Thomas stood at the base of the cliff looking upwards to where Sergeant Major Croxley could be heard shouting orders to his gunners. There was only one thing for it; Thomas would have to scale the cliff face for a final talk with the Gunnery Sergeant Major.
Thomas looked around at his men, they were all doing their final checks of their equipment and making sure the horse with the two kegs of powder was secured tightly, it would not be a good result to have the kegs lost in the dark on their way to the defile.
Thomas was puffing slightly when he made it over the top of the cliff face. The Sergeant Major was using the last of the daylight to sight in his four guns. The Sergeant Major would not have the light in the morning as the first shots were to be fired as soon as he heard the kegs explode in the far off defile. Thomas stood back as he watched the Sergeant Major with his strange little brass instrument go from gun to gun as he lined them up.
Unlike the English guns, the French had developed a sighting system by filing a small V at the rear of the cannon and placing a small round brass knob above the mouth of the barrel. This improvement alone was what gave the French gunners their fearsome reputation for accuracy; Croxley was not about to waste that advantage. When the Sergeant Major was finished, Thomas called him to the side for the final part of the plan so that everyone knew what was expected of them.
Just as the dusk was coming down, Thomas went to the ropes to go back down for a final meal before heading out into the dark towards the defile. Thomas was amazed as he made his slow and somewhat steady way down the ropes that the gunners from above seemed to just leap from the ropes and slide at speed to the base of the cliff.
When Thomas finally had his feet back on solid ground, he turned to the Sergeant Major with a look of wonder on his face at the fearlessness of the gunners, the Sergeant Major smiled as if he completely understood Thomas's awe.
"They is all Jack Tars Mister Marking, used to climbing in the t'gallants and among the rat lines they is; this here little climb is nothing to them Sir, do it all day they will."
"Well it scares the hell out of me Sergeant Major."
"Don't you go worrying none Mister Marking; we will do all the climbing needed around here."
The laughter in the Sergeant Major's voice did not go unnoticed by Thomas but he just smiled and nodded as he went in search of his meal, they had less than an hour to full dark and he would have to be ready to move out as soon as he was able.
The passage past the well armed depot had to be made in total silence; to achieve this Thomas set his course further to the east where he would be less likely to be seen by any guards at the barricades, especially the gunners. One of the Spanish boys had come up with the idea to place thick leather pads, much like boots, on the horse's feet. The animal moved as silently as a ghost as it was led into the dark with the two kegs of powder on its back and surrounded by the two platoons of young soldiers.
Thomas estimated it was still about two hours before midnight when they arrived at the entrance to the defile; now that he was so close he saw it was a little higher than he had at first thought. From the roadway up the sheer sides to the top looked to be about thirty feet, anyone below them would not stand a chance of attacking up such a steep slope.
Thomas looked closely at the sides of the defile; it appeared to be made up mostly of sandstone with thin layers of broken shale and other smaller stones. Thomas called for the two boys that had carried the spades to begin digging a large enough hole on each side to fit the barrel of powder well into. Other boys would take over to help as the diggers got tired.
The sandstone was not as easy to dig as first thought and Thomas thought it was at least an hour after midnight before the two holes were finished and the large kegs of powder could be eased into the holes with the small bung facing outward. When the time came to explode the powder, Thomas would lay a trail of powder from his supply he had kept separate; he and Juan would fire a barrel each then run for cover behind some nearby rocks they had chosen.
The rest of the two Platoons had now left them and were to arrange themselves along both sides of the defile so they could fire down at anyone attempting to come through. Thomas knew that there was always a supply train early in the mornings. With luck they may be able to trap it in the defile when the kegs blew if not then they could always lay in wait and; when the supply train came to the blockage, Thomas and his men would ambush them as best they could.
Thomas was well aware that when the kegs of powder blew the sound would carry to the depot which was now only about a mile away but it was also the signal for the Sergeant Major to begin his bombardment.
Thomas was still worried about the six large guns mounted around the depot but Sergeant Major Croxley had assured him they would not be able to elevate high enough to cause any problems for him and his gunners.
"Like fish in a barrel Mister Marking, them Froggies will be soiling their britches by sun rise; you mark my words Mister Marking." The Sergeant Major had assured him with a chuckle in his voice.
Thomas did a final check of the kegs before he and Juan settled down for the rest of the night to wait for the first grey light of dawn. Once the kegs had been placed in the holes, the boys had repacked any spaces with some of the detritus they had taken out so the barrels were almost completely covered; there was only the very small gap left to pull the bungs from the face of the kegs and run a trail of powder a safe distance away from the small bags they both carried.
Thomas and Juan rechecked their flints to make sure they were dry and ready before settling down side by side to keep warm as the night time damp and cold moved in. It was only from long practice and necessity that Thomas was able to open his eyes at the first crack of dawn and he gave Juan a light shake to wake him in readiness, it was time to cause mayhem.
