!Tention, a Story of Boy-Life during the Peninsular War, by George Manville Fenn.
A young private, Penton Gray, known as Pen, is injured during an engagement in the Peninsular War. When he comes to he finds that the boy bugler, Punch, from his regiment, is lying injured close by. The British troops are near, but the area where the boys are is occupied by the French, who are the enemy. The boys need to recover from their wounds, and then to get back to their regiment. They have numerous adventures, and meet several people who help them, including the deposed Spanish King.
Eventually they reach their regiment where they are interviewed by the commanding officer, who realises that the young private has actually had the education normally needed for an officer, and that he has the knowledge needful to lead the troops through the mountains to take the French in the rear. This engagement is very successful, leading to the routing of the French. As a result Private Gray is made up to officer rank.
The book is well written, and is an enjoyable read or listen.
!TENTION, A STORY OF BOY-LIFE DURING THE PENINSULAR WAR, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
TO SAVE A COMRADE.
A sharp volley, which ran echoing along the ravine, then another, just as the faint bluish smoke from some hundred or two muskets floated up into the bright sunshine from amidst the scattered chestnuts and cork-trees that filled the lower part of the beautiful gorge, where, now hidden, now flashing out and scattering the rays of the sun, a torrent roared and foamed along its rocky course onward towards its junction with the great Spanish river whose destination was the sea.
Again another ragged volley; and this was followed by a few dull, heavy-sounding single shots, which came evidently from a skirmishing party which was working its way along the steep slope across the river.
There was no responsive platoon reply to the volley, but the skirmishing shots were answered directly by crack! crack! crack! the reports that sounded strangely different to those heavy, dull musket-shots which came from near at hand, and hardly needed glimpses of dark-green uniforms that dotted the hither slope of the mountain-side to proclaim that they were delivered by riflemen who a few minutes before were, almost in single line, making their way along a rugged mountain-path.
A second glance showed that they formed the rear-guard of a body of sharpshooters, beyond whom in the distance could be made out now and then glints of bright scarlet, which at times looked almost orange in the brilliant sunshine—orange flashed with silver, as the sun played upon musket-barrel and fixed bayonet more than shoulder-high.
The country Spain, amidst the towering Pyrenees; the scarlet that of a British column making its way along a rugged mule-path, from which those that traversed it looked down upon a scene of earthly beauty, and upwards at the celestial blue, beyond which towered the rugged peaks where here and there patches of the past winter's snow gleamed and sparkled in the sun.
Strategy had indicated retreat; and the black-green, tipped at collar and cuff with scarlet, of England's rifle-regiment was covering the retiring line, when the blue-coated columns of the French General's division had pressed on and delivered the wild volleys and scattered shots of the skirmishers which drew forth the sharp, vicious, snapping reply of the retreating rear-guard.
"At last!" said one of the riflemen, rising from where he had knelt on one knee to take cover behind a bush, and there stand driving down a cartridge with a peculiarly sharp, ringing sound of iron against iron, before finishing off with a few heavy thuds, returning the bright rod to its loops, and raising the pan of the lock to see that it was well primed with the coarse powder of the day.
"Yes—at last!" said his nearest comrade, who with a few more had halted at a subaltern's command to wait in cover for a shot or two at their pursuing foe. "Are we going to hold this place?"
"No," said the young officer. "Hear that, my man?" For a note or two of a bugle rang out sweet and clear in the beautiful valley, suggesting to one of the men a similar scene in an English dell; but he sighed to himself as it struck him that this was a different hunt, and that they, the men of the —th, the one rifle-regiment of the British Army, were the hunted, and that those who followed were the French.
A few more cracks from the rifles as the retreat was continued, and then the French musketry ceased; but the last of the sharpshooters obtained glimpses of the blue coats of the French coming quickly on.
"Have you sickened them, my lads?" said the young officer, as he led his men after the retreating main body of their friends.
"No, sir," said the young private addressed; "they seem to have lost touch of us. The mule-track has led right away to the left here."
"To be sure—yes. Then they will begin again directly. Keep your face well to the enemy, and take advantage of every bit of cover.—Here, bugler, keep close up to me."
The sturdy-looking boy addressed had just closed up to his officer's side when, as they were about to plunge into a low-growing patch of trees, there was another volley, the bullets pattering amongst the branches, twigs and leaves cut from above the men's heads falling thickly.
"Forward, my lads—double!" And the subaltern led his men through the trees to where the mountain-side opened out a little more; and, pointing with his sword to a dense patch a little farther on, he shouted, "Take cover there! We must hold that patch.—Here, bugler!—Where's that boy?"
No one answered, the men hurriedly following the speaker at the double; but the young private who had replied to the subaltern's questions, having fallen back to where he was running with a companion in the rear, looked over his shoulder, and then, startled by the feeling that the boy had not passed through the clump, he stopped short, his companion imitating his example and replying to the eager question addressed to him:
"I dunno, mate. I thought he was with his officer. Come on; we don't want to be prisoners."
He started again as he spoke, not hearing, or certainly not heeding, his comrade's angry words—
"He must be back there in the wood."
Carrying his rifle at the trail, he dashed back into the wood, hearing, as he ran, shouts as of orders being given by the enemy; but he ran on right through the clump of trees to where the mule-path meandered along by the edge of the precipice, and lay open before him to the next patch of woodland which screened the following enemy from view.
But the path was not unoccupied, for there, about fifty yards from him, he caught sight of his unfortunate young comrade, who, bugle in hand, was just struggling to his feet; and then, as he stood upright, he made a couple of steps forward, but only to stagger and reel for a moment; when, as his comrade uttered a cry, the boy tottered over the edge of the path, fell a few yards, and then rolled down the steep slope out of sight.
The young rifleman did not stop to think, but occupied the brief moments in running to his comrade's help; and, just as a volley came crashing from the open wood beyond the path, he dropped down over the side, striving hard to keep his feet and to check his downward progress to where he felt that the boy must have fallen. Catching vainly at branch and rock, he went on, down and down, till he was brought up short by a great mossy block of stone just as another volley was fired, apparently from the mule-track high above him; and half-unconsciously, in the confusion and excitement of the moment, he lay perfectly still, cowering amongst the sparse growth in the hope that he might not be seen from the shelf-like mule-track above, though expectant all the while that the next shot fired would be at him.
But, as it happened, that next shot was accompanied by many more; and as, fearing to move, he strained his eyes upward, he could see the grey smoke rising, and hear the sound of a bugle, followed by the rush of feet, and he knew that, so far, he had not been seen, but that the strong body of the enemy were hurrying along the mule-track in full pursuit of his friends.
"Just as if I had been running," muttered the young rifleman; and he stole his left hand slowly upwards, from where he was lying in a most awkward position, to rest it upon his breast as if to check the heavy beating of his heart.
"Ah!" he panted at last, as with strained eyes and ears he waited for some sign of his presence behind the advancing enemy being known. "Where's that boy?" he muttered hoarsely; and he tried to look about without moving, so as not to expose himself to any who might be passing along the rocky ledge.
The next minute the necessity for caution was emphasised, for there was a hoarse command from somewhere above, followed by the heavy tramp of feet which told only too plainly that he was being cut off from his regiment by another body of the enemy.
"I couldn't help it," he said. "I couldn't leave that poor fellow behind."
He had hardly uttered this thought when, apparently from just beyond the rugged mass of stone which had checked his descent, there came a low groan, followed by a few words, amongst which the listener made out, "The cowards!"
"That you, Punch?" whispered the young rifleman excitedly.
"Eh, who's that?" was the faint reply.
"Hist! Lie still. I'll try and get to you directly."
"That you, Private Gray?"
"Yes, yes," was whispered back, and the speaker felt his heart leap within his breast; "but lie still for a few moments."
"Oh, do come! I'm—I've got it bad."
The young private felt his heart sink again as he recalled the way in which the boy had staggered and fallen from the edge of the track above him. Then, in answer to the appeal for help, he passed his rifle over his body, and, wrenching himself round, he managed to lower himself beyond the mass of rock so as to get beneath and obtain its shelter from those passing along the ledge, but only to slip suddenly for a yard or two, with the result that the shrubs over which he had passed sprang up again and supplied the shelter which he sought.
"Punch! Punch! Where are you?" he whispered, as, satisfied now that he could not be seen from above, he raised his head a little and tried to make out him whom he sought.
But all was perfectly still about where he lay, while the sound of musketry came rolling and echoing along the narrow ravine; and above the trees, in the direction in which his friends must be, there was a rising and ever-thickening cloud of smoke.
Then for a few minutes the firing ceased, and in the midst of the intense silence there arose from the bushes just above the listener's head a quick twittering of premonitory notes, followed by the sharp, clear, ringing song of a bird, which thrilled the lad with a feeling of hope in the midst of what the moment before had been a silence that was awful.
Then from close at hand came a low, piteous groan, and a familiar voice muttered, "The cowards—to leave a comrade like this!"
Private Gray, of his Majesty's —th Rifles,—wrenched himself round once more, pressed aside a clump of heathery growth, crawled quickly about a couple of yards, and found himself lying face to face with the bugler of his company.
"Why, Punch, lad!" he said, "not hurt much, are you?"
"That you, Private Gray?"
"Yes. But tell me, are you wounded?"
"Yes!" half-groaned the boy; and then with a sudden access of excitement, "Here, I say, where's my bugle?"
"Oh, never mind your bugle. Where are you hurt?" cried the boy's comrade.
"In my bugle—I mean, somewhere in my back. But where's my instrument?"
"There it is, in the grass, hanging by the cord."
"Oh, that's better," groaned the boy. "I thought all our chaps had gone on and left me to die."
"And now you see that they hav'n't," said the boy's companion. "There, don't try to move. We mustn't be seen."
"Yes," almost babbled the boy, speaking piteously, "I thought they had all gone, and left me here. I did try to ketch up to them; but—oh, I am so faint and sick that it's all going round and round! Here, Private Gray, you are a good chap, shove the cord over my head, and take care the enemy don't get my bugle. Ah! Water—water, please! It's all going round and round."
