They marched two hours before dawn because Pringle wanted to cover a good few miles while it was still cool. In fact it proved to be a dull day, with grey cloud blocking out all save occasional glimpses of sunshine. Yet as the morning drew on the air became humid and heavy, and the redcoats of the 106th sweated in their woollen coats and felt the straps of their packs grasping tightly at their chests.
‘It must be a large village. Perhaps even a town?’ he said.
‘Sir?’ Ensign Hatch’s eyes were bloodshot, and Pringle wondered whether the man had continued to drink on his own for a long time after the previous night’s dinner.
They could see dark smoke from the direction where they had seen the glow reflected off the clouds the night before. There was simply too much of it to have been the reflections of campfires.
Billy Pringle pointed towards the black plumes of smoke. ‘Perhaps even Alcantara?’ It was the only place marked on his map in roughly the right direction.
‘The work of the French?’ Hatch asked, frowning as he concentrated. Pringle was very familiar with the throbbing discomforts of the morning after a festive evening and so guessed what the man was going through. It did not incline him towards sympathy.
‘Them or fat old Father Lopez smoking in bed,’ he snapped. ‘Of course it’s the damned French!’
Pringle had decided to alternate the companies in the order of march, and so today the grenadiers were behind the carriage. Williams kept a file of men two hundred yards to the rear – and even farther when there was a better position from which to observe the land behind and to the flanks. Lieutenant Hopwood was in charge of the advance party. Wickham rode with La Doña Margarita in the carriage and they saw little of him after he had clambered in when they left the village. Pringle gave the orders, decided when they needed to halt for rests, and worried about how they could protect the carriage, let alone themselves, should they encounter any sizeable body of French.
‘Send out flankers from each company,’ Pringle ordered. ‘Four men to each flank. Tell them to keep us in sight at all times, but maintain a good watch.’
Billy Pringle was nervous. He also wondered at the apparent intimacy between his superior officer and the Spanish lady. Wickham was a rake, and were it not for the lady’s condition, Pringle would simply have assumed that the pair were lovers. If so, then Billy Pringle was neither inclined nor dishonest enough to feel himself entitled to judge them. Yet the lady was heavily with child and while such things were possible, it did not strike him as in keeping with Wickham’s sense of style.
Something – perhaps many things – were being kept from him, and he did not care for it. Pringle was a soldier and used to obeying orders. There was much that a battalion commander did not choose to share with his officers. Generals such as Sir Arthur Wellesley last August or Sir John Moore in the winter were even more reticent.
Yet that did not matter. The army and the regiment surrounded him, and he was content to wait and see what happened, tolerably confident that those in authority would do their best not to throw him too deeply into the soup.
This time he was in charge. His two companies were deep in Spain, a very long way from the modest British army left in Portugal. There was unlikely to be any significant Spanish force within hundreds of miles. The enigmatic Wilson and his ‘Legion’ were somewhere out there to the north. Any aid from them was uncertain at the very least, and yet Pringle knew that not too far away there were French regiments in numbers strong enough to put a large settlement to the torch.
There was no particular reason why the French should stumble upon his little column. There was also no particular reason why they should not.
Billy Pringle worried as he marched along at the head of the Grenadier Company. The lives of over one hundred men depended on the decisions he made. He resented anything he did not know which might help him decide well.
It was almost a relief when the shot came, sudden and loud above the tramp of marching feet and the rattle of the carriage.
Williams and his rearguard were on the crest behind the little column. One man had fired into the air to attract attention and now Williams himself was signalling. Pringle shaded his eyes to see better, but they were close enough for him not to need his telescope. Arm raised with thumb pointing down was the signal for enemy. The next gesture meant cavalry, and then Williams pointed in the direction beyond the ridge behind them.
Pringle signalled back, calling them down to join the main body. Williams sent his men jogging down the slope, but waited before following them. They did not run, and that was a good sign because it meant the French could not be too close.
‘Sergeant Probert, recall the flankers,’ said Pringle. ‘Mr Hatch, we shall form rally square three ranks deep around the coach. Three Company will compose the front and left face of the formation. The grenadiers will form the rear and right side.’ Scattered men on foot were at the mercy of cavalry. Pringle needed to make a rough square so that all sides were protected against the fast-moving horsemen.
