The leading squadron walked for a few yards then speeded into a trot when the trumpet sounded again.
‘Steady, boys,’ said Williams to the grenadiers in the rear face of the square just before Pringle could say the very same thing. The captain smiled, and glanced around at the two companies. Hopwood was behind the rear face and Hatch just where he should be on the left. Wickham stood with one hand on the hilt of his sword and the other bent at the elbow, fist pressed against his hip as if posing for a portrait in the heroic style.
‘We must show the men we are unafraid,’ he whispered, noticing Pringle’s gaze.
‘Well, hurrah and three times three,’ muttered Pringle beneath his breath at such an obvious statement, and then turned all his attention to the French.
‘Hold your fire, lads,’ he called.
The chasseurs were close, barely eighty yards away and surely soon to surge forward into a canter and then a gallop to sweep over the little square.
He did not hear the order or trumpet call, but suddenly the line split in the centre and those on the left wheeled away in that direction, while those on the right went to the right.
‘Hold your fire.’
The men on the ends of the two wheeling lines came as close as forty yards to the square, offering an enticing target.
‘Hold your fire, boys,’ said Williams over the thunder of hoofs and clinking of harness. It would take only one man to pull the trigger and the shot would surely prompt everyone else to do the same.
Pringle dragged his attention away from the wheeling chasseurs and saw that the supporting squadron had come up behind and was heading straight at them. This time he heard the trumpet and saw as the horses began to run, and then men stood in the stirrups, holding their curved sabres so that the tips thrust forward.
‘Steady, lads, wait for the order.’ Pringle’s throat was dry and he would have given anything for a drink.
The chasseurs were close. He could see each man’s face, mouths open under their drooping moustaches. The horses looked wild eyed, their teeth bared as they pounded through the long grass.
‘Fire!’ yelled Pringle, and all four sides of the square exploded in a cloud of dirty powder smoke, blotting the enemy from sight. He had not meant for everyone to fire, but in the excitement had forgotten to give a more precise order.
Through the thinning smoke Pringle saw two more dead horses piled against the corpses of the coach team. A green-coated chasseur lay beside them and another man staggered away. The French stopped, horses refusing to press on, no matter how much the riders urged.
‘Third rank reload!’ called Pringle. It was better for the second rank to be ready to support the first with their bayonets than to be fumbling with cartridges and ramrods. If the French came on then it was just possible they could overwhelm the little line. All it might take would be one man flinching, or still worse a wild or dying horse pressing on and crushing the ranks to tear them open.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ A chasseur officer managed to jump his horse over the barrier of the dead animals and came forward, knowing that the fight was balanced on a knife edge. No one followed him, but it was as if British and French alike were holding their breath. The only sound was the footfalls of his horse as the man came right up to the front rank and then raked back his spurs to make the animal rear up, hoofs thrashing in the air. The tips of the bayonets kept the horse back too far to reach the men holding them, but even so the two closest grenadiers ducked instinctively.
Pringle remembered that he had a pistol and reached to pull it from his sash. Williams had already unslung the musket he carried and brought it up to his shoulder. The French officer was edging his mount a little closer into the gap where the two grenadiers’ bayonet points had dipped. One lost his shako as a hoof passed perilously close to his head. Still the other chasseurs hung back and Pringle could not understand why because they were so close to winning. Men in the second rank jabbed at the horse with their bayonets, but could not drive the big bay or its rider back.
Williams fired over the heads of the men in front and the ball struck the French officer on his chinstrap, driving up through his mouth and into his brain. He died instantly, his body slumping limply, sabre falling from nerveless hand to hang on its wrist strap. The corpse dropped to the left, and perhaps this turned the horse away from the staggering line of British soldiers. The other way and it would surely have barged through even if it died in the act.
The line had held and Pringle finally felt he could breathe.
‘Well done, Bills,’ he said, and then louder, ‘Well done, lads.’
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The shout was loud and from behind him, and this time it was taken up by dozens of chasseurs as another officer led them against the right rear corner of the square. Corners were weak spots because it was hard for men to aim their muskets to the right and so few could bear. Pringle ran the few paces to the spot, but Sergeant Probert already had things in hand.
‘Present!’ he called, and the men in the third rank levelled their firelocks, pointing the muzzles through the narrow gaps between the men ahead of them. Pringle was amazed that they had loaded so quickly.
The French officer saw the movement and swerved, leading his men away.
‘Hold your fire! Hold your fire!’ called Probert, who had spotted ten more chasseurs coming in from another angle towards the same point. ‘Wait for the order.’ Once again the French did not press home against loaded muskets.