Penton Gray made no effort now to look round for danger, but, unstopping his water-bottle, he crept closer to his companion in adversity, passed the strap of the boy's shako from under his chin, thrust his cap from his head to lie amongst the grass, and then opened the collar of his coatee and began to trickle a little water between the poor fellow's lips and sprinkled a little upon his temples.
"Ah!" sighed the boy, as he began to revive, "that's good! I don't mind now."
"But you are hurt. Where's your wound?" said the young private eagerly.
"Somewhere just under the shoulder," replied the boy. "'Tain't bleeding much, is it?"
"I don't know yet.—I won't hurt you more than I can help."
"Whatcher going to do?"
"Draw off your jacket so that I can see whether the hurt's bad."
"'Tain't very," said the boy, speaking feebly of body but stout of heart. "I don't mind, comrade. Soldiers don't mind a wound.—Oh, I say!" he cried, with more vigour than he had previously evinced.
"Did I hurt you?"
"Yes, you just did. Were you cutting it with your knife?"
"No," said his comrade with a half-laugh, as he drew his hand from where he had passed it under the boy's shoulder. "That's what cut you, Punch," and he held up a ragged-looking bullet which had dropped into his fingers as he manipulated the wound.
"Thought you was cutting me with your knife," said the boy, speaking with some energy now. "But, I say, don't you chuck that away; I want that.—What did they want to shoot me there for—the cowards! Just as if I was running away, when I was only obeying orders. If they had shot me in front I could have seen to it myself.—I say, does it bleed much?"
"No, my lad; but it's an ugly place."
"Well, who wants it to be handsome? I ain't a girl. Think you can stop it, private?"
"I think I can bind it up, Punch, and the bleeding will stop of itself."
"That's good. I say, though, private—sure to die after it, ain't I?"
"Yes, some day," said the young soldier, smiling encouragingly at the speaker; and then by the help of a shirt-sleeve and a bandage which he drew from his knapsack, the young soldier managed pretty deftly to bind up his comrade's wound, and then place him in a more comfortable position, lying upon his side.
"Thank ye!" said the boy with a sigh. "But, I say, you have give it me hot."
"I am very sorry, boy."
"Oh, never mind that. But just wipe my face; it's all as wet as wet, and the drops keep running together and tickling."
This little service was performed, and then the boy turned his head uneasily aside.
"What is it, Punch?"
"That there bullet—where is it?"
"I have got it safe."
"That's right. Now, where's my bugle?"
"There it is, quite safe too."
"Yes, that's right," said the boy faintly. "I don't want to lose that; but—Oh, I say, look at that there dent! What'll the colonel say when he sees that?"
"Shall I tell you, Punch?" said the young man, who bent over him, watching every change in his face.
"Yes—no. I know: 'Careless young whelp,' or something; and the sergeant—"
"Never mind the sergeant," said the young sharpshooter. "I want to tell you what the colonel will say, like the gentleman he is."
"Then, what'll he say?" said the wounded lad drowsily.
"That he has a very brave boy in his regiment, and—Poor chap, he has fainted again! My word, what a position to be in! Our fellows will never be able to get back, and if I shout for help it means hospital for him, prison for me. What shall I do?"
There was nothing to be done, as Pen Gray soon realised as he lay upon his side in the shade of the steep valley, watching his wounded comrade, who gradually sank into the sleep of exhaustion, while the private listened for every sound that might suggest the coming on or retreating of the French troops. His hopes rose once, for it seemed to him that the tide of war was ebbing and flowing lower down the valley, and his spirits rose as the mountain-breeze brought the sounds of firing apparently nearer and nearer, till he felt that the English troops had not only rallied, but were driving back the French over the ground by which they had come. But as the day wore on he found that his hopes were false; and, to make their position worse, fresh troops had come down the valley and were halted about a quarter of a mile from where he and his sleeping companion lay; while, lower down, the firing, which had grown fiercer and fiercer, gradually died out.
He was intently straining his ears, when to his surprise the afternoon sun began to flash upon the weapons of armed men, and once more his hopes revived in the belief that the French were being driven back; but to his astonishment and dismay, as they came more and more into sight, a halt seemed to have been called, and they too settled down into a bivouac, and communications by means of mounted men took place between them and the halted party higher up the valley; the young rifleman, by using great care, watching the going to and fro unseen.
Evening was coming on, and Pen Gray was still watching and wondering whether it would be possible to take advantage of the darkness, when it fell, to try and pass down the valley, circumvent the enemy, and overtake their friends, when the wounded boy's eyes unclosed, and he lay gazing wonderingly in his comrade's eyes.
"Better, Punch?" said Pen softly.
"What's the matter?" was the reply; and the boy gazed in his face in a dazed, half-stupid way.
"Don't you remember, lad?"
"No," was the reply. "Where's the ridgment?"
"Over yonder. Somewhere about the mouth of the valley, I expect."
"Oh, all right. What time is it?"
"I should think about five. Why?"
"Why?" said the boy. "Because there will be a row. Why are we here?"
"Waiting till you are better before trying to join our company."
"Better? Have we been resting, then, because my feet were so bad with the marching?"
Pen was silent as he half-knelt there, listening wonderingly to his comrade's half-delirious queries, and asking himself whether he had better tell the boy their real position.
"So much marching," continued the boy, "and those blisters. Ah, I remember! I say, private, didn't I get a bullet into me, and fall right down here? Yes, that's it. Here, Private Gray, what are you going to do?"
"Ah, what are we going to do?" said the young man sadly. "I was in hopes that you would be so much better, or rather I hoped you might, that we could creep along after dark and get back to our men; but I am afraid—"
"So'm I," said the boy bitterly, as he tried to move himself a little, and then sank back with a faint groan. "Couldn't do it, unless two of our fellows got me in a sergeant's sash and carried me."
"I'd try and carry you on my back," said Pen, "if you could bear it."
"Couldn't," said the boy abruptly. "I say, where do you think our lads are?"
"Beaten, perhaps taken prisoners," said Pen bitterly.
"Serve 'em right—cowards! To go and leave us behind like this!"
"Don't talk so much."
"It will make you feverish; and it's of no use to complain. They couldn't help leaving us. Besides, I was not left."
"Then how come you to be here?" said the boy sharply.
"I came after you, to help you."
"More old stupid you! Didn't you know when you were safe?"
Pen raised his brows a little and looked half-perplexed, half-amused at the irritable face of his comrade, who wrinkled up his forehead with pain, drew a hard breath, and then whispered softly, "I say, comrade, I oughtn't to have said that there, ought I?"
Pen was silent.
"You saw me go down, didn't you?"
Pen bowed his head.
"And you ran back to pick me up? Ah!" he ejaculated, drawing his breath hard.
"Wound hurt you much, my lad?"
"Ye-es," said the lad, wincing; "just as if some one was boring a hole through my shoulder with a red-hot ramrod."
"Punch, my lad, I don't think it's a bad wound, for while you were asleep I looked, and found that it had stopped bleeding."
"Stopped? That's a good job; ain't it, comrade?"
"Yes; and with a healthy young fellow like you a wound soon begins to heal up if the wounded man lies quiet."
"But I'm only a boy, private."
"Then the wound will heal all the more readily."
"I say, how do you know all this?" said the boy, looking at him curiously.
"Reading! Ah, I can't read—not much; only little words. Well, then, if you know that, I have got to lie still, then, till the hole's grown up. I say, have you got that bullet safe?"
"Don't you lose it, mind, because I mean to keep that to show people at home. Even if I am a boy I should like people to know that I have been in the wars. So I have got to lie still and get well? Won't be bad if you could get me a bundle or two of hay and a greatcoat to cover over me. The wind will come down pretty cold from the mountains; but I sha'n't mind that so long as the bears don't come too. I shall be all right, so you had better be off and get back to the regiment, and tell them where you have left me. I say, you will get promoted for it."
"Nonsense, Punch! What for?"
"Sticking to a comrade like this. I have been thinking about it, and I call it fine of you running back to help me, with the Frenchies coming on. Yes, I know. Don't make faces about it. The colonel will have you made corporal for trying to save me."
"Of course!" said Pen sarcastically. "Why, I'm not much older than you—the youngest private in the regiment; more likely to be in trouble for not keeping in the ranks, and shirking the enemy's fire."
"Don't you tell me," said the boy sharply. "I'll let the colonel and everybody know, if ever I get back to the ranks again."
"What's that?" said Pen sharply. "If ever you get back to the ranks again! Why, you are not going to set up a faint heart, are you?"
"'Tain't my heart's faint, but my head feels sick and swimmy. But, I say, do you think you ought to do any more about stopping up the hole so as to give a fellow a chance?"
"I'll do all I can, Punch," said Pen; "but you know I'm not a surgeon."
"Course I do," said the boy, laughing, but evidently fighting hard to hide his suffering. "You are better than a doctor."
"Yes, ever so much, because you are here and the doctor isn't."
The boy lay silent for a few minutes, evidently thinking deeply.
"I say, private," he said at last, "I can't settle this all out about what's going to be done; but I think this will be best."
"What I said before. You had better wait till night, and then creep off and follow our men's track. It will be awkward in the dark, but you ought to be able to find out somehow, because there's only one road all along by the side of this little river. You just keep along that while it's dark, and trust to luck when it's daytime again. Only, look here, my water-bottle's empty, so, as soon as you think it's dark enough, down you go to the river, fill it, and bring it back, and I shall be all right till our fellows fight their way back and pick me up."
"And if they are not able to—what then?" said Pen, smiling.
"Well, I shall wait till I get so hungry I can't wait any longer, and then I will cry chy-ike till the Frenchies come and pick me up. But, I say, they won't stick a bayonet through me, will they?"
"What, through a wounded boy!" said Pen angrily. "No, they are not so bad as that."
