The French gunners, judging their range, put fire to the priming tubes and the two field guns hammered back on their trails, pulsed smoke in a filthy cloud and crashed their shot at the opposing hillside. The gunners had deliberately aimed short for a cannon-ball could do more damage if it bounced waist high amongst the enemy. They called that bounce a ‘graze’ and Sharpe watched it, spewing grass, dirt and stones on its passage. The ball grazed among his men and slammed up the hill to graze again before it struck a file of the South Essex behind.
“Close up! Close up!” Sharpe could hear the Sergeants shouting.
The noise would start now. Shots, shouts, screams. Sharpe ignored it. He heard the guns, but he watched only his enemy. A Voltigeur officer, a sabre at his side, was spreading his men out and pointing towards Sharpe. Sharpe grinned. “Dan?”
“Sir?” Hagman sounded cheerful.
“You see that bastard?”
“I’ll get him, sir!” The French officer was as good as dead already. It was always the same. Look for the leaders, officers or men, and kill them first. After that the enemy would waver.
Richard Sharpe was good at this. He had been doing it for nineteen years, his whole adult life, more, indeed, than half his life, and he wondered if he would ever be good for anything else. Could he make things with his hands? Could he earn a living by growing things, or was he just this? A killer on a battlefield, legitimised by war for which, he knew, he had a talent. He was judging the distance between the skirmishers, picking his moment, but part of his mind worried about the coming of peace. Could he soldier in peacetime? Was he to lead his men against hunger-rioters in England or against Harper’s countrymen in their ravaged island? Yet there was no sign of this war ending. It had lasted his lifetime, Britain against France, and he wondered if it would last the lifetime of his little daughter, Antonia, of whom he saw so little. Twenty seconds to go.
The guns were at their rhythm now, the roundshot slamming at the attackers and in a few seconds they would change to canister to spray the hillside with death. Harper’s job was to stop that.
Ten seconds Sharpe guessed, and he saw a Frenchman kneel and bring his musket into his shoulder. The musket was aimed at Sharpe, but the range was too great to cause worry. For a second Sharpe thought of poor Ensign McDonald who had so wanted to distinguish himself in the skirmish line. Damn Leroux.
Five seconds, and Sharpe could see his opposing Captain looking nervously left and right. The smoke from the cannons was thickening, the noise hammering at Sharpe’s eardrums. “Now!”
He had lost count of the number of times he had done this.
“Go! Go! Go!”
This was rehearsed. The Light Company broke into a run, the last thing the enemy expected, and they went left and right, confusing their enemy’s aim, and they closed the range to put pressure on the enemy’s nerve. The Riflemen stopped first, wicked guns at their shoulders, and Sharpe heard the first crack which spun the enemy officer backwards, hands up, blood spraying suddenly, and then Sharpe was on his knee, his own rifle at his shoulder, and he saw the puff of smoke where the man had been who was aiming for him and he knew the musket ball had gone wide. Sharpe aimed up the hill. He looked for the enemy Colonel, saw him on his horse, aimed slowly, squeezed, and grinned as he glimpsed the Frenchman fall back from the saddle. That would be Sharpe’s last shot in this battle. Now he would fight his men as a weapon.
More rifles cracked, firing into the smudge of smoke about the nearest gun. If the gunners could be killed, that was good, but at the least the bullets whistling about their weapon would slow their fire and spare the South Essex some of the ghastly canister.
“Sergeant Huckfield! Watch left!”
The men fought in pairs. One man fired while the other loaded, and both sought targets for each other. Sharpe could see four enemy down, two of them crawling backwards, and he saw that unwounded men were hurrying to help the wounded. That was good. When the uninjured went to help their comrades it meant they were looking for an excuse to leave the battle.