The carriage lurched to a halt, shaking Hornblower from his reverie. Rocks had tumbled from the slope above and blocked the narrow pass. The gendarmes dismounted and,forming a line, passed the stones from hand to hand. Caillard shouted for them to hurry, striking a laggard with the flat of his sword. The distant Mediterranean gleamed like molten lead. From this high point, the road began its winding descent to France.
Hornblower stared at the sea, his heart aching at this last glimpse of freedom. Then he caught his breathe. Something had moved, the slightest of movements, on the barren slope above them. Did he imagine the flash of reflected sunshine among the broken rocks? He could hear his own heart beating.
"Dépêchez-vous! Vite, vite!" Caillard's voice echoed in the pass. "Espèce d'---" The string of insults was cut short by the snap of small arms fire. Hornblower and Brown dropped to the floor of the carriage and dragged Bush from his stretcher in a tangle of blankets.
"If we're lucky, they're Spanish patriots, sir," Bush murmured weakly, with his usual talent for stating the obvious.
The engagement was sharp but brief, lasting only a few minutes. The shouts and screams ended abruptly, the rifles stuttering into silence, leaving only the terrified cries of a horse.
"You in the carriage, surrender yourselves! You are surrounded!" a man shouted in halting French.
"Stay with Mr. Bush," Hornblower ordered Brown, then he slowly opened the carriage door and even more slowly stepped to the ground, his empty hands raised. Their rescuers stared at him in silence, rifles still held at ready, pistols leveled at his breast. Some wore tattered Spanish Army coats, while others were dressed in green jackets and likely were members of some local militia. Since the abdication of Spain's legitimate king, these mountains had become the refuge of rebels and deserters.
A tall soldier in an officer's greatcoat stepped forward. He pointed with a heavy saber as he spoke. "You wear the coat of an English officer," he said slowly in French.
Hornblower could not indulge in the luxury of outrage at the implied accusation. The escort of gendarmes would make him immediately suspect to these men. "We are English sailors. Our ship was taken at Rosas," Hornblower told him in Spanish.
The officer scowled, deepening an ugly scar on the side of his face. To Hornblower's astonishment, he replied in English with a heavy Yorkshire accent. "What is your rank and name, sir?"
"Captain Horatio Hornblower, formerly of His Majesty's ship Sutherland. My first lieutenant and coxswain are still inside the carriage."
One of the riflemen laughed. "Horatio Hornblower? I doubt that this fellow's a spy, sir. No self-respecting spy would use that name."
After peering closely in Hornblower's face, the officer said, "The French posted handbills with your picture and description in every village along the coast. The likeness is close enough. You're a lucky bastard, Captain. We were lying in wait for an ammunition train when your escort chanced to fall into our ambush."
"I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage, sir," Hornblower said then fought the urge to break into hysterical laughter at the irony of his own words.
The officer raised a hand to his hat. "Captain Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles. At present attached to the Spanish Army of Catalonia. I am honored to meet you, sir." He did not smile, perhaps because of the hideous scar, but he held out his hand, and Hornblower pressed it gratefully.