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Thomas awoke to a feeling of something being not quite right. As he sat on the edge of his cot it suddenly dawned on him what it was, there was no sound of the wind that had blown almost continuously ever since they had arrived at the new camp. The previous night he had felt the cold more than normal and as he stepped outside his tent he felt the crisp crunch of frost under his boots.
Above the sky was cloudless for the first time since arriving and the morning stillness was almost unsettling. As he looked around the camp he saw his men starting to emerge from their own tents and look around in wonder at the clean clear skies above. It was now mid December and the last two months of continuous storms, rain and wind had taken their toll on the camp and the men in it.
For the first time in months Thomas heard the trilling of birds in the hills behind them, it was almost as though spring had arrived early. For the men of El Toro's army the clear sky and bright sunlight which was becoming stronger by the minute, gave them some hope of getting laundry done and drying out the muddy ground that had become the norm for the camp.
From the camp kitchens came laughter as even the scullery boys seemed to take a fresh heart from the bright new day. The large marquee that was the camp mess had taken a hard beating in the last storm and they had to strip down one of the smaller tents and cut it where needed to make patches for repairs and to replace three of the heavy poles with branches cut from trees further up the sides of the ridge above them.
The last of the scouts had returned the previous evening and there was now hope that they could work on some plans for the return to upsetting the French in one form or another. To the north the reports had told them that they had seen smaller French supply trains trying to get through the smaller and less well known passes. It was these Thomas and his men thought of attacking.
In supply quantity it would be small but any disruption was to their advantage and would cause the French to use more troops to guard them. With the pass at Miranda now shut off completely, and a coming threat of English attacks in the north, the French did not have a lot of options to use. Anything that caused them problems would be in the allies' best interests.
For four more days the weather stayed calm and even warm during the middle part of the day although the nights were cold and crisp. Long ropes were strung all over the camp and the sight of washed clothes drying in the bright sun made the camp look more like a laundry than a military camp. Weapons and equipment were checked and then double checked, the blustery storms that had swept the camp over the last two months had made it difficult to keep personal items and equipment in good order.
On the fifth day of fine calm weather, one of the outer guards came running towards where Thomas sat with Estaban, Carmelo and Lorenco as they sipped their early morning cafe in the first warming rays of the rising sun.
The young Portuguese teen slid to a halt and after saluting and with a panting voice said, "Patron, there are men approaching in force, they are yet some way off but they are definitely coming this way."
"Did you see who they might be?"
"I am not sure Patron; the distance is yet a little too great but soon we will know more."
"How many do you think they are?"
"Perhaps fifty Patron."
Thomas reached behind him and took up his large spy glass from where it lay on top of a trunk.
"Here take this and see what you can then come back and tell me."
The young teen saluted once more and ran off with the spy glass grasped firmly in his hand, Thomas turned to Carmelo.
"I think you had better call out the first company and form them up in ranks, also ask Major Morgan to have his guns readied for canister shot just in case we need him."
Carmelo nodded as he rose and trotted off towards the Infantry tents to call the 1st Company to ranks. Thomas and the other two rose and went off to their tents to arm themselves so they were ready for anything that may occur. The rest of the camp did not need much time at all to realise something untoward was going on and the rest of the men could soon be seen also donning their weapons and looking for orders.
Finally, as Thomas moved quickly towards the inner ring of guns, he saw the young teen guard returning at a run with Thomas's spy glass held firmly in one hand while the other was wrapped around the butt of his shouldered musket. The teen stopped and saluted once again as he breathlessly began to give his report.
"Patron, the men I have not seen before but they move very much like we do on a long march. Through your fine glass I could see they wore uniforms of a strange colour that again I have not seen. We are not sure if they are French Patron, what should we do?"
"What colour are their uniforms?"
"It is a dark colour but they are very dirty and some of the men do not wear uniforms but the clothes of farmers and villagers."
"Very good, go back and call the picket guards to come back into the camp, we will wait for them behind the guns."
The teen saluted and, after giving Thomas the spy glass back, once again took off running to call in the guards from the outer ring. Thomas was not sure who he was about to face but the fact that these newcomers seemed to be aware of their location did raise some doubts in his mind as to whom they may be.