Thomas and Juan ran to the buried kegs, knocked the small wooden bungs loose and began to set their trail of powder to what they hoped was a safe distance. When the last of the powder in their small bags was done, the two boys took out their flints and knives ready to light the trail. Thomas looked over at Juan who was on the other side of the defile where he had run his line of powder; at a nod from the other boy, both struck down hard on their flints. Both looked up at each other as the large spark lit the two trails, they were surprised at how fast the powder caught and began to run along the black trail.
As if it had suddenly dawned on them that they were still crouched over the burning trail of powder; both boys leapt to their feet and ran for their prearranged hiding places behind a tall solid rock. Thomas had only just settled down behind his rock when the whole world seemed to be lifted high into the air and a thunderous sound almost deafened him and left his ears ringing. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Thomas got the thought that he may have overestimated the amount of powder they would need as the first pebbles, grit and dust began to pelt him from above.
As the heavy smell of burnt powder and dust made its way into his clogged nostrils, Thomas took the chance to lift his head above the large rock; he was just in time to see another head looking carefully over the rock on the opposite side. As though on a silent signal both boys looked at each other through the thick cloud of dust and smoke and grinned widely.
They had to wait a little for the cloud of dust and smoke to clear from where it had rolled out of the defile; the sight that met their eyes in the greyness of the dawn light was one of total destruction; there was no way the French would be using this road again for many weeks. The explosion had blocked the defile from top to bottom, how thick it was would have to wait until Thomas and Juan made it up to the top where the rest of the men waited.
Thomas prayed the men above had been well back from the top of the defile when the powder went up, if not there would be little left of them to recover. Just as Thomas was about to signal for both of them to make their way to the top of the defile; he heard far in the distance the sound of four loud booms; Sergeant Major Croxley had joined the party.
Croxley had been up before the first greyness of dawn was showing in the east, his gunners were well rested and they were now at the guns removing the thick wad of cotton from the barrels. Croxley was no novice and he had seen that there could be moisture from the night fill his barrels which would give him wet powder and probable misfires in the morning. To this end he had had the gunners stuff a thick wad of cotton into each barrel to keep them dry; it was now only a matter of pulling out the wadding and loading the guns.
Croxley watched intently as the four guns were loaded with solid shot in readiness for Mister Marking's signal. Sergeant Major Croxley had taken all his figures from the brass sight and now relayed them to his gunners. The French sights had taken care of the direction, it now only remained for Sergeant Major Croxley to give out the elevations and the fun could begin.
In a firm voice that was just loud enough for the gunners to hear, the Sergeant Major called to his gunners waiting in readiness for the morning to begin.
"All guns; screw up three and a half. Set?" the replies came only seconds later.
"Number one gun, set."
"Number two gun, Set."
"Number three gun, set."
There was a longer pause as the Sergeant looked along his lines at the number four gun at the far end.
"Number four gun, have you got cloth ears gunner?"
"Sorry Da, didn't hear you."
"Clean your ears boy and it's Sergeant Major to you not Da; you bloody Pillock."
"Sorry Sergeant Major, I forgot."
"I'll see if you forget when I have your backside over my knee. Now, Number four are you set?"
"Number four gun, set."
"Right gunners, any minute now, wait for my order and; number four, keep your bloody ears clean."
Just as he finished talking, Sergeant Croxley saw a huge gout of flame to the north; it was quickly followed by a second one; with a broad smile on his face and his mind telling him that Mister Marking could have done the job with one less keg of powder; Sergeant Croxley called out loudly for all the guns to hear.
"Number one; fire. Reload solid shot. Number two; fire. Reload solid shot. Number three; fire. Reload solid shot. Number four; fire. Reload solid shot."
While the four guns were being reloaded, Sergeant Croxley watched for the fall of the shots. It did not take long for him to smile and then; as he watched the last shot land outside the breast works he turned with a scowl on his face.
"Number one gun, up a quarter. Number two, steady. Number three, steady, Number four what the bloody hell were you doing. You bloody near hit one of my guns down there you daft sod. I said up three and a half not two and a half. Get it up gunner or you will be a powder monkey afore this day is out."
There was a sudden round of quiet chuckles as the older gunners looked down the line at the seventeen year old son of the Sergeant Major. This was the boy's first chance at being in command of a gun and; as usually happened the first time; everything that could go wrong for the young teen did.
"All guns check your wheel chocks then prepare to fire on my orders. Next load will be canister."
Sergeant Major Croxley took out the small spy glass he had borrowed from Thomas and looked down into the depot. Even after just three scoring shots the depot was in an uproar; most of its inhabitants were still asleep when those first shots landed in amongst their tent lines. Where once there were orderly lines of two and four man tents, there was now just a mass of burning and torn tents with men trying desperately to get out from under the wreckage.
In the rest of the camp there was also chaos as the gunners tried to get to their silent artillery pieces out on the hard stands that were made for them; as yet they had no idea where the shots had come from until they saw with their own eyes more large gouts of flame from four guns high above them on the ridge top.
The next four balls landed in the middle of the tent lines and caused even more damage and destruction as tents collapsed or were blown into nothing but tatters; the loud screams of the wounded began to fill the air as men tried to find their way to safety through the growing haze of smoke and dust as the first of the flames took hold on the dry canvas tents.