"Thank ye! I like that, private. I have often wished I was a man; but now I'm lying here, with a hole in my back, I'm rather glad that I am only a boy. Now then, catch hold of my water-bottle. It will soon be dark enough for you to get down to the river; and you mustn't lose any time. Oh, there's one thing more, though. You had better take my bugle; we mustn't let the enemy have that. I think as much of my bugle as Bony's chaps do of their eagles. You will take care of it, won't you?"
"Yes, when I carry it," said Pen quietly.
"Well, you are going to carry it now, aren't you?"
"No," said Pen quietly.
"Oh, you mean, not till you have fetched the water?"
Pen shook his head.
"What do you mean, then?"
"To do my duty, boy."
"Of course you do; but don't be so jolly fond of calling me boy. You said yourself a little while ago that you weren't much older than I am. But, I say, you had better go now; and I suppose I oughtn't to talk, for it makes my head turn swimmy, and we are wasting time; and—oh, Gray," the boy groaned, "I—I can't help it. I never felt so bad as this. There, do go now. Get the water, and if I am asleep when you come back, don't wake me so that I feel the pain again. But—but—shake hands first, and say good-bye."
The boy uttered a faint cry of agony as he tried to stretch out his hand, which only sank down helplessly by his side.
"Well, good-bye," he panted, as Pen's dropped slowly upon the quivering limb. "Well, why don't you go?"
"Because it isn't time yet," said Pen meaningly, as after a glance round he drew some of the overhanging twigs of the nearest shrub closer together, and then passed his hand across the boy's forehead, and afterwards held his wrist.
"Thank you, doctor," said the boy, smiling. "That seems to have done me good. Now then, aren't you going?"
"No," said Pen, with a sigh.
"You know as well as I do," replied Pen.
"You mean that you won't go and leave me here alone? That's what you mean."
"Yes, Punch; you are quite right. But look here. Suppose I was lying here wounded, would you go off and leave me at night on this cold mountain-side, knowing how those brutes of wolves hang about the rear of the army? You have heard them of a night, haven't you?"
"Yes," said the boy, shudderingly drawing his breath through his tightly closed teeth. "I say, comrade, what do you want to talk like that for?"
"Because I want you to answer my question: Would you go off and leave me here alone?"
"No, I'm blessed if I would," said the boy, speaking now in a voice full of animation. "I couldn't do it, comrade, and it wouldn't be like a soldier's son."
"But I am not a soldier's son, Punch."
"No," said the boy, "and that's what our lads say. They don't like you, and they say—There, I won't tell you what."
"Yes, tell me, Punch. I should like to know."
"They say that they have not got anything else against you, only you have no business here in the ranks."
"Why do they say that?"
"Because, when they are talking about it, they say you are a gentleman and a scholard."
"But I thought I was always friendly and sociable with them."
"So you are, Private Gray," cried the boy excitedly; "and if ever I get back to the ranks alive I'll tell them you are the best comrade in the regiment, and how you wouldn't leave me in the lurch."
"And I shall make you promise, Punch, that you never say a word."
"All right," said the boy, with a faint smile, "I'll promise. I won't say a word; but," he continued, with a shudder which did not conceal his smile, "they will be sure to find it out and get to like you as much as I do now."
"What's the matter, Punch?" said Pen shortly. "Cold?"
"Head's hot as fire, so's my shoulder; but everywhere else I am like ice. And there's that swimming coming in my head again.—I don't mind. It's all right, comrade; I shall be better soon, but just now—just now—"
The boy's voice trailed off into silence, and a few minutes later young Private Penton Gray, of his Majesty's newly raised —th Rifles, nearly all fresh bearers of the weapon which was to do so much to win the battles of the Peninsular War, prepared to keep his night-watch on the chilly mountain-side by stripping off his coatee and unrolling his carefully folded greatcoat to cover the wounded lad. And that night-watch was where he could hear the howling and answering howls of the loathsome beasts that seemed to him to say: "This way, comrades: here, and here, for men are lying wounded and slain; the watch-fires are distant, and there are none to hinder us where the banquet is spread. Come, brothers, come!"
WHERE THE WOLVES HOWL.
"Ugh!" A long, shivering shudder following upon the low, dismal howl of a wolf.
"Bah! How cold it is lying out here in this chilly wind which comes down from the mountain tops! I say, what an idiot I was to strip myself and turn my greatcoat into a counterpane! No, I won't be a humbug; that wasn't the cold. It was sheer fright—cowardice—and I should have felt just the same if I had had a blanket over me. The brutes! There is something so horrible about it. The very idea of their coming down from the mountains to follow the trail of the fighting, and hunt out the dead or the wounded who have been forgotten or have crawled somewhere for shelter."
Pen Gray lay thinking in the darkness, straining his ears the while to try and convince himself that the faint sound he heard was not a movement made by a prowling wolf scenting them out; and as he lay listening, he pictured to himself the gaunt, grisly beast creeping up to spring upon him.
"Only fancy!" he said sadly. "That wasn't the breathing of one of the beasts, only the wind again that comes sighing down from the mountains.—I wish I was more plucky."
He stretched out his hand and laid his rifle amongst the shrubs with its muzzle pointed in the direction from whence the sighing sound had come.
"I'll put an end to one of them," he muttered bitterly, "if I don't miss him in the dark. Pooh! They won't come here, or if they do I have only to jump up and the cowardly beasts will dash off at once; but it is horrid lying here in the darkness, so solitary and so strange. I wouldn't care so much if the stars would come out, but they won't to-night. To-night? Why, it must be nearly morning, for I have been lying here hours and hours. And how dark it is in this valley, with the mountains towering up on each side. I wish the day would come, but it always does seem ten times as long when you are waiting and expecting it. It is getting cold though. Seems to go right through to one's bones.—Poor boy," he continued, as he stretched out one hand and gently passed it beneath his companion's covering. "He's warm enough. No—too hot; and I suppose that's fever from his wound. Poor chap! Such a boy too! But as brave as brave. He must be a couple of years younger than I am; but he's more of a man. Oh, I do wish it was morning, so that I could try and do something. There must be cottages somewhere— shepherds' or goat-herds'—where as soon as the people understand that we are not French they might give me some black-bread and an onion or two."
The young soldier laughed a soft, low, mocking kind of laugh.
"Black-bread and an onion! How queer it seems! Why, there was a time when I wouldn't have touched such stuff, while now it sounds like a feast. But let's see; let's think about what I have got to do. As soon as it's daylight I must find a cottage and try to make the people understand what's the matter, and get them to help me to carry poor Punch into shelter. Another night like this would kill him. I don't know, though. I always used to think that lying down in one's wet clothes, and perhaps rain coming in the night, would give me a cold; but it doesn't. I must get him into shelter, though, somehow. Oh, if morning would only come! The black darkness makes one feel so horribly lonely.—What nonsense! I have got poor Punch here. But he has the best of it; he can sleep, and here I haven't even closed my eyes. Being hungry, I suppose.—I wonder where our lads are. Gone right off perhaps. I hope we haven't lost many. But the firing was very sharp, and I suppose the French have kept up the pursuit, and they are all miles and miles away."
At that moment there was a sharp flash with the report of a musket, and its echoes seemed to be thrown back from the steep slope across the torrent, while almost simultaneously, as Gray raised himself upon his elbow, there was another report, and another, and another, followed by more, some of which seemed distant and the others close at hand; while, as the echoes zigzagged across the valley, and the lad stretched out his hand to draw himself up into a sitting position, oddly enough that hand touched something icy, and he snatched it back with a feeling of annoyance, for he realised that it was only the icy metal that formed his wounded companion's bugle, and he lay listening to the faint notes of another instrument calling upon the men to assemble.
"Why, it's a night attack," thought Pen excitedly, and unconsciously he began to breathe hard as he listened intently, while he fully grasped the fact that there were men of the French brigade dotted about in all directions.
"And there was I thinking that we were quite alone!" he said to himself.
Then by degrees his short experience of a few months of the British occupation on the borders of Portugal and Spain taught him that he had been listening to a night alarm, for from out of the darkness came the low buzz of voices, another bugle was sounded, distant orders rang out, and then by degrees the low murmur of voices died away, and once more all was still.
"I was in hopes," thought Gray, "that our fellows were making a night attack, giving the enemy a surprise. Why, there must be hundreds within reach. That puts an end to my going hunting about for help as soon as the day breaks, unless I mean us to be taken prisoners. Why, if I moved from here I should be seen.—Asleep, Punch?" he said softly.
There was no reply, and the speaker shuddered as he stretched out his hand to feel for his companion's forehead; but at the first touch there was an impatient movement, and a feeling of relief shot through the lad's breast, for imagination had been busy, and was ready to suggest that something horrible might have happened in the night.
"Oh, I do wish I wasn't such a coward," he muttered. "He's all right, only a bit feverish. What shall I do? Try and go to sleep till morning? What's the good of talking? I am sure I couldn't, even if I did try."
Then the weary hours slowly crept along, the watcher trying hard to settle in his own mind which was the east, but failing dismally, for the windings of the valley had been such that he could only guess at the direction where the dawn might appear.
There were no more of the dismal bowlings of the wolves, though, the scattered firing having effectually driven them away; but there were moments when it seemed to the young watcher that the night was being indefinitely prolonged, and he sighed again and again as he strained his eyes to pierce the darkness, and went on trying to form some plan as to his next movement.
"I wonder how long we could lie in hiding here," he said to himself, "without food. Poor Punch in his state wouldn't miss his ration; but by-and-by, if the French don't find us, this bitter cold will have passed away, and we shall be lying here in the scorching sunshine—for it can be hot in these stuffy valleys—and the poor boy will be raving for water—yes, water. Who was that chap who was tortured by having it close to him and not being able to reach it? Tantalus, of course! I am forgetting all my classics. Well, soldiers don't want cock-and-bull stories out of Lempriere. I wonder, though, whether I could crawl down among the bushes to the edge of the torrent and fill our water-bottles, and get back up here again without being seen. But perhaps, when the day comes, and if they don't see us, the French will move off, and then I need only wait patiently and try and find some cottage.—Yes, what is it?"
He raised himself upon his arm again, for Punch had begun to mutter; but there was no reply.
