no gold on this boat?"
"Because its presence was merely a rumor to lure you into making an attack."
"It damn well worked, too!" Cochrane barked with laughter. "But think of it, Sharpe! If the gold isn't here, then it has to be in Valdivia! Bautista's as greedy as any Presbyterian! He's been thieving for years, and now he's Captain-General there's been nothing to stop his mischief. Imagine it, Sharpe! The man has chests of money! Pots of gold! Rooms full of silver! Not a piddling little pile of coins, but enough treasure to make a man drool!" Cochrane laughed in relish of such plunder, and Sharpe saw in the Scottish nobleman a wonderful relic of an older, more glorious and more sordid age. Cochrane was a fighting sailor of the Elizabethan breed—a Drake or a Raleigh or a Hawkins—and he would fight like the devil the Spanish thought he was for gold, glory or just plain excitement.
"No wonder they turfed you out of Parliament," Sharpe said.
Cochrane bowed, acknowledging the compliment, but then qualified his acknowledgment. "I went into the Commons to achieve something, and it was a cruel shame I failed."
"What did you want to achieve?"
"Liberty, of course!" The answer was swift, but followed immediately by a deprecating smile. "Except I've learned there's no such thing."
'You can't have freedom and lawyers, Sharpe, and I've discovered that lawyers are as ubiquitous to human society as rats are to a ship." Cochrane paused as the frigate thumped her bluff bows into a wave trough. The ship seemed to take a long time to recover from the downward plunge, but gradually, painfully, the bows rose again. "You build a new ship," Cochrane went on, "you smoke out its bilges, you put rat poison down, you know the ship's clean when you launch it, but your first night out you hear the scratch of claws and you know the little bastards are there! And short of sinking the ship they'll stay there forever." He scowled savagely. "That's why I came out here. I dreamed it would be possible to make a new country that was truly free, a country without lawyers, and look what happened! We captured the capital, we drove the Spaniards to Valdivia, and is Santiago filled with happy people celebrating their liberty? No. It's filled with Goddamned lawyers making new laws."
"Bad laws?" Sharpe asked.
"What the hell do they care? It doesn't worry a rat if a law is good or bad. All they care is that they can make money enforcing it. That's what lawyers do. They make laws that no one wants, then make money disagreeing with each other what the damned law means, and the more they disagree the more money they make, but still they go on making laws, and they make them ever more complicated so that they can get paid for arguing ever more intricately with one another! I grant you they're clever buggers, but God, how I hate lawyers." Cochrane shouted the despairing cry to the cold, ship-breaking wind.
"In all history," he went on, "can you name one great deed or one noble achievement ever done by a lawyer? Can you think of any single thing that any lawyer has ever done to increase human happiness by so much as a smile? Can you think of even one lawyer who could stand with the heroes? Who could stand with the great and the daring and the saintly and the imaginative and the wondrous and the good? Of course not! Can a rat fly with eagles?" Cochrane had talked himself into a bitter mood. "It's the lawyers, of course, who refuse to honor the contract the government made with me. It's the lawyers who ordered me to capture Valdivia, knowing full well that it can't be done. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try." He paused again, and looked down at the chart. "Except I doubt this broken ship will ever sail as far as Valdivia. Perhaps I'll have to console myself by capturing Puerto Crucero instead."
Sharpe felt his heart give a small leap of hope. "That's where I want to go," he said.
"Why in God's name would you want to go to a shit-stinking hole like Puerto Crucero?" Cochrane asked.
"Because Bias Vivar is buried there," Sharpe said.
Cochrane stared at Sharpe with a sudden and astonishing incredulity. "He's what?"
"Bias Vivar is buried in the garrison church at Puerto Crucero."
Cochrane seemed flabbergasted. He opened his mouth to speak, but for once could find nothing to say.
"I've seen his grave," Sharpe explained. "That's why I was in Chile, you see."
"You crossed the world to see a grave?"
"I was a friend of Vivar. And we came here to take his body home to Spain."
"Good God Almighty," Cochrane said, then turned to look up at the foremast where a group of his men were retrieving the halyards that had been severed when the mainmast fell. "Oh, well," he said in a suddenly uninterested voice, "I suppose they had to bury the poor fellow somewhere."
It was Sharpe's turn to be puzzled. Cochrane's first reaction to Don Bias's burial had been an intrigued astonishment, but now His Lordship was feigning an utter carelessness. And suddenly, standing on the same quarterdeck where Captain Ardiles had told him the story, Sharpe remembered how Bias Vivar had been carried north in the Espiritu Santo for a secret rendezvous with Lord Cochrane. It was a story that had seemed utterly fantastic when Sharpe had first heard it, but that now seemed to make more sense. "I was told that Don Bias once tried to meet you, but was prevented by bad weather. Is that true?" he asked Cochrane.
Cochrane paused for an instant, then shook his head. "It's nonsense. Why would a man like Vivar want to meet me?"
Sharpe persisted, despite His Lordship's glib denial. "Ardiles told me this ship carried Vivar north, but that a storm kept him from the rendezvous."
Cochrane scorned the tale with a hoot of laughter. "You've been at the wine, Sharpe. Why the hell would Vivar want to meet me? He was the only decent soldier Madrid ever sent here, and he didn't want to talk to the likes of me, he wanted to kill me! Good God, man, we were enemies! Would Wellington have hobnobbed with Napoleon? Does a hound bark with the fox?" Cochrane paused as the frigate wallowed in a trough between two huge waves, then held his breath as she labored up the slope to where the wind was blowing the crest wild. The pumps clattered below decks to spurt their feeble jets of splashing water overboard. "You said you were a friend of Bias Vivar?" Cochrane asked when he was sure that the frigate had endured.
"It was a long time ago." Sharpe said. "We met during the Corunna campaign."
"Did you now?" Cochrane responded blithely, as though he did not really care one way or another how Sharpe and Vivar had met, yet despite the assumed carelessness Sharpe detected something strangely alert in the tall, red-haired man's demeanor. "I heard something very odd about Vivar," Cochrane went on, though with a studied tone of indifference, "something about his having an elder brother who fought for the French?"
"He did, yes." Sharpe wondered from where Cochrane had dragged up that ancient story, a story so old that Sharpe himself had half forgotten about it. "The brother was a passionate supporter of Napoleon, so naturally wanted a French victory in Spain. Don Bias killed him."
"And the brother had the same name as Don Bias?" Cochrane asked with an interest which, however he tried to disguise it, struck Sharpe as increasingly acute.
"I can't remember what the brother was called," Sharpe said, then he realized exactly how such a confusion might have arisen. "Don Bias inherited his brother's title, so in that sense they shared the same name, yes."
"The brother was the Count of Mouromorto?" Cochrane asked eagerly.
"And the brother had no children?" Cochrane continued the explanation, "So Bias Vivar inherited the title. Is that how it happened?"
Sharpe nodded. "Exactly."
"Ah!" Cochrane said, as though something which had been puzzling him for a long time abruptly made good sense, but then he deliberately tried to pretend that the new sense did not matter by dismissing it with a flippant comment. "It's a rum world, eh?"
"Is it?" Sharpe asked, but Cochrane had abruptly lost interest in the coincidence of Bias Vivar and his brother sharing a title and had started to pace his quarterdeck. He touched his hat to one of the two Spanish wives. The other, who had abruptly been translated into a widow the previous day, was in her cabin where her maid was trying to staunch her mistress's grief with unripe Chilean wine while her husband, a waxed thread stitched through his nose, was moldering at the Pacific's bottom.
Cochrane suddenly stopped his pacing and turned on Sharpe. "Did you sail in this ship from Valdivia?"
"No, from Puerto Crucero."
"So how did you get from Valdivia to Puerto Crucero? By road?"
Sharpe nodded. "Yes."
"Aha!" Cochrane's enthusiasm was back. "Is it a road on which troops can march?"
"They can march," Sharpe said dubiously, "but they'll never drag cannons all that way, and two companies of infantry could hold an army at bay for a week."
"You think so, do you?" Cochrane's enthusiasm faded as quickly as it had erupted. Cochrane had clearly been fantasizing about a land attack on Valdivia, but such an attack would be an impossibility without a corps of good infantry and several batteries of artillery, and even then Sharpe would not have wagered on its success. Siege warfare was the crudest variety of battle, and the most deadly for the attacker.
"Surely," Sharpe said, "O'Higgins can't blame you if you fail to capture Valdivia?"
"Bernardo knows which way his breeches button," Cochrane allowed, "but you have to understand that he's been seduced by the vision of becoming a respectable, responsible, sensible, reliable, boring, dull and pious national leader. By which I mean that he listens to the bloody lawyers! They've told him he mustn't risk his own reputation by attacking Valdivia, and persuaded him that it's better for me to do the dirty work. Naturally they haven't given me any extra soldiers, because I just might succeed if they had. I'm just supposed to work a miracle!" He glowered unhappily, then folded up the chart. "No doubt we'll all be at the sea's bottom before the week's out," he said gloomily. "Valdivia or Puerto Crucero? We probably won't reach either."
The frigate creaked and rolled, and the pumps spewed their feeble splashes of water over the side. The motion of the stricken Espiritu Santo seemed ever more sluggish and ever more threatening. Sharpe, glancing up at the skies which glowered with clouds run ragged by the endless wind, sensed the hopelessness of the struggle, but even when there was no hope, men had to keep on fighting.
And so they did, northward, toward the great citadels of Spain.
They pumped. By God, how they pumped. The leather pump hoses, snaking down into the Espiritu Santo's bilges, thrashed and spurted with the efforts of the men on the big oak handles. A man's spell at the handles was cut to just fifteen minutes, not because that was the extent of anyone's endurance, but rather because that was as long as any man could pump at full exertion, and if the pumps slackened by so much as an ounce a minute Cochrane swore the ship would be lost. Cochrane took turns himself now. He stripped to his waist and attacked the pump as though it was a lawyer whose head he pounded in with the big handles. Up and down, grunting and snarling, and the water spilled and slurped feebly over the side and still the frigate seemed to settle lower in the water and wallow ever more sluggishly.
The carpenters sounded the bilges again and reported that the hull timbers had been rotten. The frigate had been the pride. of the Spanish navy, yet some of her protective copper must have been lost at sea, and the teredoes and gribble worms had attacked her bottom starboard timbers. The wood had been turned into riddled pulp which, compressed by the explosion of the Mary Starbuck, had shattered into rotted fragments.
"No one noticed the worm damage?" Cochrane asked, but no one had, for it had been concealed in the darkest, deepest, foulest, rankest depths of the ship, and so the sea had flooded in and now the battles' survivors must pump for their lives. The men who were not pumping formed a bucket chain, desperately scooping water out of the dark flooding bilges. The carronades were jettisoned, then the long chasing nine-pounders, and finally all the other guns on board the frigate were thrown overboard, save only the two stern chasers which, mounted in Ardiles's quarters, were left untouched out of respect for the grieving Spanish Captain. Yet still the Espiritu Santo continued to take on water and to settle ever lower into the cold sea. Cochrane surreptitiously ordered the frigate's longboats to be provisioned with water casks and barrels of salt pork. "There's enough space to save half the ship's people," Cochrane admitted to Sharpe, "but only half. The rest of us will drown." The rats, sensing the disaster that was' going to overtake the ship, had long abandoned the bilges to run about the gundeck and cause screams from the women and children in the passengers' quarters.
On their fifth day, when the ship was riding so low she seemed sure to founder, Cochrane ordered another fother made, but this he ordered big enough to straddle half the starboard hull. The tired, wet, hungry men heaved the great cloth pad into place. It took hours, but not long after the job was finished, the carpenter sounded the ship's well and claimed the pumps were maybe holding their own, and a tired cheer went up at such grudging good news.