With so many men milling around without guidance, it was inevitable that the four rounds of canister that came crashing above them less than a minute later did their ugly job; the cries and screams of the wounded only increased as the canister shot spread far and wide in the chill morning air.
For some reason there was suddenly a pause but it did not stop the screams and cries; little did the men of the depot realise the Sergeant Major was realigning his guns to the centre of the depot where the main tents and stores were located. As it turned out, most of the men were unconsciously gravitating towards the centre were the Senior Officer stayed, they were looking for orders and what to do under this sudden and deadly attack from the dawn sky.
Sergeant Major Croxley called out to his gunners.
"All guns ease your chocks. Guns will sight to midships."
Sergeant Major Croxley watched as the chocks were pulled back and one of the men took a long heavy steel bar and jammed it into the ground near the tow bar in readiness to turn the gun more to the centre of the depot. At the eastern end of the depot there was now a mass of flames as more and more tents caught fire; the remnants of dead and wounded could be seen in the flickering flames and the darker shadows of others trying to find a place of safety.
Sergeant Major Croxley went from gun to gun to check on their alignment; as he crouched over the sights on the barrel he would give orders for small alterations.
"Give me an inch to larboard please gunner."
"Aye sir an inch it is."
"That's it gunner, set your chocks and prepare for two solid and one canister on my orders."
Croxley just shook his head, all his men were ex naval gunners and it was hard for them to use the rank of Sergeant Major after years at the mast.
Sergeant Major Croxley went down the line of four guns to check their aim; as he came to his son's gun he looked down the barrel and smiled at his son for the first time.
"Give me two inches to port gunner then set your chocks and keep your bloody gun away from that magazine."
"Yes Sergeant Major, two inches to port it is."
When he saw that all the guns were ready and loaded, Sergeant Major Croxley called out his orders.
"All guns will fire at will; two solid one canister in your own time. All guns, fire."
Sergeant Major Croxley watched the fall of the first shots. A large smile moved his lips as he saw all four shots crash in spectacular fashion right into the centre of the depot causing massive damage to both large marquees and lines of supplies close by.
A mile away and on top of the defile, Thomas watched as the smoke and flames grew in the area of the supply depot. The Sergeant Major had been true to his word, he was causing all kinds of mayhem and trouble for the entrenched French troops. Thomas turned his attention back to the defile. It was about five hundred yards long with a gentle curve near the middle which hid the far end but he had his men spread right along the length of it.
It was good and light when he got the first word that there was a supply train approaching from the north; Thomas called his men to get ready for the ambush. In the distance behind him, Thomas could still hear the guns firing down into the depot; the Sergeant Major was obviously having the time of his life with a target that did not move around like a ship.
Thomas crouched low as he ran to the northern end of the defile. In the distance he saw the line of wagons making their way towards where he and his men waited in ambush. Thomas noticed one of the wagons was a little further back from the other twenty and was the only wagon pulled by four horses instead of two like all the others. There could be only one reason for that and the fact it was also the only one to have four armed guards riding on top of the canvas cover stretched tightly over the hidden load, Thomas smiled to himself as a sudden thought came to him.
After telling the men around him to let all the wagons pass until the last one entered the defile, he ran back and called across to Juan whom he had put in charge of the men on the other side.
"Juan, wait for my order to fire, let all the wagons come right into the defile. The front ones will see the blockage but not be able to turn around; with luck we can trap them all inside with nowhere to go."
Juan just lifted his hand in acknowledgement and went back to ground; for anyone looking above there would be no sign that sixty muskets were just above their heads waiting for them.
Thomas turned back the way he had come and went to watch the line of wagons draw closer; his orders were simple, none of the enemy could be allowed to leave the defile alive and; if it meant shooting the horses then so be it. His plan was simple, the more damage he did and the more he blocked the defile, the longer and harder it would be for the French to reopen it.
If the defile was blocked with bodies and broken wagons the job of clearing the defile could take months of hard work and the last wagon in the train could make that even near impossible if his assumption was correct. Thomas lifted his eyes just enough to be able to watch the seven man troop of escort lancers ride along the defile. It did not surprise Thomas when the leader gave a call back along the line after he had cleared the curve in the defile and saw the blocked road ahead.
Lieutenant Deutreaux paused to look at the barrier that was now towering over the exit of the defile; without thought he signalled for his small troop to follow him as he went forward to inspect the damage. The Lieutenant was not only bored with the long slow trips he was forced to make every week as a chaperone to a slow moving supply train, he was also angry that he had not been given a more important command at the new front that was building far to the south.
Lieutenant Deutreaux was so engrossed in his own problems he did not notice the wagons were continuing to close up on his position where he now sat directly under the blockage in the road. As they were down low in the defile, it was not until he stopped and there was less noise around that he heard what sounded like distant thunder; the only thing that made that implausible was the clear morning sky above them.
