‘It seemed a worthwhile risk,’ said Hanley, and then winced as Dobson pulled the bandage tight around his forehead.
‘Keep still, sir.’
Pringle and Williams scarcely brimmed over with sympathy as the three of them sat around a little fire. It was dark and the cold was getting worse so that it became difficult to remember the feel of the day’s heat.
‘You nearly got yourself killed,’ said Williams. That was true. Hanley had spurred away from the French when the squadron of Spanish cavalry attacked them from the rear in support of Wilson’s men. A chasseur officer had given chase, slashing and missing as he passed. The man had turned his horse on a farthing. Hanley could not make his mount swerve far enough, and so flung himself to the side, losing balance and his stirrups as he fell to the ground. The tip of the Frenchman’s sabre grazed his head. If the Spanish had not come up so quickly then he would surely have been killed.
‘Oh, this is just a scratch, I assure . . . Oh God damn it all to bloody hell!’ Hanley spat the words as Dobson turned the bandage slightly, pulling at the clotted blood on the long scar.
‘Cursing will not help, sir,’ said the corporal softly. ‘Just you keep still.’ Williams marvelled at the transformation in the veteran since the arrival of the new Mrs Dobson and her firm ideas of respectable behaviour.
‘I am sorry, Corporal,’ said the officer meekly.
‘Nearly done, sir.’
‘I am more concerned about the danger to the detachment,’ said Pringle, no longer light-hearted old Billy, but the officer commanding a detachment of his regiment who had just watched two of his men buried, and suspected that a third would join them soon. ‘It was close.’ The captain thought for a moment. ‘Damned close,’ he added.
Williams noticed that Dobson made no protest this time, and suspected that the corporal’s sentiments echoed those of his captain – and indeed of Williams himself. They had lost men, and if the relief had not arrived then they would have lost more and perhaps all gone to the grave or French captivity.
‘Colonel Wilson was delayed by bad luck,’ offered Hanley in weak defence.
‘Misfortune is in the nature of war,’ said Williams, who was fond of such pronouncements and trying to be fair.
‘Indeed it is.’ Pringle was less sympathetic. ‘And it was surely possible that farther obstacles might well have postponed his appearance until it was too late.’
‘It seemed . . .’ Hanley struggled for an answer.
‘A worthwhile risk?’ Pringle’s voice was bitter, his gaze harder than Williams had ever seen in the past.
Hanley met it. ‘So it seemed. And so it still seems.’
Dobson coughed. ‘It’s done, sir.’ Williams was not sure whether he meant that the bandage was in place or something else. ‘If you will excuse me.’ He did not salute, as none of the officers wore their hats. Instead the corporal stiffened to attention, about-faced, and walked rather than marched away.
‘You are probably right,’ said Billy Pringle, and broke into his familiar smile. Williams let his breath out, and had not realised that he had been holding it.
Sir Robert Wilson had no doubts about their success.
‘Caught ’em on the hop!’ he called out delightedly as he returned from leading the pursuit. The gentlest of motions brought his horse to an abrupt stop, and a moment later he sprang lightly down. ‘Capital sport.’
His two dogs scampered after him as he strolled over to join them.
‘Any chance of tea?’ he said, and waved them down as they moved to stand.
Jenkins, Pringle’s soldier servant, appeared miraculously with a steaming mug in hand. A devotee of the merits of the brown leaf, he struggled manfully with the misfortune of caring for an officer who could not stand tea in any form. This never prevented him from brewing the liquid at every opportunity and urging the captain to reconsider.
‘Thank you,’ said Sir Robert, and sipped from the mug with such evident pleasure that delight was brought into Private Jenkins’ heart.
The colonel nuzzled the heads of the hounds with his free hand.
‘Good fellows, both of them,’ he said as the dogs licked his fingers. ‘Plenty of heart. Remind me of a couple of pugs I have at home. So ugly they’re beautiful.’
Sir Robert took another long sip and then passed the mug to Pringle. The captain noticed Jenkins watching with expectation. Knowing that he would regret such weakness, he nevertheless felt obliged to drink a little before passing it on to Hanley.
‘Thank you, Jenkins,’ he said, dismissing the quietly ecstatic private.
