Lieutenant Harpe has just witnessed a British defeat. The situation is desperate. Although the Spaniard Don Diego is dead, the secret of the infallible cure for hemorrhoids has not died with him. Somewhere in Aldehuela lurks the alchemist who prepares the ointment and the French are set on scouring the area for him. Surely the curtain is about to be drawn on the last act in this hamlet.
But as with any great drama, first there must be a comic interlude to relieve tension, ideally one involving an animal. This is provided by Sergent Bufor, who it will be remember is the unfortunate Frenchman who stared at a goat. Hellbent on revenge for his sore stomach and bruised dignity, the sergeant informs his superiors that he will search the little copse where the goat lurks in case the alchemist should be hiding therein. His men shake their heads and mutter darkly.
The goat waits, patient in rancour.
The contest is swift and brutal. Prepared this time, Bufor has his musket ready but the goat is devilishly quick and although the musket ball scores its back and Bufor’s bayonet slices its haunch, once again the Frenchman is sorely buffeted by the wicked horns. Again, Bufor collapses with the wind knocked out of him. His men shake their heads in despair and trudge off to join the main body.
And now the story really starts.
The French Voltigeurs are in force – Capitaine Javert knows his career hangs in the balance. Lieutenant Harpe’s scouts have counted more than three dozen of the French, and that they have a cannon also. All seems lost as Harpe has only thirteen under his command but he is unexpectedly reinforced by a similar number of greenjackets under Lieutenant Wolfe Whistler of Blunt’s company. Harpe rapidly explains the situation and Whistler readily agrees that they must find the alchemist before the French.
Riflemen quickly check the windmill and the adjacent shed. They find nothing except some husks and a few bottles of cheap local wine.
Javert quickly deploys his men and Lieutenant Boulet carefully sights his gun.
Not satisfied with his original sighting, Boulet adjusts the lay of his gun once more while voltigeurs close on the bell tower and small cottage where an old woman is feeding her chickens. Will this old woman prove more than she seems?
Whistler crosses the Rio Corona and gets his men into the vines. There is no alchemist skulking here.
The rest of the Rifles close in on the barn and its courtyard, scouring the woods for any signs of the man they seek on their way.
Javert’s men proceed quickly. Soon they are within hailing distance of the old woman who turns to flee, started by the appearance of so many rough looking fellows. The hens also scatter, enraging the cockerel who flaps about, getting under the feet of the French and pecking at them, causing much cursing and the advance to falter.
Wolfe Whistler, who has a great fondness for birds, orders to his men to fire on the distant French.
Sous-lieutenant Destin comes over the hill. He outnumbers Whistler by three to one.
Whistler falls back to the river under fire.
The French press forwards.
While shots ring out at the river, Harpe’s men have been searching the barn to no result and now move into the walled yard where a woman stands. While Chosen Man Solomon Grundy (who is pleased today is not Saturday) gets the riflemen to cover the gates, Harpe attempts to question the woman, though his knowledge of Spanish is limited to speaking rather louder than usual.
Whistler repulses a bayonet attack but is knocked unconscious. His remaining men fall back, dragging their sensless commander with them.
Javert’s voltiguers have searched the bell tower and the cottage. The old woman has persuaded the Rifles to let her into the yard and Harpe still struggles to make himself understood to the beshawled woman.
Whistler’s men take more fire and withdraw steadily.
The woman in the shawl throws it off, and her dress besides, revealing to a rather started Harpe that she in in fact Fray Bentos, a Franciscan known the length of Spain for his skill in both medicine and pastry making. He must be the source of the miracle cure for piles. Harpe hustles the Spaniard into the safety of the barn
Whistler’s men slip away to lick their wounds. The French have opened their way to the river.
The French prepare to assault the yard, against the odds. Sergent Croisville leads the way over the wall.
Amazed at the French audacity, the Rifles fall back. They have only lost a man but the French have established themselves in the yard unscathed.
Grundy rises to the occasion (after double-checking with his mate that it is not in fact it a Saturday) and leads a counter-attack.
While the fight rages in the yard, Sous-lieutenant Destin gets ready to cut off Harpe’s escape.
A bloody fight and the sheer number of the Rifles tell.
The two remaining voltigeurs flee the yard leaving their Sergeant bloody and unconsious on the ground. Sergeant Havers, whose men got a bit lost in the woods arrives and fires at Javert’s men.
Javert does not hesitate, he charges Havers’ men trusting in the elan his men have shown. But today Javert’s luck has run out. He is killed and his men routed. But Destin has cut off Harpe’s escape route, blocking the stairs.
As the cannon shot shakes the barn, Harpe decides it’s time for a sharp exit. He leads his men out and down the steps, scattering the voltigeurs. He’s joined by Sergeant Havers but Lieutenant Destin has one last card to play. As Harpe’s men run for safety, Destin urges his men to a supreme effort and they catch up to the riflemen, taking them by surprise in the rear.
Outnumbered the French may be but the surprise of their sudden onset has balanced the odds. Destin has shown iron resolve but all he receives is Harpe’s steel through his liver.
Fray Bentos and his secret recipe are saved. Harpe has triumphed and the French foiled.