Chapter 3 | Where the Wolves Howl | !Tention

Chapter Three.

“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.