One of the dogs wandered over to sniff at Williams. He would have thought the smell of charcoal was so strong that there was no need for such close inspection, but the animal seemed fascinated.
‘How many poor fellows have you lost?’ Sir Robert asked, noticing the wounded men lying around another fire.
‘Two dead, half a dozen wounded, one of them most likely mortally.’ The colonel’s sympathy sounded genuine, but Pringle did not soften the news because of this. ‘Oh, and a few scratches here and there.’
‘A great shame. However, I have no doubt that if you and Major Wickham had not commanded with such resolution then the cost would have been far higher.’ Williams noticed that Wickham was already receiving credit for their stand. ‘Where is the major, by the way?’
‘Deeply asleep,’ said Pringle. Williams suspected that Wickham would have been assiduously dancing attention had he known of Sir Robert’s return. ‘Shall I send to wake him?’
‘No, no. Let the good fellow rest. I count myself a good judge of men, and have no doubt that I am already sharing tea with the true heroes of the day.’
Williams was pleased to hear this. It was Pringle who had kept them going and Sir Robert who had saved them. It was also Sir Robert who had put them in such a fix in the first place.
‘Is La Doña Margarita well?’
‘Resting as best she may in her carriage. As well as can be expected given her condition.’ Williams noticed the emphasis in Pringle’s words. The captain had revealed to him that the lady was not with child. Sir Robert betrayed no sign of recognition in his face, but perhaps the flickering red light concealed his thoughts.
‘She is a fine lady and a dedicated patriot,’ said the colonel. ‘And has played her part well, as have you all. No doubt Hanley has explained our little ruse?’ That seemed too mild a term for using them all as bait to draw the French down on them and give time for Sir Robert to gather his horsemen.
‘Yes, sir,’ Hanley confirmed.
‘You must accept my apologies, Mr Pringle, for not taking you into my confidence. When we met and I arranged for you to escort the carriage I was not sure that there would be any need. I had knowledge that the lady was on her way.’ No doubt from Mr Baynes, thought Williams, and carried by Velarde. ‘It was a happy chance to discover your two companies so near. The Legion and our Spanish allies are spread so very thinly and there was no one available.
‘And I hope you will understand that it is prudent to be secretive when such a sum of money is involved.’
‘Then we are carrying gold?’ asked Pringle.
This time Williams saw a flicker of amusement from the colonel. ‘Yes, indeed yes. Although I did wonder whether to send the coin by mule more secretly, and perhaps fill the chest with lead bars.’
‘Is that a mark of confidence?’ said Williams boldly. The dog was slobbering over his trousers.
‘I could not find sufficient good mules in so short a time,’ said Sir Robert with disarming honesty. ‘But in truth my faith in your corps is complete in every regard. So it was prudence, and not the slightest doubt, that led to my concealment of the whole truth, and for that I once again crave your forgiveness.’
‘Of course, sir,’ said Pringle after only the slightest hesitation. Williams echoed his approval. The dog suddenly sprang to press its front paws against him. The scent of meat with just a hint of mud and dung wafted over him.
‘Push him down if he is bothering you,’ said the colonel with the cheerful unconcern of the true dog lover. Williams had a general benevolence towards animals, without particular regard for all things canine.
‘You may well have slipped past the French without any trouble. General Lapisse is retreating with his tail between his legs. I cannot stop him, and all I can do is harry their flight, snapping at small detachments. The Legion has cost him a lot of men, a lot of time, and shown the Spanish hereabouts that the French can be beaten.
‘The French knew about the lady and the gold. I don’t know how they found out. Perhaps a traitor or a mere mercenary with Cuesta or any one of a dozen garrison commanders or leaders on the juntas.’ It seemed to Williams that the colonel scarcely lamented the escape of this secret, and he could not help wondering whether his ignorance was feigned.
‘Hence the attack on the carriage, which we helped Mr Williams here to thwart.’
Williams smiled at the compliment. ‘We were lost if you had not arrived. Such good fortune was hard to accept as coincidence.’
‘You have shrewd judgement,’ continued Sir Robert. ‘One of my patrols noticed their dragoons fanning out in small groups to sweep along the roads, so we split up and tried to find you first. It was a close thing.