Some of the men were in favor of running ashore and risking the channel entrances in hope of finding a safe haven, but Cochrane stubbornly insisted on keeping his northward course. On the sixth day they sighted a great black cliff off to the east, but Cochrane wore ship and stood back out to sea. The squalls crashed about the frigate, streaming from the scuppers that had at last been scoured of their blood.
Cochrane's ebullience was gone, frayed by weariness and hunger. Everyone was hungry. The Espiritu Santa's food had been kept in the bilge and, when it flooded, the seawater destroyed what a legion of rats had been unable to consume. The bread and flour had been reduced to a soggy paste inside their barrels. There was plenty of strongly salted meat, but finding it in the dark, slopping water that still churned about the bilges was increasingly hard. The pigs, chickens and sheep that had been put aboard to provide fresh meat in the mid-Atlantic were slaughtered, their squeals and blood thick in the wet air.
More men died. The sailcloth shroud of one man tore when he was jettisoned overboard and the roundshot that should have dragged his body to the seabed fell free. The corpse, in its gray bag, floated behind the ship as a reminder of just how slowly the Espiritu Santo was sailing. She was limping north, traveling scarcely faster than a half-shrouded body. At dusk the corpse was still there, its face bobbing up and down from the green waves in mocking obeisance, but then, in a churning horror of foam and savagery, a great black and white beast, with fangs like saw blades, erupted out of the deep to carry the corpse away. Sharpe, who did not see the attack, was inclined to dismiss the story as another monstrous invention, but Cochrane confirmed it. "It was a killer whale," he told Sharpe with a shudder, "nasty things." Some of Cochrane's men swore the whale's coming was an evil omen, and as the day waned it seemed they must be right, for the ship had begun to settle again, this time ever deeper. The pumps and buckets were losing the battle.
Still they fought, none harder than Cochrane's band of seasoned fighters. They were a strange piratical mixture of criollos, mestizos, Spaniards, Irish, Scots, Englishmen, Americans and even a handful of Frenchmen. They reminded Sharpe yet again of Napoleon's observation about the world being filled with troubled men, accustomed to war, who only waited for a leader to bring them together to assault the citadels of respectable property. Cochrane's seamen, good fighters all, were as savage as their master. "They fight for money," Cochrane told Sharpe. "Some, a few, are here to free their country, but the rest would fight for whichever side paid the largest wages. Which is another reason I need to capture Valdivia. I need its treasury to pay my rascals."
Yet, next dawn, under a gray, sad sky from which a thin, spiteful rain leached like poison, the frigate was lower in the water than it had been all week. The carpenters suggested that more planks had sprung and suggested heading for land. Cochrane gloomily agreed, but then, just as he had given up hope, a strange sail was seen to northward.
"God help us now," an Irish sailor said to Harper.
"Why's that?" Harper, seeing the sail, anticipated a rescue.
"Because if that's a Spanish ship then we're all dead men. We don't have a broadside, so they'll either stand off and pound us down into lumpy gravy, or else take us all prisoner, and there'll be no mercy shown to us in Valdivia. They'll have a priest bellowing in our ears while the firing squad sends us all to Abraham's bosom. That's if they don't just hang us from their yardarms first to save the cost of the powder and balls. Jesus, but I should have stayed in Borris, so I should."
Cochrane ran to the foremast and climbed to the crosstrees where he settled himself with a telescope. There was a long, agonizing wait, then His Lordship sent a cheer rippling down the deck. "It's the O'Higgins, my boys! It's the O'Higgins!" The relief was as palpable as if a flight of rescuing angels had descended from heaven.
Cochrane's flagship had come south to search for its Admiral, and the men on the Espiritu Santo were saved. To fight again.
Captain Ardiles, with the Espiritu Santa's crew and passengers, was ferried across to the Chilean flagship. The transfers were made in longboats that crashed hard against the Espiritu Santa's side as the prisoners climbed down precarious scrambling nets. The women and children, terrified of the nets, were lowered into the longboats with ropes.
For every prisoner or passenger carried to the O'Higgins, a seaman came back. The O'Higgins also sent food, water and two portable pumps that were lowered into the Espiritu Santa's bilges. Fresh strong arms took over the pumping and suddenly the tired and leaking ship was filled with a new life and hope.
Cochrane, so closely snatched from shipwreck, was ebullient again. He welcomed the reinforcements aboard the Espiritu Santo, hurrahed as their new pumps began spewing water overboard, and insisted on sending obscenely cheerful messages to his own flagship. When he became bored with that occupation he paced the quarterdeck with a bottle of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other. "You never told me, Sharpe," he hospitably offered a drink from the bottle, "just why Bautista threw you out of Chile. Surely not because you wanted to filch Vivar's corpse?"
"It was because I was carrying a message for a rebel."
"A man called Charles. Do you know him?"
"Of course I know him. He's my friend. My God, he's the only man in Santiago I can really trust. What did the message say?"
"I don't know. It was in code."
Cochrane's face had gone pale. "So who was it from?" He asked the question in a voice that suggested he was afraid of hearing the answer.
"Oh, dear God." Cochrane paused. "And Bautista has the message now?"
Cochrane swore. "How in hell's name did you become Boney's messenger?"
"He tricked me into carrying it." Sharpe explained as best he could, though the explanation sounded lame.
Cochrane, who had seemed appalled when he first heard of the intercepted message, now appeared more interested in the Emperor. "How was he?" he asked eagerly.
"He was bored," Sharpe said. "Bored and fat."
"But alert? Energetic? Quick?" The one-word questions were fierce.
"No. He looked terrible."
"How?" Cochrane asked.
"He's out of condition. He's fat and pale."
"But he made sense to you?" Cochrane asked urgently. "His brain is still working? He's not lunatic?"
"Christ, no! He made perfect sense!"
Cochrane paused, drawing on his cigar. "You liked him?"
"Yes, I did."
"Funny, isn't it? You fight a man most of your life and end up liking the bugger."
"You met him?" Sharpe asked.
Cochrane shook his head. "I wanted to. When I was on my way here I wanted to call at Saint Helena, but the winds were wrong and we were already late." Cochrane had crossed to the rail where he stopped to gaze at the O'Higgins. She was a handsome ship, a fifty-gun battleship that had once sailed in the Spanish Navy and had been renamed by her captors. Her solidity looked wonderfully reassuring compared to the fragility of the half-sinking Espiritu Santo. 'They should have killed Bonaparte," Cochrane said suddenly. 'They should have stood him against a wall and shot him."
"You surprise me," Sharpe said.
"I do?" Cochrane blew a plume of cigar smoke toward his flagship. "Why?"
"You don't seem a vengeful man, that's why."
"I don't want vengeance." Cochrane paused, his eyes resting again on the O'Higgins which rocked her tall masts against the darkening sky. "I feel sorry for Bonaparte. He's only a young man. It's unfair to lock up a man like that. He set the world on fire, and now he's rotting away. It would have been kinder to have killed him. They should have given him a last salute, a flourish of trumpets, a blaze of glory, and a bullet in his heart. That's how I'd like to go. I don't want to make old bones." He drank from his bottle. "How old is Bonaparte?"
"Fifty," Sharpe said. Just seven years older than himself, he thought.
"I'm forty-five," Cochrane said, "and I can't imagine being cooped up on an island forever. My God, Bonaparte could fight a hundred battles yet!"
"That's exactly why they've cooped him up," Sharpe said.
"I can't help feeling for the man, that's all. And you say he's unwell? But not badly ill?"
"He suffers from nothing that a day's freedom and the smell of a battlefield wouldn't cure."
"Splendid! Splendid!" Cochrane said delightedly.
Sharpe frowned. "What I don't understand is why Napoleon would be writing in code to your friend Charles."
"You don't?" Cochrane asked, as if such a lack of understanding was extraordinary. "It's simple, really. Charles is a curious fellow; always writing to famous people to seek their versions of history. He doubtless asked the Emperor about Austerlitz or Waterloo or whatever. Nothing to it, Sharpe, nothing at all."
"And he wrote in code?" Sharpe asked in disbelief.
"How the hell would I know? You must ask Charles or the Emperor, not me." Cochrane dismissed the matter testily, then leaned over the gunwale to shout a rude greeting at the last longboats to bring men from the O'Higgins.
Those last reinforcements were a group of Chilean Marines under the command of Major Miller, a portly Englishman who, resplendent in a blue uniform coat, had a tarred moustache with upturned tips. "Proud to meet you, Sharpe, proud indeed." Miller clicked his heels in formal greeting. "I was with the Buffs at Oporto, you will doubtless recall that great day? I was wounded there, recovered for Albuera, and what a bastard of a fight that was, got wounded again, was patched up for that bloody business in the Roncesvalles Pass, got shot again and was invalided out of the service with a game leg. So now I'm fighting for Cochrane. The money's better if we ever get paid, and I haven't been shot once. This old ship's a bit buggered, isn't she?"
The Espiritu Santo was indeed buggered, so much so that, despite the influx of fresh muscle and the extra pumps, Cochrane reluctantly accepted that the captured frigate could never sail as far as Valdivia without repairs. "It'll have to be Puerto Crucero," he told Major Miller, who brisded with confidence at the news and alleged that capturing the smaller harbor would entail less work and smaller risk than a night spent in a Santiago whorehouse. "My chaps will make short work of Puerto Crucero. Mark my words, Sharpe, these are villains!" Miller's villains numbered exactly fifty, of whom only forty-five actually carried weapons. The remaining five marines were musicians: two drummers and three flautists. "I used to have a bagpiper," Miller said wistfully. "A splendid fellow! He couldn't play to save his life, but the noise he made was simply magnificent! Bloody dagoes shot him in a nasty little fight when we captured one of their frigates. One squelch of a dying chord, and that was the end of the poor bugger. Shame. They shot the bagpipes too. I tried to mend them, but they were beyond hope. We buried them, of course. Full military honors!"
Sharpe diffidently wondered whether abandoning ten percent of his muskets to music was wise, but Miller dismissed Sharpe's implied objections. "Music's the key to victory, Sharpe. Always has been and always will be. One thing I noted in the Frog wars was that our chaps always won when we had music. Stirs up the blood. Makes a chap think he's invincible. No, my dear fellow, my forty-five chaps fight like tigers so long as the music's chirruping, but if a flute stops to take a breath they wilt into milksops. If I could find the instruments I'd have half the bastards playing music and only half fighting. Nothing would stop me then! I'd march from here to Toronto and kill everything in between!" Miller looked extraordinarily pleased at such a prospect. "So, my dear fellow, you've been to Puerto Crucero, have you? Much in the way of defenses there?"
Sharpe had already described the defenses to Lord Cochrane, but now, and as soberly as he could, he described the formidable fortress that dominated Puerto Crucero's harbor. From the landward side, Sharpe averred, it was impregnable. The seaward defenses were probably more attainable, but only if the cannon on the wide firesteps could be dismounted or otherwise destroyed. "How many guns?" Miller asked.
"I saw twelve. There must be others, but I didn't see them."
"Thirty-six pounders. They've also got the capacity to heat shot."
Miller sniffed, as if to suggest that such defenses were negligible, but Sharpe noted that the belligerent Major seemed somewhat crestfallen, and so he should have been, for a dozen thirty-six-pounder cannons were a considerable obstacle to any attack. Not only were such guns heavier than anything on board Cochrane's ships, but they were also mounted high on the fortress and could thus fire down onto the decks of the two frigates. Such huge roundshot, slamming into the decks and crashing on through the hull to thump through a boat's bilges, could sink a ship in minutes. Indeed, the fragile Espiritu Santo would hardly need one such heavy shot to send her to the bottom.