Thomas looked out onto the plain for the first sight of the oncoming force. Before he lifted his spy glass for a closer look, he decided to call all of the men to station. Carmelo took over and gave the order for the 2ndCompany of Infantry to form up beside the three ranks already standing at the ready behind the guns. Estaban had already called all his Cavalry to mount and take a position at either end of the Infantry ranks.
As Thomas lifted the spy glass to his eye he heard Major Morgan call out the range for his guns and for the gunners to ready canister. Thomas moved his spy glass back and forth until he had the far off black dots centred in his glass. As he watched the far off shapes move towards his position they began to appear larger and he could now see how they were moving. It did not take long for him to smile as he removed the spy glass from his eye and turned to Carmelo.
"Where is Lieutenant Morgan?"
"He's just bringing up his men from the kitchen to stand in the line with the Infantry Patron."
"When he gets closer call for him to come and see me. You can tell the men to stand at ease and send word to Estaban to take his men back to the horse lines, they won't be needed today."
"So you know who they are Patron?"
"Yes Carmelo, there's only one other force that moves like us. It would appear Mister Grey and O'Rourke have found us. How they knew we were here we will have to wait to find out."
Carmelo left Thomas and began to shout orders for the men to stand down. Thomas waited until Snot Morgan was standing before him before issuing his orders.
"Lieutenant Morgan I want you to organise your men to set all the cauldrons on the fires with water for heating. Next, get the kitchen working and set two of the lambs and two of the goats on the spits for roasting. I'll leave the rest up to you but you will need food and drink for at least fifty visitors but I'm sure they will enjoy some hot water before they eat."
Snot Morgan snapped to attention with a cheeky smile on his face as he saluted and then ran off back towards his private domain of the kitchens; his men and boys had work to do. Thomas stood and watched as the rapidly closing force came nearer, he could now see them plainly and as his own men had gone through the winter under the same conditions he felt for them as he saw their condition.
It seemed to take forever for the force to come closer. Thomas could now easily make out the two prominent figures of Mister Grey and O'Rourke as they chivvied the men along with the usual rough words used by the leaders of such forces.
Thomas stood immobile as he heard the loud rough voice of O'Rourke swearing at the efforts of the tired and dirty men in his charge. His broad Irish accent getting thicker as he swore louder with each command as he ran on the left of the column with Mister Grey on the right.
As the tired men drew closer to where Thomas and the others stood waiting, Thomas heard Mister Grey order the men to straighten up and better form their column. They were to show the waiting officers that they were fighting men of Grey's Rangers.
Finally the column had made it to within yards of where Thomas stood waiting with a wide smile of greeting on his face. The return smile of O'Rourke and a thinner smile from Mister Grey said it all as the Column was ordered to halt and stand at attention.
The men were panting and the black rings around their eyes told of the strain they had been under. The dirty uniforms that had once been dark green now looked not much better than rough rags as they tried their best to hold their places. Colonel Grey and the newly promoted Sergeant Major O'Rourke left the men to step closer to Thomas as they also snapped to attention but both had a smile on their faces as Colonel Grey spoke first.
"General Toro, the men of Grey's Rangers request permission to encamp with your forces and I carry messages for your perusal Sir."
Thomas did the best he could to stop from laughing out loud as he heard the request from one of his oldest friends and to hear it put in such a formal manner almost had him giggling out loud but he pulled himself together and took on a serious look as he replied.
"Colonel Grey it would be my pleasure to offer you and your men assistance and the run of our camp. I have the men preparing hot water for you and your men and a lunch will be served in two hours. I would ask that you and Sergeant Major O'Rourke join me at this time if it be your pleasure."
"Thank you Sir, it would indeed be our pleasure to join you."
"If there is nothing else Colonel then I will ask Colonel Carmelo Grey to take your men to the camp kitchen where the water is heating while we adjourn to my own tent so you can rest and change. Perhaps the Sergeant Major would like to join us as well?"
For the first time, Sergeant Major O'Rourke spoke and just as Thomas thought it would be, it was the O'Rourke of old.
"Of course I'm coming Lad, now if you two have finished with the bloody blarney then you can find me a bloody drink. Have you any idea what you are doing to an Irishman standing out here blathering all bloody day long when he could be drinking?"
Thomas immediately let his face relax and smiled widely as he replied, "You're the one that's standing around blathering O'Rourke, come on let's go find something to wet your whistle. Some of my scouts returned with a dozen bottles of fine French brandy just a couple of days ago, they said they found it lying on the side of the road and, of course I believed them, just as you would."