‘After that failure the French seemed to lose interest. Lapisse was not hanging around, and we were making life difficult for his outposts, but skipping back out of the way as soon as they gathered any sizeable force.
‘Then your Mr Hanley turned up after his remarkable escape from captivity and . . .!’
Williams’ startled yelp interrupted the explanation. The dog had nipped him as puppies will, not hard enough to break the skin, but with sufficient force to make their presence known. He stood up, half crouched, with both hands clasped protectively over his crotch.
Hanley looked almost as shocked by the suddenness of the exclamation. Pringle was struggling to restrain his mirth.
‘As I say, just push him aside if he is a nuisance,’ said Sir Robert calmly. He snapped his fingers and the dog slunk back to join its companion sprawled at their master’s feet. ‘Now where was I? Oh yes, the return of the prodigal son. So in comes this saucy fellow with his story of how he had brazened his way through the French lines. It seemed a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity.
‘Off he goes again, telling the French he is Sancho Panza or some such and a loyal servant of King Joseph – God rot his benighted soul – and has news of the treasure they had so narrowly missed. There ain’t a French general in the world who can resist loot. Call them princes or counts for five minutes and it doesn’t turn ’em from the bandits they are. The rascals have been filling their pockets with anything they could find since they got here.
‘Here was certain knowledge and an agent to show them the way. Didn’t take ’em long, did it, Hanley?’
‘No, sir. Thought that I would have to go to Lapisse himself, but the head of the cavalry brigade snapped at the bait at once and sent these squadrons under the same officer who had led the first attempt.’
‘The dragoon,’ said Williams, who as part of the bait found himself less than enthused by the story.
‘That’s the lad,’ confirmed Sir Robert. ‘Chef d’esquadron Dupont and no doubt Duque de nom de chien now that Boney is doling out titles with the rations. They peel away from the main column and sneak through our outposts. Well, that doesn’t take much since we have so few men, but we’ll let the rogues have that deed to boast.
‘You pretty much know the rest. Hanley and these French scoundrels come dashing down here after you. My lads – including Lieutenant Dawney and his mule-borne knights – are off thundering to the rescue.’ Sir Robert had led the cavalry of his own Legion. Behind came a company he had raised from stragglers cut off from Sir John Moore’s army. Altogether he had rounded up nearly one hundred redcoats, with facings of every colour known to the British Army, and put them on donkeys, mules or nags to turn them into mounted infantry.
‘My legionaries are all prime young soldiers,’ continued Sir Robert, ‘but it is good to have some solid British regulars for the toughest jobs.’
Williams began to worry that Wilson would do his best to keep the 106th to bolster his private army.
‘So we come from the east, while Colonel D’Espagne leads his Spanish dragoons around from the west to cut them off. He is a Frenchman, although you would never think it. Left when the Revolution came, and has been fighting them ever since. We would all have been here sooner if the bridge hadn’t been down and forced us to ride a couple of leagues farther to the next ford. Still, no great harm done.’ Sir Robert conveniently forgot the wounded and the two graves. ‘All worth it in the end.
‘Just think, a whole regiment of French cavalry broken and badly mauled!’ Sir Robert’s voice rose in his passion and his dogs looked up, surprised by the noise. He leaned down to pat their heads. ‘With the fellows you toppled and the dozen we caught in the chase that’s nearly forty men knocked down. A splendid day’s work!’
Williams felt the arithmetic was optimistic, while two squadrons were scarcely a regiment. The French butcher’s bill was certainly higher than their own, but the affair could so easily have left all of the 106th dead or captive. As calculated risks went, this one seemed out of proportion to the stakes on the table. What was that old saying – breaking windows with guineas!
‘That’s the way we must fight until those damned fools in London have the sense to send the army back to Spain. Beresford is a solid fellow, and will do wonders now that the Portuguese have made him marshal of their army, but the war can only be won here. That’s what I’ll tell him when we meet in a few days. Won’t do any harm to slip into the conversation that I have just ridden down some chasseurs and cut nearly fifty of them out of the saddles!’
None of them bothered to mention the steady climb of the total.
