Leroux pulled the door open again and his right hand I, came up slowly, the pistol barrel foreshortened, and then he I smiled, lowered the hand so that the pistol was aimed low at Sharpe and the Rifleman saw the flame in the pan, threw himself sideways, saw the smoke blossom in front of Leroux, and he felt a great blow shudder on his body. Then it seemed as if everything was happening at only half the speed of ordained time. The door closed on his enemy. Sharpe was still running, the rifle falling, clattering, bouncing, and the pain was filling all the world, yet still he tried to run. There was a scream of pure agony, a scream that slashed round the I courtyard, and Sharpe did not know it was his own scream, but he was still trying to run and then a knee struck the flagstones, and still he tried, and his hands clutched at warm fresh blood, bright red, and he was screaming, falling, and he slid on the stones, scrabbling still, and the blood spurted behind him, was fanned and smeared by his flailing legs, and the scream still went on.
He slid to a stop at the foot of the door, curled up, clenched against a world of pain that he could never have imagined, and he pumped the scream futilely, and the blood welled between his fingers that clutched into his stomach as if they could reach inside him and pluck the horror that tore at him. Then, blessedly, he stopped screaming and was still.
The Cathedral clock struck three.
Private Batten was annoyed, and let the rest of the Company know it. “Doesn’t give a bugger, does he? Know what I mean?” No one answered. They waited on the glacis of the San Vincente fort and Lieutenant Price looked at his watch and kept glancing at the empty San Cayetano fort. Batten waited for a response. He scratched his armpit. “Used to be a bleedin‘ private, he did, and that’s what he bloody should be now. Keeping us waiting.” Still no one answered and Batten was encouraged by their silence. “Always buggering off, have you noticed? Our company’s not good enough for him, no, not Mr. Bloody Sharpe. Know what I mean?” He looked round for support.
Sergeant Huckfield had gone to look for Sharpe. The men could see his red coat climbing up the ravine’s side towards the San Cayetano. One or two of the men slept. Price sat down on a huge masonry block and folded Sharpe’s coat beside him. He was worried.
Private Batten picked his nose and licked the result off his fingernail. “We could sit here all bleedin‘ night for all he bleedin’ cares.”
Daniel Hagman opened one eye. “He kept you from swinging by your bloody neck two years ago. He shouldn’t have bothered.”
Batten laughed. “They couldn’t have hung me. I was innocent. He don’t care, Sharpe. He’s forgotten us, till he bleedin‘ needs us again. He’s probably sitting with Harps getting drunk. T’ain’t fair.”
Sergeant McGovern, slow and Scottish, stood up and stretched his arms. He marched formally to Private Batten and kicked his ankles. “On your feet.”
“What for?” Batten dropped into the aggrieved tone of surprise that was his main defence against an aggravating world.
“Because I’m going to smash your bloody face in.”
Batten edged away from the Scotsman and looked at Lieutenant Price’s back. “Hey! Lieutenant, sir!”
Price did not look round. “Carry on, Sergeant.”
The men laughed. Batten looked up at McGovern. “Sarge?”
“Shut your bloody face.”
“Shut it, or get up.”
Batten subsided into what he considered injured but righteous dignity. He busied himself with his right nostril, keeping his remarks just out of the Company’s hearing. Sergeant McGovern crossed to the Lieutenant and stood formally at attention. Price looked up. “Sergeant?”
“It’s a bit strange, sir.”
“Yes.” They both watched Huckfield cross the ditch of the central fort. Price suddenly realised that McGovern, formal always, was still at attention. “Stand easy, Sergeant. Stand easy.”
“Sir!” McGovern let his shoulders drop an eighth of an inch. “Thank you, sir.”
Price looked at his watch. A quarter to four. He did not know what to do and felt helpless without Sharpe or Harper to guide him. He knew that the Scottish Sergeant was hinting that a decision ought to be made and he knew McGovern was right. He stared at the San Cayetano, saw Huckfield’s red jacket appear on a parapet, then disappear, and after a long wait Huckfield came to the top of the crude breach and spread his hands emptily. Price sighed. “We wait till five, Sergeant.”
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