Worse still, the thirty-six-pound iron shots could be heated to a red heat. Then, if such a ball lodged in a ship's timber, a fire could start in seconds and Sharpe had already seen, in the Mary Starbuck, just how vulnerable wooden ships were to fire. From the moment the two ships entered the outer harbor until the moment they touched against the quay, they would be under a constant hammering fire. Captain-General Bautista was a man of limited military imagination, but his one certainty was that artillery won wars, and by trying to sail the Espiritu Santo and the O'Higgins into Puerto Crucero's harbor, Cochrane was playing right into Bautista's unimaginative trap. The red-hot thirty-six-pound cannonballs, with whatever other guns the defenders could bring to bear, would pound the two warships into charred splinters of bloody matchwood long before they reached the quay. Even if, by some miracle, one of the ships did limp through the hail of roundshot and managed to land an attacking force on the quay, there would still be plenty of Spanish infantry ready to defend the steep open stairway with musket fire and bayonets. Miller's two drummers and three flautists would be helpless against such flailing and punishing fire.
Yet Cochrane insisted it could be done. "Trust me, Sharpe! Trust me!"
"I've told you, my Lord, you are doing precisely what the Spaniards want you to do!"
"Trust me! Trust me!"
The Spanish fortress guns were not the only obstacles to Cochrane's blithe optimism. Even the tide pattern suggested the attack could not succeed. The waterlogged Espiritu Santo, which Cochrane insisted would be the assault ship, could only get alongside the fortress quay at the very top of the high tide. If-the attack was just one hour late the water would have dropped far enough to prevent the frigate reaching the quayside. That narrow tidal opportunity dictated that the attack would have to be mounted at dawn, and the approach to the harbor made in a misty half-darkness, for the next morning's suitable high tide fell just as the sun would be rising. Sharpe, not given easily to despair, suspected the whole assault was doomed, yet Cochrane still insisted it could be done. "It would be more sensible to use the O'Higgins to carry the assault troops, of course," Cochrane allowed. "She's got guns and is undamaged, but if anything went wrong, I'd lose her, so I might as well stay in the Espiritu Santo. Of course, Sharpe, if you're scared of the proceedings, then I'll quite understand if you'd rather watch from the deck of the O'Higgins?"
Sharpe was almost tempted to accept the offer. This was not his fight, and he had no particular taste for Cochrane's elaborate suicide mission, but he was unwilling to admit to Cochrane or to Major Miller that he was frightened, and besides, he had business of his own in Puerto Crucero, and a grudge against the man who had expelled him, so he did have a reason to fight, even if the fight was hopeless. "I'll stay with the ship," he said.
"Even though you think it's suicide?" Cochrane teased Sharpe.
"I wish I could think otherwise," Sharpe said.
"You forget," Cochrane said, "what the Spaniards say of me. I'm their devil. I work black magic. And in tomorrow's dawn, Sharpe, you'll see just how devilish I can be." His Lordship laughed, and his ship, pumps clattering, limped toward battle.
Major Miller possessed a large watch that was made, he touchingly claimed, of East Indian gold, yet it was a gold stranger than any Sharpe had ever seen for the outside of the watchcase was rusted orange and its insides tarnished black. The watch itself was famously erratic, causing Miller forever to be shaking it or tapping it or even dropping it experimentally on what he described as the «softer» portions of the deck. Once it was ticking, however, he declared the watch to be the most accurate and reliable of all timepieces.
"One hour to high tide," he now declared confidently, then held the watch to his ear before adding, somewhat ominously, "or maybe less."
Sharpe hoped it was more, much more, for the stricken Espiritu Santo still seemed a long way from the rocky headland that protected Puerto Crucero's harbor, and if the frigate was to be successfully sailed right alongside the fortress quay then the maneuver would need to be completed by the last moments of the rising tide. There would be sufficient water to make a landing possible for a whole hour after the high tide, but both Cochrane and his sailing master doubted that the attack could succeed after the tide had turned. The captured frigate's hull was so fouled by damage and by fothering, and her upperworks so feebly rigged, that the ship would probably be pushed backward by the opposition of even the most feeble ebbing current.
"But we'll make it!" Major Miller declared, imbued with an unconquerable optimism. "Tommy's too clever to make silly mistakes with the tide!" «Tommy» was Lord Cochrane, and Miller's hero. Miller shook the watch dubiously, then, realizing that his gesture might suggest to an onlooker that the precious timepiece was not working to its vaunted perfection, he stuffed it back into a pocket of his waistcoat. 'You and Mister Harper will do me the honor of attacking in our company? Ton my soul, Sharpe, but I never thought I'd live to see the day when I'd swing a sword in your company."
"The honor will all be mine," Sharpe said gallantly, then turned as one of the two remaining cannon on board the Espiritu Santo banged its flat, hard sound across the water.
The success of the attack depended entirely on a ruse devised by Lord Cochrane, but a ruse so brilliantly conceived that Sharpe was convinced it must succeed in deceiving the enemy. The deception was a piece of theater that had been suggested to His Lordship by the Espiritu Santos woeful condition. The Spanish frigate was, even to the most untutored eye, a ship on the very edge of disaster, a ship battered and sinking, a ship partially dismasted, a ship canted and stricken, a wounded ship that had been outfought and near sunk, a ship at the very end of her life, and if, Lord Cochrane reasoned, such a beaten vessel was to be seen limping into Puerto Crucero's harbor, and if, moreover, the broken vessel was seen to be under attack by the dreaded O'Higgins, then the fort's defenders must assume that the Espiritu Santo was still fighting for Spain, and those defenders, instead of firing at the limping ship, would actually seek to protect her from the pursuing rebel flagship.
The O'Higgins, in order to make the illusion complete, had changed her own appearance. The main and mizzen topmasts had been unshipped and slung down to the deck to make it seem that she had suffered damage in what Puerto Crucero's defenders must be convinced had been a long running fight at sea. Old sails had been left draped on the O'Higgins's decks to suggest that not enough men remained alive to clear her battle damage. Then, to add verisimilitude to the deception, the O'Higgins had been firing at the Espiritu Santo since dawn, but the shots were deliberately sporadic, as though the rebel gunners were tired to the point of despair.
Thus, if the ruse succeeded, the watchers in Puerto Crucero would see a shattered Spanish warship fighting her way into the refuge of their harbor, desperately needing the fort's assistance to drive away her battered and wounded pursuer. The ruse, Sharpe did not doubt, would succeed in bringing the Espiritu Santo safe to the defenders' quay, but it would not guarantee that Cochrane's handful of men would then succeed in climbing from that quay to capture the towering citadel. Cochrane's devilment had, if the tide permitted, guaranteed success for the first part of the assault, but Sharpe did not know what magic would then take over to waft Miller's marines up the steep stone stairs.
Not that Major Miller had any doubts. "I just hope," he declared again and again to Sharpe, "that General Bautista is still in the fortress. It would give me great pleasure to capture him! My God, Sharpe, but I'll teach him to insult an Englishman!" Miller, who seemed to forget sometimes that he officially fought for the Chilean Republic now, touched the stiff tarred tips of his moustache. "How many defenders are there in the fort, d'you think?" Miller suddenly asked.
It seemed a little late to be asking such a question. "Three hundred?" Sharpe guessed, but having been inside the citadel, he was fairly sure of his guess. He estimated that the Spanish had three understrength companies of infantry, say two hundred men, supported by sixty or seventy gunners and a group of cooks, clerks and quartermaster's staff. "Three hundred," Sharpe said again, but more firmly.
"And we have one hundred in the attacking party," Miller said, not with despair, but rather with a kind of pride that the imminent victory would be gained by such an outnumbered band. Half the attackers were Miller's marines, the other half Cochrane's seamen, a vagabond band of fearsome men carrying butchers' weapons and double-shotted muskets.
Ahead of the Espiritu Santo now the sun was rising above the far mountains so that the world's edge seemed to be a jagged black silhouette lined with fire. Torn clouds of gold and scarlet flew above the sun's ascent. In the nearer valleys, still hugged by darkness, a mist silvered the threatening shadows. A shimmer of smoke showed above the black headland to betray where Puerto Crucero's kitchen fires were lit. Above that headland was the grim outline of the waiting fortress high on its crag. Closer yet was a handful of fishing boats which, terrified of stray shots from the pair of fighting warships, were trying to reach the safety of the harbor.
The cannons crashed again as the O'Higgins turned to fire a pretended broadside. Some of the Chilean flagship's guns were properly loaded with roundshot, for Cochrane insisted that the sound of a blank gun was utterly different from the full-throated explosion of a barrel charged with lethal roundshot. Besides, the huge splashes of water exploding close to the Espiritu Santo as the roundshot ploughed into the sea only added to the verisimilitude of Cochrane's deception. That deception was enhanced by the huge, shot-torn banner of Spain that he had ordered hoisted at the Espiritu Santo's stern.
"They'll have seen us by now!" Miller declared in a voice so loud and confident that Sharpe knew the jaunty marine was nervous. Men's voices always seemed louder in the moments before battle, the moments when they had nothing to say but spoke anyway just to prove that fear was not making their hearts flabby and bellies sour.
"They'll have heard us an hour ago," Sharpe said. He imagined the defenders high on the fortress ramparts staring through long brass telescopes at the sea battle. He imagined, too, the iron roundshot being heated in the roaring furnaces beneath the bastions. The thirty-six pounders were probably already loaded, perhaps double-shotted, with cold missiles, but their second and third salvoes could leave traces of smoke as the red-hot shots seared above the cold morning sea.
"Hide yourselves, gentlemen! Hide yourselves!" Lord Cochrane, gripping the quarterdeck rail above Sharpe's head, spoke softly, yet Sharpe could hear the excitement in the rebel Admiral's voice. Cochrane, Sharpe thought, was febrile with anticipation. If Cochrane was nervous, it did not show, and somehow his confidence communicated itself to the attack force which now dutifully concealed itself deep in the shadows under the the break of the poop. They would stay under the concealing quarterdeck until the frigate actually touched the stone of the fortress quay. Then, screaming their battle cry, they would erupt out onto the astonished defenders. By which time, if Cochrane was right, the Espiritu Santo would be too close to the citadel for the gunners in their high batteries to be able to depress their cannons' barrels. It was possible, Cochrane allowed, that there might be cannons on the quay, which could wreak a terrible slaughter from the moment the Spanish ensign was dropped and the Chilean run up, so the first of Cochrane's men ashore were under orders to assault any such close and inconvenient guns. Major Miller, following hard on the heels of those first desperate men, would then lead his marines in their attack up the rock-built stairs that led initially to the big thirty-six pounders on their wide bastion, and afterward into the very heart of the citadel.
"Not long now, boys, not long now!" Cochrane called softly.
The wind felt cold. Sharpe shivered. He was thinking of that long open stairway that ran so steeply up the wind-fretted crag. It would only take one company of Spanish infantry to hold those stairs through all eternity. He looked sideways at Harper and saw a strained look on his friend's broad face. Harper, catching Sharpe's glance, grimaced as if to suggest that he realized how mad they were to be taking part in this foolery. One of Miller's two drummers gave his instrument an experimental tap. A man coughed horribly, then spat with relief. Behind the waiting men, in the Espiritu Santo's lavish stern cabins, the long-barreled nine pounders fired. Sharpe imagined the splash of the skipping shots as they whipped past the pursuing O'Higgins. Footsteps sounded loud on the quarterdeck above. Sharpe and Miller, peering out from under the poop, saw that the frigate had passed the outer headland and was now limping toward the fort that lay only a half mile away. The American brigantine, with her flamboyantly huge ensign, still lay at her twin anchors in the outer roadstead.