"Fat bloody chance lad, now where the hell is it?"
"Come on you misbegotten son of a drunkard, the bottles are in my tent. Are you going to join us Mister Grey?"
"Do you think I would let that bloody Irishman anywhere near a bottle without my watching over him?"
The three old friends left the site as Carmelo led the others away towards the kitchens. For the moment all was calm in the camp and there were a number of Thomas's men that were looking forward to some new faces to have around and to ask question about where and what the new men had been doing in the north.
The three old friends went to sit outside Thomas's tent. As Thomas sat and was about to call for Fairley, the young man appeared as though by magic, as he always did.
‘Fairley can you get one of those bottles of brandy and some glasses please? Then I would like you to get the bath tub ready for Mister Grey and afterwards for Mister O'Rourke."
Fairley saluted without saying a word and disappeared only to return a few seconds later with the bottle and glasses on a tray. It appeared he had them ready long before they were needed. Thomas thanked him and began to pour out a good measure in each glass.
"So Mister Grey, how did you know we were here and manage to find us?"
"Our old friend Percy. He sent me a message and told me where you may be camped and if the chance arose to look out for you on our way back from the north. Of course it was O'Rourke's nose for booze that finally led us here. Well that and we also heard about the town of Miranda being almost raised to the ground because of some bandits. That led me to only one conclusion of who it may be."
"Well Miranda is a long way from here, so how did you know we would be here?"
Mister Grey took a hefty sip of his brandy and raised an eyebrow before nodding to Thomas that it was indeed a good brandy before continuing.
"Well at first we were just trying to get back to the lines when Cooper thought he saw one of your patrols heading in this direction from somewhere in the north east. There is only one force we know of that wears all black uniforms and so we just followed the trail left by the horses and here were are."
"Well I'm only glad that it was you and not the French."
"I don't think you will have much trouble with the French for a while as long as you stay well away from the south. They've been massing in readiness for the new season so you would be well advised to keep your distance."
"Yes we thought that as well, we did look at their supply depot but it was too well defended to even try. So what have you been up to? It's been some time since we heard from you."
"Oh we've been across the border and into France, bloody nasty place that is lad, full of bloody Frenchies. We had to be on our toes all the time but at least the Viscount will be pleased with the news we carry. So how long do you plan to stay way up here and what are you up to?"
Before Thomas replied he noticed O'Rourke fill his glass for the third time and smile widely at something only he was privy too.
"Well after we had to leave the supply depot we had to look for something else so we are looking to the north east in the hope of causing more trouble for the French. If they think they are not even safe so far behind their lines to the north then we hope they will pull much needed troops up here and away from the Viscounts front."
"Well there are certainly plenty of targets to you up north but you need to keep a watch on your back trail, they are bringing men across to replace their front lines as well as guarded supply trains."
"Can you tell me much about the passes they use to get through?"
"If you have a half decent map we can show you just about every trail and pass they could possibly use but first I need that bath and then O'Rourke will need one as well before he drinks your supply of brandy dry."
Thomas nodded and then looked for Fairley. Again his batman was standing only a few feet away and waiting for orders. Thomas, even after all the time Fairley had been watching over him, could still not get used to how the young man seemed to know when he was wanted. Thomas smiled at Fairley and just nodded. Fairley looked at Mister Grey and then said, "Your bath tub is ready Sir. If you would follow me I will take you to it. Is there anything else you need General?"
"No thank you Fairley. Wait, if you could ask the kitchen to have extra water heated for Mister O'Rourke once Mister Grey is finished then that will be all."
Fairley led Mister Grey away to where the small canvas bathing area had been set up and then left for the kitchens to get more hot water. Thomas turned back to the smiling O'Rourke.
"OK O'Rourke, what has you so happy?"
"That's easy lad, good company, good brandy and a hot bath what more could a man ask for. Now then, how has it been for you? I see the camp is quite impressive. Dry floors in the tents and little mud around the camp lanes; how did you manage it all in this filthy weather?"
"I have a very good engineer; it was all his idea and it kept the men busy when the weather got too much to do anything else. Firewood is our biggest bugbear but we now have a good supply coming in regularly when our supplies arrive from Oporto. It's the same with the feed for the horses."