Deutreaux swivelled in his saddle as he heard the wagons rattle to a halt directly behind where he sat. After swearing under his breath that the wagons had not stopped back by the bend in the road, Deutreaux turned back to the problem before him. There was no way he would be able to clear the rock fall with the few men he had; the thought of any rebel attack was far from his mind as there had been no enemy activity for over a year in this area.
Deutreaux turned back once again to look behind him as he heard a loud cheer go up from the drivers and guards behind him. Looking up he was relieved to see at least two platoons of French uniforms step to the sides of the defile above them; now he would get this blockage clear and be able to finally finish the slow trip to the Supply depot.
As Deutreaux watched the new arrivals form up along the top of the defile, something in the back of his mind tried to get through to his consciousness; it suddenly struck the young Cavalry Lieutenant. There was not only the fresh smell of dust and dirt from the rock fall that had been in the air, there was another more acrid scent; the heady scent of burnt powder.
It was too late for the Lieutenant as he tried to turn and warn his soldiers of what was about to happen; the sudden crashing of sixty muskets which was soon followed by sixty more as those above fired their second barrels into the trapped masses below.
The ambush was a complete success and, as the blue powder smoke cleared from the top of the defile, Thomas and his men looked down on a scene of total carnage. The killing had not been confined to just the guards or the Lancers but also the drivers and many of the horses.
The defile was now a grave yard and only a few of those who remained could be heard as their cries echoed among the neighing of wounded horses. In an act of mercy and after he made sure his men had reloaded their twin barrels; Thomas stepped back to the edge and looked down; at his order the others began to give the coup de gras to both animals and men so they would no longer suffer.
As the odd shot was fired, Thomas looked along to the northern end of the defile and was just in time to see the three teens he had left there come running as though the devil was after them. At the sight of the fast moving teens and going by the yells of urgency, Thomas knew they had caught the last wagon as he had planned it. Thomas called loudly for his men to fall back away from the edge of the defile and find cover and cover their ears.
As he laid waiting for the inevitable; Thomas also noticed the gun fire from the area of the depot had ceased; the Sergeant Major must have reached the point in the plan where he would send a rider with a white flag of truce to the depot asking them for their surrender. It was not long before Thomas; for the second time that day, felt himself lifted from where he lay in cover. Next came the horrendous explosion as the wagon loaded full with powder and shot sent a giant shock wave along with smoke, dust and small stones high up into the air.
Thomas shook himself as the detritus of the explosion began to fall back to earth in a shower of dust and stones, along with a few messy and bloody animal or human parts; it was time to rejoin the Sergeant Major and finish off the depot.
As Thomas called his men to form up for the return march, down in the supply depot, Major Montpelier could only sit with his head in his hands as the confusion of the sudden assault filled the air around him.
The Major was out of his experience and depth. The whole thirty years of his military career had been spent as a supply Officer; he was neither suited nor trained for this type of warfare. Around the Major it was like a charnel house; what the solid shot had not destroyed, the canister had slain. The Major sat and his body shook with the fear the heavy bombardment had instilled in him, he was beyond able to give orders and the men around him were in a state of shock as a sudden silence came over the smoking and burning depot.
As the strange silence continued and the Major thought it was all finally over; a massive explosion filled the air and its echo rolled across the open plain towards the depot; what it was or what had caused it was beyond the Major's understanding; what it meant in the terms of his own safety was also not known at the time.
The Major though finally had one small thing to be thankful for as one of his Sergeants saluted him and gave his report; the only part of the depot not hit was the massive magazine at the western end of the depot. The Major had to be thankful for small mercies; had the magazine been hit then everything within a thousand yards would now be dust.
Of the one hundred infantry and thirty cavalry that were the permanent guards at the depot, the Sergeant reported that less than a quarter had survived and a large number of those were carrying wounds. The depot was now nothing more than a burning and ravaged landscape. The heavy pall of smoke hanging over the depot almost hid the fine breastworks that had been erected to protect them from rebel attacks.
The Major concluded this was far more than a rebel attack; somehow the English had got their army right onto his front door without anyone noticing, the Major's shoulders dropped lower as the realisation of his position now struck him.
Major Montpelier lifted his head as his sergeant told him of a single rider coming towards the depot carrying a white flag of truce. Perhaps, thought the Major; all was not yet lost. With a certainty he did not really feel, the Major ordered the Sergeant to find as many of the cavalry as he could get; he would send riders to Braganza and Benavente for assistance.
That last sudden blast from the huge explosion had forced the Major to make a decision. Forcing himself to move he scrabbled around in the wreckage of his tent office for paper, quill and ink; his message was short and to the point.
' Under attack, send assistance immediately'
The Major folded and sealed the two messages and waited for the cavalry riders to appear; there were fortunately ten of them still able to ride. Handing a message to each of two riders, he then ordered the others to act as escort. Five were to ride north to Benavente and the other five to the south and Braganza. It would take time but it was the only thing he could think of that may give them a chance and as his experience of battle was nil, it was the only way he could see that they might survive this intrusion.