"Heads down, my lads!" Cochrane called from the quarterdeck. Besides Cochrane himself, only a dozen men were on deck, all of them Spanish speakers. One of those men was waiting with the furled rebel ensign because, under the rules of war, not a shot could be fired against the enemy till the Espiritu Santo displayed her true colors.
The fort's defenders, doubtless recognizing the Espiritu Santo as one of their own ships, would be watching the O'Higgins now, measuring their distance, waiting for her hull to clear the headland and thus expose herself to their dreadful fire. Sailors were lining the rails of the American brigantine, drawn there by the great percussive explosions of gunfire that had startled this Chilean dawn. Gulls screamed in the frigate's broken rigging. Sharpe could smell shellfish and seaweed. He could also smell the smoke from the cooking fires in the fishing hovels beyond the beach, and he thought how different the land smelled from the sea, then he obsessively drew the sword he had borrowed from Lord Cochrane an inch free from its scabbard to make sure that the blade was not stuck. In battle he had known men killed because their swords had rusted into their scabbards. The pumps clattered on the lower deck to spurt discolored bilge water into the silver-gray harbor. One of Miller's flautists blew three fast and plaintive notes as if checking that his instrument still worked. "Not yet, boys!" Miller said, "Not yet! And when we do attack, boys, I want to hear 'Heart of Oak'!" He beat time to a tune heard only in his head, then explained to Sharpe that two of his flautists were Chilean and therefore unfamiliar with patriotic British songs. "But I taught 'em, Sharpe, 'pon my soul I taught 'em." Unable to restrain himself, the Major burst into song.
“Come, cheer up, my lads!
‘tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to his wonderful year;
To honor we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Heart of oak are our ships!
Heart of oak are our men!
We always are ready!
Steady, boys, steady…
"Stop that bloody caterwauling down below!" came a bellow from the quarterdeck.
"A thousand apologies, my Lord!" Miller was mortified to have earned a reproof from his beloved Cochrane.
"Save your dreadful music for the enemy, Miller!" Cochrane was clearly amused by Miller's singing.
"Whatever you say, my Lord. And I'm much obliged for Your Lordship's advice!"
"And cheer up, lads!" Cochrane called down to all the hidden men who were nervously waiting for the attack to begin. "There are whores with tits of purest gold ashore! One more hour and we'll all be drunk, rich and rogered witless!"
Major Miller smiled confidingly at Sharpe. "A great man, our Tommy, a great man! A hero, Sharpe, like yourself. Cut from the old cloth, poured from an antique mold, sprung from ancient seed, clean hewn from solid oak!" Miller, moved by this elaborate encomium, sniffed. "He may be a Scotsman, but at heart there's English oak there, Sharpe, pure English oak! I'm proud to know him, I am, proud indeed." Miller looked as if he needed to cuff a tear from his eyes, but his emotional outpouring of loyalty was cut short by an appalling crash of gunfire from the castle ramparts. Heavy roundshot screamed overhead, slashing above the Espiritu Santa's truncated masts to blast fountains of water close to the pursuing O'Higgins. The Chilean flagship immediately answered with a deafening full broadside.
"God save Ireland," Harper said, "but I never thought to be in a battle again."
The Chilean shots cracked against the castle crag, splintering shards of stone, but otherwise doing no damage. Other guns were firing now, lighter guns, cracking their missiles down from the citadel's highest ramparts, Sharpe imagined the roundshots smashing through the O'Higgins’ hull timbers. God help them, he thought, God help them. So far, at least, the deception had worked and no Spanish guns were firing at the Espiritu Santo; all the dreadful gunnery was aimed at the O 'Higgins.
A strange voice called in a lull between the gunshots, and Sharpe, with an apprehensive leap of his heart, realized that the voice must have been calling from somewhere ashore. They were close, so close. A wisp of mist drifted across the wreckage which Cochrane had artfully strewn on the Espiritu Santos, main deck. The voice called again, and this time a man shouted in answer from the frigate's bow, explaining that the Espiritu Santo had been in a running fight with the devil Cochrane these last six days, and that the frigate was filled with wounded, but praise God and Saint James they had slaughtered and wounded scores of their enemies and might even have killed that devil Cochrane with their gunnery.
Another terrible crash of gunfire was followed by a horribly familiar rending sound as the great cannonballs ripped the sky apart. Sharpe, looking up through the Espiritu Santa's tattered rigging, saw the smoke trails.of heated shot. "God help the O'Higgins," he said softly.
"God help us all," Harper responded. A marine crossed himself. Miller was singing again, though under his breath for fear of offending Cochrane. The men at the pumps faltered for a second, then began their desperate pumping again. Footsteps paced, slow and comforting, on the quarterdeck above.
"Not long now, lads," Cochrane's voice called softly. "Think of the waiting whores. Think of the gold! Think of the plunder we'll take! Not long now!"
The man on the frigate's beakhead was calling more news ashore. Captain Ardiles was dead, he said, and the First Lieutenant dying. "We have women and children on board!" he called ashore.
"Twenty paces, no more!" Cochrane warned his attackers.
"I pray there's water under our keel!" Miller said in sudden fear. "God, give us water!" Sharpe had a sudden image of the frigate stranded fifteen paces from land and being pulverized by cannonfire.
"Fifteen paces! Stay hidden now!" Cochrane said.
A marine nervously scraped a sharpening stone down his fixed bayonet. Another felt the edge of his cutlass with his thumb. Sharpe had seen the man do the same thing at least a dozen times in the last minute. Miller took a hugely deep breath, then spat onto the snakeskin handle of his sword. A gust of wind reflected off the citadel's crag to flog the edge of a sail and spray dew thick as rain down onto the frigate's deck.
"Ensign!" Cochrane called sharply. "Hoist our colors!"
The Spanish flag rippled down, to be replaced immediately with the new Chilean flag. At the very same moment there was a crash as the frigate's starboard quarter slammed into the quay.
"Come on!" Cochrane roared. "Come on!"
The assault force was still staggering from the impact of the frigate's crashing arrival against the quay, but now they pushed themselves upright and, screaming like devils, scrambled into the dawn's wan light.
Cochrane was already poised on the ship's rail. The frigate had struck the quay, and was now,rebounding. The gap was two paces, three, then Cochrane leaped. Other men were jumping ashore with berthing lines.
"Come on, lads! Music!" Miller's sword was high in the air.
A seaman had slung a prow ashore to act as a gangplank. A few men jostled to use it, but most men simply leaped to the quay from the frigate's starboard rail. A flute screeched. A drummer, safely ashore, gave a ripple of sound. A man screamed as he missed his footing and fell into the water.
A cannon fired from the quay's far end and a ball slashed harmlessly across the quarterdeck, bounced, and ripped out a section of the port gunwale. Sharpe was at the rail now. Christ, but the gap looked huge and beneath him was a churning mass of dirty white water, but men were shouting at him to make way, and so he jumped. The first men ashore were screaming defiance as they ran toward the small battery at the quay's end where the gunners were desperately trying to slew their guns around to faqe the sudden enemy. Cannon smoke was blowing across the harbor. The O'Higgins had cleverly taken shelter behind the American brigantine and the Spanish gunners, fearful of bombarding a neutral ship and unable to depress their heavy cannons sufficiently to fire down onto the Espiritu Santo, had temporarily ceased fire.
Harper jumped and sprawled on the quay beside Sharpe. He picked himself up and ran toward the stone stairs. Major Miller was already on the steps, climbing as fast as his short legs would carry him. Behind him a mass of men flooded onto the stairway. Fear gave the attack a desperate impetus. A last cannon fired from the quay battery and Sharpe saw one of Miller's marines torn bloody by the ball's terrible strike.
Then a musket banged from the citadel high above and the ball flattened itself on the quay. The quay battery was finished, its gunners were either bayonetted or shot, or had jumped into the water. Lord Cochrane, that task successfully completed, was running to the stairs, trying to catch up with Miller's frantic assault. Sharpe ran with Cochrane, easily outpacing the fat Harper who was struggling behind. "Jesus Christ, but this is wonderful! Oh, God, but this is wonderful! What joy this is!" Cochrane was talking to himself, lost in a heaven of weltering blood and banging gunfire. "Christ, but what a way to live! Isn't this wonderful? ‘pon my soul, what a morning!" His Lordship elbowed his way through Miller's rear ranks so he could lead the attack.
The stairs led first to the terrace where the Indian, Ferdinand, had been murdered by the big thirty-six-pounder gun. Three of those guns fired as Sharpe neared the terrace and their muzzle flashes seemed to fill the whole sky with one searing and percussive explosion. The gunners had not fired at any particular target, but had merely emptied their barrels before abandoning the huge weapons. Major Miller and his marines were on the bastion now, but the Spanish gunners were in full flight, leaping off the battery's far wall to scramble away across the bare rock slope. The iron door of the shot-heating furnace had been left open so that the air above the brick structure shimmered with a dreadful heat.
"Leave them be!" Cochrane roared at the handful of marines who seemed intent on chasing the gunners. "Miller! Up the stairs! Follow me!"
The main battery was captured, but the citadel itself was still in Spanish hands and the hardest part of the attack was yet to be completed. Cochrane, knowing that he had to exploit the surprise he had achieved, was leading a madcap charge up the wider flight of stairs that led into the very heart of the fortress. Once those stairs were climbed the fort must inevitably fall, but Cochrane knew only too well that he needed to reach the summit before the Spaniards recovered from the shock of the attack. The staircase was foully steep and offered an attacker no shelter, so that a handful of determined defenders could hold the stairs for eternity. "Follow! Follow! Follow!" Cochrane, knowing he had only seconds to capture the citadel, roared the word.
"Cochrane!" his men responded, but feebly, for they were out of breath. They had spent too long on board ship and their legs were weak. The assault was slowing down as burning muscles and cramps took their toll.
Then, appallingly, a rank of muskets crashed and flamed from high above the breathless attackers. One of Miller's marines toppled backward, his mouth full of blood. A seaman screamed, then cartwheeled down the steps to carry two more men away in his helpless tumble. Sharpe saw musket smoke spurting out of the arched windows from where he had watched Ferdinand's grisly death, then he saw a mighty billow of smoke erupt from the arch at the top of the stairway and he knew that the Spanish had succeeded in posting a company of infantry at the top of the rock-cut stairs, and if those infantrymen were only half good then the Spanish must win.
The infantry was good enough. Its first two volleys were followed by another within just fifteen seconds. Two more marines fell backward. A dozen men had collapsed on the steps; some were dead, some wounded. A drummer was screaming in pain, his hand fluttering on the drumskin to make a grotesque dying music. Cochrane's gamble, which had depended on reaching the top of the stairs before the Spanish defenders barred the archway, had failed.
"Fire!" Miller shouted, and his men hammered a feeble volley at the musket smoke, but the volley was almost immediately answered by another cracking smack of musket fire. The balls sliced and lashed past Sharpe's ears. A Corporal was vomiting blood and slipping back down the slope. Miller fired a useless pistol at the defenders, then screamed defiance, but the Spaniards had the best of this fight. Not only were there more of them, but they had the advantage of the high ground. They were well trained, too. The company was rotating its ranks. As soon as the front rank had poured its musketry down into the rebel attack, it stepped back to be replaced by the second rank which, its guns reloaded and ready, added its fire before the third rank stepped forward. They were firing like British infantry used to fire. They had established a murderous rhythm of volleys that would keep firing till the attackers were reduced to twitching, bloody carcasses on the steps. It was volley fire like this that had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and which now was throwing back Cochrane at Puerto Crucero.
"Down!" Cochrane shouted. "Get down!" The man had the devil's own luck, for despite being in the front rank, he was unscathed, but his assault was in horrid confusion.