"Talking in his sleep," said Pen with a sigh. "Good for him that he can sleep! Oh, surely it must be near morning now!"
The lad sprang to his knees and placed one hand over his eyes as he strained himself round, for all at once he caught sight of a tiny speck as of glowing fire right overhead, and he stared in amazement.
"Why, that can't be daylight!" he thought. "It would appear, of course, low down in the east, just a faint streak of dawn. That must be some dull star peering through the clouds. Why, there are two of them," he said in a whisper; "no, three. Why, it is day coming!" And he uttered a faint cry of joy as he crouched low again and gazed, so to speak, with all his might at the wondrous scene of beauty formed by the myriad specks of orange light which began to spread overhead, and grow and grow till the mighty dome that seemed supported in a vast curve by the mountains on either side of the valley became one blaze of light.
"Punch," whispered Pen excitedly, "it's morning! Look, look! How stupid!" he muttered. "Why should I wake him to pain and misery? Yes, it is morning, sure enough," he muttered again, for a bugle rang out apparently close at hand, and was answered from first one direction and then another, the echoes taking up the notes softly and repeating them again and again till it seemed to the listener as if he must be lying with quite an army close at hand awakening to the day.
The light rapidly increased, and Pen began to look in various directions for danger, wondering the while whether some patch of forest would offer itself as an asylum somewhere close at hand; but he only uttered a sigh of relief as he grasped the fact that, while high above them the golden light was gleaming down from the sun-flecked clouds, the gorges were still full of purple gloom, and clouds of thick mist were slowly gathering in the valley-bottom and were being wafted along by the breath of morn and following the course of the river.
To his great relief too, as the minutes glided by, he found that great patches of the rolling smoke-like mist rose higher and higher till a soft, dank cloud enveloped them where they lay, and through it he could hear faintly uttered orders and the tramp of men apparently gathering and passing along the shelf-like mule-path.
"And I was longing for the sun to rise!" thought Pen.—"Ah, there's an officer;" for somewhere just overhead there was the sharp click of an iron-shod hoof among the rocks. "He must have seen us if it hadn't been for this mist," thought the lad. "Now if it will only last for half an hour we may be safe."
The mist did last for quite that space of time—in fact, until Pen Gray was realising that the east lay right away to his right—for a golden shaft of light suddenly shot horizontally from a gap in the mountains, turning the heavy mists it pierced into masses of opalescent hues; and, there before him, he suddenly caught sight of a cameo-like figure which stood out from where he knew that the shelf-like mule-path must run. The great bar of golden light enveloped both rider and horse, and flashed from the officer's raised sword and the horse's trappings.
Then the rolling cloud of mist swept on and blotted him from sight, and Pen crouched closer and closer to his sleeping comrade, and lay with bated breath listening to the tramp, tramp of the passing men not a hundred feet above his head, and praying now that the wreaths of mist might screen them, as they did till what seemed to him to be a strong brigade had gone on in the direction taken by his friends.
But he did not begin to breathe freely till the tramping of hoofs told to his experienced ears that a strong baggage-train of mules was on its way. Then came the tramp of men again.
"Rear-guard," he thought; and then his heart sank once more, for the tramping men swept by in the midst of a dense grey cloud, which looked like smoke as it rolled right onward, and as if by magic the sun burst out and filled the valley with a blaze of light.
"They must see us now," groaned Pen; and he closed his eyes in his despair.
"WATER, OR I SHALL DIE!"
Pen's heart beat heavily as he lay listening to the tramping of feet upon the rocky shelf, and at last the sounds seemed so close that he drew himself together ready to spring to his feet and do what he could to protect his injured comrade. For in his strange position the idea was strong upon him that their first recognition by the enemy might be made with the presentation of a bayonet's point.
But his anticipations proved to be only the work of an excited brain; and, as he lay perfectly still once more, the heavy tramp, tramp, a good deal wanting in the regularity of the British troops, died out, and he relieved the oppression that bore down upon his breast with a deep sigh.
Nothing was visible as the sounds died out; and, waiting till he felt that he was safe, he changed his position slightly so as to try and make out whether the rear-guard of the enemy had quite disappeared.
In an instant he had shrunk down again amongst the bushes, for there, about a hundred yards away, at the point of an angle where the mule-path struck off suddenly to the left, and at a spot that had undoubtedly been chosen for its command of the road backward, he became aware of the presence of an outpost of seven or eight men.
This was startling, for it put a check upon any attempt at movement upon his own part.
Pen lay thinking for a few moments, during which he made sure that his comrade was still plunged in a deep, stupor-like sleep. Then, after a little investigation, he settled how he could move slightly without drawing the attention of the vedette; and, taking advantage thereof, crawled cautiously about a couple of yards with the greatest care. Then, looking back as he slowly raised his head, which he covered with a few leafy twigs, he was by no means surprised to see at the edge of the mule-path about a quarter of a mile away another vedette. This shut off any attempt at retreat in that direction, and he was about to move again when he was startled by a flash of light reflected from a musket-barrel whose bearer was one acting as the leader of a third vedette moving up the side of the valley across the river, and which soon came to a halt at about the same height above the stream as that which he occupied himself.
The lad could not control a movement of impatience as the little knot of infantry settled themselves exactly opposite to his own hiding-place, and in a position from which the French soldiers must be able to control one slope of the valley for a mile in each direction.
"It's maddening!" thought Pen. "I sha'n't be able to stir, and I dare say they'll have more vedettes stationed about. It means giving up, and nothing else."
Very slowly and cautiously he wrenched himself round, and then rolled over twice so as to bring himself alongside of his sleeping comrade; and then, as he resumed his reconnoitring, where he was just able to command the farther side of the valley away to his right and in a direction where he hoped to find the land clear, he started again.
"Why, they are everywhere!" said the lad half-aloud and with a faint groan of dismay; for there, higher up the opposite side, were a couple of sentries who seemed to be looking straight down upon him. "Why, they must have seen me!" he muttered; and for quite an hour now he lay without stirring, half in the expectation of seeing the low bushes in motion and a little party of the blue-coated enemy coming across to secure fresh prisoners.
But the time wore on, with the chill of the night dying out in the warm sunshine now beginning to search Pen's side of the valley with the bright shafts of light, which suggested to him the necessity for covering his well-kept rifle with the leafy twigs he was able to gather cautiously so as not to betray his presence.
He was in the act of doing this when, turning his head slightly, a flash of light began to play right into his eyes, and he stopped short once more to try and make out whether this had been seen by either of the enemy on duty, for he now awoke to the fact that poor Punch's bugle was lying quite exposed.
The fact was so startling that, instead of trying to reach its cord and draw the glistening instrument towards him, he lay perfectly still again, sweeping the sides of the valley as far as he could in search of danger, but searching in vain, till the thought occurred to him that he might achieve the object he had in view by cautiously taking out his knife and cutting twig after twig so that they might fall across the curving polished copper.
This he contrived to do, and then lay still once more, breathing freely in the full hope that if he gave up further attempt at movement he might escape detection.
"Besides," he said to himself, with a bitter smile playing upon his lips, "if they do make us out they may not trouble, for they will think we are dead."
He lay still then, waiting for Punch to awaken so that he could warn him to lie perfectly quiet.
The hours glided by, with the sun rising higher and setting the watcher thinking, in spite of his misery, weariness, and the pangs of hunger that attacked him, of what a wonderfully beautiful contrast there was between the night and the day. With nothing else that he could do, he recalled the horrors of the past hours, the alternating chills of cold and despair, and the howlings of the wolves; and he uttered more than one sigh of relief as his eyes swept the peaks away across the valley, which here and there sent forth flashes of light from a few scattered patches of melting snow, the beautiful violet shadows of the transverse gullies through which sparkling rivulets descended with many a fall to join the main stream, which dashed onward with the dull, musical roar which rose and fell, now quite loud, then almost dying completely away. The valley formed a very paradise to the unfortunate fugitive, and he muttered bitterly:
"How beautiful it would have been under other circumstances, when such a wondrous scene of peace was not disfigured by war! So bitterly cold last night," thought the young private impatiently, for he was fighting now against two assaults, both of which came upon him when he was trying hard to lie perfectly still and maintain his equanimity while the pangs of hunger and thirst were growing poignant. "It seems so easy," he muttered, "to lie still and keep silence, and here I am feeling that I must move and do something, and wanting so horribly to talk. It would be better if that poor boy would only awaken and speak to me. And there's that water, too," he continued, as the faint plashing, rippling sound rose to his ears from below. "Oh, how I could drink! I wish the wind would rise, so that I couldn't hear that dull plashing sound. How terribly hot the sun is; and it's getting worse!"
Then a horrible thought struck him, that Punch might suddenly wake up and begin to talk aloud, feverish and delirious from his sufferings; and then when Pen's troubles were at their very worst, and he could hardly contain himself and keep from creeping downwards to the water's edge, it seemed as if a cloud swept over him, and all was blank, for how long he could not tell, but his fingers closed sharply to clutch the twigs and grass amongst which he lay as he started into full consciousness.
"Why, I have been asleep!" he muttered. "I must have been;" and he stared wildly around. There was a great shadow there, and now the sun is beating down upon that little gully and lighting up the flashing waters of the fall. "Why, I must have been sleeping for hours, and it must be quite midday."
His eyes now sought the positions of the different vedettes, and all was so brilliant and clear that he saw where the men had stood up their muskets against bush or tree, noted the flash from bayonets and the duller gleam from musket-barrels. In one case, too, the men were sheltering themselves beneath a tree, and this sent an additional pang of suffering through the lad, as he felt for the first time that the sun was playing with burning force upon his neck.
"It's of no use," he said. "Even if they see me, I must move."
But he made the movement with the mental excuse that it was to see how his wounded companion fared.
It only meant seizing hold of a clump of wiry heather twice over and drawing himself to where his face was close to the sleeper. Then he resigned himself again with a sigh to try and bear his position.
"He's best off," he muttered, "bad as he is, for he can't feel what I do."