With the riders sent on their way, the Major was suddenly alerted by one of the gun crews that verified the Sergeants earlier words and that there was a single rider approaching with a flag of truce. The Major acknowledged and made ready to meet the representative of the enemy, if nothing else it may give them time for reinforcements to reach them as long as he could delay any more bombardments.
Thomas had just formed his men up ready to march on the depot when he saw five riders break from the northern gate; without thought he gave the order for his men to form two ranks across the road, the front rank was kneeling and the second was standing behind them. Thomas stood to one side as he watched the riders thunder towards where his two ranks waited with muskets at the ready.
The five riders galloped off towards the defile not yet understanding it no longer existed but, the sight of two full platoons of French infantry in two ranks in front of them gave them hope. They spurred their mounts all the harder and thundered towards the safety of their French compatriots. At fifty yards the riders world came to an end; the roaring sound of a full volley of sixty muskets tore into the five riders and; after the blue powder smoke dissipated, there was nothing left but the riddled bodies of both horses and riders. Thomas called his men back into formation as they got ready to move on.
As the rider from Sergeant Major Croxley's gunners drew closer to the battered depot, he saw five riders exiting the southern gate and ride towards him and then past at a full gallop without a sign or word from any of the riders. The flag bearer smiled as he shook his head at the futility of some people and the idea they would make it to Braganza.
The five riders had not even taken note of the French uniform the lone flag bearer was wearing, their whole concentration was making as fast a run for Braganza as they could make. The five riders swept at a gallop around the eastern end of the ridge that held the guns of destruction; their objective was clear and simple; make Braganza or die trying; the latter was to be proven to be the true intent of their ride.
As the five riders swept past the end of the ridge they did not look back and so never saw the six guns arranged along the first level of the ridge but, they did see the two platoons of French Infantry lined across the road in two ranks and watching their fast approach. Without checking their horses speed, the riders drove forward to their waiting saviours.
At fifty yards their saviours became their executioners as sixty muskets fired in volley and the ground where once five riders were thundering across with hope in their hearts became a bloody patch in history that was never written up in any report.
At the depot the Major was soon informed the flag bearer was waiting some fifty yards from the southern gate, taking the time to try and brush the dust and smudges from his battered uniform; the Major called for the only Sergeant still uninjured to accompany him outside the gate and to meet with the enemy rider.
Once he was only paces away from the rider, he was surprised to see how young he was and the fact the young man was dressed in the uniform of a French artillery soldier caused him to wonder what was happening. Had he been fired on by their own men in some error; the sound of the young man's language soon dispelled any thought of it being an accident.
Major Montpelier was proud of the fact that, after four years in Spain he could fluently speak High Catalonian so the young rider's words made perfect sense to him.
"Sir, are you the commanding Officer?"
"Yes I am."
"Sir it is the wish of El Toro that you surrender your position, if you do so within one hour, all your men will be given safe passage without hindrance. If you agree to his demands then he would ask that you leave all arms and equipment behind and form your men or those who can march, at the south gate. He will guarantee that you and your men will be left to make their way to Braganza as long as you make no attempt to further damage or destroy your depot and carry no weapons with you. Should you not do as he asks then he will without thought, destroy everything here. You have one hour to decide Sir."
The Major could not believe his ears; he had been attacked by the infamous El Toro right here in the midst of the French territories. Major Montpelier could only stand and stare at the retreating rider as the full import of the message worked its way inside his head. He had one hour to make his decision; he hoped he would then be able to ask for more time and therefore give any help that was coming, more time to get to him.
The Major had no one to ask advice from; his three young Officers lay dead inside their burning tent. Major Montpelier found himself at a loss and now there was really only one conclusion that could be made, he had to surrender. With the decision finally made, the Major called the last surviving Sergeant to his side.
After the Sergeant had given his salute, the Major asked him.
"How many have survived Sergeant?"
"Last count Sir is as follows. There are sixteen Quartermasters staff, six Artillery, twenty two Infantry, three Cavalry and fifteen sundries as well as yourself and I Sir."
"Is that all?"
"Yes Sir, except for the badly wounded which now number thirty eight."
"How many can march?"
"All of the troops still standing but only about five of the wounded Sir. Sir what do you plan to do?"
"We have been offered terms but only for those who can march out of here. We are not to take any equipment or arms and will be guaranteed safe passage. There is little we can do Sergeant unless we all want to die here and I for one am not ready to make that sacrifice for a few supplies. Inform those who can march to make ready, unless we get assistance very soon we will have to admit defeat and leave here. Give the order that nothing is to be destroyed nor any attempt to take weapons out with them."
"Yes Sir. Sir, what about those too badly wounded to march?"
"I am sure the enemy will look after them; there is really little we can do under the circumstances of the truce."
The Sergeant left the Major to his own thoughts as he set about trying to get the able bodied men ready for their ignominious departure from their supposedly safe little haven far behind the fighting lines. It was a black day that he hoped he would be able to forget sometime in the future; that the Major was a weak Officer there was little doubt, but the Sergeant had his orders and he had to obey or face the consequences.