Sharpe had a pistol that he fired at one of the arched windows that lay high to his right. He saw a chip of stone fly off the window ledge. Harper dropped beside Sharpe. "Christ save Ireland," Harper panted, "but this is desperate!" He leveled his borrowed musket and fired up into the smoke. "I told the wife I'd be doing nothing dangerous. Not a thing, I told her, except the sea voyage, and that never worries her because she's a great believer in Saint Brendan's protection, so she is." All this was spoken while Harper was reloading the musket with a skill that betrayed his years of soldiering. 'Jesus, but the money that woman wastes on candles! Christ, I could have lit my way to the shithole of hell and back with all the bloody candles she's given to the holy saints, but I wished she'd lit a bloody candle to keep me safe in a fight." He aimed up the steps in the general direction of the smoke cloud and pulled the trigger. "God help us." He began reloading. "I mean there's no way out of here, is there? The bloody boat will be hard aground in a minute or two."
Sharpe saw a man leaning out of a window to fire at the attackers cowering on the steps. He aimed the reloaded pistol and fired, and saw a spurt of blood vivid in the gray morning as the man toppled down the crag's face. "Got one," he said happily.
"Good for you." Harper raised himself and fired over the prone bodies of the marines higher up the steps. A volley smacked down, blasting a chip of stone from the stair beside Sharpe.
"This can't last!" Sharpe shouted at Harper. He needed to shout for the musketfire was almost continuous now, suggesting that the Spaniards had concentrated even more muskets at the top of the steps. For the defenders this was like shooting rats in a barrel. They would be grinning as they fired, knowing that this day they were defeating the dreaded Lord Cochrane and that all Spain would rejoice when that news reached home. Another volley banged, and the dead bodies which made a protective breastwork for Sharpe and Harper twitched under the flail of lead. "On, my good boys, on!" Miller called, but no one obeyed, for there could be no chance of surviving an uphill attack into that rending, flickering, crashing and unending fire. Any man who tried to climb the stairs would be cut down in seconds, then thrown back to the quay that was already piled with the blood-spattered dead who had rolled down the steps. "Stay down!" Cochrane countermanded Miller's hopeless order. "Stay low! It's all going to be well! I've a trick or two yet, boys!"
"Jesus, but he needs a bloody trick now," Harper said, then raised the musket blindly over the parapet of the dead bodies to pull its trigger. "God save Ireland, but we're dead men unless he can get us out of here."
Miller shouted at his musicians to play louder, as though their feeble and ragged music could somehow turn back the surging tide of disaster. Some of Miller's experienced marines, realizing how hopeless was their plight, began to edge backward. There had been a chance of capturing the fortress, even a good chance, but only if the surprise attack had reached the head of the staircase before the defenders had rallied. But the attackers had failed by yards, and now the Spaniards were grinding Cochrane's men into blood and bones. More attackers began slipping down the steps. They were looking for possible escape routes around the harbor's edge.
"Stay there!" Cochrane shouted. "It's all right, lads! Stay where you are! Wait for it! I promise everything will be well! Heads down now! Heads down! Keep your—" Cochrane's voice was swamped as the whole world suddenly exploded in noise and stone fragments.
"Christ!" Harper screeched as the citadel's foundations seemed to shudder with the impact of gunfire.
The O'Higgins, now that the citadel's main thirty-six-pound battery had been silenced, had sailed out from the unwitting protection offered by the American ship and had anchored with her starboard broadside facing the fortress. She had just fired that full broadside at the defenders bunched at the top of the broad flight of stairs. The volley of cannonfire had been shockingly dangerous to the attackers, but magnificent shooting all the same. At a range of almost a half mile the flagship's guns were firing just feet over the heads of Cochrane's attackers. At least one cannon-ball fell short, for Sharpe saw a marine virtually disintegrate just five steps above him. At one moment the man was aiming his musket, the next there was just a butcher's mess on the stairs and a crack of murderous intensity as the ball ricocheted on up toward the Spaniards.
"Heads down!" Cochrane called again, and once again the broadside thundered from the Chilean warship. Stone shards, struck from the battlements, sang viciously over Sharpe's head. This, he remembered from the tales of survivors, was precisely how Wellington had captured San Sebastian. That great fortress, the last French bastion in Spain, had resisted every British attack until, at the very last moment of the very last assault, when the helpless attackers were dying in the great breach as the French garrison poured a murderous fire into the redcoated ranks, Wellington had ordered his siege guns to fire just above the attackers' heads. The unexpected cannonade, catching the French defenders out of their entrenchments and exposed behind the breach's makeshift barricades, had turned a glorious French victory into a butcher's nightmare. The huge roundshot had destroyed the French defenders, blowing them ragged, and a British defeat had turned into sudden triumph. Now Cochrane was trying the exact same trick.
"Heads down!" Cochrane called again. He had clearly anticipated that the defenders might block the head of the stairs, and had thus arranged with the O'Higgins for this drastic solution that had caught the Spaniards bunched at the stairhead. "One more broadside, lads, then we'll fillet the bastards!"
The third broadside slammed into the citadel above Sharpe. The defenders' musket fire, which a moment before had been so overwhelming, had now vanished, blown into whimpering carnage by the shocking violence of the naval gunnery.
"Charge!" Cochrane was shouting even as the brutal echo of the third broadside reverberated around the harbor. "Now charge!"
They charged. They were men who wanted to revenge a near defeat, and the sound of their vengeance as they scrambled up the shot-mangled steps was bloodcurdling. Somewhere ahead of Sharpe, steel scraped on steel and a man screamed. The top of the stairs was a slaughteryard of broken stone, blood and mangled flesh. A Spanish drummer boy, scarcely ten years old, was curled at the side of the the archway, his hands contracting into claws as he died. Sharpe, reaching the stair's head, found himself shrouded in a fog of dust and smoke. Screams sounded ahead of him, then a Spanish soldier, his face a mask of blood, came charging from Sharpe's right. The man lunged his bayonet at Sharpe who, with a practiced reflex, stepped back, tripped the man, then hacked down once with the sword. The borrowed blade seemed horribly light and seemed to do so little damage. Harper, a pace behind Sharpe, killed the man with a thrust of his bayonet. A volley of muskets sounded through the smoke, but no bullets came near Sharpe or Harper, suggesting that the volley was a rebel salvo fired at the retreating defenders. "This way!" Miller's voice shouted. His remaining drummer was beating the charge while the flautists were playing an almost recognizable version of "Heart of Oak."
The marines ran to the left, charging down a stone tunnel that led to the parade ground. Sharpe and Harper went the other way. They pushed through a half-open door, stepped over the mangled body of a Spanish soldier, and found themselves in the great audience hall where Bautista had so effortlessly humiliated Sharpe just days before. Now, in the smoky dust that hung in slanting beams of morning sunlight, they found the hall deserted of all but the dead. Sharpe stepped over a fallen bench and edged past a headless Spanish officer. One of the O'Higgins's can-nonballs had struck the huge iron chandelier which, grotesquely bent and ripped from its chains, was now canted against the far wall. The defenders, who had been firing down from the great arched windows, had fled, leaving a litter of torn cartridge papers behind them. A dozen cannonballs lay on the stone floor. The places where they had struck the wall opposite the big arched windows were marked by plate-sized craters. One of the round-shot must have taken off the head of the Spanish officer, for the hall's dusty floor was decorated with a monstrous fan of freshly sprayed blood.
Sharpe pushed open a door at the hall's far end to emerge onto the big parade ground. The Spaniards, in sheer terror, were abandoning the citadel's defenses, running toward the gate at the far side of the citadel. A nearby battery of nine-pounder cannons was deserted, the gunner's linstocks still smoking, the dirty sponge water in the buckets still rippling. Sharpe sheathed his sword and walked to the ramparts that had been smeared black with powder stains from the nine pounders' discharge and leaned over the citadel's high edge to draw in a great breath of clean, cold air. Somewhere in the fortress a dog howled and a child screamed.
"One of ours," Harper said.
"What's one of ours?" Sharpe asked.
"The gun!" Harper slapped the hot breech of the closest nine-pounder cannon and Sharpe saw there the cipher of King George III. The gun was presumably one of the thousands that the British government had given to the Spanish during the French wars. Sharpe touched the raised cipher and suddenly felt homesick—not for England and King George, but for Lucille and for her kitchen in Normandy and for the smell of dried herbs hanging from the beams, and for the rime of frost in the orchard and cat ice in the dairy yard, and for the sound of his children's laughter. Then, like a warm rush, the knowledge flooded through Sharpe that his job in Chile was done, that there were no obstacles now to his taking Vivar's body, except the minor one of finding a ship to carry the corpse home to Europe and Sharpe supposed Cochrane would help him over that difficulty.
Beneath Sharpe, her job well done, the Espiritu Santo was hard aground beside the wharf and beginning to list as she took the ground on the falling tide. Skeins of cannon smoke thinned and drifted across the outer harbor where longboats, crammed with reinforcements from the O'Higgins, were being rowed ashore. The sailors on the American brigantine were cheering the passing boats because, so far as they were concerned, Cochrane's rebels fought for liberty.
Cochrane's rebels thought they were fighting for Cochrane, for whores and for gold, while the Spaniards, their cause lost, were fleeing. Sharpe and Harper, walking unmolested around the citadel's inner ramparts, watched scores of defeated soldiers running pell-mell down the hairpin bends of the approach road. A few, presumably officers, had horses and were galloping toward the high road which led north to Valdivia. Some townsfolk stared in astonishment as the citadel's defeated garrison fled. "God, but they broke fast," Harper said in wonderment.
"They did," Sharpe agreed. He had seen soldiers run before, but never so easily as this. At Waterloo the French had run, but only after they had fought all day with snarling courage, yet these Spanish defenders, after firing a handful of volleys, had simply collapsed. Sharpe, given the citadel to defend, would have sheltered his men as soon as the frigate fired her first broadside, then counterattacked the moment the cannonade lifted, but the Spanish defenses and the morale of the garrison had proved as brittle as eggshells. The royal forces had been on the very edge of victory, but no one on the Spanish side had realized it or had nown how to capitalize on it. "They've rotted away," Sharpe said in the tone of a man suddenly understanding a truth. "Maybe all the Spaniards here are rotten." He was suddenly assailed by a fantastic vision of Cochrane, with his diminishing band of heroes, capturing fortress after fortress, and more and more Spaniards running pell-mell for safety until, at the end, there was nowhere to run and Chile would be united under its rebel government.
A cheer turned Sharpe around. From the top ramparts of the citadel's main tower, above the great audience chamber, a marine tossed a roll of plundered cloth that cascaded and rippled to hang like a monstrous banner from the battlements. Another marine cut the halyard that held the Spanish flag.
"So what now?" Harper asked.
"We dig up Bias Vivar and take him home." Sharpe was wiping the blade of Cochrane's spare sword clean. It was a good sword, nicely balanced and with a wickedly sharp edge, but it lacked the ugly killing weight of his old Heavy Cavalry blade.
"Do you think that bugger Bautista might still be here?" Harper was watching a small group of Spanish officers walk under guard from the large tower toward the barrack rooms.
"Bautista will have buggered off days ago." Sharpe scrubbed at the sticky blood with the corner of his coat, then grinned because he could almost hear Lucille's exasperated complaint, for he suddenly realized that this coat was none other than his good dark green kerseymere that Lucille liked so much and which was such a trouble to clean. “I'm going to be in the doghouse when I get home, he told Harper, "for fighting in my best coat."
"Women don't understand these things."
Somewhere in the citadel a child cried. Sharpe supposed that most of the men in the Spanish garrison would have taken themselves wives, and now those women would be finding new protectors. Major Miller, his tarred moustache looking more perky than ever, was protecting two such girls, one on each arm. "Did you enjoy yourself?" he called up to Sharpe.