"Well you certainly seem to have it all sorted, not bad for a scallywag from Limehouse. Now then one more brandy and then I'm ready for some of that hot water. As much as I think water is the drink of the devil I will put up with it this time."
"You are still a stubborn cuss O'Rourke, but for some reason I like you and am glad you are on our side."
"Jeesus for a General you are right kind but I wouldn't make a habit of it lad, people might think you are going soft now that you are one of the toffs and we can't have that sort of thing going around the army now can we?"
Thomas chuckled as he looked at the wide open and smiling face sitting opposite.
"Come on O'Rourke, you know bloody well that won't happen, besides I don't think my men would put up with it for long without telling me to pull my head in."
"That's true lad but then you is only a drummer boy and we all know what sort of trouble they get up to."
Thomas laughed as he then took a sip from his glass. As he replaced the glass on the table he looked around to see what the rest of the camp was doing. The two old friends sat in companionable silence as they waited for Mister Grey to finish his ablutions. The rest of the camp went about its normal duties. A half hour later and Mister Grey rejoined them. He looked a lot better as well as cleaner although his clothes still had smudges and a few threads loose but had been brushed by Fairley into something resembling clean.
O'Rourke moved off as Mister Grey took his seat and refilled his glass before speaking.
"So Lad do you have those maps I was talking about so I can then show you where and what we saw that may help you with your nefarious plots for the French?"
"Yes Mister Grey, I'll call Major Smithson. He has spent nearly all of his time making new maps of all the places we have been to in Spain and a lot of places we have not been yet. If there is a map of the north he will have it somewhere."
Thomas turned in his chair and was not really surprised to see Fairley standing just a short way off and waiting for any orders from his General.
"Can you find Mister Smithson for me please Fairley? When you do, ask him to bring any maps he has of the north east that may contain the passes through the mountains from France?"
Fairley turned and silently left to follow his orders. It was only minutes later when Major Smithson arrived with a bundle of his hand made maps tucked under his arm. After being directed to the third chair, he placed his pile of maps on the table and looked to Thomas for further instructions.
"What do you have on any of the north eastern passes, you and your men were out there for over a month so I hope you have something we can use?"
Major Smithson laid out four of his maps for the two to look over. The look on Mister Grey's face as he saw the detail on each and every one of the maps showed he was impressed with the details and precision that had been used to make them. After looking over each map he finally straightened up and turned to Thomas.
"Firstly I have to congratulate the Major on his fine maps. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it before. Does the Viscount know you have these?"
"He has never asked, so I never told him Mister Grey. It just never crossed my mind."
"Well my advice is to not tell him and to keep the Major well away from his own map makers, or he will try to steal him away from you. Now then back to business."
Mister Grey laid the first map on top of the others and began to trace with his finger across the surface of the map.
"You are here just north of Braganza. If you follow this line here until you come to just south of Astorga then turn east to the tributary of the Esla you will come to a rough road that leads to Leon. Bypass the turn into Leon and follow the ridge to the next gorge that is running along the banks of the Esla true. The French are using this gorge to bring a large quantity of their supplies through from further north and it should be easy for a cunning officer to set up a number of ambushes deeper in the gorge. Next there are the passes further to the east."
Mister Grey paused as he looked for another map and then once found he laid it over the top of the others.
"If you hold back from attacking them in the gorge you can follow it to the end and it will bring you to their main road that they use through the mountains. At the end of the gorge turn to the east and make for Espinosa you will have their main route right under your guns. Everything they bring across the border goes through that pass. If you can do damage there you will cause all sorts of trouble for them. But be warned, it is often heavily guarded and would mean a real fight. There is one thing that may be in your favour and that's that most of the men guarding the supply trains are conscripts and old men that are no longer of any use on the front lines. If you use all your cunning you could do some real damage to them and their lines of supply."
Thomas looked over the long way he and his men were from Espinosa. It would not be an easy trip and danger would be all around them if they got trapped in the narrow gorge leading to the east. After a few minutes of thinking he asked Mister Grey.
"Is there any other way into the main pass apart from the Esla gorge?"
"Well there are the goat tracks that run all over the mountains but I don't know if you would get your guns over them at this time of year. Perhaps in summer they might make it but it would be hard work and add days to your travel time. I personally think it would be best for you to use the winter weather to make your way through the gorge and close off any chance they had of resupply by that road."
"Are there any other ways to attack them?"