There was a lull for a good ten minutes as the French reorganised. The men of the 106th were all able to reload and dress the ranks. Pringle paced around behind the lines, complimenting his officers and NCOs and encouraging the men. As he passed the carriage he noticed La Doña Margarita standing in the opened door. The lady had a small pistol heavily decorated with silverwork.
‘Hope we won’t need that, ma’am,’ said Pringle, raising his hat to her. ‘Although I am most glad to know that we have you in reserve, should the need arrive.’
She smiled and he could not help thinking how uncommonly handsome she looked today.
‘It will not, my lady,’ added Wickham, who never wandered more than a pace or so from the coach. ‘I am sure Captain Pringle will agree that we have seen the French off and should have no more trouble with them.’
‘I believe they will attack again soon,’ said Pringle, feeling no need to hide the truth from either a heroine of Saragossa or a British major.
‘Then never fear, we shall drive them off as smartly next time.’ Pringle was not sure, but felt that Wickham’s expression was a little strained. He walked on to check the rest of the square.
Williams looked cheerful. Having seen to his men he was now finishing off loading his own musket. He spat the ball down the barrel and then grinned at Pringle as he drove it down with his ramrod. ‘Good to see that Hanley is unscathed.’
‘Cannot help wondering what he is doing here, though?’
‘I wish we could . . .’ Williams left the thought unfinished.
‘I know you do, but we cannot think of going out to get him.’
They were interrupted by a new trumpet call. Parties of fifteen or so chasseurs walked their horses into positions facing each of the corners of the square and no more than a long musket shot away. Two larger bodies of some fifty men apiece were back about two hundred and fifty yards facing the right and left sides of the little formation. Individual skirmishers came forward with carbines ready between the formed groups.
‘It is always somewhat disillusioning to meet a clever cavalryman,’ said Pringle.
The first of the skirmishers fired, the ball going high over their heads.
‘If he was genuinely clever he would dismount some of them,’ said Williams.
‘Always hard to separate a cavalryman from his horse.’ Pringle spoke more in hope than expectation. ‘Ah well, work to do. Select one man from the second rank to return fire, Mr Williams. No one else is to fire unless they make a charge and then only under orders.’
Pringle went around the other sides of the square giving the same instructions. A man from Three Company was down, with a carbine ball buried in his left shoulder close to the joint. He hissed in pain as he was pulled inside the square, and yet rallied when he saw Pringle.
‘I’ll be all right, sir, don’t you worry,’ he said. The man’s face was pale and his eyes glazing.
The chasseur skirmishers continued to squib away. The nominated redcoats periodically fired in reply without hitting anyone. The French fared little better, but in spite of several near-misses there were no more casualties for five minutes. Shots struck the carriage repeatedly. La Doña Margarita no longer stood in the doorway, but when Pringle continued his walk around the square he was surprised to see the lady bending over the wounded man to give him a drink. Her servant tied off the bandage, working with practised skill.
Over time, the chasseurs risked coming closer. They were joined by a dozen troopers on foot, running awkwardly because of the long belts on their sabres, but able to fire their stubby carbines with more accuracy, kneeling or lying on the ground to make themselves poorer targets.
A grenadier in the front rank was hit on the kneecap and screamed until Murphy yelled a reproof. Almost immediately the man next to the lance corporal had his shako knocked off by another ball. The grenadiers laughed, and then they cheered because the man told off to fire pitched a chasseur off his horse.
‘Good shot, Hope,’ said Williams.
One of the mounted groups made to charge at the left front corner of the square, but shied away before they came too close. The first redcoat died, hit squarely in the chest as he cheered their retreat. Another man from Number Three Company lost his left index finger as it clasped his musket.
‘Flag of truce!’ Williams called to attract Pringle’s attention. The French had ceased fire, their mounted skirmishers pulling back a little and the men on foot lying down so that they were hard to see in the long grass.
‘No closer, messieurs,’ called Pringle when the French were ten yards away. The dragoon officer and one of the chasseurs formed the party, followed by a trumpeter in a pink jacket with an almost white handkerchief tied to his sabre. It surprised him that the French had taken so long before demanding a surrender. The directness of their attack reminded him of Williams’ account of the attack on the coach.
‘Good day, gentlemen.’ The dragoon spoke slow, heavily accented English. ‘Your position is hopeless. If you stay here you will die one by one. I call on you to surrender.’
‘We could cut our way out,’ said Pringle in purely conventional defiance.
