Chapter 11 | Punch's Commissariat | !Tention

Chapter Eleven.

It was far longer than Pen anticipated, for the darkness grew deeper, the forest sounds fainter and fainter, and there were times when the watcher went out to listen and returned again and again to find Punch sleeping more restfully, while the very fact that the boy seemed so calm appeared to affect his comrade with a strange sense of drowsiness, out of which he kept on rousing himself, muttering the while with annoyance, “I can’t have her come and find me asleep. It’s so stupid. She must be here soon.”

And after a trot up and down in the direction in which he had seen the girl pass, and back, he felt better.

“Sleep is queer,” he said to himself. “I felt a few minutes ago as if I couldn’t possibly keep awake.”

He softly touched Punch’s temples again, to find them now quite cool, and seating himself at the foot of the rough pallet he began to think hopefully of the future, and then with his back propped against the rough woodwork he stared wonderingly at the glowing orange disc of the sun, which was peering over the mountains and sending its level rays right through the open doorway of the hut.

Pen gazed at the soft, warm glow wonderingly, for everything seemed strange and incomprehensible.

There was the sun, and here was he lying back with his shoulders against the woodwork of the rough bed. But what did it all mean?

Then came the self-evolved answer, “Why, I have been asleep!”

Springing from the bed, he just glanced at his softly breathing companion as he ran out to look once more in the direction taken by the girl.

Then he stepped back again in the hope that she might have returned during the night and brought some bread; but all was still, and not a sign of anybody having been there.

Pen’s heart sank.

“Grasping at shadows,” he muttered. “Here have I been wasting time over sleep instead of hunting for food.”

Ignorant for the time being of the cause of the wretched feeling of depression which now stole over him, and with no friendly voice at hand to say, “Heart sinking? Despondent? Why, of course you are ready to think anything is about to occur now that you are literally starving!” Pen had accepted the first ill thought that had occurred to him, and this was that his companion had turned worse in the night and was dying.

Bending over the poor fellow once more, he thrust a hand within the breast of his shirt, and his spirits sank lower, for there was no regular throbbing beat in response, for the simple reason that in his hurry and confusion of intellect he had not felt in the right place.

“Oh!” he gasped, and his own voice startled him with its husky, despairing tone, while he bent lower, and it seemed to him that he could not detect the boy’s breath playing upon his cheek.

“Oh, what have I done?” he panted, and catching at the boy’s shoulders he began to draw him up into a sitting position, with some wild idea that this would enable him to regain his breath.

But the next moment he had lowered him back upon the rough pallet, for a cry Punch uttered proved that he was very much alive.

“I say,” he cried, “whatcher doing of? Don’t! You hurt?”

“Oh, Punch,” cried Pen, panting hard now, “how you frightened me!”

“Why, I never did nothink,” cried the boy in an ill-used tone.

“No, no. Lie still. I only thought you were getting worse. You were so still, and I could not hear you breathe.”

“But you shouldn’t,” grumbled the wounded boy surlily, as he screwed first one shoulder up to his ear and then the other. “Hff! You did hurt! What did you expect? Think I ought to be snoring? I say, though, give a fellow some more of that milk, will you? I’m thirsty. Couldn’t you get some bread—not to eat, but to sop in it?”

“I don’t think I could eat anything, but—” The boy stopped short as he lay passing his tongue over his fever-cracked lips, for the doorway of the miserable cabin was suddenly darkened, and Pen sprang round to find himself face to face with his visitor of the previous evening, who stood before him with the wooden vessel in one hand and a coarse-looking bread-cake in the other.

She looked searchingly and suspiciously at Pen for a few moments; and then, as if seeing no cause for fear, she stepped quickly in, placed the food she had brought upon the rough shelf, and then bent over Punch and laid one work-roughened hand upon the boy’s forehead, while he stared up at her wonderingly.

The girl turned to look round at Pen, and uttered a few words hurriedly in her Spanish patois. Then, as if recollecting herself, she caught the bread-cake from where she had placed it, broke a piece off, and put it in the young rifleman’s hand, speaking again quickly, every word being incomprehensible, though her movements were plain enough as she signed to him to eat.

