Chapter 2 | Poor Punch | !Tention

Chapter Two.

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.

“By reading.”

“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?”

“Oh yes.”

“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.”

“Better, eh?”

“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.

“I say—why?”

“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!”