“View halloo!” Windham, his sabre drawn, was spurring after the Frenchman, his dogs giving tongue either side.
Sharpe jerked his rifle up, cursing Windham for blocking the shot, and stared, hopelessly, as the Frenchman, his honour broken with his parole, raced for the bridge and safety.
Windham’s horse blocked all the Riflemens’ shots for a few crucial seconds, but then the Colonel dropped into the concavity of the hillside and Sharpe re-aimed, fired, and was moving down the hill before he could see where his bullet had gone. The powder stung his face from the pan, he smelt the acrid smoke as he ran through it, and then he heard a fusillade of shots from his handful of Riflemen.
Sharpe had missed, but one of his men, Hagman probably, struck Delmas’s horse. The Frenchman was pitched forward, the horse down on its knees, while dust spumed up to hide the dying horse and falling man.
“Skirmish order!” Sharpe yelled, not wanting his men to be bunched into an easy target for the French artillery in the fortresses across the river. He was running fast now, pumping his arms left and right to tell his men to spread out, while ahead Lieutenant Colonel Windham raced up towards the fallen Delmas.
The Frenchman scrambled to his feet, glanced once behind, and began running. The hounds bayed, stretched out, while Windham, sabre reaching forward, thundered behind.
The first French cannon fired from the fortress closest to the river. The sound of the gun was flat over the water, a boom that echoed bleakly above the beauty of river and bridge, and then the shot struck short of Windham, bounced, and came on up the hill. The French gun barrels would be cold, making the first shots drop short, but even a bouncing shot was dangerous.
“Spread out!” Sharpe shouted. “Spread out!”
More guns fired, their reports mingling like thunder, and the wind of one bouncing shot almost wrenched Windham from his horse. The beast swerved and only the Colonel’s superb horsemanship saved him. The spurs went back, the sword was held out again, and Sharpe watched as the running Frenchman stopped and turned to face his pursuer.
Another gun from the fortress, a different note to this firing, and the hillside seemed to leap with small explosions of soil where the canister bullets, sprayed from the bursting tin can at the gun’s muzzle, pecked at the soil. “Spread out! Spread out!” Sharpe was running recklessly, leaping rough ground, and he threw away his fired rifle, knowing one of his men would retrieve it, and clumsily drew his huge, straight sword.
Windham was angry. Honour had been trampled by the breaking of Delmas’s parole, and the Colonel was in no mood to offer the Frenchman mercy. Windham heard the canister strike the ground, heard an agonised yelp as one of his hounds was hit, and then he forgot everything because Delmas was close, facing him, and the British Colonel stretched out with his curved sabre so that its point would spear savagely into the fugitive’s chest.
It seemed to Windham that Delmas struck with his sword too soon. He saw the blade coming, was just bracing his arm for the shock of his own blade meeting the enemy, and then Delmas’s beautiful sword, as it had been intended to do, slammed viciously into the mouth of Windham’s horse.
The animal screamed, swerved, reared up, and Windham fought for control. He let his sabre hang by its wrist-strap as he sawed at the reins, as he saw blood spray from his injured horse’s mouth, and as he struggled he never saw the Frenchman move behind, swing, and never knew what killed him.
Sharpe saw. He shouted helplessly, uselessly, and he saw the great sword slam blade-edge into the Colonel’s back.
Windham seemed to arch away from the stroke. Even in death his knees gripped the horse, even as his head dropped, as his arms went limp and the sabre dangled uselessly. The horse screamed again, tried to shake the dead man from the saddle. It fled away from the man who had hurt it, still bucking and hurting, and then, almost mercifully, a barrel-load of canister threw man and horse into a bloodied mess on the turf.