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High up in the deserted village of Telemos in the mountains north of Punhete, Josephine Mallington was desperately trying to staunch the young rifleman's bleeding when the French began their charge. She stayed where she was, kneeling by the soldier on the dusty stone floor of the old monastery in which her father and his men had taken refuge. The French hail of bullets through the holes where windows had once stood continued as the French dragoon troopers began to surge forwards in a great mass, the sound of their pas de charge loud even above the roar of gunpowder.
'En avant! En avant! Vive la République!' She heard their cries.
All around was the acrid stench of gunpowder and of fresh spilt blood. Stones that had for three hundred years sheltered monks and priests and holy Mass now witnessed carnage. Most of her father's men were dead, Sarah and Mary too. The remaining men began to run.
The rifleman's hand within hers jerked and then went limp. Josie looked down and saw that life had left him, and, for all the surrounding chaos, the horror of it so shocked her that for a moment she could not shift her stare from his lifeless eyes.
'Josie! For God's sake, get over here, girl!'
Her father's voice shook her from the daze, and she heard the thudding of the French axes as they struck again and again against the thick heavy wood of the monastery's front door. She uncurled her fingers from those of the dead soldier and, slipping the shawl from her shoulders, she draped it to cover his face.
'Papa?' Her eyes roved over the bloody ruins.
Bodies lay dead and dying throughout the hall. Men that Josie had known in life lay still and grotesque in death—her father's men—the men of the Fifth Battalion of the British 60th Regiment of Foot. Josie had seen death before, more death than any young woman should see, but never death like this.
'Stay low and move quickly, Josie. And hurry—we do not have much time.'
On her hands and knees she crawled to where her father and a small group of his men crouched. Dirt and blood smeared their faces and showed as dark patches against the deep green of their jackets and the blue of their trousers.
She felt her father's arms around her, pulling her into the huddle of men.
'Are you hurt?'
'I am fine,' she said, even though 'fine' was hardly the word to describe how she was feeling.
He nodded and set her from him. She heard her father speak again, but this time his words were not for her. 'The door will not hold them much longer. We must make for the uppermost floor. Follow me.'
She did as her father instructed, responding to the strength and authority in his voice as much as any of his men would have done, pausing only to collect the rifle, cartridges and powder horn from a dead rifleman, and taking care to keep her eyes averted from the gaping wound in his chest. Clutching the rifle and ammunition to her, she fled with the men, following her father out of the hall, past the door through which the French axes had almost hacked, and up the wide stone staircase.
They ran up two flights of stairs and into a room at the front of the building. Miraculously the key was still in the lock of the door. As it turned beneath her father's hand, she heard the resounding thud of the front door being thrown open and knew that the French were in. They heard the sound of many French feet below running into the great hall and then the booted footfalls began to climb the stairs that would lead them to the room that housed the few remaining riflemen.
There was little to mark Lieutenant Colonel Mallington from his riflemen save his bearing and the innate authority that he emanated. His jacket was of the same dark green, with black frogging, scarlet facings and silver buttons, but on his shoulder was a silver thread wing and around his waist was the red sash of rank. His riding boots were easily unnoticed and his fur-trimmed pelisse lay abandoned somewhere in the great hall below.
Within their hiding place, Josie listened while her father spoke to his men. 'We need to draw this out as long as we possibly can, to give our messengers the best chance of reaching General Lord Wellington with the news.' Lieutenant Colonel Mallington's face was strong and fearless. He looked each one of his men in the eye.
Josie saw the respect on the riflemen's faces.
Her father continued, 'The French force are marching through these hills on a secret mission. General Foy, who leads the column of French infantry and its cavalry detachment, is taking a message from General Massena to Napoleon Bonaparte himself. He will travel first to Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain and then to Paris.'
The men stood quiet and listened to what their lieutenant colonel was saying.
'Massena is requesting reinforcements.'
'And General Lord Wellington knows nothing of it,' added Sergeant Braun. 'And if Massena gets his reinforcements…'
'That is why it is imperative that Wellington is forewarned of this,' said Lieutenant Colonel Mallington. 'It is only half an hour since our men left with the message. If Foy and his army realise that we have despatched messengers, then they will go after them. We must ensure that does not happen. We must buy Captain Hartmann and Lieutenant Meyer enough time to get clear of these hills.'
The men nodded, thin-lipped, narrow-eyed, determined in their conviction.
'And that is why we will not surrender this day,' the Lieutenant Colonel said, 'but fight to the death. Our sacrifice will ensure that Wellington will not be taken unawares by a reinforced French army, thus saving the lives of many of our men. Our six lives for our messengers.' He paused and looked solemnly at his men. 'Our six lives to save many.'
Within the room was silence, and beyond rang the clatter of French boots.
'Six men to win a war,' he finished.
'Six men and one sharpshooting woman,' said Josie, meeting her father's gaze and indicating her rifle.
And then one by one the men began cheer. 'For victory!' they shouted.
'For the King and for freedom!' boomed Lieutenant Colonel Mallington.
A raucous hurrah sounded in response.
'No man shall come through that door alive,' said Sergeant Braun.
Another cheer. And one by one the men positioned themselves at either side of the door and readied their weapons.
'Josie.' Her father's voice had quietened and softened in tone.
She came to him, stood beside him, knowing that this was it, knowing that there were no more escapes to be had. For all the men's bravado, Josie was well aware what her father's order would cost them all.
A single touch of his fingers against her cheek. 'Forgive me,' he said.
She kissed his hand. 'There is nothing to forgive.'
'I never should have brought you back here.'