Hatch nodded. The man looked pale, but that was more than likely the mark of his hangover rather than any undue nervousness.
‘Take three men and help the driver unhitch the horses.’ With barely one hundred and twenty men, Pringle could not hope to form a square around the carriage and its team. With the horses standing beside the coach they might be just able to protect them. It would mean keeping the animals calm and so a man to hold each one. Panicking horses might well push aside the redcoats and open up one side of the square. Once the French were close then it would take no more than a brief instant of confusion to let them in and turn a fight into a massacre.
Pringle, soft hearted by nature and fond of animals in general and horses in particular, resolved to shoot the team at the first sign of trouble.
‘French lights, your honour,’ said Lance Corporal Murphy, stamping to attention next to Pringle. ‘A mile away, but coming straight down the road. Two squadrons.’ The tall, lanky Irishman looked almost pleasantly surprised to encounter the enemy. His infant son had died during the retreat to Corunna, and Pringle wondered whether this gave the man a new eagerness to knock over a few more Frenchmen. Mrs Murphy had taken the loss hard, and Pringle was suddenly glad that the companies’ wives had been left with the rest of the detachment back in Lisbon. He had seen enough dead women and infants during the retreat not to relish the prospect of any more.
‘Thank you, Murphy, join the company,’ said Pringle. He turned to see Lieutenant Hopwood and the advance guard. The officer raised his arms with the palms down flat to show that he could see nothing. Pringle called them back to the main body. It was good that there were no Frenchmen coming from that direction, but there was no prospect of outrunning cavalry on the road and he could not cut across the fields and risk the coach bogging down.
Williams loped up, one hand pressed to his straw hat to stop it blowing off.
‘Chasseurs,’ he said, confirming Murphy’s report. ‘Two squadrons. Perhaps two hundred or a little less.’
‘Anything else?’ Pringle meant whether there was any sign of guns or infantry.
‘Just the chasseurs.’
That at least was something. They might be able to hold off cavalry if the square remained firm. They would also be a dense target and the arrival of even a single cannon or a company of infantry would slaughter them where they stood.
‘What is happening, Billy?’
Pringle had forgotten about Wickham. The man was now leaning out of the carriage window, with that familiar half-smile and careful poise. He had obviously heard the shot and the commotion around him and yet it had taken minutes for him to roll up the blind and investigate.
‘French cavalry, sir. Two squadrons coming up behind so I am forming square to hold them off.’
‘Good God,’ said Wickham. ‘I’ll . . . I shall be out in a moment.’
Putting his breeches back on no doubt, thought Pringle sourly.
The square was formed, with each side composed of three ranks of ten, the front rank kneeling with the butts of their muskets on the ground. The second and third ranks stood. All of the men had already loaded.
‘Fix bayonets,’ Pringle ordered. There was something reassuringly determined and a little savage about the metallic clicks as the sockets were fastened on to the muzzles of the firelocks.
There was barely enough room inside the square for the coach and horses. Wickham stepped down from the coach, and then paused to straighten his sash and adjust his sword belt. His right boot stood squarely in a pile of fresh dung from one of the horses and he looked down in distaste. The animal was barely a foot away from him and he had to look over its back to see Pringle.
‘Everything in hand, I see.’ The major sounded almost uninterested. ‘I should not think they will attack.’
La Doña Margarita appeared in the carriage door behind him.
‘Best if you stay hidden, ma’am,’ said Wickham. Pringle was surprised by the hatred in the lady’s expression as she obeyed.
A horseman appeared on the crest where Williams and his men had been. In silhouette they could not see the deep green of his jacket and overalls, but the wide top of his shako marked him out as a Frenchman. They did not have long.
One of the carriage horses reared up, and had Ramón not had a firm grip on its reins it would have got free. Men looked behind nervously.
‘Dobson, kill the horses,’ said Pringle, amazed that he could speak so steadily.
Wickham looked shocked. ‘Don’t be absurd, man, that team is worth a thousand dollars if it is a penny.’
Dobson was already leading one of the horses out the front of the square and did not pause. Nor did Ramón. The redcoats parted to let them through. Two privates, both of them countrymen well used to animals, led the rest of the team.
