The ground was parched, the grass and bushes dry as tinder after months of baking sunshine. Every time a musket was fired, pieces of burning paper from the cartridge dropped on to the fields. The big guns threw their smouldering wadding even farther. No one knew where the first grass fire broke out or whose embers started it, but as the fighting slackened on both sides of the river thick clouds of dark smoke rose up in several places. The wind, which had scarcely blown during the day, now began to gust, sweeping the flames quickly as the fires spread.
‘Can you crawl, sir?’ asked Dobson urgently.
‘Should we not wait to be found?’ Hanley replied.
‘Not unless you want to roast, sir. Come on. That way.’ Dobson pointed in the direction the battalion had gone. ‘And pray someone comes looking for us.’
Guns still fired. They could not see the Germans and Dutch repulsed for a second time, but did hear the trumpets as some Spanish cavalry charged and cut down the fleeing enemy. Farther away in the north valley more guns fired and more cavalry – British this time – charged so recklessly that they seemed to stun the French, so that the enemy attack stalled and came to nothing.
Dobson and Hanley were more concerned with the closer noises. The grass fire roared as it came on quickly, and then there were the dreadful screams as wounded men were caught and burned alive. There seemed to be corpses everywhere. Hanley dragged himself past one stripped almost naked by looters, and he was sure he knew the boy’s face. Then suddenly he realised it was Lebeque, the cheerful conscript who had guarded him on the bridge at Merida.
‘Poor devil,’ he said aloud, and then dragged himself on through the grass.
‘There you are, I have found you, Mr Dobson.’ It was a woman’s voice, and Hanley was surprised to see the very proper Mrs Dobson. She was dressed in a plain but neat brown dress and was fanning her face with her straw hat. A pin had shaken loose from her long hair, which hung down to her shoulder on one side.
‘Annie, get away, girl, you should not be here,’ said her husband, his pride mingling with fear, for it was getting hot now as the flames came closer.
‘Don’t you tell me what to do, Mr Dobson,’ came the stern reply, and Hanley could not help laughing out loud.
‘Help Mr Hanley, lass!’
‘He is managing. It’s you, you old fool, who needs help!’ Mrs Dobson was small, her husband tall and heavy. Somehow she lifted his shoulder and dragged him foot by foot.
They struggled on, and soon Hanley felt as if he were standing next to a furnace for the heat was so great. More men screamed as they died in the flames.
‘Praise the Lord,’ said Mrs Dobson as redcoats came towards them. ‘It’s our Mr Williams.’
‘Take your pouches off, you daft sods!’ yelled Dobson.
‘Mr Dobson, there is no call for such language,’ snapped his wife automatically.
Williams understood. ‘Pouches off, boys. Throw them that way, away from the fire.’ The heat was so great that it could easily have set off a man’s cartridges, blowing up his pouch and wounding or even killing him.
‘Lift ’em up!’ he shouted, and he and a Highlander took Hanley while two men from the 43rd lifted Dobson. ‘Quick as you can!’
They fled from the fire, Mrs Dobson scooping up her husband’s pack and carrying it with them even though she did not have the strength to put it properly on her back. Williams wished they could run fast enough to free their nostrils from the smell of roasting flesh.
There were wounded everywhere, far more than any of them had ever seen. Thousands lay across the plain and there were not enough fit men left to gather them up quickly. The lucky ones were carried along the tracks leading to the hospitals set up in the convent and some of the other big buildings. Others hobbled or crawled, dragging wounds through the dust and grime.
The convent was worse. Rows and rows of wounded soldiers waited for the surgeon, filling the courtyard and the road outside. A steady stream of orderlies came from the buildings with amputated legs and arms wrapped in ever filthier covers and tipped the limbs on to a steadily growing pile. Dogs howled at the smell and had to be kept at bay by the bayonets of the sentries. A few men screamed. Most sighed softly or moaned, and some lay still, and unless they had a friend near them their wounds became covered with flies.
