They all fired. One first, followed in a handful of seconds by the rest, and the noise of the guns was different, deeper than usual, somehow more solid and Sharpe looked aghast at Harper. “They’re double shotted!”
Harper nodded, shrugged. Two canisters to a gun, say seventy balls in each, and twenty four guns firing. Sharpe listened to the metal hell that was criss-crossing the rubble and tried to work out the figures. Three thousand musket balls, at least, had greeted the attack, ten to each man, and in the silence after the volley he could hear the screams of wounded and then the rattle of muskets from the French embrasures. He could see nothing. He looked at the Company. “Stay there!”
He climbed the rubble side of the street, rolled over its crest and found cover behind a timber baulk. Bowes was alive, sword drawn, and ahead of the attack. “On! On!”
Ladder parties, miraculously alive, came off the ground where they had dived for shelter and began struggling over the jumbled stones. Each ladder was thirty feet, cumbersome on the shadowed ground, but the men were moving and, behind them, more figures advanced towards the dark bulk of the San Cayetano.
The attackers cheered, still confident despite the first, shattering discharge, and it was a miracle to Sharpe that so many had lived through the screaming cones. He slid his rifle forward, leafed up the sight, and then the second shots sounded from the French.
This volley was more ragged than the first. The gunners were loading as fast as they could, single canister only, and the faster crews would fire first. The balls bellowed from the embrasures, clattered on the stones, whirled the dead and wounded in limp disarray, and Sharpe cursed the French. They had known! They had known! There had been no surprise! They had double shotted the guns, had the matches ready for the fuses, and the attack stood no chance. The canisters burst and spread their death over the attackers, gun after gun, the shots coming singly or in small groups, and the lead balls hammered like hard rain on the stones, timber and bodies in the wasteland.
The two forts were ringed with smoke. The third, off to Sharpe’s left, was silent as if its guns, insultingly, were not needed. He could hear the French now, cheering their work as the gunners heaved at their weapons, loaded and fired, loaded and fired, and their flames sprang across the ditch, split the smoke, and licked behind the shredding canister.
There was not much they could do, but anything was better than being a spectator of this slaughter. He shouted again. “Rifles!”
His Riflemen poured over the lip of the rubble. He had trained a half dozen of the redcoats to use the Bakers, weapons left by men killed in the last three years, and they came, too. Harper dropped beside him, eyebrows raised, and Sharpe gestured at the nearest fort. “Go for the embrasures!”
They might kill a gunner or two, not much, but something. He heard the first shots, fired himself when the smoke showed a target, but the attack was done. The British did not know it. The men still went forward, shoulders hunched as if pushing into a storm, and they left their dead and wounded on the ground. Screams pierced the harsh sound of guns and Sharpe prayed with each new discharge of canister that a ball might end the screaming. Bowes was still up, still going ahead, taking his sword against the artillerymen and, behind and to each side, the survivors refused to give up. They were scattered now, less susceptible to the rain of lead, but too few to hope for victory. A ladder party actually made the ditch. Sharpe saw them jump in, heard the muskets fire from the palisade, and then he saw the Brigadier, limned against the spreading pall of smoke, and Bowes was hit. He seemed to dance on the spot, feet skittering to keep him upright and his sword fell as his hands clutched at his stomach. His head went back in a silent scream, more shots threw him forward and still he tried to stand, and then it was as if a whole barrel load of canister slammed the quivering figure, threw it flat, and the wasteland was suddenly empty of running men.