'I wanted to come,' she said, 'you know how I hated it in England. I've been happy here.'
'Josie, I wish—'
But Lieutenant Colonel Mallington's words were cut short. There was no more time to talk. A French voice sounded from beyond the door, demanding surrender.
Lieutenant Colonel Mallington drew Josie a grim smile. 'We will not surrender!' he bellowed in English.
Twice more the French voice asked that they yield, and twice more Lieutenant Colonel Mallington refused.
'Then you have sealed your fate,' said the highly accented voice in English.
Josie cut the paper of a cartridge with the gunflint to release the bullet, poured the gunpowder into the rifle's barrel and rammed the bullet home before priming the lock. Her father gestured her to crouch closest to the corner farthest from the door. He signed for the men to hunker down and aim their weapons.
The French unleashed their musket fire, their bullets thudding into the thick wooden door.
Wait, instructed the Lieutenant Colonel's hand signal.
For Josie that was the hardest time, crouched there in the small room, her finger poised by the trigger, her heart racing somewhere near the base of her throat, knowing that they were all going to die, and disbelieving it all the same. Never had the minutes stretched so long. Her mouth was so dry she could not swallow, and still her father would not let them fire. He wanted one last stand, one last blaze of glory that would hold the Frenchmen at bay until the very last moment. And still the bullets kept on coming, and still the six men and Josie waited, until at last the door began to weaken and great chunks of wood fell from it, exposing holes through which Josie could see the mass of men crammed into the corridor outside, their uniforms so similar in colour to that of her father and his men that she could have imagined they were British riflemen just the same.
'Now!' came the order.
And what remained of their section of the Fifth Battalion of the 60th Foot let loose their shots.
Josie could never be sure how long the mêlée lasted. It might have been seconds; it seemed like hours. Her arms and shoulders ached from firing and reloading the rifle, yet still she kept going. It was an impossible cause, and one by one the riflemen went down fighting, until there was only Sergeant Braun, Josie and her father. Then Lieutenant Colonel Mallington gave a grunt, clutched a hand to his chest, and through his fingers Josie could see the stain of spreading blood. He staggered backwards until he slumped against the wall, the blade of his sword clattering uselessly to the floor. As Lieutenant Colonel Mallington's strength failed, he slithered down the wall to land half sitting, half lying at its base.
'Papa!' In two steps she had reached him and was pressing the sword back into his hand where he lay.
His breathing was laboured and the blood was spreading across his coat.
Sergeant Braun heard her cry, and positioned himself in front of the Lieutenant Colonel and his daughter, firing shot after shot, and reloading his rifle so fast as to make Josie's paltry efforts seem laughable, and all the while roaring his defiance at the French force that had not yet crossed the threshold where the skeleton of the door still balanced. It seemed that he stood there an eternity, that one man holding back the full force of the French 8th Dragoons, until at last his body jerked with the impact of one bullet and then another and another, and he crumpled to the ground to lie in a crimson pool.
There was no more musket fire.
Josie moved to stand defensively in front of her father, aiming her rifle through the gun smoke, her breathing ragged and loud in the sudden silence.
The holed and splintered wood that had been the door fell inwards suddenly, landing with a crash upon the floor of the barren room that housed the bodies of the riflemen. There was silence as the smoke cleared to show Josie exactly what she faced.
The French had not moved. They still stood clustered outside around the doorway, in their green coats so reminiscent of the 60th's. Even the facings on their coats were of a similar red coloration; the difference lay in their white breeches and black riding boots, their brass buttons and single white crossbelts and most of all in the brass helmets with black horsehair crests that they wore upon their heads. Even across the distance she could see their faces beneath those helmets—lean and hard and ruthless—and she saw the disbelief that flitted across them when they realised whom it was that they faced.
She heard the command, 'Ne tirezpas!' and knew that they would hold their fire. And then the man who had issued that command stepped through the doorway into the room.
He was dressed in a similar green jacket to that of his men, but with the white epaulettes upon his shoulders and a leopardskin band around his helmet that was given only to officers. He looked too young to wear the small, silver grenades in the carmine turnbacks in the tail of his jacket. He was tall and well muscled. Beneath the polish of his helmet his hair was short and dark, and down the length of his left cheek he carried a scar. In his hand was a beautifully weighted sabre, from the hilt of which hung a long, golden tassel.
When he spoke his voice was hard and flinty and highly accented. 'Lieutenant Colonel Mallington.'
Josie heard her father's gasp of shock and she raised the rifle higher, aiming it at the Frenchman.
'Dammartin?' She could hear the incredulity in her father's voice.
'You recognise me from my father, Major Jean Dam-martin, perhaps. I understand that you knew him. I am Captain Pierre Dammartin and I have waited a long time to meet you, Lieutenant Colonel Mallington,' said the Frenchman.
'Good Lord!' said her father. 'You are his very image.' The Frenchman's smile was cold and hard. He made no move, just stood there, seemingly relishing the moment. 'Josie,' her father called with urgency.
Josie kept the rifle trained on the French Captain, but she glanced down at her father. He was pale and weak with lines of pain etched around his eyes.
'Let him approach. I must speak with him.'
Her gaze swung back to the Frenchman, whose eyes were dark and stony. They watched one another across the small distance.
'Josie,' her father said again. 'Do as I say.'
She was loathed to let the enemy any closer to her father, but she knew that she had little choice. Perhaps her father had a trick up his sleeve, a small pistol or a knife with which to turn the situation to their advantage. If they could but capture the French Captain and bargain for just a little more time…
Posted February 20, 2012
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