"Well if what I've heard about you closing off the pass at Miranda is true then they have only one other choice of passes."
Again Mister Grey paused to find the map he wanted. He was still in awe of the maps and could not work out how the young Major had got all the way through French held country to make them. He guessed there was far more to the young Major than he first thought as he found the last map he was looking for.
"Now this is the only other way they have to bring in supplies with any ease."
Mister Grey pointed to the map and began to trace the roadway with his finger once again so that Thomas could follow him more easily.
"You will need to go back in the direction of Miranda until you get to the northern end of the River Ebro. Once across the river there is a main road that leads into the mountains and through to Biscay. It would perhaps be an easier route and would close off their main routes without having to battle through to the east and Espinosa. The other thing it would accomplish would be to also limit how much they can get through to Espinosa as Biscay is the hub of the supply route. However it will also be one of the most heavily defended places on either route."
"Thank you Mister Grey, it gives me quite a lot to think on."
"Not a problem lad but just remember that you may be going into a hornet's nest. The French will not give up their supply lines very easily, although again you have the inexperience of their guards that may go a long way to helping you if you decide to go ahead with your plans."
"Thank you again Mister Grey, I'll take it all into consideration before I make a move but we do have to do something while their main troops are tied down by the weather."
"Well it may just be the weather that's on your side if you can move your guns into position to take advantage of their lack of desire to move in bad weather."
Before Thomas could reply they were once again joined by a much cleaner O'Rourke who wasted little time in filling his glass with brandy once again.
"So what have the big wigs been talking about behind me back?"
"Don't you start O'Rourke, the lad and I have been working on his future plans and they have little to do with your drinking." Mister Grey replied with a faint smile on his lips.
"Now you hear that lad, you see how he treats me? Damn slum toff is all about his self nowadays. Do yee have a place for a good fighting Irishman in your little group of misfits?"
"There's always a place for you O'Rourke but I wouldn't want to take you away from your cushy little job with Mister Grey." Thomas chuckled as he watched the look of disappointment on O'Rourke's face even though it was patently artificial.
"Cushy you say lad, do you have any idea what he puts me through every day? O'Rourke do this, O'Rourke do that, why lad it's enough to make a man take up the drink to drown his sorrows and far be it for me to do such a thing." O'Rourke reached for the bottle once again to top up his glass as he smirked at Thomas.
"Yes O'Rourke I can see that you would hate to take up drinking to take your mind off your woes."
"Aye lad that would be the truth of it. Oh well I suppose I will have to just be the plaything of this here slum toff until I get me self killed off or find a good brewery to sleep in."
As Thomas chuckled at the outlandish claims, Major Smithson got ready to leave the small group of friends to continue their day. As he was about to leave, Thomas asked him.
"How is Maketja doing Major?"
"The Captain is fighting fit and as mad as hell Sir. God help any Frenchman that crosses his path any time soon and the scar will be with him for life if he happens to forget."
"Well you can tell him we are working on something to give him the satisfaction he wants but he will have to wait for a little while yet."
"I'll pass it on to him Sir, I'm sure it will make him feel better."
"Thank you Major, I may need to call on you and your men again before long."
Major Smithson saluted and left the three to finish their day together. Thomas turned back to his friends and refilled his own glass as he saw Fairley standing nearby.
"Lieutenant Morgan says dinner will be ready in an hour Sir, is there anything else you will need in the mean time?"
"Aye Sergeant, another bottle of this fine brandy if you please." O'Rourke replied before Thomas could. Fairley smiled and went into the tent to gather another bottle; it still amazed the young man how much the Sergeant Major could drink and yet not show the slightest hint of drunkenness.
The dinner that evening was much like old times. There were ribald remarks along with loud laughter as old friends among both the officers and men once again had time to exchange stories. As the wine and brandy flowed in copious amounts, tongues grew looser and the laughter even louder while outside the first flurries on this year's snow began to make itself felt.
For those in the confines of the warm marquee used as the mess tent, the change in the weather outside went unnoticed until very late when the time came for the revellers to find their beds. The next morning found many men shivering in their cold beds. Over the ground outside their tents lay a white wonderland although for those who were shivering under their blankets they could have thought of another name for the white shroud that was nearly a foot deep.
Colonel Grey's men had been a little better off as they had been given the use of the mess tent to bed down in. The continuous heat from the cooking fires had kept a large amount of warmth around them for the rest of the night.
