Chapter 16 | Prisoners | !Tention

Chapter Sixteen.

“Are you in much pain, Punch?” said Pen, as, with his wrists tied tightly behind him he knelt beside his comrade, who lay now just outside the door of the hut, a couple of French chasseurs on guard.

The officer in command of the little party had taken possession of the hut for temporary bivouac, and his men had lighted a fire, whose flames picturesquely lit up the surrounding trees, beneath which the new-comers had stretched themselves and were now partaking of bread, grapes, and the water a couple of their party had fetched from the stream.

The young Spaniard was seated aloof from the girl, whose back was half-turned from him as she sat there seeming to have lost all interest in the scene and those whom she had tried to warn of the danger they were in.

From time to time the Spanish lad spoke to her, but she only jerked her head away from him, looking more indifferent than ever.

“Are you in much pain, Punch?” asked Pen again; for the boy had not replied, and Pen leaned more towards him, to gaze in his face searchingly.

“Oh, pretty tidy,” replied the boy at last; “but it’s better now. You seemed to wake up my wound, but it’s going to sleep again. I say, though, I didn’t show nothing, did I?”

“No, you bore it bravely.”

“Did I? That’s right. I was afraid, though, that I should have to howl; but I am all right now. And I say, comrade, look here; some chaps miche—you know, sham bad—so as to get into hospital to be fed up and get off duty, and they do it too, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” said Pen, watching the lad anxiously. “But don’t talk so much.”

“Must; I want to tell you, I am going to miche—sham, you know—the other way on.”

“What do you mean?” said Pen.

“Why, make-believe I’m all right. Make these froggies think my wound’s only a scratch. Then perhaps they will march me off along with you as a prisoner. I don’t want them to—you know.”

“March you off!” said Pen bitterly. “Why, you know you can’t stand.”

“Can’t! I’ve got to. You’ll let me hold tight of your arm. I’ve got to, comrade, and I will. It means setting one’s teeth pretty hard. Only wish I had got a bullet to bite. It would come easy then. Look here, wait a bit, and then you back up a bit closer to me. Haven’t tied my hands like yours. Just you edge close so as I can slip my fingers into your box. I want to get out one cartridge for the sake of the bullet.”

“You can’t, Punch. Didn’t you see they slipped off the belt, and that young Spaniard’s got it along with my rifle?”

“So he has! I didn’t know. Now then, wasn’t I right when I said you ought to have fired at him and brought him down? Well, I must have a bullet somehow. I know. I will try and get the girl to get hold of the case; only I don’t know how it’s to be done without knowing what to say. Can’t you put me up to it, comrade?”

“No, Punch.”

“But you might give a fellow a bit of advice.”

“My advice is to lie still and wait.”

“Well, that’s pretty advice, that is, comrade. Wait till they comes and makes an end of a fellow if he breaks down, for I am beginning to think that I sha’n’t be able to go through with it.”

“Let’s wait and see what happens, Punch. We have done our best, and we can do no more.”

Just then Pen’s attention was taken up by the young officer, who came to the door of the hut, yawned, and stood looking about at his men before slowly sauntering round the bivouac as if to see that all was right, the sentries drawing themselves up stiffly as he passed on, till he caught sight of the Spanish girl and the lad seated together in the full light cast by the fire.

Then turning sharply to one of his men, the young officer pointed at the Spaniard and gave an order in a low, imperious tone.

Two of his men advanced to the lit-up group, and one of them gave the lad a sharp clap on the shoulder which made him spring up angrily, while the other chasseur snatched the English rifle from his hand, the first chasseur seizing the cartridge-belt and case.

There was a brief struggle, but it was two to one, and the Spaniard, as Pen watched the encounter eagerly, was sent staggering back, catching his heel in a bush and falling heavily, but only to rebound on the instant, springing up knife now in hand and making at the nearest soldier.

“Ha!” gasped Punch excitedly, as he saw the gleam of the knife; and then he drew in his breath with a hiss, for it was almost momentary: one of the two French soldiers who had approached him to obey his officer’s orders and disarm the informer just raised his musket and made a drive with the butt at the knife-armed Spaniard, who received the metal plate of the stock full in his temple and rolled over, half-stunned, amongst the bushes.

Another order rang out from the officer, and before the young Spaniard could recover himself a couple more of the soldiers had pounced upon him, and a minute later he was firmly bound, as helpless a prisoner as the young rifleman who watched the scene.