‘We can’t protect them, sir, and cannot risk them bolting and breaking the square.’ Pringle kept his voice level and entirely reasonable, but then raised it so that it carried to all the men. ‘As long as the square remains steady the French cannot harm us.’ The redcoats did not need the explanation, but a statement of confidence never did any harm.
Seven or eight yards ahead of the front rank, Ramón calmed the horse he was leading, talking softly to it. Then he sliced very precisely through the blood vessels in its neck. Hot blood jetted out in a red stream and the animal’s eyes rolled as it shuddered and began to sink down. The driver still talked softly to the dying beast, guiding it to the ground.
Up on the ridge, the chasseur circled his horse. Pringle guessed it was a signal, but did not know how the French system worked. Give me a few minutes, he prayed. If the French charged now, then they might catch them before the rear face of the square was reformed. Ramón had moved on to the second horse and killed it with the same gentle efficiency. Pringle guessed some of the men were unnerved by the sight.
‘There they are!’ Wickham’s shout was a little high pitched.
A line of French horsemen now crowned the ridge, looking down at them. They were stationary and Pringle was relieved to see that they were not yet coming on.
‘Fifty in the front rank,’ commented Williams in a matter-of-fact way, before Pringle had finished adding in his head. ‘The trick is to count the horses’ legs and divide by four.’ Pringle chuckled at the ensign’s peculiar sense of humour.
‘Or you could count their heads and divide by one,’ suggested Murphy, and the laughter rippled along the ranks of grenadiers.
‘I bow to superior Irish wisdom, Corporal.’
The third horse was down, but Pringle did not want to leave the men out any longer.
‘Let it go!’ he called. Ramón slapped the remaining horse on the rump and it jerked into a trot, heading off to the right. The three dead animals formed an awkward barrier a short distance in front of the square’s rear face.
As the redcoats and the Spaniard scampered back into the formation, Pringle felt happier. If only these chasseurs faced them then they ought to be safe barring dreadful ill-luck. They should be safe, but they could not move. It was possible to march in square – or at least a column ready to turn into a square at a moment’s notice. The drill in the 106th was of a decently high standard and he was confident the men could do it, but it would mean abandoning the coach and its suspiciously heavy concealed load. There was also bound to be disorder if they retreated from around the carriage.
‘Worth a volley from the rear ranks?’ Wickham scarcely sounded as if he was in command, and yet did not seem concerned about this. It was almost as if he did not feel personally involved in proceedings. ‘Show them that we are not to be intimidated?’
‘Better not to waste it, sir,’ said Pringle levelly. The leading French squadron walked down the slope before stopping. They were now some two hundred yards away, and the supporting squadron was just visible on the crest itself. At this range they would be lucky to bring down one or two chasseurs. The rest could cover the ground to them quicker than the redcoats could reload, which meant it was a question of which side flinched. Pringle trusted his men, but saw no sense in taking unnecessary risks. A rally square lacked the assurance and strength of a more formal formation.
‘As you wish,’ said Major Wickham, as if such decisions were of minor importance. ‘We all know that cavalry cannot break properly formed infantry.’ Pringle was not sure whether the major was trying to reassure the soldiers or himself.
‘Well I’m damned.’
It was so rare for Williams to swear that Pringle spun around to stare at his friend. The ensign had his long glass to his eye. He also had an immense smile across his face.
‘It’s Hanley. As I live and breathe it is William James Hanley, Esquire, hale and hearty and dressed like a don!’
Pringle scanned the slope and saw a handful of horsemen in a cluster to the left flank of the rear squadron. Even with the naked eye he could clearly see the epaulettes and lace of senior officers. One was in light blue, there was a trumpeter in pink, a dragoon officer in a brass helmet and three chasseurs in green. There was also a figure in drab civilian clothes. There was something familiar about the ungainly posture and slightly slumped shoulders of the man in the saddle. It was undoubtedly their lost friend. How or why he had come here Pringle could not even guess.
‘Perhaps the French made him a better offer than King George!’ he said.
Williams roared with laughter, relief washing over him with the knowledge that their friend was not dead.
Then a trumpet sounded and the chasseurs began to advance.