"I did, thank you."
"I can offer you a fruit of victory, perhaps?" Miller gestured at the girls.
"Keep them, Major," Sharp^smiled, then turned to stare from the rampart far across the hills to where the ragged Andean peaks tore at the sky. The smoke of volcanoes was a brown smear in the new morning's sunlight. 'Thank God," he said quietly.
"What for?" Harper asked.
"Because it's over, Patrick." Sharpe was still overwhelmed by the sense of relief. "Honor is even. Cochrane rescued us from the Espiritu Santo, and we've helped him capture this place, and we don't need to do anything more. We can go home. It's a pity to have lost my sword, but I'll not be needing it again, not in this life, and I don't give a bugger about the next. As for Louisa's money, well, she wanted it spent on finding her husband, and we've found him, so it's over. We've fought our last fight."
Harper smiled. "Maybe we have at that."
Sharpe turned and looked down at the garrison church where Vivar lay buried. He saw rebels carrying gold out of the church, and he guessed that they had ripped apart the ornate altar screen. A cheer from the tower suggested that yet more treasure had been discovered. "Do you want to join in?" Sharpe invited Harper.
"I'm all right. Just glad to be in one piece." The Irishman yawned hugely. "But I'm tired, so I am."
"We can sleep today. All day." Sharpe pushed himself away from the wall. "But first we've got to lift a gravestone."
They had come to journey's end, to the grave of a friend, and this time there was no one to stop them from retrieving Vivar's body from its cold tomb. The citadel had fallen, Cochrane was victorious, and Sharpe could go home.
The paving slab that bore Bias Vivar's initials had been replaced, but the stoneworkers' tools were still in the side chapel and, with Harper's help, Sharpe inserted the crowbar beside the big sandstone slab. "Ready?" Sharpe asked. "Heave."
Nothing happened. "Bloody hell!" Harper said. Behind them, in the nave of the church, a man screamed. The O'Higgins's surgeon, a maudlin Irishman named MacAuley, had ordered the wounded of both sides to be brought into the church where, on a trestle table, he sliced at mangled flesh and sawed at shattered bones. A Dominican monk, who had been a surgeon in the citadel's sick bay, was helping the Irish doctor, as were two orderlies from the Chilean flagship.
"I hate listening to surgeons working," Harper said, then gave Vivar's gravestone a kick. "It doesn't want to move." The big Irishman spat on both hands, gripped the crowbar firmly and, with his feet solidly planted on either side of the slab, heaved back until the veins stood out on his forehead and sweat dripped down his cheeks. Yet all he succeeded in doing was bending the crowbar's shaft. 'Jesus Christ!" he swore as he let go of the crowbar, 'They've cemented the bugger in place, haven't they?" He went to the side chapel and came back with a sledgehammer. "Stand back."
Sharpe sensibly stepped back as the Irishman swung, then drove the head of the sledgehammer hard down onto the gravestone. The noise of the impact was like the strike of a cannonball, cracking the gravestone clean across. Harper swung the hammer again and again, grunting as he crazed the obstinate stone into a score of jagged-edged chunks. He finally dropped the hammer when the stone was reduced to rubble. "That's taught the bugger a lesson."
Lord Cochrane, who had come into the church while Harper was fevershly annihilating the stone, now took out his watch, snapped open its lid, and showed the face to Sharpe. "Thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds."
"My Lord?" Sharpe enquired politely.
"Thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds! See?"
"Has everyone gone mad around here?" Sharpe asked.
"Thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds is precisely how long it took us to capture the citadel! This watch measures elapsed time, do you see? You press this trigger to start it and this to stop it. I pressed the trigger as our bows touched the wharf, and stopped it when the last defender abandoned the ramparts. In fact I was a bit late, so we probably took less time, but even thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds is rather good for the capture of a citadel this size, don't you think?" His Lordship, who was in an excitedly triumphant mood, snapped the watch lid shut. "I must thank you. Both of you." He graciously bowed to both Sharpe and Harper.
"We didn't do anything," Sharpe said modestly.
"Not a great deal," Harper amended Sharpe's modesty.
"Numbers count for so much," His Lordship said happily. "If I'd attacked with just thirty men then there would have been no hope of victory, but I've discovered that in this kind of war success is gained by small increments. Besides, your presence was worth more than you think. Half of my men fought in the French wars, and they know full well who you are, both of you! And they feel more confident when they know that famous soldiers such as yourselves are fighting beside them."
Sharpe tried to brush the compliment aside, but Cochrane would have none of his coyness. "They feel precisely the same about my presence in a scrap. They fight better when I'm in command because they believe in me. And because they believe in my luck!"
"And Mister Sharpe's always been lucky in a fight," Harper added.
"There you are!" Cochrane beamed. "Napoleon always claimed he'd rather have lucky soldiers than clever ones, though I pride myself on being both."
Sharpe laughed at His Lordship's immodesty. "Why didn't you tell us you'd arranged to have the O'Higgins fire just over our heads if the attack faltered?"
"Because if men know you've got an ace hidden up your sleeve they expect you to play it whether it's needed or not. I didn't want to run the risk of using the broadside unless I really had to, but if the men had known the broadside might be used they would have held back in the knowledge that the gunners would do some of the hard work for them."
"It was a brilliant stroke," Sharpe said.
"How truly you speak, my dear Sharpe." Cochrane at last seemed to notice the destruction wrought by Harper's sledgehammer. "What are you doing, Mister Harper?"
"Bias Vivar," Harper explained. "He's under here. We're digging him up, only since we were last here the buggers have cemented him in place."
"The devil they have." Cochrane peered at the mess Harper had made of the slab as though expecting to see Vivar's decayed flesh. "Do you know why people are buried close to altars?" he asked Sharpe airily.
"No," Sharpe answered in the tone of a man who did not much care about the answer.
"Because very large numbers of Catholic churches have relics of saints secreted within their altars, of course." Cochrane smiled, as if he had done Sharpe a great favor by revealing the answer.
The Dominican surgeon, his white gown streaked and spattered with bright new blood, had come to the altar to protest to Lord Cochrane about the spoliation being wrought by Harper, but Cochrane turned on the man and brusquely told him to shut up. "And why," Cochrane continued blithely to Sharpe, "do you think the relics in the altar are important to the dead?"
"I really don't know," Sharpe said.
"Because, my dear Sharpe, of what will happen on the Day of Judgment."
Harper had fetched a spade with which he chipped away the fragments of limestone. "They have used bloody cement!" he said in exasperation. "Goddamn them. Why did they do that? It was just shingle when we tried to pull him out before!"
"They used cement," Cochrane said, "because they don't want you to dig him up."
"The Day of Judgment?" Sharpe, interested at last, asked Cochrane.
His Lordship, who had been examining the mangled remains of the altar screen, turned around. "Because, my dear Sharpe, common sense tells our Papist brethren that, at the sound of the last trump when the dead rise incorruptible, the saints will rise faster than us mere sinners. The rate of resurrection, so the doctrine claims, will depend on the holiness of the man or woman being raised from the dead, and naturally the saints will rise first and travel fastest to heaven. Thus the wise Papist, leaving nothing to chance, is buried close to the altar because it contains a saint's relic which, on the Day of Judgment, will go speedily to heaven, creating a draught of wind which will catch up those close to the altar and drag them up to heaven with it."
"He'll be dragged up in a barrowload of cement and shingle if he tries to fly out of this bloody grave," Harper grumbled.
Cochrane, who seemed to Sharpe to be taking an inordinate interest in the exhumation, peered down at the mangled grave. "Why don't I have some prisoners do the digging for you?"
Harper tossed the spade down in acceptance of the offer and Cochrane, having shouted for some prisoners to be fetched, stirred the cemented shingle with his toe. "Why on earth do you want to take Vivar's body back to Spain?"
"Because that's where his widow wants him," Sharpe said.
"Ah, a woman's whim! I hope my wife would not wish the same. I can't imagine being slopped home in a vat of brandy like poor Nelson, though I suppose if one must face eternity, then one might as well slip into it drunk." Cochrane, who had been pacing about the church choir, suddenly stopped, placed one foot dramatically ahead of the other, clasped a left hand across his breast, and declaimed in a mighty voice that momentarily stilled even the moaning of the wounded:
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, As his corse to the rampart we hurried!"
His Lordship applauded his own rendering of the lines. "Who wrote that?"
"An Irishman!" MacAuley shouted from the nave of the church.
"Was it now?" Cochrane enquired skeptically, then whirled on Sharpe. 'You know the poem, Sharpe?"
"No, my Lord."
"You don't!" Cochrane sounded astonished, then again assumed his declamatory pose:
"But he lay like a warrior taking his rest, With his martial cloak around him"
"The verses, you understand, refer to the burial of Sir John Moore. Did you know Moore?"
"I met him," Sharpe said laconically, recalling a hurried conversation on a snow-bright hillside in Galicia. French dragoons had been leading their horses down an icy road on the far side of a wide valley toward a shivering greenjacket rear guard, and Lieutenant General Sir John Moore, shaking with the cold, had courteously enquired of Lieutenant Richard Sharpe whether the enemy horsemen had been more bothersome than usual that morning. That distracted conversation, Sharpe now remembered, must have been held only days before he had met Major Bias Vivar of the Cazadores.
"So you will remember that Moore was buried on the battlefield of Corunna," Cochrane continued, "and without any nonsense of being carried home to his ever-loving wife. Soldiers normally lie where they fall, so why would this wife want General Vivar taken home? Why does she not leave him in peace?"
"Because the family has a particular connection with the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela." Sharpe offered the best explanation he could.
"Ah! There are more powerful relics in a cathedral, you see," Cochrane sounded gloomy. "In Spain he'll be buried by Saint James himself, not by some sniveling little Chilean holy man. He'll be in heaven before the rest of us will have had a chance to pick our resurrected noses or scratch our resurrected arses."
"You won't need a wind to carry you, my Lord," the Irish doctor called, "you'll just roll downhill to perdition with the rest of us miserable bastards."
"You note the respect in which I am held," Cochrane, who clearly relished the comradeship, smiled at Sharpe, then changed into his lamentable Spanish to order the newly arrived prisoners to start digging. Major Suarez, the Spanish officer who had been so cordial to Sharpe when he had first arrived at Puerto Crucero, and who had suffered the misfortune of being captured by Cochrane's men, had insisted on accompanying the three prisoners to protest about their being employed for manual labor, but he calmed down when he recognized Sharpe and when he saw that the digging was hardly of a martial nature. He calmed down even more when Cochrane, ever courteous, invited him to share in the breakfast he had ordered fetched to the church. "Most of your fellow officers escaped capture by running away," Cochrane observed, "so I can only congratulate you on having the courage to stay and fight."
"Alas, senor, I was asleep," Suarez confessed, then crossed himself as he looked at Vivar's grave.
"You were here, senor, when the Captain-General was buried?" Cochrane asked politely.
Suarez nodded. "It was at night. Very late." Cochrane could not resist the invitation.
"We buried him darkly at dead of night, The sods with our bayonets turning."
"How dead was the night?" Cochrane asked Suarez, suddenly speaking in Spanish and, when the Major just gaped at him, Cochrane condescended to make the question more intelligible. "What time was Bias Vivar buried?"
"Past midnight." Suarez gazed at the grave which was now deepening perceptibly. "Father Josef said the Mass and whoever was still awake attended."
Sharpe, remembering his conversation with Blair, the British Consul in Valdivia, frowned. "I thought a lot of people were invited here for the funeral?"
"No, senor, that was for a Requiem Mass a week later. But Captain-General Vivar was buried by then."
