Chapter 13 | Look Out, Comrade! | !Tention

Chapter Thirteen.

“Hooray!” cried Punch, wrenching his head round and stretching one hand towards their visitor, who stepped in, put the basket she carried upon the bed, and placed her hand upon her side, breathing hard as if she were in pain.

“Why, you have been running,” cried Punch, looking at her reproachfully. “It was all right on you, and you are a good little lass to come, but you shouldn’t have run so fast. ’Tain’t good.”

As the girl began to recover her breath she showed her white teeth and nodded merrily at the wounded boy; and then, as if she had grasped his meaning, she turned to Pen, caught up the basket, and began rapidly to take out its contents, which consisted first of bunches of grapes, a few oranges, and from beneath them a piece of thin cheese and another cake, which lay at the bottom in company with a rough-looking drinking-mug.

These were all arranged upon the bed close beside Punch, while the girl, as she emptied her basket, kept on talking to Pen in a hurried way, which he took to mean as an apology for her present being so common and simple.

Upon this base Pen made what he considered a suitable reply, thanking the girl warmly for her compassion and kindness to two unfortunate strangers.

“I wish I could make you understand,” he said; “but we are both most grateful and we shall never forget it, and— What’s the matter?”

For all at once, as the girl was listening eagerly to his words and trying to understand them, nodding smilingly at him the while, a sudden change came over her countenance as she gazed fixedly past the young soldier at the little square opening in the hut-wall behind him which served as a window, and then turned to snatch her basket from the bed.

“What is it?” cried Pen.

“Look out, comrade—the window behind,” said Punch.

Pen turned on the instant, but the dim window gave no enlightenment, and he looked back now at the girl, who was about to pass through the door, but darted back again to run round the foot of the bed, so as to place it between her and the swarthy-looking Spanish peasant-lad who suddenly appeared to block the doorway, a fierce look of savage triumph in his eyes, as he planted his hands upon his hips and burst out into an angry tirade which made the girl shrink back against the wall.

Not a word was intelligible to the lookers-on, but all the same the scene told its own tale. Punch’s lips parted, his face turned white, and he lay back helpless, with his fingers clenched, while Pen’s chest began to heave and he stood there irresolute, breathing hard as if he had been running, knowing well as he did what the young Spaniard’s words must mean.

What followed passed very quickly, for the young Spaniard stepped quickly into the hut, thrust Pen aside, stepped round to the foot of the bed, and caught the shrinking girl savagely by the wrist.

She shrank from him, but he uttered what sounded more like a snarl than words, and began to drag her back round the foot of the bed towards the door.

Pen felt as if something were burning in his chest, and he breathed harder, for there was a twofold struggle taking place therein between the desire to interfere and the feeling of prudence that told him he had no right to meddle under the circumstances in which he was placed.

Prudence meant well, and there was something very frank and brave in her suggestions; but she had the worst of it, for the girl began to resist and retort upon her assailant angrily, her eyes flashing as she struggled bravely to drag her wrist away; but she was almost helpless against the strong muscles of the man, and the next moment she turned upon Pen an appealing look, as she uttered one word which could only mean “Help!”

Pen took that to be the meaning, and the hot feeling in his young English breast burst, metaphorically, into flame.

Springing at the young Spaniard, he literally wrested the girl from his grasp; and as she sprang now to catch at Punch’s extended hand, Pen closed with her assailant, there was a brief struggle, and the Spaniard was driven here and there for a few moments before he caught his heel against the rough sill at the bottom of the doorway and went down heavily outside, but only to spring up again with his teeth bared like those of some wild beast as he sprang at Pen.

A piercing shriek came from the girl’s lips, and she tried to free herself from Punch’s detaining hand; but the boy held fast, checking the girl in her brave effort to throw herself between the contending pair, while Punch uttered the warning cry, “Look out! Mind, comrade! Knife! Knife!”

The next instant there was a dull thud, and the Spaniard fell heavily in the doorway, while Pen stood breathing hard, shaking his now open hand, which was rapidly growing discoloured.

“Has he cut you, comrade?” cried Punch in a husky voice.

“No. All right!” panted Pen with a half-laugh. “It’s only the skin off—his teeth. I hit first,” But he muttered to himself, “Cowardly brute! It was very near.—No, no, my girl,” he said now, aloud, as the girl stripped a little handkerchief from her neck and came up to him timidly, as if to bind up his bleeding knuckles. “I will go down to the stream. That will soon stop;” and he brushed past her, to again face the Spaniard, who was approaching him cautiously now, knife in hand, apparently about to spring.

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” said Pen sternly, and still facing the Spaniard he took a couple of steps backward towards the wall of the hut.

His assailant did not read his intention, and uttered a snarl of triumph as he continued his cautious tactics and went on advancing, swinging himself from side to side as if about to spring; and a dull gleam of light flashed from the knife he held in his hand.

But the hand Pen had thrust out behind him had not been idle; and Punch, who lay helplessly upon the bed, uttered a sigh of satisfaction, for with one quick movement Pen threw forward his right again to where it came closely in contact with his left, which joined on in throwing forward horizontally the rifle Pen had caught from where it stood in the corner of the hut, the muzzle delivering a dull blow in the Spaniard’s chest. There was a sharp click, click, and Pen thundered out, “Drop that knife and run, before it’s—fire!”

The man could not understand a word of English, but he plainly comprehended the young soldier’s meaning, for his right hand relinquished its grasp, the knife fell with a dull sound upon the earthen floor, and its owner turned and dashed away, while the girl stood with her hands clasped as she uttered a low sigh full of relief, and then sank down in a heap upon the floor, sobbing as if her heart would break.

“One for him, comrade,” cried Punch hoarsely. “How would it be to spend a cartridge over his head? Make him run the faster.”

“No need, Punch. This is a bad bit of luck.”

“Bad luck!” said Punch. “I call it fine. Only I couldn’t come and help. Yes, fine! Teach him what British soldier means. Oh, can’t you say something to tell that poor girl not to cry like that? Say, old man,” said the boy, dropping into a whisper, “didn’t see it before. Why, he must be her chap!”