Hanley remembered little. They laid him down on his front in a pile of straw. He always slept that way, and with the weariness and the heat he quickly lost consciousness. They woke him up when a surgeon came and probed for the fragments of the shell. The pain was worse than anything he had ever known, even when his arm had been smashed at Roliça, and he could remember yelling and cursing at the doctor as his thigh and all of his leg were stabbed repeatedly by a white hot poker. Then he fainted and there was nothing for hours or days or years. Once or twice he came half awake and there were the sounds of gentle movement around him. The room he was in seemed large, but there was only a single candle flickering far away. He saw Billy Pringle beside him, his face looking white and his breathing so soft that Hanley had to stare for a long time before he was convinced his friend still lived.
‘Oh dear!’ Again and again he heard voices sighing the same words. ‘Oh dear.’ Sometimes they called for their mothers, and on the first night a man screamed again and again for Emma, calling for forgiveness and one last kiss. Then the voice went silent.
‘Oh dear, oh dear!’ The smell assaulted his nostrils. There was the stink of excrement and blood, and a growing odour of decay that made him gag if ever he took a strong gulp of air.
Hanley drifted in and out of consciousness. He heard Billy talking to him at one point, but he could not understand the words or remember how to reply. His wound did not hurt as long as he remained still. Whenever he moved the pain savaged him and he knew that sometimes he wept.
Williams and the rest of the 3rd Battalion spent days dealing with the debris of battle. They dug graves and dragged the already decaying corpses into them. Sometimes the bodies came apart when men tried to lift them by the arms.
There were too many, and so the order came to burn the remaining corpses. They built pyres with any wood they could find, but the orders were not to touch the vine trees, and apart from that there were not enough axes so some of the fires were too small. Many bodies were left as shrunken dolls half the size of a man, and these had to be buried by the weary survivors.
Truscott gave Williams the task of putting together the casualty list for the battalion.
‘One officer and forty-four men killed,’ he read. ‘The officer being poor Mr Castle. Then eight officers wounded, six of them severely.’ Williams struggled to take the numbers in even as he went through the list. ‘Two hundred and sixty-eight other ranks wounded, and twenty-one missing.’
‘Any idea where?’ asked Truscott, trying to be practical rather than face the full scale of the appalling losses.
‘I fear that some are among the dead, but were unrecognisable. Let us hope they were killed outright before the grass fires reached them.’
‘Amen to that.’
‘I do not know of any taken prisoner. Some may have run.’ Williams shrugged. No one wanted to admit such a thing, but all knew that a few men snapped under the strain of battle and would find some way of escaping to the rear in all the confusion. They might return in time. ‘Grand total,’ he continued, ‘nine officers and three hundred and thirty-three other ranks.’
‘Dear God alive,’ said Truscott softly, and it was rare for him to swear. ‘From what I hear the loss for the army amounts to well over five thousand.’ That was around a quarter of the total, but all save one brigade of the cavalry had taken little part in the fighting and the bulk of the fallen were from the infantry battalions.
‘The French have lost more,’ said Williams.
‘They had more to start off with.’
‘True. Oh yes, we have also lost the twelve remaining men from the forty-third who have returned to their regiment.’
The day after the battle a fresh brigade of three first-rate light infantry battalions joined the army. Williams hoped that Sergeant Rudden would recover quickly and be able to return to his precious regiment. He felt guilty now for doubting the men of his company. None could have fought better, and it did not really matter whether they did it for him or in spite of him, for their regiments, their own pride or sheer damned stubbornness.
‘We beat them,’ said Williams firmly.
‘Yes, we did.’ The French Army had withdrawn, but the Allies were in no state to follow them. ‘Sadly I fear this achievement will be the last for our battalion. The men from other corps are to be sent to the First and Second Battalions of Detachments, pending either their return to their own regiments when these arrive in Portugal or a return to England.’
‘In due course the officers and men of the One Hundred and Sixth are to return to England, although I dare say they will keep us busy in the meantime. That should give time for some of the wounded to recovery sufficiently for the voyage.’
‘Any word?’ Williams had been to the hospital once during a brief break from duty, but with so few officers left and so much to do he had had no more time.