Thomas shivered as he eased his body from his cot. With shaking hands from the cold he tried to dress as quickly as possible. It was the arrival of Fairley that gave Thomas a little hope of getting some warmth back into his body as his batman rummaged around in Thomas's trunk until he found the heavy woollen items made by the mothers of Vimeiro for all of the boys a number of years ago.
The woollen goods were comprised of two pairs of black fingerless gloves and a long red and gold striped scarf as well as three pairs of thick black hose. Thomas was glad of the new clothes as he had not found a need to wear them before now. The thick hose made his boots a little tight but his feet were almost instantly warm. The gloves, once slipped on his hands gave him better control over his chilled fingers and the addition of the long scarf wrapped around his neck a number of times and pulled high enough to cover his nose now left only his black hat to be placed on his head.
When Thomas went outside to see the white frozen landscape, he saw that he was not the only one to look for their woollen clothes. Colonel Grey's men were slowly forming ranks in their thick cloaks as they prepared to move out and head south. Thomas spent a few more minutes with Mister Grey and Sergeant Major O'Rourke before the order was given for his visitors to turn south and leave for slightly warmer climes.
For the rest of the day, Thomas had the men preparing for what looked to be a cold and hard winter. Around the camp there was a lot of work to do as the twenty guns needed to be cleared of the built up snow and then greased and covered with canvas for protection. The final pieces of the long open lean-to for the mass of horses had to be completed for their protection.
All stores were checked for any damage and then it was all hands to gathering firewood. If the snow stayed around for too long then they could be in trouble and so they had to prepare as best they could. With the snow thick on the ground, their supply wagons may have trouble getting through to them on a regular basis although Thomas knew they had a good supply of everything they would need if the wagons could not make it through to them.
As he looked around the camp a sudden thought came to him. If he would be difficult to supply by wagon then the French would also have the same problem. Thomas called for his Officers as his thoughts began to develop further in his mind.
With the extra knowledge he now had thanks to Colonel Grey and O'Rourke he saw a possibility to get at the French supply lines with little danger to his men. If his own camp was now under a foot of snow then the passes further north would be closed by even deeper drifts. While it seemed that his guns would be of little use as there would be far too much difficulty in moving them, his Cavalry should have an easier time of it and they could be just as effective against supply trains in such weather.
Thomas and his Officers sat and discussed what they might be able to accomplish if they took the chance to move on the French supply lines while the snow worked in their favour. It was almost lunch time before the meeting adjourned and the decisions had been made. The three Cavalry companies would move against any French they found while the camp was guarded by the guns and Infantry with Carmelo left in command.
For the rest of the day, Thomas had his Cavalry prepare to move out and go north. The target he had finally decided on was to be the two passes that led from Balboa. One to the east and the other to the south. There would be no major attack on Balboa but they would harry any supply trains they found in either pass. After some discussion with his men he thought they would be able to successfully attack any supply trains they were fortunate enough to come across.
With snow on the ground, the French wagons would be lucky to make ten miles a day and this left Thomas and his Cavalry with many opportunities with their more mobile force and better firearms to take advantage of any situation they came across.
As the day moved into evening, Thomas and Estaban went from one horse and rider to the next to check that they would have everything they would need both for the long journey and for their own safety, both with the weather and any fighting they may get into.
The mobile force would also have twenty mules to carry all they would need, but even then they would be moving with only the bare minimum of equipment and supplies. It would be up to themselves to make use of any supplies they could garner from their attacks on the French.
As the darkness clothed the camp in deep shadows, Thomas and his army watched the beginnings of more snow start to fall. The only saving grace they could think of was that there was very little wind to make their night even more miserable. In the kitchens the fires had been stoked up high to help warm the large marquee the side of which now carried their canvas sides to block out the cold night while the men ate and talked about what was yet to come.
The night was again cold but the air was clear and sharp when one breathed in. Every cot now had an extra blanket taken from their small supply but somehow there were still small drafts of cold that found their way into the cots even after the men tried their best to make a small tight nest out of their blankets.
Morning found the camp now under nearly two feet of snow and the kitchen fires glowing as hot as they had ever been in an attempt to bring more warmth into the marquee as the men filed in from their tents. All wearing their woollen scarves pulled tightly around their faces and their wool mittens on their cold hands.