“Say, comrade,” whispered Punch, “that’s done me good. But do you see that?”

“See it? Why, of course I saw it. That’s not what he bargained for when he led the Frenchmen here.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” whispered Punch impatiently. “I meant the gal.”

“The girl?” said Pen. “What about her?”

“Where is she?” whispered Punch.

“Why, she was—”

“Yes, was,” whispered Punch again; “but where is she now? She went off like a shot into the woods.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Pen, with a look of relief in his eyes.

“Yes, she’s gone; and now I want to know what’s going to be next. Here comes the officer. What’ll be his first order? To shoot us, and that young Spaniel too?”

“No,” said Pen. “But don’t talk; he’s close here.”

The officer approached his prisoners now, closely followed by one of his men, whose galons showed that he was a sergeant.

“Badly wounded, eh?” said the officer in French.

“Yes, sir; too bad to stand.”

“The worse for him,” said the officer. “Well, we can’t take wounded men with us; we have enough of our own.”

“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant; and Pen felt the blood seem to run cold through his veins.

And then curiously enough there was a feeling of relief in the knowledge that his wounded comrade could not understand the words he had grasped at once.

“We shall go back to camp in half an hour,” continued the officer; and then running his eye over Pen as he sat up by Punch’s side, “This fellow all right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“See to his fastenings. I leave him to you.”

“But surely, sir,” cried Pen, in very good French, “you are not going to have my poor companion shot in cold blood because he has the misfortune to be wounded?”

“Eh, do you understand French?”

“Yes, sir; every word you have said.”

“But you are not an officer?”

“I have my feelings, sir, and I appeal to you as an officer and a gentleman to save that poor fellow. It would be murder, and not the act of a soldier.”

“Humph!” grunted the officer. “You boys should have stayed at home.—Here, sergeant, carry the lad into camp. Find room for him in the ambulance.—There, sir, are you satisfied now?” he continued to Pen.

“Yes, sir,” replied Pen quickly; “satisfied that I am in the presence of a brave French officer. God bless you for this!”

The officer nodded and turned away, the sergeant stopping by the prisoners.

“Here, I say,” whispered Punch, “what was all that talking about?”

“Only arranging about how you were to be carried into camp, Punch,” replied Pen.

“Gammon! Don’t you try and gull me. I know,” panted the boy excitedly. “I could not understand the lingo; but you were begging him not to have me shot, and he gave orders to this ’ere sergeant to carry out what he said. You are trying to hide it from me so as I shouldn’t know. But you needn’t. I should like to have gone out like our other chaps have—shot fair in the field; but if it’s to be shot as a prisoner, well, I mean to take it like a man.”

The boy’s voice faltered for a few moments as he uttered the last words, and then he added almost in a whisper, “I mean, if I can, for I’m awful weak just now. But you’ll stand by me, comrade, and I think I will go through it as I ought. And you will tell the lads when you get back that I didn’t show the white feather, but went out just like a fellow ought?”

“That won’t be now, Punch,” said Pen, leaning over him. “I am not deceiving you. I appealed to the officer, and he gave orders at once that you were to be carried by the men to their camp and placed in one of the ambulance wagons.”

“Honour?” cried Punch excitedly. “Honour bright,” replied Pen. “But that means taking me away from you,” cried the boy, with his voice breaking.

“Yes; but to go into hospital and be well treated.”

“Oh, but I don’t want to go like that,” cried the boy wildly. “Can’t you ask the officer—can’t you tell him that—oh, here—you—we two mustn’t—mustn’t be—” For the sergeant now joined them with a couple of men carrying a rough litter; and as Punch, almost speechless now, caught at his wrist and clung to him tightly, he looked down in the prisoner’s wildly appealing eyes.

“Why, what’s the matter with the boy?” growled the sergeant roughly. “Does he think he’s going to be shot?”

“He’s badly hurt, sir,” said Pen quietly, “and can’t bear being separated from me.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it, sir?” said the sergeant. “My faith, but you speak good French! Tell him that I’ll see that he’s all right. What’s his hurt—bayonet?”

“No,” said Pen, smiling. “A French bullet—one of your men aimed too well.”

“Ha, ha! Yes, we know how to shoot. Poor fellow! Why, I have just such a boy as he.—Lift him up gently, lads.—Humph! He has fainted.”

For poor Punch had held out bravely to the last; but nature was too strong even for his British pluck.