Authors: Robert Brightwell
Tags: #Adventure, #Historical, #Action
The journey started off well enough; the ferry took us across the river and we found a road, little more than a narrow track, heading in the right direction. Whereas the crowds in Lisbon had welcomed our presence, as we got further from the more travelled route, the populace were much less hospitable to strangers. We would normally be spotted approaching a village and by the time we got there the doors and shutters would be firmly closed. If we saw any people at all they would be old men and women who would glare at us from the village square with hostile faces. To them we were just soldiers, they did not care about politics or why we were there. They just remembered clearly the ones in blue coats that had travelled in the opposite direction and probably taken anything of value that they could find.
As we were riding through one of these ghost villages, the window shutter in a large house opened slightly and an attractive young girl stared out and smiled at us. I grinned and waved back, but a second later a hand reached out and grabbed the girl by the collar, dragging her out of sight. The unseen
then shouted at the girl and delivered such a resounding slap that several of us winced in sympathy. But it was good to know that not every woman in the region was a raddled old crone.
With all this arctic hospitality, the bread, sausage and other supplies we had brought with us soon started to run out. Late in the afternoon on the sixth day we rode through another seemingly abandoned village, and while not a soul was in sight, a decent sized pig could be seen snuffling around a sty attached to one of the cottages. Our dinner the previous night had consisted of boiled beans, hard-boiled egg and the last of some spicy sausage. I don’t know if you have ever camped with thirty men who have only eaten eggs, beans and spiced sausage, but let me tell you after that repast they snore from both ends. I hardly got any sleep and when we threw the blankets off in the morning the stench was truly appalling. I could not go through another night like that, and when I looked around me I saw that most of our number were of the same mind. Nothing was said, but there was an exchange of glances which told me that with one exception, we were planning to have pork for dinner that night. Unfortunately the exception was our nominal commander John Downie. While we were both captains, Downie’s commission preceded mine so he was the senior officer. He barely gave the pig a glance as we went past and was prattling on in his usual enthusiastic manner. I can’t tell you what he was talking about as I had long since stopped listening.
‘What supplies do we have left for dinner, John?’ I asked.
‘Oh, we have plenty of beans left, no more sausage I’m afraid, but we still have enough eggs to make a meal. It might be our last night together before we reach Alcantara. I am sure we must be close now.’
‘There was a pig back there, we could buy it to supplement the rations,’ I suggested.
‘No, we have brought these supplies with us so we should use them.’ He laughed and added, ‘I am a commissary officer after all, so I should be making the best use of what we carry.’
‘Indeed,’ I agreed, thinking a more oblique approach would be required. ‘That forested hill up in front looks a good place to camp tonight. It will give shelter from the wind but will not be too damp.’
‘Isn’t it too early to stop?’ asked Downie.
‘I think Trooper Doherty is feeling a bit stiff after his fall this morning.’
On cue Doherty, who had been listening to the conversation piped up, ‘Ah, yes sir, my side is right cruel sore, so it is.’ After a theatrical gasp and wince of pain he added in a brave croak, ‘But I could go on sir if we really have to.’
I thought the daft bogtrotter had overdone it but Downie never suspected a thing. ‘No, of course we can stop Doherty if you’re in pain. I had no idea you had fallen this morning or I would have asked how you were.’ He turned to me, ‘You are a good man, Thomas, to keep an eye on the men’s welfare like that, I should have done better.’
‘It was nothing,’ I brushed the praise aside. ‘Now why don’t we ride to the end of the forest ahead of us to see what lies beyond. We can leave the men to set up camp,’ and here I looked meaningfully over my shoulder, ‘as well as forage anything for the pot.’ The men grinned back conspiratorially as I spurred ahead with Downie. In a short while we were winding our way through the forest on the path and I asked about his navigation. ‘Are you sure we are near Alcantara? I have lost my bearings a bit and we haven’t seen the sun for days with this low cloud.’
‘Oh yes,’ he looked rather pleased with himself as he added, ‘there are signs you can look out for to help when the sun cannot be seen. For example, moss normally grows on the south side of tree trunks to get the most sunshine, so you can use that as a guide.’ I had never heard this before but looked around and what little moss I could see was scattered on several different sides of the trunks.
‘Do you think it would be a good idea to ask for directions tomorrow,’ I asked. ‘Just to confirm what the moss is telling you.’
‘I suppose we could,’ he agreed. ‘But I am not sure that I would trust those villagers.’
It would be a damn sight more reliable than your moss, I thought. You will not be surprised to learn that Downie had got it wrong. A few years later I discovered that moss normally grows on the north side of a tree’s bark. But an old trapper on the Ottawa River in Canada told me that you have to study a hundred trees to get an accurate indication of north as other things such as the direction of rivers and hills also affect the moss.
We rode back to camp and to Downie’s surprise and my delight a pig was roasting over the fire.
‘Trooper Chapman caught a wild pig while out foraging,’ Sergeant Butterworth explained with a straight face to Downie. ‘We can keep the eggs to give us supplies for another day, sir.’
‘Yes,’ cried Downie, grinning. ‘And as it is a wild pig we don’t have to pay for it.’
There is nothing like the smell of roast pork to build up an appetite and it was the first fresh meat we had enjoyed in days. A few hours later and we were settling down for the night, comfortably full, when one of the troopers on guard duty warned that a party from the nearby village was approaching. There were about a dozen of them, ten men armed with scythes, billhooks and a few muskets, a priest and an old woman. A number of our men gathered at the edge of our camp to face them, several having taken the short barrelled carbine muskets from the holsters in their saddles first, in case there was trouble. Most of the villagers stopped a hundred yards down the hill and just the priest and the old woman came on. As I spoke the best Spanish, and to stop Downie discovering where the pig had really come from, I volunteered to go down to greet them.