‘Only indirectly. I think Pringle and Hanley have a good chance. The colonel is grievously wounded.’ Truscott’s tone conveyed his lack of hope. ‘Still, he is a tough one.’
‘He is Welsh,’ said Williams, but his confidence was thin.
Hanley was sitting up and able to eat and keep it down by the time Baynes came to see him.
‘I am glad to find you on the path to recovery,’ said the merchant, who thought the lieutenant still looked pale and weak.
‘Still hurts,’ came the reply.
‘Well, you should be pleased to know that our deception worked. King Joseph is off chasing Venegas, while Victor is looking for the “great army” led by Sir Robert Wilson.’
‘Was not the original plan to keep the French armies apart and fight them individually?’
Baynes smiled at the evident bitterness in Hanley’s voice.
‘Indeed it was. Then that did not work and we needed a battle, even though it meant fighting them all in one place. Sir Arthur and you fellows won the battle and so we are still in the game.’
‘Madrid?’ Hanley looked excited, life coming back to his face.
‘Not yet, but perhaps in a few weeks. First we must deal with Marshal Soult, who has forced his way through the mountains and is behind us. He may have a few of Ney’s men with him. Sir Arthur estimates their force as no bigger than his remaining men. So tomorrow the British Army marches back east towards Plasencia to beat Soult. Cuesta and the Spanish will stay here. They can guard the hospitals and block any move from Victor or the others.’
Hanley waited for a moment. ‘There must be more.’
‘There is.’ Baynes brought up a handkerchief to cover his mouth. The air stank and was no doubt poisonous. Then he realised how this must look and took the handkerchief away. ‘Do you have any way of reaching Espinosa that you have not told me?’
‘You have tried the priest?’
‘His body was found last night. The throat had been cut.’
‘Poor devil.’ Hanley had liked the old man. ‘La Doña Margarita?’
‘Her driver killed an assassin who had broken into the house last night,’ said Baynes.
Hanley thought of Dobson’s verdict on Ramón and nodded. ‘Is she hurt?’
‘A little shaken, but unscathed.’
‘There may be a way. That is assuming Espinosa himself is still alive?’
‘I am making that assumption, but you may be right. Perhaps the French have discovered him. At the moment we cannot know.’
Baynes looked him in the eyes. ‘Who knows?’
Hanley was silent for a moment, trying to decide whether the merchant was really so unsure. No doubt the man was still holding back, out of habit certainly, but after the last weeks Hanley found it hard to trust anyone wholly.
‘Well,’ he said in the end, ‘perhaps that does not matter for the moment. Tell me, is it day or night? I am inclined to lose track and there is no window in this room.’
‘It is just after nine in the morning,’ answered Baynes slowly.
‘Good, then we have time to make plenty of ground today. You must fetch me a horse and a small escort of reliable men.’
‘Must I?’ The merchant smiled. ‘For what purpose?’
‘I shall ride to Captain Rodriguez and his guerrillas. They will not be far away and it should not be too difficult to find them. With his aid, I believe that I can reach Espinosa.’
Now it was Baynes’ turn to lapse into silence and watch the other for several minutes. Hanley waited, for he was finding so serious a conversation fatiguing and he knew that he would soon need all his strength for one last effort.
‘Can you ride, William? Indeed, my friend, can you even stand?’
‘It seems that I must,’ said Hanley. He pushed himself up with his arms, keeping all the weight on his good leg, and with effort was able to stand up. ‘There. Good as new.’ He was struggling to breathe.
‘Most impressive.’ Baynes remained seated, watching him closely. Pringle snored loudly where he lay on a mattress of straw beside the wall.
Hanley smiled and let himself balance more naturally before he took his first step. Sudden agony engulfed his right thigh and he felt it sinking beneath him. He gasped, unable even to swear, and leaned to the left, lifting his other foot off the ground. The pain subsided slowly.
‘Jesús, Maria y Joseph,’ he croaked as his heart began to stop racing.
Baynes got up and helped Hanley back down on to his bed.
‘I do not doubt your determination, only your capacity to see it through, William,’ he said when Hanley was safely down. ‘You cannot think of going anywhere, let alone a hard ride, perhaps dodging French patrols. It is impossible.’
