Major Paul ‘Watermole’ Perth, one of Wellington’s intelligence officers recently arrived from having established a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land, has been severely put out by the French capture of Don Diego Vega. ‘Watermole’, so-called because of his cuddly and inoffensive looks, is in fact of a peculiarly venomous nature when put out. He has sent Captain Bowler (33rd Foot) and the badly wounded but still game Lieutenant Harpe (95th Rifles) away with fleas in both ears and strict instructions not to return without certain information known to Don Diego. This information, an indisputably certain cure for piles, could, in Perth’s opinion, prove of eventual benefit to the French were it to come into their possession.
Spanish guerillas led by the infamous and mysterious El Hombre Sin Nombre and the Amazonian beauty, la Señora Adora Heras, have discovered that Don Diego is held prisoner in a wagon being escorted by men of the 69e Ligne. They plan, with the help of the British, to free Don Diego and keep safe the secret hemorrhoid cure.
The French dragoons have reached a bridge over the Rio Corona, a tributary of the Rio de Cocina Laga and only a few miles from the safety of their own lines. The infantry are not far behind, strong parties of voltigeurs on either side of the road and the wagon bringing up the rear.
Adora Heras springs the trap, shooting into the dragoons onto the bridge. El Hombre Sin Nombre appears on a hill to the south of the bridge and shoots also. A dragoon is tumbled from his saddle.
The dragoons about face and ride towards La Señora.
Harpe’s rifles arrive followed by Bowler’s redcoats. The rifles give the dragoons a volley in their rear, knocking Sergent Lemur from his saddle and unnerving the rest considerably. Morale shattered, they will play no further part in the day’s events.
A brisk fight breaks out between El Hombres guerillas and Javert’s voltigeurs.
Struggling from the muddy stream while trying to reach his blunderbuss-armed men, El Hombre takes a musket ball in the leg and collapses hors de combat. Meanwhile, the French column moves onto the bridge.
Lieutenant Harpe, who it will be remembered is carrying a nasty wound, collapses from loss of blood. Over the river, Adora Heras is also badly hit and her little band of guerillas fall back, dragging her loyally but with difficulty. Captain Bowler and his sergeant are the only Allied leaders left on their feet, and Bowler’s men are advancing at a pitiful rate – too much time spent in musket practise, not enough on marching and drill.
The leaderless riflemen give the French column some fire as it deploys and then, driven to fury by the sight of the bloody Harpe lying on the ground, launch a madcap charge. Bowler shouts to restrain them, but their blood is up and they race on, swords fixed and howling through the smoke.
Though outnumbered nearly three to one and leaderless, the enraged riflemen wreak terrible destruction on the French.
The French cannot stand and flee! The few guerillas by the river fall on them, but are driven off.
The rifles take fire from Javert’s men and face their new enemy, but their numbers are thin. Bowler’s line comes up slowly.
The rifles fall back, shaken and outnumbered by the voltigeurs. The wagon driver sees his chance and whips up his team. Once over the bridge, they must only get past the house to reach safety. The British line is too slow, the guerillas too far and the riflemen surely too shaken to interfere. Soon the Emperor will have the secret of his cure!
Captain Bowler may have neglected marching and drill, but by God he has not neglected the men’s musketry! As the wagon passes he order his men to present. A tremendous volley rings out. Both horses are killed, and the driver and cantinière. But Don Diego is unharmed. Some may say it is blind chance, but Bowler knows that it is his men’s accuracy that has paid off.
Javert retires, determined to catch the British before they can reach their own lines. He will find them at Aldehuela.
Next episode: The Man Who Stared at a Goat