How the rest of that day of scorching sunshine and cruel thirst passed onward Pen Gray could not afterwards recall. For the most part it was like a feverish dream, till he awoke to the fact that the sun was sinking fast, and that from time to time a gentle breath of cool air was wafted down from the mountains.
Then the hunger began to torture him again, though at times the thirst was less. His brain was clearer, though, and he lay alternately watching the vedettes and noting that they had somewhat changed their positions, and trying to perfect his plans as to what he must do as soon as the shades of night should render it possible for him to move unseen.
Finally, the last sentry was completely blotted out by the gathering darkness; and, uttering the words aloud, "Now for it!" Pen tried to raise himself to his knees before proceeding to carry out his plan, when he sank back again with an ejaculation half of wonder, half of dread. For a feeling of utter numbness shot through him, paralysing every movement; while, prickling and stinging, every fibre of his frame literally quivered as he lay there in despair, feeling that all his planning had been in vain, and that now the time had arrived when he might carry out his attempt in safety the power of movement had absolutely gone.
How long he lay like this he could not tell, but it was until the night-breeze was coming down briskly from the mountains, and the sound of the plashing water far below sent a sudden feeling of excitement through his nerves.
"Water!" he muttered. "Water, or I shall die!"
It was like coming back to life. In an instant Pen felt full of energy and excitement once more. The pangs of hunger supplemented those of thirst; and, almost raging against them now, he felt that he must fight, and he rose with an effort to his feet, with the tingling numbness feeling for the moment worse than ever, but only to prick and spur him into action.
"Ah!" he ejaculated, "it is like life coming back." Turning to where his comrade lay breathing heavily, he snatched off the leafy twigs with which he had sheltered him.
"Asleep, Punch?" he said; but he was only answered by a low sigh.
"Poor boy!" he muttered; "but I must."
He snatched off, full of energy now, his jacket and overcoat, and resumed them. Then, picking up his rifle, he slackened the sling and passed it over his shoulder. In doing this he kicked against the bugle, and slung the cord across the other shoulder. Then, tightening the strap of his shako beneath his chin, he drew a deep breath and looked first in the one direction and then in another in search of the vedettes; but all was darkness for a while, and he was beginning to feel the calm of certainty as regarded their being perfectly free from observation, when, from the nearest point where he had made out the watchers, he suddenly became aware of how close one party was by seeing the faint spark of light which the next minute deepened into a glow, and the wind wafted to his nostrils the odour of coarse, strong tobacco.
"Ah, nearer than I thought," said the lad to himself, and, looking round once more, he made out another faint glow of light; and then, bending over his comrade, he felt about for his hands and glided his own to the boy's wrists, which felt dank and cold, as he stood thinking for a moment or two of the poor fellow's condition.
"I can't help it. My only hope is that he is quite insensible to pain. He must be, or he couldn't sleep like this. It must be done."
Pen's plans had been carefully laid, and he had not anticipated any difficulty.
"It's only a matter of strength," he said to himself, "and I feel desperate and strong enough now to do anything."
But it meant several failures, and he was checked by groan after groan before he at last managed to seat himself with his back to the wounded boy, after propping him up against one of the gnarled little oak-trunks amongst which they had been lying.
Again and again he had been hindered by the rifle slung across his back. More than once, too, he had despairingly told himself that he must cast it aside, but only to feel that at any cost a soldier must hold to his arms. Then it was the cartouche-box; this, drawn round before him, he was troubled by the position of his haversack, and ready to rage with despair at the difficulties which he had to overcome.
At last, though, he sat there shivering, and listening to try and make out whether the poor boy's moanings had been heard, before drawing a deep breath and beginning to drag the poor fellow's wrists over his shoulders. Then, making one tremendous heave as he threw himself forward, he had Punch well upon his back and staggered up, finding himself plunging down the slope headlong as he struggled to keep his feet, but in vain; for his balance was gone, and a heavy fall was saved by his going head first into the tangled branches of a scrub oak, where he was brought up short with his shako driven down over his eyes.
Penton regained his balance and his breath—to stand listening for some sound of the enemy having taken the alarm, but all was quite still—and, freeing his rifle, he began to use it in the darkness as a staff of support, and to feel his way amongst the shrubs and stones downward always, the butt saving him from more than one fall, for he could not take a step without making sure of a safe place for his feet before he ventured farther.
It was a long and tedious task; but in the silence of the night the sound of the rushing water acted as a guide, and by slow degrees, and after many a rest, he felt at last that he must be getting nearer to the river.
But, unfortunately, the lower he plunged downwards the deeper grew the obscurity, while the moisture from the rushing stream made the tangled growth more dense. Consequently, he had several times over to stop and fight his way out of some thicket and make a fresh start.
At such times he took advantage more than once of some low-growing horizontal oak-boughs, which barred his way and afforded him a resting-place, across which he could lean and make the bough an easy support for his burden.
It had seemed but a short distance down to the stream from where he scrutinised his probable path overhead, and doubtless without burden and by the light of day half an hour would have been sufficient to carry him to the river's brink; but it was in all probability that nearer three hours had elapsed before his farther progress was checked by his finding himself in the midst of a perfect chaos of rocks, just beyond which the water was falling heavily; and, utterly exhausted, he was glad to lower his burden softly down upon a bed of loose shingle and dry sand.
"There's nothing for it but to wait for day," he said half-aloud, and then—after, as best he could in the darkness, placing the wounded boy in a comfortable position and again covering him with his outer garments—he began to feel his way cautiously onward till he found that every time and in whatever direction he thrust down the butt of his rifle it plashed into rushing water which came down so heavily that it splashed up again into his face, and in spite of the darkness he could feel that he was standing somewhere at the foot of a fall where a heavy volume of water was being dashed down from a considerable height.
Pen's first proceeding now was to go down upon his knees as close to the torrent as he could get, and there refill his water-bottle, before (after securing it) he leaned forward and lowered his face until his lips touched the flowing water, and he drank till his terrible thirst was assuaged.
This great desire satisfied, he rose again, to stand listening to the heavy rush and roar of the falls, which were evidently close at hand, and whose proximity produced a strange feeling of awe, suggestive, as it were, of a terrible danger which paralysed him for the time being and held him motionless lest at his next step he should be swept away.
The feeling passed off directly as the thought came that his comrade was insensible and dependent upon him for help; and it struck him now that he might not be able in that thick darkness to find the spot where he had left him.
This idea came upon him with such force as he made a step first in one direction and then in another that he began to lose nerve.
"Oh, it won't do to play the coward now," he muttered. "I must find him—I must! I must try till I do."
But there is something terribly confusing in thick darkness. It is as if a natural instinct is awakened that compels the one who is lost to go wrong; and before Pen Gray had correctly retraced his steps from where he had lain down to drink he had probably passed close to his insensible companion at least a score of times, while the sense of confusion, the nearness of danger and a terrible death, grew and grew till in utter despair and exhaustion he staggered a few steps and sank down almost breathless.
"It is no good," he groaned to himself. "I can do no more. I must wait till daylight."
As he lay stretched out upon his back, panting heavily from weakness, it seemed to him that the roar of the falling water had redoubled, and the fancy came upon him that there was a tone of mocking triumph over his helplessness. In fact, the exertion which he had been called upon to make, the want of sleep, and possibly the exposure during many hours to the burning sun, had slightly affected his brain, so that his wild imagination conjured up non-existent dangers till all was blank, for he sank into the deep sleep of exhaustion, and lay at last open-eyed, wondering, and asking himself whether the foaming water that was plunging down a few yards away was part of some dream, in which he was lying in a fairy-like glen gazing at a rainbow, a little iris that spanned in a bridge of beauty the sparkling water, coming and going as the soft breeze rose and fell, while the sun sent shafts of light through the dew-sprinkled leaves of the many shrubs and trees that overhung the flowing water and nearly filled the glen.
Sleep still held him in its slackening grasp, and he lay motionless, enjoying the pleasant sense of coolness and rest till his attention was caught by a black-and-white bird which suddenly came into sight by alighting upon a rock in the midst of the rushing stream.
It was one of many scattered here and there, and so nearly covered by the water that every now and then, as the black-and-white bird hurried here and there, its legs were nearly covered; but it seemed quite at home, and hurried away, wading easily and seldom using its wings, till all at once, as Pen watched, he saw the little creature take a step, give its tail a flick, and disappear, not diving but regularly walking into deep water, to reappear a few yards away, stepping on to another rock, running here and there for a few moments, and again disappearing in the most unaccountable way.
"It is all a dream," thought Pen. "Ducks dive, but no bird could walk under water like that. Why, it's swimming and using its wings like a fish's fins. I must be asleep."
At that moment the bird stepped on to another rock, to stand heel-deep; and as it was passing out of sight with a quick fluttering of its wings, which did not seem to be wetted in the least, Pen made an effort to raise himself on his elbow, felt a dull, aching sensation of strain, and lost sight of the object that had caught his attention. He found, however, that it was no dream, for across the little torrent and high up the steep, precipitous bank before him he could see a goat contentedly browsing upon the tender green twigs of the bushes; while, at his next movement, as he tried to raise himself a little more, there within touch, and half behind him, lay the companion whose very existence had been blotted out of his mind; and he uttered a cry of joy—or rather felt that he did, for the sound was covered by the roar of the falling water—and dragged himself painfully to where he could lay one hand upon the bugle-boy's breast.
"Why, Punch," he felt that he cried, as the events of the past hours came back with a rush, "I thought I'd lost you. No, I fancied—I—Here, am I going mad?"
He felt that he shouted that question aloud, and then, sending a pang through his strained shoulder, he clapped his hands to his forehead and looked down wildly at the still insensible boy.
"Here, Punch! Punch!" he repeated inaudibly. "Speak—answer! I—oh, how stupid!" he muttered—"I am awake, and it is the roar of that water that seems to sweep away every other sound. Yes, that must be it;" for just then he saw that the goat had raised its head as it gazed across at him, and stretched out its neck.