The Sergeant strode to the top of the breastworks to take a final look around. As he looked to the north, he was surprised to see what appeared to be a couple of Platoons of French Infantry double timing towards the depot; he was suddenly struck with a little hope that they may yet be able to fight back. Turning to the south he saw much the same as he spied another two Platoons of French Infantry coming at speed towards them.
With a much lighter heart, the Sergeant left the top of the barricade and ran towards where the Major was trying to gather what little he could to take with him.
Major Montpelier lifted his head at the urgent cry from the fast approaching Sergeant.
"Sir, our reinforcements are coming fast, we need to prepare to fight back."
Major Montpelier could not believe his ears, had so much time passed that reinforcements had been able to come to their aid. A sudden surge of hope filled his chest as he straightened up as the Sergeant came to a stop in front of him and saluted smartly.
"Sir our reinforcements are coming from both the north and south; do we prepare to attack the guns on the heights?"
Major Montpelier was now in a quandary, without the needed battle experience he did not know what to do with this new information. Somewhere in the back of his numbed mind came a spark of warning; something was not quite right but the details evaded him as the thought of saving his career and remaining men tried to push to the fore.
With the Sergeant close at his heels, Major Montpelier ran towards the northern gate to see for himself; the hope in his eyes was to last only until he caught full sight of the sixty armed men double timing towards the gateway. From deep in his stunned mind came the picture of the truce flag bearer and the uniform he was wearing; that and the short time since his riders had left brought him to only one conclusion. These were not French relief troops but more of the enemy; for the first time that day, Major Montpelier guessed correctly; what he was not aware of was that he now made the decision that saved the last of his men from annihilation.
"Stand down Sergeant; they are not French reinforcements but the rest of the enemy. Prepare the men for the retreat."
The sergeant could only gasp but he had his orders, right or not he was bound by military law to follow the orders of his superior Officer.
Thomas led his two Platoons around the edge of the depot to rejoin the others on the south side; as he came around the end of the depot he saw the small number of French troops exit from the gate and in most cases they could only hobble as they helped their wounded forward.
Joining up with the other two Platoons on the south side; Thomas stood at the front of the now four ranks of men with their muskets at the ready. Major Montpelier carried his Officer's sword in his hands as he led his beaten men towards the waiting Company of French clothed troops; behind him were all that remained of his small force which also included a large number of walking wounded.
Behind the Major and still in the throes of pain and fear lay those too badly wounded to march; he would have to leave them and hope the enemy would care for them. Major Montpelier was taken aback when he saw the very young man who appeared to be the leader standing alone in front of the formed up Company.
The very young man who looked to be no older than a young teen, stepped forward as the Major came closer; after giving the Major a salute which surprised him, the young man spoke in perfect Castilian Spanish although to the Major's ear there was a strange accent to the teens voice but the words and phrasing were perfect.
"Sir, Your men are free to leave and will not be harmed in any way as long as they make no attempt to take up arms; should they do so we will fire upon you to the last man."
"And who are you young man?"
"I am called The Patron or as others know me, El Toro. You may lead your men to safety Sir; but before you go I will have to take three hostages to make sure you do not try to turn back and form an attack on us at a later date."
Major Montpelier stiffened at the new demand but there was really little he could do about it; with resignation he stepped aside as Thomas walked along the small mass of soldiers to look for likely hostages. Thomas finally selected a young bugler and two very young scullery boys as his hostages. There was also another reason for Thomas to take hostages but he was not going to tell the enemy of his plans.
When Thomas nodded that he was finished; he stepped back in front of the Officer and held out his empty hands; it was obvious what he meant.
The Major stood to attention and presented his sword to the young man; there was still a little doubt in his mind that this very young teen could be the fearsome rebel El Toro but he was not in a position to refute the claim. If the young man was who he said he was, then the Major was just glad to be able to march away with his head still on his shoulders.
Thomas called for his men to part on either side of the struggling French troops as they marched off towards Braganza and under the guard of one of the Platoons; it was time to see what they could take from the depot before the final destruction that he had planned for the site.
Thomas waved his arm high above his head in the direction of the heights; it would let Sergeant Major Croxley and his gunners know they had won and could now start to retrieve their guns from the ridge top and meet them at the depot.
Thomas; along with the other three Platoons entered the depot on full alert; his fourth Platoon would escort the defeated French troops until they were well away from the battle site and would no longer be a danger to their backs. In the depot Thomas and his men found total chaos, the cries of the badly wounded rent the air and he had only one thing he could do for them.
Without a surgeon at his call, Thomas had only one option for those too badly wounded to leave and he could not take any with him as they travelled back to the far off Vimeiro after they dismantled the camp at Chaves. Thomas looked at his men and gave a short nod; a quick thrust of their sharp knives would put the wounded out of their misery, it was all they could do for the wretches and was the most humane way of ending their pain.
It was some time before Thomas and his men could look around the large supply depot and take stock of what they had under their control and two hours later Thomas heard the rumble of his artillery making their way across the flat plain towards the open gate of the depot.