‘Are you to go to Portugal, Sir Robert?’ asked Pringle.
‘Indeed. I have been summoned, no less.’
‘Then shall you require us to accompany the lady on the rest of her journey?’
‘No need, although of course most grateful for the kind offer. D’Espagne’s men will take her all the way to Ciudad Rodrigo.’
‘Then,’ said Pringle, ‘have I your permission to march before dawn on my way back to Lisbon?’
Sir Robert smiled. One of his dogs stretched and he rubbed his hand along its back. The animal yawned massively. ‘The day after you may go. Tomorrow I need you. Or rather I need these,’ he said, and pointed an elegantly gloved finger at Pringle’s red coat.
They marched at three in the morning. Some of Wilson’s men and the Spanish remained behind and they left the wounded with them to collect on their return. The one redcoat hit in the chest still lingered, but there were bubbles of blood when he breathed and it seemed doubtful that he would meet them on their return.
Pringle set a rapid pace and the two companies of the 106th grumbled as they trudged along the ten miles they needed to cover before the sun came up. They saw little of Wilson, who had ridden ahead. Wickham went with him, but Hanley marched with the grenadiers. He was still in his civilian clothes, but was pleased to be back with his friends and also felt that sharing the toil of a march might complete his redemption in their eyes.
‘I can see a couple of sentries,’ said Williams, studying the convent through his glass. General Lapisse had left a company of infantry as garrison to this little outpost. The walls were strong, and there was no doubt a good supply of food and water inside the compound, so that the commander ought to be able to hold out against any likely attack from partisans or light troops.
‘It will not be easy if the bluff does not work,’ said Pringle softly. Only Hanley, Hopwood and Williams had come forward to the crest of the hill to look down at the village and the convent on the high ground outside it. ‘Well, we had better get on with it. You go first, Mr Hopwood.’
Five minutes later Three Company marched along the very top of the ridge, easily visible to the French post. They followed the crest, until they reached a walled orchard which covered them from the enemy’s view. A sunken lane led down from there into the main road leading into the valley. Some of the Legion cavalry were waiting and trotted down to send up a cloud of dust and make it look as if the company of redcoats was heading along to the road. Hopwood took his men back along the reverse slope of the ridge until he formed up behind the grenadiers. Then Pringle led both companies back along the ridge. More horsemen were waiting to create the necessary dust.
A little later each company marched across individually before they again went as a group. This time Wickham and Sir Robert joined them and rode conspicuously at their head. Two grinning grenadiers carried long poles with blankets fixed to hang from them in the hope that the French would see the Colours of a full battalion.
This time they followed the road and were joined by Lieutenant Dawney’s scratch company.
The French saw several hundred infantry appear outside the village and halt before the whole ‘battalion’ was in the open. Wilson and several of his staff rode forward under a flag of truce to call upon the garrison to surrender, announcing that he had a British regiment and Portuguese auxiliaries and would storm the place in an hour if they did not agree.
‘Do you think they will believe him?’ asked Hanley, somewhat disappointed to be left behind.
‘Perhaps,’ said Pringle. ‘Depends how suspicious they are. Or how stupid.’
‘Or brave,’ added Williams.
‘Aye, that too.’
‘I cannot see any timber good enough for making ladders,’ said Williams after a moment.
‘Pray it does not come to that,’ replied Pringle.
‘It will work,’ said Hanley, with greater confidence than he felt.
The wish proved true, and forty minutes later some ninety French infantrymen processed out of the convent gate and laid down their muskets.
‘That is a true success,’ conceded Pringle.
Sir Robert was his usual jovial self. ‘Smoked ’em again,’ he said delightedly. ‘This is how to fight the war. Let those fools replace me now!’
Dawney’s men took charge of the prisoners. The two companies of the 106th were given bread and wine by the villagers and the chance to eat and rest for the afternoon. They marched back to retrieve their wounded that same night, in time to bury the man with the chest wound.
The next morning Pringle set off early. The men were tired, but shared their officer’s desire to leave such chaotic warfare behind them. They marched heartily, and kept a quick pace for several days.
‘Be good to see Lisbon again,’ said Pringle.