"Why, it's bleating," he said to himself, "and I can't hear a sound."
The efforts he had made seemed to enable him to think more clearly, and his next act was to rise to his knees stiffly and painfully, and then begin to work his joints a little before bending over his companion and shrinkingly laying his hand upon his breast.
This had the desired effect—one which sent a strange feeling of relief through the young private's breast—for the wondering, questioning eyes he now met looked bright and intelligent, making him bend lower till he could speak loudly in the boy's ear the simple question, "How are you?"
He could hardly hear the words himself, but that they had been heard by him for whom they were intended was evident, for Punch's lips moved in reply, and the next moment, to Pen's delight, he raised one hand to his parched lips and made a sign as of drinking.
"Ah, you are better!" cried Pen excitedly, and this time he felt that he almost heard his own words above the deep-toned, musical roar.
Punch's appealing sign was sufficient to chase away the imaginative notions that had beset Pen's awakening. His hand went at once to the water-bottle slung to his side, and, as he held the mouth to his comrade's lips and forgot the pain he suffered in his strained and stiffening joints, he watched with a feeling of pleasure the avidity with which the boy drank; and as he saw the strange bird flit by once more he recalled having heard of such a bird living in the west country.
"Yes," he said to himself, "I remember now—the dipper. Busy after water-beetles and perhaps after tiny fish.—You are better, Punch, or you wouldn't drink like that;" and he carefully lowered the boy's head as he ceased drinking. "Yes, and though I can't hear you, you have come to your senses again, or you would not look at me like that.—Ah, I forgot all about them!" For a sound other than that produced by the falling waters came faintly to his ear. It was from somewhere far above, and echoed twice. "Yes, I had forgotten all about them."
He began looking anxiously about him, taking in the while that he was close to the river where it ran in a deep, precipitous gully; and as he looked up now to right and then to left, eagerly and searchingly, for the danger that he knew could not be far away, his eyes ranged through densely wooded slopes, lit up here and there by the morning sunshine, and always sweeping the sides of the valley in search of the vedettes, but without avail, not even the rugged mule-path that ran along the side being visible.
"They are not likely to see us here," Pen said to himself, "and they can't have seen me coming down. Oh, what a job it was! I feel as if I must have been walking in my sleep half the time, and I am so stiff I can hardly move. But I did it, and we must be safe if we can keep out of sight; and that ought to be easy, for they are not likely to come down here. Now, what's to be done?"
That was a hard question to answer; but growing once more full of energy now that he was satisfied that there was no immediate danger, Pen stepped back lamely, as if every muscle were strained, to his companion's side, to be greeted with a smile and a movement of the boy's lips.
"Now, let's see to your wound," he said, with his lips to the boy's ear; and he passed one hand under Punch's wounded shoulder to try and turn him over. This time, as Punch's lips parted and his face grew convulsed with pain, Pen's ears mastered the roar, and he heard the sufferer's cry.
"Hurt you too much?" he said, as he once more put his lips to the boy's ear.
The answer was a nod.
"Well," thought Pen, "he must be better, so I'll let him be; but we can't stop here. I must try and get him through the trees and away from this horrible noise. But I can't do it now. At least, I don't think I can. Then, what's next?"
The inaudible reply to the question came from somewhere inside, and he bent closer over Punch once more.
"Aren't you hungry?" he roared in his ear.
The boy shook his head.
"Well, I am," shouted Pen.—"Oh, how stupid! This is like telling the enemy where we are, if they are anywhere within hearing. Hullo, what does this mean?" For he suddenly caught sight of the goat springing from stone to stone low down the stream as if coming to their side of the rushing water; and with the thought filling his mind that a tame goat like this must have an owner who was more likely to be an enemy of strangers than a friend, Pen began searching the rugged slopes on both sides of the river, but in vain. The goat, which had crossed, was now coming slowly towards them, appearing to be quite alone, though soon proving itself to be quite accustomed to the presence of human beings, for it ended by trotting over the sand and shingle at the river's edge till it had approached them quite closely, to stand bleating at them, doubtless imploringly, though no sound was heard.
This lasted for a few minutes, and then the goat moved away, passing Punch, and disappearing upward through the dense growth, and apparently making its way up by the side of the great fall.
No sooner was it out of sight than a thought struck Pen; and, making a sign to his companion that meant "I won't be long," he shouldered his rifle and began to climb upwards in the direction taken by the goat.
He was beginning to regret now that he had not started sooner, for there was no sign of the little beast, and he was about to turn when, just to his right, he noted faint signs of what seemed to be a slightly used track which was easy to follow, and, stepping out, he observed the trees were more open, and at the end of a few minutes he found himself level with the top of the falls, where the river was gliding along in a deep, glassy sheet before making its plunge over the smooth, worn rocks into a basin below.
He had just grasped this when he saw that the faint track bore off to the right, and caught sight of the goat again moving amongst the trees, and for the next few minutes he had no difficulty in keeping it in sight, and, in addition, finding that it was making for what seemed to be the edge of another stream which issued from a patch of woodland on its way to the main torrent.
"I must get him here if I can," thought Pen, for the roar of the falling waters was subdued into a gentle murmur, and to his surprise he caught sight of a shed-like building amongst the trees, fenced in by piled-up pieces of stone evidently taken from the smaller stream which he approached; and it was plain that this was the spot for which the goat had been making.
The young rifleman stopped short, trying to make out whether the place was inhabited; but he could see no sign save that the goat was making for the stone fence, on to which the active beast leaped, balanced itself carefully for a few moments, and then sprang down on the other side, to be greeted by a burst of bleating that came from apparently two of its kind within.
Pen stood screened by the trees for a time, fully expecting to see some occupant of the hut make his appearance; but the bleating ceased directly, and, approaching carefully, the young private stood at last by the rough stone wall, looking down on a scene which fully explained the reason for the goat's visit.
She had returned to her kids; and after climbing the wall a very little search showed the visitor that the goat and her young ones were the sole occupants of the deserted place.
It was the rough home of a peasant who had apparently forsaken it upon the approach of the French soldiery. Everything was of the simplest kind; but situated as Pen Gray was it presented itself in a palatial guise, for there was everything that he could wish for at a time like that.
As before said, it was a shed-like structure; but there was bed and fireplace, a pile of wood outside the door, and, above all, a roof to cover those who sought shelter.
"Yes, I must bring him here somehow," thought Pen as he caught sight of a cleanly scrubbed pail and a tin or two hanging upon nails in the wall. But he saw far more than this, for his senses were sharpened by hunger; and with a smile of satisfaction he hurried out, noting as he passed them that the kids, keen of appetite, were satisfying their desire for food; and, hurrying onwards, he made his way back to where he had left his companion lying in the dry, sandy patch of shingle; and some hours of that forenoon were taken up in the painful task of bearing the wounded lad by slow degrees to where, after much painful effort, they could both look down upon the nearly hidden shed.
"How are you now, Punch?" asked Pen, turning his head upwards.
There was no reply.
"Why, Punch," cried Pen, "you are not asleep, are you?"
"Asleep!" said the boy bitterly; and then, in a faint whisper, "set me down."
Pen took a step forward to where he could take hold of a stunted oak-bough whose bark felt soft and strange; and, holding tightly with one hand, he held his burden with the other while he sank slowly, the branch bending the while till he was kneeling. Then he slid his load down amongst the undergrowth and quickly opened his water-bottle and held it to the boy's lips.
"Feel faint, lad?" he said.
Again there was no answer; but Punch swallowed a few mouthfuls.
"Ah, that's better," he said. "Head's swimming."
"Well, you shall lie still for a few minutes till you think you can bear it, and then I want you to get down to that hut."
Punch looked up at him with misty eyes, wonderingly.
"Hut!" he said faintly. "What hut?"
"The one I told you about. You will be able to see it when you are better. There's a rough bed there where you will be able to lie and rest till your wound heals."
"Oh, never mind now. Will you have some more water?"
The boy shook his head.
"Not going to die, am I?" he said feebly.
"Die! No!" cried Pen, with his heart sinking. "A chap like you isn't going to die over a bit of a wound."
"Don't," said the boy faintly, but with a tone of protest in his words. "Don't gammon a fellow! I am not going to mind if I am. Our chaps don't make a fuss about it when their time comes."
"No," said Pen sharply; "but your time hasn't come yet."
The boy looked up at him with a peculiar smile.
"Saying that to comfort a fellow," he almost whispered; "only, I say, comrade, you did stick to me, and you won't—won't—"
"Won't what?" said Pen sharply. "Leave you now? Is it likely?"
"Not a bit yet," said the poor fellow faintly; "but I didn't mean that."
"Then what did you mean?" cried Pen wonderingly.
The poor lad made a snatch at his companion's arm, and tried to draw him down.
"What is it?" said Pen anxiously now, for he was startled by the look in the boy's eyes.
"Want to whisper," came in a broken voice.
"No; you can't have anything to whisper now," said Pen. "There, let me give you a little more water."
The boy shook his head.
"Want to whisper," he murmured in a harsh, low voice.
"Well, what is it? But you had better not. Shut your eyes and have a bit of a nap till you are rested and the faintness has gone. I shall be rested, too, then, and I can get you down into the hut, where I tell you there's a bed, and, better still, Punch, a draught of sweet warm milk."
"Gammon!" said the boy again; and he hung more heavily upon Pen's arm.—"Want to whisper."
"Well, what is it?" said Pen, trying hard to master the feeling of despair that was creeping over him.
"Them wolves!" whispered the boy. "Don't let them get me, comrade, when I'm gone."
"You shut your eyes and go to sleep," cried Pen angrily.
"No," said the boy, speaking more strongly now. "I aren't a baby, and I know what I'm saying. You tell me you won't let them have me, and then I will go to sleep; and then if I don't wake up no more—"
"What!" cried Pen, speaking with a simulated anger, "you won't be such a coward as to go and leave me all alone here?"
The boy started; his eyes brightened a little, and he gazed half-wonderingly in his companion's face.