As soon as Sergeant Major Croxley had his ten guns lined up outside the depot's south gate, he called for his gunners to go in and begin to manhandle the six sentry guns off the barricade and onto level ground where they could be hitched up and taken with them. The riders for his guns were all Spanish lads as they were familiar with horses; to this end he sent them to the far western end of the depot where the horses were all kept.
They would have to find which of the horses were used to pull the guns and then dress them out with the needed harness and report back to take the six new guns away. The system had worked well as the Sergeant Major's gunners were all ex-sailors and had little or nothing to do with horses; this new system of gunnery was outside their normal knowledge.
Thomas now had time to look over the destruction the Sergeant Major's gunners had caused. The fact the gunners had been able to keep all of their shots well away from the large magazine was a relief; he knew they needed what was hidden behind the embankment.
Thomas began to organize his men to find the horses and begin to hook up the many empty wagons lined up outside the barricade walls; it was going to be a long day loading and he did not want to waste more time here than he needed to.
It was approaching dusk as the thirty wagons of powder, shot, muskets and pistols were finally loaded; he had enough now for his small army to fight for months without asking for supplies from Lisbon. The Platoon that had escorted the survivors had returned and was now ready to move out with them. There had been a thorough search for any food stuffs that they could use and two wagons were now piled high.
The next part was to get it all back safely to Vimeiro without the French stopping them; once again the uniforms would come in handy. To make it look more like an official French supply train; Thomas had two of the Platoons up on the wagons as armed guards, the other two would take their usual mode of travel and run escort at the sides of the wagons; the sergeant Major would come in the rear with his now sixteen guns.
The long supply train moved off just before dark; they planned to be as far away from the depot as quickly as they could. It was hoped they could travel through the night and be as far away from their attack site as they could before the French came to investigate.
Thomas stood alone with Juan as they watched the wagon train disappear into the night; there was one last thing to be done before they both rejoined their friends. At the feet of the two boys was a thick dark line of black powder; it led deep into the depot and ended at the face of a number of kegs sitting around the depot and among the last of the magazine.
Thomas had been told by the Sergeant Major that the trail of powder would take about two minutes to the first keg, from then on it would be seconds before all the others began to explode. With the wagons no longer in sight, Thomas smiled at Juan and both bent down to light the thick line of powder. With the bright red spluttering flame and thick blue smoke quickly wending its way along the trail of powder, Thomas and Juan took to their heels as fast as they could run; they wanted to be as far away from the depot as they could before it went up for the last time.
Thomas could just see the faint outline of the guns ahead when the first explosion shattered the night time stillness; the monumental roar that followed along with a rush of hot air and the smell of burnt powder followed close behind as the rest of the kegs exploded within seconds of each other; Thomas was sure the sound would have carried on the still night air all the way to Braganza.
If he had doubts that anything would be left of the supply depot after the final explosions he had little to worry about now; the bright flashes behind them told their own story. Thomas ran to the front wagon and gave directions to veer south of Braganza and to push the horses a little harder so they would be well clear before dawn and well onto their way to the ford back to Chaves.
Thomas had insisted they hook up four horses to each wagon so they could push a little harder than the French did with only two; they had more to fear from being caught flat footed than the French had been. At the rear of the train, Thomas could clearly hear the rattle of the guns as they followed along, the extra six guns seemed to have added to the noise they made; he prayed their French uniforms would be enough to fool any casual onlookers.
They all arrived in the Chaves camp an hour after dawn. With little time to waste; Thomas had the men pull down the camp and stow what was needed on any place on the wagons they could find; they were going to push on in the hope of being even further away before the French in Braganza could take action and come after them.
Thomas was going to push hard for the crossing at Gramido on the River Douro; once there he was sure he would be out of trouble and could take the road to the coast and the long run back to Vimeiro with a little more safety.
Thomas thought they could make the Douro by early the next morning as he had to allow for the horses to be rested at certain points but he was going to push as hard as he could; he wanted his men safely in an area that the English still had a little control over. There was little time to eat or rest, if anything it was more of a mad rush to safety than an orderly supply train although no one was left to lag behind.
Sergeant Major Croxley made sure that his gunners kept a close eye out for any trouble that may try to follow them; if so his plan was simple; turn the guns, load with canister and pound any followers into the ground.
In the early hours of the third day, Thomas and his men breathed a sigh of relief as they crossed the Douro over the ford at Gramido; they were now in slightly safer lands; all they had to do now was find a place to rest themselves and the horse for a day then continue on to Vimeiro at a more sedate pace; the thought of changing their uniforms was put aside for two more days until they felt more secure and could return to their usual ones on the last leg back to safety.
Two days later found the supply train making its way between Busaco and Coimbra where they were going to cross the River Mondego; from there they had a free and clear run to Vimeiro and could divest themselves of the French uniforms.
They pushed for the crossing and were now just at the most western point of the Da Estrella Mountains, they had stopped to change uniforms when one of the boys looked above them and called for Thomas; what he saw could be one of his worst nightmares.