‘You would die on our sabres. But we both know you will not leave that.’ The French officer pointed at the carriage.
‘Would I not?’
There was no answer.
‘What are your terms?’ Pringle had not noticed Wickham come up beside him.
‘Honourable surrender. That and nothing more. You are scarcely in a position to bargain.’
‘We could give you the coach,’ said Pringle. Wickham started, obviously surprised by such an offer.
‘We will take that now or later,’ said the dragoon. ‘It is simply a matter of whether you wish to be prisoners or die.’
‘We will take plenty of your men with us.’
The Frenchman shrugged as if that was a small matter. ‘You will still die.’ He turned his horse away. ‘Ten minutes, gentlemen, until we open fire once again.’
‘Cocky rascal, don’t you think,’ said Pringle softly to Wickham.
‘I fear we must consider his offer.’ Wickham spoke as quietly. ‘We have done all that honour demands. No one would blame us . . .’
‘I would,’ said Pringle. ‘We are not beaten yet. If we can last until nightfall then we may break out.’
‘It would mean leaving the coach, and how would La Doña Margarita keep up?’
‘We should carry her if necessary. Her coach would no doubt be a loss, but surely not too terrible for so great a family. Or she could remain and rely on French protection.’
‘The coach is important.’ Wickham dropped his voice to be only just audible. ‘A considerable sum of gold is carried in a hidden compartment, intended for the use of Sir Robert Wilson.’
Pringle had guessed as much, as had Williams and no doubt Dobson. It was almost a disappointment to have the mystery finally revealed. ‘Then let us trust he is deeply concerned about its safety.’
Billy Pringle was sure they were being used as the bait in a trap, which meant that they were probably not supposed to be left to die and lose the gold. Hanley was there with the French, and in some way he could not fathom he was equally convinced his friend was part of the wider deceit.
‘If we hold long enough, then help will come.’
‘I am senior here,’ said Wickham, almost as if the idea were a new one.
‘You are, and you are a gallant officer with a fine reputation,’ lied Pringle. ‘There is a good chance that today you will add to it.’ The fellow would, too, the captain thought, for he had powerful friends and the knack of presenting his own actions in the most favourable of lights.
Pringle retained the feeling that Wickham somehow felt uninvolved with the rest of them.
‘We’ll show these French rogues!’ the major called out to the men. A handful gave a limp cheer.
On time the French skirmishers resumed shooting at the little square. Over half of them fired at once and it seemed a miracle that no one was hit in the dense mass of men. The slower, steady shots, where more care was taken over aim, proved deadly. A grenadier was struck in the cheek by a ball which smashed two of his teeth. He screamed horribly until dragged back from the line. The arrival of the lady made him stop, as if he did not want to seem weak in front of her. Ramón cleaned and bound the wound.
A few minutes later another man standing in almost the same spot was hit in the throat. As he was pulled back behind the line, Williams forced his way to stand in the gap.
‘Do you see him?’ he asked.
‘Next to that hat.’ Dobson nodded at a chasseur’s shako just visible in the long grass some fifty yards away. ‘Reckon he’s to the right, down in a dip. Do you mark him, Hope?’
‘The two of you and Rafferty fire at the mark as soon as he pops up for his next shot,’ said Williams.
Pringle kept glancing back, hoping that he would not see his friend pitched back on the ground.
‘I can see him moving,’ said Dobson quietly. Williams saw a slight twitching in the grass that could as easily have been the wind.
Then he saw a man’s head and there was a flame and then an eruption of smoke from the spot before he could call out, but he ducked his head. A ball plucked the air inches above him.
Three muskets fired almost together and flicked the long grass around the thinning puff of smoke. There was no cry, no sign of any success, but Williams waited a good ten minutes that seemed like an hour and no shot came from the same spot.
‘Good shooting, lads,’ he said, and felt able to return to his station at the rear of the company.
‘That’s a clever trick, Bills,’ said Pringle. ‘I am sure it must work at least one time out of ten.’
‘As often as that! Cannot say I enjoyed it.’
The coach was scarred again and again.
‘Remember MacAndrews telling us about how people fire high,’ said Williams. Pringle was pleased to see that mention of the major’s name did not prompt melancholy thoughts of his daughter.
‘Wish the old fellow was with us now – ideally with the rest of the battalion!’
‘Amen to that.’
An hour dragged on for an age, so that Billy Pringle began to wonder whether his watch had stopped. Two more men were wounded, one so badly that it was likely he would last no more than a few hours.
