Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Sweet Jesus!” The Donegal accent could not hide his feelings about running through the storm of shot. Harper touched the crucifix he wore about his neck. Since he had met Isabella, the Spanish girl he had saved from the rape at Badajoz, he had become more religious. The two might live in mortal sin, but Isabella made sure her huge man paid some respect to their church. “Say the word, sir.”

Sharpe waited for another grinding barrelful of canister to crash onto the roadway. “Now!”

They sprinted, Sharpe’s sword heavy in his pumping arm, and the air seemed filled with the sound of death and the fear rose in him, fear at this ghastly way of dying, hit by canister and unable to strike back. He skidded into the safety of the small archway beneath the fortress and fell against the wall. “God!”

They had survived, God only knew how, but he would not try it again. The air had seemed thick with shot. “We’ll have to bloody crawl, Patrick.”

“Anything you say, sir.”

Daniel Hagman, the oldest man in Sharpe’s Company, and the best sharpshooter in the Battalion, methodically loaded his rifle. He had been a poacher in his native Cheshire, caught one dark night, and he had left wife and family to join the army rather than face the awful justice meted out by the Assizes. He did not use a cartridge with its rough powder, instead he measured his charge from the fine powder kept in his Rifleman’s horn, and then he selected a bullet and rammed it down the barrel. He had wrapped the bullet in a greased leather patch, a patch that would grip the rifling when the gun was fired and give a spin to the bullet which made the weapon so much more accurate than the smooth-bore musket. He primed the gun, aimed, and in his mind was the memory of Rifleman Plunkett who, four years before, had sent a bullet a full and astonishing eight hundred yards to kill a French General. Plunkett was a legend in his regiment, the 95th, because the Baker Rifle was not reckoned to be truly accurate much over two hundred yards, and now Hagman had a clear sight of his target just a hundred yards away.

He smiled. At this range he could pick his spot, and he chose the lower spine, letting the foresight settle a little above it, letting half his breath out, holding it, and then he squeezed the trigger.

He could not miss at that range. The rifle slammed into his shoulder, smoke jetting from pan and muzzle, the burning powder stinging his cheek.

The canister screamed onto the bridge, four cannon-loads fired at once, and Hagman never knew what happened to his bullet. It never reached Delmas. Somewhere in the metal over the bridge the bullet was lost, a freak chance, but Delmas still lived, still limped on towards the safety of the far bank.

Yet there was still a chance. The fortresses were built on top of the hill above the river and once the bridge was close to the northern bank the guns could not see the roadway. In a few more yards, Sharpe knew, he would be able to stand up and run in safety, and Delmas knew it too. The Frenchman forced himself on, ignoring the pain, refusing to be beaten, and he managed to force his hurting body into a slow run that took him even further ahead.

Then it seemed that everything would be lost. There were shouts ahead and Sharpe looked up to see blue uniforms running down the hill towards the bridge. Voltigeurs! French Light infantry, their red epaulettes distinctive in the sunlight, and Sharpe swore for he knew that these troops had been sent out of the fortresses to see Delmas to safety. A dozen Frenchmen were coming down the hill, while others waited at its crest,

Sharpe crawled, pushing himself on, Harper’s breathing hoarse behind him. It truly did seem hopeless now. The Voltigeurs would reach Delmas long before Sharpe or Harper could, but he would not give up. A shard of stone, chipped by a canister strike, clanged on the metal scabbard of his sword while another skinned across his knuckles and drew bright blood.

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