"Who filled the grave with cement?" Sharpe asked.
"The Captain-General ordered it done, after you had left the fortress. I don't know why." Suarez hunched back onto the stone bench that edged the choir. Above him a marble slab recalled the exemplary life of a Colonel's wife who, with all her children, had drowned off Puerto Crucero in 1711. Beside that slab was another, commemorating her husband, who had been killed by heathen savages in 1713. The garrison church was full of such memorials, reminders of how long the Spanish had ruled this harsh coast.
Cochrane watched the cement being chipped out of the hole, then turned accusingly on the mild Major Suarez. "So what do they say about Vivar's death?"
"I'm sorry, senor, I don't understand."
"Did the rebels kill him? Or Bautista?"
Suarez licked his lips. "I don't know, senor." He reddened, suggesting that gossip in the Citadel pointed to Bautista's guilt, but Suarez's continuing fear of the Captain-General was quite sufficient to impose tact on him. "All I do know," he tried to divert Cochrane with another morsel of gossip, "is that there was much consternation when Captain-General Vivar's body could not be found. I heard that Madrid was asking questions. Many of us were sent to search for the body. I and my company were sent twice to the valley, but—" Suarez shrugged to show that his men had failed to find Vivar's corpse.
"So who did find it?" Sharpe asked.
"One of General Bautista's men from Valdivia, serior. A Captain called Marquinez."
"That greasy bastard," Sharpe said with feeling.
"The General was much relieved when the body was discovered," Suarez added.
"And no wonder," Cochrane laughed raucously. "Bloody careless to lose the supremo's body!"
"This is a church!" the Dominican surgeon, goaded by Cochrane's laughter, snapped in English.
"MacAuley?" Cochrane called to his own surgeon, "if yon tonsured barber speaks out of turn again, you will fillet the turdhead with your bluntest scalpel, then feed him to the crabs. You hear me?"
"I hear you, my Lord."
"Goddamn holy bastards," Cochrane spat the insult toward the monk, then let his temper be triggered by irritation. "You know who crucified our Lord?" he shouted at the Dominican. "Bloody priests and bloody lawyers! That's who! Not the soldiers! The soldiers were just obeying orders, because that's what soldiers are paid to do, but who gave the orders? Priests and lawyers, that's who! And you're still making your mess on God's earth. Jesus Christ, but I should revenge my Savior by slicing your rancid head off your useless body, you foul poxed son of a whore!"
MacAuley was plainly enjoying the tirade. The Dominican, whose piety had stirred up the whirlwind, tried to ignore it. Suarez looked scared, while Harper, who had no love of priests, laughed aloud.
"Christ on his cross!" Cochrane's anger was ebbing. "I'd rather roast in hell with a battalion of damned soldiers than sip nectar in heaven alongside a thieving lawyer or a poison-filled priest."
"You sound like Napoleon," Sharpe said.
Cochrane's head snapped up as though Sharpe had struck him, except the Scotsman's face betrayed nothing but pleasure. "If only I was indeed like him," he said warmly, then strode to the deepening grave where one of the soldiers had evidently reached the coffin, for the nauseating stench that had so repelled Sharpe and Harper when they had excavated the grave before now filled the church choir again. The Spanish soldier who had broken through the grave's crust turned away retching. Suarez was gasping for breath, and only Cochrane seemed unmoved. "Get on with it!" he snapped at the prisoners.
The three Spanish prisoners could not finish the job. Terror, superstition, or just the rank stink of the decaying body was making them shudder uncontrollably. Cochrane, impatient of such niceties and oblivious of the foul stench, leapt into the excavation and, with vigorovis sweeps of the shovel, cleared the coffin of its last layer of coagulated shingle.
Sharpe steeled himself to endure the nauseating odor and to stand at the edge of the grave to look at the simple wooden casket in which Bias Vivar was buried. The lid of the casket, made from some yellow timber, had cracked, and the wood itself had been badly stained by the cement, but some words which had been inscribed on the box in black paint were still visible; "BIAS VIVAR," the simple epitaph read, "REQUIESCAT IN PACE."
"Shall I open it?" Cochrane, who seemed more intent than Sharpe on finding Vivar's body, volunteered.
"I'll do it." Sharpe took one of the discarded spades and rammed its blade under the thin yellow planks. The grave was so shallow that he had no trouble in levering up the lid by wrenching out the horseshoe nails that had held the crude coffin together. Cochrane helped by pulling the planks free, then tossing them onto the piles of broken concrete.
The smell grew worse, filling the church with its sickening bite. MacAuley, unable to suppress his interest, had temporarily abandoned a patient to come and gape at the open coffin.
Vivar was draped in a shroud of blue cloth that looked like matted velvet. Sharpe worked the edge of the spade under the cloth and, dreading the fresh wave of smells he would provoke, jerked it upward. For a second or two the material clung to the rotting flesh beneath, then it pulled free to billow a fresh gust of effluvial stench into the church. Sharpe swept the cloth aside and let it fall, with the spade, beside the grave.
"Oh, Christ Almighty." MacAuley made the sign of the cross on his blood-soaked chest.
"Oh, good God," Sharpe whispered.
Major Suarez could not speak, but just sank to his knees.
"Mary, Mother of God," Harper crossed himself, then looked with horror at Sharpe.
Lord Cochrane reverted to poetry:
"Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow,
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow."
Then His Lordship began to laugh, and his laugh swelled to fill the whole church, for in the coffin, which had been partly weighted with stones, was the foully rotted corpse of a dog—a yellow dog, a wormy and half-liquefied dog that had been buried beside an altar so that on Judgment Day it would fly to its creator with the speed of a saint's resurrection. "Oh, woof, woof," Cochrane said, "woof, woof," and Sharpe wondered just what in hell's name he was supposed to do next.
"No wonder Bautista didn't want us to get at the grave," Harper said. "Jesus! Why did he bury a dog?"
"Because Madrid was pestering him to find Don Bias," Sharpe guessed. "Because Louisa's enquiries were more effective than she knew. Because he knew that if he didn't find a body, the questions would get more persistent and the enquiries more urgent."
"But a dog?" Harper asked. "Jesus, it isn't as if he couldn't find a dead man. They're ten a penny in this damned country."
"Bautista hated Vivar. So maybe using the dog was his idea of a joke? Besides, he didn't think anyone would open the coffin, and why should they? Because by the time he needed to produce a body Don Bias had been dead three months, so all Bautista needed do was produce a coffin that stank and sent off his trusted Marquinez to concoct the wretched thing. And it worked, at least till we turned up." Sharpe said the words bitterly, a despairing cry to the cold wind that whipped up from the mysterious Chilean southlands. He and Harper were walking around the citadel's ramparts over which, just moments before, the decomposed remains of the yellow dog had been tossed away.
"So maybe the bastard faked that message in Boney's picture just to have a reason to throw us out!" Harper said, "but Dona Louisa would have sent another request for the body! The thing wouldn't have ended with us."
"And Bautista would have provided her with a body, or rather a skeleton so rotted down that no one could ever tell who it had been, but he would have needed time to prepare it. He'd probably have had a lavish coffin made, with a silver plate on it, and he'd have found an unrecognizably decayed body to put inside, dressed in a gilded uniform, and he couldn't arrange all that with us sniffing around Puerto Crucero."
Harper stopped at an embrasure and stared at the far mountains. "So where's Bias Vivar?"
"Still out there," Sharpe nodded at the broken countryside to the north, at the retreating ridges and dark valleys where, he knew, he must now search for a friend's body. He did not want to make the search. He had been so sure that he would find the body under the garrison church's flagstones, and now he faced yet more time in this country that was so bitterly far from everything he loved. "We'll need two horses. Unless, of course, you've had enough?"
"Are you sure we need to stay?" Harper asked unhappily.
Sharpe's face was equally miserable. "We haven't found Vivar, so I don't think I can go home yet."
Harper shook his head. "And we'll not find him! You heard what Major Suarez said. He's looked twice and found nothing. Christ! Bautista probably had a thousand men looking!"
"I know. But I can't go back to Louisa and tell her I couldn't be bothered to search the place where Don Bias died. We have to take a look, Patrick," Sharpe said, then added hurriedly, "I do, anyway."
"I'll stay," Harper said robustly. "Jesus, if I get home I'll only have the bloody children screaming and the wife telling me I should drink less."
Sharpe smiled. "So she does think you're too fat?"
"She's a woman, what the hell does she know?" Harper tried to pull in his gut, and failed.
"You're thinner than you were," Sharpe said truthfully.
Harper patted his belly. "She won't know me when I get home. I'm dwindling. I'll be a wraith. If I'm alive at all."
"Two weeks," Sharpe heard the gloom in his friend's voice, and tried to alleviate it with a promise. "We'll stay two weeks more, and if we can't find Don Bias in a fortnight, then we'll give up the search, I promise. Just two weeks."
It was a promise that looked increasingly fragile as the days passed. Sharpe needed to search the valley where Don Bias had disappeared, but refugees from the countryside spoke of horrors that made travel unsafe. The Spaniards, retreating toward the guns of Valdivia, were pillaging farms and settlements, while the savages, scenting their enemy's weakness, were hunting down the refugees from Puerto Crucero's defeated garrison. The whole province was churning with bitterness, and Cochrane insisted that Sharpe and Harper could not risk traveling through the murderous chaos. "The damned Indians don't know you're English! They see a white skin and suddenly you're the evening's main dish—white meat served with fig sauce. Come to think of it, that's probably what happened to your friend Vivar. He was turned into a fricassee and three belches."
"Are the savages cannibals?" Sharpe asked.
"God knows. I can't make head or tail of them," Cochrane grumbled. He wanted Sharpe to forget Vivar, and instead enroll for the assault on Valdivia. "Half the bloody Spanish army searched that valley," Cochrane protested, "and they found nothing! Why do you think you can do better?"
"Because I'm not the Spanish army."
The two men were standing on the highest seaward rampart of the captured fortress. Above them the flag of the Chilean Republic snapped in the cold southern wind, while beneath them, in the inner harbor, the Espiritu Santo lay grounded on a sandy shoal that was only flooded at the very highest tides. A stout line had been attached to the Espiritu Santos, mainmast, then run ashore to where a team of draught horses, helped by fifty men, had taken the strain, pulling the frigate over, so that now she lay careened on her port side and with her wounded flank facing the sky. Carpenters from the town and from Cochrane's flagship were busy patching the damage done by the exploding Mary Starbuck. The Espiritu Santo was now called the Kitty, named in honor of Cochrane's wife. Her old crew had been divided; Captain Ardiles, with his officers and those seamen who had not volunteered to join the ranks of the rebels, were locked in the prison wing of the citadel, while the other seamen, about fifty in all, had volunteered to join Cochrane's ranks. Those fifty would all be part of the crew that would take the Kitty north to attack Valdivia.
Among the plunder captured in Puerto Crucero had been a Spanish pinnace, with six small guns, which Cochrane had sent north with news of his victory. The pinnace, a fast and handy sailor, had orders to avoid all strange sails, but just to reach the closest rebel-held port and from there to send the news of Puerto Crucero's fall to Santiago. Cochrane had also written to Bernardo O'Higgins requesting that more men be sent to help him assault Valdivia. If O'Higgins would give him just one battalion of troops, Cochrane promised success. "I won't get the battalion," Cochrane gloomily told Sharpe, "but I have to ask."
"They won't give you troops?" Sharpe asked in surprise.
"They'll send a few, a token few. But they won't send enough to guarantee victory. They don't want victory, remember. They want me either to refuse to obey their orders or to make a hash out of obedience. They want rid of me, but with your help, Sharpe, I might yet—"
"I'm riding north," Sharpe interrupted, "to look for Don Bias."