The French made several rushes, and once instead of a feint the chasseurs clapped their spurs against their horses’ sides and flew at the corner held by Three Company. Lieutenant Hopwood timed the volley well, tumbling a man from the saddle and knocking down a horse. The French came on, but the square was solid and the horses baulked at the row of bayonets held steadily by the front rank. They stopped and no amount of urging could get them to move on. By the time the redcoats had almost reloaded the chasseurs had peeled away. The skirmishers resumed fire immediately.
Wickham stood beside the carriage most of the time. The vehicle seemed to draw the shots, but none came near him, and Pringle wondered whether the man felt he was sheltered from at least one side.
Sunset was well over two hours away. Pringle was not sure they could last, but there was nothing he could do and it was simply a case of standing and suffering. If French reserves arrived then that would be it. He wondered whether there was any basis for his hope that Wilson might arrive to save them. Hanley was still there up on the hill with the senior officers and it was so odd to think of his friend watching them die.
Pringle wondered about breaking open the hidden chest and putting as many of the coins into each man’s pack as they could readily carry. It would not do. They would be hard enough put to it to break out even if unencumbered. All they could do was wait – or surrender? The men’s spirit was good, still amazingly so, but he wondered how many more would drop before darkness fell.
More shots, and a grenadier was grazed across the forehead. He winced in pain, but there was no real harm done and he was soon back in the line, his head bandaged. Ramón seemed to have no shortage of bandages.
A ball glanced against the metal rail on the back of the carriage and deflected down, thudding into the belly of La Doña Margarita. Pringle happened to be looking at the lady and saw it in one horrible moment, watched as there was a puff of white from the material of her dress almost in the centre of her stomach. She clamped a hand to the spot, fear in her eyes, feeling for the wound, but made no sound. Ramón rushed to her side, dropping the wine bottle he had raised to the lips of a wounded man. Wickham was looking the other way and did not notice.
The lady held up her hand to stop the servant from assisting her. There was no blood on fingers or palm. She stood up straight, brushed some white fluff off her dress, and continued as if nothing had happened.
La Doña Margarita was evidently not with child after all. That explained Wickham’s conduct if not the need for such subterfuge.
Another great cheer from the French and they came on against all four corners of the square simultaneously. Pringle was needed, and dismissed the deception for the moment.
‘Wait for the order,’ he called. ‘Second and third ranks, present!’
The chasseurs pressed on, going straight from a walk into a canter, the men rising in the stirrups, arm up and wrist turned so that their sabre points thrust forward.
This was no feint, and the mere threat of presented muskets was not enough to halt them. A trumpet called and behind them the main reserves began to walk forward.
Pringle tried to judge the distance.
‘Wait for the order!’ They were fifty yards away, then forty and now thirty.
Pringle made himself hold his breath for two heartbeats.
It was the largest volley they had fired since the first, as over seventy muskets flamed almost as one.
‘Steady, lads!’ he said in the stunned silence that followed. Men and horses were down. One chasseur was flung from his dying horse and landed just a few paces from the front rank. A horse rode across the rear face of the square, its side a sheet of blood and a lumpen bag of forage bouncing from the back of the saddle.
The reserves pressed on.
‘Steady, lads!’ That was Hopwood’s voice.
‘We’re holding them, boys!’ That was Williams.
A few of the skirmishers still dared to fire past their own comrades milling around the square and a carbine ball smacked into the forehead of a redcoat, who slumped down with a sigh just beside Pringle.
‘Vive l’Empereur!’ The French raised their familiar chant and the trumpet sounded the charge.
‘Hold ’em!’ shouted Pringle. ‘Keep your bayonets ready for when they lift their skirts.’
Men grinned. This time there was no volley, and it was just a question of looking so solid that the horses would not plunge to destruction on the steel-tipped line.
The French came on, coming from the left and right, each formation two ranks of twenty-five men. The dragoon officer led one, and Pringle wished someone was loaded so that at least they could shoot that arrogant swine.
‘Steady, lads,’ he said. ‘Steady.’
‘Should we not fire?’ whispered Wickham anxiously, and Pringle wondered at the man’s ignorance, and then had a wild idea.
‘Third rank, present!’
A few men hesitated before bringing empty firelocks up to their shoulders.
Perhaps the threat helped. The chasseurs reached the debris of the first wave and horses slowed as they tried to avoid wounded and dead riders and mounts scattered on the ground. The volley had brought down almost a dozen of each.