"I—I didn't think of that, comrade," he faltered. "I was thinking I was going like some of our poor chaps; but I don't want to shirk. There, I'll try not."
"Of course you will," said Pen harshly. "Now then, try and have a nap."
The boy closed his eyes, and in less than a minute he was breathing steadily and well, but evidently suffering now and then in his sleep, for the hand that clasped Pen's gave a sudden jerk at intervals.
Quite an hour, during which the watcher did not stir, till there was a sharper twitch and the boy's eyes opened, to look wonderingly in his companion's as if he could not recall where he was.
"Have a little water now, Punch?"
"Drop," he said; but the drop proved to be a thirsty draught, and he spoke quite in his senses now as he put a brief question.
"Is it far?" he said.
"To the hut? No. Do you think you can bear me to get you on my back again?"
"Yes. Going to. Look sharp!"
But as soon as the boy felt his companion take hold of his hand after restopping the water-bottle, Punch whispered, "Stop!"
"What is it? Would you like to wait a little longer?"
"No. Give me a bullet out of a cartridge."
"A bullet? What for?"
"To bite," said the boy with a grim smile.
Pen hesitated for a moment in doubt, looking in the boy's smiling eyes the while. Then, as a flash of recollection of stories he had heard passed through his mind, he hastily drew a cartridge from his box, broke the little roll open, scattering the powder and setting the bullet free before passing it to his companion, who nodded in silence as he seized the piece of lead between his teeth. Then, nodding again, he raised one hand, which Pen took, and seizing one of the branches of the gnarled tree he bent it down till he got it close to his companion, and bade him hold on with all his might.
Punch's fingers closed tightly upon the bough, which acted like a spring and helped to raise its holder sufficiently high for Pen to get him once more upon his shoulders, which he had freed from straps thrown down beside his rifle.
"Try and bear it," he panted, as he heard the low, hissing breath from the poor fellow's lips, and felt him quiver and wince. "I know it's bad," he added encouragingly, "but it won't take me long."
It did not, for in a very few minutes he had reached the rough stone wall, to which he shifted his burden, stood for a few moments panting, and then climbed over, took the sufferer in his arms, and staggered into the waiting shelter, where the next minute Punch was lying insensible upon the bed.
"Ha!" ejaculated Pen as he passed the back of his hand across his streaming forehead.
This suggested another action, but it was the palm of his hand that he laid across his companion's brow.
"All wet!" he muttered. "He can't be very feverish for the perspiration to come like that."
Then he started violently, for a shadow crossed the open door, and he involuntarily threw up one hand to draw his slung rifle from his shoulder, and then his teeth snapped together.
There was no rifle there. It was lying with his cartouche-box right away by the stunted oak, as he mentally called the cork-tree.
The next minute he was breathing freely, for the deep-toned bleat of the goat arose, and he looked out, to see that it was answerable for the shadow.
"Ah, you will have to pay for this," he muttered, as he started to run to where his weapon lay, his mind full now of thoughts that in his efforts over his comrade had been absent.
He was full of expectation that one or other of the vedettes might have caught sight of him bearing his load to the hut; and, with the full determination to get his rifle and hurry back to defend himself and his companion for as long as the cartridges held out, he started with a run up the slope, which proved to be only the stagger of one who was utterly exhausted, and degenerated almost into a crawl.
He was back at last, to find that Punch had not moved, but seemed to be sleeping heavily as he lay upon his sound shoulder; and, satisfied by this, Pen laid his rifle and belts across the foot of the bed and drew a deep breath.
"I can't help it," he nearly groaned. "It isn't selfish; but if I don't have something I can do no more."
Then, strangely enough, he uttered a mocking laugh as he stepped to a rough shelf and took a little pail-like vessel with one stave prolonged into a handle from the place where it had been left clean by the last occupant of the hut, and as he stepped with it to the open door something within it rattled.
He looked down at it in surprise and wonder, and it was some moments before he grasped the fact that the piece of what resembled blackened clay was hard, dry cake.
"Ah!" he half-shouted as he raised it to his lips and tried to bite off a piece, but only to break off what felt like wood, which refused to crumble but gradually began to soften.
Then, smiling grimly, he thrust the cake within his jacket and stepped out, forgetting his pain and stiffness, to find to his dismay that there was no sign of the goat.
"How stupid!" he muttered the next minute. "My head won't go. I can't think." And, recalling the goat's former visit to the rough shelter, he hurried to where he had been a witness of its object, and to his great delight found the animal standing with half-closed eyes nibbling at some of the plentiful herbage while one of its kids was partaking of its evening meal.
Pen advanced cautiously with the little wooden vessel, ready to seize the animal by one of its horns if it attempted to escape, as it turned sharply and stared at him in wonder; but it only sniffed as if in recognition at the little pail, and resumed its browsing. But the kid was disposed to resent the interruption of the stranger, and some little force had to be used to thrust it away, returning again and again to begin to make some pretence of butting at the intruder.
Pen laughed aloud at the absurdity of his task as he finally got rid of the little animal, and made his first essay at milking, finding to his great delight that he was successful, while the goat-mother took it all as a matter of course, and did not move while her new friend refreshed himself with a hearty draught of the contents of the little pail; and then, snatching at a happy thought, drew the hardened cake from his breast and placed it so that it could soak up the soft warm milk which flowed into the vessel.
"Ah!" sighed the young soldier, "who'd have thought that taking the king's shilling would bring a fellow to this? Now for poor Punch. Well, we sha'n't starve to-night."
Once more as he turned from the goat the thought assailed him that one of the vedettes might be in sight; but all was still and beautiful as he stepped back slowly, eating with avidity portions of the gradually softening black-bread, and feeling the while that life and hope and strength were gradually coming back.
"Now for poor Punch!" he muttered again; and, entering the rough shelter once more, he stood looking down upon the wounded boy, who was sleeping heavily, so soundly that Pen felt that it would be a cruelty to rouse him. So, partaking sparingly of his novel meal, he placed a part upon a stool within reach of the rough pallet.
"Wounded men don't want food," he muttered. "It's Nature's way of keeping off fever; and I must keep watch again, and give him a little milk when he wakes. Yes, when he wakes—when he wakes," he muttered, as he settled himself upon the earthen floor within touch of his sleeping comrade. "Mustn't close the door," he continued, with a little laugh, "for there doesn't seem to be one; and, besides, it would make the place dark. Why, there's a star peeping out over the shoulder of the mountain, and that soft, low, deep hum is the falling water. Why, that must be the star I used to see at home in the old days; and, oh, how beautiful and restful everything seems! But I mustn't go to sleep.—Are you asleep, Punch?" he whispered softly. "Poor fellow! That's right. Sleep and Nature will help you with your wound; but I must keep awake. It would never do for you to rouse up and find me fast. No," he half-sighed. "Poor lad, you mustn't go yet where so many other poor fellows have gone. A boy like you! Well! It's the—fortune—fortune— of war—and—and—"
Nature would take no denial. Pen Gray drew one long, deep, restful breath as if wide-awake, and then slowly and as if grudgingly respired.
MORE ABOUT HIM.
It was bright daylight, and Pen Gray started up in alarm, his mind in a state of confusion consequent upon the heaviness of his sleep and the feeling of trouble that something—he knew not what—had happened.
For a few moments he was divided between the ideas that the enemy had come to arrest him and that his companion had passed away in his sleep. But these were only the ragged shadows of the night, for the boy was still sleeping soundly, the food remained untouched, and, upon cautiously looking outside, there was nothing to be seen but the beauties of a sunny morn.
Pen drew a deep breath as he returned to the hut, troubled with a sensation of weariness and strain, but still light-hearted and hopeful.
There was something invigorating in the mountain air even deep down there in the valley, and he was ready to smile at his position as his eyes lit upon the little pail.
"Oh, I say," he said to himself, "it is like temptation placed in one's way! How horribly hungry I am! Well, no wonder; but I must play fair."
Taking out his knife, he was about to divide the piece of cake, which had so swollen up in the milk that there seemed to be a goodly portion for two; but, setting his teeth hard, he shut the knife with a snap and pulled himself together.
"Come," he muttered, "I haven't gone through all this drilling for months to snatch the first chance to forget it. I will begin the day by waiting until poor Punch wakes."
He gave another look at his companion to make sure that he was still sleeping soundly and was no worse; and then, after glancing at the priming of his rifle, he stepped out to reconnoitre, keeping cautiously within shelter of the trees, but not obtaining a glimpse of any of the vedettes.
"Looks as if they have gone," he thought, and he stepped to the edge of another patch of woodland to again sweep the valley-sides as far as was possible.
This led him to the edge of the river, where, as soon as he appeared, he was conscious of the fact that scores of semi-transparent-looking fish had darted away from close to his feet, to take shelter beneath stones and the bank higher up the stream, which glided down towards the fall pure as crystal and sparkling in the sun.
"Trout!" he exclaimed. "Something to forage for; and then a fire. Doesn't look like starving."
Pen took another good look round, but nothing like a vedette or single sentry was in view; and after a few moments of hesitation he snatched at the opportunity.
Stepping back into the shelter of the woods, he hurriedly stripped, after hanging his rifle from a broken branch, and then dashing out into the sunshine he leaped at once into the beautiful, clear, sparkling water, which flashed up at his plunge. Then striking out, he swam with vigorous strokes right into the depths, and felt that he was being carried steadily downward towards the fall.
This was something to make him put forth his strength; and as he struck out upstream so as to reach the bank again there was something wondrously invigorating in the cool, crisp water which sent thrills of strength through his exhausted frame, making the lad laugh aloud as he fought against the pressure of the water, won, and waded ashore nearly a hundred yards below where he had plunged in.
"What a stream!" he exclaimed as he shook the streaming water from his tense muscles. "I must mind another time. How cold it was! But how hot the sun feels! Double!" he ejaculated, and he started along the bank in a military trot, reached the spot again where he had made his plunge, looked round, indulged in another run in the brilliant sunshine, and, pretty well half-dried by his efforts, stepped back into the wood and rapidly resumed his clothes.