"Look for him after you've helped me capture Valdivia!" Cochrane suggested brightly. "Think of the glory we'll win! My God, Sharpe, men will talk about us forever! Cochrane and Sharpe, conquerors of the Pacific!"
"It isn't my battle," Sharpe said, "and besides, you're going to lose it."
"You didn't believe I'd capture this place." Cochrane swept a victor's arm around the vista of the citadel's ramparts.
"True," Sharpe allowed, "but only because you used a trick to get your attackers in close, and that trick won't work two times."
"Maybe it will," Cochrane smiled. For a few seconds the Scotsman was silent, then his desire to reveal his plans overcame his instinct for caution. "You remember telling me about those artillery officers who crossed the Atlantic with you?"
Sharpe nodded. He had described to Lord Cochrane how Colonel Ruiz and his officers had sailed ahead of their men, which meant, Cochrane now said, that the two slow transports carrying the men and the regiment's guns were probably still lumbering across the Atlantic. "And I'll wager a wee fortune that if I disguise the Kitty and the O'Higgins, I can get right inside Valdivia Harbor by pretending to be those two transports." His voice, eager and excited, was filled with amusement at the thought of again deceiving the Spaniards. "You saw how the garrison collapsed here! You think morale is any better in Valdivia?"
"Probably not," Sharpe admitted.
"So join me! I promised you a share of the prize money. That bastard Bautista took almost everything of value out of here, so it must all be in Valdivia, and that includes your money, Sharpe. Are you going to let the bastard just take it?"
"I'm going to look for Don Bias," Sharpe said doggedly, "then go home."
"You won't fight for money?" Cochrane sounded astonished. "Not that I blame you. I tell myself I fight for more than money, but that's the only thing these rogues want." He nodded down at his men who were scattered about the citadel. "So, for their sakes, I'll fight for money and pay them their wages, and the lawyers in Santiago can whistle at the wind for all I care." The thought of lawyers plunged the mercurial Scotsman into instant unhappi-ness. "Have you ever seen a lawyer apologize? I haven't, and I don't suppose anyone else has. It must be like watching a snake eat its own vomit. You won't help me force a lawyer to apologize?"
"I have to—"
"Find Bias Vivar," Cochrane finished the sentence sourly.
A week after the citadel's capture the reports of atrocities and ambush began to decline. A few refugees still arrived from the distant parts of the province, and even a handful of the fort's defeated garrison had come back rather than face the vengeful savages, but it seemed to Sharpe that the countryside north of Puerto Crucero was settling back into a wary silence. The savages had gone back to their forests, the settlers were creeping out of hiding to see what was left of their farms and the Spaniards were licking their wounds in Valdivia.
Sharpe decided it was safe to ride north. He assembled what he needed for his journey—guns, blankets, salted fish and dried meat—and earmarked two horses captured in the citadel's stables and two good saddles from among the captured booty. He persuaded Major Suarez to describe the valley where Don Bias had ridden into mystery, and Suarez even drew a map, telling Sharpe what parts of the valley had been most thoroughly searched for Bias Vivar's body. Cochrane made one last feeble effort to persuade Sharpe to stay, then wished him luck. "When will you leave?"
"At dawn," Sharpe said. But then, as night fell red across the ocean to touch the sentinels' weapons with a scarlet sheen, everything changed again.
Don Bias was not dead after all. But living.
His name was Marcos. Just Marcos. He was a thin young man with the face of a starveling and the eyes of a cutthroat. He had been an infantryman in the Puerto Crucero garrison, one of the men who had poured such a disciplined fire at Cochrane's attack, but who, after the citadel's fall, had fled northward, only to be driven back by his fears of rampaging Indians. Major Miller had interrogated Marcos, and Miller now fetched Marcos to Sharpe. They spoke around a brazier on Puerto Crucero's ramparts and Marcos, in the strangely accented Spanish of the native Chileans, told his story of how Don Bias Vivar, Count of Mouro-morto and erstwhile Captain-General of Chile, still lived. Marcos told the tale nervously, his eyes flicking from Sharpe to Miller, from Miller to Harper, then from Harper to Cochrane who, summoned by Miller, had come to hear Marcos's story.
Marcos had been stationed in Valdivia's Citadel when Bias Vivar disappeared. He knew some of the cavalrymen who had formed part of the escort that had accompanied Captain-General Vivar on his southern tour of inspection. That escort had been commanded by a Captain Lerrana, who was now Colonel Lerrana and one of Captain-General Bautista's closest friends. Marcos accompanied this revelation with a meaningful wink, then paused to scratch vigorously at his crotch. An interval of silence followed, during which he pursued and caught a particularly troublesome louse that he squashed bloodily between his thumb and fingernail before hitching the rent in his breeches roughly closed.
"Hurry now! Don't keep the Colonel waiting!" Miller barked.
Marcos flinched as if he expected to be hit, then reminded Sharpe that Captain-General Vivar had been riding on a tour of inspection that was supposed to end at the citadel in Puerto Crucero. "From there, serior, he would go back to Valdivia by ship. But no one came back! Neither the Captain-General, nor Captain Lerrana. No one. Not even the troopers! No one came back till after we heard the Captain-General had vanished, then General Bautista arrived from Puerto Crucero, and Captain Lerrana came with him, but by then he was a Colonel and in a new uniform." Marcos clearly felt that the detail of Lerrana's new uniform was exceedingly telling. He described it in detail, how it had thickly cushioned epaulettes from which hung gold chains, and how it had gold-colored lace on the coat, and high boots that were new and shining.
"Tell him about the prisoner!" Miller interrupted the admiring description of the uniform.
"Ah, yes!" Marcos snatched another bite from his sausage. "General Bautista was the senior officer in the province, so he came to take over the Captain-General's duties. He came by ship, you understand, and his men came by boat up the river to the Citadel in Valdivia. They came by day, and we made an honor guard for the General. But one boat came at night. In it, senor, was a prisoner who had come from Puerto Crucero, a prisoner so secret that no one even knew his name! The prisoner was hurried into the Angel Tower in the Citadel. You have to understand, senor, that the Angel Tower is very old, very mysterious! It used to be a terrible prison! They say the ghosts of all the dead cling to its stones. Once a man was put in there he only came out as a corpse or an angel." Marcos superstitiously crossed himself. 'They stopped using the tower as a prison in my grandfather's time, and now no one will step inside for fear of the spirits, but that is where the Captain-General's prisoner was taken and, so far as I know, senor, he is still there. Or he was when I left." Marcos ended the tale in a rush, then looked eagerly at Miller as though seeking praise for the telling.
"And you think Captain Vivar is that prisoner?" Sharpe asked Marcos.
Marcos nodded energetically. "I saw his face, senor. I was on duty at the inner gate, and they brought him past me to the door of the tower. I was ordered to turn around and not look, but I was in shadow and they did not see me. It was the Captain-General, I swear it."
"God save Ireland," Harper said under his breath.
Sharpe leaned back. "I wish I could believe him," he spoke in English, to no one in particular.
"Of course you can believe him!" Cochrane said stoutly. "Who the hell else do you think Bautista's got in there? The Virgin Mary?"
Marcos greedily bit into a hunk of bread, then looked alarmed as Sharpe leaned forward again.
"Did you ever see your cavalry friends from the Captain-General's escort again?" Sharpe spoke Spanish again.
"What do they say happened to General Vivar?"
Marcos swallowed a half-chewed lump of bread, scratched his crotch, looked sideways at Miller, then shrugged. "They say that the Captain-General disappeared in a valley. There was a road that went down the valley's side like this," Marcos made a zig-zag motion with his right hand, "and that the Captain-General ordered them to wait at the top of the road while he went down into the valley. And that was it!"
"No gunfire?" Sharpe asked.
Sharpe turned to stare at the dark ocean. The sea's roar came from the outer rocks. "I don't know if I trust this man."
Cochrane responded in Spanish, loud enough for Marcos to hear. "If the dog lies, we shall cut off his balls with a blunt razor. Are you telling lies, Marcos?"
"No, senor! I promise!"
"It still doesn't make sense," Sharpe said softly.
"Why not?" Cochrane stood beside him.
"Why would Vivar ride into the valley without an escort?"
"Because he didn't want anyone to see who he was going to meet?" Cochrane suggested.
Cochrane drew Sharpe away from the others, escorting him down the ramparts. His Lordship drew on a cigar, its smoke whirling away in the southern wind. "I think he was meeting Bautista. This man's story," Cochrane jerked his cigar toward Marcos, "confirms other things I've been hearing. Your friend Vivar had learned something about Bautista, something that would break Bautista's career. He was going to offer Bautista a choice: either a public humiliation or a private escape. I believe he went into the valley to meet Bautista, not knowing that Bautista would take neither choice, but had planned a coup d'etat. That's what we're talking about, Sharpe! A coup d'etat! And it worked brilliantly!"
"Then why didn't Bautista kill Vivar?"
Cochrane shrugged. "How do I know? Perhaps he was frightened? If everything went wrong, and Vivar's supporters rallied and opposed Bautista, he could still release Vivar and plead it was all a misunderstanding. That way, whatever other punishment he faced, Bautista would not have the iron collar around his neck, eh?" Cochrane grimaced in grotesque imitation of a man being garotted.
"But Don Bias must be dead by now!" Sharpe insisted. He had spoken in Spanish and loud enough for Marcos to hear.
"Senor?" Marcos's frightened face was lit from beneath by the lurid glow of the brazier's coals. "I think he was alive six weeks ago. That was when I left Valdivia, and I think General Vivar was alive then."
"How can you tell?" Sharpe asked scornfully.
The infantryman paused, then spoke low so that his voice scarcely carried along the battlements. "I can tell, serior, because the new Captain-General likes to visit the Angel Tower. He goes alone, after dark. He has a key. The tower has only one door, you understand, and they say there is only one key, and General Bautista has that key. I have seen him go there. Sometimes he takes an aide with him, a Captain Marquinez, but usually he goes alone."
"Oh, sweet Jesus." Sharpe rested his hands on the parapet and raised his face to the sea wind. The detail of Marquinez had convinced him. Dear God, he thought, but let this man be lying, for it would be better for Don Bias if he were dead.
"What are you thinking?" Cochrane asked softly.
"I'm frightened this man Marcos is telling the truth."
Cochrane listened for a few seconds to the sound of the sea, then he spoke gently. "He is telling the truth. We're dealing with hatred. With madness. With cruelty on a monumental scale. Vivar and Bautista were enemies, that much we know. Vivar would have treated his enemy with honor, but Bautista does not deal with honor. I hear Bautista likes to see men suffer, so think how much he would like to watch his greatest enemy suffer! I think he goes to the Angel Tower at night to watch Vivar's misery, to remind Vivar of his defeat, and to see Vivar's humiliation."
"Oh, Christ," Sharpe said wearily.
"We know now why Vivar's body was never found," Cochrane said, "because plainly there is no body, and never was. Bautista had to pretend to make a search, for he dared not let anyone suspect Vivar was alive, but he must have been laughing every time he sent out another search party. And there's something else," Cochrane added with relish.
"The Angel Tower is in Valdivia!" Cochrane chuckled, "So perhaps you had better come with me after all?"
"Oh, shit." Sharpe said, for he was tired of war, and he wanted to go home. He felt a sudden overwhelming need to be in Normandy, to smell woollen clothes drying before the fire, to listen to the day's small change of news and gossip, to doze before the kitchen fire while the cauldron bubbled. He had lost his taste for battle, and could find no relish for the kind of suicidal horror that Cochrane risked at Valdivia.
But Valdivia it would have to be, for Sharpe's word was given, and so a last battle must be fought. To pluck a friend from madness.