The merchant patted him on the shoulder. ‘Rest. You must tell me how it is to be done and I shall go. We need to know what the French are planning and Espinosa is best placed to tell us quickly.’
Hanley looked at the merchant, with his honest face and hard eyes. ‘Take Williams,’ he said. ‘Send him here first and I shall tell him what he needs to know.’
Baynes looked at him oddly. ‘You have a most suspicious nature.’
‘I do believe that is meant as a compliment.’
‘My dear boy, one of the highest.’
An hour later Williams found himself riding with Baynes and a corporal’s guard from the KGL Hussars on the main road from Talavera to Madrid. It was his first chance to try the Andalusian given to him the day after the battle by General Cuesta, and he could see that the animal far surpassed the other horses. The mare was a little nervous, eyes darting and ears flicking at each new sight or noise, but when they had cleared the town and let their mounts run she went smoothly into a gentle canter that still threatened to leave the others behind. Williams suspected that so good a horse required a better rider than himself, but then he also doubted his suitability – and indeed his taste – for the task in hand.
Mr Baynes was as jovial as ever, talking away even when Williams’ replies were brief. Hanley had chosen him, not the merchant, and it was his friend who had explained the whole business and what he must do. The cause was good, for the general must learn what he could of the enemy’s intentions if the campaign was to be won. There was nothing inherently dishonourable in the duty itself. He was less sure about his companion.
‘You have a fine steed, Mr Williams,’ said Baynes, as the redcoated officer pulled slightly on the reins to slow his mount down. ‘Very forward.’
‘She is itching to run,’ he replied, and let her go for a moment so that he pulled ahead again and avoided more conversation. A few minutes later he slowed to a trot, and let the others catch up.
‘I doubt more than a few of our staff officers are as well mounted.’ Baynes was now even more red faced than usual.
Williams nodded. It was a thrill to own such a fine beast, but he doubted that he would be able to keep her. Fodder cost money, and as a lieutenant of a line regiment he was not entitled to receive this from the army.
‘And to think when first we met you were on a borrowed mule! You must indulge us by slowing a little. I am sure that I can lead you to Rodriguez and his band, but to do that you are required to follow me!’
‘Yes, sir, of course. I am not the most experienced of riders,’ he explained. Silently he wondered why Hanley did not want to trust this man – indeed, would not trust anyone apart from him, since Pringle was still recovering from his wound. Some of what he had told Williams was intimate, not all to his credit, and it was understandable that he entrusted such matters only to a friend, but even so his caution was more than a little unnerving.
‘I do not know what I truly think about Baynes,’ Hanley had said when they were alone. ‘He is probably square, or at least as far as anyone can be when they work for the government, but I cannot be certain any more about anyone. Not after the last few weeks. The Spanish have traitors, and perhaps . . .’ Hanley had lapsed into silence again, but then he had smiled thinly. ‘I may be starting at my own shadow. But I know I trust you. This is important, Bills, very important.’
Colonel Murray had come to see them off, and Williams wondered whether Baynes had brought the staff officer for his benefit. Murray was certainly a most soldierly individual, and it was easier to obey his orders than those of a spy. Williams wished it was the colonel and not the merchant who rode with him now. Even more he wished that Hanley had been well enough to deal with this murky business himself.
Baynes’ voice pulled him back from his thoughts. ‘The Third Battalion of Detachments performed most gallantly, but I know the cost was dear and must apologise for drawing you away from duties that were no doubt pressing.’
‘Oh, they’ll manage without me,’ said Williams blithely. He began to wonder whether some of Hanley’s talents for dissimulation were rubbing off on him. ‘It is a pleasure to be of service.’
The merchant watched him for a moment, and then broke into a grin. ‘I see you are the right man for the task.’
Williams hoped his face betrayed no reaction. The road was open ahead of them, so he gave the slightest nudge with his heels and felt the mare surge forward, hoofs pounding on the hard-packed earth. The noise almost covered Baynes’ delighted chuckle.