‘What can we do for you?’ I asked them in a friendly tone. The old woman, who had a spectacularly hairy wart on her chin, glanced nervously to the priest.
‘We have come to seek payment for the pig,’ he replied calmly, while his eyes darted over my shoulder to look at the troopers standing behind me.
‘Did you ask the French for payment when they came this way?’ I asked.
,’ the priest smiled. ‘The French did not sneak into the village like your man. They marched in, took what and who they wanted and killed anyone that got in the way. You are riding west, to fight the French I think. We hope you will be different. It is a poor village and we cannot afford to lose a pig without trying for payment.
‘Let me have a word with our commander,’ I said, before walking back up the hill to Downie.
‘What do they want Thomas?’ asked Downie.
‘It seems that woman’s pig escaped from its sty, which was why Chapman found it in the forest. They are hoping we will pay for the animal.’
‘But if it escaped we are under no obligation to pay,’ insisted Downie indignantly.
‘True,’ I said, ‘but if we don’t pay they will think badly of the British army. It would be best to give them something. Haven’t you some money from commissary funds you could use?’ Reluctantly Downie handed over three small gold coins for the animal and I walked back down the hill.
‘Here is payment for the pig,’ I told the old lady, pushing a single gold coin into her grubby palm. The priest snatched the money from her but complained,
‘This is not enough, it was a big pig.’
‘I will give you another coin for some information,’ I told him. ‘We set off from Lisbon six days ago and we are going to Alcantara. How far off is that from here and in which direction?’
‘You have come well south of your route,’ said the priest, now looking surprised we were here at all. ‘Over the hill the path forks – take the track on the left. Alcantara is still some six or seven days for a man on horseback.’
‘Thank you.’ I pressed a second coin into the old woman’s hand and this time it closed with the speed of a trap before the priest could take the money. I still had a coin left and I held it up to show them. ‘Do you have brandy in that village?’ I asked.
, but we have
,’ he told me, and by the way he grinned and made a drinking gesture I gathered it was good.
‘Well, bring enough of it for thirty men and you will have this coin as well,’ I told them. The woman said nothing but nodded and her mouth cracked open into a nearly toothless grin. She returned a short while later with two large earthenware flagons of the spirit for the coin. I had been expecting some local firewater but it was remarkably good, brown in colour, as thick as port and tasting like liquid fruit cake.
For me you can forget about White’s and the Reform Club; for true camaraderie you could not beat nights like that. Thirty men sitting around a roaring log fire on a moonlit night, full bellies, exceptional liquor and not a damned egg or bean in sight. It was around that very fire that one of the truly insane ideas in military history was born. It followed after some of the troops had expressed surprise that we were now paying villagers for supplies. It wasn’t like that during the retreat to Corunna, they pointed out.
‘Mind you,’ said Sergeant Butterworth, ‘things went too far then.’ He looked at the others. ‘Remember when we rode into that village and found those Welsh troops insensible in the snow. They were surrounded by broken bottles and barrels and had drunk themselves unconscious. We could not rouse them and had to leave them as the French were just an hour behind. Whether they were killed by the French or frostbite I cannot say, but I’m pretty sure that they were dead by morning.’
‘D’ye think there are partisans in these here hills?’ asked Doherty. ‘I mean,’ he added, while subconsciously touching his genitals, ‘we have the heard stories about what they do to French troops they capture, so we have. Ye don’t think they’ll do that to us do you?’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ exclaimed Chapman. ‘They know we are on their side an’ we ’ave our red jackets to show we’re British.’
‘The French have troops in red coats as well,’ said Butterworth. ‘Swiss and Hanoverians I think. I saw some in the last campaign. They were in the vanguard of a French attack and some villagers came out to welcome them thinking they were us before they realised their error.’
‘Jaysus and Mary,’ exclaimed Doherty. ‘Gettin’ shot at is one thing, but I don’t want some bastard to cut my knocker off.’
‘Don’t worry,’ reassured Downie. ‘The Spanish are not going to attack their own allies. Flashman and I speak Spanish, we can explain who we are and why we’re here.’
‘Do you think the Spanish army will be in a fit state to fight?’ I asked him. ‘After what we heard about the battle at Medallin, it does not sound as if they will be a strong fighting force.’
‘I have been to Spain several times.’ Downie was staring into the fire as he spoke. ‘I truly love Spain and the Spanish people, but in some ways they just seem to have given up. Two hundred years ago they stood astride the world, nearly capturing Britain with the Armada and ruling most of Europe and the Americas. They just do not seem to be the same people now, with no pride or proper organisation. They need something to remind them of what they once were.’
‘I heard that the Tower of London sent back to Spain all the weapons they captured from the Spanish Armada at the start of Spanish rebellion,’ said Butterworth, who then took a long pull on one of the flagons. He wiped his mouth before adding, ‘Perhaps they can fit out a regiment in that clobber to inspire the rest.’ Thirty-one people round the campfire roared with laughter at the thought of soldiers dressed in doublet and hose prancing around a modern battlefield. One person was not laughing.
‘That could work,’ murmured Downie, half to himself.
‘You can’t be serious?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘They would be shot to pieces long before they could use their swords and pikes. In any case it would cost a fortune to put such a force together.’