The hounds sniffed at the dead man and dying horse. Its hooves drummed the dry earth for an instant, the hounds whimpered, and then the horse’s head was down. Blood drained quickly into the parched soil.
Delmas was limping. The fall must have hurt him, but still he hurried, gritting his teeth against the pain, but now Sharpe was gaining. There were houses at the bridge’s southern end, a small outpost of the university city across the river, and Sharpe saw the Frenchman disappear behind a wall. Delmas was almost onto the bridge.
Another canister load of musket balls flayed into the turf, filling the summer air with their whip-crack of death, and then Sharpe saw Patrick Harper, the giant Sergeant, racing up on his right with his seven-barrelled gun held in his hand. Sharpe and Harper were nearing the houses, nearing the safety afforded by their walls from the French guns in the fortresses, but Sharpe had a sudden premonition of danger. “Go wide, Patrick! Wide!”
They swerved right, still running, and as they cleared the corner of the house to get their first glimpse of the roadway running straight across the wide river, Sharpe saw too the kneeling Frenchman pointing a brace of pistols at the place where he expected his pursuers to appear. “Down!”
Sharpe sprawled into Harper, sending them both in a bruising fall to the earth, and at that moment the pistols cracked and the two balls sounded sibilant and wicked over their heads.
“Jesus!” Harper was heaving himself upright. Delmas had already turned and was limping onto the bridge, hurrying towards the northern bank beneath the three fortresses.
The two Riflemen ran forward. They were safe for a moment, hidden from the gunners by the houses, but Sharpe knew that as soon as they emerged onto the bridge the canisters would begin to rattle the ancient stones. He led Harper left, into what little protection the crenellated, low parapet might give, but the very instant that they stepped onto the bridge was the moment they both instinctively dropped to the roadway, heads covered, appalled by the sudden storm of canister that tangled the air above the bridge.
“God save Ireland.” Harper muttered.
“God kill that bastard. Come on!”
They crawled, keeping below the parapet, and their pace was pitifully slow so that Sharpe could see Delmas opening the gap between them. In his path the Frenchman seemed to leave a maelstrom of striking shot, screaming stone shards chipped from the road, the noise of metal on stone, yet the Frenchman was untouched, kept safe by the gunner’s accuracy, and Sharpe could sense that Delmas was escaping.
“Down, sir!” Harper unceremoniously pushed Sharpe with a huge hand, and Sharpe knew that the horrid seven-barrelled gun was being aimed over his head. He clapped his hands to his ears, abandoning the sword for a second, and waited for the explosion above his head.
It was a horrid weapon, a gift from Sharpe to his Sergeant, and a gun that only a huge man could handle. It had been made for the Royal Navy, intended as a weapon to be fired from the topworks down onto the packed decks of enemy ships, but the vicious recoil of the seven half-inch barrels had thrown the sailors clear out of the rigging, sending them falling with fractured shoulders onto their own decks. Patrick Harper, the huge Irishman, was one of the few men who had the brute strength to use one, and now he aimed the stubby, bunched barrels at the pantalooned figure that was limping beneath the arch of the small fortress.
He pulled the trigger and the gun belched smoke, bullets, and burning wadding that fell onto Sharpe’s neck. It was a deadly gun at close range, but at fifty yards, the distance of Delmas’s lead, it would be a lucky bullet that hit. A single word over Sharpe’s head told him the Irishman had missed.
A half dozen Riflemen had crawled onto the bridge after Sharpe and Harper, the rest stayed in the lee of the buildings and frantically loaded their weapons in hope of a clear shot. Sharpe pushed on, cursing the canister that screamed above the roadway. One ball, freakishly ricocheting from the far parapet, struck his boot heel, and Sharpe swore. “We’ll have to bloody run, Patrick.”