The lines were ragged now, and made worse by survivors of the first attack standing their horses and staring dumbly or screaming abuse at the square. Horses saw a wall of red edged by gleaming rows of sharp spikes and those that could veered to left or right to go around. Others stopped.
There were horsemen all around the square. They were so close that Pringle could see every detail of their uniforms and faces. One chasseur was surprisingly plump and red faced as he cursed the redcoats. The man’s sabre hung from his wrist strap and he levelled a pistol. The muzzle seemed big and Pringle was sure it was pointing directly at him. He saw the hammer slam down and spark, but nothing happened.
Pringle let his breath out.
‘Hold ’em, lads,’ he said. ‘They can’t harm us.’
A loud explosion came from behind, and Pringle glanced back over his shoulder to see Ramón on the roof of the carriage, the blunderbuss in his hand.
The dragoon officer went past the side of the square, flailing with his long sword, but unable to reach the redcoats.
‘Good job there are no lancers,’ said Pringle to the major, who was standing beside them, his face heavily flushed and his knuckle white as he gripped the hilt of his sword. Men armed with lances had a longer reach than muskets and bayonets.
Wickham looked uncomprehendingly at him, and Pringle did not bother to explain.
A French trumpeter was sounding the same notes over and over again and Pringle guessed it must be the recall. Some of the chasseurs went reluctantly. A few fired pistols. More hurled abuse, and the fat trooper flung his pistol.
‘Bastard!’ yelled a grenadier who was hit on the shoulder by the awkwardly tumbling missile.
‘Third rank reload!’ Williams gave the order and Hopwood, Hatch and Sergeant Probert repeated it to the other faces of the square.
‘Well done, boys.’ Pringle’s throat was parched and his voice cracked as he called to the men. ‘They shall not break us. They are only Frenchies after all!’
‘Nearly as bad as Welshmen,’ came an Irish voice from the ranks of the grenadiers, and Williams laughed with the rest.
‘Steady, lads!’ added Wickham, and Pringle thought that the major had never made any effort to understand the men.
Pringle felt a gentle touch on his arm, and there was the Spanish lady offering him a bottle of wine.
‘Thank you,’ he said with a broad smile, ‘but it is better kept for the wounded.’ He noticed Wickham dabbing a handkerchief against his lips. Pringle had lost the energy to think much about the major’s conduct, and for the moment did not care to ponder about the lady, and whether her nobility was as much a fraud as her pregnancy.
The French were reforming as two squadrons back at the top of the crest. Pringle wondered what they would try next. It seemed unlikely that they would give up. He tried to think of what he would do in their place. Perhaps dismount half – or even more – and bring the square under a heavier fire until it could be ridden down by the rest. How many cartridges did French horsemen carry for that matter?
‘Mr Pringle, sir!’ The call came from Hopwood. He noticed that the man called him rather than Wickham. It was odd how easily men ignored a superior who was so supine. If Wickham noticed he did not seem to care.
Pringle walked to join the lieutenant.
‘More of them,’ said Hopwood, his voice steady, but little hope in his eyes. Down in the valley a column of horsemen was trotting along the road. There was a troop in the lead in dark uniforms, but at this distance it was impossible to tell their colour or nationality. Behind was another, larger squadron, so lost in dust that it was hard to say anything at all about them.
‘Mr Williams, may I have loan of your glass?’ Pringle scrambled up on to the top of the carriage and hoped the French skirmishers would hold off for a while. He took off his hat, lifted his glasses up on to his forehead and then tried to hold the heavy telescope steady as he adjusted the lens.
The leading men were in blue or green so dark that it looked almost black. There were fifty or sixty of them. He raised the glass and caught a glimpse of something red before the dust cloud again enveloped the squadron behind. Pringle had never heard of French or Spanish cavalry in red, but there were so many gaudily dressed regiments in the world that this probably meant little.
Pringle tried to run the glass across the column, but inevitably moved too jerkily and lost it. He found the front of the lead squadron again, and then caught movement to the side and was surprised to see a pair of hounds bounding through the grass. He followed them and then twisted the lens to sharpen the image of a lone horsemen they followed.
Billy Pringle smiled as the relief flooded over him. He watched for a moment to be sure, and then stood up, pushing his spectacles back down on to his nose.
‘They’re friends, my lucky lads!’ All of the officers and many of the men turned their heads to look at him. ‘It is Colonel Wilson.’
A carbine ball ripped a splinter from the roof next to his right boot.
‘Damned cheek!’ said Pringle, and the redcoats cheered happily as he jumped down.