“Yes, I know what you mean,” said Pen smiling; “but I want the bread for him,” and he pointed to the wounded boy.

The peasant-girl showed on the instant that though she could not understand the stranger’s words his signs were clear enough. She broke off another piece of the bread and took down the little wooden-handled pail, which was half-full of warm milk. This she held up to Pen, and signed to him to drink; but he shook his head and pointed to Punch. This produced a quick, decisive nod of the head, as the girl wrinkled up her forehead and signed in an insistent way that Pen should drink first.

He obeyed, and then the girl seated herself upon the bed and began to sop pieces of the bread and hold them to Punch’s lips.

“Thenkye,” he said faintly, and for the first time for many days the boy showed his white teeth, as he smiled up in their visitor’s face. “’Tis good,” he said, and his lips parted to receive another fragment of the milk-softened bread, which was given in company with a bright girlish smile and a few more words.

“I say,” said Punch, slowly turning his head from side to side, “I suppose you can’t understand plain English, can you?”

The girl’s voice sounded very pleasant, as she laughingly replied.

“Ah,” said Punch, “and I can’t understand plain Spanish. But I know what you mean, and I will try to eat.—’Tis good. Give us a bit more.”

For the next ten minutes or so the peasant-girl remained seated upon the bedside attending to the wounded boy, breaking off the softer portions of the cake, soaking them in the warm milk, and placing them to the sufferer’s lips, and more than once handing portions of the cake to Pen and giving him the clean wood vessel so that he might drink, while the sun lit up the interior of the hut and lent a peculiar brightness to the intently gazing eyes of its three occupants, till the rustic breakfast came to an end, this being when Punch kept his lips closed, gazed up straight in the girl’s face, and smiled and shook his head.

“Good!” said the girl in her native tongue, and she nodded and laughed in satisfaction before playfully making believe to close the boy’s eyes, and ending by keeping her hand across the lids so that he might understand that he was now to sleep.

To this Punch responded by taking the girl’s hand in his and holding it for a few moments against his cheek before it was withdrawn, when the poor wounded lad turned his face away so that no one should see that a weak tear was stealing down his sun-browned cheek.

But the girl saw it, and her own eyes were wet as she turned quickly to Pen, pointed to the bread and milk, signed to him that he should go on eating, and then hurried out into the bright sunshine, Pen following, to see that she was making straight for the waterfall.

The next minute she had disappeared amongst the trees.

“Well, Punch,” cried Pen, as he stepped back to the hut, “feel better for your breakfast?”

“Better? Yes, of course. But I say, she didn’t see me snivelling, did she?”

“Yes, I think so; and it made her snivel too, as you call it. Of course she was sorry to see you so weak and bad.”

“Ah!” said Punch, after a few moments’ silence, during which he had lain with his eyes shut.

“What is it? Does your wound hurt you?”

“No; I forgot all about it. I say, I should like to give that girl something, because it was real kind of her; but I ain’t got nothing but a sixpence with a hole in it, and she wouldn’t care for that, because it’s English.”

“Well, I don’t know, Punch. I dare say she would. A good-hearted girl like that wouldn’t look upon its value, but would keep it out of remembrance of our meeting.”

“Think so?” said Punch eagerly, and with his eyes sparkling. “Oh, don’t I wish I could talk Spanish!”

“Oh, never mind that,” said Pen. “Think about getting well. But, all the same, I wish I could make her understand so that she could guide me to where our fellows are.”

“Eh?” cried the boy eagerly. “You ain’t a-going to run away and leave me here, are you?”

“Is it likely, Punch?”

“Of course not,” cried the boy. “Never you mind what I say. I get muddly and stupid in my head sometimes, and then I say things I don’t mean.”

“Of course you do; I understand. It’s weakness,” said Pen cheerily; “but you are getting better.”

“Think so, comrade? You see, I ain’t had no doctor.”