"Why, it has pretty well taken the stiffness out of me," he muttered, "and I feel ready for anything, only I'm nearly famished. Here, I can't wait," he added, as he finished dressing, smartening himself up into soldierly trim, and giving his feet a stamp or two as he resumed his boots. "Now, how about poor Punch? He can't be worse, for he seemed to have slept so well. It seems hard, but I must wake him up."
To the lad's great satisfaction, as he reached the door of the rough cabin, he found that the wounded boy was just unclosing his eyes to look at him wonderingly as if unable to make out what it all meant.
"Gray," he said faintly.
"Yes. How are you, lad?"
"I—I don't quite know," was the reply, given in a faint voice.—"Oh, I recollect now. Yes. There, it stings—my wound."
"Yes, I'll bathe it and see to it soon," said Pen eagerly; "but you are no worse."
"Ain't I? I—I thought I was. I say, look here, Gray; what does this mean? I can't lift this arm at all. It hurts so."
"Yes. Stiff with your wound; but it will be better when I have done it up."
"But look here."
"Yes, I am looking."
"This arm isn't wounded. Look at that."
"Yes, I see; you lifted it up and it fell down again."
"Yes. There's no strength in it. It ain't dead yet?"
"Didn't seem like it," said Pen, smiling cheerily. "You lifted it up."
"Yes, I know; but it fell back again. And what's the matter with my voice?"
"Yes, there is," cried the boy peevishly. "It's all gone squeaky again, like it was before it changed and turned gruff. I say, Gray, am I going to be very bad, and never get well again?"
"Not you! What nonsense!"
"But I am so weak."
"Well, you have seen plenty of our poor fellows in hospital, haven't you?"
"Yes, some of them," said the boy feebly.
"Well, weren't they weak?"
"Yes, I forgot all that; but I wasn't so bad as this yesterday. It was yesterday, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Don't you remember?"
"No. How was it?"
"There, don't you bother your brains about that."
"But I want to know."
"And I want you to do all you can to get well."
"Course you do. 'Tisn't fever, is it?"
"Fever! No! Yes, you were feverish. Every one is after a wound. Now then," And he took out and opened his knife.
"Wound! Wound!" said the boy, watching him. "Whatcher going to do with your knife? Take your bay'net if you want to finish a fellow off."
"Well, I don't," said Pen, laughing.
"'Tain't anything to laugh at, comrade."
"Yes, it is, when you talk nonsense. Now then, breakfast."
"Don't gammon," said the poor fellow feebly. "My head isn't all swimmy now. Beginning to remember. Didn't you carry me down here?"
"To be sure, and precious heavy you were!"
"Good chap!" said the boy, sighing. "You always was a trump; but don't play with a poor fellow. There can't be no breakfast."
"Oh, can't there? I'll show you; and I want to begin. I say, Punch, I'm nearly starved."
"I'm not," said the poor fellow sadly. "I couldn't eat."
"Oh, well, you have got to, so look sharp, or I shall go mad."
"I told you I'm starving. I have hardly touched anything for two days except water."
"Well, go on then. What is there for breakfast?"
"Ugh! Don't! Black dry bread! It makes me feel sick."
"Bread and milk."
"Where did you get the milk?"
"Never you mind," said Pen, plunging his knife into the dark sop which half-filled the little pail. "Now then, you have got to eat first."
"No, don't ask me; I can't touch it," and the boy closed his eyes against the piece of saturated bread that his companion held out to him on the knife.
"You must," said Pen; "so look sharp."
"I can't, I tell you."
"Well, then, I shall have to starve."
"No, no; go on."
It took a good deal of pressure, but at last the truth of the French saying about its being only the first step that costs was proved, for after the first mouthful, of which the poor fellow shudderingly partook, the boy consented to open his mouth again, after holding out until his amateur surgeon and nurse had consented to share the meal, which proved refreshing to the patient, who partook of a little; while, bearing in mind that he could at all events restore the fluid food, Pen ate ravenously, his spirits rising with every mouthful.
"It will go hard," he said to himself, "if I can't forage something else. There are the trout, to begin with. I know I can catch some of them in the shallows, and that too without rod or line. That is," he added, "if we are not found out and marched off as prisoners."
"Whatcher thinking about?" said Punch drowsily.
"Catching fish, and making a fire to cook them."
"There's my flint and steel in my satchel, but where's your fish?"
"In the river."
"But you can't catch 'em."
"Oh, can't I, Punch?"
"Oh yes, I know," piped the boy. "They are trout. I saw some the other day when we crossed that stream. I saw some run under the stones, and wanted to creep up and tiddle one, only I couldn't leave the ranks."
"Ah, well, there are no ranks to leave now, Punch, and we shall have plenty of time to tiddle the trout, as you call it, for we shall have to stay here till you get well."
"I say, don't talk, please. Want to go to sleep."
"That's right," said Pen cheerfully. "Sleep away, and I won't bathe your wound till you wake again."
The boy made no answer, but dropped off at once.
"That's better," thought Pen, "and while he sleeps I will see whether I can't get some of the trout."
He waited until his companion was breathing heavily, and then he seated himself by the door and began to carefully clean his rifle and accoutrements, which soldierly task at an end, he stood over the sleeping boy a few minutes, and then stepped outside the dark hut to plunge into the sunshine; but, recollecting himself, he stepped in amongst the trees, and keeping close in their shelter moved from spot to spot spending nearly half an hour searching every eminence for signs of danger.
"The coast seems clear," he said to himself, "and the enemy may have moved on; but I must be careful. I want to join our fellows, of course; but if I'm made prisoner it will be the death of poor Punch, for they are not very careful about prisoners, and—"
Pen stopped short as he held on to the bough of one of the stunted trees growing in the rocky bottom and peered out to sweep the side of the valley where he felt that the mule-track ought to be.
He started back as if the bullet that had been fired from a musket had cut the leaves above his head and stood listening to the roll of echoes which followed the shot. Then there was another, and another, followed by scores, telling him that a sharp skirmish had begun; and after a while he could just make out a faint cloud of smoke above the trees, where the dim vapour was slowly rising.
"Yes," he said, "that's where I thought the mule-path must be. But what a height it is up! And what does it mean? Are our fellows coming back and driving the enemy before them, or is it the other way on?"
There was no telling; but when, about an hour later, the firing had grown nearer and then slowly become more and more distant till it died away, Pen had learned one thing, and that was the necessity for keeping carefully in hiding, for the enemy must be somewhere near.
He stepped back into the hut after silence once more reigned in the false scene of peace, and found that the peppering of the musketry had had no effect upon the sleeper, who did not stir when he leant over him and laid his hand upon the poor fellow's forehead, which was cool and moist.
"Ha!" sighed Pen, "he's not going to die; but he will be as weak as weak for a month to come, and I ought to have been with our fellows instead of hiding here, for I have no business to be doing ambulance work, and so they would tell me. Ah!" he ejaculated, as he started to the door again, for from somewhere much farther away there came the deep roll of a platoon of musketry, which was repeated again and again, but always more distant, though growing, while still more faintly, into the sounds of a sharp engagement, till it died quite away.
"I never thought of that. That first firing I heard must have been the enemy. I wonder I didn't think so before. I am sure now. There wasn't a single shot that I could have said was from a rifle. But it is impossible to say for certain which side is holding the valley. At any rate our fellows were not there."
THE KING'S SHILLING.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha!" A bright, ringing specimen of a youth's laugh, given out by one who is healthy, strong, and fairly content, allowing for drawbacks, with the utterer's position in life.
"Whatcher laughing at?" followed in the querulous tones of one who was to a great extent at the opposite pole of life.
"I don't see nothing to laugh at, sick and weak as I am."
"Yes, you are weak enough, and don't know the difference as I do."
"Difference! There ain't no difference. I'm a regular invalid, as they calls them, and just as bad as some of our poor chaps who go back to live on the top of a wooden leg all the rest of their lives."
"Stuff and nonsense, Punch! You are getting better and stronger every day."
"I ain't. Look at that arm; it's as thin as a mop-stick."
"Well, it is thin, certainly; but a chap of your age, growing fast, generally is thin."
"Ya! Growing! How can a fellow grow with a hole in his back?"
"You haven't got a hole in your back. It's healing up fast."
"Yes, it is. You haven't seen it, and I have every day. I say it's healing beautifully."
"Ah, you'll say next that I ain't weak."
"No, I shan't."
"Well, that's because you are always trying to make me think that I am better than I am."
"Well, what of that? I don't want to put you out of heart."
"No, but you needn't gammon me. I know I ain't as weak as a rat, because I am ten times weaker. I have got no wind at all; and I do wish you wouldn't be always wallacking me down to that big waterfall. I'm always pumped out before I get half-way there, and quite done up before I get back. What's the good of going there?"
"Beautiful place, Punchy, and the mountain air seems to come down with the water and fill you full of strength."
"Does you perhaps, but it don't do me no good. Beautiful place indeed! Ugly great hole!"
"'Tisn't; it's lovely. I don't believe we shall ever see a more beautiful spot in our lives."
"It makes me horrible. I feel sometimes as if I could jump in and put myself out of my misery. Just two steps, and a fellow would be washed away to nowhere."
"Why, you have regularly got the grumps to-day, Punch; just, too, when you were getting better than ever."
"I ain't, I tell you. I had a look at myself this morning while you were snoring, and I am as thin as a scarecrow. My poor old mother wouldn't know me again if ever I got back; and I sha'n't never see our old place no more."
"Yes, you will, Punch—grown up into a fine, manly-looking British rifleman, for you will be too big to blow your bugle then. You might believe me."
"Bugle! Yes, I didn't give it a rub yesterday. Just hand it off that peg."
Pen reached the bugle from where it hung by its green cord, and the lines in Punch's young forehead began to fade as he gave the instrument a touch with his sleeve, and then placed the mouthpiece to his lips, filled out his sadly pale, hollow cheeks, and looked as if he were going to blow with all his might, when he was checked by Pen clapping his hand over the glistening copper bell.