Thomas, like his friends; had his trousers around his ankles as they changed uniforms and now he was looking up at more than two hundred muskets aimed right at them. The soldiers had seemingly appeared out of the very rocks lining the narrow roadway; Thomas gulped as he saw what was happening; he had led his men into a trap; or so he thought until he saw the uniforms of their ambushers. The surprise was also broken by a loud voice as it said.
"Well Colonel, would ye look at that now; all those pretty French boys with their pants around their ankles; do ye think they be trying to tell us something?"
The gruff reply brought a smile to Thomas's face.
"Shut up O'Rourke before I make you a private again. What's this then Thomas? You not happy with a good English uniform?"
The obvious humour in Colonel Grey's voice carried to all the embarrassed men down on the road. Thomas straightened up and smiled at his old friends before answering.
"No Mister Grey, we were just seeing to the French lice in these trousers; it's the only good fight we can get into."
The loud laughter from the massed Sharpshooters soon broke the morning stillness as they began to clamber down from their hiding places; O'Rourke and Grey were the first to reach the boys below.
"So Thomas, what the hell is all this then; become a Quartermaster have you?"
"It's all French Mister Grey; they insisted that we take it as they had little use for it."
"Well Mister Marking, it looks as though they must have been chasing you pretty hard to get it back; how long since you've all had a good rest?"
"Must be the best part of five days now Mister Grey; I wanted to get it back to our lines in a hurry. I think they might be a little cross with us when they find out about their supply depot the other side of Braganza."
"Is that the big one half way between Braganza and Benavente?"
"You know about it Mister Grey?"
"Yes, we've been looking at it for some time but could not find a way to crack it, their defences were too good and we would have lost too many in attempting it. How the devil did you do it?"
"The Sergeant Major's guns. He put them up on the ridge and then pummelled them into submission; we also blew the defile to the north so they won't be using that place for quite some time."
"Well done Thomas, I think you may have done far more than that. The French will now have to take their supplies all the way east into Spain before they can turn back south; that will add weeks onto their supply lines. So what have you got in the wagons?"
"Food in two of them and the rest is from their magazine; I think we got over half of it but ran out of wagons so we blew the rest as we left. Is there any French soldiers from here to Vimeiro; I really need my men and horses to rest for a day or so; it's been a hard run until now?"
"No Thomas, you're pretty free from here to Lisbon. The French are concentrating their efforts to the east and preparing to go against the Viscount's line at Torres Verdras so you should have the time and a good free run home."
"Thank you Mister Grey. Well we better get our trousers on and have the horses rested, I think we will stay here for the rest of the day and move on tomorrow. Where are you off to Mister Grey?"
"We were just on our way up to Leon but I suppose we will have to be extra careful now that you started your bloody hornet's nest up that way. Good luck to you young Thomas, we might see you soon if Leon his a little too hot for us now that you stirred them up."
Thomas watched as his two friends led their men away towards the river crossing at Gramido; it was so good to see them again after so long apart; they always made him feel special and their help when he needed it most was always welcome.
Thomas called for his men to finish changing and then make camp; they would rest for the day and continue on their way tomorrow; with a good run and a little luck, they should be home in Vimeiro within three days; it was there he would put his plan into action concerning his three young hostages.
Their return to Vimeiro was welcomed by all. As the wagons then the guns rolled into the camp, those left behind cheered as they saw the long caravan and the extra guns. Thomas was twice as happy to see the men of Lieutenant Perrin's Company standing around to greet them, by the look on their faces; Perrin's men had also had a successful first raid.
After everyone had said their hello's, Thomas set the men to unloading the team of wagons; for those that had just arrived back he sent them off for some well earned rest; he hoped to follow them all as soon as he had Perrin's report.
Much to Thomas's surprise, Sergeant Jones had it all written out and; when called, left a large pile of papers for him to read before speaking privately with Perrin himself. Before his tired eyes could work on the written reports, Thomas sent for Sergio and asked him to take their three hostages to a safe place where they could be fed and let sleep; their journey had been just as hard on them as those of Thomas's command.
Before he started reading in his usual slow fashion, Thomas called for Lieutenant Allen to report on what those left behind had been doing since the others had left. The report turned out to be far better than he thought it would be. Lieutenant Allen told him he had all the cook boys and others working hard on making the new paper cartridges they all now carried instead of all the paraphernalia normally used in loading their muskets.
The boys had spent days working on them and they now had quite a supply of both standard loads for the double barrelled muskets and the smaller pistols. One of the boys had been the son of a smith who had died young and the boy had gone to the streets to make a living but he had enough knowledge of his father's trade to improve the loading procedure and the making of the special balls they now used.
The use of the wax paper from the weapons crates was also improved by another lad and now they just used heat to seal the tubes with the ball at one end so it would be easier and faster to make their new cartridges; some were made with single charges and others with double charges. Lieutenant Allen hoped it would speed things up for Thomas's troops.
Thomas thanked the Lieutenant and turned to the reports once the man had left for his own duties; it was going to be a while before he would see his bed this day and he had not yet heard from Carmelo or Estaban; he prayed they were alright as they were the most isolated from help.
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