“Yes, you have. Nature’s a fine doctor; and if we can keep in hiding here a few days more, and that girl will keep on bringing us bread and milk, you will soon be in marching order; so we are not going to be in the dumps. We will find our fellows somehow.”

“To be sure we will,” said Punch cheerfully, as he wrenched himself a little over, wincing with pain the while.

“What is it, Punch? Wound hurt you again?”

“Yes; horrid,” said the boy with a sigh.

“Then, why don’t you lie still? You should tell me you wanted to move.”

“Yes, all right; I will next time. It did give me a stinger. Sets a fellow thinking what some of our poor chaps must feel who get shot down and lie out in the mountains without a comrade to help them—a comrade like you. I shall never—”

“Look here, Punch,” interrupted Pen, “I don’t like butter.”

“I do,” said the boy, with his eyes dancing merrily. “Wished I had had some with that bread’s morning.”

“Now, you know what I mean,” cried Pen; “and mind this, if you get talking like that to me again I will go off and leave you.”

“Ha, ha!” said the boy softly, “don’t believe you. All right then, I won’t say any more if you don’t like it; but I shall think about it all the more.”

“There you go again,” cried Pen. “What is it you want? What are you trying to get? You are hurting yourself again.”

“Oh, I was only trying to get at that there sixpence,” said the poor fellow, with a dismal look in his face. “I’m half-afraid it’s lost.—No, it ain’t! I just touched it then.”

“Then don’t touch it any more.”

“But I want it.”

“No, you don’t, not till that girl comes; and you had better keep it till we say good-bye.”

“Think so?” said Punch.

Pen nodded.

“You think she will come again, then?”

“She is sure to.”

“Ah,” said Punch, rather drowsily now, “I say, how nice it feels for any one to be kind to you when you are bad.”

“Very,” said Pen thoughtfully. “Pain gone off?”

“Yes; I am all right now. Think she will come back soon?”

“No, not for hours and hours.”

“Oh, I say, Pen. Think it would be safe for me to go to sleep?”

“Yes, quite.”

“Then I think I will, for I feel as if I could sleep for a week.”

“Go to sleep then. It’s the best thing you can do.”

“Well, I will. Only, promise me one thing: if she comes while I’m asleep, I—I—want you—promise—promise—wake—”

“Poor fellow!” said Pen, “he’s as weak as weak. But that breakfast has been like life to him. Well, there’s some truth in what they say, that when things come to the worst they begin to mend.”

A few minutes later, after noting that his poor wounded comrade had sunk into a deep sleep, Pen stole gently out among the trees, keeping a sharp lookout for danger as he swept the slopes of the valley in search of signs of the enemy, for he felt that it was too much to hope for the dark-green or scarlet of one of their own men.

But the valley now seemed thoroughly deserted, and a restful feeling began to steal through the lad’s being, for everything looked peaceful and beautiful, and as if the horrors of war had never visited the land.

The sun was rising higher, and he was glad to take shelter beneath the rugged boughs of a gnarled old cork-tree, where he stood listening to the low, soft, musical murmur of the fall. And as he pictured the clear, bright, foaming water flashing back the sun’s rays, and in imagination saw the shadowy forms of the trout darting here and there, he took a step or two outward, but checked himself directly and turned back to where he could command the door of the hut, for a feeling of doubt crossed his mind as to what might happen if he went away; and before long he stole back to the side of the rough pallet, where he found Punch sleeping heavily, feeling, as he seated himself upon a rough stool, that he could do nothing more but wait and watch. But it was with a feeling of hope, for there was something to look forward to in the coming of the peasant-girl.

“And that can’t be for hours yet,” thought the lad; and then his mind drifted off to England, and the various changes of his life, and the causes of his being there. And then, as he listened to the soft hum of insect-life that floated through the open door, his eyelids grew heavy as if he had caught the drowsy infection from his companion. Weak as he was from light feeding, he too dropped asleep, so that the long, weary time that he had been wondering how he should be able to pass was but as a minute, for the sun was setting when he next unclosed his eyes, to meet the mirthful gaze of Punch, who burst into a feeble laugh as he exclaimed, “Why, you have been asleep!”