Breakfast was hot and there was plenty of food for all, the kitchen boys had also made extra large cauldrons of cafe so the men could help themselves as often as they wanted. At the end of breakfast and with the snow finally stopped, Thomas called for the men of the Cavalry Companies to make ready to move out just as soon as the last of the mules had been loaded.
As Thomas and Estaban led the long column out of the camp they kept a watch on the mountains above them. There were heavy grey clouds still sitting almost motionless over the top of the peaks even though a weak sun was trying to push its light through in an attempt to bathe the camp in its weak heat.
Thomas and Estaban rode at the head of the three companies as they turned east towards the area around Braganza where they would then turn towards the plains and more open country of Leon and the wide open spaces they would need to cross before the upcoming river crossings. Thomas had allowed ten days to cover the distance through to the banks of the River Carrion. He would then have another six days to make the start of the pass just north of Miranda and work their way through the pass to their final destination south of Balboa.
The journey was not made any easier when they came to the wide open plains of Leon and the wind grew as it came off the mountains and swept over the plains in sharp cold gusts. It almost became a battle on its own just to make thirty miles a day and those roads that were passable were slippery and sometimes turned to a cold mush as the number of horses and mules broke through the covering of ice and snow.
When the long column finally made the banks of the River Carrion Thomas realised it had taken them an extra three days to push through the snow and over the slushy roads. The river in front of them also did not look appetising or easy to cross. Both banks were deep in snow and the River itself was flowing faster than one would think. The maps of the area that Major Smithson had made showed only one possible crossing point and that meant they still had another full day to make it to the ford. There was no safe way they could cross in their present position.
An hour before the sun disappeared in the west, Thomas and the three Companies arrived at the ford. The river was shallower even though the water still seemed to be flowing fast. Estaban suggested the mules should cross first as they were well known for their stable footing in difficult places and it would then show the Cavalry riders what they were up against.
Thankfully for Thomas and the others, the crossing went well and there were no difficulties in getting through the ford. As it was near dark Thomas called a halt for the night when they had got a little over a mile from the ford. It was going to be a cold night and the fires would only be small cooking fires that were made from the surrounding scrub pines.
As the troops had no tents they had to make use of their heavy winter cloaks as bedding and also keep their warm winter woollies on. The next morning there were a large number of groans as the men tried to fight the cold as they unrolled from their temporary beds. Thomas had not set guards that night as he felt they would be safe while the weather was the way it was.
A rough breakfast was put together with the mainstay being very hot cafe that was swallowed almost before the mug was clear of the small cauldron. The mules were once again loaded with what remained of their supplies and the troops mounted and ready to go well before mid-morning. Once again Thomas and Estaban led the Companies eastward towards Miranda. With luck they would find the turn off into the pass that led to Balboa before too much longer.
It was a further three days before they came to the banks of the River Ebro and the feeling of the men grew more positive. They were now only a hard riding day away from turning off into the pass north west of Miranda and towards the passes of Balboa.
So far the flurries of snow had stayed away and the column was making better time than they thought they would. After finding the opening into the pass they were searching for, Thomas sent out a ten man troop to search ahead. They were now in the lands where the French could still hold sway and their need for supplies could mean they would run across supply trains at any time.
From Major Smithson's maps, Thomas knew there were at least four small villages or towns further in the mountains and he wanted to avoid them if he could. Being so close to the French border could mean they were all in favour of French rule and he wanted to stay hidden for as long as he could.
Once across the River Ebro Thomas had the ten man patrol look for a ravine where they could establish a small camp well out of the sight of any casual passerby. He wanted somewhere that was not too close to Agueda Lador which was the first town in the pass.
It was in the early afternoon of the second day when they found an ideal place for their small camp. It was a well hidden and small ravine that would be easily defended should they need it, yet was well within striking distance of the main road used by the supply trains and gave them a quick escape if needed.
Their first night in the narrow ravine proved to be better than they thought it would be. While there was snow on the ground, the wind flowing down the ravine had pushed much of it to the sides leaving the central area almost clear. Thomas's most concern now was for the horses. The mules had carried bags of oats for feed but that was now almost finished so he would have to find more feed before the week was out, it was just one more thing he had to ponder on.
The first night in their temporary camp went without incident and now it was time for Thomas to send out patrols to try and discover any French movements on the supply line; it was to be sooner than he thought it would be.